Yep, we’ve made a list. Two separate lists, actually, so the above graphic is a bit misleading. Accounting for the limited overlap in Todd’s and Chris’ lists, it’s more like the top 174 or something like that.
Anyway, after months of scientific analysis, hours of listening and re-listening to albums from years gone by, we have arrived at a definitive list of the top albums ever recorded. Our research is not open to interpretation, but you’re more than welcome to complain about the fact that your favorite albums aren’t on this list; we’ll simply respond by telling you that your favorite records aren’t really all that good.
We’ve reached the really good stuff: our top 10s. We’ll roll these out one per day (Monday-Friday) over the next two weeks, reaching #1 on Friday, Dec. 14. The following week, we’ll unveil our favorite music from 2012.
Let’s get on with it…
Chris’ #4: The xx, xx
(click play button below to sample this album)
I thought I’d list all the things I was doing when I was 20: playing video games in my dorm room, working a few hours a week in a Northern Iowa computer lab, killing time before I transferred to a school that offered a real journalism degree.
Let’s see, what else…I already mentioned video games…I was really good at those Sega Genesis hockey games. One of my friends, I’d play against him with my net empty and still beat him. Not as impressive as my friend Jim, who beat someone at Tecmo Super Bowl without running a single offensive play, but still…
What I wasn’t doing: getting together with three of my fellow 20-year-old friends and recording an album that sounds like the work of the most senior of souls. An album that intertwines the simplest of notes with the voices of boy-girl back-and-forth to make something ever so seductive. I wish this album had been around when I was 20; I could have used it in my attempts to “hunker down” with the ladies. Probably would have worked better than throwing on the first Violent Femmes album or whatever dumb/sensitive move I was prone to make.
Seriously, when I was 20, my lone attempts at making music involved trying to sing the songs from Alice in Chains’ Sap EP while my roommate played the acoustic guitar, or the time me and two buddies knocked out some song called “Lighter” which was about, erm, not being able to find a lighter. It had a bit of early Rolling Stones influence, perhaps a bit of Talking Heads or Television, matched up with some early R.E.M. or something…wait, no, it was none of those things. It was a Casio keyboard and some form of percussion and the aforementioned lyrics about a missing lighter.
Meanwhile, these four (at the time, before Baria was booted from the band) 20-year-olds put out the best debut album ever. Equal parts gorgeous gloom and sensuality to spare. I’m not sure which element of the xx sound is more vital: the guitar tone that fills the room without a flurry of notes and without loud effect, or the heart-melting voice of Romy Madley Croft. (These two elements are on display in the songs “Shelter” and “Night Time,” the second and third songs in my sampler above.)
There’s something about those echo/chorus/whatever-drenched guitar notes that cause them to hit me right in the pleasure region of my brain. Something about the tone, which seems a good match for the dark vibe of the overall song. Or perhaps because I love the way such a minimalist approach yields such great payoff.
And Romy’s voice…did I mention that yet? I think it’s safe to say it’s one of my favorite voices in music history: the hush, the whisper, the sorrow, the longing, the sweetness, the sighs. For someone who looks a little bit like an early-era Robert Smith (before the hair got crazy), she’s got one hell of a beautiful voice.
(And to be fair, she’s actually pretty cute. Seeing her in concert was an experience. So polite, so unassuming, so appreciative of the adoring audience at First Avenue. I wish I were still at the show.)
Although the album is a very cohesive, singular statement, there’s enough variety here that it isn’t just a 39-minute drone. A faster pace is set with songs like “Intro” (which was featured in that AT&T commercial with Apolo Anton Ohno), “Crystalised,” and my favorite xx song thus far, “Islands” (which features a brilliant video that I’ll embed below).
That beat. The guitar line that is joined by that slinky bass line. Those four-note blasts of bass, both from Oliver Sim’s stringed instrument and Jamie xx’s producer’s table. And the lyrical content…well, I have my own interpretation, and it’s kinda heartbreaking. I see no reason to share my thoughts, as I’d rather you listen to the words and watch the video and draw your own conclusion. Bottom line: so. fucking. good.
The band can get a little quirky and drop references to HBO programming (“VCR”), throw down some good ol’ hand-clapping pop tunes (“Heart Skipped a Beat,” “Basic Space”), allow the low end to take center stage (“Fantasy,” the tail end of the album closer “Stars,” which practically blew a hole in my chest at First Avenue), and get dark and intense (“Infinity,” “Shelter,” “Night Time”).
The music can work for people madly in love. It can work for people who are experiencing heartbreak. It can work for people holding out hope for happiness. It can work for people wanting to dance around the room (at times, anyway). It can work at the gym. It can work on a road trip. It can work as background music. It can work as just about anything.
For something so simple, it is incredibly versatile and mature. That’s why after just three years of existence, I put this as my #4 album of all time…and I’m not sure it’s peaked yet.
Todd’s #4: The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
(click play button below to sample this album)
Question…Can a record about a Japanese girl fighting evil pink robots be any good?
Answer…Hells yeah! If the record is The Flaming Lips’ album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Were you thinking of another album about a Japanese girl ridding the planet of pink robot evil-doers?
Well actually, only the first few songs follow the theme of robots that develop emotions and attempt to destroy us all.
The first song “Fight Test” is nice little song that sets the tone for the album. If you think it sounds familiar that’s because apparently they consciously or unconsciously stole the melody from the Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son.” I can sort of hear it, but come on dude, let it go. He actually sued them and won the case. He gets royalties from it now. Didn’t he give up his wealth when he changed his name and went all Muslim on everyone? I guess ol’ Yusuf needed a cash infusion. Anyways, “Fight Test” sets the seen for a fight to come between man and machine where the first stance of man is one of pacifism.
I thought I was smart – I thought I was right
I thought it better not to fight – I thought there was a
Virtue in always being cool – so when it came time to
Fight I thought I’ll just step aside and that time would
Prove you wrong and that you would be the fool
The next song, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21”, continues the weirdness as robots come to life and develop emotions…they are sad (tear).
Unit three thousand twenty one is warming
Makes a humming sound, when its circuits
Duplicate emotions, and a sense of coldness detaches
As it tries to comfort your sadness,
One more robot learns to be something more than
A machine, when it tries the way it does, make it seem
Like it can love
Song three, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 1” brings us the first appearance of our heroine Yoshimi.
Her name is Yoshimi
She’s a black belt in karate
Working for the city
She has to discipline her body
Clearly, she can kick some ass. The townsfolk plead for help..
Oh Yoshimi, they don’t believe me
but you won’t let those robots eat me
Yoshimi, they don’t believe me
but you won’t let those robots defeat me
This leads to the epic battle in the fourth song “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 2”, which is an instrumental song mixed in with the screeching, squealing, fighting sounds of Yoshimi. Mostly, it sounds like she is doing something much more pleasurable than fighting robots. Until the end that is, where it sounds like she is being gutted with a citrus zester. The robot fighting theme ends there. After that, The Lips delve into a lot of other heady material mixed in with their wonderfully bizarre and beautiful music.
Quite often I associate albums with a season of the year. Al Green and Joy Division are normally autumn albums while Pixies and The Clash usually get played in the winter. Yoshimi is solidly placed in the “Summertime Albums” category.
Could it be that there is a song on it called “It’s Summertime”?…Maybe.
Could it be because I bought Yoshimi in the early summer of 2003 and didn’t stop listening to it until winter 2004?… Maybe.
Could it be that when I hear the sunny sounding songs like “Do You Realize?” and “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” all I can think of is lazy Sunday drives with my wife in my new truck (I loved that damn truck. I had to sell it when we had kids a year later) and her wearing gloriously short shorts in the seat next to me?… Definitely.
I don’t have any memories prior to us having kids together that are better than those. We would hop in the truck, grab some orange soda (Mountain Dew LiveWire to be exact. We both may have had a small chemical dependency for whatever they put in LiveWire that summer. It was the devil’s nectar. It tastes so sweet and gives you that extra boost of energy to get you through the day. Unfortunately, it had like 42000 calories per can or something like that. Basically, if I wanted to keep my svelte physique, I had to put down the LiveWires), put Yoshimi in the CD player and drive around looking at houses that we couldn’t afford.
I still play Yoshimi a few times every summer. Usually while on the treadmill or on a family road trip. The wife and I don’t get too many lazy Sunday drives alone anymore, but Yoshimi and drives with the kids can be nice too. Plus, if the car breaks down we just let the kiddos drink a few LiveWires and they can pull us home.