Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”

Stream it on NPR

If there were any lingering doubts I had about the first Fiona Apple album in seven years, they were quickly erased when she revealed the title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The decision to go for another poem title after 1999’s 90-word When the Pawn… was a classic Fiona Apple move, one that made her detractors smirk and made her supporters shake their heads and chuckle to themselves. Seeing it was a sign of reassurance, a confirmation that the Fiona Apple who always follows her artistic muse — occasionally to her detriment — was still around.

Being a Fiona Apple fan is often frustrating. While some artists always seem to be in the spotlight and working on new projects, Apple — a noted recluse who claims to rarely leave her house — falls completely off the radar between albums. This can sometimes give the illusion that she isn’t working or doesn’t care about making music anymore, and at times in the last few years I wondered if I would ever hear new music from her again. The advantage is that when she does finally resurface it feels like an event, and with The Idler Wheel… she’s offered a reminder of how much music has sorely lacked her presence since 2005.

Apple officially returned to the spotlight at the South By Southwest music festival, where her performances of new songs were met with rave reviews for their raw energy and nerves. She frequently sang with her eyes closed, twitching back and forth and, as usual, sang with a tremendous amount of conviction, as if she was excising some inner demon with each performance. Little details like this are what makes Apple so refreshingly different from what music has become now. There are no put-ons or affectations, no musical gimmickry or autotune. She does not hide behind a persona. All she’s done (at least since Tidal) is be herself, and that’s especially true on The Idler Wheel…, which is probably her most Fiona Apple-y album yet.

The Idler Wheel… mostly ditches the sometimes excessive instrumentation that permeated Extraordinary Machine, putting the focus entirely where it should be: on Apple’s voice and lyrics. The music is primarily based around piano and percussion, with a lot of different drums and several sampled sounds used to give the songs Apple’s trademark quirkiness while not stealing the spotlight from her. As usual, Apple’s lyrics are witty and reflective, focusing on her relationships and inner struggles. Her voice used to sound silky smooth on earlier albums but now has a world-weary rasp that serves the songs and subject matter better.

Like all of her albums since Tidal, The Idler Wheel… isn’t making a huge bid for radio play and commercial success, as the spare instrumentation makes the songs more suited for quiet headphone listening than blasting on the radio. Lead single “Every Single Night” is probably the most accurate glimpse into Apple’s psyche so far (and the artistic psyche in general), where “every night is a fight with my brain.” The accompanying music video with Apple wearing an octopus on her head and being covered in snails reminds me a bit of the video for “Criminal,” but with slimy animals instead of creepy sexuality.

Other songs, like “Werewolf” have a sense of looking back, perhaps to early childhood. The most chill-inducing moment on the album is in the last minute of that song, when Apple samples in the sound of children playing on a playground, instantly giving the song a tangible sense of longing for simpler times as she sings the quotable line “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” Elsewhere, Apple pays tribute to former boyfriend Jonathan Ames (on “Jonathan”) rather than excoriating him like she may have done when she was younger. Album closer “Hot Knife” is probably the catchiest song on the album, a timpani-backed duet with her sister where lovers are imagined as hot knives that cut through butter.

It’s hard to imagine any member of Apple’s rabid fan base being disappointed with The Idler Wheel…, which is an extremely individual record that shows her talents in top form. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, and the arrangements complement it perfectly. Her lyrics, which I’ve always contended are some of the few in music that stand up as poetry without accompaniment, are as quotable as ever, and Apple continues to have the special ability to make her personal experiences seem universal. This album serves as a reminder that she is one of the most talented singer-songwriters there is, and that her work is always worth the wait.

New Female-Fronted Rock Music

Screaming Females

I’ve always been a bit weirded out by people who have really eclectic taste in music. There’s a part of me — the part that thinks people need to like things for a reason, dammit — that gets irrationally frustrated when someone seems to consume everything and enjoy all of it indiscriminately. Maybe it’s jealousy, because having eclectic taste always seemed kind of cool to me, and liking more music and being less picky would probably be awesome. But despite occasionally making efforts to branch out and become more of a critic who listens to everything, I tend to go back to the same types of music that I know I love.

The most obvious example of music that fits into my comfort zone is loud female-fronted guitar rock. At this point, I would say I’m somewhat infamous for loving this style of music among anyone who has had any sort of musical-related conversation with me at any point. As a result, for awhile after making the blog, I was trying to write about other music to sort of diffuse that stereotype a bit and to show people how many different cool things I listen to. Doing this, I figured, would solidify my coolness in the minds of the people. That didn’t really happen.  And now I don’t really care, so with this post, I’m just gladly embracing my stereotype.

Because 2012 — which I think has otherwise been a forgettable year lacking any top-end albums so far — has had a lot of loud female-fronted guitar rock albums that are among my favorites so far. What’s more,  there’s actually been a lot of diversity among this narrowed down field of music. There seems to be more of these groups embracing some disparate influences beyond the obvious Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, and Breeders comparisons that are always foisted upon such bands. Here are some of the new ones I have been enjoying:

Screaming Females – Ugly

Disappointingly, only one female actually screams in this New Jersey power trio fronted by guitarist/singer Marissa Paternoster. Her vocals are plenty to fill a room though, and she’s also probably the best guitarist in rock today. Ugly is the hard-working band’s fifth album and their best yet, a 14-song, 54-minute barrage of guitar heroics and punk sneer with a dirty sound that lives up to its title. Paternoster’s noisy but melodic fretwork garners well-earned comparisons to previous indie rock guitar wizards like Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, but she also ventures into other styles like on “Doom 84” which almost sounds like an early metal track. If there’s a criticism of Ugly, it’s that there’s almost too much rockage to handle in one sitting, but I think I can live with that.

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

This L.A. band, fronted by singer Emily Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley, just released their debut album in April. They have a sound that’s been really missing in the last few years, playing bluesy hard rock with mainstream appeal that seems made for the radio. In fact, their lead single “Weatherman” managed to make some noise (in more ways than one) on the otherwise embarrassing Billboard Modern Rock charts, which has been strictly a boys club for over a decade now. Armstrong is a throwback style of rock frontwoman, with seemingly unlimited vocal power and charisma, and Medley is a skilled guitarist who unleashes tons of heavy riffs. What I oddly love about their debut album is that it doesn’t sound “indie” — it’s just an unpretentious slab of crowd-pleasing rock that deserves a wider audience, especially in the world of mainstream rock that desperately needs something new.

Royal Thunder – CVI

Royal Thunder play a style I’ve been increasingly obsessed with, pairing alternative rock style female vocals with more noisy stoner-rock or metal music. Overall the band plays a mix of classic rock, stoner rock, and metal, with frontwoman Mlny Parsonz bringing it together with her wailing, sultry vocals. Sometimes really heavy music can seem soulless and impersonal, but Parsonz adds a real emotional core to Royal Thunder’s music that separates them from a lot of similar groups. CVI is a massive rock album, clocking in at over an hour in length and featuring a good mix of shorter almost radio-ready tracks like “Whispering World” and “No Good” and longer doom metal dirges like “Shake and Shift” and “Blue.”

Is/Is – III

Is Is is (yep) a local band that I stumbled upon when one of the members’ other bands played at my school a couple months ago. Right now I don’t know too much about them, except that I bought their full length III on iTunes and have been enjoying it quite a bit. The band is all women and plays a style they’ve dubbed “witchgaze” — they sound like a hybrid of stoner rock, punk, and shoegaze groups, with some occasionally poppier numbers thrown in. My favorite moments of the album are when the band really lets loose, like on the epic penultimate track “Sun Tsunami” that reaches a space-rock style climax and builds for nearly eight minutes. The group has an original sound going for them and I hope they can continue to gain traction on the Twin Cities scene that I frankly find kind of boring.

Marriages – Kitsune

Marriages are another band fusing a few different sounds together. They mostly fit into the shoegaze style, with Emma Ruth Rundle’s voice buried under a lot of sound. But the typical shoegaze guitars are replaced with some metal riffs that make the band sound a lot heavier (imagine a whole album of songs that are a bit like “Loomer” by My Bloody Valentine). Kitsune is their first release and is only six tracks and 30 minutes long, but it’s incredibly cohesive, with the tracks blending into each other and making it sound like one solidified piece of music. Within that cohesive structure, there’s a lot of different dynamics and moods that make the whole thing kind of seem like an adventure.

Tragic Cases of Domineering Bro Disease

An obsession with female singers comes with many frustrations. Primarily, someone who loves female vocals has a much smaller pool to draw from when trying to find new bands, just due to the sheer disparity in numbers compared to male vocalists. This is already annoying enough, but it doesn’t end there: many bands have talented women but will waste their singing skills in lieu of a lame, questionably talented generic indie rock bro.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve decided to refer to as “Domineering Bro Disease,” because I couldn’t think of a better name. As far as I can tell, it’s exclusively a male phenomenon, and it’s plagued bands for decades, frequently worsening their creative output in the process. The main symptom of the disease is the result of the fragile male ego. It infects a guy, often a songwriter who helped to create the band, who – because he is a guy and guys have to be in control of everything – feels that the world needs to hear his uninteresting voice interpreting the songs rather than a talented female singer.

This is obviously frustrating for me, because I’m on the record as finding female vocals inherently more interesting than most male vocals. But in some cases, particularly at the more underground level, it hurt the band as well. A great female vocalist is an easy way to get your band spotted and to instantly stand out from the crowd on the local scene. Unfortunately, far too many dudes who think they’re the next Jeff Mangum have destroyed their chances by insisting that they handle the microphone.

Some bands with both genders have been able to find the right balance — Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine come to mind. But too frequently, the domineering bro asserts himself too strongly (part of why I love all-female bands is that there’s no guys around to screw everything up). Here are some of the many bands that could have used a bit more equality (or in some cases, inequality). Hopefully future bands will learn from their mistakes and work together to find a cure for this horrible, debilitating disease.

Jefferson Airplane

Like most people, the two songs I was first familiar with from Jefferson Airplane were “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which were written and sung by Grace Slick, one of the most charismatic women in early rock. Both of these songs are purposeful and combined the band’s psychedelic aesthetic into a unique pop package. Excited to hear more, I downloaded the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow that both songs are found on, only to find that the entire rest of the album was just pointless noodling with listless male vocals.

To this day, Jefferson Airplane drives me insane, because Slick was so clearly the biggest draw for the band. Her two songs were the chart hits from the album and also are the ones that frequently appear on “best songs of all time” lists. At a time when female-fronted rock was in short supply, they had an opportunity to be something truly unique and memorable, but it was squandered because the dudes in the band couldn’t put the pieces together and were too stubborn to step aside and let her rock. Instead, we’re left with “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and a bunch of forgettable songs that non-hippies don’t listen to anymore.

The Pixies

Rock history is littered with domineering bros, but perhaps none were more domineering with less justification than Pixies frontman Black Francis. He was an undeniably talented songwriter who wrote some extremely influential songs, but his yelpy vocals often straddled the fine line between experimental and annoying. Meanwhile, bassist Kim Deal was blessed with one of the finest voices in rock music, a sweet but sinister coo that played perfectly with their noisy instrumentation. She showcased it on “Gigantic” from 1988’s Surfer Rosa, but after that album was mostly relugated to sidekick or background roles while Black Francis took charge. Thankfully Deal escaped the wrath of Francis, leaving the band to form The Breeders, a band that is much better than the Pixies regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley was founded by two child-actors-turned-musicians, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, but it quickly became apparent to anyone with half a brain that Lewis was the star of the band. Her honest lyrics, sugary voice, and good looks quickly made her an indie darling. Despite that, Sennett doggedly inflicted his eighth-rate Elliott Smith voice on their audience, singing multiple songs on otherwise good albums like Take-Offs and Landings and The Execution of All Things. While Lewis’ songs were usually memorable and full of personality, Sennett’s invariably fell flat and quickly found their way onto my “instant skip” list.

In this case, it’s not that the male overshadowed the female, but that he felt the need to draw a shadow at all. Sennett was a fine guitarist who I’m sure was partially responsible for some of their best songs, but he should have been content to stand in the background playing guitar while riding Jenny’s coattails to stardom. Unsurprisingly, since the band broke up Lewis has had success as a solo artist and partnering with Jonathan Rice in Jenny and Johnny while Sennett now fronts the presumably crappy indie band The Elected.

Galaxie 500

Galaxie 500 made some of the most atmospheric and influential music of the late 80s and early 90s, using their love of The Velvet Underground to craft a slow-paced sound now known as “slowcore.” The band was fronted by guitarist Dean Wareham, who sang almost all of their songs. His nervous, jittery vocals suited the band’s songs about alienation and isolation quite well, but they still could have used more vocal turns by bassist Naomi Yang. The only two songs she sang over the band’s three albums were two of their best: On Fire‘s “Another Day” and This is our Music’s jawdropping cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling.”

Yang’s vocals suited the band’s hazy sound, and the band would have benefited from having another voice to mix up their songs a bit more. For a band that has occasionally been criticized for being too repetitive with their sound, Yang was an obvious answer that got overlooked.

The Dead Weather

A lot of the hype for supergroup The Dead Weather came from it being another Jack White side project. However, the band worked a lot better as a vehicle for The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, whose hellcat vocals finally got a chance to shine in a full-band atmosphere compared to the minimalism of her other group. The group’s best songs like “Gasoline” and “Hang You from the Heavens” are the ones where Mosshart leads the way, followed by the ones where both she and White play off of each other. The band’s worst songs are when White obligatorily takes the lead by himself. Mosshart’s vocals are passionate, full of attitude, and sound fresh while the overexposed White’s often sound like self-parody from his days with The White Stripes and usually just consist of him yelling attempts at catch phrases.

Allo Darlin’ – “Europe”

Listen on Soundcloud

In the last few years, it seems like the line between “indie” pop and just regular pop has been blurred. Bands like Sleigh Bells that started off in the blogosphere and on indie sites like Pitchfork have popped up in car commercials and on Saturday Night Live, stages that used to be reserved for only the most mainstream rock/pop artists. This year, artists like Grimes have made great pop albums that are influenced as much by Mariah Carey as they are by obscure 80s bands.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time it seems like the initial spirit of indie pop — which used pop structures but also had more emotional, honest lyrics than mainstream pop — has sort of disappeared in lieu of an increasing obsession with pure hooks and adrenaline. I can like poppy music, but an argument I’ve had on Facebook and elsewhere is that the “pop” should never come at the expense of a true emotional connection with the music.

All this is why I’m madly in love with Allo Darlin’s new album Europe. The band, fronted by Australian Elizabeth Morris, is very much a throwback to earlier indie pop bands like Tiger Trap that expertly combined catchy pop melodies with genuine emotion. Europe is their second full-length, and it’s full of non-stop beautiful pop with jangly guitars, heartfelt singing, and honest, clever lyrics. While it sometimes sounds like other indie bands are auditioning for the next iPod commercial, the music of Allo Darlin’ feels refreshingly genuine. It’s not what anyone would call ambitious or daring, but part of its charm is its simplicity in an era of music that seems to be defined increasingly by gimmicks.

Musically, the band invites easy comparison to other sweet lyric-driven indie pop bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. The band’s arrangements are usually pretty straight-forward, with the typical guitar/bass/drums along with some occasional ukelele and strings. However, what really distinguishes the band is Morris, who is an extremely likable singer.

Morris’ songs are able to transcend the pejorative “twee” label due to her great voice and knack for storytelling. The lyrics on Europe often seem like real-life narratives, especially on “Tallulah,” which is the one song on the album that features just Morris and her ukelele. The word “ukelele” usually induces groans from me and others, but her lyrics elevate “Tallulah” and make it one of the best songs on the album, one that perfectly captures its bittersweet feelings on relationships and music. “I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something,” Morris sighs. “And I’m wondering if I’ve already met all the people that will mean something.”

Europe is peppered with little lyrical details that make the narratives feel real. Music is referenced frequently — standout track “The Letter” mentions the Silver Jews, while the aforementioned “Tallulah” is a reference to the album by the Go-Betweens (or possibly twee band Tallulah Gosh — both can be seen as influences on Allo Darlin’s music). As the title suggests, there are also a lot of geographical references as Morris seems to go on a tour throughout the continent on the album. She also returns to her homeland on stellar lead single “Capricornia,” which matches the album’s feelings of place and love with jangly, upbeat guitars.

On final track “My Sweet Friend,” Morris sings “a record is not just a record; records can hold memories.” Europe is a record that seems to hold a lot of them, and poignant moments like that are what makes it my favorite pop album of the year so far.

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”

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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”

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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.