Friday, January 1, 2010

The 100 Albums Of The Decade: 10-1

10. Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts Of The Great Highway

[Jetset, 2003]

When the decade began, Mark Kozelek was in the midst of a career downturn, releasing solo albums of reworked AC/DC and John Denver covers as his former band, Red House Painters, dissolved in a mess of major-label mergers. Even diehards, then, couldn’t have predicted the remarkable comeback of Ghosts Of The Great Highway, a flat-out masterpiece that bests all else in Kozelek’s critically-acclaimed back catalog. With its restless reach, encompassing everything from acoustic lullabies (“Gentle Moon”) to Neil-Young-esque guitar workouts (“Salvador Sanchez”), Ghosts is epic without ever feeling exhausting, and that’s never clearer than on “Duk Koo Kim,” a hypnotizing journey that stretches for fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds—without a single wasted moment.

9. The National

[Beggars Banquet, 2007]

The slow-burn album of the century thus far, Boxer landed near the low end of my “10 Best” list in 2007, but two years later, it sounds more intoxicating—and timely—than ever. From “Fake Empire” on down, The National deliver an unflinching requiem for a lost decade all “showered and blue-blazered,” but they do so without an ounce of preaching; this is a work that unfolds its charms gradually, painstakingly, until each subsequent listen reveals additional depths, until every simple-on-the-surface track begins to resonate like a mantra.

8. Brand New
The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me

[Interscope, 2006]

No act of the new millennium—punk, alternative, or otherwise—displayed as much range over the course of a single record as Brand New did on their mind-bogglingly great third album. Using religious confusion as a springboard, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me fused screamo’s dynamics to Eighties atmospherics, alternating between tension (“Sowing Season”) and tenderness (“Handcuffs”)—or, more often than not, incorporating both (“Jesus,” “Degausser”) to heart-stopping effect. A challenging, defiant disc that sounds just as fresh as it did in 2006, The Devil And God… is pure jagged brilliance, offering shards of transcendence amidst the wreckage.

7. Ryan Adams

[Bloodshot, 2000]

Adams’ solo debut could’ve easily been a “licking the wounds” release, a retreat to his old home Bloodshot after major-label shuffling left both his band (Whiskeytown) and album (Pneumonia) in limbo. Instead, two weeks in Nashville with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (among others) resulted in a bona-fide Americana classic, the pressure-free vibe prompting Adams to compose a cycle of achingly gorgeous gems (“Oh My Sweet Carolina,” “My Winding Wheel”) with highlights as disparate as the loose-limbed, ramshackle “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” and the oh-so-lovely, oh-so-bitter “Come Pick Me Up.” In a career known more for quantity than quality, Heartbreaker stands alone, a late-night lullaby for the wrecked romantic in everyone.

6. Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

[Nonesuch, 2002]

Sure, there was enough drama surrounding this album to fuel a (pretty great) documentary, but that’s not the real reason Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands out in the remarkable run of albums Wilco released from 1996 (Being There) to 2004 (A Ghost Is Born). With its themes of dislocation and mortality, YHF nails the tenor of our times like few other works this decade; it’s arguably the definitive post-9/11 album, thanks to both eerily prescient songwriting (“Ashes Of American Flags,” “Poor Places”) and the hovering, haunted production adding weight to even the simplest Tweedy composition. Most importantly, it broke Wilco out of the alt-country ghetto once and for all, setting them free to roam a musical landscape much like the one YHF conjures: a little cracked, a bit bruised, yet still beautiful.

5. Coldplay

[Capitol, 2000]

Lest we forget, there was a time when Coldplay was not the second coming of U2, but merely four British lads making their first record—and, inadvertently but incredibly, capturing lightning in a bottle. Even in its louder moments, there’s nothing grandiose or inflated about Parachutes; this is a twinkling, hushed affair, with Chris Martin’s falsetto hovering like a whisper over the most aching moments (“Sparks,” “Trouble”) Coldplay ever committed to tape. Hate the quartet now, if you must, but understand that every world-conquering act has its humble roots… and in the case of Parachutes, there’s magic in every second.

4. Death Cab For Cutie

[Barsuk, 2003]

It’s been a long, strange trip for Death Cab this decade, from cult releases on tiny Barsuk Records to recording the lead single for a giant Hollywood production in 2009… but if you’re wondering how Ben Gibbard’s 4-track solo project morphed into one of the biggest indie-rock bands in America, look no further than 2003’s triumphant pinnacle. Transatlanticism is Death Cab at their finest, from small-scale anthems (“The New Year”) to ruminative pop (“Title And Registration”), but it’s the expansive, widescreen experimentalism throughout that truly heralds greatness. Countless other acts have appropriated Transatlanticism’s core values since, and no wonder; this is the sound of ambition achieved, organically and honestly.

3. Damien Rice

[Vector, 2002]

Small coincidence that an abnormally large number of albums on this list were created without any label support whatsoever (from Robyn to Bleed American to Radiohead’s own In Rainbows), but no other independent success story resonated more strongly in the 2000s than this word-of-mouth masterpiece. Rice’s voice, like his writing, is passionate, open, unafraid—but I suspect there's a deeper explanation for why his self-released debut went on to triple platinum sales in the U.K. and a Shortlist Music Prize win in America; from the bedroom recordings to the hand-crafted artwork, everything about O feels intimate, unvarnished, with no separation at all between artist and audience. A life-changing album in some quarters—or simply the sort of private secret that spreads from person to person and country to country, its heartfelt (and heartbroken) depths reflecting the lives of every person who encounters it.

2. Arcade Fire

[Merge, 2004]

As its title implies, Funeral is a eulogy of sorts, dedicated to those who died during its creation; the songs on Funeral, however, are nothing short of the most intoxicating, exhilarating, life-affirming music to appear this entire decade. Arcade Fire’s sound—a three-dimensional explosion of strings and voices, distortion and pounding—is already the stuff of legend, but it’s the group’s relentless, wide-eyed humanity that truly sets them apart: the children digging tunnels in the snow on “Neighborhood #1,” the neighbors dancing during “Laika,” the to-the-rafters chorus that made “Wake Up” an underground anthem in 2005. Electricity flows through every bit of Funeral, but, more importantly, it flows both ways, turning each listener into part of a community, and making Arcade Fire’s glorious din feel like the essence of hope itself.

1. Radiohead
Kid A

[Capitol, 2000]

Flash back, if you can, to the autumn of 2000: CD sales were at an all-time high, Napster was changing the entire dynamic of music piracy, and Radiohead’s hugely-anticipated follow-up to OK Computer had just leaked onto the Net. In response, the band streamed the entire thing, for free, before its physical release, and thus countless users (including yours truly) fought buffers and bad connections to hear the opening strains of “Everything In Its Right Place”… or, in other words, the 21st century equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport.

And therin lies the brilliance of Kid A; like no other record since, it upends every notion of mainstream success, “alternative” rock, and even Radiohead itself, offering a universe where the most gifted singer of our era turns his voice into an electronic bleat and a three-guitar band abandons the idea of actual guitars for most of the disc. And yet, for all its polarizing infamy, Kid A is also a work of absolute genius, an all-or-nothing experiment that paid off in critical (and commercial) spades, and quite possibly the bravest move ever from a band not exactly known for playing it safe. Beyond that, it’s arguably Radiohead’s most complete listen, a perfect balancing act where every weird sojourn (“Treefingers”) and discordant blast (“The National Anthem”) is absolutely necessary, as necessary as the high-water marks (“Idioteque,” “How To Disappear Completely”) that still hypnotize even today. Years from now, when music exists only as a random collection of electronic files, scholars will point to Kid A as a milestone, the last truly important—and absolutely vital—album. Of the decade. If not beyond.

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