Monday, January 04, 2010

Best Albums of the Decade: Part 1 (50-26)

I like making lists. I find list making shallow, but I'm okay with that. It's faster. It saves time. Making a list like Fifty Best Albums of the Decade is a pretty impossible task, and I think I shot myself in the foot right at the beginning by laying claim to the albums I'm about to toss at you as the 'best' as opposed to 'favorite' or something like that. I'm no professional, I didn't hear everything that was released in the past ten years. So that 'best' designation should be taken with a grain of salt. But, that being said, I'll stand by this list, so there's that.

I should probably say something about my methodology, but I'm not going to. All I'm going to say is this: over the course of the past ten years this sort of list making has become incredibly ubiquitous. So, needless to say, I saw this list coming from a mile away and prepared myself accordingly. What that really means is I've been thinking about this for a while. So, don't think I did what would make the most sense, which is to get really drunk and just vomit this list onto the internet. That way its over really quickly and you don't think about what you list and how it's ordered, which would hypothetically mean that the list is a more honest representation of your musical intuitions. Like I said, I didn't do that. In any case, here is the list along with a few thoughts on each album.

50. blink-182 by blink-182

I can already see the more cynical of you throwing this list out the window. But, hold on a second. Go back and give this record another spin. Forget about American Idiot, and if you get a chance to bash Pete Wentz in the head with a folding chair, I'd suggest you take the opportunity to do so. This is the album that pop-punk had been leading up to all along. The hooks aren't spoon-fed to you, but they're there, which makes the album a constantly interesting listen. Also, they've jettisoned the tongue-in-cheek humor of their past albums and approach the material with a certain amount of straight forwardness that is incredibly refreshing in a genre chock full of 80s reference dropping and mindless sarcasm. Plus, they're taking huge cues from The Head on the Door-era Cure, which is always a good thing.

49. Night Ripper by Girl Talk

Greg Gillis is like some sort of mad genius. The man takes fifty years of pop music history, throws it in a blender and then makes something you can dance to out of it. It's like the most perfect piece of pop art you could imagine. I can see the greatest art exhibit of all time right now: Warhol and Lichtenstein on the wall, this album blaring over a PA, and Nico is standing off in a corner somewhere being inspirational.

48. Change by The Dismemberment Plan 

I'm making a fair warning right now. There are a few break-up albums on this list, but none really sound particularly similar to one another. This is one of those break-up albums. It sounds utterly different from any other break-up album, and also every other album The Plan ever released. That's what was so great about this D.C.-based band. Every album sounded different from the one the preceeded it. Here The Plan are wearing their hearts proudly on their sleeves, and Travis Morrison's lyrics are the perfect blend of bitterness, pain and hope. The band move even further away from their post-hardcore roots and toward a sound that one might even call jam band-ish, like if Fugazi and...I don't know, some jam band that wasn't terrible, merged to form a jammy, post-emo band. That's what this record is, but better than I just made it sound.

47. Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie

I don't give a damn what Ben Gibbard or Chris Walla say, they owe their latter career success to The O.C. Also, to this record. It's big, well, big for an introspective indie record from the Pacific Northwest, and it sounds fabulous. Gibbard, who can fall into that category of indie rock lyricists that write songs that sound trite rather than deep, makes almost no missteps here. I mean, "the glove compartment isn't accurately named," straddles the line, but really thats the low point, and even then it isn't that bad. What really makes the album, though, is the Chris Walla production. It's sparse when it needs to be (see the title track) and full when it needs to be (see "The New Year"). This is one of those mid-decade indie-pop records that, unlike The Shins, still holds up.

46. Post-Nothing by Japandroids 

Man, I love this album. In terms of two-person bands that have flooded the market in the past few years (No Age...The White Stripes....others), I may respect the others a bit more, but I have an enormous soft spot for this album. It's fun, shout-y, fast, poppy, and there is so much distortion you can almost hear it dripping out of your headphones and into your brain. This is the album Kevin Shields would make if he wasn't so moody (read:crazy), came from Vancouver, loved the shit out of the fact that he was from Vancouver, and was super into Agent Orange and The Jesus and Mary Chain instead of whatever it is Kevin Shields is into. So good.

45. The Dresden Dolls by The Dresden Dolls 

I've been listening to this album for years, and every time the album opener "The Good Day" starts I still want to turn to someone and ask, "where the fuck did this come from?" Completely unlike anything else that was released this past decade, The Dresden Dolls' self-titled debut still manages to surprise. If Marlene Deitrich were less comically German, she would be Amanda Palmer and she would sing songs about coin operated boys and they would make about as much sense as this one does, but you'd love it anyway because it would sound so damn strange and incredibly appealing. Also, the cover to this album was vampire-goth chic before vampire-goth was even chic. Talk about spotting a trend a mile down the road.

44. Futuresex/Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake

Most of the time great singles don't make an album great. Here they do. The filler is really good, but go and listen to "Sexyback," "My Love," and "What Goes Around," and then try to argue with this album. You can't. It will win.

43. Madvilliany by Madvillian 

DOOM is awesome, and he kills it on this record. Plus he has a song called "Meat Grinder." That's all I have to say about that.

42. Apologies to the Queen Mary by Wolf Parade

Some albums come with a stupid amount of pre-release hype. This was one of those albums. It was also one of the few albums that lived up to the hype. This Montreal-based band (Canada rocked the indie band production this decade, by the way) start the album out strong with, "You Are A Runner, I Am My Father's Son" and they really don't let down the entire way through. Each and every song is strong, and although it may not be your cup of tea, there is no denying that this album, is a tough (in a good way) listen that has surprises galore. It was produced by Modest Mouse's Issac Brock, and it has that same brittle sensibility of a Modest Mouse album, but they pay homage instead of outright thievery whilst forging a path all their own. By the time album closer, "This Heart's On Fire," is over its easy to tell this is one of those special debuts.

41. Silent Alarm by Bloc Party/ Silent Alarm Remixed by Bloc Party and Various

I think I might be the only person on the face of the Earth who still has a soft spot for Bloc Party...aside from maybe their parents. Maybe. I had a friend who once claimed that if Bloc Party had released Silent Alarm before the debut of Franz Ferdinand, they would have been the biggest band on the planet. Who knows? But Silent Alarm (and it's remix sibling) is loud, fast (most of the time), but what stands out is the passion with which Kele yelps the lyrics and the band plows through these songs. It's almost as if they know that they really only have one chance to show the world what they can do, and they're going to take advantage of this opportunity. When "So Here We Are" hits its peak and Kele, who is buried in the mix by this point, is just kind of shouting, "I've figured it out," you can tell they mean it in a way Franz Ferdinand never did. How can you not hold a soft spot for that?

40. The Life Aquatic Sessions by Seu Jorge/ Tiny Cities by Sun Kil Moon

These two albums are what it means to make an album of covers. Cat Power tried it and failed. Mixtapes sort of operate on the same principles, but nothing matches Seu Jorge's covers of David Bowie classics for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Mark Kozelek's album of Modest Mouse covers. They are both perfect. At once recognizable, but totally original. And even better, they make the originals sound fresh again, and if your covering something as well weathered as "Rebel Rebel" or "Ocean Breathes Salty" thats some high praise.

39. Kill The Moonlight by Spoon

This could really be any of Spoon's albums that they released this decade. I mean, they tossed out four really solid pop records. I picked Kill The Moonlight because its just a little bit chirpier than the others. It bounces a bit higher than something like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and swaggers a bit more than Girls Can Tell. But, man, you really can't question their consistency. Front to back solid.

38. The Stage Names by Okkervil River

The Stage Names is a pop record full of pop songs about pop songs. It's a very post modern pop record. I can hear you making fun of me. Stop it. It's true. These are nine incredibly clever songs about music, making music, the way music fits into your life, and what music means for pop culture in general. My intuition would be to say that this album will loose all relevancy in five or so years, but then the tunes are just too good to deny. It's obvious the move from New Hampshire to Austin had an effect of band leader Will Scheff and company. There's a twang that somehow, don't ask me how, but somehow makes the songs even more prone to get stuck in your head than they would otherwise. Also, it doesn't hurt that you have to listen all the way until the very last song on the album before you hit a song that isn't at least as strong as the one that came before it, and considering this album kicks off with, "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe," that's quite a feat.

37. Tallahassee by The Mountain Goats

I think that fans of The Mountain Goats can break down into two very fundamental categories: people who prefer the fuzzy, tape deck recordings and people who like the fully produced sound. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd probably fall into the former camp. But, that being said, it's tough to not love Tallahassee more than any of the other albums. I mean, it's a concept album about the Alpha Couple's marriage falling apart, a subject which could get way too dark for any kind of record, but John Darnielle's lyrics, which swing from bittersweet to flat out bitter, are poignant but never morose. Well, they do get sort of morose sometimes. I mean, you can't write a lyric like, "I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unloveable hand/I hope you die/I hope we both die," without it being a bit morose. But when the sentiment of the lyrics threatens to overwhelm, he comes right back with music that is positively cheery. It might not have my favorite songs by The Mountain Goats on it, but Tallahassee is the album I respect the most.

36. Saturdays=Youth by M83

I have to be honest, I blew hot and cold on this album for a long time. But after it was drilled into my head on summer car rides (I could recite the lyrics to "Kim & Jessie" in my sleep at this point) I've come around to it completely. It might not have the incredible high of a song like, "Don't Save Us From the Flames" but Anthony Gonzalez has a knack for making the anachronistic sound fresh again, and Saturdays=Youth sounds like the soundtrack to every John Hughes movie ever made in one album. It's so deeply indebted to 80s New Wave and synth-pop, and Gonzalez's love of that music is so strongly felt throughout, that it's tough to not fall in love with this album. If you feel any kind of need to question that, just go listen to the song "Graveyard Girl," and you'll discover exactly what I did: it's sweeping, lovely, and sounds more like The Edge than The Edge does.

35. The Warning by Hot Chip

I don't dance. But if someone told me that my choices were dance or be killed, I would ask them to play this album. There is every kind of percussive instrument imaginable on top of these synth lines and drum machine loops that it creates a surprisingly rich sonic palate if you care to hear it. Also, Alex Taylor's guitars help on this score as well. But what I like most about this album is the surprising lyrical depth. I mean, "Over & Over" might not be the most lyrically complex song every written, but "Look After Me," with the breezy cool of a Kings of Convenience song, has an emotional complexity almost totally foreign to a dance record. This record is definitely a cut above. If you want to hear how wide the gap is between other English dance outfits, go listen to Does It Offend You, Yeah? and then come back and turn this on. That's what I thought.

34. Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs by Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is the best whistling/singing violinist around. Plus he puts on a crazy live show and writes pretty fantastic tunes that you can listen to endlessly without getting bored with. Also, it doesn't hurt that "Fake Palindromes" is one of the best songs of the decade. His other albums are great, but this is just solid.

33. Lifted Or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground by Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst has been this past decade's most prolific singer-songwriter. No one has been as consistent or done better work than Oberst, and while Lifted...might not be his best album its definitely his most exciting. Its a work of startling maturity (Oberst was 22 when it was released) that is incredibly accomplished, and, perhaps most impressively, points to a great deal of potential. On Lifted...Oberst falls prey to his tendency to excess, but its always interesting excess (see: "Let's Not Shit Ourselves"). And in any case, there are moments of pure majesty when the excess is absolutely perfect and at that point it isn't even really excess. It's just grand, sweeping, moving, literate, revelatory and fantastic (see: "Nothing Gets Crossed Out"). It captures the insecurity of an artist still in the process of maturation, but more than that, it captures the insecurity of being young to which everyone can relate.

32. Kala by M.I.A.

What can you say about M.I.A. that hasn't been said before? Not a lot, so I won't try. I'll just say that I'm quite taken with this album. I dislike how popular "Paper Planes" became, but mostly I think I'm just bitter that it wasn't immediately successful, but was successful because it was in the trailer for that movie. Plebes.

31. Hail to the Thief by Radiohead

It's hard to think about a Radiohead album being underrated, but this album is underrated. When it was released in 2003, I think people were expecting the return to rock Radiohead that they'd been promised ever since the crazy left turn that was Kid A. Well, in some ways it is and it isn't that return. It straddles the electronic/rock line and that alienated pretty much everyone. Thom Yorke went way out of his way to tell people that this isn't a political album in any way. Well, looking back on it that seems paradoxically true and un-true. It might not be overtly political, but it deals pretty thoroughly with the themes or paranoia, loneliness, and anxiety at a modern world that have always been at the heart of a Radiohead album. But coming in the midst of George Bush's first term amplifies these themes and gives them a reality and context they might not have had before. The worries about modernity that were expressed in Kid A were realized in the three years between that album and this one, and Yorke and Co. might not have meant for this to be a political album, but it's there in every word and note. Go back and reevaluate this one.

30. Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In

Man, ATDI delivered this album ten months into the decade. Hard rock tried like hell to live up to the bar this album set and no one came to anything that even resembles close. It's really too bad these guys couldn't hold everything together. Jim Ward's more populist sensibilities kept the more experimental side of those afro-ed dudes in check and the results were way better than either off-shoot band could come up with.

29. Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams had a decade of being consistently inconsistent, but when the man is on, he is definitely on. His songwriting has never been as focused as it was on Heartbreaker, though. I tend to question whether or not he'll ever reach these heights again. I don't like that I'm one of those people who holds out hope for an artist to return to his roots instead of following his artistic tendencies in whichever direction they take him, but goddamn this record is just too good to not want more of it. Maybe when this marriage to Mandy Moore ends. Either way, though, this is another one of those break-up albums that's on the list, and it deserves a place in the Parthenon of break-up albums alongside Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. But what's so remarkable is how Adams manages to ensure that when things get grim, and boy do they get grim ("I just want to die without you," he sings on "Call Me On Your Way Back Home"), the album never feels mopey. It sounds sad, but oddly hopeful in its sadness, as if assured that the sadness will pass as soon as the album is over.

28. Elephant by The White Stripes

Some people prefer Elephant, some prefer White Blood Cells, and at least one person prefers De Stijl. I don't get that, but whatever. The album starts off with the menacing "Seven Nation Army" and never really lets up. Some of the songs seem a bit fuzzier than those on White Blood Cells, but only superficially. Everything is darker, more paranoid, and more cynical than before. Jack snarls the lyrics, and even when Meg gets her shot at singing she has an edge to her voice that makes everything sound a bit sinister. It's quite a departure from what came before. Their follow-up to success might not have been as great as the album that brought them success, but its still fantastic. It also has the added benefit of sounding familiar, but different enough to be constantly surprising and interesting.

27. The Flying Club Cup by Beirut

One of the surprising musical trends to pop up over the course of the past ten years was the appropriation of Eastern European folk music by indie bands. Gogol Bordello and DeVotchKa were both mining this territory, but neither were as successful as Zach Condon and Beirut. Really, any of his albums could hold this position, but I just happen to like The Flying Club Cup best. It's a super catchy affair with flugelhorns, accordions, organs, fiddles, chimes, bells, and everything else with Condon's uber-smooth voice floating over the top of these twisty, march-like compositions. The whole damn thing is just so charming.

26. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

The story is well worn by now. Sad dude, mono, beard, flannel, cabin, woods, winter, isolation. We all know this album. We're all heard it. We all think its pretty unassailable. It's number 26. I think that's about all I have to say about that.

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