When I first heard Untrue, I thought it was amazing, and Untrue, as it turns out, is a grower. This means that now, after the however-many-eth time I've heard it, it's however-many times more amazing than it was at first. Like the album right above it on this list, Fennesz's Endless Summer, Untrue creates unique sonic moods and atmospheres. It's calm and reserved most of the time, but some of the sounds are refreshingly jarring. The electronics are minimal and dark, and the beats (aided by that persistent woodblock) are the right amounts of repetitive and uneven. The sound is icy, but it's so deep that it creates a warmth upon repeated listens. Burial's vocals--well, the vocals he uses--are just another instrument. But, despite the lack of discernible words, the vocals are very emotional. And that's how this whole album plays out: as contradictions. Cold, but warm. Robotic, but personal. Burial's Untrue is an album that I'll never tire of.
14. Dizzee Rascal--Boy In Da Corner
Boy In Da Corner is one of the heaviest albums to have come out this decade, heavier than practically all '00s metal or experimental albums I've heard. Its beats are heavy, and Dizzee's lyrics and delivery are heavy. Those beats are industrial, experimental, and completely unlike those on any American (or other British) hip-hop release. Those lyrics tell what it's like to be a badass in London--they're intense and very clever--and Dizzee's delivery is frenzied, urgent, and frequently shouted. Dizzee Rascal was nineteen years old (I think) when Boy In Da Corner, and that's kind of evident. It is in that he sounds genuinely excited, not jaded at all, and he is, as the British would say, very wiry. But it's not in that his sound is developed, mature, and way weirder and more complex than most nineteen year olds would be capable of making. This album sounds like no other hip-hop or electronic release before or since, and not even Dizzee himself can replicate it.
13. The Arcade Fire--Funeral
I have a feeling that all reading this are pretty familiar with Funeral. It is, after all, one of--if not the--most important, most critically acclaimed, most beloved albums in the history of independent rock music. And it's mostly deserving of its status. (I say mostly because I'm not sure it's my most beloved indie rock album ever.) Funeral has more big, goosebump-inducing moments than any other album released this decade. Whether that's due to the heavy use of accordion, french horn, and glockenspiel or the bilingual group shouting or something else isn't quite clear, but Funeral brings the chills for sure. The music itself isn't startlingly original or anything, but it has certain qualities--earnestness, warmth, an overall sense of beauty and perfection, and much, much more--that make the album extremely memorable, far more memorable than any other recent indie rock release. Funeral holds up extremely well, unlike its contemporaries or predecessors.
12. The Knife--Silent Shout
After buying Silent Shout sometime in the Fall of 2006, I put it in my (my mom's) car. I believe it stayed there, in frequent enough rotation, until early 2008. It's not just that the music is that good--and, believe me, it is that good--but there is a certain quality to Silent Shout that makes it addictive. Maybe it's that it's a perfect soundtrack to a cold, ugly winter, something Swedes (The Knife) and Chicagoans (me) are plenty used to. Maybe it's that the songs are all so deep and complex that you hear something new every time you listen. It's probably both those things and several dozen others. Silent Shout may not be a startlingly original record (though it's not startlingly derivative either), but it's just intensely likable. Its music draws on European techno, minimalism, goth-y industrial, and pop but adds plenty sonic depth and icy Swedishness. Though the music is cold and dark, The Knife don't take their selves too seriously, which makes Silent Shout pretty fun, too.
11. Fiery Furnaces--Blueberry Boat
I owe Blueberry Boat an eternal gratitude for opening my mind to a lot of different stuff. I first heard it sometime in 2005 I think, and, needless to say, my mind was pretty much blown--which is something that doesn't happen too often. The album is a monumental achievement, and while, yes, it is a bit overblown and chaotic, it's an enjoyable and exciting listen all the way through. The songs meander and change directions like crazy, the lyrics tell bizarre and fantastical stories that are both confusing and brilliant, the instrumentation is extremely diverse and, well, confusing (not to mention virtuosic), and so on and so forth. But Blueberry Boat, despite its wide and frenetic vision, makes sense. When a dissonant organ becomes a light, acoustic guitar in the blink of an eye, it makes sense. When Eleanor Friedberger's English singing becomes Inuit wailing, it makes sense. Fiery Furnaces employ the "it's so crazy it just might work" theory, and the result is so crazy that it works.
10. TV On The Radio--Return To Cookie Mountain
I'm a bit of a cover art snob. If an album cover is really ugly, I might not even give the music a chance. If an album cover is awesome, I'm about 18% more likely to like that album. (This is an estimate.) If an album cover is neither ugly nor awesome, I...I don't know. I tell you this because Return To Cookie Mountain happens to be an album with a pretty darn ugly cover, and so the fact that it cracked my top ten must mean that it's amazing. Which it most certainly is. It's a big, long, loud record that is just accessible enough to warrant repeated enjoyable listens and just experimental enough to make your ears confused at times. Return To Cookie Mountain accomplishes this feat with its arena sized hooks (accessible) and its layers upon layers upon layers of fuzz and feedback (experimental). Its hazy, beautiful, dissonant, sonic attack is paired with uncharacteristically (for a hyped indie release) strong singing. TV On The Radio make expertly executed, intelligent experimental rock, which I like. A lot.
9. Devendra Banhart--Rejoicing In The Hands
If it weren't for a three or four song chunk towards the end of the album's sub-par-ness, Rejoicing In The Hands very well might top this list--or at least be in the top three. You see, I have listened to the first ten songs of this sixteen song album more than probably anything else released this decade. And I know almost every word of each of those ten songs. (Well, to nine of them. One's an instrumental.) It's the only album for which I've tried (with intermittent success) to learn to play every song on guitar. When I went to sleep away camp, I listened to the first four tracks every single night, and I refused to go to bed without doing so. But why do I love this stuff so much? I'll tell you why. I've thought long and hard about a good adjective to sum up this record, and that adjective is pleasant. This is arguably the most pleasant listen ever recorded. The music is almost entirely comprised of nice, finger-picked acoustic guitar, and the lyrics are quirky, weird, and endlessly charming. This album is just endlessly, beautifully, bizarrely pleasant.
8. Dirty Projectors--Bitte Orca
I'm lazy, and I just wrote about this in my favorite albums of '09 post, so I'm just gonna copy and paste. "To say that this was my second most anticipated album of 2009 would be an understatement. It was my first most anticipated album of 2009. And it didn't disappoint. Coming off the decidedly more rock-ish Rise Above, Dave Longstreth and crew created a very rock/pop-ish album in Bitte Orca. And while increasing accessibility is not always a good thing (see Atlas Sound: notice the slip from last year's ranking?), it is in the case of the DPs. David Byrne said something along the lines of, "Dirty Projectors sound like people making pop music who have never heard the form," and I think that's a pretty brilliant critique. Bitte Orca is a scattered, experimental mess rooted in pop music. Its songs are both catchy and mindblowing. And most importantly, with Bitte Orca, Dave Longstreth solidifies his place in the pantheon of songwriters/composers." I'll add that what excites me most about Bitte Orca is that I think that they can do better, and I think they will do better.
7. Panda Bear--Person Pitch
I was (and still am) a big Avey Tare fan. So when I first heard Person Pitch, I got a little worried. "Does this mean that Panda Bear is the reason Animal Collective is so good? Is Avey Tare expendable? Is Noah Lennox the true musical genius?" Well, the answer to that question is no, not really. Avey Tare is brilliantly gifted as well. But my questions were rational, because Person Pitch is an album rooted in the same principals as much of Animal Collective's work, but, for the most part, more lush and--I hate to say it--better. And Panda did it all by himself. Taking samples from all over (Tornadoes, Scott Walker, some crazy religious vocal group, etc.), Panda Bear created an album that is so beautiful, harmonically rich, and sonically diverse that the countless Brian Wilson comparisons that were made were not farfetched. Panda's innocent sounding voice floats above his distorted, murky symphonies as they loop and loop somemore. (I know "somemore" should be two words, but I like thinking of it as one.) Person Pitch changed who my favorite AC member is, which is neither good nor bad.
6. The Avalanches--Since I Left You
When listening to Since I Left You, I feel kinda bad about myself. The Avalanches got to do what I basically do: sit around and listen to an inconceivable amount of music, listening for weird intricacies and patterns and whatnot. The thing is, they created a masterpiece of an album for the masses whereas I write a nerdy blog of which I am probably the most frequent reader. This is why I feel a little bad. But then I actually listen to the album, and I feel bad no longer. I just feel happy and excited because the music on Since I Left You is so invigoratingly upbeat and original that one can't listen to it and feel bad at the same time. It's impossible. In case you didn't know, it's constructed entirely from samples, and the samples are so varied that it gives the music a uniqueness and diversity that I've never really heard. Some songs are straight up pop songs, others are soul, others are dance tunes, and several are more hip-hop-esque. Mashups are a neat trick and all--one that anyone with a computer can pull off--but it takes real musical talent to craft an album as rich and amazing as Since I Left You.
5. LCD Soundsystem--Sound of Silver
Sound Of Silver was well represented in Il Buono's favorite songs of the decade list; two of its songs cracked the top ten. Those two songs--"Someone Great" and "All My Friends"--appear one after the other on the album, creating one of the finest 14 minute segments ever recorded that could alone land this album in the top 20. Fortunately, though, those two tracks are surrounded by several other excellent songs. James Murphy sticks his foot further into the realms of pop, post-punk, and no wave on Sound Of Silver, but it's clear that his heart is still in making dance music. The result is a batch of very diverse songs, from piano ballads to short post-punk tunes to experimental-y electronic songs that are all tied together by an innate sense of groove and Murphy's vocals. Said vocals are what sets this album apart the most, though. Still snarky and clever, James Murphy injects a ton of heart and soul into his smart, age-appropriate lyrics (especially on those two songs), creating a thoroughly personal listening experience. It's a shame that the last three songs aren't too great, because this could maybe be #2 otherwise.
4. The White Stripes--White Blood Cells
I'm pretty sure White Blood Cells holds the distinction of being the album on this list that I've had longest. Riveted by "Fell In Love With A Girl" and "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", my nine year old self cherished this album. It was in a group with Hoobastank's eponymous disc, Linkin Park's debut, and Nevermind of my absolute favorite albums. So part of my adoration for this album is certainly tied to nostalgia. But I still love and cherish White Blood Cells (and Nevermind) while I'm not quite as keen on Hoobastank or Linkin Park. This is because White Blood Cells not only rocks really hard and has plenty of radio-ready hooks--the qualities that appealed to the nine year old me--but is also filled with genuinely creative and amazing music. One might knock its lack of originality or its influence on so much bad music, but, despite the fact that The White Stripes are following forty-plus year old traditions and have indeed inspired several terrible knockoffs, White Blood Cells is still wholly unique. And that's because, nowadays, genuinely great rock n' roll is unique. Jack White's guitar playing doesn't hurt. (He gets my vote for best guitarist of the decade.)
3. Modest Mouse--The Moon & Antarctica
This marks the second time Modest Mouse has appeared in my top three albums of the decade list (the first was when The Lonesome Crowded West showed up at #3 on my top albums of the '90s list), and there's a reason for that. The reason is: Modest Mouse is a great band. Their last album may have been a bit of a misfire (not terrible, though), but Modest Mouse is without a doubt one of my favorite bands. (I won't get into specifics, but I bet they would at least make a top 20.) The Moon & Antarctica is, musically speaking, their best album. (I kinda prefer Lonesome, but I think Moon is a smarter, more mature, and more well constructed work.) It found them stepping up their accessibility a little, crafting several songs with acoustic guitars, recognizable choruses, and limited screaming. The songs are certainly a bit more structured, but they still meander and drift in a beautiful manner. And, in making the album a little poppier, they lost none of their lyrical genius or complexity. Isaac Brock proves himself once again to be one of music's foremost songwriters through his self-deprecating, realistic/surrealistic portraits of everyday life. The Moon & Antarctica is a mesmerizing, invigorating listen by modern rock's most creative group.
I think I've proven that I'm not really a reliable source for hip-hop. My taste in the genre doesn't really extend beyond the critically acclaimed, white man approved albums, and I usually don't even like those albums as much as most of those pasty critics do. But I do like Stankonia, the third best reviewed album of the decade, according to Metacritic. And I attribute my loving of this album (and Outkast as a whole) not only to its status as an heir-apparent to There's A Riot Goin' On (note its cover, its content, and its samples; Riot was definitely an influence), but also to that it contains some of the most inventive, complex, and bizarre music of the decade. If one were to listen to Stankonia's instrumentals, one might think it was some sort of underground experimental space-funk album. This is because, as into the funk of the '70s as Outkast is, this music is extremely forward-thinking. Even the hits off this album are unique and very weird, both production-wise and lyrics-wise. Speaking of the lyrics, by the time of Stankonia's release, Outkast had already proved themselves lyrical geniuses: their vocal rhythms are entirely unique and their subject matter covers the surreal, aliens, and real life with the utmost cleverness, intelligence--even when they are relentlessly dirty. Stankonia just gives them even more, evens stronger evidence. Both Andre 3000 and Big Boi are true (I hate to say this next phrase with a straight face) street poets. Stankonia is the best hip-hop album I've ever heard.
1. Animal Collective--Sung Tongs
I think it's fitting to quote Ichiro, probably the decade's best contact hitter, when talking about the decade's best album. What he said referred to Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I think it works for me and Sung Tongs as well. You see, Sung Tongs "[aroused] the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul." As starkly calming, relaxing, and warm as the album is, it excited me like nothing else released from '00 to '09.
It excited me first simply because I had never heard anything quite like it. At the time I first listened to Sung Tongs, I wasn't used to music so formless, so effected, so affected, and so beautiful. I wasn't used to albums with vocals, but, for the most part, without intelligible words. I wasn't used to the gurgles and hazes that sometimes obscure the actual music. I wasn't used to minutes upon minutes of atonal acoustic droning. Even now, after I've heard some of these things pop up in other music, Sung Tongs is an extremely unique work. I suppose it fits under the freak-folk banner, but the "freak" half of the title is certainly the more apt half. This album is very experimental without a doubt. While it's certainly more accessible than their previous albums, it's a far cry from something Entertainment Weekly would call the best album of the year. Avey Tare and Panda Bear's shrieks, moans, and mumbles are just another instrument (unlike on successive AC releases), one to complement the atonal pianos and repetitive guitars and tribal percussion. This is a landmark album for indie rock in general, as it allowed (and even encouraged) others to experiment with textures and forms, and it was a landmark album for me, as it encouraged me to look for music that wasn't just Arcade Fire-esque. (Not that that's always a bad thing. I just have found more enjoyment in things not as Arcade Fire-esque.)
As I said, this album is heralded as one of the foremost documents of freak-folk. And, as I said, this album is most definitely more "freak." But it's called folk for a reason. It incorporates many of the traits of great folk music. While the most obvious of those traits is the acoustic-ness of the music, the overall feeling of the album reminds me of some of the finest works of folk (Pink Moon, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Blue, etc.) It's that feeling of (I know I talk about this all the time) warmth and personality that makes this, like other folk albums, so amazing. Sung Tongs sounds like it was recorded in your living room, next to the fireplace, possibly in a fort made by hanging blankets over tables and chairs. And that's how a folk album should sound.
Is Sung Tongs the most technically amazing album made this decade? No. Is it the most unique? No, though it's quite unique. Would it impressed an old music theory professor? Likely not. But it's one of the most beautiful and relaxing recordings I've ever heard. And it's my favorite album of the decade, and that's that.
That's what I think. Some pretty good stuff came out this decade, huh? I think so. Celebrate the new year by listening to some of these albums; that's sure to make it a good New Year's Day.