Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Quiet excellence is Spoon’s MO. While we were salivating over Animal Collective, Tame Impala, and other indie-darlings, Spoon simply went to work, churning out great album after great album. There were no slip ups, no sell-out moments, just a refusal to put anything less than fantastic to tape and a good ear for insidious melodies. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga still stands as their most realized record. It’s a sleek poppy package that’ll worm its way into your head and comfortably sit there until you listen to “Don’t You Evah” for the 15th time in a row. Spoon tempered their work with a casual grace and humor that evaded just about everyone else. The pseudo-soul cut “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” opened with “Life could be so fair!” before warning a friend about holding grudges too long. But their enticing delivery could be used for evil as well. When Britt Daniel let drip “come let your socks fall down to your shoes” on “Rhythm and Soul”, the sexual tension is palpable, while “Eddie’s Raga” stomps along to the beat of jealous lovers. With the 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the best crafted indie album of the ‘00s. And they made it sound so easy. Nathan Stevens
I remember where I was when I found out Elliott Smith had killed himself, back in 2003. I was in a dark place personally, lonely and far away from home, and though I didn’t know his music very well at the time, the act of envisioning the grisly details of his final moments latched onto the strands of my initial interest to form a deep connection that has grown exponentially over time. The parallels in our struggles, concerns, and quiet triumphs became obvious as I listened to his albums on repeat. I can hardly listen to a song of his these days without getting misty; Figure 8 churns the biggest wake of emotional baggage.
Released early on in the year 2000, Figure 8 would be the last album completed in his brief, dramatic life. His second album on a major label and arguably his most well rounded, it balanced a bigger Americana power-pop studio sound with his more intimate, acoustic style honed on his mid-‘90s albums. While grandiloquent moments like “Son of Sam” struck a classic Southern rock tone and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” exploded in Flaming Lips-esque neo-psychedelia, the emotional resonance on more delicately arranged tracks like “Everything Reminds Me of Her,” “Easy Way Out” and “I Better Be Quiet Now” rivaled anything else in his catalogue, his broken voice echoed in lilting strings and sombre acoustic guitar.
Figure 8 showed the uncomfortable genius at the peak of his creative powers, and matched with an ideal team that included Sam Coomes (Quasi), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s long-time drummer), and producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who help shape Beck’s iconic Mellow Gold). The results were vulnerable yet grandiose, honest yet mystical. It’s perfectly flawed in a way only a handful of other musicians have ever been able to express, lyrically and sonically.
His work frequently became the soundtrack for key scenes in award-winning films, his album sales were steadily increasing, he was still regularly hitting the studio to record new works, and he had a loving girlfriend. Smith seemed to have everything working in his favor externally, but, sadly, he was never able to stabilize internally. And so he left us, not unexpectedly but nevertheless shockingly, to join the ranks of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley as unparalleled song-writing talents who wore their hearts on their sleeves then abandoned their soul-crushing narratives on ellipses. Figure 8 remains Smith’s final testament, the album to remember him by, his Pink Moon or Grace. The mural in front of which Smith posed for the album art photography, located on Sunset Boulevard in LA, has since become his memorial, the place to grieve and remember the man who still resonates so powerfully with so many all these years later. Alan Ranta
Suburban Light, the Clientele’s full-length debut, landed with a whisper, a gentle breeze of unfiltered ‘60s pop that was definitively English. Four years, Strange Geometry, their third LP, sounded like a full-formed realization of every nuance the band was capable of, but just couldn’t coalesce for their debut or sophomore releases. (The Clientele claimed that they couldn’t find a recording studio suitable to help them achieve a warm sound, so they released Suburban Light as a set of demos.) If warmth was the goal of their sound, the Clientele achieved it in spades.
Strange Geometry is an LP held together by texture, imagery, and richness, melodically and lyrically. “Since K Got Over Me” and “Impossible” are as anthemic as the Clientele can become, stretching out their loose jamming capabilities but keeping them confined to the service of the song. “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and “Step Into the Light” are sweetly sincere ballads of Sunday morning melancholy and Saturday night regret. Even the more experimental, spoken-word track, “Losing Haringey”, fit the hazy mood of the record because, at heart, the Clientele are observers of human nature and they translate human nature into snatches of verse that summarize slippery emotions: “everything’s so vivid and so creepy…every night the strange geometry.”
Two traits make Strange Geometry an impeccable album that still sounds vital: one, every note and lyric are in their right place, there are not missteps; and two, every angle is perfectly rounded to fit into an indie pop schema. Geometry is a cold math, but the Clientele shoot it through with weight and depth; the kind that bridges the gaps between Romanticism and Modernism. No band from the aughts made pop music this perfect. Scott Elingburg
Guided by Voices
Isolation Drills is arguably the best album to be released by Dayton’s Guided by Voices in their Mark 2.0 format (though Mag Earwhig! does have its charms and Earthquake Glue got some pretty glowing reviews). Coming on the heels of the disastrous Do the Collapse, in which the group did just that, Isolation Drills, which was their last release on a quasi-major label before shuffling off back to Matador Records, is end-to-end brilliant, with some of Robert Pollard’s most confessional and direct lyrics (“How’s My Drinking”) and some of the band’s best hooks (“Glad Girls”, “Chasing Heather Crazy”). The first album by the group to crack the Billboard Top 200, Isolation Drills is a testament to rebounding from failure, and pursuing a much more rock-centric sound, after Ric Ocasek basically masturbated all over the outfit’s signature style with his glossy, keyboard-drenched take on their material on Do the Collapse. Isolation Drills might not be the sort of album that inspires academic writing, but as far as balls to the wall rock albums go, this one is terrific and features guitarist Doug Gillard’s best, most chimey work. Isolation Drills is mostly killer with very little filler, and reminds us that Pollard and company made some fine albums that weren’t titled Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes. Zachary Houle
Manic Street Preachers
Journal for Plague Lovers
It was always going to be emotional, wasn’t it? Nearly 15 years after the Manics’ Minister of Information Richey Edwards left his Vauxhall Cavalier at the Severn Bridge and vanished into thin air, his fellow bandmates decided to liberate his lyrical ‘last will and testament’ and set it to music. This instilled a sense of responsibility so immense that bassist Nicky Wire fleetingly suggested recording the album then burying it, never to be heard.
When Journal for Plague Lovers arrived—wrapped in Jenny Saville’s haunting Stare and taut Steve Albini production—it realised an impossible dream for fans. The Manics as a four-piece once again. The last gang in town, guns a blazin’, and for one night only. A fierce reminder that Edwards was a unique, great artist and yes, Journal for Plague Lovers is great, devastating art. The music is raw, razor-sharp, burning bright with urgency, ideas, and life. But it’s Richey’s lyrics that inevitably transfix. A hurricane of wit and wonder tearing through a bizarro circus of absurdly grotesque Voltaire-esque imagery. God. The devil. Mutilated flesh. Crucifixion. Cloned sheep. Cock-fighting dwarves. The disgust of humanity perfected on the masterful Holy Bible is still powerfully present but what proves most painfully poignant is how much of Edwards’ closing statement carries a sadly serene, bruised resignation. “Dreams they leave and die”. As the light fades and “William’s Last Words” runs out of time, I defy you not to shed a tear as Wire, in a tenderly fragile vocal, recites his childhood friend’s parting lines, “I love you / Just let me go”. Truly heartbreaking. Matt James