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2000s: Disappointments and highlights in music

by Ryan Snyder

When it comes to things like relationships, careers and your alma mater’s head football coach, sometimes the grass really is always greener on the other side. This too is true in music; at least it always feels that way as the decade winds down. It seems as if the end of a decade is the most barren in terms of quality of music. Hip hop has been a cesspool of novelty, while rock has been dominated by spineless Decemberists imitators. It seems to be the trend, however. According to a retrospective scene in Richard Linklater’s immortal Dazed and Confused, the ’80s were awaited with baited breath as end of the ’70s was a quagmire of disco and grandiose arena-rock copycats. It did usher in the new era of music and culture intermingled into one cable channel, but even MTV’s heavy rotay of New Kids of the Block and Milli Vanilli toward the end of that decade proved that even the most idealistic of endeavors are still defenseless in the face of market forces. The start of the ’90s gave us the most memorable era of rock since the late ’60s, as the Seattle sound embodied the attitudes of the disaffected children of the Flower Generation. Like clockwork, the decade disintegrated and we’re still trying to forget the dreck that came only a few years later, as the specter of rap rock refuses to be exorcised completely.

Then suddenly, it was as if music entered a digital renaissance with the start of the new millennium, ushered in by the creative visions of Napster and Steve Jobs. The notion of “the album” had already been beaten senseless by both radio and brick-and-mortar stores and the ability to pick and choose individual mp3s appeared to be the haymaker to comprehensive creative output. On the contrary, while the mainstream seemed to plunge ever deeper into populist oblivion, greater control over distribution by the artists shattered the stranglehold that labels held over them and opened the door to unheard-of artistic freedom. It no longer mattered whether a radio station program director, indifferent to good taste to begin with, thought the proletariat would accept a certain kind of music; if the music was good, it would be found. The blogosphere and its hyperawareness cast a wide net, as the internet has won out over radio as the most powerful promotional tool for most acts.

With so much independent voice, however, hyperbole has replaced homogeny as the biggest poison for the music industry these days. Bands have ascended to lofty status, often undeserved, after their anointment by a particularly influential source drives favorable discussion. Spin magazine, arguably the worst offender, apparently liked Vampire Weekend’s name so much that they put the band on the cover before their first album was ever released and then compared them favorably to Paul Simon once it was. Their self-titled debut was interesting, but their sound was too gimmicky for posterity. What I’m saying is, sometimes it’s okay to say an album is disappointing when the consensus disagrees. It’s an exercise in release and since it’s time to do so with this decade, here are just a few of my biggest disappointments of the last 10 years.

MY MORNING JACKET — Z

This pick flies in the face of one of my favorite albums of the decade, their previous release It Still Moves, an album that I could honestly never tire of. Z, on the other hand, complete stripped every quality that made its predecessor a classic. Gone was the heavy reverb and rustic country charm, as singer Jim James pulled back his shaggy mop of hair, donned a velour jacket over his T-shirt and probably put on shoes for the first time. It was cleaner, sleeker My Morning Jacket and it wasn’t nearly as good. It still looked like The White Album next to their most recent effort Evil Urges, however.

RADIOHEAD — KID A

Yeah, I went there. Kid A wasn’t a disappointing album per se; it just wasn’t their best of the decade — that would be Amnesiac — and definitely not the best of any band, at least according to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. The album was unlike anything most have ever heard on record, but itwas so minimalistically abstract and dense as to be too impractical totop any “Best of” list. That’s not to undercut the legitimacy of thealbum, it just belongs in a different category altogether. Maybe, “MostPotentially Rewarding Listening Experience,” because there’s certainlya strong possibility that you never will “get it.”

WEEZER — THE RED ALBUM

God, what a horrible decade for what was a really good band at one time. After peaking on Maladroit, it almost seemed as if Weezer simply crumbled beneath the weight of their own fame, and The Red Album is the physicalrecord of their demise. “Pork and Beans” gets my vote for worst attemptat irony of the decade and the fact that this is actually their secondself-titled release hints at a longing for the “Buddy Holly”-era.

THE DIRTY PROJECTORS — BITTE ORCA

Under any other circumstances, I’d take a recommendation from David Byrne as the gospel. But you know what? Bitte Orca is a bunch of freaking noise, nothing else.

KANYE WEST — 808’S & HEARTBREAK

ReallyKanye? So you just think that you can mic your toilet, master theresult with some electronic beats and robot sounds and have a hitrecord? This album played like West was testing his fans’ boundaries,because an entire song spent comparing a woman to RoboCop simply can’t be explained any other way.

So how about some of my favorites?

BECK — GUERO

As good as Beck is when he plays the poster boy for ironic disaffection, he’s even better when he dabbles in excess. Guero is not as good all around as Midnite Vultures, butthere are times here, like “Que Onda Guero,” when Beck is better thanhe’s ever been. It’s been accused of being a collection of Odelay castoffsbecause of the Dust Brothers influence, but it’s also Beck providinglisteners a rare glimpse of solid ground within his catalog.

MY MORNING JACKET — IT STILL MOVES

Seeabove. Many have tried to capture the spirit of Gram Parsons over thepast 30 years and few have succeeded. My Morning Jacket did so on“Golden” and as such, this album never left my CD changer in college.If only “One Big Holiday” wasn’t the song that caught on, we might havea different MMJ these days.

GIRL TALK — NIGHT RIPPER

I didn’t list any hip hop here for a reason: I can hit it all and then somewith one fell swoop. Girl Talk’s ode to ADHD is almost as fun to danceto as it is to decipher the countless samples he uses to make thedumbest radio thumpers palatable. Who knew together, the Ying YangTwins’ “The Whisper Song” with the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” was abetter pairing than ceviche and good Viognier?

TV ON THE RADIO — DEAR SCIENCE

TVon the Radio is like the house band for a country that has no ideawhat’ll hit it next, and Dear Science is a landscape of self-doubt,Bush-hate and future-fear. It sounds like the nexus point of Afrobeat,jam bands and art rock, as it’s both visceral and cerebral. Unliketheir previous albums, it’s easier to like than it is to simply admire.It’s a paradox in nearly every way; it’s completely experimental, butaccessible at the same time. And to think, TVOTR really is a live bandfirst and foremost.

DAFT PUNK — ALIVE 2007

Never mind the irony behind a pair of electronic button pushers putting out a live album; Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 isone of the greatest dance albums of all time. You can almost picturethe seismic barrage of light emanating from their colossal pyramidstage in Paris on the funky twists of “Touch It/Technologic” and “DaFunk/ Daftendirekt,” as the album essentially plays like a greatesthits collection with a bit of exuberant crowd noise tracked in.

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