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Favorite Albums, 1999

(No real order implied - the numbers are just handy placeholders.)

1) Low - Secret Name

Label = Kranky

Low - Christmas EP

Label = Chair Kickers' Union
Recommended if you breathe.

    OK, I'm sure you've all heard me go on long enough about why Low is my favorite band, so you don't need to hear all of that again. Secret Name is the latest from these nice folks from Duluth, MN, who are known for their sparse, minimal, slow, gorgeous arrangements. All of that is still quite true of this album, but they have begun to diversify a little bit with some (gasp!) snappier, more upbeat songs and some (gasp!) occasional accompaniment from a string section. Though they are slowly evolving their sound over time, it is the spiritual ethos, the beautiful harmonies, the way that time slips by just. like. this. when you're listening to their music - that never changes.

    There are few people whom I would actually encourage to record a Christmas album, let alone write a few of their own Christmas songs, but Low is clearly on that list. Given their pure, beautiful sound, I think they were almost destined to record a Christmas album. And if you're as frustrated with the commercialization of the holiday as I am, you'll be relieved to know that Low is almost apologetic about selling the album at all - as witness the liner notes: "Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you." They really are nice folks.

2) Beth Orton - Central Reservation

Label = Arista / Deconstruction
Recommended if you like Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, and those kinds of folks. Also if you still think Jewel should just eat a burger and grow up.

    Beth Orton got her introduction to the mainstream music world singing on a track of the Chemical Brothers' debut album. After quite a bit of touring to support her first album ('Trailer Park'), she finally had a chance to get around to releasing this, her second album, 'Central Reservation' (and for those non-Brits out there, a central reservation is that divider that runs down the middle of the road between the two directions of traffic). And finally, people took notice, with "Stolen Car" actually getting airtime on mainstream radio stations like KROQ out here in LA. Seems like wherever she goes, she makes friends - she got Ben Harper to make a guest appearance on this album. New Orleans pianist Dr. John was recording an album next door to her in the studio, and wandered over to play on one of her songs. When she last played in LA, she realized she didn't have an opening band, so she phoned up her friend Beck, and he stopped by to play a few acoustic songs. I've decided that there is possibly no reason for people to dislike her music. No, I'll have no arguing. It's something everyone would like, and that's just how it's going to be.

3) Mogwai - Come on Die Young

Label = Matador / Chemikal Underground

    I think it's important to draw the distinction between Mogwai's live performances and their recent studio recordings. Mogwai's live show that I saw this year was quite possibly the loudest concert I have ever attended, complete with eardrum rupturing walls of distortion and all. This album is quite the opposite, showing a much mellower side of this predominantly instrumental band from Glasgow. Here we get to see Mogwai calm down and present some sonic landscapes that are even as pressed glass, quiet, and pretty - and even surprisingly use some vocals in just a few well-placed places. For those curious, 'Come on Die Young' is apparently a handy Scottish phrase which you can use to intimidate people with whom you are about to get into a fight. There's no fighting on the album, though. I tend to let it play in the background when I've got a mellow evening going on around my apartment.

4) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I See a Darkness

Label = Palace / Drag City
Recommended if you think spiritual Appalachian tunes about death are a good time.

    For some reason, since buying this album, I have associated Will Oldham (that's the Bonnie Prince's real name) with the photographer Minor White, possibly one of the most spiritual artists of the medium, and it's this quote of White's that keeps popping into my head: "When the photograph is a mirror of the man, and the man is a mirror of the world, then Spirit might take over." This album is a bit lusher musically than what I've heard of Oldham's previous work (mostly under the Palace moniker), which often gets quite rustic - quite close to Appalachian folk, with an almost Biblical weightiness at times. Not that the subject matter of 'Darkness' is light by any means - most of the songs are about death, dread, and evil of one form or another, but it's the way Oldham goes about it - in such a quietly spiritual fashion - that I find absolutely captivating. I should alert prospective listeners that Oldham's voice is occasionally "beautiful" in the Bob Dylan sense of the word. But it's oh so worth it.

5) Beulah - When Your Heartstrings Break

Label = Sugar Free
Recommended if you are in a good mood and would like to listen to some happy music. Also recommended if you are in a bad mood.

    Yet another member of the ever-expanding Elephant 6 artist collective (including, among others, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo, the Ladybug Transistor...). 'When your heartstrings break' is wonderfully orchestrated, replete with all manner of strings, horns and guitars (I count 18 backing musicians in the liner notes beyond the core band). I have to say that I can't really comment on Beulah's lyrics because I keep getting distracted by the music, which is just so wonderfully orchestrated, so wonderfully put together, and just so darn happy - kind of a 60's pop feel. Beulah currently comprises one side of the tape I have in my walkman while I'm training for the marathon. (For those desperate for details of Richard's running habits, the other side is Neutral Milk Hotel.)

6) The Folk Implosion - One Part Lullaby

Label = Interscope
Recommended if you want something an upbeat groove to play in the background at a party.

    Lou Barlow is perhaps better-known (to some) as the guitarist in the band Sebadoh which is one of the longer-lasting legacies in the independent music world, which tends to vacillate between Barlow's sentimental melancholic tunes, some grindier songs, and some experimental rocking with ample use of distortion pedal and yelling. Folk Implosion is nothing like that. A number of the songs are almost upbeat and poppy (!), and there's an underlying beat that's generally just one notch too slow to be danceable - but just fast enough to keep your head nodding. It's only in Sebadoh's quieter moments that you can see why I think Barlow is one of the great songrwriters of my generation. In his Folk Implosion project, though, you can see why all the time.

7) godspeed you black emperor! - Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada

Label = Kranky
Recommended you think the world is ending on 12/31 and need a soundtrack to your evening.

    Any band that names themselves after documentary about a Japanese motorcycle gang and covers the composer Gorecki in concert is a friend of mine. I can think of no other band around these days doing anything remotely similar to what these folks are up to. Live, they are a sight to behold - 2 drummers, 5 guitarists / bassists (I couldn't quite see who was playing what), a cellist, and a violinist, and the occasional tape recording of interviews with various street preachers and other interesting folk. They have put out two albums so far, with a total of five songs, most of which clock in at around 15 minutes. These huge, orchestral epics almost always seem to relate in some way or another to the end of the world - yes, this is yet more of Richard's downer music. It took seeing them live to realize that even within that hooded air of gravity they weave, there is a spirit of hope. It may be only a little bit of hope, but it's there.

8) Feathermerchants - Feathermerchants

Label = Innocent 12th Street
Recommended if you think blending indie-pop with middle-eastern instrumentation is a good idea.

    You probably wouldn't expect that an album with exotic instrumentation like bouzouki and the occasional Moroccan gnawa wailing could be 'ambient' in the Brian Eno sense of the word, but it is. If I remember right, Eno intended 'ambient' to describe music which fits into your surroundings, making your environment feel more like it already did. When I play this album in my apartment (with ample use of the repeat button), it somehow feels more like home, more warm, more like whatever I happen to be doing at the moment. And the best thing? They did it all themselves. No major label deal. No nothing. Totally 100% self-produced (and thus independent, or "indie"). And it sounds *awesome*. They've got nice sound samples at

9) Andrea Parker - Kiss my Arp

Label = Mo Wax
Recommended if you thought Portishead was too jolly.

    I'm not sure why Andrea Parker lives in such a world of grave unease, but apparently she does. Or at least that's the picture you get if you happen to listen to her DJ a club or if you listen to any of the 12" vinyl singles she's put out over the years in the UK under her own name, or sometimes under names like Inky Blacknuss and Two Sandwiches Short of a Lunchbox. Her sound is quite identifiable since she uses predominantly old analog synthesizers (like an Arp, thus the title of this album) - and most of our modern ears have been fed sounds from newer digital synths in recent years. The most startling thing about this new release, though, distinguishing itself from her past work, is that she *sings* on it. What comes together, then, is a blend of her creepy, dark electronic beats and her beautifully ethereal but dark, breathy vocals. Perhaps not the best thing to listen to if you feel like being peppy, but it's got its place, usually sometime after dark, and it's quite well done.

10) Trans Am - Futureworld

Label = Thrill Jockey
Recommended if you wish Kraftwerk would rock out like Metallica.

    Let it never be said that keyboard-based bands can't rock. Trans Am's driving wordless masterpieces have always run the distance between the electronic and the purely electric, sounding at one moment like the soundtrack to a video game and the next like some kind of unforgiving guitar-fueled combustion engine. But the one thing that never wavers in any of their journeys is the churning, all-consuming beat, whether from the precise flailing of the drummer or the exacting thump of their plentiful keyboard arsenal. Over the course of their first three albums, it seemed like they kept pulling the electric portions farther and farther from the electronic portions, but on 'Futureworld', they've gone and glued the bits back together in a really tasty, muscular Kraftwerkian melange. And, yes, they do have a few 'lyrics' now, run through a vocoder, no less.

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