Kyle’s Top Ten Albums of the Decade
Important note: This is by no means a top-ten of the decade based on album quality, but rather a top ten based on autobiographical significance. If you want a top ten of the decade, ask the internet, it’s full of them. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think.
In reflecting on the music of the 00s (or what I’ve been affectionately referring to as the ‘oughts’) I spent a lot of time listening to albums that I hadn’t listened to in awhile. You’ll notice, for example, that number 10 is one that I hadn’t listened to since I was 14 or so — if you’re going to tell a story about yourself, you have to dig deep and get honest, which is what I’ve tried to do here.
So, I’ve compiled the following list of the ten most important albums to my past ten years. Some experiences of mine I’m going to note exactly as they happened, some I’ll make vague reference to, and some I’m just going to leave out so that you can fill in the blanks (provided you were there.) Also, note that I’m going to be as honest as I can. You’ll probably note that I spend a lot of time thinking about music, and a lot of time thinking about thinking about music — some would say to a degree of obsession. I don’t relate to music like a musician commonly would, so as a result, my language is probably a bit more colorful than my other friends. Its just how I communicate ideas, so if quasi-poetic references to how something feels turns you off, I suggest you not bother. My mind really wanders when I talk about this stuff.
Also, please don’t think that I regard myself and my own story as any more important than anyone else’s, but know that I could talk for hours about this stuff, hence the really long entries. Hopefully someone, somewhere, gets something out of it. And now that I’m finally submitting my Top 10 of the 00s, weeks after it was originally due (thanks for being patient, folks) you can all see the finished product. Enjoy!
Released May 9, 2000 on Roadrunner
At 14, more than anything, I needed a heavy dose of comfortable independence. I was an angry kid, and I needed an outlet. The countless Adidas-rock CDs lining my backpack just began to feel like a load of falsehoods. I wasn’t quite the hard-partying Fred Durst type, it turns out, and the trash that KoRn was turning out never quite stuck with me.
Then, this album came along. Daryl Palumbo, lead singer of the band, was the character I felt like when I turned 15: skinny, angry, a bit effeminate, and as different from my Metal friends as this album is from the rest of the Roadrunner Records products (the band would later sign with Warner Brothers). Without exhagerration, I became this album.
From track one to twelve, its an absolute typhoon of sounds, exploring the gamut from fierce, pounding hardcore-inspired madness of “Siberian Kiss” and “Babe”, to bouncy post-punk riffing on “Ry Ry’s Song”, to the thumping daydreaming of “Piano”. I wanted to be this band, every member. The drumming and guitar work are consistently changing, and Palumbo’s voice seems to stretch the meaning of dynamic vocals, consistently growing, shrinking, and twisting itself. The lyrics, while generally musing about lost love (girls) and bad decisions (girls), are somehow a mark more honest and poetic than most other songs I’d heard about the same subjects. Toss in a number of gutsy songs about the pains of having Crohn’s disease, and you’ve got yourself a pretty heartfelt, if angry, album.
High school was four years of ‘I’ statements, and this album stuck with me through all of them. From the comfort of my hometown bed, I listened to this album on repeat over, and over, and over. When I got a driver’s license, I blasted it and sang along word-for-word at any chance I got, including the 5 minute drive from home to my grocery-store job. It lasted through my punk rock phase, through my youth-crew-hardcore phase, through my Postal Service phase (yeah, me too), and finally went to rest a year into college. Listening to it again, now, it all comes back. While it doesn’t quite strike me the same as it did in my early teens, there’s something undeniably ‘there’ in this record.
09. Sung Tongs by Animal Collective
Released May 3, 2004 on Fat Cat (UK)
It’s the summer of 2004, and I’m on an overnight train from Paris to Madrid. The total time of this journey, on a regular train (as opposed to bullet train) is about 13 hours. At the border, you change trains, going from a classy, comfortable sleek-looking French train to what may be the oldest train still riding the Spanish rails, which winds through the mountains and into the plains to Madrid.
I didn’t sleep at all during the entire 13-hour trip. My brain, from the utter blackness outside of my window at night, felt like it had collapsed in on itself like a weak lung. The human mind isn’t meant for this sort of thing. As my traveling-friend slept for almost the entire journey, I started to go a bit crazy from the stillness of the car, and the lack of stimulation. When we got to Irun, at the border, I had a cup of coffee (I know) and a croissant, and boarded the next train. Fortunately, in those early hours of the morning, I was met with some of the most incredible sights that I have ever seen. Mountainside villages with plumes of smoke, twisting streams, and then, just as my brain was regaining stamina, 4-5 hours of wide open plains and an occasional town.
Despite previously wanting to save the battery on my pre-iPod music provider, I decided that I couldn’t take it any more, and dove into my small collection of albums, electing to fill some of the time with Sung Tongs, an album which had been given to me right before I left. At this point, the opening drums of Leaf House took shape, and I began to feel as if I were in a dream. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep, but I swear it was as if the wind picked up on the plains, and every single beat of every song (even the wandering atmosphere of ‘The Softest Voice’) just melted me into my window. The following 50 minutes felt like four hours, in the best way possible.
In the rest of the world, Animal Collective broke onto the music scene with Sung Tongs and proceeded to really mess things up for a lot of people. Their songs, which range from the 13 minute guitar hypnosis of ‘Visiting Friends’ to the sunny-Sunday jaunt of ‘Sweet Road’ seem to smash acoustic instrumentation and electronic sampling together to create a place in your head that you don’t want to leave. The album breeds curiosity, and takes every concept that formulates the common definition of song and pulls it apart like salt-water taffy. Tracks like ‘We Tigers’ are equal parts smart and goofy, and really reward a good pair of headphones with lots of aural secrets.
There are people who love this band, and people who absolutely detest them. Personally, I could leave everything between Sung Tongs and Merriweather Post Pavilion (one of my top 10 of 2009), but this one just keeps coming back to me as striking the perfect balance between experimentation and experience, and is worth every second.
08. Funeral by Arcade Fire
Released September 14, 2004 on Merge Records
Mission Hill is a notorious part of Boston, in two ways. First of all, if you’ve never been to Mission Hill, you probably think that it’s a scary place, full of crime. If you live on/have lived on Mission Hill, you’ll know that it’s actually divided into two parts: half college students and half low-income families. It’s a constantly changing (gentrifying) place, but for the most part, it’s full of people that scream at 4 in the morning for no reason. I know this because I spent three years of college wandering around it, as it’s less than a five minute walk from said college.
The year before I moved to Mission Hill, I remember sitting at my dorm desk and watching a clip of Conan O’Brien, which featured a new band, known as Arcade Fire (or The Arcade Fire, depending on who you talk to.) It was confusing at first, with a woman and man on violin, a woman playing accordion, a guy on guitar and vocals, a bassist, a drummer, and two dudes who seemed to spend most of the performance drumming on garbage and each other’s motorcycle helmets. It was like watching a bizarre Quebecois indie-rock circus, but it was catchy, and after watching a minute or two, I was dead set on getting the album.
From start to finish, this one is constantly catchy and sweet. The number of Mission Hill art school parties that I went to in college, where ‘Neighborhoods #3 (Power Out)’ was a featured jam, is impossible to remember. The band has it in spades, implementing common and experimental instrumentation throughout. Energy seems to come out of every track, and stays with you even after you shut the album off. I can recall a lot of hazy mornings on ‘the Hill’ where I would wake up, brush last-night’s party out of my eyes, and climb off of whatever I’d fallen asleep on to descend back down to my dorm room, tapping my feet to ‘Wake Up,’ (recently featured during the weepy trailer for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’). It’s a beautiful song, and quite honestly the entire album follows suit.
(Note: Also, it’s worth noting that these folks are huge supporters of Partners in Health, the health and social justice nonprofit that my girlfriend, Meredith, works for. They donated quite a bit of the proceeds from their Neon Bible tour to help get serious medical aid to some of the poorest countries in the world, and they deserve enormous props for that, too.)
07. Give Up by The Postal Service
Released February 18th, 2003 on Sub Pop
It’s worth noting, of course, that this is another record that I don’t really put on anymore. Of course, this may just my way of wriggling out of the inevitable embarrassment of revealing that this album was a big part of my decade, but let’s to put that aside. Be serious, here, if you were born between 1983-1987, this was most likely on repeat for you for a good portion of the winter of 2003. Go ahead, admit it, you’ll feel better.
My freshman dorm at MassArt was a weirdly-shaped building with even weirder rooms. On each floor, no one room was shaped like any other. Mine, for example, was an L-shaped room, fit for one person but shared by two. Most colleges at least have square or rectangle shaped closet-rooms for their eager freshmen, but Smith Hall was different. The good thing about this arrangement, however, was that most Freshmen would end up congregating in each others rooms and in the common ‘art space,’ where one might spill quick-drying plaster on every available surface and still not get in trouble. In perfect honesty, it was actually a great year, despite how cramped it might sound, and Give Up played a huge part in that.
When it started to get cold in Boston, and the irregular rumbling of the Green Line started to fade into back of our minds, Give Up started to come out. I maintain that, at any hour of the entire day, you could go to a floor of the building and find it playing somewhere. This, of course, made for the perfect introduction, where you could knock on a dorm door, introduce yourself, and start to gush about the candy-sweetness of tracks like ‘Such Great Heights’. You’d end up smiling a lot, and moving to a real conversation about whatever weird project you were currently slaving away at (to eventually throw out).
Ben Gibbard, who I have never been a huge fan of, really did pop music some justice with this one. As the legend goes, he and electronic producer Jimmy Tamborello would send each other tapes (yes, made of tape) by mail (see what they did there), effectively collaborating on the same album from long distance. Gibbard would write sugary lyrics about love and weather, Tamborello would add beats and bleeps, repeating over and over until Give Up was finished. The product turned people into sappy, lovey messes, each song chock full of hooks that were immensely pleasant to listen to, and was somehow both great for active listening or background music. Unfortunately, the album was kind of a one-off, and made the rounds of indie-movie soundtracks and commercials for awhile before it gently faded into the background.
Don’t tell anyone, but this one still makes me feel kind of warm.
06. Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds
Released October 8th, 2002 on Sony/BMG
In 1997, when I was 12, I bought Ben Folds Five’s album “Whatever and Ever Amen” with chore money, after seeing the band perform their single, “Brick” on MTV’s Total Request Live. Initially, the song shook me in a way that most of the Alternative Rock Radio songs couldn’t. I brought the CD home, shoveled dinner down my throat, and ran up to my room and put Brick on repeat. I recall, vividly, just laying down on my bed and listening to it play over and over, soft, gentle, and chock full of sullen piano. It’s highly possible that I listened to that song over fifteen times on repeat before my parents yelled up to me to change the song. After this, I quietly listened to the rest of the album from the confines of a discman, relishing in the fuzzy basslines, bouncy drumming, and Folds’ endlessly giving piano.
At some point, I played the album for my childhood friends, who naturally dismissed it as being ‘pretty gay’, and so out the album went. Being twelve is so funny.
Fast forwarding five years, I’m entering my Senior year of high school, a year that I would spend half-time at North Haven High School and half-time at the newly rebuilt Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut, a city that I was not yet familiar with. Wandering around the Broadway area, taking in the good that comes with being a suburban kid in a small, but hip city. That first day of exploring put me in Cutlers, a veritable record-store institution. After browsing the selection for a bit, astounded by the variety of things that I had never seen in my local Strawberries record store, the clerk at the counter decided to put on Ben Folds Live, which had just come out. It all flooded back to me, and I was astounded at the fact that I had completely forgotten about Ben Folds Five. In what may have been an act of quiet defiance against my childhood friends I bought it, right then and there, and spent the entire Winter and much of the Spring with it on repeat in my car. I remember countless trips to and from the house of a girl I was seeing at the time, where we’d blast the album and sing along to every single word, even splitting into dual harmonies on the song ‘Army’, which Ben helpfully teaches the audience to do on the album. It was exciting, it was funny, and I still know every word.
The album is an interesting thing. For some context, Ben Folds Five broke up (on amiable terms) in 2000, never seeing much of the new decade. In 2001, Ben put out an album of material that he had written, doing all of the instrumentation himself and taking on a slightly altered lyrical tone. After the release of the album, which was a bit of a hit, Ben decided to embark on a solo tour, with just his piano. As a result, he assembled various takes from various shows and released them on this album, which is chock full of funny anecdotes, the story of ‘Brick’ (spoiler alert: it’s about abortion, a concept that would’ve blown my mind at twelve), a great cover of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and enough singalongs to leave you a sore throat for a week.
More than anything, this album really points out Folds’ skill with a piano, which seems to be nearly effortless pursuit for him. Some of the songs, at just the right time of day, seem to weave themselves into your life like a soundtrack, whether driving home at one in the morning, singing to yourself, or psyching yourself up for your senior prom (where you decided it a good idea to rent a burgundy tuxedo, with a pink ruffled shirt underneath). Yeah, that happened, too. I don’t have the tuxedo anymore, but I still know the words to every song on this record, which is why it stuck so well.
Released March 23, 2004 on Drag City
At the end of January, in 2005, Boston was buried under nearly 26 inches of snow in a three-day blizzard. Waking up on the last day of the blizzard, the entire world outside of my window was completely covered in a thick white sheet. A small open courtyard in my dorm revealed a wind-blown snow sculpture, running cars became scarce, and area college students wandered around at a complete loss for exactly what to do, next. I remember doing the only thing I could, which was cooking up an egg or two and sitting at my 6th floor window to watch the city try to figure out how to dig out their cars, which were completely encased in snow. As was my custom in the early morning, I put on Joanna Newsom’s ‘Milk-Eyed Mender’ and just tried to soak up the enormity of what the city was dealing with. Classes were cancelled, of course, and so I eventually threw on some boots and long-johns and found a snowdrift to jump into with my then-girlfriend and her roommate.
The blizzard of 2005 clearly stands out as the most astonishing weather event that I’ve ever witnessed, and Newsom’s album, with its delicately plucked harp swimming around her strange and wonderful voice, became the soundtrack of that blizzard. Like us kids in those days, her voice feels helpless, quivering, and curious. The songs are structured in such a way that you begin to feel as though they’re being sung to you by a close friend or relative, in a house filled with the best blankets. They’re soft, and sometimes they just lull you down like a baby. This lulling factor would turn out to be far more important than I could have imagined.
Almost two years later, on September 6th, 2006, my first dog was put to rest. Naturally, I put myself on the first available train. Halfway home, my sobbing mother called me, informing me that I had to make the difficult decision of whether or not to have the hospital put her to sleep, without me being there to say goodbye. At that point, the vets at the animal hospital said that her lungs were rapidly filling up with fluid, and that she was in quite a bit of pain. After a minute of quiet thinking, I swallowed hard and told them to do it. It would be better to put her out of that pain than to selfishly consider my own emotions. My mom asked if I was sure, and I told her that I was. We hung up the phone and I was a wreck, sitting cold on a train with the sun rapidly sinking into the earth. Looking for anything to help, I grabbed for my music and, almost instinctively, put on this album. Skipping forward to the song ‘Sadie’, I put my head against the window and weeped for my dying dog. The song, which memorializes the last days of a beloved animal, blanketed me and brought me through it. This incredible line really puts it into perspective:
“And all that I’ve got, and all that I need, I tie in a knot that I lay at your feet. I have not forgot, but a silence crept over me. So dig up your bone, exhume your pinecone, my Sadie.”
It’s true, that sometimes a song, or a series of songs, can really pull you through some cold days. By the time my train pulled into Union Station, I felt ready to face my family and the a quieter home than that which I remembered.
04. Hymns for a Dark Horse by Bowerbirds
Released June 29th, 2007 on Dead Oceans
On the day that I graduated college, the world was quickly becoming a weird place. The next day, I’d be arriving in the real world, eyes shining and hopeful. I had a summer job lined up on the campus of Yale University, teaching fine art photography to high school students and acting as a residential advisor for tenth grade boys, trying to inspire creativity and adolescent peace in an environment similar to boarding school. After that, I had big plans to drive around the United States with one of my best friends, culminating in a move to Brooklyn. As is my nature, I had everything lined up in a smooth progression, so that I might hop from one step to the other in such a way that the transition from student life would be butter-smooth.
Unfortunately, as is the nature of the world, Brooklyn became an impossibility around the end of the summer, and my well-planned escape became a stumbling fiasco, with the previously mentioned road trip ending back at my childhood home, one-hundred percent broke. At one point, I took out a cash advance on my credit card to pay my monthly minimum on said card, and realized that I’d be stuck there for awhile. Stagnation and I don’t get along too well, and so this record from North Carolina’s Bowerbirds created the perfect escape.
I discovered the album during my time at Yale, after reading an astonished, glowing review from John Darnielle (of/aka The Mountain Goats) which noted that they were his, ‘favorite band in forever.’ This sort of endorsement is, of course, a golden opportunity. Darnielle is like a demi-god of indie music, and so clearly his opinions carry some clout. Sitting in my room, pushing the songs through earbuds, I felt almost as if I were physically glowing at the immense pleasure that I got from each passing song, like each track was a new set of breezes to soak up.
As a whole, the album is like a self-contained planet, where super-environmentalist lyrics aren’t corny and where dexterously plucked nylon guitar, melancholic huffing accordion or violin, and thumping percussion never feel old or cliche, as they might if played by less-capable hands. The trio seem to sink into each song gently, and tuck you under sheets of melody until you catch yourself just staring into the middle-distance, forgetting what you were doing. Lead vocalist Phil Moore weaves you into stories about dashed hopes for the natural world, while multi-instrumentalists Beth Tacular and Matt Damron provide a symphony of harmonies to emphasize each hook. Truthfully, it’s almost hypnotic in effect, the sort of thing that you could lay back on your bed on or make dinner to, fumbling a few measurements each time you catch yourself singing. In those moments, is as if you’re in some quiet cabin in the middle of the mountains, and you’re with some of your closest friends, and in the middle of listening to a song you all just stop talking and everything pauses. It’s full of those moments, where words just aren’t necessary.
In the rest of that summer I tried to share it with as many people as I could, as is my nature to do when I stumble upon something so pleasurable. I cleaned art supplies to this record, I wrote lesson plans to this record, I fell in love to this record, I transitioned through two part-time jobs in Connecticut and into a full-time one in Massachusetts, and this one just kept finding it’s way back into my head. It makes its way to number four because I still haven’t quite gotten to the point of putting it down. Not long ago, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Bowerbirds open for Elvis Perkins in Dearland, and it just brought the whole craving back again. This band isn’t going away for some time, by my prediction, and as the indie-folk resurgence continues to grow, they’ll only find themselves closer and closer to the forefront, and that is truly exciting.
03. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver
Released February 19th, 2008 on Jagjaguwar (Originally self-released, July 2007)
Growing up in New England, you tend to end up misunderstanding the United States and the people inside of it. Growing up in Connecticut, which puts you in the awkward flux between New York and New England, you tend to miss out of the portion of human development where you develop a geographic and cultural identity. People don’t really talk about Connecticut with any sort of passion, it’s really just a’place you happen to live’, where more people talk more about where they’re going on vacation or where they’ll spend the weekend than where they happen to exist for the remainder of the year. There are nice parts, but everything seems to lack a necessary component for goodness — there’s beaches but they aren’t really on the ocean, and there are mountains, but compared to Vermont they’re just a bunch of big hills. Or, at least that’s how it felt to me.
In fact, my understanding of statehood cultural identity was limited to the following: New Yorkers love being jerks, Californians love being crunchy or rich, Southerners love cholesterol, and Texans love being, well, Texans, and that everything else had its stereotypes but everyone else was probably as bored as I was. Then, I fell in love with someone from Wisconsin, and my entire system of perception was shoved off of a cliff.
The people of Wisconsin are, and I say this without any reservation or compromise, the definition of niceness. Real, genuine, powerful niceness. The kind of thing where if you were to accidentally bump into someone’s car in traffic, they’d probably apologize for it, and invite you over for a hot meal. The first time I visited, I got more hugs from people I’d never met than at the last wedding I attended. With this kindness comes a general sense of real love, where people are proud, but by no means arrogant. Upon sharing a pitcher of beer with your rapidly multiplying group of new Wisconsin friends, you feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a big secret world where good things are always happening and good people are always appearing. There’s great farm-fresh produce and dairy, there’s gallons of clean-air, and for some reason, the cheap beer just tastes better. I miss it every time I leave.
Most of my time spent in Wisconsin has been in the town of Eau Claire, at least two hours from Minneapolis or Madison or any other large city, for that matter. One morning, sipping a cup of hot coffee at the breakfast table, Meredith put on an album by a local artist that I wasn’t even remotely familiar with. Truthfully, I didn’t pay nearly enough attention, but noted that it was good and dynamically interesting, even coming from a small clock-radio CD player. For some reason, I proceeded to forget about it, and continued to not pay enough attention to it throughout the rest of my stay in Eau Claire.
My next visit to Eau Claire was in the winter, which is by no means the most hospitable time in western Wisconsin (where the temperature is known to dip to -30° F in the coldest months). Needing something to do, Meredith and I decided to hop in the car and try to find things for me to photograph. At some point, she put on this album, ‘For Emma Forever Ago’, and within minutes the world began to feel like the inside of a movie. The snow around us, the wide expanses of field, the patches of trees, each mile brought a new degree of clarity, as if I were a part of the big secret. As the heat from the car covered us, and warmed my frozen fingers, the heartbeat bass of Lump Sum seemed to bounce along with our tires. Mer, suggesting a quick detour, took me out of town and into some nearby farmland to show me the remnants of an old ski-jump, perched up on a hill and hidden from the main road. When we arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it — there simply weren’t any perfect camera views where we were — but I was content with just looking at it, the echoing sounds of each new song coming from the open car door.
The mythology of For Emma is everywhere, so I need not recount the story again here, but know that the cabin and the isolation and the cold world of the album never made perfect sense for me until I was there, in the cold wind that spawned the album itself. Every metallic ping of guitar strings, every shouted word, every falsetto croon for lost love and isolation, it all just clicks for you when you see and experience that land and the people in it. It buries itself deep in your legs, and crawls into your gut and burrows a warm spot in your chest, and every song rings true with that aching simultaneous simplicity and depth.
Travelling to Europe, during college, taught me that there was another world outside of my own, somewhat strange and yet entirely fascinating. Travelling to the Midwest, and I mean this sincerely, taught me that there were other worlds inside of my own country. We’ve seen Bon Iver twice since I caught onto this album, and they flatten us every time, giving us small tastes of that landscape in richly-composed bursts. This album made me eager for the future of powerful songs, and I only hope that Bon Iver can keep up with our expectations.
02. Solo Piano by Gonzales
Released April 4th, 2005 on No Format!
There is something about a piano that, even alone, sticks itself in your ear and nests there. It is the instrumental force to which most Western instruments are compared, the endlessly developing tool of the greats, from Bill Evans to Bach, Elton John to Jerry Lee Lewis. It roars in frantic rock and roll, it does smooth jazz, it composed the classical canons, it even opens up sitcoms; its everywhere and for good reason. Something about the piano just defines music, and when you isolate it, focusing only on the dynamic and sonic possibilities of the instrument, it is easy to see why.
Gonzales (not to be confused with Jose) is mostly known as being a jack of trades — producer, comedian, and DJ — and surprised a lot of people in the mid 00s when he released Solo Piano, a vastly contemplative and masterfully composed record of piano by itself. There are sixteen tracks in total, most just around three minutes long, which all sound like they are coming from the attic of the one house on your street that exudes mystery. Each one has a distinct echo of something you know you’ve heard before, but likely can’t place. They are often classic in form, but not necessarily in content — they sound more likely a soundtrack to this century than of two or three ago. With headphones, you can hear each the near-silent click of each key being pressed, making the process immensely intimate and rewarding.
For me, Solo Piano transcended all five years after it was released. It brought much-needed peace to the cacophony of the Monday through Friday commuter bus, it brought a certain warmth to lonely winter naps, it made the construction of a Saturday breakfast into something monumental, it brought out new ideas in the artmaking process, it offered a constant soundtrack for most moments of my decade that nothing else could. The songs themselves never get tiring — they don’t require concentration, per se, but concentrating on them is a wonderful experience it its own right. I’ve regularly introduced this album to people, for whom it also has become a standby. It’s an album to write a novel to, with each delicately resonating key evoking the power of living. It brings in births, it sends out the dead, and it seems to match up with any moment in life and — like a sea salt — give it the extra kick it needs to remind you of your own living experience. It punctuates mountain car rides, it softens a walk on the shoreline, it becomes your soundtrack. I could gush metaphorically for hours, but I’d be saying the same thing.
This is a nearly perfect recording of the immensity possible within simplicity. Your experience with it writes the songs, Gonzales is just playing the piano.
01. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
Released April 23rd, 2002 on Nonesuch
Most that there is to say about this record has already been said — both on this blog and across the entirety of the internet. Running a google search results in literally thousands of reviews just like this one, 99% of them immensely favorable, and 1% of them missing the point — or at least that’s my opinion. You don’t need the backstory (though if you aren’t familiar, here), and so all I have to offer is the story of how I first became acquainted with this record. Take it as you will.
This album arrived just at the right time in my life. I was around sixteen years old, amidst discovering what independent adulthood meant, and I was listening to a lot of really simple music (mostly youth-crew or throwback hardcore or late 90s screamo). My closest group of friends freaked out about this album for a few months before I finally got the picture and took the plunge.
Admittedly, I didn’t really get it at first. Now, you might wonder what I mean, and I’d refer back to the fact that the music in my cd booklet at the time was meant to be taken at face value. It was fun, sure, and it was exciting, but underneath all of that, it wasn’t really anything that took much time to write. In those first listens, as I tried my best to give it a chance, and it just felt slow, messy, and strange. There were catchy tunes, but not exactly songs to obsess over.
Cut to the summer of 2003, and I’m in the backseat of a packed car, driving through New Haven’s East Rock area. For a bit of context, put yourself in back in those shoes. We’re almost two years out of 9/11, our troop presence in Iraq is high, and everyone is still feeling angry, scared, and paranoid, of other countries and of each other. Anyway, it’s painfully dark out, and we’re on a particularly twisty section of road with no streetlights. It’s the sort of area where you forget that you’re in-between a dense suburb and a small city. From the backseat, I can see bits of trees illuminated by headlights and can hear the faint sounds of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At some point, a somewhat eccentric friend of mine asks the driver if he could, “Turn the volume up, I love this song.”. The song playing? Ashes of American Flags. The track arrives around the 3:20 mark, and I look to my left to see my friend, his eyes closed, singing along with one of the greatest lyrical moments of the last decade:
“I would like to salute the ashes of American flags, and all of the falling leaves filling up shopping bags.”
My friend, who happened to also be a leading actor in our school’s drama club, sang these lyrics to himself as if they were a prayer. I remember actually kind of shivering at that point, where the song decays into the sea of noise that dips throughout the album’s entirety. In this moment, it went from being a record that I wasn’t so sure of to one of my favorite records of all time. As soon as I got home, that night, I laid on my twin-size bed and listened to the whole thing from start to finish, staring at the ceiling, and noticing as much as I could. The next day, I did it again, relishing and rolling in all of the little gifts that you find in a good second listen. I committed every song to memory, and I talked about it excitedly to everyone I could. Yeah, I was that guy too.
There’s something in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I had never heard in music before. Nothing in my previous experience had introduced me to an album where sound was so intricately layered and imaginative. The real beauty of the album, of course, is in the diverse array of sounds that approach you when you listen. Every song provides something new, from the spacey bounce of War on War to the haunting chords that swim through Poor Places. Each song is a small story in itself, which seem to fade in and out like AM radio. The line between folk music and electronics becomes blurred, and the production (which is richly ornamented and vastly complicated) hands you each song like an old friend handing you a handmade gift.
All things aside, the most important connection between me and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is that it really caused me to begin considering music as an art form, providing an experience akin to watching a heartfelt movie or reading a breaktaking novel. Music, at it’s purest and most honest, brings me closer to creative realization and meaningful connection than any painting ever could, and I began to take note of the importance of headphones in the process of appreciation. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made me turn off my FM radio, knowing that 95% of Top 40 music could never speak to me in the same way. Of course, there’s a value in music produced solely for entertainment as well — I can appreciate a Lil Wayne club hit as much as the next guy — but if given a choice between the two, I’m going to take the route that keeps giving.
Furthermore, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot does an incredible job of considering the modern American experience, which puts aside the concept of red, white, and blue and instead has us consider the daily, trivial, American life. The days in and out, the high and low moments, and the dual isolation of being and the community of being right here. The noise between and within individual songs speaks far more than it seems to on the surface, indicating the frustration of monotony and the expansiveness of focused chaos. The album delivers wonderment at the nature of sound and fascination in the nature of words. As singer Jeff Tweedy eeks out each additional word on ‘Radio Cure’, you feel the truth in his words, the frustration with discontentment. It mirrors that very American feeling of things always needing to improve, and then reminds you that imperfection is somehow the greatest perfection there is.
There is a strong sense that this will be one of my favorite albums for many years to come, and probably one that I’ll share with my own kids someday. Hopefully they’ll feel it too.
Here’s to another decade of being.