Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Decade postmortem: 2000 and 2001

UPDATES: I tweaked the 2000 list a bit and added an addendum to 2001.

Now is the time when the music critics of the world compile their lists of the best releases of the year, and, even more agonizing, of the decade. Actually, for most writers that time was a month ago. I always get to these late, cuz (1) I don’t usually have a pressing early deadline, and (2) I find it psychically impossible to look back on a year until at least the second week of December.

I’ll be posting my 2009 list soon. But while scanning through the best-of-the-decade cloud, I’ve also been reflecting on my own past choices. Every critic should be held up to the lasting wisdom of his or her old year-end lists. Anybody can pick 10 faves, but a good critic is supposed to have the insight to find quality amid the mediocrity, and to explain and contextualize it. The problem is that aside from a few obvious mega-masterpieces (Thriller, Nevermind, William Shatner’s The Transformed Man) no one knows what will stand the test of time, which is the only test that matters. As a result, the art of the year-end top 10 includes an embarrassing amount of guesswork, fanboy advocacy and consensus groupthink gone stupidly wrong.

In 2007 the Village Voice ran a brutal but very funny reckoning about its Pazz and Jop poll, which covers hundreds of critics each year. (New Times had recently bought the Voice and begun booting its staff, so the motivation might not have been purely journalistic.) Reviewing decades of old Pazz and Jop tallies, the new Voice found a lot of howlers. Our nation’s rock critics got Thriller and Nevermind right (phew), but otherwise came out looking only slightly smarter than Grammy voters. For instance, in 1991 P.M. Dawn was laughably overestimated at No. 5, while My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless only made No. 14 and Dinosaur Jr’s Green Mind No. 37. Those are two of the most important alt-rock albums of the ’90s, and it was pretty obvious at the time how big a deal they were. In 1995 Elastica was No. 5 but Ready to Die was shunted all the way down to No. 38. I think we know who killed Biggie Smalls!

Over the next week or so I’ll be reviewing my past lists to see how well they hold up, and revising them as needed. Feel free to take me to task, shout in solidarity, call bullshit. It can be tricky to define exactly what we’re saying with these rankings. The big question is whether they represent only personal affinity or are larger statements about artistic or cultural importance. I lean toward the former, although I think a critic isn’t doing his job unless the latter plays a significant part.

First up: 2000. I can’t find a list for that year; if I made one at all, it was informal. But with the benefit of hindsight, here’s the one I would (or should) have made:

1. Radiohead, Kid A
2. Webb Brothers, Maroon
3. High on Fire, The Art of Self Defense
4. White Stripes, De Stijl
5. Grandaddy, The Sophtware Slump
6. Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun
7. Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo
8. Outkast, Stankonia
9. Coldplay, Parachutes
10. Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free

I can’t deny Kid A, which stunned me when it came out. It was amazing that something so bizarrely beautiful went to No. 1. It’s a milestone in the history of weird music. It wasn’t a breakthrough exactly: it wasn’t the first “post-rock” album, nor was it really a major reboot for Radiohead (that was OK Computer). But Kid A continued and surpassed all the post-rock/electronica that had been bubbling up through the ’90s, when those sounds were new and revolutionary. And after a decade it still hasn’t been surpassed. Why? Because Radiohead made it look too easy. In the same way that 1,000 shitty lo-fi bands tried to fake being Pavement in the 1990s, 1,000 shitty post-rock bands tried to fake being Radiohead in the 2000s. It’s still happening, and that’s why Radiohead are still giants.

I also love the Webb Brothers, who reside in a different and less futuristic musical continent. These young sons of Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman”) absorbed their father’s songwriting classicism and applied it to the druggy, debauched fast life in an epic concept album dripping with melody. (I originally had this in my 2001 list, but I believe the album came out in 2000. I can’t remember anymore.)

Following that, High on Fire’s debut was an instant classic of stoner metal, and De Stijl was the album that got the buzz going on the White Stripes. (I bought it at Midnight Records on 23rd Street; I hadn’t heard of them before, but it had one of those covers that guarantees something interesting.) Otherwise, I don’t have much to say about this list, other than that I remember being very struck by Dead Prez at the time, and that it took some time for me to make sense of Grandaddy; I probably would not have included them on this list if I had written it in December 2000, but now it seems essential to me. The Sigur Ros album had a complicated release history but it basically broke in 2000. (First major press mention on Nexis: announcement of NME Premier Awards nominees, Jan. 21, 2000.)

And now, 2001. Here’s the list I made at the time:

1. Spoon, Girls Can Tell
2. White Stripes, White Blood Cells
3. Lightning Bolt, Ride the Skies
4. Manu Chao, Proxima Estación: Esperanza
5. Radiohead, Amnesiac
6. Low, Things We Lost in the Fire
7. Moldy Peaches, Moldy Peaches
8. Webb Brothers, Maroon
9. Fugu, Fugu 1
10. Tortoise, Standards

I think I’m right about a lot of this. But there are two big, big albums I would need to add: Nick Lowe’s The Convincer and the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World. The Convincer has become a real favorite of mine; discussing it with Claudia Marshall on WFUV recently, I called it “the most tasteful album of the 2000s,” and I stick by that. It’s magnificently elegant and eloquent, the perfect sound for Lowe’s wry but still warm-hearted reflections on the follies of life and love. The Shins I don’t need to explain; it’s fabulous, and it gets me right there. What I will say in defense of this revision is that that both albums reached me too late because of 9/11, when my life shifted to constant fifth-gear mode for several months. (Lowe’s album was released on that day; the Shins came out earlier, but I don’t think I heard it until early 2002.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly easy decision to remove Manu Chao and Tortoise, neither of which has held up terribly well for me, and as noted above Marooned is reassigned to 2000. More difficult to lose is the lovely and playful Fugu. It charmed me eight years ago and is still nice, but here in 2009 it don’t sound like such great shakes.

That leaves room to add two titles, and there are some prominent candidates: Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, the Strokes’ Is This It, and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. In terms of who made the best album, I think Dylan wins out, and as much as I might loathe the Strokes, I have to admit that Is This It holds up really, really well. It was also the year of Miss E ... So Addictive, but my frustration with Missy albums is that aside from two or three brilliant tracks they tend to get pretty boring.

So here’s my revised list for 2001:

1. Nick Lowe, The Convincer
2. Spoon, Girls Can Tell
3. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World
4. White Stripes, White Blood Cells
5. Lightning Bolt, Ride the Skies
6. Radiohead, Amnesiac
7. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft
8. Moldy Peaches, Moldy Peaches
9. The Strokes, Is This It
10. Low, Things We Lost in the Fire

Addendum: Teenage Fanclub’s Howdy, released in the UK in 2000, came out in the US in 2001. It’s gorgeously pastoral, and asks simple, honest and poignant questions about life and love. (Here is my review at the time.) If I were to put it in this list it would be between Nos. 3 and 4, but I don’t want to mess with it at this point.

Next up ... 2002!

3 comments:

Robert said...

"Anybody can pick 10 faves, but what is supposed to separate a good critic from the rest of us is the insight to find quality amid the mediocrity, and to explain and contextualize it."

My friend, all attempts to explain and contextualize one's choices on a best-of list inevitably become subjective.

Under all of the modifiers and superlatives, most record reviews boil down to: "(A) Here is my taste in music. (B) Here is some background. (C) This sounds great to me. (D) It is therefore a great and important artifact."

Now... Matt-Brown me, knocker.

B. said...

Sorry, but I ain't taking that bait. You either accept that an expert has a valid opinion backed up by solid critical argument, or you don't.

But to take the bait just a little bit... What's missing from your A-B-C-D formula is the idea that a good review posits an answer to the question "Why?" As in, Why is something good or bad? Why is it better or worse than X, or a challenge or answer to Y? Why is it worth listening to/reading/watching, other than the fact that I, someone you don't know and probably don't give two shits about, happen to like or dislike it?

Dictated but not read,
Bmatt Brownsario

Robert said...

OK--and I mean this respectfully and lovingly-- Have another look at the below, and answer your own question: "Why?" Or maybe "How?"

"I can’t deny Kid A, which stunned me when it came out. It was amazing that something so bizarrely beautiful went to No. 1. It’s a milestone in the history of weird music. It wasn’t a breakthrough exactly: it wasn’t the first “post-rock” album, nor was it really a major reboot for Radiohead (that was OK Computer). But Kid A continued and surpassed all the post-rock/electronica that had been bubbling up through the ’90s, when those sounds were new and revolutionary. And after a decade it still hasn’t been surpassed. Why? Because Radiohead made it look too easy. In the same way that 1,000 shitty lo-fi bands tried to fake being Pavement in the 1990s, 1,000 shitty post-rock bands tried to fake being Radiohead in the 2000s. It’s still happening, and that’s why Radiohead are still giants."