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 ...

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