Friday, April 30, 2010

Un-Herd Music Decade in Review

A Top 20 of the decade. Yeah, right. If anything, this blog has proven to myself (and probably anyone else who reads it) that I am virtually incapable of compiling a Top 20 list. I find it impossibly difficult to pare down my favorite albums to a mere 20 in any given year, let alone an entire decade. I usually end up with a quantum Top 20, which is a Top 20 that numbers 25 (or so).

So, true to form, here's a Top 20 of the decade that manages to omit some of my absolute favorites from the decade. I just couldn't find a way to include songs from albums like Cat Power The Greatest, Amy Winehouse Back To Black, and Joe Henry Scar, but those three albums are most certainly part of the list.

Other deserving albums that aren't represented include My Morning Jacket At Dawn, Frank Black Black Letter Days, Jon Brion Meaningless, Joe Pisapia Daydreams, Warren Zanes Memory Girls, Veal Embattled Hearts, the Mendoza Line Fortune, Jim White Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See, V.V. Brown Traveling Like The Light, and Marah Kids In Philly. Suminumbitch, it was a great decade for music. Maybe a second volume of a Top 20 is necessary. But now, let's get to the actual list. As usual, this is not ranked in any way. Where I've been able, I've included my original review of the album.

1. The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
Probably the most obvious choice on the mix, and not very "un-herd" at all. In fact, the way this album spearheaded a dumb mainstream "garage revival" is the absolute definition of herd mentality. But the evidence remains in the tracks themselves: this is a great album. They got hit by hipster flak for sounding like a variety of first wave New York punk bands, but the hipsters got it wrong (as usual). In reality, the Strokes don't sound like any specific band from that era, they sound like all of them tossed into a martini shaker.

2. Ike Reilly - Salesmen And Racists (2001)
"Stripped-down, intelligent rock'n'roll. If not for a few production touches, Salesmen & Racists sounds like it could have been head of the class back in '78, perfectly complementary with Graham Parker (circa Squeezing Out Sparks), Costello, Lowe, etal. A little more foul-mouthed, a little more world weary than any of those revered precursors, but a stiff shot of the good stuff nonetheless. Old school iconoclastic traditionalism. Refreshing at this late date." (RP 2002)

3. Ted Leo + the Pharmacists - The Tyranny of Distance (2001)
After doing time in Chisel and releasing a disastrous debut with the Pharmacists, Ted Leo found his voice with this album. And that voice is one of the most melodic vehicles in contemporary music. Released on Lookout! Records, a label known at the time for fairly generic pop punk (primarily thanks to Green Day), Tyranny of Distance stood out from the pack immediately. Leo wasn't afraid to slow it down, strip it down, or stretch it out. He borrowed from punk as well as power pop and classic rock - even getting compared by goofy web critics to both Thin Lizzy and Dexy's Midnight Runners. And his egghead lyrics never get in the way of his melodic hooks - so even a song called "Biomusicology" is something you can sing along to.

4. The Bicycle Thief - You Come And Go Like A Pop Song (2001)
This is essentially a Bob Forrest solo album, picking up where Thelonious Monster left off minus any forced need to rock. It boasts Forrest's typically open-wound/picking at scabs songwriting and delivered with a depth that was only hinted at previously. No surprise that if you chip away at the superficial veneer of the smart ass, you find a heartbroken optimist. Forrest has since been paying his bills as a counselor on Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab, playing the role of The Only Person Worth Listening To.

5. The Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic (2002)
God, what a tragedy. Here's my original review before the van accident that killed 3/4 of the band: "Zippy punk served up '77 style, from the shoutalong girl-group-derived melodies to the dayglo cover art to a mix that boasts all meters buried in the red. Lotsa fun, in other words, if just shy of greatness. Full marks for effort, though. This is what punk rock sounded like before it got codified into simple barre chords and zitty whining. If you've ever heard the Vibrator's classic Pure Mania then you're already well-acquainted with the game plan. And although it's all highly derivative, the Exploding Hearts at least show good sense and smart album collections in their choice of idols. It also helps that the band possesses an infectious exuberance and a seemingly limitless energy supply. With any luck, a million and one Good Charlotte-lovin' teenie punks will clutch onto this as their favorite album ever and all their subsequent bands will be formed in the image of the Exploding Hearts. And then the world will be a better place. Or something." (RP 2003)

6. Little Jackie - The Stoop (2008)
I'm still a little surprised Little Jackie didn't take over the world in 2008. She's gorgeous, smart, and talented, and she's found a sound that merges hip hop with '50s rock 'n' roll (and anything else that strikes her fancy). Her words are alternately sharp and silly, kinda like the songs themselves, but it's just such a perfect summertime joint that ejecting the silly would've ruined the buzz.

7. The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site (2003)
Another pop punk band that rebelled against the constraints of the form. There's a little bit of folk rock and some pedal steel twang jumbled into the punk energy, and lyrics that aim to be literary. And mostly they even succeed at that lofty pursuit.

8. Viva L'American Death Ray Music - Smash Radio Hits (2002)
"Imagine if the Velvet Underground had given John Cale the boot and replaced him with Roxy Music's Andy McKay. Now imagine them playing White Light/White Heat in some condemned industrial space to an audience of disinterested rats. Chugging electric drones, honking 50's sax that accelerates into avant jazz shrieking at the drop of a dimebag, and Papa Lou's semi-tuneful drawl fighting through the mix. And don't forget about the rats. That, in a rotting nutshell, is American Death Ray's Smash Radio Hits. Decadent, trashy rock & roll from the retro-future." (RP 2002)

9. The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005)
At its worst, this sounds like Bruce Springsteen reciting poetry in front of a Jersey bar band. But at its best, it's like Bruce Springsteen reciting poetry in front of a Jersey bar band. Potato potahto. The recurring characters and the Catholic undertones give this album a conceptual thrust that feels complete, and the songs are alternately wise-ass and affecting (sometimes both). Arguably, the Hold Steady may have written better songs on later albums (there's nothing here quite so immediate as "Massive Nights") but as a whole this seems to be their crowning achievement.

10. Tsar - Tsar (2000)
"A wonderful power pop album, almost old-fashioned in its faith in energy and melody. Ten hyper-tuneful songs blast by in just over half an hour, each one filled with the expected vocal and guitar hooks of their genre. But Tsar has a knack for the smaller details - whether it's a slight alteration in the repetition of the chorus, or an unexpected rimshot, or a perfectly placed "woo!" - that make each song more than the sum of its parts. If this young band stays the course and continues this level of craftmanship, their next album could already be declared a classic." (RP 2002)

11. The Jim Jones Revue - The Jim Jones Revue (2008)
It's like I'd been waiting my whole life for someone to hit on this sound. A sonic collision between Little Richard and a jetfighter taking off, Jim Jones knows one speed: FASTER. Boiled down to its essence, this is simply good old time rock 'n' roll, featuring a pounding piano leading a simple guitar/bass/drums lineup through some boogie moves. But, thankfully, there's more to it than essence. The intangible is attitude - and the whole band has it. As an added bonus, Jones finds the raw sexual subtext to the "Princess and the Frog" fable. Now I understand.

12. Grand Mal - Bad Timing (2003)
"The lyrics make the band's intent plain by slyly referencing both the Only Ones' Peter Perrett and the Stooges' "Rock Action", and listeners who don't need footnotes to understand those particular namedrops will find much to enjoy here. Whitten's main stroke of genius amounts to combining the wasted vibe and lazy riffing of Exile on Main Street with the sultry boogie sensibility of T.Rex (even adding wailing Lady Soul backing vocals on some tracks). The resulting hybrid replaces glam androgyny with a kind of macho fatalism that sounds immediately familiar, though trust me, glam rock never sounded like this. But it should have." (RP 2003)

13. You Am I - Dress Me Slowly (2001)
If I was Australian I'd probably a) have a better tan, and b) consider You Am I a financially successful behemoth not worthy of Un-Herd attention. But the fact is that despite their success in their homeland they've sold about twelve albums in total outside of it. This is a band that's determinedly old school; there's a classic rock aura to them that's inescapable. It's the classic rock of bands like the Faces and the Stones, however, which means they're absolutely hooked into the timelessness of genuine rock tradition (in the same way as, for example, the Replacements). Most of their albums are worthwhile, but Dress Me Slowly doesn't contain a single duff track.

14. Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005)
"Last year when band leader Britt Daniel attempted to describe the direction he was taking on Gimme Fiction as "Marvin Gaye meets Wire" he came close to hitting the bullseye. Like early Wire, this is taut guitar rock that traffics in tension more than release; and like Marvin Gaye, it's brimming with soul and groove. But as far as sonic antecedents go, I'd also add John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in there, mostly due to Britt's vocal similarities, but also because of the confident and deliberate use of space to cushion each near-majestic chime of the keyboard. When Britt hits the chorus on opening song "The Beast And Dragon, Adored" he sounds like he's channeling the very soul of Lennon himself and, fittingly, he does so while declaring his rediscovered belief in rock and roll. It's a thrilling moment - and it perfectly sets the tone for Spoon's most fully realized album to date. Spoon opened (their previous album) Kill The Moonlight with "Small Stakes", a song in which Britt Daniel declared that his ambition lay well beyond the constricting walls of indie rock. Gimme Fiction razes those walls to rubble." (RP 2005)

15. Roman Candle - The Wee Hours Revue (2006)
Previously released as Say Pop, Roman Candle decided to remix that album and add a song. The resulting re-release got it right, from the new title and graphics to the mix itself. This is pop, but it mines a distinctly late-night vibe. Not exactly mellow, but also never far from melancholy - and every song spools out with at least a couple baited hooks. Low-key perfection.

16. J. Roddy Walston & The Business - Hail Mega Boys (2007)
"One of those rare albums where every song bursts out of the gate in an avalanche of ideas and with such unflagging energy that you wonder how the band ever got quite that stoked to begin with. Songs like "Rock & Roll The Second", "Used To Did" and "Go For It" are reminiscent of the best hard rock moments of Mott the Hoople, all pounding pianos and thick chording, while others stay more in the bar band realm of alt.Americana, and "Mommie Bomb" even tosses in some sub-Queen dancehall moves - and then there are others that just mix all that in a cuisinart in a way that'll leave you shaking your head in wonder. It's a perfectly chaotic document of a band that's willing to try anything and everything. Just makes me glad to be breathing." (RP2009)

17. The Libertines - The Libertines (2004)
A tad more chaotic than their debut album, which is why I give this one the nod. The Libertines' Pete Doherty and Carl Barat were once going to take on the world, and this album finds the two of them at the very moment of realization that drug addiction was the one hurdle too big to leap. Their ramshackle sound (carefully planned ramshackle, of course) is still as powerful as ever, but the entire thing is falling apart before their eyes. Songs of mutual hate and recrimination ("Can't Stand Me Now") end up at the elegiac "What Became of the Likely Lads?", which works as both a plea for the band to continue and an admission of defeat. Rumours of their reunion notwithstanding, this was a perfect last statement.

18. Locksley - Don't Make Me Wait (2007)
Yeah, I know. This is the sort of album serious music fans are supposed to sneer at. It's just great songs. There's nothing new or challenging about it. It sounds like the Beatles. Yada yada yada. Here's the thing: these guys do have a similarity to the Beatles, but it's as if Lennon and Macca from '63 suddenly fell out of a time machine and discovered punk rock. The songs, each and every one of them, are perfectly structured pop, bursting with hooks and infectious energy. It's a little sad that we live in a music climate so jaded that something this awesome is met with not much more than a yawn.

19. Pat Todd & The RankOutsiders - Outskirts Of Your Heart (2007)
Ex-mainman of the Lazy Cowgirls Pat Todd released this opus to little or no fanfare. Two discs and 28 songs, ranging from sparse folk to the raging garage punk that the Cowgirls excelled at. Todd has a way of melding every style of Americana into a glorious, decadent whole and his guitar leads come straight out of the tradition of Johnny Thunders, which is to say they shouldercheck the rest of the band out the way and fight for space. This is a sprawling, messy, warts'n'all work about crushed dreams and the loss of youth, and it joins the Bicycle Thief as one of the most profoundly personal releases of this past decade.

20. The Drive-by Truckers - Southern Rock Opera (2002)
"Truth in advertising. Southern Rock Opera is exactly what it announces in its title. A 2 CD opus that doesn't merely recount the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but uses the tragic story of that classic band as a thread to hang ruminations on life, death, and all things south of the Mason-Dixon line. The clean three-guitar attack of Skynyrd has been updated into punky blasts of murky, with the band's twang and drawl front-and-center. Kinda fun, kinda profound, and - by the end of the 8 minute closer "Angels and Fuselage" - kinda heartwrenching." (RP 2002)

Best of the '00s

1. The Strokes The Modern Age
2. Ike Reilly Hip Hop Thighs #17
3. Ted Leo + the Pharmacists Timorous Me
4. The Bicycle Thief Max, Jill Called
5. The Exploding Hearts Throwaway Style
6. Little Jackie The Stoop
7. The Weakerthans Reconstruction Site
8. Viva L'American Death Ray Music Baby Lightning
9. The Hold Steady Your Little Hoodrat Friend
10. Tsar Silver Shifter
11. The Jim Jones Revue Hey Hey Hey Hey
12. Grand Mal First Round K.O.
13. You Am I Kick A Hole In The Sky
14. Spoon The Beast And Dragon, Adored
15. Roman Candle You Don't Belong To This World
16. J. Roddy Walston & The Business Rock And Roll The Second
17. The Libertines What Became Of The Likely Lads
18. Locksley All Of The Time
19. Pat Todd & The RankOutsiders Don't Cry Baby, You Ain't Getting Old
20. The Drive-By Truckers Shut Up And Get On The Plane