Boards of Canada
I admit it: Geogaddi straight-up scared me the first time I heard it. Calling Boards of Canada’s sophomore album “cryptic” would be an understatement—head to fan site bocpages, and you’ll encounter a Talmudic level of scholarship dedicated to parsing out the symbolic track titles, back-masked samples, and Fibonacci-inspired melodies. Aside from sounding like the soundtrack to a mid-‘70s cult renewal weekend, the hidden Satanic and Occult themes in Geogaddi, along with the disturbingly normal modified vintage photos of children playing that adorn the packaging, are enough to put any listener on edge.
Not that brothers Michael and Marcus Sandison mean anything sinister by it, of course. Rather, like a parent playing puzzle games with a child (and parents and children are all over Geogaddi, as well), Boards of Canada are having fun with the listeners by adding extra hidden layers of meaning. “You Could Feel The Sky” already carries a beautiful and unsettling sense of finality, then you discover that the reserved speech concerns “a god with horns”. And of course, the total album length is a cheeky 66 minutes and six seconds.
Of course, the album also stands firmly as a classic without the treasure hunting. “1969” is as close to a pop song as Boards of Canada will ever write (with vocoded lyrics about the Branch Davidians, natch), while achingly beautiful ambient passages like “In the Annexe” and “Over the Horizon Radar” illustrate again that the segue pieces on BoC albums can be the most rewarding. Sonically, the BoC palette didn’t change much between 1998’s Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, but everything just feels more considered and better layered this time around. The melodies have more bite, the sampled speech is that much more chilling, and the atmosphere in general betrays a best-case-scenario sophomore effort: older, wiser, and no less full of ideas or willing to stretch.
Since 2010, Boards of Canada’s influence shows no sign of waning. Hazy, wobbly synths have been everywhere this decade—microgenres like seapunk, vaporwave, glo-fi etc. all owe a huge debt to BoC’s lilting summery soundscapes. While dirty-cassette-style processing might be becoming an overdone trope, the gorgeous and foreboding haze of Geogaddi remains just as vital. David Abravanel
My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
It Still Moves ended up being the kind of demarcation point many bands go entire careers without reaching. Though it is My Morning Jacket’s third album, it is the pinnacle of the Louisville band’s first phase. Like its two predecessors, It Still Moves was recorded in an empty grain silo, and was enveloped in the space’s warm, natural reverb. But from the signature opening anthem, “Mahgeetah”, it is clear My Morning Jacket had expanded on the relatively sparse Southern Gothic tones of its earlier works. A sense of near-reckless, almost-unhinged abandon provided the thrills, while the sighing, synth-shaded ballads were the counterpoint, Jim James’ haunting voice talking it all down from the precipice. Here was a band that had people recalling .38 Special, and fondly, but also betrayed James’ soft spot for British post-punk moodiness. It was all caught up in a magical, golden hue. When people talk about bands that “sound like My Morning Jacket”, bands like Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses, it is the My Morning Jacket of It Still Moves they are referring to. After It Still Moves, the band underwent a major lineup shift and their career became focused on maintaining their identity while distancing themselves from all those bands the album inspired. That the original still sounds so vital is the mark of a true classic. John Bergstrom
We’ve all met snobs who, showing off their “eclecticism,” proudly declare, “I like all music except rap and country”—which should make rap and country natural bedfellows, right? During the ‘90s, at football games and campfire parties across the Midwest and the South, those bedfellows raised a stinky brood that’d grow into Kid Rock, the current bro-country movement, and formah Georgia linebackah Bubba Sparxxx. After a hit debut album, Bubba made Deliverance with Timbaland and Organized Noize, their beats as deep and colorful as the world in Bubba’s dirt road anthems. Which means, yes, harmonicas and fiddles, but also strings and choir depicting Mr. Sparxxx’s desperation (“Nowhere”), and horns and choir trumpeting his determination (“Overcome”). That choir was an early credit for gospel star Tye Tribbett—sort of like seeing Jack Black go redneck in Dead Man Walking. Less interested in landing memorable lines than watching his stream of scene-setting tumble across Timbaland’s snappy drums, Bubba nevertheless managed to get fishing poles and bottles of shine onto Top 40 radio. The last minute of “Overcome”, with brass, beats, Bubba, and black gospel all laying down different rhythms, is delirious contrapuntal majesty. From country-rap! Pretty good for social outcasts. Josh Langhoff
“Love and Theft”
On Dylan’s last full-length album of the ‘90s, the weary character that occupied the final song assessed “The sun is beginning to shine on me / But it’s not like the sun that used to be.” Time Out of Mind‘s repeated ruminations on mortality seemed like the perfect bookend to Bob Dylan’s career. But that masterstroke was only a setup for an amazing encore. If the characters that occupied Time Out of Mind seemed to be on their deathbeds, then “Love and Theft” was their remission. And those characters chose to celebrate their new lease on life by blowing every last dime they have at the VFW dance hall, cracking bad jokes, and hitting on anyone in plain sight—even if they are half their age.
Backed by the tightest band Dylan has worked with since the Band, “Love and Theft” effortlessly took on swing (“Summer Days”), delta blues (“High Water”), and barnstorming rockers (“Honest With Me”). The carefree sound on “Love and Theft” doesn’t keep away the clouds, as Dylan sings “Coffins droppin’ in the street / Like balloons made out of lead” on “High Water”. The fact the album was released on September 11, 2001, made the apocalyptic imagery all the more palatable. It’s fitting that during a day when Dylan’s voice was sorely needed, he released an all-American masterpiece. Sean McCarthy
The Cold Vein
Although the two are rarely paired, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein may be the perfect foil to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. The same year Hova unleashed what would become a game-changer for commercial hip-hop, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega were doing something similar across the East River for the underground—which is to say, the obverse. Where Kanye West and Just Blaze sampled Al Green and the Jackson Five for uplift and clarity, El-P sampled Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson for a descent into bafflement and spiritual despair. And where all of The Blueprint‘s personnel saw their stars rise precipitously, Cannibal Ox is only now recording a follow-up; rumors of label strife and debilitating depression abound. Cold Vein covers familiar terrain (battle raps, broken childhoods, inner-city plight) with an excremental vision and irregular gait. Pop songs are stripped bare so only their ugliness remains. Even Giorgio Moroder is made to sound like a pipe organ from the fires of Hell, and even Mama, unimpeachable in the hip-hop topoi, spits, “You sucked my pussy when you came out / Don’t ever talk back / I handed you life and I’ll snatch it back.” Comparisons to modernist poets are apt, but belie the primal pleasures herein; this seething anguish is, finally, as irresistible as anything a major label has to offer. Benjamin Aspray