Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Revisited)

sk

Cont’d:

PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The second (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Woods, from Sleater-Kenney. It looks like this was their swan song and, if so, it’s a hell of a note to go out on.

Exhibit A:

Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00?s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation.

The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour: a wonderful anomaly that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Exhibit B:

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks as hard and drops jaws as low as anything anyone else did this decade. It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as explode into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place and made a defining statement.

Exhibit C:

Share

Sleater-Kinney: The Woods

sk

Cont’d:

PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The second (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Woods, from Sleater-Kenney. It looks like this was their swan song and, if so, it’s a hell of a note to go out on.

Exhibit A:

Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00?s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation.

The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour: a wonderful anomaly that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Exhibit B:

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks as hard and drops jaws as low as anything anyone else did this decade. It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as explode into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place and made a defining statement.

Exhibit C:

Share

Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Five (Revisited)

10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea (2006)

It’s a funny thing: as decidedly out there as this effort obviously is, compared to the album that preceded it, Bitter Tea is practically conventional. Well, compared to an album like Rehearsing My Choir, the ambitious or insufferable song cycle that features the bandmates (and siblings) Matthew and Eleanor Friedbergers’ grandmother. On vocals. Really. So…at this point in the game The Fiery Furnaces had firmly established themselves as the ultimate “love them or hate them” proposition. Elements of vaudeville, Peter Gabriel era Genesis (think Foxtrot: the story-within-story narratives that seem impenetrable at first and quickly become irresistible) and a unique amalgamation of all-things progressive and uncompromising.

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Is this helping? Obviously the only way to determine if this is your cup of (bitter) tea is to cue it up and have a listen. Take “I’m In No Mood”, for instance. To me, this is pure magic and I relish the whacky stop-on-a-dime dynamics, because it is quite apparent (to me) what they are up to, and the disorienting effects are all very deliberate. And effective. The (playful) player piano and breathless vocals chase the melody like Wile E. Coyote pursuing The Roadrunner until SMACK they slam into the side of the cliff. And then slowly drop over (cue the backwards vocals and synthesizer white noise). Then on a tune like “In My Little Thatched Hut” it sounds like the Friedbergers are deconstructing (sonically and vocally, including more backwards vocals: be warned, there are tons of backward vocals on this album) the concept of a love song, using discordance to dive deeper into a certain feeling we all have shared at one time or another.

And all of this backward vocalizing and abrupt sound-shifting is, for my money, very much a calculated strategy with specific aims. This entire album is an examination of love, loss and the way we remember (and deal with) those memories, disappointments and joys. The most astonishing track comes toward the end, a longer version of “Benton Harbor Blues” (the song that closes the album, meaning that the deconstructed version comes first, in typical Fiery Furnaces fashion). The song opens with a programmed beat and then spreads out to incorporate a gorgeous organ line and…just as you expect the vocals to kick in, it starts to slow down and fade out, like a car you think will slow down then drives by, leaving you in the dust. A carnivalesque series of sound effects follow, and then the melody almost backs itself into the forefront before sort of switching on and establishing itself. And then the vocals kick in: “As I try to fill all of my empty days, I stumble around on through my memory’s maze…” Only a few lines get sung before the song derails itself, again, after the multi-tracked stutter of the lyrics “when I think back…” and the swirling cascade of synthesized sound washes over, kind of like a memory. The band is actually attempting a sonic exploration of the subconscious. It is an audacious moment and it is unlike anything any other band has attempted to do. This music is not for everyone, but it might be for you.

The Fiery Furnaces have made memorable albums before and after, but Bitter Tea is their best work, a non-concept album that is full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

 

9. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Beam (the alias Iron and Wine serves to describe his solo work and the subsequent albums, like The Shepherd’s Dog, recorded with a full backing band) grew his fan base by making direct, unpretentious and totally honest records. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sounded like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

It was not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron and Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound signals evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. From the opening notes of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” his augmented approach is evident: the spaces are completely filled with sounds but not overcrowded: it’s just right. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

There is not a sub-par track to be found, and if it seemed obvious then it is a certainty now: this is Beam’s ultimate statement (so far).

There are a couple of songs that could almost be accused of rocking: “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”. Of course there are a few crystalline Iron and Wine ballads as well: “Carousel”, Resurrection Fern” (perhaps his best vocal performance?) and the devastatingly gorgeous album-closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” There are also a handful of songs that go places precious few artists can enter, and do their part to make you believe in the real magic that exists in music. “White Tooth Man”, with its multi-layered vocals, police siren guitars and muted urgency is like a 911 call made in your mind; “House by the Sea” sounds like a Civil War march played by a psychedelic bluegrass band; “Boy with a Coin” is just a tour de force, plain and simple: everything about it is perfect and unimprovable. But last and far from least, there is the moment of the album (and one of the contenders for decade’s best), “Peace Beneath The City”. This is not even a song so much as an uncanny dreamscape, it conjures up every back alley of our country: all the myriad faces and names, the deeds and secrets, the hopes and fears; it is like a surreal hymn sung in an empty cathedral, but instead of stained glass there are creaking gas lamps in every corner. It’s a lot of other things, too, but they are for you to figure out and enjoy.

Hopefully once you’ve sampled some of these songs you won’t be able to imagine your world without The Shepherd’s Dog being part of it.

 

8. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)


How great is this album? Can you say Songs in the Key of Life for Y2K? I can. And will: this is the best Stevie Wonder album of the last decade. An instant classic that (being almost 10 years old, already) also qualifies for feel-good nostalgia status as well. As in: remember how uncomplicated things seemed early in the new century? We survived the fin de siecle and our computers did not shut down and our brains did not get fried. We made it! And this was a pre 9/11 America, so there was still a yearning innocence that we’ll never recapture, even if we can begin bringing mouthwash onto airplanes again.

It’s impossible to listen to this and not think of the best of the old-school: the early ’70s vibe throughout is compelling and effusive, calling to mind Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and, of course, Stevie Wonder. It is ambitious and occasionally all-encompassing: there are the propulsive attention getters (awesome opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy”), laid-back stunners (“Didn’t Cha Know”) and ultra-mellow slices of heaven (“Orange Moon”, “Time’s A Wastin”) and a dope duet (“In Love With You”, with Stephen Marley). Just about every track is superlative –this is as much a masterpiece as any album being discussed– but if compelled to pick out the shining star, I’d probably go with “A.D. 2000”. An obviously topical tune, it takes on new and devastating layers of meaning when you listen to the lyrics and understand she is talking about Amadou Diallo, the innocent man who was massacred by NYPD. Can you say pre 9/11 on literal and figurative levels? As always with the very best art, Badu is taking on a particular incident and putting it in the context of the here-and-now, the who we are and where we are, without preaching or posing. Its repeated refrain says everything that needs to be said in a single line: No you won’t be naming no buildings after me…

On “Orange Moon” (as sexy flute lines weave around her) she coos “How good it is.” It hardly gets any better than this. It’s interesting: Badu’s first album sounds connected to the late ‘9os and her recent work is decidedly 21st Century; only Mama’s Gun seems to exist slightly out of time, a mirror held up to the great old days and an arrow set to sail into a future that still hasn’t happened.

7. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)

Jack White’s was the barbaric yawp of the decade, both symbolically and, on stage and on record, literally. The ascendancy of The White Stripes culminated on Elephant: everything they’d been doing led to this, everything they’ve done since has been a (thus far) futile attempt to match the intensity and furious focus they brought to this session. To be clear, the three albums before this were wonderful in their own ways, and the subsequent work is not without its merits, but with a half-decade and change of hindsight, it seems fair to say that this was the album Jack White was meant to make, and all glory goes to the fates and faeries that allowed this to happen.

This is not a flawless album, but it’s still very much a masterpiece of sorts, and more importantly, it’s a total triumph of style and substance, channeled by an ambitious and insanely gifted musician. This may be the quintessential “greater than the sum of its parts” album; it might even be without fault if some of the weaker songs were left off, but as is always the case, the ones that don’t do it for me might be the same ones you consider crucial, and vice versa. (If so we can agree to disagree that “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” is an amusing lark that is too precious and self-referencing for comfort, or that the bombastic but brainless “Ball And Biscuit” would fare better as a concert-only staple; on the other hand, the cutesy slice of eccentricity that is “Little Acorns” comes in just on the side of righteous).

Bottom line: what works on this album just doesn’t do the trick; it obliterates any doubt and demands nothing less than surrender. The first seven tracks are as relentless and ecstatic an assault as anything anyone did this decade, period. Everyone knows “Seven Nation Army” at this point, and they should. Unlike (the excellent) “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, which is still a tad too deferential and formulaic of the old “new blues” thing White sought to perfect on the first few albums, “Seven Nation Army” is a pure slice of visionary sonic carnage. No longer nodding and winking at the old school and perched on the shoulders of those giants, White finally leaps into the air and never comes down. Instead of reworking the blues he reinvents them with the post-punk aggression and lo-fi urgency that only The Black Keys can equal. And then there is the guitar. The work White does (on this song and throughout the album) is anthemic: you knew, after the first few listens in the spring of 2003, that this would be played in bars and kids basements for the rest of time. Amazingly, after the best opening salvo from any album (at least this decade, maybe longer), White actually ups the ante on the second track, “Black Math”. This, for me, is as good as it gets, and no matter what White does from here on out, including playing at halftime of some future Super Bowl, nothing can possibly obliterate his legacy because we can always turn to this album (in general) and this track (in particular). The snarled vocals, no longer bratty or precocious, are just feral and almost frightening (roller coaster frightening, not scary movie frightening) and that guitar solo? Holy fucking shit. Folks, that is the hammer of the gods being brought down with extreme prejudice: what happens between 1.52 and 2.28 is, hands down, the most exhilarating and insanely brilliant half-minute of rock in ages. Get the record books out, because there is a new entry.

This is (duh) a guitar album, and White has finally figured it all out: the composition, the solos, the adroit use of slide guitar; all elements are now employed in the service of the songs, and they are songs now, not just sketches (however sketchily brilliant). Take the mind-searing cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”: aside from featuring White’s most convincing vocal performance, the song actually sounds the way the lyrics demand that it sound –the remorse followed by fury, the self-loathing spiked by nostalgia, the paralysis of not knowing how to act, all of it is in there, an immutable expression of our least favorite rite of passage delivered in under three minutes. Even when Meg gets in on the act, she not only provides a startlingly disarming vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night”, but the sparse instrumentation is the exact right backdrop for this harrowing, heartbreaking number.

The second half for the album doesn’t slow down or falter so much as it simply can’t match the incandescent flow of the first half. If nothing else, it is a relentless blast of rocks-off abandon, culminating in the almost unhinged histrionics of “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”, which would have been the ideal way to end the album. No matter: White outdid himself here, and going forward it would be insane to ask or expect anything else as compelling and essential as Elephant.

6. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Since the hastened demise of the record industry is now a foregone conclusion, it will be increasingly difficult to recall what a tough time musicians had for the better part of a century. But let there be no confusion, record companies were Satan with a capital S. And the now famous (and infamous) story of the boatload of shit Wilco (already an established brand who had made beaucoup bucks for everyone involved with them) put up with from Reprise Records. The hubris and myopia is particularly historic on this one, combining King Lear’s cluelessness with Lady Macbeth’s depravity (yeah, I’m getting all Shakespeare and shit). Look, this type of business as usual most definitely had tragic overtones for everyone except the bad guys for the better part of ONE HUNDRED YEARS. The artists got scammed and burned, audiences got bent over, and tons of worthwhile music (particularly jazz music, even on supportive labels) went unheard. Who knows how many inspired sessions are still languishing in the dusty vaults?

Everyone remembers the story, right? The label, convinced they knew best, and certain there were no “hits” on the record, effectively withdrew their support and Wilco (wisely) took the record and ran. The rest is wonderful, borderline divine history. And that is all good and well, but the same question begs to be answered in 2010: what the fuck were those idiots at Reprise thinking? Clearly this is not only a worthwhile album, it’s an exceptional album. A classic. And, to add insult to injury, there are two sure-fire “hits” in “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” (you could make a case for “Jesus, etc.” as well). Not to say these songs would, or should have been “hits” in the commercial sense of the word, but eminently feasible for radio play — particularly compared to the shite that permeates our polluted airwaves.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the ultimate case study of why we should never lament the overdue, most welcome implosion of the anti-artist old world order.

All that aside (and I’m not even getting into the subsequent documentary of these proceedings, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), and as impossible it is to separate the actual album from the melodrama and ultimate exultation, the fact remains that this is simply a seminal recording. Along the already mentioned songs, there are two in particular that represent what truly visionary work Tweedy and company were doing as the new century began: album opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places”. The former is possibly the definitive Wilco song and can represent, as well as any other composition, everything about this complicated decade. It manages to be a soundtrack of sorts to both the pre and post 9/11 American sensibility, and that is something more than merely remarkable. The languid fever dream that clicks into focus to begin the song and the slow motion meltdown that closes it recall certain moments from The White Album (particularly “Long, Long, Long), as well as the sound experimentations of Stockhausen and, of course, the more spacey sonic meditations of early Pink Floyd. But it is certainly grounded in the here and now, and is very much a vehicle for Jeff Tweedy’s inspired and troubled mind. It is an absolute masterpiece of a song. “Poor Places”, of course, features the eerily robotic female voice repeating the words “yankee…hotel…foxtrot” (taken from The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations): this is arguably the most inspired, and infamous, non-musical sample of the decade and it gives the tune a spectral essence that transcends the album and the band and gets into something at once profound and inexpressible.

There have already been volumes written about the recording, reception and import of this album, and it’s not a stretch to imagine many more volumes will be written. This is a good thing: if any album, and band, deserves the scrutiny and approbation such criticism engenders, it is Wilco. Aside from all the peripheral issues, at the end of the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a one-of-a-kind memento of our times.

5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (2008)

So, how exactly did The Black Keys become the best (and possibly most important) band of the decade, hands down, no one else particularly close to second place? Well, it was pretty easy: they did it the old fashioned way, dropping incredible albums, one after the other. Let’s break it down, just for those keeping score at home: 2002, their debut The Big Come Up; 2003, Thickfreakness; 2004, Rubber Factory; 2006 double-feature Magic Potion and the Junior Kimbrough tribute Chulahoma; and finally, in 2008, the masterpiece, Attack & Release. Pound for pound, song for song, nobody else can touch that track record, which stands alongside any other band in terms of quality and quantity over a similarly short period of time. And best of all, these guys are just getting started. Considering that they sound like old burned out blues veterans now, it’s almost frightening to imagine what they will actually evolve into in the years ahead.

Rubber Factory seemed like a high water mark of sorts (it still does), and while Magic Potion is no slouch, it was neither an improvement nor necessarily a step forward (it was merely another excellent album); Chulahoma was both a stop-gap EP and a detour in the darkest depths of the Delta blues, pulled off with such aplomb it should make everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan blush (as for the younger generation of pretenders, one word: please). Still, the band had surpassed all reasonable expectations and delivered far beyond what seemed possible (even for hardcore fans) circa 2004. What else could they possibly do at this point without repeating themselves or driving headlong (however defiantly) into the creative ditch?

Answer: enlist Danger Mouse, the producer with the best ears (and smarts) in the industry. But…wouldn’t that add a polish, or finesse that might run counter to everything The Black Keys stand for? Isn’t the entire concept of studio wizardry (and overdubs!) antithetical to the low-fi DIY ethos Auerbach and Carney worship at the altar of? Not necessarily. In addition to employing Danger Mouse, the Keys welcomed guitar guru Marc Ribot to lend his muscle (and magic) to several songs. That, along with the production skillz (subtle employment of flute, other live instruments and effects), make this a more ambitious, expansive effort.

Not that the modus operandi is radically altered here. In fact, virtually all of the elements that make all the previous albums superlative in their own way are employed throughout these proceedings. From the slow, building release of “All You Ever Wanted” to the straightforward ass-kick of “I Got Mine” (illustrating the ever-escalating dynamic elements of Auerbach’s guitar playing), the band is out for blood. The stakes are elevated on “Strange Times” which recycles a classic Black Sabbath riff (from Sabotage): this distills the energy of Thickfreakness with the refined blues experimentation from Magic Potion. On “Psychotic Girl” the presence of Danger Mouse is fully realized, from the banjo embellishment to the very subtle but astute ambient noises, all resulting in a sinister, murky detour to darker territory. Then, genius: “Lies” is, in many regards, the best thing the band has done to this point. It’s a fairly uncomplicated Led Zeppelin-style blues ballad, but Auerbach delivers one of his ultimate vocal performances, proving that this type of talent can’t be taught or bought. “Remember When” (Side A and Side B) are augmented by Danger Mouse’s retro urges: you practically expect to hear scratches in the song the way it would sound on a vinyl…from 1972. Then there is the tri-fecta that finishes the album, setting this one above and beyond. Let’s not mince words or leave any room for misinterpretation: “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans and Streams” are as good as rock and roll gets; rock and roll does not get any better than this (then, now, or ever). Both of these songs, while deeply wed to the best elements of past classics, are unique, unmistakable statements from a band that has diligently carved out its own niche and style. The emotion and conviction Auerbach is able to convey, vocally, on these two tracks is miraculous in its way, and well worth celebrating: he is doing things no one else on the scene is capable of imitating. The last track, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is a wise-beyond-its-years lamentation of the obvious, a particularly appropriate commentary on our world in 2008.

All in all, a recording with no weaknesses and tons of strength, a powder keg with purpose, an atomic bomb with a heart. The Black Keys are making music nobody else can approximate and they keep getting better because their only competition is what they just did.

4. Cat Power, You Are Free (2003)

You Are Free is not a perfect album. With neither snark nor sarcasm, this writer’s opinion is that it is too good to be perfect. Not that it’s better than perfect (whatever that could, or would mean) but that Cat Power (henceforth Chan Marshall) is not writing songs so much as bleeding her thoughts and feelings and their attendant pains and exultations into existence. They are there (in her, in all of us) and she makes them real, and makes us feel them, and through feeling them, feel something more of her and ourselves. This is what art does. All of which is to say, this is certainly one of the best and most powerful albums of the decade. But it is (and will continue to be) one of the most enduring. Because it is messy, with a few mistakes and some unfortunate moments, which, if we are honest, is better than most of us can say when we look back on our own lives.

The first indelible track is “Good Woman”: listen to the ache of the violin and the tone of that guitar: just right. Then there is the almost indescribably effective deployment of Eddie Vedder’s whispered, but still gruff backing vocals: one of the more triumphant instances of astute subtlety you will encounter in a rock and roll song. It is hardly possible to accomplish more than Marshall does here: this recalls the vibrant poetics of Joni Mitchell and the truculence of Chrissie Hynde, but also has the tender ache of Joan Baez at her most pellucid. It is, quite simply, a devastating and effulgent achievement.

The next stroke of genius is just Chan and her guitar on “Fool”. This one recalls the best moments of Moon Pix and captures that desolate yearning, the musical equivalent of a wilting flower stretching toward an absent sun in the middle of the night. Nobody else does this like Chan Marshall, and no one even comes close on a consistent basis.

The more somber and introspective moments are wonderfully cut with some lively jolts of power pop: “Speak For Me” and “He War” are so infectious and assured at first you wonder if this is the same singer on the same album, and then realize that this is precisely what makes Cat Power so special. A trio of songs find Marshall accompanied only by her piano, and they are each monuments of emotion and catharsis: “You Are Free” (which is about both Kurt Cobain and Cat Power), “Maybe Not” and “Names” (which is a brutally stark stroll down a memory lane of abuse and dysfunction that Marshall saw, experienced and imagined). Then a song that could (and should) have closed any other album, a barren (yet beautiful!) cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider”, reworked as “Keep On Runnin'”. It spills more feeling and quiet intensity in less than four minutes than most of Marshall’s peers could convey in four albums.

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

3. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005)

The good news: The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour.

The bad news: It is the last album they made (and, going on six years, their intent to remain broken up seems unlikely to change).

The bottom line: Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00’s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation. The Woods is one of those wonderful anomalies that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K: this is one of the most blistering, beautifully ugly songs of the decade, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks harder and drops jaws lower than anything anyone else did this decade. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. Tracks like “Wilderness” and “Jumpers” would have been stand-outs on earlier SK albums (or albums by almost any other band) but there is an extra edge and purpose on certain songs. The wonders of “What’s Mine Is Yours” are bountiful, from the soaring choruses to the unreal shredding of guitar goddess Carrie Brownstein. (The feedback frenzy that bridges the song is one of those ecstatic passages of music that ceaselessly surprises and delights; it’s a sonic orgasm of the highest order.) And then, ho hum, they bust out a perfect little ditty in “Modern Girl” that you can (try to) sing along to. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11 minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as it explodes into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place where they have figured it out and made a defining statement. Not just for their own career, but a mark left on the history of music.

Thinking we may never hear/see Sleater-Kinney together again, one part of me pleads: Say it ain’t so, ladies! The other part of me readily concedes that it’s ridiculous to ask them to give us anything else. They have already given more than we could ever have hoped for.

2. TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

Sui Generis.

Chop Suey.

Chop sui generis.

How do you actually define style or account for the concept of originality? What about terms like uncompromising or integrity? Well, it’s kind of like the classic definition of pornography: you know it when you hear it. TV On The Radio is not for everyone, but there is nothing inherently prohibitive about their work. They are most definitely progressive with a capital P and they could not unfairly be described as more than a little out there, but those depictions are only epithets coming from the uninformed and incurious (in other words, the people who watch American Idol and think Coldplay is cutting edge). Whatever else they may be, TV On The Radio is an American band in the best sense of the word: they bring a cultural and intellectual heft to their fairly wide-ranging sonic palette, and they are more focused on tomorrow than yesterday. They showed signs of significant promise on Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) and the best song on that album, “Staring At The Sun”, is a blueprint of sorts for the strategy they would employ on Return To Cookie Mountain: a series of songs that work toward a certain feeling, with the (breathtaking) vocals front and center, and a series of sounds made by instruments and machines; a sort of industrial mini opera.

Return To Cookie Mountain recalls some of the in-your-face polemics of Living Colour, but has the charismatic statement of purpose that fuels Peter Gabriel’s best work, and courts the avant garde like David Bowie and early-’80s King Crimson. Add some ferocious funk and the aforementioned vocals (Tunde Adepimbe might be an acquired taste but if it registers, his voice is musical crack), and you begin to arrive somewhere very unique and more than a little unsettling. The material, while not explicitly dark, is kind of like a NYC subway: busy, bustling with noises and images and unmistakably real. On Return To Cookie Mountain all of these various tools and tokens are elevated with Beach Boys harmonizing and falsettos; at times it sounds like Marvin Gaye playing with Nine Inch Nails.

A song by song analysis would be unrewarding as it would be unproductive: this, like it or not, is one of those albums that has to be experienced, and while there are many fantastic tracks, it demands to be listened to from start to finish, unless you are already a lost hipster, picking and choosing your playlists like music was meant to be turned into a fuck-all buffet station.

This album does require a few listens to let you orient yourself, and a few more listens to let the marinade of ideas and emotions (and always, the sounds) sink in. If that seems like too much of a chore, this music is not for you. (And don’t worry, I’m here to tell you it’s okay.)

A few songs do warrant further comment. “A Method” features whistling, multi-tracked vocals, A-plus production and a structure that is more lullaby than rock song. These dudes have locked into something else entirely, and it is humbling to behold (and behear). The shimmering perfection of “Dirtywhirl” defies any attempt to approach it with words: this is a song that can make you shake and cry and think provocative thoughts, all while you nod your head in time and grin like the Cheshire Cat. This one carved its way deep into my heart and will safely remain one of my all-time favorite songs, for all-time. Finally, the album closes out (pre bonus tracks, that is) with “Tonight” and “Wash The Day” which are like love letters from another dimension. There is a pervasive vibe permeating these songs that is at once disconcerting and tranquilizing: you are slowly being carried away, which naturally causes confusion until you understand that as soon as you stop resisting you’ll end up where you want to be. Back on Cookie Mountain, wherever that actually is.

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

Let’s talk a little bit about perfection.

What is it, and who gets to define it? And more importantly, who cares? What, for that matter, elevates something to the status of “best”? All of this discussion is subjective, and enough similarly inclined personal perspectives shape consensus over time. These are the types of semantic shenanigans writers and critics engage in and lose sleep over, which would be almost pathetic if for the simple matter that it’s all about genuine love of art and the aspiration to elevate it. To share that passion and, whenever possible, help edge that consensus toward a worthwhile candidate.

Fortunately, I am very far from alone in wanting to celebrate the almost inhuman brilliance of Neko Case. Everyone loves Neko and seemingly everybody appreciated Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. And yet, I’m not satisfied. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

If you are surprised by, or not really feeling, this appraisal, I am uncertain I’m capable of convincing you, and frankly that is not my motivation here. I am, however, quite content to offer some of the reasons I find this to be the most profound and enduring work of the decade. (I entertained the idea of being a smart ass and writing: here are the 12 reasons this album is perfect, and simply listing the song titles, one by one.) On this release, every possible element is aligned: the cover art perfectly reflects the subject matter of the songs, the lyrics of those songs are uncommonly (bordering on unbelievably) intelligent; this is real literature and these are as good as poems but they are all devastatingly effective short stories that stick with you long after first listen. And the songs themselves: each song, all sequenced in ideal order for maximum import.

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

Speaking of that “p-word” again, I don’t expect I’ll find two better examples of perfection in music than “That Teenage Feeling” (talk about a novel in two minutes; and when Neko acknowledges –about love, about life– “Because it’s hard” that is the type of spell a siren can cast over a smitten bachelor and ensnare him for life) and “Hold On, Hold On” (when Neko proclaims “I leave the party at 3AM, alone thank God/With a valium from the bride, it’s the devil I love”, she is at once penning some of those most mordant lyrics of the decade and expressing a delightful recalcitrance that makes her the radiant object of so much unrequited lust).

The album winds down with some truly beautiful meditations on life, love and mortality (and the ever-present concept of lost faith): “Maybe Sparrow” and “At Last” which are arresting in their unadorned, plaintive expression: they are cris de coeur but they are without self-pity and totally effulgent in their naked vulnerability. And, as always and as ever, Neko’s voice is a glorious force of nature.

I had (and have?) no interest in attempting to divine the central, unifying track on this album (honestly, any one of them could fit the bill, but some more than others, obviously). And yet, Case really outdoes herself on the short and not-so-sweet homage to self, “Lion’s Jaws”: equal parts reminiscence and invocation of adult reality, this taps into something truly resonant. If you have lived and loved then you have learned, and if you understand how many times you have been inside the lion’s jaws (knowingly and especially the times you were not even aware of it), then you can appreciate Case’s (and hopefully your own) courage to resist “momentum for the sake of momentum.”

In closing, I’ll simply state it outright: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

(Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well, Then, I Repeat Myself!)

Share

2000-2009: Let’s Break it Down (Epilogue)

 

So, the recent discussion of the Top 50 albums of the last decade was supposed to end, as it began, with a sampling of songs. The introductory entry covered 2000-2004; this one will tackle 2005-2009.

(Incidentally, back in December while wisely avoiding shopping malls and ordering my Xmas gifts from the North Pole also known as amazon.com, I spent entirely too much time on this list. Unbelievably, and idiotically, I also compiled a list of the best jazz albums of the decade as well as the best movies –a list that started at twenty, grew to thirty, and ended at forty. My idea was to roll them all out in the early weeks of the new year, but I was quickly disabused of that fantasy by the rather humbling acknowledgment that the day job, sleep, meals and some semblance of a social life would make that impossible. More on that later, possibly even sooner.)

The list will end (as it began) with a bunch of songs –in no particular order, other than somewhat chronological– that rose above the fray and made life a whole lot more worth living.

Sufjan Stevens, “The World’s Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream” (2005):

 

Sleater-Kinney, “Everything” (2005):

 

Tool, “Vicarious” (2006):

Easy Star All-Stars, “The Tourist” (2006):

The Black Keys, “My Mind Is Rambling” (2006):

Iron and Wine, “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” (2007):

Amy Winehouse, “Me and Mr. Jones” (2007):

The Breeders, “Night of Joy” (2008):

Fleet Foxes, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (2008):

Mastodon, “Oblivion” (2009):

Steven Wilson, “Harmony Korine” (2009):

Dan Auerbach, “When The Night Comes” (2009):

Share

Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Five

10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea (2006)

It’s a funny thing: as decidedly out there as this effort obviously is, compared to the album that preceded it, Bitter Tea is practically conventional. Well, compared to an album like Rehearsing My Choir, the ambitious or insufferable song cycle that features the bandmates (and siblings) Matthew and Eleanor Friedbergers’  grandmother. On vocals. Really. So…at this point in the game The Fiery Furnaces had firmly established themselves as the ultimate “love them or hate them” proposition. Elements of vaudeville, Peter Gabriel era Genesis (think Foxtrot: the story-within-story narratives that seem impenetrable at first and quickly become irresistible) and a unique amalgamation of all-things progressive and uncompromising.

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Is this helping? Obviously the only way to determine if this is your cup of (bitter) tea is to cue it up and have a listen. Take “I’m In No Mood”, for instance. To me, this is pure magic and I relish the whacky stop-on-a-dime dynamics, because it is quite apparent (to me) what they are up to, and the disorienting effects are all very deliberate. And effective. The (playful) player piano and breathless vocals chase the melody like Wile E. Coyote pursuing The Roadrunner until SMACK they slam into the side of the cliff. And then slowly drop over (cue the backwards vocals and synthesizer white noise). Then on a tune like “In My Little Thatched Hut” it sounds like the Friedbergers are deconstructing (sonically and vocally, including more backwards vocals: be warned, there are tons of backward vocals on this album) the concept of a love song, using discordance to dive deeper into a certain feeling we all have shared at one time or another.

And all of this backward vocalizing and abrupt sound-shifting is, for my money, very much a calculated strategy with specific aims. This entire album is an examination of love, loss and the way we remember (and deal with) those memories, disappointments and joys. The most astonishing track comes toward the end, a longer version of “Benton Harbor Blues” (the song that closes the album, meaning that the deconstructed version comes first, in typical Fiery Furnaces fashion). The song opens with a programmed beat and then spreads out to incorporate a gorgeous organ line and…just as you expect the vocals to kick in, it starts to slow down and fade out, like a car you think will slow down then drives by, leaving you in the dust. A carnivalesque series of sound effects follow, and then the melody almost backs itself into the forefront before sort of switching on and establishing itself. And then the vocals kick in: “As I try to fill all of my empty days, I stumble around on through my memory’s maze…” Only a few lines get sung before the song derails itself, again, after the multi-tracked stutter of the lyrics “when I think back…” and the swirling cascade of synthesized sound washes over, kind of like a memory. The band is actually attempting a sonic exploration of the subconscious. It is an audacious moment and it is unlike anything any other band has attempted to do. This music is not for everyone, but it might be for you.

The Fiery Furnaces have made memorable albums before and after, but Bitter Tea is their best work, a non-concept album that is full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

 

9. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Beam (the alias Iron and Wine serves to describe his solo work and the subsequent albums, like The Shepherd’s Dog, recorded with a full backing band) grew his fan base by making direct, unpretentious and totally honest records. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sounded like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

It was not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron and Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound signals evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. From the opening notes of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” his augmented approach is evident: the spaces are completely filled with sounds but not overcrowded: it’s just right. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

There is not a sub-par track to be found, and if it seemed obvious then it is a certainty now: this is Beam’s ultimate statement (so far).

There are a couple of songs that could almost be accused of rocking: “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”. Of course there are a few crystalline Iron and Wine ballads as well: “Carousel”, Resurrection Fern” (perhaps his best vocal performance?) and the devastatingly gorgeous album-closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” There are also a handful of songs that go places precious few artists can enter, and do their part to make you believe in the real magic that exists in music. “White Tooth Man”, with its multi-layered vocals, police siren guitars and muted urgency is like a 911 call made in your mind; “House by the Sea” sounds like a Civil War march played by a psychedelic bluegrass band; “Boy with a Coin” is just a tour de force, plain and simple: everything about it is perfect and unimprovable. But last and far from least, there is the moment of the album (and one of the contenders for decade’s best), “Peace Beneath The City”. This is not even a song so much as an uncanny dreamscape, it conjures up every back alley of our country: all the myriad faces and names, the deeds and secrets, the hopes and fears; it is like a surreal hymn sung in an empty cathedral, but instead of stained glass there are creaking gas lamps in every corner. It’s a lot of other things, too, but they are for you to figure out and enjoy.

Hopefully once you’ve sampled some of these songs you won’t be able to imagine your world without The Shepherd’s Dog being part of it.

 

8. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)


How great is this album? Can you say Songs in the Key of Life for Y2K? I can. And will: this is the best Stevie Wonder album of the last decade. An instant classic that (being almost 10 years old, already) also qualifies for feel-good nostalgia status as well. As in: remember how uncomplicated things seemed early in the new century? We survived the fin de siecle and our computers did not shut down and our brains did not get fried. We made it! And this was a pre 9/11 America, so there was still a yearning innocence that we’ll never recapture, even if we can begin bringing mouthwash onto airplanes again.

It’s impossible to listen to this and not think of the best of the old-school: the early ’70s vibe throughout is compelling and effusive, calling to mind Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and, of course, Stevie Wonder. It is ambitious and occasionally all-encompassing: there are the propulsive attention getters (awesome opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy”), laid-back stunners (“Didn’t Cha Know”) and ultra-mellow slices of heaven (“Orange Moon”, “Time’s A Wastin”) and a dope duet (“In Love With You”, with Stephen Marley). Just about every track is superlative –this is as much a masterpiece as any album being discussed– but if compelled to pick out the shining star, I’d probably go with “A.D. 2000”. An obviously topical tune, it takes on new and devastating layers of meaning when you listen to the lyrics and understand she is talking about Amadou Diallo, the innocent man who was massacred by NYPD. Can you say pre 9/11 on literal and figurative levels? As always with the very best art, Badu is taking on a particular incident and putting it in the context of the here-and-now, the who we are and where we are, without preaching or posing. Its repeated refrain says everything that needs to be said in a single line: No you won’t be naming no buildings after me…

On “Orange Moon” (as sexy flute lines weave around her) she coos “How good it is.” It hardly gets any better than this. It’s interesting: Badu’s first album sounds connected to the late ‘9os and her recent work is decidedly 21st Century; only Mama’s Gun seems to exist slightly out of time, a mirror held up to the great old days and an arrow set to sail into a future that still hasn’t happened.

7. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)

Jack White’s was the barbaric yawp of the decade, both symbolically and, on stage and on record, literally. The ascendancy of The White Stripes culminated on Elephant: everything they’d been doing led to this, everything they’ve done since has been a (thus far) futile attempt to match the intensity and furious focus they brought to this session. To be clear, the three albums before this were wonderful in their own ways, and the subsequent work is not without its merits, but with a half-decade and change of hindsight, it seems fair to say that this was the album Jack White was meant to make, and all glory goes to the fates and faeries that allowed this to happen.

This is not a flawless album, but it’s still very much a masterpiece of sorts, and more importantly, it’s a total triumph of style and substance, channeled by an ambitious and insanely gifted musician. This may be the quintessential “greater than the sum of its parts” album; it might even be without fault if some of the weaker songs were left off, but as is always the case, the ones that don’t do it for me might be the same ones you consider crucial, and vice versa. (If so we can agree to disagree that “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” is an amusing lark that is too precious and self-referencing for comfort, or that the bombastic but brainless “Ball And Biscuit” would fare better as a concert-only staple; on the other hand, the cutesy slice of eccentricity that is “Little Acorns” comes in just on the side of righteous).

Bottom line: what works on this album just doesn’t do the trick; it obliterates any doubt and demands nothing less than surrender. The first seven tracks are as relentless and ecstatic an assault as anything anyone did this decade, period. Everyone knows “Seven Nation Army” at this point, and they should. Unlike (the excellent) “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, which is still a tad too deferential and formulaic of the old “new blues” thing White sought to perfect on the first few albums, “Seven Nation Army” is a pure slice of visionary sonic carnage. No longer nodding and winking at the old school and perched on the shoulders of those giants, White finally leaps into the air and never comes down. Instead of reworking the blues he reinvents them with the post-punk aggression and lo-fi urgency that only The Black Keys can equal. And then there is the guitar. The work White does (on this song and throughout the album) is anthemic: you knew, after the first few listens in the spring of 2003, that this would be played in bars and kids basements for the rest of time. Amazingly, after the best opening salvo from any album (at least this decade, maybe longer), White actually ups the ante on the second track, “Black Math”. This, for me, is as good as it gets, and no matter what White does from here on out, including playing at halftime of some future Super Bowl, nothing can possibly obliterate his legacy because we can always turn to this album (in general) and this track (in particular). The snarled vocals, no longer bratty or precocious, are just feral and almost frightening (roller coaster frightening, not scary movie frightening) and that guitar solo? Holy fucking shit. Folks, that is the hammer of the gods being brought down with extreme prejudice: what happens between 1.52 and 2.28 is, hands down, the most exhilarating and insanely brilliant half-minute of rock in ages. Get the record books out, because there is a new entry.

This is (duh) a guitar album, and White has finally figured it all out: the composition, the solos, the adroit use of slide guitar; all elements are now employed in the service of the songs, and they are songs now, not just sketches (however sketchily brilliant). Take the mind-searing cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”: aside from featuring White’s most convincing vocal performance, the song actually sounds the way the lyrics demand that it sound –the remorse followed by fury, the self-loathing spiked by nostalgia, the paralysis of not knowing how to act, all of it is in there, an immutable expression of our least favorite rite of passage delivered in under three minutes. Even when Meg gets in on the act, she not only provides a startlingly disarming vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night”, but the sparse instrumentation is the exact right backdrop for this harrowing, heartbreaking number.

The second half for the album doesn’t slow down or falter so much as it simply can’t match the incandescent flow of the first half. If nothing else, it is a relentless blast of rocks-off abandon, culminating in the almost unhinged histrionics of “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”, which would have been the ideal way to end the album. No matter: White outdid himself here, and going forward it would be insane to ask or expect anything else as compelling and essential as Elephant.

6. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Since the hastened demise of the record industry is now a foregone conclusion, it will be increasingly difficult to recall what a tough time musicians had for the better part of a century. But let there be no confusion, record companies were Satan with a capital S. And the now famous (and infamous) story of the boatload of shit Wilco (already an established brand who had made beaucoup bucks for everyone involved with them) put up with from Reprise Records. The hubris and myopia is particularly historic on this one, combining King Lear’s cluelessness with Lady Macbeth’s depravity (yeah, I’m getting all Shakespeare and shit). Look, this type of business as usual most definitely had tragic overtones for everyone except the bad guys for the better part of ONE HUNDRED YEARS. The artists got scammed and burned, audiences got bent over, and tons of worthwhile music (particularly jazz music, even on supportive labels) went unheard. Who knows how many inspired sessions are still languishing in the dusty vaults?

Everyone remembers the story, right? The label, convinced they knew best, and certain there were no “hits” on the record, effectively withdrew their support and Wilco (wisely) took the record and ran. The rest is wonderful, borderline divine history. And that is all good and well, but the same question begs to be answered in 2010: what the fuck were those idiots at Reprise thinking? Clearly this is not only a worthwhile album, it’s an exceptional album. A classic. And, to add insult to injury, there are two sure-fire “hits” in “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” (you could make a case for “Jesus, etc.” as well). Not to say these songs would, or should have been “hits” in the commercial sense of the word, but eminently feasible for radio play — particularly compared to the shite that permeates our polluted airwaves.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the ultimate case study of why we should never lament the overdue, most welcome implosion of the anti-artist old world order.

All that aside (and I’m not even getting into the subsequent documentary of these proceedings, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), and as impossible it is to separate the actual album from the melodrama and ultimate exultation, the fact remains that this is simply a seminal recording. Along the already mentioned songs, there are two in particular that represent what truly visionary work Tweedy and company were doing as the new century began: album opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places”. The former is possibly the definitive Wilco song and can represent, as well as any other composition, everything about this complicated decade. It manages to be a soundtrack of sorts to both the pre and post 9/11 American sensibility, and that is something more than merely remarkable. The languid fever dream that clicks into focus to begin the song and the slow motion meltdown that closes it recall certain moments from The White Album (particularly “Long, Long, Long), as well as the sound experimentations of Stockhausen and, of course, the more spacey sonic meditations of early Pink Floyd. But it is certainly grounded in the here and now, and is very much a vehicle for Jeff Tweedy’s inspired and troubled mind. It is an absolute masterpiece of a song. “Poor Places”, of course, features the eerily robotic female voice repeating the words “yankee…hotel…foxtrot” (taken from The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations): this is arguably the most inspired, and infamous, non-musical sample of the decade and it gives the tune a spectral essence that transcends the album and the band and gets into something at once profound and inexpressible.

There have already been volumes written about the recording, reception and import of this album, and it’s not a stretch to imagine many more volumes will be written. This is a good thing: if any album, and band, deserves the scrutiny and approbation such criticism engenders, it is Wilco. Aside from all the peripheral issues, at the end of the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a one-of-a-kind memento of our times.

5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (2008)

So, how exactly did The Black Keys become the best (and possibly most important) band of the decade, hands down, no one else particularly close to second place? Well, it was pretty easy: they did it the old fashioned way, dropping incredible albums, one after the other. Let’s break it down, just for those keeping score at home: 2002, their debut The Big Come Up; 2003, Thickfreakness; 2004, Rubber Factory; 2006 double-feature Magic Potion and the Junior Kimbrough tribute Chulahoma; and finally, in 2008, the masterpiece, Attack & Release. Pound for pound, song for song, nobody else can touch that track record, which stands alongside any other band in terms of quality and quantity over a similarly short period of time. And best of all, these guys are just getting started. Considering that they sound like old burned out blues veterans now, it’s almost frightening to imagine what they will actually evolve into in the years ahead.

Rubber Factory seemed like a high water mark of sorts (it still does), and while Magic Potion is no slouch, it was neither an improvement nor necessarily a step forward (it was merely another excellent album); Chulahoma was both a stop-gap EP and a detour in the darkest depths of the Delta blues, pulled off with such aplomb it should make everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan blush (as for the younger generation of pretenders, one word: please). Still, the band had surpassed all reasonable expectations and delivered far beyond what seemed possible (even for hardcore fans) circa 2004. What else could they possibly do at this point without repeating themselves or driving headlong (however defiantly) into the creative ditch?

Answer: enlist Danger Mouse, the producer with the best ears (and smarts) in the industry. But…wouldn’t that add a polish, or finesse that might run counter to everything The Black Keys stand for? Isn’t the entire concept of studio wizardry (and overdubs!) antithetical to the low-fi DIY ethos Auerbach and Carney worship at the altar of? Not necessarily. In addition to employing Danger Mouse, the Keys welcomed guitar guru Marc Ribot to lend his muscle (and magic) to several songs. That, along with the production skillz (subtle employment of flute, other live instruments and effects), make this a more ambitious, expansive effort.

Not that the modus operandi is radically altered here. In fact, virtually all of the elements that make all the previous albums superlative in their own way are employed throughout these proceedings. From the slow, building release of “All You Ever Wanted” to the straightforward ass-kick of “I Got Mine” (illustrating the ever-escalating dynamic elements of Auerbach’s guitar playing), the band is out for blood. The stakes are elevated on “Strange Times” which recycles a classic Black Sabbath riff (from Sabotage): this distills the energy of Thickfreakness with the refined blues experimentation from Magic Potion. On “Psychotic Girl” the presence of Danger Mouse is fully realized, from the banjo embellishment to the very subtle but astute ambient noises, all resulting in a sinister, murky detour to darker territory. Then, genius: “Lies” is, in many regards, the best thing the band has done to this point. It’s a fairly uncomplicated Led Zeppelin-style blues ballad, but Auerbach delivers one of his ultimate vocal performances, proving that this type of talent can’t be taught or bought. “Remember When” (Side A and Side B) are augmented by Danger Mouse’s retro urges: you practically expect to hear scratches in the song the way it would sound on a vinyl…from 1972. Then there is the tri-fecta that finishes the album, setting this one above and beyond. Let’s not mince words or leave any room for misinterpretation: “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans and Streams” are as good as rock and roll gets; rock and roll does not get any better than this (then, now, or ever). Both of these songs, while deeply wed to the best elements of past classics, are unique, unmistakable statements from a band that has diligently carved out its own niche and style. The emotion and conviction Auerbach is able to convey, vocally, on these two tracks is miraculous in its way, and well worth celebrating: he is doing things no one else on the scene is capable of imitating. The last track, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is a wise-beyond-its-years lamentation of the obvious, a particularly appropriate commentary on our world in 2008.

All in all, a recording with no weaknesses and tons of strength, a powder keg with purpose, an atomic bomb with a heart. The Black Keys are making music nobody else can approximate and they keep getting better because their only competition is what they just did.

4. Cat Power, You Are Free (2003)

You Are Free is not a perfect album. With neither snark nor sarcasm, this writer’s opinion is that it is too good to be perfect. Not that it’s better than perfect (whatever that could, or would mean) but that Cat Power (henceforth Chan Marshall) is not writing songs so much as bleeding her thoughts and feelings and their attendant pains and exultations into existence. They are there (in her, in all of us) and she makes them real, and makes us feel them, and through feeling them, feel something more of her and ourselves. This is what art does. All of which is to say, this is certainly one of the best and most powerful albums of the decade. But it is (and will continue to be) one of the most enduring. Because it is messy, with a few mistakes and some unfortunate moments, which, if we are honest, is better than most of us can say when we look back on our own lives.

The first indelible track is “Good Woman”: listen to the ache of the violin and the tone of that guitar: just right. Then there is the almost indescribably effective deployment of Eddie Vedder’s whispered, but still gruff backing vocals: one of the more triumphant instances of astute subtlety you will encounter in a rock and roll song. It is hardly possible to accomplish more than Marshall does here: this recalls the vibrant poetics of Joni Mitchell and the truculence of Chrissie Hynde, but also has the tender ache of Joan Baez at her most pellucid. It is, quite simply, a devastating and effulgent achievement.

The next stroke of genius is just Chan and her guitar on “Fool”. This one recalls the best moments of Moon Pix and captures that desolate yearning, the musical equivalent of a wilting flower stretching toward an absent sun in the middle of the night. Nobody else does this like Chan Marshall, and no one even comes close on a consistent basis.

The more somber and introspective moments are wonderfully cut with some lively jolts of power pop: “Speak For Me” and “He War” are so infectious and assured at first you wonder if this is the same singer on the same album, and then realize that this is precisely what makes Cat Power so special. A trio of songs find Marshall accompanied only by her piano, and they are each monuments of emotion and catharsis: “You Are Free” (which is about both Kurt Cobain and Cat Power), “Maybe Not” and “Names” (which is a brutally stark stroll down a memory lane of abuse and dysfunction that Marshall saw, experienced and imagined). Then a song that could (and should) have closed any other album, a barren (yet beautiful!) cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider”, reworked as “Keep On Runnin'”. It spills more feeling and quiet intensity in less than four minutes than most of Marshall’s peers could convey in four albums.

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

3. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005)

The good news: The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour.

The bad news: It is the last album they made (and, going on six years, their intent to remain broken up seems unlikely to change).

The bottom line: Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00’s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation. The Woods is one of those wonderful anomalies that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K: this is one of the most blistering, beautifully ugly songs of the decade, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks harder and drops jaws lower than anything anyone else did this decade. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. Tracks like “Wilderness” and “Jumpers” would have been stand-outs on earlier SK albums (or albums by almost any other band) but there is an extra edge and purpose on certain songs. The wonders of “What’s Mine Is Yours” are bountiful, from the soaring choruses to the unreal shredding of guitar goddess Carrie Brownstein. (The feedback frenzy that bridges the song is one of those ecstatic passages of music that ceaselessly surprises and delights; it’s a sonic orgasm of the highest order.) And then, ho hum, they bust out a perfect little ditty in “Modern Girl” that you can (try to) sing along to. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11 minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as it explodes into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place where they have figured it out and made a defining statement. Not just for their own career, but a mark left on the history of music.

Thinking we may never hear/see Sleater-Kinney together again, one part of me pleads: Say it ain’t so, ladies! The other part of me readily concedes that it’s ridiculous to ask them to give us anything else. They have already given more than we could ever have hoped for.

2. TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

Sui Generis.

Chop Suey.

Chop sui generis.

How do you actually define style or account for the concept of originality? What about terms like uncompromising or integrity? Well, it’s kind of like the classic definition of pornography: you know it when you hear it. TV On The Radio is not for everyone, but there is nothing inherently prohibitive about their work. They are most definitely progressive with a capital P and they could not unfairly be described as more than a little out there, but those depictions are only epithets coming from the uninformed and incurious (in other words, the people who watch American Idol and think Coldplay is cutting edge). Whatever else they may be, TV On The Radio is an American band in the best sense of the word: they bring a cultural and intellectual heft to their fairly wide-ranging sonic palette, and they are more focused on tomorrow than yesterday. They showed signs of significant promise on Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) and the best song on that album, “Staring At The Sun”, is a blueprint of sorts for the strategy they would employ on Return To Cookie Mountain: a series of songs that work toward a certain feeling, with the (breathtaking) vocals front and center, and a series of sounds made by instruments and machines; a sort of industrial mini opera.

Return To Cookie Mountain recalls some of the in-your-face polemics of Living Colour, but has the charismatic statement of purpose that fuels Peter Gabriel’s best work, and courts the avant garde like David Bowie and early-’80s King Crimson. Add some ferocious funk and the aforementioned vocals (Tunde Adepimbe might be an acquired taste but if it registers, his voice is musical crack), and you begin to arrive somewhere very unique and more than a little unsettling. The material, while not explicitly dark, is kind of like a NYC subway: busy, bustling with noises and images and unmistakably real. On Return To Cookie Mountain all of these various tools and tokens are elevated with Beach Boys harmonizing and falsettos; at times it sounds like Marvin Gaye playing with Nine Inch Nails.

A song by song analysis would be unrewarding as it would be unproductive: this, like it or not, is one of those albums that has to be experienced, and while there are many fantastic tracks, it demands to be listened to from start to finish, unless you are already a lost hipster, picking and choosing your playlists like music was meant to be turned into a fuck-all buffet station.

This album does require a few listens to let you orient yourself, and a few more listens to let the marinade of ideas and emotions (and always, the sounds) sink in. If that seems like too much of a chore, this music is not for you. (And don’t worry, I’m here to tell you it’s okay.)

A few songs do warrant further comment. “A Method” features whistling, multi-tracked vocals, A-plus production and a structure that is more lullaby than rock song. These dudes have locked into something else entirely, and it is humbling to behold (and behear). The shimmering perfection of “Dirtywhirl” defies any attempt to approach it with words: this is a song that can make you shake and cry and think provocative thoughts, all while you nod your head in time and grin like the Cheshire Cat. This one carved its way deep into my heart and will safely remain one of my all-time favorite songs, for all-time. Finally, the album closes out (pre bonus tracks, that is) with “Tonight” and “Wash The Day” which are like love letters from another dimension. There is a pervasive vibe permeating these songs that is at once disconcerting and tranquilizing: you are slowly being carried away, which naturally causes confusion until you understand that as soon as you stop resisting you’ll end up where you want to be. Back on Cookie Mountain, wherever that actually is.

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

Let’s talk a little bit about perfection.

What is it, and who gets to define it? And more importantly, who cares? What, for that matter, elevates something to the status of “best”? All of this discussion is subjective, and enough similarly inclined personal perspectives shape consensus over time. These are the types of semantic shenanigans writers and critics engage in and lose sleep over, which would be almost pathetic if for the simple matter that it’s all about genuine love of art and the aspiration to elevate it. To share that passion and, whenever possible, help edge that consensus toward a worthwhile candidate.

Fortunately, I am very far from alone in wanting to celebrate the almost inhuman brilliance of Neko Case. Everyone loves Neko and seemingly everybody appreciated Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. And yet, I’m not satisfied. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

If you are surprised by, or not really feeling, this appraisal, I am uncertain I’m capable of convincing you, and frankly that is not my motivation here. I am, however, quite content to offer some of the reasons I find this to be the most profound and enduring work of the decade. (I entertained the idea of being a smart ass and writing: here are the 12 reasons this album is perfect, and simply listing the song titles, one by one.) On this release, every possible element is aligned: the cover art perfectly reflects the subject matter of the songs, the lyrics of those songs are uncommonly (bordering on unbelievably) intelligent; this is real literature and these are as good as poems but they are all devastatingly effective short stories that stick with you long after first listen. And the songs themselves: each song, all sequenced in ideal order for maximum import.

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

Speaking of that “p-word” again, I don’t expect I’ll find two better examples of perfection in music than “That Teenage Feeling” (talk about a novel in two minutes; and when Neko acknowledges –about love, about life– “Because it’s hard” that is the type of spell a siren can cast over a smitten bachelor and ensnare him for life) and “Hold On, Hold On” (when Neko proclaims “I leave the party at 3AM, alone thank God/With a valium from the bride, it’s the devil I love”, she is at once penning some of those most mordant lyrics of the decade and expressing a delightful recalcitrance that makes her the radiant object of so much unrequited lust).

The album winds down with some truly beautiful meditations on life, love and mortality (and the ever-present concept of lost faith): “Maybe Sparrow” and “At Last” which are arresting in their unadorned, plaintive expression: they are cris de coeur but they are without self-pity and totally effulgent in their naked vulnerability. And, as always and as ever, Neko’s voice is a glorious force of nature.

I had (and have?) no interest in attempting to divine the central, unifying track on this album (honestly, any one of them could fit the bill, but some more than others, obviously). And yet, Case really outdoes herself on the short and not-so-sweet homage to self, “Lion’s Jaws”: equal parts reminiscence and invocation of adult reality, this taps into something truly resonant. If you have lived and loved then you have learned, and if you understand how many times you have been inside the lion’s jaws (knowingly and especially the times you were not even aware of it), then you can appreciate Case’s (and hopefully your own) courage to resist “momentum for the sake of momentum.”

In closing, I’ll simply state it outright: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

(Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well, Then, I Repeat Myself!)

Share