Since Pitchfork and many other online newspapers and blogs have preemptively begun publishing their lists of the best albums from this decade, I thought it might be a good time for an SAB blog post to tackle the project too. This list reflects my tastes and the music I’ve been exposed to, and it was difficult to whittle it down to only 25. With the large amount of variety in popular music this decade, its easy to understand why others might have a vastly different composition for this list, and so I hope this can breed some discussion over my choices. Understandably, many people probably haven’t heard all of these albums, so I inserted a link or two in each review to a song that hopefully is representative of the larger work. So, check out this list if you dare, and be sure to reply with your own top album picks and arguments!
25. The Killers: An unabashedly 80’s-centric take on modern alt rock, Hot Fuss winds up being a perfectly constructed synth-rock album. Although the songs aren’t lyrically as deep as some other entries on this list, the majestic, driving music coaxes any word fumbles along, and vocalist Brandon Flowers is so sincere in his unabashed delivery that it hardly matters. It’s hard to hate songs as catchy as “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” or “Smile Like You Mean It”, which surround memorable choruses with whizzing synth hooks. Where many other albums this glossy would contain multiple filler tracks towards the end, Hot Fuss’ later content is as relentlessly strong as the beginning, as “Andy You’re A Star”, “Change Your Mind”, and “Believe Me Natalie” continue the bright glow and glam rock from before. The overblown excesses of “All These Things I’ve Done” and “Somebody Told Me” can be forgiven in light of the consistency, sweet danceablility, and killer melodies on the rest of Hot Fuss.
24. The Tallest Man On Earth: As much transcendental as it is natural and earthy, Shallow Graves is a collection of simple rustic folk songs from Swedish artist The Tallest Man On Earth. His ancient acoustic strumming channels the bygone folksters of yesteryear (Dylan, Guthrie, et. al), but casts a fresh dew over those dusty influences. Every song is a story, several of which are simply flawless (“Honey Won’t You Let Me In” and “The Gardner” especially). Another reviewer speculated that if Dylan had released Shallow Graves, it would have been termed the comeback of the century, which I’d say is a fair point, even as someone who respects Dylan’s output in the past 15 years. And though the lyrics on this album are sometimes more obscure than meaningful, the strained vocal delivery and passionate guitar play of The Tallest Man On Earth redeem even those moments.
23. The Flaming Lips: Continuing in the psychedelic art-pop vein of their prior release The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots weaves layers of synths, fuzzed-out bass, and space rock guitars together into a loose concept album of freakouts, jams, folk and bubblegum pop songs. Yoshimi is as heavily stylized as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, building upon simple core songs with sleek electronica and groovy effects. Though somewhat weaker than its risk-taking predecessor, Yoshimi still contains some brilliant tracks, including “One More Robot/Symphony 3000-21″, the first title track, “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”, and the album’s pinnacle, “Do You Realize??“. At their weakest moments, The Lips’ inane and off-beat lyrics detract from their groove, but in most of Yoshimi’s gloriously upbeat material, these parts are minimal.
22. The White Stripes: Although many critics have held their earlier releases (De Stijl and White Blood Cells) in higher regard, it was with Elephant that The White Stripes fully captured the stomping garage-rock blues audiences ached for. “Seven Nation Army” is one of the most brilliant rock songs produced this decade- so simple that millions of kids have tried to recreate it in their basements, yet inimitable with its snarling vocals and lightning-strike power chord riffs. Their other rockers- “Black Math”, “The Hardest Button To Button’, and “Hypnotize”- are also blistering, howling blues riots. Notably, Elephant also includes many changes of pace, the best of which include their cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” and “In The Cold Cold Night”. These slower, more careful songs are refreshing amidst the buzzsaw guitar charges, but are crafted with the same sense of yearning. Born into an era littered with musical revivalism, The Stripes exceeded their backwards-aping brethren, but also placed themselves in the highest echelon of classic rock and back-country blues.
21. Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is the Bright Eyes release where songwriter Conor Oberst finally unleashes his full potential over an entire album. Oberst’s captivating lyrical style consists of wading through dozens of words, images, and scenes in search of epiphany, and I’m Wide Awake has him landing on those mundane revelations countless times. One of my favorite examples is found right on the first track, “At The Bottom Of Everything“, accompanied with some far-off harmony:
While my mother waters plants
My father loads his guns
He says death will give us back to God
Just like this setting sun is returned to this lonesome ocean
“We Are Nowhere”, “Lua”, and “First Day Of My Life” also share plenty of wonderful insights and contemplative portraits to ponder. Oberst’s continual roll through his concoctions is certainly unique, and the relevance of his folk music is strange, when many folk artists try to portray truth as irrelevantly as possible. Vocally, Oberst trembles and shakes; even his strongest passages seem on tenuous ground, but this feature adds a distinct vulnerability to his ramblings. A valuable look into the mind of a fertile artist at the peak of his talents, I’m Wide Awake will touch any listeners who like to think along with their music.
20. Kaki King: Dreaming of Revenge is as varied a guitar-based soundscape can be. Going between splendid acoustic ditties (“Life Being What It Is”), instrumental jams based on her percussive fingerstyle play (“Bone Chaos in the Castle”), and well-constructed rock songs (“Pull Me Out Alive“), King presents her stellar guitar ability and songwriting acumen. Though the focus is instrumental, King’s vocals, sometimes soft and sometimes snarling, nearly steal the show. While many guitar virtuosos would rather mindlessly shred to demonstrate their talents, King wisely incorporates her skill into a broader work of art. Dreaming of Revenge is as fine a collection of atmospheric songs as one can find.
19. My Morning Jacket: Previously known for their alt-country and folk-rock, My Morning Jacket abandoned their former styles for the sonic layered pop of Z. With great hooks, melodies blissful (“What A Wonderful Man”) and downcast (“Into The Woods”) succeed in displaying simple but poignant sentiments. “Into The Woods“, particularly, has some strikingly powerful lyrics, enhanced by the swooping vocals of Jim James:
A riddle: I went over the river
And into the woods- Where did I go?
Where a wood burning stream flows up through the trees
Like the soul of the hottest kind of lover I’ve ever seen:
One who lives to choose another fool’s dream.
James’ echoing voice is a major key to Z’s lasting effect. Few pop albums are as deeply felt and sonically dressed up as this.
18. Outkast: The psychedelic funk of Stankonia was one of the most creative directions taken in the last ten years of hip-hop. “Ms. Jackson”, “So Fresh, So Clean“, and “B.O.B.” all reached different levels of mainstream success while representing various degrees of Outkast’s distorted but classy beat-making sense. While “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh” are amazing songs, even more surprising is the mangled pop music of Stankonia, found notably on “I’ll Call” and “Slum Beautiful”, and the freaky space samples on tracks like “Snappin & Trappin” and “?”. Outkast has a fascination with gangster images and hedonistic symbols on Stankonia, which rather than detracting from the work, create a tangible setting of high-life hip-hop dreams. While those with a stricter view on profanity and blatant innuendo should beware, Stankonia still is a great piece of dynamic hip-hop and its flexibility in diversely implementing divergent styles.
17. Wolf Parade: Chock full of jangled rock and Bowie-esque vocal wails, Apologies To The Queen Mary manages to be both bizarre and purposeful. Each song is a mini-epic in scope, almost as if Wolf Parade is inventing an indie version of glam rock. Apologies To The Queen Mary is a letter written hot in rebellion against the flawed modern world and broken relationships, as songs from “Modern World” to “Fancy Claps” and “I’ll Believe In Anything” all relate to this feeling of disillusionment. A sliver of hope is found buried beneath the bleak lyrics of “Shine A Light“:
Some folks float, some are buried alive…
Some ghosts sink, some will get called to the light
So while ATTQM is almost frightening in its message, there’s enough depth and complexity in Wolf Parade’s sentiments and musical arrangements to keep any listener satisfied.
16. Sigur Ros: ( ) or Untitled is a sprawling work of delicate ambience and precious atmospheres. As unassuming as the title and song names (also untitled) suggest, the music is also majestically emotional. Sigur Ros’ only real gimmick is their use of “Hopelandic” lyrics, a language of the band’s own invention, but on Untitled the nonsense words convey a depth and musicality usually lacking in English. While Untitled is a post-rock album in theory, its organic timbre and crescendo styles are truly original and unprecedented. This album is a slice of zen, refreshing the soul and the mind, and though that sounds a touch too New-Age, Untitled really washes over like a clean wave in a sea of musical trash.
15. Franz Ferdinand: From the first breakdown in “Jacqueline”, Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled album, sets its course to be a blast of art rock fun. With a pinch of devious mischief, songs like “Tell Her Tonight”, “The Dark of the Matinee”, and “Darts of Pleasure” have a classic pop sensibility rarely recreated, especially in the guise of seductive underworld miscreants. The off-kilter guitar grooves found in the lead single “Take Me Out” segue perfectly into the songs’ several breakdowns, and the frenzied make the song. On most of Franz Ferdinand, angular single note riffs plucked from post-punk predecessors are dressed up in their finest clothes and tangoed into the dimly-lit night. Neither art rock nor post-punk were ever simultaneously this dance-worthy and self-assured. Invincible in attitude and unabashedly fun, Franz Ferdinand’s joyful glow and darkly sensual sheen never vanish from this album.
14. Tom Waits: The 2000’s were littered with aged artists and their carcasses of classic bands- The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Police, KISS, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, and The Who all touring, releasing albums, and making loads of money off of fans nostalgic for their early days. Standing in stark contrast to these artists is Tom Waits, the wickedly bizarre and innovative singer/songwriter who turns 60 this fall. His triple-album Orphans ranks up with his finest work at the peak of his career in the late 70’s and 80’s, a refreshing breath amidst the garbage of his old peers. Subtitled Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards respectively, each album captures Waits at his finest- experimental, tragic, worldly, and always with his trademark rusty shovel of a voice. After producing tracks like “Low Down“, “Bottom of the World”, “Widow’s Grove”, and “Dog Door”, Waits surely has not lost any of his famed creative abilities. On Orphans, every song is a classic, and Waits is an artist eternal.
13. Immortal Technique: Revolution Pt. 2 reads like a mad man’s naked rant at his last breath. The rapping on this album is some of the most intense, involved, and passionate speech I’ve heard anywhere. Immortal Technique spares no words and bears what’s inside of him, and what he unleashes is politically-charged and paranoid, and naturally profane. Every song hits just as heavy as the last, Immortal Technique relentless in the attack against reality and fear. Here’s a few telling lines from the first song, “The Point of No Return”
(be prepared for heavy language):
A suicide bomber strapped and ready to blow
Lethal injection strapped down ready to go
Don’t you understand they’ll never let me live out in peace
Concrete jungle, guerrilla war out in the streets
Nat Turner with the sickle, pitchfork and machete
The end of the world, mother—- you not ready
This is the point of no return and nobody can stop it
For its blunt, sweat-powered force and lyrical portrait of a man feeling trapped by life itself, Revolution Pt. 2 stands as one of the most impressive albums of the decade. In contrast to many other political artists, Immortal Technique doesn’t have a lofty, aspirational tone, but a gritty and real one, and although many inconsistencies are present in his politics, the message of fear does not suffer.
12. Leonid Fedorov: The first plastic keyboard notes of “Muzika Moya” might hint at some potentially horrifyingly bad music, but when the large acoustic chords strum in and Fedorov’s voice wanders in, swaying like a ship in a stormy sea, it’s already apparent that Liloviy Den’ is an album of bleak redemption. Using the crummy keyboard samples for underlying rhythm winds up creating an almost modern apocalyptic atmosphere, which is just the first sign of Fedorov’s genius. “Pol Neba” uses a twirling flute melody for similar sonic purposes, not as a prominent melodic line but as texture, then brings in an orchestra, some synths, and other voices, not to obscure his humble guitar play, but to give it company. Though he sings all in Russian, Fedorov’s rustic voice and melodies convey plenty about his thoughts and expressions, an example of words as a mere finality in the process of human communication and understanding. Liloviy Den’ is nothing like the normal folk album we’d hear in the U.S., but it easily outclasses almost all of the American output in any genre this decade. For fans of world music or of folk music, Liloviy Den’ is a strongly recommended listen.
11. J Dilla: J Dilla’s death in 2006 from a rare blood disease sent shock waves through the world of underground hip-hop. Only 32 years old, Dilla had become one of the most influential producers in hip-hop, easily evidenced by the voluminous number of tributes his contemporaries recorded after his death. Donuts, released 3 days before he died, features 31 short songs of Dilla’s unique mashups of beats and samples, drawing from not only funk and soul but jazz and classical music. Like a series of memory snippets, the songs are brief and constantly in flux- two samples in, one out. Dilla’s songs on Donuts are eternally evolving, growing new shoots, shedding leaves, sometimes jerking about in the breeze. As if it’s looking back on life, Donuts represents the full gamut of human experience and emotion, from somber (“Last Donut of the Night”) to strange (“Lightworks”), tender (“Don’t Cry”) to tired (“Mash”), energetic (“Glazed”) to aggressive (“Twister”), contemplative (“Waves”) to content (“Time”). The continual variety and wonderfully ingenious selection of clips are what earned Dilla the respect and acclaim from his peers, and what make this album a lasting document of Dilla’s impossibly creative beat-making. Donuts sounds not like an album but like the mix at a heavenly party, commissioned by God.
10. Interpol: The first guitar notes of Turn On The Bright Lights soar right beyond the atmosphere, like echoes bouncing in a subway tunnel, timeless and unreachable, and entirely ethereal. Until the high-hats interrupt and the bass begins pumping, when we’re dropped straight back down into city life and its own mysterious appeals- streetlights, rainy sidewalks, grimy corridors, and relentless transportation. This strange urban ambiance flows throughout TOTBL, and Interpol’s prominence in the New York indie rock scene is thus only sensible. But it’s the strong rhythmic interplay between the tight drums and danceable bass that propels this album into rock and roll nirvana. Paul Bank’s understated and contemplative vocals contrast the music, but complement its drive and sonic depth. In this sense, TOTBL is both horizontally and vertically focused- Interpol wondering where they are going musically, while appreciating the moment they are at. Past this babble, the songs themselves are excellent, with “Obstacle 1” and “Say Hello to the Angels” as two of the finer tracks this decade, both dark, pounding, and exhilarating. Although Interpol is frequently described as a modern-day Joy Division, I don’t think that comparison works beyond Banks’ vocals- Joy Division preferred to wallow, while Interpol and TOTBL would rather dance-rock away their afflictions.
9. Panda Bear: Collecting nostalgic pop melodies and making them fresh has been a common endeavor for bands since The Beach Boys, but Panda Bear stumbled upon a secret recipe to psychedelic pop glory- self-harmonization, looping samples, and adding a ton of reverb. Largely the work of a single man (Noah Lennox of Animal Collective) and his laptop, Person Pitch is like a colorful hot-air balloon slowly wafting up to greet a blue big-clouded sky- weightless, eternal, and beautiful to behold. In a period when lazy throwbacks to bygone eras became common, Person Pitch draws its rear-view mirror psychedelia from modern constructs- electronica, sampling, and even the repetition of dance music. An experimental album that’s heavy on melody and easy on the ears? Wonderful!
8. Wilco: Experimentation and alt-country weren’t mixable entities until Wilco unveiled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Leaning heavily on studio trickery and creative rhythmic instrumentation, the shifting sonic atmosphere subtly supports the songs rather than drowning them out. The songs themselves range from the careful folky revelations of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” to the curious tender love and dissatisfaction expressed “Reservations”. The finest standout is “Jesus, Etc“, an orchestrally-embellished pop-country tune featuring delicate phrases (“I’ll be around, you were right about the stars, each one is a setting sun”) and enough strange imagery (“tall buildings shake, voices escape”) to keep listeners guessing at the story underlying the song. Also notable is “Pot Kettle Black”, which features vague but excellently-structured songwriting from lead singer Jeff Tweedy- “empty out your pockets,
words without a song” and “I’ll keep you in my locket, a string I never strum” as two of the finer couplets. Several years ago, I would have had this album much higher, but it hasn’t aged terribly well with me, probably due to the reserved tempo featured throughout. However, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot still contains some of the finest folk-country seen this decade.
7. Modest Mouse: Though Good News For People Who Like Bad News was Modest Mouse’s true mainstream breakthrough, The Moon and Antarctica was the group’s greatest release this decade. Featuring Issac Brock’s distinctive vocals and self-depreciating lyrics, these tunes are notable for their continual development and experimentation. One of these linear-building rock songs, “Gravity Rides Everything” adds several guitar lines from out of nowhere that build until the song’s close. Along with these types of changes, The Moon and Antarctica features both disruptive folk punk (“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, “A Different City”) and slower, bleaker roots songs like “Third Planet” and “The Coldest Part”, all executed in unique modes that add to the album’s superb flow and intrigue.
6. Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People is to music listeners what the everything bagel is to indecisive breakfasters- a taste of many differing flavors gathered in one place. The upside is that YFIIP sounds a lot better than an everything bagel probably tastes. Broken Social Scene executes every single style on here with an innate sense of beauty, and the care they took in making each sound is obvious. On each song, not only is the similar aesthetic present, but a similar mood manifested in different ways and dynamics. For example, “Pacific Theme” has a tropical feel, but remains as detachedly somber as the strings on “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”. The tender noise ballad “Lover’s Spit” and the steady but unsettling “Stars and Sons” are two highlights, but beautiful moments are interspersed throughout all of You Forgot It In People.
5. Animal Collective: This year’s most hyped album turned to be one of those rare instances where the frenzy of escalating expectations is actually met. Animal Collective had been indie darlings for much of the decade, but their output was maddeningly inconsistent and prone to moments of sonic annoyance, the result of overzealous studio experimentation. A good example would be “Grass“, where a divine verse gets killed a bit by the succession of shouts in the chorus, which were gratingly recorded, but probably fantastic live. On Merriweather Post Pavillion, AC not only move away from the moments of annoyance, but bend their experimental tendencies into danceable jams instead of psychebilly freakouts. “My Girls“, for instance, couples electronica swirls with a booming bass line and well-timed hollers, using repetition as a way to move feet while sticking their catchy simple melodies into listener’s heads. The rest of the album shows a similarly mature sense of place, time, and space previously lacking in their music, while retaining their creative and innovative urges. MPP is a new brand of experimental dance-pop, both listenable in solitude and danceable in public, and hopefully the beginning of a trend bound for places beyond indie pop concert halls.
4. Arcade Fire: For a seven-piece band, Funeral is an impossibly precise and heartfelt album, the shared sentiments of the entire group released through music. The album received its name from several deaths to relatives of the band members, and its not hard to see further influence of those events, especially on “In The Backseat”. Funeral is fully developed instrumentally, with featured parts for strings, xylophones, accordions, but these are all used to enhance the folk rock core, rather than as pointless flowery gimmicks. The strings and piano on “Laika“, notably, add so much to the swirling intensity of the song that its hard to image the music without them. Win Butler’s affected vocals never come off as anything other than sincere, as he whispers and howls of desolation. But the underlying music is not without a sense of hopefulness, especially in the numerous unexpected breakdowns at the ends of several songs, where a downbeat setting is suddenly catapulted into dark dance-rock, a faint glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
3. Madvillain: Certainly the most creative hip-hop album I’ve heard all decade, Madvillany is the result of a collaboration between two underground heavyweights- producer Madlib and rapper MF DOOM (now just plain DOOM). Madlib samples heavily not only from jazz, soul, and classical, but from dusty old movie clips and sound bites, adding a theatrical sense to the proceedings. Both the samples and much of DOOM’s rapping center around the MC’s concocted villain persona for the album, a trick bolstered by DOOM’s real-life mask-wearing habit. But if classic samples and manufactured image were the only calling points of Madvillany, the album could be cast off as a creative gimmick. On the contrary, DOOM’s rapping is both phenomenal and memorable, as he deftly runs through insightful tidbits in a grand laid-back urban-Confucius style-
How Doom hold heat, and preach non-violence?
Shhh, he ’bout to start the speech, c’mon, silence
On one scary night, I saw the light
Heard a voice that sound like Barry White said “Sure you’re right” (from “Raid“)
Villain get the money like curls
They just trying to get a nut like squirrels in his mad world
Land of milk and honey with the swirls
Where reckless naked girls get necklaces and pearls (from “Curls“)
And Madlib’s production can’t be sold short as hustle, either- his beats are alternately curious and pounding, and his instrumentals “Sickfit” and “Do Not Fire” stand out as carefully boisterous jams. Mixed together, the fascinating beats and scintillating rhymes make Madvillany the best hip-hop album of the decade.
2. Radiohead: Much ink has been spilled about Kid A’s ground-breaking ambient electronica and its influence on both indie rock and electronica in the last decade. But other sources have already deliberated upon both topics, so I’d rather spend a few words on the strength of the material itself. To listen to Kid A is to enter into a strange psychotic world, bizarre in nature yet eerily familiar in its frequent hints of reality within the surreal. Chords bubble over themselves in new ways on the opener, “Everything in its Right Place”, and while “The National Anthem” stomps and “Idioteque” grooves, “How to Disappear Completely” slowly laments its sulky disillusionment. This diversity of emotion is found within the albums’ fantastically icy contents, and Kid A stays forever fresh due to its almost-relateable alien ways.
1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: The greatest album of the decade (at least in my eyes), Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven is the kind of album no amount of spilled words or concocted phrases can truly describe. Comprised of 4 instrumental songs running at about 20 minutes each, LYSF not only epitomizes post-rock’s grandiose values, but exceeds the genre’s wildest dreams. LYSF features heart-throttling dynamics to dramatic effect, slowly building minimalist beauties into dense guitar storms. This album demands your full attention to its every waking moment, as each new note plays an important role in realizing the song’s overarching theme and eventual climax- like a subtle sci-fi thriller, if such a thing exists. LYSF conjures up images of bleak countryside and expansive outer space, quiet isolation and frenzied crowds, as it moves through a complete cycle of human experience and situation. Due to its size and demands upon the listener, LYSF can’t often be played in entirety, but each time it unveils a new and revitalizing magic found nowhere else in popular music.
By: Ryan Faus