1 The Charlatans – Forever
2 Shack – Natalie’s Party
3 Straw – Weird Superman
4 Underworld – Push Upstairs
5 Delakota – 555
6 REM – At My Most Beautiful
7 Travis – Writing To Reach You
8 Ben Folds Five – Army
9 The Chemical Brothers – Let Forever Be
10 TLC – Unpretty
11 Echo And The Bunnymen – Rust
12 Gay Dad – To Earth With Love
13 Primal Scream – Swastika Eyes
14 Super Furry Animals – The Teacher
15 The Divine Comedy – Geronimo (Live)
16 Dave Matthews / Tim Reynolds – Ants Marching (Live)
17 Mercury Rev – Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp
18 Nine Inch Nails – We’re In This Together
1 The Fall – Touch Sensitive
2 Ian Brown – Getting High
3 Flaming Lips – Buzzin’
4 Tom Waits – Hold On
5 Ben Folds Five – Magic
6 Shack – Comedy
7 Widespread Panic – The Waker
8 Travis – Driftwood
9 Straw – The Aeroplane Song
10 Basement Jaxx – Red Alert
11 Smash Mouth – All Star
12 Low – Just Like Christmas
13 The Charlatans – The Blind Stagger
14 Len – Steal My Sunshine
15 Regular Fries – Wires
16 Blur – Trimm Trabb
17 Death In Vegas – Neptune City
18 The Divine Comedy – Tonight We Fly
“I can’t withhold secrets / I know I’m going where the sun always shines”
Though this is the third compilation that I present to you, in many ways it feels like the beginning – this was the one that started the Soundtracks business. I made the 1997 and 1998 ones later, when I had a CD burner of my own to use.
I don’t know whether it’s because this is the first end-of-year soundtrack I made, but it’s probably my favourite of the early ones – partly because the music’s so good but also because of the memories this stuff triggers. I spent six months in America in 1999, working my second summer at Camp Thunderbird, then staying on into the autumn to work in their Environmental Education Center. It’s fair to say that the place became my life, and by the time I left I knew it would be unlikely that I would return, which adds a bittersweet layer to a lot of what’s contained here (and on disc two, which will follow next week).
Nothing at all melancholy about what kicks us off here. Despite my obsession with the Charlatans’ best-of compilation, I had no idea what to expect from the album that followed it, their major-label debut Us And Us Only. Bought shortly before leaving America, its lead single ‘Forever’ replaced ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ as my favourite song of all time. It’s a juggernaut of an opening gambit for a new album – interminable fade-in with Hammond organ and brushed cymbals, then the all-consuming bassline begins to drop before a minute or so in – boom – the relentless slow rhythm. There’s not much tune (nor chorus) to speak of, but there is an awful lot of swagger. It still sounds utterly brilliant, and if it’s not my favourite song of all-time now, part of that can be explained away by the fact I used to play it to death.
Another obsession of mine around this time was the album One Love by Delakota. Bought on a whim after reading a review in Q Magazine describing it as ‘an album the Stone Roses might have made had they stuck around’ (a surefire way to get me interested at the time’), it’s still a favourite of mine, and when I mention the band on Facebook from time to time, the reaction is general incredulity. But I could have picked any one of a number of songs from the album to include here, including ‘C’mon Cincinnati’ and ‘The Rock’ – alas, my very strict rules at the time meant I could only pick songs which had been released in some form during the year of the compilation, and so ‘555’ appears as it was released as a single from the album in 1999, whereas the album itself was out the previous year. Such logic also explains the presence of Mercury Rev’s ‘Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp’, which came from the almighty Deserters’ Songs album, and the Divine Comedy B-side, a live version of ‘Geronimo’.
Everywhere here, there are memories of those six months in America – Straw’s ‘Weird Superman’ reminding me of a train journey from Clemson, South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia before starting camp, the aforementioned ‘555’ soundtracking staying in the Atlanta suburbs with my friend Michelle, playing the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Let Forever Be’ in a deserted dining hall at Camp Thunderbird during some downtime (and later discovering its absurd video), TLC’s ‘Unpretty’ (in a rare R&B/pop appearance on my soundtracks) playing on the radio as me and some friends drove on I-485 to a house party during a weekend off, and Shack’s ‘Natalie’s Party’ reminding me of my head counselor Abe having an absolutely blinding party at his house in Charleston, West Virginia after the summer was over (certainly nothing to do with the Natalie I would meet a decade later!). Perhaps the strongest memory of all is triggered by the presence of a live acoustic version of the Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Ants Marching’. Any summer camp staff will tell you that closing campfires are a highlight, and at one of the last ones of the summer of ’99, two colleagues of mine, Tom and Ryan, played a stunningly faithful rendition of this – even down to the intricate guitar solo that it ends with. I usually detest guitar solos, a display of fretwankery against everything I look for in music (I think it was all of that Eric Clapton I was subjected to while over in America that did it for me), but I’ll make an exception here – this solo, probably because it sounds so alien coming from an acoustic guitar, adds a layer of magic dust.
Elsewhere, there’s the early bloomings of my Underworld fandom with one of their most immediate singles, ‘Push Upstairs’, and a bit of an appreciation developing of bands from college towns near my second home. Ben Folds Five (of Chapel Hill, North Carolina), came out with ‘Army’, which was unfairly derided in the NME at the time as a ‘concept single’, as if a song that attempts to tell a story had never been attempted before. And I finally, belatedly, got into REM (of Athens, Georgia) in a big way. I checked in at a bad time, as their 11th album Up – though underrated – was perhaps the beginning of a decade-long decline leading to their break-up. But their Beach Boys tribute ‘At My Most Beautiful’ prompted me to buy Up and start upon an obsession with the band that would reach its peak a couple of years later.
It always seemed a bit unfair of the NME to slag off Ben Folds Five for ‘Army’ when they were busy talking up Gay Dad, at least until people figured out that their lead singer was a former music journalist. ‘To Earth With Love’ was pretty good though, even if the band couldn’t touch it in future.
Tucked away here too are songs that I’d listen to after the end of my six months in America – and for my sins, that includes tracks from Travis’ mega-selling The Man Who album. So you get ‘Writing To Reach You’ and its borrowings from ‘Wonderwall’. On a more perky note, you get the Primal Scream single ‘Swastika Eyes’, an early taster for the first great album of the 2000s, and ‘The Teacher’, lifted from the Super Furry Animals’ best album (in my opinion). Wish I’d chosen a better song though, but in the days before I could mix these soundtracks properly, a 2:30 track was all I could fit on, particularly as I had to find room for all seven minutes of Nine Inch Nails’ comeback single ‘We’re In This Together’, just for the rush of guitars when that chorus comes in.
When I’m making these compilations, I’m conscious of front-loading all the best stuff on to the first disc, meaning the quality suffers a bit once you get two hours in, so I try and make it as even as I can. So I’m always a bit surprised by how many say they prefer disc 2 to disc 1.
While I don’t think disc 2 of the Soundtrack to 1999 is an example of this, one thing that’s apparent to me is that if nothing else, the 75 minutes here probably give the best example of the eclecticism of my music tastes, even early on. Tom Waits, meet Mark E Smith. Neil Hannon, meet Widespread Panic. ‘Red Alert’, meet ‘All Star’ (Hey, I told you I didn’t think it was the best CD ever).
The overriding mood here is still of a British indie bent though, particularly that strain of indie that was prevelant as Britpop faded to a memory and what was left was guitar music which was more introspective and less brash. Blur were both the standard-bearers of Britpop and the most high-profile band to bail out of the sinking ship. Their 1999 album 13 is, in my opinion, the high-watermark of their career, and ‘Trimm Trabb’ their finest single that never was (although you could make a good argument for ‘Bugman’ from the same album). Travis were one of the bands to capitalise when the Britpop circus left town, and while they’re looked at as the epitome of bland now, the melancholy ‘Driftwood’ chimed with a listlessness I felt when I came home from six months in America.
The Charlatans make another appearance with ‘The Blind Stagger’, a taste of the more Dylan-influenced material from the Us And Us Only album. And then there was Shack, a band that should have been bigger than they were, but never got any more than a cult following due to a combination of horrendous luck and an industrial-sized smack addiction at the time they should have been cashing in during the Britpop era. Aside from ‘Comedy’ and the more euphoric ‘Natalie’s Party’ from disc 1, the whole HMS Fable album is worth Spotify-ing, while if you can find it, the album members of Shack recorded as The Strands during their ‘my drug hell’ days is even better. Regular Fries, briefly NME favourites at the turn of the millennium, are represented by ‘Wires’ – although the tune’s a good’un, the Lo-Fi Allstars-style psychobabble is vaguely embarrassing (the worst offender being exclamation ‘Random bongo movements!’ as some random bongo movements are made in the background). More enduring (and psychobabble-free) is a track by a band who similarly trod the tightrope between psychedelic rock and big beat, Death In Vegas.
Aside from the British stuff, there were more hints of the increasing Americanisation of my music tastes. I’m of the school that prefers Ben Folds Five’s stuff that sounds like ‘Brick’ than ‘Underground’, and luckily they served up a whole album of that on The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner, a really underrated LP if I may say so (I’ve pretty much ignored their recent reunion – getting the cast of Fraggle Rock on their latest video is perhaps a little too brazen an attempt to re-connect with their fanbase who are now all in their mid-30s – I’ve moved on). I bought the Flaming Lips album on the back of an NME review that said it was like Mercury Rev. I couldn’t hear the similarities at all (though they shared a member and a producer at the time) but I really liked The Soft Bulletin, particularly ‘Buggin” that also served as a track on the soundtrack to the second Austin Powers film – something that would get referenced a lot to me as an English staff member at an American summer camp. I spent that summer working on the canoeing beach at Camp Thunderbird, along with a guy called Courtney who was a massive fan of jam-rock proponents Widespread Panic. Most of their stuff I found interminably boring, but their album of that year ‘Til The Medicine Takes took their template and put it into shorter, more digestible songs, which won me over. The bluegrassy ‘The Waker’ gets the vote here. And Tom Waits’ gorgeous, timeless ‘Hold On’ reminds me of the beautiful September days living next to Lake Wylie and watching MTV2 during my downtime from Environmental Education work.
And then there are two songs that don’t really count towards the creeping Americanisation of my music tastes, just the peculiarities of that year. Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ really is a horrible song, so bad that when I was listening back to the mix just now, I turned it right down so that the office I live above didn’t hear it. But it makes it on here, because, well, summer camp, y’know? This was the song all over the top 40 radio stations that summer, and it got played loads and loads in the dining hall. Memories. Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine‘ is much better – sadly it came out in October, as if it would have come out a few months earlier it would have been a summer anthem. It’s not a song I’d have chosen to like at 34, but at 20…
Perhaps most notable, to me anyway, are the first appearances of my two favourite bands of the past decade-and-a-half. Most people got into The Fall by hearing John Peel. For me it was the opposite – I wouldn’t be a Peel listener for a couple more years – and that was partly down to The Fall, who I heard on MTV’s Alternative Nation, when they started a show with the video to ‘Touch Sensitive’, as close to a comeback single as they’ve had in their long career. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It would be a year before I started picking up their back catalogue, but ‘Touch Sensitive’ was the perfect introductory single for me – and still my favourite Fall song ever.
I got into my other favourite band in a more bizarre way. My copy of an UNKLE single ‘Be There’ – a song that would have made it on here if I’d remembered to include it at the time – got scratched on the canoe beach at camp, and so I bought a new copy of it on Amazon UK. The CD that I received wasn’t ‘Be There’ at all, but a mysterious album called Secret Name by a band called Low. I’d never heard of them before, but the faff of sending the CD back across the Atlantic was too much for me to be bothered with. I thought it was pleasant enough, but nothing stood out. It was only after getting back home that I discovered that they were about to release a Christmas mini-album, and I heard the lead track ‘Just Like Christmas’ on prime-time Radio 1. I ordered the CD and it’s been a staple of my Christmas listening ever since. And years later, I finally learned to appreciate Secret Name and the rest of their considerable back catalogue.
The last song on my trilogy of 20th-century soundtracks is from the Divine Comedy’s best-of album. ‘Tonight We Fly’ came out originally in 1994 but I included it because… well, it’s my CD and I can do what I want. This brings one memory to mind, and one only: Playing this in the dining hall of Camp Thunderbird, all alone, on my final night as a staff member there before heading home after six months. I was desperate to return for a third summer in 2000, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen. And sure enough, I was about to get a taste that life could sometimes be very unfair.