IN THIS PHOTO: Roots Manuva
OVER the course of several features…
IN THIS PHOTO: Basement Jaxx
I am looking at years in music that produced some truly sensational albums. I have looked at 1994 and 1979: today, I am intrigued by the year 1999. Not just because it ended the best decade for music but gave such inspiration and kick the new millennium. This is all prompted by the endless affection I have for Basement Jaxx’s debut, Remedy. That album practically scored my final year at school. I remember happy (and miserable) memories of their standout hit, Red Alert. It seemed like an act reflecting what Dance music should be about: bringing the masses together, regardless of colour, race and religion. It was an all-embracing house of colour and togetherness. Not only did that one album – alongside 1999 contemporaries like Play – herald bold new territory for Dance music – it part of a year that showed so much variation and quality. In recognition of that, I look at the ten finest albums from the year (and a key track from each).
Beck – Midnite Vultures (November 23rd)
The fourth album from Beck (studio album, anyway; seventh overall) was a full-on exploration of sounds and styles – so much of his finest work defined by that sense of adventure and daring. Whilst Midnite Vultures did not achieve the same recognition and critical acclaim as the breakthrough album, Odelay; it did gather impassioned reviews. A hedonistic, libido-satisfying thrill-ride that brims with cinematic crispness, fantastically eclectic album that threw everything from banjo hoedowns to electronic breakbeats into an album of terrific scope. Perhaps not quite as expansive and ambitious as Odelay; many felt it as a more immediate and accessible album. Whatever your viewpoint, it proved Beck was one of those artists capable of surprising audiences and remaining impressively consistent and strong. Later albums would tread more into subtle and emotive territory but here it was Beck playing the maverick, scattershot inventor that made albums like Midnite Vultures such a success.
Eminem – The Slim Shady LP (23rd February)
Eminem’s second studio album was the major-label debut from the influential rapper. Released by Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment (Dr. Dre’s label), there is production guidance from Dr. Dre, the Bass Brothers and Eminem. Perhaps the first introduction to Eminem’s Slim Shady alter ego; it brings in this foul-mouthed character bringing the listener into a strange, magic and often violent world. What makes the album so enduring is the broad lexicon and imagination from Eminem. The Slim Shady LP bursts with stunning lines and the utmost command. It is outrageous and candid but never sounds too crass or juvenile. Eminem, even then, showed he was capable of incredible wit, intelligence and vision. One of the reasons for doing this feature was to show how many forward-thinking, genre-changing albums came through in 1999. In a way, The Slim Shady LP changed Hip-Hop and brought new elements into it. The album is funny and rude but has so much charm and skill. Eminem showcases his mad-crazy delivery and language skills – sometimes the production does not do it true justice. Eighteen years down the line, it remains a stunning work from one of music’s true innovators.
TLC – FanMail (23rd February)
Quite a week for music back then: both Eminem and TLC releasing near-career-best records on the same day! For U.S. girl group TLC, it was a five-year gap between the legendary CrazySexyCool and FanMail. If the former boasted their finest hits – Creep and Waterfalls among them – there was no shortage of awesome material here. No Scrubs and Unpretty are, perhaps, the two songs we associate with the album. FanMail is street-bitch death-stare and heart-melting sweetness: the sister capable of bitch-slapping you to the sidewalk and picking you up and taking you for a coffee. It is a zen-seeking spirit of the Earth and a self-obsessed G: a kind-spirited, strong-willed album wrapped up in contradictions and contrasts. FanMail debuted atop the U.S. Billboard 200 and spent five non-consecutive weeks in that position. The success of songs like No Scrubs catapulted TLC to new heights and reached new listeners. I have seen so many new girl groups and singers inspired by that album and the sheer confidence that comes through. The girls are tight and harmonious throughout; the songs instant and nuanced whilst the production is crisp and clean – raw enough to let songs such as I’m Good at Being Bad shine. There were behind-the-scenes issues, delays and problems – making it a less-than-smooth transition – and a host of collaborators brought in – hope to reproduce the sound and success of CrazySexyCool. Whilst FanMail does not quite achieve this, it does provide one of the year’s finest albums and a reminder TLC were a force to be reckoned with.
Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles (November 2nd)
It may seem like this rundown is a list of not-quite-as-epic follow-ups – Beck, TLC and now R.A.t.M. – but, really, it is a chance to step away from expectations and outline some fantastic records. Rage Against the Machine amazed with their eponymous debut: a furious and mesmeric album that remains one of Hard-Rock’s greatest achievements. Despite the expectations on The Battle of Los Angeles – Evil Empire was released in 1996 – this does not disappoint. Testify is an emphatic opener that shows the boys in crude health – taut, focused and relevant. In a year where many Nu-Metal bands were producing utter tripe; here there was an album that put the revolution right in the forefront. Tom Morello’s guitar genius was at its best whilst Zach de la Rocha sharpened his pen looked at the disaffection and anger bubbling beneath the city surfaces. If his lyrics did struggle when looking away from political vitriol, it is compensated by an incredible backing band. The group are in-tune and defiant throughout – creating blistering attacks and some of the most invigorating sonic assaults of the decade. If songs like Guerilla Radio and Calm Like a Bomb don’t get the body moving then you need your hearing checked.
Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (October 12th)
If Hip-Hop was being given a new spit of shine by Eminem; Mos Def ensured he was not going to be overlooked. His stunning debut features live instrumentation and socially aware lyrics. The album went Gold the following year and put the U.S. rapper in the spotlight. Black on Both Sides blends classic bravado and confidence with new-found poetry – a terrific decades-fusion that sat sick and slick with something boisterous and bolshie. Mos Def shows his skills across the album and helped create one of the most impressive debuts of the 1990s. Whether tackling love and relations; sex and the physical; the world around him – he is always gripping and authoritative. Pollution, fear and fat ladies (never in a gross or sexist way) are all included in a biblical entrancing album of immense proportions.
Basement Jaxx – Remedy (10th May)
The astonishing debut from Basement Jaxx is what motivated me to put pen to paper. Dance music in the U.K. before 1999 was often defined by a rigidity and predictability. Too commercial and close-minded to ever connect: step forward Brixton boys Basement Jaxx. Felix Buxton and Adam Radcliffe, as the album title suggests, was the antidote to the staid and placid Dance of that era. Remedy is that elixir that brings everywhere together through a kaleidoscope of colour and energy. Red Alert is that huge banger of the time: stridulating electronics and immense vocals; a chorus that lodges in the head and a composition that gets tight into the bloodstream. Critics at the time compared it to Kraftwerk’s debut and the effect that had on music. Surely, Remedy changed British music and showed it could be fun, free and unifying. It has instant and sharp songs like Rendez-Vu and Yo-Yo; smoother, less heavy moments such as Jazzalude and Don’t Give Up. It showed the duo were capable of taking the beats down and going into more chilled, romantic territory. That mix of sounds and ideas might, on paper, sound unfocused and too ambitious yet Basement Jaxx managed to pull it off in emphatic style.
Roots Manuva – Brand New Second Hand (22nd March)
In a year where U.S. Rap was overtaking British equivalents; it was down to Roots Manuva to bring a sense of national pride to the genre. In fact, British Rap/Hip-Hop was a largely spent and null force in 1999. We had the occasional option – none spring to mind – but it was the Americans making the most intriguing and impactful music. Roots Manuva brought in dark production sounds with a distinguished style that uses Ragga to make its point – never leaning too heavily on it but placing it underneath songs that look at the world at large (Strange Behaviour) and religious upbringing (Baptism). The low and subtle beats and bass-heavy songs are delivered with a sense of London patois but never sounds too cliché and stereotyped. Among the geezers and chances employing those London vowels: Roots Maunva was a much more developed, broad and refined voice. The way he delivers his words seduced critics and resonated with listeners. Looking beyond predictable themes of sex and pimps: Roots Manuva uses his talents to talk about racial inequalities, society before him and subvert expectations – at a time when Rap and Hip-Hop was synonymous with sexualisation and needless bragging rights.
Missy Elliott – Da Real World
Back in the U.S. and Missy Elliott laid down her incredible second album, Da Real World. A tougher and grittier offering than her debut: the word ‘bitch’ is employed throughout the album and, in a way, the catch-word of the record. The confidence and leap forward that did suffer some setbacks. Lil’ Kim featured on the album: her career was on a downward trajectory after the death of her mentor, The Notorious B.I.G. Danja Mowf, Elliott’s protégée, was omitted from the album and replaced by Redman. Timbaland’s smart and futuristic—breakbeat production helps emphasise and polish songs that look at the battle of the sexes. For someone who says she does not rely on profanities to sell albums: there was quite a bit of it’s on Da Real World. She’s a Bitch and All n My Grill are classics from Elliott and proof she was one of the fiercest and most exceptional female artists of the time.
Blur – 13 (15th March)
The sixth album from Blur was one of the final ones to feature the talents of guitarist Graham Coxon. It was quite a transitional time for the band. Stephen Street, their long-time producer, was jettisoned and replaced by William Orbit. Blur brought together their mix of Indie-Rock, Alternative and Rock together with Experimental, Electronic and Psychedelia – perhaps owing to Orbit’s influence. A darker and more introspective album than previous efforts; this is perhaps inspired by Damon Albarn and his break-up with long-term girlfriend Justine Frischmann. Some of the songs do not reach the heights the band was accustomed to – B.L.U.R.E.M.I. and Swamp Song, for example – but in Tender, Coffee + TV and No Distance Left to Run they created three of their finest numbers. Whether you consider it their greatest work or not; it is certainly a vital and impressive work. Coxon would not be long for the band and felt Blur were starting to head into dangerous musical territory – he wanted to keep the sound heard on their eponymous album. 13 is a more diverse creation but one that connects and inspires so many years down the tracks.
Moby – Play (17th May)
If Basement Jaxx were reinfusing British Dance music: Moby was given new inspiration to U.S. Electronica. Moby, on his fifth album, wanted to return to his electronic roots – having stepped aside from that during 1996’s Animal Rights. Recording in his home studio over in Manhattan; Play spawned a string of hits and featured on many film and T.V. scores. Small wonder when you consider the incredible range of sounds, grooves and vocal samples on the record. If you had an album of vocal samples on their own they would not register: neither would a Moby album without them. It was that expert coming-together that turned Play into the biggest-selling Electronica album ever (selling over twelve-million copies worldwide). Play is a messy album but one strangely focused and attentive. It never loses its sense of quality and economy: every song gets into the head and provides something different. It is an extraordinary collection of music that took older, antiquated songs/samples and gave them fresh relevance. If the digital age is destroying the purity and authenticity of music: Play is a demonstration of how you can create something soulful, engaging and human (with electronics).