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Simplicity

These are all albums that, for one reason or another, aren't necessarily challenging or eclectic musically, but compensate in terms of the beauty or strength of their stylistic arrangements. None of these albums reinvent the wheel, but each does find beauty in simplicity. In my opinion. Which you have every right to disagree with. Angrily.
1AC/DC
Back in Black


Brian Johnson's debut with AC/DC may lack the raw energy that populated their Bon Scott-era material (particularly its immediate predecessor), but what it did offer was a solid set of capably crafted rock songs, performed with just the right combination of bluesy grit and studio sheen. Did they challenge musical conventions? Not particularly. Were they lyrically profound? Well, not exactly. Were they infectious? Hell yes. It's nearly impossible not to hum along with the intros of at least half the songs on this album, and the other half pad them so nicely that you soon find them stuck in the back of your mind without questioning it. Before the formula of this album became the formula of the band (and was soon ruined by its repetition), it was utterly convincing, no frills rock and roll. Listen to: chances are, you've probably heard it already.
2Dashboard Confessional
The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most


Christopher Ender Carrabba, heartbreak, and an acoustic guitar always equal success. Before glossy production and teen idol showcasing got the better of it, Dashboard Confessional was an acoustic solo project that coupled somewhat simplistic chords and strummings with vivid lyrics about lost love and all sorts of emotional teen angst. That Carrabba makes it all sound so convincing is a testament to his ability as a songwriter; the minimalism of these songs is their strongest resource, because it's where their sense of raw honesty (or at least a great facsimile of raw honesty) lies. Listen to: The Brilliant Dance, Screaming Infidelities, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most.
3Explosions in the Sky
The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place


Explosions in the Sky get a lot of hate for being the archetypal, rigidly dynamic-driven post-rock outfit, and this argument holds some merit. Their formula is pretty simplistic. Interwoven guitar lines starting slowly, gradually building to a climactic fever pitch, and then dropping off at the conclusion. The thing is, on this album, it works. The melodies are simple, and the arrangements somewhat predictable, but this also means the melodies are memorable, and the arrangements tightly crafted. The sheer uncluttered beauty of the music allows the listener to easily follow along with the band, from the slow arpeggiated chords to the furious tremolo picking that frequently crops up at those climactic moments. Listen to: First Breath After Coma, Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean, Your Hand in Mind.
4Hammock
Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow


Another post-rock outfit, though a decidedly less divisive one. Core members Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson rely heavily on electronic pads, synths, and ambience in their compositions, a tendency which truly takes center stage on this album. Out of all their back catalog, "Maybe..." is surely the most samey in terms of sound, with the majority of the album dominated by slow, ambient chord progressions, pairings, and melodies. However, the appeal of this approach is that it is both cohesive and powerful. The album makes for excellent background music, with melodies that don't so much demand attention as subconsciously siphon it. Listen to: This Kind of Life Keeps Breaking Your Heart, Mono No Aware, We Will Say Goodbye to Everyone.
5Mark Kozelek
Whats Next to the Moon


Realistically, this could apply to any Kozelek release, but this collection of acoustic, stripped down covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC (hey, there they are again...) tunes stands out because of the audacity of its concept--and the finesse with which it actually works. Kozelek is obviously a supremely talented guitarist, but showing off isn't the order of the day on this album. He seems far more focused on plumbing the melancholy subtext of his muse's work, presenting them in a slowly strummed, half-mumbled style that is at once entirely different from and entirely complementary to the originals. Listen to: Bad Boy Boogie, You Ain't Got A Hold on Me, Rock N Roll Singer.
6 Clint Mansell, Kronos Quartet, and Mogwai
The Fountain


Mansell does excellent work with films. Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Moon, Smokin' Aces (seriously); each is pervasive both in- and outside the context of its respective film, and each shares Mansell's propensity to work wonders with fairly little musical variation. The Fountain is no exception. Despite the impressive list of contributing artists on its roster, there is no dramatic disparity from track-to-track on the album, which is dominated by no more than three or four motifs. Excepting the penultimate epic "Death is the Road to Awe," the subdued and melancholy beauty of these few ideas is consistently enthralling, and perfect mirror for the contemplative bent of the film it represents. Listen to: The Last Man, Finish It, Xibalba, Together We Will Live Forever, the rest.
7The Mars Volta
Octahedron


On the heels of the spastic, schizophrenic monster that was "The Bedlam in Goliath," this is really the album that The Mars Volta needed to make. Although criticized by many fans for the lack of the wildly dramatic shifts in style and dynamic that have come to typify the band's work, "Octahedron" works wonders in its minimalism. For those who loved the breathers like "Televators" or "Vermicide" on past Volta releases, this album is a dream come true, as those are the overarching tendency. It explores the melodic and mellow (but not *too* mellow) side of one of the most relentlessly musically freakish bands to emerge in the past decade. Listen to: Since We've Been Wrong, Halo of Nembutals, With Twilight As My God, Copernicus.
8Nine Inch Nails
Still


Little about this album is simple unless it is looked at in comparison to most of Reznor's output. Gone are the layers upon layers of complicated electronics and augmented instrumentation, replaced with...layers upon layers of slightly less complicated electric ambience and acoustic instrumentation. The reinterpretations of older songs shine in their minimalism, translating the harrowing power of the original pieces to a far more organic (and, thus, far more visceral) setting. The original, instrumental compositions complement these nicely, offering placid (yet nonetheless melancholy) counterparts to the simmering aggression of the sung pieces. And "Leaving Hope" is one of the finest songs Reznor has ever penned. Listen to: the whole thing, dammit.
9The XX
xx


The atmospheric, darkly romantic feel of this album is staggering, and entirely the product of its straight-forward performance. Each of the songs features little in the way of instrumental showmanship, instead offering simple, subdued beats, combined with beautiful and effective reverb-drenched riffs muted and slide-picked with more emphasis on mood and texture than guitar hero grandstanding (and, incidentally, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of a dialed-back Explosions in the Sky). Vocally, the push-pull dynamics of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim are amazing, and perfectly in step with the restraint of the release by never going over the top. All of these elements make for a surprisingly natural amalgamation of goth, indie, punk, R and B, dubpop, and trace amounts of countless other genres into one remarkably engaging whole. Listen to: Crystalised, Heart Skipped a Beat, Stars.
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