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1999 top albums

May 14, 2012

Tim Cain top albums, 1999

“Country concept album.”

There are only a few three-word phrases that petrify me as much. When pressed, I might throw out:

Gratuity not included
Trip to Cleveland
Shopping at WalMart
By Lionel Richie
Starring Andi McDowell

So as I started reading early reviews of Marty Stuart’s THE PILGRIM referring to it as a “country concept album,” I cringed. For a lot of reasons.

In 1993, I went to a Marty Stuart concert. Anticipating a performance from a true link between bluegrass music’s origins and country music’s present — as would have befitted his talent and pedigree — I received a huge disappointment.

Between songs, a handful of women in the 500-seat theater exorted Stuart, “Turn around!” Initially, he at least pretended to not realize they wanted photographs of his ass. Then he teased the women from the stage, with me thinking the whole time, “Please, Marty, don’t turn around.”

I mean, I knew that the appeal Stuart had for certain members of the audience wasn’t his history as a bluegrass prodigy, nor his apprenticeship with Johnny Cash. Some of them were looking at his Nudie suits (and those ARE cool, don’t get me wrong) or his foot-high hair. And as someone who thinks the Beatles’ hair in the 1960s is the essential definition of cool, I understand that image sometimes is as much a part of popular music as the music itself.

But there’s always a line. And that night in 1993, I drew the line at Marty Stuart wiggling his fanny in front of a bunch of women when I’D paid to hear his music.

Now, this wouldn’t be a tale of fall and redemption if he didn’t turn around. He did. And as soon as it happened, I thought, “That’s fine. You’ve turned your back on me, on your music, on everything you’ve built up to this point. You want to be Marty Ray Cyrus. Fine. Do it without me.”

I followed Stuart’s career with a distant eye from that point on. When the “Marty Party” concept reared its ugly head, I thought, “Why am I not surprised at this?”

Understand, there was very little heartbreak in this breakup. I had little invested in Marty Stuart. And he did quite well without me in his corner, I’ve noticed.

My remote contempt for Stuart had grown to a comical proportion by the time I popped in a tape of THE PILGRIM made for me by my pal Tom Weber. A handful of songs jumped out at first listen, jumped so clearly that I thought, “I wonder where Marty found all these good songs?” Stunningly enough, he wrote everything, with the exception of Johnny Cash reading a Tennyson poem that caps off the whole album not with hubris or laughability, but a fitting amount of finality.

Somehow, somewhere, Stuart has assembled everything in his past and present — bluegrass, country, rock, virtuosity, storytelling — in an album that’s frighteningly head and shoulders above everything else I’ve heard this year.

You don’t even have to buy into the concept. Just listen to the 11 or 12 songs here WITHOUT the story links, and you’ve got a fine album. Add in the links, though, and you have a piece of art, something you can and should listen to in one sitting to have the emotion wrung out of you.

I swear, there are six top 10 country singles here, and there are two songs that would fit solidly into rock or adult rock radio formats. (Not that I’m foolish enough to believe that would ever happen …)

He kicks off the album with the driving “Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain,” a solid piece of upbeat country writing. “Reasons” is a 1960s-type male-female duet that used to be George and Tammy or Dolly and Porter territory. (I can’t tell if the female voice is Emmylou Harris, but it sure sounds like her.)

But the highlights come in the middle of the album, where one great song follows another and leaves you thinking, “This CAN’T get any better.”

“Hobo’s Prayer” is his musical re-write of “The Boxer,” with a nice moral besides:

Face the fact that you’re a circle in a world full of squares
Trading sorrows for tomorrows, now that’s the hobo’s prayer

Back in the 1970s, the last great golden age of popular music on AM radio, you could hear the Spinners followed by Grand Funk Railroad followed by Charlie Rich. At that time, Stuart’s “Goin’ Nowhere Fast” would have been a top-40 smash, and I would have stood in line with my 88 cents plus tax to buy a 45 of it. Imagine a fast Tom Petty song with a little bit of steel guitar.

The next cut is Stuart’s tour de force, the 5 1/2-minute “The Observations of a Crow.” The liner notes say he wrote in Hawaii, but I’d like to know how. The song cries ‘swamp.’ There’s a frightening amount of foreboding in it. And if that’s not cool enough, how about these lines:

Hey quarter moon, well how was your night
Yeah well, any minute now God’s gonna hit them brights

And if he looks at you, well try not to look so afraid

Isn’t that amazing?

And a little bit later, in slides “Draggin’ Around These Chains of Love,” another sure hit single in the Tim Cain Universe.

Not enough? How about a couple more instrumentals that should take your breath away? A nice package? A nice story? Is any of this hitting you anywhere?

Good Lord, go out and buy this. My album of the year awards have cursed people off labels lately. I don’t want to be the one to stop the Marty Party.

1. Marty Stuart, THE PILGRIM

Already wrote a bunch about this one.

2. Randy Newman, BAD LOVE

Let’s see — he trashes television, younger women, rock stars who’ve hung around too long and white Europeans and their descendants from 1600 on. And that’s just in the first five songs. Another example of Newman’s criminally underrecognized talent. To think, there are people who only know him for the music from “Toy Story.”

3. Moxy Fruvous, THORNHILL

1999’s version of the best album the Beatles never made. Tight and tuneful, melodic and vocally inspiring. They’ve still never captured the brilliance of their live performance on a recording (even their live CD didn’t do that), but this is closer. Wonderful songs, and you don’t hear that on every CD that comes out these days.

4. Paul McCartney, RUN DEVIL RUN

My expectations for this were slight, figuring McCartney had put out his one decent album for the decade with FLAMING PIE in 1997. This doesn’t approach that, but there’s 15 tracks of fun, and maybe he’ll introduce you to some rock classics you’ve never heard. Or re-introduce: A personal favorite here is the zydeco-flavored version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”

5. Robyn Hitchcock, JEWELS FOR SOPHIA

Umm, already called Randy Newman ‘criminally underrecognized,’ so how does a guy describe Robyn Hitchcock? After a mid- to late-’90s slump (which still resulted in some fine material), Hitchcock continues an impressive comeback with some acerbic acoustic fun.


This isn’t intended as a slam on deceased Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, but at least some of that band’s sense of melody must have come from Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer. These guys get better and better with each album, and they started out well.


Ignore how tired you got of the single, “You Get What You Give.” Maybe it was overplayed enough to drive you to the edge (along with all the other songs on my top singles list). If that’s the case, there’s plenty of other songs here with that same wash of instruments and offbeat vocals to get your attention. If you hate the production, though, stay away, and ignore what will be one of 2000’s best CDs, Danielle Brisebois’ PORTABLE LIFE.


It’s not true that I’d buy a CD of Aimee Mann singing the alphabet. Multiplication tables, maybe. A long way from Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” she provides a mittful of tremendous songs to this soundtrack, tying together a sad theme of love won and lost.

9. Steve Wynn, MY MIDNIGHT

Wynn is one of those performers who’s almost incapable of writing a poor song, and he’s getting more interesting as he matures as an artist. His rocky folk (or folky rock) is one of the best reasons to check out the independent music scene.


Kind of like Tori Amos only not as intense or lyrically obscure. Some fans were turned off by this, a turn from her folk-based TRAILER PARK. But this one features some attractive melodies, and Orton has a great voice.


While the “interpretations” of some of the songs leave me uninterested, the songs from the movie proper are great enough to make it the best movie musical since “All That Jazz.” I wish we could print the title of my favorite song from the CD.

12. Fountains of Wayne, UTOPIA PARKWAY

My obligatory obscure power-pop pick. All six of us who heard it really really liked it.

13. Weird Al Yankovic, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS

Admittedly, he’s an acquired taste. For example, I can listen to the 12-minute “Albequerque” and giggle time after time, while others can’t sit through it once. I’m astonished at the quality and longevity of his work. Someday, he will be recognized for his vocal, musical and entertainment skill.


The biggest surprise for me on this list, a Christian-rock band doing songs that sound nothing to me like Christian-rock. Like Sixpence None the Richer and many of the Christian-rock bands that play Decatur Celebration, this seems much more like just plain good old rock.


It’s OK for me to like these guys, because my 14-year-old nephew acknowledges “They’re OK, they’re pretty cool.” And he likes Deep Purple and Alice Cooper. He’s going to be all right.


Every year, you hear songs over and over on the radio and think, “Who isn’t sick of this crap?” It’s me!

“Angels Would Fall,” Melissa Etheridge
“Beautiful Stranger,” Madonna
“Four,” Lit
“No Scrubs,” TLC
“You Get What You Give,” New Radicals
“All Star,” Smash Mouth
“Kiss Me,” Sixpence None the Richer
“Steal My Sunshine, ” Len
“Scar Tissue,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
“The Saga Begins,” Weird Al Yankovic
“Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” Offspring

My wish for 2000: No more Sugar Ray music anywhere in my life.


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