Why Should the Fire Die?
Why Should the Fire Die? is both the title of Nickel Creek’s best ‘00’s record and very likely the question many fans asked themselves when, following the release of the album, the “newgrass” trio announced an indefinite hiatus. (That hiatus ended in 2014 with the release of A Dotted Line.) The trio of Chris Thile (mandolin) and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins (guitar and fiddle, respectively) stunned the world and sold millions of records in the early ‘00s, due in large part to their prodigious musicianship, pop smarts, and impeccable three-part harmony. But while records like Nickel Creek and This Side are as twee as they are instrumentally savvy, Why Should the Fire Die? is a leap forward due its dark and lovelorn themes.
The music here is preoccupied with heartache. Take Sean Watkins’ “Somebody More Like You”, which has the icy line, “I hope you meet someone your height / So you can see eye to eye / With someone as small as you.” Then there’s Thile’s “Can’t Complain” and “Helena”, two character tales of relationships undone by adultery and mistrust. Watkins and Thile also take on one of James Joyce’s more saturnine short stories in the enrapturing “Eveline”. The atmosphere is so bleak that sweet and longing tunes like Sara Watkins’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and her old-timey original “Anthony” become necessary breathers. Written just after Thile’s divorce from his first wife, the record finds this one-of-a-kind trio tackling subject material unlike anything it had ever done before, all the while retaining its creative and dazzling musicianship.
By the time Why Should the Fire Die? was released, Nickel Creek had been a group for almost 17 years. That’s part of what makes this such a powerful recording: while on their earlier work we were hearing the sound of three uncommonly talented kids, on this album we’re hearing them grow up and start to face the hardest transition shocks of that time in life. Fortunately, the fire didn’t die after this LP, as the trio would return in 2014 with its best outing yet. But had this been the last flickering of the flames, we’d have been left with an unforgettable collection of songs, indeed. Brice Ezell
Arguably the first “dubstep” full length, Vex’d's Degenerate is a divisive piece of work. Looking back on it nearly ten years after it was released, some may argue that it a forerunner of the dreaded “brostep” sound due to overt brutality, vicious womping basslines, and its obnoxious demeanor.
When it was first released, Degenerate was banded about as dubstep purely as there was no other genre name that came close to what it actual was. Even now it remains an album that defies standard definition containing elements of breakstep, 2-step, grime as well as dubstep. And when it came out, it completely changed the game. Gone were the half-step heavily reverberated riddim, replaced in their stead by insistent dry clipped garage/breaks/dancehall/grime drum patterns punctuated by moments of silence that carried as much forward motion as the complex rhythms themselves. Gone were the roots inspired pure bass-weight of dubstep’s early pioneers; these became replaced by evil mid-range wubs. In came the horror movie atmospherics and the dark ambient sound design that at the time were unheard of in dubstep circles. This is an album whose influence is hard to under-estimate; it came from the fringes of a scene its producers didn’t feel a part of and, as a result, it was and is like nothing else. Al Kennedy
Amon Tobin’s sixth studio album saw the producer and doyenne of the art house trip-hop/drum and bass scene all but abandon his trademarked sampling of old school vinyl records, his sole method of beat and track construction since his debut offerings as Cujo on the now defunct Ninebar Records, in favour of recordings and sounds of his own.
Inspired by the foley rooms where sound effects are recorded for films and video games and growing tired of the restrictions imposed upon him by sampling other people’s work, Tobin literally took to the streets to record the sounds of everyday and not so everyday life. He recorded the roaring of a tiger, the drip of water onto a plate in the sink, ants eating grass, and the revving of a motorcycle (amongst much more), layering the resultant disparate elements into an original and stunningly beautiful melting pot of sounds and ideas. Although The Foley Room is more challenging than the works he had created previously, it still stands up as one of electronic music’s most accomplished concept records of all time. It is a post-modern masterpiece that almost singlehandedly re-invigorating the found-sound movement of the early music-concrete pioneers of the ‘50s, and its influence can be heard all over modern music production today. Al Kennedy
Antony and the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
As we approach 2015, with broader awareness and acceptance of transgender identity, it is easy to forget that only ten years ago, discussions of LGBT issues “often left out the T” and many in the transgender community felt themselves to be the marginalized wing of an already marginalized body. To call Antony Hegarty’s second album with his band Antony & the Johnsons, 2005’s I Am a Bird Now, the foundation point of a new awareness of transgender identity is, perhaps, an overstatement, but the album’s success is certainly an important touchstone in the ongoing journey to broader acceptance and action on behalf of transgender issues.
Winner of the Mercury Prize, I Am a Bird Now is a deeply personal song cycle on the connection/disconnection between identity and the body itself. “One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman….” Antony sings in his otherworldly voice, “But for today I am a buoy”, locating gendered identity as a floating marker, the deliberate misspelling adding to the ambiguity. For language can, like the body, be amputated and reconfigured. This is an album of dissections and conflations, addressing his displacement between the conflicting poles of male and female. By album’s end, Antony is the “Bird Guhrl,” ascending that final duality, between terrestrial earth and Heaven, his call of being born to “assume the sky” evoking in his uniquely intoned phrasing a chilling slant rhyme for suicide, the tragic choice for so many who have faced this struggle. Even transcendence must remain ambiguous in this work of agonizing beauty. Ed Whitelock
The Crane Wife
What do you do when your band has been branded with the scarlet letter of P for Pretentious just as you are poised to make the leap to a major label a potentially broader audience? If you are Colin Meloy, you double down and create a quasi-concept record fashioned around an ancient Japanese folk tale. Not truly a concept album, the songs of the Decemberists’ The Crane Wife nonetheless flow into each other to create a seamless listening experience, a collection of tales evoking Childe ballads, 18th century broadsides, Shakespearean tragedy, and fairy tales empowered by Meloy’s glossological wit and ruefulness. The band is at the peak of its powers on this album, fusing progressive- and folk-rock flourishes into something simultaneously new and timeless.
The year-long tour in support of this 2006 album brought thousands of fans to the fold as Meloy and Co. gained a reputation as a must-see live act, engaging in deceptively mild-mannered instrumental pyrotechnics, leading hall-wide sing-alongs, and jumping into the audience to re-create assorted famous historical battles. Stephen Colbert became a booster for the band and invited guitarist Chris Funk onto the then still new Colbert Report for a guitar shred-off (wherein Colbert faked a finger nail injury and brought in ringer Peter Frampton). The Decemberists were poised for R.E.M.-level success. Exhaustion and the over-reaching Hazards of Love stalled the momentum, but the band has remained active, if less prolific, during the 2010s. Meanwhile, The Crane Wife holds up as one of the creative peaks of the aughts. Ed Whitelock