Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Favorite Records of the Decade: 50-26

Well, much to my chagrin I wake up and see on Twitter that Tom Campesinos has pretty much the same list I do after working on the 50-26 last night. My list is also "mostly white people playing guitars," which is effectively my comfort zone, which you already know by now. Here's the first half:

50. Mirah – C'mon Miracle
K, 2004

If I permitted artists to have more than one record on this list, and it had 100 records, Advisory Committee would be here too. But C'mon Miracle edges out that fantastic record by refining everything and tightening the screws. The songs are tighter, that is, and she moves from light and care free to sad sad sad and lonely to kinda pissed off from song to song. Yet it all fits, and it all establishes Mirah as my indie-rock crush. She's also got my favorite female voice in indie-rock so there.

49. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
V2, 2009

Pure fucking bliss. One of the most fun records of the 00s, and one from a band that knows how to display an incredibly amount of depth through pop music. This is the record I will cite forever when people shit talk pop music. When people say “oh yeah, it's good, but it's pop.” Fuck that. Phoenix proved that pop can be just as groundbreaking and exciting as Grizzly Bear or whatever animal themed band is popular at the moment.

48. Smog – A River Ain't Too Much to Love
Drag City, 2005

One of my ultimate winter albums, and one that persuaded me to grow a beard. It's that cold weather that freezes your face. The kind that makes you shiver unintentionally, teeth chattering like a typewriter. “Winter weather is not my soul/ But the biding for spring,” Bill Callahan sings on the album's opening track, the haunting and spare “Palimpsest.” It's avant-folk from the outside, and full of all the things that have made Callahan's record compelling for the last two decades.

47. Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co.
Secretly Canadian, 2003

While not a perfect album (see: Scout Niblett's vocals on “Peoria Lunchbox Blues,” although some will disagree), it's got Molina's best writing. Hell, I'd even venture to say that the album's bonus disc, which features stripped down versions of most of the tracks in addition to some amazing b-sides (like “Whip Poor Will,” which turned up later in the decade on Magnolia Electric Co's Josephine). The gem here, the one that gets this album on the list, is the goddamned jawdroppingly good opener “Farewell Transmission.” You really absolutely cannot fuck with that.

46. The Antlers – Hospice
Frenchkiss, 2009

This is a precautionary measure. It's my biggest regret of 2009, not obsessing over this record sooner. I wrote it off as boring because it was re-released at a time when I was sick of everything being crammed down my throat by blogs. Then I pretty much quit reading blogs and blindly read a bunch of top 10 lists that had this on it (I know, contradicts my anti-blog mentality, but I was just scrolling through) and figured “Ok, maybe I overlooked this.” And I did, I really fucking did. It sounds like Low's Alan Sparhawk singing songs written by Okkervil River's Will Sheff over subtlety crafted music that really compliments the aching fragility of singer Peter Silberman's voice. Yes, it's a sad record (it's about watching someone die of bone cancer for Christsake!) but it's never overly sentimental or really depressing. It's told with this matter-of-fact straightforwardness that comes when you know someone is going to die and you have a period of time to learn to accept it, even though it still hurts like hell when they finally go.

45. The Good Life – Album of the Year
Saddle Creek, 2004

This was a random acquisition from Mytunes Redux Freshman year in the dorms. As a sucker for concept albums (See: Album #46) and albums about relationships gone sour, this one clearly stuck out. Every troubled, fucked up, or ruined relationship has at one point been soundtracked by this record. It's also got one of the best opening lines of any record in the 00s (“The first time that I met her I was throwing up in the ladies room stall”). It's vastly different from Tim Kasher's full-time project Cursive, and in this case, it was for the better. Though a Cursive fan, it was too angular for me. Too moody and Kasher's straightforward folksy lamenting with the Good Life hit with a lot of the same emotional oomph as the drunken romantics he sings about.

44. Band of Horses – Everything All the Time
SubPop, 2006

The rise and fall of indie rock as a commercial entity seemed to rise and fall in the 00s. Everyone and their roommate started an indie rock band and they all sounded the same and everyone raved about them for a couple of months before they moved onto something else (the decade ended with glo-chill-fi-gaze). This is one of those defining indie rock records though, and one that still sounds really fucking god when I randomly throw it in my car stereo. It sounds like autumn, and has sweeping epics (a lot of 'em, every song that starts with “The”), rousing rockers (“Wicked Gil”), nostalgic jams (“Weed Party,” “I Go to the Barn Because I Like The”) and really gorgeous, sweeping laments (“Monsters”). And then there's the gorgeous acoustic closer “St. Augustine,” which sounds completely different from the rest of the record but it's just so fucking perfect. Looking at the tracklist right now, I can't think of a single moment where this record lets up. Also, SubPop killed it this decade (in a good way, although some might say it was in a bad way, but that's just lies).

43. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Merge, 2007

While Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight are the records that end up on end of decade lists, I think this one is going to have a lot of staying power even though it's a little early to tell. I mean, it's a record named after the way the fucking piano sounds on “The Ghost of You Lingers” but comes off like baby talk and it's easily one of the best rock records of the 00s. Also the soundtrack to the Summer of 2007.

42. Low – Things We Lost in the Fire
Kranky, 2001

This is kind of where Low peaks. Though they continued to put out great records in the 00s and capped the year with the cold, minimal, drum machine laden, and excellent Drums and Guns, Things We Lost in the Fire is all about stillness and warmth. Well, maybe not warmth, but there's comfort there. It's slowcore at it's finest. It's moody, thematically dark, and approaches on complete and total transcendence. It reaches it most of the time. “Sunflower,” “Dinosaur Act,” “Laser Beam”and “Whore” are pretty much classics and “Like a Forest” was a song I heard them play live and couldn't for the life of me find it on a record until a year later. Somehow listening to this record all the way through didn't happen because I was convinced it was the song “Take Your Time” from Drums and Guns and that I just needed to find the live version of it. Anyway, this is the Low record that is generally cited as their masterpiece and everyone is pretty much right. This is the starting point and pretty much the only Low record you need, even though their output is really wonderful, in particularly the terribly overlooked pop record The Great Destroyer. This though, this is it.

41. John Vanderslice – Pixel Revolt
Barsuk, 2005

One of the best documents of post-9/11 America at what was pretty much the last year post-9/11 lament was still potent. While awful country musicians and politicians continued to milk 9/11 for the whole decade to the point where it was like it never even happened (and we clearly forgot), Vanderslice crafted a document that captured all the paranoia and confusion from those few years where every time you turned on CNN you saw planes crashing into buildings and people going to war. Though his follow-up, Emerald City, touched on a lot of the same themes, Pixel Revolt was much more raw and struck a chord with anyone who sat in confusion staring at a TV screen for weeks wondering how something so terrible (that happens in other countries that are NOT America every day) happen here.

40. Blonde Redhead – Misery is a Butterfly
4AD, 2004

I randomly stumbled upon this in my early days of bittorrent, and the early days of Oink. In fact, if I made a top ten of things that changed my life this decade, Oink would be one of them. So much music, a good chunk of my library, was acquired through that site and when it got shut down I almost cried. So many artists it exposed me to! This record was pretty huge for me freshman year and seeing them live that year was pretty damn awesome. There's this mysterious quality to this record, like something terrible has happened or is about to happened and this is just bracing for impact. It's so taut, but it's still seductive and utterly lovely. Tonally, it's unforgettable. There are songs that I recall instantly and they sound exactly like Blonde Redhead.

39. Brand New – Deja Entendu
Triple Crown, 2003

After releasing a really damn fine emo-tinged pop-punk record, they followed up with one of the few records of the emo era with actual density. And Jesse Lacey's lyrics were perfect for the spurned high school kid I was and pretty much still am (only with more hair). That song “Sic Transit Gloria (Glory Fades)” soundtracked the R-Rated high school movie where I lost my virginity to a girl who dumped me a week later. Listened to this endlessly at the end of high school and it surprisingly still sounds good today!

38. Joanna Newsom – Ys
Drag City, 2006

Where five songs usually constitutes an EP, here it's a really long LP. It's also the record that made me a believe in long-form songs, in particular the 16+ minute “Only Skin” which is one of the finest compositional achievements of the 00s (aided by the legendary Van Dyke Parks, no less). The part where Bill Callahan (then Newsom's lover) comes in to duet kills me, and it killed me even more (in a bad way) when he didn't sing the part at her live show though he was opening. Tragic. I recently re-listened to this and it held up remarkably well. Classic and classical.

37. The Decemberists – Her Majesty, The Decemberists
Kill Rock Stars, 2003

This was from the primordial ooze that was junior year of high school. The one where I heard “The Chimbley Sweep” and subsequently discovered In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and had my world shook to its core and my punk rock CDs sold off at Hastings or where ever. Though generally following the same format as their debut, Her Majesty took more risks. There were longer songs, more epic arrangements, and Meloy made a gorgeous ballad that was better than “Grace Cathedral Hill,” which I'd thought to be impossible. That song, “Red Right Ankle,” stands as the Decemberists finest achievement, and though the band are noted for their odd instrumentation, sing-a-long sea shantys, and general old-timeness, on “Red Right Ankle” it's just Meloy and a guitar, singing a love song to his wife. I hate to belittle the rest of the Decemberists' output from the rest of the decade, but that one song is all I really need and I could live without the rest. But only because that's one of the best songs I have ever, ever heard. Top ten, most definitely, up there with the best, and one that belongs on the mixtape for the one you absolutely, no bullshit, will love until you are dead and buried under dirt.

36. St. Vincent – Actor
Beggars Banquet, 2009

Perhaps the best record of 2009 that probably would have got a lot of attention if it weren't for the hype-machine behemoths that were Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear. The arrangements here, in addition to the sweetness and sexiness in Annie Clark's voice comingling and her absolute deftness as a craftswoman are really fucking uncanny. I still don't know how an album this tight and focused was even released. Yet it's not tight like it's buttoned up critical darlings which only ended up sounding stuff (I'm sorry, Grizzly Bear, I admire you're effort but I just don't get you with the exception of like two amazing songs). This is vibrant and alive and almost avant-garde with its film score structures (if that can make something avant-garde, it has a certain I don't know what).

35. The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?
Alien8, 2003

The Unicorns live show at the Spitfire in KC is second only to seeing the Arcade Fire at the Jackpot in terms of shows I saw in the 00s. Having been banned from going to KC or Lawrence for shows until I was 18, this was one of the first I was able to go to and it set the bar. I'd recently become smitten with the bizarro pop of Alden Penner and Nick Diamonds and when they invited everyone on stage at the end of the show, I was filled with a sense of enthusiasm that only left me when bands started getting fucking boring live. Where I could walk away and say “that was pretty good” and not have my mind fucking blown. Though Nick Diamonds (now Nick Thorburn) ended up pretty much being the talent of the group based on his pretty stellar output as Islands in the latter part of the decade (minus the last six songs on Arm's Way), this is always going to be some of his finest work. Actually, I'll take the title away from Phoenix: this was the record of the 00s that had the most fun, the didn't give a fuck and was better for it because goddamn, it's still fucking brilliant.

34. The Thermals – The Body the Blood the Machine
SubPop, 2006

All four LPs the Thermals released this year were fucking awesome but this one, their concept album (natch) was their masterpiece. I always thought it would be great if they made a long-form video for the album which incorporated the Logan's Run theme that seems to be running through the record, which is pretty much one of the best records about the Bush Administration that ruled the 00s if only because it never really addressed the Bushies formally, unlike the Punk Voter crowd who sadly changed nothing and all we got were a bunch of NOFX records that are way dated and sounded like goofy Michael Moore movies. The record is full of biblical imagery (which I love, as you will see in a later entry), and I'm realizing it represents exactly how I feel now. See, you record is about escaping a facistic, hyper-Christian society and while this was a big deal in '06, now, when our worthless governmental bodies can't pass a bill that will give people healthcare (although now I doubt it will even accomplish that, given that it's been hacked to death) because some assholes don't want abortions to be covered. Despite our rad new president, shit is still the same and people are still really, really fucking stupid, in particular the people that are ruining it for the rest of us, and now I can see that maybe getting out is not such a bad idea. Thanx Thermals! I wish I could have put all of your records on this list because they were all great. You've gotta single in the top 5 though!

33. The Microphones – The Glow Pt. 2
K, 2001

Phil Elverum at his best. After years tinkering at Dub Narcotic studios in Olympia, he came up with this sprawling avant-pop masterpiece full of textures unlike anyone else and unrivaled warmth. He seems to warm up everything he touches (see: Mirah's records) and is generally one of the most consistent artists in the legit underground today. His collabo with Julie Doiron, Lost Wisdom (recorded under the Mount Eerie moniker) came REALLY close to making this list. I can't ever describe why I love the Glow Pt. 2, but I usually fall back on the same old reasons. The big one is that it's a real, honest to fucking god album. One that actually DEMANDS you listen to it all the way through for all the pieces to make sense. Sure, the title track and “I Felt Your Shape” stand alone just fine but in context, holy shit. This is my favorite record to put on in the afternoon in the bedroom, where I'm content to just lie on the bed, stare at the ceiling and listen. And I never just listen, yet this record demands I do.

32. The Shins – Oh, Inverted World
SubPop, 2001

Before Natalie Portman put the headphones on Zach Braff's head and effectively ruined “New Slang” for a lot of people, there was this amazing oddball pop record that just hit all the right buttons. “New Slang,” however, was not ruined on me. In fact, I knew that was going to “change his life” was going to be that song because it's that fucking good and I was obsessed with it at the time. James Mercer and co sort of rose to minor stardom after that movie blew them up and maybe ruined the band. Well, Wincing the Night Away was pretty good, but after that Mercer fired most of the band and I don't know why. Still though, this, their debut, was a dominant theme in the 00s.

31. Jets to Brazil – Four Cornered Night
Jade Tree, 2000

This was the soundtrack for the summer of 2003. I was in between junior and senior year of high school and had a daily routine. I would wake up at 10 AM, drive to Einstein Brothers, get a bagel and coffee, write a chapter in my novel, drive home, and then get on my bike and ride on the trail that ran along Indian Creek for an hour or two. My bike rides were soundtracked by Four Cornered Night on a burnt CD, my discman jammed into my pocket as this was in the times before iPods and messenger bags. I was a huge Jawbreaker fan and though wary of Blake Schwarzenbach's more-pussyesque side, I quickly learned to love it because he was the same songwriter I loved in the first place. And I felt bad for thinking he was a pussy, because he's always been one, just with more distortion. This is always a record I think of in the summer, and there's something about the keyboards on this records that just transports me to that perfect summer when I cared about nothing but writing, music, films, and bike riding. The year before that was miserable and the semester after the summer was even more miserable but when it came time to set myself free of girl drama in the spring of 2004, I reminded myself of what it was like to be happy and I channeled summer of '03 and put Jets to Brazil back into rotation.

30. Los Campesinos! – We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
Arts & Crafts, 2008

My favorite record of 2008. I thought maybe it should chart higher, but honestly, this is very specific to a time and a place. It's what I think of when I think of the nasty breakup I went through that year and how I almost completely self-destructed and the only reason I didn't was because this record said basically everything I was feeling like the emocore records of yore. Best of all, it made me feel stupid for not moving on and it made me feel OK for feeling fucked up. And it was a quick burst of energy and so much more raw then Los Campesinos calculated, sometimes recycled debut that, while a great record, still couldn't match the unbridled enthusiasm and genius of its follow-up. Their sophomore full-length just leaked the other day and I'm on the fence about it because honestly, I think of this as their sophomore LP because it's everything I want an LP to be: 10 songs, to the point, brimming with energy, punk rock enthusiasm, and a surprising amount of focus (or non-focus) and full of brilliant lines I can sneak into regular conversation.

29. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary
SubPop, 2005

“I'll Believe in Anything.” Have you heard that song? Shit son, that's why this record gets on the list. Ok, it's more than that, because every song is good here. The only reason that this isn't up higher is because most of the songs were recycled from early Eps and yeah, those songs are great but still, that shit kinda bugs me, even if the songs sound a little better. But the originals here, in particular “I'll Believe in Anything,” made me believe that Wolf Parade had more talent than a couple of Eps. Spencer Krug proved to be one of my favorite tunesmiths of the decade and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Hell, even his most out-there weirdo efforts like he's recently released Moonface EP have many merits. But this is the starting point, and it's infinitely listenable. I wish I could have included their follow up, the also-excellent At Mt. Zoomer if only to highlight Dan Boeckner's songs bringing what it took to match Krug's infinite genius. Have I mentioned that I'm obsessed with Spencer Krug? That he could release an album of his farts and I'd probably love it? It's true, but yeah, despite all the hate Wolf Parade got for getting big at the wrong time none of that ever fucking mattered because they were, and are, just too fucking good.

28. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Polyvinyl, 2006

Another concept album, this time about sunnytime weirdo popster Kevin Barnes dealing with a divorce the only way how: By getting super depressed and taking medication and then by developing a gay transvestite African American alter-ego and turning into a fictional lost funk legend. Centerpiece “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is perhaps the best thing Barnes has ever crafted and one of the most depressing songs I've ever heard and, at 10+ minutes, one of the best long songs of the decade. The real star here is the flow, though. The sequencing is just absolutely perfect, even with the stylistic shifts. Sadly, Barnes completely vanished into his Georgie Fruit alter-ego and made a pretty meh follow-up to this masterpiece, but alas, a masterpiece is still a masterpiece and this is one that's going to hold up. The crowning achievement from the little indie-pop band that could...and then lost it all.

27. Alkaline Trio – From Here to Infirmary
Vagrant, 2001

Fourth of July, 2001. I was transforming, listening to this record (in particular “Armageddon”) waiting for fireworks to start and reading the Catcher in the Rye. A hipster was born! And this was the last great Alkaline Trio record (Ok, Good Mourning was pretty damn good but everything after that has been dreck). It got an incredible amount of play this decade despite my never actually owning it (it was one of the first albums I ever downloaded). It's also got the best hooks of any Alk 3 record, what with monster jams like “Private Eye,” “Armageddon,” “Stupid Kid,” and Dan Adriano's excellent closer “Crawl.” I'm pretty sure I know the words to every song and I still listen to this with the same joy I did when I was 16 and 17. It's just catchy as all hell and morbid without trying too hard, unlike the later Alk 3 records which were basically Matt Skiba going “BLOOD BLOOD BLOODY BLOOD BLOOD.” I long for a return to this stuff.

26. Dillinger Four – Situationist Comedy
Fat Wreck Chords, 2002

This band is so fucking good, and one that I would see at the drop of the hat anytime...if that time wasn't SXSW 2009 and fellow Minneapolis natives and buddies the Hold Steady weren't playing down the street at the SAME FUCKING TIME. It was a shame worth crying over. A crying shame, if you will. But, I saw them when I was in high school with the Lawrence Arms (whose The Greatest Story Ever Told would have easily made a top 100 of the decade list) it was all I ever really needed. Patty's fat sweaty ass lumbering across the stage with Erik, who always reminds me of the kid you suspect of being a school shooter, with the buggy eyes and all. But that aside, their trade-off was dramatic and made for a nice diversity on their records (a rarity in a lot of punk rock, in particular Fat Wreck punk rock bands). It's their most mature, cohesive, and addicting effort and though it's slicker than Versus God, it sounds goddamned great. The power chords sound huge and the lyrics are spot on and sing-a-longable. Just thinking about this album makes me want to listen to it RIGHT NOW AND to give their most recent effort Civil War (which I initially panned) another shot.

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