Despite the triumph of vapid (but danceable!) bubble-gum pop, lolita-tart nymphets and manufactured boy-bands on radio, if you invested the energy to spin the dial or scour the record stores, grownup fans of popular music could still find reasons to be exultant in 1999. The following are ten of my favorites, one surprising also-ran, and the two worst I heard this year.

Buddy Miller, Cruel Moon (Hightone Records) Julie Miller, Broken Things (Hightone Records).

This husband and wife team are quickly becoming the heroes of America's burgeoning alt-country scene, and these two records offered all the reason in the world why. Cruel Moon delivers some of the best twangy, gut-wrenching country playing you'll ever hear—only Buddy offers it with a playful rock and roll underbelly that punches his songs beyond simple front-porch charm into an energy and urgency rarely found on the rhinestone circuit. Buddy explores the classic country themes on Moon (lovin', leavin', bein' left), but never slips into Nashville cliché—rather, he brings a soulfulness, kindness and generosity to his vocals that made me a true believer in the power of country.Julie Miller's seventh album, Broken Things, is an equally good disc, but delivers a less-traditional country sound than her husband's—one that suggests equal parts Appalachia and the Greenwich Village. Julie, who released four records to the Christian market in the early '90s, has a frail, waifish voice that always sounds ready to break, and that's its strength—her power doesn't come from vocal gymnastics or orchestral swells. Rather, Miller's power is in the transparency she brings to the delivery of her exquisitely crafted songs; listening, one gets the sense that even in a whisper you're getting all of her in every sound. Add to that the consistent theme of the reach of grace to the weakest that runs through the entire record, and you've got not only a breathtakingly lovely disc, but an important one as well.

Manic Street Preachers, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (Virgin)

Don't get fooled by the band's name: this Brit-pop trio is not a Christian band. Not even close. What they are is astounding: Truth is the most powerful, complete sounding disc I'd heard since Radiohead's OK Computer, with huge, defiantly produced songs hung together by strong melody, enormous guitars and searing rhythm layered under soaring, unnervingly beautiful singing that is something like Freddie Mercury's, but minus all the sock-in-the-pants bravado. Truth's power, however, transcends its sound. MSP's songs offer as disturbing and bleak a picture of the disintegration of European postmodernity as I can imagine. But don't let that scare you away; for every terrifying morbidity in the lyrics (there are songs about mass murderers, confused sexuality, creeping fascism, longing for redemption and, of course, lost love) there is twice as much musical grace—making the record, in fact, surprisingly transcendent. Easily my favorite record of the year.

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Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitath)

Waits' voice can only be described as the sound of a whiskey-soaked, chainsmoking, grizzled vagrant. Coupled with the stunning, surprising depth of his songwriting and the dizzying complexity of the sounds he creates around them, and his singing takes on a mythic, nearly biblical, quality that at once has the perspective of a back-alley brawl and angelic overseer (a la Wim Wenders). In the gutter Waits discovers kindness and passes it along to us.

Billy Crockett, Simple Plans (Walking Angel Records)

I'll confess to a conflict of interest right away in suggesting this collection inspired by the CCM veteran's work with Habitat for Humanity. But even if I didn't work for the homebuilding ministry, I'd still recommend this disc to anyone who loves finely crafted, clever, and moving songwriting, flawless guitar-playing, and great vocals. Moreover, Crockett's songs take the task of storytelling and theology in equal stride, offering anecdotes and observations that simply and profoundly make a point: if there's grace to be found (or shared) in this life, it will be in the moments when the unlovely are offered love. A great record.

Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista)

Orton's second solo disc, Central Reservation (Arista), is a postmodern triumph. The English songwriter has found a way to blend traditional folk-pop song structures with a production that borrows from techno, electronica, and "jungle" schools of dance music, all without losing that sedate, coffee-house vibe. Orton's sweet husk of a voice, her decidedly off-the-beaten-track look at the world, and a huge dose of attitude result in a haunting, penetrating, somber record that once you let in, won't go away. My wife listened the first time and said simply, "This is a record I want to get to know." Me too.

Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt, Western Wall/The Tucson Sessions (Asylum)

Two of the best voices of the last 30 years in pop music unite for a collection that covers of some of the best songwriters working today (including Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen). The disc is notable not only for Harris' and Ronstadt's near-perfect singing (there is something truly heavenly at work in their version of Sinead O'Connor's "This Is To Mother You") or their continued preoccupation with things spiritual (their cover of Cash's title track offers a stunning confession of spiritual need and yearning) but also for their daring production choices. Western Wall is a genuine "alternative" record, proving that both of these 50-something women could teach the kids a thing or two about "cutting edge."

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Moby, Play (V2)

Who'd a thunk it? A self-proclaimed vegan/environmentalist/Christian/porn-loving/techno-dance guru makes a decidedly modern record of disc of old blues and gospel songs and it turns out to be the most unified, compelling, and genuinely uplifting disc of the year? Who says chaos can't make order?

Bruce Cockburn, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (TrueNorth/Rykodisc)

After 30 years you'd expect something stale from this Canadian Christian social activist and songwriter. But no, Cockburn keeps creating literate, stunningly musical, and disarmingly intimate music that manages to fire passion—for lovemaking, peacemaking and tableturning. While Breakfast won't have a radio hit (the songs are looong) it sheer melodicism will grow on you with each listen.

Lone Justice, This World is Not My Home (Geffen)

When metalhead hair bands ruled the rock scene, Lone Justice, fronted by the lovely and dynamic Maria McKee, was the great hope for 1980s fans of real rock and roll. Emerging from the fringes of the Sunset Strip street scene, McKee et. al forged a sound that morphed the brash energy of punk with the soaring melodies of folk and country and a streetwise faith that was more restless in church than it was in a tavern, all seared together by the perfect heat of Maria's Janice Joplin meets Dolly Parton vocals. This year, a full 15 years after this band's first record barreled onto our turntables, this CD collection gives us the best of Lone Justice's two albums, and a few live tracks, one new cut, and enough pure energy to make me turn my stereo up too loud for the first time in years.

The Ragamuffins, Prayers of a Ragamuffin (Myrrh)

The individual members of The Ragamuffins had critically acclaimed solo careers and bands for most of the '90s, but it was in coming together to support and serve their friend, the late Rich Mullins, first as his band and then as his legacy, that this quartet found its stride. If the Rags' first post-Mullins disc, last year's The Jesus Record, set the bar for thoughtful, passionate, intimate and compelling Christian pop music, this followup, released the last week of the decade, meets or exceeds it on every level. The songs on Prayers include huge, radio-friendly ballads, rollicking singalongs, and telling, introspective and arty folk-rock, all of which offer a starkly biblical—and subversive—response to the health/wealth triumphalism that masquerades as Christian pop culture in America.

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Jars of Clay, If I Left the Zoo (Essential)

I was one of the few Christian critics who admitted to abject boredom in the face of Jars' meteoric rise to superstardom, so I feel compelled to acknowledge that in Zoo, the boys have found a genuinely interesting, perhaps even exciting sound. The reinvigorated Jars are just as pious as on their first two discs, but this time they offer a Sgt. Peppers-heavy sound that suggests a future in music, not just in church.

The Worst of 1999:

The McCaughey Septuplets,Sweet Dreams (Word)

I didn't listen to the whole thing, and the songs weren't horrible—certainly they were no worse than most other schlocky CCM. But the unmitigated shamelessness in selling this product (the press preview came with a baby's ribbon) makes this far and away the worst record of the year.

Gary Chapman, "Daddy Cut My Hair," from the album Outside (Reunion)

Some songs are sentimental old fools, and some songs take sentimentalists for fools. A song that makes "Butterfly Kisses" seem streetwise, "Daddy Cut My Hair" is definitely in the latter category. The song tells the story of a boy growing up to be cared for by, then hate, then reconcile, then care for his father in old age (and eventually cut his hair). It is far too typical of Christian music's failsafe sentimentality. Fundamentally cynical, this song doesn't trust its listeners, their experiences, or their emotions, and so rather than evoke genuine feeling from them, it manufactures it for them, and leaves them no choice how to feel, react or think. Too bad, too, from an artist whose previous records have been as raw and real as polished pop allows.

Dwight Ozard is music critic forPrism magazine and Director of Public Affairs for Habitat for Humanity.

Related Elsewhere

For a second opinion, read today's other article on the top recordings of 1999, by Campus Life magazine's Martin Cockroft.