Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Top Ten Albums of the Decade

It's easy to look at the numbers -- like the astonishing decline in physical CD sales, or the fact that the highest selling album of the decade was produced by N'Sync (!), or that the number one rock act of the decade was Nickelback (!!) -- and think that the music business went to hell in a handbasket in the 00's. I, however, have nothing but good words for the decade in music -- this was the first decade I really started following new music (thanks Napster!) and it offered an awesome introduction for a neophyte music collector. Below are my favorite albums of the aughts (note -- you shouldn't have to but you may be prompted to sign-up at to listen to the songs. It's a painless, free process and will allow you one listen of every song here):

10) Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)
The second album in Sufjan Stevens' 50 state project -- he aims to produce a CD for each state in the US -- could be the last in the series and the project would still be considered a success. It's ironic how well Stevens captures the ethos of a rough-and-tumble state like Illinois through mellifluous, delicate melodies and quirky lyrics. Ranging from the majesty of "Chicago" to the heartbreaking "Casimir Pulaski Day," Illinois is a magnificent achievement from an artist whose ambitions are bound to lead him to even greater ones.

9) Kanye West - College Dropout (2004)
He seems so ubiquitous these days that it's easy to forget that Kanye West was once an unknown record producer yearning for attention and recognition. That all changed with this debut album which, despite some wonderful follow-ups, remains his best album to date. The flowing rhymes and infectious beats we know him for were all on this album, along with a little of the braggadocio that hadn't quite yet blown up into his current megalomania.

8) The National - Alligator (2005)
Does part of my affection for The National stem from the fact that most of the band comes from Cincinnati? Sure. But that doesn't make the third full-length album from the group any less impressive. Between lead singer Matt Berninger's smoky vocals and the powerful melodies of such songs like "Secret Meeting" and "Mr. November", Alligator showed that The National were the best entertainers to come out of the 'nati since George Clooney .

7) Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I don't consider myself a huge Wilco fan, but there's no denying the incredible craftsmanship and beautiful sounds on this album. For an album that takes on such somber subjects as death, drinking, and loss, the album's melodies are all surprisingly catchy. I tend to think Wilco's best days are behind them, but YHF shows that the band at its best was better than practically anyone else.

6) Spoon - Kill the Moonlight (2002)
In terms of pure consistency across a large number of albums, I think Spoon are probably the musical artists of the decade. It's tough to choose a favorite from their catalog, but this 35 minute gem features all the signature hooks and beats that typify a great Spoon album. Songs like "Paper Tiger" and "The Way We Get By" demonstrate that great melodies don't necessarily need bombast or majestic instrumentation -- for Spoon, simplicity is stunning.

5) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Dance rock tends to be pretty superficial, which is part of what made this album so remarkable. Songwriter and DJ James Murphy turned his attentions to the challenges of aging and loss on Sound of Silver and produced mesmerizing results. The album features two of the best songs of the decade, "Someone Great" and "All My Friends."

4) Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
Before heading off into less fruitful directions with
Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's penchant for experimentation found its' most clear success story with this exceptional album. Thom Yorke's warped vocals are perfectly complimented by the different tones and textures Radiohead play around with on Kid A, leaving the listener with a music experience that is completely sui generis.

3) The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
In many ways, the reception of this album represented all that is wrong with indie rock culture: it was greeted with massive hype that soon turned into harsh backlash, aimed at artists who probably didn't have the stature to warrant the debate. I haven't given up on The Strokes as important musicians just yet, but even if they disappear from the landscape Is This It will still be an important landmark in the decade's music if only because it heralded the mix of garage and post-punk sound that now defines much of the indie scene. The Strokes' debut was the best of the genre, with hazy melodies and a disaffected lyrics that seemed to perfectly embody the downtown New York scene they came from.
Is This It - The Strokes

2) Outkast - Stankonia (2000)
It was always the curse and blessing of Outkast that Andre 3000 and Big Boi, the two musicians who make up the band, are individually two of the most talented songwriters and performers to enter the music industry. A curse because it caused their growing separation this decade, which by now seems essentially complete. But the blessing was their initial willingness to collaborate, which produced such magnificent discs as
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and this masterpiece. On songs like "B.O.B" and "Ms. Jackson" we see how the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts.

1) Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
What made this album so astonishing when it first appeared wasn't merely the "communal euphoria", as Pitchfork deemed it, that this Canadian band could generate -- it was the utterly primal nature of the sounds. Songs like "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Wake Up" are so unbridled and wild that it was almost like someone was orchestrating a coup in your ears. Bursting with ambition and energy, Funeral represented the music of the decade at its best -- inspired, technically brilliant, and utterly original.

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