here’s a strange and idiosyncratic musical overview of the decade that
was. Much of the music that was most meaningful to me was made by
people who are not household names, perhaps not even in their own
homes. But they made music that thrilled me, challenged me, and made me
believe, all over again, in the everlasting value of three chords and a
Jazz Finds a New Canon
The Next Dylan, Twice Removed
“new Dylan” tag has historically been a curse, the musical equivalent
of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Anybody remember Steve
Forbert these days?
But since I’m
inordinately fond of Bob Dylan, I tend to pay attention to these
labels. The Aughts featured their share of nasal upstarts, but the most
promising Dylan acolytes were Dan Bern, Ezra Furman, and The Tallest
Man on Earth. Bern drew out his vowels and wrote epic nightmares on
albums such as New American Language and Fleeting Days. Furman’s debut album Banging Down the Doors
was a bracing, poetic yelp and snarl. And Swedish troubadour Kristian
Matsson, who records as The Tallest Man on Earth, delivered a fine
surrealistic opening salvo on 2008’s Shallow Grave.
It should also be noted that the original of the species is doing just
fine, at least when he’s not attempting to croon Christmas carols best
left to Bing Crosby. Dylan’s late-career renaissance continued
throughout most of the decade, with two very strong albums (Love and Theft and Modern Times),
and yet another Bootleg Series release (Vol. 8) that proves that Dylan
leftovers and throwaways are far better than most artists’ Greatest
have nothing against George Gershwin or Cole Porter. They were
marvelous songwriters. But their songs have formed the backbone of jazz
for more than eighty years now. Do we really need another
interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me”? Do we really need to give
Rod Stewart another excuse to plunder the Great American Songbook?
so it was a great pleasure to watch jazz musicians adapt during the
Aughts. Pianist Brad Mehldau championed the music of Radiohead and Nick
Drake. Punk piano trio The Bad Plus covered Nirvana and The Pixies, and
deconstructed The Bee Gees. Jazz found a new canon, and if the old
standards will never entirely go away (thank God), there was ample
evidence that the genre was evolving, assimilating the great music of
the near past, just as it always has.
The Soundtrack to Mortality
father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law died this decade, as did
assorted aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, and
children of friends. There was a time in my life when it seemed like
most of my spare time was taken up by weddings. I have apparently now
crossed that threshold where funerals have supplanted weddings as the
unhip way to pass the time. And time is surely passing. As a cousin
pointed out to me at the funeral of her father and my uncle, “I guess
this means we’re on deck now.” Whee.
Maybe it’s for that reason, or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a morbid streak a mile wide. In any event, I probably played Regard the End,
by the curiously named The Willard Grant Conspiracy, more than any
other album this decade. Nobody bought the album. It was a morose
Americana meditation on death by drowning, ghosts, and Old Testament
judgment and dread, leavened by a few glimpses of sweetness and hope.
And it was a superb album that met me right where I lived, and that
immeasurably helped me cope with loss. Robert Fisher’s craggy voice
sang of shame, of pain, of missing what is gone and what isn’t coming
back, and it was a soothing balm for the soul.
By Any Other Name
Mark Kozelek was my great musical discovery of the decade. I missed the
Red House Painters albums in the ‘90s, dismissing them as morose
whining. My loss. I discovered them during the Aughts. It was a good
decade to discover Mark Kozelek. He started off good and got
ridiculously great. Old Ramon,
the 2001 swan song from Red House Painters, was Kozelek’s most
accessible work yet, substituting melody and, gasp, choruses, for the
unremitting drone.Ever the iconoclast, Kozelek
released a batch of odd covers throughout the decade; songs ostensibly
written by the likes of AC/DC, John Denver, Modest Mouse, and Yes, and
sounding nothing like the originals and wholly like Mark Kozelek.
he saved the best for last. Changing the name of his
performing/recording band to Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek released two albums
that will, if I have my way, someday be recognized as lost
masterpieces, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008’s April.
By the way, the key word here is “lost”. No one probes the recesses of
memory, of lost time and lost relationships, better than Mark Kozelek.
He is, to pull out an obscure literary reference, Marcel Proust with a
guitar. Those memories and relationships form the warp and woof of his
worldview, and the tapestry he weaves is stunning in its longing and
beauty. Musically, Kozelek alternates between gentle acoustic picker
and Neil Young Godfather of Grunge mode, unleashing winding electric
solos. But the longing, the yearning, is a constant, and it is a
palpable reminder of why he is one of the most distinctive and
worthwhile artists of the decade.
You can have your Brooklyns and your Portlands. For my money, the best
music scene of the Aughts came out of Glasgow, Scotland. Belle and
Sebastian and Camera Obscura continued to release delightful pop
mini-symphonies. Mogwai balanced massive, sculpted guitar noise with
surprisingly tender sentiments. The Twilight Sad, The Fratellis,
Glasvegas, and Franz Ferdinand released a dozen soulful, soaring indie
rock near masterpieces. Alasdair Roberts and Trembling Bells built on
the foundation of traditional folk music and took it down some
engaging, completely idiosyncratic byways. And Frightened Rabbit, one
of the few animal bands that remembered how to engage in emotional
catharsis, released three albums that heralded a new and potent
Heaven’s Garage Band
the great but unheralded Minneapolis art punks Lifter Puller fizzled at
the beginning of the decade, singer/songwriter Craig Finn and
bassist/guitarist Tad Kublerrelocated to Brooklyn and formedThe Hold Steady. It was hard to envision what a change of scenery might mean. The band’s debut album, Almost Killed Me,
didn’t sound appreciably different from what Lifter Puller was doing
all along. Kubler rocketed power chords to the back of the bar, and
Finn declaimed his hipster poetry, rattling off literate tales of
losers and desperate hedonists.
So what happened? On the surface, not much. The sound didn’t change
radically. Finn sang a bit more and declaimed less, and Franz Nicolay
added vintage E Street Band keyboards. But at some point - either on Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America,
take your pick - Finn became the best songwriter in rock ‘n roll, and
the band itself became a juggernaut, the embodiment of all that was
great about all the earnest schleps who actually seemed to believe that
rock ‘n roll was a kind of salvation. In the process, they made
transcendent music, a wondrously muscular and poetic concoction that
delighted the classic rock fans and indie kids alike.
If the angels form bands (no heavenly hosts allowed; these are strictly
small guitar, bass, and drums cherubim/seraphim combos), then I hope
they sound like Sigur Rós. I hate the label “post-rock” (what?), and I
hate the fact that these Icelandic Vikings have spawned a
less-than-heavenly host of imitators. But there was no other band this
decade that left me in such gaping, open-mouthed wonder. They went for
the jugular every time, building their epic songs from the ground up,
from sedate, ethereal beginnings to majestic, thunderous crescendos.
It’s the “post-rock” formula, of course; one they pretty much invented
and perfected. But the secret ingredient was the ravishing beauty, best
encapsulated by Jonsi’s wordless (sorry I’m not seriously going to
consider Hopelandic as a language), soaring falsetto. They made a
glorious din; five albums worth this decade.
Models of Consistency
They weren’t always great, but they were always good, and they stayed
good for a long time. There were others who released better individual
albums, but these folks put out quality albums again and again, and
they made music that considerably brightened a decade.
The Black Keys
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
British Sea Power
The Handsome Family
Iron and Wine
Loudon Wainwright III
The Mountain Goats
The New Pornographers
The Pernice Brothers
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
TV on the Radio
The White Stripes
Yo La Tengo
Artist of the Decade
Nobody—and yes, that includes the crotchety curmudgeon from Hibbing
Minnesota—wrote better songs this decade than Joe Henry. He released
four albums in the Aughts:Scar,Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars.
They’re all essential. Just buy them. I’d like to think that, in 20
or 30 years or so, when the musical wheel turns and the world
reassesses all that has been ignored, these albums will be recognized
as the masterpieces they are.
Henry has been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody
buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. Like Waits, his
songs are densely layered, heavily percussive, prone to careen off in
unexpected directions. Unlike Waits, he can really sing, and his nasal,
ring-a-ding croon emerges somewhere between Elton John and Frank
Sinatra. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one,
and given a woozy, off-kilter spin to suggest that he’s the lead singer
for the house band at some Holiday Inn on Pluto. Jazz greats like
Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him.
So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does the supremely gifted
Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even more idiosyncratic than Joe's.
So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. He
occasionally employs operatic divas to provide accompaniment for lines
like “Because there was no gold mine, I freed the dogs and burned their
sled." Good luck trying to find a label for the surrealistic dreamscape
that is his music. I'm content to just call it great. As an added
bonus, his lyrics also happen to be jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work
more often as standalone poetry than those of The Poet of a Generation.
His songs are as consistently, restlessly challenging and rewarding as
contemporary music gets.
maybe I’m bitter, sitting here in my coffee-stained T-shirt. I don’t
know why the rest of the world doesn’t recognize this incontrovertible
truth. Maybe it’s the nondescript name that keeps people from
discovering music that is anything but nondescript. Maybe it’s as
simple as the fact that Joe Henry’s songs don’t fit into an easily
defined box, and are too genre-busting to slot within the confines of
today’s narrowcasting world. Whatever it is, Joe Henry is the Dylan
that scarcely anybody knows.
I interviewed him five or six years ago, right before the release of his album Tiny Voices. He
had woken up shortly before I called, and he had just returned from
dropping his kids off at school. It was delicious to imagine this
dutiful father and devoted family man returning to his notepad after
making sure that the kids had their lunch money in hand, jotting down
lyrics about widows of Central American revolutionaries, junkies, and
rape victims, reveling in apocalyptic imagery involving bombers and
tanks and beauty queens and circus freaks selling lemonade. He was
writing the kind of shadowy, surrealistic nightmares that Dylan hadn’t
explored since “Desolation Row,” and I imagined that he was doing it in
I don’t know if that’s literally true, of course, and Joe Henry wasn’t
telling. But maybe that’s because he’s the master of the oblique, of
the truth that resides in between the lines on a page, of the
indirection that conveys as much in what isn’t said as in the black and
white lyrics in the CD booklet. His song “This Afternoon” is a
masterpiece of impending dread, of ominous detail piled atop ominous
detail, and he never once gets around to saying what actually happens.
But you have a pretty good inkling, and it isn’t good.
an added bonus, he just might be the producer of the decade as well,
and during the past 10 years he’s worked with artists as diverse as
Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Teddy Thompson, Aimee Mann, Mavis
Staples, and Mary Gauthier, and has almost single-handedly revived the
careers of Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Bettye Lavette.
It’s a staggering body of work. Do yourself a favor and check him out now, before the musical wheel turns.