The Indie Handbook: Best of the Decade (2000’s)

I don't know the dog's name...
Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, Photo (c) John Sann/DG

Now that you’ve perused our favorite albums and songs of the year, we hope you’ll enjoy our best of the decade lists.  Since both of us were incredibly uncool until about halfway through the decade, please forgive us any gaps, although I think we’ve done our research since then.  On this page, we’ll post our top 10, but don’t worry, we’ve linked to more extensive lists.

Kristin’s top 10 albums of the decade:

10. Jason Mraz, Live at Java Joe’s (self-released, 2001): I don’t care how “mainstream” Jason Mraz is, he is an incredibly talented guitarist and singer/songwriter.  This album is a lot different from “radio Jason” like “Wordplay” and “Geek in the Pink”–it’s poetry set to acoustic guitar.  “Unfold” is my favorite track, but I wouldn’t skip one.

9. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country (Merge, 2006): My favorite Camera Obscura album.  Lovely twee/pop to which you can dance and laugh and cook, apparently, because that’s what I do.  I discovered this band much too late.

8.  The Format, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006): Everyone knows I love the Format.  Dog  Problems is a work of angsty genius.  Incredible arrangements and Nate Ruess has the best voice ever.  I cried every night until he came back with fun., which is on my best of 2009 list.

7.  Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, Zomba, 2006): I don’t want to say too much about this (because I’m saying so much about my other picks), and I realize it isn’t a very indie choice, but it is an amazing album, and I think its sound is pretty revolutionary.  So, thank you Justin, for bringing sexy back.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador, 2005): I decided that compilations are allowed, even if the songs didn’t come out this decade, since it is my list and everything.  Every single Belle & Sebastian album is worth having and listening to on repeat, but this compilation happens to house some of my favorites, like “The State I Am In” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams”.  This storytelling twee makes me so happy I could die.

5. Stars, Set Yourself On Fire (Arts & Crafts, 2004): I think Stars may have changed my life a little bit.  This lovely, cathartic electropop is actually pretty epic, I think.  “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty” are, in my opinion, the most notable tracks.

4. The New Pornographers, Challengers (Matador, 2007): Another epic album; every song is cathartic, with haunting layers and perfect movement.  “Unguided”–the climax of Challengers.

3.  White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry V2, 2001): I don’t think anyone can deny that the White Stripes have made their mark on the music industry over the past 10 years–but which album is their best?  I’ve seen other albums on other lists, but White Blood Cells is my favorite, especially for “Hotel Yorba,” “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and “We’re Going To Be Friends”.

2.  Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge, 2004): EPIC.  In my search for cool, I listened to Neon Bible before I ever heard Funeral, and while Neon Bible did indeed make my extended list, Funeral is groundbreaking.  What a sound!  What lyrics!  Thank you, Arcade Fire.  “Crown of Love” and “Wake Up” are my favorite tracks.

1.  Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007): There was no question here for me about the best album of the decade.  This album reflects the work of a phenomenal classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with a great comprehension of musical theory and folk tradition.  His lyrics fascinate, and his arrangements stagger.  Can I pick a favorite track?  “Scythian Empires,” “Fiery Crash,” and “Armchairs” have the most plays on my iTunes.  Andrew Bird, we love you.

[see Kristin’s other favorites]

Eric’s Top 10:

10. We Leave at Dawn, Envy & Other Sins (A&M/Polydor) – In my mind, Envy & Other Sins is the most significant casualty of the hipster delusion. I don’t care if they won their record deal on a TV show, We Leave at Dawn is still (and by a wide margin) the best album I heard in 2008. Their official break-up in July of this year will forever be a black mark on 2009, but then, even that gave us Malpas, so, you know, it’s not all bad…

9. Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories, Regina Spektor (Sire) – Another collection of impossible to find independent releases, this is Regina Spektor at her best, back when the only people who listened to her actually knew what anti-folk means.

8. Bring Me the Workhorse, My Brightest Diamond (Asthmatic Kitty) – Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond is another one of those enigmatic figures cultivating the no man’s land between pop and classical music. And she packs a punch. Reared on a healthy diet of Pierre Boulez, Nina Simone, Radiohead, and a dash of PJ Harvey, Workhorse was unleashed and it knocked me clean into next week—which is not meant to take anything away from the follow-up A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, but I had to pick a favorite. [Read my interview with Shara.]

7. Want One, Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks) – This is not Rufus’s harmonically adventurous album by any means (Release the Stars is), but in terms of campy grandeur, I challenge you to find any album that can reach this level without making a complete fool of everyone involved. With such sweeping epics as “Oh, What a World”, “Go or Go Ahead”, and “14th Street”, it’s a physically exhausting listening experience—and worth every minute.

6. Super Extra Gravity, The Cardigans (Stockholm) – It may come as a surprise, but The Cardigans probably have more to do with this the existence of this blog than any other band. Hearing this album on one of the British Airways in-flight music channels in January of 2006 opened the floodgates, if you will. It is, by far, the band’s most mature record to date and a major shift from the satirical bossa nova spirit they championed in the mid-90s. Pick up the UK bonus tracks edition if you can, because the final track, “Slow”, is the bleakest love song you will ever hear with a pretty slick symmetrical division of the octave (at the major third) to close it out.

5. Cuilidh, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine) – I took a few months off, then listened to this album again Christmas Eve and came to the following conclusion. This is the most beautiful album I have heard. Ever.

4. Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill) – One word: “Eveline”. This is Nickel Creek at the pinnacle of their combined compositional ability. I’m still waiting for that “Hello Again” tour I hope you are planning.

3. Ayre, Osvaldo Golijov/Dawn Upshaw (Deutsche Grammophon) – Yes, if you insist on seeking your identity in the esoterism of the avant-garde, you may keep telling yourself that Osvaldo Golijov is too much of a populist to be taken seriously. All I know is that 4 June 2007, the night I heard Dawn Upshaw perform this song cycle as part of the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNow series, still ranks among the top five most glorious experiences of my life.

2. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, Belle & Sebastian (Rough Trade/Matador) – Even though these songs all came out in the 90s, this is the first time they have ever been collected in the one place and, as far as I know, the only remaining way to obtain most of these recordings, so it counts. Ever wonder why B&S have the devoted following they do (ourselves included)? The answer is buried among these 24 tracks.

1. Végétal, Emilie Simon (Barclay) – The most intricate, controlled, and breathtaking effort from the woman I consider the quintessential songwriter/composer of the last decade. After three years, I am still peeling back layers of sonic architecture in hopes of reaching the foundation of this subtly monumental achievement. Emilie Simon is creating the future of music, and I don’t think even she realizes it. This is, quite simply, the masterpiece of the decade.

[see Eric’s full list of 51 albums]

I (Eric) would like to introduce one last superlative before we bid adieu to the first decade of the 21st century. That is “Most Vexing Album of the Decade”. To me, the winner is clearly In Our Space Hero Suits, the debut from Sweden’s Those Dancing Days. I’ve been listening to it for about a year now, and I still can’t figure out if I actually like the music, or if I just think the singer, Linnea Jönsson, is really cute. Watch the video below, and help me figure this out.

I love your long shadows

**I know, I know, I am weeks late with this. But I did write it two weeks ago, really, I did. I am sorry. I was busy.**

Neko Case is back with her first studio album in three years. It is probably a good thing that she waited so long, because that is about how long it took for me to be able to say I get Fox Confessor. But now, after tours alone and with new Pornographer, an Austin City Limits broadcast (and CD), a move to a 100 acre farm in rural Vermont, and a Craigslist shopping spree, we are presented with Middle Cyclone. Yes, this album is currently for sale at Starbucks and some songs do feature choruses and there are loves songs, but rest assured, judging by my recent experience, most people still have no idea who she is and will think you are on the cutting edge for listening to this.

Sonically, the contrast with Fox Confessor is something of a give and take. This is not the extended harmonic vocabulary of the last album: the chord changes, while not necessarily predictable, are still part of the accepted canon. Certain elements (tremolo chords on “Vengeance is Sleeping”, occasional pitch bends, and a string of chords in open voicing and parallel motion over a tonic pedal in “Prison Girls” for instance) are used to great effect in maintaining the listeners’ interest. More than anything else, however, this is a coloristic record. In addition to her standard band and strings, “Fever” features a vintage delay pedal almost giving the guitar a detuned sound. The title track, with its music box obligato is the most stripped down cut on this album, and the intimacy is striking. Perhaps the most significant issue of instrumentation is the piano orchestra (obtained free of charge through Craigslist and crammed into the barn on Neko’s Vermont farm) appearing on three tracks.

Lyrics, however, were probably the most characteristic element of Neko’s last album. Her tendency to eschew the standard verse/chorus love song format in favor of a fairly tale infused narrative style set Fox Confessor apart from its contemporaries. Here, with “This Tornado Loves You”, we have an actual love song, albeit a surrealist one about a tornado (an actual tornado, this is not a metaphor) in love with a woman, singing (rather gruesomely) “Carved your name across three counties / ground it in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will line the ditch / ’til you stop it / stop this madness. / I want you”. “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, thrust upon the world on penalty of charitable donation weeks before the March 3 album release date, also breaks the Neko mold with an actual chorus (if a weak one) of “I’m a man eater / but you’re surprised when I eat ya”. These do not always fall flat, however. “Prison Girls” and its refrain: “I love your long shadows / and your gunpowder eyes” continues to haunt me, weeks after first hearing it. Perhaps the most stunning imagery comes from “Polar nettles”: “She is the centrifuge that throws / the spires from the sun / the Sistine Chapel / painted with a Gattling gun”. (“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” includes the weakest rhyme I have ever heard [unfaithful/faithful-seriously?] but this is a cover, so I will not hold Neko responsible.)

Development-forward progress-is the mark of a mature artist (the satisfied never improve). With Fox Confessor, Neko Case claimed to be “just now figuring out what [her] style is.” Middle Cyclone, I would say, is proof that she had indeed found it. The two are distinctly different works (the current record occasionally blurring the line between Neko’s past projects and her work with the New Pornographers, including appearances by her fellow Pornographers as well as M Ward), but there is a definite sense running throughout that it is the same driving force behind the two (and it is not just that voice, magnificent as ever). I would rather not wait another three years for the next record, but if it is as good as this one, I will bide my time and hope Belle & Sebastian get off their butts and do something to tide me over.

*N.B. If you are a super nerd like I am, you will listen to the final track, “Marais La Nuit”, in its entirety (all 30 minutes of it), in search of polyrhythms.*

Some videos of Neko discussing Middle Cyclone: from ANTI- Records, QTV, and a QTV acoustic performance of “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

I kneel to the wheel of the Fox Confessor

A certain 12 songs have been ringing in my ears for the better part of a week. It is not some brilliant new record from some up-and-coming indie anti-hero. It’s an album by a veteran icon, and an old(ish) one that I feel I am only now beginning to fully appreciate. With the release of Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone looming in the very, very near future (two hours), I have been in preparation with the near endless repetition of her last studio album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. For an artist who is “just now figuring out what [her] style is”, it is useful for the lowly listener to review where she is coming from in order to make better sense of where she is going. So don’t think of this as a “review” so much as a refresher: a sort of Middle Cyclone prep course, if you will.

Neko Case been described as sort of alt-country act, which was true enough for her first two offerings, but Blacklisted saw Neko (not Nico) expand her influences to include more blues and roots influences. And following two and a half years of work, a live album, and tours with the New Pornographers and in support of her solo material came Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which is about as country as Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? Was bluegrass: sort of a “yeah, ok, but not really” thing.

For one thing, it is the harmonies that make Fox Confessor stand out from the rest. Much of this is due in part to the efforts of Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan who provided backing vocals for the album. Hogan in particular is one Case credits as a proponent of “the note less travelled”. Her distinctive voicings (and I mean that in the authorial sense) can be heard in the cascading echoes of “The Needle Has Landed” and on “Dirty Knife” with its parallel organum at the fourth (yes, I speak musicology) bridge. Most importantly, these backing vocals are never overdone, but always aptly place, which only serves to enhance their effectiveness. Responsibility does not rest solely with Kelly Hogan, however. The opening stanza of “Lion’s Jaws”, for instance, features a melodic turn that can only be described as the musical equivalent of the opening paragraphs of Nabokov’s Lolita (thanks to the inclusion of the minor subdominant, one of my favorite harmonic moves, particularly useful in hymn singing, but I digress) and that is all Neko. (There is also the admirable use of a VMaj7 two thirds of the way through “A Widow’s Toast” to consider.)

Perhaps even more than her harmonic language, it is Case’s lyric writing that sets this record apart from others. Rather than the “this is how I feel” approach of many songwriters, she assumes a narrative style replete with vivid imagery more likely to conjure up visions of an Eastern European fairy tale or Neil Gaiman story than a Top 40 love song, eschewing the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus formula in favor of a through composed, almost stream of consciousness format. Case, herself, views her songs from a more cinematic angle, and with lyrics like”He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze/The wolves that eddy out of the corners of his eyes/But they squared him frozen where he stood/In the glow of the furniture piled high for firewood” (“Dirty Knife”),the comparison is easy to see. Neko may reserve her respect for songwriters who can say the most with the fewest words, but I for one appreciate the rhythms and cadences of her self-professed verbosity, such as the lilt of “Lion’s Jaw” (“You’re gone. The trees are so quiet/When your hand was in my pocket/How they swayed from side to side/Now the meddling sky and my snowy eye/Sees a different night”).

It is easy enough to pick out a favorite facet of Fox Confessor, be it the harmonies, the poetry, or the artwork (a great deal of which was contributed by Case, herself), but it is so much more than that. It is the comprehensive cohesion of varied musical influences, storytelling, production value (reverb!), and that voice-that voice, “big as a Montana sky” according to the Chicago Tribune-that transforms Fox Confessor from your typical orchestral alt-country epic into a transcendent, ethereal aural experience for the listener.

Stay with me, go places

For a good Christian girl, what better music to review than The New Pornographers? While their name might make you blush, The New Pornographers emerge unashamed of both their association with Canada (don’t lie, you doubt the Canadian music scene too-Celine Dion? Shania Twain? SUM 41? Really?) or their admiration of Burt Bacharach, whom they acknowledge as a serious influence. There’s nothing better than a band that embraces their identity…and no need to hide them from your parents, because after all, rock and roll is the new pornography (thanks, Jimmy Swaggart).

 In 2007, The New Pornographers released Challengers, an album which announces through its movement and unavoidable catharsis that the eight band members have officially synced. What sets them apart is that each song uniquely emphasizes rhythm and harmony, with enough melody to remain extremely accessible, but not so much that we’re bored out of our minds. The music moves, which is more than I can say for most pop music, where after 30 seconds, you’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you know where you’re going (back there again). With each song on Challengers, you’re going somewhere. In fact, you’re going to the epic “Unguided,” in the middle of the album, and the definite climax. In six minutes of brilliance, they crescendo until the final release. And then you can just stop the album because you will feel so free. Just kidding, don’t stop the album, unless it’s to cry a little, but turn it back on again after you’re done sobbing. You need the rest of the album to get your bearings back.

 Perhaps the most accessible songs because of their fantastic balance of rhythm, harmony, and melody are “My Rights Versus Yours,” a perfect, seductive first track, and “Myriad Harbour,” which features the most comprehensible lyrics on the entire album. Otherwise, who needs a drumset, or hell, a percussion section, when real string instruments (because we all hate crappy synths) drive “Failsafe” and “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”? Answer: not us. I especially love how these lovely band members use their voices as instruments, giving a mystical, haunting effect to “Challengers” and “Adventures in Solitude.” Altogether, it’s refreshing to hear such beautiful harmonies, which must be the benefit of having at least four vocalists.

What do their lyrics mean? Who knows and who cares? They’re absolutely gorgeous even if they don’t make much sense. “Come head-on, full circle, our arms fill with miracles, play hearts, kid, they work well…”

 While “Unguided” must be the climax of the album, each song provides its own cathartic effect. Never before have you experienced this kind of release in so many songs on a single album. And this is why we call them The New Pornographers.