My Favorite Albums Of The Decade

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 Changes 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)

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4 Responses to My Favorite Albums Of The Decade

  1. Bryan Borland says:

    I knew you could post it :) This will provide me with a much needed distraction in a little while. I’ll be back to read every word (and probably argue with you about one or two choices).

  2. queerlefty says:

    I’ll do anything I can to help, Bryan. Anything.

  3. Bryan Borland says:

    Great list! We have such similar taste in music, it’s amazing. Several of my top songs of the decade came from these albums and, yeah, I’ll say it, from a purely musical standpoint, it was Ryan Adams who owned the 2000’s. Heartbreaker and Gold. You got that right. I can’t pick between them, but those are his masterpieces. I’m gonna put Demolition up there too, simply for “Cry on Demand” (I’ll bet Winona Ryder is glad she shoplifted and “cried every night with her face on the news” if it resulted in this song).

    But for me, the entertainer of the decade was Justin Timberlake. He started out the decade with Nsync, had the top selling album of the decade in No Strings Attached, made the difficult transition from boyband to respected solo act with street creed with Justified and Future Sex/Love Sounds, was hilarious on Saturday Night Live (“Dick in a Box” and “Mother Lover”) and made some decent movies (I enjoyed “Alpha Dog”).

    The albums I’d add are Elton John’s “The Captain and the Kid,” for his artistic return to form. It was also a career retrospective album that worked. I’ll place Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” in the place of “Magic,” because “The Rising,” to me, was THE post 9-11 album. But for album of the decade, it’s Dixie Chick’s “Taking the Long Way.” If you liked the Jayhawks, you’d like this. “Not Ready to Make Nice” was my song of the decade, which was ten years of bitter politics.

    Great list! I agree with more than I disagree – and there are a couple I’ll have to check out!

    PS – Badly Drawn Boy – About a Boy – YES!!!!! I’ve forgotten about that one, but I’m pulling it out today!

  4. queerlefty says:

    I agree with most of what you said. I ultimately decided against including more Ryan Adams, but for such a prolific artist, the quality of his releases was remarkably consistent. I absolutely loved his country album ‘Jacksonville City Lights’ with The Cardinals, and big chunks of ‘Demolition’ had exactly the rawness that I’ve come to expect from him. Finally, I think 2008’s ‘Cardinology’ was seriously underrated. While it didn’t entirely lose that cherished country feeling, it also added elements of what I loved most about ‘Gold’. No one else, except maybe The Jayhawks, came close to delivering this many great songs.

    You’re right about Dixie Chicks, too. Despite having warmed very much to country music over the last several years, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t sit down to listen to them in any systematic way until you mention them for your ‘Songs Of The Decade’ on Facebook last month, but I’m now a convert.

    I really admire the way that Justin Timberlake have come throughout this decade. N*Sync never among my favorite boybands (I was more of a – closeted – Backstreet Boys fan), but ‘No Strings’ had a couple of songs (‘Bye Bye Bye’, ‘This I Promise You’, ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’) that I actually enjoy more today than I did back then. As I wrote about in my EGA about Jesse McCartney, I tried to embrace Justin’s solo material relatively early on, but because people laughed at me for suggesting that I wanted to buy a Justin Timberlake record, I backed off. These of course were the same people that embraced ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ most heartily.

    But you point to something important by using the term ‘entertainer’. In a year when we lost Michael Jackson, many pop culture pundits discussed whether he might have the very last true popstar, meaning that he could bring people together across every background. Justin’s appeal may not be just as broad yet, but I was somewhat puzzled by how his name never came up in the discussion. Also, his ability to poke fun at himself makes him a true entertainer. I simply have no other contenders. Though she had a decent decade musically, Britney became embroiled in too much weirdness, and Madonna’s track record became a little spotty with ‘American Life’ and ‘Hard Candy’, although ‘Music’ and ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’ were both good.

    I admit that I may have been a little harsh on ‘The Rising’, but even some of the better songs (‘The Rising’, ‘Lonesome Day’, ‘Mary’s Place’, ‘Nothing Man’) are minor Springsteen in my view. I recognize it’s significance as a post 9/11 album, but in that regard I prefer ‘Last To Die’ from ‘Magic’. Springsteen is often great at doing ‘theme albums’ (‘Nebraska’, ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, ‘Devils & Dust’), but ‘The Rising’ is not among his best.

    I may be alone in considering ‘Magic’ his best albums of the aughts, but I was first and foremost relieved to see that he could still deliver songs in the vein of ‘The River’ (the album) without sounding dated. ‘Radio Nowhere’ glowed with the enthusiasm that lacked somewhat on ‘Mary’s Place’, and generally, I was pleased with how he hadn’t lost his ability to make even his most serious songs in a catchy sound. Some of what I thought was missing from ‘The Rising’ could of course be explained by the time of its recording, but I think ‘Magic’ has many of ‘The Rising’s qualities and the some. Which reminds I should write something about why I love Springsteen someday.

    Generally, I think our tastes are quite similar, even in this regard. You know I love your feedback.

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