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Best Albums 2001-2010

2011.02.25

Let’s get this out of the way right now: There was no Year Zero (unless you count the Nine Inch Nails album), so the first decade was A.D. 1 – A. D. 10.  I mention this only because most “Album of the Decade” lists came out over a year ago, featuring music from 2000-2009.  I guess it’s common to count a cultural decade from the time the tens column changes, but I’ve always felt that a bit stupid because, well, there was no year zero.  Of course, a decade is any ten-year span, so there’s nothing wrong with this, really.  But my list covers the years 2001-2010 because it makes more sense, damn it!  (Though, if this were a list from 2000-2009, Radiohead’s Kid A would indisputably be my #1 pick, because it is one of the greatest albums of any time period.  Ever.  But I digress…)

These are the indisputable best my favorite albums of the past decade.  Not necessarily the most popular, or critically acclaimed.  Just my favorite.

Note: Album links go to the appropriate page on iTunes; song pages go to an mp3 of the song.

10. October Language by Belong (2006)

A perfect drone album, a heavenly mixture of lyricless shoegaze and the blissed-out ambient minimalism of Stars of the Lid.  Belong deconstructs the guitar and other instruments, evoking the barren landscapes achieved by William Basinski in his Disintegration Loops 1-4, but with a wetter studio sound and more of a white noise.  This fuzzed-out aesthetic, borrowed in part from Fennesz’s Endless Summer, is what really makes October Language stand out among the hypnotic static crowd, like Windy & Carl and Tim Hecker.  One spin of this masterpiece is more relaxing than a handful of Xanax.

mp3 | “Red Velvet or Nothing”

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9. The Tension and the Spark by Darren Hayes (2004)

When Savage Garden broke up, Darren Hayes tried to keep that brand of sugary pop going with 2002’s Spin, a collection of well-produced but mostly bland and conventional songs that managed to go absolutely nowhere.  The intelligence and wit of Savage Garden’s best lyrics were punted in an attempt to create something commercially viable enough to continue Hayes’s vault towards superstardom.  It was nothing more than an artistic dead-end, however.  So Hayes retreated to his San Francisco home to deal with his failed album, lackluster supporting tour, and increasing inner turmoil (all documented in this film, a surprisingly candid character study).  Out of that murk he produced The Tension and the Spark, not just a triumph of lyric and poetry, but also of production and programming.  The pop excesses of Spin haven’t just been stripped away, they’ve been trashed and burned.  It almost feels as through we’re literally traveling through Hayes’s head; his haunting vocal is the only voice on the album, backing himself up when necessary, but usually solo.  The minimalist music sets the bare, lonely tone for much of the album.  When Mr Hayes stopped considering his audience and made a grand and personal statement instead, he fashioned his best album to date.

mp3 | “Darkness”

 

8. The Seldom-Seen Kid by Elbow (2008)

Winner of the 2008 Mercury Prize, Elbow’s largely self-produced fourth album fuses the best of their previous three into something a shade more visceral.  Elbow has often been thrown in with artists such as Keane or Coldplay, and it is true that lead singer Guy Garvey has that signature smooth-but-not-really-rock vocal.  But Elbow has always been denser, more album-oriented, and, dare I say, proggier than their contemporaries wandering about the post-Britpop neighborhood.  Not that the album is inaccessible; quite the contrary.  Any song will likely be satisfying to an outsider.  But an Elbow album is hard to listen to piecemeal; the sequencing and flow is very important.  And Garvey sure does have a way with lyrics.  Compare Garvey’s lyrics with Coldplay’s Chris Martin’s. Guy: “You make the moon a mirrorball / The streets an empty stage / The city’s sirens, violins / Everything has changed”. Chris: “Lights will guide you home / and ignite your bones / and I will try to fix you”.  Ladies, which lyric would get the guy a second date with you?  So, The Seldom-Seen Kid is a great doorway into the moody realms sculpted by Elbow.  Don’t miss out.

mp3 | “One Day Like This”

 

7. Last Exit by Junior Boys (2004)

If you miss the silky sophistipop of Johnny Hates Jazz or never thought Sade’s “Smooth Operator” quite funky enough, this Ontario duo’s debut would like to speak with you.  Jeremy Greenspan’s smooth vocals laid atop JB’s signature minimalist electrobeats reference the 80s without letting you forget they are definitely a product of the 21st century, thank you very much.  Last Exit is relaxing, yet danceable, if one is so inclined.  Tracks like “High Come Down” or opener “More Than Real” make a good soundtrack to a night at a hip club, or driving through a pre-cyberpunk urban landscape, take your pick.  Either way, Greenspan’s hushed voice will nudge you towards some head-bopping and a smile.

mp3 | “Birthday”

 

6.  Neon Bible by Arcade Fire (2007)

Most critics still place Funeral as the Fire’s best release, but musically and thematically, Neon Bible is their more satisfying release.  The album is a cry of rage and sorrow from souls mired in the disastrous policies of Bush Jr (and they’re Canadian, even!).  Cuts like “Windowsill,” “No Cars Go,” and “My Body is a Cage” lament the darkness of a society that has lost its way, but always show some hope slipping through the cracks that things will get better.  Their most emotional LP.

mp3 | “My Body is a Cage”

 

5. American Idiot by Green Day (2004)

How many artists make a masterpiece after seven tries?  Certainly Green Day had had mini-masterpieces with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” “Basket Case,” “Longview,” “When I Come Around,” and “Minority.”  (That was by no means a comprehensive list.)  But as a cohesive album, American Idiot came screeching out of left field, taking almost everyone by surprise.  Not only was the album a forceful revival of Green Day’s punk ideals, it featured the sharpest, most consistent songwriting of their career.  Conceived as a rock opera, the album is home to recurring motifs, themes, and characters, even.  There is a vague plot about a character named Jimmy coming home after a tour in Iraq, but plot points aren’t beaten into the viewer.  Like any great anarcho-punk effort, Green Day just wanted everyone to know they saw the new lows America was sinking to, and were really, really pissed off about it.

mp3 | “American Idiot” |  “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”

 

4. Amnesiac by Radiohead (2001)

Though recorded during the same sessions as the previous year’s Kid A, Amnesiac is a monster all its own.  Cryptic, elliptical, dark, and menacing, Amnesiac may have had more conventional songwriting, but was undoubtedly born deep in the caverns of some godforsaken post-rock landscape.  It’s almost hard to believe this set of songs was originally to be released with Kid A, as different as they are from that album’s mind-warping experimentation.  Though many critics instantly hailed Kid A as a masterwork, some critics and fans (expecting a continuation of OK Computer‘s alt-rock, no doubt) were alienated and dismissive of it.  (Nick Hornby, author of About a Boy and High Fidelity, called it Radiohead’s Metal Machine Music.)  So how fitting that the first lyrics on Amnesiac are “After years of waiting / nothing came.”  Oh, but something did come, something wicked.

mp3 | “Pyramid Song” |  “I Might Be Wrong”

 

3. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco (2002)

The difficulty Wilco faced recording and releasing their fourth LP is by now well-documented, and chronicled expertly in this awesome film.  The alt-country of their previous efforts here is deepened, and peppered with bits of Radiohead-esque experimentation, psychedelia, and left-field production.  It never strays from its rock roots, however, and features the most solid setlist of Wilco’s career.  A legend when it was finally released by Nonesuch Records, nine years later it stands as one of the undeniable triumphs of the 2000s.

mp3 | “Heavy Metal Drummer” |  “Jesus, Etc.”

 

2. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

Sufjan’s sprawling tribute to the Prairie State is so thematically dense and lyrically intricate, it can be a bit overwhelming upon first listen.  It’s some kind of miracle that lyrics so deep, human, emotional, and complex can fit into a lush and hooky folk-pop framework.  This is the album Nick Drake would have made if he’d been a tad less depressed.  Though Illinois references abound, the album is actually more universal, with lyrics that recall Leaves of Grass or Walden.  Beautiful in every respect.

mp3 | “Casimir Pulaski Day” |  “Chicago”

One to go.  Exciting, isn’t it?

 

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1. My World 2.0 by Justin Bieber (2010)

The most important artist of his generation, with a level of songcraft not seen since the Lennon/McCartney era, Bieber burst upon the scene in 2010 with the instant classic My World, an epic and penetrating self-examination into his life, dreams, and holy shit did anybody actually fall for this?  I hope my reputation is such that anyone reading this instantly knew it was a joke, but you never know.  Look, I got nothing against this kid, really.  I’ve only seen him on Conan and The Daily Show, and he seems like a perfectly nice dude.  There have been bubblegum Biebers since the 1960s, when they were called David Cassady, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, and Dion.

But, full disclosure: to the best of my knowledge, I have never actually heard a Justin Beiber song, living under a rock as I do.  Not that I judge anyone who has.  *cough*

 

Now, let’s check out my real #1 album of the decade:

 

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1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West (2010)

One unfamiliar with Mr West’s discography could be forgiven for thinking this is a greatest hits compilation, but, no, it is a complete original–an LP without one single wasted moment, where every track is essential, where the only filler is the silence between tracks.  Mr West has ostentatiously referred to himself as the King of Pop for several years–before MJ died, even–eliciting many a snickering eyeroll from me.  But after spinning this disc a dozen times it’s really hard to argue with him.  Pop hasn’t been this rich, this bombastic, this maximalist since… well, since Michael Jackson’s or Madonna’s more ambitious efforts.  And he outdoes them, god help me.

It amazes me that an album so layered with samples, themes, and swaggering dick-swinging can be so introspective.  Kanye West showed us a softer side with the austere 808s & Heartbreak, but it wasn’t near enough to prepare us for the self-searching, image-dissecting knife of this album.  He may seem like an unforgivable cock on his Twitter, on the MTV VMAs, on any late-night interview ever, but he’s nothing if not completely self-aware.  His persona is the star of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he knows it’s all an act.  There is a both a large disconnect and gravitational pull between a man and the façade he shows the world, and the ebb and flow of those tides pulse with every beat on every cut of this masterpiece.

I am by no means hip-hop’s biggest fan–not since the socially relevant, intelligent, poignant flow of Tribe or De La Soul, or the shock and energy of N.W.A. expressing extreme displeasure with law enforcement–but when something is this good, you just can’t help it.

mp3 | “All of the Lights” |  “Monster” |  “Lost in the World”

And the runners up:

11. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips

Wayne Coyne and company bring back progressive psychedelia, thank god.

12. In Rainbows by Radiohead

The enigmatic companion piece to OK Computer.

13. The College Dropout by Kanye West

His explosive debut.

14. Futuresex/Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake

The album that best defines the sound of the decade: unmelodic, repetitive, and catchy as all hell.

15. Untrue by Burial

Experience the abandoned industrial areas of South London without leaving the earshot of your phonograph!

16. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid by Stars of the Lid

An ambient epic, standing solidly with Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 by Aphex Twin.

17. Cease to Begin by Band of Horses

Country-kissed Americana, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies and delivered with joy.

18. The Resistance by Muse

A rock-opera based on 1984?  I dig.

19. Geogaddi by Boards of Canada

Scottish brothers’ borderline frightening sophomore LP; rumors of the album being peppered with bizarre subliminal messages continue.

20. Are You Nervous? by Rock Kills Kid

One of the hookiest modern rock albums you can find.

21. Original Pirate Material by The Streets

Singlehandedly created the ‘grime’ genre out of garage rap and a mock-cockney accent.

22. Vespertine by Björk

The perfect Winter album.

23. Third by Portishead

Portishead’s genre-destroying reinvention of itself.  And music.

24. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast

Humongous hip-hop, Outkast’s flashiest.

25. Ghosts I-IV by Nine Inch Nails

Like wandering through the thought fragments of a paranoiac who cannot speak.

And rounding out the top-50:

26/ So This is Goodbye by Junior Boys

27/ Walking With Thee by Clinic

28/ Endless Summer by Fennesz

29/ The Glow, part 2 by The Microphones

30/ Yanqui U.X.O. by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

31/ Some Boots by Karate

32/ xx by the xx

33/ Dropsonde by Biosphere

34/ Hail to the Thief by Radiohead

35/ From Here We Go Sublime by The Field

36/ In Ghost Colours by Cut Copy

37/ Los Angeles by Flying Lotus

38/ Common Jasmine Orange (七里香) by Jay Chou (周杰倫)

39/ Demon Days by Gorillaz

40/ The Dissociatives by The Dissociatives

41/ Who Killed… the Zutons? by The Zutons

42/ Stars of CCTV by Hard-Fi

43/ Funeral by Arcade Fire

44/ The Letting Go by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

45/ Riot on an Empty Street by Kings of Convenience

46/ The Campfire Headphase by Boards of Canada

47/ Night Falls Over Kortedala by Jens Lekman

48/ Young Modern by Silverchair

49/ The Dead 60s by The Dead 60s

50/ Ambivalence Avenue by Bibio

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. The Sound of Reason permalink
    2011.02.27 09:15

    I don’t see Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis on here…

  2. Tony permalink
    2011.03.3 12:55

    Nice drop of Year Zero in the intro but where is it on your list? A deserving album if I may say so. I also found Plastic Beach more interesting album than Demon Days… but both are deserving. Yoshimi?

    • 2011.03.4 08:41

      What do you mean by “more interesting”?

      Plastic Beach is a very interesting album–not one I would have expected from Gorillaz–and works better as a whole than the other two albums released by the ‘group.’ In comparison, Demon Days is scattershot, schizophrenic, but I also think it’s more inventive and hit higher highs than Plastic Beach. There were no “Feel Good Inc”s, “DARE”s, “Dirty Harry”s, or “Kids With Guns”s.

      That said, every time I’ve listened to Plastic Beach I’ve liked it better than the last time, so a year from now my opinion may have changed.

      (Sidebar: out of all the instrumental tracks released in 2010, apparently the Grammys thought “Orchestral Intro” was one of the best? It lasts 69 seconds. It’s okay, but the only award Grammy could offer Plastic Beach is Best Pop Instrumental Performance for a minute-long introduction? And it didn’t win.)

      And full disclosure: I actually drafted a list of 100 albums of the decade, but thought that was just self-indulgent. I didn’t actually think anyone would look at even 50, so kudos. Yoshimi was definitely on the longer list. So were some slightly embarrassing entries. Maybe it’s better I limited it to 50.

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