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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Vote, Vote, VOTE!

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