If you’ve already read Part I where I explain my madcap project of searching for and reviewing the best 20 albums I may have missed in the first decade of the 2000s, then let’s get going! An explanation of how the reviews were written, and the first five albums, are below.
If you missed the intro, go and read it, and then come back.
Okay, ready now?
Part IV: Review Rules
My friend Matt thinks one of the best things I ever wrote was a 12-pack fueled 12-album review. That may be, or that may not be. It gets a little long, and is too gonzo for publication in the world as we know it, but you can judge its merits for yourself by reading it here. What I think he liked about it was its spontaneity and unpolished aspects. Which, when you think about it, fits music as a visceral, immediate medium. More than books, more than movies (which you often ponder afterwards), music is something we appreciate (or not) in the moment. So, while I’ll leave the beer out these days, I am going to write the reviews real-time as I listen to each album for the first time. Except for corrections of misspelling and gross grammatical error, everything you see is spontaneous first thought.
Part V: The Albums (first five albums)
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (2009, 3 votes)
Hmmm. Don’t get me wrong, I do have anexperimental bone in my body. But I usually prefer my music to be a little less sound-effect produced and tape loopy. Which is not to say that I have no room for distortion- there are places where I really like it, but those places tend to be where the distortion is informed by an underlying sense of Rock song conventions (cf. the Raveonettes, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth). So far this reminds me of the start of a Pink Floyd song that then doesn’t get past the start. Like being stuck in the first 10 seconds of “Us and Them”. Track two, “My Girls” is rather like track one “In The Flowers” in all the ways I didn’t totally care for track one. The weird thing is, I like some equally messy-sounding groups. No Age and Times New Viking come to mind. I think I like it better there because it’s produced by guitar over-drive, versus overlaid studio computer tricks. It comes by the noise more honestly. Track two is growing on me though… Oh, track three, “Also Frightened” is winning me over through jungle sounds in the background, despite the continued presence of annoying bell-ringing sounds. You do have to like a song where the refrain is “are you also frightened?”. See now, “Summertime Clothes” (track four) just teased me by starting off with a sound that almost was real crunching guitars, but devolved into a sample repeat loop. I actually like the lyrics, and don’t mind their obscurity and the difficulty of reaching them through the sound, or rather I wouldn’t, if the sound itself weren’t bugging me. What can I say? Less is more! In Beatles terms, I’m more of a “Helter Skelter” or “Yer Blues” than a “Revolution Number Nine” or “Day In the Life”. Whatcha gonna do? This reminds me of how much I loved the Shins on “Chutes Too Narrow” and how turned off I was when the next album got studio-experimental. I feel like these guys could put out a great album too with something less “cleverly” produced. Track Seven, “Guys Eyes” is making the best case so far for being worth a second listen, I think mostly because it’s added in a background beat that gives the whole collage something to hang on. Track eight “Taste” seems to be doing something similar, and with a Beach Boys twist, but it has a few too many distracting “airplane in takeoff” sound effects in the background. Is it a bad sign that my first thought on reaching track nine is, “Another fourteen minutes of this? Ugggh.”? P.S., that’s a bad sign in itself. Average track length of almost 5 minutes is rarely justified for anyone. Ah, reading about them now on AMG and Wikipedia, which I didn’t want to do beforehand to influence my review. And you know, if I had, I would have expected something like what I’m getting- a smart, not uninteresting, musical art project. Which certainly has its place, but is just not my cup of tea. Next!
Arcade Fire, “Funeral” (2004, 7 votes)
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” started slower and more studioey than I usually care for (see the entire above entry, for example) but by the time it really kicks in, you realize that the slow start has been building up power. It earns the “woo oh hoo” chorus it ends up with. Nice kick-off of drums and guitars on track two “Neighborhood #2 (Laika), such that once the arty extra instruments arrive, they’re welcome. I’m also liking the “recorded in a steel drum” sound of the vocals. There’s something about the album so far that feels like struggling to remember a dream. It’s there, you know it’s full of power and meaning, but it’s just slightly out of reach. In a good way. Oh wow, loving how the otherwise suspiciously artily named “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” moves from a dreamy sound with nostalgic early 60s instrumental rock touches to a driving rock finish. And these guys know enough about sequencing to give the next song a driving rock start for the segue. My head is bobbing of its own accord, and that’s always a good sign. Whereas Animal Collective’s Indie Rock was the 95% indie, 5% rock version, this is a good solid 50-50. Or at least 60-40. Me likes! Ah, track five, “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” knows that after you’ve pumped it up two songs in a row, you need to slow it down. Which it’s doing with a song that feels like slow surges of emotion. And track six, “Crown of Love”, now takes that feeling and transmutes it into a more straightforwardly earnest, pleading song. You know what I’m realizing? This is an honest to God album! Like one where the songs belong together and belong in the order they’re in, building on each other and taking the listener somewhere. You know what else I’m realizing? It takes me far less space to talk about something I’m liking than something I’m hoping to like and failing. Here I’m approaching track 8 and thinking, “Oh no! Don’t end in three more songs.” Also nice to hear a female vocalist on some of these tracks. I’ve always felt that groups that have both male and female vocalists are worth their weight in iridium (and, my end of album reading reveals this is a husband and wife team, and an album inspired by the passing of important people in their lives- no wonder it surges with genuine emotionality!). This album is everything indie rock should be at its best- smart, arty, conversant with Rock’s ways and means, and not afraid to produce a song that gets your foot tapping. An immediate “yes” for going in to permanent rotation in my 2000s playlist!
Beck, “Sea Change” (2002, 5 votes)
Well, it’s starting off with something that sounds like a sad cowboy song, and that’s always good in my book. I’ve tried to avoid reading anything about these albums beforehand so as not to prejudice my reviews, but I did know that he wrote this while going through a breakup of a long-term relationship. That’s what this first song, “The Golden Age” sounds like, in a weary early 70s country rock kind of way. If I ran across this at random, it would not even cross my mind that it’s Beck, but then again being a musical chameleon is pretty much his stock in trade. And sure enough, the second song “Paper Tiger” has the same weary and worn feeling that I remember from my own divorce, but in a completely different musical setting. This one has a beat, Beatlesque string section effects, etc. In emotional tone though, it seems to hang together perfectly with the song before it, and that can be quite a fine way to build an album. Leastways, I’m still listening. Hmmm, and now track three “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is back to the country sound of the first. And really, even given a synthesizer effect here and there, so damn authentic sounding. Seriously, it brings to mind Gram Parsons, and “Wild Horses”. Track four is named “Lonesome Tears”, which certainly would have you expecting another country song, but this one is back to the Beatlesque instrument swirls. Also maybe a little Pink Floydy. And aching, tired and gorgeous. It sounds like lost love. Oh hey, track five, “Lost Cause” I know you! And had no idea you were by Beck. This one is kind of like synth-folk. I realized I’m writing a lot about the music here, but the lyrics are quite worth the time as well, straightforward without being trite, and sounding like they’ve earned their world-weariness. I also like how the music is getting more mixed up as we go along. Overall, strongly in an acoustic, country-tinged vein, but with classic rock studio production accents, and things that feel like 80s pop all dropped into some kind of wonderful blender and mixed together. You know how a lot of stuff on the radio sounds like it’s trying and has its heart in the right place, but ends up sounding like ass? If it succeeded at what it was trying to do and didn’t sound like ass, it might sound like this. Oh, I really like the way track ten, “Sunday Sun” falls apart into a harsh tangle of feedback at the end. And then song eleven “Little One” positively surges with emotion musically, which is an almost chilling counterpoint to the gruff exhausted vocals. Every song on here sounds like looking straight into someone’s naked heart. I’m fully on board with everyone who describes this as a masterpiece.
Daft Punk, “Discovery” (2001, 4 votes)
Electronica is, for the most part, not my bag. That being said, I do like the way track one, “One More Time” jumps into it full-speed ahead. No slow weird intros, bizarre sound effects, just beat, beat, beat- go! I do like some kinds of hip-hop and dance music, and this first song is clearly in that vein, rather than droning Rave sound, so maybe that’s it. It reminds me of the best of 90s and 2000s dance music, and, looking at the release date, probably heavily influenced the later. Ah see, track two, “Aerodynamic” did have the slow start and weird sound effect bell tolling. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long, and gets in to some pretty decent synthesizer faux guitar later in the song. I also like the fact that there are lyrics here in most songs, as in track three “Digital Love”. Are they the most profound lyrics ever? No, but they’re energetic and fun, and buoyed by a sound that often adopts the structure and pacing of rock music. I’m reminded of Fischerspooner and LCD Soundsystem, though of course I have my causality backwards in both cases in terms of whose sound influenced who. In track four, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, I’m again picking up on something I’ve heard throughout, a strong strain of 80s hip-hop and early 80s soul a-la Rick James, Earth, Wind & Fire, etc. Take that, mix with some of the sensibility of rock, and you’re going to get an Electronica I can stand behind. So much so, I’m almost willing to suspend my natural suspicion of their being French. Don’t get me wrong, they turn out fine literature and film, but their music is usually a little too cutesy for me. Although it’s returning with the slow chords and heartbeat sound effect on track five, “Nightvisions”. A little too ambient for me, I’ll probably drop it from my final iTunes mix for this album. Especially since, see how nicely it perks up again on the next track, “Superheroes”? You know, despite the dig I just couldn’t help above, one of the sad things about the 2000s in American music (and the 90s too, for that matter) is how black and white popular music were so separate. This album has a sound that brings elements of both together, and I wonder if it takes someone from the outside, like a European, to do that these days? Track 11, “Veridis Quo” may also be a little too long, low key and vocal-free for me, but otherwise I am quite enjoying this so far. Oh, especially the penultimate track, “Face to Face”. They even keep the last track, ten minute-long “Too Long” entertaining enough that I can forgive the joke. This kind of album is never going to get to me on the same level that Arcade Fire or Beck’s albums from this list do, but I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, either. Musically speaking. There’s a mood that it fits, and it really fits that mood well!
D’Angelo, “Voodoo” (2000, 3 votes)
Track one “Playa Playa” starts off with some banging, mumbled voices and finger-snapping that feels like it goes on a little too long before finding a beat. When it does, there’s some nice funk guitar, and vocals that bring to mind the early 80s a-la Prince, Rick James, Earth Wind & Fire. Still a little wandery, though. Not sure if I’m buying it. It’s also going on way too long given that it’s basically a slow-jam with repetitive lyrics bordering on the nonexistent. Song two, “Devil’s Pie” starts off more hip-hop musically, and there are lyrics, even if they’re delivered is such a low-key monotone cadence that it’s kind of like the Hootie & the Blowfish of soul. There are some moments that lift above this, but not many. Track three, “Left and Right” I’d keep, it’s reminding me of the best of 70s and early 80s funk and soul, and has enough musical and vocal variability to save it from the vague blah fate of the other two. Track four “The Line” is back to the slow-jam blah, though. The next track, “Send It On” actually appears to be putting my cat to sleep. Oh, but I’m liking track six, “Chicken Grease” in a Moby sampling and remixing a funk classic kind of way. And then track seven, “One Mo’gin” puts it back to sleep. About halfway through now, and already waiting for this album to end. I’m having the opposite of my experience with Daft Punk- that was generally with the groove it was in, a few tracks I’d drop. This is generally not in the groove, a few tracks I’d keep. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not at all terrible in the way that a lot of 2000s radio is terrible. It’s just not my cup of tea. This is certainly something people of good will could disagree about. And I definitely hear, and appreciate, the influences- 70s funk, early Prince, early 80s slow jams, even the neo-psychedelic side of Motown. But that just makes me want to go listen to those sources, rather than this derivation.
Okay, that’s it for now. Tune in next time for albums 6-10…