Monday, January 18, 2010

L00king Back, Part 2

I already posted a mix of some of my favorite music of the decade that just ended (Side 1, Side 2). In fact, I've been going back and tweeking it, adding some songs, fiddling with the order, cleaning up the embarassing writing. I'm sure I'll do the same with this post--in fact, I'm doing it right now. But check those out if you're interested.

The 00's have been the best decade of music that I've ever lived through. Not so much for what I heard, but for what I didn't have to hear. It's easy to forget just how annoying it was, as recently as the 90's, to have to be subjected to whatever horrible music your average idiot decided was good. Limp Bizkit, Celine Deon, Ace of Bass, Coldplay...whatever a large enough group of people liked, you had to hear it. Now, I look at Billboard's list of the biggest one-hit wonders of the decade, or this list of the worst songs of the decade, and I realize that I've never heard most of them. And that makes me very, very happy.

We basically now live in the world that I always wanted to live in, that I've been fantasizing about since the 80's, where everyone just listens to their own shit and leaves everyone else out of it: The World of Niche Marketing. And I've read a lot of critics complaining about it, and lamenting the lack of a shared culture, but if shared culture means I have to listen to Phil Collins, you can fucking keep it.

In the late 90's, I had become pretty bored with music. I had dutifully listened to Sebedoah and Pavement, but when the next wave of indie rock bands came along, bands like Versus and Built to Spill, all still sounding basically like retreads of Pixies, Sonic Youth and Fugazi, I just called it quits. As for hip hop, it really seemed to be in the same state that rock was in the mid-70's. There were some good party jams, but most of it was so unoriginal it hurt. There was underground hip hop, of course, which always seemed just on the verge of exploding into a revolutionary equivalent of punk, but it felt like it never quite got there. Groups like Company Flow, Latyrix and Anti-Pop Consortium had some good stuff, but lacked the fire and energy you could hear on hip hop records from the golden age. It seemed like music was going a different way, like everything was moving toward, in the outdated jargon of 1999, "electronica." The future belonged to Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Bros., The Propellorheads, Moby. This seemed perfectly logical, but it didn't really interest me. When I moved to L.A. from Athens, where I used to go see a live band at least every other week, I found myself intimidated by the new surroundings. I didn't know the clubs, didn't have much money, didn't have a group of friends who liked the same music as me, and it was just easier to let my agoraphobia win. I felt completely disconnected from the world of music.

It has quickly become a cliche to start a piece like this by talking about the ways our consumption of music has changed over the last decade, but it's pretty startling to think where we were in 1999. Basically, after 15 years on the market, the CD was just beginning to not feel like a rip off. For one thing, most cars now came with a CD player (you could get a CD player in your car long before that, but I guess I needed to have it forced on me to really appreciate it), and people were just figuring out how to rip tracks to your computer and burn them to a CD--much easier than making a cassette mixtape. The next logical step was file sharing, and we all know what happened then. Next thing I knew, I had 300 mp3's on my hard drive at work (still too paranoid about the fuzz to do it at home), most of which were songs I had been itching to hear again for over a decade. A lot of them were early 80's hardcore records that I had barely thought about since, say, 1988. I could put them into 80 minute mixes on CD's, drive around listening to that mix I had wanted to make in high school but could never get all the records together at the same time. From Napster to Audiogalaxy to WinMX (I could never get Soulseek to work).By the time they shut that one down, it was irrelevent. Now came the age of the mp3 blog, and if you found a few that lined up with your personal tastes, you could put together a great mix, amounting to an album or so every Saturday morning. Then iTunes and eMusic, and I was buying more music than I probably ever had, even while "stealing" the same amount. (This situation can have dark consequences for the more compulsive music hound. On my visit to Florida, I had a long conversation with Jason about it. His music builds up so quickly that he has no time to listen to it, and lives in constant anguish from not being able to hear everything, a curse from the Gods that will eventually end with him being drug to the happy home, acheiving immortality as a cautionary tale for those afflicted with the hungry ear. [I'm joking by the way--let's make it clear so I'm not slandering my friend.]) A decade that started out with me completely disconnected from the world of music ended with me deeper in it in some ways than I had ever been.

All these developments--blogs, online communities, satelite radio--prevent you from ever having to be subjected to anything outside your tastes. You just focus on the genres you have a personal fetish for, find a few blogs that cover that stuff, or a forum dedicated to it, and live in your own little world. Of course there are disadvantages to this as well. No, I have never had to hear a single song by any former American Idol contestant, but I also had no real reason to check out Arcade Fire's Funeral. I finally used up some eMusic credits on that one about 5 years after it came out, and hey, it's a pretty fantastic album, so maybe it pays to keep a little ear to the mainstream culture.

Anyway, my 10 favorite albums of the first decade of the 21st Century:

1. Beck - Guero Much looser than Odelay, Guero feels like the synthesis of the "funky Beck" of Mellow Gold, Odelay and Midnight Vultures witht he "folky Beck" of One Foot in the Grave, Mutations and Sea Change. It also feels like the sound of L.A., its melting pot of culture, languages, musical styles and foods, all brought together into a unified whole, never feeling contradictory or forced. It's the sound of the Korean Taco Truck, of the symphony of smells you get as you drive up Vermont with the windows down, maybe catching bits of gangsta rap, punk rock, Norteno and Cumbia. The title track, with Beck rapping in monotone Spanglish interspersed with fake Cholo dialogue attracts some criticism, and if I weren't living in L.A. it might strike me as a slightly embarassing minstrel act, but having lived here (and probably having listened to plenty of standup comics and audiences of all races doing this sort of cross-cultural lampoon), knowing that Beck grew up in Echo Park, I just recognize it for what it is--just how people talk around here.

2. The Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South So I guess if I had stayed in Athens, this would probably have been my number one pick. Expanding on 2000's Southern Rock Opera, The Dirty South is a concept album exploring the mythology of the South, covering, among other things, Sun Records, Buford Pusser, John Henry, stock car races, and smaller, more personal stories about family, work and music. Smack in the middle of the three-album stretch that featured their strongest line-up (with Jason Isbell serving as the third singer/songwriter/guitarist alongside founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley), the sound is strong and confident, a band hitting their peak. Cooley kicks things off with the ominous "Where the Devil Don't Stay" (the opening seconds always make me think of a scene in a Western, a closeup shot of a gunfighter's cowboy boots walking deliberately across the plank wood floor of a saloon to start some shit), and contributes some typically great songs throughout. Isbell's songs, a bit more emotionally grounded and less schticky than Cooley's and Hood's, give the album a bit more weight, and he offers what might be their definitive take on the Southern Rock genre with "Never Gonna Change," and finishes off the album with the heartbreaking saloon ballad "Goddamn Lonely Love." The centerpiece of the album is Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon," more of a monologue than a song, a savage curse at the world that describes the hideous details of a Job-like life in a declining factory town. It's an incredibly intense performance, building to a scream of impotent rage and anguish. And if that sounds too heavy, Cooley is there to releive the tension with a reverent ode to Sun Records mogul Sam Phillips.

3. The Fiery Furnaces - EP I've written pretty in-depth about this band, so I won't go into too much detail here. But side one of this record is simply the most solid stretch of pop songwriting I've heard this decade, with its five songs flowing from one to another in a perfect, fluid stream. Side two offers a bunch of weird, experimental songs to balance it all out.

4. Gogol Bordello - Gyspy Punks I got to take a late pass on this one--just heard it for the first time a few months ago. For all I know, this might not even be their best album, since it's still the only one I've heard. Gogol Bordello are, as the title says, Gypsy punks--Eastern European immigrants in NYC, playing a rocked-up version of their traditional folk music in a way that's comparable to the Pogues, with a fierce urgency worthy of the Clash and a high-energy live show that takes me back to the heyday of Fishbone.

5. The Coup - Steal This Album The Coup are every bit as politically radical as, say, Public Enemy, but unlike PE, The Coup are funny. They're also incredibly funky. Describing a hip hop crew as "funky" is probably not that helpful, but I really don't know what other word to use. Everything is wah-wah'ed out, loping along in a rhythmic pimp strut. Like all left-wing musicians, they say a lot that's complete horseshit (from "I Love Boosters" on 2006's Pick a Bigger Weapon: "We all know that there would be no prisons/If rights to food, clothing and shelter were given"...yeah, right, pal.), but they got humor, and humor goes a long way. Steal This Album is their third record, and, while I like all their albums, it's their most solid, funky and funny.

6. The People Under the Stairs - O.S.T. (Original Sound Tracks) In Florida or even Georgia, a hot summer day is usually followed by a hot summer night. In the dry-heat of L.A., though, the temperature drops 5 to 10 degrees within the space of about 10 minutes at sunset. After an intensely hot day, there's an almost involuntary sense of relaxation, as if your muscles are breathing sighs of relief at this suddenly pleasant temperature. That's what this album sounds like to me. To my ears, Thes One and Double K outdo the late Jay Dilla at his own game in producing smooth beats somewhere between Native Tongues and G-Funk. The album's not perfect--"Acid Raindrops" should really be the last song, rather than the two forgetable songs that follow it, and it drives me nuts that they interupt the best run on the album ("The Dig," "Montego Stay" and "L.A. Song") with the throwaway "The Heat"--but hey, just leave the junk off your playlist.

7. Deerhoof - Offend Maggie I'm constantly amazed by this band. It feels like they came from another planet, aliens trying to figure out how to write Earth-Pop songs, and having no idea how to go about it. This approach could result in interesting exercises that nobody wants to listen to, but Deerhoof manage to inject each song with their own weird little personality. And they just keep getting better, so that this, their most recent album, is maybe their best.

8. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic Back in the late 80's, the Lips were doing some cool shit, but they were definitely second-stringers on a team where bands like the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and Meat Puppets were the starters. Now, 20 years later, most of the competition has fallen by the wayside, and The Flaming Lips are putting out the most interesting music of their career. Embryonic feels like the album they've been trying to make for the last decade or so. OK, the songs on The Soft Bulletin are probably stronger, and Yoshimi is probably a more fun listen, but Embryonic just sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. The first time I heard it (streaming on, I thought "Wow, they've totally abandoned the guitars and gone all-synth." Then I bought the album, listened to it a few more times and realized "Holy shit! Those ARE guitars!" The guitars are so heavily treated that they sound completely alien, but you can here that physical pressure of pick-against-string on every song. There's a line in Killing Zoe, where someone's trying to get Eric Stoltz to try some drug, and tells him that "It makes you feel like all the world is inside a glass bubble, and you're on the outside rubbing against the glass." (Stoltz replies "I'll try it anyway.") That's what this album sounds like.

9. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat I was unsure whether I was going to include a Sleater-Kinney album (I considered going with Of Montreal instead). On the one hand, I feel strongly that they were The World's Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band for much of the decade, but I also feel like their best album was clearly 1998's Dig Me Out. They don't have quite as solid an album from the 00's, but they have three damn good ones. It seems that more people chose their final album, the noisy, heavy rock The Woods, but I'm going with One Beat. Admittedly, it's not the most solid album, but the high points--songs like "One Beat," "Oh!," "Step Aside" and "Sympathy"--are so good that they justify sitting through some forgettable material.

10. Madvillain - Madvillainy I wish there were more Madvillain albums, because Madlib and MF Doom just work together brilliantly. In the same way that the members of Led Zeppelin or The Velvet Underground or The Who all compliment each other, Madlib's glitchy beats and Doom's stoner rhymes just fit together like a jigsaw. Madlib has done the same kind of stuff better on the two Quasimoto albums, and Doom has dropped better rhymes, but, like wine and cheese, they make each other taste better. They should be a band.

I'm working on the last part of this, the movie post (unless I decide to do another one about TV, which is doubtful since I haven't finished The Wire yet), but I'm gonna hold on to it long enough to see just a few more movies. You understand, right?


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1/19/2010 11:21 PM  

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