The Best Albums of the 21st Century (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of our three-part list of the 21st century's best albums, which covered the years 2000 through 2006, let’s now turn our attention to the next group of years. In many ways, these were years that saw a fundamental shift in the way music was written, consumed, and perceived. Landmark, forward-thinking records set the tone for the current era of music. Let’s look at the turn of the decade: 2007 through 2010.

C.C. Image: Vesna Tiricovska on Flickr.

C.C. Image: Vesna Tiricovska on Flickr.

2007: LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

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

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

Though on their 2005 self-titled debut LCD Soundsystem released some of the greatest songs of the decade, that album suffered from an excessive running length (generally speaking, if The Beatles couldn’t fill two discs without including some filler, no one can) and the slight lack of a definitively original sound on many of the tracks. One got the sense that James Murphy and company took a little while to decide exactly what they were about as a band, and the moments of truly inspired self-awareness were only sporadic on their debut.

Sound of Silver fixed that: from the Kraftwerk-sampling opening of Get Innocuous!, to the manic funk rock of North American Scum, the anthemic Joy Division-esque classicism of All My Friends, the heartbreaking balladry of Someone Great, and the Velvet Underground style closing track New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, these songs are uniformly perfect. James Murphy wrote, performed, recorded, and produced the majority of Sound of Silver himself, and there is no greater evidence of his incredible, expansive talent.

Mixing his trademark half-ironic deadpan jokes with touching reflections on change and loss, Murphy broadened his lyrical palette, while striking the perfect balance between sonic innovation and respectful tribute to past greats of the genres from which he borrows. Funk, disco, dance, rock, and punk all collide here with unfaltering success; Murphy is a musical magpie, picking and choosing genre elements (and sometimes even borrowed riffs and melodies themselves) and injecting his own inimitable influence into them. The resulting songs are busy but not overwhelming, groovy but not shallow, sincere but not melodramatic. Murphy knows just when to stop before an idea is played out, and just what to do when something new is needed.

There is little to say except that Sound of Silver is a classic record, due to be remembered for decades to come, and full of the sort of music even Murphy himself couldn’t replicate on 2010's overwrought and disappointing follow up This is Happening. It is eternal music; a fitting soundtrack to the ecstasy of youth, the pains of ageing, and the joy of life itself. There is so much warmth here; it is an amber light shining from the window from an otherwise black New York apartment building; it is the feeling of belonging someplace good, with people who are real and kind; it speaks of the promise of good times to come, and of great times passed. Every moment on Sound of Silver sparkles with passion, innovation, and talent; this is a truly remarkable album, and the definitive work by one of modern music’s most important acts.

Honourable Mention: Burial - Untrue

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

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

It is a truly unfortunate prospect to ever be forced to demote Untrue to second place on any list like this, however 2007 was an unusually incredible year for music and accordingly difficult decisions must be made. However remarkable it may seem that Untrue is a mere Honourable Mention, it seems more remarkable still these days to think that Burial was ever releasing full length albums, in successive years no less.

Following from 2006's incredible self titled debut, Untrue is the sound of a unique artist well and truly coming into his own. Here, Burial ramped up the volume of his pop samples (taking soundbites from everyone from Ray J to Bobby V), and in doing so he re-purposed countless shallow commercial tunes into his ghostly epics; soul-crushingly dark, moody, claustrophobic, and at times plain scary songs that sound like an urban midnight nightmare. The rumble of trains passing, clicks from Zippo lighters, and terrified speaking voices are swaddled in emotive strings culled from video games and undercut by skittering, insistent 2-step beats. The recipe is predictable, and yet it never loses its potency; every song is a knockout punch.

Famously relying on SoundForge to create his productions and eschewing the use of more efficient, industry-standard software, Burial makes music which sounds alien, and at the time of Untrue his identity was still unknown. Nevertheless, this album proved to be his breakout; an incredibly influential magnum opus from a genre outlier who operates on an entirely different wavelength to his contemporaries.

Since Untrue, Burial has focused on releasing music in different formats - long-form EPs mostly, with tracks regularly exceeding 10 minutes as they chop, change, and spiral into new realms altogether. Yet many fans pine for another full length by the shady garage pariah, and Untrue is the answer as to why: this is supremely beautiful and haunting music, made for the night; made for urban wastelands, modern times, and shadowed sonic landscapes to which music had never taken us before. These songs penetrate deep into our subconscious, evoking fear, joy, pain, sadness, love, and regret; by some weird alchemy the sound takes on spectral form, stalking through the abyss of our wider mind and pulling on wires, causing thought and feeling to collide with spectacular results. It is breathtakingly original, singularly powerful, and unforgettably intense.

Undoubtedly, Untrue is a modern masterpiece; a warped vision of urban existence that pulls us through the rabbit hole and down into the depths of ourselves. It is the sort of thing too few people will ever hear, and yet which everyone most definitely should.

2008: Portishead - Third

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

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

In the eleven years that passed between Portishead’s incredible self-titled second album and their (fittingly titled) third release, the British three-piece did some considerable soul searching. Bored of the trip hop niche into which they felt confined, and unsatisfied with the new material they had written, Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley, and Beth Gibbons temporarily went their separate ways. When they finally did reconnect and resume sharing small pieces of their individual songwriting ideas, they did so tentatively; they were unsure, unsteady, and lacking in confidence.

Then, in late 2007, they found an intense creative streak and fleshed out the album Third as we would hear it. This was their comeback and the long-awaited return of one of the ’90s most beloved and groundbreaking acts, yet they came back as a group dramatically changed; adapted to the new era they were living in, and even more boundary-pushing than ever.

Incorporating a wider array of influences, instruments, and recording techniques, Third is a richly layered, complex record; strains of psychedelic rock, doo wop, jazz, folk, and krautrock are blended together, with pounding analogue synthesisers and arpeggiators playing alongside spaced out guitar riffs, skittering drum beats, and Beth Gibbons' inimitable, mournful singing.

Opening track Silence is an unsettling, moody song; surf rock chords drone on and on without ever reaching the crescendo they seem intended for, while urgent and messy percussion lays the rhythmic foundation. Then comes Gibbons’ vocal, as arresting as ever, as she asks in a voice dripping with melancholy, “Did you know what I lost? Do you know what I wanted?” As the song spirals past its fifth minute, it is cut off abruptly, mid-bar, and it doesn't return; before the shock of such an ending has settled, the album continues. It is a bold statement with which to open the record, as though the trio want to make sure their return is understood to be all about getting straight back into business, without messing around.

The next few songs are largely more gentle affairs; spacey, quiet songs, with plaintive acoustic guitars, tasteful electronic accents, and relaxed tempos. On The Rip, Gibbons explores similar sonic territory to at of her 2002 album Out of Season, which she recorded in collaboration with Rustin Man. At this point of the Third tracklist, we could almost be forgiven for thinking that Portishead were coming back into our lives as an altogether quieter, less challenging act - and then everything changes.

We Carry On is a seismic shift; a droning, uneasy organ riff and tick-tock percussion form the backbone of the song, as Gibbons’ dramatically gothic vocal - recalling Nico’s Marble Index era -and Utley’s shoegaze-esque, heavily distorted guitar build with intensity. And then it’s over; there is no resolution to all that menace, simply the statement and shock of such explosiveness of feeling.

Bizarrely followed by the short, pretty, doo wop ditty Deep Water - which would have felt more in sync with the first portion of the record - our reprieve is only brief; follow up track Machine Gun is the heaviest tune Portishead ever recorded. Five minutes of heavily distorted, aggressively industrial drums, and metallic, menacing electronic mayhem set alongside Gibbons’ tortured, fragile vocal, Machine Gun is a truly incredible recording, and the most inspired moment on Third. It pounds onward relentlessly, with harsh John Carpenter chords dramatically calling an end to the sound and the fury.

The trio of songs that follow are each masterworks; diving headfirst into psychedelia and experimental rock, we as listeners are dragged down into the dark pit that the first half of Third only occasionally hinted at. But there is no mistaking the overall effect of these eleven songs. This is emotionally severe, downright powerful music. The impact of Third was achieved by the group taking their former penchant for moping, introspective misery and turning it inside out, so that it exploded with fury and burning intensity upon our eardrums. Portishead could not have returned with a more perfect reminder that they must never be underrated, outdated, or ignored. In the seven years since, we’ve heard barely a peep from the trio; re-listen to Third and that wait will begin to feel unbearable.

Honourable Mention: Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III

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

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

Few rappers have ever enjoyed a period of such assertive, undeniable dominance as Lil Wayne in the period from the release of 2005’s Tha Carter II to its follow up, Tha Carter III three years later. The incredibly prolific artist filled the intervening period with four long, stellar mixtapes (continuing his series of Dedication and Da Drought releases) on which he consistently reaffirmed his status as the self-proclaimed best rapper alive.” Yet Wayne's songs were largely street-level bangers, made more for the club than for the radio, and he had still not crossed over into the mainstream as he had always seemed destined to do.

Appearing on his first studio album at the tender age of eleven, Wayne had taken his time to find his ultimate creative voice. Released at the age of 22, Tha Carter II had been the first album where the New Orleans rapper mastered his particular brand of southern gangsta rap. It was a great record, and the first time we had heard Wayne sound so convincingly on form, but by no means was it a breakthrough; while full of hardcore rap tunes and displays of innate lyrical dexterity, that album was by no means a pop record, and didn’t have any radio-ready hits as such.

On the sequel, Wayne came into his own as an unstoppable commercial force. Recruiting some of the biggest names in pop to assist him on the hooks, as well as a team of the best producers in the game to craft his beats, the result was a uniformly exciting album that saw a fruitful convalescence of pop and rap.

Lead single Lollipop featuring Static Major is a pop hit through and through; Wayne raps on the borderline between speaking and singing, through heavy autotune atop a woozy, catchy beat. There's no confusing Lollipop for a masterpiece of songwriting, but as a pop song it was ahead of its time; funny, fresh, and catchy, it was the radio breakthrough he needed, and it was the major factor that helped Tha Carter III to sell a million records in its first week.

Wayne boldly followed that single up immediately with the now-classic track A Milli. Featuring no hook, only verse after verse of hard-edged rapping, it was the very antithesis of Lollipop. With an unmistakable bass-heavy beat, few rap songs have been so popular, commercial, and memorable while remaining bare-bones hip-hop. On it, Wayne raps schizophrenically, spitting manic and at times nonsensical bars of witty, funny wordplay in dizzying succession: "They say I'm rapping like B.I.G., Jay, and 2Pac/ André 3000, where is Erykah Badu at? Who that?/ Who that said they gon' beat Lil Wayne?/ My name ain't Bic, but I keep that flame." We hadn’t heard this sort of energy on a studio album by Wayne before; A Milli was the sound of him bringing his wild, off-the-dome mixtape approach onto a commercial single, and it is instantly recognisable as only a few songs of the past decade have been.

Wayne also found space to explore deeper, more personal lyrical content. On Playing With Fire, atop a slow soulful beat featuring the powerful vocals of Betty Wright, he grows increasingly unhinged, revisiting dark memories. “Momma named Cita, I love you Cita/ Remember when your pussy second husband tried to beat ya?/ Remember when I went into the kitchen, got the cleaver?/ He ain’t give a fuck, I ain’t give a fuck neither/ He could see the devil, see the devil in my features/ You can smell the ether, you can see Cita/ You can see the Cita/ See the Cita in my features/ And she don’t play neither.”

Sure, there are a few missteps on III - Got Money, Mrs. Officer, and Phone Home are fairly generic, forgettable songs - but for a record running 76 minutes, it is a remarkably accomplished album. Wayne had never sounded so confident nor so unforgettably catchy, and the calibre of the beats he was rapping over - employing the talents of super-producers like Kanye West, Bangladesh, StreetRunner, and Alchemist - was unparalleled.

Tha Carter III is to date Lil Wayne’s most accomplished project; a record where almost every element aligned in harmony and produced a bona fide blockbuster hit which was the crowning achievement of a long-running period of creative dominance by one of rap music’s leading lights.

2009: Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

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

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

While their second album, 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare, had been a departure from the youthful, playful garage rock of their 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, it was only on Humbug that the Sheffield four-piece Arctic Monkeys finally reached their full potential and found a creative voice entirely of their own. Recorded with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in his Mojave Desert studio, on Humbug Alex Turner and company added new effects to their pedalboards, plugged in some unused keyboards, and began to experiment with a new, more psychedelic approach.

Retaining his trademark lyrical wit and verve, Turner wove joking asides, short stories, and bizarre poetic imagery into the vocals on every track, while bassist Nick O’Malley and drummer Matt Helders dramatically tightened the rhythm section into a lumbering, heavy beast. Every track is carried by a propulsive, insisted beat that rumbles like the sound of distant thunder, as Turner and fellow guitarist Jamie Cook’s trebly, sharp, fuzz guitar lines flash like peals of lightning flashing across a turbulent sky.

Humbug is a sonically dark record; mixed to be loud and chaotic, it serves a bassy sucker-punch in the lower register as the ghosts of surf rock, Hendrix psychedelia, and ’70s experimentalism swirl about in the upper. It is busy, bleary-eyed throwback rock with a persistent modal darkness that hints at jazz free-thought and chemical experimentation.

All the while, the Monkeys’ songwriting had never been better; from the catchy openers My Propeller and Crying Lightning, to the Beatles-esque romanticism of Cornerstone, the deafening wallop of Dance Little Liar, and the washed-out trance of closing track The Jeweller’s Hands, these tracks are prime examples of the unique, genre-saving talents that this group possess. Since their inception, the Monkeys have flown the flag for respectful classic rock in the current era, and the collection of songs on Humbug serve as a neat peek into the art of tastefully modernising the old and simultaneously striving for the new.

The songs on Humbug are intelligent, mature rock and roll, and at ten carefully tailored tracks, it was the most well-edited album produced by the Arctic Monkeys up until that point. They would unfortunately misfire on their next release, 2011’s Suck It and See, which saw middling creativity and a recession into boringly safe territory for the group; in retrospect, the band’s partnership with Homme and their travels to Los Angeles (which doubtless made Humbug such a sonic departure and in part such a success, and which would be revisited on the incredible AM four years later with even more impressive results), is one of the great success stories of modern rock music. Whatever the reason, when these four English lads wandered out into the desert, they managed to reinvent themselves and re-emerge the inarguable leaders of rock and roll for the modern age.

Honourable Mention: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

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

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

After guitarist Josh Dibb left Animal Collective for undisclosed personal reasons following the release of 2007’s Strawberry Jam, the group decided to approach the next record differently, in a way that wouldn’t require a guitarist to be directly involved. Utilising the same sample-based techniques employed by frontman Panda Bear on his incredible 2007 solo album Person Pitch, and recruiting the hip-hop and R&B producer Ben H. Allen, the band holed up in Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi and got to work.

The resulting record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a head-spinning art rock odyssey that takes everything AC had done on previous albums and turns the dial up to eleven, featuring gloriously detailed, completely over-the-top arrangements in which individual details become just a small part of the overall, towering wall of sound. The instrumentation is almost entirely electronic, and yet - by the band’s design, and the highly experimental nature of the way in which the sounds were recorded - everything seems as though it is being performed live. Listen to the chaos that is Brother Sport and try to grab on to one detail in the music; it’s impossible - everything is moving too quickly, too fluidly. As a listener, you have to disengage from the motion of the music completely; there is no fighting it, no picking it apart; you cannot control it, you just have to be swept away.

Panda Bear chants beautiful Beach Boys melodies like he is dancing around a campfire with feathers in his hair, and the hyperactive music rises and falls in turbulent waves. Somehow even the quietest songs still sound incomprehensibly busy: the lead single My Girls is easily the most accessible track here, but even so the catchy vocal harmonies and swirling arpeggiated backing belie heady musical concepts that probe our minds to delve beneath the surface and think more, see more, hear more. Guys Eyes actually threatens to make sense at some points, before the melody is suddenly lost, as it begins to feedback on itself during extended, repetitious trance-like bridges that bring us right back to the beginning of the cycle. Meanwhile, tracks like Lion in a Coma, and the overpowering closing track Brother Sport defy categorisation; they have to be heard to be believed.

Listening to MPP and attempting to take it too seriously is like watching ten movies at the same time, all on fast forward, and trying to internalise every picture, every bit of dialogue; you can’t, and you’re not meant to try. Take one look at the amazing front cover, try and focus on one point, and you understand Animal Collective’s intention here. This record is trippy chaos in audio form; funk punk synth rock that carries an undeniable, breathtaking impact, like a multicolour psychedelic comet slamming into earth and turning everything neon bright and luminescent.

2010: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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

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

Of the thirty choices necessitated during the making of this list, here we have the easiest decision by a wide margin. Kanye West released his undisputed, unparalleled masterpiece in 2010; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is everything it should have been and more. The product of immersive collaboration with a bevy of West’s most trusted fellow producers, rappers, singers, and instrumentalists, recorded in a studio out in Honolulu after a bleak period of self-imposed exile, MBDTF is a towering, shining, crowning achievement.

Following the conclusion of West’s college-themed trilogy with the release of 2007’s Graduation, the rapper was hit with a series of personal tragedies - namely, the death of his mother and the ending of a long romantic engagement. Out of that darkness came 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, which saw the Chicago native almost entirely cease rapping in favour of a heavily autotuned singing style, and eschew his trademark soul-sampling rap beats for cold, atmospheric electronic backings. It was a great record that proved years and years ahead of its time, which nevertheless largely lacked the songwriting brilliance for which West has always been revered. Afterward, following the infamous Taylor Swift incident, the rapper withdrew from the public eye, took a much needed break, and re-thought his approach.

It was therefore with baited breath that fans awaited West’s delayed return in 2010. He spent the lead up releasing a free mostly-non-album single every Friday for fourteen weeks; after these incredible records had passed, anticipation for MBDTF was at fever-pitch. Beginning with the RZA-assisted opening track Dark Fantasy, the message West sends us is clear - the king has returned. The artist later said in his 2013 BBC Radio 1 interview:

“I showed people that I understand how to make perfect. Dark Fantasy could be considered to be perfect; I know how to make perfect.”

Ego aside, the songs here are evidence if any were ever needed that West is one of our greatest musicians. Recruiting a huge group of guests - from Jay Z to Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Raekwon, John Legend, Elton John, and Bon Iver - and crafting tracks that were more grand, more symphonic, and more bombastic than anything he’d attempted before, MBDTF is epic in both scale and length.

The entire record is mastered in such a way as to more closely resemble classic lo-fi ’90s rap albums like Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), rather than what West perceived as the over-polished, sterile, digital modern standard. A longtime fan of trip hop trio Portishead, West also took specific inspiration from the lush string arrangements on that band’s 1998 live recording Roseland NYC, while tapping indie singer Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to add his soulful, otherworldly vocal to many of the tracks here. As a result, a number of these songs - Gorgeous, Runaway, Devil in a New Dress - feature ornate, grainy analogue warmth, introspective lyricism, and opulent melodic arrangements. At the same time, tracks like Monster carry a bass-heavy, club-friendly wallop to set the scene for boastful, ignorant verses from the assembled crowd of top-class MCs.

Lyrically, West is expansive; on the explosive anthem All of the Lights, given the perfect platform of chanting horns and quick-fire drum beats, he passes up the obvious route to fire off more lines about his greatness, and instead raps from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck estranged father. On Blame Game, he cuts right to the core of an emotionally abusive relationship before a hilarious Chris Rock takes over the Aphex Twin-sampling instrumental and turns the whole song into a skit. Elsewhere, Power is an egotistical, angry dissection of celebrity, popularity, and emotional instability; largely traditional West subject matter, and yet here he sounds more volatile, more unhinged than ever before. At one point he raps “I’ve got the power to make your life so exciting,” and the echoes of the final word instead sound as though West is repeating “suicide, suicide, suicide.” Then suddenly he’s singing: “Now this will be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ I’m letting everything go.”

As on the single Runaway, the tracks here often fall into repetitious phrases, where a core melodic or rhythmic element is singled out, replayed, and meditated on. West delights in identifying what carries each track, and building crystalline moments of harmony or groove around that element; it is in this way that his background as a producer is most an asset. Though he takes a less dominant hand in the crafting of every single element on MBDTF - an approach he has continued to use on all subsequent releases - he instead controls everything like a puppeteer pulling the strings, or a grand-master painter giving careful instructions to those who will actually lift the brush to paint the master’s grand frescoes.

It's clear that all the assembled contributors brought their a-game to MBDTF; every guest verse is first-rate, and Rick Ross turned in the best 16 bars of his career in the closing minute of Devil in a New Dress. One gets the impression that those involved in the secretive recording of this record knew exactly how monumental all of it was. MBDTF smacks of classic status from beginning to end; it is that rare thing: beautifully decorated, and yet full of substance. It is enigmatic, complex, intelligent, visceral, and unforgettable. Hard-edged, tough rhymes, over nostalgic rap beats are interspersed with accomplished orchestration, masterful songwriting, and cerebral conceptualisation.

Closing track Who Will Survive in America? borrows a furious, political sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s hugely influential live poetry, and closes with the polite applause of a canned audience. It’s a delightful moment of self-awareness from West; a tip of the hat to a hip-hop frontrunner, followed by an insightful acknowledgment that West will always be in front of an audience; he is always being watched, always being tracked, always being listened to. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is immaculate proof as to why anyone bothers.

Honourable Mention: Crystal Castles - II

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

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

Ethan Kath and Alice Glass emerged from a period of hot-property, rising-star, label-bidding-war status in 2008 with their self-titled debut record. It was a fantastic collection of wildly original chiptune-borrowing electronic punk, with Glass’ banshee-like vocals screaming out almost incomprehensibly over the vintage, lo-fi, distorted beats that Kath provides. Crystal Castles were one of the most exciting acts in music at the time, and the hype around them was met only by the critical acclaim of their music.

For their second release, eager to escape the dreaded sophomore slump, producer and songwriter Kath traveled around the world to record; with little  for equipment due to the nature of the music, he recorded the tracks in a variety of locations, including an empty Icelandic church, a cabin he built himself in Ontario, a garage behind an abandoned Detroit drug store, and in acclaimed producer Paul Epworth’s London studio. He later said of the Icelandic experience:

“I recorded most of the record in the coldest winter in decades in a church without heat in Iceland. It was so cold that when I listen back I can hear myself shivering. I chose it because it felt right.”

Kath then handed over 70 instrumental tracks to Glass, who tracked vocals for half of them. It was an unlikely start to the recording of an album, although their debut record was crafted in much the same way, and Crystal Castles were - after all - always an unlikely band. Glass, who ran away from home at the age of fourteen, choosing to live in a squat community of punks under an adopted name and performing in a hardcore punk act name Fetus Fatale, and Kath, an anarchist punk drummer come circuit-bending old school video game fan, plus the only man to ever make such 8-bit nostalgic wizardry sound rebelliously cool.

It was typical for CC then, that upon the release of II these worldwide-recorded songs had upped the ante on every level since their debut; though that record had endured very few low moments, II is almost flawless. Somehow managing to sound more pop, more accessible, and more catchy, while still being none of those things at all - though there is no doubt that the production quality is higher (no doubt largely due to Epworth’s influence); the record benefits from a greater sense of lows and highs, as opposed to the ferocious midrange of the debut. Glass’ vocals are also a little more melodic (for the most part), and her lyrics a little easier to understand.

Opening track Fainting Spells is a rush of white noise, wailing, siren-like synthesiser tones, and indistinct screams, and then it’s over; following track Celestica is a dramatic change: an obvious single that is pretty and harmless, with lullaby-like melodies and four-to-the-floor kick drums, it almost sounds like the work of a far less interesting act than Crystal Castles. Then we’re hit by Doe Deer, and there is no mistaking who we are listening to: an absurdly abrasive beat; a manic, distorted shriek; a rush of wild, unrestrained aggression, and it has passed in only 96 seconds. Reminiscent of songs like xxzxcuzx me from the debut, it is a fantastic wake up call, and a reminder that we need never worry that II is the sound of a band selling out.

The album continues in a no-less-confusing manner; many of the songs are introduced with conventional electronic music melodies that hint at a false sense of security, before they are quickly shifted into more creative, experimental works, usually by the introduction of Glass’ singular vocal. Songs like Empathy get the balance of elements just right; a pop melody is buried in there somewhere, but it is as though Kath will never let us get to it, instead obscuring the vocal with snippets of distortion, punchy kick drums, droning bass synths, and a whining klaxon of a arpeggio. Suffocation opts for a similar approach, allowing Glass a quiet moment during each verse before abruptly exploding into a shoegaze-like explosion of sound that borders on white noise; the vocal is entirely lost, and we are left with an uplifting, soaring, weirdly dark climax. It is masterful bait-and-switch song-craft, and Kath invokes it with ease on may of these tracks. Not in Love, whose remix features a vocal from Robert Smith of The Cure, is the most accessible song of Crystal Castle’s career; a tense, synthpop bassline carries the verses, while Smith’s voice is lifted to stratospheric heights by the high-pitched, powerful synthesisers that surge during the chorus. It is emotionally magnetic, powerful music: it lifts us up, and brings us down; we cannot help but be drawn to it and moved by it.

Kath and Glass would return with only one more record before calling it quits as a duo. 2012’s III was a great record, more politically charged and lyrically challenging than I or II, but less inventive, and lacking in many of the sorts of songs that made the first two records so special. On II, Crystal Castles struck just the right balance between the playfulness and experimentation of their debut and the seriousness of their final release. These songs are clever, antagonistic club music; they draw you in, fool you into thinking you know what to expect, and then trap you in rippling gossamer webs of static, screams, and deafening electronic chaos.

II is one of the most subversive records to ever be described as pop, and the best work by one of the most interesting acts of their time. Groups like the experimental rap weirdos Death Grips would go on to borrow heavily from what Crystal Castles began, yet Kath and Glass have never been bettered; this is music as performance art; half-accessible, half-obscure, all-encompassing.


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