Songs of the Year—1999

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
–The Talking Heads

Songs of the Year: “Either Way”, Guster; “Psycho Killer”, The Talking Heads

Runners-up: “Steal my Sunshine”, Len

Honorable Mentions: “Thank You” Dido

At the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly, Conan O’Brien attempted to outlaw all soundings of Prince’s “1999” for 12 short months. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic. It was the year that boy bands were triumphant and when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ruled the world. Back then, Carson Daly was on MTV and American Idol was still three years away.

1999 was also incomprehensible. The modern 24 hour news cycle got its baptism in covering senseless violence after the Columbine High School massacre. (I was eating pizza at a local eaterie as it unfolded.) For those of us who could remember the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing it seemed like a reminder of the dangers of the world. In retrospect, it seemed like an unassuming prologue to the madness of the next decade.

I ended the year in the remote woods with a group of friends under the excuse that if the shit did hit the fan, we would be able to protect ourselves with firearms. On New Year’s Eve we watched Strange Days and played Super Mario Brothers Brawl until we all passed out. The next day? Nothing. No apocalypse. No crises. Just headaches and snow.

Up to that night, I had avoided radio to the best of my abilities. And it was a good thing too. The top songs? Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”, Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5”, TLC “Scrubs” and Backstreet Boys’ “I want it That Way”. Could we find a collection of more superficial and terrible songs? What was wrong with the world?

The Future and The Past

Not everything was terrible. Dr. Dre’s 2001 was revelatory. Eminem’s Slim Shady Ep sounded unlike anything else at the time. Nine Inch Nails returned with The Fragile; Rammstein gained air time in the US. But still, mediocre acts like Puff Daddy and John Mayer began to dominate in the margins between pubescent girls and undeniably aging boybands.

So, it was a bad year. Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman”? Please. Or Creed? How much I despise you. Kid Rock? Please, let me listen to Limp Bizkit some more. The radio was “Livin’ La Vida Loca” with Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Jessica Simpson. I decided to join a CD club again. I ordered whatever nostrum I could think of. The Talking Heads. Weezer’s Blue Album.


So, in order to combat the present I turned to the past. My band introduced covers of Weezer’s “Sweater Song”, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. I still remember my brother and his friend putting on masks and invading the stage while we played “Psycho Killer”. It was a good night. It is a great song. (Now, as for my bandmates getting my much younger brother drunk, that’s another story…)

What else did I listen to? Less and Less, it seems. As what was new faded, I embraced material that was older. I remember taking my future wife’s copy of Carnival (WyClef) and listening to it repeatedly (“Gone until November” is amazing; all of the songs in Creole are dynamic). 1999 was also the year that local cult band Guster aimed for the big time with the Steven Lillywhite produced Lost and Gone Forever.

I don’t remember the last time I so eagerly awaited the release of an album. My wife’s second live show ever was a Halloween performance by Guster across from Fenway park. In 1999, I saw Guster twice in  Maine  alone. My roommate and I had heard most of the cuts of the album live or from the internet. My sister stole the lyrics from a song during a show at a brewpub. My wife declared that if she ever got a dog, she would name it Guster Goldfly.

And when the album came out,  I couldn’t listen to it. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good. It was good. At times, much too over produced. More than once, the songs had been cleaned up from the live versions. The problem wasn’t the production. It was the mood. The album is sad. Deeply sad.

The soul of this sorrow could be found in “Happier” or the aptly named “Either Way” which starts with the acoustic guitar through an effects pedal, synthesized keys and live strings. Like “Happier” before it, it is about disappointment, uncertainty and, worse, ambivalence. The opening and lingering lyrics:

You were almost kind, you were almost true
Don’t let me see that other side of you
You have learned in time that you must be cruel
I’ll have to wait to get the best of you
Poison in everything you say
Don’t you, don’t you….
wonder what difference does it make……Either way

How could anyone fall in love to this song or make love during it? What can you do to this song but cry or drown your tears? “Either Way” uncovers our suspicions and lays bare our fears. The music perfectly plays to this unmasking. The production isn’t too much but the overall effect is.

Lost and Gone Forever from beginning to end is one of the saddest records I have ever heard. From the opening “What You Wish For” through the 1980’s refugee “Two Points for Honesty” and to the simmering, disappearing “Rainy Day” this was an album built for weeping. My wife and I tried to listen to it. In the car, I drove more slowly. In the bedroom, we withdrew into ourselves. Someday, if I feel like crying, I will write on the depth of this sadness.

Over time, I did learn to love the album. I learned to accept and internalize its sadness and appreciate the courage of these sentiments. But at the time, it was a lament to add to other laments. All of my favorite bands were breaking up. High School kids were committing mass murder. The world was going to end because of a stupid computer glitch. I wasn’t getting younger while music wasn’t aging at all.

Lost and Gone Forever was too soon to be a reflection on its time, but I took it as one, at some level, and rejected it. It was easier to look back a few years to Weezer or a few more to Stop Making Sense than it was to accept the world around me. The radio was bad, the bands I loved were betraying me.  There was no way party when it was 1999.

15 comments on “Songs of the Year—1999

  1. theLead_Guitarist says:

    I agree completely. When Lost and Gone Forever came out, I liked it, but didn’t love it. It grew on me immeasurably over the years, though. I also thought it was too polished. I now see that it’s light years beyond Goldfly when it comes to crafting a cohesive “Album.” They’ve had several good records since, but none as good as this.
    Also… Carson Daly was on MTV… Carson Palmer plays for the Oakland Raiders. 🙂

    • theelderj says:

      Carson Palmer? I don’t know what I was thinking. He would have been at USC in 1999, right?

      (Perhaps I was fuming over my hatred of the giants when I wrote this and ticking off all the things they have ruined)

      From my perspective now “lost and gone forever” is Guster’s best album. A bit too slick at times, but the most coherent and most moving.

  2. kate58 says:

    I’ve always loved Guster & the Talking Heads. I’ve never listened to Dido, but I will now. 🙂

    • theelderj says:

      How could anyone have escaped Dido? She had a couple nice songs (then catapaulted to stardom by Eminem’s use of one of them). But her voice was always a tad weak…

  3. professormortis says:

    Looking at the Top 100 for 1999….
    “Believe” by Cher?
    “No Scrubs” by TLC? “No Scrubs”. Jesus Christ.
    “Baby One More Time”, “Genie in a Bottle”-these were remarkable to me for really one thing: I recall the first time there was music for “the kids” who were much younger than me that I didn’t just “not like” or “not respect” or “despise” but flat out didn’t get.

    I get to about #6 and I stop, because, unfortunately, Sixpencenonthericher’s “Kiss Me” is on there, and in 1999 I had a van, you see, my first car, and it was an ’87, and it only had a tape deck, and sometimes I listened to the radio, and I didn’t mind that song, and it instantly recalls driving from Waltham to Wellsley on glorious spring days to pick up the Little Mad Woman (when we were getting along very well and I was inordinately fond of her) and I get sort of nostalgic for 1999 while simultaneously HORRIFICALLY EMBARRASSED THAT I CAN SAY ANYTHING NICE ABOUT THAT GIRLY POS.

    So returning to my rage monkey….fucking Sugar Ray? All Star, by Smash Mouth? I hate that song just for the number of trailers it’s in, and that’s the least of its sins. “Save Tonight”? The song by “Buffalo Stance” Nenah Cherry’s brother? The one designed for college and high school couples to use as an excuse to get laid before one or the other moves to another city or state?

    How about “Last Kiss” which conjurers up my usual covers rage…only I don’t even like the original. I thought it was a lousy, sentimental, creepy ass song…and Pearl Jam went and made it new again, so I’d have to listen to a student worker sing it while I’m trying to get books shipped out. Fuck you Pearl Jam. Kravitz’s “Fly Away”, overplayed hell. Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, with the continued success of cross over pop country.

    How about this nugget of hell: “Summer Girls”, which screams assholes who shop at mall stores. “Can I Get A”, also overplayed insanely that year, I think off a movie soundtrack?

    I can say I honestly loved Lauren Hill’s “Doo Wop” but, really, really, that should be a surprise to no one. I’ve already mentioned “Mambo No. 5” was a guilty pleasure of a catchy song I knew was no good, like drinking a 2 liter bottle of Jolt. Another confession: I could stand “Back that Ass Up”. I’m a weak man. Same with “Hard Knock Life”.

    Overall, an awful year. Not surprising you retreated to the past. I know I did. I think I joined that CD club with you. I recall getting Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Desmond Dekker, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, They Might Be Giants, and a lot of other stuff I was either not alive for or had missed when it came out.

    • theelderj says:

      You are an angry man, today, Professor.

      But 1999 did that to us. The music was so bad. Some good spots,, as you point out, but largely and terribly shit.

      “Kiss Me” gives me the hives.

      But don’t feel bad about finding some positive things about the time. If you couldn’t find anything nice to say, you’d have to claim total insanity for the period.

      (I mean, she seemed almost normal in that history class…)

      • professormortis says:

        Bear in mind, too, this was the last time I was picking a girl up at her parents house. It was like a little nostalgic trip back to high school and away from the horrors of adulthood or maybe really quasi-adulthood, where I knew I couldn’t meet anyone to save my life and where I wasn’t sure where a library assistant making just enough to afford beer, food, gas, and an apartment with two or three other dudes fit in.

      • professormortis says:

        The Walking Dead is a sore point for me, as first the comic book fans came and gave me copies, saying “You will like this, it has brrraaaiiinnnsss…” then the non-horror fans of good TV came to me going “Oh, you like Zombies, you will like this”. Perhaps I should finally watch it and give it the chance it probably deserves.

      • theelderj says:

        You’d probably best wait a while until your ire has subsided. No show can stand up to the scrutiny of the professor with his hackles raised!

      • theelderj says:

        I must add that I have been troubled overnight by your antipathy for “the walking dead”. This is not to say that I think you’re wrong, but that it has made me suspect my own attraction to the show. Part of it is, admittedly, that I really enjoy post-apocalyptic narratives (I especially liked the short-lived show “jericho”) and in this zombies are merely a vehicle for bringing about the apocalypse and forcing the types of reflection on human nature that these narratives can.

        And this is what was so powerful about Romero’s work–the forced reflection on our cultural apparatus even within the framework of gory and slightly campy horror. What I think WD adds is a sustained and character driven approach that can only be developed over the long form narrative of serial television. I suspect that your love of previous zombie forms has become proprietary and I completely understand your revulsion at being told that you will like something. And, further, the show is imperfect–but the characters are more fully developed than the graphic novel (where they are mere place-holders). In part, I think the graphic novel was a convenient starting point for people who wished to pursue some themes latent in the apocalyptic narrative (and one equally convenient for commericial and cultural appeal).

        You’re right that the plot (find place to hide, protect and lose some people, deal with issues such as infidelity superficially) is repetitive; but it is the emotional attachment that viewers develop with the characters that gives the long form serial narrative an efficacy denied to the shorter narrative duration of a film. The effect of Romero’s Zombies is shock and dislocation; the effect of WD’s zombies is a lower grade constant anxiety.

  4. professormortis says:

    The only reason that Romero’s first film is considered “campy” is the effect of time. Dawn has comedy elements that are deliberately campy, but real moments of horror. Ever watch it? It might not have as much time to develop the characters but the real horror in that is not the dead, but the end of everything and the emptiness of commercial goods as a way to live in that past. The dead are a low grade anxiety until human conflict allows them to overcome the defenders.

    I can’t talk about the show without watching it, so I’ll refrain from making any additional comments on it. What I will do is recommend to you a great, quick read, a post apocalypse novel that predates all of this and does the “low grade anxiety” that becomes a serious problem thing better than anything I can think of: the novel The Day of the Triffids.

  5. […] In 1999, I was living in graduate student housing with my roommate who was also the guitarist in my band (and one of my best friends).  We were not, however, graduate students. We had been forcefully directed to live in the remote housing because of our behavior during our freshman year. […]

  6. […] The problem was that this was a different Guster. The first line of the first song (“woke up today / to everything gray”) declared as much. The album was well-produced and filled with fine songs, memorable melodies, and some of the best vocal arrangements of all the albums. Even a fool could recognize that the music was well done. […]

  7. […] I left my home state for college in 1997 and have only been back for short stretches of time since 1999 when I stayed for an entire summer. There are many things about my home state that make this […]

  8. […] Back in 1999 when this song came out and after when I learned to love hip-hop, I remember having several conversations where we tried to figure out exactly what it was that Snoop Dog was saying in the chorus. Now, to be fair, this was before Rap-Genius existed and the debate occurred among mostly white hicks and suburbanites, but, for the best of our analysis, we couldn’t make any sense of lyrics that turned out this way: […]

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