I remember listening to Original Pirate Material incessantly in winter of 2002. I was, inexplicably, teaching seventh grade and living at home at the time. I'm not sure what these things have to do with Original Pirate Material's impact on me - but there you have it. I'm setting a scene, you know?
Maybe I was a pleeb as it related to hip hop at the time, but Original Pirate Material was like nothing I had ever heard. It was sparse - you couldn't actually dance to it. It was amateurish, like couldn't anyone do this? Well, maybe - but Mike Skinner (The Streets) had this innate charm about him. He seemed like he was your pal.
I used to go to this local pub in my hometown a lot during that winter. I would just show up. I wouldn't necessarily make plans to meet people there, I'd just go and more often than not there was someone there to talk to. It was kind of great. I am always reminded of this time when I revisit Original Pirate Material and not just because it was sound tracking that time of my life, but rather because that's the scene Skinner paints. Original Pirate Material, at its core, is a record about a guy and a scene - but not necessarily an extraordinary guy - just a regular one who smokes cigarettes and drinks pints with his mates (Skinner's British). That's basically what I was doing too and who I was. I could really relate to it at the time.
I've loved other Streets records, most notably A Grand Don't Come For Free, but OPM was just one of those records that I found at a time when I needed it. I wasn't unhappy - far from it actually - but it was certainly that transition period in my life. 22 and unsure of what to do. I could have kept going and there would have been nothing wrong with that - but I didn't and I'm still not sure if it was the right choice. I love OPM because it reminds me of the kid I was at 22...and because it's really quite awesome.
I had been nursing a pretty serious crush on Jenny Lewis since the first time I saw her in "The Wizard" oh about 100 years ago. Then she started Rilo Kiley and every indie rock boy in the world followed suit. Jenny Lewis just has it. That intangible thing that makes people fall in love with her. Granted, she's very attractive and that certainly has a lot to do with it, but it's more than her looks. She's just, she's just I don't know...she's just great.
I have stuck by Jenny through thick and thin as a fan of her band and as a solo artist (I happen to think Under the Blacklight is a tremendously underrated record and though not as smitten with Acid Tongue as I expected, I still managed to whittle it down to a pretty classic EP) but upon my first listen of Rabbit Fur Coat I, and many others, knew this was an artist that was sticking around no matter what.
I went to see Rilo Kiley on their More Adventurous tour and after they played "I Never" (a beautiful ballad that is a highlight of the band's output) an older guy turned to me and said "now why don't they just make a record of songs like that?" Well, they never made that record, but Jenny did and it's called Rabbit Fur Coat. Rabbit Fur Coat owes as much to blue eyed soul as it does country. It's a record of twists and turns and it was a truly star making turn for Jenny Lewis. The comparisons to early Linda Rondstadt are apt, but if you ask me Jenny's better.
Jenny's decision to employ backing vocals from the Watson Twins was a brilliant one and their contribution to the record cannot be overstated, as they make an already sparkling record shimmer. While Jenny's the star of the show, of course, it's refreshing to see her share billing with the Twins as they make Rabbit Fur Coat the classic I believe it is.
For Emma, Forever Ago is a record so steeped in lore that it's story has become an integral part of ones enjoyment of it. You probably know this already, but should you not, For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded by one dude, Justin Vernon, in his father's Wisconsin cabin after a particularly difficult break-up (or two, he also broke his band up in this process) in the dead of winter. Making For Emma was supposed to be a cathartic experience for an audience of, well, a few. Regardless of Vernon's intentions, the record ended up becoming one of the most buzzed about of the decade and made an unlikely superstar out of the man that made it.
And, make no mistake about it, For Emma, Forever Ago is a gorgeous record and the heaps of praise bestowed upon it are more than justified. For Emma was an absolute phenomenon - originally self released where it gained some buzz and then picked up by indie label jagjaguar shortly after and immediately becoming THE indie rock record of 2007.
For Emma, Forever Ago may make you sad, I'm sure it's had that effect on some people, but ultimately it's transcendent in its sadness. I have this weird desire to be able to feel that sad. To be able to tap into these feelings the way Vernon does. It just seems so cathartic and in many ways, romantic. Imagine just taking months out of your life to hole yourself up in a cabin and then coming away from that experience with these songs...with a bona fide masterpiece. It takes guts to do that. And the fact that that wasn't even his plan...well, artists you know?
I've listened to For Emma, Forever Ago quite often since it's release and it never ceases to impress me. Most records that go through the hype machine the way this one did emerge a bit worse for wear, but For Emma never does. I think it's because it's so raw. It's so honest. The content is the very definition of beauty and you can see it when you close your eyes. The snow turning to ice on the trees. The wind knocking against the windows. These songs feel like that, they feel like winter and I guess if you don't love that, you may not love this record quite as much as I do.
Ghostface Killah is my favorite rapper.
There you have it. No one, to me, is as adept at creating what could be cinema with his rhymes. I've often thought of Ghost as the Martin Scorcesse of rap. I can see his stories play out in vivid pictures in my head when I listen to a great Ghost track and Fishscale is chock full of them - what he calls on "The Champ" "verbal street opera".
Ghost's shit is grimy, never pretty but it's also wonderfully offbeat and witty. The samples and beats are good, but they take a sure-fire backseat to Ghost who is always the star of the show as he should be. He's got a way about him. He's a star. He can be scary as shit, but he's also lovable as hell. Ghost has a sense of humor and is one of the few rappers unafraid to be vulnerable - a truly ballsy thing in the very dick swinging world of hip hop.
Ghost is absolutely nuts on Fishscale. "Kilo" has a sing-along alphabet-like chorus that explains how to measure coke for distribution. "Shaky Dog" is an absolute masterpiece - the story of a robbery gone bad that concludes with Ghost warning the listener that it's "to be continued" and I'm still waiting for the sequel. There's "9 Milli Bros" - the best Wu Tang track since their first record. There's "Back Like That" a Ne-Yo guesting slow jam that shows the softer side of Ghost and of course "Underwater" wherein Ghost sings about fucking a mermaid long before The Lonely Island and T-Pain did.
One of the most unique things about Ghost is his love of and subsequent use of soul music in his recordings. It gives Ghost's records a timeless feel and it's all over Fishscale. The shades of music past are present and it makes for a better and more interesting listen than most hip hop full lengths released this decade, that it's not even the best record he released in the 2000s is almost impossible to believe...but it's true.
The fact that Modest Mouse, a left of center rock band with a lisped lead singer, managed to have a bona fide Billboard hit "Song of the Summer" candidate was strange enough, that said song was a wholly unironic suggestion that in the end everything will turn out alright is one of the most wonderfully weird things to happen in pop music this decade.
"Float On" is a killer single. It works on every level and absolutely deserved to be the hit song that launched Modest Mouse into countless living rooms, but I always wonder what those "Float On" people thought when they brought Good News For People Who Love Bad News home and put it on for the first time.
They were probably on board to start. "The World At Large" is inoffensive enough and "Float On" is the barnburner and second single "The Ocean Breathes Salty" is darker, but doesn't really sound it, you know? But then it gets fun as "Bury Me With It" is a blistering assault with a trademark Isaac Brock lung shredding chorus (especially on the word "PLEASE!!!")
This is where Modest Mouse newbies either jumped off or went along for the ride. If they stuck around they were rewarded with one of the most twisted pop records of that year. "Dance Hall" is a what-the-fuck-should-have-been-a-throwaway but somehow has managed to define that record for me because it's so immediately uninviting with it's staccato arrangement and indecipherable lyrics, but fuck if it's not catchy as hell.
And from there it goes on. Good News For People Who Love Bad News is a typically reliable Modest Mouse record. It's a funhouse of left turns, quotable lyrics and definitive moments like "The View" and "Black Cadillacs." Modest Mouse, like Spoon, don't make duds. They come to play and are constantly looking to best themselves. For me personally, they are this generations Pixies only (gasp!) better. Good News may not be their best record but it still manages to find pretty good placing on this list which is about all that needs to be said in it's favor.
From one of the catchiest and easy-to-like pop gems of the decade to one of the strangest.
Cellar Door was my first John Vanderslice record and since then he's become one of my favorite artists - but there's a special place in my heart for Cellar Door. I cannot tell you why I bought this record. I'm sure there was press and I had read it and it probably sounded like something I'd like, so I bought it. But previously John Vanderslice was not on my radar even though he was associated with bands that I already grown to love.
Listening to this record was something of a revelation. It was pop music, but it wasn't any kind of pop music I had been previously associated with. It's weird...and dark and meticulously crafted which at times makes it feel sort of cold, but not in a bad way if that makes sense. It's highly produced, but not over produced. There's a lot going on but it feels spare. It's a record full of wonderfully strange contradictions.
What was most appealing to me about Vanderslice at the time was what a great storyteller he was. He paints vivid pictures of characters, most notably the unhappy man held in check by his powerful family in "They Won't Let Me Run" as well as a group of men sadly fighting their own demons while also fighting in various wars in "Heated Pool and Bar." These songs are so effective in putting the listener somewhere and as a lyric guy myself, I was so intrigued by them.
I have very vivid memories of falling in love with Cellar Door. I was a Page at NBC when the record came out and still lived at home. I had about a three hour round trip commute and this was the beginning of 2004 and believe it or not, I didn't yet have an ipod. I would lug a discman on the train and literally listen to Cellar Door over and over and over again - something people tend to not do very much anymore. It was also the dead of winter (the record was released in January). Cellar Door immediately drops me back in those moments and there are only a few records that still do that for me. These are the records that are so of a place and time for you personally that they always have some emotional effect on you. Cellar Door is a record that while I don't necessarily relate to many of the characters is still an incredibly personal one for me.
I was 23.
Mass Romantic the record opens with "Mass Romantic" the song - an immediate hook-filled pronouncement by a band with enough chops that they would go on to more or less preside over the indie rock world for this entire decade. In 2000 though The New Pornographers were just a cleverly titled side project of some yet to be all that successful Canadian pop-heads. They were, and still are, led by Carl Newman who can best be described as this generations (add your own old pop genius here. I like Robyn Hitchcock.) So, in short The New Pornographers are awesome.
Mass Romantic was a refreshing return to pop for indie rock - a world that had become saddled by a whole lot of sad sack-y moping and if not that exactly then just a general lack of fun. But The Pornographers were certainly fun while still taking their arrangements seriously. These songs are superbly crafted pop gems that should have all been hits. "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism" may not sound like the sunniest topic to write a song about, but holy shit - it's one of the catchiest things I've ever heard.
When Mass Romantic was released in 2000, I was a junior in college and I was just finishing up a pop punk phase that had steered me through high school and right about up to that point (mostly Fat Wreck Chords, Epitaph and Lookout bands - things like that). Mass Romantic sort of re-invigorated a love of indie rock and more importantly, pop music, that was always there, but had been laying a little dormant. They are, in my opinion, so much more than just a supergroup, so much more than a side project - they're probably one of the top five bands of this decade and certainly one of my faves period. That this, their debut, sounds as good today as it did nearly nine years ago is amazing. It hasn't aged a day. It's gotten better.
Mass Romantic is also the home of the definitive New Pornographers song, the one that - if you're only gonna be able to listen to one - would probably it...the great, "Letter From An Occupant." It's rollicking and driving and the harmonies are seemingly off-kilter but at the same time absolutely perfect and it's Neko...oh Neko. What can I say? "Letter From An Occupant", like the rest of Mass Romantic and the whole New Pornographer canon is more than a song. It makes you want to be a New Pornographer. It makes you feel like you're at a party with these people who are having more fun than any other group of people has ever had in the history of fun and times, which is the greatest feeling a band can give you.
Plus the lyric, "I've cried five rivers on the way here/Which one will you skate away on?"
The Black Album was, famously, supposed to be Jay-Z's last record. His retirement record. Regardless, there wasn't much fear from Hova's fans that this would actually be it - meaning we didn't feel like we were going to be hearing Jay's last record...until we heard it.
I'm not saying Jay fooled us - he didn't - but what he did do was a craft a record that felt like a swan song and had he actually hung it up, it would have been a high note to go out on. He would have, effectively, quit while he was ahead.
But, of course the Jay-Z retirement was like many retirements before it - all hype and Jay has since returned with records both triumphant (American Gangster) and disappointing (Kingdom Come), but The Black Album was the last time that Jay put together something completely and totally brilliant. In 2003 Jay was the best rapper alive. Bar none. No arguments.
Only Jay could open a record with his mother speaking about how he was the only one of her children to not give her any pain, which made her know that he was "a special child." It's so self-important and bragadocious and in any other hands it would have been as eye-rolly as possible, but here it works. I still can't explain why, but it does. "Encore", "Change Clothes", "Dirt Off Your Shoulder", "99 Problems", "PSA", "What More Can I Say"- all classics. All indelible, unforgettable moments on a record filled with them.
My favorite Jay-Z song happens to be The Black Album's "Threat." It just feels truer than anything else. It's spare, relying on the beat and a single piano loop and puts the spotlight on Jay the storyteller. It's a song about a famous guy who has it all, but still - even then - he's got to be on his toes. It's as paranoid a hip hop track as has ever been recorded thrown smack dab in the middle of an otherwise triumphant victory lap. It's a weird, but ultimately bold choice that sums up the artist - wonderfully complicated
Country music is a funny thing. It's not cool, you know? A lot of people talk about how they hate country music. You know these people, they're the same people who when asked what kind of music they like they say something along the lines of "I like everything...except country" (some of these people also say "I like everything except country...and rap" but they're just racist).
These people who blindly hate country music have probably never listened to country music. Sure, they may have heard a Brad Paisley tune or some Big and Rich and Faith Hill, but come on?! Country music is the single most misunderstood genre of music period. When country is good, I'd argue, it's some of the best music there is, but when it's bad it's Shania Twain - so it's a tough road to navigate. But if you're interested Loretta Lynn is not a bad place to start.
Country music is so uniquely American and Lynn is one of it's greatest treasures. She's always written and performed with raw and honest emotion and it's no different here on what may be the best record of her career. Jack White has always made his fondness for Lynn's music known, covering her classic "Rated X" in concert and dedicating The White Stripes' whitebloodcells to her and as a producer he's managed to bring out the absolute best in this heralded artist.
Van Lear Rose was certainly a comeback record for Lynn, but novelty it is not. This is not an artist phoning it in and trying to make a buck, rather it's one with a invigorated sense of creativity and she's used it to make a classic country record. It's at time a lot of fun ("Portland, Oregon") and others emotionally wrought ("Miss Being Mrs.") - but it's all around brilliant. It's Loretta Lynn in rare form making a record not because she has to but because she was inspired and that makes all the difference.
Interpol are annoying. What with their outfits and hair and Carols D and everything. But in 2002 they made a record. It was really, really great.
They were still annoying, but they managed to be annoying second and pretty awesome first. Living in New York I, of course, grew to eye roll when someone would bring Interpol up and I've had bouts of revisionist history where I've convinced myself that even Turn on the Bright Lights was an overrated record. It's not.
Some of my favorite bands are Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs - yes, I love 80's "new wave." I love it a lot. It didn't soundtrack my youth, but yes, it did. It's timeless teenage mope music. I bring this up because you couldn't read a sentence about Interpol in 2002 without stumbling across a Joy Division comparison. Do Interpol sound like Joy Division and the other bands I mentioned? Yes. But in a good way. And "Subway, she is a porno" so...
Turn on the Bright Lights is often talked about as being very "of a particular moment." I don't know what that means seeing as how this sound was very "of a particular moment" almost 20 years before Turn on the Bright Lights was even conceived. I will say this, listening to Turn on the Bright Lights brings me back to that specific time and place in my life more than most records, so maybe they're right.
It was 2002. I was 22. I had just graduated college and was teaching seventh grade and living back at home with my parents in Queens. On the weekends, I would head to the city and sleep on my friend Mike's couch. He lived on west 8th street, across the street from the Grey's Papaya. We were young. Had no real worries yet. It was a great time. Turn on the Bright Lights was one of the records that soundtracked that year. That these were New York guys singing about New York and hanging out in the same bars that I was added a bit to the mix, I'm sure.
My affection for Turn on the Bright Lights isn't only sentimental, I still happen to think it's a great record. Songs like "NYC", "PDA" and "Obstacle 1" are some of the best and most enduring of the decade. It may not be the most original record of the aughts, but whatever. If it was, I doubt I'd like it as much anyway.
Because I'm not British, I came late to the Arctic Monkeys party and by late I mean not six months before they released their spectacular debut, Whatever People Say I Am That Is What I'm Not. I was there when the record came out, but in this day and age that still makes you a latecomer.
"You haven't heard the EP's?!!!"
Anyway, I probably should have been predisposed to hate Arctic Monkeys. The signs were all there - stupid band name, the fact they're kids (hardscrabble kids, yes but kids nonetheless) and then, of course there's the hype machine. But what they also had was a great record and in the end that's the most important thing.
Say what you want about Alex Turner, but you can't deny he's one a helluva lyric writer. His songs are filled with minute details that make them pop and the thing I like most about Arctic Monkeys is they write what they know - getting into fights, hanging out at clubs, run-ins with the cops, misadventures with girls - and this gives these songs an energetic authenticity that their actual youth compliments.
Alex Turner has proven to be a very prolific diarist - releasing two more good to great Monkeys records and one with his side project The Last Shadow Puppets since Whatever People Say's release in2006, but it's still Whatever People Say that captures the moment more than any other. Here are a bunch of blue collar raised kids going from zero to a hundred in a blink of an eye while singing about being blue collar kids. It's a great story and so far no one's fucked it up, so that's adds an extra level.
The only thing working against them is the fact that Whatever People Say concludes with "A Certain Romance" and it's not going to be easy for the boys to best that song. It's the standout on the record and of the band's entire catalog. It's a truly great moment as it's the most mature song on the record and a sure sign that they can wax a bit intellectually about all the fights they're getting into. They know it's not always sexy, but (and perhaps more importantly) they also know that sometimes it still is.
Eminem has always elicited, in me, contradictory feelings. On the one hand at his best (here) he's a gifted artist and as technically proficient a rapper as has ever been and on the other hand he's still these things but he's also a misogynistic homophobe who relishes in tales of murdering his wife.
Hmmm... What to do. What to do
I've certainly had a hard time with a lot of Em's work, but even as brutal as it gets, and it can get brutal (I always have a particularly hard time with "Kim") I have a certain fondness for The Marshall Mathers LP. For my money, It's Em's best work as an artist and as a producer. As a whole it works better than anything he's ever done and "Stan" will always stand as being one of the greatest, and certainly most interesting rap singles ever released.
Back in 2000 when The Marshall Mathers LP was released, Eminem was a controversy courting and very polarizing artist whose work was simultaneously lauded and derided. Now, no one really cares. That's amazing to me. I know he still records and his last record went number 1 and all, but shit, it didn't register a blip on my radar. I hated that single.
I figured Eminem was an artist that was going to be reckoned with for a long, long time. An artist that would challenge the public constantly by using his flaws to point out ours, but instead he's still writing Mariah Carey diss tracks in 2009. While it's clear I've struggled with his work, he was at least doing that - causing me and others to struggle to like his music despite the sometimes unsavory topics.
Now, he's just boring.
But, there was a moment back in 2000 when Slim Shady was it and I can't take that away from him. Listening to The Marshall Mathers LP today, it is clear that despite what's become of Mr. Mathers, he had at least one sharp, devastating, classic record in him. The Marshall Mathers LP hits the same marks today that it set out to nearly ten years ago and that's the mark of a truly great record.
But it still looses points for "Ken Kaniff."
"Dueling cyclones jackknife/They make eyes at your wife/And the blood that lives in her/Heart"
So begins "Rubies" the opening track to Destroyer's greatest achievement to date Destroyer's Rubies and, incidentally, the single best almost ten minute song of the decade. A lot can be made of "Rubies" - for starters if you don't like it, well then you won't like Destroyer. It's lyrically dense and long and probably a little bit self indulgent. It takes no clear course, but rather it unfolds in directions one may not expect, but if you deconstruct the track it's actually a really great pop song.
That's Destroyer. Come in and join the part or don't. Either way.
Destroyer's Rubies is Dan Bejar's strongest full length album as statement (though you mat get a mouthful from those die-hards who will hear of nothing other than Streethawk: A Seduction) and also his most easy to like. Dan Bejar's a weird dude and so is a lot of music. He's rubbed me the wrong way at times just for coming off, and I'm coining a term here, "way-way-hipster" and that's not to say it doesn't exist on Destroyer's Rubies, it does, but it's toned down a bit. Take "Painter in Your Pocket" - it becomes a goddamn sing-along by the time it reaches it's climax. Also, "European Oils"? Come on...
I've had a very difficult time trying to get people behind this record and I have one friend in particular, Sarah Walker I'm looking at you, who when I make a record request now meets it with "It's not like that fucking Destroyer album is it?" And I can't fault her for that. I get that it can be off putting, but I also remember how enraptured I was by "Rubies" when I first heard it . There are times that I think I may overrate the record as a whole because of how much I love that song. This may be the case, but the fact that I still listen to the whole thing after that strong an opening track alleviates those fears just a bit.
And also, the cover is great.