The 2000's in Music: A Personal History Part II

In a quest to take an introspective, often cathartic, trip through the first decade of the 21st century, I'm listing a handful of albums from each year (2000 - 2009) and infusing anecdotes here and there from my own life. This is the second part, a continuation, of the project started last night. We've already looked into 2000 - 2003, and it's the dawning of a hopeful new relationship for me with music that has only just started to branch out of the mold I set into in high school. Love has come and gone and come again, and during the first half of 2004 I graduated college, with the English degree that I still value and berate alternately. (Actually, I always value it. It was a rewarding experience, reading and learning not only literary history and theory, but also the art of reading people, seeing actions for what they are, and understanding the fragility of life. Cue sappy soundtrack now.) At the end of my lease that summer, I moved in with the girlfriend, and things became progressively rockier. I also started smoking a lot of pot. (It eventually saps creativity completely.) That and cigarettes and coffee, and I was probably the most "rock and roll" I'd ever be. But, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There was a lot of chaos, both in the transition from single to living with the significant other and the jump from the idealism/ease of college to the rigor/boredom of the "real" world. I wanted to be a writer, and get paid for it. It sounds endearing in retrospect.

Good News for People Who Love Bad News - Modest Mouse
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Hot Fuss - The Killers
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley
Funeral - Arcade Fire
Smile - Brian Wilson

In a year that brought the heralded union/flop known as Velvet Revolver, a best of album for Everclear, and a new release from Captain Kirk there was also some amazing music released. After walking around in a robe on a hot summer morning, wearing a mortar board and receiving general accolades, I started working at a coffee shop on University Hill in Boulder. It was run by a local Christian group, who reigned in the music to the extent that eventually I stopped bringing anything in. (Of course, I didn't know how completely reigned anything could be until later that year when I worked for Wells Fargo for 3 months.) It was in that coffee shop, before the fall of employee-supplied music, that I met, and came to love Modest Mouse. The lead single from Good News for People Who Love Bad News, "Float On," was an insta-hit (just add water) for a band that went underappreciated for three albums prior. I know people who knew and loved them before, and I can see why after exploring the full catalog, but at the time I was blown away. Emphatic scream-singing, jangling guitars and rock and roll drumming combined with intellectual, artsy lyrics. It was exactly the album for a coffee shop discovery, simple, semi-fringe, and completely over-caffeinated.

Franz Ferdinand is one of those albums that never goes away, no matter how shitty the band becomes through subsequent releases. Any album with songs like "Take Me Out," "This Fire," and "Michael" breaking through the disco-pop-rock-punk-glam barrier is going to stick around, and should. I've heard this album countless times since I purchased it, though most often at the behest of friends or plain surprise at a party. I've never NOT got into the groove and beat on the album, which is a testament to its longevity. Sure, it's disappointing when a band blows its creative load on the first round, but at least Franz Ferdinand gave us a solid 38:49. (The average is around 7 minutes.)

When you go to a Target store, they have a music section that is typically reserved for the popular, spoon-fed shit that I don't like to listen to, but every once in a while they'll have an incredible deal (eight or nine bucks) for an album that turns out to be a must own. This happened when I first bought She & Him, and also when I finally broke down and bought Hot Fuss by The Killers. This was an album that defined ubiquitous for 2004. "Mr. Brightside" or "Smile Like You Mean It" or "Somebody Told Me" was playing just about anywhere you went, to any radio station, at any given moment. It was also an album that I doubted for a long time. Each time I'd pass by it, I would go through that list of questions: Is it really that good? Do I need this? Why can't I think of more than one song on here I know? Until eventually it just made sense to own it. I gave it as a gift to my longest-running friend well before I bought myself a copy. It's still an impeccable disc, though weak in spots, but it seems like it was the bulk of The Killers' talent showcase in retrospect... though time will tell.

I also bought into Rilo Kiley in 2004, after hearing "Portions for Foxes" and "It's a Hit," but I didn't know how much I'd love them until later. (I have to thank a friend, with whom I've since lost touch, for guiding me to their earlier work, specifically The Execution of All Things.) Jenny Lewis' voice is pitch-perfect beautiful, and soothingly sad all at once. I listened to this album more in 2005 and '06 than right when I got it and yet knowing that I picked it up (by virtue of the album art, too) when it came out makes it fit well here.

Arcade Fire's debut was another I missed by about a year. I knew I had heard it, here and there, with friends, but I never quite picked it up until a year later. There's no more inspiring and motivating song for me to this day than "Wake Up." There's the slow choral build, and explosiveness. This is also an album that help teach me to embrace my creativity again. It's not just an album to hear, but one where you can close your eyes and imagine the vast stories that are written. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is just that sort of song. It voiced everything I felt when my parents weren't getting along, long before they divorced, but also the magical desire to escape in all of us. With so few tangible ways to really get out of a situation that far exceeds your control, you turn to imagination, to dreams about tunnels and friends and surroundings of love.

Brian Wilson's Smile didn't turn out quite as great as I'd hoped, and his rewrite of "Good Vibrations" drives me nuts with how contrived and shallow the lyrics sound. Perhaps that's just the post-drug, post-psychosis songwriter in him trying to compensate for things that never made sense to begin with (but did), but I can't stand the new version of the song. And say what you will about Mike Love's self-centered theft of the Beach Boys from Wilson (including the disgusting spectacle that was "Kokomo" and the Full House cameos), but his voice on that song is iconic. It was more of a power-play to rewrite and "finish" it. For all that Smile lacks, and I've tried my damnedest to give it a fair shake, it does mean something to me because it marks a completion. No one. NO ONE ever thought Brian Wilson would finish Smile as he intended, that Smiley Smile would remain the empty viscera of the great Beach Boys album, but he did... even if it more than likely is nothing like what the 30 year-old him would have done. There's a lesson in life there, that sometimes we finish things no one thinks we can, and often those finishes are completely different from the course we intended.

Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
Gimme Fiction - Spoon
Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Set Yourself on Fire - Stars
Alligator - The National

This year is the hardest to write about. It was a year of changes, all huge, that taught me things about myself I never thought I'd have to learn. It was also a year of avoiding those lessons, and wallowing in the failures I perceived in my life. In February, I started working where I currently work now (I know! It's been a long time) and met some of the greatest friends I've ever had. They also introduced me to a lot of the music I hold most dear now. I was receiving rejection letters from publishers and internships, too. Later that month, the girl I was living with, with whom despite all the difficulties and complexities of that relationship I imagined I'd spend the rest of my life with, took a job for the summer in California. This was essentially the end, though I was unwilling, and unprepared to accept it at the time. The relationship had been ending long before, but I was blind and idealistic, thinking that the way I felt was enough to affect the way she felt. The summer months were complicated with visits to see her, knowledge that her heart was steadily warming to another man, and confusion about why she couldn't say it was over. (I was foolish, then, to assume that I could hold out, feel the pain, and wait for the honesty that I felt due.) When it finally came time for her to come back, she came back to the other guy, not to me. There were last romantic interludes between us, and statements of love that need not go repeated, but I remained convinced that there was something she still saw in me, and I fought. A lot of shit went down (there's far more to it than that, but promises are promises), and I let myself breakdown over and over. And, ultimately, they were meant for each other and she married that guy earlier this year. The point here is that I didn't listen to as much new music during 2005. I spent a lot of time trying to write my brain outside of itself and love my way back into a long-gone heart (and I did things I'm not proud of during bouts of selfishness), but the albums I did listen to are each uniquely amazing, and I defy anyone to claim otherwise.

Bloc Party's first is also their best, and probably the best British indie rock since The Smiths. It's heady, heavy and alternately raucous. A song like "Like Eating Glass" was the exact anthem I needed, one that reaffirmed the suffering I held onto, and the anger that seemed so logical and fair in its wake. "Modern Love" is a sweeping quiet song with an empowering refrain about being taken away by love, which was sort of how I felt, and sort of what I feared ever allowing to happen again. Bloc Party hasn't been as great since, but Silent Alarm (even in its title) was the exact outburst I required to keep going.

Gimme Fiction became more of a mantra than just an album title. The album is full and dreamy and dark, which reflected the way I felt. Spoon became MY band for about a year or two. I was living the life described in Kill The Moonlight's "The Way We Get By." I was just getting by, all the time, working, writing occasionally, and spending a lot of time drinking and smoking and wanting everything to fix itself. I felt, at times, like the opening stanza of "I Turn My Camera On": "I turn my camera on/I cut my fingers on the way/The way I'm slippin away/I turn my feelings off/Y'made me untouchable for life/And you wasn't polite." I was living alone, and trying to fix shit out again. It's the hardest thing in the world, when you think you know, to find out that you don't know anything, and start trying to learn again. But, you do it. That's what Spoon's music has taught me. You pick yourself up, sing like every day is sunny, and fight on.

Sufjan Stevens' Illinois is just fucking incredible. It's dour, liturgical, rocking, orchestral and poetic. It makes you feel bad for John Wayne Gacy, it makes you wish you were Superman, and it tells timeless, true stories about accepting the people and things we don't think we want to. This is an album about growth, and if I could grow in 2005, I was going to disappear, which is something I couldn't let happen, and no one should, no matter how dire circumstances may seem. "Chicago" is also the penultimate road-trip-stare-out-the-window and wonder what life means and will mean song. "I made a lot of mistakes, in my mind..." is the truest chorus lyric you can find in a song. Melodramatic as Sufjan may be, he knows what it's like to grow up and feel compelled to apologize to yourself for everything you've gotten yourself into.

I've been fortunate to see Stars live three times. The first two shows were smaller, one was on Valentine's Day 2006, which I attended with my buddy Jared. The latest was also with Jared, at the Ogden in Denver. Stars are an incredible showmen, but also purveyors of the kind of dreamy, protest, loving, melancholy pop that really hits the spot when you're in a sad sack mood. Set Yourself on Fire is one of very few albums that utilize, to great effect, the call and response style of song writing. By writing in conversational style, Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan can inject a theatrical element into songs like "Reunion" and "The Big Fight". It is an album of harmony and dissonance. If break ups were like songs, they'd be a lot more enjoyable, not to mention much more brief. "Calendar Girl" may be one of the saddest songs in recent memory, but also the most uplifting. It's about being lost and being redeemed and being brought back to life.

And keeping in the theme of albums that embrace sadness and doubt, The National came to me through my friend Sean, and played at work for at least a month solid, nearly every day. These are songs about taking responsibility, losing control, losing friends and recovering from it. Alligator is like a dark tunnel that seems infinite, but always has a bright light at the end of it. There's a way out of the tough stuff, it's just out in the distance, and if you keep moving, keep running, keep working, you'll get out there.

(My apologies for the dour nature of this section. Writing is a cathartic activity. Sometimes you open up the well and can't stop bailing water. Then you realize that you're going to drown in it and force yourself to clean up the mess.)

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - Neko Case
Begin to Hope - Regina Spektor
Alright, Still - Lily Allen
The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Boys and Girls in America - The Hold Steady

All of the bitterness of 2005 faded away, as it always does when you give it time. I learned a lot, and was in a rough, but serviceable place during 2006. This was a year of redefinition. New loves, new friendships, luckily a combination of both. It was a year that turned out a lot better than it started. Growing camaraderie with my coworkers (we even formed a band... which was some of the greatest fun I've had in my whole life, even if we played only one live show), and new parties, new dimensions were all around. And the music in '06 was just as much about rebirth, growing strength and renewed happiness.

Neko Case is easily the most amazing female songwriter in the last 10 years. She's also amazingly resilient, gaining her fame as a member of The New Pornographers, she could have been seen as a pretty voice in the backdrop, but she refused to accept that as her definition. With Fox Confessor, she presents an album all about dangerousness, in getting close to people, and losing oneself, and also that there is an inherent power within each of us that can make us so strong that no danger is too great. Her soothing voice is beyond compare, especially on this album, and great stories like "Margaret vs. Pauline" combine perfectly with the radio "hit" and inspiring anthem "Hold On, Hold On."

I had been trained over years of listening to music that piano rock/pop was usually trivial, comprised of pretty, frivolous love songs and soft, romantic ballads ("Great Balls of Fire" being a prime exception to prove the rule). I was proven wrong and my eyes were opened when Begin to Hope first played in my office. Regina Spektor's combination of an enigmatic voice and bombastic play simply changed the way I look at this music... and it pretty much changed piano music too. It is a bouncy, happy, album with all the right drops in pace and changes in tone. She achieves a great bit of poetic archiving with "That Time," which seems to capture all of the little ways we define ourselves throughout the course of our lives. I'm doing that now, in a way, remembering that time, nodding to old and current friends, and subtly asking everyone to reminisce with me. Regina Spektor also reminds me of reuniting with my friend Rya and how everything changed in 2006. I went from loneliness to complete happiness, going out twice a week or more and spending my time interacting with the people I loved instead of hiding from what I thought could be judgment.

Alright, Still falls in because it's the perfect post-break-up album. It's about telling the other person to fuck off, with almost every song. It's also fun, festive, energized and novel. You'd be hard pressed to find another female pop/indie artist who so seamlessly infuses hip-hop, bubblegum, funk and soul into one album. And while there's a good deal of sincerity here, the angry, biting lyrics are really the best part. Allen is the perfect combination of cute and Doesntgiveafuck(TM).

Before 2006, I had heard The Decemberists at work, and with friends. Most of my introduction came from the aforementioned colleague, Sean, bringing in everything he had. I knew that I like them, but was unable to commit, until The Crane Wife. Despite the major-label production in comparison to their previous work, it was the best introduction I could have asked for. Colin Meloy is as lyrically genius as ever, playing off of Japanese folk lore and a little Shakespeare here and there. There are sweet ballads like "Summersong" and "O Valencia!" and then there are driving forces like "When the War Came" and "Perfect Crime #2". The Decemberists, I'll say with unabashed pride, changed my life. There's a darkness and an eternal optimism is all of there songs, save for a couple on Castaways and Cutouts. It's smart music, but it's also good music. And most of all it's honest music. From The Crane Wife I back-tracked to my favorite album Picaresque and then the previous two. I found out that "The Engine Driver" is in my top five songs of all time. And I really immersed myself in a band in a way I had for a long time. So, on the extremely remote chance that a Google app picks up that I'm talking about them: Thank you, Decemberists. Sincerely, thank you.

Finally, we're to The Hold Steady. They are the perfect bar rock band. They give you life, and with every song, you feel like every good memory you've had is all rolled into one big party. Yes, there's a lot of drinking, drug and sex references, and it's all very loose and almost the opposite of The Decemberists headiness, but Boys and Girls in America is the Springsteen on coke album of the decade. "Stuck Between Stations" reflects the trapped feeling of being between college and middle age, and not knowing what paths to follow, after so many adults made it look so "easy". "Chips Ahoy!" is just fun. And, with the HUGE exception of the final verse, "Massive Nights" is a song I could see playing at my funeral someday. It's about high school delinquency, sure, but it's also about reveling in the great moments in life: those spent really living. (Also, "Southtown Girls" has just the right quiet to build to chant to rock ratio, with a touch of sweetness too.)

Part III is coming next...

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