Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Chicago’s alt-country champions Wilco baffled their label Reprise with an album named Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The label was so baffled they told the band to get lost and sold the album’s master tapes back to them at a significantly low price. Wilco leaked Foxtrot‘s songs online, had a successful tour, sacked a valuable band member and signed on with Nonsuch Records. From there, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a critical and commercial success, topping many 2002 year-end lists.
Reprise’s trepidation and Nonsuch’s praise came from Wilco’s subtle-yet-sudden left-field approach that nearly dropped all traces of the band’s alt-country sound. Instead, singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennet would stretch their pop knacks beyond the new boundaries drawn by their previous album Summerteeth and take the sounds up to the atmosphere and deep underground simultaneously. Between Tweedy’s songs, Bennett’s arrangements and Jim O’Rourke’s mixing, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was an album unlike any other. Lyrics containing silvery stars, scraping skyscrapers and aquarium drinkers have the potential to sink hard if given the wrong musical context. But Wilco’s new sound haunted and taunted listeners with the full realization that their first three albums promised. It was a snapshot of a blossoming indie scene, an industry in change and a major label band placing all their chips on creativity. John Garratt
Usually, essential albums attain that status thanks to some timeless quality they possess. But what makes M.I.A.‘s 2005 debut Arular a milestone achievement is a sense of timeliness that can’t be recreated or replicated almost a decade after its release. Before being M.I.A. got in the way of her message and medium, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam delivered a revolutionary—in both senses of the word—pop manifesto on Arular, as she launched her own war on the global war on terror through her socially minded raps and guerilla iconography. A document of its day, Arular introduced M.I.A.‘s hybrid aesthetic just when the time was ripe for it: Her insurgent rhymes and Baile funk beats catered to first-world tastes dabbling in what was deemed exotic near the height of Hollywood’s Bollywood phase and just before indie rock “discovered” world music. Indeed, singles like “Sunshowers” and “Galang” resolved any contradictions between garnering commercial appeal and having a social agenda, as M.I.A. delivered her trenchant critiques on world affairs, economic inequality, and gender stereotypes by earworming her way into your consciousness. Even though it’s been harder and harder for her to find that sweet spot where pop and propaganda meet as her career and public profile have developed, M.I.A. took fullest advantage of the platform she was given when it counted the most with Arular. Arnold Pan
By the time Alligator was released in late 2003, indie rock was already in a solid state. And with it came some of the most vibrant bands to land lengthy careers (e.g., Spoon, Interpol, Wilco). Amidst the typical “burn out” scenario, The National had basically put their career progression on display with their previous releases. Their self-titled debut, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and the Cherry Tree EP charted a typical indie rock band finding their footing in strange surroundings (from Ohio to New York) and landing just beside the next big thing (their rehearsal neighbors Interpol were early stars on the scene). The National could have been the perpetual bridesmaid.
All of that changed with Alligator, however—but not overnight. Alligator was the perpetual slow-burn of an album, and it’s easy to hear why. Riddled with songs that are eerily hollow and lyrically troubled, the album was a bit misleading for folks (like myself) who purchased it on the strength of their single, “Abel”, a brutal punk triumph with a screaming chorus of, “my mind’s not right.” Other tracks were equally tense and troubled; the album opener, “Secret Meeting”, with a shut-in protagonist, “Karen”, the narcissistic ode to drunken stupor, and “Mr. November”, the nostalgic romp that relives the moment of being “carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. What made Alligator such a slow success was combination of authenticity, nervous anxiety, and a connection to deeper, darker themes running underneath America at the time. At at time when everyone was either grasping for larger themes or shutting them out for the common good, Alligator put everyone’s idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and dismay under a microscope. What we saw there was an unsettling reflection of lives gone wrong and a nation under constant fear. There was a little hope, but it was only discovered over the course of several listens and several self-reflexive moments. Alligator doesn’t want you to forget what makes us human, but it doesn’t pull any punches either. And it does so in the quietest way possible. Scott Elingburg
Time (The Revelator)
For all the archaic trappings that surround Gillian Welch and her songs, she’s always chafed at the idea that she makes old-timey music. Time (The Revelator) shows why. The album sounds timeless, full of myths and folktales, grounded in the acoustic music that she and partner David Rawlings have perfected, but drifting from song to song in a hypnotic dream state that doesn’t belong to any one era. It’s a landmark achievement that towers over pretty much every Americana release that’s come out since. Welch sews together imagery from tall tales told when America was spreading westward and finding its identity, from disasters that checked humanity’s enthusiasm at its progress, from the grief that life grinds into our time here on Earth, and from the electricity in Elvis Presley’s hips.
Time (The Revelator) takes all of these proto-building blocks and constructs a reality where the fiction of folklore holds as much weight as reported fact, and feels like it touches the hem of some greater understanding. Welch and Rawlings caught sepia-toned lightning in a bottle, showing not only what the genre was capable of, but also providing a soundtrack for our own individual musings on rebirth, growth, and identity. Andrew Gilstrap
Once upon a fog a million light years from party-hard Skrillex, the UK was being torched by neoliberal policy, luxury condos bulldozing the high ideals of socialist modernist architecture as Blairite tanks replicated the damage tenfold in aid of their American buddies in the biblical realm of Mesopotamian Iraq. The soundtrack to the debris in the wake of this brave new millenium was dubstep, the b-side residue of wot-do-u-call-it Grime that was as atmospheric as an UrbEx fever dream and more angular than a tetanus puncture. The unsuspecting champion of this sonic, the archangel to excavate a shell of light from the shambles of a post-rave economy of careworn e-dreams purged of their remaining spinal fluid, was Burial, a shadowy figure who contorted Ray J and Christina Aguilera into sirenic trans- & postgender beacons of luminance creeping through the hidden cracks of the suffering city. Burial didn’t wobble, didn’t glowstick, and preferred whole notes with evocative railway foley riddims to the epileptic spasms with bladder-shifting low-end that were so common in the scene.
Untrue is loner music, perfect for the earbud era, the echo of communality shifting away and the blistering melancholy that imparted on the unsuspecting solipsistic masses. The capture of this shift took form in textural shades of warm synth hums caked in reverb and drone, like spectral vapor trails drifting off some unseeable, unknowable center. It’s no wonder that a whole disparate genre (hauntology) came to be defined off its aesthetic, while its main impact on the scene it helped expose was blubstep, weepy dudes like James Blake and Jamie Woon who took the expressionistic palette and extracted its emotional resonance for cheaper melodramatic affect. Though Will Bevan has been ousted from his patented anonymity by the ensuing troll age, Untrue has refused to succumb to the historical burdens of its timestamp, poised to infiltrate the future like a ghost that refuses to stay buried. Timh Gabriele