Best of the decade: 1-10


Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Ilinois

It’s hard not to be repetitive when I’ve already outlined why I like Sufjan Stevens. Illinois is better than Michigan. The crazy arranged stuff is more fun, the subtle beauty is more subtle. “Chicago” is just such an amazing song, with Stevens’ voice taking center stage.

It’s hard to defend Stevens, certainly. How do you look at him and not see the decade-long backlash against hipsters in his music? Illinois straddles the irony/sincerity line as much as any record — hell, all of Stevens’ music is like this.

Stevens is almost a point-by-point recitation of a certain stereotype. Midwestern transplant to New York (not just New York, but the hipster-est of the boroughs, Brooklyn)? Check. Raised by hippie parents? Check. Soft-spoken? Check. Fully arranged, crazy music, buttressed by tender songwriter stuff? Check. Boyish good looks? Check. One weird thing about which is personal, but pervades his work (in Stevens’ case, religion)? Check. Lyrics that are literate and layered? Check. Hell, Stevens’ latest work is a multimedia project involved the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway! How much more hipster can you get?

The 2000s have seen both the expansion and backlash of “hipster” culture. A close friend of mine was a hipster for Halloween a few years ago and it was not considered weird. American Apparel ads traffic in this image, with waifish chicks, stubbled dudes and almost kiddie porn iconography. Pitchfork’s Web site has become one a hitmaker. McSweeney’s has taken over a certain corner of the literary world, even getting to the point that Dave Eggers wrote the adapted screenplay for the Where The Wild Things Are movie. Wes Anderson is a leading director, all twee and old Euro mod music. Video game makers use Matador back catalogs (MLB2k7), Sub Pop tracks (the Rock Band series) and Bloc Party songs (the EA FIFA series) to soundtrack their games. People — myself included — drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and aren’t sure why.

Stevens has surfed along this wave, both negatively and positively. He gets a huge backlash (see my piece on Michigan and my friend’s comment about it), but he also gets huge critical acclaim. This album, in fact, was Pitchfork’s top album the year it was released.

Me? I love Sufjan. As somsone who wishes he was a hipster, I enjoy Stevens’ music and think it smart and interesting. The 50 states project — no, of course he’s not going to go through with it — looked to me to be awesome. I like his dopey theatrics and find them fun. But, mostly, I think his music is evocative, hook-heavy and brilliant.


Band: The Postal Service
Album: Give Up

It seems as though I’m getting to the point wherein I could write a book about Ben Gibbard, considering how much I’ve written about him. I know this isn’t true; I don’t have the discipline, knowledge, writing skill or interest in writing a book. But, really, I think about the guy’s work a lot. Far more than a 28-year-old should.

It’s certainly up for debate — it’s a debate in my own head, for example — as to which is the best of Gibbard’s work, but there is hardly any question that Give Up is in that conversation. Success-wise, it’s certainly up there as the album has gone nearly platinum for Sub Pop. Similarly, the Postal Service’s music has been used in advertisements, movies and television shows.

As with many of the albums near the top of my list, Give Up has an interesting gestation story which I will not recount here (our friend Wikipedia has the story).

How twee is too twee?

I say that as an unabashed Wes Anderson fan and someone who counts David Eggers as his favorite author. But, twee in music is a concept that often grates on me. Give Up isn’t twee in the most strict sense of the word, but there is certainly a “too cute” thing about it.

So, there’s the question: How does Give Up stay outside that distinction? It’s all beeps, boops and Ben Gibbard’s whispery “I’m a sensitive guy” vocals. There’s little of the vitriol in Gibbard’s best work (“Tiny Vessels,” the All-Time Quarterback record, the second Death Cab album, etc.) evident on the Postal Service record.

Indeed, Gibbard talks a big “I only write sad songs” game, but he’s nearly always wounded in his writing. He never puts out the anger needed in so many breakup songs (this is why “Tiny Vessels” is so great. It’s stone fucking cold.), but rather plays the hurt ex-boyfriend. That’s all good and well, but even on his great work — Give Up included — he doesn’t sound strong enough.

All that said, there’s something undeniably charming and engrossing about Give Up. It is, no doubt, infectious. In interviews, Gibbard and Tamborello studied popular music and attempted to copy the musical themes — within the context of their own work, of course — and make a record. Give Up does this.

I once wrote that Belle and Sebastian isn’t good pop music and if you thought that, you’re an asshole. I cannot say the same thing about Give Up, as the record is about a great as a pop album as recorded. Rolling Stone called it “cuddly little New Wave reverie,” which is very apt.

The album is full of highlights, no doubt, but “Such Great Heights” is the near-perfect craft. The short guitar lines, the shuffling drums and Gibbard’s soft vocal are all the type of thing that shoots up the charts. Gibbard’s sugary sweet opening is among the great love song bits ever written:

I am thinking it’s a sign.
That the freckles in our eyes.
Are mirror images and
When we kiss they’re perfectly aligned.

Again, he dances around the easy love song dynamics, but reaserts the “we are perfect” motif. It’s a striking bit of writing.

The rest of the album is similarly excellent, from the daydreaming “Sleeping In” to the rememberance of a relationship song “Clark Gable” to “Brand New Colony,” a song nearly as sweet as “Such Great Heights.” “Nothing Better” — a duet with Jen Wood — wasinspired by Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” and is a perfect update to the song.

Give Up is a wonderful piece of music, straddling the line of “too cute” indie and sincere pop music, dancing between singer/songwriter stuff and electronic music. Six years in, I still listen to it a lot.


Band: The Strokes
Album: Is This It?

Maybe this is an overstatement — as in, this is almost certainly an overstatement — but the Is This It? represents a big change in music for me. The record’s timing — it was released in the United States in October 2001 — made for it having a weird place in my head. The fall of 2001 was the fall of my junior year of college and the year I was supposed to go to CMJ Music Marathon for the Strokes’ big coming out party and I couldn’t go into the KCOU offices that fall without being reminded of this fact. Every day, another call or card telling us about the band. I still have lanyards and passes for their shows at CMJ.

Of course, right before CMJ happened, life in the U.S. changed. I’m not going to recount my story here. If you want to read it, click away. It was well-publicized that the song “New York City Cops” was removed from the U.S. release because of its less-than-great portrayal. But the point is this: I think of the Strokes and I think of the hype.

Indeed, RCA and the band’s management promoted the Strokes more than anything I’d experienced. Our DJs were pestering me to put the record into our format way before I’d gotten it — this was slightly before leaking records was huge.

I guess this shit has been happening for forever, but the Strokes record was the first time I’d ever experienced it as a member of the media (albeit college radio), but the Is This It? was almost the definition of “famous for being famous.” In the college radio world, manufactured bands — the Strokes have always been considered manufactured — were looked at as some facisimile of a band. And I guess I saw it the same way, as more hype than anything else. A boy band with guitars, basically.

The Strokes were just another in the Kinks ripoff crowd; The White Stripes and Oneida were doing the same thing in a new minitrend. Garage rock was going to be the next emo or math rock and would pass just the same. That the Strokes were standing on the shoulders of the industry’s hype machine made it that much worse.

Boy, was I wrong.

Is This It? is the strongest in a mediocre year for albums, but, man is it strong. The album is carefree in a way that screams youth.

It’s easy to see the proto-punk aspects of the album. The band’s guitar work has the a Velvet Underground feel at times, while it also has a sound reminiscient of a more hook-happy Televison. Rhytymically, it’s a restrained MC5 or Stooges, with fury muted behind a crooning singer.

“Last Night,” while annoying when overplayed, is a fun little romp. “Barely Legal” has the staccato beat of New Wave. “Take It or Leave It” is carefree, with Julian Casablancas’ voice modulating between his raspy scowl and a sultry croon.

Not everything needs to be emotionally evocative. Is This It? evokes something different, an escape from the actual emotion of life.


Band: Radiohead
Album: In Rainbows

I recently earned (earned. Ha!) my Master’s Degree in journalism and the preeminent issue in that subject is the effect technology has had on the industry. Media, in general, has had to deal with technology in a way that few other industries have — car companies aren’t hurting because people are making cheaper Internet cars.

I guess I’d put the music industry in that “media” category. It started with FTP servers with bootlegs; I used to load up dialup to download Elliott Smith bootlegs on my parents’ computer in high school. Napster then came onto the scene and made it such that any college student paying for music was, to be frank, a damned fool. The record industry — big labels, small labels, artists, promoters, whatever — wasn’t making money for their work.

Threats of bullshit lawsuits and innovations in commerce has made it such that illegally downloading music is less of an blip on my radar screen, but torrent technology is clearly making it such that the record industry is still hurting.

And, really, that’s for the best.

The music industry machine is a bullshit industry, as Steve Albini famously wrote in MaximumRocknRoll so many years ago. Bands don’t get treated properly and the entire of the band has made something like five grand for a record that made the label three million. That, of course, is not right. This is why bands tour so much and try to sell so much merchandise.

Technology has made it such that artists will directly get their music to fans via the Web. No record stores, no iTunes, no Amazon. Just the band’s Web site. We’re not there yet — a band has to have a gigantic following to do so — but we will be.

Enter Radiohead.

The In Rainbows pricing scheme was a publicity stunt — I think the band believed in the goodness of people, but it was still clearly a publicity stunt — as “pay what you want” is clear nonesense, especially with DRM-free music. Nevertheless, it was revolutionary.

I’ve always joked that a Radiohead fan would buy an album of Thom Yorke farting into a mic. Radiohead’s fanbase is rabid. And, as such, many people did pay for In Rainbows, even after it was released as a physical record, in stores. The album is one of the best-selling and most distributed albums of recent vintage. It was a brilliant publicity stunt and a brilliant way to bridge the gap between the artist and the fan.

Lost in the shuffle of the revolutionary release of the album is the brilliance of In Rainbows. The album is only rivaled by OK Computer and The Bends in strength of the band’s albums. Letting Yorke dabble in solo work took the electronic fiddling away from the band, with an apparent emphasis on melody, craft and arrangments.

The cellos on “Reckoner” are funereal, while the atmospherics of “Jigsaws Falling Into Place” echo Yorke’s seduction lyrics. “House of Cards” and “Nude” are pretty and delicate, while “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” swirls around Yorke’s double-tracked vocals.

The band’s striking thesis — technology is robbing us of our humanity — has drenched every Radiohead album. In Rainbows is no different. The album opener, “15 Step,” starts with a drum machine, only to be usurped by an an actual drum line. “Bodysnatchers” relies on a shuffling guitar and a uptempo beat to back up the tension in the fear of conformity (“Has the light gone out for you?/Because the light’s gone for me/It is the 21st century”). The album’s closer, “Videotape,” recounts a judgment day of sorts, swirling around electronic elements of the song. It’s pessimistic, of course, but equally beautiful.

In the abstract, it’s a decidedly 2000s album. In the concrete, it’s one of Radiohead’s best.


Band: Jay-Z
Album: The Black Album

Jay-Z’s “retirement” album had the rapper working out a personal narrative before our eyes. With an eye toward Notorious B.I.G., The Black Album lets Jay paint a picture full of regrets, pronouncements and theses. It’s a damned shame he has continued to make records because he could have gone out on top.

Calling one’s album The Black Album is a not surprisingly egoist move by Shawn Carter, but not one unprecedented. Comparing his record to the Beatles’ opus is silly, but we’ve come to know that Jay’s record is fucking brilliant.

“Lucifer” is one of Kanye West’s best productions, with a bouncing beat and Jay’s philosphic look at life and death (“Bob” in the final verse may live or die). “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” as so many great rap records have done, brought an urban ethos to suburban America, popular culture and even the political arena, forgetting that the song is a grade-A Timbaland production. “Change Clothes” is a Neptunes wonder that has Jay looking at his place in the game, his time in life and saying goodbye to the silliness of rap. “99 Problems” is a strong early hip hop production (thanks, Rick Rubin!) and an even stronger storytelling situation about Jay’s problems with the police and his quick thinking. “Moment of Clarity” is harsh and smart. The album’s highlight is the trilogy of introspective career-examining songs near the start of the album. “December 4th” has Jay’s mother telling stories about him, his early life and his growing up without a father. Jay fills in the blanks without a mother’s rose-colored glasses, expressing regret and some sadness. “What More Can I Say” has Jay showing off a harsher flow, with an a capella bit in the middle. “Encore” completes the trilogy with a flourish, celebratng his

It would be easy to simply do as most rappers do and talk about stacks and guns and whatever. And Jay does some of that, no doubt. But, The Black Album is honest and smart. It’s a man coming to terms with his mortality and the mortality of his career.


Band: Mastodon
Album: Crack the Skye

From dick joke enthusiasts to video gamers, Mastodon’s 2009 Crack the Skye hits near the top of the list. Indeed, the album is Mastodon’s attempt at moving away from Neurosis and Slayer and becoming more like Tool and Pink Floyd. The results are, needless to say, amazing.


Band: Wilco
Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

If Radiohead can tell you how much the music industry sucks, the ballad of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an exercise in Albini’s theory that the industry is a disaster. As the brilliant documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart touches upon, the making of YHF was full of band infighting and label problems. Warner wanted another Summerteeth and Wilco instead got indie rock stalwart Jim O’Rourke to produce the album instead.

What follows is shockingly good. Summerteeth is a certain type of near-perfect album with pop hooks and moving production, but YHT is better. Gone are the pop gems, though the hooks remain, layered on top of dissonant orchestrations, small samples and Jeff Tweedy’s excellent lyrics.

The album’s place in the decade is something of a coincidence. Released in early 2002, songs like “War on War” and “Ashes of American Flags” seem to be — not unlike the overpraised and crappy Bruce Springsteen album the Rising — written about the decade’s defining, tragic moment. But, indeed, the record’s release was delayed and delayed. Nevertheless, the songs have some cache in regards to the events, from the slow developing opener to the catchy and acoustic “Jesus, Etc.” “Kamera” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” both recall wonderful days of old, with a nostalgia reserved for other bands.

In the way that it’s a place in the evolution of Wilco — from the country rock stylings of A.M. all the way to the dadrock of Wilco (The Album)YHT is a distinctly 2000s album.


Band: Lil Wayne
Album: The Carter III

I wanted, so desperately, to put this album in the top slot. So desperately. I really love this album. It probably doesn’t define my life or the times like the first two records do, herego, no. 3.

I’m probably overstating this — certainly possible, as I am ignorant about most music and have a really small level of experience from which to draw — but I’ll compare Tha Carter to, probably, my favorite album of all-time: Dark Side of the Moon. Tha Carter is weird and it shows a man who can jump around genres and still put out a record that people (as in, the hoi palloi) love. In the same way that Dark Side is a prog rock record with outstanding hooks, Tha Carter III is a club record seemingly written and recorded by a man who truly doesn’t give a shit. Like, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien-level of “don’t give a shit.”

That’s an important distinction to be made. Rap music suffers as art — in the eyes of mostly white critics — for many reasons, but the overt commercialism in it is a huge part of that (other reasons include: a misunderstanding of black culture at large, overhomophobia in rap lyrics, off-putting videos.). One of Wayne’s pre-Tha Carter III‘s most famous appearances was his hook on Fat Joe’s “Make it Rain” single. On the best remix (listen here), Wayne is joined by about a million rappers (Actually, just DJ Khaled, Fat Joe, R. Kelly, T.I., Birdman, Rick Ross and Ace Mac) and it’s striking to see the difference between lyrical styles. As in, Wayne isn’t rapping just about how many stacks he has or how he’s got cars. Indeed, Wayne uses some actual wordplay (making references to the Weather Channel, geography and TV) while T.I., basically, just talks about cars. Bleh.

Or take Wayne’s guest spot on Keri Hilson’s awesome “Turnin’ Me On.” Using the (very) sexual theme of the song, Wayne works blue and hopes that the chick’s “Vagina’s tight,” maybe the only use of that word in a song that works, while then bragging about his skills down below by “I go underwater and hope your piranha bite.” It’s oddly charming, very weird and really clever. And those are just guest spots. The type of shit most artists just phone into the studio.

Even the best rappers spend a lot of time talking about much money they have. Even Tha Carter III has a fuck ton of that — the best song on the entire record is about throwing money in a strip club, after all. But, while most rappers just fuck around and lazily rhyme “money” with “funny” and words with themselves, Wayne just stopped caring, at some point.

No, he’s probably not a better person than T.I. or whoever. But, then again, maybe he is.

Much has been made about Wayne’s work ethic, but I do wonder if all of this “I just record and let the label deal with it” nonsense is nonsense. On one hand, the few setlists posted online suggest he doesn’t do play up his shows for album sales. Clearly, he just does whatever song is on his mind and he’s recently recorded.

Rap music is the dominant genre in music and has been for some time. We’re at a point wherein commercial music can be artistic and no one has done this like Lil Wayne has with Tha Carter III.


Band: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes

I’ve told the story on the podcast, so I won’t repeat it, but Tony Kornheiser is the reason I work in journalism. My fandom of his has waned somewhat — if I wanted to listen to old Jews complain, I have other avenues of doing that (my family) — but I continue to listen to his radio show via podcast every day.

A frequent guest is sportswriter Liz Clarke. Clarke’s utterly charming, slightly self-effacing and makes the show about 500 times better than it should be (Tracee Hamilton is similar, though less charming than Clarke). Like Kornheiser, Clarke’s a big fan of Bruce Springsteen fan.

A few weeks back, she told the story of going to see Springsteen twice on this particular tour, including once in out of town to see him do Springsteen’s second album in its entirety. Despite having seen Springsteen live over 100 times, Clarke still did this because the album was that important to her.

The All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals have put on a series called “Don’t Look Back” that does this sort of thing. Tortoise has performed for ATP, as have many other bands I enjoy (Dirty Three doing Ocean Songs sounded particularly awesome). This past year’s Pitchform Festival similarly did such a thing, with Public Enemy, Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill and others doing classic albums. I wish I could’ve seen many of the shows, but they’ve mostly been away from me and I am poor.

I have seen Mastodon do Crack the Skye front to back on the band’s last tour and it was, in Clarke’s words, a religious experience. It’s among the great moments in my concertgoing life and Mastodon didn’t just kill it. They blew the doors off the 9:30 Club.

But, Clarke’s reception of Springsteen’s second album was larger. Her experience of Springsteen is larger, on some level, and I probably have more bands I adore than Clarke does. Seh’s like many Springsteen fans I know: She’ll see him several times on a tour.

In trying to identify a band I identify myself with as much as Clarke does, I don’t know that I can. Most of my favorite bands… That doesn’t work. I don’t think I’d want to see any of Tortoise’s records, front to back (not because all the albums aren’t great, front to back. They are.). Indeed, post-rock is detached, on some level. I’d certainly not refuse Wilco, were they to play Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (or, for that matter, the sublimely perfect Summerteeth) at a local venue, but I had the chance to see them last year and didn’t take it, as Wilco’s most recent albums suck. Hard.

And Clarke’s story just reminded me that We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes would be that album. I would absolutely fly out of town to see — well, assuming I could afford it — the band play it.

Look, it’s no secret that music is a huge part of my life. I write these stupid lists and I put up these stupid reviews; music soundtracks nearly everything I do. I struggle constantly with my love of Ben Gibbard’s songwriting and my fandom of Death Cab for Cutie.

This album was my introduction to Gibbard’s work and it remains his best. While The Postal Service record is too twee and Death Cab’s more recent albums meander far too often, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes is the story of a breakup, with the ups, downs and in-betweens therein.

Albums are tattooed on our brains often because of the moment when we heard them. I’ve told the story before, but it remains, I love Death Cab’s second record because I was at transitory point in my life. It occupies a brilliant, beautiful space. It speaks to all those with broken hearts, all those who have been taken apart. Unlike many of the albums on the list, it is timeless.


Band: Isis
Album: Panopticon

Pitchfork’s recitation of why “B.O.B.” was the great included a line about the war that, sadly, came to define much of the decade:

The title– aka “Bombs Over Baghdad”, a phrase that sounded oddly anachronistic in 2000, sadly ubiquitous two and a half years later– is only the start of it.

It’s not an unfair assessment and, obviously, the tragedy that is the Iraq War has defined much of my post-college life. The war started my senior year and dominated three election cycles in that time. Thousands dead. Trillions of dollars spent. It’s a war of serious consequence.

But, really, how can anyone talk about this decade without thinking in terms of Sept. 11? A few records on this list dealt with that tragedy in one way or another — the catchphrasing of You Are Free, the loneliness of Sea Change and the overt politics of One Beat come to mind — but nothing comes close to the all-enveloping nature of the emotion of the time like Panopticon. Like the concept and prisons of its name, the record takes over your brain, from the first second of “So Did We” to the final crunching riffs of “Grinning Mouths.”

The album’s artwork and liners mention security, and nothing feels like the security, fear and emotions that have overwhelmed the U.S. in our dealings with the world like Panopticon. Nothing gets to the isolation modernity gives us, within that context, like Panopticon does (Though, Radiohead has tried to do this). Nothing combines these things like Panopticon while using all instruments as phrase-constructors.

In a post-9/11 world (that is a phrase I never thought I’d put on this site), Panopticon is a letter of warning, a letter of reflection and a recitation of apology. Indeed, Isis accomplishes this all while maintaining a minimal lyric sheet. I’m not sure I’ve everheard a record say so much with so little in the way of lyrics. No, it’s not instrumental, but Aaron Turner uses simple lines (“Backlit” features a lovely “Always on you” line to build the song’s structure). Similarly, the guitar work is measured and phrased in such a way that the band is almost writing a concise story. The “Syndic Calls” guitar breaks are rhytmic and heavy, repeating and building. Like the best post-rock, Panopticon is not afraid of slowly constructing musical phrases.

Every time I listen to Panopticon, I marvel at how layered and beautiful it is, as an album. Relying on anticipation more than anything, the album has an unparalelled tension. Even with the cookie monster growl and a reminder of our fucked up existence, it’s the album of the decade. Both gorgeous and reflective, it’s brilliant.

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4 Trackbacks

  • By | Albums That I Own on June 20, 2010 at 7:41 am

    […] I listen to Wavering Radiant a fair amount and I almost never get through the entire album. Indeed, Wavering Radiant just missed my best of the decade list, despite Isis’ first record being my favorite album of said decade. […]

  • By Sufjan Stevens review | Albums That I Own on November 7, 2010 at 6:48 am

    […] Illinois and Michigan do that, of course. […]

  • By In Rainbows | Albums That I Own on December 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    […] sorta already went over this particular piece of ground, but it’s worth revisiting: In Rainbows may be Radiohead’s best album. That’s […]

  • By Pink Friday | Albums That I Own on November 28, 2011 at 8:45 am

    […] example: Do you remember how, when writing about Tha Carter III and Lil Wayne’s abject destruction of every other all-star on the “Make It Rain” remix (Listen […]

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