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That the last album Elliott Smith recorded before his death closes with a song called “Bye” is a bit too neat and too cute to close out his achingly troubled career. Beginning the album with a song whose title references serial killer David Berkowitz makes a little more sense.
Though of course no one knew for sure when it came out that Figure 8 would be the last record Smith finished in his lifetime; the benefit of hindsight makes it a cathartic end to his oeuvre.
Drawing on the cyclical nature of its title, Figure 8 spans from the lo-fi intimacy of Roman Candle to the major label extravagance of XO, less a magnum opus and more a sampler of Smith’s life’s work, going so far as to foreshadow the abstracted luster of his posthumous release, From a Basement on the Hill.
Smith made a career of chronicling his disillusionment with candor and heartbreaking sobriety, and Figure 8 is no different. But the fact that Figure 8 is the last one makes his melancholia a little bit tougher to bear.
– Adam Clair
Kieran Hebden already had a few albums under his belt, both with the post-rock band Fridge and under his Four Tet moniker, before 2003’s Rounds, but it was with this album that he truly reached his full potential. Sure others had made careers out of sample-based electronic music before, but Hebden put out a product unmatched in the current marketplace. He made an album so organic, so real, that it makes you forget he’s merely a laptop manipulator. He comes off more like a composer, orchestrating the little bits and pieces of the album, from the twinkle of the xylophones on “She Moves She” to the double time guitar sample that drives “Spirit Fingers.” Unlike Hebden’s subsequent work, Rounds takes the experimental and makes it easy to digest, emotional even, allowing for a listening experience that is less challenging than the majority of his peers’ work and equally as rewarding.
– Colin Joyce
Ted Leo and The Pharmacists
The Tyranny of Distance
The Tyranny of Distance is an extremely solid indie rock album. So solid, in fact, that I don’t really know what to say about it. Aside from being concerned with relationships, the album doesn’t really have a cohesive concept, it doesn’t have any particular areas to consider or criticize, and so on. A track seems like the standout until you reach the next track, which makes you forget how much you’d liked the previous one. “Under the Hedge” vs. “Dial Up,” for example; the former is unbeatable until the latter plays. It’s just a damn good album, through and through.
Distance was Ted Leo’s first album recorded with a full band, and despite the relative wealth of records that have followed, it still serves as the quintessential offering from The Pharmacists. Since its release, Leo’s following efforts have been criticized by some for waxing nostalgic and losing creative momentum. Tyranny, however, has only increased in its standing in the years following its release. Its flirtations between rock and folk, among other sounds, have allowed the record to remain enjoyable. Nearly a decade later, the album’s a good listen in the background as one does whatever. It’s hard to separate most of its contents from themselves, but it doesn’t matter; it’s just an extremely solid album, indivisible from itself.
– Chase McMullen
Dance punk and post-punk revival bands were both at their peak in the early part of the decade. In 2001, The Strokes released Is This It and fired up the entire music industry with their vision of post-punk and garage rock. Dance-punk band The Faint released Dance Macabre that same year, which helped make dance rock fashionable. Luckily, The Rapture had the advantage of embodying both worlds. Having previously been on the rosters of labels such as post-punk powerhouse Gravity Records and the legendary Sub Pop, the band released their second album on DFA records and reunited with DFA’s evil neo-disco geniuses (James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy), who produced the band’s previous EP, Out of the Races and onto the Tracks. Echoes feels more influenced by mentors Murphy and Goldsworthy, with numerous tracks led by DFA’s trademark textured disco beats. The Rapture contributed their jagged punk guitar licks and singer Luke Jenner’s histrionic vocals. At times, the vocals can be trying, but the music alone is worth it; you’d be a fool not to pay close attention to album’s progression leading up to “House of Jealous Lovers,” the standout track. One thing’s for sure: Echoes taught punk kids that it was okay – even cool – to dance their hearts out.
– Arika Dean
All Hour Cymbals
[We Are Free; 2007]
There’s a reason that the attention of the NY music scene shifted its attention from Manhattan to Brooklyn in the later half of the decade. Yes, it’s true that Interpol and The Strokes churned out some subpar tertiary albums, but the musicians of Brooklyn showed their mastery of creating new, experimental sounds that often borrowed ideas from cultures worldwide. The finest example of this is showcased by Yeasayer on their debut album All Hour Cymbals.
On All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer somehow blend Middle Eastern rhythms, gospel harmonies, psychedelia, and brisk, fretless basslines all together, all whilst taking several cues from rock bands of the ’80s. To assign it a single genre would prove impossible (the band have labeled themselves “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel”), but that’s not important. What is is that with this profound diffusion of genres they’ve created a warm aural experience; something that differentiates them from their counterparts.
On “2080,” Keating croons about an ever-present dystopia, the lack of distinction of ideologies, and the uncertainty that lies in the future. And although Yeasayer may have taken a bit of turn stylistically with Odd Blood, as I listen I can’t help but feel that we’re getting a preview of said uncertain future, sonically that is.
– Evan Kaloudis
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea
Polly Jean Harvey has always been an all-rounder – a great guitarist, lyricist and singer. On her fifth album (her fourth as a solo artist) she keeps the guitar work fairly simple and really allows her song writing abilities to shine through, producing her most consistent album.
Her voice, which she is able to shift from a dusky, dulcet tone to a soaring falsetto effortlessly from one line to the next, is her main method of getting across melody and hooking in listeners. It’s as powerful as ever and when she sings about being immortal in the chorus of opening track “Big Exit” you believe her.
The songs on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea may not be quite as dark as those she had become renowned for on previous releases – in fact some of them, such as “We Float,” are undoubtedly positive. There is of course the sinister and disconcerting tone running through most of them, not least “Beautiful Thing” or the duet with Thom Yorke “This Mess We’re In,” which must be one of the most brilliantly apathetic and disaffected duets of all time.
Stories From The City was released at the beginning of the decade and seemed to be a statement of intent; she was going to remain one of Britain’s most important artists of current times.
– Rob Hakimian
808s & Heartbreak
Given the popularity (and subsequent overuse) of Auto-Tune, it can be easy to look at Kanye West’s polarizing fourth album as a pop move – the following of trends by somebody who’s normally a trendsetter. But taking this view would mean thinking that arguably the most successful and recognizable hip-hop artist of the 21st century looked at the pop landscape and decided, “Hey, T-Pain is having a lot of success right now. I should copy him.” Not likely. Dark, insular, and not at all pop-friendly, 808s & Heartbreak is as big of a gamble as any artist with his level of fame has taken in recent memory. And it might be his best album to date. In some ways it is a logical follow-up to Graduation, which saw him move largely from soul samples to synths, but at the same time it’s not the kind of album you can really contextualize with the rest of his body of work. Nothing about 808s is self-aggrandizing, it’s a reflection on loss and heartbreak by somebody who’s still figuring out how to deal with both emotions. The Auto-Tune only serves to enhance the detached, melancholy atmosphere of the album.
– Sean Highkin
After a cathartic debut that turned the indie world on its head, the messianic Arcade Fire were charged with the unenviable task of following up a cathartic debut that turned the indie world on its head. And while Neon Bible didn’t quite reach the standards that Funeral set so ridiculously high, it at least proved its predecessor wasn’t a fluke.
Not everyone can pull off melodrama, and even fewer can tolerate it all the time, but this is apparently the world Arcade Fire inhabits: one of tension and ubiquitous climax. The lyrics are introspective, distressed and vaguely political, and the monolithic string arrangements never quit in their violence and paranoia. Neon Bible, though, is less about what it sounds like and more about how it makes you feel.
You know that ephemeral feeling that shoots through your body after you’ve told a person for the first that you love him or her but before that person has responded? Arcade Fire stretches that split second of anxiety out across 47 minutes and never lets up once. Whatever dynamism the band drew from rising and falling action on Funeral it has eschewed for pure unrelenting urgency.
– Adam Clair
Jay Dee (J Dilla)
[Stones Throw; 2006]
When J Dilla was alive and churning out albums, it was sometimes easy to forget that he was a talented hip-hop producer. His albums were often ruled by MCs, and sometimes it was easier to focus on the delivery and wordplay on the albums, and even his collaborations with other phenomenal producers like Madlib would leave you wishing for Dilla’s music to have more breathing room. With Donuts, one of his only fully instrumental works, his ideas finally have that much-deserved breathing room, and the nuances in Dilla’s work are more easily detectable. With each track clocking in less than two minutes, one would imagine the album to come across as scatterbrained, but it’s actually so cohesive, fully-developed and self-aware that it’s eerie. Intricately weaving samples from British art rockers 10cc and rappers Mantronix on tracks like “Workinonit,” he owns the material and breathes new life into it. The album has bittersweet moments, like the heartbreaking track “Stop,” which uses a sample by Dionne Warwick, and the tracks “Hi.” and “Bye.” which remind us that Dilla made this album while anticipating his own death from terminal illness in 2006. Donuts finally made it clear that Dilla was a league in his own.
– Arika Dean
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Arctic Monkeys made their unabashed entry to their debut album with a quick fill from drummer Matt Helders shortly followed by a crest of crunching guitars and Alex Turner pouring forth “anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment;” a bold and self-referential statement from a band who had already been hyped out of all proportion by the UK’s music press following the rapid spread of some early recordings via the internet. The album was certainly no disappointment, becoming the fastest selling debut album in UK history and the soundtrack to every teen’s school days.
Arctic Monkeys were the band that the UK had been gagging for; catchy, loud, accessible and smart. The main facet of their success was, and still is, their lyricist and vocalist Turner who, taking cues from heroes such as poet John Cooper Clarke, delivered a set of poems about underage shenanigans in his distinctive Yorkshire yowl that every teen could relate to. Delivered with the youthful exuberance of the band in combination there was never any doubt that it was going to be a success. The breathless 41-minute disc remains one of the best debut albums of recent years and a snapshot of teenage life in 2000s Britain.
– Rob Hakimian