All Alone
Steve Hogarth and Michael Roe Without a Net

I am on vacation. Yes, right now, as you read this. I’ve done pretty much nothing for the last four days, and will do pretty much nothing for the next four. It’s been great so far. Everything I’ve read about these things called “vacations” is absolutely true.

But don’t worry, faithful readers. I haven’t forsaken you. In fact, you get more than the usual dose of my ramblings this week – that is, if you don’t mind spoilers about the final season of Lost. Yes, I’ve finished my exhaustive essay on what I believe to be one of the greatest television shows of my lifetime, and I’ve coalesced my thoughts into a semi-readable whole. I am, of course, putting this essay behind a link, because I know several people who have not yet watched the finale, and I wouldn’t want to spoil what is a pretty incredible surprise.

So, if you’ve already partaken of all the island’s mysteries, click here. If not, please don’t. If you’re still catching up on season six, or if you’ve never watched the show, you should go in clean. I’ve never seen a television show with the same capacity to surprise me, and Lost kept its most beautiful shocker for the final moments. I go into that surprise in detail, so read at your own risk.

In regular column-land today, I’ve got two remarkable records to discuss, and I’ll finally unveil my choice for the #1 album of the 2000s. (Seems like I’ve been writing this list forever…) With all that wordy goodness coming your way, I hope you’ll forgive me for what I’m about to say: I’m taking next week off. Saturday is my birthday, and as is my custom, I’m going to relax with friends. I’ll be back to the column grind on June 16, and I’m sure I’ll be updating the blog ( between now and then.

For now, though, onward.

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I love layered and ornate production as much as the next guy. (As long as the next guy is Tony Shore.) But to me, something magical happens when you strip all that away, and you’re left with one voice and one instrument. There’s no hiding in that scenario. You either have it or you don’t.

Steve Hogarth has it. For 21 years, he’s been the “new lead singer” of Marillion, and his soaring, emotional voice has brought heart to songs that, in lesser hands, might seem overblown. Hearing Hogarth sing “Afraid of Sunlight” never fails to bring chills, but of all the versions of that song I own (probably about 50), the one that still draws me in the most is a bonus cut on the album’s remaster, a late-night recording of Hogarth alone at the piano, his voice ringing as if in a cavern.

His new album, Natural Selection, is all like that. In 2006, Hogarth started his H Natural tour, just him and a piano, singing songs old and new. Natural Selection collects 15 of those songs, and is all the proof anyone should need that Hogarth has one of the best, most expressive voices on the planet. Now, I don’t mean he has one of those American Idol-style “great” voices. When Hogarth sings, it comes from somewhere deep inside him, an emotional place few singers ever get to.

The bulk of Natural Selection is Marillion songs, given the H Natural treatment. Here is perhaps the most riveting version of “Estonia” I’ve ever heard, and renditions of “Waiting to Happen” and “No One Can” that rescue them from the clean and commercial production of their studio versions. Here is “Easter,” one of Hogarth’s best-known songs, and you can tell – the drunken Dublin audience sings along, loudly. And here is a touching version of “Fantastic Place,” with one of Hogarth’s strongest performances. He holds a single note near the end for so long that the audience applauds.

But the H Natural shows were about more than recasting Marillion tunes. They were about tracing Hogarth’s evolution as a songwriter and performer, so he goes back to his early days with How We Live for opener “Working Town,” and brings out a couple of solo songs from his 1997 album Ice Cream Genius. I’ve never quite liked “Better Dreams” – I find it meandering and endless – but this version drives the lyrics home, and they’re marvelous.

Natural Selection includes three covers as well, the strangest of which is an amazing version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” Hogarth makes this frothy song about girls who crave the spotlight into something akin to a plea to an uncaring god. It’s astonishing. He covers his own favorite song, Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and performs a stunning version of his father’s favorite, “Wichita Lineman.” (I’m with Steve’s dad, by the way. I’m coming around to the idea that “Wichita Lineman” may be the best song I’ve ever heard.)

You may think more than an hour of one man and a piano might get boring, but you’d be wrong. Natural Selection brings Hogarth’s voice to the forefront in ways it’s never been, and he takes full advantage, winding his way around the corners of these songs and finding new depths of emotion to pull from. Where Marillion often finds this emotion in vast, broad strokes, here Hogarth takes a fine brush and creates a quiet masterpiece. Buy Natural Selection here.

Although Michael Roe is also best known as the singer in a band, he’s no stranger to quiet solo performances either. For nearly 30 years, Roe has led the Seventy Sevens, one of the most raucous and ass-kicking rock bands on the planet, but his one-man acoustic shows are legendary. He plays guitar like he was born with one in his hands, and his voice can bowl you over one minute and break your heart the next.

Roe’s new album is self-titled, and consists of solo versions of 14 songs he’s been playing for years. Recently, Roe has immersed himself in old gospel and blues songs, both for the Seventy Sevens’ Holy Ghost Building album, and his own We All Gonna Face the Rising Sun. It’s natural, then, that this album should open with five of those old tunes, here stripped down to guitar and voice. Roe whips out his electric on “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “You’re Gonna Be Sorry,” but the rest are acoustic, and they carry more weight to me this way, just one man preaching in the wilderness.

Ah, but the rest of Michael Roe is a longtime fan’s delight. Roe runs through songs old and new, including “What Holds On,” “MT,” “The Boat Ashore” and “Smokescreen,” and the effect is like being at one of his solo acoustic concerts. I’ve always wished I could bottle that experience up, and here it is. Roe also covers the late, great Gene Eugene’s “Jimmy,” and closes with a beautiful take on Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.”

Mike Roe fans are already salivating, just from that list of songs. But if you’ve never heard Roe, this is a fine introduction to a performer who should, in a just world, need none. If I could play guitar like this man can, I might never leave the house, and Roe’s voice has only grown stronger and more resonant with age. My only complaint with Michael Roe is that it doesn’t include “Ache Beautiful,” but even without it, it’s a great collection. While we patiently wait for new original material from the man, this will be more than enough to tide us over. Go here.

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And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. (Well, at least, I hope you have. It’s been a long journey, and I hope you haven’t given up on me.) Here’s my pick for the best album of the 2000s.

#1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005).

I first heard of Sufjan Stevens at the 2005 Cornerstone festival. His label, Asthmatic Kitty, decided to debut Illinois there. They opened the boxes in the morning, and by late afternoon, the buzz was everywhere. I finally asked someone what everyone was talking about, and he said, “Sufjan Stevens just made the album of the year.”

Well, he was partly right. In fact, Stevens had made the album of the decade.

I was sold on this record almost immediately. I’m a fan of outsize ambitions, and if there’s one thing Stevens has in abundance, it’s ambition. Illinois is the second (and, so far, last) in a planned series of 50 albums, one for each of the United States. It follows 2003’s Michigan, a dark and wonderful record dedicated to Stevens’ home state. But as good as Michigan is, Illinois is better – its reach is wider, its grasp surer. The album is 22 tracks over 74 minutes, and I admit I spent my first trip through waiting for it to collapse. There’s no way, I thought, this record could possibly remain this good all the way through. After realizing that it was, I spent the next three spins just taking it in, and dealing with what I was hearing.

On the surface, Illinois seems ridiculous. Its packaging is cartoony, the title on the front cover is Come On Feel the Illinoise, and the song titles are knowingly pretentious: “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament,” for example, or “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze.” The whole thing seems like the product of an overeager tourism bureau, especially as several songs (“Jacksonville,” “Decatur,” “Chicago”) reference specific places in Illinois.

But this is all trapping, the device by which Stevens creates an intensely personal, deeply moving experience. Illinois is huge – most of the songs have strings, horns, choirs, mallet percussion and delightfully florid arrangements – but it’s also intimate, and its most affecting moments are its quieter, simpler ones. Stevens does an amazing job of creating a grand-scale epic about very small things – a boy’s first trip to the big city, a man dying of bone cancer – and then unfolding it into large themes, like the existence of God, and the strength that holds America together.

How he does it is almost a form of magic. I can’t properly describe the joy of hearing the first strains of “Come On Feel the Illinoise,” the true opening salvo of the record – pianos, trumpets , oboes, drums, chimes, all playing in 5/4 as the choirs sing: “Chicago, the new age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?” Similarly, I can’t tell you how much “Chicago” makes me want to spread wings and fly. Amidst a beautiful chimes-and-strings arrangement, Stevens captures perfectly the feeling of being surrounded by tall buildings and possibility. “I was in love with a place, in my mind, in my mind, I made a lot of mistakes…” And yet, he still makes it sound like something he would do again in a heartbeat.

So this album lifts my soul, which is one main criteria, but it also makes me cry. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more straightforward song of complex despair than “Casimir Pulaski Day.” It’s about watching someone wither away, and marshalling all your faith to change things, to no avail. “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens…” The final verse is simply the saddest thing I have heard in years: “All the glory when He took our place, but He took my shoulders and He shook my face, and He takes and He takes and He takes…”

Perhaps Stevens’ finest achievement here, besides the sweep of Illinois as a whole, is “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” an unflinching look at the state’s most famous serial killer. Over a spare backdrop of guitar and piano, Stevens goes into detail you almost wish he wouldn’t: “He took off all their clothes for them, he put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth…” But it has a purpose – the final verse points back at Stevens himself, and all of us: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him, look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid…”

Stevens brings out the big themes at the end. The menacing, droning “The Seer’s Tower” (I swear, it took me months to get that pun) is Biblical in scope, bringing in Emanuel of Mothers, for whom the mythical tower was built. Still, in the end, Stevens concludes he will “go to the deepest grave, where I go to sleep alone.” But this is followed by the grand finale, the seven-minute “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders,” which casts America’s frontier spirit in grand new lights. Reminiscent of “Illinoise,” the song is built around an 11/8 piano figure and some amazing horn runs, and by its joyous conclusion, Stevens is right back down to earth: “Celebrate the few, celebrate the new, it can only start with you.”

The album concludes with a fluttering instrumental that sounds like rebirth. Its title tells the whole story: “Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run.”

Essentially, there are two reasons Illinois tops this list. First, no other album this decade tried to do so much, and succeeded at it so well. Illinois is a massive undertaking, the work of a certified genius, and its layers are all expertly interwoven. As a musical work, it’s perfect.

But the second reason is more important, to me: Illinois made me think and feel like no other record of the 2000s. I have twisted this album over in my mind more than any other, and it has taken up residence in my heart. I doubt Stevens will ever top it – in fact, the very thought seems to have terrified him. Illinois is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, the very best of the decade, and one of the very best I’ve ever heard. If Stevens never makes another, he’ll just have to be happy with that.

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Next week, no new column. But when I come back, we’ve got tons of new music to choose from. Expect something that’ll take you a while to read. Thanks to everyone who stuck with me through my top 20 of the 2000s countdown. If you have a similar list, I’d love to take a look.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.