Thursday, December 17, 2009

Best of the 2000s: Albums

Dear readers of What Is Groove?,

Your faithful committee of one has tortured his brain and eardrums in creating a list meant to reflect his view on the 20 best albums and songs of the last ten years. Examining the artists that appeared numerous times, it became clear that the foremost artists this decade were OutKast and Radiohead. I tried to make these lists as objectively as possible, taking holistic views of artists and the music they created, instead of a self-satisfying exercise in taste. Of course, don't treat the lists as gospel. I hope y
ou enjoy reading about these albums and songs, and who knows, you may discover something you had overlooked in the past. So without further Bob McAdoo...

1. Radiohead,
Kid A (2000)

In the classic rock era, "back to basics" meant embracing acoustic instruments, folk, country, and early rock n' roll influences. Fast-forwarding to 2000, we run into Radiohead, three years after their breakthrough OK Computer and going back to basics themselves. Only this time, deconstruction of rock n' roll is not based on the genre's musical origins, but on ideas of what rock n' roll could be. Verse-chorus-bridge structures are largely ignored, live drums are mainly absent,
the lyrics are mumbled in exhausted hazes, and the soundscapes feel simultaneously distant and immediate, expansive and minute. It's not merely rock n' roll, but a leveling and extreme reduction of its assumptions. Oh, the songs are great too. "Morning Bell" is an overpowering portrait of divorce and loss. "Everything In Its Right Place" and "How To Disappear Completely" are meditations on the price of stardom and the alienation it produces. Even the most "rock" style tunes - from the free brass blowing in "The National Anthem" to the ironically amoral "Optimistic" - are disorienting and jarring. Kid A was Radiohead's first piece of evidence suggesting that the best band in the world may also be its most progressive.

2. OutKast,
Stankonia (2000)

From the
Sly Stone cover, down to the bubbling basslines, syncopated mayhem, big hooks, outrageous humor, and heavy amounts of stankydank consumed in its recording, Stankonia is easily the most creative, important piece of funk since Prince's heyday. Yeah, I said it. Funk though it is, hip-hop is its essence. Where else can you get an in your face dose of cosmic slop with "Gasoline Dreams" and also hear dudes talk about how cool they are ("So Fresh, So Clean")?
"B.O.B." is the most out there tune of the decade, bringing gospel choir, funk and metal guitar, hard electrofunk, and catatonic snares all under the fold. Its title proved to be prophetic as well. (Stank, the Southern pronunciation of "stink" is one of the original definitions of the word "funk.") Stankonia, then, "the place from which all funky things come," is the absolute embodiment of what this record is about. True, there are numerous contradictions in the album, from the ladies first ("Ms. Jackson" and "I'll Call Before I Come") to the ladies last ("Snappin' & Trappin'" and "We Luv Deez Hoez"), and from the anti-materialist ("Red Velvet") to the "Gangsta Shit." The album dares not have a bottom line though, and challenges its listeners to try to find one themselves, all while shaking their asses. Reversing Funkadelic's maxim, OutKast seem to encourage us to free our asses and our minds will follow.

3. D'Angelo, Voodoo (2000)

All hail ye grand smoky groove! D'Angelo's sophomore album is simply the best R&B album of the decade, and quite possibly of the last two. It was part of the neo-soul movement, which aimed to incorporate hip-hop and old school R&B sensibilities. The unhurried pace of the tunes make them often sound like random mid-points in cannabisjams, all while feigning a haphazard approach. The truth is that the tunes are supremely focused. D'Angelo and his cohort seamlessly blend fat hip-hop backbeats with the pulsating grooves of vintage '70s soul and funk while his multitracked vocals fall somewhere between Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Prince (especially "Untitled [How Does It Feel]"). The thick funk of "Playa, Playa" and "The Line" isn't diminished by the low BPMs. In fact, D'Angelo shows that the slow, tense simmer is just as good in funk as in boudoir soul. As a whole, the album builds on the continuum of classic R&B by adding hip-hop inflections, vocal themes and phrases, and lyrical matter. The misunderstood minimalism of the tracks should not be seen as a fault: Think of it as a way of getting to the roots, to the origins of soul, where they bask in cauldrons amid heavy history, spinning wax, Stevie, minor 9ths, scratched 16ths, hard bass, falsetto grasps, all in all, an attempt to re-imagine modern soul and where D'Angelo sees it needs to go. That's the voodoo.

4. My Morning Jacket, Z (2005)

For about seven years, My Morning Jacket had been toiling as a country roots band. With their fourth studio album, the band embraced its alternative rock potential, leaned on the melodic benefits of a good keyboard player, and let the guitars rip. Such is Z, one of the most dreamlike, trance-inducing alternative rock
albums. Jim James's exquisite voice is put to the test in the first track, "Wordless Chorus." His falsetto wails may not have a literal meaning, but they create a visceral, emotional meaning. When was the last time you heard singing this good in a rock band? A splash of reggae via Hawaii Five-O in "Off The Record" kicks off the tune, before the dub jam sets in. "Lay Low" is an exquisite exercise in the development of tension and release. Once the jam begins, both guitars begin a rolling chase, playing melodies that each hint at or play half of, then disappear or stop. Little by little, the dual guitar solos overlap in jousting melodicism, and when they play the crescendoing melody in harmony, it is utterly devastating. "Dondante," the album closer, is another guitar showcase, desolate and bleak, but ultimately ravishing as well. James and his band manage to reinterpret alternative rock as an extension of classic rock, in which solos are not postmodern blatherings and compositions are equally elusive and expressive.

5. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (2006)

Non sequiturs are one thing, abstract, bullet-paced logorrhea is something else entirely. Ghostface raps in a way nobody has before by choosing not always to craft meaning but effect. That's why his rhyme schemes, attention to detail, and metaphors transcend an everyday rapper's. Take "Shakey Dog," the first track. It's one long narrative, almost four minutes long, about a drug raid gone wrong, with no hook or chorus, immense amount of narrative details (cab fees, shoe types, food being eaten, dialogue, et al.) and on top of all that, chord changes. The last four bars of every 16 occupy a single chord change that often underlines the action in the story being narrated. And that's just the first track. "The Champ" is a live band rip, with Ghost flying at 200 mph,
with no regard to logical connections ("I'm James Bond in the octagon with two razors.") The best Wu-Tang jam since the 36 Chambers is here with "9 Milli Bros." and J Dilla contributes from the beyond in "Whip You With A Strap," where the sampled tune is his own "One For Ghost." Good thing Dilla was looking out. Unlike the vast majority of other high performance hip-hop records of the decade, Fishscale achieves unity between production and rapping, where each would be unimaginable without the other. Ghostface Killah's vocal performances are unparalleled in hip-hop, and Fishscale represents his high water mark.

6. Kings of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)

The "Southern Strokes" is old, homie, let it go. Also old are the cutesy recounts of the band being descendants of a Pentecostal minister named Leon and being comprised of three brothers (Caleb, Nathan, and Jared) and one first cousin (Matthew), all of them of the surname Followill. This band is the most promising American rock band not named My Morning Jacket. Their boogie swagger and inventiveness is simultaneously a throwback and a progression. They got some Stones circa Exile on Main Street in them, balanced between disorder and focus, but they also move the melodic heart from the guitar to the bass. This funkiest instrument and its player, Jared, hold do
wn the riffs ("Slow Night, So Long") and the center of the tunes, while the guitars swirl and dip in all directions. It serves as both anchor and rudder, an unusual and subversive role. Caleb's vocals are the second most awe-inspiring sound on this album. In the songs where he sings of loose women that confound him ("Soft," "Taper Jean Girl," "Milk," let's just say 90% of the album), he both repels and attracts them with his viciousness and vulnerability. Compound that with his sandpaper-on-jagged-glass voice and you have a singular achievement.

7. Erykah Badu, Mama's Gun (2000)

It would be unfair to label Badu's first album of the new millennium as the female neo-soul version of D'Angelo's Voodoo (or vice versa.) It's a bold, deliberate attempt to reconcile analog soul (dig the muted tones in the album cover, plus her Natty Dread glare) with jazz phrasing and hip-hop attitude. Thematically, the album sticks to heartbreak, excluding the barn-burning opener, "Penitentiary Philosophy," which serves as her own sign 'o' the times. Badu bares everything she's got in the album, revealing anguish and emotional wreckage in the closing multipart suite "Green Eyes," about her breakup with Andre 3000 from OutKast. Between these bookends, Badu insinuates herself inside slinky funk grooves ("Booty"), ride a midnight wave ("Didn't Cha Know"), and devotes herself to spiritual ("Kiss Me On My Neck [Hesi]) and social ("A.D. 2000," about the violent death of Amadou Diallo) causes. Neo-soul wasn't really a genre. It was a natural extension of musicians using what's at their disposal. For many soul and R&B artists, hip-hop has been a part of their musical education, so why not use it? This Badu does tremendously, with help from ?uestlove on the drums, J Dilla on production, and Pino Palladino on bass. Most of this crew was known as the Soulquarians, along with others such as James Poyser and Q-Tip, and their very best work were D'Angelo's and Badu's albums from the year 2000.

8. Radiohead, Amnesiac (2001)
9. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
10. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005)
11. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (2008)
12. Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007)
13. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (2008)
14. Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (2004)
15. The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute (2005)
16. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
17. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)
18. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah (4th World War) (2008)
19. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (2007)
20. Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (2000)

1 comment:

Justin said...

Very cool list. We have several albums in common on our lists, which motivates me to check out the items that I haven't heard, thanks.