The Appleseed Cast — Peregrine
It's been a while, so I feel like I can come out and just say this: I didn't like Two Conversations. It was noticeably absent from my list of mentionable albums of 2003. It was so faceless and confused sounding, how could there be anything worth mention for an album that was missing most of the qualities of what made the band worth talking about in the first place? Where that album felt completely out of place coming as the first proper new material after Low Level Owl, Peregrine was a fully integrated, completely cohesive journey through the sound of a band not backing down from the unlimited potential presented previously. Two Conversations seemed to cower a bit in Low Level Owl's shadow, explaining its sore thumb status. But Peregrine had shifting time signatures, quiet moments of bliss, blaring explosions of noise, instrumental layers built from subtle use of unlikely sources — but most of all, this was all done in the most accomplished manner. The songs are probably the band's catchiest yet. They just had this jarring presentation that masked the songs in an effects pedal haven of post-rock pretenses. It's probably the Apppleseed Cast album that wears its post-production on its sleeve most apparently as well. The extra little treatments and layers of sound this provided made the album a serious surprise and it was all the more rewarding for it. Something like "Sunlit and Ascending" finds the band most prominently displaying their U2 and Chameleons influences in its initial movement, but the vocals kick in and the song takes a completely different turn into an entirely new direction. Not only is it probably the album's highlight, it's a stunning example of how to properly use one's influences to build something new. At the time, it was easily their second best album for me.
Ron Carter — Dear Miles,
It only seemed logical for Ron Carter to do a Miles Davis dedication album, it just seemed an odd time to finally do it when Dear Miles was released. It consisted of what was basically Ron's live setlist for the past few years and had been out in Japan for over a year when it finally got released in North America. He touches on many of the standards that Miles had made famous (and many of those, Ron had played on the initial recordings) and instead of just feeling like a rehash of material that he could play in his sleep, the renditions here are short and sweet. Stephen Scott is once again at the forefront of the affair, getting ample spotlight time, but it's clear from the first track that the elder's direction is being upheld in the performances. The material is clearly still an inspiration to Ron after all these years, as this is probably the best album of his more recent run for Blue Note. And, in the case of something like "Seven Steps to Heaven," the rendition here is so full of energy and creativity, it may not be the definitive version of the tune, but it's definitely up for consideration. Definitely one of my favorites of the decade.
The Durutti Column — Keep Breathing
It's very clear, from the first moment that a sampled piano and undeniably Vini Reilly guitar line opens this album, that there's something up. It's updated trip-hop via produced layers sound was hinted at a bit on Rebellion, but that was just a foundation on which Keep Breathing builds an illuminating, Technicolor-infused rebirth for the Durutti Column. Sure, the idea of a guy singing badly and playing an incredibly noodly guitar atop drum machines and building new riffs around sampled vocals was nothing new for Vini (he had first mastered it on the Vini Reilly album in 1989), but there's a vibrancy, a newly expressed enthusiasm and passion on this album — it just ups the bar in terms of overall quality. Quite a few of the songs just have single world titles —many of those subsequently being just proper names— which I take as an implication of how closely Vini was connected with this material. The subjects are clearly and explicitly defined, but the expositions of the lyrics to the songs are a bit more obtuse and leave some interpretation to the listener to sort out. But that disregards the melodic strength of the material. Which is to say, these are some of Vini's best written songs in ages. Were it not for his awful singing, songs like "It's Wonderful" or "Helen" could legitimately be considered for mainstream radio airplay. Truly, this album has probably the most produced, accessible sheen of any Durutti Column record, but the material is so good, it feels like a compliment to say so, not a complaint. It blew me away when I first heard it. It solidified that Vini was quite probably the most relevant music maker in the world at that point. One of the best of decade. Excellent. And a bit scary, because he managed to do even better.
The Evens — Get Evens
Firing again quickly just over a year after the release of their first self-titled album, Get Evens was another dose of stripped down songwriting greatness from Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. The songs on this album were a bit more angry and riled up, but they were also more fleshed out with the band revealing layers within the material that would be otherwise obscured had they presented it differently. More harmonizing, arrangement shifts and just downright better melodies made for quite a surprise of an album for me. Most of the songs have become topical curiosities by now because of the duo's obsession with venting about then president George W. Bush. But, overall, it's probably my favorite of their two albums just because the songs are so dern catchy. I expected another quick shot to be fired not long after this album was released, but got nothing. Would love to hear from them again.
Andrew Hill — Timelines
Upon its release, Time Lines gained interest from just about everybody who should have been interested because it was Andrew's reunion with Blue Note Records. Charles Tolliver was on board and we were all excited as hell. To me, it sounded like classic Andrew Hill on Blue Note. Thoughtfully composed melodies and exploratory soloing that hinted at the avant garde, but never dove completely in. As I had not followed his records more recently, I had no idea what to expect, but I was completely satisfied with the album. Starting off with the depressingly gorgeous "Malachi," skipping through the surprisingly Abdullah Ibrahim-esque title track and ending up back at "Malachi" in a solo piano revisit, the album was a soulful and invigorating update from a master upon his own classic sound. Nobody saw his death coming a little over a year later, making Time Lines Andrew Hill's last album. Hard to think of a finer swan song. Absolutely one of the best of the 2000's.
J Dilla — Donuts
This album cannot be heard without memories of James Yancey's death immediately arising. The legends soon trickled out and formed: he allegedly sat in a hospital bed with his MPC on his lap and worked on material for this album while his Lupus ravaged kidneys were struggling to keep functioning. The album was released on Tuesday, he died on Friday. Sorry, knowing that, I can't hear this music and evaluate it objectively. It was a confused and chaotic statement from a man who was unsure of how much time he had left. Is it his best work? I don't think so. Was it years ahead of its time? Probably, because even now, I still don't completely get it. But I don't know, in the shadow of his untimely death, none of that ephemera seems very important. So I guess the bottom line is: is it good? And the answer is always a resounding yes. It's very good, actually. Worthy of mention among the best of the decade? I'd say so.
J Dilla — The Shining
This album was finished and released posthumously under the direction of some surely well-meaning Dilla affiliates, but it does feel a little stopgap. Despite my discrepancies, there were some really fantastic songs here: "E=MC²" featured Common in his best b-boy shit talking mode, "Won't Do" was the sort of super spaced out mini epic that Dilla made his name upon and all of the instrumentals were worthwhile. But if felt very much like a compilation with all of the different vocalists and it just wasn't a good final sendoff for one of the true musical visionaries of the last twenty years. A disappointment.
Morrissey — Ringleader of the Tormentors
Arguably for the first time ever, Morrissey was genuinely personal in his music. Sure, he had been personal before, but there was always a degree of aloofness or distance in his presentation. Something like "Dear God Please Help Me" is not only one of his best songs, but also, all signs seem to point to it being autobiographical. Followed immediately by his best single in years, the mini epic rocker "You Have Killed Me," it makes for a hell of combo very early in the album. It should be mentioned that the album was produced by Tony Visconti (yes, that Tony Visconti), so with songs like "Life is a Pigsty," "You Have Killed Me," "The Youngest Was the Most Loved," "In the Future When All's Well" and "The Father Who Must Be Killed" being filtered through his guidance, it is easily Morrissey's most T Rex-sounding album. And it's the best work he's done since Vauxhall & I.
OutKast — Idlewild
When it came out, I could've cared less. I still checked it out just because it was OutKast and my reaction to the album was very similar to my reaction to the accompanying movie: it was surprisingly not horrible. It wasn't great either. Just a disappointingly alright album from a group who used to release generation-defining records every time out. Oh well. There was still more than enough quality material to merit repeated listens and enjoyment. But the most important thing to point out about this album is that, again, Big Boi's songs were easily the better of the bunch, while Andre3000's attempts at diversity once again fumbled clumsily over Prince and P-Funk-inspired doodlings with minimal success. The singles, "Mighty O" and "Morris Brown," were exceedingly good and there were a bunch of deep album cuts like "The Train," "Life is Like A Musical" and "Hollywood Divorce" that made the album worthy of repeat listens. It's grown on me in recent years and, even with its flaws and ridiculous length, it's still a good album. That's a testament to how great OutKast is: a second tier, seeming write-off of an album is still good. Both members have done music since, but more noticeably separated than ever. I suppose it's not a bad way to end a career; it's certainly an interesting final work (if it is, in fact, to be their last).
The Roots — Game Theory
No longer feeling label pressure and given the freedom to go forth in the direction of their choice on Def Jam, the Roots created a dense, paranoid album of deep, funk rock grooves and refocused on a sense of urgency in the vocals. Songs like "False Media," "In the Music" and "Here I Come" were the closest anybody had come in years to replicating the sound and vibe of classic Public Enemy. And it was solid and reassuring after a couple of underwhelming albums. There was a sense of nihilism or lost hope to the whole thing and while the message in the music was unclear, the vibe was not. The whole thing was confirmed with the album's last track, "Can't Stop This," which was an epic sendoff to the late J Dilla. Overall, it was an album that was not only surprising at some points, but it was incredibly satisfying. Appropriately, it featured Malik B's first performances with the band on record since Things Fall Apart and it was simultaneously the last Roots album to feature Leonard Hubbard on bass. They've moved on to bigger and better things since, but for the last album that featured the classic lineup of the band, it was one hell of a goodbye letter. Easily the Roots' best album of the last ten years and also among the decade's best records.
Sonic Youth — Rather Ripped
Sonic Youth's pop album. I loved it. It still sounded like them, but the songs were shorter, not quite as noisy and the concepts were clearly presented. It was kind of like an entire album of songs like "Unmade Bed" or "Disconnection Notice." Which, for me, is exactly what I wanted to hear Sonic Youth do. Kim stole the show, too, with songs like "Reena," "The Neutral" and especially "Jams Run Free" (one of the most epic four minute pop songs ever). Thurston's contributions were not slight, by any means either, with songs like "Incinerate," "Do You Believe In Rapture?," "Or" and the one big guitar workout "Pink Steam." It was clearly the band's most focused material in several albums. Sure, some of that resonance from the past two albums was sacrificed in place of catchy briefness, but Rather Ripped is a damn fine album no matter how you view it.