I’m not one of those who have a natural aversion to lists. I like to read them, and to rank stuff for myself. But when they go public, I invariably start to think about what’s wrong with them. Therefore: Mine does not have nearly enough women. It’s too Anglo-American. It’s biased towards the latter half of the decade (I think). Jazz, electronica, soul, etc. etc. etc is underrepresented. I apologize. Give me another ten years to improve. Now, let’s unveil my fifteen favorites of the 2000s, and a selection of other good releases to top it all off.
1. Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker/Gold (2000, 2001)
I’m not one hundred percent sure that Ryan Adams would have headlined this list if I hadn’t decided to lump Heartbreaker and Gold together, even though they’re both among the decade’s ten finest, for sure. Just like it will become clear when Mike Figgis’ Angels in America (which is more like a made-for-TV miniseries) finishes in the high first tier on the upcoming Movies of the Decade list, sometimes you have to bend your rules simply to make a point. Here, the point is this: By volume of greatness, Ryan Adams was the best recording artist of the oo’s. And if so, why bother choosing? I may listen more often to the pop/rock wonders of Gold, but there has not been taped a sadder song than this duet with country queen Emmylou Harris, Oh My Sweet Carolina; I love My Winding Wheel, but I wouldn’t go without New York, New York either, etc. And these are just his two best records of the decade. He had to be #1.
2. Emmylou Harris: All I Intended To Be (2007)
The presence of Harris explains, better perhaps even than that of Heartbreaker, why the 2000’s in the end turned into a decade of country music for me. There may be not be anything extravagant about this record, but it just happens to encapsulate everything I love about this style of music. Harris has been one of the most consistently great songwriters in the business for years and years, but while not all songs here are originals, her trademark vocals bring a very specific, always genuine sound to everything she touches. How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower, Kern River, Old Five And Dimers and Not Enough are all masterpieces, but the #2 showing for All I Intended To Be should also be read as recognition of the great work she has done with other artists throughout the decade; be it with Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin (‘Trapeze‘) or Bright Eyes (‘We Are Nowhere And It’s Now‘)
3. The Jayhawks: Rainy Day Music (2003)
It was a fight to the finish line between Rainy Day Music and Smile for best Jayhawks album of the decade, knowing that the winner would end up very near the top of this list. Both these albums infectiously catchy country/pop records are testaments to what lead singer Gary Louris managed to make the band into after co-founder Mark Olson left when 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass failed to secure the expected breakthrough. In the years since then Jayhawks have delivered modern pop classics like Save It For A Rainy Day, All The Right Reas0ns and Angelyne. For the sheer quality of the material, Rainy Day Music always leaves me wanting more.
4. The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree (2004)
The 1990’s had many defining traits, but a sense of humor was not necessarily one of them. We had to live through years and years of self-absorbed and humorless Britpop from the likes of Oasis, Supergrass, Blur and Suede, but very rarely were anybody there to show just how empty their antics were. Not so in the 2000’s, in which music was allowed to be fun again, even if you had something serious to say. The Magnetic Fields (69 Love Songs) and Eminem (The Slim Shady LP) both started the 00’s a little early, but from then on, many excellent artists followed suit in mixing music with humor. Swedes The Ark revived glamrock (We Are The Ark, In Lust We Trust) and The Hives took some of the air out of the self-important yet briefly brilliant The Strokes, but my favorite example has to be The Mountain Goats. The Sunset Tree is an eclectic selection of irresistible pop songs about abuse, anxiety and bitterness that the 1990’s simply wouldn’t have known what to make of. It hurts being funny.
5. Beck: Sea Change (2003)
Throughout the previous decade, Beck had mostly been this clever yet slightly annoying visionary whom I couldn’t quite decided if I liked. To fans of his earlier work, Sea Change‘s firm commitment to the melodic singer/songwriter tradition may thus have felt like playing it safe, but there is nothing safe about this emotionally raw, tastefully arranged set of breakup songs. No stranger to the bittersweet, Guess I’m Doing Fine may be Beck’s best song ever.
6. Neil Young: Living With War (2006)
The post 9/11 records were another, at best uneven, subgenre of this decade. Bruce Springsteen released The Rising (2002), which aside from the still haunting You’re Missing and My City of Ruins felt a little too c0nceptual for its own good, and even Neil Young stepped on it, with his 9/11 song on Are You Passionate? (2002). Like Springsteen (Magic, 2007), Young’s call to America’s greatness sounded much better a couple of years on. Living With War was never an un-patriotic record, although it was repeatedly attacked as such. (I’m tempted to paraphrase Green Day, of all things, defending American Idiot: ‘This [record] is not anti-American, it’s anti-war!’) Rather, it’s simply one of the tightest, angriest, most thought-provoking political records in recent memory, from the furious Let’s Impeach The President and Shock & Awe, to the cautious optimism of Lookin’ For A Leader. Bush may be gone, but his wars are still around. That means Living With War, recorded almost like running news commentary, will continue to prove its remarkable relevance for years to come.
7. Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2006)
Connor Oberst deserves a place on this list for several reasons. but we’ve already alluded to two of them. For one, his excellent duet with Emmylou Harris (We Are Nowhere And It’s Now), and second, the song Road To Joy may well be one of the most poignant anti-war efforts of the decade (‘If you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing’/it’s best to join the side that’s gonna win/And no one’s sure how all of this got started/but we’re gonna make’em goddamn certain how it’s gonna end‘). Elsewhere on his breakthrough record, followed up by 2007’s equally good Cassadega, the inventive lyrics and rich, country-infused sound make songs like Lua, Train Under Water and First Day Of My Life prime arguments for why you keep an eye on him, no matter which musical vehicle he comes in the form of next time.
8. Joe Henry: Civilians (2007)
Joe Henry’s project may not be easily pinned down (is it folk? Soul? I don’t know), but if, like me, you’re a little to the sad side of life, he’s practically irresistible. Never beautiful in any classic and or/predictable sense, both his voice and his songs have the sort of unabashedly grave feeling that really allows you to let yourself into them. His voice may be somewhat Dylanesque, but where the Minnesota master over the last ten or so years has made his voice a trademark threatening to get in the way of the music (even though he’s still releasing some very worthy albums), Henry still has the self-control to direct his songs in the exact direction they need to go. Listen to You Can’t Fail Me Now or Our Song to see what I mean.
9. Ron Sexsmith: Retriever (2005)
I’m a guitar-based pop music kind of guy. It’s not that I hate R&B or anything like that, it’s just that I really like guys like Ron Sexsmith, who write frequently sad songs wrapped in a sound that doesn’t make them all that depressing after all. Retriever is littered with them, from Not About To Lose and For The Driver, Hard Bargain or the curious From Now On. I’ve tried for four years to see if anything about this record could seem whiny or perfect to the point of boredom, as is so often the case with music I fall madly in love with (see Coldplay or Rice, Damien), but I haven’t found anything yet. I guess it’s just perfect, then.
10. Johnny Cash: American III: Solitary Man (2001)
As with Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks, this should be considered as much as a Decade Achievement Award than as honoring American III instead of American IV: The Man Comes Around, or even the the underrated fifth record of the series for that matter. The trend of letting great artists re-interpret their own material and thus reinvigorate their careers was not limited to Johnny Cash; Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Neil Diamond all made (great) either live albums or re-recordings, but none of them experienced his success. It was all well-deserved, of course. Great art can never be fully understood devoid of all context, and the context that Cash and his old, worn, rasping voice brought to classics new and old will stand as one of the great achievements of the decade we are about to leave behind.
11. Aimee Mann: The Forgotten Arm (2005)
I sort of have a thing for concept albums, but more than that, I have a thing for Aimee Mann. Writing around a theme, like she did with Magnolia, gets out the very best in this consistently great singer-songwriter. But in the end, I guess it doesn’t much matter that The Forgotten Arm is a concept album. It’s just really good, as you would expect from Aimee Mann. As always, she holds a distinctive voice, both lyrically and musically, well-suited to her personal brand of smart pop/rock. And you gotta love someone who names a song I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas.
12. The Streets: Original Pirate Material (2002)
When I say I don’t like hiphop, there are certain exceptions. The Streets, for one. Mike Skinner’s funky, gritty, funny neo-realist classic Original Pirate Material is still unrivaled in its originality and freshness, although many, many have tried to do him better. He walks the line between gritty realism and stylized reporting with conciousness and elegance, never once stepping over. Those of us who nurture deep skepticism towards anything like a demand for authenticity in music get something more than that here, and Skinner proves that you don’t have to be self-important to be important.
13. Badly Drawn Boy: About A Boy (2002)
After repeat viewings, I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, you realized that you have returned to Chris Weitz’ fine Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy not only for the movie, but for the music. Penned and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, it gave the movie just as much of a distinctive musical ‘voice’ as the novel had, although this time the early-90’s grunge rock of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins was replaced by a wickedly funny, low-key Brit. Songs like Something To Talk About, Silent Sigh and Walking Out Of Stride even influence how I read the book now. That’s the best compliment I’m able to give.
14. Jay Brannan: Goddamned (2008)
I yield the floor to, eh, myself.
15. Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
Does it feel as urgent and inspiring in the age of Obama? Of course not. Is it too long, too ambitious and sentimental? No doubt. But still: I can’t remember one multi-million selling record of the past decade who had the anger, conviction, punky sensibilities and rock-opera inclinations of this one. It hit me and millions of others as a fun-lovin’, yet dead serious gut-punch in the fall of 2004, and I still listening to it occasionally. Sweeping from The Sex Pistols pastiche of St. Jimmy and She’s A Rebel to channeling 80’s stadium rock on Are We The Waiting, American Idiot more than anything serves as a reminder that if you only took the best from the 1990’s, you might end up with something really good. Like Green Day, ten years on.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order)
Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)
Randy Newman: The Randy Newman Songbook (2003)
Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Ben Folds: Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001)
The Gaslight Anthem: The ’59 Sound (2008)
Eels: Daisies Of The Galaxy (2000)
Mark Olson: Salvation Blues (2007)
Jesse McCartney: Departure (2008)
The Strokes: Is This It (2001)
Madonna: Music (2000)
Ray LaMontagne: Trouble (2004)
Solomon Burke: Don’t Give Up On Me (2002)
The Killers: Hot Fuss (2004)
Eagle-Eye Cherry: Living In The Present Future (2000)
Hanson: This Time Around (2000)
Steve Earle: Jerusalem (2002)
Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise (2005)
Band Of Horses: Cease To Begin (2007)
The Thrills: So Much For The City (2003)
Son Volt: American Central Dust (2009)
Bruce Springsteen: Magic (2007)
Jonas Brothers: Jonas Brothers (2007)
Gary Louris: Vagabonds (2007)
Justin Timberlake: Futuresex/Lovesounds (2006)
Patty Griffin: Children Running Through (2007)
Turin Brakes: Ether Song (2003)
Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007)
Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova: Once
Jason Mraz: Mr A-Z (2005)
Regina Spektor: Far (2009)
Pete Yorn: musicforthemorningafther (2001)