I think it’s a bit silly to be making end-of-decade lists this early (there is still 2.5% of the decade yet to be lived), but Pitchfork has gone ahead with their “Top 200 Albums of the 2000s” list, so I figure I might as well put mine out there now too.
I’ve been adding and subtracting to this list for years now, and doubtless the list will change with time (in a month, some album might come out that outshines everything… and so I’ll adjust this list accordingly). But for now, in the waning months of this first decade of a new millennium, here are my picks for the decade’s 20 best albums, accompanied by a few words about what the top ten have meant to me personally.
20) Rufus Wainwright, Poses (2002) 19) Cat Power, The Greatest (2007) 18) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008) 17) Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006) 16) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (2009) 15) Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (2003) 14) Doves, The Last Broadcast (2002) 13) Pedro the Lion, Control (2002) 12) The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (2001) 11) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)
And here are my picks for the top 10:
10) Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003): I didn’t discover Explosions in the Sky until the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights (which used much of this album on the soundtrack), but once I found them I knew they were a band that perfectly fit my temperament. They make music that is sort of the instrumental equivalent of a Terrence Malick film, and the title of this wordless album perfectly captures the essence of what Explosions' soaring guitar melodies evoke.
9) Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002): When I first heard “NYC” it was at some coffeehouse at Wheaton College, and I immediately inquired about the band behind this haunting post-9/11 New York anthem. It was Interpol, and their debut album remains one of the best expressions not only of the decade’s musical trends but also the spiritual tenor of a city, nation, and generation working through new waves of cynicism, fear, love and paranoia.
8) Beck, Sea Change (2002): This album was such a change from the Beck we were used to. It was so melancholy, sweeping, dramatic in a Love is Hell sort of way. But for anyone dealing with relational angst, breakups, or the pangs of moving on, the album was utterly perfect. This was one of my go-to albums for cold weather days during the long Chicago winters in college.
7) The Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004): This is quite possibly one of the most generational/zeitgeist-capturing works of musical art to have come out in the 2000s. An album about family, youth, death, and discontent, Funeral announced the arrival or at least the first shout of a new sort of drum-beating, baroque sincerity. Seeing them play live at the Hollywood Bowl the summer after graduating from college remains one of my favorite concert memories.
6) Sigur Ros, ( ) (2002): This album may be the apex of post-rock pretentiousness (an album full of untitled songs with only parentheses as a name?) but it is also some sort of strikingly human, universal catharsis—songs of pure feeling, passion, and transcendence that many a hipster church has played during worship services. And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced “Untitled 8” in concert.
5) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002): It was never all that cool to love Coldplay, but whatever. I love their music. I remember buying this album the day it came out at a Tower store (remember those?) and listening to it in the car on the drive home. The opening song, “Politik,” was already so different than anything on Parachutes. And then when “Clocks” came on, it was utterly clear that Coldplay was on the fast track to arena rock status. Seeing them the next year at Red Rocks was definitely a highlight of my “decade in concerts.”
4) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005): Where to begin with this album? It wasn’t the first great Sufjan album (and hopefully not the last), but it was the one that catapulted him to indie/hipster rock God status. And as the soundtrack to the summer after I graduated from college and left the “Land of Lincoln,” it will always be an album I remember with great fondness. It’s a near-perfect piece of art and an iconic bit of musical transition on the indie/hipster/Christian timeline.
3) Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This double-disc album from Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist (aka Over the Rhine) still stands as one of the most important albums in my own personal musical journey—and I think it can be rightly counted among the best (or at least most cohesive and lyrical) American albums of the decade. These are songs about place and home, memory and history, brokenness and hope… and the changes that come at every turn in life. I still consider the concert I saw Over the Rhine play on their Ohio tour the very best show I’ve ever been to.
2) Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): From the opening words (“I am an American Aquarian drinker”) of the first song (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), to the final resigned-but-hopeful emotions of “Reservations,” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is as beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful an album as anything that came out this decade. Jeff Tweedy’s personal demons inform every line of this album and yet it manages to stand for something much bigger and broader: love among the ruins of a deconstructed America. Released halfway between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, Yankee evokes in my memory that peculiar stage in my life where my Midwestern, enchanted analog American youth began to fray at the edges as uncertainty, growth, nostalgia, and education coalesced to shake my paradigm and push me forward as an independent thinker.
1) Radiohead, Kid A (2000): When this album came out in October of 2000, I was a senior in high school. I had only recently begun to expand my musical horizons (I grew up mostly listening to Christian music), but when I bought Kid A, everything about the way I approached music changed. The eerie beauty and boundary-pushing creativity of this album stunned me and made me realize that the potential for transcendence in music had as much or more to do with a spirit of exploration and experimentation than anything else. To create something so new, so true, and so exactly of its time, was a feat only Radiohead—post OK Computer—could accomplish in the first year of our new decade. They ushered us in to the Y2K era with an album that systematically dismantled the 90s, embodied the dot-com culture of its time, and prophesied a decade of silicon chaos and modernist collapse—a frenetic decade in which the surreal and the real would collide in terrifying fashion and we’d be confronted with the wages of avoidant fantasy. As Thom Yorke sings on “Idioteque”: We're not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening…
Honorable Mention: Radiohead, In Rainbows Radiohead, Hail to the Thief Jay-Z, The Black Album Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind White Stripes, Elephant Kanye West, Late Registration Gwen Stefani, Love, Angel, Music, Baby Hem, Rabbit Songs Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism Joanna Newsom, Ys The National, Boxer Wilco, A Ghost Is Born Panda Bear, Person Pitch Justin Timberlake, Futuresex/Lovesounds Joseph Arthur, Redemption’s Son M83, Saturdays=Youth Bon Iver, For Emma Forever Ago