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Music

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.

THE FATE OF THE ALBUM 2002
forward to 2003 >

19 February
BOARDS OF CANADA
Geogaddi (Warp)

Geogaddi is "a beautiful place", says the child sampled in the song "Sunshine Recorder", a place of rich beats and airy melodies with unearthly, Kafkaesque voices fading in and out. It is the perfect soundtrack for a flight in a hot air balloon. Traveling in this manner is not about getting somewhere. It's about waking up in a dream, remembering you are alive, and deciding to float through life on a cloud, at least for a timeless moment more. Geogaddi is not a collection of songs but a floating movement of music. This album is an electro-delic trip. In order to fully appreciate the soundscape you have to take it all in and slowly drift through the distance between waking and dreaming. A single wouldn't even get you off the ground.
      � Dan Hull :. original PopMatters review

19 February
JOSH ROUSE
Under Cold Blue Stars (Rykodisc)

All four of Josh Rouse's albums are gorgeous, glittering discs that radiate as a collection of vignettes, much like Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. Under Cold Blue Stars is more like his movie Stranger Than Paradise. The songs flow together like scenes in a film to create a sustained narrative. This album is a segment of life, as you follow the protagonists from the romance of youth in "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure", through the highs and lows of relationship, to the twilight of "the children have grown, ...the grass needs cut, cuddle up just woman and man." Each one of these songs has a great pop sound that stands alone, but it's when they're put together that these stars shine the brightest.
      � Dan Hull

19 March
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS
Rings Around the World (Beggars/ XL)

Ladies and gentlemen: the State of the World address, in Furryvision. Like a Technicolor, acid-drenched press conference, Rings Around the World is time-lapse pop-tography of music in full bloom. The album seems purposely sequenced to methodically command the listener's attention while slowly blowing its mind. Lead singer Gruff Rhys possesses a world-weary conscience and subversive wit; songs that at first appear sunny (no rock is left unturned: the songs go California pop, glam, country, drum and bass, even disco) reveal darker concerns with repeated listens. Religious fanaticism, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, interpersonal relationships, and even the end of the world are all confronted by the Furries' genre-evading magic tricks. And like the tightlipped code of any great magician, RATW hides its secrets deep in the album's architecture. Unearthing these kaleidoscopic treasures sends your brain into ecstasies like a tongue on a sour apple sucker. I'd remind you to pay attention, but like you'll need reminding after the record starts.
      � Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review

23 April
WILCO
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

The object of much discussion and not enough listening, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot chronicles Wilco weathering band member departures and a major label desertion during the album's very conception. Despite these omens, Wilco crafted a fearless album densely packed with irrepressible creativity. It defies its own age of digitized instant gratification in favor of a poetic tapestry of Americana, city skylines and burgeoning technology. Each track is as significant as the last, begging to be listened to repeatedly in order to reveal its myriad of layers. Recorded by the band and Jim O'Rourke in their Chicago loft with no regard for record label rules or commercial appeal, YHF continues to distance Wilco from its No Depression roots, delving further into a fascination with deconstructed pop. It presents itself as Exhibit #1 in the case to prove the existence of art in contemporary rock. YHF is not a fixed snapshot -- it is 11 buckets of paint splattered on a wall, mussed by fingertips, kissed by air, still drying as the record spins.
      � Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review

2 May
THE POLYPHONIC SPREE
The Beginning Stages of... The Polyphonic Spree (Good)

On one level, The Beginning Stages demanded to be heard en masse for the simple reason that it was, technically, a single composition that was divided into ten "sections" for the purposes of cueing (the song names were actually just subtitles). But the singular feeling and vision that Tim DeLaughter and his 20-plus-person group of musicians and singers established went beyond the mere fact that the tracks segued together. Excepting the final section, "(A Long Day)", The Beginning Stages played from start to finish like a symphonic ray of pop sunshine, getting brighter the farther it went along. "(Light & Day / Reach for the Sun)" sounded great on those Volkswagen commercials, but it was ten times better having been set up by the previous eight tracks' slow-building sonic bliss.
      � John Bergstrom :. original PopMatters review

7 May
TOM WAITS
Blood Money (Anti-)

Tom Waits' Blood Money was conceived as part of a theatrical project, a Robert Wilson-directed adaptation of the classic German play Woyzeck. It also stands as one of his most successful album-length narratives. Not only does Waits use his commanding voice and warped imagination to get into the heads of various characters and present them succinctly to listeners, he sets the album within the context of a variety of musical, theatrical and literary traditions. The circus, folk dancing, cabaret, and so much more come together under the rubric of Waits' eccentric junkyard-blues. It's the perfect example of the album as a storytelling means, but also an example of how many different strains of music, thought and history can be united in the space of an album.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review

7 May
YUME BITSU
Golden Vessyl of Sound (K)

Experimental music just doesn't make sense in the single-song format. Sure, you can be innovative and surprising within the confines of a three-minute song (or a 30-second song, for that matter), but musicians that like to really blow things out push the boundaries by diving sonically through the far reaches of space and time often simply need more space to roam. The Portland-based group Yume Bitsu used the album format (the double album format, if you buy the LP) to create a mythology and then build a captivating free-rock blowout around it. How far out can you go with a song? Golden Vessyl ofSound's nine untitled songs demonstrate how far out you can get when you're given room to explore.
      � Dave Heaton

28 May
MÚM
finally we are no one (Fat Cat)

A single is like a microwave, quick and easy. There is a place for this type of cooking; however, a great meal starts with a stove and oven. The album, finally we are no one, by Múm is a banquet of light melodies folded into intricate rhythms, then blended with organic instrumentation, crunchy little samples and smooth creamy vocals. This album is a slow simmer over a low flame, not the stuff of microwaves. Múm's subtle mix would be lost in the confines of a single. The second track, "Green Grass of Tunnel" is wonderful on its own, but it is still just a small taste. One must savor every course of the album in order to be fully satisfied.
      � Dan Hull :. original PopMatters review

16 July
THE FLAMING LIPS
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)

Or The Soft Bulletin Part II, in which our heroes from Oklahoma take the angst and bathos of Waitin' For a Superman and riff on song's theme of suffering, death and hopeful redemption for nearly an entire album, only stopping to make crazy farting sounds with their keyboards about a third of the way through. It's a concept album; an irreverent one in the same sense that Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a concept album. But is it any coincidence that we still listen to Ziggy Stardust more than 30 years on? Odds are, without the needless repetition of songs a la The Soft Bulletin, this might be, start-to-finish, the closest thing the Flaming Lips have made that sounds like a masterpiece from the first go.
      � Zachary Houle :. original PopMatters review

12 August
BRIGHT EYES
Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek)

If you're looking for brilliant and devastating rock, check out Bright Eyes' 2000 release, Fevers and Mirrors. But on Lifted, Conor Oberst, the tortured soul of the band, shows that he's matured in many ways. Musically, Oberst adds a waltz, an Irish jig, twangy country slide guitar and a 20-plus piece orchestra to his already complex musical repertoire. Emotionally, he's come a long way from the beautiful but brutal angst, violence and depression of his earlier albums. Lifted shows Oberst expressing gratitude, compassion and even optimism intermittently throughout the album. The outstanding "Bowl of Oranges" is a Bright Eyes milestone: an uplifting and almost entirely joyous song. Despite this evolution, the basic Bright Eyes elements remain: Oberst's voice is unchanged, instantly recognizable as it constantly hovers on the cusp of tears or a scream. His lyrics are as evocative as ever, but he's embraced his new maturity, and his obvious passion and intensity make Lifted a compelling album from start to finish.
      � Matt Wheeland

20 August
NEKO CASE
Blacklisted (Bloodshot)

We knew she could sing. The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby cemented that portion of the legacy. What became abundantly clear with the release of Ms. Case's third full-length Blacklisted is that she had now learned to spin a yarn to go along with those killer pipes. With Giant Sand main-man Howe Gelb behind the board, the other Neko puts together a collection that turns every truth about alt-country on its ear. From the sonic glory of "Lady Pilot" to the seething power of "Deep Red Bells", Blacklisted reinvents the modern notion of a female country singer, eradicating the damage done by bubblegum princesses like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. Ms. Case single-handedly reclaims the backwoods grit of greats like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline over the course of these 14 tracks. This is the finest, most authentic female country album of the last decade. By the time it culminates with the one-two punch of Case's stunning ballad "I Wish I Was the Moon" backed with an arresting version of Aretha Franklin's "Running Out of Fools" you know you've just witnessed greatness.
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

20 August
SPOON
Kill the Moonlight (Merge)

The follow-up to 2001's critical darling Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight is the sleek and spiky jewel in Spoon's recording crown. They bring the hooks with the opening one-two of "Small Stakes" and "That's the Way We Get By", but if you stop there you'll miss mid-album diamond "Jonathon Fisk." In other hands, "You Gotta Feel It" would have been a jokey mess, but when Britt Daniel tells you to, "Just clear out your mind/ Let go your pride," it works because the previous songs make sure you already have. They perfect a compressed, compartmentalized sound where, at points, there is so little crowding the field that even the finest details feel like they've been painted with broad strokes. The same goes for the lyrics, where every word spent matters and the best lines can cut through glass. In 20 years, Radiohead and Wilco notwithstanding, this will be the album that bands and critics in the know point to as being the most influential from the early 2000s.
      � Jon Langmead :. original PopMatters review

24 September
BECK
Sea Change (DGC/Interscope)

Whether you're a Beck Hansen fan or not, ya gotta tip your cap to the guy on this point: He follows his own muse. In an era where too many artists' new albums sound like their previous one, no two Beck albums sound alike. Who could have possibly predicted Beck's follow-up to the plastic-fantastic Midnite Vultures would be a collection of irony-free dusty country-rock tunes? Ah, but that's Beck, and Sea Change for you. Break up albums may be a dime a dozen, but few share the razor sharp focus and lushness of Sea Change: the violins on "Paper Tiger", the acoustic guitar on "Lost Cause"; every note serves to envelop the listener and put him or her on Beck's brokenhearted wavelength. Equally somber and hopeful, Sea Change is no Odelay, but then Odelay is no Sea Change.
      � Steve Haag :. original PopMatters review

24 September
STEVE EARLE
Jerusalem (Artemis/E-Squared)

This massively gifted songwriter is nothing less than the heir to Woody Guthrie, a poet with a sincere political conscience and a populist bent. Steve Earle, not Bruce Springsteen, crafted the most intelligent and thought-provoking musical response to September 11. In the brilliant and hated-by-right-wingers "John Walker's Blues", Earle puts a human face on an easy target of US hatred, the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. In daring to come to some understanding of societal pariahs such as Lindh, Earle shows us his considerable compassion and smarts. The critique of the corruption of the "American Dream" in "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" is among the most political songs Earle has ever written and it's among his best. His sneering drawl on the line "version six-point-oh of the American way" is both cleverly critical and decidedly smart-ass -- a perfect Earle combination. But Earle has hope for us all, too, and offers up "Jerusalem" as evidence of his belief in ultimate redemption and peace between peoples of the world. Jerusalem is a colossal achievement from one of the US' finest songwriters.
      � Sarah Zupko :. original PopMatters review

24 September
IRON & WINE
The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)

The Creek Drank the Cradle consists of whispered bedroom stories and hushed lullabies that possess the intimacy of human body heat. Just as a child longs for one more story before bedtime, so does the listener ache for more Iron & Wine as each song comes to its inevitable close. The album is a snug quilt of delicate patchwork, with nature, religion, and love inseparably stitched over the course of its humble 39 minutes. Sole band member Sam Beam, armed with a four-track, acoustic guitar, banjo, and a rugged wafer of a voice, conducts a master class in metaphor (sample: "Love is a tired symphony you hum when you're awake / Love is a crying baby mama warned you not to shake"). Like a dog-eared book found abandoned, margins meticulously filled with reactions and afterthoughts, The Creek Drank the Cradle reveals new details on each listen. As the rules say, finders keepers.
      � Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review

15 October
SUSUMU YOKOTA
The Boy and the Tree (Post Everything)

While electronic musician Susumu Yokota has achieved a fair amount of his success from dance-floor platters, he's also a master of album-length compositions designed around a particular theme or idea. He created The Boy and the Tree as a meditation on nature, inspired by a film and a place: Princess Mononoke and the Japanese island of Yakushima. Both atmospheric and filled with sensual melodies, The Boy and the Tree fulfills the goal of emulating the meditative qualities of nature while also making listeners feel like they're undergoing an emotional journey. It also takes in sounds from across the globe in an inclusive but not cannibalistic way; that quality combined with the otherworldly mood makes the album feel like a trip through the imaginations of the whole word, with voices and sounds from everywhere blurring together.
      � Dave Heaton

22 October
THE STREETS
Original Pirate Material (Vice)

Original Pirate Material was the best British album since OK Computer and nothing less. High praise indeed, but Birmingham-bred, South London-residing MC and poet Mike Skinner earned it in spades. Original Pirate Material was original and that's the point. It was literally like nothing you'd ever heard . . . and that's just the music. Skinner was credited back in 2002 with single-handedly reinvigorating UK garage, a massively popular genre in England that draws from house, soul, beats, and hip-hop. He brought the hip-hop to the fore, without it sounding like hip-hop, tossed in a bit of ska, and generally bended genres in the most creative and pleasing of manners. Lyrically, Skinner earned praise as something of a poet, which made him rather uncomfortable at the time, but judging by his 2004 follow-up, he seems to now being relishing the role. Many of these songs are classics already and insofar as they smartly document real lower middle-class youth life in the UK, they are the equals of much of Ray Davies and Paul Weller's early work. "Weak Become Heroes" has easily replaced Pulp's "Sorted for E's and Wizz" as the definitive song detailing the rave experience. "The Irony of It All" is an uproarious exchange between a student pothead and a lager-loving lout, which manages to touch on class conflicts in an ingeniously humorous fashion. Skinner's soundtrack of 2002 England was completely of its time and yet timeless. A classic for the ages.
      � Sarah Zupko :. original PopMatters review

5 November
JOHNNY CASH
American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)

The Man Comes Around, the last Johnny Cash album released during his lifetime, bears less the blank chill of death than the sober sense of mortality and eternity. Attention and acclaim came for his treatment of the Nine Inch Nails hit "Hurt", as much because someone very far removed from the likes of Trent Reznor did it as for its stark drama. But the essential song is the title selection, among the most personal Cash ever wrote (and that's saying something). In a few short minutes, Cash summons the bottomless courage of reporting from the truth he knows in his soul to leave us one final lesson about life. Everything else follows from there: the confessions of "Give My Love to Rose" and Sting's "I Hung My Head", the declarations of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Danny Boy", and the sneering kiss-off "Sam Hall" form a final sermon on life's complexities, depths and joys for both his longtime fans and the Rick Rubin-era converts. It stands to reason that, after a half-century of singing about death, and facing the dwindling days of his beloved wife June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash would know what to say during his final gaze into the unknown.
      � Mark Reynolds :. original PopMatters review

19 November
TALIB KWELI
Quality (Rawkus)

Absolutely blessed with the gift of wordcraft and not afraid to use it to express his most deeply held beliefs, Talib Kweli has all the makings of an MC who can make people think twice about their longheld assumptions, someone whose words get you thinking. What makes Quality so powerful, though, is the way he balances that with his love for raw hip-hop and his desire to make music you can dance to, nod your head to and live to. Brighter and more varied than his other recordings, Quality is a joyous affair that uses elements from throughout the history of soul music and hip-hop and makes them sound fresh.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review

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