And here we are, the final five albums of my re-visitation of what was a musical lost decade for me, the 2000s (aka Naughts, aka 00s, aka we never came up with a good name for it). To quickly reintroduce you to the theme, despite being a huge audiophile, I spent most of the last decade vastly distracted by life and/or back-filling on older artists and genres. So I wondered what I had missed, and turned to a cross-section of critical evaluation to identify the top 20 albums of the decade that I hadn’t given a careful listen to yet.
You’ll find the intro to this project here, followed by albums 1-5, 6-10 and 11-15. In all those reviews, as in the ones you’re about to read, I wrote my reviews in real-time, as I listened to the album. What you see here are my immediate reactions, unedited except to correct gross spelling and grammar missteps.
And so here we proceed with the final five, highlighted below in yellow:
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (3)
Arcade Fire, “Funeral” (7)
Beck, “Sea Change” (5)
Daft Punk, “Discovery” (4)
D’Angelo, “Voodoo” (3)
Eminem, “Marshall Mathers LP” (3)
Interpol, “Turn on the Bright Lights” (4)
Jay-Z, “The Blueprint” (6)
Kayne West, “Late Registration” (4)
LCD Soundystem, “Sound of Silver” (6)
Madvillian, “Madvilliany” (3)
MIA, “Arular” (3)
MIA, “Kala” (4)
Outkast, “Stankonia” (6)
Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (3)
Spoon, “Kill the Moonlight” (3)
Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (3)
The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (3)
TV on the Radio, “Return to Cookie Mountain” (3)
Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (8)
Spoon, “Kill the Moonlight” (2002, 3 votes)
Track one “Small Stakes” is a nice thumping way to start an album, and I like how there’s a slurred uneducated indifference to the vocal delivery that contrasts with the music’s head-bopping driving power. This really reminds me of the Jam, which is to say it’s immediately endearing itself to me. Makes me wonder, is this a British or an American band? Yes, that’s how little I knew about Spoon before starting this review. Only know the name, really. Oh, track two still has that Jam thing going on, only now a little more swinging, with a hint of, say mid-60s Kinks. This must be a Britpop group. And, heck, there’s no law against that. Especially since this one is more on the rock, and less on the 60s studio overproduction, side of that equation. Three tracks in now, and this one is having some Who-style power-pop coming through. I love it! So entranced by the music thus far that I’m not quite catching the lyrics. I have a feeling they hold some riches that will emerge from repeated listening. Oh, you know who else this is reminding me of? The Zutons. Which, again, endears it to me. I’ve got the feeling that this lacks the gravity of, say, Arcade Fire or Beck’s efforts from this list, but I would probably play it more- it’s hitting all my “British rock favorite” nerves in just the right way! Track 6 “Paper Tiger” is doing some interesting things with a kind of love song from a pub thug meets well-mannered pop-rock sound. You know what every song is about so far? Short catchy refrains. Again, puts me in mind of Jam/Buzzcocks. I would also like to give these guys a medal, maybe even kiss them, for the fact that the longest track on the album is 3:39. You don’t need more than that when you know what you’re doing! And track nine, “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” knows what it’s doing. Weary, jaded lyrics, big beats and even a little piano, without ever forgetting to rock. Track 10 of 12, still loving it. It’s weird though- this could be almost an undiscovered 60s holdover, an alt-80s band, or a 90s Britpop album. It gives it a kind of timeless quality. And track 11 is- wait, what?!? Just permitted myself a little research now that I’m near the end- Texas based? From Austin? Is Austin producing bands that do classic timeless-sounding Britpop-inflected rock better than the Brits? I’m moving there immediately! USA-USA-USA!
Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (2005, 3 votes)
When this first came out I remember hearing about his project to do an album based on every state in the Union and thinking both, “Damn that’s ambitious- admire!” and “He’ll never get around to it.” That second has turned out to be true, which makes this even more precious, so I’m glad to finally have a chance to listen to it. My impression so far? I love the opening track, an indie folk ballad about a UFO sighting. Second piece was instrumental. Third seems to have crossbred Muzak and polka. It’s all very poppy, and very, very indie- long titles that are a thesis unto themselves, clever lyrics, lackadaisical vocals, musically a variety pack that delights in its own quirkiness. You wouldn’t put this on if you wanted to rick, but you might put it on to clean the house on a Sunday afternoon. I’m finding myself in a war between finding it too cutesy for its own good and oddly catchy and compelling. Now a ballad on John Wayne Gacy which is appropriately unsettling. Ah, and there we go, the narrator identifying at the end with him, and the secrets we all keep. Track five, “Jacksonville” seems to be channeling a little Neil Young- crap, I think the album is winning me over despite its self-consciousness and way too much production with strings. Track seven “Decatur”- equally catchy, equally befuddling. I can’t decide whether it’s profound, or a cheesy farce. Which is, you know, kind of like life, and maybe true to his experience of Illinois. Now it’s getting more serious toward the middle with and “Chicago” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” the kind of earnest heartfelt lyrically dense songs that Deathcab for Cutie trades in. And now noticeably less “children’s album” than some of the earlier songs on the album with their lyrical and musical quirkiness. Figures that the Superman-related song “The Man of Steel Steals our Hearts” works for me, of course, and is (in parts) the most rocking thing on the album so far. Though it could do with being half as long. This whole thing strikes me as kind of what would happen if you had Michelangelo do a WPA art mural: a klunky collection of themes rendered with unwarranted extraordinary artistry. Now track 16, with a title much too long to actually write, but something to do with a wasp, is (not for the first time on this album) presenting some queer themes, which is always good news socially, though it can be more of a mixed bag musically. This is reminding me of “69 Love Songs” now, which also continually confronts one with the question, “Is this the greatest thing ever, or is it kind of silly and annoying?” There is something to be said for having the title of every track make you want to read a Wikipedia article to understand it, though. It has its charm. Not as much charm as a hard-rocking song that kicks your ass, but still. Now on my research break, I’m interested to see how several sources mention the Christian themes of the album. Which didn’t really make as distinct an impression on me, I suspect because I always see the mundane suffused with theological significance. It just seems normal to me. And now track 24 of 26 (granted, several of them are interludes). What to say to sum up? A+ for super-sized cajones of artistic ambition. A+ again for high musical and lyrical quality of such excellence. Now apply a preciousness deflator and indie over-cleverness penalty. It adds up to something superb, always listenable, and sometimes quite affecting, even if it’s not quite my cup of tea.
The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (2002, 3 votes)
I have to admit I’ve always been well disposed toward this album, since Yoshimi and Pink Robots is clearly within my oeuvre. Without having more than a vague sense of its contents. I have to admit I didn’t expect it to sound like this! “Fight Test” is like burned out 70s rock fueled by a child’s synthesizer. Pretty groovy. Now the second track is more of the ambient electronic sound effect inflected piece I was expecting. But it’s got a beat, and it’s about a robot, so I have to be pretty happy with it. And I am, despite the swell of strings and electronic sound effects at the end of track two. Now three, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part I)”, it’s like an acoustic ballad that swallowed and is digesting electronica. This is superb! Vocally so heartfelt, lyrically superb, and yet ridiculous. I’m moved to wonder why this is working for me, but “Illinois” didn’t? Stronger point of view? Less lyrical obliquity? Material I’m just more in tune with? Greater thematic and musical unity, certainly. And the electronic beat certainly makes it more uptempo, which I appreciate. At heart, I think just can’t help but love anybody capable of producing a yearning heartfelt ballad to a Japanese girl fighting giant robots. Now “In the Morning of the Magicians”, a title check to an occult conspiracy classic. Of course I love it! This track, by the way, is like a space age psychedlica. “Are You a Hypnotist?” asks track seven, and yes indeed this album does put one in a fine and mellow mood. It’s just the eight mix of ambient, strong beat and orchestral swell, and it doesn’t hurt that the lead vocalist could just as easily be singing a country song. I think this is the vocal tenor all those other droning bleary indie groups are going for, and missing. It is getting a little too late Beatles studio experimental for my taste as it goes on, but still quite charming. As, indeed, is late Beatles studio experimental if you can divorce it from its canonical standing. Oh, I didn’t realize “Do You Realize” was them. Very fine, very fine. Sad, heartfelt, space age, esoteric yet feeling real. Thumbs up all around! They even managed to pull off ending the album with an instrumental track. Well done, boys, well done.
TV on the Radio, “Return to Cookie Mountain” (2006, 3 votes)
Oh to be on Cookie Mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons… No, wait, other song. So, I have to admit to loving the title of this album, but not knowing what to expect from it. Based on track one, I have to say there’s more Lo-Fi and distortion and less blasé indie musical drift than I would have feared. To be sure, there is the overproduction and blending of electronica and rock that you do tend to get with a lot of indie. But it’s built here around rock structure and sensibility, and the lyrics feel like they have some bite to them. It is a little all in one tone so far (as of track three), but if you were in a mood for a certain kind of mellow tinged by bitterness, this would really hit that spot. Kind of reminds me of two of my 2000s favorites, No Age and Times New Viking, if they had a little tilt toward Daft Punk or LCD Soundsystem in them. So far, not as engaging as Kanye, Emminem or Jay-Z, not as fun as MIA or Phoenix, or as weirdly wonderful as Madvillain or Sufjan Stevens. But a solid good- I wouldn’t turn it off, and there are no tracks I want to skip past. Oh, in fact, track five “Wolf like me” is really kicking it up. Is it because it’s like electronica-enhanced Garage Rock? What can I say, I’m a rocker. Oh, and track six “A Method” is doing some interesting things with rhythm and hand claps. Maybe this is one of those albums that takes a while to hit its stride. Loving track seven “Let the Devil In”! Okay, TV on the Radio, you’re growing on me. Now, of all things, it’s reminding me of 80s era Peter Gabriel on track eight. Something about the poly-rhythmic beats, intelligent lyrics and vocal pitch of the semi-chanted lyrics. The first four tracks were clearly some kind of muted mood-setter, and it really gets unleashed here in the middle. I wonder what’s coming next? What? Nine “Blues from Down Here” is like Bauhaus if they did a dance song. TV, who are you? Okay, this one (“Tonight”) is different yet again. It actually sounds like it may have been recorded to vinyl and then re-recorded from vinyl. Even if that’s not true I’d like to believe it is. Seemed to take a segue in the middle into an old-time croon, then at the end trails off into metallic scrapes and echoes. And now a big stomping beat on “Wash the Day Away” and the wave of distortion that’s more familiar from the first few tracks, but with a hint of psychedelic. Reminding me of, of all things, Prince. I would like to pause here and say that I cannot endorse the average 6-7 minute track length we’re getting here late in the album. This one, of all of them, I might delete because I’m not sure 8 minutes of rather repetitive sound does anything to improve my life. “Untitled seem to be a similarly audio tape loop sound effects “Day In The Life” kind of thing. Delete. Oh and then, fuck them, just as I was about to give up the next one “Snakes and Martyrs” is unique and interesting. I guess that’s how experimental works- sometimes you miss, and sometimes you hit big. So, what we have here is a good beginning, a great middle, a ponderous after, and then back to great at the end. Sounds to me not like a “great”, but a top tier of good. Best of the decade, as critics indicate? Not overall, but at its best moments, yes.
Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002, 8 votes)
This is a fitting album to end on, as I’d heard hype about it all decade long, both critically and from people I knew. I’ve even heard a lot of it, even though I never owned it, or listened to it all the way through. There definitely is something to this first track too. Not only is there the sonorous rhythm of the weary burned-out vocals and the weirdly disorienting beginning, but there are lyrical flashed of brilliance throughout including one of the all-time best lines, “I am trying to break your heart.” Every great song ever has been, but Jeff Tweedy actually figures that out and turns it into a manifesto. A little too Beatles sound-effecty clever tape loop at the end, but hey, they have the ambition to sell it. And then comes “Kamera” a nearly perfect pop-rock song something that sounds a little bit like it belongs to the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s simultaneously. “Radio Cure” seems like it might be a love song to Radiohead, or almost a sonic one-uppance of Thom Yorke. And of course kudos for just coming out lyrically with, “There is something wrong with me.” All these songs, too, are somehow undermined in a way that doesn’t actually undermine them, but instead disorients just the right amount, by what sounds like a toy synthesizer. And fuck, I mean come on, “War on War” is one of the most perfect songs I can imagine. My take so far is that this album is like a distillation, a nearly perfect distillation, of a certain vein of 80s college rock and 90s alternative. Something neo-singer/songwriter, alt country, ironic experimental a la Camper Van Beethoven, with the intense emotional nakedness that grunge had at its best, divorced of the bombast. And don’t get me wrong, I lovethat bombast, but this album has a stripped down straightforwardness that’s refreshing. And now “Heavy Metal Drummer”, a paen to “playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned” as if to prove my point. But at the same time full of musical playfulness and some pure music geek experimentalism. Track eight “I’m the Man Who Loves You” plays almost like a thesis on 60s and 70s pop-rock, without forgetting to be fun. Now track nine with its tagline “every song is a comeback”, and darned if it doesn’t sound like it. In a way, I feel like this is the end product of the evolution of Big Star->a certain current of alt 80s->certain current of 90s alternative->Big Star of the 2000s that evokes it all. Wrapping up now, as we approach track 11 of 11. What to say? It’s pretty awesome. This is the kind of album you could finish and immediately start again. I could see it going in to heavy rotation thereafter. I have to think it is one of the best albums of the 00s, though in a way it seems odd to say it, since it feels so timeless. Got a little ambient at the end of the last track, which isn’t the note I would think you would want to end the album on. That’s the danger of going to 7 minutes- it’s hardly ever justified. Still, any way you slice it, it belongs near the top. A fitting way to end this review of the leading candidates for the best album of the 2000s.
And there we are, my take on the critical world’s top 20 albums of the 2000s. In another week or two, I’ll do one last summary post looking back on the whole list, and suggesting my take on a dissident top 20. In the mean time, dear reader, I would love to hear your reactions…
Hi Chris, still been reading these.
You're much more generous with '00s music than I am. To me, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, and Wilco are all poster children for everything I don't really like about '00s rock. Maybe you genuinely think that “War On War” is “one of the most perfect songs I can imagine,” but I'll bet that just seemed more like a fun thing to write than something you really believe. I was expecting you to be more disappointed with most of these albums, but perhaps we just have different taste. I'd like to see you revisit them in a couple of years and write about whether or not they hold up.
I've heard a few TV On The Radio songs here and there and they seemed OK. The one album in this bunch I actually like is the Flaming Lips one. Their songs come off as relaxed, melodic, simultaneously weird but touching. Let me put it this way: I could see a band being influenced by the Flaming Lips, but I couldn't see a band being influenced by Wilco or Spoon.
But if you like it, more power to you.
Yaay, Earl! So glad to hear from you. There are three pertinent things to keep in mind regarding your comments:
1. “Perfect” is a hard word to gauge in this context. “one of the most perfect songs I can imagine” is not necessarily the highest praise I have to give. A “perfect” pop song, for instance, will often please me far less than a sloppy low-fi rocker. Conversely, I might call a sloppy low-fi rocker “perfect”, meaning it's a perfect sloppy low-fi rocker.
2. The ground rules of how I wrote this are such that I only had to think something for a fraction of a second to end up writing it, and once written, it stays no matter what. These are my unexpurgated spontaneous reactions. So, I might retract or contradict any comment as soon as an hour after writing. I may have just been spontaneously generous and joyful at that moment!
3. It's interesting, because most of the albums you mentioned (Spoon, Sufjan, TV, etc.) are only in my “good” category, even in the moment I noted they weren't in the top tier of albums I'd reviewed. I'll have some more thoughts on this in my final follow-up, but I definitely had tiers of “great” “good” and “adequate”. And there are whole other albums, not on this or anybody else's list, that are among my favorite for the decade. More thoughts on this to come as well. Along a similar line, the best albums of the whole damn decade may very well be only “good” albums in decades that had something going on, like the 60s, 70s, or 90s.
I see what you did to the '80s there.
Maybe you need to shift your categories downward some more. “Good” should mean “adequate” and “adequate” should mean “terrible” and “terrible” should mean “I feel sorry for this band, I really do.”
To me, I think it comes down to this: if I met somebody who was more or less intelligent but had little familiarity with the popular music of the last 60 years, what music would I recommend to them? And what albums from the '00s would I include in my recommendation?
Rolling Stone just recently “updated” their 500 Greatest Albums list by adding several albums from the '00s to it, which now makes me less inclined to recommend the list to people. It's just so awkward seeing Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., and Arcade Fire right next to Roxy Music, Santana, and N.W.A. I just want to shout out to a potential reader, “No! This is not the right list!” To be fair, the highest an album from the '00s ranks on the new list is at 118 (Late Registration?), but honestly, they should have just left the damn list alone.
Hey, if writers and musicians genuinely believe that LCD Soundsystem and Wilco deserve to be lumped together with Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder, then I guess I just have some lint stuck in my ears. But I really believe that recorded music in the album format simply will not have the cultural and emotional impact it did up until the '00s.
All these people are in denial!