When the band released the groundbreaking Screamadelica in 1991, it seemed there was nowhere to go but down. Instead, these Brit-rock chameleons went left. Primal Scream steered away from the sound of Manchester’s ecstasy-rock scene and flagrantly mashed its penchant for rock with lead singer Bobby Gillespie’s love for techno. Its subsequent release, Vanishing Point, a beautiful techno-rock monster, was pushed off most critics’ desks while confusing fans and mainstream listeners alike. It is unique for one simple reason: It’s both a good rock album and a good techno album. You won’t find this meshing of styles working so well anywhere else. On Vanishing Point, Gillespie whispers starry-eyed acoustic ballads in between dark and edgy techno ventures. The album is a perfect metaphor for the violent genre-bending that Primal Scream represents.
– Nick Margiasso
Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek
Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought
From Dave Chappelle impersonating the honorable Nelson Mandela on the intro, to the Nina Simone samples on the outro, 2000’s Reflection Eternal changed the face of intelligent hip hop. Talib Kweli showed that he wasn’t just a quick-tongued member of academia, but could battle for the mic and come out on top. DJ Hi-Tek drops mellow-your-mind beats on 20 tracks, including “The Blast,” where he steps up to the mic as well (“on the track like Flo-Jo,” as he puts it). Guest spots include Mos Def, Xzibit and De La Soul, along with comedic interventions by Chappelle, but Kweli’s varying flow and straight mind-wizardry make Train of Thought one to definitely think about.
Touch & Go
Just like Don Juan, Don Caballero tells you seemingly simple things that stem from incomprehensible complexity. Heck, they don’t talk at all; they’re an instrumental band. Guitarist Ian Williams lays down loop after loop of live samples via his pedal sampler, and what results is an orchestra of guitars played by one man, each somehow singularly coherent. Add to this Damon Che’s frenetic drumming and Eric Emm’s experimental bass playing, and American Don lends itself to an infinity of repeated listenings. A definite must-have for every jazz purist and Radiohead-head out there.
Once We Were Trees
What happens when indie-rockers smoke too much pot during a camping trip in the woods of Tennessee? Beachwood Sparks happen, that’s what. This quartet of yodeling rockers followed their happy, Beatles meets Dick Dale debut record with Once We Were Trees. Trees marks a journey into the country, or at least the indie-rock version of country. The album is layered with twangy slide guitars and mellow-as-molasses lyrical delivery. On Once We Were Trees, the Sparks musically trade in the Sub Pop image of thrift store duds and Saucony’s for patchwork denim and moccasins. This album is a fresh step on the path toward an alt/country crossroad.
Pieces in a Modern Style
Hey, would you look at that, some honest to goodness classical music in The Oracle. Well, almost. Orbit, producer of Madonna’s Ray of Light LP, took it upon himself in 2000 to enlighten the masses to the sounds of classical music, and we are all the better for it. Orbit tackles the likes of Beethoven, Handel and John Cage on modern-day synthesizers. What results is perhaps the best study album ever. Marvel of marvels, entire orchestras are replaced by keyboards and, sacrilege, electronic organs. Each song, save Cage’s “In a Landscape,” sounds definitely more classical than synth-y, but allows us to experience the classics in a more palatable presentation.
Godspeed You Black Emperor
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
This gaggle of Canadians isn’t just another instrumental rock band. Besides the mouthful of a title, these artsy Canucks showed with this album that they create invigorating musical landscapes. Lift Your Skinny Fists is an orchestral double album that ebbs and flows like a moody storyline and captivates both mentally and aurally. The band even loops ramblings of an elderly man and eerie supermarket loudspeaker announcements into this rocking EP. The sketches inside the record’s cardboard packaging are just as spooky and interesting as the music. The album is all of four songs, but the tunes take on four separate dynamics — a kind of seasonal musical theater.
Barely more often than never, a cartoony hardcore metal/punk band from Japan comes around. Melt Banana is the only band to occupy this domain. On Teeny Shiny, lead vocalist YaSuKo O. raps or screams belligerent phrases (“free the bee, chicken”) that could hardly be called lyrics, but her mouse-like voice begs attention. They don’t really make albums, they create lessons in aural conundrums. Melt Banana is angry and fun, loud and sweet, incoherent and blissful. Guitarist AGATA shows more aggression and experimentalism than any other, save Tom Morello. Sometimes he sounds like a bird, other times he sounds like a car wreck. Melt Banana is coming to town in July. At live shows, AGATA’s been known to wear a surgical mask duct-taped to his face, just because.
Jeru the Damaja
Wrath of the Math
DJ Premier, Gangstarr’s producer extraordinaire, has produced albums and singles for the likes of Fat Joe, Common, Nas and Mos Def, but perhaps his greatest effort is 1996’s Wrath of the Math. Along with the social commentary of Jeru tha Damaja, Primo’s trademark jingle-jangle beats and turntablism set the not-so-underground hip hop world on its ear. Jeru was always leaning toward the esoteric, with lines such as “I keep it chemical, but never subliminal/The force centrifugal and spiritual” but he raps sensibly, as well. He delves into the issues of Catholicism, black pride, scientific uncertainty and other high-minded social arenas that hardly anyone in hip hop today would tread, as to not dint their Nike Air Force Ones.
Building Nothing Out of Something
Modest Mouse is what music critics mean when they say “quirky.” This is the definitive album of this black sheep rock band. The lyrics are neurotic, the guitar work is jittery and the drumming sustains a reluctant stutter. But the songs’ vocal delivery and twinkling instrumentals skate into synchronized indie jams. It is all an incongruous means toward powerful musical ends. Lead singer Isaac Brock even breaks into a brainy rap: “The universe works on a math equation that never really ever really is in it and …/well, we ain’t sure where you/stand you ain’t machines and you ain’t land.” With Building Nothing, Modest Mouse transcends two-dimensional nerd-rock, propelling itself into a puzzling kaleidoscope that can only be appreciated by repeated listenings.
Since I Left You
What do Grease, Wu-Tang Clan and Sublime have in common? All three are sampled on Since I Left You, along with hundreds of other works. No original material was created for this album. Instead, the Australian production outfit gathered a veritable universe of samples for five years and seamlessly melded them into their own unique creation. Voices fade into hooks and beats bump glorious instrumentals, all painstakingly acquired (you should see the lengthy rights list). From Raekwon the Chef to horses to an ad for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no music scribe could ever delineate all the sources of the material used. Instead, just sit back with your mojito and chill to the smartest party album of the past few years.