80. Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day [New West]
Decoration Day came on the heels of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a loose concept album about growing up in the shadows of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Wallace, and “the duality of the Southern thing.” It put the Drive-By Truckers on the map as the thinking fan’s rock band and promised great things ahead merely on the strength of the growing songwriting talents of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
Decoration Day debuted new member Jason Isbell, who maybe no one outside of his hometown had heard of, and we were promptly knocked on our asses. Isbell’s “Outfit” and “Decoration Day”, Hood’s “Sinkhole”, Cooley’s “Marry Me” and “When the Pin Hits the Shell”: the album contains a murderers’ row of songs that each songwriter can rightfully expect to play to singalong crowds for years to come.
The album explores themes of violence, fear, fatherhood, suicide, the South, and rock ‘n’ roll from the mouths of characters living those struggles, in unflinching terms. It’s also worth mentioning that, over several acrid years of American politics, the Truckers often managed to keep the political on a personal level, so that listeners could plug in whoever their own version of “The Man” happened to be.
The triple-threat of Isbell, Hood, and Cooley lasted only three albums before Isbell departed for a successful solo career, but Decoration Day — on which the band’s ragged aesthetic breathed noisy life into Isbell’s songs, and Isbell’s often literary songwriting reinforced the complex themes that Hood and Cooley were exploring — introduced arguably the band’s strongest lineup. — Andrew Gilstrap
79. Raekwon the Chef – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II [Ice H20/EMI]
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is about the difficulty of letting go — of the violence, of the drugs, of the damn life, before luck runs out. When Raekwon and Ghostface talk about the bad old days, it’s just a little bit more real. Check this out: “I seen visions of dead males and more sales / Real life stories is made, and candles got blazed / For little young soldiers shot by them strays.” Or how about this: “They found a two year old, strangled to death / With a ‘Love Daddy’ shirt on in a bag on the top of the steps.” Evocative. Concrete. These are “warts and all” depictions of wayward men who went wrong.
Pt. II starts exactly where Pt. I left off — you can match the music if you play them back-to-back. And, despite a wealth of producers such as RZA, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, Mathematics, Part II is cohesive in tone, both to itself and to its predecessor. The Cuban Linx albums are hip-hop’s The Godfather: Parts I and II. Both are sobering reflections on the criminal life, and the despair of never leaving it behind. — Kevin Wong
78. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance [Lookout!]
Ted Leo’s music has never tried to hide the fact that he was an English major in college, but nowhere more than on The Tyranny of Distance does Leo manage to capture that elusive goal of fiction — capturing “the feeling of what it means to be a fucking human being”. It’s a record chock full of five dollar words, antiquated contractions, and references to the literary canon, but the effect is far from pretentious. Written at a crossroads in Leo’s life, Tyranny finds him grappling with the Big Issues: life and death, love and loneliness, language and (loss of) faith — but seeking small, human-scale answers.
On Tyranny, Leo combines his ear for melody with a satisfyingly diverse range of styles from lilting folk to Zeppelin-esque riffing to soaring jangle pop, all run through his overly-caffeinated punk rock filter. The result is songs like “Biomusicology”, “Timorous Me” and “The Gold Finch and The Red Oak Tree” that still sound timeless nearly 15 years on. Released months before 9/11, The Tyranny of Distance stands out as a ray of poppy sunshine from a band that would spend the rest of the decades being a voice crying out in a politically darkened wilderness. — John M. Tryneski
77. Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life [Capitol/EMI]
In 2000, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse began recording It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2010, he committed suicide at age 47. Though Linkous’s works are not popularly regarded as definitive markers of their times, It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) continues on as a brilliant and unsung highlight of the decade remembered here.
Released by Capitol Records, It’s a Wonderful Life was a rare departure from Linkous’s one-man-band approach to playing and recording. Earlier Sparklehorse albums utilized elements such as defective equipment and intrusive static as pointed defenses against commercial exploitation. The addition of producer Dave Fridmann to the recording process transformed Linkous’s aesthetic into new, still strange, but more palatable landscape. It’s a Wonderful Life was the fourth annual masterpiece of that peak period of Fridmann’s career, following Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs in 1998, the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin in 1999, and the Delgados’ The Great Eastern in 2000.
Themes of death and decay haunted It’s a Wonderful Life. Presently, the knowledge of Linkous’ suicide lends a retrospective layer of melancholy. But on plain musical merit, the album was in fact a rally for its creator. Collaborations with Fridmann and guest musicians including PJ Harvey, Nina Persson, and Tom Waits revealed a variety and depth that belied the media characterization of Linkous as a cloistered and depressed genius. In 2010, Steve Albini eulogized Linkous by saying, “he was a good dude and his art was genuine.” It’s a Wonderful Life is evidence of that. It’s an album that acknowledges beauty and truth even in the midst of darkness. — Thomas Britt
76. The Postal Service – Give Up [Sub Pop]
The Postal Service’s Give Up came out in 2003 and promptly became one of those releases that impacted music for the rest of the decade, however unlikely it seemed. A side project between Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, Give Up took off in a way that neither of their main bands had up until that point. The album is a distillation of two genres, and the electronic sounds and emo lyrics defined indie rock for the time.
One of the album’s greatest strengths is how it’s able to bring warmth to a sound that might initially seem disconnected or cold. Much of the credit for the fuller sound should be given to the backing vocals provided by Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood. Their voices meld exceptionally well with Gibbard’s and in the end the album feels complete in a way that belies the piecemeal way it came together. Exchanging CD-Rs through the mail, Gibbard and Tamborello stumbled upon a sound that never feels like one of them is overshadowed by the other. Give Up‘s cultural importance is unquestionable, as it helped bring indie rock into the mainstream, but apart from its groundbreaking appeal, it’s simply an immensely listenable album that ten years on still feels dynamic and makes for an essential 2000s addition. — J.M. Suarez
75. U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind [Island/Interscope]
After the pompous excesses of U2’s 1997 album Pop and its gaudy lemon of a tour, U2 hit the reset button to record All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. Turns out the dawn of the decade was an appropriate time for a resolute return to the band’s fundamental songwriting and record-making, shedding everything (electronica, dance tracks, pop irony) except that which they couldn’t leave behind: soulful anthems, sweeping melodies, artful arrangements, and brilliant performances. Back were producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who helped incorporate elements of the band’s past glory while pushing the record into the new millennium with fresh sonic craftsmanship.
A return to more traditional songs found Bono reignited, pushing his voice to the top of his range, while the Edge refreshed his iconic chiming figures into the sturdiest set of U2 songs in a decade. In fact, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its opening run of “Beautiful Day”, “Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Elevation”, and “Walk On”, would provide the heights and sound templates that U2 would continue to chase, and fall short of, on every album since. It remains the last classic from the last of the rock stars. — Steve Leftridge
74. The Bug – London Zoo [Ninja Tune]
Kevin Martin’s third album as the Bug came at a time when dubstep was arguably at its peak. The genre’s bass heavy, half-step template was firmly in place. Burial had just released his second album, and the United Kingdom’s fickle audiences were beginning to tire of the familiar tropes and ideas being strung out by copycats and sound-alikes alike. Enter London Zoo, an album that saw Martin streamline and refine the murky dancehall sound that was last seen on 2003’s Pressure into something more in line with the bass heavy dubstep sound of London’s dancefloors.
Enlisting a startlingly brilliant array of vocal talent — Roll Deep’s Flowdan and Killa P, Spaceape, future King Midas Sound member Roger Robinson, Ricky Ranking, Warrior Queen and dancehall veteran Tippie Irie — to bedazzling effect, Martin completely threw all expectations of what bass music coming out of Britain’s capital could sound like. The UK’s vibrant dance music heritage has always been influenced by Jamaican soundsystem music, from jungle all the way through to today’s grime, and with London Zoo, the world was served a real reminder of how transformational London’s producers are in perverting their influences into something totally new and exciting. — Al Kennedy
73. Harvey Danger – King James Version [Sire]
The sophomore album is challenging for any band looking to exceed expectations and that was no different for Harvey Danger. Riding high off the massive success of that song, it was a question of whether or not they could maintain that momentum while continuing to build upon a solid foundation. Despite a noble effort, King James Version fell through the cracks, not only failing to recapture their debut album’s mass audience, but essentially fading from existence as quickly as it landed with the mainstream having decided that Harvey Danger had worn out their welcome, thus sentencing them to “one-hit wonder” status.
In retrospect, they did exactly what a band is supposed to do for its follow up. They one-upped their song writing with biting lyrics offering thought-provoking entertainment value all their own (singer Sean Nelson remains one of the most criminally underrated lyricists alive), not to mention killer hooks courtesy of irreplaceable bassist Aaron Huffman, not afraid to lead the melody. The so-called “alternative rock band” even managed to sneak a piano ballad in there, highlighting guitarist Jeff Lin’s classical training, while also serving as a good primer for their (as of now) final album Little By Little, hinting at the direction their music would take.
In essence, Harvey Danger is everything you think they’re not and King James Version is definitive proof of that. — Steven Scott
72. J Dilla – Donuts [Stones Throw]
By the middle of the decade, J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, aka James Dewitt Yancey, was a living legend among hip-hop fans and artists. He had taken the innovations of earlier ‘name’ producers — Pete Rock, Marley Marl, DJ Premier, etc — and run it in unlikely and unique new directions, flipping and warping and shirking off expectations. He did that while remaining in some ways anonymous to the general public; more a musician’s musician than a celebrity.
The story behind 2006’s Donuts may have cemented the album’s reputation forever. He essentially edited it on his deathbed, from a hospital bed. It was released three days before his death. And the music itself can be read, if you’re so inclined, as a statement on mortality. Yet I’m firmly of the opinion that the music transcends the circumstances; this would be a classic of the genre in any case.
No matter how many imitators and influenced live among hip-hop DJs, producers and ‘instrumentalists’, there is nothing like Donuts. It is essentially a beat tape, yes, but one that was pieced together as an infinite loop built of miniatures. It’s filled with jokes, with puzzles, with quick emotional reveries and with samples both familiar and disguised. It’s a masterpiece of hip-hop ingenuity that’s a testament to its creator’s genius but also stands in for the very spirit of the genre. — Dave Heaton
71. Doves – Lost Souls [Heavenly]
In 2000, Britpop was over in England. In America, it had never happened. Atmospheric British indie rock was making a comeback, but it had taken a decided turn toward the fey in the form of Coldplay’s Parachutes and Travis’ The Man Who. Doves, however, had a background in dance music, having released some singles under the name Sub Sub. They were from the Manchester area, whose “Madchester” scene had eventually given way to Britpop. Lost Souls brought things full circle, with a twist: it took electronic dance music’s detailed production and dynamic use of space and put it together with the melodicism of Britpop. A crucial third ingredient was a Madchester-inspired sense of swagger and groove.
The result was large-scale, epic indie-rock that would have been bombastic had it not been so tender and atmospheric at the same time. It was as if the trio knew the ensuing decade was going to be trying yet not without its share of catharsis, and they were offering up the soundtrack in advance. At a time when dream-pop was little more than a pejorative synonym for bygone shoegaze bands, dream-pop was exactly what Lost Souls delivered, single-handedly making the term clean again with a volley of hard-hitting, soft-landing, unforgettably evocative songs. — John Bergstrom
70. Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City [Wichita]
As fitting a title A Weekend in the City is for Bloc Party’s second album — it’s a dead-on summation of its lyrical contents — the name of its follow-up Intimacy would have been just as apt. Even when the four-piece is cranking out impassioned squalls of noise, it feels as if singer/guitarist Kele Okereke is sitting right by you, his plaintive voice entrusting you with his hopes, insecurities, and regrets. Sometimes he is psyching himself up to conquer the night (“Tonight make me unstoppable / I will charm / I will slice / I will dazzle them with my wit”). Other times he is taking stock the day after (“I love you in the morning / When you’re still hung over / I love you in the morning / When you’re still strung out”).
In all instances, his vulnerability is affecting, and imbues A Weekend in the City with a mournful spirit even in its more triumphal moments. That raw-nerve humanity plus the group’s aptitude for completely rocking out when called for (drummer Matt Tong earns the title of the band’s MVP in that regard) made Bloc Party 2-0 following its full-length 2005 debut Silent Alarm, and the record’s virtues helped further distinguish the group amongst its contemporaries during the neo-post-punk heyday of the 2000s. — AJ Ramirez
69. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed [4AD]
If the Mountain Goats’ second studio album (after many non-studio albums) was “merely” the best album ever written about the damage and pleasure of drug addiction, it would still warrant a place on this list. But We Shall All Be Healed also sees John Darnielle’s first sustained bout of autobiography (which brings an extra layer of insight and despair into these songs about tweakers trying to make it through the day and the world, even when you don’t know the context) even as he hits a high water mark in his songwriting.
Plenty of his work since has been excellent, but he’s rarely been as bitterly anthemic as he is on “Slow West Vultures” and “The Young Thousands”, as wisely tender as he is on “Your Belgian Things” and “Cotton”. Few people have ever nailed the dichotomies of human nature (chemically assisted or not) as squarely as Darnielle does on the combination of “All Up the Seething Coast” and “Quito”, let alone on “Against Pollution”, a song that can tell you something new about yourself and the world every single time you play it. As always, Darnielle’s work contains all the wonder and folly of the world. — Ian Mathers
68. Steve Earle – Jerusalem [Artemis]
It’s quite difficult to overstate how much the events of 11 September 2001 influenced the culture of the 2000s. The US and the UK were in a perpetual state of war for most of the decade, the West’s people were bathed in the fearsome light of endless yellow, orange and red alerts, and anthrax packages kept showing up in the mails. It was the decade “terror” truly came home for the US, the UK being old hands at dealing with such anxieties.
Released nearly a year to the date after 9/11, the Americana poster boy Steve Earle chronicled and engaged the West’s, and specifically America’s, post 9/11 world with Jerusalem. “Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” took to task the dimunition of personal liberties wrought by the massive “intelligence” infrastructure and detailed the many ways that government fails its citizens. The song administers a strong dose cynicism and something of a pin prick to the so-called “American Dream”.
Earle is at his biting, lyrical finest on this tune. On the controversial at the time “John Walker’s Blues”, Earle imagines himself as the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, trying to understand a young man’s desire to find “truth” in places and spaces considered un-American. The song stirred up a storm of criticism for humanizing a man so demonized, but it accomplished what the best lyric writing does in creating empathy where we thought none existed.
Meanwhile, title tune “Jerusalem” counteracts the cynicism of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Amerika V. 6.0” with notes of optimism, hope and longing for a peaceful world where all the world’s people can come together in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s a dream to be endlessly dashed, but Earle wants to believe in it with all his might and very nearly convinces us during the four-minute runtime. Jerusalem is a powerful album that spends its time restlessly ruminating around the corners of America’s anxious imagination. — Sarah Zupko
67. Joanna Newsom – Ys [Drag City]
In place of the sophomore slump, the mid-2000s brought us a new trope: the obscenely ambitious second album. The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute and Liars’ They Were Wrong, So We Drowned were uneven efforts at best, but with Ys, polarizing harp songstress Joanna Newsom struck something much like gold, but stranger.
No one predicted this. How could you? Newsom’s 2004 debut was lovely if understated; with Ys, she recruited a full orchestra, snagged Van Dyke Parks on arrangements, sailed into prog-sized song structures, and crafted gorgeously rich, overflowing lyrics that resemble medieval verse more than contemporary songcraft. The results were difficult to classify or contain, but ultimately remarkable: with the animal odyssey “Monkey & Bear” and the epic “Only Skin” Newsom reaches a dramatic pitch only hinted on her debut; on the tender “Sawdust & Diamonds” she reveals an inner Joni Mitchell. Though the more personal Have One on Me — a 2010 triple album — far surpasses Ys in length, it says plenty that it hardly matches it in wide-eyed scope. Ys is a treasure without peer or genre. — Zach Schonfeld
66. Fugazi – The Argument [Dischord]
Losing Fugazi was like losing Lincoln, The Sopranos, or Hi-C Ecto Cooler: they just don’t make shit like that anymore. The Argument, the final record from the Only Band That Matters (apologies to Joe Strummer), saw Fugazi go out swinging: after almost 15 years of writing and recording, the band was still exploring new sounds and textures. “Full Disclosure” uses a full four-part harmony to beautiful effect, a fairly shocking development from the days of Ian MacKaye’s blunt-object vocals on the band’s debut EP. “Strangelight” pulls and pushes against the group’s typically taut, steel-coiled compositional style.
Longtime auxiliary touring drummer Jerry Busher becomes a fully-fledged member of the band and adds thick pounds of muscle to the rhythms of tracks like “Ex-Spectator”. The band kept its fundamental touchstones — bassist Joe Lally’s steady, confident grooves lock in perfect step with Brendan Canty’s relentlessly inventive drumming, while MacKaye and Guy Picciotto trade percussive riffs — while guaranteeing longtime fans plenty of surprises over The Argument‘s tight runtime.
But Fugazi was always more than a peerless, inimitable band. Their DIY convictions — no merchandise made or sold, tickets locked whenever possible at $5 an (almost always all-ages) show, a dizzying circuit of benefit shows for progressive causes, absolutely no corporate ownership or distribution of anything remotely having to do with the band’s music — forever outpaced discussions of their, you know, songs in the press. Irksome, but understandable. Fugazi meant something. The band proved you could do it on your own terms, that independent artistry was viable, vital even, in the face of the music industry’s insatiable appetite for co-option.
Fugazi didn’t change the music business, but they did something even more important: they offered an alternative example, an invention of their own system, less “thinking outside the box” than making its own damn box and kicking your fancy one to the curb. The Argument, a flawless album, marks the band itself transitioning into the past, but Fugazi the Idea lives forever. Forgive the earnestness: listen to The Argument enough, and you’ll start to believe, too. — Corey Beasley
65. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema [Mint/Matador]
Twin Cinema doesn’t start off like a pantheon-level album. The chugging, dissonant guitar riff of the title track is a far cry from the joyful power-pop that A.C. Newman and friends had played on their first two records. But once the band gets to the chorus about 30 seconds in, their trademark gift for melody reemerges. Still, the ethereal, Neko Case-sung second track “Bones of an Idol” is a much better example of what the New Pornographers do well. The bouncy, straight-ahead power-pop of first single “Use It” is even better, with Newman’s sardonic, oblique lyrics buttressed by constant harmonies from Case, a big sing along chorus, and an even bigger sing along bridge.
But it’s “The Bleeding Heart Show”, which starts softly and grows steadily for four and a half glorious minutes, that puts Twin Cinema on a different level. The song builds from Newman singing with minimal accompaniment to harmonizing with Case to the subtle addition of an accordion and Kurt Dahle’s gradually more active drums. Once the band gets to the famous “ooo” part (later regretfully immortalized in an ad for a for-profit online American university), the song takes off into a harmonized round of “Hey La” anchored by Dahle’s drums, which smash through the final minute of the song with amazing fill after amazing fill.
At that point the rest of the record is energized, from Dan Bejar’s joyful sequel song “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” to the herky-jerky rhythms of ” The Jessica Numbers”. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” is, amazingly, the album’s second moment of glorious music, with an extra-long pre-chorus followed by Newman’s great falsetto in the chorus. The remainder of the album goes from strength to strength, from the gentle “Falling Through Your Clothes” to Bejar’s folky “Streets of Fire” to the powerful rock of closer “Stacked Crooked”.
Twin Cinema emphasized just how important Kurt Dahle’s drumming was to the New Pornographers’ sound, and also introduced the piano of new member Kathryn Calder as the start of the band’s move towards steadily more organic instrumentation. — Chris Conaton
64. Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South [New West]
Released in 2004, The Dirty South was the third in a trio of tremendous albums for the Drive-By Truckers in a scant five years. After the sprawling concept record Southern Rock Opera and the bare bones Southern rock of Decoration Day, the character studies of The Dirty South confirmed that the band, with its three singer/ guitarist / songwriters, were one of the most potent acts of the early 21st century. Opening with the hard rock backwoods stomp of “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, the album winds through 14 songs, most set in the Deep South with vivid lyrics.
Mike Cooley takes on the story of Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips in the uncharacteristically bright “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”, while singing about the hard knocks of small time auto racing in “Daddy’s Cup” and a coldly efficient hitman in “Cottonseed”. Meanwhile, young gun Jason Isbell relates the story of “The Day John Henry Died” in a huge, grin-inducing sing along, mourns the Band’s Rick Danko and Richard Manuel in the elegiac “Danko/Manuel”, and closes the album out with “Goddamn Lonely Love”, a ballad that actually lives up to its title.
With the bar already high, ostensible frontman Patterson Hood meets the challenge raised by his bandmates with the devastating, evocative “Tornadoes”, one of the most atmospheric songs that band has ever recorded. He also tells the story of a struggling father and drug dealer in the decaying Huntsville, Alabama, in “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and his own World War II veteran great-uncle on “The Sands of Iwo Jima”. Hood even takes the piss out of the legend of Tennessee-based sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame by writing two songs from the perspective of the Alabama gang he fought against.
All of these songs came against a backdrop of a band at the height of its musical powers, effortlessly straddling the line between hard rock, country, and pop while making a serious case for the legacy of much-maligned 1970s Southern rock. — Chris Conaton
63. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill [Anti-/Domino]
Elliott Smith took his own life before he could release this album. Although there will always be controversy about whether this was the exact album he intended to make, the songs here are all exactly what he recorded to tape without any additions or changes. And all I can say is thank god this album was released in some form. It continues Elliott’s evolution to ever more ambitious arrangements but has a greater focus on off-kilter production and grungy experimentation than the lush, studio sheen of his previous album Figure 8.
From a Basement on the Hill also happens to contain some of his most compelling songwriting, spanning the double drum track attack of opener “Coast to Coast”, the muddled majesty of “King’s Crossing”, and “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”, and the quiet, stark beauty of “Twilight”, which, to my ears, is one of the quintessential Elliott Smith songs. This was an artist who spoke to the vulnerability in all of us; whose recordings could be so intimate that calling him by his first name only seems proper when writing about him.
Elliott was constantly pushing the limits of his music and while an argument can be made for any one of his albums being his best, this work stands as an undeniable masterpiece and a triumphant last word from one of the greatest songwriters of all time. — Eric Goldberg
62. System of a Down – Toxicity [American]
He’s part dance commander and part political bullshitter; he agonizes over self-righteous suicides and brings his pogo stick on dates, and he sang the decade’s weirdest horse song until KT Tunstall came along. Serj Tankian, the frontman for System of a Down, sang/screamed maybe the most compelling album-length vocal performance on this list, miles beyond what any other remotely nu-metal “singers” were doing. Tankian’s the vocal version of Queen guitarist Brian May, switching effortlessly between heavy bombast and swooning elegance, piling on the vibrato and grace notes, both projecting complete cocky mastery of their instruments. This being System, the elegance comes more from Middle-Eastern-European harmonic-minor melisma than British operetta, but it’s elegant nonetheless.
The rest of the band’s pretty good, too. System’s actual lead guitarist, the Flavor Flavish co-leader-and-producer Daron Malakian, interjected and squiggled while laying down immense riffs with the band’s wrecking ball of a rhythm section. Throughout Toxicity, words define grooves and vice-versa; what System thinks about any particular topic like subjugation or indoctrination matters less than the bloodshot charisma with which they say it — unless the topic is shimmying. When you listen to Toxicity, it really does help to SHIMMY SHIMMY SHIMMY TILL THE BREAK OF DAWN YEAH. — Josh Langhoff
61. Underworld – Oblivion with Bells [ATO/Red]
Electronic music has always been about doing as many new things with knobs and buttons as possible, but in the 2000s the genre splintered off into so many subgenres and niche scenes that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the lot of them. Subgenre names with suffixes like “-step” and “-house” are so numerous that they could fill a whole dictionary by themselves. Yet amidst the myriad developments in electronic music, Underworld remained an undisputed titan of the genre. 2006’s Oblivion with Bells is a sterling example of this British trio’s ability to remain at the forefront of electronic music whilst also continually reinventing their songwriting formulas.
Lead single “Crocodile” starts things off with a groovy, somewhat swampy riff that displays what is perhaps Underworld’s greatest strength: balancing the cerebral with the visceral. One can debate the merits of the tag “IDM” all day long, but if there ever was intelligent dance music, it’s exemplified by the songs of Oblivion with Bells. The tracks on this record invite you to pull them apart, to get at whatever is the central engine of the music. Even a deceptively simple riff, such as the John Adams-esque piano figure of “Best Mamgu Ever”, gets right into your brain, getting not only your foot tapping but your cognitive gears grinding. The mercurial movement to the album even takes some interesting turns: “Ring Road” shows that the group clearly spent some time listening to the early ’00s breakthrough UK garage acts like the Streets.
Yet for all the cerebral groove of Oblivion with Bells, there are also moments of serene beauty. The spare piano ballad “Good Morning Cockerel” is a welcome late-album breather, offering up some of the LP’s most cryptic lyrics: “Black barbed wire kisses memories / Go right through us.” Best of all, though, is the lush synth landscape of “To Heal”, a song that would later go on to form a key part of Underworld’s score to Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi stunner Sunshine. In two and a half short minutes, “To Heal” forms a powerful emotional core to a record that, like all great electronic music, takes the listener to a whole other world. If this is the sound of oblivion, then bring on the destruction. — Brice Ezell
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This article originally published on 6 October 2014.