Thursday, December 10, 2009

Albums of the past decade: 2001

Continuing in the series. Some important stuff was released in the good old ought-one. Again, alphabetic...

The Appleseed Cast – Low Level Owl Volumes One & Two

Erroneously referred to as a band picking up on the prog-rock thing or answering Radiohead's call with the experimentally swayed Kid A/Amnesiac combo, this was actually the Cast's big move into evolving from humble emo beginnings into a super serious guitar rock band obsessed with sound and mood. Volume one came out on September 11th and volume two about a month later. And such epic, melancholy and wide scoped music enhanced the downtrodden but hopeful sentiment of the day immensely. I have a hard time talking about this album in retrospect because it has become part of my life and I still play it fairly regularly. The band were hailed as the next generation of American rock music by a select few, but the hype was squandered away in the subsequent lineup changes and a couple missteps as follow-ups (which we'll get to). These two albums, though, stand as a major revelation for me as a music fan and they changed my perspective on quite a few things. A strange recollection associated with this album: 'View of a Burning City' seemed a little too relevant as a title because of a couple things 1) the obvious things going on on the East Coast at the time and 2) a vicious wildfire burning roughly ten miles west of Reno cast a thick layer smoke of across the horizon for days on end that made the air very brown and eerie. Probably one of my favorite albums ever recorded.

Beulah — The Coast is Never Clear

Few bands did straight honest pop as well as Beulah did. And, on this album, they did it so well, in fact, that it took me years to fully get it. Miles Kurosky is perhaps the modern day king of the longing melancholy pop song and this album illustrates that exceedingly well with hummable downers like "Night is the Day Turned Inside Out", "A Good Man is Easy to Kill", "I'll Be Your Lampshade" and "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?" It literally took years for me to see the absolute sunshiney brilliance of tunes like "Gene Autry" and "Popular Mechanics For Lovers." The last album Beulah made in this vein, and while maybe not the complete onslaught of uber-pop wizardry that their previous album was, this one was a fantastically bittersweet farewell to the style. But, hey, we all gotta grow up, right?

Bjork – Vespertine

Just a snapshot of how great Bjork is: this album isn't her most creative or even her best work, and yet it's still one of the best albums of the decade, easily. It's Bjork's love album. So, appropriately, it's a warm and beautiful sounding piece of work that only grows in resonance with each listen. And it is one of those albums that doesn't sound completely right unless you play it front to back: the mark of a complete and resounding affair.

Buck65 — Man Overboard

Probably Buck's most personal work, with songs like the tribute to his then recently deceased mother and ultimate dirty laundry airing "Pants On Fire." I either heard or read someone calling Buck's style "sampler jamming" and it made complete sense if you think about it in the jam band sense. It literally sounds like a dude just completely vibing off the sounds in his sampler. And I mean that in the best possible way. Probably considered "nerd rap" by this point, but I think Buck would probably be happy with that tag. Maybe his best album.

Ron Carter — Stardust

Another strong one in Ron's new millennium stream of records. This one finds Ron in a different setting than his other Blue Notes of the time, as it's a completely different band and there's actually a horn (Benny Golson) and vibes (Joe Locke) present. Because of those additions, this is easily one of Ron's most approachable recent releases. It's much more in a standard mainstream mode and, while no great revelations occur, the versions of "Nearly" and "Bohemia After Dark" are a notch above satisfying, to say the least. It was the first Ron Carter record I picked up on its release date, so it holds a bit of sentimental value for me in that respect, but, in the long run, it's just a typically good-to-great session from one of my all time favorites.

The Chameleons – Why Call it Anything?

It seems silly to say this, especially when you consider their three landmark albums released in the 1980's, but I truly feel like this is the Chameleons' most well-rounded and satisfying album. It incorporates different and diverse sounds cherry picked from the band members' solo projects that were released in the band's thirteen year break. For example, a song like "Shades" may sound a little too muscular on a Chameleons album, but not when you think back to Mark Burgess' Invincible project. Likewise, the rastafied, lounging in the sun melodicism of "Miracles and Wonders" seems completely out of place initially, but go back and give the Reegs another listen and it may not sound that strange. But, in addition, there were vintage sounding atmospheric rockers like "Lufthansa", "Anyone Alive?" and "Dangerous Land." A shame that it wasn't recognized as more than just a reunion effort, because truly, something this revelatory and direction changing is noteworthy within any band's catalogue.

David Axelrod – David Axelrod

And now, the big one. If I were to say that this album changed my life, that may come off as corny and hyperbolic. So, to sidestep that issue, I'll just say that it permanently changed the way I listened to music. There are so many things about this album, so many little moments, so many technical nerd instances that I could carry on at great (incredibly boring) lengths about. But I won't. I think the most anybody can say about an album they hold in as high regard as I hold this one is that it literally changed the way I think about music. And it also happened to be one of the most challenging, most listened to and ultimately, most satisfying albums I've ever heard. Probably my pick for album of the decade.

Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album

And then there's albums like this: nothing all that revelatory, but so well-executed and and such a great extension of the artist's previous work that it's arguably their most enduring work. Death Cab certainly struck back quickly after the previous year's album and EP and it feels less like a band simply releasing something to keep their name out there and more like a band just continuing to record material because it's coming that plentiful and in that high of quality. Indeed, this material obviously has become to mean a lot for the band because they still play some of these songs on every tour. At the time, it just felt like an extension of Facts and Forbidden Love, but with little nuances all over the record and the follow up EP (which we'll get to), it subtly pointed the way towards what was next for the band. Songs like "We Laugh Indoors", "Coney Island" and "Debate Exposes Doubt" were all top flight tunes by anybody's watch, but they were all infused with a sense of movement and progression past this style. In a cool move, the vinyl version has an extra song and that song ("Gridlock Caravans") helps the transition from the more stark first half of the album move into the dreamier second half incredibly well. So, I guess, consider this mention for the vinyl version.

De La Soul — AOI: Bionix

Initially, I was all over this album because it wasn't the absolute letdown that Mosaic Thump was. Sure, it had a lot more replay value, but it was still spotty. However, spotty still means good at certain points. And, man. Those good points were excellent on this album: "Held Down" was Posdnous' completely relatable plea-copping for modern religion and "Trying People" is a poignant post-9/11 manifesto that still gives me chills. Spotty, sure. But, at the time, it felt like the true follow up to Stakes is High and I loved it. My feelings have waned slightly, but I still like it a lot more than Mosaic Thump.

The Durutti Column — Rebellion

And so begins one of the great prolific streaks of high quality output in modern times. "4 Sophia" swoops in and you know it's a Durutti album right off the bat. I'd say that the sort of super pretty, effects heavy solo electric guitar mini-epic that opens the album had become cliche for Vini by this point if someone else was doing it, but... they weren't (and still aren't, but I digress). "Longsight Romance" is the first of many things for Vini and the rest of the album nearly seems like a blueprint for what was to follow over the next several years. There's the two part "Mello", amongst a smattering of odd world music inspired Euro-raps, along with some vintage sampled vocal and solo guitar masterpieces. However, it's all rendered somewhat irrelevant by the amazing Elli Rudge feature (her last new recording with the band) "Falling." It seems every album recently, Vini finds this wonderful composition and puts these heavenly female vocals on top of it, as if to say, 'Hey world, here's some pure beauty for you.' And here's the scary part: this is kind of a second tier Durutti album from this era.

Five Deez — Koolmotor

Even for a hip hop album released at this point, Koolmotor stood out as something that was just different from everything else. And it was undeniably feel good without being corny. It did contain some tracks tackling the essence of the college attending twenty-somethings of the new millennium in the sense that it was surely unsure. It conveyed a vibe of profound irrelevance; the realization of existing as a human being roaming around planet Earth. Seems a little heavy-handed and overtly "deep man" but it was all executed with a sense of objectivity. Amidst features from Japanese rappers (yes, rapping in Japanese), soft house tracks, serendipitous "neo-soul" songs that sounded better than most of the people who were actually trying and dudes rapping sarcastically about how they "shoot sperm in shape of dollar signs" (a relevant joke at that point, considering all the willful selling out), the album was perhaps too dense for most. But, seriously, I've never played it for any self-respecting hip hop head that didn't love it. Truly, it rivals things like OutKast or Aceyalone in terms of really thinking man's music being passed off as pedestrian headphone listening. One of the sleeper hits of the hip hop decade for sure.

Jay-Z — The Blueprint

Although extremely overrated in its aftermath, this was a darn fine Jay-Z album. I feel like it has gotten a lot of unnecessary praise simply based on the fact that it was the first Jay-Z album since Reasonable Doubt that was less than 25% filler. At the time, it pointed the direction back towards samples in beats and an all around more soulful, earnest approach to hip hop in general. That of course didn't last and Jay-Z never made another album this strong again.

Kristin Hersh – Sunny Border Blue

Never has an album been this willingly poppy and simultaneously difficult. And, since it's Kristin Hersh, you know that these songs are autobiographic and as heartfelt as a set of songs can get. So, after those first few listens where everything needs to assert itself its own identity before you can properly assess it, it all comes flooding in at you. Every last song here (even her countrified cover of Cat Stevens' "Trouble")is an emotional rush. Sure, it may not all be completely coherent (I still don't fully grasp "White Suckers"), but the tonality of this music just emits personal revelation. A full-on confessional singer songwriter pop record from that weird little lady that tries occasionally to be not so weird.

Maxwell – Now

Speaking of confessional, this, like all of Maxwell's work, puts up the facade of speaking in a very specific way about something nondescript. But it's actually misleading in the sense that all of these songs (again, except the cover tune; Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" in this case) are autobiographic. Hiding behind the mask of simple R&B crooner, Max created an intensely personal breakup album that was not only his tightest and best work up until that point as an arranger, it set the stage in a very dramatic way for the silence that followed. I think, for an artist coming off of two albums containing such personally vivid subject matter silence was the only appropriate follow up. Still an underrated album in the bigger picture.

Natalie Merchant – Motherland

Had those terrible things not happened on that Tuesday morning in September, a lot of the music being discussed here may not have so instantaneously mirrored the times as well as it did and does. Motherland is another example of that. I was not hip to this album until fairly recently, but its somber mood and large scale scope has a lot in common with the sentiment of the day and its inherent consequences. T-Bone Burnett's predictably bluesy roots rock production lends itself well to Natalie's music, as it's stripped of its adult contempo smoothness and the rough edges are left to stick out and be completely conspicuous. I'm often reminded of Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan's mid-1970's output or perhaps early Band when I listen to this album. Throw Natalie's now rougher and grittier voice atop that warm, rootsy musical stew and you get an album that could be a musical meeting of the minds gone wrong, but instead has enough seemingly minute details considered to make it one of the most rewarding sidesteps by a contemporary musician.

New Order — Get Ready

While I certainly was not in love with it at first —and it's still not amongst my favorite New Order albums— it has really come into its own in the band's catalogue. It was certainly a little louder and definitely a lot more contemporary sounding than I had hoped for, but the songs were all there. "60 Miles An Hour" in particular was, to me, a classic New Order song that they had just been sitting on. Hooky was a little more in the background than I preferred, but he was still there in some capacity, so it was Ok. It really was an Ok album. Despite the Billy Corgan feature.

Radiohead — Amnesiac

My personal favorite Radiohead album. For all the accolades and hyperbole thrown at them this past decade, I have to say, for this album, they truly sounded important. A working musical unit that considered every move they made as if what they were doing would affect the entire world. This album tries to do everything and succeeds at all of it. Anthems ("Pyramid Song" and "I Might Be Wrong"), classic guitar rock ("Knives Out" and "Dollars & Cents"), weird electro experiments ("Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" and "Like Spinning Plates") and downright uncharacteristic songs that are clearly evidence of a band challenging itself ("Life In A Glass House"). Throw in one of the most thought out album sequences of the decade and there you have it: Radiohead's best album that is simultaneously their most diverse and their most listenable.

Yesterday's New Quintet — Angles Without Edges

Basically just hip hop producer Madlib sitting around in his home studio getting stoned out of his mind and tripping off some old albums on the CTI label. Nothing wrong with that. Sure, pedestrian as far as actual jazz chops went, but the vibes and moody beats he created with his array of drum sounds and plethora of keyboards was nothing if not downright fun. The best part was, he tried to say it was an actual working band of musicians at the time, but everybody knew it was Madlib just sitting around really figuring out how to actually play instruments. The demo tape quality was part of its charm.

That was a great year in music for me.


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