It feels a bit weird posting our decade list in February 2010, mostly because online and print publications already revealed their lists months before 2009 even ended. But if posterity was a concern at all for publications, then why give the second half of 2009 the shaft? Why couldn’t they wait until 2010 to publish? Perhaps posterity doesn’t really matter that much. More than anything, decade lists affirm not necessarily the “best” albums, but which albums define that publication’s cultural and aesthetic values at that moment. Sure, an album or two might slip through the cracks by publishing early, but the collective values implied by this ritual remain more or less intact.
Linking values to our tastes can be tricky though. While it’s easy to read into webzines as monolithic entities (“You gave X a perfect score, so why aren’t they on the list!?”), that Daft Punk placed right next to sunn 0))) is as indicative of our “cosmopolitan” tastes as it is of our list’s arbitrariness. We’re not here to underscore the predominant canon (yes, Sufjan Stevens is not on the list, while Graham Lambkin is), but nor are we here to proclaim our list as unique. It features the usual suspects right alongside the oddball picks, and rightfully so.
But taste is an ever-shifting, vibrant son of a bitch, isn’t it? If we had compiled a list of this scope just three years ago, the result would reflect a very different set of tastes and values. Indeed, this list is just one momentary glimpse of TMT, one way to leave our mark, one way to essentially project our aesthetic and cultural biases into the future. Shit, maybe posterity has more to do with this than we think.
100. Psychic Paramount
Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural
[No Quarter; 2005]
by J. Bohannon
Including Brooklyn trio Psychic Paramount’s debut record, Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural, on a list of our favorite records of the decade hadn’t crossed my mind until I came to a simple realization: I have spent more time preaching the good word about this record to my peers than any other psychedelic record. Equal parts bombastic noise and skewed rhythmic concoctions, the peak limiters were pushed well beyond the threshold of distortion for a full-blown cosmic journey of the senses. But what really set Gamelan apart from the like-minded neo-psychedelia of the illustrious 00s was its inventive layering, which resulted in mammoth walls of sound that the group tore down and reconstructed over and over again — with only three members. Completely redefining the “power trio,” the Brooklyn bunch ran the gauntlet from thumping kraut-jams and interstellar guitar cacophony to pure, droned- and stoned-out bliss. With Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural, Psychic Paramount combined their finest moments within each territory of the modern psychedelic sound, making for one of the most transcendent records of the 00s.
Streethawk: A Seduction
Right under our noses, before almost anyone had noticed, Dan Bejar had quietly begun building his miniature empire at the turn of the decade. 1998’s City of Daughters was a glint of raw and potentially explosive talent, while 2000’s Thief demonstrated that his was in fact a singular voice capable of stunning things. But it was 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction that saw Destroyer emerge as an indelible force within rock. Seemingly from a parallel world, shielded somehow from the trends of the day while still feeling totally current, it was the miraculous result of the maturation of a relentless and uncompromising vision. It caught the eye of Merge Records, Bejar’s home for the second half of his career, and, more significantly, captivated listeners with its inscrutable, richly poetic imagery. Underneath the critics’ sloppy ‘glam-folk’ descriptor and the ever-present Bowie comparisons was something deceptively original. Simultaneously earnest and tongue-in-cheek, both backward- and forward-looking, and with a bombastic preciousness, it was a record of contradictions that still deserves to be puzzled over. If you asked him, the notoriously self-deprecating Bejar would tell you that he’s no poet — he just likes the way certain words sound together. That may be, but their assemblage and presentation on Streethawk was nothing short of brilliance.
98. Ryoji Ikeda
The first volume in his ongoing Datamatics series, 2005’s Dataplex had Japanese glitchmeister Ryoji Ikeda turn his sights onto a penetrating new sonic philosophy. Exploring the hidden codes of our hyper technological world, Datamatics has been an ongoing project aimed at capturing and rearranging the infinite streams of the ones and zeroes that characterize our modern lives, and Dataplex has thus far been the best-recorded representation of it. Completely austere and obsessively arranged, Dataplex is a delicately woven fabric of bowel-loosening bass, dizzyingly high-pitched bleets, and paranoia-inducing pulses. Taking the increasingly humdrum microhouse and glitch movements to the next level, Ikeda at once embraced the aesthetics of techno while smashing its excesses. Harboring frequencies and tones that imposed the danger of stereos malfunctioning, pets howling, CD players forcibly ejecting, and speakers imploding, Dataplex was, at its core, the clandestine sound of the early 21st century — the DNA, the raw data, the hidden binaries that lurked behind every web-embedded video, every MP3, and indeed almost every aspect of our hyper-encoded modern world — just waiting for its chance at destruction through sheer information overload.
97. Ariel Pink
[Paw Tracks; 2004]
Recorded in an intimate fashion between 2001-2003 and issued on Paw Tracks in 2004, The Doldrums was an oddball introduction to the world of Ariel Pink. A cult following soon gathered, but even the weirdo punk and freak-folk naysayer found a unique experience with this album. While tracks like “Among Dreams,” “For Kate I Wait,” and “Don’t Think Twice (Love)” captured lo-fi pop that your grandparents could tap their feet to, Ariel Rosenberg also included the kind of inconspicuous aesthetics that seeped into the subconscious of listeners, painting a mural of innocence, childhood, love, and a genuine feeling of joy. In other words, this record made you feel human, so there was no reason to search for contemporaries, no reason to extend the album into metaphor, no reason to contextualize this album within a certain tradition. The Doldrums took the sticks out of our asses, forcing us to not view his music as a contrived conflation of someone’s mind and soul and to confront it as seriously as any highfalutin modern composition. It took us to an odd but comfortable place, making us forget that we were in fact listening to some dude in a room making beats with his armpit.
by Brendan Mahoney
Summer, 2007: the game done changed. Once ubiquitous Unknown Pleasures tees had been replaced by designer day-glo tank tops. Daft Punk was suddenly more influential than The Velvet Underground and Television combined. Misogyny in rap was and had always been one big, party-starting joke. Vinyl was for Luddite DJs too dumb to learn Ableton. Panda Bear had just dedicated his record to the internet. Like all enduring works, Mirrored was highly idiosyncratic, but its every blip and screech was drenched with the spirit of its moment. It was the sound of virtuosic, sober musicians opening themselves up to our frantic cultural age, allowing themselves to be swept up in the tide of our terrifying and sublime present, and enjoying the ride. The result: proggy math-rock played with openness, urgency, and unhinged expressiveness. Bizarre cascades of pitch-shifted vocals that won more fans than they alienated. Cutting-edge spelling (“ddiamondd,” Bttls). It meant a seriously funky white drummer and an afro-headed frontman. It meant “emotionally intense” breakdowns that were no less emotionally intense for the abiding sly sense of humor. This was headphone music for the Ritalin generation. A decade after OK Computer, the world’s most important musical artists had stopped moaning and learned to embrace the globalized/digitized/new media-ized times. While Battles were not as high-profile as, say, Kanye (see: Bttls’ proggy math-rock and bizarre pitch-shifted vocals), their robot music suggested the expanding potential of human life with more love and energy than any other release in what was a remarkable year in pop music history.
95. Blonde Redhead
Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons
[Touch and Go; 2000]
by Kenny Bloggins
Blonde Redhead achieved the rare feat of carving out a new, distinct sound on their 2000 release. While often compared to Sonic Youth (probably in part since drummer Steve Stelley championed the group early on) from the dissonant, alternately tuned jangle of their early repertoire, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons was something else entirely: a record that raised the bar for themselves and their peers. Racing through shoegaze and dream pop, atomic age cinematic vibes and Victorian pop, no wave ethics and a strange, garage-y version of trip-hop on songs like “Hated Because of Great Qualities,” Blonde Redhead proved to be a multifaceted beast while keeping their soundscapes cohesive. Hanging out solidly in melodic minor keys while launching satin-like textures with Maki Takahashi’s wispy, silky vocals a couple of meters above the Earth’s surface, Blonde Redhead became certainly one of the moodiest- and sexiest-sounding collectives of our time. I mean, nothing says “I’m deep, mysterious, and going to art school” quite like owning a couple of Blonde Redhead records. Jokes aside, nothing before and nothing since has constructed the kind of world that Blonde Redhead set up camp on better than Melody. Yes, Blonde Redhead continued their trajectory of releasing solid, uncategorizable work, but this is where it all started.
[Definitive Jux; 2002]
by Laura Holmes
Much like how the best humor always has basis in truth, so does the best horror. Maybe that’s why El-P’s solo debut Fantastic Damage is still so jarring, eight years after its release. Its confrontational nature, lyrical aggression, and sonic oppression weren’t the result of pop star posturing, but of the violence, fear, and frustration that defined the first two years of the decade. Sure, there’s not much subtlety to be found here, but let’s be honest: nuance wasn’t getting noticed in a world overtaken by wartime violence. So, call it scary, call it apocalyptic, call it prescient, if you will. We call it the perfect manifestation of post-millenium tension — the realization that the reality of the triple-aughts may actually have been more frightening than all the Y2K-hype leading up to it.
93. The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
I need to be honest about something: The Mountain Goats are my favorite band, and The Sunset Tree is The Mountain Goats album with which I feel the strongest connection. Its release coincided with the worst years of my life, which were unsurprisingly during high school. Blasting “This Year” out of my car windows to exact revenge upon my tormentors brought immense satisfaction; I sang “Up the Wolves” for a rejected college application, but knowing I’d spread the gospel outweighed my disappointment; and “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” became a personal anthem after I realized it could have, in some way, been written about me. Many fans, myself included, prefer the no-fi production value of most early Mountain Goats output, yet this album’s studio recording clarifies John Darnielle’s intensity to a painful degree that does incredible justice to his brilliance. For being composed of songs about Darnielle’s experiences as an abused child, The Sunset Tree was surprisingly accessible and is always my first recommendation to potential converts. If it sounds like I’m in a cult, I suppose I am. The Sunset Tree is our Bible and our propaganda, full of the wisdom and experiences of Our Savior John.
by Gabe Vodicka
Aside from being probably the only hip-hop record of the decade to sample Harry Nilsson, what set Blazing Arrow apart from the rest of the pack was its ability to straddle the line between the musical mainstream and the preachy underground. The album boasted a number of big-name contributors — Gil-Scott Heron, Zack de la Rocha, and ?uestlove, to name a few — and, as is probably evident from that list, it was a tour de force of socially conscious posi-rap. But where some like-minded groups allowed their music to descend into cheesy moralizing, Blackalicious wouldn’t have it; Blazing Arrow was instead a simple tribute to that which is all good. Single “Make You Feel That Way” listed a bunch of things that just feel fucking great in a quietly ecstatic three-minute celebration of life. The album was released at the cusp of summer, and it was a summer record through and through, packed snugly with watery outer space samples and supple ride-on beats. It shouldn’t have worked, but it totally did. Blazing Arrow broke all the rules, but it was no reprobate; it did it for everyone’s benefit.
91. TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
by Jared Bier
With the sincere concern of an impending dystopia ensuing from the persistently looming issues of terrorism, global warming, confused foreign policy, etc. perpetually boiling within the general populace, let us endeavor for the sake of posterity to at least preserve in addition to our necessities 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain. The insight provided by “I Was a Lover” or “Province” into such contemporary matters notwithstanding, this 11-song time capsule will someday serve as an indispensable point of reference for those archivists examining the fascinating body of work produced over the curvature of TV on the Radio’s career. This record was the realization of the art-rock sensibility that conducted the band’s prior efforts, Young Liars and Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, but Return to Cookie Mountain, while preserving that distinct TV on the Radio spaciousness, was only perfected by a newfound heaviness. Fair or not, songs like “Wolf Like Me” and “Blues From Down Here” rendered songs like “Poppy” and “Satellite” — tours de force in themselves, mind you — pretty and lite. And in light of its licentious, aggressive successor, Dear Science, the layers comprising this record’s density become more apparent. May TV on the Radio live long and well, but Return to Cookie Mountain may just live longer.
90. Fat Worm of Error
Pregnant Babies Pregnant with Pregnant Babies
by Matt Weir
Sadly, few bands have both feet planted firmly in an alternate dimension. Not enough Pranksters working hard toward Living Forever by means of Weird Joke Sounds. Fat Worm of Error are the best we got, but don’t let that fact encourage you to dismiss this album as some kind of “free” joke. On the contrary, Pregnant Babies rewarded listeners with a slippery but real internal logic. Un-wave guitar strands, helium vocals, cartoon-fart bass, and stereo panning fetishisms don’t just collide over fall-apart kitchen-sink percussion on their own, you know. It takes practice, skill, and years of searching. FWoE members have instigated or done time in too many great projects — Caroliner, Deerhoof, Bromp Treb, Angst Hase Pfefer Nase, and Yeay! Cassettes are only part of the penetrable surface for this record to be “free” anything. They paid for this! Switching gears, someday sentient computers will enslave us in the most nefarious way: they will purposefully and irreversibly malfunction, their e-suicide effectively pulling the plug on our planet. Nuclear winter, etc. FWoE will have already mined the rich territory of: what kind of album do you make when the audiences are dead and your DNA doesn’t fit in your blood anymore?
[Sub Pop; 2005]
by Heidi Vanderslice
The Woods is the cruelest album I love. In 2005, Sleater-Kinney left their punky comfort zone for the menacing, naked clutches of cock rock and repurposed its swagger with ear-shattering bombast. Carrie Brownstein’s sinuous, primal solo in “What’s Mine is Yours” was sharply undercut by Corin Tucker’s thunderous bass, while Janet Weiss’ drums shredded speakers on every track, winning the battle for dominance in the deafening genesis of “Entertain.” “Modern Girl” stood alone as seemingly lighthearted, disguising a biting critique of consumerism and the American dream: “My baby loves me, I’m so happy/ Happy makes me a modern girl/ Took my money and bought a TV/ TV brings me closer to the world.” From the initial assault of twisted call-and-response tale “The Fox,” I visualize this record as a record level indicator spiking for its duration. In 2006, Sleater-Kinney disbanded, and no one has come near The Woods since.
88. Boards of Canada
by Alan Ranta
Although there had been Brian Eno’s late-70s ambient albums, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works in the early 90s, and trip-hop in the mid-90s, Boards Of Canada redefined chill music with their debut EP Twoism and LP Music Has A Right To Children. Then again, in 2002, just when we were getting comfortable in our beanbag chairs, Geogaddi tweaked their sonics a bit, showing their music in a subtly darker light. Their debut utilized the hazy nostalgia of lullaby-like melodies and the reconstituted speech of children, seeming to acknowledge the mystical whimsy we experience in youth that’s eventually lost to pragmatism and responsibility somewhere along the way. But if Music Has A Right was their Neverending Story, then Geogaddi was their Pan’s Labyrinth. The bittersweet nostalgic glow was still there, but it had an extra layer of ominous discontent bubbling just beneath the surface. The buying public did not seem to mind, though. Geogaddi quickly became the Edinburgh duo’s best-selling release, climbing as high as 21 on the UK charts, and cemented their reputation among indie and electronic fans. It remains the seminal chill album, the first record anyone interested in the genre would be advised to procure, and a staple of spa and massage therapist iPods worldwide.
Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts
[Gooom Disques; 2003]
by Drew Cordes
Dead Cities was acclaimed in indie circles and with critics, but I still think this stunning electronic record lacks the recognition it deserves. Anyone who has ever been within earshot of me knows I haven’t been able to shut up about it since it came out. But why do I love it so? It’s easy to do the standard deconstruction and build an accurate account of what makes it great — riveting melodies constantly interweaving and challenging each other for dominance; a thoughtful, ambient base; guitars of eschatological proportions; enough changes from track to track (or within tracks) to keep you on your toes — but none of that quite captures it. What sets it apart is that, despite having virtually no lyrics for the listener to cling to and residing in the most pathologically technical, cerebral, and sterile of genres, Dead Cities was an emotional breakthrough. It ran the gamut from aggressive and high-energy to serene and meditative, from simple beauty to captivating chaos. To convey such sentiments and earn listeners’ empathy is no easy feat for any musician. To do so in this medium, with such resounding success, is simply staggering.
Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts
[Azul Discográfica; 2007]
by Mr P
It’s difficult to listen to Talibam! without constantly being reminded of what so many other artists lack. Their sound is so immediate, so gripping that any album you play after it comes off too self-serious, too calculated, too cliché. Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts, the group’s first studio full-length, was a particular standout in their varied, vibrant, viscious discography. It had something for experimental lovers of all stripes: passages of maximalist freakouts, deafening blasts of Kuti-ish horn-barfing, extended periods of minimal drones, sequences of Kraut-y rhythms. Here, Talibam! proved not only how talented they are, but how expansive their sound could be with such a limited setup (drums, synth, sax/electronics). It helped, of course, that the album featured guests aplenty, including Cooper-Moore, Moppa Elliott, Anders Nlisson, and the legendary Peter Evans. But despite the album’s virtuoso showcase, the Talibam! boys — Kevin Shea, Matt Mottel, Ed Bear — offset everything with the appropriate amount of humor (see the intro to “Lunch Break at Naan” and 2:48 into “Rambo’s Passeggiata”). It was as playful as it was sonically free. But wait a minute, weren’t these guys just being indulgent? Well, if indulgence meant steering clear from the typical plot of experimental musics and traversing the wondrous world of “spontaneous composition,” then, yes, I suppose Talibam! were about as indulgent as you can get.
85. Times New Viking
Present the Paisley Reich
by S. Kobak
Present the Paisley Reich sounded like Times New Viking recorded it in a shoebox, so reviewers of course harped on the production technique when trying to explain the album’s artistic value. But the lo-fi/shit-fi talk stops here, because the beauty of the album lurked beneath the layers of hiss. The album featured nothing really revolutionary, but the band made it sound fresh and relevant by transcending the pile of dusty, forgotten 7-inches that inspired them. Whereas many critically-copulated bands in the aughts sought to revitalize a particular musical movement by photocopying it or adding a sense of misguided irony to the mix, Times New Viking stood among their heroes without standing out as impostors. The combination of the band’s chemistry and a well-thought-out mixture of single-worthy tunes and album sides propelled Presents into a prime slot in the DIY basement punk canon. Guitarist Jared Phillips, keyboardist/vocalist Beth Murphy, and drummer/vocalist Adam Elliott created an unrelenting, fuzzy pop-rock monster glued together in a tight-knit structure. All they needed was two-and-a-half minutes or less to execute many of the songs on the album, to effectively communicate the message at hand. Perhaps Times New Viking decided to focus on writing and performing the songs rather than worry about production value.
84. The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
On a rumored budget of $300, Alden Ginger, Nick Diamonds, and J’amie Tambeur pieced together one of the most consistently imaginative records of 2003. Bedroom pop wasn’t a new phenomenon, but Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? made it feel like it was. Its fractured and unpredictable string of dense pop nuggets recalled early Guided By Voices, but it also turned ‘lo-fi’ on its head with crisp production and a slew of miscellaneous accompaniment. The Unicorns’ rapid ascension to hot-new-thing status also provided one of the first examples of an internet-fueled fame that would come to characterize much of independent music afterward (not to mention the whole Canada thing). But despite the hype and the band’s near-immediate folding, this record has endured for its sheer honest exuberance. Its hooks reminded you why they’re called hooks, and there were almost too many to count: the bouncy opening chords to “Sea Ghost”; the signature, prickly guitar riff of “I Was Born (A Unicorn)”; and the wry organ line that snakes through “Tuff Ghost” are only a few among its unforgettable moments. With so many sugary melodies rapidly morphing into and out of one another, it’s no surprise that we’re still listening to it today, and that it feels new every time.
• Alien8: http://www.alien8recordings.com
83. Yo La Tengo
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
by David Nadelle
Primarily known for their endurance tests of volume, this favorite of many Yo La Tengo fans came nine albums into a long, peerless career and a few years after the magnificent I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Following that gem was no easy task, so instead of resorting to their expected sturm und drang, the trio decided to proceed, minus a few fuzzy hiccups, with a quiet majestic force on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The touch was so deft: the opener “Everyday,” with its delicious bass line and pitter-patter beat; the soft shuffle of “Our Way to Fall”; “The Crying of Lot G’s” funereal pace and spoken section (à la “Are You Lonesome Tonight”); the anodyne beat-ballad “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”; the drum-brushed dreamy tracks like “Last Days of Disco”; and the Georgia-led “You Can Have It All” and “Saturday” are among the best songs the band has ever recorded. This is such a different YLT album that the two gimmes are actually the least impressive tracks on the album. Sure, dorks will call out for the hooky “Cherry Chapstick” and others may pine for a mandatory quarter-hour epic like “Night Falls on Hoboken” at shows, but the rewards reaped from this album are virtually endless.
82. Antony and The Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
[Secretly Canadian; 2005]
by Ez Green
I Am a Bird Now’s beautifully minimal arrangements and deeply personal storytelling made it a great album, but that feels like an understatement. Contextualized within a heteronormative guitar-centric decade, Antony and the Johnsons’ second record can be seen as a zeitgeist of the 21st century. It systematically dismantled entrenched binaries and reimagined traditional themes while breathing new life into an old aesthetic. The songs were mostly stripped-down parlor anthems, with haunted atmospheres made possible by light piano melodies and baroque instrumentation flowing beneath Antony’s confident yet wavering vocals. When contrasted against raking guitars and skronky horns (as in standout track “Fistful of Love”) or epic cymbal crashes and pulsating piano crescendos (as in “For Today I am a Boy”), this smooth vulnerability evoked an atmosphere of repression, conflict, and ultimately liberation. Guest vocalists (Boy George, Lou Reed, Devendra Banhart, and Rufus Wainwright) grounded many of the tracks and simultaneously acted as a springboard for Antony to project into transcendence, simultaneously channeling the sacred and the profane. The album presented a novel gaze with sincerity and earnestness though a unique narrative of somber reflection and personal growth. Although born out of the particular life experiences of Antony Hegarty, its message remains universal: distant, yet close to home.
81. Xiu Xiu
[5 Rue Christine; 2002]
This is the stuff. Dour pop dirges that tremor seethingly to life and make you move as much as they bum you out. It’s true — Jamie Stewart’s first Xiu Xiu release is overpoweringly maudlin. But there’s too much going on for this to be a deterrent. It brazenly contains a pop structure that’s constantly folding in on itself. At this point in the world, nothing is sacred because too much is. Alienation comes too easy, and everyone’s scrambling to validate it. In this rush, Knife Play screams pee-smoke diamonds above and beyond the fray, and it still hails down with the same ferocity. While subsequent albums have amply shown Stewart’s noise-pop chops, none of them seem as consistently listenable (A Promise comes closest), fascinating, or self-contained as Knife Play. From the nauseous quasi-anthems of “Luber” and “Hives Hives” to the gash-sputtering chaos of “I Broke Up” or “Don Diasco,” this album’s a keeper of keepers. Stewart is one of the new century’s most original and exciting musical voices thus far, and his flirting-with-cloying experimentation on this record has an unexpected staying power that places it well out of general time, place, and certainly this list.