Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life (2000)

The Facts of Life

Album: The Facts of Life
Artist: Black Box Recorder
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #40 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: The Art of Driving, Weekend, The Deverell Twins, Goodnight Kiss
Their Grades: Pitchfork (7.3/10), NME (8/10), Robert Christgau (A)
My Grade: 80%

If you took the most mellow moments of mid-nineties Pulp and replaced Jarvis Cocker with a bookish sounding young woman, you’d have Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life. The ghostly keyboards, classy basslines and dark, witty asides to England’s reservations about sex and manners all make for the kind of music Jarvis would be proud of. It’s no surprise considering one of the members of this group came from The Auteurs and another from The Jesus & Mary Chain. The sounds of Britpop weren’t just in their blood, they helped draw up the blueprints.

But it suffers from the pitfalls of the genre too. The songs here can, at times, seem so hung up on their own soft cleverness that there’s not much room for interesting musical exploration. Once you’ve heard the first two songs on here, you’ve heard the rest of the record too. But this style of music is arguably my favorite kind in the world so it’s hard for me to blame them for repeating themselves.

With that said, “The Art of Driving” and especially “Weekend” evoke the same youthful claustrophobia for me as movies like The Virgin Suicides. There’s something so innocent about them but beneath their surface lay skeletons beneath the floorboards. It’s this that made major league bands like Suede and Pulp so powerful and a minor league band like Black Box Recorder so intriguing too.

Not featured on Spotify but here’s a video for “69 Police”

David Holmes’ Bow Down to the Exit Sign (2000)

Bow Down to the Exit Sign

Album: Bow Down to the Exit Sign
Artist: David Holmes
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #41 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Sick City, Compared to What, 69 Police, Hey Lisa
Their Grades: Metacritic (84/100)
My Grade: 86%

Most of the DJ-made records I’ve encountered suffer under the weight of sameness. The beats, stunted piano stabs and samples all seem to fall into a template which is meant to be original but comes out sounding like everyone else. Even if David Holmes is sometimes prone to meandering, you have to give him credit for creating a record as diverse as it is cohesive. It’s got moments of R&B followed up by straight up rock and roll, trip-hop getting off the bus at the sound of a beautiful string arrangement.

The vocal tracks here speak to the quality of the rest of the album. Bobby Gillespie and Carl Hancock Rux both sing on one great song and one average one. For Gillespie, “Sick City” sounds like the best moments of his band Primal Scream with Holmes piloting straight for the heart of the new millennium while Rux adds some confident soul to the spacey “Compared to What.” The other two tracks they’re featured on (“Slip Your Skin” and “Living Room” respectively) lack the drive which sets the others apart.

But, as a DJ, Holmes has to succeed as an instrumentalist in order to be thought worthwhile. Without a vocalist to anchor down a track, it’s easy to lose a sense of melody. In this realm, he hits but more often misses. Even then, he’s at least still close to the ball when swings; his batting average remains admirable. “69 Police” doesn’t need a singer to be the best song on here and album closer “Hey Lisa” utilizes strings The Verve would’ve been proud of circa Urban Hymns. 

Like so many others of his era, Bow Down to the Exit Sign conjures up a futuristic landscape which may never be in reality. But it’s still a great place to aim for, in music and life in general.

Not featured on Spotify but here’s a video for “69 Police”

Amen’s We Have Come for Your Parents (2000)

We Have Come For Your Parents

Album: We Have Come for Your Parents
Artist: Amen
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #44 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000,
My Favorite Songs: Under the Robe, Dead on the Bible, The Waiting 18
Their Grades: Allmusic (3/5)
My Grade: 70%

Henry Rollins censored Amen on his TV show. They were the only band to ever receive this treatment from the Black Flag frontman and it was due to them making death threats toward Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz as Operation Iraqi Freedom was hitting its stride. I’m no fan of unjust wars or Dick Cheney either but to do something like that reveals a level of instability and violence which I can’t really hang with. Punk is pissed-off, especially of the hardcore variety, but fighting fire with fire doesn’t really work for anyone. On We Have Come for Your Parents, Amen’s aggression is both their greatest strength and tragic flaw.

Maybe the reason I’ve never taken to this kind of madcap music is because I’ve never felt as angry as its instrumentation and lyrics. Amen never ventures into the blackout noise and chaos which can be the genre’s ultimate downfall. There’s still a sense of melody behind all the vitriol which kept me from writing it off as just another set of angry guys who know how to distort their voices and Fenders to say “fuck you” in a million different ways. But they still don’t seem to have very much intelligence beyond their fury. If there is some cleverness here, it’s of the sociopathic variety. Punk, at its best, is a release, alternately fun, political and clarifying. But their advice to burn churches and “kill with good intentions” betrays they haven’t really been seeking solutions so much as adding to the problems which plague this planet.

Amen is talented, in their own way. There are some engaging and murderous hooks here. “The Waiting 18,” in particular, is a track to be respected. But their frontman is named Casey Chaos and their record is called We Have Come for Your Parents, for God’s sake. So the thought of sitting across from any of these guys at a bar would terrify and frustrate me more than anything else. The same goes for listening to their record.

Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker (2000)

Heartbreaker

Album: Heartbreaker
Artist: Ryan Adams
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #26 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 1999, #45 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High), Come Pick Me Up
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3/5), NME (8/10), Pitchfork (9.0/10), Robert Christgau ()
My Grade: 75%

I’ve never really had a beef with Ryan Adams beyond thinking he’s overrated. Other people seem to have more decisive opinions. Some think he’s one of our greatest songwriters while others can’t get past how much an asshole he is in interviews. I remember listening to Gold years ago after seeing one rave review after another and just wishing I was listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot instead. When it comes to Heartbreaker, the same desire to switch over to Jeff Tweedy surfaced.

After the opening, unnecessary argument about Morrissey, I was happy to hear a song as catchy as “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High).” The only other song of his which I took to as fast was “Let It Ride” so I was hoping for some more of the same as the record progressed. But the ramshackle bounce of the second track gives way to one song after another of acoustic tearjerkers. Plenty of my favorite songs fall into that category but it’s far easier to digress into cliche when you take the way paved by Bob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks. Adams’ attempts at originality come through too bland and offhand.

If I saw a local singer-songwriter performing Heartbreaker tracks at a local coffee shop, I’d likely be impressed. But that’s just the thing. These songs are impressive if they’re performed by “some guy” but not by someone who fronted a prominent band like Whiskeytown. The fact NME ranked this a better album of the year and, thus, as a better album about heartbreak than 69 Love Songs just seems a little off to me. Robert Christgau’s assessment is the best. This is a record with one really good cut and a bunch of other songs which could’ve been cut without much complaint.

The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs (1999/2000)

69 Love Songs

Album: 69 Love Songs
Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Year: 1999/2000
Reason Featured: #2 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 1999, #46 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000, #8 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Ten Albums of 1999, #9 Album for Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Albums of 1999
My Favorite Songs: Disc One: I Don’t Want to Get Over You, I Think I Need A New Heart, The Book of Love, Sweet-Lovin’ Man, The Things We Did and Didn’t Do; Disc Two: When My Boy Walks Down the Street, Grand Canyon, No One Will Ever Love You, Papa Was A Rodeo, Abigail, Belle of Kilronan; Disc Three: The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure, Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget, Yeah! Oh Yeah!, How to Say Goodbye, The Night You Can’t Remember
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3/5), NME (8/10), Pitchfork (9.0/10), Robert Christgau (A+)
My Grade: 96%

Brief Disclaimer: I’m going through these Best of Lists one by one. Now that I’m on NME’s Best of 2000 list, this showed up since, presumably, it wasn’t released in the UK until 2000. Stateside, this was a big hit on critics’ lists in 1999. Hence the two different years mentioned above. Carrying on!

Yes, there is filler on 69 Love Songs. There’s obvious, even-Stephin-Merritt-knows-this-is-filler tracks (“How Fucking Romantic,” “Punk Love, “Love Is Like Jazz”) and other less obvious musical mehs (“The One You Really Love,” “A Pretty Girl is Like…,” “Underwear”). This is a three hour and three disc long exploration of what a love song can be. If you stare at anything gargantuan long enough, you’ll find plenty to criticize. But the fact Stephin Merritt hits so much more often than he misses here is enough to erect an edifice in his honor. For this opus in particular, he cemented himself as one of the greatest and most distinctive songwriters of all time.

The thing that’s always impressed me about The Magnetic Fields / Stephin Merritt / 69 Love Songs is their / his / its ability to twist musical genres or the very idea of melody and love itself so as to make it appear their / his / its idea in the first place. There are plenty of typical Magnetic Fields songs on here: instant classics packed with shiny synthesizers hopping along in optimistic bliss as their lyrics drag their feet in depression (“The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” etc). But 69 Love Songs is significant for showing Stephin Merritt had a musical vocabulary to match his way with words.

This was the first Magnetic Fields record to dabble in instrumentation beyond intricate and twinkly synthesizers and guitars. There are accordion led waltzes (“My Sentimental Melody,” “The Night You Can’t Remember,” “Zebra”), folksy strummers and piano ballads to jerk out tears with tales of love won and lost (“The Book of Love,” “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do,” “Papa Was A Rodeo”) and alternately bleak and rejoicing nineties, Lou-Reed-lethargic guitar rock songs (“I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”). The vastness of styles is all tied together by Merritt’s consistence as a clever and moving wordsmith. He can make you laugh and cry on command.

The idea of fate is somewhat cheap and unprovable but if Stephin Merritt was born to do anything, it was to write love songs.

Q-Tip’s Amplified (2000)

Amplified

Album: Amplified
Artist: Q-Tip
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #48 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000,
My Favorite Songs: Wait Up, Breathe and Stop, Let’s Ride, N.T.
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3.5/5), NME (8/10), Pitchfork (6.8/10), Robert Christgau (A)
My Grade: 87%

I’ll put it to you this way: if you’re hankering for a record featuring a shirtless black man on the cover from 2000, you’d be better off with D’Angelo’s Voodoo than Q-Tip’s Amplified. This is about the best means of comparison I can come up with considering I’m woefully behind on checking out A Tribe Called Quest’s discography. Ergo, it’s hard to see how Q-Tip’s solo debut stacks up next to earlier collaborative work with that group.

You can take this whole shirtless analogy even further. Q-Tip stands arms-outstretched on his record’s cover, adorned in a grandiose coat and flanked by his postmodern posse. D’Angelo may be chiseled and impressive but its just him staring at the camera. Both poses typify what’s found therein. Amplified is a social record, one to put on when you and your friends want to bop your head while Voodoo is much more subtle, confident and demanding pensive listening.

Enough with this shirtless thing though before anyone thinks I’ve developed some bizarre fixation. Amplified is a hell of a good time even if there isn’t much here that’ll knock you backward in the kind of reverence Q-Tip seems to have for himself on the cover. The keyboard work on here is the real star, followed closely by the fluid but still edged-out raps themselves. (How can you resist the rapper role call on “Let’s Ride” in particular?) Contained here are glitchy beats shift to keep you partying; the songs on here have names like “All In,” “Go Hard,” and “Do It” so what would you expect? And as far as parties go, this is a pretty fun one to attend even if the host’s a bit more cocksure than he should be. Korn may be there (“End of Time”) but so’s J Dilla (co-produced every track with Q-Tip besides “Do It” and “N.T.,” which were handled by DJ Scratch). Everything evens out.

Grand Drive’s True Love and High Adventure (2000)

True Love and High Adventure

Album: True Love and High Adventure
Artist: Grand Drive
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #49 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Ladders to the Stars, A Little Numb
Their Grades: NME (8/10)
My Grade: 66%

For an album called True Love and High Adventure, there’s very little to love here and even less that could be considered adventurous. To be fair, I only got a chance to listen to some of what’s on here as Spotify and YouTube could only attest to about two-thirds of the record. I scoured the Internet for the rest but came up dry. Maybe the ones I didn’t get a chance to hear make up for the mediocrity of most of the ones I did.

I can turn to late-‘80s to mid-‘90s Van Morrison for the lilting horn and soft-jazzy inflections brought out by “Sleepy.” The acoustic scutting/jinglebell combination which the title track opens with sent my eyes straight to the back of my head and nothing brought them back through the rest of the song. Even album opener “Wheels” doesn’t get me anywhere, despite its pleasant harmonies. In the interest of positivity, “Ladders to the Stars” is catchy and occasionally moving.

But the only real standout here is “A Little Numb,” the only track which appropriately hints at the grandness of the themes brought up in the album’s title. The fullness of the piano rolls, coupled with Hammond organs and harmonies by way of The Band, may not be the most original combination but it’s at least the most classic-sounding. I’m a sucker for old-school, late-‘60s/early-‘70s rock and roll hymns and this is definitely an admirable homage to that style of songcraft.

True Love and High Adventure is likable enough, even if its far from the musical questing its title suggests. At least one of the songs on here left me feeling more than “A Little Numb” and that’s more than I can say about plenty of records running around these days.

Included below is a compilation record by Grand Drive as it’s the only record of theirs available on Spotify

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s The Blue Trees (2000)

The Blue Trees

Album: The Blue Trees
Artist: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #50 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Lady Fair, Face Like Summer
Their Grades: Pitchfork (7.7/10)
My Grade: 67%

One of the most interesting things about doing this 2000 series has been seeing the amount of folk music which was hanging around before the mid-2000s revival established by people like Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam. The first thing I thought about Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci was that their band name sounds like a track title from Sufjan’s Illinoise. Upon further research, it seems they’re more known for psychedelic pop but they’re somewhat adept at recording old-fashioned Canterbury Tales folk music too.

The pastoral songs on here are sometimes instrumental, sometimes sung in English and sometimes sung in Welsh. All of it is calming and delicate but nothing grabbed me to the point where I’ll be listening to this on the regular. Folk, perhaps more than any other genre, is easily lost within itself. Troubadours fingerpicking their acoustics are struck with a hard bargain: maintaining a working relationship with music that’s inherently unoriginal while finding enough of a unique voice to perk any given person’s ears. Does this work as the kind of music which could soundtrack a montage of green valleys and grazing cows? Certainly. But I’m not a grazing cow.

The main thing this album does is remind me how wonderful those more prominent folk revivalists were and are. They breathed fresh life into a genre which was still pretty bland when Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci took it on. This really is a pretty zygotic record, an embryo from which you can detect hints of the healthy newborns to come in the ensuing years.

Sigur Rós’s Ágætis Byrjun (2000)

Ágætis Byrjun

Album: Ágætis Byrjun
Artist: Sigur Rós
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #33 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #2 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #35 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000, Winner of the Iceland Music Award and the Shortlist Music Prize
My Favorite Songs: Svefn-g-englar, Starálfur, Flugufrelsarinn, Olsen Olsen
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (7/10), Pitchfork (9.4/10), Robert Christgau (B)
My Grade: 95%

I owe my introduction to this band to some disgruntled YouTube commenter. Back in my freshman year of high school, In Rainbows by Radiohead came out and I’d just discovered the eminent Oxfordians a year prior. When they released the socially conscious video for “All I Need,” someone whose username is now lost to the annals of time brought up how it sounded like a Sigur Rós rip-off. While I still don’t know if I agree with him/her, I’m thankful it inspired me to listen to Agaetis Byrjun for the first time with my dad on the way back from a Radiohead concert in Chula Vista. Because of these Icelanders, the car ride home was as cathartic an experience as the concert.

After all these years, this is still my favorite of their records. New things surprise me with every listen. As I was revisiting it this time around, I marveled at how many elements are included which are so non-emblematic of what the band’s come to represent. There are harmonicas, jazzy Rhodes keyboards and plodding indie rock guitar riffs all in the midst of the oceanic post-rock symphonies they’re most known for.

The sonar beeps at the beginning of “Svefn-g-englar” are a mood setting mechanism for what comes as the songs start rolling in. Sounds this transcendental put you in mind immediately of either the unreachable depths of the ocean or the immeasurable heights of space. Where their later albums (Takk…, in particular) draw their inspiration from earthiness and nature, this one remains their most exploratory. From the strings on “Staralfur” to the repetitive guitar plucking of “Olsen Olsen,” you never know what’s going to come next but it always feels like a better home than wherever you’re from. A brief look at the album cover gives you all the adjectives you need to describe what’s here: angelic, womblike, prayerful, innocent, melancholy. People may argue about the existence of the supernatural till the end of time but heaven’s right here if you’re looking for it.

Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

The Moon & Antarctica

Album: The Moon & Antarctica
Artist: Modest Mouse
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #49 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #3 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Gravity Rides Everything, Perfect Disguise, Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, Paper Thin Walls
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3.5/5), NME (7/10), Pitchfork (9.8/10), Robert Christgau (A-)
My Grade: 85%

For all its spaciness, The Moon & Antarctica is primarily a record about what it means to be alive on the third planet. The album’s title may come from a newspaper headline in Blade Runner but it also works as a reference to two of the most foreign territories which influence the earth. The moon controls the tides and Antarctica possesses a pole which keeps the world turning on its magnetic axis, just as Isaac Brock is fond of writing music which crashes like waves, chock full of repetitive, rotating guitar riffs.

I’ve always had a hard time connecting with Modest Mouse but can easily see why other people get them more than me. The lyrics contained here are abstract but rootsy, trafficking in the kinds of questions which get philosophers’ eyes to open every morning. The stuff on here isn’t as angular as the songs on The Lonesome Crowded West, nor is it as accessible as what would come on Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. But Brock’s depth as a songwriter is hinted at here in spades, capable as he is of writing a mournful ballad like “Perfect Disguise,” an apocalyptic funk groove like “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and a super-fun indie rock song like “Paper Thin Walls” over the course of the same record.

Their originality is always impressive, even if it’s never been quite the coffee I drink to kickstart my morning. It’s the same with The Moon & Antarctica as it’s been for me with all their other records. There are some songs here I love to immerse myself in but I’m just as fine being outside their ocean.

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