MGMT – Oracular Spectacular (2007)

In 2007, MGMT was declared a band to watch by Rolling Stone, and the duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden made a name for themselves on what was ostensibly a bit of a lark to entertain their college peers. Dressing up in over-the-top rocker garb reminiscent of the ‘70s and ‘80s glam era, they performed what could only be described as a mash-up of electro-pop and low-fi psychedelic music, and Oracular Spectacular achieved viral ear-worm status with its synth lines in “Time to Pretend” and “Kids.” It’s no coincidence that these two tracks were the record’s first singles and helped propel it to worldwide appeal.

The band is still around and still active, having released three new records since. But coming off the success of their debut, they made the mistake that many bands do on the sophomore record: doubting the genuine appeal of their first album and believing that they could do even better with something more musical and mature on their second. Congratulations (2010) was predominantly a guitar-driven rock album, and the self-deprecating wit and amateur appeal of the original duo was lost on the cacophony of a fully-realized band that had been added during their tour. They would eventually return to the original formula on their 2018 release, Little Dark Age, but even it seems to lack anything approaching the catchy, anthemic honesty of Oracular Spectacular. On “Time to Pretend,” they jokingly dream about the excesses of a rock-star future, but after their one critically-acclaimed album lifted them to star status, their appeal ultimately dimmed. – Darryl Wright

The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (2003)

As far as one-and-done albums in pop music go, there are few better than the Unicorns’ first and only studio release. Equal parts sticky pop hooks, adventurous studio trickery and punk abandon, it’s a shockingly complete statement from two young, talented songwriters. The first side is a sprint through a brief suite of songs detailing fears of ghosts and death, the second a more somber and extended path towards accepting mortality. There are countless moments of musical exuberance, like the hip-hop-tinged strut of “Ghost Mountain” or the punchy synth leads and disco breakdown on “Jellybones.” The band couples this with blistering breakdowns on “The Clap” and at the end of “Les Os.”

On top of the colorful music is a fantastic set of lyrics. Nick Thorburn and Alden Penner find serious poignancy in their absurdism, like when they marvel at the strength of ants on the endearing “Let’s Get Known.” At the heart of all the what-happens-after-this philosophizing is an earnestness, the product of two bright minds trying to piece together the world around them. “Ready to Die,” which namedrops the Notorious B.I.G. in its chorus, is the satisfying culmination of this search. The narrator wakes up dehydrated and surrounded by bloodthirsty cougars, coming to a perfectly adolescent—no one in the band was yet 25 when they wrote the song—reckoning with death: “I’ve seen the world/ Kissed all the pretty girls/ I’ve said my goodbyes/ Now I’m ready to die.”

To fans’ chagrin, the story of the Unicorns is typical: Too much touring too fast led to fatigue and infighting, with Penner and Thorburn splintering off into somewhat middling solo projects, the most notable of these being the latter’s Islands. Penner, especially, has forayed into strange and sleepy rock music, collaborating with—of all people—fellow Canadian heartthrob Michael Cera. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, though, isn’t an unfulfilled promise—it is powerful, goofy and completely confident in its multifaceted songwriting and over-the-top aesthetic. It’s one of the best and most rewarding meetings of the skewed relationship between prog and pop. – Connor Lockie

Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)

It isn’t really surprising that underground hip-hop titans Madlib and MF DOOM never released a proper follow-up to their 2004 debut as Madvillain; plenty of other rap supergroups, from Watch the Throne to (until this year) Dr. Octagon, have experienced similarly one-and-done trajectories. What does surprise, however, is that both artists have also struggled to follow up Madvillainy in their respective solo careers. Madlib released a full-album remix, disingenuously titled Madvillainy 2, in 2008, followed by a smattering of collaborations with artists like Talib Kweli and Freddie Gibbs; his highest-profile recent production was Kanye West’s “No More Parties in L.A.,” a beat from 2010 warmed over and released in early 2016. DOOM’s path has been rockier still: in the last 14 years, the enigmatic M.C. has managed only five full-length releases—four of them collaborative efforts with Danger Mouse, Jneiro Jarel, Bishop Nehru and Czarface, and none capturing listeners’ imaginations quite like Madvillainy.

Increasingly, Madvillain’s sole release feels like a classic case of lightning in a bottle. DOOM’s rhymes have never been quite so dexterous; Madlib’s beats never so unsparingly experimental. The producer’s dense mosaic of samples pilfers everything from Zappa’s “Sleeping in a Jar” and Steve Reich tape loops to Street Fighter II sound effects and Justice League of America storybook records: applying the magpie-like approach of classic turntablism to new frontiers of stoner kitsch and laying a receptive foundation for the rapper’s free-associative flow. The bite-sized track lengths—only the aptly-named “America’s Most Blunted” and closer “Rhinestone Cowboy” run much longer than three minutes—help ensure that even the richest sonic confections remain digestible. And while songs like “Accordion” and “All Caps” are the nominal highlights, the interstitials between fully-formed tracks are just as rewarding: like the alternate-universe Saturday morning cartoon intro of opener “The Illest Villains”; or “Rainbows,” in which DOOM warbles off-key non sequiturs over a Russ Meyer movie score. At the very least, even if Madvillainy’s long-punted sequel never comes to fruition, the influence of its raw collagist aesthetic can be felt in the work of contemporary artists from Knxwledge to Earl Sweatshirt. – Zachary Hoskins

The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)

In 2001, Jimmy Tamborello—otherwise known as Dntel—put out Life Is Full of Possibilities, a gorgeous hour of early-aughts electronic bliss. Near the end was “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” written and sung by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, then just off the release of The Photo Album. The collaboration worked, and if you’ve been into indie rock for a while, you know the rest: they put together Give Up, the sole album from the Postal Service, by sending tapes to each other through the mail. Throw in backing vocals by Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, on top of Tamborello’s inviting beats and Gibbard’s finest sad-sack lyrical mastery this side of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and really, it was destined to become a hit. But the album did better than that: it became Sub Pop’s best-selling record since Nirvana released Bleach, and its influence can be felt in essentially every bedroom indie-pop band since. Songs like “Such Great Heights” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” were virtually inescapable in the mid-2000s, with the former quickly mutating into an Iron & Wine cover and appearing in both Garden State and an M&M’s commercial.

Sadly, the Postal Service was too good to last. They teased the idea of doing a follow-up for years, before finally admitting that their collaboration was probably never going to be more than a one-album project. They’d launch a 10th anniversary arena tour in 2013, where they played every song they wrote together, b-sides and all, before completely calling it quits. Death Cab for Cutie would go on to become an equally successful band after releasing Transatlanticism (also in 2003), though in subsequent years their returns would diminish with each passing record. Dntel would never reach the same successful heights he did with Give Up, which is potentially a sadder fate than never getting a follow-up. – Holly Dixon

Justice – Cross (2007)

If there’s an alternate reality out there where Daft Punk never existed, Justice won’t exist in it either. Like the unspeakably cool younger sibling of the robots, Justice emerged onto the world stage not only unafraid to show their faces but also to show up in leather jackets, surrounded by Marshall amps and blinking light arrays on a stage bedecked with a huge glowing cross. The aesthetic of Justice is just as important as the music itself, which thrums with a headrush of samples and aggressive beats that sometimes feel like they’re designed to make you want to punch someone in the face in the best possible way. On the French duo’s debut album, Cross, the featured guests—Uffie on “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” and Scenario Rock’s Mehdi Pinson on “DVNO”—work hard to steal the show, and they might have pulled it off if not for the still-way-too-infectious “D.A.N.C.E,” the band’s glorious Michael Jackson tribute that still holds its charms 11 years later.

By the time the band returned in 2011 with Audio, Video, Disco, however, it felt like the world had moved on. The four-year gap was enough that the duo’s attempts at making what they described as “daytime music” felt like the work of a band unsure how to follow such a smashing album. To make matters worse, their efforts to dampen their sonic aggressiveness on this album partially missed the perverse appeal of just how aggressive Cross was. Justice may never be able to recapture the rapturous rush that came with the thrills packed into that debut, but for one glorious record, they managed to give their robot overlords a spectacular run for their money. – Holly Dixon

The Rapture – Echoes (2003)

Echoes marks the Rapture’s formal debut and serves as a cornerstone of the short-lived dance-punk movement. Produced by the now-esteemed duo of Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, the album is a distorted, amateurish thrill ride. The drums are thick, the basslines sit deep in the overblown mix and the guitars have that wonderfully brittle Gang of Four tone to them. Right from the krautrock-influenced opener “Olio,” the Rapture make clear that they inhabit the rare midpoint between assured knowledge and reckless naïveté. This quality only strengthens with the group vocals on “Heaven” and the synth-inflected bounce of “Sister Saviour,” two of the liveliest cuts here.
For all the excellence on Echoes, part of the Rapture’s demise can be attributed to their chosen style. There are a wealth of classic dance-punk records by Liars, Death from Above 1979 and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but the sound never branched out enough to offer more than a few years of widespread intrigue. The Rapture’s next few albums aren’t bad by any stretch, but internet-induced hype cycles haven’t been kind to the group. Instead of growing and evolving, dance-punk was quickly historicized, and tracks like “House of Jealous Lovers” were immortalized on decade roundup lists as stiff statues of a bygone era.

It also doesn’t help that, shortly after parting ways, the Rapture’s producer went off, buffed up the dance-punk sound and led one of the most acclaimed rock groups of this century. This has a dating effect on the Rapture’s music, as it’s hard not to hear “Open Up Your Heart” as a breezier, less bombastic version of “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.” Further, had the band hit their stride in this decade, Luke Jenner’s off-key yelp would fall into the countless other Murphy impersonators around today. Despite this, Echoes is a joy of a listen, and it features a few surprising moments of tranquil beauty on tracks like “Love Is All” and “Infatuation,” which round off the album’s rough edges. – Connor Lockie

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)

The self-titled debut album by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is canonically known as one of the first records that the internet, rather than a record label, helped break. But to those of us for whom it is an essential part of our listening history, this album is something far more special than a music history footnote; it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it indie-emo-folk-pop marvel.

Led by Alec Ounsworth’s pained yelp and strange, surreal lyrics, the band sounded like a mix of Dylan and Talking Heads filtered through 21st century college rock. The music is simple, propulsively catchy in a loose, jangly way, and it anchors the sound so Ounsworth’s perenially restless and unpredictable vocals can meander wherever they please. More than anything, however, this is an oddly romantic album, full of unspecified but all-encompassing yearning that can be heard on the songs that became classics of the indie pantheon over the years—”The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood,” especially, but also “Details of the War.” At significant risk of writing a cliché, this is an album that sounds and feels like being young.

Perhaps it was precisely its meteoric and unpredictable success that proved overwhelming to the group. Its Dave Fridmann-produced follow-up, Some Loud Thunder, had some solid material, but after the zeitgeist-y perfection of the band’s debut, this sophomore effort could not help but fall shy of many listeners’ expectations, which the band has not met since. Several personnel changes later, only Ounsworth remains. But as anyone who has recently seen him live can attest, there is still magic left. And if you haven’t been in a room with hundreds of people singing along to some of the songs on this first album, well, there aren’t many things like it. – Dylan Montanari

Band of Horses – Everything All the Time (2006)

When Band of Horses released their debut album in March 2006, they seemed to have emerged straight out of Mid-Noughts Indie Rock Central Casting: four white guys (and one white lady) from Seattle, equipped with guitars, a denim-and-flannel wardrobe and varying degrees of beardiness. The biggest hit from the album was even a soaring power ballad called “The Funeral,” just a year and a half after Arcade Fire had earned accolades with their own album’s worth of soaring power ballads called Funeral. But if the ensuing praise from the indie press was predictable, it was also well-earned. Frontman and lead songwriter Ben Bridwell had an unquestionable knack for crafting hooks that were big but earnest, classic yet timeless and rootsy without crossing the line into country (still forbidden territory in most hipster circles). Tracks like “The Funeral” and follow-up single “The Great Salt Lake” were like catnip to critics, audiences and—perhaps most importantly—music programmers, who ensured the band’s music would appear in a steady stream of movies, TV shows and commercials.

Today, of course, the indie music landscape is a lot less centered on white guys with guitars, and Band of Horses feels more and more like a quaint relic of the recent past. Maybe that’s why, despite consistently above-average reviews and actually increasing sales—2010’s Infinite Arms was even up for a Grammy!—none of the group’s later albums have resonated quite like Everything All the Time: their moment of peak alignment with the cultural zeitgeist. Band of Horses will probably never again be as relevant as they were in 2006; but as long as there are soundtracks that require a sweeping, earnest ballad with a melodic guitar line, they’ll always have a place. – Zachary Hoskins

Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)

Art Brut pretty much let you know everything they’re about with the first few lines of the first song on their first album, declaring “We formed a band/ Look at us!/ We formed a band!.” And this is before they claim, with tongue firmly in cheek, that their music will resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. For the most part, Bang Bang Rock & Roll stays firmly planted in this mode of winking sarcasm and making music about music. Even in the brief moments when frontman Eddie Argos is being sincere, he still delivers his lyrics with a level of arch detachment that seems to let you know that he could still take the piss out of you if he wanted to. It should be the most obnoxious album ever made, and yet, it’s a fucking blast when you listen to it.

There is nothing especially original about Bang Bang Rock & Roll, but then again, there wasn’t anything especially original about any of the music made at that time. Plenty of bands were ripping off Wire and Joy Division like Art Brut is here; Art Brut is just aware of it and getting a kick out if it at the same time. Sure, it’s a joke, but it’s an expertly-told joke, which explains why the band never had the same impact again: you can only tell that joke once and still have it be fresh. Art Brut kept telling the joke, again and again and again, and people were bound to get sick of it. Once you remove that arch sense of humor, you’re left with a pretty average post-punk band, and even that sharp, jittery guitar attack was gone by the time their most recent album came out. But for one album, that mix of wiry punk rock and snarky, cleverer-than-thou attitude was just right. – Kevin Korber

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