2001: We’re Not Those Kids Sitting On The Couch

This year was transformative in so many ways: unquestionably regarding world events (see the entry on Apartment Life for my thoughts on 9/11), but also in the music I gravitated towards. After my brief rediscovery of top 40 and a somewhat shallow dive into club music, by the end of 2001, indie rock (and pop) had become my mainstays. I was listening to WERS extensively, which is where I first heard Emm Gryner, Pernice Brothers, Ladytron and The Soundtrack of Our Lives; I also upped my music journalism intake, mostly via The Village Voice, which is where I first read about The Moldy Peaches, Basement Jaxx and Ted Leo (though for the latter, not until 2003’s Hearts of Oak came out).

It was an effort to think of at least 25 great songs for the 1999 and 2000 lists, but I had no trouble immediately reeling off nearly 40 for this year. Of course, a good chunk of this playlist comprises songs by artists I was already familiar with: Ben Folds’ solo debut (still his best solo track, ever), Depeche Mode’s second-last great single, Gillian Welch’s disarming narrative that did more to humanize Elvis than any number of tributes have before or since, a lovely, essential Belle and Sebastian B-side, an expansive gem plucked from a sprawling Ani DiFranco double LP and the happiest, breeziest song Rufus Wainwright will likely ever write.

Very occasionally, something unexpected would cross over, like Res’ now-all-but-forgotten hypnotic rock/R&B hybrid, or Cousteau’s loving Bacharach pastiche, which I probably heard on a car commercial before it ever played WERS. But even beyond my own particular, often peculiar tastes (A ten-minute Spiritualized come-down extravaganza? Sure, why not?), you had outfits like The Strokes and The White Stripes breaking out of the indie-rock ghetto. Suddenly, you felt the potential for hundreds of other bands to aspire to the same, and it didn’t yet feel played out. Despite plenty of sociopolitical turmoil by world’s end, there was also an unusual sense of possibility in the air. I was ready for it.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2001 on Spotify:

1. Ben Folds, “Annie Waits”
2. Pernice Brothers, “7:30”
3. Res, “They-Say Vision”
4. Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
5. Spoon, “Believing is Art”
6. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, “Sister Surround”
7. Royal City, “Bad Luck”
8. Ladytron, “Playgirl”
9. The Moldy Peaches, “Steak For Chicken”
10. Super Furry Animals, “It’s Not the End of the World”
11. Steve Wynn, “Morningside Heights”
12. Cousteau, “Last Good Day of the Year”
13. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, “Under the Hedge”
14. Depeche Mode, “Dream On”
15. Basement Jaxx, “Jus 1 Kiss”
16. Guided By Voices, “Glad Girls”
17. Kings of Convenience, “I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From”
18. Yann Tiersen, “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi”
19. Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”
20. Bjork, “Pagan Poetry”
21. The Dirtbombs, “Chains of Love”
22. Ani DiFranco, “Rock Paper Scissors”
23. Emm Gryner, “Straight to Hell”
24. Gillian Welch, “Elvis Presley Blues”
25. New Order, “Close Range”
26. Belle and Sebastian, “Marx and Engels”
27. Sam Phillips, “How To Dream”
28. Rufus Wainwright, “California”
29. Ivy, “Edge of the Ocean”
30. Spiritualized, “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)”

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2000: Let’s Make This Moment Last

I kicked off the year 2000 by falling madly in love for the first time, so titles like “I’m Outta Love” and “Leavin’” seem somewhat ironic now (or perhaps just a then-dormant harbinger of what was to come in 2001-2002). I’ve left out most of the top 40 hits I strongly associate with this time because I no longer go out of my way to listen to many of them (although hearing BBMak’s “Back Here” on supermarket radio never fails to make me smile.) Apart from the flop Madonna single, very little of this got any radio airplay, at least in the US—“The Time is Now” hit number two in the UK, “Bohemian Like You” was also huge there thanks to its inclusion in a mobile phone ad, while “Tell Me Why” is still Saint Etienne’s only top ten hit in their homeland.

As usual, in a perfect world so many of these songs would’ve been hits—The New Pornographers’ clarion call (greatly assisted by the incomparable Neko Case), Sleater-Kinney’s peppy, hipster-bashing anthem, PJ Harvey’s irresistibly primal stomp, even weirdo duo Ween’s straightest pop song ever. Speaking of weirdos, they’re well represented here too: Bjork’s Dancer in the Dark duet with the lead singer of Radiohead (who themselves that year released possibly the weirdest album to debut at number one), The Avalanches’ sui generis cut-and-paste extravaganza, Goldfrapp’s overtly eerie music for an imaginary film (at least not yet for a few years).

It’s worth noting that in 2000, I spent a lot more time clubbing than I have before or since, hence the inclusion of the epic Toni Braxton remix with its unusual but masterful extended flamenco breakdown. This exact version instantly brings back many a Saturday night spent dancing at the now torn down Man Ray in Cambridge’s Central Square, sipping sugary cocktails and shamelessly making out with my new love on the dancefloor. Oh, I was so young and innocent back then…

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2000 on Spotify:

  1. The Dandy Warhols, “Bohemian Like You”
  2. Anastacia, “I’m Outta Love”
  3. Shelby Lynne, “Leavin’”
  4. Aimee Mann, “Satellite”
  5. Moloko, “The Time is Now”
  6. Sleater-Kinney, “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun”
  7. Paul van Dyk with Saint Etienne, “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)”
  8. Bjork and Thom Yorke, “I’ve Seen It All”
  9. Ween, “Even If You Don’t”
  10. Madonna, “What It Feels Like For a Girl”
  11. Toni Braxton, “Spanish Guitar (HQ2 Club Mix)”
  12. Blur, “Music is My Radar”
  13. Yo La Tengo, “You Can Have It All”
  14. Belle and Sebastian, “Don’t Leave the Light On Baby”
  15. Bebel Gilberto, “August Day Song”
  16. Nelly Furtado, “Party”
  17. PJ Harvey, “This is Love”
  18. Badly Drawn Boy, “Bewilderbeast 2”
  19. Goldfrapp, “Lovely Head”
  20. The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist”
  21. The Weakerthans, “My Favourite Chords”
  22. k.d. lang, “When We Collide”
  23. The 6ths feat. Katharine Whalen, “You You You You You”
  24. The New Pornographers, “Letter From an Occupant”
  25. Jill Sobule, “Rock Me to Sleep”

1999: We Were Young and Innocent Back Then

Even though I kicked off 1999 by falling in love with If You’re Feeling Sinister, this was one of the more disjointed and new music-deficient years of my life. During the four months between stumbling across the finish line of grad school and finding steady employment, I spent no money on music, instead raiding a plethora of suburban libraries to acquire previously unheard (i.e.—old) stuff to listen to (Nina Simone, Serge Gainsbourg, Os Mutantes, etc.) Still, even if I had had the cash, it’s not like I would be rushing out to buy many of the year’s best-sellers—I didn’t even hear the three LPs I wrote about here until 2000-01.

What follows is a by now expected late-‘90s grab bag. It includes tracks from both long-beloved artists (a sweet sigh from Everything But The Girl’s last album, Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack triumph, another indelibly-titled Pet Shop Boys single) and good stuff I didn’t hear until much later (Le Tigre’s punk anthem (not fully appreciated by me until its inclusion in the 2006 film Reprise), Super Furry Animals’ Tropicalia-by-way-of-Wales). And yet, I recognize selections I loved at the time, like the lead-off track to Beth Orton’s mostly forgotten second album, Ben Folds Five’s flop follow-up to “Brick”, Blondie’s underrated (in the US, anyway) reunion single and an Indigo Girls tune that didn’t trouble the charts but seemed to receive heavy rotation on WBOS (then a decent Triple-A station).

Of course, I was never going to hear The Magnetic Fields or Sleater-Kinney without actively seeking them out. Same goes for Jason Falkner, whose second LP Can You Still Feel was a lucky library find not long after its release. Listening to it now, I wonder why it didn’t make the list—I’ve heard fewer finer power pop albums from that era, and “The Plan” is a concise gem of a song everyone should know.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1999 on Spotify:

  1. Le Tigre, “Deceptacon”
  2. Beth Orton, “Stolen Car”
  3. Jason Falkner, “The Plan”
  4. Everything But The Girl, “No Difference”
  5. Supergrass, “Moving”
  6. Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag”
  7. Pet Shop Boys, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”
  8. Tom Waits, “Hold On”
  9. Tori Amos, “Bliss”
  10. Aimee Mann, “Save Me”
  11. Steve Wynn, “Cats and Dogs”
  12. Ben Folds Five, “Army”
  13. The Magnetic Fields, “All My Little Words”
  14. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Wicked Little Town”
  15. Blur, “Coffee and TV”
  16. Indigo Girls, “Peace Tonight”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Red Dragon Tattoo”
  18. Meshell Ndegeocello, “Bitter”
  19. Moby, “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”
  20. Sleater-Kinney, “Don’t Talk Like”
  21. Blondie, “Maria”
  22. Super Furry Animals, “Northern Lites”

bonus tracks not on Spotify:

23. XTC, “Easter Theatre”
24. The Negro Problem, “Repulsion (Showed Up Late For Work On Monday)”
25. Pizzicato Five, “La Regle Du Jeu”

1998: I Am Not Jesus, Though I Have the Same Initials

Pulp’s This is Hardcore was a hangover of a follow-up to their celebrated LP Different Class from two years before, and it’s emblematic of the time it came out in. Although never a single, “Dishes” instantly made an impression, and not just for its indelible opening lyric quoted above (only Jarvis Cocker would dare to make such a comparison). Later, he sings, “A man once told me, beware of 33 / He said, “It was a not an easy time for me.” I was 23 in 1998, but I could still relate—it was my first full year in Boston and I spent all of it in the graduate student interzone, where my life almost entirely focused towards academia. Apart from my classes, I was alone most of the time.

As a film studies student, movies admittedly supplanted music as an art form to obsess over, although the latter barely diminished as a presence in my life. Not having cable and deliberately avoiding the top 40, I relied on Boston’s WFNX (by far the more diverse of the city’s two alt-rock stations) to discover some new music—I first heard “History Repeating” and “Lights are Changing” there. Otherwise, I was off on my own, feverishly awaiting new recordings from artists I already adored (Pulp, PJ Harvey, Morcheeba, Tori Amos) and looking beyond commercial radio for new-to-me sounds from the past in the guise of college radio stations like WERS (an entirely different animal from what it is today) and WMBR.

Looking over this list now, I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. I’ve gone on about alt-rock entering a rapid decline in the late ’90s, but this might be the last great year for top 40 pop as well: REM, Seal and Sheryl Crow won’t make any more appearances on these yearly lists (possibly Madonna as well). The fact that only one 1998 album shows up in this project (not on Spotify, so nothing from it on this playlist) also suggests anomaly; at one time or another, I could’ve made a case for Whitechocolatespaceegg, From the Choirgirl Hotel, The Globe Sessions or Mermaid Avenue, but none of them made the cut on this go-around (although Mezzanine came pretty close).

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1998 on Spotify:

  1. Propellerheads feat. Miss Shirley Bassey, “History Repeating”
  2. Emm Gryner, “Summerlong”
  3. Rufus Wainwright, “April Fools”
  4. Pernice Brothers, “Clear Spot”
  5. Mary Lou Lord, “Lights are Changing”
  6. Pulp, “Dishes”
  7. Calexico, “Stray”
  8. Lucinda Williams, “Right in Time”
  9. PJ Harvey, “A Perfect Day Elise”
  10. Depeche Mode, “Only When I Lose Myself”
  11. Grant Lee Buffalo, “The Whole Shebang”
  12. Billy Bragg and Wilco, “California Stars”
  13. Air, “You Make It Easy”
  14. Morcheeba, “Part of the Process”
  15. Komeda, “It’s Alright, Baby”
  16. Black Box Recorder, “Child Psychology”
  17. Tori Amos, “Black-Dove (January)”
  18. Massive Attack, “Man Next Door”
  19. Madonna, “Ray of Light”
  20. Liz Phair, “Polyester Bride”
  21. Belle & Sebastian, “Slow Graffiti”
  22. Seal, “Lost My Faith”
  23. New Radicals, “Gotta Stay High”
  24. R.E.M., “At My Most Beautiful”
  25. Sheryl Crow, “My Favorite Mistake”

1997: Boy, You Can’t Play Me That Way

In Summer ‘97, I heard a lot of Top 40 radio while working a retail job (actually, it was an “Adult Top 40” station, which translated as Mostly White Without Rocking too Hard). I must have listened to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”, OMC’s “How Bizarre” and The Wallflowers “One Headlight” (among many others) at least one hundred times each over a three-month period. I’d like to say it soured me off mainstream radio for good, but even without such overexposure, I’m positive those songs still would not have aged well enough to make my playlist below.

It was around this time I almost entirely stopped putting stock into commercial radio (even mainstream modern rock channels!). Of these 25 songs, the only ones I ever heard on the radio that year were White Town’s brilliant, genderfucked novelty hit and maybe the Cornershop song (the latter probably only on Boston’s then-great indie-rock station WFNX). A few, like “Da Funk”, “Try”, “Stereo” and “She Cries Your Name”, probably came from 120 Minutes. “Smoke” was an exceptional album track from an LP I bought the first week of release, as was Blur’s great “Beetlebum” (number one in the UK but overshadowed in the US by their own surprise novelty hit).

Regardless, I didn’t hear at least one-third of these until post-’97. I’ve already gone on about discovering Ivy four years later; Super Furry Animals, Sleater-Kinney and Teenage Fanclub would also become known to me in that rough period. “Lazy Line Painter Jane” had the most seismic impact in the summer of 2000, when it finally became commercially available in the US, eighteen months after I fell for If You’re Feeling Sinister (the time to discuss it in detail comes later in this project). Remember, ’97 was still mostly pre-internet when it came to hearing new music. I can only imagine how different this list might now be if I had YouTube or Spotify at my disposal back then.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1997 on Spotify:

  1. Belle and Sebastian, “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
  2. Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha”
  3. Teenage Fanclub, “Ain’t That Enough”
  4. Jen Trynin, “Getaway (February)”
  5. Blur, “Beetlebum”
  6. Daft Punk, “Da Funk”
  7. Bjork, “Joga”
  8. Ivy, “The Best Thing”
  9. White Town, “Your Woman”
  10. Mansun, “Wide Open Space”
  11. Pavement, “Stereo”
  12. Jill Sobule, “Happy Town”
  13. Sleater-Kinney, “Turn It On”
  14. Super Furry Animals, “Hermann Loves Pauline”
  15. Ben Folds Five, “Smoke”
  16. Steve Wynn, “How’s My Little Girl”
  17. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Into My Arms”
  18. Depeche Mode, “Home”
  19. Eric Matthews, “No Gnashing Teeth”
  20. Beth Orton, “She Cries Your Name”
  21. Stereolab, “Miss Modular”
  22. Supergrass, “Late in the Day”
  23. Matthew Sweet, “Behind the Smile”
  24. Ween, “Ocean Man”
  25. Michael Penn, “Try”

2016: We Kill The Flame

Compared to last year, 2016 was not a great year for albums (or a great year, period). Still! I quickly threw together a playlist of thirty favorite songs and I could easily add on another ten or twenty. While long-awaited records like Tegan and Sara’s Love You to Death or Junior Boys’ Big Black Coat felt a little underwhelming in lieu of what came before from each duo, I played the heck out of both “U-Turn” and “Baby Give Up On It”. The Bastille single ended up as much of an earworm as “Pompeii” was a few years before. The Florence + The Machine song, a soundtrack cut, certainly didn’t feel like filler or a leftover from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. “Radio” stoked some anticipation for a second album from Sylvan Esso in 2017.

I’ve also included tracks from a few discs that very nearly made my top ten (KT Tunstall (her best since her debut), Parquet Courts, true supergroup case (Neko) / lang (KD) / veirs (Laura)) and better-than-average album cuts from the likes of Wilco, Santigold, Eleanor Friedberger and Corinne Bailey Rae, among others. If this year had a theme song, it’s undeniably the title track from what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s final album (a good one, but not as interesting as Popular Problems). Nearly up there with “Everybody Knows” and “The Future”, it’s as much in tune with the times as my #1 album of this year.

Click here to listen to my Spotify playlist of thirty great songs from 2016:

  1. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
  2. Santigold, “Rendezvous Girl”
  3. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
  4. The Radio Dept., “Committed to the Cause”
  5. The Avalanches, “If I Were a Folkstar”
  6. Martha Wainwright, “Traveller”
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
  8. Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
  9. Whitney, “No Matter Where We Go”
  10. Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
  11. Bastille, “Good Grief”
  12. KT Tunstall, “Turned a Light On”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”
  14. Pet Shop Boys, “Burn”
  15. The Divine Comedy, “A Desperate Man”
  16. John K. Samson, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”
  17. Florence + The Machine, “Wish That You Were Here”
  18. The 1975, “Somebody Else”
  19. Wilco, “Someone to Lose”
  20. Andrew Bird, “Truth Lies Low”
  21. Roisin Murphy, “Ten Miles High”
  22. Junior Boys, “Baby Give Up On It”
  23. Eleanor Friedberger, “Because I Asked You”
  24. Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”
  25. case/lang/veirs, “Best Kept Secret”
  26. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
  27. Tegan and Sara, “U-Turn”
  28. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
  29. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
  30. Field Music, “Stay Awake”

1996: One Was Magenta, The Other Was Blue

In 1996, music meant more to me than it ever had before. I remember stopping at a record store that September for the first time in weeks, about to burst at the seams with joy upon seeing the new releases I wanted to buy. I selected six of that year’s albums for this project, and just as easily could’ve picked at least four more (Diary of A Mod Housewife, Endtroducing…, Viva! La Woman and Nine Objects of Desire, for starters) if I didn’t feel weird about including ten for one year (especially as the average number-per-year will drop off soon).

My age obviously factored into this. Everything at 21 still seemed so new and limitless to me where music was concerned. While the alt-rock bubble of 1992-94 had long since burst, it had not yet fully soured into the dubious mutations (nu-metal, mook rock and Smashmouth) that overtook it in the late ‘90s. Like any other year, ’96 had its share of pedestrian (311), overplayed (oh, I don’t know, “Marcarena”?) and just plain godawful (hello, Bush!) hits. But look at Primitive Radio Gods topping the modern rock airplay chart for six weeks! Or agreeable novelty hits from Fountains of Wayne, Beck and Geggy Tah! Not to mention all the wonderful stuff not on your radio, from Sloan’s Chicago-gone-alt-pop gem to an improbable but divine duet between Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue!

The relative lack of obscurities here (even Cibo Matto got on MTV!) either suggests indie’s infiltration of the mainstream was at its peak, or that I was then most attuned to the latter. Moving forward, entries and playlists in the project may seem less familiar at times (not that Eric Matthews and Morcheeba or indeed, half of the selections below are household names) as this balance shifts back towards the opposite pole. It’s not that my interest in music starts to wane—it just increasingly burrows down other paths less taken.

Click here to listen to my 1996 playlist on Spotify:

Beck, “Devil’s Haircut”
Aimee Mann, “Choice In The Matter”
Belle and Sebastian, “Seeing Other People”
Fountains of Wayne, “Radiation Vibe”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue, “Where The Wild Roses Grow”
Morcheeba, “Howling”
Pet Shop Boys, “Se a Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)”
Cowboy Junkies, “Something More Besides You”
Jason Falkner, “I Live”
Suzanne Vega, “World Before Columbus”
Amy Rigby, “20 Questions”
Fiona Apple, “Sleep To Dream”
Sam Phillips, “Animals on Wheels”
Gillian Welch, “Pass You By”
Cibo Matto, “Know Your Chicken”
Sloan, “Everything You’ve Done Wrong”
R.E.M., “Binky the Doormat”
Luscious Jackson, “Naked Eye”
The Divine Comedy, “Becoming More Like Alfie”
DJ Shadow, “Stem/Long Stem”
Stereolab, “Percolator”
Sheryl Crow, “Home”
Ani DiFranco, “Adam and Eve”
Tori Amos, “Hey Jupiter”
Pulp, “Mile End”
Sleater-Kinney, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”
Geggy Tah, “Whoever You Are”
Steve Wynn, “Shelly’s Blues (Pt. 2)”
Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand”
Everything But The Girl, “Mirrorball”
Soul Coughing, “Super Bon Bon”