[Editor's Note: "Indie 500", a look at the music scene past and present, is published every other Thursday, alternating with John Lichman's Japanese cinema/anime column, "Idiot Savant Japan."]
Top 10 lists are an exercise in futility, scenester-ism and dick-measuring. But we do them anyway, because they give us (or me and millions of other stunted "adults") a necessary framework for thinking about the year that passed. A disclaimer just in case: this is a subjective list. It's my past year, and I'm sorry I didn't ever get around to hearing the highly-acclaimed LCD Soundsystem record. It's always something.
1. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: This summer, I moved into the first adult apartment of my life, which was a major shock: I learned how to clean dishes before the landlord went nuts over filth, how to live with other people without wanting to kill them, and how to clean my room without going crazy. Through it all, I kept listening to Wilco obsessively, which both surprised me and made me feel guilty: how could a band standing for something I find, in principal, supremely irritating (humorless '70s rock) be so satisfying for the third time in a row? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made sense as the perfect compromise point between Jeff Tweedy's pop sweet spot and Jim O'Rourke's noise-in-every-spare-corner production techniques; Summerteeth is a sugar overdose with suicidal lyrics. I love both dearly, but surely Wilco was just a band that got lucky an unusual number of times; Sky Blue Sky is nothing if not the trad-rock album they were always gesturing to. And yet: the more people kept pointing out that the album was uncomplainingly domestic—that Tweedy sounded more resigned to suburban marriage than ever ("Hate It Here" is a song made for minivan dads who find themselves doing the laundry as penance), or that this would play fine next to the Eagles—the more I liked it. Not as a reaction, but simply because I couldn't see how those were real complaints. I've never listened to the Eagles, aside from 14 million involuntary listens to "Hotel California"; are they really this subtle about their instrumentation and unpredictable about their chord changes? How many music obsessives (and critics) are really living wild, Iggy Pop (or even cough syrup-addled Lester Bangs) lifestyles, and how many of them are closer to the resignation of this album than they'd like to admit?
Sky Blue Sky finds Tweedy, as always, in a state of Pynchon-esque lyrical paranoia: on Yankee, the big concern was "speakers speaking in code," and here inanimate objects have gone one step further in their conspiracy: "The doorframe screams 'I hate you,'" Tweedy claims on "You Are My Face." As morbid as ever, he tackles death head-on in closer "On And On And On" with less metaphorical/poetic distance than he's ever (ab)used: "Please don't cry/We're designed to die." That's the bracingly unsentimental yet all-encompassing heart of this album: accepting without embracing the inevitable compromises of time. Maybe it's a bad thing that I associate this album with doing dishes, but oh well.
One more thought, hastily acquired at the last minute: listen to how flat Tweedy's vocals are on Summerteeth, and how open they are here to vocal trembling and imperfection. Being open to naturalness certainly isn't an asset in and of itself, but to claim that this record is somehow hermetically sealed to frames of reference outside of '70s rock is nuts. Such naked singing would have been unthinkable.
2. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: I'm from Austin, so Spoon's indie rock—perfectly calibrated for damn well near a decade now—is pretty much one of the sounds I could listen to being ripped off all day without it ever getting old; hometown pride forever. But it would've been one thing for me to have unreservedly loved this album (like I have everything Britt Daniel & Co. have done virtually since inception besides Gimme Fiction) and still felt like I was overrating it; it was another thing to watch it become the consensus album of the year. Consensus albums are, generally, dull things, immaculate songcraft everyone respects but no one feels wild about. So it was especially weird to look at Pitchfork and see some of the people who voted for it who really should'nt've: Andy Battaglia, who specializes in electronica, had it at #17; Tom Breihan, resident hip-hop advocate, had it at #21. Spoon was the indie-rock album for people who don't like indie rock; proof that it wasn't just my imagination that they've taken spare instrumentation, pared-down hooks, and oblique lyrical sentiments as far as anyone could. They really are the best people doing this prototypical thing with intelligence and something like innovation. Closer "Black Like Me" sums up every sincere, nostalgic, tentative sentiment Daniel's let slip out the last few years: "I've been needing someone to take care of me tonight," he announces unambiguously. It's the perfect finale for a band that's always been less austere than haters would claim.
3. Emma Pollock, Watch The Fireworks: If I had any balls, this would be my #1 for the year—I would've listened to it on infinite loop. But there are plenty of new favorites to meet, so Emma's despairing, lovely album—the resurrection of The Delgados, for all practical purposes, and hence of one of my all-time favorite bands—will be trotted out sporadically and repeatedly for the next few years whenever I'm too lazy to listen to something new. She's the new Elliott Smith or something.
4. The National, Boxer: Unexpected late-breaking triumph for The National, who crawled under my skin, to my great annoyance, with Alligator. At the time, I was convinced that they were too adolescently melodramatic and self-serious by half: "I feel just like Tennessee Williams" was a line that made me burst out laughing. It still does, but I've finally understood that their malaise may be kind of whiny and stupid, but it's not adolescent—it's mid-career/life despair, wondering why these people are your friends and you're drinking so much all of a sudden. Which makes it a great quarter-life crisis too (mumblecore post-grad music drama?), in addition to them just being a rocking band, one of the tightest units out there so far.
5. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic And Weather: Whenever I mention my abiding love of Fountains of Wayne, my more tasteful friends immediately assume I'm being ironic or sarcastic—this despite near-universal acclaim for their last album, the constant enthusiastic support of Robert Christgau, etc. What's it take, huh? I'll keep repeating this argument over and over until people finally stop obsessing bitterly over the admittedly annoying market saturation status "Stacy's Mom" had 4 FREAKIN' YEARS AGO: catchy melodies, ripping off the Cars as necessary, and acute lyrics about suburban divorce pain (key line: "Ever since your dad walked out your mom could use a guy like me") does not make a "novelty song." Traffic And Weather finds the band at their most predictable, which is to say they've honed their sugary hooks and short-story-esque lyrics about disheartened corporate drones, stupid but endearing teenagers, and life in the strip-mall suburbs to a science. Lumping them in with the rest of the top 40 is just stupid.
6. Menomena, Friend And Foe: I didn't hear Menomena's first album when it came out, because their band name was cutesy and their album title was worse (I Am The Fun Blame Monster). Then I bought tickets for this summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, started listening to bands just to figure out who to see live while waiting for Clipse, and discovered that these guys are really good. The Flaming Lips might've sounded like this if they'd never gotten a budget: epic drums shooting for uplift, oblique lyrics about wanting to be a robot, melodies that make all the recording instrumentation supremely accessible. Some people, however, seem to believe that Menomena are just another indie band (they're not: they're some of the most sophisticated musicians I've seen live in quite a while), and by some people I mean Torquil Campbell of Stars, who wins the prize for single most obnoxious statement made in an interview. "I really do think that people should probably lose their virginity before they start writing reviews for Pitchfork," he announced to the Onion A.V. Club. "Because then you'd actually know something about life, as opposed to just being afraid of it and, you know, thinking Menomena are important." Once more, people: the concept of Social Prominence does not automatically equal Importance. This album is here mostly because I really like it, but partly as a fuck-you to the thinking that really liking something which is semi-obscure is somehow willfully being obtuse and self-consciously "difficult." I'm being sincere.
7. Rufus Wainwright, Release The Stars: Everyone missed the fucking boat on this album, and it annoys me. The general complaint seems to be that there's so much orchestration that it's hard to tell if they're show tunes or pop songs. I don't remember this accusation being thrown at the similarly top-heavy Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips, but whatever. This is the best album he's done since Poses, and that's saying a lot: the over-elaborate arrangement wankery of Want One is gone entirely. These songs are pared-down and definitely pop: if you can't see that for the arrangements (which work in concert with the hooks, not against them), you're totally missing the point. Look, you can even work out to it! "Do I Disappoint You?" Never, Rufus. Never. Yours, your only straight male fan.
8. The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen: Man, the tone of this list is getting kind of bitter and vengeful and score-settling, isn't it? So let's take a positive moment to celebrate the return of Damon Albarn to the world of live bands playing live music. I'm of the weird camp which believes that Blur's last album, Think Tank, was one of the best things they ever did: Albarn is oddly sympatico with Spoon's Britt Daniel, given his increasing obsession with paring songs to their essential elements. Minimalist but hooky, Albarn proves—in case Gorillaz made you forget—that he's more than just a brilliant booking manager who brings unlikely people together. Which is to say, he does it again here—who ever thought Fela Kuti's drummer would play with The Clash's bassist?—but while harnessing everyone in favor of songs that aren't catchy until you play them 5 times, and suddenly you can't get them out of your head. "I don't use choruses that much anymore," Albarn said. Could've fooled me dude. In a way, this is actually the single most significant Britpop album of the '00s: unlike the self-proclaimed zeitgeist flashpoints of the Libertines (who almost earned it) or the Arctic Monkeys (who really didn't), this is an old-school master showing the kids how it's done. Paul Weller would kill to age this well.
9. Justice, †: Aside from their annoyingly cutesy-illiterate title, Justice don't make a single misstep on their bid to replace Daft Punk in the dance sweepstakes. Almost as much fun as Discovery and considerably shorter, it's supremely friendly stuff: the one thing I really don't understand is why people keep labeling this album as sonically "harsh." The last time I checked, screeching synths and loud guitars were traits of good fun for rock bands: why can't mindless dance-mongers do the same? This is downright sugary as far as I'm concerned. Is "D.A.N.C.E." this year's "Young Folks"? I hope so.
10. 1990s, Cookies: I just wrote about this in the last column. It's awesome.
The Year's Most Underrated Album:
Baby Teeth, The Simp: We have failed as a nation because we did not recognize how awesome this album was. Actually, it wasn't us, it was Pitchfork. I'll cut Pitchfork all the slack they need for being the most comprehensive 5-reviews-a-day wide selection of music coverage, but their not reviewing this super-awesome '70s pastiche—equal parts ELO strings and guitar solos, Queen multi-tracked vocals, and other things that should be godawful together but aren't—just makes me cry in my beer.
Albums I Listened To To Hastily Cover My Listmaking Ass And In No Way Claim That These Are Good Judgments, Covered in Snide Blurbs:
Simian Mobile Disco, Attack Decay Sustain Release: These guys are like Fergie fronting Justice. Bleh.
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter: A more muscular version of M. Ward. Very cool; may creep up into the 10 on further listens.
Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala: I don't get it. Sub-Magnetic Fields lyrics + tinny samples = a really bad belated introduction for me to Scandinavia's most important international export or whatever.
Jay-Z, American Gangster: Good but by no means great—long, patchy, and occasionally tedious. However, "Roc Boys (And The Winner Is) really is as good a single as he's ever done.
M.I.A., Kala: Annoyingly, I quite like this album—annoyingly, because I really, really loathed Arular. This might make the top 10 given time.
Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals: Sorry, I liked TV On The Radio better the first time round.
Lil' Wayne, Da Drought 3: This actually should probably be on the Top 10 instead of, say, 1990s. Now that I've finally listened to Weezy, I must confess that all the excitable hype was completely correct. To me, he's the Stephen Malkmus of '00s hip-hop: I have no idea how he so consistently does so many bizarre things with his voice and general pronounciation. There's just a monstrous onslaught of stuff to deal with, and it's going to take me too long.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.