We all know what Kanye West did this year. Yes, yes, he made that sweet, little country singer sad. He made America sad. At the end of the day, if you still care about this, you may need to re-prioritize some things. Now, let’s all take a breath and go back to a better time: 2004. It was a time of change, things were evolving. A really ugly man went up against a really stupid man to be named leader of the free world, the third Lord of the Rings movie snatched seemingly every Oscar at the Academy Awards and an unknown Roc-A-Fella beatmaker unleashed one of the greatest rap albums ever created on us.
West had previously done substantial work on another critically-acclaimed album, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, and when the time was right, he pursued his true aspirations in the vocal arena, setting his sights on Capitol Records. Capitol turned him down, but the Roc signed him and the rest is history. The College Dropout is the result of unbridled drive, limitless talent and the culmination of work West had collected for years; beats and samples that appeared on this style-defining classic had been in Kanye’s back pocket since the late ’90s.
One of the most notable aspects of the record is Kanye’s (soon to be admired, then, just as despised) outspokenness. At the time, the “gangster” mentality still thrived in the rap world, going rarely unchallenged. Kanye used his debut as a forum to go into detail on what America was thinking; not only America, but specifically Black America. It was a volatile period and Black Americans were tired and angry. Luckily, so was Kanye. Tracks like “We Don’t Care” and “Spaceship” brought African-American lower-middle-class struggle to the forefront, discussing adolescents with limited options in welfare-damaged cities and his own rags-to-riches story going from working in the Gap to producing for Roc-A-Fella. Kanye knew this story was necessary to tell because he wasn’t the only one going through it. There were so many like him, confused about where to take their lives. But Kanye found the inspiration to inspire others.
The College Dropout bred five hit singles, with one only charting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (a surprising fact, considering the celebrity he’s grown into over the last five years), the most famous of which being the beautifully heavy-handed “Jesus Walks.” The song was a testament to Kanye’s trust in faith and a perfect example of his attention to composition and musical flourish and bombast. “Walks” is the first song on the record to employ layered string arrangements among multiple choirs, bass and snare contrasts, all driving towards what could be the best hook of that year. Kanye’s talent as a rapper-producer has never shined in the way it has on this very track. Oh, wait–there’s “Through the Wire,” too.
Kanye West has made a lot of mistakes, but we can almost all agree that none of them are musical. Since Dropout, he’s gone on to make genre-bending tour de forces that have managed to follow the path that music has been heading in while staying safely ahead of the curve. West has proven his musical genius time and time again, only leaving our appetites whetted for the future. Listeners who profile him based on his actions may not condone the man West is or the man he projects himself to be, but think about this: what would he sound like if he didn’t keep doing downright stupid shit? – Cameron Mason
[Sub Pop; 2005]
When Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006 after over a decade together, they went out on top. While a huge blow to fans, it showed integrity, a quality that had marked their explosive career.
On their seventh and final album, the three Northwest women bowed out with a tremendous, glorious racket. The Woods was a dramatic change of game, their loudest, heaviest, most aggressive record yet. I still remember when I first put it on and heard the harsh opening guitar burst of “The Fox.” “Holy shit,” I said out loud, something I repeated when the vocals descended into ferocious bellowing. They made a number of changes for the album: jumped from Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop, recorded in upstate New York and used Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, who wasn’t a fan of their music.
Like a number of bands, 9/11 and the Bush years invigorated them. They’d always been political- although without the didacticism and dullness that term often implies- but it was often filtered through the personal. On 2002’s One Beat, they shed all the previous labels attached to them (indie, punk, riot grrrl) to simply become a great rock band, as well as one of the most engaged. They titled a song “Combat Rock” and like the Clash, they were both a band that mattered and a band you could believe in. The Woods builds on the righteous anger of One Beat and in 2005, it felt exactly like the kind of album we needed, the kind that was exactly in tune with the period. We were all in the woods and rather than defeatism, we needed propulsive drumming and shrieking guitars.
Yet despite the grimness of what they observed, the music was exhilarating and incredibly powerful. The 11-minute “Let’s Call it Love” was huge and thunderous. I never thought they’d sound like Led Zeppelin, but here they were, sounding like rock gods. Yet there was something subversive about taking the conventions of ’70s cock rock and using it for something much more critical. Queen of rock Corin Tucker threw down the gauntlet to the hundreds of male singers that bragged about their prowess. “I’ve got a long time for love,” she challenges, before warning “You better be my bloody match.” There’s a provocative streak running throughout their music, one that takes on bands that rip off the past (“Entertain”) and shallow Sex and the City consumer culture (“Modern Girl”). Guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein’s voice oozes disdain when she sings “All you want is entertainment” on the album’s most pissed-off and bracing song, “Entertain.” Sleater-Kinney believed rock could be more than just entertainment, that it could actually say something and say it loudly.
On one of their earliest songs, Corin Tucker yelled “I wanna be your Joey Ramone.” In the years to come, I won’t be surprised if some young, hungry singer belts out “I wanna be your Sleater-Kinney.” – Lukas Sherman
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2005]
Sufjan’s purported 50 states project is pretty much bunk at this point, which should surprise no one; even if he finished an album per year (generous) the whole thing wouldn’t be complete until well after Social Security went bankrupt. And, we’d have to listen to a whole record about North Dakota. No matter, Illinois, his resplendent 2005 album based on the Prairie State extends its metaphorical wanderings across the whole vast American expanse, intermingling national and personal struggles into a cacophonous sprawl with enough beauty to rival the far-reaching plains.
Sure, it’s grandiose, but Illinois is the rare record that manages to own its excesses, to make them seem natural. At 73 minutes and boasting track names like “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'” this is no small feat. In addition to polysyllabic titles, nearly all the tracks are full to the brim with orchestration and choral vocals, literal bells and whistles chiming behind cascading strings, plucky horns and Stevens’ own pleading, tender voice. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Fortunately, Stevens’ skills as an arranger keep his very full songs from sounding overstuffed. Lines cascade off one another, fade into to the back and return later or morph into new themes. And the breadth of sound in the more orchestral numbers (“The Black Hawk War,” “Chicago”) has perfect contrast in more spare, intimate fare like “Decatur,” and the plaintively heartbreaking “Casimir Pulaski Day.” In fact, the most impressive thing about Illinois is the dexterity with which it handles both its ambition and its modesty. The thing that really tempers the indulgence and keeps the twee-ness in check is the absolute sincerity on display- even as the tone dips toward tragic, as on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Stevens displays a gentle spirit that is utterly disarming. He not only finds sympathy for a despicable serial killer, but admits kinship with him (“And in my best behavior / I am really just like him“). It doesn’t sound like defeat, because it’s not. It’s an affirmation of humanity. That’s Stevens’ real triumph with Illinois – his unnerving refusal to have his spirit thwarted, and his harnessing of it into something crystalline and beautiful, sprawling, sincere and unashamed. – Bryan Kerwin
The Mysterious Production of Eggs
[Righteous Babe; 2005]
Nearly five years after its release, Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs remains one of the few albums from this decade that sounds unlike anything that came before it. Three years in the making, the record marked a dramatic stylistic shift for its creator; instead of repeating or even refining the mostly pastoral sounds of Weather Systems, Bird instead created a sprawling album of layered instrumentation, evocative arrangements and expert lyricism. Addressing predominantly dark subject matter with a mixture of sympathy, defiance and dry humor, the record managed to sound both timeless and timely, a quality that has only increased in subsequent years.
Though Bird’s vocals still draw mostly inaccurate comparisons to everyone from Paul Simon to Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley, Eggs’ instrumental foundation is still difficult to categorize. Restrained songs like “Sovay,” “MX Missiles” and “Masterfade” are defined by images of mortality and childhood memories as they bend and sway against Bird’s careful arrangements, while the blasts of instrumentation that begin and end the morbidly humorous “Fake Palindromes” are largely unlike anything Bird had recorded up to that point. Violin, glockenspiel, guitar and other instruments are applied throughout, yet the album never sounds overly manufactured; even Bird’s frequent whistling never feels self-conscious.
Eggs forgoes linear narratives in favor of striking images and clever wordplay. Though it’s a bit dicey to call the album prophetic, its relevance to this decade is immediately recognizable: greedy bastards cash in at others’ expense, soldiers march off to war, the economy and its financial institutions crumble. Yet even if the world Bird depicts throughout Eggs is markedly bleak, most of its fatalism is tempered with optimism or, at least, benign acceptance. In this way, the apocalypse of “Tables and Chairs” is greeted not with despair but instead with a celebration, complete with dancing bears, a band, Adderall and, of course, snacks, while “Opposite Day” envisions a new social order where society’s grunts take charge and the powers-that-be find themselves incarcerated or in hell.
Andrew Bird released a string of outstanding albums this decade – the idyllic Weather Systems, the expansive Armchair Apocrypha and this year’s solid Noble Beast – and while each effort demonstrated a different side of Bird’s musical vision, none of these records matched The Mysterious Production of Eggs in both depth and ambition. A nuanced album whose charismatic lyrical vagaries and instrumental flourishes never deteriorate into excess or pretentiousness, it stands as one of this decade’s most singular, focused and inscrutable releases. – Eric Dennis
The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
Just as in the ’90s, John Darnielle continues to be an extraordinary productive and consistent musician. But unlike his early years, the Mountain Goats abandoned many of the homegrown traits that would have forever damned their work to critically appreciated cult status. Darnielle himself is still the same nasally punk-via-folk acoustic guitarist, but he began to substitute traditional production for the lo-fi cassettes of his youth and dabbled with piano and symphonic elements to flesh out that stripped-down sound. He also stopped creating witty stories and characters, turning his often incomparably beautiful verse to his own experiences. As one of the most dynamic and poetic songwriters of our generation, The Sunset Tree is his representative opus.
As in all of Darnielle’s discography, his ability to lend feeling and observation to a plethora of experiences and troubling situations is uncanny and often without compare. Sadly, it took an album about his traumatic childhood to find out just how powerful this lyrical prowess could be. With lines like “Held under these smothering waves/ By your strong and thick, veined hand/ But one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land,” Darnielle frames emotional pain and personal memory in the kind of simple prose that makes writers and musicians alike envious. And The Sunset Tree meditates on all those unpleasant memories in loosely chronological order as well, taking it all in from a wiser vantage point and singing it back out with the hope of a child. It is an album in the most complete and artful sense – varied sounds, poetic lyrical details and a painstakingly crafted approach to one bridging theme.
However, the pleasure in listening to The Sunset Tree certainly doesn’t come from the subject matter itself (which is shocking and painful to imagine) but rather in how cathartic Darnielle’s words can be. The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely may have followed with a similarly expert study of painful breakups, but it was The Sunset Tree that gave the world an unadulterated look into Darnielle’s ability to cope – the definitive listen for someone dealing with their own varied traumas. – Michael Merline
None Shall Pass
Hybrids of rap and rock have a dismal history. They’re mostly either sad “rock” dudes trying to gain some credibility by showing that they’re down with hip-hop or rappers trying to show how easy it is, rapping over “rock” tracks or, worse, singing. Either way, there’s no serious effort to be great by both standards. There are exceptions, such as Public Enemy’s Slayer sampling, “She Watch Channel Zero,” but they’re single tracks. Aesop Rock’s unheralded accomplishment on 2007’s None Shall Pass is creating an album that is both a great rap album and a great rock album, without worrying about whether it is a great rap-rock hybrid.
The album opens with the only “rock” moment; for 53 seconds it sounds like a live album from 1978, all screaming guitars and whining “Good Evening” and “All Right.” When the beat kicks in, though, the posturing stops. The rock is still there, crunching guitars and heavy drums, but it’s fused seamlessly with asymmetrical hip-hop beats. The title track is more classic Aesop Rock: a stuttering rhythm, meandering electronic melody and Aesop’s articulate but blisteringly fast rapping. Each song adds to the musical diversity of the album, from the noisy funk of “Catacomb Kids” to the flute and scratch ballad “Fumes,” the abstract electronica of “No City” and the jerky reggae of “Coffee.” The expansion of rap’s lyrical terrain is even more impressive. Aesop’s abstract style makes it difficult to say that any song is ‘about’ anything, but “Bring Back Pluto” rants about Pluto’s demotion from planetary status, “Fumes” juxtaposes a sample of Newton’s laws of motion with a story of suicide and “The Harbor is Yours” is surely the first rap-sea shanty version of “The Little Mermaid.” His rhyming is impressively complex: “It was a lazy day/ It was amazing grace/ It was a half-a-dozen claymores daisy-chained/ It wasn’t daisies and crazy eights/ It was an ace of spades over a waiting game of slaves and saints.” Most shockingly, the album ends with a hidden track that doesn’t suck. “Pigs,” hidden at the end of “Coffee,” features an elaborate play on the title word, weaving food imagery and anti-cop ranting together over lazy bottleneck blues.
None Shall Pass represents a kind of maturity for hip-hop. If we look at the history of hip-hop in parallel to the history of rock, the 1970s are the ’50s, the serious rap of the late ’80s parallels the ’60s, and so the 2000s become a loose equivalent of the ’80s. Though it would be stupid to take this sort of thing at all seriously, None Shall Pass can be seen as rap’s Daydream Nation: an underground artist coming to the edges of mainstream popularity while still experimenting, an album that sprawls ambitiously over many styles and stories while retaining a consistent core, a musical genre losing its self-consciousness and escaping arbitrary rules into individual innovation. This is the album that should chart the way to the next decade. – Bob McCarthy