Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Decade In Music

How often do you get the chance to make a best of the decade list? On the last day of the decade, here it is, one more time, the 10 best albums of the last 10 years!

#10 Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Conor Oberst and his band/moniker, Bright Eyes, exploded onto the scene with his emo-folk classic, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, in 2002. While the album was a hit with high school girls and senstive-type guys under 25, it remained unknown if Oberst had it in him to write music that non-college aged adult sensitive-types could get behind. Oberst promptly moved from Omaha to Greenwich Village, teamed up with country music legend/goddess, Emmy Lou Harris, and knocked it out of the ballpark.

#9 Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
When this album first came out, minds were blown. A backlash quickly followed and Interpol was written off as pretentious, East Village, Joy Division wannabe's by the haters. While singing in a deadpan baritone and moving the bass upfront in the mix will earn you those comparisons, revisit this album and you'll realize just how expansive the sound is, while each subsequent listen unearths deeply buried emotions hidden behind its stoic facade.

#8 The Shins - Oh, Inverted World
Remember when Natalie Portman gave her headphones to Zack Braff and said, "Listen to this, it'll change your life," or something like that? That band was The Shins and while the album that made them famous was the soundtrack to Garden State, the songs all came from Oh, Inverted World. Before the movie they were a mix-tape must for underground fans, after the movie they were a household name. For better or worse The Shins made mainstream radio safe for 'indie' bands, and a flood of them would result from it - Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Feist, etc., but The Shins, who never asked for that type of stardom in the first place, were the best of the bunch.

#7 Sufjan Steven - Illinoise
The most beautiful album ever made about a Midwestern state. Although Sufjan promised albums about all 50 states he will be forgiven for only making two (see: Greetings from Michigan). This epic chamber-rock/gospel-folk album romanticizes Superman, spends a glorious day in "Chicago," runs from zombies, and gets empathetic with serial killer "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." while cheerleaders harmonize in the background. It is simply one of the strangest and most gorgeous albums in the last several decades.

#6 White Stripes - Elephant
Nobody in the aughts rocked like Jack White. Nobody. And when the 1:10 minute mark hits in the song, "I Just Don't Know What to do With Myself," on Elephant, you realize the White Stripes aren't just kicking ass and taking names, their making high art.

#5 M.I.A -Kala
The only great record that can be attributed to our inept Homeland Security Department. As the story goes, Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., was refused a Visa because of her father's involvement with the Tamil Tigers (a group the U.S. labels as terrorists) in her home country of Sri Lanka. M.I.A. had been scheduled to record her 2nd album with hit-making producer Timbaland but because she wasn't allowed in the states, the collaboration never happened. Instead, M.I.A. traveled the (third) world incorporating the traditional elements from India to Africa and all the little places inbetween. The resulting album, Kala, features gansta-rap anthems about buying cheap guns in Africa, forging fake passports and fishing. In the time of globalization, it is the first truly global album ever made.

#4 Outkast - Stankonia
Stankonia dropped at the very beginning of the decade and not only elevated rap beyond bangin' and bling but was so innovative that it seemed just about every other genre as well as their own were years behind the curb. These space-aliens from the planet of ATL looked as good in the low-rider Cadillac as they did rocking pink tutus. They learned that forever-eva never seems that long until it's gone in "Ms. Jackson", predicted our decade at war in "B.O.B." (Bombs Over Baghdad), and still came out "So Fresh and So Clean." Musically they absorbed and incorporated just about every type of music that you possibly can and made it all sound perfectly normal. "B.O.B" is a full frontal techno assault that begins with a lullabye, breaks down with a guitar solo that would make Hendrix proud and ends with a call-and-response high school football cheer. One can wax poetic on Outkast's genius for hours or you can just sum them up simply by saying they were the 'coolest mother funkers on the planet Earth.'

#3 Wilco - Yankee Hotel Fox Trot
The story is legendary by now. Wilco makes a record, brings it to their major label record company, Reprise. Reprise shoots it down -says its "unlistenable". Wilco says fuck you, streams the record on the internet for a while. Record gets picked up by Nonesuch who just happen to be a subsidary of Reprise, so that Reprise, in effect, pay for the record twice. Record finally gets released, and, oh yeah, its an absolute masterpiece. Yankee Hotel Fox Trot takes Wilco's earlier Americana/roots music and infuses it with the sound of the world crumbling into a million little pieces, and stirs it all up with a batch full of homemade whiskey so that somehow all this distopia ends up sounding joyful. Can't get anymore American than that.

#2 Arcade Fire - Funeral
A lot of people died while the Arcade Fire were making their debut album. Pull out the insert of the CD (remeber those) and you'll find that the linear notes are written like the type of program you are given at a funeral. You'll also notice the list of relatives and loved ones who died during the making of the album. All that death prompted them to name the album Funeral but what's amazing is how damn life-affirming this record is. Win Butler's voice aches with loss and bleeds hope. In the opening track, "Neighborhood #1," he envisions a world that has been covered with snow so that only he and his lover escape. Out of this mess they build a new world, make new families and sometimes remember things, like their parents' bedrooms and the bedrooms of their friends. Later he warns against falling asleep, claiming that sleeping is giving in and just when you think he's given in himself, he starts throwing lightning bolts and you better, "Look out below." And all this while his band sings at the top of their lungs and plays every instrument they can find lying around, plus the kitchen sink. Listening to Arcade Fire is like going through your deceased, beloved grandmother's dusty photo album on the day your baby is born. Some things are lost forever, some are just getting started.

#1 Radiohead - Kid A
What can you say about Radiohead that hasn't been said before? Kid A ushered in the information age by turning a (very) cold shoulder on rock music and embracing techonology in a way no other band ever had, all in the name of warning us about the dangers of technology. Like the rest of us, Thom Yorke has masked his fears in cynicism and on the surface it sounds like he's thrown in the towel and tossed his social contract into the paper shredder. He's marching on to oblivion and taking the rats and children with him. In "How to Disappear Completely" he goes into denial about it all, "I'm not here this isn't happening," and on "The National Anthem," he's having a full-on panic attack while horns squeal like a jazz quintet being run over by a garbage truck. He hasn't completely checked out however and on "Idioteque," one of the top 10 songs of the decade, he's practically grabbing you by the throat and telling you to wake up (and to dance a little while you're at it). Nearly ten years later, Radiohead would go on to utilize technology uniquely again by releasing In Rainbows (which would have been on this list if I didn't make a rule that only one album per band makes it), on the internet for free and letting fans pay what they wanted. Radiohead understands that the times have changed and the only way to deal with it is to get ahead of it. On Kid A they weren't warning us of an encroaching distopian future, they were letting us know that it was already here.

The Just Missed List

Bon IverFor Emma, Forever Ago
DangermouseThe Grey Album
The Flaming LipsYoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Grizzly BearYellow House
Kayne WestThe College Dropout
The NationalBoxer
Panda BearPerson Pitch
RadioheadIn Rainbows
The Postal ServiceGive Up
The Walkmen
Bows and Arrows


  1. Dude, you took on a monster here, I laughed out loud when you said it became torture. I just did underground, irrelevant to any culture but my own and I had a hard time! Love the list, but I must admit my pick for #2 would be Interpol's 1st album. Love pick #1.. Kudos, my friend, kudos...

  2. Anonymous9/12/09 19:33

    ugghhhhhh! Did it have to be Radiohead???? The most depressing music on earth! I like only 1 of there songs. However, I should have known. This is the one place you and I will always differ. I've been forced to hear that music since you were in high school. lol

  3. "Listening to Arcade Fire is like going through your deceased, beloved grandmother's dusty photo album on the day your baby is born. Some things are lost forever, some are just getting started."

    I have never, ever before heard an album described so utterly perfect. Near tears. Well done.

  4. Thank you so much anonymous person.

  5. Much props for the inclusion of Mr. Stevens! I watched an interview with him once where he said he wished for all his music to sort of sound like 6th grade band. :) Love this guy.