Thursday, December 31, 2009

10 years.

Wilco said, "It's the end of the century/And I can't think of anything/except you."

My lists, like I said earlier, are going to be a little different. The songs that I've listed immediately below are the labeled the best songs of the decade. These are the songs that I enjoyed the most this decade, in approximately the order I enjoyed them. (There has been much internal debate.) Number one is unchangeable. If you want to argue over order after that, we can talk.

The albums, on the other hand, are labeled, as the top five of the decade. These five albums are, I think, some kind of combination of the following: the most important music made this decade, the music that meant the most (I don't really know if that's different) and the music that I enjoyed.

However, the top five list is not merely populated with the stuff that I liked, because that would be untrue. So I felt the need to include a third list of stuff that came out in the last ten years (and one more, see below) that I loved the hell out of, but wasn't anywhere near the best.

You should already have all of these songs and albums. If you don't, you need to remedy that immediately. If you have any questions, as usual, feel free to ask.

Best Songs of the Decade

1. "Float On" by Modest Mouse - Simply put, the single song on this list that I could see myself listening to 6o years down the road and still feeling as good about. "Float On" got a lot of press when it dropped, for changing the sound of the Mouse a bit, and I continue to see it on a few lists of the best of the decade, but it's too far down. TIME Magazine called this the "The Decade From Hell" and there were times when we needed a pickup - no song does that better, or will continue to do so, than "Float On" by Modest Mouse.

2. "New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes)" by The Shins - Barring its overexposure in Garden State, this song (and the band as a whole) really can change a person's life. A great piece of pop recorded by some guys who grew up in the 505 that had a dark, dark undercurrent to it. The Shins' first two albums stand as keynotes of this decade and the return of lo-fi pop to the mainstream. This song stands as the banner of those albums.

3. "Hey Ya!" by OutKast - Definitely not the best rap song of the decade, nor the most popular (thanks a ton, Soulja Boy, you jerk) but the one that did the most to continue to bridge the gap between so-called black music and the white majority. When the mass market consumes (good) hip-hop on such a level, it is a good thing. "Hey Ya!" did more to push OutKast through those barriers than the Grammys they'd been nominated for and even more than the one they'd won! This is a semi-sad statement, but only if you ignore the sweet sounds put forth by Andre 3000. A classic gem.

4. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" by Wilco - Here's the deal: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of the most important albums this decade. And when the album starts off, we hear the weirdest combination of sounds, followed by a drumbeat that sounds like a ticking clock. This whole song is (was?) the sound of the implosion of the record label industry; with its well-known voyage not needing repeating, let's simply acknowledge that Wilco was ahead of their time, the album rules and, while there were other singles that I might have chosen, no song did more with so little to acclimate people to the fact that things were changing.

5. "Lose Yourself" by Eminem - The most inescapable song of the decade. Changed Eminem's career more than his loathed (most of all by himself) breakthrough single. And, on top of all that, the best sports motivation song since "The Eye of the Tiger." Teams blasted it, teens loved it, parents tolerated it. This song would have been the perfect pop combination for hip-hop, had OutKast not come along with their weirdass throwback. The perfect pop star of the first half of the decade at the apex of his career.

6. "Daylight" by Matt & Kim - Those who know me well shouldn't be shocked by this placement. Undeniably my song of the year, it catapults into the list of the decade (I kept it out of the top 5, but only after many battles) by sheer virtue of its ability to make anyone who listens happy. The simple beat, the drums and keyboards, the lyrics full of hope and then the booming chorus...all of these aspects culminate in a song that I'm not sure I could ever get tired of hearing.

7. "Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson - From the first moment I heard this song, I wondered if it was going to be the guiltiest of my pleasures. Then I remembered that I don't have to feel guilty about liking pop songs, because I don't have any pretensions about my music taste! Whew. Big sigh of relief. Seriously, though, this might be the best pure-pop song released in my lifetime. It's pure syrup, funneled through the horrid lens of American Idol. If we have to endure the show for ten more years, it will be worth it because we got Ms. Clarkson, who is so much more than a one-hit wonder, with the songs she continues to pump out being great, great examples of the wonders of pop music. None, however, can measure up to her first song and its belted out chorus. I dare you to try and not to sing along.

8. "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes - This song was the hardest for me to include on this list, because, for some reason, I'm not a huge fan of the White Stripes. I think Elephant looks amazingly pedestrian in hindsight, but this song, hated by me upon release, proved amazingly resistant to my feelings. It wiggle and squirmed into my head and it wouldn't get out. Combined with the people who were pre-disposed to love it, this song became a monster, a self-fulfilling prophecy where the band marched over any who would put up their token resistance. The pure driving rhythm of the bass and drums would not be denied.

9. "Crazy in Love" by Beyonce - A contender for the most inescapable song of the decade crown. Back before Jay and B were married (in secret, but for real, but don't let pictures out, and don't talk about, but OK, they are) they killed any other contenders to the duet category by putting out this notice. In 2003, Beyonce was just that girl from Destiny's Child and Jay-Z was a great rapper, especially after the success of the Blueprint, but this song prepped both of them for superstardom that, as we look back in 2009, appears as though it was inevitable. The beat is frantically catchy, without any of the annoying sound effects of some of her late songs (that's right "Single Ladies" I'm looking at you), the Jay verse fits in perfectly, and the result was sweet.

10. "Idioteque" by Radiohead - For the last song of the decade, I'm only cheating a little bit. "Idioteque" is my favorite Radiohead song ever, and Kid A probably deserves a spot on the top albums of the decade but got shoved out by stiff competition. So, yes, Radiohead has to have a spot on my list, and this is where they get in. Now, with all those disclaimers, let me continue to say this: "Idioteque" is probably the best song Radiohead has ever recorded, as well. While much fuss is made over "Everything in its Right Place" as the first track of such a game-changing album (just like I gave to Wilco) the simple fact is that "Idioteque" continues the sonic experimentation in a way that the first track doesn't come close to matching! Kid A, however, is a true album, with the tracks meshing, and needing that all-important ordering, so it's hard to truly say that we can just indiscriminately grab any one and say it's better than the others. When looked at carefully, though, "Idioteque" stands as the culmination of those efforts.

Top 5 Albums of the Decade

5. Arcade Fire's Funeral - For all the press that the "The" bands got early in the decade (you know: The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, etc.) it wasn't until 2004, when the Arcade Fire came out with this semi-concept album that indie rock really, truly returned to a prominent place. Important not only for the swelling music, the multi-instrumentation that has since become a standard, nor merely the way in which it shook the industry, Funeral sounded like somebody with skills and vision setting out to change the way we heard things. They did, we did, and everyone benefited.

4. Green Day's American Idiot - The other side of the zeitgeist of the first half of the decade. Interestingly enough, released only one week after Funeral. Proved that pop-punkers could grow up and do something musical, proved that Green Day's early success wasn't a fluke, and proved that people of my generation still loved the Who. Green Day hit upon something, somehow, that tapped into what so many young people were feeling at the time. It was the most unexpected thing, from the most unexpected place, but it resulted in something that was very unifying. American Idiot set up a level that Green Day will never be able to reach again, but for that brief period when people were discovering this record, it seemed like anything was possible, not just for them, but for us.

3. Bruce Springsteen's The Rising - When this album came out, I immediately called it the Album of the Decade. Obviously, 7 years has changed just a little bit, but it hasn't changed the fact that this is the single most important album (and best sounding!) made about the most important thing that happened this decade. The Rising set Bruce Springsteen on his own mini-revival this decade, but that's beside the point: with this album, Bruce recorded a cornucopia of authentic reactions to a defining moment. It's impossible to hear this and not recall details about the events of September 11, 2001. And he doesn't focus on one side of the story, either, with the penultimate song, "Paradise," being a brave choice at that time. A tremendously bold artistic decision by a man who'd been stuck in the middle ground, The Rising showed that out of great tragedy can come beautiful art, and it set the stage for more to come, from Bruce individually, as well as from those who chose to take bold choices.

2. Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker - I will not lie: I didn't get into this album until more than a year after it was released. When I was in college, I was pushed onto Whiskeytown. My order of purchase went Pneumonia, Ryan's Gold and then Heartbreaker. If it's not too much cheating, I'd like to nominate all three of those albums for the number two slot on this list. But, I figured that was too much cheating, so I had to boil it down, and there's no escaping the fact that Heartbreaker stands head and shoulders above the other two albums. (This, despite the fact that Pneumonia is on my list of all-time top five favorite records! I'm telling you, this was a bitch of a decision!) Ryan Adams changed the way I listen to music. While I'd been fond of claiming that I listened to, "Everything but country," for most of my life, the truth was I didn't give country music many chances. Most of what I heard was terrible, cliche and obnoxious. Ryan Adams changed that, and, in the process, became my favorite musician of all time. His work, whether solo, with Whiskeytown, with the Cardinals, or with anyone else, stands up against anything else by anyone else. His best work can stand with the classics of any genre. There is not a single person this decade who influenced the music that I listened to and enjoyed, what I thought of as good, more than Ryan Adams. There is, however, one album that did so...

1. Kanye West's College Dropout - That's right, I said it. The College Dropout is the album of the decade. While Ryan Adams changed how I listened to music, Kanye changed how everyone listened to music. From his production to his over-the-top-in-real-life persona, Kanye ruled the decade. Late Registration has gotten better in hindsight, Graduation was great from the get-go, but College Dropout changed the game. The soul sound started to come back before this album dropped, because of the other hits that he produced, but this album pushed it through. Talib Kweli had been around before, but after this album, his name started getting dropped regularly. Common had been loved before this album, but after signing with Kanye and GOOD Music, his next two albums charted at #2 and #1. Jay-Z had been the man, but with Kanye producing his hits, he had a distinct sound.

But that's just measuring his effect on other people. His effect on the music itself cannot be overstated. Mixing backpack rap and materialism, swagger and insecurity, a blatant love for family and an aspiration to lonely superstardom, and the most agonizing sexual ambiguity (from fighting against homophobia to famously being portrayed as a gay fish) we've ever seen, Kanye West is a bag of contradictions. Those faults, however, did absolutely nothing to slow down College Dropout. In 2009, it's a different story, but when this album dropped (in 2004, good God! what a year for music) there was nothing out of place. Even tracks that could be seen as filler on a lesser album ("The New Workout Plan") seem like they mesh here. The overall message, coming from someone who seemed like a pretty smart guy, was such a vicious assault on the American education system I was shocked his mother still spoke to him.

Kanye's output since then, both musically and personally, has varied. That's neither here nor there. College Dropout is the five-star record of the decade, influencing everything that came after it, stylistically and musically. It's a front to back album that will stand the test of time.

Favorite Albums of the Decade

As I've said, I felt bad leaving these albums off my list. For the sake of my own failing memory, I'm writing them down here, so that I can always see what shaped me. These are the albums that I obsessed with, that I didn't think were in the realm of Best Album consideration - some of them are far off, but some were closer than you might think to busting into that range.

Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends - The album that made me do this list. There's no way that I can recap this decade without including this album. When I moved back to New Mexico, this was the soundtrack.

The Shins - Oh, Inverted World & Chutes Too Narrow - Local boys done good. Perfect pop masterpieces. Both these albums fit onto one CD. If you don't have these albums, email me and I'll send them to you, because you need them.

Jay-Z - The Blueprint & The Black Album - I've rocked Jigga hard (forgoing the pause) for almost fifteen years now. His output isn't nearly as consistent as he'd have you believe, but anyone who argues against the Blueprint as classic is a fool. The Black Album should just be re-released when he gets ready to really retire. People would buy it again, it's that good.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot & A Ghost is Born & Sky Blue Sky - Wilco deserves more press for this three album stretch that changed them. YHF got all the words, but, for my money, Sky Blue Sky might be their best album of the decade, perhaps edging out Being There as their best ever? A consummately professional band (including the non-professional-ness that's needed by anyone in a band), it shocks the hell out of me that the people who were riding them hard in the YHF-era now think they're not worth talking about.

Beck - Sea Change & Modern Guilt - Again, mostly put here for the timespan and the change. To go from Sea Change to Modern Guilt, both great albums in their own right, but so completely different, shows that Beck's got skills way beyond Odelay which everyone loved and Mellow Gold, which remains the standard. Modern Guilt deserved more accolades than it got.

OutKast - This decade was hard for the boys from the South. After Aquemini (one of the best rap records of all time, but getting no placement on the list because it was released last decade) it seemed like the world was theirs. Stankonia was amazing, but not on the same level. Idlewild was better than the shit it took. And the double album was innovative, but suffered. The sum of OutKast is more than the whole of its parts. Big Boi's solo CD should have been out already. It's sad how they've kind of faded from the scene, but they remain one of the best groups in the short history of hip-hop. Undeniable.

The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - Another album that changed how I listened to music. I really wanted to get into the Flaming Lips after loving this album, but nothing they've done since (or before) measures up. That's fine, because this is one hell of an album.

The Kleptones - A Night at the Hip-Hopera - Began my love for the Mash-Up genre and still stands as the best example thereof. A more important album than people realized, with its anti-record label message embedded in the music itself, it gives a new meaning to the phrase, "The message is the medium."

Q-Tip - The Renaissance - The album that we were waiting for him to make? Maybe not. But that doesn't change the fact that it's a damn good record. And it got slept on.

Radiohead - Kid A & Hail to the Thief & In Rainbows - I couldn't possibly put this list up without including Radiohead. Kid A got the top slot or top five on a lot of lists and I don't have anything against that. Hail to the Thief gets better and better in retrospect. And In Rainbows is a lot better than originally reported. The best band in the world got better this decade. I look forward to seeing what they do next.

And last, but not least:

Jimmy Eat World - Clarity - It broke my heart to look this album up and realize that it came out in 1999. This record is tied with Tell All Your Friends as the soundtrack to the happiest time in my life. College and the friends I had, the people I met, the moving from here to there and back again, everything, can be summed up by my friend Greg's favorite record of all time. I regret to report that I've actually seen Jimmy Eat World, when they were on tour for the album after this one, and that I talked smack. I was ignorant. This album gets one of the largest shout outs I can muster but it wasn't released this decade. If you don't have it, get it. It might not sonically fit with what's being pumped out right now, but as we all know, that's not always a bad thing.

So there you have it. The last ten years in musical form. Let the revisions begin.

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