1. Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998)
Recorded and produced in the home studio of a band member, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album proved to be one of the most crucial records for independent bands looking to create lo-fi, honest music without the oversight of major labels.
Lyrically, “Aeroplane” may be the most curious, bewildering album you’ll ever hear. Hollering with a rough, unfiltered voice, Jeff Mangum seems to offer a brutal honesty few would dare expose, yet you can’t really dissect the confessions or curiosities he expresses. He couples sparse, cryptic accounts of what sound like childhood memories with clear, distinct narratives of things that can’t be real, invoking imagery and emotion as he shifts back and forth between introspection and storytelling.
While there’s little production, the album hosts a number of instruments, from Mangum’s simple acoustic guitar to Scott Spillane’s loud but sophisticated horn section, with the in-between including a banjo, an accordion, and a saw — yes, an actual saw — played with a violin bow. The title track “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” consists chiefly of clean strumming and a tight drum beat interrupted by a tight trumpet solo. Tracks like “Two-Headed Boy” and “Oh Comely” offer nothing more than a rough guitar and inquisitive, introspective lyrical reflections. Tracks like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” back creative, hyperbolic plots of humanity with distorted guitars, heavy percussion, loud horns and white noise composed with deceptively complex arrangement.
2. Spoon – “Girls Can Tell” (2001)
For their third album, Spoon abandoned their sloppy sound of angry vocals over harsh guitars and loose drums. In the process, they created one of the decade’s most unique albums. Of course its originality is what makes the album stand out, but nothing about the album itself really stands out at first. The creative difference that sets this album apart rests in subtlety. The careful arrangement of instruments coming in and out creates an atmosphere throughout the record.
Like so many records, this one is full of sharp electric riffs, energetic piano rhythms and delicate percussion fills. The difference is that for most of the tracks on this album, these staple instruments serve as no more than auxiliary sounds for straight-forward, punchy bass lines and clean, tight drum beats. A perfect example is the opening track, “Everything Hits At Once.” A jumpy piano rhythm and bright guitar riff offer an energetic opening and chorus before synthesizer solos and fills. But the only music heard throughout the verses consists of a repetitive, catchy bass scale and a steady, simple drum pattern. Similarly, while songs like “Me And The Bean,” “Lines In The Suit” and “Take The Fifth” find energy and fervor from confident guitars and persistent piano. They revolve around bass lines and drumbeats. Some tracks like “The Fitted Shirt” and “Take A Walk” offer more straight-forward, guitar driven rock, and “Anything You Want” thrives off the keyboard, however the ubiquitous rhythm of bass and drums create the atmosphere that makes the album so mysteriously emotional.