Over the years I have heavily criticized many prominent “best of” lists, since I certainly have my opinions on things, particularly when it comes to music. Rolling Stone in particular has made a fortune over the past ten years by promoting their “______ of All Time” lists, and while I rarely agree with the content of these lists, I do appreciate the magazine’s perspective. They have access to a treasure trove of rock & roll information the rest of us can only dream about. And at the very least, these lists give me new material to listen to, which I love, of course. Well, in December of 2009, Rolling Stone published their lists of the 100 best albums and 100 best songs of the 2000s. (Incidentally, wasn’t December of ’09 a tad soon?) …I wasn’t familiar with much of the content of either list.
I had pretty much turned my back on contemporary music in the early to mid ’00s, so I wasn’t shocked that I barely recognized most of their choices for the albums list, but still, I like think of myself as being on top of things. And I certainly wasn’t on top of that list, which was comprised of a mix of indie rock hits (e.g., #6: Arcade Fire’s Funeral) and mainstream garbage (e.g., #32: Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III). So me being me, I stopped by the music library at the University of Miami — I was a student there at the time — and checked out every album from the list they had available on CD. Some of these albums include: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (#20), Kanye West’s Late Registration (#40) and Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me (#54). There was one, however, that stuck out like a sore thumb: PJ Harvey‘s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which weighed in at #35.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea has to be the most cumbersome album title in history; I can’t tell you how many times I have botched this title in conversation. In fact, every time I try to recommend this album, I mess up the title. (It looks easy enough on paper, but try to use it in a fast-paced conversation sometime and see how you do.) Anyway, I checked Stories out from the library, having already noted its borderline indecipherable title, and I was further surprised to find it had a stylish cover with an unexpected parental advisory sticker. I didn’t have a clue what I was in for, but I remember giving Stories a spin and liking it. For some reason, however, I never listened to it again; it got lost in the expanse of my gigantic digital library, and I forgot all about it for more than two years. In the months I spent going through the music I had collected over the years for my favorite albums list, it never occurred to me to listen to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea; I had liked it, yes… the one time I had listened to it. So in all of those months, I never considered it for the list, since it wasn’t one of my favorites.
When I was writing the content of my list (i.e., the individual album entries), I simply didn’t have time to listen to anything that wasn’t for the list. But finally, after I completed the list this past June, I randomly came across Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in my iTunes and thought, “Hey, I should listen to that again.” Rolling Stone had added it in at #431 in their 2012 update of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, and I had noticed a few months earlier that Time had selected it as one of the 100 greatest albums ever back in 2006, as well. I loved it immediately. In fact, I was so addicted to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea for a while it was kind of scary. The only thing holding me back from doing an honorable mention post about this album sooner was that I hadn’t had enough time with it; I needed to know that this wasn’t going to be some kind of passing infatuation. Well, I’m actually going to go the other way here: I think Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is the best album of the decade.
That’s right. If I had to single out one album from the 2000s, it wouldn’t be Radiohead‘s Kid A. It wouldn’t be the White Stripes‘ Elephant. It would be Polly Jean Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Why? Well, Stories is, in a word, stunning. Each song picks up where the last left off — and that’s meant in the best possible way — resulting in a tectonic plate-like subtlety as the album shifts from song to song. Even seemingly abrupt changes in tone are natural, such as when the brooding, tightly clenched “Beautiful Feeling” gives way to the explosive “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.” And when Radiohead’s Thom Yorke lends his vocals to the breathtaking duet “This Mess We’re In” — one of the album’s highlights, for sure — he fits right in.
With the exception of the soaring number “You Said Something,” most of these songs sound — at least to my untrained ear — like they are in a minor key, and as the songs go by the tendency is to think, “Okay, she can’t get anything more out of this sound.” But then, almost miraculously, she does. This is an endlessly rewarding album, one that raises a lot of different emotions and mines a lot of different textures, but at the same time remains grounded through sharp songwriting and centered through its artist’s particular vision. In other words, it’s perfect: it’s everything you could ever ask for from a work of art.