PHW's Albums of the Decade - #20-11

We’re getting down into it now. Here’s # 20-11 of my favorite albums of the decade. Thanks for stopping by, and look for the top ten tomorrow.

20. Let’s Get Out Of This Country / Camera Obscura (2006)

A nearly flawless gem of a record from the co-ed Scottish group that just gets better with age. The title track, “If Looks Could Kill” and especially the dizzyingly perfect “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” find Tracyanne Campbell singing some of the finest indie-pop hooks this side of A.C. Newman, while acoustic torch songs like “Country Mile” and “Dory Previn” give the album its battered heart.

MP3 :: Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken

19. Magnolia Electric Co. / Songs: Ohio (2003)

After recording some of the bleakest music of his era, Jason Molina opted to approach the transitory Magnolia Electric Co. differently. He brought his touring band, a crew who conjured a Crazy Horse-like intensity, into the studio to record his finest batch of songs yet. Highlights like “John Henry Split My Heart”, “Just Be Simple”, and, of course, the monolithic “Farewell Transmission” gush with blue-collar heartache and Molina’s aching, lonesome voice.

MP3 :: Farewell Transmission

18. Alligator / The National (2005)

Alligator should have announced a new critical and commercial darling to the indie-rock scene, but for some reason many only caught up with the band a few years later with the release of Boxer. Calling Alligator a “grower” though, as many have, is absurd - a completely revisionist excuse for missing the boat. I’ve hardly been smacked harder in the face on first listen by an album this decade than I was the first time I heard the rolling chords of “Secret Meeting”. And from there Alligator takes the richly-detailed working man blues of Matt Berninger and injects them into a batch of bracing rockers (hell yeah “Abel”) and nuanced, chamber-pop songs.

Stream :: Abel

17. Merriweather Post Pavilion / Animal Collective (2009)

After the occasionally harsh sounds of Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective filled Merriweather Post Pavilion with the same soft harmonies and mesmeric repetitions that made Person Pitch a stone-classic. That stylistic decision works particularly well within the album’s recurring themes of fatherhood and the struggle to overcome limitations to provide for your kids (see “My Girls”, especially). For years before this, their big breakthrough, Animal Collective churned out whimsical sing-alongs (“Grass”, “Leaf House”, “Peacebone”, etc) that seemed tailor-made for kids to shout along with. Ironically, it wasn’t until they started singing about adult concerns that a whole new generation of indie-kids started catching on.

16. Mass Romantic / The New Pornographers (2000)

A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar, and Neko Case’s art-pop side project turned out to be a bigger hit than anything they had done separately, turning the band into the ultimate revisionist super-group. Though they went on to make more commercially successful albums in the years that followed, nothing else captured the reckless, bizarre, and truly collaborative spirit of the band as well as their debut.

15. White Blood Cells / The White Stripes (2001)

At the heart of White Blood Cells are the recurring themes of old-fashioned simplicity (“Hotel Yorba”, “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman”) and nostalgia (“We‘re Going To Be Friends”, “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known”). Neither is a hard rock platitude, but then again there weren’t many conventional aspects to Jack & Meg’s rise to prominence. Afterwards came Jack’s public relationship with an overrated celebrity, the movie cameos, and the cross-over appeal to mainstream rock fans courtesy of “Seven Nation Army” and The Raconteurs. But White Blood Cells captures the duo in their last moments before superstardom, unfettered by expectations and just out to make the best album they possibly could. Each record they’ve done since has been worthy of praise (most notably Get Behind Me Satan), but none comes close to the bare-bones 60’s garage-rock revivalism of their breakthrough.

14. The Moon & Antarctica - Modest Mouse (2000)

With its title referencing the two most remote, desolate places man has set foot, The Moon & Antarctica takes the sprawl of The Lonesome Crowded West and tightens things up thematically. With production help from Red Red Meat’s Brian Deck, Isaac Brock crafted a focused set of songs here that tackle distance, isolation, loneliness, and the afterlife with a sharp pen and the band’s typically angular sound. Though they made great independent albums before this one, and have enjoyed well-deserved crossover success on a major label since, nothing else in their catalog comes close to this dark, staggeringly ambitious masterpiece.

13. Black Sheep Boy / Okkervil River (2005)

With a plaintive cover of Tim Hardin’s title track, Okkervil River open the curtain on a set of highly literate songs filled with tension, violence, wanderlust, longing, and old fashioned romantic courtships. After a handful of more humble efforts, the thematically tight songs on Black Sheep Boy allowed the band to reach a new level of self-assuredness. They sound downright bloodthirsty on “For Real” and “Black”, and give plenty of subtle sonic weight to quieter moments like “A Stone” and “Get Big”. At the center of it all though is singer Will Sheff, whose often dramatic vocals and delivery cut right to the bone - the guy sounds like a deranged, homicidal maniac one minute and Prince Charming the next. 2007's The Stage Names propelled the band into the indie-spotlight two years later, but Okkervil River are yet to top this dark, brooding folk-rock masterpiece.

MP3 :: For Real
MP3 :: Black

12. Vacilando Territory Blues / J Tillman (2009)

There are albums that you hear in your life that become inextricably linked to a specific time and place. Hearing Vacilando Territory Blues for the first time last February, a mere 5 days before the birth of my twin girls, gives the album the unfair advantage of sentimentality. I just can’t hear songs like “Firstborn”, “Laborless Land”, or “Someone With Child” without being immediately brought back to the happiest days of my life - surely not the type of connection Tillman intended with this set of stark, endlessly beautiful folk songs. But the funny thing is that I’m sure this incredible album would be right here where it is even without the personal connection - it simply is that good.

MP3 :: Steel On Steel
MP3 :: James Blues

11. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga / Spoon (2007)

Like 2005’s workmanlike Gimme Fiction, Gax5 doesn’t do anything dramatically re-inventive with Spoon’s trademark sound - razor sharp guitars and taut arrangements that barely contain Britt Daniels’ restless howl. But this record sees the full fruition of Spoon’s gradual exploration of traditional pop sounds over the previous half decade - one after another they churn out many of their catchiest songs. From the angular guitar anti-heroics of “Don’t Make Me A Target” to the triumphant “The Underdog” through the sweeping “Black Like Me”, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is nothing short of a rock n’ roll celebration.

MP3 :: The Underdog

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