26. Fennesz: Endless Summer (Mego, 2001)
Finally, an album the Futurists would approve of! Arguably the first masterpiece of glitch electronica, which perturbs ambient flow with interjections of what sound like electronic mishaps ("glitches"), Endless Summer is mellow yet disturbing, a milestone in '00s electronica's greater acceptance of more abstract, non-dance-oriented music that's as avant-garde in intent and sound as anything the classical avant-garde has created (though often modern electronica artists are strongly influenced by the old-guard avant-gardists such as Pierre Schaeffer, Bernard Parmegiani, and Tod Dockstader). There's actually a lot of variety on this album, ranging from the manipulated solo keyboard of "Before I Leave" (its vibrato beating quickly) to looped soft rock calling to mind the Beach Boys to looped drones that highlight the glitches' rhythmic pattern in a quiet way. This particular Fennesz album is listed here because it was such a trendsetter, but I'm also quite partial to 2008's Black Sea.
27. Pretty Girls Make Graves: The New Romance (Matador, 2003
Somewhere between post-punk and emo, but (unlike most emo bands) featuring a tough riot grrrl singer, PGMG stood out not only for that but for the way the band dramatically manipulated distortion and dynamics, combining forcebeat drumming and serrated riffs in buzzsaw songs that wed the urgency of a fire alarm to the precision of a Mercedes engine. This album runs you over, but then you roll back in its path to be run over again because it hurts so good. Alas, on the next album they tried to fancy things up, toned down the ferocity, and in the process lost touch with what made them great, but it was amazing while it lasted. (Some folks like 2002's Good Health even more than The New Romance, but I find that while it's more brutal, it's less addictive, though still thrilling.)
28. Delbert McClinton: Nothing Personal (New West)
Delbert McClinton took home the second Grammy of his long career when Nothing Personal won in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category, though in my house it's filed in the Country section. It's true that he touches on a lot of subgenres: pure country complete with tinkling piano and crying pedal steel, rollicking roots rock, honky-tonk, a weepy Tex-Mex ballad, swampy New Orleans blues with swirling organ, acoustic blues, a pounding blues shuffle with some fine harmonica work from McClinton, even lounge blues. So yes, enough blues that the Grammy categorizers weren't crazy to file it there, and certainly the blues strongly informs McClinton's rough-hewn voice and soulful phrasing. But what puts this disc on my list is that McClinton's a great lyricist; Country is a genre that has long put a premium on wry wit, and he's the best at it.
29. Castanets: City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty, 2008)
Castanets is Ray Raposa and an ever-shifting cast of whoever he feels like working with that album; this time out it was practically a solo project aside from a few late overdubs by friends, after he'd recorded all the songs in a motel room in the Nevada desert. At the time I called it a departure, but really it was the latest (and biggest) step in a progression of increasingly avant albums. It's amazing that a guy in his early thirties (I think) can sound so weathered and weary, and can have already arrived at a musical viewpoint where so much of his earlier styles have been stripped away to create a sound simultaneously gritty yet ethereal (often treated electronically), as though a decade into his career he's already reached the point that John Fahey reached after five decades. He even varies the timbre of his singing so drastically from song to song, often in deliberately ragged ways, that even as he maximally matches it to the lyrics' expression, he deploys it like his instrumental sounds, as unique sonic experiences that can be enjoyed both abstractly and emotionally, though there's nothing abstract about the heightened desolation of his lyrics. This is the most frighteningly dark album of the decade, surpassing any black metal or Goth in its casual morbidity and profound pessimism.
30. Thomas Watkiss: Ancestor Phase I: Silence (Seventh Media, 2008)
For some, drones and ambient music suggest meditation, even relaxation. But the music of Thomas Watkiss, the master of Dark Ambient electronica, is far from relaxing -- more like nerve-wracking -- and as a meditational aid would be most fit for pondering decay and entropy (and perhaps, judging from the album's dedication to Sitting Bull, injustice, or the sad state of our relationship with the natural world). Imagine Godflesh minus vocals and beats, the buzzing and whirring and grinding and scraping of Justin Broadrick's guitars sampled, deconstructed, and stretched out over time, but still as grimly intense, for an idea of how far from most electronica this is. Or dubstep thatâ€™s all dub and no step. Or, for you avants, imagine Ingram Marshall hearing the word "grindcore" and, without having heard any actual grindcore, attempting to embody it. Yeah, this is that intense.
31. Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya (Artemis, 2000)
Zevon hadn't made an album of new material for five years when this appeared, making up for quantity with quality. A largely acoustic album, it's nonetheless faithful to his standard sound and has his usual chuckle-inducing turns of phrase, but it's also a serious look at various facets of personal disintegration: the brooding, acoustic ballads "My Shit's Fucked Up" and "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and the rollicking title track. The major exception to the acoustic sound is "Porcelain Monkey," with an acidic electric guitar riff repeatedly snaking through the song and organ filling out the sound. Lyrically it gets off to a great start -- "He was an accident waiting to happen / Most accidents happen at home" -- and proceeds to detail the downfall of a loner. Its details seem mysterious, if poetic, until the realization hits that it's about Elvis Presley. At the album's center is a ragged cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again," more a defiant wish than the triumphant promise of the glossy original; in Zevon's voice, it sounds autobiographical.
32. Autechre: Quaristice (Warp, 2008)
This guy's doing stuff so avant-garde and alienating/alienated that it ought to have an audience of about fifty people, but miraculously this completely abstract, utterly unfunctional music reaches out way beyond the experimental set just by being marketed as electronic music. 33.
Espers: II (Drag City, 2006)
This collective's second full-length was more strongly imbued with the darkness found in guitarist/vocalist Greg Weeks's solo music than their debut. One of the obvious touchstones for the band is the late-'60s/early '70s British folk-rock scene, such as Pentangle, but with some more avant-garde elements from subsequent years also embraced, giving the album a spiny power on the tracks where Weeks's electric guitar freak-outs burst from the shadows with spiky dissonances and prickly timbres. This contrasts starkly and effectively with the otherwise pastoral mood (keeping in mind that country life is hardly all bucolic sunshine; plenty of killings take place in barns). So while much of this disc is absolutely gorgeous, the overall context shows that such beauty must be struggled for. Beauty isn't for wimps; it takes inner strength.
34. Melt-Banana: Bambi's Dilemma (A-Zap, 2007)
A Japanese trio mixing punk and avant-garde, not quite so esoterically here as on previous outings. Or, to put it another way, they're just as noisy as ever, but the noise is a bit more organized, sometimes into actual riffs and something close to verse/chorus (though hardly always), and with way more electronics (not "electronica") thrown into the mix than most punks would be comfortable with. As I wrote when this was released, "Imagine a Japanese cross between Godflesh, DNA, and a faster-and-louder hardcore band -- now with added theremin!" Even when Yasuko O sings in English, it's tough to understand her when she's blurting her way through a mosh section, but it doesn't matter a bit when the music's this invigorating.
35. Four Tet: Rounds (Domino, 2003)
I found out about Four Tet in an odd way: a track was used in a "bump" on Cartoon Network. (Sadly, that's more national exposure than most electronic artists not named Moby ever get.) What caught my ear was its odd delicacy. A lot of Rounds has that feel, most notably "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth," constructed through Kieran Hebden's manipulation, via his laptop, of music boxes, but even heftier tracks -- such as the epic "Unspoken," which has rock band instrumentation -- sport a sort of kaleidoscopic attractiveness in the way their loops spin and layer. I had spent several years not caring about electronic music; this was the album that got me back into it.
36. Catie Curtis: My Shirt Looks Good on You (Ryko, 2001)
There are arguably better Catie Curtis albums, but this is the one on which I discovered her articulate, poppy folk-rock, most notably "Kiss That Counted" with its thrilling bridge. Most of the songs are highly detailed reflections on relationship, including familial advice; I defy anyone to not be touched deeply by "Love Takes the Best of You," the achingly beautiful conversation of a mother and her adopted daughter. The full-band arrangements, sometimes including tinkling electric mandolin, are several cuts above the usual folkie-going-rock sound, with tasteful electric guitar lines spiraling around Curtis's virtuoso singing.
37. Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway, 2002)
Before this ambitious double album, DBT's goofy album titles (Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance) and quirky tales of Southern life meant that they were considered kind of a joke. Though Southern Rock Opera still had wry humor, it was framed more seriously, what with main frontman Patterson Hood flinging around vocabulary such as "duality" and using iconic figures including Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Wallace to examine what it means to be Southern in the modern world. As grim in tone and intense in expression as any Goth band, DBT was finally taken seriously. They proceeded to make four more albums in the decade (plus three solo projects), and Decoration Day, The Dirty South (especially!), and Brighter Than Creation's Dark are just as great (I do believe they made more great records in the 2000s than any other act), but Southern Rock Opera still has a special stature.
38. Tinariwen: Aman Iman (Water Is Life) (World Village, 2007)
Tinariwen is a Tuareg group that plays droning Malian blues-rock. The obvious comparison is Ali Farka Toure, and if you like him you'll probably like these Saharan nomads, but overall the sound is much fuller, and on the more up-tempo material they've got their own rhythmic sense that sets them apart. Sometimes they emphasize an exultant, communal groove; other times the sound is stripped down to hushed intimacy. There had been a few recordings of Tuareg groups before, but this was the first to be engineered well, and it opened the desert nomad soul blues groove floodgates.
39. Koen Holtkamp: Field Rituals (Type, 2008)
Holtkamp works differently solo than he does in the duo situation of Mountains; paradoxically, the results tend to be slightly denser, suggesting an indie, 21st century version of the looped guitar layers of Frippertronics (though he also uses keyboards and various other instruments). He incorporates field recordings here (the hubbub of a children's playground, birds chirping, wheels turning, etc.), hence the album title, and they keep the drones and crescendos from sounding purely abstract; his music's organic, naturally developing quality is accented by these less structured sounds' different sort of organicness. The results are soothing yet thoroughly engrossing.
40. Tom Waits: Blood Money (Anti, 2002)
Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan wrote Blood Money for Robert Wilson's stage production of Georg Buchner's protean 1836 play Woyzeck, which anticipated Existentialism, Social Realism, and Expressionism. As a connoisseur of the seamy underbelly of society and musical advocate of life's colorful losers, Waits was ideally suited to give voice to the impoverished soldier Woyzeck (Harvard drama lecturer Robert Scanlan called him "the first proletarian protagonist treated tragically in western drama"), and the musical style Waits perfected over the past two decades complements the story well, sometimes bringing to mind the eccentric jazziness of Kurt Weill's early work -- and lyrics such as "If there's one thing you can say / About Mankind / There's nothing kind about man" from "Misery Is the River of the World" have the flavor of Weill's collaborator Bertoldt Brecht. When Waits plays guitar, the sound is more bluesy, sometimes including Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. The combination of all these elements is stunning and profound, and ranks among Waits's finest albums, albeit his most depressing by a long shot, since unlike most Waits albums, the plot precludes an optimistic ending.
41. Old Time Relijun: Catharsis in Crisis (k, 2007)
The press release for this album said that the post-punk, No Wave, and Captain Beefheart comparisons are overdone. It's true that leader Arrington de Dionyso's musical vision is highly original, and the suggested Yes Wave tag is clever, but it's also true that fans of those three aforementioned reference points are prime candidates to dig this
42. Nisennenmondai: Destination Tokyo (Smalltown Supersound, 2009)
This Japanese group has evolved into something more danceable -- with the tracks stretched out to club length, but with real drums -- yet also more daring, like Neu! playing Philip Glass. Drummer Sayaka Himeno is starts out motorik and then bashes through the increasingly dense crescendos as guitarist Masako Takada and bassist Yuri Zaikawa lock into complementary patterns, then pile on additional layers and swooshes with celestial clarity, achieving ecstasy through repetition and slight variation.
43. Mountains: Choral (Thrill Jockey, 2009)
The fourth album in the collaboration of electronic artists Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg offers thoughtful and sensual combinations of gently pulsating timbres and textures. Field recordings, simple patterns played on musical instruments, and electronic treatments are layered and looped in varying degrees of density, often building to quietly ecstatic climaxes in structures and techniques influenced more by the example of Medieval/Renaissance polyphonic choral music (hence the album's title) than typical laptop tactics. Precisely by avoiding all shock and glitz, it is thoroughly and eternally engrossing.
44. Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut (Constellation, 2009)
This continues the style shift started on North Star Deserter, Chesnutt's first album on Constellation, recording in Montreal using a similar mix of musicians. My full review is here. Listening to it over and over in the wake of his recent tragic death has made me appreciate it even more.
45. Liz Phair: Liz Phair (Capitol, 2003)
All the complaints of betrayal by indie-rockers aghast that their darling Phair "sold out" by using production team The Matrix (previously also used by Avril Lavigne) on some tracks here bemused me. Couldn't they hear past that to how good the songs are? True, she spends half the album acting as though her main goal is to be crowned queen of the MILFs, but Liz's libertine lifestyle and dirty vocabulary have long been part of her charm, and she's quite witty about it. And on other tracks our "ordinary, average, everyday, sane/psycho super-goddess" displays more thoughtful observations.
46. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros., 2002)
The Flaming Lips started out as a notoriously abrasive band plying a weirdly unique brand of psychedelic post-punk. Hooking up with producer Dave Fridmann transformed their crude sound into something vastly more appealing to the masses without sacrificing an iota of integrity, because they never abandoned their weirdness, and in a way the production sugarcoating and the expansion of their instrumental palette opened up new dimensions of weirdness. This album has some sort of Japanese anime theme/story to it, though as usual with the Lips it resists summary and possibly understanding as well, it inspires some of their finest music, climaxing with the bittersweetly wistful, orgasmically beautiful "Do You Realize??"
47. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia, 2002)
Never let it be said that Bruce doesn't rise to the occasion. Plenty of musicians drew on the events of 9/11/01, but in the realm of rock, none matched the power of his multi-faceted reaction on this album. The other occasion was the first album, after an 18-year hiatus, of the E Street Band, but this is no Born to Run II, more like a halfway point between Bruce's stripped-down solo style and their bombast, and with plenty of guest contributions, especially choral vocals. This album ranks as high as it does because the most fervent songs by themselves make up a great album; it ranks as low as it does because two songs not only don't measure up to the rest, but seriously impede the album's flow. (Just skip over "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" and it's a masterful 64-minute album.) But the big picture is that in a modern musical landscape where cynicism rules and big emotions and arena rock are viewed as outmoded and overwrought products of a false or naive innocence, Springsteen resolutely trusted in the power of rock, and he and it brought us inspiration and consolation in a populist package.
48. Oneida: The Wedding (Jagjaguwar, 2005)
This is a big change from earlier Oneida albums, and it's obvious from the string quartet on the first track (and on five others). The garage-psychedelic flavor is still strong, but with an even greater array of timbres available (even sitar on "Heavenly Choir") and greater inclination to explore quieter areas. A number of guests help out, including Phil Manley (Trans Am), Adam Davison (Company), Brad Truax (Home) and Brian Coughlin (Fireworks Ensemble), the latter the source of the string quartet arrangements. The results are trance-inducingly compelling. I wondered whether choosing this consistently rewarding band's least aggressive album meant I've become an old softie, but relistening reassured me that it's their most imaginative work.
49. Teenage Fanclub: Man-Made (Merge, 2005)
Scotland's prime purveyors of power pop weren't as prolific in the '00s as they had been in the '90s, but in terms of quality their powers had not diminished. This ranks right up there with Bandwagonesque for sheer tunefulness, their studiocraft had put a few more tricks up their sleeves by this point, and their vocal harmonies were more gorgeous than ever. 50.
Sade: Lovers Rock (Epic, 2000)
It's time Sade got critical respect. Of course, the last thing rock critics want is to appear soft, so it'll never happen. But this is a band that's maintained a very high and consistent level of quality, both in songwriting and arranging/production. (If there's any legitimate complaint to be made beyond mere quibbling over stylistic tastes, it's that this band never cuts loose in the studio the way it does live, when it's much funkier.) Yes, it's the epitome of smoothness, with the vibe usually mellow and singer Sade Adu quite restrained in her projection, but her singing's far from bland; her avoidance of blatant soul moves makes the slightest catch in the voice, the smallest surge of emotion, relatively seismic. So what if some of this band's fans just think of it as offering pretty musical wallpaper? Attentive listening reveals a lot more. In this part of the list, I repurposed a few reviews -- Tinariwen, Espers, Old Time Relijun, Koen Holtkamp -- that originally appeared in The Big Takeover or on bigtakeover.com. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.