Why I Love What I Love: 30 Favorite Recordings, 2000-2009 (Part II)
In Rainbows (2007)
When I get the Radiohead itch, this is, more often than not, the first album I reach for. Describing the music has me reaching for all the words you’d never think to use with regard to these chilly, mopey experimentalists: In Rainbows is warm, sexy, inviting– dare I say romantic? If it’s a stretch, it’s not much of one, because this album is swoon-worthy, a richly seductive palette that finds Radiohead comfortable in their own skin and sounding like they’re truly in love with making music, perhaps for the first time ever. It’s the closest thing there is to a fun Radiohead record, but, as ever, there’s something ominous just below the surface. It would be a mistake to say that this is Thom Yorke turning inward– wasn’t Amnesiac in large part an album about divorce?– but it is his most introspective set of songs since The Bends, an album of twisted love songs, littered with lust and sin and consequences. The lyrics are, as ever, intricate, and deserving of time and effort– but given how enveloping and addictive the album is, it hardly feels like work.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
An album that defies logic, Spoon’s sixth is a masterpiece of minimalism and of maximalism. (It’s miximal! It’s… manimal?) After making a name for themselves by adopting a seriously less-is-more approach to R&B-fueled indie rock, Spoon threw a whole mess of ideas against the wall for Gimme Fiction. Here, they streamline things again: The album is over and done in half an hour, and there’s not a single note of excess. Yet, they’re still playing with all the toys they got out of the classic rock and soul toybox; there are horns, samples, clipped studio chatter, even Jon Brion. But their greatest tools remain economy and precision. They’re grand studio charlatans who can take an embarrassment of ideas and somehow make it sound like a small, modest affair. I’m still not sure exactly how they pulled it off; all I know is that this seemingly little album seems to offer new riches every time I play it, and at times it feels like the world’s smallest– but most complete– playbook on how to make a thrilling, vibrant pop record.
22. Joe Henry
A higher profile– an an increased sure-footedness– for Joe Henry have somewhat obscured this central fact about Scar: That it’s a bewilderingly strange record, a twisted vision of Americana in which a funeral dirge bleeds into a cantankerous mambo, in which Richard Pryor is our disembodied narrator and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen the most unlikely of icons, in which the love songs are really about addiction, the torch songs secretly pining for redemption. Henry’s first major statement is an inverted take on our cultural history– a secret history that unfolds in love songs, the Holy Ghost haunting every frame. The first song encapsulates everything that’s transcendent in Henry’s fractured iconography: In a harrowing tale of self-destruction, he doesn’t so much make a saint out of Pryor as he does make him human. In many ways this is his wildest and most ambitious record, and its best moments point forward to everything he would do in the subsequent decade.
21. Original soundtrack
I’m Not There (2007)
Contained herein there is an entire thesis on the fluid nature of identity in the 21st century, both in art and more broadly; a master’s class on the nuances inherent to song interpretation; and a towering homage to a man who, more than anyone else, lays claim to the title of the greatest, most innovative songwriter in all of rock. And yet, these only hint at what makes I’m Not There a tremendous achievement, and the gold standard for various artist compilations, for more than any of these more formal, philosophical trajectories, the album is defined by its seemingly endless, unbroken string of immense pleasures. There are thirty-nine tracks here, and they are (more or less) all gems. Separately, they are united by nothing more than the byline; they are acoustic and electric, reverent and loose, paying homage to Bob Dylan and refashioning his work in the performer’s own image. Together, they tell an alternate history of an immeasurably fascinating man, and create a vibrant, living mosaic that’s far more than just a tribute album: It’s art in motion, and it’s a joy.
20. Barry Adamson
Back to the Cat (2008)
I would almost call Barry Adamson’s cast of characters– a rogue’s gallery of drunkards and deadbeats, junkies and jilted lovers– larger than life. But then again, I know these people– from cinema, from literature, from the dankest corners of jazz and rock and funk music. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve even been some of these characters, and I’m grateful to Adamson for the compassion he has for them. But if a command of our shared histories and cultural mythologies is his enduring obsession, then bringing these stories to life with all the right musical cues is his true gift. This is remarkably sophisticated music that employs everything from seedy lounge singing to gutter funk, not just for the sake of empty variety, but for all its suggestive power and implicatin: The music means as much as the words, making this a soundtrack that needs no film to accompany it.
Is contradiction the same thing as complexity? It is on Stankonia, a defining hip-hop album for me because it’s the product of real human beings, two grown men who can make sweeping but sophisticated political statements one minute and shift to macho posturing the next, men who laud the merits of virtue and good manners and also proclaim their love of hot prostitutes, without any of it sounding contrived or conflicted. It’s ace hip-hop too, of course– Big Boi and Andre trade rhymes with a kind of telepathic interplay that recalls prime Tribe– but really, it’s as much a rock and funk and soul album as it is rap, not just musically but spiritually: Outkast finds a stripe of humor and on-the-button cultural criticism that places them in the tradition not just of Sly Stone, but also, say, Richard Pryor. This is the seminal hip-hop album of the 00s, and the record largely responsible for getting my hooked on the stuff– which is both fitting and odd, given that it embodies everything that makes the genre vibrant even as it stands as virtually a genre unto itself.