The 7: Favorites of the New Century (so far)

Well, here we are, a decade into the new century, so I decided it would be a good time to evaluate some of the post-Y2K music we may (or may not) have heard.  While some of you may think (erroneously) that I’m not the best man for this job, nonetheless I have an opinion (*gasp!*).  So here goes, and if you don’t like it, feel free to take your holier-than-thou attitude and deftly place it sideways in your colon.

The 7 (in no particular order):

  Alexi Murdoch:  A relative newcomer to the music scene, Alexi Murdoch has nonetheless come out of the gate strong.  His first EP (Four Songs) was released in 2002, and made quite a splash for being, literally, only four songs.  The song “Orange Sky” was featured in movies and television (including Garden State, The O.C., Dawson’s Creek, and Prison Break), and the EP became one of CD Baby’s top-selling “albums”.  His first full length, Time Without Consequence, met with wide critical acclaim, and eventually earned him a spot on Rolling Stones Top Ten Artists list.  The album is at times intimate and sparse, lush and expansive, and defies easy classification.  The lyrics ask you not only to feel (like all music), but also to think – something many modern artists find uncomfortable, and subsequently leave out of their “art”.  He has since released another album (Towards the Sun, just released officially this year), and found more airplay on TV and movies, including the lion’s share of the soundtrack for the 2009 independent film Away We Go (directed by Sam Mendes and penned by Vendela Vida and modern literary giant David Eggers).  At any rate, he may be a sophomore in the music industry, but a heavy hitter nonetheless, and well worth the listen.

  Sun Kil Moon/Mark Kozelek: For those of you unfamiliar with the indie (note the lower-case “i”) singer-songwriter, he may be most easily recognized as the man depicted at left, Larry Fellows.  He was the bass player for the band Stillwater in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous.  In real life, Mark really is almost famous, at least in the music industry.  He is a prolific songwriter, and was the frontman for the Frisco-based indie/alt-rock band Red House Painters during their 12-year existence.  His most recent project (Sun Kil Moon) is an indie folk-rock fan’s wet dream.  The band’s debut album, Ghosts of the Great Highway, starts out simply enough, with just acoustic guitar, Mark’s warbling tenor, and the occasional mandolin.  Over time the album builds, adds instrumentation, and takes on a life of its own.  By the time I reached the 14+ minute epic “Duk Koo Kim” (marginally about Korean lightweight boxer killed in the ring by Ray Mancini), I was completely hooked.  Since the debut album, Mark & co. have released 5 more albums/EPs (not counting a 2-CD re-release/special edition of their debut), including an album of nothing but Mark’s renditions of Modest Mouse songs, entitled Tiny Cities and well worth the listen – even if you aren’t an especially large fan of Modest Mouse to begin with.  For anyone interested in a slightly folk-y, sprawling, and altogether rewarding foray into modern independent rock, this would be a great place to start.

  The Tallest Man on Earth:  Since the release of his 2008 debut album Shallow Grave, Swedish native Kristian Matsson has created a bit of a stir in the independent music scene.  To call his music rock is a bit of a stretch, being much closer to American folk a la Woody Guthrie.  Another comparison you’ll hear frequently is Bob Dylan, though that’s mostly true only if you’re thinking early Dylan (i.e. “In My Time of Dyin'” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), and not, say, Self Portrait-era (or worse, Shot of Love).  And though Matsson may be similar to Dylan musically, lyrically he’s much less abstruse.  And the Dylan comparison may be a bit overdone, really – from the Elliott Landy photography of Dylan conspicuously placed in the background during the NPR Tiny Desk performance (check it out here) to the “boots of Spanish leather” reference is the song “King of Spain”.  All this comparison really does more to pigeon-hole than it does to describe his art, which is, at the heart of it, hard to accurately describe.  A listen to his most recent album (2010’s The Wild Hunt) provides a much clearer picture of the man and his vision.  So just listen, and enjoy!

  Groundation:  Now we start getting out of the singer-songwriter category a bit.  Groundation is a Nor-Cal based, 9-piece (currently) roots reggae bandWhile technically they’ve been around since before the new millennium (1998, to be exact), the bulk of their work falls into the post-Y2K category (everything except their 1999 debut Young Tree, actually).  Even if you aren’t a huge reggae fan, this band is worthy of a good hearing.  While their style and message are heavily based in ’60s and ’70s roots reggae, they don’t saddle themselves with a narrow approach to the music.  The band takes regular forays into dub and jazz-fusion territories, and at times they even bring a Latin flavor to some of the beats.  Now some of you purists out there may be thinking that a California band made up primarily of white guys can’t possibly play good roots reggae, but let me tell you: they can, and they do.  Even the Jamaican reggae community knows these guys can jam; the band has featured guest musicians such as Don Carlos (a founding member of Black Uhuru), The Congos (in my opinion one of the best roots reggae bands of all time), and Apple Gabriel (of Israel Vibration fame) on their albums.  If you’re in the mood for some truly transcendent reggae, try their album We Free Again.  By the time you get to the closing track (“The Seventh Seal” – possibly the greatest reggae song ever), you will be seriously considering growing dreadlocks and praising the glory of Jah Ras Tafari.

  Deltron 3030:  Those of you that know me may be surprised to see a hip-hop group make my list.  Those of you that know me a bit better may not be as surprised, but maybe still a bit.  At any rate, I do actually enjoy hip-hop, if (and this is a big “if”) it has something good to say, and doesn’t say it in such a way that it evokes thoughts of gang warfare, metal teeth and giant gold necklaces, racism/sexism/bigotry, the greedy and soulless pursuit of consumerism for it’s own sake…or basically anything else associated with mainstream hip-hop culture.  However…I do believe that hip-hop (like all music) can be art, if it is done well and tastefully.  And while this album may be a bit tongue-in-cheek at times, it is nonetheless tastefully done, and it most definitely has something to say.  The group is essentially the work of MC Del tha Funkee Homosapien (of Hieroglyphics and Gorillaz fame), producer Dan the Automator, and DJ/turntablist Kid Koala.  To date they have recorded one album, an eponymous record released in the year 2000.  Let me tell you right now, folks: this album f-ing rocks!  It is (in my humble, uneducated opinion) the greatest rap album of all time.  Yeah, yeah, I know some people out there will scoff and say things like, “I disagree, good sir, I believe Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to be a far superior album in every way, shape, and form,” or possibly, “Yo dawg, like, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is like, hella tizzight an’ shit.”  Fine, your opinion has been duly noted, and mine (being mine) stands as it is.  If you don’t like it, get your own damn blog.  But I digress…  The album is both artistic, lyrical, social & politically conscious…and it just jams!  The beats laid down by Automator are not to be trifled with.  The scratching by Kid Koala is superb.  And Del’s rapping and lyrics are simply astounding.  To me, the songs “Madness” and “Turbulence” are especially moving, though there isn’t a bad track on the album – just watch out for Patriarch Cleofis Randolph’s “very special” chocolate chips.  As of right now, the group is in the studio, supposedly putting the finishing touches on their second album, Deltron Event II.  I, for one, await it with baited breath.

Tool:  Now we get back into more familiar territory – if, by “familiar territory”, we mean mind-blowing, soul-shivering, awe-inspiring, third-eye-opening, ear-orgasm-inducing, complete, and utter, Awesomeness.  While Tool have been around for about two decades now, they simply cannot be left off any of my best of/favorite lists.  And since their music has taken another step up the evolutionary ladder in the last decade (acquiring, as it were, the legendary 46 & two chromosomes), I believe they belong on this list.  The band started as a rather run-of-the-mill underground metal band in the late ’80s, but quickly evolved into something more as the members found their Muse (the Greek patroness of the arts, not the uninspired, bombastic, neo-Queen rip-off artists!) and their musical and spiritual vision.  The music has evolved as well, starting out as heavy underground thrash, moving through (and simultaneous founding) alt-metal, and finally arriving at full-fledged Progressive Rock in all it’s glory.  And we’re not talking the pretentious, self-conscious, and altogether dreadful musings of, say, Kansas or Electric Light Orchestra.  We are talking heavy, skull-splitting, ego-shattering prog a la King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and the darker moments of Peter Gabriel/Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator.  The music is deeply steeped in esoteric philosophy, socio-cultural awareness, and themes of personal/spiritual evolution.  It is cerebral, visceral, and altogether Other – worthy of every bit of blood and sweat that went into making it, a thousand times over.  I can’t say any more without risking further forays into obscure, self-indulgent meta-adjectives.  Just listen to 2001’s Lateralus ten times in a row, then the rest of their catalog, view all their music videos, explore their websites (toolband.com and dissectional.com), catch a live show the next time you can, and then think long and hard on everything you’ve seen, heard, thought, and felt while doing all these things.  At that point, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

  acoustichewy:  Some may say that I have an unfair bias concerning this musician.  Indeed, I will freely admit that acoustichewy is the work of a man that is none other than my brother, Adam Chouinard.  However, I admit to no unfair bias in regards to his music or his message, because, simply put, it is friggin’ amazing.  There is no one out there that creates music like this.  The lyrics are many-layered, multi-faceted, and deeply spiritual, and the musicianship is both unique and superb.  And, of course, I find myself at a loss for words to continue this paragraph.  Check out his music here.  It’s kind of folk-y, kind of prog, kind of roots-y, and all amazing.  For a more neo-psychedelic, prog-rock experience, check out his on-again, off-again (and highly talented band), The Fringe.  Also well worth the listen, and entirely unique.  So quit reading already and listen!

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