Thursday, December 31, 2009

The top 5s

So, the decade draws to a close, and so must this project. Between work, social shit, a bit of laziness on my part and the fact that the reviews I started for the last 5 on each list wound up taking a lot more out of me than I'd anticipated, I couldn't get this done in my allotted time frame - note to self: more wiggle room for the next project like this I undertake. So in the spirit of at least finishing the list portion of this on time if not the reviews, here are the top 5 albums and top 5 singles of the decade, according to me, with short blurbs about them with longer, more detailed reviews to come in the new year. Thank you to everyone who followed this in some way and I hope you stick around for the next crazy thing I undertake here (I've got a few in mind, with looser time-goals of course) if not just to see me get the last 10 reviews over with. Since January is a slow month at work I anticipate having a lot more time to do this in the new decade.

So, without further ado...


5. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar, 2005)

Will Sheff took his band from second tier alt country curiosities to the big time in my eyes with their third album, a song cycle based on the eponymous song written by Tim Hardin. By taking that minute and a half vignette and expanding the character's world out to a full album and equally essential follow up EP, Sheff demonstrated that he was one of the decade's foremost lyricists, storytellers and songwriters and his band showed that they could tackle all sorts of moods and tones while never getting too stagnant. It was the quintessential leap album, delivering on the promise of their under appreciated first two albums and then going beyond that with songs as gut-wrenching as "Black" (one of my picks for song of the decade) and "So Come Back I Am Waiting" and tying them all up in an uncomplicated but universal story of an outsider trying to clean up his life for a girl who loves him but seeks stability. It's an emotionally draining album in the right circumstances, and one I can't help but keep coming back to despite knowing that it will wreck me.

4. The Wrens - The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

Teenage angst lost its appeal to me for the most part once I stopped being a teenager, but mid-30s angst? Apparently that I can deal with in larger doses. It took New Jersey's favorite sons seven years to follow up their masterful 1996 album Secaucus, but the wait provided them with more than enough material to churn out the decade's defining statement about how much getting old sucks. The thing is that they did it with just as much, if not a little bit more energy than they brought to their first two albums while imbuing that energy with the sort of emotion and depth that only comes with age. They still cranked out some of the best bitter love songs of the decade - "Happy" and "Every Year You Wasted" are the kind of kiss offs that your little brother's favorite bands wish they could come up with - but but them alongside painful self examinations ("This Boy Is Exhausted") takes of perseverance ("Boys, You Won't") surreal vignettes ("Per Second Second") and "Everyone Choose Sides", which I could go on for days about the genius of but boils down to being the most driving, self-effacing bit of self-mythologizing to come out of this decade. If that's what a seven year break gives us I'm more than excited for the band's new album, tentatively scheduled for release next year.

3. The Microphones - The Glow Pt. 2 (K, 2001)

Even if nothing on Phil Elvrum's main band's masterpiece matches the glorious opening troika of "I Want Wind to Blow", "The Glow Part 2" and "The Moon" that's no reason to dismiss it as a whole. Really, any album that starts off that strongly is bound to fall off no matter how good the rest of it is. And the rest of The Glow Pt. 2 is good, probably the lushest lo-fi album ever recorded and an album that was made for headphones if there ever was one. It's another album that I feel more than I listen to, letting the full 65 minute sprawl wash over and around me as opposed to focusing specifically on the material it contains, but the feel of the album is deeper with each new listen and each new environment (mild pot buzz, post-exam comedown, playing Super Mario Galaxy) that I have a hard time faulting it for the minor sin of leading off with the best 16 minutes of material the decade has to offer.

2. Kayo Dot - Choirs of the Eye (Tzadik, 2003)

If Kayo Dot had a bit of a sense of humour I wouldn't be surprised to see someone credited with 'kitchen sink' in their ranks. There's so much going on at some points during Choirs of the Eye that the addition of a kitchen sink would seem downright logical. Basically, at their heart Kayo are a metal band, but instead of holding on to the basic metal format, the guys and gals throw in everything they can. Strings? Check, horns? Check, woodwinds? Check. The result is possibly the closest thing to an original sound that my generation has been able to hear. Sure other metal bands have gone a bit symphonic, but the fact that Kayo can throw all these auxiliary instruments in to the mix and not sound anywhere near pretentious or overblown is a testament to their skill. For instance, take 20 minute album centerpiece "The Manifold Curiosity." There's one part towards the end where every single thing that has come in to play during the song comes back, layered over top of everything else. And instead of sounding like a mess it's the best moment on an album full of exciting, original and just plain awesome moments. When a band can have close to a dozen members all playing at once and not sounding like a total mess, that takes talent. Kayo Dot have talent in spades, but more importantly they manage to be exciting. Any band can be made up of extremely talented players, but more often than not they seem to want to coast by on their talent while not doing anything really noteworthy. Kayo Dot have some X-factor that elevates them so high above their peers that it's not even funny.

1. Jackie-O Motherfucker - The Magick Fire Music (Ecstatic Peace!, 2000)

And yet the best album of the decade is the one I have the hardest time pinning down. I just know that if it were physically possible to swim in an album, this is the one I'd choose. It's not JOMF's most immediate (that would be the just-about-as-awesome Fig. 5) most expansive (Liberation) most straightforward (Flags of the Sacred Harp) or most all-encompassing (any of their live documents) but it's the one that I don't hesitate in describing as perfect. Each of the eight lengthy pieces takes the literal definiteion of post-rock (use of rock instruments for non-rock purposes) and grafts it onto the bands particularly freaky brand of folk music and Americana. Each individual piece is so endlessly fascinating, so perfectly constructed, so subtle that it's hard to listen to it and not get totally lost in its atmosphere, even when that atmosphere takes a turn for the paranoid on "2nd Avenue, 2 AM" or a turn towards an old-fashioned hoedown on closer "Black Squirrels". It's a fascinating document showcasing the most frighteningly consistent and consistently brilliant band of the decade at the very peak of their powers - not that they had far to go to get there - without necessarily drawing attention to that fact. Maybe its that subtlety that pushes it above the rest, the fact that it all seems so effortless and loose despite being so impeccably constructed. Whatever it is, it's the best thing to come out of this decade as far as I'm concerned and that's all I can say about it for now.


5. Mirah "Cold Cold Water" (video)

I may be a bit of an Elvrum fanboy (see my #3 album and #2 single for more on that) but if any song sums up the reason he's one of my preferred producers of the deacds (non-mainstream category) it's the opener and lead off single from Mirah's Advisory Committee. Just listen to the myriad of slight changes in instrumentation that he pushes forth, never seeming content to repeat the same set of elements under any pair of lines, moving through an album's worth of arrangements in 5 minutes without having the results feel overly rushed or crowded. It's the sort of production that just works for me, intricate and varied yet not at the expense of teh song's flow. And Mirah's in fine form over top of it, laying out one of the best break up songs of the decade in her unmistakable child-like yet assured voice. Easily the highlight of her career and close to the highlight of Elvrum's if not for his main band.

4. Robyn "Be Mine" (video)

How often do songs about unrequited love come across as cheesy? Contrived? Melodramatic? Unnecessary? Often enough that every time I listen to "Be Mine!" it feels like a distinctive breath of fresh air. It's the rare 'he's just not that into me' song that doesn't come off as self-pitying or sound like an over reaction. Robyn's resigned, ultimately touching ode to losing the one she never even had hits all the right buttons, ones that get ignore so often in this type of song that it feels like the first time they were ever accessed. It's the antithesis of every single half-baked song about one-sided relationships ever written, and that's what gets the points. Not to mention that superb bridge section...

3. Radiohead "Pyramid Song" (video)

Simply the most beautiful piece of music Radiohead have ever composed. It may be the most bare bones of any of their singles, nothing but a simple yet complex sounding piano figure, Thom Yorke's most affecting vocal of their later period and in its final section Phil Selway's drumming, but it's also the most effective, doing more for me on a purely emotional level than any of the band's more involved numbers. Think of it as the 00s equivalent of "Street Spirit," but replacing its morbid, gothic tone with something that's almost exultant and angelic. Yorke describing a surreal yet beautiful dream version of heaven while the piano figure refuses to reveal its true beat even when Selway enters. It's a challenging song to figure out on a technical level but on an emotional level it couldn't be more simple: it's absolutely fucking beautiful.

2. The Microphones "The Moon" (video)

Phil Elvrum's best moment, hands down. After the opening hazy acoustic figure, when the song gets swept up in that rush of organ and more frantic than you'd expect drumming, it's one of the most unbelievably powerful moments in music, and that's before the unbelievalby sad yet strangely happy-sounding trumpets take the chorus to a new height. For 5 minutes anf 17 seconds Elvrum pretty much spells out exactly why he deserves a place on you mental list of the best producers of any kind of music, doing so much with the arrangement yet never drawing attention to just how much there is going on (as with the album it's from, headphones addso much to this one) between the panning acoustic riff, the warm yet despondant succession of organ chords and his own mumbled yet undeniably powerful vocals in the verses and the additional trumpet figure in the's a masterpiece on a purely sonic level before you even consider looking at the lyrics. And then the song feels so much heavier, Elvrum recounting his return to the sites of some of his happiest memories and then declaring 'I went back and wished I hadn't' as if the memories of his loss are trumping the happiness he felt in those moments. It's the most powerful moment he's ever recorded in my estimation, and if not for what's next it would be a shoo in for single of the decade.

1. LCD Soundsystem "All My Friends" (video)

And yet I go with something completely predictable instead. Say anything you want, that this choice marks me for life as a hipster, a fucking dilletante, a Pitchfork-worshiping sheep, it boils down to a few simple facts. Of all the singles I heard this decade, this is the one I want played at my funeral. This is the one I want played at my wedding. This is the one I want played at last call in every bar I ever visit. This is the song I want to ring in the new decade with. This is the song I will think of first when this decade comes up in conversation years from now. This is the song that, though it may not define the decade in a strictly musical sense definitely defines it in my mind. It's the anthem for every person that just wants to find a connection in an increasingly disconnected world. It's the most concise statement of the importance of something as simple as friendship, especially as wee get older. It's such a great song that its creator was convinced he could never do it justice. It's so well arranged, produced and composed that it almost makes me sorry that I find most of what James Murphy did this decade to be somewhat lacking. It's the single of the fucking decade because I don't even need to hear more than the introductory piano figure to get a smile on my face. It's single of the decade because what the hell else could be?

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