Thursday, April 29, 2010

Essentials of the last decade: Alternative Rock

It's time for another installment of my series of articles dealing with the best albums of the last decade.  Today, I wanted to focus my attention on my first true love in music - alternative rock.

I cut my teeth on alt rock - the local alt rock station, x96, has been basically the only thing I've listened to over the airwaves other than NPR.  Like, ever.  Consequently, I have a lot of love for this genre, even if it's not one I listen to much these days.

Regardless, there have been some resounding efforts that have impressed me in the last decade.  (Keep in mind, I still have to do indie rock, so it could be that what you think may be missing from this list could show up there.)  But enough lolligagging!

Deftones: White Pony

White Pony
I still remember when this album came out, and the way it made me feel.  It encapsulated all of the impotent rage that surges throughout the disaffected teenager, crystallizing it into something painful and beautiful.  The guitars are scathing and unfriendly; The bass is fuzzy and washed out; the vocals are unintelligible, but transmit an emotion that can only be described as teenage angst.  Maybe I only love this album as much as I do because of that connection to my past, but after listening to it again a few times in an effort to decide what should be included on this list, it definitely belongs here.

Muse: Black Holes and Revelations

Black Holes and Revelations 
Muse is one of those bands that seems to ride the cusp between being a mainstream, radio-friendly band and an all-out progressive madhouse.  (And in their later years, it seems like they're leaning more and more to the madness - last year's The Resistance is, after all, a crazy concept album about political insurrection.)  But it's on Black Holes and Revelations that all the disparate pieces of their style come together in a divine combination.  From the ominous keyboard arpeggios of the opening track to the thundering horse-clapping of album-closer (and crowing jewel) "Knights of Cydonia", it's the right combination of gutsy and accessible that so many bands only wish they could pull off.

Radiohead: Kid A

Kid A
Picking a Radiohead album may have been the most difficult decision of any record on the master list of essentials I'm working from (not wanting any duplicates from any group or person, despite their inimitable talents).  And there was a short time when I would've said their newest release, In Rainbows, would be their best of the decade.  But after careful review of both albums side-by-side, it's still obvious that Kid A was the game changer Radiohead put out at the exact right time.  From its beginning electronic swell, it announced itself as something fundamentally different from what we were used to from alternative rock - and while it was clearly Thom Yorke's voice flitting throughout the album, the music was virtually unrecognizable from their more radio-friendly early releases.  From the fuzzy, cacophonous "The National Anthem" to the disconcertingly techno "Idioteque", it's an album that still feels as jarring and inventive a decade later as it did the day I pulled it from its cellophane.

The White Stripes: White Blood Cells

White Blood Cells
I admit it - I'm a huge Jack White fan.  I've loved his work with the Raconteurs as well as The Dead Weather.  (And let's be honest - he looks like he'll be splendid in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World this summer.)  But his most vital work is with The White Stripes, where he and Meg create some of the most honest, crunchy rock you'll ever hear.  After two sporadically wonderful albums, it was with White Blood Cells that Jack hit his songwriting happy spot, and every song feels euphoric.  The fact that it's such simple music (often just guitar, drums, and vocals) does nothing to diminish the power with which it presents itself - a testament to the fact that sometimes, less is more.

PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
PJ Harvey has an impressive back catalogue, and her ouevre ranges from the very delicate (White Chalk) to the very brash (Rid of Me).  Yet it's on SftC, SftS that she writes her most affecting and moving music - stuff that makes you smile, laugh, sigh, and tear up.  She runs the emotional gamut, hooking you through the guts and dragging you along for the sometimes ugly, often poignant ride.  And it's still meaningful after all these years.

Masters of Reality: Pine/Cross Dover

Pine / Cross Dover
Masters of Reality are one of those bands that, frankly, not enough people listen to.  It may be due to the fact that they only release new music sporadically; perhaps it's because the main spoke of the band, guitarist and vocalist Chris Goss, is known far more for his producing work with bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and Kyuss among others; but for whatever reason it is, that needs to end - now.  Masters of Reality's previous release, Give Us Barabbas, was a wonderfully folky acoustic album, mostly acoustic guitars and strings.  Pine/Cross Dover is a great return to form, with clanging guitar work, thumping bass, and that wonderfully smooth Chris Goss vocal work.  It's got some of my favorite Masters of Reality songs ever (Such as "Absinthe Jim and Me" or "Worm in the Silk"), and the whole album feels imbued with a sense or reinvigoration and renewal.

Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf

Songs for the Deaf
Another example of a band that's horribly underrated and under-listened-to (and other of the "Palm Desert Scene" bands along with Masters of Reality) is the wonderful Queens of the Stone Age - and Songs for the Deaf is where they're firing all their pistons in perfect synchronicity.  It's fuzzy, crunchy, balanced, and unforgettable.  It's enough to make you wonder why they don't have more radio play. It's not pretty music, by any means - but it's certainly gutsy and meaningful.


  1. Braeden,

    Some top choices here - 5 of the 7 are in my collection too and, from what you say, I'm going to have to check out Masters Of Reality. I'm a huge QOTSA fan, so this MoR won't be a stretch, I'm sure. I have to say, I'm not such a big fan of Muse (don't like Bellamy's voice) but more power to them for doing so well.

    I do have to take a little issue with Deftones being included in the Alternative Rock section. I would have placed them more on the Metal side of the coin, but I am being persnickety. Today is an exciting day here because the new Deftones album is being released here. I've heard a couple of tracks already and it is HUGE.

    Good lists so far, mate. Looking forward to the next one.


    Mark (YourZ)

  2. Oh, BTW, have you heard of a band called Death From Above 1979 - I'm just getting into them and they are awesome.


  3. I struggled with where to put the Deftones, But the metal lists are large enough on their own that for the sake of article size I decided to put them here. (Plus, they always used to play them on the alternative rock station here.) ;)

    Since I know you're a fan of the Queens of the Stone Age, I think you'll be a big fan of Masters of Reality. The sound is quite similar, and very, very good.

  4. I have all the top four albums, and they are excellent. I don't think I've ever heard of PJ harvey; I'll give 'em a shot.

  5. So, as a bit of a metal snob (weird, that there are people who can be snobbish about metal) I would actually totally agree with Deftones being here and not on a metal list (unless you created an Alt Metal list). I like some of their stuff a lot, but to me they just aren't "metal".

    As an aside, that is the only album on the list that I have heard.

  6. Peter - these lists are as much for you as anyone else in the interwebs. You should definitely give some of these things a listen - I especially think that Queens of the Stone Age or Masters of Reality might be more up your alley. And the crunchy raw sound of the White Stripes is always fun.

  7. Oh absolutely. I am really loving these.