rage against the machine - the battle of los angeles (album cover)Make Yourself, in one of the greatest coincidences on my list, was released one week before my number two pick, Rage Against the Machine‘s The Battle of Los Angeles, on October 26, 1999. The Battle of Los Angeles was Rage’s final album, and it opened at number one, selling 420,000 copies in its first week en route to going double platinum. Make Yourself, on the other hand, was Incubus‘ breakthrough — it also went double platinum — but it managed to do so by peaking only at number 47. I can remember hearing “Pardon Me” in the fall of 1999 and not being all that impressed by it, and I don’t really have any other memories of Incubus — though “Pardon Me” was still in heavy rotation on the radio — until the following summer, when their video of “Stellar” appeared on MTV’s TRL.

green day - warning (album cover)I can vividly remember downloading it on the original Napster and listening to it over and over on my terrible computer speakers. I don’t really recall how many songs I downloaded on Napster, but it wasn’t many. My Internet connection was so slow that, frankly, it was a pain in the ass. Napster may have been subsequently shut down due to its rather ruthless promotion of piracy, but in the case of me buying Make Yourself, my favorite album of all time, I actually credit Napster with letting me enjoy “Stellar” to a large enough degree that I eventually opted to buy the CD. I can still remember being at Best Buy in the fall of 2000, trying to decide whether I wanted to buy Make Yourself or Green Day’s Warning. Well, I bought Make Yourself.

My perspective of music changed completely when I bought this album. Nothing I had listened to before had the elevated sense of space offered here. (I would later find out the proper term is “dynamics.”) Furthermore, the presence of a turntablist (DJ Kilmore) gave the music an odd and unique character. I think hip-hop has played a larger role in the music I listen to than I realized until quite recently, since both Incubus and Rage Against the Machine are fundamentally rock bands but both feature a hip-hop component or two. Alternative rock and hip-hop, it should be noted, are both largely generational strands of the music narrative that matured around the same time (1983 and 1984, respectively), peaked in quality around the same time (late ’80s and early ’90s), and fell into a steep decline around the same time (the late ’90s).

red hot chili peppers - californication (album cover)Incubus and Rage Against the Machine are, to my knowledge, two of the only bands that have effectively stitched together those two strands of music. Unfortunately, Rage broke up in 2000 — around the time I bought Make Yourself, incidentally. I guess there was a passing of the baton there. And by 1999, it really was time for something new in alternative rock. The Alternative Nation, a beacon which shone incredibly brightly throughout the first half of the decade, had long since faded. In fact, alternative music just got dark and ugly, for the most part, with the pathetic nü metal movement. But there were signs of light in the gathering darkness. The Red Hot Chili Peppers came storming back from the abyss with Californication, which sold some 16 million copies worldwide.

foo fighters - there is nothing left to lose (album cover)Dave Grohl kept plugging away with the Foo FightersThere Is Nothing Left to Lose, and Pearl Jam finally stopped hemorrhaging drummers by bringing former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron into the band and releasing Binaural in 2000. The old guard had finally found comfort in middle age — the spotlight was no longer on them. Other bands like Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 were actually much more popular than the Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters — and kids identified with them more — at the turn of the century, at least in the short term. I suppose a discussion of 1999 in alternative rock wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Creed, who emerged with their by all accounts — I haven’t actually listened to it — ho-hum album Human Clay as post-grunge superstars, selling a staggering 11 million copies of it in the United States alone.

incubus - pardon me (single cover)Creed, like Limp Bizkit, was beloved by many for a brief period and now, like Limp Bizkit, is hated by most of those very same people. Funny how that works. This was all a long time ago now — in fact, it feels like a lifetime ago, since I was just a kid — and the dust has long since settled. But at the time, the kids — I was one of them — were actually going crazy for the Korns and Limp Bizkits of the world. (Creed, not so much. I couldn’t stand them even back then.) One band everyone was decidedly not going crazy for was Incubus, at least not back in ’99. Korn and especially Limp Bizkit had huge followings — though many of their “fans” would drop them for the next “latest thing” before too long — but Incubus was new, and Make Yourself‘s lead single “Pardon Me” didn’t exactly turn everyone’s heads.

Seriously, it didn’t. It’s still played all the time on alternative rock radio today but no one gave a damn about Incubus at the time, including me. “Pardon Me” was just kind of there, and for quite a while, at that. And in all seriousness, it’s not a stretch to call Incubus the only good new band that emerged during this period in mainstream alternative rock. As I mentioned earlier, the Alternative Nation had faded, but the mainstream alternative scene definitely still mattered. There was music that got played on the radio and MTV, and then there was the underground, with nothing in between. And Incubus was one of the definitive alternative bands of the ’00s, particularly in the first half. I think even back then there was a sense that music was fading to irrelevance, but Incubus actually meant something to a lot of people my age. They were a genuine artistic force in a pop scene that had grown quite sterile. One of my favorite things about Incubus is that they have never been considered grunge or post-grunge; they were something new, but were still alternative, an admirable feat in a genre in decline.

limp bizkit - break stuff (single cover)The members of Incubus hail from the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas a few miles to the northwest, far away from the doom and gloom of the grunge capital of Seattle. In the summer of 1999, another Woodstock was held for no apparent reason, and it was a complete disaster. (To those who disagree: the 35th and 40th anniversaries of the original festival have come and gone without another attempt at recreating it à la 1994 and 1999.) I think it’s clear when you look back at that particular event that music just wasn’t in a good place back then. There was a lot of anger, but it wasn’t channeled into the kind of inspirational protest we saw during the Vietnam War. No, this anger and rage was directed entirely inward — and for no apparent reason. (Remember “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit? “Last Resort” by Papa Roach? “Freak on a Leash” by Korn? Ugh.) Imagine having to release an album when you have to compete with clowns like Limp Bizkit for air time.

On the surface, Make Yourself might seem like it shares many of the same characteristics as a typical nü metal album. After all, “Pardon Me” was chosen as the lead single because, sonically and lyrically, it fit the mood of late ’99 best — the guitars roar; the lyrics are about spontaneous human combustion, of all things. At first glance, the lyrics to the chorus — “Pardon me while I burst / Into flames / I’ve had enough of the world / And its people’s mindless games” — almost literally suggest an identical “fuck the world” mentality prevalent in late-’90s alternative rock, but upon closer inspection, not everything is quite as it appears. For one thing, that’s just the first half of the chorus. The second half — “So pardon me while I burn / And rise above the flame / Pardon me, pardon me / I’ll never be the same” — paints a clearer picture of vocalist/lyricist Brandon Boyd‘s intentions. The phrase “and rise above the flame” is key, since it indicates creation — merely self-immolating isn’t the goal. Rather, it’s a means to an end. Rising from the ashes like a phoenix, as something new — “I’ll never be the same” — and as something that’s entirely on your terms, is really something that’s pretty universal, even if it’s presented in a somewhat oblique way.

incubus - drive (single cover)I think that’s why “Pardon Me” has been a lasting hit; unlike the content typically characteristic of nü metal and turn-of-the-century alt-rock, it’s not really about self-destruction at all. “Pardon Me” makes even more sense within the context of the album, in which self-creation is the prevailing theme. Incubus are quite versatile throughout Make Yourself, with many types of songs coming to the fore: “Stellar” is probingly romantic, “I Miss You” is a spacy 12/8 ballad, while the title track and the dogmatic closer “Out from Under” roar defiantly at crushing volumes and are frightening in their intensity. It’s no accident that the album’s most forceful moment — the closing seconds of the title track — is directly followed by the acoustic dazzler “Drive,” which instantly washes away the lingering intensity. Likewise, the surging call to action “Out from Under” ends the album on such a profound (and bewildering) note that the ensuing silence has its own effect.

nirvana - nevermind (album cover)After a number of listens, it becomes obvious these guys really know what they are doing. The only track that doesn’t benefit from the masterful ebb-and-flow sequencing is the first song, “Privilege.” But that’s actually a good thing — that crunchy opening riff, to steal a line from Bull Durham, announces the album’s presence with authority. The rest of the album comes and goes in waves. Nirvana‘s second album Nevermind established an oft-copied loud/quiet dynamic, and Incubus is guilty of some borrowing there, for sure — the “Privilege” riff is vaguely reminiscent of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” as well — but Nirvana tended to stop and start when transitioning from verse to chorus. Incubus, however, introduced remarkably fluid transitions on Make Yourself, both within the songs themselves and in the aforementioned ebb-and-flow track listing.

Of course, some would say Incubus, if anything, get too loose on Make Yourself. Whenever I have introduced the album to someone, they have always said the same thing to me after giving it a listen: “I fucking hated track ten.” I have to admit, when I first bought this album, I didn’t like it either. When I was younger, I thought “Battlestar Scralatchtica” was a complete waste of a track, since it’s an instrumental jam. But now I view it as integral to the album — it ties into the ebb-and-flow concept; it’s Incubus at low tide. The next track, “I Miss You” brings the tide in some. With “Pardon Me,” the waves crash ashore. “Out from Under” is a final push, like a hurricane storm surge. I have always considered Make Yourself to be its own kind of protest album, but in an internal way, and in a manner I have never really come across before. The focus of late-’90s rock music was, for the most part, deconstruction and violent self-destruction. Make Yourself still operates within those internal parameters, using that same language, but the emphasis instead is on reconstruction. And it makes all the difference.

incubus - a crow left of the murder... (album cover)Incubus would get a lot more political and pick external targets with A Crow Left of the Murder… in 2004, but that kind of a record wouldn’t have made sense in ’99. The mainstream music scene — particularly the rock crowd — would have had no use for it. (Hell, the mainstream music scene didn’t have any use for Crow in 2004, come to think of it.) I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the popularity of nü metal (and I was actually there). Angry rock was definitely “in” throughout the ’90s, but the nü metal movement spawned by Korn in the mid to late ’90s bore little resemblance to the grunge movement from the early ’90s.

According to this interview with Brandon Boyd I came across recently, he doesn’t get it either:

The [label] that always comes back to haunt us is the nu-metal one. I’ve always found it to be shameful. I find that whole period of music, in the grand scheme of the evolution of rock & roll, to be a dark period. It actually hurts that we get associated with that. And even if we did unintentionally have something to do with it at its inception, I kind of despise it. I never really listen to that kind of music. I don’t listen to that kind of music.

In 1999, times were very confusing, especially for someone coming of age. Almost nothing in pop culture had any political value. That’s just the way it was: kids didn’t care about weighty issues. This wasn’t the era of Eddie Vedder writing “pro-choice” on his arm at the conclusion of Pearl Jam’s appearance on MTV Unplugged. Artistically awful content had been pushed to the boundaries of what could be consumed on a large scale, at least in terms of the profit yields the record companies wanted. What I mean by that is, 1999 was one of the last years music consumers bought whatever they were told to buy. MTV’s show TRL, which showed the ten most popular music videos as voted by American teens, showed mostly teen pop, which only appealed to girls, and nü metal, which largely appealed to boys.

incubus - stellar (single cover)There wasn’t much in between, unfortunately. And it was very hard to make sense of music when that was all we were being presented with. (I was listening to alternative rock radio at the time, as well, but it was playing a lot of the same nü metal artists like Limp Bizkit and Korn. I still had very little perspective on music.) But then, in the summer of 2000, Incubus’ video for “Stellar” appeared on the TRL countdown. And although it was frequently compared to the rest of the rock on the show, I knew this song was different — there was a much stronger melody — and I wanted more. Eventually I bought Make Yourself, and I can still remember sitting down in my parents’ basement and listening through it for the first time. I couldn’t believe the force of it, but I was equally — perhaps more, actually — stunned by the sense of space. I had never encountered such an incredible use of dynamics before.

incubus - s.c.i.e.n.c.e. (album cover)I listened to that orange CD over and over, and before long I was back at Best Buy, looking at what else I could buy from this band. They had two older LPs: S.C.I.E.N.C.E., Incubus’ major-label debut from 1997, and Fungus Amongus, a reissue of an independently released collection of demos from 1995. I haven’t listened to Fungus Amongus in probably more than ten years now — I don’t even have the tracks in my iTunes library, though I have kept the CD after all these years. As far as albums from high-school-age bands go, it’s okay, but it’s not worth listening to unless you’re a die-hard fan and are interested in hearing what Incubus sounded like in 1995. As for S.C.I.E.N.C.E., it has become something of a cult classic. Incubus fans who are into their harder material actually tend to prefer this album, but I have always just viewed it as a decent debut that isn’t nearly as good as Make Yourself. (Though “Summer Romance” is one of my all-time favorite Incubus songs.)

incubus - morning view (album cover)I was having fun listening to these three albums, thinking I had this band all to myself — a couple people I knew had bought Make Yourself, but none had investigated S.C.I.E.N.C.E. or Fungus Amongus — and then “Drive” hit the airwaves. And that song was everywhere — I still hear it in grocery stores — and suddenly the band appealed to a lot more people; “Drive” charted in the top ten and helped push Make Yourself past the double-platinum mark. Incubus’ follow-up to Make Yourself, 2001‘s Morning View, was even more popular than its predecessor, and the lead single “Wish You Were Here” has become one of the band’s signature songs. Most people who listened to Incubus back in the day discovered them through “Drive” or “Wish You Were Here,” and in my conversations with other Incubus fans, I have found that most cite Morning View as their favorite Incubus album. Not me, though. Make Yourself became my favorite album of all time the day I bought it, and nothing has taken its place since.