Monday, 15 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [15-11]

15. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2002)

The Arcade Fire's Funeral (2004) didn't blow me away as much as it did for others, and I think one of the main reasons for this was that several years earlier, the Toronto collective (with membership numbers edging close to 20, they are more than a mere band) Broken Social Scene released what I consider to be one of the definitive albums of the indie-rock genre.

A magnum opus of interwoven sounds and textures, You forgot it in people mixed together elements of alt-rock, chamber pop, surf music, lounge, post-grunge and electronica. They integrated all the sounds into a musical collage that was weird enough for the hipsters and elitists to enjoy, but accessible enough to cross over to music fans who stumbled across it accidentally in their travels.

The presence of multiple vocalists turn this into an album that you will unlikely tire of, and tracks which previously seemed to be minor efforts will surprise you on subsequent listens. My personal favourite include the dynamic rocker KC accidental, anthemic Almost crimes, mid-album chill-out of Looks just like the sun and Pacific theme and the stunning Lover's spit which sounds like a lost Radiohead B-side (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Mediocre albums released under the banner of indie rock are a dime a dozen nowadays, and I think that the reason why most of them don't impress me is that this album already set the benchmark way too high. This is an album which is worth all of your time, and the rest.

14. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)

The first Sufjan Stevens album I bought was Michigan, the first release in his 50 states project. Some background information: Sufjan has the ambitious goal of releasing a concept album about every single state in the United States. I don't think he's going to follow through with it, but all I'm hoping is that he releases New York before he throws the towel in.

Michigan didn't really blow me away. There were some beautiful songs on the album, but there were also some really annoying over-the-top twee songs which sounded like he had to cut down on the caffeine a bit. When its sequel Illinois was released in 2005 (Seven swans being released in between), it received absolutely rave reviews but I still wasn't convinced.

Then the controversy struck. The album cover included an image of Superman, and apparently the record label Asthmatic kitty got into some legal strife with DC comics over the reproduction of this. They briefly recalled the album, releasing an updated version of the album, sans Superman. I noticed at my local record store that they still had a few copies with Superman on the cover. I quickly snapped one up, hoping that even if I didn't like the album, it may still be a collector's item one day.

Well, it was a double bonus, because I love the album. Consisting of 22 tracks running over 74 minutes, this is an epic work which could have quite easily sunk under the weight of its own ambition. Luckily, Sufjan's songwriting and performance had improved exponentially from Michigan, and at no point during this album does it ever feel boring or uninspired.

The album alternates between traditional chamber pop numbers (Come on! Feel the Illinoise!, Chicago, The man of Metropolis), lush instrumentals (The black hawk war), minor-key banjo-led folk numbers (the stunning Casimir Pulaski day) and haunting historical ballads (the masterpiece John Wayne Gacy, Jr). There are a few brief (less than 30 second) interludes on the album which help maintain its conceptual feel, simultaneously annoying those who listen on an MP3 player without gapless playback.

The attention to detail in his lyrics is mind-blowing, with some songs sounding like researched Wikipedia articles put to (stunning) music. Add in some of the most pretentiously-long song titles in music history (surely just to piss off users of, and you quickly realise that Sufjan Stevens deserves to sit up on the pedestal, or indie throne, that his fans have put him up on.

13. Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

Radiohead, arguably the most restlessly creative band of their generation, have spent their career re-inventing themselves. After a few left-field excursions into electronica (Kid A and Amnesiac), they partially returned to their guitar driven sound on 2003's Hail to the thief. Where could they go from here? Why not stick up a middle finger to greedy record company executives by re-inventing how music could be distributed?

Of course, you'd have to be a band as big as Radiohead to take on the risk they did -- allowing fans to download the album (prior to its physical release) and pay whatever price they think is fair. Just like Apple had managed to achieve on a mass scale with its iTunes business model (what, make people pay for something that they could previously download illegally?), Radiohead's social experiment was a resounding success. It was also a big "fuck you" to those who failed to realise that markets were shifting and the business models of yesteryear couldn't be followed indefinitely.

It's unfortunate that the discussion of the music on In rainbows often comes as an after-thought, because this album deserves more than that. This is in essence their most accessible album since OK computer; an album of stunning music which is simultaneously cerebral, progressive and (unlike some of their clinical and detached moments on Kid Amnesiac) full of heart.

The rockers (Bodysnatchers and the stunning Jigsaw falling into place) are some of the best of their career: groovy, rhythmic and melodic. There are a few ballads (Nude, Faust arp and House of cards) which remind you that Thom Yorke is still one of the best vocalists of the past decade. And then there's the stunning Reckoner, which sounds unlike anything they have ever released, but ironically couldn't have been recorded by anyone but them.

I think that's the genius of Radiohead -- while so many of their contemporaries are constantly trying to meld their influences into a sound which is distinctly their own, Radiohead are at the forefront of their own musical research & development department. Endlessly evolving, never stagnating: they are the band of our generation.

12. Elliott Smith - Figure 8 (2000)

I first heard about Elliott Smith through a friend Avi whose taste in music I respected very highly. It was around the time of my 21st birthday, and I had received a few music vouchers. Looking around the music store, I noticed that Elliott Smith's latest album Figure 8 was available. I hadn't heard any of his music before, but the album cover intrigued me. Of course, I'm not one to judge an album by its cover, but coupled with the recommendation from a friend I had a fairly convincing case to purchase the album.

I loved the opening song Son of Sam from the first listen. It had a great melody, and I really liked his vocal style which I thought had a lot of similarities with Neil Finn. When I heard the next song, the lilting and catchy Somebody that I used to know, I knew I was on to something very special here.

And as great as those opening two tracks are, the quality rarely drops over the rest of the album. Every song combines the sheer song-craft of a Paul McCartney tune with the intimacy and darkness of Nick Drake's best work. Hooks abound (Stupidity tries, Junk bond trader, Wouldn't Mama be proud?) and there are several moments of introspective beauty like the stunning Beach Boys influenced Everything means nothing to me and the dark Color bars.

This album made me fall in love with the music of Elliott Smith, and I now consider him one of my favourite musicians of all time. I eventually picked up all of his previous albums, working backwards from his major label debut XO (1998) through to Roman candle (1994). I even picked up the last album released by his former band Heatmiser, the very solid Mic city sons.

It all ended in tragedy just over three years after this album was released, when Elliott Smith committed suicide at the age of 34. This makes the closing two tracks on this album all the more poignant. Of course anyone can read into something with the benefit of hindsight, but the dark Can't make a sound (with the opening line "I have become a silent movie") and the minimal closing instrumental Bye seem to be a very appropriate farewell to a life cut way too short.

11. Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

This was another risk which paid high dividends for me. I think it was my friend Pete who said that he had read about Interpol, telling me that they had been compared to Marquee moon era Television. Being a big fan of that cult 70s classic, I decided to pick the album up without hearing a single note (being the long-haired risk-taking lout that I was at the time, sans the long hair).

It took me a long, long time to warm to this album. I think I had given it about three listens and was considering returning it for a refund. None of the tracks (except for the This charming man riff-stealing Say hello to the angels) really jumped out at me as anything special. But I decided to persevere, and it was probably the 5th or 6th listen where the deep layers of this album started to reveal themselves to me.

I wrote a blog post back in 2006 talking about albums that have the "vibe", and this one was included on the list. There's a great late-night, sepia-tinged feeling to most of the songs on this album, from the atmospheric opener Untitled, the slow-building stunner Hands away and angular rockers Obstacle 1 and Say hello to the angels. Little moments reveal themselves after repeated listens, like the brief, spoken-word intro to Stella was a diver, the last few stunning minutes of PDA and the understated melody of closer Leif Erikson (named after the first European to land in North America).

Many comparisons have been made between the vocal styles of Interpol singer Paul Banks and the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. There's no denying that there are similarities, but the sound that Interpol achieved on the stunning debut still manages to be their own despite their breadth of influences.

The follow-up Antics was a bit of a disappointment for me, and what I have heard from Our love to admire didn't excite me much either. I have a feeling that history will put Interpol in the same league as bands like The Strokes: those who were never able to follow up an excellent debut album with an equally promising career.

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