Tuesday, 30 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [2]


2. Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (2000)

While compiling this top 50, I noticed that there were quite a few debut albums on the list which the respective artist or band was never able to top. This album is a prime example; while Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Manchester singer-songwriter Damon Gough) has released some respectable music since his debut, nothing has even been in the same league as this experimental and multi-faceted masterpiece.

I first read about this album in the UK music magazine Q. They had one of those full-page advertorials about this album, with a picture of the cover and several quotes from rave reviews. I remember initially being really impressed with the album cover, an eye-catching homage to Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man.

Since I had never heard any of his music before, I listened to a sample from Amazon -- Once around the block -- which I thought was pretty catchy and oddly reminded me of Jamiroquai (I guess there's a vague resemblance in its white-boy funk melody).

I decided to pick the album up, and while I don't remember it blowing me away immediately, I knew that there was a lot of promise beneath its restless diversity that it wore so proudly. Some songs were immediate (Once around the block, Disillusion, Pissing in the wind), but most of the songs revealed their charms slowly over repeated listens. Eventually, hidden gems like the subtle jazzy melody of Stone on the water got underneath my skin. Further listens revealed other favourites.

As great as most of the songs are on an individual level, it probably wouldn't be the masterpiece that it is without the conceptual unity that ties all of the songs together into an oddly cohesive long-player. There's the "water trilogy" of Fall in a river, Camping next to water and Stone on the water. There's the gorgeous instrumental interludes (Bewilder, Bewilderbeast, Blistered heart) which act as a form of delectable musical glue that binds the album together.

Then there's those little surprises in the deep crevices of the album: the hidden song at the end of Cause a rockslide, the splash at the end of Fall in a river (boom tish) and the trippy stereophonic panning of This song (which I love despite the subtle feeling of nausea it gives me). Not all of the experiments work (I could have lived without the 45 second interlude that is Body rap), but you have to take your hat off to the sheer audacity on display here.

There's also a conceptual lyrical arc that runs over the course of the hour-long album, beginning with the infatuation of The shining ("I'm dying...to put a bit of sunshine in your life") and concluding with the regretful melancholy of Epitaph ("Please...don't leave me"). A lot of the other songs hint at feelings which are felt during an intense love affair, from the lust of Everybody's stalking, the romanticism of Magic in the air and the giddy confusion of Disillusion.

A diverse mosaic of sounds, textures and moods, The hour of bewilderbeast is an anarchic labour of love from the incredibly fertile and imaginative mind of Damon Gough. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, he threw all of his musical ideas at a blank canvas and ended up with a work of art. A decade on, one can look at it as a creative master-stroke from a very talented musician who probably reached his creative peak way too soon.

Friday, 26 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [3]


3. Augie March - Strange Bird (2002)


The transition that Melbourne band Augie March made between their debut album Sunset studies and this one was akin to Dorothy's entrance into the land of Oz. The same characters were there -- lead singer Glenn Richard's poetic lyrics, his unique vocal delivery, and the stunning musical chops of the other band members -- it was just a little bit more colourful.

While Sunset studies was an organically mellow affair, Strange bird doesn't mind straying beyond those stylistic boundaries, following their muse to see where they end up. From the baroque pop of lead single The vineyard, the raucous hoe-down of This train will be taking no passengers (which wouldn't sound out of place on a Pogues album), the brass-inflected Little wonder and the lo-fi folk of Sunstroke house -- there isn't a wasted moment to be found on this hour-long album. It is a tour de force of musical styles and sounds that fit together seamlessly into a cohesive whole.

Strange bird also includes some darkness and shade with rockier moments (Song in the key of chance), brief but beautiful musical interludes (O mi sol li lon, Up the hill and down), avant-garde experiments (O song) and wide-screen epics (the perfection of Brundisium which may just be their finest moment). There's also a thematic thread throughout the record, with a few songs referencing "strange birds" or bird-related imagery in the lyrics.

While the whole band demonstrate their talent on every track, there's no doubt that front man Glenn Richards is the star of the show; his deeply enigmatic lyrics and versatile vocal style (ranging from a mournful croon in This night is a blackbird to the scream of "Train!" at the end of This train will be taking no passengers) always steal the show.

The attention to detail in the packaging is immaculate, from the vintage feel of the album cover, to the booklet accompanying the album which is more like a poetry anthology (even including an index of the first lines of each song). The care and elegance on display here prove to me that owning a digital version of an album will never be able to replace the real thing when there are still bands out there who care as much as these guys do.

Augie March confirmed on this album that they are one of the greatest bands of this generation. While their follow-ups have been relative disappointments, I am hopeful they they will be able to re-ignite the spark and deliver another great album like this in the near future.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [4]


4. Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now (2005)

Antony and the Johnsons is primarily a vehicle for the work of Antony Hegarty, an androgynous singer-songwriter originally from England but now based in New York City. I am a bird now was their second album of delightfully twisted baroque chamber music, following their self-titled album from 2000.

I am a bird now is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, and one of the few albums which I have heard that deserves to be treated as a contemporary work of art. It's an album to be torn apart, analysed and re-constructed again; I am hopeful that one day art scholars will be studying it as part of their curriculum.

Like many pieces of contemporary art, this album is not for everyone. You will probably decide within the first few seconds of the opening track whether it is for you. Antony's unique vibrato vocals are not for everyone, and if you are able to develop an appreciation for them then you are already halfway there to developing a taste for this remarkable record. If you are familiar with any of the work of jazz legend Nina Simone, you will definitely hear parallels between her vocals and Antony's.

The music is very understated, piano-based cabaret music; as wonderfully lush and produced as it is, Antony's lyrics and delivery are the real star of the show. Lyrically heartbreaking, the album covers a gamut of emotions from fear of death (Hope there's someone), being trapped in the wrong body (For today I'm a boy) and emotional companionship (You are my sister).

There are a plethora of guest stars: Boy George (You are my sister), Rufus Wainwright (What can I do?), Lou Reed (Fistful of love) and Devendra Banhart (Spiralling). While one can cynically look at guest spots as cross-over opportunities, here their performances fit in seamlessly with the vision and lyrical themes of the album (in particular Boy George).

Whilst the first half of the album spans many intertwining and depressing lyrical themes, the second half (beginning with the Rufus Wainwright vocal performance What can I do?) is more hopeful. The punchy Fistful of love (the most upbeat and optimistic song on the album) is punctuated by saxophone and an upbeat rhythm section, adding some much needed relief to compensate for the darkness of the other songs.

By the time the album concludes with the brief interlude Free at last and euphoric Bird gerhl, you know that Antony has reached a content state of redemption and enlightenment. We don't know whether he has become completely comfortable in his own skin, or whether it's just a façade. We are just glad that he exposed his soul to us and allowed us to accompany him on this emotional journey.

Monday, 22 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [5]

We are now, as Matt kindly pointed out in the comments section of this post, at the "pointy end" of the countdown. To prolong the inevitable, I will be only doing a single album per post for the top 5.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the countdown!




5. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

This album ticks many boxes in the as-yet-unwritten "classic albums" criterion.

It was a pretty radical reinvention
If this was the first Wilco album you had heard, you would find it pretty hard to believe that they started out as an alt-country band.

Wilco formed in 1994 from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. They had subtle progression over the course of their first 3 albums: AM (1995) was as alt-country as you could get, Being there (1996) was an ambitious and genre-hopping double album, and Summerteeth (1999) added a lot of studio polish and overdubs to their sound (there were also a few collaborations with Billy Bragg on the excellent Mermaid avenue albums).

From the moment the surreal opener I am trying to break your heart hits your speakers or earphones, you know that your ears are in for a treat. Where previous albums were at their core collections of well-written and performed "pop songs", Yankee hotel foxtrot is a multi-faceted and complex masterpiece. Each listen reveals new sounds deep in the mix, yet it is still melodic enough and remains a pleasure to go back to again and again.

It was the band's best to date
Where each of their previous albums had their share of filler material, the quality level rarely dips here. There are catchy and accessible numbers (War on war, Heavy metal drummer, Pot kettle black), mellow laments (Radio cure, Reservations) and even some songs which hint at their country past (Ashes of American flags and the superb Jesus, etc).

There are also elements deep in the mix which constantly surprise the listener, from the titular CB radio transmission at the end of Poor places, the quirky instrumentation in I am trying to break your heart and the way some of the songs end abruptly in a sea of static. On the first few listens I actually thought something was wrong with my CD when this happened; I soon realised that it was intentional.

It's the intersection of accessibility and innovation which made this album so impressive when it came out, and it still remains a compelling listen today.

Later albums couldn't match this one
I've talked briefly about their earlier albums, but this album still stands head-and-shoulders above anything they have since released. A ghost is born (2004) came pretty close but sometimes got caught up in its own pretension, and some songs were clearly big mistakes. Sky blue sky (2007) was too MOR for my liking. I have only heard their latest Wilco (The album) (2009) a few times and I'm not convinced it is going to give this album a run for its money.

I will be pleasantly surprised if Wilco ever manage to top this career peak.

It had an awesome back story
To cut a long story short: their previous record label (Reprise) refused to release this album when they heard it in 2001, considering it too left-field and not commercial enough. Wilco subsequently left the label, acquiring the rights to the record. After a particularly dark period (captured in the awesome documentary I am trying to break your heart) they sold the distribution rights to Nonesuch records.

So why is this so interesting? The whole story is particularly amusing because both the Reprise and Nonesuch record labels are operated through the same parent label of Warner Brothers. Indirectly, Warner Brothers paid for the same album twice.

Jim O'Rourke
This album was co-produced to perfection by the legendary musician/producer Jim O'Rourke, who was once a member of Sonic Youth and has also released a few critically-acclaimed solo albums. I have written before about the nasty industry trend of dynamic range compression, and Jim O'Rourke is one of the few producers out there who is "keeping it real" in his production work.

And you can hear it in the mix of this album; O'Rourke treats the music with utmost respect, allowing the instruments to breathe, maintaining the dynamics of the sound and ensuring that every recorded note remains a pleasure to listen to. O'Rourke set an incredibly high production benchmark for the decade here, which makes the downward spiral of production quality over the remainder of the decade even more difficult to handle.

Just listen to the opening song a few times, and be prepared to notice things on the third listen that you weren't even aware of the first time around. It subtle touches like this that elevate this album from merely great to one of the best of the decade.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

RIP: Alex Chilton 1950-2010


Alex Chilton, former front man for 70s power-pop pioneers Big Star, has died in New Orleans at the age of 59. Chilton was also well known as the vocalist for the 60s blue-eyed soul band The Box Tops, whose biggest hit The letter reached number 1 in the US in 1967 (when Chilton was still in his teens).

I became a fan of Big Star in 2003 when I picked up their classic 2-for-1 album set of #1 Record and Radio City. I later picked up the dark, tortured Third/Sister Lovers which was basically an Alex Chilton solo album in all but name (former member Chris Bell had already left the band by this stage).

Alex Chilton made the news in 2005 when he went missing in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, he was found safe a few days later.

Alex has left behind a wonderful musical legacy which has influenced countless musicians.

RIP.



Here are a few of my favourite Big Star songs with Chilton on vocals:
  • The Ballad Of El Goodo was included in my top 100 favourite songs of all time.
  • Thirteen is probably their most famous song, and has been covered by Elliott Smith and Wilco, amongst others.
  • Blue Moon is a stunning ballad from Big Star's dark final album Third/Sister Lovers.
MP3: Big Star - The Ballad Of El Goodo [Link removed]
MP3: Big Star - Thirteen [Link removed]
MP3: Big Star - Blue Moon [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [10-6]


10. The Notwist - Neon Golden (2002)

Forming in 1989 in Bavaria, German band The Notwist released four albums during the 90s which evolved from a rough punk/hardcore sound into a more electronica based sound by the end of the decade. Neon golden was a cross-over success for them, breaking through to indie music fans (like me) who read rave reviews about it on Pitchfork Media and other influential publications.

The sound that the Notwist achieve on Neon golden is one that I would best describe as a fusion of influential synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk and Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of the legendary Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian (who lead singer Markus Acher has an uncanny resemblance to). As accurate as this description is, I also think it's under-selling what they achieved on this remarkable album.

Opener One step inside doesn't mean you understand sets the scene perfectly with what sounds like a banjo strumming at the start, after which Acher's shy subdued vocals enter the scene. It's all very minimal and intimate, and about one minute into the song the sound of what appears to be wooden blocks hitting together come into the mix, providing a very effective rhythm to the song. Organic and worn-in, it's a perfect opener: warm, inviting and innovative.

Pilot is one of the more upbeat and conventional songs on the album, with a consistent electro beat and a fairly traditional verse/chorus structure. It's probably one of the least interesting songs on the album for me, but it's still an excellent song.

The trilogy of Pick up the phone, Trashing days and This room is, to put it simply, twelve minutes of musical bliss. Each song sounds like nothing you've ever heard: all gorgeously melodic, cinematic and multi-layered. This is some of the best electro-pop you are likely to hear.

The second half of the album contains the eastern pastiche of the title track (which George Harrison would be proud of), the very catchy rock of One with the freaks, and the stunning closer Consequence, a breathtaking song with an outstanding vocal melody that makes you just want to play the album all over again. And you will.



9. The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)


This debut album from Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) received a lot of attention in the indie rags. I wasn't sure if its amalgamation of hip-hop, electronica and garage was really for me as I wasn't really into these respective sub-genres. But I saw it on sale and decided to give it a go, and it was another one of those risks that I didn't regret.

Say what you want about the music (and it is great); this album all comes down to the charisma of Mike Skinner. Just as Jamie Oliver made it big as a celebrity chef partly due to his personality, this album wouldn't work as well if Mike Skinner didn't let his personality shine through in every song, both in the lyrics and the delivery of them.

You may get confused by all of the UK slang (birds, geezers) but wasn't Clockwork orange still a masterpiece despite its dialogue, in a language that sounded like a cross between English and Russian?

Every song lets us into Mike Skinner's world, from the epic call-to-arms opener Turn the page, the faux-radio transmission of Has it come to this?, the working class anthem Geezers need excitement, the mourning (yet beautiful) break-up song It's too late and the lyrical master-stroke and character study of The irony of it all.

Mike Skinner became even more ambitious on the follow-up, the concept album A grand don't come for free. But in my mind he was never able to top the youthful energy, innovation and genre fusion which he achieved on this stunning piece of work; an artistic triumph which holds a well-deserved place in my top 10 albums of the decade.



8. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)


Albuquerque band The Shins had an interesting history prior to the release of this album. They formed in 1997 as Flake (later known as Flake Music), releasing several EPs and a full-length low-fi LP When you land here, it's time to return to very little acclaim. At the turn of the decade they had changed their name to The Shins and signed to the famous Sub Pop label. Their debut album Oh, inverted world was released in 2001, receiving excellent reviews. It was a solid debut album with moments of brilliance (New slang), mixed together with some less inspired moments.

There was lots of anticipation for their follow-up album, and Chutes too narrow was finally released in October 2003. Opinions about the album appeared to be very positive, but some fans thought that it was a relative disappointment after their debut.

2004 was a great year for the band, appearing on the Garden State soundtrack and being named-checked in the same movie by über-babe Natalie Portman ("This band will change your life"). They also had a few of their songs appear in the emo-sitcom Scrubs, joining the ranks of bands like Death Cab For Cutie who had been able to cross-over through similar means.

Where Oh, inverted world owed a lot to its influences (mainly late-60s psychedelia and pop, a la The Zombies), Chutes too narrow saw them developing their own unique style. Where Inverted was often distant and obtuse, Chutes was delivered in a much more direct, intimate and personal manner, even if the lyrics were still a bit cryptic at times. Many of the bells and whistles which cluttered the production of its predecessor were also stripped back, allowing James Mercer's amazingly emotive vocals to take centre stage in the mix.

Almost every song on this album fights to be the best track on the album, from the quirky opener Kissing the lipless (which begins with a yelp), the baroque harmonies of Saint Simon, the infectious power-pop of Fighting in a sack, the intimacy of Pink bullets and the country-influenced Gone for good.

My personal favourite song is Young pilgrims, with its juxtaposition of deeply surreal lyrics ("There is this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just fly the whole mess into the sea"), vocal intimacy, and uncluttered instrumentation. It is an elegant composition which strips music back to first principles, and a stunning encapsulation of the "less is more" aesthetic that they achieved on the whole album.

The length is perfect -- at 10 songs and 33 minutes, there isn't a wasted note on the album. It is sequenced like an old LP: 5 songs per side, side A running from Kissing the lipless to the epic closer Saint Simon, and side B beginning with the corker Fighting in a sack and closing with the sparse Those to come. Bands and artists who cram too many mediocre songs on to a CD just because they can could learn a lot from what The Shins achieved on this superb album.



7. Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning (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 a few months ago.]

I've stated many times on this blog that I have become quite disillusioned with a lot of modern music. Which made the recent discovery of this album an even more pleasant surprise. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. After all, his dad is none other than Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame). With a musical pedigree like that, how can you go wrong?

Released in 2007 (a great year for music), this was the debut album for the (at the time) 24-year-old Finn. It it interesting to note that 2007 was also that year that Crowded House's reunion album Time on earth was released. While I do enjoy that album (it was in my top 5 albums of 2007), it has nothing on the quality of this release. Let's hope that Neil's pride in his son overshadows any jealousy that he may have that his son outdid him in the songwriting department.

Liam wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, but mixes them up in a way which is thoroughly unique, and it never feels like mere pastiche. The influences range from Paul McCartney whimsy (Energy spent), darker alcohol-influenced Elliott Smith (This place is killing me) and Chutes too narrow era Shins (Wise man). He rocks out on occasion (Lead balloon) and there's even a bit of Split Enz art-rock in there (the title track which took me about 5 listens before I realised how amazing it was).

It's all wrapped up in layers of melodic beauty which ensure that it remains grounded; other highlights include Wide awake on the voyage home and Gather to the chapel, the latter of which is apparently an ode to the late Crowded House drummer Paul Hester.

I'll be lightning is a three dimensional album where certain tracks jump out on first listen, while others take several listens to reveal their charms. It's one of those albums which finds a rare balance between immediacy (to lure you in) and musical depth (to keep you going back to it).

I'm glad to say that the genius Finn gene has lived on; let's hope he can maintain this level of quality on his next full-length album.



6. The Sleepy Jackson - Lovers (2003)

Luke Steele is now more well-known as the front-man for synth-pop band Empire of the Sun, but before forming that band in 2007, many knew him better as the main guy behind indie pop outfit The Sleepy Jackson. The Sleepy Jackson (who are still officially together) have released two full-length albums to date -- debut Lovers (2003) and the clumsily-titled follow-up Personality - One was a spider, one was a bird (2006).

Where Personality is a fairly conceptual album in nature, maintaining a consistent "lush" sound throughout, Lovers is more of a hodge-podge of musical styles, pastiches and genre experiments.

Good dancers is heavily influenced by both John Lennon's #9 dream and The Flaming Lips. Fill me with apples, with its computerised vocal, sounds a bit like Fitter happier from Radiohead's OK computer. Rain falls for wind is an 80s influenced pop song with an uplifting chorus that you'll be humming after one listen. Morning bird is a lullaby sung by a young girl (!) but strangely, it works. Tell the girls that I'm not hanging out is an upbeat dance number. Don't you know (my favourite song on the album) is a 70s-influenced duet with a female singer which is simultaneously emotional and life-affirming in its delivery.

I've only mentioned a handful of songs, but the rest of the album is equally diverse. Each song sounds like it could be by a different band, yet it all manages to hold together as an album; a true testament to the quirky genius of Luke Steele. Each song is a microcosm of a particular musical genre, but the passion, melody and song-writing skills on display turn each moment into a definitive song of the genre.

This is not to say that The Sleepy Jackson are merely an accomplished tribute band, as this is doing them a disservice. There are some moments on here (Acid in my heart, This day, Come to this) which are harder to pin-point the influences on, so lets just call them Luke Steele-esque.

If the aliens ever arrive and want you to make them a mix-tape of some good music released in the past decade, just give them a copy of this album. Luke Steele has already done the hard work for you.

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 Last.fm), 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.

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.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

George Michael gig [3rd March 2010 @ Etihad Stadium]


While I'm not a big fan of George Michael, it was my wife's birthday earlier this year and she is quite a fan so I surprised her with tickets to this concert at the massive Etihad Stadium (formerly known as Telstra Dome) at the Docklands in Melbourne.

We arrived at about 7:30pm and George Michael entered the stage at about 8:30pm. Despite promises of "and special guests" on the tickets, I'm not quite sure who the special guests were; maybe his backing band?

The concert began with the acoustic ballad Waiting sung off-stage before he appeared to the cheers of the almost 50,000 fan crowd. Kicking off the first set with some his biggest hits Fastlove and I'm your man (recorded with his former band Wham!) was a good move, and definitely succeeded in getting the audience moving and the adrenaline pumping.

He slowed down the pace a bit with the beautiful ballad Father figure. While he is definitely a master at the dance-pop genre, I generally prefer his slower-paced material as it gives a chance for his amazing vocals to take centre stage. Say what you like about his music, but you can't deny that he is a brilliant singer; it was a pleasure to hear that his voice was in fine form even without all the bells and whistles of a recording studio.

There was a 20 minute interval in the middle of the set, which gave fans an opportunity to go to the toilet or fill up on severely overpriced food. $5 for a bottle of water -- seriously?

Then he returned with the superb second set, kicking off with arguably his finest pop moment -- the classic Faith from the 1987 album of the same name. A few well-selected covers, of the jazz standard Feeling good and a slowed down version of the Police song Roxanne added some diversity to the mix. A few later period hits like Amazing and Outside (influenced by his infamous "public toilet" incident of the late-90s) rounded out the end of the set nicely, before leaving the stage.

His encore included the glorious Careless whisper (still arguably one of the best pop/R&B songs of all time) and Freedom 90 (that's the solo song, not the cheesy Wham! song with the same name). The saxophone solo in Careless whisper never fails to bring a smile to this 80s child's face.

Of course, no review of this gig would be complete without a mention of his Spinal Tap-esque moment where he shouted "Come on Sydney!" to the crowd, not realising that he was actually in Melbourne. We let him get away with it the first time, but when he did it again, the patriotic crowd weren't very happy -- starting a chant of "Melbourne! Melbourne!" in the vain hope that the penny would drop.

It eventually did, when he started talking about the last time he was in Australia back in 1985, and how he was so happy to be back in Melbourne. He admitted his faux-pas later on in the gig, jokingly stating that he was actually talking to his monitor engineer (named Sydney). Needless to say, we didn't buy it.

All in all, a surpisingly enjoyable gig. I'm not generally a big fan of gigs at big stadiums (lack of intimacy, ridiculously over-priced tickets) but George Michael put on a good performance.

Bootleg media

Being a big stadium, I wasn't able to get any good photos of the gig with my 3x zoom Canon Ixus 70 compact digital camera. The best I could do were the photo at the top of the post, and this one:


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.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [30-26]


30. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)

When Elbow released their debut Asleep in the back in 2001, I put them in the same category as fellow Mancurians Doves, who had released their debut Lost souls a year earlier -- dark, mellow and textured indie music with subtle elements of progressive music thrown in. In a comparison that sounds incredibly odd with the benefit of hindsight, they were even a bit like Coldplay with a slightly more experimental edge.

At the time, I never thought they were quite as good as either of those bands, who both released follow-ups (The last broadcast and A rush of blood to the head) that were much more impressive albums than both Asleep in the back and its successor Cast of thousands. Elbow looked like a band who were destined to fade into obscurity.

After one more solid but not world-changing album (Leaders of the free world), it looked like Elbow were quite content to stick to their formula. This was a pity, because while they had definitely demonstrated talent on individual tracks (Red, Powder blue, Fugitive motel), they had yet to release a back-to-front kick-ass album. The seldom-seen kid would luckily change all of that.

This was the album which proved to me that Elbow were truly one of the best bands of our time. Kicking off with the wonderfully dynamic Starlings (which shows how amazing music can sound when it isn't brick-walled), Guy Garvey and his band of merry-men take us on a 55 minute journey through a wide variety of sounds, genres and textures.

From the kick-ass rocker Grounds for divorce (with an equally impressive film clip), to the epic balladry of Tower crane driver and Some riot, to the fun caper of The fix (a duet with Richard Hawley) -- this is their most eclectic, accomplished and consistent album to date.

Elbow may have been heading down a stylistic cul-de-sac before this album, but here they proved they could play in the big league without selling out or sacrificing any of their individuality. If only Guy Garvey could have had a few quiet words with Chris Martin circa-2003.

There's not many bands I can say this about, but I'm truly excited to hear what Elbow surprise us with next.


29. Tom Waits - Alice (2002)

While many artists who have been around for this long are quite happy to rest on their laurels, Tom Waits is an artist who not only re-invents himself between albums, but between songs on the same album. He is a enigmatic genius who releases constantly challenging music that rewards patience and repeated listening.

Most of the songs on Alice date back to the early 90s -- Tom had written them for the play Alice, which was based on the forbidden love between Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll and young girl Alice Liddell (who Lewis had written Alice in Wonderland for). For whatever reason, Tom decided not to release an album with the songs until 2002 -- a year in which he also released another LP, Blood money.

Unlike Blood money (a dark and harsh album, summed up by both its eerie album cover and its song titles like Misery is the river of the world), Alice is a subdued, mourning album which consists mainly of funereal ballads injected with the standard Tom Waits quirk.

The stunning opening title track sets the scene perfectly with its wonderful poetic lyrics: "To go skating on your name, and by tracing it twice, I fell through the ice of Alice". Tom throws in a few curve balls to keep the listener on their feet, with the quirky Everything you can think and oddball carnival music of Kommuienezuspadt (which sounds like it's in German, but is apparently complete gibberish).

Elsewhere, we have a depressing ballad about a man who was born with the face of a woman on the back of his head (Poor Edward), a Louis Armstrong style jazz number about a man born without a body (Table Top Joe) and a Shakespeare-esque tragedy about a bird and a whale who fall in love, but realise that it will never work because the bird "cannot live in the ocean" and the whale "[can never] live in the sky" (Fish and bird). Who else writes songs like this but Tom Waits?

There's no denying that this stuff is an acquired taste, but he is one of the true musical geniuses of our time. Put aside some time and effort and acquaint yourself with this true visionary of American music. It could go one of two ways -- you will continue to find his music un-listenable, or you will need to hear everything he has ever released. There is no in between.



28. Eels - Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (2005)


You can put this album alongside other classics like The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Exile on Main Street and Blonde on Blonde as a double album which also represented a creative career peak. Okay, so it's not quite as great as those albums, but what is?

Running for just over 1.5 hours and 33 tracks, this album is home to some of the most personal songs that Mark E. Everett (E) has ever written (except for most of the stuff on the mourning Electro-shock blues). These 33 tracks were recorded over an 8 year period from 1998 to 2004, with various Eels line-ups, backing musicians and guest musicians (including Peter Buck and Tom Waits).

Considering the long recording period, it holds together remarkably well, flowing together like an autobiography of E's life (beginning with the life-affirming From which I came / A magic world, and ending with the poignant Things the grandchildren should know). Interspersed throughout the album are instrumental reprises of the title -- Theme from Blinking lights, Blinking lights (for me), Blinking lights (for you) and even a cheeky nod to Tom Waits on Bride of theme from Blinking Lights. These instrumentals, while simple, are very effective at maintaining a sense of continuity on the otherwise diverse record.

Other than his standard mope-indie-folk fare, E and his musicians try their hand at a few other genres including country (Railroad man, Ugly love), epic balladry (Dust of ages), new-wave dance (Going fetal) and life-affirming pop (Hey man (now you're really living)).

But overall, it's the lush and beautifully dark songs which are the Eels trademark, and this album has them in spades: Theme for a pretty girl, Checkout blues, If you see Natalie, The stars shine in the sky tonight and Things the grandchildren should know are some of the most emotional and touching songs in their oeuvre.

This album is a remarkably consistent, eclectic and personal work of art from one of the most underrated musicians of the last 15 years.


27. Blur - Think Tank (2003)

Even though Blur haven't "officially" broken up yet, it's getting more and more likely that this 2003 release will become their swansong. If this is the case, it's a great way to end their career -- a wonderful refinement of the left-field art-rock from their previous two albums (Blur from 1997, 13 from 1999) where they toned down some of the arty pretensions in favour of actual songs. If I was to make an analogy to another band who constantly re-invent themselves (Radiohead) -- if Blur was their Hail To The Thief, and 13 was their Kid A/Amnesiac, Think Tank was their In Rainbows (chronology notwithstanding).

Think Tank opens with the wonderfully atmospheric Ambulance, where frontman Damon Albarn confidently croons "I ain't got nothing to be scared of". By this stage, he certainly didn't have to be scared of any competition with former rivals Liam and Noel Gallagher (of Oasis); remember lads, if you choose to be a band who remains stagnant, you have to make that the horse you're flogging isn't dead. Luckily Blur had realised that this Britpop thing could only be stretched so far, and the proof is in the pudding of their late-career albums.

The songs on Think Tank find the perfect balance between melody (Out of time, Good song, Sweet song) and trip-hop beats (On the way to the club, Brothers and sisters, Gene by gene). There are a even a few oddities thrown in for good measure (We've got a file on you, Moroccan peoples revolutionary bowls club, Jets).

There's a few longer mood pieces which are similar to some of the mellower moments on 13 (the aforementioned Ambulance, Caravan), but where the songs on 13 were arty for art's sake, these songs seem to fit in with the big picture of the album as a whole. The only song which doesn't work is the grating Fat Boy Slim collaboration Crazy Beat, which to my cynical mind was the token single added on request of the record company.

The album ends with the wonderful Battery in your leg, the only song with the presence of original guitarist Graham Coxon, who had left the band in 2002 after a dispute. His guitar line adds a chilling beauty to the song's lyrics ("This is a ballad for the good times, another dignity we held"). One can't help but interpret these lyrics (and Coxon's presence) as an epitaph for one of the most restlessly inventive bands of their era.



26. Ben Folds - Rockin' The Suburbs (2001)

This was Ben Folds' first solo album after the break up of his former band, Ben Folds Five, in 2000. It's not a radical departure in sound for fans of the previous band -- piano based pop with very catchy melodies and a touch of trademark lyrical and vocal quirk thrown in for good measure. Ben Folds has often been referred to as an indie Elton John, and I think this is a pretty fair comparison.

I have always considered the optimum album length (in number of tracks and duration) to be 12 tracks running for 45 minutes. 12 tracks works well because it allows you to divide the album in half, three or four quite easily; years of research have also led me to believe that 45 minutes is the happy medium between feeling ripped off and unsatisfied (which short albums give you) and an album being too long to comfortably hear in a single sitting.

This 12-track album runs for about 48 minutes which makes it pretty close to perfect for me. The icing on the cake is that, unlike some of his later efforts, there isn't a bad song in the bunch -- every song is a remarkable composition of catchy melody, tight performance and deep, personal lyrics. Every song is a highlight, from the upbeat and hook-laden Annie waits, the toe-tapping Zak and Sara, the poignant character study of Fred Jones Part 2, the classical-influenced arpeggios of The ascent of Stan and the suicide lament of Losing Lisa.

When I first heard the title track, I considered it a cheap throwaway and a transparent attempt at commercial success. It was only after a few closer listens to the lyrics that I realised it was an ironic satire against middle-class white bands like Limp Bizkit who pretend that they have it harder than they do. I feel silly for mis-interpreting this song, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one. File it next to Born in the USA and Every breath you take as songs which are bound to be misinterpreted by silly people like me.

Closing track The luckiest is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard -- a touching, heartfelt love song that will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who is in love, or has been in love. It's one of the most direct songs that Ben Folds has ever penned, stripping away the layers of cynicism that he often coats his songs in, exposing the vulnerability and intense feelings one feels in any deep relationship. It may just be the best song he has ever written.