What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?
Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.
From now through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections — tell us why you agree or disagree — and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.
Modern music is full of influences that have become so ubiquitous that it is hard to trace them. The Beatles are a band that, for younger ears, probably sound dated upon first listen. They’ve heard so much more recent music that has incorporated the band’s sound that it no longer has the immediate, revolutionary impact that it did for earlier listeners. Same goes for the Velvet Underground, another of modern rock’s biggest touchstones, but there are places where those influences shine through. Juxtaposed against a background where they aren’t expected, the influence becomes more noticeable.
NoahJohn, the moniker for a rotating cast of musicians backing Indiana native Carl Johns, only put out three records, but it’s a fantastic legacy capped by their finest hour, 2002’s Water Hymns. Within the midwestern surrealist observations of Johns and the roots country weavings of the band is the specter of the Velvet Underground, especially the first two albums when John Cale’s viola still raked its fractured hands across the shimmering, grimy veil of their sound.
Water Hymns starts with a pair of songs that seem like they would be better suited buried in the record’s deeper moments. “They Will Call” is an unsettling opener, never quite moving into a pattern despite its running time, but it serves as a mere introduction to the album’s true opener, and one of the record’s best songs, “Rabbit is Asleep.” Channeling the Velvet Underground’s discordant beauty along with Low’s dirge-like pace, “Rabbit is Asleep” is a gorgeous piece of mesmerizing alt-country. “It’s too late, dear / for night swimming. / You cannot walk home / by yourself…Stood on the edge of the woods / stopped, thought I heard animals / t’was wind lifting up the leaves / rabbit is asleep,” intones Johns over the small drone of the song’s elegiac feel; a vignette of a moment so small that it means everything.
From here, a brief instrumental piece featuring a saw (an instrument that plays a heavy role in accenting the album’s sound) paves the way into the album’s center. The songs become more traditional for awhile, including the outstanding “First Communion,” a character study that paints the portrait of a woman through the eyes of a younger narrator who is taken with her. “Promise Breakers” and “Shy Bladder” continue the darkly harmonious search of the album, each harking back in pieces to the Velvet’s influence, until reaching “The Ballad of William Roy,” the back half of the album’s unquestionable high point. A slowly marching piece that matches “Rabbit is Asleep” in its focused intensity, the song brings the barely boiling chaos from under the album to its conclusion. The closing instrumental reprise of “Rabbit is Asleep” displays the song’s meaning to the framing of the album and winds it down in appropriate style.
Water Hymns is a record that begs repeated listening. In revisiting this record for the first time in a few years, I found that I was listening to the album again and again not because I felt it necessary for dissecting it, but because I wanted to do so. In the pale light of autumn, the album’s moments seem all the more relevant and illuminated. It’s an album that, despite its creators’ low profile, managed to grab a hold of something inside me and not let go. It came immediately to mind when listing records for the Decade series and I can only hope, despite being out of print, that it will find new life in the ears of those who haven’t heard it as well. words/ j neas