PHW's Albums of the Decade - # 10-1

I’ve had a lot of fun this week bringing you my 50 personal favorite albums of the past ten years. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well, and if there are any records on this list that you’ve ignored or missed or simply haven’t heard of by all means check them out. Feel free to leave a comment as well now that you’ve seen the whole thing. Peace.

10. Kid A / Radiohead (2000)

I’ll admit it right here - when I first heard Kid A I was one of those disappointed guitar purists confused by the band’s sudden lack of, well, rock songs. Kid A’s mix of ghost-in-the-machine electronics, IDM rhythms, and the general absence of the soaring version of Thom Yorke’s vocals made for an initial disappointment. But you know how the rest of the story goes…repeat listens >> close attention >> gradual conversion >> deep appreciation >> life-changing album.

9. Separation Sunday / The Hold Steady (2005)

Her parents named her Hallelujah/ the kids all called her Holly/ If she scared you then she's sorry/ she's been stranded at these parties/ These parties they start lovely, but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody/ The priest just kinda laughed/ The deacon caught a draft/ She crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass/ She was limping left on broken heels/ when she said, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”.

Coming on like either a bar-stool nerd poet or the world’s whitest rapper, Craig Finn’s redemption-themed story arc about a sweet girl named Holly (who‘s made some not-sweet friends) is as painstakingly detailed, earnest, and laugh-out-loud funny as anything I’ve ever heard. That it’s accompanied by the band’s gritty, pub-ready bravado makes for one of the decade’s best straight rock n’ roll records.

8. You & Me / The Walkmen (2008)

You & Me seemed to surprise a lot of people who must not have been paying very close attention to what came before it. 2004's Bows & Arrows was a landmark album that, apparently, many doubted could be topped, especially when it was followed by the somewhat disappointing A Hundred Miles Off. You & Me amends for that album’s missteps by dropping the angular guitar-rock for a rhythmic, woozy grandeur. The result is an absolute masterpiece - the perfect soundtrack for headphones, street lights, and city cement. Just don’t say you were surprised. You & Me was meant to be.

Stream :: You & Me

7. Is This It (U.K. Version) / The Strokes (2001)

The Strokes’ ascension to prominence in the early part of the decade was one of the first displays of just how influential the internet could be in making (and nearly breaking) a band. Scores of lesser acts have since been thrown into the hype machine and fallen flat on their faces. With the way the bratty, riches-to-richer back-story of the band turned off a lot of folks you’d think that the same fate would’ve befallen The Strokes. Not quite. The reason they survived is simple - Is This It is much, much better than the hype said it was. The U.K. version, which featured “New York City Cops” (deemed insensitive in the wake of 9/11 and left off U.S. versions in favor of the lesser “When It Started”) is better top to bottom and gets the nod here.

6. Kids In Philly / Marah (2000)

Kids In Philly is a swaggering, ambitious homage to Marah’s hometown of Philadelphia. Filled with banjos strummed like they were electric guitars, soulful street-procession horns, and brothers Dave & Serge Bielanko’s wordy, rapid-fire urban tales, the band rushes through these 11 songs in just 35 breathtaking minutes. A series of poor decisions derailed the band’s momentum in the years that followed, but for a short time during 2000-2001 Marah were America’s most exciting up-and-coming rock & roll band, and Kids In Philly is the dizzyingly cocksure proof. Brotherly love never sounded so good.

5. Kill The Moonlight / Spoon (2002)

On the heels of the career rejuvenating Girls Can Tell, Britt Daniels took another batch of his typically frantic pop songs and starved them until they were nothing more than skin and bones (and, on one occasion, beat-boxing). For a band that treats minimalism like its 5th member, Kill The Moonlight is their leanest and the meanest offering. And in that sense it is the band’s quintessential statement - a spacious, nervy, anxious romp through pop-rock perfection. Spoon was the decade’s best band, and Kill The Moonlight is their crowning achievement.

MP3 :: The Way We Get By
MP3 :: Jonathon Fisk

4. Funeral / Arcade Fire (2004)

For a record with such a bleak title, Funeral had little trouble satisfying our collective desire for music that was bigger than life. But for all of Funeral’s earnest sentiments and expansive arrangements, it’s the childlike stories and images (our parents, our parents’ bedrooms, older brothers, kids swinging from the power lines, all of “Wake Up”) that connected on some level with pretty much every young adult in the world with discernible music tastes.

MP3 :: Rebellion (Lies)

3. Person Pitch / Panda Bear (2007)

Panda Bear’s masterpiece is a pitch perfect combination of soaring, Brian Wilson-inspired pop and hypnotic, childlike mantras that gradually snuck towards the upper reaches of this list as it did to my 2007 list. A positively joyous listening experience and possibly the most beautiful album on this entire list.

2. The Creek Drank The Cradle / Iron & Wine (2002)

Sam Beam’s collection of reverent, homespun southern anthems, all featuring just acoustic guitar and some overdubbed banjo and pedal steel, is one of the purest recordings of the decade. That these songs, recorded in a near whisper to four-track in Beam’s home, were picked up by Sub Pop (at the time still best known for blistering alt-rock pioneers like Nirvana and Mudhoney) and released “as is” reveals their true power. One that comes from their quiet, traditional beauty rather than from trying to shout for your attention.

MP3 :: Lion’s Mane
MP3 :: Southern Anthem

1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot / Wilco (2002)

There are a bunch of albums I consider when thinking of my all-time favorites - London Calling, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Exile On Main Street, Let It Be (The Replacements, not those other guys), Nebraska, Still Feel Gone, Doolittle, Highway 61 Revisited, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, etc. Besides the already mentioned commonality, they all share one other trait - they all became favorites of mine well after their initial release. For some that was primarily because they came out either before I was born or before I was paying attention. Others just weren’t the types of album I was listening to at the time - even Aeroplane, which came out in '98, took me a few years to discover and catch up with. If you think about it, your favorite band releasing your favorite album when you are actually anticipating it is an incredibly rare event - one that only happens, if you’re lucky, a handful of times in your life. For me it’s been once. Guess when.
By 2001 I had been into Wilco for about 5 or 6 years. After my initial enjoyment of A.M. the band landed the 1-2 punch of Being There and Mermaid Avenue, catapulting them into constant rotation on my 5-disc changer with all the other great alt. country acts of that era. They then “officially” usurped The Tragically Hip (shut up) as my very favorite band sometime in 1999 with the release of Summerteeth. When word came a few years later that they were working on its follow up my excitement reached a fairly dysfunctional intensity. I probably checked Wilcoworld and the ViaChicago message board several times a day hoping for some little scrap of information to appease my immense curiosity. After what seemed like fucking forever, a Chicago radio station started streaming “Poor Places” from their website. That night I listened over and over, probably upwards of 15 or 20 times, gradually memorizing all the strange, exciting sounds and hoping the rest of YHF would be as perfect as this first glimpse. Wilco had already released several challenging, adventurous songs by this point, but nothing prepared me for the confounding, non-linear structure of “Poor Places” or the wall of abrasive noise that closed it. Still, it was clear that underneath the dissonance was a classic folk ballad, and one of the best songs Jeff Tweedy had ever written.
But that’s when all the infamous shit went down. What happened next has evolved into indie-rock folklore, and has perhaps become one of the decade’s defining musical stories. After deeming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot too challenging and without a song they would be able to push to radio, Reprise Records decided not to release it. Wilco were unceremoniously dropped from the label and allowed to purchase YHF back from Reprise and search for a new home. During their time in record label purgatory Wilco decided to do something that was, at the time, practically unprecedented. They streamed YHF in its entirety from their website. The highly unconventional move worked on every conceivable level. For fans it was a way to hear an album that the band was obviously very proud of even though no one had any idea when or if it would ever see the light of day. The move also ignited a bidding war between labels eager for the opportunity to release a record that was so obviously something special (to everyone but some moronic suits at Reprise). That privilege went to Nonesuch. With a new home came an official release date - sometime in late April, 2002. After listening to a stream through crappy computer speakers for so long, that first drive home from the store with the new CD blasting was an absolute revelation. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had arrived, and it sounded better than ever.

For someone who had obsessed over music since early high school, that day was the rarest of events. My favorite band released my favorite album, and I was right there on the day it (finally) hit the shelves. If you’ve read this far you don’t need me to tell you about the music itself, you probably know every cryptic word and jarring note as well as I do. Ever since the moment I first heard the disorienting opening minutes of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” no other album on this list, great as they are, had a chance. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t just my favorite album of the past 10 years. It’s my favorite album. And I’ve known it since the day it was born.


Mark C said...

Great list. Enjoyed reading this week. I whole heartedly agree with you that YHF is the unquestionable masterpiece of the decade. I think the great thing about list is that they highlight some albums that might have slipped through our fingers. I'm going to have to check out Kids In Philly, Magnolia Electric Co. and Vacilando Territory Blues.

Wayne said...

Yes, great list James. Many of these albums will feature highly with me. Although I have Boys and Girls in America above Separation Sunday.

James said...

Mark - thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I use lists all the time to fill in the gaps of my own listening.

Wayne, looking forward to yours. I like Boys & Girls very much as well, but SS does mroe for me.