100. Nickel Creek – Why Should the Fire Die? [Sugar Hill]
Why Should the Fire Die? is both the title of Nickel Creek‘s best 2000’s record and very likely the question many fans asked themselves when, following the release of the album, the “newgrass” trio announced an indefinite hiatus. That hiatus ended in 2014 with the release of A Dotted Line. The trio of Chris Thile (mandolin) and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins (guitar and fiddle, respectively) stunned the world and sold millions of records in the early 2000s, due in large part to their prodigious musicianship, pop smarts, and impeccable three-part harmony. But while records like Nickel Creek and This Side are as twee as they are instrumentally savvy, Why Should the Fire Die? is a leap forward due to its dark and lovelorn themes.
The music here is preoccupied with heartache. Take Sean Watkins’ “Somebody More Like You”, which has the icy line, “I hope you meet someone your height / So you can see eye to eye / With someone as small as you.” Then there’s Thile’s “Can’t Complain” and “Helena”, two character tales of relationships undone by adultery and mistrust. Watkins and Thile also take on one of James Joyce’s more saturnine short stories in the enrapturing “Eveline”. The atmosphere is so bleak that sweet and longing tunes like Sara Watkins’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, and her old-timey original “Anthony” become necessary breathers. Written just after Thile’s divorce from his first wife, the record finds this one-of-a-kind trio tackling subject material, unlike anything they had ever done before, all the while retaining their creative and dazzling musicianship.
By the time Why Should the Fire Die? was released, Nickel Creek had been a group for almost 17 years. That’s part of what makes this such a powerful recording: while on their earlier work, we hear the sound of three uncommonly talented kids, on this album, we’re hearing them grow up and start to face the hardest transition shocks of that time in life. Fortunately, the fire didn’t die after this LP, as the trio returned in 2014 with their best outing yet. But had this been the last flickering of the flames, we’d have been left with an unforgettable collection of songs, indeed. — Brice Ezell
99. Bubba Sparxxx – Deliverance [Beat Club/Interscope]
We’ve all met snobs who, showing off their “eclecticism”, proudly declare, “I like all music except rap and country” — which should make rap and country natural bedfellows, right? During the 1990s, at football games and campfire parties across the Midwest and the South, those bedfellows raised a stinky brood that’d grow into Kid Rock, the current bro-country movement, and former Georgia linebacker Bubba Sparxxx.
After a hit debut album, Bubba made Deliverance with Timbaland and Organized Noize, their beats as deep and colorful as the world in Bubba’s dirt road anthems. Which means, yes, harmonicas and fiddles, but also strings and choir depicting Mr. Sparxxx’s desperation (“Nowhere”), and horns and choir trumpeting his determination (“Overcome”). That choir was an early credit for gospel star Tye Tribbett — sort of like seeing Jack Black go redneck in Dead Man Walking.
Less interested in landing memorable lines than watching his stream of scene-setting tumble across Timbaland’s snappy drums, Bubba nevertheless managed to get fishing poles and bottles of shine onto Top 40 radio. The last minute of “Overcome”, with brass, beats, Bubba, and black gospel all laying down different rhythms, is delirious contrapuntal majesty. From country-rap! Pretty good for social outcasts. — Josh Langhoff
98. Mastodon – Leviathan [Relapse]
After emerging from the primordial ooze of the underground with their debut Remission (2002), Mastodon voyaged to the cusp of metal’s mainstream with their conceptually-anchored second studio album, Leviathan (2004). Exploring the mortal conflicts contained within Herman Melville’s legendary tome Moby Dick, Mastodon created elemental music befitting the high-sea drama which formed Leviathan‘s thematic base. The levitating jazz-metal drumming of Brann Dailor led the expedition through metallic riff maelstroms of “Iron Tusk” and “ĺsland”, which followed from the opening tidal-impact of “Blood and Thunder”.
As Leviathan came to an end with the acoustic-led absolution of “Joseph Merrick”, after bringing legitimacy back to the much-bastardized descriptor “epic” during “Hearts Alive”, it was soon apparent that Mastodon had created a momentous moment in heavy metal history. By helping redefine a paradigm that had become over-reliant on basic down-tuned bludgeon since the dark days of late 1990s nu-metal, Mastodon cast technical musicianship, intelligent songcraft, and progressive structures to metal’s fore again, while making the statement that concept albums were no longer resigned to prog-rock dignitaries of days past.
For these reasons, the Georgian four-piece’s pursuit and attainment of the Holy Grail with Leviathan are immensely important to metal’s 21st-century revitalization. — Dean Brown
97. Autechre – Confield [Warp]
It’s unlikely that Autechre will ever go as far out as it did on its sixth album, Confield. That’s not to say that there aren’t other Autechre albums with disintegrated rhythms and drone sections (or consisting entirely of drones, as you’ll find in Ae’s collaborations with Hafler Trio). But Confield is a line in the sand in Autechre’s discography. After a series of albums that moved them from IDM pioneers to computer music for ravers (1999’s Cichlisuite EP was described on the packaging as “digitally reclaimed by Autechre”), Confield embraced uncertainty and cold, unfamiliar spaces like never before. Making things a bit personal, it was after hearing Confield that I was first introduced to the idea of Max/MSP — it all seemed so alien to my 15-year-old mind, writing code to make music.
“VI Scose Poise” is an appropriate sink-or-swim opener — it’s a few minutes of digital percussion and short, rubber-band delays before a gentle, meandering melody wafts in. “Sim Gshel” and “Uviol” might be anchored in beats that you can follow, but both constantly threaten to collapse in on themselves. Standouts like “Cfern” and “Parhelic Triangle”, meanwhile, play phrase repetition into an unsettling collection of layers that are just jagged enough to leave you constantly antsy. It’s little wonder that “Cfern” was picked up by experimental ensemble Alarm Will Sound.
There’s a lot of beauty to Confield, even in the most confusing parts. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem as challenging as it did upon the first release. However, it still stands as a gorgeous and important album and one that makes a significant case for Autechre’s brilliance. — David Abravanel
96. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog [Sub Pop]
Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the South: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th century). Some folks prefer the stripped-down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.
It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. Texture and richness suffuse every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb, and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful, and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain. — Sean Murphy
95. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Merge/Anti-]
Quiet excellence is Spoon‘s MO. While we were salivating over Animal Collective, Tame Impala, and other indie-darlings, Spoon simply went to work, churning out great album after great album. There were no slip-ups, no sell-out moments, just a refusal to put anything less than fantastic to tape and a good ear for insidious melodies. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga still stands as their most realized record. It’s a sleek poppy package that’ll worm its way into your head and comfortably sit there until you listen to “Don’t You Evah” for the 15th time in a row. Spoon tempered their work with a casual grace and humor that evaded just about everyone else.
The pseudo-soul cut “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” opened with “Life could be so fair!” before warning a friend about holding grudges too long. But their enticing delivery could be used for evil as well. When Britt Daniel let drip “come let your socks fall down to your shoes” on “Rhythm and Soul”, the sexual tension is palpable, while “Eddie’s Raga” stomps along to the beat of jealous lovers. With the 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the best-crafted indie album of the ’00s. And they made it sound so easy. — Nathan Stevens
94. Elliott Smith – Figure 8 [DreamWorks]
I remember where I was when I found out Elliott Smith had killed himself, back in 2003. I was in a dark place personally, lonely and far away from home. Though I didn’t know his music very well at the time, the act of envisioning the grisly details of his final moments latched onto the strands of my initial interest to form a deep connection that has grown exponentially over time. The parallels in our struggles, concerns, and quiet triumphs became obvious as I listened to his albums on repeat. I can hardly listen to a song of his these days without getting misty; Figure 8 churns the biggest wake of emotional baggage.
Released early on in the year 2000, Figure 8 would be the last album completed in his brief, dramatic life. His second album on a major label and arguably his most well rounded, it balanced a bigger Americana power-pop studio sound with his more intimate, acoustic style honed on his mid-’90s albums. While grandiloquent moments like “Son of Sam” struck a classic Southern rock tone and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” exploded in Flaming Lips-esque neo-psychedelia, the emotional resonance on more delicately arranged tracks like “Everything Reminds Me of Her”, “Easy Way Out”, and “I Better Be Quiet Now” rivaled anything else in his catalogue. His broken voice echoed in lilting strings and somber acoustic guitar.
Figure 8 showed the uncomfortable genius at the peak of his creative powers and matched with an ideal team that included Sam Coomes (Quasi), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s long-time drummer), and producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who help shape Beck’s iconic Mellow Gold). The results were vulnerable yet grandiose, honest yet mystical. It’s perfectly flawed in a way only a handful of other musicians have ever been able to express, lyrically and sonically.
His work frequently became the soundtrack for key scenes in award-winning films, his album sales were steadily increasing, he was still regularly hitting the studio to record new works, and he had a loving girlfriend. Smith seemed to have everything working in his favor externally, but, sadly, he was never able to stabilize internally. And so he left us, not unexpectedly but nevertheless shockingly, to join the ranks of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley as unparalleled song-writing talents who wore their hearts on their sleeves then abandoned their soul-crushing narratives on ellipses. Figure 8 remains Smith’s final testament, the album to remember him by, his Pink Moon or Grace. The mural in front of which Smith posed for the album art photography, located on Sunset Boulevard in LA, has since become his memorial, the place to grieve and remember the man who still resonates so powerfully with so many all these years later. — Alan Ranta
93. The Clientele – Strange Geometry [Merge]
Suburban Light, the Clientele‘s full-length debut, landed with a whisper, a gentle breeze of unfiltered ’60s pop that was definitively English. Four years, Strange Geometry, their third LP, sounded like a full-formed realization of every nuance the band was capable of, but just couldn’t coalesce for their debut or sophomore releases. (The Clientele claimed that they couldn’t find a recording studio suitable to help them achieve a warm sound, so they released Suburban Light as a set of demos.) If warmth was the goal of their sound, the Clientele achieved it in spades.
Strange Geometry is an LP held together by texture, imagery, and richness, melodically and lyrically. “Since K Got Over Me” and “Impossible” are as anthemic as the Clientele can become, stretching out their loose jamming capabilities but keeping them confined to the service of the song. “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and “Step Into the Light” are sweetly sincere ballads of Sunday morning melancholy and Saturday night regret. Even the more experimental, spoken-word track, “Losing Haringey”, fit the hazy mood of the record because, at heart, the Clientele are observers of human nature and they translate human nature into snatches of verse that summarize slippery emotions: “Everything’s so vivid and so creepy / Every night the strange geometry.”
Two traits make Strange Geometry an impeccable album that still sounds vital: one, every note and lyric are in their right place, there are no missteps; and two, every angle is perfectly rounded to fit into an indie-pop schema. Geometry is cold math, but the Clientele shoot it through with weight and depth; the kind that bridges the gaps between Romanticism and Modernism. No band from the aughts made pop music this perfect. — Scott Elingburg
92. Guided by Voices – Isolation Drills [TVT]
Isolation Drills is arguably the best album to be released by Dayton’s Guided by Voices in their Mark 2.0 format (though Mag Earwhig! does have its charms and Earthquake Glue got some pretty glowing reviews). Coming on the heels of the disastrous Do the Collapse, in which the group did just that, Isolation Drills, which was their last release on a quasi-major label before shuffling off back to Matador Records, is end-to-end brilliant, with some of Robert Pollard’s most confessional and direct lyrics (“How’s My Drinking”) and some of the band’s best hooks (“Glad Girls”, “Chasing Heather Crazy”).
The first album by the group to crack the Billboard Top 200, Isolation Drills is a testament to rebounding from failure, and pursuing a much more rock-centric sound after Ric Ocasek basically masturbated all over the outfit’s signature style with his glossy, keyboard-drenched take on their material on Do the Collapse. Isolation Drills might not be the sort of album that inspires academic writing, but as far as balls to the wall rock albums go, this one is terrific and features guitarist Doug Gillard’s best, most chimey work. Isolation Drills is mostly killer with very little filler, and reminds us that Pollard and company made some fine albums that weren’t titled Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes. — Zachary Houle
91. Manic Street Preachers – Journal for Plague Lovers [Columbia]
It was always going to be emotional, wasn’t it? Nearly 15 years after the Manic Street Preachers‘ Minister of Information Richey Edwards left his Vauxhall Cavalier at the Severn Bridge and vanished into thin air, his fellow bandmates decided to liberate his lyrical “last will and testament” and set it to music. That instilled a sense of responsibility so immense that bassist Nicky Wire fleetingly suggested recording the album then burying it, never to be heard.
When Journal for Plague Lovers arrived — wrapped in Jenny Saville’s haunting Stare and taut Steve Albini production — it realized an impossible dream for fans. The Manics are a four-piece once again. The last gang in town, guns a blazing, and for one night only. A fierce reminder that Edwards was a unique, great artist, and yes, Journal for Plague Lovers is great, devastating art. The music is raw, razor-sharp, burning bright with urgency, ideas, and life. But it’s Richey’s lyrics that inevitably transfix. A hurricane of wit and wonder tearing through a bizarre circus of absurdly grotesque Voltaire-esque imagery. God. The devil. Mutilated flesh. Crucifixion. Cloned sheep. Cock-fighting dwarves.
The disgust of humanity perfected on the masterful Holy Bible is still powerfully present but what proves most painfully poignant is how much of Edwards’ closing statement carries a sadly serene, bruised resignation. “Dreams they leave and die.” As the light fades and “William’s Last Words” runs out of time, I defy you not to shed a tear as Wire, in a tenderly fragile vocal, recites his childhood friend’s parting lines, “I love you / Just let me go.” Truly heartbreaking. — Matt James
90. Vex’d – Degenerate [Planet Mu]
Arguably the first “dubstep” full length, Vex’d’s Degenerate is a divisive piece of work. Looking back on it nearly ten years after it was released, some may argue that it a forerunner of the dreaded “brostep” sound due to overt brutality, vicious whomping basslines, and its obnoxious demeanor.
When it was first released, Degenerate was banded about as dubstep purely as there was no other genre name that came close to what it actual was. Even now, it remains an album that defies standard definition containing elements of breakstep, two-step, grime, and dubstep. And when it came out, it completely changed the game. Gone were the half-step heavily reverberated riddim, replaced in their stead by insistent dry clipped garage/breaks/dancehall/grime drum patterns punctuated by moments of silence that carried as much forward motion as the complex rhythms themselves.
Gone were the roots-inspired pure bass-weight of dubstep’s early pioneers; these became replaced by evil mid-range wubs. In came the horror movie atmospherics and the dark ambient sound design that were unheard of in dubstep circles. This is an album whose influence is hard to underestimate; it came from the fringes of a scene its producers didn’t feel a part of and, as a result, it was and is like nothing else. — Al Kennedy
89. Amon Tobin – Foley Room [Ninja Tune]
Amon Tobin‘s sixth studio album saw the producer and doyenne of the art house trip-hop/drum and bass scene all but abandon his trademarked sampling of old school vinyl records, his sole method of beat and track construction since his debut offerings as Cujo on the now-defunct Ninebar Records, in favor of recordings and sounds of his own.
Inspired by the foley rooms where sound effects are recorded for films and video games and growing tired of the restrictions imposed upon him by sampling other people’s work, Tobin literally took to the streets to record the sounds of everyday and not so everyday life. He recorded the roaring of a tiger, the drip of water onto a plate in the sink, ants eating grass, and the revving of a motorcycle (amongst much more), layering the resultant disparate elements into an original and stunningly beautiful melting pot of sounds and ideas.
Although Foley Room is more challenging than the works he had created previously, it still stands up as one of electronic music’s most accomplished concept records of all time. It is a postmodern masterpiece that almost singlehandedly reinvigorates the found-sound movement of the early music-concrete pioneers of the 1950s. Its influence can be heard all over modern music production today. — Al Kennedy
88. Antony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now [Secretly Canadian]
As we approach 2015, with broader awareness and acceptance of transgender identity, it is easy to forget that only ten years ago, discussions of LGBT issues “often left out the T”, and many in the transgender community felt themselves to be the marginalized wing of an already marginalized body. To call Antony Hegarty’s second album with his band Antony & the Johnsons, 2005’s I Am a Bird Now, the foundation point of a new awareness of transgender identity is, perhaps, an overstatement. But the album’s success is certainly an important touchstone in the ongoing journey to broader acceptance and action on behalf of transgender issues.
Winner of the Mercury Prize, I Am a Bird Now is a deeply personal song cycle on the connection/disconnection between identity and the body itself. “One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman,” Antony sings in his otherworldly voice. “But for today I am a buoy,” locating gendered identity as a floating marker, the deliberate misspelling adding to the ambiguity. For language can, like the body, be amputated and reconfigured. This is an album of dissections and conflations, addressing his displacement between the conflicting poles of male and female.
By the album’s end, Antony is the “Bird Guhrl”, ascending that final duality, between terrestrial earth and Heaven, his call of being born to “assume the sky” evoking in his uniquely intoned phrasing a chilling slant rhyme for suicide, the tragic choice for so many who have faced this struggle. Even transcendence must remain ambiguous in this work of agonizing beauty. — Ed Whitelock
87. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife [Capitol/Rough Trade]
What do you do when your band have been branded with the scarlet letter of P for Pretentious just as you are poised to leap to a major label with a potentially broader audience? If you are Colin Meloy, you double down and create a quasi-concept record fashioned around an ancient Japanese folk tale. Not truly a concept album, the songs of the Decemberists‘ The Crane Wife nonetheless flow into each other to create a seamless listening experience, a collection of tales evoking Childe ballads, 18th century broadsides, Shakespearean tragedy, and fairy tales empowered by Meloy’s glossological wit and ruefulness. The band is at the peak of its powers on this album, fusing progressive- and folk-rock flourishes into something simultaneously new and timeless.
The year-long tour in support of this 2006 album brought thousands of fans to the fold as Meloy and Co. gained a reputation as a must-see live act, engaging in deceptively mild-mannered instrumental pyrotechnics, leading hall-wide sing-alongs, and jumping into the audience to re-create assorted famous historical battles. Stephen Colbert became a booster for the band and invited guitarist Chris Funk onto the then still new Colbert Report for a guitar shred-off (wherein Colbert faked a fingernail injury and brought in ringer Peter Frampton). The Decemberists were poised for R.E.M.-level success. Exhaustion and the overreaching The Hazards of Love stalled the momentum, but the band has remained active, if less prolific, during the 2010s. Meanwhile, The Crane Wife holds up as one of the creative peaks of the aughts. — Ed Whitelock
86. Boards of Canada – Geogaddi [Warp]
I admit it: Geogaddi straight-up scared me the first time I heard it. Calling Boards of Canada‘s sophomore album “cryptic” would be an understatement — head to fan site bocpages, and you’ll encounter a Talmudic level of scholarship dedicated to parsing out the symbolic track titles, back-masked samples, and Fibonacci-inspired melodies. Aside from sounding like the soundtrack to a mid-1970s cult renewal weekend, the hidden Satanic and Occult themes in Geogaddi, along with the disturbingly normal modified vintage photos of children playing that adorn the packaging, are enough to put any listener on edge.
Not that brothers Michael and Marcus Sandison mean anything sinister by it, of course. Rather, like a parent playing puzzle games with a child (and parents and children are all over Geogaddi, as well), Boards of Canada are having fun with the listeners by adding extra hidden layers of meaning. “You Could Feel the Sky” already carries a beautiful and unsettling sense of finality, then you discover that the reserved speech concerns “a god with horns”. And of course, the total album length is a cheeky 66 minutes and six seconds.
Of course, the album also stands firmly as a classic without the treasure hunting. “1969” is as close to a pop song as Boards of Canada will ever write (with vocoded lyrics about the Branch Davidians, natch), while achingly beautiful ambient passages like “In the Annexe” and “Over the Horizon Radar” illustrate again that the segue pieces on BoC albums can be the most rewarding. Sonically, the BoC palette didn’t change much between 1998’s Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, but everything just feels more considered and better layered this time around. The melodies have more bite, the sampled speech is that much more chilling, and the atmosphere, in general, betrays a best-case-scenario sophomore effort: older, wiser, and no less full of ideas or willing to stretch.
Since 2010, Boards of Canada’s influence shows no sign of waning. Hazy, wobbly synths have been everywhere this decade. Microgenres like seapunk, vaporwave, glo-fi all owe a huge debt to BoC’s lilting summery soundscapes. While dirty-cassette-style processing might be becoming an overdone trope, the gorgeous and foreboding haze of Geogaddi remains just as vital. — David Abravanel
85. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves [ATO]
It Still Moves ended up being the kind of demarcation point many bands go entire careers without reaching. Though it is My Morning Jacket‘s third album, it is the pinnacle of the Louisville band’s first phase. Like its two predecessors, It Still Moves was recorded in an empty grain silo and was enveloped in the space’s warm, natural reverb. But from the signature opening anthem, “Mahgeetah”, it is clear My Morning Jacket had expanded on the relatively sparse Southern Gothic tones of its earlier works. A sense of near-reckless, almost-unhinged abandon provided the thrills, while the sighing, synth-shaded ballads were the counterpoint, Jim James’ haunting voice talking it all down from the precipice.
Here was a band that had people recalling .38 Special, and fondly, but also betrayed James’ soft spot for British post-punk moodiness. It was all caught up in a magical, golden hue. When people talk about bands that “sound like My Morning Jacket”, bands like Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses, it is the My Morning Jacket of It Still Moves they are referring to. After It Still Moves, the band underwent a major lineup shift and their career became focused on maintaining their identity while distancing themselves from all those bands the album inspired. That the original still sounds so vital is the mark of a true classic. — John Bergstrom
84. Bob Dylan – “Love and Theft” [Columbia]
On Bob Dylan‘s last full-length album of the 1990s, the weary character that occupied the final song assessed “The sun is beginning to shine on me / But it’s not like the sun that used to be.” Time Out of Mind‘s repeated ruminations on mortality seemed like the perfect bookend to Bob Dylan’s career. But that masterstroke was only a setup for an amazing encore. If the characters that occupied Time Out of Mind seemed to be on their deathbeds, then “Love and Theft” was their remission. And those characters chose to celebrate their new lease on life by blowing every last dime they have at the VFW dance hall, cracking bad jokes, and hitting on anyone in plain sight — even if they are half their age.
Backed by the tightest band Dylan has worked with since the Band, “Love and Theft” effortlessly took on swing (“Summer Days”), delta blues (“High Water”), and barnstorming rockers (“Honest With Me”). The carefree sound on “Love and Theft” doesn’t keep away the clouds, as Dylan sings “Coffins droppin’ in the street / Like balloons made out of lead” on “High Water”. The fact the album was released on 11 September 2001, made the apocalyptic imagery all the more palatable. It’s fitting that during a day when Dylan’s voice was sorely needed, he released an all-American masterpiece. — Sean McCarthy
83. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein [Definitive Jux]
Although the two are rarely paired, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein may be the perfect foil to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. The same year Hova unleashed what would become a game-changer for commercial hip-hop, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega were doing something similar across the East River for the underground — which is to say, the obverse. Where Kanye West and Just Blaze sampled Al Green and the Jackson Five for uplift and clarity, El-P sampled Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson for a descent into bafflement and spiritual despair. And where all of The Blueprint‘s personnel saw their stars rise precipitously, Cannibal Ox is only now recording a follow-up; rumors of label strife and debilitating depression abound.
Cold Vein covers familiar terrain (battle raps, broken childhoods, inner-city plight) with an excremental vision and irregular gait. Pop songs are stripped bare so only their ugliness remains. Even Giorgio Moroder is made to sound like a pipe organ from the fires of Hell, and even Mama, unimpeachable in the hip-hop topoi, spits, “You sucked my pussy when you came out / Don’t ever talk back / I handed you life and I’ll snatch it back.” Comparisons to modernist poets are apt, but belie the primal pleasures herein; this seething anguish is, finally, as irresistible as anything a major label has to offer. — Benjamin Aspray
82. Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [Columbia Nashville]
At the start of the 21st century, the gates at the country-music ghetto were firmly locked. Artists did not get out unless, maybe, they appealed to that dubious prefix, “alt” — less a meaningful generic designation than a safety disclaimer allowing urban, Northern listeners to embrace the music’s ostensible rural authenticity without being contaminated by dreaded “mainstream” country. In 2005, Miranda Lambert’s terrific Kerosene constituted a discernible blip on the radar screen, well-liked by critics who deigned to review country albums, its scorched-earth title track lending it just enough tough-chick cred to merit a thumbs-up from a few rock-critic fence-sitters.
Mostly, in a broader cultural sense, it was overshadowed by the debut from Carrie Underwood, whose American Idol win handily trumped Lambert’s third-place finish on Nashville Star. Still, if Underwood was more widely embraced thanks to her Idol fame, her music did not really escape the country-music ghetto until early 2007, when “Before He Cheats” was suddenly, unmistakably ubiquitous. Later that year, Taylor Swift, too, broke through the gates with the irresistible “Our Song”, an early preview of her soon-to-be super-stardom.
But the most exciting product of the 2007 ghetto-break was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert’s thoroughly superb follow-up to Kerosene. From its hell-raising opener, “Gunpowder and Lead”, to the sweet would-be Friday Night Lights theme “Famous in a Small Town”, to the lovely, moving “Desperation”, to the confessional (but unrepentant) “Guilty in Here”, this was a masterful, constantly surprising record — not the best country album of its year, but the album of the year, period, as more than a few critical converts reluctantly conceded. If it failed to garner the massive, across-the-board success of the records by Underwood and Swift, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stood, no less importantly, as a new testament to contemporary country music’s potential for excellence. — Josh Timmerman
81. D’Angelo – Voodoo [Virgin]
Voodoo is perhaps the quintessential example of why one ought not to judge an album by its sleeve art. Taken at face value, there is nothing to suggest that anything more than generic, millennial R&B resides in its grooves; cornrows and old English don’t exactly inspire confidence, after all. So you can imagine my sense of shock when I realized that I was listening to one of the greatest albums ever made. I almost don’t want to talk about any of the actual music on this record — I’d rather you go a virgin into the music, as it really is that special. Like some kind of strange New Orleans brew, it possesses a sonic flavor that could only have been concocted from within the cauldron of D’Angelo’s own psyche. At once embracing the legacy of Stevie and Marvin, while at the same time laying the groundwork for the future, D’Angelo proved himself the true heir to the Kingdom of Soul.
Alas, like Sly Stone before him, he seemingly dropped out altogether. But in recent years he has returned to the stage, armed with a new array of potentially revolutionary material. Rumors of a full-fledged comeback have come and gone, but he need not worry about his legacy; if this is his Citizen Kane, then so be it. The throne is his should he ever want to take it. — J.C. Sciaccotta
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This article originally published on 5 October 2004.