Metacritic's Top 200 Albums of the 2000s The Decade in Music

Much has been made of how the digital music revolution has, and will continue to affect the long enduring standard for music organization and distribution--the album.

This project of mine is both an exploration of that theme, and a celebration of the album format. While I do not believe that the album is dead, or even in decline, I do feel that it's position as the lone standard for music organization is probably over forever. My expanded thoughts here.

Comicopera - Robert Wyatt

Posted by JustinSlick On Friday, December 04, 2009 0 comments

Released: October 9, 2007 
Metacritic Score: 86 (102nd) 
Genre: Progressive-Rock, Jazz 
Length: 1:00:15 (16 Tracks) 
Label: Domino Records
Follows: Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974 

One of the most highly regarded albums of 2007, Robert Wyatt's most recent effort is a deeply layered post-rock/jazz amalgamation from the label that brought us Animal Collective, Franz Ferdinand, and the Arctic Monkeys.  

Listen To "Stay Tuned"

I was pretty excited

About listening to Robert Wyatt’s 2007 album, Comicopera for three reasons:
  1. I like jazz, but for whatever reason don’t listen to it all that often. This being listed as a jazz-fusion/post-rock album, I figured it would probably strike a few favorable cords.
  2. To a great extent, Metacritic’s list is filled with artists who are relatively new on the scene (or were when their Top-200 album was released). Wyatt on the other hand, has been active for something like… a half-century or so. Sometimes it’s nice to get away from the new faces and hear what a true veteran has to offer.
  3. Any album that can render Thom Yorke (of Radiohead fame) unable to continue listening beyond the first track because it is “too beautiful” has got to have something going for it.

Thoughts on the Album:

Comicopera ranks in at a modest 102nd on Metacritic’s Top-200, and at just over an hour in length, it has quite a bit more complexity and depth than the three albums I’ve already finished write-ups for.

It’s safe to say that an hour is on the long side for a typical album, and to be honest, with longer works I often find myself wishing the artist had done some self-editing. Comicopera is far from typical however, and thanks in part to its three-act “operatic” structure, it successfully avoids the shortcomings that often plague longer pieces.

Act 1: Lost in Noise

While the first two acts don’t sound all that different from one another, they do carry significant thematic disparities. Act one is the more emotionally gripping and personal of the two, with a mood that borders on melancholic. “Stay Tuned” and “A.W.O.L” are easily among my favorite tracks on the album, and as a whole the first act was probably my favorite section.

Act 2: The Here and The Now

The second segment is a bit quirkier and upbeat, but definitely plays more politically minded than the first. I actually like “On the Town Square” as a sort of interlude for Comicopera’s mid-point, and appreciated the unexpected incorporation of steel drums into the album’s repertoire. The second act was initially my least favorite of the three, but having listened through a couple more times, it’s not any worse, just different—less immediately accessible, perhaps.

Act 3: Away With the Fairies

The third act is notable for being sung almost entirely in Italian and Spanish, and the final five tracks prove to be quite a different experience than the first eleven—the fresh point of view in act three means that the album never feels overly long. Being unable to understand the lyrics actually proved to accentuate Wyatt’s voice, which is absolutely stunning through the final five tracks.

The Bottom Line:
Different music calls for different listening tactics. Some albums sound best in the car, accompanied by a cloudless blue sky and the freedom of the open road. Some can be most interesting in the uninterrupted solitude of your own room through a pair of nice headphones. Others simply cannot be experienced fully unless heard live, directly from the lips of the artist.

I don’t know if Robert Wyatt ever performs live anymore—from what I’ve read it seems to be a rare experience these days, but Comicopera is the type of album I would pay a pretty penny to hear in person. It just feels like the kind of music that would be about fifty times more awesome if you were in the room with Wyatt himself.

It’s probably quite likely I’ll never get to experience that, which is unfortunate, but even through headphones or Comicopera is a true pleasure to listen to. It very much deserves its place on Metacritic’s list, and is probably my favorite of the albums I’ve written up so far.

If you decide to give it a listen (which I recommend), keep an open mind. Robert Wyatt isn’t the most accessible artist on Metacritic, but it should be pretty easy for any music fan to find something they like on Comicopera.

*edit: I was doing a little more research and discovered something that makes perfect sense in light of the comments I made about this album probably being best heard live. Apparently, Wyatt wanted the album to sound as live as possible, and therefore the album was recorded “live” with Wyatt and the full band performing simultaneously from the same room.

So in a way, we got to hear Comicopera live after all…

Rapid Fire:

Best Song: A.W.O.L
Runners Up: Stay Tuned or "Hasta Siempre Comandante"
Least Fave: Not digging “Be Serious” so much.
Best Lyrics:
"Memories fading for patty now
There’s nothing and no one to trust
Just the tick and the tock
Of the damnable clock
As the world that she does turns to dust"
Accolades: Best album of 2007, Wired Magazine

Robert Wyatt on Last.FM
Comicopera on Amazon

On Deck: Cee-Lo Green Is The Soul Machine - Cee-Lo

Pause - Four Tet

Posted by JustinSlick On Thursday, December 03, 2009 0 comments

Released: October 2, 2001 
Metacritic Score: 85 (155th) 
Genre: Electronica, Post-Rock 
Length: 43:08 (11 Tracks) 
Label: Domino Records 
Follows: Dialogue

Seeing the genre listed as “electronic,” I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting myself into with this album until I started playing it.  Obviously electronica comes in a lot of different forms, some of which I’m not usually a big fan of.  I don’t really listen to pure electronica, and I’m definitely not a dance-techno fan.

Listen to "Everything Is Alright"

However, I do very much enjoy the downtempo style offered by bands like Zero 7 and Thievery Corporation, especially as background music when I’m either falling asleep or working on my computer. Thankfully, Four Tet’s style tends to be much closer to downtempo than dance, although comparing Pause to albums by Zero 7 or Thievery Corporation is still something of a stretch.

The most notable disparity between Pause and my favorite Zero 7 material, is that the use of vocals is pretty sparse, with the emphasis obviously placed on production, sound manipulation, and experimentation. Personally, I enjoy one or two fully instrumental tracks on an album with a lot of vocals more than one or two vocal samples on an album with mostly instrumentals.

Perhaps the root of that preference is that as a non-musician I have a harder time recognizing brilliant musicianship than I do excellent lyricism. Whatever the reason, my preference for lyrical-based music is personal taste, and there are plenty of people who would just as soon have it the other way around.

All that aside, Pause was still quite an interesting and enjoyable listen.  While I can't guarantee you'll like it, I can say with certainty that you'll hear sounds and instrument combinations you probably haven't encountered before unless you're already into the whole ambient-electronic scene in which case you probably know a heck of a lot more about Four Tet than I do anyway.

Things I loved
  • Variety.  One of my main criticisms with this type of electronic music is that, to me it can start to feel monotonous. Four Tet succeeds at bringing wide variety of sound to the table, and packs an eclectic mix of influences, instruments, and techniques into the album’s eleven tracks. It gives the album a sense of exoticism and unpredictability that added a lot to the experience without ever making it feel disjointed.  
  • The fact that an acoustic guitar is used so prominently in an electronic album is a fantastic example of my last statement.
  • The recurring type-writer motif definitely provided a nice sense of cohesiveness to the album and helped to rein everything in. Actually, Four Tet's overall use of found audio samples was one of the album's strong suits.
Bottom Line

Definitely not my favorite album of all time, but so far the more I’ve heard it the more I’ve liked it. To me it isn’t captivating enough that I’ll sit and listen with my focused attention, but I have no doubt it'll find its way into my rotation as something to play in the background while I’m working on paintings, designs, etc.

Rapid Fire 

Favorite Track: Everything is Alright
Also Loved: You Could Ruin My Day

Least Favorite: Tangle, I'm gonna say.
Best Moment: There’s this segment during the end of the second track that stood out to me…I don’t really know how to describe it—sort of a gradual metamorphosis in sound (almost like a switch from stereo to a lo-fi mono recording) that I thought was pretty interesting.

Pause on Amazon
Four Tet on Last.FM

Up Next: Comicopera - Robert Wyatt (#101)

Chutes Too Narrow - The Shins

Posted by JustinSlick On Thursday, December 03, 2009 0 comments

Released: October 21, 2003
Metacritic Score: 88 (40th)
Genre: Indie, Pop
Length: 33:50 (11 Tracks)
Label: Sub-Pop
Precedes: Wincing The Night Away

Like so many others my age, I was first introduced to the Shins by Natalie Portman in Zach Braff's 2004 indie-flick Garden State.  If you haven't seen it, Natalie's character hands Braff a set of headphones and says, “You gotta hear this song.  It’ll change your life, I swear.”  Man was she right.

Listen to "Saint Simon"

Five years later,

I don’t think there’s a single song I’ve listened to more times than “New Slang” from The Shins’ debut, Oh, Inverted World.  It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and at least in my case the famous line from Garden State was true.  Before seeing that movie, I was pretty single minded in my listening habits, which at the time included a lot of DMB, Dispatch, and little else.  

“New Slang,” and a couple other entries from the Garden State Soundtrack opened my eyes to the indie scene, and showed me that there was life aside from jam bands.  Now, I know that some have insisted that the Shins’ initial success was due more to the hype machine surrounding Garden State than the quality of Oh, Inverted World, but I politely disagree. 

I acknowledge that there were probably more than a few people that “liked the Shins,” because liking the Shins was cool.  However, for every one of those there were probably three or four *real* fans, since…you know… the music is pretty freakin’ awesome.

Thoughts on the album

Metacritic has The Shins’ sophomore effort Chutes Too Narrow ranking in at number 40 on their top 200 with an overall score of 88.  For whatever reason, it looks like Metacritic never catalogued Oh, Inverted World, which is unfortunate because I would have been pretty interested to see which album the critics preferred.
  • (Actually, Pitchfork does have both in their top 200 of the decade, with Chutes at #41 and Oh, Inverted World at #115ish).
Anyway, the album opens on a high note, with the strange, image-evoking “Kissing The Lipless,” and never really misses a step.  While I don’t think any single track is as atmospheric or “life-changing” as “New Slang” was, I would say a few come close. The final track “Those To Come” is probably the most comparable in mood and character, and also the most poetic. 

Whether due to improved production or a conscious transformation by Shins front-man James Mercer, I like the vocal delivery better on Chutes Too Narrow than Oh, Inverted World.  Mercer sounds different somehow, clearer perhaps, or more contemporary. 

Either way, plus one for the Shins.  I don’t want to go on too long, so I suppose I’ll get down to—

The Bottom Line

While “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy” are probably still my favorite songs from The Shins’ first two offerings, I can’t say for sure whether that’s musical quality speaking or just pure nostalgia from having heard them first.

 I will say that I enjoy listening to Chutes Too Narrow cover to cover a bit more than I do Oh, Inverted World.  I tend to favor the crisper production on Chutes, and think some of the tracks on the Shins’ debut would have fared better with the same high-budget treatment.  Apart from that, I think the stylistic tweaks the Shins made between albums, and the decision to feature guitars over Oh, Inverted World’s keyboard were well implemented. 

Chutes Too Narrow is a great album from a great band, but you probably already know that.  If somehow you missed it, totally go give it a listen.  Here’s hoping 2010 brings us a fourth entry in the Shins’ catalog.  

Rapid Fire:

Favorite Track: For me, I think it’s gotta be “Saint Simon.
Close Second: Album-closer, “Those To Come.”
Best Lyric: From Those To Come:

“quaking leaves and broken light
shifting skin the coming night
the bearers of all good things arrive
climb inside, twist and cry
a kiss on your molten eyes.”

Favorite Moment: The minute or so of soft whistling at the end of “Those To Come.”  Even though it closes out the album, it has the effect of sticking with you to the point where its almost impossible not to keep whistling the melody long after the song fades away—and in this case that’s a good thing.

The Shins on Last.FM
The Shins on Amazon 

On Deck: Four TetPause.

I Am A Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons

Posted by JustinSlick On Wednesday, December 02, 2009 0 comments

Released: February 1, 2005
Metacritic Score: 88
Genre: Indie, Rock
Length: 35:29 (10 Tracks)
Label: Secretly Canadian
Follows: Hope There's Someone
Precedes: You Are My Sister

Playing this for the first time, I really had no idea what to expect.  Most of Metacritic’s reviews focused on Antony Hegarty’s top-notch vocals, and listed the genre as indie/rock (can’t get much broader than that, can we now?)  Apart from those two things, I had neither heard nor read anything else about Antony and the Johnsons.

Listen to "Bird Gehrl"

I really, really like the way the album kicks off; there’s no denying the power and beauty of the opening track, Hope There’s Someone, and the piano crescendo toward the end of the song is probably the best moment on the album.

All things considered though, the final two tracks Free at Last, and Bird Gehrl are my favorites. Free At Last is an avant-gardeish number that opens to a mysterious message pounded out in morse code, and ultimately sounds more like recited poetry than song.  Tracks that lean toward the conceptual or experimental can throw off the flow of an album if placed or used improperly, but in this case I just think it works so ridiculously well

Free At Last finishes with a deceiving, “Ladies and gentlemen, Anthony and the Johnsons,” that really fooled me into thinking the album was over.  Not so—thankfully, Antony gives us one more offering, and ladies and gentlemen it’s a winner.  Much as Hope there’s Someone at the album’s beginning, Bird Gehrl closes the collection by gradually building toward a stunning peak that plays on and resolves the album’s title and concept, “I am a bird now.”

Structurally, I thought the way the album closed was absolutely amazing.  I was deceived enough by the closing line of Free at Last to be genuinely surprised when Bird Gehrl started.  It was probably the only time I’ve ever felt like I was listening to an encore on a studio recorded album.  Cool stuff.

The Bottom Line:

I couldn’t be happier to kick off this project with an album like this.  This is an incredible collection, and hearing music like this is exactly why I decided to begin this project in the first place.  It’s only fairly recently that my interest in music has become pronounced enough that I actively spend a lot of time seeking out new and interesting artists, rather than passively waiting to hear of them from someone else.

The fact is, in all likelihood I never would have heard this album if not for this project, and that’s a real shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Quick Picks 
  • Favorite Song: After about three times through the album, it’s probably Bird Gehrl.
  • Close Second: Fistful of Love: Really great song, making a real strong case for favorite.
  • Least Fave?  The whole album is very, very good, but ultimately Spiraling probably interests me least.
  • Outstanding Lyric?  I love what’s going on in the second to last track, Free at Last.  “Some of these mornings, bright and fair / I thank God, I’m free at last.
  • Favorite Moment: Hands down, from about 2:40 until the end of Hope There’s Someone.  Can’t think of a better way to close out an album than the pounding crescendo offered here by Hegarty.
    On Deck: Chutes Too Narrow - The Shins

    My Top Weekly Artists