Sounds of '99: Veritable Turkey Feast

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

In the year's best-selling single, Cher asks, "Do you believe in life after love?"

After the lows of the year's commercial pop scene, discriminating music fans may be asking themselves a variation of the same question: Do you believe . . . we've had to listen to so many heartless hits?

The singles were so bad during the first six months of 1999 that I drafted a midyear Bottom 10 list last July instead of the usual Top 10.

It was meant to be a sarcastic, one-time attempt to underscore the woeful nature of commercial pop these days. I had every intention of bouncing back with good news on Christmas Day--the traditional Top 10. I figured the first six months' dreariness was simply a down cycle and that some quality hits would surely materialize during the second half of the year.

Do you believe . . . that things didn't get any better?

To dramatize the weakness of this year's hits, I've put together a Bottom 20 list--and, trust me, it wasn't hard to come up with 10 more duds.

Country superstar Garth Brooks made a pop-rock album so hollow that it's no wonder he put it out under a different name: Chris Gaines.

The irony is that Brooks gave that fictional character a Prince-like look in his publicity photos, and everyone knows that the once magical Prince himself has been putting out inferior work under a different name for years. As the Artist, he gave us another disappointing track this year: "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold."

There were a few 1999 singles worthy of being on a Top 10 list, including TLC's "No Scrubs," Rage Against the Machine's "Guerrilla Radio" and Eminem's "My Name Is."

But they were largely drowned out by an endless parade of songs as calculated as Cher's "Believe" or Brooks' "Lost in You" or Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of . . . )."

One reason there is so little character in the year's hits is that producers are designing records with few goals other than to catch the ear of radio programmers who are looking for novelty or ear-candy tunes.

In today's commercial pop, the artists seem almost interchangeable. Does it really matter whether Christina Aguilera or Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears or Mandy Moore or--why not?--Ally McBeal recorded "Genie in a Bottle"? The record was the creation of producers David Frank and Steve Kipner.

Ultimately, radio programmers say they are simply playing the music their audience wants to hear in a marketplace dominated by teens.

But teen domination of Top 40 radio isn't new. The difference is that they once responded to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Now, they are settling for Britney and the Backstreet Boys.

Here is the year's Bottom 20:

1. Cher's "Believe" (Warner Bros.). "Believe"--which topped the midyear Bottom 10--was such an annoying exercise in recycled disco self-resolve that it held on to its No. 1 position despite the arrival of some truly dreadful singles in the second half of the year. One reason: The worst elements of "Believe" were repeated in Cher's follow-up single, "Strong Enough." Both records are shameless attempts at recapturing the glory of Gloria Gaynor's 1978 gem "I Will Survive." Together, "Believe" and "Strong Enough" spent some 10 months in the Top 100. Producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling worked on both tracks.

2. Chris Gaines' "Lost in You" (Capitol). This ballad was part Babyface and part Eagles, but mostly just a bad idea, like all of Brooks' "In the Life of . . . Chris Gaines" album. Like so many of today's recordings, the whole album was an exercise in trying to sculpt hits by approximating the sound of hit styles. It's particularly sad in Brooks' case because he built his star power on singing such character-filled songs as "The Dance" and "Unanswered Prayers" with unflinching sincerity. There's no trace of that sincerity in this record. Producer: Don Was.

3. The Artist's "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" (NPG/Arista). There was a time when Prince would make better records than this on his worst day. It now seems all he is capable of on his best day. For years he told us the only thing that was holding him back creatively was a restrictive Warner Bros. record contract. What's the excuse now? Producer: Prince.

4. Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" (RCA). She may have a 50-octave vocal range or whatever, but that doesn't mean she knows what to do with it. Time will tell. Meanwhile, please, Genie, make this record go away. Producers: Steve Kipner and David Frank.

5. 98 Degrees' "The Hardest Thing" (Motown). I said it before, but it still applies. The hardest thing about this sappy love song is listening to it all the way through. A second appearance on the list for producers Steve Kipner and David Frank, and not the last for 98 Degrees. Happy New Year, guys.

6. Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of . . . )" (RCA). Too much Monica. Too much Erica. Too much Rita. Not enough mambo. Producer: Bega, Frank Lio, D. Fact, Zippy and Goar B.

7. Jennifer Lopez's "If You Had My Love" (The Work Group). So how did the actress do in the role of a pop singer? She stepped into a prefab track about as well as, oh, 175,000 other singers might have done if they had hotshot producer Rodney Jerkins at their side. Producer: Jerkins.

9. Faith Hill's "Breathe" (Warner Bros.). Just when you had Hill pegged as a nondescript country singer, she proves in this Shania-minded crossover bid that she's also a nondescript pop singer. And where have we heard this chorus before? Producers: Byron Gallimore and Hill.

10. 98 Degrees' "I Do (Cherish You)" (Motown). There's something intriguing about this record. Is the noise that you hear every five seconds finger-snapping or a flaw in the disc? Producer: Keith Thomas.

11. Jessica Simpson's "I Wanna Love You Forever" (Columbia). Here's another teen star with a 50-octave range or whatever, but who . . . well, just see Aguilera. Producers: Louis Biancaniello and Sam Watters.

12. Celine Dion's "That's the Way It Is" (Epic). The good thing about this track, which was co-produced and co-written by Backstreet Boys/Britney Spears collaborator Max Martin, is that Dion steps away from her usual pop melodrama. The bad thing is that she's left with no emotional center at all. She should have left the song to Britney and the Boys. Producers: Martin and Kristian Lundin.

13. Mariah Carey featuring Joe and 98 Degrees' "Thank God I Found You" (Columbia). Gee, do you think it's the artistic challenge that makes Dion and Carey team up with Martin and 98 Degrees, respectively, or do you think it's just blind commercial ambition? It's precisely the thinking that makes pop seem so calculated today. Whatever, the overwrought ballad is all but unlistenable. Producers: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

14. Puff Daddy featuring R. Kelly's "Satisfy You" (Bad Boy). It took eight people to write this song, so you'd think at least one of them might have called time out at some point and asked, "Are you sure this is worth finishing?" Producer: Puff Daddy and Jeffrey Walker.

15. Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" (Columbia). This dropped from No. 9 on the midyear list because Martin proved to be such a winning presence on stage. That doesn't mean the song's anything more than an exercise in synthetic emotion. Producers: Desmond Child and Robi Rosa.

And finally, 16-20: Tim McGraw's cliched "Please Remember Me," Will Smith's punch-less "Wild Wild West," Orgy's pointless remake of New Order's "Blue Monday," Savage Garden's anonymous "I Knew I Loved You" and Lenny Kravitz's ham-fisted "American Woman."

Robert Hilburn can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes. com.

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