Sunday, December 08, 2013
The Top Ten Albums of the New Millennium (So Far)
Melody Gardot, August 7, 2006, Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, Philadelphia
This consideration of the best albums of the new Millennium was inspired by the WXPN survey and countdown, which this year tallies the 885 greatest songs of the new Millennium. Every October since 2004 they have done a listener survey and played back the results in the form of a countdown of the 885 best whatever; it started with best songs and since then they've done albums, artists, musical moments, road trip songs and so on.
We still prefer to listen to albums, rather than songs, so we looked at our year-end best albums lists for 2001 to present, and compiled a rough list of about forty albums. From there, the final ten pretty much picked themselves. The only requirement was that the artists had to be ones that have been played on WXPN. In order to participate in the survey, we had to select a song that best represents each album; some were easy and some were hard.
In any case, we include all ten songs here. If a song had a video, we use it. The interesting thing about this Millennial concept is that it eliminates all of the music from the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's that usually dominates these countdowns, leaving a clearer picture of the last dozen years. See the countdown results and listen live to XPN at XPN.Org.
1. Melody Gardot - Worrisome Heart (2006)
(L-R) Verve Release (2008), Verve Promo (2008), Independent Release (2006)
Listen to "All That I Need is Love"
Baggage Free, Modern Day Dame: Here's part of what we said in 2006, seven years on, it all still goes: One of the best things about music as compared to other forms of artistic expression is that it has that unique ability to completely knock you off your feet and form a direct connection to the brain without the conscious mind being able to predict, control or explain it. And in some extraordinary cases, the experience gets better with repetition. From the first couple of times I heard Melody Gardot play live, I knew that she was good but neither of those performances nor her excellent first release, the EP Some Lessons (2005) could have prepared me for what was in store on her first full length CD, Worrisome Heart (2006), released on Tuesday November 7th.
The first clue came on Monday August 7, 2006, when Melody played a date at a small Philadephia jazz club called Ortlieb's Jazzhaus with an exceptional jazz band mixing songs from Worrisome Heart with some killer covers and despite her physical limitations, Melody did three stunning sets running past midnight and the magic of her singing with these supremely talented musicians caused time to seemingly stand still for the duration.
The next clue was contained in a five track preview CD that Melody sold at the show which contained four songs from the then unreleased Worrisome Heart plus one additional track that was recorded for but not included on the eventual release. The beauty of those songs as performed at Ortlieb's was recreated with every spin of the preview disc which immediately took up a three month residency in my CD player in anticipation of the full length release. Read the complete review.
Back to 2013 and Worrisome Heart stands as a unique set of exquisitely written and beautifully performed songs, given absolutely perfect arrangements and production, reflecting the combined sensibilities of Melody and producer Glenn Barratt. Looking back at that magic night at Ortlieb's, Melody was in the midst of making Worrisome Heart when she brought the musicians she was working with at Morning Star Studios to play in front of a live audience. I am eternally grateful to have been in that audience, and that the amazing music they created was so well captured on Worrisome Heart, easily the best album of the new Millennium so far.
2. Shelby Lynne - Just A Little Lovin' (2008)
Listen to "Just A Little Lovin'"
A Superb Piece of Work: Just A Little Lovin' was our choice as the best album of 2008. What we said in our year end review seems now like somewhat of an understatement, considering the fulfilling listening experience that this record reliably delivers year in and year out; it is one of the three most-played albums in our iTunes player:
I knew instantly when I first heard this record early on in 2008 that it would be my album of the year, and no matter how many times I've listened to it since, my awe at the quality of this loving tribute to Dusty Springfield continues to grow. Start with the arrangements which are so open that they derive great power from their simplicity - the first sixty seconds of the first song ("Just a Little Lovin'") will stop you dead in your tracks. The song selection is spot on perfect; just the right combination of Dusty's hits with some lesser known songs that she sang, plus one new original by Shelby that totally fits with the other songs which represent the cream of the best American pop songwriting.
The sequencing of the songs is brilliant too, a point that became abundantly clear while watching Shelby perform this album in song order at SXSW. The vocal work by Shelby here is revelatory too, while she's always been a great singer, she takes it to a whole new level here. And finally there's the amazing sound quality of the record, also available on 12" vinyl, which is the result of producer Phil Ramone's genius combined with Shelby's insistence on old-school recording technology, analog recording on two-inch tape. This album is an artistic triumph on every possible level.
3. Norah Jones - Come Away with Me (2002)
Listen to "Don't Know Why"
Art AND Commerce: When Come Away With Me came out in 2002, it was without precedent in popular music, it sounds so iconic now that it's easy to forget that the most common reaction on first listen was "I didn't know they made records like this," and it sold huge, to people who hadn't bought an album in many years. When it won a combined total of eight Grammy Awards, every label in the business was looking for the "next Norah Jones". One of my favorite Grammy moments was the deer-in-the-headlights look on Jesse Harris' face when he accepted his Song of the Year Grammy for writing "Don't Know Why".
That Come Away With Me has sold over ten million copies isn't even its biggest accomplishment, it's the rare confluence of art and commerce. Come Away With Me was the product of beautiful singing, gentle production, artful songwriting, and some gifted musicians. The music blended jazz, soul, and country into a new style of acoustic pop that producer Arif Mardin graced with uncluttered arrangements that had plenty of breathing room. The songs written by Norah and her musician friends Lee Alexander and Jesse Harris were so good that they seemed to be of a piece with the two cover songs, classics of country-pop by Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael. What makes Come Away With Me so special is that while its sound is unique and new, it feels like an album of standards, even though 12 of its 14 tracks are new originals.
4. Nellie Mckay - Get Away From Me (2004)
Listen to "David"
"A Living, Breathing White Album": Reading my 2004 review of Get Away From Me while listening to it now, everything is as true now as it was then, plus I'm enjoying the placement, right after the album that (jokingly) inspired it's title. Here is a bit of that review.
I've been seduced by a 19-year-old -- not literally, perhaps, but musically, psychologically and metaphorically. The depth of her songwriting combined with her vocal and instrumental ability suggests that an old soul resides in this young singer and songwriter. It's rare to encounter an album of such uniform high quality, and rarer still for an artist to hit such a peak on the first release. But such is the accomplishment of Nellie McKay on her debut album, Get Away From Me.
The press is already rife with daily accolades and superlatives as one critic after another falls under her spell, inspiring comparisons ranging from Billie Holliday to Randy Newman. The review copy of the CD carries quotes such as "A whiz-kid teenage songwriter, plays piano and riffles through styles from Tin Pan Alley to hip-hop," "Born to charm," "Draws comparisons to two of pop culture's polar opposites, Doris Day and Eminem," "Stylistically, she is like a living, breathing White Album."
It all sounds like an incredible amount of music biz hype, but when you sit down and listen to the songs you realize that it's all true, and then some. The Doris Day/Eminem references are understandable in terms of the music industry wanting to explain something that is totally new and different using familiar reference points, but the fact is that McKay has already surpassed most of the singers and songwriters to whom she is being compared.
That an artist could come up with something so fresh, new, brash, smart, clever, funny and most of all supremely musical and hit a grand slam the first time up is huge. One can only wonder what the future holds for this talented artist and one can only hope that she's prepared to handle all the success that will inevitably come her way. I've heard thousands upon thousands of artists and albums during my many years of listening to and writing about popular music, and I can honestly say that I've never heard a record quite like this one. Read the complete review.
5. Joan Osborne - Pretty Little Stranger (2006)
Listen to "Pretty Little Stranger"
At the Top of Her Game: In 2007, Joan Osborne released that two best albums of that year: Breakfast in Bed was a soul record, and Pretty Little Stranger was country. Both albums were split 50-50 between cover songs and originals. The well selected covers were some of the best songs of each genre. The most amazing thing about these two records is that the songs Joan wrote are as good as, if not better than the covers. Here's what we said in 2007:
Joan Osborne ventured outside the comfort zone of her normal repertoire to make a "country album" and selected a half dozen really great songs to cover, not necessarily anyone's traditional idea of country. What drove this record to the top this year was the amazingly great songwriting by Joan on the six originals that fit so well with the covers, that it's not always easy to tell which is which. All of the songs feature superb production by Steve Buckingham and the resulting record is one that just gets better and better the more you listen to it, a rare perfect album."Who Divided" is the great country single that country radio wouldn't touch. Joan never got to sing "Brokedown Palace" during her summer tour with The Dead but here she totally does justice to her favorite Grateful Dead tune.
With Breakfast in Bed, Joan shifted back to the familiar territory of soul music, again with an impeccably chosen slate of eight cover songs which are matched in quality by the six originals written by Joan, pulling off the totally unexpected but totally welcome feat of releasing the two best records of her career, all within the same year. It may be her various adventurous experiences of recent years, singing on tours with The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends, and singing on the Standing In The Shadows of Motown movie, but whatever the reason, Joan has totally come into her own as a songwriter and regardless of the style of music she chooses to do, she has never sounded better. This is an artist working at the top of her game and the results are pure pleasure.
6. Imogen Heap - Speak for Yourself (2005)
Listen to "Hide & Seek"
It's the Songwriting: Imogen Heap had no way to know, when she recorded her iconic "Hide and Seek" for her 2005 breakthrough Speak for Yourself album, that four years later, someone would sample and repurpose it as part of another song that would be a number one smash in the US and ignite the autotune craze that infected nearly every song on the Billboard charts by the end of 2009 (Jason Derulo - "Whatcha Say").
Listening now to Speak for Yourself, it's hard to say which is more impressive, the songwriting, the performance, or the production, Imogen did all three. A close call, but we've got to give it to the songwriting. In the years since, her sound has been copied many times but the magic of Speak for Yourself has not, and that can only be due to the beautiful songwriting.
Here's what we said then: Prior to October 2005 if someone had said "Imogen Heap," I would not have even known that they were referring to a person, much less the musical artist who was about to deliver the best cd of 2005 with this gem of a record that unexpectedly and quickly put my cd player in a headlock, so to speak.
The multilayered vocals and instrumental complexity fully realized the potential of the best written set of music I've heard in a long time. That Imogen recorded and produced the record herself at home may have made the end result all the more impressive, but seeing her perform her music solo with keyboards and computers was the element that I found totally stunning, and still compels me to listen to this cd more than any logical rationale could explain.
7. Dido - Live at Brixton Academy (DVD/CD Set) (2005)
Listen to "Stoned"
Overwhelming Power: We never usually consider best-of or live albums for the year-end top ten, and we have never included a DVD. This spot in the Millennial list was originally intended for Dido's second album, Life For Rent (2003), which is a terrific album, totally worthy of a spot on this list. Life For Rent fulfilled the promise of Dido's excellent debut, No Angel (1999) by taking the songwriting up a notch, and with superb production, Life For Rent was a near perfect album. It sold 5 million copies within its first two weeks.
At the last minute, I realized that there is an even better Dido album, Live at Brixton Academy. I love live albums, but it is unusual for a live album to exceed an entire classic album like Life for Rent. The band, the vocals, the arrangements, the production, and the recording quality are all so good that these are the definitive versions of every one of the seventeen songs in the set. I say this based on years of listening.
Live at Brixton Academy was recorded in August 2004 on Dido's Life for Rent tour. Almost all of Life for Rent is included, as is a healthy chunk of No Angel. Matching the astounding sound quality and the superlative performance, is video quality that is unsurpassed in concert videos I've seen. I saw Dido on that tour (Tower Theater, Philadelphia, 6/11/2004) and the show had it all and was completely satisfying in a way that few concerts are.
The totality of it reminded me at the time of some of the great Genesis shows I've seen. Which shocked me; I knew she was good, but I wasn't prepared for the overwhelming power of the music, or her somewhat cheeky sense of humor and utterly charming personality. I was most happily shocked again by how well Live at Brixton Academy captured the magic of the show I'd seen. To give you a taste of it, "Stoned", shown in the above video, opens the concert, the CD, and the DVD. For best results, watch it full screen and with a good sound system.
8. Keane - Hopes and Fears (2004)
Listen to "Somewhere Only We Know"
"Hooks You Could Drive a Truck Through": That's what Dave (from Direct Current Music) remarked to me as we were leaving the venue after seeing Keane in New York in 2005. When Keane released their debut album, Hopes and Fears, in 2004, my first encounter was at the Virgin Megastore in Chicago. There for a long weekend and not having such a store in Philadelphia, I was poking around when I came across Hopes and Fears in a rack of "guaranteed" new releases, at at the low price of about $5.99. The deal was that if you didn't like it, you could return it for a refund; I don't imagine that they got many returns. It sounded promising on the listening station so I bought a copy.
During the flight home I cracked the shrink-wrap and fired it up on my Discman (seems quaint now, right?). The abundance of melody and the aforementioned hooks, knocked me out on that first listen. The album also had superb production and first rate performances by Tom Chaplin on lead vocals and keyboards, Tim Rice-Oxley on keyboards, guitar, bass, and backing vocals, and Richard Hughes on drums and backing vocals.
Hopes and Fears was Keane's first album and it was a massive hit. In the US, despite the fact that the one single, "Somewhere Only We Know" only reached #45 on the Billboard chart, Hopes and Fears went on to sell a respectable hundred thousand copies, earning Gold Certification. Hopes and Fears went Platinum for selling a million copies in Canada and also in most of the European countries. In the UK (where Keane are from), four singles drove sales to nine million copies, and another five million in Ireland. Listening to Hopes and Fears now, it almost sounds like a greatest hits recent. Hopes and Fears is holding up quite nicely, sounding even better than on that first listen on the plane.
9. Coldplay - X&Y (2005)
Listen to "Talk"
Intense Musicality: If Keane wants to be Coldplay, and Coldplay wants to be U2, then does Keane really want to be U2? I think not, but Keane's debut was widely compared to Coldplay in 2004 and having never paid much attention to Coldplay, it was the Keane album that brought me to Coldplay in 2005 when they released X&Y. With X&Y, Coldplay introduced guitar into their sound for the first time, setting off the firestorm of U2 comparisons. The Coldplay albums since X&Y have only added fuel to the U2 fire, with their sound getting cluttered with more and more production and sounding more and more like U2 with each record. The fact remains that X&Y is highly melodic. Here is a portion of what I wrote in 2005 on first listen:
You could do a lot worse than to listen to Coldplay's X&Y, the Sunday New York Times article by Jon Pareles ("the most insufferable band of the decade") notwithstanding. To knock this based on the lyrical content somewhat misses the point. Coldplay may have been shooting for an unqualified grand statement, but on first listen the lyrics don't seem to matter so much one way or the other (do we really need to take so seriously lyrics written by someone who named his daughter "Apple"?) but as a grand sonic statement X&Y totally succeeds. Thumbs up.
Again in 2005, our year end top ten reviews were somewhat more succinct than they are now. Here is the year end summary for X&Y in its entirety. It's as true now as it was then. The intense musicality of the songwriting, performance, and production on this, Coldplay's third album, triumphed over the massive hype and inevitable backlash that accompanied its release in June. Keane's great debut album (2004) prepped me to finally embrace Coldplay and X&Y brought the goods to finally reel me in. "Speed of Sound" has a great music video too.
10. The Allman Brothers Band - Hittin' the Note (2003)
Listen to "Desdemona"
An American Classic: Warren Haynes might have the coolest job in all of music. He has his own band, a blues-rock powerhouse called Gov't Mule in which he is the guitarist and lead singer. He has a solo career, often performing an acoustic set at music festivals. He replaced Jerry Garcia after Garcia's death in two summer tours with The Dead; Garcia had such an encyclopedic repertoire of American music that Haynes is probably the only musician who could. Since 2003, Haynes has also been a permanent member of The Allman Brothers Band.
The Allman Brothers came out of Macon, Georgia at the end of the 1960s with a number of elements that quickly cemented their status as the premier blues-rock band in the land. They had two drummers with two complete drum kits on the stage played by Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johansen. They had two guitarists, Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, who was a master of the slide guitar. Greg Allman played organ and sang lead, and Berry Oakley played bass.
The other thing they had was that their first two albums were so well written, performed, and produced that they quickly formed the basis of incredible live performances that were quickly documented in a two record set, The Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East. Just after the release of the live album, Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The Allman Brothers recorded two more iconic albums after Duane's death, Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters. After that, the albums became spotty. Eventually they took a break from recording altogether but they continued to tour and their legend and their audience continued to grow. When they recorded Hittin' the Note there were major personnel changes. To the twin drums of Butch and Jaimoe they added a percussionist, Marc Quiñones. Also new, was Oteil Burbridge on bass.
Greg still played organ and handled the lead vocals, but the most major change was that this was the first Allman Brothers album to be made without Dickey Betts on guitar. On guitar they had Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) and Warren Haynes who also sang. In the tradition of Duane Allman, Derek is also a master slide guitarist with a wide vocabulary of musical styles that encompasses jazz and soul as well as blues and rock. Warren Haynes brings to the band his own deep well of American music repertoire and an adventurous spirit that is second to none in music.
The most amazing aspect of Hittin' the Note is that it sounds like classic Allman Brothers, almost as if any one of the songs would not sound out of place on the Allmans' first two albums. All the songs were written by Greg Allman and Warren Haynes. Listening to it takes you to many of the same heights as a live show. It was their first studio album in over a decade.
And even though they haven't made another since, they have proven with this album and their live shows over the past ten years that the second generation Allman Brothers Band is easily as good as, if not better than, the original. The Allmusic Guide said that "Hittin' the Note does exactly what its title claims -- 11 tracks' worth and it burns on every one. This album is in-the-pocket, deep-grooving Allman Brothers Band blues-rock at its best."
WXPN's 885 Greatest Songs of the New Millennium - The Results: Here is how my picks fared in the countdown. Six of my album choices placed songs in the countdown. The ones that didn't are somewhat surprising. Even though XPN didn't play Pretty Little Stranger, Joan Osborne has always been an XPN favorite. The same is true of Shelby Lynne, and I'm shocked than neither artist placed a single song in the countdown. XPN doesn't play Dido in their normal rotation, but morning and midday hosts Michaela Majoun and Helen Leicht do play her with some regularity. And The Allman Brothers' omission is surprising because they're, well, they're the Allman Brothers, and they're in the thick of every other 885 countdown. Here are the songs from my album choices that placed in the countdown.
018. Coldplay - Fix You - 2005
021. Norah Jones - Don't Know Why - 2002
050. Norah Jones - Come Away With Me - 2002
124. Keane - Somewhere Only We Know - 2004
171. Imogen Heap - Hide And Seek - 2005
294. Coldplay - Speed Of Sound - 2005
582. Nellie Mckay - David - 2004
707. Melody Gardot - Worrisome Heart - 2008
Here's how the countdown finished - the top ten songs. See the complete list of all 885 songs at XPN.Org.
01. Adele - Rolling In The Deep - 2011
02. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros - Home - 2009
03. The Lumineers - Ho Hey - 2012
04. The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army - 2003
05. Bruce Springsteen - The Rising - 2002
06. Gnarls Barkley - Crazy - 2006
07. Amy Winehouse - Rehab - 2006
08. Wilco - Impossible Germany - 2007
09. Coldplay - Clocks - 2002
10. The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You - 2009
The countdown gives us one more interesting yardstick on the music of the new Millennium. This is a list of the top ten artists in terms of having the most songs represented.
01. John Mayer - 20
02. Wilco - 17
03. Arcade Fire - 14
04. Bruce Springsteen - 13
05. Mumford & Sons - 13
06. Black Keys - 12
07. My Morning Jacket - 12
08. Adele - 11
09. Radiohead - 10
10. Vampire Weekend - 10