BEST OF THE DECADE: 30-21

30. The Max Levine Ensemble- Goes To Jail (2002)

For a few years at the beginning of the decade, The Max Levine Ensemble were one of my major reasons for being alive. I credit them with my first ever “punk show,” if you can call it that. My first band, Spoont, played three songs at a coffeehouse/open mic night at the Jewish Day School in Rockville in January of 2002. Later that night, The Max Levine Ensemble played a short set, and I can still recall how incredible it felt to watch them play. I felt run over by a bulldozer, a galloping stampede of wildebeast, and all it took were three chord pop punk songs. I was instantly thrust into a new world of music, meaning and friendships that I never knew had existed, from which i never returned, and never will most likely. This was music I had ownership over, made by people I could be friends with, and play shows with. And it was ten times better than any of the junk on the radio I had been listening to up until that point.

The show was followed soon by the release of this album, their second CD. Maybe it had already come out actually…but even if many early fans consider their first release their ultimate classic, it was this one that got the most rotation in my discman, perhaps cause it felt so present and urgent in my life at the time. This CD encapsulates high school for me in many ways. Rebellious, catchy anthems of youthful disillusionment, it perfectly sums up how it felt to be a teenager: stuck in a life where you desperately want to make your own choices, but you just can’t. So if you can’t change going to school and your parent and peer expectations, you change your outlook as best you can. This CD was what helped me do just that. Songs like “Conventional,” “Dittography,” and even the highly effective “Stop” (no one had ever told me not to eat at McDonald’s before) became part of me. Over the years, I’ve seen them probably fifty times, and even if my quasi-adult-ass self doesn’t respond to the music the same way I used to, I’ll always love The Max Levine Ensemble, and credit them with changing my life in a big way.

29. Q and Not U- Different Damage (2002)

I’ve been delaying writing these reviews for so long, so all I’m gonna say is HIGH SCHOOL. but in a good way, not in an excruciating, angsty Conor Oberst kind of way. Wait, I’m gonna say one more thing: GOT THE NERVE TO SING LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!

28. Des Ark- Loose Lips Sink Ships (2005)

Moving to North Carolina for college when I was 17 felt like a pretty unpredictable life decision, as the decision to go to college normally is. Local music was a huge part of my life as a teenager in D.C., but I didn’t know what kind of role it would play in my life in North Carolina. Perhaps a part of me still felt like it was a phase of some kind, something I might shed to be a part of the in crowd in school, a crowd that resigns itself to collegiate matters. I obviously didn’t know myself all too well…

I ended up discovering Des Ark in the spring of my freshman year, right around the time this album came out. Loud, bluesy, sexy, and all the while punk as fuck, I can’t really describe what this sounds like, except for awesome. Through my years in North Carolina, I saw Des Ark over a dozen times through different incarnations, from a two piece, to a three piece, to a solo act. She/they became my favorite North Carolina band, and I got the incredible opportunity to book them on several shows in Greensboro. The drummer on this record, Tim Herzog, left the band not too long after its release, causing songwriter Aimee Argote to go solo. This yielded incredible results, to which a friend of mine once described “Des Ark is the only band to ever lose a drummer and get ten times better.”

This collection of songs was in constant rotation at my old college radio station, WQFS, that spring. Unfortunately you couldn’t play the best tracks cause they were rife with cuss words, but there were still come choice tracks. It was heavy in content and passion, with lyrics that cut like a knife. It transcended genres and scenes, and ended up being certainly the best North Carolina release of the decade.

27. The Dismemberment Plan- Change (2001)

The seminal band of the D.C. 00’s indie scene, The Dismemberment Plan still hold up to this day as one of the greatest bands of the decade, period. By combining a variety of styles, the D Plan accomplished a pretty amazing thing: they took the “D.C. sound” and added layer upon layer to it. They took the post hardcore of D.C. bands like Fugazi and Jawbox and included R&B, new wave and dance into the mix. Few other bands could get a D.C. crowd to dance like the Plan, and retrospectively that may have even been their goal, considering what a judgmental and unforgiving crowd a D.C. one can be.

It took me a little while to get into this record, and it doesn’t hold a candle to their classic “The Emergency & I,” but it’s still a great work of art from a very important band in my life. Two of my best high school friends, Jacob and Daniel, showed me this record, and their shows still feel like frozen moments of euphoria to me. Now Travis Morrison, their frontman, is retired from music and lives in Brooklyn, and I am facebook friends with him. That’s about all I got.

26. Bright Eyes- Lifted… (2002)

This is going to be a hard one to write about, so I’ll keep it brief. To be quite honest I’ve got nothing more to say about this record than “high school.” I am sure you know what that means.

25. Pygmy Lush- Mount Hope (2008)

The byline for any media review of Pygmy Lush’s gorgeous “Mount Hope” usually goes something like this: “hardcore veterans of seminal punk band Pg.99 go soft and put out a record of all quiet acoustic songs! omg!” While it seems at first a bit of a headscratcher that the people responsible for crafting some of the early decade’s most abrasive and confrontational heavy music are the same ones responsible for some of the later decade’s most somber and wintery folk rock, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a seminal band make a near flawless trade in of electric guitars for acoustic ones (Nirvana, anyone?).

I read in an interview with Pygmy Lush that this is music they’ve always wanted to make, but haven’t been brave enough to try until now. The sound of this record is one that’s come only with age and experience, after thousands of miles have been logged in cramped touring vans. They’re following a path that many punks seem to follow as they get older; The need for quiet, the need for space, for reflection and introspection. It’s music for when the road weary tales of artists like Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan begin to make more sense to you than the angry punk of your youth. They’re driving down the same highways they’ve been on for years in their old bands, but they’re not the same people anymore. On Mount Hope, they’ve traded in their Born Against and Swans albums for Neil Young, for “Nebraska” style Bruce Springsteen. Fortunately this album is not an ultimatum of their future direction, as their follow up split with D.C.’s Turboslut would showcase they are nowhere near done with exploring more sonic possibilities of loud and abrasive punk music.

But don’t let the term “folk music” fool you, Pygmy Lush are more interested in expanding their sonic scope than they are in playing to genre limitations. Album centerpiece “Red Room Blues” begins with Neil Young and ends in Godspeed You Black Emperor, starting with a mellow acoustic chord progression and fading out with a four minute wash of soothing ambient drone. “Butch’s Dream” and “Concrete Mountain” dip into “freak folk,” sounding like Tom Waits or even Devendra Banhart. I read in the Give Me Back review that this album provides the perfect soundtrack to days spent wallowing face down in your hole. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Yet even with its distinct heir of melancholy, much like key influence Red House Painters, there is a transcendent power in the music, a lilting calm that makes things feel even a tiny bit better while the lazy repetitive strums of album closer “Tumor” fade out.

Pygmy Lush prove that artistic survival requires a shedding of the skin, the bravery to move forward into a dark unknown territory, and it challenges the listener to do the same in their own life. Mount Hope is one of the most surprising stories of the decade, inspiring proof that every person has untapped caverns of selfhood and expression within them.

24. Modest Mouse- The Moon And Anarctica (2000)

One of the first in the decade’s crop of indie bands to get big, this was Modest Mouse’s major label debut. Even though they’ve become huge over the course of the decade, even scoring a #1 Billboard album, they’re still a great band with great songs, and this album is chock full of them.

The sound here is more refined, a bit prettier and definitely more accessible, yet in a way that still built on their sound and moved it forward. They shed their grungier, post punk side a bit, yet all the while, made an album that amounts to a 70 minute rumination on the meaning of life, death and the afterlife. It accomplishes what their first few albums were able to get done, in being a perfect companion to a lonely trip, perhaps a long drive for somebody with nothing to talk about. This is Isaac Brock’s older, wiser, more seasoned theory on the way the universe is, from a creation theory (album opener “3rd Planet”) to the drawing of a cosmic map (“The Stars Are Projectors”), to where…the dark center of the universe is? (“The Dark Center Of The Universe”) You don’t need me to tell you anymore, but don’t let their popularity keep you from remembering what a great record this is. Maybe the best major label release of the decade?

23. Sun Kil Moon- Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003)

The “road trip” album is a personalized kind of genre. Most indie rock kids who’ve taken a family car to college have a number of records that they are likely to pop in during the first few hours of the trip home, or the trip away from home (whether that’s college or the house you grew up in…). Even though I was very into this record during my college years, it never became a road trip constant, for reasons I can’t remember. It’s a shame, because this is one of the very best collection of songs from one of the most underrated songwriters of our time. It’s an album that colors every passing lane divider, every mile surpassed, with a personalized narrative.

Mark Kozelek, the voice behind Sun Kil Moon and his former band Red House Painters, is a strange pick to have a cult following across this country and others, but he has a fairly rabid one. First and Second pressings of his records get snatched up instantly, his rare concert appearances are played to guarantee sell out crowds. Perhaps because he keeps a pretty low profile, he always seems to leave his fans wanting more.

This is his first record behind the Sun Kil Moon moniker. The songs are decidely more concise and move swifter than any of his work with Red House Painters. It’s the sound of an artist hitting his stride, accumulating the tools to achieve a grand artistic vision years in the making. Kozelek traverses every mood here, all the while bound together with a common theme: nostalgia and the past, which makes the album title so incredibly fitting. Whether it’s lost loves, memories long gone, or the life journies of deceased boxers (for whom several of the tracks are named after), the album is the soundtrack to a ghost tour of sorts. However, it’s not one of those hokey ghost tours you do in a town’s historic district, led by some guy in a top hat holding a lantern: no, it’s an inner tour of your own ghosts, some of which you’d rather lay to rest. Dreams of paths not taken, the passing of time, people and faces long gone, empty roads no longer traveled down. The songs bring you back to all the bars, houses, and patches of grass you used to inhabit that seem a million miles ago. The lyrics are ambiguous and unintelligible enough that the listener can include their own ghosts.

The music calls to mind for most listeners a modern day Neil Young, whether it’s the grungey, rocking “Salvador Sanchez” or the dreary, minor opus “Duk Koo Kim.” Present also are heavy influences from artists more likely found in thrift store bins than in your local indie record store, artists like Cat Stevens or James Taylor. It’s enough to make you realize you actually think “Fire & Rain” is one of your favorite songs. Kozelek has never shied away from his love of classic rock (his album of AC/DC covers, the Red House Painters song “Golden” which is a tribute to John Denver). My new roomate, Diana, told me a story in which she met him at a friend of a friend’s house and he played them a whole set of Def Leppard covers. This album is the result of someone who has massively succeeded in crafting his own unique aesthetic, a niche that can’t be easily copied or rehashed by thousands of wannabe songwriters. Trust me, I’ve tried! A modern folk masterpiece.

22. Sigur Ros- Takk (2005)

When I spent the fall of 2005 in Beijing, I was pretty much starving for new music. I had stocked up on a few new records just before I left, knowing I would have limited access to new music when I was over there. Some of those records clicked and some didn’t, and all I had that was really working for me was the Red Sparowes album, which I reviewed in a previous update. That record worked for me phenomenally in a very existentialist way, providing a great soundtrack to how small and insignificant I felt in such a vast, foreign place. But after spending a couple months there, I felt a lot more comfortable and had managed to carve out a tiny niche. I had made good friends, felt more at home there, and was reveling in the weirdness and absurdity of my life all the way across the world from everything I knew and loved. I wanted something a bit more, well, transcendentalist I suppose. When my family came to visit and spend ten days with me, my mother brought me this album.

If I had been living back in North Carolina when I heard it, it might not have sounded so damn magical, but because I had lived for a couple months as far removed from my comfort zone as I have ever been, I remember just being in silent awe when I put this on for the first time after my family left. I can think of few other records that I had as strong a reaction to the very first time I heard it. The music is kind of like tofu, in that it acquires the taste of whatever you cook with it. The record paints wherever you are in a new light. Even if it might not be the outright best Sigur Ros album, it has the most personal significance to me.

Years later, two days before college graduation, when a couple tornadoes touched down in Greensboro, a few friends and I drove out of town to go see the wreckage, and while driving around late at night and contemplating how our lives at the time seemed like some coming of age movie, we put this record on, and it provided us with the perfect soundtrack. If you’re one of those people who likes to think of your life as if it’s some melodramatic movie, then you might consider this record for the opening and closing credits.

21. Yo La Tengo- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)

In my sophomore of high school, there was a new a girl in the year above me named Gabriela. I believe her parents were from Spain. Either way, she had a unique fashion sense and a foreign accent, which was enough to make her stand out from the crowd at my high school, a somewhat elite D.C. private school where morning meetings looked like ads for Ralph Lauren and class attendance sheets read like a social networking site for the offspring of famous politicians. It didn’t take a long conversation with her to find out she was very passionate about music. So was I, so I figured we would have a lot to talk about! Except we didn’t seem to have any bands in common. At the time I thought good music meant bands like Incubus or Red Hot Chili Peppers. Maybe she could tell that I was in dire need of a good music education, or maybe she was just super nice, but either way she agreed to burn me a couple CD’s and bring them to school. The next day she handed me two CD’s, Pavement’s Brighten The Corners and Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.

Pavement’s accessible indie rock sounded familiar and likeable (the album turned into one of my alltime favorites, and my favorite Pavement record), but Yo La Tengo’s music didn’t sound like it was supposed to be made anymore. I went out and picked up their other album I could find (at the old DCCD…oh how i miss that place), and over the years it would prove to be my favorite of theirs. The album is a grower, not revealing itself entirely at first. Rather it builds on you overtime, and now when I listen to it as a 23 year old, it sounds shockingly full, every song having grown more personally relevant and more beautiful through the years. The songs move at a very slow pace, painting a dreamy, near sleep inducing piece of art, though not sleepy in a boring way, but rather in a calming and lilting way. You can put it on and before you know it, it’s over, like one of those naps you don’t intend to take yet you wake up from an hour later.

“Our Way To Fall” is an indie rock wedding song, while “Saturday” and “The Last Days Of Disco” make for two of the better slow, hypnotic numbers on the album. “Tears Are In Your Eyes” made for a great high school angst “everything sucks and i hate being a fucking teenager” kind of song. The upbeat numbers “Cherry Chapstick” and “Madeline” remind me of being driven around the city in the backseat of a car, marveling at the freedom of being out with your friends, even if this record was probably never playing when that happened (more likely it was Taking Back Sunday). Then of course there’s album closer “Night Falls Over Hoboken,” a 17 minute, slow urban folk ballad that somehow encapsulates the feeling of industrial north jersey into a single song. I could keep listing all the great songs on here, but I’ll stop there and encourage you to check this one out for yourself.

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