Rock’s greatest evangelists this side of St. Bono, Arcade Fire have been pitching their own feverish big-tent revival for the better part of the last decade. They’re not asking you to come to Jesus, exactly, though there’s no denying the religious fervor that runs through their work. Theirs is a prophetic calling, a calling to sound the alarm and bid listeners to wake up– from apathy, from spiritual and moral lethargy, from a paralyzing sense of “cool.” It’s a call they sound to everyone: Arcade Fire is the direct antithesis to the sense of exclusivity and ambivalence that characterizes the hipster scene. Everyone is asked to participate in their revolution, and one senses that they just won’t quit until the whole world has been brought on board. Given how few bands believe, with this much conviction, that rock and roll can Mean Something, the comparisons to U2 are well-deserved; the charges that they take themselves a little too seriously, not too difficult to understand.
Given the scope of their mission, the breadth of their empathy, it isn’t surprising that they often paint in broad strokes. Their themes are universal, their songs anthems, their emotional palette broad and relatable. Everything is oversized, like they’re stage actors and everyone else in indie rock are stuck on the small screen. For crying out loud, their first album was called Funeral and their second was an LP-length exploration of the toxic intersection of religion, politics, and commerce. And their third album, The Suburbs, blows up the scale even more. Theirs is a sound based on the idea that music itself can be meaningful, even apart from the words, and they’ve built their reputation on stadium-swelling overhaul of U2 by way of Springsteen. Those are familiar sounds, and they touch something inside of us. On the new album, the band introduces some new colors: A touch of 50s doo-wop, Tom Petty’s heartland rock, giddy synth pop, a Sinatra-ish coda. These sounds are signifiers; they take us to certain places in our cultural past, and they immediately communicate to us something of Arcade Fire’s intentions.
If it sounds big, sweeping, sprawling– well, this is Arcade Fire. Of course it is. Still, this is the band’s most ambitious recording yet; on the second song Win Butler sings that he’s “Ready to Start,” and you get the feeling that this is indeed the genesis of a whole new era for the band, one in which even the familiar reveals itself to be far more complex than we previously imagined. Specifically, they’re revisiting the neighborhood they introduced us to on Funeral— only this time, the tunnels that provided escape are a sprawl that cultivates a modern, middle-aged malaise. This isn’t an album about grief and loss, but about something colder, more insidious. It’s about lack of feeling– about the loss of passion, of fervor, of intimacy. It’s about cultural norms that dehumanize us without us knowing. These are broad themes and big ideas, but even when they aren’t subtle, Arcade Fire is always complex.
And so the album is a complicated set of interlocking pieces that mirrors the suburban sprawl Butler sings about. Lyrical motifs and phrases recur in different songs, sometimes in totally different contexts, different puzzle pieces that the band effortlessly move around to fit their vision. The jaunty saloon piano that propels the title track disappears from the song when it is reprised at the album’s end, this time as a strings-and-voice, Wee Small Hours epilogue that uses the same words as at the album’s start, but somehow seems to carry an entirely new, complementary meaning. The songs in between pair off to reveal dichotomies but also connections, and not just in the two-song suites “Half Life” and “Sprawl” but throughout: Sometimes Butler’s lyrics find him returning to the perspective of the kids who raced through Funeral‘s tunnels, but in the very next song he’s singing from the perspective of the parents, weighed down by a cultural numbness, the ravages of time and age, the anxieties of the Neon Bible era.
The music is similarly expansive, similarly interconnected, and as much a part of the story as the lyrics are. Again, they seem to come in pairs: The resignation of the title track and its easy-going gait give way to the more determined, punkish rush of “Ready to Start,” just as the quiet desperation of “Wasted Hours” comes bundled with the raging aggression of “Month of May,” the band’s leanest rocker yet. Make no mistake that what they’re doing here is masterful, and they know it. They practically flaunt their growth as a band, the depth of their vision and the grace in the execution, when they pair a song like “Modern Man”– its spare production standing in stark contrast to the bombast of Neon Bible, just naked emotion with little adornment– with the lavish experimentation of “Rococo.” The interplay of rich strings and guitar tones on “Empty Room” revel in sound, but even moments like this never distract from the importance of song, something emphasized by the song’s quick fade into the ringing guitar rock of “City with No Children”– Hold Steady by way of Tom Petty, and the closest thing here to a “Wake Up”-style anthem.
I don’t want to say much else about where this story goes, or what conclusions the band reaches; suffice to say that their latest manifesto is a painfully precise excavation of a soul that has been worn down by a most curious modern malaise; that it is neither a political screed nor a religious polemic, yet its themes of affluence and isolation, of sleeping morals and cultural conformity, speak in a very specific way to both the times in which we live and more broadly to the condition of being human, making it political in the most meaningful way and spiritual in the most concrete. What I will say is that, by the time you reach “Sprawl,” the album’s mastery becomes impossible to deny. It’s another two-parter, this one explicitly so; the twin movements couldn’t be more different, and couldn’t compliment each other more. The first half is a bare-bones lamentation from Win at his most desperate and downtrodden. It’s the sound of a man who’s realized he’s been drowning his soul. It’s also a wake-up call; part two is sung by wife Regine, and it’s every bit as exhilarating and cathartic as “Keep the Car Running” or “No Cars Go.” I’m not going to spoil the specifics of its call to arms, but it sounds pretty perfect to me: It’s the sound of the soul finally stirring.
18. Sam Phillips
Fan Dance (2001)
Fan Dance stands apart from every other album I own as a sort of dark marvel, a series of riddles that build upon one another into a grand puzzle that absorbs me even as it remains slightly elusive. Certainly, Phillips lives up to her album title: A fan dance is a strip tease, and so is the record, a performance of gradual revelation and a winking smile, an album that does indeed tease the listener with enigmatic poetry about art, truth, and grace– ideas formed and cultivated by Phillips’ own experience of being artistically and spiritually stunted within the confines of Christian pop, and her subsequent exodus into true, expressive freedom. This is something of a belated sequel to The Turning, a diary of an artist’s life wherein questions come easier than answers and the journey carries more weight than the destination. It’s also the seed of everything I love about singer-songwriter records; everything from the unvarnished production, the deep resonance of the creaky acoustic instruments, to the lyrics’ sly, knowing humor, has been formative for me, and the album still dazzles.
17. Buddy Miller
Universal United House of Prayer (2004)
I grew up listening mostly to Christian rock, a habit I long ago abandoned, but this record reminds me of how far a little holy fire goes toward making religious music really burn. Buddy’s gospel is more about creed and conviction than a particular aesthetic or style, as he surveys everything from fiery gospel-rock to hillbilly sing-alongs, country balladry to soaring spiritual anthems. It testifies to the astonishing depth and variety of American religious music, but what to make of the album’s centerpiece, a somber, epic take on Dylan’s “With God on Our Side?” It’s a spiritual of a different variety, a prayer for peace and a plea for compassion, an acknowledgment both of political realities (remember, this is a year into the Iraq War) and of the transcending power of the Divine. Falling where it does, it transforms the album into a powerful witness to the very real hand of God in affairs both personal and political, and House of Prayer into a timely and timeless ode to unity, tradition, and heavenly-mindedness.
16. Arcade Fire
I have something of a love-hate relationship with the indie music scene; I am dazzled by the innovation and eclecticism on display, but frustrated by the genre’s tendency toward exclusivity, and artists who seem to pour all their effort into emphasizing the line between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Not so with Arcade Fire, a band that transcends both their scene and their peers with open arms, big hearts, and anthems designed to reach all the way to the rafters and coax everyone into singing along. This is raw catharsis, music of intense feeling and a conviction that rock and roll can actually make a difference in lives, which might make Arcade Fire the closest thing this generation has to a new U2, and Funeral is their Boy and their Joshua Tree rolled into one: An album of suburban malaise and yearning for spiritual release, music that soars because it’s rooted in something personal, but aims to say something universal.
15. Josh Ritter
The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
An album that I will always defend, Ritter’s reinvention from a mannered folkie into a frisky, rambunctious pop troubadour recalls nothing if not Nick Lowe’s funny, layered records of the late 1970s, cartwheeling as it does from one style to the next with giddy energy and a pop craftsman’s ear for melody. Ritter’s album is deeper and richer, though, as he hijacks American myth and music and refashions it in his own image. Here Ritter is the gunslinger, the grizzled cowboy, the consummate lover; he is the American Adam, the new Dylan, the randy soul man and the soulful rocker. The album is built from a vocabulary we know– the language of pop songs– but from it Ritter fashions something that’s funny, original, and meaningful. The album is full of frayed ends, loose electricity, and odd left-turns, but its heart is true– love shines as the ultimate temptation and the only true redemption. This is Josh Ritter’s Americana, and it is mine as well– and I will love this album forever.
14. Richard Hawley
Truelove’s Gutter (2009)
I guess Richard Hawley just wasn’t made for these times. These songs are rich with images of modernity, of cling and clatter, noise and complication, drugs and addiction and love that hasn’t faded so much as atrophied, killed by the din. But the music rebukes all these modern demons through its sheer beauty, its elegance, its clarity. This is an album of rich, enveloping sadness, a kind of melancholy that feels warm and comforting, not dispiriting but awe-inspiring, and it becomes not just a prayer for serenity and a monument to enduring romance, but a note of permission to feel again; the last song is called “Don’t Cry,” but actually the singer tells us we can cry, that perhaps a little release is much-needed in this age of numbness and overload. Certainly, that’s what Truelove’s Gutter has become for me– a gateway to catharsis, my go-to sadsack album for when I need music to simply wash over me.
13. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America (2006)
In 2006, Craig Finn and his Hold Steady weren’t simply heralded as the new ‘it’ band; they were greeted as saviors, which was on one level quite literally true– they may not have saved rock and roll, but, for many of us, they saved our faith in just what rock and roll could do. Certainly, that’s what this record will always be for me: A clear bolt of rock’s youthfulness and romance, its brash energy and cock-eyed sense of wonder. This is rock that knows no boundaries, lacking any kind of self-awareness or pretense; it may weave together threads picked up from Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, and The Clash, but it does so without making a big to-do about its influences or the way the band blends them into a voice all their own. It’s simply the sound of men who love power chords and beer-swilling anthems, creating a glorious ruckus.
That The Hold Steady is on some level a lyrics band has been said time and time again, and it somehow seems to state the obvious while missing the point altogether; yes, Craig Finn writes sharp and visceral stories about down-and-out losers, barstool romantics and gutter poets, but these have always been the heroes of rock and roll, just as integral in making this vital, crackling rock and roll as the E-Street piano and devilish guitar riffs. It’s what Finn does with these characters, though, that makes The Hold Steady a band of uncompromising heart and integrity; he leads them through back alleys of addiction and raw desire, and allows them to at least see the light of redemption shine through. I’ve never been a drug addict, but his references to Judas and Jesus in “Citrus” ring true; I don’t always like to admit it, but the story Finn’s telling is my story, too.
I think I’ll always look back on 2004 as one of the richest musical years– certainly of this decade. With spectacular new releases, from veterans and rookies alike, and from innumerable different genres and pop idioms, the year was practically a deluge of truly landmark recordings, and I dare say that no other year will play as prominent a role in my Best of the Decade list. Or, for that matter, my all-time desert island list.
It was a year of towering twin peaks: Standing high above everything else and defining the year’s creative vibrancy were Nick Cave‘s two-disc Bad Seeds opus, Abattoir Blues and the Lyre of Orpheus, and Sam Phillips‘ spare, devastating break-up chronicle, A Boot and a Shoe. These two albums are masterpieces of very different kinds, and in my mind they are essentially tied for Album of the Year honors, although, for its sheer scope and audacity, I usually choose Cave’s album as the year’s “official” champion. And indeed, with all of his Seeds in tow and his poetic gift at the peak of its powers, Cave created a sprawling album of astonishing spiritual fervor; you’d have to go back to The Joshua Tree for another rock album of such burning, gospel-fueled passion. Smaller in scale but equally exploratory and profound was Phillips‘ album, a tightly-constructed gem that used a romantic break-up to address issues of suffering, providence, and grace. The impact of both of these albums on my own life– and my listening habits– is, to be quite honest, immeasurable.
But if those were the standouts, they were hardly the year’s only memorable albums. Going into 2004, the album I was most primed to hear was the new, long-delayed offering from U2. Of course this album turned out to be How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and, to be frank, it’s one of my least favorite of their albums; that said, given what a profound blessing this band’s music has been in my life, that hardly means I didn’t like it. I’ve wavered a bit in just how much I like it, finding all of the songs to be good but the production and the cohesion of the album to be lacking; these days I consider it to be a slight disappointment, but the songs still mean a lot to me, so my attitude toward the album is primarily one of great fondness. But I’m the first to admit that, in 2004, Bono and the boys were out-U2ed by a band that can legitimately claim to be the heirs to the U2 throne– Arcade Fire, that rarest of bands that deserves every hyped-up word that’s been written about them. Their debut, Funeral, is a brave and stunningly assured work of catharsis and rich feeling, brimming with a youthful poetry, at once weary and romantic, that could only come from rock and roll.
Tom Waits released his edgiest, hippest, and altogether strangest album in 2004 (which is saying a lot, given Waits’ astonishingly weird career). Real Gone is a nasty little rock record that finds inspiration in everything from hip-hop to parlor folk. It’s Waits’ most daring experiment, pushing the aesthetics of Rain Dogs and Bone Machine to their breaking point. It’s also a profound reflection on history and sin, and in many ways it’s my most cherished Tom Waits album.
Another veteran singer/songwriter who topped himself in 2004 was the great Buddy Miller, whose Universal United House of Prayer was the year’s best gospel album, as well as one of its most profound– and compassionate– political statements. Released during a time of war, Miller‘s album sidestepped polemics in favor of spiritual songs bemoaning man’s depravity and begging for God’s grace. He preached peace through love and faith, and the songs– drawn from mountain music but filtered through rock and roll– matched the lyrics in their fervor and urgency.
Ron Sexsmith released one of the decade’s finest pure pop albums in Retriever, an album of grace and elegance that drew from a number of singer/songwriter traditions but came to be something far more, an incredible showcase of melody matched with lyrics brimming with beauty, sincerity, and truth. Sexsmith wrote about love as something rooted not in carnality, but in divinity; fittingly, his hooks were positively heavenly.
American roots music– everything from country to gospel– was rich and vibrant in 2004. In addition to the Buddy Miller album, of course, there was the Jack White-produced comeback album by Loretta Lynn, an album overflowing with energy, personality, humor, and storytelling virtuosity. Meanwhile, Ben Harper collaborated with the Blind Boys of Alabama for an irresistible gospel concoction– with rock underpinnings, of course– called There Will Be a Light. And Patty Griffin‘s Impossible Dream is a record of rich, devastating, and utterly mesmerizing sadness.
And speaking of rock, 2004 gave us formative recordings from some of the decade’s most promising and exciting bands, most notably The Black Keys‘ breakthrough album, Rubber Factory, and the fully-formed debut from The Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me. And then there was the Green Day album: American Idiot is a blockbuster and a modern-day classic, and for good reason; its mixture of political fire, rock and roll mayhem, and pop craftmanship make it one of the most ambitious mainstream rock albums of the decade, as well as one of the best.
Singer-songwriters were in fine form in 2004, too, particularly in indie music: Iron & Wine‘s Our Endless Numbered Days was a hushed, spooky reflection on death and fidelity, while Sufjan Stevens‘ Seven Swans was a hushed, spooky reflection on death and faith. Both are, in my opinion, the best albums yet made by the two respective artists.
And the beat goes on. AC Newman‘s The Slow Wonder is a pop gem. TV on the Radio‘s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes revealed a band with a fully-formed voice that was entirely their own. Devendra Banhart‘s Rejoicing in the Hands is a riveting update on the old, weird Americana. And on and on.
That was 2004 for me. What were your favorites from that year?
Call them protest albums, even political albums if you absolutely must. Call them recordings that just so happen to shine a light on the state of the union, circa the early 21st century. Call them musical monuments to where we’ve been as a nation, and where we’re headed. Or just call them souvenirs from the worst eight-year detour ever. Whatever you call them, what follows are ten albums that have kept us sane, kept us awake, kept us vigilant, and kept us hopeful through the long, winding years of the Iraq War era. The Hurst Review recommends keeping the TV muted and these record spinning while election results pour in on Tuesday night.
In no implied order other than alphabetical:
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Wim Butler and his Large Band come thundering through the night with an album that sounds for all the world like some kind of gothic horror movie—only in this story, the monsters are nationalism gone amok, religion tainted by consumerism, the name of Christ misappropriated. This isn’t cynical, and it isn’t skeptical, either– this is an appeal, a plea for the preservation of religious faith from a group of true believers. A sad dirge for a nation that’s married the worst aspects of its politics and its zealotry, this album came out– not so coincidentally– during the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film There Will Be Blood, which explored many of the same themes.
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint – The River in Reverse
Costello is no stranger to withering cynicism and caustic anger, and Toussaint has written his fair share of politically-charged songs over the years, too. Here the two men stitch together seven of Toussaint’s most beloved songs and six brand new compositions, and the result is nothing short of miraculous. It’s one thing to make a celebration of American music and culture, a mournful elegy for the fallen New Orleans, or an eloquent album of political protest in the wake of the mismanaged Katrina response; what Toussaint and Costello have done here, however, is to accomplish all three feats, resulting in an album that laments what we’ve lost and celebrates what we have left, all infused with burning, righteous anger.
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
The Decemberists like to dress up in 18th-century costume and write about events from hundreds of years ago, but with this album, they reveal a sly, devastating knack for tackling current events. The album’s title is taken from a Japanese folk story about love and greed and corruption– themes that inform the whole album– and it’s as riveting and as troubling a war-time album as one could ask for, even though it doesn’t really make direct reference to current world events. Instead, it works its magic through stories, parables and allegories, a darkly seductive and terrifying cycle of history and violence that shows us where we are by looking back to where we’ve been.
Green Day – American Idiot
Green Day‘s definitive statement thus far, American Idiot was one of the first and most successful albums to rail against the divisive politics and misappropriation of religious and patriotic zeal that characterized the better part of the Bush years. It sheer anger masks how complex and artful the album really is– there are liberal borrowings from The Who and the Kinks, fused with sharp pop hooks, punk grit, and rock and roll attitude, and Billie Joe’s lyrics comprise a bona fide rock opera about fear and alienation in the modern world.
Joe Henry – Civilians
The master delivers the continuation of something he started on Tiny Voices. That album was all about jaded, self-deceiving lovers, living with the wild and dangerous love of the Divine all around them, but usually settling for something far less. On that album, truth was traded for comfort, real hope for something quick and easy, and God’s grace was something so totally foreign to us that the characters seldom seemed to know it when they saw it-and when they realized what it was, they hit the ground running in the complete opposite direction. It was an album about dangerous lovers in perilous times, looking into the abyss of their own making and seeking solace in the darkness. Here, the camera pans back. The scale is larger, the characters smaller in the frame, but it’s really more of the same story. Henry’s wayward lovers– as sightless as ever– become a metaphor for a nation, an entire people gone astray. A rich, harrowing, and hopeful tapestry of song and story.
Buddy Miller – Universal United House of Prayer
One of many records here that’s culled from a number of sources, Miller’s wartime dispatch stitches together a Bob Dylan cover, some old gospel standards, frontporch country earnestness, rock and roll zeal, and an unashamedly spiritual, Christ-haunted center for an album that goes beyond sloganeering and polemics, gazing without fear into the heart of darkness and offering hope through unity, through music, and through prayers for better times.
The Roots – Game Theory
Who else but The Roots could make a hip-hop album so dark, it feels like it was left on the burner a bit too long, turning black and charred with anger and frustration. An album about race, about Katrina, about poverty, about division, this is rap’s defining voice of rage and disenchantment in the early 21st century– a Fear of a Black Planet for a new generation, though it’s actually more focused and eloquent than even that classic record.
Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Upon the release of this album, a collection of old folk tunes, one critic, evidently distressed by The Boss’ lack of topical songs, questioned whether Bruce realized that his nation was at war. Maybe he should have listened closer; aside from the two silly little narratives that bookend the album, these songs all sound as pointed now as they surely did when they were first penned, touching on universal themes of war, poverty, corruption, and hard times with an eloquence and raw grit that transcend generations. There’s really no need for heavy-handed polemics and sledgehammer sloganeering, Bruce seems to be saying; his declaration that “all foreign wars, I do proclaim/live only on blood and a mother’s pain” stings with more pathos than anything you’ll hear on the nightly news, a political rally, or a Neil Young album.
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
This art rock opus is a gift of conscience and conviction, a megaphone wake-up call for a culture asleep at the wheel, and a reminder that the wickedness of the human heart is great—and love greater still. The album is political but not polemic, personal but without platitudes, a lament for a world in which truth itself is under siege but love emboldens us to fight another day. TVotR has always been rather metaphysical, and never more so than here, where their fractured poetry and impressionistic lyrics show us without telling what the wages of war can be– not so much on the battlefield as in the human heart.
Tom Waits – Real Gone
When Waits warns us “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” he doesn’t have to provide us any further information. We know good and well what happened in that barn– or at least, we know that it was something awful, and that the ghosts of our fathers’ sins rattle through the night even now, haunting us still. That’s what this album is about– the crimes of past generations and the specters of the less savory aspects of our history, reminding us that they’re far from gone and taunting us as we repeat the same old mistakes. This is an album about the painful lessons of history, both personal and political, and its spooky admonitions couldn’t be more vital during a time of war and uncertainty.