Thursday, December 31, 2009
20. Matthew Good
[Universal Canada, 2003]
Unknown on this side of the border, Matthew Good isn’t just the most consistent, visionary Canadian songwriter of the 2000s; he’s one of the best anywhere. And while all five of his studio releases this decade are worth your time, this remains his magnum opus, a sprawling and beautiful work both ambitious in scope (six tracks exceed the 5:55 mark, each a standout) and startling in its hard-edged humanity. Thanks to the digital domain, Avalanche is finally available in America, and nearly seven years on, it still retains every ounce of its power.
The Black Album
[Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003]
Does it matter that his “retirement” only lasted slightly longer than Brett Farve’s? In 2003, Shawn Carter was ready to leave a legacy, and damn if he didn’t deliver, cashing in blue-chip stocks from a Who’s Who of top producers: Kanye (“Encore”), Just Blaze (“Threat”), The Neptunes (“Change Clothes”), and, of course, Rick Rubin’s master class in Eighties revivalism (“99 Problems”). Every track is a monster, every lyric a victory lap. No wonder it’s been (seemingly) sampled or remixed by a thousand others since; The Black Album finds Jay-Z leaving the game on his terms, on top and untouchable.
18. The Strokes
Is This It
Could any album have lived up to the hype that greeted Is This It in the summer of 2001? Amazingly, this one nearly did, and while it might’ve been foolhardy to think the Strokes—or any “garage band,” for that matter—could save rock, at the very least Is This It rescued us from the prolonged American nightmare of Creed, Staind, and Limp Bizkit, kicking the door in for indie acts of all shapes and sizes to mingle in the mainstream. In 2010, The Strokes don’t matter, but their first effort—in all its skuzzy, dirty, insanely catchy glory—still does.
Shattering the myth that of-the-moment music must be mindless, Robyn arrives both inviting and audacious, with its contemporary sheen serving as Trojan horse for one of the smartest, sensitive “pop” records imaginable. Throughout, former teen-idol-turned-indie-auteur Robyn displays enough range to shame a warehouse of single lady divas, moving from L’Trimm-styled goofs (“Konichiwa Bitches”) to Kate Bush-flavored confessionals (“Anytime You Like”) in roughly forty minutes and change. And the points (“Be Mine!,” “Cobrastyle,” “With Every Heartbeat”) in between? As good as pop—or any other—music got this decade.
16. My Morning Jacket
Jim James and company could’ve easily taken the safe route, refining their brand of jam-band fireworks for an ever-widening, ever-adoring audience. Instead, Z blew the blueprint to hell in a thousand dazzling ways, from the sinister electro of “It Beats 4 U” to the cracked reggae of “Off The Record” and the epic, psychedelic set closer “Dondante.” Like Radiohead or Wilco before them, MMJ threw down the gauntlet with Z, instantly transforming into the kind of groundbreaking act whose every move bristles with wide-open possibilities.
15. Arcade Fire
Alone amongst their crazily-hyped indie peers, Arcade Fire actually managed to follow up an amazing debut with an equally amazing second record. With its torrents of sound and expanded palette—and yes, above all, that singular passion—Neon Bible marked the moment when AF's career path changed from “streaking comet” to “one of the brightest stars in the current musical landscape.” God only knows what they’ll do for Album #3.
14. Patty Griffin
No contemporary singer does “sad” better than Patty Griffin, and no album of hers overflows with sadness—and humanity, and heartbreak, and hope—like 1000 Kisses. If you haven't yet discovered one of the best-kept treasures in music today, start with this record; a tiny miracle of hushed moments, it's Patty at her superb best, every vocal as raw as a wound and every ache as radiant as the morning sunrise.
13. The Postal Service
[Sub Pop, 2003]
On paper, there seemed little common ground between Ben Gibbard’s sad-boy yearning and Dntel’s sprightly, bouncing electronica, but once released, Give Up turned out to be the decade’s most left-field surprise, a spot-on pairing that managed, miraculously, to infuse bedroom angst with swirling Technicolor propulsion. Sub Pop’s second-best-selling album to date (behind Nirvana’s Bleach) would go on to spawn countless lousy (and occasionally chart-topping) imitators, with a long-rumored second Postal Service LP never materializing; perhaps for the best, as it’s difficult to imagine any way in which Give Up might be improved.
Now that its headline-grabbing “pay what you want” release has faded into folklore, one can appreciate In Rainbows for what it really is: not a business model or music-biz game changer, but simply a great start-to-finish album. With no lofty concept and no one to please but themselves, Radiohead (AKA The Best Band Of Our Generation) delivered their most consistently open, accessible, and listenable work to date, ten perfect songs performed to perfection.
11. Modest Mouse
The Moon And Antarctica
From day one, Isaac Brock’s best moments have unwound like travelogues, which might explain the singular triumph of The Moon And Antarctica; track for track, this is his band’s finest adventure yet, an album with the scope to encompass each far-ranging experiment, yet fine-tuned enough to capture every last odd, mesmerizing detail. Future Modest Mouse efforts would achieve greater commercial success, but none captured a world quite as mesmerizing as Antarctica, resolutely earthbound in one moment and interstellar the next.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Asleep In The Back
When Elbow won Britain’s Mercury Music Prize in 2008, it only confirmed what the faithful knew back in 2001, as Asleep In The Back garnered a cult following by virtue of its finely-nuanced balance between prog-rock pulse and Britpop dynamics. Even now, its luster remains undiminished; this is a moody, near-symphonic work with edges sharp enough to draw blood.
29. Daft Punk
Hard to imagine, but the mysterious duo known as Daft Punk only released two proper albums in the entire decade. And yet, the legacy of Discovery (Disco Very?) continues to permeate every corner of the pop landscape, from Kanye samples to the gloriously goofy Justice, although no one else manages to walk the tight wire between over-the-top ridiculousness and spot-on sincerity quite like our favorite French robots.
The Back Room
Forget the lazy Interpol or Joy Division comparisons; track for track, no other album this decade contained as much raw, nervous, live-wire energy as The Back Room. As with the Strokes’ debut, the shoestring production only amplifies the tension coursing through each jagged, post-punky second, and while Editors went on to conquer the world (or at least Europe), they never again sounded so immediate, or so damn alive.
27. Band Of Horses
Everything All The Time
[Sub Pop, 2006]
BoH’s pitch-perfect debut begins with the sum of its influences—the high-pitched vocals of My Morning Jacket, the atmospherics of Red House Painters—and then, by the fourth listen, everything falls away except that sound, a spacious, hovering force simultaneously earthy and transcendental. If the surging climax of “The Funeral” doesn’t make your hairs stand up on end, you might not be breathing.
If Tool is the modern version of Pink Floyd, then Lateralus is their Wish You Were Here, a disc so dense and deep it might take years to finally realize it’s also their career pinnacle. Over the course of seventy-nine minutes, the quartet never once waver from their single-minded—and mind-blowing—course, and anyone with the patience to explore (and possibly rearrange the entire album sequence) eventually uncovers nothing less than the most rewarding hard-rock record of the decade.
25. Josh Rouse
In a parallel universe, perhaps, Rouse’s brand of beautifully-constructed AM pop sits atop the charts, lavished with the sort of critical acclaim (and, more importantly, promotional muscle) this criminally underrated singer/songwriter could never quite achieve during his tenure on Rykodisc. At a mere forty minutes, Nashville is an unhip, unassuming marvel, every song catchy enough to lodge instantly in your head… and then casually break your heart.
No offense to Eric B & Rakim, Dre and Snoop, and UGK, but who can argue against Outkast for the premier hip-hop duo of all time? Their fourth album was a loose-limbed, deeply Southern (and deeply stanky) peak of a collaboration that appeared near limitless at the time, and while that prediction turned out to be tragically flawed, the possibilities introduced here—from the George Clinton grooves of “So Fresh, So Clean” to the crazy-quilt head-trip “B.O.B.”—still sound like the future.
23. Jimmy Eat World
Don’t be fooled by the shimmering production and sticky-sweet choruses. Bleed American (blame Dreamworks for the post-9/11 cop-out title Jimmy Eat World) is a record born of hardship, financed with fan dollars and recorded by a band freshly dropped from their last major label. And if the ensuing rags-to-riches story sounds too good to be true, the Jimmies make it flesh and blood; every hook on American surges with hard-won independence, resulting in the kind of celebratory music that went on to foster an entire movement.
22. LCD Soundsystem
Sound Of Silver
Dance music is supposed to lose its shelf life quickly, but Sound Of Silver does the opposite. Two years ago, this album sounded like a handful of brilliant singles surrounded by well-meaning filler; now, it feels like a blueprint for the entire future of smart electronica, with James Murphy tugging your heartstrings and vibrating your skull simultaneously. And the singles? Still brilliant.
21. The Hold Steady
Boys And Girls In America
Possibly the most literate, most poetic… and hell, smartest bar band record since The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. Which makes total sense, because Boys And Girls In America is when Steady mastermind Craig Finn began to truly channel the raw-and-wooly sound of early E Street Band into his own whip-smart brand of indie-flavored punk. Delve deep into the lyrics, or just lean back and let the music kick your ass; Boys And Girls delivers in spades either way.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
40. Fleet Foxes
[Sub Pop, 2008]
No wonder this was the unequivocal critical favorite of 2008. Split equally between early My Morning Jacket and mid-period CSN, Fleet Foxes’ debut emits a hushed, quiet beauty that slowly but steadily enraptures all who hear it. Few albums get better with each listen; fewer still sound timeless barely a year after their initial release.
The Last Broadcast
Studio wizards turned reluctant rock stars, British trio Doves don’t so much shun the spotlight as redirect it—onto the gorgeous, epic, far-reaching productions that color the landscape of their surging second album. This is a true headphone disc, full of tracks dazzling in their intricacies yet teeming with life... and I still get shivers remembering a trip across the Smoky mountains with Broadcast on the stereo as the sun came up.
38. Kanye West
The College Dropout
[Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2004]
Lest we forget, there was a time when the jury was still out on whether Yeezy could succeed where so many other producer-turned-rappers (Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri, Swizz Beatz) had failed. Avoiding embarrassment would’ve been success in itself; instead, West unveiled one of the all-time-great hip-hop debuts, a record at once boastful yet self-conscious, audacious and agonized. Even that already massive ego worked to his advantage, whether rapping with his jaw wired shut on “Through The Wire” or one-upping Lauryn Hill herself on “All Falls Down,” and thank goodness all past (and future) stupidity on Kanye’s part can’t diminish Dropout’s influence in the slightest.
37. The Avett Brothers
I And Love And You
Along with bassist Bob Crawford, Seth and Scott Avett spent the entirety of the decade building up their audience the old-fashioned way: by touring a lot, and by releasing better and better albums. The culmination of their efforts was a major-label debut which channeled the raucous energy of their live shows into near-symphonic pop music, anchored by some of the most gorgeous songwriting to ever emerge from Concord, NC—or anywhere else on the planet.
A Rush Of Blood To The Head
From the opening, pounding chords of “Politik,” it was instantly clear Coldplay were on a mission to blow up their sound to widescreen, stadium-sized levels. They succeeded beyond expectations, of course, but more importantly, they did it without sacrificing the hushed dynamics that made their debut so exquisite: the gentle tug of “In My Place,” the nostalgic ache of “Warning Sign,” and (especially) the slow-burn surge of “The Scientist.”
35. Kathleen Edwards
Asking For Flowers
Country chanteuse Edwards is a gifted and unassuming talent whose chief crime is lack of visibility, meaning her third album was released to little fanfare in 2008 and went unnoticed by most mainstream media. The fortunate few who were paying attention, however, stumbled upon one of the best pure singer/songwriter releases of the decade, a work both political (“Oil Man’s War”) and playful (“The Cheapest Key”)—but above all else, heartbreakingly and gut-wrenchingly open.
34. Sufjan Stevens
[Asthmatic Kitty, 2005]
Surrounded by an army of instruments, buoyed by choirs of voices, and performing an album-length concept filled with song titles like “Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few,” Sufjan Stevens boasts enough pretension to make Arcade Fire sound like a bar band on Thirsty Thursday. And while it took me a long time to come around to the over-the-top pleasures of Illinois, here’s the honest truth: This is a work that needs every ounce of affectation, every odd aside, and every stray French horn… if only to make its many peaks (“Chicago,” “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!,” “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”) stand out in even sharper relief.
Beck Hansen was always an easier artist to admire than love—and then came Sea Change, the one record in his library that wasn’t an elaborate joke or skillful homage. For the first and only time, there’s no ironic distance between performer and audience; instead, Beck pours out his wounded heart with nothing more dramatic than a reserved sigh or wounded aside, and yet the results—simple, unvarnished—speak volumes.
32. Queens Of The Stone Age
Songs For The Deaf
QOTSA’s massive, piledriving, stampeding peak, with every facet—thick swampy riffs, buzzsaw guitars, the mix of Josh Homme’s understated vocals and Nick Oliveri’s energetic bark, and of course Dave Grohl’s monstrous drumming—converging to create one of the best hard-rock discs to appear since the glory days of grunge. The fake radio chatter between songs suggested a parallel universe where this kind of smart, uncompromised rock flourished; for nearly an hour, Songs For The Deaf makes that vision a reality.
31. Ben Folds
Rockin' The Suburbs
Newly divorced from the trio that bore his name, Ben Folds regrouped by releasing the album of his life, a mature-and-moving work that didn’t abandon the frat-boy frivolity of the Ben Folds Five as much as refine it into something more befitting a husband, father, and family man. Rockin’ The Suburbs is packed with character sketches both broad (“Annie Waits”) and quietly intimate (“Fred Jones Part 2”), and for every half-joking crowd-pleaser (“Fired”), there’s a break-your-heart moment like “The Luckiest” to remind you how magnificent Folds could be when firing on all cylinders.
Monday, December 28, 2009
50. TV On The Radio
One of the pleasures of following indie music in the 2000s was watching TOTR start strong… and then keep getting better. Dear Science is the peak of three exceptional albums simply because it offers more of everything; this is the Brooklyn collective at their most refined and most innocent, their giddiest and their heaviest.
49. Sigur Rós
[Smekkleysa/Fat Cat, 2000]
Ágætis Byrjun is a record at once exceptionally beautiful and positively alien, with bowed guitars crying out like mating whales, lyrics from a made-up language (Hopelandic) sung in a near inhuman register, and glacial soundscapes stretching for upwards of ten minutes. In 2001, Sigur Rós’ masterpiece sounded like nothing else on Earth; in 2009, it still doesn’t.
48. The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
[Warner Bros., 2002]
In the wake of the breakthrough that was The Soft Bulletin, the Lips wisely chose not to fix what wasn’t broken, and thus Yoshimi plays out like a (slightly) weirder kissing cousin to that earlier work; its best moments are Day-Glo radiant and shot through with charming naivety, the most vivid childhood fantasies brought to stereophonic life.
Kill The Moonlight
With one simple, sticky organ riff that keeps threatening to explode but never quite does, “Small Stakes” sets the mood for the entire Kill The Moonlight record—and, arguably, every Spoon album to follow. This is the band at their minimalist best, crafting unexpected-yet-perfect arrangements on the simplest of foundations... and making the entire thing seem maddeningly, brilliantly tossed-off every time.
46. The Avalanches
Since I Left You
The logical progression from Paul’s Boutique and DJ Shadow’s Entroducing…, Since I Left You crafts a swirling, hypnotic universe out of more than 3500 (!!) different samples; the end result is akin to stepping into a pop Phantasmagoria of sound, where each listen unveils new wrinkles and even the most recognizable elements are magically, wonderfully altered.
45. Brand New
[Triple Crown, 2003]
In the biggest stylistic leap since Radiohead released The Bends, Long Islanders Brand New followed up their generic pop-punk debut with this, a magnificently multi-layered meditation on betrayal, regret, and all points in between. With its razor-wire lyricism and surging choruses, Deja Entendu—ironically, French for “already heard”—not only pushed Warped tour conventions to the breaking point, but also signaled the way forward, helping to make Brand New the most important punk band of the decade.
44. Nada Surf
The Weight Is A Gift
You could write a book on Nada Surf’s remarkable transformation from Nineties one-hit wonders (“Popular”) to an indie-pop act of the highest order—or you could just check out Let Go and its even-more-impressive follow-up, a gorgeously unassuming record that straddles the line between bruised melancholy and heart-on-sleeve exhilaration. Heartbreak never sounded so catchy.
43. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Hearts Of Oak
Ted Leo is a man out of time, a gifted songwriter with impeccable punk cred whose records continue to slip under the radar year after year. In a perfect universe, he would have the stature of Joe Strummer, and Hearts Of Oak—a career pinnacle both political and playful—would’ve connected with the same force as London Calling.
The all-too-brief neo-soul movement had two peaks: Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and D’Angelo’s second effort, a late-night cycle practically oozing with sweat, all raw edges and grooves thick as molasses. D’Angelo spent the next nine years pulling the J.D. Salinger act; thanks to this record, he’ll still have a passionate fanbase when (and hopefully not if) he decides to return.
41. Bat For Lashes
Melding Kate Bush’s chilly drama with Sinead O’Connor’s otherwordly urgency, Two Suns emerged at the tail end of the decade and instantly announced Natasha Khan—a.k.a. Bat For Lashes—as the most exciting female voice in years. A singularly intoxicating vision, her sophomore release teems with the potency of a fever dream, lingering and haunted.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
60. Drive-By Truckers
The Dirty South
[New West, 2004]
The standout of a remarkably consistent—and prolific—career, South found the Truckers at the height of their three-headed powers, with Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, and Mike Cooley all bringing top-notch material to the table. Nearly every Truckers disc has the potential to knock you sideways; this one is liable to do so on every single track.
59. Bruce Springsteen
Despite near-universal praise, The Rising never really gelled together like a true E Street Band album. Not so with its follow-up, a terrific rock powerhouse that catered to the true diehards… and now sounds more and more like the best Bruce album since Born In The U.S.A.
[Fueled By Ramen, 2007]
Pure pop pleasure dressed in punk threads, Riot! exploded out of the gates like few records of recent memory, with Hayley Williams’ firecracker of a voice lighting up every song like a Gen Y version of Pat Benatar. Forget guilty pleasure; when the hooks are as invigorating as the ones driving “That’s What You Get” and “Hallelujah,” only a fool would feel any guilt whatsoever.
57. PJ Harvey
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
For a woman with an entire career based on making people uneasy, Stories might’ve been Polly Jean’s most radical move yet: a straightforward collection of twelve songs, exceptionally crafted and beautifully conveyed. The nine years since have only found Harvey resolutely fleeing from that same level of emotional directness, as if some part of her recognizes the impossibility of capturing lighting twice.
The Sophtware Slump
For a brief moment, Grandaddy were poised to be the backwoods answer to Radiohead, and even though Jason Lytle’s brainchild fell apart midway through the decade, The Sophtware Slump still resonates; ironically or not, the album’s odes to lonely computers and failed technology are some of the most heartfelt music of the decade, with warmth emitting from every warbling sequence and faulty connection.
55. Johnny Cash
American IV: The Man Comes Around
As the last album released by the Man In Black before his passing, American IV was bound to carry additional emotional weight. Still, few could’ve predicted the levels of gravitas and humanity present throughout, whether on the inspired cover choices (Sting’s “I Hung My Head,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and of course “Hurt”) or Cash’s own title track, his strongest self-penned composition in years. One could hardly ask for a more fitting—or worthy—epitaph.
Lazily lumped into the bankrupt genre of nü metal, Deftones shared much more in common with brooding art-rockers like Bauhaus, My Bloody Valentine, and Tool; you can hear all those influences—and countless others—in their impeccable third album, a brooding gem that still exerts a creepy, hypnotic pull… and has since gone on to spawn its own legion of imitators.
53. My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
The pinnacle of MMJ’s early years, It Still Moves found Jim James and company just on the cusp of Bonnaroo nation stardom, delivering now-classic guitar workouts—“One Big Holiday,” “Run Thru”—with the fire and conviction of the Allmans in their prime. In hindsight, the stylistic changes to come were inevitable; how else could one better this particular formula?
[Lost Highway, 2001]
In hindsight, the best thing to come from Ryan Adams’ Gold-era flirtation with the mainstream was a proper release for Whiskeytown’s heavily bootlegged swan song. Now more than ever, it feels like nothing else in Adams’ (very) extensive back catalog, a chamber-pop classic as oddball, inspired, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful as Surf’s Up or Summerteeth.
Turn On The Bright Lights
One of the more audacious debut albums in a decade thick with ‘em, Bright Lights was Joy Division’s Closer filtered through NYC downtown life, Mission Of Burma with extra ice. Interpol exploded on the scene so perfectly formed, it’s little wonder they inspired a rash of copycats—or that the band itself was never able to top this singularly great first effort.