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 AnimalsGruff 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…

36. The Court & Spark: Hearts (2006)
Around since the late ’90s, S.F.’s Court and Spark have a slow gravity that pulls us towards the earth without clipping our wings. They draw inspiration from different wells, leaning towards John Martyn over Bob Dylan, Traffic instead of The Byrds, Terry Reid over Springsteen. There’s a whiff of Neil Young when the high-octane guitars kick in, but they always emerge into a unique, oceanic spaciousness. Hearts – possibly their final release since main man M.C. Taylor has formed the fabulous Hiss Golden Messenger – moves with poetic logic, using evocative language, entrancing melodies, and a ceaseless sonic curiosity that one doesn’t usually associate with song-based rock. Equally adept at catchy romps (“Your Mother Was The Lightning”) and oddly textured instrumentals (“The Oyster Is A Wealthy Beast”), the band never sounded more sure-footed or engaged. Taylor has a rough-hewn, world-weary vibe that infuses everything with a bittersweet sheen. When he sings, “I’ve got a wolf in my yard, and I’ve got a gun in my chest, but I don’t care,” you feel the impending doom but also the freedom such surrender can bring. Hearts is a bewitching meditation chamber for our own hearts as we wrestle with doubt on the long walk towards hope.

37. Hairy Apes BMX: Beautiful Seizure (2003)
Not a lot of musicians outside the punk world were actively slingin’ mud at the Bush Administration in 2003. And it’s a fair bet that the Apes were the only ones armed with vibraphone and the perverse insight and muscled-up moxie of Mike Dillon. Beautiful Seizure is balls out brilliant, a swirl of chopped notes, buzzing keys, rainbows missing stripes, ditties about scared little politicians and some crackled Latinismo. One minute they’re on a static punk run that’d do the Beastie Boys proud and the next finds them playing gamelan on the moon. Tofu and Thai food nourish the body while nursery rhymes herald a change in consciousness. Dillon (vibes, marimba, percussion, vocals) and Critters Buggin’ bandmate Brad Houser (sax, clarinet, guitar) are joined by J.J. Richards (bass, vocals), John Spence (drums) and T. Clarke Wyatt (keys, cello), and the ensemble spill color out in giant size paint drums, as unique a specimen as the primate family has ever produced.

38. GFE: Broken Time Machine (2008)
The “G” in their full name – Granola Funk Express – has been an ass-kicker for this hyper talented Asheville, NC hip hop unit. Folks just don’t associate the boom bap with dried berries and honey touched oats. That’s the problem with surface impressions because any fairly serious hip hop head has a treasure trove of inspired verses, shuffling beats and interesting musical turns to explore with this long running band. While one could give the nod to almost any of GFE’s previous albums or numerous solo joints, it’s Broken Time Machine that pulls it all together. It’s a fully formed love note to all things hip hop that can stand confidently next to the best work from Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Tribe Called Quest and Souls of Mischief. Each MC is a killer in his own right but GFE also keeps the torch going for classic posse cuts, passing the potato with dexterity and a fine sense of when to shut the fuck up and let the next guy preach. They excel at political jabs (“The 4th Estate,” “Sleepwalkers”), genuinely funny stuff (“Rich Prick”), party bangers that’d smoke the crapola on MTV (“Regular Basis”) and even philosophical journeys (“New Gods” “Clock Keeps Ticking”). GFE builds on hip hop’s fundamentals and keeps them invigorating, immediate and positively artful.

39. Cosmic Rough Riders: Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine (2000)
Signed to Alan McGee’s Poptones – one of the founders of the seminal ’90s Creation Records – all seemed blue skies for this English jangle sensation. In truth it would only last two more years with this ridiculously appealing lineup. On Melodic Sunshine, the Riders stirred memories of early Byrds and Buffalo Springfield but tinged with a black humor and highly modern P.O.V. that stripped the ringing guitars of some of their sugar. From the cover drawing of a vintage plane in psychedelic full flight to festival anthem “Glastonbury Revisited,” Melodic Sunshine is so, so, so easy to like and rewards listeners willing to sit a spell with their skewed lyrics, which suggest what might have happened if Morrissey had helped out the Jefferson Airplane. Modern lads in throwback clothing, it’s a pity this lineup didn’t last; nothing since has provided the same breathless listening pleasure.

40. Grayson Capps: Wail & Ride (2006)
A lot of roots rock fans have a tendency to look backwards, assured the best has already been and gone with Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, Fred Neil, Gram Parsons, etc. Pity because New Orleans’ marvel Grayson Capps is alive and well and slowly building one of the most phenomenal songbooks in America today. His sophomore album, Wail & Ride, hums with quiet wisdom and unforced momentum. It grows with you over time, different facets touching a nerve depending on your own levels of sorrow and joy. It’s the kind of album that gets troubled souls through tumultuous nights where perhaps the trouble we find ourselves in is of our own making. “Poison” and “Give It To Me” should be Big Easy standards, and he’s equally gifted at tenderness and introspection here. What amazes is how Capps isn’t a household figure amongst the roots/Americana crowd in the same way Gillian Welch, Steve Earle and David Rawlings have become in recent years. If ever there were a cat primed to pick up where Lowell George and John Prine have left off, it’s Capps.

41. Bad Religion: New Maps of Hell (2007)
30 years is a long time for any group to maintain white-hot anger and constant vigilance, yet Bad Religion has managed it AND continued to evolve a core sound into arguably the sharpest, most vocally rich punk rock being made. The evidence of this rests in New Maps, which continues their mission of dethroning tyrants and ideologues. What’s especially cool about New Maps is how hooky it all is, as well as how evolved the backup vocal parts have become. No one touches Greg Graffin as a lead vocalist in punk, but the others have stepped up their game in a way that layers things unlike any of their peers. Every cut is essential Bad Religion and the three-guitar frontline is just pulverizing. There was plenty to be pissed off about in 2007 and Bad Religion offered spitting, smart catharsis with this release, the best showing from a “classic” punk band in the past decade next to Fugazi’s The Argument.

42. The Moore Brothers: Murdered By The Moore Brothers (2006)
Siblings Thom and Greg Moore are two of the best harmony singers alive, today’s equivalent to a youthful Graham Nash and David Crosby. They also happen to write and deliver songs with the infectious humanity of Simon & Garfunkel and The Carpenters… if they had considerably darker imaginations. Actually, their aesthetics hover a bit closer to moribund Joni Mitchell and prickly Tim Hardin, but the songs have an undeniable pop lilt. Listening to the Brothers Moore you may find yourself humming and tapping your foot and only later do you realize they’re talking about a painful separation or a monster’s balls poking through the kitchen table. They’re very different composers but their styles dovetail wonderfully, and their voices would sound divine reciting a menu. Murdered is a great jumping off point but don’t be shocked if you find yourself scrambling forward and backwards in their unremittingly satisfying catalog.

43. Grinderman: Grinderman (2007)
After releasing possibly the best Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds album, 2004’s hymnal to love and the Lord Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Sir Nick and three Seeds – Warren Ellis (bouzouki, violin), Martyn P. Casey (bass) and Jim Sclavunos (drums) – got down to some gritty, sweaty rock. Beset by the “No Pussy Blues,” Grinderman put a guitar in Cave’s hand and landed the impromptu quartet in a sort of juke joint of the mind. From the junk-clutching monkey on the cover to Cave’s impolite growl, this feels delightfully sleazy. It’s the closest Cave and his compatriots had come in years to the electric blues so evident in their early work, and the power lines at the crossroads must have been sparkin’ because Grinderman’s atmosphere bled into the next Bad Seeds album, 2008’s fiery Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

44. DJ Spooky vs. Twilight Circus Dub Sound System: Riddim Clash (2004)
Through a haze of smoke and flashing lights you sense a shape and move towards it. Before you can make contact, it’s gone like a fox into the woods. You hear talking in the trees, pushing at your edges, manipulating the here and now. If one were asked to pair up two like-minded cats they’d be hard pressed to do better than this duo. Harking back to the On-U Sound Pay It All Back sound clashes, this album merges the laid-back Dutch mood of Twilight Circus with Spooky’s big city, bright size life. There’s dust storms, gamma blasts, and heavyweight style broad enough to include flutes, violin, kalimba, and dubtastic horns (King Tubby MUST be respected). Riddim Clash is everything good about the new generation of dub captains steering us towards lands that appear on no map.

45. Brand New: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (2006)
Folks over 30 may not realize it but Brand New is one of THE bands for the generation snapping at their heels. And with good reason based on the emotionally eviscerating, Nirvana-esque The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, as loaded a title as any young band has ever hurled at the world. Rising out of various hardcore bands in the late ’90s, Brand New utilizes melody and dissonance with flair. Their music is introspective, troubled, pop culture savvy, slightly tortured and not a little poetic. Jesse Lacey‘s voice is a wild instrument, careening across a wide emotional plain and arcing upwards or digging down with a suddenness that’s sometimes unsettling. The band exhibits a rare patience in their builds, so when things do explode they’ve built a bond with the listener that creates a real payoff. Their throbbing angst would be almost unbearable if not for Brand New’s skill as players and arrangers, or the great thought that goes into each element in their thick modern rock mélange.

46. Alfie: If You Happy With, You Need Do Nothing (2001)
Assembled from EP releases like the Beta Band‘s phenomenal debut, The Three EPs, Alfie had a similar British yet out-of-time quality, where the experience of them is akin to floating on a warm salt sea while pleasantly zooted. There’s a touch of shoegaze, a bit of Belle & Sebastian-y pop, and the intriguingly cobbled together feel of the aforementioned Beta Band. Flitting through it all are Lee Gorton‘s cool and cooling vocals. The world seems moist and malleable when handled by Alfie, at least on this set. None of their subsequent albums hit quite the same sustained swoon, and the group broke up in 2005. At least they left us this shimmering bit of loveliness.

47. The Dirtbombs: Dangerous Magical Noise (2003)
Wanna be reminded of a time when rock was still rebellious and a social lubricant for skin-to-skin encounters? Meet The Dirtbombs, one of Detroit’s contemporary best and a direct pipeline straight back to Little Richard’s makeup table and Chuck Berry’s ladies room peephole. Led by the curmudgeonly charismatic Mick Collins (of legendary garage punks The Gories), these cats play with a focused dedication to tap into rock’s originators while still keeping things modern and terrifically fuzzy. It’s a tough balance and most just twist themselves into knots attempting it. But not The Dirtbombs, who excel at music that feels like it just plopped out and the band is shimmying frantically on the afterbirth. Dangerous Magical Noise is littered with killers, including “I’m Through With White Girls,” “Motor City Baby,” and opening slap “Start The Party.” The whole thing is like a living exclamation point, and the CD version adds two boffo covers – Brian Eno’s “King’s Lead Hat” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “Executioner of Love” – another of The Dirtbombs’ trademarks, i.e. great taste and judgment in tackling other’s work.

48. Carla Bozulich: Red Headed Stranger (2003)
When Willie Nelson released his gnarled, complex gothic tale of a preacher who loved a woman in 1975, few likely thought it would endure (or succeed) the way it has. Rooted in American folklore (killing, pain, loss, travel), the album resists understanding like a veiled lover, cloaking hurt and black deeds whenever it can. If there’s another voice tailor made for this song cycle it’s Carla Bozulich, with her coyote howls, Meredith Monk accents, and songbird croon. She lays bare all the jagged emotion others strive to hide, and in service to Willie’s masterpiece she’s especially stunning. Bozulich assembled a stirring ensemble to explore Nelson’s twisty album in its entirety. Frequent partner in crime Nels Cline plays guitar that moves from alien transmissions to the delicacy of “Just As I Am” on to Joe Pass with a twist on “Remember Me.” One listens as much for what Cline leaves out as for what he puts in, the space between saying more than most string flurries ever can. And like Bozulich, he’s unafraid to dabble in hot noise if the emotional content demands it. Violinist Jenny Scheinman drifts like a specter throughout, and the rhythm team of Scott Amendola (drums) and Devin Hoff (bass) is a subtle marvel. As with any good crack at tradition, this encompasses country, jazz, folk, and blues. Willie clearly approved of the treatment because he guests on several cuts, including a beautiful, off-kilter duet on Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms?” This Stranger is a moving, significant reinterpretation that explicates the notion of a man “wild in his sorrow” with resonant effectiveness.

49. The New Mastersounds: Plug & Play (2008)
Most contemporary studio funk and soul albums can’t hold a candle to the pillars of the ’60s and ’70s. There’s something missing, some essential rawness or more simply, not enough attention to the details or enough chops to make things sting. With Plug & Play U.K. lions The New Mastersounds staked their claim as one of the finest purveyors of hip shaking goodness since, well, James Brown and Grant Green were new faces on the scene. It isn’t work to be swept away by the wah-wah addled seduction of “Thermal Bad” or the organ splash of “Altitude,” but even better, they never let things fall into a same-y pocket, varying their funkin’ with smart, flexible songwriting and playing touched by a churchly fervor. Cherry female vocalist Dionne Charles ladles abundant soul into her four cuts, but even when there’s not a singer the Mastersounds maintain interest with their crisp, dexterous playing and snaky, purely enjoyable tunes. In a time where far too many people think bunk like Black Eyed Peas and John Legend is soul music, The New Mastersounds are around to keep things honest and true.

50. Def Leppard: Yeah! (2006)
Go ahead and assemble your rotting vegetables to toss for including this, but before you let fly do us both a favor and actually listen to a few tracks off this fine cover tunes collection, which finds the glossiest of pop-hard-rock bands trying their hand at childhood heroes like Queen, T. Rex, ELO, Sweet, Dave Essex, Roxy Music, Thin Lizzy and Free. It’s a shockingly hip assortment and their adoration keeps them from flubbing things. Self-produced, Yeah! is less glossy than their usual airbrushed sound, with an undeniable garage aesthetic that’s too right to fight. You could try to resist their hellcat hot take on Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” or guitarist Phil Collen‘s lively lead vocal brawl with The Faces’ “Stay With Me,” but why try? This in no way redeems Leppard’s past muddle headed, hyper pandering catalog, but credit where credit’s due. Yeah! is stupidly enjoyable drivin’ music and a sincere, nicely crafted homage to the artists that inspired these Union Jacks to pile into a tour van in the first place.

For Part 1 of our 50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s feature go here.

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