Top 100 Albums of the 2000s
By The Staff
90 :: Ricardo Villalobos
Most of the electronic music that floats the boats of indie rock fans, and vice versa, does so by either de-mechanizing mechanized music, or by mechanizing traditional pop/rock. Which is pretty obvious given a decade in which Daft Punk made hay softening a progressive house jam with a juicy artificial glissando guitar bend and Radiohead used aggressive filtering to give its melodies an uneasy robotic sheen. So when Ricardo Villalobos’ Achso took a less literal approach to making dance music corpulent, the fence never seemed so slickly straddled.
Relentless in both composition and execution, Achso squeezes the last bit out of each element at its disposal, stretching every idea to its seething limit. The bass never overpowers but burrows into the brain anyway, buzzing and ringing with dog whistle overtones. The buildup in “Duso” layers spoken words, a thick low end, bursts of percussion, xylophone synths, spastic slides, soft drips, and glitchy asides—and that’s only the introduction. Each of Achso’s four tracks are busy but minimal, exhaustive but recyclable; Villalobos evokes sounds at once familiar—leaves rustling, a door slamming, a heel hitting pavement, water thwacking against metal, beats leaking through the walls of an apartment building—and unnervingly synthetic. It’s not surprising that such a tightly wound record disturbs and overwhelms in such equally devastating measure—what is surprising is how effortlessly Villalobos is able to place visceral limits around seemingly limitless parts. It makes a fifty-minute EP seem just long enough.
89 :: Young Jeezy
(Def Jam/Corporate Thugz Entertainment; 2008)
The Recession, an untouched reflection of its creator, lacks nuance. It is an ostensibly patience-testing glut: of 18 songs, of 75 minutes, of the most anthemic dumb shit we’ve yet heard ever. Analogously, it is trap-hop’s Damaged (1981): I wanna live:I wish I was dead :: my President is black:my Lambo’s blue. Which is stupid (nonsensical), but also stupid (correct). Though blow remains a central theme, Jeezy sings about himself all over this record, each track a distillation of an emphatic action burbling within his immediate consciousness. Jeezy is gleeful (“Amazin’”); Jeezy is exhausted (“Vacation”); Jeezy thinks you can take your “lyrical” rapping and fucking shove it (“Word Play”). Even “Don’t Do It” mashes confliction and regret into a singular emotion. Most notably, Jeezy puts on for his city, and if his basic sentiment doesn’t appeal to your mind, “Put On” appeals, resoundingly, to the stiff shell that protects it, and its ability to nod vigorously. Though one can quibble endlessly about the faults of a record so audaciously one-note, its bloated strengths leave no space for lack: concrete drums, brash synths, sneering bravado, and an uncomplicated sincerity. And anyway, The Recession drowns out all protest with guttural and ad-libs, birthing a universe in which everything is either major or microscopic.
88 :: AGF
DANCE FLOOR DRACHEN
(AGF Producktion; 2008)
There are a lot of albums which feature music that is experimental, but there are precious few where the album itself is the experiment in question. Hell, this is more a punch in the face than an album, and it’s easy to get distracted by the endless layers of concept and miss just how gorgeous and ominous most of this music is. Just like a dragon, ‘natch. It’s an onion you shouldn’t necessarily peel, I mean, in case you make it angry, or it makes you angry. Which is kind of the idea: on paper this album reads like a spreadsheet—an argument about artist rights, an analysis of downloading, a nod to pay what you can—but in practice it’s like listening to the sound of, I dunno, all the most neurotic and impassioned moments of mundane office work stretched out into something epic and end-of-world-conflicty. Or, I dunno, it’s like when you get that catch in your throat and you’re really emotional and you want to say something and maybe you do or don’t say it but this is that precise moment before your head is clear enough to make that decision. Or, like, it’s like David Hasselhoff getting a pearl necklace from Trent Reznor while wearing a pearl necklace. This is the detritus of high and pop culture expressed through am uncompromising blunt of ecstasy and formula, constantly brilliant and simplistic at the same time. It’s genius caught and made ungenius, the potent turned impotent, and the political drunk down with the bathwater. You know, since it also features a baby. Or something. It’s not the most experimental or mean sounding thing on this list, but it’s the most loose with experimental meaning.
87 :: Perfect
Thanks to the broad strokes way the history of reggae is often presented it might be easy to assume that by the end of the 1970s the genre was bled dry as a creative force once dub was consumed as a creative tool for post-punk and new wave musicians. The amount of incredibly good reggae, dancehall, and dub albums from the 1980s puts paid to this notion, of course, but even the staunchest defender of reggae would have to admit that there’s a definite downturn for the form after Scientist won the World Cup and African Head Charge rewrote the schematic potential of what dub could be—around the same time that, not coincidentally, the reggae-influenced juggernaut that was hip hop really began to pick up steam—leaving only memories of Bob Marley and the poppiest, beat-ready approaches to dancehall as a way forward.
Giddimani, therefore, is a strange animal. It’s not like it envisions some radical, alternative-to-Sean-Paul future for reggae, but neither does it sound much like a traditional album. Perfect ranges between traditionally structured roots reggae tracks and more contemporary dancehall blazers, burning the candle at both ends to achieve some weird, quixotic balance that comes off like this giant synthesis of everything that makes reggae powerful in the first place. But since it doesn’t sound like an anachronism, really, I guess I just think of Giddimani as one of the better pop records of the decade. I’m still not sure the production/beats always live up to Perfect’s huge personality, but that’s telling too: this is an album that remains strong and affecting even despite the fact that I wish there was more to the music, and that consistently amazes me.
86 :: Islaja
Finland’s Merja Kokkonen isn’t the sweetest of singers or the most brash of aesthetes but, damn, can she roll. And by that I mean the rhythms of her songs on Ulual YYY are ingenious, deceptive, and a tad frightening. Analogies aren’t just helpful in this case, they’re almost required: what most immediately comes to mind is standing in ocean up to your waist as you wait for waves to hit. You watch them approach, unsure of what stature they will gain or lose, and they either curl up within themselves, bulge out translucent girth, and smack you…or they just ripple around your legs, clean out your navel, and leave seaweed in your trunks. Sometimes they hit hard enough to carry you along; the drums rise and subside and rise in “Pete P” and their undulation cresting off the continuous current of the main key line gives the listener enough momentum to body-surf on to shore. Other times after they pass you watch their jet-black backsides dwindle or crash on some stranger’s kids, like the way the percussion builds and yet becomes more removed over the course of “Muusimaa.” The end of “Muukalais-Silma” is like Kokkonen pulling the ocean’s drain-plug out from right between your two feet and the whole wet mess folds down in on you from all sides; then with “Suru Ei” your lifeless body exits the earth’s bowels and slowly drifts to the surface of a placid lake on the other side of the world.
I don’t mean to take anything away from how cool all the music’s constituents are—from psyched-out string plucking to rich horn blurts to the moodiest old keyboards ever (shit’s like an awesome Can revival) to the deal with the devil it must have took to enable Kokkonen to sing such sinuous, unconventionally gorgeous melodies within all that insane arrangement—because those things compose the actual heavy water element of which the record’s wide-arcing patterns are made. It’s just that there’s something bracing about Islaja in this implication of being utterly centered in something as ordered and absolute as the tide, of the entirety of this music’s form moving like matter simply obeying physics, and yet our subjective experience of that natural sequence is fraught with a sense of instability and unpredictability, heightened by awe.
85 :: Scott Walker
Sing it with me: POW. Pow-pow-pow-pow. POWPOW. P-p-pow.
When Scott Walker found the perfect accompaniment to an increasingly-bleak worldview in the dead percussion of a hunk of meat hanging in a slaughterhouse, it may have initially seemed that he had finally dissolved into complete isolation and self-parody. And yet, on opener “Cossacks Are,” Walker collects what seems to be a list of quotes applied to his music: “Medieval savagery / Calculated cruelty”; “A chilling exploration of erotic consumption”; “It’s hard to pick the worst moment.” Perhaps the critique is leveled at those who, whether they view his music positively or negatively, refuse to engage with what he’s doing (and I’m not going to pretend to offer any real insight into what his lyrics really mean either), but what this track does establish—what critics so seldom grant such eccentric and radically iconoclastic artists—is self-awareness.
And if absurdity is part of that worldview, it’s only because some of the subjects he treats—Mussolini’s devoted wife, September 11th, Milosevic—escape rationality and can ultimately only be reflected through opaque metaphors and alternately banal and terrifying asides which resist unification. In fact, if Joy Shapes (2004) highlights the terror behind abject narcissism, The Drift is the flip-side: how history, with all its contingent connections and struggles of power, produces its own kind of dementia. When he asks “What does Seoul and Sudan have in common?” and then answers “Both start with an S,” the immediate reaction is to assume he’s being cheeky, and yet as these lines become lodged deeper and deeper within your brain over the course of several listens, the very idea of making logical connections through music seems more and more tenuous. With zero concessions to melody or rhythm, Walker is able to fully concentrate on mood and narrative. As a result we get “Clara,” one of the most staggeringly complex character studies I’ve ever heard put to music. Rather than portraying the woman who chose to be executed with Mussolini as pathological, Walker compares her to a bird trapped in an attic, a profoundly humanistic counterpoint to the “cornhusk doll / dipped in blood” that was her vacant body hanging in the public square.
Walker lost a lot of listeners after this record, those who cited the equally devastating but more melodic Tilt (1995), but in terms of a career arc, The Drift was a natural development. The chunks of sound that accompany his voice don’t so much offer momentum as they do radically shift the tone of what otherwise might be an exhaustive monolith of doom. Hidden within are very brief but nonetheless crucial moments of respite: the return to baroque orchestral crooning in the middle of “Buzzers,” or the closing two tracks “The Escape” and “A Lover Loves,” which remind me of Closer (1980)‘s “The Eternal” and “Decades” in terms of rounding out an otherwise chilling and austere record with naked emotion. With The Drift, Walker went so far overboard that pop music becomes simply one more piece of historical ephemera to reference, reduced to his deep baritone, in the voice of Elvis speaking to his stillborn twin brother: “I’M THE ONLY ONE LEFT ALIVE.”
84 :: David Thomas Broughton
The Complete Guide to Insufficiency
There’s still some mystery as to how David Thomas Broughton’s tremendous The Complete Guide to Insufficiency even managed to enter the collective CMG consciousness some five years ago. It was a debut record for both Broughton and his label; neither had a website at the time and there was only very fragmentary information available in any form about the artist and album. 2005 was a comparatively less-advanced age, I suppose, but even by the standards of the day it was an out-of-nowhere sort of album.
It was also out-of-nowhere in terms of its sound and approach. The Complete Guide consists of five songs, is 40 minutes long, and was recorded solo in one single take in a church in Leeds. The songs are long, slow, and don’t so much progress forward as expand, retract, fold back over themselves in imperfect layers, and disintegrate into something new. It’s all guitar, vocals, simple electronics, and loops. Broughton uses the latter to great effect: he lets pieces build and merge and achieve a mesmeric quality, driving them to a droning extreme to build something of the mess or, occasionally, pulling the carpet out from under the listener entirely and setting out in another direction. In my original review I lumped him in with the freak-folk scene, but it was, in retrospect, a poor call; Broughton’s operating in his own world. We’ve had one or two dispatches since The Complete Guide, and he’s promising more in 2010, but for now this remains the best glimpse at one of the decade’s most mystifying and unique talents—folk or otherwise.
83 :: Velella Velella
The Bay of Biscay
The first time I heard The Bay of Biscay was at a house party I was throwing while still at Ohio University, where my then-editor Chet Betz had arrived from upstate for the exclusive purpose it seemed of spinning immaculately hot shit all night. I had a weird cross-section of friends at the time, equally noiseniks and keg-standers, and while most of them knew each other exactly enough to dislike the other at this particular party things were gelling mellifluously. Betz was soundtracking the totally okay event with an appropriate mix of T.I., Broken Social Scene, and the Kinks (we’re talking like 2006 here, right), keeping all parties equally engaged and on-guard. He helmed the stereo and zeroed in on the party’s sonic accompaniment with increasing authority as the night wore on, giving my neighbors something at least better to listen to than the usual mixture of foosball, panic-induced vomiting and girl talk. And Girl Talk.
The night wore on. People did their various things. Eventually there came that point in the party when the people that were gonna shake off did so and the rest settled in, and so groups of people sort of stopped being clearly discernible, that magic confluence of memorable events beginning to occur at the exact moment that people stopped being able to store memories. Specific inebriates stopped being clearly discernible, and the effects of one session of something were no longer differentiated between whatever session came afterward, and hours sort of became the same at this point too, timespans indiscriminate, and within that hazy nether region of the evening drums hit live, playing against each other with the precision of an 808 but the playfulness of a Madlib loop, and the indie rock vibraphones swirled into Timbaland electro thuds and clipped, boom-bap breaks. Fridge doors slammed shut but above that there stood a hush of terse electronica, herky po-mo guitar riffs, handclaps and group vocals slurred with all the conviction of a sophomore year hook-up. Noticing within the din a particularly revelatory slice of flute-laden neo-funk, I asked Betz whether it was J Dilla or Spoon, fucked up as I was. He told me it was Velella Velella. It had been for an hour.
It was love—immediate and whole love at first listen of this “instrumental hip-hop” I guess but more like everything that groups of people like to listen to at the same time. Contextually, it was the most profoundly enjoyable thing I’d ever heard. Things have since changed, of course. I’ve got nothing in common with college anymore—I’m currently sitting in a cubicle eating a granola bar—and Betz is married and no longer available to attack whiskey at leisure in my living room, and I no longer house people by the dozen in said living room nor live in said house, and anyway most of those people are either dead or don’t like me anymore, and everyone who pretended to like me is gone and so on (it was 2006, right). But The Bay of Biscay is still that daydrunk, stoned-stupid cartwheel in spring quarter, where indie rock still sounds interesting and there are Tribe records yet undiscovered and the idea of having a hundred people over because it’s 70 degrees out seems perfectly normal. And so maybe I love this record out of nostalgia, bumping it as I did throughout ensuing parties and long-ride blunt sessions and at the coffeeshop where I worked, but it doesn’t really matter. It remains criminally under-heard and still without a proper follow-up: it is the type of record you listen to music to discover but for some reason people still fucking haven’t. Not en masse; not clamoring its greatness and blog-watching for new work the way music of such dense musicality and seemingly infinite knowledge of the pleasure principle deserves. So, anyway: I’m sorry if this blurb was too personal. My others won’t be. But buy this record and you’ll be nostalgic for the first time you listened to it, too.
82 :: Songs: Ohia
Didn't It Rain
(Secretly Canadian; 2002)
Didn’t It Rain quickly and somehow without much debate became our Jason Molina consensus pick for this list, but, considering the calibre of material that came before and after, it really is a tough call. Would anyone blink an eye if we’d gone with this record’s more accessible follow-up, Magnolia Electric Co., or its exhausting predecessor, Ghost Tropic? Hell, of those three I’m not even sure this is my pick for his best of the decade, but it’s not hard to see why it’s the perfect choice for this list: to a decent extent this is where Molina really came into his own, or at least cultivated the songwriting model that he’s been working with ever since, and certainly where he finally captured the sound he had been looking for. This is not to disparage his earlier releases—Axxess & Ace and Ghost Tropic remain among my favorites in his catalogue—but nothing was as direct or forceful as Didn’t It Rain.
Sonically, it’s a sparse album: everything recorded live, no overdubs, and with as little going on as possible. The drums and bass are laconic, and the guitars just ring out into space. There are little flubs, occasional snippets of muted instructions to the band, and just a huge amount of room in which to breathe. Compared with some of Molina’s denser early work, it feels way more direct. Despite having a song on the record named after him, Steve Albini didn’t actually produce this record, but it’s the nearest approximation I’ve heard from something not recorded at Electrical Audio. Lyrically it’s also perhaps the most pitch-black album Molina has written. Those themes of motion, space, and regret that he has worked over so well since permeate the record, and there’s a palpable sense of heartache tinged with some pretty crushing resignation. Especially on the back half of the record, which closes with three of his most powerful songs, Molina is putting himself so far out there that it can be nearly painful to listen to. While that may sound more than a little daunting—come, get uncomfortable!—trust us: this is immensely compelling and honest stuff, and there’s so much more where it came from.
81 :: Joanna Newsom
(Drag City; 2006)
Back in early 2006 it seemed utterly absurd that the follow-up to Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004) was to consist of five long songs with orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. That is, of course, exactly what we get with Ys, which even four years later sounds uncompromisingly dense and rich. Parks’ accompaniments follow Newsom from melody to stunning melody, and together the two obliterated not just the lines between experimental folk and orchestral music but also classical balladry and pop.
These songs explode conventional song structure, resisting boundaries like easily-parsed verses and choruses and easy points of entry; they demand to be taken all at once or not at all. Parks’ contributions often serve to propel Newsom’s obtuse, densely-encoded narratives, yet no matter how busy they sound it never overshadows or steals focus from her. As a consequence, the album’s centerpiece, “Sawdust and Diamonds,” becomes heavier and more powerful; it’s the only song performed solely with harp and voice, bringing to the forefront its intricate polyrhythm and just how difficult these songs were to realize.
Yet when I saw this album performed in its entirety shortly after its release, Newsom accompanied by a more conventional band playing different arrangements, it lost none of its weight. Instead, I was simply awestruck by even what I couldn’t parse, affected totally by the repetition that ends both “Cosmia” and the album. It’s not just a leap forward for Newsom, but a space worth getting completely and totally lost within—a rare thing in the last ten years.