No: singling out twenty or so albums as the pinnacle moments from a decade is totally not absurd at all. I based these lists on a nebulous calculation of awesomeness times influence, but since I can’t control the listening habits of the world, sometimes pure awesomeness was enough. The stickler in me really wanted a nice round number for each list, but I came to the decision that only 36 albums really stack up as potential all-time classics for me. If you’re still craving more music-snob sarcasm after reading these lists, feel free to point out any oversights…
Here at the end of the zeroes, I can confidently say it’s not that I’m getting old: popular music just sucked this decade. Nobody will look back on nu-metal, emo, Auto-Tune and American Idol and refer to these as the glory days of anything. This was the decade that produced Guitar Hero but no guitar heroes, when you paid more to Ticketmaster for Pearl Jam than for U2. The big hits came from people who used machines to make them sound like they could sing (that must have happened in a sci-fi novel at some point, right?), and the hardest concert ticket to get was for a band that’s never had a hit single in its 25-year history. Hell froze over and over with the reunions of Led Zeppelin (who at least still had its original singer), Queen, The Germs (vomit), and--GAAAK--The Doors, who finally even convinced John Densmore to sell out last year. And as the outdated rock star archetypes dangle from the cliff of relevance, the baffling persistence of reality TV (didn’t we all predict it would be an exhausted fad by now?) has blurred the meaning of celebrity beyond what even Andy Warhol could’ve foreseen.
A note on a few list-mainstays that don’t appear on mine…Kanye, obviously. Critics who refer to The College Dropout and Late Registration as classics really ought to be defending Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park as well; those too are slickly-produced, shrewdly-calculated hybrids of underground and top 40 music featuring godawful vocalists, and they were just as game-changing as far as their respective musical niche…The Strokes’ Is This It: A collection of good, straightforward rock songs that all sound pretty much the same (i.e., blatant Iggy Pop rip-offs) and had absolutely no lasting effect on the musical landscape. I’m stumped…Jay-Z: the dude’s mush-mouthed delivery has confounded me ever since he busted out in the 90s, and it hasn’t improved. He’s an innovative artist, and he’s gotten the best out of some of the top producers in the biz, and I’d dig his music if he’d let somebody else do his vocals, yet his ego is so overpowering he’s convinced the whole world that he’s a better rapper than he actually is…Sufjan Stevens: No, we weren’t wrong about how awesome Illinois was, but I’ve discovered that I never feel like listening to it any more. It is a fabulous slice of 2005, but it is so rooted in the middle of the decade that it (and most of his catalog, actually) strikes me as oddly dated now…Bob Dylan: Stop it. Just because he’s really old and can still write some decent songs? I expect that kind of reasoning from Rolling Stone, but it’s everywhere. He can’t sing, and his songs are pale shadows of his former greatness. Don’t insult his legendary 60s/70s canon by suggesting he’s still that good.
My purpose here, obviously, is not to concentrate on the negative. Above all, the first ten years of the 21st century will be remembered because they were bookended by two of the greatest pop albums ever made. Each one abruptly expanded my understanding of what is possible in music, almost instantly spawning an entire genre of likeminded admirers and imitators, none of whom will ever hold a candle. If we look, as we must, into the future, based on these milestones, we are headed in the right direction. We began the decade with the cacophony of stunning alienation and fear, but we end it with such an undeniable explosion of positivity and joy that even music critics can’t pick it apart. So, even though the lists are dominated by the early part of the decade, this bodes well for the twenty-teens.
TOP TEN NORTH AMERICAN ALBUMS
1. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino, 2009)
History hasn’t had time to judge this album yet; I realize this. But I recently started using the über-geeky statistical marvel of last.fm, and it turns out I listened to this album waaaay more than anything else last year, and that doesn’t even include all the times I listened to it on vinyl, or when “My Girls” or “Summertime Clothes” came on the radio, or hearing the songs live. And never once did I get sick of a single note. Just thinking about these songs still gives me a little shiver of excitement. MPP is the album every self-respecting pop musician has been trying to make since the 60s. It’s essentially the Revolver of the modern age. Now it only remains to be seen whether the triumph of Animal Collective will drive the rest of the field to further heights of creativity, or if everyone will just be caught in the vast web of mimicry…and whether AC has a Sgt. Pepper still to come.
2. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath, 2000)
Eminemania probably couldn’t get too much crazier after the success of his wildly unique debut, but I had been a skeptic because his flow was so jumbled and juvenile. He seemed like a flash in the pan. Then he released this follow-up and I jumped on the bandwagon in a big way. His verbal skills have actually improved since, but the chances that he’ll write another song as powerful as “Stan”--that anyone will ever write a song with the same impact--are, um, slim. Producer Dr. Dre was back at the top of his game, and Mr. Mathers seemed intent on permanently blurring the line between person and persona, paving the way for countless imitators and lawsuits. But he also proved that he was one of the top MCs in the game and one of the greatest wordsmiths that mainstream rap had ever produced.
3. Isis: Oceanic (Ipecac, 2002)
This is the album that spawned a thousand soundalike bands in an unstoppable tide of post-metal. I sort of don’t even blame Isis for running out of ideas lately, because (with all due respect to their co-conspirators in Neurosis) the style Aaron Turner & co. created with Oceanic has become the most copycatted metal offshoot of our young millennium, and the field got so saturated so quickly that there may not be any unexplored territory. It’s easy to forget how fresh and fertile the sound was in 2002. It was after this album that Isis drifted further into post-rock and honed the style that so many others have imitated, but to this day, no other artist has made an album that sounds like this landmark. It crushes via lyric and guitar, crafting dynamic swells of sound heretofore unheard in metal, while Turner carves richer, heavier riffs than any Mogwai clone would ever dare. It will go down in history as the Rage Against The Machine of its generation, the merging of musical motifs more perfectly than had ever been conceived of before, never to be equaled.
4. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch, 2002)
Reprise Records’ dismissal of Wilco due to the uncommerciality of this classic album makes a great poetic-justice moment for the downfall of the major-label music industry that followed. How could the fat cats know that this album was ear candy compared to the crazy shit they’d be forced to pay for in its wake? More importantly, this was the album that guaranteed Jeff Tweedy the luxury of doing whatever the hell he wanted for the rest of his career. And although Wilco has been consistently putting out great music since Yankee, you can still look at it as the triumph that allowed Tweedy to settle into a comfort zone. He hasn’t delved into anything as painful as “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” since, nor as cheeky a singalong as “Jesus, Etc.”, and despite the epic noise track on follow-up A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy has not truly experimented--under the Wilco moniker, at least--since Yankee. It’s no coincidence that most people still consider it his best work.
5. The White Stripes: Elephant (V2, 2003)
Some years, the most hyped album lives up to its reputation. In 2003, every critic was talking about how this record by the mysterious two-person band was that good. Amidst all the confusion about the nature of Jack and Meg White’s relationship, the pure soul of these songs came through much louder, and some of the best blues-rock guitar riffs since 1969. Jack’s edge-of-sanity vocals and anti-poetry helped nudge pop music a little bit closer to Captain Beefheart than ever before, while Meg’s power-stumble drumming screamed punk rock, daring you to make a claim on whether she’s doing it like that on purpose or not. It pretty much debunked the whole garage rock revival that the White Stripes were supposedly spearheading, and the Whites have thrived ever since while the “movement” never recovered.
6. OutKast: Stankonia (Arista, 2000)
As OutKast has sort of coasted and lurched and sputtered following this ubiquitous blast of pop hip hop perfection, it almost seems like Kanye stepped in and took credit for popularizing smart, catchy rap with about a quarter of the vocal talent of André 3000 or Big Boi. No matter what you crave in hip hop, this album has more of it than any of the gay fish's work. [end anti-Kanye crusade, officially] The hooks are spread evenly over the album, allowing for weirdness to creep in only briefly before they blast you with another pure pop nugget, but in the end, OutKast spends the last fifteen minutes or so just reveling in its own distinctive stank, reminiscent of nothing more than Frank Zappa chasing his late-70s dirty-love muse. The effect is not only a definitive statement of purpose that these guys can hopefully recapture at some point; it makes you positively crave just one more “B.O.B.”-caliber hit. Leave ‘em wanting more: it’s no secret, but it’s still not easy, and sometimes delivering more is the hardest part…
7. Secret Chiefs 3: Book M (Mimicry, 2001)
Yep, I will tirelessly crusade for a wider audience for this band until the day I die. Criminally overlooked as a mere Mr. Bungle offshoot, SC3 has in fact evolved into a musical force far beyond Bungle, something more unified and purposeful yet, judging by its commercial viability, more esoteric and less comprehensible to the general public. This album was the band’s last recorded cohesive statement before it definitively split into seven satellite groups (which were still emerging on Book M), the last best-of-all-worlds collection where all aspects of the band overlap and enhance each other. Nowadays, fans can only get the complete experience at the band’s live shows. Most SC3 albums contain moments of brilliance amidst a degree of confounding filler, but this album is all brilliance, featuring some of Trey Spruance’s most enduring songs as well as some of his band’s most harrowing and beautiful studio performances. It’s the complete package his fans knew he was capable of, as well as a source of frustration concerning his sporadic and splintered output since.
8. Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge, 2004)
Surely the most essential debut album of the decade, Funeral reasserted the potential of deep, haunting, experimental indie pop on this side of the Atlantic at a time when garage was failing to save American rock music. The biggest trick, though, was that this album is so unique, we’re five years on and still nobody has come up with anything else like it, including Arcade Fire itself. But its influence is undeniable and pervasive. Journalists shouted just loudly enough to be heard by the mainstream (just as the internet was becoming the mainstream), and the band’s festival appearances wowed the jamband audience sufficiently to catapult AF into quasi-pop stardom, which in turn catalyzed the growing surge of indie/hippie/freak-folk scenes, and the fringe underground experimentalists realized they had to be able to play live to survive, enabling them to infiltrate the breadth of the festival world and force the integration of all stripes of music fan. Our country is now in the midst of a transition which is gradually marginalizing shallow mainstream bubblegum, and we have Funeral to thank for it. Also, this album is awesome in every way.
9. Ani DiFranco: Educated Guess (Righteous Babe, 2004)
I’ve been wondering if at some point, Ani did something to anger the entire population of music critics so much that they all refuse to pay attention to her. We’re supposed to operate outside the influence of the corporate music industry she disdains, right? She is one of the greatest poet-musicians who ever lived, constantly evolving her sound in complete disregard for the mainstream, and one of the most innovative and imitated guitarists and singers of the past twenty years--what’s not to like? She put out at least three superb albums in the past decade, and this one is the most impressive. She plays every instrument on the album, using her voice as a jazz horn section as well as for some of her most expressive singing, and attacks the guitar with a violence that drove her to tendonitis. It’s every bit as astounding lyrically as musically, and she probably will never be physically capable of creating something this viscerally stunning again, but I’m still moved every time I hear it.
10. Tool: Lateralus (Volcano, 2001)
Through no fault of its own, Tool turned rock radio to shit in the late 90s. When people realized that demented, complex, oppressive heavy rock could be a commodity, along came a hundred bands trying to sound like Tool but actually sounding like Korn, and the disgusting parody of good music known as nu-metal was born. But like the second coming of Zeppelin, Tool roared back in ’01 with its best album yet, the most progressive, sophisticated music ever heard on FM, mocking everything else on the airwaves…but somehow it only seemed to encourage them. (At least it made the world safe for System Of A Down.) Oh, well. The greatest singer in modern rock, Maynard Keenan continued to challenge his audience to question everything, while bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones patiently crafted iconic riffs that dared us to bang our heads in impossible shifting time signatures, courtesy of Danny Carey’s astounding drumming performance. Lateralus is the culmination of Tool’s experiment in seeing how far music can twist your brain before bludgeoning it, but without sacrificing melody. It’s hard to imagine anything this crazy debuting at number one on the Billboard charts ever again.
Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire: The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc, 2001)
The final Bowl Of Fire album captures Bird’s flagging devotion to his violin, on the cusp of bigger and not necessarily better things. Perhaps it was the band format that kept his “sophistication” from ballooning into “pretension”, as his witty lyricism became denser and less often tolerable from here on, and his musical arrangements grew more cluttered, and he kept insisting on strumming that damn guitar all the time. But here, he’s got a crack folk rock band and clever (but not too clever), fiery songs that crackle with sexual and emotional tension that you can feel without having pull out a dictionary. He still hasn’t written another song as good as “Why?” or “How Indiscreet”, and even though I’ve seen him put on some amazing live shows since he dismissed the BOF, it seems I’ve gotten just a little bit less excited about everything he has done since shortly after this album was my favorite thing in the world.
Jurassic 5: Power In Numbers (Interscope, 2002)
The exception to the indie hip hop rule, J-5 featured some of the best MCs in the business, yet the lack of a controversial loudmouth or mainstream posse connections ultimately kept the group just below radar. Late-comers like myself were bummed when J-5 splintered in 2007, but Power In Numbers stands up as one of the criminally unsung albums of the decade. It’s a choice collection of laid-back morality tales and party jams, nothing menacing or dark, just unmatched verbal flow (if you can’t groove to Chali 2na’s rhymes, you just don’t like rap) and quick-thinking positivity riding classic beat after classic beat.
Modest Mouse: The Moon And Antarctica (Epic, 2000)
File under: love it or hate it. Isaac Brock was the heir to Stephen Malkmus as the problematic singer of a headstrong indie rock band determined to succeed on its own terms. The biggest difference is that Modest Mouse got a bigger bite of pop stardom, and later in the band’s career. MM’s degeneration into a somewhat derivative, streamlined dance-rock style since the success of “Float On” could be analogous to Malkmus becoming a jam band in the eyes of many fans. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, The Moon And Antarctica. You have to access the melodramatic, insecure brat in yourself to appreciate Modest Mouse at its best, but there probably is no more perfect expression of that part of you, despite what a generation of imitators might claim. And whether you look back with fondness or bitterness, this album will probably keep getting better with age.
MuteMath: MuteMath (Teleprompt, 2006)
I didn’t even want to put this band anywhere on this list because its latest album is so bad. But then I listened to this debut again. It is so damn good. That is all.
Pearl Jam: Riot Act (Epic, 2002)
Since debut album Ten in 1991, essentially a Mother Love Bone album with a weird, antisocial new singer, Pearl Jam has been trying to work out what the hell kind of band it is. I really like a lot of the different personalities, but the Riot Act era still rings the truest to me. Ever since the album and subsequent couple of tours, Eddie Vedder seems like he’s been trying to live down the Lennon-worshipping “Love Boat Captain” persona, but as much as he spits at Republicans and warmongers and rich people, I think deep down he still believes that all you need is love. He’d do well to recapture that spirit; as this album testifies, it inspired some of his very best songs. Unfortunately, as Vedder has increasingly dominated the songwriting since this album, Pearl Jam songs are getting less interesting; where’s Matt Cameron with another gem like “You Are”, or Jeff Ament with “Help Help”, or Stone Gossard with “Bu$hleaguer”? Have they lost inspiration or is Vedder just bullying them out of the picture? Either way, if the band broke up today, Riot Act would stand as Pearl Jam’s last great album, and a strong contender for career best.
The Postal Service: Give Up (Sub Pop, 2003)
This is about as great as retro synth pop can get, outing ironic 80s worshippers everywhere as chagrined actual Gary Numan fans. It also proved to be the perfect foil for the nebulous sarcasm of Ben Gibbard’s Death Cab For Cutie work, almost making his day job irrelevant by accident. For anyone who got into it, it remains the soundtrack of a precise emotional time and place, whether it evoked a harsh reality or a romantic longing or a dream of escape. Its synthetic façade never hoped to disguise its quiet poignancy, and now it remains the great lost love for all the 2003 people who fell for it.
The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 2001)
“Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is the song that got me into this band, and I still think it’s one of the greatest love songs of all time. “We’re Going To Be Friends” is also a uniquely sweet and guileless love song, if you choose to look at it like that. This song and “Hotel Yorba” strike me now as a freewheeling stripe of Jack White that has been shaved off in the ensuing years, making this album the last glimpse of his and Meg’s playful innocence, contrived or not. It’s got a few throwaway moments, but it is the pinnacle of the first phase of the White Stripes, and the best songs here will never leave your soul. Listening to it now makes me pretty much not care if they ever make another record.
TOP TEN EUROPEAN ALBUMS
1. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol, 2000)
In 1993, I loved “Creep” because it was about me. A year or two of hindsight convinced me that Radiohead was a one-hit wonder with a stupid name. In September of 1997, I started a semester of college in Ireland. Every band in town played at least one Radiohead cover. A girl I had a crush on made me a tape of OK Computer and The Bends. I got so obsessed that the labels peeled off and the ink on the j-card bleached and bled. I stood in line in the cold outside Atomic Records (RIP) so I could buy Kid A at the midnight sale. I actually very rarely did that. It still didn’t seem like very many other people were really into this band. I waited an hour and fifteen minutes to listen to it, because that’s how long the drive home was, and we didn’t have a CD player in the car. Hearing those descending synth notes for the first time will be forever burned into my brain. It sounded exactly how I pretended to feel all the time. Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon. This album was about me.
2. Jesu: Conqueror (Hydra Head, 2007)
Thinking about it now, this album holds a similar place in my brain as Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s got a similarly expansive, unifying musical language, hard to define but specific to just one artist, possibly just one album. Yet the emotional journey these songs take you on is entirely up to you; every lyric is a riddle that will speak differently to everyone’s personal history. It’s the ultimate interactive spiritual experience, because the music isn’t tragic or triumphant in itself, just purely passionate, dynamic, epic. After first listen, I thought it could never be that powerful again, but I keep coming back to it and it sucks my heart back into my throat every time. That’s as far as I’ll go with trying to convince anyone to listen to it; I can’t dissect it because I can’t risk unraveling it.
3. M.I.A.: Kala (XL, 2007)
This is just one of those self-evident classics that invites every single stripe of human being to revel in its perfection. I guarantee there are hippies, priests, terrorists and CFOs jamming out to this album every day, whether they get what it’s about or not. Make no mistake: this chick is Ms. Attitude, on record and in public, for better or worse, and it all adds to the tension that comes across in her songs, no matter how you might react to her politics. Her target audience wins biggest, though, because being able to free your mind and freak your booty at the same time is a rare gift, and nobody in our current century has displayed that gift anywhere near as well. This is the go-to album for every party, the rallying cry for every worthy cause, a landmark stylistic melting pot that makes globalization seem like a good thing. The Clash and The Pixies hobnobbing with hip hop and disco. Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria.
4. Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner, 2005)
This may be the greatest metal album of the modern era. I’m not talking about Black Sabbath, or anything from the 70s; Ozzy had no idea what he was getting himself into. I’m not talking about 80s thrash or even death metal; I can’t put myself into a position to be able to appreciate how scary that stuff was back then, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to it. There are modern metal albums that I like better, but they are much more one-sided affairs, bridled to a specific sub-genre or offshoot. This album is pure metal. It is progressive experimental ambient gothic death metal, but with nary a note wasted, every facet pushed to its limit for maximum power. With this album, Mikael Åkerfeldt proved himself to be the greatest metal singer of all time, his death growl as honed and menacing as his clean vocals are haunting and sonorous. And “The Grand Conjuration” is the most perfect metal song he has ever crafted, or likely ever will. I felt incredibly sad after the first time I heard it, just because I knew I could never hear it for the first time again.
5. Flook: Rubai (Flatfish, 2002)
It’s not fair that I include traditional Celtic music in my list, when there’s no African folk, or polka, or gypsy, or…well, too bad. Irish music speaks to me in a way no other music does. Besides, this album bungee jumps so precariously off the trad cliff that it transcends the insinuation that it’s traditional at all; it certainly pulls in a lot more stylistic variation than Bob Dylan plugging his guitar in at Newport. It’s just too bad that Flook could only hold it together for one more album before breaking up, because nobody else is able to follow in these footsteps. Rubai combines the tenderness and warmth of an old Clancy Brothers ballad with the frenetic momentum of The Chieftains at their most hyper…except, yeah, way faster. Few bands of any genre can evoke so many different hues of emotion without a word, much less take a decades-old cultural heritage and make it fresh for a whole new audience. The band is sorely missed.
6. Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava, 2005)
I can confidently say that this band completely sucks now. I can’t think of an artist that has put out an album as good as Deadwing, and within two subsequent albums, has so utterly tanked. Not even Liz Phair could take such a nosedive. If you take everything I love about 70s prog, spice it with the quasi-metal of the Melvins, spitshine it with the lush vocal harmonies of Journey and Eno-caliber production, and have Jimmy Page suddenly forget everything he’s ever done and write a bunch of fresh riffs while jamming with David Gilmour, this is the kind of music that would spring forth. Songs like “Shallow” and “Halo” and “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” only come around once in a songwriter’s lifetime; it’s just too bad that they were the very last original ideas Steven Wilson ever had.
7. Ulver: Blood Inside (Jester, 2005)
I confess: I grade on a curve that favors music you can’t easily define. So this album gets high marks for being its own one-off genre; I won’t even cheapen it by splicing words together. It sounds futuristic today and it’s five years old already. It’s hard to even imagine another blending of electronica and classical and jazz to create such disturbing…um, pop music? Ulver’s distant past in black metal informs the overall desolation of the album, but the connection ends there. The ingenious arrangements and lush production highlight rich vocal harmonies that evoke everything from contemplative paranoia to panic; anything remotely upbeat comes off as an ironic undercut. It’s a nerve-fraying album, but it’s impossible not to be moved by it. I still get a rush of adrenaline from the climactic song, “Operator”, as if I just narrowly avoided a car crash. If you can stomach 45 minutes of fear and despair, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most unique and interesting albums you’ll ever hear.
8. PJ Harvey: Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island, 2000)
PJ Harvey is that rare artist who reached peak commerciality with every scrap of dignity intact, then proceeded to confound the pop world by casting off into uncharted territory with no regard for image or record sales. This album is gorgeous. Harvey herself said in a Q interview, "I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible.” She succeeded, with a little help from Thom Yorke and brilliant co-production from Harvey and Flood. It was clear at this point that she could have forged a path to superstardom, except it seems she’s just not wired that way. She toured with U2 for a while and then basically disappeared for three years, and she’s put out some really good stuff between then and now, but it’s almost as if she won’t let anything so blatantly accessible escape any more. She’s always had a tendency to vacillate between seduction and repellence, but this was her only real foray into pure sweetness. I forgot about it for a while, but revisiting it now, it sounds sweeter than ever.
9. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope, 2000)
I tend to forget very quickly how great U2 albums are, because the songs are just so much better when you experience them with thousands of your closest friends. But this one stands up as so much more than a collection of tunes ripe to be transformed in a stadium. It’s like taking all of the emotions that an enlightened human quests after in life and turning each one into a perfect song. It’s U2 at its most ebullient, anthemic yet acutely personal, easing off the experimental streak for a minute and just being U2 again. Few songs can match the carpe diem of “Beautiful Day”, the defiant resolve of “Walk On”, the elated human oneness of “Elevation” or the plaintive pleading of “Peace On Earth”. This was the point when Bono abandoned the masquerade, embraced the caricature the press had made of him, and started unabashedly preaching love and compassion and world-saving. The Edge said “fuck it, I invented this guitar sound, I might as well use it.” The result: possibly the most relevant and resonant album ever made by a 20-year-old rock band.
10. Björk: Vespertine (One Little Indian, 2001)
You can’t call Björk the anything of Iceland; she is so unlike any other musician who came before her that you’re more apt to pick some quirky female singer and call her the Björk of wherever. Even so, the comparison can only stand up in terms of voice, and only superficially so, because Björk reinvents her style with each album, and no other songwriter has her oddball sense of melody or her bizarre conceptual trajectory. It’s tempting to imagine that she improvises the flutter of notes that sometimes accompany a single syllable, but it’s all part of the plan. Sometimes it’s hard to latch onto the serpentine lines that she sings, but they sink into your consciousness as the only way to express the peculiar sensation she’s trying to get across. Vespertine, in its own creepy/sexy way, is Björk’s subtlest album of the past decade, and the fullest realization of her unmistakable vision.
Blut Aus Nord: MoRT (Candlelight, 2006)
I can’t claim to understand much about this album. I can only guess at what language it’s sung in. If you put on a random song from MoRT, there’s no chance I could tell you which one it was. They don’t have names anyway. Listening to one song would be so jarring, I think the effect would just be that you were unconscious for five or six minutes. The human brain wasn’t designed to process this type of vibration. If, like me, you happen to become fascinated with it, and you can overcome the panic that it induces, you will eventually be able to discern songs out of the haphazard chaos it at first seems to be. This might be an overused phrase, but there really is nothing else like this. But I don’t think it’s possible to actually enjoy the experience.
Daft Punk: Discovery (Virgin, 2001)
It would be unfair not to at least mention this album, as echoes of it can be heard in the cross-pollination of independent music all across the spectrum from hip hop to electrojam to Radiohead. On one hand, it brought existing aspects of an underground movement kicking and screaming into the mainstream; in terms of pop music, it may be the most influential album of the decade in its own right. It’s just such a shame that the first and last song are so awful, because everything in between is gold.
Katatonia: Last Fair Deal Gone Down (Peaceville, 2001)
This album heralded a brave new world for Katatonia; unfortunately, it began and ended here. Kudos to Jonas Renske and co. for splitting off into other fertile territory since, but this cyber-gloom-rock identity remains woefully underdeveloped. There’s still no other album anywhere that sounds like this one. It was the only way they could possibly have followed up 1999’s career-defining Tonight’s Decision without taking a step backwards, and yet the metal community’s failure, by and large, to embrace the new direction resulted in a return to blind aggression on 2003’s Viva Emptiness. Plenty of great music ensued, but nothing as good as Last Fair Deal Gone Down.
LTJ Bukem: Journey Inwards (Good Looking, 2000)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m no drum and bass expert. I don’t honestly listen to much straight-up electronic dance music in the course of…ever. I just know that since the 90s, most of it has struck me as recycled and devoid of emotion. But this double album, the official debut from a guy who’d been DJing for over a decade already, is distinctive, endlessly interesting, and it creates a mood. The tracks positively emanate an overpowering benevolence with a thick undercurrent of hedonism and a touch of yearning. Very few pieces of electronica function this well as either background or focal point, put you at ease or get you amped up. It seems to fit every mood, to either bolster or assuage, and I love music that requires emotional investment from the listener to define it, so this album will always stand up in my mind as a classic.
Late Of The Pier: Fantasy Black Channel (Parlophone, 2008)
Reluctantly, I’ll admit that this album hasn’t been around long enough to definitively stand as one of THE best albums of the 00s, so I’ll call it a prediction. I can’t call it an indisputable masterpiece; it wears its raveish influences on its sleeve, and it probably won’t be hugely influential on the Future Of Music. But it is an irresistible, insanely eclectic yet strangely cohesive collection of countless ideas on how to move a body, and it just gets better with each listen.
The Libertines: Up The Bracket (Rough Trade, 2002)
…And all the Americans (including myself, until very recently) go, “who the hell are the Libertines?” Turns out, that drug-addled brit who occasionally turned up in tabloids in the middle of the decade, Pete Doherty, was actually the singer in a kick-ass rock band that the U.K. press had been drooling over the whole time. It’s a case of being altogether too British that prevented this band from being highly regarded over here (I guess), but if you want a modern take on the smartass mod-pop of early Kinks/Who, it doesn’t get any better than this album. Catchy, sloppy and invigorating. I might even have to check out Doherty’s new band now (what the fuck is a Babyshambles?).
Mogwai: Rock Action (Matador, 2001)
This was my introduction to Mogwai, and although the band had been around for six years already, it wasn’t until around 2001 that the imitators began to climb out of the sewers in droves, so to me it seemed like an instant post-rock army rallied around this puzzlingly-titled album. It was a turning point for independent music, Mogwai laying down its most effectively subtle yet still monstrous album, and daring any other band to come close (none has). After this album, everything seemed like a Mogwai ripoff for at least a couple years.
Opeth: Damnation (Koch, 2003)
The album’s title refers to the potential career suicide of the world’s foremost progressive death metal band making a record of mostly acoustic ballads. As it turns out, there was no love lost, because what Damnation lacks in scope, it makes up for in longing, beauty, and the best lyrics of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s career. It doesn’t even come off as an attempt to garner new fans, although that may have been its impact. Every song here feels like something that needed to be let loose, and Steven Wilson’s empathetic production could scarcely be wed to a more fitting set of songs. It’s a journey into the most desolate realms of the soul, and among metal bands, only Opeth could pull of such catharsis with no trace of brutality.
Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol, 2001)
We expected a ramshackle collection of shit that didn’t make the cut for Kid A, but we got nine more top-notch Radiohead songs, a reimagining of “Morning Bell” and one curious little toss-off, “Hunting Bears”, all of which amounted to an incredible companion piece to the album of the decade. Little did we know, we were actually witnessing the (re?)birth of Thom Yorke’s sense of humor in the deceptively haunting “You And Whose Army?”. We were also being prepped for a new era in live performance, as Radiohead’s ensuing tour proved that the band had much more to offer now, in spite of having permanently declined the savior-of-rock-and-roll job.