Compiling the year-end best-of list is an old rock-crit trick to avoid doing real work. There are so many cookies yet to be baked, and there's maintenance needed on the nativity scene (we're replacing the miniature sod roof this year and doing a little touchup work on Joseph), so cranking out a list can be a real holiday time-saver.
Of course, this list really isn't representative of the best albums of 2000 -- just the batch I was lucky enough to hear. Why are these lists inevitably indie-rock roll calls? Good question. I hope I've managed to poke my head out of the box a bit, though I admit my list isn't peppered with import obscurities or reissues of Tibetan anal-flute classics. Sorry.
I'm recommending these records, that's all, and in no particular order.
Yo La Tengo
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Yo La Tengo's albums are uniformly great; they are universally loved by critics, and they've usually adhered to a certain ratio: plenty of frenzied guitar (or organ) tracks offset by a handful of quiet, prettier tunes. But with the last several albums, the band began to flip that fraction and then with And Then Nothing found a better balance. The only song on it that raises a sweat is the sexy, explosive rocker "Cherry Chapstick." Everything else is the perfect soundtrack for a late afternoon's slide into evening. A personal and heartfelt rumination on courtship and marriage.
Mouse on Mars
Fighting electronic music's tendency toward repetitive, dance-floor-dictated monotony is a noble task, and Germany's Mouse on Mars is at the front line. Fortifications of real drums and horns are important, as is the inclusion of guitar. Niun Niggung is squishy, drippy, and floppy (like the soft constructions of artist Claes Oldenburg), with an organic edge to the thicket of blips and beeps emanating from the flatulent synthesizers. Playful, irreverent, and decidedly nonlinear music like Mouse on Mars' human/computer interface points the way to a promising future.
Because it doesn't sound like the assembly-line hip-hop that clogs MTV and urban radio. Because the J5 crew has the tightest rhymes. Because Chali 2na has the best baritone in rap. Because this is what hip-hop will sound like in the future. Because Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark sample from jazz and swing oldies instead of pilfering from James Brown or worse, Sting. Because this is a left-coast, literate act down with social change. Because they're the barbershop quartet of rap. Because they rhyme relay-race style. Because they're retro, back to the day of Cold Crush and "The Message."
The Sea and Cake
Oui, the fifth album from Chicago's the Sea and Cake, gives off the balmy, subtropical breezes you'd expect from a band which once named an album Nassau. Singer Sam Prekop used to unleash yelps, growls, and occasional falsetto outbursts on the band's early records; those would be out of place within the Sea and Cake's new horizontal outlook. "You Beautiful Bastard" measures a languid day by a shadow creeping up the living room wall. "Seemingly" is as relaxing as sipping an umbrella drink by the beach, and "I Missed the Glance" is creamy smooth chiffon. These sultry, summery tunes make mellow for the new millennium.
So much has been and will be said about this record that it will probably never satisfy anyone. It seems to confuse nearly everyone who hears it: "No guitars?" "Are they playing a joke on us?" Instead of just accepting Kid A for what it is -- the newest record from a pretty decent English rock band -- fans and critics alike seem more content to turn the album over and over and over, looking for clues, analyzing its intent rather than its music, and generally spinning opinions like a hamster on a wheel. Just listen to the damn thing, and be quiet.
(Pure Hip Hop)
The legendary Los Angeles hip-hop visionaries of Freestyle Fellowship have been consigned to the underground/alternative/independent bin, meaning their music is influential but not widely heard. But the group birthed Aceyalone, possibly the most skillful rapper ever, twisting psychology and literature on the chapter-and-verse recital of Book of Human Language. On Haiku d'Etat, Aceyalone teams up with his Fellowship partner Micah 9 and Abstract Rude from Abstract Tribe Unique. The result is a mind-bending onslaught of wicked verbalism woven together seamlessly.
The Rocking Horse Winner
State of Feeling COncentration
Why is a lowly local release sitting nestled among some of 2000's massively recognized major-label releases? Because I spent more time listening to -- and enjoying -- State of Feeling Concentration than almost any other disc this year. Guileless and sweet, these songs possess an effortless appeal that meets with almost universal acceptance. In terms of production, songwriting, and sheer musicality, this was one of the best records of the year -- from South Florida or anywhere else -- and as sparkling and professional as anything in the pop marketplace.
The Moon and Antartica
Despite being caught in a game of keep-away with major labels (and subsequently leaving tiny independent label Up for the moneyed acres of Epic), Modest Mouse's third proper album does not compromise the group's wild streak. In fact, The Moon and Antarctica closely follows the template the Washington State trio has used all along: 70-plus minutes of songs about geography, the cosmos, road-tripping, urban malaise, misunderstandings, and romantic regrets. Unlikely to convert those who find the Mouse to be "too punk," but a wonder nonetheless.
Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Raise Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Some records do more than just play: They actively engage the listener, offering cinematic glimpses into mythical worlds. Raise Yr Skinny Fists may be extremely formulaic -- each song begins with one or two instruments cavorting quietly and builds into a crashing cataclysm only nine band members can provide -- but that makes it no less affecting. Filling two CDs at nearly 50 minutes each, Raise Yr Skinny Fists is like a backpacking trip through fjords and scree slopes, only with cellos. An album one could probably listen to a hundred times and still not hear it all.
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The Cannanes and Steward
Communicating at an Unknown Rate
The Cannanes are pop-savants from Australia with a history of lo-fi, rudimentary songs. Stewart Anderson, singer with British band Boyracer, found himself Down Under, discovered the Cannanes in the process of recording an album, and joined in. "No one expected this to happen," read the liner notes, "but it did." All I can say is it's a damn good thing it happened, because these gentle, homespun songs reek of amateurish ingenuity, friendly winsome innocence, and easygoing vulnerability. It's redolent of heavenly horns, soothing vocals, and adorably cheesy drum machines rescued from the 1980s. Communicating at an Unknown Rate is a simple, beautiful, memorable album.
Single of the year: It gots to be "Who Let the Thongs Out?"