Albums Of The Decade, Part 9

I’m trying to think of a unifying theme of the last decade; if there’s anything to be said about people’s musical tastes over the past ten years it can be said that we’re definitely an eclectic bunch. That doesn’t necessarily mean “unfocused” (I’ve never misplaced my hard drive but have lost everything on it before…) or that we’re of the “ADD generation” (gimme my Ritalin) but if there is a common thread; it’s… wait. What was I talking about?

Music!

Deerhunter – Cryptograms (Kranky Records; 2007)

deerhunterCan I just re-post my initial review of this (from my old blogspot)? Edited, of course…

So there’s this choppy and churning, roto-Leslie effect on the guitar (its intent to possibly mimic a siren?) that signals the start of Cryptograms. It’s an ominous warning and Deerhunter wants you to take them serious. As in “dead” serious- it’s an album wrought with imagery of death, as their own bass player died in a tragic skateboard accident recently. It makes for a sad trip of an album, back and forth between light and dark until finally eschewing the grief and moving towards the light.

Track-by-track the same rotary effect is applied as a segue between (White Ink literally sounds just as it’s been named) with a few minutes dedicated to what amounts to white noise. But the ever-present theme of the album returns itself back to those densely layered, choppy delays to segue us away to Lake Somerset; which falls into a jam-band induced trance and drops you lightly into Providence with a toned-down reprise of that thematic and soupy churn of organs and guitar and finally into Octet-Stream.

Evoking both a psychedelic feel and emotive urgency, with that same disconnected lyrical and haunting musical recipe that worked so well in Grizzly Bear‘s excellent Yellow House last year. Other bands that come to mind when listening to this album: Slint‘s Spiderland, My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless, and last year’s debut album from I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. (Side Note: albums I seem to give favor to often find themselves in company with other good albums.)

But at the halfway point of the album, that bubbling theme settles itself to a simmer with an ambient and atmospheric soundscape, and the album’s centerpiece is revealed with Spring Hall Convert and a nice segue into Strange Lights. So it basically took us about 25 minutes into this album before actual songs (as in rhythm, melody, hooks, riffs?) decide to make an appearance- to see if an actual album materializes. And it does quite wonderfully, after the aptly-named Tape Hiss Orchid gives itself into the arms of Heatherwood and its chanting chorus “was not seen again” playing us out of the album.

In short, a great achievement, musically, lyrically. This is where maximum creativity has been reached, definitely one of the better albums of the year. Deerhunter, as a band, has moved on and ultimately accepted reality, which makes for beautiful art.

There you go; my favorite album from one of my favorite bands- see them live when they come to your town.

Key tracks: Tape Hiss Orchid, Heatherwood, Cryptograms, Spring Hall Convert

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The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop Records; 2003)

chutes-too-narrowApparently the title of this record is a euphemism for anal sex; okay, I totally get it. Whether it’s an actual butt-sex reference or simply a metaphor (akin to “screwing the pooch” or “shitting the bed”, i.e.; any term for being a total fuck up) it’s gotta be the most successful album to sneak that one by the record-buying public. The Shins brand of radio-friendly retro pop (with tongue-in-cheek lyrics) really hit its stride on this album- whereas Oh, Inverted World‘s standout tracks had their dreamy and ethereal imagery, this one has shiny vocal harmonies dressed-up with slick production values courtesy of Phil Ek (whose resume includes albums by Band Of Horses, Fleet Foxes and Built To Spill). The Shins could never be accused of being unlistenable, (your mom was probably humming the tunes she knows from the Garden State soundtrack) and that’s their mass appeal; the fact that every one of their tunes sounds as if its ready for a drive-time playlist. Even the songs that aren’t totally saccharine-sweet pop have an understated beauty to them- take the lyrics to Pink Bullets; they have such a trenchant and timeless quality to them it’s as if lead-Shin James Mercer was channeling Nick Drake‘s ghost.

Key tracks: Pink Bullets, Kissing The Lipless, Gone For Good, So Says I

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Radiohead – Amnesiac (Capitol Records; 2001)

amnesiac“I’m a reasonable man, get off my case…” implores Thom Yorke on opening track Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box; it’s funny because Radiohead was in the process of becoming a sort of a cultural Rosetta Stone based on the critical success of Kid A, a phenomenal record in its own right. All but one track on Amnesiac was recorded during those sessions, and stylistically they share a commonality unlike any other back-to-back Radiohead offerings. Because this record was released so close to Kid A (seven months apart), it was glossed over because it was less obtuse, it had more guitar songs, had more singles and videos, etc. All specious arguments; Thom Yorke later said (when pressed to answer the question “why not release a double album or two records simultaneously?”) that

“They are separate because they cannot run in a straight line with each other. They cancel each other out as overall finished things. In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation. Something traumatic is happening in Kid A, this is looking back at it, trying to piece together what has happened. I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid A was all in the distance. The fires were all going on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you’re actually in the forest while the fire’s happening…”

That makes perfect sense; if they did release Kid A and Amnesiac together it probably would’ve been the greatest album of the last 30 years anyway…

Key tracks: Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box, I Might Be Wrong, Knives Out, Pyramid Song

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Minus The Bear – Highly Refined Pirates (Suicide Squeeze Records; 2002)

HighlyRefinedPiratesI can’t give one good reason or even remotely explain why I love this album so damn much; it’s got everything that makes people wanna scream and leave the room- prog-type excesses, over-the-top guitar noodling, ProTools cut-and-paste production values, it’s the antithesis of lo-fi and/or heartfelt singer-songwriter stuff. But I’m not here to defend my taste, I’m here to explain why I love these records- and this record fucking rocks. It’s basically forty-two minutes of guitar-driven, technically proficient post/math rock with some of the most awful song titles this side of Ween. They’re either inside jokes that only the band gets or lines of dialogue from awful sci-fi flick Starship Troopers (seriously), but the titles are almost never mentioned in the songs themselves, they’re entirely different subjects contained within. One review I’ve read of this album bunches them in with The Dismemberment Plan and Built To Spill (two bands I can’t stand because they’re boring as fuck) and yet another review places them in a league with pre-Fear Of Music Talking Heads and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic-era King Crimson (two bands/albums I absolutely adore) so to the haters on this one: go cram it with walnuts. This record kills. But that’s only my opinion, and until you get a blog and start writing about music; it’s the only opinion that matters…

Key tracks: Absinthe Party At The Fly Honey Warehouse, Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!, We Are Not A Football Team, Women We Haven’t Met Yet

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Madvillain – Madvillainy (Stones Throw Records; 2004)

madvillainYou’re probably gonna give me a ton of shit that this record’s only #31 on the list. I can explain; I think hip-hop’s heyday was the actual heyday of hip-hop (’88 to ’91); why else is that era referred to as “The Golden Age Of Hip-Hop”? I know that’s a weak defense; but in all actuality there’s been a ton of good “rock” music the last ten years, and not a whole lot of good “rap” music. This is a fact- turn on your radio or TV and this fact is indeed proven correct. That point is completely moot when talking about MF Doom and/or Madlib; they’ve never searched for mainstream ears- it’s obvious in the samples they use, ranging from such diverse influences as the space-freak jazz of Sun Ra, the shtick-rock of Frank Zappa, the minimalism of Steve Reich, the hardcore raps of Schooly D and prog wizards Gentle Giant; the common thread running through all of the aforementioned artists is their experimental and innovative natures, just like Madvillain. I would shy away from using the tag “experimental hip-hop” but if there is such a genre; Doom and Lib are at the forefront of that shit.

Key tracks: All Caps, Money Folder, Rhinestone Cowboy, Raid

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Albums Of The Decade, Part 8

Now we’re breaking into the forty best records of the aughts. Stylistically, I’m all over the place with these- experimental, folk, dance-punk, drone, noise pop, hip-hop, post-hardcore; it’s hard to keep track of all the newly invented genres (that mostly sound like slurs and epithets) just to classify all these records. I would have just two genres: good and bad. Maybe a third; so-so music. Or- great, good, so-so and bad. So we got through all the good records, let’s do the great ones now…

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife (Capitol Records; 2006)

TheCraneWifeOne part prog-folk song cycle, one part hyper-literate indie rock. That seems to be The Decemberists‘ formula as of late, the general idea being to make music both a listenable endeavor and as theatrical as possible. And to deliver a concept album-slash-rock opera as your major label debut, well now… I’ll let you in on a little secret, too: four Decemberists‘ records in my top 40 (really). So, if you’re not into melodramatic and sea-shanty based folk music rendered into a pop structure; well then. Here’s the review I wrote back in 2006 for this record:

Japanese folk-tale: impoverished man finds injured crane. Brings it in and nurses it back to health. Crane leaves. Enter beautiful woman, whom the man proceeds to fall in love with and marry. To make ends meet, wife weaves wonderful clothes from silk, but here’s the catch- he may never watch her at work. His greed increases, she works harder. She becomes ill. He peeks in on her to discover that she is in fact the crane that he nursed back to health and she weaves these beautiful garments from plucking her own feathers and weaving them into the loom. She flies away, never to return. Then Colin Meloy and his band sign to Capitol Records and he writes ten songs about it. I mean to say that he writes about the Crane Wife, not signing to Capitol. Although now that I think about it, I’d love to hear that album, too. Beloved indie band signs to major label. Because Colin could write about anything and I’d totally dig it, maybe even eat the peanuts out of his shit. In my world, Mr. Meloy is approaching Morrissey-level status. I mean, for fuck’s sake, he did a six song cover album of Morrissey tunes! I mean, what else does he have to do? Write the best album of 2006? Deliver the best tour of ’06 to the world? And on the seventh day he rested! Stylistically, this is closer to The Tain (prog rock) than Picaresque, although not too much unlike it. They changed without changing. So, asking me to pick a favorite song is really tough, but…

It’s funny how history can be revised, or; how that album (while still dear to me) fell from the #1 spot of ’06 and is all the way down to #40 of the decade- it should be in the top 10, but that’s how history and time can change your ears, I guess.

Key tracks: Shankill Butchers, The Crane Wife 1 & 2, The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning, The Crane Wife 3

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Liars – They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top (Blast First Records; 2001)

liars32Debut album from noiseniks Liars; mixes danceable drums and angular post-punk guitars with shouted lyrics and heavy, oppressive bass lines everywhere. This sort of hints at where they were headed- the record’s title is a play on the media’s insistence on lumping them into the dance punk scene; they don’t sound like they share too much in common with LCD Soundsystem (much spazzier) or Out Hud (or !!! for that matter; much dirtier) or Death From Above 1979 (not as formulaic) or The Rapture (less polished) or early stalwarts ESG (although they do cover an ESG song on here, the result is sloppier and “meaner”, for lack of a better descriptor). The final track, This Dust Makes That Mud is an entire half hour of repeated riff/bassline/beat that not only tests the limits of the listener’s patience, it’s also an exercise in trend-killing; seeking to destroy the so-called genre of “dance punk” it sets about alienating its audience and proving that you can only repeat yourself for so long until people tire of you. This album changed the way a lot of those aforementioned bands would make music; some of them would break up or be forgotten, some would rise to greatness. I guess the jury’s still out on that one…

Key tracks: The Garden Was Crowded And Outside, Grown Men Don’t Fall In The River Just Like That, This Dust Makes That Mud, We Live NE Of Compton

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Dirty Projectors – Rise Above (Dead Oceans; 2007)

DP_Rise_AboveI recommended this album to a Black Flag fan about a year ago; I never asked if they listened to it, but I’m guessing they didn’t because I never got punched in the face. The reason being (for the uninitiated) is because this record is lead-Projector Dave Longstreth‘s re-imagining (entirely from his teenage memory) of the 1981 hardcore punk classic Damaged. But done in an art-school sort of way; with fluttery guitars and Justin Timberlake-meets-Tiny Tim kind of croon, flutes, spastic drumming, dub basslines- on paper it sounds like a complete friggin’ mess but the result is really quite beautiful. The fear, isolation, teen angst, paranoia; all the original themes visited by Henry Rollins and crew are given an interesting slant here- if not an updated one. The fractured song structures, complete forgetting of lyrics (most often made up on the spot), everything that made Damaged a great record almost 30 years ago makes Rise Above a great record today. Musical styles may not be timeless, but the theme of man’s struggle over himself is.

Key tracks: Police Story, Rise Above, What I See, Thirsty And Miserable

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Jay-Z – The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella Records; 2001)

jay-z-the-blueprintShawn Carter just turned 40 years old last week, which is a pretty big deal considering where Jay came from (his story of running crack on the streets of Trenton and Brooklyn is legit; unlike his targets on the dis track Takeover, where he pretty much slaughters all his competitors with crisp and sharp lines like):

I don’t care if you Mobb Deep, I hold triggers to crews / You little fuck, I’ve got money stacks bigger than you / When I was pushin weight, back in eighty-eight / you was a ballerina I got your pictures I seen ya

and

You said you been in this ten / I’ve been in it five, smarten up Nas / Four albums in ten years nigga? I can divide / That’s one every let’s say two, two of them shits was due / One was nahhh, the other was Illmatic / That’s a one hot album every ten year average

The Jigga wasn’t taking any prisoners on The Blueprint, it basically established him as the emcee to beat this millennium- as far as mainstream circles go. You’ll eventually see a few more hip-hop albums on my list higher than this record (and Jay would eventually lose his crown); but they don’t have the reach and scope of this record (they also don’t have the luxury of major label distribution). They also don’t have killer beats from Just Blaze & Kanye, and an appearance from Eminem. But hey, if you had the net worth of Jay, you’d drop gems like this too:

I rhyme sicker than every rhyme spitter / Every crime nigga that rhyme or touch a mic because my mind’s quicker / I’m a eighty-eighter, nine-six to Reasonable Doubt / Temper short, don’t take much to squeeze you out / Yeah you shinin but the only thing you’re leavin out / You’re a candle in the sun, that shit don’t even out

– from Hola’ Hovito.

Pure swagger.

Key tracks: Takeover, U Don’t Know, Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love), Never Change

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Fugazi – The Argument (Dischord Records; 2001)

fugaziI was reading an article recently by writer Simon Reynolds (click here) about the slant of most critics’ decade-end lists leaning towards the first four years of the decade- which is also true for mine (somehow 2006 was the third-best year for music in my poll, maybe I’m just being overly sentimental there…) Anyway; this record, which would also be Fugazi‘s last since taking an indefinite hiatus in ’02 has stood up amazingly well- another album that sought to smash the confines of a media-imposed genre conundrum. It takes a bow in every direction; towards jazz, math and post-rock, dare I say prog? It’s all held together by airtight drumming from Brendan Canty as he lays out irregular and odd time signatures (not to mention drastic rhythmic changes as well), creating a pocket for Joe Lally‘s superb bass fills and groove-oriented mechanics. The whole thing is presented by both Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto‘s guitar dynamics- both intricately woven up and around each other, all the while having as much freedom as they need to make these huge walls of noisy, aggressive feedback. Lyrically, it’s as politically charged as ever- themes range from poverty, living in the nuclear age, nationalism, greed, modern ennui, globalization and then there’s self-examination; quiet introspection, detachment and selfishness. It’s Fugazi‘s most mature offering, recorded around the time they were all turning 40. It’s an enduring statement from four of the most ethical and intelligent musicians to ever grace the stage; to stare millennial dread right in the eyes and come away from it not only intact, but stronger and on their own terms.

Key tracks: Oh, Cashout, The Kill, Epic Problem

And if you haven’t gotten a chance to, please vote in The Musicologists 2009 Reader’s Poll…

Albums Of The Decade, Part 7

Right around the time this first album came out was right around the rise of the iPod (I wouldn’t get my first until 2006; but then again, I got my first cell phone in 2003, so I’m kind of slow to the punch, technologically speaking); Apple introduced the device in 2001 and up until now have sold around 220 million units. I think it’s a testament to 1) how much people love their music and 2) the status that (was once considered elite) electronics project; I think now more than ever people associate themselves with what they listen to more than ever. So in a sense, we’re projecting ourselves through our tastes out into the world via blogs and websites (like this one) and social networking sites that enable us to make playlists for each other (Lala, last.fm, Mog, etc.). I for one, think it’s all good…

Jay-Z – The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella Records; 2003)

jayz_black_albumWhat the hell are you waiting for? Encore, do you want more? If this actually was Jay-Z‘s farewell album, he would’ve went down as the Michael Jordan of rap. Wait, Michael came back to play for the Wizards and well… yeah. HOV dropped this banger, retired and… ugh. But this ain’t about Kingdom Come or The Blueprint 3, this is about L’album Noir– a game changer and what should have been the definitive statement from one of the best in the league. Every song has an old school aesthetic with a new school vibe; it’s as if Jigga handed the keys to his Bentley to the entire class of underlings and said “Drive it- if you can…” There was about a six month span from November of ’03 until May of ’04 when you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one of the singles from this jam; especially 99 Problems- maybe the best thing Rick Rubin’s ever done (using a bad-ass hook from a Mountain song over a Billy Squier beat with some Ice-T samples thrown in for good measure). For Jay-Z to be at the top of his form and make such an outright and in-your-face career-affirming moment like this; it’s a shame he came back with such crap to close out the decade. You can’t be at the top forever…

Key tracks: 99 Problems, Dirt Off Your Shoulders, Threat, PSA (Interlude)

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Mastodon – Leviathan (Relapse Records; 2004)

leviathanMy hands down favorite metal album of the decade- I’ve heard Mastodon labeled as “hipster metal” or “metal for people who don’t like metal”. Whatever. All I know is that this rocks; there was a good six months where every time I skated I listened to this on the pod. It’s aggressively progressive, isn’t full of that god-awful cookie monster singing that “metal” has stooped down to embrace, it’s hard and heavy yet not abrasive or grating, the riffs are pure power and thematically it’s about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, so it goes wrong absolutely nowhere. It’s their most listenable record, it’s both a nod to their many influences (sludge, hardcore, southern rock, that whole school of second-wave British Heavy Metal aka Maiden & Priest, a wink in Metallica‘s direction as if to say; thanks for the torch, bitches) as well as their coming out party. And it’s produced by the guy who produced the next record on the list!

Key tracks: Blood And Thunder, Iron Tusk, Seabeast, Hearts Alive

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Minus The Bear – Menos El Oso (Suicide Squeeze Records; 2005)

Menos_el_OsoOh, this album was like a kick in the face when I discovered it- a “blind” buy; my term for more or less walking into a record store and buying something not only completely unheard but completely unheard of. Mad props to Wes from the Main Line Repo Records in Rosemont (R.I.P.); that jawn was my favorite record store since high school until they closed down in ’05. But alas; mom and pop record stores back east don’t enjoy the same loyalty that they do on the west coast (let’s start a dialogue on this). So yeah, this actual record review? Menos El Oso my intro to this band, and lo and behold this and their previous offering (Highly Refined Pirates, album #32 of the decade- review coming soon…) are the only two records in their oeuvre worth mentioning. Even this record, when I’ve played it for friends has brought sighs of derision and outright dismissal, but I love it. It’s techy and ProTooled to the max, a driving and danceable brand of indie rock for the jaded- the album’s main theme seems to be detachment; moments lost and never recaptured, that sort of thing. The fractured and staccato guitars scream over deep and funky basslines with tight, metronomic drumming pinning the whole thing down. It’s a formula that I wish they would’ve stuck to, but it’s hard to catch lightning in a jar and hold onto it.

Key tracks: Pachuca Sunrise, The Game Needed Me, Drilling, The Fix

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Girl Talk – Night Ripper (Illegal Art; 2006)

night-ripperI was raised in the suburbs, five miles west of Philadelphia. My formative years (musically) were from 1984-1994. I can only think that Girl Talk (Pittsburgh’s Greg Gillis) was on the same shit I was on during this same time. Crunk rap mixed with 90s alternative? Grunge and soul? Boston and Ludacris together at last? Notorious B.I.G.‘s Juicy mixed with The Pharcyde‘s Passing Me By mixed with Elton John‘s Tiny Dancer? Mike JonesBack Then with Seals & Croft‘s Summer Wind? Remember that song “whoa- oh, it’s magic, I knooow..” from those Time-Life 70’s albums? The band is Pilot and Gillis cuts that shit with Kanye‘s Gold Digger. So hype, it’s just too much to process in one sitting- it’s a testament to our ADD-fueled childhoods mashed into our strobe-lit adolescence crossed with late-teenage psychedelic experimentation; a soundtrack to a culture that’s been playlisted to death.

Key tracks: Smash Your Head, Once Again, Bounce That, Hold Up

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Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (Kranky Records; 2008)

microcastleMicrocastle would be the obvious direction that Deerhunter‘s sound was headed after the Fluorescent Grey EP; I can hear how those four songs act as a natural bridge over the gap from Cryptograms to here. And Weird Era Cont. sort of works as a stop-gap between the afforementioned EP and Microscastle, even though it’s been packaged as a complimentary piece (I like how it works as a pre-cursor to the album instead of an after-thought or “extra” release). Either way, two albums put out simultaneously was a risky move- but it ended up paying huge dividends as the Atlanta quartet’s conceptual continuity remains undisturbed. All the hub-bub surrounding the release of these records (accidentally leaked by lead singer Bradford Cox, through his blogspot) completely makes up for any “bad vibes” Cox said he felt he was putting out by telling people not to steal his music, lambasting his fans but later retracting his outburst, offering an apology and putting out thirteen extra tracks and calling it Weird Era Cont. for no additional cost. What a rad guy. Anyway, back to the actual music- Deerhunter‘s sonic architecture is par excellence, earning them much-deserved comparisons to such a vast array of their influences like Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine, The Beach Boys, Electrelane– hell, throws those bands in a blender and set to puree and pour out today’s pre-eminent autuers in the self-created genre of ambient garage noise pop.

Key Tracks (from Microcastle): Nothing Ever Happened, Saved By Old Times, Agoraphobia, Never Stops; (from Weird Era Cont.): Vox Humana, Operation, Vox Celeste, Focus Group

Albums Of The Decade, Part 6

I’m gonna go ahead and ease up on the use of Roman numerals for the titles of these posts here, I realize Arabic numbers don’t look so much like each other (unless we’re talking my actual handwriting, then you got problems); so good ol’ Trebuchet can lead the way. Yeah, in addition to being a music geek I’m also into fonts and various typefaces, but for now (I’mma let you finish, I’mma let you, but) here’s some more records…

Masta Ace – Disposable Arts (JCOR REcords; 2001)

masta_aceInstant classic; a modern-day hip-hopera, a ghetto concept album if you will. How this album isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Madvillainy and Stankonia I’ll never know- but Ace made a stunna here; it follows the story of a man released from jail and his return to Brooklyn. After realizing how tough it is on the streets, he decides to go back to school, but not any school- he enrolls in The Institute Of Disposable Arts; a hip-hop academy of sorts. It’s based on the shadiness of the music industry, the whackness of “thug life”, all that rap-poseurism shit and how to transcend it to stay true to yourself and just make good music; what’s in your heart and how to tap into that. Deep and introspective without being preachy, the beats and samples are some of the best collected on one record- choosing to work with virtual unknowns (producers from the New York underground) as well as some emcees also not known above ground. And since it’s a concept album, the skits are not only integral for the story but actually funny. Ace‘s wordplay and lyrical prowess are a sight to behold, every other line induces an “oh shit, did he just say that?”, it’s like watching a rap battle and everyone’s getting slayed. You may recognize his flow, it’s the one Eminem stole (don’t worry; Em‘s given Masta Ace mad props and the favor’s returned here- witnessed by the opening lines from Don’t Understand: I don’t do white music, I don’t do black music / I make rap music, for Hip-Hop kids…”) This is a triumphant return to form- Masta Ace had more or less dropped out of music for almost five years at the end of the century. I’m glad he made it back to drop this gem.

Key tracks: Acknowledge, Take A Walk (ft. Apocalypse), Alphabet Soup, Don’t Understand (ft. Greg Nice)

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Spoon – Kill The Moonlight (Merge Records; 2002)

spoonI’m pretty sure Spoon‘s Britt Daniel and Jim Eno are aware that when they’re producing their band’s albums, there’s basically an infinite number of tracks you can use in the studio, what with the advent of computer-based technology and all. So what does Spoon do instead? They record rock-and-roll in a minimalist style, each one near-masterpieces with the least amount of tracks and studio bullshit. I swear every song on this record could’ve been recorded on an 8-track, with at least two or three tracks to spare. Some songs don’t even have bass on them, but you never notice. Some songs (the album’s opener, Small Stakes) don’t even use the drum kit. Some tracks are synth-and-drum machine numbers with cool vocal panning (Paper Tiger, which is one of those songs with no bassline). First time I ever heard Spoon, I wasn’t blown away; Daniel doesn’t have the greatest voice and they aren’t the most technically proficient musicians. First time I ever really listened to Spoon (on headphones) I understood exactly what it was they were trying to do; recreate record-making before multi-tracking existed- and that more than makes up for whatever they lack in chops. This ain’t prog rock anyway, so who needs a Rick Wakeman-like keyboard vocabulary? It’s tight and precise, perfect little pop-rock gems cut into three-and-a-half minute jewels, and that’s usually all I need.

Key Tracks: The Way We Get By, Back To The Life, Jonathon Fisk, Small Stakes

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Calexico and Iron & Wine – In The Reins (Overcoat Recordings; 2005)

calexwineOpening track He Lays In The Reins is as soul crushingly beautiful a song I’ve heard since… maybe ever. Sam Beam‘s aching whisper juxtaposed up against Salvador Duran‘s deep operatic Flamenco vocals is pleasantly surprising- it shouldn’t work, but man does it. Likewise everything on here; it’s the best thing Calexico‘s done- they’ve always been hampered by the fact that neither Burns nor Convertino can sing like Beam, but Christ can they play. Their mastery of spaghetti western alt-country (as if there is such a genre) is wildly entertaining with all those assorted vibraphones, trumpets, guitars laid over laps, etc. The only thing that makes this less than great is that it’s only an EP, I’ve always felt kind of cheated that this session only produced seven songs. Nonetheless; they’re an amazing seven tracks, ranging from bar-room stompers (History Of Lovers; with its blaring horn section) to pedal steel magic (Sixteen, Maybe Less) to bluesy harmonica blow-outs (Red Dust) and Beam‘s laid-back, hushed delivery (Prison On Route 41); it’s a stellar collaboration between an artist and a band both at the apex of their respective careers. If the lyrics to Dead Man’s Will don’t choke you up a little, you have no soul…

Key Tracks: He Lays In The Reins; Dead Man’s Will; Prison On Route 41; Sixteen, Maybe Less

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Liars – Liars (Mute Records; 2007)

liars

This album has those noisy, sometimes scary freakouts (just like previous record, 2006’s Drums Not Dead), post-punkish rockers (hearkening back to another previous record, 2001’s They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument on Top), and some stuff in between (like 2004’s They Were Wrong So We Drowned); it’s sort of like a Liars‘ greatest hits compilation without the proverbial “hits”. Stylistically speaking it’s little pieces of everything they’ve ever done, crammed into a 39-minute package- like it was all thrown into a sausage grinder and these links are the album Liars; it tilts a bit back towards revisionism and leans forward into the future. Whenever a band can be a bit different but still the same from record to record (and I make that comparison far too often when writing these) it’s a good great thing; plus- you may just see another Liars‘ record on this list…

Key Tracks: Plaster Casts Of Everything, Houseclouds, Freak Out, Leather Prowler

The Mae Shi – HLLLYH (Moshi Moshi Records; 2008)

hlllyh

Get it? HLLLYH = HeLLL YeaH! As in; if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go. I’m not sure if it was The Mae Shi‘s intent; but this record reeks (in a good way) of “concept album”. Oh man, do I love concept albums- and this one lampoons the hell (pun intended) out of the impending apocalypse. Electro-spazzcore at its finest; these LA twenty-somethings are fearless innovators, using an omnichord (this weird drum machine/keyboard hybrid they bought at a Goodwill) to play one of the greatest live acts I’ve ever witnessed, then break up a few months later. The brightest flames burn out the fastest; and after listening to HLLLYH over and over again; it’s amazing this band didn’t implode in the studio while recording- this record is like snorting hella truckstop meth after about 20 coffees. And did I mention the balls these guys had on this album? There’s an eleven-and-a-half minute dance track right during the middle of the album that’s basically a condensed remix version of the entire album. It’s fucking crazy; I really wanted to hate this band and this record but I absolutely adore it. And those are the ones that are both the most over-looked and the ones that sneak up on you and take you over…

Key tracks: Run To Your Grave, Lamb And The Lion, Pwnd, Boys In The Attic

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Albums Of The Decade, Part V

So I’ve been keeping tabs on all the other websites’ best-of the decade lists, and I gotta say- great work everybody. I like the way they’re doing it over at Aquarium Drunkard. Likewise Largehearted Boy (who was rad enough to include us in their roll call; gracias and mad kudos!), also check out their extensive and daily updated list here.

Some were laughable (Paste Magazine, I’m looking in your direction) some were head scratchers (Better Propaganda), some are eerily similar to mine (eMusic), some were extremely Spencer Krug-centric (Oceans Never Listen) but mostly they’ve been insanely interesting to read. I hope the same can be said about this list. Someday…

Death Cab For Cutie – We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk Records; 2000)

DCFC

Poor Ben Gibbard; he had Jenny Lewis but lost her- he had to settle for Zooey Deschanel instead. Boo hoo, Benny boy. All jokes aside, I much prefer Gibbard‘s heart-rending (dare I say emo?) version of this band recorded right before the turn of the century, not his major-label cash grab records as of late. Death Cab‘s definitely lost something since Transatlanticism, I can’t quite put my finger on it; it’s a combination of a lot of things. Most of the things that make this record so wonderful have been completely stripped from DCFC‘s repetoire; the warm, lo-fi feeling of this album has been erased in favor of the $300 an hour studio with Atlantic Records‘ money, but hey- isn’t that the whole point; to have your music heard by as many possible ears as you can? When nobody knew who the hell these guys were is when they were still making great records- the most important thing Gibbard and Co. lost was a sense of urgency; a sense that here’s a band, toiling along in relative obscurity up in the Pacific Northwest and no one’s gonna get hear our best stuff so we get to keep both artistic integrity and there isn’t an ounce of pressure on us to do anything we’re not comfortable with. I have this feeling that they know this is a prefect record and they’ve been trying to recapture the beauty and wonder of this ever since- but most folks won’t get to hear it. Instead they’ll get to hear their late decade radio friendly drivel…

Key Tracks: Company Calls Epilogue, 405, For What Reason, Title Track

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Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra Records; 2001)

streethawk

Dan Bejar‘s lyrics are so cryptical, yet I feel like I understand every one. I can’t pretend that I really do- and that’s the biggest part of his appeal for me; they mean whatever I want them to mean. Like on the track The Bad Arts, when he sings: “Goddamn your eyes, they just had to be twin prizes waiting for the sun…” I’m sure I know exactly what he means there, and at different times in my life that’s meant different things to me about different people. I think. Then, he ends the song with the line “You got the spirit, don’t lose the feeling…” aping the line from the Joy Division song Disorder. It’s classic Destroyer; borrowing from the past- simultaneously revering it and ridiculing it. Nothing is sacred, except everything. This observational irony is a calling card of his work, so even when I don’t get it, it’s okay- I don’t know if Bejar himself gets it. And that’s sort of the whole point, right?

Key tracks: The Very Modern Dance, The Sublimation Hour, Streethawk I, Beggars Might Ride

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Talib Kweli – Quality (Rawkus Records; 2002)

Talib_Kweli_Quality

Two tracks from J Dilla, three from Kanye– this album was the hot shit back in early ’03; I can’t remember who gave it to me but it didn’t leave my car’s CD player for months. It’s just as well I can’t remember who gave it to me; it doesn’t matter- all that matters is that it was my intro to Talib, Dil and Ye (two out of three ain’t bad…) and the rhymes, beats, everything came together here on Quality. I think of this record as the tipping point- Kweli was a connector of sorts for me, from here I got into BlackStar & Mos Def, learned of Jay Dee‘s production prowess, that sick record he did with Hi-Tek; all his collaborators on here became instrumental in making me pay attention to hip-hop again. Maybe my friend Andrew the Jerk got me into this record, maybe it was that quiet chick who lived with her grandmother I dated a few times. I can’t remember for the life of me who gave me this damn record. Maybe that’s the appeal of this album; it’s memory to me is as underground as its reputation- ask anyone who listens to mainstream rap if they know this record (be prepared for blank stares), but they’ll surely remember Talib from his appearance on The Chappelle Show or his appearance on Kanye‘s track Get ‘Em High. Oh, well- Talib is a rapper’s rapper; he’s probably your favorite MC’s favorite MC.

Key Tracks: Get By, Rush, Shock Body, Good To You

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Paavoharju – Yhä Hämärää (Fonal Records; 2005)

yhä

When I think of Finland, I think of massive amounts of snow, dense forests with herds of reindeer running free and rosy-cheeked vodka drinkers. If you were to mention Finnish music, I think of 80s hair band Hanoi Rocks, the synth-driven Children Of Bodom and Bam Margera’s favorite band, HIM– basically; cheesy-ass metal. Paavoharju could be called a lot of things, and cheesy-ass metal isn’t one- more like lo-fi experimental electro/acoustic freak folk (maybe?) I can’t put my finger on what it is they do, but they’re the only ones who do it, so I guess by default they’re the best. Makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is their story; a pair of born-again Christian hippie commune-living brothers (Lauri and Olli Ainala from Savonlinna) that make other-worldly sounds, decompose basic song structures into their barest parts but still manage to create songs built somewhat around hooks and pieces of hooks. Recorded over parts of five years with an ever-revolving cast of musicians/singers; it’s an accomplished debut- equal parts beautiful and creepy. Influenced by such diverse people and bands as William Blake, Burzum, Ed Gein, Boards Of Canada, Jesus Christ, Portishead and Ingmar Begman; that’s sort of what this record sounds like, with Paavoharju serving as dinner hosts.

Key Tracks: Syvyys, Ilmaa Virtaa, Musta Katu, Valo Tihkuu Kaiken Läpi

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No Age – Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat Records; 2007)

Weirdo_Rippers

Turn this shit up, way up. LA two-piece that plays some of the finest noise pop for this here internet generation; equal parts balls-to-the-wall lo-fi hardcore and hummable, fuzzed out surf pop. Imagine The Jesus & Mary Chain knocking up Hüsker Dü; the resulting offspring would be Randy Randall & Dean Spunt‘s twisted take on rock and roll. One minute they’re experimenting with ear shattering, scuzzy feedback; the next sounds as if they’ve discovered how to create a sonic representation of dryer lint (warm, ambient and wooly). Anyhow; this Weirdo Rippers isn’t a real album per se, more or less a collection of 7-inches, b-sides and assorted paraphernalia that strangely enough, sounds cohesive. And don’t worry; if you’re looking for their “other” record, it appears on the “numbered” portion of this list…

Key tracks: Neck Escaper, Boy Void, Everybody’s Down, My Life’s Alright Without You

Albums Of The Decade, Part IV

So far we’re nineteen albums into my best of the decade list (there are 74 total) but I don’t think that means much to my loyal readers (both of you) until we get down into the numbered selections, probably appearing sometime later next week. Let’s keep the ball rolling…

OutKast – Stankonia (Arista Records; 2000)

Stankonia

OutKast‘s fourth album (also known as “their last good one”) is a genre-bending, aurally ambitious offering from the Atlanta duo that became synonymous with that crunk-ass Dirty South, introducing freaky rapping styles to mainstream ears; quite possibly one of the first hip-hop records to get both critical acclaim and sales while staying true to the spirit of experimentation. Not to take anything at all away from Big Boi‘s standard hip-hop gangsterism, but André 3000‘s ideas (as far as his lyrical content goes; all that weird shit about the underwater land of Stankonia) at the time of this record was head and shoulders above the rest of the hip-hop world, he’s more on par with a crunk version of George Clinton or a ghettoized Prince. I mean, c’mon- they did almost all the beats and all the music (with a little help from Mr. DJ and Organized Noize) but this is OutKast‘s vision here, and if they had to choose one mission statement to be their best representation of what they were, it’d be Stankonia.

Key Tracks: B.O.B., So Fresh So Clean, Ms. Jackson, Humble Mumble (with Erykah Badu)

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Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian; 2003)

Magnolia

An album that lies at the intersection of “working class rock, white soul, swamp rock and outlaw country” (according to the one-sheet accompanying this record), Songs: Ohia has been native Buckeye-stater Jason Molina‘s singular vision since 1996. His songs of love and hate on here are heralded as a major change for him both lyrically and musically, but ask him and he’ll tell you previous release Didn’t It Rain was the last Songs‘ record- he leaves behind the spare arrangements in favor of a bigger, fuller sound. Either way, Molina‘s channeling the kindred spirits of Springsteen, Neil Young and John Cougar– blue collar country rock with an attitude; a shot and a beer with Jason and his road crew while Hank Williams plays on the jukebox at some hole in the wall in Skokie or Wabash. Guest vocalists Lawrence Peters (doing his best Merle Haggard impression) and Scout Niblett appear on two tracks right in the middle of the record; meshing with the material perfectly. Oh, and it’s produced by Steve Albini himself, so…

Key tracks: Farewell Transmission, Just Be Simple, I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost, John Henry Split My Heart

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Kings Of Convenience – Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks; 2004)

Riot

This record gives me a warm feeling every time I spin it; it’s as if this Norwegian duo figured out a way to bring the serene and tranquil heat you get from a fireplace and somehow box it up. Gorgeous melodies wrapped in whispered folk tunes, in the spirit of perfect Scandinavian pop- think Abba-meets-Iron & Wine at a Tahoe ski lodge. Riot On An Empty Street is an apt album title; that’s exactly what it sounds like. Actually, every song on here has a feel described by the song’s title- Homesick, Misread, Cayman Islands, Sorry Or Please, Gold In The Air of Summer; they sound like they should. Of course this album isn’t hurt by the fact that a one Miss Leslie Feist appears on two tracks (these were recorded right after she finished her work on the acclaimed Let It Die, released the same year) which are as beautiful as anything on her record. Never mind that drums don’t even show up until the sixth track- this record has such an easy climb to the centerpiece, the wonderful I’d Rather Dance With You, a sublime track extolling the virtues of a wordless exchange on the dancefloor; shhhh- don’t speak (you’ll ruin the moment…)

Key tracks: I’d Rather Dance With You, The Build Up (with Feist), Misread, Know How (with Feist)

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Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies (Merge Records, 2006)

Destroyers_rubies

Dan Bejar has taken so many chances, made so many different records; basically risks everything his name stands for with every release you can’t help but love the man, even when his records are completely awful (2004’s Your Blues) or one of the best of the decade (2000’s Thief). Obviously I just gave away one of my albums of the decade by admitting that Thief is a tremendous work in its own right, but my third favorite Destroyer record is Destroyer’s Rubies– the kind of record you throw on when it’s time for a soul-searching road trip. And I said third favorite, so you’ll be seeing another Bejar-led record on my best-of list as well. This review, however- let’s talk about the album’s opener, Rubies– one of the finest songs Bejar‘s ever written, a nine-and-a-half-minute opus that references both a Smiths‘ song and a CCR song and introduces us to the (loose concept) album’s main character, the “Priest”, referenced again in two more songs (one being the album’s final track). Bejar‘s razor-sharp wit, his uncanny ability to recall 1970s pop culture minutiae, both his adherence to and rejection of the popular song structure; every album creates a world unto itself- here his Rubies have created a world where both The Band and David Bowie are revered as gods that are not only to be worshipped but mocked and ridiculed, then finally laid to rest as the relics they are.

Key tracks: Rubies, Sick Priest Learns To Last Forever, Painter In Your Pocket, European Oils

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TV On The Radio – Dear Science (Interscope Records; 2008)

Dear_science

Another band that’s going to have three albums on my best-of the decade list; obviously- have you ever fucking listened to TVOTR? No, scratch that- have you ever seen TVOTR live? Sonically, they’re light years ahead of the rest of the field- mixing post-punk, electronica, noise, funk and rock into a seamless blend of styles that they can call their own (nobody does it like these guys, period); not to mention lyrically there’s not a subject they won’t (or haven’t) touched: sex, love, racism, aging, death, disease, modern life, technology, travel, on and on ad infinitum. Having their fingers pressed firmly on the pulse of today, there isn’t another band around right now that can explain the curse of growing up in America these days; this challenge of how we can comfort one another by relating at once our collective human condition to each other while living both within the borders of our paranoid country and inside our paranoid mindscapes. Dear Science, please start solving problems and curing diseases or shut the fuck up.