Thursday, January 21, 2010

Decade Top 50

Well, here it is. I'm now wanted in three US states, I've done things to Simon Cowell that I'm not ready to talk about, and some guy in Yass is going to wake up tomorrow without his wooden leg, but finally I have managed to compile my Top 50 Albums of the Decade. This thing has driven me to the brink of madness and beyond. As I type this I actually haven't finished it, and I'm still finding that this album should be ten places lower while that album is vastly superior to the one five places above it.

50. Deerhoof - The Runners Four (2005)

With Radiohead, Spoon and Modest Mouse's entire output for the decade appearing on this list and accounting for more than a fifth of the fifty, I'm glad in a way that those early Deerhoof albums haven't sunk in yet, because the band's idiosyncratic genius is hard to ignore. The Runners Four probably isn't Deerhoof's best album of the decade, but it is a great summary of what happens when a Japanese chick who could be Damo Suzuki's granddaughter raised on bubblegum pop, a guitarist who can't stick to the same style within a single song and one of the world's best living drummers make an album together.

49. Guided By Voices - Isolation Drills (2001)

Isolation Drills is the best post-Tobin Guided By Voices album, combining Bob Pollard's pop instinct with higher fidelity than before, courtesy of producers Shnapf and Rothrock, the go to guys for artists looking to make that exact transition - see Beck's Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith's XO.

48. Deerhunter - Microcastle (2008)

Microcastle stripped the abrasiveness from Deerhunter's sound to reveal subtleties that were already there but which you never heard before, such as the fragility of Bradford Cox's voice, the classicist techniques he employs in his songwriting and the fact that he doesn't use a delay pedal to do his work for him - just to enhance it.

47. The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (2007)

When your first album is called Funeral and it's THAT good, there's a chance it'll also be awfully portentous. The Arcade Fire had to come back hard, and they did. Everything matters on this album, which provides its inertia but is also its major shortcoming. Listening to Funeral in the pre Neon Bible days, it was easy not to notice that even on grandiose numbers such as "Wake Up", the band actually seemed to be having a lot of fun. When they finally loosen up on Neon Bible, the album's almost over and the song on which they choose to do so is a re-recording of a song from their self-titled debut EP.

46. McLusky - McLusky Do Dallas (2002)

With the state of rock and roll so lethargic this decade, Welsh band McLusky was the perfect band to come along and give it a much needed kick in the head. McLusky claims most of the best song title of the decade, and some of those are here: "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues", "Fuck This Band", "Alan is a Cowboy Killer".

45. Laura Veirs - Carbon Glacier (2004)

Carbon Glacier is Veirs' darkest album and more a followup to 2000's The Trials of Travails of Orphan Mae than its immediate predecessor Troubled By the Fire, a detour into a more mainstream vein of alt-country. "Gonna dig a coalmine, crawl down deep inside" she sings towards the end of the album, but you feel as if she's been singing from down there the whole time.

44. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros - Streetcore (2003)

It really fucked me up when Joe Strummer died. I mean really really. It was nice to know that a guy could go from being an intense man who was kind of an asshole and believed his own bullshit to the laid back, utterly unpretentious guy he became once he let go of the mantle of frontman of the only band that mattered. It wasn't so goddamn fucking nice to know that a guy like that could die suddenly for no reason. I didn't just want a posthumous album so I could wolf down the remnants of the final phase of his career; I needed one in order to move on. It has to be said that if anyone's going to leave an album unfinished, it might as well be a bunch of guys whose finished products always sounded like they were just having fun playing music, because that spirit would have shined through even if Streetcore were just a set of 4 track demos.

43. Les Savy Fav - Go Forth (2001)

While not the equal of 1999's The Cat and the Cobra and not delivering on the promise of the Rome (written upside down) EP the following year, Go Forth is no less forward-thinking and experimental.

42. The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat (2004)

I actually first heard The Fiery Furnaces on Triple J's old roots show. It wasn't the most obvious move to release a 76 minute album full of multi-part epics with almost no blues influence less than a year later. It's a tough slog the first few times through all the musical left turns and lyrics about typewriter menders, research volunteers and boat captains slain for their precious cargo of blueberries, but that's just the kind of commitment you have to make to this band.

41. Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005)

When you look over a decade of music, you see that a band can take three years to follow up an album and still stamp its name right across the decade. Gimme Fiction is Spoon's slickest album to date, and, like every Spoon album, sounds not quite like any other, yet distinctly "Spoon-like". The title recalls the 2007 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction, which, along with some older Spoon tracks and compositions by Britt Daniel written specifically for the film, used instrumental versions of some of the album's songs.

40. Metric - Live It Out (2005)

39. Metric - Fantasies (2009)

It wouldn't be a top 50 without a Broken Social Scene offshoot, and so here's a pair of albums from Emily Haines' band Metric. It annoys me that in this day and age, a band that can unironically title a song "Stadium Love" is considered "indie", and I would even go as far as to say that Metric is the Blondie of the present day. Fantasies is the more synth heavy of the two albums, but both are about crunchy guitars and boisterous vocals paired with contrasting introverted lyrics - the latter perhaps being the dealbreaker for a mainstream audience. Fantasies is the better of the two, but Live It Out scores one of the best riffs of the decade with "Glass Ceiling".

38. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)

After the relatively maximalist Gimme Fiction, Spoon returned in 2007 with the sparse, 36 minute Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the Kill the Moonlight to Gimme Fiction's Girls Can Tell, slapping us in the face just when we thought Spoon were about to go all wizened on us. Jim Eno's production is neither hi-fi nor lo-fi, crystal clear yet sparse. His drums have never sounded better, and the passages of reverb and slapback echo are an interesting new touch. It makes the wait for Transference in January 2010 all the more interesting. What will they do next? No, really?

37. Dappled Cities Fly - Zounds (2009)

"Something should be holding us back", they sing on Zounds' first single "The Price", and they're right; something should be. No way should they be allowed to get away with writing a song that sounds like a cross between "Come On Eileen" and "More Than a Woman" unscathed. But that's Dappled Cities Fly for you. Their 2004 debut displayed the confidence of a band entering its second decade, if not the songcraft; that arrived with Granddance and continues unabaited on Zounds. Losing excellent drummer Hugh Boyce forced the band to rethink its approach, hence the more extensive use of keyboards.

36. Unwound - Leaves Turn Inside You (2001)

This and Fugazi's The Argument share more than just their release year. Both are by long-running post-hardcore bands looking to expand their sound; both preceded a hibernation from which neither band will likely emerge, leaving these albums as their only entries for the 00s.

35. The Roots - Rising Down (2008)

The Roots continued walking the darker path they laid out with Game Theory, although it's apparently nowhere near as badass as being Jimmy Fallon's house band. The lyrics not only deal with black concerns, but with global concerns from a black perspective. Guests include

34. Fugazi - The Argument (2001)

The Argument continues the increasingly melody and groove-oriented direction of latter day Fugazi, and in the perfect sendoff for this singular band. "The Kill" and "Strangelight" are slow, moody pieces that the band simply couldn't have written earlier in its career, but it could hardly be said that the band had lost its edge, much less sold out.

33. Beck - Sea Change (2002)

If Odelay marked a line between DIY Beck and professional Beck, Sea Change was the beginning of another level of commercialism. Sea Change is stylistically closest to the mostly acoustic One Foot in the Grave, but in contrast to that album's sparse four track recordings, the songs on Sea Change are steeped in Nigel Godrich's signature swirls, reverb and backwards samples. Beck's only mistake was to try to have his cake and eat it with "It's All In Your Mind", a re-recording of a One Foot in the Grave song which forsakes the simplicity that made it great in the first place.

32. Modest Mouse - Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)

The follow-up to The Moon and Antarctica took four years - not unusual given that the previous gap between album was three - but considering that the first three years were spent in a state of writers block that yielded only "Dance Hall", it stands to reason that the acclaim for M&A got to the band. Isaac Brock's existential musings and the band's interesting instrumental tangents are still present, just confined in a smaller arena. The tone runs the gamut from the Coke ad-worthy "Float On" to the Tom Waits influenced "This Devil's Workday".

31. Autolux - Future Perfect (2004)

T-Bone Burnett was a strange choice to produce this band's debut, which combines an enveloping My Bloody Valentine sound with the immediacy of recent Sonic Youth. Burnett, however, applied common sense, emphasising Greg Edwards' guitar and Carla Azar's drums over Eugene Goreshter's unremarkable bass and vocals.

30. The Roots - Game Theory (2006)

Game Theory is darker both musically and lyrically than previous albums, perhaps haunted by the spectre of J Dilla, who died before its completion. Dice Raw, Malik B and Jack Davey guest star, and Radiohead, admired by The Roots since OK Computer, finally gets sampled on "Atonement". Guests include Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Mercedes Martinez.

29. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)

Oh, Inverted World might "change your life", but Chutes Too Narrow is The Shins' real masterwork.

28. Spoon - Girls Can Tell (2001)

Spoon's first and last major label album is slicker than its two predecessors, but maintains the beautiful sparseness that still defines the band's sound. Opener "Everything Hits At Once" is a masterpiece of pop minimalism, "Me and the Bean" is made to sound so Spoon-like that you'd never know it was originally written by obscure Austin band The Sidehackers and the whole album is the sound of Spoon creating its signature style.

27. Tom Waits - Blood Money (2002)

Playwrights were Tom Waits' muse last decade, and Blood Money is based on a 16th Century German play about a soldier driven insane by medical experiments he volunteered for in order to pay the bills. The anachronistic "Coney Island Baby" aside, Waits most uses the text as a springboard for Bone Machine-like existential musings ("Misery is the River of the World, "God's Away on Business").

26. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

I was reading the essay Robin Pecknold wrote for the liner of this album about the power of music to evoke memories and the purity of those memories. When he mentioned listening to Kid A as a teenager, I thought he must have somehow made a mistake - he wouldn't have been a child in 2000. Then it hit me: he's younger than me. I have to get used to that as I get older, but it's hard to believe a 23 year-old's songwriting could be so advanced and his perspective so worldly, recalling the agelessness of an early 70s Neil Young.

25. Spoon - Kill the Moonlight (2002)

After Spoon's major label deal went south in a bad way, the band went back to its DIY roots and pushed its sparseness to an almost primal point. "The Way We Get By" and "Someone Something" will be blueprints for indie rock in the 10s.

24. Battles - Mirrored (2007)

Electronica label Warp has taken on a few rock bands in recent years, but Battles is not as different from the label's bread and butter as, say, Maximo Park. They're a rock band in a general sense and use the traditional instruments, but they "rock" purely on their own terms, playing long jams and utilising on-the-fly digital manipulation and self-sampling. They're especially amazing to watch live, due in large part to Ian Williams' simultaneous guitar and keyboard playing and John Stanier's Duracel Bunny on speed drumming performances with the cymbal set far above his head.

23. Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007)

Modest Mouse added some bloke named Johnny Marr to its lineup for this album, though you wouldn't know it from the way he refuses to insinuate himself into the music. We Were Dead is Modest Mouse's longest and hardest rocking since The Lonesome Crowded West, but the singles
"Dashboard", "We Got Everything" and "People As Places As People" are even catchier than "Float On".

22. Portishead - Third (2008)

I can barely believe it either. Not only did Portishead release an album in 2008 that didn't go down as a Chinese Democracy style curiosity piece, but they managed to make what might be the album of their career. It's as if they never left, yet Third is unlike Portishead's two previous albums, not least because it strips away the trip-hop element on which the band made its name.

21. Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

The aesthetic of Sam Beam's mid-period recordings is that of a Southern bluesman sitting on his porch and singing about death, but his alternate tunings and whispery vocal quality suggest Nick Drake. Beam's fingerpicking is excellent, but his simpler compositions ("Passing Afternoon, "Sodom, South Georgia") are often his most effective.

20. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief (2003)

Hail to the Thief is more erratic and has less character than any other Radiohead album since Pablo Honey, but it also has the best back half of any other than OK Computer. That's where you'll find the classic single "There There", the blissfully fuzzy "Myxomatosis" and the harrowing closer "A Wolf at the Door". And hell, the front half ain't bad either. Sure, "Sail to the Moon" is bland and "Go to Sleep" stops just when it's getting interesting, but "Backdrifts" eventually reveals hidden depths in its aching spareness, and of course those Bends hangers on wanted thirteen more of "2+2=5".

19. Sparklehorse - It's a Wonderful Life (2001)

It's a Wonderful Life showcases a slower, darker version of Sparklehorse; it's the sort of album you would have expected at the present point of the band's career. It's overlong, but a couple of excellent rock songs and guest appearances from PJ Harvey and Tom Waits keep it from getting stale.

18. Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

It would have been a double album, and it's not hard to hear it as Smith's White Album even as it is. There are more rock songs than usual, juxtaposed with heavily orchestrated pop songs of the sort he added to his repertoire late in his career and the more intimate sort of songs he was known for earlier on.

17. Boards of Canada - Geogaddi (2002)

Geogaddi is not quite the equal of its predecessor, the classic Music Has the Right to Children, but Boards of Canada remained the guardians of awesome sounds coming into the noughties.

16. Sparklehorse - Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)

Sparklehorse albums don't come around very often - if you count Dark Night of the Soul, the collaboration Danger Mouse, there were only three this decade - so for Mark Linkous to release anything mediocre would be fatal. Fortunately, DFYLITBOAM doesn't bear any evidence of writer's block at all. The album doesn't play like a career summary, but rather like a true hybrid of his first two albums and It's a Wonderful Life. Danger Mouse helped out on a few tracks while they planned a proper project, and his contributions are like a high def facsimile of Linkous' intentionally weird production choices in his early work.

15. Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)

Amnesiac's songs were recorded during the same period as those of Kid A, and although they're more immediate and, yes, guitar driven, the album is as jarring an experience in its own way. Amnesiac lays claim to Radiohead's two best songs of the decade: the rhymically bizarre piano tune "Pyramid Song" and drop D rock song "I Might Be Wrong".

14. Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000)

With a first hour like this, it's amazing that Damon Gough turned out to be such a one album wonder. He was a sort of indie Harry Nilsson back then, jumping from folk to rock to balladry and many points in between as if he just couldn't keep still. I don't know what happened after that, but he went from being a guy who could make a song called "Pissing in the Wind" sound sincere to a guy who made everything he sings sound sincere because it's all so goddamn earnest.

13. Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf (2002)

It was about time to give up on a rock renaissance by the time this was released, but Queens of the Stone Age dug their heels in and showed that just like a tree planted by the waterside, they shall not be made to look antiquated next to The Strokes.

12. Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

Far more than a mere marketing gimmick, In Rainbows was the perfect Radiohead album to see out the decade. There are no classics on par with "Pyramid Song" or "Idioteque", but In Rainbows is a good deal shorter and more focused than Hail to the Thief (the band's shortest album other than Pablo Honey, in fact) and based on a more guitar-driven sound that even the most ardent fans of post OK Computer Radiohead welcomed.

11. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead - Source Tags & Codes (2002)

Source Tags & Codes is perhaps the last great post-hardcore album, or at least the last before the genre started to fade from the musical landscape. Sure, Trail of Dead is still around, but it seems unlikely that the band will ever top this, its second album. It's a rare example of such a hard-edged sound making it through the 90s intact. "Relative Ways" and the title track, had they been hits, could have aided that sound's survival further into the decade, but it wasn't to be.

Tom Waits - Alice (2002)

It's unfortunate that Waits' best album of the decade is based on demos recorded in 1992, but them's the breaks. Alice is the soundtrack to a play about the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carrol to you) and his obsession with 12 year-old Alice Lidell and its inspiration for his signature novel. Naturally, Waits goes off script and manages to incorporate everything from genetic freaks to gay underwear models into the lyrics.

9. Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R (2000)

If I made a top 50 of the 90s (which I probably should one day), it'd be full of albums like this. It's telling, then, that American hard rock's MVP of the decade was released while the decade was young and masterminded by a veteran of Kyuss, which dated back to the 80s. Bart Simpson once suggested that America needs another Vietnam to thin out the ranks of Gen Xers who love irony and kitsch. While sending out members of Generation Y to die for their Government is something I'd be on board with if it were necessary, I think we should first drop another Nirvana on them and watch it do to emo what it did to hair metal.

8. Mercury Rev - All is Dream (2001)

The title is appropriate on many levels; for me, it evokes the kind of dream you might have if you listen to this album's predecessor Deserter's Songs late at night. It's the negative print of that album, all darkness where the other was light, with the occasional patch of light contrasting the other's darkness. It's also its undeniable equal.

7. Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

Goddamn, there sure is a disproportionate amount of great indie rock coming out of Canada these days. Wolf Parade is Spencer Krug, who sounds kind of like David Byrne, and Dan Boeckner, who sounds a lot like Beck. They only share songwriting on one song, and vocals on none. The slow songs on this album go on forever - "that song doesn't normally go for three hours, but we got into a serious groove there, and we kinda forgot how it ended", to quote the real Beck (on Futurama). Much is made of those slower songs, especially Krug's, but Boeckner also lays claim to three of the decade's best rock songs: "It's a Curse", "Shine a Light" and "This Heart's On Fire".

6. Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Love (2005)

It's appropriate that Bill Callahan retired the Smog name after this album, because it completes his journey from smartass kid with a 4 track to aged-hardended folkie. In a decade the worshiped the young solo artist, my favourite solo album came from one who has been recording since the late 80s.

5. Radiohead - Kid A (2000)

You certainly don't have to be a Radiohead fan to read this blog, but you're way outside its demographic if you don't know the circumstances surrounding the writing, recording and release of Kid A, none of which I am going to rehash here. What I will say is that despite being undeniably a product of its time and place and those circumstances, Kid A still sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday. Whereas The Bends and Pablo Honey borrowed from some of the most influential rock and pop touchstones such as U2, Pixies and My Bloody Valentine, Kid A visited others that might be equally influential in parallel universe - Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow, as well as jazz and Krautrock.

4. The Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)

The Arcade Fire's music differs for me as a listening experience from that of Wolf Parade and Metric. I protest the very labeling of those two as indie rock, because to me, they're just about unabashed rock. When I listen to The Arcade Fire, on the other hand, I'm very aware that I'm listening to indie rock; I just don't particularly care. I mean if being boxed into genre with as many connotations as indie rock is the price to pay for being able to write such beautiful, grandiose and idiosyncratic music, it's one I'd be willing to pay.

3. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

Though not consciously a concept album, The Moon & Antarctica is a long existentialist trip, the effect of which is not unlike a road movie or a novel by an astronomy-obsessed Steinbeck or Kerouac. Isaac Brock plays both everyman and narrator, shaking his fist at his cosmic impotence - his losing battle for privacy, perverse pride in being an asshole and powerlessness to stop the fictitious death of his sister at the hands of a pack of feral dogs - while telling us that "it takes a long time, but God dies, too" and "the stars are projectors". If you're expecting the closer "What People Are Made Of" to be some kind of payoff, you've been had: you've been waiting 70 minutes to be told "they ain't made of nothin' but water and shit".

2. Augie March - Strange Bird (2002)

The consensus is that Strange Bird is the best Augie March album, and although I prefer Sunset Studies (which must mean...yeah, you guessed it), maybe that's because it has sentimentally grandfathered its way into my subconscious. What's not debatable is that Strange Bird is an extraordinary strong set of songs with more potential singles than either of Augie March's last two albums. But, of course, in the wake of "One Crowded Hour" from Moo, You Bloody Choir, you already know this. I'm still trying to get used to that. If I have to share Augie March with a bunch of myopic Hottest 100 voters, I can at least hold onto the fact that none of those people were interested in them when they were at their best.

1. Augie March - Sunset Studies (2000)

Some bands are lucky enough to be able to write a career-defining song that connects with both the critics the masses on a large scale; a "Take Me Out", you could call it, or a "New Slang". It took Augie March three albums to write theirs ("One Crowded Hour"), despite the fact that a large portion of Sunset Studies ("Hole In Your Roof, There Is No Such Place, Tulip, Here Comes the Night and the previously released "Asleep In Perfection") was deserving of that distinction. Augie March just isn't a singles band, and listening to Sunset Studies means a commitment almost as long as a CD's capacity.

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