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?

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