Top 25 albums of the decade

Once again, all the usual caveats apply. These are just my favorites, I make no definitive claims, and the whole project of ranking things is just a little bit silly. But it’s also a lot of fun. So here they are: the 25 albums that define the last decade for me.

1. Carissa’s WierdUgly But Honest

What can I say about this band that I haven’t already said? Probably nothing. Except that I knew from the instant I decided to make this list what would be #1. This record still astonishes me after almost 10 years. How can something so simple be so impossible to comprehend? Recording on just four tracks, with a few quiet vocals and some of the finest, most pure, melodies the world has ever heard.

To listen to this album is to hear your own breath, to discover deep within yourself what you’ve never quite been able to admit but always hoped for: a shy hope, held tenderly with the knowledge that all of the most perfect things in the world are also the most fragile. Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto sing in hushed tones, and their voices blend into something beyond mere words: full of imperfections and yet somehow brilliantly pure. The drums beat with the rhythm of your pulse, the strings sing like a summer breeze. It’s as soft as can be, but shakes your soul like you can barely understand. You close your eyes, but can still see.

It’s heartbreaking and it’s cathartic. Every single song is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. And all you can do is hang on for the ride, smile wistfully, and dream…

Highlights: Fluorescent Lights, Drunk With the Only Saints I Know, One Night Stand, Some Days Are Better Than Others, Lazy Eyelids

2. Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight

It’s suffused with a terrible fragility. Part is in the timbre of the vocals, which enables lines like “I might not want you back, but I want to kill him” or “it takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep warm” to sound entirely believable. Part is in the way they play: ranging from a shattering percussive blitzkrieg in one moment to a delicate interplay between swooping slide-guitar and punctuated bass notes in another. Finally, there’s the songwriting, which is incredibly intimate, like being deep down in the soul of someone – a place that even they can’t fully tap into. It keeps you absolutely spellbound, as you get sucked into the tragedy, the deep regret, the pain that feels like it will drag you under.

The songs convey a sense of the agonizing clarity that can accompany our worst decisions, as well as the kernel of hope that we hold on to in order to keep ourselves afloat. The pain doesn’t go away, but it becomes something else, a reason to keep breathing, a catalyst. And so, after all the heart-rending, you emerge, shyly, into the sunshine, squinting a bit at the bright lights but with a smile beginning to form. It’s a delicate subject and in the hands of another band could easily feel cloying or artificial. But here, on this marvelous album, the hope doesn’t feel false.

Highlights: Head Rolls Off, Good Arms vs Bad Arms, Poke, The Modern Leper, Floating in the Forth, Fast Blood, and every single other song

3. Cloud CultThe Meaning of 8

Rarely has the feeling of a whole world coming apart at the seams been captured so perfectly. The best moments engulf you with cellos, trumpets and flutes, staccato guitar bursts, waves of sound that crash around you, a caressing dissonance. Your heart rises, you discover a lump your throat and your eyes go distant. This is music that makes you believe in a greater truth, a meaning that transcends our limited experience. Call it God, call it the universe, call it what you will, it is the reason why we continue to struggle, to find ourselves within the madness.

This is a very weird record, and very emotional. While it has more than enough great hooks and beautiful melodies to be enjoyed simply for that, to truly experience it you must give yourself up to the deaf girl, the Alien Christ, the lamentations and exhortations, the death marches, the numerology, the mythology. And when you feel them completely, you realize that they were there all along. It just took this record to give them a voice.

It’s the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea of this decade. No exaggeration.

Highlights: Chemicals Collide, Take Your Medicine, The Deaf Girl’s Song, Chain Reaction, Your 8th Birthday, Alien Christ, Purpose, Pretty Voice…

4. Tegan and SaraThe Con

There’s “The Con,” a three minute earthquake of pop hooks and harmonies. There’s “Nineteen” which makes me believe I can fly. There’s “Dark Come Soon” which contains one of the finest moments of music in the last decade (“So what, I lied? I lie to me, too”). There’s “Relief Next to Me” with it’s strangely triumphant chorus: “But I promise this, I won’t go my whole life, telling you I don’t need.” There’s the redemptive power of “Burn Your Life Down.” There’s “Hop a Plane” – as perfect a slice of breakneck, guitar-driven pop you’ll ever hear. And so much more.

This is a record to be savored, a New Wave masterpiece, and far more complicated than most critics will give them credit for. It’s charming beyond belief, sensitive, swaggering, anxious, and compassionate – most of them simultaneously. It is the sound of coming to terms with a world that may never make sense and which is always on the verge of slipping away. It’s also simply an album about love, all the good and all the bad.

Highlights: The Con, Dark Come Soon, and Nineteen are all ridiculously good, but the whole record is great. (sorry no links, but the label has apparently been going after bloggers)

5. Lawrence Arms – Oh! Calcutta!

It’s the best punk record since London Calling. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the real deal. Oh! Calcutta! channels seething tensions into music that devastates just as much as it invigorates. It’s chaotic and beautiful, hardcore and honest, a 36-minute firestorm filled to the brim with emotions so genuine you can feel them in your gut.

Highlights: Are You There Margaret? It’s Me God, Great Lakes / Great Escapes, Beyond the Embarrassing Style, The Rabbit and the Rooster, and the whole rest of the album

6. Sufjan StevensIllinois

It’s a shame Sufjan seems to have given up on this sort of thing, because this record was pure genius. Geographic references to places I’ve never heard of, lots of little vignettes, stories told by and about the people who live in them. It manages to be both perfectly real and entirely mythical. Part of the joy of the record is its expansiveness, the massive terrain that’s covered, but it only works because there are so many pitch-perfect little particularities.

The song about the Black Hawk War or the World’s Fair works so well because it’s joined by the heartbreaking chorus of “Casimir Pulaski Day” (“oh the glory…”). Or the bit about two and a half minutes into “The Predatory Wasp…” when the slowly currents of the song hit their peak and you just get blown away. Or the moment in “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” when part 2 begins and Sufjan sings “I cried myself to sleep last night.” All of these are devastating beautiful.

Highlights: Come On! Feel The Illinoise!, The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!, Decatur, Casimir Pulaski Day

7. The DecemberistsCastaways and Cutouts

I fell in love with this band on Valentine’s Day, 2003 (when they opened for Carissa’s Wierd). I immediately went home and bought this record, and was simply blown away. It’s a magical album, in all of the best senses. Even more, it’s full of music that beckons to you, that invites you to share a mad romp with them. It’s a little corny and a tad overwrought, but that’s part of the joy: you accept all of that for the experience of something authentic and genuine. These are stories that are both intimate and playful, literate but totally unassuming.

Even now, seven years later I simply cannot believe the way my heart bursts on hearing the chorus of “Grace Cathedral Hill.” And either half of “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade” would be an instant classic, but the combination makes it something epic. I often lament that they abandoned the dream-pop which makes this record so astonishing, but in my more accepting moments I’m just happy the stars aligned to make this one possible.

Highlights: Grace Cathedral Hill, California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade, Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect, Leslie Anne Levine

8. Carissa’s WierdYou Should Be At Home Here

The second entry from my beloved Carissa’s Wierd. It features “All Apologies and Smiles” which is perhaps the finest song I’ve ever heard in my life. And then there’s “The Color That Your Eyes Changed With the Color of Your Hair” which by itself is enough to convince me of the possibility that true love does exist in this world. “For the next 50 years I will still write you love songs…” Oh my. The sound is a little bit more refined here than on Ugly But Honest, the violin features more prominently, they work a bit more with the soft/loud verse/chorus dynamic. But it’s the same wonderful, astonishing mixture of beauty and pain. It doesn’t work quite as consistently across the board, but they are pretty much at their best in the finer moments on this record.

Highlights: All Apologies And Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine, The Color That Your Eyes Changed With the Color of Your Hair, Blessed Arms That Hold You Tight, Freezing Cold and Alone, Brooke Daniels Tiny Broken Fingers

9. Modest MouseThe Moon and Antarctica

It was their major label debut, but they take as many risks here as they ever have. It’s is a record about distance, the long spaces, the all-encompassing emptiness. Lonely, desolate, lost in the hidden reaches of our own minds – with all that seems communal disappearing over the horizon into the pure blackness of a night without atmosphere. The coldness, the numbness that reaches deep inside and suffocates, the scream that rises but can’t quite find a voice.

It’s their last truly great record. The last time they captured something absolutely true. The last time they painted on a canvas large enough to contain the ineffable terror of what it means to be human in a world that no longer contains a center. The last time when it seems like the album wrote the band and not the other way around.

Highlights: Third Planet, The Stars are Projectors, A Different City, Gravity Rides Everything

10. Okkervil RiverDown the River of Golden Dreams

The best record from what is probably my ‘band of the decade.’ It’s less well-constructed from top to bottom than their more recent stuff, but the two standout tracks make it an easy call. “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks” is the sort of song you have dreams about – even after you’ve heard it a thousand times you can’t quite believe that it’s real. And “The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion” isn’t too far behind that. These exemplify everything about continues to astonish me about this band.

Sheff’s voice cracks and warbles, but that’s precisely the point. You can hear him reaching for that perfect note, the exact way to phrase the incomprehensible, but never quite finding it. What you encounter instead is a true experience of sheer immanence, the moments of our lives that we can never explain or hope to truly grasp, the abyss within ourselves. And when the songs return from these emotional vortexes, the soft, almost delicate, texture of his voice brings us back to the ordinary, the everyday, and forces us to juxtapose these contradictory impulses. Beauty and violence, stillness and terror: Sheff wants us to understand them as interlinked. The worst and the best of humanity is contained within all of us.

Highlights: The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion, Dead Faces, Blanket and Crib

11. Submarines – Declare A New State!

Ultimately, I like music that makes me feel good, and there’s very little that makes me feel better than this record. Grand themes, complicated chord progressions, inpenetrable literary allusions: all these things have a place. But there is another kind of magic in simplicity and a hopeless romanticism. It’s often far too easy to embrace cynicism and maintain ironic detachment, but incredibly difficult to open yourself up, risk the cliches, and express the most basic elements of life: love, loss, pain, and hope for tomorrow. Declare a New State! takes the risk, shares something truly intimate, and reminds us all that even some of the most painful stories do have happy endings. And I love them for it.

Highlights: Every single song, but especially This Conversation and Peace and Hate

12. Antarctica Takes It! The Penguin League

As bright and bubbly as any twee record and with lyrics every bit as intriguing as a great Ray Bradbury short story. It’s about as lo-fi as it gets but the lack of production only heightens its resonance. In fact, this record serves as the incontrovertible proof that the essence of transcendent music is often its simplicity. You let down all the barriers and all that’s left is the exuberance of the song.

Embrace it. Strip all the pretense, suspend your disbelief, and discover a record that really can change your life.

Highlights: Antarctica, The Song Is You, Circuits

13. And You Will Know Us By the Trail of DeadSource Tags and Codes

This record famously, and contentiously, was given a perfect 10.0 by Pitchfork. For me, I think they pretty much got it right. This thing crackles with frenetic energy, it pulsates, it grows larger and larger with every listen. It’s the sound of an entire generation of music tearing itself to shreds. It’s violent, but a kind of purifying violence: where all you can sense is the pure joy of shedding a complicated past and staring the future head-on. And it’s capped off by the final suite of “Relative Ways,” “After the Laughter,” and “Source Tags and Codes” – which remains pretty much my definitive album conclusion.

Highlights: Source Tags And Codes, Relative Ways, It Was There That I Saw You, How Near, How Far

14. Carissa’s WierdSongs About Leaving

Their third (and unfortunately) final record. Once again, the production values rise a bit and the quality of the songs drops slightly. But only very slightly. This is a far more piano-driven record, which makes for songs that trend a bit more toward the chamber-pop. They also flex their muscles a bit and offer a few tracks that trend over into more straightforward indie rock, but the real stars of the show are still the hushed vocals and the hearts on their sleeves.

This was the record I really thought was going to vault them into the mainstream. It’s far more accessible without losing any of the charm. And sure, heartbreakingly intimate, low-fi songs with violins weren’t going to rush up the charts or anything but this stuff was just so good, surely there were more than enough people out there who could appreciate it. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Highlights: Ignorant Piece Of Shit, You Should Be Hated Here, A New Holiday (November 16th), It Was Probably Green (March 19th 1983), The Piano Song, They’ll Only Miss You When You Leave

15. The Gaslight AnthemThe ’59 Sound

They’ve tapped into the same wellspring that The Boss drew from: finding a power in rock and roll that can speak beyond particular stories and evoke some larger meaning. There are certainly echoes or even direct references all over the place, but it’s important to note that this is not a band simply trying to graft “the Springsteen sound” onto something else. It’s a natural evolution, and a perfect joining, between sounds. They also hail from Jersey but they come back to Springsteen via a trip into a more Chicago-punk sound. And most importantly, this a band who genuinely cares about the people in their songs – they are not mere props to spit out some formulaic lines about highways and the working class. These are stories that feel real, evocative, and purposeful.

There’s also a self-awareness that’s necessary to set apart the good songs from the great. The wishfulness, the way that this sound is leapt into out a pure love for the music of their youth but also out of a desperation to keep a sad and lonely world from spinning out of control. It’s the sort of album that you can’t be shy about. You won’t appreciate it if you don’t jump in completely. Accept that it is a flawed but beautiful record, don’t read too deeply into the countless references, and just let the feeling of growing up in a world of rock and roll wash over you. You won’t regret it.

Highlights: The ’59 Sound, High Lonesome, Great Expectations, Casanova, Baby!, Here’s Lookin At You, Kid

16. Okkervil RiverBlack Sheep Boy

This is a ragged album, and I mean that in the best possible sense. You get the feeling that they’re constantly on the edge of sanity—a gust of wind at the wrong time and it all would collapse. But somehow, it all stays together. There’s a lot of sadness, and not all that much hope, but somehow, you finish believing that there’s beauty worth salvaging, even in the worst of situations.

Highlights: Black, So Come Back I Am Waiting, A King and a Queen, The Latest Toughs, A Stone

17. EelsDaisies of the Galaxy

This was the last of Mark Oliver Everett’s great records. It doesn’t quite match up to the first two Eels records, but it’s still something really special. If the genius of his earlier work was the way that he delved into the sheer madness of loss and suffering, this one embodies the light on the other side, the tentative steps into hope and possibility. It’s still not an optimistic record, by any stretch, but there is a lot more joy here, more openness, a heart that’s willing to once again start taking risks and open itself up to the simple beauty of live and love and smiles. It’s hard to listen to the opening two tracks (“Grace Kelly Blues” and “Packing Blankets”) and not have your heart go out to this guy, and marvel at his ability to convey something true. And while Everett never wanted “Mr E’s Beautiful Blues” included, I think it’s a necessary and wise addition. The intervening tracks between these three bookmarks are a bit weaker, occasionally cloying, and verging on the trite. Having this final track to remind you of how simple and powerful it is to remember that “goddamn right it’s a beautiful day” is an important corrective.

Highlights: Grace Kelly Blues, Packing Blankets, Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues, It’s A Motherfucker

18. Flogging MollyDrunken Lullabies

I make absolutely no apologies for loving this record. Sure, the premise of this band had a tough time sustaining itself – the blend between punk and Celtic is a delicate one and they were always going to end up messing it up – but for a brief moment on this record absolutely everything clicked. “Drunken Lullabies” is a monster of a song, and as blistering a piece of punk as you’re going to get, and “What’s Left of the Flag” and “The Kilburn High Road” aren’t far behind. “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” dials things down a notch, and give you some genuine pathos. And then on the second half you get “Death Valley Queen” which is shockingly beautiful. Finally, there’s an absolutely perfect cover of the classic standard “The Rare Ould Times” which turns a nice little Irish ditty into a raucous rampage that would make The Pogues proud.

Highlights: The Rare Ould Times, Drunken Lullabies, Death Valley Queen, What’s Left of the Flag

19. Bombadil Tarpits and Canyonlands

They take a long folk tradition and make it completely their own. The astonishing thing about this record is the way they constantly manage to produce music that sounds so absolutely right that you can’t believe it didn’t already exist. It isn’t that they reveal something new. It’s that they reveal what was already there but you had so completely inured yourself to that it had been lost.

It’s hard to imagine a record that more fully communicates and embodies the richness of life. It’s not about finding answers. It’s just about knowing that that there are other folks out there struggling, trying, failing, getting back up again, and wondering what it all means. You share the road with your fellow travelers, and together you sing along with the end of “25 Daniels” and remind yourself of how much we all have to share with each other if only we could remember it.

So get yourself a copy of the record, and give yourself permission to remember what it feels like.

Highlights: Sad Birthday, 25 Daniels, Honeymoon, Marriage, Matthew

20. Camera Obscura Let’s Get Out Of This Country

Camera Obscura come into their own with this record, distilling all the best components into a collection of simply dazzling songs. The result is a revelation, almost a religious experience. The joyfulness, the way that opening guitar riff signals the rush of good feelings and hope at a new day, the bringing together of strings and backbeat into something that utterly exceeds that 60’s girl group sound that I love so well.

Highlights: Let’s Get Out Of This Country, If Looks Could Kill, Lloyd I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken

21. The Sinister TurnsTurn to the Left EP

This is piano-driven pop to batter the senses and lift the soul, some of the finest hooks in years, and mighty clever lyrics to boot. Some music takes itself very seriously and attempts to answer deep questions. Other (usually far better and more important) music accepts that life is complicated beyond our capacity to understand, but that when it all comes down you have to be able to find a way to smile. The Sinister Turns make the latter, and do a very fine job of it.

Highlights: all five songs are great, but my favorites are Zolpidem and The Last Time

22. Miracle FortressFive Roses

The way a drop of water glistens on the end of an icicle, dusty windowpanes on a long bus ride, the way a nervous smile transforms into pure unadulterated joy, the feel of the clouds. Some wispy and light, so delicate that the slightest breeze will tear them apart. Others voluminous, like mountains in the sky reaching ever higher, higher. Amidst it all, we drift unburdened by gravity. Beneath us, the remnants of a storm, and beyond…a shimmering rainbow of sound.

All of which is to say: this is the best psych-pop record since the 60s, I think.

Highlights: Poetaster, Next Train, Fortune, This Thing About You

23. Rilo KileyThe Execution of All Things

Another stars and scrubs record. It’s not that the majority of the songs are bad – but the only reason this is anywhere close to my list is due entirely to three tracks. I already talked about “Spectacular Views” in my songs post. The other absolute stunner is “A Better Son/Daughter,” which seems to peer directly into your soul. It doesn’t say anything new, but it says it with such verve, with such obstinate hopefullness, with such passion and pain, that it’s just all too much. Not quite up to those heights but also an absolutely lovely song is “So Long” which was my introduction to the band, and is as nice a piece of guitar based indie pop as you’re ever likely to hear (and the proof that Blake is as integral to the band as Jenny).

Highlights: Spectacular Views, A Better Son/Daughter, So Long, The Execution of All Things

24. StarsSet Yourself On Fire

Stars have yet to produce the album that sustains their genius over the entire course of the record, but this one comes somewhat close. There are a few forgettable tracks, but those are more than made up for by the sheer perfection of songs like “Calendar Girl” or “Ageless Beauty.” The former is tender, strong, brilliant while the latter is all about the kaleidoscope of churning guitars and Amy Millan’s voice.

Highlights: Calendar Girl, Ageless Beauty, Your Ex-Lover is Dead

25. Death Cab for CutieForbidden Love EP

It’s only a five-song EP, but it’s got three absolutely essential songs. “Photobooth” is perhaps the pinnacle example of the sort of indie-pop that made these guys so famous: the literate and boyish charm, the absolutely perfect pop sensibilities. “Song for Kelly Huckaby” is almost as good: it’s the sound of a landslide coming down the mountainside. And then there’s the acoustic “405” which turns a nice but somewhat insubstantial song from the We Have the Facts… LP into something really special. By stripping everything away, they lay bare the beauty of the song.

Highlights: Photobooth, Song For Kelly Huckaby, 405

Honorable Mentions:
Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy
Sleater-Kinney – One Beat
Carissa’s Wierd – I Before E
Old 97s – Satellite Rides
Okkervil River – The Stage Names
Vanessa Peters – Sweetheart, Keep Your Chin Up
Caithlin De Marrais – My Magic City
Grand Archives – Grand Archives

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7 Responses to Top 25 albums of the decade

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