These artists never scaled to such great heights a second time.
One of the great disco albums, the self-titled 2008 debut from DFA Records crew Hercules and Love Affair is a joyous celebration of the genre’s queer history, wrapped up in Hellenic camp that couldn’t give a shit if Hercules is actually “Heracles” as long as the bulging muscles are there in your mind. That this feta is served to us completely po-faced is a testament to leader Andy Butler’s abiding love of the genre and desire to update it, using it as an endpoint to surprisingly experimental and philosophical experiments while keeping its swoon and sass intact. In spite of formidable acclaim, including a Pitchfork Track of the Year designation for the Anohni-starring “Blind,” Hercules might be harder to embrace than offerings from some snarkier DFA peers more content to wax about their receding hairlines than about wanting to fuck the goddess of war. But once it’s on, it’s hard to deny. The track sounds fantastic, its rubber-band basslines tickling our universal fondness for a funky groove while the sound and context keep it militantly, specifically gay.
Hercules and Love Affair didn’t burn out or fade away after this album. As disco revivalism and DFA dance-punk became things of the past and EDM wreaked havoc on club music, Hercules kept going, the surprise factor diminishing at a faster rate than the quality of their records. A move to Belgium and a co-sign from Atlantic couldn’t bring much public interest back to the project. Their three subsequent albums are solid, but they’re different beasts with different sounds and different singers. Counterintuitively, that’s part of why that first record is still so astounding. Like a certain goddess, it seemed to emerge full-grown. – Daniel Bromfield
Andrew W.K.’s deep lore is horrifying and fascinating: a twisting tale of body doubles, stolen identities and corporations parading as individuals. It’s some The Crying of Lot 49 shit, all swirling around the guy who screamed “Party!!!” for a living. Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier, classically trained pianist, Michigan-raised, noise-rock making guy, and Andrew W.K., eternal god of partying, are simultaneously distant and overlapping. In public, he was the dude who signed autographs after breaking his foot on stage, hosted a Cartoon Network show and has the world’s most positive Twitter account. But a messy string of insanity followed him after the 2001 release of I Get Wet. His third album, Close Calls with Brick Walls, was initially only released in Japan and Korea due to a frankly baffling copyright/name dispute with a mysterious person(?) named Steev Mike who claimed Andrew W.K. was a creation, not a human being. He also released an album of covers—all songs from the Gundam anime. So, there were many baffling decisions made by many people.
Myriad distractions have weighed down W.K.—or whoever he is—after I Get Wet, but none of that impacts just how cathartic this debut album is. This is partying as an art, a study in just how far the human body can go without sleep, water or rational thought. It is brutal in a way later emulated by Sleigh Bells and the modern movement of math rock and metal bands splicing their breakdowns with pop choruses (*cough cough* Torche, And So I Watch You from Afar). “Party Hard” rightly gets its due as an anthem that’s as empowering as it is pulverizing, but “Ready to Die” sums up every messy, amazing thing about I Get Wet. It rides in on an earworm keyboard line that starts dinky but erupts in Vesuvius fashion before W.K. informs you “you better get ready to kill!” And it still sounds like a total party, played straight-faced like it’s meant to be danced to. It’s unsettling if you think about it for even a second, but W.K. doesn’t want you to think, he wants to you be completely carried away. He eventually couldn’t pull the wool over his mysteries or music, but for one album, he made it so infectious no one cared. – Nathan Stevens
Despite a crowdfunded second release a few years back, Cannibal Ox has yet to release an acceptable follow-up to its scene-defining debut album, The Cold Vein. Yet its position within the history of underground rap makes the case that there’s arguably little need for the New York duo to do so. The album’s dystopian boom-bap production done by El-P, more known in 2001 as the head of then-new indie label Def Jux, sounds hardly novel more than 15 years after its release. Decaying synth blips of “Atom” or mutated acid squelches of “Vein” aren’t too far away from the hallucinations in a Danny Brown record in retrospect. But that very familiarity in today’s rap music owes to the cult success of The Cold Vein and the subsequent Def Jux releases that followed Cannibal Ox’s line of experimental hip-hop.
The unique production of The Cold Vein, though, needed specific personalities for the record to resonate as powerfully as it did. The group’s Vast Aire and Vordul Mega delivered exactly the knotty rhymes that underground-rap fans hungered for and continue to crave to this day. Vast Aire resembled the Rawkus type, like Talib Kweli and Mos Def, who based their style on wit and extended metaphors while Vordul Mega wore the gritty, cold-hearted attitude of a street rapper. Together, they spun surreal slices of life in New York, warped even more thanks to producer El-P’s alien beats: their retelling of a ruthless winter in their home city in their most memorable song, “Iron Galaxy,” more resembles a panoramic scene of a sci-fi film. While it stands now as a relic to what the past generation imagined as the future, the duo’s surreal vision for New York rap in The Cold Vein undeniably inspired an entire group of artists and fans who wanted something a little different from the then-mainstream narrative of hip-hop. – Ryo Miyauchi
In 2000, when samples were still scary, Since I Left You struck a chord for its kaleidoscopic use of samples—over 3,500 of them—from Enoch Light to Madonna and beyond. Now that new songs made of old songs are old hat, what remains is the record’s staggering beauty, a guileless, aquatic sparkle that moves like disco and soothes like an English seaside orchestra. With its flutes and strings and flight-to-Honolulu chorus girls, the 2000 debut by the Australian group the Avalanches is unmistakably kitsch, but in a way that’s alluring rather than ironic. It’s an hour of perfection under the sun, and of the great sampledelic masterpieces—De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…..—this is the most accessible, and the one with the least to do with hip-hop.
By the mid-2010s it was more or less a given the Avalanches would never release another album. When they did in 2016, it landed with a thud. Wildflower is an excellent album whose best moments rival Since I Left You, and there’s a strong case to be made for it as equal if not superior to its predecessor. But listeners were averse to its guests, many of them rappers. Furthermore, that record’s carefree psych, with lyrics about children playing and learning to love in a neon world, was released into a post-9/11 world in which innocence is equated with insubstantiality. To quote one of its biggest inspirations, it just wasn’t made for these times. But the fact remains that had Wildflower never come out the Avalanches would still be secure in the pantheon of great electronic artists on the strength of their first offering alone. – Daniel Bromfield
Of the myriad guitar bands to become famous in the early 2000s, Bloc Party was not necessarily the best, or most fun, or most relatable. But they were arguably one of the bands who tried hardest, from the start, to overcome their influences. Driven by impeccably cool post-punk riffs and Kele Okereke’s impassioned and charismatic vocals, nodding in the direction of emo without its campy operatics, the band was a shot of adrenaline to an otherwise quickly self-defeating field of retro-ripoffs. Many of us will remember “Helicopter” and “This Modern Love,” of course (at the very least, you’ve probably been to a party where these songs were playing). But just as memorable, upon revisiting the album, are songs like “Blue Light”—with its more muted, tender vocals and treble-y guitar—the strangely ska-inspired “Little Thoughts” or the album-closing dream-pop of “Compliments.”
But Bloc Party’s style had its own limitations—there is only so far a band can go after mastering a certain sound (even Gang of Four made only one real masterpiece), and Bloc Party’s experiments with other sounds on later albums did not yield especially fruitful results. Even when they sounded like their old selves, well, their old selves had already done it better. But looking back, Silent Alarm is one of the few albums from that “revival” scene that still surprises and excites, especially thanks to Okereke’s ability as a vocalist to make even pogo-worthy songs feel intimate, and not just theatrically confessional. And the band itself criticized the stick-in-the-mud attitude of British peers, so it is not surprising that they should be so averse to repeating themselves. Bloc Party is not for everyone, and never wanted to be—perhaps that, too, is one of its greatest legacies. – Dylan Montanari
Kids nowadays get introduced to grime through a meme. Back in the day, it was the yellow, vaguely ominous cover of Boy in da Corner that was planted like a conquering flag in the minds of the unfamiliar. Dizzee Rascal wasn’t just the figurehead of the first wave of grime MCs, he was the first to put together every extraneous portion of the U.K.’s head-knocking genre into one glorious, sleek package. This was the foundational document of grime and turn-of-the-century European hip-hop. Between Dizzee’s rapid and slick flows ducking in and out of curb-stomp beats, there was something deeply hypnotic about his tales of drug dealing and death roaming the streets.
But Dizzee, starting from a point of experimentation, retreated. He shot up in critical and commercial acclaim and opted for the safety of pop territory for his next handful of albums, while grime around the British Isles mutated far beyond what even Dizzee and his crew could have anticipated. The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, the other colossus of the era and island, was already warping the expectations of hip-hop. Within a decade, Young Fathers, Rejjie Snow, Wiley and Skepta took the foundation Dizzee laid and combined it with influences from far abroad. Slap on a tape from Riz MC and you can still hear the spirit of Boy in da Corner channeled through a British-Pakistani POV, all while Dizzee was moving further and further into Top 40 bait. “MCs better start chattin’ about what’s really happening,” he yelped on “Brand New Day,” but he ignored his own advice. – Nathan Stevens
It really is a shame about just how much of a punchline this album became among a certain set of music geeks. Sure, it may not be the perfect album that the good folks at Pitchfork proclaimed it to be in the years when the site was just a bunch of snarky hipsters, but make no mistake, Source Tags & Codes is a tremendous work. It’s a wholly strange, expansive album with twists and turns that sound at equal points beautiful and horrifying. There are straightforward rock songs like “Baudelaire” and histrionic epics like the smashing opener “It Was There That I Saw You,” all of which are delivered with a near-uncomfortable amount of conviction. And this was the band’s major label debut, back when that meant something truly awful.
The fact is that, as great as Source Tags is, it only served as a massive bar for future works that the band simply couldn’t surpass. Later albums from the band either ended up emphasizing their musical ambition while removing any sense of focus, or they find the band striving far too hard to equal what had come before. (Worlds Apart, Trail of Dead’s first proper album after Source Tags, particularly sounds like the work of a band that has placed immense pressure on themselves.) Today, they seem to accept that they’ll never replicate Source Tags again, and their most recent work has been largely fine. However, it only serves to emphasize just how much of a lightning-in-a-bottle experience Source Tags & Codes really is. The ambition, focus and desire all came together at the right time to create an ambitious band’s most fully realized project ever. – Kevin Korber
Released over 14 years ago, the Go! Team’s debut album, Thunder, Lighting, Strike, sounds more prescient as time goes by. The garage-rock band homed in on a corner of pop music nostalgia in both era and feel with its scrap heap of throwback tropes full of vintage warmth, like a live-band version of the Avalanches. The quirky instruments used— such as the toy-box flutes of “Get It Together” or the hokey pianos of “Feelgood by Numbers”— the hearty call-and-responses and the charming song titles all inform an experience rooted in childlike innocence, and the package is all delivered by a unit with a name that more recalls a Saturday morning cartoon than a rock band. Thunder, Lightning, Strike functioned as a neat curation of specific memories awakened via old pop records, driven by an impulse similar to the nostalgia-mining, brand-reliant chillwave generation.
While the Go! Team got it right on its first album, the completeness of Thunder, Lightning, Strike also offered little room for the band to grow. Subsequent albums did their best to expand the borders of the project’s sound, though the achievements of the debut album still largely inform the foundation of the band’s later works to this day. It’s the consequence of mining from such a specific corner of nostalgia: there’s only so much an act can take as an inspiration before it starts referencing itself. But fortunately, Thunder, Lightning, Strike still retains its purity and the exuberance of revisiting old joys. Without any pressure to best its finest moment, the Go! Team indulges like it’s discovering pop for the very first time. – Ryo Miyauchi
The Dandy Warhols is an interesting group in that they’re relatively well-known and prolific despite never having a massive hit. Though they’re more popular in the UK than they are in their native US, much of their success has been a result of their music being played in American television series, most notably the cult series “Veronica Mars,’ for which their single “We Used to be Friends” served as the theme song.
While 2000’s Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia marks the Dandy Warhols’ third album, it was indeed the effort that launched them into the public sphere, in part because its best single, “Bohemian Like You,” caught the attention of advertising agencies and was used in a number of global commercials for brands like Vodafone and Ford. Urban Bohemia is also still the best and best known of the band’s nine albums, a fact cemented by their release of a live version of the record to celebrate the album’s 13th anniversary.
The album stands out so starkly against the Dandy Warhols’ earlier work because they’d moved on from their garage rock roots and achieved a balance of gritty but still catchy pop in the album’s best songs. Listening to the full album is a cohesive experience, one with ebbs and flows in energy and force, while earlier projects were inconsistent and later albums varied between sounding bloated, overproduced and repetitive. Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is a sexy, stimulating album that’s driven by pop stylings but infused with a fresh, independent spirit, a record that still stands as the Dandy Warhol’s best effort even as they continue to release new music nearly 20 years later. – Mike McClelland
Remember eMusic? It’s a website where you could buy digital records from independent artists, most of whom remained fairly obscure in 2007. There were some exceptions like Frightened Rabbit, the dubstep artist Distance and a fairly quietly distributed artist by the name of Justin Vernon, whose solo project Bon Iver released its first record For Emma, Forever Ago on the platform. Like eMusic, Bon Iver (now a five-piece band) is still around but not really doing the same things it did in those days.
The story was fantastic: sad, sick and lonely, Vernon disappears into a frozen cabin in Wisconsin after the breakup of his former band, his relationship and his health. He emerges at the winter thaw with one of the most striking, unique, heartbreaking and beautifully intimate records ever produced. Vernon’s soulful but gentle falsetto vocal style, coupled with silence, imperfect scratching of guitar strings or sad harmonies saw the album become the yuppie it record of the year. Having Jack Johnson and Bon Iver in your collection was practically a prerequisite for emerging hipsterism; if you lived in a city and owned a beard, you probably owned For Emma, Forever Ago.
But after that, things went a little Radiohead. The slightly more experimental and less accessible Bon Iver, Bon Iver was still very well-received critically, but it never really saw the same explosive appeal as the more stripped-down and relatable For Emma, Forever Ago. Then came the weird and dubious validations of Kanye West, an invitation to collaborate with questionable results. Who was exploiting who? The third record, 2016’s 22, A Million, goes further down the dark road of inaccessibility, seeing Vernon abandoning what got him where he is. It begins with a tone that sounds like a signal— a signal which nobody’s really picking up. – Darryl G. Wright