Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade, Part II: This Section is Non-Operational

Ahoy, and welcome back to the countdown of the decade!  Literally, of course, since I'm sure, technically speaking anyway, there are far better countdowns that have happened this decade.  That VH1 show about the 100 best hard rock bands, for instance, was super cool.  (And for all you music geeks, there is a clue in the title and the picture for this post to a couple of the albums in this part.  Not that you'll have to wait long, but I'm trying to spice it up).

Anyway, let's get on with the next 36% of the list:

20. Tenacious D, Tenacious D (2001)
Yesterday, I said that the Supergrass ranking was the silliest one, but how do you get any sillier than the D?  The only album I'm having a hard time listening to while I write because the lyrics and skits are still hilarious, Tenacious D was something I came upon almost by accident.  I'd never seen their HBO show, so I had no idea how great Jack Black and Kyle Gass really were, but one day MTV showed the video for "Wonderboy," and when the first lines were "High above the mucky-muck" I knew I was onto something here.  I quickly went and picked it up and found that not only was it funny, but musically impressive.  The conceit of the show had been that they played metal with just two acoustic guitars, but for the record they enlisted a full band behind the acoustics, including Dave Grohl on drums for several songs, and what resulted was a comedy album that was almost better as straight music.  With lyrics ranging from fucking her gently to killing yaks with mind bullets to an absurd revolution against city hall, the comedic aspect was no slouch either, and Black proved to be a surprisingly awesome singer.  And when they retire former Ozzy Osbourne replacement Ronnie James Dio, asking only that he pass on his secrets, cape and sceptre, they actually sound like they deserve it.  No other album has ever inspired me to sing it front to back, karaoke style, at a New Years party, which has to count for something.  Tenacious D is unquestionably the greatest acoustic metal/sketch comedy record of all time--a prestigious honor, to be sure.

19. System of a Down, Toxicity (2001)
Speaking of metal, it's time for a different brand of wacky/heavy music.  System of a Down showed up with their eponymous debut in 1998, and there are some legitimately great songs on there, but they really stepped it up with this sophomore effort.  Right from the beginning there were two things that defined SOAD: their aggressive social commentary, and their almost vaudeville approach to metal.  Lead singer Serj Tankian would range from screaming to singing, high to low, with guitarist Daron Malakian providing strange, yippy back-up vocals.  The music had plenty of Eastern influence too, including sitar-like guitar mixed in with the metal crunch.  "Chop Suey!," their biggest hit, is the best example of this, also employing strings and piano in what turns into a sneakily lovely song by the end.  Of course, the very next song is called "Bounce," in which they sing "Jump! (Pogo pogo pogo pogo pogo pogo) Bounce! (Pogo pogo pogo pogo pogo pogo)," maintaining the borderline ridiculous tone of the record.  I've never cared a whole lot about their political and social commentary, but "All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased," from the album-opening "Prison Song," is a lot more fun to shout along to than one might expect.  Of course, all of this wouldn't matter if the band didn't know what they were doing, but they're a very talented bunch.  Malakian has a tendency to inject himself into the action with his weird vocals, but he's a great guitarist, and the times when he steps forward for a solo or riff are some of the best on the album.  Eventually, the competition for top dog took its toll, and the band is currently on indefinite hiatus, but if they never come back, at least they left a strong legacy.

18. Super Furry Animals, Rings Around the World (2001)
What a strange bunch of Welshmen these guys are.  They've never had a hit stateside, but somewhere along the way I heard this, their pop opus, and they won me over.  But even then it hasn't been until the last few years that I truly started to appreciate Rings Around the World.  Lead singer Gruff Rhys has a smooth and oftentimes silly voice, but for these songs about tolerance, misanthropy and of course love, you couldn't ask for a better guide.  Throughout the album, the Super Furries employ the same layered harmonizing that people get so excited about when Grizzly Bear does it now, maintaining a utopian feel even amid all the madness of their songs.  This band has always sounded to me like what the Beatles might have been doing if they started in this decade or last, with their deft ear for harmonies and pop hooks, and also their clear love of psychedelic drugs.  It's appropriate, then, that none other than Paul McCartney should be credited with "celery and carrot" on the song "Receptacle for the Respectable," an insane song that begins as pop and ends in death metal.  "No Sympathy" follows a somewhat similar path, though its light beginning contrasts with its cynical lyrics ("Sympathy, sympathy/you want some, don't come to deserve to die!"), before devolving into what can only be described as a speed metal electronica breakdown.  And in classic fashion, the very next song after "No Sympathy" is "Juxtaposed With U," a song that implores us to "tolerate all those people that you hate."  That kind of humor is just one part of what makes these guys so great, and in this writer's not-so-humble opinion they've never been better than they are here.

17. At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command (2000)
Wow, this band feels like it happened a really long time ago now.  After this album they broke up, and lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and lead guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez went on to form the occasionally genius The Mars Volta.  Unfortunately for me, by the time someone clued me in it was already too late, so all I can do is listen to the one record I have and wish they'd get back together while Cedric can still sing.  The band's Wikipedia page classifies them as 'post-hardcore,' but I don't know what that means; it sounds pretty hard to me.  The relentless energy of it makes it hard to believe they could perform these songs live without falling over, but it also helps you ignore that the lyrics you're singing along to don't make one bit of sense.  "Neutered is the vastness/hollow vacuum check the oxygen tanks," Bixler-Zivala sings on "One-Armed Scissor;" not exactly what I'd consider relatable.  But he sings with such intensity that it all feels like it means something, with the band exploding around him.  On "Sleepwalk Capsules," my personal favorite, he shouts "dripping with drool from the nerves of this sentence," and it's almost a meta comment about the force with which he declares it.  Iggy Pop shows up to sound like a maniac on both backing vocals and a fairly unsettling opening of "Enfilade" where he places a nonsensical ransom call to some poor girl.  I feel like I'm rambling even more than usual, and it's probably because listening to the band requires so much attention that I can't gather my thoughts.  Good.  Let my incoherence stand as a selling point.  It certainly fits the band well.

16. The Futureheads, The Futureheads (2004)
So everyone sings, almost constantly, and the songs are typically less than two and a half minutes long?  And I'm supposed to be into this?  Well, yeah.  The Futureheads took a love of bouncy punk, Gang of Four, and barbershop quartets (ok, I might have made that last one up), threw in some silly humor and a Kate Bush cover for good measure, and turned it into an invigorating collection of imminently singable songs.  Covering topics as important as lateness, robots, tired social niceties and the first day at work, co-lead singers Barry Hyde and Ross Millard bounce along multiple part harmonies, with whoever isn't singing lead at any given point joining the rest of the band on backing vocals.  This style leads to an exuberance and joy that most bands don't come close to, and helps fill up songs that would be otherwise slight.  Ross has an almost completely a cappella turn on "Danger of the Water," buoyed only by doo wop backing work and a keyboard, and it's one of the record's most memorable moments.  Other standouts incude "Decent Days & Nights," "Meantime," "He Knows" and the indisputable peak in Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love."  It may sound like a backhanded complimented to claim that a band's best song is a cover, but the Futureheads make it so completely their own that anyone who hadn't heard the original wouldn't know any better.  One voice starts off with "ah oh oh," and then another joins in with a staggered "oh oh," and it's as if the hounds are singing in unison.  It's a shame they've achieved so little over here that they haven't even toured the US for their third album, but sometimes bands slip through the cracks, and that appears to be the case here.  Still, I'd put this debut up against almost anyone's.

15. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)
I know what you're thinking: "This seems early."  Maybe you're right.  Maybe I should give in to the coronation and rank the White Stripes higher.  But maybe, just maybe, they're a little overrated, and this, the top of the bottom half of my list, is the best they deserve.  I just said 'they,' as if Meg were really anything more than a time-keeping afterthought in this band.  From the moment they broke into the national consciousness, probably even before, this band has always been Jack White and his love of guitar, blues, music history and beautiful simplicity.  Don't get me wrong, at the time I was as rabid for this album as anyone, but I found that as time went on there were only a few songs I really wanted to hear over and over.  The first four tracks, in particular, stand out.  The discussion of Elephant has to start with the excellent lead single and album opener, "Seven Nation Army."  Part of the White Stripes blueprint was the stripped-down sound of just a guitar and drums, but on this song White used an effect to make his guitar sound like a bass, leading to one of the most memorable beats of the decade.  "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," a Burt Bacharach cover, sounds so much like it should be a Stripes song that I'm sure Bacharach himself is glad they did it.  And "Ball and Biscuit" is seven-plus minutes of flat out dirty blues, with White telling off some woman who done him wrong, seducing her, and even seeming to tell her where she stands in regards to his mom ("It's quite possible that I'm your third man, girl/But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son").  Each little stanza climaxes in some of White's signature soloing, the guitar getting his back and then some.  And make no mistake, the man is an incredible musician.

When going back to figure out which Stripes album to choose, I discovered that while White Blood Cells had three amazing songs, the rest sounded too alike, and White didn't really know how to sing yet, often choosing the lunatic yelp instead.  By Elephant he had learned to be a more polished frontman, without losing any of his frenetic energy, and the songs stand out quite a bit more, despite my comments about its longevity.  As things stand now, I tend to view the White Stripes as the gateway to the more impressive bands (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) and projects (Third Man Records; being an advocate for all types of artists, new and old) that Jack White would later get to.  That opinion notwithstanding, it's hard to deny the effect this band and this record in particular had on both the musical community and me at the time.

14. Built to Spill, You in Reverse (2006)
A band that almost certainly would have been on the 90's edition of this list if A.) I had a blog back then and B.) I had listened to them.  Built to Spill have actually been around since 1992, so for them to make an album this good in 2006 is fairly impressive.  And when you think of Built to Spill, you have to think of Doug Martsch and his guitar playing.  The combination of his high, plaintive voice and constant noodling, riffing and soloing are the heart of this band.  You in Reverse was actually my official introduction to the band after years of positive word of mouth that somehow didn't inspire me to run out and purchase their entire discography.  I think it worked out better this way, though, because not only will I always treasure this one as the first and still best, but it's also allowed me to go back and discover their earlier, also fantastic albums.  For this record, the gauntlet is thrown down immediately with the epic "Goin' Against Your Mind," nearly nine minutes of swirling guitar genius and driving beats, including a full 2:04 before a single word is even sung.  The next song, "Traces," is a slower song that builds into an epic guitar solo that lifts it above the standard Built to Spill fare, and "Wherever You Go" takes a classic rock riff and makes it its own.  "No one sees it's easier to change/No one sleeps and no one stays awake/No one complains" sings Martsch, and while I usually don't know what he's talking about specifically, the music and the words combine to create a sense of melancholy yearning, of desperate happiness, that fits just about any mood you may find yourself in.  The album's centerpiece is the ridiculously catchy (and vaguely Dinosaur Jr-ish) "Conventional Wisdom," yet another epic song that closes with the most epic of guitar solos, almost four minutes of inspired playing that never fail to make me forget everything else and just coast along the music.  Have I used the word epic enough?  That would be the second best word to describe this album, which despite the length of the songs never seems bloated or long.  The best word?  That would be 'great.'

13. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005)
Not that it's been intentional in any way, but I feel like women have been sorely under-represented on this list so far.  Other than Meg White (who I sorta trashed), these three lovely ladies are the first.  And yes, I may be a bit biased, since they are one of the only bands I've ever taken a photo with, but they deserve it on musical chops alone.  Though they put out other strong albums in this decade--One Beat comes to mind--this is the one I find myself going back to the most.  Getting veteran Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann may not have seemed like an obvious choice, but the sound he has helped construct is among the loudest and most urgent I've ever heard.  The mix of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker's distorted guitars and Janet Weiss' heavy drumming often crackles as if the speakers are about to go out, and Tucker's wail rides it all beautifully.  "Jumpers" starts at a mellow pace, with Carrie and Corin lamenting the bleakness of some girl's existence, before accelerating into a furious funeral march as the girl works up the courage: "Be still this sad day/Be still this sad year/Hope your last hope/Fear your last fear."  On "Modern Girl" they mock the antiquated view of a housewife, while simultaneously sympathizing with her.  And with "Entertain," they go after the want-it-now attitude of the media and our society in general with yet another scathing round of intertwining guitars and Weiss' forceful drums.  The whole album is laced in feedback, adding to the raw emotion of the songs, culminating in the sexual explosion of "Let's Call it Love."  Never ones to shy away from sex (they have an album called Dig Me Out, after all), it's eleven minutes of teasing, pleading, panting, orgasmic wails and the heaviest post-coital dirge ever recorded.  I saw them at Coachella 2006, the only time I got to, and they actually transitioned the outro of "Let's Call it Love" into "Entertain," creating an interesting comparison between sex and media.  There doesn't seem to be any plans to reunite, like far too many of the bands on this list, but Sleater-Kinney managed something huge while they were around.  They showed, with this album especially, that they could rock just as hard as the boys, and better in most cases.

12. Tool, Lateralus (2001)
We're now in a weird part of this for me, because I feel like albums 8-14 are all very close in value, and the order isn't especially important.  On the other hand, the phrase 'Top Ten' makes something sound extra special, so I still did a lot of deliberating on this one.  In the end, I just couldn't do it.  It's true that since it came out in 2001, Lateralus has almost never left my rotation for more than a few months, but that may be a product of being one of only two Tool records this decade.  Similar to At The Drive-In, I'm not sure how to describe Tool's music beyond a far too vague genre name like 'metal.'  Yeah, it's metal, but it's also more.  One thing I can say definitively, though, is that Maynard James Keenan has one of my favorite voices ever.  His range is astounding, and whether he's singing smooth and low, or smooth and high, or screaming longer than it seems possible to, his voice is never less than totally gripping.  Lateralus is also more personal lyrically than Tool's previous songs about fisting and hypocrite televangelists and California falling into the Pacific Ocean; this time there are songs about mortality ("Parabol/Parabola") and revenge ("The Grudge") and interpersonal relationships ("Schism").

When I say they're more than metal, I just mean that for all the heaviness and bizarre time signatures and screaming, Tool have some of the most beautiful musical passages I've ever heard, sometimes even while all the rest of that is going on.  It's a fair statement to say that no one else really plays like Adam Jones plays guitar, or Danny Carey plays drums.  Tool has always felt like the perfect storm of the four members (Justin Chancellor is on bass), and not just one member's vision driving the rest.  This album also is one of their more focused.  1997's Ænima had unrelated interludes between most songs; here, the only two interludes in the first twelve tracks work beautifully as lead-ins, "Eon Blue Apocalypse" into "The Patient" especially.  And it culminates in the three track suite of "Disposition," "Reflection" and "Triad," which, taken as a whole, has to be considered as one of Tool's finest moments.  In fact, despite what I said at the beginning of this (long) paragraph, if this had been the sole output of the band for this decade, or just one of many, I think it still would have been ranked this high.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones (2006)
Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are the winners of the dreaded 11-spot, but of course that means I'm saying there were only ten albums I liked more this decade, so really, it's not so dreaded after all.  More than their self-titled debut EP, or the full-length Fever to Tell, or the awesome Is Is EP that followed it, Show Your Bones is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs record I find myself longing for, and believe me, I wouldn't have believed that if you told me back when it came out.  I was such a fan of the fast-paced, dirty guitar rock of their early years that initially this felt like they were trying too hard to capitalize on the success of "Maps."  But then I got down off my shoebox, flushed the bullshit from my ears and actually listened to it.  What I discovered was not a band trying to "sell out" by copying their biggest hit, but rather a band that had grown into more than its initial aspirations.  The acoustic guitars that had sounded so jarring the first time I heard "Gold Lion" now felt like the only way to go, and the somewhat hip-hop leanings of "Phenomena" that turned me off initially now had me bouncing my head to the beat.  Zinner may not have been playing quite as many crazy, shrill and scratchy notes, but his virtuosity still shone through.  Chase's drumming was as perfect as ever, maybe better.  And of course, the signature aspect of the band, Karen O's voice, sounded the best it ever had.  With pipes designed to shriek, swoon, yell and laugh, O's personality drives the album, going from angry little girl to joyous woman and vice versa.  The lullaby via Sonic Youth of "Dudley" is pretty and sad, and yet hopeful, and "Way Out" is all raging acoustic guitars and hormones.  Then there's "Cheated Hearts," which is, to quote Jack Black from the number 20 entry on this list, "a fucking brilliant song."  When she sings "Sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound," she's right and wrong at the same time.  Karen O may be the most obviously outstanding part of this band, but on this record all the parts come together in a way they hadn't matched before (or since).  From beginning to end, Show Your Bones explores the limits of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sound, with nary a misstep or wasted song.  And when it comes to how great this record is, just like Karen says in the final song, "Turn Into," I know what I know.

Coming tomorrow (if I survive tonight): my Top Ten of the decade.  Happy New Year's, everybody!


Tom said...

I was going to say that In/Casino/Out was better, but that came out in the 90s. ATDI to Mars Volta transition: a case of Weezer-itis? Was there a Matt Sharp equivalent that kept the standards up and prevented complacence and indulgence?

Thanks for reminding me about SFA. Haven't heard that album since 2002, and that could be the one from the list that I end up buying as a result. The RIAA should thank you.

Hatfield said...

You know, all these years later and I've still never bothered to get any of their older stuff. I've heard that one when you've played it, or Spencer, but it never jumped out at me the way Relationship of Command did. Also, maybe I'm just not awake enough yet, but I'm not sure I get the Matt Sharp comment. Are you saying that one of the guys left behind was more important than Cedric and Omar thought, which is why The Mars Volta meanders so much?

You're welcome on SFA; I really do love that band. Get anything they put out this decade and I think you'll be happy, especially if you like Rings Around the World.

Tom said...

It's not about a guy like Matt Sharp being "more" important. But sometimes you just need the right balance, the right dynamic. A guy who's willing to tell the hard truths. Who, by his very presence, makes everyone step up their game. As opposed to the band just getting lost up its own ass.