Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Mystic Decade

That's right, in a burst of horrifying unoriginality I have decided to do what every other journalist/magazine/online publication/blogger/asshole has already done.  Namely, attempt to organize my thoughts long enough to arbitrarily rank a bunch of albums I bought (yes, bought, you dirty music pirates) years ago.  But what can I say?  Like the music geeks above, I'm a sucker for lists.  So I've decided to select my 28 favorite records from this decade.  Why 28?  Because that's how old I am as I write this, and it worked out as the best cutoff I could manage without going completely insane.  My logic is unassailable!  There are, however, a few rules to make it less predictable and more inclusive:

A. 2009 is ineligible.  Not just because I don't wanna step on my own toes before I get a chance to write a best of list for this year, but because I'm afraid to overvalue the things I love so much currently.  Sometimes you need to step back, and I haven't had enough time yet for that.  Sorry, 2009, but I'll gladly revise this list later.

B. No artist can appear twice.  This is partially because I want everyone to feel like they're a winner, but really, would you want to read my thoughts on four Queens of the Stone Age or three Wilco albums within the same entry?  So, for instance, if you happen to see a Radiohead effort on here that isn't Kid A, don't hold your breath waiting for it to show up, because it won't.  This forces me to make really hard decisions about which ones I like the best.  There may be tears.  From you.

C. Most important rule: this is about what I love to listen to, not what is the most artistically relevant or interesting or challenging or whatever.  It's my list, and if I see fit to include Monster Magnet or anything else that may not be a popular choice, it's because it stood out as something that I listened to countless times this decade without ever losing that great feeling that the best music gives you.  (SPOILER ALERT: There will be no Monster Magnet on this list, tempted though I may be.  I just wanted to see if I could make anyone's head explode.  Everyone still good?  Damn.)

With that in mind, let's take a trip back to as far as the once-feared Year 2000, or as recent as the last few weeks when I've been listening to all this stuff to figure it out!

28. Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes, Live at the Greek (2000)
Let's start it right off with a little bit of an odd one.  I know, I know; it's a live album!  But in truth it'd probably be higher if it weren't, based purely on how much I've listened to it.  Led Zeppelin was long gone by the time I started getting into music, with no real hope of a reunion (that one-off show was still far in the future).  I often thought about how great it would be if they did play together again, and then this happened.  The Crowes were the perfect choice as Page's collaborators, having been one of the only bands faithfully putting out classic rock records all through the 90s.  Lead singer Chris Robinson may not be Robert Plant, but he does well enough on his own singing classics like "Whole Lotta Love," "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Ten Years Gone," plus more hidden gems like "Out on the Tiles" and "Sick Again."  Throw in some incredible Yardbirds, B.B. King and (early, bluesier) Fleetwood Mac covers, and you have quite an impressive rock show, easily one of the best live albums I've ever heard.  Page's guitar sounds great, and the Crowes clearly love the songs.  A treat for all of us who had the misfortune of being born too late to see the original.

27. Against Me!, New Wave (2007)
Full disclosure: I hated this band the first couple times I heard it.  Their older stuff is a grating mix of hardcore and singer-songwriter whining (to my ears, anyway) that I just couldn't get into.  But then they "sold out," and their music took a crazy leap forward in quality.  Now it was like a mix of rock, punk, catchy choruses and hooks, and early 90s alternative.  That last wasn't a shock, considering Butch Vig was brought in to produce this time, but what we ended up with were ten songs that get into your head and won't go away, but in that fun kind of way.  Lead singer Tom Gabel has one of those voices, a bit like Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, but if you like it you love it, and when he wails, I wail right along with him.  Album closer "The Ocean" may be the best song, riding a rhythm section like waves to an explosive crescendo, but the most memorable track is probably the unabashedly sentimental and sad "Born on the FM Waves of the Heart," a duet with Tegan Quinn (of Tegan & Sara) that is all singalongy goodness.  New Wave reminded me that while all those pop-punk bands on the radio may be crap, there's something just beyond what they're aspiring to that is pure music gold.

26. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008)
The first of two members of this list that produce lyrics equal or superior to the music, Nick Cave weaves crazy tales all through the American Gothic sound of this album.  Layered with organ, strings and lots of percussion, in addition to an impressive nucleus of bass, drum and guitar, the listener sometimes feels as if they're on some crazy western caravan, not unlike the title character in standout track "Albert Goes West."  Cave sings in an almost conversational carnival barker's tone, which once caused my father to date himself by asking if it was 'rap rock,' but he can switch to smooth crooner when the mood calls for it.  While I may not be able to parse all of the lyrics for meaning, I never get tired of the stories he wants to tell, culminating in the epic "More News From Nowhere."  As we follow the narrator through a series of encounters with strange women, and the allusions (some obvious, some more opaque) to Homer's The Odyssey pile up, it's hard not to agree with Cave's assertion that "it's gettin' strange in here."  Not that I want to leave, so I start the whole thing over, letting the music wash over me again.

25. Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (2005)
This decade saw a rise in popularity and proliferation of dancey, jangly-guitared bands, but this record is probably my favorite of the bunch.  From the opening siren-like guitars and propulsive, almost machine gun drums, Bloc Party infused their debut with an irresistible energy and emotion.  Singer Kele Okereke has a very expressive voice, capable of going low but usually riding the higher notes.  He's also one of the few imports that doesn't lose his British accent when singing, adding a distinct personality to the songs.  Breakout hit "Banquet" is one of the best and catchiest songs this decade, and if you can get the chorus or Okereke's yelp of "Cuz I'm on fire!" out of your head, you're a stronger person than I.  The band's secret weapon, however, is drummer Matt Tong.  Though he went in a more conventional direction with their two subsequent releases, his energetic, interesting and precise drumming carries the day on Silent Alarm.  I'm probably wildly overrating this compared to what others would say, but it's a record that always makes me want to dance, and there's something to be said for 13 out of 14 songs being this strong.

24. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Howl (2005)
The band my brother and I once described as "The Jesus and Mary Chain, but good," Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had already been around a few years before Howl, their third album, came out, but it isn't exactly what I'd call representative of their previous work.  Whereas before they'd had a dark, droney and heavy quality to even their cheeriest songs, this album starts off with hand claps and a group chorus of "Time won't save our souls."  Co-lead singers Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been apparently spent a lot of time reading poets like Ginsburg and reflecting, and while that may sound somewhat pretentious, musically it paid off rather well.  The album has a very classic, gospel, folk, blues and even country vibe that exposed new strengths of the band, and it paid off beautifully on the only slightly less worthy follow-up, Baby 81, when they merged the two sounds.  There are a few songs that are only Hayes and a guitar that hurt the momentum, but ultimately they serve as breathers between the acoustic stomp and harmonica flexing of "Ain't No Easy Way" and the melancholy beauty of the piano-driven "Promise."  Maybe it's not as important as they evidently thought it was when they wrote it, but with Howl BRMC left an indelible impression on this listener.

23. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Plastic Fang (2002)
Even if the music on this record were not very good, there's something so inherently amusing about a semi-concept album about old horror movies, with song titles like "Killer Wolf," "Down in the Beast" and "The Midnight Creep," that I'd find pretext to talk about it anyway.  Luckily, the music rocks, so the silly lyrics about gypsy ladies and pitchfork-bearing villagers are merely a bonus.  Blues Explosion albums had never really worked for me before, mostly because they were too all-over-the-place, but from start to finish this one is straight dirty rock, with plenty of boogie beats, guitar solos and grunting from Spencer.  The band wears its love of the Rolling Stones on its collective sleeve, and it can feel a bit derivative, but what the hell isn't?  Russell Simins' drums provide the perfect backdrop for Spencer and Judah Bauer's interweaving guitar lines, and more than one track starts off sounding like a party before bursting into song.  "Mean Heart" and "Point of View" close it out with arguably the two best songs, and when Spencer commands us to "tango!" on the former and proclaims "I wanna holler but the bar's too small!" on the latter, you can't help but smile and shake your hips.  Just like he planned it.

22. Supergrass, Diamond Hoo Ha (2008)
This may be the silliest ranking on here, since this album could easily slip or climb as the years go on.  It was my third favorite from last year, but in a way including the most recent effort from Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn, Danny Goffey and Rob Coombes is more of a career recognition.  I've loved this band for a long time now, and I've always thought Gaz had one of the best voices in rock.  For Diamond Hoo Ha, Supergrass went in a glam direction, pulling hard from Bowie and other 70s acts.  The sound fits them wonderfully.  A near perfect opening troika of "Diamond Hoo Ha Man," "Bad Blood" and "Rebel In You" pulls the listener in with Gaz's howls and guitars, and brother Rob's excellent key work.  And the aggressive silliness of "Whiskey and Green Tea," with its background "ba da bum, ba da bum" vocals, tales of karate dogs and middle-age schoolgirls and completely badass saxophone solo, never stops being fun.  It's going to be a recurring theme, but any album that I can genuinely love beginning to end goes up in my estimation, since it's a relatively rare thing.  That's why I think this one will eventually climb up even higher than some of what will follow.  Plus, ESPN used the riff from "Diamond Hoo Ha Man" on every promo for the World Series of Poker this year, and I still love it.  That says a lot.

21. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (2007)
Kings of Leon make me sad.  They started as a rough-sounding southern rock outfit, but then their second album showed some new chops beyond that gimmick, and Because of the Times redefined them almost entirely.  By this time lead singer Caleb Followill had learned how to actually sing, and the band had honed their songwriting skills to morph that classic rock sound into something new and a bit unique.  I should have known that they sounded too polished here and would abandon their former fire almost entirely with their next one, but I was too busy loving this record.  So let's just pretend like Only By the Night never happened and talk about when they were good.  Starting off with a seven minute song called "Knocked Up," Times announced immediately that this was a new Kings of Leon we were hearing.  Matthew Followill's lead guitar sounds like he's been listening to a lot of U2, but it goes well with the crazy sexual energy that permeates much of the album.  "Charmer" has Caleb's lunatic shriek at the beginning of almost every line, and "McFearless" has a frantic, stuttering drum beat unlike any I've heard before.  "My Party" is KoL's best Franz Ferdinand impression, and yes, that's a very good thing.  "True Love Way" has some of the prettiest guitar on this list, with Caleb warbling about two people being free, happy and alone, while "oh oh oh, oh oh oh" rings out in the background.  A great song, and Times' high point.  The album hits a bit of a speed bump about ten songs in, but it rallies with closer "Arizona," a ruminative track that fades out with more pretty guitar.  I hold out hope, however slim, that Kings of Leon will come back to this level, but for now this is how I choose to remember them, as a band at the height of its powers.

Whew, are you still here?  Since this is obviously going to be a very long ordeal, we'll stop here for now.  Coming tomorrow or the next day: Albums 20-11.  I know you're excited.

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