Jordan’s Top Ten Albums of the Decade
The 2000s encompass a particularly formative period of my life. After emerging from my Y2K-proof bunker, I completed my last semester of high school, moved from Miami to Maine to attend college, graduated, moved to Boston, and did too much theater and not enough job, all while listening to an incredible decade-long soundtrack. The top ten albums from that soundtrack are listed below in order of bestness, autobiographically.
10. Dear Science by TV on the Radio
Released September 22, 2008 on Interscope
This album holds the dubious position of being most likely to not really have earned its spot on the list. Its inclusion is me accounting for some time adjustment as all of the other albums on this list are from 2005 or earlier. This spot could easily be owned by The Arcade Fire’s Funeral but I currently feel like TV on the Radio might have more staying power.
Dear Science stands out amongst TVOTR’s discography as their most consistent effort, relying less on musical gimmicks and more on solid songwriting still filtered through their off-kilter sensibility. Every time I listen to it I want to either be in their band or form one like them. I saw them live at Boston’s newly opened House of Blues and my girlfriend and her brother had to stop me from climbing on stage during the encore. Alright, that’s not true, but only because I was afraid that the jumper-clad girls from the opening band (Dirty Projectors) would trample me with their hipster galloping.
Released May 18, 2004 on Vice
The top ten album that most closely adheres to the definition of a “concept” album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free is the best story-driven colloquial English rap of the decade (I’m not very well-versed in the world of rap, so I had to be really specific in case I’m missing something). Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, uses deceptively simple beats and surprisingly beautiful hooks (along with a lot of words that only rhyme in a Cockney accent) to tell the story of getting money, losing money, getting girls, and losing girls. In the end, it’s true: **SPOILER ALERT** a grand don’t come for free.
Released October 28, 2002 on Fat Cat Records
“You xylophone the fight. You saw the light. The light. You suffer. Oh. You saw the light.”
This line of nonsense is what you will hear repeated throughout The Brackets Album, as it is known to the members of Sigur Rós. A concept album quite different from #9, this one involves neither a story nor even recognizable lyrics. The album is sung entirely in Vonlenska (aka Hopelandic), a made-up language composed mostly of vowel movements (the ridiculous English version I wrote above is not at all what Jónsi sings). Its untitled tracks are heavy on synthesizers and long chord progressions, flowing more like movements in symphonic music than the verses and choruses of rock.
During spring break of my Junior year in college, my friend Steve had the connect and got us tickets to see Sigur Rós live at Radio City Music Hall. At one point in the middle of a song, the entire band just paused. There was silence. Jónsi stood there with his violin bow poised over his guitar and looked up at the audience. Nobody made a sound. It’s difficult to describe how magical it felt to be sitting in absolute silence with thousands of other people in this huge hall. I could hear the rhythms of my own body. Then, “WOOOOO!” Some drunk guy in the back ruined the moment and the band ripped back into the song, Jonsi’s guitar almost unbearably loud.
When I saw them 2 years later at the Boston Opera House, the same thing happened again, but this time nobody made a sound and the beautiful moment of silence went on for over a minute. The audience must have known better.
7. Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams
Released September 5, 2000 on Bloodshot Records
Arguably another concept album, but unlike the previous two, rather than being based on a plot or a musical idea, this one is written on a theme, perhaps the most prevalent theme in art: heartbreak. Written after his breakup with a long-time girlfriend, Adams smeared his injured heart all over this long, rambling set of the best alt-country songs ever written. While Beck’s Sea Change, another heartbreak favorite, might be a more cohesive album, Heartbreaker delights its listener song after song with brilliantly rendered country tropes, sad ditties, and stories of weary travelers who know how to turn a phrase.
More than any other, this album made me want to be an alt-country singer. And for a very short time I became a busker in the T stations of Boston.
Years later, after breaking up with a girl I played these songs on guitar in my room. Later that night, my roommate asked if I had been playing them out of heartbreak over my ended relationship. She didn’t know that I was playing them for her.
Released October 4, 2005 on Arts & Crafts
When this album was released I thought it was the epitome of cool (and I still do, a 2005 sort of cool). Listening to this album makes me feel like I am at a very exclusive yet friendly party in Canada. This self-titled effort was in close competition with Kevin Drew’s Spirit If… for the slot on this list that would inevitably go to a Broken Social Scene album, but this one wins the day with its persistent tempo that, track after track, makes you swivel your hips Canadian-style until it reaches a cathartic, sloppy climax awash in trumpets and bestiality. I still want to know, “Why are you always fucking goats?”
Released August 13, 2002 on Saddle Creek
Before Conor Oberst was Conor Oberst, he was Bright Eyes (with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott). After spending about 2 years only knowing him as the mopey guy who warbled “I’m gonna get me some whiskey and get real fucking drunk” out of my roommate Mike’s room, I decided to take a chance on him.
I had heard many things about how I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was one of the best albums of the year. I bought it, listened to it, loved it, and for an entire year after that I listened to nothing but Bright Eyes. (Coincidentally, that year was completely lacking in romance for me. If I had to attach a cause and effect relationship to this phenomenon, it would probably be, “I listen to Bright Eyes, therefore girls don’t like me,” rather than the other way around.) I went through the entire Bright Eyes discography in reverse chronological order. Each successive album, although I was receding further and further into his back catalogue, seemed to fit my mood at the time ever more closely.
I could easily have chosen another Bright Eyes album to make the list but Lifted has the best lyrics and is just the right amount of angry. Conor Oberst is only a year or two older than me and I think if I had listened to this album when it was released in 2002, it would only have hit me harder.
Released October 2, 2000 on Parlophone
While the Radiohead album that appears later on this list merely assured me that they still had it, this one completely blew my mind. I was in my freshman year of college and I went to Bullmoose Records with my roommate James to buy it on the day it was released. I remember first seriously listening to it on a dark, quiet van ride to a track meet. I pressed play and everything felt in its right place.
Initial complaints about the album had been that it lacked a human aspect, but I dismissed those gripes out of hand as being from people who wanted a remake of OK Computer. I loved that album, but I did not need a remake. I needed a favorite modern band and in order for Radiohead to be them, I needed some more cement.
Turns out, Kid A was not just another brick in the wall, though. It was a wall unto itself: a conceptual album in which the band deliberately tried to eliminate all familiarities with rock music.
While I consider Radiohead’s The Bends to be the best guitar-based alt-rock album ever, I likewise think that Kid A may be the most successful incorporation of electronic elements into a mainstream album, another argument in Radiohead’s complicated thesis about the interaction between humans and machines.
3. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens
Released July 5, 2005 on Asthmatic Kitty
This album contains the best modern song written in 5/4 time, the best serial killer sympathizer song, the best backing band name pun, and the best song about a Polish Revolutionary War hero that isn’t actually about him at all. It is with these thoughts in mind that I write the following letter:
Please do not let the 50 states project be a joke. Even if you don’t ever finish it, I won’t mind, I won’t mind. It’s the best thing you’ve done, in my mind, in my mind.
Illinois never fails to disarm me, removing bits of the emotional armor I put up against the world. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” gets me every time.
Released June 4, 2001 on Parlophone
When this album was released in 2001 it caught me completely off-guard. Radiohead had just released Kid A less than a year before so I was not prepared for a new album for another 3 years or so. I remember hearing one night that a new Radiohead video would be premiering on MTV. No videos had been released for Kid A and considering that I had always been a fan of Radiohead’s videos, I was rabid for a new one. I dashed downstairs in the dorm to the common room and turned it on just in time to see the video for “Pyramid Song.” I found it unfathomably sad and beautiful. Upon listening to the rest of the album, I felt that Radiohead had recorded the human response to Kid A’s machine.
1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
Released April 23, 2002 on Nonesuch Records
Somewhat removed from the emotions of Jeff Tweedy’s heart (Summerteeth) and the emotions of his head (A Ghost is Born), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a masterpiece of songwriting saved from Wilco’s wall-of-sound tendencies by (I assume) producer Jim O’Rourke. Wilco albums before and after YHF suffer from a glut of instrumentation, yet this one operates like a palimpsest: some layers are scrubbed clean of all but the bones while other parts explode with rich strings, strange percussion, and stratospheric distortion. Songs are given space and silence, described as “holes” by Tweedy himself. Surrounding and supporting those holes is musical magic provided by the late Jay Bennett in his most successful sound experimentation; John Stirratt’s inventive bass lines, string arrangements, and harmonies; Leroy Bach doing a million awesome things that will never be revealed; and Glenn Kotche’s lyrical and indescribably wonderful drumming. A new level of absurd stream-of-consciousness combined with Tweedy’s trademark word-play make the lyrics on this album a treat to decipher.
In addition to the musical merits of this album, the story behind its release, as documented in the film i am trying to break your heart and elsewhere, is one of the greatest yarns in rock and roll history: Big bully label drops fan favorite band but luckily gives them the rights to their album for free, band happily (sort of) goes free agent and posts album on the internets, then band sells album back to big bully label’s artist friendly subsidiary label. It’s like an indie version of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi!”
I remember playing this album on my radio show in college shortly before its release. My show was called “New Noise” after the Refused song and I only played newly released music. I had a secret policy that I would play the first song of any new album and if it was good enough I would play the rest of the album throughout subsequent shows. I figured if a band couldn’t make the first song of their album interesting, they weren’t worth pursuing further (this policy was of course proven wrong a million times). The problem when it came time to play Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which had already been hyped for nearly a year, was that the first track was 7:00 long, over one tenth of the length of my show. I was not about to waste that much time on an untried song, so I played track two first, which rang in at a reasonable 3:30.
While I liked “Kamera,” it definitely did not live up to the hype surrounding the album, at least not as a standalone song. I decided to give the first track a try the next week and I was so glad I did because it was everything wonderful I had heard about the album condensed into a single song. When the buzzer-like feedback finished screeching at the end of the song, I gushed on the air, “Now I understand.”
I bought the album the next day. On the first track, Tweedy told me he was trying to break my heart and by the end of the album if “Poor Places” didn’t do the deed, “Reservations” certainly did.
The Next Ten; or, Honorable Mentions:
11. The Arcade Fire – Funeral
12. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
13. Broken Social Scene presents Kevin Drew – Spirit If…
14. The Strokes – Is This It
15. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
16. Feist – Let It Die
17. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
18. Sigur Rós – Takk…
19. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
20. My Morning Jacket – Z