Twenty-Three Albums Essential Albums of the Oughts by Jeff Menter
What a decade! I'm glad it's almost over but I'm sure that someday fairly soon we'll look back on it fondly. I'll remember it as the decade I stopped buying tiny aluminum and plastic platters and started buying 256kbit AAC files. Also, I'll remember it as the decade where you could finally carry your entire music collection (and, after a fashion, every bit of music in the world) in your pocket. Oh, and vocoders are back in fashion!
I'm not necessarily claiming that these are the best albums of the '00s, but they are albums that I've either had a lot of fun listening to or they have enriched me musically. About half of the groups listed I hadn't listened to before the start of the '00s so the list is a good mix of groups I had loved for a while and groups I'm new to. I'm putting them in release date order so I don't have to rank them.
Steely Dan's first album proper in 20 years was possibly the most sonically significant event of that year. Donald and Walter not only proved that they still had what it takes to write and play like Steely Dan but I think they also turned up the dial on the juxtaposition between absolute clarity of perfection in performance/production values and degenerate/deviant subject matter. It's angelic dirty aural sex. Makes you feel skeevy in the best way possible.
XTC - Apple Venus Volume 2 (2000)
Stand out track: I'm the Man Who Murdered Love
A seven year hiatus after 1992's "Nonsuch" (a hiatus not necessarily of choice; the contract dispute between XTC and Virgin was no big secret) saw the release of Apple Venus Volume 1 in 1999. The success of that album allowed the release of Apple Venus Volume 2: Wasp Star a year later. AV2 was more electric and was recorded after the departure of guitarist/arranger Dave Gregory. Big shoes to fill but Andy fills them with grace and whimsy. If this album doesn't prove that Andy Partridge is one of the most clever songwriters around then I don't know what will. I love them for their playful sophistication as well as their heartfelt and sincere irreverence.
Steve Vai - Alive in an Ultra World (2001)
Stand out track: Devil's Food
If you only know of Steve Vai from David Lee Roth and Whitesnake you're completely missing out. Vai cut his teeth with Frank Zappa and was lucky enough to learn not only about music theory and composition but also the music business. Smart decisions by Steve in the early years meant that, after worldwide tours supporting major rock acts, he has had the financial flexibility to produce his own brand of uncompromising Zappa inspired music for decades now.
This double album was written while on a worldwide tour to support 1999's "The Ultra Zone." Each song was written with a specific country in mind and inspired by the traditional music of that area. The songs are all (excepting two previously written) original compositions that were written, arranged, and recorded during the tour. The songs show Steve's skill not only as a musical guitar player, but also as a composer, arranger, and damn does he not have a brilliant band?
Jeff Beck - You had it coming (2001)
Stand out track: Rollin' and Tumblin'
Jeff Beck returned in 1999 after a 10 year hiatus with "Who Else!". Are we starting to see a pattern with hiatuses here? Just two years after "Who Else!" he comes out with "You Had It Coming." This album just fucking rocks. Jeff Beck is adored mostly by other guitar players for his inventive style and uncompromising career. That doesn't mean you can't like or appreciate it. But you probably won't. sadface.gif.
Tenacious D - Tenacious D (2001)
Stand out track: Fuck Her Gently
I hadn't heard of Tenacious D before this album. I knew Jack Black from a few movies but had no idea that he had a band and no idea that they were so talented. Jack and Kyle have a way of mixing drama and comedy and HARD ROCKING that is totally original.
Buckethead - Electric Tears (2002)
Stand out track: Sketches of Spain (for Miles)
Before Buckethead was guitar player for Guns 'N Roses he was keeping himself busy with massive amounts of solo and side projects (just check out his discography at Wikipedia.) As a guitar player he has a reputation for being an insane shredder. But don't let the speed and the KFC bucket fool you, he's hyper talented and has managed to create a massive body of work and respected career.
"Electric Tears" is the Buckethead album your grandmother can listen to. In fact, I remember when I was working on a project for educators and the client (a dear woman in her 50s) wondered what the lovely music I had playing in the background was. It was Buckethead's "Electric Tears."
Mike Keneally - Wooden Smoke (2002)
Stand out track: Father's Day
Another Zappa protege. Mike deftly rides the thin line between straight-ahead pop/rock and crazy inventive Zappa inspired musical genius. Wooden smoke is a more acoustic and reserved album than his normal stuff but is filled to the brim with interesting musical nuggets, lyrics, and textures.
OK Go - OK Go (2002)
Stand out track: You're So Damn Hot
I was into OK Go before the treadmill video catapulted them to fame. Their debut album is basically nothing but hooks strung together, obviously engineered and sugary coated to please. I don't care. It's masterfully crafted power pop.
Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Stand out track: I'm a Cuckoo
I'm not saying Belle and Sebastian weren't good up until "Dear Catastrophe Waitress", I'm just saying that their sound was a little too twee/milquetoast for me to consider them a favorite. But man, put Stuart Murdoch back in the songwriter's seat and get Trevor Horn to produce and you're got yourself a winner! This is actually the first Belle and Sebastian album I ever heard. It was hard to choose between this and 2006's more mature "The Life Pursuit" but I had to go with my first love.
Matthew Sweet - Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu (2003)
Stand out track: The Ocean In Between
This album was originally only meant for Japan but there was enough demand to justify a U.S. release. There are few who can do power pop better than Matthew Sweet at his finest and on this album he's as good as he's ever been.
Muse - Absolution (2003)
Stand out track: Thoughts of a Dying Atheist
Muse had 4 albums from the '00s to choose from. I choose this one because I think it defines their style and skills the best. They have the drama and energy of Queen, insane musical chops, and aren't afraid of genre bending.
Tak Matsumoto - Hana (2003)
Stand out track: Engaged
Tak Matsumoto is the guitar player, composer, and producer for the Japanese rock band "B'z." This is one of his first U.S. solo albums, released on Steve Vai's "Favored Nations" label. Another virtuoso guitar player, composer, musician yadda yadda yadda. But this time he's Japanese!
The Thorns - The Thorns/Sunset Session (2003)
Stand out track: Blue
Acoustic supergroup "The Thorns" is Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge, and Shawn Mullins. This album is a nice treat, has great song writing, harmonies, etc. The album I got is actually a double album, the second disc has every song from the first, in the same order, same tempo, etc. but played acoustic/live.
Frank Black - Black Letter Days/Devil's Workshop
Stand out track: Valentine and Garuda
You know, I never listened to the Pixies. I probably should get around to that one of these days.
These two albums were released on the same day so I kind of consider them a double album that's been artificially split. How can each song sound so similar and different at the same time?
Various (Koji Kondo) - Mario and Zelda Big Band Live (2003)
Stand out track: The Wind Waker
When you're thinking video game music, you're thinking Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, etc. The man behind these songs is Koji Kondo. In 2003 there was a concert featuring the music Kondo wrote for these and other video games, arranged for a big band and played masterfully. If you think video game music is not a legitimate expression of art, listen to these.
They Might Be Giants The Spine/The Spine Surfs Alone (2004)
Stand out track: Renew My Subscription
They Might Be Giants have been my favorite band for a long time now and I thought I had a pretty good idea what they were capable of. I did not expect "The Spine." By that I mean I knew TMBG were very clever and seem to have an unending supply of "music-you-could-swear-you've-heard-before" and I knew they could be very dark but I had no idea they could make an album like "The Spine." It's their most dark, psychedelic, mad, disturbed, and inventive album to date. It's filled with absurdly affecting tales of alienation, alcoholism, unreasonable aspirations, and neuroses.
The Spine itself is 17 tracks and 38 minutes long. The EP "The Spine Surfs Alone" was released the same day as the album, goes further into the murkiness, and adds 7 tracks and 12 minutes for a grand total of 24 tracks and 50 minutes, par for the TMBG course. Put them all together and you get something that is as close to a "concept album" as They are ever likely to attempt.
Elliott Smith From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
Stand out track: A Fond Farewell
Yes, he was as great as everyone said. I'm sad that his pain won't bring us any more music.
Ken Stringfellow Soft Commands (2004)
Stand out track: Known Diamond
Here's another member of a band that everyone but me has listened to. I don't know a single Posies song but I have a great deal of respect for Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer individually (I even got to play piano at one of Jon Auer's gigs in Anchorage!) Ken Stringfellow has released a few solo albums and they are all super great. I chose this one because it shows a musical maturity and depth that exceeds the others.
Andrew Bird Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
Stand out track: Masterfade
I've already pronounced that this is my favorite album of the '00s. There's just so much to like about it. Mr. Bird is a virtuoso violin player, a very inventive song writer, has unnatural whistling abilities, writes lyrics that are naive yet adult, and has a voice that is unassumingly sophisticated. This is not the first Andrew Bird album I've listened to but it is, for my money, the most precise and packed with goodies.
The Flaming Lips At War with the Mystics (2006)
Stand out track: Vein of Stars
Many people are going to put Yoshimi before this one but I have to say, I think there's more great songs on this album than Yoshimi. Don't get me wrong, Yoshimi is a great concept album and flows together nicely but I don't think it has the maturity and complexity that At War With The Mystics has.
Oppenheimer Oppenheimer (2006)
Stand out track: Saturday Looks Bad To Me
I saw them open for They Might be Giants here in CoMo and from the first few songs I knew they were something else. Oppenheimer is a duo (Sean and Rocky) who hail from Belfast. They create some of the most precise, dynamic, and beautiful power pop I've heard in a long time. They aren't afraid of Moog synths or drum machines or crunchy guitar. The average song length of the entire album is something like 2:22. Perfect!
Paul Simon Surprise (2006)
Stand out track: How Can You Live In The Northeast?
That Paul Simon would release a fantastic album at the age of 62 is no surprise. I guess the surprise is that he'd be partnered with Brian Eno and that the combination of Paul's acoustic/folk heritage and Brian's new fangled electro-gizmos would be so appealing.
The Apples in Stereo New Magnetic Wonder (2007)
Stand out track: 7 Stars
So by now you know that even though I listen to a lot of guitar/instrumental music, I do have a soft spot for psychedelic/power pop. The Apples in Stereo have been manufacturing music for many many years and every album they put out has a unique sound and approach. Earlier albums had a more jangly sound to them and later ones added mountains of fuzz. "New Magnetic Wonder" is what you would get if you smashed all of their previous albums together. This guess of mine was confirmed when I talked to Robert Schneider himself before an Apples show in London. Think The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Ramones, and ELO all smashed together.