Remember that feeling of immeasurable excitement back on that fateful late-September day in 2007 when this album was announced? That eclipsing, giddy feeling of joy that made everything else seem kind of insignificant for those few moments? In all honesty, I don’t see myself getting that excited about a Radiohead release again in 2010 or any successive year. What’s even more remarkable is that all that ridiculous hype and excitement was warranted – the album that resulted was mature, confident, careful and even a little sexy. Most of these things might spell boring, but if you’re naive enough to equate refinement with boredom, that’s your own problem. The album is plainly and dryly produced, sounding just like a band playing in a room most of the time – but the songs shimmer and pulse with life, lacking the artificiality or distance of previous Radiohead releases. Even better, In Rainbows acts a bit like a career overview, only it’s presented in a sort of “look-how-much-better-we-can-do-it-now” manner. Twitchy electronics? Check. Beefy, distorted guitar? Check. Mournful and aching ballad? Check. Evocative, subtle and devastating closer? Check. Explorations in contrast and texture? Check. New directions and experiments? Check. Everything’s here, and it’s all better than it was before. It’s a testament that an act like Gnarls Barkley would choose to cover foreboding deep cut “Reckoner” – the album is so marvelously constructed there’s something in it for everyone to appreciate, even things typically outside of their comfort zone. There’s something to be said for reliability – In Rainbows proves that you don’t always have to be groundbreaking to be amazing.
– Andrew Ryce
[Stones Throw; 2004]
Let’s be honest, Madvillain is Stones Throw. Stones Throw is an independent hip-hop label based out of Los Angeles, home to many great releases from the likes of Koushik, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf and the late great J Dilla (check out Donuts, promptly listed at number 92 on this list). Sure, the diehards count the seconds between new releases from Madlib’s various projects and discuss the ins-and-outs of samples on their message board, but what keeps the more casual fan keeping a tab on Stones Throw is the inevitable, forthcoming sequel to Madvillainy.
As you can imagine, Madvillainy is far from a contemporary hip-hop album. Madvillain is a collaboration between the two most anomalous figures in the hip-hop game: producer Madlib and rapper MF DOOM (now known as simply DOOM). Madlib’s abstract beats, which sample everything from Frank Zappa’s “Sleeping In A Jar” to Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” played underneath DOOM’s eccentric rhymes, riddled with bizarre metaphors and guided by his complex flow, result in something that commercial radio wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole; short songs with practically no choruses, a gritty, almost dirty, underlying sound, and lyrical content that may seem incomprehensible to listeners on first listen. Better get that cleared up; time to turn the disc over and listen again, and again, and again…
– Evan Kaloudis
At first, it’s hard to quantify what really makes Heartbreaker so special – it’s essentially a really good alt-country record. Why listen to it over any other alt-country album? Songs like “Come Pick Me Up” are affecting, sure, maybe even convincing, but why choose Ryan Adams over Jay Farrar or The Jayhawks or a million other soundalike bands? The reason? The man is some sort of genius. It’s when you actually listen to the entire album that you see what’s going on here; Adams raids (nearly) every genre, style, or classic record that he knows, assembling a mightily towering LP in the process. Ethan Johns’ close, careful production is astounding – never mind it sounding like he’s in your living room, it sounds like Adams is whispering right into your ear. You can almost smell the whiskey on his breath, and the detail in his voice is intriguing if not heartbreaking, where every crack and every falter is just as powerful as showy vocal gymnastics.
Adams tries on all sorts of costumes; country-rock on “To Be Young,” Elton John balladry on “AMY,” Johnny Cash on “To Be The One,” and Gram Parsons, well, everywhere else. It’s a testament to this album that “Come Pick Me Up” turned Emmylou Harris into the indie collaborator du jour, working with everyone who had any hope of making it in the singer/songwriter business this past decade. That he does all these things so effortlessly might make him look a bit flippant, his music dashed-off, but just because he defies (or transcends) common expectations does not mean he should be written off. This is heartbreaking (duh), heartwarming music, and it’s made with such passion and emotion that even the most disinterested of listeners can find something to enjoy in this modern Americana classic. Crying in your beer never came closer to being fashionable.
– Andrew Ryce
Beneath Yellow House’s rich harmonies, beneath its brilliant production, beneath its hearty textures, there is a sincerity that’s difficult to pull off outside the singer/songwriter realm.
With this sort of honesty, every cook tends to water down the soup. But the four-star chefs of Grizzly Bear are creative enough to each add their own spices and seasonings and like-minded enough that it all works together well.
Most impressive about Yellow House’s intimacy is just how huge it sounds. This is not some lovelorn teenager in his bedroom with a four-track. The lush arrangements, the majestic harmonies, the towering choruses, the seamless flow from beginning to end: it all suggests something much bigger, which usually suggest something much less personal. It’s the difference between eating a filet mignon cooked by a private chef and grabbing the roast beef at a catered fundraiser.
Somehow, though, Grizzly Bear has struck a balance here, simultaneously conjuring the forwardness of the bedroom and the expansiveness of cavern. These guys have their cake and eat it, too.
– Adam Clair
[Absolutely Kosher; 2003]
Record contracts can suck, huh, especially when they force you into hiatus. It took seven years for the Wrens to release a follow-up to their 1996 album Secaucus. That certainly troubled the fans of the New Jersey band, especially since they hadn’t played a show since 1998. By many, the Wrens had been forgotten. Everyone else who still cared was left scratching their heads.
But then The Meadowlands came out. Essentially a breakup album switching narrative between chief songwriters Charles Bissell and Kevin Whelan, it’s chilling and heartbreaking but pure pop music nonetheless.
Yes, these breakup tracks do detail actual failed relationships (perhaps the most disheartening track on the whole album is closer “This is Not What You Had Planned” was recorded solely by Whelan, drunk, the night after his girlfriend had left him), but the overall themes of disappointment and exhaustion on The Meadowlands aren’t just a result of bad personal relationships, butall struggles and hardship of the band over the seven years since their last release: label struggles, falling into obscurity as a band, supporting their families, and of course, failed romances.
One might think that those seven rough years really allowed the Wrens to create such a masterful album. I suppose time will tell. Hell, I’m sure we won’t have to wait too much longer; it’s been nearly another seven years and we still haven’t seen a new album. Let’s just hope these last seven years haven’t been as rough on them.
– Evan Kaloudis
Jiggling, undulating, wobbling – Animal Collective’s seventh album is the musical equivalent of Jell-O. It’s too sugary and synthetic to be actual jam, and besides, jam isn’t as interesting anyway. Like the good people at Kraft, Animal Collective take something natural, somewhat healthy, and easily spreadable and turn it into something gruesome and artificial, radioactive in colour and somehow maintaining its shape no matter what abuse it undergoes. You can poke, prod and do all kinds of invasive things to Strawberry Jam and it just sits there, jiggling. If you attempt to divide it, it simply becomes a smaller, perfect replica of its former self, stubbornly unchanged. You could eat it, yeah, but the taste isn’t all that pleasant (nor easy to describe; nothing should taste like this), and God knows what it would to do your insides. You don’t want that shit in your body. Strawberry Jam is best admired from afar – get too close and you’ll be absorbed too far into its semi-liquid universe, where sweet vocals turn into screams at the drop of a dime, where cackling voices murmur about mildew on rice, where women vocalize and men speak backwards, where you can’t tell if the people around you are angry, happy, forlorn or simply insane. If this sounds appealing to you, maybe this is a fate you deserve, maybe this album was made for you. It’s dangerous though, and you’ll never be the same. I should know; I listened to this album quite a bit upon its release in 2007, and quite a bit after as well. Those aren’t strawberries on the cover – that’s what’s left of my brain.
– Andrew Ryce
Once his first two albums established him as one of the only rap artists with both legitimate mainstream clout and underground respectability, Kanye West found himself with nowhere to go. So he took a victory lap – that is, if your definition of a victory lap is topping yourself once more. Purists will always insist that College Dropout and Late Registration are ‘Ye’s finest moments, and while those two records were certainly more crucial in shaping his identity as an artist, Graduation remains his finest pure collection of songs. No skits, no filler, just one triumph after another. Graduation is the sound of someone with no one left to compete against (the absurd “battle” with 50 Cent leading up to the album’s release notwithstanding), so all he has left to do is one-up himself. Yeezy’s samples here move gradually away from the Chipmunked soul that was his signature sound and towards Daft Punk (“Stronger”), Steely Day (“Champion”), and Can (“Drunk and Hot Girls”). He does the impossible on “Barry Bonds” and outraps circa-2007 Lil Wayne. Even when Kanye gets introspective (most notably on “Big Brother,” where he explores at length his relationship with mentor Jay-Z), he sounds just as celebratory as he does on a stadium-rap anthem like “The Glory.” Since Graduation’s release, Kanye has come dangerously close to entering the Billy Corgan realm of absurd, self-defeating behavior. But Graduation made clear for anybody who hadn’t already realized that he is worthy of his own praise.
– Sean Highkin
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
[Saddle Creek; 2005]
On I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning Conor Oberst dropped the razor blade that he seemed to have been wielding during the writing and recording of Bright Eyes’ previous albums; he cut out a lot of the melodrama and focused his talent into a consistently pleasant and rewarding set of contemporary orchestral country songs.
As with all Oberst releases, the lyrics take quite a large chunk of the limelight. This album covers many different topics that anyone can relate to, most importantly friendships, lovers, travel and the contrast between the city and the country. The words are given colour by the backdrop they are set to. On the heartbreaking “Lua,” a song divulging all of his earthly downfalls in the area of love and beyond, a simple acoustic guitar is all that’s needed as accompaniment, whereas the triumphant climax of the record “Road To Joy” goes out in a cacophony of horns and strings, and throughout the album various other instrumentation is used to picturesque perfection.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is an enigma in that it is so easy to listen to; you can throw it on in the background in any situation and enjoy the simple melodies, but it has far more depth than is apparent on the surface. The songs sound happy – and some of them are – but upon deeper inspection it’s the heartbreak and loneliness that is at the fore of the emotional impact. It’s this shape-shifting facet of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, an album both toxic and timeless, that makes it suitable for any and every mood.
– Rob Hakimian
Since I Left You
3,500 samples. Damn, and that’s just an estimate. But let’s not forget, in art, mere achievement does not equal quality. That number is not what makes Since I Left You so great.
But with Since I Left You, Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann have cut up, sampled, and constructed quite a frankenstein. They’ve literally sampled everything: hop-hop, R&B, world music, vintage comedy albums, and Madonna of course. Many samples are chopped beyond a recognition and are meshed seamlessly together to form chords and riffs, which are then pieced together into brand new entities, new tracks. The result is a perfect summer party album. “Get a drink, have a good time now / Welcome to paradise.”
What’s unique about Since I Left You is that it still possesses intimate qualities. Emotions transition as seamlessly as the samples do and convey humor, happiness, sadness and anguish. You name it, whether it be samples or emotions, Since I Left You has it all.
When talking about Since I Left You, one mustn’t neglect its predecessors. Without Paul’s Boutique and Endtroducing….., Since I Left You surely would not be the same. I’d go more in depth but that’s for another day, perhaps a column, or another decade list, or two.
P.S. Make sure you find the original 2000 Australian release on Modular. Several samples on the 2001 United Kingdom and North American releases have either been altered or removed. The Australian release is the record as it was intended to be heard.
– Evan Kaloudis
[One Little Indian; 2001]
More striking than the unapologetic intimacy and occasionally blatant sexuality of the lyrics permeating Vespertine is the celestial, mythical arrangements they are set to. I’m told these arrangements are produced from man-made instruments, but I have my doubts; these sounds are either warm or cold depending on who you are, but are universally foreign. It sounds like the simmering stardust shot up from the wake of Kid A’s dead impact, slowly sprinkling, trickling down, somehow more beautiful in its intricacy than anything that could have caused it. When Björk croons “You can’t say no to me” and then almost ashamedly admits “I can’t say no to you,” the listener has no choice but to succumb to the siren’s calls, which is where the accomplishment truly lies; Björk, seductive sorceress one moment, groveling peasant the next, masterfully treads the fine line of originality and accessibility, offering countless lures into the icy depths of her creation. However, perhaps the moment most representative of this sensual album is when the celestial arrangements disappear altogether, leaving Björk’s suddenly earth-bound voice in complete isolation, as she repeats with awkwardly honest fervor, “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him.”