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

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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”

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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”

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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.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #9 – Fiona Apple – “Extraordinary Machine”

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I’ve always felt a weird connection to Fiona Apple and her music, even though it never really feels like it was intended for me. Mostly because I think she’s misunderstood — as an artist and as a person — due to various incidents and media portrayals. Apple broke through at age 19 with her album Tidal and was instantly thrust into the public spotlight. The results were some unflattering, extremely public moments — namely her controversial music video for hit single “Criminal”, which showed her parading around in nearly no clothing while looking potentially anorexic, and her infamous “this world is bullshit” speech delivered at the MTV Video Music awards after winning for Best New Artist. Along with some on-stage meltdowns, those moments have colored most of the public’s perception of Apple, who is often seen as a poster-girl for pretentiousness and flakiness.

I had the same preconceptions about her before I seriously listened to a note of her music. I knew the name from the “Criminal” video and I knew some of the songs off Tidal. I assumed, like many others, that not only was she an annoying person, but that her music was also bland. In my mind, I had associated her with that Lilith Fair/coffeehouse style of music that is an over-serious woman playing on a piano while reciting crappy poetry and quoting Maya Angelou.

I still sort of feel that way about Tidal, but she released that album when she was 19. 19! I don’t even remember anything I did when I was 19, but it certainly wasn’t noteworthy and I definitely wouldn’t want the world judging me by it. Meanwhile, Fiona’s music matured from there, and her 1999 album When the Pawn… (which has a 90 word title that seems to consciously stick it to people that labeled her as pretentious) is when her music really clicked for me. It was the complete opposite of what I had often imagined her music being: it was creative, it had tempo changes and often eschewed typical pop verse-chorus structure, and it had some arrangements that really surprised me. On top of that, Apple continued to have that jazzy contralto voice and her lyrics are very smart and insightful with clever rhyming. Definitely not crappy poetry. Predictably, the album sold about 1/3 of the copies that Tidal did.

Fiona’s career and reputation faced another challenge after that, as Extraordinary Machine became one of the more memorable fiascoes of the decade. After recording for the album with Jon Brion (who produced When the Pawn…), Apple was reportedly unhappy with the results, which led to the album being shelved. The tracks eventually leaked online, and the infamous bootleg led to an online campaign called “Free Fiona” that sought to get the album an official release. Eventually Apple enlisted Mike Elizondo to re-record the tracks and Extraordinary Machine was finally released in 2005.

The official version gets inevitably compared to the bootleg version, and I personally enjoy some of the takes by each producer. If nothing else, the bootleg is a fascinating glimpse into the role a producer plays and it’s interesting to see what Fiona disliked about the original version. For the most part, her voice shines through more on the official release, while it’s sometimes buried under the excessively ornate instrumentation of the bootleg.

Regardless of which version you listen to, Fiona’s songs are intact, and they’re arguably the best of her career. They cover the same thematic territory that she usually does — primarily relationships and self-reflection — but her lyrics are wittier and more incisive than before. Musically the album feels like a throwback that doesn’t really belong in this decade, with the sounds of early musicals and more oddball baroque instrumentation sometimes joining Apple on her piano. Nothing on the album comes all that close to the traditional radio-friendly piano pop on Tidal.

There are many highlights on Extraordinary Machine, particularly “O’Sailor”, which gets weakened a bit on the official release compared to the bootleg version that has a slower tempo and a minute more length to create its dreamy atmosphere. “Red Red Red” was overproduced on the bootleg but becomes one of the official album’s finer moments thanks to more subtle strings and a more reflective, down-tempo mood. Part of the fun with the album is comparing and mixing and matching the two versions (I eventually created a playlist of the ideal version using my favorite cut of each song).

Extraordinary Machine is a quirky, individual album that captures Fiona’s strengths as an artist extremely well. It feels very detached from any other albums I’ve heard from the decade and I give Apple a lot of credit for following her own artistic muse and forsaking commercial success that probably could have come easy to her after Tidal. Despite all the hoopla around the album’s release and the artist, Extraordinary Machine proves that she’s genuine as an artist and also possesses a phenomenal combination of voice, lyrical abiity, and imagination. This is where many music writers would call her an “extraordinary machine”, but I’m not going to do that because I have too much integrity.

What I think really draws people to Fiona Apple and has allowed her to create a fervent following is that all of her songs seem to be deeply meaningful to her and are sung with great conviction. Her pattern of releasing music seems to confirm this: with three albums (and soon a fourth) in 16 years, she isn’t one to just churn something out to make money. I think the fact that she takes her art seriously is sometimes confused for pretentiousness. Extraordinary Machine was her only album from this decade, and its long awaited follow-up, with its Fiona-y title “The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do” will finally arrive in June.

Favorite 2000s Albums – #10 – Mclusky – “Mclusky Do Dallas”

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In my last list, I looked at my favorite albums from the 90s, my favorite decade of music. Now, since I’m bored over spring break, I’ve decided to take on 2000-2009 (I refuse to call this decade “the oughts” or whatever horrible name people came up with for it). I wasn’t originally going to, because the 2000s is probably my least favorite of music despite the fact that I grew up during it. But I just can’t resist a good list, and even in the bucket of crap that was this decade there were a handful of great albums that I treasure, each of which provided something that was missing in the general lameness that I associate strongly with the period they came from. My hope with this list is to study why I love these albums and to see where things went horribly, horribly wrong in these ten years.

The most obvious way the 2000s sucked is the decline of rock music, or at least the kind of rock music I enjoy. At some point in this decade, rock music seemed to lose what made it great in the first place. Bands like Arcade Fire, Wilco, Modest Mouse, The National, and The Strokes reign supreme among “rock” bands on the top of most end-of-decade lists, but they all feel lacking compared to how alive and essential it felt in the 90s when outspoken, aggressive rock ruled the landscape . Most rock stopped being exciting and freeing like it was in the years before and started being stodgy and limp, lacking in personality and energy.

Which finally gets me to Mclusky, and their 2002 album Mclusky Do Dallas, a rock album that in many ways is the antithesis of the decade it came from. It’s loud, aggressive, and overflowing with charisma thanks to lead singer Andy Falkous and his howling vocals. It’s also hilarious, with some of the best misanthropic one liners ever committed to song. Mclusky rock at a higher volume and with more swagger than just about anyone else did at the time and sound like they’re having a party doing it.

Sonically, Mclusky don’t do anything too groundbreaking. Their dedication to abrasive noise (along with the album being engineered by Steve Albini) created obvious comparisons to 90s noise rock bands like The Jesus Lizard, while their darkly humorous lyrics and big hooks brought to mind the Pixies. Mclusky breaks out of the shadow of those bands through sheer force of personality, as Falkous and the band seem to have a whale of a time making an unholy racket and singing ridiculous non-sequitur lyrics like “All your friends are cunts. Your mother is a ballpoint pen thief.”

Mclusky Do Dallas is so relentlessly cacophonous that at times it feels like a satire of rock music one-upsmanship, with each song trying to top the previous one in terms of insanity. It’s most evident on album highlight “To Hell With Good Intentions”, where Falkous howls out increasingly silly, hyperbolic boasts about the band (“my band is better than your band, we’ve got more songs than a song convention”) with each punctuated by the band chanting “sing it!” as if urging other rock bands to come up to their level of badassery. Based on the output this decade provided, it seems that few bands took them up on the challenge.

The band’s songs never stray too far from their formula, but they find ways to mix it up to prevent the album from becoming too repetitive. “The World Loves Us and is Our Bitch” has a funky guitar lead while keeping up the band’s hyperbolic sense of humor, while lead track “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” has a call-and-response between Falkous and noisy guitar to go with its lyrics of paranoia and sex that are handled in typical Mclusky fashion. The closest the band comes to a ballad is “Fuck This Band”, which has lyrics that sound like what a parent whose kid listens to Mclusky might think about the band: “fuck this band because they swear too much, it’s an obvious ploy and irresponsible.”

Above all, Mclusky Do Dallas is a fun album, in a way that most acclaimed albums of the 2000s aren’t. It never takes itself too seriously, but also never has fun at the expense of providing the vital rush of excitement that only great rock music can provide. The fact that the music around them was so dull and serious made Mclusky’s back-to-basics rock feel that much more important. While I personally think rock declined in this decade and hasn’t really recovered, Mclusky Do Dallas shows that there is still always a home for it, even if it’s a smaller niche than it should be.