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20 Criminally Overlooked Post-2000 College Rock Albums

How did these college radio gems get all but forgotten about?

College Rock Albums
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    This feature originally ran in July 2014.

    The hours spent in the bowels of the Student Union Building working for 88.7 The Edge KTRM at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, were some of the best hours I spent in college. Being able to play whatever I wanted during the drive-time hours every Friday and talking to essentially myself over the air waves was exactly what I needed to wrap up my week. It also gave me access to a huge library of old and brand-new music.

    Once upon a time, up-and-coming bands that had a hard time breaking the commercial radio market could find an audience on college radio stations. Bands like R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants got huge boosts from college radio when they were starting out and became a kind of blueprint for the “college rock” sound and success. After these bands, artists could count on college radio stations to give them an attentive audience and a leg up to spread their names.

    However, sometimes bands get lost in the shuffle on a music director’s desk and aren’t put into as heavy rotation as they should be. That’s where we come in. We combed through the artists who were finding their footing during the post-2000 infancy of Internet music downloads and were counting on college radio to spread the word. These are amazing albums that should absolutely have gotten more buzz or attention when they were released. Here is our list of the most criminally overlooked college rock albums post-2000. Let us know how we did, and if we missed some of your favorites, share the knowledge in the comment section below!

    –Nick Freed
    Senior Staff Writer

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    Kashmir – Zitilites (2003)

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    Strung between Radiohead’s creeper brit-pop and the clipped post-punk revival of the early aughts, Danish band Kashmir slipped just under the radar of most budding music geeks in the US. Their fourth album, Zitilites (pronounced like “city lights”), had a healthy run in the band’s home country, scoring radio play with the nervous, Bends-y guitar jam “Rocket Brothers”. But Zitilites‘ locked its most original offerings deeper in the track list; the mournful lullaby “The New Gold” exposed the warm cracks in frontman Kasper Eistrup’s voice, while the slow-burning, organ-powered “The Push” swayed with melancholy descending chord progressions and distant, lilting piano. “Ruby Over Diamonds” kicks like a hidden B-side from the Secret Machines, all straight-lined tension until its murmuring hook. The drums pound bigger than the voice, while piano and bass sneak around in each other’s footsteps. It’s an earworm dressed up for art school, slick and poised and way more fun than it would ever want to admit. –Sasha Geffen


    The Long Winters – When I Pretend to Fall (2003)

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    The Long Winters’ sophomore effort, When I Pretend to Fall, is a classic of sensitive-dude rock, but lead singer John Roderick’s sometimes deadpan, always-straightforward delivery does a lot to keep the band’s output from straying into the realm of over-earnest overkill. Jazzy, buoyant numbers like “Scared Straight” are about as perfect as anything else recorded in the early 2000s indie-label heyday, and contributions from Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla and others make the 12-song album feel like a Barsuk Records team effort. I know I would have loved this album as a Death Cab-obsessed high schooler; I would have loved the weird synth opening of “Blanket Hog”, and I would have loved it when Roderick sang, “Show me all your scars/ Hold me by my arms.” The fact that The Long Winters never achieved quite the same level of success as label mates Death Cab or maybe even Nada Surf doesn’t make When I Pretend to Fall any less of an enjoyable accomplishment. –Katherine Flynn


    Ugly Casanova – Sharpen Your Teeth (2002)

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    After the recording and release of Modest Mouse’s 2000 masterpiece The Moon and Antarctica, lead singer Isaac Brock began quietly working and recording solo tracks with some members of Modest Mouse, bluegrass group The Hackensaw Boys, and The Black Heart Procession. Brock wanted to be able to separate himself from the expectations of a Modest Mouse sound, so he made up an elaborate backstory of someone named Edgar Graham aka “Ugly Casanova.” He then recruited John Orth from Florida-based Holopaw and Tim Rutili and Brian Deck of Red Red Meat to make a full-length album under the Ugly Casanova moniker.

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    Sharpen Your Teeth was released on Sub Pop in 2002 and coasted under the radar as Brock told more and more stories of Edgar Graham. People weren’t quite sure how to take the album, so while it is a beautiful, haunting, and quasi-experimental album, it didn’t catch on with the public as it should have. The eerie folk of “Hotcha Girls”, the bouncing swirl of “Barnacles”, and the utterly weird “Diamonds in the Face of Evil” show Brock’s capabilities as a highly intelligent songwriter. Brock eventually revealed that he had invented Edgar Graham — as most people expected — and the album has begun to get more appreciation than it had previously. –Nick Freed


    Emperor X – Central Hug/Friendarmy/Fractal Dunes (2005)

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    Emperor X, the moniker of Jacksonville-based songwriter Chad Matheny, is probably better known for his overwhelming do-it-all-myself live sets than his recordings, which is why it’s maybe understandable that his remarkably consistent run of at-least-solid (and always mouthful-named) full-lengths haven’t received due appreciation. The back-to-back shots of sheer enthusiasm on “F-R-E-S-N-E-L Licenseur” and “Sfearion”, the outstanding middle two tracks of his third album, Central Hug…, are the backbone of the record and demonstrate Matheny’s abilities in only eight minutes by effectively transporting his athletic performance style directly into headphones. –Steven Arroyo


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    Boat – Songs That You Might Not Like (2006)

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    Boat showed up at the peak of hand-drawn album cover-core, but a passing affinity with the Juno aesthetic didn’t quite nail their 2006 collection, Songs That You Might Not Like, into the coffin of overbearing twee. Songs is hardly even cute, though it overflows with raw charm borrowed from the lesser-exposed corners of the Elephant 6 collective. Sure, vocalist D. Crane translates traumatic familial abandonment into imagery of castles overgrown with seaweed, and he assigns a whole lot of poetic weight to dried-out cans of house paint sitting idle in a garage, but there’s an edge to his delivery that separates Boat from 2006’s more cloying rock offerings. The band offer hook after hook on this 17-song effort, all crafted so roughly and effortlessly that it’s tough not to feel affectionately towards them. Songs is a sprawler that lurked just under the surge of showier records, an island that never quite got its due. But in the eight years since its release, it’s aged handsomely beneath that Wes Anderson-pink cover. –Sasha Geffen


    Elf Power – Nothing’s Going to Happen (2002)

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    An album chock-full of indie, lo-fi covers of songs by bands including T. Rex, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Misfits found lead singer Andrew Rieger and his Elf Power cohorts dousing some of their favorite rock songs in layers of their signature distortion and hiss, creating a musical patchwork that somehow managed to work together as a cohesive whole. It helps that most of Rieger and co.’s choices were infinitely listenable in their original forms, and the album creates a kind of road map of the group’s diverse musical influences. Clocking in as the band’s sixth studio album, Elf Power had already established their own voice and fan base in the early 2000s, making the album almost a set of instructions of must-hear artists for younger fans to check out (Roky Erickson! Bad Brains!). While it might have seemed like an out-of-left-field move at the time, Nothing’s Going to Happen proved itself to be greater than the sum of its parts, which were already pretty great. –Katherine Flynn


    Pinback – Summer in Abaddon (2004)

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    The third album by San Diego’s Pinback confirmed what their first two (and a large handful of EPs) hinted at: “A Pinback album” is a thing you can always safely predict a few things about, a thing that you’ll know when you hear it. But even if Zach Smith and Rob Crow have always been set in their metronomic sound to a degree, they turned a project into a 15-plus-year career by tweaking and refocusing it differently on every release, and Summer in Abaddon is Exhibit A: a slight but instantly noticeable upgrade on all aspects of their game from composition to production that still holds a few of their catalog’s finest tracks. “Fortress” alone was worth each of your 14 or so dollars at FYE. –Steven Arroyo


    Steve Burns – Songs for Dustmites (2003)

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    893556 1322871248304 full 20 Criminally Overlooked Post 2000 College Rock AlbumsTo an extent, it makes sense that Steve Burns’ debut album didn’t get the notice that it deserved when he released it in 2003. Why would anyone expect a solid album from the former star of Blue’s Clues? Whatever expectations there were or weren’t, Burns blew them out of the water with Songs for Dustmites. Shortly after leaving the children’s show, Burns teamed up with producer David Fridmann and multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Steven Drozd from The Flaming Lips to work on demos he had been recording at home. Drozd was a pivotal part of the recording and a key to turning Burns’ songs into a fully realized album. Because of Fridmann and Drozd’s involvement, Songs for Dustmites takes on a Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots sound, but the songwriting and structures owe a lot to Burns’ tales of love and science. Burns has a surprisingly strong baritone voice that fits Drozd’s electronic buzz and blips extremely well. If you’re looking for a less spacey and druggy Flaming Lips sound, seeking out a new corner of the Lips universe, or are just a big Blue’s Clues fan, Songs for Dustmites will really blow your mind. –Nick Freed


    The Hidden Cameras – Missisuaga Goddam (2004)

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    There’s something so teenaged about the phrase “music is my boyfriend,” but Joel Gibb managed to name a whole great song after it without getting puerile or annoying. The Canadian songwriter stretches the metaphor over a tambourine beat at the center of his 2004 record, Mississauga Goddam, an album that flirts with twee at every step but darts away from an oversaturation of cute at the last minute. Gibb keeps a weird, dark side to his music, performing indie-folk with rock’s tough bones, subtly lacing queer commentary into a predominantly straight underground. I don’t know if Sufjan Stevens would have moved forward with the humor he has now if it weren’t for Hidden Cameras, who showed that folk severity and indie quirk could easily play off each other on the same record. –Sasha Geffen


    stellastarr* – stellastarr* (2003)

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    Stellastarr* was a band that wore their influences so transparently that it should have been embarrassing — only their songs were good enough to sound like they could very well have been written by Echo & the Bunnymen or the Pixies. Hell, the last song on their eponymous debut is literally called “Pulp Song”, and its chorus finds them flippantly repeating, “We’re lying to you.” It’s been a slow fizzle-out for the band ever since, but the talent didn’t go completely without validation: frontman Shawn Christensen won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2012 for his self-written and self–directed Curfew. –Steven Arroyo


    Eels – Souljacker (2002)

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    Eels have always been a bit of a mystery to me. Mark Oliver Everett seems to straddle the familiar line of certifiable genius or certifiably insane, and it makes him and his music enduringly quixotic and appealing. I group him and his on-record persona with Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, and other journeymen hobos of the musical world. The volume of Eels output is impressive to say the least, and their 2001 album, Souljacker, is a travelogue of roadside oddities and a road map around Everett’s musical influences. It’s an album, like Franks Wild Years, that seems to be best listened to in a long Cadillac cruising at high speeds through a nighttime desert. From the Queens of the Stone Age riffs on opener “Dog Faced Boy” to the quiet acoustic exploration of “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping” to the searing rock of “Souljacker pt. 1”, Souljacker takes the listener to the edge of sanity and back. It’s a dying, or nearly dead, art of making a complete album that actually has an arc, both emotionally and geographically, but Eels released one of the best. –Nick Freed


    Mates of State – Team Boo (2003)

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    Mates of State, comprised of the almost-too-precious married-couple duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, brought their A-game to their third studio effort, Team Boo. With a sound based around sometimes-complicated organ arrangements (Gardner), powerful, driving drumbeats (Hammel), and layered, twee vocals (both,) Mates of State didn’t quite fit into the footprint of anything else being produced by their Barsuk Records contemporaries or the larger indie pop/rock scene of the time. Team Boo stretched the limits of what Gardner and Hammel had previously accomplished by adding horns and more lyrical complexity, and it provided the first glimmer of what would be the duo’s fruitful career after their impressive debut and its somewhat less-impressive follow-up. Call it a comeback album, or just call it a solid effort by a duo that had already cornered their signature sound and just needed to work on refining and growing it. Eleven years later, Team Boo still makes me want to write song lyrics all over my notebook cover and imitate Kori Gardner’s simple-yet-eclectic sartorial choices. –Katherine Flynn


    Doves – Last Broadcast (2002)

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    Doves’ second full-length album, The Last Broadcast, was poppy, accessible, and showcased, in the words of NME’s Jason Fox, the band’s “depressed, but never depressing” sensibilities. It’s easy to get lost in this album’s murky ambiance, and it’s easy to want to listen to it while driving down an empty highway at midnight by yourself, contemplating the ephemeral quality of life. What’s harder to understand is why The Last Broadcast reached #1 in the UK, but didn’t gain quite the same amount of traction in the US. Despite this, the album still holds up as a classic of the early-2000s indie landscape, a quirky 53-minute work that wears its Britpop influences on its sleeve while also transcending them. If you’re ever feeling like you’re sad, but also a little bit hopeful, and most definitely in need of a pick-me-up, The Last Broadcast has your name written all over it. –Katherine Flynn


    Cloud Cult – They Live on the Sun (2003)

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    Craig Minowa’s Cloud Cult broke out into early blog coverage in 2005 with Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus, but the project crystallized two years earlier with its lesser-known fourth record. They Live on the Sun is a wild, vivid document of childhood and death that rivals even Hippopotamus for Cloud Cult’s best record. Minowa wrote the album’s songs in a frenzy after the sudden death of his two-year-old son, inventing Cloud Cult’s unique, stitched-together indie pop in his grief. Like anything that grows from inexplicable loss, They Live gets hard to listen to; a photo of Minowa’s son Kaidin adorns the cover, and recordings of Kaidin’s voice lie scattered throughout the songs. But this isn’t a series of dirges. Minowa infuses the album with the energy of early childhood, seeding the interplay of joy and despair that would later grow throughout Hippopotamus. –Sasha Geffen


    Constantines – Shine a Light (2003)

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    Music critics and fans love declaring a band “the next big thing” before anyone else can get their grubby hands on them. They want the next game changer as soon as possible, and more often than not it leads to false declarations. The Constantines were that band. Their debut album, Constantines, was anointed “the perfect debut” by Pitchfork, received a Juno Award nomination, and drew everyone immediately on board. The band’s 2003 follow-up, Shine a Light, was also the perfect sophomore album, minus the fanfare. Combining a Fugazi meets Archers of Loaf meets Springsteen sound, Shine a Light had not only power and intensity, but also smart and non-pretentious lyrics. It’s the kind of album that The Hold Steady would shoot for years afterward: honest, heartfelt, and from the core. Songs like “Young Lions” and “On to You” had an upbeat E Street bounce, while “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)” and “Scoundrel Babes” seethed and tore through a dark Fugazi street. The band has since come off a short hiatus to celebrate the 11-year anniversary of Shine a Light, and hopefully there is more music to come from these Canadians. –Nick Freed


    Black Heart Procession – Amore del Tropico (2002)

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    For their fourth album, Amore del Tropico, The Black Heart Procession parted ways with their longtime producer (and an intact streak of naming albums after the number of their order) and found their way with an overt addition of Latin influence to their subdued brood. The result was denser, longer, and more doomed than anything they had ever done, an hour of true remote-highway-at-night rock that hit a whole new level of showing their namesake. –Steven Arroyo


    Enon – High Society (2002)

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    John Schmersal’s fourth album with Enon plays out more like one of the mixtapes your friends made you in middle school than a deliberately structured album, but that’s no insult. The Brainiac bandleader used High Society to prove himself as one of the more flexible songwriters of first-wave post-internet rock, swinging from Pavement-inspired guitar jams to slow trip-hop creepers. Overshadowed by the loose garage rock of the time, Enon never quite got the love its bristly, smart albums deserved, but that doesn’t change the fact that High Society was the record that taught me how to make one heck of a playlist. Rob Gordon would eat this record right up. –Sasha Geffen


    The Fire Theft – The Fire Theft (2003)

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    Sunny Day Real Estate’s side project held water at the level of the foundational emo band’s prettiest work. On their self-titled debut and only full-length, The Fire Theft attempted atmospheric heights that broke way, way out of whatever could be considered “emo” in 2003 or 1993 or now. Jeremy Enigk didn’t need punk structure to sound ferocious. His vocals and guitars soar here as he sings his way out of spiritual malaise. Strings and weird synths streak the record but never overpower it, gently adding buoyancy to some of Enigk’s most ambitious lyrics. –Sasha Geffen


    Pinetop Seven – Lest We Forget (2001)

    Before their better-known Sky Records debut, The Night’s Bloom, Chicago’s Pinetop Seven assembled a collection of orphaned material that they’d sell only on tour and via mail order. This was 2001; Spotify didn’t exist and neither did YouTube, but if you knew where to go on the early web you could sneak an MP3 rip of this full-length B-side release. It was a secret then, and it still hasn’t come out of the hush, but Lest We Forget holds some of Pinetop Seven’s greatest songs alongside excerpts from their live, improvised score for a silent film called The Wind. “Left in a Room for Days” weaves slide guitars into handheld percussion and upright bass while the vocals articulate a loneliness on par with Songs: Ohia at their most despondent. The album’s centerpiece, “Cradlesong”, ripples down in layers of banjo and piano, an upbeat strummer with a heavy heart that belongs with the best of the decade’s alt-country cuts. –Sasha Geffen


    The Weakerthans – Reconstruction Site (2003)

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    The Weakerthans not only released the incredible Reconstruction Site, which is criminally overlooked, but they are also one of the best somewhat-unknown bands on this list — in the US at least. In Canada, The Weakerthans are Juno Award nominees and hold the record for being the first band in CBC Radio history with two number one songs; they are also tied with Arcade Fire for longest-running number one on the charts (“Civil Twilight” for The Weakerthans and “Black Mirror” for Arcade Fire). Reconstruction Site is their third album and their most thematically sound. It’s set up as a cycle following the grief, regret, loss, and hope of a terminally ill hospital patient. Interstitial tracks set up each cycle — “(Manifest)”, “(Hospital Vespers)”, and “(Past Due)” — and the subsequent tracks show off lead singer John K. Sampson’s unmatched storytelling talent. Tales told from the point of view of a cat, stories about the love-hate relationship Sampson has with his hometown of Winnipeg, and adventures of an imagined meeting between a philosopher and explorer fill this catchy, varied rock album. Reconstruction Site should be in everyone’s collection as soon as you can get your hands on it. –Nick Freed

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