My Decade in Music

[18 April 2010]

By Jennifer Cooke

April might be a bit late for a list like this, but I did hear from some Expert on NPR that the decade does not technically end until December 31, 2010. So really, I’m early!  And although every rock rag in the world did their lists months ago, I will submit my picks now.

Caveat: these are based purely on personal quirk. Before you call bullshit, let us remember the wise words of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, “How can it be bullshit to state an opinion?” They are simply the albums that shaped my musical landscape, for which I know every lyric of every song backward and forward, that I would take with me to that mythical desert island we music lovers always talk about. They comprise the soundtrack that was playing when I fell in love, when I got married, when I had my babies, when I went to work, when I fell out of love, when I got divorced, when I did all the good and bad and fun and serious and stupid things I did in this oddest of decades. Most people, places and things come and go, but one truth that has never left me since the day I was born is my intense and abiding love for my music. This is my music. Maybe some of it is yours, too.

10)  Robbie Williams, Sing When You’re Winning (2000)
In 1999, the indie-snob encasing of my heart melted and I learned to embrace pop music, I mean capital-P POP, like Britney Spears, N’Sync, and a then-little-known Brit named Robbie Williams. This album is his crowning jewel, with songs like “Supreme”, “Let Love Be Your Energy”, and “Kids”, that could practically serve as primers on the genre for future generations. So much fun, from top to bottom, it’s Robbie at the top of his game. It also represents for all the other pop gems that made my decade a hell of a lot more enjoyable than if I had clung to my steady diet of indie cred:  Justin Timberlake’s Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, and Britney’s In the Zone.

9) Elliott Smith, Figure 8 (2000)
One of the most important artists in my life, period. I had the privilege of seeing Elliott Smith live just once, on the tour supporting this album. It was one of his infamously shambolic sets that made me cry not just for the power of his music, but the for self-destruction that was playing out in real time everywhere he went. When he died in 2004 on that day I will never forget, I cried. It was the first and only time I cried over the death of someone I did not know personally. I couldn’t listen to his music for years afterward, and it’s still not easy for me. But some of my favorite Elliott moments are to be found on Figure 8. From the best break-up song ever, “Somebody That I Used to Know”, to the multi-layered vocals that break my heart through my headphones on “Everything Means Nothing to Me”. From one of Smith’s most optimistic songs, “L.A.”, to his sickest self-assessment:  “I’m a little like you / More like son of Sam”. It’s all there on Figure 8, all the different parts of Elliott Smith, and I’m grateful that he left it behind for us.

8)  Grandaddy, The Sophtware Slump (2000)
I could launch into a treatise on the eerie prescience of Jason Lytle, who made this techno-dread opus way back in 2000, when he could only have imagined the dehumanized void we would live in via Facebook and Twitter at the dawn of the ‘10s. But basically, I just love this album because every single song is fucking great. I haven’t made a mix CD in ten years without including one of these tracks (“Chartsengrafs” if it’s a rocker, “Hewlett’s Daughter” if it’s slow jams, “The Crystal Lake” if it’s in-between). The Sophtware Slump is clever and sweet and heartfelt and Lytle’s voice on “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” makes me want to marry him. And really, now more than ever, when you’re cursing your GPS and wishing your boyfriend would actually talk to you face-to-face rather than just texting incessantly, don’t you long for that “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”?

7) Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (2004)
There is a 14-year-old boy deep inside of me, to whom loud guitars are the alpha and the omega. And that kid wants nothing more than to turn up “First It Giveth” to ear-bleed levels and head-bang all the livelong day. I often wonder why and how I love QOTSA so much when they make such complete and utter stoner music. I wonder each time I see them play live, whether it’s at Coachella or in the concrete basement-slash-movie-theatre-warehouse known as SOMA in San Diego. It doesn’t matter where I see this band, because I won’t really be there anyway. The transport is absolute and I do not return until the last encore is over and Josh Homme has already lit his green room green. Every note of every song on Songs is perfection, and I knew it from the very first time I heard it in 2004. Even the little radio-static-DJ claptrap in between songs is essential, it’s part of the whole beautiful tapestry that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. “I need a saga. What’s the saga?  Its Songs for the Deaf. You can’t even HEAR IT.” 

6) Old 97s, Satellite Rides (2001)
Old 97’s is probably the band that has had the greatest concrete, day-to-day impact on my life. One of my best friends from high school is married to their bass player and co-founder, Murry Hammond, and she introduced me to their music about 13 years ago. It was love at first listen, and since then I have traveled cross-country to see them live on more than one occasion, and have made many dear friends from a message board dedicated to the band. The people on that board know me better and more intimately than most of my own family, and all of that fellow feeling and shared fanaticism and love is tied up in every song on Satellite Rides. “King of All the World”, widely derided by superfans as one of the more egregious sell-out attempts of the band’s career, remains one of my favorites of the entire back catalogue, and few things make me happier than Ken Bethea’s Cheap-Trick-y guitars on the chorus. “Buick City Complex” is the music I hope to take with me into my grave so I can shake my booty in heaven, and if you can find a song that better captures the heartbreak of love destroyed by your own hand than “Valentine”, I’d like to hear it.

5) The Strokes, Is This It? (2001)
The backlash against the Strokes came faster and harder than a schoolboy losing his virginity to the prom queen. One minute they were touted as the greatest band in the universe, and literally the next minute Pitchfork pronounced “Are they really that good?  Of fucking course not.”  However, we all proceeded to spend the rest of the decade calling every other band that came down the pike “the new Strokes”, “wanna-be Strokes”, “Strokes-lite”, “Strokes with heartburn”, etc. Which means that the first minute was a lot more accurate than the next. Only now that the dust has settled can we see that Is This It? was every bit the watershed moment it portended to be, and the Strokes, along with the White Stripes, were the touchstones of the decade for rock ‘n’ roll. For me?  Is This It? is simply one of the most euphoric ways to spend a half hour, and it has been for almost ten years. Sheer, bratty, frenetic sonic perfection that makes me giddy just to be drawing breath.

4)  My Chemical Romance, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004)
Aaaaand, here’s where I lose a lot of you. I’ve already attempted to quantify my unabashed slavishness to this particular band here. But the fact remains that many people will dismiss this band out of hand, and that’s a shame. 2004’s Three Cheers spawned MCR’s first two mega-hits, “Helena” and “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”—both of which boast choruses that will stick to you like a sheet of Bounce in the dryer if you give ‘em half a chance. The opening bass line on “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid” raises my blood pressure in the best possible way. My nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter can sing along with me to every track on the album (omitting the cuss words, of course), and they do—a couple of times a week, at least. The fact that My Chem provides the soundtrack for our little family, especially in the wake of us becoming a trio instead of a quartet, guarantees lifelong love that goes beyond just a handful of catchy rock tunes. Come play this for me in the old folks’ home someday and watch me smile down to my Dearfoam slippers.

3)  White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)
Jack White deserves some sort of award for working to keep rock ‘n’ roll alive every day of the 2000s. Think about it—between the White Stripes, Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, all the collaborations, all the producing (including a marriage and two children with Karen Elson)...his resume of the past ten years makes me tired just reading it. So it was hard to pick a favorite, being such a fan of his first and foremost musical vehicle with Meg White. While most agree that Elephant probably deserves the the top spot, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, my heart belongs to White Blood Cells. Maybe it’s because it was my first introduction to the band, shortly before I saw them play at the Casbah in ‘01 and Jack White made sounds come out of his guitar that I didn’t know were possible. I’m no aficionado, and I can’t tell a Gretsch from a Rickenbacker, but I got the distinct feeling that perhaps this young man in the plain white T and red pants might be a tiny bit more gifted than the average bear. A guy who can write a song as unabashedly sweet as “We’re Going to Be Friends” then turn around and make Hamburger Helper out of Von Bondie Jason Stollsteimer’s face…well, that says Renaissance Man to me. All I know was, that night in that tiny club, I couldn’t pick my jaw up off the floor, and it stayed there for the remainder of the ‘00s.

2)  Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (2003)
There are only a handful of artists for whom I mark my calendar for their new release dates and rush down to M-Theory Records on that Tuesday because I can’t bear the wait time to order it it online. (I’m still not a download kinda gal—I like the tactile experience of flipping the pages of a crisp new CD booklet, hopefully with lyrics, and yes, I will admit it, a nice picture of Ted looking angstilly hot.)  Ted Leo and his Pharmacists fall into this category. While I bought and loved everything before and since Hearts of Oak, it is this album that gets me right in the medulla oblongata. When I hear the first riff of “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, it burrows under all the layers of my epidermis and little goosebumps form. “I’m a Ghost” pummels me in the cardiac muscle where I house all the pain of remembered infidelities, that Leo captures with an accuracy that borders on nausea.

It makes my neurons fire remembering all of the very fast and wordy and complex lyrics to “Ballad of the Sin Eater”, which might have one of the greatest two-line choruses of all time:  “You didn’t think they could hate you, now did ya? / Oh but they hate you, they hate you ‘cos you’re guilty”. What other rock song do you know that uses words like “fungible” and “pontoons”?  “The Anointed One”, “2nd Ave, 11 AM”, “Bridges, Squares”, “Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead”...I love them all like a fat kid loves cake. The title track even inspired me to start writing a book…until I remembered that I am too lazy to write an entire book. But the inspiration was there, along with a few solid months of research and planning!  So thanks for that, Ted. And thanks for one of my go-to albums, that always gets me at a molecular level.

1)  New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (2000)
The very first time I put this CD on, I listened to it from front to back, laying on the floor of my first home with the big stereo blasting at neighbor-repellent levels, and then I went back and did it all over again. I had never heard sounds brought together into a whole quite like this before, and I was mesmerized. Since it was the dawn of the new millennium, I distinctly remember thinking, “This is going to be one of my favorite CD’s of the decade, hands down”. But immediately I doubted myself, wondering if perhaps it was too quirky to have staying power. Maybe it was just short-term infatuation with no potential for longevity, like so many of my relationships. I’m a fickle gal, and I wondered if New Pornographers would survive my gnat-like attention span.

But all my doubts were for naught, because the NP’s became one of those bands for me, the ones for whom I bought all new releases hot off the presses, went to every show, even when Neko wasn’t there, and got into every offshoot of the band’s family tree, like Dan Bejar’s Destroyer and AC Newman solo. Hell, I didn’t even like Neko Case before she was a New Po’!  I discovered one of my favorite drummers in Kurt Dahle, who upstaged everyone involved, for his sheer watchability and the amount of fun he seems to have behind the kit. I harbored a fruitless crush on Blaine Thurier, for his cold remoteness as a keyboardist, like Nick Rhodes with more heft and less eyeshadow.

Every song on Mass Romantic is a little framed piece of kooky pop perfection. The title track name checks Foster Grant sunglasses and lets us know we’ll be in for a special treat if we’re of a generation to remember such things. “Letter From an Occupant” sounds so much like the aural equivalent of Peter Brady’s wardrobe that one is shocked to realize the lyrics so aptly capture the real emotion of being jilted (“I cried five rivers on the way here / Which one will you skate away on?”). “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” is a keeper even if you are not, in fact, an alcoholic, because it’s like Chutes and Ladders set to music, and makes me dance like those stringy-haired twin girls in the Peanuts gang (who the hell were they, anyway?). There were many, many more CDs released during the decade that really blew my hair back. But Mass Romantic ties the whole ten nutty years up into a peerless package with a particularly jaunty bow. And I’m sure, because I’ve had that much time to think about it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/123320-my-decade-in-music/