Thursday, February 11, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2004

The Arcade Fire — Funeral

Although fairly overrated in its aftermath, this album seemed to come out of nowhere initially. The first four songs on this thing are just about as good of a way as any to start your debut album. Unafraid to be epic and perhaps a bit pompous, Funeral tapped into an emotional, cinematic sentiment that carried throughout the entire album. While not the hands down masterpiece it was later claimed to be, it certainly was cohesive and solid enough to have deserved the initial hype.

David Axelrod — Live at Royal Festival Hall

When this came out, I had such a difficult time keeping myself from getting too excited about it. I mean, I knew it was startlingly good. I knew I'd be listening to it fairly regularly for years to come, never growing tired of it. I knew it was a defining moment for me as a music fan. But, I was trying to keep it under wraps for a while. I just acted like, 'Yeah, it's not bad.' Sheesh, what was I trying to prove? Sure, I've voiced my discrepancies with its song selections, but as far as the actual performances, forget it, it's as great as you could've hoped for. And it's not like the song selections are bad either; just predictable (which could be viewed as a good thing). And just knowing that it could've been something completely different, but instead was this glorious crowd pleaser makes it all the better. It's one of my tops of the decade. Easily. Arguably even better than the Mo'Wax album.

Bjork — Medulla

This was the album that nobody liked. All the Bjork fans I talked to all hated it. While it certainly wasn't my initial cup of tea, it grew on me and grew on me into this sacred experience of an album that I get a little choked up about just thinking about. "Desired Constellation", "Who is it?" and "Oceania" specifically are just resonating perfection. It's easily my favorite Bjork album. I'm not just trying to be that 'different guy' either. I've just grown and experienced a lot of life with this album and it just hits me that hard. Every time.

Nicola Conte — Other Directions

Meanwhile, on the jazz front, some Italian dude made an album (on Blue Note, no less) that seriously turned my world around. As if his previous album of samples and mock-improvised solos wasn't good enough, Nicola conducted and arranged this set of modern post-bop that fully integrated the dance floor and, simultaneously, wasn't horrible. Hard thing to do, mastering the classic and the contemporary so effortlessly. One of my definitive (and best) albums of the decade.

The Cure — The Cure

The first words Robert Smith muttered on the band's first self-titled (yet, 12th studio) album were, "I can't find myself." And it sounded like it. If you were looking for classic Cure, you were stuck listening to the album's b-sides (or, for those of us in America, the three extra tracks on the vinyl edition of the album). I don't know. It's certainly grown on me, albeit in a reconfigured fashion that does away with "Never" and "Us or Them" and incorporates all of the b-sides and extra tracks, but it still stands as a disappointment. It was the Cure being the tough rockers they always wanted to be, but never had the balls to actually be. And, like such forced circumstances may suggest, it didn't work. Not entirely anyway. Of course, the Cure being the Cure and Robert Smith being Robert Smith, there were inexplicably excellent songs like "alt.end" and the still stunning "Before Three" (which, much to my dismay, was not a cryptic reference to the long puzzling Seventeen Seconds track of similar namesake —at least as far as I know— even though it still kicked ass). Get those extra tracks and it may not be as much of a disappointment. But, initially, boy was I down. And not because it was a typically awesomely down Cure album. I think RS got the message too, as he fired longtime band members Roger O'Donnell and Perry Bamonte after the album's tour. Oh well, onward and upward (yes, even with Jason still at the drummer's chair).

De La Soul — The Grind Date

So the trilogy gets cut short as Tommy Boy folds. And instead of trying to get all super-uber-ambitious on their indie debut, De La cut the fat and made arguably their best album since Stakes is High. Actually, damn the argument, it was clearly their best in nearly ten years. They followed the feel-good vibes of Bionix with even more feel-good vibes, but on this album, it really felt liberating for them. Sure, it was just as moody as before, but this time, it was true, heart-felt fun 100% of the time. It did have a feeling of 'last hurrah'-ishness about it and that was only confirmed when the group just seemed to creatively tread water (pun recognized, but not intended) for their next few projects. The Grind Date, however, is perhaps the last glimpse of mid-90's NYC hip hop in its purest form. Because nobody's done it as good since. Not to mention, as soulfully.

Dj Rels — Theme For A Broken Soul

And then, here came Madlib. I believe he released three different full lengths in 2004. Under different names, of course. But the one that was perceived as probably the least serious was the most resonating for me. I knew nothing of the broken beat scene at the time and my knowledge is still limited, but I never took the album to be a truth and gospel account of the sound in the first place. I just took it as Madlib having fun and really pushing himself creatively. And that's exactly why it's stuck with me as long as it has. For this moment in time, Madlib stopped taking himself so seriously and just had fun programming crazy beats and looping familiar samples unfamiliarly off-beat. The best tracks were previewed on Stones Throw import 12" singles roughly a year before the album came out, but the songs fit right in and there were no complaints to be had on my end. I considered it (and still consider it) to be one of those unlikely, but rewarding, small-scale mini-masterpieces that only a few will truly take the time to fully investigate.

The Durutti Column — Tempus Fugit

After the full-on super produced sound of Someone Else's Party, Tempus Fugit was like an absolute retreat for Vini Reilly. It is a decidedly intimate affair that finds an unusual reliance on acoustic guitars in vocal tracks. But the album is pretty much the blueprint for where Vini would go for the next few years. The recurring lyrical themes, the feel of practiced urgency in the performances and the unrestrained openness in the presentation: it's all a recipe for magic. And while, with this album, he hadn't quite gotten the combination perfected, I like to think of the cover image as the perfect visual presentation for the album: it may not be pretty in the traditional sense, but there's something to be admired about such honest presentation.

Feist — Let it Die

Really, really hard to dislike this album. Even as much as I played it, I still have to marvel at the originals. Sure, there was an inordinate amount of covers, but the presentation was fantastic. And besides, the first five tracks make up arguably the strongest opening suite on any album released this decade. "Mushaboom" in particular is a classic for the ages and I still can't believe it's an original tune. Either Feist mined an extremely rare folk-rock 45 from 1971 and has been keeping a remarkable secret or she's that good of a songwriter. Wonderful stuff. Got to see her play a lot of this material in a tiny pub in Sparks (along with a good chunk of the Reminder roughly two years before it was released) and it confirmed for me that she was a special talent to keep an eye on.

Stephen Fretwell — Magpie

And it's a coincidence that I bring up that amazingly intimate Feist gig because the sole reason I even know who Stephen Fretwell is is because he was Feist's opener that night. I have no idea who's asinine idea it was to team up a folky Brit with a pseduo-funky Canadian, but I'm glad they did. I went out the very next day after seeing the gig and picked up Magpie and was a little stunned that I liked such a thing: a sort of modern day Bob Dylan, filtered through Thom Yorke's baritone voice and the Cure's best atmospheres. Very contempo singer songwriter-ish, but with material as good as Stephen Fretwell plays, the cliches are not applicable. Instead of being a walking cliche, he feels like the real thing: a guy who chain smokes and thinks too much, but also knows a few guitar chords. This album didn't blow me away off the bat, but it has grown to become a startlingly warm debut by a singer who just feels like he is destined for greatness, but, through the raspy vocals and melancholy hindsight view, never will achieve it. A hidden gem.

PJ Harvey — Uh Huh Her

I thought this album was so boring at first. Granted, I'm still not crazy about it in the grand scheme of PJH-ness, but it's grown on me. "Pocket Knife", sure that one rocks. "The Slow Drug", yeah that's meditative, post-bender moment of clarity PJH at her best. "It's You", ok, that one is just obsessive brilliance. Well, maybe it's not so bad after all...

PJ Harvey — B-Sides

And then she came out with this clearly great b-sides collection. Full disclosure: I actually liked this a lot more than Uh Huh Her. It was shorter and more concise than the record and it just rocked more without really caring. To me, it was PJ doing PJ. Repetitive as hell at that point, but who cared. Not me. [typical guy]Nice butt, PJ![/typical guy]

Karate — pockets

If I had known it would be their last album, I would have given it much more attention at the time. But nobody knew. It was just Karate's next album. And it was much more of a truly integrated indie rock record. There were actually hooks on this thing! And the tempos weren't sluggish, for the most part! Sure, it's easy to look back now and critique the living daylights out of it for being too short, too similar, too quickly direction changing, etcetera. But now? Listen to it, it will knock your socks off. Slow and longing like the best of their old material, chunked up guitar tone and newly discovered pop ambitions; it's all there. And plus, it has the song "Water", which is amazing by any measuring stick. Didn't see their breakup coming, but I'm glad their last album was a concise and undeniably strong one.

Morrissey — You Are the Quarry

Like all later day Morrissey output, it was overproduced as hell, but the songs were so good it didn't matter. Some rockers, some ballads, all worthwhile. It turned my world around for a good while, but I didn't really get it until roughly a year later. It rocked a lot more than I had anticipated, but deep down, didn't he always want to be Marc Bolan, anyway? Seriously satisfying as a comeback album.

The Ocean Blue — Waterworks EP

It literally made me laugh because it was so good. Two songs from longtime frontman David Schelzel and two (very Morrissey-esuqe) songs from bassist Oed Ronne (pronounced "Ed Rohnny"). To me, it felt like exactly the sort of music this band should've been creating at this point. Goddamn, I loved it. Still do, in fact. My only complaint: on the band's website, the description under this EP has said 'Prelude supreme' for —quite literally— several years. Where's the follow-up, guys? We clearly want it. Especially after this supreme teaser.

Q and Not U — Power

A good, if somewhat unrepresentative, swan song. Nobody knew it would their last album the time, but with songs like "Wonderful People", some folks were pissed at the seeming jump into synth-pop. It felt like a natural progression from where I was standing, as the band was post-punk revival in the first place so synth pop revival seemed the logical next step. "Book of Flags" is secretly their best song that's not named "Soft Pyramids." And then, nobody ever heard from one of the bands with the most unfulfilled potential of the entire decade.

The Roots — The Tipping Point

Wow, I hated this album even more than Phrenology at the time. Called 'em sellouts, in fact. Thought it was pure schlock. I based my thoughts on the very synthesized lead single "Don't Say Nuthin" and the Scott Storch second rate Neptunes ripoff production (which was so bad, I don't even remember the title). There were, however, three or four tunes that were arguably among the band's best (even to this day). The Sly and Family Stone cover/tribute "Star" was —and still is— so good, I get goosebumps. I listen to it rather frequently these days. Don't know what that means. I guess I like it after all.

William Shatner — Has Been

You know, the older I get, the more I realize, the true path to creative longevity is the ability to take yourself completely seriously, but be able to make fun of yourself at the same time. I can think of no better examples of this than this album. I'm being completely honest here. William Shatner (with some help from Ben Folds) made one of the decade's most honest and fun albums. I still have a hard time comprehending how something like "I Can't Get Behind That", "Together", "I'm Real" and "What Have You Done?" could coexist within the same 40-minute album so convincingly. But they did. And I love it.

Sonic Youth — Sonic Nurse

Probably the Youth's most emotionally taxing album. And I don't mean within any certain context. Just, overall. There's a seriously downtrodden, melancholy overtone to this album. Whether it's Kim's heartbreakers "Dude Ranch Nurse" or "I Love You Golden Blue", Thurston's stereotypically (in a good way) longing realizations "Unmade Bed" and "Peace Attack" or Lee's standard paranoid "Paper Cup Exit", the whole thing oozed over with a sense of unified sadness. But in the overthought Sonic Youth way. It's definitely the most low key and subtle affair of their catalogue. I really like this album a lot more as the years pass.

Trash Can Sinatras — Weightlifting

They came out of nowhere with one of the best stage shows anybody had seen in a while and one of the downright best British guitar albums anybody had heard in even longer. It was pure jangle heaven from a group of blokes that had more than earned their elder statesmen status by this point. Nothing even remotely bad to say about it whatsoever. Secretly their best album.

Trembling Blue Stars — The Seven Autumn Flowers

And more wimpy jangle to finish out the year from me. I read a few reviews of this album before I actually heard it and it was just more proof to me that music journalists these days aren't really concerned with quality music. Because really? This may not be my favorite album by the Stars, but damn, it's surely number two. Why doesn't anybody listen to this album? It's arguably their best! There's not really anything much else to say besides a mention for "The Sea is So Quiet" which is one of Bob's best songs ever. Oh, it's also got "Hellen Reddy" on it, too. Yeah, it's that good. It came out in a year when Morrissey and the Cure made pseudo-comebacks and was better than both of them. By far. Hard to think they'd do even better.

I'll be getting around to wrapping this up fairly soon.


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