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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 2004 >

21 January
Televise (Arena Rock Recording Company)

The world needs sex music -- sex albums, in particular, because is "Wicked Awesome Sex Mix #8" going to get you into bed? No! -- and the world needs atmospheric, moody music, and Calla provides both ably on Televise. A band that is dammed to make albums due to their slowcore leanings, they're moody and magnificent, running songs through searing washes of guitar riffs, feedback, and electronics. The album begins with the mighty "Strangler", where chiming guitars compete with an intense riff and Aurelio Valle's deep rasp of a voice whispers and sighs, "I could get the same effect/ If you strangled me". As a frontman, Valle bleeds for the girl with alluring emotion. The subsequent songs build with ambient noise and beautiful guitar melodies creating a gorgeous, haunting mood that explodes into the climatic aggression of "Televise". Calla's lovely mope is so necessary, particularly because it will get you laid.
      � Elisabeth Donnelly

21 January
Long Knives Drawn (Polyvinyl)

The trio of the namesake Rainer Maria has been through much musically in the past 10 years. The rise of the great emo machine ascending into pop-punk heights has not impacted their craft in the least. If anything it's Rainer Maria's most varied and wickedly raw album. The band had also been going through some personal issues, and the leftover angst and mourning spilled over into their songwriting. This band never shies away from expressing themselves through the gorgeous poetic vocals and harmonies of its music. Long Knives Drawn speaks of the uncertainty, guilt, promise and sometimes regret of regressing love. This album pays tribute to New York City and the intricate manhandling of relationships lived there. A listener can truly feel saga, explained through each song and intermixed over the course of the album.
      � Nicole Schuman :. original PopMatters review

11 February
Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)

Is there a more passionate -- and here I'm talking about impassioned, not Barry White-esque -- man in indie rock today than Ted Leo? Short answer: maybe, but none of them have released a musical statement as powerful as Leo's 2003 gem, Hearts of Oak. It's globally prescient -- check "The High Party"'s "If there a war / Another shitty war to fight for Babylon / Then it's the perfect storm in a teacup / But you must drink it down" - or the bewildered "yanqui" of "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" who runs into trouble around the globe and wonders "you didn't think they could hate you now, did you?" -- reverential (the bouncing Specials' ode, "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?") and a mind-bending, near-perfect amalgamation of punk, pop, roots, and Irish folk. By the time album closer "The Crane Takes Flight" rolls around, Leo has wrung out the deepest, darkest parts of his soul. This is an indie classic through and through.
      � Steve Haag :. original PopMatters review

18 March
Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey)

Califone's beautiful orchestration -- made up of a junk-metal band, sawing music out of rusty nails, spoons, straws, nearly anything -- is tailor made for the art of the album. Tim Rutili's soft warm raspy voice wanders in and out of folk songs explodes into experiments, feedback, banjos, and electronic noise. Califone's best album has songs like "horoscopic.amputation.honey" and the gorgeous "vampiring again" which fracture good songs into pieces of mandolin, organ, and thick, surprising rhythm. As a "singles" band, Califone would not make sense. Their sense of sounds demand to be taken together, otherwise it's impossible to understand the level of musicianship and experimentation. Every noise on this album was planned as a whole. It's a world to fall into, a vibe best explained by their hypnotic live show, where you're suddenly through the looking glass, watching four men pulling sounds from a rusty can.
      � Elisabeth Donnelly

6 May
Electric Version (Matador)

Whereas their debut Mass Romantic was a pastiche of solo snapshots from former Zumpano frontman Carl Newman and Destroyer leader Dan Bejar, Electric Version is clearly a more unified and consistent work throughout its lucky thirteen songs. Newman strings together subversive fragments of northern socio-political mantras while Bejar channels the boisterous Bowie/Glitter glam of the 1970s. Add the back-up vocals of country siren Neko Case to these mouth-watering compositions and this album is one to go back to for years to come. This is a classic power pop record that gains momentum from the first buoyant chorus of "From Blown Speakers", to the Neko-driven up-tempo "All For Swinging You Around". Add in the minor single "The Laws Have Changed", the accapella second half to the brilliantly titled "Testament to Youth in Verse", and close the whole thing out with potential double A-side numbers "July Jones" and "Miss Teen Wordpower". This is the blueprint for the perfect pop album.
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

3 June
You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts)

Arguably one of the more successful indie albums to benefit from word-of-mouth and Websites such as this one, You Forgot It in People is one of those records that simply came out of nowhere, and surprised the hell out of people willing to give it a try based solely on a reviewer's or friend's recommendation. While the album is a collection of songs and instrumentals that very loosely link together, Broken Social Scene itself is a collective of musicians made up from other bands, like Do Make Say Think, Stars and Metric. Perhaps the band itself has realized that the smaller parts can add up to something greater overall -- a theory certainly well on display on this sometimes breathtakingly beautiful record that everyone should own.
      � Zachary Houle :. original PopMatters review

1 July
Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State (Sounds Familyre)

Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, the first album in Sufjan Stevens's states series, is at once an encomium, a dirge, and a rally cry for the title state. It would be a misrepresentation to say that Stevens feels ambivalent about his home state; while his thoughts sometimes reveal seemingly opposite views, these expressions function more as complimentary pieces rather than as divergent thoughts. The heartbreak of "The Upper Peninsula" balances and is off-set by tracks like "Say Yes! to Michigan!" and "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Restore! Rebuild! Reconsider!). Each song on Greetings from Michigan works fine as a single song, but it takes each of them together to create the full picture that Stevens works to get across. Stevens's sequencing provides smooth musical ups-and-downs as well, and each mood shift offers the listener new aspect of the vision. Stevens knows it takes this large an effort to bring "[R]esources to the highest poll / ... to be absolved / And fed, to restore."
      � Justin Cober-Lake

5 August
Permission to Land (Atlantic)

Hey these guys didn't win the Ivor Novello Best Songwriter Award by merely flashing their codpieces; they've got chops and their debut album proves it. Every single song on Permission to Land rocks like the world might end tomorrow (I dare you not to sing along to any and every chorus on the album), which makes it a good album, but not necessarily worthy of inclusion on this list. Permission earns its stripes on two counts: 1) Unlike nearly every other hard rock band on either side of the Atlantic, the Darkness remember that rock is supposed to be a joyous celebration; and 2) unlike the '80s hair metal bands they emulate, the Darkness are more concerned with songcraft than merely using music as a means to melt panties, as evinced by the aforementioned songwriting award. Mainstream rock is in a funk here in the early 21st century, though it appears that with Permission to Land, the Darkness have earned the title of Keepers of Rock's Flame.
      � Steve Haag :. original PopMatters review

26 August
1972 (Rykodisc)

On the previous year's Under Cold Blue Stars, singer/songwriter Josh Rouse had told the earnest, thoughtful and musically exquisite story of a young farming couple trying to secure their relationship and establish a family in uncertain Postwar America. With 1972, Rouse presented an even more personal song cycle that reflected the sounds and feelings of its namesake, the year of Rouse's birth. With a warm, sympathetic musical backing that took in everything from psychedelic soul to breezy So-Cal soft rock, from stark folk to slick disco, Rouse conveyed the uncertainty (the title track), good vibes ("Love Vibration", "Slaveship") lust ("Under Your Charms"), depression ("Come Back"), alienation ("James", "Flight Attendant") heartache ("Sparrows Over Birmingham") and hope ("Rise") of young adulthood with sincerity and grace. Indeed, 1972 played like a great Richard Linklater film - a series of sharply-observed vignettes coming together to form an emotionally resonant whole. In just ten songs, 1972 captured the universal nature of a specific time and place.
      � John Bergstrom

26 August
The Wind (Artemis)

In some ways, Warren Zevon's last album is not much different from his eponymous Elektra debut in 1976. The sardonic wit of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" is echoed in his "open up, open up" adlibs on The Wind's cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." "Numb As a Statue" is yet another example of his skill at turning the L.A. singer-songwriter sound on its ear and whacking it about. But there's a marked difference between the breakthrough of a wiseass talent in his prime and the race-against-time of an older, more wizened man. Zevon had one shot left, and he used it very much as he'd done throughout his career: as a bemused spectator bumming a ride through his own life. This time, though, there would be but one stop, one final stop, and he knew it. That's why this chronicle of his final, dying days veers closer to naked sentimentality than anything else he ever did ("Keep Me in Your Heart"), but also contains "Please Stay," the most achingly direct and personal music he ever recorded. This is an album not about death, but about one man's death -- but because that man is as singular a character as Warren Zevon, and because he remained true to himself and his muse to the end, it's also an album that speaks to the most crucial parts of life.
      � Mark Reynolds :. original PopMatters review

9 September
Her Majesty the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars)

Big sister and novelist Maile Meloy has nothing on little brother Colin when it comes to literary acumen. Colin Meloy's compositions are straight out of a fiction anthology. He employs, soldiers, pirates, chimbley sweeps and various other characters across a maddening historical timeline to weave a tapestry of gentle reflections that make you wonder whether or not modern life is rubbish. The band shifts from vibrant orchestral numbers with boundless energy ("Billy Liar", "Song for Myla Goldberg", Soldiering Life", and "Chimbley Sweep") to more contemplative ballads ("Red Right Ankle" and "The Gymnast High Above the Ground") before revealing the true intention of Meloy's inner musings ("I Was Meant for the Stage"). This is a collection steeped in the expansive concept of American music that untethers itself over a series of songs, much like early R.E.M. albums. Beginning to end this is a storied album with a foot in many worlds.
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

9 September
The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)

When the Wrens released their sophomore album Secaucus Ken Starr was putting the finishing touches on the Whitewater masterpiece and the American presidency was about to enter the summer rerun season. Four years later the band emerges from their living room in Northern New Jersey with the Meadowlands, a self recorded masterpiece that documents the highs and lows of being an unheralded American band. Across the vista of these thirteen garage rock diamonds Chuck and Greg urge each other on ("This Boy is Exhausted"), contemplate giving up the rock and roll dream ("Happy"), and ultimately band together against the world for one last ditch attempt to capture every boy's rock star dreams ("Everyone Chooses Sides"). Unlike any other indie rock record before it, The Meadowlands unveils a confessional appraisal of the burden of van riding guitar-slingers from coast to coast without becoming weepy or melodramatic.
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

16 September
Deliverance (Beatclub/Interscope)

Welcome to the New South... and Bubba Sparxxx and Timbaland mean it. Deliverance literally sounds like nothing you've never heard before: a perfect marriage of rural, white Southern country and bluegrass wedded to urban, black Southern hip-hop and funk. From the haunting refrains of "Nowhere", which convincingly unifies the poor white and black Southern experience, to the pounding horns of Organized Noize's frenetic beats on "Like It Or Not" and the mournful fiddle and high lonesome howl of "She Tried", this record rounds all the Southern musical bases and offers a staggering array of rhythms, moods, and smart lyrics. Just when everyone counted the big man out after his hit single "Ugly", Bubba has surprised us all with a hick-hop masterpiece. And last but not least, props must go to Timbaland for the finest production job of his career.
      � Sarah Zupko :. original PopMatters review

23 September
Threads (Thirsty Ear)

The song versus album debate might seem unrelated to jazz, a genre that doesn't have its own singles chart. Yet it's been a while since jazz musicians used the album format as successfully as David S. Ware and his string ensemble did on Threads. An example of composition as much as improvisation, Threads was an obvious attempt to get back to the days of Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme, where you associated an album with a particular approach, style, and sound. It's remarkably successful in that regard, even though Ware took a much different tact than the creators of those be-bop classics. Threads alternates long, enveloping pieces with shorts bursts of energy, but does so in a way that makes them part of the same conversation; the album achieves real continuity without being repetitious or having an overly predictable form.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review

23 September
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (La Face)

This combo features two of the most individually, stylistically different, but brilliantly intricate minds in music today. Here apples and oranges work. Each record blends elements of delicately produced music, combining jazz, blues, soul, rock, world and Southern hip-hop flavas. This album truly showcases the artists coming into their own, playing with their strengths and working with their idiosyncrasies. Half of this album cannot be listened to. It's an outpouring of teamwork and sharing of creative energies. Even though these two discs are essentially a tandem release of solo records by Big Boi and Andre 3000 their minds are in synch as all pieces of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below exist in harmonious union.
      � Nicole Schuman :. original PopMatters review

21 October
Logic Will Break Your Heart (Vice)

The most eloquent and affecting musical statements about the post-September 11 world came not from rock dignitaries like Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young but from this group of four 20-something French Canadians. The events and consequences of that day shadowed the Stills' debut album like a ghost. "Lola Stars and Stripes" put a sardonic twist on American self-interest: "With an M-16 you'll feel the force / Of your American past." "Changes Are No Good" and "Love and Death" were charging, melodic expressions of frustration. "Let's Roll" turned the heroic catchphrase into a tender invitation to love, while "of Montreal" and "Allison Krausse" wallowed in apocalyptic nihilism. Drawing on the best of 1980s British indie rock, the crisp production kept the heady subject matter from becoming oppressive. And, in "Still in Love Song", the album even managed a great pop single. Logic Will Break Your Heart was a powerful reminder that sometimes strong songwriting and sincerity can make the grandest of statements.
      � John Bergstrom :. original PopMatters review

21 October
Room on Fire (RCA)

When the Strokes blew up in the press and media music journalists, instead of talking about the music, focused on their celebrity girlfriends and wealthy backgrounds. What most music critics missed in the Strokes disarmingly simple songs, were the genius of their arrangements and the fact that from beginning to end, their debut was a solid listen. With unbelievable expectations on their shoulders for their sophomore effort, the Strokes did the impossible and came back with an album that was as strong, if not stronger, than Is This It?. The album starts with the insistent, muted guitars of "What Ever Happened?" and Julian Casablanca's challenge: "I wanna be forgotten." "Reptilia" comes roaring out of the gate, turning the temperature up a notch with Casablancas' imploring: "Please don't slow me down/If I'm going too fast." But slow down he does with "Automatic Stop", before things hit a more mid-tempo stride with "12:51", the oddly romantic single. And it's this palpable schizophrenia that continues through the rest of the album and makes start to finish listens enriching. The bitter "Between Love & Hate" is followed by the lusty "Meet Me in the Bathroom"; the slow regret of "Under Control" is contrasted by the angry "The Way It Is". The final song, "I Can't Win" finds Casablancas finally admitting self-defeat. It's a poignant moment, but Casablancas will always have the last laugh, promising that "Yes, I'll be right back."
      � Kevin Jagernauth :. original PopMatters review

11 November
Catalpa (Anti-)

This album was chosen over her superb second release, Escondida, because of the improbable, magical nature in which this collection of raw, naked recordings found their way into global distribution. Catalpa is an album with roots that, given time, will dig themselves deeply into your psyche. With Holland's unique turn of phrase, the haunting, folk melodies and the ultra lo-fi, voyeuristic feel of the recording itself, this disc is a sturdy little tree that takes hold. Its pieces fit together like a patchwork quilt, taking both old and new musical fragments to create an album that blankets listeners with soft, intricate beauty. In Holland's own words these songs are "new time, old time, spooky American fairy tales."
      � Dan Hull

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