Fester’s Lucky 13 — The Best Albums of 2000
One would think, with the first year of the decade/century, there would be a bit more revolutionary fervor in the air. Or at least some giddy new school optimism. Aside from the political fire and brimstone of Asian Dub Foundation and Primal Scream, 2000 made few waves. Not that it was a bad year in music. If anything, there were even more high quality releases than the previous year. But like 1999, there doesn’t seem to be any explosive new trends. The potential is there, with the stirrings of various fusions of electronic music, hip hop, Asian classical, Indian and other ethnic music, the melting pot remains set at simmer. Many critics claimed that hip hop was the most creatively healthy genre last year. There were slightly fewer great hip hop albums than ’99, but it still had a strong year with the refreshingly political Dead Prez, the old-school Blackalicious and Jurassic 5, the loquacious avant-hop of Anti-Pop Consortium, Common’s inheretence of Curtis Mayfield’s legacy, the space-age musings of Deltron 3030 (The Automator and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien) and the first hip-hop comedy album by turntablist Kid Koala. Many critics turned cartwheels over the best album, Outkast’s Stankonia. While it is excellent, it’s really no better than their previous three releases, and doesn’t even begin to capitalize on the promise of hip-hop demonstrated four years previously by DJ Shadow. Where is Shadow, anyway?
The boldest move was made, surprisingly, by the reincarnated version of Pink Floyd, Radiohead. While OK Computer was grossly overrated, with its overly dense production and pompous delusions of grandeur, Kid A introduced the mainstream to electronica and “post-rock” with songs that are engaging, hypnotic, even pretty. Queens of the Stone Age and At The Drive-In proved that rock ‘n’ roll very well may never die, while Sleater-Kinney bounced back from a lackluster album with their most poetic, potent post-punk songs ever. Amon Tobin is proof in the pudding that electronica can still be fun when handled by someone who actually has a clue how to compose songs. Modest Mouse graduated from its twee indie existence to expansive, grandiose statements without getting tedious like U2. Sussan Deyhim paid homage to ancient Sufi poets with music that is beyond modern. Sigur Rós was simply an inexplicable gift from the cold depths of outer space and Godspeed You Black Emperor! subversively disguised Beethoven as an indie-rock band from Canada.
16 Horsepower headed a group of artists who were oddly dubbed the “New Americana” by the British press. Lord knows what caused the Brits to fixate on this made-up genre, but heck, why not. Bands like The Black Heart Procession, Calexico, Giant Sand, Handsome Family, Pinetop Seven, Lambchop, The Walkabouts, Willard Grant Conspiracy and North Mississippi Allstars often mix Nick Cave’s lyrical obsession with the Southern Gothic with an eclectic array of influences, from Mexican mariachi music to symphonic Nashville strings. The result is a body of music that is deep, dark, and more creative and varied than any other genre right now. Speaking of Nick Cave, Johnny Cash’s version of “The Mercy Seat” is harrowing and moving, especially considering the fact that the old man in black was on his deathbed months before recording it. He had some horrible nerve disease, contracted pneumonia, and had papers nationwide preparing his obituary. Instead, the tough old gnome recovered and headed straight into the studio to record his third installment in a trilogy of albums for Rick Rubin’s American label. Coming from a man who literally cheated death, it’s haunting stuff indeed, making the rest of the crop of country-folksters sound like they need an extra five decades of hard livin’ to measure up, and that includes the crusty ol’ Merle Haggard. Nevertheless, Damien Jurado, Allison Moorer & sister Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris and Kelly Hogan managed to make an enjoyable bunch of albums, despite not really adding much to the genre.
I suspect that if Nick Drake were alive to meet Belle & Sebastian, he’d push them down and chase them out of the playground. Nevertheless, wimp pop is here, and while not always queer, its created a minor renaissance that makes it hip to be fey for the first time since the Pet Shop Boys ruled the charts and The Smiths broke up. With the obnoxious growth of the Mook Rock tumor (white trash boys who think they’re black — Eminem, Limp Biscuit, Slipknot, etc.), the mooning lovelorn songs of wimps everywhere are a welcome, indeed necessary antidote. The surprising return of Felt’s Lawrence in Go-Kart Mozart was barely noticed, but The Wedding Present’s Dave Gedge made some waves in Cinerama, and the reunion of The Go-Betweens with the assistance of Sleater-Kinney had the entire indie world buzzing. Tahiti 80 showed that the French can do more than disco, with its brilliant update of The Kinks.
While Peru’s Susana Baca and Brazil’s Virginía Rodrigues should be filthy rich by now, the big crossover hasn’t really happened. Global music has overall gained a few inches in a wider audience, but last year lacked the blockbuster like 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club. That album did spawn many successful individual careers, which continue to thrive with new albums by Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo. Talvin Singh had input in Bill Laswell’s Tabla Beat Science project, and produced the Master Musicians of Jajouka, but failed to live up to his promise from when he first introduced the scintillating Soundz of the Asian Underground. Judging from his incredible live shows, Femi Kuti seems to be on the verge of recording an album that lives up to, or even surpasses his father’s legacy.
D’Angelo drew upon the spirit of Marvin Gaye to produce the best mash album since Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but the slew of soul releases by female artists that emerged after Lauryn Hill’s success has slowed down to a trickle, with only Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Kelis stepping up to the plate. Better luck this year? 2000 was a welcome respite from the Big Beat electronica that grew oh-so tiresome. Instead, Amon Tobin and David Holmes created truly original music rather than club hits. The Iranian Leila stepped out from Bjork’s pixy-wings to establish herself as a major new artistic presence. Bossa Nova continues to evolve into this decade’s version of lounge chill-out music with Thievery Corporation, Bebel Gilberto and Suba, who sadly perished in a fire last year. Roni Size & Represent and A Guy Called Gerald carried drum ‘n’ bass’ shrinking torch. Will anyone resuscitate drum ‘n’ bass this year, or should it just be thrown back? There’s been a lot of fuss about British critics darlings Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy. As usual, it’s mostly hype, though they may soon develop into artists worthy of the high hyperbole. Doves and Clinic also show potential, but are also a bit immature yet.
The overrated album award goes to Eminem. It was really disheartening to see the major publications trip over each other to give props to this shithead. Either they’re all on crack, or there’s some major payola going on. Lips have been flapping about his clever lyrics and inventive music. Puh-leeze. At best its passable, at worst, the production is anemic and the beats are rudimentary. Eminem is the kind of asshole who, in school, was too cowardly to challenge the tough kids, so he’d beat up on the smaller ones. And judging from his lyrics, girls aren’t spared either. Nor gays. What this hateful bleached redneck needs is a good spanking. Better yet, he should be locked in a small room with a dozen lesbian boxers and sumo wrestlers for a night. After he’s been sufficiently pummeled into submission and force-fed a bouquet of PCP, acid and poppers, he needs to be poured into a tight S&M outfit with assless leather chaps, and let loose at a hardcore foam party at the Manhole.
29 of the top 100 albums were by female artists or bands lead by women, which is promising. The best songwriter of the 90s hands-down, PJ Harvey, of course, took the cake with her sixth and best album. It’s hard to believe there are people who still don’t know who she is. Of note was Eleni Mandell, a pre-rock chanteuse obsessed with Tom Waits who sounds a bit like PJ Harvey. Her bold second album nearly made the top thirteen. Bonfire Madigan released a stunning second album, featuring the powerful vocals of Madigan Shive, a San Franciscan chamber-punk cross between Polly Jean, Sinead O’Connor and Leslie Rankin. Sinead herself made a solid album, if not a blazing comeback. Patti Smith has reached her second career peak, with her best album since Easter. Ironically, as PJ Harvey’s spiritual godmother, it seems things have come full circle and Smith in turn learned a thing or two from PJ. Bjork’s Selmasongs is the soundtrack to Dancer In The Dark, which features her brilliant acting debut. It’s a short, minor effort for Bjork, who will come out with her true followup to ’97’s Homogenic sometime this spring. Fellow Icelander Emiliana Torrini has a similar vocal range as Bjork. She valiantly, and mostly successfully avoids copping the more famous woman’s style, but she has a ways to go in songwriting chops.
My apologies for the lack of jazz albums. I just wasn’t in the mood, what can I say.
Despite the fact that I have to work full time, I’ve managed to hear a few hundred albums so you didn’t have to. I listed 191 of them as likeable in some way. But don’t depend on me (well, not completely!). There’s over 200 more albums that I have not gotten around to checking out — and those are just the ones that I read good things about! There’s probably a couple dozen more I haven’t stumbled across yet that are worth buying. Just in the last couple weeks, I discovered top twenty standouts The Kingsbury Manx, Poem Rocket and The Russian Futurists. So if you’re the adventurous type, do some digging in the record stores or Napster and discover for yourself. Now more than ever, the sheer volume of good music is overwhelming. I can only hope to weed out the few dozen truly great gems. If you’re the type to um, have a life and no time for the joys of music hunting, I’m pretty confident there are not too many that I missed that would rank higher than my top 100. Enjoy!
- PJ Harvey * Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island)
I knew Polly Jean Harvey would be something special when, in one of her first interviews in 1992, she cited Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan as her inspirations. And later she incorporated members from the bands of Beefheart, Tom Waits and Nick Cave. No other artist surpassed PJ Harvey’s consistency in timeless songwriting and passionate performances in the 90s. The question last year wasn’t whether she would maintain the quality, but if the public would recognize her next album as the landmark it would inevitably become. While her previous albums were harrowing documents of unrest, depression, ecstasy and pain, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea shows Polly, now 30, is more comfortable in her skin. To say it’s her “happy record” would be a disservice to the complexity of her lyrics. She has obviously been through a deep relationship or two, and has apparently learned to pause enough to enjoy life, love and sex. “Baby, baby/Ain’t it true/I’m immortal/When I’m with you,” she sings in the opener, “Big Exit.” Guitars slash, and drums pound courtesy of Rob Ellis, reuniting with the band for the first time since 1993’s Rid Of Me. But it wouldn’t be Polly without at least a hint of angst. But this time her restlessness isn’t crippling, it’s energizing. Empowered by the confidence earned with experience, she sings, “But I wanna pistol/In my hand/I wanna go to/A different land” and “So I take my/Good fortune/And I fantasize/Of our leaving/Like some modern-day/Gypsy landslide.” Leaving the safety of her rural home in England, she crossed the sea to spend half a year in New York City. Thus begin the stories. The music has returned to the rawer rock ‘n’ roll of her first two albums, but with much calmer tempos, varying from driving rhythms traveling past blurred lights, and the rolling and swaying of a boat ride. Polly reigns in her more eccentric vocalizations, controlling her voice perfectly in their appropriate context. At times she sounds more like Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith than ever before. Indeed, the minor key sway of “Good Fortune” seems to be a tribute to Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” while “Horses In My Dreams” is a more lyrical homage. “A Place Called Home” suggests yearning for security “I walk/I wade/Through full lands/And lonely/I stumble.” But when the locomotive keyboards take off, we know she’ll never settle. Stupendous. “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling” slow things down and reminds one of Kurt Cobain at his contemplative best. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke contributes expressionistic wails to both songs, and even gets a little saucy in the dark sensualism of “The Mess We’re In” — “Night and day/I dream of/Making-love/To you now baby.” “The Whore Hustle And The Hustlers Whore” brings the able to a dizzying peak. It presents a flurry of vice, and from the center of the maelstrom, Polly doesn’t preach, merely observes “Too many people out of love/The city’s ripped right to the core.” “You Said Something” distills a romantic moment “On a rooftop in Brooklyn” where her lover said something she’s never forgotten. We don’t know what was said, but it doesn’t matter, as the melody packs an emotional wallop that no one can forget. “Kamikaze” hunkers down and rocks more furiously than anything the band has done in seven years — “Space here we come” indeed. “This Is Love” gets more playful — this time Polly is tired of philosophizin’, she just wants to get down and screw — “I can’t believe life’s so complex/When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress . . . You’re my dirtly little secret, wanna keep you so.” The album ends with perfection with the lovely Zen/Taoist sentiments of “We Float,” “But now we float/Take life as it comes.” What better way to end the best album at the beginning of a new century.
- Asian Dub Foundation * Community Music (London)
Despite their inherent uncommerciality, Asian Dub Foundation burst with star power. With names like Sun-J, Dr Das, Pandit G and Chandrasonic, they sound like cartoon superheroes, fearless bigot slayers whose agit-pop hybrid of at least a dozen genres of music (including hardstep jungle, ragga, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, punk) cannot be easily defined or pigeonholed in simplified marketing terms. Put simply, it’s the new street music — at least in Great Britain — with as much energy as Germany’s digital hardcore techno-terrorists Atari Teenage Riot, or L.A’s Rage Against The Machine, and more creativity than anyone. Much like hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy on Yo! Bum Rush The Show, ADF made a bold introductory statement with their nearly impossible-to-find debut Facts And Fictions, and then melted brains with their second album, Rafi’s Revenge in 1998. Like PE’s Fear Of A Black Planet, ADF perfects their initial innovations on their third effort, while making increasingly articulate lyrical and political statements. Deeder, who began MCing for ADF seven years ago at the age of 15, has matured into a nimble rapper, a masterful toaster and storyteller. Chandrasonic’s slashing guitars are more aggressive and catchy. The band’s mixology, turntablism and riddim science have been refined into peak powers. The album begins mid-riot with “Real Great Britain,” in which they waste no time in identifying the enemies and admonishing the phoneys — “shoegazer nation forever looking backwards/time to reject the sixties charade”. “Memory War” tackles government control of how history is taught, breaking it down with concise sitar ‘n’ dub knowledge. “New Way New Life” reigns in their attack with an uplifiting, melodic skank about their pride in their Asian community. These are field recordings of a cultural force in action. Rather than whine about the state of things, ADF back up their polemics by organizing a community based on ethnicity, politics and music (including education projects and ADFED), not unlike the commune centered around much maligned British anarchists Crass twenty years before. Sure, songs like “Collective Mode” are not very funny or sexy (the closest they come is with the undulating cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Taa Deem,” a welcome return from the overlooked tribute/remix album Star Rise), but they are certainly fun. Witness their shows, where raver kids, hipsters and crusty hippies alike jump and dance as the band kicks euphoric. Unlike one-trick-pony brethren like Fun-Da-Mental, ADF varies the pace, slowing things down with the apocalyptic Ennio Morricone Western of “The Judgement,” the spliffed out dub of “Truth Hides” and the delicately beautiful space-rock instrumental “Scaling New Heights.” “Committed To Life” features the words and voice of exiled American Black Panther freedom fighter Assata Shakur, who is also, coincidentally, also paid tribute to on Common’s new album. Community Music is an important and entertaining landmark. If there’s any justice, the supremely funky “Rebel Warrier” will become a huge club hit, making this a revolution the masses can dance to.
- Queens Of The Stone Age * Rated R (Interscope)
Josh Homme’s first band, Kyuss, grew out of jam sessions held during generator parties in the California desert. Drugs were plentiful, probably not unlike the sole lyrics of kickoff track, “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” — “Nicotine, valium, Vicadan, marijuana, Ecstasy, and alcohol . . . c-c-c-cocaine.” This would normally mean, warning — lunkhead lout metal band ahead. But there’s a cool intelligence afoot that sets Queens Of The Stone Age head and shoulders above your average heavy rock band. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is that every song is varied, yet there is a QOTSA sound that is instantly recognizable. It’s that bone-dry desert tone that Homme perfected over the years, ever so crunchy and satisfying, much like the rush fans of Led Zeppelin felt when they’d hear Bonham use tree trunks for sticks, or when Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler would thunkety thump his strings with fingers of cured hams. Queens Of The Stone Age are reincarnated rock giants, roaming the earth once more. And they have cleverly disguised their T-Rex bones as a beautifully realized psychedelic pop album. While their 1998 debut was all about the stone cold groove, R is about the hook. “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” and “Leg Of Lamb” are subtly melodic, hypnotic jewels. “Auto Pilot” gently takes the listener on “the best trip I’ve ever had,” which indeed rivals The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” as the trip veers out of control into the colossally trippy, peyote-drenched “Better Living Through Chemistry.” The moment the bongos fade away and the band falls silent save for a single, faint sustained guitar note gives one the feeling that they just jumped out of the plane and for a moment everything seems still. Inevitably you spiral wildly towards Earth and the band breaks into a monumental jam. “Quick And To The Pointless” evokes Bleach-era Nirvana. But the best song has yet to come. With “In The Fade,” they pull out their secret weapon, the best-pipes-in-rock, Mark Lanegan of The Screaming Trees. Significantly, Josh Homme spent a stint touring with the Screaming Trees before forming QOTSA. Now they seem to be fulfilling the promise that Lanegan’s band left off with. “Lightning Song” is a short middle-Eastern instrumental that leads into the band’s own “Kashmir,” “I Think I Lost My Headache,” which gradually shatters into a cacophony of bleating free-jazz horns. R is the most audacious hard rock album to come out in years, and has played a vital role in revitalizing a stagnant scene.
- Amon Tobin * Supermodified (Ninja Tune)
Brazillian born, London-based Amon Tobin is uncategorizable. The junglist/drum ‘n’ bassers won’t claim him, nor will the techno ravers. Anyone trying to do the octopus to his music will undoubtedly end up in a dark corner, rocking back and forth in the foetal position. It is most likely jealousy of his talent that forces the man to stand alone. And it’s just as well, better to make way for the avalanche of sounds caused by the groundbreaking tracks. Hell, the cracks in the ground are more like the rifts between the tectonic plates. Supermodified is giant steps ahead of any other work of electronica. The lines between samples of jazz, hip-hop, samba, bhangra and congo are blurred and metamorphed with organic and mechanical noises, and out-of-this world rhythms that splay like seemingly random sparks, but form breathtaking kaleidescopic patterns. Titles like “Get Your Snack On” and “Chocolate Lovely” betray a lascivious sense of humor without being too precious. What holds it all together is that Tobin has the organizational mind of a jazz composer, subtly orchestrating the primordial flow like Dark Magus-period Miles Davis, or conjuring and seducing anarchic spirits like Sun Ra. Tobin is a sonic pioneer, and words cannot truly describe his music. Hear for yourself.
- Radiohead * Kid A (EMD/Capitol)
It was fascinating to witness the public reaction to Kid A, Radiohead’s long-awaited follow-up to the much hyped OK Computer. I mean, when a band is raised to a throne that nearly equals The Beatles, they very well can’t ignore anything the band records, even if it’s a collection of fart noises. Fortunately, the result was not as difficult listening as many mainstream fans initially thought. If anything, it is the ultimate vindication of writer Simon Reynolds that his much-scoffed at label “post-rock” is not only alive, but has even crossed over to mass appeal. Radiohead takes the innovations made by bands like Tortoise, Seefeel, Autechre and Labradford into a more accessible direction. While a few of the instrumental tracks seem slight by themselves (“Kid A” and “Treefingers”), the album flows nicely as a whole. The first stunner is “The National Anthem,” which features a raging beat not dissimilar to an OK Computer track, and seems to sample the organized chaos of a Mingus-sponsored horn battle. “How To Disappear Completely” is a grandiose ballad with sweeping strings and marvelously crushing crescendos. “Optimistic,” “In Limbo” and “Idioteque” bleed into each other like a sidelong suite, peaking with the latter track which resourcefully updates the chilly desperation of Joy Division, with an old-school beatbox. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the last highlight, a soaring lullaby with Bjorkian harps. Radiohead has assured fans that this spring they will release a more traditional rock record. Little do they know that Kid A will probably be their most memorably lasting legacy.
- At The Drive-In * Relationship Of Command (Grand Royale)
It took a while for the significance of this record to sink in. At first, it simply sounded like a great, messy, loud band that would be great to see live, evoking in equal parts MC5 and Fugazi, with a touch of Rage Against The Machine without the overt politics. At The Drive-In has been a hard-touring band for over five years with two full length albums and several EPs already under their denim bellbottoms. What sets Relationship Of Command apart is not necessarily the more detailed production, but the intricate songs, which jump from screaming choruses and high-kicks, to almost progressive, fussy time changes, complex melodies and dense, Burroughsian cut-up lyrics. The result is really a new kind of punk rock that will spawn dozens of imitators, mark my words.
- Modest Mouse * The Moon & Antarctica (Sony/Epic)
For years Modest Mouse has been relegated to tha indie rock ghetto of bands with “potential.” Their first couple albums were a hasty patchwork of influences, from Pavement to Polvo, Built To Spill to Sonic Youth. Enjoyable, but not worth reserving a spot in your crowded CD case for. This is a rare case where a major label deal actually breathed new life into a band. The Issaquah, Washington trio’s third full length, The Moon & Antarctica elevates their normally self-effacing working-class indie aesthetic to truly epic heights. “3rd Planet” sets the album with the mantra, “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth if you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” The general mood is at once neurotic, and expansive. Produced by Red Red Meat’s Brian Deck, there are no concessions to conforming to radio standards of overly compressed sound. Remember when records used to be popular, but didn’t all sound the same? Of course you don’t, that was 1966. Not to say the album doesn’t sound thoroughly modern. The styles vary wildly, from string-bending open-tuned rockers to Beckadelic poppers and string-laden bombast, all held together by Isaac Brock’s abstract tales of movement, isolation and disorientation, probably a result from the band’s heavy touring schedule. What doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, as evidenced on the scintillating Beefheart gem “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” and the dramatic “A Different City,” which kicks up as much guitar-hero excitement as London Calling era Clash or Sonic Youth at their late-eighties peak. “The Cold Part” is a glacial stunner that continues the hot streak with hypnotic atmospherics and circular lyrics. Not even halfway through the album, you still have the anthemic “The Stars Are Projectors” which clocks in at 8:46 and miles of wonderfully varied guitar textures and catchy melodies. Modest Mouse are no longer a band to watch — they have arrived.
- Sussan Deyhim * Madman of God: Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters (Crammed Discs)
An Iranian living in New York City, Sussan Deyhim has been kicking around the barriers between traditional Persian music, electronic music and avant-garde for over twenty years. She first made the scene with Richard Horowitz on the groundbreaking electro-Persian album Azax/Attra: Desert Equations. Between that and forming a band called Majoun with Horowitz, she has collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble and Adrian Sherwood. Madman Of God is her first solo effort, and it’s a stunner. It’s a collection of classic melodies taken from the Persian repertoire, which were which were composed around the poetry of Rûmi, Saadi, Djami and other Sufi writers from the 11th to the 19th centuries. “These pieces are as well-known by my grandparents as they are by my own generation,” wrote Deyhim in the liner notes, “and they represent the torch songs of classical Persian music.” More than that, she offers imaginative arrangements that go beyond tradition, delivered expertly by an all-star band that includes Iranian classical Setar musician Reza Derakhshani, Steve Reich collaborator Glen Velez on percussion, jazz bassist and former John Coltrane colleague Reggie Workman and Richard Horowitz. Amazingly, while the album sounds like it was altered with electronics, it’s entirely acoustic, aside from a few multi-tracked vocals. It’s full of sonic, instrumental and vocal tricks, such as the Arabic scatting on “Negara (Mesmerized Mirror)” that was first introduced to the mainstream by Sheila Chandra. Deyhim, Chandra and Natacha Atlas are the few women adventurous enough to push ancient music through to future frontiers. Most importantly, while the sacred songs are stately and mesmerizing, suggestive of the ultimate in love, pain, compassion, wisdom and the Sufi gaze, it’s also fun! These songs are meant for museums. They are intended to evoke the vibration that is the essence of the Sufi way, of transcendence and cosmic space. In other words, Madman Of God is Persian mash music, a modern Sufi Let’s Get It On. So get with your sweetie, break out the candles and incense, set the CD player on repeat and get metaphysical.
- Sigur Rós * * Ágaetis Byrjun (FatCat/Bubble Core)
Named after singer Jonsi Birgisson’s baby niece, Sigur Rós reside in Reykjavik, Iceland, but might as well be from Neptune. Their otherworldly soundscapes sound utterly alien, though there are some recognizable elements of Talk Talk, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. At least if they were blitzed out of their minds on frozen peppermint schnapps, strapped to a whale that’s constantly emerging and submerging in the icy arctic waters. Ironically, there are similarities to Radiohead’s Kid A, though Sigur Rós beat them to the punch on their 1997 debut, Von. One might think a lot of techno trickery is involved, but it’s all organic guitars, violin bows, sticks and skin. Even their keyboards are built of wood. Ágaetis Byrjun (A Good Start) marks a flare in the Western pop firmament that hopefully will not be a fluke. Here is a band whose vocalist sings in a made-up language in a high-pitched androgynous voice, whose songs are glacially paced and crushingly melancholy, yet manages to sound oddly uplifting without any ironic self-consciousness. A lesson well learned from countrywoman Björk. And judging from the healthy creative atmosphere in Iceland, such as the Kitchen Motors collective, there will be more pleasant surprises to come.
- Sleater-Kinney * All Hands On The Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)
After an unsuccessful attempt of making the dreaded “mature statement” on The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney realized that you can have good, bratty fun and still be deep. All Hands On The Bad One may not have as many timeless classics as 1997’s Dig Me Out, but it’s the most consistent album of their career. Every song hits its mark with thoughtful, poetic lyrics — a few rock harder than the last album, the rest swing and strut with more grace than the gangly songs of the band’s earlier repertoire. “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” is S-K at their catchiest, a witty put-down of boys in a band who don’t want to party with the girlband. All is not a party, however, as this is at times their most angry and political work to date, as “#1 Must-Have” deals with disillusionment from the perspective of a post-riot grrrl, bitterly decrying the recent rash of concert rapes, but ends optimistically with “Culture is what we make it Yes it is/Now is the time/To invent.” “Was It A Lie” packs an emotionally powerful punch at the media for cheapening a woman’s life by documenting her tragic death for all to gawk at. “Male Model” measures themselves up against male rockers, icing the challenge of “You don’t own the stage/We’re here to join the conversation/and we’re here to raise the stakes” with the sweetest melodies. “Milkshake ‘n’ Honey” is Corin Tucker at her sexiest, coyly cooing about a tempestuous tryst with a French lover. The album ends up more elegiac and swoony, but Sleater-Kinney’s passion can still light a room on fire.
- Godspeed You Black Emperor! * Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (Kranky)
Like former tourmates Sigur Rós, Godspeed You Black Emperor! create music of grandiloquence and oppressive beauty. This nine-piece indie rock arkestra (two guitarists, two bassists, two drummers, a cellist, violinist, and no singer) from Montreal have an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink m.o. that actually serves them quite well, supplementing their massive sound with field recordings of ranting survivalists, found-sound collage, xylophones, glockenspiels, etc. Their songs usually last a minimum 20 minutes. Sounds like the ingredients for an incredibly pretentious endurance contest? Not if you’re conscious when they explode into naked emotional torrents that multiply Dirty Three’s expressionism to the power of ten. Add the Ennio Morricone sense of desolation, Mogwai’s disgust with the world, piles and piles of intense sadness, and you have the nine-headed monster that Radiohead wish they could be if they could only get up from all fours. GSYBE’s mastery of dynamics and scale betray a knowledge of classical composition that keeps things moving with a sense of pace and drama. While it would be interesting to hear what they could do with shorter songs, Godspeed may very well be the most powerful band on the planet.
- 16 Horsepower * Secret South (Razor & Tie)
With an eerie voice that strangely recalls The Call’s Michael Been, biblical ghost stories straight from Nick Cave’s chapbook and rustic tools-as-instruments borrowed from Tom Waits’ shed, you’d think 16 Horsepower would be treading familiar ground. Having been dropped from A&M, the band set up camp at the Hamilton Glory Lodge in Blue River, Colorado, and emerged with poetry in motion. Unlike the majority of dreary swill dripping from the half-baked genres of No Depression and Insurgent Country, 16 Horsepower has developed a style that is truly original, rocks hard with razor sharp edges. They suggest the Gun Club if they’d actually become a great band rather than withered away. Even when they’re quiet, they can be terrifying. The bravest hardiest of souls could not make it through the funereal “Burning Bush” without at least once feeling a chill. Enough to put the fear of the devil in ya so much that you’ll lock yourself in the basement with a week’s supply of grub and a bottle of whiskey. “Splinters” manages to be majestic, yet reserved enough to maintain an air of mystery and dread. Save for the cover of Bob Dylan’s romantic ballad, “Nobody Cept You,” this a truly intense album, not for the weak of heart.
- Primal Scream * Xtrmntr (Astralwerks)
It’s amazing to think that when Glasgow’s Primal Scream introduced its fusion of rave and rock with Screamadelica, Nirvana hadn’t even hit it big yet. Perhaps energized by the fact that their British compatriots are wallowing in a simpering pool of a creative lull, Primal Scream reckoned it was time to kick out the jams once more and shake things it up. Assisted by Bernard Sumner and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, Bobby Gillespie and company have whipped up a batch of songs that recreate the sense of urgency, anger and importance that one might have felt when punk first broke. Never mind that the messages behind “Kill All Hippies” and “Swastika Eyes” are indecipherable — we still haven’t figured out what The Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” was all about either. XTRMTR is Primal Scream turbo-charged, their Stones fixation replaced by MC5 and The Stooges, all brutish beats and feedback-drenched guitars, topped off with the surprisingly free flowing jazz in “Blood Money.” Dan The Automator does a custom job on the bottom end for “Pills,” and “Accelerator” is an anarchic free-for-all, repeating the mantra, “Shoot/Speed/Kill/Light.” Makes you just wanna go out and be naughty doesn’t it? Maybe not as noble as Rage Against The Machine, but a lot more fun, and certainly more nourishing for the soul than, well, there’s really nobody who can quite compare to the newly trashy, hard-rocking but supremely funky Primals.
Rock & Pop
1. PJ Harvey * Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island)
2. Modest Mouse * The Moon & Antarctica (Epic)
3. Sleater-Kinney * All Hands On The Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)
4. Eleni Mandell * Trill (Space Baby)
5. Bonfire Madigan * Saddle The Bridge (Kill Rock Stars)
6. The Russian Futurists * The Method Of Modern Love (Upper Class)
7. Twilight Singers * Twilight As Played By the Twilight Singers (Columbia)
8. Eels * Daisies of the Galaxy (Dreamworks)
9. The White Stripes * De Stijl (Sympathy For the Record Industry)
10. Boss Hog * Whiteout (In The Red)
11. Elliot Smith * Figure 8 (Dreamworks)
12. Yo La Tengo * And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)
13. Patti Smith * Gung Ho (Arista)
Avant Rock & Out Pop
1. Asian Dub Foundation * Community Music (London)
2. Radiohead * Kid A (Capitol)
3. Sigur Rós * Ágaetis Byrjun (FatCat/Bubble Core)
4. Godspeed You Black Emperor! * Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (Kranky)
5. Primal Scream * Xtrmntr (Creation)
6. The Kingsbury Manx (Overcoat)
7. Poem Rocket * Psychogeography (Atavistic)
8. The Dirty Three * Whatever You Love You Are (Touch & Go)
9. Broadcast * The Noise Made By People (Warp/Tommy Boy)
10. Pram * Museum Of Imaginary Animals (Too Pure)
11. Laika * Good Looking Blues (Too Pure)
12. Bjork * Selmasongs (Elektra)
13. Goldfrapp * Felt Mountain (Mute)
Hard Rock & Metal
1. Queens of the Stone Age * Rated R (Interscope)
2. At The Drive-In * Relationship Of Command (Grand Royal)
3. Entombed * Uprising (Threeman)
4. Mondo Generator * Cocaine Rodeo (Southern Lord)
5. High On Fire * The Art of Self Defense (Man’s Ruin)
6. Dillinger Escape Plan * Calculating Infinity (Relapse)
7. Vermin * Millennium Ride (Metal Blade)
8. Dismember * Hate Campaign (Nuclear Blast)
9. The Fucking Champs * IV (Drag City)
10. Amen * We Have Come For Your Parents (Virgin)
11. Rage Against The Machine * Renegades (Epic)
12. Nile * Black Seeds Of Vengeance (Relapse)
13. Fu Manchu * King Of The Road (Mammoth)
1. The Go-Betweens * The Friends Of Rachel Worth (Jetset)
2. Cinerama * Disco Volante (Manifesto)
3. Tahiti 80 * Puzzle (Minty Fresh)
4. Toshack Highway (Flower Shop)
5. The Sea And Cake * Oui (Thrill Jockey)
6. Idaho * Hearts Of Palm (Idaho Music)
7. The Aluminum Group * Pelo (Symbiotic/Hefty)
8. Go-Kart Mozart * Instant Wigwam And Igloo Mixture (West Midlands Records)
9. High Llamas * Buzzle Bee (Drag City)
10. Air * The Virgin Suicides (Astralwerks)
11. Belle & Sebastian * Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (Matador)
12. Dmitri from Paris * A Night at the Playboy Mansion (Astralwerks)
13. Saint Etienne * Sound Of Water (Sub Pop)
Electronica, Techno & Dance
1. Amon Tobin * Supermodified (Ninja Tune)
2. Mum * Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is Okay (Tugboat)
3. Leila * Courtesy Of Choice (XL)
4. Isolee * Rest (Playhouse)
5. Suba * Sao Paulo Confessions (Six Degrees)
6. David Holmes * Bow Down To the Exit Sign (Go Beat)
7. State Of Bengal * Visual Audio (Six Degrees)
8. Thievery Corporation * Mirror Conspiracy (ESL)
9. Kid 606 * Down With The Scene (Ipecac)
10. Roni Size (Reprazent) * Through the Eyes (Studio K7/Full Cycle)
11. Add N To (X) * Add Insult To Injury (Mute)
12. A Guy Called Gerald * Essence (!K7)
13. William Orbit * Pieces in a Modern Style (Maverick)
1. Sussan Deyhim * Madman Of God: Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters (CramWorld)
2. Tabla Beat Science * Tala Matrix (Axiom)
3. Susana Baca * Eco De Sombras (Luaka Bop)
4. Ruben Gonzalez * Chanchullo (World Circuit)
5. Virginía Rodrigues * Nós (Hannibal)
6. Bebel Gilberto * Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees)
7. Youssou N’dour * Joko (Nonesuch)
8. Marc Ribot Y Lost Cubanos Prosthizos * Muy Divertido (Atlantic)
9. Lucas Santtana * Eletro Ben Dodo (Natasha)
10. Alim Qasimov * Love’s Deep Ocean (Network)
11. Rokia Traore * Wanita (Indigo)
12. Master Musicians of Jajouka * Featuring Bachir Attar & Talvin Singh (Universal)
13. Femi Kuti * Shoki Shoki (UNI/MCA)
1. 16 Horsepower * Secret South (Razor & Tie)
2. The Black Heart Procession * Three (Touch & Go)
3. Calexico * Hot Rail (Quarterstick)
4. Giant Sand * Chore Of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey)
5. The Handsome Family * In The Air (Carrot Top)
6. Pinetop Seven * Bringing Home The Last Great Strike (Truckstop)
7. The Walkabouts * Train Leaves at Eight (Glitterhouse)
8. Lambchop * Nixon (Merge)
9. Willard Grant Conspiracy * Everything’s Fine (Rykodisc/Slow River)
10. North Mississippi Allstars * Shake Hands With Shorty (Uni/Tone Cool)
11. The Blacks * Just Like Home (Bloodshot)
12. Songs: Ohia * Ghost Tropic (Secretly Canadian)
13. The Czars * Before But Longer (Bella Union)
Country & Folk
1. Johnny Cash * American III: Solitary Man (Columbia)
2. Ryan Adams * Heartbreaker (Bloodshot)
3. Joe Pernice * Big Tobacco (Glitterhouse)
4. Damien Jurado * Ghost Of David (Sub Pop)
5. Allison Moorer * The Hardest Part (MCA)
6. Shelby Lynne * I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)
7. Neko Case & Her Boyfriends * Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot)
8. Emmylou Harris * Red Dirt Girl (Grapevine)
9. Steve Earle * Transcendental Blues (WB)
10. Merle Haggard * If I Could Only Fly (Anti/Epitaph)
11. Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts * Beneath the Country Underdog (Bloodshot)
12. Wilco & Billy Bragg * Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (WEA)
13. Waco Brothers * Electric Waco Chair (Bloodshot)
Hip Hop & Rap
- Quasimoto * The Unseen (Stones Throw)
- Outkast * Stankonia (LaFace)
- Blackalicious * Nia (Quannum Projects)
- Common * Like Water For Chocolate (MCA)
- Anti-Pop Consortium * Tragic Epilogue (75 Ark)
- Dead Prez * Let’s Get Free (Loud)
- Ghostface Killah * Supreme Clientele (Epic/Razor Sharp)
- Deltron 3030 (Seventy-Five Arc)
- Jurassic 5 * Quality Control (Interscope)
- Kid Koala * Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tune)
- Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek) * Train Of Thought (Rawkus)
- Capleton * More Fire (VP)
R&B & Soul
1. D’Angelo * Voodoo (Virgin)
2. Jill Scott * Who Is Jill Scott? (Sony/Epic)
3. Erykah Badu * Mama’s Gun (Motown)
4. Kelis * Kaleidoscope (Virgin)
5. Sade * Lovers Rock (Epic)
- High Fidelity
- Almost Famous
- Grosse Pointe Blank
- Show Me Love (Fucking Amal)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Waking The Dead
- American Psycho
- Big Eden
- Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Cecil B. Demented
The Virgin Suicides
No Such Thing (Monster)