The Cigarette Girl from the Future EP
DeSoto/Dischord, 2001

After the expansive latitudes of the two Smart Went Crazy LPs, Chad Clark started his new band off with the opposite approach: load a mere five songs and 23 minutes with intricate layers of instrumentation via adroit production techniques and a female vocal proxy in Joanne Gholl. “Rideshare” enacts a fierce bait-and-switch, the fade-in of hollering, jagged guitars, and kitchen cabinet percussion quickly giving way to a muted, wary glow with lyrics to match (“The sun’s a yellow sniper, shining raw, leaning full on the dazzling architecture of the uninhabitable”). The title track ups the tempo but doesn't resolve the bitter distaste for modern culture, lacing the poison with hand claps, electronic gurgling, and trumpet. The rest of the EP follows suit by not following suit—bartering optimistic dreamy ambience for counter-cultural violence, covering menace with a busy façade, and ending with the least eulogistic obituary in recent memory.

Rock Action
Matador, 2001

The vast specter of Young Team, specifically the colossal thrashings of “Like Herod” and the ruptured ethereal plane of “Mogwai Fear Satan,” certainly haunts Mogwai’s legacy, insinuating that sprawling compositions and the destructive force of their live show are the bastions of their success. Yet Rock Action thrives over a nigh 40-minute-long runtime by continually playing against type—its triumphant crescendo in “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” comes at the behest of horn and choral arrangements, not violent guitar theatrics, “Sine Wave” implodes dissonant electronics and mangled singing, “Take Me Somewhere Nice” does just that without any of the album title’s implied irony. Only “You Don’t Know Jesus” drafts over the standard template, and it hardly feels like a rote exercise amid such atypical surroundings.

Automatic Midnight
Swami, 2000

“There ain’t no holdin’ out / There ain’t no lookin’ back.” Automatic Midnight is all seedy atmosphere and hostile attitude, and make no mistake; its swaggering step is heading your way. Rick Froberg’s shredded vocal chords haven’t healed since the age of Jehu, and his partnership with John Reis isn’t underwritten by mathematics this time, only some shady deals in a rundown city of industry.

The Orson Fader
Claire, 2002

The Orson Fader is a blissful fog of melody, disorienting white noise, and loping tempos, a prompt to leave higher-level thought behind as you drift out into orbit. Whichever details surface along this journey are quickly washed out by the cascading waves of sound enveloping your chair. Once you hit that plateau, it seems like there’s no conceivable reason to leave its continuous churn, but then Paik finds a devastating chord progression that, even in all of its woozy, echoing glory, signals a return to the ground.

Sun Sea Sky, 2003

Crystalline beats submerge in lengthy structures as the dynamic of daytime slows to a crawl in this coastal trek along the icy Aleutian Archipelago. The cascading digital delays exhumed from Aurore Rien no longer chain into crests of volume; they now act as the melodic counterpart to the gurgling electronics and stoic piano phrases which define Lights Out Asia’s musical vocabulary. Not everything is glacial; Chris Schafer’s evocative vocals recall Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, providing much needed warmth in their periodic usage.

Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord Is Dead
Constellation, 2000

Do Make Say Think stranded a variety of disparate influences across a wide landscape on their self-titled debut, but on Goodbye Enemy Airship, such elements—jazzy drumming, whirring analog synths, Ennio Morricone–inspired Western guitar lines, swells of horns, dub bass—coalesce into distinct songs and a fluid stylistic template. As the title implies, continued apprehension and muted relief coincide, and are manifested beautifully in the sublime acoustic breakdown of “Minmin,” the skronky heights of “When the Day Chokes the Night,” the wistful horn arrangements of “All of This Is True,” and the meditative swells of “Goodbye Enemy Airship.” Subtlety may trump immediacy, but those details bolster a strong set of songs and their cinematic flow.

Source Codes and Tags
Interscope, 2002

For some bands, tepid balladry awaits at maturity. For this band, rock operas. Source Tags and Codes thankfully delayed such ambitions, opting for an exploration of humanism with more than a little instrument-smashing on the side. They used the major label budget wisely, adding strings to the grandeur of the title track and dotting the landscape with intricate segues, but never approach excess or lose sight of the songwriting. The retention of their past ferocity in onslaughts like “Homage” and “Days of Being Wild” make the melancholic segments of “How Near How Far” and “Another Morning Stoner” stronger, and it’s that duality that keeps the album compelling.

Quarterstick, 2003

Rachel’s has toed the line between strict chamber music and independent rock—Music for Egon Schiele swung the pendulum to the former, the Full on Night EP to the latter—but Systems/Layers takes a sidestep, choosing to dismantle both genres as well as their compositions. Melodic phrases are scattered throughout, mixed with found sound recordings, disconnected and reconnected with context, and arranged in an organic fashion that makes the moments of traditional structure all the more profound. Shannon Wright’s guest appearance on “Last Things Last” is the centerpiece, a heartbreaking embrace of perseverance in the face of mortality that contextualizes the fragments.

It’ll Be Cool
Touch and Go, 2004

It’ll Be Cool, huh? As it turns out, they’re right, even if it needs to sleep on your couch for a few weeks. At first, only the repetition of “‘Don’t Look Back’” lodged itself in my head, but the lines “Mismatched links in my misery / Wormed its way in my heart” slowly became prophetic. Soon the woozy balladry of “Something Hyper,” the bizarre dreamscape of “Insomnia,” the shambling grandeur of “Shitty Little Yacht,” and the straight-ahead rock of “The Operative” settled into place as disparate anecdotes that nevertheless form a sturdy narrative. Dude, you can stay here a bit longer.

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
Temporary Residence, 2003

Monochromatic on first listen, color seeps into the sound with each spin, a veritable reenactment of the album’s artwork. Destruction is a form of creation, and the ground laid seemingly barren on their cataclysmic Those Who Tell the Truth… could only lead to the hopeful blossoming of new chances and pastures. The song titles—“Memorial,” “First Breath after Coma,” “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean”—reflect the importance of not forgetting the past or underestimating the future struggle, and those things are chronicled as the intertwined guitar melodies spiral upwards, rebuilding the damaged structures of their forefathers.

Merge, 2004

It’s hard not to get swept up by the romance of it—remembering the innocence of childhood, trying to start over without the weight of experience hanging over the joys of inhibition—and then they reintroduce reality to the equation, particularly the titular subject, and it’s both crushing and exhilarating. “I guess we’ll just have to adjust,” Win Butler realizes in “Wake Up,” but thankfully, it’s a slow process. Their trips into anthemic whimsy act as an unguent for the sting of loss and remorse—“My family tree is losing all of its leaves”—but they’re not taking that escapism as a reason to ignore their problems.

The Big Nothing
Moodswing, 2002; 54° 40' or Fight, 2003

Summoning the countenance of classic rock is not something I take lightly; odds are that the proceedings will turn out to be limp pantomime if even that memorable. I tip my hat to Dropsonic, whose melding of Led Zeppelin’s guitar licks, Shiner’s heaviness, Girls Against Boys’ rhythmic supremacy, and Dan Dixon’s uncanny “Southern Thom Yorke” goes eight exits past “cover band” to remove the static nature of classic rock and imbue it with a remarkable currency. Dixon’s long nights recording overdubs paid off—this sounds like the result of an impossible-to-recoup major label recording session—and the songs benefit from this depth. The acoustic and slide guitars bolstering “Headless,” the wall-of-sound swell and chorus of vocal harmonies of “Night on the Town,” and the piano intro/coda that bookend the throttling riffs of “The Tough Guy” all exhibit Dropsonic’s commitment to renovating that old house instead of squatting in it.

& Yet & Yet
Constellation, 2002

Do Make Say Think may share a label and a country with Godspeed You Black Emperor!, but no band members and certainly no dreadful, apocalyptic despair. & Yet & Yet is tinged with an affable buoyancy as it takes the subtlety and rural charm of its predecessor (Goodbye Enemy Airship...) and embosses it with an urban immediacy and fuller production values. The galloping “Reitschule” is the centerpiece, balancing the tense no-wave guitar slashes of its build-up with expressive horns and an elastic bassline through numerous twists over its nine minutes. “Classic Noodlanding” is a latticework of precision percussion and jaunty rhythms layered with whirring analog synths and delicate arpeggios. Even the skeletal edifice of “Chinatown,” suppressed under gurgling electronics and plaintive bass, is quietly compelling.

100 Broken Windows
Food, 2000

This exemplifies the rare moment in the maturation process when the energy from the snotty punk days is still there, coupled with a vast improvement in songwriting. 100 Broken Windows adds a remarkable consistency and pacing to that, whether it’s in the postmodern dialogue of the ode/anti-ode “Roseability,” the propulsive lurch of “Rusty,” the aching grace of “The Bronze Medal,” or the infectious exuberance of “Actually, It’s Darkness.” Roddy Woomble’s voice still has the youthful sneer crop up in his Michael Stipe-styled croon, and his lyrics aren’t as self-conscious as on future efforts. Contrary to the album title, Idlewild wasn’t acting like a rebellious teenage anymore, but they certainly retained that spirit.

Elephant Shoe
Jetset, 2000

Most people may find Arab Strap most compelling when they’re swilling booze, talking about burning sensations, and miserable beyond comprehension, but the range of emotions culled from a possible move into domesticity was more my style. From the pulsing after-party ruminations of “Cherubs” to the genuine fear of “One Four Seven One,” from the in-joke of the title to the lingering regret of abortion in “Pro-(Your) Life,” Aidan Moffat’s exploration of relationship dynamics is nuanced and barely melodramatic. It may lack the guitar squalor which sadly only litters their b-sides (“We Know Where You Live,” “Blackness,” “Pulled,” “Girls of Summer”), but the subject material more greatly befits the cello and piano swell in “Autumnal.” Some things are better said with mouthed messages and subtle gestures.

Ipecac, 2004

The title implies seeing without being seen and the power inherently gained from that position, but the question is where Isis exists in this frame of reference: whether they are imprisoned or peering out over a chasm into unwitting lives. I hesitate to give them a single residence, since this level of pathos requires them to be floating somewhere in the middle, tipping off the arrangement, even as they are frozen in time and space. Aaron Taylor’s periodic guttural howls are nearly indecipherable, but the crushing melancholy of the lengthy instrumental passages incites a dialogue between hesitant optimism, immobilizing paranoia, and unwelcome awareness. Panopticon defies so many conventions of “metal” that I hesitate calling it such, but the weight of this material is undeniable.

Put Danger Back in Your Life
Hidden Agenda, 2003

An impeccable indie pop pastiche held together by the lingering romance of Caroline Schutz’s voice, Folksongs for the Afterlife have a strangely apt band name and a completely dubious album title. Such assumed irony doesn’t taint the music, however, and when the crickets start chirping and the echoes of AM radio hum underneath the beginning of “Reunion,” I feel as if these songs have lain dormant in my bloodstream for ages and can finally emerge. Driving rock, shoegazing bliss-outs, lamenting ballads, and ’60s pop all tinge these folk songs, but the tapestry of the album is never torn by the expanse of influences. “All you got was haunted / Or were you haunted all along?”

The Egg
DeSoto, 2001

I could play the majority of this album in my head from merely attending a smear of Midwest tour dates that summer. And somehow the finished product still floored me, a vast step forward in the face of lineup turnover and label changes. It’s the rare album where complexity, passion, and ingenuity take equal footing, as Shiner’s signature massive math-rock is imploded and reconstituted in brutal architecture, straining every beam to the breaking point. It’s hard to fathom that The Egg is more than the sum of its considerable parts—Jason Gerkin’s syncopated beat that anchors the title track, Josh Newton’s malfunctioning guitar line in “Bells and Whistles,” Paul Malinowski’s two-ton bass thump in “Spook the Herd,” Allen Epley’s ghostly falsetto haunting “Andalusia”—but it’s the way all of these elements come together, like in the post-rock resurrection of “The Simple Truth” or the Killing Joke malice of “Surgery,” that truly astonishes.

Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
Constellation, 2003

Determining the fate of the three outstanding Do Make Say Think albums released in this decade was a point of consternation, starting with a cop-out idea of lumping them together and ending with tentative preference for Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn. It is their most ambitious work, a triptych exhibiting their compositional strength, jazz grooves, and more direct, rock-oriented work respectively, but it tackles this separation of styles into suites with greater aplomb than the haphazard array of influences found on their debut. It maintains the band’s trademark subtlety, but adds increasingly salient watermarks—the roaring bass rip at the peak of “Fredericia,” the explosive, chopped-up conclusion of “Horns of a Rabbit,” and the buoyant slide guitars and choral arrangements of the aptly titled “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” Do Make Say Think’s remarkable consistency is only outweighed by their ability to improve by leaps and bounds with each release.

A Future Lived in Past Tense
DeSoto, 2001

A jarring embrace of punk rock urgency and philosophical and personal rumination, A Future Lived in Past Tense has been more than the soundtrack to my life; it has done its fair share of dictating it. The call-to-arms “Covered with Hair” aptly summarizes why I care so much about music—“Someone somewhere will always sing the words you need”—and the album is a staunch reinforcement of that principle, whether those words act as a means to overcome (“When I Was In ___”) or a prompt for self-awareness (“The French Letter”). The music is just as compelling, evidenced in how “Up Through the Night” cracks a window to let some brisk air in after the firestorm of “The French Letter,” the jarring wakening of “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow,” and how “Killing It in a Quiet Way” does everything but. Every listen of the 70-minute-long expanse of A Future Lived in Past Tense is an expedition through conscience, community, and memory, one that I cannot pull away from and cannot ignore.