Favorite 2000s Albums: #1 – Life Without Buildings – “Any Other City”

For some, the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard is an exquisite sensation. Dentists’ drills provide a satisfying tingle. Animals dying in agony make a heavenly choir. And Sue Tompkins, ‘idiosyncratic’ frontwoman of Life Without Buildings, makes a beautiful noise. Whether or not someone has a good voice is one of those subjective arguments that isn’t usually worth even starting. But really, only mad people and immediate family could warm to Tompkins.

That’s John Mulvey of NME, reviewing my favorite album of the last decade, Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City. For the record, I don’t enjoy the sound of dentists’ drills or animals dying in agony, and I’m not related to Sue Tompkins. But maybe I am a bit mad to feel so strongly about an album that has been heard by so few people.

Mulvey’s criticism of Tompkins was a common one when the album was first released in 2001: “The band sounds good, but what’s with the singing?” The thing is, Mulvey isn’t exactly wrong. I totally get why the singing style of Tompkins could be torture on the ears of some listeners, who hear what she’s doing and attribute it to pretentious artsiness or put-on quirkiness. However, for a few listeners like me, what Tompkins does on Any Other City is nothing short of pure magic.

Tompkins instantly stands out to anyone who listens to the band due to her high-pitched voice and talk-singing style, which forsakes traditional music lyricism for repetition, seemingly nonsense phrases, stutters and squeals. Love her or hate her, what’s undeniable is that Tompkins has a completely unique presence with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and charisma, and along with her lyrics it makes her a strangely endearing figure. There’s never been a singer quite like Tompkins, or an album quite like Any Other City.

On the surface, Tompkins’ lyrics would seem to be free-form and improvised, random words that she just threw together to go with music. In fact, the opposite is true: according to other band members, the lyrics were labored over endlessly, and realizing that there’s a method to all of the craziness happening is crucial to understanding the genius of the band. Her lyrics strike a perfect chord between being abstract and accessible: they’re just connected enough for a listener to gather some sort of meaning, but are also impossible to fully pin down. And even the meaning you figure out can change depending on what mood you’re in when you listen.

The band behind Tompkins is also a big part of Any Other City‘s success, as they play tight, melodic instrumentals that are the perfect match for her unpredictable style. The band plays a lot of different tempos over the album (and many of the songs have abrupt tempo shifts), but they’re able to keep a steady backdrop to go along with the organized chaos that Sue provides. An incredible gift Tompkins had was an ability to always be at the right place with her non-stop lyrics, which allows them to never sound disjointed or out of sync.

People talk a lot about desert island albums, ones that you could picture yourself replaying over and over for the rest of your life. Any Other City is a desert island album full of desert island songs. “The Leanover” is one of those, with a laid-back atmosphere created by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar that is fronted by one of Tompkins’ most jittery vocal deliveries. She cycles through phrases endlessly over the song’s five minute length, tossing in pop culture references and exclamations. This song is basically why I love the band so much: I feel like I can listen to it forever, never get sick of it, and yet still never be entirely sure what it means. It isn’t frustrating, but rather perfectly ambiguous and interpretive in the way that I feel only applies to truly great art.

Most of the songs on Any Other City have that same feeling and can be endlessly dissected or quoted but never fully understood. “PS Exclusive” is an up-tempo, danceable number with plenty of Sue repetitions (“the right stuff!”). “Juno” is the album’s most accessible song, as the ringing guitars and a more toned-down performance from Tompkins make it more of a traditional pop song (although still one with many tempo changes). The inherent likability of Tompkins and her off-the-wall sincerity goes a long way in making the lyrics feel genuine and poignant instead of annoying and art-school.

Life Without Buildings have maintained an aura of mystery that is increasingly rare these days. The band broke up shortly after Any Other City was released, as Tompkins wanted to pursue her art. The live album Live at the Annandale Hotel surfaced in 2007, and its faithful renditions of the songs on Any Other City provide a perfect footnote to the band’s brief career. The live album also hints at why the band broke up, as Tompkins is charmingly uncomfortable in the spotlight (the album is worth listening to for her awkward stage banter alone).

Any Other City was briefly hyped when it was initially released, but now is largely ignored and difficult to find (there’s currently one used copy on amazon.com available for 40 dollars). In a decade that would later see the boom in file sharing, music websites, and blogs, that makes it part of a dying breed of albums: the buried treasure that is loved by a small cult of people while largely being unknown to everyone else. Its obscurity is partially by design, as Tompkins remains an acquired taste that could never be embraced by most listeners. However, those mad people that appreciate her unique charms will find Any Other City to be an entirely singular album, with a style and beauty that is found nowhere else.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #2 – Sleater-Kinney – “The Woods”

Listen on Spotify

On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney showed signs of expanding their sound from their previous basic punk framework to something that could almost fill an arena. But nothing (and I mean nothing) could have prepared anyone for what would come on The Woods. After six albums and over ten years as a band, Sleater-Kinney completely reinvented themselves with a loud, gigantic rock album that sounds like the band’s take on Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. It was a massive risk, but one that paid off tremendously: The Woods is, for my money, the best rock album of the last 15 years or so.  In fact, it’s so ambitious, aggressive, and just plain awesome that it makes other attempts at rock albums from this time period look inconsequential and stupid.

The first thing most people note about The Woods is that it is very loud. Usually it comes to their attention after they start playing the raucous opener “The Fox” and nearly have their ear drums destroyed before they check to see if their speakers are broken.  The band hired Dave Fridmann, who had previously produced albums for The Flaming Lips and others, and he opted for the controversial production on The Woods that pushes every sound into the red. On the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said that Fridmann wanted the listener to think something was wrong with their speakers at least once on every song, and he pretty much pulls that off by producing what might be the loudest album in the history of music this side of Raw Power.

The loudness isn’t just a gimmick though, as it helps bring Brownstein’s classic rock riffing and Janet Weiss’ drumming to unforeseen heights. Singer Corin Tucker also pushes her always abrasive voice further than it’s ever gone before, launching it to Robert Plant levels but still sounding like no one else in music. The distorted sound on The Woods functions as both an homage to and a subversion of 1970s cock rock.

Beyond the noise and distortion, what’s really striking about The Woods is how the band uses completely different song structures than they did in the past. Their previous albums had few songs more than 3 minutes long, but The Woods revels in its glorious excess, with guitar solos and breakdowns sending songs down unpredictable paths. “What’s Mine is Yours” starts out normally enough but gives way to a psychedelic section where Tucker chants against Brownstein’s squealing guitar and the thudding drums. But no song represents the new Sleater-Kinney more than “Let’s Call it Love”, an 11 minute (!) song about sex that is unabashedly dirty and features a nearly six minute guitar solo that careens all over the place. It transitions into another experiment, the improvised jam “Night Light” that closes the album (and the band’s career).

The album has a more accessible middle section that is expertly paced, beginning with the suicide fable “Jumpers” that combines poignant lyrics with the rest of the album’s guitar hero swagger. Things quiet down with the Brownstein-sung “Modern Girl” with its sly, satirical lyrics. On “Entertain” the band mocks the backwards-looking indie rock scene with some of their most cutting lyrics: “you can drown in mediocrity, it feels sublime” Brownstein sings on the bridge. It’s a cocky song, but with this album the band had earned the right to look down on others.

The new sound seems like it freed Sleater-Kinney from the conventions they were stuck in before, and it leads to maybe the most energized, vital music of their career.  Seven years later, The Woods still sounds more fresh and relevant than any rock album of today. I think it’s close to being unparalleled in its combination of craziness, ambition, and just pure rockage — The Woods is a colossal, badass hurricane of an album that leaves a sea of lame indie-rock dopes trembling in its wake.

It also ended up being the ultimate swan song for the band, as they went on indefinite hiatus after touring for the album. In retrospect it makes sense, given the go for broke mentality that The Woods exudes, and perhaps the band feeling burned out from music (and possibly each other) is what led to this album reaching such insane heights. The Woods caps off what I think is one of the greatest runs by a band in rock music history, and it does so with an incredibly loud bang.

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.

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

Listen on Spotify

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”

Listen on Spotify

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.