Sunday, October 11, 2009


The end of the decade—improbable as it may seem—is drawing nigh. And everyone is starting to compile their “Best of the 2000s” lists. I came across Pitchfork’s top 20 and thought, heck, I’m pretty much a Nick Hornby character (if I were to make a list of my favorite movies of the past decade, High Fidelity—based on a Hornby novel—would definitely be on it), I can do that. (Actually, Pitchfork does the 200 best albums; I’m not that ambitious.)

So I am starting my own countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past ten years. Twenty-six? Yes; round numbers are boring. If I were more ambitious, I would add fractions of albums and come up with my favorite 26.54 albums. I’m not that ambitious.

I’ll start at number 26 and over the next few weeks continue the countdown to number 1, my favorite album of the 2000s. Some of you may already be able to figure it out, or can at least narrow it down.

I should point out that this is not meant to be a definitive “Best of the Decade list.” It’s just my own personal favorites.

26. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights, Matador Records, 2002

Mi hermano introduced me to Interpol (the New York City-based band, not the international police organization) a couple years ago, and while I like all three of their albums (to date), their debut is the one that stands out. All the reviews I have read about it liken the album to Joy Division, but I really don’t entirely support the comparison. Joy Division (one of my favorite bands ever) songs sound like transmissions from a dark and terrifying alternate universe. Sure, Turn on the Bright Lights is dark and atmospheric, but doesn’t quite bring the Joy (if you know what I mean). Still, I’m not a big fan of identifying all of a band’s influences; the album is perfectly exciting to listen to all on its own. The snaky guitars, the moody if often cryptic lyrics (in “NYC,” for example, “The subway she is a porno/The pavements they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow I’m not impressed”; well, they have a point), the often tremulous vocals—sure, they may wear their influences on their sleeve, but it all adds up to a dish that rises above its ingredients.

25. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Nonesuch, 2002

I had been aware of Wilco for a few years (especially their Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg), but not being a big fan of alt-country, I never really went out of my way to listen to them. But their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, effectively transcends all genres—it’s all over the map, which is what I find to be much of its appeal. And part of its problem. The story behind the album is probably more famous than anything on it: the band recorded it for Reprise Records (a Time Warner label), the label felt it was not commercial enough and refused to release it. The band bought the album back from them and left the label, streamed it in its entirety on its Web site, site traffic went through the roof, the subsequent tour was a hit, and other record labels began a bidding war for the right to release it as a proper album. Ultimately, Nonesuch (ironically, another Time Warner subsidiary) won and it was released in 2002. Some could argue that the record fails to live up to its hype, but I’m not one of them. How can you not like an album whose first song (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) opens with the line “I am an American aquarium drinker,” or gets you to earnestly sing along with silly lines like “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns”? (Hmm...that could be the Syracuse University football team’s motto.) Elsewhere, sonic experimentation and musical complexity sit side by side with simple melodies and bright choruses. The lyrics also get a bit more coherent and often wistful; “I still miss those heavy metal bands/She used to go see on the landing in the summer/She fell in love with a drummer/She fell in love with the drummer...I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers/Beautiful and stoned” (“Heavy Metal Drummer”). What may have turned off Reprise is that many of the songs fail to end properly; even the simplest most straightforward tracks are likely to devolve into weird bits of noise or, as at the end of “Poor Places,” a woman repeating the words “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” over and over (letters of the phonetic alphabet, lifted from a box set called The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations—boy, that sounds like a compelling listen!). This one stayed in the iPod for a while in 2002.

Morrissey, Years of Refusal, Attack Records, 2009

I know what you’re thinking: Morrissey? Really? In this decade? Are you time-tripping back to the 80s again? Well, um, er, yes. I mean no. I mean... Sure, after about 1993 or so, I sort of lost track of Morrissey—and he actually went into hiding from about 1997 to 2004. Curiously, rather than emerging as the sort of old, past-it dinosaur he lampooned in the 1990 song “Get Off the Stage,” he seems to have taken on almost elder-statesman status, and has even been embraced by all the emo fans—a genre, it bears mentioning, that largely owes its existence to Morrissey. And to his credit, he’s not always still whining about the same old things; he’s settling into a graceful middle-age (he turns 50 this year), with a whole new set of things to be miserable about. (And, heck, if Mick Jagger still can’t get no satisfaction at age 60+, what makes anyone think Morrissey ever will?) His three records this decade (2004’s You Are the Quarry, 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormenters, and 2009’s Years of Refusal) haven’t changed his basic formula, but have expanded it a bit, and even added a few new wrinkles (literally, as well as figuratively). By post-comeback album number three, most of the rough edges have been sanded away, and it’s probably the most focused album—and best set of songs—he’s come up with in a while. In fact, when we last left Morrissey in 2006, he had apparently found love and was living in Rome. That, unsurprisingly, didn’t quite work out, and, after all, Moz happy is not what the punters pay for, so now in 2009 he’s throwing his arms around Paris “because only stone and steel accept my love.” We’ll see about that; the next album he’ll be writing nasty songs about the Eiffel Tower. Anyway, the opening song on Years, the raucous “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” pretty much addresses the likely criticism: “I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out/Thank you, drop dead.” That’s telling ’em. One of the singles was “That’s How People Grow Up,” which is fairly typical Morrissey: “I was driving my car/I crashed and broke my spine/So, yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone sweetie.” I guess “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” didn’t quite work out. Anyway, Years of Refusal is not likely to turn around anyone who never liked the guy to begin with. But for those of us who have grown up with him (The Smiths were required listening in college in the 1980s), it’s nice to still have him around.

[Video embedding disabled. Bastard.]

23. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Warner Bros., 2002

For my money, and it is my money, actually, the one perfect Flaming Lips album is 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, but most people tend to agree that 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is their high-water mark, eschewing much of the psychedelic trappings for a new emotional directness. Yeah, I suppose, but I think the follow-up, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots perfectly captures the twin essences of the Lips (the two lips?), the out-there wackiness and the down-to-Earth humanity. That this is all dressed up in a concept album about a Japanese girl who has to defeat evil robots—and works far better than you would think—is quite remarkable. Technically, the concept ends about halfway though the record, or at the end of side one in the old days of vinyl. The problem, as laid out in track two, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” is that the robots are developing human emotions—which can never be real emotions. (It sounds kind of like the premise of the new Battlestar Galactica.) Anyway, a big part of what makes the record work are the beautiful melodies and near sonic perfection of the production. Like Pink Floyd, whose influence is all over this album’s follow-up, 2006’s At War With the Mystics, the Lips may not be virtuoso musicians, but they know how to use a recording studio to their best advantage. Another big part of this album’s success is Wayne Coyne’s fragile voice, which can even make you weep as you sing along with lines like “Oh, Yoshimi, they won’t believe me, but you won’t let those robots eat me.” Still, what puts this album on the best-of list is the stand-out track “Do You Realize??” which is quite possibly the most beautiful song ever recorded, and if it doesn’t make you weep, then you are a pink robot.

XTC, Wasp Star, TVT Records, 2000

I put this on this list simply because XTC is one of my favorite bands of all time, and this album, as it happened, ended up being their swan song. Steven H. got me into XTC back circa 1986 via the Waxworks collection of singles—and it was just about this time that Skylarking and “Dear God” had come out. Most cool people have one or all of the “holy trinity” of essential XTC records—Drums and Wires (1979), Black Sea (1980), and English Settlement (1982)—but some of us have it all. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were (are?) two of the best songwriters around and that XTC were never a household name is one of history’s great injustices. Another was their record company-induced “lost decade”; after 1993’s not very good Nonsuch, they got stuck in record contract hell and were prohibited from either recording anything or getting released from their contract. They were simply ignored and it took six years and a phalanx of lawyers to extricate them. So by the time they finally reappeared in 1999 with Apple Venus—a lush, acoustic-orchestral album—they had lost guitarist Dave Gregory and were down to a duo. Recorded at the same time, but the other side of the stytlistic coin, was Wasp Star, released in 2000, which was what the punters wanted: a straight ahead album of pop-rock gems. And it delivers. “Playground” is a great set opener, and if there are any weak moments, it’s “Wounded Horse” (which should be shot). “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love” got some radio play, at least in L.A., at the time. Alas, after Wasp Star, Colin Moulding retired from music, but Andy Partridge has been releasing some rare recordings and demos, and working on new material. (He apparently has been collaborating with Robyn Hitchcock.)

21. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema, Matador Records, 2005

The New Pornographers are a Vancouver-based collective (or “supergroup,” if you prefer) spearheaded by AC Newman and comprising alt-country diva Neko Case, John Collins (The Evaporators), Dan Bejar (Destroyer), and Kurt Dahle, among others. (I know, household names, all.) Every two years, they come together, record an immaculate collection of po-rock gems, and then return to their proper projects. 2003’s Electric Version was great, but 2005’s Twin Cinema is even better, with just about every track a gem. This one stayed in the iPod throughout most of the latter half of 2005. AC Newman writes most of the stuff (Dan Bejar usually gets a surreal song or two per album, in this case “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” whose title and refrain “On a train devouring the land/A girl’s going insane over her man” wouldn’t make this out of place on a Robyn Hitchcock record. Neko Case’s solo showcases, “The Bones of an Idol” and “These Are the Fables” make me want to explore her solo records. Twin Cinema has more hooks than a coatrack factory, smart writing, great harmonies, and loose yet flawless performances. I confess, the much mellower follow-up, 2007’s Challengers, was more that a bit of a disappointment. But it’s 2009, and there’s still time for a new New Pornographers record to come out. Hope springs eternal...

To be continued...

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