There’s a compulsion that grips some of us to rank things, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
It seems to strike males particularly hard- proposing rosters and rotations for sports teams, or picking out cars for a dream garage.
As a teen I spent many an hour sorting through what albums I truly liked start to finish. The opportunity to sell albums I didn’t want anymore and use them towards more music was a powerful motivator.
I offer the following based on their release date, earliest to most recent. I also went by the rule that each artist could only have one entry.
#10 Zwan Mary, Star of the Sea January 28, 2003
When I was in high school, The Smashing Pumpkins were easily one of my favorite bands. Their songs wandered across genres, moods, tempos, and instrumentation, and they remain one of the most expressive, dynamic acts I’ve ever come across.
Throughout their catalogue, though, was a common thread of discontent and longing. When Corgan’s mother died around 1997-8, his loss was palpable.
It was quite a surprise after years of lyrics such as “Zero” ‘s hubris “emptiness is loneliness/and loneliness is cleanliness/and cleanliness is godliness/ and god is empty just like me” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” ‘ “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”, dealt repeatedly with screams, to hear the sunny evangelical tone this record delivers with the first punch: “Here comes my faith to carry me on…”.
The rainbow artwork remains out of step with anything in The Smashing Pumpkins catalog. As that band evolved from 1991-2000, the songs became increasingly structured and layered. The sonic wall was a metaphorical barrier between the inner monolgue and the outside events which inspired the lyrical musings. Listening to TSP was like listening to one’s inner thoughts.
With Zwan, everything took a 180. It was hard to accept these declarations of sunshine and “buttered toast” (still one of the strangest lyrics I’ve heard yet) as sincere, given the larger zeitgeist of the time (after all, the invasion of Iraq and very real threat of terror attacks from September 11th were still omnipresent in the nation’s collective consciousness).
This little record, the only commercial LP Zwan ever produced, felt much less rigid in form (“Lyric”, “Ride a Black Swan”, and the title track). I had to move to Florida to actually begin to understand just what prompted the overall attitude of this record. The title is derived from a church in Key West, where the band spend much time writing and rehearsing. I haven’t been to Key West yet, and will make the journey to the church of this record’s namesake out of curiousity. I imagine if there is a place part of the continental US to flee the horror of Fox News, terror, and Iraq in 2002, Key West is perhaps that perfect locale. The prominance of religion in the community at large probably also contributed to Billy Corgan satirically crediting himself in the liner notes as Televangelist Billy Burke.
The lyrics are very didactic, particularly on “Ride a Black Swan”. If the drumming wasn’t so killer, this record would likely have put me off. The swell of three guitars and bombastic drumming made for an excellent show I had the chance to catch at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, March 27, 2003.
As a whole, the songs fit well together, generally warm, loud, and life-affirming. Faith, either newly discovered or rekindled, is trumpeted from the rooftops. The lone black sheep are “Desire” and “Of a Broken Heart”, which bubble pessimistically- “desires fade away/ I have no use for you”, for instance.
#9 The Postal Service Give Up February 18, 2003
I didn’t discover this album until it had been floating around for a few years. The name refers to the USPS, which is how this record was made. The lead singer of Death Cab For Cutie and a producer mailed tapes to one another- the producer providing the instrumentation, squeaks, and plonks, and the singer obviously providing the vocals.
I like to think of this record as “politely majestic”. Songs like the lead single “Such Great Heights” feature a variety of layered loops, but it is a very subdued, airy listening experience. Ben Gibbard, the vocalist, is almost sonically vanilla- pleasing, consistent, and potentially monotonous. I do not intend to detract in any way, mind you. Compared to practically every other singer I’ve ever heard, though, he tends to vary the least. He seems to have two settings- wishful and observational. Never does he sound frantic, cynical, or enraged. He is the eye of the storm, and this album cover is spot on- I’d liken the album to a slightly chilly breeze gently billowing the curtains of an old New England cabin.
#8 Deftones Deftones May 20, 2003
If The Postal Service was a refreshing, demure listen, and Ben Gibbard is as even-keeled, perhaps cold persona, Chino Moreno and the Deftones are the walls of wind and water swirling around the hurricane’s eye.
I remember reading a comment on the band that they seem more apt at creating mood than articulating it. The opener, “Hexagram”, effectively creates a sense of strife. What it is about, however, seems open to interpretation. The lines “and the crowd goes wild/and the camera makes you seasick” suggest a scene of a dirty, cramped, and violent rock show, but when followed by “and the car bomb makes the same sound”, the curveball is served. In 2003, could it be a buried reference to the acts of mass terror perpetrated in Iraq? The liner notes don’t bear any potent political symbol, and the references aren’t as explicit as those of Rage Against the Machine, another band that famously raised awareness for various social, economic, and politcal causes.
The tour in support of this album was cut short once the vocalist snapped his vocal chords from repeatedly screaming “God help me” at the end of the song “Bloody Cape”.
Make no mistake, this record is not a collection of misdirected anger. The third song, the lead single, “Minerva”, offers “And God bless you all for the song you sing/ And God bless you all of the earth”.
The record pushes and pulls dynamically, swelling from sonic sludge to what I can only liken to the screams of a fellow enranged (“When Girls Telephone Boys”) to the guttoral cries of desperation; shrieks in the face of imminent demise. Envision a skydiver whose parachute will not open, or a person savagely attacked, losing blood, clinging to the last spasms of life.
The record releases adrenaline in alternating peaks and valleys. To appreciate the light, one must know darkness.
#7 Radiohead Hail To The Thief June 9, 2003
Of course we Yanks see the title, and in 2003 assume it can refer to none other than W., who basically stole the 2000 election from Al Gore.
Radiohead started out as a guitar-heavy alternative act, with Thom Yorke’s unnerving falsetto. I recall reading a review of their earlier album The Bends as being the album U2 wished they could make and pull off.
Somewhat similar to Death Cab For Cutie in the sense that they will not bludgeon you to death with sound, they rather excel at being quietly unnerving, pessimistic, and panicked.
The opener, “2+2=5”, is a wonderful reference to UK author George Orwell’s 1984. In that book, the protagonist, Winston, caves to the oppressive government of the world in which he lives. Their indoctrination is taken at face value, without question, and the aforementioned equation is in fact correct, because the ruling party said so. To disagree is to face personalized torture carried out in room 101.
Or 40 years later, perhaps a secret CIA prison in Europe. Or, if you like, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Perhaps the Iranian, North Korean, Taliban, or Iraqi regimes?
On a side note, Radiohead’s frontman, Thom Yorke, is terrified of automobiles, seeing them as harbingers of death. Their videos repeatedly feature cars on fire, exploding, or running down individuals at night. He may be right, cars are extremely dangerous. Their earlier work, 1997’s OK Computer, provided a grand echo of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyessy, Yorke confronting his fear of cars with the song “Airbag”, an ode (possibly fictional) in which the speaker praises the device that saved his life, and his disbelief that he even lived through the car wreck. The album then enlarges to visit a variety of modern neuroses and social problems before returning to roost with urge of “hey man, slow down/ idiot, slow down/ […] at a thousand feet per second/ hey man, slow down”.
With Hail To the Thief, attention shifts away from technology and our own carelessness as being the cause of our demise. A regime seeking absolute social control is the new danger.
“Sit Down, Stand Up” continues the thread of obedience, culminating in “the raindrops” repeated over and over… raindrops not at all a far cry from aircraft artillery, such as the “bunker busters” used to take down Saddam’s Baghdad.
“Sail To the Moon”, the third song, is a song of hope for the subsequent generation, and for lasting change ( “maybe you’ll be president”, Yorke croons in lullaby fashion, and the leap to a mental image of a parent lulling their children to sleep with dreams of a better life isn’t that far off).
“Backdrifts”, the fourth song, continues the Orwellian nightmare (“all evidence has been buried / all tapes have been erased “, not unlike the work of The Ministry of Truth Winston works at), and the futile attempt to escape the oppressive clime (“you fell into our arms/ we tried but there was nothing we could do”).
Thinking about it now has made me realize just how cohesive the album actually is. The band denied it referred to W., but Tony Blair was right behind him when it came to Iraq, and the UK is quite vulnerable to siege and terrorism, as the Spanish train bombings attest.
#6 A Perfect Circle 13th Step September 16, 2003
You may have noticed 2003 was a good year for music I like.
This album pushes and pulls with power, much like the Deftones album released earlier in the year. I found this one first, though, not buying the Deftones one until later in the decade.
The drumming on this album was particularly fun to emulate, especially the opener, “The Package”. I haven’t really sat down and picked this one apart. Mostly I used it to kill the ride between Cape and Bridgewater. The drum tone is excellent, as is the rest of the production.
While not as fierce or as violent as Deftones, it is best characterized as menancing. There are some interesting excursions into odd time on the closer, “Gravity”.
#5 Explosions In the Sky The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place November 4, 2003
This is by far the best record of the decade, period. Reviewers were not to mince words: this album would “kill anyone who ever had a heart”.
I was first exposed to EITS when they opened for The Smashing Pumpkins, part II, in 2007. I had never heard of them prior to this night, and in the swirling aquaeous lights of the Orpheum Theater, I saw the most captivating performance of my life thus far.
The music is entirely instrumental, and is what is referred to as post-rock- instrumental rock without vocals. It’s exactly what my friends and I did to pass our free time in high school, since no one had a PA or the courage to step up to the mic.
I felt pangs as memories of my youth came rushing back. This record is full of lovingly crafted, lush arrangements. Each note falls into a perfect little niche, and every note is a necessary part of the larger whole.
Ever see those hoky commercials for cell phone companies (or is it computer comapnies?) that promise their technology will help something brilliant, something created in a garage, reach the masses? This is what they mean.
“Your Hand In Mine” will evoke any tender memories buried in your soul. It is the soundtrack of whistful rembrance and longing, and of being in the arms of one you love.
You can even be doing something as mundane as painting the bathroom, this will make you feel whatever you’re doing is infused with sacred importance, pomp, and circumstance.