Thursday, January 21, 2010

Top 25 Albums of the 00s

I am one of those antiquated goofballs who counts from 1 to 10 rather than 0 to 9, so I'm not convinced that the 00s are over yet. But prevailing opinion has turned against me here and I like making lists (clearly), so here's my picks for the Top 25 Albums of the Decade as redshifted to the past by a year.

25. Sigur Ros - () (2002).
24. Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers (2005).
23. Richard Davies - Barbarians (2000).
22. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007).
21. Mekons - OOOH! (2002).

I'll be the first to admit that Sigur Ros's decision to sing in the made-up scat language "Hopelandic" is ridiculous, but () is a lovely and inspiring work. Tanglewood Numbers isn't the best Silver Jews album, but it's a contender and that's good enough for me. I almost picked 2001's Bright Flight instead, but I ultimately decided that Bright Flight has higher peaks ("Time Will Break The World," "I Remember Me," "Death Of An Heir Of Sorrows"), but Tanglewood Numbers is more consistently great.  Barbarians is an utterly brilliant album that captures Davies' experience as an immigrant wrestling with the pros and cons of American culture.  Please come back to us, Richard Davies.  Night Falls Over Kortedala is a wonderfully eclectic mix of sounds with Lekman's signature wry humor and powerful emotional twists.  OOOH! (which stands for Out Of Our Heads!) is the best Mekons albums since Mekons Rock and Roll, a rollicking tide of apocalyptic humor, country-tinged agitprop, and drop-dead stunning songwriting.  The best Mekons songs make you feel like you just wandered into a boisterous argument about obscure truths between drunken intellectuals who have devolved (evolved?) into choral sing-shouting at each other.

20. Yo La Tengo - ...And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000).
19. Danielson - Ships (2006).
18. Vic Chesnutt - At The Cut (2009).
17. The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005).
16. Scott Walker - The Drift (2006).

YLT's 2000 album was a moody affair of quiet revelations, end-of-the-evening dance songs, and the cinematic "Night Falls On Hoboken."  I listened to it constantly while writing my thesis in 2000, and I credit it with giving me the right feel to maintain my sanity.  Ships is the best Danielson release, summing up the whole of Daniel Smith's inclusive all-my-friends-and-the-kitchen-sink philosophy of songcraft into a metaphor about travel.  At The Cut is Chesnutt's penultimate album, the little fucker, but it's also his most fully realized album, combining his knife-edge emotionalism with the truly dramatic music it deserves.  Separation Sunday embraces the silliness and majesty of rock music by marrying barrroom rock riffage with hyper-literate lyrics that are simultaneously breezy stories of skatepunks and a profound investigation into religious mythology and guilt.  The Drift is the most terrifying album ever made, the darkest mirror to chamber-pop lightness, an investigation into the soul that finds all of humanity lacking.

15. The Decemberists - Picaresque (2005).
14. The New Pornographers - Electric Version (2003).
13. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha (2007).
12. Deerhoof - Milk Man (2004).
11. The Wrens - The Meadowlands (2003).

Picaresque is the best Decemberists album for being the best example of the Decemberists' folk-art aesthetic.  Everything they've dumped on us since has reeked of white elephant intent, but with Picaresque, Colin Meloy and co. took their Progressive Era + Brit Folk pretensions and gnawed away at the frame until they'd created a chapbook of stories bursting with life.  Electric Version similarly saw the New Pornographers, who are, after all, the 2000s version of the Cars, blow their pop music up into a sharp-eyed examination of the world around them, complete with the best pop hooks and harmonies since "Just What I Needed."  Armchair Apocrypha is Bird's gnomic Astral Weeks, gathering his love of esoterica (whistles, loops, and yelps) into a mesmerizing folk-rock album.  Milk Man captures Deerhoof  at the cusp of a shift in their sound, where the previous albums set pop and noise at greater odds and the later favored pop and rock harmony a bit too prominently.  Milk Man had Deerhoof subsuming the opposition into a fun and extremely listenable whole.  If you try, you can hear the work in The Meadowlands, years of effort with countless added and erased layers of instrument and vocal tracks hidden just below the surface of every song.  But the album never sounds like work: the songs rock and bleed and fight against whatever is encroaching with the effortlessness of a group of tightrope walkers who don't appear to realize how far out on the rope they are.

10. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002).

Like Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers album, this is the sound of a band on the verge of falling apart. Five years of a mostly stable line-up had leapt from the country-rock pleasures of A.M. to the genre-defying Being There to the art-pop of Summerteeth to this album, which boldly married commercial folk-rock music and avant-garde noise and deconstruction.  And meanwhile band leader Jeff Tweedy first forced out longtime drummer Ken Coomer in favor of the creative Glenn Kotche and then, surprisingly, guitarist/keyboardist/primary collaborator/rival Jay Bennett.  Their label balked, but Wilco waited them out, building buzz with their fan base, and the band beat the label.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn't the work of a single vision, but a single voice with a number of different lenses that alternately obscure and dissect the underlying song.  The future was now.

9. Earthless - Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (2007).

Earthless is a power trio that performs instrumental rock.  I have to remind myself of this fact many times over while listening to this album.  Two 20+ minute tracks and a short cover of a Groundhogs tune (with vocals!). In lesser hands, anything this self-indulgent would be insanely boring, but Earthless effortlessly invokes the blues-rock powerhouses of the late 60s/early 70s (Hendrix, Sabbath, and Funkadelic, in particular) with a psychedelic sense of movement and flow somewhere between Acid Mothers Temple, the Allman Brothers Band, and the Velvet Underground.  But all these 60s comparisons aren't fair: Earthless is entirely their own band.  I chose Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky for this list (because I'm partial to producer Tim Green's Hammond organ cameos), but it has only the slightest edge on the other two Earthless albums, Sonic Prayer and Live At Roadburn.

8. Sufjan Stevens - Come On Feel The Illinoise! (2005).

He's impossibly precious: the stabs at Reichian minimalism, the crazy-long enthusiastic song titles, the whole 50 states project, the high-school jazz-band on acid sound of the music, the wings they all wear in concert.  I sorta want to punch the guy or take him hunting or at least get him drunk on expensive single-malt and force him to watch a bunch of John Ford movies. His pretensions aren't just those of the twee indie dandy sort, but - as the Spanish might say - entirely huevos-free. But that's unfair. It takes balls to make oddball art-pop music like this, and it takes serious chops to make music this weird so damn palatable. 

7. Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004).

Speaking of precious, Newsom is a harpist with a strangely sweet girlishly nasal-whine voice. And she's a hell of a great songwriter. Her tracks are beautiful and literate, seemingly pulled from the great Victorian Era of folk-rock (I think this happened in the early 70s, shortly after Nick Drake died).  Newsom has a Victorian novelist's way with words, a sense of clever circling around the point.  And the songs are seemingly as direct as if they had been written for fingerstyle guitar in the 1920s, while being, in fact, fairly sophisticated in structure and performed on an angelic harp, a rarity, to say the least, in rock music.  Watching Ms. Newsom perform live has brought me an appreciation for the complexity of the harp. I doubt many Appalachian songwriters or Victorian novelists ever thought of working on a piano turned sideways with most of the wood stripped away.

6. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life (2008).

Punk music was supposed to challenge the norms and your expectations, but, y'know, it's been 30 years since its heyday. Much of what passes for punk music in the 00s is the opposite of challenging: exactly what you think it is, a rehash of either the Ramones or Minor Threat or The Fall.  Many punk fans are the opposite of what they're supposed to be, too.  Instead of constantly being on the search for sounds that are new and surprising, they are the most rigid of dogmatists, excluding anything from their club that threatens their own personal hegemony.  This is human nature, of course, especially when we're talking about the music of revolution, a call that is especially appealing to teenagers. And the teenagers who would be punk fans are in a weird place: overly concerned with authenticity but lacking the tools to apprehend it, trapped in a cycle of defiance that sets rules about them that were defiant more than a generation ago, but are now as defiant as, I don't know, Converse low-tops. All of that is to say that when a band like Fucked Up comes along, a band that revitalizes and reinvests in punk by combining its roaring power with proggy ambition and serious guitar chops, this is a rare and wonderful thing.  Fucked Up challenges the norms and expections by taking the ideology of punk seriously. God bless 'em for it.

5. Mastodon - Leviathan (2004).

Speaking of proggy, how about an art-metal concept album about Moby-Dick?  In retrospect, Moby-Dick is ideal inspiration for a creative metal band, being about not just the humanisim in brotherhood of men on an insane mission, but the mission itself, the doomed struggle against indifferent nature. Mastodon is such a creative metal band, with old-school Iron Maiden drama, but also the heaviness of stoner metal, the twin-guitar prowess of death metal, and a sense of melodic lyricism rarely heard in metal.

4. The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat (2004).

The Pynchonian impulse in rock music is rarely as realized as on Blueberry Boat. Again and again on this album, technology fails us and our own natures overwhelm our best intentions. The sound is offputting, sudden shifts in mood and tempo bathed in wildly artificial bloop-bleeps and vintage synth-percussion and heavily wah-wahed spazz-guitars.  But Blueberry Boat has a beating heart and all of its tall tales, despite their borderline autistic focus on detail, bring the creative intelligence behind this album to fully bear on the listener.  This is a modernist magnum opus disguised as a postmodern rock opera.

3. Akron/Family - Love Is Simple (2007).

The dystopian hippies of Akron/Family know that love isn't simple, not for most people. But they also know that love doesn't have to be complex.  Love is fundamentally an estactic emotion, both necessary and difficult, and it can embrace the opposition and hold it in check. I'm off-track here. Love Is Simple is a collection of songs that follow no formula but their own hearts.  Akron/Family wants to give you the gift of satori.  They intend to shock you into a great realization, even one that can be a banally expressed as "love is simple." 

2. Boris - Pink (2006).

The answers might be lost in translation.  What is Boris doing on this album?  What are these songs about?  Why Pink?  Why "Farewell"?  Why "Pseudo-Bread"?  I don't know, but the music is incredible.  Doom metal, ok.  Profoundly moving rock, yes.  Boris is creating powerful and moving soundscapes to project their rock dream upon.  I may remain confused about their message, but I understand their means of conveying it.  And that may be the whole of the message.

1. Animal Collective - Feels (2005).

Here Animal Collective peaked.  Their electonic avant-noise and bucolic folk tendencies were perfectly balanced with their Beach Boys-esque pop, creating a work that could transport listeners straight out of the hell of 2005, the year that Bush began his second term, and into a timeless sense of well-being.  And the second-side suite of "Bees" -> "Banshee Beat" -> "Daffy Duck" -> "Loch Raven" -> "Turn Into Something" rivals Abbey Road for sequence perfection. When I think of the sound of the 00s I think about the moment about 2 minutes into "Banshee Beat" when the shimmering, jittering guitar envelopes the track like crickets enveloping low murmer of trucks on a distant highway in the hum of evening silence.  This is where synthetic and organic between one, like a tree that sprouts perfectly machined cogwheels as fruit.  And then Avey Tare suggest that you get out and find a swimming pool, and it's summer and you're 18, and all is right with the world again.


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