Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Fifteen Albums of the Decade

There are omissions to this list, I assure you. In fact, there are so many omissions to this list that I almost don't want to post it. The thing is that many of these albums (in fact, most of them) I hold in almost equal regard, so saying that number one is better than number fifteen is accurate but saying number two is better than number three is just barely accurate, by very teeny tiny degrees of measurement. I limited myself to fifteen, but this list could have easily contained fifty. I also limited myself to five honorable mentions without explanation. Okay? Okay. Share your thoughts.

15. In Your Honor - The Foo Fighters
Picks: "The Best Of You" and "Friend of a Friend"

The Foo Fighters have been around for a long time now. Their debut album came out in 1995, and they have released a steady stream of moderate to great albums since. They're consistently satisfactory, often good, sometimes amazing. Frontman Dave Grohl took a gamble releasing In Your Honor as a double CD. In fact, this is more two different albums than one complete album. The first disc is hard rocking, classic Foo Fighters, and produced a number of singles. But it's the second, acoustic disc that earns this album a spot on my list. Listening to it, you can hear Grohl's artistry and shortfalls all at once. "Friend of a Friend," a track off the second disc, is Grohl at his most emotionally raw. Listen to it and you find yourself remembering that Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and that he probably wrote this song about Kurt Cobain, which gives the album's title more weight. The only major issue I had with this album was the Sony DRM that came with it, which opened up your computer to easy virus infection and prevented you from listening to this fine music on your iPod. Thanks, Sony, for making us buy it twice. Oh, recalled the discs? Yeah, I never turned mine in...guess I missed that boat.

14. Franz Ferdinand: Limited Edition Bonus Disc - Franz Ferdinand
Picks: "Jacqueline" "All For You, Sophia" and "Words So Leisured"

Franz Ferdinand is a fun band to listen to, but especially their debut album. They sing songs not about love or romance, but about the parts of relationships that precede all that. They sing about the things we do to each other. They sing songs with vague homo-erotic undertones. The only reason I specifically put the limited edition is because of the song "All For You Sophia," which is a frenetic musical tribute to the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and contains some amazing lines; "Bang bang Gavrilo Princip/Bang bang Europe's gonna weep" and "Bang bang history's complete." Nicely steeped in history and well written to boot. Franz made a misstep with their follow up, sadly, but this remains one of the best debut albums of the last decade. Also on the bonus disc, a second version of "Darts of Pleasure" is presented with a slow tempo bearing the name "Words So Leisured" and that is worth a listen.

13. Hot Fuss - The Killers
Picks: "Andy, You're A Star" and "Believe Me Natalie"

Another fantastic debut album of the last decade, The Killers brought glamour back to rock 'n' roll without bringing any kind of parody. Much like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers sing of many of the same subjects (including the vague homo-erotic undertones). What The Killers brought to glam rock was actual artistry, for the first time since David Bowie and Queen held sway. Of course, their next album smacked of Bruce Springsteen (which is not a bad thing, per se) and their most recent album may have that terrifically annoying tune with the line "Are We Human or Are We Dancer?" in it (that's not even grammatically correct in the least bit), but I still take this one on road trips because it's just so much damn fun to listen to.

12. Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
Picks: "Helicopter" and "So Here We Are"

Oh Bloc Party. You showed such promise with this album. "So Here We Are" especially showed me that you were an up and coming musical force to be reckoned with. And tunes like "Helicopter" and "Banquet" showed your versatility and fun and...and then, well, maybe it was just too much to live up to. And that's why you called it quits. I wish that instead, you had released another album as awesome as this one. Maybe you'll reunite in a few years and spark that magic again.

11. Come On Feel the Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens
Picks: "Come On Feel The Illinoise!" and "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"

Sufjan Stevens (and that name is pronounced Soo-fi-yann)embarked on an epic musical adventure when he released Greetings From Michigan and, after the heavily Bible-themed Seven Swans released Illinoise. Rumors begat rumors which eventually stated that Stevens planned on recording an album for each of the United States. It was going to be great; each state would have its own flag, bird, motto, quarter and now album. But sadly, it looks like Illinoise will be the last. Maybe the rumors weren't true (and they were not) or maybe, Stevens realized that if he did one for each state, D.C. and the Territories might feel jealous and then he'd have to record some more, and all the travel/research not to mention songwriting for more than fifty albums might put a bit of a strain on him and kind of a noose around his creativity. But if he had to stop somewhere, I'm glad he stopped in Illinoise because the first time I heard "They Are Night Zombies!!" posted on a friend's livejournal (which I am pretty sure she hasn't updated since facebook became her everything) I rushed out and bought* this album. And a good thing I did, too, because each tune on this album is at least half as good (which puts this album in good musical standing). So why number eleven? Well, what I like about this album is the cohesiveness; each tune is about the state of Illinois, or its history, or some aspect of it, in some way. But that is also its downfall. I love albums with a theme for some reason, but to base an entire album on a state does seem a bit heavy. Kudos to Stevens, though; any other artist I can think of trying to pull this off, they don't show up on my top fifteen.

10. Kid A - Radiohead
Picks: Whole Album

Radiohead started out as a straight British Rock 'n' Roll band of the Nineties with their first album Pablo Honey. They gained notoriety with their song "Creep" which to this day I still get chills if it comes through my speakers and it's been a while since I've heard it. They solidified their standing with The Bends and that albums' seemingly endless depth. With OK Computer they took a slight tip toe down an experimental lane, with tunes like "Subterranean Homesick Alien." And on this, their fourth album, they sprinted down that experimental electronic boulevard. This wasn't just a new album, it was a reinvention of the band. It was a gamble, and it paid off in a big way. There was a chance that fans would not follow this new direction but Radiohead plunged onward, unwilling to sacrifice their art for its consumers. It was enough for Rolling Stone to name this their pick for album of the decade, so it worked fairly well. And while my favorite track wavers between "Kid A" "Idioteque" and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" I urge you to listen to this album as a whole.

9. Tradin' Dollars for Dimes - The Rum Drum Ramblers
Picks: "I Feel It Too" and "Ain't Happy With You"

Many of my readers may be scratching their heads on this one. "The Rum Drum who whats?" "Tradin' whats-its for whatchamajigs now?" For those of you not in the know, The Rum Drum Ramblers are a folk/blues band based in St. Louis affiliated with Big Muddy Records, and this is the album they released in fall of 2009. They busk, they sing, they play, they rock. They sound like they could be grizzled old blues men, but they're in their mid twenties. These three young men are masters of their craft already, each doing amazing things with their respective instruments (upright bass, guitar, and one man supplying lead vocals, harmonica, washboard, snare drum, tambourine and much more). I could very easily have also included their 2008 8-track Hey Lordy Mama Mama Get Up and Go along with Tradin' Dollars but felt like that may be giving them too much to live up to. I will admit to being a bit of a sycophant when it comes to these guys.

8. Eisenhower - The Slip
Picks: "Airplane/Primitive" and "Paper Birds"

The Slip is a Boston based group with roots in the jam-band scene, but they operate in relative obscurity. I myself would never have heard of them if I weren't a subscriber to NPR's "All Songs Considered" podcast. But they're a fun band to listen to, though fair warning that in order to get to the best this album has to offer you have to get through the first track "Children of December" which is strained and flat and does not do well to introduce you to the rest of the album. Tunes like "Even Rats" and "Airplane/Primitive" showcase the groups' diversity and the album is tied together at the end with the outro to "Paper Birds" which does a very nice job of referencing other tunes on the album without it turning into a gimmick.

7. We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes - Death Cab For Cutie
Picks: "Company Calls" and "Scientist Studies"

Before Death Cab for Cutie broke out onto the scene big with Transantlantacism in 2003, they released this gem of an album which follows a loose conceptual theme throughout. In fact, if you listen close, the album seems to tell a tale about an unexpected, welcome but ultimately doomed love, taking the journey from friendship to the next level, to betrayal, to that stage where politeness takes over, and then ends in sorrowful longing. The juxtaposition of tone between "Company Calls" and "Company Calls: Epilogue" is the best example of the depth this album carries itself. Possibly Death Cab's most underrated album, give me We Have the Facts over Plans or Transatlanticism any day (full disclosure: I have not heard Narrow Stairs all the way through).

6. The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Picks: "The Island" "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and "The Crane Wife 1 & 2"

The Decemberists might, with the help of a handful of other bands who have gained notoriety recently, someday be credited with saving the album from the ninety-nine cent song download. This folk-rock band has brought great artistry with them. Exhibit A is The Crane Wife, an album which can be characterized by what I have started referring to as the Three L's: Longing, Legends, and Loss (I could throw a fourth L, with Love, but that's not surprising as probably about 90% of all songs are about love of some kind). The story of The Crane Wife is a Japanese legend which gets not one but two retellings on this album ("The Crane Wife 3" begins the album, "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" comes toward the end). This legend is filled with longing and loss; the second track "The Island" does what the Decemberists' next album would do start to finish: tells a story in musical movements like a symphonic piece. "Yankee Bayonet" feels like war-torn lovers writing letters back and forth. There is even a song about the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. Frontman Colin Meloy does not typically concern himself with writing pop songs, but rather with crafting folk songs which tell stories. You must listen to this album. You will thank me later.

5. Good News For People Who Love Bad News - Modest Mouse
Picks: "The World At Large" "Ocean Breathes Salty" and "The View"

On a bad day, nothing picks me up better than this album does. It's actually a strange effect it carries, since for the most part the lyrics are dark and cynical. Take, for instance, this line from "The View": "As life gets longer, awful feels softer/it feels pretty soft to me/And if it takes shit to make bliss/then I feel pretty blissfully/If life's not beautiful without the pain/well I'd just never ever even see beauty again." How could that make a person feel good? That's the magic of this album for me. Maybe they knew people of a certain pessimistic temperament would love this album. It's full of bad news, really, but I love it. Pay close attention to "The World At Large" which is a beautiful piece of music. Unfortunately for me, thanks to my friend Tyler's senior video project at college, I can't hear the closing tune "The Good Times Are Killing Me" without seeing a floating skeleton doll anymore, which makes me kind of have a bad day. So I listen to the album again.

4. Riverboat Soul - Pokey LaFarge and The South City Three
Picks: "Claude Jones" "Hard Times Come Hard Times Go" and "Bag of Bones"

Pokey LaFarge is another local boy, like the Rum Drum Ramblers. And again, by local "boy" I mean that he is younger than I am (which makes him a boy, I guess). This album, released in the fall of 2009, is not Pokey's first full length album but his first with The South City Three, his backing band. Pokey is on Big Muddy Records as well (for the time being) and, Big Muddy being a smaller label, there is generally a lot of crossover and familiar faces in their bands, so it seems fitting that the South City Three contains two of the Rum Drum Ramblers (and the third Rambler has been known to jump onstage with Pokey and the SC3 on occasion). But where the Rum Drum Ramblers are blues-folk, Pokey is bluegrass. His songs tell stories of bootleggers ("Claude Jones"), allude to the troubles we conjure up when we think of depression-era music ("Hard Times Come Hard Times Go") and he even sings of love. At times, Pokey can seem whimsical, but taking one listen to "Bag of Bones" will show you just how serious these young musicians can be. Again, I may be a bit sycophantic with Pokey and the Three, but it's hard not to like these guys. Trust me.

3. Frances The Mute - The Mars Volta
Picks: Whole Album

Remember, a few notches down the list, when I said that The Decemberists and a handful of other bands were helping to bring back the album? The Mars Volta is one of those bands, and Frances The Mute is an example of how they are bringing the album back. This is an album you cannot listen to in pieces (and the fact that the record company pushed for "L'Via L'Viaquez" as a single (the album version is twelve minutes long) shows just how ridiculous a record company can be. Frances the Mute tells the story of a woman in search of her biological family, and switches from English to Spanish and leaves no room to breathe between the tracks (in order to maintain continuous sound, the vinyl versions locked themselves into a closed groove at the end, repeating the same measure of music until physically stopped and flipped). While this album may be a little heavy, it is evocative of the progressive rock bands of the 70's and 80's who wrote rock symphonies instead of two or three hit singles padded with filler material.

2. How it Ends - DeVotcka
Picks: "The Enemy Guns" and "Twenty-Six Temptations"

Nick Urata's voice haunts me. Listen to the way it strains on "The Enemy Guns," the way it bends ever-so-slightly, the way it soars into the stratosphere and lands with authority on "Twenty-Six Temptations." Listen to this album's title track and I dare you to not be moved. You may know this band (and may have heard a part of "How it Ends") if you've seen the film Little Miss Sunshine, as they scored the film and used some of their existing music. What is most amazing about this band is their eclectic instrumentation. This album has standard pop fare-guitar, bass, drums-but also comes with sousaphone, trumpet, theramin, accordion, melodica, organ...the list goes on. Sometimes they play and sound like a Mariachi band; other times, they sound like an Eastern European street band and still other times like a rock band. This is a group to keep your ears tuned to. Need more proof? Check out their cover of Siouxsie & The Banshee's "Last Beat of My Heart" on DeVotchka's Curse Your Little Heart EP.

1. The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
Picks: Whole Album

Amazingly, The Decemberists get to be the only repeat band on my list (you may recall how well NBC was featured on my Television list, and how much I must love Pixar from my Film list). If The Crane Wife is exhibit A in proving the album is still alive, The Hazards of Love should be Exhibit N, as in "No need for further exhibits, you've got the jury fully convinced now." Here is what I suggest you do when you give this album a listen: 1) Turn off or unplug your telephone so it will not ring. 2) Make sure you have just had a well-balanced meal before listening. 3) Get yourself a really nice pair of speakers and lock yourself in the room with them. 4) Put this album on and listen to it, start to finish, once. 5) Reflect; hum the tunes that stuck with you while you go about your regular business. 6) Wait two or more hours. 7) Repeat as necessary. I'd say "The Decemberists did it again!" but that's not true. If they had done "it" again (it, in this case, referring to how very great The Crane Wife was) then this would be an accomplishment of a much lesser degree. No, this time, The Decemberists outdid themselves in the studio and then went on to outdo that on tour. That's right; due to the integrated and seamless aspect to the tunes on this album, and their knowledge that at best they could only turn one of them into a single ("The Rake's Song"), the band went on tour to support this album by playing the entire album live at each show. And after the whole album was played, the band would continue and play some of their earlier work. And it wasn't just the idea of the album that carried this to the top of the list; the story it tells is interesting, the characters as well rounded as a loose rock opera would allow, and filled with such beauty and danger that every time I listen, I hear something new. Listen. Now.

Honorable mentions:

In Rainbows - Radiohead

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not - Arctic Monkeys

( ) - Sigur Ros

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco

Diary: Remastered - Sunny Day Real Estate

Yes, I am well aware that a remastered version of an album originally released in 1994 has no business being on a "Best of the Decade 2000-2009" list, but I felt bad their one offering for the decade (2000's The Rising Tide) didn't come close to making the cut.

So, there you have it. My best-ofs for the decade. I hope in ten years, blogging is still cool enough that I'll feel like doing this again will be worth it.

Happy New Year!

*Of course by "bought" I mean that I may or may not have obtained it through what may or may not have been an illegal file-sharing network.


Bridget said...

So glad you included the local boys, Rum Drum Ramblers and Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three. I may be somewhat biased, but I LOVE THESE GUYS! You all can catch their upcoming live shows by checking listings on their myspace pages:

And Happy New Year to you too!

Molly said...

What??? No Lady Gaga???