Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Aughta Hear . . .

Back in the days before blogs, I wrote album reviews. Nothing all that substantive, just gut reactions to whatever passed through my world. Ever since I started this blog I've occasionally popped off about music. So it only seems natural, as we wind up the decade, to look back at the high points.

I am by no means an expert and won't make the argument that these are the ten "best" albums of the Aughts. They are simply the favorites of all the ones I heard. Think of them as personal recommendations - if you haven't heard this stuff, you really ought to give some of it a shot.

A word on methodology - I took all the albums released this decade that either made my Year in Tunes posts or that I gave ratings of 8 (of 10) or better in my music inventory program. I listened to them all afresh and took the top ten. Taking a page from The Onion A.V. Club, I've also included ten favorite songs from albums that didn't make the "best of" cut.

Albums of the Decade
Dancing, by Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins (2000)

A bit of a last hurrah for the Beer for Dolphins moniker, Keneally's big band album is probably his most accessible. That's not to say that there isn't a load of brilliant playing and general weirdness about, but its all wrapped around memorable tunes, from the playful "Live in Japan" to the elegiac "I Was Not Ready for You" to the full throated closers "Kedgeree." Even with a cut I almost always skip ("Only Mondays" gives me hives) it's brilliant.

Kid A, by Radiohead (2000)

I didn't know it at the time, but this was my gateway into electronic music, something that I've been exploring more and more over the years. I bought it largely because I missed out on OK Computer when it came out and didn't want to be behind the curve. I do vividly remember the band on SNL doing "Ideoteque," however, with one of the guys swapping patch cords on some massive modular synth all the while, tho'.

mei, by echolyn (2002)

echolyn's 2000 comeback album was a little less overtly proggy than their earlier works, although it's brilliant in its own right. Any worries that the guys might be "maturing," however, was put to rest with mei, made up of one 53-minute track (it's not even subdivided). Epics that long most often just don't work, much less work this well. It rocks, it floats, it wails. Brilliant from beginning to end.

In Absentia, by Porcupine Tree (2002)

The Aughts were good to Steven Wilson and company, who continued to build a following so passionate that 2009's The Incident made significant noise on the British charts. The groundwork for that was laid with In Absentia, where the band took their Floyd influences and acoustic shadings and slammed them headlong into metal riffage. This is the best sustained example of that formula.

The World That We Drive Through, by The Tangent (2004)

I was a little surprised to find that every album by The Tangent had made it onto my Year in Tunes posts (until this year, sadly). Not because they aren't one of my favorite bands - they are - but because I hadn't realized how good they had always been. I'm probably in the minority in ranking The World . . . as their best, but I think it's the most consistent example of their blend of classic symphonic prog and Canterbury elements.

The Sane Day, by Beardfish (2005)

As I recall, these Swedes started their legendary Progday set with "The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer," the first line of which begins "he was a filthy mutherfucker . . .." Talk about an entrance! They've been fixtures on the prog scene ever since. While all of their copious output has its moments, I think this one works best as a whole. It's got a loose spacey feeling in spots that's lacking on later albums. It's a concept album, about a bizarre journey that teaches that you really can't go home again. I think. But who cares, when the music's so good?

The Hemulic Voluntary Band, by Ritual (2007)

More proggy goodness from Sweden, also with a skewed lyrical outlook. Based mostly on Tove Jansson's Moomin stories, the band weaves several tales spiced with intricate, organic, interesting music. It says something that this is one of my favorite keyboard albums and there's nary a synth to be found on it.

4th, by D.F.A. (2008)

As I said, I took all the "nominated" albums and gave them a listen. My intent with 4th was to figure out which tune would go on to be a "best of the rest" contender. When I couldn't do it, it dawned on me that this had to be on the album list. And why not? Jazzy Canterbury-esque prog, with crunchier guitars and an Italian accent, topped off with a track led by a trio of female vocalists updating an older folk tune. Great stuff.

The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists (2009)

Colin Meloy and crew tell a tale that involves a shape shifting hero, his evil witch of a mother, his put upon lover, and, somehow, a sociopathic rake who murdered his own children (they interfered with his lifestyle, don't you know). Musically I think it's closer to the band's older stuff, (I've heard it described as a "folk opera") save for the epic scope of the whole thing. As I said in the Year in Tunes post, it's pretentious, overly bombastic in spots, and nonsensical in others, but I love every minute of it.

Scambot 1, by Mike Keneally (2009)

Mike Keneally is many things - an amazing guitarist, fine crafter of melodies, a crafty arranger, and an all around skewed personality. Over the years, he's worked in the confines of rock bands, classical ensembles, and improvisational projects. All those facets come together on Scambot 1, a tale of dastardly manipulation and . . . well, I'm still not quite sure. What I am sure of is that any album that can run through the catchy as hell "Hallmark" to the Grand Wazoo-esque "Chee" and onto the improvised "We Are the Quiet Chiildren" - all so different, but so good and working so well next to each other - is a classic.

Best of the Rest - Songs of the Decade

  • "Certifiable #1 Smash," by Kevin Gilbert, from The Shaming of the True (2000): Shaming is the story of Johnny Virgil, a huge talent who sells out in pursuit of success. This is his blueprint for a hit song, complete with a vivid description of "the video idea." The lyrics skewer the idea of music as commodity, while the music rocks in a way that only something real and from the heart can.
  • "Serpentine Song," by Steve Hackett, from To Watch the Storms (2003): Quite simply, one of the most beautiful songs I own. Dedicated to Hackett's father, who sells his paintings on the weekends in Hyde Park, it takes Steve's more restrained acoustic style to its zenith, augmented by fantastic flute and sax work in the end.
  • "The Bachelor and the Bride," by The Decemberists, from Her Majesty . . . (2003): One of things that appeals to be about The Decemberists is that many of their songs, even the short ones, tell a story or present well drawn characters. This is my favorite of those tracks, aided probably by a very cool video (done in the same style as the one for "The Tain").
  • "Beat Box Guitar," by Adrian Belew, from Side One (2004): On his three Sides, Belew alternated between thumping power trio tunes and even more dense and layered one man band takes. This falls into the later category and is a brilliant example (it was even nominated for a Grammy, IIRC). Almost as brilliant, in a completely different way, is the live power trio version from Side Four, which uses the studio track as a jumping off point.
  • "The Invisible Man," by Marillion, from Marbles (2004): I was sort of surprised when I made the albums list and Marillion wasn't on it, since they are one of my favorite bands. Truth is, their releases this decade were hit and miss affairs in need of some editing. Nonetheless, when they're on their game, it's a thing of beauty. This is the best of the lot.
  • "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here," by Porcupine Tree, from Deadwing (2004): Everything I said above about PT's blending of styles on In Absentia applies in miniature to this track, where it all comes together most successfully. Plus, the middle section is the closest to head banging I'm likely to get!
  • "World Through My Eyes," by RPWL, from World Through My Eyes (2005): RPWL, which started off as a Pink Floyd tribute band, has a tendency to sound a bit like a second rate Porcupine Tree. On this album, at least, the infusion of some Eastern sounds and rhythms helped to spice things up. They drive this track, which includes a great synth break in the middle, and pushes it to another level.
  • "An Ode to the Spacemane," by The Mandrake Project, from A Favor to the Muse (2006): One of the musical highlights of my decade was finally making it to a prog festival, 3RP in Pittsburgh this year and last. The greatest part of those things is being blown away by a band you've never heard before, or even heard of (see Beardfish above for a good example). Last year at 3RP this local band absolutely blew me away, this tune in particular.
  • "In Earnest," by The Tangent, from A Place in the Queue (2006): The epic of the decade, in my book. I'm not much of a lyrics guy - as long as they're serviceable I don't pay them too much attention. But the story of Earnest, the ordinary man who flew Spitfires in World War II only to face a life devoid of future promise where nothing can live up to that life. It's very touching, particularly for a 20-minute prog epic filled with terrific Tangent music.
  • "The Way the Wind Blows," by Rush, from Snakes and Arrows (2007): Given Neal Peart's personal tragedies after Test for Echo was released, it was just good to see the band back and producing new material in 2007. That most of it was really good was a pleasant bonus. Many of the tracks on Snakes and Arrows take aim at religion and related issues. This track does the best job of melding the lyric with the music.
There you go. It'll be interesting to go back in another decade and see how the next ten years match up.