This list is taken from the End Of The Decade issue of NME magazine (on sale November 18th) where each album included is reviewed again from a 2009 perspective, alongside brand new interviews and a look back at the defining musical moments of the past 10 years.
Read the original NME review from 2003:
Due to some weird accident of timing, we're currently getting a masterclass on how - and how not - to sustain a long career in pop. Jarvis is back under new (dis)guise Relaxed Muscle, Radiohead return with an album that disappointingly occupies the same musical space as the last two, Oasis bestride the world like an arthritic Colossus and then there's Blur.
They've always known the value of keeping one step ahead, of having a new 'concept' for each record, which has always made them objects of suspicion by the rock authenticity police. This time, however, change has been forced on them by the departure of Graham Coxon, and the 'concept' is not Damon's daughter (as Justine Frischmann once tartly claimed it would be - actually, maybe that was Gorillaz) but Africa and anti-stardom.
Now that Gorillaz have sold millions of records without Damon even having to show his face, Blur claim to be disdainful of the pop process, of presenting themselves as personalities. This makes sense when contrasted with inescapable pop trasherati like Victoria Beckham, and the fact that Blur are no longer the fresh-faced sex symbols of yore. But it's really no different from attitudes of snooty Seventies prog rockers, who thought the normal pop modes of communication (being on Top Of The Pops, releasing singles) were somehow beneath them. So 'Out Of Time', their most straightforwardedly touching single for ages, has a video Blur don't even appear in, two gorgeous ballads are given the dismissive titles 'Good Song' and 'Sweet Song' and the album opens with 'Ambulance', which on first listen sounds exactly like something from David Bowie's dreadful 'Heathen'. "We could have made a pop album," Blur seem to be saying, "but that would have been too easy."
Sigh. But despite Damon removing two "potential radio smashes" from 'Think Tank' because they "didn't fit in" (because he was saving them for Gorillaz, more like), it's still accessible and enjoyable despite, you often feel, the intentions of its creators. While 'Jet' is toe-curling free-jazz toss and the Norman Cook-assisted 'Crazy Beat' sounds like four old yobs making an exhibition of themselves in a disco, Norm's other track 'Gene By Gene' is an effortless pop gem (with a title which probably doesn't refer to Liam Gallagher's youngest child). Then there's the summery, Arabian side of the album, with 'Caravan' and 'On The Way To The Club' both luxuriating in the kind of grace and mystery which dissolves cynicism on impact.
Blur's "and this is me" moment is the closing 'Battery In Your Leg', the only song still featuring Graham Coxon ('Blur featuring Graham Coxon' - how R&B). "I've got nothing to rely on/I've broken every bone," sings Damon frailly, as Graham chimes out the saddest-sounding guitar riff ever, so loud it obliterates the singing. It's a hugely apt and moving epitaph.
God knows what will happen next - there's certainly no sense of urgency and ambition in Blur themselves. Yet against the odds, 'Think Tank' is a success, a record which might not mean much to Strokes fans but which shows Blur's creative spark is undimmed even while their stomach for the pop fight fades. After all this time, they still demand to be heard.
19White Blood Cells
Read the original NME review from 2001:
As nu-metal bands proliferate at a rate that usually requires a visit from Rentokil, the unconverted could feel swamped by the tide of unhealthy mental filth rising up the charts. It's an unprecedented cosmic kindness, then, that for every band squawking at their parents like ungainly chicks demanding worms, America should be producing an equal volume of excellent guitar bands who haven't swapped their brains for a GameBoy Advance.
Of course, the appeal of [a]Linkin Park[/a], [a]Papa Roach[/a] and compadres partly springs from their convincing modernism, a genre-spanning hybrid that relishes the challenges of 21st century teenhood. Conversely, it takes three seconds of [a]White Stripes[/a]' third album to recognise that this is a band in thrall to rock'n'roll's hairy past, unafraid to take on the auras of bluesmen who died before the birth of television and twist them into heavy psychedelic freak-outs. Yet somehow, sibling duo Jack and Meg White manage to make music that thrums with a biological rather than historical imperative, their minimal line-up streamlining soured Cream riffing and demon-summoning [a]Led Zeppelin[/a] grandeur into songs blessed with the skinny modern attitude of The Moldy Peaches or [a]At The Drive-In[/a].
Brother-sister bands instantly possess a perverse, cultish appeal, and it's easy to imagine singer-guitarist Jack and drummer Meg locked in a white room with black curtains by their sinister longhair parents. The follow-up to last year's excellent 'De Stijl', 'White Blood Cells', instantly creates a clammy world of its own, Jack's paranoid obsessions looming darkly over the untrammelled riffing. The perfect kitsch Pixies of 'Fell In Love With A Girl', or the fey childhood-sweetheart folk of 'We're Going To Be Friends' hint at many moods but ultimately, 'White Blood Cells' is the sound of a basement bedsit breakdown, a free-festival for the clinically furious. 'Offend In Every Way' is reminiscent of [a]Beck[/a]'s ominous 'Diamond Bullocks' role-playing; 'Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground' could be [a]Jon Spencer Blues Explosion[/a] with a silver tune in his mouth; while 'The Union Forever' is threaded with the deft guitar logic of The Animals.
This is the house of the Rising Stars: the lyrics are great, the attitude unmistakable. "What would I have liked to be? Everything you hate" yelps Jack while the Latinate lurch of 'I Smell A Rat' - "All you little kids think you know where it's at... Using your parents like a welcome mat" - hints at a moral fibre [a]Limp Bizkit[/a] would do well to observe.
Great songs, a great look and self-discipline, too. Rock'n'roll might have been the ruin of many a poor boy, but [a]White Stripes[/a]' are made guys.
Read the original NME review from 2003:
For one who talks so much about honesty, Jack White is a difficult man to trust. When last we hear him on 'Elephant', he is hanging out on what sounds like Lee Hazlewood's porch, but is actually Toerag Studios in Hornerton, engaged in a giggly menage a trois with Holly Golightly and his beloved 'sister' Meg. Holly is pushy, loving Jack "like a little brother". Jack is cagey, but eventually succumbs. "Well Holly I love you too", he admits, "But there's jusy so much I don't know about you. Even after 'It's True That We Love One Another', track 14 of the duo's fourth album, all remains deliriously unclear in the world of Jack and Meg White. Here are devious confusions between romantic and materal love, a neurotic approach to the wiles of women, numerology, infantilism and, not least, some of the most obliteratingly brilliant rock'n'roll of our time.
In other words, business as usual at Camp White Stripe. Improbable success, old marriage certificates in the public domain, the new rock revolution - nothing has affected them. There are cosmetic changes, with longer hair and outfits fit for Grand Ole Opry goths. But, still, they looked more suited to a night out in Detroit's ruins than for celebrity.
In the recording studio, too, not much has altered. The location's shifted from Detroit to London, though only the presence of Holly Golightly and Jack brandishing a cricket bat on the cover signal it. 'Elephant' remains the work of champion Luddites, recorded onto eight-track tape using equipment built before 1663 - guitars. Meg's drums, the odd keyboard. The bristly frequencies that open the album aren't a bass, but Jack's guitar fed through an octave pedal. Review copies are on vinyl. Jack and Meg still address one another as brother and sister. How sweet. Hopw determined. How treacherous.
Musically honest it may be. But Jack's definitions are slippery. The White Stripes' music has always existed in a fabricated reality, defined by Jack in his first NME interview, "I like things as honest as possible," he conceded, "even if sometimes they can only be an imitation of honesty."
If The White Stripes hadn't become superstars, 'Elephant' would probably still sound pretty much like this. It streches their musical parameters without betraying the tenets of rawness and immediacy. It sounds massive, but intimate: between Jack's slide runs, you can virtually hear the air moving round the studio. And it reminds us that, of all the bands we've embraced from Detroit and beyond in the the two years since 'White Blood Cells', none can match the depth of The White Stripes.
So from the start, 'Elephant' is breathtaking, 'Seven Nation Army' begins with that faked bass, heartbeat drum, and jack snarling through a distorted mic. The one obvious diatribe against fame, it finds him paranoid, hemmed in by intrusive questions, and pondering a move to Wichita. Confusion remains his most effective security blanket. The brother and sister legend still diverts attention from when he really exposes himself, and it's now augmented by a recurring smudge between sexual and motherly love. 'The Air Near My Fingers' is typical, painting Jack as chronically nervous of a girl, longing for the security of his mom.
Is this Jack White at his most truthful? As a man unnerved and bewildered by women, who yearns for the certainties of childhood? He'd certainly like us to think so, although the attentions of Marcie Bolen may suggest different.
'Elephant' is full of songs that sound like their subject is sex and read like it's actually inadequacy. 'Hypnotize' - a belting evolution of 'Fell In Love With A Girl' - sees Jack trying desperately to control a woman, before he collapses into meek chivalry and pleads, "I want to hold your little hand if I can be so bold". On "I Want To Be The Boy", all his attempts at courtly dating rituals end in failure. "It feels like everything I say is a lie", he mopes, pointedly.
If only girls behaved the way he wanted them to. 'There's No Home For You Here' finds him so frustrated with yet another volatile woman that the trivia of their affair becomes despicable. At times, this sterotyping of women becomes faintly unsavoury. But it smells like fiction, especially when the sentiments come couched in such histrionic music. 'There's No Home...'takes grisly introspection and the tune of 'Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground' and makes vast melodrama out of them, with multi-tracked choral howls, theatrical pauses and the kind of shrill, compressed guitar solos that pockmark the whole album.
In his valve-driven little universe, Jack White is an extravagent drama queen. Surpassing 'Jolene', on Bacharach & David's 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself' he replaces Dusty Springfield's forlorn grandeur with exasperation. But when he gives Meg a song to sing, 'Cold, Cold Night' is unambiguous in its carnality, pitched somewhere between Brenda Lee and Moe Tucker. Perhaps all those apparent flaws of fickleness and duplicity lie in the minds of men, not women.
It's easy to get lost in the vivid, unstable emotional tangle of 'Elephant'. But, consistently, the brilliance of the music acts as a compass. When Jack bitterly resolves to study the rules of attraction on 'Black Math', he does so to juddering garage punk that recasts 'Let's Build A Home' in corroded metal. When he practices more dark algebra by comparing his status as his girl's "third man" to that as his mother's "seventh son" on 'Ball And Biscuit', he streamlines the epic crunch 0f Led Zeppelin in the album's most overt nod to the blues.
That said, the strongest influences on 'Elephant' are the three albums which preceded it. But it's a heavier one than they've made before, and with a nasty undercurrent that battles for prominence with Jack's romantic anxieties. He's a fabulist and a showman. But he can also voice sweetness and torment with an intensity that most conventionally emotional songwriters would kill for. Critically, he can make you believe in his songs, at the same time as you don't believe a word of them. This, perhaps, is what great songwriters do.
And always, there's the implication that he can do more. Right now, the eloquence, barbarism, tenderness and sweat-drenched vitality of 'Elephant' make it most fully-realised White Stripes album yet. All the excitement we wabt from rock'n'roll is here, and miraculously, few of the cliches. But there's a sense, too, that Jack is still grappling with adolescence: explicitly in his lyrics; metaphorically in the astonishing, still rudimentary punch of the music. The prospect of his finally reaching adulthood - with or without Meg - is explosive, and not a little terrifying.
Read the original NME review from 2005:
When [a]Sufjan Stevens[/a] picked up his banjo and announced his intention to write an album for each one of America’s 50 states, it probably all seemed like a right laugh. No doubt he’d had a couple of ales down his local and was channelling the same sort of booze-addled self-belief that normally pre-empts a phrase like, “A tenner says I can swim across the Thames.” Right now, though, in the cold light of sobriety, with 48 states still to document and blisters all over his best plucking finger, he probably just wants a day off. Which is tough, because this record shows that Sufjan’s gargantuan ambition is easily matched by his talent.
‘Illinoise’, then, is the Michigan multi-instrumentalist’s fifth LP, following on from last year’s ‘Seven Swans’, a record so sublime it made yours truly buy a banjo. It’s also the second in his 50 states project, the first being 2004’s ‘Greetings From Michigan’. Now, you’d think that with such a daunting task facing him he might try and hold a few pretty melodies back; store them in the vaults for that notoriously difficult 37th album. But no. Instead, here’s a whopping 22 more tracks, each constructed with the same attention to detail and fragile grace of Lambchop or Nick Drake.
The first thing that strikes you about ‘Illinoise’ is that Sufjan’s a brainy little fucker. This is a record so well researched that the guy actually studied early immigration records before writing it. One minute he’s singing about Abraham Lincoln ( ‘Decatur, Or Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!’ ), the next writing simple love songs ( ‘Chicago’) or conjuring poetic metaphors concerning America’s tallest skyscraper (spooky piano ballad ‘The Seer’s Tower’). You could write vast tomes on it, so allow us to pick out some highlights. ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise! Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition, Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream’ (the titles are a dream for journalists paid by the word) is astonishing. It begins as a gloriously upbeat 42nd Street musical, then breaks (bizarrely) into the sax refrain from The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’, before a sumptuous string section lifts it towards the heart-melting whispered refrain “I cried myself to sleep last night”. Or how about ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, a moving account of the infamous ‘Killer Clown’ who murdered homosexuals throughout ’70s Chicago? Here, Sufjan reveals himself as a master storyteller, vividly recalling details like the way, “The neighbours they adored him” before the bone-chilling revelation, “Twenty seven people/Even more/They were boys/With their cars/Summer jobs/Oh my God”. That last bit hits a trembling falsetto, as if your heartstrings weren’t already being tugged from their arteries.
As well as writing this record, Sufjan also recorded, engineered and produced it. Given that tossing out a half-baked impression of your last album every couple of years is seen as some sort of accepted work-rate these days, such workaholic freakishness should be applauded. And what a sound he’s constructed: the stripped-back banjo plucking of ‘Seven Swans’ has been replaced with orchestral swells, military drumbeats and hymnal backing vocals. He also has a way with circling piano lines that slowly build into explosive all-girl choruses. You’d have to hunt like a bastard to find an independent record that sounds this lush. And, at almost 75 minutes in length, you’d also have to hunt to find one quite so epic. It’s probably too long; you’ll struggle to ingest it in one sitting. But complaining about too much good music seems daft in a world where The Bravery exist.
[a]Sufjan Stevens[/a], then, is the rarest of talents: prolific, intelligent and – most importantly – brimming with heart-wrenching melodies. ‘Illinoise’ might not end up his best record, but it’s his masterpiece so far; a staggering collection of unspeakably precious music. Let’s just hope he doesn’t stop when he gets to number 50.
16A Grand Don’t Come For Free
Read the original NME review from 2004:
In a provincial shopping park - it doesn't matter where, it could be anywhere that B&Q, Halfords and Comet have chosen to congregate in one formation or another - a modded Escort Mk IV (with the 'Escort' logo rearranged so that it reads 'sorted') sits in the car park, its bodykit rattling in time to the hip-hop beats emanating from the bass bin that occupies most of the boot. The engine is revved and the reverse lights come on. Then a new track comes on, and so the occupants wait a while. The driver, a young man in a baseball cap, looks at his girlfriend. They nod with approval and wait until the track finishes before driving off. The track is 'Fit But You Know It', the first single from 'A Grand Don't Come For Free'. An Audi TT driver pulls into the vacant space and tuts derisorily at its previous occupants.
Here we are in 2004 in a society as divided, under a Labour government, as it was under the Conservative rule of Thatcher and Major. The casual snobbery of the late-1980s - when champagne-quaffing hoorays would shout "peasants" or "townies" at Kappa-clad pedestrians from the windows of their Suzuki Vitaras and Porsche 944s - is back in all its nastiness (and if you don't believe that, check out chavscum.co.uk). The divisions today, however, are less clear-cut. It's not a north/south divide, it's a tale of two hot sandwiches: a Zinger Tower Burger or seared tuna on sundried tomato ciabatta? It's about the divide between living in a highbrow fantasy land or what Skinner calls "normal England".
Mike Skinner, the man who is [a]The Streets[/a], bridges the north/south divide and looks down on this England with the wisdom of someone who's experienced the urban and suburban, the provincial and the cosmopolitan. Born in London, raised in Birmingham and now back in the smoke, his Cockney-Brummie hybrid delivery ends up sounding for all the world like it's from the East Midlands.
Back in 2002 'Original Pirate Material', [a]The Streets[/a]' debut, was a phenomenon. Admired by the kids, lauded by the sillier broadsheet critics who compared Skinner to Philip Larkin and William Blake, it motivated dozens of bedroom studio imitators to lay off the spliff for 30 seconds and do it for themselves. Now, in the wake of [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a]'s Mercury win, the pressure is on for Mike Skinner to produce the magnum opus of the genre they call 'not-really-rapping-just-sort-of-talking-about-shit-over-some-beat-or-other'. And he not-really-raps-just-sort-of-talks-about-shit like a good'un.
It's a not-so-difficult second album. 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' isn't a rap odyssey fusing Prokofiev with free jazz, dancing bears and the works of Proust on ice. It's 'Original Pirate Material' part two. But better. A sorry, but occasionally celebratory, life-in-an-album tale of a stoned loser called Mike, his broken TV, and the mystery of a missing £1,000. You could call it a "concept album" but that would suggest some eyebrow-raising arty agenda. But this is a story, not some attempt for Skinner to portray himself as an intellectual giant to his cowering, mortal fans.
On first listen, 'Fit But You Know It' is the obvious single. Nothing else is as immediate as 'Don't Mug Yourself' or 'Weak Become Heroes' from his debut. A great first single, it takes a guitar chug and a boozy rant and combines them to joyous effect. Close your eyes, put four moptops in suits in the picture, and you could easily imagine it as an early Beatles song. It captures the naivety of tunes like 'She Loves You' or 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' but transplants it to an era when 'innocent' means not yet having your brown wings.
Repeated listens reap rewards. Skinner's vocals are so high up in the mix that it's easy to forget there's some music underneath. And he certainly hides his thingy under a whatsit. He plays with a broader musical palette than the just-thrown-together feel suggests: from the Hammer horror strings and brass stabs of 'What Is He Thinking' and the acoustic guitar on the beautiful heartbreak-balm of 'Dry Your Eyes' to the sweet soul vocals that punctuate the tale of sofa-bound inertia that is 'I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way', where the lyric "The ashtray needs emptying and the Clipper needs a shake" is delivered with the kind of heartfelt conviction usually reserved for love songs.
Album opener 'It Was Supposed To Be So Easy' is an everyday tale of taking a DVD back to the shop, only to find the disc's still back at home and then queuing for ages at a cash machine only to find you have insufficient funds. It's a mundane epic, the everyday drama elevated with a flourish of horns and a lolloping beat.
Just as happy tackling more serious social issues as he is with everyday minutiae, Skinner takes on gambling addiction (how un-rock'n'roll: not heroin, not cocaine, but gambling) on 'Not Addicted'. His hapless narrator sings "I don't the first thing about football/But my instincts tell me this is my windfall" over an ominous bassline.
Some critics have compared the music of [a]The Streets[/a] to the films of Ken Loach, a director who has made a career out of selling working-class misery as a form of redemption for middle-class viewers. But what makes humans human is our ability to triumph over adversity. The humour within everyday life (the reason why Coronation Street will always be better than EastEnders, no arguments at the back) is apparent within Skinner's craft. It's happened to all of us. "Yeah, I think we got cut off/Yeah, I got crap reception in my house/I have to stand in a certain spot in my kitchen or it cuts out", as Skinner not-really-raps-just-sort of talks on 'Such A Twat', a mobile phone-call confession of the holiday infidelity of 'Fit But You Know It'.
But comparisons with drama aren't too far off the mark. 'Get Out Of My House' is as much an audio drama as it is a song. A thrilling argument between girlfriend and boyfriend, Skinner reveals with a dramatist's cunning that Mike's contentious stash of pills isn't ecstasy but medication for his epilepsy.
The epic 'Empty Cans' closes the album with hair-raising effect. Mike, hating himself and blaming the world for his problems, sits in a lounge full of empty cans of Tennents Super. He's angry and snarling. Then a rewind and a reflection: the revelation that he has the power to change the situation. In come the pianos. The anger becomes celebration. He can get the television fixed. Hell, he might even solve who nicked the missing grand, but we can't tell you if he does or not because that'd be like revealing that the twist in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is the policeman did it.
'A Grand Don't Come For Free' is proof that 'Original Pirate Material' wasn't a happy fluke. It doesn's matter if continued success distances Skinner from 'the streets'. His talent is as an observer, a chronicler, and - oh bollocks, the broadsheets were right - a poet. In his wry commentary, Skinner proves far more effective than any doomsayer. In normal England, life's (a little bit) shit. And don't we know it?
15Songs For The Deaf
Read the original NME review from 2002:
The myth is often so much better than the reality. It's great to hear about the excess, but the hangovers are less often recorded. Great to hear about the drugs, but less to hear about the dependency. Brilliant to witness the amazing rock'n'roll, much less brilliant to be present at the soundcheck. The achievement of Queens Of The Stone Age is to do all three: be masters of the myth, deal with the reality, and be masters of their rock as well.
'Songs For The Deaf', their third album, finds them capitalising on this unique position, and nearly all of what you might want from them and their music is here. There are great titles ('You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like A Millionaire'), displays of extraordinary rock'n'roll ('A Song For the Deaf') and great disturbing pop ('No-one Knows'), and they all contribute to Queens' mystique. Having begun as a straightforward three-piece band, they're now something else altogether. Their world - sexual, drug-filled, and occasionally paranoid - has become progressively darker, and as such we find them nothing less than guardians of the rock flame.
It's an intoxicating story, and obviously one that's no less exciting to musicians. So here, joining full-time Queens members Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri are - once again - former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan, and Dave Grohl. Importantly, these are the sort of people who have seen a lot and done a lot, but also those who are pretty consistently on top of their
game. It's a dream team.
So a voice announces "I need a saga..." and, sure enough, one begins. Of course, it takes in what are for QOTSA some routine stops - pills, punk rock, dark humour and death - but 'Songs For The Deaf' is an album very aware that these in themselves are neither empirically interesting, or even anything new. 'No One Knows' and 'First It Giveth' stamp a dark mood on the record that never quite lets up - instead, it creates a woozy, disorientating world of sound that attempts to find the most innovative way possible of visiting signature rock subjects. There are still moments of release here (there's the great 'Gonna Leave You', 'Another Love Song' and the Lanegan-sung 'Hangin' Tree'), but the greatest achievement of 'Songs For The Deaf' is that it isn't an album that tells you what it was like - this is one that puts you right there.
To be there with Queens Of The Stone Age is definitely weird, but undeniably thrilling. It's the feel odd hit of the summer, and it's going to be very hard to beat.
Read the original NME review from 2000:
The unbearable heaviness of being [a]Radiohead[/a] continues. Following the equivalent birth pains of a medium-sized galaxy, 'Kid A' arrives amidst the most fantastic stories of artistic constipation: abortive recording sessions, writer's block, band members wondering just what the hell it was they were meant to be doing, Doomsday scenarios around every corner. Seemingly overwhelmed by the exorbitant praise heaped upon 'OK Computer', [a]Radiohead[/a] elected to get in touch with their avant-garde side, that time (dis)honoured escape clause in the white liberal rock star's lexicon of [I]How To Deal With Success[/I]. But although they might disavow the process, [a]Radiohead[/a] have been complicit in their own deification through sheer aptitude. Now, predictably, in attempting to reinvent themselves as a more elusive entity, they've made a record that by its mere existence will only heighten the intrigue and intensify their global cult.
At least the rash of anaemic surrogates hurried along to quench the market's demand for overwrought introspection during the post-'OK Computer' hiatus are rendered in deservedly unforgiving perspective from the outset. 'Everything In Its Right Place' is a pointed opener - one fondly imagines Thom Yorke practising his most disdainful Mark E Smith sneer and muttering, "Notebooks out, plagiarists". A beautiful triumph of understatement, it bubbles forth upon tactile swathes of electric piano and Yorke's cut-up wordless vocals. When he does emerge from the deconstructivist frenzy, it's to scatter a bunch of gnomic phrases: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon".
Were the entire record comprised of such wilful obfuscation, then the perpetrators could be rightly accused of copping out completely, but it seems [a]Radiohead[/a]'s instincts for the passionate grand gesture are too strongly ingrained. 'How To Disappear Completely' heralds a return to the big ballad template, as massed strings swoon and Yorke's voice soars transcendentally for the first time, while 'Optimistic' is the cue to give a plausible impression of a live rock band. Y'know, like featuring drums, guitars - this group used to employ three of those, you may recall - and a fully plugged-in singer declaiming apocalyptically about big fish eating little ones. It's great, but lest anyone forget where much of [a]Radiohead[/a]'s mid-'90s renaissance stemmed from, it sounds a lot like REM, specifically 'Monster'-period REM rewriting 'Country Feedback'. And this after a mid-album ambient instrumental, another device fondly employed by the esteemed Athenians.
Thus far, 'Kid A' has provided stuff old, new, borrowed and, as ever, blacker than blue. Without consistently engaging the heart, this has been a cool experience. But hereafter, and one superlative song aside, it rather loses its nerve. Of the remaining four tracks, 'In Limbo' meanders nowhere particularly interesting, proving it takes more than a tricky time signature to sustain a non-song. The edgy 'Morning Bell' is much better, promising to rend the heavens with immolatory guitar, but reining back just as it's really pushing out. And 'Motion Picture Soundtrack' is a sorely anticlimactic closer, the kitchen sink arrangement singularly failing to disguise the lack of anything substantial underneath.
It's the one track that stands furthest from one's expectations of how [a]Radiohead[/a] sound that represents the album's saving grace. Naff in title and quite gauche in its stab at garage-noir, 'Idioteque' is a nonetheless brilliantly persuasive two-step litany of paranoia, fear and unease. Yorke sings it like he means it - "Women and children first/I laugh until my head comes off/I've seen too much/You haven't seen enough/This is really happening/Take the money and run" - and suddenly [a]Radiohead[/a]'s amorphous external agenda assumes some kind of shape.
And here's the rub: for better or worse, [a]Radiohead[/a] have always been about something, be it the loathing of self or the human condition in general, and the ramifications thereof. Yet it seems in a desire to quash the rampant air of significance suffusing their every movement and utterance, they've rather sold short the essence of their art. Yorke's presence is opaque - what better way for a reluctant generational spokesman to abdicate responsibility than by saying nothing much at all? Anyone who's seen the band live this year or pillaged the Internet realises there's songs recorded during the 'Kid A' sessions that are at least the equal of anything here. Now while these will presumably appear in some form in due course, their inclusion on this album would have made it an inestimably stronger work, broader in scope and more potent in impact. Who knows, maybe more fun to listen to.
But heaven forbid, that might mean even more outlandish plaudits for the poor lambs to contend with. For all its feats of brinkmanship, the patently magnificent construct called 'Kid A' betrays a band playing one-handed just to prove they can, scared to commit itself emotionally. And isn't that what this is supposedly all about?
13Wincing The Night Away
Read the original NME review from 2007:
The Shins’ singer and songwriter James Mercer recently confessed that this record’s rather strange title was down to the fact that he’d been struggling to sleep at night, so aware was he of the feverish anticipation around the album. No surprise there – the band’s obsessed fans are as freakily passionate as any emo tribe, while Natalie Portman telling Zach Braff that The Shins would “change your life” in the 2004 cult movie Garden State can’t have helped his blood pressure much in those long, lonely nights either.
But you know what? Mercer really needn’t have worried about the reaction. The group’s third album, the follow-up to 2003’s (2004 in the UK) brilliant ‘Chutes Too Narrow’, is their best yet, and is set to launch them into the big league. Well, if there’s any justice it will anyway. The New Mexico four-piece have upped the ante considerably, producing a much more varied, confident sound without compromising one little bit. Contained within are genius, hook-laden pop songs (the single ‘Phantom Limb’, ‘Turn On Me’), stunningly pretty psychedelia (‘Red Rabbits’, ‘Black Wave’) and, on the loping strut of ‘Sea Legs’, their biggest stylistic departure yet, there’s even tasteful hip-hop style beats. Yes, you heard that right.
The icing on the cake is Mercer’s cryptic lyrics – like Dylan, you’re never quite sure what he’s actually on about most of the time, but when he mentions being “faced with the dodo’s conundrum” (‘Australia’) or refers to “polymorphing opinion” on the woozy ‘Spilt Needles’, it sounds so good that in the end it really doesn’t matter.
Alright, it’s only January, but this is the first classic album of 2007. The only thing that should keep The Shins awake at night right now is wondering how the hell they’re going to top it.
12Relationship Of Command
Read the original review from 2000
Though they probably don’t give a monkey’s, the ‘saviours of US rock music’ tag currently being hung around At The Drive-In’s necks might be weighing a bit heavy. When you’ve been praised as ‘the best live band ever’, despite only having played in the UK a handful of times, the your major label debut album has a lot to live to. When you’re being lined-up alongside Queens Of The Stone Age and …And You’ll Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead as part of the rebel force of US alt.rock fighting against the evils of Fred Durst’s nu-metal crowd, then the pressure is on to deliver an album which is not only rocking but a potential commercial success to boot.
It’s always hard to capture the essence of a chaoticpunk rock band on a big budget release and, let’s face it, the vast majority of non-Beastie Boys release on the Grand Royal label have all been spectacularly shit. We needn’t have worry, though. The Afro-haired El Paso five-piece built their reputation by ceaselessly touring with an almost inhuman enthusiasm for the righteous power of punk rock’n’roll. Some nights they’d play to 15 people, other nights for less. They came from a background of hardcore punk rock, listening to the bands on Fugazi’s Discord label, alongside MC5, The Stooges and even Slayer. They are not punk rock muppet chancers out for a fast buck. For At The Drive-In, rock’n’roll is more important than that.
Getting ATDI’s raw genius down on wax was never going to be easy, but, thankfully, producer Ross (Slipknot, Amen, Korn) Robinson and mixer Andy (Nirvana, Faith No More, Foo Fighters) Wallace- have managed it to amazing effect.
From vicious opener ‘Arc Arsenal’ to the last tune, the bruised and beautiful piano-driven ‘Non Zero Possibility’, ATDI’s latest album has it’s amps cranked up to the hilt from start to finish. Far from being another in the long line of sanitised American punk rock, ‘Relationship of Command’ sounds REAL.
While Britpop millionaires in mid-career crisis make deliberately rubbish ‘art-noise’ albums, ATDI have made a record that’s as arty as it is noisy, but have also had the sense to include some amazing tunes. Case in point is the none-more-artily-named ‘Invalid Litter Dept’ which finds frontman Cedric Bixier reciting 21st century beat poetry while the band sing, “Dancing on the corpses’ ashes”. Of course, it sounds pretentious, but come the song’s explosive chorus of, “Fell into the/ Wishing well/ wishing well/ wishing well”, you’re left in no doubt of the band’s intentions. This is rock music from the soul.
The album’s first single, ‘One armed scissor’, is an awesome twisted punk pop tune, while the king of punk rock himself, Iggy Pop lends guest vocals on the agit-pop ‘Rolodex Propaganda’. The twisted ‘Enfilade’ creeps up on you with space rock keyboards and then hits you over the head- as most of these songs do- with a shouted, repetitive call-to-arms chorus- Cedric leading his troops in a mess of hair, sweat and broken guitars… Of 11 tracks contained within, there is not a pedestrian moment.
A lot is expected of At The Drive-In- thankfully they deliver in style. Absolutely storming.
11Sound Of Silver
Read the original NME review from 2007:
Hey, ever heard the one about the indie band who incorporated a dance direction? Oh, you have? What, like, 1,875,328 times already? This week? Well, you’re not the only one. In fact, if NME has to listen to one more person telling us, “Dance music’s not dead, it just learnt to play guitar,” we might just be forced to gouge out our own eyes with a glowstick. That’s not good – as journalists we need our eyes. To watch Deal Or No Deal every day, obviously.
Anyway, in 2007 the idea that you’re somehow breaking boundaries by sticking some bleeps’n’bongos underneath your rock song is laughable. Bloc Party, The Rapture, Klaxons, Panic! At The Disco, Mystery Jets, Hot Chip, Hadouken!, The Futureheads, Calvin Harris, Late Of The Pier, Radiohead, Metronomy, The Twang, CSS… the list of indie bands who’ve mixed the rock with the rhythm in recent times is so wide and varied it makes such a declaration virtually meaningless.
Yet this wasn’t the case at the turn of the century, when a slurry of garage rock bands were so determined to pretend it was still the early ’70s that they all stopped washing and caught STDs. In an age where Jet could wear a ‘Disco Sucks’ badge without getting publicly flogged, James Murphy was pretty close to a musical messiah – a one-man groove machine, helping The Rapture find their funk with his DFA production of ‘Echoes’, providing Trash (and a billion other indie discos the world over) with ‘Losing My Edge’, aka The Anthem That Never Tired, and inspiring new rave to gurn like no-one’s watching.
Yet Murphy’s recorded output has always been a confusing one to digest – random singles, a double-album with a disc of reheated tracks, a conceptual jogging opera recorded for Nike… can’t the man just put 10 songs on a disc and release it every two years like everyone else? It seems he can – which makes this album rather exciting.
By Murphy’s own future-thinking standards, it’s refinement rather than revolution. The backbone to ‘Sound Of Silver’ is, like previous LCD material, indebted to the original disco-punk explosion of the late-’70s, from Eno to ESG, while Murphy’s delivery suggests he still hasn’t discovered the sinus-enhancing benefits of Vick’s VapoRub. He’s also still acting the record shop über-nerd, pick’n’mixing with such fervour that NME could quite easily fill the word-count here by simply listing all the things the album sounds like (‘All My Friends’? That’ll be The Chemical Brothers’ ‘The Golden Path’ played out of time on a toy piano, then. ‘Sound Of Silver’? Gang Of Four skull-whacked on barbiturates, of course. ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’? Otis Redding reborn as a smart-arse NY hipster, what else? Etc etc). But even by his magpie-like standards, Murphy pushes his luck when opener ‘Get Innocuous!’ kicks the record off with a bassline nicked from one of his own records. A kind of muted version of ‘Losing My Edge’, it’s delivered with a knowing wink before flavours are slowly added to the pot – a barefaced pinch from Kraftwerk’s ‘The Robots’ here, some Talking Heads-style chanting there.
It’s this ability to play hop-scotch with genres that keep the surprises coming. The fabulous ‘Someone Great’ (built around part of his Nike track, ‘45:33’) experiments with acid-fried glockenspiel, ‘Watch The Tapes’ erupts into Beach Boys-style amusement-park pop, and we’re pretty damn sure we heard a slap-bass lurking in there somewhere. Meanwhile, album closer ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is a firm “fuck you” to those who doubt his songwriting credentials – stripped down piano, Stax horns and an avalanche of guitars that even the Manics might consign to the ‘too bombastic’ bin.
Yet, for all the ideas, this is a record with heart. Be it the sense of mourning that hangs over ‘Someone Great’, or Murphy realising the reality of ambition on ‘All My Friends’ (“You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan and the next five years trying to be with your friends again”), there’s deeper terrain to be explored here than the pseudo-stoopid dude singing ‘North American Scum’ likes to let on.
Never does any of this attention to detail interfere with the record’s main purpose – to make you shake parts of your body you never knew existed. The way Murphy thwacks the cowbell on ‘Time To Get Away’ is no doubt inspired by some avant-jazz art happening from the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, but the point is that it sounds great. This is very much a record designed for the dancefloor, rather than your desktop stereo (especially as most tracks head well beyond the five-minute barrier). But whereas Murphy’s wise enough never to let his showing off spoil the fun, he can’t avoid investing these songs with heart and soul. It’s a human affair. And that’s what’ll keep you hooked long after the beats have worn you out.