Once a year, I get into something totally weird and outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s shoegaze, sometimes electronica, but most of them have ended up in this list.
The White Stripes, White Blood Cells: Before Jack White dedicated himself full-time to being weird and the Stripes became a noise band (honestly, you guys, Meg’s getting worse), they were America’s finest crafters of epic rock. And this is their magnum opus. It’s ambitious, and it succeeds. Half of the songs (“Fell In Love With a Girl,” “Hotel Yorba,” i.e. the singles) are fast, jangly, skittery, written for two minutes of breathless hyperactivity. The others rise and fall, with multiple bridges, vamps and breaks. In my head, “The Union Forever“, a brilliant song built entirely of Citizen Kane quotes, is seven minutes long. It must be, be cause there are three distinct movements. In reality, it’s three minutes long. That is baffling. And brilliant!
The Used, Lies for the Liars: I don’t like “dirty” rock. I don’t like any music where it looks like the participants are in need of a bath. And I certainly don’t want to see any of that live. But then, after a probably random turn of events, Lies for the Liars ended up on my desk. There aren’t words to adequately describe the controlled, intense power of this album. It feels like the band is just barely able to control the power in their instruments, but under all that screaming and snarling, there’s brutal, heartfelt lyrics, and some of the catchiest tunes of the decade. You have to give The Used a shot just because they’re fearless. They’ll throw a trumpet break into a song, they’ll randomly bust out a dance track, because what harm is there in trying?
Empires, Howl: I was going to prevaricate and spin some bull about how the changing tide of the music industry demands that I include a self-published album, but we’re friends here. Howl just fucking rules. And it rules double because the band made it themselves and distributed it for free online. In a decade where most new bands are either fifteen years old or have never held a real job, Empires are extremely talented boys who are wage slaves like the rest of us. And because of that, they appreciate the effort that fans go to to support them. But it’s easy to support them because they’re actually good. Howl is loud and fierce, sometimes punishing, sometimes uplifting. It doesn’t take the weird chances that we expect self-published music to take (He’s a crazy outlaw who doesn’t want a record deal? He probably plays the euphonium and sings about Merriwether Lewis!), but it proves definitively that MOR doesn’t have to be bad. Half of this album could be used in car commercials and the uplifting endings of teen movies, and I would love every minute of that. They’re like OneRepublic, only they don’t suck! And it’s free, so you have no excuse for not trying it.
Interpol, Antics: Interpol is an extremely refined band. Their first major release, the excellent Turn On the Bright Lights, sounds rough, but artfully so. It was crafted to sound like it wasn’t crafted at all. It was the Rolling Stones of 2009 posing as the Rolling Stones of 1969. It still sounds phenomenal, their ability with hooks and lyrics and patterns already apparent. But when you saw them live in their sharp suits, you had to know that the grittiness just wasn’t them. And then they put out Antics. Antics is all of that musical silver highly polished. This album gleams. It’s major label music, tight, well-constructed. That makes the craftsmanship stand out. The album has an arc, building and receding, and with lyrics so indelible you could tattoo them on your arm. This was the sound of the moment with the kids of the Lower East Side got 9-5 jobs, bought apartments and switched from cheap Pabst to$10 cocktails. This was the moment when Interpol taught us that you could be classy and still be cool.
We Are Scientists, With Love and Squalor: The 00s were largely about concept albums, genre- and band-defining works that lived or died on the merit of their vision. With Love is the opposite. It’s an album of singles, without a skipper in the bunch.
Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American: Back when I was 20 and unexpectedly back in San Francisco for 8 months, I discovered both indie music and indie rock club Popscene. It was named for a Blur song. I thought that was fantastically clever. I raved about The White Stripes. But I drove to school every day listening to Bleed American. It wasn’t hipster cool like everything else I loved. It was mainstream alt-rock, the stuff that was playing on the radio back in the dull midwestern towns I’d escaped, but it was so good. I felt on the edge of tears every time I heard “Hear You Me”, and one night at Popscene, when I heard the opening of “A Praise Chorus“, a music lover’s anthem to music, I yelled “This is my song!” and danced my heart out. This album hits every emotion the way that American rock sometimes can. There’s a song on there for every mood, and they’re all excellent.
This was the decade when I really started to love the output of the British Isles. On top of my beloved college roommate Kathleen getting me keen on Britpop of the 90s (hey, have you guys heard about this band Blur? They’re awesome), I also started to pay attention to the new output. That was a good call on my part.
Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand: There was no way this album wasn’t going to make the list. I feel like my whole life changed the first time I heard “Matinee.” I’d given up on hearing anything I cared about on the radio right about the time I finished high school. But all of a sudden, on the strength of this CD, I cared about what was going on in music again. It doesn’t hurt that the band was relatable and interesting, making following them as rewarding as listening to their albums. But the sometimes controversial, combined with their insane, infectious enthusiasm, made Franz Ferdinand a well-deserved hit.
Goodbooks, Control: My greatest musical regret of the decade is that I never saw Goodbooks live before their breakup this summer. Goodbooks was amazing, and they distilled all of Britpop into one perfect, intense album. There’s not a single skipper. They manage to channel such amazing, clear feelings and images by simply telling stories. If you ever liked British music, you have to listen to this. You’ll bop your head and hum along and maybe get teary. And then you’ll remember that they were under 20 when they made this and wonder what they’ll do to top themselves in the future.
The Libertines, The Libertines: While The Libertines’ first album, Up the Bracket, is good, it really can’t compare to the musical perfect storm of their songwriting talent and the intense emotions of a band on the verge of homicide. Their brand of fast, jangly, messy rock (speed indie?) made the wistful, personal call and response of Doherty and Barat pack a wallop. And it was still catchy as all hell. Hands down, the best divorce album of the ’00s.
Bloc Party, Silent Alarm: There is absolutely nothing that I can say about this album that hasn’t been said. This album was a massive hit in the UK and abroad. It established Bloc Party as one of the pre-eminent bands of the decade, and with good damn reason. They’ll probably never top it, because the frenzy, the passion, the speed, can’t be beat.
Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit: When I became an indie rock fan, even my rampant love of all things British couldn’t get me into Belle & Sebastian. It was a lot of hype. I wasn’t that kind of sad hipster girl. And then The Life Pursuit came out. I got hooked by their particular brand of storytelling, just little snapshots of life or love songs and all so particularly Glasgow. Yes, it’s twee, but damnit, some days, you just want a cup of tea and and some tweeness.
Coldplay, Parachutes: Man, it is so much fun to deride Coldplay now. Between Chris Martin’s self-righteous superstardom and Coldplay’s uber-radio friendliness, they’re impossible to take seriously as real people anymore, let alone a band that was unknown ten years ago. Remember 2000? When Coldplay burst out with “Yellow”? You’re probably sick of it now, but that song was actually awesome. Katie always makes the point that every Coldplay album is the same, and buying the same album over and over is frustrating. I make the point that a copy of a copy is never as sharp as the original. But Coldplay’s original was excellent enough that even a copy is still pretty good. And I think that original, Parachutes, will always be both their best album and their best moment in time. It made shoegaze (British for sad emo) accessible to the masses. It’s a quiet album that you can turn up loud. Yoou can sing along or dance at a prom in a teen drama. And those songs will get stuck in your head for years.
Cobra Starship, Viva La Cobra: “The Scene” is unbelievably insular. There are things taht are and are not okay. Hardcore is always okay, and until the middle of the decade, dance music wasn’t. Everything had to mean something, and what could dance possibly mean? Then scene God Pete Wentz embraced the undeniably emo lyrics and dance pop anthems of Panic! at the Disco. Once everyone was okay with that electronic dance-pop, Cobra Starship asked, what if we remove the emo lyrics? What if we get out the synthesizers and just dance? Viva La Cobra, an album about the trials and tribulations of being a club kid in NYC, had such catchy melodies and phenomenal dance beats that it moved the band from novelty act to serious concern. And it cemented in my mind that Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump, who produced the disc, is a genius.
Fall Out Boy, Infinity on High: Can a band start out as mainstream posterboys and slowly work their way backwards to indie acceptance? Fall Out Boy is kind of proving that you can. Look no further than the AV Club’s annual lists, where the band has gone from guilty pleasure to bonafide list item in four years. AV Club finally gave a list spot to 2009′s Folie A Deux, but the real stunner was Infinity On High. For the follow-up to their pop breakthrough album, From Under the Cork Tree, they went nuts, piling killer riffs on top of lush orchestration, layering vocals over vocals over vocals and using every bit of software available, but they never sacrificed the personal lyrics or catchy riffs that made them who they are. In one fell swoop, they promised that success would never change them and used all of success’ own tricks to their ends. And the result is addictive.
The Killers, Hot Fuss: I thought long and hard about whether to include this. Was it just indie rock’s version of disposable pop? But at the moment when this album came out, when Brit indie was making itself known, Hot Fuss reminded us that Americans could do it too. The way the Killers fused ’80s keyboard pop and the personal, confessional, relatable lyrics of ’90s emo made this an instant classic.
College jam-rock legends Guster did a mini-tour this fall to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their breakthrough album Lost and Gone Forever. As seeing them in their heyday marked the beginning of this decade of falling in love with rock for me, I had to go. To see what is almost a legacy band play an album straight through has become a staple of the concert-going calendar. Because albums still mean so much. Singles are fun for listening to in the car and playing at parties, but most of us have albums we associate with times in our lives – the album that got me through that breakup, the album I played at my summer job. They form time capsules for both the listener and the artist, capturing a point in life when your roads, and the roads of countless other fans, merged, and left a mark on all of you.
So, I’m going to spend this week sharing what I consider to be the best albums of the decade with you. But first, ground rules:
- There will be nothing from this year. Part of my criteria is longevity, albums that stick with you. I’ll post my Best of ’09 list a little later on.
- This list is about albums, not bands. Some bands that I love dearly (Foo Fighters, They Might Be Giants) won’t make the list because their best work this decade was spread over multiple releases.
- This list is limited by my own experience. I’m not a huge fan of prog, for example, so I never listened to the albums of Coheed and Cambria.
- I’m not counting Best-Ofs or reissues. That would just tempt me to cheat. And I’m untrustworthy.
Got it? Excellent. Now you get to make fun of my choices in comments all week. Won’t that be fun for everyone?