Top Albums of the Decade
Retrospective: Top Five Albums of the Past 10 YearsThe Daily Californian Arts & Entertainment staff talk about the five greatest albums that have been released within the past 10 years.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Music > CD Reviews
Updated to include all of the top 25 albums
The 2000s were a nebulous, uncertain time for music. With file-sharing on the rise, many consumers decided music should be free. This paradigm shift splintered music into thousands of different niche genres, each catering to the increasingly specified tastes of consumers while the mainstream floundered to retain fleeing listeners. During this strange first decade of the 21st century, hip-hop struggled to redefine itself, indie broke into the mainstream and electronics became staples of nearly all genres. Meanwhile, we the listeners got to sit back and absorb the rare shots of genius that emerged from all the chaos.
25. A GRAND DON'T COME FOR FREE
The Streets, 2004
A concept album about a wanker who misplaces 1,000 quid, A Grand Don't Come For Free captures the Streets' Mike Skinner doing what he does best: being ordinary. The album traverses a huge span of narrative and musical territory and makes songs about regular events (watching TV, getting drunk at a club) oddly engrossing. More impressively, the production matches the songs' individual stories: A laid-back piano riff lounges across "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way," while "Blinded by the Lights" is flashy and surreal. With this album, Skinner established himself as both a bona fide storyteller, a troubadour of the people.
24. FEVER TO TELL
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2003
Just try and sit still when Fever To Tell comes on. The yelps, dive-bomber guitars and unrelenting beats singlehandedly cure immobility. The near-nihilistic hedonism of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut album so seamlessly intertwines art sensibilities with punk's vivacity that it's unfortunate the record is constantly overshadowed by one of the few breaks in the frenzy. On the other hand, "Maps" is the best rock love song of the decade, so it's almost OK. Karen O and co. were out to shake your ass and make your heart ache, and we'll be damned if they didn't succeed with Fever To Tell.
For a brief moment, Burial seemed entirely otherworldly. Anonymous, voiceless, drowned in a sea of bizarre electronics, the dubstep producer snatched bits of sound and processed them to the point of near-unrecognizability. His second album, Untrue, achieved critical success in America, despite the relative obscurity of dubstep when it was released in 2007. With excerpted movie lines, submerged vocal samples and a relentless beat, he created dance music you probably can't dance to, unless it's the end of the world and you're cold and it's all that's left to do. No longer anonymous, William Bevan's mystique lives on in his music.
Bold and brassy, M.I.A.'s second album, Kala, delivers as much punch as her debut. The lyrics hit hard and the driving beats harder. M.I.A. has the rare ability to create music that's not only exciting but makes you think. The Sri Lankan-born, British-raised rapper is full of political and sexy sass. Kala's hit track "Paper Planes" rocketed M.I.A. to such new heights that the success actually coaxed her out of retirement.
"Paper Planes," along with the clubby "Boyz" and the Bollywood-influenced "Jimmy" may be the most accessible tracks, but the more obscure "Bamboo Banga" and "Bird Flu" complete Kala's multifaceted sound of rhyme, electronica and African and Eastern influences. Best listened to with an open mind and room to dance.
21. SILENT SHOUT
The Knife, 2006
Hailing from Sweden, siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer of the Knife had gained success with their single "Heartbeats" before their commanding 2006 release, Silent Shout. Introducing more ominous, and at times downright creepy, textures and voices, the duo crafted some of the most complex electro pop of the decade. On the title track, singing in one of her four processed vocal registers, Karin repeats, "I caught a glimpse and now it haunts me," summing up the listening experience. Multi-layered in their dark sonic landscapes, the Knife's Silent Shout is a haunting, pop-equipped masterpiece.
20. GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS
Modest Mouse, 2004
Good News shows just how porous the border between so-called "indie" music and the world of mainstream radio and major labels was this decade. Just Google "Float On" coupled with either "American Idol" or "Kidz Bop" if you're wondering just how pervasive Modest Mouse became. But the album was a very odd way for these gloomy Portlanders to infiltrate the mainstream. Many of the songs are about a loved one's death, and Isaac Brock cantankerously sings, "I sure hope you are dead." Tracks like "Dance Hall" and "This Devil's Workday" may be the nastiest MM tunes ever. This wasn't a handshake with the mainstream; it was a threat.
Madvillain is a collaboration between bizarre MC MF DOOM and a production Picasso, Madlib. Their only LP to date, Madvillainy, breaks many sacred hip-hop expectations. Most of the songs hover around two minutes. DOOM's free-associative rhymes make little to no sense ("Hey bro, Day Glo, set the bet, pay dough / Before the cheddar get away, you best to get Maaco"), but they're frequently hilarious and sometimes weirdly enlightening. Madlib's immaculate beats are also obscured, filled with smoky samples, sideways beats and a hazy atmosphere. It's an imaginative, wild ride that may just flow better than any album released this decade.
18. SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW
As the slash in the title and its two-hour-plus running time both indicate that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is not one self-contained album. Apparently due to creative differences, Andre 3000 and Big Boi opted to release what are essentially two solo albums as one product. The result is admittedly disjointed. But like two sides of a coin, they work well together, complementing and contrasting as only OutKast can. Andre's Love Below may have scored the big hits "Hey Ya!" and "Roses," but Big Boi's Speakerboxxx single "The Way You Move" proved stiff competition. But really, this isn't about competition; it's just about great curve-ball pop.
17. WHITE BLOOD CELLS
The White Stripes, 2001
Meg and Jack White of two-man band the White Stripes may look like Mr. and Mrs. Edward Scissorhands, but the only thing cutting in White Blood Cells is their DIY garage rock sound. Ranging from the childish warmth of "We Are Going To Be Friends" to the apologetic rejection of "Now Mary" to the folksy exuberance of "Hotel Yorba," the Whites can't seem to make up their mind on anything. Multifaceted Jack has the vampy voice, the charming riffs, but Meg grounds us with her simple drumming, earnest beats to common lives. It makes their talent all the more honest.
16. THE BLUEPRINT
If Reasonable Doubt established Jay-Z as Biggie's heir apparent to the throne of East Coast hip-hop, The Blueprint was his self-styled coronation: a breathless, remarkably assured, impeccably produced victory lap for the ages. With glowing cuts like "Takeover," "The Ruler's Back" and "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," the Brooklyn rapper claimed New York City as his own, took down would-be adversaries and inserted himself amongst the hip-hop immortals. Amid all the swaggering flair are "Blueprint" and "Song Cry," revelatory in their soul-baring honesty. Every track captures Jay-Z in top form, waxing triumphant from start to finish.
15. PERSON PITCH
Panda Bear, 2007
Before the Snuggie, there was Panda Bear. Very few records invite you under the covers the way Person Pitch does. The sonic psychedelia of the album's seven songs wraps listeners in the coziest blanket they never knew they had. Taking you from a rainy day indoors to the bonfire you had on the beach the last day of summer, the repetitive ambience of jangly guitars, tape clicks and Pet Sounds harmonies border on hypnosis. When Panda Bear comfortingly coos the advice you've heard your whole life-"Take one day at a time / Everything else you can leave behind" on "Take Pills"-you're ready to believe it.
14. YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS
The Flaming Lips, 2002
The Flaming Lips are prone to starry-eyed meandering, but on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, they're manically focused. True, the sci-fi narrative promised in the title is abandoned after four tracks, but the spirit of girl-vs.-machine combat permeates the whole album. Yoshimi delivers karate-powered justice through Wayne Coyne's honeyed melodies, while the robots march in the wake of a malevolent battery of synth and bass. Yoshimi wasn't just our generation's introduction to the Lips-its cocktail of wistfulness and anxiety captured the American zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium.
13. SOUND OF SILVER
LCD Soundsystem, 2007
Genre-defying LCD Soundsystem are like having your cake and eating it too. The NYC dance-punk group's 2007 album Sound of Silver is synth-rock heaven, ranging from funky electro to echoey, epic tracks cascading down your spine and out into space. James Murphy's vocals move from nasally on pop anthem "North American Scum" to sweetly melancholic on the final track, "New York, I Love You." Sardonic, clever lyrics suit the comedic and heartbreaking songs alike. Don't try to resist ingenious lines like "there's a ton of the twist but we're fresh out of shout," just enjoy the musical mash-up indulgence.
Justin Timberlake, 2006
FutureSex/LoveSounds didn't reinforce the climate of modern popular music but instead challenged it. Justin Timberlake embraced influences such as funk, electronic and R&B with hits like "My Love," "What Goes Around .../... Comes Around" and "SexyBack"-tracks that dominated the radio and set a precedent for other artists that would intend to do so. The album also established the Midas touch of producer Timbaland, who solidified his quintessential sound, which now reigns supreme in the pop genre. Met with Timberlake's vocal strength, the duo made FutureSex/LoveSounds the popular album to beat.
11. GIVE UP
The Postal Service, 2003
Give Up is an album we all listened to when we were in middle school or high school. With every simple electronicized melody and angsty Ben Gibbard lyric, the Postal Service marked a talismanic moment for the world of indie pop because they turned the genre into something we could all adore. The "Garden State" trailer probably helped a little, but the beeps and bleeps of the album took flight all on their own. Though it has taken on the reputation of "guilty pleasure" now that we're at the decade's end, Give Up remains a valentine to all romantics who wear headphones.
10. HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER?
of Montreal, 2007
Lush, funky, sad-of Montreal's magnum opus chronicles frontman Kevin Barnes' fictional transformation into a transgendered African-American funk musician named Georgie Fruit, paralleling the band's evolution from bookish indie pop to sensual funk-pop hybrid. The central conceit highlights sexual and racial tensions that run deep in modern indie music, but the band's approach is personal rather than pedantic. The lyrics are elaborate, allusive and funny, the melodies diverse and ruthlessly danceable-though dancing through centerpiece "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" may result in a hypnotic trance or induced depression.
9. IN RAINBOWS
Radiohead's decision to distribute In Rainbows online for "name your own price" was an unprecedented stab at the old industry model and a major step forward for the digital movement of music.
But business aside, In Rainbows also contained some of the most beautiful and haunting music the band has created to date. It wasn't as experimental and shocking as Kid A, and not quite as vigorous as the guitar-heavy OK Computer, but the beauty of this album lies in its subtleties: the eerie vocal harmonies, the lush textures and excellent musicianship. It's the sound of a subdued yet still powerful Radiohead.
Daft Punk, 2001
Do not, under any circumstances, think about this record. If you use your brain to listen to Discovery-with its meaningless lyrics, Barry Manilow and George Duke samples, and influence on an uncountable infinity of bad DJs-you'll get distracted and make an ass of yourself on the dance floor.
The French duo put a decade's worth of work into giving its audiences a sensory overload, because if you snap out of it for one second and realize you have work in the morning, it might sound like kids' stuff. Luckily, the bass just dropped. Excuse us for a second.
Sufjan Stevens, 2005
Obsessive singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens' Illinois is a monolothic, carefully researched album that serves as a highlight reel of its eponymous state's history. But Stevens' true skill is his unique ability to relate the past to the present. With allusions to the Chicago World's Fair and serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. and musical nods to Vince Guaraldi and American folk traditions, Stevens showed that the feelings of the past linger on today. The album clocks in at an admittedly daunting 74 minutes, but its presentation of the triumphs and follies of the American people is a history lesson that doesn't get old.
6. LATE REGISTRATION
Kanye West, 2005
Late Registration saw Kanye West's gift for both elevating and challenging hip-hop reach dizzying new heights. Here, he effortlessly mixes witty songwriting with a smorgasbord of samples and soaring orchestral soundscapes, packing everything on his mind into 70 minutes of sprawling musical eclecticism. As Late Registration careens back and forth among celebratory aplomb ("Touch the Sky," "We Major"), voices of middle-class America ("Heard 'Em Say," "Gold Digger") and sensitive personal anthems ("Roses," "Hey Mama"), West's quirks and contradictions grow on the listener with a force that few other artists are capable of mustering.
Arcade Fire, 2004
What happens when the youthful exuberance of three decades of alternative music grows up and becomes sick of itself? It sounds like Win Butler on "Wake Up" -"Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up." This ain't kid's stuff anymore.
On 2004's Funeral, Quebecois ensemble Arcade Fire created an album full of nauseous nostalgia and sad mistrust while revitalizing the idea of a big goddamn rock band, with strings, accordion and more than a little shouting. The four-song "Neighborhood" suite that forms the album's foundation presents stories that sound like awesomely creepy children's book plots: young lovers tunneling through snow, children playing on the streets during an endless power outage, older brothers leaving home only to become vampires.
This unbelievably massive-sounding album captures a fearsome impressionistic sense of what it really means to never grow up. As an adolescent in the '00s, the suggestion that childhood and adulthood were equally terrifying was a powerful idea. Butler and wife/co-songwriter Regine Chassagne trashed rock 'n' roll's love affair with youth and revealed it beautifully as just another stretch of barren cold wasteland, occasionally illuminated by love.
4. YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT
Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is both timeless and eerily timely. When it first streamed on the band's website just after Sept. 11, 2001, critics called it prophetic. Despite that it was written and recorded previously, they detected references to the tragedy. Now, almost a decade later, it's acquired a generational resonance, without becoming stale, cliche or any less listenable.
The album layers well-placed noise and hints of country twang over a core of solid rock and creates something entirely new. But unlike many of the albums that heralded the alien ways of the new millennium, it incorporates enough folksy guitar to feel familiar.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a sad album. Not in a wrist-cutting, whiny, depressing way. It's just nostalgic for a time it knows is never coming back. And lead singer Jeff Tweedy's sometimes poetically cryptic, sometimes straightforwardly reminiscent lyrics are nothing to be scoffed at, either.
The album's instrumentation, lyrics and timing come together to make it a unique piece of Americana, minus the kitsch factor. You'd be hard pressed to find another love letter to the US of A that sounds this good.
Many of us were too young to pay attention when Stankonia dropped a bombshell of pop brilliance on the world in late 2000. But no matter when you start listening to Stankonia, it'll floor you. OutKast's masterpiece is a chameleonic, glorious mess, a sort of hip-hop rendering of the Beatles' White Album. Andre 3000 and Big Boi take the listener on a kaleidoscopic trip through a panoply of genres, recasting tired forms into unprecedented permutations.
The album makes you feel like you're hearing funk, R&B, hard rock, hip-hop, jazz fusion and gangsta rap for the first time all over again, only this time through a warped, devilishly clever Southern hip-hop lens. Its trio of classics-"So Fresh, So Clean," "Ms. Jackson" and "B.O.B."-has only gotten better with time. And its hidden gems, like "Slum Beautiful" and "Red Velvet," are just as savory.
Maybe there are one too many skits and a few overly comedic tracks, but part of the album's charm is its lack of editing. Whether or not you missed it the first time around, it's never a bad time to discover or rediscover Stankonia's unique genius.
2. IS THIS IT
The Strokes, 2001
Iggy Pop has said that the one thing he can't stand is "a rock star who thinks he's got brains." And that's what's so perfect about the Strokes' first album. Is This It didn't have to be insightful, experimental or particularly thought-provoking to reach a level of greatness.
Its brilliance lies in its tightrope precision. Is This It is simple, yet it isn't stupid; raw but not reckless; youthful in the absence of angst; revolutionary without being overtly profound.
The Strokes haven't been able to and never will retrace the perfection of their debut. This isn't to say that they won't grow as songwriters and musicians, because they have and will continue to do so. But that's just the problem. Is This It represents a conscious, careless fun that can't be manufactured.
For a flawless 35 minutes, the universal search for who we are and what we want is put on hold. It won't single-handedly make you re-examine your life, but it will be there for you when you're ready for that sort of thing. It's a friend, not a doctor. And isn't that exactly what rock 'n' roll should be?
1. KID A
Only nine years after its birth, Radiohead's Kid A feels like an untouchable classic. This testifies to its vitality, but it's also an unfortunate circumstance. Kid A has become seen as an important work that embodied its time, and for many music lovers, it's now perched so high upon the pedestals of popular music that it's become a sacred object that gathers dust instead of getting played.
But take away all the historical connotations, glowing reviews and discussion of the record's social commentary, and you would still have an album that exuded greatness on its first spin. Kid A first attained its reputation for a reason, and it wasn't because overly academic critics noted that "The National Anthem" recalled progressive rock bands like King Crimson or because "Treefingers" was an obvious Brian Eno homage. Those observations are significant, but only because before the analysis happened, the album was a beautiful, moving experience, and it still is.
That's what makes this record-and Radiohead-so great. The music lends itself to both pure, immediate enjoyment and scholarly deconstruction. Radiohead were one of the few bands who truly captured the feelings of the era in their sound, and none of their records does it better than Kid A, with its paranoia, technology overload and eerie coldness. The record realized the fear of a rapidly changing world, from Y2K to the dawning of the Obama era in a continually unstable political climate.
Kid A works on many levels, and its power to draw so many listeners for different reasons is a testament to the ceaseless ingenuity of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway and producer Nigel Godrich, the men behind the seminal group of this decade.
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