Between all the movie listmaking and LAFCA awards preparation I had to do at the end of last year, I skipped putting together a best-of-the-decade album list. But it wasn't because of any disinterest on my part: Even during all that busyness, which included heading out to Sundance, I would still jot down potential candidates for such a list and give them a listen to see how they held up.
So now that I've caught my breath and had a moment to compile a formal "Top 10 of the 2000s" list, I'm struck by just how far removed I am from the consensus. It's not that I hate Radiohead's Kid A -- in retrospect, it really is the band's Dark Side of the Moon-esque head-trip that people initially thought OK Computer was -- but like a lot of the other consensus "best of the 2000s" records (The Blueprint, Funeral, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), it's an album that feels more "significant" and "important" than clearly spectacular. (In other words, if you changed the name of the list from "Best Albums of the Decade" to "Most Important/Groundbreaking/Trendsetting Albums of the Decade," it would be exactly the same group of records.)
With all that in mind, here's my list of the decade's best albums. There are some consensus picks in here, granted, but there are also a few that I alone cherish. And since you've probably been inundated with another weighty pontification about why this or that album was a game-changing masterpiece, I thought I'd do something different: I'm going to explain what these albums' inclusion on my list says about me. I'm a big believer that when you make a Top 10 list, you're expressing preferences -- you're revealing what artistic merits you value over others. So, I'll try to figure out those preferences while going through the list, acknowledging the inescapable fact that while aesthetic criteria are crucial when determining what's the "best," sometimes personal factors creep in as well. From 10 to 1 ...
10. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
I don't think it's coincidence that three albums in this list are from 2003. That's the year my wife and I started dating. It was a crucial, emotional year in my life, and certain albums were part of the background, even if they didn't necessarily play into my courtship with her.
The parallels between Fountains of Wayne and my beloved Steely Dan are obvious -- they both make very pretty music about very miserable people -- but on Welcome Interstate Managers, Fountains of Wayne serve up their best collection of songs about bad jobs, bad relationships, and just flat-out bad lives. "Stacy's Mom" was the slick hit, but the lingering sadness of some many of these tracks stays with me. Beyond great tunes, I really came to care about the people in these songs and worry about them. This album represents for me all the folks I knew in college who went out into the world and just ... well, what happened to them, exactly? That unanswerable question is at the heart of Welcome Interstate Managers, as careers and the outward trappings of success start to eat away at personal happiness. Amazingly, these are pop songs.
9. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (2003)
Another 2003 record. There is a part of me that really hates Death Cab for Cutie -- well, more accurately, I hate what they represent. Pasty-faced whiners playing delicate indie-pop songs about girls who won't date them -- god, what a tiresome genre. But after loving this album when it came out and then experiencing a bit of a backlash against the band in subsequent years, I've come around to remembering what makes Transatlanticism so special: It's probably the only emo album that's self-aware and self-critical about its strategies. And that's probably why it's the only album of its genre I can still listen to without cringing. That pain of being single and lonely is all over it, but Ben Gibbard at least tries to understand his own flaws as a mate, which puts him above 99% of his mopey colleagues.
8. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
For most of the decade after this album came out, I really missed the Kanye West I had come to love on The College Dropout. This dorky, insecure guy with a chip on a shoulder as large as his talent, West seemed like every aspiring artist I had met in film school and since, except he fashioned his doubts into compelling music that the world was embracing. When West became a superstar, his albums started becoming more ego-centric in a way I found off-putting, although I could clearly enjoy their skill. But still I prefer the debut, which is where a young man becomes a sensation in front of our eyes -- er, ears.
7. Ambulance LTD, LP (2004)
This spectacular collection of great guitar songs gets to the heart of what I was saying about my disinterest in gravitating toward consensus picks. If I was part of a team of editors at a music publication putting together such a list, the argument against including the debut from Ambulance LTD is that (1) nobody's heard of it; and therefore (2) it didn't have that big of an impact on the decade. But I don't think my job as a critic is to tell you what made an impact -- hell, you can figure that out just by listening to the radio. No, my job is to highlight stuff that I think is really special, and this album's lack of major visibility doesn't diminish its astounding musicianship. A million people could like this album, or four friends could dig it -- the album is as objectively "good" either way. I've tried over the last 10 years to really cultivate this part of my personality -- if I'm the only person who loves a certain album or movie, then it's my responsibility to be the representative for those who don't write about entertainment to explain why it's so fantastic. I think about these things a lot while listening to LP.
6. Band of Horses, Cease to Begin (2007)
At under 35 minutes, this album probably isn't "substantial" enough to qualify for a list such as this. (Warning: There's an even shorter album coming up later.) But the outsized emotions compensated. Ben Bridwell's sincerity is probably the thing I like about him most: Indie-rock is so filled with sarcasm, and even those songwriters who are emotional tend to be slightly icky with their why'd-you-break-up-with-me? complaints. But this lovely album is emotionally graceful, suggesting that he might be the most well-adjusted guy in his field. As someone who prefers gentlemen to overgrown boys and macho meat-heads, I recognize a fellow traveler. I can only hope he continues to thrive.
5. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
Almost without exception, I don't care too much about hip-hop's drug/crime contigent. (Remember when we used to just call it gangsta?) But the thoroughly unredeeming Hell Hath No Fury is that exception, an album knee-deep in the crack game that makes a life of lawless hedonism sound absolutely addictive. Really, not since I was an impressionable kid who got his morals warped by Appetite for Destruction have I been so seduced by an album's stone-cold misanthropy. But it's not the milieu -- it's the way Pusha T and Malice make their arrogance a twisted kind of underdog tale. I note that the two hip-hop albums that made the list are opposite sides of the same coin: Kanye tells a heartwarming story about not letting hard times pull him down, while Clipse tell a cautionary tale about how to get rich off crime. When I needed a shot of inspiration, Hell Hath No Fury was my go-to record this decade. Make your judgments as you see fit.
4. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
A band that's celebrated (rightfully so) for their elastic, eclectic sound, and I love them most for their quietest record. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out came out the same year as Kid A, and they share certain similarities: Both sound fantastic late at night, both are deeply worried records full of nagging self-doubts. But the Yo La Tengo record hit me deeper -- and still does. This decade was filled with adult relationships, and this record was the one that felt the most truthful in regards to that subject. Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan are the band's long-term married couple, and here is where they really fleshed out the intricacies of married life. Just like some movies evolve over time as you go back and re-watch them, so too does And Then Nothing feel like a new record every time I go back to it. It's an album that's as fluid as marriage is -- as they sing on the nervous, deeply romantic, eternally hopeful "The Crying of Lot G," "Stop and remember/It isn't always this way."
3. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001)
The album you perhaps refer to as "The 9/11 album" is, for me, "The Album That Got Me Through the Worst Breakup Ever." For quite some time, Love and Theft became not just a collection of songs but, rather, a road map for how to rebuild myself after essentially falling apart. And this is where it gets tricky: How much do emotional states play a part in determining what music we respond to? Do I love this album because of Dylan's brilliant adoption of so many different musical guises, or do I love it because of the personal memories forever attached to songs like "Lonesome Day Blues" and "Sugar Baby"? I think any good critic consistently asks himself these questions: We should strive to combine our ability to recognize great work with our capacity to feel the emotions that work sparks. With that being said, Dylan got me through a very rough time, but so did other albums from that period. But now that I'm way past that time, I can see even more clearly how flat-out fantastic the record is. And that's the point: Even in highly-charged emotional times -- 9/11 or otherwise -- we gravitate to the music we absolutely love. In other words, we don't love the music because it got us through hard times -- we got through the hard times because we relied on the albums we love.
2. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
It's dangerous to give favorite albums as gifts to the unsuspecting, but my wife must have purchased about five copies of Neko Case's breakthrough record for friends and family over the '06 holiday. Put simply, the first two tracks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood are perfect expressions of mystery and uncertainty. Who can listen to "Margaret Vs. Pauline" and not think he or she is the luckless Margaret, always looking at spotless Pauline across the room with unfathomable envy? And then there's the feverish sadness going on in "Star Witness," a song that I have never been able to suss out completely: A lover drowns, a couple babysits the narrator's sister's kid ... what's the connection? All I know is I spent a good chunk of 2006 and 2007 trying to figure it all out. At a time when every modestly-talented female singer wants to be an ingenue, Case seemed like a mature (if messed-up, but not in an overblown drama-queen kind of way) grownup. Give me an album full of beautiful melodies that feel like half-remembered fragments, and my adoration will be just about eternal -- it's like a dream that you can't quite forget but can't quite recollect. And add on top of all that a voice that is utterly extraordinary, full of longing and pain and empathy -- how can you say no?
1. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
10 songs. All perfect. About nothing more than their exceptionally articulate and simple sentiments: I'm leaving you ("Gone for Good"); you left me ("Pink Bullets"); civilization is nuts ("So Says I"); your world is ending (or is it just beginning?) ("Still to Come"). So what does it say about me that I put Chutes Too Narrow at No. 1? That I like three-minute songs that sound flawless and hold up over repeated exposure. That I like concise albums without an ounce of fat that contain a beginning, middle and end of emotional continuity. That perhaps an album's vaunted artistic legacy is less important to me than a record's immediate accessibility, melodic complexity and pure pleasure? That's just a guess on the last one. I still don't know all of this myself. That's why I write about this stuff.