Best of the Oughts
I think I’ve edited this to hell and back again. I’m just gonna push “post”. These are some of my favorite albums of the last decade. The list is by no means comprehensive. I could include more. Scroll down to the bottom for a playlist if you want to assemble your own. (note, I’m hearing that google reader strips out the funky jquery-powered table at the bottom, if you want to see it, you’ll have to look here directly).
Arcade Fire – “Neon Bible” (2007)
Art Rockers from Montréal, The Arcade Fire made a strong debut with their self-titled album in 2002 with a critically-acclaimed follow-up “Funeral” in 2004. In 2007, their stunning concept album “Neon Bible” landed amidst outstanding and well-deserved critical press. A guitar-smashing performance on Saturday Night Live showed them as exuberant and exciting on stage. I lack superlatives. This album will be studied by future generations.
Beck – “Sea Change” (2002)
Beck’s gone through more musical styles than most artists change their underwear. Beck’s 2002 downer, “Sea Change” is a masterpiece of mellowness. If you can find the 5.1 SACD version and have that many speakers, I suggest you pick it up, turn the lights off and take a wheeze off of your favorite medicine. I guess Beck was going through a pretty heavy break-up when he wrote this and it shows. It’s largely a downer, but an impressive one.
Belle & Sebastian – “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant”
The prolific Belle & Sebastian are best-characterized as sardonic, laid-back, pretty music. It seemed like they were releasing an album per year and sometimes more than one at a time for a period. Their music is big, featuring lots of great instrumentation and sounds like it could have been recorded in the ’60s or ’70s. Horns and keyboards, strings and woodwinds. They’re a 7-piece band that often sounds like an orchestra. Yet they still manage to produce delicate pop tunes with occasionally silly, occasionally biting lyrics. And they keep getting better.
Boards of Canada – “Geogaddi”
Highly influential electronic artists Boards of Canada reached a sort of pinnacle with 2002′s “Geogaddi”. Sprawling 23 tracks, the listener is taken through weird interstitials and longer beat-driven, sample-infested tracks. Part ambient, part down-tempo techno, this is a masterpiece of electronic music. Listening to it now, you can hear its influence in music like Autechre and Ulrich Schnauss as well as recognize bits of it from BBC commercials, Top Gear and other sources. This album is probably the 2000′s “Music for Airports”. Psychedelia through synthesizers.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah”
An internet phenomenon, CYHSY went viral sometime around late 2005 with the tune “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”. Hailing from Brooklyn and Philly, the quirky, band evoked early Talking Heads with the lead’s weird vocal stylings and catchy melodies. Their 2007 followup “Some Loud Thunder” failed to resonate the same as their first album, but I remain hopeful for a resurgence.
Cut Copy – “In Ghost Colours”
The ’80s are alive and well in the first decade of the new millennium and Cut Copy are leading the way into the time machine. Evoking bands like New Order, “Hurting” era Tears for Fears, and Japan, “In Ghost Colours” is an entertaining throwback that ends up sounding as if it could have been produced anytime in the last 30 years. Also, it’s really really good.
The Dears – “Gang of Losers”
Maintaining my 30% Canadian Content, The Dears are another Montreal band who’ve been putting out catchy indie tunes since the mid-nineties. The 2000s offered up a a number of great albums starting with 2000′s “End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story”, the excellent “Gang of Losers” landed in the middle in 2006. Their albums are larger-than-life, having an epic scope that seems almost too big for the band to contain. There’s a grandioseness to their pop tunes that make them larger than life. Intricate arrangements and the lead singer’s swaggering vocals make for an entertaining, if emotional listen.
Death Cab for Cutie – “Transatlanticism”
Oh Death Cab. You used to be just a little thing. A quiet moody band with the delicate vocal stylings of Ben Gibbard. I think those days are gone now that you’ve gone and gotten all big and successful. Your albums are heavily produced, slickly-packaged perfect little jewels of pop. But I’ll always have 2003′s “Transatlanticism”. The title-track remains one of my all-time favorite, most-depressing listens with a 7 minute crescendo that peaks in a triumphant chorus. It’s really beautiful.
Editors – “The Back Room”
Were they inspired by Interpol? Were they both influenced heavily by Joy Division and through some quirk of time-and-space simultaneously channeled Ian Curtis nearly 25 years after his death but 4 years apart? Whatever their source, Editors’ “The Back Room” stands on its own as a bleak, driving album of catchy singles that hint at something much darker underneath. Post-punk, post-new-wave, rock, their follow-up “An End Has a Start” drew questions of whether their first album was a fluke. Their third album “In This Light and On This Evening” may have even that opinion as truth. Fluke or not, The Back Room was one of my favorite albums of the oughts earning a respected place in my library with an embarrassingly huge playcount.
Elliott Smith – “Figure 8″
Two thousand and nothing’s “Figure 8″ was considered by some to be the downward trend of the legendary singer-songwriter. Accused of suffering from too much production, Figure 8 nevertheless contained some masterful pieces of music from one of our generation’s most gifted musicians. “From a Basement on a Hill” and “New Moon” are sad farewells with glimpses of brilliance. I miss him a lot.
Sasha – “Involver”
You think I should get back to something fun and danceable? I’m bumming you out? You think this music sucks?? Fine. Go pick this up and put it in your drive. Better yet, go driving around your neighbourhood with this blaring on the stereo with your windows down. You’ll feel cool doing it. Trust me.
The Helio Sequence – “Keep Your Eyes Ahead”
It took 4 years for Portland-based The Helio Sequence to come back online after 2004′s “Love and Distance”. A blend of electronics and guitars, “Can’t Say No” is one of the finest pop confections I’ve ever heard. The rest of the album ain’t bad either.
Interpol – “Turn on the Bright Lights”
The 2000s were good for New York bands. Interpol turned up in 2002 with an astonishingly bleak and lyrically confusing album “Turn on the Bright Lights”. Their epic NYC has a surprising sadness to it bookended by two extremely catchy tunes the mysteriously titled “Obstacle 1″ and the popular “PDA” which made a showing in the game Rock Band. Like Editors, they were at their best with their first album.
The Killers – “Sam’s Town”
Criticized for taking themselves too seriously, Las Vegas’ The Killers began with 2004′s “Hot Fuss”. Another 80s throwback to british New Wave, it begged the question, “who the hell do these guys think they are”? Sam’s Town told you just who they were. Channeling a kind of weird blend of americana and post-new-wave sound, they evoked Duran Duran meets Bruce Springsteen with some extremely likeable pop. One of my fondest memories of my most-recent trip to Las Vegas was blasting this while driving through the Nevada desert in a rented Toyota. And the blackjack.
The Knife – “Silent Shout”
The Knife. They’re Swedish. They’re weird. Silent Shout is one of the creepiest electronic albums of all time. The female/wife/alien member of the band was recently on a UK awards ceremony dressed as something from another world and gurgled into a microphone for nearly a full minute to the astonishment of those in the audience. I believe she was accepting an award for this year’s Fever Ray solo project which possibly the second creepiest electronic album of all time. Dark and minimalist, Silent Shout is music for this decade’s batch of serial killers.
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Hey, it’s time to party down with James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem! A 2 CD set of fun-times and hangovers, I think this collection had more beer spilled on it than any other album of the 2000s. I’m pretty excited that they’re coming out with a new album. Disco punk. Get it.
Mclusky – “Do Dallas”
It’s 2001 and we had to go to Wales for some fun punk. It’s hard to find a song on this album that clocks in at 3 minutes or more. They combine their punk vibrance with clever, often hilarious lyrics. Honestly, if you like Do Dallas, get all their other albums. They’re all excellent.
Modest Mouse – “The Moon and Antarctica” (2000)
This album was a turning point for the band. Previous efforts were less produced, less totally a vision of Isaac Brock’s strange stylings. The Moon and Antarctica is a sonic journey unlike any other. Their sound is unique and though later albums further refine it and turn it into something approaching radio friendliness, this remains their most ambitious album.
The National – “Boxer”
What an album! Previous efforts embodied american indie in a way few other bands could. Boxer transcends that simplistic classification and moves into much bigger territory. A towering album of rock, it has a yearning, mid-west sadness set to pounding drum beats and careful guitar shimmers. One of my favorite records of the past 20 years. The New York Times recently ran an excellent article and featured a streaming version of their unreleased album new album “High Violet”. Even at shitty flash bitrates, the album sounds like another epic.
The Organ – “Grab That Gun”
More Cancon. The Organ were a short-lived post-punk girl band from the west coast of our mighty nation. Evoking The Smiths’ early albums, the band’s title instrument made an interesting backdrop for Katie Sketch’s mournful vocals. I had the good fortune to see them at Zaphod’s in Ottawa before they called it quits and while thoroughly enjoyed their music, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Katie up there on stage who looked as if she’d run off screaming at any instant. Fragile, sad, emotional pop music. By girls. I hope they get back together.
Portishead – “Third”
For awhile there I don’t think anyone expected Portishead to release another album. They’d owned the title of musical vapourware for over a decade. And then it happened. They released “Third”. A challenging, sometimes disjointed album constructed from their trademark self-recorded samples, strings, and who knows what. The album’s undeniable masterpiece is track 4: “The Rip”. It has a fucking banjo in it. And it’s beautiful. Beth Gibbon’s vocals are every bit as good as they used to be. Maybe even a little smokier. It was worth the wait. I don’t know if I can stand another 10 years for the next Portishead album.
The Postal Service – “Give Up”
Ben Gibbard’s side-project with producer Jimmy Tamborello, I often feel like Ben should’ve dropped Death Cab and kept making Postal Service records. His vocals combined with Tamborello’s quirky synth lines make for a surprising combination. The result is something exceptional. Honestly though, you’ve already got this album, so let’s move on.
Queens of the Stoneage – “Lullabies to Paralyze”
The Queens of the Stoneage had few peers in the hallowed halls of rock in the 2000s. Josh Homme’s guitar and vocal talents meshed with his strong songwriting are the driving force behind the band. Lullabies was released in 2005 after the departure of Nick Oliveri and I believe is their strongest effort in the oughts.
Radiohead – “In Rainbows”
After reinventing themselves in 2001 with the surprising Kid-A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have continued to prove their alt-rock mastery with Hail to the Thief and finally “In Rainbows”. The band’s evolution has continued along an upward trajectory culminating in this album. Watching them grow has been a fascinating journey.
The Raveonettes – “Lust, Lust, Lust”
Awesome post-new-wave, post-punk bubble-gum shoegaze pop rock, to throw a few labels around casually. They pick up where The Jesus and Mary Chains’ “Automatic” left off. Evoking elements of Twin Peaks-era Julee Cruise meshed with My Bloody Valentine levels of jangly guitar noise, the end result is something ethereal and moody that somehow manages to be fun.
The Shins – “Chutes Too Narrow” (2003)
Say what you will about them now, the Shins defined indie rock in the early part of the oughts with “Oh, Inverted World” and “Chutes Too Narrow”. Strong songwriting and simple guitar-based melodies define the Shins and their music holds up fairly well. But there’s a darker side to the songs. There is a mean streak in James Mercer that sometimes peeks through the light-sounding music. In “Kissing the Lipless” he sings about a relationship on the rocks that lingers on through sheer inertia. Hard not to think of these songs of bitterness when he was accused later of being involved in some domestic violence. Nevertheless, it makes for some good music. The great remains of a friendship scarred.
Sigur Ros – “Von” (2004)
Featuring one of the creepiest opening 10 minutes of any album ever, Von starts slowly and builds to… what? Wordless singing and haunting music, it sounds like it’s from another world. The gloomy beginnings slowly give way to a more urgent sound, building to a cacaphony of guitars and drums you could mistake for metal if you heard them out of context. One of of the stranger bands to achieve popularity.
Silversun Pickups – “Carnavas” (2006)
I think the band’s name is a play on silversPun pickups, as in guitar pickups. For awhile there, I thought that was their name and only later dropped the P from their name like some kind of mental defective. It’s ok, I say “libary” too. On purpose. Carnavas is a solid bit of sonic calisthenics. It’s an assault on the ears the way early Smashing Pumpkins was. Loud guitars, a somewhat whiny-sounding lead singer, a female bassist, the formula is almost perfect. And it works. Carnavas is a great album.
Snowden – “Anti-Anti”
What is Snowden? This one album from this relatively unknown band has had strong replay value for me. Noisy, strong drumming, strange vocals singing evocative lyrics over humming synthesizers or guitars in a permanent sustained drone – I can’t tell. It’s a strange, post-punk kind of rythmic noisefest and a strong album. I hope to hear more from them.
The Strokes – “Is This It?”
I first thought the Strokes were the product of a fictional A&R company concocting the perfect fake throw-back band. The Strokes came on with lots of rock swagger and an over-driven, precise guitar-based sound that was too perfect to be genuine. Later albums didn’t quite hold up to the same level of perfection as their opening effort making me wonder if it was just a fluke?
Tool – “Lateralus” (2001)
What more needed to be said after 1996′ “Aenima”? Not much, really and if it was said, it was probably going to take you a long time to figure it out. Tool’s 2001 prog-metal opera is a mystifying sonic assault in complex time signatures. The whole album is constructed with a precision and deftness you’d think required many computers to put together. And they did this live. James Maynard Keenan’s strange lyrics really make me wonder if he does have access to another dimension and maybe this music is the key.
TV On The Radio – “Return to Cookie Mountain” (2006)
Continuing the parade of strange rock outfits, Brooklyn New York’s (did I say this was a great decade for New York music?) TV On The Radio’s “Return to Cookie Mountain” is nothing short of brilliant. Featuring horns amongst the synthesizers, they have a large sound. The horns and rhythms often suggest improvisational jazz as much as art rock, there is a punk element as well with strong energy throughout. The lyrics are somewhat inscrutable, but evoke some strong imagery. Uncategorizable. Hard to define. Listen.
Wilco – “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002)
There’s almost too much story that goes along with Wilco’s “YHF”. The album was too strange for any record company to release it. It tore the band apart. Jeff Tweedy was a visionary dictator unwilling to compromise (aka asshole). There’s been a movie made about it. And so on. I’m not sure they created it, but Wilco certainly defines “alt country” and this album contains some of the prettiest, most heart-felt songs of the decade. Not perfect, there are weak parts on this record that possibly make the high points sound all the sweeter.
Wintersleep – “Welcome to the Night Sky” (2007)
Do I have room for another Canadian album? I hope so, because I’d hate to knock one of those other albums out of the list. Wintersleep’s “Welcome to the Night Sky” is a strongly-crafted alt-pop album that propelled the band to international recognition. Coming back from a tour in Europe with such contemporaries as The Handsome Furs and the Stills, their new album is due out very soon (May 18th, 2010) and I can only hope it lives up to this one. If it doesn’t I’ll still have Welcome to the Night Sky.
Yo La Tengo “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” (2000)
New Jersey’s quintessential alternative indie(?) band have been making their special brand of pop tunes for going on 2 decades. 2000′s “And then nothing” is still one of their best with light numbers like “Cherry Chapstick” and one of the most depressing album openers of all time in “Everyday”. They set you up for a good cry then make you smile. Great stuff. Moody, melancholy and well-crafted. They blend drum machines and guitars and soothing vocals effortlessly.