Category Archives: albums

Music Appreciation: My All-Time Top Ten, Part 2

 

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After the recent loss of Prince, I noticed a friend’s post about expressing appreciation for music we love while the musicians are still around. It was somewhat jarring to realize how many of my all-time favorites are already gone, so I felt even more inspired to say something while I still could. Thus last month’s post about 1-5 of my all-time favorite top ten musical artists.

We had a few weeks of technical delays, but I’m back now with Part II, covering 6-9, and a sneaky tie for 10th place.

Johnny Cash Johnny Cash is a fascinating bundle of contrasts- social activist in a genre that was often less progressive, personification of Country who was also a Sun Records first generation Rocker, rebellious sinner who unashamedly preached the Gospel. One could go on, but the real thing that gets me about him every time I listen is the stripped down basic power of his music and the unmistakable sound of his voice. Is it Country? Rock? Heaven? Hell? All of those at once, in one unforgettable Man in Black.

 

Prince I could easily re-purpose a lot of the above to describe Prince as well. Today’s music scene is so segregated by genre that it’s even more amazing now than it was in the 80s how he straddled the divide between Soul and Rock like it was nothing. Not to mention that he was a genuine goddamn virtuoso- he liked to perform with big bands, but on his first two albums he not only wrote and produced the whole thing, he played every instrument himself. Buried at the heart of his music is a fusion of the sacred and the sexual that’s always uneasy and dynamic. How many people before, since, or ever, could make something with a funky beat, a guitar solo that Eric Clapton envied, a complex religious philosophy and hilarious sexual entendre all in the same album? Sometimes even in the same song… I was hooked when I first listened to 1999 at age 12, and I still am today.

 

Kristin Hersh You might think by the next two entries that I started off as a big Throwing Muses fan in the 80s. I was an 80s alt kid, so it would be reasonable to think that, but it’s not actually true. I ran in to Kristin Hersh’s solo work in the early 2000s, when her searing voice, surging chords, and willingness to not hold anything back got me through a lot of desolate-feeling post-divorce evenings. Then I back-filled to her 80s and 90s work with Throwing Muses (realizing along the way that I had favorite songs by them without knowing it was them), and forward filled to her mid-2000s band 50FOOTWAVE. Over three decades, in everything she’s done, she remains a powerhouse who can go acoustic or hard, throws out fiercely intelligent lyrics, and can sing the hell out of a song.

Tanya Donelly Pretty much everything I said above goes Ditto for Hersh’s step-sister and Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly. Her early 2000s solo albums were more like shimmering lullabies, but were similarly key to midwifing my emergence from a wrecked marriage and hollow way of life, toward reclaiming my true self. And damned if I didn’t then discover her Throwing Muses pedigree, and that she had been the driving force behind Belly, who I adored in the 90s. She tends to be both lusher and more subtle than Hersh, but is no less capable of rocking it out and producing haunting musical creations.

 

Bruce Springsteen When I was first putting together my top ten list, I hit a bit of a stumbling block. My 1-5 were clear as a bell to me. Without too much more thought, I came up with 6-9. But then I kept going back and forth on #10 between the Boss and the Clash. After a while, I realized they actually were flip sides of the same thing that was befuddling me, and decided to put them both in as tie for 10th. The issue was that I’m not always in a Clash mood, but when I am, I like almost everything they’ve done. On the other hand, I only like some of Springsteen, but I’m always in the mood for the version of Bruce that I like. For me, it’s his dark albums and songs that really get me. So, you can have your Born to Run, Born in the USA, and the Rising. Heck, you should have them. I like them too. Sometimes. But I’ll take Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic anytime. There’s something about the spooky underbelly of America that nobody gets like Springsteen does.

 

The Clash Which leaves us with the other side of my tie for 10th. I like some of Joe Strummer’s solo stuff, and Mick Jones has made a lot of interesting music post-Clash- Big Audio Dynamite’s first album was one of my favorite things in the 80s. But there was something about the synergy of them together that was on a whole other level. Political without being polemical, rocking as hard as anything that the first generation of Punk came out with, and yet bringing in ska and dub, they continue to do what art should do at its best- inspire, entertain, and disquiet at the same time.

 

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Music Appreciation: My All-Time Top Ten, Part 1

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I can hardly even tell you what Prince means to me. Despite that, I will give it a try in part two of this post next week. For now, suffice it to say that 1999 was one of the first albums I owned that didn’t feature a Muppet or music from Star Wars. It was a revelation to a rural twelve year-old living in the days before the Internet let you know that there were other weirdos out there. I’ve followed the twists and turns of his musical evolution ever since, and his passing has hit me noticeably harder than most celebrity deaths.

Maybe that’s why it caught my attention when a friend posted an observation last week about how we express our appreciation when someone’s gone, but we ought to do it while they’re still around, and then proceeded to list some of the still-living musicians who’ve had an impact on his life. Reading his post, I reflected that four of my all-time top-ten are already gone. It’s high time to do some appreciating! Forthwith, here are my top five musicians. Presented in chronological order of their debut, because I don’t even know how to approach putting them in an actual 1-5 order. Next week we’ll cover 6-10.

Bob Dylan There have, of course, been many Dylans- earnest folk singer, surrealist 60s troubadour, heartland country poet, born again evangelist, wry and grizzled veteran- I could go on, but the point is I love them all. In every incarnation, his lyrical vision is as idiosyncratic as his voice, and uncompromisingly intelligent. Musically, he draws from the deep well springs of American music, blues, country, folk, with the same fusion of playfulness and mastery he brings to his songwriting.  It’s not easy to be simultaneously utterly earnest and also obviously slyly on the con, but Dylan does it. His creations often already seem timeless at the moment they come out, and the legacy only grows as time passes.

 

The Who/Pete Townshend You’ll notice there’s no Beatles or Stones in this list. Obviously, I’m not arguing that those bands are crap. I love them. We are all required by law to love them. But for me, every time I clear a classic Pete Townshend guitar riff on a Who song, or the plaintive keen of his voice on his solo work, I am instantly transported in a way I am not with those other bands. To a place where the music is it’s own justification. Where there is no history, no fear, no me, just Rock. Long live Rock!

 

Neil Young Again, a voice that instantly transports me, and a fiercely individual viewpoint and lyrical depth to back it up. Those would be mighty weapons were they all that he had in his arsenal, but then there’s the guitar. He can play a country song so straight up that there’s not a hint of irony in it and then (on the same album even) switch to a scorching shredded feedback so damn hard that Grunge immediately recognized him as a spiritual fore-bearer when it arrived on the scene.

 

The Pixies/Frank Black The legend is that Frank Black recruited Kim Deal to the Pixies with an add saying that he was looking for a bass player who liked Peter, Paul & Mary & Husker Du. Now, I like Kim Deal. A lot. So much so that I don’t even think they should call the current band the Pixies without her. But it’s Frank Black’s musical vision,  crystallized in the story above, that most catches my attention in their albums and his solo work since. His music is a place in which surf harmonies and noise pop live together in unquiet peace. Lyrically he’s frequently dark, sometimes hilarious, often both at once, but creates obsidian worlds that are wondrous and unmistakably unique.

 

Nirvana I am always aspiring to reach a place in my writing so authentic, so direct, that the effect is searing and impossible to turn away from. Nirvana, for me, has come to symbolize that place. There’s never a hint of falseness in what they do, and a fresh listen to Nevermind now still reminds you what an amazing thing it was when they burned down the pop charts in 1991. Kurt Cobain remains haunting because he also symbolizes the flip side of having a vision that unrelenting- it can consume itself on the way. For both the promise and the caution, and because they still sound incendiarily fresh twenty years later, I keep listening.

 

 

Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (final thoughts)

Well, here we are! You read the intro, where I laid out the project of reviewing what a cross-section of critical opinion regards as twenty of the best albums of the decade that must not be named (or at least, never properly was), 2000-2009. You thrilled to the reviews of albums 1-5, 6-10, 11-15 and 16-20. Here, at the end of all things, what have we learned?

First off, having spent a lot of the decade distracted by other things and back-filling older artists and genres, it was a pleasant surprise to find some things I really liked. My “top” picks from among the albums I listened to were:

  • Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • Beck, Sea Change
  • Eminem, Marshall Mathers LP
  • Jay-Z, The Blueprint
  • Kayne West, Late Registration
  • Madvillian, Madvilliany
  • MIA, Arular
  • Outkast, Stankonia
  • Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  • The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Then there was another whole patch that, while I can’t think they’re the best albums of this last or any other decade, I would call “good”. They don’t reach “top” status for various reasons (musical or thematic inconsistency, lightness of lyrics or theme compared to the top albums, or just being a kind of good clean fun that doesn’t quite rise to greatness):

  • Daft Punk, Discovery
  • Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights
  • LCD Soundystem, Sound of Silver
  • MIA, Kala
  • Spoon, Kill the Moonlight
  • Sufjan Stevens, Illinois
  • TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

And, then, well…I have to respectfully disagree with the critics on the following albums. The first I found too experimental and not enough listenable, and the second was just kind of derivative and blah:

  • Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion
  • D’Angelo, Voodoo

We’ll get back to this “good” and “great” question in a moment. First, a pair of further observations.

1. This was not Rock’s decade. Of the 20 albums in this list, more than half were hip-hop, soul or dance music. Not that I don’t have a lot of love for those genres, but I do hope that Rock makes a rebound sometime in the 2010-2019 decade. For which, we are currently accepting naming bids…

2. You could make a very decent case that many of the best albums of the decade were basically 90s-afterburn. I will illustrate with one of my favorite data formats, the histogram. In this case, of the year the albums came out in. As you can see, fully half come from the first three years of the decade.

Now, back to this best/great/good question. In my previous installment, I got into an interesting commentary stream with my friend Matt, who besides being generally a groovy guy and great writer is an audiophile and astute pop culture critic. One of his contentions was that I’d gone too easy on the decade by calling anything that came out of it good compared to albums of decades past. I’ll let him speak for himself on this point:

“Maybe you need to shift your categories downward some more. “Good” should mean “adequate” and “adequate” should mean “terrible” and “terrible” should mean “I feel sorry for this band, I really do.” 

To me, I think it comes down to this: if I met somebody who was more or less intelligent but had little familiarity with the popular music of the last 60 years, what music would I recommend to them? And what albums from the ’00s would I include in my recommendation? 

Rolling Stone just recently “updated” their 500 Greatest Albums list by adding several albums from the ’00s to it, which now makes me less inclined to recommend the list to people. It’s just so awkward seeing Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., and Arcade Fire right next to Roxy Music, Santana, and N.W.A. I just want to shout out to a potential reader, “No! This is not the right list!” To be fair, the highest an album from the ’00s ranks on the new list is at 118 (Late Registration?), but honestly, they should have just left the damn list alone.

Hey, if writers and musicians genuinely believe that LCD Soundsystem and Wilco deserve to be lumped together with Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder, then I guess I just have some lint stuck in my ears. But I really believe that recorded music in the album format simply will not have the cultural and emotional impact it did up until the ’00s.

All these people are in denial!”

He has a point about where the music on this list fits in the grand scheme. There are specific entries I might argue with him on, and time of course is the great arbiter. But none of these albums are epochal. I don’t think it was that kind of decade, I think it was largely a decade of reflection and remixing that lacked the galvanizing new musical movements of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s. I’m hopeful that it was one of those periods of consolidation and musical drift that have preceded a “next big thing” in the past. Then again, thanks to technological change, maybe pop culture is too atomized now to have a “next big thing”. I wouldn’t bet on it, but there is an interesting neo-Marxian argument to be had about how the technological shift in the means of production may preclude this. It may certainly, as Matt contends, diminish the importance of the album as a form. Music lived before the album as we currently know it arose in the 60s, though, and I think it will live just fine in its next phase as well.

In the meantime, I haven’t given up on the album as an art form. And while this project has given me some new albums to like, I happen to think there were plenty of great albums in the 2000s. My own personal list of the top 20 albums of the decade (only three of which appeared on the nine critics lists I perused, again proving that, if nothing else, this was a very idiosyncratic decade) is (in alphabetical order):  

Bangs  Call and Response  (2002)
There’s a kind of female-powered punky and yet poppy band that I really, really like, and hope will hit it big, but they break up and vanish after producing one or two great albums. The 2000s had a lot of bands like this, and there is another on this very same list. But my first sadly gone girl-group love of the decade was the Bangs. 10 years later, this still sounds fresh, fun and eminently listenable.  

Breeders  Title TK  (2002)
As documented above, there’s a good case to be made that some of the best music of the 2000s was actually 90s afterburn. This is true on my list as well, witness this fine outing by one of the best bands of the 90s, the Breeders, headed by one of the driving forces behind another of the best bands of the late 80s/early 90s (and, in my opinion, of the entire history of Rock) the Pixies. It’s dark moodiness was one of the things that carried me through post-divorce early 2000s, and I love it still today.

Bruce Springsteen  Magic  (2007)
While I like Bruce Springsteen a lot in general, I tend to like best the dark Springsteen albums that he comes out with every other album or so. Magic is that, and is also a kind of perfect distillation of the mid-decade despair of the Bush years, delivered by a Springsteen that has aged into the world-weariness and mythic presence that he sometimes had to pose at in younger days.   

Death Cab For Cutie  Narrow Stairs  (2008)
I’m not sure the last decade had a better lyricist than Ben Gibbard, the lead of Death Cab for Cutie. Structurally, the songs are often simplistic, but what I’ve observed about them is that they linger. And the mellow, seemingly straightforward package in this album delivers things like a haunting wrestle with Jack Kerouac’s legacy, seeing smoke from the grapevine turned into a timeless struggle against the elements, and one of the most chilling “love” songs ever recorded, laying bare yet again how many of our favorite “romantic” songs are actually creepy obsession when you think about them.     

Deerhoof   Reveille  (2002)
If somebody took perfect pop rock, exploded it, and reassembled the pieces out of sequence but in a way that strangely still works, it would sound like this album. I don’t just love Deerhoof because they’re a Bay Area band. I love them because (and particularly on this album) they show just how creatively lazy every other band this last decade was, and that surprising, idiosyncratically beautiful things can still be done in Rock.

Drive-By Truckers  Brighter Than Creation’s Dark  (2008)
I said in the intro piece to this series that nobody in any pop genre had really had a great decade in the 2000s. In fact, that isn’t entirely true, and this album would be one of my prime exhibits in the contention that some of the best music of the 2000s was in fact Country music. Granted, it wasn’t by people you were going to hear on any Country station, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This is an amazing band, and an amazing album by them. Whether they’re writing about the rise and fall of Grunge (yes, really), a lament to a friend’s downfall through crystal meth, a sympathetic portrait of a soldier’s regret at having to kill, or just good old fashioned country themes, they are superb throughout, and adept at mixing Country and Rock together in way that you can’t really say which is which.     

Gillian Welch   Time (the Revelator)  (2001)
Some of the best music of the 2000s was Country music, but you won’t hear it on any Country station Exhibit II. I guess technically she might be Bluegrass, but let’s not split hairs. The point is Gillian Welch is a living encyclopedia of American roots music, channeling decades of influences to make her own outstanding contribution on this album.  

Hank William III  Straight to Hell  (2006)
Some of the best music of the 2000s was Country music, but you won’t hear it on any Country station Exhibit III. They just happened to all end up in a row alphabetically, but it still makes for a nice exhibit. They didn’t quite make my top 20, but you could add the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams to the list as well. As for this album, the way Deerhoof should make everybody working in Rock ashamed of how little they’ve strived for, Hank III should make everybody working in Country ashamed of how lame they are.

Kristin Hersh  Sunny Border Blue  (2001)
And I suppose this might be Exhibit II in my “90s afterburn” theorem. Nee of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh is an amazing songwriter and a powerful musician. The songs here are spare, confessional and harrowing. This was another album that helped me burn through post-divorce darkness early in the decade, and it’s taken on whole new meaning to me as we both (the album and I) have aged.   

Martha Wainwright  Martha Wainwright  (2005)
Martha Wainwright is one of the lushest, most true to herself voices of the decade. Here is a woman not worried about being popular or likable, laying it all out, good, bad and ugly. Which, of course, ends up lending the proceedings a vulnerability that wins through the darkness. Loudon Wainwright is great, Rufus has his many fans, but give me Martha any day!    

Northern State   Dying in Stereo  (2003)
Hip hop can be great. Feminism too. Political records sometimes. Empowered women creating something, always. Put them all together, and you get one of the best albums of the past decade. 

Raveonettes  Whip It On  (2002)
Rock is dead, they say. Pretty regularly. And there are long stretches of certain decades (80s, 2000s) that you think they might have a point. Then something like this comes along, and you realize that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast. Not to mention all in Bminor! It took a Danish band to do it, which would make me sad as an American, except we had the White Stripes in the same decade. So go Danes, go!  

Red Hot Chilli Peppers  By The Way  (2002)
There’s something wise and melodically bittersweet about this album. Which makes sense, since it comes almost two decades in for the group, and after lead singer Anthony Kiedis got into recovery. Which maybe is part of the reason it works for me. I think it suits the decade too- a moment to pause and reflect in a rough era that’s seen a lot go by.   

Rilo Kiley  Under the Blacklight  (2007)
If there is anything to not like about this album (or indeed the band in general) I don’t know what it would be.  Between Jenny Lewis’ lush and precisely delivered vocals, the intelligent and more than occasionally emotionally chilling lyrics and the inventive and skillful musical craftsmanship on display here, this album is a delight.    

Sleater Kinney  One Bea(2002)
I used to think of this album as a kind of predecessor to American Idiot, full of a similar disquiet over post-9/11 America that the later album delivered even more thunderously. As the years wear on, what impresses me is how Sleater Kinney’s effort is more perennial than Greenday’s, which started to sound dated to me a two or three years after it was released. I find it to be an excellent illustration of my general theory that to produce political art that lasts, you have to prioritize the personal over the polemical.    

Soviettes  LP III  (2005)
Remember in the opening entry above about the Bangs, how I described that certain kind of female-powered punky yet poppy band that I’m always hoping will make it big and instead collapses? Meet my mid-decade heartbreak, Minnesota’s the Soviettes, on the third and best of three excellent albums they put out before breaking up.  

Tanya Donelly  beautysleep  (2002)
Picture me in 2002, post-divorce, starting to re-connect to who I am as a person and artistically. I’m alone in the dark, sitting next to the stereo with the first new music I’ve bought in years. On comes Tanya Donelly, 80s co-founder of the Throwing Muses and 90s veteran of the Breeders and Belly. Through moody billowing music and shimmering vocals she’s celebrating the birth of her first child, and the renewal this represents after decades of wandering. And I’m right there with her… 

Tanya Donelly  Whiskey Tango Ghosts  (2004)
Or, you know, here with her two years later. She’s now in a more acoustic vein, looking back over the years and through the complexity and ambiguity of marriage with well-worn wisdom and tenderness. I lvoed it from first listen, but this album has played better and better for me as I’ve gone through the same journey myself.  

The White Stripes  De Stijl  (2000)
Other White Stripes albums made the best of the decade lists I compiled my twenty albums from, and indeed one of my sources, Paste, made the following pretty excellent case that Jack White owned the whole damn decade musically:
2000: The White Stripes, De Stijl 
2001: The White Stripes, White Blood Cells; White founds Third Man Records
2003: The White Stripes, Elephant; White contributes to Cold Mountain soundtrack and appears in the film
2004: White produces and performs on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose
2005: The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan
2006: The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
2007: The White Stripes, _Icky Thump _
2008: The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely; White records “Another Way to Die” with Alicia Keys for Bond flick Quantum of Solace
2009: The Dead Weather, Horehound; White Stripes tour film Under the Great White Northern Lightspremieres at Toronto Film Festival; White stars in guitar love-note doc It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge
While White Blood Cells and Elephant deservedly draw a lot of praise, De Stijl is my favorite. It starts rocking the second you put it on, and pretty much never stops. 

U2  All That You Can’t Leave Behind   (2000)

I recall reading some music critic (I’m sure someone can remind me who) describing the Clash’s London Calling as the album that perfectly personified the 70s collapsing into the 80s. I feel like this album is the same thing for the liminal knife-edge of the 90s becoming the 00s. Here are U2 as world weary veterans producing an album that almost crystallizes the transition from the hopefulness of 90s globalism to the post-9/11 global unease of the 00s. Yes, it was a little before that. But the artist as prophet can do that, call the coming zeitgeist before it comes.  

So there you go. We’ve seen me reviewing the critics call on the best albums of the last decade  and now you’ve seen my picks for the 20 best albums of the decade. What do you think? The next move is your’s…

Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (16-20)

And here we are, the final five albums of my re-visitation of what was a musical lost decade for me, the 2000s (aka Naughts, aka 00s, aka we never came up with a good name for it). To quickly reintroduce you to the theme, despite being a huge audiophile, I spent most of the last decade vastly distracted by life and/or back-filling on older artists and genres. So I wondered what I had missed, and turned to a cross-section of critical evaluation to identify the top 20 albums of the decade that I hadn’t given a careful listen to yet.

You’ll find the intro to this project here, followed by albums 1-5, 6-10 and 11-15. In all those reviews, as in the ones you’re about to read, I wrote my reviews in real-time, as I listened to the album. What you see here are my immediate reactions, unedited except to correct gross spelling and grammar missteps.    

And so here we proceed with the final five, highlighted below in yellow:

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)  

Spoon, “Kill the Moonlight” (2002, 3 votes)
Track one “Small Stakes” is a nice thumping way to start an album, and I like how there’s a slurred uneducated indifference to the vocal delivery that contrasts with the music’s head-bopping driving power. This really reminds me of the Jam, which is to say it’s immediately endearing itself to me. Makes me wonder, is this a British or an American band? Yes, that’s how little I knew about Spoon before starting this review. Only know the name, really. Oh, track two still has that Jam thing going on, only now a little more swinging, with a hint of, say mid-60s Kinks. This must be a Britpop group. And, heck, there’s no law against that. Especially since this one is more on the rock, and less on the 60s studio overproduction, side of that equation. Three tracks in now, and this one is having some Who-style power-pop coming through. I love it! So entranced by the music thus far that I’m not quite catching the lyrics. I have a feeling they hold some riches that will emerge from repeated listening. Oh, you know who else this is reminding me of? The Zutons. Which, again, endears it to me. I’ve got the feeling that this lacks the gravity of, say, Arcade Fire or Beck’s efforts from this list, but I would probably play it more- it’s hitting all my “British rock favorite” nerves in just the right way! Track 6 “Paper Tiger” is doing some interesting things with a kind of love song from a pub thug meets well-mannered pop-rock sound. You know what every song is about so far? Short catchy refrains. Again, puts me in mind of Jam/Buzzcocks. I would also like to give these guys a medal, maybe even kiss them, for the fact that the longest track on the album is 3:39. You don’t need more than that when you know what you’re doing! And track nine, “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” knows what it’s doing. Weary, jaded lyrics, big beats and even a little piano, without ever forgetting to rock. Track 10 of 12, still loving it. It’s weird though- this could be almost an undiscovered 60s holdover, an alt-80s band, or a 90s Britpop album. It gives it a kind of timeless quality. And track 11 is- wait, what?!? Just permitted myself a little research now that I’m near the end- Texas based? From Austin? Is Austin producing bands that do classic timeless-sounding Britpop-inflected rock better than the Brits? I’m moving there immediately! USA-USA-USA!    
     
Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (2005, 3 votes)
When this first came out I remember hearing about his project to do an album based on every state in the Union and thinking both, “Damn that’s ambitious- admire!” and “He’ll never get around to it.” That second has turned out to be true, which makes this even more precious, so I’m glad to finally have a chance to listen to it. My impression so far? I love the opening track, an indie folk ballad about a UFO sighting. Second piece was instrumental. Third seems to have crossbred Muzak and polka. It’s all very poppy, and very, very indie- long titles that are a thesis unto themselves, clever lyrics, lackadaisical vocals, musically a variety pack that delights in its own quirkiness. You wouldn’t put this on if you wanted to rick, but you might put it on to clean the house on a Sunday afternoon. I’m finding myself in a war between finding it too cutesy for its own good and oddly catchy and compelling. Now a ballad on John Wayne Gacy which is appropriately unsettling. Ah, and there we go, the narrator identifying at the end with him, and the secrets we all keep. Track five, “Jacksonville” seems to be channeling a little Neil Young- crap, I think the album is winning me over despite its self-consciousness and way too much production with strings. Track seven “Decatur”- equally catchy, equally befuddling. I can’t decide whether it’s profound, or a cheesy farce. Which is, you know, kind of like life, and maybe true to his experience of Illinois. Now it’s getting more serious toward the middle with and “Chicago” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” the kind of earnest heartfelt lyrically dense songs that Deathcab for Cutie trades in. And now noticeably less “children’s album” than some of the earlier songs on the album with their lyrical and musical quirkiness. Figures that the Superman-related song “The Man of Steel Steals our Hearts” works for me, of course, and is (in parts) the most rocking thing on the album so far. Though it could do with being half as long. This whole thing strikes me as kind of what would happen if you had Michelangelo do a WPA art mural: a klunky collection of themes rendered with unwarranted extraordinary artistry. Now track 16, with a title much too long to actually write, but something to do with a wasp, is (not for the first time on this album) presenting some queer themes, which is always good news socially, though it can be more of a mixed bag musically. This is reminding me of “69 Love Songs” now, which also continually confronts one with the question, “Is this the greatest thing ever, or is it kind of silly and annoying?” There is something to be said for having the title of every track make you want to read a Wikipedia article to understand it, though. It has its charm. Not as much charm as a hard-rocking song that kicks your ass, but still. Now on my research break, I’m interested to see how several sources mention the Christian themes of the album. Which didn’t really make as distinct an impression on me, I suspect because I always see the mundane suffused with theological significance. It just seems normal to me. And now track 24 of 26 (granted, several of them are interludes). What to say to sum up? A+ for super-sized cajones of artistic ambition. A+ again for high musical and lyrical quality of such excellence. Now apply a preciousness deflator and indie over-cleverness penalty. It adds up to something superb, always listenable, and sometimes quite affecting, even if it’s not quite my cup of tea.

The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (2002, 3 votes)
I have to admit I’ve always been well disposed toward this album, since Yoshimi and Pink Robots is clearly within my oeuvre. Without having more than a vague sense of its contents. I have to admit I didn’t expect it to sound like this! “Fight Test” is like burned out 70s rock fueled by a child’s synthesizer. Pretty groovy. Now the second track is more of the ambient electronic sound effect inflected piece I was expecting. But it’s got a beat, and it’s about a robot, so I have to be pretty happy with it. And I am, despite the swell of strings and electronic sound effects at the end of track two. Now three, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part I)”, it’s like an acoustic ballad that swallowed and is digesting electronica. This is superb! Vocally so heartfelt, lyrically superb, and yet ridiculous. I’m moved to wonder why this is working for me, but “Illinois” didn’t? Stronger point of view? Less lyrical obliquity? Material I’m just more in tune with? Greater thematic and musical unity, certainly. And the electronic beat certainly makes it more uptempo, which I appreciate. At heart, I think just can’t help but love anybody capable of producing a yearning heartfelt ballad to a Japanese girl fighting giant robots. Now “In the Morning of the Magicians”, a title check to an occult conspiracy classic. Of course I love it! This track, by the way, is like a space age psychedlica. “Are You a Hypnotist?” asks track seven, and yes indeed this album does put one in a fine and mellow mood. It’s just the eight mix of ambient, strong beat and orchestral swell, and it doesn’t hurt that the lead vocalist could just as easily be singing a country song. I think this is the vocal tenor all those other droning bleary indie groups are going for, and missing. It is getting a little too late Beatles studio experimental for my taste as it goes on, but still quite charming. As, indeed, is late Beatles studio experimental if you can divorce it from its canonical standing. Oh, I didn’t realize “Do You Realize” was them. Very fine, very fine. Sad, heartfelt, space age, esoteric yet feeling real. Thumbs up all around! They even managed to pull off ending the album with an instrumental track. Well done, boys, well done.      

TV on the Radio, “Return to Cookie Mountain” (2006, 3 votes)
Oh to be on Cookie Mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons… No, wait, other song. So, I have to admit to loving the title of this album, but not knowing what to expect from it. Based on track one, I have to say there’s more Lo-Fi and distortion and less blasé indie musical drift than I would have feared. To be sure, there is the overproduction and blending of electronica and rock that you do tend to get with a lot of indie. But it’s built here around rock structure and sensibility, and the lyrics feel like they have some bite to them. It is a little all in one tone so far (as of track three), but if you were in a mood for a certain kind of mellow tinged by bitterness, this would really hit that spot. Kind of reminds me of two of my 2000s favorites, No Age and Times New Viking, if they had a little tilt toward Daft Punk or LCD Soundsystem in them. So far, not as engaging as Kanye, Emminem or Jay-Z, not as fun as MIA or Phoenix, or as weirdly wonderful as Madvillain or Sufjan Stevens. But a solid good- I wouldn’t turn it off, and there are no tracks I want to skip past. Oh, in fact, track five “Wolf like me” is really kicking it up. Is it because it’s like electronica-enhanced Garage Rock? What can I say, I’m a rocker. Oh, and track six “A Method” is doing some interesting things with rhythm and hand claps. Maybe this is one of those albums that takes a while to hit its stride. Loving track seven “Let the Devil In”! Okay, TV on the Radio, you’re growing on me. Now, of all things, it’s reminding me of 80s era Peter Gabriel on track eight. Something about the poly-rhythmic  beats, intelligent lyrics and vocal pitch of the semi-chanted lyrics. The first four tracks were clearly some kind of muted mood-setter, and it really gets unleashed here in the middle. I wonder what’s coming next? What? Nine “Blues from Down Here” is like Bauhaus if they did a dance song. TV, who are you? Okay, this one (“Tonight”) is different yet again. It actually sounds like it may have been recorded to vinyl and then re-recorded from vinyl. Even if that’s not true I’d like to believe it is. Seemed to take a segue in the middle into an old-time croon, then at the end trails off into metallic scrapes and echoes. And now a big stomping beat on “Wash the Day Away” and the wave of distortion that’s more familiar from the first few tracks, but with a hint of psychedelic. Reminding me of, of all things, Prince. I would like to pause here and say that I cannot endorse the average 6-7 minute track length we’re getting here late in the album. This one, of all of them, I might delete because I’m not sure 8 minutes of rather repetitive sound does anything to improve my life. “Untitled seem to be a similarly audio tape loop sound effects “Day In The Life” kind of thing. Delete. Oh and then, fuck them, just as I was about to give up the next one “Snakes and Martyrs” is unique and interesting. I guess that’s how experimental works- sometimes you miss, and sometimes you hit big. So, what we have here is a good beginning, a great middle, a ponderous after, and then back to great at the end. Sounds to me not like a “great”, but a top tier of good. Best of the decade, as critics indicate? Not overall, but at its best moments, yes.


Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002, 8 votes)
This is a fitting album to end on, as I’d heard hype about it all decade long, both critically and from people I knew. I’ve even heard a lot of it, even though I never owned it, or listened to it all the way through. There definitely is something to this first track too. Not only is there the sonorous rhythm of the weary burned-out vocals and the weirdly disorienting beginning, but there are lyrical flashed of brilliance throughout including one of the all-time best lines, “I am trying to break your heart.” Every great song ever has been, but Jeff Tweedy actually figures that out and turns it into a manifesto. A little too Beatles sound-effecty clever tape loop at the end, but hey, they have the ambition to sell it. And then comes “Kamera” a nearly perfect pop-rock song something that sounds a little bit like it belongs to the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s simultaneously. “Radio Cure” seems like it might be a love song to Radiohead, or almost a sonic one-uppance of Thom Yorke. And of course kudos for just coming out lyrically with, “There is something wrong with me.” All these songs, too, are somehow undermined in a way that doesn’t actually undermine them, but instead disorients just the right amount, by what sounds like a toy synthesizer. And fuck, I mean come on, “War on War” is one of the most perfect songs I can imagine. My take so far is that this album is like a distillation, a nearly perfect distillation, of a certain vein of 80s college rock and 90s alternative. Something neo-singer/songwriter, alt country, ironic experimental a la Camper Van Beethoven, with the intense emotional nakedness that grunge had at its best, divorced of the bombast. And don’t get me wrong, I lovethat bombast, but this album has a stripped down straightforwardness that’s refreshing. And now “Heavy Metal Drummer”, a paen to “playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned” as if to prove my point. But at the same time full of musical playfulness and some pure music geek experimentalism. Track eight “I’m the Man Who Loves You” plays almost like a thesis on 60s and 70s pop-rock, without forgetting to be fun. Now track nine with its tagline “every song is a comeback”, and darned if it doesn’t sound like it. In a way, I feel like this is the end product of the evolution of Big Star->a certain current of alt 80s->certain current of 90s alternative->Big Star of the 2000s that evokes it all. Wrapping up now, as we approach track 11 of 11. What to say? It’s pretty awesome. This is the kind of album you could finish and immediately start again. I could see it going in to heavy rotation thereafter. I have to think it is one of the best albums of the 00s, though in a way it seems odd to say it, since it feels so timeless. Got a little ambient at the end of the last track, which isn’t the note I would think you would want to end the album on. That’s the danger of going to 7 minutes- it’s hardly ever justified. Still, any way you slice it, it belongs near the top. A fitting way to end this review of the leading candidates for the best album of the 2000s.  

And there we are, my take on the critical world’s top 20 albums of the 2000s. In another week or two, I’ll do one last summary post looking back on the whole list, and suggesting my take on a dissident top 20. In the mean time, dear reader, I would love to hear your reactions…  

Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (11-15)



For me the 2000s were a musical “lost decade”. And what does one do with what is lost? Find it! And so I set out to identify and review 20 of the top albums of the decade that I had heretofore missed. You can read the Intro to see how I compiled my list, and then my reviews of albums 1-5 and 6-10. And next up? Well, 11-15, of course! Highlighted in yellow below…

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)   

Madvillain, “Madvillainy” (2004, 3 votes)
If you start off your album with a two minute collage of supervillains from movie serials, it’s pretty much like you’ve slipped me a twenty for the review. Track two, “Accordion”, seems to feature one. I’m also appreciating how they pronounced the “w” in “swords” to make a rhyme work, and justified the accordion. Next thing to love: average song length of two minutes! A good deal for anyone, and a miracle in a hip-hop album. I’m really liking this so far- spare beats, restrained sound effects, and the ongoing supervillain subplot. It reminds me, in a good way, of the conscious hip-hop of the 90s that gangster drove off the radio and practically out of existence. It’s a really clever use of some classic soul & jazz samples, sound effects and news and media clips to back lyrics that have something going on and aren’t wall-to-wall violence and misogyny. All of which, in track 6 “America’s Most Blunted” gets us an ode to how weed helps creativity. These guys are practically hippies! So far I’d have to say that this doesn’t aim as high, or get as dangerously personal, as the best albums from this list so far. But it’s more consistent, and fun to listen to, than almost any of them. This is the kind of album that would lend itself to heavy rotation. “Shadows of Tomorrow” track 12 is delivering a meditation on the relation of past & present & future. I think I’m getting this album- it’s like the musical equivalent of the conversation that follows getting stoned while watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Which explains why I like it so much! And track 15 “Hardcore Hustle” is turning into a manifesto on making music that’s not crap- take that 2000s! The next one gets political/philosophical about terrorists just being tools of those in power, part of the same old game, and the next track is a more personal post-breakup song. Like the whole thing is opening up thematically, even as it relaxes the supervillain theme. Man, these guys are pretty good. My esteem for it is growing by the track. Although I am sad that they have a song titled “Rhinestone Cowboy” that didn’t sample the original song. Stupid copyright laws… Still and all, if this isn’t one of the best things anyone turned out last decade, I don’t know what is.



M.I.A, “Arular” (2005, 3 votes)
First off, kudos to M.I.A., in fact, to anyone who would have the stones in the mid-2000s to begin an album with “In’shallah”. And then into the muscular metallic beats of the second track exhorting us to “pull up the people, pull up the poor.” This was like the 99% early, and with rap braggadocio spin and a reminder that she’s a soldier, a fighter, and has the bombs to make us blow. You really haven’t gotten much as self-consciously politically dangerous since Public Enemy, made even more edgy by its call-outs to the signs and symbols of the era of global terrorism. Which is great, but would get tiresome if it wasn’t working as music too. I’m really liking the spare production behind this, and the driving nature of her boom-boom delivery. I think it’s no accident that I mentioned Public Enemy a few lines back. Now track six “Amazon” is here, and has such layers of sound and dense lyrics while delivering a story about her being held for ransom with handclaps in the background. This is delightful! Nice laser sounds starting off track 7 too. I’m already mourning the fact that this is over in 6 more tracks. It’s getting more world beat in the middle, but I won’t hold that against it. And getting more personal, track eight “Hombre” is like a straight up sex you up number. Well, she’s thrown us enough substance at this point to earn it. In fact, on the comparative front, that’s what strikes me. This is as fun as Daft Punk or LCD Soundsystem, but with more substance, as tough as Jay-Z or Eminem, but with less bragging and beefs. Totally deserving to be near the top for the 2000s. I mean “Ten Dollar” seems to be about child prostitution, name checks “Lolita” and is delivered with a sound reminiscent of the best of mid-80s hip-hop. Come on! And it all comes together on the last track “MIA” into something like a manifesto. A manifesto you can dance to! Someone should give this woman (and this album) a medal.


M.I.A, “Kala” (2007, 4 votes)
Say what? “Bamboo Banga” is starting by lyric-checking “Roadrunner”. Not much music, as such, on this yet, almost more like performance poetry, ah and now we ease into it halfway through. A little more droney and repetitive than the last album. Also lighter, content-wise, as in empty of. Maybe I need to stop comparing and see if I can appreciate it for what it is. “Bird Flu” on track two is much more musically experimental than anything on “Arular”. And I don’t like it. (Yes, I’m failing at not comparing.) Allright, track three “Boyz” has some more dynamic beats and soul samples, but her lyrics are still a little chanty and monotonous. And the lyrics are also a little, “eh, so?” Track four “Jimmy” now has the music and the vocals going for it. Still a little content-lite compared to “Arular” (it’s just a song about a boy) but at least the lyrics are starting to fire. Ah, here we go, track five “Hussel”. It finally has all three going for it- dynamic vocal, lyrical content and musical engagement. Five tracks is a while to wait for it, though. “Mango Pickle Down” is a beautiful strange thing, though, and her early 80s style rap on it is as unguarded as I’ve heard her on either album now. Yeah, it’s definitely into a groove now (ha, and sampling from New Order and lyric-checking the Pixies) on track 7 “Twenty Dollar”, and slipping in the line “I put people on the map who’ve never even seen a map”. So really, I just think I’d drop the first three tracks, start with four, and all will be well. As for “Down River” she’s politically feisty again, and sampling gun and typewriter sounds. That I can get behind. Even more so on next track, which is quiet and disquieting, and possibly remixing polka music. Then “XR2” which is maybe channeling the spirit of global rave culture. And now “Paper Planes” is getting ethereal and floating, with some shots, cash registers and “Straight to Hell” sampling thrown in for effect. Doing my AMG & Wikipedia research at the end, and reading that it was made with multiple producers and all over the world, it doesn’t surprise me that it sounds more scattered, musically and thematically, than “Arular”. Folks seem to like it better, which I don’t agree with, but, well, I’m a sucker for narrative. Isn’t some kind of through line important for an album? Still 10 out of 13 great tracks in a variety of styles is nothing to sneeze at…

Outkast, “Stankonia” (2000, 6 votes)
Live from the Center of the Earth? Seven Light Years below the surface? Which reminds me of Parliament and then goes straight into a series of sexual slurping sounds that could be straight out of Prince. Then they’re straight into talking about burning the American Dream on “Gasoline”. You know, the second interlude is straight out of Prince too. Oh, but then we start to slow jam into “So Fresh, So Clean”. I’ve got to say that makes a nice contrast to the political rage of the first song. These guys have range! Then “Mrs. Jackson”, a seemingly heartfelt mea culpa to the baby mammas and their mammas. That’s their words, not mine. Hey, and I just spotted a Kanye West sample, which makes sense, because the lyrical strength and musical sophistication here remind me of him. I wonder if he had a part in production here, or just followed their lead? By track 6 “Snappin’ & Trappin’”, we’re down in some gangster material thick with paranoia and a weird warbling sound effect in the background. Got to say I really like these guys so far, a quarter of the way in. Oh, and a “My Adidas” call-out on the otherwise darkly-inflected “Spaghetti Junction”. The next interlude and track actually gives the female voice some equal time, a rarity in 2000s hip-hop for sure. (Though admittedly, with its October 2000 release date, this album is more like 90s afterburn.) After which “B.O.B” gets fast and furious and brings up the Gulf War before Iraq II started. The next track is on to talk of hand grenades and homemade bombs. Pretty interesting given that this is all pre 9/11. I do like my artist as prophet. Then on “We Luv Deez Hoez” we get the artist as womanizing misogynist. Oh, boys… Which gets fully redeemed on “Humble Mumble”, half social critique and half silly rhyme play. Like I said earlier, these guys have range. They also have a good sense of sequencing in terms of sounds and themes, aka this is a really honest-to-goodness album. I like to think the next track “Red Velvet” is actually about cake. Not sure if I’m able to follow enough to tell, but they did just name-check Bill Gates. The interlude that follows is probably the first time a rap song featured the shout “break” since 1987. So, wrapping up now (track 20 of 24), where are we? I feel like this is either a gangster rap album with some uncommon self-reflection and mirthful musical inventiveness, or a conscious hip-hop album gone gangster. Either way, it doesn’t sound like everything else and I really like it. Oh, even more now that “Toilet Tisha” has chilled me with its heartfelt anguished tale of suicide. Which they knew to follow with a slow jam, a skit, and a gospel finale. I’d definitely put this toward the top of what I’ve listed to so far. Which is nice to be able to do since it’s the last hip-hop album in the mix. Well done 2000s hip-hop, well done…


Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (2009, 3 votes)

Well, I have to say this is a pleasant surprise. Based on the knowledge that they’re an indie band, and the self-consciously smart title, I was expecting something that would be like a lot of 00s Indie Rock: droning and bleary, or experimentally over-arty. Whereas “Listzomania” actually made me happy and had my head bouncing from the first second. This was more of an instant “like” than anything I’ve heard so far on this list. Definitely New Wave influenced, as a lot of the 00s Indie scene is, but not in a way that sounds like a day-glo mausoleum of the 80s. There are lyrics. Fairly dense lyrics. I think they mean something. But I don’t care because the surging Neo-New Wave rock is so much fun to listen to! Four tracks in now to “Fences”, and this is something I could picture listening to a lot. It certainly reminds me of things- Tegan and Sara’s “So Jealous”, Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Postal Service. And those are all things I like too. So it does appear, after all, that the Indie scene has somethinggoing for it. I’m sending that this probably doesn’t get to the profundity of Arcade Fire or Beck, but I don’t care! Listening to it makes me feel like a teenager waiting for my favorite moment in my new favorite song. Whoa-whoa-whoa-what? They’re French? Mon dieu! Goes to show you how accurate my prejudices are. Well done, continentals, well done.   

Next stop-albums 16 through 20!

Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (6-10)

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…      

Revisiting The 2000s: 20 Albums (First Five)

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…