21 Nov 2015

Y2K: how the turn of the century saw the release of some of the most evocative, prudent and incredible albums of all time

Sometimes, when I'm bored I come up with little albums of the year lists in my head for whatever year happened to cross my mind; listening to the Ambulance Ltd LP album, sends me off on a sorta What Else Was Swell About 2004? journey, and hearing people reminisce about the eighties, talking about how great The Human League were makes me think 'it can't have all been that bad, right?'

Incidentally, I've been trying to suss out what the best year, ever, in the world, of all time was for album releases, and whilst I'm not sure I've stumbled upon a reasonable answer just yet, there's one year which has an artistic output that is if not the best, the most intruiging year for music.
               
In modern history, the year 2000 stands out as quite an odd, revolutionary time; not only did Jarvis Cocker and Deborah's retrospective catchup probably happen, but it was a time where waves of technology were slowly being embraced by more and more of the wider culture. It was to some a brave new world, whilst to others, it was a crazy, uncertain and even frightening time. I can imagine people feeling that it was very 1984, and artists put some of these insecurities into their music - a wave of amazing albums (which we'll go into detail about later on in the article) perfectly summed up a changing time with music that was so symbolic of changing social attitudes.

It has been said that music is the cultural barometer of changing times, and the aftermath of the Gregorian Calendar-following world moving from the second millennium into the second was a time where this was no different.

No album sums up this time quite as well as Radiohead's most arguably divisive record Kid A. After the release of OK Computer, an instantly heralded masterpiece, made the band one of the biggest in the world, Radiohead went into meltdown, and frontman Thom Yorke had a particularly bad case of writer's block - it's not surprising really; where do you go after releasing an album that is actually OK Computer? But the band took some time out, became obsessed with the consumerist critique No Logo, and emerged with the ever so evocative Kid A.

Made up of sound collages (Treefingers), electronic-based quirky pop numbers (Everything in it's right place) and everything in between. Almost unprecedented as a record, it was released without any singles, or any promotion; the ten bizarre songs that make the record up come together as one cohesive body of experimental works that in a way transcend the more tradition songwriting of the band's other output. The perfect curveball record, Kid A started the 21st century in a way that perfectly encapsulated the mood among the uhhh sadder realms of society at the time; it's a claustrophobic record full to the brim with fear, with uncertainty, and with an overwhelming feeling of numbness. Kid A is the obvious choice as an album that sums up the whole 'year 2k' paranoia, and I guess maybe I'd say it's my favourite Radiohead record, but Radiohead were far from the only band to evocatively capture such a mood at this uncertain crazy time in human history.

With a particular focus on the overwhelming developments in technology that came with the rapid developments of the internet, of mobile phones and of countless devices that might have even seemed batshit if they appeared in Star Trek, US indie visionaries Grandaddy were another band that captured the cynicism of the time. On their 2000 album The Sophtware Slump, the band built on an already strong debut with what is the most essential twee critique of the whole Y2K thing; they wanted nothing more than to strip back to times where the Earth was a more natural place, and encouraged a general feeling of wariness and unease in the listener. Lead single Crystal Lake, with its glistening synth parts and its cosmic whirr, told the story of someone from the countryside blown away by the enormity and the absurdity of the capitalist city areas. Jed the Humanoid talks about a robot, and Broken Household Appliance National Forest juxtaposes the natural and the manmade. The absolute crowning glory of this oh-so-cynical opus is the opening track He's Simple He's Dumb He's The Pilot, which is a spiralling 10 minute long masterpiece that sounds like it fuses different bits of songs together in the same way that Bohemian Rhapsody does in an allegorical way to tell the story of the 'year thousand man', who leaves the earth because it's such a state - it's beautiful, evocative, and the best of the bunch where it comes to Grandaddy's special, special album, which is every bit as perfect now as it was then.

Whilst Grandaddy's music captured lyrically so perfectly the feeling of the Y2K, over here Broadcast released their debut album The Noise Made By People, which was a record that had been in the works a long time. Lyrically it sticks to themes of interpersonal relationships mainly, but sonically it's much more bleak and much more dystopic than anything that broke through in the nineties. Clean, cold, and deadpan, it didn't break through in the same way Kid A did, but perfectly captured a similar mood. Songs like Unchanging Window and City in Progress, for me, are among the most innovative and amazing pop songs floating around the sphere of weird, quirky pop music. It's hard to describe just how a fairly twee-yet-experimental guitar group managed to create such atmospheric music, but frontwoman Trish Keenan's voice might be a factor in it; cold yet warming, soulless yet so soulful and human, this record has one of my favourite vocal performances of the entire millenium's output. Alongside Radiohead, this band are unparalleled in inviting listeners into their own private dystopia, and there's nothing about it that isn't just stunning.

Near conventional sounding indie guitar music of the Americana persuasion via the major label debut of Modest Mouse tapped into a similar part of the psyche, as the near unbelievable year for art that is 2000 saw them put out the Moon and Antarctica album. Hailed instantly as a classic by the likes of Pitchfork, it's a seventy minute album that is still considered the best work of American indie music's darlings. It catches a forlornness, and sonically falls halfway between the uneasy atmosphere of Broadcast and the uncertain lyrics of Grandaddy, which makes it another record symptomatic of changing times. But more than that, it turns that emotion into raw, beautiful art; take the opening track Third Planet; I can't think of any songs that quite grip you at the start of an album in the way that Third Planet does; it gives an emotional taster of the sonic palette that MM paint so vibrantly with. I always thought that the album artwork showed a boat on thundery tides, as I'd only seen it in small on Spotify and Wikipedia, and never really questioned it; but whilst that's really not what it is, I think that would have been a more fitting bit of album artwork for a record that so humbly tiptoes at a time of absolute uncertainty and at a time of real cultural storm.

On the subject of indie music around this time, it would be criminal to talk about great albums from the year 2000 without giving Elliott Smith's Figure 8 a mention, which is much more introspective than Modest Mouse's effort. With some amazing songwriting, Elliott Smith's forlorn first go at the double LP is one trip, which is almost ruthless and uncompromisingly sad, and whilst it has a few plodders on there it has some of his best work. It's an album very consistent, but I think it's notable for track 1, Son of Sam, which has an instrumental intro that just sounds like the feeling of uncertainty I keep mentioning personified.

So far in my exploration of the year 2000 I've gone through albums that capture a kind of tentative uncertain mood, which was surprisingly prominent in the prehis-Strokic (you can use that word if you want) time for alternative music, both in the US and the UK. I've written about five of my favourite seven or eight records that came along during this amazing time for music, and an amazing time for our culture. They all capture a real forlorn mood that was seemingly present accross the music scene before The Stokes and The Hives came along and shook everything up by making derivative (yet really fun) music the in thing. However, a couple of my favourite albums that came out in 2000 that reacted to the change in technology and whatnot that rapidly engulfed humanity not by sounding uncertain, but by blowing all comers out the park with mind-blowingly evocative post-rock.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor's seminal Lift Yr Skinny Fists album came along at the turn of the century, and still stands to me as the greatest post-rock album - in fact, I'd say that this period was post-rock's sorta 'golden age'. Four 20-odd minute long pieces of incredible music, there's a kind of euphoria in the slow building, hard-hitting climatic music of this band. This was so critically acclaimed when it came out, and I personally believe that it's one of the greatest albums of all time; vast, thunderous and full of instrumental segments that cover an awkward middle ground between classical music and ambitious guitar music in the best way possible.

The other post-rock album from this particular year is the second Sigur Ros album Ágætis byrjun, which whilst being released in Iceland in 1999, saw it's international release and main widespread critical acclaim in the year 2K; back then, all we knew about them was that they were from Iceland and Radiohead liked them, but now we know that the post-rock group are responsible for some of the most beautiful, soul-nourishing pieces of music this century. This record in particular was their first to see any international acclaim, but as soon as critics picked up on it - boom! Outlets like Pitchfork were quick to hail it as one of the decade's greatest releases, and it's sprawling sonic landscapes were soon to soundbed every totes emosh scene in BBC's TV adverts. The title translates as a good beginning, and let's be honest, in terms of a beginning for music in the twenty first century, that is one hell of an understatement.

These two albums for me, are - certainly in the terms of what is conventionally called post-rock - the two genre defining records for me. Sure, it wasn't anything completely new, but this birthing of great post-rock at the start of the decade meant that some of the most beautiful, serene albums ever to be released came out in this decade.

So sure; 2000 might not quite be the best year for music. Years like 1967 and 1994 remain perennial favourites among musos, whilst the likes of 1997 and 1984 are potential faves for me, and all of them are so different and saw the release of so many great albums, all different from each other in their own unique ways. And anyhow, it's seemingly pretentious to just judge years by their artistic output like this, seeing as I can't really, off the top of my head, name a post-1959 year that didn't yield a record I still love to this day. BUT, the music of the year 2000 that brought the underground into a new millennium is undoubtedly some of the most amazing stuff you'll ever hear. Cultural documents of the uncertain turn of the century the aforementioned albums are, sonically accompanying us into a new millennium with music that's every bit as much a sign of the times as Nevermind the bollocks was in 1977.

(written by calum cashin)