Ah the mystery of where the band name starts and the album title begins. I am not a lyrics guy. It is a well-joked-over aspect of my life that I never know the words to anything. So I suppose it’s worth noting that this is a record where the words are the most important part. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star was a quiet sort of revolution: not positive, not violent, not even really sad, just descriptive, in lines and passages that make it seem like the easiest and most obvious thing in the world. On the one hand, it’s a shame that instead of making another record together1 they have become an actor and a guy who makes concept records complaining about being pigeonholed (without, it must be pointed out, actually changing anything about what he does). On the other hand, how would you follow that up?
Jason Molina seemed to be unique in inverse proportion to the number of people that were likely to be listening. I’ve already covered how his records became more and more by-the-numbers as he went on, but it’s almost taken to the point of parody with his best record, The Ghost. Not to be confused Ghost Tropic, the widely-released follow-up to Axxess & Ace, The Ghost was a limited-run tour-only record made by playing songs into a boombox, and thus stands as the most striking thing he’s ever done. And the most striking thing Jason Molina has ever done is just about some of the most striking work anyone has ever done. This record also probably deserves some sort of credit for being able to sustain the most dreadful, miserable tone (and I mean that in the way that it is full of both dread and misery – it’s a compliment) of any record I think I’ve ever heard.
I think at this point one of the assumptions it’s fair to make about me is that, while I, for the most part, enjoy music that challenges or redefines or reshapes the way I hear other things, I am also completely vulnerable to a sad fuckup who can’t even write ten great songs in a row. Ryan Adams’ relationship with country music itself tends to careen around like a drunk on a moped, but it’s hard not to see the move of following up his stint in the alt-country-establishment-approved Whiskeytown by hooking up with unimpeachably old-timey duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings2 to record a bunch of songs that, for better or for worse, could be looked at as ground zero for essentially every record he’d make since. And none of that is as interesting as the fact that “Come Pick Me Up,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Bartering Lines” are enough to qualify him as the equal of any other songwriter ever to wander around, and also that Ryan Adams is right: “Suedehead” is on Bona Drag, and is only on Viva Hate because it’s a single. I hope he got that five dollars.
HONORABLE MENTION: Basically the opposite of Heartbreaker, Outkast’s Stankonia is easily among the best hip-hop records ever made, if not, in fact, the actual best (that still is probably Illmatic). It’s also the last record they made as a record by an actual rapping duo. Sigh. Anyway, it’s not as good as Heartbreaker, but it’s still better than most other things.
I should probably point out that back at the 1997 entry I said it was pretty much the point where my favorite at the time merged with what I feel is the best record now. Because otherwise the last three are going to paint some weird portrait of me as a miserable, miserable bastard. Which is apparently what I am now. Actually, I’ve never considered listening to The Ghost and then Heartbreaker and then Things We Lost in the Fire, but I’d imagine it would actually be pretty comfoting – Things We Lost in the Fire, without any increased volume or aggression, is one of the most cathartic albums I’ve ever heard. It’s worth noting that if you can find the foreign version, which has “Don’t Carry it All” on it, the album becomes even moreso, but even ending on “In Metal” means that the record has a scouring effect.
HONORABLE MENTION: Spoon’s Girls Can Tell is the first great Spoon album, and also the clearest statement of intent. They’d pretty much work within that template the whole time, which is fine. On a different day, it could be in this spot instead of Things We Lost in the Fire, but it doesn’t have anything as good as “Sunflower” on it.
Albums are often praised as “growers” – they don’t seem to make much sense at first, and then as you spend a little more time with them, you learn how they work and they start to make more sense. Lambchop is a Woman is probably the groweriest of growers that ever grew, which can’t possibly have been intentional but also fits perfectly with Kurt Wagner’s sense of humor: the sad, minimalist, sparse album is the one that reveals itself slowly over time, in a way that his huge, big-band country albums never did. Even moreso than the fact that it took over a dozen people to make a record that sounds this small.
Which I suppose segues perfectly into the fact that it only took three people to make a record that sounds this huge. Recorded directly to tape in one take, Akuma No Uta is the second of Boris’ more-rockin’ records (their first three were pretty seriously drone-y doom metal), it’s also their most successful tempering of their rad-dude-riffability with their ability to create unearthly, completely impenetrable noise around it. It’s easily the biggest-sounding record ever to be made by three teeny-tiny people. It’s also instructive to see a band so relentlessly pursue new ways of making heady, cerebral music by means of record-collector-y reference (usually the purview of “tasteful” indie rock bands) and extreme volume (which tends to either be straight-up rock music or the power electronics/japanoise end of things, although it is worth pointing out that Boris’ records with Merzbow are still better than any of your favorite band’s records).
In 2004, Kanye West declared a nonspecific “we” to be at war with racism, at war with terrorism, and most of all, at war with ourselves. And thus it was that Jay-Z’s (and also Common’s) producer began his assent to the most polarizing, the most publicly visible, and the most fun to talk about figure in hip hop in just ten years. While it’s funny to go back and listen to it (especially since this is written in the wake of the summer of Yeezus) knowing where Ye, and hip hop in general, would go, it’s also apparent with this much distance just how singular was Kanye’s talent. Of course, I don’t know how I missed it: he kept telling me over and over (and over) again. Not as emotionally raw as 808s and Heartbreak or Yeezus, The College Dropout is still Kanye realizing that his path as a rapper was not even through his then-associate Common’s sermons (he didn’t have all the answers like Common seemed to) or through his off-and-on-mentor Jay Z’s impersonal reportage (he was too earnest to hold himself in that kind of remove), but by taking what he could from each and adding a pretty healthy dose of whatever it was he was going through at the time – in this case a car accident – and he could find his own path as an MC. He would never stop being a better producer than rapper3, or at least he hasn’t yet, but he figured out a way on The College Dropout for that not to matter so much.
At the end of the nineties, Sleater-Kinney made a pair of life-changing records, that didn’t make any major breaks with tradition or their own fandoms, but nevertheless synthesized it all into something that was quite unique4. And then, for the early part of last decade, they kind of pleasantly jogged from place to place. The Hot Rock (their best album) seemingly left them at the end of the line they’d started out travelling, and so they made a couple of poppier-seeming albums, and then delivered their final pitch, in which their former resistance to being really loud seemed to be lifted. It’s an album that deals almost entirely in volume and aggression (it’s worth noting that the single, and the song that either everyone tends to like the most or the least is “Modern Girl,” and it’s the only song that’s slow and pretty, and it sounds like “The Size of Our Love”’s boring cousin), and even ends in an extended guitar-solo-y, wank-y jam that is also a song about fucking. And yet, despite all of that against it, it’s also as exciting a song as they managed, and it left the listeners with the idea that the band could have done anything.
Xiu Xiu’s entire career has been a high point, and they probably (I didn’t officially keep track) had the most “second-best albums” of any given year of any band on the list. But The Air Force is pretty untoppable5, from it’s opening salvo (“Buzzsaw,” “Boy Soprano,” “Hello From Eau Claire”) that’s most band’s three best songs total wouldn’t beat, and all of which are bested by “Save Me, Save Me” (well, except maybe “Boy Soprano.” There isn’t much that can do better than “Boy Soprano”). It takes a pretty pompous person to write about music, ultimately: Frank Zappa’s oft-quoted gripe that it was “like dancing about architecture” is more than a little true. So writing about music really has to be writing about yourself: you can’t hide behind a couple of hundred years of academia like you can with a book or a painting. All of which is to say: at a certain point talking about toy keyboards and vocal effects, about gender-swapping in lyrics or about the idea of using vulnerability as a weapon is a great way to dissect what makes something work. But unlike with, say, Tortoise or REM, talking about why Xiu Xiu works is an exercise almost independent for the fact of the band working. So click above, and if it doesn’t work for you give me a call and we’ll talk about sexual politics and the reversal of rock’s dynamics as a way of being aggressive.
1 actually, they meant to make a solo record each, but they liked the way they sounded together, so they put off making solo records and made the record together. Sometimes it seems that the reason there’s never a Black Star “reunion” is that Black Star, in and of itself, were never that tightly organized a relationship.
2 that sounds unduly hard on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, which isn’t fair: I quite like them. I like their records a whole bunch. What I don’t like is the cult of authenticity that their fans often use them to represent. How much of that can be blamed on them would be an interesting thing to debate, but I’m not going to do that here.
3 and he would never be a better rapper than he was a master of dick jokes
4 I’ve never really noticed how much of what I like about Sleater-Kinney is basically the same as what I like about Boris. They also both have phenomenal drummers and no dedicated bass player – Takeshi has the double-necked guitar on which he generally abandons the bass for their noodlier bits, and Corin Tucker generally EQs all the high end out of her guitar
5 of course, so was La Foret and Life and Live, but you just read about The Woods, and Women as Lovers came out the same year as Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill