Thursday, December 31, 2009


CAVEAT: This is not an indie-hip-Pitchfork review that tries to exhibit superiority by dropping ridiculously obscure artists. I am an unashamed product of the 90's. If Bush's "Sixteen Stone" came out in 2K7 it would be on this list. Straight up. This is also MY list. These are albums I listened to religiously over the past decade and will continue to adore the rest of my life.

Preface: Albums that came close but did not make the cut shall be noted here.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Beck - Sea Change
Matthew Dear - Asa Breed
Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake It's Morning
Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift
Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
Bruce Sprignsteen - The Rising
Johnny Cash - America V: A Hundred Highways
Kings of Convenience - Riot on an Empty Street
Radiohead - In Rainbows
NIN - And All That Could Have Been (best live album of the decade for sure)
Black Eyed Peas (PSYCH!)
Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power

Ok, now... my list:

10) Ryan Adams - Jacksonville City Nights
Released: September 26, 2005

You knew Ryan Adams had to make my Top Ten. Why? Because he's the best songwriter since Neil Young, that's why. And this is Ryan Adams at his best. Not trying to be a punk rocker or a loverboy, just a folk song-writer. Many would argue that Heartbreaker is his best and they're completely justified - not only was that his solo debut but it is an amazing album. But alas, I must disagree. Heartbreaker does not have the scope of song writing that JCN does; nor does it have the backing of the Cardinals which makes JCN stand out. I think Ryan Adams is best when he's with a band and the Cardinals have proved to be a good influence. Furthermore, this is such a beautiful blue-collar album as it covers all of life's great experiences: your first job, returning to the town where you grew up, first love, broken hearts and love affairs, utility bills, losing a loved one, drinking your problems away, learning your family's history, and having breakfast at the diner. I love this album to death and I will listen to it the rest of my life as I continue to reflect upon those precious life experiences as well as encounter new ones that Adams captures in the short stories of JCN.

9) Jay Z - The Black Album
Released: November 14, 2003

If you haven't seen the documentary "Fade to Black," then you need to go watch it right now. Once you see that film you will understand why the Black Album is one of the top ten albums of the decade. This is probably one of the best rap albums ever made. I am not the biggest fan of hip/hop, but this album is incredible. The samples are so diverse that the songs are in no way repetitive, and yet the album flows from one song to the next in a mysteriously comfortable fashion. Musically it is ridiculously catchy and each tune is very listenable. As soon as the strings rise and climb into that catchy sample at the beginning of December 4th you're hooked. Lyrically it is genius. Jay tells stories that draw the listener in. I mean, everyone knows the lines about being pulled over and telling the cop the that he can't "legally search my shit." It's genius. If listening to this gem doesn't do it for you, watch the doc.

8) Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That
Released: May 15, 2006

Ok, now that Phoenix is huge we can all agree that they're nice. But what most people don't know is that "Wolfgang Amadeus" is like a sequel to "It's Never Been Like That." In fact, it's kind of like Jurassic Park 2 (IMHO). INBLT is they're best album by leaps and bounds. It is poppy. It is catchy. The band is so tight. The sounds are overly perfect. This over-produced (in a good way) album is one of the best albums of the decade for sure. Not unlike Sigur Ros (#4 below), the lyricist offers fun-sounding words to accommodate the music. It's as if the phonetics matter more than the content of the lyrics. That, in my opinion, is notable because most lyricists are overly focused content. Moreover, the MUSIC itself is possibly the most intelligent pop music I've heard in years. If Weezer and the Strokes had a baby that grew up to out-shine its parents, THAT would be Phoenix. INBLT flows from start to finish with a non-stop fun ride that leaves little to be desired. I return to this record often and I'm never disappointed.

7) Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
Released: November, 2001

There is not a band like Interpol out there. And this record is their best work. Not only is this one of the tightest bands around but this album is sharp as hell. Every instrument on this record sounds so crystal clear that I can practically envision what each cymbal or guitar looks like. It paints a picture. The guitars on this album are an example of what can be done with the advancements in guitar technologies and effects. They're simply astounding. And nothing about the guitar work is overly complex, but it is exactly what each song needs. And the unique sound of this record is also a standout. The reverbs are huge and give the album a dark, gloomy feel. You know you're listening to something that was written from the dark, serious side of life. The vox effects also give it this feel. And lastly, the drums: perhaps some of the best drumming I've heard in the entire decade. It is straight rock drumming but is done with such intelligence, patience, and intentionality that each tiny slap of the stick cuts through the melodies and tones of the rest of the band. Simply brilliant. Listen to this album.

6) Outkast - Speakerboxxx/Love Below
Released: September 23, 2003

Outkast has always done things their way. Somewhat different but still comfortable enough for mainstream hip hop. This album is their magnum opus (IMHO). It's their "Kid A." The amount of diversity on this DOUBLE disc is unreal. I could end up writing forever about this one so I'll just say a few things. Beats: enough to keep any listener happy as well as guessing. They're all over the place and yet always pleasing. Lyrics: no one does it like Outkast (esp. Andre). Lyrics are clever, catchy, funny, and also often profound. Instrumentation: Implementing jazz drums, pianos, horns, vocals, Prince-like squeals, gospel choirs, hand claps, synths, drum machines, et. al., this album is enough to make your synapses fire like crazy. Oh yeah, and don't forget the hilarious shorts in between tracks - a classic Outkast feature. Whether you want the obscure or the popular, this album has it all and everything in between.

5) Sigur Ros - ( )
Released: 2002

I purchased this album at a time of great dissatisfaction with music in general. I was discontent with my own library as well as just about everything being played around me. It all sounded the same. Thankfully I found what is arguably this Icelandic wonder group's best album. Not only is this a ridiculously beautiful album, but it is (IMHO) the most conceptual of Sigur Ros' stuff. One cannot help but listen to this album beginning to end in one sitting (or walking through cold city streets as I prefer). Lyrically this record is, well, anything you want it to be! The beautiful gibberish lyrics are like the melodic equivalent of onomatopoeia; the sounds themselves fit the music perfectly. And the melodies are magnificently catchy. Ranging from gentle, trance-producing guitar swirls to intense, heavy drums and distortion, this album fluctuates between extremes in a way that offers listeners a portal of transcendence to discover themselves and the world around them.

4) M.I.A. - Arular
Released: 2005

Please don't even let the words "paper planes" enter your mind. To have that become her most popular song is what "Creep" is to Radiohead. And yet that popular hit is an example of what M.I.A. is capable of (taking a Clash sample and putting catchy melodies and ironic lyrics to work to construct one of the biggest hits of the last two years). However, it is the rest of her work that is of concern here. "Arular" came out three years before "Kala" (also an incredible album) as her debut. Upon first listen one doesn't even know what to make of it. How does a Sri Lanken girl creating music in Britain find such an original sound? This album puts Timbaland and Pharell to shame. The unique, tribal beats are a breath of fresh air in the monotony of Lil'-something hip hop. The mixed bag of beats and rhythms display the breadth of talent at work here. There are extreme differences between, say, tracks 2,3 and 11. And yet all of them are listenable and, more importantly, danceable. This is perhaps one of the finest dance records created in the "aughts." Speaking of tribal, the melodies also offer a unique non-Western feel that is both intriguing and loveable (listen to the last track). And lyrically it is absurd (and genius). Case in point: "What can I get for ten dollar? Anything you want" and "U.R.A.Q.T. is your daddy dealing 'cause you're dope to me" (among many other gems). As mentioned above, the samples are also noteable. Who samples the theme from The Jeffersons? If this album doesn't get your trunk moving then nothing will.

3) Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
Released: 2005

The word "grand" doesn't begin to describe this oeuvre. It is HUGE. Not only is it the sequel to Sufjan's facetious 50-state project rookie, Michigan, but it is in itself a gigantic work of music and storytelling. I must first make mention of Sufjan's ability to write a song about ANYTHING. Which is partly what makes him so fascinating. Lyrically he can write the most profound, tear-invoking lines, while also telling you about a bland fact of history. This is a talent in itself. But to put this talent to music is something completely other. It is often unavoidable to let the content about which a song is written to influence the music, but Sufjan purposefully puts music to match the content of his lyrics - which is both amazing and difficult as hell! And not only does he do this successfully, but he does so by employing a copious amount of instruments! Taking simple guitars and pianos and then arranging glorious strings and horns to accompany allows some of the grandest compositions I've ever heard. But soon after hearing a magnificent piece like "Come on! Feel the Illinoise," Sufjan follows up with a poignant solo performance about a serial killer. The diversity of the album is stunning (and once again shows his ability to let the content drive the music).

But I must make mention of perhaps the best song of the decade: Chicago. I don't care what anyone says, this is it. Call me an idealist but this song captures something (not unlike Springsteen's "The Rising"). Musically Chicago is catchy, listenable, and pretty, yet also surprisingly complicated. If you stop to listen to all of what's going on you'll be a bit shocked. And what always surprises me is the temp of the song: it always feels faster than it really is - which is an effect, I argue, of the emotion provoked by the exciting melody!

I could go on: Time signatures, lyrics, The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us! (possibly the best or 2nd best song of the album), etc. This is a great album of music and certainly deserves a #3 if not higher on our countdown.

2) Radiohead - Kid A
Released : October 2000

Reasoning: I don't even need to write about this one. Everybody knows. There is not room enough to discuss this album and its effects anyway, but I'll do so briefly. No one knew how Radiohead would follow up OK Computer, but, leaving few disappointed, they released an album that continued to push the boundaries and demonstrate their dominance in writing original music. There are few opening hooks that immediately draw a listener in like "Everything In Its Right Place." And I'm still mystified at how a soft, rhodes-esque keyboard progression can feel so dark and powerful. Nonetheless, the album progresses into one of the masterpieces of the decade. The entire record combines the avant-garde with the comfort of pop music. Awkward rhythms meet catchy guitars. Weird synths meet cozy melodies. It's like landing on Mars only to find your best friends waiting there to greet you. This album is #1 on many decade lists, and rightfully so as it is simply a masterpiece.

1) Elliot Smith - Figure 8
Released: 2000

Reasoning: Elliot Smith is most certainly an artist of the 90's. But this decisive album came in the year 2000 and it has been in religious rotation amongst my records ever since. As with other artists, I believe this is his best album. The quality of this record is unmatched by his previous ones as well as his post-humous releases. So, what can we say about Figure 8? Firstly, let's start with the song writing. Remember the Beatles? Lots of people liked them. And Smith is not unlike the Fab Four. His song ability to compose catchy pop melodies is matchless. Vocal melodies that rise and fall like scales (unable to be sung by many - this guy was a gooooood singer) make me wonder how in the hell he ever felt a melody line like that on "Everything Reminds Me of Her." But all of the vox are spot on. I dare you to find better pop melodies. But underneath melodies are chord progressions that parallel the Yorke's and Sufjans and Bazan's (and McCartney's et. al.). Nothing ever sounds forced; it's as if Smith let's the song grow up into whatever it was meant to be. He just seems to tease out the melodies or instrumentation that the song itself deserves (see Can't Make a Sound for example).

Secondly, the instrumentation: you need to listen to this album 6 times before you can then go back and appreciate it. Listen through (on a good stereo/headphones) and focus on the following: vocals, guitars, bass lines, drums, piano, strings and other aux instruments. Then you can start to put it all together. But the brilliance is the fact that you'd NEVER notice these details because it all comes together in such a beautiful, cohesive manner. The songs are like a good meatloaf: you don't have a clue what all is in it, but it tastes amazing. These songs have such great instrumentation that I cannot help but find every piece interesting and enjoyable.

Which brings me to the next point: guitar work. Elliot Smith is perhaps the most underrated guitarist I can think of. He was an incredible guitar players! Granted he's now Kirk Hammet or Dime-Bag, but he knew his instrument and played it phenomenally. He's not flashy, but he makes the guitar sing. He strings together (pun intended?) notes on the guitar that are simply beautiful (and are also impossibly difficult to play!). Not only does Smith exhibit skill, however, but also a wonderful combination of acoustic and electric sounds. If you like the guitar as an instrument, you need to give this record a careful listen to hear how versatile and complex this instrument truly is.

Lyrically this record is fantastic. "The question is: Wouldn't mama be proud?" Gotta love a 90's existentialist. I guess that's why I resonate with it so much. Many accuse Smith of being depressing, but I DO NOT. I don't understand why this is! (yes, I know how he died, that is a non-issue here) Seriously. No one accused Sgt. Pepper's of being depressing! This is much in the same. Smith has done a similarly brilliant thing here (as well as on other records): he combines existential lyrics with unbelievably poppy, fun melodies. It's brilliant and another reason why he belongs at the #1 of my albums of the decade.

The album as a whole is intelligently laid out. Beginning with Son of Sam and ending with Can't Make a Sound & Bye provides one hell of a soundtrack to anybody's story. I mean, Can't Make a Sound is like the last scene of ANY movie - plane crashing or romantic kissing. I think Smith has the uncanny ability to capture emotions in the progressions and melodies of his songs.

I cannot say "If it weren't for Elliot Smith we wouldn't have...." (blah blah blah, arctic monkeys or peter.bjorn.&john, et. al.). Although I would be shocked to learn that many artists haven't been heavily influenced by him. But, nevertheless, this is precisely why he is at my #1. There's no one like him. He deserves a special place in music history in the last two decades.

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