1999 eventually turned out to be a great year for music with a lot of great music being released. The recent announcement of the 1999 Grammy nominees has also spurred me into announcing my favourite CDs of 1999. I don't think any of them have been nominated for a Grammy though...also, all but the Mary Black album was purchased when I went to New York in September. (www.discorama.com - my favourite store in NY)


tori amos - to venus and back

Venus is a 2 CD set; the 1st CD is all new material while the 2nd CD is a 'live' album. .In judging this to be one of my favourite CDs of 1999, I focused solely on the new material (which also explains why Mirrorball isn't in).

If you listen to Tori's first album Little Earthquakes and then Venus; you'll be amazed at how different they sound. Whereas Earthquakes showcased a fragile waif-like voice ably supported by her piano playing and which comprised of relatively mushy songs; Venus has a more frenetic pace

In my frame of reference, I would call the music in Venus as becoming more Bjork-like, just like I did for Tori's previous album Choirgirl. However, this would be an injustice to Tori as Tori is a brilliant songwriting who writes lyrics with depth and meaning. I have tried to like Bjork, but she keeps on spouting indecipherable garbage. A friend also brought to my attention that the sound is also a bit like Madonna's Ray of Light. But whereas, Ray of Light is a rather pleasant album that shows Madonna 'maturing', Tori's Venus remains on the cutting edge lyrics wise. This is not an album that one plays to relax (the honour goes to Mary Black :)), but one that demands your attention.

The songs

I have to make a hasty qualification that the above paragraph is a bit of a generalisation and should to read in reference to Tori's earlier albums, This is not a fast paced dance album; but there is a sort of quiet urgency which I supposed epitomises the 90s as a rushed and impatient decade.

One of my favourite tracks is Glory of the 80's. It starts off quickly to apparently establish a qucik pace with percussion and synthesisers but for those who are familiar with the standard pace of this kind of music will realise that the pace here is subtly restrained; the music struggles to 'burst' free but is restricted. This creates a wonderful underlying tension that is clearly deliberately created as Tori begins to sing. She is singing but the pace (very subtly clipped) and the intonation suggests an 'urgent whisper' as if she needs to say something important and yet is restrained by something unknown. The song also adds rather abruptly and leaves you wondering whether she has said what she wanted to say...

For hi-fi enthusiasts, Lust features Tori singing over very very low synthesised bass notes (probably sampled and shifted down several octaves). The note attacks, throbs a bit and decays. Bass as tight as this is a pleasure to listen to. :) Bliss also has that excellent sampled bass note as well, but its not as prominent there.

The recording again is fantastic. Given the more extensive use of techno-like percussion, it would be so easy for the recording to become harsh and unlistenable but the treble is open, detailed and not at all harsh. Tori's voice is also excellently recorded. Her voice has the slightly forward nature present in all her albums which give her a huge 'in the same room' presence, but its well judged and not in your face and theres hardly any sibilance.. The delicate nuances of her singing can be discerned above accompanying music as well. As mentioned earlier, the tight, deep, bass is a delight to listen to.

Though her previous albums may contain my favourite Tori songs, as a album, Venus is, in my opinion, Tori's finest album to date. The fact that it also has a live CD containing tracks from previous albums makes this a 'must-buy' in my opinion :)


Beth Orton, Central Reservation

In my view, most of the great female singer-songwriters come from North America, perhaps because of the inroads made by Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez (and even Bob Dylan & Tom Waits) There are notable exceptions of course, such as Kate Bush (ok.. who said Enya?) whose music the adjective 'sublime' is repeatedly attached to.

But recently, with the release of her first album, Trailer Park, Betho Orton has burst onto the music scene with what must be described as cutting edge Brit-folk-pop and a memorable slightly angst filled voice that conveys oodles of emotion without needing to resort to over the top wailing or what have you. She follows up this album wih a similarly named Central Reservation. To address a common criticism; yes, Central Reservation sounds quite a bit like Trailer Park, only better.

There is no 'happy' or 'mushy' music here. The emotions range from slightly depressing to moments of poignancy. But her music is not about wallowing in misery (which annoys me); rather, it creates the impression of a dispassionate observer standing in a large barren space and contemplating introspectively on his fate and existence. ) The inherent sadness in the music does not come from singing slowly and mournfully :) But yet, there is something fresh and interesting about the 'sound'; there is a delightful 'spaciousness' and barreness to the sound (the music, not the recording quality - you can just feel the desolation as she strums her guitar and sings); the silent space becomes an integral part of the music, which is why I termed it 'cutting-edge' folk pop. On the negative side, there is nothing particularly brilliant about her lyrics, its just that the overall effect is so beautiful it just brings a tear to my eye :)

Perhaps this brings me to what is probably my favourite song of 1999: Central Reservation. There is a quieter introspective version and a more up-tempo version (not a remix, she actually sings it faster) with the repeated line "today is whatever we want it to mean". I declare the up-tempo version (the 'Then Again' remix) a hi-fi demo quality track :)

Recording wise, the sound is excellent. The vocals are clear and expressive, the highs are extended and smooth and the bass is deep and tuneful. If you want to listen to Beth Orton, get this album first.


Mary Black, Speaking with the Angel

Yes, another Mary Black album. Mary Black is one of the very, very few non-singer-songwriters that I love. What can I do? She has released so many albums and yet hasn't released a bad one yet (though I confess that I don't like Holy Ground as much as I like the others).

It also doesn't hurt that this is the best sounding album yet. The sound quality of her albums keeps on increasing and increasing (I suppose it took a sideways shift with the rather bright 'lets break into the US market' Shine). Even though mine is a European press, I noticed that its a 'heavy' CD, equal to the weight of the current US presses. (one way to explain why US presses are better are that they're heavier - less wobbling in the CD player).

Again, since the songwriters appear to be Irish, the music can basically be classified as contemporary Irish folk (which almost any Mary Black song can be called :)). Also, the music is refereshingly 'acoustic sounding', but the main draw is Mary's beautiful voice that still shines after all these years.

As for favourite songs, I must confessing to liking the last 4 tracks in the album. Speaking with the Angel is the obligatory vocals with minimal accompaniment piece, Big Trip to Portland is the obligatory Noel Brazil song (which a beautiful miked piano intro), I live not where I love is a completely new recording of a wonder traditional Irish folksong (I think she sang it before on a compilation album which I had somewhere) and Fields of Gold is a delightful cover of that Sting song. (theres a song called Broken Wings but that has nothing to do with the Mr Mister song [if you don't know who Mr Mister are, you're making me feel old :)]


Kendall Payne, Jordan's Sister

Many first albums are eponomously titled, so the cleverness of Kendall calling her album Jordan's sister was a nice touch (Jordan is Kendall's sister). Anyway, she is only 19 years old with talent far in excess of Britney and Christina and ilk. Discovered during Lilith Fair (she had no recording contract when she appeared) she wrote or cowrote almost all the songs on the album. Kendall has a delicate voice that seems to crack slightly at the higher octaves like Shawn Colvin, and which occasionally sounds like Alanis.

The first 2 tracks are begin fast and racously and the loudness never really lets up. Fortunately, the recording is clear and so is her diction. The pleasant surprise once you listen to the lyrics is that they are of some substance, and that is what truly sets Kendall apart from being a pop/rock queen wannabe. Supermodels is a commentary on a society transfixed on appearance, but it is not a personal attack on modelling as she states:

Well me, and B, we hate supermodels
It's not that we know anyone personally
It's just that I'm tired of being compared

The perils and pressures of dating are also explored by her in the rather charming Perfect by Thursday. Her songs have such a honesty as she communicates the admittedly standard gamut of life's problems. Another nice thing I like about the album is the variations in pace amongst the tracks; there are fast tracks and an equal number of slow tracks. One of them, Fatherless at 14 is so heart felt and sincere that it came as no surprise that it was dedicated to someone in the hope that it would 'help the healing'.

The sound quality is a little bit on the bright side but the high degree of transparency allows full appreciation of Kendall's delicate waifish voice. The bass does not go as low as it should (unlike Texas' Hush) but overall, I can still listen to the music quite loud.


Honourable Mentions

Texas, Hush - Perhaps just a little too bright and occasionally sibilant, this is a very fine album by Texas. There are loads of great songs in this album.

Mirrorball - Sarah McLachlan. No new material, but she's so wonderful live. And if you have the DVD, you can see how good she looks too :) [pity the sound is compressed dolby digital]

Natalie Merchant - Live at the Neil Simon Theater. Very fascinating choice of songs. You have just got to listen to her sing David Bowie's Space Oddity - "Ground control to Major Tom/ take your protein pills and put your helmet on." As Anthony Lim of AVfiles put it, she could sing a grocery list and sound good. The songs on the DVD (compressed DD - big yuck - and the picture is as bad as VHS) are slightly different from the CD. c