The Top 5 Mainstream Albums of the 2000s, Part I

NOTE: THIS IS A REPOST OF A FACEBOOK NOTE, ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 11/14/10.

I am embarking on a quest to find the greatest albums of the past ten years, and maybe through these discoveries truly piece together the life, history, and causes of the music scene in that era. Most reviewers these days would choose a niche genre; something to make them seem cool, indie, and edgy, three things I most certainly am not. Ironically, however, what I am attempting to decipher was just that—cutting-edge, sexy, and mainstream. To avoid personal bias toward my favorite kinds of music, I set up some self-guidelines—a rulebook if you will—to define ‘mainstream’ and make sure my list is pure:

  1. The album in question must have at least two songs that are name and/or ‘I’ve heard that one before’ recognition properties—no one-hit wonders allowed. (Example: name another song off Weezer’s Make Believe besides “Beverly Hills”, besides die-hard Weeze fans) (Die-hard Weezer fans will know that last one wasn’t a typo)
  2. The bands who made the albums must be near-univerally recognizable
  3. Yes, if everyone knows the song, the band is mainstream, but I’m looking at POP. Top 10 on iTunes POP.

And remember guys; I’m just some chump from Woodinville. I want you to disagree with and debate with me. So read, listen, pass this along if you think it’s interesting, and hit the comments!

(NOTE: My review is a little jumpy and not very smooth; I’m working on it but bear with me)

So, my opening post breaks the first two rules…but for a reason.

PART I:

HONORABLE MENTION – THE MATRIX SELF-TITLED

(Recorded 2004/Released 2009)

There was almost a funk revival in the mid-2000s.

The songwriting/production team The MatrixLauren Christy, Graham Edwards, and Scott Spock—was on top of the pre-iTunes mainstream music scene. They had successfully launched the career of Avril Lavigne by writing and producing the three biggest hits off of Lavigne’s debut album Let Go in 2002, masterminded Ricky Martin’s short career, rebranded Liz Phair as mainstream rock with 2003’s Liz Phair, wrote for Jason Mraz’s 2002 debut Waiting for My Rocket to Come, and, as was customary for the big shot producers of the day, even worked on Britney Spears’ 2003 plea for help In the Zone. So Columbia Records gave them a shot to pull off the unthinkable—release an album on their own, under the moniker of a production/songwriting team.

Though Lauren Christy had been a pop singer herself back in 1992—her self-titled album still resides on iTunes—she opted not to sing on the album, in favor of a younger, sexier female vocalist. As some of the songs written by the team were for a male vocalist, the team searched for two sexy young pseudo-talents to take up the mast; two ready-and-willing unknowns who could spearhead a revolution in pop music history.

This is where the story gets interesting. The team, after an exhausting search, had found the two new would-be stars of pop music. The male was a British singer called AKA, his stage moniker replacing his given name of Adam Longlands. The female was a 20-year old former Christian singer with “the potential to be an overnight star” (as Christy said at the time), who had just changed her last name from Hudson to Perry to avoid being confused with an actress—Katy Perry. She was supposed to break in 2004; Blender Magazine was even so bold to call her “The Next Big Thing”; but thanks to her label Columbia, she had to wait until 2008’s sensation “I Kissed A Girl” to top the charts.

The team then embarked on creating a history-making mainstream pop album. However, despite the tremendous buzz around the album, the label decided to cancel the album for reasons still unknown just a few weeks before the album’s first single, “Broken”, was set to drop. It is unknown whether the album was final and polished or not. Quickly, it became one of the legendary lost albums of the 2000s. The Matrix had planned to release it in 2008 independently, but Ms. Perry and Columbia, who wanted to further establish the pop star’s image in a different direction, delayed them. It was only after Perry’s third single, “Thinking of You”, did the album drop, with little fanfare outside the music industry.

The album’s would-be lead single, “Broken”, is a masterpiece of pop songwriting for the time. It’s easy to see how this album was greenlighted from this song alone. The lyrics are trite and simplistic, geared towards a generic relationship, and thin, layered guitars drive the simple pop-rock background melody—a formula that worked for the team on Lavigne’s hits—and it captures the spirit of ’04 pop, which thrived on such a formula; 2004’s hits included Lavigne’s fiscally disappointing follow-up to Let Go, Under My Skin, Spears’ In The Zone, Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, and Ashlee “Lip-Sync” Simpson’s Autobiography. Longlands’ vocals on the duet seem thin and strained, while Perry’s sound improperly EQ’d—a major challenge for her unique, obviously still raw vocal style—but the lyrics fit both Perry and Longlands well: “The sky got bitter, twisted / just like you and me, I miss it / You snap it, bend it, burn it / then you find that you can’t fix it / Faaaall back / on whatever still REMAINS…”. The song feels under-mixed, which may or may not be a result of the album’s incomplete/complete status, and Perry and Longlands could each use some pitch correction (though in obscure spots), but in the end the song is, at first listen, catchy and enjoyable, and that’s all that matters to a mainstream album for the shallow listener.

Now, about that funk revival I mentioned. The most popular song of the album currently on iTunes, “Damn”, is a funky, undeniably catchy track with an even more undeniably sexy lyrical groove. I predict that this song would have been a major crossover hit, but we’ll never know. This is by far the best song on the album. It feels polished, the lyrics are smart, and each and every production choice and detail is refined to a pitch-perfect t. The open of the song matches a light synth with Perry’s distinctive vocal tone, while infusing a light funk guitar that recurs throughout the track. The bass is synthesized and so are the drums, with fills provided by yet more synths, but each one is so customized that they blend into the song seamlessly—a hallmark of Matrix production. The synth horns add a retro funk feel to the tune. What truly makes this song stand out, however, besides its unique style in the pop landscape, is the lyricism, which begins pedestrian and trite but gradually opens up sexual and religious innuendos too clever for pop (an explanation why the album wasn’t released perhaps?) into a catchy-as-hell old-school funk chorus, which Perry nails with her now-trademark sexual vocal tinge: “If I look up, the sky might fall / and open up and pull me in / I feel like an Angel who’s fallen / I just got to have my first taste of original sin… / DAMN, can you feel it? / DAMN, I can’t believe it / DAMN, you’ve got me feeling good… / DAMN, do you dig it? / That’s the way you do it / DAMN, you know you give it good / … / I’ve got the fact that you give it good / now back up and just leave it alone / I’m walkin’ from there ‘cause you’re crunk / Now I’m goin’ home to do it all again on my own!” The whole song is sexy, funky fun. It’s reminiscent of today’s underground Bumbershoot stars The Constellations. Oddly enough, the song does stick to The Matrix’s usual pop song structure, which varies slightly from song to song: Intro, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Hook, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Breakdown, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Outro. Easily the best song on this album, this one is well worth checking out. The Matrix sampled the track for their later production of Canadian c-list popper Skye Sweetnam’s 2007 I’m-desperately-trying-to-be-black-but-it’s-clearly-not-working track “Boyhunter” (in case you were wondering, it’s just as poppy as it sounds). When released, “Damn” was initially mistaken by Sweetnam’s fan—okay, that was mean—to be a rip-off of Sweetnam’s song.

“Seen That, Done That” is Longlands’ would-be pop hit from the album. The song is clearly mid-‘00s techno-pop; it’s straight-up sexy pop fun. This is Longlands’ most polished track on the album, and while it plays well and works as potential single material, Longlands’ voice seems strained and unemotional, which may be a result of somewhat odd pitch correction—he’s a gnat’s eyelash under-pitch in this reviewer’s opinion—and he struggles on his own, without Perry to provide considerable depth. The songwriting is classic Matrix, with its rhyming ‘-tion’ sounds in the verses recurring throughout, and the sexy harmonies on the catchy chorus: “Seen that (seen) / Done that (done that) / So now what? / I’ll tell ya what”. Of course the song dips into cliché, but that’s nothing unusual for these one-time kings of pop: “When push comes to shove / Heavens up above / You know what I’m thinkin’ of / Seen that done that now what hello lo-ove”. What makes this song excellent, however, is the blend of the thin guitars that made Ms. Lavigne so famous with the quick, accent synths and slap bass that catapulted Ms. Spears to fame in the early ‘00s, and the way they’re integrated into the production—the opening is practically a full-0ut mash-up between the two styles. The second verse uses a Matrix-trademark production tactic—the stop-and-start—and it works well: “Everyone needs a little uh-huh (what?) {snare roll} / well everyone gets a little uh-uh”. The lyricism is both blatantly sexualized and sappy, in an attempt to please both gender stereotypes: “When you’re backin’ it up to the bumper / I’ve been spending my life tryin’ to find her”. The song does at times feel disjointed, like when the team uses the already over-used (even by this time) faux-DJ record spin to launch into the chorus from the breakdown. You can listen to the song here, and judge for yourself. All in all, though, the song has a catchy quality that just makes you wonder what could’ve been.

The other four notable tracks on the album are Perry’s self-referential ballad “Just A Song”, Longlands’ dark Bollywood-style “I Love You”, the opening duet “Take a Walk”, and the peppy Lavigne-like pop singer psychoanalysis track “Would You Care”.

The latter track sounds like it belongs on an unreleased Lavigne EP from ’03. MTV called it “a chick-flick worthy mid-tempo tune about self-involved pop stars” when the album was released, and I couldn’t agree more. Perry’s falsetto fits the song well, especially in the chorus, and while the song is nothing particularly new or inventive—in fact it even reuses some of the drum loops from “Damn”—it does foreshadow the increasing fascination/fad with celebrity and paparazzo that would later culminate in both a Simpsons episode and a Lady Gaga megahit. Perry’s voice shines on this track, and the dynamic build-up is stellar, certainly showing her ability to carry a song, later exposed on the ballad “Thinking of You”. There is one original thing about this track, however: The Matrix frame the whole song from Katy’s point-of-view, talking to herself. This style of lyricism is unique and highly tongue-in-cheek, which makes it clever in pop song terms. YouTube user Wishworks posted this below the video:

this is my number 1 song of 2009 – nothing on the radio compares – all my friends got hooked on this when i lied and said it was (Katy’s) next single, didn’t even care when they found out it wasn’t because they love the song!

Talk about a what-if scenario.

“Take a Walk” is probably the track that no one knew what to do with. It’s verses were unbelievably catchy, reminiscent today of a Gaga track: “See the people they are drivin’ in their cars / drivin’ in their cars / drivin’ in their cars”. Longlands’ unemotional, new-wave/techno-style vocal style fits perfectly here in the verse; however, the chorus is a different story. The dynamics indicate a build-up, but it instead loses some of its energy when Perry takes over at the chorus: “And I just wanna fall in love / take a walk and fall in love”. It’s not Perry’s fault, however; while I could see this being a dance floor hit even today, the songwriting is clichéd and forced even more so than usual. The dynamics never change throughout the song (though Perry does try her hardest to make it happen). It is here that The Matrix makes a fatal mistake. The song does grow on you, however, and with a little revision it could even be a hit today. Sara Paxton covered the song a year after the album was shelved, but she also failed to make any major revisions, and the song stayed imperfect.

“Just A Song” is The Matrix’ tongue-in-cheek nod to how their romantic songs and writings have impacted their own love lives. This is easily the best example of songwriting on the album. The lyrical structure mirrors the musical structure and the lyrics touch upon how songs and they way they’re put together can influence one emotionally. However, the chorus feels muddy and anticlimactic. If it were to be exchanged with some other famed ballad chorus and set to different words, as some songwriting does today, the result may have been unbelievably good. I don’t have much more to say on this song, but I will provide you with an example of the clever thinking in this song: “When my voice breaks, it’s called interpretation / When I hold a nooooote / It’s ‘cause I want to / Not ‘cause I feel anything about you / … / Make you emotional, from major to the minor / When I lose control / I’m not trying to impress you / Break it down, can I get your attention / It’s just formula don’t need your validation / Validation…”.

Longlands’ dark bollywood-esque number, the obviously titled “I Love You”, is an exercise in contrast songwriting. The dark musical style of the verses combines with the bright and sunny lyricism found throughout to create a result that is best described as… weird, at best. The song is a blatant contradiction to itself. Lyrically, it romps about in a field like Natalie Portman in Star Wars Episode II. Musically, it broods (ridiculously) inside like Hayden Christensen in Star Wars Episode III. The whole song’s backing track is muddy and, while that may be intentional, only seems to distract from the lyricism. Longlands’ voice is not suited to this song either. The notes at times get much to high and the straining in his voice, coupled with the lack of a necessary auto-tune component, is almost unbearable to hear, as in the second “what more can I sa-y, sa-y, sa-y”. However, this is the Matrix after all, so at least parts of the song are catchy. The first pre-chorus uses the thin guitars and clever vocal phrasing to extract a cool sound out of an otherwise mundane lyric: “I’m wild about you / I’m mad about you / What more can I say / (I mean, what I was trying to say was–)”. The first verse is also lyrically catchy, in a cliché sense: “I’m serious (serious) / delirious (delirious)”. The use of ambient echoing female vocals only serves to further muddy up the backing track for Longlands, but does add a certain cliché to the song that allows its unique style to have at least some familiarity to the average listener.

The Matrix never really recovered from this album’s debilitating debacle (Longlands has also never been heard from again, b-t-dubs). Since their unspoken failure, they’ve mostly been relegated to C-list music production, excluding their last stand with Korn’s 2005 alternative industrial metal album See You On The Other Side. They repurposed one of the tracks from the album for a bonus throwaway track on Ashley Tisdale’s poorly-received debut, worked with the aforementioned Canadian Skye Sweetnam on her underwhelming sophomore outing, and also wrote and produced for other artists ranging from throwaway tracks on a various albums, ranging from Shakira and Hilary Duff to Tokio Hotel and McFly. Now, they’re helping build up Miranda Cosgrove’s music career, working with A-listers like Dr. Luke (who usurped The Matrix’s position as ruler of pop music; we’ll save his upsetting resumé for another time) once more, but only on deluxe edition tracks to her not-even-close-to-good-or-popular debut album. Their demise is tragic, but expected. In today’s musical climate, the wheels turn fervently, and there’s always a new trend. As The Matrix lost their throne on top of the pop world, Dr. Luke gained it, and in time, he too will fall.

Ms. Perry, however, didn’t seem to feel the album was credible, even at the time, with interviews revealing her disdain for the glitz of The Matrix’s album:

After years singing locally, she came to the attention of The Matrix…who were assembling a group that now features Perry and the British-born singer AKA. Their debut is a radio-friendly pop collection with Perry cast as a sunnier Avril.

“At first, I thought, ‘Crap! There goes my credibility!’ They’ve worked with some brilliant people, but also people who are hardly artists at all,” she says. “But if people buy the record, that’s all the credibility I need.”

A total unknown working with the biggest names, Perry must have talent to burn. “No, I’ve just got really big boobs,” she says. “And my sweater gets tighter every week…”

This becomes doubly ironic when you listen to her new top-of-the-chart singles, Teenage Dream and California Gurls, respectively:

But what can you do? This is America, home of pop stars and hypocrites. And that’s just the way we like it.

The album itself was okay. Nothing spectacular like the others on this list, but it deserves recognition for its ambition and hope to take on the pop music establishment. It is bold and daring for a pop album and uses the vocal talents of Katy Perry well. Even though it didn’t have the impact many thought it would, we can look back on it fondly, and ask ourselves what might’ve been.

Thanks for reading, there’s more to come.

About Dylan Visvikis

Dylan Visvikis is a working screenwriter and director in Los Angeles. View all posts by Dylan Visvikis

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