Friday, April 24, 2009

Five great albums from 2000

Since this decade is winding down, it's time to look back and reassess the hellish Bush years. Politically, sure, it's easy to sum up, but I haven't got a handle on it like we do previous decades which can be summed up in a few pithy phrases or images. So I've decided to dive into my iTunes library a year at a time and see if I can come up with something. I'm going to spin a few discs for each year. It's a personal look back and I'm not making any claims that these will be any kind of "best of" lists. Here's 2000:

Caviar, Caviar Of all the albums to come out this year (Kid A, Figure 8, The Moon and Antarctica...), why pay attention to this one? Because I keep listening to it, which is a good a testament as any. This album's probably already been forgotten by most, as it's been a long time since their songs got dropped in as scenery in places like Charlie's Angels. I'm a sucker for shiny power pop like this. Songs like "Ok Nightmare" and "Tangerine Speedo" don't disappoint, and there isn't a much better lament about comparative insecurity than "Goldmine" ("She's Thomas Jefferson/I'm William Howard Taft").

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP When I heard this I hadn't listen to rap in any serious way since Public Enemy's heyday, since rap traded East Coast social consciousness for the West Coast party ethos. Or, as it's succinctly put on a wickedly funny skit on this album: "He's rappin' about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches. You're rappin' about homosexuals and Vicodin." I was utterly convinced that rap had gone nowhere in the last decade, and sometimes I still think it hasn't, but it hasn't become the utterly bankrupt genre that I thought it had, and this is the album that convinced me. In most mainstream rap albums you find the rapper adorned with bling and hoes, but inside this album is a picture (real or staged - who knows?) of Eminem in a minimum wage slave apron taking out the trash, one which announces in an understated way that this album isn't about "big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches". On the album, Eminem takes typical rap tropes to an absurd extreme. Rappers adopt another identity, Eminem manipulates three of them, sometimes within the same song. Rappers act out wish fulfillment fantasies of prosperity and crime, Eminem acts out the exaggerated extremes of rape, suicide, and murder. And while he's created a work that should be taken seriously, he makes it clear that the individual acts of depravity depicted shouldn't be taken any more seriously than those of, say, Gargantua and Pantagruel. After all, he tells Stan "I say that shit just clownin' dawg/C'mon, how fucked up is you?" Is Eminem fucked up? Sure, he has some issues with women and gays and anger and anyone who mentions his name, but is he really any nuttier than, say, Ezra Pound?

O Brother Where Art Thou? (soundtrack) Everyone was listening to bluegrass in America, at least for ten minutes. I imagine fans of the various genres on this album are sick of this disk, much in the same way reggae fans are sick of it when somebody puts Legend on at a party for the umpteenth time. But it's hard to argue against the fact that this album hasn't done a good thing to get this music into more ears, and equally as hard to argue that it isn't a worthy achievement on its own. I suppose there isn't anything here that couldn't be found in any number of other albums, but it's a stunning arrangement from T-Bone Burnett. It's centered around, of course, multiple versions of a storied folk song that plays an important role in the film, "Man of Constant Sorrow", but highlights include "Po' Lazarus", an Alan Lomax field recording of a chain gang where you can hear their picks striking rocks in time to the song, the chilling "O Death" sung by Ralph Stanley, and the hilarious "Big Rock Candy Mountain", a story of the place "where they hung the jerk that invented work".

Sinéad O'Connor, Faith and Courage This was probably the first album I bought in 2000. After I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, O'Connor released a pair of interesting but far from earth-shattering albums, then essentially disappeared for the rest of the 90s. This was her first full length album in six years and it didn't disappoint. "I have a universe inside me", the opening announces, and doesn't let up. The first half is the strongest, with her returning to snarling but beautiful form in "No Man's Woman" and "Jealous", culminating in "Daddy I'm Fine", a dizzying tornado of a song that's both a letter home and a manifesto of sexual and musical empowerment. (It's a testament to the odd juxtaposition of themes in the O'Connor oeuvre that she puts a line like "I wanna fuck every man in sight" in a song addressed to daddy.) If there's a downside here, though, it's just that: she can't help refraining from announcing how empowered she is at every turn and you want her to actually do something about it musically instead of just talking about it like she's in a woman's studies class. But that's quickly forgotten in an album that harkens back to the height of her creative powers. Nothing compares to I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, of course (sorry, couldn't resist), but it was powerful enough to make you think she had arrested her slide into obscurity and irrelevancy. That's not how it turned out, unfortunately, but listening to this album, for a while you could believe again.

The White Stripes, De Stijl I wish I could say I was cool enough to have listened to this back in 2000. I discovered them the same time everyone else did two years later. Four albums later they are justly celebrated, but their first two, released before their fame, are ignored. It's a shame because they are both great albums, and it's all the more a shame for this one, in which The Style is already in place and some of the compositions stand up to the best songs on their later albums. It starts off with what All Music Guide calls a "one two punch" of "You're Pretty Good Looking" and "Hello Operator", one of the strongest opening pairings I've heard. You even get a couple of trademark sentimental reminiscences from Jack, the kind that rock so much you don't laugh at the tender display of emotion. They wear their blues roots on their sleeves here, covering Blind Willie McTell's "Your Southern Can Is Mine" (we even get to hear a clip of McTell describing a car accident in a radio interview) and Son House's "Death Letter", the latter so chilling and effective I think (heresy!) it's better than the original.


Elle said...

I like your list, I really do, I just kinda feel like Caviar doesn't... fit. It's good, yes, but you've got four albums that are friggin' fantastic and then this little forgotten band. Perhaps they were forgotten for a reason?

Rob said...

You're right, Caviar was the last addition and it was shoehorned in. I'll be honest, I just didn't feel like writing about any of the other great albums that came out in 2000. I was in the mood for something fun to finish out the list. Now please get me a towel!