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.

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2 comments on “Songs of the Year—1999

  1. Y2K! Talking Heads! Seems like only yesterday.
    Time flies when you’re… well time flies anyway. 🙂

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