Friday, October 22, 2010

A Few More Great Albums of the Aughts: Pt. 1, 2000-2002

The calling card of the modern music snob is the desire to put all things music into concrete, unequivocal lists representing the best or worst of any topic of musical relevance that his or her brain can conjure up. It’s the tongue-in-cheek inspiration for the name of this blog, as borrowed from High Fidelity, which outs the futility of such an inane notion. At the end of the day, there’s no standard on which you can judge music: everything about it is subjective.  Even individual tastes will wander over a very short period of time - try making a list of your top five favorite (insert band name, genre, subject, etc. here) songs of all time, if you can, and then see if it's the same a week later.

Still, music snobs and publications remain persistent in their desire to make more and more “lists”. The turn of the last decade offered no exception, as every music magazine, website and blog rushed to put out their lists of the top albums and songs of the last ten years. No less apparent than this epidemic fetish of list-making was the arbitrary nature of it all, as each source subsequently ranked albums based on their own mysterious criteria and agenda.  Two of the more publicized lists were that of Rolling Stone magazine and Pitchfork Media, two essentially at-odds entities, which came up with sometimes similar and sometimes different results.

The main problem with lists other than that they're opinions that are treated like something absolute, is that typically there is such a limited amount of value contained in someone else's opinion, particularly if the audience already has one of their own.  Like the television program of a political pundit, they exist much more to affirm than they do to inform.  No Rolling Stone subscriber is reading the "Albums of the Decade" article and saying to themself "I was right" or "I was wrong," and they most likely aren't even using it as a reference to what they might listen to next or go back and give a second look.  Instead, the first reaction of 99.9% of readers will be either "I agree" or "I disagree," which makes such a list just a catalyst to someone forming a sort of subjective list of their own.

In my opinion, I would say that mostly the two lists got it “right,” right meaning that within the context of those publication's agendas and biases, all the albums that we thought would and should be there were there, in some order or another. Between the two, a lot of really good albums were represented. Whether those albums were the "best" or not, no one can really say, and the choices of each publications were undoubtedly predictable. Outside of the obvious top tier (Radiohead, Wilco, Jay-Z, the Arcade Fire, and the Strokes, in some order), Rolling Stone mostly pandered to the bigger, more mainstream labels and trends, and Pitchfork did the opposite, and for that reason a "better" right, if such a thing exists, might be a composite of the two. Let’s face it, no one expected to see any Coldplay albums on the Pitchfork list, and where Stone had to leave out the Knife’s Silent Shout for fear of readers furrowing their brows, Pitchfork listed it at #15.  Each had their own glaring omissions, such as where Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People somehow missed Stone's list completely, and Pitchfork gave OutKast a nod for Stankonia at #16 and then seemed to say, “That’s enough for you, radio-played artist” and left out Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. There was also the occasional surprise; Elliott Smith fans were shocked and elated to see Figure 8 on Rolling Stone's list at all, let alone #42, and disappointed that Pitchfork allowed it to slip all the way to the nosebleed section at #192.

Other than that making observations, I can't really critique the lists any further without injecting my own bias I'm just not going to be a hypocrite and say something something like I thought Turn on the Bright Lights and Oh! Inverted World should have been higher on both lists.  How awful that would be of me.  What's hopefully not biased is to present a few forgotten albums which by no means am I saying "should have been on the lists," but, not unlike the ones that were actually chosen, are just some damn good albums of the last ten years. While they may not have fit nicely into any major publication's agenda, you personally might enjoy them, and that's all that really matters.

Here is the first set in unbiased, chronological order.  I couldn't help but denote a handful of my most personal favorites with an *.

1 Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 [Ark 75, 2000]

An album which is for all intensive purposes the jumping off point for a collaboration that would later become the first Gorillaz record, Deltron 3030 features heroes of underground hip-hop Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala taking on the persona's of Del Zero, The Cantankerous Captain Aptos, and Skiznod the Boy Wonder as they voyage through the corporate-run galaxy of the year 3030 on a mission to restore hip-hop dominance in one of the most eccentric and ambitious rap albums ever produced. If it sounds insane, well, it is, but it’s also insanely good.

Key Track: "3030"

2 Pheonix, United [Astralwerks, 2000]

Though Pheonix hit it big in 2009 with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they’ve got quite a catalog of past albums, which tells the story of a band losing their funk in favor of a more alternative sound. That’s what makes their debut arguably their peak, as United finds this French band doing what the French do best, besides surrendering: disco-esque dance pop.

Key Track: “If I Ever Feel Better”

3 The Sea and Cake, Oui [Thrill Jockey, 2000]

Super-mellow vocals from Sam Prekop meld flawlessly with crisp electric guitars, Latin drum beats (via Tortoise and Stereolab drummer John McEntire), and a fair share of electronic vibes. Oui is pitch perfect stoner music, low-key indie rock with the earthy, lethargic ambiance of a twenty-minute Phish jam session, impressively sustained throughout a wide variety of tempos and moods over the course of the album.

Key Track: “Afternoon Speaker”

*4 Air, 10,000Hz Legend [Astralwerks, 2001]

You get the feeling that the success of 1998's Moon Safari, with songs that personified cool like "La Femme D'argent" and "Sexy Boy," went to the heads of duo Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel a bit.  Comparatively, 10,000Hz Legend is a more ambitious and inherently more self-aware album, and in many places on the album that pays off.  But for a band that creates the kind of simple-pleasure electronic/jazz/pop music that Air does, it can also create a sense of melancholy that is counter-productive.  Although their sophomore release may be a bit rough around the edges compared to its near-perfect kid brother, with sporadic and unfocused interludes, including a guest appearance by Beck, you have to give them credit for their uncanny ability to evoke a sense of '70s lounge retro that nobody else since has ever been able to replicate.

Key Track: “Radian”

5 Aphex Twin, DrukQs [Warp/Sire, 2001]

Aphex Twin, the pseudonym for DJ Richard D. James, may be the Velvet Underground of modern electronic music. To those who are fans of the genre, he’s universally respected. To everyone else, he doesn’t exist, despite being an outspoken influence on many, many modern musicians. And if you have any doubts about a knob-twiddler being a true musician, just listen for yourself to his beautifully melodic piano composition, “Avril 14”.

Key Tracks: "Avril 14"

6 Azure Ray, Azure Ray [Warm, 2001]

You could knock Azure Ray for being essentially art-chick emo delivered with the same style of ghostly stoicism and multi-tracked harmonies utilized by probable influence Elliott Smith, and you could knock me for putting them on this list.  I struggled owning up to this one, but I am trying to be objective and represent a variety of tastes.  The truth of me putting this here and of this album is that sometimes honesty can be so stark that it's simultaneously beautiful and nauseating.  Burn it for your girlfriend to show her what a sensitive guy you are.

Key Track: “Sleep”

*7 Broken Social Scene, Feel Good Lost [Arts & Crafts/Noise Factory, 2001]

Most people know Broken Social Scene as the band that broke indie out of the underground once and for all, thrashing their way onto the radar screen in 2002 with You Forgot It In People, the album that would pave the way for and ultimately become overshadowed by Arcade Fire’s Funeral. By that time they were a ten-person ensemble, not including then unknown guests like Feist and Metric’s Emily Haines. Given that introduction, it’s hard to believe that only one year earlier, as a two-member group consisting of Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, they’d delivered one of the most flawless and captivating pieces of ambient music ever recorded. It’s everything music of the genre should be, meditative and unobtrusive, giving the impression of simplicity despite being painstakingly woven, as uneventful yet as addictive and enlightening as watching Bob Ross paint.

Key Track: “Passport Radio”

8 Dntel, Life is Full of Possibilities [Plug Research, 2001]

Dntel (aka Jimmy Tamborello) crafts electro-pop beats with an effortlessness that could make you believe he invented syncopation. Even if that wasn’t true, Life is Full of Possibilities deserves to be on this list even if solely for Dntel’s collaboration with Ben Gibbard on “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan.” They’d team up again in 2003 to make a full-length album, Give Up, as The Postal Service.

Key Track: “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”

9 Gorillaz, Gorillaz [EMI, 2001]

It’s rumored that some people remember exactly where they were when they found out that the Blur’s Damon Albarn was more or less the “inventor” of the world’s first “virtual hip-hop group.” For those affected, it created an inner turmoil and unease almost akin to the feeling you got when you realized what your parents had to do for you to exist. Could it be true that the man on the cutting edge of one of the decade’s hippest and most original creations was the one of the same guys who personified Britpop? It is, and it’s time to get over it. While the 17-track debut is at times a bit too ambitious for its own good, its swagger, emboldened by producer Dan “The Automator” and effortless flow of rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien, is undeniable. And let’s not forget the imagery, which is as instrumental to the music as, well, the instruments.

Key Track: “Rock the House”

10 Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things [Saddle Creek, 2001]

Jenny Lewis says “fuck” a lot, and Ronnie from “Salute Your Shorts” plays bass. I don’t know when the “Hipster” movement became official but it well could have been at a Rilo Kiley concert.

Key Track: “Son or Daughter”

11 Telefon Tel Aviv, Fahrenheit Fair Enough [Hefty, 2001]

The title track is quite simply one of the best, most intricate and well produced tracks in electronic/ambient music’s history, so much so that I use it as a benchmark for people’s musical taste. When someone tells me that they’re getting into electronic music, I ask them “Have you listened to ‘Fahrenheit Fair Enough’?” If so, you’re off to a good start.

Key Track: "Fahrenheit Fair Enough"

12 Turin Brakes, The Optimist LP [Source UK, 2001]

You could pretty easily lump Turin Brake's music in with the rest of the soft alternative rock movement that resulted from everyone shitting their pants after OK Computer, a movement from which Coldplay was the only enduring success, and you'd be right to do so.  But that doesn't mean that The Optimist is anything like Parachutes; it's twice as edgy, substituting melodramatic piano for rhythmic acoustic guitar and  Chris Martin's croon for a a high-pitched rasp (think Stevie Nicks - I actually couldn't tell the first time I heard the band whether the lead singer was a man or a woman; it's the former).  If anything, Turin Brakes proves that good can come out of bad.  Check out "The Door,"which is as solid a melancholy alternative rock single as any other released in the past decade.

Key Track: "The Door"

13 Ulrich Schnauss, Far Away Trains Passing By [City Centre Offices, 2001] 

List out the ambient/electronic producers of the last decade and Ulrich Schnauss' name deserves to be there along with Boards of Canada, The Field, and Manitoba, among others.  Despite the myriad of styles on which each of these individual artists have staked a claim, Schnauss still somehow seems to stand apart from the bunch.  It's not that he's "better," he's not., but electronic music is supposed to be, by definition, unfeeling; there's an obvious inhuman quality to it that often makes it foreign and unwelcoming even to those who enjoy it.  It's because of that platform that so much electronic music has the quality of also being so barren, minimalistic, and experimental; it's only natural that the expressions of someone attracted to the cold circuitry of a synthesizer or computer would often carry those traits.  On Far Away Trains Passing By, Schnauss breaks that mold with his beautiful and lush compositions, producing aural electronic tapestries with the unique quality of being accessible and obscure at the same time.  One might even describe it as hopeful.

Key Track: "Knuddlemaus"

*14 The Good Life, Black Out [Saddle Creek, 2002]

Don’t be fooled by the fact that Tim Kasher, the creative force behind the Good Life, grew up a very close friend of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and that they’re both disciples of Saddle Creek Records. True, they both sing forlorn songs about regret and despair, but where Oberst does it behind a trembling whimper and an acoustic guitar, Kasher belts it from behind heavy electronics with breath stinking of Jack Daniels and a confidence uncharacteristic of his peers. Though the flow and composition of this album is nothing short of genius, some people may find its darkness and intensity to be off putting - the title is not meant to be facetious: it’s about drinking yourself into oblivion while lamenting your lost love. While I’d venture that’s something a lot of people don’t want to listen to on their morning commute, for others it can actually be pretty comforting. Don’t act like you haven’t done it. This album won’t redeem you, but it may make you feel like at least your not drinking alone.

Key Track: “Empty Bed”

15 Pedro the Lion, Control [Jade Tree, 2002]

Pedro the Lion frontman David Bazan was always a victim of the tragic reality that anyone who even attempts to approach the idea of faith in their music gets labeled an ideologue, or worse yet, a Christian rocker. In actuality, most of Bazan's references to religion are satirical: tongue-in-cheek remarks or back handed compliments.  Being branded with an unfortunate distinction, however, against which many people have an awkward stigma, has prevented Bazan from being recognized as hands down one of the best song writers of our generation. Though all the albums put out by the band this decade were great, no where is Bazan's skill more on display than on Control.

Key Track: "Magazine"

16 RJD2, Deadringer [Definitive Jux, 2002]

It would be misleading, but true, to say that RJD2’s Deadringer is the Entroducing… of the “aughts”, considering how far the DJ genre has grown since the peak days of DJ Shadow. Still, there’s no doubt that Deadringer is the landmark album of one the most talented DJs to ever spin the tables.

Key Track: “Ghostwriter”

17 Trey Anastasio, Trey Anastasio [Elektra, 2002]

If Phish frontman Trey Anastasio felt the need to prove that he was capable of more than just jamming out on gnarly guitar solos to spaced out scores of teenagers and twenty-somethings, he did so on his first solo studio album.  On his self-titled adventure, Anastasio demonstrates his versatility, leading a big band through a complex array of genres from salsa to southern, but without ever losing that trademark grooviness that made him a Jam Band God.  The only thing missing may be a Jon Fishman Electrolux vacuum solo.

Key Track: “Alive Again”

*18 The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone [Star Time International, 2002] 

When the Strokes Is This It was unleashed on the public in late 2001, people were almost startled by its grittiness.  After all, with the exception of Radiohead, they had mostly been listening to over-produced, uninspired, "music for bed wetters" for the nearly half a decade.  Like fellow New York bands the Strokes and Interpol, the Walkmen were on the forefront of the "revival" movement of the early 2000s, and despite embodying that movement more than either of their contemporaries, the Walkmen slipped by mostly unnoticed.  Perhaps their off-beat style was too raw; if the Strokes were gritty, these guys were as filthy as Pigpen from Peanut's, their songs played with the kind of abandon only geniuses are capable of, reminiscent of Velvet Underground avant-garde tracks like "Heroine".  Where the Strokes, particularly lead singer Julian Casablancas, were famous for getting inebriated beyond comprehension and playing reckless, noise-filled shows, the Walkmen were so good because they could do it better unimpaired.

Key Track: “We’ve Been Had”

19 Brendan Benson, Lapalco [Star Time International, 2002]

Before Brendan Benson began taking the stage as Jack White’s right hand man in The Racontuers, he was a one-man Weezer, churning out catchy, alt-pop foot-tappers from his home base in Detroit. Musically, his songs are surprisingly driven despite their mild temperament. His glaring weakness is as a lyricist; his simple rhymes collect in skin-deep verses that are often juvenile and unpenetrating - modern adaptations of wussy, early British Invasion ballads like “Please Please Me.” It’s no wonder that despite being left off of American lists, Lapalco made it all the way up to #47 on British publication NME’s list of the albums of the decade. Still, as the recent success of bands like Free Energy illustrates, that kind of nuts-and-bolts simplicity and unobtrusiveness offers a form of escapism that clearly appeals to people. And at the end of the day, if it’s good enough for Jack White, it’s good enough for you.

Key Track: "Metarie"