I KNOW WHAT you're thinking: Another year, another damn Top 10 list.
Well, yeah. You're right. But this isn't just any year. And this isn't just any Top 10 list. I mean, don't you read the papers? With the thrilling powers of digital technology poised to transform every Compaq into a jukebox, this could be the last year the album as we know it exists! And that means...this could be the last Top 10 list you ever read.
Then again, maybe not. Rock critics make lousy soothsayers, and I've stopped offering predictions about a single artist's career, let alone the future of the business. If I truly could glimpse the future, I'd be drawing a heftier check as a telepsychic or an A&R flack. And trust me, so would every other pundit opining on the issue. The writers I know are not such technically adept beings, so don't be surprised if the guy now holding forth on the revolutionary potential of Napster was accepting instruction from his ten-year-old daughter on how to use his first AOL account just eighteen months ago.
Experience has, however, taught me one indubitable fact about the future: It will be infinitely more boring than anyone predicts it will be. Take gene-splicing, and the wicked possibilities therein. Are they going to inject us with human-adaptive chlorophyll cells so we can photosynthesize and sunbathe for sustenance instead of gorging ourselves on Little Debbie snack cakes? Dream on. Instead, they're just going to make vegetables square so they're easier to ship.
So, for me at least, the biggest industry story this year isn't downloadable media, which points to a future that will only unfold with time, but rather the stupefying success of the Beatles' 1, which points to a commercial past that remains with us. After all, I'm never amazed when people snatch stuff up for free--that's just common sense rearing its uncommon head. But when hordes of folks pay for what they already own, that's some insight into the psychology of capitalism. Capitol's implicit marketing pitch is startling: Quick, buy songs you already own before you're forced to download them for free--they're in a brand-new box! Well, I hate to get all Menshevik on your ass, but it would seem that the ideological conditions that would enable the download revolution to commence are not yet in place, comrades.
In other words, the notion of the album as a whole retains some appeal--for regressive commercial reasons, and for authentic aesthetic reasons as well (not that the two aren't often one and the same). All of which is just an excuse for me to blab about 10 albums I dug in 2000, list another 30 that are just incrementally less wondrous, and make fun of a few select unworthies.
And speaking of Radiohead: Although Kid A was leaked onto the Net prior to release, it was the album's public reception, and number-one berth, that was so shocking. Like Sgt. Pepper's or London Calling, the record became both an artifact to be consumed in toto, and a mass cultural moment. Maybe it will stand as a landmark, one of the last instances of a dying art form. Or maybe it will fill the resell bins alongside such once-esteemed artifacts as Bandwagonesque and Arrested Development. Like I said, I'm not very good at all this future stuff.
Forget about Dre and any other Cali thug who jacked Bernie Worrell's high-end synth whine for quick cash. No P-Faker whose idea of down-and-dirty sex is trading coke for a backstage blowjob could ever be worthy of unfastening George Clinton's cock ring. But Outkast's Andre and Big Boi deem Billy Ocean a pimped-out ghetto supastar, posit "What does love smell like?" as a pressing existential query, and stand convinced that the freakin's only good when it's as thick and goopy as yesterday's grits. Of course, if vintage George was some unholy mix of freakazoid genius and mystagogical con, Outkast are just starry-eyed hustlers and what-if whiz kids, which makes their charming navigation of downhome's tricky sexual politics that much more impressive. The conciliatory shout-out to "baby's momma's mommas" is the scene-stealer of "Ms. Jackson," but the coital politesse of "I'll Call Before I Come" and the double-standard-straddling "We Luv Deez Hoez" are more keyed in to the rhythm of their daily doings--and perhaps yours, too.
The Friends of
These two mature Aussie craftsmen unknown to 99 percent of the globe edge closer to the sublimity of pure pop than a dream factory's supply of harmonized teen wonders. The arrangements are rudimentary verging on skeletal--just delicate guitar arpeggios frosted by the occasional hint of cello, anchored by a surprisingly understated Janet Weiss on drums. The lyrics are conversational commonplaces that verge on Max Martinized cliché: "There's magic in here"; "There's ice around your heart." Ten years after splitting up, the duo gloss the edges of relationships and emotions they needn't sketch more boldly because you already know them by heart. The Go-Betweens are wiser now because they're older, sadder because the wisdom doesn't seem to help much, sweeter because they've learned sadness doesn't help, either.