Friday, 5 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [25-21]

25. Radiohead - Hail To The Thief (2003)

This was one of the most highly anticipated albums of the decade for me. After a few classic guitar-based albums in the 1990s (The bends and OK computer), the 2000s were a decade of re-invention for Radiohead. Both Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) eschewed guitar-based music in favour of a more electronic sound, and while they were both left-field and boundary-pushing releases, they left me craving a return to their 6-string sound.

I first heard about this album from my friend Pete who had acquired a leak of it. These days, it's rare for an album not to be leaked before its official release, but in 2003 being able to get a copy of this album before it was officially available to buy was very exciting.

From the first moment that I played Hail to the thief, I knew it was something special. First track 2 + 2 = 5 may just be the best album opener of any of their albums to date -- a kick ass, dynamic rocker which starts out quite mellow before that special moment when it kicks into gear and rocks out like it's 1995 all over again.

This album holds a unique position in the Radiohead discography. While most of their albums do a fairly good job at sustaining a similar mood throughout, this is quite a schizophrenic recording which mixes rock and electronic elements from their previous albums into a whole which isn't particularly cohesive but works as a great collection of individual songs.

I would even go so far to say that its high points -- and there's lots of them -- are some of the finest songs to bear the Radiohead name. In particular, the aforementioned rocker 2 + 2 = 5, beautiful ballad Sail to the moon, anthemic There there, minimalistic I will, funky A punchup at a wedding and surreal closer A wolf at the door are all A-grade Radiohead songs.

My biggest gripe with this album is that with some judicious editing, it could have been ever better; at 14 songs over 56 minutes it's a bit too long, and if they trimmed off some of the lesser songs like The gloaming, Backdrifts and Myxomatosis it would probably be able to fight it out against OK computer as the best album they ever released. As it stands, it's merely an excellent album by arguably the best band of our generation.

24. The Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic (2003)

Tragic back-stories have become a bit of a music critic cliché, but here we go. Portland, Oregon pop-punk band The Exploding Hearts formed in 2001 and released only a single album in April 2003 (this one) before 3 of its 4 members died in a touring van accident only a few months after the album was released.

As sad as this story is, at least we have this wonderful album to remember them by. If you were in a record store and picked up the CD without ever having heard of The Exploding Hearts, the album cover would probably convince you that they were a late-70s punk band who you had somehow missed in their heyday.

If you then started playing the CD, your opinion wouldn't really change. But while it is hardly an innovative piece of work (owing a lot to the late-70s and early-80s pop-punk work of the Buzzocks, New York Dolls and Only Ones), what it lacks in originality it makes up for in heart and soul.

Of course, heart and soul will only get you so far. You need to have the songs to make the listener want to return to it! From the "I don't care" refrain of opener Modern kicks, to the stop-start punk-soul of Sleeping aides & razorblades, to the catchy pop of Jailbird, every song says exactly what it needs to and gets out of your way. Adam Cox's vocals have a youthful exuberance to them, the production is raw and loose and the melodies are plentiful.

The whole album has the vibe of a lost garage punk recording found in the attic of someone's house, dusted off and packaged for future generations to discover and enjoy.

23. Blueline Medic - The Apology Wars (2001)

I first read about this album in a copy of the Blunt rock music magazine. They were interviewing various Australian musicians about what they considered to be the best Australian albums of all time. Alongside the popular choices like Midnight Oil's 10...1 and AC/DC's Back in black was this unknown album. I noticed that a few respectable musicians had mentioned this album as one of the greats, so it got me quite interested in it.

This is a wonderfully textured rock album that reveals more with each listen. While a lot of the songs (in particular Making the Nouveau Riche) are quite accessible and commercial sounding, a lot of the other songs can sound quite unremarkable on the first listen but they quickly grow on you after repeated spins.

Maybe it's my patriotic side coming out, but I'm a sucker for any music where you can hear the Australian accent shine through in the vocals (Paul Kelly being one of the prime examples of this). Vocalist Donnie Dureau never tries to hide his accent, and it's so refreshing to hear that he doesn't try to Americanise his vocals to appeal to a wider audience.

Highlights include the Smiths-influenced ballad At least we had the war, shuffling pop of Somnambulist, kick-ass rocker Up against the fault and moody closer Welcome paradox.

Simultaneously melodic, powerful and atmospheric -- this is definitely one of the great Australian rock albums of the decade.

22. ..And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Source Tags & Codes (2002)

For someone who is traditionally into the mellower end of the musical landscape, there's quite a few rock albums in this part of the countdown. This album became quite well known in the indie/alternative rock community when it received a perfect 10.0 score on the review website Pitchfork Media. Did I buy into the hype? Bloody oath I did.

I had to be open-minded when listening to this album. It lures the listener in with the beautiful short instrumental piece Invocation, and then you're thrown into the deep end with the heavy and relentless It was there that I saw you. The vocal style of Conrad Keely doesn't exactly placate the listener either, meaning that a lot of people (like me) who don't generally like this sort of music may quickly give up on this album.

Don't give up! Another morning stoner slows things down a bit, adding some much needed melody to the mix as well. The stomping Baudelaire gets you moshing, before the thrashy Homage throws you into the fiery pits of hell.

From here on in, you've paid your dues, and it's time for a bit of a breather. Things get (relatively) mellower in the middle of the album, with the epic How near how far and Heart in the hand of the matter luring you in with their bombast. Monsoon, probably the mellowest non-instrumental track on the album, almost sounds like a lost Doves track (at least in the vocal performance). Days of being wild gets back to thrashing Homage territory.

The album ends with the best of the lot, with the incredibly catchy single Relative ways, segue into After the laughter, and epic pop of the title track concluding the proceedings. Like the ending of any great album, they make you want to re-live the entire experience again.

My main gripe with this album is in the production, which is brick-walled in many parts. But I'm starting to sound like a broken record so I'll shut up now. This album is the epitome of textured, complex and atmospheric rock music.

21. Mike Noga - Folk Songs (2005)

Mike Noga is the drummer for the critically-acclaimed Australian blues-rock band the Drones, joining the band in 2005 after the release of the superb Wait long by the river... album. This album of mellow, erm, folk songs was released in the same year. What would your expectations be for a solo folk album by a drummer from a blues-rock band?

Well, to paraphrase Seinfeld, you can "stuff your expectations in a sack". This is a brilliant piece of work that deserves a lot of recognition, but alas it will probably remain one of those "cult classics" that is heard by few, but adored by everyone who hears it.

Produced to perfection by J Walker of Machine Translations, this album is brief (11 tracks in 30 minutes), but what it lacks in scope it makes up for in emotionally direct song writing and performances. Noga's voice is quintessentially Australian, giving all of the songs an authentic feeling: this is folk stripped down to first principles, with no pretensions or ego to be found.

In lesser hands, this album could have become quite boring and repetitive, but Noga is a master of his craft and there are subtle variations between the tracks which keep things interesting over repeated listens. There's the cinematic, almost Pogues-like vibe of The battle. The charming way he enunciates his words in The day we almost died. The lo-fi "radio transmission" of Strange town.

Almost every song here has a special moment that makes the album a pleasure to hear again and again. Let's just hope that he doesn't spontaneously combust behind the Drones drum kit, or die in a freak gardening accident; we want him to follow up this great album! Okay, the drummer jokes end here.

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