Tuesday, 23 February 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [40-36]

40. The National - Boxer (2007)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

This was one of the most critically acclaimed albums from 2007, which was a great year for music. I came to the party a bit late on this album, finally picking it up last year. I had a fear that it was going to be one of those albums which didn't live up to its hype, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.

Boxer is a very subdued affair, with only a few songs (Mistaken for strangers, Squalor Victoria) which rock out a bit more. Most of the songs are a vehicle for the baritone vocal pipes of frontman Matt Berninger, who sounds not unlike Nick Cave. But the real star of the show is drummer Bryan Devendorf who lays down some amazing drum patterns which are pushed high up in the mix for maximum impact.

This album has a fantastic drunk-at-3am vibe to it; the lyrics are personal, the vocal delivery is fatigued and the backing instrumentation is generally restrained but not afraid to up the tempo when needed. Highlights include lovely opener Fake empire, ultra-catchy Brainy and lovely ballads Green gloves, Start a war and Racing like a pro.

An album which didn't hit me until about the 5th or 6th listen; this is a grower in the true sense of the word.

39. Kelley Stoltz - Antique Glow (2003)

With his second release Antique glow, American singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz crafted a lo-fi and understated record. This is not an album which will impress you a lot on first listen; it takes several listens for its subtle hooks to get underneath your skin. But trust me, it will happen.

Perpetual night is an epic opener which lures you into Kelley's world, his lazy vocals and dense instrumentation (including tinkling bells) setting the scene for the remaining 45 minutes. His influences range from Nick Drake (Jewel of the evening), Leonard Cohen (Mean Marianne -- so long, eh?) and even some of the lo-fi work of Bad shapes era Machine Translations (Tubes in the moonlight).

This album of lo-fi folk/blues was recorded on reel-to-reel tape in Kelley's apartment, with the man playing all of the instruments himself. It's a true DIY effort, even down to the limited-edition artwork (shown above) which was also painted by Mr Stoltz.

This is real music recorded with passion and integrity by a quirky tune-smith who knows how to "keep it real", while still toning down his self-indulgences just enough to keep listeners returning to it. Give it some time and love and you too will be able to experience its subtle charms.

38. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (2004)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

It's unfortunate that country music has such a bad stigma associated with it. Yes, there is a lot of really bad commercial country music which has given the genre a bad name. But when done properly, it exhibits a lot of heart, integrity and soul; many traits that are absent from a lot of contemporary music.

This album received universal acclaim when it was released in 2004. Produced by Jack White (of the White Stripes and Raconteurs), this album was a chance for the 70-year-old Lynn to re-ignite her career with the help of a very popular contemporary artist, hopefully reaching a wider audience in the process.

It could have all gone very wrong, but she succeeded beyond all expectations. The song Portland Oregon (where she trades vocals with Jack White) even got a lot of play on Triple J, an alternative radio station in Australia with a predominantly youthful audience.

Portland Oregon is a highlight on an album full of highlights. This album ticks three very important boxes for me: songwriting, performance and production. The lyrical themes are dark and personal, the performances honest and heartfelt and the production is appropriately minimalistic, allowing Lynn's amazing vocals and the band's subtle instrumentation to shine through.

There are upbeat numbers (High on the mountain top, Have mercy), dark ballads (God makes no mistakes, Women's prison) and touching laments about her past (Miss being Mrs, Family tree). Don't let this miraculous album pass you by; this is one case where you can believe the hype.

37. Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

While I enjoyed 2007's Send away the tigers, nothing prepared me for how much of a return to form this album was. I'd heard various tidbits in the pre-release chatter: how they were using lyrics left by late founding member Richey Edwards, how they had Steve Albini on board as producer, how it was the thematic and spiritual successor to their masterpiece The holy bible.

I certainly didn't want to get caught up in the hyperbole, but when the universally positive reviews started rolling in, I couldn't really help myself and bought it on the day of release.

And it's an amazing album! The combination of Richey's tortured lyrics and Steve Albini's primal production is a match made in heaven, reinvigorating a band who many had given up on. It's an incredibly well-balanced album, incorporating disparate strands of their 20+ year career: there's the raw punk of their Richey-era (Peeled apples, Marlon J.D.), melodic but dark pop (Jackie Collins Existential Question Time, Virginia State Epileptic Colony) and moments of acoustic beauty (This joke sport severed, Facing page: Top left).

It's a bit too early to tell whether history will put this album alongside the classics The holy bible and Everything must go, but in the meantime I'm happy to call this a remarkably accomplished effort from a band who many had probably given up on.

36. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)

The late, infamous DJ John Peel once described Mark E. Smith's band The Fall as "Always different, always the same". I think this quote could quite easily apply to Texas indie-rock band Spoon too.

Over the course of the noughties, they released 4 excellent albums of minimalistic and funky indie rock/pop: Girls can tell (2001), Kill the moonlight (2002), Gimme fiction (2005) and finally Ga ga ga ga ga (2007). Each album followed a fairly similar formula: incredibly catchy piano based melodies, tight rhythm section, all topped by Britt Daniel's nasal rock-star vocals. Each album could almost be considered interchangeable with all of the others, but they always evolve in subtle ways between records to keep things interesting.

Ga ga ga ga ga is probably their most accessible, diverse and pop-oriented record, a musical response to those who criticised Gimme fiction for lacking diversity and losing quality on the 2nd half (myself included).

They mix it up a lot here, adding Motown horns to introduce a new-age soul sound (Cherry bomb, The underdog), an almost-acapella vocal experiment which works as a show-piece for Britt's fantastic pipes (The ghost of you lingers) and more densely produced numbers which would make George Martin proud (Finer feelings, Black like me).

Always the same? Their critics may have a case there. But as long as they can continue to fine-tune their sound in subtle ways between records, they will never commit that cardinal sin of bands who simply refuse to break up: becoming boring.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed Loretta Lynn album when I borrowed it from you Jerome, so that is one on my ever expanding and rarely diminishing list of possible albums to buy at some stage.


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