Monday, May 31, 2010

Top 10 Albums of the Year 2003

This is where things start to get really fun for me. 2003 was the transitional year in my musical listening. Branching out, discovering the blogosphere and all the different indie review websites, and the first year that I made my since annual end of the year list. Back then it was 40, now it's 50. I don't have a copy of that entire list but I know a printed out copy is somewhere in my bedroom back at my mother's home. Anyway, from here on out I'll include where an album was ranked on each year's given list when I wrote them for comparison. (I don't have a copy of the 2003 list, so I'm doing my best guess at rememering). Interesting to track taste/preferences that way and all and what eventually became important on unimportant to me. So...2003:

10. Ellen Allien - Berlinette
(BPitch Control)
Rank in 2003: 29?

When I first started listening to this album back in 2003, I believe that I wrote something along the lines of it being the best purely electronic album I'd had the pleasure of hearing up to that point. Of course, that statement didn't really have any validity - but recalling the effect the production of "Berlinette" had on me back then is quite astounding. Before I was versed in almost any electronic music, I somehow took a chance on this one. The bounciness of the tracks, the complacement vocals and the plethora of interesting glitches that added to the melody, rather than took away, really allowed me to immerse myself in the beats. At the time, I didn't realize there was other music that sounded similar to this, I thought that Ellen Allien was in a world her own. Now that I know she's not and that I've heard many records that have similar aesthetics to this has almost stricken itself irrelevant. The fact remains for that "Berlinette" will remain one of the most engaging and best "IDM" records for quite some time, blurring the lines between dance music and head music and occupying a place at the top of my preferences.

9. M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
Rank in 2003: 12

At various points since the release of this album, I have been ready to surrender myself to its noise and consider it the very best album of the decade. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Back in the days of AOL Instant Messenger, I think I had an profile status/info that said something like "If the insides of my body were capable of music, they would sound an awful lot like M83." How I ever got the idea of my body being able to create harsh keyboard and feedback sounds is lost on me now, but I do remember wanting to be able to literally consume this album. To open my mouth, take it in and see what it would do. It's dense, terribly dense and while that was what got me to love this album in the first place, it has sense had an opposite effect on me. I like it a lot, and I like it a lot more than their subsequent releases, but it doesn't have the emotional weight I thought it once had. Loud sounds are delayed keyboard and organ sounds still sound wonderful to me - but there needs to be a little more. Still, for a pure sonic experience, few albums match M83's breakthrough.

8. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Rank in 2003: 7

One day I'm going to have to go back and really examine the Belle & Sebastian discography. I can understand the people who obsess over "If You're Feeling Sinister" and "Tigermilk" so much to call those albums some of their favorites ever, I just don't share the sentiment. I've listened to those albums a handful of times, "The Boy With The Arab Strap" less, "Fold Your Hands..." a couple times and have never listened to "Storytelling". If not for the "Books EP" which stems from his album, I've listened to "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" more than any other Belle & Sebastian album and can honestly say that it's my favorite. Sometimes you just want to hear good pop music, stuff you can sing along to, have fun to, forget about and just enjoy. Clever, wistful, it's everything Belle & Sebastian do better than just about everybody, but bumped up a few notches (they went further with their followup) and made a little more experimental, a little louder. It honestly rocks during a few songs. Anyway, like this album a lot. Don't love it like I once did, but it's still a great springtime album.

7. The Black Keys - thickfreakness
(Fat Possum)
Rank in 2003: 19

At this point in their career, I have to consider "thickfreakness" the apex of The Black Keys version of rock n roll. Taking just guitar and drums, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney shred their way through fuzz-induced blues music. Dan's guitar sound on this record is one of my favorite of the entire decade (and when I saw it live way back when, it blew my mind), Patrick Carney makes the most of his position at the drums and rather than just accompanying the guitar - he battles it. The album is 11 tracks of straightforward blues rock, memorable chorus and verses, memorable riffs. The soundtrack to your summer, every summer. Few albums have harkened back to an older rock n roll sound quite as well as "thickfreakness" and while since this album has been released, the band has basically released one great album after another - this remains the most fun, the most traditional, and the most memorable. One of the best pure rock albums of the entire 00's.

6. Jay-Z - The Black Album
Rank in 2003: 1

Remember when Jay-Z retired? "Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black!" he told us. His retirement lasted for what - a year and a half? And then he came back and became an even bigger superstar than he was now. The king of hip hop, pop, everything. "The Black Album" would've been a great sendoff, then again "American Gangster" would've been a great comeback (we can try to forget about "Kingdom Come"). The fact about "The Black Album" is that about 2/3 of the album are among the very best hip hop of the entire decade, including two singles which have become common use phrases (even if they were jacked from other sources). "PSA" might very well be Jay's single best track (much of the credit due to Just Blaze's production of course), but the other 1/3 or whatever is just throwaway, again much of it due to the production. You decide what they are, I shouldn't need to tell you. Anyway this album is placed near the top of Jay's output, either 3rd of 4th. Solid album, solid fake send off, but not quite an all-time classic.

5. Jaylib - Champion Sound
(Stones Throw)
Rank in 2003: N/A

The result of two of hip hop's best producers at the peak of their individual powers, teaming up, choosing and then rapping over each other's beats in an effort to make one of the most bass heavy, most blunted, hardest hitting and best hip hop albums of the past decade. The focus here is on the beats, as would be expected, but Dilla and Madlib both give their fair share of decent verses, they just take some time to get used to. Dilla is a more traditional rapper, sounds a bit like a hype man. To the unititiated, Madlib can sound distracted, rambling one liners off his head while his attention is elsewhere. Apt description, but he can come up with lots of clever quips within his rhymes. The guest spots are ok, none are anything to write home about - but the beats are some of the best that either producer has put forth. Dilla at his most abstract (this is pre-Donuts days), Madlib beats that sample eastern music, african music, and everything else that the loop digga can get his hands on. It's a car record, as the cover indicates, one of the very best.

4. Four Tet - Rounds
Rank in 2003: N/A

"Rounds" is one of those albums that strips away all that was required to make it: studio trickery, electronic programs, samples, the lifeless medium of the computer and somehow reveals an intimate album, organic in sound, full of life and character. Keiran Hebden's releases prior to "Rounds" were good, but failed to deliver on the promise of the cohesive sound he was searching for. On "Rounds" Hebden manages to find that sound and the result is one of my personal favorite electronic records. The ultimate riding the subway album, cleaning the house, lounging on a weekend afternoon. It's not invigorating music, but it is not glorified wallpaper either. The tracks breathe, speak, but they reveal themselves much in the way the classic Satie tracks do. Stark minimalism, but never boring. It is an album to feel comfortable listening to, one that should cure any alienation out of a room. It is an album to grow with and album to grow on you. Over the past half decade, I've listened to this album dozens of times and yet, I've never enjoyed it more than I do now.

3. Eluvium - Lambent Material
(Temporary Residence)
Rank in 2003: N/A

The primary reason that "Lambent Material" is the most listened to album in my itunes is for its sleep inducing quality. 5 tracks, 4 of a certain delicacy and beauty that only Matthew Robert Cooper and one long, fairly harsh drone. For years now, this Eluvium release has been my go-to ambient album. Study music, sleep music, early morning waking up music. Eluvium succeeds as an ambient artist (and no I don't like the new stuff he is doing) because of the different emotions that his compositions can conjure up. His work most readily identifies with the late night comedown - but it works in so many other ways too. I can listen to "Under The Water It Glowed" on infinite loop and consider it my heartbeat, for sure one of my favorite ambient compositions. This collection of work is a masterpiece and while "Zerthis..." definitely breaks up the gentle mood with its long and harsh sound, there is still beauty found within it. It is my belief that Eluvium succeeds as an effective ambient musician because he is a true musician. He's not just twiddling knobs and distorting guitar and piano, he has a true vision and know how of composition and how to structure a piece of music. Striking and beautiful, "Lambent Material" will go down as one of my very favorite ambient recordings.

2. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Master And Everyone
(Drag City)
Rank in 2003: 40

For an artist I feel can basically do no wrong, it means something for me to claim a particular work as a favorite. For Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy aka the artist I'm most likely to identify simply as "the best" - choosing a favorite is quite easy: "Master and Everyone", his quiet, stark and expertly produced release from 2003. This was the first album I ever listened to, after reading an interview and profile on him in some magazine (I want to say it was Paste - but it wasn't). The article talked about the emotional context of many of his songs, about the success of his 1999 release "I See A Darkness" and the part that really got me was the talka bout production for "Master and Everyone" where Will talked about how, while the album has a very minimal sound - often just him and guitar, the way that it is recorded is such that microphones are picking up everything around the room. Listen closely and you might hear his foot gently tapping along, empty airspace adding ambience and weight to the songs. To me, this is as close to a perfect folk record as one can get. Placing this record as my second favorite record of 2003 is a difficult task, as the top 2 records of this year are likely my very favorite of the entire decade of their release. "Master And Everyone" is an underappreciated masterpiece, a dark, haunting but still lovely record.

1. The Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic
Rank in 2003: N/A

Losing 3/4 of The Exploding Hearts in that tragic car crash in 2004 is one of the most disheartening music stories of its era. Losing a band that had released one album to their name and had yet to gain the recognition they were sure to receive. The fact that they still don't have that recognition is baffling because "Guitar Romantic" - the only true studio release from this young Portland band is not only the best record of 2003, it is likely the best record of the entire 00's, as well as one of the best pure power pop/punk records ever released. I'll say it. The Exploding Hearts were able to combine the sound of The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Cheap Trick and all the other great pop-based punk bands of the late 70s and then harken back to singalong choruses of the 50s and still keep their sound modern enough to be unmistakably a 00's release. One of the all-time best records to sing along to, to party to, to drive to. There are few records in my collection that are as much fun as "Guitar Romantic" in all its thrashing noise, immature lyricism and incessant beat. A perfect record.

Bonus Comparison for Laughs: Top 10 Albums of 2003 in 2003:
1. Jay-Z - The Black Album
2. Outkast - Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
3. Sufjan Stevens - Michigan
4. Josh Martinez - Buck Up Princess
5. Ben Harper - Diamonds on the Inside
6. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
7. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
8. Why? - Oaklandazulasylum
9. Youngblood Brass Band - Center:Level:Roar
10. Hymie's Basement - S/T


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Top 10 Albums of the Year 2002

The weirdest thing about this list is that looking at it right now, the 10 albums I've selected might be the weakest set out of all the years - and there are a whole ton of really great albums from this year that are not even on this list. Whatever, here it is:

10. Badly Drawn Boy - About A Boy OST

Badly Drawn Boy's debut album "The Hour of Bewilderbeast" was a totally fresh example of what the new decade in pop could be. Pleasant enough vocals, fresh, ever-changing music and memorable hooks. It's a good, if not almost great, album - but I've always preferred "About A Boy" more. This might stem from the fact that the movie in which this album soundtracks is one of my favorite "guilty pleasure that I'll watch and enjoy every single time it is on tv" but the reality is that the songs and sequencing that Damon Gough employ through this album make it a fully realized, unique pop-music vision. Featuring both short and long songs that can be both seriously sentimental and fairly silly, "About A Boy" is responsible for leaving songs stuck in my head for days as much as any other album I've known in my life. It's not perfect, but it is great and it's just pleasant enough to never cringe when it's on. Badly Drawn Boy has gone on to release some pretty decent singles since this album, but not much more, his subsequent albums being a mess, unlike the almost too-clean feel of this release. Not essential, but definitely not a bad way to spend a sunny day.

9. Scarface - The Fix
(Def Jam)

The late 90s / early 2000s Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam domination of hip hop was a truly exciting one. The proliferation of and introduction producers Kanye West, Just Blaze, The Neptunes to name a few were pumping out equal amounts of pop hits and new street anthems every week. When Scarface became the head of Def Jam South, teamed up with Roc-A-Fella and released his most polished solo album of his career, "The Fix" the world of rap critics took notice. Considered by many to be one of the certified classics of the decade, including 5 mics from The Source, the album bridges the world of this new east coast "throwback" style production with Face's constantly engaging voice and lyrical themes. Never one to listen to in the background, Scarface is in top form on this album. Rapping about the things he raps about best - the street, some spiritual themes, some depressing themes, hating people, backstabbers, etc - this is a hip hop album to digest. It mixes hard and soft songs and throws in a couple of brilliant singles along the way ("Guess Who's Back" and "My Block" set me off back when they were on the radio). Some songs on the back side start to drag (maybe too many sentimental numbers) but overall its a great hip hop album now, just as it was then.

8. Andrew WK - I Get Wet
Note: Somehow I never noticed this was a 2001 release. I had it tagged as 2002 and have always considered it so. It just never caught my eye that this is 2001, that obviously changes things and would be on that list instead. Oh well, not going to change it now. What would get substituted in? Probably "Fantastic Damage"

I've never really been paid to dj. I've done it here and there for parties or get togethers and I threw a ton of different dance parties at the youth camp I worked at, but I'm not a real dj. Regardless of that, there is one song that has ended almost every set I've ever done: "Party Hard" by Andrew WK. The ultimate teenage (or fratboy) anthem, overly loud production, an instantly catchy theme you can get behind and just a song in which you are bound to get a terrible case of rock neck with. Play it for kids who don't have much of a concept of what is danceable other than the music they know - and they still go nuts for it. "I Get Wet" and Andrew WK in general divide a lot of people. It's mindless rock, dance, party music. It's probably the single most fun album I've ever known and whether or not the whole thing is contrived, it's irrelevant. The point is that for 35 minutes you can be lost in non-stop party climax after party climax, soaring chorus after soaring chorus. An album to celebrate to. Lose your inhibitions, your taste, and just rock out people. It's of the utmost importance.

7. Boards Of Canada - Geogaddi

We could scour the internet and find reviews long enough to be essays about the brilliance of Boards of Canada and "Geogaddi". The way it transports the listener to far away places in their mind but gives them feelings which are vaguely familiar. It's music that brings up memories - yet somehow leaves you feeling cold. The reviews will say it flows perfectly, that the melodies and the synth lines and samples are placed with just enough space and thought that it is hard to believe this work of art was actually recorded and put to tape by human beings. It's music to take into your soul, live with a while and then baptize the world in its glory. And no doubt, "Geogaddi" is great. It does many of these things and reviews will tell you about these things more eloquently than I, but this isn't an all-time classic the same way "Music Has The Right To Children" is. And for what it's worth, I can't separate the albums and look at them on their own terms. That album is perfect, this album is very good. VERY good.

6. N*E*R*D - In Search Of...

In 2002, Pharrell could fart on a record and it would become a hit. Dude was on top of the world and with good reason. No one had injected so much creativity into pop music in many years and although the Neptunes sound eventually became oversaturated and boring (only to be taken over again by Timbaland who is coincidentally at an all-time low), I can still listen to some of those classic songs (I mean c'mon they made Britney Spears dope) and enjoy them a lot. When Pharrell and Chad teamed up with their buddy Shay for NERD, they released an album different from everything else they were doing. The UK release of this album is just beats and little guitars - the US release though is a whole different story. Punk-Funk-Rap-Soul workouts. The album is best played loud and even though the party tracks like "Lapdance", "Brain", and "Rock Star" are fun as hell, the album really shines on the subdued tracks where Pharrell's awkward voice actually works. Bunch of great pop songs. I still enjoy the Neptunes and Pharrell but this is definitely the high point that isn't Clipse related. (Side note: Like a week after this album came out, for state writing tests in high school I listened to "Bobby James" over and over and interwove that song with some writing prompt I turned into an end-of-the-world story and got really good scores. Thanks Pharrell.)

5. The Notwist - Neon Golden

Along with Dismemberment Plan, Ted Leo and Belle & Sebastian, The Notwist was one of the first "indie" bands that I really "got into". "Neon Golden" is a huge reason why. It was the first album I'd heard up to that point to mix indie pop and electronic sounds in such a pleasant sounding way. Markus Archer's restrained, sad, fey voice really stood out from the unique music that was backing him and I loved it. "One Step Inside..." slayed me the first time I heard it, "One With The Freaks" was my favorite song for about a year, but it's "Consequence" that still kills me now. Maybe it sounds contrived, wussy, whatever. For one album The Notwist perfectly blended "sad bastard" indie music with pleasant sounding electronic beats and other live instruments and put out a great recording. I find it hard that anyone can actively dislike this. I can understand it I suppose, but it is just so pleasant, so reaffirming and inoffensive that I just imagine it takes some work to dislike it. The whole Morr Music sound hasn't put out anything better, either.

4. Beck - Sea Change

Growing up, I always liked Beck. His singles were fun, his videos were funny, he seemed like the kind of dude I would want to hang out with. All this said, I never cared about a Beck album until "Sea Change". Looking back on that idea, I still don't really care about any Beck albums BUT "Sea Change". Creating THE definitive break-up album of my generation by channeling his emotional turmoil into a concentrated sound, rather than careening experimentalism, 2002 allowed for Beck to create the spiritual successor to "Blood On The Tracks" and "Shoot Out The Lights". Sad, somber, beautifully produced by Beck and Nigel Godrich, this album got me through many nights as an overly-analytical teenager. Listening now I just hear an artist at the peak of his powers, proof positive that musical genius doesn't have to come from non-stop forward thinking and taking pop music to places where it hasn't been, but real musical genius can often come down to doing something others have done - just doing it better. One of the ultimate late-night albums.

3. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights

It's hard to believe now that I was at one point in the small group of people who claimed fervently that "Antics" was the better Interpol album. More hooks, louder bass, a bit more upbeat. This is what I wanted - a dark album that didn't sound out of place when the sun was out. What a moron. "Antics" is still a good album, but it doesn't really hold a candle to "Turn on the Bright Lights" which happens to be the best album that sounds the way it sounds of the past decade. What I mean is without trying to mention a certain band that Ian Curtis fronted, that Interpol is (well was) a very good bad. Insanely tight musicianship, intensely dark and depressing lyrics and a competent, pretty vocalist. When they popped up on the NY scene back in 2002 and the forefront of the "good music" scene as the compliment to The Strokes, it was a good time. This album is expertly produced, expertly executed - I just don't really listen to it that much and my love for it is relatively recent considering it's release date. Another band we'll never see reach the heighth of their debut again, which for Interpol is really high.

Note: The next two albums basically flip flop back and forth. One is probably the most important albums in my maturation process as a music listener, the other is one that has maintained it's grip on me since I first heard it 8 years ago - it's only now that I realize it might very well be the best album of the 2002.

2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

No album was of greater importance in my musical maturation than "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". Experimental, sonically-inventive music rooted in alt. country and Starbucks-branded soft rock. We could talk about the the history of this album's release, but there is a great documentary you've probably already seen or own that tells the story way better. The fact remains that Wilco became a real force with this album. It's hard to deny how great the production, the singing, the songs are on this album but right now to my ears it doesn't excite me like it once did. It could be because after hundreds of listens over the years, knowing all the words and instrumental parts, the album might just be played out for me. More than likely it's because at this current stage I want something more. I want Wilco (who are still a great band) to go back to sounding like this but then...turn it up. Whatever, historically this will go down as one of the most important albums I'll have known in my life. PS. One good thing about this record is that it is one of those records where your favorite song on it changes constantly. That says something about great songwriting.

1. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People
(Arts & Crafts)

I'll go ahead and say that "You Forgot It In People" might have one of my favorite first halves of any record I've heard, ever. The melancholy intro fading into the anthemic, heart-and-fist pumping "KC Accidental" into a song that is somehow experimental indie rock yet funky enough to work as a dance song with "Stars And Stripes" to a track that goes all over the place and features some of Leslie Feist's best vocals in "Almost Crimes" back to cool down on "Look Just Likes the Sun" just kills me everytime. I love the back half too, but these 5 tracks usually warrant a repeat before I then get to the back half. And then that back half has some classic cuts too. The creepy, sad, "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" is probably the song most closely associated with BSS and etc etc. This just a seriously great, exciting album that takes a million different influences, musicians and ideas and throws them at the wall where they some how coalesce and form a coherent sound that alternates between messy and clean, riveting and calming. Oh and then the album closes with the beautiful "Pitter Patter Goes My Heart" which Itunes tells me I've listened to approximately 4 billion times more than any other song I have. Every listen is exciting, the way a great album should be.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Top 10 Albums of the Year 2001

We can continue now. 2001 was a decent year. For many people that I've talked to, they consider it one of the best of the entire decade. Looking at my list - I don't readily agree. But a favorite is a favorite and some of the albums in this top 10 were huge obsessions of mine back in those days.

10. Maxwell - Now

I always found it somewhat baffling that Maxwell didn't receive the critical praise of a D'Angelo. Commercially, he had some big hits - but even so, in a more remote "slow-jam only" crowd. The fact remains in 2010 that every Maxwell release has been excellent. Laced with solid soul and funk production and his super smooth vocals laid on top. Sex jams? Sure. In the vein of the slower Prince songs, latter day Marvin Gaye, and the sound that most neo-soul practitioners try to cop. "Now" feature "Lifetime" the song that I most asssociate with Maxwell, it also has the Kate Bush cover that made some waves. It's not mindblowing and the record doesn't reveal anything new about this genre of music or the artist in question - but it's still good. It's still enjoyable and I've still listened to it a lot since it's release.

9. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Ease Down The Road

Most people know that I can boil both my favorite modern songwriter and musician down to one person: Will Oldham. Following his true breakthrough "I See A Darkness" with "Ease Down The Road" Oldham went even more direct. Not entirely as dark, but maybe a little more sparse. Songs dealing with love (yes I can tell you that "May It Always Be" is a special song for me and my girlfriend), silly songs, sad songs. Oldham's voice and minimal instrumentation throughout. It's not my favorite release of his, but it's one of the easiest to listen to. Ultimately, it's a calming release, it just happens to have some great songwriting along the way.

8. Kylie Minogue - Fever

Kylie Minogue's re-emergence and conquering of the American charts in 2001, more than a decade after putting out some successful, cheesy pop singles overseas is one of best stories of the early part of the decade. Teamed up with true dance music producers and reaping the benefit of promotion from Madonna, Minogue stole the chart with "Can't Get You Out of My Head" the song with the "na-na-na's" that were impossible to escape for years. I hated that song. I like it now, but hated it then. The rest of the album though is some of the best produced pop music of the decade and some of the best dance-oriented pop music ever produced. "Love at First Sight" has to be one of the best singles of the entire decade. The rest of the album is just an example of pop music done right. Terribly catchy, immaculate production and just a lot of fucking fun. Is it embarassing to be a Kylie Minogue fan as an adult male? Not if the music is this good.

7. Fennesz - Endless Summer

There are times when I think that "Endless Summer" might very well be the best album of 2001 and one of the most important and relevant albums of the entire decades. There are other times when I don't understand why I am so fascinated with this record. A glitchy, ambient, obscene and serene take on sun, seen through the eyes of the inimitable Christian Fennesz. I don't hate this record ever, don't get me wrong, but I don't always love it. It's a "when the mood is right" type of record for me. It almost always sounds pretty (though the harsh glitches on "Shisheido" and "Before I Leave" wake me from my daydream), but about one out of every 4 listens reveals a record that stands on its own, with few sounding like it. The mixture of guitars, fuzz, and samples just hits the right emotions. One of the very few ambient that does indeed work on a sunny day. Keep it around, listen to it every now and then, you'll become obsessed eventually.

6. Daft Punk - Discovery

The definitive party album for the new decade. Daft Punk expanded their already amazing house music to other planets for "Discovery". Whether or not you have this album, whether or not you're a fan of Daft Punk - it is nearly impossible to have not heard most of the tracks on this album. It's even weird for me to think that most of these songs are only about 9 years old at this point. This is soundtrack to your life type music, or someone's life anyway. The samples are amazing, the tracks are blazing, this is the ultimate pop music. For me, "Discovery" basically made creating a playlist for a party unnecessary. Every track is an anthem, the fast and the slow. It's not as though it's my favorite album ever, but it will always be one of the most memorable. Every reasonable person should have this be an obsession at some point in their life.

5. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - The Tyranny Of Distance

Ted Leo is one of those musicians you just want to root for. Non-pretentious, infinitely talented, clearly a big fan of music and he just seems like an incredibly nice guy. These were some of the reasons why I obsessed over Ted Leo so heavily in 2001-2004. I think I saw him perform 4 or 5 times during this time period and every time was an incredibly fun concert. Ted Leo writes catchy, witty, sometimes breathtaking songs and never is this more evident than his undeniable "The Tyranny of Distance" Whether he is forming a straight up pop/punk song, something in the vein of Elvis Costello or if he slows it down ("The Gold Finch and Red Oak Tree" has got to be one of my favorite songs ever, really), Ted Leo put out an album of guitar driven, hook-laden indie rock music that was rarely matched by anything else during this decade. It's not simple, but it's not all that complex either. Regardless - you'll remember these songs and you'll want to come back for more.

4. Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein
(Def Jux)

As I've said before, although I was a hip hop fan prior to 2000-2001, I didn't really start to pay attention to many independent releases until this time. Most of this is thanks to a website that used to exist called something like HipHopInfinity, that specialized underground hip hop reviews and often included Real Audio files of a lot of the songs. This is prior to when bitrates mattered, before soulseek had taken off. This was the last time finding hip hop was truly exiting to me. It seemed every day I was finding a new release that whet my appetite for forward thinking hip hop. I'd heard of El-P before as part of Company Flow, but didn't know what he was doing since then, and when I read a review of "The Cold Vein" by some group called Cannibal Ox - this website I deemed better than all others gave it a perfect score. Listening to this album, it's not hard to see why. One of the single most inventive, bizarre sounding hip hop albums I've ever heard - "The Cold Vein" has become THE Def Jux release that matters, surpassing El-P's on albums and other lauded release of the early 00's. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega spit with this nasty, mean, gangster flow. El-P's production is street music from 2035 and the whole mix just sounds rough. It works great, it bumps incredibly hard and it never sounds like a "futuristic" or gimmick-laden album. It sounds like a gangster rap album. Just unlike any other before or since.

3. Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator)

When I'm talking about Gillian Welch, I have a couple big statements to make. First, she is one of those few musicians who has a voice that is utterly timeless. Put Gillian Welch into any decade since the inception of popular American folk music and she would be a star. Haunting, sad, ultimately beautiful. Second, I'll go ahead and say that Gillian Welch (and Dave Rawlings) are the most important thing to happen to folk and country music over the last 20 years. The two have set the bar not only for great songwriting in folk music, but also in production, style, touring schedule, off-stage banter, fanbase, just about anything that is relevant and important to a musician - Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings have done right. They're not superstars and they're not household names. Even to this day, with 4 critically acclaimed albums and countless covers of their songs, Gillian is probably still best known as one of the voices of the sirens in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" But we should get this straight: "Time (The Revelator)" like all other Gillian Welch albums is a masterpiece of what folk music in the modern era should sound like. Harkening to old time music, but never sounding like a throwback. Timeless music, timeless voice, I can think of no other musician more satisfying to have around than Gillian Welch.

2. The Strokes - Is This It?

Masked as a obscure, independent, greasy bunch of New York brats without a car in the world and creating rock n roll because there's nothing else to do,
it took The Strokes a mere 35 minutes to completely rewrite the rock n roll scene and the music being produced. Remember the first time you saw "Last Nite" on MTV? What the hell was this? As a 14/15-year old this was music that was unlike anything else I was listening to at the time and I became instantly hooked. This was what partying was all about. We wanted to BE The Strokes. And not just us, but judging by the hundred of "The" bands that popped up on major labels in the year that followed, The Strokes made an impact on rock music that hadn't been seen since Nivana and hasn't been seen since. Always referred to as a throwback to the 60s mod scene or New York underground, the truth is that "Is This It?" sounds unlike any other album that I've ever heard. Sure the guitars are not terribly fuzzy, the vocals sounds lo-fi (although it's expensive production that gets it to sound like that), but this music could have only come from The Strokes and it could have only come out in 2001. 35 minutes of non-stop pop. You don't listen to this album once and call it good. It's so well sequenced, so fucking catchy that you have to repeat it once, twice, maybe three times before you can finally shake it off. A legendary record and one of the few that deserved all the hype it received.

1. Jay-Z - The Blueprint

For my money, the only hip hop album of the 00's whose classic status cannot be disputed. "The Blueprint" is Jay-Z's finest album (all you "Reasonable Doubt" people can tell me otherwise, I love that one too). "The Blueprint" is the perfect album that matched Jay-Z's pop-rap style with the right beatmakers. Just Blaze, the introduction of Kanye West - this album still blows my mind right now. I can probably recite every word to every song here and I can't pick a favorite. Undeniably the best hip hop album of the decade, one of my favorite of all time. One of those albums where the mood matches the raps, the beats stay at the front and all the songs contained within are just masterpieces in themselves. Perfect.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Top 10 Albums of the Year 2000

Might as well start with the first year of the last decade. This is a great year and as this list will demonstrate, pretty hip hop heavy. In fact, I recently made the proclamation that 2000 was the last good year for hip hop full lengths. Every year following seems to have gotten progressively worse. Debate if you want, but this is a great year for hip hop and many other things as well. Let's start.

Note: I had originally started a while ago writing pretty long reviews of these albums but realized I'd never get any of this list done right now if I did that, so I'm going to do really short ones instead. They are probably better anyway.

10. Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030
(75 Ark)

Probably the best hip hop concept album that I can think of. For my money, this is the peak of both Del and Dan the Automator's work. When I was just entering high school or even back in middle school and first saw the Flash video for "Virus" it blew my mind. The record is still terribly enjoyable, fun, and just well thought out. Nothing really sounds like it.

9. Erykah Badu - Mama's Gun

To me, Erykah Badu is queen of modern soul. From the moment I first saw the music video for "On and On" back in '97 as a young white kid in the suburbs, I realized the music she was putting out was different from the stuff that Brandy and Monica were putting out at the same time, dominating airwaves. "Mama's Gun" isn't quite as anthemic as "Baduizm" nor a forward thinking as her later albums, but as a snap-shot of the neo-soul scene in 2000, it is perfect. Great Dilla production and help from ?uestlove and The Roots - the album just breezes along. Consider it Badu's jazz album.

8. At The Drive-In - Relationship of Command

When all is said and done - "Relationship of Command" has to be considered the apex of the emo sound. Infinitely better than what spurned out as The Mars Volta and Sparta, "Relationship of Command" is ATDI's swan-song. A great blend of nonsensical, unintelligeble yet sing-alongable lyrics, crunchy guitars and enough shrieking to become 13 again with every listen. It's fun, one of my all-time favorite records to listen to when driving alone.

7. Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

If we take the time and attempt to ignore all the bullshit antics that Ryan Adams has given us over the last decade, what remains is the fact that somewhere down there in that dirty, nerdy, egotistical skull of his is a great singer/songwriter. His tenure with his band Whiskeytown showed he was capable of country brilliance, but his crowning achievement to this day is his debut solo record "Heartbreaker." A mixed affair of traditional country rockers, sappy ballads and a bluegrass influenced number or two - "Heartbreaker" was a record that changed ME more than almost any other record on this list. Early in high school, I was obsessed with this outlandish headcase and though that has changed nowadays, I can still listen to those first few solo records of his with much of the same awe I had back then.

6. D'Angelo - Voodoo

Over the past ten years - I'd be hard pressed to think of an album that is more anticipated than D'Angelo's eventual followup to "Voodoo" has been. Every bit of news we get about D'Angelo makes it rounds on the internet - every guest spot on a hip hop album presents good news that maybe, just maybe, he is back in the studio working on something new. We act this way, because at one point in just about everyone's life that has ever heard it - "Voodoo", D'Angelo's 2nd album has made the listener stop in their tracks and say "...whoa." Undeniably oozing sex, (you obviously remember the "How Does it Feel" video), heavy bass - this record is more soulful than many records in the 60s soul canon, yet for whatever reason - it doesn't sit as well with me these days. I find myself enjoying "Brown Sugar" more, maybe because the songs are more pop-oriented, I don't know. But regardless - "Voodoo" is a crazy album, a complete vision of what a soul album can and should be.

5. Common - Like Water For Chocolate

In 2010 we can look at Common as an over saturated cornball. Currently, he's staring alongside Queen Latifah in a romantic comedy about baskeball. Prior to that, he's become some big movie star in various films - been the focal point of Gap commercials and released two terrible albums back to back. But going back to 2000 - when Common released "Like Water For Chocolate", he changed the game. Already a name on in the underground scene for years, this album started his propulsion into stardom. Singles "The Light" and "The 6th Sense" were on MTV regularly, but they were actual hip hop songs. My favorite memory of this record is back in 8th grade, during our last week or so when we had like nothing to do in school and various field trips, I probably listened to this album close to 50 times in the span of a few days, just constantly playing it on my discman. More than Mos Def or Kweli or Del or Heiro or J5, no other act straddling the line between commercial and underground caught my attention and gained my love quite like this one.

4. Gas - Pop
(Mille Plateaux)

One of the first "ambient" albums I had in my collection. I don't remember where or how I heard of this album and what's more - it took me years to even listen to the full thing and revel in how great it is. But it is great. There is nothing else much out there that sounds like it - even music in the often stagnant ambient subgenre of electronic music. Some tracks have a little beatpulse to them, most don't. Most sound like you're being transported through serene waterways or being transformed into dew on the ends of leaf tips. This is an album (much like all of Voigt's work) that takes time to get into, to appreciate. There's more to it than just being "pretty" - it is a dense work, one that will continue to reveal itself to me in many years to come.

3. Outkast - Stankonia
(La Face)

There are times when listening to this record in my car still that I think to myself (or vocalize to my girlfriend) that this might very well be one of the absolute best hip hop albums of all time. It's all over the place and contrary to what other people say, Outkast's masterstroke. All their albums prior to this were great, I won't debate that and for a pure hip hop feeling they might be superior, but artistically it is hard for me to think of any other hip hop album that can touch what "Stankonia" accomplished. The ultimate crossover album of the early 00's, the idea of Outkast being pop stars is ludicrous, but probably the best decision that the masses made in the past 10 years. Great track after great track, funny skits, and somehow this prevailing feeling throughout the entirety of the album that only Outkast can conjure. It's not a concept album and the tracks don't sound the same, yet they are unmistakably songs that could only be created by Andre3000 and Big Boi.

2. Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

I will be eternally grateful for my older brother's taste in hip hop while growing up. He exposed me to a lot of good records (and a lot of terrible ones too), but when it came to stuff from the East Coast - I was listening to Wu-Tang at a young age, made a copy of Ghostface's "Ironman" on a casette in elementary school, had "Ready to Die" on constant play, etc. etc. I still remember when my brother brought home "Supreme Clientele", Ghost's second album and thinking right then just how good it is. Too this day, I rarely ever understand what Ghost is rapping about, but there are few hip hop albums as raw as this one. Produced primarily by a bunch of young, unknown producers - they all come correct, sounding more like RZA than RZA does. Ghost just goes off for an hour, spitting, literally spitting (I swear you can hear his saliva in a lot of his songs), rapping circles around any other rapper out there. Guests come correct, drums come correct, this record is just hard and brings back a lot of memories too. I was a cool kid. Classic record, one the Wu-Tang camp will never top again.

1. Radiohead - Kid A

As if anything else could be considered the best record of 2000. Like most kids trying to transition into the world of indie rock and "good music" I basically started with Radiohead. I liked their singles in the 90s, but when "Kid A" came out during the first real age of filesharing over the internet, everything seemed to be well "in its right place." This is my favorite Radiohead album and more or less the only one that I still listen to with any regularlity. This record still slays me and its place among the top of many other critics and publications lists as the best record of the entire 00's is well-deserved. No other record showcases what this decade was about, what it could be, and no other record can be considered more of a masterpiece. Just about every song is a 5/5.