One thing that this batch of albums share is that more than half of them are extremely loud.
20. Pretty Girls Make Graves - Good Health (Lookout, 2002)
So it's 27 minutes long -- perfect for an eruption of undistilled adolescent angst. I might otherwise roll my eyes at the juvenile shoutiness, but Good Health manages to feature juicy and at times epic hooks and melodies without sacrificing the music's unreasonable, world-demanding emotional edge (check the sloganistic yelling on the bass-throbbing "Bring It on Golden Pond," or the beautiful concision of the untitled electroclash sketch). What's more, PGMG would never write anything as anthemic or crushingly sad as "Sad Girls Por Vida" (at one point I came up with a fatally embarrassing gestural pantomine for the "Sad / Girls / For / Life" chorus).
19. The Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust (Vice, 2008)
Lust Lust Lust isn't nearly as consistent as In and Out of Control, but where it surpasses its follow-up album is just how high it reaches when it's on. Lust mainly has two songs: on the one hand, fuzzed out Portishead at their their most spy-flick noir ("Lust" and "Aly, Walk With Me," which has an orgasmic crescendo of noise), and on the other hand, strung-out, girl-boy harmonizing surf rock like "Black Satin" and "You Want the Candy".
And then, "Blush".
The album features such a complete, unified aesthetics -- the excoriating washes of noise (which, granted, is something that the Jesus and Mary Chain came up with in the '80s) -- that even the weaker tracks become engrossing aural spectacles that sustain the overall mood of the album. But when Lust peaks, I swear the bliss is tangible.
18. Labradford - fixed::context (Kranky, 2001)
Gurgling, microscopic clicks, glacial pulses, faint electronic drones, fading guitars: "Twenty" is 18 preconsciousness minutes that slowly encapsulates Labradford's career. In a way, fixed::context is a fitting cap on the band's body of work -- the music here is wispy, fragile, approaching nothingness, until, finally, Labradford themselves became nothingness.
17. Paula Frazer - A Place Where I Know: 4-Track Songs 1992-2002 (Birdman, 2003)
I'm probably cheating a little bit here by including a demo collection, one where half the material ended up being recorded and released in the '90s, but I explain away the inconveniences by saying that the demos, far from being mere skeletons of their studio versions, are to my ears the definitive versions of the songs that stand on their own. Stripped of the "fussy productions" (as mentioned by Heather Phares in her review) in favor of voice and guitar, Frazer shows just what an amazing songwriter she is. She's been more or less tagged as alt-country, but she pushes the dusty cinematicness of her pieces so far that at times she's downright spaghetti western (e.g. the one-two punch of "Halfway to Madness" and "An Awful Shade of Blue"), while the spectral "Like A Ghost," with its extraordinary intro, and the implosively introspective "We Met by the Love-Lies-Bleeding" show off just how ethereal her songwriting and her voice can get.
16. Ghost - Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City, 2004)
Japan produces a lot of psychedelic freaks, but few are as intriguing as Ghost. Where Acid Mothers Temple try to achieve listener transcendence by melting your brain cells with psychotic noise, Ghost approach their project from a more eclectic/folk angle (e.g. their Celtic folk/prog hybrid on "Holy High"). However, Ghost show they can play the AMT game with the controlled but still rawk power chords of "Aramaic Barbarous Dawn" and "Piper," which, after an intro that had me going "Stairway?!" when I first heard them play it in concert, has grand Ghost poobah Masaki Batoh crooning over a tight '60s-style psychedelic jam complete with blazing keyboards. But where Ghost really distinguish themselves is when they get a little more avant, farther from the reaches of conventional rock idioms, such as on the epically snaky groove of "Escaped and Lost Down in Medina," or the organ and operatic drama in "Dominoes-Celebration For The Gray Days" that begs you to bust out your druidic robes and/or gothic/prog capes.
15. Cat Power - You Are Free (Matador, 2003)
A masterpiece of American Gothic. It starts out with a statement of defiant spiritual kinship -- "I Don't Blame You," ostensibly about Kurt Cobain's confrontation with celebrity and slavish expectations, is as much about Chan Marshall's infamously erratic live performances and tempestuous persona -- and the machine-like insistence of "Free" and its attempts to dispense good advice. On "Good Woman", her signature "slow-motion electric strum" (which I alluded to in my writeup for The Greatest) is so frothy with heartbreak that it actually becomes comforting. (Same with "Fool.") But from there, You Are Free starts to travel backwards into a primordial site of trauma (e.g. the hopeless urgency of "Maybe Not" -- oh, that chorus) that climaxes with the harrowing twins of "Names" ("His name was Charles / He said he was in love with me") and "Keep On Runnin'" (which turns a John Lee Hooker tune into a horror film). (And hey, I just turned a Cat Power album into an episode of Lost.)
14. Electrelane - No Shouts No Calls (Too Pure, 2007)
After the solemn, improvisational detour of Axes, Electrelane returned to pop songcraft with No Shouts. Distinct in their oeuvre for being their most clearly romantic album, the trifecta of "The Greater Times", "To the East," and above all, "Saturday" (the wistful, sentimental power of the lines, "I tried to forget you / I tried to forget you," is stunningly potent) makes me wonder why they hadn't gone down this direction earlier. (Yes, I know that "Between the Wolf and the Dog" is about football, but you know how starry-eyed the English feel about their footie.)
13. Boris - Pink (Southern Lord, 2006)
Just like Akuma No Uta, except Pink goes to 11. Which is to say, Boris surveys their omnivorous metal proclivities with greater emphasis on melodic riffs (each album starts off with am achingly pretty shoegaze metal track), but Pink is louder, more panoramic, faster (without sacrificing the precision), and has more hooks than its predecessor. In short, it's the most UPPERCASE collection of metal, ever. The title track shreds at exhilaratingly illicit speeds, and its metal-as-hell "woah"s and rollicking riffs put the FU into FUN, while "Electric" is the shortest track but is pure headbanging id. And as they did at the beginning of Akuma's "Naki Kyoku," "My Machine" features yearningly beautiful and gentle ambience, and although the US vinyl version is 10 minutes long, the brevity of the CD version captures the fleeting prettiness much better, giving way much more gracefully to the monster of the album, "Just Abondoned My-Self", at first as fast and groovy as any other track on Pink, but then transforming into monolithic walls of distortion and feedback so immense that I feel like I'm wrestling with the Kant's sublime and unconscious blissout.
12. KaitO - band red (spinART, 2003)
Specious analogy time! Lightning Bolt : Ulysses :: KaitO :: Mrs. Dalloway. Both bands can be characterized as bratty noise (or noisy) punk with a cracked, ADHD playfulness. However, where Lightning Bolt take a confrontational, boy-macho stance with their cliffs of feedback and Moebius-loop metal riffing, KaitO (AKA Kaito UK, since there's a Japanese ambient techno guy who goes by the same name) whittle the cacophony down into bouncy hooks and squealing vocals -- their songs (and yes, they write songs) are still abrasive and jagged and dissonant (well, not on the lullaby "Nothin New"), but fun in an entirely different way. There's the manic cheerleader chanting on "Should I," or the way Nikki Colk's voice cracks on "Anamoy," or the exhilirating yelps on "Driving Manual Auto." Even the climax of "Enemyline" -- all power chords and distortion -- never shrugs off Kaito's playfulness.
11. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (Sub Pop, 2005)
SK's classic rock (read: RAWK) album, where Carrie earns her right to swagger onstage with the guitar gods of yore. I used to hate the production on The Woods, though having heard most of the album on tour, I'm not sure that I liked the songs much either; The Woods just didn't sound like a Sleater-Kinney album. Instead of the twisting interplay of guitars, it was loaded with riffs that kept hitting me over the head. Like, they put an 11-minute track on the album! That's not Sleater-Kinney!
But then, absence really does make the heart grow fonder, because four years after they broke up, I can't point to a weak track on their final album. What's better, tracks I liked before now sound even more epic (thanks, I'll admit, to the production), such as the sweet torture of the breakdown in "What's Mine is Yours," or Janet's monster drumming and the way Carrie screams the verses right before the chorus of "Entertain" (which even features vintage '90s SK guitar licks in the middle of the song, to boot).