Friday, January 08, 2010

Some Albums of the 00s

I like lists. Not just writing them - thats just an excuse to mention as much stuff I love in one post as I can - but reading them. End of year lists are compulsive, whether you agree with their contents or not. End of Decade lists even more so. But all the music lists I read over the last few weeks I more or less hated. Such conformity, so little originality! Every list mentioning the same stuff, over and over - the Strokes, Radiohead, the White Stripes, Outkast, Kanye West, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Wilco, Daft Punk, the Arctic Monkeys, Jay-Z, the Streets, etc etc blah blah blah. I understand that with cinema, where there is less material released, less stylistic variety, and a critical consensus is often quick to form. And I have almost all of these albums and like them all, I'm not saying they aren't good records. But music seems the most subjective of artforms, to me. I have friends who I more or less see eye-to-eye with about cinema and fiction, tv and comics. But music is always where there is a disconnect. All of my friends who are a few years younger than me have radically different taste to me. As it should be, I think. And they would probably be as horrified by the uniformity of the best album lists I'm talking about as I am.

Anyway, my list is personal. Its the albums I have loved, the ones that have stayed with me through this decade, the ones that have meant most and that I still listen to. Most of them got nowhere near the lists. So hopefully I can do some justice here. Here are ten records, in no order of preference:



Kings of Convenience - Riot on an Empty Street (2004)
Does anybody I know like Kings of Convenience? I bought their first album when it came out based on reviews, I think, and thought it rather average, with a few really good songs. But when I came to load up my iMac with songs with which to fill my very first iPod, I listened to a lot of my cds all the way through for the first time in ages. I had to pick and choose because that iPod had a limited capacity and only the finest albums went on complete. I was surprised by how many songs off that first album made the cut. Then came the (even better) second album. The third, released this year, is of the same high standard.
Something about that distinctive KoC mood is compulsive, addictive, even. Those sometime-whispered lyrics, the close, quiet harmonies, the perfect guitar sound, both melody and rhythm at once in chopped hard chords or finger-picked arpeggios, always acoustic, and the frequently inspired arrangements all combine to make some lovely, sensitively poetic music. Some of it sounds loungey, with touches of bossa nova here and there, and there are obvious alternative influences. But the real key is the songwriting - tuneful, melancholic and full of subtle beauty. The lyrics are generally mournful, articulate dissections of love and relationships, full of acute detail. I think these songs speak to the lovelorn, self-dramatizing teenager in me. "Know-How", from this album, featuring a breathtaking moment when the guest vocal from Feist kicks in about halfway through, is a great example of what they do and one of my favourite songs of the decade.



Pernice Brothers - Yours Mine & Ours (2003)
I love Joe Pernice as a songwriter. He writes beautiful pop songs and then arranges them as chiming guitar-rock jewels, full of hooks and thrilling, if never revolutionary, musical detail. He writes everyday poetry of failed love and struggling relationships, of nostalgic recollection and quiet passion, and has an ear for an arresting line, always refusing cliche ("I'm lonely as the Irish sea") but finding the right line to emotion. He coos these words over his own often lush melodies. He makes me love pop music. This album, his band's third, is full of great songs, the right words put together in surprising order, and often lovely arrangements. It breaks my heart that he has never received the acclaim he deserves. He should be at least as well-regarded and successful as Elliott Smith was and his band should be as big as the Shins. Songs like "Baby In Two", "Judy", "Number Two" ("Little power monger, sleep tonight/The city lights up like a dirty dime/I hope that this letter finds you crying/It would feel so good to see you cry") and "Sometimes I Remember" should be immortal. But they're not, unfortunately. Such is life and the music business.



Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)
I've written about this incredible record before. I think its the best thing Mark Kozelek has ever done, and it's probably my favourite album of the last decade. I never grow tired of it. I love its density and variety, from the fragile folk of "Floating" and "Glenn Tipton" to the riff-rock of "Salvador Sanchez" and "Lily and Parrots". I love Kozelek's defiantly personal, sometimes baffling lyrics, wrestling with time and loss and ageing and his pop culture obsessions (boxing and Judas Priest). I love the new dimensions to his musical palette - the mandolins and mariachi guitars and the strings. What remains, as always, are his songwriting and that deep soulful voice. He can write a devastating 14 minute psych-rock Epic like nobody else and make it sad and euphoric and lovely ("Duk Koo Kim"), but then many of his songs are sad and euphoric and lovely and this record is full of such little miracles.



Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R (2000)
Their next record, Songs for the Deaf, was probably their most acclaimed of the decade, but this remains my favourite. And it was a decade owned in part by Josh Homme, who seemed to be everywhere, either with this band or in his Desert Sessions side-project or Them Crooked Vultures or the Eagles of Death Metal or producing for the Arctic Monkeys. It rocks, obviously, and Homme has a way of making his guitars sound that I love - they are loud and crunchy but also, crucially, fuzzy and occasionally mellow, snake-hipped and always bringing the funk. Lots of bass, little treble. This band is awesomely tight, too, storming through these songs so that the record feels shorter than its 42 minutes. There is wit - Feelgood Hit of the Summer and Quick and to the Pointless - and lots of nous with a pop tune, but Homme generally deals in a sort of bruised widescreen desert romanticism and an Epic groove rock, one step removed from his work with Kyuss, always borne upon those big guitars, and this album soars when it does what he does best, as in the awesome Better Living Through Chemistry.



The Avalanches - Since I Left You (2000)
This one made some lists, and well it might, containing as it does what I reckon is the greatest single of the decade - the purist aural sunshine of that title track. But the whole album bristles with wit and invention, and there is a hook - sampled from another song and looped, of course - along every ten seconds or so. Its also funny ("Frontier Psychiatrist") and exciting and hyperactive. If you heard it without any knowledge of the band whatsoever, you would know they were from somewhere sunny. Its just an optimistic record, a blissed out record. It sounds like it doesn't know Winter even exists. It is also fantastic from beginning to end.



Radiohead - Hail to the Thief (2003)
I know, I know - Kid A is more important, In Rainbows is poppier and more accessible, but I fell for Radiohead back when they were basically an Indie-Arena rock Band, and I like them best either with Guitars, Guitars, dammit, making a racket, or on those massive swooning string-based ballads Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood turn out every so often ("Harry Patch" or "Pyramid Song", say). Hail to the Thief is the last true Rock record they made, and probably, based on what they've said, the last they'll ever make. It was a struggle which nearly broke the band, and you can almost hear that in the music - its an angry, bitter record. But I love it's textures - from the fluffed moment of feedback that kicks off "2 + 2 = 5" ("Thats a good start, Jonny" says Yorke) through all the spiky arpeggios and ragged riffs of "Go To Sleep", and the epic conclusion of "There There" (these songs recall Pablo Honey and The Bends more than their later records) to the electro-queasiness of "Backdrifts" and "The Gloaming" and the lovely forlorn keening of "Sail to the Moon" and "I Will" to the jittery shufflings of "Myxamatosis" and "Wolf at the Door". My favourite though is the slow, piano-based groove of "Punchup at a Wedding" which goes nowhere rather beautifully.



Beck - Sea Change (2002)
I'd always liked Beck but never loved him until this record. His previous stuff - with the exception of some of the early country blues and one or two moments on Mutations ("Nobody's Fault But My Own" in particular) - had been funny and inventive and clever, but it always left me a little cold. No emotion or feeling in it, and just the suggestion that beneath all those brains there was nothing at all to say. But then his longtime, live-in girlfriend dumped him for somebody else, and suddenly Beck had something to say, and more importantly some pain to impart.
Sea Change may just be the greatest break-up record of the decade. It cribs arrangements and even hints of melody from Serge Gainsbourg and Nick Drake, but Beck uses what he steals just beautifully with a series of tremendous songs of heartbreak and emotional desolation with very telling titles: "Lost Cause", "End of the Day", "Already Dead" and "Guess I'm Doing Fine". His voice seems altered by grief and the instrumentation is often lush and even overwrought, but it all adds up to a rare emotional intensity: he means it, maan. That girl really screwed our boy up. This record makes that experience seem worthwhile, for listeners at least. "Lonesome Tears" is, for me, its mesmeric highlight.



Elliott Smith - Figure 8 (2000)
It's a slight step down from Smith's two preceding records, Either/Or (1997) and XO (1998), but that just means that instead of being breathtakingly incredible, its just amazingly brilliant. And it is - a great demonstration of the breadth of his talent as a songwriter, arranger, musician and singer. It contains a smattering of Beatlesque pop-rock songs ("Son of Sam", "Pretty Mary K", "LA") and a couple of folky numbers as good as any he wrote ("I Better Be Quiet Now", "Everything Reminds Me of Her") plus some songs which suggested he might be moving off in other directions ("Stupidity Tries", "Everything Means Nothing To Me"). As ever with his records, its the unusual, nagging, melancholic melodies and the layered, inventive production which really impresses. Topped off with Smith's dense, often dark, sometimes embittered lyrics. The record released after his death isn't a patch on it, and I saw him when he toured it. He was awesome that night, but then, he was just awesome.



PJ Harvey - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Winning the Mercury Music prize seemed to seal this record's fate, critically-speaking, at least. It is Harvey's most commercially successful album, and for me its easily her best - a classic rock record full of big, bold songs and anthemic arrangements, singalong choruses and streamlined guitars. Its the most accessible, mainstream record of her career, and that has obviously led to some sort of snobbish re-evaluation of its merits in the decade since its release. But no such re-evaluation is needed - its a great album, made all the greater by the sense that it was written by a woman clearly falling in love. So many of her songs - often glum and dark - are here rocket-fuelled by a passion for a man, and an interlinked passion for New York City. She embraces her populist side, something she hasn't done since, and reveals an ability to write pop songs. Hard to pick a favourite track, though the nicely-judged duet with Thom Yorke ("This Mess We're In") is just shaded by "We Float", "This Is Love" and "Good Fortune."



Explosions In the Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
Post Rock is a pretty meaningless label, especially when its applied to music as beautiful as this. Explosions In the Sky- which may be the greatest name any band has ever had, since it usefully describes their sound - craft immense, crystalline, thunderous mega-symphonies in which the dominate sound is that of electric guitars. Their songs build to emotionally charged climaxes that generally make Mogwai seem restrained. They have been put to great use in Friday Night Lights - both film and TV series - but are best experienced loud, over big speakers.
This album is just about perfect, composed of five long songs (the shortest, the awesome, epic "Your Hand In Mine" runs 8:17) which flow together to make for one long tremendously moving experience.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Ross said...

There would definitely be a bunch of things we'd disagree on, but of the ten you've featured I've only heard the QOTSA, Radiohead and PJ albums, and I'm happy to agree with you.
The problem I have with the new digital download culture is that I don't really keep track of when things were released, things are just good or bad. Half of the albums I listened to for the first time this year must be pre-2009, at least.

5:38 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

Ahhhh, bringing it.
I just read through the Stylus end of decade lists and was thinking exactly what you were. It's all the same shit. Surely the whole point of this decade is that we were all listening to wonderously seperate stuff, when we weren't listening to "Crazy In Love" and "Mr. Brightside" or whatever. The album lists are just full of stuff I can't find any heart in.

A couple on yours that I haven't heard and may check out. That Explosions In The Sky nod has got me thinking I need to relisten to all their stuff (and that kind of stuff) before making any decade album list of my own.

I can't be doing with "Hail To The Thief" but then I think that perfectly illustrates the breadth of their appeal. They managed to make three albums I love this decade so I figure they can throw Pablo Honey fans a bone.

The other thing I thought whilst perusing the end of decade lists was why do Rockist dudes love that Avalanches album whilst folk from a more sample based tradition mostly ignore it?
I think I dismissed it as "just naff" at the time and have found its creep towards 00s-opus a most perplexing development. Perhaps I should get a copy or perhaps everyone that loves it should get copies of lots of earlier records by other people. Probably the former.

I have many lists to write. Many lists.

11:02 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Re: The Avalanches rockist appeal. You're right and I don't know why.
I loved the single, bought the album on that basis and loved it too. Maybe because the single is such an obvious slice of classic crossover feelgood soul-pop? Or do you find it naff too...?
I think the very Rockist success of Outkast's The Love Below/Speakerboxx is similar - Hey Ya was a crossover hit which drew people to the album, in a way even Ms Jackson hadn't done with Stankonia. And people who wouldn't ordinarily listen to a hip hop album liked it, partly because it was familiarly stuffed with stylistic shifts and references to other rockist staples (p-Funk, Prince etc).

Or maybe I just don't know.

12:20 am  
Blogger Beezer B said...

I don't think I actually heard "Since I Left You" at the time. I heard "Frontier Psychiatrist" and thought it an unfunny, pale imitation of Prince Paul. Especially as he'd already released an entire album entitled "Psychoanalysis" which I still find very funny. Also it sounds naff, as music, to me. Comedy music is pretty subjective though, even by the standards of music.

"Since I Left You" (never seen the video before btw) sounds like sort of song I might like but it didn't and doesn't hit me really. A little twee perhaps? A little floral? I don't know. I shall endeavor to hear the rest of the album again but I do find it all most mysterious. Not that you like it, or that other people like it but that there is consensus over it.

Re: Outkast. They put people at ease just enough. Image also. Image image image.

12:42 am  

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