Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best Albums of 2000 - 2009 (someone please argue with me)

I've had sort of a boring week, and it has been a particularly frustrating month for music (Thom Yorke recording a track for the new Twilight movie soundtrack? Really?). My boredom and nostalgia for quality-tunes-past has converged in list form. The following is my rationale for my selection of the ten best albums of the past ten years.

I like making lists like this. It makes saying something like, "oh yeah, that's one of my top-five favorite [whatevers]" a lot more meaningful if you actually think about it beforehand. I generally throw down at least 20 possible choices right off the bat. And then, admittedly, I’ll trawl through other lists to make sure I hadn’t overlooked anything (in general, my musical memory is much closer to 5 years than it is to 10). Once I have a very large working list, I’ll start paring it down. But something struck me this time as I began to search: None of the albums really jumped out. I would look at an album, know that it I loved it, but I was never outright convinced that it belonged on a list. The field was too even.

This was not, in my opinion, a decade of seminal, genre-founding breakthroughs. In the last ten years, there was no Nevermind, Slim Shady LP, Back in Black, Talking Book, White Album or Zeppelin II.

This is not to say that there was any shortage of musical genius. On the contrary, I would argue that musicians have never been better. Listen to an Arcade Fire or Kanye West album and you can be rest-assured that the people recording today have set a ridiculously high bar. But the fore of musicality has moved beyond the creation of genres and styles, and into their amalgamation. Interdisciplinary composition is the new genre. Especially in the last few years, I have heard people complaining that it is becoming increasingly difficult to classify a new album. ‘Indie’, ‘pop’, or even ‘hip hop’ and ‘urban’ are cop-out blanket definitions that oversimplify the trend.

10. Lupe Fiasco – The Cool

There’s a line on Lupe’s first album – Food and Liquor – where he briefly describes his introduction to rap: “I used to hate hip hop, because the women it degraded, but Too Short made me laugh; like a hypocrite I played it, a hypocrite I state;, but I only recited half, omitting the word ‘bitch”. An American born Muslim and loudly political, Lupe Fiasco’s affiliation with hip hop culture is tenuous at best. But from his position at the sidelines of gangsterism, he has been able to affiliate himself with a much wider base of musicality than the likes of Talib Kweli and Mos Def. Did you improve on the design? Did you do something new?”

9. El-P – Fantastic Damage

El-P is another rapper who has branched out in ways that would have been nearly unthinkable in the 90’s. He raps in schizophrenic explosions of argumentative dialogue; backed by an ensemble of samples – house beats, screaming strings, trap set rolls – that would make UNKLE blush. And again, this guy isn’t rapping about rims and 40s. El-P narrates his albums like the protagonist of a Palahniuk novel. He searches for hypocrisy and injustice in every nook and cranny of society, pulls it into the light and lyrically crucifies it. His work isn’t easy to listen to, and you’re probably not going to hear it on a dancefloor (it would seriously harsh a buzz), but if you give it time and thought, it rewards the effort many times over.

8. The Arcade Fire – Funeral

The arcade fire deserves to be on the list solely for having made the loudest, most stadium-ready album in recent memory. I like to think of them as the thinking man’s answer to Coldplay – glistening, ecstatic music, wrought with deceptive simplicity. I will admit bias on this one, though. I’ve seen the Arcade Fire live, and I’ve been in love with all twelve of them (or however many – there are a lot) ever since. Their festival sets are long, crescendoing epics that climax in the more up-tempo pieces of Funeral. Hearing the opening bells of ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ as 60,000 exhausted hipsters began humming along was a musically transformative thing for me. I still remember how utterly exhausted I was dancing along as the song imploded in on itself and nova’d out into its cacophonous finale. If Funeral has any faults, it has been to raise a bar for The Arcade Fire that they are very unlikely to clear again.

7. Atmosphere – Strictly Leakage

Strictly an EP, actually – not an album, but I’m making an exception here (and in one other place on the list). Atmosphere is always at the top of their game when they’re talking directly to their fans. Hell, they’re still considered “underground” after dozens of commercially successful releases and numerous mainstream offers for exactly that reason. They full-length albums are always wonderful, but there’s an element of discomfort to them. Slug and Ant are best when unforced – recording and performing for fun. Which is why this [13-song] EP is so amazing. The tracks are just things they had laying around. But the joy and irreverence with which they were recorded is very apparent. There’s a song about white kids who listen to rap, a 1-minute narrative about winning a hand of poker and another song about why bringing a girl back to your mom’s house is so undesirable. You don’t need politics when you have poetry.

6. Sigur Rós - Takk

The lead singer of Sigur Rós modified his guitar with a curved bridge so he could play it with a violin bow. He also sings in a language he invented because his native Icelandic wasn’t whimsical enough. The guy makes Bjork look like a pants-suit accountant… and he composes music so beautiful and emotionally challenging that his personal idiosyncrasies are the last things that come to my mind when I hear it. I’ve seen people, with no comprehension of what is being sung, brought fully to tears by this album. The music is something that transcends almost every measure of quality that you can attribute to artistic expression – it’s just something else. Put ‘Seaglopur’ on headphones, turn down the lights and try to disagree.

5. Radiohead – Kid A

Radiohead can really do no wrong by me (see ‘Honorable Mentions’ below). Thom Yorke is my musical hero and I have never disliked anything he’s put his hand to. With that said, Kid A is a step back from everything that had made Radiohead a critical and commercial darling of rock music. It is a tangle of static, clicks, screams and feedback – a bad acid trip of an album that begs you not to like it. People say, “yeah Radiohead is awesome... but have you heard Kid A?” There are no singles, no anthems, no club beats (maybe Idioteque). But Kid A is Radiohead at their most free and creative, and nothing can touch that. Even beyond the chaotic genius of the album itself, its recording served as a stepping-stone for the band – an adaptation of their style. After ‘Kid A’, ‘In Rainbows’ was clearly to follow.

4. Jay-Z – The Black Album

The Black Album is the nearest on this list to an old-school, iconic milestone. It marked the birth of swagger, yet another post-gangster direction for hip hop, and a new benchmark for one of rap’s most skilled and prolific artists. The whole thing plays like the crier’s song for some medieval King. ‘99 Problems’ was released in tandem with Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ and the announcement of their pending nuptuals – a coup de grace for Hova’s status. ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ birthed its own widely recognized gesticulation. ‘Encore’ has been mixed so many times that it has become synonymous with the practice. Lines from every song have made their way into street vernacular. There is a reason why Hova can say with every new release that he is the greatest rapper alive. While the accuracy of the statement is debateable; no one can casually deny it.

3. The Black Keys – Chulahoma

Chulahoma, the second EP of the list, is a short tribute to the late blues legend Junior Kimbrough. The last thing on the recording is a voicemail left for Dan Auerbach by Junior Kimbrough’s widow. Her voice trembles throughout as she compliments the guitar/drums duo on recording such a faithful adaptation of her husband’s work. I picked this album as one of the best of the decade mostly for what it represents; the efforts of The Black Keys to reinvent and reinvigorate the blues. Chulahoma is a devastatingly emotional and almost palpably visceral album, and that’s what the genre needs to be these days to stay relevant.

2. Kanye West – Late Registration

The guy takes a lot of flak for what a narcissistic jackass he is. As in, narcissism; a neurotic obsession with one’s self. In West’s case, I think it’s justified. Late Registration is a masterpiece of staggering proportions and the pinnacle in a trilogy of work (College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation) that I will be untouchable in its artistic breadth for the foreseeable future. There isn’t a club in the western world that didn’t have ‘Gold Digger’ on heavy rotation. There’s a song about his dying grandmother with a tuba baseline. Jay-Z raps about blood diamonds, Common sings about love, he even got Paul Wall, Lupe Fiasco and Adam Levine. The whole thing is drenched in soaring strings, Dre-esque beats, flawless harmonization and obsessively crafted production. It’s Las Vegas in a CD.

1. Radiohead – In Rainbows

When Radiohead releases an album, they do so – every time – with a mind toward disowning their previous work and reinventing their sound. They are a group that specializes in wringing beauty from discontent and, as Yorke has said on numerous occasions, allowing themselves to be comfortable would be to defeat the soul of their work. ‘In Rainbows’ is a marked departure from that paradigm, and a turn toward something completely different. Free from the EMI record contract that “strangled” their creativity (one wonders what the group’s body of work would look like had it been allowed to breath), Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’ over the internet and told fans to pay whatever they thought it was worth - the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to the lumbering, antiquated business model of the record industry. The songs on ‘In Rainbows’ are fiercely effulgent things, and with Yorke’s sideprojects siphoning the less compatible elements of his artistry, the band sounds like a whole again – unified. So while Radiohead may have forever abandoned the self-imposed pressure that compelled albums like Amnesiac and OK Computer, they freed themselves to make, in my opinion, the best album of their careers.

Honorable Mentions:

Radiohead – Amnesiac
– Hail to the Thief
Radiohead – ComLag [EP]
Drive-by Trucker – Dirty South

The Black Keys – Rubber Factory
The Black Keys – Thickfreakness
Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – Music from the Motion Picture ‘Once’ [soundtrack]
Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Raekwon – Only Built for the Cuban Linx Pt. 2
Ghostface – Supreme Clientelle
Ghostface – The Big Doe Rehab
– The Argument
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
The National – Boxer
And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead... – Source Tags and Codecs
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft
Ratatat – Classics
Justin Timberlake – Futuresex/Lovesounds
The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free
M.I.A. – Kala
Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
The Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Burial – Untrue
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Jay-Z – American Gangster
Kanye West – The College Dropout
The White Stripes – White Blood Cells
Raphael Saadiq – Instant Vintage
Queens of the Stone
Age – Songs for the Deaf
Lupe Fiasco – The Cool
– Madvillainy
Danger Doom – The Mouse and the Mask


Dan said...

Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons Paint That Shit Gold
The Roots - The Tipping Point / Phrenology / Game Theory .
Royksopp - Junior
Cage The Elephant - Cage The Elephant
Cobra Starship - Hot Mess (Even tho poppy very well made album)
Gym Class Heroes - As Cruel As School Children (again a bit poppy but very well made album)
Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American and Futures
Little People - Mickey Mouse Operation
Ok Go - Oh No and Ok Go
Queens of the Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf
Ratatat - Remixes Vol 2
The Zutons - You can Do Anything

Dan said...

Oops you did include Songs for the Deaf

Patrick Dewey said...

Damnit! I'm kicking myself for forgetting The Roots. I wasn't a huge fan of Phrenology (The Seed 2.0 would definitely make a best singles list, though), but Rising Down and Game Theory were fucking spectacular.

Tree Frog said...

UGK - Underground Kings (I still listen to International Player's Anthem obsessively. It's got the perfect bookends of hopeful optimism and bitter pessimism with a middle full of quasi-retarded, yet enjoyable skirt chasin'.

Scarface - The Fix. A classic. Apparently DMX's favorite album.

J. Dilla - The Shining. Already mentioned it over on the Attention Crash forum, but it's still so solid now.

The Avalanches - Since I Left You. Discovered this through the AV Club list. It's definitely deserving of being in the honorable mentions or even on the lists.

Mind if I port this list over to the Attention Crash forums? I'm "thapa".

Patrick Dewey said...

Done and done.

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