This is the fourth in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009. The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members. Look for new posts coming soon!
By Chris Moore:
As we close in on my top pick for best rock artist of the decade, the decisions are getting more and more difficult. In an attempt to be as unbiased as possible, I initially had last post’s honoree — Jack White — in the #2 spot. Then I started listening to All in Good Time, which led me back to their albums of last decade. After one listen to Maroon and Everything to Everyone, I knew that the Barenaked Ladies belonged in a higher position. It should also be noted that while I do believe I made the right choice for the #1 slot, I have been a BnL fan for much longer, and they hold quite an important place in my heart where music is concerned.
That being said, let’s get this party started!
The Barenaked Ladies have distinguished themselves in all four of the categories I’ve established (see above) for this list. They are a constantly evolving group of songwriter/musicians and performers, not content to rest easy at what worked for them in the past. Throughout this, the second full decade of their existence, they have been prolific, releasing new material in every year except 2009. In addition to typical studio albums every three years, this decade has seen the release of a greatest hits collection, a DVD compilation of their music videos, a holiday-themed album, a musical production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (the one release in their catalog I have yet to set eyes on), their first live DVD, and a children’s album with accompanying book.
Although the decade ended with the oft-noted and overly publicized departure of founding member Steven Page, the remaining four members closed out 2009 by recording a series of eighteen songs, fourteen of which would find their way to 2010’s All in Good Time.
In every way that matters, the Barenaked Ladies have been a creative force to reckon with — and pay attention to — throughout this decade, and despite the criticism of naysayers, they have a very promising future in the next.
To say that there was a lot riding on Maroon would be an understatement.
After the breakthrough success of 1998’s Stunt (via the chart-topping “One Week”), BnL’s image and career stood to be reconsidered based on what came next. While Maroon was successful enough to preclude accusations of one-hit-wonder status, their American audience in particular seemed less and less interested in their work as the years went on. This much is apparent in the charts, each album topping out further down than the previous one. (As of this writing, this continues to hold true for All in Good Time, which has peaked at 23; in Canada, on the other hand, it has rightfully marked a comeback, hitting #3 which is the highest chart position for a BnL album there since Maroon.)
But numbers are numbers. There are so many important aspects of modern life which, contrary to the beliefs and attempts of the powers that be, simply cannot be quantified.
Music is certainly one of those.
Maroon is BnL’s most fully-realized, cohesive, balanced album; it is serious, yet entertaining — fast and slow, loud and quiet. The first half is populated by equally single-worthy rockers like “Falling for the First Time,” “Too Little Too Late,” and “Pinch Me,” the latter admittedly seeming like a wanna-be follow-up to “One Week.” The second half of the album stretches out a bit, unwinding hauntingly gorgeous ballads like “Off the Hook” and “Helicopters.” I haven’t even mentioned some of my favorites — “Baby Seat,” “Go Home,” and “The Humour of the Situation.” This is a true five star album.
Although the album and singles performed well, it was apparent that they were all received with a bit less interest than Stunt‘s material had been (or, more accurately, its lead-off single). I, for one, think that it is no coincidence that this was just about the same time that I began to lose interest in popular radio and music television.
BRILLIANCE IN RELATIVE OBSCURITY
To avoid going into painstaking detail about every track that the Barenaked Ladies have released since 2000, I will begin by saying that there is a vast sea of reasons to be interested in and entertained by this band. As much as I felt people should have been more receptive to Maroon, I was flabbergasted at the apathy that 2003’s Everything to Everyone. How an album that could so masterfully run the gamut between silly and serious, all the while being consistently brilliant — both lyrically and instrumentally — is beyond me. This album is composed of some truly killer tracks: sardonic songs like “Celebrity” and “Second Best,” upbeat rockers like “Testing 1, 2, 3” and “Unfinished,” a love song like “Maybe Katie,” the oddly foreboding “War on Drugs,” and the stereotypical BnL knee-slappers “Another Postcard” and “Shopping.”
A lack of public praise never slowed them down, as 2006 saw the recording of 29 new tracks. Where the band went wrong, in this writer’s opinion, was in deciding to release one album that year and a second album the following year. What ended up happening was the most outstanding tracks were split between the two discs and, with a lack of cohesion between the two discs, the Are Me/Are Men project was simply not as good as it could have been. Even Wikipedians are uncertain how to classify these selections in their catalog — either as the seventh or the seventh and eighth albums of BnL’s career. Still, these releases saw the unveiling of a new era for the band — one of independence from major labels and of stretching their musical sensibilities. Kevin Hearn’s contributions demonstrated the potential that he presented not only as an instrumentalist and singer, but also as a songwriter. Jim Creeggan’s beautiful vocals also showed significant promise, even if they were only showed off on a silly number.
These three (or four?) albums would be reason alone to consider BnL one of the best bands of the decade. And yet they didn’t stop there. In the past ten years, the band has released some amazing work, not the least of which are their holiday album and children’s album. The holiday album, Barenaked for the Holidays, brilliantly blended Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in one very characteristic collection (think: “Elf’s Lament,” “Green Christmas,” and others). The latter, Snacktime!, swung far enough to the silly side of the spectrum to be largely ignored by “serious” music critics. That being said, anyone who takes a moment to listen to the harmonies and instrumentation will realize that Snacktime! is a masterpiece unto itself, two of the best tracks — “Pollywog in a Bog” and “Louis Loon” — being penned by the unusual collaboration of Creeggan & Ed Robertson. And it saw the lead vocal debut of Tyler Stewart on the rocking “Allergies,” a song that almost makes me feel cool for having season allergies myself.
AN ARREST, A CRASH, A BREAK, A VOW
Far too much has been written about the moments of crisis and tragedy in the personal lives of the Barenaked Ladies these past few years, so I’ll be especially brief here. If you’ve kept up with music news, you know that Steven Page was arrested on charges of drug possession, Ed Robertson crashed his plane (fortunately with no serious injuries sustained), and Page’s departure was announced in 2009. All in all, not a wonderful end to the decade.
That being said, the four remaining members — Robertson, Hearn, Creeggan, and Stewart — have vowed to continue recording and performing as BnL. How well is that going?
One listen to All in Good Time is all you’ll need to answer that one on your own.