Sunday, July 25, 2010

December 9, 2009: Psychobabble’s Wholly Subjective 20 Best Albums ofthe ‘00s

The Psychobabble agenda is retro at all costs. Of course, “retro” is a relative term, and as someone who gets nostalgic over things that happened last weekend, I have a fairly arbitrary definition for it: basically, anything that happened before I hit puberty. I’ve made a few exceptions here and there, but I try to stick to pre-mid-‘80s music and movies as best as possible. With the coming end of a decade, I’m making an exception to sift through some of the best (read as: “personal favorite”) items of the ‘00s. This week we’ll be running down 20 of the most worthwhile records to rock this dwindling decade.

20. Mountain Battles by The Breeders (2008)

So, The Breeders released two of the best record of the ‘90s, then ignominiously faded away as the two principal members—Kim and Kelley Deal—dealt with various addictions and personal problems. By the ‘00s they were pretty much a distant memory, vaguely recalled by most as ex-Pixie Kim Deal’s side project and the group responsible for the weird but enthralling hit single “Cannonball”. When The Breeders reformed to a small amount of hoopla and put out the fairly forgettable Title TK in 2002, they seemed more like relics of the ‘90s than ever. A six year gap followed; then Mountain Battles. Jaw drops, eyes bug out, hands begin drumming ecstatically on thighs. Sneaking out with barely a whisper of media interest, The Breeders’ fourth album in nearly two decades may be their best, covering as wide a range of influences and moods as Last Splash while dispensing of the instrumental filler and striking a more consistent overall tone. This is a mature album made by a wonderfully immature group. “Overglazed” sounds like a great lost Who single written after Townshend suffered a severe blow to the skull. “Bang On” and the sublime “Walk It Off” are jaunty, bouncy fun, as is the Tasties cover, “It’s the Love”. All of these could have been big college radio hits if such a thing still existed. “German Studies” could vie with any of the weirder tracks on Last Splash while outdoing most of them for groovy danceability. There are moments of haunting atmospherics (“Night of Joy”, “We’re Gonna Rise”) and Zeppelin-esque heavy rock (“No Way”) and country folk with harmonies like melted butter (“Here No More”), all proving that The Breeders are well worthy of rediscovery.

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19. Sunny Border Blue by Kristin Hersh (2001)

Throwing Muses were one of my favorite band born in the ‘80s. Fractured and furious, their music was demanding, but Kristin Hersh still had a way with a pop hook that held all of the mania together (as did little step-sis Tanya Donnelly, the “George” to Kristin’s “John and Paul”). Hersh’s solo records drop much of the shrieking and cacophonous electric guitars of the Muses in favor of raspy whispers and sparse acoustic backing, but that grit and fury are still very much present. Sunny Border Blue is full of spitting anger (she sounds particularly hungry for the jugular on “Spain”), but the melodies and instrumentation—unplugged guitars, keyboards, and percussion with the occasional trumpet—are beautiful. Hersh’s lyrics, reportedly inspired by marital woes, come off like pages torn from the more vitriolic passages of her diary, and her rendition of Cat Stevens’s “Trouble” (from Harold and Maude) may be the most inspired cover version of the past twenty years.

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18. Beautiful Creature by Juliana Hatfield (2000)

Critics often dismiss Juliana Hatfield because of her girlish voice and penchant for sugary pop, but the former Blake Baby has just been strengthening and strengthening as a songwriter for the past 20 years. Her earlier solo albums (Hey Babe, Become What You Are) are refreshing fusions of grubby indie-rock and girl-group bubblegum that were sometimes marred by preciousness and juvenile self-analysis. Since these are the albums for which she is best known, many do not realize how much she has since matured. Her lyrics, while no less self-examining than they’d always been, are less cloying, her taste in backing musicians is keener, and her melodies are just as delectable as ever. It’s a shame that she was essentially forgotten by all but her most devoted fans at the turn of the century, because she simultaneously released two albums that revealed how worthwhile and varied her music remained. Total System Failure is a blow-out of hard Led Zeppelin-style riffs and Jesus Lizard noise that manages to be as catchy as any of Hatfield’s pure pop. Beautiful Creature is quiet, pensive, largely acoustic, and the best argument for Hatfield’s place in the canon of great singer-songwriters. “Choose Drugs” and “When You Loved Me” are heartbreaking love songs. “Hotels” is an infectiously atmospheric meditation on road-weariness. “Daniel” and “Don’t Rush Me” are more upbeat and poppy, but their lyrics continue the melancholic themes of the rest of the record. The one misstep is a pretty big one; as its awful title suggests, “Cool Rock Boy” falls back on the teen-cutesiness of Hatfield’s most unbearable early work, but the rest of the album is consistently fine, as are the ones that followed it.


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17. She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke by The Dutchess and the Duke

There has never been a shortage of bands that draw gluttonous reserves of inspiration from The Rolling Stones, but it seems as though most of those bands either reference the early Blues-&-Berry Stones or the Sleazy-‘70s Stones. The Dutchess and the Duke are one of the few that favor the mid-‘60s Stones, when they were immersed in raw folk, baroque guitars, and jangly pop. “Reservoir Park” is a ringer for “Mother’s Little Helper”, “The Prisoner” swipes its riff from “Paint It Black”, the climbing guitar line of “Mary” is reminiscent of “Sittin’ on a Fence”, and “Strangers” gets off on the same C&W jive as “Connection”. They also possess an evocatively morbid lyrical bent that brings to mind some of the Stones most withering cuts, like “I Am Waiting”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, and “Yesterday’s Papers”. Right now you’re probably thinking, “So, why would I bother with these kids when I could just dust off my copy of Aftermath and hear the real deal?” Well, smart ass, you should check out The Dutchess and the Duke because
of the fresh spin they put on the classic Stones sound. They’re a male/female duo that shuns distorted guitars and drum kits, and though their melodies seem as though they’ve been pilfered from classic Stones songs, they haven’t been, and these melodies are very, very good.


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16. Beauty & Crime by Suzanne Vega (2007)

Suzanne Vega’s output has always been sporadic, but fans can hardly complain since she ensures that each of her albums is a unique collection of incredibly well-crafted songs. Coming six years after her previous release, Songs in Red and Grey, Beauty and Crime was absolutely worth the wait. Here she returns to the New York-centricity of her first couple of albums, which unifies the record even as her songs touch on subjects as varied as the death of her brother, September 11th, and the volatile relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener. While I was a big fan of Vega’s collaborations with ex-husband, Mitchell Froom— a producer often misguidedly criticized for aural clutter— the clean, clear sound of Beauty & Crime suits these intimate songs perfectly. Producer Jimmy Hogarth makes the transcendent “Ludlow Street” woozy and swooning, layers jazzy woodwinds onto “New York Is a Woman”, and lays a bed of subtle electronic percussion beneath the propulsive “Unbound”. But none of this would matter if Vega wasn’t providing great songs. If it takes her another six years to come up with eleven more compositions on the level of those on Beauty & Crime, you’ll hear no gripe from me.

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15. The Delivery Man by Elvis Costello & The Imposters (2004)

Elvis Costello’s previous two Rock & Roll releases, All This Useless Beauty and When I Was Cruel, were scattered with great songs, but neither held up very well as a coherent album. His jazz-lite experiment, North, was too coherent, each song basically sounding alike (devoid of melody, structure, and compelling arrangements). With The Delivery Man he turned in his best record since the highly underrated Brutal Youth ten years earlier. The overall sound is that of early Rock & Roll by way of country, Louisiana blues, and folk, but he neither stresses style over content nor locks himself into formula, as he did with North. So there’s still room for the discordant psycho-breakdown of “Button My Lip” and the elastic groove of “Bedlam”, but The Imposters’ impeccably funky backing makes the entire album sound consistent even when their leader strays from the loose stylistic concept. That Costello has composed his best songs in years helps too: the smoldering “Country Darkness”, the loping “Monkey to Man”, an invigoratingly sloppy duet with Lucinda Williams called “There’s a Story in Your Voice”, the wrenching “Either Side of the Same Time”, and the noir title track are all proof that the man can still churn out classics some 400 songs into his career.


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14. The Shapes We Make by The Mary Timony Band (2007)

Helium was one of the great underrated bands of the ‘90s. They managed to combine Sonic Youth-style noise, almost-traditional songwriting structure, and an odd baroque sensibility, and make it work spectacularly. After two excellent albums and a few EP’s, Helium broke up, leaving leader Mary Timony to her own devices. Timony’s transition to solo artist was a little awkward. Her first two records, Mountains and The Golden Dove, both had some great songs, but her weird fascination with Dungeons and Dragons imagery was getting the better of some of the less successful ones. Where was the Rock? Well, it was back in full fury on Ex Hex, a great album that boomed as powerfully as the best of Helium and benefited from a new clarity of sound and songwriting focus. It’s follow up, The Shapes We Make, is even better, if only by the slightest increment. The record is a tangy gumbo of Egyptian-style guitar riffs, proggy keyboards, heavy drumming, and Timony’s cool singing and wacko lyricism. The epic “Rockman” hilariously charts man’s evolution through rock history like an exhibit in a natural history museum. On the anti-NRA “Sharpshooter”, she ponders, “Ted Nuggent what will you do, what will you do when they come for you”? The Shapes We Make is like a one-woman mission to atone for all that humorless prog rock from the ‘70s, and Timony is well up to the task.


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13. Mist King Urth by Lifeguards (2003)

Had I a little less self control I might have populated this entire list with albums by and related-to the sublime indie legends known as Guided By Voices. Chief songwriter, singer, and scissor-kicker Robert Pollard was the one constant in that ever-changing Dayton, Ohio, outfit, and even before GBV reached their electrifying conclusion in 2004, Pollard was branching beyond his main band with countless solo and side projects. One of the best and most daring of these is a one-off collaboration with GBV guitarist Doug Gillard called Lifeguards. The project came together as many Pollard side projects have: Gillard composed and recorded the music— miraculously overdubbing all the instruments himself— and passed the tape along to Bob, who then supplied lyrics and vocals. This is actually the second such collaboration between these guys. The first was 1999’s magnificent Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (easily the best of Pollard’s extra-GBV products), which was credited to Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard. It’s appropriate that they chose a different name for Mist King Urth, because it forgoes the power pop of Speak Kindly… in favor of ‘70s-style prog rock. The only things the two albums share is Gillard’s incredible ability as a one-man band, Pollard’s ever weird lyricism, and the fine quality of their songwriting. There are a couple of brief instrumental trifles here, but the fully formed songs are among the finest in Guided By Voices’ extended catalogue, particularly “Starts at the River”, on which Pollard does his best Jon Anderson impersonation, the punky “Shorter Virgins”, and the Gabriel-era-Genesis-inspired “First of an Early Go-Getter”. “Society Dome” and “No Chain Breaking” are two of the most beautiful songs Pollard ever had his hands in.


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12. Endless Wire by The Who (2006)

Although I'm a Who fanatic, I hesitated buying Endless Wire for a year after its release because... well... The Who doesn't really exist anymore. If the band only arguably ceased to exist after Moon died, it undeniably was no more after Entwistle thundered out of this mortal coil. Perhaps if they'd called Endless Wire an album by “Townshend & Daltrey” or something, I may have been enticed sooner. Once I finally picked up the record it absolutely shocked me. This may not be “The Who” with a capital “W”, but it sure sounds like them. In fact, I'd venture to say that this is the best album with the words “The Who” on its cover since The Who By Numbers, and I'm not a Who Are You or Face Dances basher. I even have a soft spot for It's Hard, which sounds far less like a Who record than Endless Wire does. This is without a doubt the strongest set of songs Townshend has penned since his 1980 solo album Empty Glass. “Mike Post Theme”, “It's Not Enough”, and “We Got a Hit” are almost painfully catchy songs and as powerful as much of the band's best ‘70s material. Lyrically, Townshend is still Townshend: honest, nasty, funny, topical. His two most lyrically pointed tracks are stark acoustic songs: “A Man in a Purple Dress” is a well-deserved poison pen letter lobbed at the elders of organized religion, while “You Stand By Me” is basically a love letter to Daltrey. Anyone who has followed the often ugly relationship between Daltrey and Townshend over the years (which even came to blows on occasion) will be floored and moved by this track. Endless Wire is an excellent album by Townshend & Daltrey or The Who or whatever the hell you want to call them.


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11. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case (2006)

Leave it to a Canadian to produce the 2000’s ultimate statement of North Americana. Just as Canada’s The Band did in the ‘60s, Neko Case has reached across the border, dipped her hands into a rich reservoir of Country & Western, jazz, torch songs, blues, and rootsy Rock & Roll, and sculpted these influences into a work of sheer beauty. Case’s voice is as rich and resonant as a bell. A reverby bed of acoustic guitars, mandolin, piano, and wider-than-the-Grand-Canyon drums cradle that voice with breathtaking splendor on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Her songs can be unconventionally structured, yet all of the elements are so enchanting that each track feels like a potential standard: the rainbow arch of her voice as she sings “Hey there!” on “Star Witness”, the jaunty gallop of “John Saw That Number”, the violently descending bass line of the chilling “Dirty Knife”, her transcendent falsetto at the climax of “Maybe Sparrow”. Each new spin of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood reveals yet another such component, making it that rare record that pays off greater dividends the more often it is experienced.


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10. Action Pact by Sloan (2003)

Sloan is my favorite band that got its start in the ‘90s, but though these geeky rockers from Halifax are royalty over the Canadian border, they’ve never quite caught on in the US. This wrong started to get righted when they released the critically-lauded Never Hear the End of It in 2006, which was like the Abbey Road medley stretched to double-album length. Sloan’s eclecticism has been a key factor in their music for much of their career, as all four members of the band sing and write, and each has his own particular approach to power pop. While I adore Sloan for their diversity, their strongest album of the ‘00s is their most stylistically consistent release since they debuted with the My Bloody Valentine-worshipping Smeared back in ’92. Action Pact still surfs on power pop by way of Big Star, Cheap Trick, and The Beatles, but it’s all filtered through AC/DC-inspired hard rock. Rarely has Sloan hammered out Gibson SG fueled Rock & Roll as powerfully as they do on the album’s exhilarating opening triad of “Gimme That”, “Live On”, and “Backstabbin’”. Action Pact is just strength to strength from there, with poppy stuff like “The Rest of My Life” and “False Alarm” commingling with moody numbers like “Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore” and the keenly intense “Reach Out”, as well as plenty more shots of sublimely catchy hard rock. The album’s one significant flaw is that drummer Andrew Scott, who is the group’s most unique composer, didn’t get any songs on the record, but he more than made up for that with his excellent contributions to Never Hear the End of It and 2008’s Parallel Play, which are nearly as fabulous as Action Pact.


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9. Salamander by Doug Gillard (2004)

For Guided By Voices freaks, Salamander offers the same thrill of discovery that the first Foo Fighters album did for Nirvana fans. What? This group actually had two great songwriters all along? Later-day GBV guitarist Doug Gillard managed to get one song on his first album with the group, 1997’s Mag Earwhig!, and to the possible chagrin of Robert Pollard, “I Am a Tree” became an instant classic and fan favorite. Along with one very good Earthquake Glue-era B-side called “Free of This World”, these two tracks were Gillard's total compositional contributions to Guided By Voices’ 1,000-odd songs. Nearly freed from the soon-to-be-defunct group in 2004, Gillard already had one eye on the door, getting his solo career off to a glorious start with Salamander. There are no great innovations on this album. It’s a straight-forward pop record along the lines of Matthew Sweet or Sloan, but the songs are uniformly fantastic and Gillard whips up an exciting din as he slips into the one-man-band mode he’d brought to Lifeguards’ Mist King Urth. It’s all jangly 12-string guitars, four bangs to the bar beats, Beatle-esque harmonies, and verse/chorus/verse structures. As Dave Grohl was to Kurt Cobain, Doug Gillard is a more traditional songwriter than Bob Pollard, so his songs may not have really fit on a proper Guided By Voices release. Fortunately he is coming into his own with a slowly-developing but worth-following solo career.

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8. Oh, Inverted World by The Shins (2001)

Quietly psychedelic, unassumingly tuneful, The Shins’ debut album was also one of the most inescapable releases of the ‘00s. During a pub crawl a couple of years ago, tracks from Oh, Inverted World! unfailingly played in each bar I visited. I’d hear James Russell’s dulcet voice intoning “Shut out, pimpled and angry, I quietly tied all my guts into knots” through the ceiling of my old apartment, spilling out of open car windows, over store sound systems, and (of course) from my own stereo speakers. Anything that ubiquitous runs the risk of becoming obnoxious, but The Shins are so unpretentious and fresh that their popularity never grew tiresome. There’s a mysteriousness to their music that is partially due to the essential facelessness of the band (I couldn’t identify James Russell if he took a crap on my doorstep) and largely due to the eerie timelessness of their music, which sounds as though it’s been bathed in a film of lysergic mist. The light psychedelia of The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, and Simon & Garfunkel are obvious touchstones, but Oh, Inverted World doesn’t sound as though it was recorded in the ‘60s. Nor does it sound like it was made a mere eight years ago. Rather it sounds as though it always existed, and with its inescapable presence, it’s almost hard to recall a time when everyone wasn’t listening to this lovely album.

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7. Elephant by The White Stripes (2003)

Each decade has its defining artists: the Rock & Roll era kicked off in the ‘50s with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard; The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix, and Dylan were the heroes of the ‘60s; the 70s were ruled by Zeppelin, Bowie, Springsteen, and The Sex Pistols; the ‘80s: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and U2; while Nirvana and Radiohead took us to the end of the century. With the music industry in a state of turmoil and MP3s making pop music more disposable than ever, precious few defining artists emerged during the ‘00s. If dull-as-dishwater Coldplay qualifies, than the ‘00s was a sorry decade indeed. Fortunately, The White Stripes injected a lightning-jolt of electricity into contemporary Rock & Roll to guarantee that they’ll go down as the band of the past ten years. With the Neanderthal thump of Meg White’s barebones drum kit and Jack White’s twin attack of eardrum-shredding guitar and metallic, wailing vocals, The White Stripes tore Rock & Roll down to its most primal essentials. The starlight mint iconography and questions about Meg and Jack’s relationship were memorable gimmicks, but the music is what cemented their status in Rock history. The White Stripes’ breakthrough album was White Blood Cells in 2001, but their strongest statement may be Elephant. While it does not house a single as instantly dazzling as “Fell in Love with a Girl”, Elephant tightens up the earlier record’s slightly rambling structure to deliver one amazing detonation of punkified blues-rock after another. The bass on “Seven Nation Army” and the neat cameo by Holly Golightly on “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” expands the group’s sound nicely, but in all honesty, such accoutrements aren’t necessarily necessary on an album with songs as great as “Black Math”, “There’s No Room For You Here”, “The Hardest Button to Button”, and “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”. Meanwhile, “Ball and Biscuit” lays bare Jack White’s claim for guitar hero of the 21st Century. Anyone who tries to take his crown will likely be made to look a chump.


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6. Kid A by Radiohead (2000)

So many times Kid A has been branded Radiohead’s “difficult album”, a record lacking warmth and melody that may only appeal to the group’s most devoted and pretentious fans. I personally don’t get the criticisms, because let’s face it: one does not listen to Radiohead for warmth. Aside from the title track and the icily electronic centerpiece, “Tree Fingers”, the rest of the record bubbles with all the crisp song-craft and hair-raising drama of Radiohead’s more embraced work. Its modern-art soundscapes may be the most glaring characteristic of Kid A upon first listen, but incredible songs begin materializing out of the synthesized murk with further listens. “The National Anthem” is a crazed but infectious melding of heavy-metal riffing and free-jazz sax. “How to Disappear Completely” is a mope-rock anthem that can stand alongside the best of The Cure or The Smiths. “Optimistic”, “Idioteque”, and “Morning Bell” could all be hit singles on Neptune. Kid A is a psychedelic tour de force for the new millennium; a Dark Side of the Moon for the under-forty set. Like so much great art it requires a little commitment, but its multitudinous rewards are well worth the effort. Ten years from now, Kid A will be remembered as Radiohead’s masterpiece.


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5. Behind the Music by The Soundtrack of Our Lives (2001)

A mark of amateur music-criticism is resorting to a bunch of “this band sounds like…” comparisons (which are, obviously, all over this fucking list). The Soundtrack of Our Lives is a band that makes avoiding such comparisons utterly impossible, because they brandish their influences with the audacity of a bunch of Rickenbacker-toting Swedes sporting Beatle mop tops and Pete Townshend-style Union Jack jackets. Yep, it’s all ‘60s-rock worship all the time with TSOOL, but they fortunately have the amazing songs to justify listening to Behind the Music in lieu of re-spinning records by The Who, The Beatles, The Stones, Love, Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, The Stooges, or any of the other groups they absorb and regurgitate. Behind the Music is a masterful collection of powerful songs played with gusto and resplendent in ear-tingling psychedelic nuances (the spacey whooshes of slide guitar on “In Someone Else’s Mind”; the radio crosstalk on “Broken Imaginary Time”…), but it’s the big guitar riffs and Ebbot Lundberg’s raspily earnest caterwauling that are the record’s most bracing elements. “Sister Surround”, “21st Century Rip Off”, and “Still Aging” may be the three greatest pure-Rock & Roll songs of the ‘00s, while “In Your Veins” might be the decade’s best ballad…quite a feat for a song that includes the line “Pancakes spinning 'round the sun / Flat earth project has begun.” Maybe it would make sense if it was translated back into Swedish.

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4. Half Smiles of the Decomposed by Guided By Voices (2004)

On April 24, 2004, I was present at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City when Robert Pollard first announced that Guided By Voices would be breaking up after 21 years of service. Before chug-a-lugging their way into oblivion on the following New Years Eve at Chicago’s Metro, GBV released their final album. The ultimate record by Rock & Roll’s ultimate beer-swilling/marathon-show-playing/Dayton-Ohio-dwelling gods had to fulfill some serious expectations, and even a loyal follower such as myself was shocked by how spectacular Half Smiles of the Decomposed is. A lot of critics and fair-weather fans had spent the previous ten years griping about the band’s abandonment of fragmentary songs recorded on lo-fi 4-tracks in favor of traditionally structured songs captured in professional studios, but only the most willfully ignorant purist could deny the power, beauty, and fun of Half Smiles. Pollard was adamant about ensuring that his band’s exit was an explosive one. There are no under-developed songs or experiments, even though such pieces are Guided By Voices trademarks. Almost every track is a big, booming anthem, yet it’s all quite varied within those parameters. Amongst the onslaught are lighter-raising power ballads (“Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial”; “Window of My World”), stately power pop (“Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud [When I’m Not Looking]”; “Girls of Wild Strawberries”), new wave weirdness (the awesome “Sleep Over Jack”), and , of course, thunderous tributes to Pollard’s favorite band, The Who (“Closets of Henry”; “Sons of Apollo”). The finale, “Huffman Prairie Flying Field”, is equally mighty and strangely poignant. Pollard would be back soon with more solo and side projects than the most devoted fanatic could count, but none would fully recapture the glory of Guided By Voices.


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3. White Chalk by PJ Harvey (2007)

PJ Harvey has certainly had an eclectic career, but at the end of the day, she is best known for whipping up strutting, shrieking blues-rock. Yet her album that has most caught me in its thrall is White Chalk, a collection of weirdly baroque English folk ballads that sounds quite unlike anything she’s ever done before (and, perhaps, anything that anyone else has done). The songs are mainly piano-based, yet antiquated additions like zither, harp, fiddle, and mellotron lend subtle details to the production. As usual, the strangest instrument is Harvey’s voice, which is ghostly, chilling, wailing. White Chalk may be the scariest album I’ve ever heard. Not that she’s singing about monsters and goblins or whatever, but the delivery is so eerie, so otherworldly. She sounds like a lost wraith floating through a thorny forest. Atmosphere is paramount, but the songs are exceptional, too. While there aren’t any potential hits, “Grow Grow Grow”, “The Devil”, “Silence”, and the title track are some of Harvey’s best songs, and her heart-stopping howls at the climax of “The Mountain’ may be her defining moment. Few artists conjure a specific mood as masterfully as PJ Harvey does on the sepia-toned White Chalk and none have managed to make a pop album as genuinely terrifying.


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2. Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers (2000)

Hearing The New Pornographers for the first time is like taking that first puff of crack: instant addiction. For about six months after I bought the debut record by Canada’s greatest supergroup (the band comprises members of local-heroes Zumpano and Destroyer, as well as the internationally-adored Neko Case), all I listened to was Mass Romantic. One of the things I love about this album is that it completely lacks subtly: the instruments are extra-loud, the vocals are belted, the rhythms are delivered like a jackhammer, and the melodic hooks are vengefully bodacious. It’s like getting a humongous, delicious ice cream sundae shoved down your throat by the eight fun-lovingest pop pranksters ever to cut wax. The title tune opens the album with a caffeinated blast of clavinet before exploding into an aural party percolating with Brian-Wilson-worshipping harmonies and a beat that bounces like a super-ball in the hands of a sugar-buzzed toddler. Songs with incongruously bleak titles like “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism”, “The Body Says No”, and “Execution Day” are just as euphoric. Without a ballad in the bunch, Mass Romantic is an album with a true agenda: fun at all costs, and it gets the job done better than any since A Hard Day’s Night.


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1. SMiLE by Brian Wilson (2004)

For nearly forty years, SMiLE was Rock & Roll’s most lamented lost soul. Brian Wilson began work on The Beach Boys’ doomed follow-up to Pet Sounds in 1966, and the press diligently informed the rapt, anticipatory public that the album would rocket popular music ahead into the future. For a variety of reasons, including dissent within the band and Wilson’s losing competition with the more self-confident Beatles, SMiLE was not released in its own time, but an endless flow of bootlegs revealed that the album was both a hair’s breadth from completion and every bit the ahead-of-its-time masterpiece that the press suggested it would be. For Brian Wilson, it was a painful experience he preferred to forget. By 2004, the idea that he would return to SMiLE seemed as likely as Orson Welles rising from the dead to remake The Magnificent Ambersons. So when Wilson suddenly announced that he’d re-recorded SMiLE with his touring band, The Wondermints, and it would actually get released on Nonesuch Records, it was both a shock and a source of skepticism. How could it compare to the unfinished SMiLE fans had come to know via bootlegs? How could Wilson’s band recapture the instrumental magic of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, whom Wilson used as his band during the original ‘66/’67 sessions? And most important of all, how could it capture the vocal magic of The Beach Boys? And how could Brian, whose voice had been roughened by age and years of drug abuse, compare to the beautiful purity of his 24-year old pipes? Although his voice had lost a fair share of its sweetness, the SMiLE we received in 2004 was a jaw-dropping recreation of the original sessions. The Wondermints’ contributions are flawless, but the greatest joy of the new SMiLE is hearing the fragmented music heard on all those bootlegs woven into a complex tapestry of richly realized suites. Music previously heard only as instrumentals has now been given sublime vocal melodies. The one composition that remained unfinished in the ‘60s, “Blue Hawaii”, is now complete with fresh lyrics from original SMiLE lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. Again, Brian’s voice has lost some pliability, so the classic recordings of completed tracks like “Cabin-Essence”, “Good Vibrations”, “Wonderful”, and this masterpiece’s masterpiece, “Surf’s Up”, remain preferable over the re-recordings, but hearing him revisit this music could still move one to tears. Madly experimental yet completely accessible, laugh-out-loud funny yet sensitive and romantic, freaky yet melodious, joyous yet deeply melancholy, classic yet still unbelievably futuristic, SMiLE is without question the most important recording of the ‘00s. It’s also the most beautiful and one that every music listener needs to hear.

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