10 - Way Out West - "Don't Look Now"
Occasionally DJ's of various flavors decide to step away from just spinning together the songs of others and try making some music of their own. In my experience, a field of very little middle ground. Either a delight for the ears, or proof they shouldn't quit their day job. This disc is most assuredly the former. Nick Warren & Jody Wisternoff, with an assist on vocals from Omi, spin an album which is schizophrenic, but appealing.
But what is in store, you may ask? Is it a four-on-the-floor dance burner like "Anything But You"? Or perhaps a somber, moody electro-ode to fading love, on the very next track "Don't Forget Me"?. Or perhaps it is an epic, 11 minute long, slow-building lead-up to an explosion of sound, daring you to sit still like "Killa". It manages to weave together all these disparate styles and feelings - it is a little bit trance, a sprinkle of house, maybe, but all channeled through a pop sensibility that not all albums like this truly pull off. Or at least, not that well. The variety continues well into the final, ethereal "Absinthe Dreams". Other reviews speak poorly of this trait - hard to see why, as the mix gives something for everyone, is well put together, and end to end stands as not just a great electronica album, but a great pop album overall. If you find yourself one who scoffed at electronica before, give this one a try, you may just be surprised.
9 - Goo Goo Dolls - "Gutterflower"
The dolls have released 2 albums since this one, and not to say they are bad - but this one just hit the perfect mark. As Rzeznik was heard to quip on the Behind The Music special on the band "We've turned a corner" - something he observed when the 3-piece orchestra showed up at the studio during the recording of "Iris". He was right, but only half so. Dizzy Up The Girl started around the corner, and Gutterflower is walking proudly on the other side of the building, with a bit of the sneer brought back.
It is still power guitar pop, no question, but there is a grittier undercurrent running through all the tracks here, from the twisting first single "Here Is Gone" to the beaten-but-not-broken "It's Over" to the simple acoustic yearn of "Sympathy" - here the Dolls take all their best pieces and weld them together with high-sheen guitar pop, and end up with the most consistent, well-rounded album of their career, landing them number 9 on this list.
8 - New Order - "Get Ready"
For a band who rose out of the ashes of another, and released this album 8 years after the previous in 1993...did they have anything left worth listening to in 2000, after what is several eternities in the music business? The answer storms out of the speakers with the sparkling licks of "Crystal" the second you hit play. And going with the over-arching theme of all albums picked for this list of end to end cohesion - this disc has it going in spades. The rollicking mood rolls along at "60 Miles an hour", and then Corgan joins along for "Turn My Way" to slow things down a bit - leading into a middle half that is not quite stomper, but not quite power ballad (although the driving "Someone Like You" certainly amps things back up to frenetic pace once again) before floating back down to easygoing, sunset-on-the-beach-with-your-lover peace and tranquility of "Run Wild". Is Sumner the best lyricist on the world? No. But as the aforementioned transition, build, and peaceful comedown prove, you don't have to be when you know the music this well.
7 - Oasis - "Dig Out Your Soul"
The Gallagher brothers have, in the time between this album released and my writing this, split company - this time, perhaps, for good, for real. If so, it would be a shame, because this album rings with the sound of a band finding its way again after a troubled middle age. They stormed the radio on both sides of the atlantic with the catchy "Wonderwall", "Champagne Supernova", and even a little more with the melancholy stuck-in-your-head yearner "Don't Go Away" - after that, everything went to hell. "Standing on the shoulder of giants" began a string of albums where they couldn't decide what to be - psychedelic grunge-rockers, oasis mark 2 mixed with vocals that seemed intentionally squawked through the microphones to imitate..god only knows what, but it sounded awful. "Don't Believe The Truth" showed a glimmer of good things to come, and the better things showed fruit with "Dig Out your soul" - it is Oasis doing what they do best. The psychedelia and coke-binge-wrecked slide guitar over-drives are sheared away, and in place is strong britpop funneled through the swagger only the Gallagher brothers do so well. From the grinding stomp of "Bag It Up" and on through the gutteral assault of "Shock of the lightning" this disc excels. Even if "To Be Where There's Life" steers a tad TOO beatle-esque for the band's own good, this one shows them figuring out how to make good music again. Perhaps Beady Eye, the Liam-helmed group formed after Noel split with the group, will produce something even 1/4 as good. One can only hope.
2016 Edit to the above - those who know my tastes will recall my high praise for Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - and note that Beady Eye has since disbanded. Guess we know who won there.
6 - The Verve - "Forth"
Known mostly for the stones-sampling, simplicity-driven-video-having "Bittersweet Symphony", the Verve have a recognition point, even if most paid little attention after that hit had faded from memory. The internal bickering broke the group up, and most figured that was it.
But when the bickering stops, McCabe, Jones, Salisbury, and Ashcroft can mash together sonic bliss when they come together, which they did many years later. The opening couplet "Sit And Wonder" folding into the hooky space-pop of "Love Is Noise" send a resounding "We're back" message. The album isn't a greatest hits disc, but it does manage to play to all their strengths. We have the slow balladry of "Rather Be" and "Judas" to ease the mind (or disturb it, depending how you interpret the lyrics). We have the sleepy, jumbled "Numbness" that reorganizes in time for "I See Houses" only to cut into the pinnacle of this disc's energy "Noise Epic". This song lives up to its name, but how sweet the noise it is. The final 2 minutes of this track explode into a frenzied guitar & drum assault, with Ashcroft's vocals falling all over the place like rocks in a landslide, that pulls you into the speakers and DEMANDS you pay attention. It's hard not to feel a bit pummeled by this, but in a good way. The glacial closer "Appalaichan Springs" later moves this all down to a nice, even-handed close. IF you gave up on the Verve as one hit wonders back in 1997 - consider this a worthy return and worth picking up. A 2nd opinion is definitely worth it.
5 - Gorillaz - "Demon Days"
This album earns its place this high on the list for its resurgence factor. When it came out, I heard "Feel Good Inc.", liked it..but thought the rest of the album just ok. Years later I gave it a better chance and it resonates now moreso than it did before. It stood the test of time and became something more meaningful when given the chance. Reviewers have spoken of Damon Albarn as a man with good ideas, but a man who needs someone to help him focus those ideas, find the best of those good ideas, and weed out the rubbish. Danger mouse proves adept in doing this, as between his production skill and Albarn's knack for weaving dystopian lyrical webs atop the sounds on this album, the blend is perfect, and sounds so good. Ironically, one of the best tracks is the one right before "Feel Good Inc.", the synth & hip-hop blend of "Dirty Harry". Albarn lets the chorus and the rap verse at the end do the talking on this one, and is not only catchy, but sequenced to provide a perfect lead-up to the De La Soul-graced bliss of "Feel Good Inc.". What also places this album so high is the mix - hip hop, britpop, dance, all come together in what might sound like a cluttered mess - but perfect blend is more like it. From start to end, the theme, the idea, shines through, so you not only hear the music, you FEEL it as well. Not an easy hat trick to pull off - and one that Albarn didn't pull off quite as well with the 2010 follow-up "Plastic Beach". Demon Days lives up to the title - it is gritty, lyrically bleak, but musically far above much of what came out in 2005. A worthy addition to this list.
4 - Dido - "Safe Trip Home"
She came out as the trip-hop-lite ballad chanteuse of "Thank You" and "Here With Me" and the voice was inescapable, the songs were all over the place - but they bore the unmistakable streak of "No way lightning will strike twice". Dido has a large gap between each album released thus far (4 years from the first, then 5 from second to third) but this time around, it is more than well worth the wait. On #2, she had reached the limit of what the trip-hop-lite balladry and rougher-edged numbers could do. Safe Trip Home takes the best of what she perfected on the first two, turns it down a notch, mixes in some folk elements, and the results are fantastic.
Here are all subdued, light-flowing tracks, like "Grafton Street" with Mick Fleetwood's quiet, unassuming percussion. And even with this fresh, easygoing quiet, the tempo still kicks up out of the starting gate with the driving force of "Don't Believe In Love". End to end, this album brings together the best of all Dido used to do, and adds a new touch. It still has the trip-hop vibe, but rings far more organic to the ears than her previous efforts do. Mood-wise, the album is a bit more on the downcast side than either of the first, but there are silver linings ("Us 2 Little Gods" being one of them, or the delightful ode to simple pleasures "Let's Do The Things We Normally Do"). Either way, the album comes out a clear sign that this particular wispy-voiced chanteuse hasn't run out of ideas just yet.
3 - Pet Shop Boys - "Yes"
It starts off with "Love etc.", a track PSB themselves called "Like nothing we've done before." and right off, I only half agree, even as I hold it up as a great track to open the album with. The beat is simple, the message is classic (the always-relatable "Fame and fortune aren't worth a damn without love" theme) and it manages to work in a fresh spin on their sound, yet still sounds like a full-circle track. They went right back to the 80's, blended a beat-sensibility with hooks and production tricks of the current day, and made a great kick-off. Things continue swimmingly with "All over the world" which builds its hook off....Tchaikovsky...yes, you read that right, Tchaikovsky. It sounds like madness, but the brief snippet of the nutcracker suite sounds delightful - at once instantly familiar, and yet, tweaked into a pop sensibility. Most bands trying something like this would fall flat on their face doing such a thing - the 'boys pull it off with a deceptive "We've been doing this for nearly 30 years" ease.
Lyrically, "Beautiful people" seemingly contradicts the opener in message - good song, but a bit off-place. They also pull off a better use of Johnny Marr - the guitar antics heard on Release often felt tacked-on and out of place, here they borrow a trick Depeche Mode used well on "Stripped" - using guitar chords to open a song, but then carefully let them take a back seat to the synths swirling around, as they do in "Did you see me coming?". "Vulnerable" mines a theme they've done a few too many times perhaps, but when they do it this well, you can forgive them for that. "Pandemonium" feels yet again like a beat borrowed, but still manages to stand on its own two feat as a joyful romp about a couple whose relationship is out of control - and both of whom like it that way, thank you very much.
End to end, it is pure pop bliss, earning it this, near-the-top status on this countdown.
2 - 311 - "Uplifter"
June 2, 2009 saw the release of 311's 9th "Uplifter". In the weeks preceding, I saw that Bob Rock was on as producer. After several widely-considered-travesties (St. Anger, anyone?) or just plain boring discs(The Offspring's Rise & Fall), I was concerned. Thankfully, for no reason. His presence does dial up the crunch, but it's still a strong set.
It opens with the celebratory "Hey You!" and segues right into the relaxed-but-still-crunchy "It's Alright" and it's clear this is both a celebration/party album and a mellow relax-a-thon all in one. They have taken a shine back towards reggae-mellow-out tracks the last few albums, and this one has a few gems in that category. "2 Drops In The Ocean" and "My Heart Sings" are both pleasant, well played, and serve nicely to balance things out. These are the kind of songs many fans aren't crazy about (2 I talked to at the concert weren't, that's certain). To each his own on that, I still say it rounds out the mix nicely. It would be boring if it were 12 songs of schmaltz, just the same as it would if it were an album with 12 clones of the driving crunch-blast of "India Ink". Variety is the spice of life.
Others have noted this album is a bit lyrically skewed for the live set, which makes some songs sound off listening to at home, yet better in concert. I was fortunate to catch them in concert at SPAC on 6/23, and I agree, they do sound better with the energy of the crowd to buoy them along. None are bad songs, just that they work better in concert. And it goes a long way toward giving them a burst of fresh air - Saint produced some classic 311 discs, but under his work on the boards 311 was starting to sound like an endless loop of their best moments - so the burst of fresh air and upbeat rock energy is just what was needed here.
1 - Depeche Mode - "Playing The Angel"
Those who know me would be tempted to say bias alone pushed this one to the top of the list. Almost true, but not quite. This disc lands itself this far up for a wide host of reasons. Depeche Mode managed to rise from the ashes of Gahan's almost-death from an OD in the mid 90's with Ultra, a murky, grinding piece of haunted beauty. They continued making music, but the stuttering chopped-up glitch collages of Exciter almost derailed the momentum. There were tracks where it worked, which were great, but the ones where it failed almost made the album unlistenable. So whatever they put out next would be under greater scrutiny to plenty of ears.
What they did was collect all the best things they've done and go to the next step for, as the back album cover offers "Pain and suffering in various tempos". Ben Hillier on the boards this time around led to much more use of distorted synths wrapped with more organic instruments. The overly-programmed and disjointed choppiness of Exciter was gone, and in its place a more deft marriage of the digital, analog, and everything in between.
From the crash of the opener "A Pain That I'm Used To", this change is evident, and on through the driving "John The Revelator" and the "Halo"-aping "Suffer Well" and "The Sinner In Me". After this quartet of tracks fades out, the rolling guitar licks of "Precious" slide in atop a beat that sticks in your head long after the last notes fade. Rarely do songs about the end of a relationship sound so upbeat and catchy as they do here. Moving along, the disc continues to show new depth, with Gahan picking up the pen for the trippy and haunting "I Want It All" - which segues through ballads of even more haunting gloom ("Damaged People") into a brief nod to their heavy-dance laden past "Lillian" and closing with the short-on-lyrics-but-long-on-effect "The Darkest Star". Every album on this list ended up here because it works as a whole, no track to skip, every song fits together to make up a cohesive set. This one does that, and a whole lot more - Gahan, Gore, and Fletcher still have worthwhile music within them. It is a delight for the ears end to end. It is a disc few would expect a band 25 years into their career to produce - those things and more come together to earn it #1 on this list.