In Part II of my look back at the music I dug during the past decade (2010-2019), I’m featuring great albums by bands and artists who got their start in the 1990s or 2000s. Some were bands I never knew about until the 2010s while others simply knocked me out with new albums they released during the 2010s.
Portugal. The Man, “Woodstock,” 2017
My wife and daughter braved the crowds and dusty environment at the Coachella Festival a couple of years ago, and upon their return, the band they raved about most was this one. They’ve been around since 2006 when they emerged from Portland, Oregon with their forcefully melodic brand of rock/pop. They wanted the band to have a bigger-than-life feel but did not want to name it after one of their members. “A country is a group of people,” guitar player and vocalist John Gourley explained. “Portugal just ended up being the first country that came to mind, so the band’s name is ‘Portugal’ — the period makes that a statement. ‘The Man’ means that it’s just one person (any one of the band members).”
Whew. Okay then. The six-person band struggled along, recording albums on small labels to little fanfare, and it wasn’t until they were signed by Atlantic in 2011 and released their sixth LP, “In the Mountain in the Cloud,” that the listening public began to take notice. Their 2013 album “Evil Friends” made it to #28 on the Billboard 200 and #9 on the alt-rock charts.
My introduction to Portugal. The Man came with the remarkable LP “Woodstock,” whose opening track, “Number One,” includes samples of Richie Havens performing “Freedom/Motherless Child” at the 1969 festival. Much more compelling are the successful singles, “Feel It Still” and “Live in the Moment,” and album tracks like “Rich Friends” and “So Young.” Their percussion-heavy sound is bathed in synthesizers and guitars and a virtual sea of vocal harmonies.
Florence + The Machine, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” 2015
Florence Welch and her long-time friend and collaborator Isabella “Machine” Summers got their start in England performing as Florence Robot/Isa Machine, a clunky name they eventually reduced to Florence + The Machine and won praise through exposure on “BBC Introducing” in 2008. Their debut LP “Lungs” rocketed up the UK charts in 2009, became the best-selling album in England the following year, and reached #14 in the US.
I became aware of the group when I heard their excellent third album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” a #1 hit here in 2015, garnering five Grammy nominations. It’s a wonderful mixture of classic soul and English art rock, carried by Summers’ keyboards, Robert Ackroyd’s guitar and Welch’s powerful voice. She describes her career this way: “I’m lucky that there seems to be a massive revival in female performers. My icons were always women like Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Siouxsie Sioux. Who wouldn’t be proud to carry on that tradition?”
Just give a listen to the first three tracks, all co-written by Welch –“Ship to Wreck,” “What Kind of Man” and especially the bold title track, fortified with strings and a horn arrangement. Will Hermes of Rolling Stone wrote, “Welch isn’t the most rhythmic singer; she’s more about powerful held notes and dramatic articulation. Her rock moves have sometimes felt fussy in the past, but here, she punches like a prizefighter.” Amen.
Gotye, “Making Mirrors,” 2011
I was among the approximately one billion souls who loved Gotye’s quirky mega-hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” when it spent seven weeks at #1 in the spring of 2012. “More!” I said, so I bought “Making Mirrors,” the album it came from. I wholeheartedly agreed with Caitlin Welsh of The Music Network, who called it “just as rich, cheeky and steeped in pop history and musicality as its predecessor and as carefully constructed and addictive as its breakout single.” There are at least another half-dozen tracks that are every bit as appealing: “I Feel Better,” “Eyes Wide Open,” “State of the Art,” “Easy Way Out,” “Giving Me a Chance,” “Bronte.”
With that impressive track record, I went back and discovered the album’s worthy predecessor, “Like Drawing Blood,” written and recorded in 2004-05 and released in Australia in 2006 when Gotye was still Wouter “Wally” DeBacker performing in The Basics, a partnership with singer-songwriter Kris Schroeder. (FYI: The Dutch name Wouter translates into French as Gaultier, which he eventually chose to respell as Gotye and use as his stage name.) “Hearts a Mess,” the single from “Like Drawing Blood,” reached #8 in Australia that year.
So where has he been since then? He disappointed his fans in a 2014 interview when he announced, “There will be no new Gotye music.” Instead, he has been devoting his time and energy to producing struggling young Australian artists and working with various eco-minded foundations there. He also befriended electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey and worked to preserve his recorded legacy before Perry’s death in 2016.
Brandi Carlile, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” 2018
The emergence of Carlile, and the evolution of her career from 2005 onward without my noticing it, is an indictment of how out of touch I was regarding new artists in the 2000s. She is right up my alley — a talented and sensitive songwriter with an outstanding voice. How did I not pay attention?
In any event, I’ve certainly woken up now, thanks to my daughters’ recommendation last year and, more convincingly, her performance of her incredible song “The Joke” at the Grammy Awards ceremony in February 2019. Boy, did she ever blow the roof off the place that night!
I started exploring her music via her most recent album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” which includes not only “The Joke” but also gorgeous melodies like “Party of One” and “Most of All.” She’s been writing and recording music for 15 years now, proving herself adept at folk, country, rock, you name it.
Most recently, she has collaborated with Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires in a project they call The Highwomen, and that’s another fine album I recommend. Most remarkably a few months ago, she aced a Los Angeles performance of Joni Mitchell’s 1974 masterpiece LP “Court and Spark” in its entirety, with Joni in attendance (talk about pressure!). You can find this on YouTube.
Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” 2015
Named after a track on an old Talking Heads album, Radiohead emerged from England in the mid-1990s with songs like “Creep” and the wonderfully eclectic 1995 LP “The Bends,” featuring great tracks such as “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” Lead singer-songwriter Thom Yorke soon took the band down a denser, more electronic road in 1997 with “OK Computer,” with lyrics full of social alienation and emotional isolation. The darker mood struck a nerve with fan bases in both the UK and US, and critics generally agreed that the album was an experimental landmark with far-reaching impact and importance.
More extreme experimentation (2000’s “Kid A”) and Pink Floyd-like mood music (2003’s “Hail to the Thief,” 2007’s “In Rainbows”) followed as the band continued to sell well and garnered multiple Grammy nominations in alt-rock categories. Full disclosure: Throughout this period, I had a hard time relating to much of Radiohead’s vibe. I guess I wasn’t interested in searching the musical horizons they were reaching for.
Funny thing, though — by 2016, when they returned from a five-year hiatus with “A Moon Shaped Pool,” I was in a more receptive mood, and found the songs far more accessible and intriguing. “Identikit,” “Decks Dark,” “The Numbers,” “Present Tense” and others make for a great listening experience. Critics called it “brooding, symphonic, poignant, and well worth the wait…” and labeled it “their most gorgeous album, a stunning triumph.” Even if, like me, you’ve been indifferent or antagonistic to Radiohead’s catalog, I urge you to check out “A Moon Shaped Pool.” Fine stuff indeed.
Sheryl Crow, “Threads,” 2019
Crow has been around seemingly forever, or at least since her hugely popular 1993 debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club,” with its big single “All I Wanna Do.” Her music — a dizzying repertoire of rock, blues, alt rock, country and folk — has continued to sell millions, perform high on the charts and bring in scads of awards and nominations on all the awards shows. But truth be told, I’ve remained strangely indifferent to her work. Her voice, for the most part, doesn’t thrill me, although there have been individual album tracks I’ve liked — “I Know Why” and “Always on Your Side” from her “Wildflower” album and “My Favorite Mistake” from “The Globe Sessions” LP are three examples.
After finally seeing her perform in concert at a music festival in Ohio last summer, I became ready to soften my view and concede that she’s better than I’d been willing to acknowledge. And just in time, too, because right after that, Crow released what may be her best album: “Threads,” a 17-song extravaganza on which she collaborates with an amazing cross section of artists. She does one of those time-travel hookups with the late Johnny Cash, where she superimposes her vocals onto his 2010 cover of her old tune “Redemption Day.” She rocks out with Joe Walsh on their co-write, “Still the Good Old Days.” She does a duet with Keith Richards on the 1994 Stones tune “The Worst.” She harmonizes with everyone from Emmylou Harris to James Taylor, from Stevie Nicks to Maren Morris, from Chris Stapleton to Willie Nelson. I think my favorite may be her sexy groove with Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples on “Live Wire.”
Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs,” 2010
They’ve been labeled indie rock, and art rock and dance rock, and baroque pop. Whatever, Arcade Fire has been hitting my hot buttons ever since I turned on to them with their 2008 album “Neon Bible.” Songs like “Keep the Car Running” and “Intervention” with their Springsteen-like vocals and energy made them a big favorite around that time.
But it was their third LP, 2010’s “The Suburbs,” that pushed them into my Top Albums of the Decade list. Everything about this album grabs me and doesn’t let go — the vocals of founder Win Butler and his wife Règine Chassagne; the incredible instrumental interplay of Butler, brother Will Butler and Richard Reed Parry on guitars and keyboards; and most of all, the captivating songs themselves. “Deep Blue,” “Ready to Start,” “Suburban War,” “Modern Man” and especially “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and the title song are just fabulous. No wonder the album won dozens of accolades, including the 2010 Album of the Year Grammy.
Since then, Arcade Fire have released two more albums that rival “The Suburbs” in their appeal, and although “Reflektor” (2013) and “Everything Now” (2017) didn’t get near the commercial or critical success of their predecessor, I’m a huge fan of both records. If you’re not hip to these guys, I suggest you turn your attention to their catalog right away.