Thursday, December 31, 2009

My 10 Favorite Records of 2000-2009

Here it is! The TOP 10!!!

10. Sigur Rós
Ágætis Byrjun
Fat Cat, 2000

Sigur Rós' stateside debut was such a tip of the scale on what we once knew to be pop music: English language, 120-150 BPM, intelligible vocals, usually highly emasculated or effeminated, driving drums, funky bass. None of that is to be found on Ágætis Byrjun. Nothing here is familiar, and yet, there's hardly a record out there so full of the things we all know and love so well: life, exuberance, depth, emotion, nature, anguish, drama, defeat, victory, charisma, etc... And perhaps this is the reason Sigur Rós has been so wildly successful over the past ten years. This album managed to re-write the rules of pop without sacrificing its honest self - it is a music specifically not being pop music and it turned out to be one of the decade's true saving graces, opening the door to such a vast range of amazing music that managed to make the rounds despite not being the fruit of the dying major label system's precious loins. And even though the band is from Iceland, this isn't even a part of the "world-pop" forum. No. This is universe-pop. Bless you, Sigur Rós.

9. Daft Punk
Virgin, 2000

I wanted to hate Daft Punk. Discovery was my first exposure to the French pop super-star duo, and after hearing their singles on the radio over and over and over, I just couldn't stand to listen to "One More Time," one.. more... time... I was so sick of that single song, I forewent any attempt to actually listen to one of their records in full. It wasn't until many years after this album saw release (as well as getting into their epic 90's album, Homework) that I realized what I'd been missing. Sure, these are dumb pop songs, but they're also such ingenius and perfect dumb pop songs. I still think it's entirely possible these tunes were composed, arranged and executed by robots. There's meticulous math, calculated sine waves, and inhumanly flawless performances to be found here (the vocorder break-down in "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger"??.. "OMG" just doesn't even come close...). Most importantly, though, if there's a band out there that can give the cold, metallic, mechanical heart of artificiality true, honest-to-God human emotions, it's Daft Punk, and they've done it here.

8. Tortoise
Thrill Jockey, 2001

Standards is so many things. It's hard, it's soft, it's chewy, it's sweet, it's sour, it's spicy, it's hot, it's cold, it's bouncy, it hurts, it's heavy as a brick, it's light as a feather, it loves, it hates, it glows, it rocks, it rolls and it swings. It's post-rock, post-jazz, post-metal, post-hip-hop, post-ambient, post-pop, post-everything. And yes, it may be easy to add that "post" prefix onto any one genre and say that indeed, Tortoise is that. But it's also really true, and for this reason alone Tortoise may be the most important band of the last two decades. To this day, there's not another band on the planet that has quite the range of Tortoise, while maintaining such a solidly positioned and focused "sound." All Tortoise records (and songs, for that matter) are completely unique, yet utterly, unmistakably honest and true-to-self. This means that the world has been gifted with a band that can (and I am most certain, will) continue to push the envelope, composing music light-years ahead of its time while remaining grounded in gloriously listenable instrumental music. Bonus points: it has the best opening two minutes of any album in this or any other decade.

7. Sonic Youth
Murray Street
DGC/Interscope, 2002

Unlike Daft Punk, I didn't exactly want to hate Sonic Youth. I just kind of... did. For a long time. That's what happens when you're fresh on the path to musical discovery, stumble upon one of the million-or-so rave reviews of Dirty, buy the record and hear... noise. Well, that's how it happened, and I'm saddened/delighted to say that it wasn't until Murray Street came along and a true friend force-fed this masterpiece down my throat that the tables on the 'Youth were forever thankfully turned. Sonic Youth ended up being one of my very favorite bands of all time, and Murray Street was the key to their wondrous labyrinth of a career. The reason is that this record combines the band's penchant for scathing lyrics sung with a wretchedly awesome punk attitude with a meditatively sweet atmospheric aura all gift-wrapped in a bow of static and feedback that binds together the entire album. Best of all is the addition of Jim O'Rourke, who's brilliant electronic manipulations turned "Karen Revisited," an eight-minute epic that's half rock, half completely ambient, into the band's signature song of the decade.

6. Fennesz
Endless Summer
Mego, 2001

If Kid A signaled the impending death of the guitar in 2000, then Fennesz's Endless Summer, released the very next year, was the instrument's glorious rebirth. The record is stone-proof that an acoustic guitar can be so much more than just an acoustic guitar and it's because of computers, rather than in spite of them. There was (and really, there still very much is) an innate sense of doom surrounding the idea that electronics and computer programming are continually threatening to replace live performances - and with it, that quintessential "human touch" - altogether. With auto-tune, electronic beat making, synthesized orchestral arrangements, etc. dominating popular music of today, this "Terminator" crack-pot, sci-fi nightmare has at least some weight behind it. But this only makes Endless Summer that much more important as ideas like imagination, wonder, longing, and dreams are actually represented with more organicism than much of the 00's entire output. A fascinating, vastly influential, and seminal work from the decade's most consistently rewarding electronic artist.

5. Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Nonesuch, 2002

Post 9/11 life in America was a scary and uncertain place to be. No one seemed to know who or what exactly was after us, we were all just sure we were doomed. Well, nine years later, it doesn't seem like much has actually changed in that regard. We're as frightened as ever of an unknown specter that's haunting our way of life, threatening our economic stability and security. It might not be "terrorism" anymore, but something still feels amiss. If our largest structures can collapse in the blink of an eye, what else are the evils of the world capable of? Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its relentless attachment to American styles (folk, country, blues, jazz, etc...) combined with its escapism and experimentalism captures this uneasiness with a hopeful grace that is simultaneously tragic. Tracks like "Ashes of American Flags" are written in in a tone of humble acceptance, and it's still hard to not shed a tear at the naked beauty of songs like "Jesus, etc."

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is doubly, even triply powerful because of (you guessed it) the supremely gorgeous production work from Jim O'Rourke - the decade's most important musical personality. The record also benefits from simply outstanding percussion work from Glenn Kotche - the decade's best drummer. Ultimately, though, it's the raw honesty of Jeff Tweedy that makes this one unforgettable. There's no doubting that this is one of the decade's true classics; what's hard to say is whether or not this is Americana's swan song. If America is dying, is American music dying with it, or is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the beginning of a magnificent Renaissance? With Fleet Foxes hovering nonchalantly in this album's shadow, perhaps time will tell. What is clear is that Jeff Tweedy and co. at least proved there are moments of that country-twang of lore that are worth hanging on to, however fleeting and obsolete its source country's current state may seem to be.

4. Deerhoof
Apple O’
Kill Rock Stars, 2003

Few bands throughout the decade could make your jaw drop quite as frequently as these guys could. Deerhoof combines lightning fast, tightly-knit dueling guitars, spastic, bombastic drumming - Greg Saunier: the Elvin Jones of indie rock - and those cute, teeny-tiny vocals of singer Satomi Matsuzaki that somehow managed a gigantic personality. This recipe alone is enough to get these guys on a list such as this one (you'll notice that they actually appear twice here along with 2002's excellent Reveille). But Apple O' edges in front of the band's other (amazingly consistent) material in part because of its unique concept - a radical take on the story of Genesis. But the songs themselves are also just incredible. I'll never forget the first time I heard "Flower." I almost died of giddy laughter. "Panda Panda Panda" was a similar experience, but it'd be a mistake to say these guys are great simply because of their inherently spazzy attitude towards the rock style. Deerhoof is also very much about the preservation of pop, and it's this sensibility that keeps me coming back, especially for tracks like "L'Amour Stories," with its weaving time-signatures and beautiful melodies. Deerhoof is a band that showed the world "experimental" doesn't always have to mean keeping the listener at arms length. Apple O' captured Deerhoof's overarching aesthetic, which is that of having a loving, life-long bond with the weird (read: Eve, Garden of Eden) while also having a hot, naked affair with the normal and recognizable (read: Adam's apple, Snake). Genesis flipped on its head? Yeah... kinda.

3. William Basinski
Disintegration Loops
2052, 2003

If you get a chance, take the time, sit down, and watch this video. It's an accompanying film to the first loop of William Basinski's epic masterpiece. Over an hour in length, the video is a still shot of the smoldering ashes of the tragedy on 9/11 at dusk as the sun sets over New York City. It's an unsettling image to watch for that long of a time, but what's most unsettling about it is the fact that it's also quite calming. The smoke from the wreckage of America's greatest economic and architectural achievement billows up into giant, beautiful shapes that are in constant flux - always shifting until night sets, ending finally with lights from neighboring buildings flicking to life.

This beautification and sexualization of death (destruction and decay as life) is a common theme within the gothic attitude and the imagery here mirrors exactly what transpired for Basinski during the making of this music. The composer was digitizing 20 year old loops he'd recorded to tape, and as he was capturing these loops, he realized that his equipment was slowly, gradually breaking down the original magnetic material. The music is being created while simultaneously being destroyed. The fact that it is so long, that the loops are so stationery - hipnotically repeating french horns and strings reinforces this thematic device. Life and death are represented here not as mutually exclusive entities, but as inherently tied, blurred together in sonorous harmonies. A wonderful period-piece for the decade, as sad and heartbreaking as it is uplifting and optimistic, it's the perfect representation of the American attitude of the 2000's: fear, anxiety, dread - it's all here, but there's also hope, life, and liberty as well. On we go.

2. The Avalanches
Since I Left You
Modular Recordings, 2000

Perhaps most significant about the new state of technology - that endless stream of information that is equally endless in its accessibility and portability - is not the fact that we are quicker to switch on to new styles and genres, but that the shared knowledge of our collective past is larger than ever. With this in mind, The Avalanches ushered in the age of the mix-tape with Since I Left You, continuing on where DJ Shadow started with ...Endtroducing and sample-based music by familiarizing the samples used to a greater degree. I think the reason that this album works so well and is so recognizable and accessible is because of what we all know about where this music came from. There's TV show samples, muzak tidbits, pop-hooks from around the world, hints of Western films, snippets of old funk standards and tons more. Even if you haven't heard all of these samples before (my guess is, there's no way anyone has... there's well over 3500 used throughout the album) it still truly feels like you have. It's as if we've all lived through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and Since I Left You is a brief summation of the greatest times in our shared history. The kicker - it's all stirred up, boiled, reduced and simmered down in a big ol' pot of party your ass off. While the record certainly combines a multitude of styles and genres, it's essentially a true mix - swirling all of these ingredients we already love into a hurricane of dance (you can even slow dance to it cheek-to-cheek with your special guy or gal - check the beautiful "Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life"). Simply put, it's the decade's most flawless party mix, and is a 100% guaranteed good time for all.

1. Radiohead
Kid A
Parlophone/Capitol, 2000

You saw this coming. So did I. The 2000's was the first decade of my life where I was an active music fan for the entire ten years, and it all started (and now ends) with this album. Why was this choice so obvious? Why, after ten years does this record still sound as fresh as it did in 2000? Radiohead's fourth album ripped down everything. Everything. It's the record that made me question what I thought I once knew to be music. It's just one of those things - for me there are two kinds of albums: those before Kid A, and those after.

Not exactly guitar-less, but embracing electronics more than any other "rock band" before them, Radiohead followed up on the promise of OK Computer by synthesizing the organic and electronic in a more perfect way than ever before. No matter how many times I've heard it, Kid A continues to surprise me. I always hear something new in each listen, as the music has such an immensely layered depth to it. Electronics dive-bomb from above with frightening abandon. Soft textures pile on top of one another into rolling landscapes. Massive beats tower overhead with a glacially tremendous size. Thom Yorke's babbling liquid vocals slither from ear to ear... I could go on and on...

In all honesty, this is the single hardest write-up I've ever had to do. What more can be said about this album, anyway? It's nearly impossible to describe why it means so much to me and so many fans out there. There are a million reasons I chose this record as my number one. But the main reason? The intro to "Everything In Its Right Place," still sends shivers down my spine. What's yours?

Thanks for reading my list! Here's to another decade of amazing music!


p.s. A huge thank you to Ryan Hall for letting me be a part of his amazing blog and for allowing me to share this list with his readers. I've learned more from him in the past year than I have in an entire decade of being a music fan.


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