At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
So here's an album title that hasn't lost its bite, huh? End of the World Party (Just in Case) was the fifth Blue Note album by Medeski Martin & Wood, which had also released material on Gramavision and elsewhere. What the album signaled, along with a tongue-in-cheek alarum about our state of affairs, was an evolution in the band's balancing act.
MMW — John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums, Chris Wood on bass — had famously come together as an avant-garde acoustic proposition, only gradually finding its purpose as the thinking person's jam band. There'd even been a return to those acoustic roots on the live album Tonic, recorded in 1999 at the Lower East Side haunt of the same name. A sizable portion of the MMW fan base celebrated this side of the band's sound, alongside the more groove-centric, organ-forward stuff. What not everybody realized, certainly not on the jazz side of the fence, was that the members of the band truly drew no distinctions between these means and modes.
But End of the World Party (Just in Case) does belong more squarely to one side than the other. And a lot of that has to do with its design. For this album, MMW enlisted John King as producer. As a member of the Dust Brothers, he'd helped create the distinctive, allusive sound of Paul's Boutique, by the Beastie Boys, and Odelay, by Beck. And you can clearly hear his influence on the album, notably in the first few tracks, which inhabit an air of foreboding even as they shift almost constantly from one set of textures to the next.
See for instance "Reflector," one of several tracks to feature a guest turn by guitarist Marc Ribot. It begins with twangy guitar and chattering clavinet, but soon also incorporates Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano and what sounds to me like another set of analog synths. The thrust of Martin's beat doesn't change all that much, but the context around it does, almost constantly: I hear a series of threaded arguments, presented in sequence, à la the Dust Brothers' signature approach. Listen to the section that begins with a sampled vocal, just before the three-minute mark. When Medeski adds a chiming piano part, it always reminds me of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. But it's here and gone in a few seconds; by 3:30, he's playing a crooked montuno, which provides the track with its fade-out.
Other tracks on the album inhabit a more typically organic, go-where-the-groove-leads vibe. They sound more temperamentally upbeat, too. So Medeski Martin & Wood were hardly articulating their new direction with End of the World Party; they were just adding another set of possibilities, and showing that they could go this route if they wanted to. Just in case.