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:
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.