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Saturday, December 17, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Top 20 Songs of the Half-Decade -- Farewell Early 00's Edition
Farewell early 00's! We still haven't even agreed on a name for you, yet.
The less said about the events spanning from January 2001 through December 2005, the better. Not a lot of beauty, and more than a lot of ugliness. It's not an era too many people are liable to feel much nostalgia for, unless it is possible to become nostalgic for bad news.
So on to the music. What are the sounds of the early 00's you will be taking with you across the threshold into the late 00's, in a little over a week?
I'm going to have to stick with what I think was the best.
You're welcome to load up on what you like.
And somehow, we'll make it through.
My criteria: I have to love the song, the artist must be vaguely relevant in some way, all genres were open, although my tastes generally run toward rock. I allow myself one shamelessly guilty pleasure. Any song qualifies, didn't matter if it was a single or not; a few favorite album cuts made the list (in most cases, that is an indication that the whole album is pretty good) Here's what sat best with me; I'm sure I didn't hear a lot of good stuff...
Readers are encouraged to nominate their own favorites of the half-decade.
The best single year of the 00's for music? 2002, by far.
A top-20 playlist of the best tunes of the first half of the 00's: 2001-2005
1. Neko Case: Things That Scare Me
Neko Case is also among the finalists for artist of the first half decade; she's managed two vital careers, solo and with the New Pornographers. She's one of the most convincing alt-country artists, unconventional and smart with an indie rock epic. "Things That Scare Me" is spooky, scary, atmospheric, and earthy in its realism; its production gives it an epic quality that doesn't intrude; her vocal is rich and assured. From her 2002 disc Blacklisted, an excellent album; Furnace Room Lullaby from 2000 and The Tigers Have Spoken from 2004 are also very good albums. All right, I'm smitten, I'll admit it.
2. Death In Vegas: Scorpio Rising
"Scorpio Rising" gets props here, even if Death In Vegas' 00's output doesn't come close to The Contino Sessions from 1999. "Scorpio Rising", the title track from their 2002 album is a jagged and jaunty psychedelic rock number, sung by guest vocalist Liam Gallagher. Chock full of backwards guitars, sinewy bass, guitar crunch, ominous lyrics, a druggy haze, real propulsion, and spit and snot, it's one of the best psychedelic rock songs in many a moon. Unfortunately, that distinction may have hurt Death In Vegas; critical response of the day was lukewarm, suggesting the underground electronica masters had taken a overground rock turn. Maybe they did; but "Scorpio Rising" can also qualify as the best Oasis-related song in nearly a decade, too.
3. Bardo Pond: Inside
"Inside" is an 12-minute epic that relies on a bed of lower register staccato guitars, and the detached, filtered vocals of Isobel Sollenberger, which are double tracked and subjected to disorienting stereo separation; the tense drone of the music gradually builds to a smashing extended space rock hypno-freakout crescendo, full of sunburst splashes of feedback and crashing percussion. Bardo Pond, from Philadelphia, have been America's best space rock architects since 1996; Dilate, from 2002 was a giant leap forward for the band, and includes "Inside".
4. Eddie Vedder/Neil Young: Long Road [live]
This is the version that was performed Sept. 21, 2001 for the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" benefit. Vedder and Young had performed together before, but on that poignant night, the two of them together really seemed significant; like a bridge between the generations at a very sad time. Vedder's solemn vocal was a miracle; it may be his single greatest vocal performance, Young's familiar ragged guitar and presence seemed a tremendous reassurance. The song was originally done with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, it gained a whole new meaning on that night.
5. Sonic Youth: The Empty Page
Sonic Youth may be ancient history, but Murray Street was one of the best releases of 2002, and the band is pretty much the last interesting band of their generation. "The Empty Page" is a Thurston Moore song which takes the strange tunings, staccato rhythms, and outsider-psychodramatic lyrics, and reconfigures them into what may be the catchiest pop song of their career, without it ever coming even close to sounding like pop, a real achievement. The weird, discordant, swirl of a jam in the middle brings out their wall of noise and dissolves for an edgy low-volume, jangly, raga-rock-like guitar solo.
6. Jurassic 5: Sum of Us
In some ways, Los Angeles-based Jurassic 5 is a continuation of some of the classic sonic ideas Public Enemy explored, but with a post-Million Man March political sensibility. "Sum of Us" is a statement of purpose and a worthy credo that works its way into your head and stays there. The recording is both spare, but rich; the vocals are miked close, an upfront drum accentuates the breakbeat, and a simplistic, three-blind-mice style sample is what the song is hung on; the production walks a fine line between hip-hop and electronica. From Power In Numbers, released in 2002.
7. Zero 7: Somersault
"Somersault" is an irresistible confection; Sia Furler's alluring vocal sounds not unlike Minnie Riperton, and the warm instrumentation of electric piano, acoustic guitar, and chillroom drums 'n' bass gives the song a real lilt to it; the electronic strings flourishes on the chorus give the song an epic, cinematic sweep. At seven minutes, the song sways through several textures and tempos, but never wanders. It has also been tested out as makeout music; it works. Many Zero 7 fans prefer Simple Things from 2001, but the underappreciated When It Falls, from 2004, is a sultry good listen.
8. Wilco: Spiders (Kidsmoke)
You've got to hand it to Jeff Tweedy. There is absolutely no reason why he should have a career; he's done nearly everything wrong from the start. He broke up a great band, Uncle Tupelo. He pulled a Radiohead on his fans by largely abandoning the sound they loved him for, in favor of following his muse into uncharted territories. He told Warner Brothers to screw off, gave away music for free on the internet, fired his guitarist. And here he is, riding high, with one of the most interesting bodies of work in rock history at this point, and seemingly just coming into his peak, fifteen years after his debut. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" would never make anyone guess they're listening to one of the architects of alternative country rock; utterly devoid of country, it's an 11-minute epic with an electronica sensibility to its long, extended, droning verses, and hard guitar-rock choruses.
9. The White Stripes: Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)
The White Stripes bassless barebones sound didn't leave a whole lot to hang a song on, and they always stood in danger of failing to live up to the intense hype that's been heaved at them, including the dreaded "saviors of rock" title. However, there have been precious few bands dealing in what is undeniably heavy, experimental rock of late; and album by album they've managed to amass one of the most consistently compelling, if not quite uniformly excellent, bodies of work in the 00's. Get Behind Me Satan manages to up the texture quotient without betraying their barebones structure; as a result, it was their most varied and satisfying effort. "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" isn't the best cut on the album (I give that nod to "Nurse", or maybe "My Doorbell"), but its foggy Exile On Main Street vibe coupled with fuzzy keyboards that almost sounds like a steel drum, wins me over for its primitive inventiveness.
10. Beck: E-Pro
Guero is easily Beck's best record since Odelay, taking much more advantage of his eclectic talents. "E-Pro" is like an updated "Devil's Haircut" sonically, with heavy lo-fi guitars and vocal filters; he delivers the vocal with a swing over a hip-hop breakbeat and an almost glam-rock wall of distorted sound; despite its myriad of musical references, not minor among them Odelay, it avoids sounding like a retread. Beck doesn't exactly break new ground on Guero, but he does refine his essential sound, giving it added depth. He also has a rare talent for being funny without being corny or smartass.
11. Death Cab For Cutie: The New Year
Thank God for Death Cab For Cutie. The opening chords come crashing out, and you know rock isn't dead yet; there's real meat on the bones. Between choruses, the song breaks into a more loping tempo that is awash in ambient feedback; the lyrics and vocals shine. Death Cab For Cutie's mix of grunge, indie rock, and an almost Britpop approach to song structure, blends into hooks that are never gratuitous; you can replay their albums without getting sick of them too fast.
12. The New Pornographers: All For Swinging You Around
The New Pornographers have a real way with a song, coming up with wildly fresh joyous pop hooks embedded in a crisp, crunchy, fuzzy, harmonic indie rock that borrows cues from history but almost never uses them as intended; their albums are filled with pop classics that have been turned inside out, flipped backwards, dismantled and reassembled, and twisted into knots. The result is power pop for sophisticates; it's hard to single out a best song for them, but "All For Swinging You Around", from Electric Version, has got to be one of the most instantly winning; the chorus is as catchy as any 60's song ever written. Or 80's song.
13. Mercury Rev: Secret For A Song
This has a nice epic construction that features prominent keyboards, dreamy harmonic vocals, noise-pop feedback textures, a busy and bouncy bass, and a grandiose build-up that is full of tension and release and an almost jazzy complexity. Mercury Rev are oldtimers at this point, but The Secret Migration is one of the best sounding albums of 2005, with a majesty to it few bands achieve, one of the few 90's noise-pop/dream-pop bands to still sound vital and fresh.
14. Soundtrack Of Our Lives: Ten Years Ahead
Soundtrack Of Our Lives is a veteran Swedish band that borrows deeply from 60's and 70's musical cues, especially psychedelic, progressive, garage rock, and heavy metal and reimagines them in entirely new configurations that seem at once familiar and alien, but are also almost instantly winning. "Ten Years Ahead" is a shimmering psychedelic pop song, built upon a bed of acoustic guitars with a latticework of tuneful electric on top; it's hooky, pretty, elegiac. Perhaps its symptomatic of rock in the 00's that so much of it references the past, but Soundtrack Of Our Lives puts a good contemporary spin on them.
15. The Polyphonic Spree: Hold Me Now
It's tempting to dismiss Polyphonic Spree as an easy listening band in disguise; they set out for lushness at the outset; it's what they're all about. However, there's a certain humor in what they do that is ultimately subversive; the over-the-top arrangements aren't without irony, but deliver the goods nonetheless. "Hold Me Now" recalls some of the majesty of orchestral Beatles, with its arpeggios, tempo shifts and third-person account. Another good one is the Polyphonic Spree Remix of Death In Vegas' "Scorpio Rising". "Hold Me Now" is from Together We're Heavy, released in 2004.
16. Cat Power: Good Woman
It's surprising to think that Cat Power has been around for over a decade now; only recently has Chan Marshall's vehicle gained any kind of mainstream notice. During all those years, she hasn't drifted far from her lo-fi sadcore roots, but she has gained resonance and strength in her songwriting and voice; You Are Free was perhaps her first really excellent album, and "Good Woman" is a jaw-droppingly sad song that relishes its own feedback from Marshall's lone guitar as her vocal conveys convincing hurt in an alternative country rock voice.
17. Radiohead: 2+2=5
It's unclear if Radiohead is on its way up or down at this late stage in the game; Hail To The Thief, from 2003, seemed to suggest both at the same time. It was a much more conventional album than they've come up with lately, even if it still hovered on the fringes; however, it also brought back a lot of the guitar textures they had phased out or muted on OK Computer and Kid A. 2+2=5 gets some of its emotional depth from its insistent minor key, its strange mutedness was an odd way to open an album, but it nonetheless carries an almost operatic low-key grandeur during the first half, which recalls Jeff Buckley to a degree, before launching into a noise-rock section that sounds like a cross between Sonic Youth and Public Image Limited.
18. Courtney Love: Sunset Strip
I know some people will think I'm crazy, but I'm not willing to give up on Courtney Love just yet. Not when she can still come up with songs like "Sunset Strip" which shows her just as she's always been, a spitfire with a roar that compensates for a fragile, naked femininity she's always had. While this may well be symptomatic of deeper personal issues that play out on tabloid pages, she's never put on any airs, or claimed to be anything she's not. "Sunset Strip" delivers the same thrills "Malibu" and "Violet" did; a mellow, California-ized melody underneath a surprisingly tuneful raw-throated and shouted vocal; lyrics seemingly as honest than John Lennon's (or Kurt Cobain's) ever were. I sure do hope she pulls things together. She's still 100% rock 'n' roll. America's Sweetheart has plenty of good songs; "All The Drugs" is a pretty frank slab of real rock, too.
19. Juana Molina: No es tan Cierto
This is my guilty pleasure inclusion. Juana Molina is an Argentine comedienne-turned-electronica artist. Despite that suspect resume, her music is innovative, mysterious, sultry, sexy, strange. She writes, produces, and performs, demonstrating she's for real. "No es tan Cierto" features a lovely otherworldly melody that sounds like a walk through a garden of deadly nightshade; its chorus is of peculiar melodic construction but is an instant grabber; her vocals have a siren-like fatale quality, a plus. From Tres Cosas, her 2004 album, which was her third.
20. Eels: Trouble With Dreams
Leaving Dreamworks did E (Mark Oliver Everett) a lot of good. For one thing, it cut his budget; he couldn't clutter up the production like he used to. This means that his second release after his return to indie-land, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, has to go farther with less; E proves to be just the man for the job. "Trouble With Dreams" sounds something like a cross between Beck and Folk Implosion; it has a lo-fi drums 'n' bass sensibility and plenty of electronica textures, including a great organ. The song's simple descending-chord structure gives it the instant catchiness of a garage rocker, the production manages to get all the weird sounds in there, from a ticking alarm clock to ghostly synth washes, but the song keeps an agreeable simplicity as well. Tuneful, with good self-depreciating lyrics.
What surprised me when I compiled this was how little, apparently, I've been taken with the rock music of the last five years, and I don't think it's because I suddenly turned fogey. I was also surprised how many women made the list; I'm not sure what that means. Hard rock is notably absent, and not because I didn't want to hear some. Peer-to-peer sharing, CD prices, record industry consolidation, radio format changes, cross marketing... All have been major factors in the past half-decade, and have left their mark on the industry and the music. There just weren't very many quality releases in the first half of the 00's, and a remarkably tiny number of "must-have's".
To the late 00's!
Listen to The New Pornographers: All For Swinging You Around (2003)
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