PopMatters’ picks for the best of the decade begins with a series of albums that spans epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.
Voodoo is perhaps the quintessential example of why one ought not judge an album by its sleeve art. Taken at face value, there is nothing to suggest that anything more than generic, millennial R&B resides in its grooves; cornrows and old english don’t exactly inspire confidence, after all. So you can imagine my sense of shock when I realized that I was listening to one of the greatest albums ever made. I almost don’t want to talk about any of the actual music on this record—I’d rather you go a virgin into the music, as it really is that special. Like some kind of strange New Orleans brew, it possesses a sonic flavor that could only have been concocted from within the cauldron of D’Angelo’s own psyche. At once embracing the legacy of Stevie and Marvin, while at the same time laying the groundwork for the future, D’Angelo proved himself the true heir to the Kingdom of Soul.
Alas, like Sly Stone before him, he seemingly dropped out altogether. But in recent years he has returned to the stage, armed with a new array of potentially revolutionary material. Rumors of a full-fledged comeback have come and gone, but he need not worry about his legacy; if this is his Citizen Kane, then so be it. The throne is his should he ever want to take it. J.C. Sciaccotta
After emerging from the primordial ooze of the underground with their debut Remission (2002), Mastodon voyaged to the cusp of metal’s mainstream with their conceptually-anchored second studio album, Leviathan (2004). Exploring the mortal conflicts contained within Herman Melville’s legendary tome Moby Dick, Mastodon created elemental music befitting the high-sea drama which formed Leviathan‘s thematic base. The levitating jazz-metal drumming of Brann Dailor led the expedition through metallic riff maelstroms of “Iron Tusk” and “ĺsland”, which followed from the opening tidal-impact of “Blood and Thunder”. As Leviathan came to an end with the acoustic-led absolution of “Joseph Merrick”, after bringing legitimacy back to the much bastardized descriptor “epic” during “Hearts Alive”, it was soon apparent that Mastodon had created a momentous moment in heavy metal history. By helping redefine a paradigm that had become over-reliant on basic down-tuned bludgeon since the dark days of late ‘90s nu-metal, Mastodon cast technical musicianship, intelligent songcraft and progressive structures to metal’s fore again, while making the statement that concept albums were no longer resigned to prog rock dignitaries of days past. For these reasons, the Georgian four-piece’s pursuit and attainment of the Holy Grail with Leviathan is immensely important to metal’s 21st century revitalization. Dean Brown
It’s unlikely that Autechre will ever go as far out as it did on its sixth album, Confield. That’s not to say that there aren’t other Autechre albums with disintegrated rhythms and drone sections (or consisting entirely of drones, as you’ll find in Ae’s collaborations with Hafler Trio). But Confield is a line in the sand in Autechre’s discography. After a series of albums that moved them from IDM pioneers to computer music for ravers (1999’s Cichlisuite EP was described on the packaging as “digitally reclaimed by Autechre”), Confield embraced uncertainty and cold, unfamiliar spaces like never before. Making things a bit personal, it was after hearing Confield that I was first introduced to the idea of Max/MSP—it all seemed so alien to my 15-year-old mind, writing code to make music.
“VI Scose Poise” is an appropriate sink-or-swim opener—it’s a few minutes of digital percussion and short, rubber-band delays before a gentle, meandering melody wafts in. “Sim Gshel” and “Uviol” might be anchored in beats that you can follow, but both constantly threaten to collapse in on themselves. Standouts like “Cfern” and “Parhelic Triangle”, meanwhile, play phrase repetition into an unsettling collection of layers that are just jagged enough to leave you constantly antsy. It’s little wonder that “Cfern” was picked up by experimental ensemble Alarm Will Sound.
There’s a lot of beauty to Confield, even in the most confusing parts. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem as challenging as it did upon first release. It still stands as a gorgeous and important album, however, and one that makes a significant case for Autechre’s brilliance. David Abravanel
At the start of the 21st century, the gates at the country-music ghetto were firmly locked. Artists did not get out unless, maybe, they appealed to that dubious prefix, “alt”—less a meaningful generic designation than a safety disclaimer allowing urban, Northern listeners to embrace the music’s ostensible rural authenticity without being contaminated by dreaded “mainstream” country. In 2005, Miranda Lambert’s terrific Kerosene constituted a discernible blip on the radar screen, well-liked by critics who deigned to review country albums, its scorched-earth title track lending it just enough tough-chick cred to merit a thumbs-up from a few rock-critic fence-sitters. Mostly, in a broader cultural sense, it was overshadowed by the debut from Carrie Underwood, whose American Idol win handily trumped Lambert’s third-place finish on Nashville Star. Still, if Underwood was more widely embraced thanks to her Idol fame, her music did not really escape the country-music ghetto until early 2007, when “Before He Cheats” was suddenly, unmistakably ubiquitous. Later that year, Taylor Swift, too, broke through the gates with the irresistible “Our Song”, an early preview of her soon-to-be super-stardom.
But the most exciting product of the 2007 ghetto-break was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert’s thoroughly superb follow-up to Kerosene. From its hell-raising opener, “Gunpowder and Lead”, to the sweet would-be Friday Night Lights theme “Famous in a Small Town”, to the lovely, moving “Desperation”, to the confessional (but unrepentant) “Guilty in Here”, this was a masterful, constantly surprising record—not the best country album of its year, but the album of the year, period, as more than a few critical converts reluctantly conceded. If it failed to garner the massive, across-the-board success of the records by Underwood and Swift, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stood, no less importantly, as a new testament to contemporary country music’s potential for excellence. Josh Timmerman
Iron & Wine
The Shepherd’s Dog
Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.
It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream—it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain. Sean Murphy