Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorite Albums of the 2000s

Not the best-informed list in the world. I spent most of the decade catching up on the previous 50 years of rock history and still haven't heard tons of supposedly good stuff from the aughts.

10. Back Home – Caedmon’s Call – It’s fitting that the Contemporary Christian Music industry is headquartered in Nashville, because only mainstream country faces tighter artistic restriction. And so Back Home is the bravest album on the list. The lyrics flow from some forgotten hymnal and the arrangements from plain, pasture and mountain. It favors doctrinal insight over smarmy therapeutics is all the more emotionally affecting for it. There are a handful of clunkers, but even a couple of the white female numbers stand up. It is a true rarity, a worthwhile CCM album.
9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend – They crossed the deep rift between contemporary black and white music by going to the source, crafting sprightly, jittery Afro-pop chronicling the woes and joys of white nerds. Leave it to the townies to keep me from getting into their concert.
8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive – A distillation of all they do best. One this one, the stories are sharper, the jokes funnier and the guitar pyrotechnics pulverize their Neil Schon origins. The lapsed Catholicism gets two of its best expressions, “Lord I’m Discouraged” and “Both Crosses” and the constant stream of allusions to their earlier work indicates that they’ve perhaps given up on the worse parts of youth. But the dream is still alive.
7. I’m Not There Soundtrack – Duh, the songs are good. The songs on the Across the Universe soundtrack are also good, and they earn that album a whole bloody star. But for this soundtrack, the producers assembled a crackerjack session band and courted artists of little fame but great merit, who dug through some dark recesses of Dylan’s back catalogue and totally reinvented or at least rocked the tarnish off of almost every cut. 34 tracks and only 5 are less than wonderful.
6. Tom Waits – Alice – I don’t catch many lyrical allusions to its literary namesake, but it’s an appropriate soundtrack to a mad land that plays by indiscernible rules if it plays by any at all. Waits shows why he’s the greatest active arranger in pop music, setting “Flower’s Grave” against a clarinet choir that makes saccharine sentiments wrenching, and fine tunes his junkyard orchestrations for each new bit of devilry.
5. Radiohead – Kid A – Forget difficult, forget innovative. It only takes two listens to figure out how these parts fit together, and there’s nothing sonic here that you can’t find in Brian Eno or Aphex Twin. Kid A is a masterpiece because of pure craftsmanship, because within its opening measure, the thickest keyboard lick of all time, it draws us into a gorgeous, terrifying world from which we can only escape by turning off the record. Yorke sings like a man whose only scrap of humanity is his voice, and only by crying out can he hope to regain the rest of him. On “Idioteque,” he drones “Here I’m allowed everything all of the time,” a proclamation that becomes more frighteningly true with each year.
4. The Arcade Fire – Funeral – Pulse is everything. Decorate the songs as ostentatiously as you will, but if any ornament isn’t pointing back toward that low thud at the center, it has to go. The Arcade Fire makes communal music, drawing its listeners into its own ranks, urging them to join in the wake up cry, the public mourning for the departed. This album’s lament for the end of youth will continue to resonate when the time comes for my own funeral.
3. Outkast – Stankonia – Its first half contains the last word on unplanned fatherhood (“Ms. Jackson”), a piece of braggadocio that fully validates itself (“So Fresh, So Clean”), and a bit of interplanetary funksmanship that manages to indict the whole American identity and remain squarely apolitical. The second contains “B.O.B.” and cut after cut of hip-hop so original and so natural that you wonder why no one had done it before and why no one’s tried it again.
2. Frog Eyes – Tears of the Valedictorian – It’s so easy to chalk down a formula for the mystical. Slow tempos, some open keyboard vamp, meaningless strings of space poetry and boom. But then the mystical becomes comprehensible and the mystery is lost. This album gets it. You can’t parse the instrumentals. You can’t pick up more than a word here and there. You don’t understand, you submit to the maniacal chaos and you let it feel you through states of heart and mind long forgotten.
1. TV on the Radio – Dear Science – Despite my love for Return to Cookie Mountain, I was entirely unprepared for this grand amalgamation of everything great about black music, white music and computer music. Dance to it, cry to it, introspect to it, drive to it, sing along to it and it will never let you down. The finale, “Lover’s Day” is so deeply felt that the only thing really comparable in rock history is “Layla” and it makes me ask from my inexperience, “Is it really that good?”

15 Honorable Mentions
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Audioslave – Audioslave
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People
Ghostface Killah - Fishscale
Jay-Z – The Black Album
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Joanna Newsom – Ys.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Radiohead – Hail to the Thief
The Strokes – Is This It?
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

10 Critically Acclaimed Albums I Never Understood
Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock and Roll
Burial – Untrue
Coldplay – any album
Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Green Day – American Idiot
Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights
The National - Boxer
Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Bruce Springsteen – any 2000s albums
U2 – All that You Can’t Leave Behind

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