Improving Upon Perfection, Part Five: Five Covers from The Black Keys

(Parts 1-4 of this series here, here, here, and here.)

Before they became the Black Keys of Leon (a development that was equal parts unfortunate and inevitable) The Black Keys were one of the better rock bands around (really: check it out HERE, HEREHERE, and HERE –check #5).

More, they were, hands down, the best interpretors of other folks’ songs. They took classics, often deeper cuts, and put their own unmistakable and wonderful mark on them. Here are five.

Obviously, there is an art to covering a song. Nothing is off limits, but you can usually separate the contenders from the pretenders based on the songs they choose: the opportunistic clowns in search of an easy hit will take a well-loved song and dumb it down for the masses (this works like a charm). Of course, when this is done, the song being covered is usually destroyed, and tarnished: it’s kind of the worst of both worlds: unworthy fakers get props and cash for soiling a well-loved song and, in the process, they besmirch an original with a new, worse version that can never be unheard. On the other hand, real bands with real heroes and real talent will invariably choose more obscure songs with two primary objectives: celebrate the heroes who inspired them, and put their own inimitable touch on an old chestnut. The Black Keys have been better at this than any other band in recent memory.

It takes balls to even attempt to cover icons like Captain Beefheart and The Kinks. It is wonderful (and ballsy) to pay tribute to the Iceman (Jerry Butler), a singer against whom anyone will come up short; astonishingly, Dan Auerbach infuses this cover with heart and soul to spare: he does the near-impossible. Taking a truly obscure song by Richard Berry is the sort of move that made The Black Keys so special, and illustrated how deep their roots went and how much they loved all sorts of music. Finally, their personal god, Junior Kimbrough, received an entire tribute album (the remarkable Chulahoma, which you can acquire for $5 –the best bread you’ll lay down this month). It’s hard to explain what Auerbach achieves on the cover of “My Mind is Rambling”…it is not coverable, so he takes it from the inside out and adds a grit and menace (and yes, authenticity) that is inexplicable. For a skinny white dude from Akron, he buries himself in the deepest of all possible souths and goes deeper: this is midnight of the soul type shit, and it is at once scary and revelatory. It is a miracle of music.

“Have Love Will Travel” (Richard Berry)

“Act Nice and Gentle” (Kinks)

“Grown So Ugly” (Captain Beefheart)

“Never Give You Up” (Jerry Butler)

“My Mind is Rambling” (Junior Kimbrough)

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Gary Clark Jr.: Seeing Is Believing

It’s only happened on two other occasions, before last Friday night.

In 2001, seeing Mike Patton in person for the first time, with his brand new side project Tomahawk (at the Black Cat in D.C. which, before the overdue smoking ban, was like standing in a dark closet with a nicotine-scented dry-ice machine). They came out and played “God Hates a Coward” and I turned to my date and said “I’m good. We can go now.” We did not, of course, but I truly would have been 100% satisfied with just those 3 minutes. To get an hour-plus of that passion, musicality and showmanship was one for the ages. I was less than 20 feet from the stage.

(More on Tomahawk, HERE, check out #39.)

In 2008 I caught Living Colour on one of the opening nights of their tour for their then not-yet-released “comeback” album The Chair in the Doorway. (My subsequent review of that album can be found HERE.) They played “Burned Bridges” and it was both an opening salvo and shot across the bow: the guys came out en fuego and the smoke did not stop rising until five minutes after they left the stage. Reid’s solo, and I happened to be on the right side of the stage to see it in, well, living colour, remains one of the most ridiculous sixty seconds of virtuosity I’ve ever worshipped in real time. It left me shivering with delight and disbelief, knowing they were locked in and about to operate at this level for another couple of hours. (They did.) I could easily have left right then and felt satisfied and spent (I didn’t.)

Footage of Reid in action is instructive, but the sound quality is not optimal; make sure you check out the authentic version, HERE.

A lot more about this band, and seeing them live (in ’93!) HERE.

 

Which brings us to Gary Clark Jr.’s performance at D.C.’s 9:30 Club last Friday night. He opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. This dude commands the stage like no one else has in a long-ass time: tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December, he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate.

See what I’m saying?

When I saw him, the first time, last year, my impression was that he displayed the type of playing –and talent– we see from a handful of players every 10 years or so. Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling (and history) that you can’t fake. I was absolutely gobsmacked, and immediately hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR.

I look forward to enjoying him  for a long, long time. For now, he seems to be more like a blues or jazz artist in that he shines live and to fully appreciate him, it needs to be in real time. That’s not to say his studio work thus far is underwhelming, but, well, it’s not nearly as effective in my opinion. The intensity and connection is lacking. Certainly, that is true on literal levels (duh): seeing an act live will bring intensity and a literal connection that a digital file played on a digital device can’t deliver. But this is not typically the case with rock music, where so much of it sounds better on album than in person. Quick: name me one rock band that consistently sounds better live.

One example that fairly leaps to mind: The Black Keys. Like just about all rock acts, they sound much better in the studio than they ever do live. And this is understandable on several levels: for one, it’s exceedingly difficult to convey that sound (one guitar, one voice, one drummer) to a large arena. If you could watch the Black Keys –who recorded the bulk of their early work live, in a basement, proving that they could “do it” without studio trickery or production pyrotechnics– in a small room forever, they could be legit live contenders. As such, they struggle (in my opinion, having seen them in venues small and large) to put it down, effectively, in person. (More on The Black Keys, HERE, check out #5.)

It says a great deal about Clark’s ability and acumen that he brings the noise, on several levels, when he’s performing. Plus, it would be wrong to label him a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

(For the record, I do think his major label debut, Black and Blu, is more than a little overproduced. It’s understandable, if expected: he’s trying to break in with a sound that is sufficiently accessible to a wider audience, and I certainly don’t begrudge him that. I’ll simply say, if I were handed his new album and his EP, and asked to assess him, I’d probably say: lots of potential. Having seen him live (twice) and with the benefit of myriad clips courtesy of YouTube, I can confirm that the potential is largely realized and he has already arrived; it’s just a matter of being in the same place at the same time.)

If you have a chance to check him out, do so. He sounds fine (thank you very much) in a studio setting, and I encourage you to grab his new disc. But like most of the better acts, especially of the jazz and blues idioms, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future.

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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!)

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

20. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005)

Mad genius? Compulsive artiste? Fragile chanteuse? Misunderstood icon? All of the above? More? Whatever it is (and it could be none of this), there is no getting around the fact that Fiona Apple is a major talent. There is also no getting around the fact that the circumstances surrounding the conception, execution and (eventual) release of this, her third album, are the stuff of pop (and Internet) legend. Soap opera succinctly: word got out that Apple had recorded several tracks for her long-awaited next album. Then: was she unsatisfied with the results? Was the record label? Was she having a breakdown? Would we ever hear the album?

Between Apple’s admitted perfectionism, the understood (and expected) intransigence from the label, and the bizarre online campaign to “Free Fiona” organized by her more ardent fans, it’s a tall order to make sense of who did what when to whom. Who cares? The result is an album that could be called (tongue very much in cheek) epic and extraordinary.

But it gets better. The first version (the one ostensibly rejected by Epic), which was leaked to the Internets, then widely disemminated (and still pretty easy to track down) is, in this writer’s opinion, far superior to the quite satisfying officially released version. There is a rawness, immediacy and unaffected sincerity that confirms what a remarkable talent Apple is, (and, if the conspiracy story is true, what myopic, destructive imbeciles the people who usually call the shots are).

Finally, and most importantly, if you figured all that mid-decade hype regarding this album was a publicity stunt or not worth the bother, don’t make the mistake of overlooking this one. And if you are already on board but have not heard the “alternate” versions, here is a taste of what you’ve been missing: Any Other Questions?

 

19. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)

Prog rock lives! Concept album! About robots! The kind of album you get a contact buzz just looking at.

But as anyone who has followed The Flaming Lips knows, this is not superficial feel-good music to pass the bong around to (although I’m sure a few hundred thousand people have happily done so, with no complaints about the background music). Indeed, the “robot” songs comprise less than half the album, and some of those same recreational smokers might point out that the robots are highly metaphorical, and not about some dystopian future. Dude.

So, yeah, The Flaming Lips are out there, but they are out there in the best way. Arguably they are out there the only way they can be, because they could not be any other way. And any band, at any time, who can cultivate their own unique style that you can recognize with a single note is worthy of the highest praise. Most folks would agree that The Soft Bulletin (’99) is their masterpiece, and one of the significant works of that decade. But if nothing else, Yoshimi created a new crop of fans who could discover what they may have missed, and get on board for the next few albums (all of which have been wonderful in their own way).

This music is ostensibly breezy, and it has a deceptively ebullient air. The lyrics are quite sombre, dealing with death and the struggle to live. One way to look at this is that by dealing so forthrightly and unabashedly with serious issues, The Flaming Lips are able to deliver their findings with optimism and goodwill. Like Pink Floyd, the band they are often compared to, one need not be drunk or high, happy or sad to find much to love and enjoy on this brave and fantastic recording.

 

18. Tool, Lateralus (2001)

It is always cause for serious celebration when a band can be uncompromising to the point of near abrasiveness and still pull an audience along, simply because their music is too brilliant to ignore. I don’t think Tool is deliberately abrasive (in fact, I don’t find anything abrasive about their music at all, but I can appreciate how some folks may feel that way), and I don’t think they out to make impenetrable work. Sometimes a work (whether it’s an album or a novel or a movie) requires some effort on the part of the audience, and the more work you are willing to do, the richer the reward. Suffice it to say, Lateralus is the type of art you need to experience, and find out, in your own way, what (if anything) it has to offer you.

Put another way, Lateralus is a pretty dark, challenging work, and anyone with a functioning set of ears can confirm that there is some serious artistry on display. This is one of those albums that grabs you on first listen, but you’re not sure what is grabbing you, or what is being grabbed. Is it your heart? Your head? Your gut? All? Over time, it’s a little bit of everything, because this is art that makes you think and feel. It’s head-banging music for people who spend as much time in the library as the mosh pit (Check that, does anyone hang out in mosh pits, or libraries, anymore?). Anytime you’re ready to do some emotional and mental lifting, Lateralus will meet you more than halfway.

17. The Black Keys, Rubber Factory (2004)

The Black Keys have been productive (practically an album per year since their debut in 2002) and they have improved with each album. Even though their M.O. is as stripped down as possible (guitar/drums), and their music is grounded in a blues-rock hybrid that strives for authenticity and feeling (no overdubs, live-in-the-basement-studio recording, vintage equipment, etc.), they’ve shown an admirable range and willingness to expand on and enrich their sound. This is all on near-perfect display on Rubber Factory which, in my humble opinion, might actually be more highly regarded (now, later) if they had fizzled out after this release. But the fact that they have been so reliable and consistent has made it difficult to isolate individual albums. It also doesn’t hurt that each of their albums, starting with Thickfreakness, could –and should– be assessed as masterful.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Dan Auerbach these past couple of years and I’m still far from finished. But on Rubber Factory he somehow manages to sound, on some of the songs (like the opener “When The Lights Go Out” and “The Desperate Man) like a much older man who has seen long years and hard times. It’s not affected or sonic slumming: this is a natural gift and Auerbach has an almost indescribably expressive voice. Then there is his guitar playing. Then there is his songwriting. The guy is an absolute original, and nowhere is this more evident (if slightly ironic) than in his choice of songs to cover: on Rubber Factory he does a more than credible cover of The Kinks’ “Act Nice And Gentle” and then somehow pulls off a (scorching) cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly”. Folks, you can’t fake this. But of course the shining moments are the Auerbach tunes, which sound utterly unlike anything anyone else on the scene is doing (or is capable of doing): case in point, “All Hands Against His Own”. Arguably, the album’s masterstroke is the plaintive, powerful “The Lengths”.

Back in late 2004 there was at least one person who could not help wondering if The Black Keys, based on their first three albums alone, was laying the groundwork to become the best and most important band of the decade. Five years and a few albums later, the verdict is in and it’s not even close: The Black Keys owned this decade.

16. Living Colour, The Chair In The Doorway (2009)

The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

While 2003’s Collideoscope was a welcome if uneven release, The Chair in the Doorway represents more than a return to form. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco.

For an album that resonates with testimonies of lessons learned (“That’s What You Taught Me”) and self-explanatory smackdowns (“DecaDance”, “Hard Times”, “Out of My Mind”), there is a typical—and expected—air of adventure and variety throughout. Highlights include the fresh but filthy blues romp “Bless Those”, the almost slo-mo funk freak-out “Method”, and the final track “Not Tomorrow”, which, improbably, manages to sound urgent and subdued, like time’s really up (and is on the very short list for stunning vocal performance of the decade, any decade). The shining light burns brightest on the album’s succinct statement of purpose, “The Chair”. It’s all over in two minutes and change, but it stays with you: the muted and compressed guitar intro recalls “Information Overload” (from Time’s Up), while the uneasy vibe recalls the nervous malaise of Stain. The final result, quite simply, is a composition that only Living Colour could create, circa 2009. There is so much going on here, so many sounds cresting toward a disorienting momentum, it feels like being pulled out to sea in a current of quicksand.

It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.

15. Portishead, Third (2008)

If I were to pick the 10 best albums of the ’90s, there is a very good chance that both Portishead albums (Dummy from 1994 and Portishead from 1997) would be in the list. Indeed, Dummy is, for my money, the best album of the decade and one of the seminal albums of the modern era: it not only utterly defined an entire genre (trip-hop), it truly transcended it. In other words, it recalled some of the best singer-songwriter tropes of the golden era (like Dusty Springfield on a bad acid trip, singing along to some of the best Italian b-movie pyschedelic soundtracks) and anticipated much of what was to come (found sampling and clever insertion of obscure jazz and pop bits). It was also incredibly, eerily out of time, transmitted from outer space but connected deeply to the darker aspects of our collective inner space. It is stark, immediate and arresting, yet also remote, cool and forbidding. It was, and remains, quite unlike anything anyone else has ever come close to producing. And some people even danced to it.

I remember thinking, with genuine resignation in ’97 after their second album, there is no way they can possibly follow this up. Sadly, I was correct. For a variety of reasons, Portishead dropped off the face of the planet. A year turned into half a decade, then more…and it became less a question of inspiration or intimidation, and more a matter of whether or not any of their hearts were still in it.

Nobody, not even I, could imagine how remarkable their eventual return would be (quick: how many bands can you think of that took 11 years between their second and third albums?), and their interminable hiatus made it that much sweeter. Portishead was too smart to retread the old formula, no matter how original and arresting it was. Indeed, they refused to retrace their steps on the second album, going from the judicious use of the perfect sample to simply creating their own samples (yes, they conceived the perfect sound or snippet, recorded it, then inserted it into the song, doing the unthinkable by combining DIY and cut and paste).

Third is, from the first second, quite obviously a Portishead album. But it is, against all probability, even darker and more urgent than their first two. The first album was a deep blue (almost purple) and the second a heavy gray; Third is just out-and-out black. And not the black of violence, incoherence or apathy; rather, it’s pulsating with feeling and a seemingly unquenchable anxiety. It is a naked nerve of an album, an album that sounds nervous without making the listener (necessarily) feel nervous. That, when you think about it, is a remarkable accomplishment. We still have the surreal soundtrack vibe, along with the raw and ragged vocals, but undercut with a confident, purposeful groove. That Portishead was able to tap into the considerably nuanced sound and feeling they invented/perfected while doubling down to produce an album that somehow reinvents (and re-perfects) that sound, is worthy of major kudos. Fortunately, their audience was waiting for them, and the critics recognized a masterpiece when they heard it. At this point, one should only hope Portishead might somehow do it again, but they’ve already given us so much it’s all bonus material from now on.

14. P.J. Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)

Everyone seemed to agree that P.J. Harvey would never be able to duplicate what she achieved on Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love. Who could? Artists who go that far, that indelibly, so early in their career are either compelled to imitate (invariably with little success) that lightning caught in a bottle, or else they are too overwhelmed and flame out. It’s a rock cliche and it has ensnared way too many musicians. Fortunately, there are the ones who are either sufficiently adjusted, confident or restless to live in the past or become paralyzed by the future. P.J. Harvey kicked off the decade with an album that sounded unlike anything she had done, and it was a refreshing, vigorous change of pace. Appropriately, her time in NYC inspired some of the material and it bristles with the frenzied energy of the Big Apple.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate call to arms (literally) to kick off Y2K than “Big Exit”, where Harvey declares “But I want a pistol in my hand/I want to go to a different land”, and my God does she sound almost unbearably sexy as she sings it. In fact, Harvey is in full vixen mode throughout these proceedings, and I’m pretty certain one need not be a smitten boy to fall under her spell. Check out the video for “Good Fortune”: Good Lord! (When she swings her purse at the 1.24 mark? I would jump out in front of one of those buses, and in that moment I’m reasonably certain I could walk through any of them.) She is the complete package, my friends. And it demonstrates something many folks never thought they’d see: P.J. Harvey sounding happy. Not to worry, that giddiness does not infuse all the songs, but it is pervasive throughout, in very satisfactory fashion.

Of course, there are the more sombre and reflective numbers, like “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore” (a kind of pre-epitaph for the decade) and the magnificent duet with Thom Yorke, “This Mess We’re In”. Then there are the straightahead white knuckle workouts like “Kamikaze” and “This Is Love”. In the end it all adds up to an a P.J. Harvey album that is unlike anything she has done before or since, and in many ways an album that stands above her own work and everyone else’s.

P.J. Harvy is a goddess, and that’s all there is to it.

13. Little Axe, Hard Grind (2002)


Of the albums I would most urgently recommend from this list, Hard Grind is near the top, in part because I suspect so few people have heard of Little Axe (guitarist Skip McDonald) or would ever be inclined to pick up one of his albums. And I could talk about his pedigree as a “musician’s musician”, or how his playing has been associated with some of the more significant (if unheralded) moments in 20th Century music: Sugarhill Records (for whom he was in the house band, playing on Grandmaster Flash’s epochal “The Message“), On-U Sound, the band Tackhead. In other words, the underground where so many of the strange and interesting things occur.

Bottom line: history and import aside, I’d encourage anyone to pick up Hard Grind simply because it is a significant, satisfying album. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more depthful (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time. As anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

A few years ago, when reviewing the reissue of African Head Charge’s seminal Off The Beaten Track (1986), I attempted to put some perspective on the whole “found-sound sampling” phenomenon:

Today, for instance, it’s not only unsurprising, but inevitable to hear pop-culture samplings and multimedia sound bites spliced into songs. The apotheosis of this formula—at least in commercial terms—was Moby’s fin de siecle mega-smash Play. Before that, a host of deconstructionist whiz kids, led by DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow (and myriad well-intentioned acolytes with varying degrees of skill and diminishing returns), succeeded in making cerebral, hip-shaking electronic music. But in the halcyon days, the world in world music was created by real instruments in real time, and any honest producer would acknowledge that virtually all roads lead directly back to Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Put another way, folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. Hey, it worked for a lot of people (and full disclosure, I never did hate the playa, or Play for that matter). The point is, as is so often the case, genre-smashing innovation that may not be ready for mainstream appeal often breaks through, years later, in remunerative fashion. That’s the way it works in all art forms. What is unfortunate is that unenlightened critics (and fans) credit the bandwagon jumpers with the advancements. So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut lamented half a century ago.

Anyway, give this one a shot: it might just free your mind (and your ass can follow). And that in turn might turn you on to African Head Charge, Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound, for starters. And you’ll just have to take my word for it, these are all very good things.

*It kind of kills me that the only video I could find on YouTube from this album is the (excellent) “Down in the Valley”, not because this isn’t an adequate representation of what Hard Grind sounds like (indeed, it’s one of the more accessible tunes), but because I would love to introduce anyone to “Blues Story II”, “Seek The Truth” or especially “Run Here Boy”–the latter one of the songs that truly rocked my world (in multiple senses of the expression) this past decade. The only silver lining is that perhaps this review will inspire some people to take a chance and learn more about blues, rock, dirty authenticity and, inexorably, themselves, by making Hard Grind a part of their lives.

12. Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise (2005)

Huh? That was the first response many people (like yours truly) had when the word began spreading that Illinoise, Sufjan Stevens’ second “state” album (following his first, the excellent Michigan, an appropriate homage to his home state) was part of ongoing mission to dedicate an individual album to each of the fifty states. The audacity! The chutzpah! The…genius! However this was meant to turn out, you had to tip your hat to the young man for staking his claim and shooting for the stars.

Five years and no proper follow-ups, the already unlikely proposition that he could pull it off seems even less feasible, but frankly, if the project ends with only two states covered, he did them proud. Illinoise has to be considered, hands down, the most ambitious album of the decade. Whether or not this album will age well only time can determine, but more than a handful of folks declared this one an instant classic. It is, to be certain, a classic of sorts. And whether or not it’s an actual masterpiece is entirely irrelevant (the type of thing only the most pointy-headed of critics and the types of dorks who make lists of the decade’s best albums concern themselves with); what is important is that Stevens set the bar ludicrously, almost impossibly, high and pulled it off. He manages to work almost every bit of relevant history alongside the most trivial minutiae, all in the service of songs that could be sung around a campfire.

To be certain, the choral, cascading song structures are deceptively buoyant; the strings and Stevens’ own voice are so gentle and pleasant it’s unnerving to consider some of the source material. For instance, one of the album’s signal achievements, an examination of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. It sounds like an obscure (but plaintive) Simon and Garfunkel cover, until you catch the lyrics and realize Stevens is entering some dark and dangerous territory. That this softspoken (and obviously sensitive) singer/songwriter –who looks and sounds like a choir boy– acquits himself taking on tough topics, and putting a mini-encyclopedia of state history into a toe-tapping song cycle, is humbling. It’s also a considerable victory for truly independent and visionary songwriting; a welcome reminder that a gentle but honest voice occasionally carries above the noise of the machine.

11. The Breeders, Mountain Battles (2008)

If Kim Deal was a dude she’d be considered one of the baddest MFers on the planet. She might actually get the props for being one of the better songwriters of her generation, and credited for some of the advancements she made for progressive rock. In other words, she’d be Frank Black. Just kidding, sort of. Bottom line: Deal has done enough with The Breeders to be able to say she has been an integral part of two of the best bands of the last 20-odd years. And, in the final analysis, she’ll just have to settle for being known as Kim Deal, the most under-rated, but beloved musicians on the scene.

Let me not mince words: this is very close to being a masterpiece and I can’t recommend it more enthusiastically.

Did you sleep on Mountain Battles? A lot of people did. And what’s crazy is that it is a totally accessible, user-friendly (yet utterly uncompromised) and enervating experience. I was lucky enough to see them play this excellent material live and the concert was (I want to choose my word carefully but there is no other option here) a revelation. There was an overflow of joy, purpose and love on that stage. Love of the material, love of playing it, love of the audience, love of self. It was a triumphant occasion. Yet very few people seemed to be have been swept off their feet (perhaps they were too busy gazing at the soles), if they even bothered to pick up (or, um, download) this bad boy.

Twin sister Kelley belts out a gorgeous (tongue only slightly in cheek) tune, in Spanish, while Kim counters with “German Studies”, sung in German (!) Novelty aside, there are straightahead scorchers like “Bang On” and “Walk It Off”. And not to worry, there are several songs (indescribably cool, indescribable period) that only The Breeders could make, like “Spark”, “Overglazed” and especially “Night of Joy”. But the crowning achievement on this set is the spectacular “We’re Gonna Rise” (see below): this is what it’s all about, a song that manages to capture everything that is so special about Deal, and her band.

People will always (understandably) point to The Pixies, but anyone who remembers 1989 understands that the monkey who ended up in heaven is listening to The Breeders.

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The Top 10 Albums of 2010, According To Me

2010, looking at my personal picks, (and these are the exact same ones I submitted to the annual “Pazz & Jop Poll”, an annual endeavor of critical consensus conducted by the good folks @ The Village Voicewas a year where some of the better artists were looking backward. And, to put things in succinct perspective, any list that references Sun Ra twice has to be worth celebrating.

Let’s get it on.

10. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: I Learned The Hard Way

 

Here’s a story you can feel good about, especially since the music will make you feel good while you’re feeling good about the story behind the making of the music.

While talking about Sharon’s label-mates, The Budos Band (reviewing their latest album which I found rather to my liking, of which more shortly), I first wanted to praise Daptone Records:

First off, can we get an Amen for Daptone Records?

You know a label has arrived when you go from being pleasantly surprised at the consistent quality of each new release to just expecting excellence. We are now officially past that point: this Brooklyn collective has amassed a considerable stable of talent that has been making some of the best music around for several years. Thanks in no small part to the growing and richly-deserved success of label sweetheart Sharon Jones, Daptone Records went from being the little label that could to the major label that did.

Sharon Jones has old school in her soul, and there is nothing inauthentic about the music she (and her band) makes. It’s the real deal, and she is slowly putting together a catalog, and career, that matches the arc of her label: it’s a story you can’t help but be happy to see, and especially hear.

 

9. Mostly Other People Do The Killing: Forty Fort

I talked about these guys back in May, and am happy to talk about them today. Jazz is not dead. Jazz was never dead. Long live jazz.

Mostly Other People Do The Killing.

Best band name ever?

It has to be way up there.

What makes it even better is that this is the name of a jazz band.

A jazz band that is making music, today.

A jazz band that is making excellent, relevant, real music. Right now.

Sense of humor? Check.

Sick chops? Check.

Challenging? Absolutely.

Satisfying? Utterly.

These guys represent, to quote an artist they are fond of quoting, the shape of jazz to come.

It’s a shame nobody listens to jazz.

But the beatings will continue until morale improves.

 

8. Jason Moran: Ten

 

I talked about MacArthur Fellow Moran back in August, and will simply suggest this album for anyone who wants to get a handle on what contemporary jazz sounds like (hint, the good stuff sounds a lot like what it sounded like five decades ago). Being a brilliant composer and pianist, it’s natural for Moran to set aside special praise for Thelonious Monk. More significant is the way Moran continues to make music that young jazz virtuosos will name-check five decades down the road.

 

7. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM

 

Short version: it’s a new Beck album with a female vocalist.

Longer version: it’s a new Beck album, but having a female vocalist helped him harness his more commercial impulses and balance them with his quirky, all-things-to-all-people approach.

Longest version: a talented chanteuse benefits (immeasurably) from the sonic/lyrical/production prowess of alt-rock’s wunderkind who woke up and realized he’s almost 40 and crafted what might be his best set of material since Odelay and then had the chutzpah (or humility?) to pass the mic. Whether accidental or intentional, it all clicks and this is one of the most enjoyable, if unanticipated releases of the year.

“Heaven Can Wait”:

6. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

 

D.J. Spooky better watch his back. All of a sudden, we have a new kid on the block incorporating jazz, funk, sampling and a very retro kitchen sink into his arsenal. This is definitely one of the most interesting –and audacious– albums of 2010, and I suspect it is one of those (rare) albums that will accrue import as time passes. A lot of people, regardless of their ambition or ability, want to invoke the soundz of the past, for all the right reasons, but their attempts are invariably handicapped by their ambition (too much) and ability (not enough).

The cover art invokes Sun Ra. So does the sound. And the other-wordly axis of Evol, as in Evolution: the evolution of a musician and the evolution of a sound. Your tastes may expand and evolve as well if you give this a try.

5. The Black Keys, Brothers

In early 2009, while reviewing Dan Auerbach’s first solo album, Keep It Hid, I offered the appraisal that he was the current king of the hill. Nothing that has happened since then has altered my opinion.

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. Brothers is the next step forward; long may the run, walk and stumble.

(Incidentally, after doing remarkable covers on all of their albums (including an entire album dedicated to the late, great Junior Kimbrough) The Black Keys have irrefutably established themselves as the band who does the best covers, period. To have the cojones to attempt covering Jerry “The Iceman” Butler is impressive (this is the same band who has tackled The Beatles, The Kinks and Captain Beefheart); not surprisingly, they pull it off. (Check out the original here)

And doing their own thing, refining it and, if it’s even possible at this point, improving upon it:

4. Beach House, Teen Dream

I knew at first listen this one was a keeper and I predicted in March it was going to end up in my personal Top 10 for 2010. I also, without (too much) facetiousness, declared that “Beguiling shoe-gaze ebullience with dark undertones is NOT DEAD!!!”

Three albums in, Beach House has crafted a distinctive style that perfectly blends melancholy and exultation. How many bands, even if they wanted to, do you reckon would be capable of pulling this off so convincingly? If this music does it for you (and I’d be curious if it doesn’t) check out their second (even better!) album, Devotion.

“Norway”:

“Lover Of Mine” (maybe my favorite song of the year):

3. Mulatu Astatke: Mulatu Steps Ahead

The more I listen to jazz and what we call “world” music, there is one familiar story that seems to play itself out: the joy of discovery followed by the disappointment that (almost inevitably) this incredible artist was undeservedly obscure or failed to have the career they could have because of poverty or some other misfortune (including the ultimate bummer, death). And so when I encounter the exceedingly rare late-career renaissance, it’s a cause for serious celebration.

I was turned onto Mulatu Astatke, like many other people were, several years ago thanks to the outstanding (and highly recommended) Ethiopiques series. The fourth volume features Astatke, and that disc has continued to bring me almost improbable amounts of satisfaction. The music and, to a lesser extent, the man, blew up a bit when some of these songs were featured in the Jarmusch film Broken Flowers (an excellent soundtrack, incidentally).

Next came his work with The Heliocentrics (more on them, shortly) and their incredible collaboration from 2009, Inspiration Information 3.

And now, in 2010, more Mulatu. In an era when so little is right in our world, the productivity of Astatke is something we can cling to like holiday lights wrapped around a snowed-in house. Or something.

So…what does it sound like? World music, mood music, great music. It is definitely from another place and, perhaps, another time, with what some may call “exotic” instruments, but it is soothing, refreshing and some may even find it inspiring. And just in case that sounds too safe by half, there is also an air of James Bond theme music, only the action is on another continent and the dude too often typecast as the sidekick (or worse, the villain) turns out to be the hero. The way it’s supposed to be.

“This is Mulatu Astatke, and you are listening to my new album, Mulatu Steps Ahead,” he says. And you realize, the movie should be about him. And, on this amazing album, you are reminded: it is.

“The Way To Nice”:

“Green Africa”:

2. The Budos Band, The Budos Band III

 

First off, this album is going to sound solid twenty years from now in part because it sounds like it was made twenty years ago.

If I may quote myself (and I may, since I’m me) from the not entirely restrained review I dropped a few months ago, someone typing on this same keyboard wrote:

Their new release, The Budos Band III is a reiteration of an old-is-new mission statement, but it signals a simple fact: The Budos is upon us. If you find yourself asking who are they and what do they sound like, there is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer: the Budos Band brings the funk so ferociously you find yourself wanting to throw a party so you can use them as a soundtrack. The long answer: If you’re at all familiar with ‘70s funk (in general), the J.B.’s (in particular), Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat, Antibalas, and the organ-based assault of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, you’ve heard them before. But they are more. The Budos Band is like a reincarnation of a sound that has not yet been heard. There is nothing reductive or formulaic going on; rather, they are following (and, frankly, perfecting) a loud and proud lineage.

“Rite of The Ancients”:

If the words “fun” and “funky” are not enough to convince you, perhaps a few more will suffice. When there are ten musicians with this much talent, it requires restraint and wisdom to take a less-is-more approach. Make no mistake; there is nothing “less” about any of these compositions. Because of the tight arrangements, every second of every song counts—all the sounds matter, and a serious vibe emerges. This is party music for your mind. The solos are clean, sharp, and brief—almost tantalizingly so. But three albums in, it is increasingly obvious that this is the band’s calling card: rather than expansive (see: ponderous and rambling) jams full of sounds and lacking fury, the Budos Band is able to craft compelling, irresistible blasts of bliss.

Needless to say, rocking the house in under four minutes per song requires talent, but it is ultimately a reflection of serious discipline and smarts. These guys don’t make congas an obligatory, if minor part of the equation; the double-conga (and/or bongo) attack provides a solid foundation from which the funk unfurls. The bass and organ establish a fat framework for the brass, and the two trumpet, baritone sax, and flute front line does not disappoint. Everyone gets a chance to shine, but special props must be set aside for Jared Tankel, who handles saxophone duties and shares songwriting credits on most of the tunes. Plus, it’s not often (or often enough) that one can enjoy a larger band where the baritone sax is not utilized solely as sonic window dressing. Here, the gigantic, glorious horn bum rushes the show like a warthog in a rented tux. It’s hard to pick highlights, but it’s always a good sign when you listen to an album for the first time and stop to replay the opening track three times. It’s that good. “Budos Dirge” will make you recall—and want to pull out—your Mulatu Astatke discs (if you don’t have any, put that on your list). “Raja Haje” sounds like a classic Fela Kuti groove that has been judiciously edited. What could easily be an ass-shaking 20-minute workout is, instead, a bite-sized bolt of goodness you can play over and over. “Reppirt Yad” is a droll, skanky shakedown of the Fab Four’s “Day Tripper”, and an ideal album closer. Both “Black Venom” and (the geniously titled) “Unbroken, Unshaven” boast the band’s chops and cause one to hope they will be touring a town near oneself, soon. Finally, “Nature’s Wrath” is an instant masterpiece: this dirge-like number sways and soars, sounding like a somber celebration that makes you want to dance and sob at the same time.

“Nature’s Wrath”:

If you’re not convinced yet, listen to some sound samples online (go to their official site, or the Daptone Records site, or if all else fails, you may have heard of a thing called YouTube). If, after checking it out, you remain unconvinced, check your head. And check for a pulse.

1. Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics

I know I will be accused of picking as my number one selection something nobody has heard (or heard about). But I’m sincere when I insist that this release is the most impressive album I have listened to in 2010. And perhaps more importantly, I am not going to suggest that everyone will like this –whether this helps or hinders my street cred. In fact I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, but I do believe anyone with a remotely open mind could be quickly convinced. Convinced of what, exactly? That your world was too small without it, for starters. Not unlike the way a great novel or movie or even a new type of cuisine will remind you that there are places and times you were unaware of, and that someone –or something– else can transport you without the use of machines or magic (or even drugs). If, understandably, that sounds a tad too precious, this is music you can put on while you meditate, do yoga, think or have sex. So there’s that.

The Heliocentrics have not wasted any time establishing themselves as an indispensable part of the contemporary avant-garde. In addition to their impressive 2007 release Out There (a nice nod to Eric Dolphy), in 2009 they collaborated with none other than Mulatu Astatke and dropped one of the best releases of that year, Inspiration Information 3.

Do a Google search on Lloyd Miller and you’ll find he’s been around for a long time (we’re talking decades) and been an influential force in jazz and world music. His distinct amalgamation of Persian music, American jazz and a sort of psychedelic far-east vibe (think zither and gongs) is quite unlike anything anyone else has done, although serious fans will hear traces of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and even Santana (circa Caravanserai). For an amazing –and addictive– overview of what he’s done, check out the very fittingly titled collection A Lifetime In Oriental Jazz. Considering how much music he has made it’s disconcerting how little he seems to have recorded. Let’s hope there are lots of dusty treats in the vaults waiting to see the light of day.

“Modality”

Not only reminiscent of Sun Ra, it’s reminiscent of peak Sun Ra, circa The Futuristic Sounds album (which, for anyone interested, is an ideal gateway to that wonderful and eccentric artist’s intimidating catalog). But that comparison is inadequate, because even Sun Ra, circa 1958, was incorporating Eastern sounds and rhythms into his Arkestra. Eventually those tapestries would grow larger, and longer and, for many ears, overwhelming. But from the mid-’50s until the early-to-mid-’60s his compositions were tight, focused and brimming with musical delights that –despite the bizarre persona he cultivated and encouraged– were very much of this world. All of which is to say it is probably more accurate to observe that Miller (and The Heliocentrics) are invoking similiar sounds and motifs, from a more ancient-feeling place: far East passing through a syncopated prism of strings, flutes and percussion.

“Rain Dance”:

In sum, Mulatu Astatke made me want to pinch myself to make sure my joy was genuine and The Budos Band made me want to dance with strangers and convert the uninitiated. Lloyd Miller and The Heliocentrics accomplished what few albums from any year are able to do: they made me shake my head, in both delight and disbelief, and remain awestruck by what fellow human beings, armed only with instruments and their imaginations, are capable of achieving.

“Spiritual Jazz”:

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Beefheart & The Black Keys: Grown So Ugly

Another song from Safe As Milk, the great “Grown So Ugly”:

The Black Keys attacking it, in one of the best covers you’ll ever hear (from their amazing album Rubber Factory):

The Keys rocking it live to a very small (and very lucky) audience:

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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):

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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!)

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Four

20. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005)

Mad genius? Compulsive artiste? Fragile chanteuse? Misunderstood icon? All of the above? More? Whatever it is (and it could be none of this), there is no getting around the fact that Fiona Apple is a major talent. There is also no getting around the fact that the circumstances surrounding the conception, execution and (eventual) release of this, her third album, are the stuff of pop (and Internet) legend. Soap opera succinctly: word got out that Apple had recorded several tracks for her long-awaited next album. Then: was she unsatisfied with the results? Was the record label? Was she having a breakdown? Would we ever hear the album?

Between Apple’s admitted perfectionism, the understood (and expected) intransigence from the label, and the bizarre online campaign to “Free Fiona” organized by her more ardent fans, it’s a tall order to make sense of who did what when to whom. Who cares? The result is an album that could be called (tongue very much in cheek) epic and extraordinary.

But it gets better. The first version (the one ostensibly rejected by Epic), which was leaked to the Internets, then widely disemminated (and still pretty easy to track down) is, in this writer’s opinion, far superior to the quite satisfying officially released version. There is a rawness, immediacy and unaffected sincerity that confirms what a remarkable talent Apple is, (and, if the conspiracy story is true, what myopic, destructive imbeciles the people who usually call the shots are).

Finally, and most importantly, if you figured all that mid-decade hype regarding this album was a publicity stunt or not worth the bother, don’t make the mistake of overlooking this one. And if you are already on board but have not heard the “alternate” versions, here is a taste of what you’ve been missing: Any Other Questions?

 

19. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)

Prog rock lives! Concept album! About robots! The kind of album you get a contact buzz just looking at.

But as anyone who has followed The Flaming Lips knows, this is not superficial feel-good music to pass the bong around to (although I’m sure a few hundred thousand people have happily done so, with no complaints about the background music). Indeed, the “robot” songs comprise less than half the album, and some of those same recreational smokers might point out that the robots are highly metaphorical, and not about some dystopian future. Dude.

So, yeah, The Flaming Lips are out there, but they are out there in the best way. Arguably they are out there the only way they can be, because they could not be any other way. And any band, at any time, who can cultivate their own unique style that you can recognize with a single note is worthy of the highest praise. Most folks would agree that The Soft Bulletin (’99) is their masterpiece, and one of the significant works of that decade. But if nothing else, Yoshimi created a new crop of fans who could discover what they may have missed, and get on board for the next few albums (all of which have been wonderful in their own way).

This music is ostensibly breezy, and it has a deceptively ebullient air. The lyrics are quite sombre, dealing with death and the struggle to live. One way to look at this is that by dealing so forthrightly and unabashedly with serious issues, The Flaming Lips are able to deliver their findings with optimism and goodwill. Like Pink Floyd, the band they are often compared to, one need not be drunk or high, happy or sad to find much to love and enjoy on this brave and fantastic recording.

 

18. Tool, Lateralus (2001)

It is always cause for serious celebration when a band can be uncompromising to the point of near abrasiveness and still pull an audience along, simply because their music is too brilliant to ignore. I don’t think Tool is deliberately abrasive (in fact, I don’t find anything abrasive about their music at all, but I can appreciate how some folks may feel that way), and I don’t think they out to make impenetrable work. Sometimes a work (whether it’s an album or a novel or a movie) requires some effort on the part of the audience, and the more work you are willing to do, the richer the reward. Suffice it to say, Lateralus is the type of art you need to experience, and find out, in your own way, what (if anything) it has to offer you.

Put another way, Lateralus is a pretty dark, challenging work, and anyone with a functioning set of ears can confirm that there is some serious artistry on display. This is one of those albums that grabs you on first listen, but you’re not sure what is grabbing you, or what is being grabbed. Is it your heart? Your head? Your gut? All? Over time, it’s a little bit of everything, because this is art that makes you think and feel. It’s head-banging music for people who spend as much time in the library as the mosh pit (Check that, does anyone hang out in mosh pits, or libraries, anymore?). Anytime you’re ready to do some emotional and mental lifting, Lateralus will meet you more than halfway.

17. The Black Keys, Rubber Factory (2004)

The Black Keys have been productive (practically an album per year since their debut in 2002) and they have improved with each album. Even though their M.O. is as stripped down as possible (guitar/drums), and their music is grounded in a blues-rock hybrid that strives for authenticity and feeling (no overdubs, live-in-the-basement-studio recording, vintage equipment, etc.), they’ve shown an admirable range and willingness to expand on and enrich their sound. This is all on near-perfect display on Rubber Factory which, in my humble opinion, might actually be more highly regarded (now, later) if they had fizzled out after this release. But the fact that they have been so reliable and consistent has made it difficult to isolate individual albums. It also doesn’t hurt that each of their albums, starting with Thickfreakness, could –and should– be assessed as masterful.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Dan Auerbach these past couple of years and I’m still far from finished. But on Rubber Factory he somehow manages to sound, on some of the songs (like the opener “When The Lights Go Out” and “The Desperate Man) like a much older man who has seen long years and hard times. It’s not affected or sonic slumming: this is a natural gift and Auerbach has an almost indescribably expressive voice. Then there is his guitar playing. Then there is his songwriting. The guy is an absolute original, and nowhere is this more evident (if slightly ironic) than in his choice of songs to cover: on Rubber Factory he does a more than credible cover of The Kinks’ “Act Nice And Gentle” and then somehow pulls off  a (scorching) cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly”. Folks, you can’t fake this. But of course the shining moments are the Auerbach tunes, which sound utterly unlike anything anyone else on the scene is doing (or is capable of doing): case in point, “All Hands Against His Own”. Arguably, the album’s masterstroke is the plaintive, powerful “The Lengths”.

Back in late 2004 there was at least one person who could not help wondering if The Black Keys, based on their first three albums alone, was laying the groundwork to become the best and most important band of the decade. Five years and a few albums later, the verdict is in and it’s not even close: The Black Keys owned this decade.

16. Living Colour, The Chair In The Doorway (2009)

The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

While 2003’s Collideoscope was a welcome if uneven release, The Chair in the Doorway represents more than a return to form. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco.

For an album that resonates with testimonies of lessons learned (“That’s What You Taught Me”) and self-explanatory smackdowns (“DecaDance”, “Hard Times”, “Out of My Mind”), there is a typical—and expected—air of adventure and variety throughout. Highlights include the fresh but filthy blues romp “Bless Those”, the almost slo-mo funk freak-out “Method”, and the final track “Not Tomorrow”, which, improbably, manages to sound urgent and subdued, like time’s really up (and is on the very short list for stunning vocal performance of the decade, any decade). The shining light burns brightest on the album’s succinct statement of purpose, “The Chair”. It’s all over in two minutes and change, but it stays with you: the muted and compressed guitar intro recalls “Information Overload” (from Time’s Up), while the uneasy vibe recalls the nervous malaise of Stain. The final result, quite simply, is a composition that only Living Colour could create, circa 2009. There is so much going on here, so many sounds cresting toward a disorienting momentum, it feels like being pulled out to sea in a current of quicksand.

It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.

15. Portishead, Third (2008)

If I were to pick the 10 best albums of the ’90s, there is a very good chance that both Portishead albums (Dummy from 1994 and Portishead from 1997) would be in the list. Indeed, Dummy is, for my money, the best album of the decade and one of the seminal albums of the modern era: it not only utterly defined an entire genre (trip-hop), it truly transcended it. In other words, it recalled some of the best singer-songwriter tropes of the golden era (like Dusty Springfield on a bad acid trip, singing along to some of the best Italian b-movie pyschedelic soundtracks) and anticipated much of what was to come (found sampling and clever insertion of obscure jazz and pop bits). It was also incredibly, eerily out of time, transmitted from outer space but connected deeply to the darker aspects of our collective inner space. It is stark, immediate and arresting, yet also remote, cool and forbidding. It was, and remains, quite unlike anything anyone else has ever come close to producing. And some people even danced to it.

I remember thinking, with genuine resignation in ’97 after their second album, there is no way they can possibly follow this up. Sadly, I was correct. For a variety of reasons, Portishead dropped off the face of the planet. A year turned into half a decade, then more…and it became less a question of inspiration or intimidation, and more a matter of whether or not any of their hearts were still in it.

Nobody, not even I, could imagine how remarkable their eventual return would be (quick: how many bands can you think of that took 11 years between their second and third albums?), and their interminable hiatus made it that much sweeter. Portishead was too smart to retread the old formula, no matter how original and arresting it was. Indeed, they refused to retrace their steps on the second album, going from the judicious use of the perfect sample to simply creating their own samples (yes, they conceived the perfect sound or snippet, recorded it, then inserted it into the song, doing the unthinkable by combining DIY and cut and paste).

Third is, from the first second, quite obviously a Portishead album. But it is, against all probability, even darker and more urgent than their first two. The first album was a deep blue (almost purple) and the second a heavy gray; Third is just out-and-out black. And not the black of violence, incoherence or apathy; rather, it’s pulsating with feeling and a seemingly unquenchable anxiety. It is a naked nerve of an album, an album that sounds nervous without making the listener (necessarily) feel nervous. That, when you think about it, is a remarkable accomplishment. We still have the surreal soundtrack vibe, along with the raw and ragged vocals, but undercut with a confident, purposeful groove. That Portishead was able to tap into the considerably nuanced sound and feeling they invented/perfected while doubling down to produce an album that somehow reinvents (and re-perfects) that sound, is worthy of major kudos. Fortunately, their audience was waiting for them, and the critics recognized a masterpiece when they heard it. At this point, one should only hope Portishead might somehow do it again, but they’ve already given us so much it’s all bonus material from now on.

14. P.J. Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)

Everyone seemed to agree that P.J. Harvey would never be able to duplicate what she achieved on Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love. Who could? Artists who go that far, that indelibly, so early in their career are either compelled to imitate (invariably with little success) that lightning caught in a bottle, or else they are too overwhelmed and flame out. It’s a rock cliche and it has ensnared way too many musicians. Fortunately, there are the ones who are either sufficiently adjusted, confident or restless to live in the past or become paralyzed by the future. P.J. Harvey kicked off the decade with an album that sounded unlike anything she had done, and it was a refreshing, vigorous change of pace. Appropriately, her time in NYC inspired some of the material and it bristles with the frenzied energy of the Big Apple.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate call to arms (literally) to kick off Y2K than “Big Exit”, where Harvey declares “But I want a pistol in my hand/I want to go to a different land”, and my God does she sound almost unbearably sexy as she sings it. In fact, Harvey is in full vixen mode throughout these proceedings, and I’m pretty certain one need not be a smitten boy to fall under her spell. Check out the video for “Good Fortune”: Good Lord! (When she swings her purse at the 1.24 mark? I would jump out in front of one of those buses, and in that moment I’m reasonably certain I could walk through any of them.) She is the complete package, my friends. And it demonstrates something many folks never thought they’d see: P.J. Harvey sounding happy. Not to worry, that giddiness does not infuse all the songs, but it is pervasive throughout, in very satisfactory fashion.

Of course, there are the more sombre and reflective numbers, like “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore” (a kind of pre-epitaph for the decade) and the magnificent duet with Thom Yorke, “This Mess We’re In”. Then there are the straightahead white knuckle workouts like “Kamikaze” and “This Is Love”. In the end it all adds up to an a P.J. Harvey album that is unlike anything she has done before or since, and in many ways an album that stands above her own work and everyone else’s.

P.J. Harvy is a goddess, and that’s all there is to it.

13. Little Axe, Hard Grind (2002)


Of the albums I would most urgently recommend from this list, Hard Grind is near the top, in part because I suspect so few people have heard of Little Axe (guitarist Skip McDonald) or would ever be inclined to pick up one of his albums. And I could talk about his pedigree as a “musician’s musician”, or how his playing has been associated with some of the more significant (if unheralded) moments in 20th Century music: Sugarhill Records (for whom he was in the house band, playing on Grandmaster Flash’s epochal “The Message“), On-U Sound, the band Tackhead. In other words, the underground where so many of the strange and interesting things occur.

Bottom line: history and import aside, I’d encourage anyone to pick up Hard Grind simply because it is a significant, satisfying album. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more depthful (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time. As anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

A few years ago, when reviewing the reissue of African Head Charge’s seminal Off The Beaten Track (1986), I attempted to put some perspective on the whole “found-sound sampling” phenomenon:

Today, for instance, it’s not only unsurprising, but inevitable to hear pop-culture samplings and multimedia sound bites spliced into songs. The apotheosis of this formula—at least in commercial terms—was Moby’s fin de siecle mega-smash Play. Before that, a host of deconstructionist whiz kids, led by DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow (and myriad well-intentioned acolytes with varying degrees of skill and diminishing returns), succeeded in making cerebral, hip-shaking electronic music. But in the halcyon days, the world in world music was created by real instruments in real time, and any honest producer would acknowledge that virtually all roads lead directly back to Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Put another way, folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. Hey, it worked for a lot of people (and full disclosure, I never did hate the playa, or Play for that matter). The point is, as is so often the case, genre-smashing innovation that may not be ready for mainstream appeal often breaks through, years later, in remunerative fashion. That’s the way it works in all art forms. What is unfortunate is that unenlightened critics (and fans) credit the bandwagon jumpers with the advancements. So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut lamented half a century ago.

Anyway, give this one a shot: it might just free your mind (and your ass can follow). And that in turn might turn you on to African Head Charge, Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound, for starters. And you’ll just have to take my word for it, these are all very good things.

*It kind of kills me that the only video I could find on YouTube from this album is the (excellent) “Down in the Valley”, not because this isn’t an adequate representation of what Hard Grind sounds like (indeed, it’s one of the more accessible tunes), but because I would love to introduce anyone to “Blues Story II”, “Seek The Truth” or especially “Run Here Boy”–the latter one of the songs that truly rocked my world (in multiple senses of the expression) this past decade. The only silver lining is that perhaps this review will inspire some people to take a chance and learn more about blues, rock, dirty authenticity and, inexorably, themselves, by making Hard Grind a part of their lives.

12. Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise (2005)

Huh? That was the first response many people (like yours truly) had when the word began spreading that Illinoise, Sufjan Stevens’ second “state” album (following his first, the excellent Michigan, an appropriate homage to his home state) was part of ongoing mission to dedicate an individual album to each of the fifty states. The audacity! The chutzpah! The…genius! However this was meant to turn out, you had to tip your hat to the young man for staking his claim and shooting for the stars.

Five years and no proper follow-ups, the already unlikely proposition that he could pull it off seems even less feasible, but frankly, if the project ends with only two states covered, he did them proud. Illinoise has to be considered, hands down, the most ambitious album of the decade. Whether or not this album will age well only time can determine, but more than a handful of folks declared this one an instant classic. It is, to be certain, a classic of sorts. And whether or not it’s an actual masterpiece is entirely irrelevant (the type of thing only the most pointy-headed of critics and the types of dorks who make lists of the decade’s best albums concern themselves with); what is important is that Stevens set the bar ludicrously, almost impossibly, high and pulled it off. He manages to work almost every bit of relevant history alongside the most trivial minutiae, all in the service of songs that could be sung around a campfire.

To be certain, the choral, cascading song structures are deceptively buoyant; the strings and Stevens’ own voice are so gentle and pleasant it’s unnerving to consider some of the source material. For instance, one of the album’s signal achievements, an examination of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. It sounds like an obscure (but plaintive) Simon and Garfunkel cover, until you catch the lyrics and realize Stevens is entering some dark and dangerous territory. That this softspoken (and obviously sensitive) singer/songwriter –who looks and sounds like a choir boy– acquits himself taking on tough topics, and putting a mini-encyclopedia of state history into a toe-tapping song cycle, is humbling. It’s also a considerable victory for truly independent and visionary songwriting; a welcome reminder that a gentle but honest voice occasionally carries above the noise of the machine.

11. The Breeders, Mountain Battles (2008)

If Kim Deal was a dude she’d be considered one of the baddest MFers on the planet. She might actually get the props for being one of the better songwriters of her generation, and credited for some of the advancements she made for progressive rock. In other words, she’d be Frank Black. Just kidding, sort of. Bottom line: Deal has done enough with The Breeders to be able to say she has been an integral part of two of the best bands of the last 20-odd years. And, in the final analysis, she’ll just have to settle for being known as Kim Deal, the most under-rated, but beloved musicians on the scene.

Let me not mince words: this is very close to being a masterpiece and I can’t recommend it more enthusiastically.

Did you sleep on Mountain Battles? A lot of people did. And what’s crazy is that it is a totally accessible, user-friendly (yet utterly uncompromised) and enervating experience. I was lucky enough to see them play this excellent material live and the concert was (I want to choose my word carefully but there is no other option here) a revelation. There was an overflow of joy, purpose and love on that stage. Love of the material, love of playing it, love of the audience, love of self. It was a triumphant occasion. Yet very few people seemed to be have been swept off their feet (perhaps they were too busy gazing at the soles), if they even bothered to pick up (or, um, download) this bad boy.

Twin sister Kelley belts out a gorgeous (tongue only slightly in cheek) tune, in Spanish, while Kim counters with “German Studies”, sung in German (!) Novelty aside, there are straightahead scorchers like “Bang On” and “Walk It Off”. And not to worry, there are several songs (indescribably cool, indescribable period) that only The Breeders could make, like “Spark”, “Overglazed” and especially “Night of Joy”. But the crowning achievement on this set is the spectacular “We’re Gonna Rise” (see below): this is what it’s all about, a song that manages to capture everything that is so special about Deal, and her band.

People will always (understandably) point to The Pixies, but anyone who remembers 1989 understands that the monkey who ended up in heaven is listening to The Breeders.

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2000-2009: Let’s Break It Down


Facebook friends, Bloggers, Strangers, lend me your ears; I come to bury the last decade, not to praise it.

Actually, I do want to praise it, but I first must contend with almost every other critic, pundit and poser who decrees this past decade –the Aughts, or better yet, the Aught-Nots– dead on departure. That is entirely too pessimistic, and evinces a hysteria all-too-typical of our age of instant insight. Nevertheless, I would not argue that the Aughts ought to have been a bit kinder on our hearts, wallets and souls. In other words, the last ten years were a lot like the decade that preceded them, and so on and so on.

But before we set this Viking ship ablaze and steer it toward Valhalla, let’s consider how much astonishing (and occasionally miraculous) art got made these last 120 months. In fact, without this generous bit of genius, contemplate how truly unsettling it all could have been. And before I put my cards on the table, I’d admonish anyone who is interested that this is intended as an interactive endeavor. I’m counting on feedback, debate, and even disbelief at how blind I was to omit (insert name of album or movie). And some of you (you know who you are) I hope will set me straight wherever I strayed. But be forewarned, I feel OK about the way the lists turned out. Of course, there’s no point in putting it out there if you can’t discuss and defend the choices that ultimately made the final cut, right?

Enough. It’s been over a month since I threatened to bring it, so consider it brung. The list will begin (and end) 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.

Spooks, “Things I’ve Seen” (2000):

 

PJ Harvey, “Big Exit” (2000):

 

Erykah Badu, “Didn’t Cha Know” (2000):

Fantomas, “Theme from ‘The Godfather'” (2001):

Oysterhead, “Shadow Of A Man” (2001):

The Roots, “The Seed 2.0” (2002):

Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells” (2002):

DJ Shadow, “Fixed Income” (2002):

TV On The Radio, “Staring At The Sun” (2003):

The White Stripes “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (2003):

OutKast, “Hey Ya!” (2003):

Tom Waits, “Hoist That Rag” (2004):

The Fiery Furnaces, “Straight Street” (2004):

The Black Keys, “The Lengths” (2004):

To Be Cont’d…

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