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The image of a nascent, alien life on the cover of Sigur Rós’ 2000 breakthrough Ágætis byrjun is perfect. No other image associated with the band so perfectly captures what it is that made the Icelandic group’s sophomore outing so revelatory in 2000. Although the album was released in 1999 in Sigur Rós’ native Northern land, it would not be until 2000 that the world fully experienced this ethereal, otherworldly sound.
Sigur Rós often gets labeled as “post-rock”, which, while not entirely inaccurate, is also not a truly fitting way to describe the impression it made on the world in 2000. The band’s sound does bring together elements of both post-rock and shoegaze, but its take on each style on Ágætis byrjun remains unmatched. Plenty of artists tried to ape the textural guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine long after Loveless’ 1999 release. Three years prior to Ágætis byrjun, the crescendo-obsessed Scots of Mogwai laid down the archetypal post-rock formula with Young Team. But while the styles of these predecessors can in some way be heard on Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós created something wholly alien in its sonically pristine quality. Having been to Iceland, I can attest that the country’s gorgeous mountains, valleys, and vistas could have been the only place in the world to spawn something so crystalline.
Tracks like “Svefn-g-englar” have gone on to become Sigur Rós classics, and the key aspects of the song remain central to the group’s songwriting choices. Frontman Jónsi’ Birgisson’s angelic falsetto floats delicately in and out of the song’s spacious ambient arrangements. Pings of electronic noise echo throughout the wafting notes, as were they transmissions from a a faraway planet. But while at ten minutes “Svefn-g-englar” does feel like a world unto itself, Ágætis byrjun is best experienced as a whole. If you have the time to sit through the 72 minutes of music contained in this album, do it. Despite the modesty of the record’s title translated into English (“A good beginning” or “a fine start,” depending on who you ask), this is the kind of beginning that few artists in any medium ever pull off. Brice Ezell
Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes made a half-dozen albums of twee indie-pop in relative obscurity before essentially starting over with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic. While his lyrical subject matter was still whimsical, an increased focus on danceable beats began to draw a wider audience, and ‘05’s The Sunlandic Twins was about halfway to an indie-dance-pop masterpiece before succumbing to musical navel-gazing on the back end. But 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? turned out to be that masterpiece he’d previously flirted with. This time, he turned the navel-gazing to his advantage, dropping the whimsy in favor of thinly-disguised lyrics about his own life. In Barnes’ hands, struggles with anti-depressants became the bouncy, joyous “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.” The ennui of living in Norway with his pregnant wife to take advantage of free state-provided health care became the soaring falsetto funk of “Gronlandic Edit” and the pop gem “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger.” It climaxes in the 12-minute centerpiece, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”, where Barnes and his wife have a knock down, drag out argument that involves household objects being thrown across the room. Musically, the song pulses angrily, with tense, interlocking guitar and synth parts that steadily add layer after layer to the song at precise intervals. In the wake of the fight, Barnes retreats into a sexually ambiguous alter ego on the album’s smutty, flirtatious, and funky second half, until the gnarly disorted guitar riff of “She’s a Rejector” brings his real feelings back to the surface. The floaty, gentle yet resigned pop of “We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling” brings the album to a smooth, cathartic, and satisfying finish. Chris Conaton
You can thank Daft Punk for the current musical dancescape. The rock stars of today are enigmatic priests of the dance floor, opting for laptops over Stratocasters. Before Daft Punk’s now-legendary Coachella set in 2006, this was not the case. Sure, there were electronica acts, but almost none of them had the same flair for showmanship. Would you feel the same way about Daft Punk if they didn’t dress up like robots? I didn’t think so. Every modern-day EDM artist should be paying royalties for their iconography, if not for their music. Unfortunately, like Led Zeppelin before them, Daft Punk’s innumerable progeny opted for fist-pumping excess at the expense of subtlety and texture. The eerie serenity of “Nightvision” might be ideal for a cooldown, yet today’s acts seldom recognize any BPM other than “FIST OF GOD”. Moreover, if you expect to hear another track resembling the virtuosic insanity that is “Hander, Better, Faster, Stronger”, don’t hold your breath. Artists like Daft Punk come along once in a generation, and Discovery is their masterpiece, a record comprised of disparate moods and influences that none-the-less form a perfect whole. A retrofitted pop pastiche for the new millennium, never before had the past and future been so seamlessly integrated together. They likely never will be again. J.C. Sciaccotta
White Blood Cells
The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were a dark, dark time for mainstream rock. So dark, in fact, that there was a period in my early adolescence when I quit paying attention to music altogether. That’s why White Blood Cells felt like a miracle when I first heard it that pivotal summer before high school. Sure, the album had its sinister moments—but they were far removed from the phony, suicidal bullshit corporate radio had been shoving down my throat. A song like “The Union Forever” could co-exist alongside “We’re Going to be Friends” because you knew both songs—raw, emotional, authentic—were cut from the same cloth. In an era where everyone strove for macho cool, the White Stripes weren’t afraid to be vulnerable. Like their peppermint-striped color scheme, their music was simple, yet bold. “Fell in Love with a Girl” (and its accompanying LEGO-themed video) remains their greatest achievement: at a scant one minute and 48 seconds, this adrenaline shot to the heart of garage was potent enough to wipe nu-metal and rap-rock off the face of the earth. As far as I’m concerned, this album saved rock ‘n’ roll, and for that we should all be very, very grateful. J.C. Sciaccotta
Boy in Da Corner
Armed with a razor tongue, rapid-fire post-garage rhythms, and precocious insights, 17-year-old Dizzee Rascal, the youngest vet of the infamous Roll Deep crew, made an album that sounded like something new (the premier global document of grime), but also sounded like it could be his last. Where the Streets really should have been called the Pubs, Dizzee was the real sound of the British streets, a poor fatherless kid from London’s East End. He found salvation from the growing hopelessness of urban neglect in music, arguing of the toxicity of love in a hell of zero trust in “I Luv U” or watching the petty squabbles of youth devolve into battles “we settle… with the skengs” in “Brand New Day”.
Boy in Da Corner is a Bildungsroman with no arc, the cover image the full extent of its worldview, backed into a corner with defenses raised for the fight, flight, or straightjacket. There’s a pall from the diminished afterglow of what came after, which is grime and Dizzee’s mainstreaming. It’s odd, because Boy in Da Corner avoided the aspirational pabulum that plagued the self-help chart chat of American hip-pop in the naughts. Instead, Dizzee invested in the “real”, an outpouring undercut by the alien mechanics of his productions; electro-dystopian digital strafes and glitchy battering kling-klangs—a true 21st century merging of rave and hip-hop that didn’t condescend either (hello David Guetta). Boy in Da Corner‘s grime was as future as the naughts got, even if the lyric sheet was as “no future” as the punk war cry 25 years previous. Timh Gabriele