11 February 2010

Best Albums of the 2000s (part 2)

Here's 50-1. Last list-oriented post until December, I hope.

50. Graduation—Kanye West

49. Toxicity—System of a Down

Basically prog-metal with one foot in the mainstream, Toxicity was No. 1 on the Billboard chart when the planes hit on 9/11. The music’s jagged rhythms and jumpy transitions aptly represent the chaos of the moment—a sense only reinforced by lyrical references to “self-righteous suicide” and “the toxicity of our city.”

48. Kill the Moonlight—Spoon

47. 808s & Heartbreak—Kanye West

Haunted by the sudden death of Kanye’s mother, 808s & Heartbreak stands as his most radical and introspective album to date, nearly leaving hip-hop behind in favor of a Princely amalgam of R&B and synthpop. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but I look forward to finding out.

46. Ys—Joanna Newsom

It sounds like it should be a pretentious, unlistenable mess: 24-year-old neo-folkie harpist sings five songs, backed by orchestral arrangements, ranging from seven to 17 minutes in length. But somehow it all comes together beautifully, with the arrangements by Van Dyke Parks and Jim O’Rourke’s mix creating the perfect context for Newsom’s cosmic ponderings.

45. Discovery—Daft Punk

44. Rounds—Four Tet

43. ()—Sigur Ros

Recorded in a (presumably dry) swimming pool, this lengthy mood piece lacks the bold melodic flourishes of its predecessor, Agaetis Byrjun, but nearly makes up for it in atmosphere.

42. London Zoo—The Bug

I fell hard for dub reggae sometime in 2007, and this album, released a year later, extends the legacy of that music (as well as that of the original dub revival of the mid-'90s) into the 21st century.

41. Yesterday and Today—The Field

40. Extraordinary Machine—Fiona Apple

39. Fishscale—Ghostface Killah

I initially mistook this album for little more than a retread of Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx (1995). But if you can get past the de rigueur references to Scarface, this might be the most purely enjoyable of the many Wu-Tang solo albums. And the all-star roster of contemporary producers, including Just Blaze and the late J. Dilla, ensures that it's no mere nostalgia trip.

38. The College Dropout—Kanye West

The first third or so of Kanye’s debut is so great that the rest can’t help but be a slight letdown, making the album somewhat difficult to get through in one sitting. And his anti-education shtick is still stupid.

37. Arular—M.I.A.

36. Amnesiac—Radiohead

Radiohead was on such a roll in 2001 that this album was almost taken for granted. But what seemed at the time like a slightly unwieldy collection of rejects from Kid A now plays like one of the band’s more unified and substantial records.

35. Good News for People Who Love Bad News—Modest Mouse

Isaac Brock and bandmates find a little bit of emotional stability and artistic sustainability. Many of the guardians of indie-rock purity complained about this album, but it has some of the sharpest songs of the band’s career.

34. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes

33. Nothing’s in Vain—Youssou N’Dour

32. The Private Press—DJ Shadow

I suppose you could argue that Shadow was repeating himself a bit. But Endtroducing… is one of the greatest albums of all time, and nobody else sounds like this.

31. The Blueprint—Jay-Z

30. Stankonia—Outkast

29. DFA Compilation #2

Dispositive evidence that James Murphy’s career as a producer has been far more adventurous than LCD Soundsystem alone would suggest.

28. Rooty—Basement Jaxx

The best Prince album of the 2000s.

27. Modern Times—Bob Dylan

26. XTRMNTR—Primal Scream

Opening with a track called “Kill All Hippies” and closing with a cover of the Third Bardo nugget “Five Years Ahead of My Time,” XTRMNTR is the fullest articulation of Primal Scream’s complex relationship with the musical legacy of the 1960s. The album’s bleak tone and pervasive sense of a world falling into chaos, however, were all too contemporary, even prescient.

25. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark—Drive-by Truckers

24. Rings Around the World—Super Furry Animals

Smart, funny, weird, original Welsh indie rock. What more could you ask? Paul McCartney chomping celery? Done!

23. The Further Adventures of the Lord Quas—Quasimoto

22. The Woods—Sleater-Kinney

On their final album, the Washington state post-postpunk stalwarts finally let loose and bring the noise.

21. Smile—Brian Wilson

For obvious reasons, this was the single most difficult item to rank, which may explain how it got pushed out of the Top 20.

20. Third—Portishead

Mid-’90s legends return triumphantly with a new sound, channeling Syd Barrett and the Silver Apples through the Bristol murk.

19. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—Spoon

The indie-rock MVPs of the 2000s deliver their most ambitious and consistent album, their signature new-wave-inspired sound expanding to encompass dub, raga, and Memphis soul, among other things.

18. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea—PJ Harvey

Perennially tortured soul gets happy, accessible. It wouldn’t last.

17. Agaetis Byrjun—Sigur Ros

16. Original Pirate Material—The Streets

Mike Skinner proved to be something of a one-trick pony, but this debut, unburdened by the cramped production and narrative fixations of his later albums, aches with the troubles of drug- and Playstation-addled post-adolescents with little money and limited prospects.

15. Since I Left You—The Avalanches

14. In Rainbows—Radiohead

13. Everything Ecstatic—Four Tet

One of my favorite musicians working right now, Kieran Hebden has made a career out of the joining the dots and loops of laptop music with the fearlessness of free jazz and an obsession with pure sound. The rhythmic restlessness of this album lifts it slightly above his others.

12. No Line on the Horizon—U2

I’ve written enough about this album already. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.)

11. Murray Street—Sonic Youth

Following a series of albums that had moved the band away from the pop mainstream and back toward the experimental noise-rock of the ’80s, Sonic Youth, with new member Jim O’Rourke, tries its hand at classic rock (sort of). The result is the band’s best late-period album, and possibly its best since the epochal Daydream Nation (1988).

10. Proxima Estacion: Esperanza—Manu Chao

That’s “Next Station: Hope” for all you monolingual Americans.

9. Is This It?—The Strokes

Young American rock band arrives to great fanfare. Critics go nuts. Backlash ensues. Nine years down the road, the whole Strokes phenomenon feels less like a rebirth than a last hurrah, but the album’s a stone-cold classic.

8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind—U2

Hardly a return to the expansive sound of the band’s ’80s period, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is basically Bono’s Tunnel of Love, an intimate, soulful plumbing of the hopes and fears of adulthood featuring U2’s sharpest batch of songs to date.

7. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not—The Arctic Monkeys

Further evidence of the shrinking half-lives of critical acclaim and rock stardom.

6. Vespertine—Björk

Less immediately accessible than her earlier albums, Björk’s masterpiece both demands and rewards close attention. There may not be another great album from the past 10 years that’s so dependent on duration and song sequence for its impact. On the opening track, the singer announces that she’s going to a “Hidden Place” and the rest of the songs—mostly about fundamentals like love, sex, and family—unfold in this private, interior space until the closing “Unison” blows the lid off the whole thing and lets the world back in.

5. Love and Theft—Bob Dylan

Dylan’s late-career comeback with the death-haunted Time Out of Mind (1997) was one thing, but who could have seen this coming? Glossing musical forms ranging from roadhouse blues to cabaret to swing to I-don’t-know-what, the astonishing Love and Theft has the generic range of a Beck album with nary a sample in sight. Less unified than Dylan’s follow-up, Modern Times, it’s warmer and funnier, and its wizened master of ceremonies has never sounded looser.

4. Kid A—Radiohead

Feel the cool electronic breeze.

3. Madvillainy—Madvillain

If there’s a musician more underrated than Kieran Hebden, it would have to be Madlib, who’s virtually reinvented hip-hop over the past decade or so. This (so far) one-off collaboration with MF Doom is all about the flow, channeling the musical spirit of truly classic rock in ways never heard before.

2. Kala—M.I.A.

I’ve already written plenty about this one too. (See “Combat Rock,” posted September 20, 2007.)

1. Late Registration—Kanye West

If Jay-Z is Jordan, then Kanye must be the Steve Nash of hip-hop—a master playmaker who can make the most ordinary of teammates look like a superstar. On his best, most expansive, most fully realized album, he gets terrific performances from inferior talents like The Game, as well as greats like Jay and Nas. The opening “Heard ’Em Say” is so perfectly arranged and performed that you forget that it’s the dude from freakin’ Maroon 5 singing background. “Touch the Sky” must be one of the most obvious uses of a classic soul sample that doesn’t make you wish you were listening to the original song instead. “Gold Digger” takes on the gender wars with humor and generosity. I could go through the whole record like this, but all good things must eventually come to an end.

06 February 2010

Best Albums of the 2000s (part 1)

Below is the first half of my Best Albums of the 2000s list, the third in a series of four posts looking back at the decade in music. Most of what I said in the intro to the Best Songs list applies here as well, particularly as pertaining to the personal and idiosyncratic nature of the list. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (i.e., iTunes), I have a pretty good idea of how many times I've listened to various tracks over the past six years, and this data did have some effect at the margins in terms of keeping the rankings honest. I'll try to get 50-1 up no later than midweek. Until then, here's 100-51:

100. Lovers—The Sleepy Jackson

99. Party Music—The Coup

98. 100 Broken Windows—Idlewild

Early high point from promising Scottish college rockers before their (in retrospect, perhaps inevitable) descent into overproduced moderate-rock hell.

97. Confessions on a Dance Floor—Madonna

I initially dismissed this as merely Madonna’s roots move, but the sense of effortlessness here is no mean achievement.

96. Phrenology—The Roots

95. Hypermagic Mountain—Lightning Bolt

It achieves total heaviosity. But it moves too.

94. Ta Det Lungt—Dungen

93. Untrue—Burial

92. 604—Ladytron

UK-based back-to-the-future synthpoppers reflect on love and commerce.

91. One Beat—Sleater-Kinney

90. Mesmerize/Hypnotize—System of a Down

89. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb—U2

This fair-to-middling entry in the U2 catalog finds the band spinning its wheels a bit, but the group’s newfound comfort with its own grandiosity would pay dividends down the road.

88. Thunder, Lightning, Strike—The Go! Team

87. Nouns—No Age

86. From Here We Go Sublime—The Field

Envious people will tell you that anyone with access to a computer could have made this album. But of course that’s part of what makes it great.

85. Rated R—Queens of the Stone Age

84. Songs for the Deaf—Queens of the Stone Age

Dave Grohl brings the thunder, making this the band’s best album by a whisker, despite a relative lack of musical variety.

83. Neon Golden—The Notwist

82. Lungs—Florence & the Machine

81. Gimme Fiction—Spoon

80. Silent Shout—The Knife

Of the many bands who’ve borrowed from ’80s synthpop over the past decade, The Knife has been one of the most original, deploying the genre’s bouncy sounds to cacophonous, menacing effect. And the distancing devices (heavily distorted vocals, raven masks) aren’t just facile alienation effects but function to evoke buried emotions and unspoken thoughts.

79. Hail to the Thief—Radiohead

78. The Unseen—Quasimoto

This stoned underground epic takes hip-hop’s crate-digging aesthetic strain to the next level.

77. Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.—Deerhunter

Evoking classic indie/alternative sources like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, these twin albums breathed some fresh air into a late-decade indie scene dominated by turgid hipster music.

76. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts—M83

A consolidation, not a leap forward. But consolidations can be good.

75. Come With Us—The Chemical Brothers

74. Funeral—Arcade Fire

I remain suspicious of this band, but there are some gorgeous songs here to be sure.

73. Sonic Nurse—Sonic Youth

The second half of a productive two-album classic-rock detour with Jim O’Rourke finds the band stretching out comfortably. “The Dead are all right with me,” Thurston confides on “Stones.” As if we hadn’t known all along.

72. Beauty and the Beat—Edan

A sui generis amalgam of hip-hop and psychedelic rock.

71. Room on Fire—The Strokes

70. The Eternal—Sonic Youth

69. Magic—Bruce Springsteen

Channeling the weary-but-hopeful spirit of the ass end of the Bush administration, Magic easily achieves the political relevance that the post-9/11 The Rising audibly strained for.

68. Specialist in All Styles—Orchestra Baobab

67. Gung Ho—Patti Smith

66. Off With Their Heads—Kaiser Chiefs

Producer Mark Ronson provides some much-needed musical context for the band’s sharp-as-ever songwriting on this album, the Kaisers’ third and best to date.

65. Phrazes for the Young—Julian Casablancas

64. Girls Can Tell—Spoon

63. White Blood Cells—The White Stripes

The White Stripes made more-or-less the same album several times over, meaning that whichever one you heard first is probably your favorite.

62. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—Outkast

Long, sprawling, self-indulgent, but almost never boring. I still think Big Boi’s disc is better, but you’re welcome to disagree.

61. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard—Paul McCartney

Forced to straighten up and fly right by producer Nigel Godrich, McCartney delivers the most disciplined album of his post-Beatles career—and one of the best.

60. Demon Days—Gorillaz

59. First Impressions of Earth—The Strokes

Not the band’s most consistent album, but an aesthetic milestone, as Julian Casablancas gives voice to the nagging realization that the world might not be worthy of his best efforts.

58. Think Tank—Blur

57. Blue Cathedral—Comets on Fire

Combining neo-psychedelic ambition, indie-rock messiness, and ear-splitting volume, this album deserves to have been more influential by now. But it’s early yet.

56. XX—The XX

55. The Cold Vein—Cannibal Ox

54. Decoration Day—Drive-by Truckers

The Truckers broke into the indie-rock consciousness with their 2001 double-disc Skynrd tribute Southern Rock Opera, but it was this follow-up that established them as a top-echelon band and Patterson Hood as a major American songwriter.

53. Up the Bracket—The Libertines

It’s a shame they couldn’t keep it together for more than two albums, but of course the feeling that it could all fall apart at any moment is crucial to this particular rock aesthetic.

52. Da Drought 3—Lil Wayne

Most people would put The Carter III here instead, but I maintain that Weezy’s mixtape work, while less polished, is a lot more interesting.

51. Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike—Gogol Bordello

It lives up to its title, and that’s all you need to know.