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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.

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20 January
Boy in Da Corner (XL)

A year after the Streets kicked down the door with Original Pirate Material, in burst Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, to blow the entire freakin' house apart. This is the new UK punk sound: a new generation of young British artists, influenced by hip hop, garage, and punk rock, have come out with their own, homemade, bastardized music, completely original, fervent, and perceptive. And not since Tricky's Maxinquaye album in 1995 have we heard such a unique record. Hailing from London's East End, Dizzee Rascal paints a much more grim picture than the Streets' Mike Skinner does, his lyrics much more blunt, something echoed in the jarring, stuttering, intense rhythms of his beats. In his inimitable vocal style, he talks about street life, girl trouble ("I Luv U"), and his deteriorating neighborhood, but underneath all the anguish ("Its getting boring always being miserable"), there's an underlying positive attitude ("Do It"), love of life, and compassion for his subjects ("Jezebel"). All that, and a mighty catchy single in "Fix Up, Look Sharp", too.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review

3 February (approximate)
The Grey Album (file-sharing service)

When Danger Mouse reconceived Jay-Z's Black Album in the lone context of the Beatles' White Album, he manifested a whole album-centric process for assimilating new music, postulating that hearing something new can be a matter of literally superimposing it over albums previously internalized, looking for connections and contradictions, for new tensions. At album length such mash-ups transcend novelty; they make the listener's knowledge matter, make her joint creator rather than passive sponge. You'd expect that dismantling the White Album -- the ultimate anti-concept album, the epitome of post-'60s fragmentation, made by a band not on speaking terms -- into nearly unrecognizable pieces would show just how vulnerable albums are to technology, but instead, we hear how it retains cohesiveness, its unique mood cohering even in the most unlikely of environments. But what's most startling is how that mood pries open Jay-Z's claustrophobic and self-contradictory soliloquies about his place in the music business, giving them startling pathos. Joining these albums welds the weariness and bitterness at the breakdown of family and community that haunts them into a broader, trans-generational lament for a culture that celebrates extreme individualism even as it strips individual lives of their meaning.
      � Rob Horning

3 February
We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)

John Darnielle -- the driving force of the Mountain Goats -- is a fan of the concept album, and he's been quite successful in working in the full-length format. His latest release, We Shall All Be Healed, centers around a collection of junkies and their attempts at recovery. The album maintains a steady theme and voice throughout, but Darnielle does more than just tie together a bunch of related songs. In We Shall All Be Healed, he demonstrates the importance of sequencing in making a larger statement by mixing tempos and attitudes to bring out emotions and textures that can only be appreciated over the course of the album's entire 45 minutes. It takes that much time for us to understand how we can have the humor and strength to cheer the drowned pigs of the closing track, despite the world's curses and violence.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review

10 February
The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

After Kanye West had already established himself as a quality producer, he demonstrated his skills behind the mic on The College Dropout. More than simply revealing his ability as an MC, this album provided a complex introduction to the man himself. Critics have made much of West's split between bling-chaser and undie-stylist, but the personality splits extend into religion, morality, business, and other areas. The disc's centerpiece, "Jesus Walks" needs the interplay of the full album: tracks like "We Don't Care" and "Spaceship" show someone who's struggled to succeed, while "Slow Jamz" and "Breathe In, Breathe Out" let us see that West is not a pious saint. The College Dropout is the revelation of a man who speaks flippantly on quitting school but has a powerful business and artistic drive, who praises God and chases tail, and who takes care of himself while relying on and protecting others. West presents a whole vision that requires an entire album to express.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review

16 February
Songs For My Funeral (Tru Thoughts/Ubiquity)

Prior to this record, this bedroom producer released modern funk bombs as The Hermit. Now, funk is possibly the most inherently wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am music genre there is, but this LP showcases stark-yet-meaty percussion as the pulse of funeral marches in the rain, rather than glossy dance-floor candy. Individually the tracks are so sparse as to seem (fittingly) bereft and bleak, yet over the album as a whole serenity and enjoyment take root; a relishing in the luster of its limited, carefully chosen timbres. Not so much a collection of individual pieces as an oddly liberating sequence of mind-states, none of which would be that impressive (or meaningful) on their own.
      � Stefan Braidwood

23 February
Carbon Glacier (Bella Union)

On this dark yet luminously hopeful album, Veirs and her Tortured Souls take the bare beauty nestled at the heart of Americana and wed its sparse grandeur to intimate musings and memories. Whether harsh, strident, soft, nostalgic, philosophical or personal, these songs carry with them the reverie of a candle-lit room looking out over a rain-spattered sea; Veirs making you the calm eye of the storm whilst currents of melody and emotion flow past with varying force. "All the time spent dreaming is never lost", she claims, and the soft focus of this album is at its best when the feeling of a motif or verse drifts with the listener alongside the next composition. It validates her completely.
      � Stefan Braidwood

2 March
...Is the Soul Machine (Arista)

G-Unit put out their own take on Timbaland-produced single, "I'll Be Around", in which their voices match more smoothly than Cee-Lo's gonzo falsetto chant. Yet they have not a fiftieth of his charm and humanity; perhaps it was predictable that he would fail to come into his own when packaged neatly. Here soul, gospel, house and fractured, glowing hip-hop joyously erupt and merge, but also the darkness of rage and sadness. Cee-Lo's insistence on destroying his limits and those of his music means the average person may find it hard swallowing everything on offer, but "some of the most beautiful things" are here within his intense personality- best savored at self-contrasting length.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review

9 March
The Disconnection (Dehisce/Interscope)

Carina Round's music -- both in lyrical expression and instrumental implementation -- seems less a collection of artistic ideas and more a sonic embodiment of her very self. Whilst lacking the piercing, wide-eyed rawness of her debut, this is also a more mature, hardened work; Carina now letting her love of the Pixies and Tom Waits bleed into the tenderness of Nina Simone and the kooky evocations of Kate Bush as she discloses an older, subtler soul. The troughs and surges of this album bare within them all the intensity, sexuality and spiritual complexity of a real person; one whom you will only get to know and appreciate if you give her your time, and accept her in her entirety.
      � Peter Su :. original PopMatters review

9 March
High Water (Thirsty Ear)

Crepuscular: a period of changing moods, tinged with uncertainty and perhaps tension. Certainly, nobody seems to know quite what to make of High Water; it's a weird beast even by El's standards, a record genuinely apart. For all their wildly varying lengths (from under two minutes to over 10), these tracks are united by a strangely shifting cohesion; as befits what is arguably a live album; they complement each other's different flows, moving variously as one. Rather than coalesce into one hermetic statement, this eternally unpredictable LP delights in offering teasing, temporary glimpses of what lies beneath. No clear glass of pop this, more the New York harbors in the gloaming, daring you to dive deep.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review

23 March
Madvillainy (Stones Throw)

Madvillainy, the much-heralded collaboration between prolific producer Madlib and rapper MF Doom, is one of those albums that just doesn't work very well when you listen to the downloaded, MP3 version. Comprised of 22 tracks over a span of 46 minutes, songs average little more than two minutes in length, all of them segueing into the next, individual tracks are so brief and to the point, it feels incomplete when they finish. When you go out and buy the actual CD, though, what hits you immediately is the flow of the entire record. Madlib creates such a warm, lush, yet surprisingly minimal backdrop of sound, as groaning accordions blend into smooth 1970s funk, old B movie soundtracks mesh with jazz; it's a mix that's so fascinatingly varied, yet so cohesive, that you're compelled to just let the entire disc run. Not only that, but you also have the gifted MF Doom, who takes his hip-hop villain persona and runs with it, having fun with the whole concept of the "bad guy", while at the same time laconically delivering some of the cleverest, most brilliantly absurd lyrics you'll ever hear. With an album this fun, this thrilling, this fast-paced, how can you not sit back and enjoy the whole thing? Consider it 46 extremely well spent minutes.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review

23 March
The Blue Octavo Notebooks (130701)

Over the course of these recordings, Max Richter quietly introduces lines of poetry, which he then proceeds to unfurl mournfully beautiful, minimalist backing for. There are no hooks, no quick satisfaction, and no easy results. Contemplation is the goal but also the means, with the compositions' textures eddying before folding into each other as the music progresses, invoking a deep calm whilst tugging the heartstrings slowly forward into the shifting emptiness. From the dulcet to the distant, from strings to sub-bass, these notebooks offer emotional themes and poetic cues, but will ultimately offer only as much as the listener is willing to spare in thought and patience.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review

23 March
Murs 3:16 The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux)

"Murs, get 'em!" Over just 35 minutes of 9th Wonder's old-school production, Murs emerges as the male pendant to Jean Grae; both polyvalent, charismatic underground veterans whose technique and hunger were matched only by their inability to get any real shine 'til now. Everything that you need from an MC is here: perceptive storytelling, humor, verbal dexterity, cutting one-liners and wisdom. The beats flex and merge between short tracks as Murs rides and pivots like Redman on There Iz a Darkness, far too smart and amusing to be cut off after just one tale or idea. Forget about the single-constrained model of contemporary hip-pop, and follow Murs as he gets live for the love of it.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review

4 May
Polaroid (Western Vinyl)

On Polaroid, Salim Nourallah uses his solo debut to craft a single snapshot comprised of 13 songs (the title track is hidden). The snapshot serves as a tool to negotiate the relationships between childhood and adulthood, as well as the connection between the past and the present. Nourallah's narrators move through stages of life, but across different songs. The concerns of one track frequently remain unexamined until a later number. Using this technique, Nourallah prevents his views on complex ideas from becoming simplistic. The thoughts on each track are accessible, but as they draw together on Polaroid, they create a bolder, less resolvable image. It's only one picture, but it bears steady viewing.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review

18 May
A Grand Don't Come For Free (Vice)

Sure, there have been a lot of hip-hop albums that have centered around a specific concept or theme, but there certainly have not been many that have told a carefully thought-out story, complete with well-realized characters and actual dramatic tension. The Streets' A Grand Don't Come For Free is arguably the most skillfully crafted "rock opera" to come around in many years (even though it's neither rock, nor hip-hop), as you follow the protagonist Mike, who, through several brilliant musical vignettes, simply lives the life of a regular 20-something British male, returning DVDs, standing in queues, betting on soccer games, watching TV with his girlfriend, and falling out of love. It seems awfully simple, but Skinner does such an ingenious job at noticing the small details in life, be it a girl playing with her hair, someone peeling a label off a beer bottle, or trying to have a conversation with a friend on a mobile phone with a weak battery. And if that weren't enough, there's the great tension of "What is He Thinking?", the emotional despair of "Dry Your Eyes", and the simple, yet inspired denouement that brings the story full circle. Sure, the individual tracks all sound very good separately ("Dry Your Eyes" is a smash hit single in the making), but thanks to Skinner's supreme lyrical skill and poetic eye for details, listening to this album all the way through proves to be infinitely more rewarding, and as this special feature proves, that's the way it should be.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review

25 May
Long Gone Before Daylight (Koch)

Nina Persson once described the perfect pop song as a solid block of energy, a force that travels without change from beginning to end. She may as well been describing Long Gone Before Daylight, an album that expresses Persson's pop theory as a whole more than the Cardigans' last three records combined. The albums Emmerdale and Life helped build the band a reputation for fine crafted pop songs with an air of irony. They deconstructed that sound and persona on the darker First Band on the Moon and the overtly ambitious Gran Turismo.On Long Gone Before Daylight, the Cardigans dare to go beyond their hallmarks which results in a late-night record, one that you can drive down a dark, dusty road singing with each chorus, absorbing every stirring guitar solo. It's an album that glows with melancholia, optimism and wonder and becomes more compelling with each listen.
      � Cesar Diaz :. original PopMatters review

1 June
Sung Tongs (Paw Tracks)

After a flurry of releases over the past three years, Other Music alums Avey Tare and Panda Bear leave band member Geologist home for their least stylized and most authentic collection to date. While there are a number of great individual tracks ("Leaf House", "Kids on Holiday", "College" and the maddening single "Who Could Win a Rabbit"), the only way to truly appreciate the full vision of their pop psychosis is the digest all twelve compositions on Sung Tongs in one sitting. These are the sounds of electronic songs formed from acoustic instrumentation. Imagine Stanley Kubrick leading a scout troop in a fireside rendition of "Kumbaya" and you've only touched the surface of the Animal Collective's genius. Listened to in its entirety Sung Tongs bobs ("Leaf House"), weaves ("Winter's Love") and marches a jamboree of Beat Happening clones ("We Tigers") straight through your speakers.
      � Jason Korenkiewicz :. original PopMatters review

22 June
Broad Souls (Bar De Lune)

Quite what Faze Action's disco-latin-afro-house fanbase will make of their latest remains to be seen, but the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. I've no idea how they ran into Andre Espeut (their great new singer) either, or why they've decided to go down-tempo Earth, Wind & Fire on us. Suffice to say that Broad Souls is that rare thing: a lush and engaging album that's simply a pleasure to listen to, yet finely crafted enough to belay any guilt at its simplicity. Deserving of all the hype Zero 7 predictably squandered with their dull follow-up, this is a refreshing soundtrack to the summer that relies less on any one track than you should rely on a planning every moment of your vacation.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review

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