Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lou's Top 40 of the Decade, Part 2

Here's the second in a two-part series listing my top albums of the 2000's. If you don't have these yet, it's about time you get them.

1.) & 2.) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Letting Go (Drag City, 2006) and Lie Down In the Light (Drag City, 2008)

While in a way a study in contrasts, these two records represent an apex in a career that has come to match those of the true legends. The former, an album steeped in quiet drama and somber emotion, gave way to one that presents a heart-on-his-sleeve folkie alternating passionately ebullient and desperately painful love songs and trades meticulous chamber-folk for simplistic rootsiness. The most remarkable turnabout, though, may be that of Will Oldham’s transformation from the shadowy figure of the ‘90s concocting his off-kilter and seemingly slapdash—yet nonetheless brilliant—Palace releases for the craftsman of these far more accessible works. What it shows is that Oldham has reinvented himself and honed his art across the years in a way few (only Dylan truly springs to mind) have. The man is the finest artist of each of the past two decades, which is a rare and remarkable accomplishment in any genre, medium or discipline.

3.) Okkervil River – Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar, 2003)

This album seems to get less credence from the cognoscenti than almost anything else this band has done, but in my estimation it is by far their most beautiful and accomplished release. Will Sheff’s songs achieved a perfect balance of raw emotion and poetic lyricism here that has sometimes tilted too much one way or the other, and are perfectly colored by expertly crafted instrumentation whose power lies in its ability to swell from unassuming to ebullient all while exuding sheer authenticity.

4.) & 5.) Unbunny – Black Strawberries (Two-Ton Santa, 2002) and Snow Tires (Hidden Agenda, 2004)

Jarid del Dio makes imaginative indie-folk approaching the intensity of Neil Young’s finest output with an even greater gift for crafting truly crushing melodies. A truly awe-inspiring and unjustly obscure talent.

6.) Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (Bloodshot, 2000)

Across a prolific, erratic, occasionally brilliant decade Ryan Adams has yet to reprise the consistent earthy beauty of his solo debut. “To Be Young” provides a rollicking rockabilly kickoff with a wistful interlude. Emmylou Harris harmonizes on “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” recreating her timeless partnership with Gram Parsons more closely than anything before or since. Adams’ despairing howl and bleating harmonica slice through the boozy lament “Come Pick Me Up.” Along with plenty more stark portraits of human emotion delivered on the broad and uniquely effective canvas the Americana genre.

7.) Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire – Dragging Wonder Lake (Thrill Jockey, 2002)

Bean, best known as a principal of the great alt-country outfit Freakwater, stepped out on her own to make a magnum opus here. She combines the homespun charm and vocal grace of Emmylou Harris with the whimsy of Joni Mitchell throughout this brilliant but overlooked record.

8.) The Minus 5 – Let the War Against Music Begin (Mammoth, 2001)

Scott McCaughey’s finest effort as leader of this side-project-cum-supergroup showcases just about everything this man has done better than anyone else in the past three decades: The Beach Boys-inspired bliss of “Got You,” the fuzzy psych-garage of “Ghost Tarts of Stockholm,” the British Invasion ecstasy of “You Don’t Mean It,” the clever country shuffle “One Bar At A Time,” and so much more.

9.) & 10.) Arlo – Up High In the Night (Sub Pop, 2001) and Stab the Unstoppable Hero (Sub Pop, 2002)

If any band deserved to achieve wealth, fame and adulation during this decade it was probably Arlo. Instead their two brilliant lp’s went virtually unnoticed before they disappeared without a trace. But during their brief existence they were the most powerful power-pop band of all time, channeling the melodies of The Beatles and Big Star, the harmonies of Badfinger, and the power of The Who or even Nirvana into one unbelievable package. The sheer injustice of this band’s anonymity almost makes these remarkable records tough to listen to.

11.) Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador, 2006)

Effortlessly great songwriting mingles with beautiful harmonies and ebullient instrumentation as this band establishes itself as among the best of a second consecutive decade. Tracks like the Byrds-ian “Another Sunny Day” leave no doubt that they rank among the true legends.

12.) – 14.) Holopaw (Sub Pop, 2003), Quit +/- Fight (Sub Pop, 2005) and Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. (Bakery Outlet, 2009)

Perhaps no band has begun its career with a trio of releases as impressive as Holopaw’s. John Orth’s beautifully strange vocals carry otherworldly melodies that seem to materialize from nowhere, creating hooks where they shouldn’t be, and wildly creative arrangements always sound wholly organic.

15.) Jesse Malin – The Heat (Artemis, 2004)

Malin’s vocals and hooks always exude raw motion, but this—his second lp—is his only one so far where the backing tracks have the same quality. The melange of Byrds, Stones, E Street Band, and NYC proto-punk is the perfect base for his uniquely expressive voice and aching melodies.

16.) Christian Kiefer – Dogs & Donkeys (Undertow, 2007)

Noted avant-gardist Kiefer creates nothing more ambitious here than a platter of great indie-folk tunes hearkening to some of Young and Dylan’s most revered moments. While subsequent projects like his song cycle on U.S. presidents have their appeal, another more straightforward set is anxiously awaited.

17.) The Minus 5 – Killingsworth (Yep Roc, 2009)

To make a record not only among his best but also breaking new artistic ground 25 years into a brilliant career may be truly unprecedented, but Scott McCaughey did it here. This is the rootsiest record in McCaughey’s canon and the most realized manifestation yet of this genius songsmith’s darker side, while keeping sterling melody the inviolable rule.

18.) Hal (Rough Trade, 2005)

This Irish band disappeared after releasing this set of some of the finest ‘60s-inspired pop in recent memory, along with a few rootsier numbers recalling the Jayhawks’ finest work.

19.) & 20.) The Darkness – Permission To Land (Atlantic, 2003) and One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back (Atlantic, 2005)

Yeah, I’m serious… Sure there is a lot about this band that was more than a little jokey, but their admiration and aptitude for the best aspects of arena rock was nothing but serious, and their cleverness is hard to deny. Their novelty had somewhat faded by the time of their second lp, which got far less notice, but it is a far more ambitious set that brings in stronger pop melodies and some arty elements.

Lou's Top 40 of the Decade, Part 1

Here's the first in a two-part series listing my top albums of the 2000's. If you don't have these yet, it's about time you get them.

21.) Ladyhawk (Jagjaguwar, 2006)

Catchy pop songs and dread-filled dirges alike are infused with raw emotion, captivating hooks, and engaging lyrical turns of phrase on this Vancouver band’s debut. "The Dugout" manages to recall both KISS and Pavement in the space of one monstrous hook.

22.) Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop, 2002)

Sam Beam’s early releases (this centerpiece, along with a preceding single and subsequent ep) exuded authentic, homespun bliss that was truly refreshing at the time. Sadly, his work since is suited only to precocious high schoolers.

23.) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Ease Down the Road (Palace, 2001)

Will Oldham made his first truly great record in a while here, with a more intimate and polished sound that he would continue to cultivate to great effect as the decade went on. The strength of this album is somewhat confirmed by several tracks—like “A King at Night,” “Just To See My Holly Home,” and the title track—remaining live favorites.

24.) The Anomoanon – Asleep Many Years In the Wood (Temporary Residence, 2002)

Will Oldham’s older brother, Ned, has quietly built a catalogue of brilliant, though too infrequent, releases under this moniker that nearly ensures he remains anonymous. With a sweeter voice and more straightforward songwriting approach than his aberrant brother, his heartfelt and often fun indie-folk has been at times just as essential.

25.) Ben Kweller (ATO, 2006)

Kweller probably chose to make his third lp eponymous since he performed the entire thing all on his lonesome, but it could also be because it represents the culmination of his highly encouraging first two records. This is chock full of perfect pop of both the jubilant and heartrending varieties that stands up to the best of any era. Country-centric 2009 follow-up Changing Horses only reinforced that this should be a talent to be reckoned with in the next decade, as well.

26. & 27.) Langhorne Slim & The War Eagles (Kemado, 2008) and Be Set Free (Kemado, 2009)

With three strong releases in quick succession to kick off his recording career, this engaging, energetic troubadour established himself especially on these two—his second and third—as a top quality and highly distinctive songwriter and vocalist who brings an almost indescribable uplifting quality to all but his most despairing tunes—and these he turns on their head to make them among the saddest you’ve ever heard. Another young talent to whom we hopefully will be giving plaudits for a long time to come.

28. & 29.) The Thermals – More Parts Per Million (Sub Pop, 2003) and Fuckin A (Sub Pop, 2004)

It sometimes seems to me that nothing is more lacking in rock music nowadays than the ROCK, but The Thermals brought it in spades on their first two releases. More Parts was nothing short of revelatory in its rawness and abandon. And while its follow-up didn’t get the indie chic plaudits, maybe due to its slightly cleaner production, it infuses more melody while maintaining the same intensity and contains the crushingly great “A Stare Like Yours.” Sadly, the two albums they have made since bear little resemblance to these energy-packed platters.

30.) Patrick Park – Loneliness Knows My Name (Hollywood, 2003)

This singer-songwriter crafted a beautiful and seamless hybrid of roots and baroque pop on his full length debut that lacks nothing in melody or emotion. While the 2007 follow-up Everyone’s In Everyone didn’t quite stack up, let’s hope for a return to form on an anticipated Spring 2010 release.

31.) Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers – Songs In the Night (Ramseur, 2009)

A genius breakout that shows true promise for even greater things.

32. & 33.) Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk, 2007) and Lost Channels (Nettwerk, 2009)

Tony Dekker’s third and fourth releases show him progressively breaking away from his extremely subdued early records to become a deeply expressive singer-songwriter and head of a charming backing group brilliantly and tastefully melding traditional and rock instrumentation.

34. – 36.) Fruit Bats – Echolocation (Perishable, 2001), Mouthfuls (Sub Pop, 2003) and The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop, 2009)

Eric D. Johnson is one of the most engaging pop songwriters and singers of really any era and put together a remarkable string of records across the decade (with 2005’s Spelled in Bones not quite rising to the level of these three), all rife with simplistic but clever tunes.

37.) Matt Suggs – Amigo Row (Merge, 2003)

The former Butterglory and future White Whale member made his second solo outing a tour de force, strongly invoking Ray Davies both vocally and in the depth he brings to a pop song, while “The Unbelievers Waltz” is worthy of Gram Parsons’ most powerful and heartbreaking work.

38.) Canyon – Empty Rooms (Gern Blandsten, 2002)

From what I recall, this record picked up some indie buzz at the time, but it would be this D.C. band’s last other than a posthumous live set. Which is a real tragedy, as they cultivated a truly unique mélange of frontman Brandon Butler’s rootsy tunes and Appalachian whine with whirling psych guitars and keys. “Other Shore,” in particular, is a powerful testament.

39. & 40.) Neil Young – Living With War (Reprise, 2006) and Fork In the Road (Reprise, 2009)

This decade ended up being Neil’s strongest since his nearly incomparable ‘70s output, notwithstanding some flat-out embarrassments when he seemed to try a bit too hard to rekindle the old magic (think Prairie Wind). When he goes the “just rock the fuck out/stream of consciousness” route is when Young is still a force, and he blazed this trail beginning with 2003’s Greendale before continuing on to these progressively stronger releases in the same socially conscious, musically reckless vein. Long live Neil!