Favorite 2000s Albums: #6 – Portishead – “Third”

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A theme sprouting up in the last few albums has been veteran artists drastically changing their sound. But while PJ Harvey and Radiohead did so by choice, as a conscious effort to experiment and challenge listeners, Portishead were almost forced to construct a new identity for 2008’s Third. After releasing Dummy in 1994 and a self-titled album in 1997, the band went their separate ways, focusing on solo efforts over the next few years. While they did that, the trip-hop sound that they allegedly pioneered mostly disappeared, or was misappropriated by bands that Portishead really didn’t care for.

Facing the challenge of reinventing themselves after over a decade, Portishead deliver tremendously. I think Third is the best comeback album of the decade and it might be even better than their undisputed classic Dummy. While Dummy was noted for perfecting a certain sound, Third benefits from an increased array of influences and a wider musical palette. The band dropped the sampling that they were known before on their first two albums, constructing all of the music themselves and incorporating elements of folk and experimental rock to their already established moody electronic sound.

Third is much more cold and abrasive than Dummy, which was dark but also had a smoother sound. This isn’t a “chillout” album like Dummy was, which is fine by me. A lot of the songs are surprisingly noisy, with distorted drums and various racket from electronics. Like before, what brings it all together is Beth Gibbons’ voice, which is still incredible and brings a human element to Portishead’s sometimes alien sound.

“The Rip” is probably my favorite Portishead song, with a repeating arpeggio that starts out as folk but grows into an epic electronic climax behind Gibbons’ vocals. “Machine Gun” is the album’s most abrasive moment, as distorted drum machines battle it out with the electronics while Gibbons sings her typically depressing lyrics.

Overall, I find myself with little to say about this album, other than that you should listen to it. Portishead is a mysterious band that doesn’t really lend itself to fanciful narratives and storytelling. They just quietly and professionally make really great music. Third might not be considered as influential as Dummy was, but it’s maybe their most impressive work, one that stands on its own without any of the labels that had previously been attached to the band’s music.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #7 – Radiohead – “Kid A”

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I can’t speak for all Radiohead fans, but the music I initially loved by the band was showcased on 90s albums The Bends and OK Computer, a complex yet accessible guitar-based alternative rock sound. The story of 2000’s Kid A is well-known by now — burdened by the expectations of following up OK Computer and looking to evolve as a band, the group reinvented themselves, creating an atmospheric, electronic-based album that has little in the way of radio-friendly singles or mainstream appeal. At least that was the idea, but Kid A became one of the oddest chart-topping albums in music history.

Personally, I hated it. I began getting into Radiohead chronologically, and after loving The Bends and especially OK ComputerKid A felt like a slap in the face. I felt like the band had betrayed me and that Kid A was just a calculated attempt to piss off my adolescent self who wanted more big guitar songs about being depressed. Even today, it seems like there is a divide among Radiohead fans between those who love their 90s guitar albums and those who prefer their more complex,challenging output from the 2000s.

It took a couple years before I decided to revisit the album, and since then I guess my tastes had evolved somewhat. I suddenly had an urge to listen to Kid A. This time it clicked and made sense to me. (It was strikingly similar to this Onion article where Bill Gates finally gets into the album after several months.)

Nonetheless, I still feel slightly ambivalent about it, because Kid A received such a massive amount of slobbering acclaim at the end of 2009, when it topped most publications’ end of decade lists. It bothers me because I think Kid A has become more about a narrative surrounding the album than its actual music — it’s about the internet age, or the changing landscape of music, or the growing influence of electronica, or whatever. I’ve never felt comfortable shoving an album into a narrative box the way everyone seems to do with Kid A.

Instead, I would rather think about Kid A as it pertains to Radiohead themselves, which is where I think its true greatness lies. For a band in their position, it was an incredibly risky album. These days, it’s hard to imagine another band in that position pulling off such a radical shift when they could easily succeed by doing what they’ve been doing. Kid A is very unique in this regard: it required a band like Radiohead having confidence in themselves that they could make it, but also confidence that their rabid, intelligent fanbase would go along with them on the journey.

Kid A didn’t exactly come out of the ether though — listening to OK Computer, I can sometimes hear the beginnings of this phase of the band (especially on tracks like “Fitter Happier” and “No Surprises”) and the album has clear influences in electronica, jazz, and krautrock. Plus it still sounds like Radiohead, mostly because of Thom Yorke’s signature voice, which is always recognizable even when he’s singing lyrics that are often incomprehensible.

Kid A boasts what is probably the best opening song of the decade with “Everything In Its Right Place.” It’s an incredible tone-setter, its lack of guitar and ominous electric piano part instantly indicating that this is album is going to be different. Overall, what sometimes gets forgotten about this album is that it has incredible pacing, the perfect opener giving way to the abstract title track and then the throbbing bass groove of “The National Anthem” (which I wish really was the national anthem).

After Radiohead comes out of the chutes with the most distant, abstract music of their careers, the back-half of Kid A is more accessible. Guitar-driven “Optimistic” is the closest Radiohead comes to recalling their 90s sound, but it has more experimentation than some give it credit for, especially with the jungle-style rhythms. It’s my favorite song on the album, as a testament to my perpetual uncoolness. “Idioteque” is the album’s beat-heavy centerpiece, and it bleeds into “Morning Bell” which is another more accessible song that seems to foreshadow the band’s work on In Rainbows.

Radiohead forsaking their rock roots for Kid A looks especially prescient now after a decade where The Bends style rock fell out of favor with most people. Radiohead had already gained a reputation for making amazing music, but Kid A is where they became known as game-changers and trendsetters, fully establishing themselves as a band that would always play by their own rules.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #8 – PJ Harvey – “White Chalk”

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In 2004, PJ Harvey released Uh Huh Her, the one album in her catalog that I don’t consider myself a fan of. It’s not a bad album, but its lo-fi guitar tunes felt like a retread coming from an artist who I’ve always loved because of how she defies expectations. While some always wish that PJ would keep making music that has a certain sound, I think she’s at her best when experimenting and doing something that nobody expects her to do.

This is why I think 2007’s White Chalk is probably her most underrated, and possibly the album by her I respect the most. After being known early on for her aggressive bluesy guitar songs (and even being acclaimed earlier in the decade for the straight-forward rock of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), PJ chose to set down the guitar entirely, instead writing a set of songs for the piano — an instrument she admittedly barely knew how to play. She also traded in her deep roar of a voice, singing the songs on White Chalk in a high, ethereal voice that is at the very top of her range.

The resulting sound is ghostly, eerie, creepy, but also beautiful. It creates a unique distillation of moods that only PJ Harvey ever seems to be able to conjure out of me. It blows my mind that the same artist who made this album also made Rid of Me, which topped my 90s list and was pure anarchy, chaos, and rage. On White Chalk, everything is extremely delicate, including PJ’s personality which has gone from larger than life (like on “50 ft Queenie”) to someone who seems unsure of herself at every turn. Meanwhile, Rid of Me‘s swaggering rock has been replaced by songs that rarely feature much more than the piano or a broken harp.

White Chalk ends up pulling off something that very few modern albums do: it sounds completely unlike anything else that came before it. It is an incredibly self-contained work that manages to create its own little universe in the span of 34 minutes. PJ takes everything that makes her unique and identifiable as an artist and reduces all of it to the bare essentials.

Despite the new sound and a completely different persona, White Chalk is still identifiable as a PJ Harvey album. The one constant in her work over the years has been her lyrics, and on White Chalk they hit harder than ever with the spare instrumentation. A recurring theme throughout the album seems to be childbirth or abortions: on “When Under Ether” she sings “something’s inside me/unborn and unblessed/disappears in the ether/one world to the next,” joined by an ominous, repeating piano line. The title track is one of my favorite songs by her, a lovely meditation on her homeland of Dorset that also references an unborn child at the end.

Most of White Chalk is about a feeling of being solitary and lonely, but it’s also a more hopeful album than some give it credit for. “Before Departure” sounds like a funeral song of sorts, but I think it’s more about a choice to live a simpler life. “Silence” has similar themes, with PJ singing “I freed myself and remained alone.” Of course, there’s plenty of darker material on the album too, which is par for the course for PJ.

While critics usually lap up anything that PJ throws their way, the response to White Chalk was more muted, understandably so. It’s an extremely hard album to pin down from an artist who is the same way. It’s also not the type of album that ever makes these silly end-of-decade lists — it was perhaps self-contained to a fault, containing little in the way of broader statements about modern culture or life. With some patience, though, White Chalk proves itself to be maybe the most daring album in PJ’s catalog, an album that is completely unlike anything else and reveals its greatness slowly, in a different way than its predecessors.