Wednesday, 10 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [20-16]

20. The Wrens - The Meadowlands (2003)

New Jersey indie rock band The Wrens released a couple of albums in the 90s to little accolades before releasing this intensely emotional masterpiece after 7 years in hiatus. It received a lot of critical praise from influential online publications Pitchfork and AllMusic, allowing this underrated band to get some much deserved attention that had previously eluded them.

This is an incredible, densely-layered slow-burner of an album which continues to reveal new surprises on every listen. Beginning with a lovely minimal piano-based song (The house that guilt built) and concluding with an almost a capella number that ends in screaming (This is not what you had planned), the 13 tracks on this album cover a wide emotional palette: the infatuation of the stunning She sends kisses, the intense rock of Hopeless and Faster gun and the epic, widescreen 13 months in six minutes.

Interspersed amongst the more obviously personal songs are some very catchy and melodic numbers (Thirteen grand, Ex-girl collection, Everyone chooses sides) where the music often belies the dark undertones. As deep as the lyrics are, it's the melody above the melancholy that makes the album such a pleasure to return to again and again.

They haven't broken up yet, so it will be very interesting to see if they can ever top this stunning piece of art.

19. My Morning Jacket - At Dawn (2001)

Kentucky indie-country-rock band My Morning Jacket are a pretty different band now than they were in the early part of the noughties. While their last two albums (Z and Evil urges) were quite scatter-shot affairs, mixing together elements of alt-country, pop and rock, their first few albums owed a lot more to the southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and early Neil Young.

At Dawn was their second album after the lo-fi (and at times excellent) debut The Tennessee Fire from 1999. From the moment that the opening title track hits your speakers, with its elongated and slow burning instrumental intro, you immediately realise that they have succeeded in refining their sound into something truly special. This is before the stunning, reverb soaked vocals of Jim James enter the picture; they are the magic ingredient with turn this band from impressive into transcendent.

The album is close to flawless, from the catchy southern pop of Lowdown, to their (now) signature song The way that he sings, the minimal, acoustic Bermuda highway, sing-along Xmas curtain and the atmospheric, macabre closer Strangulation! (that punctuation is part of the song, but I share similar enthusiasm for it).

At almost 74 minutes, it's their longest album to date, but it never becomes meandering or pretentious. It's probably good that they didn't continue to mine their sound from the ghosts of Crazy Horse and The Band, because the schtick may have worn a bit thin over time. But at least we have this amazing record to remember how great they once were: a remarkable document of a band at the height of their powers.

Oh yeah, and they are still one of the best live acts around at the moment.

18. Art Of Fighting - Wires (2001)

This debut album from Melbourne band Art Of Fighting is a breathtaking work of introspective, ethereal beauty. Released in 2001 to little more than a cult following, it's an album that would have fit in very well in the short-lived UK nu-folk movement of the early noughties. There's also a good chance it wouldn't be gathering dust in the homes of the indie kids, like those Turin Brakes and Kings of Convenience LPs.

Vocalist Ollie Browne has a quiet falsetto voice which never strains too hard, and the rest of the band maintain an almost jazz-like ambience throughout the recording. The music rarely shifts out of 2nd gear, but every now and then the listener will be surprised with a radical crescendo which puts the hairs up on the back of the neck. They're a bit like Sigur Ros in their juxtaposition of ethereal beauty and dynamics, with less progressive overtones and with the added benefit that English speakers can understand the lyrics.

It's difficult to isolate single tracks as stand-outs, as it begs to be listened to as a whole. But I would definitely single out the opening trilogy of Skeletons, Give me tonight and Akula, which is as good as this sort of music gets. Later songs Just say I'm right and Something new start out minimal, but build to glorious climaxes by the end. Find you lost is an ambient number which initially seems like a waste of 7 minutes of your life, but you just wait until it grows on you. It will.

In many aspects of life, from painting, photography, cooking and music, it is often said that "less is more". This album is a testament to that.

17. The Strokes - Is This It (2001)

From the Smell the glove aping album cover (well the original version), to the leather jackets, to Julian Casablancas' Lou Reed vocal technique, to the cooler-than-thou band member names (Casablancas, Valensi, Hammond Jr., Fraiture, Moretti -- are these guys musicians or fashion designers?) -- New York band The Strokes made quite a splash when they unleashed this debut album in 2001. Yeah, you could argue they were the indie-rock equivalent of the Monkees, but that's missing the point. They captured the zeitgeist like no other band of the early noughties, and their garage rock proved to be extremely influential to other up-and-coming bands of the era.

It all would have been senselessly superficial posturing if this album didn't kick so much god-damn ass. The sound that the Strokes' achieved on this debut is the perfect amalgamation of rock, dance, melody and attitude. Every song here works on one level or another, from the rush and adrenaline of The modern age, the catchier-than-thou Soma and Someday, the indie rock anthems Last nite and Hard to explain and the controversial New York city cops (cut from the US version as a sign of respect after the 9/11 attacks).

Their critics accused them of lack of innovation, and they are one hundred percent correct. There's nothing on here than other bands like the Velvets and Ramones hadn't already done. These guys were just incredibly lucky with their timing; coming in at the start of a new decade with a new, empty musical landscape ahead of them, they helped define an era rather than become the product of one.

They inspired many bands, some good (The Walkmen, Interpol) and some bad (Jet). They were never able to top this album; how could they? Room on fire was a respectable follow-up, but First impressions of earth was an over-bloated attempt at remaining relevant in a world that had already, in many ways, moved on.

Luckily we'll always have this stunning debut album to return to; 36 minutes of lightning captured in a very stylish package.

16. Machine Translations - Venus Traps Fly (2004)

Many bands reach the point in their career where they tone-down their artiness and experimental tendencies just enough to simultaneously release the best and most accessible album of their career. What separates the good bands from the others is the ability to do this without selling out. The Go-Betweens did it with 16 lovers lane. Pink Floyd did it with Dark side of the moon. And Machine Translations did it with Venus traps fly.

Machine Translations (a moniker for the Australian singer/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter J Walker and his band of session musicians) released a few albums of organic lo-fi indie-folk-electronica-pop prior to this one, most notably Bad shapes (2001) and Happy (2002). Both mixed and matched minimalistic, melodic folk (Rule bound, River of darkness, Amnesia, She wears a mask) with more progressive mood pieces (The world is sick, Arabesque, A most peculiar place). Happy also dabbled quite a bit in electronica, with some songs that wouldn't sound out of place on French duo Air's "difficult second album" 10,000 Hz legend.

Venus traps fly succeeds in evolving their sound by stripping back some of the electronica of Happy, in favour of a more organic and melodic core. Many songs on the album (Venus traps fly, Bee in a cup, Stray dog) possess almost nursery-rhyme melodies and lyrics, giving the listener a feeling of familiarity and comfort even after hearing them for the first time.

There are a few songs that hint at their more experimental tendencies (If the water runs dry, An hour is long), but where similar efforts on previous albums tended to feel difficult for the sake of it, here they are concise and focused, not feeling out of place amongst the more melodic moments. The album's undisputed centrepiece is the 5-minute run which includes the stunning instrumental Twilit and the musically gorgeous (albeit lyrically disturbing) Not my fall, which gives a chance to appreciate J Walker's underrated vocals.

There are a few minor missteps -- the Claire Bowditch duet Simple life doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album, and the grating Scretch doesn't really work on any level for me -- but this is minor nit-picking. This is a accessible yet challenging work from an artist who deserves a lot more than just a minor cult following.

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