20. Clinic — Internal Wrangler
Never quite got the love for these icy Liverpudlians–from their surgical masks’ imposed anonymity to Ade Blackburn’s impenetrable bray, their sub-Brechtian barriers to emotional identification worked all too well with me. No mystery to their appeal, though. Just as the Ramones stripped rock ‘n’ roll of a couple decades’ cumulative baggage, Clinic whittled indie rock down to its formal essence. Since indie rock’s pleasures are rarely formal or essential, the perverse pleasure here resides in reducing an unkempt, verbose tradition to pure sensation, the cool discipline of a Velvets-Can-Fall groove that’s fun, fun, fun till daddy takes the scalpel away.
19. Aesop Rock — Labor Days
You don’t hear too many concept albums about work–most artists just want to make it out of their day jobs, not make art out of them. Ian Bavitz not only resented the demands on his time that economic necessity exerts, but articulated those demands poetically enough to justify his sense of entitlement: “We’d rather be supporting ourselves/ By being paid to perfect the pastimes/ That we have harbored based solely on the fact/ That it makes us smile if it sounds dope.” Granted, the MC’s commitment to the artistic prerogative probably explains his increasing lyrical obfuscation in the years since. And his gruff aphorisms might have sunk beneath their own complexity without Blockhead’s mild globalist touches smoothing over Def Jux in-house doom-funk clatter.
18. Baaba Maal — Missing You . . . Mi Yeewnii
This side of the great Youssou himself, Maal may well be Senegal’s most transcendent male vocalist, or at least its most gorgeous. Still, aside from the high-energy Live at Royal Festival Hall (1999), his ’90s output clicks with me no more often than N’Dour’s ’80s stuff; both bodies of work intentionally sought the attention of folks with significantly different priorities than my own. But this simulated field recording, captured by night in the griot’s native village, charmingly refuses to transcend its roots, with background chatter and crickets and other assorted whatnot left in to add ambience. Not ambient detail–ambience.
17. New Order — Get Ready
Still no clue why, after an eight-year snooze, they thought the new millennium breathlessly awaited a disc of pop shoegaze rave-ups, even (?) with Billy Corgan aboard. But if they’d lost a step rhythmically, their bass hooks curl under the wash with such friendly familiarity that all’s forgiven. And for all the rebellious yearning of “I don’t wanna be/ Like other people are/ Don’t wanna own a key/ Don’t wanna wash my car,” Bernard Sumner has never sounded more the normal bloke. “I’m gonna live till I die/ I’m gonna live to get high” distills the essence of a band seeking out not grand peaks of sublimity but vast stretches of comfort. Which may be why they kept it together longer than Ian Curtis lived. Peaked more often too.
16. Aceyalone — Accepted Eclectic
For all undie rap’s ominous P.K. Dick-ing around, the scene’s true heroes were those plainspoken reporters who resisted the pursuit of poesy or pussy to scrutinize the frustrations and joys of the everyday grind. This Project Blowed cofounder’s earlier abstract lyricism impressed but never moved me; his hearty realism lodged right in my gut and hasn’t shifted since. There probably wasn’t a day I lived in NYC that my brain didn’t inwardly nod along to “Five Feet” (“If there is one thing that everyone needs/ It’s they’re goddamn space”). And there were more than a few I found solace in the mantra: “Yeah, I’m healthy, I’m alive, I can’t complain.”