If my “singles of the decade” list surprised you with the relative diversity of sounds and genres, this one surely won’t. So it will have to be. Although my tastes in three-minute miracles can embrace everything from hip hop to pop to radio-friendly rock, my tastes in albums have always leaned more strongly towards the indie-esque music that increasingly grew to dominate the decade’s alternative landscape. There will likely be a few left turns here and there, but for the most part my take on the decade’s most exciting feature-length works fall closer to a central mould.
Frankly, the timing of “indie rock’s” ascendancy couldn’t have been better: with the music industry collapsing in on itself, and the traditional tastemaker infrastructure dismantled, the void that was left was filled equally by the new wave of alternative sounds and by the bloggers, online journalists and citizen activists that became the revamped “hype machine.” New artists and advocates worked together to honour old heroes, champion emerging sounds and backlash against both the deserving and undeserving alike.
As such, this list of albums isn’t just about the albums themselves. It’s as much my story – and your story – as it is the story of the bands and records in question. This was our decade.
What is it about folk music and wilderness? Is it that we associate the former’s naturalness with the forest? That we’re recalling archaic mythologies about wanderers sitting around campfires? Or is there something less tangible about why acoustic guitars sound like they belong in remote cabins in the middle of the woods? I’m not sure that one needs to know anything about where or how For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded to immediately evoke a sense of place both secluded and secret. I sometimes even feel a bit guilty for listening to the record, or at the very least, honoured that I’m privy to these beautiful little songs that others might have left with the intimacy and privacy of the trees.
Though often the centre of attention for online music criticism in the 2000s, Pitchfork has produced very few review scores as controversial as the perfect 10 granted to Source Tags and Codes. And while I’m not saying it was in any way deserved, I can understand why the record inspired such an optimistic attempt to assign “instant classic” status right off the bat. Listening back to it today – especially in light of the band’s proggy, disappointing follow-ups – one hears the sound of a band that’s finally figured out how to channel its primal hunger into something epic, massive and complete. In its escalating rage lies great beauty.
Usually when a quote-unquote “side project” becomes a breakout hit, the popularity of the artist(s)’s original band or project is the reason why. The strange thing about the Postal Service, though is their debut was released months before Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism became the favourite record of Seth Cohen and semi-hipsters everywhere. No, Give Up alone deserves credit for its gargantuan success, its attractive combination of heart-on-sleeve statements and strangely-warm electronics winning over enough of us shamefully sentimental scenesters to end up the second-biggest record in Sub Pop history (behind only Nirvana’s Bleach – how’s that for a juxtaposition?).
While the Hives may have been a better gimmick, and Robyn the better hooks, I’m pretty sure that Writer’s Block was the second best thing to come out of Sweden this decade. Those inclined to dig deeper than “Young Folks” found a surprisingly deep and varied collection of minimalist indie pop, never flashier than it needed to be. I’ve still got a bad habit at adding the sprawling, slow-building “Up Against the Wall” to nearly every mixtape I make. My friends might be really friggin’ sick of it by now, but I’m not.
First comes the band. Then comes the backlash. Then – if the band plays their cards right – comes the backlash against the backlash. We’ll see if Vampire Weekend’s follow-up to their absurdly confident debut completes that transition, but for now, it seems like the cultural consensus is coming around to the fact that, yes, Vampire Weekend was justifiably awesome. The record’s assemblage of perfect little pop tunes one against the other amplified the entire effort into an even better whole, one that wears its super-obvious influences proudly on its sleeves. It’s greatness through geekery.
In the wake of such massive mash-up successes as Girl Talk, Freelance Hellraiser and Danger Mouse, Since I Left You probably doesn’t play the same today as it did hearing it for the first time back in 2001. But I have a sneaking suspicion that even the uninitiated would find great rewards in its sonic reconstructions. Aussies Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann weren’t operating under the belief that their work would ever see a wide release, and as such their giant smorgasbord of sampling never feels compromised. More impressively, and unlike their mashup contemporaries, the Avalanches weren’t interested in using easy familiarities to excite the ears – their record still sounds like a new, fresh take on hip hop, soul, pop and electronica almost a decade later.
If you were cool enough to have heard De Stijl before the Stripes became the sort of band that even your mother knows, good for you. Frankly, though, I kind of liked finding it after the fact. So many bands these days break out with a debut album that feels suspiciously fully-formed, leaving doubts – often realized – about what they can come up with next (see: my Vampire Weekend worries earlier). Those of us who worried that this weird, idiosyncratic duo would be a one-album wonder after White Blood Cells needed only to skip back one record to find a disc more raw, more unsettled, but almost as rewarding. In other words, confirmation that the White Stripes were the real thing.
Until Dear Science, TV on the Radio were a band that I admired more than I liked. Their ambition was clear, their talent was obvious, but unlike many writers and critics I wasn’t able to transition from their slash-and-burn highs of their singles into their deeper cuts. I’m sure there are many who felt that the streamlining and simplification of the band’s sound on Dear Science was a step backwards, but for me, it the record I’d always wanted them to make: an album that fights passionately to win me over instead of using abstraction to push me away. You finally won, TVotR.
A record of transient pieces, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood contains few songs that feel “complete” in any traditional sense. It’s the sort of album that a pop-conscious producer would complain endlessly about: “Why don’t these stories go anywhere?” “Why do the songs just start and end where they please?” But for Case, a songwriter who’s often inspired by her own dreams, such questions miss the point entirely. The album’s little journeys and miniature narratives feel like lucid, hypnotic visions, narrated by one of the decade’s most compelling vocalists.
On LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut, there was a little song buried in the middle called “Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up,” which sounded nothing like the rest of the record. It wasn’t the most inspired track – a sorta-cooked Beatles ripoff – but it was a clear sign that James Murphy had ambitions beyond writing clever dance floor anthems. Sound of Silver, the follow-up album, bleeds that ambition all over the place. By expanding his sound alongside a surprisingly emotive set of lyrics, James Murphy constructs one of the decade’s definitive dance albums that ends up far more than just danceable, commanding not only your feet but your head and heart alongside.
In the four years between Moon and Antarctica and Good News, Isaac Brock decided that he wasn’t content to dabble in drunk travel narratives or other-wordly sonic adventures. He wanted to write pop songs – REAL pop songs. He wanted to deal with mortality with a dark, twisted sense of irony. He also wanted to be Tom Waits. And somehow, that gigantic mess of ambitions ended up producing a wonderful mess of a record. Though each song feels like it’s own quest, there’s a polish that ties the entire collection together – a new coat of paint on the band’s madness that manages to avoid ruining Brock’s charming ugliness with too much pretty.
Stars want to be for everyone, but they’re not. They pour every ounce of passion they can into their bold romanticism and over-the-top theatrics, so much so that it can be off-putting or self-indulgent. Hell, how many records can get away with opening with such a pretentious quote as “When there’s nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire?” But Set Yourself on Fire gets away with it and so much more because the band’s vocal interplay and synth-tinged soundscapes are good enough to make you buy into every overwrought word and hyper-romantic statement. It makes believers out of those willing to believe.
Your take on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ creative narrative depends on your point of view. Many believe that the band emerged fully-formed on their first EPs and Fever to Tell and their subsequent releases have been good enough, but not really all that necessary. I always felt, though, that there was huge room for growth from Fever to Tell’s alternations between beautiful and abrasive. Two records later, It’s Blitz is the sound of the band succeeding in bringing their two worlds together, making a record that’s danceable and dangerous, harsh and heartbreaking.
Saturday Night Live showed some impressive foresight when in April – almost two months before Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s release – they not only booked these alt-pop Frenchman on the show but shockingly gave them three performances (a rare privilege generally granted to massive bands like U2). Phoenix made the most of their moment, giving the world an early taste of the year’s best one-two punch of “Lisztomania/1901” and suggesting at the cunning and calculated record to follow. As the months rolled by, it’s looking more and more like the show and the band met and passed each other at the creative crossroads: since that date, SNL has plummeted into its worst season in history, whereas Phoenix have rode their record’s stunningly confident pop music into the stratosphere.
John Sampson: accidental cult leader? Few bands in Canada can claim such devoted followers as the Weakerthans, and Left and Leaving explains a lot of it. Their most accomplished work, the record found Sampson at his cleverest, the band at their most passionate and the songs and stories at their most compelling. It sounded at the time like a new template for Canadian rock, and even though the band’s subsequent records merely repeated the formula with diminishing returns, you can still hear Left and Leaving’s echoes in sounds of upstart alt-folk bands breaking through from coast to coast.
Ágætis byrjun may have been their breakthrough record, and ( ) their most ambitious, but for my money, Takk… is Iceland’s Sigur Ros at their finest. It feels like the album where they packed in everything they’d been playing around with to date – distortion, quiet builds, twinkling pianos, ear-shattering falsettos – into one explosive package. Their other records often feel like a collection of soundtracks more than songs, but if you dare take a second to ignore Takk, itsnaps you back with its unexpected twists and loud surprises. It’s a record that’s not interested in being your background – it commands attention at every turn.
In 2005, the National toured the U.S. with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ostensibly as their opening act, but the latter’s rapid rise in popularity thanks to Pitchfork and the blogosphere basically rendered the bands co-headliners. Worse, there were many reports of people flooding the venue for CYHSY and bailing before the National even played a note. Their loss. Alligator may have been woefully unappreciated upon its release, and its production quality may have been eclipsed by the band’s later works, but there’s a pent-up passion in its songs that the band manages perfectly, completely conscious of when to keep it bundled and when to release it in joyous outbursts. A record that will be rediscovered long after CYHSY are forgotten.
I always felt bad for the Strokes for having this whole “saviors of rock and roll” thing thrown at them, since it sounded like the sort of weight that no band could really carry. But hey, who can blame everyone for getting excited? Even in its crippled American form – removing “New York City Cops,” one of its best tracks, after 9/11 – the record sounded both familiar and fresh, like a newly-excavated artifact from 1970s NYC. And its timing, on the cusp of the Internet revolution and the rise of the blogosphere, couldn’t have been better. Is This It may have sounded like a revolution upon its release, but it turns out it was simply a reminder: though if its need for a “savior” was overhyped, rock and roll always been worth your time.
I’m still not quite sure where this one came from. With an exception or two, Sloan’s records had been growing weaker and less-ambitious for a decade, their quirks (like, say, Andrew’s songs) having been washed over entirely. Then all of a sudden, they decided to record a 30-song epic that basically amounts to pulling their own White Album out of nowhere. It’s idiosyncratic, charmingly diverse and full of nearly everything that made Sloan of the most exciting Canadian bands in the early 1990s. Never Hear the End of It remains one of the decade’s biggest and most welcome surprises.
The “emo” genre, with its heart-on-sleeve teenageism placed on punk foundations, was a source of much dollar-earning and excessive hipster scorn throughout the 2000s. As with most things, the Brits did it better. Before Scottish rockers Idlewild started copping R.E.M. and aiming at stadium status, they released this efficient little piece of alt-punk in 2000 that’s pretty much the best emo record of the decade. It manages to maintain the genre’s overwrought and hyper-dramatic appeal while being smarter, more literate and more raw than nearly all other contenders. If only Americans had paid attention to this one, the decade’s teenage trajectory might have been quite a bit different.
It’s an open question as to whether or not Wolf Parade will be remembered on its own terms, or simply as the way that the world discovered two of Canada’s best songwriters. Apologies makes the case for not forgetting what Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner are capable of when they want to meet in the middle. Building on a series of EPs, and with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock at the helm, the band mashed together chord-driven indie rock and keyboard theatrics to create one of the definitive Canadian records of the decade. Though their individual parts may prove more significant in the long run, Apologies is the Parade’s compelling common ground.
Sea shanties. Revenge plots. Classical tragedies. That the Decemberists ever became more than an obscure acquired taste is pretty surprising when you consider just how bloody weird they are. But it all makes sense when you listen to Picaresque. It’s the record where the band’s narrative ambitions and pop sensibilities best co-operated with one another, from the rollicking intro of “The Infanta” all the way through the haunting outro of “Of Angels and Angles.” Best of all, of course, is “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” an epic eight-minute Melville-ian opus of pain, heartbreak and cold-hearted murder. It’s the 21st century’s best 18th century moment.
Even on their earlier, sloppier recordings, the Dears never lacked ambition. It wasn’t until No Cities Left, though, that they were finally able to leverage studio time and their learned professionalism to craft the sprawling opus of moody, melodramatic indie-prog that they had always dreamed of. The Smiths comparisons weren’t unwarranted, but the band’s embrace of slow-building post-rock and multi-layered guitars and keyboards made for a record that stretched beyond the band’s immediate influences, rewarding repeat listens and playing like a bloody monster live. I saw the band three times in 2003-04, and each time left with a greater admiration for the record they were building upon.
The Wrens are the Terrence Malick of indie rock: they don’t work very often, but they work wonders. The band’s website bears the motto “keeping you waiting since 1989,” a tongue-in-cheek way of recognizing that there are a lot of people out there impatient to see what they cook up next (and when, for that matter). 2003’s The Meadowlands is a good reason why: a clever, ambitious set of anthems both tiny and gigantic, and a record whose favour continues to grow with me year after year. Now if only the band would finish another one…
After At the Drive-In broke up into two separate bands, I found myself amused by not only how clear the split was – the Mars Volta as the prog/jammy side, Sparta as the punk side – but by how little I enjoyed each of those pieces separately. Like with many great amalgams, it’s the tension between divergent parts that both pushed At the Drive-In to premature greatness and also tore the band in two. Their final statement – 2000’s blistering, riveting Relationship of Command – only sounds like a band in turmoil in hindsight; at the time, it sounded like a forward-looking mashup of ambition and calculation, sound and fury.
Writing about these Jersey boys last month, I referred to them as a “one trick stallion,” which led to some rather cranky posts from fans on the band’s message board. They clearly missed that I intended it as a compliment – even if all it does is run around, who ever gets tired of watching a stallion? Likewise, The ’59 Sound is a record whose returns don’t diminish upon repeated listens because its gimmick – Springsteen as punk rock – is compelling enough to be infinitely sustainable. It makes me want to drop everything in my boring, young professional existence and start living out mythologies completely foreign to me: fast cars, faster women, and long summer nights desperately seeking some sort of salvation.
Yes, Paul Banks sounds like Ian Curtis. Yes, the band owes a healthy debt to Joy Division. But thankfully, we all got over those easy talking points rather quickly and moved onto just how bloody accomplished Interpol sounded right out the gate. I first heard Bright Lights in between band sets at a local bar, and I remember being awed by the transition from the reverb-heavy waves of “Untitled” to the efficient guitar stomp of “Obstacle 1.” For a record whose sound was so clearly defined, it’s amazing how much variety was packed into Bright Lights. No wonder that the band has struggled to follow it with something equally compelling.
I’m honestly a bit surprised that this one ended up on my list. When I was first brainstorming what records would be included in this exercise, I had a suspicion that gybe! might prove one of those bands that made sense at earlier point in my life – moody, cool-seeking teenage McNutt – but didn’t wear well with age and emotional distance. But Lift Yr Skinny Fists’ beauty cuts through the band’s sometimes-insufferable pretensions to create something rather magnificent: a sprawling, heartbreaking opus of post-rock bliss. A record that aged far better than I expected, and perhaps better than many of its listeners.
I’m sure that the Strokes were under intense pressure when recording the follow-up to Is This It, so it’s all the more remarkable that they managed to better it. Yes, Room on Fire doesn’t step far from the formula but it refines it with stricter rhythms, sharper riffs and just a bit more bite from Mr. Casablancas. And while the upbeat, danceable tracks like “Reptilia” and “12:51” are the initial standouts, the record’s real charm is the way the band learned to slow things down a bit without losing their edge, from the almost-reggae stomp of “Automatic Stop” to the swagger of “Under Control.” I know the rest of the world still considers Is This It the superior record; I’ve spent six years trying to understand how the hell they feel that way, and keep coming up empty. Give me Fire anyday.
Opening with “Black Mirror,” Neon Bible laid out its mission statement rather clearly: a darker, more twisted take on Funeral, almost as if it was that infamous record’s shadowy alterego. That it played more as a “double” than as an independent entity is, I suspect, one of the reasons it wasn’t as well received as its predecessor, but it’s also why I find it so compelling. It suggests that the religious-like devotion that Funeral inspired with its hopeful outbursts of joy weren’t sustainable, perhaps even a bit false. The characters on Neon Bible feel every bit as desperate for feeling as those on Funeral, but that desperation is leading them down darker paths towards uncertain destinations.
Perhaps the most appropriately-named album of the decade, Boys and Girls in America is the Hold Steady’s anthology of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s a record about the misbehaviors and mistakes that occur when alcohol-fueled teens and twenty-somethings smash into one another desperately seeking sensation of any sort. It treats the ups and the downs with equal weight, never skimping on the details of its characters’ adventures both magical or malevolent. With its best set of tunes and Craig Finn’s most impassioned vocals, the Hold Steady constructed one of the decade’s best drunken mythologies.
If you need evidence that we live in a singles-based music culture, there’s the fact that countless writers and fans believe that Oh Inverted World is the best Shins record. Baloney. Despite lacking a single as iconic as “New Slang,” Chutes Too Narrow expands on the band’s debut in every way. The guitars are clearer, the rhythms stronger and the songs…dear god, the SONGS. From the choral flourishes of “Saint Simon,” to the crisp acoustic bliss of “Gone for Good,” to the stomp of “So Says I,” Chutes manages to take tiny little folk sounds and make them sound like gigantic, epic masterpieces.
Stiff, brutal and efficient. Spoon spent the entire decade producing tiny brilliance after tiny brilliance, record after record. But Kill the Moonlight is still the pinnacle, and perhaps for a very simple reason: the piano. Though other records leveraged the guitar and bass for the band’s proto-pop, there’s something transcendent about hearing the fingers roll sharply over the keys throughout Moonlight’s best tracks. With Britt Daniel’s smokey vocals alongside, Spoon set out the template that would guide them through the decade: stripping their tracks down to their sharpest, most skeletal elements and slashing through everyone in their wake.
For the children of the 1980s, it was cassette tapes. For my generation, it was the burnt CD. There’s something romantic and mysterious about being handed an unlabeled musical artifact – no artwork, no markings except a name – and told simply to “listen.” I was handed a bootleg copy of the original British edition of Thunder, Lightning, Strike in early 2005 that was actually burnt quite badly – every song had its final 20 seconds repeated over again. It didn’t matter. The weird, wonderful record buried under the faulty copy was a blast of riotous energy: cheerleader chants! 1970s TV theme songs! Completely necessary horn sections! Few surprise parties this decade were as shamelessly fun as this one.
The greatest work by the decade’s greatest pop star, Late Registration isn’t interested in playing by any sort of rules. Clearly, Kanye didn’t need any help producing a rap record, so he recruited Fiona Apple collaborator and Paul Thomas Anderson composer Jon Brion to build his hip hop symphony: an album colossal, collaborative and cathartic all at once. ‘Ye manages to somehow be generous and greedy at the same time, both giving prime real estate to his peers but hogging the best hooks himself. Hell, I even enjoy the SKITS on this thing. He may have been more surprising on Dropout and more confident on Graduation, but Late Registration is Kanye West at his most gloriously ambitious.
I spent a good deal of my time in the summer of 2006 on the bus, taking the hour-long journey from my parents’ house to my work at the university and back again each day. My reading material was House of Leaves, a complicated, messy but riveting novel of danger and fear. My soundtrack was Shut Up I Am Dreaming, a complicated, messy but riveting album of danger and fear. Together, they kept me up at night. This was Spencer Krug’s statement that the Wolf Parade’s indie rock template was a starting point, not the end game. He had something far more ambitious, twisted and apocalyptic in mind and though he’s taken his sound in more complicated directions since, it never sounded as magical and mysterious as it did here.
I still find it hard to believe that every one of Silent Shout’s harrowing vocals is performed by Karin Dreijer Andersson. For months I was convinced that there was a male singer on the record, and it was only when I saw clips of the band tackle the record live that I finally understood just how far down the rabbit hole the Sweedish electronica duo had actually gone. At the very moment when the residual esteem of “Heartbeats” was peaking, the band drilled in the complete opposite direction and delivered the decade’s darkest masterwork – a Kraftwerkian opus of dread and despair.
Two robots, one vision: dance party of the century. Daft Punk were the kind of gimmick band that threatened to be a one-album wonder, their debut Homework perhaps left to live by itself as a fascinating 1990s artifact. And then, Discovery. In its amazing collection of songs, you can hear the entire decade that was to follow: synthesizers, rock hooks, hip hop beats, dance punk and (yes) autotune. Best of all, it reaffirmed that electronic music need not pick a side between dark and moody or radio-friendly and upbeat. Discovery sacrifices none of its edge while still sounding like the most shiny, wonderful toy you’ve ever heard.
Though I championed “Holiday” on my singles list, I’ll be honest: I’ve always thought that American Idiot’s politics were a bit overrated. All this talk of the album as this important protest record only demonstrated how desperate we were for protest during the Bush administration. No, American Idiot still resonates at decade’s end for its more timeless elements: a compelling portrayal of teenage alienation backed by the band’s shockingly-accomplished co-opting of rock and roll history. Most records are content to be about kids or adults; few are as honest about the transition between the two. Even the best of us punks have to grow up someday, a reminder that echoes with a tinge of sadness every time the final chord of “Whatsername” rings through the stereo.
Though many of us believe that Modest Mouse may hail from another planet, The Moon and Antarctica actually sounds like an interstellar artifact. Gone were the drunken road songs and scattershot experiments of albums past, replaced by a larger, existential quest through the spaces between spaces. In spite of its barren namesakes, The Moon and Antarctica is not a cold record but it sure is a lonely one, the reverberated guitars and moody keyboards given ample room to breathe. It’s easy to get drawn into its big questions and unknown answers because there’s really no one else other than Isaac Brock in there, asking what the hell everything means.
Though beloved by many – and not without its charms – Mass Romantic always sounded to me like a record made by beautiful machines. In contrast, Twin Cinema sounds a record made by beautiful people. It took the predominantly-Canadian supergroup a couple of records to figure out how to rival their multitracked perfectionism with something equally compelling, but herethey figured it out at every level, from giving Neko Case the ballads to fitting Dan Bejar’s songs perfectly within the whole. Most importantly it’s their most playful record, embracing experiments like “Falling Through Your Clothes” alongside the blissful power-pop of “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” For me, Twin Cinema was the first time the Pornographers sounded like a real band, and my god did it sound amazing.
I take great pride in the fact that I’m a fairly boring person. I like my problems manageable, my passions miniature and many of my Saturday nights quiet. Boxer is a record about the sorts of tiny dramas I relish, each of them elevated to sheer bliss by the National’s incomparable ability to amplify the smallest flourishes into something spectacular. A simple night on the town becomes a short play, a minor romance becomes an act of self-exploration, a drink or two becomes a moment of intense reflection. Focusing their range without losing their passion, the National delivered an album that sounds less like a series of pints and more like a quiet glass of whiskey: a little bit sad, but surprisingly profound.
This month, Spin Magazine ran an article about rock and roll “myths” that was basically an excuse to publish semi-controversial contrarian opinions. The cover story: “Radiohead Can Do Wrong,” a library list of stereotypical rockist complaints about the band’s creative decisions this past decade. I could see this sort of analysis hitting a decent note a few years ago, but after In Rainbows it just seems silly. Any worries that Radiohead would become the sort of alternative band that kept making good-but-unimportant records for the rest of their career vanished when they delivered their most impassioned, melodic and tuneful disc in a decade. Without losing everything they’d learned about soundscapes and rhythm, Radiohead rediscovered the song and notched another truly great record in their belt.
Mystique matters, though you wouldn’t know it from the currents of our digital age. When your favourite musicians are on Twitter and an army of amateur critics are dissecting their every move, the very idea of building a novel mythology seems quaint, like a bizarre construct from a bygone era. But even though every piece of the White Stripes puzzle was quickly solved – like the fact that they’re not actually brother and sister – we loved them because they tried. They wanted to be both completely manufactured and totally authentic in doing so, and somehow succeeded in pouring that complicated mantra through sixteen blistering guitar songs on White Blood Cells. Though later albums would expand the band’s sound, White Blood Cells is all the more remarkable because it achieved revelation while still keeping the aesthetic brutally simple: loud, bold and brilliant.
Conor Oberst has spent a good deal of his career offering up easy reasons to dislike him, from his affected vocals to his unfortunate stage behavior to his current obsession with writing rather boring country songs. And yet, there’s always been flashes of brilliance behind the bullshit. So when he finally cut the crap and made I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the result was a stunner. No record this decade better mashed up personal angst with our political anxieties, as if understanding modern war and protest is as much a struggle for personal peace as it is a quest for common ground. The album’s title comes from its final track “Road to Joy,” which provides as good an assessment of a decade under the influence as anything I’ve come across: “the sun came up with no conclusions.”
I don’t like long albums. I’m pretty steadfast in my belief that 40 minutes is the ideal length for a record, and even good albums that last longer than an hour frustrate me, to the point where I’ll actively seek out weaker tracks to ignore so I can get through them faster. I’ve never once been frustrated by Illinois. Despite filling up an entire compact disc, there’s not a moment of filler on the record; even the interludes are much-needed breaks between some of the decade’s most powerful songwriting. Piecing together past events, personal anecdote and an astute sense of geography, Stevens seems less interested in making an “album” than he is building a manufactured state of Illinois, full of living, breathing history. And yet, it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the the heartbreak of “Casimir Pulaski Day” or the joy of “Chicago.” For all his miraculous constructions, it’s the people in Stevens’ histories that make his Illinois worth living in.
“Break all codes,” said the UPC label on the back cover of You Forgot It in People. “We hate your hate,” read the inside package of the band’s self-titled follow-up. That I ever fell in love with this bunch of pretentious hippies still surprises me, but You Forgot It In People speaks to the power of the band’s process even if you never buy into one ounce of their “peace and love” philosophy. When you consider how talented Broken Social Scene’s separate pieces are – and how huge many of them would become on their own – there’s a shocking lack of ego on this record. Every moment feels as if it exists only to serve the next moment. You can almost picture the next vocalist waiting their turn to step to the mic, listening with admiration and pride at the work their peers are putting together in the meantime. It’s a record by friends, about friends, for friends. Maybe I do buy into its pretentions after all…
In hindsight, Kid A seems self-evident. Why wouldn’t Radiohead craft this claustrophobic, insular masterpiece? Why wouldn’t the band take their well-earned popularity and make a bold artistic left turn? Why wouldn’t Thom Yorke pick up the keyboard and call “rock and roll” into question? But that’s what a decade of hindsight gets you. At the time, though, Kid A was friggin’ brave, easily the bravest album by a major-label artist of their stature since U2’s Achtung Baby – and that was a record with singles! And somehow, Kid A managed to become one of our decade’s most beloved works. I remember the moment when I learned that it had debuted at the top of the Billboard charts. Without a single compromise, the greatest band in the world had become – for a moment – the biggest band in the world. In a silly, teenage way, it was as if *we* had won. At decade’s end, Rolling Stone named Kid A the best album of the past ten years. At decade’s end, we’re still winning.
The record so nice that Warner Brothers bought it twice, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s creation narrative was the stuff of legend, the kind of quick anecdote that could be tossed off to explain everything wrong with the record industry in one fell swoop. Long after the story’s novelty has worn off, though, the question at its core is still confounding: how on earth could someone listen to YHF and not hear an instant classic? In a decade where many of the most exciting sounds were about deconstruction and reconstruction, Wilco took one of the most traditional of all genres – acoustic folk – and broke it into a million pieces, rebuilding it again into something that sounded new and exciting, yet still close and familiar. Its songs fall apart and come back together again, managing that teetering balance between order and chaos that all truly great music depends upon. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot didn’t fit any easily-identifiable label, mind you, which is perhaps where Warner Brothers lost the plot. But that’s the beauty of our decade: we got to write our own plots.
In some ways, I suppose that’s an obvious question: we are talking about one of the most beloved records of the decade by any measure, a tour-de-force phenomenon that’s undeniable even if it wasn’t your personal cup of tea. But even as someone whose shameless activism for this record and this band has been well documented, this wasn’t easy. As long as I’ve been thinking about this list – a good year or two, at the very least – my top three slots have been reserved for these top three records; nothing else was really ever in contention. But how to order these records, each near and dear to me, was probably more agonizing than these sorts of silly lists should ever be.
At one point, Kid A was in the top spot, but I struggled with whether it truly spoke to the decade or if it was an outlier – the last great event album, one final brilliant relic of an era forever changed by the digital age. At one point, it was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its shattered Americana at number one, but I wondered it if was an artifact made modern through deconstruction instead of something truly modern. However, how “modern” really is Funeral – a record that owes great debts to its all-too-obvious influences, from David Bowie and U2 to the Talking Heads?
But I’m not sure if Funeral could have happened in any other decade. It’s a record whose success spoke better than any other to the turning of the tides, the collapse of the traditional industry paradigm giving way to the exciting and terrifying post-digital world. Funeral’s glorious choruses and fist-pounding passions demanded more than just devotion: they demanded action. The moment the final notes of “In the Backseat” faded out for the first time, I started telling people about this amazing new band, and it’s clear I wasn’t alone in that reaction. It was as if we all realized, at the same time, that the only way this record was going to get heard is if we shared the word: writing on websites, ranting on blogs, shouting across dinner tables, cranked loud at parties, illegally spreading the songs like viruses across file-sharing networks.
I don’t come from a religious background, so Funeral may have been the first time I truly understood evangelical movements. As the weeks and months went by, I never passed up the opportunity to tell anyone and everyone about Funeral. I have friends who can vividly recall exact conversations where I – equal parts impassioned and intoxicated – ranted and raved about this new record that they had to drop everything and download. It had nothing to do with increasing the record’s sales or the band’s following. I simply wanted everyone I cared about to feel the way I did when I listened to the record. And if I didn’t give them that opportunity, who would?
We may be the last generation to remember the music world as it was before the great collapse; now we spend our days trying to organize the deluge left behind. The television spits static. The radio buzzes with a tragic hiss. The windows of the record store are boarded up, spray paint written on the door. “The power’s out in the heart of man / take it from your heart, put it in your hand.”
We are all evangelists now. And Funeral is our first great hymn.