Monday, May 10, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 1999


If you told me in 2017 that I would have Switchfoot as a runner up for my favorite album of 1999, I would have said you were crazy, yet here I am. I know my best friend is probably looking at this and thinking that my boyfriend has brainwashed me or something, but I think good relationships are built on the exchange of ideas and musical tastes. His alarm clock is now a They Might Be Giants song, and I'm naming a Switchfoot album as one of the best ones of '99.

Here's the thing: you know in "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, where they're like "feed them on your dreams//The one they pick's the one you'll know by//Don't you ever ask them, "Why?"//If they told you, you would cry//So just look at them and sigh//And know they love you"? Well it's kind of like that. My boyfriend can't imagine why I am so drawn to this early Switchfoot album, he just knows that for some reason I am. 

Boyfriend and me with Switchfoot in 2019.
New Way to be Human is the second album by Switchfoot. The subject matter of the songs ranges from philosophy to Christian doctrine to songs like "Company Car" about working hard to better your position, only to feel like you've sold your soul in the process. The sound Switchfoot went for on this album was probably the most unique of their career so far. The title track, "New Way To Be Human" is like a beautiful crash of grunge, alternative and singer/songwriter. There's a different key for the chorus every time too, and it's all wrapped up with a neat little bow. Some songs sound exactly like you would expect, but then with tape loops randomly thrown in at the right moments. Apparently real Switchfoot fans don't think the album is anything particularly special, but I think it's one of their most interesting albums so far. And "Company Car" is feelings

On a totally different note, 1999 is the year of Montreal started to really lock down and polish up their first sound with the concept album The Gay Parade. One reviewer (Jason Ankeny for AllMusic) called it "indie pop's very own Sgt. Pepper." I guess I see what they were talking about but I feel like that praise gives the album more credit than I probably would. "Old Familiar Way" opens the album, and is one of the strongest offerings on it. There's something very vaudeville about some of the songs, which is somewhat fitting for the idea that it's a musical parade. All the songs have a strange kind of sweetness to them that frontman Kevin Barnes' earlier work tends to include, and that his more recent work suffers from the lack of.

My final runner-up probably should have been the winner, not going to lie. But I'm not counting soundtracks, and this is kind of a soundtrack. Only kind of though. 

One of the strangest shows in the early '90s (1991-1996) was Pete & Pete, a show I guess you could describe as a sitcom, about two brothers- both named Pete- and their antics. If you never saw it, maybe you saw Snow Day, which was originally supposed to be a Pete & Pete movie. Or imagine a Malcolm in the Middle that has gone completely off the rails (in my opinion, it may have inspired Malcolm, although the show itself seems to pull from A Christmas Story taken to a wild new level). In the show, there is a mythical band called Polaris that acts not only as the soundtrack, but as the plot to an episode. They are supposed to be incredibly illusive. And in a strange case of life mimicking art, they became just that. The pressing of their album on vinyl sold out rapidly, and is now very valuable. 

We had a cassette when I was a kid that I didn't realize was only available by sending in box tops from Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats. I listened to that thing as much as possible. Both sides, the theme song "Hey Sandy" and the ballad "Staggering" and "Coronado II" (which I think was an instrumental?). Because I didn't realize what it took to get the cassette, I also didn't know that that thing now sells for $30-$50 due to its rarity and the cult following of both the show and the band Polaris.

Polaris was formed from members of indie rock band Miracle Legion specifically for Pete & PeteMusic From the Adventures of Pete and Pete came out in 1999, three years after the show ended and after the disbanding of Miracle Legion. The songs are nostalgic for those who grew up with the show, but they're also really good. '90s indie music is different from the later whining of '00s indie rock (don't get me wrong, I love that stuff, as you'll see in the coming articles). It had more of a garage sound. Most of the independent bands in the '80s were similar, but the '90s stuff had grunge undertones. Polaris accomplishes this, but with jangly guitars and soft rock melodies.

The lyricism is great on this album. They didn't coordinate the lyrics with the show at all. They just wrote songs that happened to be for the show. "Everywhere" is a perfect example. It's a breakup song similar to the later "Woke Up New" by The Mountain Goats, about the impossibility of forgetting an ex when there are reminders...everywhere. 

My favorite album for 1999 is ¡Viva El Amor! (Long Live Love in English) by The Pretenders. The cover photo was taken by a recently deceased friend of front woman Chrissie Hynde, namely Linda McCartney. McCartney passed away in 1998, just a year before the release of the album. Linda's daughter Mary McCartney did the photography for the liner notes. 

¡Viva El Amor! follows in the footsteps of Last of the Independents with the juxtaposition of soft love songs like "From the Heart Down" with harder songs like "Legalize Me" and pop tracks like The Pretenders' cover of the Divinyls "Human on the Inside" (retitled simply "Human"). It didn't perform well as well on the charts, but Viva did outperform their follow-up album Loose Screw (2002). 

As this was during Hynde's marriage to Columbian artist Lucho Brieva, the influence of the Spanish language is seen not only in the title of the album, but in her only other cover on the album, a rendering of Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez's "Rabo de Nube." She performed one of her own songs both in English and Spanish on her next album, Loose Screw

Viva features the aforementioned "From the Heart Down," a song Hynde cowrote with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, the hitmakers who cowrote "Eternal Flame" by The Bangles, Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper. It's a touching song that dives straight in from the fore.  

"Biker" would seem like a strange choice with its Buffalo Springfield guitar parts, but it's exactly the kind of song Hynde wrote more of in the coming albums.

Apparently the theme of my school Christmas program in
1999 was "In a couple of weeks, the world might end?"
As I mentioned in a previous article, The Pretenders were pretty important to me in my teenage years. My knowledge of them started with "Don't Get Me Wrong" because of the video referencing one of my favorite TV shows, The Avengers (my name may or not come from the name of the female character, "Emma Peel"). I was a fan of that song for a few years and began to regard Hynde as a style and attitude icon in my teens. I had been letting my hair grow out for a while but at the end of my freshman year, I got it cut like Hynde's. This also marked the beginning of my return to bangs after a few years without.

The sentiment in "Popstar" still cracks me up, this idea that her boyfriend has left her for someone more basic and poppy than the narrator, and she is telling him how high-maintenance and vindictive the girl is going to be. I don't know what place of hurt the song came from, if any, but it's a little amusing, and always useful for playlists about celebrity.

Top single "Human" is one of my favorite tracks honestly though. I didn't find out it was a Divinyls cover until about a year ago, and after listening to the original, I feel like Hynde did a fair bit of transforming. I had the privilege of singing it live at a school fundraiser and it's still on my karaoke shortlist.

This isn't my favorite Pretenders album, it's not one I come back to often, but it's a good album, and my favorite of 1999.

Let's throw it up on the leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 2000. New millennium, new albums!

No comments:

Post a Comment