Favorite Albums, 2000
(No real order implied - the numbers are just handy placeholders.)
1) Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
Label = Fatcat
Oh, OK. There's just a little bit of order implied - Sigur Ros's album was far and away my favorite new release this year. Technically, it's not "new", as it was released in Iceland in 1999 - but it wasn't readily available elsewhere until this year. It's really quite amusing to read what other people have said about Sigur Ros ('Victory Rose' in Icelandic), because almost universally they succumb to near egregious superlative - take, for example, a writer for a certain music journal which likened the band's sound to something like "God weeping". But at some level, it's easy to understand how this happens once you've listened to it - Agaetis Byrjun's beauty is unexpectedly disarming. If I told you that there's a good chance that you would really quite enjoy a CD recorded by a bunch of kids from Iceland, orchestrated with ample use of bowed electric guitar, sung not just in Icelandic, but also in parts in a made up dialect based vaguely on Icelandic, sung by a half-blind male vocalist in an eerie angelic falsetto - you would think I was off my tree (perhaps moreso than usual). But what if I told you their bassist is rumored to be able to catch trout with his teeth? Got you there. This is a really beautiful album. Trust me.
2) The For Carnation - The For Carnation
Label = Touch and Go
A good portion of this, the first proper full-length album from the For Carnation, was surprisingly recorded right here in Los Angeles - I say surprisingly because it's hard for me to fathom exactly how such an understated recording managed come about here in LA, land of overblown image and vast ego-driven silliness. As lead vocalist for the late-80s Louisville band Slint, Brian McMahon was perhaps best known for not really singing at all, but for more or less talking his lyrics over the music. Here he takes a notch further back, layering his throaty whisper over soothingly repetitive bass, occasional strings, and ceaseless rhythm which together manage to come off somewhere between creepy and sexy. It's a kind of subtlety that I think LA could neither create nor handle - in fact, when the For Carnation performed here in LA this year, as if to prove a point, the crowd's conversation managed to drown the music out almost entirely. Oh well.
3) Rollins Band - Get Some Go Again
Label = Dreamworks
Whether he knows it or not, Henry Rollins is my running buddy. This year, I've had the latest from the Rollins Band almost glued into my walkman when I hit the pavement in the evening. It's almost the perfect venue for Rollins' vocal cord shredding aggression and his mates' world-rending heaviness - more appropriate for taut sinew and clenched teeth than for sitting around at home and knitting. A few of my friends and I saw Rollins do a spoken word gig (well, really more of a comedy routine) in a small club here in LA some time last year, and he spent a while talking about spending long hours in the studio that week making "really excellent rock & roll". Time well spent - I think he succeeded. For those of you familiar with past Rollins Band albums, this one has a noticeably different sound as he has a new backing band - he effectively acquired the entirety of local "heavy soul" outfit Mother Superior.
4) Yo La Tengo - And then nothing turned itself inside-out
Label = Matador
People seem unable to talk about Yo La Tengo's current direction without mentioning the word "jazz" - though it's not really the instrumentation that does it (guitars, drum, and bass make up the core of the band) - it's really more a frame of mind, I think. There is a mellow looseness to their songs - which don't have so much an actual structure, but a context - a general zip code in which they meander. Interestingly, some of the drumming on this album reminds me of the feel that a number of Kruder & Dorfmeisters's remixes generate. In any case, for the most part, this is an enjoyably relaxing album. Unfortunately, there is one song ("Cherry Chapstick") which sticks out like a blue Cheerio and interrupts what is quite often a very nice nap. I cannot tell a lie - I have used my CD recorder to make a "nap version" of the album. For those familiar with Yo La Tengo's prior 13 years of music, this is probably their quietest, subtlest work to date.
5) godspeed you black emperor! - lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven
Label = Kranky
As much as I love classical music, it is becoming increasingly apparent that as a genre it is becoming more and more formalized and stagnated. People often complain that much of 20th century classical music is largely inaccessible - but for every challenging Schoenberg and Penderecki, there's a Part and Gorecki who get thrown out with the bath water. As a consequence, very little "new" music gets heard, and orchestras and philharmonics seem to become no more than purveyors of greatest hits compilations of the 1800s. It's perhaps a bit presumptuous to claim that godspeed you black emperor! will save the world of classical music - but it's not an unreasonable possibility. Comprised of three guitarists, two bassists, a cellist, a violinist, and two percussionists, they're not exactly your great-grandfather's chamber group, but despite the somewhat unusual instrumentation (in the "chamber group" sense), their often 20 minute epic pieces do contain certain aspects of traditional classical music - although they pay more homage to 20th century folks like Gorecki. When they take their show on the road, it's not to the pristine concert halls downtown, but to the more traditionally rock-oriented clubs on the outskirts, and on their first two tours through the US, they have sold out most if not all of their shows in increasingly-large venues. Concert halls of the world beware - they're headed your way. The four songs on their latest album (which span 2 CDs) are among the most developed in their repertoire to date.
6) Belle & Sebastian - fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant
Label = Matador
I never really pictured Glasgow, Scotland as a bright, sunny place, but Belle & Sebastian's latest album has me re-evaluating my theories (that's where the seven members of the group are currently from). Something about the swooping background string section and cheery trumpet makes me think of some pleasant retro breeze from the 60s or 70s. On the whole, I think 'fold your hands...' is almost a perfect soundtrack to summertime - and for that matter, it's the kind of thing that would keep you warm in the wintertime, too. In my opinion, this may be their finest album (if pressed, I would have to say that 'If you're feeling sinister' is probably a tie for first).
7) Dirty Three - Whatever you love, you are
Label = Touch and Go
It would be pretty easy to expect that there's only so far you can go with an instrumental trio comprised of guitar, drums, and fiddle - surely after 5 albums of material, they would have exhausted most avenues of innovation. Actually, no. To me, Australian trio Dirty Three's latest manages to incorporate elements of the wildly spinning dervish-like tunes and heartbreakingly sad, placid moments of their prior works - but in new ways, to create a collection of songs which are probably the most melodic to date. If you listen closely to the songs, though, you can pick up, for example, that guitarist Mick Turner isn't always playing a "melody" per se, but just sort of noodling around on a few notes - or that drummer Jim White isn't always playing tight "rhythms" per se, but sometimes just tapping around a beat. What holds it all together is Warren Ellis's fine fiddling which rises through the mix almost like a human voice. In the studio, the Dirty Three are far more restrained and well-behaved than they are when they unleash themselves in a live venue - for the purposes of the melodies herein, it works quite well.
8) Doughty - Skittish
Label = www.superspecialquestions.com (aside from his shows, currently the only place you can buy his CD)
Doughty's solo album seems like the perfect segue from his previous job as vocalist and guitarist for Soul Coughing. With the full band, Doughty's trademark was his rhythmic, oblique lyrics which slid off the band's funky stylings like so much beat poetry - but here, as he leaves his bandmates behind, he takes a step away from the arty groove of the past and toward a bit more folk-oriented solo acoustic flavor. Nice transition theory. What sort of throws that theory to the ground and tramples on it a bit is the fact that these songs were actually recorded on "July 5, 1995 or 1996" (what's a year between friends?), when Soul Coughing was still in full swing. Well, anyhow, in 2000, Doughty picked up where he left off 4 or 5 years ago, and has finally embarked on that solo acoustic career. So, for what it's worth, I can still use my transition theory.
9) Cat Power - The Covers Record
Label = Matador
Cat Power's Chan Marshall can make butter melt just by singing. I base this on very scientific proof that her singing makes me melt - and by most accounts to date, I am decidedly firmer than butter. My constitution aside, "The Covers Record" does a wonderful job of capturing Marshall's quiet bluesy warbling - unlike her live shows, in which she frequently succumbs to what I can only assume is stage fright, her studio performance of solo piano and guitar works here is thankfully without distracting interruption. Incidentally, the album is called "The Covers Record" for good reason - all but one of the songs are cover versions of other peoples' songs - for example, Bob Dylan, Michael Hurley, and Nina Simone - but perhaps most interesting, the Rolling Stones' '(Can't get no) Satisfaction', in which she removes the titular refrain, which gives the song a surprisingly original feel by focusing on the verses instead - it's interesting how much of the song's original meaning rests on hearing Mick Jagger belt out "I can't get no satisfaction".
10) Abdullah Ibrahim Trio - Cape Town Revisited
Label = Tip Toe / Enja
Better known as Dollar Brand for many years, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim left his home country of South Africa to escape apartheid in the early 1960s, and didn't return until the 1990s. I didn't know any of this until I bought this CD, which I sought out largely because I was out of town for his performance in Los Angeles this year and wondered what I had missed. I think what I enjoy most about his style of jazz is the wonderful melodies he creates with only a minimal number of notes. What many accomplish with avalanches of sound, he manages with restraint. Here he performs with his trio (piano, drums, bass), and for a few songs is joined by trumpeter Feya Faku.
11) Thievery Corporation - The Mirror Conspiracy
Label = 18th street lounge
Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are the brains behind Thievery Corporation, two DJs who found they shared a love of bossa nova and ended up forming a group to combine easygoing, warm Brazilian tempos with electronic beats. I've always been a fan of their DJ'ing (for example, their contribution to the Stud!o K7 DJ Kicks series is fantastic), but haven't really loved their own material until I heard this new album, which blends lounge-y rhythm with all manner of cultural influences from Jamaica to Brazil (Bebel Gilberto, daugher of vocalist Astrud Gilberto sings on one track) to corners of southeast Asia. If you ever wondered what that cool music was in whatever hip bar you were in - Thievery Corporation was probably somewhere in the mix.
12) Vas - In the garden of souls
Label = Narada Productions
I don't really get the sense that Vas are actively trying to copy Dead Can Dance, but the similarities are quite obvious. Arriving at the point of similarity is no mean feat - though some have tried, no one has really been able to match the awesome power of Dead Can Dance's percussion, masterful grasp of unusual instrumentation, and the spiritual ethos of Lisa Gerrard's haunting vocals. Percussion-wise, Vas are perhaps a bit more mellow than their predecessors, though the loping tabla and dumbek are no less hypnotic. As far as unusual instrumentation goes, there is plenty here to keep snooty wireframe glasses wearing ethnomusicologists happy: udu (?), tunpura (?), rigg (?), nagara (?) and the slightly more mainstream hammered dulcimer (yes, just like Dead Can Dance...). And then there's Iranian-born Azam Ali's voice - generally, I find the word 'otherworldly' to be a huge cop out, but not if the voice in question could actually be from another world.
13) R.L. Burnside - Wish I was in heaven sitting down
Label = Fat Possum
The most surprising thing about blues guitarist R.L. Burnside's new album isn't that a number of the songs are remixed and retouched with electronic beats. His last album "Come on in" warmed us up for that. The big surprise is that he doesn't play guitar at all. I'm actually not sure why, although I suspect it has something to do with his health - at 73, he's clearly no spring chicken, and has already had at least one round of heart surgery. Although he appears not to play a lick of guitar, he's found a host of friends to lay down some excellent blues, leaving him to focus on vocals. And what emerges is far and away his most polished album to date, which wanders from straight ahead blues to soul to honky tonk to danceable grooves. Part of what I loved about R.L. was that his version of the blues was rough-hewn and untamed, but I've found that even with a decent amount of polish, he still makes music with more soul than many folks a third his age.
PS - Unfortunately, I had to draw the line somewhere - there were also really wonderful new albums from Flare, Velvet Chain, Ida, Neko Case, the Black Heart Procession, Up Bustle & Out and others this year, which I encourage you to check out in your free time...
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