I was raised in a fairly musical household: we listened to classical, folk (Irish and Appalachian) and bluegrass music all the time; my mom plays guitar, banjo, piano and fiddle; my parents travel to bluegrass festivals all over New England; mom was the organist for their church; I took piano lessons throughout my childhood and still play today.
All of that background cred is equivocal though , isn’t it? I was certainly stumped trying to put together a list of the best of the aughts because I don’t follow contemporary music much (certainly not with the passion and dedication of my blog cohorts). I always return to old music — from 1950s Harry Belafonte to Eastern Orthodox liturgical works written hundreds of years ago. I do regularly find new music, but rarely things that stick with me, and I couldn’t remember which of my favorite albums’ release dates fell between 2000 and the present.
There’s little to no analysis in my musical selections. When I first hear an artist, whether or not I continue listening depends entirely upon how the music, vocals and lyrics make me feel. I want to be stimulated emotionally, not intellectually, by music. Details of technique, equipment, technology, software and musical heritage tend to be well beyond my clumsy ears. I’m sure I listen to loads of things that are derivative, déclassé, unsophisticated and downright stupid, but I guess I’m just the “I don’t know art but I know what I like” guy here.
So here’s what I think. (After the jump.)
Tin Hat Trio, Book of Silk (2004 Artemis Records)
When I first heard this album I felt like I was going to cry and explode with joy at the same time. What I actually did was sit and listen quietly for a long time before remarking, “This music sounds like what I want my life to be like.” It brings to mind those sweetly spooky abandoned places that always fill me with feelings of melancholy (for things lost and forgotten) and awe (at how beautiful decay can be). There is a little vocal, but the uncategorizable album is mostly instrumental: violin, viola, accordion, piano, guitar and dobro.
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006 Sony)
I don’t think I’d ever have given either Bruce Springsteen or Pete Seeger a second thought if I hadn’t heard about this album on NPR one day. I’m not a rock person or a modern American folk person. What I love about this album is its rollicking hootenanny style. Banjos, accordions, guitars, fiddles, pianos, mandolins, organ, horns and God knows what else just playing the hell out of these songs in raucous, exuberant style. It’s one of my favorites for singing along and doing steering wheel percussion while stuck in traffic.
She Wants Revenge, She Wants Revenge (2006 Geffen Records)
I think these guys are widely derided for being a poor imitation of Joy Division, Interpol, The Cure and Bauhaus. It’s probably true, but I like this album anyway. It’s dirty and sad.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More with Feeling (2002 Rounder / Umgd)
If you’re not into Buffy, it’s very unlikely you’ll like this album. I love listening to it when I’m feeling sad and existentially confused, because that’s what Buffy is experiencing at this point in the series. It doesn’t make me feel better, exactly, just less alone. [Editor's note: I guess only true Buffy fans are meant to hear it, as it's not available to stream.]
Oh Brother Where Art Thou? [soundtrack] (2000 Lost Highway)
I was surprised when this album became so popular. It’s the kind of music I grew up with and the kind of music I was used to people regarding with disdain. It was too countrified and domestic for folk fans and too old-timey and eastern for contemporary country western fans. I think this fantastic collection provided a lot of people with favorable introduction to the blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel music of the early 20th century and earlier.
Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961 – 1965 [BOX SET] (2006 Smithsonian Folkways) This is a collection of fifty-five live recordings of a series concerts held from 1961-65. The shows were organized by a group of dedicated folklorists and traditional music devotees who wanted to bring the folk and blues artists of previous decades to the musicians and audiences of New York City in the 60s. [Ed's note: pretty much expected this wouldn't be streamable for free, but I'm sure you can listen to samples on Amazon.]
Golem!, Fresh Off Boat (2006 JDub Records)
I love klezmer music! And I have been in love with this album since I heard the first moments of the first track. Golem! plays primarily around where they live in Brooklyn except for periodic tours of Europe. Although for one special event sponsored by the University of Vermont Hillel they played at a venue here in South Burlington and I was lucky enough to be in attendance. They put on an amazing, energetic, touching, exhilarating show that ended with the whole audience doing a joyful freeform horah. It was fantastic. You should really see them if you ever have the chance, even if you’re not into klezmer. (P.S. This ethnocentric spell-checker refuses to recognize golem, klezmer, or horah. It wants to change klezmer to Kleenex.)
Gotan Project, La Revancha Del Tango (2001 XL)
I discovered this band I started a Pink Martini Pandora station. But now that I think about it, that won’t mean anything to anyone who doesn’t know Pink Martini. Do you people know Pink Martini? Here’s what Matthew Cooke from URB had to say about Gotan Project:
In the constant hunt for the Next Big Thing and the nourishment of their creative souls, a growing number of adventurous DJs are developing their craft through the prisms of culture and tradition. Last year’s URB Next 100 alumni Gotan Project shrewdly combines tango rhythms and Astor Piazzolla with dub and downtempo, producing old-world atmospheres, hot-blooded romance and undeniably tasty chill music. The French collective’s use of tango flows naturally from that particularly Parisian emphasis on glamour that the dance has come to exemplify, despite its seedy origins in the brothels of late-19th-century Argentina. Familiar pieces of melody, like the theme from “Last Tango In Paris” and a reggae version of Frank Zappa‘s Chunga’s Revenge, float to the surface like hot and ghostly dreams. Everything sounds at once familiar and foreign, like all your past lives gathered around a turntable and having at it.
A*Teens, The ABBA Generation (2000, Universal)
It’s Swedish teenagers covering ABBA songs in ridiculously saccharine pop style. I should hate it, but I don’t. Why? I don’t know, it’s so retarded, but it’s become my go-to album when I need to do something tedious like clean the apartment. It totally perks me up until the crippling shame sets in. [Ed's note: I'm gonna blame those sequined cupcakes in ABBA for not licensing this album to stream.]
Sevara Nazarkhan, Yol Bolsin (2003, Real World)
I have a lot of albums that when I’m playing them 97 percent of passersby become alarmed and ask, “what is that noise?!” But it is always such a delight when one of the other three percent stops still with wonder and needs to know, “what is this? It’s wonderful!” This is one of those sorts of albums. Sevara Nazarkhan is an Uzbeki pop star, but on this record she uses her classical training in voice and doutar to bring the traditional music of her homeland to 21st century audiences. The classical music of Uzbekistan (and Tajikstan and to some extent other Central Asian nations) is called shashmaqam. It developed and flourished in the main city-stops along the Silk Road so while it was based on local folk traditions it was also influenced by the other nationalities and cultures who passed through, bordered, or came to settle there. I’m not going to try to write out a whole history here; go watch this neat show I found on the subkject. The music here is very beautiful and complex, articulate and holy. It rarely fails to give me goosebumps.
That’s all I got, folks! Happy Nude Year!