This is NOT a top ten list. With the exception of the Clash, Velvet Underground and Wu-Tang Clan, I wouldn’t expect many to have heard of these artists. I’m not writing this as some masturbatory experience where we can both get off arguing over the best Beatles albums. While some amount of nostalgia went into composing this list, sentimentality is tangential in this case, unlike most VH1 and Rolling Stone lists I’ve seen. To some degree, these albums are all contemporary, not only in the sense that they have been released within the last ten years, but also because of their connectivity to and influence on the musical world today. I claim no expertise here, only the knowledge that these ten albums offer ten different avenues (not the only ones, by any means) to listen to music in a new and more satisfying way.
Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
Nothing on this album aligns with sonic expectations. Kevin Shield’s ethereal wails and churning guitar are both beautiful and terrifying, like a long white hospital corridor.
Shield actually lifted the band name from a horror movie he’d once scene, which seems surprisingly uninspired considering the music. The album took a notorious amount of studio time (two years) to craft, capturing the spirit of their “shoegazing” performances, in which Shield and company might not move, let alone look up to face the audience. Not only do the grinding rhythms and floating vocal melodies seem eerily in line with the band name, but so does the production of the album: the album preceded a five year drought for the band prior to their ultimate disbanding, as though the single effort of Loveless had bled their creative reservoirs dry.
Shield’s ability to take conventional instrumentation and bloody its face by juxtaposing feedback and glimmering vocals made the album a new measure for rock. Even when the listener can hardly tell the synth from the keyboard from the guitar from the vocals, Shield works his wonders within convention. I only know of two albums a cult ever formed around, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the Beatles’ White Album (paging Dr. Manson) – but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was a third.
Ambient Music Vol. 1: Music for Airports, Brian Eno
Everything you like comes from Brian Eno and you don’t even know it. Roxy music started glam rock. He produced David Bowie’s best albums, plus U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. If and when Bono saves the world, he should send Eno a thank you note. So, why doesn’t anyone know this? Eno doesn’t consider himself a musician and would be the first to hem and haw at the suggestion of his importance. So aside from being the progenitor of innumerable middle-aged rock demi-gods, Eno also gave birth to the unwieldy beast of ambient music, unfortunately associated with muzak and easy listening. Music for Airports was the first in a series of four ambient albums Eno intended for site-specific listening – the title’s not a joke.
This album does burgundy airport lounges more justice than a chocotini-doused Valium. Using simple, computer algorhythms, the album is a random array of round piano chimes. I know, this sounds like it sucks balls. The miracle is that it doesn’t. The music is maddenly soothing and an interesting transcendental meditation on natural ambient music: the drunk sway of a stewardess on a pleather stool or the barely audible buzz of a halogen light. I don’t set foot on a flight without this album and with good reason; think half a bottle of Nyquil without the drowsiness.
The Cold Vein, Cannibal Ox
Balls on every critic’s face who dismisses this album as another Wu Tang spinoff. If two guys with weird names (Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire) rapping about growing up in New York make them some sheisty Wu-Tang doppelgangers, then so be it. To only note the similarities ignores what makes this album so good, the things it isn’t: commercial, polished, a suburban wash. Rap in 1998 sucked. I think I only listened to the Fugees that entire year because commercial hip-hop had been reduced to a clichéd, neutered shadow of its former self.
Not a lot of people heard Cannibal Ox until after they broke up, but their album, with the help of El-P’s impeccable production, now seems to have shifted the momentum of the indie hip-hop counterrevolution. Aside from having the coolest fucking name I’ve ever heard, El-P produced a gem that carries the album wherever the meandering lyrics slacken. The paranoid flutter of “Rasberry Fields” seems a reminder that we’re not in Beatles-land anymore, but when Vast Aire chimes in, “The sample’s the flesh and the beat’s the skeleton. You got beef but theres worms in your Wellington. I put a hole in your skull and extract the skeleton… oh my god, said a word twice,” its clear we’re not in contemporary hip-hop territory either. They’re not just leaving rap cliché on the side of the road, they’re leaving it bleeding in the gutter, missing a few of its organs that they’re using to build their own hip-hop Frankenstein.
London Calling, The Clash
I could have stomached Rudy Guiliani as Time’s “Man of the Year” if the media didn’t always pair that unsavory tidbit with the wonderfully loutish Clash anthem “Rudy Can’t Fail.” It is the perfect mixtape song, halfway between the terse midday drunkenness of the Sex Pistols and the winning charm of the Beatles, with muddled words everyone can sing along to and not fuck up.
You know on Halloween when you’d come home with a pillowcase full of candy, and you’d spend hours separating the choicest pieces – Butterfingers, Tootsie Pops, and Baby Ruths – to stash away from your little sister in a shoebox? This album is the lovechild of that shoebox and two middle-class cockney malcontents. Fusing reggae bass hooks, a well-practiced punk sneer, and the best album cover of all time that positively shat on Roger Daltry’s guitar smashing, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer one-upped even the Rollingstones in friends-since-prep-school rock virtuosity. The Stones’ self-titled debut didn’t get them banned from American record labels, and their first American tour didn’t humiliate those same labels by making their debut the largest import record of all time. The Stones weren’t smart enough to write about Spanish bombs over Andalucia or cool enough to sing about getting lost in a proverbial supermarket, that synthesizes the best parts of DeLillo’s White Noise in under four minutes and does so without the blue-balled bridge about a black toxic cloud.
In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel
I still don’t know what this album’s about. I listen to it over and over again and I hear things about Jesus and “semen stained mountaintops” and I don’t have a clue what it all means. But I love it. Jeff Magnum’s either a genius or an acid guru and he refuses to reveal himself as either. Mangum wracks his voice over heavily orchestrated lo-fi production, treating his wanderlust poetics as both spiritual councilors and abused children. I laughed, I cried, I wanked off on top of a mountain?
Loaded, The Velvet Underground
Do you like the Strokes? Do you worship before the altar of black leather, shades and a five o’clock shadow? Well, Lou Reed and the Velvet underground built that altar and the Strokes shaped themselves in the mold of the original gaunt, cigarette-dangling-from-the-lip, unspeakably cool, New York pin-up that is Lou Reed. Lou Reed created the New York scene and, as with all things, the New York scene is everyone’s scene. Even Andy-fucking-Warhol couldn’t contain the hip swagger of Lou Reed. You get the idea.
Remarkably, by all accounts their fourth album, Loaded, seems to come out of nowhere. The first three albums, remarkable as they are, could not predict Loaded. The album is a right turn away from the pure concept and drug addled fuzz of White Light/White Heat and Warhol’s ubiquitous Velvet Underground and Nico towards what Reed knew pop music and radio should sound like.
Reed intended Loaded as a gift to radio and commercial music, and what a gift it was. The finely tuned rock sensibilities of “Sweet Jane” predicted half of what we hear on the radio today in a few simple chords. And “Oh, Sweet Nothing!” It has no equal. Pick a rock ballad, what’s that, “Stairway to Heaven,” you say? This song drops a steaming deuce on Led’s chest. Listen to it, the angst, the tension, the buildup, until finally the heavens open and Reed lets forth with a guitar solo so righteous it would make Moses soil a geriatric diaper on the mount.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo
On the short list of redeeming features of New Jersey, especially Hoboken, New Jersey, the husband and wife duo Yo La Tengo is often egregiously in absence. Call them critics darlings or hippies, do your worst, but name another group that, after ten years of acclaim, would not have packed up and moved forty-five minutes north to New York or west to Philadelphia. Or have divorced. With musical genres narrowing and cynicism strangling the possibility of a family-centric band – even the youngest tousle-headed Partridge was last seen on daytime USA relating his latest coke bender – the eclecticism and stability of Yo La Tengo seems all the more impossible.
After moving to the Matador label in 1993 and mastering the shoegazing drone of My Bloody Valentine on Painful and the guitar-driven orchestrations of early Radiohead on Electr-O-Pura, Yo La Tengo put out I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One in 1997. The album title delineates the paradox that is Yo La Tengo, expressing the musical “one-ness” as both the cause and consequence of their love and the bizarre unity of an album containing a mend-bending array of synth, folk, rock, and even bossa nova. Basically this album is 10-speed Canyonero of awesome. Substitute “Nuclear War” for the third-term abortion “Spec Bebop” and the album approaches perfection, though maybe “Spec Bebop” serves as a manufacturing tag, as if to say “made in Hoboken, NJ.”
36 Chambers, Wu Tang Clan
In first grade, I thought my life had reached its apex in playing Crossfire (only the second board game I’d ever liked after Candyland). That game ruled. Then I discovered Wu Tang Clan. Even ten years after its 1994 release, 36 Chambers stands as a post-pubescent tour de force that justified the male fascination with comics and ninjas. Ghostface bellowed, ODB growled and Method Man ducked in and out of rhymes about torture and ganj, somehow emerging as a decent-enough guy. Wu Tang invented the over-the-top violence of Eminem, the braggadiocio that consumes hip-hop today, and the cross-over rap artist. 36 Chambers is the blood-brother of Pulp Fiction, released the same year. It established a marquee cast and, through the alchemy of pop culture, created platinum out of idle chatter and blood spatter, only to melt it down for braces and drug money to stay lifted through ten years of B movies and deoderant commercials.