90. 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 and 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, and 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
89. 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 is 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 actually was. Even now, it remains an album that defies standard definitions containing elements of breakstep, two-step, grime, and dubstep. 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
88. 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
87. Antony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now [Secretly Canadian]
With broader awareness and acceptance of transgender identity, it is easy to forget that only a few 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
86. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife [Capitol/Rough Trade]
What do you do when your band has 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
85. 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, but 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
84. 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
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. Gorillaz – Demon Days [Virgin]
Demon Days can be summed up in two words: Dennis and Hopper. The fact that Dennis Hopper does an entire track of spoken word on Gorillaz‘s masterpiece-thus-far and it doesn’t sound even remotely close to out-of-place says volumes for the varied nature of the album. Of course, this wouldn’t be close to possible if it weren’t preceded on the album by a rap from MF Doom, an Ike Turner piano solo, and the presence of Shaun Ryder rambling about something or other.
It’s all held together by the expert hand of the hot production whiz of the moment, Danger Mouse, with Damon Albarn serving as primary chorus writer, artistic director, and tea maker. The best part is that it’s the cartoons, those wonderful living drawings from Jamie Hewlett, that make Gorillaz palatable to the masses. There would be no hope for Demon Days if it were simply a Mouse/Albarn collaboration. Rather, the cartoons allow us to open up to the absurd, in turn allowing Demon Days to be the most willfully off-the-wall album to go platinum this year. — Mike Schiller
81. Raekwon the Chef – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II [Ice H20/EMI]
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is about the difficulty of letting go — of the violence, of the drugs, of the damn life, before luck runs out. When Raekwon and Ghostface talk about the bad old days, it’s just a little bit more real. Check this out: “I seen visions of dead males and more sales / Real life stories is made, and candles got blazed / For little young soldiers shot by them strays.” Or how about this: “They found a two-year-old, strangled to death / With a ‘Love Daddy’ shirt on in a bag on the top of the steps.” Evocative. Concrete. These are “warts and all” depictions of wayward men who went wrong.
Pt. II starts exactly where Pt. I left off — you can match the music if you play them back-to-back. And, despite a wealth of producers such as RZA, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, and Mathematics, Part II is cohesive in tone, both to itself and to its predecessor. The Cuban Linx albums are hip-hop’s The Godfather: Parts I and II. Both are sobering reflections on the criminal life and the despair of never leaving it behind. — Kevin Wong