Robbie Williams, Fiona Apple and Backstreet Boys were among the year's best

By David Browne
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

1 The Ego Has Landed
Album of the Year

Robbie Williams (Capitol) Unless you count (a) the ascent of straight-outta-fraternities white rappers or (b) the augmentation of breasts, 1999 wasn’t much of a year for innovation or breakthroughs. Precious little stood up and announced itself the way Nirvana, Dr. Dre, or Lauryn Hill, to name just a few, did in the past decade. Instead, we had to settle for craft and record-making skills, and in that respect, the past year was a pretty sensational one. Choose Shania or Ricky if you must, but in the realm of pop entertainment, I’ll opt for this British bad boy, whose debut American album (cobbled together from two British releases) is an all-you-can-hum smorgasbord. From Euro-pop truffles (”Millennium,” ”No Regrets”) to rueful pub rock (”Win Some Lose Some,” ”Old Before I Die”) to stadium-friendly ballads (”Angels,” ”Strong”) that would have easily fit onto old, pre-schlock Elton John albums, The Ego Has Landed takes a broad, internationalist view of pop. Starting with its title, it’s hard to recall a more roguishly appealing record this year. And unlike most of his competition for Top 40 radio play, Williams has a genuine rough-edged personality—a last-call-of-the-night feistiness revealed in his hard-bloke’s-night delivery, unrepentant-layabout lyrics (including one of the year’s smartest couplets: ”Every morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the makeup”), and stage persona, which can best be described as a laddie-culture version of James Bond. Williams’ pop rivals may have outsold him in the colonies, but no matter; he’s a true backstreet boy.

2 When The Pawn… Fiona Apple (Clean Slate/Epic) You may guffaw at the audacity of a 90-word album title (sorry, readers, I’m not squandering another 87 here), but there’s nothing laughable about this quantum leap in Apple’s talent. On her second album, the gawky teen waif of 1996 becomes a psychologically embattled chanteuse of 22, self-absorbedly picking over her mental foibles and those of her lover (Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson). Whatever the subject of her songs, Apple is constantly torn between fire-breathing anger and lacerating self-criticism; the album could have been called She Loves Me, She Loves Me Nuts. Yet her gift for melodically gothic songs, her sensually throaty voice, and the snaky, playfully screwy arrangements of producer Jon Brion keep Apple more than on track. When the Pawn… is spellbinding supper-club music for the post-Prozac generation. It doesn’t merely beat the second-album jinx but stares it down with scrutinizing, bugged-out eyes. While many of her Lilith Fair peers wilted on the cultural vine in ’99, Apple emerged as an artist of emotional and musical complexity. She’s nobody’s pawn.

3 ”I Want It That Way” Backstreet Boys (Jive, single) Their Millennium album had such a surfeit of smarmy ooze that its running time felt like a thousand years, but this glistening single was a marvel of seamless song craft and studio polish. And unlike ”Livin’ La Vida Loca,” it sounded better every time it aired on the radio (which was, needless to say, continuously). That hook of a chorus, that amusingly ambiguous refrain (you want it which way?), those intertwining vocal gulps and sighs—finally, here was something that made the all-consuming wimpiness of the boy-band brigade seem noble. The last great pop single of the actual millennium, ”I Want It That Way” compensated for a year’s worth of BSB and Britney Spears clones. Well, almost.