Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Best of the Decade: Music

The first decade of the 21st century is winding down and just like every other decade cultural commentators and people who make a living following the entertainment industry are going to start compiling lists of the best off and the worst of and the most influential and blah blah blah... Well, to hell with them. I am going to compile my own damn lists and don't give a rat's ass how comprehensive or diverse my list is. These are, in no particular order, my favorite 10 albums of the 00's:

1. Is This It by The StrokesThe Strokes were hopelessly over-hyped before they ever released a single track or CD. For me, that usually doesn't bode well - I usually do not wind up liking those bands no matter how much music critics in hip magazines tell me how much I should like them or how important they are. The Shins and The Flight Of The Concords are two good examples of that. But the under-produced sound of the CD, Julian Casablancas's lazy easy vocals, the very, very New York club feel of the disc, the way it feels fresh and new and a throw back all at the same time made me fall in love with this album. I'm not one for straight up rock either, so this disc really took me by surprise.

2. Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens
I think that I, like most people I talk to who know his music, first heard about Sufjan Stevens on NPR. This is something that truly defies categorization. It's folky, it's sometimes like a high school band, it's poppy at times, it is at times evocative of Vince Guaraldi's music for the Peanuts TV specials, it's whimsical, it's sentimental, inspiring and heartbreaking, all in one bold stroke of genius. The song titles border on the insane, "To The Workers of The Rock River Valley Region, I have an idea concerning your predicament, and it involves an inner tube, bath mats, and 21 able-bodied men." This is the second album in what is a very lofty goal: to write and record one album for each of the 50 states in the U.S. All the songs revolve around the state of Illinois and cover a wide spectrum of subjects: from UFO sightings to a dream visit from Carl Sandberg to the serial Killer, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. To give you an idea as to the power of his songwriting and lyrical originality, halfway through the John Wayne Gacy song you start to feel for him, he becomes something of a sympathetic character; he's able to make you see yourself in the man and feel some of the pain that drove him to those unspeakable acts. The song is beautiful and heart-breaking.

3. Timeless by Sergio Mendes
Sergio Mendes is something I heard all the time when I was growing. My parents had Sergio Mendes and the Brasil 66 LP's so this sound was immediately familiar. Hearing the opening track of "Mas Que Nada" was like stepping out of a time machine, but it became quickly evident that this wasn't my Dad's Sergio Mendes. The album was produced in close collaboration with Will.I.Am and is almost as much a Black Eyed Peas album as it is a Sergio CD. It's still very, very much a Bossa/Samba album but so much more at the same time. The artists that pitch in on the album are amazing: The Black Eyed Peas (of course) but also Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Q-Tip, Jill Scott, John Legend, Justin Timberlake (channeling Marvin Gaye), india.arie, Black Thought of The Roots and a whole host of Latino artists who I got to hear for the first time on this album.

4. Suzuki by Tosca
This is a group that most people have never heard of. Tosca is two DJ's/musicians from Vienna name Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber. I stumbled upon them because I am a big fan of Kruder and Dorfmeister (another of my strangely eclectic favorite artists). Suzuki is like the soundtrack to a trippy, relaxed stupor-induced dream. The tracks float along and meld into one another as the album progresses. It's a strange concoction of electronic music, hip-hop, jazz and ambient music with a healthy dash of bossa-nova thrown in. It is an album that you can leave in your CD player for a month and not get sick of. It's laid-back hypnotic and relaxing and most of all highly addictive. It's an aural sedative...

5. The Way I See It by Raphael Saddiq
This is like a blast from the past. It's not just Neo-Soul; this is straight-up soul music. It sounds like it straight out of Motown in the early 60's. Not to say that it feels dated; it's not. Great music never feels dated. You can reach into your bin of oldies, pull out Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, fire it up and it still feels fresh, new and relevant. The lyrics and emotion that pours out of these songs are universal even if it feels like you're taking a step back in time in listening to it. Raphael and Joss Stone are instantly evocative of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Keep On Loving Me, Honey;" and his duet with Stevie Wonder will make you want to pick up the CD to make sure that it came out in 2008 and not 1968.

6. The Renaissance by Q-Tip
Where would Hip-Hop be without the influence of A Tribe Called Quest? Twenty years after tribe first emerged their influence is still felt in any Hip-Hop/Rap act that isn't mindlessly obsessed with rims, gun, money, etc. (i.e. a good deal of the crap that's forced on listeners by the recording industry.) With his first solo album in over nine years he truly is trying to spark a renaissance of hip-hop. He sounds as good, the rhymes are as inventive, the originality is as stark and astounding as the height of ATCQ. It's a jolt meant to re-awaken the best of hip-hop and a love song to it as well. His unique collaboration with Norah Jones on "Life Is Better" is truly a genuine love song to hip-hop itself.

7. The Power Of Suggestion by Karminsky Experience
Again, this is an album that has a unmistakably retro feel to it it yet feels so new and unique at the same time. I don't know very much about this pair of DJ's at all other than that they are from London and are on Thievery Corporation's Eighteenth Street Lounge label. Their music sounds like it was torn directly out of a ne'er-released Austin Powers soundtrack, or a movie from the hip sixties scored by Henry Mancini on ecstasy. The songs themselves are diverse in feel and have a distinct Middle-Eastern influence to it. Not a single song is disappointing on the whole disc. It might be a bit of a shock to the system at first listen but definitely grows on you.

8. The Mirror Conspiracy by Thievery Corporation
This is an album that would appear on each and every "best of" list that I might ever write. It changed the way I listened to music, honestly. It's sexy and savvy and international. It's diverse and worldly. The music pulses and throbs, insistently and seductively drawing you closer and closer. The mood it evokes is spacious and expansive, laid back and relaxed; it takes you to a place where the sun is warm, the air is heavily perfumed with spice and smoke the sounds of distant shore lazily caressing the sands. It's beyond a "chill-out" album; it's international without all the pretense and preachiness that comes with "world music." It's alien and foreign and simultaneously warm and inviting. If you do not know about Thievery Corporation, buy this album. I can easily guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

9. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips
Maybe I just miss concept albums, maybe The Flaming Lips are the most under-appreciated band in America, or maybe, just maybe this is simply the pinnacle of pop music and exists in a place so elevated that the air is too thin and rarefied for the average music listener to tolerate. It is, indeed, pop music; every song has an unmistakable pop sensibility and approachability. But under the happy, upbeat veneer of the songs lie an expansiveness that embraces the tenor and feel of acts as diverse as Bjork, Radiohead, Yes, and Neil Young... And of course, there's the amazing song "Do You Realize??" that I cannot listen to and not tear up just a little bit... The album is worth buying for that song alone but is so much more than that one song.

10. The Shepherd's Dog by Iron and Wine
I always kind of liked the lo-fi, alt-country sound, bluegrass, etc., so when I read the reviews of the album (I had never listened to any Iron and Wine) I thought to myself that it's probably not half bad. Then a few years back, Pepsi was running a promotion where you could accumulate Pepsi points and use them on I quickly began hoarding bottle tops with the intention of expanding my musical horizons with MP3's from the site, gratis. I downloaded "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" and was blown away. The music is distinctly American to its core, raw low-fi slide guitar, organs and at the same time so atmospheric and dreamy. Couple that with Sam Beam's rich, whispered storytelling and the result is simply amazing and inspiring.

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