Just over 10 years have passed since Y2K, and the decade has produced some great albums. Here are our top ten:
The Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire’s Funeral is, somehow, the most happy and hopeful album ever written about death—which is the main theme of the album, if you couldn’t tell by the title. The songs here explore what it’s like to find death in your childhood neighborhood, coming back as a grown-up, attending funerals, sleeping in your old bed, remembering what it was like all those years ago. It ends up being surprisingly moving. It is an album about disappearing childhoods, about learning to find meaning in a past that seems so fleeting in memory. It reminded me of a Gertrude Stein quote. Stein went back to her hometown and couldn’t find her old house—it was gone. “There is no there there,” she said. And, for the most part, there is no there there in Funeral. Not much is ever found. People have disappeared, neighborhoods have fallen apart, parents are aging, and that old bedroom seems so much smaller now than it ever did before. For anyone who has ever tried to remember what it was like to be a little kid and come up with only a strange, sad feeling, this album will hit you where it matters. Listen whenever you want that feeling again.
The Arctic Monkeys
I honestly didn’t expect too much from Arctic Monkeys. I’d heard a few songs from their first album—Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not—and I was mildly impressed. Mostly though, I really didn’t care. It all just seemed like a British version of the Strokes (I still think that.) Their third album, however, is where my opinion of them really increased. No longer are their songs all about going out, having a pint or 10 and running through the streets of Liverpool while smoking Gallousi cigarettes. Now, their vision is wider, more mature, and their grooves more centered and simplified. This is just great music. Listen on a car ride down Riverside Drive at 10 at night.
Is this it? (2001)
I almost didn’t want to include this album in here, just because of the bad connotation it has in recent years with becoming the definitive album for annoying, emo, fake, depressive kids. The style of The Strokes does lend itself to that sort of low-level, self-deprecating stylist, a mish mash of Iggy Pop, The Clash, and regular old garage bands, still mainstream enough to be appreciated but edgy enough to feel like you’re not selling yourself out. But still, this is one enjoyable album. Every song takes a stab at finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and the final question of the album is also the title: Is this it? Is this all life is? Does my entire existence really boil down to a bunch of indiscernible nights partying and driving home under the streetlights? Listen all the way through, whether or not you wear leather jackets and tight jeans.
Kid A (2000)
There’s a security cam video of Thom Yorke, front man of Radiohead, sitting backstage after a concert with a bottle of wine out on the table. Black and white and grainy, and the video shows Yorke open the bottle, bring it to his mouth and down the whole thing. He sits for a few seconds, then gets up, wavers, and leaves the frame.
The video was taken from backstage during Radiohead’s OK Computer tour, when the band was being bombarded by press, interviews, attention and all the despair that can come with becoming too famous too fast, and it is out of this sense of depression and fame and paranoia that Kid A was conceived. Much of the album insinuates a future of mass devastation, an apocalyptic nightmare. The album, in 10 songs, covers enormous ground. According to Yorke, the eponymous “Kid A” might stand for the world’s first clone. It’s just as easy to imagine now, as it was 10 years ago, a world in which everything we know as familiar and normal can be flipped on its head. Chaos into laughter, beasts into toys, a child into a machine—and, beyond all that, the music just grooves so smoothly, through minimalist techno-inspired tunes that sound like screams bouncing off walls, to crazy jazz horns going nuts, to regular guitar riffs. Never has the apocalypse sounded so dreamy and so catchy. Listen to the whole thing, first song to last. Far and away, the best album of the decade.
The White Stripes
Don’t be put off by the fact that Elephant’s opening song, “Seven Nation Army,” is now played at every major sporting event in the country. This album is full of songs that are all just so good, you have to at least appreciate them. Most of what you’ll find here are guitar songs, electric and rough, with a drum rhythm so on tune it sounds almost like a drum machine, and with deep and simple lyrics. A good example of this can be found on “The Hardest Button to Button,” in which Jack White sings about having a baby, the baby having a tooth ache and crying. Then, to solve the problem, he “grabbed a rag doll, and stuck some little pins in it—Now we’re a family!” Most of the songs talk about love, heartache, family life, and trying to figure things out. It’s the most cerebral rock album this decade. Listen on a peaceful summer morning with the speakers cranked all the way up.
Sea Change (2002)
Critics have somewhat appropriately compared Beck’s Sea Change to Bob Dylan’s classic 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Both albums deal directly with heartache, with relationships at an end, love lost. And both do have roots in classic American folk music. What seperates Beck’s work from that of Dylan’s, and what makes this album his best effort to date, is the way in which he incorporates his entire musical repertoire to deal selectively with one issue. Essentially, he’s taking all of the craziness, the hip hop influences, the obscure nonsensical lyrics that have become his signature, and brought them together into a cohesive whole. With production by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the album feels sleek and technical, yet I doubt it would be any less impressive if it was all performed solo on one acoustic guitar. Listen if you’re feeling a little down in the dumps.
The College Dropout (2004)
I didn’t want to add a Kanye album in this list. That’s not to say I don’t like him, I just think he’s a little over-rated. Still, it’s hard to deny the impact of Kanye’s first album. Tinged with familial issues, social stress, and with backing production that made sampling cool again, this is one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade. If only Kanye would have taken it all in stride. Listen when you—wait… I’mma let you finish, but Beyonce’s album is one of the best of all time… ALL TIME!
How I Got Over (2010)
How I Got Over, the ninth studio album by hip hop band The Roots, seems a little out of place. In the age of auto-tune, high tech production, obscenely catchy hooks and the necessary Rihanna vocal backing, here is an album that is entirely hip hop. The production here is classic Roots—groovy, often dark and somber, soulful, jazzy, almost like gospel music at times. The lyrics, headed by Philly mc Black Thought, delve into areas of deep reflection, not only on a personal level, but looking more broadly at the American culture of today. This is an album that could only come out after Obama was elected, after the excitement of that whole deal wore off. Now that a general feeling of hopelessness has returned to the nation, The Roots are searching for a reason to keep moving. The real accomplishment of this album can be found in the title. Even though they’re playing house band on Jimmy Fallon, and even though hip hop seems to be dying more everyday, The Roots have somehow gotten over and made it to the other side. Listen if you want your hip hop to be about more than cash money and women.
This album is pure Dubstep. That doesn’t mean it’s party music, though. If mainstream Dubstep is nighttime, flashing lights rave music, then Untrue is better suited for dimly lit, smoky rooms, hallucinations and strange creatures. It’s dangerous and scary and nightmarish. Yet this album here is the perfect example of what the genre can really be. It soaks up every single aspect that Dubstep has to offer—using that heavy synth and sampling and bass to somehow reach a deeper sense of meaning. The constant bass sounds like a heart beat by which slow, dark sounds come together. This is the best Dubstep album ever made. Listen with headphones alone in a dark room.
After a 10-year hiatus, Portishead returned to the trippy, hip-hop, pop music on which they made their name. Their third album, adequately titled, expands upon everything they’ve done before. It is smooth, dark, surreal and malicious. The song “Deep Water” is especially terrifying: a simple one-and-a-half minute ukulele solo accompanied by cheerful vocals, and yet it is f’ing scary. Some of the songs here may not be for everyone. One of my friends described it aptly as “go jump out a window music.“ If you can get past the depressing mood, you’ll find some of the best music of the decade. Listen on a rainy day; wallow in it. •