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The Fate of the Album

Music critics have been bemoaning the death of the album format ever since the heyday of Napster, and the subsequent dawn of music related digital technology in the late 1990s. The music staff at PopMatters have put their collective heads together and compiled a list of albums released since January 1, 2000 to illustrate the continued relevance of the long-play format. The death of the album has been greatly exaggerated.

forward to 2002 >

23 January
Gozo Poderoso (RCA)

Columbia's Los Aterciopelados ("Velvety Ones") have evolved from their punk rock roots of 1994's El Corazon en La Mano (With the Heart in Hand) and the traditional Latin sounds of 1997's La Pipa De La Paz (Peace Pipe) to the Latin electronica of 1998's Caribe Atomico (Atomic Caribbean). On Gozo Poderoso (Powerful Joy) the band focus on a more sophisticated cultivated approach that leans towards a globalized spiritually conscious musical culture devoid of borders, languages, and genres. It overflows with ripe orchestrations, disparate electronic flourishes, trip-hop, break beat, '60s rock and Afro-Latin rhythms. Lead singer Andrea Echeverri's voice boldly resonates binding these sounds together into socially and politically conscious anthems. You don't have to understand Spanish to feel the fervor in Echeverri's voice when she chides our country's foreign policy or when she sings la musica es amor, because no matter what language, music is love.
      � Cesar Diaz

13 March
Discovery/Interstella 5555 (Virgin)

Daft Punk had a lot to live up to. Their debut album, Homework is a definitive electronic milestone; a progressive acid house masterpiece that proved that electronic music was much more than a late 90's hype. Their wildly imaginative music videos ("Da'Funk", "Around the World", "Burnin'") and the fact that the duo avoided photo shoots added to the Daft Punk mystique. On, Discovery, Thomas Bangaltar and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, exceed any expectations by creating an ambitious audio and visual concept album/sci-fi film, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5, written and directed by Manga legends, Leiji Matsumoto and Kazuhisa Takenouchi. Discovery and Interstella 5555 can stand as works alone yet together they uncover an astounding visual and audio treat. Think of it as an electronic geeks' The Wall set to progressive house, '80s electro pop, and throbbing disco that would make Giorgio Moroder grin with delight.
      � Cesar Diaz :. original PopMatters review

20 March
The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (Vagrant)

Say what you will about the new pied piper to the teen heartbreak set, but frontman for Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba, is no slouch when it comes to solid guitar chords and real, honest, scarily relatable lyrics. Sometimes one cannot feel pain until it is pounded into you over and over and over. Who knows who these broads are that Carrabba continues to weep about, but oh woe is me, what a weeper he is. Places is truly Carrabba's breakthrough album, featuring despair and regret on almost every song. Who could not be curious about a song titled "Screaming Infidelities?" But Carrabba is no softy, he can really wail when necessary, to the point of personal jealously. This man needs not spend any money on therapy. He just puts it out there. And neither should his fans; after they lift their faces up from their wet pillows, exhausted and numb after an hour with Dr. Carrabba's soul trinkets.
      � Nicole Schuman

3 April
Ease Down the Road (Drag City/ Palace Songs)

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's first album, I See a Darkness was a brooding meditation on death and despair. Never one to stay the tried and true path, Will Oldham switched gears for Bonnie "Prince" Billy's sophomore effort. There is no overriding concept here. Instead, what we have is an album made for late summer nights on the porch with drink and close friends. Rather than the tightly wound, menacing feel of I See a Darkness, Ease Down the Road is a beautiful slow waltz. A rag tag bunch of players, lazily follow Oldham through the tracks joining drunkenly in the swing of "Just to See My Holly Home". Oldham rarely gets ponderous on Ease Down the Road, and even when things start getting troublesome on "Grand Dark Feeling of Emptiness", he follows it with the beautiful album closer "Rich Wife Full Of Happiness." Some albums don't require a concept or perfect sequencing to justify their place, sometimes, it's just enough that a humid summer night can be passed listening to it. This is one of those records.
      � Kevin Jagernauth

3 April
Isolation Drills (TVT)

Former schoolteacher Robert Pollard, monarch of Guided By Voices, drops albums like Shaq misses free throws. His improbably prolific output (37 LPs since 1987, at last count) has rarely afforded him the time to concentrate on the cohesiveness of a single release. Seminal albums like Bee Thousand (1994) and Alien Lanes (1995) were more like wildly eclectic collections of random limbs than full-bodied beasts. Sometimes dismissed by the band's lo-fi following as "too glossy", Isolation Drills is the apex of Pollard's Nuggets-to-Who story. Like Zeus after a few Buds, Pollard summons the lightning of Who's Next and captures the confessional nakedness of Who By Numbers. Connected by a plethora of sparkling ringers that conjure the ghosts of Big Star and Cheap Trick ("Glad Girls", "Chasing Heather Crazy"), Isolation Drills, like great rock LPs of decades past, is more than the mere sum of its parts: It is an old school album for a new school world.
      � Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review

23 April
Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (Kindercore)

Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies was the encapsulation of what the Athens, Georgia-based band Of Montreal had been building to in their entire career to that point: a no-holds-barred, psych-pop extravaganza in the form of a concept album built around an ridiculously intricate story filled with colorful characters, riddles, and bubblegum anthems. 1998's The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy told a story through a series of songs. On 1999's The Gay Parade the band did the same with a more complicated, more ambiguous story. With Coquelicot they followed the same path but went completely over the top, making an album that was part off-off-off-Broadway musical, part warped dream, and part enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in a detective novel. In any case, in its very essence it is an album, a creation that was all about how deep and complicated an album-length narrative can be.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review

15 May
The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux)

Hip-hop is one of the musical genres where the "death of the album" talk feels most relevant. It's also a form of music that started out as essentially song-based, yet in its prime years (the late '80s and early '90s) a series of artists made albums that had a force and cohesiveness that gave them more importance than their individual songs. Cannibal Ox's debut album The Cold Vein is very much in that tradition. It's also an example of using an album to explore a particular atmosphere, in this case urban claustrophobia and paranoia, exuded by El-P's threatening beats and Vast Aire and Vordul's imaginative, sci-fi rhymes.
      � Dave Heaton

15 May
Reveal (Warner Bros.)

After the departure of longtime drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. got weird for their first album as a trio, 1998's Up, an album that had its moments ("Daysleeper") but sounded largely like a band that was trying to regain its focus. No one could have predicted Reveal, their best since Automatic for the People and proof that R.E.M. is still the best American band of the last 25 years. Anthemic ("The Lifting"), introspective ("Saturn Return"), and just flat-out jaw-droppingly beautiful ("I'll Take the Rain" is one of R.E.M.'s top five songs ever), Reveal showed fans that the R.E.M. that took a bizarre detour for the second half of the nineties was still capable of reaching, if not surpassing, their earlier heights. And since we're discussing albums that merit complete listens all the way through, dig Reveal's charming closer, "Beachball". The rumors of the death of R.E.M.'s relevance have been greatly exaggerated.
      � Steve Haag :. original PopMatters review

5 June
Essence (Lost Highway)

I will loosely borrow from a Roy Orbison tune to evoke the wonder that Lucinda Williams bestows on Essence, an album that isn't on par with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or Lucinda Williams, but it has its own place among Williams' much revered catalogue. Essence remains low-key, soothing, never really bellowing to a crescendo because it doesn't need to. Williams' words, her imagery coil and weave in her hair until they dissipate. But that love Ms. Williams gives these words, oh, they sear the soul like switchblade. In its entirety Williams' songs on Essence are just as riveting when delivered as a quiver, a whisper than as gritty roots rockers. One can't argue that Williams bares her soul like no other and she's a master storyteller, a living legend of rock, country, and everything in between.
      � Cesar Diaz

12 June
Time Travel Is Lonely (Barsuk)

John Vanderslice's well received Time Travel Is Lonely functions as a cultural artifact. Vanderslice starts with the packaging: the liner notes contain a mix of titles and lyrics, plus notes and letters from lonely brother Jesse, stuck on an Antarctic expedition. Jesse's computer has been hit by the real-life "I Love You" virus, increasing the difficulty of communication. The back of the disc shows that the interludes are numbered out of sequence, apparently the effect of time travel. Vanderslice isn't working on a gimmick though, but on a strong thematic event. He uses Robert Lowell's "My Old Flame, My Wife" for one song's lyrics, and leads into it with "Everything Changed", an allusion to Lowell's poem. Our lonely narrator seeks solace in poetry (Blake as well as Lowell), as does Jesse. The CD's lyrics, liner notes, and even its Frankensteinian cover art function as inter-textual reference points, more easily explored collectively than independently.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review

19 June
Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop)

Oh, Inverted World could change your life. Its appeal lies in the songs, with knotty sing-along hooks and jangly guitar. The production coats them in a sheen of reverb and echoes, giving the music a woozy, hazy quality, like a lost Beach Boys tune (with Mercer sometimes sounding like Ozzy!) coming in faintly on a radio. The album's secret weapon is the spot-on sequencing of the songs, which are in the perfect chronological order. It's put together like a thrilling book or film, leading up to the early highlight of "Know Your Onion!" (complete with backing vocals), the pretty "Girl Inform Me" and the subversive (!) "New Slang." By the time the album climaxes with the Sesame Street beat and keyboards of "Pressed in a Book", leading into the lovely French horn finale of "The Past and Pending", it's clear that Oh, Inverted World is a classic indie-rock album.
      � Elisabeth Donnelly :. original PopMatters review

26 June
Rooty (Astralwerks)

If Daft Punk had a lot to live up to, Basement Jaxx were right there with them. Their last record, Remedy, was considered an instant dance classic. In 2001, Daft Punk's Discovery was raking up raves and although I shouldn't compare spaceballs to freaks, the Jaxx had the means to deliver. Enter Rooty, a full-out dance party perfect for freaks and spaceballs alike. What makes Rooty exceed the expectations of its predecessor is it veers away from progressive house and Latin rhythms for a more schizo-genre-bending affair. On Rooty, the Jaxx play club thieves, acquiring a wide arrangement of R&B and funk techniques mixed and matched together with electro-wizardry. This gives the album that buoyant life-of-the-party flair that Remedy lacked. In a few years, and a few Basement Jaxx albums later, we can look back and pinpoint where it all came together.
      � Cesar Diaz :. original PopMatters review

3 July
It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol)

If you've ever listened to a Sparklehorse record, you'll know that it's not meant to be a single-driven album. Any song written and produced by lead singer Mark Linkous demands a listener's keen attention to every sonic detail, every flourish that help conjure a mood and tell a story. Linkous mastered the spooky lo-fi ambience on the brilliant vivadixiessubmarinetransmissionplot and the cathartic post-overdose Good Morning Spider. While these two records were overtly introverted, Sparklehorses' It's a Wonderful Life gleams with a more self assured sanguinity. Linkous' penchant for erratic imagery remains present while violins, pianos, and cellos adorn his dark somber ballads and distorted guitars and mellotrons garnish the edgier tracks. The result is a haunting grim fairy tale album for the world.
      � Cesar Diaz

3 July
White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

It may not have been obvious at the time of its release, White Blood Cells is the best coming-out party of the '00s. It's an album true to the vision Jack and Meg White crafted on their first two also-excellent LPs, but with enough spit and polish to be presentable to folks outside of the Detroit garage scene. Seamlessly running the gamut from dusty back porch pop ("Hotel Yorba") to Citizen Kane ("The Union Forever") to arguably the best 1:50 of music in the 21st century ("Fell in Love With a Girl"), White Blood Cells lit the fuse for the current garage rock explosion. But it would all go for naught if Jack White didn't rank as one of the keener lyricists of our time. Any album featuring both a tune about manners and his inability to please women ("I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman") and a twee ode to schoolyard chums ("We're Going to Be Friends") deserves a spot on this list. Under the mountains of hype that followed this album's release, it's easy to forget the Stripes' impeccable songcraft; listening to the album, one can forget all the hype and be left only with a fantastic record.
      � Steve Haag :. original PopMatters review

17 July
The End of Amnesia (Future Farmer)

M. Ward is a musician who makes albums. As strong as the melodies, lyrics, and moods of his uniquely old-yet-new folk/country/jazz/pop songs are, his albums achieve another level of strength by the way the songs hold together and the way that together they explore a particular theme in depth. And while his 2003 album Transfiguration of Vincent probes into themes of life and death in a skillful way, the album which musically gives the best argument for M. Ward as a gifted album-creator is his second album The End of Amnesia, which dives into ideas of memory, loss, and identity in a moving, involving way by capturing the atmosphere of dreams.
      � Dave Heaton

24 July
Choreographed Man of War (Recordhead)

Most of Robert Pollard's albums (under his own name, as Guided by Voices, or using one of many other pseudonyms), though not all, have an ace sense of cohesion, whether it comes from an overarching concept (Kid Marine), perfect segues and interludes (Bee Thousand) or the songs sharing a particular compositional style (Alien Lanes). In the spring and summer of 2001 he released two albums that expertly used the "classic rock" style of power chords and far-reaching hooks to explore feelings of loneliness and alienation. Guided by Voices' Isolation Drills was the slicker, somewhat poppier, slightly more optimistic one, while Choreographed Man of War was it's darker, less polished sibling. A thick wall of guitars and fierce energy surround Pollard's surrealistic but emotionally revealing lyrics throughout the album, which is a superb example of unleashing your demons and tears as one album-length rebel yell.
      � Dave Heaton

31 July
Time (The Revelator) (Acony)

Gillian Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings have said Time (The Revelator) is a series of "tiny rock songs" that just happen to be played on banjo and acoustic guitar. You can both see and hear the rock behind the country twang of "Elvis Presley Blues" and "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll". One listener has even suggested that the demure "Everything is Free" is about file-sharing, a decidedly un-country activity. Every song on Time (The Revelator) is a wellspring of beauty. The sinuous interplay of Welch and Rawling's instruments, her soulful, caked-dirt voice and the often tragic but hopeful lyrics get richer and deeper with each listen. The two-part "Ruination Day (April the 14th)" chronicles the serial miseries of that particular day in history, but somehow Welch takes Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the sinking of the Titanic and uses them to illustrate the redemptive power of rock and roll. Throughout the album, Welch transcends
      � Matt Wheeland

28 August
Vespertine (Elektra)

With the working title of Domestica during recording, the songs that eventually made their way onto Vespertine were Björk's most personal and vulnerable to date. Musically, the album was subtler, with as much attention given to the strings and vocals, as to the beats. Working with experimental electronic duo Matmos and frequent collaborator Mark Bell laying the foundation, Björk crafted a gorgeous album that acts as elegy to love, life and the confidence and beauty that can be found there. With "Hidden Place" starting the album, Björk gently dreams of an escape with her lover. "Cocoon" continues to celebrate their love, frankly celebrating their sex life. Björk contemplates fate in the life of their love with "It's Not Up to You" and the simply beauty of held hands with "Pagan Poetry" before the album takes a brief musical box interlude, before moving into snow-crunching "Aurora". This transition alone justifies the album. It's a sublime moment that requires both tracks to be played in sequence. The second half of the album is less literal and more poetic affirmations of life and family, before she returns to her lover in "Harm of Will". "Unison" which closes the album is triumphant and confident. Vespertine is a 12-track guide to falling in love.
      � Kevin Jagernauth :. original PopMatters review

18 September
The Blueprint (Uptown/Universal)

I don't want to hear shit about Jada, Ja, DMX, Fabulous, Ludacris, Petey Pablo. Just peep this lyric: "and some day I slow down, but for now I get around like the late Makiavelli or Perelli 20 inches or caine and O-dog, stick up tape from menace you tell 'em chicks if they must know my business". Damn, that some ghetto-ass Pulitzer shit. In my mind one the best lines since Biggie talked about getting his the "ski-mask way" or Rakim talked about them "seven Mcs". Jigga's lines from the "remix" of "Girls, Girls, Girls" (yes, that means that shit was an afterthought). Digging in the stacks to find Jim Morrison and that old-school countrified mack Bobby "Blue" Bland (still hocking after all these years) "The Blueprint" is the best Jigga since "Reasonable Doubt" and further evidence that don't nobody do it the way he do. All together now, "H to the izzzo . . . "
      � Mark Anthony Neal :. original PopMatters review

25 September
Southern Rock Opera (Soul Dump)

Concept albums are always a hit or miss experience, as bands try to balance music and storyline, and more often than not, it all becomes a garbled mess. Patterson Hood, leader of the superb Drive-By Truckers, is one such ambitious dude, as the band's 2001 album Southern Rock Opera is all that the title indicate, and then some. Yeah, it tries to tell the story about a young Alabama native's love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and how the rise and fall of his fictitious band starts to parallel that of his Southern heroes, and the story is like a rickety highway ridden with p(l)otholes. What makes this album such a great experience is the deep passion that's buried in every song, as Hood, guitarist Mike Cooley, and third guitarist Rob Malone offer a detailed, soulful examination of their home, their Southern past, and their love of music. On this album, you've got 20 songs that come straight from the heart and the gut, ranging from the celebratory "Let There Be Rock", the elegiac "Ronnie and Neil", and Hood's brilliant spoken word history lesson, "The Three Great Alabama Icons". Sure, it's a big ole mess, but it's so passionate, right down to Hood's extremely detailed notes, it's an album that demands you to sit down, and follow along carefully. Southern Rock Opera makes you pine for the days of the old, huge, 12 inch gatefold LP covers that you lost yourself in while lying on your bed listening to the music. CDs aren't quite the same, but this one comes awfully damn close.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review

9 October
Is This It (RCA)

In which the most polarizing band of the new millennium defies their detractors, embraces their fans and releases a Bowery jukebox of stunning hits. Many will label the Strokes as little more than an amalgamation of New York's former punk greats, but the truth lies in the songs. The blistering guitar interplay on "The Modern Age", the bluesy barroom banter of "Someday", the angst fueled malaise of "Last Night" and "Hard to Explain", and all capped by the ironic and defiant closer "Take It or Leave It". In our cynical musical climate it is natural to question the authenticity of the Strokes sneer and swagger, but they found a way to craft an album to silence their critics. It is rare for a band to compose and release one, two or even three great songs, somehow the Strokes found a way to put together eleven tracks, each stronger than the last, under the weight of great industry scrutiny. In hindsight one has to ask, isn't that just what great bands do?
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

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