A year of disappointments and surprises...
Erykah Badu — Worldwide Underground
Wow, this album was stopgap. It was advertised as an EP upon its release, but that was total bullshit, as it was over 50 minutes in length. Pseudo-hip hop ramblings ("Danger" and "Love of My Life Worldwide"), obvious and superfluous covers (Donald Byrd's "Think Twice") and just plain uninspired material ("Woo" was just dumb). It was all the more disappointing because it started out with three of her best pop soul songs in the vein of Baduizm ("Bump It", "Back In The Day" and "I Want You"). The whole thing wreaked of releasing something only because the label wanted it. I was pissed. I've mellowed out since then, but it's still her worst album.
Beulah — Yoko
And then there was this album. I didn't get it at all at first. However, it should be said that, while the music created here was definitely created by the band Beulah, this is basically Miles Kurosky's version of Blood on the Tracks. The songs are all written in bittersweet retrospect and it makes sense that none of them will sound immediately good. However, listen to this album four or five times and it will become more and more like a masterpiece. One of the single most downtrodden, but simultaneously uplifting albums I can think of. I have a hard time talking about this album because it helped me exorcise my own past relationship demons, but just know that where Beulah was known for the melancholy twee in the past, this is the album where they grow up and make that mature pop masterstroke full of timeless melodies and resonating themes — the album that you always hope the underdog will make. Highlights for me: "A Man Like Me", "Me & Jesus Don't Talk Anymore", "You're Only King Once" and "Wipe Those Prints and Run." Was able to see their last show ever on the west coast (their official last show ever was a free show a few weeks later in NYC) and it was three hours of absolute soul wrenching, demon exorcising rock and roll magic. Miles played my request, half-drunkenly shouted from the balcony of the Fillmore in the second encore. Within about six months, the band released a semi-official full version of all the demos for the album through their website which is just as worthwhile as the proper album. Listening now, it just gives me chills thinking of Miles sitting in front of his four track strumming out a song like "Landslide Baby." And, just in case you were wondering, with this album, they did make that mature pop masterstroke. And then, like the smartest of bands, they broke up. Leaving it up to the world at large to figure it out for themselves. Easily one of my picks for best of the decade. Absolutely magnificent.
Cherrywine — Bright Black
Fuck this album. Just... fuck it. How can you be Butterfly from Digable FUCKING Planets and make something this terrible? I cried. Literally. It made me fucking cry. That's how bad it is. Making sub-par synth-hop and coked out of his mind, Butterfly permanently lost my respect over this album. Blowout Comb now doesn't sound as good because of this atrocity. Fuck.
Common — Electric Circus
Over the years, it's become a little less satisfying then that initial 'HOLY GOD AND MOTHER OF JESUS, THIS IS THE SPACED OUT FONK' reaction I had, but it still strikes as a brave and profound work that showcases an artistic collective at their most experimental. Common was at his most lyrically sharp since Resurrection and Questlove and J Dilla created some of their best work for the musical backdrops here. Any hip hop album that has the following can't be all bad: a song dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, an interlude featuring a short song created on the same machine that created "When Doves Cry", a featured vocal by a member of Stereolab and a cameo by Prince himself. Wonderfully weird and unjustly understood is how I would sum this one up. At the time, it only solidified that Com was the greatest to ever pick up a mic.
Death Cab For Cutie — Transatlanticism
This album struck me so hard upon first listen that the only thing I could do was play it again. I literally had to play it again to make sure what I had just heard was as good as I was estimating. And it was. It was a rebirth and regeneration. I think back on it and I still can't believe how solid it is. I truly believe the strength of the album has just as much to do with the sequencing as it does the material. I have to mention the track "We Looked Like Giants" because it is the band's best song. Even now, I still hold that opinion. It is a singular and poignant document of passionate young love; a time when feelings are the strongest many of us will experience, but equally as innocent and unachievable as we grow older. Wonderful. At that point, it was Death Cab at their most ambitious and the album, as a whole, was an absolute triumph. Still their best album.
The Durutti Column — Someone Else's Party
And here's where Austin becomes a Durutti obsessionist. Before this album, they were a curiosity. After I heard it, I was a devotee. I can now recognize it as the Column's most approachable work in some time, with guitar pop gems like "Love is a Friend", "Somewhere" and "Remember" sitting alongside guitar and sampled vocal specialties like "Spanish Lament", "Woman" and "Blue." There was an overhanging sadness to the album with two pieces being dedicated to Vini's recently deceased mother (the self-explanatory "Requiem For My Mother" and the poignant guitar instrumental "Goodbye"). Even with that (or maybe even because of it), the album stands up as one of Vini's better ones of his later career. Little did I know, he would only get better.
Kristin Hersh — The Grotto
Speaking of downers... A meditative, stream of conscious all acoustic album from Kristin after two full on pop albums. To say it was a jarring contrast would be an understatement. It still has that foggy, surrealist and eerie feel of her best folk-slanted material and it's a very singularly-mooded album for that. It builds and builds to the last two tracks ("Milk Street" and "Ether") into one of the emotional highlights of her catalogue. It featured Howe Gelb and Andrew Bird, who both subsequently toured with her as opening acts in support of the album. It was through my attendance at that show that I found their music as well. A real late night gem of an album for me.
Ahmad Jamal — In Search of Momentum
The first Ahmad Jamal album of late that clued me in that he was experiencing a resurgence in creativity. I saw the trio on this tour and they were absolutely smoking. Didn't really play anything off this album (but a rare airing of "Spanish Lament" from an obscure 70's album was definitely appreciated), but the same energy was there. As this album stands, it featured quite a few originals for Ahmad at the time and, as good and resonating as those melodies were, this was only the foundation on which he would build in the next few years.
Madlib — Shades of Blue
Basically living out any beathead's dreams, Madlib was granted access to Blue Note's masters and given free reign to sample, add to and tweak as he saw fit. Probably one of the first proper 'remix' albums of the decade, in that sense. Fantastic new takes on breakbeat classics from Bobbi Humphrey ("Please Set Me At Ease") to Donald Byrd ("Steppin Into Tomorrow") to Ronnie Foster (the crowd pleaser, "Mystic Brew"). Sure, as a beathead myself, I knew most of the source material very well, but it was still an out and out success because of Madlib's takes on these classics. Something to be said about that.
Natalie Merchant — The House Carpenter's Daughter
Proof that Motherland's turn into the rootsy, bluesy twang wasn't just an aside. All cover tunes, so not quite as satisfying as that album, but it still does a nice job of blending the acoustic and electric into a believable brew of modern day roots music. Probably my least favorite of her albums thus far, but an interesting listen, at the very least.
OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Did it deserve album of the year? No. Was it one of OutKast's best? No. Was it still a completely and wholly interesting and engaging listen front to back just based on the personalities of the performers and their evolution up this point? You better believe it. As a long time fan, it was just a little bit better than Stankonia (which was a disappointment, as a long time fan), but it was nowhere near the expounding artistic masterpiece that it was made out to be in the mainstream press. Make no mistakes, I will take Big Boi's willfully weird, yet somehow still pleasantly poppy Speakerboxxx any day over Andre3000's P-Funk-via-regurgitated-early-80's Prince schtick any day. With tracks like "Ghetto Musick", "Way You Move", "War", "Flip Flop Rock" and "Reset", Big Boi tapped into that curious social conscious that was equal parts pop and avant garde. Andre's half had the generation defining "Hey Ya!" and the seriously underrated "She Lives In My Lap" amidst a smattering of ponderous doodlings that ultimately went nowhere, but it was nowhere near as interesting. Overall, it's in the middle of OutKast's catalogue as far as it's standing, but it is one of the single most listenable albums of the decade for sure — simply based on its uber-pop moments masked behind willful eccentricities.
The Postal Service — Give Up
This set the stage for my inevitable Death Cab For Cutie obsession later on in the year after Transatlanticism came out. This was released on my 22nd birthday, if you can believe it. At the time, it struck me as the great lost New Order album and I said as much in my initial review. I can see where I was going with that description, but I now must put an addendum to it: New Order filtered through the Field Mice. And it's strange that an album as harmlessly as this one was conceived became as popular as it did. I mean, rightfully so, but wow, didn't see that one coming, did you? This album is just pure pop fun. Of the best sort that just resonates forever, no matter much the glitchy snyth production tries to date it. I love this album.
Quartetto LoGreco — Reflections
I was jonesing for some new Nicola Conte material big time when this came out, so I was checking out a lot of things on the Schema label in hopes of finding something similar. Well, this album was nothing like Jet Sounds, but it was a straight acoustic post-bop album that knocked my socks off. Uniquely featuring a few songs with tenor as the lead and then alternate recordings with flute as the lead, the album was a contemporary recording by younger cats that was equal parts spiritual and passionate, but lacking the pretentiousness that most western groups of similar style exhibit. I loved it and found it wholly refreshing.
The Sea and Cake — One Bedroom
Basically the band's synth-pop album. I was disappointed. I've grown to like it a little more, but I still stick by my initial sentiment that there's three or four amazing tracks and the rest of the album's sub-par material is dipped in keyboards to cover up the shortcomings. "Four Corners" still kicks complete ass, along with "Hotel Tell" and their shocker cover of Bowie's "Sound & Vision", but the rest is a little more presentation over substance and, consequently, it's probably my least favorite album by the band.
The Sea and Cake — Glass EP
Ok, just an EP, but it still kicks One Bedroom's ass. "To the Author" appears in two differing versions that show that the band could integrate heavy keyboards and still sound like themselves, while "Traditional Wax Coin" sounds like something from Sam Prekop's self-titled album (in a good way). The potential was fulfilled on "An Echo In", which, at that point, was the band's best song since The Fawn. A fuzz distortion on the bass, looming synth washes, a wah wah pedal and easily their most resonating melody in at least five years. I swear, this song is probably in the band's top three ever. Too bad it was buried away on this EP. An appropriate Sam Prekop lyric here: "So, that's a shame... I could be wrong." Oh yeah, some pretty good remixes at the end too (of which, the Stereolab one was the least interesting, if you can believe it). If I doubted them after One Bedroom, Glass made me question myself.
David Sylvian — Blemish
Ok, to be completely clear: I love this album. I find it to be a work of complete artistic independence made by a musician who believes in his audience so much that he would make one of his most challenging works this late in his career. Not to mention, the music is jarringly stark, in a fascinating way. A wonderful moment of purely bleak venerability recorded and documented for all to witness. However, as he would say, the trouble is: I can't listen to it. It is such an involving, heavy listen. Be it the thirteen minute title track that kicks off the album or the numerous accounts of considering children in the midst of a domestic separation, it's just a bleak, forever down look at Sylvian's own divorce. Sparse and mostly acapella, it makes the listener focus wholly on the lyrics. And guess what? They're not so happy. Quick sample: "I came to hate her" — no, seriously, he says that about the mother of his children =( However, this sort of quiet airing of the dirty laundry has a distinct and definite effect on the discerning listener (read: me). For all its bleakness and Eeyore-like sadness, there is one song here that is genuinely and completely beautiful, in every aspect of the word: "A Fire In the Forest." One of the most demon-exorcising and redemptive songs I've ever heard, coming last in the track sequence, it feels like true personal revelation. With lyrics like "There is always sunshine, far above the grey sky. I know that will find it, yes I will try" it's one of the best songs of the decade and one of my favorites of all time.
Throwing Muses — Throwing Muses
And then, they rocked relentlessly. Seven years after Limbo and long after many of my hopes had faded for another album, there came this album released on the same day as The Grotto (no, seriously). I didn't like it at first because these guitars on this record are chunky and loud. I mean, this is RAWK. Right off the bat on "Mercury", Dave Narcizo's stuttering drumming made it clear that this was indeed the Muses as I fondly remembered them from their classic albums — Tanya Donelly and all. Despite the modest drums-bass-guitar presentation of the songs, they were seriously layered and it wasn't until the fourth or fifth listen that I really started to notice the subtleties of this album. Labyrinthine, nearly mathematic riffs would quickly meld into epic pop hooks and then back again, without any consideration for anything other than the purpose of making pop sound smart. The last two tracks ("Half Blast" and "Flying") reminded me heavily of University and Limbo and, with every subsequent play of the album, it's those two songs that remind me that if this is to be the last album Kristin makes under the Throwing Muses moniker, she couldn't have done the name more in regards to paying a last respect.