Best Albums of the 2000s
I originally wrote about most of these albums on Tumblr in 2010 and 2011. If you would like to browse the (differently ordered) list there, go right ahead. But if you stick around here, you will see how my tastes have evolved the almost-decade since I published that list and its concurrent essays.
I have reordered these 100 albums (and dropped a few in favor of new discoveries and deeper love), but the essays I composed for the Tumblr list remain, as testaments to what I once thought of these records, and archived for posterity in a place I can truly call my own.
Come to Where I’m From
Real World, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Chemical”, “In the Sun”, “Cockroach”
Dreamworks, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Hey, Man!”, “Well, Well”, “Shit on the Radio”
The White Stripes
Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Sister, Do You Know My Name?”, “Little Bird”, “I’m Bound to Pack It Up”
MCA, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Sacrifice”, “The Seed (2.0)”, “Break You Off”
Palm Pictures, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Destiny”, “in the Waiting Line”, “Likufanele”
Ganging Up on the Sun
Reprise, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Satellite”, “C’mon”
Virgin, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”
Woke Up on a Whaleheart
Drag City, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Wheel”
Friend and Foe
Barsuk, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Wet and Rusting”, “Muscle’n Flo”
Sony, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Wish You Were Here”, “Echo”, “Nice to Know You”
Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
La Face, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Hey Ya!”, “Unhappy”, “Knowing”
The White Stripes
Third Man, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn”, “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues”
Asleep in the Back
V2, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Don’t Mix Your Drinks”
Show Your Bones
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Interscope, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Gold Lion”
RCA, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Hold You in My Arms”
The Black Keys
Fat Possum, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Lengths”, “10 AM Automatic”
The Cave Singers
Matador, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Leap”
self-released, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “No Cars Go”, “Headlights Look Like Diamonds”
Love Is Hell
Lost Highway, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “I See Monsters”, “This House Is Not for Sale”, “Wonderwall”
ATO, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Your Misfortune”
The Cave Singers
Matador, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Dancing on Our Graves”
Choice Cuts: “Saturday”
Geffen, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Corner”, “GO!”
Arthur & Yu
Hardly Art, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Ghost of Old Bull Lee”
Young God, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “At the Hop”, “We All Know”
Artemis, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Feel Free”, “Make It Alright”, “Feed Kill Chain”
TV on the Radio
4AD, 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Golden Age”
Vagrant, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “So Far We Are”
Asthmatic Kitty, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Casimir Pulaski Day”, “Chicago”, “Jacksonville”
TBD, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Percussion Gun”, “Rudie Falls”
Death Cab for Cutie
Atlantic, 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Cath…”
Is This It
RCA, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Someday”, “Soma”
Okemah and the Melody of Riot
Legacy, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Endless War”, “Medication”
Dreamworks, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “California”, “Grey Gardens”
Roc-A-Fella, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Touch the Sky”, “Hey Mama”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
DGC, 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Profanity Prayers”, “Gamma Ray”
Death Cab for Cutie
Barsuk, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Transatlanticism”, “Title and Registration”
Grant Lee Phillips
Zoe, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Calamity Jane”, “Waking Memory”, “Mona Lisa”
Merge, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “To Go Home”, “Chinese Translation”
The Photo Album
Death Cab for Cutie
Barsuk, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “A Movie Script Ending”, “We Laugh Indoors”, “Why You’d Want to Live Here”
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Glassnote, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “1901”, “Lisztomania”
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Star Witness”, “Hold On, Hold On”
Our Endless Numbered Days
Iron & Wine
Sub Pop, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Naked As We Came”, “Love and Some Verses”
PIAS America, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Svefn-g-englar”, “Staralfur”, “Ágætis Byrjun”
Turn on the Bright Lights
Matador, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “NYC”, “PDA”, “Untitled”
Descended Like Vultures
Sub Pop, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Salesman at the Day of the Parade”
I and Love and You
The Avett Brothers
American, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Laundry Room”, “Ten Thousand Words”, “I and Love and You”
Merge, 2007Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “No Cars Go”, “Keep the Car Running”
Kill the Moonlight
Merge, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Don’t Let It Get You Down”, “The Way We Get By”
Imperial, 2003 / Hidden Agenda, 2005 / Mute, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Crosses”, “Heartbeats”
The College Dropout
Roc-A-Fella, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “All Falls Down”, “Jesus Walks”, “Through the Wire”
self-released, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “All the Dirt”, “Real Love/It’s Only Life”, “No Peace, Los Angeles”
Lost Highway, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Nobody Girl”, “La Cienega Just Smiled”, “Wild Flowers”
Hey You. Yes You.
Modular, 2002 / F2, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “No Room to Bleed”, “Dirty Mind”
Matador, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Willie”, “Could We”, “The Moon”
The Weight Is a Gift
Barsuk, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Do It Again”, “Always Love”
Bloodshot, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Deep Red Bells”, “Stinging Velvet”, “Outro With Bees (Reprise)”
Lost Highway, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Cry on Demand”, “You Will Always Be the Same”, “Desire”
Beggars Banquet, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Mr. November”, “Abel”, “Secret Meeting”
La Face, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “So Fresh, So Clean”, “Humble Mumble”, “B.O.B.”
Downtown, 2006Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Crazy”, “Just a Thought”, “Smiley Faces”
Dark Was the Night
4AD, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Tightrope”, “Knotty Pine”, “Train Song”
By the Way
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Warner Bros., 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Can’t Stop”, “Venice Queen”, “The Zephyr Song”
Choice Cuts: “Look at Miss Ohio”, “Wayside / Back in Time”
Gravelled & Green
The Actual Tigers
Nettwerk America, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Halfway House”, “On a Roll”
When I Pretend to Fall
The Long Winters
Barsuk, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Scared Straight”
4AD, 2009Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Stillness Is the Move”
ATO, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Commerce, TX”, “Lizzy”
ATO, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Please Forgive Me”, “Babylon”, “This Year’s Love”
Awake Is the New Sleep
New West, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Gamble Everything for Love”, “Close I’ve Come”
Astralwerks, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Thinking About Tomorrow”, “God Song”, “Carmella”
DGC, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Girl”, “Earthquake Weather”
Slow River, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Hey Porcupine”, “Afraid to Fail”, “Marvin Gaye”
Warner Bros., 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Mr. Richards”, “Until the Day Is Done”
Violence in the Snowy Fields
Yep Roc, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “To Destruction”, “The Search”, “Violence in the Snowy Fields”
Capitol, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Everything In Its Right Place”, “Optimistic”, “Morning Bell”
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Elektra, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Airline to Heaven”, “Someday Some Morning Sometime”, “My Flying Saucer”
The Moon & Antarctica
Epic, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Paper Thin Walls”, “Perfect Disguise”, “Gravity Rides Everything”
The New Pornographers
Matador, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Bleeding Heart Show”, “Twin Cinema”, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”
Barsuk, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Happy Kid”, “Blonde on Blonde”, “The Way You Wear Your Head”
Keep It Together
Palm Pictures, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Homecoming King”, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello”, “Careful”
Merge, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Rebellion (Lies)”, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”, “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”
The Tallest Man on Earth
Mexican Summer, 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “The Gardener”, “I Won’t Be Found”
D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat
Crunchy Frog, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Move Your Feet”, “Shake Your Coconuts”, “Rhythm Bandits”
The Postal Service
Sub Pop, 2003Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Such Great Heights”, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, “We Will Become Silhouettes”
A Rush of Blood to the Head
Capitol, 2002Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Clocks”, “Warning Sign”, “Green Eyes”
Parlophone, 2000Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Trouble”, “High Speed”
Out of the Shadow
Sub Pop, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Seasick on Land”, “Endless Shovel”, “Kicking the Heart Out”
Aha Shake Heartbreak
Kings of Leon
RCA, 2005Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Slow Night, So Long”, “King of the Rodeo”, “The Bucket”
The Dismemberment Plan
DeSoto, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Sentimental Man”, “The Face of the Earth”, “The Other Side”
Messenger, 2004Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Clear Blue Sky”, “Narcotic Prayer”, “Living With the Law”
Virgin, 2001Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “One More Time”, “Digital Love”, “Face to Face”
self-released, 2007 / XL Recordings, 2008Read Notes
Choice Cuts: “Reckoner”, “House of Cards”, “Videotape”
For Emma, Forever Ago
self-released, 2007 / Jagjaguwar, 2008Read Notes
Breakup records are a funny thing. Alanis Morissette made a pretty good, angry breakup record once with Jagged Little Pill. Beck made a sad, self-pitying, jaw-droppingly beautiful one with Sea Change. Justin Vernon made a record that lies somewhere in the middle. Or on the outside. With For Emma, Forever Ago, the first album by what has since become the band Bon Iver, Vernon made a unique breakup album, one that reflects the bittersweetness of the experience. For out of the ashes, a life is reborn.
I’m probably not alone when I say I never heard of Vernon before Bon Iver. His two self-released (and spottily brilliant) solo albums never found an audience (if they were even meant to). His earlier band, DeYarmond Edison, never quite materialized. When his bandmates kicked him to the curb, and his girlfriend did too, Vernon probably seemed like the least likely person to make one of the great albums (and in my estimation, the greatest album) of the decade. For Emma, Forever Ago is the sound of an person coming to terms with loss, then summoning the courage to carry on.
In a remarkable feat of symmetry, this metaphor applies itself even to the process of making the record. As the now-famous story goes, Vernon holed himself up in a wintry Wisconsin cabin, and when he emerged, he did so with these songs—and undoubtedly with a profound and new outlook on life as well. And as if that weren’t enough, the album itself represents this journey. Vernon starts off frustrated and soured by the whole experience. On album standout “Skinny Love,” this indignation reaches its peak. “Who will love you? Who will fight?” Vernon asks, never receiving his answer.
The anger continues, if less spiteful, through the middle half of the record. The magnificent (and best experienced live) “The Wolves (Act I and II)” finds solace in community: by bringing in his audience, Vernon allows us to share the burden of his loss. In so doing, we don’t just bear the weight, we connect to the experience and together, move on from it. By the time we reach the title track, “For Emma,” we too are beginning to move towards forgiveness, acceptance, and growth. Gone is the anger, gone is the sadness. We can now, like Vernon, step back and see beyond good or bad. Instead, we see how this experience has shaped us, and will continue to do so.
“For Emma,” then, serves as the closing of a chapter. When Vernon sings “With all your lies, you’re still very lovable,” it’s the beginning of a new path, and the end of the story. The album plays like a movie in that way. This song is the resolution and the launching point all wrapped into one. Happiness and sadness, after all, sit beside each other. Most of the time, we cycle back and forth around the circle, never quite reaching either point. But in moments of true grace, we pass through both states, almost instantaneously. This album embodies that feeling for me with every listen.
Album closer “Re: Stacks” serves as a coda to our story. Like the song that plays over the end credits of a movie, it serves to sum up all that has come before it, from the downtrodden beginning to triumphant end. Still, as we slowly fade to black, Vernon makes a point to remind us that “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization.” Life isn’t so neatly tied up in a bow as it so often is in the movies. Instead, “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away / Your love will be / Safe with me.”
It wasn’t until early 2008 that I became aware of Bon Iver. Though Vernon self-released the album to great success in 2007, it wasn’t until the record bubbled up to the top of a lot of year-end lists that I began to take notice. Jagjaguwar released the record in February of 2008, and after I heard “Skinny Love,” “Lump Sum” and “Flume” a few times over the course of the next few months, I was hooked. Only now I couldn’t find the record. Every time I went to buy it in my local shop, they were all out.
Then one day I had to take a long drive, and knew that this album absolutely must be my soundtrack. I listened to it twice through on the way out. On the way home, darkness setting in, I began the record as I pulled out of a wooded drive onto the two-lane highway. By the time I reached emerged from my moonlight drive—reintroduced to a bigger highway, more traffic, more lights, more concrete—the last notes of “Re: Stacks” were sounding, and I too could feel like a phoenix rising from the flame. Perhaps it was this moment that so deeply entrenched itself in my heard and mind, putting this album atop all others. Perhaps that moment was simply a culmination of days, months and years of memories. No matter what brought me to this point, I was then and am still glad that, going forward, I have this record to carry with me.
Choice Cuts: “Skinny Love”, “Re: Stacks”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Nonesuch, 2002Read Notes
Thanks to its belabored history (as documented in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became one of the most talked about records of the past decade. When all was said and done, Wilco’s landmark fourth album had also cemented its place as one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade. It would be easy for me to tell the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as one of creative redemption, of good (music) triumphing over evil (record company suits), but that’s been done. And besides, that doesn’t give me the chance to explain why I love it so.
I love it for getting me to love Wilco like I should have from the beginning. I love it for that stark album cover. I love it for seamlessly transitioning the band away from twangy alt-country without stripping away all that made them great in the first place. I love it for being often fuzzy and occasionally dissonant, but perpetually listenable. I love it for the juxtaposition of jaunty melody and dour balladry. I love it for being political but never didactic. Most of all, I love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because I love these songs.
If you can permit me a series of sentence fragments, I shall now rattle off the track list—packed with so many hits that from the very first post-Foxtrot tour, nearly every one of them became canonical:
The slow burn-intro of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” The AM-era pop of “Kamera.” The downcast “Radio Cure.” “War on War,” a bouncy song about the futility of it all. Those slinky strings in “Jesus, Etc.” A sorrowful eulogy in “Ashes of American Flags.” The nostalgic whimsy of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” A defiant but quiet rage in “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” The excellent turn of phrase in “Pot Kettle Black.” Possibly my favorite: the tumbling piano-turned feedback-heavy “Poor Places.” And finally, the cautiously hopeful “Reservations.”
It’s like a greatest hits record, if only we ignore all the fantastic and memorable songs that Tweedy and company brought us in the three albums that preceded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The three albums that have arrived since this one haven’t quite lived up to its lofty heights, but that’s no matter. When you produce something as instantly iconic as Wilco did here, you’re allowed some leeway to make mistakes moving forward.
Choice Cuts: “Radio Cure”, “War on War”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”
Oh, Inverted World
Sub Pop, 2001Read Notes
It shouldn’t matter (and actually, I kind of hate myself for even promoting this fact), but I would like to state for the record that I was a fan of this album before Zach Braff shared it with the world, and in addition, I find Garden State to be a sorely overrated movie. In fairness to the affable Mr. Braff, I should also admit that he has excellent taste, and he curated a highly enjoyable soundtrack for his emo-riffic Good Will Hunting clone (I loved that soundtrack, too, by the way). But I digress.
The Shins were, by most accounts, the last band my sister introduced me to before she fell victim to the nearly inevitable adulthood disease of “I don’t really listen to new music anymore.” Thank goodness she got one gem in before the sun set on her music fandom, lest I be forced to discover Albuquerque, New Mexico exports The Shins when everyone else did.
It’s not the worst thing, obviously, but I do appreciate the fact that I was able to see them in a few small clubs before they blew up. I say that genuinely, by the way, and not to gloat. I recognize that my apparent defensiveness in this matter only comes off as cheap attempts to curry favor and let you all know that I am not a music snob, but really, the fact that I’m explaining it to this extent only makes me look more guilty. So let’s get off this tangent once and for all and talk about the music, shall we?
Actually, I’ll get to that in a second. Let me diverge one more time to opine on the impact of Garden State upon this band, and, most crucially, its architect, James Mercer. Released a year after their sophomore album, the Garden State soundtrack created an entirely new trajectory for the band. Already making waves as one of Sub Pop’s most successful acts since Nirvana, suddenly instead of a gradual but steady ascension to indie stalwarts (see: Spoon), The Shins were pushed into the stratosphere, where casual music fans suddenly decided this was their favorite band (see: Kings of Leon). Where some can embrace this path, others cannot.
The pressures weighed heavy on the band’s comparatively lackluster third album, a record perhaps tellingly titled Wincing the Night Away. Since that time, James Mercer has taken his band even further from the spotlight, severing ties with Sub Pop, ditching key members of the band, and generally leaving things up in the air. Now with Broken Bells, Mercer’s gone so far as to push his “real” band to the sidelines, choosing instead to start all over again. It’s a move that serves two purposes, both of which are designed to shed him of casual fandom: 1) those casual fans will forget about the band that was to “change their lives,” as Natalie Portman once informed them, and 2) those same fans won’t know that half of Broken Bells is James Mercer, lead singer and chief songwriter for the Shins.
It’s a calculated risk, but the genius of this move is that it will work. Mercer is right; casual music fans won’t know any better if and when they hear Broken Bells, and by the time the Shins return to the scene (if they ever do), they will have long since moved on. It’s a sad state of affairs, but such is the business of music. In the meantime, those of us who are fans of the music rather than the scene will continue on, and even for those casual fans, if they ever managed to get past “New Slang” and enjoy the rest of this spectacularly understated indie pop debut, they will be rewarded in perpetuity.
Oh, Inverted World is filled to the brim with a jittery, dreamy pop quite unlike anything of its time. In fact, when this band signed to Sub Pop, the venerable Seattle label wasn’t exactly riding a wave of good will. After struggling to find an identity in the post-grunge late ‘90s, Sub Pop and the Shins grew together into the next decade, beginning with this jangly, lo-fi pop record. With its fidgety melodies and notebook poetry lyrical turns, Oh, Inverted World was small in the best possible sense of the word. The fact this unassuming record helped reboot a dying record label (and buoyed a saccharine indie drama) makes its success that much more astonishing. Yet it’s hard to deny success to an album with songs as instantly gratifying as “One By One All Day,” “Pressed in a Book,” and, yes, “New Slang.”
My favorites though, even after all these years, are the album’s bookends. From the opening notes of “Caring is Creepy,” I was hooked on this new band with a mundane name. By the time I heard the acoustic strum of album closer “The Past and the Pending,” I knew Oh, Inverted World would be a record I held dear for all of my days.
Choice Cuts: “Caring is Creepy”, “The Past and the Pending”, “New Slang”
Dave Matthews Band
RCA, 2002Read Notes
By now, anyone even marginally familiar with the catalog of Dave Matthews Band knows the basic details of their shelved/leaked/re-recorded album Busted Stuff, and those that care probably know a bit more about the full story. So I won’t bother with talking through the craziness of one of the internet’s landmark album leaks, a band’s fall from grace (with the much-derided Everyday), and the question of whether or not they were even great to begin with.
Instead, I would like to discuss my undying love for this album like I would talk about an old friend I don’t see or talk to much anymore. After all, if you’ve been following along in my much-delayed journey to capture my favorite 100 albums of the past decade, you probably wouldn’t have expected to see an album of this ilk in my top 10.
As one might expect as we grow older, our tastes and interests evolve. What once spoke to me may not continue to do so. With each passing year, I grow less and less tied to the music of Dave Matthews Band, but that doesn’t discount all the years before in which their music meant so much to me. In myriad ways, for all kinds of reasons, The Lillywhite Sessions along with its eventual, proper twin, Busted Stuff, was the zenith of my fandom. From that day forward, we began to grow apart.
But just because you grow up and grow old doesn’t mean you suddenly turn your back on your younger days. In fact, those coming-of-age years are the most difficult to leave behind. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the music, movies, books and TV that I loved from, say, 15 to 21, remain at or near the top of my list to this day. Sure, in the time since, a lot of great art has come in and joined the party, but it never really serves as a replacement for those old favorites.
It’s hard to quantify, but this feeling is so much more than nostalgia, or a yearning for simpler times. In part, I think it’s about the potential of things. The world was so big, back then. The possibilities were endless. I didn’t know who I was, or what I would become, but these things spoke to me all the same. I’m a little bit older now, a little bit wiser, but no closer to understanding. I find comfort, therefore, in the past. These works are the bedrock of who I am, who I will one day be.
I “discovered” Dave Matthews Band via “What Would You Say?” on MTV. I remember the Buzz Bin status. I recall recognizing John Popper even if I didn’t really know of Blues Traveler. For a young, earnest high school kid, this was music that opened my eyes. I was the first on my block (so to speak) to encounter this music, and long after the fads had died, long after others had grown out of this scene, I held on. After all, I didn’t like Dave because everyone else did. I didn’t even identify with those people.
I did, however, identify with straightforward, thoughtful and personal lyrics. I did love this (at the time) adventurous mix of country, jazz and rock and world rhythms. I deeply admired the ambition found on the dark, byzantine Before These Crowded Streets. The songs on Busted Stuff, apart from the non-Lillywhite tracks “You Never Know” and “Where Are You Going,” are even darker. Death and lost love hang like a pall over the entirety of the album, especially on the often leaden, but always compelling Lillywhite version.
The mood may be endlessly dreary, but like Matthews sings on the pensive “You Never Know,” “out of the darkness comes light, like a flash.” In these songs, I found great pleasure, and continue, to this day, to love them so. Like my great friends from my youth, whom I now only keep an eye on through that strange and wonderful machine we call Facebook, Dave Matthews Band and I are now, at best, loosely connected. But like those old friends, every day I value the role they played in my personal development.
Choice Cuts: “Grey Street”, “Grace Is Gone”, “Digging a Ditch”
Chutes Too Narrow
Sub Pop, 2003Read Notes
I think The Shins did, at least for a while, change my life. Or maybe their first two albums just coincided with some major life changes. It’s hard to tell at this point. Oh, Inverted World was amazing, one of the first great albums I discovered in my post-college years. It seemed impossible at the time of its release, but as I eventually came to realize, Chutes Too Narrow was (and still is) better.
Can you have a better album opener than “Kissing the Lipless”? It’s debatable, but I think the answer might be no. My favorite Shins song of all-time, “Lipless” finds Mercer singing in his most aching voice of “the grave remains of a friendship scarred”. Not that I had burned bridges, but moving back home after college and splintering away from my great friends of the past four years, I could relate. Now, 8 years later, with many friends come and gone, the song remains vital.
So too does the remainder of The Shins’ sophomore record. While Oh, Inverted World cast itself as a lo-fi jangle, Chutes upped the ante in production, arrangements and variety. “So Says I” unequivocally rocks, “Young Pilgrims” and “Gone for Good” have tinges of country, and “Saint Simon” might be the slyest ear worm on the album. It all clocks in at just over 30 minutes, a length that feels both too short and just right.
It’s too short because the album’s so good that you wish it could go on forever. But we all know that if it went on forever, it wouldn’t be as good. It’s one of those catch-22s that makes art so wonderfully confounding and worth coming back to time and again. And oh, how I love to revisit this album. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, and somehow, thanks perhaps to the overplaying of Oh, Inverted World by the Garden State acolytes, everything on Chutes always sounds fresh.
It also, somewhat paradoxically, sounds like 2003. It’s now almost difficult to remember what life was like back then, before iPhones and social networks and the music blog explosion. Suddenly The Shins seem so quaint. They were a buzz band for three years, but I can’t help but think if they had debuted just five years later, how everything would have been different for them. Garden State times two, perhaps. Maybe they’d still be a band. Maybe not. Maybe Broken Bells was inevitable, and The Shins were simply a perfect band for once upon a time.
The band took four years off between the release of Chutes Too Narrow and its follow-up Wincing the Night Away. It’s already been four years since that mildly disappointing album was released. Does this mean James Mercer is ready to return to his original band? I would love it if that were true, but I think not. I think Mercer realizes that its time has come and gone.
It’s like Arrested Development, actually. They had three seasons, and although everybody’s hankering for a movie, do we really want it? Wasn’t that show great in part because it was short-lived? It never had the chance to wear out its welcome, which in turn exalted its short run as something even greater. So while I’d love to hear some new music from Mercer under The Shins moniker, I am more than content to enjoy whatever it is he’s working on these days. Well, that and the fantastic albums that already exist. Just like I could watch “Motherboy XXX” until I die, I could listen to “Turn a Square” forever and never grow tired of it.
Choice Cuts: “Kissing the Lipless”, “Saint Simon”, “Turn a Square”
ATO, 2001Read Notes
In a way, Rocket House was Chris Whitley’s final, somewhat ill-fated attempt at commercial relevance. Whitley’s only release on Dave Matthews’ boutique label ATO, and featuring the star’s vocals on the album’s lead single “Radar,” Rocket House could very easily be categorized as a misstep for the longtime bluesman. In addition to the attention-grabbing cameo from Matthews, Rocket House is largely notable for Whitley’s collaboration with DJ Logic.
Never one to shy away from experimentation and genre-hopping, Whitley nevertheless surprised audiences with this foray into electronic textures. In theory, this addition is also somewhat disappointing. Adding a turntablist to the mix has become almost cliché these days for artists looking to add some sonic interest to their aging sound. The highly idiosyncratic Whitley seems an unlikely candidate to fall for this artistic trap—it almost seems beneath him to even try.
Which might be part of what makes this album so remarkable. Strip away the blandish triple-A pop of “Radar,” and what remains is a thrillingly left-of-center album, anchored, as ever, by Whitley’s raspy, beleaguered delivery and deeply affecting lyrics. Though the album kicks off with the wonderfully disorienting “To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)” and the aforementioned “Radar,” Rocket House doesn’t really find its footing until track 3, “Chain,” featuring a mesmerizing backing vocal from none other than Whitley’s daughter Trixie.
From there all the way to the last note of the hidden track “Shadowland,” Rocket House is a near-perfect convergence of past and present. DJ Logic’s whirs, blips, scratches and samples elevate Whitley’s typically introspective and often dour songs to a dreamy, hazy state of perpetual bliss quite unlike anything else in the Whitley canon.
Rocket House in a way, was the last of its kind. With the possible exception of 2005’s dark, mysterious Soft Dangerous Shores, all subsequent Chris Whitley records were much more intimate and far less produced than this, his sixth studio album. Retreating from the spotlight back into the shadows (a place he probably belonged anyway), Chris Whitley nonetheless didn’t turn his back on these songs. In fact, he quite often revisited many of Rocket House’s tunes, albeit with much less fanfare than the versions presented here. In doing so, he kept alive the relentlessly creative spirit that shines so bright on this singular record.
Choice Cuts: “Rocket House”, “Chain”, “Say Goodbye”
Geffen/Interscope, 2002Read Notes
Is there an artist today with a résumé as intriguing as Beck’s? Though there were certainly other artists who combined commercial and critical success in the first decade of the millennium (Jay-Z, Radiohead and The White Stripes, to name a few), none put together a discography as adventurous as Beck Hansen.
It all started with 2002’s Sea Change, a strings-heavy album of acoustic breakup ballads which followed up 1999’s blue-eyed funk/soul diversion Midnite Vultures. Vultures in turn came quickly on the heels of the peppy folk rock of Mutations. But enough about the ‘90s. Let’s talk about how contemporary rock’s great purveyor of ironic detachment subsumed his typical chameleonic approach to deliver an album of remarkable consistency in style, content and honesty.
For some listeners, especially those who love “Loser” or “Devil’s Haircut,” Sea Change might not be a good fit. Naysayers might call the album “lifeless” or “depressing.” In a way, it is both of those things. And in a way, those are perfect examples of what makes this a masterwork. A breakup album, Sea Change is a huge departure from Beck’s earlier work, but maybe less of one than you might think. Strip down the beautiful arrangements and a few of these songs might bring to mind the folky One Foot in the Grave. The wit and wry humor of, say, “Sexx Laws” is present here too, though it’s tinged with a black sadness, as on “Guess I’m Doing Fine."
I don’t know what it is about breakup albums, but I love them. Whether sad, angry, or somewhere in between, they represent a catharsis to which I can relate. There’s something deeply universal expressed these feelings. My interest is similarly bolstered by my belief that these low points in life represent (at least in retrospect) at least as much positive as they do negative. A closing of one chapter and the start of the next.
When we start over, we don’t have to start from the beginning. We remake ourselves—and our story—with the knowledge that brought us to this moment. So when Beck sings "I’ve seen the end of the day come too soon” then later flips the script to say “I’ve seen the end of the day come too late,” it’s his chance to recognize and move on. It’s our chance to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
That light has a golden hue. I’ve always considered this an autumnal album, both in sound and theme. These folk pop songs just seem to fit the mood, whether the sun shines on dying trees, or the rains that portend winter turn the days grey. I also look at it more simply—as the leaves die and eventually fall off the trees, they turn to the most brilliant and beautiful colors. Once fallen, they make it possible for the tree to bloom anew the following spring. It’s a potentially cliché metaphor, but an apt one. What Beck has done with Sea Change was to transform his grief into something beautiful.
Choice Cuts: “The Golden Age”, “Lost Cause”, “Guess I’m Doing Fine”