Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Backstory

Backstory -- The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event that occur before the action or narrative of a literary, cinematic, or dramatic work.

Over in Pasteland, the editors are putting together the beginnings of the end-of-the-year issue, which will also be the end-of-the-decade issue. That means another list, this one The Best Albums of the '00s List. Paste will hardly be alone in this endeavor. Every music magazine, website, and blog will follow suit, because the end of the decade is the perfect time to sum up the highlights of the previous ten years.

Here are three albums that will inevitably end up on a lot of Best-of-the-Decade lists, and will perhaps grace the pages of Paste. I think they're decent albums; a couple of them I'd even consider very good albums. But I don't think they're anywhere near the best of the decade. But they have achieved a sort of mythic status, at least in part because of their backstories. Take away the backstories and you've got some decent music. But you don't have the Best Albums of the '00s.

Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Brave, headstrong band sticks to their principles, refuses to knuckle under to the pressure applied by their record label, gets dropped, gets re-signed, and eventually releases a landmark album, complete with accompanying documentary film footage.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a good album, and is certainly a sonic departure for Wilco. But it would merely be a solid, creative release without that captivating backstory. Who doesn't love the Committed Artist hoisting the middle finger to The Man, who simply doesn't understand? Who can't identify with the misunderstood underdogs who stay true to their Art in the face of the corporate shitstorm? Bravo, Jeff Tweedy. Now, any chance you could rediscover melody?

The Shins -- Oh, Inverted World

"The Shins will change your life," Natalie Portman rapturously sighs in "Garden State." And legions of hipsters, anxious to proclaim their freethinking independence, rushed out to buy the album.

I'm not entirely sure why a band that channels Donovan and Love would be considered life-changing. That didn't even work back in 1967. Anybody checked on how well the old hippie ideals have held up lately? It's pleasant music, to be sure, and James Mercer and friends concoct a dreamy psychedelic hootenanny. But how much do you want to bet that these guys would still be playing bars in Albuquerque if Zach Braff hadn't been a fan?

Coldplay -- A Rush of Blood to the Head

I admit that I don't get it. I recognize that millions of people, including people I love and admire, are deeply enamored with this band. But when I hear those saccharine power ballads, it's still hard for me to escape the thought that twenty years from now Coldplay will be viewed as the REO Speedwagon or Journey of their generation; an enormously popular group that couldn't make substantial music if their gently angst-ridden lives depended on it. But they certainly look good, and they're hooked up with all the right celebrities. And they came along during a lull in the Britpop hegemony, and they sauntered in to fill the void.

"Am I a part of the cure/Or am I part of the disease," Chris Martin croons on "Clocks." Do I get a vote?


Natsthename said...

I actually own all three of these and like them. LIKE. Of the three, I like YHF the most.

They might even hit my best of decade list, but they won't hit top 20 or 25.

I like Coldplay as a diversion from some of the indie caterwalling I've become accustomed to hearing. It's like a palate cleanser, much like U2 used to be for me. I'm inclined to agree they'll go the way of REO Speedwagon, though, and appreciate that comparison heartily.

Number one just might be Sufjan's Illinoise. There really is nothing else like it.

anchors said...

I think Wilco could really use Jay Bennett again...though that would be difficult since he recently passed on. Tweedy's issues with him where the 2nd feature of the doc outside of the record-label "issues". And while they still make decent records...they've just gotten a bit...boring.

Morgan said...

I have all three of these albums, and I completely agree with you on pretty much all of them. Both the Shins and Wilco are bands that I feel like I should be more into than I am (everyone else seems to think they're brilliant, why don't I?), and while Coldplay will always have a special place in my heart, I do agree with your sentiment. It is pretty fluffy stuff, and while I do think Viva la Vida took some new directions, and maybe added a little more depth to their music, they still don't create lasting kinds of songs, and will forever be an REO Speedwagon, Journey, Styx type of band.

But hey, we still love Journey, and there's still a place for those kinds of bands, but probably not on the all decade list, to be sure.

I can't wait to see your all decade list, and you're making me think I should do one too, however I was 19 at the end of the last decade. My tastes have gone through so much in the last ten years, I have no idea where I would even start.

Morgan said...

Oh and Natsthename, Illinoise would totally be in my top 10, or at least 15 of the decade, I'm sure.

Grant Wentzel said...

Hey Andy --

The presence and pertinence of The Backstory doesn't bother me. Every album I love comes with it's own personal narrative, often shared only by me or a few others.

For instance, I'm forever endeared to Ministry's "Psalm 69" as it reminds me of a lazy summer spent riding around in my buddy Jeremiah's spent Camaro. This doesn't make it high art, but adds fertile soil upon which it's gnarly guitars may take root.

Sometimes times these Backstories make the headlines and launch a Generational Moment (like buying the world a Coke.)

Sometimes, it's just shit. But that poop can make the best compost, and something's got to fertilize the angst of the next generation.