Friday, 2 April 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [1]

1. Augie March - Sunset Studies (2000)

Augie March formed in 1996 in Shepparton, a country town almost 200km north of Melbourne. They released a few EPs in the late 90s, the patchy Thanks for the memes (1998) and the excellent Waltz (1999) which included their early hit Asleep in perfection. Waltz was a very accomplished EP which has held up very well over 10 years later, with several of the songs (Rich girl and The mothball) still part of their live setlist.

Waltz was a delicious appetiser, but I wonder how many were expecting the sumptuous banquet that Augie March unleashed on their full-length debut album Sunset studies. You don't even have to hear a note of the album to realise that you are dealing with something very special here; just look at the elegant cover art and a flick through the tasteful booklet. It is a labour of love.

Epic opener The hole in your roof takes its time with a very long, droning fade-in before vocalist Glenn Richards enters the scene: "What do the men say / To the women when they lay down at night / All naked of arms from the old imagined flight?". This was the first Augie March album I bought, and the combination of Richards' ethereal vocals, deeply enigmatic lyrics and the slow-burning intro piqued my interest on the first listen. The song is an exercise in tension and release, building to a stunning climax near the end of its 7 minutes.

Follow up Maroondah reservoir opens with more Glenn Richards poetry "To be / A bee, a moth / Four wings spread for the soft last touch of glory sun" before latching on to an amazing melody that sounds unlike anything you have ever heard before, but will have you humming it after only one listen. It is one of the few songs on the album that loosely fits within the constaints of the tradition verse/chorus structure which most popular music feels the need to be bound to. Most of the songs are quite happy to meander and wander, dancing around the ebb and flow of Richards' remarkable poetry and streams of consciousness.

While most of the music here is progressive and boundary-pushing, there are a few accessible anchors to keep the listener grounded on those all too important initial listens. There's the heart-breaking piano ballad There's no such place, featuring the late Rob Dawson on backing vocals and piano. There is the lyrically dense The offer, which despite breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions ("This is a song, not like the other ones") turns out to be one of the catchiest songs they have ever released. Asleep in perfection is also included despite its presence on the Waltz EP, but it fits in perfectly amongst its peers.

Then there's the slow burners which didn't blow me away on the first listen, but after a few listens they became some of my favourite moments. The stunning ballad Tulip and the pastoral folk of The good gardener (on how he fell) both start off as fairly subdued affairs before reaching transcendent climaxes. The cinematic title track, with its aristocratic imagery ("You are the queen of the dustbowl / Ex to a crier in a town of ashes") will hit you on the 4th listen, I promise you. The inner voice in your head will say "I'm not worthy!" while you try to keep those goose-bumps under control.

Sunset studies is a very long album at 76 minutes, and I think the best way to manage it is to abstract it into an album of 3 parts:

Part 1 (The hole in the roof - Tasman awakens) introduces the various facets of their sound -- slow burning epics, melody, groove, beauty and finally the folk of Tasman awakens.

Part 2 (Believe me - Heartbeat and sails) sees them branching out in odd directions, from the sample-driven interlude of Believe me, the old school folk of Men who follow spring the planet 'round, and the odd and haunting drone of Angels of the bowling green (which seemed like 5 minutes of filler until I realised how lyrically macabre it was).

Part 3 (The offer - Owen's lament) ends the album on a more accessible note with four very melodic songs, before the stupendous closer Owen's lament shoots the album into the stratosphere. This is one of my favourite songs of all time, and after more than 20 listens I am still blown away by it every time I hear it. It is musical perfection, and mirrors the epic opening track in how aptly it bookends the album.

Their follow-up Strange bird (2002) was a perfect sequel, fully deserving of its high placement in this list. Trying to choose between the two albums was incredibly difficult, as they both mean a lot to me. Sunset studies just edged its way to the top because it was the album which introduced me to their music (thanks for the recommendation Pete); for that reason it will always hold a special place in my heart.

I bought this album during a time of my life when I was getting into a lot of new, exciting music, and it helped to create a life-long obsession for me. It is one of the albums which made me realise that music didn't have to be immediate or formulaic to be engaging. It made me realise that looks can be deceiving and the rewards are there to be reaped if you put in the time and effort to let a work of art reveal itself to you. It is the antithesis to what I dislike so much about a lot of modern music.

It is my favourite album of the 2000s.

Here's a statistical breakdown of my top 50:

Country# albums
United States23
New Zealand1

Year# albums

My biggest surprise here was that the majority of albums were by American musicians. I have always considered myself a fan of primarily British music, but even when I total the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales) and Ireland counts it still falls short of the American total.

I am not surprised that 2002 was the best year of the decade -- I once gave it the coveted title of the best year for album releases many moons ago. However, I was surprised that 2005 and 2007 (both great years for music) didn't appear higher in the list. I'm definitely not surprised that the last couple of years didn't appear much in the list, as I definitely curbed my purchasing of new releases over the past few years.

Thanks for reading my top 50 albums of the 2000s.

You can read the previous posts in the series here.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [1]

1. Australian Idol - The Final 13 (2005)1

I realised when I started to pre-compile my list of the top 50 albums of the 2000s that it was an incredibly difficult task. "Albums of the decade" lists are a dime-a-dozen, and I really wanted my list to stand out amongst the crowd. Then it hit me: most lists like this are incredibly subjective, the opinions of mere music reviewers. Maybe I could stand out from the crowd by applying some sort of science to it. I knew there must be a more objective way to choose the best album of the 2000s.

Then I had a revelation -- the reality show franchise Australian Idol had already done the hard yards for me. Host James Mathison (and former co-host Andrew G) said in almost every episode "It's time to vote Australia" or "Australia has voted". Australia's population (which currently stands at about 22 million) is a pretty large sample size. Could the population of Australia help me choose the album of the decade?

At the end of each season of Australian Idol, the winner releases an album in time for the Christmas buying season. They also release a compilation of songs recorded by all of the contestants who made it to the finals. By definition, each year includes 10-13 finalists who are the best musicians in the country. That means all I had to do was pick the best season in Australian Idol history, and the album (or compilation) of the decade falls right into my lap. Take that, Pitchfork!

Picking my favourite year for Australian Idol was a tough decision. Should I go for season 1, which introduced both Guy "Like a virgin" Sebastian and Shannon "Nollsy" Noll to the world? It was a very tempting choice, as the compilation also included the legendary Rob "Millsy" Mills singing a version of Dirty girl, which one can only assume was dedicated to his flame at the time Paris Hilton (who broke his heart when she stopped returning his phone calls).

Season 2 was also a contender; not only did it introduce the pint-sized Anthony Callea and the prolific winner Casey Donovan to the world, but in a strange self-propagating twist, it also found a future co-host for the show in Ricki-Lee Coulter when James Mathison decided to quit the show recently. Take that, space-time continuum!

In the end, I had to go with season 3 from 2005. Just like the classic animated sitcom The Simpsons, the Australian Idol franchise reached its inevitable peak in this season. While you could argue that the young Bendigo lass Kate DeAraugo was the major contributor to this (whose take on bogan chic was as patriotic as you could get), we must not discount the talents of the über-polished Daniel Spillane, who managed to suck all of the testosterone out the classic AC/DC rocker T.N.T. to allow him to grow that little tuft of hair on his chin. And who can forget the young rocker Lola Forsip, whose rendition of The Who's Won't get fooled again scored a touchdown from judge Mark Holden?

Season 3 was also the first season that resident bad-boy Kyle Sandilands appeared as a judge, replacing Ian "Dicko" Dickson, who decided that food interested him more than music when he became the host of My restaurant rules. While Dicko was a music mogul from way back, Kyle Sandilands was dating Tamara Jaber from reality show band Scandal'us (formerly known as Bardot), which immediately gave him the credentials to judge and criticise music.

Anyone who made it to the top 13 (and hence this CD) had to pass through the Kyle filter, and while it was an incredibly gruelling task, he ensured that any of the girls who were carrying a bit too much "baggage" were quickly dismissed from the show. After all, we didn't want those "tuck shop lady arms" getting in the way of the musical performances.

But what really elevates season 3 all of the other seasons is the talent of one very special person.

Lee Harding

Come on people, this is a guy who wore a T-shirt of the US punk band The Misfits without having any idea who they were. He also wore a pair of Mötley Crüe shoes despite the fact that he could hardly name any of their songs. Step aside Iggy, the real Godfather of punk is right here.

Unfortunately some of his detractors have accused him of being a sellout bubblegum punk, a try-hard emo kid who wants to take the quickest possible road to fame. But isn't his behaviour as punk as it really gets? The original punk philosophy was about distancing yourself from the mainstream and the bombastic excesses of stadium rock. So what better way to show your punk credentials than appearing on a reality show? Surely 10,000 screaming and texting 12 year old girls cannot be wrong. Stick it to the man!

While many Australian musicians are taking the slow road to fame by playing the pub circuit, writing their own songs and actually dedicating their lives to music, the top 13 performers represented on this CD provide the real heartbeat of the Australian music scene.

It's my patriotic choice for the best album of the 2000s.

1In case you're wondering why I have created a new post with a new number 1 album, you may want to take note of the date of this post.