Yesterday I posted up some of my favorite albums of the decade. Now, without further ado, the ten that have spent the most time in my CD player, and stuck in my head, in the first ten years of this new millenium…
10. William Shatner: “Has Been”
You think I’m kidding. I’m not. Collaborating with rock pianist Ben Folds, ol’ Captain Kirk put together an album of brutally honest tunes that reveal the deep insecurities and sharp wit of an aging character actor whose most fascinating role might just be his own. The title track is both poignant and hilarious. The cover of “Common People” is a blaze of shout-along power-pop. And Shatner’s duet with Henry Rollins will split your head clean open.
9. Andrew Bird: “Noble Beast”
He whistles and plays the violin. Oh, and he writes some of the most intimate, captivating folk-rock tunes you’ll hear. “They took me to the hospital, put my body through a scan / What they saw there would impress them all, for inside me grows a man,” he sings on “Masterswarm,” the album’s intricately wrought highlight. But Bird isn’t just a man; when it comes to fiddle-playing front-men of the new millennium, he’s THE man.
8. Vampire Weekend: “Vampire Weekend”
Not since the Talking Heads has a stiff-collar white-kid Afro-pop band managed to sound like anything more than what it is. Enter Vampire Weekend, a bunch of Columbia-educated, chess-playing pretentious twits (just ask the local bands who played with them when they came to Missoula) who happen to write tunes that get stuck in your head like the teeth of a crosseyed succubus. With song titles like “Oxford Comma” and “Mansard Roof,” these guys will never be confused with gangsta-rappers. Which is a Very. Good. Thing.
7. Rufus Wainwright: “Want One”
He flames like a Greek goddess and sings like Bob Dylan with a sinus infection; but lordy, can Rufus write a song. Despite (or because of) its shameless rip-off of Ravel’s “Bolero,” the lead-off track “Oh What a World” is the most poignant paean to life in the new millennium since…Well, since Rufus’ own “Vibrate,” or “Beautiful Child,” both of which grace this ambitious and mostly brilliant record.
6. The Bad Plus: “These Are the Vistas”
Who would have thought that songs by such divergent pop artists as Nirvana, Aphex Twin, and Blondie could be transformed into such brilliant and revelatory jazz? These three Midwest natives took an art form that has, in recent years, begun nodding off to sleep in the cozy confines of the Ivory Tower, and revived it with a hard slap and a wry wink. Ethan Iverson is the Jackson Pollock of the piano, scribbling out blazing solos that breathe new life into an old instrument. David King often does the unthinkable for a drummer, breaking entirely free from the established underlying beat. Yet just when he seems altogether gone, he’s right back – just in time for bassist Reid Anderson to cut loose on his own whimsical freeform jaunt. I still remember the night I pulled my truck over on the side of the road to listen to the gargantuan “Silence is the Question” over, and over, and over. It’s astounding.
5. Manu Chao: “Próxima Estación: Esperanza”
During the 1990s, I obsessively followed the exploits of Ween, the foul-mouthed goof-spoof duo from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (My wife and I sang a Ween song as we walked down the aisle at our wedding. I’m that much of a fan-geek.) Manu Chao is Ween for the new, digital, global order: A Parisian-born musician who sings stick-in-your-head ditties in French, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Portuguese, set to a roof-raising Afro-Latin-pop beat. When I need a lift, this is the album I have turned to, for years now. My wife and I drove all the way to San Francisco with a one-year-old in the back seat to see Manu Chao perform live. It was totally worth it.
4. Osvaldo Golijov: “Oceana,” and other works
Most of the classical music I’ve discovered in the past decade doesn’t technically fit the bill of a “best of the decade” list, as it was neither written nor recorded in this decade. One album, however, fits the bill and ups the ante at once: Osvaldo Golijov’s “Oceana.” Born in Argentina and educated in Israel and the United States, Golijov’s mixed heritage manifests itself in music that echoes everything from tango to klezmer to minimalism. For Golijov, it is all one language, spoken so eloquently that one begins to forget that Brazilian pop singers, Indian tabla players and Flamenco guitarists aren’t usually part of an orchestra. The title track – an oratorio for orchestra, chorus, and a small band of non-classical musicians – stands among the most moving and viscerally exciting large-scale concert works of the past century. Notably, it will be performed by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra in a concert this coming March. To say I’m excited is an enormous understatement indeed.
3. Sufjan Stevens: “(Come on Feel the) Illinoise!”
Fluttering flutes and soaring French horns, breathy harmonies and loquacious song titles – it all could have added up to the most pretentious album of the new millenium. Instead, “Illinoise” is a revelation: A whirlwind of unabashed ambition and heartbreaking humanity from one of the most singular talents in modern music. The title track spins gleefully on a minimalist tether, rising ever upward; then comes “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” an utterly entrancing and shockingly sympathetic ode to one of America’s most odious serial killers. It’s a long album – 23 tracks – and one that longs for an intermission by the end; but just try to sort through it for a bad song. There’s not a throw-away in the bunch.
2. Grizzly Bear: “Veckatimest”
Earlier this year, I heard friends raving about the new Grizzly Bear album. I bought it, knowing virtually nothing about the band (except, anecdotally, that they had performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic). I still remember the night that I popped it into the CD player. The first track, “Southern Point,” knocked my knees out from under me with its explosive shifts between nervous acoustic jazz and anthemic indie-rock refrains. I sat on the floor for nearly an hour, completely engrossed in the album’s haunting textures. “Dory,” with its seasick harmonic rootlessness and choral apparitions, has to be the strangest song that I’ve fallen in love with in at least ten years. There are more immediately engaging compilations of hummable tunes out there, but “Veckatimest” hangs together as an album – a journey, really — better than any I’ve heard this decade.
1. Radiohead: “Hail to the Thief”
It’s probably no surprise that, as a former classical music junkie, my tastes run toward music built on classical foundations. In that sense, it’s been a banner decade, as a whole genre has coalesced around classically derived principles, informed by the technology and trends of modern popular music. Chamber rock, baroque pop – call it what you will. It has changed the course of popular music in this new century.
Arguably, it all springs from Radiohead. Following on the groundbreaking popular success of the band’s late-90s album, “OK Computer” – a record that ought to have honorary status as a top pick of this decade, or any for that matter – Radiohead went over the edge with 2000’s “Kid A,” an album that tops many lists of this decade’s best. For me, though, 2003’s “Hail to the Thief” resonates more poignantly than “Kid A”’s sprawling millennial angst-fest. Songs like “Where I End and You Begin” and “A Punch Up At a Wedding” still take my breath away, combining tunes that would sound great played on just a guitar with synthesized textures that would have been literally unachievable a decade earlier. This isn’t just an album; it’s a universe.
So that’s it. What do you think? Share your thoughts via this poll at SpeakUpMissoula.com; or post your comments below…