Classifications

OPENHEARTZOO’S 5 GREATEST ALBUMS OF THE ’00′s

As almost every major music publication has made an attempt to convey their most prized albums of the decade, despite being slightly late I have decided to follow suit by reflecting on my own personal favourites. Stemming partly from a desire to celebrate and embrace the decade that saw me grow from boy to man, my motivation is simply a case of wanting to add my own thoughts to yet another interesting debate. Of course as with all incentives there admittedly exists a subplot of desire, with mine perhaps being the chance to respond to the sometimes pretentious, predictable lists that have tended to undermine the beauty of compiling a classification. As ever it seems like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and the others’ lists tend to overlook gems in favour of playing the safety option. In this case it should come as no surprise to see the mainstream media’s opinions largely mirroring one another, with albums such as Kid AThe Blueprint and Funeral finding themselves prominently amidst the elected favourites.

So after heated conversations, endless scouring of my musical collection and intense listening sessions I present to you my own personal top 5 albums of the 00’s.

#5: Babyshambles: Down in Albion (November 14, 2005: Rough Trade)

In any personal classification there’s bound to be at least one choice that has people scratching their heads.  In the case of the legacy surrounding the talented, drug using, anti-media icon Pete Doherty, the album often put forth for plaudits is the Libertines’ debut album Up the Bracket. Credited as the reinvigorating force behind the return of good British indie music, the album’s post-punk trashiness and raw production saw it consequentially become celebrated alongside The Strokes and The Hives as effectively ushering in the renaissance period of garage rock. Given the upsurge of popularity related to this sub genre at the beginning of the decade, out of all Pete Doherty releases it is Up the Bracket that found itself at the centre of the great albums of the decade debate.

Three years after Up the Bracket and the demise of the Libertines, Mick Jones was called upon once again this time to produce the debut album of the Babyshambles, Down in Albion. Released at the height of Doherty’s controversies with drugs and Kate Moss, Pete in a state of feeling betrayed and bitter towards his ex bandmates records an album without the more “responsible” influence of his dear friend and vocal companion Carl Barat. In what to some fans appeared to be a clear recipe for disaster, Pete’s expulsion from the Libertines in such a fragile period saw him team up with Adam Ficek, Drew McConnell and fellow drug addict Patrick Walden in a new look band that lacked the caution and maturity of the Libertines’ band members.

Such a shambled introduction furthermore was reflected in the music, as in comparison to Down in AlbionUp the Bracket comes across as a polished, attentively orchestrated piece of music. Characteristically staying true to his music roots, Mick Jones seemingly just stuck a couple of microphones in the studio with the aim of creating a raw, live sound. As such moving away from his former bands aesthetics, Down in Albion liberally sways between genres, incorporating a number of acoustic Libertine demos, improvisation, and a general attitude that clearly disregards any respect towards the classical recording process. Whilst many reacted by spurning the album as sloppy amateurism, I myself tend to subscribe to the notion that the album epitomizes the concept of pure music.

Out of tune chords, mumbling vocals and sounds of tea-making provide some of the backdrop in what proves to be Doherty’s license to roam free.  Proving to be his most libertarian project to date, tracks such as ‘Pentonville‘ define the term Libertine as Pete’s ex cellmate “El General”, despite not possessing great talent, is granted his time to shine on a bizarre dub inclusion. Taped together as an insight into a period of intense difficulty within Doherty’s personal life, the albums rawness and relentless fuck-it attitude prove intimate, charming and a pleasant contrast to the majority of music’s fake plastic nature. Yes at times it does play out like a posthumous collection of scraps, but despite its shambolic nature Down in Albion is packed full of musical gems, pure intimate substance and intense, charming realism.

#4: Patrick Wolf: Lycanthropy (July 28, 2003: Tomlab)

Lycanthropy – the mythological transformation into wolf- – tells the remarkable story of adolescent artist Patrick Wolf on his many crusades saturated with childhood isolation and pain. With recording for the album commencing when the artist was just 11 years old, Lycanthropy serves somewhat as a biographic invite into the life and struggle of this teenage prodigy. Leading us through tales of vulnerability and alienation, the album effectively plays out the story of a loner seeking to avoid bullies and rejection. Though apparently dark, the imagery of broken houses and pedophilia presents only one side to the coin as the album does contain something of an uplifting tempo. Scared but nonetheless willing to face adversity, Wolf’s charismatic vocals point principally to the causes of our generation’s continuing breakdown in society.

Incorporating a number of sounds into the album’s orchestra, Wolf’s versatile experimentation with several instruments adds variety to the CDs melodies. Generally swaying between folk and electro-pop, the violin, harp, accordion and harpsichord are among the guests that feature in this maze of creativity. This playfulness with sounds doesn’t stop here either as numerous live recordings are equally implemented from various places such as Trafalgar Square, Wandsworth Roundabout, l’Eglise De Saint Eustache and Cimetière De Montmartre. Experimenting with a vast array of styles and effects, the album’s versatility and charming genre-swapping nature proves crucial in ultimately enabling the fluid narratives to breathe to their full potential.

The overall experimental sound of Lycanthropy works well in creating a both raw and fascinating adventure, as picturesque stories swim beautifully over the album’s enchanting soundtrack. With the two principal genres folk and electronica generally juxtaposing themselves in a harmonic form, the narratives imagery and varied topics seem to fit perfectly in with the LP’s aesthetic direction. A fine example of this is the tale of Wolf’s journey from London to Paris, as the sombre, melancholic farewell of the former is metamorphosed into the upbeat swagger of his constructive adventures in the French capital. Clearly crafted with great care, Lycanthropy is a charming album demonstrating musical brilliance from an artist who’s not only lyrically talented, but also knows how to play an instrument or two.

#3: Tool: 10,000 Days (May 2, 2006: Volcano)

As I was relatively determined to not include two albums from one band within my list, it should be acknowledged that Tool’s reappearance at number 3 speaks great volumes regarding the bands impact on myself and many others over the past 9 years. Steadily maturing as a group, Tool seem to have followed a path that’s lead from previous bouts of evident external pressures -caving into popular demand etc- to the more heterogeneous, furnished products of today. While Ænima began to underline signs of this evolution, both Lateralus and 10,000 Days tend to revel in its completed form of complexity by kissing goodbye to short tracks and ushering in a number of controversial interludes. As its predecessor successfully achieved, 10,000 days continues in the vein of more or less adhering to a coherent concept, countering pressures to push individual anthems in favour of developing a multifaceted composition.  That’s not to say 10,000 Days doesn’t include some archetypal classic anthems of rampant rage however, as ‘Vicarious‘, ‘The Pot‘ and ‘Rosetta Stoned‘ especially help newcomers and old school fans digest the more ambient, experimental offerings.

If Lateralus was Tool’s spiritual offering than 10,000 Days can be defined as the album of death, an influence that springs from the demise of Maynard’s -Tool’s lead vocalist- mother Judith Marie. As a direct consequence while many of the album’s tracks are linked to her passing away, it is above all ‘Wings for Marie‘ and the following song ‘10,000 Days‘ that prove to be most explicitly related to her mourning. Amazingly both songs have received underserved criticism from supposed Tool fans seeking heavier material, as the groups more recent ambient offerings seem to have deluded those thirsting for anger. Bitterness aside, to others including myself these tracks offer another brilliant angle to their music, adding a complex diversity that clearly emphasis each member of the bands capabilities in composing music of a varied nature. Implementing moments of tranquillity as a means of illustrating the bands more heartfelt, vulnerable dimension, these periods arrest you emotionally whilst transforming the rage into moments of sincere sadness.

What is perhaps most surprising about this release is just how many people have dismissed its interludes as pointless filler material. With patience being the key, it must be stressed that while not being centre stage of the showcase the interludes overall complement the albums dark, mournful sound and direction. Whilst I have favoured Lateralus as being the strongest of Tool’s offerings this decade, I must emphasise that this victory was achieved by the very smallest of margins. Depending ultimately on personal preference and the general mood of the day, technically 10,000 Days should in no way be frowned upon as an unfit successor to the album spawned before it. Moving, multi-faceted and once again cohesive, Tool’s latest release illustrates just how crucial their presence has been throughout the previous decade.

#2: Martin Grech: Open Heart Zoo (July 22, 2002: Island)

Produced by long-term collaborator Andy Ross, Martin Grech’s debut album Open Heart Zoo was initially thrown into the spotlight as a result of the haunting title song appearing on a Lexus commercial. With heads turned Grech was instantly categorized as a Radiohead wannabee, singing of pain and personal turmoil with a voice that according to critics and fans largely resembled a cross between Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy. Whilst we can argue all day about the comparisons and evident pigeon-holing, one thing that these gossiping correlations tend to emphasise is the actual beautiful, alluringness of Martin Grech’s voice.

With a touching delivery possessing the potency to potentially make even the most macho of men feel emotion, Grech proceeds to uphold his promise by unveiling a touching open heart zoo of his inner self. Whilst slightly ambiguous at times, the key adjectives to describe the narratives would be pain, torment and alienation, themes that go understandably hand in hand with Grech’s startling adolescence. Pulling you into the torment and its agonising cries, Grech’s effective delivery coincides with instrumentals that cover a whole array of genres. Largely progressive, the soundtrack moves from moments of industrial-tinged heaviness and anger, to soft piano ballads of desperate hopelessness.

Intimate, alluring and filled with emotion, Open Heart Zoo’s progressive heart-pouring strategy is beautiful, dark and deeply moving. Causing the goosebump effect from its heartrending energies, together Grech and Ross provide on their first effort an ambient that many of their peers are incapable of achieving in a lifetime. As a consequence while the follow-up effort Unholy equally captivated me in its dark gothic nature, it’s Open Heart Zoo’s ravaged beauty, temperamental instrumentals and intoxicating, emotive vocals that warrant its position as number 2 on the list of the decades greatest LPs.

#1: Tool: Lateralus (May 15, 2001: Volcano)

Defined as a “monolithic puzzlebox” by music journalist Ryan Rayhill, Tool’s third album Lateralus follows the protocol of its predecessors by delving once again into cryptic narratives over a familiar progressive soundtrack. Despite the abundance of riches that the group have exhibited since crashing into the industry back in ’93, It is Lateralus perhaps Tool’s most mature album that is regarded among the cult as a fan favourite. Basing itself thematically on a number of life-facing philosophies, Maynard with his renowned haunting vocals and lyrical ambiguity seeks to dissect life’s hurdles in a characteristically cynical and eye-opening fashion. Dealing with everyday issues such as faith, anger and disappointment, the vocalist not only voices his frustrations but also in most cases encourages us to look above it. Pushing us to purify ourselves from the negative energies that surround us, we are effectively encouraged to cherish life whilst ignoring its bitterness.

Distinguished for its now commonplace Tool dosage of insane longevity, it seems that after experimenting on both Undertow and Ænima the group have finally found their style in what proves to be their most cohesive album yet. While previous releases were largely based upon personal experiences of bitter resentment, Lateralus remains heavy while equally containing a calmer, spiritual ambient. Presenting listeners with one intense, three-dimensional, thought-provoking journey, interludes replace radio-friendly material in what proves to symbolise not only a middle-finger to commercial preoccupations, but furthermore the solidifying of the band’s identity. From Danny Carey’s mesmerizing drum exhibitionism on the adoringly aggressive ‘Ticks and Leeches‘ to the experimental squeezing of Maynard’s cat on ‘Mantra‘, instrumentally the album proves to be arguably their most varied yet. In line with the CDs cohesion, tranquil interludes help digest the heavy anger splurging out of Maynard’s graceful voice, enhancing the albums spiritual ambient whilst providing melodic preludes to the albums heavy rushes of energy.

Overall Lateralus can be defined as a timeless album filled with such complexities that even 10 years later one shouldn’t be surprised to discover something new. Progressive in all its temperamental nature, the album’s coherent construction pays homage to its status as an epic masterpiece filled to the brim with creativity and all-round musical brilliance. Engaging with its listeners on a journey throughout its core holds within it the potential to serve up almost every emotion known to mankind. Causing you to clench fists, reflect, shed a tear and find inner peace, Tool’s Lateralus to me is the closest thing to resemble music perfectionism over the past 10 years.

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OPENHEARTZOO’S  10 GREATEST ALBUMS OF THE ’90′s


In conjunction with my previously published list on the best albums of the 00’s, time has finally enabled me to complete the 2nd series of classifications, this time focusing on the decade of my childhood, the 90′s. Of course in a decade many trends and developments naturally occur, with the 90’s following suit by creating its own new sub-genres to represent its disgruntled youth. Additionally locating its own dead martyrs in the form of Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Jeff Buckley, it’s fair to say that music in the 90’s continued to find a means to speak on behalf of its alienated and dissatisfied generation.

While many albums tend to dominate your life for a certain period of time, the cream of the crop is reserved for those capable of surpassing years of playback. Maintaining an aura of tingling freshness while others gradually pile up with dust, a CD or cassette you hold dearly one day can several years later become irrelevant. Indeed any self-confessed fan of music will know well how a few lapses of carelessness can proceed to undermine an entire project. Facing this problem whenever I sit down to create a music classification, it pains me to discover how an album of high personal merit is unable to make the grade just because it contains 2 or 3 unforgivable additions. Intending to scrutinise every CD owned within the elected timeframe as well as many more others, it is my goal to measure factors such as originality, consistency and long term-appeal, while remaining defiant in the face of outside opinion.

 #10: Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (March 8, 1994: Nothing/Interscope)

Layered soundscapes of a man suffering a mental breakdown make up the identity of Nine Inch Nail’s second LP release, The Downward Spiral. Inspired partly by David Bowie’s moody masterpiece Low, Trent Reznor sought to create a concept album based upon the downward spiral of his bitter, deluded protagonist’s beef with society. Kicking off with a pugnacious insight into the character’s destructive personality on “Mr Self Destruct”, the album’s narrative proceeds to cover the rejection of god, society, and general hope right up to the point of his eventual demise.

Breaking off slightly from the more dance orientated debut Pretty Hate Machine, NIN’s sophomore release covers territory as diverse as industrial, ambient, techno and heavy metal.  Not wishing to be musically pigeon-holed, The Downward Spiral’s progressive nature effectively employs a range of different textures that ultimately provide a timeless insight into depression, desperation and identity crisis’. Frenzied, aggressive while equally reflective, the album’s varied composition functions perfectly in capturing the array of emotions on display, instantly catapulting us into the front row of this uncomfortable, twisting and turning horror showcase.

#9: Tom Waits: Bone Machine (September 8, 1992: Island)

Renowned for its stripped down sound, gloomy discourses and vivid imagery, Tom Waits’ third decade in music provided listeners with perhaps his most consistent, best effort yet. Dealing with its core theme of mortality, Wait’s explores topics such as madness, broken love and loss of innocence over a primal, rattling junkyard of unconventional instrumentals.

Painting a vivid picture of a hellish landscape, the artist commendably creates a harmonious rapport between his distinctly raspy vocals and rich choice of instruments. Concocting a fusion of many different sounds and tones, Bone Machine demonstrates a tendency to float between genres that include blues, folk and country. Crafted perfectly alongside his trademark deep-toned vocals, screeching and growling like a chain-smoking alcoholic, Wait’s employs all the necessary tools to give his sinister narratives their undeniable, chilling potency.

#8: 2Pac: Me Against the World (March 14, 1995: Interscope)

Hip hop’s most polemic figure lived within a melodrama of media frenzy in his final two years. Recorded several weeks before Tupac Shakur’s impending imprisonment, prior to releasing Me Against the Worldthe rapper had been accused of rape and was allegedly set up and shot 5 times by friends. Notably coming under great personal strain, it was clear that Shakur was beginning to struggle with the fame resulting from a controversial, highly-publicised music career.

Given such traumatic events, Shakur’s fourth release proceeded to give an insight into his own personal struggles, paranoia and to some extent his evident self-loathing. Drawing a savage portrait of urban survival, the rapper poured his heart into the project while demonstrating to the world his more sensitive side, caring nature. Evading trademark themes of misogyny by showing concern for a victim of domestic violence and penning an ode dedicated to his mother, Shakur offered us a compelling glimpse into his true character that would at least in this stage in his career, distance himself from his gangsta persona. While the more flamboyant All Eyez on Me continues to draw praise from many corners, it is his passion filled 4th release that fully captures the magnitude of the rapper’s fascinating inner struggles.

#7: Soundgarden: Superunknown (March 8, 1994: A&M)

Angst-saturated lyrics, distorted, jagged guitars and their Seattle roots ensured that Soundgarden would forever be classified as being part of the grunge movement. Remaining within the field of hard rock since their inception, Black Sabbath comparisons and punk elements played a large part in their music of the late 80s. Developing a more polished yet consistently heavy sound on their 1991 masterpiece Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden were showing all the signs of a group on the brink of something really special.

This evolution reached its peak three years later on the band’s penultimate release Superunkown. Succeeding in creating an accessible sound while equally pleasing devoted fans and sceptical critics, somehow a change of producer together with a flirtation with melodies and psychedelia ended up pleasing almost everyone. Not forgetting their hard rock origins, the group were able to polish their sound and utilise their skills to maximum effect, resulting in a masterpiece of 15 dark, mysterious songs that touch on suicide, depression, alienation and substance abuse.

#6: Ice Cube: Death Certificate (October 29, 1991: Priority)

Inciting great controversy due to its violent nature and slating of both Jews and Koreans, Ice Cube’s second solo album was later to be blamed as a catalyst to the Los Angeles Riots that were largely based upon similarly defined racial issues. Putting his anger of the NWA years into action, Cube proceeded to report on ghetto life while exhibiting his growth by pinpointing potential solutions to the problems. Largely influenced by his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, the rapper painted a bleak picture of racial inequality, gang warfare, police brutality and social difficulties that predominately portray the decay of urban America in the early 90s.

Employing a typical westcoast sound of 70′s funk and soul samples, Death Certificate marked a change in style from Cube’s equally successful east-coast produced debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. This choice of style for one provides an interesting juxtaposition between the sinister, hard-edged vocals and the contrasting up-tempo, feel-good beats. In creating a revolutionary inspired album that makes you want to dance, Cube and his producer Sir Jinx intelligently utilised a strategy that captured the attention of the masses and those perhaps less inclined to initially hear about social injustices. Detrimental to the political landscape of early 90′s rap music, contrary to the republican opinions that Death Certificate is just a gangsta rap CD, those who tune in will discover an album full of both substance and aesthetic quality that define a generation of poor African-Americans living on the peripherals of society.

#5: Jeff Buckley: Grace (August 23, 1994: Columbia)

Released almost 3 years before his demise, despite being 30 on that tragic day, Jeff Buckley’s debut album Grace was to be his only official studio album. Renowned principally for its large amount of cover songs, any questionings of originality can easily be disputed by the singer’s sheer ability to resurrect and improve the songs he chose to cover. Transforming tracks by giving them a new lease of life, Buckley is one of the very few artists that was actually able to illustrate the merits of cover songs in popular music.

Of course Buckley’s greatest gift was his angelic voice, an instrument that enabled him to emotionalise average songs such as Lilac Wine, Hallejah and Corpus Christi Carol. Then there are his own songs, pieces of music that vary from personal stories of heartbreak, addiction, friendship and frustration. Singing his heart out for 50 minutes over a range of musical styles without ever appearing out of his depth, Buckley demonstrates just how much vocal versatility he possesses when singing both love ballads and harder more edgy material in a flawless fashion. Able to evoke emotion and change tones thanks to his fantastic vocal range, Grace proved to be one of the most passionate, touching albums to come out of the 90′s.

#4: Nas: Illmatic (April 19, 1994: Columbia)

Lasting just 39 minutes and 43 seconds, Nas’ debut album Illmatic to this day is still regarded as one of hip hop music’s greatest ever offerings. Ambitiously building on the pioneering work of great lyricists such as Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, the twenty-year-old emcee raised the bar of hip hop by introducing complex rhyme patterns, extensive vocabulary, sophisticated word play and an attention-grabbing talent for storytelling.

Recounting first-person narratives on life in the inner city, Nas takes on the mantle as a ghetto spokesperson coldly relaying the reality without ever really expressing an abundance of emotion or sense of potential solutions. Passively chilling, we the audience are invited on a journey into the protagonist’s neighbourhood in Queens, where we will witness tales of urban poverty amid occasional trademark moments of braggadocio. Technically superior to his peers, Nas was also blessed with beats here as some of hip hop’s finest names such as DJ Premier, Large Professor and Pete Rock help contribute with some stellar instrumentals. Refraining from stealing the show, these jazzy beats contribute to the cohesive, atmospheric sound of the album, presenting Nas with the foundations to wreak verbal havoc on his impressive documentary of ghetto life.

#3: Radiohead: The Bends (13 March 1995: Parlophone)

Following their bizarre, poorly-received, post-grunge debut Pablo Honey, The Bends marked an important transition in Radiohead’s history, proclaiming the bands talent thanks to cryptic lyrics and wider concerns that stretched further than their introspective beginnings. Seeking their own identity rather than continuing to pose as imitators to music fashions, Thom Yorke discovered his Jeff Buckley-inspired falsetto and Jonny Greenwood his fine-tuned guitar as Radiohead went on to create their truly defining rock album.

Among the swarms of predominately pretentious Radiohead fans, to place The Bends above OK Computer would often be viewed as being “ignorant” and “unsophisticated”. With the antidote of music elitists often being the more experimental the better, patronising terms such as accessible and mainstream are used to belittle those whom quite simply listen with open ears as opposed to pre-programmed agendas. That said however as a concept I am very much a fan of Ok Computer’s beef with modern day society, although on a musical level even after 14 years I still find it a boring struggle to listen to its entire alienating duration. Dubbed the most accessible of their masterpieces, The Bends packs more heart and emotion than its computerised successors, giving us a glimpse into the bands vision and song writing capabilities before experimentation became their primary concern.

#2: Tool: Ænima (September 17, 1996: Zoo Ent)

Evolving from their heavy metal beginnings, Ænima -Tool’s second album- marked a notable stylistic change in the group’s material as they began to explore more progressive methods of musical composition. Setting up a blueprint that would eventually characterise their style for years to come, the band sought to lengthen song duration, insert interludes and overall develop their sound by fusing its heavy aggression with moments of instrumental serenity.

Dedicated to a close friend of the band, the deceased comedian Bill Hicks, the album, like Hick’s catalogue of work, attempts to challenge mainstream, clichéd beliefs by encouraging people to think for themselves. Intending to raise awareness on the late-comedians material and ideas, the album includes samples of Hick’s stand-ups on “Third Eye”, as well as a song dedicated to his Arizona Bay philosophy in which he contemplates the idea of Los Angeles sinking into the Pacific Ocean. Spurning ignorant blindness, the album also explores issues of false martyrdom while additionally attacking modern themes such as scientology, superficiality and consumerism. Reaching a point of musical prosperity, Ænima clearly establishes Tool’s identity fully blossoming both in style and lyrical content.

#1: Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine (November 6, 1992: Epic)

Contrary to popular belief, this album is so much more than just a soundtrack for pissed-off teens. Composing a hybrid of funk and rage within the hard rock / metal domain, the band followed in Public Enemy’s footsteps by creating 52 minutes of angry, revolutionary anthems. Articulating the struggles of young America in the early 90s, leftist rants on disenfranchisement, cultural imperialism and oppression aggressively highlight the hypocrisy of society in a rage-fuelled insight that to this day mark its presence as arguably the greatest ever rock-rap fusion.

As is often the case with political music, the main question is how to preach your message without boring and losing the attention of your disciples. Stating within the album booklet that “NO SAMPLERS, COMPUTERS OR KEYBOARDS WERE USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS RECORDING”, credit must go to Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk for their spectacular, hard-hitting rhythms. While the former introduced his classic heavy rifting and ability to imitate DJ scratching sounds, the other two equally deserve praise for their abilities to intensify the music while maintaining its funky edge. With an angry yet accessible, pure soundtrack in place, vocalist Zack de la Rocha’s passionate rants and political insight worked wonders in relaying the severity of society’s issues. Implementing sloganeering through the repetition of certain phrases, de la Rocha ensured that listeners would go away with revolution firmly on their mind. Encompassing enough verve, rage and power to unlock the frustration of a generation left on the trash heap, this political masterpiece has done more than enough to warrant its legacy as a timeless classic.