The Ten Best Albums of 1999
1 THE ROOTS Things Fall Apart (MCA). For years Philadelphia's Roots have been the best live hip-hop act around, and with their fourth album they've finally parlayed their versatility and vision into a studio effort that lives up to their marathon performances. Things Fall Apart does justice not only to the hefty rhymes of Black Thought and Malik B and the uncanny "human beat box" Rahzel but also the clipped fatback bass of Leonard Hubbard and the organic beat science of drummer and musical mastermind Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson--whose furious cymbal work on the outro of "You Got Me" could leave any junglist panting. In one swift blow, the Roots have appeased their longtime underground following, tasted mainstream success, and raised the bar for hip-hop in the 21st century.
2 CARLINHOS BROWN Omelete Man (Metro Blue). He's spread his talents all over the map in the past decade, from writing and producing for stars like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Sergio Mendes, Gal Costa, and Marisa Monte to forming the pop-bloco band Timbalada to playing percussion for Sepultura, but Carlinhos Brown's wildly diverse skills and interests coalesce triumphantly on his second solo album. Brisk reggae samba and Beatlesque pop, string-laden ballads and horn-stoked funk, propulsive Afro-pop grooves and giddy Carnaval percussion breakdowns all sound convincingly of a piece beneath Brown's voice, which soars from gritty soul to a delicate falsetto.
3 ICP ORCHESTRA Jubilee Varia (Hatology). For more than 20 years, under the leadership of Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, this loose ensemble of eight or nine phenomenal musicians has mixed improvisation and composition, prickly noise blasts and finely wrought lyricism, with what might be called nonchalant focus. Mengelberg keeps the players--who include his longtime cohort Han Bennink on drums, reedists Ab Baars and Michael Moore, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, and cellist Tristan Honsinger--on their toes by perpetually juggling the repertoire and allowing any member to change the music's direction at any time. Listening to them--on record or, even better, live--is a bit like watching tightrope walkers execute back flips in a windstorm.
4 WILCO Summerteeth (Reprise). Wilco's Jeff Tweedy conjured his sunniest melodies ever to tackle his darkest lyrics: Summerteeth paints a picture of domesticity after the bloom is off the rose, and for the most part it's not a pretty one. But as dire as the narratives get--on "She's a Jar" Tweedy delicately croons, "She begs me not to hit her"--an unflappable optimism courses through the catchy hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Against all odds, Tweedy has done far more than simply shrug off the albatross of alt-country--he's made a rock album for the ages.
5 IBRAHIM FERRER Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (Nonesuch). The story of Ibrahim Ferrer's second chance is such an amazing fairy tale that it seemed almost inevitable that his next step would be a disappointment. But once again the singer--who was tracked down at his shoe-shining job by Ry Cooder to sing on the unexpected 1996 hit Buena Vista Social Club--has pulled off a coup. On his solo debut Ferrer, who in '59 or '60 sang for the band led by the great Benny More, proves to be a balladeer nonpareil, and he's backed by a superb cast of musicians coordinated by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez--the real miracle worker behind the record that started it all. Although he wails with soul and authority on son numbers like Arsenio Rodriguez's "Bruca Manigua," he shines brightest on the abundant boleros, where in even the trickiest passages his warm, creamy vibrato never surrenders its magisterial elegance. The tunes are old-fashioned and the performances lovingly measured, but Cooder's meticulous production brings out the details--from Manuel Galban's resonant surf-guitar licks to the suave 40s-style harmonies of the vocal group Gema Cuatro--in sonic Technicolor.
6 ROSCOE MITCHELL Nine to Get Ready (ECM). A beautifully detailed distillation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago reedist's varied compositional concerns over the years, performed by a stellar nonet. Nine to Get Ready may not offer any radical new ideas, but no other recording has so effectively summarized Mitchell's artistic breadth. Back in the 60s, while "new thing" New Yorkers were blowing themselves blue in the face, Mitchell and his Chicago compatriots were exploring silence and assimilating a huge range of sounds and styles, from house rockin' to Stockhausen, many of which come into play in this pretty orchestral setting. From the gently rippling elegy called "Leola" to the interactive abstractions of "Dream and Response" to the gorgeous ballad "For Lester B"--which takes on greater resonance in light of trumpet legend Lester Bowie's recent passing--Mitchell wields lyrical orthodoxy and textural experimentation with the same masterful touch.
7 CAFE TACUBA Reves/Yosoy (Warner Brothers). This sprawling two-CD collection of quirky pop ditties and angular instrumental experiments establishes the Mexico City foursome Cafe Tacuba as a force to be dealt with above and beyond "rock-en-espa–ol." The natural charisma of singer Ruben Albarran and the band's way of placing strange sonic twists within irresistible pop tunes suggest a subversion bested only by Beck, and their live show has me persuaded that they'll rule the world someday.
8 KHALED Kenza (Barclay). Algeria's greatest rai singer has made his best album since the 1989 landmark Kutche--and what that decade-old classic did for Algerian pop, Kenza may do for polyglot pop at large. But no matter how far abroad Khaled ranges--and he travels quite a bit, from the Indi-pop of "El Harba Wine" to the flamenco-salsa mix of "Gouloulha-Dji"--the hypnotic grooves are rooted in Arabic tradition, with stately string arrangements recorded in Cairo, twangy oud patterns, and Middle Eastern percussion. Ironically, one of the album's two duds, a lachrymose cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" (the other is a slow jam sung in French), delivers the most poignant assessment of Khaled's relationship to his homeland: if there were "no religion"--a daring concept in the context of Islamic fundamentalism, which has driven him and many of his peers into exile--he could go home.
9 BECK Midnite Vultures (DGC). Beck returns to the genre-defying cut-and-paste methodology that made Odelay such a blast and gets calculatedly stoopid with it. The Artist formerly known as Prince is a pale lavender shadow of his sexy self these days, and Beck is happy to take up the purple mantle in his own ironic fashion, plumbing the depths of Lovesexy and Sign 'o' the Times on "Nicotine & Gravy" and "Get Real Paid" and employing a chorus of faux-Vanity 6 backup singers to coo silly rhymes like "We like the boys / With the bulletproof vests / We like the girls / With the cellophane chests." Dopey as it may sound on paper, Midnite Vultures is loaded with smart details--like the way banjo plucking is seamlessly layered onto the imperturbable groove of "Sexx Laws."
10 BUDDY MILLER Cruel Moon (Hightone). Nashville outsider Buddy Miller--secret weapon to folks like Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, and Emmylou Harris (all of whom appear here)--continues to cook up genuinely American music on his terrific third album. Split stylistic hairs all you want: to him it's all country; to me his natural, earthy twang is nothing so much as deep-seated soul.
And ten honorable mentions: Freakwater, End Time (Thrill Jockey); Chicago Underground Trio, Possible Cube (Delmark); Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Brothers); Lenine, Na pressao (BMG Brasil); Gustavo Cerati, Bocanada (BMG U.S. Latin); Del McCoury Band, The Family (Ceili); John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy); Ron Sexsmith, Whereabouts (Interscope); Mandy Barnett, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire); Angie Stone, Black Diamond (Arista).