Speaking of my generation, a lot of people made a stink about the death of the compact disc (or CD for short, kids). I don't totally get it - CD sales are shrinking, but they're not exactly dead. I've been hearing about how the CD industry is going to collapse... for 10 years. I heard Napster was going to kill it. Then Kazaa. Then iTunes. And while those places have all put a dent in the business and forced people to rethink how music distribution should work, the market still exists for those who like physical albums. Namely, old people. Oh, and me.
So here are my top 100 favoritest albums of the decade, all of which I own on CD. Some on vinyl too. I'll be putting up 20 at a time, Monday through Friday. The same schedule will apply for the top 50 EPs of the decade next week. I haven't decided how to handle the top 30 shows. Prolly just one big post. Whatever, man, I'm a slacker, what with all of the world's knowledge at my fingertips.
The Top 100 Albums of The Information Age, #100-81
100. Face to Face - How to Ruin Everything (2002)
One of the greatest punk bands of the ’90s barely made it into the next decade. Crippled by the hatred for their misunderstood masterpiece Ignorance is Bliss, Face to Face recorded the decent, though perhaps too safe, California punk follow-up Reactionary to satiate fans. Despite being a throwback, it nearly killed the band, as guitarist Chad Yaro soon quit mid-tour. Stripped to a super-tight trio thanks to that same tour, Face to Face reconvened to fire off one last salvo. And let’s get one thing clear: How to Ruin Everything is one of the greatest swan songs of all time. It’s the rawest, most muscular, perhaps even “punkest” Face to Face record. “Bill of Goods” kick-starts this 46-minute farewell and the band tears at their instruments as only those about to break up can. So it goes, at least, until the concluding title track. Frontman and sole original member Trevor Keith picks up an acoustic guitar, ticks off his list of failures, and then promises, “You know I’ll go running out and ruin everything.” It’s a bittersweet conclusion, but a beautiful one.
Lush post-hardcore abounds in
The Hold Steady was one of a slew of bands to garner comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, but listening to Stay Positive, I hear so much more history than that. Sure, frontman Craig Finn covers old E Street topics like women, small town desperation, and the occasional road trip, but his lyrical rhymes bear a playfulness more akin to Joe Strummer’s work. Delivered with Elvis Costello’s voice and Thin Lizzy’s guitars, The Hold Steady drills for everything great about ’70s rock and cuts through all the bullshit excess. Cuts like “Constructive Summer” and “Stay Positive” give me reasons to wake up for work, if only because they guarantee a good morning commute.
I already talked up my love of this record last week, so here’s a summary: Twee-tastic, Ramones-ish pop melodies and spirit, appealing to goth kids, best debut of 2009.
“The year is 1965, and you and I are undercover detectives on the hot rod circuit.”
Get Up Kids devotees Hot Rod Circuit specialized in emotional pop rock, owing just as much to Tom Petty as they did to Matt Pryor. Their strengths included Andy Jackson’s expressive voice and Casey Prestwood’s noodley guitar parts – dude seemed to be playing one continuous solo in concert. That and more are on display on the band’s best record, Sorry About Tomorrow. 11 songs, 34 minutes, uncomplicated rock songs about driving around, girls, friends, girlfriends, and the hometowns you can never quite escape. HRC broke up in 2007, which sucks, but their first three records are all excellent reminders of the band’s abilities.
Yeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said
William Shatner’s 1968 debut album, The Transformed Man, was an ironic gem, a so-bad-it’s-funny collection thanks to hammed up spoken word renditions of pieces by Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare. No one will ever call it legitimately good, unless they’re lying.
The belated follow-up, Has Been, however, is legitimately, incredibly good. Oddly enough, it also consists entirely of works co-written by Shatner, save for a rollicking cover of Pulp’s “Common People” and the Nick Horny-penned “That’s Me Trying.” With Ben Folds as his producer and co-writer, and additional help from Joe Jackson and Henry Rollins, Shatner crafted a record split between humorous anecdotes (“You’ll Have Time,” “I Can’t Get Behind That”) and gut-wrenching personal confessions (“What Have You Done,” the music-less retelling of his third wife’s death by drowning). Folds offers lush arrangements to support Shatner’s stories, effortlessly leaping from rock to pop to gospel to jazz. And as for Captain James T. Kirk himself, he’s in top form too. He’s intermittently fragile, bitter, paranoid, funny, loving, tender, angry. I love Shel Silverstein and Patti Smith, but this is by far my favorite spoken word album.
After dialing down her rage on post-millennial albums Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper, Tori Amos not only unleashed an awesome return to powerful piano form in 2007, but proved that glam rock wasn’t dead. While some mocked the album’s five costumed versions of Amos as Spice Girls-ish, the posse girls were really more akin to the Ziggy Stardust persona David Bowie took on during his glam rock days. Coupled with the vamping of tracks like “You Can Bring Your Dog” and “Teenage Hustling,” the characters not only seem relevant to the album, but to the lexicon of rock as a whole.
The idea of the characters having different personalities fits in nicely with Posse’s eclectic 23 tracks. From the playful, Beatles-on-drugs pop manner of “Mr. Bad Man” and “Posse Bonus” to the politically satirical tones of country rocker “Big Wheel” and mini-suites “Yo George” and “Velvet Revolution” to the hard rock tracks discussed above, American Doll Posse is a dense, expansive work. Like some of Tori’s other albums this decade, ADP was conceived for the vinyl set – it’s a true double gatefold with something for everyone. Its 78 minutes of music offer new gems just about every listen, making the glut of songs endearing. Album-ender “Dragon” will kill every time, though.
Me and Conor Oberst go way back. While I have a tough time these days relating to his earlier, more angst-ridden work (too many bad memories), I find myself still turned on by his two albums from 2004, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Wide Awake is the better of the two, capturing Oberst at just the right moment. It’s rooted in his indie-folk roots, shows flashes of the old country style he began to incorporate, and marks his most political work ever. It’s a shame he phased that last aspect out, as the sociopolitical commentary of “Road to Joy” still gives me chills.
Sooner or later, every artist spends some time “in the wilderness.” He and/or she loses his and/or her artistic perspective and struggles to create more, ya know… art. Depending on who you ask, Joe Strummer either spent one year in the wilderness – the time it took to make the shitty final Clash album Cut the Crap and the actually pretty good Sid and Nancy soundtrack, say I – or 16 – from the time Joe kicked Mick Jones out of The Clash until the release of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, his first album with The Mescaleros. Either way, we are contractually obligated by good taste to agree that Joe’s late period work was ridiculously awesome.
After he lost Jones as a songwriting partner, Strummer struggled to find a musical balance. He was arguably one of the best lyricists of all time, but Strummer’s greatest strength – his rambling, playful, internal rhymes – became he biggest flaw when he lost Mick’s pop sensibility. The Mescaleros, however, brought a jam band vibe that matched Joe’s style perfectly. The Clash explored punk, rockabilly, reggae, and ska pretty well, but Joe really started to show how deep and convergent his world music roots went with Global A Go-Go.
The first Mescaleros track I ever heard was “Global A Go-Go,” and it blew me away. I knew The Clash for their didactic early work – “Tommy Gun,” “London Calling,” “White Riot.” I hadn’t heard Sandinista!, or even London Calling at that point, so to skip that far ahead was a truly expansive experience for me. The record is flush with lush arrangements, with chants and guitars and chimes and keyboards and flutes and the rawest-sounding violin I have ever heard. More than anyone else, Strummer spoke about the unitive power of music, of its ability to draw everyone in. That’s why he celebrated the raver movement in the ’90s; it was about fun. Too many bands and scenes get caught up in their own insularity. Strummer wrote music to celebrate all the people of the world.
Ted Leo is the nicest guy in punk rock. If anyone says otherwise, you call him/her a liar and spit in his/her lying mouth. The Tyranny of Distance was Leo’s first true full-length after a string of EPs and one experimental audio-loop record with his band The Pharmacists (Oh yeah, and he did time in Chisel too). Tyranny boasts a delightful Celtic folk/indie sound, something which Leo has downplayed in subsequent releases but never completely ignored. He sometimes dips into classic rock, like on “Timorous Me,” but guitar solos only make Ted Leo stronger. My only complaint about Leo is that I haven’t seen him live enough, and really that’s my fault.
When I interviewed my friends in Cetus to write a bio for their Web site, they inadvertently gave me a list of bands to check out. The biggest one of them all was Welsh shoegaze/metal act Jesu. I’m a huge fan of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and anything that fills in even a smidgeon of that album’s graces gets an automatic pass from me. As soon as the title track clicked on, I knew Conqueror was a great record, and it still holds up as my favorite Jesu release. Central songwriter Justin Broadrick wrote some fantastic, slow, droning, chiming, atmospheric wonders for this record. Just as nothing quite sounds like MBV, nothing quite sounds like Jesu either.
SCI-FI Channel used to have a late night showcase for independent short films called Exposure, and I seriously miss it. My favorite short was “More” by Mark Osborne, a claymation piece about how materialism doesn’t make us any happier, even if we become bold innovators. Later, on MTV2, I came across a song called “Hell Bent,” which used footage from “More.” The artist was named Kenna. “Hell Bent” tapped right into the intense angst I was going through, aided by some dope-ass beats. I would later learn that Chad Hugo from The Neptunes wrote the music with Kenna, which is weird given how not-mainstream the album sounds. Also worth noting for its oddness is that Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst is who got Kenna signed in the first place.
Anywhoozle, I spent many months trying to hunt down Kenna’s album, New Sacred Cow. Nobody had it. In a random bit of bonding, Eric, the hip-hop-lovin’ African-American DJ and then-assistant manager at my Sam Goody, talked to me about his own frustrations about trying to find the album. The only other time we bonded was when he tried to justify Beast Machines’ ending to me. We both agreed that Dinobot’s death was fucked up yet brilliant, though.
THAT BEING SAID, one day I did get to buy New Sacred Cow, and it was awesome. Poignant yet danceable, Kenna’s first album moved my three key listening organs: my feet, my head, and my heart. Not everything is as dark and moody as “Hell Bent” (check the smooth jazz solo on “Yenah Ababa (Rose)”), but you can bet it’ll be good.
While Being There remains my favorite Wilco album, there are times when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fights valiantly for that spot. It comes with a better backstory – shunned by their label, Wilco released YHF on the Internet, got huge amounts of exposure which segued into a new, better record deal and tons o’ cash – and showcases just how heartbreakingly beautiful frontman Jeff Tweedy can get. That’s no coincidence; the first track is “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and it only gets worse/better from there. Not that YHF is a total downer. “Jesus, etc.” has a bittersweet country flavor, while “Heavy Metal Drummer” is an uber-catchy pop tune about getting stoned and listening to KISS.
From senior year of high school through sophomore year of college, We Shall All Be Healed, based on John Darnielle’s experiences with drugs addicts, was my favorite Mountain Goats record.. The album doesn’t stray too far from
Dynamite live show. Nice guy. Celtic punk indie rock. Ted Leo, whether with Chisel, the Pharmacists, or just his guitar, is one of the coolest duders in punk rock today, dropping catchy jams that refer back to some of the best songwriters of the ’70s – Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. His best effort thus far has been Hearts of Oak. While slightly bloated at 54 minutes, it still packs a bevy of best-ofs, from “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” to “Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead,” the latter of which indoctrinated me into the world according to Leo.
I’d call Deftones the only nü-metal band that matters if that wasn’t so insulting. See, the ‘tones took their metal influences and combined them with a love of My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode, and The Smiths. The result: Stoned-out smoky metal jams with ambiance and emotion. Deftones have always been much smarter than their immediate peers, which is probably why they’re still going strong. White Pony is the album that got me into them – there’s something about the way frontman Chino Moreno hits the line “I give you the gun / Blow me away” in the video for “Change (In the House of Flies).” It’s the only time I’ve been impressed by a Jesus Christ pose (Soundgarden songs about the matter notwithstanding). Some people slag
“When I look back on it all as I know we will / You and me wide-eyed / I wonder will we remember / How it feels to be this alive? / And I know we have to go I realize / We only get to stay so long / We always have to back to real lives / Where we belong.”
The above are the first two stanzas of “Out of This World,” the first song off of what was intended to be The Cure’s farewell album, Bloodflowers. After 1996’s crushingly disappointing Wild Mood Swings (not to mention 1992’s slightly disjointed Wish), frontman Robert Smith was about ready to check out on The Cure once and for all. That attitude ended up freeing Smith’s songwriting – Bloodflowers unquestionably sounds like it was supposed to be a good send-off. Much more subdued and spacey, it hearkens back to Disintegration. And that’s not just me trying to oversell the album; Bloodflowers was also meant to conclude The Cure’s “Dark Trilogy,” which consisted of Pornography and Disintegration. While the band’s ’90s psychedelic guitar squalls show up on tracks like “Watching Me Fall” and “Bloodflowers,” for the most part, the album is an attempt to grow old gracefully, to put on one last good show. Obviously, this didn’t happen, since The Cure have released two more albums since then. Still, though, Bloodflowers stands as the delayed last great Cure album.
I loved the damn record. I love the classic rock throwback guitars for their razor-edge riffs. These six-stringers sound like rock music incarnate. I love the piano interludes for the classical touch they bring (and because, yeah… they do kinda recall Born to Run). But mostly, I love the band for Craig Finn’s incredible lyrics. The topics are well-worn: Drinking, women, music, losers. But the internal rhymes Finn scatters sound so playful and effortless, even though there is no way someone could hammer out the words to a song like “Stevie Nix” in a few minutes. In this sense, The Hold Steady reminds me more of Joe Strummer, both with and without The Clash, than Springsteen, because Finn and Strummer both exhibit a sort of playfulness despite all the fury and bluster. I also love how even when Finn recycles lyrics, and he does, he is the first person to call it out in the song.
Swoon further asserts SSPU’s sound – androgynous, hypnotic, ethereal, rocking, abrasive. Each release has its unique qualities if you listen hard enough, but taken overall, the band’s discography has thus far revealed a knack for shoegazey anthems, which should be a contradiction in terms yet somehow isn’t. I need to see Silversun live, if only to see how their contrasting elements (male vs. female vocals, singing vs. screaming, guitar vs. keyboard) are made.
TOMORROW: We're made to heal, I'm ready to be heartbroken, are you ready to brave new directions? #80-61.