by Jason Hicks
Well here we are, at the end of the first decade of the millennium already. While I am disappointed that labeling these years as "the oughts" never caught on, I can't say I miss the hubbub that surrounded the end of the last decade/century/millennium. However it is a bit surprising that we haven't seen more end of the decade hype, perhaps with the way events have panned out we all feel that this block of time is best left unanalyzed and forgotten.
That may be the case, but as a dedicated blogger and dispenser of musical opinions par excellence I cannot in good conscience let the opportunity to air my choices of the best albums of the decade pass without offering my proverbial two (or perhaps even three) cents. So here they are: the definitive greatest albums of the decade as seen from my admittedly skewed perspective. Keep in mind that these are in fact definitive, so no arguing with my selections! Just kidding. Kinda.
10. Gorillaz- Demon Days
The Gorillaz project was conceived in 2000 by Blur frontman Damon Albarn as the world's first "virtual band" with animated characters standing in for its many collaborators. The group's second album, Demon Days, is a dark affair loosely arranged around the concept of the few remaining survivors of a man-made apocalypse. Musically, it's a remarkably limber pastiche that includes hip hop, rock, gospel and electronica all blended together by mastermind producer Danger Mouse. Even though a sense of doom blankets the album, there is fun to be had in the album's more upbeat dance numbers. Likewise guest Dennis Hopper's late album spoken word piece about a volcano exacting revenge on exploitative humans is too obtuse to be disturbing. Albarn even tosses some hope into the mix on the album ending title cut saying, "Pick yourself up it's a brand new day/ So turn yourself round."
9. Madvillain- Madvillainy
The Madvillainy album represents the combination of two of the most prolifically creative forces in hip hop during this decade, rapper MF Doom and producer Madlib. On Madvillainy the two are a match made in hip hop heaven, making some of the haziest and abstract compositions this side of Cypress Hill. Madlib's alter ego Lord Quas, that had debuted on the excellent Quasimoto album The Unseen, drops in for a couple of helium pitched cameos including the philosophical musing on the nature of time and reality, "Shades of Tomorrow", which fittingly samples Sun Ra. Elsewhere Madlib digs deep in the crates for Hawaiian slack key guitar and accordian samples, confirming that his production can find a place for just about any found sound, yielding tight grooves that still bear the Madlib scratchy bedroom aesthetic. Through it all Doom holds it down with nimble word play and no small amount of humor noting, "And get more cheese than Doritos, Cheetos or Fritos/ Slip like Freudian/ Your first and last step to playin' yourself like accordion."
8. Ween- White Pepper
Ween started in the '80s as a band known more for their off kilter sense of humor and lo-fi recording techniques than their musical prowess. That gradually changed over the years and came to full fruition in the form of Ween's superlative 2000 album White Pepper. Although it may seem like a bad idea for a band with such a bizarre past to take a stab at a cleanly produced pop album, the concept paid off with huge dividends and the tracks on White Pepper are among some of the most finely crafted pop songs of the decade, including some surprisingly heartfelt lyrics. Not only that, but Ween also pay tribute to some musical giants stylistically, including The Beatles (as the cheeky album title alludes to), Steely Dan, Pink Floyd and even Jimmy Buffett when some steel drums show up in the mix. Showing that they can make music that at least approaches normalcy, Ween demonstrated with White Pepper that there was literally no musical genre that they could not tackle and master.
7. TV on the Radio- Dear Science,
TV on the Radio have been the toast of the hipster indie set virtually since their inception, winning over many fans with their 2003 debut EP. But it was on their third full length, Dear Science, that the group fully realized their forward looking vision of a funkier and more soulful version of indie rock, propelled by slick production and an uncompromising intellectualism. Streamlining their approach and adding afrobeat style horns as well as a string section on many tracks made not only for a more accessible TVOTR, but also one of increased sophistication. Co-vocalist Kyp Malone continues to be a force to be reckoned with on standouts like "Golden Age" and "Crying" and serves as a synergistic counterpoint to the band's other frontman, Tunde Adepimbe. In 2008 TVOTR proved that they could not only make an impact on the mainstream without compromise, but could also in the process deliver their most consistent and exhilarating album to date.
6. Broken Social Scene- You Forgot It in People
Throughout the late '90s and early '00s one of the more intriguing subgenres to emerge was that of "post-rock", which was a style marked by long instrumental compositions that tended toward free form improv featuring epic contours and movements. Broken Social Scene, which featured a roster of 11 members on You Forgot It in People, took this concept and successfully distilled it into a more pop friendly format with lyrics and hooks while still retaining the widescreen grandiosity of post-rock. On You Forgot It in People, noisy guitars, horns, strings and multiple vocalists both male and female combine for an emotionally moving experience that's both unique and visceral. Also, if not for this album's success, breakout star Feist could still be the fringe dweller that appears here.
5. Arcade Fire- Funeral
I agonized a bit over whether to give Funeral, the band's 2004 debut, or the follow up Neon Bible the top ten slot, but in the end the immediate impact of the songs on Funeral is impossible to deny. This is another album with apocalyptic themes, most explicitly so in the nuclear winter setting of the album opening "Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)", but it's also an album about the strength of relationships and community in the face of adversity. Funeral instantly made a splash when it hit the streets and five years later the fusion of indie rock, sweeping strings and a sepia toned mood that harks back to a pre-rock era is still something to get excited about. Indeed, Arcade Fire's ability to forge a musical path that combines equal parts chamber music, gypsy/French influences, early rock n' roll and an indie sensibility stands tall as one of the decade's most exciting musical developments.
4. The Flaming Lips- Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
The Flaming Lips scored a huge critical and artistic success with 1999's Soft Bulletin which many hailed as one of the best albums of that decade. This 2002 follow up may not be as nakedly ambitious as the symphonic revelations of Soft Bulletin, but as a group of songs with hooks and crystal clear production it actually exceeds its predecessor. This time around the Lips cultivate a forward looking sonic pallet, with burbling synths and drum machines dominating the musical landscape. While lyrically the sci-fi concept indicated by the album title doesn't quite hang together, some definite themes of good vs. evil, aging and relationships run through the songs. The album culminates with the heartbreakingly gorgeous "Do You Realize???" where singer Wayne Coyne reminds us that "The sun doesn't go down/ It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round." Which is a perfect example of one of the Flaming Lips' great talents, the ability to take what could be an expression of existential despair and turn it into a sense of wonder and joy.
3. Beck- Sea Change
Beck had long been known as a post-modern purveyor of dadaist irony, this is the guy who exclaimed "Gettin' crazy with the cheez whiz!" on his breakout hit "Loser" in 1994. But there had also been another more serious, folky side to Beck's music that took its cues from the singer/songwriter tradition of Bob Dylan and bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt. It was this Beck that gave us the masterful 2002 release Sea Change, which is an unflinching meditation on a failed relationship and its devastating aftermath. Stripped of wise cracking nonsensical lyrics and genre-hopping gimmicks we're left with Beck's songwriting acumen and vocal expressiveness, both of which were highly underrated before this album dropped. But Beck's haunting voice and this batch of gravely serious tunes were more than enough to produce a highly affecting and effective opus that can sit alongside other break up classics like Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine. It doesn't hurt that the record is graced with Nigel Godrich's impeccable production that keeps lush string arrangements, steel guitars, and synth sounds from detracting from the songs' emotional weight. Beck gave seriousness another stab on 2008's Modern Guilt after getting sarcastic and ambiguous again for a couple albums, but Sea Change remains his crowning artistic achievement to date and proves that a broken heart can indeed be a path to a truly outstanding album.
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Conflict can make for some incredible art and such was the case for Wilco's 2002 monumental album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In addition to internal pressures within the band during the album's recording, once the finished product was delivered they were unceremoniously dropped from their label. While it is indeed somewhat incongruous with Wilco's earlier work, which had been perhaps disingenuously labeled "alternative country", the rejection by the label is evidence that true genius is rarely recognized as such initially. YHF is not only is the work of a band pushing its own boundaries to the limit, but also pointed the way forward for rock music in general, in many ways it is the American response to the space rock epiphany that Radiohead unveiled with OK Computer. There are a few allusions to Wilco's earlier work, with Appalachian strings popping up on "Jesus Etc." and a twangy guitar refrain in "Pot Kettle Black", but the dominant sounds on YHF are kitchen sink percussion, unlikely instrumentation such as dulcimers, squelchy 303 synth bass, static, and jarring noise collages. There's not much more comfort to be found in Tweedy's lyrics which baldy describe his mental and physical condition with lines like "I am hoping for the rearrival of my health" and "there is something wrong with me". Misty nostalgia takes over for a brief moment on the genuinely upbeat "Heavy Metal Drummer", but it's still tinged with regret as Tweedy says "I miss the innocence I've known." Released in the aftermath of 9/11, such sentiments perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist of those troubled times, and even seemed to contain direct references in songs like "Ashes of American Flags". Of course that's not possible since recording concluded in the summer of 2001. But that adds yet another layer to how far ahead of it's time it truly was, it serves as a soundtrack to the unsettling events that had not yet occurred.
1. Radiohead- Kid A
There are very few albums that explode the conventions and boundaries of what popular music can convey in a complete fashion. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper comes to mind, as does Pink Floyd's The Wall. Radiohead expanded the concept of what rock music could be similarly with 2000's Kid A. After having triumphed in a major way with primarily guitar based music on their previous outing, OK Computer, they threw their formulas out of the window in favor of a more abstract approach that relied on electronics and texture for its major touchstones. Like just about any artistic breakthrough, it was a risky move that could have easily alienated the huge fanbase they had only recently amassed. What happened instead is that it shot to the top of the Billboard albums chart and paved the way for many of the electronically tinged groups that are today's rock vanguard. It's not hyperbole to say it would be hard to imagine that groups like Animal Collective and TV on the Radio would be doing what they are today without the influence of Kid A. Musically it's an uncommonly cold sounding record, with singer Thom Yorke echoing the frigid soundscapes by chanting "Ice age coming/ ice age coming" amid the jackhammer drum machines of "Idioteque". Even though much of Kid A is indeed about detaching from humanity, at one point Yorke insists "I'm not here/ This isn't happening", paradoxically Kid A won the band an even wider audience and influence. It's pretty remarkable that an album that, on the surface at least, seemed to be designed to push away the public was as successful as it was and at least on some level understood by its listeners. That is not only a triumph for Radiohead, but also a validation that there is still room for a profound and complex work of art at the top of the charts, which is an achievement that Radiohead fans both obsessive and casual can take pride in having helped to accomplish.
Honorable mentions: Grandaddy- The Sophtware Slump, Royksopp- Melody A.M., Cut Chemist- The Audience is Listening, My Morning Jacket- Z, Outkast-Speakerboxxx/The Love Below