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A Decade of Music at EvilSponge






There comes a point in life where a man just has to admit it. It's a young man's game, and young is a passing phase.

For me, the definitive moment came when PostLibyan asked me to put together a best-of list for the 2000s. That's when it really hit me hard. I am no longer hip to the indie, kids. I no longer live on the razor's edge. There was a time...oh yes, there was a time; drink and drank and drunk, and pogo in your head everybody. But alas, no more. My liver has tired. I started the decade more or less in tune with the ebb and flow of the underground but somewhere in the middle, I'm pretty sure I lost sight of the shore. I'm no longer getting too old for this shit, I am already too old for this shit. I am an old man. I have old man biases. So be it. You have been warned.

Back before affixing "post" or "gaze" or "core" to any existing genre became acceptable form for describing some "new" style, a bunch of us were searching for some way to describe the nascent sounds that would eventually coalesce into "post-rock." This was early- to mid-90s, before there was an EvilSponge, back when we were just sitting around PostLibyan and Tracer's apartment, drinking beer and spinning discs, passing the time before that weekend's show. It was proto-Sponge, a drink in every hand, and we were trying to figure a descriptive for this new sort of sound seeping out of the empty spaces. I'm pretty sure it was PostLibyan, in a fit of wit and pique, who finally came up with the phrase "Slint-damaged bands." (Brendan's Note: Tracers would actually like to give credit to Rose Marshack of The Poster Children for coining that phrase.)

In a lot of ways, I think of the 2000s as a Slint-damaged decade. This isn't so much a criticism as a statement of direction. To my ear, the last ten years have been dominated by artists exploring the edges of traditional song*. Whether it be the found-recordings/orchestral mash-ups of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, the proto-jazz freakouts of Do Make Say Think, or the hazy experimental electronica of Radiohead since Kid A, it seems like music has been more concerned with introspection and soundscaping than, you know, writing a singable song. From post-rock to math-core to drone to sludge-metal, it's all dominated by experimentalism, off beat time signatures, and the disappearance of the human into the void. None dare call it prog, but it has left me feeling somewhat disconnected from the times. While I appreciate a good wonkish digression now and again - oh Jesu, how thou doth dismantle my very concept of being and time - I am a rock guy at heart.

All of which is a roundabout way to say that I expect some might find my tastes a little retrograde. I consider Kid A to be more tragedy than artistic expansion. I can't listen to Animal Collective for more than two minutes without a reflexive "WTF?!" I'm a soul adrift, a man without a country. Mine was a decade out of step. Much like the preceding twenty years, I spent the last ten immersed in power punk and swampy blues rock, Brit-pop and twang-infected Americana. It is what it is, and if you're still with me, it's just this. I'm a rock guy. These are my favorites from the last ten years. Your mileage may vary. These results may not be typical. All returns require receipts. We hope you enjoy your stay.

*for the purpose of this exercise we will pretend that hip-hop does not exist


Part I: 2000-2003
(aka "I think I was still kind of with it here, but I could be fooling myself")

We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes - Death Cab For Cutie (2000)
We'll start at the top. When this album was released, Seattle was still mostly known for grunge and Kurt Cobain, and "death cab for cutie" was just an obscure Beatles lyrical reference. Previously Ben Gibbard had released one album under the Death Cab moniker - 1998's Something About Airplanes. (If anyone who wasn't attending college in Seattle in the early '90s claims to have had a copy of the You Can Play These Songs With Chords cassette, you have my permission to punch them in their lying faces.) We Have The Facts... is far and away superior to anything that came before it, taking Gibbard's confessional twee song-craft to new heights. A ten song cycle of love gone wrong pop gems, circling around a protagonist's mostly off-again relationship with a former lover with the audacity to be getting married to someone else, this is as far as I'm concerned the premiere Death Cab album. Some folks might lean towards 2003's Transatlanticism for fullness of sound and completion of vision. While I understand that sentiment, for me We Have The Facts... is the essential statement of what Gibbard and company are all about. Teetering on the edge of the lo-fi underground from whence Gibbard came, but with Chris Walla beginning to establish his edgier production voice, this is quite possibly the album of the decade. Company Calls Epilogue is damned near pop perfection.

Mass Romantic - The New Pornographers (2000)
This is probably the decade's most revered album that absolutely no one listened to when it came out. Released in the holiday dead zone of 2000, on a small imprint indie label out of Vancouver no less, the disc floated aimlessly in no man's land for three or four months. But word of mouth kept building about this so-called "Canadian super-group" and their sold out tour dates. I eventually picked the album up on the strength of Stomp-n-Stammer's recommendation (itself driven by the band's relationship with the much beloved Neko Case.) A. C. Newman's intricately layered combination of fuzzed-out guitar, synth, and over-dubbed vocal melodies was a brand new sound in the winter of 2001. Again, some folks might lean toward the more fully produced follow-ups, but me, I dance with the one that brung me.

Furnace Room Lullaby - Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (2000)
Speaking of the much beloved Miss Case, she release this gem in year one of the decade as well. Continuing the theme, most critics will likely defer to later material. 2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009's Middle Cyclone were both better reviewed. Both soared far higher on their respective indie charts. But for my tastes, nothing surpasses the torchlight standards Case belts out on Furnace Room Lullaby. Kicking off with the loan moaning wail of Set Out Running, the disc never lets up. You're inundated in Neko's trademarked countrified counter alto from start to finish, walking through the cooling embers of the aftermath of her latest romances and misadventures. Later work might be more attuned to Case's direction as a solo artist but this is the disc I return to over and over again. Guided By Wire, Mood To Burn Bridges, Thrice All American, and South Tacoma Way stand out.

Left and Leaving - The Weakerthans (2000)
I apparently loved me some western Canada in 2000. This is the second full length release by John K. Samson's folk-punk outfit from Winnipeg. Samson spent the 90s playing bass in the hardcore punk group Propagandhi before spinning out into The Weakerthans, a four piece power punk collection built around Samson's wordsmith tendencies. 2000's Left and Leaving is the pinnacle of the band's output. Every song is a keeper, but album opener Everything Must Go!, Pamphleteer, My Favorite Chords and title track Left and Leaving are brutally effective anti-folk gems. This is the next generation's Billy Bragg at the height of his creative arc.

The Great Eastern - The Delgados (2000)
I had never heard of The Delgados when I picked this up, but I was in a pretty deep Mercury Rev appreciation phase as the 90s hurtled toward Y2K oblivion, so the Dave Fridmann production credit was enough for me to give it a spin. A fortuitous decision that. A deeply layered album that stands up to multiple repeated plays, Fridmann captures the give and take of Alun Woodward and Emma Pollack's vocal hand-offs beautifully. Emotionally resonant, a bit cynical, and as with most great pop records, basically the story of heartbreak and despair. The Great Eastern stands out as the greatest rediscovery album of the decade review process. I'd forgotten how fantastic it sounded until spinning it up again last year.

Why That Doesn't Surprise Me - The Lucksmiths (2001)
Another stupendously talented band that peaked right at the turn of the century, The Lucksmiths are on my list of "five favorite bands ever." Formed in Melbourne, Austrailia in 1993, when guitarist-songwriter Marty Donald and vocalist-drummer Tali White teamed up to drop their debut of Brit influenced jangle-pop, First Tape, the band didn't make it across the Pacific for three or four years. I stumbled on them thanks to Millie and Jen and the "Hang The DJ" hour on Album 88. This was back in '97 or '98 when Happy Secret first hit US record stores.* I've been in the tank ever since. Why That Doesn't Surprise Me is their most fully accomplished album, though they continued to produce brilliant work year after year, all the way through 2008's First Frost. I won't even attempt to summarize favorite songs or lyrical genius. Marty Donald is just sickeningly talented, both in writing hooks and melodies as well as publish-worthy lyrics. I mean, "coffee cups and promises, sure, but I've never broken bones before." I almost cried when they hung it up this year.

*And yes, kids, I ordered the import before it was released stateside in 2001, which is how I reviewed it in March, 1999.

Things We Lost In The Fire (2001), Trust (2002), The Great Destroyer (2005), Drums & Guns (2007)
Okay, let's just do the Low thing here. As of this very moment, there are three artists I would consider for "artist of the decade." They are, in descending order, The Hold Steady, Ben Gibbard/Death Cab For Cutie (inclusive of The Postal Service) and Low. The outlier, by a mile to my thinking, is Low. Either of the other two are quite clearly acts "of the 2000s" where Low is, in my mind at least, a band "of the 90s." Which is why it was so utterly shocking when I started compiling my favorite/most listened to/"best" albums of this decade past to find so damned much Low. Things We Lost In The Fire is right up there with "essential Low" from the previous decade. It slots seamlessly into a rotation of The Curtain Hits The Cast and Long Division, both qualitatively and thematically . But it contains hints - unrecognized at the time of release I am sad to say - of the Lowish awesomeness to that was to come. Track three, Dinosaur Act begins introducing just a smidgen of guttural, low end distortion to Alan Sparhawk's sustained chording, a move that comes to full fruition on 2005's The Great Destroyer. That mid-decade album joins Death Cab's We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes for album of the decade consideration.

Satellite Rides - The Old 97's (2001)
In some future version of the Oxford English Dictionary, next to the definition of "American jangle pop" there will be a tastefully rendered pen-and-ink sketch of Rhett Miller. Between his solo albums and Old 97's releases he has carved out a body of work of pure, simple Texas-twinged pop bliss. Ryan Adams may get all of the bad-boy headlines; Jeff Tweedy may always be the beloved critical darling; Jay Farrar the brooding, genius auteur. That's all fine and good. Miller will simply continue to churn out better hooks, catchier melodies and tighter, more accessible lyrical turns than those guys have generated combined. Satellite Rides bears the distinction of being Miller's most complete album. There are no let downs across the entire thirteen song play list, peaking with the four song build from Am I Too Late through the absolutely pitch perfect Designs On You. Rhett would go on to release two more Old 97's discs along with three solo albums, but none top Satellite Rides for breadth and depth of material.

Lost In Space - Aimee Mann (2002)
I suspect there is more indie cred in Bachelor No.2 simply for the back story, but I prefer the darker, sparser Lost In Space. Mann is much beloved in the world of independent music, both for her fuck-you tussle with David Geffen over Bachelor but also for the fact that she is a phenomenal singer-songwriter. Lost kicks off with Humpty Dumpty and gets increasingly better from there. My personal favorite song is Invisible Ink, a lyrical turn of genius riding over the sweetest plucked guitar and swelling strings you'll ever hear. Mann's ability to create touching, memorable and gorgeously singable words is matched over this decade by perhaps only The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle. Her skill to match those words with gorgeous sound and catch-your-throat hooks is equaled by perhaps Marty Donald. On the list of great singer-songwriters, her place is in the pantheon, among the gods.

Absolution - Muse (2003)
Death Cab not withstanding, Muse is probably the most successful band to make this list. While I can grasp these guys playing sold out stadium shows across the world in a Radiohead sort of way, their recent entry into sports-rock theme music - if you've watched an NFL game this year, you've almost certainly heard the single from Muse's 2009 release played over highlights at some point - simply baffles me. Back in 2003, they were still just a semi-successful group of Brit rockers wearing their OK, Computer era Radiohead fan-boy hearts on their sleeves. Sliding effortlessly in to fill the vacancy in arena-tinged guitar rock that's worth a damn left by Kid A's exit stage electro-weird, the three lads from Devon dropped Absolution in 2003. Having worked through the more obvious "tribute band" aspects of their first couple of releases, the band generates a full, expansive wall of distorted guitar steeped in the clean-edged psychadelica of Learning to Fly era Pink Floyd. 2006's follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations cemented the band's place as the decade's premiere rock band and opened the door for this year's U2-touring, Glastonbury-headlining, NFL-soundtracking launch into superstardom, but neither of the last two albums tops the sheer kick in the gut awesomeness of Absolution.

Give Up - The Postal Service (2003)
I reviewed this album for Evilsponge back when it was released. Unlike most of my old pieces, I still feel pretty good about that write-up seven years later. I won't attempt to recreate the wheel here. Suffice to say that I loved this disc from the moment I first spun it up. It does bear noting that at the time, the idea of "electro-pop" being a staple of both under- and above-ground pop music was novel, to say the least. Gibbard and Tamborello's glitchy collaboration literally created a genre in the indie world. The fact that no follow-up was ever produced simply makes this masterpiece all the more awe-inspiring. The third official entry into the album of the decade competition.


Part II: 2004-2007

Antics - Interpol (2004)
Going back to my opening bit, I spent a good deal of the decade slightly out of step with the indie zeitgeist. For example, I actively avoided Interpol when they first hit the scene back in 2002. I had mentally assigned them to the same category of "too much hype so they just annoy me and I won't even bother" bucket along with The Strokes. It wasn't until December 2004 that I bought in. There was a track on a Postlibyan's end of year compilation that I kept coming back to over and over again, until I had no choice but to pull up the track name and artist. How stunned was I to find Evil off Antics? Quite, I must say. So then I had the "oh crap, now I have to reconsider my pre-existing opinion on this band entirely" moment. Anyone who has ever argued politics or baseball with me will realize how reluctantly I approach such a possibility. In this case, it was a reconsideration well made. I've never fully warmed to the debut, but Antics is a damned fine angular, guitar album. I love Evil, and the clean-sawing guitar work on Take You On A Cruise is straight out of late era Archers of Loaf. Notably, you could never, ever dance to Archers quite like this, though. I still refuse to reconsider The Strokes.

Hot Fuss - The Killers (2004)
Another album I came late to. I had originally relegated The Killers to a singles, radio-play band (and thus less worthy of consideration). Even while enjoying Mr. Brightside quite a lot, I wasn't quite willing to approach the album as a full album. Then I spent a weekend out on the west coast hanging out around Portland with a friend and Hot Fuss was more or less the soundtrack for the craziness. I left the Pacific Northwest with a newly found fondness for The Killers' debut. I won't walk through the numerous singles and ear-worm tunes, but simply note that this is one of my favorite and most listened to CDs of the decade. I won't argue that it's anything more than a infectious radio-friendly guitar rock, but it is quite fun, and Mr. Brightside is on the list of potential "singles of the decade."

Run To Be Born - Walking Concert (2004)
This is one of the decade's true hidden gems. Rival Schools front man Walter Schreifels took a step out of his hardcore comfort zone and dropped a staggering work of pop genius under the moniker of Walking Concert. Hook laden, singable and overflowing with melodic earwigs, Run To Be Born clocks in barely over 30 minutes. Only three songs break the three minute mark. It's one of the best half hours your ears will ever spend. Much like The Postal Service with Give Up, fans of the album are still salivating for some sort of follow-up yet to come.

The Futureheads - The Futureheads (2004)
2004 was the year when the every band out of the UK was described as "angular." There were two standard bearers for the movement; Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand and Sunderland's The Futureheads. From the first spin of Carnival Kids on Album 88 I landed firmly in the Sunderlandian camp. From the moment those odd little vocal harmonies give way to the sharp corners of Barry Hyde's lead, this disc grabs you and thrashes you about then room. It never really lets up, though it takes a little breather during Danger of the Water. This is the album that cleared the path for an entire scene. Bands from Art Brut to Maximo Park owe The Futureheads at least a nod in the back of the club. (And as an aside, kudos to AllMusic.com's Heather Phares for turning the phrase "art-damaged rock" to describe the angular antics of the UK's mid-decade soundscape.)


And then there's the rest:
Summer in Abaddon
- Pinback (2004)
Black Sheep Boy
- Okkervil River (2005)
Decoration Day - Drive By Truckers (2005)
- Hot Hot Heat (2005)
Take Fountain
- The Wedding Present (2005)
The Kick and The Snare
- The Deathray Davies (2005)
The Day of the Ray - The Deathray Davies (2002)
Picaresque - The Decemberists (2005)
Separation Sunday
- The Hold Steady (2005)
The Sunset Tree - The Mountain Goats (2005)
Set Yourself On Fire
- Stars (2005)
With Love and Squalor
- We Are Scientists (2005)
Dog Problems
- The Format (2006)
Pieces of People We Love
- The Rapture (2006)
Impeccable Blahs
- Say Hi (2006)
In Our Bedroom After the War - Stars (2007)
Neptune City
- Nicole Atkins (2007) Part III: 2008 & 2009
Drunk Like Bible Times - Dear & The Headlights (2008)
The Seldom Seen Kid
- Elbow (2008)
Rook - Shearwater (2008)
At War With Wall And Mazes
- Son Lux (2008)

And the most recent stuff…
The Features - Some Kind of Salvation
Ha Ha Tonka - Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South
Jesu - Opiate Sun
The Mountain Goats - The Life Of The World To Come
Pelican - Glimmer
Slaid Cleaves - Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away
The Thermals - Now We Can See

Related Links:
  Other links relating to EvilSponge's Tenth Anniversary:
Statistics on EvilSponge's web presence.
The danger of being a music reviewer.
The EvilSponge Family Photo.
PostLibyan's essay on the nature of EvilSponge.
Malimus's essay on the first decade of EvilSponge.
Indoor Miner's list of the 25 best records of the decade.
Indoor Miner's list of the 100 best songs of the decade.
Meta commentary.
Best quotes from our first 10 years.
Various Minions list Records that Stay Near the Stereo.
Various Minions collect anecdotes about the music biz.

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