Best albums of the decade (1-10)

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…


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13 comments to Best albums of the decade (1-10)

  • Jim Lang

    M.I.A. – Arular

  • Melissa

    Check out Ian Cooke’s “The Fall I Fell.” http://www.myspace.com/iancooke

    Beautiful, haunting (and sometimes uncomfortably pathetic) album about the year he fell in love with his best friend. I had the CD on repeat for a good month, although he’s much better in person.

    Maybe you’ll receive it as a late Christmas present from a certain someone in Denver.

  • rob tabish

    critics often shoot themselves in the foot for lists like this. you know that, don’t you, Joe?

    i really like Radiohead, but like most bands, their initial offerings are usually the best….”The Bends” and “OK, Computer” were both from the 90s, and most of what they did after sounds too much like replay.

    i have heard The Bad Plus….interesting, but not top ten material

    i like Rufus, but have been a Loudon fan since the 70s, so that might explain that.

    Shatner can do no wrong..since everything you expect from him is unexpected, for him to do a cover album [joining Pat Boone on my list of classics] of such great material is fantastic. a good addition to anyone’s collection…but again…top ten material?

    there are a bunch of albums that have come out in this decade that i “liked”….the Plant/Krauss collaboration, the pop-goth Evanescence, some of Pearl Jam’s work, the pop “Cage the Elephant”… stuff i hear, but forget as soon as something else comes up. nothing has really grabbed me as “top ten” material. i guess considering the massive amount of great stuff that came out in the 90s, it is hard to top that.

    hopefully, the next ten years will be better.

  • Thanks for the thoughts, Rob. I’m not sure you framed your view of this exactly like I’d intended though — I’m not trying to compare these releases to those of previous decades. This is just the albums that have (a) been released to the public between 2000-2009, and (b) managed to somehow haunt my ears and get stuck in my CD player the longest. I’m sorry to hear that you don’t feel that anything from this decade ranks with music from the 90s; I’m happy that I disagree. :^)

    You’re the first person I know who prefers Radiohead’s earliest stuff to later albums; but to follow your point, I will say that my complaint about “In Rainbows” is that it’s the first one I’ve heard where I thought, “this doesn’t sound like anything new.” I like it, but don’t feel like it’s a major step for them. Anyway, I think it’s pretty amazing to note how many different Radiohead albums show up on people’s best-of lists: my coworker Michael Moore listed “In Rainbows,” while Rolling Stone put “Kid A” at the top of its list. So did Pitchfork.

    Ultimately, I completely agree with you that doing lists — especially numbered/ranked lists — is a total minefield (that’s why, despite promising to do so yesterday on the blog, I’m still hesitating to attempt a local-release list). I find it a fun personal exercise ultimately, and I actually feel like I learned some things about myself and my tendencies through this process. For example, I had an alcohol-fueled argument the other night with my cousin about whether Regina Spektor’s latest album belongs on this list. In talking about it, I realized that I seem to have an unintentional and unspecific dislike for female artists of her ilk — I never got into Ani DiFranco completely, and felt even less interested in the work of Kate Bush and Tori Amos (both of whom are closer to Spektor than Ani). It’s not that I dislike strong women singers; Joni Mitchell is a top-5-of-all-time artist for me, and I’ve loved the work of Gillian Welch, Abigail Washburn, k.d. lang, and others. So I don’t know what the deal is.

  • Rob, Shatner’s album is not a cover album. It’s mostly originals, mostly poetry written by the man himself, with one brilliant cover on it. By the way Joe that album and “Hail to the Thief” almost made my list. Actually who knows — maybe they will. I’m still working on it.

    I sort of got into Radiohead in reverse chronological order so I don’t have your problem with “In Rainbows” which I also loved. I know it’s hard to imagine but I never really heard any Radiohead until about a year ago.

    Also love the Bad Plus.

  • rob tabish

    sorry about the comment on Shatner’s album. i was under the impression there were more covers on it. i do stand by my opinion that HE is..if nothing else, an original.

    i agree that lists are hard to live by, and you can no sooner make one than you will realize you missed something……as for my preferring 90s music over this decade’s choices. i tend to view music much the same as you do. if it sticks with me, if it makes an impression. unfortunately, there has been too little music from this decade that has impressed me enough to want to rush right out and buy it.

    don’t get me wrong, there has been some…..but compared to what i was buying in the 90s, my new music collection hasn’t grown much. i kinda blame the internet. with it, you can cherry-pick what you want to hear, but this unfairly takes away the power of some songs to “grow” on you….not like what would happen if you were to HAVE to listen to an entire album.

  • What if this were a list of “favorite” albums rather than “best”albums? Would that read any different?

  • rob tabish

    isn’t this list really a “favorites” list already? i think if you are going to make a “best” list, it should have to meet criteria, such as originality, range of influence, over-all popularity [as much as i hate to admit that], and maybe demographics. a “best” album should be eclectic as well as ground-breaking, and can be pointed to in years to come as memorable.

    just my opinion, of course. i look at albums i have in my collection that i consider to be the “best” of their genre, and invariably, there is a consensus of this over a wide range of audiophiles. Willie Nelson’s “Stardust”, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, the Beatles’ “Sergent Pepper” , Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”…all land on someones “best” list at some point or another.

    my “favorites” list would probably be a bit different, and include…like Joe’s list here, some music a lot of people have never heard. i respect Mr. Nickells’ taste in music….that is why i read his posts. by his own admission, these are songs stuck in his head, and most of us haven’t taken THAT ride, so to speak.

  • I think y’all are saying the same thing, and I further think that you’ve pointed out a misnomer in my title of this post. I wouldn’t ever pretend to be an authority on the “best” music, because I think that’s completely impossible to quantify. This my titling of this post (and the previous one) is misleading as to its intent.

    So, yes, this is most definitely a “favorites” list. My actual intent in writing it was less to quantify or enumerate music that I think everybody “should” hear, and more to give readers insight into what moved me most deeply in the past decade.

    In that sense, it’s primarily an attempt at enumerating my biases, which I feel is actually a far more fruitful and honest approach to journalism in general than trying to hide behind a pretense of objectivity.

  • By the way, since Rob brought up sales figures, I was really intrigued by the stark contrast between all of the critical “decade’s best” lists I perused in the past couple of weeks, and the Billboard list of best-selling albums of the decade. It’s probably no surprise, but there wasn’t a single album on Billboard’s chart that showed up in any of the critics’ lists that I read.

    Number one bestseller of the decade? ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached.”

  • rob tabish

    and here i thought you were just trying to “poke the bear”.
    given a list of criteria, Joe…. could you come up with a “best” list for this decade? i can, just off the top of my head, make a list of bands from the previous decade that most people would agree to, but these last ten years….well, i don’t know.

  • I kinda doubt it. I mean, Metacritic.com probably has the closest approximation to such a list, as it tallies the opinions of many, many critics. But good luck finding a single person who would include all of their top five best-reviewed albums of the decade in a personal favorites list:

    1. Brian Wilson: “Smile”
    2. Loretta Lynn: “Van Lear Rose”
    3. OutKast: “Stankonia”
    4. Ali Farka Toure: “Savane”
    5. Madvillainy: “Madvillainy”

    …And of course, that list doesn’t begin to reflect album sales.

    “Most Influential” might be marginally more do-able; but at this point in history, can we really say how influential Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest” — which came out this year — will be in the long run, as compared to Radiohead’s “Kid A,” which came out in 2000? Let alone the albums released in the past week or two…So that, too, seems like a pretty slippery way to frame a list.

    This is kind of a tangent and kind of not; but I have long believed that objectivity is a hopeless illusion and impossible fantasy when it comes to writing about the arts. In fact, I believe it’s an illusion when it comes to writing, period. Even in the realm of sports, I think that our culture’s obsession with stats and standings serves as much to obscure as to illuminate greatness.

    All that said, I’d love to hear your list of 90s bands that you think everybody would agree are the “best.” I have a feeling that’d be the start of a serious flame war….Which is great for blog traffic. :^)

  • [...] should note this list was inspired by a post Jeb made at Musical Family Tree and also by J’s list. Thanks, guys, for suckering me in. This list took way longer to compile than I [...]

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