Best of the decade: 21-30

30.

Band: Battles
Album: Mirrored

As previously written, Mirrored is the sound of the future, for worse or for (mostly) better.

(Album preview here.)

29.

Band: Beck
Album: Sea Change

Once of two Beck records to be on the RS 500 list (440), Sea Change still makes me cry. “End of the Day” was part of a terribly difficult time in my life — the record was favored by a close friend who has passed away — and I can’t listen to the song without going back to the days around his passing.

Forgetting the personal aspects, when Beck tries to be super serious guy, he generally doesn’t pull it off. But, Sea Change does. He’s not goofy. He’s not one genre or another. He’s just a man, singing sad sad songs over swirling, glorious arrangements. Lost cause, indeed.

28.

Band: Kanye West
Album: Graduation

While Late Registration was too flashy and 808s & Heartbreak was too emo, Graduation was West’s attempt at stadium rap. He’d toured with U2 and wanted to do what U2 does. Only, you know. Not shitty.

So, he took more electronic influences (“Stronger”), spacey sounds (“I Wonder”) and, shit, Steely Dan (“Champion”) to make something of a personal record. Drawing on inspirational music, he sounds as much like a Hallmark card as a rapper (“If you admire somebody you should go head and tell ’em/ People never get the flowers while they can still smell ’em” from “Big Brother,” for example).

This is not a bad thing. West’s an introspective guy, as his first single ever (a record that will be tackled next week), “Through the Wire” showed. But, on Graduation, he kicks this up a notch. While his first two record were The Wire, his latter two have been Friday Night Lights. Both are brilliant.

27.

Band: Mogwai
Album: Mr. Beast

Mogwai’s music is the most evocative post-rock music ever produced. As intellectual as most post-rock is, Mogwai’s hits you in the emotional parts of your brain. Despite their protests, it’s music to which listeners ascribe every emotion and event. “Friend of the Night” is the example. Haunting and evocative, it’s the record you hear late in the evening, contemplating your next move while tears softly hit the pillow.

26.

Band: Ryan Adams
Album: Heartbreaker

Though he’s no Steve Earle, Ryan Adams’ first solo record is as good as anything Earle has produced. Heartbreaker has Adams modulating between sensitive country guy and sad country guy, with a few uptempo fun numbers thrown in for good measure. “Come Pick Me Up” is one of the saddest, best songs ever written. It’s as pitiful as it is beautiful.

25.

Band: Jay-Z
Album: The Blueprint

Kinda sucks that one of the decade’s great record was released on the decade’s defining day, doesn’t it?

I always wonder, in terms of black artists, if the simple formula to gain mainstream acceptance is simply “act in a way that is acceptable to the most white rock critics.”

Now.

That statement is about as loaded as it can get. And maybe every generation of white people finds black culture more acceptable (after we try and co-opt it [coughELVIS-EMINEMcough), so that’s a a moving goalpost altogether. And maybe I’m stretching it.

But.

This white person sees The Blueprint and hears soul samples and Doors samples and Jay-z impersonating Frank Sinatra as much as he is impersonating Rakim (forgetting that I hate Sinatra and love Rakim). That’s not necessarily why I love the record, but I can see why other people like it.

Again, there’s some Kanye West/Lil Wayne thing happening here. Jay’s more instrospective on songs like “Heart of the City” and he appears more thoughtful on tracks like “Song Cry.” But, really, The Blueprint is a fucking banging rap record. “Jigga That Nigga” has that great club shuffle, while “Takeover” is a diss track that’s not as blunt as, say, “Hit ‘Em Up.” It’s actually smart. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” has the greatest non-Lil Wayne line in rap history (“He who does not feel me is not real to me, therefore he doesn’t exist. So, poof. Vamoose, sonofabitch.”). “Girls, Girls, Girls” has B.I.G.’s listmaking, with the bravado of a lothario, all surrounded by a masterfully sampled Kanye West production (Jackson 5, anyone?).

It’s a great record, black or white.

24.

Band: Calexico
Album: Hot Rail

Tucson’s favorite sons have always combined the best of brash Mexican music and the softer side of American popular folk music, but Hot Rail is the apex.

Hot Rail is a spaghetti western. It’s a facisimile of a West that probably doesn’t exist, full of emotive cowboys — not the terrorizing bank robbers, themselves a fiction — with wild women and fearful scorpions. It’s rapid fire battles and long treks with no starvation and a beautiful dessert. It’s a pleasant old man at the garage to take in your mid-50s Chevy truck with the rounded hood and a local bar owner whose establishment has been passed down through generations.

It’s “Sonic Wind” and “Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Service and Repair.”

23.

Band: 50 Cent
Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’

As he showed on his later albums, 50 Cent doesn’t have much of a flow. He’s not an outstanding writer. Outside of Dr. Dre (which is like saying “outside of the home runs, Mark McGwire wasn’t a good player”), he doesn’t work with great people.

Still, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is a masterful album. Sure, a lot of that is Dr. Dre’s hand. “In da Club” is one of the best club records around, entirely because Dre is the king of that groove. “If I Can’t” bumps like “California Love” because Dre produced both. “Heat.” “Back Down.” Same stuff.

But, 50’s flow fits his thing as well as anyone. Pure “I’m a bad motherfucker” gangster rap was falling out of favor in 2003 (Eminem killed it, partially), and 50’s story — shot nine times, nihilistic philosophy, etc. — coupled well with a very scared American populace made for a great combination. Moreover, 50’s voice is perfect with this combination. Gritty, draped in Kevlar and Hemingway-ly short, 50’s flow is mean.

Indeed, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is undeniably brutal and kind of mean-spirited. There’s little in the way of fun-loving humor (“I love you like a fat kid loves cake” in the slow jam “21 Questions” being the exception) and the only jokes are almost entirely at the expense of Ja Rule in “Back Down” (sample line: “Your mammy, your pappy, that bitch you chasing/Your little dirty-ass kid, I’ll fucking erase them”). The sad fact, though, is that “Back Down” is a fun song, easy to sing with and fun to listen to.

It’s a harsh world. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ reminded us of that.

Just to think out loud here…

50 Cent being shot nine times is folklore now, but do people really know the full details of what happened? He basically snitched on his old crew from Queens, naming names on a record called “Ghetto Qu’ran (Forgive Me).” It was supposed to be a track on his first (never released) record, Power of the Dollar. Well, let’s just throw it to Wikipedia:

According to an affidavit by IRS agent Francis Mace, law enforcement officials believed that the shooting of 50 Cent in 2000 was in retaliation for the lyrics of the song.

Not to get too far into the details of the morality at play regarding snitching, but. What the hell was the point of naming all these people in the song? I am unequivocally for artistic freedom, but I do want to express my criticism on this action. It seems unnecessary on a song that mostly sucks anyway. What’s the gain?

22.

Band: Queens of the Stone Age
Album: Songs for the Deaf

QOTSA, moreso than friends Mastodon, is a band that really opens metal in a way that’s less ridiculous. Indeed, QOTSA doesn’t put out theme records — well, except that for this one — in the way that Mastodon does. Sure, Mastodon is harder (and a better band, really), but it’s no surprise to me that QOTSA are a more popular band. They don’t sing about, like, dragons and shit. And, of course, Josh Homme’s pop sensibility is not without merit.

Songs for the Deaf is notable for its guests, mostly. Mark Lanegan lends his vocals to a bunch of songs, notably the superlative “Hangin’ Tree” and even better “Song for the Dead.” Dean Ween plays guitar on a few songs. More importantly, of course, Dave Grohl’s drumming nearly makes the record. The aforementioned “Song for the Dead” is, basically, a lesson in thump.

The album falls off toward the end — it’s a theme album refelcting driving from Homme’s of Palm Springs up to Los Angeles, with very irritating radio things buffering songs — but the first seven tracks are pure hard rock. Album opener “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” — once you get past the radio bullshit — is furious and screaming, while singles “No One Knows” and “Go With the Flow” are catchy and fun (“Go With the Flow” batters while it massages). “The Sky is Fallin” has a swirling guitar and “Hangin’ Tree” has Lanegan’s best vocal this side of, well, “Song for the Dead.”

21.

Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Michigan

Boy, people hate Sufjan Stevens, which is sort of understandable. A friend of mine has said “So, I have a theory that no one who played in a high school concert band can possibly like his stuff,” which is probably true. Stevens puts out heavily arranged songs with far too many instruments for something that is nominally “indie” and “DIY”.”

Though I enjoy said arrangements — I’m basically musically illiterate — they are all fair points. And there is evidence of this on Michigan, the first of Steven’s 50 albums about the 50 states (of course he’s not going to finish it), as even the opener “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” has a swarming trumpet.

But even if all those things annoy you — they don’t annoy me. I love Stevens’ descent into arrangment craziness — there is “Romulus,” Stevens’ best song. “Romulus” is not just a beautiful song, but a strinking one about familiar love, parental neglect and desperation, told softly over a picking guitar line and an easy piano. Stevens’ adds his own signature (a banjo, specifically), but his angel-pretty voice is the reason to hear the song. It’s not “Chicago” or eight minutes of “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!).” It’s simply a really great storyteller singing a beautiful song.

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