Jul 5 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Because of the Times

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

38. Kings of Leon – Because of the Times

Nobody likes Kings of Leon anymore, and there’s a reason for that – Only By the Night, their breakthrough album, was disappointing as a whole, and Come Around Sundown was almost complete garbage. The group has all but reinvented themselves as a schlock, stadium-filling, Southern rock answer to U2. I suppose you could blame Because of the Times for all of that – they never really looked back after melodramatic, grandiose productions like “Knocked Up” and “On Call.” But the group’s third album, an obvious musical departure from the rowdy Youth and Young Manhood and the incredible Aha Shake Heartbreak, for temporarily better (and ultimately worse) showed a band growing into strong songwriters.

The refried Southern tinge is still present, though more subdued; this is a band undergoing a sharp transformation.  The aforementioned “Knocked Up,” arguably the album’s most memorable tune, is a 7-minute tale of the aftermath of an accidental pregnancy.  We still get the “Strokes in overalls” vibe, yes, but the melodies have shifted from dirgy rock pieces to more pop-influenced movements, reminiscent of some of the bands Kings opened for while writing this album – bands like Pearl Jam and, yes, U2.  There is more melodic romanticism – the captivating “True Love Way” and the simply sweet “Ragoo.”  And yet, the dirty rock is still here, just before it all but disappeared, and it is stronger than ever.  The screech of “Charmer” alongside rockers like “McFearless” and “Black Thumbnail” do not disappoint.

Many mark this album as the beginning of the end for Kings of Leon as a relevant band, and I am not one to argue.  But even if their output from here on out was less than satisfactory, to downright Weezer-esque atrocious, this was one hell of a last hurrah.

Kings of Leon – Knocked Up

Kings of Leon – Charmer

Kings of Leon – True Love Way

May 10 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Stankonia

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

39. Outkast – Stankonia

The underground hiphop sensational duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, now Grammy-winning superstars of today’s pop landscape, were just a blip on the radar when they dropped the now-classic Stankonia, an hour-long space-age, futuristic pimp, Southern rap adventure. The boys had made a name for themselves with equally strange-yet-funky albums ATLiens and Aquemini, but with the hit singles “Miss Jackson,” “So Fresh, So Clean,” and the explosive “B.O.B.,” Outkast launched onto MTV and pop radio almost overnight.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years, and the guys have since made a double album of solo concepts, a movie with a better soundtrack, and their own solo material (Big Boi has stayed the most productive in that realm, dropping the amazing Sir Luscious Left Foot last year, while Andre has yet to make his first solo album, instead collaborating as a guest star on many A-list tracks since the release of Idlewild nearly five years ago). Still, Stankonia remains for most their crowning achievement, an apocalyptic sounding rap catastrophe in a world that had just survived Y2K. Who would have known then that a song called “Bombs Over Baghdad” would come to broadly define the next ten turbulent years?

Outkast – Miss Jackson

Outkast – B.O.B.

Outkast – We Luv Deez Hoez

Mar 22 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Relationship of Command

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

40. At the Drive In – Relationship of Command

Admittedly, I didn’t really get At the Drive In upon first listen to Relationship of Command, their best and final album.  It wasn’t until some time after their breakup that I dusted it off and gave it another shot, and from then on it became a staple for my road trips and, even recently, my city commutes.  I blame my myopia on high school ignorance and misdirected expectations; I was yearning for a fix to my Rage Against the Machine obsession (who had recently called it quits), and first single “One Armed Scissor” seemed to suggest to me At the Drive In were apt to fill the void.

Obviously, that was unfair to the sheer punk this crew were offering the masses – where Rage gets their prowess from old-skool hip-hop, the aggression of At the Drive In can be found in the slicing choruses of “Arc Arsenal,” the tongue-in-cheek comedy of “Rolodex Propaganda,” and the undeniable infectiousness of my personal highlight, “Pattern Against User.”

As we can all see today, this was the El Paso group’s high point – the always-convoluted Mars Volta and the downright terrible Sparta have been poor alternatives to the focus that we discovered on Relationship of Command, and for that matter, At the Drive In as a whole.  While we all anticipate/dread the reunion at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015 (where they will play Relationship in its entirety), we still have this album to keep us banging our head, maniacally shaking our oversized Omar-homage hairdos.

At the Drive In – Pattern Against User

At the Drive In – One Armed Scissor

At the Drive In – Enfilade

Feb 28 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Dear Science

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

41. TV On the Radio – Dear Science

Though not as groundbreaking as the group’s first two albums, Dear Science was arguably the big breakthrough to mainstream popularity TV On the Radio had been working so hard to accomplish – they had finally found a way to incorporate their pop-craft tendencies into sharply constructed accessible songs. While Return to Cookie Mountain still had an experimental tendency, Dear Science is mostly a more straightforward recording all the way through – it simply picks up where “Wolf Like Me” left off.

Kyp Malone’s harmonizing is in full force here – it’s even more at the forefront, since that ultimately is TV On the Radio’s trademark.  His “oohs” and “aahhs” are backbones to some tightly built indie dance.  David Bowie’s not around to help lay down the boogie, but it hardly matters; wound up rump-shakin’ “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose” are two of the best upbeat tracks the band has put together.  Meanwhile, the group continues to expand and flex their songwriting muscle, with jam “Crying” and the strong ballad “Family Tree.”

In just a few weeks, we’ll have the first new material from TV On the Radio since this album was dropped back in 2008, and first samples sound promising, even if they seem similar to the groundwork lain here.  With smart writing, concise production, and an always energetic live presence, Dear Science, which debuted on the Billboard 200 at #12, was the group’s first shining moment in the spotlight of “big bands” in the world of indie rock.  TV On the Radio has always been a progressive collective, and I look forward to their triumphant return in 2011.

TV On the Radio – Halfway Home

TV On the Radio – Dancing Choose

TV On the Radio – Golden Age

Feb 4 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Psychic Chasms

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

42. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms

The summer of 2009 was fairly lazy and optimistic for me – Obama had just been elected, and music was particularly awesome.  I had a part time job driving around a bingo parlor lot as a “security guard” listening to satellite radio.  And that’s where I first heard “Deadbeat Summer,” the theme song to my life at that point.  I then saw Neon Indian at Monolith, ACL, and Fun Fun Fun Fest, where the show morphed from a mere electronic experiment to a full-blown chillwave dance powerhouse on stage.

The chillwave movement of 2009 was extraordinary in its remarkable presence and almost similarly immediate dissolving – the subgenre is basically dead at this point, or at least in limbo, as prominent chillwavers are trying new sounds other than the spaced-out, 80’s influenced, electro dance music that captivated us a couple of years ago.  Still, Psychic Chasms, my favorite album of that year, is a trippy, upbeat half hour of drug-induced Miami Vice fun.

Alan Palomo’s post-Ghosthustler project turned him into a blog-world superstar almost overnight, as leaked tracks were consistently lauded for their unique mix of sampling (some of which are familial – his father’s compositions, popular in the 1970’s in Mexico), muddy lo-fi production, and infectious melody, even more so than his dream-house effort Vega, which he all but abandoned once Neon Indian took off.  Psychic Chasms is a perfect introduction; either you get it or you don’t, either you’re dancing or you’re scratching your head.  Of course, with toe-tapping songs like “Terminally Chill” and “Should Have Taken Acid With You,” I don’t see how anyone could resist.

Neon Indian – Deadbeat Summer

Neon Indian – Terminally Chill

Neon Indian – Mind, Drips

Jan 21 2011

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Power In Numbers

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

43. Jurassic 5 – Power In Numbers

By 2002, the rap game was well aware of the J5 MCs and what they had to offer – a badass EP and the debut Quality Control had established the LA crew as a formidable presence on the scene.  They were certainly getting a lot of attention for their sound – a stripped-down, lyrics-based, old-skool approach, focusing on wordplay and intricate flow rather than heavy beats and sloppy sex rhymes.  As the group said it best on the hit “What’s Golden,” they weren’t “ballin’ or shot callin” but rather taking you “back to the days of yes-y’allin’.”  In the early 2000’s, J5 were a welcome break from the overproduced dreck that was just beginning to litter Top 40 radio (Ja Rule was still a prominent hit-maker at the time).

When their sophomore effort Power In Numbers dropped, the immediate reaction was mostly of praise, but overall the consensus was that, while darker, it certainly wasn’t as good as the previous two efforts.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  With this disc, Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir, and Mark 7even demonstrated their versatile flow even further, alongside some of the finest work from the then-relatively unknown disc jockeys Nu Mark and Cut Chemist.  Big Daddy Kane shows up for the chorus-less highlight “A Day At the Races,” and Nelly Furtado, who had recently scored her first big hit “I’m Like a Bird,” appears for a commentary on complicated friendships between members of the opposite sex on “Thin Line.”  And stay tuned for the insect-infested and hilarious freestyle “DDT.”

In 2006, the crew released the lackluster Feedback and called it quits.  The majority of lyricists disappeared; Chali 2na continued to disappoint on his own, releasing a weak solo album.  Meanwhile the two scratchers in the background pursued their own projects and came up gold – both DJ Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist are two of the present day’s finest turntable masters.  Still, some of their finest work can be found on J5’s best album.

Jurassic 5 – A Day At The Races (Feat. Big Daddy Kane & Percy P)

Jurassic 5 – What’s Golden

Jurassic 5 – Thin Line (Feat. Nelly Furtado)

Dec 23 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – In Rainbows

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

44. Radiohead – In Rainbows

Released in October 2007 digitally (for a price of your choosing) and physically dropped on New Year’s Day 2008, In Rainbows was the end of the longest gap in between albums for Radiohead.  Whether you agree or not, the album is generally credited with establishing a new business model for a crippling music industry, offering a “pay what you want” scheme for the digital copy, exclusively from the band’s website.  It seems fitting that Radiohead would do this; they had just split with EMI, and In Rainbows was their first album not on a major label.  This idea has been adopted by many independent artists since the media storm surrounding the inventive self-leak.  But what In Rainbows is remembered for is not necessarily what makes it great – it is, for a group like Radiohead, quite shockingly amorous.

Thom Yorke once described the mood and lyrics of In Rainbows as “seduction songs,” and it’s hard to argue with that.  For the most part, the album is softer, more down-tempo, and, well, more romantic (in a weird Radiohead kind of way) than anything they’ve ever done.  Take the piano chords and easing texture of the sensual “All I Need,” or the creeping crescendo of “Videotape.”  Even songs that channel the 21st-century electronic-noodling side of the British group, such as “15 Step” and “Nude,” are less raw and foreboding than the highlights of Kid A and Hail to the Thief.  Meanwhile, the guitar-based Bends and OK Computer-era tracks, referring to “Weird Fishes” and “Reckoner,” show maturation, and, lyrically speaking, poetic contemplation.

With 2011 fast approaching, the talks from Johnny Greenwood are already aplenty regarding a follow-up to this fantastic disc, one of Radiohead’s best hands down.  And as their track record shows, in terms of ingenuous marketing as well as growth in musicianship, we can expect something completely different and amazing all at once.

Radiohead – 15 Step

Radiohead – All I Need

Radiohead – Reckoner

Dec 13 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Now We Can See

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

45. The Thermals – Now We Can See

As far as concept albums go, Hutch Harris has nailed the formula.  There’s nothing vague or nebulous about the themes present in the lyrics of Thermals albums, whether it be the compelling tirade against politics and religion on The Body, The Blood, and the Machine or the analysis of love on the trio’s latest effort Personal Life.  As for Now We Can See, the first-person narrative is someone who has just recently died, and the observation is revelatory, unique, and brilliant.

Harris ponders how one would feel once dead through this narrative, and it makes complete sense.  The words reflect regret on things left unaccomplished, but overall, our protagonist is nonchalant and relieved, because, hey who cares, he’s already dead. Nothing to be done.  He’s free from the burden of life and the inevitable end.  The stark, subtle realization that there is nothing left to fear is prevalent throughout the album, and it conjures the brightest feeling of optimism ever felt on a post-punk collection of songs.

As for the music, well, the Portland trio has only gotten sharper and tighter in their feel-good power chord delivery and sing-along chants.  The title track is reminiscent of Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy,” and Kathy Foster’s bass lines and percussion (when recording, the Thermals only had two members – drummer Westin Glass would join for the following tour) provide solid accompaniment for Harris’ declarative tenor and guitar solo.  While “Liquid In Liquid Out” gives a clever commentary on the wasteful routines of a life passed, “When We Were Alive” rocks harder than anything the band has churned out since Fuckin’ A.

In a solid half hour, the Thermals will win your heart and banging head with simply structured rock and roll and, in contrast, an uplifting approach to a usually fearful topic.  And after you’ve memorized every note and word, go see them live.  It all makes life worth living.

The Thermals – We Were Sick

The Thermals – Now We Can See

The Thermals – Liquid In, Liquid Out

Dec 1 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – Night Ripper

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

46. Girl Talk – Night Ripper

Before 2006, Girl Talk was merely a laptop-based sound collage dude, as his 2002 debut Secret Diary reveals.  It’s interesting, but as far as the Greg Gillis we know and love today, it’s worlds apart, and frankly, musically speaking, an unlistenable mess.  2003’s Unstoppable, while still pretty low-key and amateur, is more in line with the mashup style Girl Talk would be famous for.  And then there was Night Ripper, a 45-minute nonstop party album, combining indie with mainstream hip-hop, modern R&B hits with classic rock staples, Motown gold with 90’s alternative.

This year, Gillis released his fifth proper LP All Day, and if one thing is certain, it’s that the man has honed his craft.  Still, there are many moments of timeless brilliance on this breakthrough disc – Puff Daddy alongside the Pixies, Biggie with Elton John, David Banner rapping to Nine Inch Nails, MIA rocking out to Hum.  The mixes come at you a mile a minute; it’s not an album to fully digest in one sitting, or two, or three.  And the remarkable thing is this: much like another artist who takes from pop culture in its current incarnation to make something completely different (I’m thinking of Weird Al), the results have oddly aged well, even when the source hasn’t.

Since Night Ripper exploded onto the scene with glowing reviews, Gillis has remained a mainstay on the dance scene, entertaining the festival circuit with his signature brand of shows (where he invites fans to rush the stage for the entirety of his performance) and becoming a prominent figurehead in the copyright/sampling debate.  Naturally, Girl Talk has as many detractors as fans – how, they ask, could someone get so famous for creating something anyone could do in their bedroom?  And yet, almost five years after Night Ripper and a plethora of emulation later, no one does it quite like Girl Talk.

Nov 20 2010

The Top 50 Albums of the 2000s – From Under the Cork Tree

Today I continue a series of posts dedicated to the best albums of the last decade, posting analysis of one album at a time.

47. Fall Out Boy – From Under the Cork Tree

Coming home from the Green Day concert I attended in 2005, we stopped at a mall somewhere and my sister purchased Fall Out Boy’s second album From Under the Cork Tree. Because of the source, I was admittedly biased from the start – if my sister introduces me to it, I am unfairly skeptical of its validity.  In retrospect, I can see how this is utter idiocy; turning a blind eye to a young pop-punk group immediately after watching the elder statesmen of pop-punk live in concert is incredulous.  Once “Sugar We’re Going Down” hit Fuse, I was officially hooked, and I begrudgingly asked my younger sibling if I could burn a copy of the disc.

The appeal to Fall Out Boy, other than their uncanny ability to write something undeniably catchy and radio-ready, is their experimentation with several standard rock rhythms in one song.  It’s pretty typical today in the emo/power pop circuit, but back in 2005, I hadn’t really heard anything like it.  Combining elements of punk, emo, and even rap cadence, the group expanded from their mostly standard pop-punk debut Take This To Your Grave.  To the untrained ear, this is just a conventional album – the key is the passionate Pete Wentz-penned, sex soaked lyrics, crooned by the effervescent Patrick Stump.

Take for example, the unusual rhythm of “Of All the Gin Joints In the World,” a start-stop guitar-led anthem about a superficial, purely sexual relationship.  The chorus is blunt: “All the way/Your makeup stains my pillowcase.”  Or observe the so-honest-it’s-sexy pick-up lines in “Dance Dance” – “Why don’t you show me a little bit of spark you’ve been saving for his mattress?”  And of course, who could forget the candid observation from “Sugar We’re Going Down” – “I’m just a notch in your bedpost, but you’re just a line in a song.”

The best pop albums, whether they be backed by instruments or computers or whatever, are ones that feel instantly familiar, yet provide a unique, progressive approach all their own.  Much like most music for the masses, pop-punk is a slowly progressing medium.  With mainstream success, Fall Out Boy opened the next chapter in that book with this album, a brilliantly accessible, glossily produced power-chord love affair with something subtly new to offer.

Fall Out Boy – Of All The Gin Joints In All The World

Fall Out Boy – Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down

Fall Out Boy – 7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)