Welcome to the next installment of my excavation of the 2000s, a musical “lost decade” for me. The Intro and Part I (with the first five albums) can be found here and here, but to briefly recap, I scrolled through a cross section of nine reputable and varied “best of the decade” lists, and compiled a list of those albums that got mentioned as “top 25” in at least three places. After eliminating ones I already had, or knew wouldn’t work for me (sorry, Radiohead, Strokes, Coldplay), I was left with 20 albums from 2000-2009 that I never got around to and (according to my sources) deserved a listen.
Part I covered the first five, highlighted in blue here. Today we’re doing the next five, in yellow. All reviews were written live upon listening to the album for the very first time. And with that, we’re off!
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (3)
Arcade Fire, “Funeral” (7)
Beck, “Sea Change” (5)
Daft Punk, “Discovery” (4)
D’Angelo, “Voodoo” (3)
Eminem, “Marshall Mathers LP” (3)
Interpol, “Turn on the Bright Lights” (4)
Jay-Z, “The Blueprint” (6)
Kayne West, “Late Registration” (4)
LCD Soundystem, “Sound of Silver” (6)
Madvillian, “Madvilliany” (3)
MIA, “Arular” (3)
MIA, “Kala” (4)
Outkast, “Stankonia” (6)
Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (3)
Spoon, “Kill the Moonlight” (3)
Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (3)
The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (3)
TV on the Radio, “Return to Cookie Mountain” (3)
Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (8)
Eminem, “The Marshall Mathers LP” (2000, 3 votes)
Eminem is one of those people who I always enjoy when I run across their work, but have never actually gone the next step to getting an album. Until now, I guess. And already, after the opening PSA informing me that Slim Shady does not give a fuck what I think, and the dense menacing kick-off of “Kill You” I’m glad I did. It’s pretty great, how this rant is simultaneously frightening and yet frightened, in the character of Slim Shady and yet questioning that character, and then ending with “I’m just kidding.” Then “Stan”, which I was already familiar with, and remains one of the most chilling things ever committed to record (yes, in my mind, music is still committed to record). I mean damn, an artist writing a song in the voice of an obsessed fan who takes that artist’s violent imagery seriously, over a remixed bed of Dido. Dude, doesn’t do black music, doesn’t do white music, does fight music! In fact, the whole thing is full of the braggadocio, swagger and threat of hip-hop at its best, but full of an anxiety about the effect of that projection that is half genuine and half self-justification. Which is track seven, “The Way I Am” to a T. “The Real Slim Shady”, track eight, is bringing back one of my favorite Grammy memories, when he performed this as like, a hundred Eminem look-a-likes with microphones flooded the auditorium. One of the best moments to every happen in that mausoleum of musical mediocrity. “Remember Me”, track nine, even seems to be sampling horror movie voices, as if there wasn’t enough menace in its rant already. And on track eleven, “Marshall Mathers”, is the mask slipping, revealing the real guy behind Slim Shady, with all his insecurities? Or is it in itself a construction, a put on? Something that can even bring up these questions makes me happy. And the reason this track works, the whole album works, in fact, is because there’s clever musical mixing and vocal delivery behind it all, giving us a layer of entertaining to go along with the heavy and occasionally vile contents. I’m digging on “Drug Ballad” too, which is equal parts celebratory and cautionary on drugs. In other words, what an actual addict’s mind sounds like once the doubt has begun to creep in. And how am I not going to love a horror rap whose tag line is “Mentally ill from Amityville”? Ah, and now “B**** Please II” gives us the two sons of Dre together, Snoop and Eminem. Nice. Then “Kim”, a fantasy of kidnapping his ex in front of his baby daughter and driving her off to kill her that may be one of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard in popular music. Okay, by track seventeen the “suck my dick if you don’t like it” is getting a bit old. But I think it’s a testament to artistry that an hour+ of resentment and boasting doesn’t wear thin sooner. And the last track, “Criminal” dives right in to the am I serious/am I not, I’m a criminal/I’m just kidding. Overall, definitely a keeper.
Interpol, “Turn On The Bright Lights” (2002, 4 votes)
(Full disclosure: on review, my iPod seems to have put these tracks on shuffle rather than playing the album in order. My apologies to readers, and Interpol, if this affected my ability to discern artistic intent.)
While I’ve been painstaking in not reading about these albums beforehand so as not to prejudice my reviews, I was aware of Interpol by general reputation. You know, Second Coming of Joy Division and all that. Which immediately begs the question: isn’t the First Coming enough? Nevertheless, I’ll try to deliver a fair assessment here. First off: “untitled”. Actually kind of soft and gauzy, doesn’t remind me of Joy Division as much as soft-boiled Coldplay. “Obstacle 1” isn’t bad, with some driving rock sound, and vocals that remind me of, of all things, the Killers. Also not sure of the significance of this, but this song is talking about what “She” did, whereas I think JD is usually more personal, talking about what “You” did to “Me”. Track three has more of the shimmery Coldplay B.S., but with a driving beat and the vocals hitting a peak of bitterness and resignation that pulls it out. Apparently, as the song would have it, “Stella was a Diver and she was always down”, man I really am digging this one. “Roland” is much more in Joy Division mode, so I see what people mean. But it also has a strong layer of, well I don’t know what else to call it- 2000s indie rock in its New Wave infatuation subset- sound to it. I wonder if this album was more like chicken or egg to that phenomenon? Given the 2002 release date, I’m betting on its being causal rather than following, and that alone is noteworthy. “NYC” is a better post-9/11 New York elegy than the Strokes, I think. Ah, and this is where the album title comes from too. Well, so far I can say I don’t hate it. It won’t get you listening as closely as the Beck, the best Hip-hop albums from this list, etc. But it doesn’t grate in mediocrity either. I think it might be like Daft Punk’s album- a good fit for a mood, and going down smoothly when you’re in that mood. I do want to know more about the 200 couches where we can sleep tonight in “PDA”. Another thing about this album that’s coming out strongly in “Say Hello To The Angels” is that, in contrast to the studied grimness of the lyrics and vocals, the music can be rather poppy and is informed by some of the bounciness of New Wave. New tag line: at its finest, there are moments on this album, like Leif Erickson” that are wonderfully disquieting. For the most part, though, it feels more deliberately produced and less emotionally genuine, and ends up in a kind of “nice background music that nobody could object to” Coldplay territory. In my developing rating nomenclature, I would call this a Good/Good-. And the fact that so many critics thought this was a superb album? Well, compared to the masses of dreck that they have to listen to, it surely is. But compared to the truly sterling?
Jay-Z, “The Blueprint” (2001, 6 votes)
Hip-hop is a particularly blank spot for me in the 2000s. I’m a big fan of the 1985-1995 “Golden Age”, but after that my knowledge drops off rapidly. And Jay-Z is a blank spot for me within 2000s hip-hop- I know the kids I was in rehab with at the end of 2006 loved him, but that’s about it. So I’m looking forward to this review increasing my knowledge, if nothing else. First impressions? You’ve gotta like an album that starts off thanking you for your purchase, which track one “The Ruler’s Back” does. Also nice use of musical sampling, what sounds like some soundtrack selections and a classic soul riff in there too. Seriously, track two “Takeover” is sampling the Doors? Love it! Nice strong beat too, almost reminds me of the metallic beats I so loved from 80s hip-hop a-la Run-DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J’s first album, etc. I can certainly hear Kanye West’s production influence here, and the things I really like about his first album I also like about this- clever use of sampling, variations of tempo and pacing that avoids the droning sound badly produced hip-hop can get in to, the braggadocio backed up by intelligent lyrics. “Girls, Girls, Girls” for example, is the kind of cock-boasting you might expect, but with such great soul-sampled hooks and funny twists of phrase that it gets away with it. This album definitely does the obsession with feuding with other big rap names and super-materialist trip that I don’t especially dig about East Coast rap, but it’s so far pretty free from gangster bullshit, which is nice. Oh, well it was until track six- “You Don’t Know”, which could be seen as critical commentary of inner city life, but is on the edge of celebrating it too. Damn do I love it musically, though! And Hola’ Hovito is getting points from me for the Hispanic call-outs. Track eight, “Heart of the City” is a beautiful thing to behold, too, at once existing in, and criticizing, the trash-talk between hip-hop artists. Track nine, “Never Change” is a nice mellow slow jam, and is also making realize that one thing I haven’t been for one second so far in this album is bored. Also, as I listen more closely, I’m realizing it’s a mellow slow groove about carrying guns and living a life of crime because, hey, I’ll never change. Hmmmm. Then “Song Cry” is a breakup song that understands how the woman wants out, while still calling her “the bitch”. Oh hip-hop… I don’t imagine he gets away with that with Beyonce these days. So far I’d say I’m 110% with this album in terms of music and production, and 75% with it in terms of lyrics and intention. That’s still 92.5% on average, so there you go. Certainly digging the Emminem guest appearance on “Renegade”. And then there’s the last track, “Blueprint”, where all the boasting and self-promotion just evaporates and is replaced by a heartfelt tribute to his family. Mighty fine way to finish.
Kanye West, “Late Registration” (2005, 4 votes)
Given how much I loved, loved, motherfuckin’ LOVED “The College Dropout”, I’m expecting to get along well with this album. And indeed, I’m loving the lead-in “Wake Up Mr. West” with the blow-hard Professor/Dean type from the skit going immediately into the explosive beat of “Heard ‘Em Say”, which then fades into a slow R&B grove with keyboard sounds tinkling in the background. Also nice to hear on “Touch The Sky” the standard hip-hop “I made it/I’m on top of the world” trope delivered with heavy helpings of gratitude and wonder. And a good time party vibe! And then “Gold Digger”, which I knew, but didn’t know was on this album. Nice little misogynist ditty. Or is it? That’s the beauty of delivering a criticism of women behaving badly- is that pro or anti-woman? Both at the same time? And if it comes with this groovy a beat, how can you not bop your head along to it? As with his last album, the mix of braggadocio and vulnerable self-revelation, smooth flow, unapologetically intelligent wordplay and clever musical remixing of everything in the soul tool-bag just works. Boy do I miss this Kanye, versus the arrogant braggart we have now. Damn, “Crack Music” is like gangster rap turned inside out, drawing all the connections between the street drugs and the social and political setting that puts them there, and touting music as the community’s counter-attack. Then “Roses”, a heartfelt song about his grandmother in the hospital that rolls up into a scathing attack of the social-economic setting of unequal healthcare, and comes back down into the personal pain again. Seriously, hardly anybody in the last decade in any musical genre was able to tell lyrical stories that tackle as many issues, personal and political, while still ringing true. I’m proud that he’s my cousin. I mean, we haven’t traced out the family tree yet, I’ve always just assumed based on the name. And “Addiction”, damn. He gets it, that pursuing money, girls and weed is all about the same thing. And then mixing “Diamonds Are Forever” into a song about Blood Diamonds from Sierra Leone and linking that back to urban bling and his own complicity. They should have just named the whole decade after him. Also, it’s kind of nice to see him take out a whole track “Hey Mama” to talk about how much he loves his mother. I mean, who gets away with that? Hip-hop and Country, those are the only genres you can do that in. I’m really liking the “broke Fraternity” skit running between tracks too. Okay, nearing the end now, track 19 of 21. About the only thing critical I can say about this album is that it lacks some of the truly soaring moments of his debut, like “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”. But considering that it’s not uncommon for a sophomore album to suck ass, saying that this one isn’t quite as awesome as its predecessor, well, that still puts him ahead of, oh, I don’t know- MOST EVERYTHING ELSE THAT CAME OUT THAT DECADE.
LCD Soundsystem, “Sound of SIlver” (2007, 6 votes)
In my mind, one of the biggest sins any song can commit is a slow start. Sometimes, if you’re engaged in some very atmospheric arty Pink Floyd or Deathcab for Cutie type-shit, I’ll allow it. But otherwise no. For Electronica, which already threatens to be boring by its very nature, this is a double-sin. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that track one on this album, “Get Innocuous!” is off to a very fine start. Immediately set in with the beat, developed some Bowiesque vocals later on, and is ending with a background refrain and break that reminds me of early 80s hip-hop. And some honest to goodness laser sound effects toward the end. So far, these cats are earning their reputation as the Electronica outfit that a rock fan can still love. Track two, “Time to Get Away” is starting with some nice fat 80s beats, and is kind of reminding me of a lost Prince song circa “1999”. Now on to “North American Scum”, which wins my sympathies on title alone. Ha, the whole thing is them trying to convince us they’re North American, not English. Love it! Not least of which because, in form and refrain, this is a rock song, handclaps and all. They’ve got the early 80s synthesizers out for track four “Someone Great”, and bless their furry souls for it. This really could be something lost in time from the American half of synth-pop New Wave, say maybe Missing Persons. Made it to track five now, “All My Friends” which is, gosh darn it all, a rock song as well. With a beat you can dance to! Halfway in now, I’d have to say the big difference between this and our earlier Electronica entry from Daft Punk is that this is more emotionally affecting. There are songs, like this one, that really evoke a mood (nostalgic regret and longing for the pre-mistake phase of a relationship gone bad, in this case) and get you interested in them lyrically. Not all of them (track six, “Us Versus Them” for instance, is having fun experimenting with cross-breeding 60s psychedelic garage rock and New Wave alienation, but isn’t doing anything personal), but more than Daft Punk, which was really like feel good party music, with clever twists, but no real attempt at depth. Oh geez, and the next track, “Watch The Tapes” could be like an artifact from the era when punk collapsed into synthesizer New Wave, kind of Gang of Fouresque with a dash of Wire. “Sound of Silver” (track eight I mean, eponymous with the album), in between early 80s beats and metallic handclaps, seems to be encouraging us to remember how vivid our emotions were as teenagers. Interesting… Okay, final thoughts as we hit the last track. This is definitely a cut above Daft Punk in terms of substance (while being no less fun and inventive), but I feel it’s not going for something real and true often enough, or showing enough cohesiveness as an album, to quite get to the league of the Arcade Fires, Becks, Emminems, Jay-Zs, etc of the list so far. Got to say though, ending with “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”, a downbeat, somehow earnest while being tongue in cheek, paen to a city not quite as dirty and interesting as it used to be, is pretty fucking awesome.
Stay tuned for albums 11-16…