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A Weekend in the City
As fitting a title A Weekend in the City is for Bloc Party’s second album—it’s a dead-on summation of its lyrical contents—the name of its follow-up Intimacy would have been just as apt. Even when the four-piece is cranking out impassioned squalls of noise, it feels as if singer/guitarist Kele Okereke is sitting right by you, his plaintive voice entrusting you with his hopes, insecurities, and regrets. Sometimes he is psyching himself up to conquer the night (“Tonight make me unstoppable / I will charm / I will slice / I will dazzle them with my wit”). Other times he is taking stock the day after (“I love you in the morning / When you’re still hung over / I love you in the morning / When you’re still strung out”). In all instances, his vulnerability is affecting, and imbues A Weekend in the City with a mournful spirit even in its more triumphal moments. That raw-nerve humanity plus the group’s aptitude for completely rocking out when called for (drummer Matt Tong earns the title of the band’s MVP in that regard) made Bloc Party 2-0 following its full-length 2005 debut Silent Alarm, and the record’s virtues helped further distinguish the group amongst its contemporaries during the neo-post-punk heyday of the ‘00s. AJ Ramirez
The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed
If the Mountain Goats’ second studio album (after many non-studio albums) was “merely” the best album ever written about the damage and pleasure of drug addiction, it would still warrant a place on this list. But We Shall All Be Healed also sees John Darnielle’s first sustained bout of autobiography (which brings an extra layer of insight and despair into these songs about tweakers trying to make it through the day and the world, even when you don’t know the context) even as he hits a high water mark in his songwriting. Plenty of his work since has been excellent, but he’s rarely been as bitterly anthemic as he is on “Slow West Vultures” and “The Young Thousands”, as wisely tender as he is on “Your Belgian Things” and “Cotton”. Few people have ever nailed the dichotomies of human nature (chemically assisted or not) as squarely as Darnielle does on the combination of “All Up the Seething Coast” and “Quito”, let alone on “Against Pollution”, a song that can tell you something new about yourself and the world every single time you play it. As always, Darnielle’s work contains all the wonder and folly of the world. Ian Mathers
It’s quite difficult to overstate how much the events of September 11, 2001 influenced the culture of the 2000s. The US and the UK were in a perpetual state of war for most of the decade, the West’s people were bathed in the fearsome light of endless yellow, orange and red alerts, and anthrax packages kept showing up in the mails. It was the decade “terror” truly came home for the US, the UK being old hands at dealing with such anxieties.
Released nearly a year to the date after 9/11, the Americana poster boy Steve Earle chronicled and engaged the West’s, and specifically America’s, post 9/11 world with Jerusalem. “Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” took to task the dimunition of personal liberties wrought by the massive “intelligence” infrastruction and detailed the many ways that government fails its citizens. The song administers a strong dose cynicism and something of a pin prick to the so-called “American Dream”. Earle is at his biting, lyrical finest on this tune. On the controverial at the time “John Walker’s Blues”, Earle imagines himself as the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, trying to understand a young man’s desire to find “truth” in places and spaces considered un-American. The song stirred up a storm of criticism for humanizing a man so demonized, but it accomplished what the best lyric writing does in creating empathy where we thought none existed.
Meanwhile, title tune “Jerusalem” counteracts the cynicism of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Amerika V. 6.0” with notes of optimism, hope and longing for a peaceful world where all the world’s people can come together in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s a dream to be endlessly dashed, but Earle wants to believe in it with all his might and very nearly convinces us during the four-minute runtime. Jerusalem is a powerful album that spends its time restlessly ruminating around the corners of America’s anxious imagination. Sarah Zupko
In place of the sophomore slump, the mid-’00s brought us a new trope: the obscenely ambitious second album. The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute and Liars’ They Were Wrong, So We Drowned were uneven efforts at best, but with Ys, polarizing harp songstress Joanna Newsom struck something much like gold, but stranger.
No one predicted this. How could you? Newsom’s 2004 debut was lovely if understated; with Ys, she recruited a full orchestra, snagged Van Dyke Parks on arrangements, sailed into prog-sized song structures, and crafted gorgeously rich, overflowing lyrics that resemble medieval verse more than contemporary songcraft. The results were difficult to classify or contain, but ultimately remarkable: with the animal odyssey “Monkey & Bear” and the epic “Only Skin” Newsom reaches a dramatic pitch only hinted on her debut; on the tender “Sawdust & Diamonds” she reveals an inner Joni Mitchell. Though the more personal Have One On Me—a 2010 triple album—far surpasses Ys in length, it says plenty that it hardly matches it in wide-eyed scope. Ys is a treasure without peer or genre. Zach Schonfeld
Losing Fugazi was like losing Lincoln, The Sopranos, or Hi-C Ecto Cooler: they just don’t make shit like that anymore. The Argument, the final record from the Only Band That Matters (apologies to Joe Strummer), saw Fugazi go out swinging: after almost 15 years of writing and recording, the band was still exploring new sounds and textures. “Full Disclosure” uses a full four-part harmony to beautiful effect, a fairly shocking development from the days of Ian MacKaye’s blunt-object vocals on the band’s debut EP; “Strangelight” pulls and pushes against the group’s typically taut, steel-coiled compositional style; longtime auxiliary touring drummer Jerry Busher becomes a fully-fledged member of the band and adds thick pounds of muscle to the rhythms of tracks like “Ex-Spectator.” The band kept its fundamental touchstones—bassist Joe Lally’s steady, confident grooves lock in perfect step with Brendan Canty’s relentlessly inventive drumming, while MacKaye and Guy Picciotto trade percussive riffs—while guaranteeing longtime fans plenty of surprises over The Argument‘s tight runtime.
But Fugazi was always more than a peerless, inimitable band. Their DIY convictions—no merchandise made or sold, tickets locked whenever possible at $5 an (almost always all-ages) show, a dizzying circuit of benefit shows for progressive causes, absolutely no corporate ownership or distribution of anything remotely having to do with the band’s music—forever outpaced discussions of their, you know, songs in the press. Irksome, but understandable. Fugazi meant something. The band proved you could do it on your own terms, that independent artistry was viable, vital even, in the face of the music industry’s insatiable appetite for co-option. Fugazi didn’t change the music business, but it did something even more important: it offered an alternative example, an invention of its own system, less “thinking outside the box” than making its own damn box and kicking your fancy one to the curb. The Argument, a flawless album, marks the band itself transitioning into the past, but Fugazi the Idea lives forever. Forgive the earnestness: listen to The Argument enough, and you’ll start to believe, too. Corey Beasley