I’ve opted not to follow the usual pattern of counting down to number one. Everyone jumps straight to number one anyway; it seems to me that it’s about as useful as “WAY GIVE” painted on roads. So, from one to fifteen, here goes.
1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
This is one of the great masterpieces of the decade, but also unfortunately follows the pattern of many promising bands this decade: they released one great album, a decent one three years later and then sort of faded away. I wonder if they’ll release a third any time soon? Let’s hope so.
See also: Live clip feat. David Bowie
2. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
A perfect alt-country album by a near-perfect alt-country band. As far as I’m aware, this is one of only two albums this decade that Pitchfork Media gave a perfect 10/10 score to; and unlike the-album-which-shall-not-be-named, I agree. They’re playing Wellington on the 28th of April next year, are you coming?
(Officially, this came out in 2002, but that’s because their record company refused to release it straight away… they left that label and streamed the album for free on their website in September 01. Unlike Jimmy Eat World, they didn’t change any song titles.)
See also: Live clip
3. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
This album paved the way for hip hop this decade, reviving sampling after it had largely given way to “the Timbaland Sound” due to copyright issues. It was an important step in the legendary Nas vs. Jay-Z feud. It made “izzle” language cool before Snoop Dogg. It was famously written entirely in two days. It features Eminem’s best work on “Renegade”, the album’s only guest rapper appearance.
This album was also the “big break” for the man who is arguably the “artist of the decade”: Kanye West, who produced four of these tracks, along with everything from Dead Prez to Beyonce to Nas to Alica Keys this decade. His own albums are good, too; not necessarily masterpieces, but good. They have excellent songs on them, but also too many skits, which wear thin after one or two listens. If nothing else, they show that Kanye is as good a rapper as he is a producer – I just wish he never discovered Autotune.
Apart from all this, The Blueprint is also one of the best rap albums of all time. The dude runs New York; check this album out and you’ll be forced to admit it.
4. The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)
Jack White is the other main contender for “artist of the decade”; he’s probably the most consistently good artist we’ve had, with four excellent White Stripes albums in his glory years, a few other decent albums with various bands in the years since, some memorable film appearances, and of course his role in album #12 on this list. Yes, he’s insalvagably retro, but that’s partly what’s good about him; he certainly turned me onto the blues, and Brendan Benson for that matter, the way Kurt Cobain turned last decade’s young audiophiles onto the Pixies and the Velvet Underground.
He does not represent, nor claim to represent, anything new (though, it must be said, there’s nobody that’s sounded precisely like the White Stripes before: they wear their influences on their sleeve, but they combine them to make something that’s distinctly theirs – and what more could be asked?), but he is definitely one of today’s best songwriters, singers and guitarists.
5. Outkast – Stankonia (2000)
This is now my favourite hip hop album of this decade, although I hated them at the time (I was only a child, cut me some slack). OutKast is a collaboration between the eccentric Andre 3000 and the more straightforward rapper Big Boi, and you tend to enjoy Andre a lot more, but you also get the sense that there’s something good about the collaboration; that the whole is more the the sum of the parts and Andre is better with Big Boi as a foil. Or maybe not.
Anyway, this is about as good as sprawling hip hop epics get. It incorporates highly diverse sounds and styles, much like a couple of other albums on this list, but I reckon these guys pull it off best, because their hooks are equally hot whatever they’re doing; this album also features three of the decade’s best singles.
See also: Music video
6. The Strokes – Is This It (2001)
I wrote the blurb for #10 before I wrote this, and a lot of what I said there could apply here as well. Except they’re less afro-pop and more New York retro garage rock, and at the moment I reckon they did what they do slightly better than Vampire Weekend do what they do – that might change with a few more years of hindsight though. You’ll notice that almost all of the albums on this list came out in the first half of the decade, so we’ll have to wait and see whether that’s more to do with nostalgic over-rating or if – as I suspect – music is just getting worse.
It’s nice to know, however, that even if you’re basically just concentrating aspects of Television and the Velvet Underground rather than doing anything new, you can still make a bloody good rock album if you have enough talent. These guys did.
See also: Live clip
7. Lou Barlow – EMOH (2005)
I seem to be the only person in the world that has included this on their “best of decade” list, but I stand by its inclusion (and this high position) for two reasons:
a) Everyone likes this album. Try it. Put it on in a room. Few people will know who he is, but everyone will like it. They won’t necessarily love it, it won’t change their lives, but they’ll like it. This has probably been the 00s album that I’ve listened to the most; it’s definitely been my most successful “put on in the background when people come around for a cup of tea” album, but I’m still not sick of it, which is more than I can say for some of the other albums on this list. Now, it may sound like I’m saying it’s simply a middle-of-the-road album of nice songs that don’t push any boundaries or break any new musical ground. And to an extent this is true; Lou has influenced Coldplay and Snow Patrol after all (the latter scored a hit single by ripping off this album’s melodically superior track two).
But this fact is actually pretty significant considering that 22 years ago, Lou was coughing up blood after singing “Why don’t you like me” over and over again for five minutes and forty two seconds, in a Dinosaur Jr song that his then-frontman J Mascis wrote and made him sing. He left that band soon after and started doing his own thing, which leads into the second reason:
b) Indie-folk (or as Lou might call it: acoustic white-boy blues) is huge right now (see #11 and #14): and before that, alt-country was (see #2). But Lou’s been doing folk for twenty years. It’s easy to forget, because Simon and Garfunkel are so much cooler than Black Sabbath these days, but in the late 80s and early 90s, before Garden State, before Elliott Smith stabbed himself in the heart, before Nirvana Unplugged, the indie kids called Lou a sissy for playing acoustic guitar. Of course, he didn’t invent folk music or simple heartfelt home-recorded acoustic songs, but he brought them into indie where they now feel very much at home; and subsequently, he had a big effect on this decade’s music now that indie is one of the new mainstreams.
Oddly enough though, this is Lou’s first and only straightforward(ish) folky album: before this, his soft songs were hidden under 80s/90s lo-fi production a la Daniel Johnston or New Zealand bands (2000s lo fi has computers instead of tape hiss), and punctuated by post-hardcore pre-apocalyptic science-fiction drone-loving Renaissance punk songs. This album only includes the songs your mum would like (well, unless she’s a devout Catholic). Which means it holds together as an album better than anything else he’s done, and personally I think it’s some of his best work since Sebadoh’s III.
Beck has also been doing indie folk for a long time, indie folk hip hop psych jazz noise blues lounge funk in fact, so maybe his album Sea Change should be here instead. It’s more critically acclaimed. But I don’t care. I like Lou more.
See also: Interview with him and Elliott Smith
By the way, this video reminds me of a sad fact: Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith used to be friends. Then Jeff Buckley drowned and Elliott Smith – did that thing that he did. Poor Lou. I’m glad he’s reconciled with J and Murph now.
8. Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica (2000)
Remember when Modest Mouse’s song “Float On” came on the radio at about the same time as Steve left Blue’s Clues to form a music career, and everyone got confused and thought Steve was the singer of this band? Man, those were stupid times. Well, this is the album that came out before that one (Good News for People Who Love Bad News). It’s the best album by the best band of the best genre this decade (arguably hip hop was a better genre this decade, but I liked how that sounded). I can’t be bothered saying much more about it at this stage, but it is highly recommendable. One thing of note: I wikied this to see if there was anything more interesting I should say about it, and apparently “The title is taken from a newspaper headline seen in the film “Blade Runner” reading ‘Farming the Oceans, the Moon and Antarctica'”. Cool.
9. M.I.A. – Kala (2007)
Maybe M.I.A. is actually the artist of the decade? She is certainly more of a product of these times than most other artists, who are all harking back to the sixties or the nineties or the eighties. She represents everything that’s good about globalisation, including a critique of what’s bad about globalisation (and that does make sense). There are songs about Africa, Bollywood-sampling songs, and a remix of a song by a hip hop group of Australian Aboriginal children. When she sings about “putting people on the map that never seen a map” on “20 Dollar” (the price of an AK-47 in Africa, if you wanted to know), she swipes a verse from the Pixies for her chorus. She even features Timbaland on one track.
To quote Wiki, “Songs were recorded using her laptop, in unconventional environments such as on balconies, in cupboards, in rooms with cockroaches, and next to fields of cheering festival-goers to capture different sounds. She likened the process to “making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song”.” Now that’s 2000s.
Her first album was good, both in its self-released bootleg form Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1 and its eventual “official” version Arular, but in those days she was basically a female version of Dizzy Rascal – it’s on this album that she really became herself. And it’s awesome.
See also: her awesome website
10. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (2008)
Preppy New York rich boys make a quirky poppy indie album that despite taking influence from African music, was named “the world’s whitest band” by that guy from that Stuff White People Like website that white people like. They namedrop all of the right bands as influences and some of the artfully wrong ones, and there was a huge amount of hype about them which was almost over by the time their album came out. It may sound like I don’t like them, and I certainly resisted for a while (Sorry Josht!) but I have since swallowed my pride and realised that this is actually a damn fine album consisting of eleven delicious indie pop ditties.
11. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)
I’m sure we all got a little sick of this a few years ago through overplaying. But let’s not forget that we all loved it. We all hoped “Suffy” really would record one album about each of the 50 states, or at least try. But four and a half years have past and his tally still sits at just two. And we sort of forgot about him. He was really good though. I’m pretty sure.
See also: his friend, Danielson
12. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose (2004)
This is one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the decade according to Metacritic, but it hasn’t appeared very high on most critics’ “best of decade” lists. Pitchfork, for example, gave it an impressive 9.3 when it first came out, but didn’t include it anywhere on their decade’s top 200. Of course, rethinks like this aren’t unheard of on Pitchfork’s list: they gave Daft Punk’s Discovery a mere 6.1 when it came out, but classed it as the third best album of the decade eight and a half years later. I digress. The point is, I suspect this album hasn’t been very popular on lists of the great albums of the 2000s because Loretta Lynn is not an artist of the 00s, but a relic of a former time, come out of retirement to surprise us with another great release. When artists do this (see also: Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Dinosaur Jr) we’re grateful, but we don’t really consider it an album of this decade. Fair enough.
However, even though Lynn had 69 years and about as many albums under her belt when this came out, Van Lear Rose is a product of this decade just as much as most of the others on this list; it would have been unheard of until the 90s or 00s for a crew of garage punkers to get together with a country music godmother to release an album loved by indie kids and the Grammy people alike; in 2004 it happened quite naturally. This is also one of the first albums Lynn has released where she was allowed to write all the songs herself. Muchos kudos to Jack White for making this happen, as well as producing, singing, playing guitar and gathering his friends (future Raconteurs) to play backup… But the most kudos must go Loretta herself for one of the best collections of songs of her career.
See also: Music video
13. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
This is definitely the most difficult-to-spell album on this list – How many Rs and how many Ls? I simply don’t know. Anyway, the story of this album is great. Their guitarist took a break from the band “for undisclosed personal reasons” (thanks Wiki), so they wrote songs that could be played without guitar. How? By using samplers as their primary instrument. So they end up making this bizzare music that is sort of electronic, but not annoying, or sort of like indie pop but all the normal central sounds are gone so that only the cool background noises are left. The vocals float in and out of pop melodies and the music sounds like a robot factory trying to sing. But are they good songs? I don’t know. “Bluish” is a good song.
I think this is an aquired taste that I haven’t fully acquired yet (I’ve never listened to them until researching for this list), but it makes this list for these reasons: a) it’s unique, b) everyone else seems to think it’s really good c) it sounds like the future, unlike most music this retro-obsessed decade – the-album-that-must-not-be-named is another exception but it’s also frightfully boring, d) Animal Collective are apparently something of a Wu Tang Clan of indie, releasing lots of good albums all decade from the band or its various members, e) again unlike most bands, they’re apparently getting better. So that’s cool.
See also: Music video
14. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
and Cat Power – You Are Free (2003)
and Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now (2005)
These are all great albums, but this is a symbolic entry: it represents all of those indie singer-songwriters who sing soft sad songs, with distinctive voices, who take a bit of getting into but are worth the effort, who like using pseudonyms, who do great covers (often covers of people like Bob Dylan or the Velvet Underground), and whom I stubbornly wrote off until relatively recently. Sometimes they play acoustic guitars, sometimes pianos, sometimes banjos, sometimes autoharps, sometimes accordions, sometimes they have strings arrangements. They’re today’s Nick Drakes, Joni Mitchells and Lou Reeds (it’s not hard to guess which is which in the above examples).
And they’re everywhere. There is at least one good male version and one good female version in every country, every city, every suburb. So: here are their representatives: one male, one female, and one in between (I just added Antony in for a laugh, but he’s good too). These aren’t necessarily their best albums: these artists always have some diehard fans who like them in their earlier days when they’re more retro, and some who prefer them later on when they forge their own modern identity a bit more.
Iron and Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” from Garden Statesoundtrack.
Cat Power’s cover of “Sea of Love” from Juno soundtrack, or cover of “I Found a Reason” from V for Vendetta soundtrack.
Antony and the Johnsons’ cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from I’m Not There soundtrack.
You couldn’t hope for more beautiful covers.
15. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People (2002)
Finishing the list as we started it with a Canadian band, this is supposedly the best album from this nineteen-person musical collective. I say supposedly; it’s the only one I’ve heard so far.
I first heard of these guys when someone told me my short-lived band The Kilns sounded like them, back in 2005. Of course, that could mean just about anything, because they’re very stylistically diverse. One of them said “I was scared to see if people were going to embrace the idea of a whole shitload of sounds on one album.” He needn’t’ve worried; I think it holds together really well as an album; taking you on a journey to lots of places but never making you feel like you’ve jumped the tracks.
Apparently all the members are part of other bands too, but the only one I’ve heard of is Feist. I think I need to do some more research.
See also: Live clip
Sorry about all the screaming, but I think there’s something really nice in how the song stays defiantly lovely despite the crowd doing their best to lovingly ruin it.