Monday, September 21, 2009

My Favorite 100 Albums of the Decade: 20-11

now we’re getting to the nitty grrittttyyyyy

20. Josh Rouse - 1972

Josh Rouse has fashioned himself a prolific career marked by an almost superhuman consistency, but this is the only record of his that i find to be truly special. a loving, well-imagined tribute to a year Rouse spent in diapers (cause he was an infant, and not because he’s baseball legend George Bretts), there’s such warm soul and perfectly calibrated / fabricated nostalgia on display here… rouse assumes so many different characters (from the post-pubescent wonderers of the title track to the pan am flight attendants and not pan am preachers that crop up later), each of whom he offers their own breezy theme, it’s remarkable how it never feels like anything less than a pure rouse record. full of all the swing and shag that defines the 1970s of mass remembrance, 1972 is the only record of rouse’s that he never lived (previous LPs were odes to the cold nights of his nebraska youth or the spanish towns he moved to in recent years), yet his most confident by a country mile. this record will sound relevant for as long as our history is processed with emotion and sepia tones.

19. Jens Lekman - When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog

while his melancholy baritone might suggest that jens lekman is the swedish stephin merritt, jens lekman is actually… well, okay, that stephin merritt comparison is pretty accurate. lekman seems to have a keener eye for the dynamics of the miniscule and mundane, divining lyrical fodder from the tiniest details of a (cold) swedish winter or the correct tram line to take home on a adorably tumultuous gothenburg night. with a penchant for chimes, doo-wop, and suddenly abandoning all of the players he brings along in favor of his naked croon, this debut LP is lekman at his most brazenly defeated. song after song he conjures perfect moments of hipster bliss - laying them out like the lovelorn pages of a diary that’s too silly to sting - and then quietly excuses himself from them, as if the gothenburg girls find him unworthy of his very own tableaus. the perfect bit of aural empathy for anyone who has ever fancied themselves too clever to be alone, these 41 minutes are always there when you need some help to over-think your worries into oblivion. a favorite bit:

“When I said I wanted to be your dog
I wasn’t coming on to you
I just wanted to lick your face
Lick those raindrops from the rainy days”

18. Death Cab for Cutie - We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes

well this takes me back. i remember being nervously absorbed in this record in the Fall of 2000 (i was 15)… at a time when DMB was just about the most dangerous thing i listened to, WHTFAWVY (hah) was a creaky attic of a CD, an ominously inexorable pull of underproduced imperfections that suggested that careful despair had better sound good, too, cause it was gonna soundtrack the rest of my teenage years. silly to think that when it was given to me by my older sister’s boyfriend (duh), it was a time when a name like Death Cab for Cutie was alien enough to credibly hint that this record was more of a primer than a product. i thought this record came from a scary place… and now that i know the music came from, um, ben gibbard, and it still sounds just as taut with foot-tapping meaning… well, i can’t think of higher praise. opening tune “title track” is a prescient echo of a welcome mat… redoubling upon itself with more fleshed out acoustics as if to pave the way for Death Cab’s imminent 2nd Act. and double-feature “company calls” and “company calls epilogue” are the perfect storm of inscrutable angst for which album-closer “scientist studies” is the following calm… the calm that has perhaps earned this record the reputation of being “barbed in novocaine.” but to these ears, that tempering final salvo doesn’t invalidate the road there, but rather encourages you to push on and see where it goes next . i dunno, i like to think that those little cartoon runners are actually going somewhere.

17. Cat Power - The Covers Record

chan marshall doesn’t cover songs so much as she swallows them whole, strips them of their flavor, and vomits their bones. a somewhat unpleasant process (made all the more remarkable given the fact that she tends to tear though these songs in a single, unrehearsed afternoon) that surprisingly produces some deeply affecting takes. each song seems to be approached in the same way - find a rich and vital original, reduce it to either a spare guitar or solo piano, and then suffocate the pulse out of it like snow mutes sound. which makes it a bit of an unlikely source for the most uplifting song of any album on this list. that song, a ribald take on Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason,” is a scant 2 minute master class on urgent singing… each note snuffed out from the keys with pointed purpose. marshall’s breathy, trademarked drawl thrives best when afforded most responsibility… and here, without the blues bands that would later infuse unwanted flavor or even songs complex enough to distract from the task at hand or to be used as a crutch… here marshall’s voice is all we’ve got - all she’s got. the rare album that actually gains steam as it moves to a close, this first Covers Record of her’s certainly peaks with (1 version of) her cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wild is the Wind,” easily amongst the most covered songs of all time (i’ve got 26 takes on it from 25 different artists). the song is clearly made nervous by the pure pathos and determination marshall brings to the piano, but in marshall those lyrics have found the ideal interpreter… someone who’s breathily intimate with the hightest highs and lows like trenches - the tension between which is the crux of the matter here. those first plunked keys are so heavy and alone it’s a miracle they ever pop up to be re-hit, but the lilts and feel as she later skids off the chorus, holding the more major notes just so, her voice and playing in perfect control… it’s incredible. just as in all of these songs, there’s a lot going on here… marshall cleaves away the excess fat… the showmanship of tunes like “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”… and instead excavates the small fractures and even smaller hopes. her findings are wrenching - almost naked but not quite. they’re banana-hammocked. because the greatness here, in these songs so undressed by their singer, isn’t in the act of exposure, but rather in what the remains expose. marshall approaches these songs like michelangelo might an ungainly chunk of stone, hacking away at them until the fragile art inside is made visible by omission. and yeah, chan marhsall is hardly michelangelo… but she’s probably smoked more cigarettes.

16. Sigur Ros - ( )

“you xylo. you xylo no fi lo. you.”

this untitled collection of eight untitled sigur ros songs - the lyrics of which are delivered into in Hopelandic, an assembly of phonemes and morphemes entirely of the band’s own invention - is almost objectively inferior to the album which preceded it both in life and on this list. but them’s be the breaks. opening up with a song of faint, ethereal wheezes that sounds like sigur ros by of the campfire, this record for me conjures an instant nostalgia that its less impressive compositions can hardly hope to infringe upon. the repetitive “untitled 3,” a direct descendent of agaetis byrjun’s magisterial “staralfur,” builds in the same familiar form as its precedent, but for me does so in a way that’s just a wee bit more arresting… it’s relative simplicity makes it easier to be awash in the layers rather than distractingly awed by them. perhaps because this record has only 8 or so vocal phrases and the songs are just as long but less expansive, it feels… more of a whole. and then winds up with a song that will remain the band’s live staple for as long as they continue to tour… “untitled 8,” a behemoth of a tune that takes the beauty of their sound and throws exclamation points between every note… building to a raging climax, the chaos of which seems to reaffirm the wintry calm of the opening tracks. sigur ros write music best appreciated in wide open spaces… and even though they asked me to fill in much of the landscape myself, methinks this is the record on which we best met each other half way.

15. Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

maybe i’m just a sucker for a badass harp solo, but the prelude to “en gallop” is arresting enough in and of itself to earn this record a prominent spot on my list. newsom’s debut - ostensibly more concise and mannered than the epic with which she followed it - is such a fun, sneaky, and idiosyncratic batch of songs, that even i was surprised to find that i treasured it as much as it appears i do. some are quick to label newsom as something of a wunderkind, but methinks that would imply some sort of precedent… to suggest that she isn’t the first of her particular woodland breed of songstress. these songs all sound as if they came from the forest… puckish, ethereal ditties that despite their occasional silliness and child-like wonder betray not an iota of adolescence. they sound more like newsom’s careful spontaneous narration of a particularly evocative walk through the trees… a summation of her natural world that’s by turns prickly and reassuring. if she and (ex?) boyfriend andy samberg didn’t prepare some serious raps for her third record, it would have to be considered a serious waste of a relationship.

14. The Decemberists - Picaresque

beyond the fact that that there is some seeerriouslly unfortunate cover art, there ain’t all that much to say bout this. from palanquins to the thoroughly documented revenge of a wronged mariner, this is the decemberists record most gleefully lost in the thrall of a bygone era. it’s also their best record by a nautical mile. i mean, these are just obviously the best decemberists songs. it’s really that simple. a collection of the songs on which colin meloy best worked with his interests and ambition rather than around them, perfectly sequenced and bound by confidence. i mean, the penultimate tune is an almost 9-minute narrative about revenge, complete with a framing device that bookends the story in the belly of a whale, and the whole thing is sung and accordianed without a hint of irony. if you ask me, it’s the immaculate and comparatively matter-of-fact Picaresque that renders the over-involved, conceptually-motivated mess of Hazards of Love such a tragedy. and yeah, so you didn’t really ask me, but i mean… the fact that you’re still reading this suggests that you are either dangerously bored or have an unrelenting fascination with what i have to say (or both, because you’re only human, and that last one is sort of a given).

13. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

yeah, it looks like it’s moving. great. these words don’t look like they’re moving but believe you me, THEY ARE. think bout it. or just keep reading. i support your right to choose. anyhoo, look! it’s this record! of course it is. incredibly challenging noise outfit get all sorts of kinda accessible on their most recent LP, but does so without compromise. from the gurgles that announce opening track “in the flowers,” this is unmistakably the crazed work of panda bear, avery tare, and geologist. but here, the yelps and screams have been folded into some of the most delectable melodies in indie-ville… and flow has become a more apparent concern as well, as the tracks merge into one another in a fit of over-excitement, as if they share our curiosity as to what surrounds them. but seriously, you guys… “my girls.” “brothersport.” i mean… every track here has its wayward charms - be it ode to cunnilingus “bluish” (your argument is invalid) or the two-faced “daily routine” or even the deceptive digeridoo of “lion in a coma,” animal collective has remarkably achieved their first consistent record with a string of songs that are not all merely enjoyable, but endlessly enhanced by one another. but seriously, “my girls” and “brothersport.” the two-headed hydra of insidiously catchy indie foppery so (deliberately) eclipses the other songs here that it’s simply improper to ignore their elevated existence. these are songs designed to be stand-outs… the rest of the album serving as impeccably-mannered accouterment. the former’s canon and the latter’s soul-stirring siren… i mean, these tunes are obvious, but that doesn’t diminish them in any way. so i’ll do what real music writers are likely too particular and appropriately analytical to allow themselves, and just say that these are 2 of the best songs i’ve ever heard.

12. The Books - The Lemon of Pink

an album of attractions. here’s another one of those perfect records. a perfect record with a nonsense title that is too rightfully contented with its sounds to summon so much as a hint of traditional meaning… but in the abstraction lies the rub, as this isn’t an argument - it’s beauty by assembly. the 2nd and best LP by a band whose work is predominately comprised of samples (samples of recordings often unearthed in dusty library basements… nitrate tapes of old flights landing or radio recordings from an era of charmingly affected narration… or even, on their first album, the frightening sounds of an old lady requesting to have her son returned to her from police custody… or something), with The Lemon of Pink The Books best reconciled their affinity for the excavated past with their present contributions. injecting a fair bit more of their own (and guest) voices rather than simply being contented to banjo around some particularly kooky samples, this album is at first a relentlessly unpredictable bouquet / survey of recorded noise, but with greater familiarity is unveiled to be such a circumspectly arranged collage of sound that it plays like a matchmaker re-uniting the diaspora of recorded noise, 2 scattered immigrants at a time. with a little banjo and a japanese voice announcing your imminent arrival at narita airport, the noises return to their long-lost lovers as if resolving into platonic cinematic terms… the songs have their moments of dialectical montage, but when taken as a whole are built ford tough for deep focus, designed to be digested in total rather than as fragments. ya know, rather than trying to make sense of all that, just listen to “take time,” which makes for a pretty cogent diagram in and of itself.

11. Radiohead - In Rainbows

after 4 years of waiting:

“hello everyone. well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days; we’ve called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. - Jonny”

and so on the night of october 1 2007, the music industry was once again changed forever. one of the world’s biggest bands (and certainly its best), was digitally releasing their new album themselves. and then of course the p.s. - you could pay however much you wanted to for it, including nothing. cue the hullabaloo.

now, radiohead’s ambitious yet oddly humble experiment continues to ignite discussions and pose very real ramifications for the music industry and those who orbit around it. the chatter and fallout hasn’t all been positive (other artists griping that the move set an unreasonable precedent for less successful acts, while some fans like me lament that it seems to push radiohead - once considered the saviors of “The Album” - into their current regime of dropping one-off songs without notice. but just when the music industry had forgotten how to create an exciting communal event, Radiohead proved how simple it could be. with only a 10-day window from announcement to e-mailed release, there were no advanced copies… everyone from esteemed rock critics to decidedly un-esteemed me were huddling by their computers that night, eagerly anticipating the arrival in their inbox, and then experiencing / reacting to the music together. it was the kind of event that the music biz had once seemed to have ceded to the world of motion pictures.

but perhaps the most remarkable bit of all was that the music didn’t get buried beneath the hoopla. when the dust settled it became clear that Radiohead’s seventh LP (their weakest since 1995’s The Bends) was not only one of the most important albums of the decade, it was also one of the very best. from the skittering intro to instant classic “15 Step” to the unprecedentedly gentle sunset croon and discordant layers of “House of Cards,” In Rainbows was not a career summation or simple return to guitar rock - lazy encapsulations poor music writers once again used to frame their reviews - but an uncharacteristically intimate internalization of the dread and frustrations that haunted and cornered Hail to the Thief. whereas on the previous record Thom and co. were manic and overwhelmed by the nonsense and nightmares of modern living, delivering a record dominated by external pressures… on In Rainbows things are a bit closer to the vest - the means and processes by which the fears so astutely illustrated on HTTT are personally absorbed. their 5th straight album without a single misstep, tunes like “Bodysnatchers” quickly set the tone for hanging on to oneself, whereas the triptych of “Nude,” “Arpeggi,” and “All I Need,” features some of the band’s most visceral and yet least abstract lyrics, outlining both the causes and solutions of new world malaise. eventually sinking to unprecedentedly mundane details for a Radiohead song (going so far as to chronicle the events of an evening at a bar as by rote in “A Jigsaw Falling Into Place”), this isn’t the landscape-charting opera of OK Computer and Kid A, but rather the band’s grippingly personal reaction to the era they helped define.

perhaps it’s due to the brilliant ellipses of spare piano with which “Videotape” winds down, or maybe it’s because of the comparatively subtler intent of the record as a whole that it doesn’t hit with the same breath-swallowing ferocity of its predecessors - methinks it was never intended to. i don’t think that necessarily renders it a (SLIGHTLY) lesser album - the tunes are closer to the unfathomable heights of their earlier records than i thought possible - but for me (and this is reallllyyy splitting hairs) there are a couple of moments during “jigsaw,” “videotape,” “bodysnatchers,” and “nude” where i’m momentarily more consumed by meaning than musicianship rather than simultaneously in the thrall of both as is par for the course for these guys. in a career defined by mythological perfection, a matter of seconds can make all the arbitrary difference for the fanboys out there.

Cross-posted from The Ecstatic Truth.

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Unknown said...

Hey...loving teh list..but where is the 1-10 list???
Cheers, Matt