Top 100 Alternative Albums of the 2000s
Discover the best alternative records of the 2000s, selected according to the following rules:
- Strictly only one album per band.
- Popularity isn’t everything.
- Obscurity isn’t a curse.
Read on to see if your favorite album made the cut.
Hoahio ‘Ohayo! Hoahio!’ (2000)
The 2000s were mere months old when Japanese ‘girl group’ Hoahio delivered an album that, in many ways, foresaw the decade coming. A mix of musics, cultures, tones, and approaches, the album throws the radically avant-garde in with the luridly pop, dissolving distinctions between highbrow/lowbrow as it stirs. The second outing for Haco’s trio summons a unique ‘pan-Asian’ sound mixing Middle Eastern percussion with traditional Japanese instrumentation, minimalist electronic tonalities, and hooks playfully reflecting R&B ballads and insidious Canto pop anthems. Yet, as much as
is capricious and silly, it’s also intensely beautiful, its sweet pop-songs swimming in delicately plucked koto and reassuring field recordings.
Ólöf Arnalds ‘Við og Við’ (2007)
At the end of the ’00s, Ólöf Arnalds’ achingly brittle folksongs were barely known outside of Iceland (where, it must be said, she’s hardly a household name, too). Yet, time shall surely be kind to her rapturously beautiful debut LP; a sparkling jewel that will come to light over the years, be treasured by listeners in subsequent decades. Arnalds’ spartan, brittle, whittled-down folk music sounds like it’s thousands of years old and made of crystal and smoothed into elegant shapes by the tender rasp of her voice. Members of Múm and Sigur Rós daub tuned percussion around Arnalds’ plucked strings of guitar, harp, and violin, but you barely notice they’re there; the music merely the skeletal frame on which Arnalds’ singing hangs brightly.
White Magic ‘Dat Rosa Mel Apibus’ (2006)
Mira Billotte began the decade playing alongside elder sister Christina in the great Quix*o*tic, who fashioned a bizarre take on graveyard/Gothic girl-group garage-rock. Going solo-ish as White Magic, she set sail with slanting sea-shanties, her deep, soulful voice singing doleful refrains over maudlin minor-key melodies tinkled on ivories. Billotte plays piano like someone yet to find their sea-legs; her hands stumbling up and down the keys with more of a drunkard’s lilt than a pianist’s precision. As White Magic’s tunes stagger and sway, and brushed drums toss and pitch, Billotte’s voice flutters in gusts and zephyrs, chanting witchy incantations that summon the dark dread of the terrifying unknown that lurks beneath the seas.
Scout Niblett ‘I Am’ (2003)
Hear one of Scoutt Niblett’s brittle ballads, and she sounds like some amazing Cat Power acolyte: her gloriously-hoarse voice sounding out soulful and doleful over a single spartan guitar. But that notion gets flipped with Niblett’s other favored mode of musical delivery: cheerleader chants —sometimes literally spelling out words— matched to just a rudimentary drumbeat (I Am‘s most infamous slogan going, simply: “We’re all gonna die!”). Each ‘style’ sounds achingly sad, but there’s subversive humor writ in every note; the Emma Louise Niblett hiding behind the wig-wearing ‘Scout’ persona a performance-artist exploring the artifice of the songwriter; her only truths the self-styled mythology she spins on each disc.
Mirah ‘C’mon Miracle’ (2004)
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn writes songs to “make sense of [her] place in the world,” exploring her relationships with lovers, friends, literature, culture, and geopolitics. These songs add up to daring, darling, girlie-ish albums, often produced, with much experimentalist panache, by Phil ‘Microphones/Mount Eerie’ Elverum. And none of these is better —is more of a glorious beacon of sweethearted artistry— thanC’mon Miracle. When, mid-“Promise,” Mirah asks “would you promise to be kind?” to the paramour she’s handed her heart to, it feels like she’s asking the same of each listener. This LP is one long vulnerable state; Mirah laid out, naked, at the feet of an audience she hopes harbor sympathetic hearts.
Le Tigre ‘Feminist Sweepstakes’ (2001)
The second LP for Le Tigre —Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini-Kill dance-rock party— makes a fine, fun art out of sloganeering. Kicking off with “LT Tour Theme,” an anthem whose chorus proclaims “For the ladies and the fags, yeah/we’re the band with the rollerskate jams,” Le Tigre knock out cuts that make rudimentary drum-machines and cheap keyboards the tools of virtuous protest. Though their rhymes’re often funny (try: “Go tell your friends I’m still a feminist/but I won’t be coming to your benefit” or “all my friends are f**king bitches/best known for burning bridges”), they deal with depression, artistic ennui, corporate co-opting of underground culture, academic elitism, and, yes, feminism.
Electrelane ‘The Power Out’ (2004)
Electrelane’s debut, 2001’s Rock it to the Moon, was utterly inessential: an instrumentalist combo playing a post-rocking take on krautrock that verily plodded from quiet to loud, crescendo to crescendo. The Power Out served as radical departure-point; the English girl-group’s once-singular sound exploding into a myriad of sonic ideas. Here, Electrelane found their voice, both literally and figuratively. Whilst some of its dynamics recall their instrumental-rock beginnings, The Power Out‘s considered compositions are studies in the very nature of language; texts sung in English, Spanish, French, and German, and delivered solo, double-tracked, and, in one particularly inspired moment (“The Valleys”) by a medieval-sounding male choir.
Battles ‘Mirrored’ (2007)
Few would’ve expected party music when the crown prince of math-rock, Ian T. Williams, was assembling a so-called ‘supergroup’ of hot players. Yet, Battles, in spite of all their dork-worthy credentials —Williams’ jam-band rounded out by vocal experimentalist Tyondai Braxton, former Lynx guitarist Dave Konopka, and manly skinsman John Stanier, who’s sat on the stool for Helmet, the Mark of Cain, and Tomahawk— were the ’00s’ most unlikely dancefloor fillers. On their debut LP,Mirrored, the quartet create complex compositions of dynamic, overlapping rhythms that are really, really rhythmic; swarms of fretboard-tapping guitars and cymbal-rattling drums gathering a kinetic sense of momentum that favors ass-shaking over chin-stroking.
Storm and Stress ‘Under Thunder & Fluorescent Lights’ (2000)
After years of instrumentalist precision in math-rock dons Don Caballero, future Battles boffin Ian Williams cut loose with Storm and Stress. Their ’97 debut was a free-jazz-ish wreck of smashing glass, guitar shards, spasmodic bass, absurdist lyricism, and erratic percussion. But, where that first S&S LP made a dynamic, almost violent spectacle out of cacophonous arrhythmia, 2000’s Under Thunder & Fluorescent Lights found the band were doing something more unexpected: using rhythmic discordance as a study in isolation. As melancholy guitar flutters, doleful vocals, eerie keyboards, and drum tics float by like ships passing in the night, there’s an exquisite loneliness in the way these individual parts never quite come together.
Atlas Sound ‘Logos’ (2009)
Bradford Cox released a lot of music in the ’00s: three albums fronting Deerhunter, two under the name Atlas Sound, and a countless procession of home-recordings via his blog. His best work, the second Atlas Sound LP, Logos, effortlessly mixes eerie ballads with dreamy drone pieces and krautrock-inspired workouts, making for a career-defining distillation of Cox’s ’00s discography.
Jeffrey Lewis ‘The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane’ (2001)
Jeffrey Lewis —East Village-raised comic book artist turned anti-folk songsmith— is a funny guy. Funny like: “God’s just a story someone made up long ago/before they had books and TV shows”; or: “If I was Leonard Cohen or some other songwriting master/I’d know to first get the oral sex, and then write the song after.” He sings the latter mid-“The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song,” a Cohen-evoking tune that serves as a rambling lament for another random girl that got away. On his 2001 debut, Lewis sings songs smart and smart-ass and sincere and self-aware, exploring himself and his work in a warts-and-all form that probably owes more to Harvey Pekar and Joe Sacco than any songwriting masters, be they Cohen or not.
The Moldy Peaches ‘The Moldy Peaches’ (2001)
No-fi New Yorker anti-folkers The Moldy Peaches —twin songsmiths Kimya Dawson and Adam Green— made good on the myth of inspired juvenilia; their intentionally-crappy, lyrically-obnoxious music giving suspended adolescence a good name. The pair summon the rudimentary outsider-art style of songwriting manchildren like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis, but insert sarcastic self-awareness in place of treasured naïvety (“who mistook this crap for genius?” they mock, before leading to a rhyme with ‘penis’). It’s music blatant in its complete lack of caution; vulgar and silly and, ultimately, throwaway. Yet, as the six-years-later soundtrack to Juno proved, as quickly as these Moldy Peaches may spoil, they’re eternally ripe for rediscovery.
The White Stripes ‘Elephant’ (2003)
I once watched Cat Power fumble out a ten-minute version of “Seven Nation Army,” where the guitarist played that riff, over and over, whilst Chan Marshall struggled to remember the words. And at no point of those ten minutes did that lick grow tired. Like some “Smoke on the Water” for the oughts, Jack White’s snaking, coiling-back riff marked the definitive finger positions for a generation of ’00s bedroom rockers. And, even better, it served as the centerpiece for the best White Stripes LP. Its glorious, vintage analog recording showcases the multi-platinum duo’s rock’n’roll essentialism; the thrust-forward/pull-back routines of their clunky drums/snarky guitar heaving with the same sexual pantomimes of a tango.
Gossip ‘Movement’ (2003)
Catching the Gossip at the perfect point between their shambolic early LPs and their overproduced later ones, Movement is a rock’n’roll record dedicated to the dancefloor; its title a plea for the audience to get footloose. Filled to the gills with killer two-minute cuts of sweaty soul-shouting and balls-out boogie, here the Gossip’s femme-powered, queer-proud take on stripped-down rock —just drums, guitar, and the belted-out vocals of former gospel chorister Beth Ditto— staged its own Revolution Girl Style Now!, serving as a defiant antidote to the rock-revival boys-club that’d sprung up in the wake of The Strokes. In the years since, Ditto’s found far greater fame, but The Gossip haven’t come close to matching the mightiness of this disc.
Liars ‘They Were Wrong, So We Drowned’ (2004)
After dishing up a dance-punk debut, Liars released They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. A caustic sonic stew of staticky guitars, cacophonous drums, and chanted incantations, the LP summons an all-consuming feeling of dread whose ‘difficult’ taste feels like Liars are deliberately presiding over their own commercial demise. Yet, in fame-friendly death, they found artistic transfiguration, authoring what is, far and away, their best record.
Interpol ‘Turn On the Bright Lights’ (2002)
If you can look past the laughably-bad lyrics —“the subway, she is a porno”!!!— and the fact frontman Paul Banks has the vocal subtlety of a foghorn, a pretty impressive anthemic-rock record lays in wait with Turn On the Bright Lights, the debut disc for black-clad New Yorker dudes Interpol. Drawing heavily from post-punk bands like Joy Division, The Cure, and Echo & the Bunnymen, the quartet make moody rock’n’roll full of chiming guitars playing big riffs, all pushed powerfully forward by the hard-pounding, stadium-sized drums of Sam Fogarino. The band are at their best on “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” six brooding minutes on which Banks, crying out “Stellaaaaaaa!” into the night, seems to think he’s a young Brando.
Spoon ‘Kill the Moonlight’ (2002)
The suits in the music bizzz had long since consigned Spoon to ‘also-ran’ status when the Austin, Texas troupe turned up with this completely killer, wiry-tight set of stripped-down, spirited-out songs. Mixing smart studio-sonics with fierce rock-n-roll basics, Kill the Moonlight kicked Spoon’s career into a new gear; was one of the first discs whose slowly-growing popularity seemed the product of internet buzz; that new-millennial evolution from good old-fashioned ‘word of mouth.’ Subsequent Spoon records have gone on to chart-bothering success, but they’ve yet to truly match the magic of the breakout set, an album personified by “The Way We Get By,” a knocked-out piano rocker that sounds for all the world like some eternal jukebox classic.
Architecture in Helsinki ‘In Case We Die’ (2005)
For their second LP, manic Melbournians Architecture in Helsinki —still, back then, eight members large— amped up the ambition, shooting for the stars with rock-operatic excess: banged gongs, exploding fireworks, opera singers, bursts of brass, strings, sitar, musical saw, and powertools used as percussion instruments. AIH marshaled all this in hopes of authoring their definitive album before death came acallin’; a morbid notion that, nevertheless, took their shambling, hyperactive, ADD twee-pop into surprisingly deep artistic terrain. All this is embodied by the set’s achingly sad title-track, a four-part study in growing old/changing relationships that comes blessed with one piece of eternal lyrical wisdom: “silver never gets golder.”
The Flaming Lips ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ (2002)
The Flaming Lips’ legendary liveshows —ridiculous explosions of fake blood, confetti, puppetry, and candy-colored psych-pop— are grand examples of Wayne Coyne’s wonderment at being alive, but Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots battles not for her life, but her transfiguration. And, the Lips find transcendence with the immortal “Do You Realize??,” a life-affirming, reach-for-the-sky, unexpectedly regal hymnal to the human spirit. It’s become almost an “Imagine” for the iPod generation: a perennial power-ballad about making hay in the face of your imminent demise.
Nicolai Dunger ‘Here’s My Song, You Can Have It, I Don’t Want it Anymore’ (2004)
Bruised, dude-ish Swedish crooner Nicolai Dunger had a long, Tim Hardin-reverent career behind him before he arrived at his 12th (or so) LP, Here’s My Song, You Can Have It… I Don’t Want It Anymore/Yours 4-Ever, Nicolai Dunger Here’s My Song is straight singer-songwriterism; richly-orchestrated tunes grandly backing Dunger’s achey croon. Its center-piece is “The Year of the Love and Hurt Cycle,” a concept-driven, nine-minute epic of choirs, string swells, squalling guitar solos, and melodramatic vocalizing that is never held back by anything so noxious as ‘coolness.’
Spiritualized ‘Let It Come Down’ (2001)
Criticized in its day as a work of pompous hubris, hindsight reveals Let It Come Down as one of the greatest albums of the 2000s. Interestingly, Let It Come Down shares its name with one of the ’90s’ most unfairly-maligned albums: James Iha’s 1998 soft-pop solo set. But that’s a disc for another list…
Quickspace ‘The Death of Quickspace’ (2000)
The title of Quickspace’s third LP proved prescient; foretelling a demise in which they suddenly seemed to mysteriously disappear. With a cover that showed a horse being put of out its misery, the record was loaded with clues to the imminent vanishing; the cover-image’s referential pun —a song herein called “They Shoot Horse Don’t They”— even suggesting the drug that’d do them in. As far as Deaths go, this one is, to coin a phrase, a slowburn of glory; the mumbled vocals and post-Sonic-Youth guitars of Tom Cullinan and Nina Pascale stumbling over each other in one long slow-dance. All slowcore gait and distorted guitar interplay, Quickspace’s swansong marked not merely their death, but the death of noisy indie-rock records like it.
Alasdair Roberts ‘Farewell Sorrow’ (2003)
No musical marker was more misused in the ’00s than ‘folk,’ a term that, by decade’s end, seemed only to mean ‘uses acoustic instruments.’ If anyone deserved to use the word in its hard-won sense, it was Scottish songsmith Alasdair Roberts. Working with the same reverence for oral histories that defined the folk-revival, Roberts draws from traditional tunes, but refuses to treat them as museum pieces. On Farewell Sorrow, the second of the five solo albums he made this decade, Roberts sings hunting songs, drinking songs, and ballads anew; his creaky voice cracking with emotion as he makes arcane idioms his own words. Fittingly, the LP booklet prints the lyrics, tunings, and chords; folk music, after all, being freely open to interpretation.
Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2008)
Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver back-story is romantic as stand-alone anecdote —guy, heartbroken, holes up in his dad’s cabin-in-the-woods, spends a Wisconsin winter chopping wood by day, playing his blues away by night— but it’d be just a well-spun yarn if not for the album that came out of it. And For Emma, Forever Ago, a stone-cold classic break-up album, makes it the stuff of modern-day myth. Snowbound and suffering, Vernon plays his spartan set of lovelorned laments with such delicacy and reverence they seem like spirituals. And though it’s earnt its rep as some lo-fi outing, Vernon shows a suspiciously-sophisticated production touch; the many layers of “For Emma” spinning an intricate, multi-timbral web of brassy heartache.
Ugly Casanova ‘Sharpen Your Teeth’ (2002)
Taking respite from Modest Mouse after feeling frustrated by his major-label dealings with The Moon & Antarctica, Isaac Brock made a solo album wielding the countryish licks he’d been whetting since 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Made outside the confines of his rockband, Brock obviously felt a musical freedom, as there’s a genuine sense of adventure in the Brian Deck-produced studio experimentalism that shrouds Brock’s twangy tunes in layers of ghosted vocals, wisps of slide guitar, and random clangs of ‘found’ percussion. As songwriter, Brock’s Ugly Casanova obsessions were the same as always: Sharpen Your Teeth continuing the career-long lyrical study of mortality that, soon thereafter, would suddenly go multi-platinum.
Modest Mouse ‘The Moon & Antarctica’ (2000)
Though Sony lamented their initial investment in Modest Mouse, and Isaac Brock publicly bitched about life in thrall to beancounters, The Moon & Antarctica —the major-label debut whose initial sales were deemed a ‘commercial failure’— was hardly an artistic disaster. Coalescing the sentiments Brock had explored across a scattering of indie singles and EPs, the third MM LP again positioned its lyricist as philosophical thinker, stranded in the back of a tour van, contemplating the vastness of the universe and his tiny insignificance therein. Not a single second of it seemed stained by major-label intervention or commercial-radio slickness (that’d come later in their career), and much of it, over a decade later, still sounds totally fresh.
Bright Eyes ‘Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear…’ (2002)
Songwriting wunderkind Conor Oberst was all of 21 when he rolled tape on the fourth Bright Eyes LP, Lifted‘s otherwise-rousing songs border on paranoia. It’s self-obsession as high-art; car-crash confessionalism for fans of emo-ish Americana.
Feist ‘The Reminder’ (2007)
As far as Platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated, Apple-celebrated, generally-ubiquitous albums go, it’s hard to go past the third LP for Canadian songbird Leslie Feist. At the tender age of 31, the onetime Broken Social Scenester broke big-time; selling millions and charming legions in a silly successful 2007. But, beneath all the unit-shifting statistics beats the heart of an indie album; The Reminder finds strength in imperfection.
New Buffalo ‘The Last Beautiful Day’ (2004)
Long before New Buffalo’s Sally Seltmann found some sort of strange second-hand fame, as the human who authored Feist’s Grammy-nominated anthem “1234,” the Aussie songstress was quietly fashioning a sweepingly romantic, totally homemade, slightly wonky take on cock-eyed pop. Written as Seltmann was recovering from debilitating illness, The Last Beautiful Day is a glorious shrine to sheer optimism, sung in a voice that sounds on the verge of breaking. Its cascading piano chords, gurgling analog organs, and sinuous sweeps of sampled strings work in service of sentiments like “recovery/looks like it’s gonna be OK/it’s a new day,” “it’s all right,” and, on a song called “It’ll Be Alright,” “I wanted to say/move on/And look on the brighter side.”
Nedelle ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ (2005)
Nedelle Torrisi, the Bay Area belle who also fronts the undoubtably ace out-pop outfit Cryptacize, kicks off her second solo album with one of the saddest —if not just flat-out best. From the Lion’s Mouth is a sparkling set of sterling indie songwriting.
Evangelista ‘Hello, Voyager’ (2008)
Through 30 years of ragged, red-raw music, Carla Bozulich’s ever-shifting musical career can be charted not as ebbs and flows, but grand, tidal, heaving shifts. Though Bozulich’s more ‘together’ records —like the Geraldine Fibbers’ 1995 rock-opera Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, or her conceptual Willie Nelson reimagining, Red Headed Stranger, in 2003— have been her most acclaimed, to me she seems most vital when at her most unhinged. A decade after Scarnella’s free-form funereal séance delved deep into the shadows, Bozulich’s first Evangelista LP ventures back to that spectral, lunatic fringe. Made in league with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hello, Voyager is a black-hearted album utterly unafraid of its own darkness.
Sandro Perri ‘Tiny Mirrors’ (2007)
After years authoring instrumental music as Polmo Polpo, Toronto’s Sandro Perri recast himself as a veritable troubadour on his regal solo debut. In debt to Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley, Skip Spence and Skip James, Perri’s own-name album evokes singer-songwriters from before a time when “singer-songwriter” was an epithet; showcasing a honeyed voice, lyrical charms, wooded instrumentation, and glowing arrangements. To merely listen to Tiny Mirrors feels like a romantic undertaking; Perri’s (photo) album a flickering showreel of precious memories, summoning that happy/sad feeling that comes with remembering in every loss-tinged love-song. It’s a record steeped in the sadness of time passing, a record beautiful in complex, unexpected ways.
Vincent Gallo ‘When’ (2001)
Vincent Gallo’s echoey, analog lullabies still have enough melancholy magic to take me back to that blissfully naïve place when I first heard When. The album’s poetic loneliness helps me forget that I know what a Paris Hilton is and that this tender record was authored by a semen-selling Republican renowned for being an utter douche.
Jim O’Rourke ‘Insignificance’ (2001)
Jim O’Rourke —the guy who saved Wilco from MOR mediocrity, did a stint as official fifth member of Sonic Youth, then bitterly retired from music for the latter ’00s— has one of music’s most confusing CVs, a mad tangle of collaborations, experiments, and one-off ideas. Luckily, he made a pair of peerless pop records that stand head-and-shoulders above all else: 1999’s Eureka, and Insignificance. The latter found Diamond Jim in full command of his semi-ironic soft-pop sound; a smooth mixture of bluegrass guitars, analogue organs, piano, pedal steel, and brass, topped with O’Rourke’s gentle croon and savage sarcasm. The record’s never better than on “Get a Room,” whose secretly hilarious lyrics reward, infinitely, those listening closely.
Fennesz ‘Endless Summer’ (2001)
A decade before chillwave blew up the blogosphere, Austrian boffin Christian Fennesz was staging a one man electronic exploration of the sadness inherent in summertime nostalgia. Fennesz had been, prior, working in far more austere realms of electro experimentalism; exploring digitalia’s circuit-frying sounds and amusical ways. But Endless Summer‘s dense sound-clouds are infused with generous warmth; and, on the album’s wondrous, eight-minute-long title-track, there’s even a languorous acoustic guitar, whose lazy, loose-stringed strums are washed out into a haze of sweet sentimental sounds. It’s not a pop record by any stretch, but the sense of emotion —something that, at the time, was a ‘glitch’ scene no-no— is palpable.
Dntel ‘Life is Full of Possibilities’ (2001)
It seems strange, a decade on, that this Dntel record has become but a footnote; as the LP on which Los Angelino beatmaker Jimmy ‘Dntel’ Tamborello met Death Cab for Cutie frontman, leading to their eventual union as The Postal Service. Strange given that, at the time, people went crazy for it on its own (see: a 9.3 on Pitchfork). Here, Tamborello collaborates with vocalists like Mia Doi Todd, Rachel Haden, and Beachwood Sparks’ Chris Gunst, who give voice to his overwhelming fear of death (as reflected by the ironic juxtaposition of title/artwork); their voices layered, treated, cut up, and scattered through Tamborello’s dense soundworlds of skittering beats, looming synths, vinyl crackles, and opaque atmospheres.
The Postal Service ‘Give Up’ (2003)
Trying, in vain, to follow up his Dntel’s classic Life Is Full Of Possibilities, Jimmy Tamborello was stuck. Hoping to get out of his rut, he took the suggestion of Sub Pop bigwigs, and started trading tapes with Death Cab dude Ben Gibbard, whom he’d collaborated with on the Dntel cut “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan.” Going back-and-forth through the post, electro-nerd and emo-poet became unlikely artistic couple; Tamborello’s blippy beatmaking and Gibbard’s taut lyricism making for a perfect sad-electro-pop match. In the years since its blessed release, Give Up has gone Gold, Gibbard has steadfastly refused to revisit the Postal Service, and that Owl City huckster has so blatantly ripped the band off even he must feel embarrassed.
Death Cab for Cutie ‘Transatlanticism’ (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie’s fifth LP means a lot to a lot of people. Which is, of course, a cue to once more laugh again at that guy with the “Transatlanticism” tattoo. Transatanticism is never more effecting than on its title track, which reaches transcendence through the singalong repetition of seven simple syllables: “I need you so much closer.”
Wildbirds & Peacedrums ‘The Snake’ (2009)
Swedish husband/wife duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums are a profound study in songwriting elementalism, reducing music to its barest of bones: Andreas Werliin’s percussion as rhythm, Mariam Wallentin’s voice as melody. Yet, this simple set-up is anything but reductionist. Their second record, The Snake, isn’t stripped down, but built up; the pair using those same simple tools to construct soulful songs of towering beauty. It’s an album both rambunctious and grand; finding transcendence via skittering percussion and jazzy singing. And it’s punctuated by the epic, majestic, seven-minute send-off, “My Heart,” which finds Wallentin exhorting her heart to keep beating, so she can stave off mortality to sing —to love— for one more day.
The Knife ‘Silent Shout’ (2006)
Fear, in electronic music, usually summons that stock sci-fi parable: the fear of a high-tech future in which human values have been subsumed by the rise of the machines. Swedish brother/sister electro duo The Knife convey a completely different kind of fear in their quite-frankly-frightening sound: sheer abject terror. Not fear as ideological weapon, but genuine, visceral, deep-in-your stomach dread. The Knife’s third LP is, in all its cold beats and heavily-effected Karin Dreijer vocals, just scary to hear. I guess you could dance to it in the club, sing along with it in your car (“spending time with my family/like the Corleones!”), or have it on while washing dishes, but I can only listen to Silent Shout curled up in fetal position.
Crazy Dreams Band ‘Crazy Dreams Band’ (2008)
Made up of members of Lexie Mountain Boys, Harrius, Mouthus, and Religious Knives, CDB come steeped in histories of difficult listening. But they couldn’t be easier to listen to: their joyous, jam-band racket stumbling a line between classic-rock-approximation and shambolic capitulation. Powered by Nick Becker’s overwired moog and dueling, wailing vocalists Alexandra Macchi and Chiara Giovando, CDB make ad-hoc experimentation sound stadium-sized. On the anthemic “Separate Ways,” Macchi harangues “hating you takes a lot of ENERGY!” in a bluesy, boozy roar that sounds not so much like Janis Joplin back from the grave, but Janis Joplin rotting in her grave.
Juana Molina ‘Tres Cosas’ (2003)
The phrase ‘comedienne-turned-songwriter’ has all kinds of bad connotations, but Juana Molina, once the star of an Argentine sketch-comedy show, makes music that is utterly magical. Her homespun sonic spells, record entirely in isolation, float woozily on tumbling layers of guitar and the soothing sound of Molina’s soft Spanish singing. Molina’s breakout (i.e. the one first heard outside of Argentina) second record, Tres Cosas, strips songs down in an act of stunning compositional purity; feeling, in such, far more ‘present’ —more reverent, even— in the music’s beauty.
Cornelius ‘Point’ (2002)
Openly evoking the hoary notion of the “journey through music,” Keigo Oyamada’s fourth album as Cornelius showed him embodying the familiar, romanticised notion of the crate-diggin’, dusty-vinyl-rescuing DJ: pawing through the refuse of pan-genre popular-culture, fashioning an array of audio sources into a singular whole. Using the studio as instrument, the king of Tokyo’s so-called Shibuya-kei scene seemed like a painter, dexterously applying precise strokes of color and composition. Oyamada constructs his songs with the same kind of conception and control; Point’s voyage “from Nakameguro to Everywhere,” finding him cut-and-pasting his way to a densely-woven, impishly experimental, wantonly harmonic vision of shiny, futurist pop.
Tujiko Noriko ‘Make Me Hard’ (2002)
Tokyo-raised, Paris-based Tujiko Noriko wore one recurring comparison throughout the ’00s: Björk. When you’re making immense, emotionally-drenched soundworlds out of digital fragments, distorted synthesizer sounds, and the raw power of your multi-tracked voice, it’s probably an apt comparison. Especially as female. Gatecrashing the abstract-electro boys club with a kind of ‘avant-garde J-pop,’ Tujiko sounded as alien as she did feminine; her music at once cute and devastating, sweet and heedless, friendly and terrifying. By her third LP, Make Me Hard, Tujiko was working at the height of her powers; the set’s dark, shadowy constructions of swirling, funneling, pummeling electronic sounds set alight by the naked flame of her evocative voice.
Kahimi Karie ‘Trapéziste’ (2003)
After starting out life as cutesy J-pop ingénue, Kahimi Karie has had quite the impressive career: a fascinating narrative of forward-forging artistic exploration in which she’s rubbed shoulders with the Olivia Tremor Control, Cornelius, Jim O’Rourke, and Otomo Yoshihide. Drawing inspiration from Brigitte Fontaine’s eternal Comme à la Radio, the glorious Trapéziste found Karie soaring gracefully over a musical net cast far and wide. Collaging diverse sounds —opera, free-jazz, dissonant static, tropicalism, electro-pop, spoken-word— with careful editing and profound juxtaposition, Karie’s daring fifth album assembles thousands of tiny fragments of sound into some of the most avant-garde songs ever to be sold as commercially-accessible pop.
Camille ‘Le Fil’ (2005)
It’s a B. This single note sung by Camille, and looped into an unending drone, resonates throughout Le Fil, and the record comes out a winner.
Mathieu Boogaerts ‘2000’ (2002)
Mathieu Boogaerts is to pop music as Michel Gondry is to cinema: a kooky, quirky, cock-eyed Frenchman who sees the world through the prism of his art, and gives as much credence to dreaming as to so-called ‘reality.’ On his third record, Boogaerts took his twitchy, skiffle-ish ‘pop minimale’ sound away from its usual hypnotic, robotic rhythms, and into some sort of strange, wonky, woozy country fantasia. Like on opener “Las Vegas,” which, whilst Boogaerts sings of Caesers Palace and Marilyn Monroe, drizzles syrupy pedal-steel over reggae-inflected synth-pop rhythms. When not undertaking odd juxtapositions, Boogaerts stuffs 2000 with killer pop-songs; “Tu Es” perhaps the most brilliant three minutes of his brilliant career.
The Books ‘The Lemon of Pink’ (2003)
The quirkiness of this album, including nerds riffing on
Monty Python, makes The Lemon of Pink scandalously enjoyable listening for anyone with ears.
Grizzly Bear ‘Veckatimest’ (2009)
After debuting as Ed Droste’s solo home-recordings on 2004’s Horn of Plenty, Veckatimest is ripe with body, vivid with color, bursting with sweetness. Cascading with counterpoints and decked out in heavenly harmonies, the beautifully-produced tunes bless those listening on headphones; each one a romantic dance of tiny detail and grand sweep. It’s a record both staggeringly simple and quietly complex, one that, wonderfully, plays as well three dozen listens in as it does on that virgin spin.
Final Fantasy ‘He Poos Clouds’ (2006)
Anyone doubting that the nerds have inherited the musical Earth need only hear the second album by Owen Pallett, the ochestral-pop-penning Canadian carrot-top whose violin-virtuoso childhood didn’t leave much room for socializing. A concept record schooled in Dungeons and Dragons magic, He Poos Clouds‘ title-track is about an obsessive crush on The Legend of Zelda‘s Link (“all the boys I have ever loved have been digital,” “I move him with my thumbs,” etc). I have no idea what RPG is in mind when Pallett sings “his massive genitals refuse to co-operate” over “This Lamb Sells Condos”’ jaunty, rag-time marriage of harpsichord, piano, and choir, but it matters little: even those who’ve never rolled a 20-sided die can, and will, love this LP.
The Arcade Fire ‘Funeral’ (2004)
After the rock-revival big-wigs —The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes— demanded stripped-down reductionism, the Arcade Fire were hugely responsible for rehabilitating the cachet of earnest, emotive grandeur. The grandstanding Québécois combo’s debut, Funeral is an album steeped, somehow, in both tragedy and optimism; as in “Haiti,” where Régine Chassagne presides over a joyous jamboree whose lyrics, dancing between English and Kreyòl, paint with the blood of slain Haitians.
Godspeed You Black Emperor! ‘Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas…’ (2000)
There are few bands that can make a convincing argument that they needed to make an 87-minute-long double-album, but Québécois post-rock co-op Godspeed You! Black Emperor, in all their epic ideologies, strung out studies in dynamics, and apocalyptic crescendos, are a band befitting the long-form study. GY!BE’s second LP, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven finds the band’s boiling politicized rage simmering at more of a languorous melancholy, an aching sadness that lingers in every dewy note of frayed guitar, every ghostly field recording, every weeping wail of violin. Their music sheds tears for the landscapes of urban decay; it a form of audio architectural psychology that laments environments stained by white flight’s blight.
Sunset Rubdown ‘Random Spirit Lover’ (2007)
If anybody could’ve conceivably still considered Spencer Krug’s Sunset Rubdown a “Wolf Parade side-project” after 2006’s mighty Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Random Spirit Lover was the silencer. Going way beyond where his other, more-famous outfit would ever dare, Krug’s third Sunset Rubdown LP is ambition laid upon ambition; a mad tangle of off-kilter guitars and smashed keyboards in which he eagerly slathers on idea after idea. Such musical complexity is matched by Krug’s literary lyricism, which —via verses like “think of the scene where a washed-up actor/wipes the make-up off his wife and says/‘morticians must’ve took you for a whore’”— summons a theatrical world in which every word or deed, on stage or off, is a performance.
Camera Obscura ‘Let’s Get Out of This Country’ (2006)
For many, Scottish indie-pop outfit Camera Obscura were easily dismissed as simple Belle and Sebastian acolytes; yet, by the time Traceyanne Campbell and co arrived at their third album, few could deny they had their own vital identity. Crammed to the gills with harmonious, charming, toe-tapping tunes, Let’s Get Out of This Country can stand alongside any of Belle and Sebastian’s beloved classics (well, maybe not If You’re Feeling Sinister…). Amidst its sweeping strings and salty lyricism, Campbell shows she knows her pop-music place. When she tips her hat to the likes of Dory Previn and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, it’s obvious Campbell has bided her time studying songsmiths most lyrically adept, then putting their lessons into practice.
Belle and Sebastian ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ (2003)
After releasing one of the greatest records, like, ever, with 1996’s note-perfect If You’re Feeling Sinister, Scottish pop stragglers Belle and Sebastian slowly sunk into a fractured, muddled period personified by 2000’s middling LP Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress arrived, then, as a bright new beginning. With their long-derided feyness and wetness in scant supply, the Trevor Horn-produced platter paraded hot guitar licks, sweeping strings, and classic-pop-song panache. Strutting proudly in high-fidelity, Belle and Sebastian sounded not like some straggly collective of christians and charlatans from the hippest cafs in Glasgow, but like a fully-fledged band, in the best sense of the world.
The Decemberists ‘Her Majesty the Decemberists’ (2003)
All ye olde seafarin’ imagery, yellowing literary lyrics, and marching band stomp, Her Majesty the Decemberists introduced the world to the readily-apparent talent of Colin Meloy. Singing with a sneer equal parts Jeff Mangum and John Darnielle, Meloy pirouettes through a series of nimble numbers evoking Anglo-Saxon sea-shantys, Billy Bragg protest songs, and Elephant 6 whimsy. Throughout, his studious, well-shapen words —openly evoking other authors Dylan Thomas, Marcel Duchamp, and Myla Goldberg— seem ever-quotable; ne’er moreso than when Meloy calls Los Angeles “an ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore.” Subsequent Decemberists discs have been more popular, but this still serves as the perfect entry-point to their particular brand of pop.
Beirut ‘Gulag Orkestar’ (2006)
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: teenager from New Mexico drops out of high-school, wanders dirt-poor through Europe in search of the Balkan Gypsy music he’s heard in Emir Kusturica movies, marries it with his own Morrissey-esque croon and Magnetic Fields obsessions, and authors one of the decade’s best albums before he hits 19. Zach Condon’s back-story is writ across Gulag Orkestar, which plays like a travelogue headed Due East through Europe. Though recorded in his bedroom at his parents’ house in Albuquerque, Condon’s romantic music summons sentimental vision of Europe; never moreso than in the rapturously romantic “Postcards from Italy,” a stirring, swelling ballad that’s truly one of the very best songs of the ’00s.
CocoRosie ‘La Maison de Mon Rêve’ (2004)
Freak-folk Le Maison de Mon Rêve was filled with autoharps and acoustic guitars, its use of folk forms was ironic; the Casady siblings playing spirituals with a vicious revisionist twist. In their squeaky, squawky voices, the sisters sung things like “Jesus loves me/but not my wife/not my nigger friends/or their nigger lives,” turning pseudo-Gospel numbers into claws-out critiques of Christianity.
M.I.A. ‘Arular’ (2005)
On the beloved first record for girl-made-good Maya Arulpragasam —brown skin/West Londoner/educated/refugee, huh— it’s the beats that hit you first. Punched out on the daddy of all compact-drum-machines, the 505, M.I.A.’s groovebox boxes well above its weight; its concussive caress careening through combos of crunk, baile funk, ragga, gutter-garage, and dancehall. Over the top, Arulpragasam lets loose a lyrical haranguing, fusing hip-hop bluster with armed-resistance sloganeering as if stitching the first and the third world together like some musical factory-worker. On the back of such an audacious, heavyweight debut, it was to no one’s surprise that M.I.A. went on to become one of the truly transcendent stars of the 2000s. God bless her.
Why? ‘Alopecia’ (2008)
Yoni Wolf is the master of the overshare. Across five Why? LPs, the American lyricist’s mixture of tragicomic neuroses and uncomfortable intimacy has earnt him more comparisons to Woody Allen and Larry David than singer-songwriters. Whilst his career has gone from backpacker-rap to cute indie-pop to piano-balladeering, Wolf’s half-sung/half-spoken observations and confessions have remained a constant. And never was Wolf so on fire as on his fourth Why? set, 2008’s Alopecia, which matched endlessly quotable lyrics (“you’re a beautiful and violent word/with the skinny neck/of a Chinese bird”) to a host of utterly memorable hooks; cuts like “The Hollows,” “Fatalist Palmistry,” and “By Torpedo of Crohn’s” the defining works of a career.
Sam Amidon ‘All is Well’ (2008)
It’s rare when a formal, studious approach breeds better musical results than a ragged, intuitive one; yet Sam Amidon’s mannered, stoic, prosaic All is Well goes far beyond the limits of freak-folk’s adoptive, ad-hoc primitivism. Interpreting ten traditional folksongs, Amidon sings them in a croaky baritone bordering on monotone. His voice contrasts, sometimes violently, with Nico Muhly’s musically dexterous, sonically complex, avant-gardist exercises in orchestral ambition. Whilst that might read as, at best, an interesting experiment, the results are the exact opposite: this restraint somehow summoning savage emotional outbursts from ambushed listeners. Meaning: you listen to All is Well, you probably cry.
Iron & Wine ‘The Creek Drank the Cradle’ (2002)
Bearded folkie Sam ‘Iron and Wine’ Beam arrived bearing a debut disc proudly wearing its home-made inceptions on its sleeve. Beam’s hushed set of songs play like half-whisper, half-tape-hiss, the rudiments of four-track recording giving them a genuine sense of shrouded secrecy. Rolling tape late at night his wife and newborn had gone to bed, Beam spun his gentle, rural ditties like lullabies for the already sleeping. His softly-sung lyrics offer imagery like “mother, remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry?”; effectively summoning notions of the mythical, Falknerian South in bashful balladry. Shrouded in the white-noise of roomtome,The Creek Drank the Cradle‘s tunes sound like ghostly remnants of a distant era.
Fleet Foxes ‘Fleet Foxes’ (2008)
One of the decade’s more pleasant massive-success stories, this crew of polite, pleasing, bearded boys from Seattle garnered a besotted, ever-growing following with their self-titled, Sub Pop-issued debut. The folkie fivesome are blessed by glorious four-part harmonies, their obvious joy in the “almost religious” power of singing summoning romanticized images of rural clans caroling away summer nights together. Fittingly, frontman Robin Pecknold writes songs filled with yearning for his own family, blood so much thicker than water that even the set’s ostensible lovesong, “Blue Ridge Mountains,“ keeps its heart close to home: “Sean, don’t get careless/I’m sure it’ll be fine/I love you, I love you/Oh, brother of mine.”
Damon & Naomi ‘With Ghost’ (2000)
Husband-and-wife team Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang —former members of indie legends Galaxie 500— had already crafted three impressive LPs of tender, bashful balladry by the time they hooked up with Japanese hippies Ghost. Though there were cultural boundaries to cross (“wait, you guys practice?” Yang asked), it soon proved a blessed union: the deft, glistening guitar playing of Michio Kurihara bringing out the psychedelic heart beating deep within Damon and Naomi’s normally-restrained acid-folk. The resultant, resplendent album finds nine gently numbers glowing with the warmth of newly-blown glass; none more beautiful than Yang’s impassioned reading of Nico’s Tim Hardin-penned “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce.”
Nagisa Ni Te ‘Feel’ (2002)
Japanese couple Nagisa Ni Te —nimble-fingered guitar god Shinji Shibayama, his wife/muse/collaborateur/foil Masako Takeda— authored a tender set of vows with their glorious fourth album. Practitioners of a melancholy psychedelia openly inspired by Neil Young (their name means ‘On the Beach’ in Japanese), the duo ditch the normal ‘cosmic’ sentiments of psych for a series of domestic devotionals and transcendental spirituals. Their faith is not in God, though, but in their marriage; their thanks and praise always for the existence of each other. On the achingly beautiful “We,” what they sing together, in gentle Japanese, translates as: “Every day we fall in love, and share the same time. Deep as the first day, but never the same.”
Jens Lekman ‘When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog’ (2004)
“I encourage people that I’ve written about, if they feel they’ve been portrayed in a bad way, to come up to me and spit in my face,” laughs Swedish crooner Jens Lekman. And, by ‘people,’ he means: girls. On an LP dedicated to his “first love, Sara,” there’s also songs called “Julie,” “Silvia,” “Psychogirl,” and “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa.” Even the ‘political’ cut —a chronicle of WTO/anti-Bush protests, “Do You Remember The Riots?”— is about a girl. “A collection of recordings – 2000-2004,” When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog matches Avalanches-inspired sample-swells with smart-ass singing heavily in debt to Morrissey and Stephin Merritt. Yet, as Lekman’s words walk a line between honesty and irony, his romanticism remains unwavering.
Jenny Wilson ‘Hardships!’ (2009)
Jenny Wilson’s magical 2005 debut, Love & Youth, was a suite of songs about high-school politics, summoning pangs of awkward adolescence over an amazing ‘acoustic disco’ sound. The Swedish starlet’s follow-up is a gorgeous R&B record of rich, real instrumentation —all piano, hand-percussion, and woodwinds— that equates new parenthood with going to war. Razing the noxious clichés of celebrity trophy-babies, Wilson feels abandoned by society, mourns the loss of her individuality, even fantasizes about walking out on her children. On the set’s title-track, she wonders why the scars of motherhood are unworthy, whilst the scars of war are noble. It’s brave, brilliant stuff, an inspired marriage of thematic conflicts and harmonic songwriting.
Tune-Yards ‘Bird-Brains’ (2009)
Merrill Garbus started 2009 selling Bird-Brains via her website, and ended it signed to indie empire 4AD, upstaging Dirty Projectors on tour. Informed by time/s spent living in Kenya, nannying a two-year-old, and working as a puppeteer, Garbus authored these (amazing) songs on a hand-held digital recorder, as a form of self-powered audio vérité. Built from thrummed ukulele, clunky programming, hand percussion, and Garbus’s glorious, boisterous voice, Bird-Brains vaults from quiet to chaotic at a whim, seeming forever blessed by serendipitous spirit. Home-recorder-turned-indie-star has become a familiar narrative, but it feels like a miracle that something as pure and personal as Bird-Brains has vaulted into the collective consciousness.
Of Montreal ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?’ (2007)
Of Montreal were once the twee-est jamboree in Elephant 6’s prized patch of retrophonic flower-children. Yet, by their eighth album, Kevin Barnes shelved the old-timey imagery and archaic idioms, radically rewriting Of Montreal as tense electro-funk outfit rife with simmering sexual tension. Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is the band’s landmark longplayer, a colossal epic in which Barnes ditches the fanciful and whimsical for the hysterical and confessional. Its centerpiece, the krautrock-ish 12-minute workout “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” finds him rambling in free-association, his ever-increasing agitation making it seem like so much psychotherapy. It’s neurosis on the dancefloor, and Barnes dares not kill the groove.
Life Without Buildings ‘Any Other City’ (2001)
Life Without Buildings have myth all stitched up. The Scottish art-school outfit recorded only one album before breaking up, and it just so happens to be one of the decade’s best. With a sound inspired by Television and The Smiths, the quartet bounce along with cleanly-played guitars and spunky, push-beat drums. And then there’s Sue Tompkins, the bouncy vocalist who makes like some mad mixture of Patti Smith and Clare Grogan as she unleashes a torrent of half-spoken words all over the LP. The buoyant spirit of both band and album, Tompkins has a habit of repeating words until their phonetics fumble and the syllables become unrecognizable; like in “Envoys,” when she spits out “sob, sob, sob” until it becomes a kind of sob in itself.
Phoenix ‘It’s Never Been Like That’ (2006)
It’s with much, much irony that the album that broke Phoenix from cult rockband to crazy commercial success with 2009’s patchy Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, because It’s Never Been Like That was perfect.
The Strokes ‘Is This It’ (2001)
Seen through hindsight’s lens, it’s easy to hate The Strokes; given they inspired a retrograde rock-revival in which dudes dressed in shaggy hair, tight trousers, jean jackets, and casual misogyny acted like the world owed them something. Yet, there’s no denying their debut is a killer rock record. For an album made by a hyped-to-death band who changed a musical decade, Is This It is, as its rhetorical (read: question-mark-lacking) title suggests, unaffected and unimpressed. Though the chugging guitars and push-beat rhythm section barrel along with irrepressible swagger, the tone is truly set by Julian Casablancas’s half-sung, plain-spoken lyrics, which he delivers with a nonchalant shrug part Lou Reed, part Stephen Malkmus.
Vampire Weekend ‘Vampire Weekend’ (2008)
Essentially the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie —all literary heritage, belletristic privilege, and droll irony— it’s no surprise than Vampire Weekend’s debut met with reactionist slander. Doubly so due to the fact that the quartet draw heavily from West African guitar-pop; frontman Ezra Koenig proudly rocking that high, bright, dry guitar sound. This intercontinental influence leads to claims the band were culture thieves and Paul Simon wannabes; but they’re clearly more clued up, mocking the “world music ” generation in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” where Koenig sings, “it feels so unnatural/Peter Gabriel, too,” before sardonically asking “Can you stay up to see the dawn/in the colours of Benetton?”
Dirty Projectors ‘Bitte Orca’ (2009)
Dirty Projectors spent the whole decade toiling under his Dirty Projectors handle, making amazing, idiosyncratic albums that, for most of the ’00s, remained ignored. That changed with Bitte Orca, in a very big way. The seventh DP LP —a grand, irrepressible pop record of bright, bold colors and crazed compositions— broke the band out of the underground and into the spotlight. Fittingly, the set marked the culmination of the many varied, particular, peculiar strains of hipster musicology —pointillist orchestration, West African guitar pop, thudding R&B sub-bass, competing polyrhythms— Longstreth had dabbled in. This time, he piled them all on for an album of constant thrills; an utter joy for longtime Longstreth lovers or neophytes alike.
Parenthetical Girls ‘Entanglements’ (2008)
On their third longplayer, Portland’s Parenthetical Girls went wholly orchestral, fashioning a fruity set of densely-scored, elaborately-layered mini-symphonies drawing from folk like Raymond Scott, Scott Walker, and Burt Bacharach. The songs zip about with the jaunty jollity of a distant era, their devil-may-care accelerando bursts pirouetting with the kind of gay abandon usually reserved for Merrie Melodies episodes. Forever running counter to the orchestrated schmaltz is frontman Zac Pennington: his fruity, gender-confused crooning; his thesaurus-leafing lyrics; his perpetual lyrical attraction to the bodily and the grotesque. Wedding such words to woofing woodwinds and zinging strings, Entanglements is an inspired marriage.
Scott Walker ‘The Drift’ (2006)
Scott Walker, that one-time teen-pop pin-up turned legendary avant-garde recluse, moved further into the darkness with The Drift. Issued when Walker was 63, the set shows a daring usually associated with youth; but, perhaps, it was the feeling of ever-nearing death that inspired Walker to once again throw caution to the wind. Here, he continues exploring the farthest reaches of the extremes of songcraft; embracing atonalism, dissonance, friction, and bizarre narrative literalism: “Clara” finds percussionist Alasdair Malloy punching on a side of pork to summon the sound of angry citizens clubbing the strung-up corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress in a Milan piazza. It makes for the most extreme, intense, and nasty Walker set yet.
Antony and the Johnsons ‘I Am a Bird Now’ (2005)
Many a concept-record was made in the ’00s, but only one symbolized the physical journey from male to female as a chick growing into a bird. Suitably enough, that only-one was the second record for gender-confusing crooner Antony Hegarty; a warbling songbird whose pipes sound more like Nina Simone than any fella you could think of. Working, again, under the name Antony and Johnsons, Hegarty delivered a tender set of transgender torchsongs that told of transgression, transformation, and taking wing. Doing so, the the pianoman’s peerless pageantry was so utterly Classical in its approach and raw in its beauty that you could forget the Leather Pants guest list (Lou Reed, Boy George, Rufus Wainwright) and learn to love it for all its lumps.
Frida Hyvönen ‘Until Death Comes’ (2005)
Pounding at her piano with a fearsome fierceness, statuesque Swedish songstress Frida Hyvönen —six feet of vicious lyricism and brutal honesty— laces toe-tapping tunes with uncomfortable truths. On her debut album, Hyvönen comes across as a performer ripe with sins to confess and scores to level. That starts with “You Never Got Me Right,” two minutes of barreling, boisterous, piano/male-bashing that strikes blows at a condescending former beau. It stands alongside the jaw-dropping “Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child,” whose casual references to anatomy and unguarded recollections of nascent sexuality are at once hilarious and shocking, singalong and profound. It’s a blinding highlight: the best songs on one of the decade’s best albums.
El Perro del Mar ‘From the Valley to the Stars’ (2008)
Of the three albums for impossibly-breathy Swedish chanteuse El Perro del Mar, this is, mistakenly, regarded as her least essential; the difficult-second album stuck between the Brill Building pop of her self-titled 2006 debut and the languorous disco of 2009’s Love is Not Pop. From the Valley to the Stars turns that inside-out. A concept album, of sorts, about transfiguration, its lyrics are awash in joy whilst its music sounds solemn. As the songs steadily ‘ascend,’ the arrangements shed weight, until all that’s left is the holy sound of barely-there organ chords and El Perro Del Mar’s rapturous whispers of happiness.
The Concretes ‘The Concretes’ (2003)
Here lies the dazzlng debut of The Concretes: an ungodly-good girl-group from Stockholm harboring —as jams like “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Diana Ross” attest— a serious Supremes love. Swaggering like Ronnie and layering on instruments like Phil, the Swedes conjure the Spector of past pop with wall-of-sound arrangements stacking organ, harp, strings, and choirs skywards. What sets their music apart from other old-R&B revivalists is the inescapable feeling of melancholy; as personified by the sad, Hope Sandoval-ish voice of Victoria Bergsman. Years later, Bergsman would eventually be kicked out of the band, then find fame as Taken by Trees, but for one brief, 40-minute moment, The Concretes were the best band in the world
The Avalanches ‘Since I Left You’ (2000)
The Avalanches’ 2000 debut announced the decade anew: slaying the irony that reigned over the ’90s and championing the glories of sincerity. Hearing the sad melancholy inherent in every lost or forgotten record they cut from, the Melburnian crew cobbled together a tapestry of romanticized samples. The result, Since I Left You, is one of the decade’s best.
Broadcast ‘The Noise Made By People’ (2000)
When Brummie outfit Broadcast blithely arrived in a sea of modular organs, rickety drums, and cooing vocals, they were summarily as a second-rate Stereolab. Thankfully, they didn’t let it dissuade them, and, by the time they finally arrived at their debut album —after five years of existence— they were already an utterly unique proposition. The brilliant The Noise Made By People was followed by Haha Sound and Tender Buttons, but neither quite summoned the same magic.
Celebration ‘The Modern Tribe’ (2007)
Baltimore’s amazing Celebration have been dubbed “the greatest band in the world” by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. Who happened to, y’know, produce both Celebration LPs in the ’00s. But he speaks the truth: Celebration’s second set, The Modern Tribe is utterly thrilling, wickedly soulful, and strangely underloved. The stripped-down trio make the scant sound mighty: David Bergander’s nimble-limb’d percussion all tumbling-over, propulsive momentum; Sean Antanaitis’ fevered organ stabs eerily delirious; Katrina Ford’s untamed caterwauling pirouetting in an around these insistent rhythms. It’s dance music for the out-of-step; a party lighting up the shadows; a celebration of living through dark times. It is, indeed, undoubtably great.
The Microphones ‘Mount Eerie’ (2003)
Raised on remote Fidalgo Island near the Canadian border, Phil Elverum grew up in the shadows of Mt. Erie’s towering 1200 feet. To him, it was Mount Eerie, a looming, terrifying peak that served as a constant reminder of man’s inconsequential stature in the face of nature. Elverum’s Mount Eerie is an indie-rock opera about this; sending its protagonist on an Odyssey up the mythical mountain, he comes face to face with the environment manifest: the earth, the sun, and the universe all manifest as living beings. Musically, Elverum stages this as five long sections, built on Taiko drumming, distorted bass, and washed out choruses, and overlaid with wilderness sounds —whale-calls, snowfalls, wind and rain— as reminder of the immensity of nature.
Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band ‘Horses in the Sky’ (2005)
Silver Mt. Zion —who record under an ever-changing handle that, at its longest, has read Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir— is the side-project of Godspeed You! Black Emperor leader Efrim Menuck, born out of a desire to sing. By their fourth LP, Efrim and his SMZ crew were belting it out. Horses in the Sky features plenty of plaintive caterwauling, communal choruses lamenting the fate of the human carbine in throaty, hearty, sobbing wails. Menuck’s crowning symphony-of-decay —perhaps his best ever album— touches on familiar themes —love, love of animals, dead pets, the military-industrial complex, gentrification, community, mercy, hope— as it touches some sort of God in the space b’tween its (many) members.
Destroyer ‘Destroyer’s Rubies’ (2006)
Daniel Bejar’s Dylan-esque discography is a maze of mirrors; the lithe lyricist authoring an ever-evolving, proper-name-fetishising songworld in which lyrical references draw webs of connections between tracks from all over his back-catalogue; creating worlds upon songworlds in which his words start to take on talismanic power. His career-defining seventh album, Destroyer’s Rubies, marked the culmination of Bejar’s obsessive craft. Here, he hammers his familiar hallmarks —literary lyrical texts, over-the-top anthemicism, hysterical Bowie-esque falsetto-ing, camp piano, searing guitar solos— into the most instantly impressive, infinitely replayable set of stirring, sterling pop-songs in Destroyer’s tangled-up canon.
Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’ (2004)
Sufjan Stevens’ ‘state’ records scored most of the acclaim —numerous publications suggesting that the patchy, spotty Illinois defined his decade— but clearly his most coherent, endearing, accomplished work was this tender song-cycle writ along biblical lines. From its instantly-memorable opening gambit —“If I am alive this time next year/Will I have arrived in time to share?”— Seven Swans is an album exploring faith as it relates to its author; Stevens not content to merely parrot bible verses, but, instead, weighing up the worth of his life as lived. There’s none of the vile smugness of Christian rock, only true humility; this just a man and his banjo (and occasional orchestra), wandering in wonder, in search of enlightenment.
Meg Baird ‘Dear Companion’ (2007)
On Dear Companion, Baird’s fingerpicked guitar and honeycomb voice are of such uncontrived, near naïve beauty that her songs seem like vessels of naked, unguarded truth.
Diane Cluck ‘Oh Vanille/Ova Nil’ (2003)
The best American singer-songwriter of the ’00s wasn’t Conor Oberst or Bruce Springsteen or any other dude playing stadiums, but an obscure, publicity-averse, touring-reticent songstress who spent years burning her own CDR albums and taking them around to Brooklyn record-stores. Diane Cluck came up through New York’s anti-folk scene, perfecting her lyrically-dexterous, emotionally-overwhelming songs on works of home-recorded wonder. By the time she released her first-ever properly-pressed-up LP in 2003, Cluck was at the peak of her game. Oh Vanille/Ova Nil finds her wielding her sharpened songsmith’s pen with aplomb; her use of language so intense and evocative that she redefines what one person singing over acoustic guitar is capable of.
Cat Power ‘The Covers Record’ (2000)
Back in 2000, there was nothing Cat Power couldn’t do. Hot on the heels of her cult-defining classic Moon Pix, Chan Marshall proved her powers by breathing life into the moribund concept of the covers record. Most bow down before the rock’n’roll songbook, but Marshall’s happily subverts the mythologies normally writ into cover versions. Though she’s dabbling in the pantheon —the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan— Marshall is utterly unreverent; stripping songs of their rock’n’roll bluster —their own essential identities— and authoring them anew as eerie Cat Power laments that bear little resemblance to their source works. It’s a work of artistic transubstantiation, turning tired standards into nascent tunes of pure rapture.
Nikaido Kazumi ‘Mata, Otosimasitayo’ (2003)
Hearing Nikaido Kazumi sing is a thing of pure wonder. Her voice, capriciously whipping from whisper to wail, is an incredible interpretive instrument of aching emotional tenor, known to reduce listeners —and performer— to tears. Both live and on record, it often sounds as if she’s trying to connect to a primal part of herself, away from words and language, communicable only through pure sound. Kazumi was born and raised in a Buddhist monastery in rural Japan, and, there, sung night and day to the stars and sun; eventually teaching herself guitar far from the prying eyes of pop-culture. It’s no surprise, then, that her awe-inspiring debut album has no obvious reference points; Mata, Otosimasitayo is simply the sound of one woman’s soul.
Rings ‘Black Habit’ (2008)
Like some mystical successor to the Raincoats’ 1981 mind-alterer Odyshape, Black Habit bespeaks its evolutionary wonder in every strange, misshapen song. Rings’ swirling clouds of drums, piano, and voice, dowsed in echo and spun in spirals, initially sound like pure chaos, only for subsequent spins to reveal recognizable shapes and interpretive logic; sounds that once seemed serendipitous starting to feel far too fated, too mystical, too meaningful to be random acts of chance.
Panda Bear ‘Person Pitch’ (2007)
Person Pitch heaves with good vibrations, exemplified by “Comfy In Nautica”’s exhorted chorus: “try to remember, always/always to have a good time.” Yet, it’s more complex than a mere good time: bursting with happiness yet tinged with sorrow, immediately accessible yet distant and mysterious, gloriously summery yet sounding like a soft, slow snowfall. It’s incredible.
Animal Collective ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ (2009)
After years in the ‘exploratory’ musical wilderness tending to a slowly-growing cult-following, Animal Collective exploded onto the greater pop-cultural consciousness with Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album cemented Animal Collective’s reputation as one of the most important, distinctive voices in modern music.
Gang Gang Dance ‘God’s Money’ (2005)
Perhaps no album from the ’00s got better as the decade ticked on as did God’s Money. On its release, the third album from Brooklynist hipsters Gang Gang Dance was but a delirious rabble; a cobbled-together concoction of cacky sounds slathered into hypnotic, hot-footed dance jams that straddled some never-before-straddled line between tribalist and futurist, highbrow and low-, avant-garde and in-da-club. Yet, as the years went on, it started to feel like a landmark: leaving behind a litany of impressive outfits working in post-GGD fashion (Crazy Dreams Band, Rainbow Arabia, Rings, Telepathe, These Are Powers, Yeasayer), it sounds both of its time and, even still, every time you listen to it, like it exists in its own magical musical future.
Boredoms ‘Vision Creation Newsun’ (2001)
It’s the most unexpectedly influential album of the ’00s: the percussive noise orgy that rewired and inspired Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice, and Animal Collective. Of course, Vision Creation Newsun isn’t so much an ‘album’ as it’s a pagan ritual, a tribal drum-circle in which Boredoms play themselves into transcendent trance-states. Essentially a single 67 minute incantation, the set relentlessly pursues a shared, sustained, singular ecstasy. Boredoms send torrents of noise and circumvolutions of polyrhythmic percussion spiraling upwards, skywards, in search of some kind of communal, musical transfiguration. It’s religious music for people whose religion is music; a profound, universal truth for those who seek enlightenment in sound.
Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Ensemble ‘Dreams’ (2002)
Otomo Yoshihide’s concept of jazz is not as style, but as interpretation: his out-rock big-band undertake radical reworkings of the material of others. And, on the suitably dreamy Dreams, they set to work bashing out stormy stagings of compositions by Otomo’s friends and peers, including Seiichi Yamamoto of Boredoms and Jim O’Rourke. In a raucous highlight, the NJE —here fronted by sweet/sour vocalists Jun Togawa and Phew— explode O’Rourke’s quirky, quizzical nine-minute mood-piece “Eureka” into 16 minutes of musical fireworks; going from a Jun-sung lament to a cacophony of percussion, guitar, woodwinds, and sine-waves. The band’s utterly ecstatic tribute to their contemporaries is an inspired antithesis to jazz’s blinkered nostalgia.
Radiohead ‘Kid A’ (2000)
On Kid A‘s title-track, Thom Yorke’s voice —theretofore the rockband’s defining instrument— is warped and stretched out into a sinister, slippery, pitch-rupturing locus of digital manipulation; sounding, for all the world, like a fragile lullaby sung by a tender motherboard. Reborn as children of the computer age, Radiohead shed the anthemic guitars and the ‘next U2’ tag; instead becoming, by way of their restlessly inventive and genuinely uneasy music, the thinking man’s stadium band.
Björk ‘Vespertine’ (2001)
In the decade’s early days, back when Metallicorp was battling Napster, the ever-visionary Björk was already peering into the future. Wanting to make an album that sounded good after suffering through crushing digital compression, the Icelandic icon constructed a set from dry vocals, brittle harp, and patterns of electronic static. Working with American sampledelic darlings Matmos, Björk fashioned a unique kind of ‘minimalist lushness,’ where tiny, crackling, skittery beats weave sound-blankets spun from so much sonic silk. Laying atop such, Björk’s breathy vocals intone every syllable with a dramatic intimacy that, even when at a whisper, carries a monstrous emotional weight. The result is the best record of this mighty artist’s career.
Joanna Newsom ‘Ys’ (2006)
When Joanna Newsom arrived with The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004, she all but stitched up the ‘album of the decade’ title. But who knew that it’d be her second album, Ys, that would end up trumping all others. After delivering one of the greatest debuts in the history of the recorded medium, Newsom somehow succeeded it with her follow-up. A five-song, hour-long song-cycle in which her virtuosic harp-playing and scraping, squeaking voice are trussed in the ornate orchestrations of Van Dyke Parks, Ys showcases Newsom as one of the most gifted songwriters ever to put fingers to harp strings, one of the most idiosyncratic lyricists ever to put pen to paper. Forget ‘album of the decade’: Ys might be the greatest artwork of the 21st Century, period.