All the time, use it myself thank you very much. Works great. And remember, that doesn't invalidate the content or usefullness of the site that is ranking.
I personally prefer to have a stable of high quality sites to give myself backlinks from but there's a variety of things you can do:
- lots of crap sites as you've described. I haven't personally seen this in a long time, but I'm not surprised.
- build out related but different sites in the niche and drive backlinks to them, get them hosted etc distinctly. Makes for valid backlinks and as long as Google can't connect the dots they should look good. I've got a widget site in my niche and a forum in my niche. Both are great sites on their own. I give myself links from them.
- buy dropped domains in your niche, rebuild them somewhere else. Maybe even let sit somewhere with content on them for six months or a year. I've actually got a whole bunch of pr4-6 websites with content on them that were dropped a couple of years ago. Today they're not dropped sites, they're pr4-6 2 year old sites.
- buy existing dormant websites. Go looking for dormant websites in your niche, offer them some small amount, see if they bite. If they do, leave the site as about untouched as you can and then drop yourself a link.
Final option is to watch your competitors beating you and do nothing about it.
Also, I disagree mostly with your thought that Google is trying to get rid of these types of spam links. All the evidence points to the contrary. They're rewarding them more than ever. We can complain, or we can learn (I personally like to do both). If generating your own backlinks works, then do it smarter than your competitors.