Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
[Nonesuch Records; 2002]
There is a moment in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart where filmmaker Sam Jones interviews Jeff Tweedy about his favorite song from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy demurs, but admits that his four-year old son thinks “Heavy Metal Drummer” is the best song ever. My four-year old daughter agreed. So did my wife, and the students of the high school where I taught. My fellow disc jockeys at the local campus radio station and our listeners were a little more discerning, rounding out our favorites with the equally poppy tones of “War On War” and the oblique imagery of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” as well as the whispered confessional tones of “Ashes of American Flags,” but whenever “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on the radio, we would stop what we were doing, turn up the volume and sing along. Someone invariably played the air drums and people generally forgot what they were doing for three minutes and eight seconds.
Jones captured a lot of the turmoil that went into making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from the departure of drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (who died this May), to the falling out with Reprise Records, who felt the album was unlistenable and without a single. That particular part of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot story is now legendary and a twisted indictment of corporate music industry politics at the turn of the century. Having already paid for the album to be recorded in the spring of 2001 by one AOL-Time Warner business unit as part of their departure from Reprise, Wilco was given rights to the album for free, which they eventually sold to Nonesuch Records in early 2002, another AOL-Time Warner business unit.
In between their corporate wrangling, the myth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was born, with Jeff Tweedy originally opting to start streaming the album from the band’s website on September 11, 2001 (it was delayed until Sept. 18). It was a move that not only pointed the way for other major acts to use the internet to circumvent music industry convention, but the album’s two-towered cover imagery, depicting Chicago’s Marina Towers, ominously resonated with audiences who watched New York’s Twin Towers fall just the week before. Songs like “Ashes of American Flags,” dealing with Tweedy’s yearning for engagement and political conviction caught listeners off-guard as real American flags were being pulled from 9/11 wreckage sites, as did lines such as “tall buildings shake/ Voices escape singing sad sad songs” from “Jesus, Etc.”
While Tweedy, as an ambassador of alt.country Americana, encouraged fans to question what it meant to live in America during one of it’s most troubled times, it was “Heavy Metal Drummer” that provided the key emotional release. Tweedy wasn’t alone when he sang “I miss the innocence I’ve known” – the crowds sang along. Everyone wanted to forget for a moment their troubles and remember when things were as simple as “playing KISS covers/ Beautiful and stoned.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot gave them that, but it also gave them much else to think about. – Sean Marchetto
Mclusky Do Dallas
[Beggars Too Pure; 2002]
Let’s face it, this decade will go down in history as the era in which the idiots took over; there were stolen elections, terrorist attacks on the home front, fraudulent wars and the descent of the global economy to dangerously unstable levels. This was not a time for intelligence. Despite this generation possessing seemingly infinite access to more knowledge and culture than anyone before, the world appears closer than it has in ages to utter chaos. This is why the album of the decade shouldn’t be something cool and intellectual, or hopeful and optimistic or beautiful and charming. No, only something ugly and anarchic can sum up this decade; only something dangerous and gleefully unhinged can possibly hope to do this decade justice. That album could only be Mclusky Do Dallas.
Mclusky unleashed their masterpiece on the unsuspecting American masses almost exactly a year after 9/11, when “too soon” was still a mantra and humor had been claimed as yet another victim of nationalism. But it isn’t that Mclusky’s darkly comic sensibilities were an insult or attack on more delicate sensitivities across the Atlantic, it was that they were just an all-too-natural reaction to what had become an increasingly more absurd world. What better way to prove to the terrorists that you couldn’t give less of a shit about their threats than by kicking your album off with a track titled “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues?”
Unlike the politicos on both ends of the spectrum that Mclusky already had a history of skewering (see “whiteliberalonwhiteliberalaction”), the band wasn’t interested in knee-jerk political commentary or pants-wetting cultural fear, choosing instead to go about business as usual, attacking any target they wanted with their peculiar brand of borderline-incoherent rants from frontman Andy Falkous. The music on Mclusky Do Dallas is uniformly ugly, with a suitably grim production aesthetic courtesy of the legendary Steve Albini. Bassist Jonathan Chapple crafts lines that act as the closest thing the group has to melody, his instrument sounding more metallic than funky, locked securely into a disarmingly tight groove with Mat Harding’s drums while Falkous wields his guitar in a way that makes it bark as much as his vocals do.
With the minimalist sturm und drang of “To Hell With Good Intentions” acting as its centerpiece, Mclusky Do Dallas is an album that utilizes dark humor to distract listeners from the seriousness bubbling underneath its surface. “To Hell With Good Intentions” in particular is secretly a seething commentary on class warfare, jumping between a tongue-in-cheek take on the cliché of the standard band bragging about their drug use style of lyric to a playground taunt of “my dad is bigger than your dad/ He’s got eight cars and a house in Ireland,” leads eventually to a faux-anti-commercial chorus, declaring that “we’re all going straight to hell.” It’s funny and tragic all at once.
To call Mclusky big and dumb misses the point. Mclusky Do Dallas succeeds precisely because the band is intelligent enough to be skeptical of the belief that being smart means you’re going places, understanding that in the right hands, satire is a far deadlier weapon than simple scholastics, particularly when no one is safe from that weapon, whether it’s the indie rock wankers in “Collagen Rock” or the entitled elite snobs in “The World Loves Us and Is Our Bitch” or the double-faced religious nutso in “Alan is a Cowboy Killer.” Kid A may have a higher IQ, but Mclusky Do Dallas had the balls to point out that all of us are at least partially guilty of the world’s state. And for that we’re all going straight to hell. – Morgan Davis
Original Pirate Material
“British rapper” is one of those phrases in that appears oxymoronic in the English language. “White British rapper” is a phrase that seems outright foreign. That is why it’s unbelievable that a white rapper from Birmingham, England could make a stirring and energetic portrayal of modern youth that would not only be a unique new sound, but one of the best records of the decade.
Mike Skinner comes from a nontraditional background for rap and grime musicians- a working class family. He strictly made music out of boredom. Original Pirate Material, like Green Day’s Dookie, is an album about ennui. Rather than writing songs about masturbating and smoking weed, Skinner crafted grimy anthems to fast food, pubs and hiding crushes on girls. “The Irony of It All” features Skinner playing both a pot-smoking engineering student and a brutish, drunken lout, arguing over which addict is a bigger drain on society. It not only showcases Skinner’s wit, but also his acumen for songwriting, as the lyrics and inflection for each character adjust to their altered states as it progresses.
Skinner’s love of sympathetically pathetic characters extends to “Don’t Mug Yourself,” where the protagonist fends off guff from his friends for wanting to message a girl he met in a club. Over a pulsing, staccato loop, Skinner’s character questions his consciousness through the guise of acting tough for his friends. “Too Late” features a schlub who can’t get his act together, and because of it, ends up losing his reason for living. The rolling drums help punctuate the urgency of his life, and Skinner’s gift for capturing the minutiae that make up personality gives the music an affecting, evocative quality.
“Weak Becomes Heroes,” the strongest song on the album, features a lovely electric piano line and reflective lyrics, as Skinner ponders on the life of English youth, and overcoming the hopelessness of stagnation. It is uplifting without being cloying or pedantic. Album closer “Stay Positive” manages to relay a rather trite message with Skinner’s unique lyricism and his natural storytelling abilities weave an inspiring tale that also manages to apply to listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
Original Pirate Material’s title aptly suggests the oxymoronic trajectory of Mike Skinner’s career. After the success of this album, he would move on to more ambitious works, such as the concept album A Grand Don’t Come for Free and the excess of The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living. Original Pirate Material still stands as a unique vision of life on the sidelines of society, featuring an earnest representation of the deceptive complexities of youth. – Rafael Gaitan
The Postal Service
[Sub Pop; 2003]
Give Up was released at a crucial moment in technological history. In an age when information is rapidly traded electronically, Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie snail-mailed digital audio between each other in L.A. and Seattle for over a year, transpiring in a 2003 release of emotional-electronic perfection by the aptly named Postal Service.
The decade was at a crucial point where it’s sound still needed a definition- Give Up was just the album to help out. The beauty of the album may be most evident to the masses with its most popular earworm, “Such Great Heights,” but tracks “We Will Become Silhouettes,” “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Natural Anthem” round out Give Up to make it one of the most exquisite electronic albums ever released. Gibbard may have penned the songs of his own projects for years, and subsequently garnered fame through Death Cab, but Give Up helped establish him as one of the best songsmiths of the decade. On “Clark Gable,” Gibbard coos “I want so badly to believe/ That there is truth, that love is real/ And I want life in every word/ To the extent that it’s absurd.” With the use of such unapologetic, emotional lyrics, Gibbard offered us a pleasantly abstract view of his most sacred and sentimental thoughts of life and love.
This essential collaboration album has earned Tamborello and Gibbard a kind of indie-era Lennon-McCartney label. Gibbard’s romantic lyrics and melodies were masterfully layered over Tamborello’s programmed beats, complemented with Jen Wood and Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame) on backing vocals and Death Cab’s Chris Walla on guitar. An emotionally-infused album of unconventional elegance, it continues to be the phenomenal work of a duo yet to produce a sophomore release. – KayJay
Pyramid Electric Co.
[Secretly Canadian; 2004]
There’s always been a suggestion of emptiness on Jason Molina’s albums; it’s there in the resolute bleakness of his work as Songs Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. – crackling with despair- lonesome notes arcing coldly into infinity. But it took the first record released under his real name for him to push this premise to the level of a masterpiece, dusty laments where defeat isn’t just suggested but presented rigorously. Pyramid Electric Co. plays like a negative of his other work, all the chugging mountains of guitar flipped into yawning canyons, creating a sense of sorrowful starkness matched only by Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. Pyramid Electric Co. has more handholds than that album, but is still vastly difficult, the kind of at-first-shapeless brick that takes multiple listens to digest. The titular opener, full of jagged edges and long, gradual builds, plays like a train passing slowly in the mist, made more menacing for how much sounds hidden. The rest of the songs wind their way through a scrapyard of half-formed structures: the somber, half-submerged “Red Comet Dust,” the vacant barroom of “Honey Watch Your Ass,” the rising close of “Long Desert Train,” which wrenches the album’s most stirring moment from an expression of defeat.
Molina’s dead landscapes and beyond-stuck characters make for anything but easy listening. The album has been compared to Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell,” considering their shared capacity for constructing barrenness from language. It also feels like a suitable pair with his previous album, Magnolia Electric Co., his last and best work under the moniker Songs Ohia. More rousing, but still colored with sadness, that album plays like a less-austere counterpart to this one, giving them a cyclical connection which improves both. But in this case, the darker side of the coin is the more interesting one, imbued with a haunting elegance that few works have accomplished. – Jesse Cataldo
2004 was a strange year for rock music. The once-luminous nouveau garage rock of 2001, with its twin glories of White Blood Cells and Is This It had long passed by, followed by the oddities known as Elephant and Room on Fire. The trashy garage punk of the likes of Electric Six had yet to be perfected by the more mature LCD Soundsystem, and the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs were still spitting beer on their fans in Bowery clubs. In other words, things were pretty confused. But who could have ever predicated the indie trend towards stripped-down rock would have such a tremendous backlash?
But it certainly happened- the Montreal-based Arcade Fire, fronted by husband and wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne (not to mention another 13 musicians), took the imagination of the indie soundscape in hand with a collection of 10 dreamy, violent and confused tracks. With only a single obscure EP to their name at the time, the Arcade Fire’s debut full length, Funeral, was as baroque and layered as White Blood Cells was brutal and honest, as rawly emotional as Is This It. From the opening notes of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” with its deep guitar riff sounding like it emerged from a deep underwater cavern and Butler’s increasingly fervent lyric promising to “dig a tunnel/ From my window to yours,” to the eventual straining lament of “In The Backseat,” Funeral is an album whose power cannot be denied. It’s the album of young romantics, of images of snow and a lost homeland somewhere between dream and nightmare. Even the most powerful songs, “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” are as strange as they are poignant, pitched somewhere between demands for a new life and a new way of thinking as they are rejections.
In a decade increasingly shaped by cold, art-house ideas exemplified by the paranoia of Radiohead and the retro-blues of a hundred cheap Telecasters, the violins, keyboards and massive choruses of the Arcade Fire stood as a kind of new hopefulness, a reminder that not every band had to be indebted to either rock ‘n’ roll roots or to futurism. Sometimes a band can simply sound innocent and full of longing without needing a history behind it. – Nathan Kamal