Saturday, May 21, 2011

An Idle List for a Summer's Day: Best Albums 2000-2009

Out of all of my hardly original “perennial student hipster” interests – literature, film, TV, music – I feel least qualified to talk about music. Luckily, you don't need any qualifications to write a blog post. Unqualification is relative, of course, and I suppose I feel this way about popular music because although it's possible, in a blogging context, to imagine you're turning people on to interesting little-known films or shows or coming up with original theories about literature, everyone in the blogosphere knows about music, and everyone knows more than you do. (Not to mention that the most ignored blogger runs a high risk of having strangers scream at them about facts or opinions when popular music occurs as a topic.) In the context of online culture it can sometimes feel like everyone's a musician or, if not, at least a music nerd. Being neither, I've come to defensively define myself as “a casual music fan.” I've stopped even trying to keep up, which in the online era is impossible. But that's precisely why, when I idly jotted down a list of “best” albums of 2000-2009 today, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the 2000s look like a good decade for popular music in immediate retrospect. Not bothering to keep up means I come to the hot bands an average of 5-10 years late, and so it can seem at any given moment that hardly anything is going on in music at all. On the contrary, great music from interesting artists keeps happening.

It's just not true that the only things that happened in the decade were Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire.

There's also the problem that, from a distance, all hipster bands look more or less the same. (Who the fun are Fleet Foxes, and why should I care?) In the present moment it always seems like there are too many good bands to get into, and none of them good enough to make it worthwhile. That's why you have to wait for one great song to get to you, however it does – whether through a friend's mix CD or recommendation or through the increasingly uncanny wide-casting demographic-targeted playlists (bringing together Justin Bieber and of Montreal, for example) in your retail workplace. Even then, it can take a long time to get through. I can't even remember how or where I heard my first of Montreal song, “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” but I instantly loved it. However, the prospect of getting into what seemed like a generically esoteric hipster band, however catchy their tunes, was too exhausting. It must have been a whole five years later that I heard my second of Montreal song, “Suffer for Fashion,” and only then did I check out Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, desperate for “new” music as I was. The beauty is, of course, that there is time. For some, the arrival of the global consumer/internet culture 21st century has meant developing a denser pop culture filter than ever in order to avoid being overwhelmed by “choices” that can sometimes seem like screaming demands. (Like that kid pull-quoted – apparently approvingly – in a parenting book on how to get kids to read who expressed his anxiety over all of the great books out there waiting to be read, which made him “feel sorry” for them!)

I've also always been pretty recalcitrant when it comes to music hype. I was there for Nirvana (I was 16, in fact), and I sat it out. I did get into Hole, although it took ten years, because early Courtney Love had the same dress sense as me at 17 and had also read Sexual Personae. I loved The Bends, couldn't care less about anything else that Radiohead did, and I did try. Indifferent to The Strokes, much as I like the singles. Indifferent to Arcade Fire, pretty as it all is. I couldn't tell you much of anything about the objective quality of these bands' albums, and unlike Rolling Stone, I'm not going to try. If anything should be allowed to still be entirely subjective, it ought to be popular music. You know, unless it's crap.

So here's my idle list (with very subjective annotations) of 10 best/favourite/whatever albums/CDs/whatever from 2000-2009, which, ignorant and subjective though it may be, at least cheers me up with its indication of the health of hipster pop:

  1. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (of Montreal)

Combining the literate art geekiness of Talking Heads, the jingle-pop sensibilities and weird high-pitched delivery (combined with literate art geekiness) of Sparks circa Kimono My House, the tweeness of Marc Bolan (or maybe even Ronald Firbank, even though Barnes's primary literary reference point is the pretty different Georges Bataille), and the Smiths-patented juxtaposition of upbeat pop with wittily depressing (and literate) subject matter, Kevin Barnes is one fascinating fucked-up dude. According to reviews, this is of Montreal's darkest album, documenting Barnes's (temporary, as it turned out) separation from his wife. “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway / I felt the darkness of the black metal bands” Barnes warbles in the opening lines of a song called “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” that goes on to cover the territory of Hopkins's Dark Sonnets with fewer Victorian frills and more postmodern understatement. “And through many sleepless nights / I lay praying to a saint that nobody had heard of.” Of course, Barnes has become alienated from his wife, not God, but that's what makes it modern, you know. Ah love, let us be true to one another, etc..

Like Morrissey and David Byrne, Barnes often adopts a naive persona in his lyrics, and one as unique to him and difficult to define in words as theirs. As a nervous breakdown set to catchy psychedelic electronic pop, Hissing Fauna could also be compared to The Associates' Sulk. But the music isn't nearly as moody, and the lyrics aren't easy to catch (or else it's my sucky speakers), so I've got to admit it's the endlessly catchy sonic soundscape that's drawn me into this one, with lyrical rewards to come.

  1. Nux Vomica (The Veils)

And here we have the fascinating Finn Andrews, with psychosexual problems fully able to compete with Barnes's and a powerful sandpaper screech that he can also use as a warm croon. This is the band's second album, and so obviously a masterpiece that its third was bound to disappoint (and did). Whether he's following in the great tradition of UK songwriters who adopt the female perspective (see also Paul McCartney and Jarvis Cocker) in the sparkly, sprightly “Advice for Young Mothers to Be” or evoking his misgivings about sexual maturity in Blakean fashion on the epic “Not Yet” (“I love my little velvet bed / I never want to leave it anymore”), Andrews delivers lyrics as good as anyone's, but it's as a collection of great songs that the album truly impresses. 

  1. The Marshall Mathers LP (Eminem)

A rare “decade-defining” album that I actually got into at the time of its release, perhaps because it was even harder to avoid than Nevermind – and also because, devil's advocate that I am, I had to give this “homophobic misogynist” a chance. Which I did after encountering the singles “The Real Slim Shady” and “Stan” on the radio (getting driven around by my father, since I never play Top 40 radio myself). The first made me laugh, the second made me cry, and both shocked me with a level of literary craft I sure never thought I'd hear on mainstream North American radio. I got into this album at the same time as Live Through This (the latter belatedly), blasting them in my undergrad dorm room, and maybe it was the tail-end of my marriage breakup that put me in the perfect frame of mind for cathartic rage of such proportions. For Em, it was lucky he got out a masterpiece on the second (major studio) album, before fame, and maybe critical hype, messed him up in the bad, talent-obliterating way.

  1. Up the Bracket/The Libertines (The Libertines)

In the digital era the album is really losing its definition, except in the case of masterpieces that clearly stand out from the rest of the band/artist's oeuvre. I ripped these two CDs onto my media player and I couldn't tell you which songs are from which, so I have to list them as a single entity. I surely don't need to rehearse The Libertines' lore here; it's enough to say that if The Smiths, in the 80s, offered a sped-up, homoerotic version of The Beatles' breakup for a new generation, The Libertines gave us one for postmodern times: even faster, even more homoerotic, and even more dramatic. They were also the only band of the decade to have all the elements that characterize a great pop band the way The Smiths did: catchy songs, interesting personalities, entertaining interviews, a vision that the kids cared about (even if those kids were pushing thirty, like me), and a distinct style (rather than looking like one of those kids themselves). I revisit each of these tunes with an unfading joy – the perfect pop tunes with the raw punk delivery that Doherty and Barat opportunistically nicked from The Strokes (but with more desperation and humour) or the achingly lovely, bare-bones melancholic ballads.

  1. Gorillaz/Demon Days (Gorillaz)

Great as Blur was, with their catchy and occasionally gorgeous pop, pretty boy frontman Damon Albarn was overshadowed in the Britpop wars by Jarvis Cocker – more interesting, more charismatic, and a more consistent lyricist who was willing besides to take up Morrissey's mantle as generational spokesperson. Well, overshadowed for me, anyway, when I caught up with Britpop a decade late. So it was to everyone's surprise (or maybe just mine) when Albarn emerged post-Blur and post-Britpop as an adventurous, trend-setting musician's musician, mainly with Gorillaz, but also with The Good, the Bad & the Queen. On the first two Gorillaz albums Albarn came up with a brilliant concept that introduced a lucky new generation to smarter, cooler music that was, however, more than mature and eclectic enough to interest his older fans. And he's still got to have the best pop sensibilities of any musician since Paul McCartney. (And if you “hate Paul McCartney,” you can just shut up, you poseur snob, and clean your ears out.)

  1. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Modest Mouse)

Another contribution (after Kevin Barnes, Finn Andrews, Eminem, and perhaps Pete Doherty) to the male hysteria genre that must have characterized the decade, or at least the indie music by male musicians in it that interested me. Again: perfect pop. This time: with a heavy, almost hardcore edge (as on Nux Vomica, but to totally different effect). Isaac Brock screams himself hoarse about I'm-not-sure-what, but I believe his angst, and enjoy it thanks to the structural clarity of the songs (Johnny Marr's contribution?), which never lose their catchiness no matter how hard, loud, and dark the sound gets. It's odd, I think of myself as a lyrics person, but in all of my favourites choices for the 2000s, except maybe The Marshall Mathers LP, lyrics (to which in most cases I've paid little attention) take a back-seat to the overall sound of the album. Now, if only I had a critical vocabulary for that.

  1. Timespirit of the Times (Jan and Steve)

Shenanigans by two brilliant unknown Canadian musicians who know everyone. This is what happens when a couple of young music nerds get together and make an album as a friendship project. There's a McCartney here, bringing the pop sensibilities, and a Lennon, bringing the monkey wrench (he may throw one at me in thanks for that description), though I can't remember which is which. There's a lot of self-indulgence, and a lot of in-jokery, but the spirit of fun is infectious. It would have been worth the full album price, if it had ever been sold at one, for featuring a song with the most bizarre and complicated pop hook of all time. It took me a full day to figure out how hum it, after which their friend, Donna Linklater of The Billie Hollies, congratulated me. I don't know how you can even get your hands on this anymore, and I think I've lost my promo copy, but maybe Donna does. It's a gem.

  1. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Neko Case)
  2. Lungs (Florence + the Machine)
  3. Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)

Why have I left all of the female indie artists for my final three spots? It seems so unfeminist of me. Maybe pop is just one of those things where being sexually intrigued by the artist helps (YOU THINK?); at least for female fans, since men have traditionally preferred to identify with frontmen/male songwriters. Anyway, I don't know much or have a lot to say about Neko Case, Florence Welch, or Amy Winehouse, only that I agree with the critical consensus that these are three great albums of the decade (and that I'm hoping Winehouse has more great, or even good, albums in her). (I can wait a long time. I'm still waiting for a solo masterpiece from Courtney Love.) They all have great voices (whether bringing it to folk-country, pop-punk, or Motown-blues), and they all have great hair. Case is a notoriously esoteric lyricist, and for me, anyway, the emotive high points of Fox Confessor coincide with relative clarity, where the lyricism of the music and the lyricism of the, uh, lyrics, work together: as on “Maybe Sparrow” and “Hold On, Hold On.” “I leave the party at 3 a.m. / Alone, thank God,” sings Case in the latter song, which appears to be a fairly original tribute to the emotions of being a single girl, in the form of a love song to the devil. I'm not sure that I'm sure I know what she's talking about, but I'm pretty sure I've felt this way anyway.

Honourable mentions: The Good, the Bad & the Queen; The Sunlandic Twins (of Montreal); Arular (M.I.A.); Smooth Sailing and How (Paul Linklater); Fantasies (Metric)

So that's my casual music fan's overview of the 2000s. Which begs the question: RECS?

EDIT: After a small amount of internet investigation I've discovered that Barnes sold "Wraith Pinned to the Mist" to be used in some steakhouse TV commercial. So however I came to hear it (which I still can't remember, though it wasn't on TV), that's WHY I came to hear it. Which means I owe my total discovery of this delightful band to capitalism. Which means that Barnes was correct in his Stereogum rant against the concept of "selling out" when he got backlash for the commercial. How do you get people to notice you? Capitalism. Because not everyone's a musician/music nerd who's going to dig around for obscure gems among the piles of brilliant avant-garde bands out there. Talent is in no short supply; what's in short supply is exposure to interesting things in the mainstream. But, should capitalism introduce the right person to something interesting for a change, they will take note. It's all about the platform. 


  1. My albums of the noughties included

    Time (The Revelator) Gillian Welsh

    No Cities Left and Gang of Losers The Dears

    Up The Bracket Libertines

    CSS Cansei de Ser Sexy

    The Real Thing Jill Scott

    Original Pirate Material The Streets

    Oh You're So Silent, Jens - Jens Lekman

    Martha Wainwright and I know your'e married but I've got feelings too - Martha Wainwright

    That's 10!

  2. also The Great Destroyer, and Guns and Drums by Low

  3. Out of all of those, I only know CSS... that was some fun party music... lots to check out. But see what I mean? You can make a whole top 10 with NO Arcade Fire, haha.

  4. True! And I loved Funeral. But I figured you'd know that anyway.

    Also: Rilo Kiley all the albums they did in the 2000s are great (2 I think)