02 January 2010
Music: Best Albums of the Decade
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
After years of struggles in relationships both professional and personal, Adams delivered an album that lived up to its name. I was hooked from the opening track: a debate with friend David Rawlings about Morrissey. From there, it's pure alt-country bliss as the former Whiskeytown singer laments about his poor decisions and unfortunate break-ups.
Further Listening: Rock n Roll (Lost Highway, 2003); Love is Hell (Lost Highway, 2004); Cold Roses (Lost Highway, 2005)
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
A true miracle of an album, one that made the obscure Baltimore band immensely more accessible without alienating any of their rabid fan base. Each track is completely indispensable and the sunny antithesis of the dark days of the decade's end.
Further Listening: Sung Tongs (Fat Cat, 2004); Fall Be Kind (Domino, 2009); Panda Bear's Person Pitch (Paw Tracks, 2007)
Arcade Fire – Funeral
It put Montreal on the musical map. It made white folks everywhere swoon. It made Merge a major player on the indie-label scene. But the XL-sized band's debut is more important for what it didn't do: It didn't diminish on repeat listenings. The album still sounds as fresh and exciting more than five years after its original release. The title may have referred to the end, but the music speaks of new beginnings.
Further Listening: Neon Bible (Merge, 2007)
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
The title is very likely a reference to the unknown dissatisfaction and disappointment felt by lead singer Kele Okereke and thousands of other twentysomethings like them. "It's so cold/In this house," he sings on the opening track. It's still unclear if that alarm has been noticed yet.
Further Listening: "Helicopter" (Wichita, 2004); Silent Alarm Remixed (Wichita, 2005)
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot it in People
(Arts & Crafts, 2002)
More great music from Montreal, this time with even more members bearing glad tidings. Each track is ethereal, but with a simplicity. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" with its beautiful refrain: "Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me." You'll be dreaming about this album for quite a long time.
Further Listening: Feel Good Lost (Arts & Crafts, 2001); Bee Hives (Arts & Crafts, 2004)
Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head
Further Listening: Parachutes (Capitol, 2000); X&Y (Capitol, 2005); Viva La Vida, or: Death and All His Friends (Capitol, 2008)
The album that changed everything. After their melancholy debut, this was an altogether lovely follow-up that was the opposite of a sophomore slump. It was an album that showed tremendous growth and propelled the band into the stratosphere.
Daft Punk – Discovery
A dance album to the core, but one that remembers dancing starts in the heart.
Further Listening: Alive 2007 (Virgin, 2007)
Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism / The Postal Service – Give Up
(Barsuk, 2003 / Sub Pop, 2003)
Did anyone have a better year creatively than Ben Gibbard in 2003? In any other year, these would both have been crowning achievements, but they came out IN THE SAME YEAR. The former is the indie bible, the latter is a lo-fi electronic masterpiece with just as big a heart (that's just as damaged).
Further Listening: Plans (Atlantic, 2005); Narrow Stairs (Atlantic, 2008); The Open Door (Atlantic, 2009)
The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
(Warner Bros, 2002)
Though not as good as their 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, this was a landmark album for me personally. Like a nerdy rock opera, it's got balloons, robots and underdog protagonists. Yet it all works. The same could not be said for their follow-ups.
Further Listening: Fight Test (Warner Bros, 2003); The Dark Side of the Moon (Warner Bros, 2009)
The Format – Dog Problems
(The Vanity Label, 2006)
They were challenged with delivering a perfect pop album with their debut. Here, they go one better, showing a surprising maturity with better songwriting and more grandiose arrangements. Too bad delivering such a masterwork undid them and they broke up in 2008.
Further Listening: Interventions + Lullabies (Elektra, 2003)
Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
(Illegal Art, 2008)
In a terrible 2009 song, Ke$ha sings "Don't stop/Make it pop/DJ, blow my speakers up." But DJ Gregg Gillis could easily turn this No. 1 disaster into a danceable hit. It's just what he does. But the important thing is this: he does exactly what she commands. The party really doesn't stop with this album.
Further Listening: Night Ripper (Illegal Art, 2006); @Yale (freeculturemusic.com, 2009)
Green Day – American Idiot
An album of limitless ambition, brought to you by a band that called its breakthrough album Dookie. It tells a complete story. Hearing any of the songs separately lessens the impact, though Billie Joe and co. wisely chose its most universal songs for singles: "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends" among them. Don't let its popularity among the Hot Topic crowd cause you to think less of it.
Further Listening: International Superhits! (Reprise, 2001)
The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
Things are always hazy through the Hold Steady's lens. Were the high moments that great? Were the low moments so bad? But the best thing about this band is its relentless honesty. The title of this album comes from a line in their tremendous single "Stuck Between Stations": "Boys and girls in America/They're such a sad time together." How true.
Further Listening: Stay Positive (Vagrant, 2008)
Jay-Z – The Blueprint
I don't think I'll ever be able to decide if this is the ultimate rap album of the decade (see OutKast's entry below). Regardless, this is about as good as it gets. Unfortunately released on 9/11, this album signaled that nothing would ever be the same. Everything that's tired and recycled about hip-hop now was fresh then. Its title is extremely apt.
Further Listening: The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella, 2003); American Gangster (Roc-a-Fella, 2007); The Blueprint 3 (Roc-a-Fella, 2009)
Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American
A polished power-pop powerhouse that truly got what it was like to be a young American male.
Further Listening: Clarity (Capitol, 1999--re-released 2007); Futures (Interscope, 2004)
The Killers – Hot Fuss
For a debut this fantastic, it sure sounded like Brandon Flowers was filled with doubt. He'd felt betrayed ("Somebody Told Me"), guilty ("All These Things That I've Done") and a fool ("Mr. Brightside"). His inner demons may have been his muse.
Further Listening: Sam's Town (Island, 2006)
M83 – Before the Dawn Heals Us
Not quite a concept album, but definitely feels like a complete story (or at least an intertwined collection of short stories). An electronic masterpiece, each track is filled with anxiety and uncertainty, hoping for rescue that may or may not come from assailants both emotional and physical. Haunting stuff.
Further Listening: Saturdays = Youth (Mute, 2009)
Original Broadway Cast – Spring Awakening
Resurrecting a banned century-old play about insatiable teenage lust--and adding pop songs--must have surely seemed like a foolish endeavor in the developing stages, but Duncan "Barely Breathing" Sheik finally got some credit.
OutKast – Stankonia
Could this be the decade's best rap album? The jury's still out. What we know for sure is this sounded like nothing else on earth--when it came out, and for the most part, still today. From the mind-blowing energy of "B.O.B." to the surprising earnestness of "Ms. Jackson", this was not the misogynistic, materialistic hip-hop we were used to.
Further Listening: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace, 2003)
Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
Is that title ironic? Because the songs on this gem of an album are all evidence of a life full of risk-taking that backfired badly. The songs of immense regret and sadness, which ebbed and flowed throughout this decade made them the Fleetwood Mac of the '00s.
Further Listening: The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek, 2002); Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros, 2007); Jenny Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love, 2006)
Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun
(Fat Cat, 2001)
Every once in a while a band comes along and produces music that seems directly descended from another world. It's music so heavenly, it couldn't have come from the planet Earth. No secular band has ever sounded so spiritual.
Further Listening: Untitled (Fat Cat, 2002), Takk... (Geffen, 2005); Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (EMI, 2008)
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
(Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)
Let's put it this way: His collection of B-sides from this album--the second in his proposed 50 States project--is far better than most artists' studio albums. A true musician and perfectionist, Sufjan is not one to let an album to put out something merely good. Nor will he put out an album inferior to the work he just produced.
Further Listening: Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty, 2003), Seven Swans (Sounds Familiyre, 2004), The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)
The Strokes – Is This It
Despite the lack of punctuation, this is the ultimate question, especially for us twentysomethings. College? Career? Marriage? This is not album with the answers, only more questions.
Further Listening: Room on Fire (RCA, 2003); "New York City Cops" (unreleased)
The White Stripes – Elephant
It could have been quite cumbersome, the follow-up to their breakthrough album. But the immensely talented duo delivered in so many ways. With 14 songs that were completely different from the track before, this was an album that defied classification.
Further Listening: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001); Get Behind Me Satan (V2, 2005); Icky Thump (Third Man, 2007)
various artists – Once (Music from the Motion Picture)
How could music like this go unnoticed for so long? Most of these songs were recorded at least a year or two before their heart-melting musical took the world by storm. Thank God we have them now. Each track reveals the ache and longing the characters (and likely the actors/musicians themselves) have felt for much of their lives. Everyone else, take note.
Further Listening: The Frames' Set List (Plateau, 2003); The Swell Season's Strict Joy (ANTI-, 2009)