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The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema doesn’t start off like a pantheon-level album. The chugging, dissonant guitar riff of the title track is a far cry from the joyful power-pop that A.C. Newman and friends had played on their first two records. But once the band gets to the chorus about 30 seconds in, their trademark gift for melody reemerges. Still, the ethereal, Neko Case-sung second track “Bones of an Idol” is a much better example of what the New Pornographers do well. The bouncy, straight-ahead power-pop of first single “Use It” is even better, with Newman’s sardonic, oblique lyrics buttressed by constant harmonies from Case, a big sing along chorus, and an even bigger sing along bridge. But it’s “The Bleeding Heart Show”, which starts softly and grows steadily for four and a half glorious minutes, that puts Twin Cinema on a different level. The song builds from Newman singing with minimal accompaniment to harmonizing with Case to the subtle addition of an accordion and Kurt Dahle’s gradually more active drums. Once the band gets to the famous “Ooo” part (later regretfully immortalized in an ad for a for-profit online American university), the song takes off into a harmonized round of “Hey La” anchored by Dahle’s drums, which smash through the final minute of the song with amazing fill after amazing fill. At that point the rest of the record is energized, from Dan Bejar’s joyful sequel song “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” to the herky-jerky rhythms of ” The Jessica Numbers”. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” is, amazingly, the album’s second moment of glorious music, with an extra-long pre-chorus followed by Newman’s great falsetto in the chorus. The remainder of the album goes from strength to strength, from the gentle “Falling Through Your Clothes” to Bejar’s folky “Streets of Fire” to the powerful rock of closer “Stacked Crooked”. Twin Cinema emphasized just how important Kurt Dahle’s drumming was to The New Pornographers’ sound, and also introduced the piano of new member Kathryn Calder as the start of the band’s move towards steadily more organic instrumentation. Chris Conaton
The Dirty South
Released in 2004, The Dirty South was the third in a trio of tremendous albums for the Drive-By Truckers in a scant five years. After the sprawling concept record Southern Rock Opera and the bare bones Southern rock of Decoration Day, the character studies of The Dirty South confirmed that the band, with its three singer/ guitarist / songwriters, were one of the most potent acts of the early 21st century. Opening with the hard rock backwoods stomp of “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, the album winds through 14 songs, most set in the Deep South with vivid lyrics. Mike Cooley takes on the story of Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips in the uncharacteristically bright “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”, while singing about the hard knocks of small time auto racing in “Daddy’s Cup” and a coldly efficient hitman in “Cottonseed”. Meanwhile, young gun Jason Isbell relates the story of “The Day John Henry Died” in a huge, grin-inducing sing along, mourns the Band’s Rick Danko and Richard Manuel in the elegiac “Danko/Manuel”, and closes the album out with “Goddamn Lonely Love”, a ballad that actually lives up to its title.
With the bar already high, ostensible frontman Patterson Hood meets the challenge raised by his bandmates with the devastating, evocative “Tornadoes”, one of the most atmospheric songs that band has ever recorded. He also tells the story of a struggling father and drug dealer in the decaying Huntsville, Alabama, in “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and his own World War II veteran great-uncle on “The Sands of Iwo Jima”. Hood even takes the piss out of the legend of Tennessee-based sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame by writing two songs from the perspective of the Alabama gang he fought against. All of these songs came against a backdrop of a band at the height of its musical powers, effortlessly straddling the line between hard rock, country, and pop while making a serious case for the legacy of much-maligned ‘70s Southern rock. Chris Conaton
From a Basement on the Hill
Elliott Smith took his own life before he could release this album. Although there will always be controversy about whether this was the exact album he intended to make, the songs here are all exactly what he recorded to tape without any additions or changes. And all I can say is thank god this album was released in some form. It continues Elliott’s evolution to ever more ambitious arrangements but has a greater focus on off-kilter production and grungy experimentation than the lush, studio sheen of his previous album Figure 8. From a Basement on the Hill also happens to contain some of his most compelling songwriting, spanning the double drum track attack of opener “Coast to Coast”, the muddled majesty of “King’s Crossing”, and “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”, and the quiet, stark beauty of “Twilight” which, to my ears, is one of the quintessential Elliott Smith songs. This was an artist who spoke to the vulnerability in all of us; whose recordings could be so intimate that calling him by his first name only seems proper when writing about him. Elliott was constantly pushing the limits of his music and while an argument can be made for any one of his albums being his best, this work stands as an undeniable masterpiece and a triumphant last word from one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Eric Goldberg
System of a Down
He’s part dance commander and part political bullshitter; he agonizes over self-righteous suicides and brings his pogo stick on dates, and he sang the decade’s weirdest horse song until KT Tunstall came along. Serj Tankian, the frontman for System of a Down, sang/screamed maybe the most compelling album-length vocal performance on this list, miles beyond what any other remotely nu-metal “singers” were doing. Tankian’s the vocal version of Queen guitarist Brian May, switching effortlessly between heavy bombast and swooning elegance, piling on the vibrato and grace notes, both projecting complete cocky mastery of their instruments. (This being System, the elegance comes more from Middle-Eastern-European harmonic-minor melisma than British operetta, but it’s elegant nonetheless.) The rest of the band’s pretty good, too. System’s actual lead guitarist, the Flavor Flavish co-leader-and-producer Daron Malakian, interjected and squiggled while laying down immense riffs with the band’s wrecking ball of a rhythm section. Throughout Toxicity, words define grooves and vice-versa; what System thinks about any particular topic like subjugation or indoctrination matters less than the bloodshot charisma with which they say it—unless the topic is shimmying. When you listen to Toxicity, it really does help to SHIMMY SHIMMY SHIMMY TILL THE BREAK OF DAWN YEAH. Josh Langhoff
Oblivion with Bells
Electronic music has always been about doing as many new things with knobs and buttons as possible, but in the ‘00s the genre splintered off into so many subgenres and niche scenes that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the lot of them. Subgenre names with suffixes like “-step” and “-house” are so numerous that they could fill a whole dictionary by themselves. Yet amidst the myriad developments in electronic music, Underworld remained an undisputed titan of the genre. 2006’s Oblivion with Bells is a sterling example of this British trio’s ability to remain at the forefront of electronic music whilst also continually reinventing their songwriting formulas.
Lead single “Crocodile” starts things off with a groovy, somewhat swampy riff that displays what is perhaps Underworld’s greatest strength: balancing the cerebral with the visceral. One can debate the merits of the tag “IDM” all day long, but if there ever was intelligent dance music, it’s exemplified by the songs of Oblivion with Bells. The tracks on this record invite you to pull them apart, to get at whatever is the central engine of the music. Even a deceptively simple riff, such as the John Adams-esque piano figure of “Best Mamgu Ever”, gets right into your brain, getting not only your foot tapping but your cognitive gears grinding. The mercurial movement to the album even takes some interesting turns: “Ring Road” shows that the group clearly spent some time listening to the early ‘00s breakthrough UK garage acts like the Streets.
Yet for all the cerebral groove of Oblivion with Bells, there are also moments of serene beauty. The spare piano ballad “Good Morning Cockerel” is a welcome late-album breather, offering up some of the LP’s most cryptic lyrics: “Black barbed wire kisses memories / Go right through us.” Best of all, though, is the lush synth landscape of “To Heal”, a song that would later go on to form a key part of Underworld’s score to Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi stunner Sunshine. In two and a half short minutes, “To Heal” forms a powerful emotional core to a record that, like all great electronic music, takes the listener to a whole other world. If this is the sound of oblivion, then bring on the destruction. Brice Ezell