Top 20 lists are a sham. For that matter, so are top 10 lists. How many albums from any given year can you honestly say you listen to on a regular basis? Five or six if you’re lucky. The bottom line is that very few albums endure, and yet publications like Spin and Rolling Stone continue to pump out massive year-end lists-as if your collection would somehow be incomplete without the latest Sleater-Kinney record. If an release makes my list, it’s there for one reason alone: I firmly believe I’ll be listening to it three or four years from now. That’s really the only standard I have, and, in my opinion, it’s the only standard that truly matters. With so much new music and old music vying for our ear drums on a regular basis, an album or EP has got to have something special to merit spins past the two or three month mark. These are the ones that did it for me.
1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
Like I said, the contest was over in April. This is an album for anyone who thought Radiohead got a tad too obtuse with their eletronic glitchery in recent years. Tweedy and Co. aren’t afraid of being post-modern, but they never allow the studio frosting to cloud their sense of melody. From start to finish, this is a colossal achievement, one that needs no David and Goliath story (arty Midwestern band against the big, bad record industry) to justify its place in rock history. But it got that too, just in case.
2. Thirdimension, Protect Us From What We Want (Parasol)
I’m still pissed that it took me over four years to hear anything about a band this good. But I suppose I should be thankful I heard of them at all. After Warner Sweden essentially stopped promoting this debut, the group languished in obscurity until “The Swedish Sound” became the next big thing, with bands like the Hives and The Soundtrack of Our Lives getting generous major label offers. Thirdimension still haven’t been the subject of a bidding war, but at least their debut album reached the ears of a few discerning listeners at Parasol Records, which finally released it Stateside this past October. If you’re a fan of the Beatles, the Who, and their more modern derivations like the Super Furry Animals, this an album you simply can’t do without.
3. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope)
Beck always rubbed me the wrong way. His albums are daring and adventurous, but have consistently lacked the emotional depth of any truly enduring work. Mellow Gold, Odelay, and Mutations were clearly the work of a genius, but they aimed squarely for the cerebral cortex. As a result, they wound up coming off like well-constructed facades: technically flawless but empty once you got beyond the witty wordplay and instrumental tomfoolery. Sea Change, on the other hand, is a masterful, profoundly demonstrative work. Rather than hide behind a veil of nonsensical phrases and sonic patchwork, Beck has finally imbued his compositions with warmth and meaning thanks to an intimate folk approach. Even if it proves to a fleeting moment of truth for this notoriously guarded artist, he’s proven once and for all that he’s capable of something beyond silly rhymes and ironic cool. .
4. The Mars Volta, Tremulant EP (Gold Standard Laboratories) The two former stars of At the Drive-In manage something truly incredible with their new project: they make prog rock sound vital again. It was always quite obvious that Omar Rodriguez was a phenomenal guitarist, but rarely has he been allowed to show the extent of his range. The Mars Volta, however, gives the afroed wonder ample opportunity as they explore everything from dub to reggae to punk and back. Rodriguez’s partner in crime, frontman Cedric Bixler, has also ditched the confines of his former band’s sound, trading in the emo lyric sheet for a more sci-fi focus. Plus his high-pitched squeal is-thankfully-nowhere to be found. Supposedly, the band is in the studio right now laying down the tracks for its debut full-length with Rick Rubin. Can’t say I’m too thrilled at that pairing, but as long as Rubin parks the rap-metal at the door, the album is almost guaranteed to eclipse anything ATDI ever attempted.
5. Wire, Read and Burn 01 (Phantom)
Instead of quietly retiring and retaining their hipster cachet, Wire decided to take a stab at relevancy again. Most of these attempts from older artists end in disaster and ridicule. Listened to Iggy Pop’s Beat ‘Em Up lately? But I give credit where it’s due: Wire not only came back, but they managed to sound more angry and vital than during their supposed peak period in ’77. Taking a few cues from latter day Primal Scream and the rest from the Thrill Kill Kult, Wire took the best elements of proto-dance punk to update their original template. “Agfers of Kodack” is a true standout, but the rest aren’t too shabby either.
6. The Music, Collected EPs
Okay, so I cheated a bit. This wasn’t actually released. I burned all the tracks on a single disc it because, well, I don’t believe in shelling out cash for a bunch of import EPs. (Have you seen the prices on those things?!) Still, if there were ever such things as UK-only EPs that were worth your money, these would be among them. The a-sides, “Take the Long Road and Walk It,” “You Might As Well Try and Fuck Me,” and “The People,” are pretty neat tunes, but The Music save their best for the b-sides. The two instrumentals that accompany the “Long Road” EP are positively mind-blowing in their grandeur and musicality-somewhat akin to Mogwai on speed or GYBE! with a sense of rhythm. Meanwhile, “Let Love Be the Healer” and “Jag Tune” are dashed with the Verve at their cocky, anthemic best. But, hey, don’t take my word for it. You can stream every track they’ve ever recorded straight from their website at www.themusic.uk.com.
Biggest disappointment: Supergrass, Life on Other Planets
After three albums of unrelenting brilliance, the ‘Grass deliver their first bonafide turd. This is unlistenable mid-tempo muck that Tom Petty wouldn’t have even included on a non-Heartbreakers album. “Grace” and “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” provide momentary relief, but for a band that started their career by stringing together two perfect albums, this is a spectacular dip in quality.
Best Song: Queens of the Stone Age, “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire”
We may never know why the powers that be chose to release “No One Knows” as the first single from Songs for the Deaf. How anyone could overlook this colossus of a song remains a mystery to me. “Millionaire” is the aural equivalent of a giant 18-wheeler barreling down the highway at unsafe speeds, crushing everything in its path. It’s one of those songs that’s so damn good that it makes everything else after it seem woefully inadequate. This is metal as it was meant to be played: loud, fast, and reckless.