I’m not going to numerically order these albums, I’ll leave that to others. Each of these albums is too close to my heart, too much tied to the last ten years of my life. I have also resisted using the term “best” because some people say that Green Day or Coldplay made the “best” album of the decade and I don’t want to be confused with those people. That’s icky. I will, however, spend some time describing my love for the twelve albums (ten is far too limited for a decade) that I found to be great and wonderful and magical during the past decade.
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
By the time Adams gets done arguing with David Rawlings and blazing through “To Be Young” and then gradually slowing into “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, I might be forsaking whatever responsibilities I might have in favor of listening to his tender expressions of love and life. Each track is wonderfully full, lyrically and musically. It’s gentle like your grandmother and brutal like your 8th grade P.E. teacher. I first heard this album in college and it was the backdrop to much of the YouMeAndDerekLee roadtrip with Jordan. We sang through country roads like Ryan would have wanted us to.
Over the Rhine – Ohio
There are few bands in the world that mean as much to me as Over the Rhine. Sometimes they help me breathe, sometimes they help me walk my dogs. My family has this slight obsession with Over the Rhine. As soon as I introduced my mother and wife to Over the Rhine it bordered on clinical. I’ve seen them play four times in four cities, two states and four different venues. The last time was an intimate show I set-up for Fuller and it felt like I was giving 250 of my peers and friends and family a gift worth unwrapping. Such class, such brilliance, such heartache. I love Good Dog, Bad Dog, but that was done in 1996, and I love Drunkard’s Prayer, but it is Ohio that reminds me of discovering one of my favorite bands of all time. The opening piano reminds me of moving into my first apartment with Nikki, of pouring glasses of wine for comfort and of exchanging looks only exchanged during the first year of marriage. The double-disc is a wonderfully visual tribute to their home state and I understand their deeply held feelings for their home, they place that they know and the place that knows them. Sign up for their email list and Linford will deliver an email full of beautifully crafted wordplay every so often.
M.I.A. – Arular
I know Kala is all the rage and it is an excellent album, but Arular was my first introduction to the Sri Lankan visual-artist-fashionista-political-activist turned international pop star. One of the things I most love about M.I.A. is her vision of the world that leaks into her music. Overwhelmingly optimistic, while incredibly grounded in reality, her songs inspire dancing and bright colors and smiles. She is making music for the technological and global, the generation that is immersed in the internets and cares about the fate of their peers around the world. Her performance at the Grammy’s cemented my respect. Her song “Paper Planes” has been remixed more times than can be counted, but it was TI’s version “Swagga Like Us” that took center-stage. A sort of rap supergroup performed (TI, Kanye, Jay-Z, lil’ Wayne), but it was M.I.A.’s song from the very beginning. Despite the bravado, energy and passion the hip hop gods showed, it was the 9-month pregnant M.I.A. that captivated the audience. Her sexuality and her gender and her music are paving the way for a new type of female pop star and post-feminists everywhere have a musical model.
Cold War Kids – Robbers and Cowards
I fully expect the Cold War Kids to continue to make killer soul-rock well into the next decade. I could see them making a record that is as good as Robbers and Cowards, but I have hard time seeing anyone make a record that is much better. Robbers and Cowards is a playfully serious romp through folk tales of depth and breadth. Themes and lyrical delivery vary, but the passion and restrained exuberance does not. Each and every track is good and can stand alone, but the record builds and sways with meaning and talent. The soul-bluesy-rock movement is far from over, but when lead singer Nathan Willett croons about “old Saint John” over the stripped down and creative rhythm section it hits its stride. I can’t say enough about this album. Certain songs have elicited sing-alongs at parties, shows and long drives. I played this album on drives to Shafter and Fresno, during bike rides around LA, and at every house party I’ve ever hosted. I distinctly remember playing the EP that was released before the actual album loudly in an empty gym at Hartland summer camp. My closest friends and I danced our hearts out and sung our lungs out to an empty gym while 300 children prepared for recreation. It is one of my favorite memories.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
I have this weird thing with placing too recent an album on a list like this, but Bon Iver made a near-perfect album. Ever since I got my hands on this folksy, woodsy, beardy album I’ve been listening to new sounds and new tracks and new nonsensical lyrics. A very physical and yet ethereal album, full of longing and hope and loss. Justin Vernon has proven he is no one-hit-wonder with his follow up EP, Blood Bank, and his work with Volcano Choir. But, this album plays with my heart each and every listen. Several tracks from the album are on my “most played” iTunes list and it was the album I listened to the most in 2008. I’m pretty sure it helped most of my friends through Finals during the Winter and Spring quarter down at Fuller. It’s good. It’s freaking good. It can sit with you during a quiet night at home or scream with you in the car. It recalls specific memories of cold and foggy Pasadena mornings, visiting coffee shops, camping on the beach, and some of my best friends in the world. This album will forever be associated with friends that mean the world to me and my time at Fuller, which is why when Justin’s perfectly epic falsetto sings “seminary soul” on Creature Fear I gasp with the beauty of the moment. In a year when beards and gentle voices and flannel ruled (2008 – Horse Feathers, Blind Pilot, Fleet Foxes), Bon Iver transcended the fad and made an album that has made me rethink and re-imagine my last decade.
Wilco – Yankee Foxtrot Hotel
Wilco could do no wrong on this album. The layered guitars, the simple lyrics, the authentic rabbit holes followed to great effect… it just works. If I were forced to label some of the “best” albums of the decade this would be up there. Probably top three. I loved listening to it on windy mountain roads, Tweedy breaking my heart like he was trying to. Or, in my headphones on a walk in the city, imagining the American flags I walk by turning to ashes. Or, gently humming Jesus, etc. while studying theology (specifically, reading about Christology). The dissonance and aural assault is as pleasing as it comes. This is an album that will continue to yield influence.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
I know, I know… everyone’s nod to Radiohead this decade is Kid A, the breakthrough electronic album that changed music forever. I get it, the album is great. But, In Rainbows was more important for me this decade. It came when I was starting to heavily read Derrida, Lacan and Zizek. My philosophical journey was rapidly accelerating into (and beyond) the postmodern, my theological journey was increasingly unraveling and materializing in less and less traditional ways. I listened to the dissonance and digital influence and assumed it was the record for the times. Consumerism, technology, digital relationships, apocalyptic justification, this album had it all. As I formulated thoughts on consumer society and the emerging digital life, Thom Yorke influenced me as much as McLuhan or Taylor or Zizek. Radiohead continues to push creative envelopes, make meaningful music and influence the world around them in the process.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
Another recent album, this album is my favorite album of 2009 (a year full of good music). The avant-leaning Brooklyn boys got it together for this accessible album full of danceable jams. I really liked Feels, but MPP is one of those albums that sticks with me. I will always remember finding out Nikki was carrying a baby girl and turning up “My Girls” and singing every blessed word on the way home. Such a conflicted and timely song, built on weaving echoes, grown-up dreams, and synth-fueled energy, the song gets me every time. Another fantastic album that confronts the modern world with questions like, “am I really all the things that are outside of me?” and “do you want to go stroll down the financial street?” this album bleeds the colors of the times. Instant classic. The release at 2:31 of “In the Flowers” borders on orgasmic and could bring the dead back to life. This record should be listened to on the first sunny day when the world makes so much sense.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
Not the best hip hop album of the decade, but my favorite. This is Eminem at his best: fluidly cynical, scathingly self-loathing, and cockily heartfelt. Such an honest expose on the life of an angry and confused individual fighting celebrity, this album reached new heights lyrically. Eminem’s beats have never been breathtaking, but the jungle gym he creates and then plays all over with his mouth can stop traffic. This album came out when teenage angst was ebbing and flowing in my house. It helped to vocalize the anger, confusion and unease the turn of the century produced. Eminem’s fire is palatable in each song, drowning his hurt with rhymes and vocal turns that are some of the best the hip hop world has seen. His ocean of lyrical ability knows no low-tide (on this album…). Accused of senseless violence and gratuitous tendencies, sure, but Eminem also nuances his approach enough to carefully consider what he says. The way he says things, though, is the reason to listen to the album again and again.
Sigur Ros – ( )
The first Sigur Ros album I ever heard was Agaetis Byrjun. I was hooked. It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard. But, alas, Agaetis Byrjun was made in 1999, so their follow-up album ( ) goes on the list. In the same way, that Ohio represented Over the Rhine on this list, ( ) stands as a nod to the greatness that is Sigur Ros. This album is full of the made-up language Hoplandic that the band is known for; don’t understand the lyrics? You don’t need to! The experience that Sigur Ros creates with their breathtaking layers of noise and ambient touches can break any toughened heart. In fact, in the face of the irony of the early parts of this decade, Sigur Ros made unapologetically sincere music, creating places to feel and not laugh, to long and not want. This unrelenting focus on a vision epic in scope, yet intimate in presentation, is what makes them one of the most compelling bands of our generation. The videos that accompany “Hoppipolla”, “Glosoli” and “Svefn-G-Englar” and other standout tracks from the Sigur Ros catalogue are some of my favorite music videos ever made. Sweeping, feeling, playful, meaningful, the music of Sigur Ros must be experienced and known.
The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Another album that I would place on my “best of” list if I were forced to, Funeral encourages me to wax eloquent. This album is big: thematically, instrumentally. The frantic and exquisite live-show The Arcade Fire puts on only cements their importance. This family band turns death and loss into noisy ballads of beauty and simple grace; they turn Canadian community (the band lives together in an old church) into music that moodily swings from deperate and anxious lows to raucous and exultant highs. Very few first full-length albums sound as unified, epic yet nuanced as Funeral; it is a triumph of all of the good things in music. When I first heard “Wake Up” (long before the days of Where the Wild Things Are), I was struck by the simple and honest paradox. Incredibly uplifting and optimistic melody, a winning feeling is in the air on this track, is paired with bracingly skeptical lyrics. The Arcade Fire shows that the distinction between negative and positive is often false; that, all too often, the open, willing and trusting will take the form of the closed, hurt and scared. The discovery that, “we’re just a million little gods causing rain storms, turnin’ every good thing to rust… I guess we’ll just have to adjust” becomes a freeing moment, it is huge that we are so small. The human experience, well expressed.
Sufjan Stevens – Come On and Feel the Illinois
This album has played such a prominent role in my life that I’m not sure where to start. I was happily excited about the release of a new Sufjan album (Michigan is nice, Seven Swans changed my life), but assumed it couldn’t exceed expectations. His songwriting was obviously changing as he traded the stripped-down gospel folk of Seven Swans for the orchestration of Michigan. His transformation continued as he releases Illinoise and all of its layers, multi-instrument tracks and Sufjanian touches (trademark banjo and swelling horns). This album begs for superlatives. 22 songs brimming with creative spirit (emphasis on both creative and spirit) and a follow-up album (The Avalanche) with 21 unreleased songs and differing versions of the hit “Chicago.” Sufjan deftly moves from an intimate exposé of a mass murder, to a hugely ornate road trip ballad, to the folk tale of a childhood friend with cancer. His mad-genius lyrics are both poetry and prose in the best way possible. Narrative-based stories of America, or more specifically Illinois, the songs delicately expose the beauty and depravity of everyday life, the strengths of the Americana we know exists somewhere. I have listened to this album for inspiration, for encouragement, for reminders, for fun, for tears, for faith. This album deeply moves me like few can, this is an album so accessible, yet so diligent in providing an artistic vision uncompromised by the commercial success.