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.