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Is This It?
Much as Nirvana did with Seattle nearly a decade prior in 2001, the Strokes proved integral in revitalizing interest in a loosely affiliated scene in New York City. Along with their fellow Class of 2001 alums (the myriad “The _____s” bands that sprang up that year) offered an easily accessible gateway into the underground, ushering in a broader interest in musical styles predominantly labeled “indie” that has continued to this day.
Providing the perfect marriage of style and substance, Is This It? is a nearly flawless opening salvo. The lean, post-punk/garage rock hooks of guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi coupled with the utilitarian, driving rhythm section of Fabrizio Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture provided the perfect backdrop for vocalist Julian Casablancas’ often distorted, languorously delivered lyrics. With its unfussy arrangements and workmanlike approach to pop songcraft, Is This It showcased a band that was more than just a handful of pretty faces and privileged New York City brats.
Singles like “Last Nite”, “Someday”, and “Hard to Explain” displayed a sound rooted in a musical past born from the underground, marrying the best elements of the Velvets, Stooges and countless other critical darlings that brought the group early and high praise. Had they not delivered an equally solid album, the critical barbs directed at the hype behind the group prior to Is This It?‘s release would have been warranted. As it stands, the hype proved well deserved and, nearly fifteen years later, Is This It? stands as a modern classic, worthy of inclusion alongside the best work of its influences. John Paul
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Before proclaiming herself a “man-eater” on 2009’s Middle Cyclone, such fear was implied on Neko Case’s 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Based on fairy tales and myth, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is feral. Raw and symbolic, the songs are open to interpretation. The ambiguity of “Dirty Knife” and “Star Witness”—the latter arguably Case’s finest career moment—signals a palpable danger. Hunters and their prey weave their way through the record, building upon the dichotomy of “Margaret Vs. Pauline”.
Adding musical polish and density to the wash of reverb that had become her trademark, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was Case’s ascension from country crooner on her debut, The Virginian, to the role of honey-tongued Americana queen. Prolific prior to 2006, the album marked a turning point in Case’s career: having frequently used cover songs, Fox Confessor was composed of all original material, save for the rambling reworking of the traditional “John Saw That Number”. The album saw the beginning of a working relationship with Garth Hudson (The Band) as well as a decline in productivity on subsequent releases.
(2009) debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, earning Case a Grammy nomination, as did her most personal release, 2013’s cathartic The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
Independent and mainstream artists clearly admire Case, as you can hear her influence across a broad spectrum of music, but none come close to matching her power. The air of suspense on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is visceral, not manufactured. Now just as famous for being a Twitter personality, activist, and New England farmer, Case the musician has seemingly been tamed since Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was released. Thankfully, we still have the music, which remains her best to date. Eric Risch
Sufjan Stevens’ fifth album, Illinoise (2005), was a landmark in progressive indie folk, and its influences still carry on. Stevens had famously declared that he was going to produce one album for each of the 50 states (with 2003’s Michigan the first). That project died and Stevens later said the idea was “a joke,” one he perhaps “took too seriously.” Yet Illinoise was so ambitious and so good that at the time, ridiculously enough, people actually thought he might pull it off. He is currently pursuing a hip-hop side project and just scored a ballet.
On Illinoise, Steven is a moving and plaintive folk singer, the music is rooted in Americana and Illinois history, and themes range from Abraham Lincoln, to Superman (conceived of in Illinois). Yet Stevens also brings waves of instruments from his mini-orchestra, and he is more indebted to the post-rock minimalism of Stereolab, than Bob Dylan. Highlights include the cornerstone song, “Chicago”, and the stunning spirituality of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”.
Illinoise is lush, neo-Baroque/folk that you can either turn your brain off and relax while you listen to it, or you could otherwise explore its depths for another decade or so. James A. Cosby
Lush and spiritual. Enigmatic and troubling. On its seventh studio album, In Rainbows, Radiohead’s music has never felt so effortless as it traverses the entire emotional spectrum. Always the paranoid androids, songs like the anxious, propulsive “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” ring with the same nail-biting excitement that has continuously seeped into all of the band’s discography.
In Rainbows’ universal beauty can be felt in “Nude”, which finds Thom Yorke delivering his most indelible vocal performance yet. Even the hustle and bustle of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” has a tenderness to it that makes it equal parts a lullaby and a skittering rocker. Yorke’s longing, echoing vocals gracefully ebb and flow over the shimmering textures. As the final reflective moments of “Videotape” unspool, it’s evident that In Rainbows is a master class in musicianship and subtlety by not only one of the best bands of the modern era, but ever. Andy Belt
The only album Fiona Apple would release during this decade, Extraordinary Machine was received by a fervent fan base after having been long delayed. What they got was essentially take two, after some unreleased tracks from initial producer Jon Brion were leaked before being re-recorded. Either version would have been fit for inclusion on this list and Extraordinary Machine makes you wish Apple would cut a new album more often than once or twice a decade (if we’re lucky). At least you can be assured that when she has amassed enough songs that she deems worthy of releasing that they’re going to pack an emotional punch. Everything about this album is completely methodical from the confessional lyrics on “Not About Love” to the deliberate sour notes in “O’ Sailor”, and you can almost hear her heart breaking on “Oh Well”. It’s obvious a lot of preparation and thought went into each track yet it still managed to capture a spontaneous energy as if Apple only had enough studio time to record each track in one take and whatever came out of those sessions is what we got. Not only does it stand out for sounding like nothing else released in the 2000’s, it’s also a welcome departure from Apple’s previous releases, showcasing her ability to reinvent her sound and continue to evolve without betraying who she is as a person and as one of the best singer/songwriters of her generation. Steven Scott