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End of the Aughts: Our Favorite Albums of the ’00s Pt. 1

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Radiohead

Kid A

[Capitol Records; 2000]

The album was dead; long live the album.

Radiohead’s artistic masterwork arrived in October of 2000, at a time when boy bands roamed the Earth and the music industry was riding high on most consumers buying full CDs for only a few quality songs. Still, change was in the air: Napster had yet to be shut down, and music fans were discovering how emerging high-speed internet connections and fan pages could facilitate the discovery of more music than they ever dared imagine. Technology we take for granted a mere decade later was in its infancy.

Radiohead, on the other hand, was not in its infancy – on the contrary, the band was on the verge of dissolution following the success of OK Computer. Thom Yorke’s writing block, depression and anxiety were stifling his creative output. The band decided to pursue a different musical direction, and in the process, recorded one of the most important albums in recent memory.

What makes Kid A a record worth studying nearly 10years later isn’t simply the music, though it certainly can be based on that merit alone – “Everything In Its Right Place” is arresting precisely because nothing is where it should be, and “Kid A” still makes shivering blades of winter grass quiver to its odd time signatures, bounding bass and patch drums. The swirling, discordant strings in the middle of “How to Disappear Completely” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” elicit goose bumps, and the tense-but-funky, dance-like-a-depressed-robot grooves of “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque” sound as otherworldly today as they did upon first listen. Calling Yorke’s lyrics abstract is missing the point – he focused on being instrumental and a mood-setter rather than a storyteller.

No, what makes Kid A a bona-fide classic album is its staunch defense of the importance of an album when the rest of the world was ready to move on to singles and downloads. Remember this: Kid A had no commercially-released singles. It was, and remains, a difficult pop or rock record by any measure. And yet, it debuted at number one on the charts in October of 2000, assuring the role of an album as a piece of art and not a container for singles wasn’t going to die without a fight. – Jason Stoff

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Modest Mouse

The Moon & Antarctica

[Epic; 2000]

Released just before the summer of 2000, Modest Mouse’s major label debut remains an indelible masterpiece. Predating the indie boom of the ’00s, The Moon & Antarctica was a diamond-in-the-rough released during the height of mainstream-dominating pop-revival, rap-rock and nu-metal movements. Shattering many traditional grounds of alternative rock, the Northwest trio catered to their own desires, and their patience surely paid off later in the decade.

After wooing a diehard fan base with two critically hailed, though under-heard albums, frontman Isaac Brock twisted his own quirky blend of mildly dissonant alternative rock with cosmic and metaphysical undertones. Whereas prior records bled with themes of cultural and geographical isolation, particularly in the vast barren lands of north and southwest America, Brock zoomed out his lyrical microscope onto Earth and the universe beyond. His focus on life’s mysteries reach profound insights that go well beyond the let’s-roll-a-joint-and-rap-about-the-universe attitude many bands had fleetingly embraced before. The Moon & Antarctica avoided these trite pitfalls, and its concept was embraced by Brock’s subtle and simple theories and answers to the universe: “In the last second of your life/ They’re gonna show you how / How they run this show/ They’ll run it into the ground.”

Producer Brian Deck infuses the album with Modest Mouse’s most cohesive production value to date. The dry, woody reverb coats the instruments with a shadowy, spacey mood that bolsters Brock’s thought-wrenching meditations, but it’s the heavy acoustic instrumentation that keeps the album grounded and organic. These aural distinctions made it the epic dissertation of life it resulted in. With such a unique blend of elements boasting their own signature sound, The Moon & Antarctica epitomized Indie Rock’s excitingly unpredictable and innovative tendencies.

Signing to Epic didn’t mean instant success for the trio. It wasn’t until 2004’s breakthrough single “Float On” that Modest Mouse earned their much-deserved attention. Even though The Moon & Antarctica had flown under the radar, it was pivotal in setting up and foreshadowing indie rock’s ascension into mainstream. – Jory Spadea

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Bob Dylan

“Love and Theft”

[Columbia; 2001]

Bob Dylan’s musical rebirth may have come with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but it also seemed to be his swan song. Filled with dread, death and an overwhelming spirit of defeat, it sounded more like a cold, jaded farewell than a full-blown artistic revival. Even the aftermath suggested Dylan’s reemergence would be transient; shortly after the record’s release, he was hospitalized with a heart condition and the Never Ending Tour was canceled. With the type of hyperbolic fawning typically reserved for the freshly-dead-and-dying, record industry moguls threw three Grammy Awards Dylan’s way, including one for Album of the Year. Not that the record didn’t deserve such adulation – it did – but all indications suggested that Time Out of Mind was the epilogue to Dylan’s iconic career.

In many ways, then, “Love and Theft” marked the musician’s true resurrection: a spirited, musically diverse and timelessly American record that still stands as one of the most relevant and revelatory albums of the past 10 years. Released on September 11, 2001, far-reaching fans and critics have inevitably tried to draw parallels between the events of that day and this record, but any similarities are minimal and entirely coincidental. Hardly an album about modern times, “Love and Theft” is deeply rooted in Southern folklore and history. Vicksburg floods, tobacco leaves and rebel rivers emerge amidst an assortment of swinging rockabilly, down home country blues, electric rock ballads and ragtime revivals. It also presents yet another side of Dylan: the seedy minstrel with an archaic and guttural growl who croaks the tales of some of the most colorful characters – disaffected Romeos, Gatsby-like dreamers, lonesome grifters, thieves and bootleggers – to crawl from the recesses of any storyteller’s imagination. Plenty of the archetypal Dylan can also be heard here. Hard times are met with harder rains, backwards-thinking high sheriffs and low-down infidels run rampant; several tracks – the epic narrative “Mississippi,” the whimsical “Bye and Bye” and melancholic closer “Sugar Baby” – rank among the most engaging tracks in Dylan’s extensive catalog.

“Love and Theft” possesses all the traits of a classic Dylan album: witty, unpretentious wordplay, clever rhyme schemes and captivating characters who simultaneously entertain, amuse and repel. There’s a timeless element to this album that even some of his most celebrated efforts lack. “Love and Theft” may belong to this decade, but it remains among Dylan’s most enduring efforts; like the best of the old American sounds that inspired it, it remains among the most absorbing albums of any decade. – Marcus David

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The Strokes

Is This It

[RCA Records; 2001]

The very notion of a hyped band means said group is unlikely to live up to that hype, and few bands in the last 10 years received more of it than the Strokes. Eight years after the release of Is This It, the buzz may have faded and the band may have splintered a bit, but the music remains as compelling as it was in the fall of 2001.

Perhaps no band since the Beatles has served as such a template for the way in which popular music was perceived throughout the rest of its decade. In the initial years after that first record, nearly every upstart group of bed-headed would-be garage rockers was positioned as Strokes disciples: The Hives? Swedish Strokes. The White Stripes? Bluesy, sibling Strokes. Kings of Leon? Southern Strokes. The Bravery? Synth Strokes. (And that’s not even going into the untold numbers of blatant rip-off artists pilfering the New Yorkers’ sound and style that have since been forgotten.) Sure, a lot of that was journalistic laziness, but the band still served as a critical template (and high-water mark) for the way much of the garage-influenced rock spewed forth circa 2001 – 2005 was perceived. Seemingly every new rock band came to be seen as either a vindication of the Strokes’ back-to-basics style and/or a repudiation of the late ’90s rap-metal jackassery that carried into the new decade.

If there’s a prevailing mood on the disc, it’s a mix of disenchantment, disengagement and old-fashioned just-don’t-give-a-shit. None of that’s a surprise considering the late ’90s/early ’00s culture that preceded the record’s release – and the opening title track conveys that with its hazy chorus and middling pace. Hell, the disc opens with an exasperated “Can’t you see I’m trying?” But, like their forbearers in the Velvet Underground, the Strokes set their fuzzed-out malaise to inescapable melodies and arrangements, like the radio-ready “Soma” or the bouncy, oldies-tinged “Someday,” all while accompanied by guitar lines pulled from the Television playbook. By the time “Take It or Leave It” rolls around to close out the album – with frontman Julian Casablancas straining his vocal chords in hollering out the final chorus – you can almost feel the exasperation. It’s tiresome business, after all, trying to give a damn – especially when you just don’t have it in you. Still, a bad attitude rarely sounded so good.

It’s been recently announced that not only will the Strokes start touring again in early 2010, but they may release a new record as well. At this point, nobody expects them to save rock ‘n’ roll – and, really, isn’t rock ‘n’ roll the kind of thing that’s beyond saving anyway? Would it be any fun if anybody actually did? At least they’ll still be around to show the next anointed savior just how it’s done. – Aaron Passman

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Super Furry Animals

Rings Around the World

[Epic; 2001]

What will pop music sound like in the future- chances are it’ll sound like Lady Gaga with more lasers and fucking, God-willing, but in 2001, Welsh weirdos Super Furry Animals revealed a strange glimpse of Tomorrow with their beautifully utopian Rings Around the World. Originally envisioned as a take on excessive Eagles releases and environmentally conscious “state of the world” concept albums, the record eventually became a look at the sound and fury known as planet Earth- from space.

Living up to its globe-circling name, Rings Around the World jumps from genre to genre yet remains paradoxically consistent. “(Drawing) Rings Around the World” is science fiction Britpop. “Receptacle for the Respectable” transforms from pop to prog to noise to death metal (the band even wanted to do a hip-hop section). “No Sympathy” goes for weird electronica that anticipates Hail to the Thief. “Juxtapozed with U” features singer Gruff Rhys engaging in a vocoder- (not Auto-Tune) aided duet with himself after British R&B singer Brian Harvey and New Jack Swinger Bobby Brown both turned down offers to sing. Did I mention that the song’s about real-estate?

This leads me to the very reason the album works so well: these eclectic genres are held together by equally eclectic lyrical topics. The rockin’ “Sidewalk Serfer Girl” features awakened coma patients and extreme sports. “It’s Not the End of the World?” is a sweet song about growing old. “Presidential Suite” looks back at the “decadent ’90s,” focusing on President Clinton’s Blowjobgate “(Honestly/ Do we really need to know if he came inside her mouth?“) and Boris Yeltsin’s alcoholism (“Pass another vodka dear“). The saddest song, “Fragile Happiness,” features an extended metaphor about “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and closes the album with a lamentation about the Fresh Prince: “Does Will Smith lie?/ Does he ever cave in and cry?” These often-satirical lyrics provide a sarcastic counterpoint to the often beautiful instrumentation and orchestral arrangements. That’s cosmic balance for you.

A year later, the Flaming Lips would release their own super-cool psychedelic space rock epic, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots– itself brilliant, but the overshadowed Rings Around the World is stranger, reaches further and sounds way more cosmic. This is music for idiosyncratic sci-fi flicks with rainbow palettes, music for reading Jack Kirby comics- and I’m talking full-color, not those affordable-but-castrated black-and-white reprints. Who needs hallucinogenics when you have Super Furry Animals? -Danny Djeljosevic

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The White Stripes

White Blood Cells

[V2 Records; 2001]

For the Millennials, the Aughts’ own generation coming of age as consumers, the ’00s found them in a kind of suspended animation; many of those graduating college found no career opportunities and instead worked low-paying jobs whose wages went largely toward mounting debts. They were saddled with another kind of debt, too- the kind of cultural debt that has us, at the end of 2009, hailing the release of a Boomer-approved video game, The Beatles: Rock Band. The twenty-somethings’ cultural landscape in the Aughts has been a sort of Neverland; though too old to be living at home, they’re paid too little to plan a future. As far as entertainment went, they’d been told so many times that their parents’ music was so superior, that they started to believe it. Much of their opportunity for growth as individuals was the creation of personas; aided and abetted by the internet and instant media’s promise of cultural capital immediately available for absorption, Millennials are a postmodern lot who make-believe whom they think they should be at any given time.

2001 saw the release of White Blood Cells, the third album from Detroit’s White Stripes. Jack and Meg White were themselves two twenty-somethings engaged in their own world of make-believe. Were they a brother and sister act, as originally reported? Not quite; they were actually a years-divorced couple; Meg, a former bartender and amateur taxidermist kept time in a raucous, untrained fashion while a perpetually adolescent-sounding Jack, seemingly fought with a shitty guitar as both wore red and white color-coded outfits. Were this not enough quirky fabrication, White Blood Cells introduced Jack White’s kitchen-sink songwriting chops. White was able to make the affectionate “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” sound menacing, and immediately followed its harsh stomp with the country-rollick “Hotel Yorba,” where he claimed he’d tired of acting tough and was ready for matrimony. “I’m Finding it Harder to be a Gentleman” was a hilarious, almost-bitter look at what’s expected of boys and “The Union Forever,” a bizarre us-against-them rant, was comprised entirely of dialogue from Citizen Kane. He finds no more peace with his place in the world in “Offend in Everyway,” yet finds an amount of remember-when, twee solace in “We’re Gonna Be Friends.”

During the Aughts, indie rock became the soundtrack of this in-betweener cohort, growing more cerebral by the year, a reflection of the demographic’s wide liberal arts education. Less than a year after the release of Radiohead’s heady Kid A, the White Stripes were a breath of fresh air for rock purists. While the idea of Meg’s amateurish bashing combined only with Jack’s buzzing riffs seemed gimmicky at first, it took only one listen to the rampaging “Fell in Love with a Girl” to affirm that rock’s place in the garage was far from over (helpful too was Michel Gondry’s LEGO music video, sure to evoke cozy, childhood nostalgia). It’s worth mentioning the most popular mainstream band at the time was Creed; the White Stripes entry into public consciousness with White Blood Cells helped reaffirm that there was still much to do with crap gear, autodidactic musicianship and analog equipment. By being primitive in their approach, the White Stripes seemed to have shrugged off at least a good 30 years of pop music, make-believing as though they had every right as the Stones, Beatles or any other ’60s wonderband to delve into the disparate roots of American music. Though still in debt to those who came before, White Blood Cells convinced a whole lot of twenty-somethings that this music could be, and was, their own. – Chris Middleman
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