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.