And that concludes the blog series! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. It was fun to go back and really think about what albums have left permanent impressions on me. I’m excited to see what other albums will make their way onto this list. For now, here’s the complete list as it stands:
Justin Vernon had a tough 2006. His band broke up and his girlfriend moved on without him. Then he got mono. Faced with all these trials, he did what many of us would do and moved back home to Wisconsin. Then he decided to spend 3 months alone in a cabin in northern Wisconsin over the winter to sort of “de-tox” himself from the sad events. While there, he cobbled together an album unlike any he’d ever recorded. With a couple of mics and a guitar, he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago. As you listen to the album, you can’t help but feel the pain that Vernon felt while writing and recording it. His voice is strained, shrill, melancholy and eerily overdubbed. His guitars are chopped and picked clean. Yet, he makes so much of so little. He released the record independently in the summer of 2007. Eventually, the record was picked up by a label and issued in early 2008.
The record is a study in asceticism. When you strip away all the trappings of normal life and retreat to a sequestered cabin with your painful memories and unresolved feelings, this is the sort of thing that is purged out of you. Though none of us listening to the recording have experienced the same emotional traumas as Vernon, we co-opt his wails and ascribe them to our own struggles. I didn’t deal with any major calamities in 2008, but I felt that this album was a representation of a dark night of the soul that everyone experiences and therefore I wrote myself into the narrative anyway.
I was able to see Bon Iver live in 2008 at The Current’s Rock the Garden festival at the Walker Art Center. I remember wondering how an intimate and hushed record like this one would translate to the stage. Vernon, with a few supporting musicians, channeled his pain perfectly to the audience and left them satisfied with the journey through despair into hope. Winter into spring.
As the summer wore on and the record drifted from my playlist, I began to wonder about the future of Bon Iver. This album is so indelibly tied to the cabin in the woods that I’m skeptical that Vernon can produce another record of equal impact. What would he do next? Vernon wisely released an EP of 4 songs in 2009 that built on the sound of For Emma…, but moved beyond the sonic boundaries of the cabin. He then began collaborating with other musicians in experimental music. He is a member of Volcano Choir and appears on the newly released album by Twin Cities supergroup Gayngs. It seems that his isolation has given way to a desire to be part of a community again and perhaps that desire will perfect itself on a new Bon Iver record in the future. Though I think Justin Vernon’s lasting legacy will be his plaintive cries heard through the frosted windows of a cabin in the woods.
10/10/2007 may very well be remembered as the day the music industry changed forever. It was the day that Radiohead, one of the most popular bands in the world, released their 7th LP. They did so by making the album available on their own private website, inviting their audience to pay whatever price they wanted to download DRM-free mp3s of the album. Having seen the state of the corporate music industry, the band decided (wisely, as it turned out) to take distribution into their own hands and see what happened. What happened was the band made a lot of money, gained a lot of exposure and delivered what I now consider to be their finest album ever.
Radiohead did so much right with this album. They took their time recording it independently, making sure every single note was exactly as they wanted it to be. They did not put out any advertising for this album until 10 days before it was online, making the announcement of impending release a shock to the fans. They showed respect and trust in their fans by instituting a pay-what-you-can system for the digital release. It was something completely new and completely Radiohead.
I had been loosely following the rumors of the band’s studio work, but had decided that the most likely scenario was that they would release a CD in 2008. When news broke that the release was 10 days away and a website had appeared with cryptic information about it, I was incredulous. I didn’t think it was possible in this digital age to keep something like this so secret. But really, the only way to prevent an album from leaking before it’s release date is to not tell ANYONE that the album is coming out until it does. Most bands feel they can’t do this because it’s the advertising buzz that helps sell the album. Radiohead had the luxury of already commanding a rapid fanbase that didn’t need lead single to tell them to buy the music. I loved that Radiohead, a band that is known for experimentation, chose to experiment on their business model as well as their music.
I’ve come to the conclusion that In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album. The release model plays into that, but the music itself is also extremely good. “Nude” is probably the most beautiful song the band has ever recorded. The swelling strings and tender falsetto vocals are too lovely for words.
I actually bought the full discbox from the band, which contained a CD of the album, a CD of bonus tracks and the entire album on two vinyl records. It’s a very cool memento of a watershed event in rock music history. When I think of the growing pains the industry has experienced in the last ten years, I’ll always think of how Radiohead took a quantum leap forward all on their own. And I hope they don’t wait for the rest of the world to catch up before making their next leap.
In the summer of 2007, I began hearing some gentle buzz about a little independent film from Ireland called Once. It was supposed to be a lovely little film that was also a musical. It sounded great to me, so when the film came to one of my favorite theaters in the area (The Heights) I took Becky out to see it. Without having much background information other than positive internet chatter, we didn’t really know what the film was about. As the screen flickered to life, we found ourselves completely immersed in the film. The storyline was that of two musicians looking to change their lives and helping each other do just that. But it was the music that made the film shine.
Glen Hansard is the leading man in the film. He had little acting experience prior to this and was making a good living as the frontman for The Frames. Leading actress, Marketa Irglova, was also an accomplished musician but a novice actor. Together, they produced an amazing chemistry on screen and in their music. The scene in the music store in which Glen’s character teaches Marketa’s one of his songs feels like the cameras were just rolling on a wholly impromptu jam session. In fact, the film had such a small budget that many scenes were actually filmed in public without clearing onlookers and that aesthetic makes the film feel very real. Indeed, through the filming of Once, Glen and Marketa fell in love with each other. Apparently the chemistry they shared on screen was not just playacting.
For me, the part of the film that really resonated with me was the theme of music as a powerful force to bring people together. The characters in the film are drawn together when the girl hears the guy playing music on the street. Their relationship blossoms when they play a song together and they grow even more as they work together to produce an studio recording. It’s the music that builds a foundation for their relationship.
Of course, another element of the film that makes it one of my favorites is the way the filmmakers skip the fluffy cliches of romantic films. In fact, many people weren’t happy with the way the film ended (I won’t spoil it here), but I felt like it was a perfect ending that was grounded in reality. And that made it beautiful.
Becky and I walked out of The Heights Theater practically glowing. We became total street teamers for the film, telling everyone we knew that they had to see it. And we cheered heartily when the song “Falling Slowly” won an Oscar and Glen and Marketa gave humble and genuine acceptance speeches.
Last year, the pair released their second album and announced that they were no longer a romantic couple – just musical collaborators. Art imitates life and sometimes vise versa. I hope their collaboration continues even as their romantic relationship wanes. Their chemistry is undeniable.
Soon after we got engaged, Becky and I decided that we would be married on September 17th, 2005. We liked the idea of a fall wedding, but we also recognized that we officially started dating on September 15th, 2001, and that it would be fun to get married so close to that date. As we were making plans for the wedding and honeymoon in New Zealand, I heard that Sigur Ros was coming to Minneapolis to play their first show in Minnesota in years the week after our wedding. Their new album was scheduled for release on September 12th and this was one of their first stops on a US tour in support of that album. Now, I’d already sold Becky on the idea of waiting to leave on our honeymoon until after the Sufjan Stevens concert on the 18th, but I wasn’t going to be able to stay in town until the Wednesday Sigur Ros concert. I figured that this may be the last time they play locally for another few years and that made me sad I was missing it. Incredibly, Sigur Ros were back in Minneapolis the following spring for another show! This time I was not going to miss it. In fact, I was able to score advance tickets through the band’s pre-sale and Becky and I were in the third row for their show at the Orpheum Theater.
Takk… was the band’s first album since ( ) in 2003. Unlike their previous album, the bulk of Takk… is sung in Icelandic and not in their “Hopelandic” vocal style. Sigur Ros’ popularity had grown so much in the three years between albums that this album debuted on the US charts at #27, not bad for a band that had never sung a single song in English. This album really solidified their position as one of the most popular post-rock bands in the world. Their otherworldly, atmospheric sound was so unique that it really couldn’t be copied. Even so, Takk… represented a leap forward for the band. Their song “Hoppipolla” became an international hit and was featured as background music in television programs and commercials.
I had heard great reviews of Sigur Ros’ live show, but I still didn’t know if they could really capture the energy and beauty of their studio compositions on stage. From the opening chords of their first song, I was sold The band’s sound translates incredibly well to the stage and they utilized lights and screens to great effect. I was also pleasantly surprised by the supporting band: Amiina. Amiina is the string quartet that accompanies Sigur Ros on many of their albums and on tour. The band opened the show on their own and revealed that they are a very talented band in their own right. Playing everything from saws to bells, the four women of Amiina set the stage perfectly for the headliners. I have since seen Amiina headline a show of their own at the Varsity Theater and they are exceptional.
I wasn’t too sad to have to miss Sigur Ros’ first concert so I could run around the south island of New Zealand with my new bride, but was a stroke of good fortune that they made a return trip to Minneapolis so soon. After seeing firsthand what kind of talent Sigur Ros wielded on stage, I became an even bigger fan. I also discovered another little Icelandic band that possessed loads of talent. It reminded me that great bands gain fans through their live shows and mediocre bands lose fans the same way. I’ve been to a number of concerts of bands I genuinely like on recordings only to find that their live show reveals many flaws and causes me to lose some interest. Sigur Ros proved that they are more than just musicians, they are artists and performers. The songs are bigger and better when you see them as well as hear them and that is an extreme rarity in the music world today.
2005 was a very eventful year for me. I got engaged in February and married in September. In between, I moved out of the duplex I’d been sharing with two other guys and into a duplex in south Minneapolis that I shared with Becky once we got married. In July, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, the album that defined his career up to this point.
Following his Michigan record, Stevens released Seven Swans – an album of subdued folk songs and spiritually inclined music. He returned to his proposed “50 States Project” with Illinois. Here, like on Michigan, he uses the culture and history of the states as the backdrop for songs that are probably more personal than the listener typically thinks on first listen. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, for example, relates the horrific story of the serial killer who preyed upon young boys. In the final verse, Stevens states that in his own best behavior he is really just like Gacy – hiding his secrets under the “floorboards”. It’s a chilling song and a hauntingly personal admission that sinks deep into the listener. “Chicago” is a light-hearted romp about road-tripping young friends while “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a sad song about a young lover who dies of cancer. The album sprawls across all these topics without feeling too bloated (even though it clocks in a 74 minutes).
The music of Illinois is a natural step forward from that of Michigan. Bigger arrangements and more active participation from a larger group of collaborators. Stevens crafted a “cheerleader” element into the music this time around and utilized a female ensemble for chanting and cheering parts. He also perfected his own falsetto skills and places them front and center on many songs. It quickly become apparent (as if it wasn’t already) that Stevens is an extremely talented songwriter and composer.
Late in 2004, Becky and I were fortunate to see Sufjan Stevens live at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. The tiny dive bar was a great venue for Stevens’ music, though it was obvious that he is a shy performer and was still getting used to playing for adoring fans. We liked the show so much that we vowed to see him again when he came back through. We learned that he was scheduled to play at First Avenue on September 18th, 2005 – the day after our wedding. We decided that flying to New Zealand for our honeymoon could wait until Monday and we trekked from our hotel down to First Ave on Sunday night. The bigger venue complimented the bigger sound and production quite well. Stevens seemed to be more comfortable with performing and he proved that though his songs were written for the the studio, they are born again on stage. It was a phenomenal concert and all the more so because it was the first concert we attended as a married couple. That gives this album an extra special place in my life and on my record shelves.
By 2005, I was firmly entrenched in the indie music internet subculture. I was checking music review sites like Pitchfork on a daily basis and eagerly previewing new albums from buzz bands. I was also regularly patrolling my local Cheapo Records for used copies of albums so I wouldn’t break the bank to get my fix.
As I was reading through Pitchfork’s annual year end list of 2004, I found that I had not yet listened to the album they ranked as the best release of 2004: Funeral by Arcade Fire. One gripe that I had and have about Pitchfork is their propensity to rate debut albums extremely high just because they are new and fresh-sounding. The bands often turn out to be flashes in the pan whose sophomore releases reveal that they are indeed still amateurs. I figured this was probably the case with Arcade Fire, an upstart band from the oh-so-trendy Canadian large-group rock scenes that happened to get lots of blog coverage that year. When I found their album on sale at Cheapo, I decided to take a chance on it.
Funeral turned out to be a fantastic album. Arcade Fire boasts 7-ish members and utilizes a myriad of unique instrumentation to pull off their dense songs. This album was recorded as a sort of reaction to the deaths of a few people close to members of the band. The songs were primarily recorded over the course of only about a week. Taken together, the album is a tour de force of dramatic and cataclysmic songs that soar and crash over and over again. It has a triumphant feel to it even as the lyrics often sound mournful of losses sustained.
My personal favorite moment of this album has to be the song “Wake Up”. I love the opening guitar chords that lead into a harp run and a huge vocal ensemble. From there the song drops into the verse, but maintains the march before climbing back up the mountain to the soaring choir. It’s an amazingly empowering song and one that I specially chose to have played as the church was being dismissed following our wedding.
At the time of it’s release, I was fairly confident that this band would not be flash in the pan and I was correct; Arcade Fire’s second album proved to be every bit as good as it’s first. In the era of hyperbole and instant history, good bands earn favor by being consistent in their craft and not just by having a popular debut. Pitchfork got this album’s ranking right, but that doesn’t happen as often as they’d like to think. There is no substitute for hearing and evaluating an album yourself on it’s own merit. In the case of Funeral, I find it’s one of those rare albums that gets better each time I listen to it. In other words, unlike most “Pitchfork Approved” albums, this one will have a long shelf life.
As I scoured various internet music message boards, I stumbled across a board where the posters were discussing an album by a band called All Things Bright and Beautiful. The albums sounded like one I’d enjoy, so I clicked over the the record label site to purchase it. The label was called Northern Records and it was founded by former members of the Christian alt-rock band The Prayer Chain. When I landed on the sites main page, I was greeted with a short flash animation featuring some awesome music. The strip at the bottom of the window stated that the music was by a band called Monarch. I knew I had to get my hands on that album along with the All Things Bright and Beautiful album, but I found that Monarch hadn’t been released yet. I ordered the ATB&B album and waited in eager anticipation for the Monarch album to release. When it finally did, I ordered a copy straight away.
The Grandeur That Was Rome is a stellar album. Synths, loops, guitars and effects are the backdrop for the soaring vocals of frontman Brennan Strawn. The album is drenched in reverb giving it a very atmospheric sound. Clearly the band was influenced by Sigur Ros and other post-rock bands of that ilk. Strawn’s vocals the real stunner here. His strong tenor and high falsetto anchor each song perfectly. The song that I heard on the Northern Records site, “Tracing Paper (An Argument)”, begins with jittery drums and a choral sample that chills the listener before launching into the body of the song (which is 8 minutes long). My favorite song on the album is “Turn Around”, a pop gem with a soaring chorus melody that could easily find a home on the radio dial. The lyrics often sound like individual lines pulled from a script, giving the impression that Strawn is drawing from his own experiences while only telling us part of the story, content to leave the interpretation open to the listener.
Following this album, the band actually broke up, leaving only Strawn to carry on the moniker. He has since recruited a few other musicians into the reincarnation of the band. A second album was released a couple years ago called Lowly and featured more of the orchestral arrangements and soaring vocals Strawn does so well.
The serendipitous way that I discovered this album makes it special to me. I followed the trail of a different band and connected the dots through a record label. I’ve bought a number of other albums from Northern Records and been quite pleased with each of them. I like it when a label has it’s own identity and earns the trust of music fans by releasing albums that are consistently good. Asthmatic Kitty is a label that I trust, as is Northern. What record labels do you look to for good music?
The 2000’s began with the Napster era, which spawned a whole new online culture of music sharing and discovery. After Napster was shut down, the revolution continued as people swapped music and bands that never would have gained much exposure found themselves being promoted by fans all over the web. Sometime around 2004 I began to spend a lot of time reading online music sites, searching for new bands and artists to listen to. I would page through message boards and read reviews and then go find samples of the music to listen to before finally ordering a CD from the artist. This is how I found the music of Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens already had two albums to his name when he released Michigan in 2003. This third album scored a myriad of positive reviews online and turned him into an indie music superstar. I was drawn to the album based on the recommendations of many online reviewers that I trusted. When I ordered the CD for Asthmatic Kitty Records, I remember listening to it straight through while reading the lyrics in the booklet. I immediately noticed that many of the song titles were extremely wordy, but interesting none the less. As I listened, I was struck by the dense arrangements and the general “feel” of the album. Stevens managed to give the imbue the music itself with the feel of the albums subject: the state of Michigan. He penned songs about specific towns, areas, people and events contained within Michigan. The songs ranged from quiet, contemplative ballads (“Holland”) to bombastic, marching anthems (“All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”). Stevens was obviously not just a talented writer and researcher, but a fantastic musician and producer as well. Indeed, Stevens produced and recorded this album himself using only a few microphones and ProTools. He enlisted members of the Danielson Famile (a band he’d previously played in) to fill out the vocals and a few random instruments. His music is completely unique partly because Stevens himself is unique and he takes full control of the writing and recording processes.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the instrument that seems to take center stage throughout this album: the banjo. Prior to this album, the banjo rarely entered the indie rock arena, instead being found only in bluegrass and country music. With the release of this album, the banjo suddenly became a must have instrument for aspiring indie folk rockers (yeah, I bought one on Craig’s List). Andrew Bird got press for his whistling prowess, Stevens got it for his banjo. It wasn’t the catalyst that earned him his fame, but it was an important aspect of his music that set him apart from the pack.
Like Sigur Ros’ ( ), Michigan became a touchstone album for me. I became completely enamored with the big arrangements and the high-concept presentation of the album. Stevens art wasn’t just about the studio, it was also about the library. He studied before he recorded and poured his research out in the form of songs. He also was a multi-instrumentalist who filled up almost all the overdubs on his own. I soon found myself wanting to branch in my own music to include playing different instruments. I had a mandolin, so I picked that back up. I soon bought a banjo and acquired a number of other unique instruments that I’ve tried to play. I still probably play the most guitar, but I’ve definitely succeeded in broadening my range and I owe that to Sufjan Stevens and to this album in particular.
In the fall of 2003, I had moved from an apartment to a large 5 bedroom house in St. Paul. It was the quintessential “college house”: crooked hallways, chipped paint, drafty windows, dirty carpet and squirrels in the walls. It was actually perfect for the 5 of us who lived there. Of course, when it got cold and the heat turned out to be broken, the quaintness of the situation got old fast. I remember sleeping a few nights with three layers on and 4 quilts on top of me. Somewhere in the midst of these cold fall months, I discovered the cold, glacial music of Sigur Rós when I bought an album titled simply “( )”.
Sigur Rós, as most of you know, is a band hailing from the glacial quiet of Iceland. They play a unique style of post-rock featuring falsetto vocals, bowed guitar, thunderous bass and bi-polar drums backed by strings and keys. They made it big with their second album Ágætis byrjun, which was sung in Icelandic. With ( ), their third album, the band made a fairly large departure from the last, though it may go unnoticed by English-speaking listeners. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson sang the entire album in a completely made up language. The vocals sounds heard on the album are, in essence, gibberish. The strange thing about it is, to those of us who don’t speak Icelandic anyway, there is essentially no difference other than the songs seem to all involve the same few “words”. Not only that, but the album package contains no words of any kind at all. No liner notes, no credits and no track numbers or names. The only recognizable print is the album title cut out of the case card. It become apparent after listening that this is a concept album and a high one at that.
The album contains 8 tracks. It is divided into two sets of four tracks each and between tracks 4 and 5 are exactly 30 seconds of silence. The band has said that the first four songs are happy and light and the last four are sad and dark. In other words, the album itself mirrors the image of two opposing parentheses. Beautiful audible imagery. Throughout the album, the music is otherworldly and evokes the nature of bleak Icelandic landscapes.
When I first heard this album, I knew that this band would become one of my favorites. I played it over and over again and I studied, read and slept. Though there were no words to be found in this album, I dissected it as I listened and found that it was a deeply affecting album for me. I loved the artistry of it and the fact that the band was relying completely on the music itself to impact their audience. That singular concept changed the way I think about and listen to music. Now, when I listen to a new album, I try to understand what the artist is saying with their music as well as their lyrics. I try to figure out why they chose to sequence the songs they way they did. I also often ask myself if the song would have the same affect on me if I heard it without the lyrics (do the lyrics and the music speak to the same concept or theme?). And with my own music, I find myself striving to marry my lyrics to music that perfectly matches and not just music that I already have or is easy to write. Finally, I have spent time composing instrumental pieces of music that capture a certain idea or picture for me and let the music be the sole frame for that picture. All of these ideas and habits stem from listening to this amazing album. I still pull this album out very frequently and, in fact, it’s in my bedside CD player as I type this.