The Best Albums of the 21st Century (Part 1)

As we pass the halfway mark of another year already filled with brilliant new music, and the halfway mark of this decade, it feels like a good time for a list to remind ourselves of all the great records we’ve enjoyed in recent years. With that in mind, let’s cast our thoughts back to all the incredible albums that have been released thus far during the 21st century.

In this post - the first of a three part series - we will cover the years 2000 through 2006.

C.C. Image: PauliCarmody on Flickr.

C.C. Image: PauliCarmody on Flickr.

2000: Radiohead - Kid A

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Radiohead ushered in the millennium fittingly, with their most inventive, bold, and ambitious album to date. Despite the initial shock that the record brought to those listeners expecting Kid A to be in the same vein as their ’90s classic OK Computer, the experimental, genre-defying tapestry that is Kid A would eventually prove to be one of the most influential records of its time. From the opening of Everything in Its Right Place, it was clear that Radiohead were re-entering our lives as a band dramatically changed since their last release.

The tracks on Kid A represent experimental songwriting at its finest; mixing mid-century classical music, jazz, and electronic wizardry into Radiohead’s already established sound was a masterstroke. Over the otherworldly backings Thom Yorke pushed the boundaries of his singular voice further than ever before, and guided by Nigel Godrich’s always stellar production, the  Oxfordshire five-piece crafted a collection of songs on which they managed to sound even more unified than on previous releases. Though Kid A features touches of Radiohead's former selves - as on How to Disappear Completely, one of the greatest tracks of their career - songs like Idioteque and The National Anthem were major departures for the band; complex and intricate sonic textures that push, pull, and play with our attention. It is music that makes us think, makes us feel - makes us reconsider what it means to really experience innovation.

The legacy and influence of this album is well-established; it needs little introduction. Kid A is a noun, verb, and adjective; an album as a movement and an idea; a benchmark against which other musician’s stylistic experiments will forever be measured. It is one of the few examples of its kind: a disenchanted band who successfully and permanently redefined themselves with one record; after 50 minutes of meticulous, lush, cerebral expressionism that still sounds as though it were made yesterday, Radiohead would never be the same.

Honourable Mention: OutKast - Stankonia

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Faced with the intimidating task of following up their 1998 classic Aquemini - one of the finest rap records of any era - André 3000 and Big Boi broadened their musical palette and ushered in the new century with a dizzying, kaleidoscopic masterpiece.

Incorporating styles seldom seen in hip-hop before - including drum and bass, techno, rock, and psychedelia - the influential Atlanta duo retired to their newly purchased recording facility Stankonia Studios and used the increased freedom this independence granted them to veer dramatically into new territory for themselves, and for an entire genre.

From instantly recognisable hits like B.O.B., Ms. Jackson, and So Fresh, So Clean, to chaotic and visionary cuts like Gasoline Dreams, Snappin’ and Trappin’, and Slum Beautiful, Stankonia would prove to be years ahead of its time; artists like Kendrick Lamar have mined this album in the decade and a half since its release and found endless inspiration. It is not only boldly original music, but utterly inspired; the songs are worked over to the absolute maximum, and yet they retain a genuine sense of discovery, spontaneity, and play. It is the sound of two hugely talented artists finally cutting loose and trying out a diverse array of ideas until something clicked - and on Stankonia, everything clicked.

The duo perform head-spinning lyrical acrobatics on every track, constantly flirting with the idea of straying off the beat and yet never losing time. André 3000 in particular branched out into a half-sung, melodic style of rapping on Stankonia , a technique he would further expand on his The Love Below record by embracing full blown pop and R&B. Yet Stankonia found the duo at a happy compromise between their tougher gangsta rap roots, and the experimental weirdness of later releases. Here, they were neither too predictable nor too alien; they were simply two masters in their creative element, and they could do no wrong.

The songs on Stankonia frequently spiral into jumbled, maximalist grooves that are trance-like, funky, and endlessly repeatable. It is a long, winding masterwork of an album, and a timeless reminder that OutKast were the most exciting act in music at the turn of the century. On Stankonia these two rappers were heading full-tilt into the future aboard a tricked-out spaceship, zooming right past their peers; mad visionary geniuses taking on the cultural zeitgeist (few songs have ever been as inspired and of-the-moment as B.O.B.), chewing it up, and spitting it back in the face of their audience in the form of catchy, intelligent, rap music.

2001: Daft Punk - Discovery

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Taking a journey back to the sounds of their childhood and leaving 1997's Homework - with its harder, Chicago house inspired style - firmly in the past, Daft Punk crafted a modern pop masterpiece on Discovery.

In an interview with Remix Magazine Online, Thomas Bangalter had this to say of the mentality behind Daft Punk’s shift in direction:

“This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”

From opener One More Time, with its unmistakable vocoder hook, to the fittingly titled 10 minute closer Too Long, every song here carries a feeling of lightness and play. Many of the tracks are centered around a core sample - usually very brief - that is repeated ad infinitum as the French duo carefully tweak parameters, add elements, and play with melodic and rhythmic flourishes, until eventually the song ends up somewhere altogether different than where it began. The samples are mostly obscure, but cleverly chosen and used in a remarkably clever fashion; the backbones of classic cuts like Crescendolls and Aerodynamic were created this way. It is fascinating song-craft, and no other act who attempted to copy the technique could ever achieve the same effect, though countless imitators have tried.

On the tracks that aren't sample-based, like Veridis Quo, the robots sculpt propulsive, nostalgic electronica out of bread-and-butter staples: pounding kick drums, arpeggiated harmonies, and droning synth pads form the basis of these songs, and yet they still manage to sound utterly singular. One listen to anything off Discovery and a listener can be clear who is playing.

Make no mistake: this is a pop record, masterfully achieved by weaving disco, house, and synthpop into 14 sprawling songs. The French duo have been unable to recapture the same magic ever since, including on 2013's disappointing Random Access Memories. There have been few albums in the history of music which are quite as potent as Discovery in terms of offering us pure, undiluted aural joy. Every second of this album sizzles with a lust for life that is truly infectious, and it serves as a lasting reminder of just why these two robots are so highly esteemed.

Honourable Mention: Jay Z - The Blueprint

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Jay Z was the biggest rapper in the world by a wide margin when he unveiled The Blueprint. He was also, by the way, in the middle of the second most infamous rap beef of all time against a furious and formidable Nas, under fire from a host of peers including Mobb Deep and Jadakiss, on trial for an assault charge and a separate gun possession charge, and he hadn’t released a great album album in three years.

His response was to barricade himself in the studio with only his bravado and the most promising beatmakers in the world, and create one of the greatest mainstream rap albums of all time. With only one guest feature on the entire album, in the form of Eminem on the highlight track Renegade, Jay set about re-establishing his undeniable dominance in the rap world.

Lyrically, Jay is confident and brash, but unafraid to show vulnerability and weakness. He touches on family, domestic violence, abuse, and lost innocence. He jokes, reels off puns, and taunts his enemies. He exposes first person tales from the street for the world to see, and all the while the ghosts of funk, soul, and jazz fill these songs through the stellar beats; this is intensely Afrocentric music. It could never be confused for conscious or political rap, but through his honest tales of making it big against the odds, and through the lineage of the musical forms themselves, on The Blueprint Jay is in constant joyous celebration of African American cultural and musical heritage.

His ear for beats was unparalleled; utilising the prodigious talents of Just Blaze, Bink, Trackmasters, Timbaland, and a little-known young man by the name of Kanye West, The Blueprint is a rich musical collage that ticks all the right boxes. This is commercial rap at its best; modern and yet vintage, lyrical and yet accessible, introverted and yet at the same time gloriously extroverted, Jay managed a careful balancing act on The Blueprint, and he never sounded more in-form and unbeatable.

2002: Boards of Canada - Geogaddi

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

On their first album of the millennium, Boards of Canada released a dark, disturbing, psychedelic, and beautiful tapestry, expertly woven from found sounds, obscure samples, and warm analogue synthesiser tones. Geogaddi is mind-bending music; a heady trip of an album that dives down deep into the heart of a listener and evokes emotions that they never even knew were there. This is headphone music in its rawest essence; these tracks conjure visions and sensations as colours, sounds, and visions fly by like half-remembered dreams. We smile and we shake, each track bleeds into the next, and by the time the record finishes we are unavoidably left changed by the experience.

Often subtly disturbing and yet pierced with joyous and touching moments, the instrumental nature of Geogaddi lets us draw our own conclusions and form our own opinions; we are never told what to think. From the 66 minute and 6 second playing length, to the ambiguous and mysterious cover artwork, the made-up title, and the small sonic details which constantly float just beyond our reach, this album is what we as listeners bring to it. Samples of children speaking are played for us - at times clear voices with innocent messages, and at other times with words which are distorted, indistinguishable, and somehow frightening. A persistent sample of a woman’s voice, either shouting in pain and sadness or crying out during intercourse - we can’t tell which - plays throughout Dawn Chorus, as subtly-out-of-tune synthesisers and off-kilter drums work us into an uneasy trance.

The darkest release by the reclusive electronic geniuses Boards of Canada, Geogaddi regardless carries the sort of ethereal magic which we can never quite pin down, never quite define. It is a spiritual experience of which no music lover should deprive him or herself. The two remarkably talented brothers who comprise BoC made their masterpiece here, and their visionary songs walk the fine line between sleeping, waking, nightmare, dream, and reality. This is a beautiful enigma of a record and a landmark for intelligent electronic music.

Honourable Mention: Sigur Rós - ( )

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

An album by four Icelandic experimentalists, sung in an entirely made up language called Hopelandic, named simply as a pair of parentheses and comprised of eight long, completely untitled tracks which are split up by snippets of silence and distortion. ( ) is an unlikely success; a bizarre, beautiful, warm, and vibrant record which is alive with an emotion that strays far beyond language and mere noise and into worlds fashioned by the indefinable magic of melody, rhythm, and unrestrained creativity.

The tracks on ( ) gradually build in intensity, from the meditative peace of Untitled 1 to the earth-shaking furiosity of the climactic Untitled 8, there is a natural progression to the tracklist. And yet, in the absence of lyrical content, track names, or any of the usual cues from which we usually derive context, we as listeners are left to bring what we may to the music. In that way, ( ) is a unique listening experience; conjuring varied memories of childhood, love, loss, and tragedy through the beautiful purity of singer Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson’s voice, and the daydream warmth of the lush instrumental tracks. Guitar, bass, drums, piano, and strings comprise most of what we hear, and yet there is a magic here, too; these songs contain rare brilliance, like sunlight bottled and held up in the dead of night, illuminating everything around.

Though the band’s previous record Ágætis byrjun is a grander and more accessible musical accomplishment, ( ) is a singularly precious record. There is a lightness, a sweet innocence to these songs; as a record, it is utterly universal, devoid of context or expectation, and instead overflowing with heart-stopping, breath-taking, undiluted beauty.

2003: Songs: Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The late Jason Molina will go down in history as the unsung hero of alternative American music during his time. Critically and yet never commercially recognised, Molina created some of the most beautifully haunting music in living memory; at times unbearably sad and at other times celebratory and free, his songs honestly and clearly unearthed the demons of his troubled wayward heart.

2002's Didn’t It Rain, was a mournful and dark album; a midnight journey down a desolate country highway and through the labyrinthine corridors of Molina’s mind. He had spent years making music that was pitch black, but on The Magnolia Electric Co., Molina stepped into daylight: the familiar tenderness of his lyrics is still omnipresent, but the themes of this album are wider and more objective. At the same time, Molina became unafraid of showing his influences more strongly than before, and he incorporated full-blown country and traditional rock and roll into his familiar template, and in doing so created a modern country rock masterpiece. Aided by regular collaborator Steve Albini and guest country vocalists Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, the album is predictably gorgeous, considered, and emotive.

We will not see the likes of Jason Molina again. His was a completely singular voice, and his loss is a great tragedy for the world of music and for the world in general. The Magnolia Electric Co. is perhaps the most complete record he left behind; the best place to start for those who have not heard his music before, of which there are surely far too many.

Molina's songs left scars in secret places; he could cut to the core of your soul with a single note, and rip a heart-string right out of your chest. He was a great American poet, whose plainspoken songs are destined to live on in the lineage of the wounded, searching souls who have long wandered the American desert highways with a guitar in their hand. He was our Townes Van Zandt, and he gave voice to his demons every time he sang; the pains of a tragic existence are all right there in his fragile, tortured voice.

“Hold on Magnolia/ I hear that station bell ring/ You might be holding the last light I see/ Before the dark finally gets a hold of me,” Molina sings on this album's heartbreaking closing track, his voice desperate, pleading, sincere. “Hold on Magnolia/ I hear that lonesome whistle whine/ Hold on Magnolia/ I think it’s almost time.”

Honourable Mention: The White Stripes - Elephant

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

For a band who were always destined to breakthrough, The White Stripes took their time to do so. When, on their fourth album Elephant, they finally reached the attention of the mainstream, they exploded in spectacular fashion.

Seven Nation Army and The Hardest Button to Button were inescapable at the time, and deservedly so: The Stripes’ songwriting had never been better, and they managed to take the best elements of their wonderful 2001 record White Blood Cells and build on them. Jack's fuzzed-out, mammoth guitar riffs and Meg's insistent, stripped-bare drumming made for an unforgettable pairing. Few acts in recent memory have had the same feeling of being so genuine, so eager, and so talented, and it is hard not to smile when a song like Hypnotize comes on; these are fun tracks which haven't been overworked or over-thought, simply recorded and thrown down on wax. It makes for exciting, raw listening and the Stripes were an unmatched and potent combination at this stage in their career.

Every song on Elephant is a showcase of the immense talent and unique sound that Jack and Meg White possessed together. They were never better than this; raw, wild, fun, and catchy, Elephant is an incredible album, and a landmark for rock music in the 21st century. Proof - if any were needed - that rock and roll is still alive and kicking.

2004: Kanye West - The College Dropout

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Today, it would seem remarkable to most to think that Mr. Kanye West ever had any trouble getting a record deal. It would also seem remarkable to many to think that West ever had aspirations of making the sorts of conscious rap that was popularised by artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common. It is fitting then that The College Dropout - a debut album which traces West’s years of pitching himself to labels and trying for success, in between retelling the near-fatal car crash he was involved in during the recording of the album, and writing scathing criticisms of consumerism and police brutality - is a truly remarkable album.

West was endearingly open and sincere on this album above all others; it is often odd to hear him so removed from the ego he would trademark in later years. The messages of love, compassion, family, and friendship on this record stand as fitting testament to the spirit of the young man before he was swallowed by the industry. Though he would go on to improve and develop as a musician, TCD stands as a historical artifact and encapsulation of a hip-hop movement at its very inception.

Though overlong (New Workout Plan, anyone?), The College Dropout is an incredibly passionate, expertly produced album. As a beatmaker, West was still firmly in his soul-sampling, vocal-chipmunking heyday, and the beats here are uniformly brilliant; the gospel vocal harmonies, tinkling piano, sweeping strings, and soulful percussion are immaculate. Every detail of the beats on TCD speaks of being worked over lovingly until reaching perfection, and every lyric gives voice to an upfront, funny, irreverent personality. Rap music hadn’t seen the likest of West before; here was a rapper who crafted his own beats, wore pink Ralph Lauren polo shirts, and rapped about dropping out of college, working in a mall, and enduring the many small pains of trying to get a record deal.

Some of West’s best songs are here; All Falls Down, Spaceship, Jesus Walks, and Two Words are each timeless classics, and the entirety of TCD stands as testimony to a West whom most people have forgotten. Before he was part of the Kardashian clan, before he sang through autotune, and before he put on shutter shades, West was a young, hungry producer who made a humble, warm, engaging, and topical record, years ahead of its time and profoundly influential. The College Dropout was the birth of an undeniable star who has dominated music ever since.

Honourable Mention: The Killers - Hot Fuss

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Borrowing heavily from late 20th century alternative music, Las Vegas four-piece The Killers crafted a debut album full to the brim with energetic, inspired stadium rock hits. Hot Fuss is haunted by the ghosts of British new wave and post punk music, yet these songs are undeniably made for modern masses: hits like Mr. Brightside, Somebody Told Me, and All These Things That I’ve Done endure today and shine as brightly as they ever did.

Formed through print ads in the Las Vegas Weekly, The Killers were immediately recognisable as a bankable group. Frontman Brandon Flowers possesses the kind of classic rock tenor that can carry entire songs, and here he is undercut by energetic waves of guitar, bass, drums, and synthesiser so effectively that we forget we have heard the same mixture so many times before.

There are no misses here; every song, from the menacing slow burner Andy You’re a Star to the sunny synthpop of Change Your Mind, is deftly, succinctly presented, and before we know it, 45 minutes of modern rock perfection has passed. It is the sort of record which carries lasting appeal for almost anybody; feel-good, heartfelt, catchy, inventive rock music that seemed to sum up mid-decade American rock music itself.

Tightly played, tastefully produced, and perfectly timed, Hot Fuss came along just as it was needed most. This is wild, ecstatic, sing-along-as-loud-as-you-can music; anthems for a generation who were deprived of such songs for too long.

2005: Kanye West - Late Registration

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Following the release of The College Dropout, there was no more exciting new prospect in hip-hop than Kanye West. That album had been a runaway crossover success; the sort of record that old school rap fans, college kids, teens, and even those who usually weren’t interested in rap music all loved.

On Late Registration, West ramped everything up: the production is more lush, grand, and opulent; the rhymes are more topical, worldly, and confident; the hooks are catchier, and the album is stocked full of guaranteed hits. The fact that TCD and LR came back-to-back in two successive years is nothing short of miraculous; rarely has music ever seen an advent of West’s like. He couldn’t miss: here was a surefire hitmaker; a prodigious beatsmith, an accomplished and diverse lyricist, and a chart-topping songwriter.

Late Registration is perhaps West’s most impressive record of all: not only did it follow his incredible debut in such short order, it improved on that album’s weaknesses in a way no one could have anticipated. Hits like Touch the Sky, Gold Digger, and Diamonds From Sierra Leone endure as strongly today as they ever did, and they are some of the pinnacles of 21st century popular songwriting.

West would stray from this early palette on 2007's Graduation, where he more fully embraced mainstream pop music and less political subject matter, thereby beginning a chain of dramatic album-to-album shifts; Late Registration was the second and final album to feature West’s original backpack-rap style which was so breathtakingly original.

Few in the history of modern music have single-handedly crafted such impressive pieces of music. As a producer alone, West deserves worldwide recognition; add into the mix his unfaltering talent for hooks, clever wordplay, and tasteful creative direction, and there is no wonder he is as widely known, widely envied, and widely debated as he is. Whenever anyone you know expresses doubt about West, is vexed by his ego, or hates on his poppier songs, grab Late Registration on vinyl and let the music speak for itself.

Honourable Mention: Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

We had last heard from Antony Hegarty on 2000's self-titled debut record Antony and the Johnsons. An accomplished album in its own right, that record nevertheless spoke of unreached potential; we were left with a strong sense that this incredible artist was capable of much more.

The follow up I Am a Bird Now was everything we could of hoped it would be. The breathtaking immediacy of the stunning opener Hope There’s Someone - every detail, from the delicate piano to the mournful, elastic vocal - makes it clear that I Am a Bird Now is a special record. Recruiting luminaries of music past and present, including Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Boy George, and Devendra Banhart, Hegarty wove intensely personal tales of abuse, emotional upheaval, gender identity, and loneliness into dark, fragile songs that ooze pure and genuine feeling from every note.

With the sort of voice that once heard can never be forgotten, Hegarty strolls through these gorgeous, stately songs in a heartbroken daze; we share in sadness, joy, love, and hate. It is a beautifully human journey; an album as a journal entry turned out to the world and set to stunning arrangements.

Seldom have we seen a suite of songs so intense and yet so fragile. A trembling moment of vulnerability, I Am a Bird Now is a warts-and-all exposé on love, hate, and the beauty of the human spirit.

2006: J Dilla - Donuts

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Released on his 32nd birthday, three days before his death, Donuts is the incomparable hip-hop producer J Dilla’s masterpiece. Not since DJ Shadow’s classic Endtroducing… was released a decade earlier had an instrumental hip-hop record reached such heights; a constantly shifting patchwork of reworked, re-purposed, and reinvigorated samples, Donuts seems to evolve from song to song like an organic organism with a mind of its own.

Bedridden in hospital with lupus and an incurable blood disease, the prolific producer was brought a Boss sampler and a 45rpm record player by his friends in order to keep him occupied and to keep his mind off the tragic circumstances in which he found himself. Completing almost the entire record during his time in hospital, few would have imagined that in such a situation Dilla would produce not only his greatest work, but one of the finest ever testaments to the art of beatmaking.

In a 2006 interview with The Fader, Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey, herself a former opera singer, spoke on the beatmaker’s time in hospital as he was crafting Donuts:

"I didn’t know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product.

He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change. Lightworks, oh yes, that was something! That’s one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time."

The short tracks - mostly around a minute in length - come and go in rapid, dizzying succession, while samples drawn from funk, soul, jazz, and rap are combined again and again, in ways that just shouldn’t work and yet Donuts never lacks cohesion. The entire record has a singular feel to it, enhanced by our knowledge of the environment in which it was crafted, though regardless, the music stands on its own.

The beats are largely repetitious; one sampled idea that is presented to us, looped, altered slightly, layered with some other sound, and then cut off and changed to something else. It shouldn't work as a full-length record, and yet it does. The ghosts of these largely forgotten artists roam through Dilla's world; their words give voice to his thoughts, their music gives form to his spirit. It is powerful, moving, and sincere.

Most of all, Donuts is a virtuosic expression of passion, talent, dedication, and love for a craft that is often forgotten, underrated, or ignored. Dilla will go down in history as one of, if not the, greatest rap producers of all time, and Donuts is a remarkable and touching crowning achievement.

Honourable Mention: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Following Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut record Frank, the singer recorded Back to Black in a series of recording studios in New York, Miami, and London. Recruiting the production polymath Mark Ronson, Winehouse here crafted a significantly more mature, focused, and more impressive collection of songs. With a voice that harked back to the golden era of soul, Winehouse's second record found the singer embodying a vintage spirit, and it was here that we first saw her true potential; an old soul shining through eleven spectacular, nostalgic songs.

The instrumentals are classic soul; horns, strings, and a purposeful, powerful rhythm section propel Winehouse’s vocals right where they should be: the foreground. Every word is sung in that voice; wounded, coated in emotion, while the subject matter is lyrically dark, vulnerable and yet defiant; melodies that stick in the mind and hit us in the gut at the same time. Winehouse came into her own as an artist on this record.

From the mission-statement single Rehab, to unforgettable cuts like You Know I’m No Good and the title track, Back to Black is the defining testament to the famously tragic and tragically famous singer Amy Winehouse. Though it was to be her last, this album set the foundation for the breakthrough success of artists like Adele in the years to come, and cemented Winehouse’s legacy as one of the greatest talents of her generation. Every era needs a frontrunner to remind them that it is okay, really, to wholeheartedly embrace the old, dusty records of the past, and Back to Black was such; a watershed moment for popular contemporary music and a lasting monument to a beautiful, troubled spirit.

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Sun Kil Moon - Universal Themes

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

On Universal Themes, Mark Kozelek’s seventh studio album under the name Sun Kil Moon, the singer-songwriter and former Red House Painters frontman builds on the stylistic approach of the band's extraordinarily intimate 2014 album Benji. Where that album featured insular, emotional meditations on family, life, death, and memory, Kozelek has on Universal Themes set out to locate and document the simple threads of commonality that lie in everyday human experience. In the retelling of seemingly mundane events - from encountering a lame and dying possum in his backyard, to recalling what he ate for dinner last night and musing on which HBO shows he likes the most - Kozelek has reached levels of introspection and sheer subjectivisim seldom seen in songwriting before.

Musically, Universal Themes sees Kozelek linking up again with Sonic Youth drummer and Benji collaborator Steve Shelley, and the backdrops for Kozelek’s tuneless half-sung, half-spoken lyrical ramblings are frequently gorgeous. Though the record is largely of a much more experimental bent than Benji, most every song flows from time-to-time into extended moments of intimacy, with nylon string guitars and reverb-laden vocals providing reprieve from the abrasive, purposefully-messy riffs that comprise the bulk of the majority of the songs. Universal Themes is not a polished record, but the stories Kozelek recounts are not grand tales; the raw soundtrack is a fitting accompaniment to his direct and unflinching lyrics.

On With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry, Kozelek recreates a drunken karaoke atmosphere as he somewhat-incomprehensibly shouts over distorted grunge guitar riffs, and the song is a challenging listen. However, Kozelek’s lyrical subject matter retains his trademark intimacy, as he meanders from recounting painful memories surrounding his gravely ill friend Theresa (who is one of the few consistent characters featured across the span of this album), to detailed depictions of the singer’s solitary walks, encounters with dead groundhogs, and precious happy memories from his childhood.

C.C. Image: Cathy Thomas on Flickr.

C.C. Image: Cathy Thomas on Flickr.

Elsewhere on Birds of Films, singing quietly against a uniformly gorgeous backdrop, Kozelek recounts several seemingly unrelated events which occurred in Switzerland during the time he spent there while filming his parts in Paolo Sorrentino’s recent film Youth. He recalls the surreality of his time spent filming, along with his encounters with some of the people he met in Switzerland, and “Eating pasta pomodoro for the 38th time in a month/ Even if its price was 60 Swiss fuckin’ francs." Towards the end of the song, Kozelek wanders into a gym and speaks to some of the sparring boxers, and leaves us with his thoughts: “Life’s a chess game for all of us/ Hit, don’t be hit, jab and hook and feint and bob and weave/ When the fighters got back in the ring/ I thought of my own fight in life/ And it was time to be leaving.”

The song closes by detailing Kozelek’s lonely progress back home to Cleveland and his closest friends, along with the harsh reality of his friend Theresa’s illness, far away from the picturesque surrounds of Switzerland. Birds of Films is a beautiful piece of work, and the standout track on the album; Kozelek maintains a sense of running through these memories with a slightly-unfocused gaze, pensively turning them over in his mind until they make sense, bringing a sense of existential wandering into the otherwise unremarkable events.

Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues begins as a wry joke, as for the first verse Kozelek sarcastically gives a negative review of a Sun Kil Moon show from the point of view of a fan who would rather hear the songs “from 1992.” At the second verse, the song abruptly shifts into Kozelek’s perspective and darkens to pitch black; here, he recounts more of the sorts of painfully real memories which formed the backbone of Benji. Kozelek lists some of the deaths and tragedies concerning young friends which have touched him deeply over the years, before turning all his sadness and anger back on the Williamsburg crowd he parodied in the first verse: “You go quack/ Like a little rubber duck/ Like a pathetic whiny sad little child hater boy fuck/ Going on your analyst/ Little petty bitch/ Be glad you’re not another motherfucker sleeping in the ditch/ Sleeping in the streets/ Sleep in your own vomit/ Sleep in your own piss/ Sleep in a pile of pigeon or dog or rat or crack-whore shit.” The song spirals out of control, touching on paranoia, trauma, torture, and the inevitability of death. It’s a powerful, disturbing listen; a deeply pessimistic journey down the rabbit hole of Kozelek’s mind and the darkness he holds within it.

The stream-of-consciousness writing that runs rampant throughout Universal Themes can at times be disorienting. On Little Rascals, Kozelek recounts some of the happy experiences he’s had playing with his band and singing duets with Will Oldham of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Palace Brothers fame, before following his train of thought further until Kozelek finds himself in the darkness of his past; to the tragic early death of one of his girlfriends and his subsequent breakdown, to Robin Williams’ suicide, to weighing in at 203 pounds trying not to eat too many carbohydrates. It’s a dizzying deluge of information; an emotional roller coaster of a song which closes with another mournful remembrance of his girlfriend who passed away long ago, and the last line we expect Kozelek to say under the circumstances: “It’s a beautiful world.”

C.C. Image: Ralph Arvesen on Flickr.

C.C. Image: Ralph Arvesen on Flickr.

Things only get more overwhelming on Garden of Lavender, where Kozelek utilises the same stretched, painful falsetto that his friend Oldham used so effectively on records like the 1999 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy classic I See a Darkness. Here, Kozelek recounts blowing kisses to kittens, buying raincoats, not really hating Nels Cline, some of the great gigs he saw in the ’90s, and above all else wanting to return to and tend his garden of lavender back home. There is barely any time for us to focus on the music; Kozelek demands our attention and then drowns us in each and every thought that flies into his mind.

One is left to wonder whether the title of Universal Themes is stated half-jokingly. After all, the songs here are almost uniformly focused on the unremarkable quotidian details of Kozelek’s life both on the road and at home; there are very few big-picture-moments, and between his accounts of petting kittens, watching True Detective, and running into Jane Fonda in a hotel lobby, the themes on this album revolve mostly around Kozelek, his friendships, his girlfriend, his life, and his thoughts.

While there is no doubt that some of the themes on the album - like life, death, friendship, and love - are universal in nature, Kozelek seems to regard even his most fleeting, trivial observations as somehow extending beyond simply the confines of his own life. "Never mind all the other verses I've written about Switzerland/ There's new things going on in my life, like my girlfriend got a new kitten/ And a friend of mine gave out my number to some crazy motherfucker/ And I got all pissed off and she said, "Who do you think you are, Mick fucking Jagger?"/ I fell asleep last night in New Orleans/ Just back from Switzerland, where like I said, I was going insane/ And I went and got oysters on the half shell and some blackened alligator," he sings on This Is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station, and it's left to us to decide for whom these details are relevant. By the end of the album, Kozelek is simply retelling events which can carry no deeper meaning to his audience at all: getting toothaches, firing bandmates, and noticing that some girls think flip phones are “really gross.”

If anything, it’s as though Kozelek has taken his journal entries jotted down in the time since Benji and turned them into songs. The instrumentals themselves are simple affairs which meander along and are only rarely allowed to take centre stage; often shifting abruptly and at times even disappearing entirely as Kozelek reads his lyrics to us like spoken word poetry.

C.C. Image: sarahluv on Flickr.

C.C. Image: sarahluv on Flickr.

Most of the songs here contain too many thoughts, too many stories, to actually hold our attention, and when this isn’t the case, the details Kozelek hurls our way are often so simple and seemingly mundane that they don’t feel like they represent anything universal at all. Problematically, between these random observations, the 10 minute track lengths, and overall lack of vocal melody, there doesn't seem to be a terribly large amount of replayability on the majority of an album which surely demands multiple listens over a period of time; long enough to sink in until we understand it all, long enough to see what Kozelek sees in these messages.

Only a couple of the songs - Birds of Films and Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues - feel like they can be listened to and enjoyed simply for what they are, as they contain at least some semblance of a linear narrative which a listener can hold on to, and more conventional and accessible structures to retain our attention.

Though Kozelek’s undiluted, honest lyrical style can at times recall the haunting beauty of Charles Bukowski’s best poems, the truly powerful moments on Universal Themes are mostly spread out too widely across its formidable 70 minute length, and interspersed with exceedingly simple observations, the significance of which Kozelek has perhaps overestimated. It’s hard to see the value in much of what is told to us, and yet as the melody and rhythm itself is so de-emphasised, the songs demand that we follow Kozelek word-for-word and try to keep up and keep interested.

As such, Universal Themes is a difficult album, and not as potent or rewarding as Sun Kil Moon’s best work. Here, Kozelek settles for a different kind of impact altogether, with themes and details that are decidedly not universal at all. These are songs about human experiences, musings on modern life, and most especially the very personal account of a year in the life of one man. Viewed this way, Universal Themes is a success; raw, real, and unfiltered, this album is a documentary: a portrait of the artist as a middle aged man.


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