Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top 25 Ablums of the Decade

25. Me First and The Gimme Gimmes – Ruin Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah (2004)

Cover bands, by their very nature, are a dime a dozen. You can go to any dive bar or church festival and catch a band doing their best Bruce Springsteen impressions. These punk pranksters don't necessarily transcend that, but they sure as hell have a lot more fun doing it. I picked this album because it showcases a cover band in their environment: live. (Albeit at an odd venue, in this case an actual bar mitzvah.) They run the gamut in this set, from pop (“The Longest Time'), to hard rock (“Stairway to Heaven”) to country (“On the Road Again”). Plus, where the hell else are you going to hear a rendition of the Jewish traditional “Hava Nagila?” Me First's live album, that's where.

24. The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)

Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) teamed up to record this electro-pop gem. Normally music with so much bleeps and blips would turn me off, but somehow this album just works. Maybe it's Gibbard's thoughtful lyrics. Maybe it's the fact that the songs don't devolve into straight-up techno. I don't really know. But when you write a pop song as beautiful as “Such Great Heights,” you know you're doing something right.

23. Against Me! - As the Eternal Cowboy (2003)

A guy I used to work with played this album incessantly, but I wasn't quite sold on them. Then Pitchfork said their latest album (New Wave) was more or less the epitome of selling out, and my interest was piqued. (You see, I love to disagree with those hipster douches, even though they're right sometimes.) Eventually I went back to this album, which combines the ferocity of hardcore punk with the thoughtfulness of folk rock. I may not always agree with the politics of lead singer Tom Gabel, but with songs as awesomely moving as “Sink Florida, Sink!” and “Turn Those Clapping Hands into Balled Fists” I might yet pick up a copy of Mao's Little Red Book.

22. Silversun Pickups – Carnavas (2006)

Fans of The Smashing Pumpkins who wish they'd have hung it up after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would be wise to give this album a listen. Superficially speaking, they ape the Pumpkins with their initials, the trademark chick bassist,and the androgynous (okay, not that so much), nasally vocals. Not only that, Silversun Pickups make their living on spacey, fuzzed-out guitar rock songs. Carnavas has that in droves. “Lazy Eye” was one of the best singles of 2006, and (for those of you that know me) a song that features a line like “I've been waiting for the silence / All night long” will make a top list of mine anytime.

21. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

Anyone following indie music in the past few years knows the story: Justin Vernon moved with his band down south, it didn't work out, his girl left him so he moved into his father's hunting cabin in nothern Wisconsin. For Emma, Forever Ago is the result of his stay there, and goddamn is it wonderful. The story may sound really emo, but it really isn't. The music has actual depth. It exudes loneliness. The music is so sparse, so starkly beautiful. The lyrics aren't anything to shake a stick at (and probably the thing that will hold Bon Iver and Justin Vernon from mainstream fame, not that he wants that.) but the album as a whole sets a certain mood, and it sets it well.

20. Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American (2001)

Let me start by saying that I don't think that politics have much place in popular music, but whoever it was that decided this album should be renamed to a neutered self-titled disc in the wake of 9/11 should be kicked in the nuts. I'm not sure there was anything to be prouder of after that tragedy and consequent war than to “bleed” American... but that's just me.

Anyway, Jimmy Eat World don't do anything spectacularly, but they do a lot of things very well on this album, and by that I mean they can write some memorable pop songs. They rock the fuck out on the title track, name check the Jesus and Mary Chain on “The Authority Song” and won the hearts of teenage girls and pop aficionados (and launched themselves into the stratosphere) on the smash hit “The Middle.” Not bad for a bunch of middling emo-popsters, huh?

19. The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)

In the beginning, I never understood the massive creaming-of-the-pants that the White Stripes caused back in the early 2000's. Hell, I thought they sounded like The Kinks. I'm not going to say all things changed with Elephant because they really didn't. But Jesus Christ is “Seven Nation Army” a great song! Out of all the Stripes' albums, this one has the most cohesion to it. Stompers like “Black Math” and “Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine” go great with the cover of Dusty Springfield's “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself” and the bouncy (and humorous) “It's True That We Love One Another.” Blues rock lives, and Elephant is proof.

18. The Killers – Hot Fuss (2004)

The Killers aren't the most original band in the world. They take a dash of Joy Division, a sprinkle of Duran Duran, a touch of Depeche Mode, and just a smidge of The Cure for good measure. What a mixture that makes... Hot Fuss blew up and made superstars of the Killers, and for good reason. The songs on this album sound fucking huge. The hooks are memorable, the choruses are earworms. Hot Fuss is worth it for “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” alone, yet it has so much more to offer. If they'd lay off the synths and feature the guitar more, they would be one of the best artists of the decade.

17. Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)

Apparently the Grammy committee didn't know about Fountains of Wayne until their breakout single from this album “Stacy's Mom” came out in 2003, but they've been purveyors of smart, quirky pop since 1996. Welcome Interstate Managers has this in spades, from the straight-up rock of “Bright Future in Sales” to the wistful pop of “No Better Place” (best song on the album) to the Oasis-esque epicness of “Supercollider.”

16. Alkaline Trio – Maybe I'll Catch Fire (2000)

I was introduced to Alkaline Trio my freshman year of college in 2000. It served as the soundtrack to my college years. Maybe I'll Catch Fire is an album about drinking and girls and getting over them. “You've Got So Far to Go” is a great song about falling in love (lust?) with a girl, and “Radio” is the perfect song for breaking up with her. Alkaline Trio hasn't made an album that rocked and grooved so much before or since.

15. Modest Mouse – Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
The longer time goes on, the more indie hipsters don't like Modest Mouse. I think this album is the reason why. On 'Good News' lead singer and guitarist Isaac Brock proves that he knows his way around a hook. “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” are just songs you want to sing along to. But fear not, hipsters, the album still features spazz-rockers like “Dance Hall” and an ode to poet/writer Charles Bukowski (“Bukowski”). Really, the album features a little bit for everyone, and ends with my favorite song by them, “Good Times Are Killing Me.”

14. Blink 182 - Blink 182 (2003)

For a band who claimed during recording of this album that they were going to call it “Use Your Erection (Parts 1 and 2)”, the finished product was a complete 180. Yeah, the songs are still mostly about girls, but the music and lyrics have an emotional depth heretofore unseen by the band who released a 7” with the name “They Came to Conquer Uranus.” Usually labeling a release as mature is code for “they've slowed down” – and to some extent that's true – but the songs are stronger because of it. Yet they didn't completely abandon their punk energy, as evidenced on songs like “Here's Your Letter” and lead single “Feeling This.” They might have grown sick of one another after recording and touring for this album, but they left a hell of a swan song... as far as dick joke-obsessed pop-punk bands are concerned.

13. Brand New – Deja Entendu (2003)

Despite emo-tastic, Fall Out Boy-esque song titles (“I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light,” “Good To Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have to Do is Die”), Brand New left their pop punk roots mostly in the dust on Deja Entendu, The songs and music take a decidedly darker, moodier turn, climaxing with the altogether way too creepy “Me Vs. Maradona vs. Elvis.” This record proved that rock and punk and, yes, emo could be fused into something that appeals to more than just 15-year-old kids.

12. Local H – Here Comes the Zoo (2002)

Local H clearly didn't give a shit about what was trendy in the world of rock in 2002 when they released Here Comes the Zoo. The too-cool-for-school Strokes? Fuck 'em! Lego videos and color-coordinated stage outfits? To Hell with that! (I know, those examples were actually from 2001. They were still hot shit a year later, though.)

Guitarist/Singer Scott Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair released a tight, mostly focused (the 25-minute album closer kind of takes away from the rest of the disc) album on HCTZ. There are stompers like “Son of Cha!” and slow burners like “(Baby Wants To) Tame Me” Lucas offers social commentary about religion (“Hands on the Bible”) and consumerist culture (“Creature Comforted”). This album is just jam- packed with great, straight-up rock n' roll.

11. The Thermals – The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006)

The sloppy, three-chords-and-change approach is worked to perfection on The Thermals third album. It's musically unspectacular, but catchy as all hell. Singer/Guitarist Hutch Harris' vocals are nasally, but never grating, and the rhythm section propel the songs along without getting in the way of the riffs. The quasi-concept centers around (perhaps) the dystopian aftermath (or current climate, I suppose) of the Bush administration. Religion and theocracy has run amok, Christian imagery and bible stories comprise a lot of the lyrics – Sodom and Gomorrah in “Pillar of Salt,” Noah and the flood in “Here's Your Future.” The characters are scared, yet defiant and hopeful. Admittedly heady stuff for a punk rock album, but what brings it all together is the fact that “The Body...” isn't preachy; it leaves the listener to decide for one's self.

10. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

When critical darlings Arcade Fire released their debut LP Funeral in 2004 the indie music world was turned on its ear. I was not fully entrenched in that world quite yet, but eventually I decided to see what the fuss was all about. Surprise, surprise: I liked it. I'm sure you can guess what the songs are about considering the title, but the music belies that. It is grandiose, exhilarating music... and the guitar isn't really a featured instrument. Blasphemy, I know. But the sound is just so goddamn big. Arcade Fire might not have the balls to be called “rock,” but they sure as hell have the brains and the inventiveness to be stalwarts in the indie scene for years to come, and Funeral started it all.

9. Everclear – Songs From An American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile (2000)

Art Alexakis wanted to make an unabashedly pop album, so an unabashedly pop album is what he made. Learning How To Smile may just represent Everclear's creative peak. (Laugh all you want; I fucking love Everclear's output from Sparkle and Fade until this disc) LHTS has a bit of everything: lush string arrangements (“Annabella's Song”), ukelele (“The Honeymoon Song”), and a song built on a sample of “Mr. Big Stuff,” “AM Radio.” If those things seem gimmicky – and they kind of are – more standard Everclear fare can be found scattered across the album like on the title track and the anthemic kiss-off “Here We Go Again” (“I wish I could find the words to tell/You to politely go fuck yourself” Alexakis sings.) Everclear might have gone mostly downhill after this release, but Learning How to Smile remains their most amibitious and most rewarding listen.

8.Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (2008)

I think the hipster backlash over this album makes me like it that much more. I won't claim that the sound is particularly original or that I even know what the fuck they're talking about in the lyrics, but much like the hipster's iPod that has no doubt played this record incessantly on, it just works. The clean guitar tones, the vaguely reggae-ish rhythms – these things are pleasing to the ear and invite multiple listenings. Not only that, but for an English major like myself, it doesn't get much better than a song centered around punctuation, “Oxford Comma.” The Lil' Jon reference is just icing on the cake.

7. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (2006)

Do you like getting loaded? Do you like positive, uplifting jams that make you want to dance? Then you'll love The Hold Steady. Boys and Girls in America is populated by drunks and druggies, whores and townies. The lyrics are vivid if a little too wordy, but if that's not your thing the band will gladly sweep you away with its' bar band boogie. I think a line from the last song, “Southtown Girls” is an apt metaphor for the album: “Southtown Girls won't blow you away / But you know that they'll stay.” This sounds bad, I know. (And some fans out there seem to think listening to The Hold Steady is like some sort of religious conversion, but I digress.) But Boys and Girls offers up good, honest rock n'roll; the music isn't exactly mind-blowing, but it keeps your head bopping and Craig Finn's lyrics keep your brain working, wondering which person you know will appear next in his drunken, tragic tales.

06. Metallica – Death Magnetic (2008)

I'm going to steal the last paragraph from my original review because I'm lazy: Death Magnetic is a mostly great album. The riffs are solid; the choruses are catchy. I’m not sure what this means for the band: Is this merely and aberration of late-period Metallica? Could this be a swan song for the metal giants? Or is this – gasp! – a career resurgence? I don’t know. But Metallica has confirmed one thing for certain on this album: if they’re going to be taken into middle age, they’re not going to be taken softly. They will be dragged into it, kicking and screaming.

5.Ben Folds – Rockin' The Suburbs (2001)

I didn't care for Rockin' The Suburbs beyond its title track for the longest time, but eventually the whole thing grew on me, and I've been an unabashed fan of Folds' solo output ever since. (Except for his last album, which was kind of terrible.) The music is what you'd expect: mostly upbeat, poppy piano-based tunes infused with sarcastic and witty lyrics. But what hooks me are the characters that inhabit the songs . You've got people that don't want to grow up (“Still Fighting It”), angry young males (Rockin' The Suburbs”), a retired old man (“Fred Jones, Pt. 2”), and, of course, the guy that took acid at a party and climbed a tree and when he came down devoted his life to Jesus Christ (“Not The Same”). The album ends with Folds being uncharacteristically sappy on “The Luckiest,” which is sure to be the first dance at wedding receptions for discerning music fans. For my money, Rockin' The Suburbs has been painfully underrated this decade... but not any more.

4. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs (2008)

From the first track onward, Narrow Stairs proved that Death Cab had been eating their Wheaties which gave their music a little muscle. Don't get me wrong; they won't be touring with Mastodon anytime soon. But whatever it is, their music has more power and depth than it had any time before. They stretched out on “I Will Possess Your Heart” and for once it wasn't boring and repetitive (see “Stability” and Transatlanticism”). They took a page out of the Beach Boys' playbook on “You Can Do Better Than Me.” “Cath...” and “No Sunlight” are more traditional Death Cab songs, but are excellent nonetheless. Sure, the lyrics are about love and loss and all that – and yeah, Ben Gibbard still sounds like a bedwetter most of the time – but if you thought Death Cab for Cutie were too cloying and precious for your tastes, you would do good to check out Narrow Stairs.

3. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around (2002)

The ranking of this album was not achieved because of lifetime accomplishments. It was not ranked at #3 to be edgy. It is up here amongst the heavy hitters because it is that goddamn good. One could argue because the album is almost all covers, that it shouldn't be as highly regarded. I disagree. Cash came in with his deteriorated voice and owned the shit out of the collection of 15 songs. Most famously, of course was “Hurt;” Trent Reznor said that Johnny took the song and made it his. The Beatles' “In My Life” nearly brings me to tears every time I hear it. Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” is one last proclamation of Cash's faith in God. The music is haunting and sparse across the board, but is beautiful just the same. And that voice... even at 71 and shot to hell it commands your attention. The album was recorded before he died in 2003, and stands as not only a great piece of music, but as one hell of a swan song.

2. Radiohead – In Rainbows (2008)

Most critics picked Kid A as their Radiohead album of the decade, and it's easy to see why. It blew peoples' minds when it came out in 2000; it pushed the boundaries of what a rock band was supposed to be. And that's wonderful, but it's just not an album I put on when I want to listen to Radiohead. In Rainbows, on the other hand, is. And boy is it a dandy. It's still got all the trademark Radiohead weirdness, but this time around it actually feels human. Thom Yorke seems to be actually writing about other people for a change, and it elevates this album to another level. Plus, the rocker in me appreciates the fact that they finally let it rip on “Bodysnatchers.” In Rainbows is a fine album, and one that stands up to repeated listenings.

1. Tool – Lateralus (2001)

Call them art metal. Call them prog rock on steroids. Call them something inbetween. It doesn't matter as Tool does not care about labels; they care about music. The songs are epic and sprawling, yet never stray too far into wanking territory. They shoot out into space, ebbing and flowing perfectly. Maynard James Keenan's voice and lyrics complement the music fantastically. Even though the songs regularly stretch past six minutes, they never get boring. In short, (Pretentious Tool fan hat on)Lateralus isn't just an album, it's an experience.(Pretentious Tool fan hat off)

If you think 70+ minutes of Tool is too much, try this edited album on for size: Side A: The Grudge / The Patient / Schism. Side B: Parabol / Parabola / Lateralus. Even just those six killer songs on an album would've blown any other album this decade out of the water.

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