Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Decade in Music 2000-2009, #40-21

I'm almost done discussing the top 100 albums of the decade. Man, what a chore! For the record, the ranking for a lot of these albums was separated by the slightest of preferences; really, everything on here is beloved. Granted, the top 20 consists of albums I really love, and the top 10 of albums I really, really love, but all of these are tops. Which is why I paid for (most) of them.

Now, when I say "most," I don't mean I pirated any of these records. Some of them came by way as promos (Minus the Bear's Planet of Ice, Crime in Stereo's Is Dead). Venice is Sinking actually sent me mp3s of their then-new album AZAR for review, and I love them so much that I eventually bought a physical copy. Obviously, I can afford to do this because I don't have any kids to put through college, but I think it's important to contribute back to the artists who changed my life for the better. I want them to be able to make more music, maybe afford a tour, and so on. They worked hard and deserve it. Being able to download all of the albums presented here at a whim is certainly appealing and easy, but tons of dickhead decisions are easy. Not to get all soapboxy (well, maybe a little soapboxy), but I honestly feel like people aren't really fans of bands when they tell me they pirated their albums.

That's not to say I'm completely against downloading. I like iTunes exclusives (Well, sort of. I'd prefer physical releases, but at least it's something). When Portishead's label refused to honor my mp3 voucher that came with my vinyl copy of Third, I pirated the album. When Foo Fighter's In Your Honor CD came with an encryption that prevented me from listening to the music on any computer, I pirated it. And when my DRM digital songs finally hit their "can only be played on up to five computers" quota, I intend to pirate all of them. I paid, major labels, now fuck off.

Anyway, that's where I stand: Pay for art, but don't let anybody rip you off either.

The Top 100 Albums of the Bush Death Regime Era, #40-21

40. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (2006)

At this point, what else can I say about the Hold Steady? The band brought back ’70s guitar rock and threw in some deliciously verbose lyrics about drugs ‘n’ sex ‘n’ poor life decisions. Boys and Girls in America is currently my favorite THS album, but who knows when that’ll change. Frontman Craig Finn keeps churning out affecting stories about losers in love, blurring the line between John Darnielle and Bruce Springsteen. Oh, and “Chillout Tent” has guest vox from Soul Asylum’s David Pirner!

39. Less Than Jake - GNV FLA (2008)

“Surviving is my best revenge.”

2008 was unquestionably the shittiest summer I ever faced. I kicked off the season by graduating from college and promptly losing all societal value. You know who wants to hire a guy with a BA in English? Call centers and the U.S. Army. About a month after my graduation, my cousin was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his leg. The cancer soon spread to his ribs and lungs. While my cousin was lucky to be diagnosed early, he still had a long road ahead of him, and we were all feeling pretty grim.

Two weeks later, GNV FLA came out. Like an old friend come to cheer me, the record offered me 14 ska-punk songs like the kind I used to find on Hello Rockview and Borders and Boundaries. Is GNV FLA a pandering retread after the utter failure that was In With the Out Crowd, Less Than Jake’s last album? I don’t care. This record enveloped me in its anthems while I dealt with losers, kings, and fucking medical diagnoses I didn’t understand. Taken solely as a lyrical reading, a song like “Abandon Ship” shouldn’t make me feel better – it’s about failing hard. But throw in a fast punk rock beat, horns, and a bitching guitar solo, and top it all off by singing those bitter words as loudly as possible, and it becomes an exorcism. My college pals and I are still struggling to find our footing, but at least my cuz is on the mend. As for Less Than Jake, well… thanks, guys. I still put this record on some nights and just drive around, singing.

38. Crime In Stereo - The Troubled Stateside (2006)

Having been introduced to Crime in Stereo via their live show, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the album they were touring on at the time, The Troubled Stateside. I always thought it was a solid melodic hardcore record, but it didn’t quite capture the group’s live energy. To that end, The Troubled Stateside didn’t even chart on my original top 25 for 2006, garnering a mere honorable mention.

But in the years since its release, The Troubled Stateside has slowly taken root in my brain. Songs like “Bicycles for Afghanistan,” “The Impending Glory of American Adulthood,” and especially the closing track, “I, Stateside,” strike a fine balance between melody and dissonance. It’s Long Island hardcore that sidesteps cliché chestbeating and “NYC HXC”-ism. Given its trajectory, I could totally see this record hitting my top five in two years.

37. The Mountain Goats - The Coroner's Gambit (2000)

My second Mountain Goats purchase in high school was The Coroner’s Gambit, a raggedy, lo-fi acoustic album that solidified my love for John Darnielle. I’ve made it pretty clear how much I fucking love the man’s work, so I’ll cut to the songs I love: “Jaipur,” with its aggressive, bluesy guitar part. The pre-4 A.D. Goats recordings are blessed by their grainy recordings; I can imagine so many more parts to this song than there really are. “Baboon,” for its keyboard-n-drums style and its bitter kiss-off. Favorite lyrics include “I haven’t got very little money left / …but I’ll have none of your goddamned impudence” and “I’d be grateful my children aren’t here to see this / if you’d ever seen fit to give me children.” That last line actually made my mother stop and stare at me for several minutes before asking what the hell was wrong with me. That’s right kids, one guy with a guitar can seethe with far more hate than any hardcore band. A final shoutout goes to “Shadow Song,” a tune forever engrained in my brain from when I saw John perform it at the Mighty North Star Bar.

It was during his encore. People had been drinking for a while, and they started calling out all manner of requests. He honored none of them, opting for this quiet little ditty.

“If you get there before me / will you save me a seat?” he asked before wrenching forward into an anguished cry, mouth frozen in horror. It was terrible and random, made even more intense when he made the face again, but without the noise, as if he was so choked up with grief that he would pass out. No one performs like John Darnielle.

36. AFI - Decemberunderground (2006)

You can play any two successive AFI albums back-to-back, and it sounds like the same band. But try going from, say, The Art of Drowning to Decemberunderground, and you’re gonna be blown the fuck away. I’m not even gonna try comparing the pure, precise punk of Answer That and Stay Fashionable against this album's gothic electronic-pop. But I do know this: it’s a fantastic record. Most of it is tuneful and dark, fitting snugly between Ladytron and The Cure’s “Dark Trilogy.” But there are also elements of glam rock, punk, and emo hanging out. Even a touch of hardcore and hip-hop come in the form of the opening tracks “Kill Caustic” and “Prelude 12/21,” respectively. Fucking brilliant!

35. Crime in Stereo - Is Dead (2007)

Crime in Stereo is pushing its musical boundaries while still remaining within in the realm of “catchy.” After releasing one of the best political hardcore records of 2006 (The Troubled Stateside), Crime in Stereo could’ve rested on its bevy of juicy riffs and shredding vocals for a good long while. Instead, these Long Island duders chose the hard road, concocting a quick follow-up that inverts the band’s formula. Where The Troubled Stateside was a hardcore record that occasionally got melodic, Crime in Stereo is Dead is a melodic record that occasionally gets hardcore. The title is entirely appropriate, as this record is a drastic but rewarding change-up in the CiS canon.

34. Bouncing Souls - Anchors Aweigh (2003)

Ah, the everlovin’ Bouncing Souls. They followed up the manthemic How I Spent My Summer Vacation with the also pretty great, but darker, Anchors Aweigh. I’d say it’s probably their most mature effort, weighing in on mortality and growing up. “Kids and Heroes” wonders what happens to punk’s heroes before realizing that the Souls are now part of the punk legacy. “Night Train” is about leaving loved ones behind, if only for a little while, to pursue personal growth while “Simple Man” tries to figure out how to fit everything together. “Better Days” and “New Day” promised as such during the beginning of the Iraq invasion. A lot of bands reacted to the Bush 2.0 years; the Souls were one of the few who brought something hopeful to the table. Of course, I need to mention “Born Free,” which reminds listeners that this is America, dammit, and we need to take the country back. The Souls are one of the greatest punk bands of all time; this is one of their many thrilling highlights.

33. Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American (2001)

After creating the most atmospheric indie pop album of their career with Clarity, Jimmy Eat World ended up getting dropped from Capital Records. It was a great last stand, but career-wise, the band needed to prove they could write catchy radio-ready rockers. And they did just that, on their own dime, with Bleed American. The title got dropped for a while post-9/11, but the change didn’t kill the band’s momentum. The group earned some radio airplay from “Bleed American,” a surprisingly crazed stomper from the guys who wrote songs like “12.23.95” and “Goodbye Sky Harbor.”

It was the release of follow-up single “The Middle,” though, that catapulted the band into superstardom. I’m not statistician, but I’m going to say every person on this planet has heard “The Middle” a minimum of 100,000 times. The song is easily one of the most overplayed rock songs of the new millennium. But when I listened to Bleed American for the first time in years last month, I was struck by the song’s genuine, gentle assurance and good will towards all for the first time in, again, years. All it took was a little break to remind me why I love Jim Adkins’ songs. Dude crafts this sweet little confections about feeling awkward and finding your place.

Oh, and the other singles for Bleed American? Freaking “Sweetness” and “A Praise Chorus.” These babies rip the handle off of my adrenalin pump. When Adkins asks that, in the event I am listening, I consider pursuing the proper course of action that would allow me to “sing it back,” he gives me chills. “Stumble ‘til you crawl.” Give it your all, go at full force on the first effort, feel it.

32. The Weakerthans - Reunion Tour (2007)

At the surface level, Reunion Tour sounds pretty much on par with everything frontman John K. Samson and his band of not-so-merry men have released. Musically, The Weakerthans still craft indie country rock. The lyrics are still hyper-literate, hyper-poetic, hyper-descriptive. Samson is still a master at creating whole worlds for his listeners in just a few minutes, and they always resonate with melancholy here.

But oh, how the subtle differences stand out. Where the music of something like Left & Leaving went from furious highs (“Aside,” “Exiles Among You”) to depressive lows (“Left & Leaving,” “Everything Must Go!”), Reunion Tour tends towards the middle. While tracks like “Relative Surplus Value” and “Tournament of Hearts” have a good bit of pep to them, they curb the shreddability of lead guitarist Stephen Carroll. Carroll’s solos are less fervent here, but they still serve the music perfectly.

What remains the same, however, is Samson’s fondness for somber details. Whether writing through a character or as himself, he finds the slightest intricacies of a scene to express the most dramatic of emotions. Lines like, “I wonder if the landlord has fixed the crack that I stared at instead of staring back at you,” bring the listener into Samson’s viewpoint easily. When he sings through characters like a patient (“Hymn of the Medical Oddity”), a business man (“Relative Surplus Value”) or Virtue the cat (“Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” the thrilling sequel to “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute”), they spring forth with deep back stories and hummable lines.

31. Patton Oswalt - Werewolves and Lollipops (2007)

2007 found me getting back into comedy records for the first time since like… “Weird Al” Yankovic's Bad Hair Day in 1996. While Zach Galifinakas, Brian Posehn, Michael Showalter, and Lewis Black all helped me pass the time, the two that appealed to me most were Mike Birbiglia’s Two Drink Mike and Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops. A mix of rehearsed monologues about comic books, food, sex, and politics (An apt comparison between the Bush administration and Dukes of Hazard comes up at one point. Sample quote: “Every week, they get themselves in these crazy predicaments, where you’re like, ‘Welp, there’s no way the Duke boys are getting’ out of that one.’ And they fucking jump the General Lee over the Bill of Rights.”) and spontaneous live bits (Track 18, “I Tell A Story About Birth Control And Deal With A Retarded Heckler,” certainly comes to mind.). Most comedy records have a short-lived novelty to them. Unlike a pop record, a comedy record tends to depreciate in value the more a listener becomes familiar with it. But Werewolves and Lollipops defies such predicaments, a true classic in the stand-up field. Released back in July 2006, this one still leaves me giddy three-and-a-half years later.

30. Thursday - A City By the Light Divided (2007)

Unlike their ’90s forefathers, “emo” bands this year embraced pomp and melodrama like whoa. My Chemical Romance tried to be Queen and Panic! at the Disco tried to be… the emo Cirque de Soleil? I dunno. But not enough people gave props to Thursday for being the “emo U2” with this year’s A City By the Light Divided. Passionate and purposeful, this album is a huge, but logical, change away from War All the Time. This stuff is much more hopeful (a la The Joshua Tree, in spirit at least). Thursday always had a commanding presence, but this is the first time I’d call their songs “epic.” From the Full Collapse-referencing “The Other Side of the Crash” to the near-seven-minute closer “Autumn Leaves Revisited,” A City By the Light Divided is arguably the strongest Thursday release yet.

29. The Lawrence Arms - The Greatest Story Ever Told (2003)

“I’m gonna scream into your telephone!”

Chicago’s Larry Arms emerged from the shadow of their buddies Alkaline Trio in the new millennium, first with Apathy and Exhaustion and then with their 2003 magnum opus, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Everything you could love about the band was cranked up a couple extra notches – dueling vocals, high and low cultural references, and pop punk guitarmegeddon. The album opens on a solemn, almost gothic note with “The Raw and Searing Flesh” before kicking into full-on Chi-town punk rock. A pseudo-concept album about the band’s influences, The Greatest Story Ever Told strives to take in every book, film, and TV show ever made. Faust, Catcher in the Rye, and Hot Shots! Part Deux all collide into one another, with the point being that, like your food, it’s OK to switch up your diet. The whole dang record is great throughout, but for me it’s the ending that goes over best. Just nine seconds short of the four-minute mark, “The Disaster March” careens through rhythms, winding itself into a fury, declaring itself relevant and alive, before ultimately telling listeners to, “Shout me in the streets and parks / scrape your voices on the stars.”

28. The Dresden Dolls - The Dresden Dolls (2003)

Punk rock cabaret ls me. It’s a hyper-specific genre, and no one does it nearly as well as Dresden Dolls (although you could probably make a successful argument that World/Inferno Friendship Society belongs in that style too). The band’s been experiencing some diminished returns lately, but I can remember being freaked out by the mix of influences present during my first trip to Otakon. I was drawn to the punk fervor of single “Girl Anarchonism,” and while nothing else on the album comes close to conjuring up that kind of insanity, there’s still plenty to love about a band that blends equal parts Black Sabbath, Tori Amos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Half Jack” is the slow-t o-rise stomper, monolithic in its destruction and female angst. “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Missed Me” are the kitschy cabaret tunes that blend Berlin with overwhelming sexuality. Frontwoman Amanda Palmer even manages to craft a perfect pop song about a lost love with “Jeep Song.” Dresden Dolls was made by a band brimming with ideas, and I hope that the duo will reconvene for a proper third LP to show us what else they can do.

27. The Promise Ring - Wood/Water (2002)

Depending on your perspective, the Promise Ring either committed career suicide or pulled a 180 degree stylistic shift that just so happened to be every bit as great as previous indie pop efforts like Nothing Feels Good. I’ve been thinking about it, and not only do I fall into that latter camp, but Wood/Water might just be my favorite TPR record, if not at least tied with the uber-catchy Very Emergency. The band slowed down its sound significantly for their final full-length, but frontman Davey von Bohlen’s pop sensibilities remain. Tunes like “Say Goodbye Good” and “Stop Playing Guitar” are still amazing, but mellow.

26. Tool - Lateralus (2001)

Reminder of how young I once was: When Lateralus came out, I was excited because it was an angry, yet profanity free, record, thereby allowing me to listen to it loud without fear of parental retaliation. Now I wear shirts with couples puking on each other and words like “motherfucking” on them. I truly am a grown-up!

Lateralus had a ridiculously long gestation period due to a legal battle with Tool’s old label, Volcano Records, which was further lengthened by frontman Maynard James Keenan’s time with a new band, A Perfect Circle. The wait was worth it, though, since it gave the band the time to develop their best album. Lateralus is a prog-metal masterpiece, brimming with emotion, technical virtuosity, literary references (The Scarlet Letter), and odes to the Fibonacci Sequence. While I ultimately skewed towards more of a punk spectrum, Tool offered me a more intricate emotional outlet. Combined with Rage Against the Machine and Deftones, Tool formed a holy trinity of modern metal for me.

25. Mike Birbiglia - Two Drink Mike (2006)

As much as I love Patton Oswalt, I relate to Mike Birbiglia a little more. We’re both food-loving Italian-Americans (“Olive Garden Italian”) who make awkward situations even more awkward (“I was moving my bed into a new apartment, and this woman opened the door for me with her key and she said to me, ‘I’m not worried because a rapist wouldn’t have a bed like that.’ Now, what I should have said was nothing, but what I actually said was, ‘You’d be surprised,’ and there is no coming back from that”). He’s a little less abrasive than the other comics I listen to – I’d be OK playing him in front of my parents – and his bits come from a place of goofy, friendly wit.

24. Strike Anywhere - Iron Front (2009)

Strike Anywhere closed out the decade with one of their best records so far. Iron Front is insanely catchy, distilling the band’s posi-punk message into 13 hardcore anthems.

23. Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous (2004)

Who knew Rilo Kiley’s mainstream bid would be their best album? More Adventurous took some time to grow on me – it lacks the quiet desperation of The Execution of All Things – but it truly is a stunning pseudo-country rock album. The album is full of “big moments,” like the electrifying, Janis Joplin-esque “Does He Love You?” or the sarcastic, anti-Bush anthem “It’s a Hit.” The record certainly has quieter, more intimate moments, like “Ripchord” or “The Absence of God,” but it’s the rockers like “Portions for Foxes” that hit the best. This marks the last time leading lady Jenny Lewis was able to be sassy and sad in the same breath, although I hear Acid Tongue is pretty good.

22. The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee (2002)

2002 marked a major shift in John Darnielle’s recording style. He bid adieu (to you and you and you-oo) with his last uber-lo-fi release, All Hail West Texas, and then set about recording a real hi-fi album in a real hi-fi studio with a real hi-fi band. The change wasn’t as drastic as you’d think, though. Instead of imagining additional instruments buried beneath tape hiss, I hear actual additional instruments. And the lyrics, well, they stayed jawesome.

My first live Mountain Goats experience was during their 2005 tour to promote The Sunset Tree, at Swarthmore College. Oddly enough, they didn’t play many songs off of that album or its predecessor, We Shall All Be Healed. The show opened with “Tallahassee,” the first track off of the album of the same name. My friends, some Swarthmore students, and I were packed into a log cabin, fizzing with anticipation, when Darnielle busted out this subtle little number (“What did I come down here for? / You / You”). It’s an old trick of his, in which he always manages to invert a rambunctious crowd with a subdued ditty. Backed by the opening act, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, the Goats also slipped in some more energetic songs, like “First Few Desperate Hours” and “Oceanographer’s Choice.” The songs rock pretty dang hard live, lemme tell ya. And in the middle of it all was John, tipsy and silly and alive. No one talks to a crowd like him; he’s like a master of ceremonies hosting a party. Which, in a lot ways, the show was.

21. Jets to Brazil - Perfecting Loneliness (2002)

Jets to Brazil came into their own right before they broke up. As much as I love Orange Rhyming Dictionary, it really is just an extension of Dear You. Four-Cornered Night showed a lot more growth, adding piano and strings to the mix, thanks to the addition of guitarist Brian Maryansky. That album opted for arrangements that strayed further from punk into a more indie rock sound. And while Night is pretty dang good, Perfecting Loneliness develops that approach further. It’s a fitting swan song. While JtB was totally separate from Jawbreaker musically, it’s clear the band existed lyrically, to a certain extent, as a coping mechanism for Dear You’s failure. The title could not be more literal.

The record dips a toe or two into country/bluegrass (“Wish List”), and it’s clear that Maryansky’s presence was put to much better use this time around. The melodies are richer too. At six minutes long and without a chorus to be found, “The Frequency” is a ballsy opening track. But it’s actually one of the best Jets to Brazil songs of all time, as frontman Blake Schwarzenbach tries to find an appropriate way to explain why he writes. My favorite line has always been “When the measure of your work / is the measure of your worth / then you’d better make it work.” From there, things get a little more traditional (i.e. – choruses) on “You’re the One I Want” and “Cat Heaven.” The record has an overall arc – poppy then introspective then poppy again and then really introspective on closer “Rocket Boy” – and it works pretty darn well.

TOMORROW: Mall record stations, marching bands of Manhattan, and many more Mountain Goats records, the final 20.


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