out of Ten
writers reflect on the music that moved them in the first
decade of the new millennium
the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed like all eyes were
on New York City. For obvious reasons, of course, but
also for the rock bands that brought yet another musical
Renaissance to the Lower East Side. Bands like the Strokes,
Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would set the tone for
what came next—remember, the Strokes were among the first
responders in the great garage-rock fire sale of the early
oughts. (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, meanwhile, gave us two of
the most memorable recordings of the last 10 years: the
minimalist art-punk of Fever to Tell, and this
year’s post-disco masterpiece It’s Blitz!)
Capital Region’s music scene started the decade on a different
foot. The early 2000s saw the alternative-rock backwash
dissipating, with the emergence of a small but active
alt-country scene—though the Kamikaze Hearts were about
as similar to knotworking as the Strokes were to Interpol
(that is, not so much). The Hearts and the Strokes might
be more alike than you might think. Both staked their
reputations on the sheer confidence of their live performance;
both created music that was seemingly effortless but painstakingly
crafted and rehearsed. The Hearts work would culminate
with 2006’s Oneida Road, one of the best releases
to ever come out of the area, an album that defies the
My favorite New York band of that long middle part of
the decade was a ’90s alt-rock survivor nearly written
off in the post-millennial scrum. Brooklyn trio Nada Surf
crested, both creatively and commercially, in the mid-’00s
with a string of excellent, heartfelt guitar-pop records
(Let Go, The Weight Is a Gift, Lucky)
and a new lease on life thanks to Seattle indie Barsuk.
Post-’90s power trios reigned supreme here at home, too.
The Figgs continued to prove, show after show, album after
album, and sweat after sweat why they’re among our greatest
exports. The Day Jobs were among the most underappreciated
local acts of the decade, matching sterling pop smarts
with powerful live chops—the definition of power pop.
The Wasted followed in the footsteps of Beef, bringing
Stephen Gaylord’s unsavory but too-familiar characters
to life on 2004’s indispensable We Are Already in Hell.
Super 400 continued to prove why electric guitar, bass,
and drums are meant to be together.
Now, the Big Apple music scene is again the subject of
national attention, though the focus has moved across
the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn, thanks to the Lower
East Side being invaded by a series of expensive hi-rises.
A crop of art-damaged post-collegiate types have taken
the fore: bands like Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, MGMT
and the Antlers have made their mark by emphasizing studio
craft over raw power. But like so many scenes before,
it’s impossible to tie this “scene” to one sound—New York
boasts the go-fight-win bedroom-crafted synth-pop of Matt
and Kim, but also the wall-of-noise shoegaze of A Place
to Bury Strangers. (Which brings us strangely full-circle,
back to the 1990s.)
Indeed this was the decade where our local scene—and local
scenes everywhere—became part of the national conversation,
thanks in no small part to improvements in technology.
Though an act as good as beat-heavy duo Phantogram—recently
signed to Barsuk, coincidentally—would likely have made
their mark regardless of MySpace, it sure didn’t hurt
their chances. The Capital Region’s music scene is as
diverse and exciting now as it has ever been; just within
the B3nson Recording Company’s ever-expanding collective,
there are 31-plus flavors of sonic goodness. Most encouraging
as we go forward into another new January.
A few quick personal notes: It would be impossible for
me to pinpoint a favorite local-music moment from the
last 10 years. But I can narrow it down to a few dozen
amazing nights in the clubs, celebrating the music of
my friends, with my friends. There was the Why Can’t I
Be You series, where area songwriters tried on each others’
tunes; those Songs From the Fishbowl shows early in the
decade that spawned many an unlikely collaboration; and
five-plus years of co-hosting the Lark Tavern open mic,
out of which I got to know and jam with people who I now
consider my best friends.
On the national stage, the decade was bookended, for me,
by a pair of monster singer-songwriters who brought their
A-games to downtown Albany: the late Elliott Smith’s cloud-parting
summer 2000 performance at the Empire State Plaza, and
several hundred feet from there, at the Egg, Ray Davies’
outstanding gig of just a few weeks ago.
returning here to my native region in 2001, I lived in
Manhattan, mere blocks from concert venues such as the
Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom. I was also fortunate
enough to have a job as a music news editor for a major
radio network—a place where one could occasionally see
luminaries like Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson strolling
the hallways. So when I made the decision to leave my
job and move back upstate to raise a growing family, I
was pretty sure that there was no longer going to be much
great live music in my life—or much music journalism,
for that matter. Of course, I was wrong.
This decade has been the richest of all of my music-appreciating
and writing years, thanks to a slew of wonderful local
acts and a host of venues that have brought topnotch performers
to town. 2001 was a great time to begin writing about
Capital Region music. In the greater alternative sphere,
acts like the Kamikaze Hearts, knotworking, the Coal Palace
Kings, and the Suggestions were gathering steam. Later
I’d be fortunate enough to catch the concert might of
the Sixfifteens and enjoy the creative toilings of DYI
auteur Brent Gorton. And of course there were the mainstays:
the Figgs returning home for holiday concerts, the unsinkable
Erotics, and damned if Blotto didn’t play every so often,
linking the QE2 halcyon days to this new-millennial renaissance
of local music.
Prodigal son Eddie Angel, of internationally renowned
Los Straitjackets, has also returned to town frequently
enough to maintain his Albany membership card. For me,
his greatest shows were the ones that found him and Johnny
Rabb packed into a corner of the Ale House in Troy, radiating
rock & roll heat. Rabb and Angel are the godfathers
of local rock & roll, and in their universe reside
such sterling acts as the Lustre Kings and Rocky Velvet.
I’ve lost track of how many incredible rock & roll
shows I’ve seen that reconfigured this musical family:
Graham Tichy and his dad, John; Mark Gamsjager, Ian Carlton,
Angel, Rabb, and others.
In addition, enough national acts have come through the
area to make me forget all about New York City. Some of
the more memorable shows had to be the Pernice Brothers
and the Long Winters at Valentines, Steve Earle at the
Egg, and Bruce Springsteen solo at the large arena on
Pearl Street with the ever-shifting name. There were other
shows that are vividly lodged in memory: Wilco at Union
College, a solo Jeff Tweedy at the Egg, and, yes, Bryan
Adams putting on a dang fine show at the Palace. And was
that really the iconic Alex Chilton with the Box Tops
on the Proctor’s stage, or former Replacement Tommy Stinson
jamming with the Figgs at Valentines? (Yes.) I’ve got
Howard Glassman to thank for booking a lot of my favorite
shows. Case in point: The legendary Blasters at Valentine’s.
I’m sure I’m forgetting a host of other concert experiences
and local acts that I’ve been moved by during this decade.
The truth of the matter is that I’ve seen so many shows
and written about so many musicians during my time at
this publication that it’s hard to keep track. But even
now, with my attention diverted by writing books—and having
evolved into someone who, frankly, doesn’t get out much
anymore—I still wonder what’s around the corner, a curiosity
that is constantly rewarded, for inevitably there’s someone
like chamber pop brilliante Eric Margan and the Red Lions
sliding into view.
When I was a teenager growing up here in the 1980s, it
felt like our region was the center of the universe: Blotto
on MTV, William Kennedy writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel, that same William Kennedy novel becoming a movie
that was filmed in our streets, Mike Tyson knocking people
silly in the RPI Fieldhouse. When I returned, it was not
with the same feeling. But this decade of music has reignited
some of that old awe and excitement. Here’s to the next
discs that topped most critics’ polls in 2000—and again
in the best-of-the-decade runnings—were Stankonia
or Kid A. Fine. It’s not taking anything away from
OutKast’s irresistible hip-hop smorgasbord—hell, “Ms.
Jackson” is jumping ’round my brain right now—or Radiohead’s
avant-rock experiments, but the album from that year that
I go back to again and again, the album that proved to
be the best musical defense against the whole miserable
decade, is PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories
From the Sea.
Harvey was quoted as saying she wanted to make something
“beautiful.” And she did. But Stories is more than
that. After the fascinating but somewhat distancing art-rock
detours she made in the 1990s, Stories was (and
still is) hard-wired to the central nervous system of
both the artist and the listener.
And God knows that counted for something in this miserable
decade. The 1980s had the end of the Cold War. When the
’90s were over, the Internet was going to save the world
as a new Millennium began with a rush of optimism: I knew
people who went to Australia, for Christ’s sake, to be
among the first to usher in the decade. And what did we
get? A brutal attack on New York and Washington, D.C.;
lying, warmonger governments on both sides of the Atlantic;
looming environmental catastrophe; and high-level financial
thievery and economic collapse.
Horrible things most of us had no control over.
From the City, Stories From the Sea is about the things
we can control, and how to deal with the things we can’t.
It starts with a frantic (and prophetic) burst of rock
& roll: “Look out ahead/I see danger come/I want a
pistol/I want a gun.” The song, “Big Exit,” is about love
in a time of disaster. “I walk on concrete/I walk on sand/But
I can’t find/A safe place to stand.”
Harvey never lets up. “Good Fortune” is infectious and
driving, a perfect pop song for an era that doesn’t really
value perfect pop songs. “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling”
radiate multileveled romantic wistfulness. “The Whores
Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” is caustic lyrically and
fearsome musically. “The Mess We’re In,” a jangly sonic
mope, features Harvey dueting with a ghostlike Thom Yorke;
this is followed by the tuneful ballad “You Said Something,”
the explosive (sorry) “Kamikaze” and the anthemic “This
Is Love,” an ode to desperate sex with the memorable lines,
“You’re my dirty little secret/Wanna keep you so.”
It all ends—after a brisk 47 minutes—with “We Float,”
which suggests that lovers can rise above, even in the
midst of misery and doom.
I hope we’re as lucky.
digital transformation of the past decade may have altered
how recorded music is consumed, but the virtues of great
live performance remained thankfully the same: heart,
sweat and soul poured out on stage, whether in front of
hundreds of people or to nearly nobody. Every once in
a while, something so unpredictable or so sublime happened
onstage that the memory of a performance stuck around
for awhile. Looking back on a decade of live shows in
the Capital Region and vicinity, there were plenty of
those moments. Most local music fans surely have their
own list. For me, the following memories survived the
The surreal: a crowd of senior citizens—seated on rows
of metal folding chairs thoughtfully provided for them
by now-defunct-venue Saratoga Winners—eagerly awaiting
a performance by Hank III, who looks and sounds eerily
like his famous country singing grandfather Hank Williams,
but has a lot more tattoos, a penchant for hardcore punk
and a furious potty mouth.
The excessively loud: Motorhead and the Melvins melting
faces at Northern Lights on separate occasions.
The nutty: Nashville psychobilly band Th’ Legendary Shack
Shakers, opening up for Reverend Horton Heat, their hyper-spastic
singer climbing onto the Saratoga Winners rafters and
finding a pair of nunchucks to wave around, nearly provoking
The rebellious: Kim Deal chain-smoking cigarettes at the
Egg, during a rare acoustic Pixies show following their
reunion, flagrantly disregarding the state smoking ban
of 2003 that left rockers unable to puff away onstage.
The awkward: former Hüsker Dü songwriter Grant Hart, arriving
extremely late for a show at Valentine’s, berating the
sound guy so viciously over his monitor volume it became
downright abusive. (To be fair, a couple other Grant Hart
shows at Valentine’s during the decade were stellar and
far more positive.)
The tragic: a disoriented and halfhearted performance
by Ol’ Dirty Bastard at Pearl Street in Northampton, Mass.,
mere months before the rapper’s overdose death.
The show stopping: Frank Black’s bass player, during an
X-Games gig at Mt. Snow in Vermont that was opened by
Saratoga Springs band Dryer (who broke up in the 2000s
but plan to reunite in 2010), hurling himself from the
stage onto a drunken fan who threw ice in his face, leading
to a floor-rolling fight that shut down the show.
The apropos: Guided by Voices, a touchstone of ’90s indie
rock, growing increasingly inebriated on a beer-bottle
strewn stage at Northampton’s Pearl Street the day before
announcing their breakup.
The tradition-making: A decade’s worth of Figgs Christmas
shows, bringing holiday cheer via Kinks covers and Lo-Fi
at Society High revisitations.
The incendiary: Steve Wynn’s blistering guitar while reconstructing
the Dream Syndicate’s seminal Days of Wine and Roses
album at Valentine’s, kicking off the decade-long trend
of bands replaying famous albums in toto.
The redemptive: a gaunt Mike Watt summoning his own resurrection
at Valentine’s by performing a rock opera about the illness
that almost killed him, and the Buzzcocks at Valentine’s
ably living up to their legends-of-punk status.
And the one I most regret missing: Elliott Smith’s free
show at the Empire Plaza before his death.
innovation was all the rage this decade, dudes with acoustic
guitars continued to make waves. Dave Matthews, Jason
Mraz and Jack Johnson entertained the masses, but some
of the most affecting music of the decade was unleashed
under the radar by the likes of Sam Beam (aka Iron and
Wine), Gillian Welch, M. Ward and the eccentric indie
troubadour Will Oldham. Beam’s 2002 release The Creek
Drank the Cradle brought the idea of lo-fi to a new
level of intimacy—I first picked up the album because
of its rumored resemblance to Nick Drake, and Simon and
Garfunkel. While there was some resemblance to Drake and
early Paul Simon in the hushed and breathy vocal delivery,
what really took hold were the deft, interlocking guitar
and banjo lines, and the uncannily complex beds of harmony
that Beam laid down like so many entwined grapevines,
all etched in sepia-hued tones on his vintage 4-track.
The lyrics were replete with Southern Gothic images of
willow trees, the devil, moaning roosters, and broken
rosaries. While I’m not much more than a casual admirer
of most of his subsequent work, Sam Beam’s debut will
always represent a place of respite in the tumultuous
early years of the decade for me.
Will Oldham, a prime influence on Iron and Wine, and his
Drag City labelmate David Berman are my favorite poets
of the decade. With Oldham, what started as a stark contemplation
of the bleakest corners of existence (“I See a Darkness”)
gradually warmed into tender and clear-eyed explorations
of what it means to love and care for another human on
releases like the almost unnervingly intimate Master
and Everyone (2003). Berman similarly stared down
the darkness, almost succumbed to it, but came back to
share what he learned on 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers,
and its less profound but more amiable successor Lookout
Mountain, Lookout Sea in 2008. These albums have provided
the living soundtrack to many of the most joyous times
of my life—graduating from mere entertainment to valued
storehouses of memory, accompanying weddings and honeymoons
on foreign beaches. (Listen to “Party Barge” just one
time while at a beach in the summer—the experience will
stay with you the rest of your life.)
This is not to say that it was only the quiet albums that
I valued during this decade – also lodged in my imaginary
Top 10 are such bangers as Comets on Fire’s Blue Cathedral
and Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. But in a tumultuous
span of years like the ones we’re finally leaving behind,
it’s the records of respite and wisdom that seem to shine
the brightest at decade’s end.