It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it …

What started as a conversation about music with a friend grew into a long state of thinking, ending with the realization that I rarely listen to anything considered “contemporary” anymore.  When I come to this realization in other areas, I often debate on whether it is a reflection of me aging, or of a deteriorating state of things.  Or is it both?  But when it comes to music, I tend to think it is much more the latter (the quality of music declining).  Over the last ten years, the large majority of music I have purchased has been jazz albums, most recorded before 1960 (specifically between 1950-1960, a truly rich and amazing time in American music, jazz especially).  But excluding jazz, nearly everything else I have purchased has been only a handful of bands.  Hell, the last concert I went to was Radiohead, and the last concert before that one was the same band. 

It seems odd, because in addition to loving music and playing music, I was once eager and avidly seeking out music, and frequented many clubs and bars seeing bands; even more strange, I moved to Athens, Georgia about two years or so back, and if you don’t know anything about Athens, it is a hotbed of local “indy” and talented music.  But since I have moved here, I haven’t been to see a single band.  I don’t think it’s because I’ve lost my passion, but rather because … well, I don’t know why.  Anyway, before I start waxing poetic, let me get back to my point.  The discussion with my friend led to a challenge to come up with our own top ten favorite albums/bands, concerning “contemporary” music only (in other words, no blues or jazz, etc.).  The goal was to see if we had any “modern” music, or if we were, indeed, stuck in the bygone shoegazer era of the 90s.   

So here is mine.  First let me say that, as a rule, once a band has made the list, I exclude any other albums from that band, because then it would just be too impossible; the idea, essentially, is to list albums that open up to bands, rather than sit around and debate whether Kid A was better than Amnesiac or if The Bends was better than both.  So, it’s really a top ten list of bands, with album suggestions; they are ranked in order, however, it’s relative, so what may be #3 today may be #5 tomorrow.  So, here goes nothing. 

1.jpg1.  Radiohead: Ok Computer.  I could write pages on why this band is #1, but I don’t really need to.  Either you have been enlightened, or you haven’t.  My only comment is that if you haven’t given this band a chance beyond “Creep,” you need help, as that is generally seen as a low point in their output and career by their fans (and by the band).

2.jpg2.  Swervedriver: Mezcal Head.  Easily one of the best, most under-appreciated bands and albums of the 1990s.  The dissolution of this band was one of modern rock’s greatest losses.  Though versions of the band loosely exist in the form of Toshack Highway, its not the same.  If you’ve never heard this album, you should.  It is an amazing feat of recording, and ata time when the world was going grunge, they were rocking – I mean rawking – but somehow still retain their status as a “shoegazer” band.  One of the highlights of my life was seeing them live, and I wish I could have done it more often. 

31.jpg3.  Stereolab: Mars Audiac Quintet.  I’ve seen this band multiple times, even way back when this album first came out (and actually met them – woohoo!).  Picking a “best” album is hard, as one of the pleasures of listening to this band is the phonic progression and depth that mark each album.  Seeing them live for the first time completely deepend by love for this band, as it gave me a chance to see the “rock” (wrong word, but I can’t think of another one) hidden in their beautiful, textured sounds. 

41.jpg4.  Tortoise: TNT.  The first time I heard Tortoise, I thought it was an experimental album that consisted of improv material.  Seeing them live, I reliazed, with amazement, that it wasn’t – instead, each sound is carefully orchestrated and reproduced.  This band will challenge you to rethink your idea of musical structure, “rock,” and how serious modern music can truly be.  This is also one of the few bands that, after seeing live, you will truly feel like you have just seen musicians, not just a “rock band.”  What is really impressive is that at a Tortoise show, the band is constantly changing “positions” in the band – with members switching from playing one instrument to another.  One show (which actually I saw here in Athens years before I moved here), the stage had two drum sets, a huge xylophone, a keyboard, and of course two guitars and a bass.  At one point, there are four guys playing the huge xylophones, and, oddly enough, it rocks.  I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Isotope 217, which is essentially most of Tortoise with a trumpet player.  Amazing stuff – but its not for the “track” listener; instead, put it in and read a book, or study, or do something else.  Trust me. 

5.jpg5. Medicine: The Buried Life.  “Revel in the treble” should be the motto for this band (outdone only by ultra-shoegazer sounds of Flying Saucer Attack).  Brad Lanier knows how to rock, and I only wish he would do it more often in the form of this band (he has numerous side projects, but this incarnation of his music is my favorite). 

6.jpg6. Ride: Nowehere.  British shoegazer, early 90s, great musicians and lyricists and egos too big to keep the band together.  There isn’t much I can say about Ride, if you haven’t heard them.  Along with MBV, this band was one of the most influential in the shoegazer era, and the iniating point for many.  Like Swervedriver, they delicately deliver “rock” while retaining shoegazer sound, from their first albums all the way through to Tarantula (their last album, excluding a live album of mostly older songs). 

7.jpg7.  Sonic Youth: Goo. I don’t know if any other band has been as successful as Sonic Youth at dictating everything about their career.  With a remarkable count of 20 albums behind them – not inlcuding EPs and numerous experimental and tangential recordings – they have an impressive output.  I’m hesitant to choose Goo as the album to list in the heading, because it is like choosing what the weather is going to be – you really can’t.  They are an aquired taste, but worth aquiring. 

8.jpg8.  My Bloody Valentine: Loveless.  If this were a list of the most influential bands and albums, they would be competing with Radiohead for #1.  But it isn’t.  And as wonderful and magical as this album is, it’s hard to rank them higher when this band, who hasn’t officially broken up, hasn’t released any albums since Loveless in 1991.  And Loveless was their second full-length album.  Despite this, they seem to be the Joyce of shoegazer music, able to garner respect with little output, because the output is so groundbreaking.  Like Ride, MBV was an entry point for many music listeners, and highly influential on a number of musicians.  Furthermore, their shows have left a sort of mythic, urban-legend-like array of stories which all amount to “they were the loudest band I have ever heard.”  The term “wall of sound” is often used when referring to them, and this album will show you why.  Note: after over a decade of hope, anticipation, and almost giving up, fans should be super-excited to hear that, according to a number of sources and confirmed reports, not only will they be making a US tour (they already have some UK shows for 2008 booked), but they will, finally, be releasing a “new” album sometime in 2008.  Keep your fingers crossed! 

9.jpg9.  Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  They are an aquired taste, and yes, I realize most people cite Wowee Zowie as their favorite album, but honestly, I like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain better.  The first and last songs are just so nice.  What I like about Pavement is that once you acclimate yourself to the sound of the band, you realize that while they seem like a loose, almost-sloppy band at first listen, they are actually very tight, and very controlled in their sound.  I also saw them live once, and was really impressed, especially with their rendition of “How Does It Feel” (a Ride song) during an encore. 

10.jpg10.  The Beastie Boys: Check Your Head.  Surprised you with this one, didn’t I?  Yes, I think License To Ill is cool, and yes, it was exciting to see them play “Paul Revere” live; but Check Your Head is when they really elevated themselves from rappers and Djs to musicians.  In this album they show off their ability to play funk, cool funk, in a very authentic and non-gimmicky way.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t into Hello Nasty very much, but I think Ill Communication was a solid album to follow Check Your Head.  Besides, you have got to be impressed with three white guys who can make interesting rap, genuine punk, and instrumental funk all in one album and make it work. 

The sad sum of this list is that, yes, indeed, I appear to be stuck in the shoegazer era of the 90s, aside from a devoted following to Radiohead.  Well, that’s not entirely true; many of the bands still make albums and music today, but I will always think of them as bands from that era who just haven’t stopped yet (aside from Tortoise, who I just consider ahead of their time altogether).  Honorable mentions have to go to The Sea and Cake, Yo La Tengo (who actually I may – may – go see here Monday evening), Fugazi, Lorelei, Slowdive, and Mogwai.  Lastly, only this past year have I begun listening to Explosions In The Sky – perhaps the closest thing to a “new” band I have picked up in many years (and they are far from new).  I don’t know how I missed this band, they are really impressive, and feel like they came straight out of the lineage of music listed above, just somehow only surfacing in this decade.  I really love how tight, dramatic, and rich their sound is.  It reminds me of Tortoise, if Tortoise was slightly more traditionally structured (only slightly), and if they all used guitars, and if they all had just gone through a bad break-up.  That is a complement, I swear. 

So, that’s my list, which now looks like a primer for “great 90s music 101,” mostly shoegazer stuff that will make you vibrate with sonic pleasure.  Sorry for the gross length, but hey, nobody forced you to read.  Sometime soon I’ll rant about great jazz. 

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