Featured image taken from Woodstock 1999
The late nineties are never going down in history as a renaissance period for music. It is no golden age, nor even something we want to think about very often. It’s not like the much derided Eighties because that actually was a pioneering time, full of experiments and burgeoning record sales that allowed for corporate labels to take risks. The late nineties became the opposite: All forms of physical media were beginning to dwindle after CD-burners and Napster crept in; most new bands were terrible, corporate attempts to bridge markets and capture segments while taking fewer risks, closing down subsidiary labels, and posing mainstream bands like indie starlets.
Woodstock 1999 serves as a symbol for what was happening at the time in pop music. It was an overpacked, expensive ADD event promoting the worst bands of the Twentieth Century that ended in rape, riots, and fire. My generation has already forgotten that it happened.
That is why I decided to consider the best records from the Class of 2000. This collection includes eleven major records, versus hipster records — because in high school you probably were not reading The Wire or Vice Magazine yet and so you picked from MTV. We will take an honest look at what was huge in high school. And as someone who became a hipster snob, I proudly look at these popular records as a cornerstone in the musical lexicon of my generation. The list is ordered chronologically, by year, not preference.
Daft Punk – Homework (1996)
There was a clamor and gold rush of sorts for new electronic music artists in the late nineties. Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers may have grabbed the attention of the day, but Daft Punk emerged, evolved, and influenced many more contemporary electronic music artists. They have outlasted and out performed expectations for electronic music of the day as well. Their latest and final album, 17 years after their debut, Random Access Memories was hotly received, rising them to the echelon of stardom while surprising critics. Personally, I still think that Homework is exactly that for any new electronic music artist. Moreover, it is the superior record.
Tool – Aenima (1996)
Tool is a band brimming with artistic merit. By the Aenima tour, they were incorporating themes in to the album art and live performance that even Ken Wilbur would pay attention to. Possibly the most versatile metal band ever, their music took a turn with Aenima. You begin hearing unusual time signatures, hypnotic loops, and a new virtuosity influenced by ritualistic music and geometry. But it rocks nonetheless, its not “mathie”. One of my favorite songs is “Hooker With a Penis” because it shreds harder than early stuff while arguing that “selling out” is the consumer’s illusion. I love Tool because it relates to a spiritual place, communicating certain existential anger and angst connected to transcending the ego, becoming sensitive, learning how to love a world full of parasitic beings. Their use of Bill Hicks’ comedy is really a cherry on top of the perfectly psychedelic and epic track that ends this album brilliantly. From Opiate to Lateralus there is a tremendous leap that only very special musicians can accomplish. Maynard James Keenan has become an icon among hard rock singers while perfecting a wine brand based out of Arizona. He has a military record as well as degree in art and design. Drummer, Danny Carey is one of the most tremendous drummers alive, demonstrating an ability to improvise with prowess as well as master highly geometrical drum patterns, making his sound totally recognizable.
Pearl Jam – No Code (1996)
Pearl Jam is the splinter between grunge fans and this album further splinters Pearl Jam fans. The first single, “Who You Are” didn’t sound like them at all. It is Nirvana that typically holds the respect, defining the era, but Pearl Jam survived. During this period they refused to play Ticketmaster venues, took solid footing on political matters, refused to pose in music videos, and promoted the continuation of vinyl releases. Nirvana was far more self-absorbed and creatively self-conscious. Pearl Jam released Yield (1999) during high school and actually revived its fan base while gaining younger fans; the single “Evolution” held its spot on MTV’s TRL for a long time. I choose No Code because it takes honest risks with a versatile collection of songs, like the one-minute punk tune “Lukin” and the Neil Young ode “Red Mosquito”. “I’m Open” is truly a poem diverged from rock music altogether. The cover art and packaging was very thoughtful for the fan while demonstrating a more creative spirit than most bands of the day.
Beck – Odeley (1996)
Here is a CD that during my years of rebellion I got rid of, favoring of a lighter load on the shelf while diving in to the limitless abyss of unknown music. But whenever I hear this again, I’m like, “holy shit, that’s really creative… and fun!” Good clean fun is what Odeley brings to the barn. But I also hear tons of obscure references because Beck was sort of iconic for that hipster expertise in to that abyss of unusual music. It all came out as this geeky hip-hop record. It’s brilliant.
Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
Rivers Cuomo, until 2010, would not allow Weezer to perform from this record. But considering all of their records, this one is the truest. The production is gritty and perfect. The drums sound huge. Analog love is what it is. The fact that it is the truest explains the difficulty. Cuomo was struggling with the notion of becoming an icon, decided to finish college at Harvard, and went through leg-lengthening surgery during this period. He was bugged with his bassist. And the album was intimately personal. The album smells like collegiate spirit. I stopped listening to the band during my rebellious years in college, but I will happily come back to this one.
Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
In high school, I was absolutely stuck on rock music. I was surviving. But in consideration of this article, I sought this album out; because it was a band I had heard of at least. While most major rappers were doing sample loops in the late nineties, Wu-Tang was producing original shit. They have a gritty sound. I realize that they didn’t have laptops and home studios. They had drum machines, rack gear and probably an Atari computer running midi. Perhaps they had Sound Designer on an old Mac system in the control booth, the predecessor to Pro Tools. And drugs… lots of drugs. That’s something else you can hear on this record. But it’s awesome because it’s a gang of heavyweight emcees spitting on tape, rousing everything up in the moment. This album may sound like old keyboards and drum machines, but it sounds real, coming from the gut, speaking from life through the voices of Method Man, Ghostface Killah, RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and more legends of hip hop.
Bjork – Homogenic (1997)
This album shines above the passing trends of electronic music throughout the nineties, helping define the sound for a generation. It is more consistent than its predecessor, Post. This album was a great maturity point for Bjork as she also started working closely with Mark Bell. The singles rolled out from this album in to 1999, showing its shelf life right away. The final single “All is Full of Love” can be heard in hipster coffee shops throughout the world, even as you read this. Her creativity was branching out. Soon she would star in and score the Lars Von Trier musical, Dancing in the Dark (2000), offering a tremendous, unforgettable performance.
Chumbawamba – Tubthumper (1997)
The leading track and primary single, “Tubthumping” somehow mutually motivates sports fans in sports arenas and dirt punks in dirt punk houses. The album doesn’t sound punk whatever, but it totally is. Its sound is more dated than every other album on this list. But it also sounds exactly as I remember the late nineties to sound: guitar anthems, drum machines, horn sections, spoken lyrics, the Clinton administration. Chumbawamba put out records full of social and pop music references showing how clever and sensitive they are, which is the bottom line of artistry. So the question is often raised what their motivation was in recording this highly commercial record on a major label. My opinion is that they are true anarchists. Absolute anarchy starts in the present environment and cannot dictate what anarchists do with that environment—it’s more about how they live in it. Their message–whether or not it came across to the troves of consumer zombies that hoovered their records up, trickling down royalty paychecks to this day–was transmitted to the widest possible audience. Mission accomplished.
Radiohead – OK Computer (1998)
I remember when it happened: the day that Radiohead took over as my favorite band. It was MTV’s Live from the Ten Spot, 1998. By the time of Kid A (2000), I was hooked, and I still hold that album above Ok Computer personally. But this record was huge. The group has carried on among the most creative, evolving recording artists of all time. Nobody but them really owns the brand “alternative rock”. They are the motherfuckin’ Beatles for my generation. Importantly, they are divisive. Many people can’t stand Radiohead or Thom Yorke. “Why do you sing like everyday you’re about to die?” they would ask him if they could. Why? Radiohead conveys everything beautiful and tragic about living through their sound. Yorke has developed himself inside the European electronic music scene, branding a unique approach and style with Atoms for Peace. Eventually, Thom’s voice and persona moved on from that, but it’s not all about Thom. Johnny Greenwood has made himself a serious composer. He scored two P.T. Anderson Films (There Will Be Blood, The Master), two international films, and several concert works, including 2012 collaboration with the famous Polish avant-garde composer, Penderecki. The remaining members of the band have also led respectable, creative lives.
Outkast – Aquemeni (1998)
It would be yet another release before the rap duo would become quadruple platinum iconic Grammy award winners for the hit “Ms. Jackson”, but no doubt the duo was already on solid footing in the mainstream with Aquemini. The duo exhibits creativity and social sensitivity with this record. It sounds ahead of its time. This is original material with style and lyricism in hip-hop. In fact, I only sought this out for this article, but perhaps if I heard it in 1998, it would have changed my attitude about hip-hop years before hearing The Roots.
Pavement – Terror Twilight (1999)
It wasn’t until this release, the biggest and final one, that I even began to hear about Pavement, only because a video or two ran on MTV about a minute. I wasn’t paying attention apparently to “Cut Your Hair” when they had a glimpse at grunge fame with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994). They had the respect of Sonic Youth all along, who had already slipped back in to the underground by my high school years. This album was produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) helping translate ideas in to a sonic reality unlike any of their other records. While it is lacking the grit of Slanted and Enchanted or for that matter, all their other records, it has intellectualism and psychedelic flavors that work very well for Pavement. On a personal note, this band single handedly demolished the spell of nineties bands whom managed to squirrel their way in to my brain purely out the social requirements of my Tucson suburb.
So that will do it. Other than Kid A by Radiohead and Dancing in the Dark by Bjork, I’m afraid that the year 2000 was a vacuum for good mainstream music. So many bands couldn’t make it to this list. Bands that I once loved, like Bush, Korn, Limp Bizket, Creed, Incubus, and more that I am sad to have embraced once. Disappointing hits from Red Hot Chili Peppers, acts like Sublime, Dave Matthews, Puff Daddy, Brittany Spears, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Nickelback and more spread over my radar, distracting from better mainstream artists, like Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, and The Roots. Definitely, this list could be expanded. Go ahead and write your own blog. I’d love to see other high school era favorites from educated listeners.
Thanks man that was a fun trip down memory boulevard. Mellon Collie was the only one I had from your ten and I couldn’t trust it at first cause they weren’t usually mainstream. It wasn’t Skinny Puppy or Alien Sex Fiend. But that four(was it four or 2) cd Smashing Pumpkins set showed me I could loosen my anus just enough to give some others a go. Johnny Cash, Radiohead, I think this was about the same time Pigface was doing the same thing.
I have to say though that was a long decade of no good mainstream music and I think it sent me right back into my batcave. I’m glad I found your blog cause I need serious help. There’s a gaping hole in my chest now and only new music can fill it, good soulful music. Skinny Puppy’s Rabies album or Bauhaus’ The Sky’s Gone Out something that reaches into the soul and gently stirs it ooh like Cities in Dust man that Siouxsie can wail!
I’m not very good at this plus I’m from the class of 1990 so I still think Psychedelic Furs and Joy Division are way rad anyway. Thanks for the fun.
Thanks for the feedback, Micah. Indeed, I realized 1986-1990 actually wasn\’t the greatest either–quite possibly as bad as the late nineties. I think 1980-1984 had some choice records.