#2. The National: Boxer (2007)- Hailing from Brooklyn, but originally from Cincinnati, The National developed a strong following over several years with a welcome brand of baroque-styled pop characterized by lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep Leonard Cohen-like vocals. 2005’s Alligator found the band approaching a zenith with their strongest offering yet. Somehow they managed to up the ante with Boxer. An enduring collection of songs featuring Berninger front and center along with twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. The result is one the best collections of music released in the last 15-20 years. In every aspect, the album is near perfection. Songwriting? Check. Production? Check. Musicianship? Check. Vocals? Check. Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s muscular playing sets the tone alongside skilled guitar parts, horns, strings, and piano among others. Berninger explores a variety of different themes such as fake people [“Mistaken for Strangers”], two lovers fighting [“Start a War”], and the sheer jubilation of two people hiding out together away from the rest of the world [“Apartment Story”]. I’m not prepared to say that Boxer is the most important album to come out in the last ten years though and that is why it’s not #1. Still……its by far my favorite.
Faves: Mistaken for Strangers, Slow Show, Apartment Story, Start a War, Guest Room
#3. My Morning Jacket, Z (2005): Louisville’s favorite sons My Morning Jacket established a strong following as a band playing southern-style grunge rock that had a certain appeal to the “jam band” crowd. With their previous album It Still Moves, the band firmly entrenched themselves as a modern day Crazy Horse, high pitched vocals and all. So it was a pleasant surprise when Z was released. Eschewing a more traditional lineup and sound by adding keyboards, Z was indeed more 3-dimensional than anything they had ever recorded. Naturally, Jim James’ soaring near-falsetto vocals still remained. However, gone – at least for the most part – was the sometimes excessive reverberation of every lyric. Instead of cliched jam-band tunes with hour long guitar solos, the music is much less formulaic. The first part of the album is almost entirely psychedelic sounding more like Pink Floyd than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The sonically enriched “Gideon” proved that MMJ was more than a one-trick pony. But the album isn’t great simply because of its production. MMJ brings in other influences. On “What a Wonderful Man,” the group does their best take on reggae. Sure Bob Marley may have been turning in his grave, but the effort is earnest. You’ll be thrown for a loop with the unlikely “Into the Woods,” but the record shines again with the power pop anthem “Anytime.” Then, just to remind their fans that they still have their jam-band bona fides, they lay it down heavy with “Lay Low,” a jam that would make Dickey Betts blush.
Faves: Gideon, Anytime, Lay Low, Knot Comes Loose
#4. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): Indeed what a long strange trip it had been by the time this wonderful album was released by Chicago-based outfit Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a bold step along the path of mythology of Wilco. As alt-country darlings, Wilco had released a series of critically acclaimed albums prior to the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ironically enough, their former label Reprise rejected it. For obvious reasons, the band was intent on releasing this body of work so they bought the rights to it and released it on their website; later that year, Nonesuch records signed them and released the album. I think you know what happened next……If you don’t, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was both a critical and commercial success; and for good reason. As to be expected, Wilco’s blend of roots-based rock, characterized by wonderful songwriting was as present here as any of its predecessors. What could not be foreseen was the brilliant twist of gadgetry and electronic instrumentation that gave the album a sort of alternate universe sound. But it doesn’t stop there. On “Jesus, etc.” Wilco gives us a little 70s style rock, sounding like the Eagles playing Wilco. On “I’m the Man who Loves You” it looks like the band’s doing their best impersonation of the Breeders but the song quickly turns into what is one of the best feel-good love songs I’ve ever heard. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot somehow manages to be one of the most accessible albums you could ever listen to. At the same time, it’s a magical fusion of imagination and great song craft.
Faves: Jesus, etc., Kamera, I am the Man who Loves You, Pot Kettle Black