Albums may seem like a dying a breed as technological advances make it easier to skip and rearrange tracks, but they are still the primary creative force for most musical acts. And whether it’s a pointless convention or the natural artistic outlet for music, we still evaluate acts based on the strengths of the albums they put out. For most music fans, it’s albums that allow them to develop a relationship with a band or artists work. Whereas most of NPI’s musical retrospective thus far has been an attempt to sum up what was popular, innovative and interesting about this decade in music, this list is not going to be concerned with broad trends: We are looking simply for the BEST albums of the decade. Now, this is just one man’s opinion, but I think it’s safe to say that if you made it through this decade without listening to these albums, then you’re missing out on quite the musical experience.
10) Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I was never a really big Wilco fan; I was on the “Wilco is overrated” bandwagon for a long time. And it’s hard to deny that the turmoil that surrounded this album did anything but inflate its critical perception. But we ought to remember that something can be overrated and still be good. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is very good. It wore me down gradually—first, with the catchy pop of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” then with the subtle poignancy of “Jesus, Etc.,” and then with the vast scope of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” This is an odd way to get hooked on an album that is such a complete entity. Musical and lyrical phrases recur throughout Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, enhancing its thematic cohesion. And yet the album is completely unassuming and unpretentious—it’s accessible and enjoyable, and it will wear you down no matter how much you try and resist its critical charms.
9) The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (2000)
The New Pornographers are often considered a “supergroup,” which sounds like a compliment but really isn’t. It’s hard to name a “supergroup” (besides Cream, I guess) that ever matched the expected value of the sum of its parts. Would you rather listen to the Traveling Wilburys or the solo work of all of its members? Would you rather listen to Audioslave or Rage Against the Machine? Velvet Revolver or Guns N’ Roses? Supergroups, by and large, suck. But the New Pornographers are an exception. They are the rare supergroup that sounds like a meeting of minds, as opposed to a cash cow for its members. The New Pornographers combine the power pop of Carl Newman, the eclectic sound of Dan Bejar,* and the beautiful voice and country vibe of Neko Case. Mass Romantic features some of their best collaborations, including “Letter from an Occupant,” “To Wild Homes” (the only time, I believe, that all three primary members share the vocals), and “Execution Day.” The album also features some of the best of the band’s more personalized songs, such as Newman’s “The Body Says No” and Bejar’s “Jackie.”
*Unsurprisingly, Dan Bejar’s OTHER “supergroup”—Swan Lake—doesn’t sound as good as Destroyer.
8 ) LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (2007)
Before Sound of Silver, I had the kind of respect for James Murphy that you usually have for an artist that has mastered a genre you like, but don’t love. I have nothing against “dance punk,” but it’s not like I was throwing The Rapture CDs in my car or buying all the DFA Records compilations. I liked “Daft Punk is Playing at my House,” but I wasn’t that interested in the rest of LCD Soundsystem’s debut. Sound of Silver, however, was a lot different. First of all, it’s rare for an album of its genre in that it didn’t have any weak songs. Beyond that, it didn’t seem like a collection of singles or disparate tracks; it congealed in the way most great albums do. Nevertheless, this album IS incredibly deep in the number of viable singles it has. The strength of songs like “Someone Great,” “All My Friends” and “North American Scum” alone is often enough, but the fact that Sound of Silver is good from top to bottom puts it in the top ten.
7) Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
A lot of this decade’s best albums were experimentations with the rock form. Interpol’s debut, though, shows why innovation is overrated. Extensive comparisons to Joy Division (although a lot of that was just because Paul Banks’ voice sounds frighteningly like Ian Curtis’) and Television were warranted, but only highlighted the greatness of Turn on the Bright Lights; this album feels like an heir to some of the most groundbreaking sounds of the 1970s. The guitar harmonies of Banks and Daniel Kessler are among the best of the decade, and they are complemented on this record by the heavy, well-paced rhythm section. Turn on the Bright Lights also demonstrates the bands skill with its structure, sandwiching a slow-building song like “NYC” between two energetic numbers, “Obstacle 1” and “PDA.”
6) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
A few weeks before this album came out, I was listening to Feels on my iPod. I had generally liked Animal Collective since I had first heard them, but they had always seemed, as someone once put it to me, “too scene.” (Although, if you’ve seen this list, you’re probably wondering why that was a problem for me.) And they are pretty scene, but when I was listening to Feels—and not for the first time, mind you—I got the unexpected sensation of chills down my spine that comes from great music. And while the first four songs on Feels are as good as the band ever got, its most recent album was also its most complete. From the swirling, atmospheric opening of “In the Flowers” (which, not coincidentally, echoes the first song on Feels), to the bouncing pop of “My Girls,” to the soft harmonies of “Bluish,” this album has a remarkable depth. Animal Collective is also deceptively and impressively poignant. Since its songs are so experimental, and since its vocals so often play a roll in their instrumentation, it’s easy to miss a beautifully simple line like “I’m getting lost in your curls.” But when you hear it, it can send chills down your spine.
5) The Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere (2004)
Like Interpol, the Secret Machines are an example of how good a band can be when its not afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. Now Here is Nowhere sounds like a neo-classic rock album, infused with the psychedelic sound and heavy rock of The Who and Pink Floyd. But it also sounds modernized, with the atmospheric element added by the synthesizers. “Sad and Lonely,” sounds like it could have fit right in on Led Zeppelin’s debut, but a song like “Nowhere Again” sounds like those songs updated with the benefit of newer sounds. This album also includes the forgotten art of the rock anthem, with both “First Wave Intact” and “Now Here is Nowhere,” clocking in at over eight and a half minutes and incorporating all of the elements the Secret Machines do so well. Unfortunately, this trio leaned heavily on the guitar playing of Brandon Curtis, and they couldn’t really survive once he left he band in 2007. But Now Here is Nowhere was one gem of an album.
4) Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
Since I wasn’t really a fan of Radiohead until after Kid A came out, I never really had the strong initial reaction to this album that so many listeners did. People either viewed Kid A as a betrayal of Radiohead’s rock and roll roots, a brave foray into experimental/electronic music, or the greatest thing ever recorded by humans (actually, only the writers of Pitchfork probably ever totally believed that last part). I didn’t completely understand the impact of this album, actually, until reading Chuck Klosterman’s hypothesis, in Killing Yourself to Live, that Kid A unintentionally predicted 9/11. Now, I don’t think that this hypothesis is necessary to appreciate Kid A, or even, for most people, helpful to appreciate it. But it made me think about Kid A in terms of an emotional narrative that made complete sense. It’s not very often that a band can combine the technical and experimental developments that Radiohead includes on this album with the resonance of the final suite of songs. When this happens, you get a record that is truly excellent (but, at the same time, one of this album’s 10 songs is “Treefingers,” so let’s not get carried away).
3) TV on the Radio, Dear Science (2008)
We sometimes talk about great athletes putting it all together to take “The Leap” into greatness. Dear Science sounds kind of like the musical equivalent of that. We knew that TV on the Radio was great ever since the excellent debut EP, Young Liars, in 2003. The next year, its first full album had an excellent first six songs, but trailed off after that. Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) had the bands best songs to date, but failed to cohere into a truly great album. Dear Science, however, sounds like a band clicking on all cylinders. It has songs that grab you from the first listen—“Halfway Home,” “Dancing Choose,” “DLZ”—as well as songs that get better with repeated listens—“Shout Me Out,” “Family Tree,” “Love Dog.” The album is brilliantly paced, coming in at 50 minutes, yet feeling much shorter. Musically, this album combines the experimentalism of the band with its grasp of so many different melodies. Really, one of the hardest things to do on a rock album is effectively go from fast to slow, and TV on the Radio nails it in Dear Science. TV on the Radio didn’t need Dear Science to prove it was a great band, or to make its impact on the decade, but it sure helped.
2) Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (2005)
In high school, I got into a very counterproductive argument about whether Bloc Party were a “punk” band. I was gravely offended: Calling them a “punk” band seemed unfair and dismissive. Of course, this is why genre classifications are stifling—what we call Bloc Party shouldn’t matter nearly as much as how good they are. And man are they good. Silent Alarm is the best guitar-rock album of the decade. It’s aggressive and fast-paced and dynamic. It’s probably best-known for its single “Banquet,” but I always felt like that was one of the album’s weaker tracks—it’s not as fast as “Helicopter,” or as heavy as “Positive Tension,” or as subtle as “So Here We Are.” This only highlights the depth of the album; virtually any song you pick will have something on it you likely haven’t heard before. And this is why any genre tag is unfair to a band like Bloc Party. There are no “punk” bands that sound like Silent Alarm, but there aren’t really any rock bands that could have produced this album. Bloc Party forged a distinct and powerful identity on this album, putting its mark on the decade.
1) Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)
Some choices are easy. In 2004, I made a list of the ten best albums of the year, and Funeral came in fourth. But while John-of-five-years-ago certainly got it wrong, this also shows just how important the test of time is. I couldn’t even tell you which albums placed ahead of Funeral, let alone whether or not I still listen to them. Arcade Fire’s debut, though, is still an integral part of my iPod’s rotation. I was dubious when I first listened—I had heard all the buzz and the positive reviews, and I really wanted to be iconoclastic and critical. But from the album’s opening notes, delicately played on a piano, it announces itself as something sincere and compelling. It’s a complete, well-rounded album; at different points, five of the ten tracks have been my favorite–and I can see arguments for three more. Beyond the songs as songs, though, is how they interact and build on one another. The great tracks become transcendent because of the emotional and musical buildup to them, and the “weak” tracks are elevated to great heights. This is the kind of album that runs the gamut, that gets better and reveals more complexities the more you listen to it. And if I had to pick one album from this decade that I’m sure I’ll still be listening to in another ten years, this would be it.