If you hadn’t heard, we’re coming to the end of a decade. This is apparently very important. Actually, I have no problem with end-of-the-decade lists, because I think they’re useful critical tools for identifying the admirable traits of the music (or television or film or literature or whatever) of our age. But I don’t really feel like doing that right now. Sure, I could talk about why Return To Cookie Mountain or Funeral or Kala are great records, but everyone knows that they’re great, and it would frankly be kind of boring. I can’t get all that passionate defending what’s universally beloved.
Instead I get animated when I talk about things I love that don’t get the attention they deserve. And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do now. Here are (in my humble opinion) five of the most egregiously overlooked records of the last ten years. These are in no particular order, and there are plenty of other albums that deserve to be here, so I’ll probably get around to doing another installment in a week or so. Anyway, if you want to be my friend, you should give these a listen.
Constantines – Shine A Light
As the their no-doubt poorly heated van rolls across the vast expanse of Canadian wilderness from small show to small show, the Constantines must think about The Walkmen, The National, and The Hold Steady while muttering bitterly. The Toronto quintent wore Springsteen on their sleeve and played brooding, dramatic rumble-rock just a bit before it was cool, and they were not rewarded. The Cons have always been resolutely, unstylishly sincere and they couldn’t find a place in the Strokes-dominated moment that they debuted in the middle of, or the arty, classicist indie that came to dominate their native land. Nevertheless, they kept going, releasing some of the decade’s most powerful records, peaking with 2003’s Shine A Light, which showcases all their strengths, from the horn-inflected paranoid sulk of “Instectivora” to the country stomp of “Sub-Domestic,” to the aching anthem “Young Lions.” Their follow-ups, Tournament of Hearts and Kensington Heights were both extremely strong records in their own right, and hopefully Constantines will keep it up.
Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
When they arrived in 2005, Bloc Party seemed like just another pack of Gang of Four re-enactors, if a particularly talented one. In reality, none of the bands of the big angular boom of 2004-2006 were as single-mindedly nostalgic as they seemed, but in retrospect Bloc Party may have been the oddest. When the London-based quartet started promoting its 2007 sophomore album and talked up how they’d been influenced by American music, most people assumed they meant TV On The Radio or Animal Collective or something. Then A Weekend In The City turned out to be an honest to God emo album, and not just any emo album, but a great one. It struck the perfect balance between delicacy and brutality, between sentimentalism and bile. Of course, nobody (me included) knew what to make of it, and the whole thing was written off as a grandiloquent mess. But in retrospect Kele Okereke’s wounded persona, originally written off as melodramatic posturing, seems appealing, and the band’s inventiveness and considerable ability back him up perfectly. Bad press meant that Bloc Party ran away from Weekend’s approach immediately, but I imagine history will vindicate them.
The Bug – London Zoo
I won’t pretend to speak with any authority about the notoriously insular and balkanized world of British hip-hop and post-rave electronic. But I’m pretty confident that there’s no one like The Bug. The prolific producer has played around in jungle, grime, and dubstep, but his 2008 breakout London Zoo is its own beast entirely. The best way to describe his beats is thick. You could spend a while lost in The Bug’s blown-out, dubby, poly-rhythmic grooves if his guest rappers, all-stars of the South London dancehall reggae scene, didn’t grab so much attention. The most striking are Flowdan, who sounds like a Rastafarian street prophet as he looks forward to Armageddon while bragging about his guns, and Warrior Queen, could be M.I.A.’s crazy, Tears For Fears-quoting older sister. London Zoo’s out-of-nowhere production and off-kilter, unfamiliar flows recall nothing so much as Enter The Wu-Tang. And maybe more than anything else this decade, this record sounds like the future.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – Global A-Go Go
Normally I would have no patience for an aging rock star’s late-career comeback project, especially if it was dressed up in a bunch of world music trappings. But Joe Strummer led the best band ever, and he had a lifetime pass to do whatever the hell he wanted. From The Clash’s breakup in 1983 (no, Cut The Crap never happened. Collective hallucination) he mostly used that lifetime pass to do nothing except score a few movies, release one incredibly half-assed solo record, briefly front The Pogues, smoke a bunch of weed in Spain, and raise a family or some bullshit like that. Then in the late 90s, presumably because he remembered that he was Joe Fucking Strummer, he decided that it was time to record some new original music. He assembled The Mescaleros and then, right when he was starting to attract some attention, died suddenly. It was and remains a tragedy, but at least his three records stand as a testament to how brilliant the man remained until the end. The best of the bunch is Global A-Go Go, the last released while Strummer was alive. The record features as many borrowed ideas as London Calling or Sandinista, but the Mescaleros sound very little like The Clash, taking a looser, more affable approach that leads to a lot of laid-back but still interesting jams. This is Joe Strummer at his most humanistic, and its a joy to hear. Also “Johnny Appleseed” may be the best song by the man who wrote “White Man In Hammersmith Palais.”
Streetlight Manifesto – Somewhere In The Between
Most people assume that ska died a hard, deserving death in the 90s with the rise of swing-ska and sundry other abominations. And except for a few tenacious holdouts, mostly isolated in the wilds of northern New Jersey, people are right. Here’s the thing, though, one of those tenacious holdouts is Streetlight Manifesto (which is almost all of Catch-22), and they released two of the greatest ska albums ever long after most of the scene had withered. Some will tell you this isn’t really ska, it’s just pop punk with horns; that’s not entirely true, but even if it were, fine, because this is the best pop punk with the best horns. Tomas Kanolky is a spectacular songwriter whose anthemic screeds against phonies and authority figures would get anyone’s fists a-clenching. And the band are insane orchestrators, layering Kanolky’s tunes with horn arrangements so intricate they would make Duke Ellington blush. Somewhere In The Between is complex, almost to the point of of ridiculousness, but it works because all of the orchestration is resonant, making the record sound like one 45-minute emotional climax. And for that, Streetlight deserve some credit.