Favorite 2000s Albums: #3 – Broadcast – “The Noise Made By People”

Listen on Spotify

I think the reason I liked so much electronic music in this decade is that it’s a genre that has a unique ability to bring two seemingly opposite ideas together. Usually it’s technology and humanity, like on Fever Ray or any Portishead album. Broadcast’s 2000 album The Noise Made By People might have more examples of this than any other album I can think of: it has the technology/humanity duality in spades, but it also combines accessibility and experimentation, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future.

Released in 2000, The Noise Made By People is a quietly revolutionary album. It’s influenced largely by Stereolab and 60s bands like The United States of America, but it ends up being its own thing, an album with a distinct and original feel. On the surface, the band doesn’t do much to blow the listener away, so it naturally doesn’t get the attention that more obviously game-changing albums get. The band’s ability to stay under-the-radar matches their music, which is subtle and uses space and electronics to create musical landscapes that impress me more and more with each listen.

The linchpin in Broadcast’s sound was late singer Trish Keenan and her magical voice. She doesn’t have a huge range or many other elements typically associated with amazing singers, but she’s always been one of my favorites. Mostly because she sounds so human, but at the same time is able to fit the retro-futuristic sci-fi sounds that her bandmates are playing. She usually floats just above the arrangements, sounding detached but never fully separated from her surroundings. Keenan’s presence elevated Broadcast in the sea of electronic bands that emerged in their time because she had a special ability to forge a human connection with listeners, even if the music was eerie or strange.

The eeriness that was always a part of Broadcast’s music has become more pronounced since Keenan’s tragic death of pneumonia over a year ago. The songs on The Noise Made By People now have a different context, for better or worse, and the meanings of some of them have changed radically for me in the past year or so. “Until Then” went from being a song about imaginary worlds into one about life and death, as Keenan sings “there’s a place I have never explored/another world I have yet to conquer/and until then none of us have anything” and her lyrics eventually give way to a layered shoegaze-style crescendo. It’s probably the most heartbreaking song an album that is now sadly full of them.

But even after her death, The Noise Made By People can still be an uplifting album and a testament to Keenan’s art and talent. The instrumental coda of “Look Outside” is still as blissful as it was before she died, and poppier songs like “Come On Let’s Go” and “Papercuts” are still catchy and fun. The album smartly balances it’s more straight-forward moments like those with bewitching moments of exploration, like “Echo’s Answer” which rides a lonely old keyboard and Keenan’s vocals to become something elegant and mysterious. The band behind Keenan also steps out on instrumental tracks like “Tower of our Tuning” which add to the atmosphere and mood of the album.

Broadcast never made an album that was less than great, but The Noise Made By People stands above the others for me because of its underlying warmth and humanity. A lot of dream pop type bands have followed in Broadcast’s footsteps, but I don’t think any have made music as thought-provoking and moving, and a lot of that is because Keenan is such a singular presence. Her death left a void in the hearts of many fans, but albums like this one ensure that her music will live on.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #4 – Sleater-Kinney – “One Beat”

Listen on Spotify

No event shaped American life in the last decade like 9/11. I still vividly remember hearing about it when I was a sixth grader, and I also remember that awkward period after 9/11 where nobody knew exactly what was going to happen in America. For artists, 9/11 created a separate conundrum: what could be said about such an unthinkable tragedy? Most understandably opted to avoid the whole mess rather than risk alienating fans or being seen as making light of the event.

Not Sleater-Kinney. Following their 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, banshee-voiced singer Corin Tucker gave birth to her first child. After a pair of more introspective albums, that event and 9/11 shape the music on One Beat, which effortlessly combines the political and the personal while also rocking to the stratosphere with a thrilling vitality.

Politics had always been part of Sleater-Kinney’s MO, but on One Beat they really come to the forefront. That resulted in some expected criticism of the band, but it’s also what makes One Beat feel so essential. Recorded in March and released in August 2002, the band takes prophetic shots at the Bush administration before it became a cliche for bands to do so. The band also plays as a unit more than they ever had before, with Carrie Brownstein providing monster riffs and more vocals while Janet Weiss continues to wail on her drums. Tucker’s voice, always the breaking point when it comes to people trying to get into S-K, is as unhinged and emotional as ever.

“Far Away” is one of the defining songs on One Beat, combining a thunderous guitar riff with Tucker’s first-hand account of seeing 9/11 on TV while she’s nursing her baby. That’s followed by the first overtly political statement of the album: “don’t breathe the air today/don’t speak of why you’re afraid,” presenting Sleater-Kinney as the band that would speak up in the awkward silence that was post 9/11 life. Later, they take their first pointed shot at Bush: “the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.”

“Step Aside” takes a different approach, putting the polemics into a danceable song with call and response vocals. “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?” Tucker asks on the song, and it seems to capture Sleater-Kinney’s worldview of music being a tool for change and fun. “Combat Rock” features most of the album’s most cutting lines (and its most memorable guitar riff), with Brownstein hiccuping through the verses and the band once again taking aim at the uncomfortable silence that followed 9/11 and preceded the Iraq war: “Where is the questioning? Where is our protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American?” Album closer “Sympathy” provides almost too much emotional catharsis, with Tucker praying for the life of her son (who was born premature).

One Beat stands up as Sleater-Kinney’s most diverse album, with many different sounds and moods. For every serious Bush-bashing song on the album there’s also one that’s a lot of fun, be it the tongue-in-cheek tale of the good girl gone bad in “Prisstina” or the poppy “Oh!” with its wah-wah chorus. But it’s the political moments that get the most attention, and for good reason: while other bands would follow in their path and perhaps dull One Beat‘s impact, it’s an album that took a lot of courage to make. In a time where almost everyone else was being quiet, Sleater-Kinney spoke up, and that’s what makes One Beat a rock album of incredible power and purpose.

Nearly ten years removed from One Beat, its shots at republicans, anti-intellectualism, and consumerism still feel depressingly relevant. What also feels relevant about the album is that it’s a reminder of what rock music can be: One Beat feels like an album that had to be made and heard. I debate endlessly about what my favorite Sleater-Kinney album is, but One Beat is probably the one that I respect the most, because it’s so fearless and strong in its convictions.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #5 – Fever Ray – “Fever Ray”

Listen on Spotify

One question I ask myself a lot is “Why doesn’t more music sound like Fever Ray?” That’s pretty much the greatness of Swedish musician Karin Dreijer Andersson (known primarily for her music made with The Knife) and her 2009 solo debut in a nutshell: it’s an album that has its own sound and mood, that is completely unlike anything else.

The Knife hinted at the direction Fever Ray would go in as a solo album with their acclaimed 2006 album Silent Shout. On that album, they embraced a darker sound, but it was still largely electro/synth pop that was designed for the dance floor (even if it was in a really weird dance club). On Fever Ray, Dreijer scrubs away most of the pop pretense that Silent Shout had, creating an album of dark, claustrophobic sounds that sometimes feel like the soundtrack to my nightmares. Fever Ray is very creepy, even for the somewhat high standards of creepiness set by this list so far.

Words like dark and creepy may not sound like ringing endorsements for an album, but something about Fever Ray keeps bringing me back. I think it’s what I hinted at before: if I want this kind of music (which I frequently do for some reason), Fever Ray is pretty much my only choice. It not only sounds unique but it also evokes emotions that aren’t found anywhere else. It’s like a beautiful nightmare, with lovely moments instantly pushing themselves up against moments of dread.

The closest comparison I can think of for Fever Ray is Björk’s 1997 masterpiece Homogenic, which was also sometimes dark, with chilly instrumentation and an unorthodox creator bringing it all together. While Björk’s voice was the human element in Homogenic, Dreijer’s is processed and manipulated, and her strange lyrics and pronunciations give the album even more of an alien feel. On some tracks, like “Concrete Walls”, her voice is pitched so low that it barely sounds like her. On the foreboding opener “If I Had a Heart”, both Dreijer’s low voice and the lyrics (“if I had a heart I would love you”) sound unhuman.

Dreijer is a shapeshifter on Fever Ray, which makes sense for an artist who rarely shows her face in public, even at concerts. But it’s also a more personal work than anything she did with The Knife, and her humanity does shine through on most songs, in an odd way. On songs like “Seven” and “When I Grow Up” there is a sense of childhood nostalgia. The music is forward-looking and modern, but most of the lyrics seem to be about looking back and remembering. Fever Ray creates the common duality of humanity and technology, and does it in a way that is mysterious and intriguing, much like the artist who made it.

Dreijer constructed the album on Garageband, and as a result it has that modern feel where every note is exactly where it’s supposed to be. That can sometimes be a drag, but Fever Ray is so immaculately constructed and individual that it never sounds tedious or limp. And while the album obviously makes heavy use of technology, it is also about being human. It reminds me of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk (#8 on this list), both in how individual it is and how it seems to be largely about loneliness and isolation. Both the albums are also self-contained, to a point where they can sometimes be seen as inaccessible to others.

So, to get back to my initial question, it’s easy to see why nothing else sounds like Fever Ray. Dreijer is one of the most strange and original talents of the decade, and the universe she creates on this album seems to exist only in her imagination. Even if someone were to replicate all the craft she puts into Fever Ray, they would be hard-pressed to match the sense of wonder and idiosyncratic personality that Dreijer provides. One of my big gripes about this decade was that music seemed to become more bland and impersonal, but Fever Ray proves that artists are still making personal, unique albums — you just might have to look a bit harder for them.