2004: Take Your Records, Leave Me Mine

A decade after alt-rock peaked culturally (if not yet commercially), indie rock did the same, but it was a different world—for starters, you rarely heard this music on the radio. More often, you had to find it online, usually at Pitchfork.com, arguably never closer to the zeitgeist since then, especially when it placed Arcade Fire’s Funeral on top of its year-end best albums list. I don’t think I was even aware of the band until this happened, and I spent most of the year writing for a competing website (albeit a far less buzzy one.)

The playlist I’ve assembled for 2004 contains so much mid-oughts indie-rock royalty: in addition to my favorite Funeral track, there’s Sufjan Stevens, Franz Ferdinand, Neko Case, Ted Leo and Tegan and Sara. Plus, a handful of relatively obscure but likeminded artists I was assigned to review, including Tamas Wells, Marit Bergman, Tompaulin and Paul Brill, whose New Pagan Love Song (represented by its title track) almost had an 100 Albums entry of its own.

We also have a few ‘90s holdovers putting out some of their best work: a single from PJ Harvey’s unjustly forgotten Uh Huh Her; Morrissey’s second-last great song to date (which rhymes “bullet” with “gullet”); The Magnetic Fields, triumphant at the impossible task of a follow-up to 69 Love Songs; and Sam Phillips with one of her loveliest ever ballads (effectively used in Gilmore Girls and its Netflix sequel).

As always, it’s the oddities I adore the most: the Delays’ wonderfully androgynous vocalist, Loretta Lynn’s beguiling spoken word memoir-piece, Madeleine Peyroux’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work cocktail jazz Leonard Cohen cover. However, let me direct your attention to A Girl Called Eddy (aka Erin Moran (not the Happy Days star)). Her elegant, self-titled debut sounds like a cross between Aimee Mann and Dionne Warwick (with a hint of Karen Carpenter) and like nothing else put out in 2004. “The Long Goodbye” is such perfect, heartbreaking pop I never skip it whenever it comes up on shuffle. She hasn’t released anything since—does that make her this decade’s Jen Trynin?

Click here to listen to my 2004 playlist on Spotify:

  1. Tompaulin, “Slender”
  2. Bebel Gilberto, “Simplesmente”
  3. Delays, “Nearer Than Heaven”
  4. Jens Lekman, “You Are The Light (by which I travel into this and that)”
  5. Sufjan Stevens, “To Be Alone With You”
  6. Tamas Wells, “Even In The Crowds”
  7. The Magnetic Fields, “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend”
  8. Nellie McKay, “Ding Dong”
  9. Rufus Wainwright, “Peach Trees”
  10. A.C. Newman, “On The Table”
  11. A Girl Called Eddy, “The Long Goodbye”
  12. Feist, “One Evening”
  13. Junior Boys, “Teach Me How To Fight”
  14. Mark Mothersbaugh, “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op”
  15. Loretta Lynn, “Little Red Shoes”
  16. Paul Brill, “New Pagan Love Song”
  17. Kings of Convenience, “I’d Rather Dance With You”
  18. Madeleine Peyroux, “Dance Me To The End of Love”
  19. Tegan and Sara, “Downtown”
  20. The Futureheads, “Meantime”
  21. Marit Bergman, “Adios Amigos”
  22. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood # 3 (Power Out)”
  23. Mr. Airplane Man, “How Long”
  24. Neko Case, “The Tigers Have Spoken”
  25. Air, “Venus”
  26. The Divine Comedy, “Our Mutual Friend”
  27. Sam Phillips, “Reflecting Light”
  28. Scissor Sisters, “Mary”
  29. Ron Sexsmith, “From Now On”
  30. Morrissey, “First Of The Gang To Die”
  31. PJ Harvey, “The Letter”
  32. Franz Ferdinand, “The Dark of a Matinee”
  33. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Me and Mia”
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2003: My Office Glows All Night Long

I’ve already referenced in my essay on Want One just how much music I was listening to in 2003—truly the era of Peak CD for me. Between a major move across town (from Watertown to Jamaica Plain) and other new endeavors, it was a busy time, with music remaining one of my few constants (the other being movies.)

The three dozen tracks below are but the very best of a bounty of songs that received many spins on my dark blue Sony Discman back then (I’ve could’ve easily included another dozen.) Thumbing through this list, there’s only a few I didn’t hear until more than a year later, most notably The Radio Dept. when “Pulling Our Weight” resurfaced on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack in 2006. The most obscure tracks here (A Northern Chorus’ Smiths-worthy instrumental, Troll’s demented, inexplicable noir rock) are from records I was assigned to review; most of the rest represent the very best of that era’s indie pop, from veterans like the Nick Rhodes-produced Dandy Warhols and Arab Strap (whom fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian (also included) name-dropped a few LPs back) to next-big-things TV On The Radio and Regina Spektor.

2003 also happens to have two songs I’d take to a desert island with me: The Shins’ Nilsson-esque chamber pop wonder “Saint Simon” and Canadian band Stars’ immortal, resplendent “Elevator Love Letter”, which saved my life more than The Shins or even The Smiths ever did.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2003 on Spotify:

  1. The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed”
  2. The Radio Dept., “Pulling Our Weight”
  3. Calexico, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”
  4. Rosie Thomas, “I Play Music”
  5. Basement Jaxx, “Good Luck”
  6. Arab Strap, “The Shy Retirer”
  7. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, “The Ambassador of Soul”
  8. The Postal Service, “Such Great Heights”
  9. Nelly Furtado, “Explode”
  10. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, “Tom The Model”
  11. Natacha Atlas, “Eye of the Duck”
  12. Black Box Recorder, “The New Diana”
  13. Paul Brill, “Westering”
  14. The Hidden Cameras, “A Miracle”
  15. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, “I’m A Ghost”
  16. Thea Gilmore, “Pirate Moon”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Mexican Wine”
  18. A Northern Chorus, “Red Carpet Blues”
  19. Regina Spektor, “Chemo Limo”
  20. Sufjan Stevens, “Romulus”
  21. Pernice Brothers, “The Weakest Shade Of Blue”
  22. The Shins, “Saint Simon”
  23. Stars, “Elevator Love Letter”
  24. The Dandy Warhols, “The Last High”
  25. The Weakerthans, “One Great City!”
  26. The Wrens, “This Boy Is Exhausted”
  27. Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism”
  28. Moloko, “Forever More”
  29. Oranger, “Bluest Glass Eye Sea”
  30. Stew, “LA Arteest Café”
  31. TV On The Radio, “Young Liars”
  32. Troll, “Western”
  33. Junior Senior, “Chicks and Dicks”
  34. Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose”
  35. Rufus Wainwright, “11:11”
  36. Super Furry Animals, “Slow Life”

2002: I Miss The Innocence I’ve Known

The title comes from Wilco’s summery ode to (as another song on a Sparks album from that year puts it) Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls; it’s also an inverse of my 1999 mix title, and the turnaround speaks volumes of how much had changed for me in that relatively brief time span. I spent the first half of 2002 in a deteriorating relationship which finally, spectacularly collapsed at the end of June; I spent the year’s remainder shellshocked and full of pain, but also defiantly impulsive (and, more often than not, carelessly stupid.) I can’t definitely say which half was better or worse but both permanently color all of my 2002 memories, right down to the art I consumed.

Music was an escape and a healer. I found solace in Sleater-Kinney’s defiant call-to-arms, the Mekons’ razor-sharp reaction to post-9/11 religious fundamentalism (on both sides), Alison Moyet’s elegant, impassioned inquiry in seeking impossible closure and PJ Harvey lending kickass verve to a great, lost Gordon Gano song that could’ve easily held its own on Violent Femmes. However, I also took comfort in the more melancholy hues of Jon Brion’s should’ve-been-nominated-for-an-Oscar Punch Drunk Love theme, the near ethereal wash of Badly Drawn Boy’s About A Boy soundtrack (it should’ve been nominated too) and the reassurance of tracks by Doves and Emm Gryner, pushing me forward, encouraging me that not all hope was lost.

I began blogging in 2002, so it was the first instance where I made public my favorite albums of the year. Most of the titles I picked then are represented below (as for Norah Jones, I tried, but 2017 me just couldn’t and I haven’t listened to that Ani DiFranco live LP in years), along with the usual assortment of key tracks (“The Night I Fell In Love” is pure 2002 and gloriously so) and a handful of songs I wouldn’t hear until later (no one knows the late Luna song but everyone should.) Also, for possibly the first time, I do not see one single track here (apart from maybe Beck?) that I would’ve heard on commercial radio at the time—a harbinger of increasingly idiosyncratic, indie-centric listening habits to come.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2002 on Spotify:

Gordon Gano and PJ Harvey “Hitting the Ground”
Frou Frou, “Breathe In”
Saint Etienne, “Stop and Think It Over”
The Negro Problem, “Lime Green Sweater”
Badly Drawn Boy, “Silent Sigh”
Spoon, “The Way We Get By”
Carla Bruni, “Quelqu’un m’a dit”
Tori Amos, “Crazy”
DJ Shadow, “Six Days”
Mekons, “Thee Old Trip to Jerusalem”
Mr. Airplane Man, “Jesus On The Mainline”
Doves, “There Goes The Fear”
Jon Brion, “Here We Go”
Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”
Luna, “Lovedust”
Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells”
Sparks, “Suburban Homeboy”
Imperial Teen, “Ivanka”
Ivy, “Kite”
Tegan and Sara, “Living Room”
Pet Shop Boys, “The Night I Fell In Love”
Beck, “Guess I’m Doing Fine”
Alison Moyet, “Do You Ever Wonder”
Emm Gryner, “Symphonic”
Sleater-Kinney, “Step Aside”

Bruce

I met Bruce Kingsley in 2004 when he joined Chlotrudis, my film group. We first bonded over our shared love of movies, of course, particularly when we both attended the Toronto Film Festival the following year. However, as I began making periodic visits to see him in New York (where he’d put me up at his West Village condo), we discovered a mutual love of music as well.

In time (about mid-2006), Bruce asked me to make a mix CD for him. He had been a big music fan in the ’80s, but lost touch since then. He was intrigued by our conversations about music and wanted to hear some of the current stuff I’d been listening to. In typically exhaustive Bruce fashion, he sent me a lengthy email detailing all the music he liked, listing not just artists and albums but individual song after song, including a handful even I had never heard of.

The first mix you ever make for someone is always the most fun because you have seemingly infinite options—the ability to delve deep into your entire library and select the twenty or so beloved songs you most want the recipient to hear. Given Bruce’s edict for new music, I mostly picked songs from the past five years, including a few by artists I first encountered while writing for a now-defunct music website (Tompaulin, Marit Bergman), some of my all-time favorites (Belle and Sebastian, Saint Etienne), new, if somewhat obscure singers I thought he’d be receptive to (Nellie McKay, Stew), a few faves from 2005-06 (Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, The New Pornographers) and, for good measure, two tracks from the ’90s I thought he ought to hear (Ivy, Jen Trynin). Its title, “I’ve Never Been Wrong… I Used To Work At A Record Store” came from the LCD Soundsystem track, which I think summed up the music-geek nature of the selections well.

No matter how diligent you are in crafting a first mix so that the recipient will like it, you always run the risk of not quite clinching it. Fortunately, I need not have worried, for Bruce loved it. His favorite track was the Belle and Sebastian one, which was actually a last-minute addition on my part. He’d play the whole thing for various friends whom, when I was introduced to them in New York, would say to me, “Oh, you’re the one who made The Mix!

In retrospect, I think this mix conveyed how much our friendship had solidified. If we hadn’t connected so well, I’m not sure it would’ve resonated with Bruce as strongly. But then again, Bruce was an easy person to befriend. Intelligent, charismatic, kind and generous, he lit up every room or space he inhabited without dominating it or being overbearing. He was also highly opinionated and often a little snarky, but never, ever off-putting or cruel. Given our 30+ year age difference, he often felt like a mentor to me, not in the professional sense but as someone with a history and wisdom far, far beyond my own, a person who had lived a very full life, the kind of life one aspires to.

He has been on my mind extensively since his sudden passing in June at the Provincetown Film Festival, where he suffered a heart attack in between screenings (while at a restaurant called Cafe Heaven, of all places.) Attending a celebration of his life in New York last weekend, I saw so many photos of him from many eras of his life (projected in a slideshow) that I hadn’t seen before, and heard so many loving, moving testimonials from family and friends. I’ve already said this many times, but it’s still hard to believe he is gone.

I made Bruce a few more mixes over the years, but this first one remains my favorite; I have to believe it was his as well, going back to that notion that the first mix you make for someone is the most fun for the maker, but also the most special for the recipient. Below is the track listing and a link to a re-creation of most of it on Spotify. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

Go here to listen to “I’ve Never Been Wrong… I Used To Work At A Record Store”

  1. Tompaulin, “Slender”
  2. Ivy, “Get Out of the City”
  3. Jen Trynin, “Better than Nothing”
  4. Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”
  5. Nellie McKay, “Ding Dong”
  6. Stew, “Giselle”*
  7. Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”
  8. The Shins, “Saint Simon”
  9. Weakerthans, “One Great City!”
  10. Marit Bergman, “Tomorrow is Today”
  11. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
  12. Belle and Sebastian, “Dress Up in You”
  13. Sam Phillips, “I Wanted to Be Alone”
  14. TV On the Radio, “Young Liars”
  15. LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”
  16. Goldfrapp, “Number 1”
  17. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show”
  18. Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter”
  19. The Futureheads, “Hounds of Love”

*Not on Spotify as this writing

2001: We’re Not Those Kids Sitting On The Couch

This year was transformative in so many ways: unquestionably regarding world events (see the entry on Apartment Life for my thoughts on 9/11), but also in the music I gravitated towards. After my brief rediscovery of top 40 and a somewhat shallow dive into club music, by the end of 2001, indie rock (and pop) had become my mainstays. I was listening to WERS extensively, which is where I first heard Emm Gryner, Pernice Brothers, Ladytron and The Soundtrack of Our Lives; I also upped my music journalism intake, mostly via The Village Voice, which is where I first read about The Moldy Peaches, Basement Jaxx and Ted Leo (though for the latter, not until 2003’s Hearts of Oak came out).

It was an effort to think of at least 25 great songs for the 1999 and 2000 lists, but I had no trouble immediately reeling off nearly 40 for this year. Of course, a good chunk of this playlist comprises songs by artists I was already familiar with: Ben Folds’ solo debut (still his best solo track, ever), Depeche Mode’s second-last great single, Gillian Welch’s disarming narrative that did more to humanize Elvis than any number of tributes have before or since, a lovely, essential Belle and Sebastian B-side, an expansive gem plucked from a sprawling Ani DiFranco double LP and the happiest, breeziest song Rufus Wainwright will likely ever write.

Very occasionally, something unexpected would cross over, like Res’ now-all-but-forgotten hypnotic rock/R&B hybrid, or Cousteau’s loving Bacharach pastiche, which I probably heard on a car commercial before it ever played WERS. But even beyond my own particular, often peculiar tastes (A ten-minute Spiritualized come-down extravaganza? Sure, why not?), you had outfits like The Strokes and The White Stripes breaking out of the indie-rock ghetto. Suddenly, you felt the potential for hundreds of other bands to aspire to the same, and it didn’t yet feel played out. Despite plenty of sociopolitical turmoil by world’s end, there was also an unusual sense of possibility in the air. I was ready for it.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2001 on Spotify:

1. Ben Folds, “Annie Waits”
2. Pernice Brothers, “7:30”
3. Res, “They-Say Vision”
4. Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
5. Spoon, “Believing is Art”
6. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, “Sister Surround”
7. Royal City, “Bad Luck”
8. Ladytron, “Playgirl”
9. The Moldy Peaches, “Steak For Chicken”
10. Super Furry Animals, “It’s Not the End of the World”
11. Steve Wynn, “Morningside Heights”
12. Cousteau, “Last Good Day of the Year”
13. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, “Under the Hedge”
14. Depeche Mode, “Dream On”
15. Basement Jaxx, “Jus 1 Kiss”
16. Guided By Voices, “Glad Girls”
17. Kings of Convenience, “I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From”
18. Yann Tiersen, “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi”
19. Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”
20. Bjork, “Pagan Poetry”
21. The Dirtbombs, “Chains of Love”
22. Ani DiFranco, “Rock Paper Scissors”
23. Emm Gryner, “Straight to Hell”
24. Gillian Welch, “Elvis Presley Blues”
25. New Order, “Close Range”
26. Belle and Sebastian, “Marx and Engels”
27. Sam Phillips, “How To Dream”
28. Rufus Wainwright, “California”
29. Ivy, “Edge of the Ocean”
30. Spiritualized, “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)”

2000: Let’s Make This Moment Last

I kicked off the year 2000 by falling madly in love for the first time, so titles like “I’m Outta Love” and “Leavin’” seem somewhat ironic now (or perhaps just a then-dormant harbinger of what was to come in 2001-2002). I’ve left out most of the top 40 hits I strongly associate with this time because I no longer go out of my way to listen to many of them (although hearing BBMak’s “Back Here” on supermarket radio never fails to make me smile.) Apart from the flop Madonna single, very little of this got any radio airplay, at least in the US—“The Time is Now” hit number two in the UK, “Bohemian Like You” was also huge there thanks to its inclusion in a mobile phone ad, while “Tell Me Why” is still Saint Etienne’s only top ten hit in their homeland.

As usual, in a perfect world so many of these songs would’ve been hits—The New Pornographers’ clarion call (greatly assisted by the incomparable Neko Case), Sleater-Kinney’s peppy, hipster-bashing anthem, PJ Harvey’s irresistibly primal stomp, even weirdo duo Ween’s straightest pop song ever. Speaking of weirdos, they’re well represented here too: Bjork’s Dancer in the Dark duet with the lead singer of Radiohead (who themselves that year released possibly the weirdest album to debut at number one), The Avalanches’ sui generis cut-and-paste extravaganza, Goldfrapp’s overtly eerie music for an imaginary film (at least not yet for a few years).

It’s worth noting that in 2000, I spent a lot more time clubbing than I have before or since, hence the inclusion of the epic Toni Braxton remix with its unusual but masterful extended flamenco breakdown. This exact version instantly brings back many a Saturday night spent dancing at the now torn down Man Ray in Cambridge’s Central Square, sipping sugary cocktails and shamelessly making out with my new love on the dancefloor. Oh, I was so young and innocent back then…

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2000 on Spotify:

  1. The Dandy Warhols, “Bohemian Like You”
  2. Anastacia, “I’m Outta Love”
  3. Shelby Lynne, “Leavin’”
  4. Aimee Mann, “Satellite”
  5. Moloko, “The Time is Now”
  6. Sleater-Kinney, “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun”
  7. Paul van Dyk with Saint Etienne, “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)”
  8. Bjork and Thom Yorke, “I’ve Seen It All”
  9. Ween, “Even If You Don’t”
  10. Madonna, “What It Feels Like For a Girl”
  11. Toni Braxton, “Spanish Guitar (HQ2 Club Mix)”
  12. Blur, “Music is My Radar”
  13. Yo La Tengo, “You Can Have It All”
  14. Belle and Sebastian, “Don’t Leave the Light On Baby”
  15. Bebel Gilberto, “August Day Song”
  16. Nelly Furtado, “Party”
  17. PJ Harvey, “This is Love”
  18. Badly Drawn Boy, “Bewilderbeast 2”
  19. Goldfrapp, “Lovely Head”
  20. The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist”
  21. The Weakerthans, “My Favourite Chords”
  22. k.d. lang, “When We Collide”
  23. The 6ths feat. Katharine Whalen, “You You You You You”
  24. The New Pornographers, “Letter From an Occupant”
  25. Jill Sobule, “Rock Me to Sleep”

1999: We Were Young and Innocent Back Then

Even though I kicked off 1999 by falling in love with If You’re Feeling Sinister, this was one of the more disjointed and new music-deficient years of my life. During the four months between stumbling across the finish line of grad school and finding steady employment, I spent no money on music, instead raiding a plethora of suburban libraries to acquire previously unheard (i.e.—old) stuff to listen to (Nina Simone, Serge Gainsbourg, Os Mutantes, etc.) Still, even if I had had the cash, it’s not like I would be rushing out to buy many of the year’s best-sellers—I didn’t even hear the three LPs I wrote about here until 2000-01.

What follows is a by now expected late-‘90s grab bag. It includes tracks from both long-beloved artists (a sweet sigh from Everything But The Girl’s last album, Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack triumph, another indelibly-titled Pet Shop Boys single) and good stuff I didn’t hear until much later (Le Tigre’s punk anthem (not fully appreciated by me until its inclusion in the 2006 film Reprise), Super Furry Animals’ Tropicalia-by-way-of-Wales). And yet, I recognize selections I loved at the time, like the lead-off track to Beth Orton’s mostly forgotten second album, Ben Folds Five’s flop follow-up to “Brick”, Blondie’s underrated (in the US, anyway) reunion single and an Indigo Girls tune that didn’t trouble the charts but seemed to receive heavy rotation on WBOS (then a decent Triple-A station).

Of course, I was never going to hear The Magnetic Fields or Sleater-Kinney without actively seeking them out. Same goes for Jason Falkner, whose second LP Can You Still Feel was a lucky library find not long after its release. Listening to it now, I wonder why it didn’t make the list—I’ve heard fewer finer power pop albums from that era, and “The Plan” is a concise gem of a song everyone should know.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1999 on Spotify:

  1. Le Tigre, “Deceptacon”
  2. Beth Orton, “Stolen Car”
  3. Jason Falkner, “The Plan”
  4. Everything But The Girl, “No Difference”
  5. Supergrass, “Moving”
  6. Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag”
  7. Pet Shop Boys, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”
  8. Tom Waits, “Hold On”
  9. Tori Amos, “Bliss”
  10. Aimee Mann, “Save Me”
  11. Steve Wynn, “Cats and Dogs”
  12. Ben Folds Five, “Army”
  13. The Magnetic Fields, “All My Little Words”
  14. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Wicked Little Town”
  15. Blur, “Coffee and TV”
  16. Indigo Girls, “Peace Tonight”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Red Dragon Tattoo”
  18. Meshell Ndegeocello, “Bitter”
  19. Moby, “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”
  20. Sleater-Kinney, “Don’t Talk Like”
  21. Blondie, “Maria”
  22. Super Furry Animals, “Northern Lites”

bonus tracks not on Spotify:

23. XTC, “Easter Theatre”
24. The Negro Problem, “Repulsion (Showed Up Late For Work On Monday)”
25. Pizzicato Five, “La Regle Du Jeu”