My Year in Lists
Week Forty Five
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Even the glossy final mix of Nevermind has nothing on the unapologetic arena rock of The Colour and the Shape"”it's all polished thunder, rock & roll that's about precision, not abandon."-Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic.com

By the time 1997 hit, the alternative movement was in a fairly strange place. The emergence of grunge as a mainstream musical movement, lead by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had made alternative music not seem quite so"¦alternative, anymore. Grunge was the moment where alternative rock took on the mainstream and won. This resulted in a lot of self-loathing from people like Kurt Cobain, who had treasured the idea of alternative rock and found himself destroying it by becoming a mainstream success. Grunge's propensity for self-loathing kept it from staying at the center of the cultural conversation for too long; like punk rock, grunge appeared on the scene in a flash and flamed out just as quickly.

What followed was a second British Invasion in the form of Britpop. Suddenly bands like
Blur, Oasis, Pulp and even Radiohead were transforming the idea of alternative rock. Yet some of the grunge survivors weren't ready to give up the goose quite yet. Grunge rock was dead, but its spirit was still floating around in the ether, waiting for Dave Grohl to come along and pull it down into a post-grunge sound.

When Nirvana dissolved in 1994, its drummer Dave Grohl created a one-man project called Foo Fighters. Named after military slang for UFO's during World War II, the band quickly formed when Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel, drummer William Goldsmith, and guitarist Pat Smear to play on the debut album. During the recording of the band's second album, and Ashley's pick this week, The Colour and the Shape, Goldsmith quit when Grohl insisted on playing all of the drums himself (he was, after all, the drummer for the biggest rock band in the world just a few years earlier). The album was conceived by Grohl as a concept album about the beginning and the end of a relationship, and while not much connective tissue remains in the album's final version, a new sound was created that made The Colour and the Shape an experience in and of itself.

The sound Foo Fighters developed on this album is decidedly not grunge. Where grunge was all introspection, quiet verses and loud, anguished choruses, this new sound had more of an arena-rock feel to it. This leads to a much more straight-forward rock and roll feel to many of the album's songs, though elements of grunge persist. The band's first hit, "Monkey Wrench" is a pretty great departure from the grunge sound, a rock and roll song about the dissolution of Grohl's marriage to Jennifer Youngblood. The song retains some of the anguish of grunge, but the sound is much more upbeat, more of a rocker than a dirge.

"My Hero" has much more of a grunge influence, opening with a guitar riff that could easily have been at home on a Nirvana track before exploding into more of an arena rock melody, both in complexity and construction. The song is an ode to every day heroes, to the common man and his potential to do amazing things (which explains why the band got so upset when the McCain campaign used the song in 2008). "Everlong" also has the darker edges of a grunge song, even featuring a louder, more frenetic chorus (though the chorus sounds more like a rock song than grunge).

"Walking After You," became well known after being featured during the end credits for The X-Files movie, and is the slowest tempo song an the album. A quiet, contemplative song, "Walking After You" indicates the Foo Fighters' potential musical diversity. Grohl recorded the vocals in one take, perfectly nailing the somber tranquility the first time out. The Colour and the Shape is not a perfect album, but it did indicate that the influence of grunge had not been entirely wiped out after the Britpop wave. The musical revolution Grohl had been a part of just a few years later might have been over, but its effects were still rippling out across the alternative movement.

When I was an undergrad, I never listened to music while I was studying. One reason for this is that I just didn't listen to as much music then as I do now. Another is that I feared it might distract me from my precious studies (it probably wouldn't have). But now that I am in law school and studying for hours every day, I find that music can be helpful to differentiate one hour of sitting, staring a my Civil Procedure text book from the next. I still avoid music with lyrics as a rule (unless its Sigur Ros), but more ambient sounds usually do the trick. So I spent quite a lot of time studying to Tab's pick this week, Zoviet France's 1988 album Shouting at the Ground.

Formed in 1980 in Newcastle Upon Tyne in northeast England, the group has remained largely anonymous, preferring to let its work speak for itself. Over the course of My Year in Lists, I have listened to a lot of ambient and industrial music, but I have become no more adept at writing about it. I like to think that as a rule my music writing has improved over the last year (and you can feel free to disagree with me in the comments below), yet when it comes to writing about ambient music, I feel like I continue to just say "this sounds like"¦" or "this makes me feel like"¦" So, without further ado, let's talk about what Shouting at the Ground sounds like and how it makes me feel.

"Come to the Edge" is a slow build of a song, an endlessly repetitive loop that manages to build some tension nevertheless. "Revenue of Fire" is a much shorter song, relying on a percussive beat that is entrancing more than it is directly tuneful.

The album is at its best when it is at its longest. The longer songs let Zoviet France really stretch their legs, building themes and emotions with more depth and creating resonance that their shorter songs tend to lack. "Shamany Enfluence" is a quiet, moving piece that slows down during its middle minutes, allowing you to get lost in the world its created, while the song's central tune fades quietly in and out behind droning sounds. Trust me, its much more compelling than my description of it gets across. "The Death of Trees" begins with a drone and slowly builds in a loop before spiraling into a quiet, tribe-like melody. The song slowly builds in power until you find it sticks with you long after it ends.

Zoviet France have crafted a very solid ambient work, an album that mixes ambient sounds with industrial beats, yet comes off sounding completely organic and unique. Where they could easily have created just another ambient album, the band crafted something that stands out in a genre thats all too often blends together.

Because one album with the word "shout" in the title is never enough for us here at My Year in Lists, let's turn our attention to The Knife. Formed of the Swedish duo Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olaf Dreijer, the group mixes electronic music, synthpop, trip hop and ambience together for a completely alluring and unique sound. They released their third album, and Collin's pick this week, Silent Shout in 2006.

The title track is pure dance-fuelled electronica, with enough of a broody feel to differentiate itself. The catchy back beat is counterbalanced by the dark lyrics and vocals, creating a fascinating mix of lighter fare and dark intentions. "We Share Our Mother's Health" is an experimental electronic beat that becomes dance-y without ever losing its darker edge.

"Like a Pen" is an epic that wears its artistic intentions shamelessly on its sleeve. The song begins quietly and then develops a synth beat that sounds like the soundtrack to the coolest "˜80s arcade game you've never played. By the time the vocals enter, the song reaches a whole new level of dance-y intrigue. This is the type of song that I find myself going back to again and again, trying to figure out exactly what about it is so mystifying. "Forest Families" is a quietly disturbing song that has the feel of a little girl's nightmare (in the best way possible). Creepy, catchy, and disconcerting in all the right ways, "Forest Families" is like the sociopathic cousin of Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #1," less introspective and more cognizant of the dangerous dark side of societal escape.

The Knife manage to cut their way through several musical genres and emerge with something that is complete despite its diverse influences. Taking a page from experimental artists, ambient music, electronica and trip hop, the group created a sound that could only be its own.

All three of the groups we looked at this week managed to make something new from the sounds and techniques that came before them. Foo Fighters took what they could salvage from grunge and transferred it into arena rock. Zoviet France adopted industrial and ambient sounds, but kept their own emotions at the core. And The Knife lifted a bit from various genres and came out with a bold and unique statement of their own. Each of these groups was mindful of the past, yet each had an eye looking forward, trying to determine what was next and how it could best reflect the things that had gone before it.

Look out next Wednesday for the final My Year in Lists: Interlude in which we will examine the problems of a compulsion to completism in the digital age.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Strap yourselves in for our third and final track-by-track analysis, this time of Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, look out for John Watermann's Illusions of Infinite Bliss, and get ready folks, because The Field are right when they say From Here We Go Sublime.
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