Thursday, December 31, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: The Top 10

Over the course of the past year or so, I've been going through my CD collection to highlight my favorite albums from each year of the decade. Here, then, are the best of the best, for the first time ranked in order of preference (which was very difficult). There probably aren't many surprises if you've read this blog much at all, especially in the past couple years. The one thing that stood out most to me in compiling the list is there are three covers albums on the list, starting with …

10. “Renegades,” Rage Against the Machine (2000)

There’s something to be said for going out on top, and RATM certainly did just that with this hammerfist of a record. Tom Morello’s guitar squalls on opener “Microphone Fiend” still sound as incendiary today as they did when I first blasted this album at maximum volume in college. And that’s just the first track; Morello continues to bring the heavy all the way through, on standout cuts like “Pistol Grip Pump,” “I’m Housin’,” “How I Could Just Kill A Man,” “Maggie’s Farm,” and, of course, the spectacular Springsteen cover “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” One of the seminal bands of the ’90s, Rage kicked off the aughts by saving their best for last.

9. “Pearl Jam,” Pearl Jam (2006)

Though my love for Pearl Jam in the aughts was more about the concert experience than the studio albums, this release remains one of my favorites of the decade. After two subpar albums, the band found its footing again with a back-to-basics approach. “Pearl Jam” highlights all the things I love about Pearl Jam and propelled the band into one of the best periods of its career. The album’s heavily partisan lyrics forced it down in my rankings over time, but nevertheless this record is a monster, without a single weak track (yes, I’ve even come around on “Army Reserve”). Even after hundreds of listens, it still gets my blood pumping.

8. “American V: A Hundred Highways,” Johnny Cash (2006)

Cash’s posthumous final American Recordings release is also my favorite. It’s an intimate look at the Man in Black in his last days—at his most fragile (opener “Help Me,” “If You Could Read My Mind”) and defiant (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” “Like the 309,” “Further On (Up the Road)”). The most striking track for me, though, remains “I Came to Believe,” in which Cash poignantly summarizes his Christian faith in just 3 minutes, 45 seconds. In that one song you hear the peace that passes all understanding, and you understand how Cash found the strength to record one of his greatest albums in the face of imminent death.

7. “Elephant,” The White Stripes (2003)

There are at least four albums Jack White produced this decade I considered for this list. “Elephant” isn’t perfect, but nothing White does ever is. It’s part of his slapdash charm, actually. More than any other White record in the aughts, though, “Elephant” is the one I always come back to. It has everything I want in a White Stripes CD: Sprawling guitar epics like “Seven Nation Army,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” and “Ball and Biscuit”; smoking rockers like “Black Math” and “Hypnotize”; and childish playful tracks like “In the Cold, Cold Night” and “It’s True That We Love One Another.” I was shocked by its breadth and depth on the very first listen, and “Elephant” only got better with age.

6. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Wilco (2002)

This is the album that keeps on giving. More than seven years after its release, different songs continue to speak to me in new ways. A few years back it was “Ashes of American Flags”; this year it was “Poor Places”; in 2012 it’ll probably be “Radio Cure,” my least favorite track. “Foxtrot” is the album Jeff Tweedy had been building up to for his entire career, and it cost him dearly—his health, bandmates, a record deal. But the result is a dense, difficult, rewarding experience of seemingly bottomless potential and modern classics at just about every turn.

5. “Boxer,” The National (2007)

I keep looking for a song I don’t like on The National’s most recent and best album, and I just can’t find one. When I’m forced to call wonderful tracks like “Ada,” “Gospel,” and “Guest Room” some of my “least” favorite entries on the album, well, then it must be a pretty special CD. “Boxer” is so powerful, in fact, I can’t just listen to it any old time; it’s reserved for when I really need it—either to focus on a difficult task, or to just relax and do nothing but disappear inside some of my favorite music of this or any decade.

4. “Raising Sand,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (2007)

The biggest surprise of the decade, “Raising Sand” combined two of my favorite voices into one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard. Plant and Krauss don’t so much complement one another as intertwine in some otherworldly realm that could’ve been dreamed up in a Led Zeppelin song. Neither one outshines the other, yet both have spectacular moments to call their own (specifically, “Nothin’” for Plant and “Trampled Rose” for Krauss). “Raising Sand” is risk and reward, personified.

3. “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,” PJ Harvey (2000)

PJ Harvey’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece was a constant companion this decade. This monumental album adapted itself perfectly to any situation, whether I was on a long drive or an all-night study bender. From the clarion call of opener “Big Exit” to the ethereal mist of closer “We Float,” Harvey tapped every facet of her talent and sound over the course of 12 supple, spectacular tracks. She’s never been better—before or since.

2. “Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem (2007)

To paraphrase “High Fidelity’s” Rob Gordon, so much of rock and roll is about pain, suffering, heartbreak, depression. The Gaslight Anthem acknowledge that pain, they absorb it, and they move on. In a decade that saw so much fear and suffering, TGA was a beacon of joy at the end of the long tunnel of these past 10 years—genuine hope emanating from deep empathy and a determination that, no matter what, these dark times won’t beat us down and suck all the pleasure out of life.

Frontman Brian Fallon’s lyrics on his band’s debut album are essentially several different meditations on this central theme. Though “we always love the sad, sad songs” most of Fallon’s own on this record boil down to the last line of the first verse of the first song: “I thought about how fortunate I feel to be alive.” As a fellow Christian, these are words to live by.

1. “The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem (2008)

Gaslight’s first album brought all sorts of comparisons to other bands, both peers and predecessors. “The ’59 Sound,” to these ears, ended those comparisons. It’s aptly christened, as this stripped-down, reverb-drenched album of the decade saw the band manifest the soul-music-as-punk-rock vibe they carry around in their hearts.

I don’t know what else I can say at this point other than I simply love, love, love this record. It fits any mood, any occasion, any requirement of circumstance. I return to it for energy, for joy, for peace, for renewal. It is my favorite album of this decade, and the next 10 years will be hard pressed to better it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: 2008

My 2008 was without question dominated by The Gaslight Anthem, who released one of my favorite albums of all time. That doesn’t mean there weren’t other outstanding CDs that managed to horn in on TGA’s spotlight, though. They are:

“Attack and Release,” The Black Keys

I was initially disappointed with the duo’s latest effort, because with Danger Mouse at the helm I expected … more. Instead, “Attack and Release” basically sounds like any other Keys album, with a few subtle twists (like flute! and banjo!). After it sinks in, the album settles just fine, with standout tracks like “I Got Mine,” “Psychotic Girl,” “Remember When (Side B),” “Oceans and Streams,” and my …

Favorite Track: “Strange Times”

[original review]

“The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem

For their second album, The Gaslight Anthem fully manifest their mission to turn classic R&B and soul music into punk rock with an ear for pop accessibility. With its lo-fi, reverb-drenched feel, this is an album that matches its writers’ old souls. Every song is good and more than half are great, making repeated listens not just a must, but a joy. With this record, the band shed all comparisons and fully crystallized their own sound. More than a year later, it continues to reward.

Favorite Track: “The ’59 Sound”

[first review]

[second review]

“Senor and the Queen” EP, The Gaslight Anthem

Stunningly, “The ’59 Sound” was the other great record this New Jersey quartet released in 2008. This EP offers up four of the band’s best songs, and provides a good transition from the more straightforward punk of their 2007 debut to the soul/punk of the next album—“Senor and the Queen” sounds like “The ’59 Sound” minus the reverb. And have they ever delivered a better mission statement than the title track? “We’ll bury these old ghosts here …” indeed.

Favorite Track: “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”

“The Odd Couple,” Gnarls Barkley

Wow, possibly the most underrated album of the decade. Though it didn’t have a breakout smash like the duet’s stunning 2006 debut, “The Odd Couple” also eschews “St. Elsewhere’s” spacey detours. Gnarls’ second effort is a more cohesive album, focusing on Cee Lo’s evocative depth in soul singing. It may not be quite as frenetic an affair as the previous record (“Run,” aside), but that’s fine by me. Never understood why this second great album from Gnarls Barkley didn’t get more attention.

Favorite Track: “A Little Better”

“Stay Positive,” The Hold Steady

“Constructive Summer” opens this album with an explosive guitar riff, and The Hold Steady never look back over the course of 14 sprawling, brawling tracks of good ol’ rock and roll. Frontman Craig Finn’s lyrics put up a barrier between me and his music, but that doesn’t mean these songs don’t speak to me as pure grooves. Though 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America” is considered the band’s best work, I slightly prefer this record for its broader sound and changes in direction. There are still big rockers like the aforementioned “Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis,” but there are also tender numbers like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” and my …

Favorite Track: “Both Crosses”

[original review]

“Only by the Night,” Kings of Leon

Ironic that Kings of Leon’s weakest album of their past three was the one that finally made them superstars in the U.S. “Weakest” is a relative term, though. The first half of “Only by the Night” is outstanding and as good as the Kings have ever been; it’s the second half that falters, with one too many slow songs bogging things down. Still, these are nitpicks. “Only by the Night” was a breakthrough because it delivers a handful of outstanding tracks, namely “Closer,” “Manhattan,” “Use Somebody,” “Sex on Fire” (though, yes, it’s silly) and my …

Favorite Track: “Crawl” (also the first KOL song I heard—live and in person)

[original review]

“Konk,” Kooks

No slippage here for these spry Brits, who followed up an outstanding 2006 debut with something even better. “Konk” is almost painful it’s such a perfect pop/rock record. It’ll put a smile on your face, get your head bobbing, and your toe tapping. Start to finish, this CD is just fun, with hooks, melodies, and harmonies to spare. The Kooks are one of the more underrated bands of the decade (at least in the U.S.).

Favorite Track: “Love It All”

“Red of Tooth and Claw,” Murder by Death

I covered everything I love about this album a few weeks ago. To sum up: The dark vocals of Adam Turla and the haunting electric cello of Sarah Balliet combine to make modern cowboy songs unlike anything else I’ve heard this decade.

Favorite Track: “Fuego!” (but this changes all the time)

“Consolers of the Lonely,” The Raconteurs

The Raconteurs’ second album fulfills all the promises made in my head the first time I heard Jack White and Brendan Benson were teaming for an it’s-not-a-side-project. 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldier” was … nice, but was more a tease than a fulfillment of their potential. “Consolers of the Lonely,” on the other hand, is massive, with White and Benson channeling all their considerable power into 14 of my favorite tracks of the year. This is what Jack White sounds like with a full band at his disposal. Be afraid.

Favorite Track: “Carolina Drama” (but this changes all the time)

[original review]

“Mission Control,” The Whigs

For their second album, it’s like the Whigs went through my CD collection and decided to make a best-of compilation in their own words. The Athens, Ga., trio takes a whirlwind trip through the past three decades of rock and roll, delivering one of 2008’s best records. If you don’t like a particular song, just wait about three minutes because the next one won’t sound anything like it. “Mission Control” is an astounding feat for one band to take so many sharp turns in so short a span (the album clocks in at less than 40 minutes). I don’t pretend to know what the Whigs’ actual influences are, but here’s what these ears hear: Pearl Jam, The Clash, Snow Patrol, Foo Fighters, the La’s, Social Distortion, and more.

Favorite Track: “Right Hand on My Heart”


“The Airborne Toxic Event,” The Airborne Toxic Event

“Sea Sew,” Lisa Hannigan

“The Virginia EP,” The National

“Break Up the Concrete,” The Pretenders

“Slumdog Millionaire,” soundtrack

“Dear Science,” TV on the Radio

“Twilight,” soundtrack

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: 10 for 10

Here is a compilation of my 10 favorite songs from 10 of my favorite artists of the decade. Each of these musicians/bands mark a significant period of explosive fandom in my life at some point during the past 10 years.

The criteria:

• All songs have to be from this decade (which is why PJ Harvey isn’t on here, for example).

• I had to see them in concert at least once (except for Johnny Cash, for obvious reasons).

• I had to obtain all of the albums they released this decade (which is why Murder by Death isn’t on here, for example).

• I had to follow them fervently for at least one year (which is why Kings of Leon, The Hold Steady, and Snow Patrol aren’t on here, for examples).

• They don’t necessarily have to still be one of my favorite artists/bands (which is why Chris Carrabba is on here, for example).

So, here we go …

Ryan Adams

1. I See Monsters (from 2003’s “Love Is Hell, Pt. 2”)

2. Come Pick Me Up (from 2000’s “Heartbreaker”)

3. Let It Ride (from 2005’s “Cold Roses”)

4. Rosalie Come and Go (from 2001’s “Gold” bonus disc)

5. My Love for You Is Real (from 2007’s “Follow the Lights” EP)

6. Goodnight Rose/Two/Everybody Knows (from 2007’s “Easy Tiger”)

9. Gonna Make You Love Me (from 2001’s “Gold”)

10. La Cienega Just Smiled (from 2001’s “Gold”)

Chris Carrabba

1. Vindicated (from 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” soundtrack)

2. Ender Will Save Us All (from 2000’s “The Swiss Army Romance”)

3. So Impossible (from 2001’s “So Impossible” EP)

4. Hands Down (from 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar”)

5. The Moon Is Down (from Further Seems Forever’s “The Moon Is Down,” 2001)

6. Don’t Wait (from 2006’s “Dusk & Summer”)

7. So Beautiful (from 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar”)

8. The Good Fight (from 2001’s “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most”)

9. In A Big Country (from 2006’s “Don’t Wait” single)

10. The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (from 2001’s “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most”)

Johnny Cash

1. God’s Gonna Cut You Down (from 2006’s “American V: A Hundred Highways”)

2. I Came to Believe (from 2006’s “American V: A Hundred Highways”)

3. I See A Darkness (from 2000’s “American III: Solitary Man”)

4. Further On (Up the Road) (from 2006’s “American V: A Hundred Highways”)

5. One (from 2000’s “American III: Solitary Man”)

6. Personal Jesus (from 2002’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around”)

7. Hurt (from 2002’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around”)

8. The Man Comes Around (from 2002’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around”)

9. On the Evening Train (from 2006’s “American V: A Hundred Highways”)

10. I Won’t Back Down (from 2000’s “American III: Solitary Man”)

The Gaslight Anthem

1. The ’59 Sound (from 2008’s “The ’59 Sound”)

2. Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis? (from 2008’s “Senor and the Queen” EP)

3. We Came to Dance (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

4. Great Expectations (from 2008’s “The ’59 Sound”)

5. 1930 (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

6. I’da Called You Woody, Joe (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

7. I Coulda Been a Contender (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

8. Miles Davis & the Cool (from 2008’s “The ’59 Sound”)

9. Film Noir (from 2008’s “The ’59 Sound”)

10. Angry Johnny and the Radio (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

The National

1. Slow Show (from 2007’s “Boxer”)

2. Daughters of the Soho Riots (from 2005’s “Alligator”)

3. Fake Empire (from 2007’s “Boxer”)

4. Mansion on the Hill (from 2008’s “The Virginia EP”)

5. Lucky You (from 2003’s “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers”)
6. Secret Meeting (from 2005’s “Alligator”)

7. Start A War (from 2007’s “Boxer”)

8. Mistaken for Strangers (from 2007’s “Boxer”)

9. About Today (from 2005’s “Cherry Tree” EP)

10. Green Gloves (from 2007’s “Boxer”)

Pearl Jam

1. Life Wasted (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)

2. Sad (from 2003’s “Lost Dogs”)

3. Love Reign O’er Me (2006 Christmas Single)

4. I Am Mine (from 2002’s “Riot Act”)

5. Insignificance (from 2000’s “Binaural”)

6. Unemployable (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)

7. Come Back (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)

8. Grievance (from 2000’s “Binaural”)

9. Severed Hand (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)

10. Arc (from 2002’s “Riot Act”)

Bruce Springsteen

1. Long Time Comin’ (from 2005’s “Devils & Dust”)

2. Nothing Man (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

3. My City of Ruins (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

4. The Rising (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

5. You’re Missing (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

6. Radio Nowhere (from 2007’s “Magic”)

7. Further On (Up the Road) (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

8. The Wrestler (from 2009’s “Working on a Dream”)

9. Lonesome Day (from 2002’s “The Rising”)

10. Mrs. McGrath (from 2006’s “We Shall Overcome”)


1. Beautiful Day (from 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”)

2. Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own (from 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”)

3. Walk On (UK Single Version) (from 2001’s “Walk On” single)

4. Breathe (from 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon”)

5. Vertigo (from 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”)

6. Electrical Storm (William Orbit Mix) (from 2002’s “The Best of: 1990-2000”)

7. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (from 2000’s “Million Dollar Hotel” soundtrack)

8. Magnificent (from 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon”)

9. FEZ—Being Born (from 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon”)

10. City of Blinding Lights (from 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”)

Jack White

1. Seven Nation Army (from The White Stripes’ “Elephant,” 2003)

2. Hello Operator (from The White Stripes’ “De Stijl,” 2000)

3. I’m Bound to Pack It Up (from The White Stripes’ “De Stijl,” 2000)

4. Icky Thump (from The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump,” 2007)

5. I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself (from The White Stripes’ “Elephant,” 2003)

6. Carolina Drama (from The Raconteurs’ “Consolers of the Lonely,” 2008)

7. These Stones Will Shout (from The Raconteurs’ “Consolers of the Lonely,” 2008)

8. Portland, Oregon (from Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose,” 2004)

9. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground (from The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells,” 2001)

10. Black Jack Davey (from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” single, 2003)


1. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

2. Company in My Back (from 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”)

3. You Are My Face (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”)

4. Impossible Germany (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”)

5. I’m the Man Who Loves You (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

6. Jesus, etc. (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

7. Poor Places (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

8. Ashes of American Flags (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

9. Kamera/War on War/Heavy Metal Drummer/Pot Kettle Black (from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)