In this next segment of PopMatters’ look back on the music of the ‘00s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.
Decoration Day came on the heels of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a loose concept album about growing up in the shadows of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Wallace, and “the duality of the Southern thing.” It put the Drive-By Truckers on the map as the thinking fan’s rock band and promised great things ahead merely on the strength of the growing songwriting talents of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Decoration Day debuted new member Jason Isbell, who maybe no one outside of his hometown had heard of, and we were promptly knocked on our asses. Isbell’s “Outfit” and “Decoration Day”, Hood’s “Sinkhole”, Cooley’s “Marry Me” and “When the Pin Hits the Shell”: the album contains a murderers’ row of songs that each songwriter can rightfully expect to play to singalong crowds for years to come. The album explores themes of violence, fear, fatherhood, suicide, the South, and rock ‘n’ roll from the mouths of characters living those struggles, in unflinching terms. It’s also worth mentioning that, over several acrid years of American politics, the Truckers often managed to keep the political on a personal level, so that listeners could plug in whoever their own version of “The Man” happened to be. The triple-threat of Isbell, Hood, and Cooley lasted only three albums before Isbell departed for a successful solo career, but Decoration Day—on which the band’s ragged aesthetic breathed noisy life into Isbell’s songs, and Isbell’s often literary songwriting reinforced the complex themes that Hood and Cooley were exploring—introduced arguably the band’s strongest lineup. Andrew Gilstrap
Raekwon the Chef
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is about the difficulty of letting go—of the violence, of the drugs, of the damn life, before luck runs out. When Raekwon and Ghostface talk about the bad old days, it’s just a little bit more real. Check this out: “I seen visions of dead males and more sales / Real life stories is made, and candles got blazed / For little young soldiers shot by them strays.” Or how about this: “They found a two year old, strangled to death / With a ‘Love Daddy’ shirt on in a bag on the top of the steps.” Evocative. Concrete. These are “warts and all” depictions of wayward men who went wrong. Pt. II starts exactly where Pt. I left off—you can match the music if you play them back-to-back. And, despite a wealth of producers such as RZA, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, Mathematics, Part II is cohesive in tone, both to itself and to its predecessor. The Cuban Linx albums are hip-hop’s The Godfather: Parts I and II. Both are sobering reflections on the criminal life, and the despair of never leaving it behind. Kevin Wong
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
The Tyranny of Distance
Ted Leo’s music has never tried to hide the fact that he was an English major in college, but nowhere more than on The Tyranny of Distance does Leo manage to capture that elusive goal of fiction—capturing “the feeling of what it means to be a fucking human being”. It’s a record chock full of five dollar words, antiquated contractions, and references to the literary canon, but the effect is far from pretentious. Written at a crossroads in Leo’s life, Tyranny finds him grappling with the Big Issues: life and death, love and loneliness, language and (loss of) faith—but seeking small, human-scale answers.
On Tyranny, Leo combines his ear for melody with a satisfyingly diverse range of styles from lilting folk to Zeppelin-esque riffing to soaring jangle pop, all run through his overly-caffeinated punk rock filter. The result is songs like “Biomusicology”, “Timorous Me” and “The Gold Finch and The Red Oak Tree” that still sound timeless nearly 15 years on. Released months before 9/11, The Tyranny of Distance stands out as a ray of poppy sunshine from a band that would spend the rest of the decades being a voice crying out in a politically darkened wilderness. John M. Tryneski
It’s a Wonderful Life
In 2000, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse began recording It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2010, he committed suicide at age 47. Though Linkous’s works are not popularly regarded as definitive markers of their times, It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) continues on as a brilliant and unsung highlight of the decade remembered here.
Released by Capitol Records, It’s a Wonderful Life was a rare departure from Linkous’s one-man-band approach to playing and recording. Earlier Sparklehorse albums utilized elements such as defective equipment and intrusive static as pointed defenses against commercial exploitation. The addition of producer Dave Fridmann to the recording process transformed Linkous’s aesthetic into new, still strange, but more palatable landscape. It’s a Wonderful Life was the fourth annual masterpiece of that peak period of Fridmann’s career, following Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs in 1998, The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin in 1999, and The Delgados’ The Great Eastern in 2000.
Themes of death and decay haunted It’s a Wonderful Life. Presently, the knowledge of Linkous’ suicide lends a retrospective layer of melancholy. But on plain musical merit, the album was in fact a rally for its creator. Collaborations with Fridmann and guest musicians including PJ Harvey, Nina Persson, and Tom Waits revealed a variety and depth that belied the media characterization of Linkous as a cloistered and depressed genius. In 2010, Steve Albini eulogized Linkous by saying, “he was a good dude and his art was genuine.” It’s a Wonderful Life is evidence of that. It’s an album that acknowledges beauty and truth even in the midst of darkness. Thomas Britt
The Postal Service
The Postal Service’s Give Up came out in 2003 and promptly became one of those releases that impacted music for the rest of the decade, however unlikely it seemed. A side project between Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, Give Up took off in a way that neither of their main bands had up until that point. The album is a distillation of two genres, and the electronic sounds and emo lyrics defined indie rock for the time.
One of the album’s greatest strengths is how it’s able to bring warmth to a sound that might initially seem disconnected or cold. Much of the credit for the fuller sound should be given to the backing vocals provided by Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood. Their voices meld exceptionally well with Gibbard’s and in the end the album feels complete in a way that belies the piecemeal way it came together. Exchanging CD-Rs through the mail, Gibbard and Tamborello stumbled upon a sound that never feels like one of them is overshadowed by the other. Give Up‘s cultural importance is unquestionable, as it helped bring indie rock into the mainstream, but apart from its groundbreaking appeal, it’s simply an immensely listenable album that ten years on still feels dynamic and makes for an essential ‘00s addition. J.M. Suarez