Before I get to the top 10, it's important that I list the many talented artists who didn't make the list, despite having released fantastic studio albums in the 2000s. There are so many, I'm sure I forgot some:
Cut Copy, Justin Timberlake, Portishead, The Field, The Wrens, Gas, Grizzly Bear, Liars, Dan Deacon, The Mountain Goats, Dinosaur Jr., Junior Boys, Bill Callahan, Real Estate, Fever Ray (seriously?? I suck), Bat For Lashes, The xx, Jim O'Rourke, Okkervil River, The Pernice Brothers, Scritti Politti, King Khan & The Shrines, Papa M, Hot Chip, Bjork, Loretta Lynn, Camera Obscura, Man Man, Broken Social Scene
And now here we go:
10. Tom Waits - Alice
You'd be hard-pressed to find a musical artist as consistent throughout his career as Tom Waits. Even the best of the aging rockers have had some pretty strong dips in their careers. Neil Young is too prolific to be consistently brilliant and, well, Bob Dylan had the 80s (though some of his albums from that era are largely underrated). Waits, however, has never had a dip. In fact, he's never released a bad album, though some are certainly better than others. His debut LP, 1973's Closing Time, kicked off a career that has seen several masterpieces and the development of the gruffest, growliest voice around.
Alice and Blood Money were released on the same day in 2002. Both were filled with material previously written for macabre collaborative musicals. Alice has more ties to the Lewis Carroll source material than most concept albums (and more than several Alice In Wonderland adaptations), and captures the mood of that grim tale more than most films on the subject ever have. Several of Waits' most memorable songs from his post-80s career are here -- it's also the perfect assortment of grim reapers and grand weepers. The album ends with "Barcarolle" and "Fawn," the latter of which was covered by Scarlet Johansson on her 2008 tribute to Waits, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Alice is solemn and ironic, with enough of Waits' madness and humor to make it almost uplifting. While "Alice" is the descent, "Fawn" is the reemergence. Waits, however, didn't have to reemerge. He's always been there.
9. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
I heard The White Stripes for the first time in a friend's basement apartment by UCLA. It was their self-titled debut, and I listened to the dozen-and-a-half quick burst blues-rock songs in near silence. I loved it but wasn't sure if it was as disposable as similar artists in the new rock revival (The Hives, The Vines and, face it, The Strokes). A week later, though, Jack and Meg's third album was released and it was all over.
White Blood Cells was released at the perfect moment, capturing the interest of the Gen-Yers who were finally tiring of the nu-metal garbage. It was also a point where you could appreciate The White Stripes for the music, when Jack White was a musician and not a persona. That being said, there was immediate intrigue: are they really brother and sister? Is it really just the two of them? The album sounds too full to be just two people. There were obviously several talented people behind the scenes, but White Blood Cells is the work of a rock auteur, a musician who took control of his songs and put his craft out there for all to behold. And if you didn't see that, you at least saw the Michel Gondry-directed music video for "Fell In Love With A Girl," which is under two minutes -- and it was the last time you ever heard about Staind.
8. Joanna Newsom - Ys
There's only one debut album in the top ten, though for the other artists on the list, it's safe to start with the albums listed -- except for Ys. If you want to get into Joanna Newsom, I'd buy The Milk-Eyed Mender. Give it a few listens. Once you've fallen in love with her voice (that many find off-putting) and begin to discover the subtleties and beauty of her songwriting (which many find jumbled and unstructured), then you're ready for Ys. Its five tracks span over 55 minutes, and the majority of the album contains full orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks.
These are expansive, ambitious songs, all autobiographical, even the one about an engaged monkey and bear attempting to escape from a farm. The lyrics, by themselves, could be read on the radio by Garrison Keillor, but Newsom finds a way to patch these stories together in 10-minute songs, each with several phases, choruses, emotional peaks and valleys. "Emily" is perhaps her best song, named after her astrophysicist sister, and about the differences in personalities and how those personalities learn from each other. It's the remarkable work of a brilliant songwriter still in her twenties -- and with this year's (arguably even better) Have One On Me winning her larger legions of fans, one wonders what effect fame and notoriety will have on her subtle, romantic and pastoral songs.
7. Animal Collective - Sung Tongs
2004 was the watershed moment. At the time, as I've mentioned before, "indie" was caught between the blues and slowcore rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the more frantic dance pop of The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Animal Collective was everything from this pool and with a little bit of tribal madness to boot. Sung Tongs was AC's foray out of the jungle and into the city, a voyage home for a group that seemed more at home in a hut than a studio. The album lets you know from minute one that you're in for a more accessible treat, and boy does it ever kick off. "Leaf House" and "Who Could Win A Rabbit" are the greatest 1-2 punch since Gretzky and Messier. It's a sonic statement of purpose.
This album is more Avey Tare than Panda Bear, though Noah Lennox's 60s pop sensibilities are still heard in standout track "Winter's Love" and "Visiting Friends." This is the whoops and whelps album, the songs that introduced me and many of my contemporaries to Animal Collective, and the progression of the promise of Kid A -- a record that would amaze with its technical prowess but still perform like you're watching it live, preferably outdoors.
6. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco was always about the pop music, but somehow Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a buzzed about will-it-won't-it album. Its initial release was held back (originally scheduled for September 11, 2001) due to label issues and divisions in the band. It was rumored to be more cerebral and experimental than its predecessor, the wonderful Summerteeth (up there on my 90s list if I had one).
When YHF was finally released in April 2002, there was a danger that the story would overshadow the music. Fortunately, that didn't happen. It's just too good. YHF is experimental, condensing the nonstop barrage of pop hooks found on Summerteeth into 11 tracks, some with long intros or outros, some sonic droning and more than one hidden melodies. The standout songs ("Jesus, Etc.," "Poor Places," "Kamera") speak for themselves, but every track is perfectly placed, complementing the song before and after. Despite its strange thematic similarities to 9/11, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is thankfully not rooted in its time. Eight years on, it's already timeless.
5. Knife In The Water - Red River
Clearly the most overlooked band of the decade, Knife In The Water formed in Texas in the late 1990s. Co-founder Aaron Blount's serene, open-air voice transcends the simplicity of the songs on Red River, their second album. Many of these are love songs, or start out that way. They can quickly turn dark, vengeful and macabre. Consider the chorus of opener "Watch Your Back": We are so in love / that our hearts just won't collapse / But if you turn on me /You'd better watch your back
And it gets even harsher. "Rene" is about a woman waiting to kill her abusive lover. "Youngblood In The River" is a police procedural -- they find a decapitated body, identified only by his teeth. It turns out he was a transvestite prostitute. How will his mother be able to comprehend "broken neck and a blowjob"? But, these abrasive lyrics are accompanied by a subtle pedal steel and Blount's soft country singing. It's sometimes difficult to hear the violence in these songs.
Red River is an album for driving in the desert late at night -- it would make a great soundtrack to McCarthy's Blood Meridien. It's a forgotten masterpiece, and one that fans hope will receive greater critical acclaim in the future.
You can listen to some songs by Knife In The Water on their MySpace page. There aren't any songs from Red River on here, but you can order the rerelease (with two bonus tracks) through Amazon.com.
4. Bob Dylan - Love And Theft
Every Bob Dylan show since 2003 has opened with the following announcement:
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.
This is the extent to which Dylan's image is muddled. The announcement was lifted from an article in The Buffalo News in 2002. He loved it. He stole it. And that's what he does on 2001's Love And Theft, Dylan's greatest album since Blood On The Tracks (dare I say, even better than 1997's phenomenal Time Out Of Mind). It's an ode to the great lyrics of yore and the progenitors of his beloved blues. It jams in a way that pleases the adult-contempo crowds I see at his shows, to the hipster contingent that can't get enough of his craggy drawl (Tom Waits, be warned). "Summer Days" and "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" are straight blues rockers, while "Mississippi" and "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" are beautifully written love songs for the past. Dylan so adroitly maneuvers classic lyrics into the stories of his songs that there's almost no reason to document all of their origins (though plenty have tried. Google it).
Though continuing his line of fantastic work, Love And Theft will likely be the hallmark of Dylan's late period, an ambitious, fluid, fun record that would not have received quite so many accolades in 1967. I guess the media learned to start trusting him.
3. Arcade Fire - Funeral
The band that Pitchfork built -- but it didn't hurt that the album was pretty damn good as well. The power of the new indie pop was revealed on Arcade Fire's brilliant debut, an album about death laced with melodic hope. Win Butler's voice makes him sound on the verge of tears -- his nostalgia for childhood, even a childhood in the suburbs, undeniable.
He sings on "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)":
and our parents' bedrooms
and the bedrooms of our friends
Then we think of our parents
well whatever happened to them?
Your youth is a part of you, despite your relationships with your parents, your friends, or even your parents' bedrooms. Funeral has levels, but its intensity remains throughout, in the sing-songy "Crown of Love" and "Wake Up," to the emotional penultimate track, "Rebellion (Lies)." When you listen to Funeral, you feel Butler's energy, his yearning, especially when you close your eyes.
2. Animal Collective - Feels
Feels was the realization of Animal Collective's promise. Nine flawless songs of frenzied forest African-bop, Beach Boys-esque sunshine pop, squalls and squeals, and some of the best melodies this side of "Be My Baby." Feels has some of Avey Tare and Panda Bear's greatest songs. "The Purple Bottle" has an extended denouement that will inspire foot-stomping among all who hear it. "Banshee Beat," their greatest song, stands as the album's centerpiece, and should be listened to with headphones on. You will be bombarded with the subtle, introductory three-minutes, and then filled with the euphoria of "swimming poooooooollllll!!"
Each new Animal Collective album that's released immediately becomes "their most accessible album," but Feels still stands as a crowdpleaser to trump all others, though its importance has since been trumped by Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though, as I said previously, AC's best work has yet to come, very few artists have as many triumphs as Feels.
1. Radiohead - Kid A
Duh. Kid A has become such a foregone conclusion, that lists like this are very anti-climactic. When people ask me why Kid A is the greatest album of the decade, just like when people ask me why Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, there is much I could say about the style, the influence, the technical achievement, but it's much easier to say, "It just is."
And it's true. It's an album that works for so many moods -- you can lay on your bed at dusk, drive on PCH, play it as a precursor to making out (I assume), even on your headphones while you write your screenplay at Starbucks, and it works. It's an album about paranoia, isolation, the traps of fame and the traps of obscurity. Whatever you do and whoever you are, Kid A somehow describes you and can speak to you, though it certainly doesn't speak to everyone.
In an era that saw the destruction of the "album" in favor of the downloadable mp3 (a transition Radiohead were acutely aware of during the release of In Rainbows), Kid A is a work of art in its composition, not equatable to the sum of its parts. It should be listened to in its entirety, and thankfully, despite the downloadable nature of modern music, many still do. Who knows how the rest of this list will become jumbled over the years. Kid A will undoubtedly stay at the very top. It just will.