50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s (Pt. 1)

11. AC/DC: Black Ice (2008)
Malcolm and Angus Young dug deeper as composers on their fifteenth studio album than they had since the last record with "Black" in the title. It's easy to dismiss AC/DC as a known quantity but Black Ice expands their Chuck Berry, crosscut blues inspired hardcore basic thump with sugary pop ("Anything Goes") and a classic that approaches bittersweet melancholy for these Aussies ("Rock N Roll Dream"). This on top of some of the sturdiest rockers they've mustered in more than two decades ("Skies On Fire," "Spoilin' For A Fight" and the ominous title cut). Long after most of their peers have ceased being a force in the studio, AC/DC is as ready for action as ever, captured magnificently in all their glorious, ballsy greatness by Brendan O'Brien, who lit similar fires under Springsteen and Pearl Jam this past decade.

12. James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Ali Jackson & Reginald Veal: Gold Sounds (2005)
Trust me, you've never heard Pavement like this. Born from the question, "What album would we want to buy which doesn't exist?" this set finds four of the strongest players in jazz tackling Pavement gems like "Cut Your Hair," "Stereo," "Blue Hawaiian" and "Summer Babe" with off-handed grace, unearthing jam pockets and structural beauty hitherto unknown in the work of Stephen Malkmus and company. Gold Sounds harks back to the 1960s jazz scene that playfully and fearlessly wrangled with the rock and pop worlds to create hybrids instructive to both. Veal, Jackson, Chestnut and Carter reveal a sophistication not usually afforded to "indie rock," even with a band as revered as Pavement, and in the process show off a totally new side of themselves that's pretty damn cool, too.

13. Otis Taylor: Respect The Dead (2002)
Otis Taylor is the deepest, finest thing to whack the blues upside the head in the past 10 years. With strong African elements, he's roughed up the smoothness that's infiltrated the blues since the 1980s and returned some of the mystery and danger intrinsic to the genre before it got gussied up for mainstream white consumers. Undeniably black in heritage, Taylor isn't overbearing in his handling of race, but neither is he shy in exposing the pervasive racism marbled into American society. Respect The Dead, his fourth album, is the pinnacle of several collaborations with bassist/producer Kenny Passarelli and haunting guitarist Eddie Turner. Full of resounding heart but frightfully unsentimental, Respect is inhabited by the sorts of ghosts and tales that cling to the best blues, drawing us down to the crossroads again and again, despite knowing what sorts of things await us there.

14. Scott Amendola Band: Believe (2005)
Believe is one of the most artful, engaging instrumental albums of the past quarter century. Birthed in both the jazz and alternative rock spheres, this set is so free-ranging and capable at all moods and textures that one happily gives up on trying to categorize it. Amendola, a world-class percussionist and staple of the Bay Area improv scene, gathered some of the best musicians alive for a mix of "voices" that's absolutely intoxicating. Pre-Wilco Nels Cline intertwines with Tortoise's Jeff Parker for one of the most exciting guitar pairings ever, and the group is rounded out by evocative violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist John Shifflett. Music this fearless is rarely so well constructed or grandly eloquent.

15. Matt Deighton : The Common Good (2002)
Perhaps the most apt touchstone for Deighton's work is vintage Traffic, right down to utterly satisfying singing, playing and songwriting worthy of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi at their peak. This crazy talented Englishman is largely unknown outside the U.K., where he's had chart success with the short-lived Mother Earth and even played guitar for Oasis for a spell. The Common Good is the best place for new listeners to jump in, though you'll likely find yourself scrambling to scoop up his somewhat elusive catalog after you've digested it. The album features well-placed guest turns from Paul Weller, Mick Talbot (Style Council), Marco Nelson (Adam & The Ants) and others stalwarts of post-Mod British music. Anyone sweet on ALO, The Mother Hips and other substantive, song-based rock are heartily encouraged to check out Deighton.

16. Bill Frisell: The Intercontinentals (2003)
Frisell – pretty much an endlessly exciting, unpredictable guitarist and musical visionary – has always operated without borders. His style and general sensibilities speak of a man who's just as turned on by down home country music as he is by samba, electric fusion, distorto-improv and nursery rhymes. However, he's rarely been as forthright in his worldly perspective as The Intercontinentals, which mingles Greg Leisz's breathtaking pedal steel with Sidiki Camara chattering calabash and djembe, Jenny Scheinman's freebird violin excursions, Christos Govetas's sophisticated oud and bouzouki, and the sinewy guitars of Vinicius Cantuaria. What could be a hideous Benetton sound clash turns out to be a fabulous hot pot of hugely diverse styles and timbres finding common ground. This is the sound of a planet bleeding its cultures into one, with individual flecks left intact but the greater pattern being a shared one.

17. Tim Bluhm: California Way (2006)
Captured in a single day, this represents the burning core of The Mother Hips' lanky golden genius. Armed almost exclusively with just his phenomenally expressive voice and clean, incisive acoustic guitar, Bluhm dives into a specially selected sweep through his massive catalog and comes out the other side with one of the finest singer-songwriter albums ever made, a work on par with Joni Mitchell's Blue and Bert Jansch's Birthday Blues in terms of its intimacy, unabashed feeling and quiet yet potent show of skill. "Tiara Dievers" has the ageless beauty and understanding of music handed from picker to picker over long years, and small, movingly etched vignettes like "Shiny Leather Shoes," "Envelope Please" and the incredible title track further mark Bluhm as one of the shining lights of his generation. California Way makes it nakedly obvious how stupidly gifted the man is.

18. Brain Donor: Too Freud To Rock 'N' Roll, Too Jung To Die (2003)
Julian Cope had the best decade of his long, circuitous career in the 2000s, but he'd never had as much marvelous, dumb fun as Brain Donor before. This English über-power trio – Cope (bass, vocals) and Spiritualized members Kevin Bales (drums) and Doggen Foster (guitar) – slurped hungrily from Blue Cheer and Detroit's filthy best (Stooges, MC5) and spat out a viscous gob all their own. For the many claims of "return to rock" one encountered in the press for relative lightweights like the Strokes and Kings of Leon, one needed only to tap into this bunch for a flood of the sticky, unruly good stuff. Too Freud... gathers together their early singles and a smattering of suitably rough live tracks on two discs that celebrate love, peace and fucking. Pagan 'nuff to give shoutouts to Loki and Odin and savvy enough to see the promise in covering Van Halen's "Atomic Punk," Brain Donor does their forebears right by keeping rock uncivilized and a lil' scary.

19. Christina Aguilera: Back To Basics (2006)
There's a temptation to assume that anything from the mainstream just sucks out loud. That's largely true but overly dismissive, especially when an incredible pop record like this is hiding amongst the dross. While Aguilera's teen work failed to achieve any real depth, this album announced an artist with her sights on the enduring work of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Chicago. Spread out over a double album, Back To Basics finds Christina working with Steve Winwood, Gang Starr's DJ Premier and Mark Ronson, but the real secret is her own vision, crafted with under-credited songwriter-producer Linda Perry, who largely helms the more experimental, rangy second disc. The team of Perry and Aguilera is every bit the equal of the more ballyhooed Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and killers like "Makes Me Wanna Pray," "Still Dirrty" and "Candyman" rank amongst the mainstream's best in a long while. With the exception of a few duds – inevitable on almost any double record - Back To Basics is worthy of the ancestors Aguilera reveres. Scoff if you want, but approached with an open mind this is a fantastic album.

20. Efterklang: Parades (2007)
Parades is probably unlike almost anything you've heard. With a name that smacks of promising onomatopoeia, Efterklang is joined here by a brass quintet, several choirs and a string quartet, alongside the usual rock instrumentation and a healthy dose of electronic manipulation. At the risk of hyperbole, Parades may be the most achingly lovely merger of electro-acoustic elements to ever sneak out of the experimental realm and into our hearts. Hailing from Denmark, there's a sizeable remove from what anyone in the alternative scene in the States is doing, but their sound has some resonance with recent work from Grizzly Bear and Midlake, though Efterklang is a touch bolder in their aspirations. Since its release, Parades has been performed live in a theatrical production with The Danish National Chamber Orchestra captured on last year's Performing Parades audio/video release.

21. Richmond Fontaine: Post To Wire (2004)
While a number of their contemporaries at the birth of what's become known as Americana, notably Wilco, have gone onto wider fame and riches, Portland, Oregon's Richmond Fontaine have steadily and unobtrusively carved out a ceaselessly rich, intense, original sound that marks them as one of the great American acts of our age. Master storyteller Willy Vlautin leads this subtle ensemble, who can rage with the best of them but often prefer to simmer and slide more elusively. The characters in their songs hum with vibrant, often painful life and bear the same scars and wear 'n' tear as most folks living paycheck to paycheck and hoping they'll be just a smidgen better than their past. Post To Wire signaled an awakening to the band in England and Europe after they'd already been toiling productively (if not lucratively) since 1994. Since then they've developed a fervent following overseas that has them pond hopping several times a year. Stateside they're still relatively unknown outside a smaller but equally dedicated fan base, but one hopes that the stirring power of their music, as exemplified by Post To Wire, will ultimately get the recognition it deserves in their native land.

22. Salvatore: Fresh (2001)
A call to prayer for digital children - a muezzin beckoning us inwards. Norway's Salvatore was a six-piece instrumental unit that sounded like what might have happened if someone sent a copy of the Boards of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children through time to say Amon Duul or Can. Recorded in Morocco with portable generators and ad hoc equipment, Fresh is planted in foreign soil, redolent with ancient history translated by modern instruments, unfolding on an eternal loop, swallowing its tail while simultaneously growing new coils. Even on repeat, the album never arrives in the same way and gives one the feeling that the music continues on in another realm long after you push stop. Beginning with "Get The Kids On The Streets It's A Party" and winding through sandy corridors like "100 Camels In The Courtyard" (a nod to author Paul Bowles), Fresh is the open-ended promise of contemporary instrumental music that recognizes few boundaries in its evocation of dust-swirled dawn and burnished, electric evening glow.

23. Edan: Primitive Plus (2002)
Though he got more alterna-ink for 2005's Beauty and the Beat (currently his last proper album), Edan's debut was one of those word-of-mouth treasures that folks enamored of Anticon Records and their ilk were handing around to pals for years before the critics caught wind of him. Raw as early Wu-Tang but possessed of a humor and frankly Caucasian flava far removed from the 36 Chambers, Primitive Plus is a thrilling gumball machine full of colorful, wildly flavored treats. Foul mouthed and book smart, Edan shows what a clever boy with a few tools – the proverbial two turntables and a microphone in many instances – can achieve. As far as hip hop has come from its roots in 2010, this album can bring you back to the fundamentals with a quickness that'll snap your neck.

24. Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked (2004)
All longtime fans of one another's work, Hitchcock, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings holed up at Woodland Studios in Nashville and got inside the best set of tunes Robyn had penned in years. Spooked builds on the solo acoustic bent of earlier Hitchcock albums like I Often Dream of Trains and Eye, and the presence of Rawlings and Welch adds considerably to the nuances and sonic charge of this still fairly reserved collection. There is laughter and love and genuine weirdness in these grooves, which retain the intimacy of the trio even when they liven things up. There are few better, more clear-eyed love songs than "Sometimes A Blonde" and few so-called kid's tunes that compare with "We're Gonna Live In The Trees." Further pleasures lie in their handling of Dylan's "Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close The Door" and Hitchcock's pop culture bashing "Television." More than anything, this is wonderfully enjoyable music that feels like we've been allowed to listen in on a cool, private conversation between the three principles.

25. The Servants: Mostly Monsters (2002)
This long defunct California hard rock unit found the sweet spot between The Black Crowes' Southern Harmony & Musical Companion and Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction with this woefully overlooked debut. Produced by drummer Chris Kontos - a veteran of Machine Head, Exodus, boffo Zep tribute band Custard Pie and many more – this neatly joins classic rock sensibilities to razor sharp modern hard rock. What elevates this above the pack is an embrace of boogie and listener tickling lyrics that suggest we all missed out on one of the greatest good time bands of all-time. From the snaky turns of "Fade Resistant" to the power ballad greatness of "Waiting" and a primo cover of Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special," Mostly Monsters is crushing quality hard rock powered by Valhalla shaking percussion, air guitar worthy riffing and a lead singer, Tony Malson, who has most of the long haired mic jockeys beat all to hell. Kontos currently drums for Attitude Adjustment and has a new project, SpiralArms, with their studio debut coming out in 2010 and the teasers on their website have some of The Servants' flavor, so maybe this round more folks will tune in and rock out properly.

Check back next week for numbers 26-50 of our Unsung Classic Albums of the 2000s...

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[Published on: 2/9/10]

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