I’ve heard people say your tastes are cemented at age 15, and the music you happen to be listening to at that age will remain your favorite for the rest of your life. And that, even if you don’t realize it, you’ll only listen to newer music if it resembles the bands of your teen years or contains elements that harken back to those stylings. As someone who openly admits to spending a big chunk of his teen years listening to boneheaded punk music, I find this concept a bit disheartening. Is it really so easy to fall into a mental rut? For all my ostentatious eclecticism, am I just treading water? Have I been subconsciously basing my musical value system on how closely a song resembles the Descendents’ “Coolidge”? (Probably not– but that’s still an awesome fucking song.)
I think pinning this down on the age of 15 is a bit arbitrary– surely there is a period where the governing principles of what I consider to be “good music” are solidified, but I like to think it’s informed by a lifetime of influences rather than what I happen to think at an age where most of us are close-minded jerks. I would also like to think it’s constantly growing, shifting, covering more ground while also becoming more finely tuned with my personality. This idea got me thinking about the music that came out as I transitioned into adulthood, and how– apart from seminal works like “Kid A”, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “Is This It”– it’s a more-or-less overlooked decade in music history, with much of the attention going to industry changes rather than musical landmarks.
I decided I was going to try to put together a list of my favorite albums from the 2000s. I won’t bother trying to compile a list of “definitive” albums, “greatest” albums or even “biggest” albums– that would be an exercise in futility. Instead, I’ll keep it to personal favorites, which means I can’t be wrong, so save your whining. I’ll probably leave off that one undeniable album you feel defined the decade. Also, if you know me even a little bit, you’ll be able to predict a bunch of the albums in this list (yes, there will be an Elvis Costello album; yes, there will be a Tom Waits album), which itself probably counts as treading water. Whatever. Make your own list, jerk.
Whittling this list down to 10 albums was a painstaking ordeal, leaving off a bunch of favorites I really wanted to write about. At first I found this incredibly heartbreaking, but then I realized this is my blog and I’ll probably just write about them later anyway. I wanted to keep this list to 10 records that I consider essential to my everyday life, that I listen to obsessively, that reach me on a personal level… and just happened to get made between the years 2000 and 2009. With all of that in mind, it is my pleasure to introduce the first record in this countdown, “Party Intellectuals” by Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.
If the name “Marc Ribot” sounds familiar, it’s probably because he features in the credits section of many amazing albums, most famously serving as the lead guitarist in Tom Waits’s most jagged work. In fact, “jagged” is a word that could easily be applied to Ribot’s work with Waits– while most lead players would take the stompy trudge attack of records like “Rain Dogs” and “Real Gone” to shred modal pentatonics like a third-rate bluesman, Ribot instead colors the songs beautifully with slabs of dissonance, adding to the chaos rather than reeling it in. Their association has produced some incredible guitar parts, and he is a name all Tom Waits fans should get excited to see on any tour/record announcement.
Something most folks may not know is that he’s an incredibly versatile player, with the ability to produce subdued, elegant guitar parts for quieter songs. Take his recent album “Silent Movies”– a collection of delicate acoustic-guitar sketches, meant as a companion piece for a series of imaginary short films from another plane of existence. If the music is indication, these films feature some of the saddest, most desolate and strangely disturbing imagery this side of Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers” (no, seriously, watch this — Warning: What the fuck?!?).
Ceramic Dog is Ribot’s collaboration with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith, and “Party Intellectuals” is their debut album. It’s also probably the most outright fun project Ribot has been involved with in his long career, a jazz fusion trio that plays with the restlessness and abandon of the loudest of punk rock bands. The tone is set by the opening track, a mindbending cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” that amps up the original performance’s aggressiveness to 11, and also showcases Ribot’s skills as the craziest, most innovative lead player this side of Nels Cline. Even then, it’s never a shredfest, never merely a virtuoso showcase– the guitar acrobatics are earned and actually drive the songs forward, often culminating in cacophonic explosions of masterfully crafted dissonance. All delivered with a smirk.
The songs that don’t reach that level of intensity are the slow burners; songs like “Bateau” and “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks” find Ribot & company pulling tricks out of Tom Waits’s bag. The latter is a captivating 8-minute exercise in mood and atmosphere, a genuinely cinematic experience that sheds musical and storytelling conventions in favor of a freewheeling, improvisational texture jam that doesn’t feel pointless so much as happily point-free. “For Malena”, by contrast, is a 3-minute pop song that could’ve easily been a crossover radio hit… if Ribot cared about those things.
Bottom line is, experiments aside, “Party Intellectuals” remains the thrashiest, noodliest, most unabashedly rocking album in the diverse career of an avant garde jazz guitarist who, though he could quite comfortably live his whole life as a sideman, has the creativity and zest to produce an off-the-wall hard rock/jazz fusion smattering of frenzied glory. An inspiring listen, until you realize you couldn’t possibly play like this. And then you cry.
Listen to the obnoxiously funky title track below: