10. Ellen Allien - Remix Collection (B-Pitch, 2004)
By the end of this decade, I'd forgotten the seductiveness of the all-mighty 4/4 beat, a lapse that I redressed with this little mix. Although Allien typically offers the kind of sleek and mechanical techno I like (at the same time throwing in some funkiness that I could do without), for whatever reason, I don't much care for her studio albums. Her remix collection, though, has a broader palette than, say, Berlinette -- the first track of which ("Alles Sehen") is remixed on Remix Collection. The Berlinette version is cute, maybe a little twee as Berlin techno goes, if somewhat monotone; the remix, on the other hand, has all the metropolitan cleanliness and precision beauty, the geometric lines and patterns, the art deco architecture decked out in technicolor that makes the lizard part of my posh brain want to groove.
Appreciating Remix Collection, then, is like exploring an amazingly cosmopolitan, futuristic city, wherein "Aus Heiterem Himmel" drives you through downtown on its 4/4 thump, while the angular beats and the sample of the processed vox on "Koax" slowly expand into a vision of a night-time cityscape, and soon ("Bullet") you find yourself in a spaceship flying past the earth-bound worries and finding out just how unbearably seductive German-accented musings on temporal metaphysics can be ("time is like a liquid in your hands"):
9. Mirah - C'mon Miracle (K, 2004)
Two things separate Mirah from your meat-and-potatoes acoustic campfire songbird: first, that voice. Second, her sonic and stylistic adventurousness. So when C'mon Miracle came out, a lot of her fans were disappointed by its relatively subdued production. However, the production starkness consequently put her songwriting squarely in front of the listener, and fortunately, the songs on C'mon Miracle are unimpeachable, with a maturity and purity that she hasn't matched before or since. (And her voice hasn't gotten any less sweet.) "The Dogs of B.A." rambles across Argentina (and features the return of the accordion!), while the production does show itself off, albeit introspectively, on "Jerusalem", which doubles Mirah's voice over itself (while she flexes her lyrical dexterity) in the midst of a hazily exquisite, timeless arrangement. Everything is in place -- production, writing, performance -- on two tracks: "Don't Die in Me" (for me her most haunting, heart-rending song and her most emotionally vulnerable performance), and "Promise to Me". Over the course of her career, Mirah has built an earthy but girlish persona, yet on this latter track, her voice grows suddenly more mature, saddened and aged, broken hearted and but valiantly trying not to be.
8. Bardo Pond - On the Ellipse (ATP, 2003)
The formula -- and make no mistake, this album has exactly one formula -- is obvious as hell: start out quiet, maybe even acoustic, and build build build to a crashing, soul-shaking crescendo. Repeat till your ears fall off. Of course, Bardo bring it so hard on "JD" and "Every Man" that I'm breathless by the time track 3 starts. In fact, these two songs were what turned me from someone who liked Bardo well enough into an utter obsessive who had to track down every self-released CD-R and side project for a three year period.
7. Colleen - The Golden Morning Breaks (Leaf, 2005)
Equal parts childlike wonder ("Sweet Rolling") and gurgling, iridescent, heartbreaking beauty ("The Happy Sea"), the gentle ebb and flow of "I'll Read You A Story", the shoegaze rising rippling and receding in "Bubbles Which on the Water Swim", the spectral guitar-plucking on the title track, and with "Everything Lay Still", feels like I'm not breathing anymore -- wind chimes, delicate strings -- mute, irresolvable drama. Emptiness never sounded so lovely.
6. Mogwai - Rock Action (Matador, 2001)
In their first two studio albums, Mogwai built its reputation on a sound both dynamic and monolithic: songs that begin softly before bursting into eardrum-bursting volume, all paced over 7, 8, or 16 minutes, on hour-long albums with towering, intense emotions that try to eat the sun. Then came Rock Action, a 38-minute breeze with the aural texture that left the band's fans wondering where the rest of the album was, where the rock was and where the action was. Even Mogwai itself ended up disowning Rock Action (though judging by the stuff that came after, I'd take their negative judgment as a point in the album's favor).
At which point I'm wondering what album they're all listening to. Rock Action is an exhilarating ride -- it goes from crushing yet melodic noise ("Sine Wave" -- my local library had filed at least one Mogwai album in the "Electronic" music section, so "Sine Wave" retroactively justified that classification) to romantic introspection ("Take Me Somewhere Nice" and "Dial: Revenge") to calling down the apocalypse ("You Don't Know Jesus" -- it's not a Mogwai album if they don't soundtrack the end of the world, and this mashup of "Like Herod" and "Helicon 1" is utterly rapturous) to unfettered optimism ("2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" -- banjo banjo banjo!) all in 38 minutes -- but they are 38 beautiful minutes, 38 of my most favorite minutes.
5. PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island, 2000)
The first four tracks are perfect, and I'll brook no argument there, notable for how the immensity of Polly's voice takes a backseat to the songs as songs, and it's not because she dials down her vocal powers -- the melody-dipped, jangling songs are so irrepressibly catchy that I was completely turned off the first time I listened to them because I'd expected that she'd be wearing her 50 ft. Sheela-Na-Gig persona (which still cameos on "The Whores Hustle, and the Hustlers Whore," "Kamikaze," and "This is Love") instead of the Prada-sporting fashionista on the cover of Stories. But when I opted out of the expectations game, I could hear just how on top of her craft she was here (the things she does with her voice -- beyond just using it as a blunt force weapon -- on "Good Fortune" and "A Place Called Home" make me ecstatic), and even when the song quality drags, she performs the hell out of it because she's Polly Jean Harvey, and and and—! I'll just let the high priestess speak for herself: "I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work." Yes.
4. The Knife - Silent Shout (Rabid, 2006)
When I first heard this in 2006, I didn't let myself get swept up in it like almost everyone else, because Silent Shout was just too easy to like. The pulsing beats, the twisted vocals, the impeccable songcraft, surely there must be something wrong with this brother-sister duo from Sweden! Yeah, I was an idiot then, because this is austere alien techno that, on some tracks, sounds like a shimmering, alternate universe electro-Scandinavian Victioraland-era Cocteau Twins ("Marble House"). Or else cyberviking phantasmagoria ("We Share Our Mother's Health").
3. Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City, 2006)
Sure, her singing voice sounds like a cross between Bjork and Kermit the Frog, but that's just window dressing considering the whimsy, beauty, and succulent orchestral arrangements on Ys. Joanna flits from one melody to another -- a luscious a waterfall on "Monkey and Bear" at about 6:30, a vocal cascade of wordiness in "Sawdust and Diamonds" around 2:20, always shifting from classical beauty to earthy folk to gentle windblown vulnerability in the span of a minute. And she's not just a pretty harp -- cut through the childish/childlike singing style, and you'll find someone with a tremendous gift for prosody; I adore the sound of her words when, for example, she sings on "Emily":
Though there is nothing would help me come to grips withAll these stylistic peculiarities lend the album a timeless feel, yet, as luminous as the first three tracks are, when I listen to "Only Skin," they sound like mere exercises in her particular type of virtuosity (harp, additive compositional structures) compared to the opus of Ys. The second movement of "Only Skin" blooms gorgeously at around 4:00, then the arrangement drops at 6:00 to focus on her singing and harp, all ethereal and crystalline, until finally the final movement, when, at 13:38, the skin-tingling way that Bill Callahan's voice comes out of nowhere to harmonize with her as her own vocals soar higher and higher and more distant -- it sounds like nothing less than transcendence. If "Only Skin" is about shuffling this mortal coil, then I want to go to there.
A sky that is gaping and yawning,
There is a song I woke with on my lips,
As you sailed your great ship towards the morning.
2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band - Horses in the Sky (Constellation, 2005)
Six "busted waltzes" that, more than ever, feature Efrim's vocals, as abrasive as ever, which he wields like a polemical stiletto (e.g. the dirge-like end of "God Bless Our Dead Marines"), that nonetheless reaches moments of sparkling beauty (much of the title track, or the last minutes of "Mountains Made of Steam"), yet even then, the beauty is ephemeral, as the ominous vocals break into an expanse of keening guitars and attenuated strings mourning the unavoidable decay of civilization.
1. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat (Kill Rock Stars, 2002)
I would've been thrilled if Sleater-Kinney kept making the furious indie punk of Dig Me Out, but they had virtually no interest in that given the next two followups (The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One) each went a simultaneously more tuneful and angular direction, neither of which grabbed me as much as their past albums did. But all that noodling came together on One Beat, which took the mantle as the best synthesis of polemics and hooks since mid-'90s Stereolab. The explicitly political tracks -- "Far Away" and "Combat Rock" have great singalong choruses, and the latter, for all its stridency and weird bounciness, becomes an utter jewel with its twinkling Hands Across America bridge. And when SK concentrate on the melodies -- like the doo wop harmonies on "Oh!" -- they sound like they're having the most fun they've ever had in their career. But that's not the end of it, as One Beat is a document of Sleater-Kinney at the height of its power: Corin's bravura singing (she was never more powerful, even as she dialed back the screaming, as she is throughout the album), Carrie's arch vocals at their most honeyed and her guitar playing tighter than ever -- all of which is captured in the weaving textures of the title track, where I have to mention that the way Janet's drumming, searching for the beat in the intro, has this almost tactilely erotic quality to it -- and "Light Rail Coyote" with unmatched swagger (the swinging riffs, Corin sounding so self-assured that she could vaporize hipsters with a look) -- this is it. This is rock.