If the year in pop music were nothing more than a popularity contest, then 1999 clearly would belong to the most popular teens.
According to Billboard magazine, the best-selling album artists of 1999 were the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and 'N Sync. Things were only slightly different on the singles charts, where TLC topped the list, followed by the Backstreeters, Spears and Ricky Martin. As at the multiplex, the buying power of the current baby boom has had a profound impact on the pop music market.
But there's a difference between the best and the most popular, and as such, you'll find no former Mousketeers or harmonizing boy bands on my Top-10 list. Instead, you'll find an almost dizzying variety, as no single style dominated my preferred listening.
It wasn't just a matter of bouncing between such well-defined genres as rock and rap. To my ears, there was great music all over, from electronic dance music and singer/songwriter fare to bluegrass and chamber music.
But none of them played it straight; indeed, fusion seemed the dominant trend. Not just the hard rock/hip-hop blend that has topped the albums charts and shaken up the concert circuit, though Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit are clearly a part of this shift. No, pop music's fusion aesthetic was far more wide-ranging than that, having less to do with blending styles than with breaking down the walls between genres.
There are no obvious pigeonholes for my favorite albums of the past year. In some cases, it's because the artists in question have purposely colored outside the lines, as when Alison Krauss applies a bluegrass vocabulary to pop/rock arrangements on "Forget About It," or when Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer fold Celtic and Appalachian traditions into chamber music discipline. Other artists, such as Cibo Matto, Pizzicato Five and the Chemical Brothers, simply ignore stylistic boundaries, moving from sound to sound as their songs demand.
Still, let's not entirely write off Britney and the Boys. Where the teen-pop boom had its most profound effect on the sound of '99 was in the resurgence of tuneful, catchy pop music. For singles especially, 1999 was a great year for mindless lyrics and shameless hooks. Even those who didn't care for the pneumatic insistence of Cher's "Believe" or Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" found themselves humming along at some point -- even if involuntarily. Such is the power of pure pop.
My own singles list doesn't include either "Believe" or "Genie in a Bottle," but it does boast its share of somewhat guilty pleasures.
Topping the list is "Heartbreaker" by Mariah Carey (Columbia), a delightful throwback to the roller disco groove that features rapper Jay-Z at his most endearing. Next is "Steal My Sunshine" by Len (Work/ERG), a sly reworking of the rhythm track to the disco oldie "More, More, More" that was one of the summer's brightest moments.
Rounding out the Top Five are "One" by Aimee Mann (Maverick), a deliciously Beatlesque remake of the Harry Nilsson classic (from the soundtrack to "Magnolia"); "Battle Flag" by Lo-Fidelity Allstars (Skint/Sub Pop/Columbia), which proved that revolution could be just as catchy as romance; and "Lint of Love" by Cibo Matto (Warner Bros.), a funky, insightful meditation on how to maintain a relationship.
Also on the list: The don't-dog-me anthem "No Scrubs" by TLC (Arista); "I Need to Know" by Marc Anthony (Columbia), a perfect blend of vocal passion and salsa insistence; "Out of Control" by the Chemical Brothers (Astralwerks), easily the greatest record New Order never made; "Nookie" by Limp Bizkit (Flip/Interscope), a raucous meditation on the stupid things we do for sex; and "Vivrant Thing" by Q-Tip (Arista), which reminded that hip-hop can be smart and catchy without being crude or demeaning.
Now on to the albums.
Cibo Matto -- "Stereotype A" (Warner Bros. 47345).
Part of the problem in putting together a best-of-the-year list is that some seemingly great albums have only been out for a couple of weeks, making it difficult to sort out momentary infatuation from abiding love. There were no such problems with Cibo Matto's "Stereotype A," however -- I was head-over-heels for the album from the start.
On a certain level, "Stereotype A" evokes everything I love about Manhattan, particularly the city's urban groove, rapier wit and cultural cosmopolitanism. It doesn't hurt that the group navigates freely between such musical reference points as funk, bossa nova, hip-hop, alt-rock and jazz, but what really makes the album a keeper is the songwriting. From the romantic sweetness of "Flowers" to the pungent wit of "Sci-Fi Wasabi," "Stereotype A" is a feast for the ears.
Nine Inch Nails -- "The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope Halo Fourteen)