Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Top Ten Albums of the Decade

Given that I haven’t posted here in about a month (hard at work on top secret projects elsewhere), and given that I’ve not much IQ in storage today (a general disposition that occurs at the end of every semester—no more brain stuffing, thanks!), I’ve decided to engage in the writing equivalent of eating candy—making a list of things I like and explaining why I like them. So maybe, let’s not call this the “top ten” albums of the decade—that sort of jive is for audiophiles more informed than me. This will no doubt be a more idiosyncratic list than you’ll find on music sites like Pitchfork because I’m not trying to be comprehensive, nor objective. Consider this more a personal reminisce on music that I found and liked a lot in the last ten years.

The truth be told is that iTunes has turned me into a singles purchaser. I have a lot of collections of one to four songs from bands whom I appreciate (iTunes says I have 734 artists in my collection—a bit of an overestimation, but it’s in the neighborhood), but many of those artists didn’t convince me that I wanted to hear everything that they were writing. So, if I own a whole album of material, it’s generally because I can’t get enough of what the band is doing, or because the album itself is representative of a work of art in its own right. That does not happen often—that a band/musician can create a group of songs that have such coherence that I prefer the album to any one song. I generally consider it a sign of real artistic genius.

I did consult some other peoples’ lists to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, but for the most part I clicked on “Top 200 Most Played” in my iTunes. There probably is no greater measure of love (in my mind) than that I listen to something a lot. So without further ado: My Top Ten Awesome Finds of Albums for 2000-2009 (see that wasn’t nearly as catchy a title). Also, these are all listed in chronological order rather than some subjective “best” order, and the links all lead to iTunes.

Behind the Sun (2000) Chicane

It’s amusing that this album is first in the collection. It simultaneously deserves a place at number 1 for its effect on my psyche, but also because—as you’ll see—many other albums on this list have a pretty specific historical context. This album really does not. I remember hearing Chicane for the first time at a French coffee shop in DUMBO1, Brooklyn when I lived there. I was enchanted enough by the one song to ask about it, but other than that, this album has remained timeless in my mind. It does less to remind me of anything than it simply transports me to an otherworldly place. I often find myself getting it out when it’s time to depart from this corporeal existence for a while and dream about possibilities. It works equally well as background music for creative endeavors as well as sound to meditate on and lose yourself to. And the entire album accomplishes this! That is no mean feat. In short, this album is ethereal, heavenly, hopeful; listen to this ablum from beginning to end and you will feel warm and fuzzy.

Oh Inverted World (2001) The Shins

From the very opening track this album presented itself as something new and weird. For me, listening to this album was akin to hearing Doolittle for the first time in that it was an awakening to possibilities; a reminder that rock ‘n’ roll can re-invent itself in wildly surprising ways. It’s arrival was weirdly appropriate, too. I first ran into it in the summer of 2001 which was a really good time in my life, but obviously soon to be overshadowed by horrific events. Even though the dotcom bust had occurred, optimism for our own endeavors and a reinvigoration of creative efforts still remained. This album helped with that. It’s insistence that it was something new—present even in the lyric “And I got on with making myself/The trick is just making yourself”—helped fuel the sense that more could be made of what we had. There was even a self-admitted geekiness to this album that I could just too easily relate to at the time.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) Wilco

From happy and weird to melancholy and sad is the segue here. Considering the timing in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. Even the cover of the album has two towers on it. There was no dodging regret or fear in 2002 (in New York City) and this album, despite its overarching melancholy, helped a lot. It’s not terribly surprising that I’ve not listened to this album a lot since then, as much as I love it. The sound of the songs is literally the sound of a coming apart, strings plucking, breaking, high-pitched asynchronous clangs. Jeff Tweedy’s voice is somber and often breaks in such a way that makes you think he’s been crying a lot.

It’s funny though, sitting here now and listening to this album again with so much time past, it sounds more like an anthem to do something about the chaos other than just mourn loss. In fact, I’m making the decision now to make sure that songs like “Kamera” and “War on War” come back into regular rotation. There’s a defiance in them I’d not heard until now. The album is melancholy still, but at least with an underlying determination to do something about it. Consider the hope in the lyrics “I myself have found a real rival in myself/I am hoping for a re-arrival of myself” (from “Pot Kettle Black”); definitely themes of rejuvenation here. And if anything, finding something new here in this album today is a testament to its timelessness. Great art, when re-visited, often has a new relevance to life.

A Strangely Isolated Place (2003) Ulrich Schnauss

Impressive. In the process of writing this little puddle of nostalgia, I’ve been playing the albums I’ve been writing about, and frankly, just checked out for the last 30 minutes. Much like Chicane’s album (mentioned above) this album contains that power to transport the listener to… well, just somewhere else. And it does it even when you don’t mean for it to! So, I suppose, unlike the Chicane album, which can serve as background music, if you want it to, A Strangely Isolated Place will not be ignored. Rather, it will lull you into a safe place and hold you there until it’s finished with you. An exquisite work that tops most “space music” albums by retaining some semblance of storyline (albeit abstract) in the keys it uses, the instrumentation, and the melodies. This album is just this side of abient music a la The Orb’s Orbus Terrarum which not only transports you somewhere but then proceeds to take your reality apart until a return path becomes difficult. A Strangely Isolated Place is not nearly so risky as Orbus Terrarum, but is rather like standing underneath a waterfall for a while before getting back to business.

The Avalanche (2005) Sufjan Stevens

Honestly, Sufjan Stevens is so prolific that 99% of musicians should just be embarrassed. He just doesn’t stop making music and, oddly, where most prolific artists mine gems amongst the refuse, Sufjan finds gems in the most ridiculous of subjects. I mean, a song about supercomputers? John Wayne Gacy!? Who pulls that off? But the results are personal, touching, rushing and exceptional. And wait, there’s more! I’m not talking about the album that shows up in all the other lists you’ll see on the net! They’re going to tell you about Illinoise (and by the way, often leaving off the ‘e’—it’s a pun people). The Avalanche is the outtakes from Illinoise. It’s all the stuff (and there’s a lot) that he decided not to put on the album. Can I use italics more with this guy or what. He’s the exception to about every rule I can think of. I even had the good fortune to see the movie he produced just a few months back, and while he has not mastered the subtleties of volume with regard to composing for a symphony (hint: a symphony can get really loud!) he did compose something gorgeous; and it was a something gorgeous and moving about a road in Brooklyn. I mean, come on. That’s just too much talent for any one guy to have. He needs to sell some of that to those of us who spend Saturday afternoons writing about his albums. At any rate, I implore you to listen to “The Henney Buggy Band” and after you are completely jazzed by that track, remind yourself: that was an outtake. Ridiculous. Perhaps, this position on the list should be labeled “The year I discovered Sufjan Stevens,” because it has less to do with any one particular album than the fact that I will be likely listening to him for the rest of my life.2

The Information (2006) Beck

There were two albums in particular that, for me, really addressed the arriving changes of the Information Revolution. We are at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and a lot of us are still looking at our iPhones, not seeking the next feature, but rather, in a state of futureshock, we’re saying that “Is this really possible? Is anybody seeing this?” Then we look around a crowd of people staring at their smart phones and no one sees our perplexion. Most people aren’t, believe me. Conspicuous consumption has idiotized the majority of us. But both Beck and Radiohead saw it. Beck went to the surface with The Information and Radiohead went deep with In Rainbows. Both albums are excellent and I’ll address In Rainbows after a Feist intermission. To start with, regarding Beck, after (6?) years of not even bothering with CDs, I went out and found this CD in the strange lands of something-like-Tower-records. Memory does not serve, but there was something like a mall involved; a strange land where people shop in unison. It was creepy. Still, why buy an actual-made-of-atoms-disc? The answer should be obvious: stickers! In this weird archaic way, Beck made music (for a brief, mostly unnoticed moment) interactive again. All the baby-booming and/or retro-hipstering folks complaining about their coveted cardboard envelopes totally missed the point here. Stickers! Design your own cover! Fun! What a bizarre metaphor in which to have the conversation about the digitization of everything (which Beck is wildly aware of, employing 8-bit remixes of his work) than making sure that your album cover is effectively an activity book? I felt like Beck was saying, “Yeah, baby, everyone is downloading; I just made you buy stickers.” And if he had said that, I would have said he was right, and I happily bought stickers. Finally, take a note music industry: music comes in many forms, not all musical. Duh.

Other than that, I just don’t have the energy to go into how the lyrics of this whole album apply to the insanity of our current economy of attention. Trust me, Beck is hoping that we don’t have to continue down this destructive path; a path that includes recycling of the fame of D-list actors and actresses; where importance merely equals repetition of one’s name in the vast meaninglessness of the desert of the media. Phrases like “epileptic battery” and “If I could forget myself/Find another lie to tell/If I had a soul to sell/I’d buy some time/To talk to my brain cell.” The digital all-on, all-the-time world is upon us, and let’s hope that reality starts advertising.

The Reminder (2007) Feist

The whole album starts with the words “I’m sorry.” How appropriate (perhaps only for me that this album is called The Reminder). Yes, let’s return to the personal. And wasn’t that what caught fire in 2007 with the video “1234?” We’d been—I’d been—pretty immersed in doomsaying. The “1234” video was such a revelation in color and fun and dance that Apple (the coolest company among companies3) took it on in their ads. I remember getting nauseous reading an issue of Wired that year. It was becoming more than ennui and relevance, it was becoming full-blown futureshock. The Zeitgeist owes a debt of thanks to Feist. Between her simple compositions, uplifted perspective, angelic voice and disregard for the world’s obsession with a non-existent “big-picture”, she simply has joy for what she does, and did something novel: she wrote songs about happiness. Think about your musical collection. How many songs are about love gone wrong, love demanded, love yearned for, jealousy, sadness, frustration, anger? Now, how many songs in your collection are about happiness and contentment? I’m not saying that the album represents this for Feist, or that this is what Feist is up to, but she did it. And that’s enough to pay attention to—especially considering the timing. Aside from all that, when I see Feist herself wailing on a guitar and singing about how she feels it all, I am one inclined to believe. In a nation (and a world?) of sexy women that throw themselves around onstage in ever more garish forms while singing about positively boring concepts like… uh boyfriends, so-called romance? At least Feist has something honest to say. She sings about family, awareness, children, long-term relationships, a desire for the most meaningful thing she can find. That Lady Gaga’s latest BS about wanting sex in front of a camera ends up in the decade’s best charts is an insult to artists everywhere who are trying to speak to “The truth lies/and lies divide,” which Feist has already stated. They are trapped in the moment the way that a teenager has no knowledge of getting older, while Feist sings about an honest maturity that is not only real but available.

In Rainbows (2007) Radiohead

Now we come to the most existential album of the decade, and before I begin this particular review, I will encourage you to remember the fact that light—perhaps one of the most basic forms of physical sensation in our universe—can be broken and shown through a prism to be made of many frequencies. When you engage the Internet, you should know that your words and meanings are being transformed into light along the Internet’s backbone, an optical fiber (which means tubes of light, dummies) and only then can individuals come into existence in a global perspective. I think this is where the concept of “In Rainbows” comes from. You are caught in it, whether you like it or not. Move beyond the concept of light in order to speak about electromagnetic frequency (EMF) and you only incorporate all 21st century technology. Cell Phone? Texting? Email? If your communication travels along some line or through the air to someone you know, it is made into EMF—raced around the world—the sincerity of that force versus speaking to someone—to their face—has changed everything for current generations. For the newcomers, speaking in person matters less than using this system of lights we have made. It’s easy to criticize and damn those whom you can see from some distance away. And what matters in your thoughts is now suddenly impersonal. In some ways we are all plankton in the sea of data and noise, and yet, we all trade in the power of überthought of the day. Every one of us is capable of becoming a trend.

In Rainbows asks an existential question. You are transmitted. Does your meaning as a human being matter more when you are transmitted more? Are you outrageous and so paid attention to? But who trusts you? When you are transmitted often you are indeed watched; but also sometimes because you are a cautionary tale. What in the digital world can hold you accountable? Yorke croons about houses of cards, anti-materialism, and an understanding of self in an unadulterated state of communication. One of the most evocative lyrics that he screams is “I see me coming/I see me coming!” There’s an obvious lurid double-entendre here, such that sex is at the base of the metaphor, which is appropriate given the propagation of sex videos on the web as a way to garner attention. But it is, I think, mostly a statement of the misunderstanding by the average person with regard to the fact that they could watch themselves on secret cameras more often than they would like. We are all of us being cleaved into real and digital selves. And you can spy on your digital self; but is it really you?

Viva La Vida (2008) Coldplay

I have made the occasional joke that Coldplay is nothing more than Radiohead Lite. The criticism is fair where one wants to talk about instrumental complexity. Radiohead is positively more engaged in an exploration of the nature os sound; Coldplay wants to write hits. There’s an inherent unfairness in this sort of criticism. The Beatles Revolver was insane in terms of what they did with capacity of the studio. U2 has received the same criticism. Sometimes a band wants to be smart and sometimes they just want you to feel. Coldplay is intent on the latter motive and has been since Parachutes. I see no harm or reduction of beauty as an aesthetic in that goal. Hits can be poignant. The point of Viva La Vida is that they mastered this feeling. They got historically political, yeah, but not importantly so with regard to modernity. Fine. Tune into the music, tune out the meaning, and this album works awesomely all the way through. If you need to interpret it, have fun; I don’t think it’s shallow. Honestly, I’ve not bothered. I like it when a song from this album comes on. It’s less a thematic album, than it is a collection of hits, I think. But the hits are great.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008) David Byrne + Brian Eno

First of all, this album is just fun. If there’s any reason to listen to it, it’s just a light-hearted flight from the serious. From the beginning (which the album talks about) there is a sense that everything in the world is crazy, but everything will still be fine. I can’t think of an album that will better innoculate you against the media’s tired diatribe about the persistent end of the world. They’ve JUST been SO on ABOUT IT, THEY, they, the media, that’s it’s just gotten terribly boring to think about the end of the world. I’m the first to admit that I’ve watched talks online where the central subject was the discussion of the ten ways the world could end. Right or wrong, you’ve got to leave talks like that thinking to yourself, “Regardless, I’d better have some fun in the meantime.” Byrne and Eno seem intent on making sure that if the ship goes down (meaning the planet) fun was intended to be had. There’s just nothing in the sound of the songs that offers you a concept that there’s anything inexorably wrong. What’s wrong is on the periphery. What’s wrong is the why of human action. Probably accurate. This is a collection of songs for the sanatorium!

Fantasies (2009) Metric

I just HAVE to keep extolling the merits of this band. This band is the Police of the decade and yet it really seems like no one is noticing. Emily Haines, the lead singer and lyricist (among other roles) continues to roll out Truth. It is very clear from her continued efforts over the years that she is trying to write something both new and sincere, which is very, very hard. The band backs her with an insane precision. She is so honest about her encounters with the world and what she thinks about it, she seems to expose herself more vigorously then most musicians, and yet doesn’t seem phased by it. There’s too much material for me to get into it too deeply. The most I can do is urge you to take a listen. You will find something you like; I’m sure of it. In fact, I’d rather be in the position of saying that everything that Metric has done is something to listen to. Every melody, every sentiment is something that I get. Metric is definitely worth your time.

The Crow (2009) Steven Martin

Goodness gracious, I am glad to be here. I honestly set out to eat some candy and seem to have been forced to chew on the rawhide of the forgotten past. Still, of these ten albums, I am tempted to say that of those that were influential on me in the last decade, this is surely the easiest. It woke me up to a whole genre of music that I am literally living in the middle of: Bluegrass! I live in Louisville! Duh. So, it’s been really nice to have this album as a setting off point for finding out about Bluegrass, and the exploration has beena great change of pace from all the rock and electronica I listen to.

Mind you, I love Mr. Martin’s old comedic albums. I love his stand-up. His short stories are fantastic, his biography enlightening, and he seems, in the twilight of his career, to have completely shrugged off any stereotype ever applied to him while simply investigating his artisitc passions. On this album, Mr. Steve Martin has simply shown that a basic American music form and composition of song is not anywhere close to being done. That this acheivement occurs during the advent of the usurpation of pop culture by the crap circuses of American Idol-ilke makes it all the more surprising and in need of cherishing. Do yourself a favor. It will take one minute and thirty-seven seconds. Go to the iTunes page for The Crow and listen to the aptly named “Wally on the Run.” You’ll tap you’re foot; you might stomp and holler. And isn’t that what music has always been about?

  1. Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Not so nice a part of town when I lived there, but lately I’ve heard it’s a new Billyburg. 

  2. After composing albums about Michigan and Illinois, he had supposedly said that he believes he can write material for all fifty states!—and I believe him! This guy just doesn’t stop writing. Awe-inspiring. I believe he is the Paul Simon of our generation. 

  3. Apple pretty consistently tied this decade with Volkswagen for figuring out what bands are cool before they were too cool. I have no idea why this is. 

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