Sound of Silver
James Murphy has made it abundantly clear that he’s not into your new music. LCD Soundsystem’s name-dropping 2002 debut single, “Losing My Edge,” expounded the point veraciously while 2007’s dance-punk opus, Sound of Silver, reiterated with a degree of artfulness. Murphy was generous in the distribution of his influences through the collection’s 55 minutes; from New Order and ESG funk to his Bowie-Byrne vocals and Eno electronics. But this aging hipster hasn’t been simply pilfering the classics; Sound of Silver is an update of the tried and true that itself became an instant classic, etched into modernity.
Sound of Silver centers on two of the finest tracks of the decade–ironically two of the album’s least danceable. The deeply mourning “Someone Great” silenced critics of Murphy’s songwriting as he moved beyond his knack for sarcastic one-liners to pen the most moving song of his career. Riding a ruffled beat, cold waves of trance synth counter a warm croon; our protagonist is all things vulnerable. What follows is the brilliant “All My Friends,” with its hypnotizing bullet-train rhythm and steady build to a powerfully thrilling final verse climax. It’s an anthem for that period of uncertain transition that is everyone’s mid-20s; it’s the crossroads of youth and maturity, of fearlessness and regret. The fact that these mammoths are book-ended by two of the strongest straight-up dance-rock tracks of the decade (the witty take on continental divide, “North American Scum,” and the blistering, cowbell-laden “Us V Them”) speaks volumes to Sound of Silver’s tremendous depth as an album.
And an album this truly is. Complete with a well defined beginning (the piece-by-piece, art-techno construction that is “Get Innocuous!”), the aforementioned middle and a succinct, piano-driven, open-letter closer to the DFA co-founder’s hometown (“New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”). Never overproduced, compressed or digitized, Sound of Silver feels deep and substantial from front to back with a gravitational pull of its own, yanking passersby into involuntary orbit for at least a month. In the decade of the mp3, this self-proclaimed record store nerd and analog-junky produced one of the strongest reaffirmations of the album’s viability as a medium and given us the soundtrack to one hell of a good time. – Brady Baker
[Beggars Banquet; 2007]
“Start a War” has been a common set opener for the National since 2007. Its first two lines could double as a mission statement of sorts for the last 10 years: “We expected something, something better than before/ We expected something more.” Boxer is rife with similar observations but its songs resist making conclusions about them. Lushly produced but written with a skeletal economy of sound, it’s a record that strips the flesh off the Aughts to reveal a startlingly pervasive sense of loneliness. As its characters pursue the professional trappings of adulthood, they find themselves being slowly pulled from the friendships and connections of adolescence. Mostly, they wander in and out of a haunted urban sphere in a confused stupor, unsure that moving forward into 21st century maturity isn’t the same as quietly spinning out of control. In an era where the professional world is populated with military conflict, financial duplicity, online voyeurism, political division and gentrification, it’s hard to believe that people can become as empathetic as they would like to be, that this is the new millennium we waited for with baited breath.
The record’s opening track, “Fake Empire,” details a fleeting effort to recapture the spontaneity of a more outgoing life that has only recently passed. But the artificially beautiful city built from the song’s simple piano introduction is a fleeting one. By the time the warm acoustics of “Green Gloves” strike up, we find ourselves stalkers to our own inner circle, becoming strangely fascinated by a happier life that has passed us by.
While violins and horns provide a needed swell of emotions, the tightness in execution of the band’s two sets of brothers, the Dessners and the Devendorfs, provides a minutely detailed post-punk sound to overshadow almost all of it. “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Apartment Story” dance furiously to the victorious thrill of misanthropy and agoraphobia. Lead singer Matt Berninger has said in interviews that he’s given instrumental sketches of a song by other members of the band, writing the lyrics from there. It’s a process ensures that mood and rhythm come through first. Berninger’s words serve as a one-way dialogue within a complete story rather than the voice of a narrator imparting it. When he exclaims, “Oh my god it doesn’t mean a lot to you” to a newly yuppified friend in “Racing Like a Pro,” it is a raw reaction to the melody instead of an expository point.
Sentiments like that shouldn’t be dismissed as the aloof effort of an unremarkable indie band from Brooklyn- perhaps the most commonly stereotyped rock cliché in recent times. Though both distinctions are accurate, the universality of the National’s Boxer finds its resonance in observing the paces of a compromised life. It is this decade’s great human story because it condenses the sense of unease that passes through people on the street but fails to find a common language in anything except music. We did expect something better. – Neal Fersko
Untrue is a landmark for me. It’s not as much an album as it is an invocation – it conjures the city as it is at night. That sense of desolation and, simultaneously, its seemingly limitless possibility, is at the heart of this music; these songs are constructed not only out of the textures of these places, but also of their memory. “Endorphin” is a sonic portrait of what it’s like to be walking alone in the middle of the night, listening to the reverberations of a distant party. A muffled keyboard line sounds like a song heard through the walls, hitting its peak. Footsteps echo down a nearby street, and the flutter of birds’ wings gives way to a stretch of rain, the track now layered in a warm, static glow.
Burial’s music is deliberately constructed, he doesn’t rely on software to create his seams for him, he sculpts his tracks out of a single source, pasting each sound into one timeline piece by piece, literally handcrafting his beats, putting in place every sonic texture. There’s a sense of flight in many of the album’s songs. Each usually has a variation on a 2-step beat or, in the case of the several beatless songs, a lilting keyboard pattern, at its heart. These are always steady, we are the traveling center of the song, and the world is changing around us. Cocooned in huge heavenly washes, the rest of the track steadily shifts and flows. The details are meant to overwhelm you, the music, for all this overwrought description, is meant to envelop you in its sensations, the pure tactile experience of the song, the object. Listen to it loud!
Untrue isn’t a dance record, it’s a sonic collage, an environmental documentary, a psychological self-portrait. It’s one of those rare works of art that feels like a direct personal communication, making its way through the ether straight for you. It’s timeless music, one of the great individual expressions of the decade. – Andrei Alupului
For Emma, Forever Ago
[2007; Self-Released, 2008; Jagjaguwar]
In the winter of 2006, soon after the breakup of the DeYarmond Edison, guitarist and vocalist Justin Vernon retreated to his father’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin. There, in complete isolation, equipped with a few instruments and some recording equipment, Vernon committed years of heartache and regret to music. After three months of seclusion, Vernon emerged from the cabin as Bon Iver. In July 2007, he released For Emma, Forever Ago, and in February 2008 it received a wider release under the label Jagjaguwar.
Vernon’s debut album as a solo artist, For Emma is an inconceivably sophisticated and haunting work. Driven by Vernon’s sonorous vocals- a wavering and piercingly emotive falsetto- carry through the album, accompanied with warm, towering harmonies that feel like chants. The result is rich, staggering and evocative. Clichéd though it sounds, this is a hair-standing-on-end album from track to track.
The album is layered and complex, almost too much so to have been recorded by one man in the woods. However, there is an unsettling intimacy about For Emma that speaks to its secluded creation. The majority of the album directly addresses the absent Emma, forcing the listener to face his accusations in her stead. The soft and subdued “The Wolves (Act I & II),” consisting of Vernon’s vocals and an acoustic guitar, leaves Vernon fully exposed. He opens with a pained and resentful “Some day my pain/ Some day my pain/ Will mark you.” The track gradually builds momentum, developing into a grander chorus of “what might have been lost,” only to devolve into a profound wail before a shattered Vernon quietly, and less assuredly repeats “someday my pain.” The following song on the album, “Creature Fear,” begins with an understated and soft, practically spoken verse, only to erupt into a bold and crashing chorus driven by a relentless drum. As those hushed tones give way to dramatic outbursts of soaring falsetto, the listener is struck by the force of Vernon’s pain and regret.
For Emma, Forever Ago received obscene amounts of critical attention upon its release- mostly in the form of rave reviews. Ultimately the sheer talent of Bon Iver is undeniable. The combination of preternatural vocal ability, depth of feeling and poignant, somewhat cryptic lyrics set this album amongst the best of the decade. – Nicola Fairhead
Feed the Animals
[Illegal Art; 2008]
The past 10 years have found indie culture blurring with pop music culture. Feist is now played both by music snobs and by retail outlets; the Ting Tings are found both on Top 40 radio stations and in Paste Magazine. Surely, however, Apple marketing wasn’t working alone in this integration – the surge in digital music has made listening a much more inclusive experience this past decade, and no artist has demonstrated that better than Girl Talk. Greg Gillis and his laptop broke out with Night Ripper in 2006, and throngs of sweaty hipsters have been turning out to hear Gwen Stefani samples ever since. Somewhere along the line, the mash-up became a viable form of legitimate music-making.
Night Ripper succeeded by mashing up two unlikely tracks over a percussion beat, resulting in an infectious game of “Name That Tune” for any music lover. In 2008, Feed the Animals proved to be everything that a successful follow-up should be: it was more interesting, more artful and it more mature. Unlike Night Ripper, Feed the Animals featured multiple moments of brilliance. When you find Lil Mama singing “Lip Gloss” over Metallica’s “One,” what’s possibly the dumbest song ever to be written about cosmetics suddenly sounds intimidating. By the time she’s chanting “What cha know ’bout me?” you’re convinced Lil Mama will seriously fuck you up.
Feed the Animals was constructed as one long piece of music, subsequently broken up into tracks; the samples flow seamlessly- and are a convincing case for Gillis’s copyright infringement. These bits of music aren’t stolen, or even sampled; they’re re-imagined. Artists who have found success in the wake of Girl Talk, including the Hood Internet and Auto Rock, have even gone on to use the same songs for their samples. The same Missy Elliot bit plays very differently on a Hood Internet mix tape than it does on Feed the Animals. When this style of music is at its best, you’re not dealing with remixed songs, you’re listening to new mini-songs (or one new, long song that has been afflicted with ADD).
Feed the Animals is first and foremost a fun, innovative listen. It is also the best work so far from an artist that has left his mark on this decade. If the internet changed music by allowing fans to listen to anything they want, Gillis changed music by allowing them to listen to everything they want, all at once. – Melissa Muenz
If you compare the ’80s with the ’00s, you will notice some striking similarities between the political climate and musical culture. Just like our moribund decade, the ’80 featured an ideologue president who bumbled our country into various international conflicts while keeping a stranglehold on the middle and lower classes as the rich got richer. If you look at the significant movements of music in the ’00s, a post-punk revival giving way to the day-glo insularity of groups like Cut/Copy and wistful twee of Sufjan Stevens, there is a mirroring of the punk furor of the late ’70s bleeding into disco and then morphing into the early hours club scene of the Pet Shop Boys where people danced like their lives depended on it. Call it a coincidence, but a large part of the music of both the ’80s and the ’00s evolved as a response to oppressive societal constraints.
However, the best albums of the decade didn’t eschew the darkness. No, albums such as Third by Portishead will now serve as time capsules for a decade where it felt like everyone collectively lost their minds.
After a legendary two album-run in the mid-’90s that kicked off the now-defunct trip hop craze, the members of Portishead (Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley) more or less vanished. The trio did their best to cloak the group in secrecy, and the vanishing act following 1997’s eponymous sophomore album seemed to close the book on the band. But in 2008, the group reappeared just as mysteriously with Third. But while the Portishead’s early work featured an almost affectionate sound, Third appeared fraught with unease and paranoia. More or less an encapsulation of a world where, as a member of the band put it in an interview, one could step over the frozen body of a homeless man on the way back from the pizza shop and not bat an eye.
Like many great albums, Third is not the type of record you can throw on while washing dishes or baking cookies. Its music is immediate and demands your attention. It features none of the hooks of the group’s older work, but instead, an insidiousness that coils into your brain, taking hold. It’s an album of deep mystery, mirrored hallways and surprises of extreme beauty buried in the destruction of the ’00s.
Though each song is perfection in miniature, it’s the run of “We Carry On,” “Deep Water” and “Machine Gun” that forms the core of the record. After slinking by with tracks that somehow recall earlier work, “We Carry On” is a mélange of Krautrock and electronic music. Though ukele-driven “Deep Water” provides a moment’s respite, the harsh winter of “Machine Gun” assures us there is no shelter.
But what makes Third so successful is that beneath the terror, noise and chaos, an elusive heart beats. It shows itself in the tremolo of Gibbons’ voice, the rich string samples, the sharpness of Utley’s guitar. That beating heart is the sound of hope beneath the rubble. It’s what we are all looking for as we pass into 2010. – David Harris