35. Murder By Death- Like The Exorcist But More Breakdancing (2003)
Flashback to the fall of 2002, a little band called Little Joe Gould came through Washington D.C. to play a show at WMUC studios at the University Of Maryland, with The Chase and Off Minor, and they damn near burned the house down. Quite literally, in fact, as the band turned off all the lights and lit their cymbals on fire at the beginning of the set. Oh, pre-Great White in Rhode Island days…They were one of the most powerful touring bands to come through D.C. in some time, considering what a buzz they put on all attendees at the show. Of course I wouldn’t really know, as instead of being there, my high school emo band was playing a show that same night at the Electric Maid in Takoma Park. Either way, the drummer of one of the bands I was in got his hands on their tape, and we would end up listening to it all the time that fall.
Soon after this record came out, they changed their name to Murder By Death, and continued on their path. At the time they may have been one of the more innovative bands I had heard. Perfect for late night drives, some tracks have a brooding, gothic darkness to them, while some are rife with wistful, light and breezy nostalgia. “I’m Afraid Of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” still has the power to take me right back to the time and place when I was first listening to this record, the sign of a lasting, important, vital work of art. Complete with a cello player, they must have had a big influence on fellow midwesterners Cursive, who along with bands like Interpol, Lucero and the Weakerthans ended up taking them on tour. They continued to put out new records and are still a band I believe, but nothing they’ve put out since has compared with the destructive beauty of this album.
34. Explosions In The Sky- Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever (2001)
This decade, Explosions In The Sky ended up being the definitive band of the “post rock” sound, not so much because they deserved it, but more due to the exposure that the “Friday Night Lights” soundtrack brought them. Yes, every time you tune in to the hit TV show or watch the critically acclaimed 2004 film, you can hear the solemn guitar lines and rising crescendos and cymbal crashes that make a strangely fitting soundtrack for stories about a high school football team in Texas. Explosions made a devoted following of obsessive fans by essentially applying the Nirvana approach to the Post Rock sound, honed and pioneered by bands like The Mercury Program.
This may be their most groundbreaking record, their sophomore album, yet miles high above their debut How Strange, Innocence. Accompanied with a riveting album cover depiction of the Angel Of Mons (a folktale from World War One, where an angel was said to be seen halting advancing soldiers from attacking each other), the songs are a soundtrack to introspection, where the listener fills in the gaps left open by the absence of vocals with their own life experience. This album features my favorite song by this band, “The Moon Is Down.” A record that will bring things out of you that may have been buried for a long time.
33. Death Cab For Cutie-The Photo Album (2001)
Even though Ben Gibbard is known more for The Postal Service and the last three Death Cab albums, this record is undoubtedly the best thing he’s ever put out. Written before Gibbard assumed the crown as the spokesperson of the Garden State generation, this captures some kind of emotional lightning in a bottle. This is total high school, a record I listened to relentlessly, while driving to school with my friend Peter.
The cool thing about Billboard 100 picking up indie bands this decade is that it caught many of them several albums into their career. Thus bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie had several opportunities to make urgent records that weren’t yet in the spotlight. Though this wasn’t quite the album that broke them, it was the one that brought them to the edge.
Here, Gibbard builds on his everytwentysomethingman status, crafting even more stories of heartbreak, loss and failed relationships, but also countering it with more upbeat tales of life lived in the present moment that every young indie rocker yearns to relate to. Gibbard finds a way to extract beautiful moments out of even inanimate objects, by crafting an indie rock fashion statement with “I don’t mind the weather/I’ve got scarves and caps and sweaters/I’ve got long johns under slacks for blustery days.”
Whether it’s memories of laughing in a living room with old friends (album highlight “We Laugh Indoors”), or smoking a cigarette on a porch (classic opener “Steadier Footing”), he finds the subtleties in our lives, and memories of those lives, and romanticizes the fuck out of them. That’s his simple equation, and it works every time. Anyone who’s ever had a livejournal or read “Perks Of Being a Wallflower” when they were sixteen can’t help but love Death Cab For Cutie, and though history may look back and talk more about Transatlanticism or “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” most longtime fans know this is their career best.
32. M.I.A- Kala (2007)
In the summer of 2008, I had just graduated from school in North Carolina and had gone home for a few weeks, waiting around to head to New Mexico for the summer to work at a summer camp out there. Just when the weather started getting warmer, I saw that M.I.A. was planning a concert at the McCarren Park pool in June. Immediately I began planning a post-graduation meetup in New York with friends Anna, Kate and Shaina for what was sure to be the show of the year. The concert did not dissapoint. In retrospect, it seemed to define the time and place in which it took place. M.I.A.’s music has the mass pop appeal of Jay-Z or even Beyonce, but wields the raw punk power of The Clash or The Stooges. The undeniable accessibility of her music means she can reach a huge population, but the powerful social and political messages in her music are still present. In that way she’s kind of like the trojan horse, coming into attack and destroy everything banal about pop music. In much the same way that Nirvana did when Nevermind came out, M.I.A. had the power to reach the people who were consuming it for its face value, and the people who really got it. But who knows, maybe the internet has destroyed any such distinction in our generation.
During the show, she invited all the ladies onstage to dance to “Jimmy” and a few other album highlights, much to the dismay of the security and NYPD that were there. But with the music blaring and nearly a hundred ladies getting their freak on to one of the catchiest beats of the year, there was nothing they could do to stop the inertia created by the combination of the music and the people reacting to it. For a moment, it seemed that pop music could save the world. It was clear that the powers of authority can’t hold a candle to the potential energy that urgent music can create.
31. Rachel Jacobs- Mechanical Kid (2003)
DIY singer/songwriters of this caliber only come around so often. As a sheltered 17 year old, I always thought the label of “singer/songwriter” seemed distant, far off, something that seemed inaccessible to me. Most of my friends were in punk and hardcore bands, and that was all that registered on my radar at the time. I saw her at a show with Stop It!! and Tiny Hawks (retrospectively one of the best shows ever!) and was surprised at how much it spoke to me. I picked up this CD (which came in a brown paper bag) and played it through and through for years to come.
Speaking to the power that one person with a chair, an acoustic guitar, and a set of vocal chords can hold, here was music that seemed to combine a little bit of Neil Young, a little of Team Dresch, and certainly some Nirvana (not that I was able to make those connections at the time). Rachel Jacob’s songs were honest, raw, and certainly confessional. Her lyrics sent shockwaves down my spine. Exploring the classic singer/songwriter pantheon of self-deprecation, regret, bitterness, severe bouts of depression and reflections on youth, she added even more layers as a female artist who wasn’t afraid to include gender issues in her subject matter. She wasn’t afraid to say anything, and she always seemed to go there.
In “Melissa’s Song” she sees herself as a jaded twentysomething who wonders where the punk inspiration of her youth has gone. In the chilling, three chord conclusion “Hobby Hunting Is A Full Time Job,” depression is a sickness that can’t be shaken and nothing that ever held importance matters anymore. “Productive Vampires” is a catch-all anthem of feeling like a total fuck up. Her lyrics don’t leave much to ambiguity, as she pretty much says exactly what she means in each song. Yet, with each track there is the underlying mystery of “why?” that isn’t really explained. After listening enough, it becomes clear that there is no why, only how, and the how is fairly self evident here.
I speak in the past tense only because she hasn’t put out anything in quite a while, or played any shows as far as I know. She moved to D.C. for a little while now she lives back in New York City. We got to become kind of friends in the time that she lived around here, which must have been weird for her because I was a pretty dumb 18-19 year old at the time. All the same, she is one of the most genuine, nicest people I have ever met. I can think of few artists that I have personally known who I have admired more than Rachel Jacobs. I hope she is not done putting out music.