60. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion [Domino]
As the prolific Animal Collective prepare to leave 2009 with the release of a new collection of songs, the hotly anticipated Fall Be Kind EP, it’s appropriate to remember how they entered the year with the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album, named after a favorite concert venue, was their most well-received to date, garnering “album of the year” plaudits before January had even got underway. Particular love was thrown at “My Girls”, and rightly so — a lot of love had clearly gone into it. Here was a track that showed a more adventurous approach to harmony singing than the recently-lauded work of Fleet Foxes. The Animals’ sonic environment was harsher than that of the Foxes, mixing ghostly technostalgia with machinic malfunction and uncanny loops, overlaid with those wonderful harmonies and yearning solo vocals.
Avey Tare and Panda Bear had given us many of these elements before, but never in such a broadly appealing package. Here was an album that non-fans could embrace and that anyone could get pleasantly lost in, only to wander out of its magical forests in awe of what Animal Collective had done and wonder what they would do next. – Richard Elliott
59. Caribou – Up in Flames [Leaf / Domino]
In some alternative universe, the summer of love never stopped, the spiritual energy was so overwhelming that it ended the Vietnam War and prevented 9/11, and the music kept growing and evolving with every passing technology and every creative breakthrough. Up in Flames is a transmission from that universe, an effervescent psychedelic portal to a reality so gorgeous and transformative that you can only access it through a recording. Mathematician Dan Snaith, first known by Manitoba and then, for legal purposes, as Caribou, cracked the formula to open the stargate, producing a very un-math-like rock album in the process.
Up in Flames is a 2000s record fluent in harmonics but not indebted to any Beach Boys release. It’s an album that’s pastoral and green but awash in synthesizers. It’s an LP that floats in elegant phrases and also double-drums a holy rupture of the cosmos. It’s an experiment in dynamics that is simultaneously immense and intimate, forecasting many naughts trends from the apocalyptics of M83 to the preciousness of xylophone twee and the indie obsession with innocence, all while surpassing the understudies and sounding nothing like them. On paper, you could make the case that it’s spiritual jazz gone electronic psych-pop, but it’s so much more of its signifiers.
Up in Flames is not best measured by its impact or its significance but by its singularity, a standalone entity that feels unlike anything else in this consciousness, a rarity in an age of recreational style curation. Snaith-Ra kept the quality levels high throughout his career but was never as vital as this again. — Timh Gabriele
58. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow [Sub Pop]
Critically lauded for their 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, the Shins upped the ante with 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. Properly produced, Chutes Too Narrow took the band’s insouciant bedroom rock to a level of broader mainstream appeal. Released in a nebulous musical period with no distinct style, the Shins quickly became the indie standard bearers amongst their peers, including the nascent Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and the Postal Service.
At its heart, Chutes Too Narrow is a pop album. Recalling 1960s-era acts, the Shins mixed in chamber pop (“Saint Simon”) and country (“Gone for Good”) with singer James Mercer’s buoyant melodies and the band’s vocal harmonies. Post-release, the album, and the band were given a major boost after Oh, Inverted World‘s “New Slang” was anointed a song that “will change your life” in the independent film Garden State. Sales of the band’s first two albums more than doubled, resulting in mainstream attention. A springboard to future success, Chutes Too Narrow‘s 2007 follow-up, Wincing the Night Away debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and earned the band a Grammy nomination.
Formed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but having relocated to Portland, Oregon, prior to recording Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins’ melodic approach no doubt informed its Sub Pop label brethren, Band of Horses, as well as countless other alt-folk acts now so prevalent. No longer the same band after Mercer dismissed the group following Wincing the Night Away, his time is split between side project Broken Bells (with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton) and the Shins, last releasing Port of Morrow in 2012. Despite its follow-up’s accolades and sales figures, Chutes Too Narrow remains the band’s greatest artistic achievement, owing as much to the songs as its exposure following Garden State. — Eric Risch
57. The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic [Mint]
After a decade and a half of superb New Pornographers releases and solo albums by members that give weight to the band’s “supergroup” status, it’s hard to remember when that status was a put-on, the pre-Blacklisted Neko Case the closest thing the band had to an actual star. But of the spate of reverse-engineered supergroup creations released in the first half of the 2000s (You Forgot It in People, Apologies to the Queen Mary, etc.), Mass Romantic is the one that sounds most like pop geniuses throwing a hell of a party.
Sporadically recorded over three years, these songs sound as if Carl Newman and his bandmates couldn’t stop adding ingredients, so they cooked them into a Spectorian stew. Yet the track stacking never obscures a hooks-above-all aesthetic of multiple choruses and verses catchy enough to be choruses. While future New Pornographers albums would widen the band’s scope and highlight the members’ individual strengths, Mass Romantic establishes a core identity that brings out some unexpected Pete Townshend in Dan Bejar’s arty, cerebral poetry and gives Neko Case an early career highlight in “Letter to an Occupant” without dimming the shine of Newman-sung gems like “The Body Says No”. Bejar may sound cynical when he sings, “Making history has never seemed so easy” on “Jackie”, but Mass Romantic still sounds like a masterpiece effortlessly conceived when an unlikely bunch of wildly talented music geeks found themselves in a room together. — David Bloom
56. Opeth – Blackwater Park [Music for Nations]
From the very beginning, Opeth were much more than just a death metal band. Chief songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt’s love of obscure progressive rock and musical interests outside of extreme sounds appeared throughout Opeth’s music since their 1995 debut Orchid. But as Åkerfeldt matured as a songwriter and formed a friendship with Porcupine Tree’s prog maestro Steven Wilson, his newfound ability to strike the balance between the technical grace and emotional fragility of prog and the outright brutality of death metal manifested in Opeth’s crowning masterpiece, Blackwater Park.
At the time of its release in 2001, Blackwater Park — impeccably produced by Wilson — became Opeth’s most confident declaration of intent. The Swedish band was no longer content with the scene it was lumped into, and the dynamism displayed in songs the stature of “The Leper Affinity”, “The Drapery Falls”, and the spectacular title track showed Opeth’s desire to develop and distinguish itself from its contemporaries. Time and further outstanding Opeth albums have gone on gild the artistic value of Blackwater Park; it remains an influential turning point in Opeth’s evolution towards pure progressive rock and an even more essential and exquisite inclusion in the immortal canon of heavy metal. — Dean Brown
55. Scott Walker – The Drift [4AD]
No album in the past decade has committed so fully to a mood of darkness as The Drift. With repeated references to human nature’s tendency towards violence, percussive touches that give the sensation of a corpse being punched, and an unexpected and utterly terrifying — yet perfectly integrated — braying donkey, The Drift is the closest thing we have to the musical equivalent of a painting by Francisco Goya or Hieronymus Bosch. Despite its discomfiting air, something about The Drift makes for crucial listening. The tremendous command in Scott Walker‘s imperiled baritone alone warrants attention.
Walker’s lyrics and musical surprises aren’t beyond the occasional stab at grotesque humor or absurdism, perhaps most easily discerned in the totally leftfield Donald Duck cameo on “The Escape”. This doesn’t necessarily add a lightness to the proceedings, but it works wonders in keeping the listener on his or her toes in an era where listening grew more and more passive. A decade that began with the attacks on the World Trade Center — something Walker references throughout the album — called for something of The Drift‘s caliber to work through a universal terror. The album closes on the only slightly unsettling “A Lover Loves”, a somber testament that we survived. — Maria Schurr
54. Madvillain – Madvillainy [Stones Throw]
Conscious rappers talk a big game about their monopoly on Real Hip-Hop, but hip-hop doesn’t get much more real than Madvillainy. Not that this one-off between Stones Throw MVP Madlib and mush-mouthed MC MF Doom talks much material existence beyond Doom’s own misfitness, enviable technique, and “tryin’ to get a nut like squirrels in his mad world”. But, in a way, this trim vinyl kaleidoscope of ephemeral music and Hanna-Barbara heavies boils the form down to its essence: flow-qua-flow through the untrammeled ego. Doom free-associates culture high and low, from Hemingway to Robh Ruppel, across tongue-tied internal rhymes ever-so-shy of the beat.
Meanwhile, Madlib — the lesser-known equal to crate-digging godhead J Dilla — matches fusion breaks, psych soul, and Steve Reich to Doom’s lyrical parapraxis and occasionally takes the mic himself, mostly as his helium-pitched alter-ego Lord Quas. Together they speak as one; it’s the best chemistry of either’s career, and one of the best of hip-hop, period. They aren’t the first heads to conjure dementia through EC Comics violence (Kool Keith) nor the last (Odd Future), but they do it with effortless levity. Rarely does such a gimmicky premise sound so totally intuitive. — Benjamin Aspray
53. Modest Mouse – The Moon & Antarctica [Epic]
There’s an old story your grandfather can tell you in the firelight: once upon a time, an indie rock band could put out a few solid records, generate some hype, get signed to something called a Major Record Label, and use that sweet corporate money to record a studio-bound opus that would catapult them into the Big Statement Record pantheon for all time. Modest Mouse never seemed like the type — Isaac Brock’s lyrics were too truckstop-poet for mass consumption, his incredibly fluid voice too rough around the edges, his band’s restless punk-funk-disco-folk way too weird to get the A&R reps drooling.
And yet. The Moon & Antarctica is the last of its species. Brock and company, coming off of the one-two punch of their debut This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About (1996) and The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) — a classic in its own right — made the jump to Epic Records for Moon, using the company’s cash to write and record an out-and-out masterpiece, fully fleshed in-studio sheen, and effects-laden production. In a perfect universe, The Moon & Antarctica is what would always happen when an indie band walks into a major label contract. It’s the platonic ideal of an expensive rock record.
But producer Brian Deck, brilliant here, simply served the material Modest Mouse gave him. In other words, those A&R reps were right for once: Brock is a peerless songwriter, the type of truckstop poet who can pen songs as disparate as the existential pop of “Third Planet”, a sprawling opus like “The Stars Are Projectors”, and a blistering assault like “What People Are Made Of” — and seamlessly weave them all into a single album. His pop gifts — his preternatural gift for melody and an endless supply of hooks — are matched here by his unchecked ambition and a musical eclecticism unrivaled by any of his fellow indie-rock heroes of this last, final college radio generation.
The Moon & Antarctica is an album of contrasts: gentle (“Gravity Rides Everything”) and howling (“Alone Down There”); perfectly economical (“Third Planet”) and willfully grand (“Life Like Weeds”); pure roots-rock fundamentals (“Wild Packs of Family Dogs”) and space-age, tripped-out futurism (“A Different City”). It, like the handful of singular statements in its company, is everything, all at once. It’s like nothing else on this planet or any other. — Corey Beasley
52. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes [Bella Union/Sub Pop]
Before Mumford and Sons burst onto the scene, causing their homogenized brand of foot-stamping, banjo-slinging, “Ho Hey”-hollering folk to infiltrate the mainstream, the indie-folk scene was a very different place. The Decemberists used folk arrangements for their progressive rock-leaning songwriting. Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom used folk as a home base for their lush, rhapsodic compositions. The Tallest Man on Earth used a minimalist folk setting for his Dylan-esque songs. But Fleet Foxes, despite its inventive song structures and unusual arrangements, can be called nothing but a folk album.
For the Seattle-based band’s self-titled debut, folk music was not a starting point but the true end game. Rather than dressing their ideas in folksy costumes, Fleet Foxes takes disparate sounds and styles and imbues them with an undeniable folk spirit. The forays into SMiLE-era Beach Boys instrumental sections, as on “Ragged Wood” or “Quiet Houses”, feel just as much a part of their folk sensibility as when they rely on the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The heart of the album, though, is Robin Pecknold’s wonderful songwriting. His powerful melodies and lyrics — both evocative of a romanticized rustic America — shine bright whether covered with harmonies and guitars or sung solo by Pecknold, shown on the album’s closer, “Oliver James”. — Scott Interrante
51. PJ Harvey – White Chalk [Island]
In a career defined by abrupt left turns in pursuit of the muse, White Chalk stands as PJ Harvey‘s grandest departure. Gone are the guitars, both Rid of Me‘s frenzied variety and the crystalline veneer of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, as are the blues stomp and the howling vocals. In their place is a somber record, one dominated by antique piano and Harvey singing in a glass-shatteringly high register. Sounding as though it was recorded in a mausoleum, the record is steeped in atmosphere, haunting and nocturnal, and peopled by the ghosts of departed grandmothers, aborted fetuses, and devilish love affairs.
The austerity that comes with Harvey’s minimal piano chords and her dour subject matter make for one of the spookiest and most unsettling albums in recent history, putting on par with Nico’s The Marble Index. With its gothic overtones and English sensibility, it could serve as an accompaniment to a reading of Wuthering Heights. As the songstress was learning piano at the time, a degree of primitivism is imbued here as well. While there was little in Harvey’s oeuvre to anticipate White Chalk, its instrumentation and Harvey’s new approach to her vocals laid the bedrock for her subsequent release, the war-fixated Let England Shake.
It’s something of a shame that White Chalk is likely to be remembered as the precursor for that more grandiose and lauded album, as its hushed introspection is masterfully executed and captivating throughout. For an artist who flourishes in experimentation, White Chalk remains the most striking anomaly in the Harvey canon. — Cole Waterman