Avery Island’s Favorite Albums of the Decade (00-09): 40-31

40. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009

I recently bought this CD as a gift for my mother and sister to listen to in the car. They’d heard 1901 on the radio before and were surprised at how little self-loathing and irrational anger the song harbored, considering it was on a station usually dominated by the likes of pissy garbage like Three Days Grace and Mudvayne trying in vain to make the next “Unforgiven.” Being an ardent fan of Phoenix, I jumped on their curiosity.”Listen to it! It won a Grammy!” I said. The next day, they listened to the the whole CD five times in a row. In the 90’s, my mother’s favorite CDs were Out of Time and Prolonging the Magic, yet she now listens to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix more frequently than she ever did those other two fine records. The question of why is hardly a question at all: these are selfless and honest love ballads through and through, carried on the back of fist-pumping rock n’ roll.

Though the name is an obvious Mozart reference, the music bears more resemblance to Liszt’s energetic sock hoppers referenced in lead single “Lisztomania” (also a reference to the cult film of the same name). This album encapsulates the best of the Velvet Underground-loving rock ‘n roll revival we saw at the turn of the century. However, whereas participants like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bloc Party evolved to incorporate electronic synths on their latter-decade releases, Phoenix did the exact opposite. Wolfgang Amadeus is the most guitar-driven record of their catalog, stowing away their chillwave sensibilities for something more immediate and tangible, yet just as intricate as before. This is a mainstream album just as much as it is a conceptual work of art. The line “Die and succeed” in the chorus of “Girlfriend” perfectly synopsizes the record’s mission statement: victory by catharsis. And Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a resounding victory if I’ve ever seen one.

39. The National – Alligator, 2005

If there really is an all-American indie rock band, then The National is a definite possibility. Whereas the concurrent vocal trend states that falsettos are all the rage, Matt Berninger of The National croons with a strong baritone that’s just as effective, if not more so for its distinction. Whether Berninger’s expressing longing for an old friend, relief over his new promotion, or remorse for harming his girlfriend’s feelings, his poetic manner of espousing frail relationships and heartbreak only compounds the emotional weight of these stadium-tailored rock songs.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but stadium rock does not necessarily mean corny. On the contrary, The National’s often glorious productions are a perfect match to the honesty of each song’s apologetic drama. Unlike The Killers, Kings of Leon, or [hack] Muse, The National mean every word they sing, even if the meaning is buried beneath elegant prose. The violins, the timpani-like drum build-ups, the walls of amplifiers, they all play their rightful part in animating Berninger’s stories of city life for the audience to share.

38. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale, 2006

What’s harder than the drug game? Well, life itself for one. On Fishscale, pound for pound Ghostface’s best album, the world he inhabits is violent, lonely, and changing fast; one minute you’re breaking a wrist and the next you’re getting cursed out by a punk kid that doesn’t get the right amount of homespun child abuse. What makes Fishscale such an intense and satisfying listen is hearing Ghostface himself develop and change over the course of album, with “Shakey Dog” being a romanticized crime drama, “R.A.G.U.” being an odd epiphany, and “Underwater” being a finding of some peace and resolution.

Drugs and old-times are all over this album and Rae and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan’s presence is just a testament to such. When it isn’t about guns, broken bones, or the ladies, it’s all about the powder and the life surrounding it. Fishscale isn’t an after-school special, instead he makes it sound like it really is: dark, fragile, paranoid, and ready to crumble at any second. That’s the brilliance of Fishscale, rather than telling, it shows. Not to mention that it usurps every convention of that the hip-hop genre is usually demonized for, i.e. the violence isn’t there for kicks, the drugs aren’t lauded, and the women are treated like princesses. Fishscale is Ghostface’s victory over a world that he once lived in and a ticket to a front row show of that very place just for us, and it’s just as dark, paranoid, and infectious as you can imagine.

37. Sonic Youth – Murray Street, 2004

Sonic Youth were never particularly bothered by the fact they can never top Daydream Nation, an album so perfect and so loved that even we had to bend our knees and pray to it. Instead, they chose to continue to explore their range and boundaries, producing some great albums along the way (Dirty and Goo spring immediately to mind), and Murray Street is their midlife crisis averted. They sound so completely comfortable with themselves, yet still willing to bend and shake and try unlike many other older bands and they even find time to squeeze in the tired-and-true fuzzy noise extravaganza (“Plastic Sun”). “Rain On Tin” and “Disconnection Notice” are the highlights, quickly becoming some of the band’s most respected post-Daydream output, their radical guitar wandering sounding as clear and concise as anything they’ve produced. Hell, more so; we are talking about Sonic Youth here.

The album is a lesson in accessibility as well, with guitars being lucid rather than coarse and Kim keeping her hands to herself and instead working towards the inherent peace of the album. Which isn’t to say the album doesn’t rock, but it all comes off as an incredibly open and light-hearted listen that has a relaxed pace even when it’s at its most intense. The album exudes confidence and gravitas, the kind of inspired enlightenment that can only come from years of experimentation, which Sonic Youth does plenty of. Murray Street isn’t experimental or niche or even particularly dense; it’s just a great album, a rare type of quality that is getting even rarer in these days where a niche or a gimmick is needed to just be noticed. This album is a testament to what you can accomplish just by being really damn good at what you do, and Sonic Youth are the kings in this regard.

36. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca, 2009

Some have been calling Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth the David Byrne of the 21st century. The two’s clamorous collaboration “Knotty Pine” on Dark Was the Night only seemed to reinforce this conception, on top of the fact that they’re both named David. Now, I wouldn’t say that Bitte Orca is immediately complimentary to anything in the Talking Heads discography, but it’s certainly reflective of the frontman’s propensity for thinking outside the polyethylene box. Guitar interludes spin into the empty spaces of melody in perfect tonal compliment to the pathos of the song, never bogged down by adherence to any particular convention or trend. The first strums on opener “Cannibal Resource” waver and shimmer in upward ascension like mist and the eminent vocal harmony establishes Longstreth’s other spectacular calling card: stunning and intricate choral harmonies.

Not only does Bitte Orca represent the Dirty Projectors’ first true pop breakthrough, it’s also their most ambitious record to date (perhaps with the exception of the abstruse classical-meets-cowbell experiment the Getty Address). It’s the timely perfection of all of Longstreth’s haphazard experiments this past decade, the nectar of his latent genius distilled and shaped into cohesive pop tidbits that are resonant on a human level. Bitte Orca may not be exactly David Byrne in sound, but I’d wager to say it’s quite nearly as inimitable as the Talking Heads’ best work. It wouldn’t be an injustice to one day see copies of Bitte Orca stacked neatly on shelves next to a row of Remain in Light.

35. The Antlers – Hospice, 2009

Every now and then we come across an album that damn near makes us cry: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, OK Computer, Funeral. Yet we’ve never seen a truly lachrymose drama on record until The Antlers dropped Hospice on the world. The set-up is a typical case of the Florence Nightingale effect, to quote Doc Brown. Doctor falls in love with terminally ill patient, patient scorns doctor’s attempts to ease her pain, patient slips away into inevitable death while doctor blames himself and inherits a contempt for what he now sees as a more vacuous life than before. The story’s ubiquity could have been its undoing, but it was pulled from the flames by an adept display of songwriting and superb lyricism, even spurring NPR to dub it their Album of the Year in 2009.

Peter Silberman’s storytelling acumen lies in his ability to lay out his message bluntly and clear. “Two”  is Silberman’s own “Two-Headed Boy” of sorts, a fast-paced epiphany over high acoustic chords with heartfelt confessions like “when we moved out here we were so disappointed, sleeping out of tune with our dreams disjointed.” The Antlers strike the moving crescendo in perfect rise and fall with the lyrical development and yet still preserve the facade of an intimate bedroom recording. Everything, from Silberman’s falsetto to the keyboard to the drums, sound frail and ready to break under its own weight at any moment, and this kind of tenderness is precisely what makes Hospice feel so earnest. Silberman croons “Hundreds of thousands of hospital beds and all of them empty but mine” and his sense of desolation becomes your own.

34. Deerhunter – Microcastle, 2007

Cryptograms was an album that got mixed reaction; either it was a great album or a terrible one. The reasons people loved it were the same reasons some hated it; this isn’t true with Microcastle, an album that is so immediate and inherently beautiful that you’d be surprised it wasn’t released by Radiohead. The comparison is apt, with Microcastle representing a complete shift in tone and songwriting for Deerhunter. Turn It Up Faggot and Cryptograms were dense, lengthy shoegaze/noise rock albums that were rewarding in their own ways, but almost completely niche. Microcastle is a pop album through-and-through, with lush harmonies, vocal hooks, guitar melodies, and some slight shoegaze elements. “Never Stops” has a electronic drone in the back to accompany the melody rather than envelope it and “Nothing Ever Happened” has guitar fuzz that actually sounds tangible and strangely crystalline.

The lyrics cover familiar territory for the band, but Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt take their songwriting to new levels by making simple statements and making them well. “Agoraphobia” is as blunt a description of the condition as possible, using the condition itself as a metaphor for staying bliss and unaware, staying in a static environment that never changes. Something dependable, in a way. Elsewhere, “Never Stops” is a conceit on time and it’s annoying tendency to move forward while “Saved By Old Times” is a yearning to, well, be saved by the old times, to be wrapped in an agoraphobic sheet and be safe from a world that changes faster and faster everyday. Although, the real show stopper is “Nothing Ever Happened”, a bass jam that turns into a full-on groove of guitar fuzz, quick, concise drums, and an ever present stomp forward that obliterates the fears that Deerhunter are anything other than pop monoliths by now.

33. Spoon – Kill the Moonlight, 2002

While some people might try and make their grand statement with overblown production values, long(-ass), multi-part songs, or throwing in the gospel chorus, Spoon chose to do it in quite a different way. They choose brief single-style songs over lengthy diatribes, they choose lingering repetition over constant evolution, and they focus on groove rather than drama. They are Spoon and they work with a dangerous economy of rhythm, guitars, and a piano.

Every jam on Kill the Moonlight, Spoon’s best album, is infectiously well-realized and tight; so tight in fact that it might sound slight. Thankfully, the lyrics were never sharper and the hooks were never more plentiful, so much so that even the excellent Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga cannot stand up to Kill the Moonlight‘s brilliant use of dynamics, atmosphere, and space. The polar opposite of an album like Mark Hollis, this uses a lack of silence and a surfeit of fills to create atmosphere. It shares that top shelf with albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when it comes to brilliant use of resources and we get to reap the benefits of Spoon’s generous offering.

32. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, 2007

Of Montreal is not the most masculine band out there. When amiable frontman Kevin Barnes is not dressed like an extra in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, you might have the awkward misfortune of catching him wearing nothing but shaving cream to his live sets. Even Karen O or the late Freddie Mercury might have flinched at Kevin Barnes’ flamboyant stage antics. Yet beneath Barnes’ skinny, leather-clad visage lies a truly troubled and sardonic personality. If you didn’t catch his references to Norwegian black metal in “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” or that his “friend” in “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” was actually antidepressants, then you’ll know for sure that he’s not exactly a healthy-minded fellow when he starts shouting “Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart!” in the very un-Of Montreal torrent “The Past is A Grotesque Animal.” Barnes’ upbeat androgynous pop-rock has never been quite as ironic as it is on the uncomfortably cathartic Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?.

Yeah, I said it: this album is great because of how ironic it is. If you’ve followed Of Montreal since their inception, you’ll know that cheery guitar pop touched with electronic quirks is their forte, and while their stories can often border on Velvet Underground-esque levels of stolidity (I vaguely remember Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies skipping around alliteration about children being eaten by hyena-cicada monsters), they’re not too prone to veering off into plangent rants. Hissing Fauna not only breaks this paradigm, it shatters it to loathsome bits. It quite literally captures the mental breakdown of a man who’s made a habit of smothering the bad beneath a wall of smiles. It’s bipolar, it’s haunting, it’s damn catchy, and it’s an excellent window into the darkest hours of this man’s animated life.

31. Radiohead – In Rainbows, 2007

Hail to the Thief had people worried, myself included. The album was dense, scattershot, and generally uninviting despite a more rock-oriented approach. Of course, that was kind of the point of the album, but that didn’t make it any less of a chore to actually make it through. In Rainbows has none of these problems; it’s an album of clinical clarity and inspired beauty by a band that finally sounds comfortable with themselves. Before In Rainbows, it was almost hard to imagine Radiohead as human at all. To the general public, they seemed like an alternative rock zeitgeist or digital entity. In Rainbows sounds human and livable, especially in comparison to the uncomfortably nihilistic Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. “15 Steps” abandons a digitized beat in the first 30 seconds as if to show as much, and then “Bodysnatchers” just plain rocks; when was the last time you could say a Radiohead song “rocked” and mean it literally?

“Nude” finally rears its head after spending years as a fan favorite live piece and it sounds as sugary and generally pretty as possible, “Faust Arp” sounds like an homage to Nick Drake’s “Cello Song”, and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” takes the immediate pace of “Bodysnatchers” and applies a much lighter, less harsh tone, resulting in a song that sounds simultaneously progressive and lingering. Every song on the album has little moments that endear themselves to you and overall In Rainbows sounds unmistakably like Radiohead. Some people call it their best album, and it’s hard to argue with that statement when you listen to the entire album in one sitting; it sounds prepped, trimmed, and perfected. It’s simply a testament to the strength of Radiohead’s catalog when you can simply call this their third best album and it still be flawless in almost every way.

Now you’re talkin’! [30-21]

What was that? [50-41]

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2 Comments

  1. 08/31/10: It Continues… « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Avery Island’s Favorite Albums (00-09): 40-31 […]

  2. 09/03/10: Last Day of the List (EDIT) « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] 40-31 […]

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