December 31, 2009

album of the decade

No alarms and no surprises...Kid A is my favourite album of the decade. I expound below. Here's what the rest of my list looks like. Follow the (highlighted) links to the write-ups. There are some recent additions here that I haven't had time to properly address. Oh well. Maybe next decade.

25. Chad VanGaalen - Infiniheart (Flemish Eye, 2004), Skelliconnection (Flemish Eye, 2006), Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye, 2008)
24. Micachu and the Shapes - Jewellery (Rough Trade, 2009)
23. PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island, 2000)
22. Beck - Sea Change (Geffen, 2002)
21. White Stripes - White Blood Cells (V2, 2001), Elephant (V2, 2003)
20. Akron/Family - Akron/Family (Young God, 2005)
19. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever to Tell (Interscope, 2003)
18. The Weakerthans - Left and Leaving (G7 Welcoming Committee, 2000)
17. Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador, 2000)
16. Constantines - Shine a Light (Three Gut Records, 2003)
15. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat (Kill Rock Stars, 2002), The Woods (Sub-Pop, 2006)
14. Menomena - Friend and Foe (Barsuk, 2007)
13. Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre, 2004), Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005), Greetings From Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty, 2003)
12. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino, 2009)
11. Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp, 2006)
10. The Books - The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab, 2003)
9. Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004), Ys. (Drag City, 2006)
8. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Pig Lib (Matador, 2003)
7. Deerhunter - Microcastle (Kranky, 2008)
6. Sonic Youth - Murray Street (Geffen, 2002)
5. Cat Power - You Are Free (Matador, 2003)
4. Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights (Matador, 2002)
3. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope, 2006)
2. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000)

1. Radiohead
- Kid A (Parlaphone/Capitol, 2000), Amnesiac (Parlaphone/Capitol, 2001), Hail to the Thief (Parlaphone/Capitol, 2003), In Rainbows (2007)

Here we are at the top (sort of). Kid A is my favourite album of the decade, but if I'm going take the decade seriously, I can't ignore the rest of their out put. Amnesiac, for example, followed quickly after Kid A and is a product of the same creative peak. Though a weaker album, Hail to the Thief was certainly a big event for me: for a while my entire universe seemed to revolve around that release date; and In Rainbows was a triumphant return to form and a revitalization of the band's sound, now inseparable from the minor stir it caused in the online music world.

Everybody's already pontificated on the significance of Kid A (both in terms of musical innovation and its relevance to the end of physical media). Oddly enough this was my first Radiohead album and so I didn't really have a prior relationship with the band's 90s output. I knew Radiohead were important for a variety of reasons, but as for "Radiohead trying not to sound like Radiohead" and the other postmodern claims that accompanied this album, they were over my head and, to be honest, I just wasn't interested at the time.

I loved Kid A not for the statement it was supposed to be making, not because of where it fit into the band's output, not because it represented the "death of rock 'n' roll" or because it nearly broke up the band; I loved it because it introduced me to a new world of sound and music, I loved it because of its sheer beauty, its ambient textures ("Treefingers"), the manufactured purity of Thom Yorke's vocals (especially on the title track), the urgency, energy, but also the simplicity of songs like of "Ideoteque" and "National Anthem." I identified with the dreams of solitude on "How to Disappear Completely," but also with the social/evolutionary angst of "Optimistic." How could an album be so many different things all at once?

Another bit of subtext: I bought this album right before departing for a trip to England. For the three weeks we were there, this cd did not leave my discman. What did I care if it was raining, if the sun refused to shine? I had Radiohead to keep me company. Listening to "In Limbo" while wandering through the crowds of Heathrow still stands out to me ("You're living in a fantasy. . . I'm lost at sea, don't bother me, I've lost my way"). I remember buying a magazine with the cover headline: "Cheer Up! Here Comes Radiohead."

A smaller part of Kid A's brilliance lies in the absence of any liner notes. The album booklet is made up of more art by Stanley Donwood, and so listening (for me) became a far more interesting process of interpretation; you can hear one line in a variety of ways. "Ideoteque," is a good example. At first, "Here I'm alive...everything all at a time," then I started to hear "Here I'm alone...everything all at a time" and finally it became clear that Yorke was probably singing "Here I'm allowed everything all of the time." Okay, so it's not that profound. But I love how disorienting Kid A makes the solitary listening experience. There's something comforting about it.

Kid A has plenty of cultural significance, but in the end, it's important and appealing because it's a beautiful work of art that asks difficult questions evades easy answers. It's simply an album that I'll never tire of.

December 30, 2009

albums of the decade (XIII)

We're nearing the end. I've only got a few more albums left. Just so we're clear: the following are my top 5 albums of the decade that are not by Radiohead. That post will come later. Yeah, it's gonna be a long one.

5. Sonic Youth - Murray Street (Geffen, 2002)
From one of my favourite summers. A family trip to Vancouver. At this point in my musical education I was relatively unfamiliar with Sonic Youth. Of course I knew of them. I'd heard "Teenage Riot," I think; I new they belonged to the alternative/underground scene in the 90s, but was largely unaware of their earlier achievements. We were at Vancouver's Virgin Megastore and I bought three or four albums: The White Stripes' White Blood Cells, the best of Bowie and Sonic Youth's Murray Street.

What led me to buy Murray Street had little to do with the music at that point. It was the mysterious aura of Sonic Youth, but also the absolutely beautiful album cover. I probably listened to it 20 times in my discman on the way home. Perfect for a summer drive on the transcanada highway. "The Empty Page" and "Rain on Tin" gave me a new appreciation for instrumental breaks and the mood-shifting possibilities of the electric guitar. It was the beginning of my relationship with Sonic Youth. Since then I've accumulated most of their catalogue, but Murray Street continues to standout as one of their best.

4. Cat Power - You Are Free (Matador, 2003)
I was proud of this album. I don't think there's another cd that I've managed to convince so many people to buy. Funny to recall that I came across it in a Rolling Stone magazine, reviewed and praised (I think Kurt Cobain was mentioned in a passing reference to the opener, "I Don't Blame You." This was, at that time, an easy way to grab my attention). I downloaded the neo-grungey "He War" and the understated "Fool" and was determined to find and buy this album. What a discovery! I'd found the perfect voice, and an equally brilliant songwriter. Since then, Chan Marshall hasn't come close to the depth of feeling ("Good Woman") or the inventiveness ("Free") of You Are Free. I'm probably too critical, but it's hard to over-emphasize how much I love this album.

You Are Free is inextricably linked to my last years in Winkler, those midnight bike rides, the isolation of life in a small town. The tragedy explored in a song like "Names" seemed so appropriate for growing through adolescence and watching kids you knew get into drugs, into unfair situations from which escape seemed impossible. I used the song "Shaking Paper" in a movie I made for my high school art class, playing overtop clips of a friend of mine riding my mom's ten speed down Park Street. The rest of the movie was brutal, but that combination seemed to work pretty well. Unlike the rest of this list, this is an album I think just about every (except my friend DeLayne) could like.

3. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador, 2002)
It's impossible to listen to this album and not feel like you're the shit. Everything about it exudes coolness and an overtly masculine type of confidence. The sort of confidence that's embodied in italian suits and expensive cigarettes (think Mad Men).

When Interpol arrived with this album, it seemed like every critic on the planet was buying into the hype. The dark style of Joy Division without the devastation. No, these songs went somewhere ("The New," for example, jumps all over the place; from a gritty guitar breakdown stolen from the Pixies, to spacey jazz scales that bring to mind early Modest Mouse). They were almost arena-ready, but back then the thought of these guys playing into something so vulgar was unthinkable. "Untitled" might be the opening track of the decade because its so instantly headturning, so absorbing and so undeniably poised to kick ass and take names; it prepares you for the post-punk epic that's about to unfold.

Interpol's more recent material has suffered in part because it the sinister atmosphere of Turn On the Bright Lights has all but disappeared. From the somber baritone of Paul Banks to intricate guitar work of Daniel Kessler and the rhytmic, almost frenzied bass playing of Carlos Dengler, Interpol made the most of every track on their nearly flawless debut.

2. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope, 2006)
The year should have belonged to TV on the Radio. They certainly released the most captivating album, an album full of conflict, with disparity built into very fabric of songs like "Wash The Day" and "Playhouses." Get ready for a big, generalizing statement: If there's a band, a sound, for this particular moment time, it has to be TV on the Radio.

I know this is all going to sound ridiculous, unnecessarily academic and a little bit arrogant, but I've always thought of TVOTR as a post-colonial band, not simply because of the diversity of their internal make-up, but because of how their music dialogues with the Afro-American music tradition, the way it brings old and new sounds together, and into conflict. Like the political criticism of the late Edward Said and Homi K. Bhaba, the music of TVOTR destabilizes dominant (musical) discourses, challenges our inherent assumptions about collective identity and the presumption about of war and peace; in short, it interrogates the ingrained legacies of colonialism. It's music that makes you think, even as you dance your way into its apocalyptic abandon. As David Bowie, who guests on "Province," well knows, few acts making music today are this vital and this provocative.

1. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000)
I'm undecided as to whether this is Modest Mouse's best album. The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) is right up there, but The Moon & Antarctica was my first Modest Mouse album and, as we pop music obsessors well know, nostalgia always wins out in debates over artistic value. And besides, who among us can resist "Paper Thin Walls"?

I bought this album on a trip. I'm pretty sure it was for a baseball tournament. When I brought it to the counter at one of those hole in the wall record stores (the kind that used find their way into every single mall, the kind that are by now almost extinct), the clerk looked at me, appearing to be caught off guard, (I'm pretty sure I was in uniform) and said with a chuckle, "Whoa man, this is some good stuff." Back then, there wasn't much that made me happier than the validation of a record store clerk. It felt like I'd broken into a secret club. That baseball tournament was simply a means to an end.

The entire aesthetic of this album (from the artwork and its colour to the haunting atmospherics and Isaac Brock's existentialist lyrics) seemed of a piece. Another great response to suburban life in the midwest, the alienation of individuals amidst our society's love affair with technology, cheap entertainment and thoughtless consumption ("Different City," as well as "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," are the best examples of this).

The Moon & Antarctica is an unflinching look at the darkest corners of Brock's consciousness: his tortured isolation and his skewed view of reality (see "Alone Down There"). "The Stars Are Projectors" is the album's centre-piece. At almost nine minutes, it seems to sum things up pretty well: it's disturbing and affecting, at once cosmic in scope and terribly personal ("It's built on findin' the easier ways through / God is a woman and the woman is / An animal that animals man, and that's you / Was there a need for creation?/ That was hidden in a math equation/ And that's this: where do the circles begin?" ). Intriguing, no?

albums of the decade (XII)

I'm running out of time, so my musical navel-gazing won't be as drawn out as it has been in every other "albums of the decade" entry. I haven't even gotten to my top five yet! Stay tuned.

Deerhunter - Microcastle (Kranky, 2008)
I can understand how Deerhunter aren't the easiest band to like. Their albums are cumbersome and at times sound half-baked: you usually have to wade through several tracks of disconnected noise before getting to something really exciting. Fair enough.

was my favourite album of last year. In my mind, nothing came close to the ambition and execution of Deerhunter's second album of shoegazey guitar rock. It's a beautiful and engrossing listen start to finish; the soundscapes are perfect for a walk in the snow. This album came out in the fall of last year and it was my album of choice for those long walks to work, snow crunching underfoot, flakes falling from the sky. It reminded me a lot of early Smashing Pumpkins (moments on Gish, but particulalry Pisces Iscariot), so of course I was immediately obsessed.

It isn't enough to say that Microcastle rewards dedicated listening. It's a sprawling piece of guitar rock revelation, where everything seems to fit together. Seamlessly paced, Microcastle is driven by a nostalgic love affair with feedback and melody. Beginning with the soothing "Cover Me (Slowly)," Deerhunter’s lazy euphoria finally stumbles into the broken chords of "Activa." But just when Bradford Cox appears to lose his steam, Deerhunter launch into "Nothing Ever Happened," an impossible epic about drugs that explodes into an all-out prog-jam.

Another thing I appreciate about Deerhunter is that they always leave enough room on their albums for the "come down;" although their biggest moments are inspiring, it's the way they handle the aftermath that's a real testament to their artistry. Following the massive climax of "Nothing Ever Happened," the psych throwbacks "Saved By Old Times" and "These Hands" are comfy matresses on which to land: the first is an ode to the past, while the latter describes the dangers of inaction, on growing old and becoming ineffective. Deerhunter offer a world of to get lost in. Yeah there's drugs, but one thing is certain: once Microcastle draws you inside, there’s no getting out.

Menomena - Friend and Foe (Barsuk, 2007)
Friend and Foe is a deceptive straighforward album; at first, it sounds like inventive indie-rock, but sooner or later one begins to notice the careful composition, the openings for new sounds and rhythms, the way each song flows into the next, the thoughtful lyrics, the confusion of sacred and profane and the quality of production. Destined to be overlooked, this was an album that kept revealing something new with each listen. I love bands that use the saxophone well (see TV on the Radio) and are this conscious of different rythmic sounds and patterns; I love Menomena.

The brilliant "Rotten Hell" has become a darkly satisfying sing along for my friends and I, while a song like "The Pelican," which again brings to mind TV on the Radio for its carefully exposed aggression (the wild vocals), and the way it nearly spins out of control, has only become more interesting because I've recently learned that the pelican is part of a symbolic tradition in Christian art. It's meant to represent Christ's sacrifice: there is a myth that, in order to feed its young, the mother bird turns her head inward to pierce her own breast; the blood spills and the young are fed. I'm pretty sure, this isn't what the songs supposed to be about, but with that explanation in mind, that screamed line, which recurrs through out the song ("Take it!") seems strangely appropriate.

The songs on Friend and Foe seem divinely inspired and then beautfully and blasphemously deconstructed. It's only three guys! How do they do it?

Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp, 2006)
Unlike this year's Veckatimest (see my "Top 20 Albums of 2009"), Yellow House isn't really a pop album. It has moments, sure, but the songs that do emerge from these folkey soundscapes have more in common with prog-rock than pop music. I'm probably overstating the case. Yellow House is, like all their work, full of choirboy vocals, instrumental sophistication and haunting atmospheres. Their sound is all that unique anymore, but no one does it better than Grizzly Bear and I, for one, am glad they're finally getting the attention they deserve, whether it comes from some anonymous blogger or from Jay-Z.

I first encountered Grizzly Bear through a mix my sister sent me while I was out treeplanting in B.C. "On a Neck, On a Spit" was the song she included and it blew me away: epic and uplifting, it finally erupts into a tight acoustic love song ("each day spend it with you, all my time spend it with you..."). From that moment on I held a lot of anticipation for the release of their second album, Yellow House, scheduled to arrive that autumn. On first listen, I was a bit let down; this wasn't like the song I'd spent my summer listening to: it was slow, brooding, eerie and depressing (see the mid-album waltz "Maria," which seems like it was meant for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie). Suffice it to say, it wasn't long till I had completely immersed myself in songs like "Colorado" (another waltz built around a grand piano) and "Lullaby."

Seeing them open for TV on the Radio in Fargo, ND solidified my love for this band. Not only were they studio wizards, they know their instruments like experts and sing together like intimates. Veckatimest may have been overhyped but it continues their winning streak. It's still safe to say, "No One Does it Better."

December 24, 2009

top 20 albums of 2009

I try not to be too objective with these things, but I'd argue the case for any of these albums if I had to; I'd call them "great," "classic," "essential;" all those words that academia hammers out of you. Some of these albums were encountered via the websites I frequent (for links, see the sidebar to the right); others literally fell into my lap at contributor meetings for Stylus Magazine; still others were from artists I've been following for some time, whose albums leaked early and were (illegally) downloaded. Don't worry, I bought them eventually. Sometimes, it's nice to hear exciting music before it's over-analyzed, cast aside or raised up for all to see.

I've included the album covers because I think this year boasted some pretty amazing album covers (there are definitely a few brutal one on this list as well). And I've posted a link after each blurb, so you can get a sample of the albums I'm praising.

I think that's enough of a preamble. Here goes:

20. Bear in Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes)
This list is full of Animal Collective copy-cats; some of them even place above AC. These guys are, like a lot of others on this list, hail from Brooklyn. Let's just say, I like the darkness they conjure in these spacious pop anthems. I'm not really sure what their album title's getting at, but their blend of Southern rock and ambient synths --it's refreshing.

Listen: Wholehearted Mess

19. The Clientele - Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)
No one likes to say it, but The Clientele is really a one note band. Though some are a bit more upbeat than others, their albums are pretty similar: light, open chorded guitar pop. Alisdair MacLean, doesn't have much range as a vocalist, and yet I absolutely love his voice. Warm, refined and inviting, The Clientele don't experiment much, but their rainy day music is done well and the atmosphere's they manage to create are captivating enough to keep me coming back.

Listen: Harvest

18. Cryptacize - Mythomania (Asthmatic Kitty)
This one was a surprise, but then, I've learned to trust Asthmatic Kitty when it comes to cute indie-pop. And this album is no exception. Nothing life-changing here, but the quality is high, the album is fresh, consistent, and the melodic hooks are plentiful.

Listen: Tail & Maine

17. Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free (Dead Oceans)
As a whole, the album is a bit of a letdown. I'm not expecting them to recreate their debut, but a little more cohesion (and a little less of the drugged-out inaccessible bits) would be nice. That being said, the truly great moments --"River" and "They Will Appear," for example-- are phenomenal: simultaneously restrained and excessive, at once small and grandiose.

Listen: River

16. DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty)
He's weird but I like him. With a good editor, Stith could put out a great album; this one was excellent, but you get the sense that among the diversity of sounds presented here, he's still trying to figure himself out as musician. Visual artist by day, and now an indie-folk darling by night, Stith clearly evokes labelmates like Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond, but he's far less restrained: more willing to let go of his songs and let the spirits get out of control.

Listen: Pity Dance

15. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti)
At first, I wrote this one off. Perhaps I wasn't ready for another Neko Case album. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood definitely got a lot of rotation at one point and I won't pretend that I'm not still enamored with it. Middle Cyclone felt less accessible; my first listen was forced. I thought I should try as hard as I could to like it, but only after I'd completely given up and one of my profs played it over and over one afternoon did I realize that you can't force this stuff. When you let your guard down, Case sweeps you off your feet like she's not even trying. That voice is simply irresistible.

Listen: People Got A Lotta Nerve

14. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilian (Domino)
This was Animal Collective's year and only a fool would deny it. They deserve to be at the top of nearly every list that matters (as opposed to this one...ha!). I'm not going to apologize for not putting them higher; they don't need any more support. As on past releases, dub, trance, and Afro-pop figure into Merriweather Post-Pavillion's spaced-out mixture of synths and rhythmic clatter. If MPP lacks anything, it's the rough and tumble charm that defined AC's earlier output. As the infectious beats of "My Girls" and the jolting harmonies of "Brothersport" demonstrate, Animal Collective are crossing over. And depending on your outlook (and elitism), there's never been a better time to give them your ears.

Listen: My Girls

13. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns (Parlophone)

Clearly deserving of this year's Mercury Prize, Natasha Khan put out the most metaphysical album of the year. I've been wanting to say that for a long time. The comparisons to Kate Bush are definitely appropriate but Khan definitely has her own unique touch. From the opening battle-cry ("Glass") to the tragedy of romantic possession ("Daniel") and the subdued Tori Amos-esque piano ballads (which are way better than anything Amos has ever done), Khan gave us an album to get lost in, an album that brought you into a different universe, where everything is imbued with mystery and the sweeping melodrama of teen angst.

Listen: Daniel

12. Point Juncture, WA - Heart to Elk (Homemade)

With the power to reinvigorate the most jaded pop-music voyeurs, the third album from Point Juncture, WA features matured arrangements blend shoegaze feedback, kraut-rock and horn lines that would make Broken Social Scene jealous. It’s hard to resist the rare urgency of “Biathalon,” while the epic “Sick on Sugar” delivers enough hooks and harmonies to melt the coldest of hearts. This band from Oregan still hasn't got the recognition it deserves; this is the album that should have broken them.
Listen: Sick On Sugar (live)

11. Bibio - Ambivalence Avenue (Warp)

When someone releases three albums in one year, critics tend to get even more critical --unfairly so, in my opinion. This is a great album that keeps surprising you; each time I've put this on for guests I've had to field questions about the music I'm playing: "Are we still listening to the same group?" "Who is this again?" Bibio's second (and best) of the year is an album that turns heads. Boards of Canada are the most frequently cited comparison, but I'd throw in Caribou as well. It's folk-electronica that can be bouncy and contemplative all at once. This year, Bibio's willingness to venture out into a diversity of sounds was unmatched.

Listen: Ambivalence Avenue

10. St. Vincent - Actor (4AD)

This album was a huge leap for the woman behind 2007's Marry Me, which was cute and well-crafted, but not particularly attention-grabbing. Actor gives us a taste of what lies beneath: the violent corners that threaten to undo Annie Clark's squeaky-clean persona. And it offers some of the catchiest (and the darkest) melodies of the year on songs like "Marrow" or "Save Me From What I Want" or "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood." And the drumming, like all the instrumentation is phenomenal. Less like Sufjan, more like Slayer. A natural progression, I think.

Listen: Marrow

9. A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Disco)

Ambient and all over the place. This album is full of melodies you wish you could capture, but they're alway just beyond reach. When the hooks do finally crystalize, like on "Failure" they seem to disappear just as quickly. With 25 tracks of wide-ranging sonic experimentation, this beautiful and challenging album builds on the strengths of their overlooked 2007 debut.

Listen: Failure

8. Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)

With a weird infusion of pastoral imagery and the macabre, The Crying Light, is a significant and complex step forward.“Let's take our power back,” Antony belts on “Aeon,” one of a handful of deceptively up-beat, almost celebratory tracks scattered throughout this haunting collection. The Crying Light is undoubtedly challenging, but it's even more absorbing because of its otherworldliness. And that's where it's power lies.

Listen: Aeon (live)

7. Julie Doiron - I can wonder what you did with your day (Endearing Records)

Here's an album that wasn't at all hard to love. “Consolation Prize,” is a guitar driven surf-anthem with lots of hooks and tight harmonies. The equally grungy “Spill Yer Lungs” harkens back to Doiron's days with Eric's Trip. As always, Doiron's heavier fare never skimps on melody. I can wonder what you did with your day isn't only one of Doiron's strongest albums to date (it's my favourite!); and it's further proof that she's currently among Canada's best songwriters.

Listen: Consolation Prize

6. Here We Go Magic - Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl)

Another Brooklyn band that draws Animal Collective comparisons, Here We Go Magic have created a stunning debut, full of intense emotion and mesmerizing sounds. My only complaint is that it's too short. Standouts like "Fangela" and "Tunnelvision" could go on forever and I wouldn't complain. Like the best artists, Here We Go Magic reveal the infinite potential of those fleeting moments of consciousness.

Listen: Tunnelvision

5. Atlas Sound - Logos (Kranky)

Can we all agree that Bradford Cox is a genius? Though the quality of his prolific output may wane from time to time, he's no slacker when it comes to a transcendent melody or a big hook. He knows precisely how to give it the support it deserves. That, I believe, is one of is gifts. There are a lot of reasons why I'm a fan of this album. It's got a wicked (theologically suggestive) title; its got a pair of incredible collaborations ("Walkabout" ft. Noah Lennox, and "Quick Canal" ft. Lætitia Sadier) that showcase his guests without compromising his style or sound; it's introspective ("Attic Lights") and hopelessly romantic ("Sheila") without being sentimental or solipsistic. Bradford Cox; just watch him go!

Listen: Quick Canal

4. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)

Here's something that spans that generational gap between hipster kids and their parents. To older ears it sounds classic and inoffensive (all that crooning!), but Veckatimest is strange and catchy enough to make you wonder how they do it. Group vocals may be on their way out, but as long as Grizzly Bear is still writing such fantastic songs, the naysayers will have to allow for exceptions like "Two Weeks" or "While You Wait For the Others." A lot of people have called this a letdown, but I don't really know where else they could have gone after 2006's Yellow House. This is Grizzly Bear at the top of their game; crossing over was inevitable, but I'm still dreading the day that I walk into Starbucks and hear these boys from Brooklyn pumping on the stereo.

Listen: Two Weeks

3. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)

It's nice being validated. When this leaked back in the first days of summer, I was engrossed by this album, sure that I'd never heard anything like it before, certain that this was going to be huge; and it was. It's hard not to sound like a prick, so I'll stop praising foresight. I'm usually wrong, anyhow. Their fantastic live performance (opening for TV on the Radio) confirmed for me that these guys are exceptionally talented; I mean, I wasn't sure how some of these songs (like "Bitte Orca" or "Stillness is the Move") would translate into a live performance, but they did and halfway through the latter, I could sense a change in the audience: suddenly, everyone was mesmerized, helplessly locked into the incredible vocal performance, the fantastic urban groove of "Stillness is the Move" (second only to Animal Collective's "My Girls" as the pop single of the year). As I've said, this is a great experimental pop record, weaving together Afro-beat, jazz, hip-hop, folk --but it also rocks hard. The opening track, "Canibal Resource" features a completely unexpected set of female vocalists who instantly throw off this track's momentous guitar hook. This battle between angelic harmonies and the scattered crunch of David Longstreth's unique compositions frames the entire album, making it an album that's impossible to shake.

Listen: Stillness Is The Move

2. Micachu and the Shapes - Jewellery (Rough Trade)

Hard to believe Mica Levi was only 21 years old when this came out. There's not a single dud here. No misguided melodrama, no existential angst. Every track is instantly catchy and creative, full of young energy that refuses to settle down. Equally refreshing is how the androgynously voiced Levi resists taking herself too seriously. She doesn't tone down her cockney. She doesn't just use a vacuum and pretend it's a studio trick, she actually sings about it. She's open and in touch with her feelings, but it's not the sort of self-involved seriousness you get from most young artists. She can sing about relationship and breakups with honesty and a sense of humour "Think I've made a massive mistake. . . . And I put your things all over the floor, if I jump from my bed I could smash it all," she sings on "Floor." The following song, the tongue-in-cheek, paranoid "Just in Case" features one of my favourite lines from the record: "And I won't have sex 'cause of STDs." But it's "Turn Me Well," the song with "the vacuum now turned on" that I've grown the most attached to. It's a cathartic break-up song ("You squeezed my heart so tight tonight. You must return it before you leave"), but Levi is aware of here emotional neediness. "Wrong" is a close second: a good sample of Levi's uncertainty about her relationships that's just as musically all over the place as anything else on this record with it's off-kilter synths, heavy chorus and prominent cow-bell. This was an album I couldn't stop blabbing about, an album I thought everyone should hear; months later, I still feel just as passionate about it.

Listen: Turn Me Well

1. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)

England's Wild Beasts top a list dominated by artists from the UK. Like Micachu and the Dirty Projectors, Wild Beasts possess a sound and a style that is uniquely theirs; and they've managed to write some of the years best songs, while crafting a cohesive album that demands repeated listens. A major critique leveled at the band's last debut, besides its patchiness, is that it often seems to fall back on the eccentricity of vocalist Hayden Thorpe's falsetto. Two Dancers, however, shows a band with depth, still just as willing to prop up the seedy corners of modern life for anyone who dares to listen. As with Limbo, Panto, vocal duties are evenly shared among Thorpe and the velvet-voiced Chris Talbot. "All the King's Men" incorporates both voices to great effect. Thorpe and Talbot are the "boys who'll drape you in jewels, cut off your hair, and through out your shoes," finding themselves caught somewhere between fairy tale romance and misogyny. Underwritten by a tight bassline and a bouncy beat, "This is Our Lot" is about a dancing pair "quiffed and cropped" holding "each other up heavy with hops". It's a tightly wound pop song; the kind you could imagine Radiohead pulling off if they allowed themselves to be a bit more straightforward. "The Fun Powder Plot" is another good example of the band's now signature lyrical twists: "This is a booty call - my boot up your asshole." The poppier turns of Two Dancers are well suited to the album's duality, all the while poking fun at the fine line between desire and disgust. Like many great artists before them, England's Wild Beasts taunt us with the ambiguities we'd like to ignore and they do it in the most captivating way.

Listen: This Is Our Lot

December 22, 2009

albums of the decade (XI)

PJ Harvey - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island, 2000)

With her sixth album, Polly Jean Harvey came dangerously close to that refined musical wasteland called adult contemporary. This was her album to be "all grown up," to flirt with her maturity and the polished sounds of the studio. Even her more abrasive songs ("This is Love" and "Kamikazee") feel watered down and somewhat drained of their sexual energy. That said, Harvey has never sounded this confident in her ability as a musician, and it's unlikely that she ever will again. Ever the shape-shifter, Harvey's most cosmopolitan persona coincided nicely with the beginning of our new, self-consciously global millenium. It's no wonder the album was awarded the Mercury Prize the following year; it seems to capture some of the romance, the ambivalence of urban life at the beginning of the decade. I mean, I was only 12 at the time, but I sensed it. So mature for my age and all.

To be honest, it took me until 2004 to buy this album. By this point in time, I was well into my longstanding obsession with Peej; and even then, four years after its release, Stories... felt current. "Good Fortune" is one reason for this; it's quite simply a song to fall in love with. Another reason that Stories... still sounds so fresh is Harvey's almost timeless songwriting and her ability to inhabit characters from a wide historical spectrum (see 1995's To Bring You My Love or 2007's White Chalk). But as Harvey sings on "A Place Called Home," "Now is the time to follow through, to read the signs. Now the message is sent, let's bring it to its final end." She's still acting, of course, but this time she isn't playing a repressed Victorian or a prostitute from the deep South. This time round, it hits a bit closer home.

There are plenty more high points on Stories.... A stirring duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke ("This Mess We're In") is definitely one of them. Like many of the tracks on this album, Harvey's lyrics on "This Mess..." show an awareness of the cityscape and her place within it, taking care to frame her own point of view. "You Said Something" is probably the most cheerful love song Harvey's ever written (given that the vast majority of her songs about love are brutally violent and sexually perverse; it's her schtick). This one turns out to be about a couple of ex-pats on a romantic excursion in Manhatten. Pretty great! But the album ends two completely depressing songs: "Horses in My Dreams," which is a bit of a dirge, and "We Float," which advises us to "take life as it comes" because "one day, we'll float." Is she talking about escaping to heaven? Or about drowing in a massive flood? Either way, I think she covers the same ground as Modest Mouse's 2003 sing-along, "Float On." I always thought she was more of fighter. And I'm glad she's bounced back.

albums of the decade (X)

Sufjan Stevens
- Greetings from Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty, 2003)
- Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre, 2004)
- Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)

No commemorative decade-ending music list would be complete without at least a nod to Sufjan Stevens, who, in his current state of musical/identity confusion, confessed that the "50 States Project," which seemed to preface everything anyone ever wrote about him, was an elaborate marketing ploy. A joke that most of his admirers defended: "Sure he can do it. Sufjan Stevens can do anything!" That wasn't me, by the way. Well, maybe at first.

As a testament to the man's uniquely ambitious vision, Paste Magazine named Illinois the album of the decade. A bit of a surprise, but then again Paste has never tried/succeeded in being representative with their lists. Illinois was (and still is) my favourite album of 2005. It was everything I'd hoped it could be (from the chilling portrait of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." to the crisis of faith in "Casimir Pulaski Day," the cool swagger of "Jacksonville," the family-trip nostaligia of "Decatur, Or, Round of Applause for your Stepmother!" and "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," which weaves in and out of tender folk harmonies and garage rock in the most inspiring way); and it also helped that my summer highlight was a family road trip to Chicago. Calling it epic doesn't really do it justice. But even after the universe had seemingly aligned in the summer of 2005, I still find that, when push comes to shove, I'm more partial to Seven Swans. Listening straight through the bells and whistles of Michigan, and especially Illinois, is like consuming too much sugar. Stevens is, I think, best without all the pomp. Sure he's a talented and inspired composer. Sure he went for something massive (the life, the history, the feeling of two huge American states) and surpassed our expectations of what a theologically sensitive indie-folk artist could accomplish in 70 minutes. But even so, if I'm going to be honest about my own listening experience, Seven Swans has always impressed me more. It's still weird and surprising; it's more overtly relgious, eerier and sparser: it's an album I have to listen to all the way through every time.

In my second year at university, I used to put on "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" when I had to wait for bus on Sunday mornings. It's an ideal song of preparation: a song about readying yourself for worship and communion. In fact, I'm pretty sure if I was teaching a class on theology and worship (which will certainly never happen), I'd include this on the syllabus. "In the Devil's Territory" is another song about orienting ourselves and opening our hearts; and if I was ever teaching Kierkegaard (another highly unprobable reality), I'd definitely include "Abraham," through which Stevens hauntingly recasts Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac: Kierkegaard's illustration to prove his point about a "teleogical suspension of the ethical" that brought about by a truly religious calling. Probably the two most affecting songs for me, "Sister" and "We Won't Need Legs to Stand," resonate because of their hopefulness, their acceptance and assurance of healing through broken relationships and physical disadvantages.

Stevens has always drawn comparisons to literary figures. The great Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, with whom Stevens wisely positions himself, is an obvious influence, with her emphasis on the grotesque, her unflinching exploration of human and divine violence: someone who employs Christian mechanisms in her narratives without cheapening or sentimentalizing them. But I think Stevens also shares some similarity with the metaphysical poets of early modern England (Donne, Herbert, Marvell, etc.). To ask a question like, "What do these songs have to say about religion?" is wrong from the get-go. Stevens isn't commenting on the Christian faith: he's actually working out his own salvation in his music. This isn't some abstract theoretical exploration: the debate is performed and embodied through his music.

Michigan was Stevens' third album, a tribute to his home state. It features one of Stevens' most beautiful songs, "For the Widow in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," but it also contains a lot of pain, for as many well know, Michigan is a broken state, weighed down by poverty ("Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid"), and an economy hollowed out by corporate interest ("The Upper Peninsula"). It's a good companion to Michael Moore's wry documentary, Roger and Me, but I think Steven's songs ring truer. Maybe it's because he still unabashedly hopeful.

December 21, 2009

albums of the decade (IX)

This is getting tedious. Surely I'm not going to keep this up for much longer. Let's call it a marathon.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever to Tell (Interscope, 2003)

I've never understood why this got such low ratings from so many critics. I think it has something to do with the sequencing. But it's never bothered me. The EPs that preceded Fever to Tell were wound tight and, its no great insight that the YYYs do their best work with a shorter format (see 2007's unrelenting Is Is, which is still the bands strongest showing to date). Fever to Tell had a lot of hype, but it really stands the test of time. Beneath its garage punk grit, what it really showcases are three incredibly talented musicians who don't necessarily gel with each other. There's tension between each componant and I think that's part of what makes the YYYs so captivating. "A Date With The Night" nearly self-desctructs, but the energy of Nick Zinner's guitar line is nearly schizophrenic. Karen O is, of course, the star of the show. From the coarse moans of "Rich" to her soaring vocals in "Maps," she truly is everything to everyone. If "Maps" verges on sentimentality, "Y Control" is its sobering remedy: a brutal guitar line, a bouncing rhythm and a Karen O who's not simply angry but despondent, bitter and utterly malevolent. Along with the noticably long (it's pretty much an epic for the YYYs), but all the more brilliant (despite its confusion) "No No No," the album's closer "Modern Romance" is slow, plodding meditation on a lack thereof.

I remember these guys being touted in nearly every issue of Spin from 2003-2005; they made the cover way too many times. You could tell the magazine was counting on these guys being "the next big thing." But this decade didn't really deliver in that regard. And it was pretty apparent in magazine racks across the country. Or if they did come along, it would be a remarkably short stay. A lot has changed since the early 90s and Spin has been in chaos ever since.

December 20, 2009

albums of the decade (VIII)

Akron/Family - Akron/Family (Young God, 2005)

It's not fair. When your debut is remarkably good, you shouldn't have to spend the rest of your career fighting off critics and naysayers, but it seems like that's what's happened to Akron/Family. I think it's safe to say that they'll never make another album like this. Drawing on British folk influences, mixing electric and analog, drugged out existentialism and natural inspiration, this Brooklyn band made a huge splash in 2005. All of a sudden they were joining folks like Devendra Banhart at the top of every other year end list. I found Akron/Family difficult to place, and it wasn't until I heard the album straight through that I finally understood why it was getting so much attention.

There's rarely a grand moment (except maybe "Running, Returning...", with it's heavy forward momentum, the surprise acoustic break and release into a sentimental ballad) on this fragmentary collection of experimental folk music. All I really can say is, it'll put you in a mood; it's heady, sonically interesting stuff that showcases some pretty sloppy moments. The lesser moments only bolster the band's material: it all feels very natural, very raw and unrefined. A song like "Afford" is a perfect example. It weaves a weepy acoustic melody through field recordings of birds, and when the reverb swells and the guitars start to alternate you know they've taken this melody as far as it can go. The prog-rock indulgences of the Akron/Family's most recent material isn't all that surprising. Those tendencies were there from the beginning. Perhaps that's what this is one of my favourite folk records of the past decade. By the end of each track, you'll be somewhere quite different than where you started.

December 19, 2009

albums of the decade (VII)

- One Beat (Kill Rock Stars, 2002)
- The Woods (Sub Pop, 2005)

Sleater-Kinney was a great band. They might even have been the best band. Suffice it to say, I was pretty sad when I heard they'd broken up. When I first discovered this all female group from Olympia, WA, it was in the pages of a music magazine commemorating the best albums of the 90s. Because of this lame introduction I've always associated them with that decade, but, looking back now, it seems to me that Sleater-Kinney had an even stronger run in the 00s. They kicked off this decade with All Hands on the Bad One (2000), a revitalized return to form after the more introspective Hot Rock (1999). They've got an intensity -a sense of urgency in their delivery- that only bolsters their (sometimes cringworthy) social criticism. With Janet Weiss on drums, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein trading vocals and guitars, Sleater-Kinney proved to be one of the heaviest (and most exciting) indie bands in America for nearly two decades.

But it was their impassioned response to 9/11 and the Bush administration, One Beat, that really broke them for me. "Combat Rock" is still, to my mind, the best cry of dissent an American band could conjure in post-9/11 America: "Show your love for your country: go out and spend some cash!" Other great moments include the anthemic "O2," which explores escapism and the environment, and "Oh!," which may be the album's standout track: a catchy battle cry that's one part doo-wop, one part arena punk. At the beginning of the decade, it seemed like every album was either a commemorative response or a sign of respect for the American ideal. In most cases, it was nauseating, but out of that mess of sentimentality and patriotism came Sleater-Kinney, a politically relevant band that refused easy comforts and pushed itself to craft some of the finest garage-punk of the decade.

Equally fuelled by a spirit of dissent, The Woods displays Sleater-Kinney at the height of their musical powers. Here, the band shows it's still driven to experiment, but rocking hard is the biggest priority. With fantastic production (a fuller sound and no shortage of feedback) perfectly suited to Sleater-Kinney's aggressive approach, The Woods proved to be the band's most accessible (and arguably their finest) album. The power of its blistering opener -"The Fox"- still blows me away, while a song like "Modern Girl," one of the band's most memorable melodies, will never get old.

God bless those girls.

December 15, 2009

albums of the decade (VI)

Joanna Newsom
- The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004)
- Ys. (Drag City, 2006)

In the interest of time, I've decided to treat two albums at once (I'll also be doing this with a few other lucky artists). Joanna Newsom almost got lost in the great freak-folk trend of 2004/05, but unlike Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family, she's got real staying power; not only is she a witty lyricist and a creative-genius, she's demonstrated serious constraint and hasn't produced a single dud. Every song on the Milk-Eyed Mender is quirky, but you can tell pretty quickly that it's not a put-on. Newsom is genuinely weird and genuinely talented. A harpist with the voice of an infant who writes hyper-literate folk-pop sounds like a potential disaster in theory, but Newsom's attention to craft is nearly unmatched in the indie-world (obviously this massive generalization is fundamentally flawed, but let's try not worry about it).

I'll be honest. I slightly prefer Newsom's first, more conventional album to the sprawling complexity of Ys. In my mind, you can't get much better than a song like "Sadie," which might be (suprise!) her most melancholy composition. Her lyrics are worth quoting at length:
And all day long we talk about mercy:
lead me to water lord, I sure am thirsty.
Down in the ditch where I nearly served you,
up in the clouds where he almost heard you. . . .

This is an old song, these are old blues.
This is not my tune, but it's mine to use. . . .

Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender
you and I, and a love so tender,
is stretched - on the hoop where I stitch this adage:
"Bless our house and its heart so savage."
I first heard Joanna Newsom in my first year painting class. Someone put on "The Book of Right-On" and I was instantly transfixed. Ys. came a couple of years later and seemed to fit perfectly into the more charming aspects of the Winnipeg winter. Of course, it helped to be so close to Assinaboine Park. A good forest to wander through while listening to the tale of "Monkey & Bear." The whole album feels like it belongs to a distant past that's slightly medieval. I'm obviously just skimming the surface.

December 14, 2009

albums of the decade (V)

Yo La Tengo - And then nothing turned itself inside-out (Matador, 2000)

Although I'm eager to argue that pop music should be enjoyed communally, I'm afraid that Yo La Tengo's eighth (!) album soon becomes so personal (at least for me) that, whether or not you're alone when it's playing, you're likely to get lost in your feelings. Maybe it's just the uber-tender nature of Yo La Tengo's music. Or maybe this outlook has something to do with my summer back home after my first year of university. This is the album I'd listen to at midnight, as I rode my ten-speed up and down the abandoned streets of Winkler with a cigarette in hand (ah to be young). It was probably the most angst-ridden summer I've ever had. And, luckily, I had the perfect soundtrack. "Saturday" sums it up pretty well: the sparse aesthetic, the drum-machine, the fragile harmonies, the broken piano chords. "I tried to turn away questions, before being asked. . . makes my mind go out of tune."

I'd ride out to the edge of town, to the last of the new housing developments and the new middle school that was under construction. Here, I was far enough from the dull glow of suburban light that I could appreciate the sky's rich indigo. And this is what I'd be listening to. That first line of "Tears are in Your Eyes," "you tell me summer's here...," always hit me pretty hard, but the more traditional YLT track that follows, "Cherry Chapstick," somehow always restored my confidence. And then nothing... is sparse, mellow, and conscientiously arranged. Not only did it make me fall in love with Yo La Tengo; it turned a crappy summer into something a bit more bearable.

December 13, 2009

albums of the decade (IV)

The Books - The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab, 2003)

The first time I heard the Books was on a compilation that came with the first annual "music issue" from a magazine called the Believer. The song was "There Is No There," the seventh track on the Books' second album. I'd never heard anything like it before. A diverse range of sounds: percussive everyday noises, excerpts from speeches, violin/cello fragments, meandering banjo lines, and a lot of looping. Occasionally a woman's voice (Ann Doener) breaks in with more conventional vocals, but such moments of clarity are rare. How does one begin to describe the Books? I've tried and failed many times, but I'll attempt it anyway.

When I first got a hold of this album I felt like I'd really happened upon something special, something unique and surprising. Each track on the The Lemon of Pink is more than the sum of its parts. Pop hooks seem to emerge from out of nowhere, yet you can't really put your finger on what's going on. The Lemon of Pink is notoriously difficult to pin down, and I think that's why I like it so much. Although you may have to accept that you don't really know what's going on, there's something very immediate about the emotional effect the songs on this album have. You can call the Books' approach collage, tapestry, or mosaic, but such metaphors seem immediately stale compared to the vitality of songs like "Tokyo" or "Don't Even Sing About It."

Still, "There Is No There" and "Take Time" are the best example of the group's ability to combine an assortment of sounds into truly affecting songs that feel as profound as they are weird and unconventional.

December 12, 2009

albums of the decade (III)

I can't stop posting! However, when you consider the stack of cds sitting in front of me right now, it soon becomes apparent that I've got my work cut out for me.

Constantines - Shine a Light (Three Gut Records, 2003)

The Constantines had a great decade. In fact, they’ve just celebrated their tenth year as a band and are still playing some of the most electrifying live shows in the country. They’ve got four solid albums of blue-collar rock n’ roll and, although they recently made a shift a new label (Arts and Crafts), the band shows no signs of slowing down. This band has staying power. Shine a Light is not only their heaviest album (this one’s debatable); it’s also their best (this one, not so much). This follow up to their self-titled debut stays true to the urgency of their punk roots, but Shine a Light has the honesty of a band well into its career, easily moving between diverse sounds and moods. There’s something unsettling about an album this angry and impassioned, yet so carefully refined and channelled into songs like the blistering title track. Then there’s that sprawling anthem, “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright),” that harrowing “Insectivora,” in which Bryan Webb tells us in great detail how he’s “learning to survive.” Sure Webb can howl, but he’s really a tender soul. Take “Young Lions” or “On to You” or “Poison,” for example. Webb flips from his unrestrained social realism to romantic lines like “make your love too wild for words” ("Young Lions") or “When we dance the night belongs to us” ("Poison"). We, the adolescent hipsters of 2003, instantly melt.

I came to know this album when I was in my first year of university. A friend of mine gave me her cd; she didn’t really care for it, and I was obsessed with “Poison.” Like many, I was also intrigued by the band’s name, as my course in Christian history made a pretty big deal about Constantine. I always imagined they were sort of being ironic, but as I found out in an interview last year the band name has nothing at all to do with the historical figure who single-handedly made Christianity synonymous with the Western empire. Whether or not these guys will admit it, I still like to think the name has some theological significance.

albums of the decade (II)

The Weakerthans - Left and Leaving (G7 Welcoming Committee, 2000)

The Weakerthans don’t brag much, and maybe it’s inappropriate to throw around lofty titles like “Best Album of the Decade” in reference to one of their albums, but with all celebratory lists and tributes floating around these days, I can’t help myself so I’ll just say it: Left and Leaving, that understated collection of songs about life in Winnipeg might just be the best album that’s come out of Canada in the last decade. At the end of the year, when everyone's touting Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene as the “saviors of indie rock,” those of us who know and love the Weakerthans might also remember that, before the indie music media frenzy began, 2000 marked the release of the Weakerthans’ second album. You can’t get any better than reckless abandon of “Watermark,” the tenderness of “My Favourite Chords,” the inspiring “Pamphleteer,” and a title track so honest and reassuring it just might be reason enough to stay put. Full of well-crafted characters and all kinds of social subtleties, Left and Leaving is an album that’s both highly literate and unapologetically local. Not only do Samson, Tait, Carroll and Sutton give us a better understanding of Winnipeg (already quite a feat), their album invites each of us see one another and our city with new eyes. How’s that for zeitgeist?
The decade lists keep rolling out. Pitchfork was ahead of the game, posting theirs earlier this fall. Now Rolling Stone has unveiled its own authoritative list, complete with a snazzy cover design (in fact, this is probably the best Rolling Stone cover of the past 10 years). The magazine has gone through some fairly major changes over the decade to cut costs. They've cut back Rolling Stone's size, format, etc., while websites like Pitchfork have expanded in every way. Now we've got old print giant on the one hand (trying desperately to keep up with the culture it once spoke for) and the new cutting edge P4k website on the other (which is where the growing majority discover new music; if consensus can exist anymore, P4k has the sway to shape it). Rolling Stone has little influence among anyone under 30; it really belongs to the boomers...especially because hardly any young people actually buy magazines!

Simon Reynolds has hatched a theory about popular music tastes that he's developed by scanning the "best of the decade" lists from places like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The lists predominantly feature albums from the first half of the decade. You're likely to see albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Kid A, Stankonia, Is This It, Funeral, etc. dominating the list, while obviously great albums from the last couple years won't even break the top twenty. What's behind this trend? Well, Reynolds argues, it has nothing to do with the quality of music (in fact, each year brings new albums that are just as good, if not better, than the year before); it has little to do with having some distance from the album; it isn't even because lists are essentially vehicles for personal nostalgia (which I think to be the case). No, it's because we as listeners of popular music are less able to reach consensus on definitive albums (You can read his full article/theory here). Instead, because of a variety of factors, the pop music canon has become increasingly fragmented over time because there is exponentially more music being made today than yesterday; musicians now, more than ever, can pick from a growing range of genres and experiment. Add to that the decline physical media (cds, tapes, etc.), which has definitely had an effect on consumer habits and buying patterns.

This makes sense, especially when you consider how music is currently being produced and consumed, not to mention this decade's blatant shift from physical (both in print culture and music) to digital media. Reynolds also stresses that music responds to social need/convention. In other words, consensuss builds when we need it to. To use Reynolds' point against him, if you look at the beginning of the decade, there was a strong feeling of urgency about the music being made (a lot of fear, resentment, and so on). The future looked bleak and we needed albums to rally around. Looking back, it's hard to ignore the fact that 00, 01, and 02 are the most favoured years. And I don't think it's ludicrous to connect that with the 9/11 watershed (though I shudder at the thought). Like all historical measurements, commemorative lists are bound by the projections of their makers. That event was symbolic on a number of levels and we're bound to interpret the music from those years in light of what took place. Could something like this happen again in popular culture? The once powerful tastemakers like Rolling Stone and Spin aren't going to convince all of us that x or y have captured our cultural zeitgeist, but I think a lot of us will still be looking for someone to do so when catastrophe hits.