August 12: Badly Drawn Boy, Erykah Badu, Bjork, Elliott Smith, Lightning Bolt, TV on the Radio, Wilco

In our final sweep of the decades we come to the 2000s, the decade in which this version of the list ends (the list I’m using came out in 2006). You might think that this decade and the last sort of bled together and everything has sounded the same since about 2001, but I’m not so sure: a lot of these records sound like they’re from a different decade.

Erykah Badu, ‘Mama’s Gun’

Surprisingly, Badu’s best-known album ‘Baduizm’ is absent from the list but this one makes it in; my reckoning is that there’s a Roots fan on the selection committee as Questlove appears on the writing, production and drumming credits here. The material here is the sort of early 2000s soul played on live instruments that could veer into hip-hop or jazz without sounding awkward, while ‘Green Eyes’ even starts sounding like a Billie Holiday 78rpm. Sounded fine, didn’t sound crucial.

Badly Drawn Boy, ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’

BDB was breathlessly hyped by the music press long before his first album came out, comparisons with Beck and The Beta Band being common and an appearance on the NME Cool List after a mere 1 EP. Presumably the combination of being a talented songwriter on record and an inability to get shit together live rendered him cool, but whatever, his best-known and most loved record is this one. More than Beck or the Betas, though, it’s a English surrealist take on the Elliot Smith records, some of which sounds like the same sort of thing Gorky’s were doing, some of which sounds like Doves (the entire lineup of the latter band feature). Okay but only occasionally diverting, the record would probably be improved if not for Gough’s no-effort vocals.

Bjork, ‘Medulla’

From an album with no time spent on the vocals to one entirely based on them, this curio is Bjork’s a capella album, exploring the possibilities of the human voice and getting singers from a range of vocal disciplines to support (there’s two choirs, two beatboxers, an Inuit throat singer, a ‘human trombone’ and Mike Patton). Because much of the record involves a choir, or perhaps because of the cerebral concept, there’s something formal about the album, like a modern classical album. Odd that an album based on the expressiveness of the voice could seem so serious. It’s most alive on ‘Triumph of the Heart’, with its house beats and meowy rhythm track.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Wonderful Rainbow’

One of many heavy bands to have two guys with the same name (Winnebago Deal are another), Brian and Brian make aggressive bass-and-drums music in the same vein as Death From Above but without the sex or the white supremacist links. Sort of in the same vein as noise acts like Boredoms or Battles, there’s also a John Zorn-ish aggressive free jazz aspect to this pair. Stuff like this is more palatable in small doses – a nuclear bomb rather than a sustained bombing campaign – and this album has the good manners to finish up after 41 minutes.

Elliott Smith, ‘Figure 8’

Knowing how the story ended – this is the last album he released in his lifetime – it’s difficult to listen to this album’s lyrics without seeing some foreshadowing, even in its supposed lighter moments. Smith’s unusual George Harrison voice and melancholia is often wrapped in REM-style production which threatens to swallow the fragility of the voice, but just about avoids going all the way into kitsch. But in the same way that filters on Photoshop can’t lighten a black hole, the darkness at the heart of this album is never truly coloured by the arrangements.

TV on the Radio, ‘Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes’

I’d listened to some of this album but this is the first time I’d listened to it in full. Ostensibly a rock album, this is more like post-punk as imagined by Portishead or something: soundscaping using loops and Yeah Yeah Yeahs-ish guitar (the Yeahs’ producer, David Sitek, is in TVOTR). An interesting attempt to scope out the future rather than tying themselves to the present, it’s no wonder they got a rhythm section after this: the songs never truly kick in.

Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

Wilco have three entries on the list (including the Billy Bragg one), this being their last and most fondly regarded. Recorded during a time of turmoil – they changed record label and band members during this album’s recording, and conflicts over production led to another member leaving afterwards – this is quite the departure from the country, or folk, that they were doing. It’s a diverse, sprawling, noise-friendly album which throws the kitchen sink but never gratuitously. Probably the best album of the week.

Next week: We’re down to 56 now, so we’ll look at any artist with 2 albums on the list.

Status update: 945 listened to (94%), 56 remain.

 

 

 

 

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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