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.

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