Friday, February 19, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2005

Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine

In its bootlegged, Jon Brion-helmed form, I was satisfied, but underwhelmed. In its retail released, tinkered with form, I was disappointed. Granted, it was an album from one of my absolute favorites and it wasn't completely awful. But I don't know. There's just something about this album that still strikes me as having the quality of just releasing a record for the sake of releasing a record. "O, Sailor" is glorious and "Not About Love" gives me chills just thinking about it, but the rest of the album was just ok. Very close to filler. Granted, it was good filler. But filler nonetheless. Certainly not bad, but it was very clear that her entire heart wasn't in this one. I still love you, Fiona. Please make that hands down masterpiece that we both know you have in you sometime soon.

Vashti Bunyan — Lookaftering

This was my introduction to the enchanting world of Vashti Bunyan's music. As she was described to me as the 'female Nick Drake' I realized that I had potentially missed out on something huge. New album by old artist; perfect timing. And sheesh, if this album wasn't as good as could be expected, then I don't know what the world's come to. We played it on the stereo when I worked at Tower as often as we could get away with. It was that good. Timeless music. I still listen to it very often. Songs like "Wayward" (featuring Devendra Banhart doing his best Vini Reilly impression) and the unbelievably resonating "Hidden" were just two small pieces of one of the most solid albums of the decade. Hopefully another one is on the vague horizon.

Common — Be

Sure, it's easy to get really cynical about it in retrospect, but at the time, it was satisfying as hell. I listened to it a few times front to back after buying it and it just struck me as a classic Common album. Truly, it sounded like the album that spiritually belonged between Resurrection and One Day It'll All Make Sense. Sure, looking back, that's total creative regression coming after Electric Circus, but it sounded damn good when it dropped. And, surely, I have several fond memories of Com looking like he was loving the material as he was playing it live. I could've done without "Go", but otherwise, the album was complete quality. Even if it will go down as his last good album, at least it won't disrespect his run of classic albums that led up to it.

Death Cab for Cutie — Plans

At the time, I was naive and expecting the world. Coming off the Postal Service and Transatlanticism, I figured Ben Gibbard would be ready to unleash his magnum opus upon the world. It wasn't until after I heard this album that I realized that he had already unleashed it with Transatlanticism. And that is to say, this album sucked supremely to me at first. When they released "Soul Meets Body" as the teaser single, my expectations shot from high to stratospheric. And what did I get? Second rate U2 and Coldplay imitations in the form of "Your Heart is an Empty Room" and "What Sarah Said." Full disclosure: I was pissed. I boycotted the show when they played Reno. Years have passed. The album has grown on me. I still absolutely hate and feel betrayed by three or four tracks on the album, but the rest? Yeah, it's pretty fuckin' good. I still do have reservations about most of the material being obsessed with death and an overall Eyore-like gloomy outlook, but it's really grown on me. "Marching Bands of Manhattan"? Awesome opener. "Soul Meets Body"? On par with "Just Like Heaven" in the annals of amazing pop songs that are popular because they're just that good. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"? Lifechanging. But why, "Crooked Teeth"? Why? Uneven and uncohesive as hell, but with enough highlights to endure. I'm now mad I didn't see them on this tour; I probably should have.

Death Cab for Cutie — The John Byrd EP

However, earlier in the year, they released this last goodbye release to their ever-loyal indie label Barsuk. Some of these songs were recorded mere days after I saw them on the Transatlanticism tour and it's just a magnificent document. I don't want to say they will never top Transatlanticism, but it's still their best album to this day. And that tour was just magical. Even in a dumpy venue in Reno on a gloomy night, there was a hint of fuzzy, warm lightness. And this mini-album captured that incredibly well. I can clearly remember singing along to all of these songs at the gig and, if I can't have a recording of that exact show, this is the next best thing. It was one of the contributing factors that pushed my expectations for Plans so high.

Doves — Some Cities

Wow. Just... man. Where do you begin? Well, I suppose I should just say right now that this is one of my top picks of the decade. To this day, it's still their shortest album. It's quite probably their loudest album as well, with tons of clipping warm melodic distortion, bubbling electronics and probably Andy Williams' most cymbal-heavy, relevant performance on record yet. Eleven concise tracks and a true hit among them with the deceptively bouncy "Black and White Town." I find it strange that that song was a hit when there are just as many readily poppy (or even poppier) songs on the album like "Almost Forgot Myself", "Sky Starts Falling" and the astronomical, gargantuan highlight "Snowden." Perhaps that's why this album sticks out so much for Doves: for all its noisy harshness, deep down, it is their most humanly melodic and modestly presented album yet. For all its effects and big presentation of the songs, the material, when stripped to its core, is quite frankly their strongest. The wall is down for once, and instead of a series of impenetrable, but admirable, Jimi Goodwin lyrics, you get a look into the soul of this band; what makes them tick. Songs like "Someday Soon" or "Shadows of Salford" are quite possibly the most human things they've yet recorded, along with Jimi's confession of 'Man, I've always felt your pain' after an epic, melodica-laced buildup on "Walk In Fire." Indeed, "Someday Soon" makes a very intentional reference to a Smiths riff, showing that the band is audibly proud of Manchester and their musical roots. And, in the case of a song like "Snowden," the specific meaning may be obscured, but the message is universal enough, and the tune amazingly pastoral enough, that the song feels like an absolute modern day classic. The whole thing just reeks of personal revelation and liberation. Revisit it; there's more there than just "Black and White Town." One of the few things created by a contemporary band this decade that strikes me as being a touchstone of its generation. Stunningly good.

Jukka Eskola — Jukka Eskola

A member of the wonderful Five Corners Quintet (which we'll get to in a moment), he actually released his own album before Five Corners got their first full length out. On his own album, Jukka was much more open to modern trends, as there were samples, stompin' four-to-the-floor time signatures, electric keyboards and some good old turntable techniques. All of that atop what was basically acoustic jazz and you got amazingly cohesive songs like "1974" and "Buttercup." Throw in a serious drum break and Roy Ayers reference in "Timber Up" and you got an album that was glad to be considered a throwback with a modern slant. Probably better than the proper Five Corners releases, in all honesty.

The Evens — The Evens

Wait, is that Ian MacKaye? Why is he not shouting? Who is that girl harmonizing and drumming for him? Why isn't this a new Fugazi album? All valid questions, and yet, all rendered irrelevant upon actually hearing the album. At first, it nearly felt like Ian MacKaye goes pop, as every song here had a hummable, catchy melody and little to no distortion. But, the more I listened, the more I realized, the guy is old(er) by this point and there's not much anybody can do about that. We all grow up. It was surely hinted at with Fugazi's (last album?) The Argument, but this just confirmed the hell out of it: Ian MacKaye likes to play quieter-ish music now. I seriously had no complaints. This album kicked my ass for a good year afterwords. And I still have no complaints. It's one of those quietly revelatory albums where you don't realize just how much you love it until you realize, years later, that you still know the words and riffs from beginning to end.

The Five Corners Quintet — Chasin' the Jazz Gone By

And because I knew the riffs (in the case of a few songs) years before I actually heard this album, it was all the more disappointing. Sometimes, as a vinyl junkie, I feel excluded when the album is finally released and all those singles you've treasured for months (and sometimes years) are included on the album like the band really didn't care about you the whole time. Judging it on its own musical terms and ignoring all of the baggage that the pre-album singles carried, it's a refreshing and eye-opening album that generated a scene. Truly, if you weren't aware of the Ricky-Tick label and hadn't been keeping up with the band's ten and twelve inch singles in the years previous, it would have blown your mind. For me, the blowing of the mind was relegated to short, pre-album bursts of ten inch magic. The "new" songs were all just as fantastic as ever; all incorporating that undeniably dancefloor friendly vibe into an updated Cannonball Adderley-inspired traditionalist soul jazz groove. Sure, having it all in one place puts its importance into perspective, but nothing beats those initial needle drops onto the vinyl. I still recommend it to folks though. And the Five Corners are probably my favorite new band of the decade. The album just wasn't satisfying, that's all.

Ahmad Jamal — After Fajr
In the midst of a smattering of his unique revisions of standards, Ahmad Jamal followed up In Search of Momentum with even more proof that he was experiencing creative rebirth as a composer. The album's title track was an absolutely gorgeous vocal and piano duet that I would have called a throwback, were it not recorded by a veteran like Ahmad. Perhaps most surprising about the whole thing were the two older-ish originals that he revisited for the first time in at least twenty years. "Manhattan Reflections", last heard on an 80's release was as sharp as ever, but the real shocker was "Swahililand." It was aired out on record for the first time in thirty years and it was a doozy. In stark contrast to the original big budget, fully orchestrated original recording from 1974's Jamal Plays Jamal album, this was a modest trio recording of the tune. The sparseness of the arrangement focuses everything on the subtle complexities of the composition and really brings out the full genius of the tune. I was able to catch the trio on this tour and they played all three highlights from this album: "After Fajr" (though in a really great contrasting instrumental arrangement), "Manhattan Reflections" and an epic run through of "Swahililand." Probably the best of Ahmad's recent run of albums.

New Order — Waiting For the Sirens' Call
New Order is just a great band. Period. So, even when they make a clearly second tier album like this, it's still pretty solid. When it kicked off with "Who's Joe?" —one of the band's best songs— I had no doubts it would be good. Sure, in the long run, it doesn't even begin to stack up to their old albums from the 80's, but the bottom is: it's an album by a band that is known for its high quality control. "Hey Now What You Doing", "Krafty" and "Jetstream" were all pretty awesome songs when you go back to them. I think the album's biggest flaw was its length. Though, even with all the unnecessary bits, it's still better than Get Ready. Easily. And if it is to be their last album, at least we can say their last album didn't feature Billy Corgan.

Nine Horses — Snow Borne Sorrow
Though I was a late comer to this one and, even after all that time, it still took me a year or so to really 'get' it, this album is startlingly good. It was David Sylvian's first musical work since Blemish and to say that it was a big turnaround would be only a half-truth. Musically, yes. It was a true working band philosophy and the songs were backed up by a menagerie of sounds. Steve Jansen and David were reunited once again, so it would be *extremely* hard not to hear this album and wonder if this is a slight indication of where Japan would've ended up. But lyrically, David was just as bummed out as ever. But, here, instead of directing all of that unrest inwards, he projected off of himself and analyzed the situations in the surrounding world. With references to holding grudges against, while simultaneously appeasing, your neighbor and allusions to events 'as the buildings fall down,' it is a seeming hour long reaction to the events of September 11th, 2001 and the implications of that day. Although my view, as an American, is a skewed one, I hear a lot of the lyrics in that light. And, while it is certainly not the happiest of subjects, it does feel gracefully and thoughtfully articulated. With the somber, lightly electronic backing music meshing head on with brilliant acoustic sounds, it achieves that rare moment of somber music that is just as melancholy as it is liberating; as soothing as it is thought-provoking. Not to mention, "Seratonin" just kicks so much ass. I've never been so bummed out while feeling like I had to dance. It often feels like one of the decade's most important albums. And even if it isn't, it's certainly one of the best. Outstanding.

The Occasional Keepers — The Beauty of the Empty Vessel
I expected not much and I got a modest, quiet, rewarding offshoot of an album. Bob Wratten's name on anything guarantees an automatic purchase from me, so I checked this one out and was initially put off by the lack of his songs. When I took a step back and evaluated the album on its own terms, I found one of those really unassuming side projects that most people will either forget or didn't know about in the first place, but the hardcore among us will find rewarding aspects for many years to come. I became aware of The Wake because of this album's existence, so that can't be all bad. It had a very quiet, nearly English folk-rock-via-glitchy ProTools mindset vibe to it. And Bob's songs were exceptional (especially "Rose-Scented Fire"). Far from amazing, but good lord, did I play the ever loving goodness out of it.

Sam Prekop — Who's Your New Professor?
At the time, it struck me as a more guitar-featuring stopgap Sea and Cake album. It had all of the electronics that Sam's band had immersed itself in for its previous two releases, but with songs like the excellent Neil Young-esque "Dot Eye", Sam was clearly at the helm. It featured most of his Sea and Cake bandmates as players, so that probably explains the overt similarity. But, truly, if One Bedroom was maybe a misstep in terms of his songwriting, Who's Your New Professor? made any doubts seem silly. With tunes like "Something", the previously mentioned "Dot Eye", "Two Dedications", "C + F" and the gorgeous "Between Outside" it seemed an insult to insinuate that his best songs were behind him. I do like his first solo album more just for its importance in his own catalogue as an evolving musician, but Who's Your New Professor? is just another notch in the belt of high quality that he's upheld his entire career.

Archer Prewitt — Wilderness

From his past albums, I knew he was capable of the big, cinematic arrangements and longing, super resonating pop tunes. But nothing really prepared me for this. Wilderness is definitely the least likely candidate to make my albums of the decade list, but with the combination of intensely reflective lyrics (the most personal of his career, in fact), the heart wrenching (and extremely well-thought out) arrangements mixing with the unpredictability of the tunes themselves combined for a magical experience. There are few albums released this decade that you could justifiably and accurately assign the term timeless to, but Wilderness is easily the leading candidate. Ditching the 70's pop flourishes and twee pop leanings of past albums and making his masterpiece, Archer not only distinguished himself an identity outside of his band, but, with this album, declared himself as a solo artist and singular talent with few peers. I love this album. It's just one of those warm, fond experiences that can equally cheer up a bad day or make a good day into a great one. He still hasn't made another album under his own name since and I can't help but wonder if it's a little bit because he feels like he accomplished such a masterstroke with this album that to bother any further would be a little bit pointless. Because Wilderness is that good.

Red Sparowes — At the Soundless Dawn

Although I do feel like this may be a case where a band's first album is their best and they struggle through the rest of their existence to make something equally as relevant (not to mention, as good), At the Soundless Dawn is pure instrumental rock soundscaping magic. The whole certainly is greater than the sum of its parts (like all good 'post-rock' should be), so naming favorite tunes seems futile. But just know, it's one of the best soundtracks for a non-existent movie this side of David Axelrod. For a somewhat melodramatic sub-genre, Red Sparowes found that all important medium between technical noodlery and tunefully resounding articulation in post-rock. Good stuff.

David Sylvian — The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter: The Blemish Remixes

I have never been a fan of remix albums, so when I heard about a David Sylvian remix album for his most sparse work, I was very cynical. With yet another example of why David Sylvian is just that much better of a person than I am, he commissioned some remixers to basically (in most cases) take his vocals and add music to them. So, for some folks, this will be the "real" version of Blemish. I still like the originals better, but the revisions of "The Heart Knows Better" (by Sweet Billy Pilgrim), "How Little We Need To Be Happy" (by Tatsuhiko Asano) and especially the wonderfully Bjork-circa-Homogenic groping "A Fire in the Forest" (by Readymade FC) were all valid, original takes on the tunes. If nothing else, this album gave me an entirely new point of view on this material and put the songs into a completely different, but still natural, context (which is what a good remix should do, but I digress). Far from a footnote, I saw it as David Sylvian's next proper album after Blemish. Note to Austin: have faith in David Sylvian; his are well made decisions.

Trembling Blue Stars — Bathed In Blue EP

Basically just the single for "The Sea is So Quiet." That song, in a very awesome retro-80's mode, is stretched out to seven glorious minutes in a 'Long Version' that recalls those 12"-only extended mixes that bands stopped doing somewhere around 1991. When The Seven Autumn Flowers first came out, I thought "The Sea is So Quiet" was one of the best 80's pop hits not released in the 80's (and said as much), but the fact that it lends itself so well the 'extended mix' treatment only seems to reinforce that. It was already one of my favorite songs by the band, but the version here feels definitive. Elsewhere, Beth's "Through the Silence and Games" is the sort of jangly pop song that you'd swear was supposed to be an a-side, Bob's then-recent Cure infatuation reached its apex with the stunning "Wounded Light" and things ended with the equally as epic "This is Bliss." With lyrics declaring that Bob genuinely and quite contently 'loves this place,' a twist duet ending and an all around post-punk gloomy happiness, it's secretly one of the band's best songs and something that should not have been tossed off onto an EP. But there you have it. This signified to me that the Stars were going to be making a big move with their next album. Seeing what came next, it should have been obvious and less jarringly good, but thanks to the modest nature of the EP presentation, it was probable, but not expected.


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