50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s (Pt. 2)

By: Dennis Cook

As the comments for Part 1 showed, there's WAY more than 50 Unsung Classics from the past decade. We couldn't agree more, and have been delighted to see readers sharing their own passionate picks. Keep it up, you never know who you might influence to latch onto one of your faves.

This article was never intended to be comprehensive. It's merely a stroll through some of the lesser-known jewels (or lesser known around these parts – despite multi-million album sales, Christina Aguilera isn't exactly red meat at JamBase) I've come across in my first decade covering music professionally. Despite the mythology that says talent will rise to the top, there's a much more subterranean, arcane pathway to success that involves agents, labels, promoters, club owners, DJs, and more. What we try to do at JamBase, to some degree at the very least, is put all music on a level playing field. Oh, we have our star players and we honor them regularly, but we also try to carve out a space for emerging talent, deserving veterans and regional groups worthy of a bigger audience. It's a bit of a cause for us, and lists like this are another way to make sure that great music finds listeners. Wander through and see if you can't find a happy surprise or three amongst this wide-ranging assortment.

50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s (Pt. 2)

26. Comets On Fire: Blue Cathedral (2004)
Tumultuous, vulgarly creative, an elemental force – Oakland's Comets On Fire is all of these, and their teeter-tottering balance of refinement and chaos hit a fever pitch on Blue Cathedral. There's the roar of things being born here, or perhaps a spinal tap into some powerful, primordial nervous system that convulses and sighs at their touch. Facile comparisons to Pink Floyd, Neu, Hawkwind, etc. scratch the surface but nothing quite captures the full gale blast of opener "The Bee and the Cracking Egg" or the tangible pleasure when they ease off the throttle and let prettiness settle in. While 2006's Avatar - currently the last Comets album to date - may be the more refined work, Blue Cathedral takes the prize for its inspired audacity and unpasteurized vision. One hopes the stars align for Ethan Miller (Howlin Rain), Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance), Noel Von Harmonson, Ben Flashman and Utrillo Kushner (Colossal Yes) to create another corrugated, blood churning masterpiece one day.

27. Neon Neon: Stainless Style (2008)
This collaboration between Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and onomatopoetically perfect producer Boom Bip is the blow fueled Odyssey of anachro-future electronica albums, full of punishingly cool beats and squiggly vintage synths fueling a tale of hubris and blind glee inspired by auto mogul John DeLorean. Drug trafficking, fast cars and the lifestyle to match are all great grist in a song cycle that's both strobe light ready and a touch introspective, understanding that all powder fueled good times still leave us standing alone in front of the mirror in the dawn light. The general atmosphere is what one imagines Prince's bedroom circa 1984 might have been like – a carnal miasma full of head-snapping drums, ass tickling keys, slinky-as-hell vocals, pheromones dripping off the walls and the creeping isolation inherent to celebrity and great wealth.

28. Explosions In The Sky: The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
Some titles offer a succinct inducement to live, engage, and reject the creeping cynicism of our age. Without a single word uttered, Explosions In The Sky do all this. The Austin-based quartet creates instrumental music with an emotional richness and cinematic soul that most of their peers simply can't approach. While many modern instrumentals can sometimes feel icy or even inhuman, Explosions' music, particularly on The Earth Is Not..., has a flushed, achingly alive charge. Patience is required but the dynamic payoffs are well worth the wait, and ultimately one discovers their patient pilgrim's progress reminds them of the richness of the journey and not just the destination.

29. Roger: This Is The Shit (2004)
Exclaiming, "Goddamn! We're higher than a spaceship!" these U.K./Detroit modern funkateers did their damndest to kick start a new Motor Booty Affair doused in glam rock ooze and springing around on big, crunchy beats. Full of braggadocio and sing-along trash talking, This Is The Shit is a really good time that doesn't much care what you or anyone thinks of it. Every nook and cranny is filled with a pimp's chattering confidence, a gold lamé mythology with titles like "Ramm It Home," "Hot Fuddge" and "Clapp Your Fockin' Hands." Not exactly complex, but also not too dumb, Roger is one of the funk sleepers of the 2000s.

30. Bob Frank & John Murry: World Without End (2006)
This set of ten extraordinary death songs full of ragged bullet holes, frozen flesh and even colder hearts represents some of the purest, deepest American songwriting in recent years. S.F. talent John Murry and veteran Bob Frank carve scenes in fantastic detail, and each piece smartly arranged and presented with appropriate croak and lack of sentimentality. Life is both dear and cheap in their tales - as it is in this mean old world - but managing this gray area with verisimilitude is a real achievement. Graveyards, the afterlife and lonely hours of reflection haunt World Without End, an addictive, insightful listening experience that carries folk's death song tradition forward a few good miles.

31. Drunk Horse: Adult Situations (2003)
Sometimes the best approach is to just dig your fingers in and get down to it. Subtlety is swell – and there's more than a smidgen going on below the surface here – but Oakland's Drunk Horse understands that the best hard rock plows with animal intensity, unafraid to drool and flail a bit. While 2005's In Tongues is the more accomplished, sophisticated album, there's something rut-tastic about Adult Situations that makes it their (thus far) definitive work. From the bait 'n' switch cover shot through grandly single-entendre titles like "Lube Job" and "National Lust," this grinds with real gusto. They're really good musicians who choose to sculpt in this boogieing, blunt force way, so one shouldn't be too surprised when they throw you for a loop every now and again. On Adult Situations, Drunk Horse plays like men whose nurseries blasted AC/DC, MDC, Grand Funk Railroad and Black Flag on a loop, imprinting the charred wisdom of their ancestors upon these bang-up, true rock warriors.

32. David Torn: Prezens (2007)
Avant jammers like MMW, Scofield and Bill Frisell have a solid presence in the jazz, jam and experimental fields, but there's a whole cadre of just-about-as-talented folks plying similarly unclassifiable waters that are far less well known. NYC left field mainstay David Torn has been carving out his unique guitar and compositional styles since the early '80s, though there's never been as compact an introduction to his zeitgeist as Prezens, which features Torn alongside longtime foil Tim Berne (saxophones), Craig Taborn (keys) and Tom Rainey (drums). Atmospheric ballads mix with cataclysmic rumble and some of the most daring improvisation heard in the past decade. There's a heated freedom to Prezens, where the players don't hesitate to employ new technology, tossing in loops and samples as the spirit moves them. In basic terms, one picks up a bit of Robert Fripp's feel in Torn's guitar, but there's a mischievousness that tightly wound Rob just can't muster. Prezens is Torn's best showing since his last gem for the same label, ECM Records, in 1987, Cloud About Mercury, which featured the former King Crimson rhythm team of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin along with trumpeter Mark Isham.

33. Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 (2005)
Hands-down, one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of the past 25 years, Penn should be mentioned in the same breath as his wife Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, Matthew Sweet and others who've craftily carried on The Beatles tradition. Perhaps it was Penn's early commercial success with his debut, 1989's March, that's cost him critical props, but Mr. Hollywood Jr., his fifth album, arrived with virtually no fanfare. Years of label juggling and soundtrack work (Boogie Nights) took him out of the spotlight, but what he built in those shadows is probably his most coherent, well conceived set. Penn may be more wistful than any man alive, and one feels the world's weight squarely on his shoulders here. Like all his albums, the full measure of his talents takes time to sink in. The interlocking themes and cross-talking ideas on Mr. Hollywood Jr. are delivered by Penn's emotionally vibrant voice in a way that catches us up in his search for meaning below all the mistakes and missed signals human beings endure. Rumor has it there's a Part Two to this tale. We'll be lucky to hear it.

34. The Blood Brothers: Young Machetes (2006)
For a brief moment before their sudden disbanding in 2007, it seemed as if rapidly evolving hardcore punks The Blood Brothers might give Mars Volta a run for their money. Not nearly as epic-minded, the Brothers nonetheless found ways to insert a crazed number of complications and nuances into mostly two-minute-and-change tunes that possessed Volta's supercharged, uncontrollable vibe. On Young Machetes one can hear the entire band straining to delve into new territory and truly become an equal to acknowledged inspirations like Gang of Four and Drive Like Jehu. The make-or-break vocals of Johnny Whitney and Jordan Billie were like the King Ad-Rock pitched up further and given a snoot full of the ugliest hillbilly crank. If it worked for you, then it wasn't hard to pick up on the feverish drive and lock-tight cohesion of the rest. In much the same way as Faith No More's Angel Dust functioned as the soundtrack to early '90s dissolution, Young Machetes scores the discontent and disillusion of the 2000s for the next generation coming up the pike, while also providing sustenance to those who suckled at The Clash or Black Flag's teats back in the day.

35. Apollo Sunshine: Apollo Sunshine (2005)
God's own psychedelic ragtime rock band, Apollo Sunshine, with their self-titled sophomore album, delivered pretty much every good thing about the genre – loud and soft guitars, lyrics that grow right along with you, irresistible melodies, strong but not too polished vocals, an undomesticated energy and a veil of mystery that never fully lifts despite all our peeking under the sheets. With this release Sam Cohen (guitar, pedal steel, vocals), Jeremy Black (drums), Jesse Gallagher (vocals, bass, guitar) and now departed member Sean Aylward (guitars) unleashed a sound in tune with middle period Beatles and the tripped-out '60s without trying to emulate anything in particular. The juju inside shout-along marvels like "Phyliss" and "Lord" and gentler drifts like "God" and "Today Is The Day" is akin to a revival meeting for those of little faith. Glorious!

Continue reading for selections 36-50...

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