I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Released in 2005 alongside the stylistically opposed Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning features ten brilliantly crafted songs about frustrating love, the struggle for identity, and the youthful uncertainty that accompanies the hazy landscape of post-collegiate life. Like an updated version of Dylan’s Chronicles, it’s Conor Oberst’s New York story, snippets of recollection detailing various madcap adventures, boozy train rides, and leery temptations beckoning around each and every street and avenue. Musically, it’s a sweetly arranged folk album, running the spectrum from arrestingly earnest near-lullabies (“Lua”, “First Day of My Life”) to shuffling country ditties (“Train Under Water”, “Another Travelin’ Song”) to combatively cranky and politically charged pleas (“Road to Joy”, which advises that “if you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing/It’s best to be on the side that’s gonna win”). Oberst has never before nor since sounded as confident and assured of himself and the freewheeling abandon of his musical accomplices backs up the self-assured vibe. The album remains a fascinating document of mid-20s life, where fear and hesitation often stood in the way of personal growth and how sometimes you could be your own worst enemy. Jeff Strowe
Souvenirs d’un autre monde
By the mid-‘00s, black metal was already flirting with the sounds of early ‘90s shoegaze, with artists starting to notice a similarity in the hypnotic, atmospheric side of that most extreme of metal sounds and the hazy, innovative sounds of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Interestingly enough, the most significant breakthrough in this budding marriage between the two styles was made by a French musician in one of the happiest accidents imaginable.
Multi-instrumentalist Stèphane Paut, working under the black metal nom de plume “Neige”, in an effort to forego the negativity of his past projects decided to try to create the musical equivalent of an otherworldly vision he’d had as a child, the only way he know how, by approaching the black metal sound through innocent, optimistic eyes rather than nihilism and misanthropy. He had no clue what shoegaze was, had never heard any such bands, but Neige wound up creating an album of stunning pastoral beauty, his harsh, distorted guitars offset by dreamy melodies that rival such classics as “When the Sun Hits” and “Vapour Trail”. Its sheer positivity was unprecedented in metal music, its power—metal’s most crucial characteristic—coming from the heart instead of the gut, yielding a landmark album in what would subsequently be deemed the “metalgaze” movement. Adrien Begrand
Ghostface Killah distanced himself from his Wu brethren on his solo records by having the most carefully honed pop sensibility. Raekwon is smooth, and post-Tical Method Man aimed as populism, but Ghostface always seemed away of pop’s (and hip-hop’s) history. Fishscale, his finest and most expansive album, seeks to defend that and other sorts of histories. As always, Killah is all irrepressible id, as full of anger as he is anguish, as capable of bragging as he is gritting his teeth or morning. Fishscale, with its tales of drugs and crime gone bad mixed with Ghostface’s confusion over the state of hip-hop in 2006, is a statement of principles from a voice committed to hip-hop as a culture. He covers this declaration in two fascinating ways. The first is his untouchable wordplay on the record, from the ethereal redemption tale of “Underwater” to the business-like detail of “Kilo” to the heartbroken anger of “Back Like That”, Ghostface is a genius with detail on this record, but he also makes clear what his partner Raekwon makes impressionistic.
But more than his choice of detail, it’s the contradictions in the record that prove its most brilliant asset. “Back Like That” objectifies a woman, but does it through an illogic that criticizes types of hip-hop masculinity rather than relying on them. “Big Girl” encourages young women to avoid the pit fall of drugs and partying, while Ghostface himself supplies (here and all over Fishscale) the drugs they like. And then there’s the breathless “Shakey Dog”, the kind of long and perfect rap moment that really puts, say, Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” in perspective, which is as much a braggadocio crime story as it is a perfect encapsulation of in-the-moment fear most hip-hop avoids talking about. Ghostface’s tales on Fishscale are complex and all over the map, but a murderer’s row of producers—from MF Doom to Pete Rock to J Dilla—give these tracks roots in the soul and hip-hop that came before. It’s own dedication to the classics, and its ability to turn a careful, critical eye inward, is what makes Fishscale a classic in its own right. Matt Fiander
The Fiery Furnaces
It’s not often that an album comes along that’s as completely overstuffed, both lyrically and musically, as the Fiery Furnaces’ polarizing 2004 breakthrough Blueberry Boat. Sibling bandmates Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger had demonstrated plenty of restless creativity on the previous year’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, but that album at least kept one foot firmly planted in garage / indie-rock tradition—enough so that the listening public largely knew how to approach it. The same can’t be said for Blueberry Boat, where the songs ballooned into long-winded adventure stories and the guitars gave way to a jumbled mass of keyboards, electronics, and odd sounds. With its convoluted song structures and off-the-wall arrangements, the album attracted plenty of criticism, including one NME review that memorably dismissed the work as “toe-curlingly unlistenable”. But for listeners with the patience to wade through it all, the album revealed new treasures with each play, as melodies bubbled to the surface and recurring themes came together in a way that rewarded careful study of the lyric sheet. Perhaps most importantly, Eleanor’s vocals lent the group’s tales just the right amount of warmth, making even the most bizarre plot events (keeping pirates away from precious blueberry cargo, discovering a runaway dog preaching at a church service, and so on) strangely relatable. A celebration of wide-eyed imagination, childhood nostalgia, and unchecked musical appetites, Blueberry Boat stands as one of the decade’s most ambitious and original pop statements. Mike Noren
Who would’ve ever guessed that the most successful politically-charged album of the ‘00s—a rock opera, no less—would be authored by the puerile punks best known for an album named Dookie? American Idiot heralded the second coming of a thoroughly revitalized Green Day after some commercial lean times, and the record’s critical accolades and gangbuster sales cemented the trio, once seemingly on the verge of being commemorated by music historians as little more than lucky chancers in spite of their authorship of roughly a dozen rock radio staples, as an institution. The funny thing is, Green Day hadn’t changed all that much in the decade since “Longview” vaulted the group to stardom. Really, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool are as bratty, restless, and irreverent as they had ever been on American Idiot (doubters need only listen to Cool’s “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” segment of the “Homecoming” suite for proof).
The key difference is that on this full-length the members’ bad attitude and the devil-may-care spirit found righteous inspiration in their outrage at the state of Bush-led America circa 2004, and that sense-of-purpose galvanized the band into making bold statements and tackling ambitious musical detours that in the end proved thoroughly rewarding. Running the gamut from the speedy punk blasts of the title track and “St. Jimmy” to the multi-movement centerpieces “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”, to the weepy stadium-ready ballads “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, American Idiot is as effective a manifesto of the band’s musical capabilities as it is its political leanings—it’s no wonder that Green Day has spent the following decade of its career trying to match it. AJ Ramirez