Avery Island’s Favorite Albums of the Decade (00-09): 10-1

10. Panda Bear – Person Pitch, 2007

I could ramble on all day about what Noah Lennox, aka. Panda Bear, contributes to Animal Collective; how he’s the atmospheric mastermind behind the band’s fuzzier phenomena or how his rapturous vocal lines provide the ascension that make their songs sound so damn upbeat. Ultimately, Person Pitch is unlike anything Animal Collective has produced. It carries all the ingredients that make a pop song: the catchy verses, the perky rhythms, the whimsical sentiment. Yet the end result is something much broader; whereas most songs we hear give the impression of a singular image, these feel like spacious cells, as if Lennox was building a museum rather than an exhibit.

Lennox’s voice reverberates through the album’s subtle dimensions like the friendly banter of a tour guide; as such, Person Pitch very much is more like a progressive adventure than a pop record. Through gradual filter modulations and meticulous placement of samples, Person Pitch gives the illusion of movement, particularly on “Take Pills.” A pow-wow-like jingle rings out from the murky depths of what sounds like a cavern, accompanied by Lennox’s familiar voice. The joyful melody slowly grows louder and more lucid until the sound of withdrawing an object from water rings from all directions. Using your ears, Person Pitch becomes its own reality, perceivable as if by echolocation.

With Person Pitch’s gradual movement and the echoing dimensions,  it’s almost like taking a boat ride at an amusement park with your eyes closed. It’s a difficult album to grasp, especially on your first listen through. Unfortunately, 1000 words couldn’t prepare you for hearing Person Pitch, despite the futile attempts of many a critic before me. But then again, this wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t try, right? Fortunately, we have all the time in the world to keep studying this peculiar gem of musical art. Despite the spotted bear Lennox got his moniker from, Person Pitch might be better observed as a bat does, like a world seen through the ears.

9. Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise, 2005

When Sufjan Stevens announced his plans to write a full-fledged concept album about every fucking state in the US, everyone assumed he had to just be joking around, or be severely delusional. It’s not like he could just slap “ARKANSAS!” on an LP and Frank Zappa his way through songs about peaches and muffins and expect to get away with it. But Mr. Stevens knew how to do his research. After Michigan, people started nodding their dubious heads, but when Illinoise came, it damn near took them off.

Cultural references abound, from writer Carl Sandburg to the Ferris Wheel in Chicago to new age architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and that’s just in the title track. The track is one hell of a track, too; beginning with a virtually un-noddable 5/4 beat, it eventually falls into a horn solo and solemn dénouement, Stevens’ midnight conversation with Carl. “Jacksonville” and “Chicago” are among the album’s other highlights, each unfurling delicately into one immaculate anthem after the other. And for an album that’s so damn long, it’s quite an asset that its strongest songs are also its longest. The record’s immense 75 minutes disintegrate like the shortest Grizzly Bear LP beneath its many heartwarming earworms, and that’s no insult to Grizzly Bear at all.

I’ll admit, one of the most refreshing quirks about Sufjan Stevens is his bare-handed sense of humor. Like Panic at the Disco, his song titles are long and comical; unlike Panic at the Disco, he doesn’t suck ass at baroque pop. With “A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze,” not only is he still being relevant to Illinois, Stevens is also describing the 20-second song to the teeth. Everyone thought Stevens was joking with his whole States spiel; in a sense he was, and that alone, despite the beautiful and evocative orchestrations, makes the whole inherently comical affair one that’s purely enjoyable, whether you’re a fan of Stevens or Illinois.  As everyone suspected from the beginning, Stevens won’t be finishing his 50-part project, but now it seems more shame than punch line.

8. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver, 2007

Oh I don’t know, oh where to begin?

Well, with a title like Sound of Silver, its no surprise that its main theme is growing older. However, what is surprising, is how classic and essential the album sounds upon even initial listens. Three years have passed since Murphy dropped it on all of us like a cartoon anvil labeled “acme”, but Sound still feels new. Maybe it’s because of it’s crystalline production or  maybe it’s the eternal pragmatism and humor of the precocious lyrics, but for our money’s worth, it’s because no other album has matched or even come close to the rich, entrancing amalgam of rock and dance that Sound of Silver contains. It doesn’t just nail it, it perfects it.

The songs were never more danceable, with “North American Scum” and “Us v. Them” being the epitome of Murphy’s hook-writing skill. However where the album most impresses is in the lyrics. Murphy used to muse that he came up with his material on-the-spot, but it’d be impossible on this one. Every song is remarkably well-written, with lines like “You/Can/Normalize/Don’t it make you feel alive” from “Get Innocuous!” or “It’s not getting better/no, it’s not getting better man/it’s just getting old” from “Watch the Tapes” perfectly encapsulating the motif of the album. “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” are the towering highlights of the album though, with their somber attitudes toward death, loss, or simply living with or without regrets being potent musings. No matter the angle, Sound of Silver is flawless and pristine, an album that feels like an album in a genre that typically abandons the notion.

7. Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights, 2002

Some would say the Strokes defined the New York music scene in the early 00s, however in the face of Turn On the Bright Lights, the sentiment sounds ridiculous, almost laughable. Sure, Is This It is a wonder of alternative music, a work of utmost confidence and gravitas; they sound like the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground because that’s what cool dudes like them listen to. Interpol aren’t the Strokes. They sing flatter, play more reserved, and the sharpness of their writing is only matched by their attire. Paul Banks doesn’t sing so much as he crones, channeling Ian Curtis in a disturbingly similar vein.

Turn On the Bright Lights is easily the most inspired post-punk album of the decade; it wouldn’t be a stretch to compare it to Joy Division’s works a decade from now. The album plays upon a formula mixing Bank’s monotone voice and bleak lyrics, heavy, deep bass throb, sparse guitar lines, and tight drumming that hits the cymbals in typically perfect places (the climax of “PDA” is a perfect example of this), and the amalgamation is stretched, but never warped, throughout the album. They find every possible way to make an insular, inspired sound with their limited pallet, making Turn On the Bright Lights an impressively economic album that wastes no time. It’s sharp, concentrated, and fantastic; if New York had a soundtrack, Interpol’s debut wouldn’t just be a good fit, it’d be perfect.

6. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002

In retrospect, the most haunting aspect about this album is the oddly prophetic “Ashes of American Flags.” The album was originally slated for release in September of 2001, but an issue with Reprise Records spurred the band to seek a deal with Nonesuch, ironically another Warner Bros. subsidiary, and the official release was pushed to April of the next year.

Of course, we all remember what happened that particular September. After that day, we Americans learned the meaning of agoraphobia, and lines like “I’m down on my hands and knees every time I hear a doorbell ring” sounded like they were pulled straight from the country’s collective heart. In this respect, the album’s delay was fortunate after all, landing its cynical message right in the midst of post-9-11 fervor.

The fact that Reprise didn’t quite get the album at first is indicative of the record’s elusive appeal. For Wilco fans, it’s a fine experiment on the Summerteeth formula; for indie fans, a cathartic masterpiece; for everybody else, an damn near impenetrable album with many a sonic trick up its sleeve. Yet like many of the albums on this list, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t reveal its secrets after the first run. It’s an enigmatic record, just as soft and breezy at times as it is noisy and dense later.

Despite its impenetrable shell, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that forms an intimate bond with the listener once he manages to see through the fog. “Heavy Metal Drummer” is really Tweedy’s lament on the loss of innocence, “Pot Kettle Black” a self-aware condemnation that comes off as empathetic. On “War on War,” Tweedy sings “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive” in a touching display of resignation. On this record, Wilco perfectly encapsulates the sardonic zeitgeist of the 21st century, a philosophy of distrust and alienation. The final “I’m not going outside” on “Poor Places” is the most potently brief summation of that sentiment, a simple declaration that says more about the new age than it ever could have known.

5. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, 2000

Post-rock gets accused of being many things; pretentious, melodramatic, and overwrought all come to mind. However, while Godspeed You! Black Emperor have the head-scratching name and the political pretentions of your typical eye-rolling indie band, they also have a secret weapon: skill. On Lift Your Skinny Fists, they don’t redefine baroque post-rock as much as they simply master it: sure, hardcore fans will argue for their debut or even the bootleg EP before it, but Fists is their defining moment.

Gone is the apocalyptic setting of the original, and replacing it an atmosphere that is difficult to describe. Simply put, it’s emotional. Sure, you have the political charges, but those seem secondary to the general air of raw, unvilified catharsis. The builds are slow and deliberate and the crescendos are immaculate, the instrumentation is layered and confident, and overall, Fists exudes an inescapable charm from the very first burst of “Storm”.

Simply put, its a towering, shining example of the genre, a defining album that has yet to be topped by even Godspeed themselves, let alone the likes of Mogwai or Mono. Fists is battle-cry against not just the man, but everything; everything you’ve ever hated, everything you’ve ever loves, everything that’s indispensable, beautiful, ugly, glorious, despicable, or cruel, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven stands as the anthem of the unbridled power of emotion.

4. Madvillain – Madvillainy, 2004

We’ve gone on about this album before, but let us reiterate for you yet again: this is the best hip-hop album of the decade. In a decade where Outkast released a magnum opus and Kanye West released an even better album, two dudes from the yonder days of the golden age of hip-hop make an album that doesn’t just one up all other hip-hop, but pretty much every other album released this decade. It might seem a bit premature, but after six years, Madvillainy has worked it’s into the collective consciousness of even non-hip-hop audiences; we’re here to tell you that for our money’s worth, Madvillainy is the greatest hip-hop album of all-time.

No other album can match it’s intoxicating mix of bass-centric beats, lyrical density, odd humor, and grass-soaked atmosphere. It sounds like demented infomercials you see after staying up way too late. It sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon in the Twilight Zone. It sounds like what aliens would hear from the probe they installed in Dr. Octagon. Madvillainy sounds like many things, but what it all boils down to is that the album contains the most infectious and layered beats Madlib has laid down to date and some of the most deviously dense lyrics MF Doom has ever penned. His cryptic head-scratchers are only revealed to deserving and quick listeners, and his sense of humor isn’t for the weak-hearted or the weak-stomached. Needless to say, it’s everything we’ve ever wanted from a hip-hop album. The rest of the world seemed to agree.

3. Radiohead – Kid A

The problem with Kid A is that critics, ourselves included, have taken the magic out of it. It’s been combed over as if we were looking for a missing child in it’s mountainous peaks and you can’t listen to it now without imagining it’s significance to music and pop culture in general. Never has there been an album with the kind of precognitive prowess that Kid A has, an album that sounded like the decade before the decade even began. The last album to do such a thing was OK Computer, and it is not a coincidence that Kid A follows in it’s predecessor’s breathless fears and stalking reservations. Kid A sounds like the future that OK Computer feared and expected: inhuman, technological, and completely alienating.

The world the album creates is one that doesn’t lack communication, but rather one that misinterprets it all into a globalized language that is utterly impenetrable. Seriously, what is that kid trying to say? “The National Anthem” uses it’s messy, scatterbrain horns to symbolize the kind of bureaucratic farrago imagined on OK Computer and “Idioteque” is an ambiguous and stifling apocalypse. Yorke speaks of laughing until his head comes off and swallowing until he bursts, describes the approach of an ice age, yells a cry for women and children to be saved first, and over it all, he wonders if it’s all really happening. “This is really happening” he yells, a proclamation that rings out even to this day.

What is there to say for Kid A? It’s an album that is markedly different, dramatically important, and disturbingly relevant, even to this day. Not only is it the single most important album to be released this decade, it’s a landmark in music itself, one of the first commercially and critically successful hybrids of electronic and alternative music, and it does so stunningly. This is however a “favorites” list, and while Kid A is typically considered the greatest album of the decade, which we won’t argue for a second, it isn’t exactly our “favorite”. So what could beat Radiohead’s second magnum opus?

2. Arcade Fire – Funeral

I’ll be the first to admit it’s hard not to be impressed by bands with a dozen+ musicians listed in the album’s liner notes. Watching Arcade Fire’s tour with David Bowie, I was immediately stunned by the sheer breadth of musicians on stage: viola players, horn players, an entire violin section, organs, guitars and drums, of course. There’s something dignified about musicians with such a broad array of instruments, like watching a composition conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Win Butler’s fingers clasp around the microphone like the impassioned conductor’s around his baton while leading his foray into sweeping rock overtures. But unlike a conductor, Butler had a feral demeanor about him, as if someone driven like an animal by brutal, unmitigated emotion.

That raw emotion is Butler’s greatest asset, not the viola section or pianos or the lovely Rickenbackers. Through the intoxicating haze of Funeral‘s dense emotion, Arcade Fire offer a twisted perspective on the world. The older brother in “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” fights with his father until the police arrive. To Butler, the lights on the police cars are “disco lights” for the neighbors to dance to. In reality, the neighbors are perhaps delighting in the Schadenfreude of watching their drama rather than romping around. In “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” kids die out in the cold searching for light until Butler reveals in saying “The power’s out in the heart of man” that the “power” in question is much more than some electrical current, perhaps a metaphor for mankind’s lost compassion or some other broad-sweeping metaphor. Despite their breadth, these all-encompassing laments are an integral part of Funeral‘s charm, rendering its melodrama into something both universal and entirely intimate.

When his messages aren’t broad-sweeping, they’re bitterly personal. “Crown of Love” is a tragic lament of Butler’s lost love. Her name, carved across his eyelids, tortures him into “praying for blindness” as his love plagues him “just like a cancer.” In this respect, the term “universal” in regard to Butler’s emotional appeal is truly multifaceted. Funeral is so deeply resonant because its just as intimately aware of the world as it is with the infinitesimal human soul. The level of sincerity in lines like “Somethin’ filled up my heart with nothin'” borders on lachrymose, even despite its vagueness. Butler’s inexplicable sorrow is real, it’s his own, and yet it also belongs to all of us.

1. Modest Mouse – The Moon & Antarctica

Modest Mouse’s third album is not only the best album they’ve ever made, but also our favorite album of the decade. It speaks to us more than Kid A and Funeral, and has a power over AI writers that is hard to describe. Maybe it’s a case of right place at the right time, but The Moon & Antarctica is not only one of the most well-written albums we’ve ever heard lyrically, but it’s also a wide-open technical masterpiece. The habits and idiosyncrasies that define Modest Mouse are here and amplified to a dangerously effective level, every detail finely tuned and perfected.

Backwards drums, banjos, violins, reverb-drenched guitars, and percussion that puts anything else in the indie world to shame are all wrung in by Eric Judy’s clean, stable bass; even Brock sounds as if he’s finally realized what he wants to say perfectly, as if he suddenly grew the wisdom of a world-traveler twice his age overnight. Hell, it’d be doubtful for anyone to sound as serenely intelligent. Even throw away lines are terrific, with “And in the places you go/You’ll see the place where you’re from” being a prime example of such brilliance. We could read off line after line of curious wisdom, but we’d hate to ruin them. The album seems untouchable and perfect, an odd sentiment for a band that typically produces the best flawed and chipped albums you’ll hear.

“It’s hard to remember to live before you die/It’s hard to remember that our lives are such a short time/It’s hard to remember when it takes such a long time.” That line may encapsulate the single reason that The Moon & Antarctica tops this list, with it’s immense relatability and immortal sensibility. The Moon & Antarctica may not be the most important album or the greatest album released last decade, though it is one of them, but in it’s layered presentation and judicial comments on the human condition, it tops this list to be our favorite album of the last 10 years, more so than even Kid A and Funeral. Sometimes, it doesn’t take a global statement or a personal journey to endear an album to you; sometimes, an album just fulfills some void you never even knew you had, an album that you couldn’t imagine living without after hearing it. This is that album for us.

Wait, was that Animal Collective AGAIN? [20-11]

1 Comment

  1. 09/03/10: Last Day of the List « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Avery Island’s Favorite Albums (00-09): 10-1 […]

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