Saturday, February 12, 2011

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 1

Sigur Rós
Ágaetis Byrjun

Ágaetis Byrjun is born in reverse: Drummer Agust's stuttering snare swishes in space; Georg Holm's bass hums like a vintage pedal synth; Kjartan Sveinsson's piano tones bleed and blip; and Jónsi, the instantly memorable voice, swirls in the cosmos. Something roars in the distance, like far-off rocket engines billowing, and then, softly ... ping ... ping ... ping. A call across the void. There's a brief moment of fuzz, then everything snaps into place. Sveinsson's organ tones are slow and meditative, the ping keeping time like breath. Jónsi runs his rosin-coated cello bow across his guitar, and a whole world spills out, as if articulating a life's worth of radiance and suffering in one transcendent groan. The track ends with the snow of a radio transmission followed by a heart beating faster and faster, another touch of flesh-and-blood on an album that so often feels celestial in origin. Slipping the bonds of his native Icelandic, Jónsi also sings in glossolalia -- Hopelandic, as the band calls it -- proving that all you really need is sound. Sound bridges cultures even as it leaves words behind. Even when we can't decipher what he's saying, we understand the emotions and identify with them. Throughout Ágaetis Byrjun, songs graze the sky and tumble to earth. They rise from incalculable trenches and crest into second sunrises. "Viõrar Vel Til Loftárasa" unfolds with elegant piano and strings, guitar shimmering like pedal steel, and ultimately cedes to the freedom of disharmony as the orchestra members play differing passages, all approaching some kind of rapture in the clash. By comparison, "Olsen Olsen" unites its brass section and piper with a full choir for a jubilant sing-along. When the murky keys of "Avalon" skulk in and we hear a clacking like the guts of a piano being plucked, it is then that we can see the other side of Ágaetis Byrjun's circle as it closes in and pulls us into the darkness.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 2

Death Cab for Cutie

After Transatlanticism, there was no way Death Cab for Cutie weren't going to break into the mainstream. Besides the stellar songwriting and instrumentation, it had all the subtle indicators of a classic album, from the pacing to the running order to the transitions and right down to the evocative cover art. A man who knows his way around the picket fence, Ben Gibbard essays suburban dramas --- where a broken vase means so much more than a spill to clean up --- and he doesn't spare himself when wielding the lens. "We Looked Like Giants" communicates its gnawing angst in the opening dull tone from Nick Harmer's bass, with piano cautiously moving in before --- crash! --- the band streak out in a burst. Jason McGerr's snare cracks and the fulminating guitars of Gibbard and Chris Walla yank us from the aerial view to arm's length. We can see the gray subcompact. We can smell the cold mountain air. We can feel the emotions churning in his stomach as he approaches real intimacy with the woman in the backseat. And yet ... there's always that distance. In the epic title track, he equates it to the Atlantic Ocean: "too far for me to row." McGerr gradually boosts the intensity of his playing, and the others follow suit, Walla repeating the central guitar riff and Gibbard calling across the sea, "I need you so much closer. I need you so much closer." They come back stronger every sequence and join in a chorus of "Come Onnnnnnnn! Come Onnnnnnnnn!" until the music is crashing down upon us, a monolithic force of passion and ambition. The distance doesn't matter. We know he'll get there.

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 3

Cat Power
The Greatest

This could have been Chan Marshall's final album. It nearly was. Ground in by her own heel, after years of personal turmoil, she was ready to disappear into the abyss. The album was cut and only two weeks from release. Something snapped, and she retreated to her apartment, where, as she later related in interviews, she turned off her phone, stopped eating and sleeping, and tried to drink it all away. A friend from New York who feared she was in trouble flew down to Miami and found Marshall crazed and unwashed. The friend took her to a treatment center. Marshall has since rebounded to become more comfortable with herself and with the stage. She's not necessarily at home --- she might never reach that state --- but she says she's doing better. If we examine The Greatest in the frame of a would-be suicide note, there is the glaring, Cobain-esque plea "I hate myself and want to die" ("Hate") and the title track, in which she's preparing herself to be buried (metaphorically or otherwise). Yet the album ends on a charged note, with her connecting with a loved one. Although sorrow is the defining emotion in Cat Power's music, The Greatest is the warmest and lushest of her catalog, the result of her backing band at the time, who included Al Green collaborators Leroy Hodges and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges. Together, they made an album that courses with life even as it brushes by death.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 4

White Pony

If you want a shortcut to understanding Deftones, you can jump to 2:43 on "Pink Maggit," the moment when the slow, emotion-choked groans of Stephen Carpenter's ESP are about to reverberate out of earshot. That's when the band explode with a throbbing wound of guitar vehemence, and they burn it in over the next three minutes like they're blanching the earth.

White Pony, the band's third album, came riding in strong and bold, showing them refining their songcraft while branching out in new directions. "Teenager," a soft, pouty song, exercises the turntable talents of then-new member Frank Delgado, while "Elite" points a flamethrower of hardcore metal at the haughty people who exhibit the vanity of royalty without even possessing the fame.

Chino Moreno unleashes an incredible vocal performance in "Digital Bath," maintaining the tunefulness of melody even while pushing his voice past the point where singing ends and screaming begins. In similar territory, the murky "Knife Prty" makes blood run cold with guest singer Rodleen's contributions, which begin as woozy intonations and advance to dog-whistle shrieks. The mixing and the layering are so skilled here that even her most piercing moments move in stride with the musical storm.

When Maynard James Keenan of Tool shows up, he and Moreno trade lines on a slick, menacing California drive in that damp window between the moon and the dawn. Ever discerning, the singers tantalize us with clues as to the nature of the drive, and leave the rest to imagination and interpretation: "Roll the windows down / this cool night air is curious / let the whole world look in / who cares who sees anything." It's J. G. Ballard meets David Lynch, and scenic drives are as valuable as shortcuts.

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 5

The Pipettes
We Are the Pipettes

[U.K. edition]

The Pipettes are in danger of sharing the fate of so many '60s bands -- the ones who put out a remarkable album or EP, broke up, and then were forgotten within 10 years. The U.K. edition of We Are the Pipettes was never issued here, so if you want the physical CD, you'll have to look for the import, and it will likely be hard to find. Mystifyingly, the album released in the U.S. was remixed by a pop producer who kind of missed the point. As I wrote in my review of that album, "It's counterintuitive that a band birthed from '60s nostalgia would benefit from a modernistic recording instead of one in the tradition of Phil Spector, which is what the British version follows." Although cursory listeners probably wouldn't notice much of a difference, the original edition sets the standard. Joy is alive here: every chime sparkling, every chorus brimming with enthusiasm. It's not all just harmonies, either: Listen to the way Gwenno, Rosay and RiotBecki interplay on "One Night Stand," structuring their vocals to ping-pong off one another, perfectly timed. The union of these talents lasted for but one album, with Rosay and RiotBecki moving on to other pursuits in 2008. At least they left us this memento.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 6


MF Doom had a clutch of underground-rap classics under his belt when he teamed up with producer and Stones Throw cohort Madlib for the Madvillain project. The duo was indeed dynamic, spiraling out vignettes that crackled with comic book whimsy and intrigue. Madvillainy's beats, rhymes, skits and samples blend seamlessly, as if the racing thoughts of a mad genius.

The supervillain theme plays right into Doom's hands, and he takes on the varying roles with gusto, whether shining in the glare of a club spotlight ("Rhinestone Cowboy") or presiding over the imaginary opulence of the "Madvillain Bistro Bed & Breakfast Bar & Grill Cafe-Lounge on the water" ("Bistro"). His gobs of pop culture references dovetail with the scraps of dialogue mined from old TV shows and radio broadcasts, begetting a vortex where the expression "egads" sidles up to "true that."

Humor abounds, with the emcee taking on halitosis in "Operation Lifesaver Aka Mint Test" (choice line: "Fellas don't fess / some of 'em just need to eat the whole thing of Crest"). Madlib, playing his Quasimoto character, gets in on the vocal action, fostering some friendly competition on "America's Most Blunted."

Given the overall zaniness, Madvillainy's crystallization of romantic betrayal on "Fancy Clown" is unexpected and stirring. Having first weathered the blow of being cheated on, the supervillian feels burning embarrassment when word makes it around on the street, and his reaction is a mixture of lashing out at his lover and, believe it or not, blaming himself. It's a moment that rounds the cartoonish characters, pulling back the mask to show a mortal man beneath.

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 7


Kid A will always be cited as the more important album, for it was the first one bearing Radiohead's stylistic shift to chilly electronics. And there can be only one first. But the overlooked jewel of Radiohead's '00s output was Amnesiac, Kid A's snakier, arcane cousin, which dropped only months before 9/11, and whose cryptic messages we digested during those anxious times.

"Pyramid Song" wafted out with Thom Yorke's eerie oooos, somehow eternal. Like sand. "Knives Out" belied its jazzy tempo, a sunken-faced rogue of a song beneath. The somber sighs of brass and chirruping clarinets of "Life in a Glasshouse" harked back to the 1930s, and its reference to lynching swung a pointer to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" as a possible ancestor.

On the more technological side, "Like Spinning Plates" gasped, with Yorke's vocals threatening to splinter under strain. Going further, there was no voice at all in "Hunting Bears," two haunting passages of Jonny Greenwood's electric guitar. Played twice over a nodding synth and faded out. "I Might Be Wrong" lathed its synth drone while the blunted drum pops and rhythm guitar wriggled forward and snapped back, like limbs removed from a body but still psychically attached.

And of course there was the limited-edition packaging (which can also be seen on the album's cover): a frayed red hardcover book suggesting secrets it could not reveal.

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 8


Before Apple. Before Gwyneth. Before all those Make Trade Fair gestures. Chris Martin was just a student playing with Will Champion, Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman, unconsciously exploring his vulnerability as he sang a paean to a woman ("Yellow"), wished she would notice him ("Shiver"), and longed, in one respect or another, for connection. He was someone more like us.

On this concise monument to young adulthood, Martin's appeal for love and togetherness is part quaver, part croon. The tender sway of "Sparks" could have served as the soundtrack to much dorm-room necking, but Parachutes wasn't focused on the sex. Intimacy was the goal. If only it wasn't so hard to reach ...

"Trouble" starts out with stately piano and a confident guitar riff, but then, like anxiety creeping up, they fade out, and in comes Martin's opening: "Oh, no / I see / a spider web is tangled up with me." This idea of being trapped also comes up on "High Speed" ("We been living life inside a bubble"), and the dour, largely acoustic "We Never Change" sees him stuck repeating his mistakes, unable to move forward and achieve what he wishes.

"Don't panic," that hoary air of reassurance, seems like something Martin would have heard a few times amid his fretfulness, and "Don't Panic" bookends with "Everything's Not Lost," the album's last track. While "Everything's Not Lost" bursts with jubilance, having made it to the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, "Don't Panic" finds Martin with a chorus of "We live in a beautiful world." He sings it with something less than certainty: He sings it as if trying to convince himself it's true.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 9

Sea Change

There's a scene in the movie "Adventureland" where the main character, a highbrow college grad stuck doing summer work at a carnival, introduces his foxy co-worker to his "bummer tape." "These are my favorite bummer songs," he tells her. "They're truly miserable, pit-of-despair-type songs. I think you'll love it." Later on, when they're in her car, she plays it. As they drive, the cassette fills the space between them as he stares at her, needing her. They stop by a bridge in Pittsburgh, where he overtakes her with an intense kiss. But the relationship they embark on is not an easy one.

In 2002, after nine years together, Beck Hansen and his longtime girlfriend split up. In his wreckage, the stylistic vagabond became a bard of the brokenhearted. He strums in a shell-shocked funk on Sea Change, an apt description of his retreat from the whirling, fluorescent Jell-O shots atmosphere of 1999's Midnite Vultures. Sea Change is a part of Beck's chameleon cloak, and with Midnite Vultures preceding it, the albums must've looked like a bipolar breakdown. Seen another way, Midnite Vultures fits the giddy, carefree highs of stock market euphoria, and Sea Change is the burst bubble, the goo running out.

It's an album of resignation ("I'm tired of fighting / tired of fighting / fighting for a lost cause"), wounded confessions ("It's nothing that I haven't seen before / but it still kills me, like it did before") and crippled composure ("'Cause it feels like I'm watching something dyyyyyyin'"). There's even the emotional scavenging of "Round the Bend," in which he achieves an eerie Nick Drake-level of desolation, the strings curling and eddying like wind pushing fog over a moor.

Naturally, he'd do a 180 again, but this was his moment alone, outside. Adrift. This was his bummer tape.

The top 10 albums of the '00s: No. 10

Norah Jones
Come Away With Me

Though its ubiquity after the 2003 Grammys spawned a backlash that exists to this day --- that of deriding Norah Jones' music as bland or corporate or insignificant --- Come Away With Me, if anything, puts the lie to all those charges. It's undeniably significant in terms of sales and awards, and it likewise rocketed Jones from obscurity, changing her life and basically giving her a blank check as to her artistic career. But let's not get too technical. Come Away With Me showcases Jones' tremendous appeal as a singer, and it introduces us to her fruitful collaboration with guitarist and songwriter Jesse Harris, which resulted in her best-known song, "Don't Know Why," along with almost half the album's originals. The covers, no less significant, show her to be adept at assimilating country ("Cold Cold Heart") and FDR-era pop ("The Nearness of You"). She's so cozy with the material that her take on J.D. Loudermilk's "Turn Me On" (which she may have heard by way of Nina Simone), from the '60s, and the Carmichael-Washington composition "The Nearness of You," from the '30s, don't feel like dusty relics. There's no stiffness or uncertainty in her delivery, only a deep love and understanding of the music, which she internalizes and passes on to us in her warm, maple syrup tones.


It's with some chagrin that I return, slinking in with my best-of-the-decade picks when we're already a year into, well, whatever this post-aughts decade ends up being called. On the upside, I haven't felt any regrets about these best-of picks, so they have already stood the test of time.

I'd like to say I'll be posting more reviews soon after this list, but my job situation changed last year and has been contributing to my shiftlessness. So, if you see a long gap in my publishing, check back, but don't check back as often.