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.