My Year in Lists
Week Fifty One
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.

"It is a kind of virtual rock in which the roots have been cut away, and the formal language "” hook, riff, bridge "” has been warped, liquefied and, in some songs, thrown out altogether. If you're looking for instant joy and easy definition, you are swimming in the wrong soup."-David Fricke of Rolling Stone, on Radiohead's Kid A

"Picasso-like, fulfilling the Cubist mandate of rearranging form, texture, color and space to suggest new ways of viewing things."-Ann Powers of The Los Angeles Times on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I'm not going to tell you why Kid A is really Return of the Jedi. Some of you were probably hoping I would find some incredibly silly way to follow up my (hopefully only slightly) convoluted attempt to explain how OK Computer was a lot like The Empire Strikes Back with an Ewok-filled installment of My Year in Lists, but I'm not going to do that. I won't be travelling to Endor via Thom Yorke this week kids. And that's because if Kid A is any science fiction masterpiece, it is definitely more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Return of the Jedi.

Yet instead of cloaking a discussion of the album in filmic trappings, let's try to take Ashley's pick this week, Kid A on its face. Coming off of the success of Ok Computer, Radiohead had gone from its grunge era (Pablo Honey) beginnings to a place where they were being considered among the top echelons of rock music. They had left the alternative music sandbox behind, and been catapulted to the big leagues. This is the sort of thing that has to throw a band like Radiohead for a real loop. Most bands that aim for an artistic sensibility are comfortable as fringe presences in the music industry; this is one of the prominent reasons alternative music even exists. When bands like Sonic Youth got big, they really only got "big." They were comparatively huge, and they were working on a major label, but no one expected Sonic Youth to be the next big rock band, and I suspect no one really wanted them to (including themselves). Radiohead had always had artistic sensibilities and an intellectual bent, and yet suddenly, the world was at their feet. Whatever album they released following Ok Computer was going to be a smash; this was a foregone conclusion. They could have released a recording of Thom Yorke plucking nose hairs, and it probably would have gone platinum in its first week. The world was ready to stop worrying and love the bomb, to bow at the alter of Radiohead and crown them the new kings of rock and roll. And instead of playing to the cheap seats, instead of punting and doubling down on what had worked for them before, the band went in an entirely new direction. They could have given us OK Computer 2: Electric Boogaloo, but instead they gave us Kid A.

I don't like to throw the term masterpiece around too often (though in this feature, it seems to come up a whole lot), but it is hard to describe Kid A in any other way. It is an album of such unique vision and startling ingenuity, such bold vision and uncompromising scope that I can hardly believe it achieved the widespread success it did. Thom Yorke tells us Kid A was not intended as "art," but he is clearly lying. No one goes this far without some serious artistic ambition, and I don't think very many people have crafted dystopian tales about the first human clone for the cash.

The opening track, "Everything In Its Right Place" was written as the group toured for OK Computer and Thom Yorke began to realize the enormous fame the group was achieving. The song seems like a bleak, desperate, Dadaist attempt to create order amidst chaos, as if the band felt their lives spinning wildly out of control and attempted to make it all stop (Nick Hornby theorized in The New Yorker at the time of the album's release that this was the band's attempt at commercial suicide to escape their current record contract).

"The National Anthem" experiences with free jazz in a way I would have thought impossible on a mainstream rock album (but then, Radiohead's entire career seems to defy my general understanding of how popular culture works. This is the sort of band that should be appreciated by elitist intellectuals and navel gazers like myself and ignored by mainstream culture, and yet they continue to be incredibly successful and widely beloved. In fact, I have seen copies of In Rainbows next to Dave Matthews albums far too many times to be comfortable with this band's place in the cultural lexicon). "How to Disappear Completely" has the feel of a more standard Radiohead song (and I mean this in a good way, as it is a great jam), but lest you think the album is about to run to safe ground, "Treefingers" is a nearly four minute long electronic instrumental piece called "Treefingers." Because this is the sort of thing you can get away with when you are as beloved, and as talented, as Radiohead.

Kid A is the type of album we all wish more bands would make: a true statement of artistic intent and a bold creative effort from a band at the height of their critical, commercial, and creative talent. When a bunt would have done the trick, Radiohead knocked it out of the park, because that's what you do when you are one of the greatest bands of the last 20 years.

O Yuki Conjugate formed in 1982 in Nottingham, England as the duo of Andrew Hulme and Roger Horberry, experimenting with mixes and tape loops when both technologies were still in their adolescence (and totally pissed at their parents for not letting them go to the party on Friday night, because Stacy always throws the best parties, and anyway, its not like there's school on Saturdays). The duo released Sunchemicals, an album of remixes and Tab's pick this week, in 1995.

"Californium" is a low tempo electronic remix that builds slowly over its near 11 minute runtime, never quite exploding out of its quiet meditative range. "Bismuth," meanwhile, is a percussion heavy piece than builds an ethereal, tranquil electronic riff over its beat to create a subtle beauty.

O Yuki Conugate are masters of experimental ambient, quietly displaying a subtle proficiency that slowly bleeds into mastery over the course of the album. Even working in remixes, this duo knows exactly how to make the material sparkle, and how to do it without any of the flash that can so often fells amateurs in the medium.

Over the last decade, Kanye West has ascended to the highest peaks of hip hop, to the point where he can be revered as one of the two or three greatest artists working in the medium at the moment. The man is so good, and so universally praised for his work, that he can do things like release a collaborative album with Jay-Z called Watch The Throne (a very solid album rife with references to the two's dominance of the genre) without anyone blinking. When I saw him at Coachellaearlier this year, he literally hovered across the audience on a crane before landing and beginning his performance. Kanye West is his own deus ex machina, and while we can all pretend we're annoyed by his arrogance and bravado, its also kind of the best part of his cultural appeal.

Which is probably why his fifth album, and Collin's pick this week, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is so rightfully beloved. The album is a hedonistic cacophony of guest artists, ornate musical arrangements, and odes to the spoils of fame and fortune. America loves Kanye West, egomaniacal asshole, rich man, and party animal, but what keeps us riveted to the man who is very arguably the greatest entertainer of the millennium so far is his willingness to be blatantly honest in his introspection. Sure, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is all about excess, and it handles that excess elegantly and even gracefully, but West also lays bare his insecurities and self-loathing in a way that would be compelling and fascinating even if it wasn't so musically well constructed.

"Dark Fantasy" poses the question West, and all of his fans, must have been asking prior to the album's release, "Can we get much higher?" When you've reached the top of your game, it can be hard to think about ascending ever higher, but if anyone has the balls to reach for the stars from the top of the mountain, it's Kanye West. The song includes some amazing Yeezy jokes ("Too many Urkels on your team, that's why your wins low" is a personal highlight), but more importantly, it seems to take on the question, and provide a short answer: absolutely.

"All of the Lights Interlude" shows in barely over a minute why Fantasy is such a stellar achievement. A beautiful, contemplative, moving instrumental with an ornate orchestration, this is a piece that shows the endless ambition West still maintains. Just because he's had vast success doesn't mean he's liable to stop trying to top himself, and that sort of determination is what makes the album so compelling. "All of the Lights" is the most overstuffed song on the album (Fergie is there, for god's sake, in probably the album's worst verse of rap), yet in the face of all of its opulence and excess, it manages to tell a near-operatic tale of adultery and its heart-breaking aftermath that manages to be moving, in addition to being catchy as hell.

"Runaway" is shockingly epic, clocking in at over 9 minutes, and beautiful throughout. The album's longest song is also arguably its least over-the-top, a fairly straightforward indictment of West's flaws as he perceives them, the song is amazingly emotionally direct in a way that its impossible not to appreciate. West is confronting the idea that he may be the "asshole" or "douchebag" that the world thinks he is, and wondering if he might just be able to run away from those problems (and if not, whether the women in his life might be better off running away while they still can."

"Lost in the World," (which has its ending cleaved to create the final track "Who Will Survive in America") features Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and manages to encapsulate the bleak disparity Vernon does best while also pumping up the pop sensibilities of the song, and containing some phenomenal lyrics about West's lack of confidence about where he stands and where he's going, and his desire to find someone to help him get there.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the type of album only an artist of starting ambition and ability could pull off, yet it is not just well designed and well executed; at its best, the album is downright brave, a new peak from a man willing to stand atop the mount and question whether he truly belongs there.

This week we got to look at two artists who had the world at their feet, immense popularity at their backs, and the courage to take a chance and create albums of shocking individuality, innovation, and ingenuity. O Yuki Conjugate gave us a great album of remixes that indicated just how skilled they were. Yet Radiohead and Kanye West cemented their statuses as musical legends by using their fame and cultural cache to create works that were both challenging and rewarding, incredibly constructed and deeply felt, fully realized and boldly developed. Kid A and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are albums that remind us of the vitality of music, and of the reason why we get excited about our favorite artists and our greatest talents. Consistency can be laudable in a band; the ability to keep creating the type of music you are known and loved for is impressive in its own way. Yet the best artists out there, the true legends, are never satisfied with being consistent. Instead they strive for ingenuity, they aim for the stars and endeavor to create something entirely new. And when they succeed, they carry us all higher with them.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The FINAL installment of My Year in Lists will let us study The Beauty of Sadness with Maeror Tri, take a look at James Blake's self titled debut, and travel with Modest Mouse to The Moon and Antarctica.
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