25. Discovery by Daft Punk
Story: I saw Daft Punk live in Chicago at Lollpalooza in early August of 2007. I went to the destination festival with my younger brother. We road tripped out to Chicago and stayed with one of my friends from high school. He was working at the festival as a roving clown/mime-type person, but he also got a few hours off at the end of each festival day to go and see the headliners. The first night of the festival the headliners were Ben Harper and Daft Punk. Basically, the choice was no choice. We went to Daft Punk. My brother and I were happy to watch the pyramid stage and light show, which was the most amazing stage set-up I'd ever seen, and to this day has been rivaled only a few times. The Gutierrez brothers aren't big dancers. My friend, on the other hand, turned into a dancing fiend. He looked like a Jewish Billy Blanks dancing with these nutty hippies who had migrated over from the Ben Harper show. That was what Daft Punk's music makes people do. Shed inhibitions (although, I have to admit, he's a pretty uninhibited guy already) and dance in joy, and no album is better at demonstrating the power to do that than Discovery. I'm not a particularly cheery guy and tend to approach joyful things with a great deal of hesitancy and skepticism, but Discovery makes me super happy. It's an album that is loaded with songs about dancing and joy and happiness and love and all of those things that I would normally dismiss. I can't dismiss this. Discovery's particular brand of catchy dance songs melt even the iciest of hearts, and damn if that isn't something worth celebrating.
24. From a Basement on a Hill by Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith's suicide was a tragedy. There were few songwriters as good as Smith, and none better. From a Basement on a Hill, the album he was working on at the time of his death, was released in 2004 using mastered takes of the demos from those last sessions. It was a pretty controversial release at the time, and remains so even now. The consensus seems to be that this isn't the album Smith would have released had he lived to finish it. The session's original producer, David McConnell, is of the opinion that Smith wanted a rougher sound. Some of that sound made it onto the released record. "Coast to Coast" is Smith's heaviest song since he was a member of Heatmiser, and "King's Crossing" has that in your face quality McConnell says Smith was looking for. As it stands, uncompleted as it is, it is better than Smith's other release this past decade, "Figure 8" and ranks near the top of the man's honest to God unassailable oeuvre. That it was never finished is one of modern pop musics great disappointments, but as a testament to Smith's ability this album has a lot to say. Even as an unfinished record, it is a fabulous achievement and stands as one more reason why the world of music will be lesser as a result of his death.
23. Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective
After I listened to Merriweather Post Pavilion I went back and listened to Animal Collective's past releases to see if maybe I had been wrong all along. I'd always been in the camp that saw Animal Collective as having some good songs and nearly great albums, but they'd always been hit and miss. I found out that I wasn't wrong, but this album was still a fantastic album. It is less idiosyncratic than other Collective albums and more accessible than anything that's come before. There is a celebration of the ordinary on Merriweather Post Pavilion that is very appealing, as well. "My Girls" is a song about making a life for your daughters that is better than the life you had as a child. What's bad about that? Nothing from where I'm sitting. In the end, that's what makes this album so fantastic, it finds the majesty in the ordinary and celebrates that normalcy.
22. In Rainbows by Radiohead
I, honest to Christ, couldn't tell you what I love so much about In Rainbows. When it was released there were those ubiquitous lines in reviews about its kind of unusual release scheme, but in the months and years that followed we had to stop talking about how the album was released and actually talk about the album itself. It has this power over me that I really couldn't describe. It isn't quite Kid A or OK Computer, but every song is amazing on its own terms. What is so great about In Rainbows is the variation in terms of themes dealt with. There are the paranoid songs ("Bodysnatchers," "Videotape") but there are also songs about romantic obsession (the off-puttingly dreamy "All I Need"), and even a song about a failed relationship ("Faust Arp"). I think what I like about In Rainbows is how easy it all feels. Radiohead sound like they know they're the best band in the world, and feel totally comfortable with that distinction.
21. Late Registration by Kanye West
I want to hate Kanye West. I so want to hate Kanye West. Sometimes it's easy. I mean, he is the most stupidly confidently person on the face of the Earth. It's like the world is in on the joke and are laughing at the poor dullard behind his back, but he thinks everyone is honestly lining up to worship at his feet. Really, we're all to blame for not dope slapping the jackass. BUT, that being said, Late Registration is actually fantastic. I really have nothing else to say about this album at this particular juncture. Right now, my overwhelming feeling of disgust for the man personally is overshadowing how much I like this album. Trust me I like it.
20. Rabbit Habits by Man Man
Here's what I love about Man Man: their ability to turn normal pop song fodder into something totally unique and identifiably Man Man-ish. You saw glimmers of this on Six Demon Bag, specifically "Van Helsings Boombox" (one of my favorite songs ever), but on Rabbit Habits its on in full force. Honus Honus (the man so nice he named himself twice!) stands amidst utter musical chaos in tears. This is another one of those break-up albums, but its a break-up album if you lived your life in a Hunter S. Thompson in Las Vegas-esque drug induced haze. Everything about it is upside down. The sentiments are identifiable, but the music is so fucking off the wall there's really nothing else to do but go with its insanity. "Easy Eats or Dirty Doctor Galapagos" is a song about getting back together with an ex, only to have things not work out for a second time. It's easy to see how that could be turned into a normal pop song. Kelly Clarkson could have a field day with a song like that. But Man Man turn it into something completely different and totally their own. Also, who else would compare the end of a relationship to the dropping of an atomic bomb. It's so obvious as to be hidden in plan sight. That's why this is such a great album; it's everything you know about pop shown to you in a way you've never been shown pop before, and they approach this album with a focus they haven't shown before. The insanity is contained, not branching off in a thousand different directions like it had a tendency to do on previous albums. They allow themselves only one moment of mindless excess, the thirteen second long track, "Mysteries of the Universe Unraveled." I hate that thirteen seconds, but it's a thirteen seconds I'm willing to forgive.
19. Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio
"I was a lover/Before this war." That's how this album starts. Man, weren't we all. Tunde Adebimpe sings his heart out on this record, and this is the sound of modern soul music. Dave Sitek's production is heavy with noise and distortion, but then these gorgeous guitars lines and piano parts flutter up out of the muddiness, bringing with them an incredible tension. This is an album of tension. The beauty of individual parts against the backdrop of ugly distortion; the lyrical tension of romance, desire, lust, longing, and loneliness. What's most surprising about this album is how easily these, at times, challenging songs get stuck in your head. You wouldn't think an album about creating atmosphere would be so damn catchy, but there it is. TV on the Radio have been more experimental and they've been poppier, but they've never been so consistently soulful. They've never been so good, and they've been really really good.
18. Silent Shout by The Knife
Popular electronica doesn't get a lot icier, more minimalist, or more Scandinavian than this brother/sister duo, and it's fabulous.It's aggressive, ethereal, and, let's not kid ourselves, a bit creepy. Karin Dreijer Andersson's voice is twisted in every which way by her brother and the results can be as off-putting as they can be beautiful. Her brother, for his part, layers arpeggiated synths and drum beats until you can't tell what sound is coming from where. Then his voice is added to the mix, like it is on "We Share Our Mother's Health," and it cuts through everything like a crazy, Sweedish David Byrne. This is one of the most unique electronic records to be released in quite a while, and it can be a difficult album to get through at times, but it's totally worth the work you have to put into it.
17. Is This It? by The Strokes
The Strokes, riding high on a wave of British hype, were really the last band to get in on the MTV-style road to success. You know, make a video, get it played a lot, get on the radio, get played on the radio a lot, go on a tour of venues that might be just a little bit too big but sell them out anyway, get overexposed, endure backlash, never really get back to that high water mark, etc., etc., etc. Say what you will about the career of The Strokes, this album is a fantastic record of three minute long garage rock songs. The Strokes were a group of five spoiled, rich kids with really nice clothes designed to look disheveled, but behind that facade of, "eh, I don't really give a shit" were five guys who did give a shit. They gave a shit about writing really great pop songs about one night stands, week long benders, late nights in the city, being a twenty-something with nothing holding you back and everything to look forward to, and not giving a shit about anything. The Strokes really were a flash in the pan band. They've yet to release anything, be it solo or collectively, this focused and great, but in the end what difference does it make? We've got this.
16. Agaetis Byrjun by Sigur Ros
My tendency is to think of people as being Sigur Ros people, or not being Sigur Ros people. You either buy into the unbridled beauty of the music, the (to some) gimmick of singing in a made up language, and all that entails, or you don't. I love it, and I've loved each of Sigur Ros' releases, but none have really reached the amazing highs of this album. None have matched the understated majesty of Staralfur or the outright beauty of the title track. These songs have the same basic shape of a post rock song, the slow build of layers of instruments on top of layers of instruments, but they best almost every post rock outfit in terms of payoff. The layers are perfectly structured. The music is almost painfully beautiful. Everything fits together in a way that is nearly indescribable in its appeal. Actually, that's not true. It's appeal is describable. It's beautiful.
15. Supreme Clientele by Ghostface Killah
This past decade would have been disasterous for Wu-Tang Clan if it wasn't for Ghostface. I mean, the RZA did provide some really great music to a few films. But let's look at the facts: they released a pair of mediocre albums, Method Man had his own joke of a TV show, ODB (God rest his soul) became a joke and then he died, and everyone else tossed out middling records. But not Ghostface. He killed it over the course of the past ten years, releasing quality albums and nothing but quality albums. As good as the other releases might be, and they are quite good, nothing quite lives up to the bar he set in January of 2000. Supreme Clientele shows a rapper who is hungry, driven, focused and he delivers on every single track.
14. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
The story of this album is well known by now. The first internet success in a decade full of internet successes. I have to be honest, I don't like this album as much as past Wilco releases, but it stands head and shoulders above anything else they've released in the past ten years as well as better than most of the other albums put out by anybody this decade. It's experimental, but not alienating. It still has the signs of old Wilco, but its a step in a new direction. A direction they would move further down in later releases with less success, but Jeff Tweedy is on in full force here, and with the help of the late Jim O'Rourke the alt country titans moved in a new, vaguely unexpected direction. This is a record that points toward exciting directions, some of which were never as fully realized as they are here. Album opener "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," sets the tone for the album, and sets the bar pretty high. Tweedy and Co. reach those heights consistently. This is what it means to be an alt-country record.
13. Original Pirate Material by The Streets
Rarely is the title of an album's first track as fitting as "Turn the Page." Mike Skinner, the consummate angry, young British man, states right at the beginning that he wants to do something different, and different is exactly what Original Pirate Material is. Its neither a hip-hop album nor is it an electronica album, despite its pulling from elements of both. I remember people comparing Skinner to Eminem. I mean you can kind of see the similarities; white guys, a bit trashy, rappers, whatnot. But that undersells Skinner and the risks he was taking with this album. The beats aren't as cool as typical club tracks, and his rapping is about the plight of the average British person, and perhaps most risky of all, he is sincere and unafraid of showing off his weaknesses along with his strengths. That's what comes through so strongly on this album, the sincerity. This is Skinner's life, for better or worse, and he's sharing it with us. Luckily, its all for the better.
12. White Blood Cells by The White Stripes
"Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground," is like some crazy motherfucker from Detroit headbutting you in chest. Jack and Meg, total unknowns at this point, start off with some bizarre count-off which then gives way to some nuts-o feedback that,honestly, didn't need a count-off in the first place. Then they tear into the rest of the album with an admirable "I don't give fuck" attitude and reckless abandon. There are few additional instruments to Meg's charmingly simplistic drumming and Jack's guitar, which sounds like it was something the MC5 left behind and is being played by a guy who liked Muddy Waters way more than Eric Clapton when he was a kid. It's an exciting listen that plays, cover to cover, like one cathartic yelp from two people who are sick of trying to get people to listen to them. The albums before this, underrated as they were, sounded like they were trying a bit too hard, and the albums after this sound like they were, to a certain extent, trying to replicate this success. White Blood Cells, though, is lo-fi, simple, cathartic, angry, fantastic, and holds up in a way it really has no right to.
11. Stankonia by Outkast
This album is a big sprawling that is a hip-hop album, soul album, rock album, and pop album at the same time in one big masterpiece. Big Boi and Andre 3000 were perfect for one another and join the ranks of Eric B. and Rakim and Chuck D and Flavor Flav as hip-hop's great foils. The tragedy of this album is just how perfectly it embodies how well the two worked together. Their separation, all but official at this point, is a loss. It's sad. So sad I'm going to stop writing about it.
10. Funeral by Arcade Fire
At a time when music felt like it was getting smaller, when The White Stripes and The Strokes were reeling things in to create a more contained sound, Win Butler and Montreal's Arcade Fire had the courage to make something that sounded huge. More than that, they had the courage to make a big sounding album about death. More than that they had the courage to make a huge album about death that didn't dwell in death's misery but, somehow, found something hopeful in it. It's emotional, yes, but not morose. It's full to the brim with interesting arrangements and sonic experimentation. This album gives Arcade Fire a lot to live up to, and who knows if they'll ever make something this majestic again, but there is absolutely nothing about this album that isn't impressive, from its ambitions to its grandeur to its hopefulness to its themes. This could have easily sounded like the the enormous thud of a band falling flat on its face, but Arcade Fire beat the odds and the results were as spectacular as their ambitions.
9. Separation Sunday by the Hold Steady
Craig Finn has no business being the frontman for a band. He's schlubby, balding, bespectacled,and has no real singing ability to speak of. But he is the perfect frontman for The Hold Steady, and sweet Jesus does the man have a knack for writing spectacularly literate lyrics about parties, religion, trashy girls, druggy guys, and Minneapolis. Tacking their cues from Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, The Hold Steady became this decade's best bar band. Really, all of their albums are fantastic, but I just like Separation Sunday the best. Who knows why. There's really no accounting for taste. Oh wait, I know why, "Silly rabbit, tripping is for teenagers/Murder is for murderers/And hard drugs are for bartenders." That's why.
8. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed by Los Campesinos!
This is the last break-up album on this list. It was released about a year ago, and has done nothing but get better as the year has gone on. This album's existence is a minor miracle. It was released only a few months after the Campesinos! long playing debut, "Hold On Now, Youngster...," itself a wonderful release, but "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed," out paces its predecessor in all ways. Gone are the fun poppy sounds of a song like, "You! Me! Dancing!" They've been replaced with something darker, something emotional. Instead they give us ten songs of despair, jealousy, vomit, emotional trauma, depression and a fear of the future. I mean, the tweecore sound isn't gone. Instead we are provided songs that are, musically, rather upbeat, and it helps balance out the downtrodden emotional despair in the lyrics. But make no mistake, this is a bleak, bleak album. "Shout at the world/Because the world doesn't love you/Lower yourself because you know that you'll have to," they shout on "Miserabllia." The title track is the most honest portrait of a relationship falling apart I've heard in a while. What is surprising is that the anger is, more often than not, inward. These are songs about self-loathing as much as they're about anger at exes. This is desperate, beautiful, and utterly brilliant.
7. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas Toward Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
This is a double album stuffed full of terrifying post-apocalyptic soundscapes, periodically interrupted by interludes of gorgeous, hopeful beauty. It might not be as good as their debut, "F# A # (Infinity)," but it is damn good. GY!BE didn't pioneer the orchestral, post-rock sound, but they perfected it and embody its politically charged ethos better than any of their predecessors and imitators. Mono, Explosions in the Sky, Yndi Halda? They work to achieve what this album does naturally. It's interesting and frightening, discarding all ideas of God and government as beacons of hope. We are alone, and this album makes no bones about its belief in that.
6. The Blueprint by Jay-Z
Jay-Z has never been better, bigger, or bolder. He is standing on top of the world, knows he's on top of the world, and kills it. Really, there's not much else to say about this album. Just go listen to it. It might not be easy to be this good, but Jay-Z makes it all sound effortless.
5. The Moon and Antarctica by Modest Mouse
The Moon and Antarctica is Issac Brock's masterpiece. All of his existential crises and drug induced madness cohere in a way they didn't before and haven't since. Things have changed for Modest Mouse. They got crazy popular, had a former member of the Smiths join (and then depart) their fold, and sold a ton of records. The other two albums they gave us this decade were both really good, but neither hit the heights of this one. For a major label debut, this is a remarkably unmarketable album full of paranoid songs and dark sentiments, and it shows a great deal of label support on Epic's part that they didn't hand the record back to Brock with a note reading, "Hey, Sparky. How about something a bit chirpier?" It's dark and it's a challenge to get through in a way that most major label releases aren't, but it is an incredibly satisfying listen.
4. Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol
I saw Interpol at Higher Ground when Higher Ground was still in Winooski. It was something like January or February of 2004, just a few months after this album hit the shelves. It was me and a few buddies of mine surrounded by people about six years older than ourselves. A haze of cigarette smoke floated just above the crowd. You could still do that in bars in Vermont, but this show happened before that particular affectation became a habit of mine so I was unable to contribute to the general atmosphere of the room. That was the setting. Smokey, cramped club with the lights set to be as dark as possible. Then this band of four dudes in suits walked out on stage and absolutely tore through this album. It was a heartstopping show, and I really haven't seen any show that was better. It helped that this was the only album they'd put out, along with a few B-sides ("The Specialist" among them). What an album this is. It's dark, brooding, and insanely compelling. There isn't a wrong step on the entire album. Paul Banks channels Ian Curtis, while the rest of his band are equal parts Joy Division, Television, and Talking Heads. The Joy Division comparisons flew (not necessarily unfairly) around at the time of this album's release, but what becomes apparent on subsequent spins is that this record is romantic in a way Joy Division never was. Joy Division was always a band of despair, but on Turn on the Bright Lights Interpol manage to find some sort of romantic hope in that despair. It's not simply a well written and well produced knock off of a band's forefathers. It's a record about being a twentysomething, not having a thing in the world to despair about, but finding a great deal of hope and comfort in that despair.
3. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning by Bright Eyes
There are three permanent members of Bright Eyes: the infamous Conor Oberst plus multi-instrumentalists Mike Moggis and Nate Wolcott. All three make their presence known on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and all three contribute to make an album that could never have been as successful without any single one of them. But, that being said, this is really Oberst's shining moment as a lyricist, musician and artist. His work had always been leading up to an album like this, and everything since has lived in its shadow. The album is so deeply moved by Oberst's time living in New York before the war in Iraq that you can feel it in every note and syllable. "Old Soul Song" is a song that is resigned in its outlook on the useless nature of protest, whilst "Land Locked Blues" is a brilliant bit of lyricism. A protest song dressed up as a song about a break-up, with a simple guitar line quietly played in the background. But, ultimately, this is an album about loneliness in a big city. "Lua," "Poison Oak," and "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," all encapsulate that feeling of intense loneliness that meaningless sex, drugs, and apathy can't erase. But, there is the one moment of hope on the record that is so intense that it cannot be overlooked. It is the album's lynch pin and falls right in the album's middle. "First Day of My Life" is one of Oberst's cheeriest songs, but its presence, in the middle of an album's worth of loneliness and despair, point to where his true feelings of hope come from: love and connection. It sounds trite, but it isn't. It is a perfectly placed song that totally captures the spirit of the album, and does so in one utterly perfect line, "I'd rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery." It's an album about hope, dressed up as an album about loneliness.
2. Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy is responsible for that big explosion of dance rock that happened sort of mid decade. As head of DFA records he spearheaded that whole movement of the incorporation of disco and synth-pop into post-punk to form some other kind of crazy, three headed monster. As the leader of LCD Soundsystem he also made similar music, but was way better at it than anyone else. His self-titled debut was a pretty fantastic bit of dance-rock mastery, but his follow-up, Sound of Silver, was more than anyone could have possibly dreamed of. Is he forging a new path? Not exactly. It's more like he's taking his influences and making something out of them. Television shows up in "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down." Bowie shows up in "Time to Get Away." David Byrne shows up in the title track. And yet, Sound of Silver is never defined by its influences. It is always its own original sound. Murphy is a king of writing lyrics for the snarky, aging hipster and those are around on the aforementioned, "New York, I Love You..." as well as on the single, "North American Scum." It's sarcastic, it's funny, it's something you can dance to, and it's catchy as hell. But then Murphy does something you wouldn't expect. He does something that none of his other dance-rock peers do. He does something that makes this album more than simply an exceptional indie dance-rock album (and make no mistake, it is that). He let's his guard down for two tracks. "Someone Great" is an electronic song about loss. The loss of what is never exactly clear. From the beginning you might thing it's a song about a break-up, but then in the middle of the song Murphy drops the vaguely baffling lyric, "You're smaller than my wife imagined/Surprised you were human." And then you start to wonder if its about the death of a loved one, but after a minute it starts to become clear that it doesn't really matter. Loss is loss, be it from death or from losing a girlfriend. It still feels the same. You still feel empty and that feeling is a universal one. But then the album segues right into the best individual track that was recorded in the entire decade, "All My Friends." No other song even really came close. I'm a person who, despite a generally negative outlook on most things, cares more about his friends than anything else in the world, and "All My Friends" meditation on growing old and its attempt to reconcile becoming mature with remaining close to people you care about is about as perfect and poignant as a song can be. How do you fill emptiness is the question that "Someone Great" asks, and 'your friends' is the answer that "All My Friends" provides. That's what makes "Sound of Silver" such a perfect album. It's more than a dance record and it's more than an indie rock record and it's more than album of cynicism and sarcasm. It is all of those things, but it's all of those things with a pulse. It's all of those things and it feels. I might not think this is the very best album of the decade, but I think I like it the most.
1. Kid A by Radiohead
Here it is. Ten months into the decade Radiohead released Kid A. Thanks for showing up, everything else. This is probably the least surprising choice imaginable, but I don't really care. A couple weeks ago I was listening to this album with a friend when it struck me just how crazy an album this was to people who'd been paying close attention to music during the 90s. I have to admit, I wasn't paying close attention to music during the 90s. I was listening to Cake, and you know you were too, so stop pretending you're cooler than me and weren't.
But, imagine this: Radiohead releases their debut album, Pablo Honey, in 1993, and aside from "Creep" it's a pretty unimpressive affair that sounds like every other band on modern rock radio. I mean, if Thom Yorke sounded a bit more like Kurt Cobain you could probably be forgiven for listening to a song like, "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and mistaking Radiohead for Bush. Then, two years later, you listen to The Bends. It's a spectacular album driven by the three guitars, soaring anthems, and solid rhythm section. It might not be groundbreaking, but its different enough from what Blur is doing at the same time and nowhere near as unspectacular as those pithy little albums Oasis were making. Then, two years after that you listen to O.K. Computer and are blown away. It still has that ferocious three guitar attack of The Bends, but buried in the mix are electronic blips, organ sound, interesting percussion parts, strange bits of feedback here and there, eerie vocal harmonies that float up out of the mix, and a piano part taken from "Sexy Sadie." It's a remarkable thing to behold, and it rocks.
Then three years later you buy Kid A, put it into your CD player and you hear the opening of "Everything In It's Right Place." The only thing I can imagine is outright bafflement. How do you not hear that and not go, "what the fuck is this?" Kid A represents the most significant left hand turn from one album to the next in the history of pop music, even more so than The Beatles' move from Rubber Soul to Revolver. Versus-chorus-bridge structures are almost gone completely, as are guitars for that matter. This album does many things, but rock is not one of them. This is a rock album for the new millennium. If one of rock's original ethos was to rebel against what came before, Kid A does that. Its an electronic album, almost a quaintly mod electronic album, that is paranoid about the future, and isolated as a result of technology's flattening of the world. The world is bigger and this is an album about feeling small in a world that expanded mind numbingly fast. No other release in the past decade was as sonically experimental or as lyrically sentient. Then there's that whole business with how the album is put together. Nothing in recent memory has been so intricately crafted as Kid A. Each song provides the perfect bridge to the next, and if one song were removed, or if the order of tracks were shifted, the whole beautiful thing would fall apart. You couldn't get from "How To Disappear Completely" to "Optimistic" without the Ambient 1-eqsue "Treefingers." You just couldn't do it. It also helps that each and every song on this album is, in addition to being sonically experimental and lyrically sentient, solid. Really fucking solid. Front to back. When it comes right down to it, some bands released better songs, but no one released an ALBUM that was as good as this. This is an album that works cover to cover, so to speak, better than anything else that has come about in the past ten years. Hell, longer than that...let me get back to you on when a better album was made.