Thursday, February 15, 2007

Best of: 1999

Then: A year or two previous, I had begun exploring the music of XTC, and thus I proclaimed their long-awaited Apple Venus Volume 1 (TVT/Idea) the best of the year. Actually, this album has some moments of genius (“River of Orchids,” “Easter Theatre”) surrounded by filler and some truly hellacious puns (“Knights of Shining Karma” – Oy!).

Now: Well, now it’s completely obvious. For whatever odd reasons I put it at number two at the time, but even then no other album completely captivated me and fulfilled what I required from an album like Wilco’s Summerteeth (Reprise). It seems I had been consistently underrating this band during the ‘90s.

I want to temper the urge to overpraise; but I think I was totally accurate in believing that, upon its release, Summerteeth was quite simply the album of my dreams. It had all the Kinks/Beatles/Beach Boys melodic influences I so craved but, unlike so many ‘60s-influenced music coming out around the same time, this was music with guts, hell, with balls. The rhythm section played loudly, the guitars and keyboards weren’t afraid to veer out of control at times. Most crucially, Jeff Tweedy made a huge leap as a lyricist, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed before or since. Not only could he suddenly pull off beautiful imagery and disturbing content in his words, but he also crucially seemed to suddenly understand that the way the words sound was just as important as the actual content. The way he formed his syllables is arguably the fulcrum of his talent from this album onward.

When you put all that together, you get an album that says you can do something with nerdy pop songs. The highpoint of the album is probably “I’m Always in Love,” a song I still think could’ve been a hit, with a Moog synth that connects Linda McCartney to Dr. Dre. Here, in 1999, is a group of supposed alt-country dudes, paying tribute to ‘70s AM radio and saying things like “When I let go of your throat-sweet throttle.” Summerteeth shows that you can convey darkness and doubt better than you could with any other kind of music, because the music here realizes that the dark and the light coexist at the same damn time. From this point onward, the ability to realize this dichotomy becomes for me what separates great music from all that other stuff.


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