First of all, thank you to everyone who came out to the Cleveland Music Industry Panel. It was an amazing event. I met some great and fascinating people and learned a TON. I cannot wait for the next event from the Modern Revival Media people.
Ok, as we reach the last gasp of this decade, I've started thinking about lists - the perennial "best albums of the decade". What I find interesting and startling is that there seems to be a paucity of records that I just KNOW are going to be on all the critics' list at the end of this year. Every previous decade has had those albums that just stood out above the pack (i.e., for the 90's, Nevermind, Slanted & Enchanted, OK Computer, Odelay, Loveless, Screamadelia). There just doesn't seem to be one of those watershed albums that sort of defines this decade. Don't get me wrong, there was a lot of great music, but much of it either did not make enough of a long term impact to really reach that level of importance (let's face it, while Nevermind was a great album, its impact on the music industry, fashion, culture, etc. was what really made it one of the best albums of the 90's) or was so backwards looking in its inception that it couldn't really represent this decade (i.e., the countless bands doing the 80's revival thing).
Anyway, in lieu of trying to make an actual "best" of the decade, here is my unranked short list of my favorite albums of the last 10 years. Expect this to be updated constantly, and look for my final ranked list at the end of the year.
Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
Might not be on my final list, but this album continues to amaze me. It's a true pinnacle of the alt-country genre, right as many of Adam's peers were either shifting away from the genre or becoming self-parody. Adams quickly proceeded to do both of those things, and has not been a consistent presence since, but that first album (and half of the second) and his Whiskeytown records remain true gems.
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
I have a feeling their first album will be what is on most of the top lists, but it is a bit too twee to me (though parts of it are amazing, "Wake Up" most of all). This album was regarded as a bit of a step back for most fans, but I love it. It's a "big, important" rock album like those made by U2 or Springsteen, but absent the pretension that makes those records so insufferable at times.
Ash - Free All Angels
Without a doubt, the best pop(-punk) record of the decade, and probably the record I've actually listened to the most for the decade. The addition of Charlotte Hatherly (who would leave after the next album, sadly) on guitar and vocals adds a nice extra element to a band that was already extremely strong. I love this record, from the spry "Burn Baby Burn" to the swinging "Candy" to the swooning "Shining Light" to the wistful "Sometimes". Top-notch.
Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Pretty firmly established as one of the most consistent bands to come out of the decade, with three sublime albums. This one is their best, melding indelible melodies on top of some of the prettiest noise possible, but somehow always maintaining an aggression and propulsion that prevents second of this album from being boring.
The Decemberists - Castaways and Cutouts
I love The Decemberists, and their live show is a ton of fun. On record, though, their quirks and schtick can sometimes get the better of them. That's why this record works so well for me. It has a germ of the tropes they would later blow up into the basis of their work, but it's mostly just a great, quirky alt-country record with accordions.
The Dirtbombs - Magical Dangerous Noise
Oh man, I love this record. My favorite record of my favorite currently active band. Noisy, catchy, danceable, rocking, soulful, perfect.
Doves - The Last Broadcast
In the wake of Kid A, a number of British bands stepped up to the plate to take the "big emotional British guitar-rock band" throne that Radiohead abdicated to play with their electronics and soundscapes. Coldplay was the clear commercial winner of the ensuing fight, but Doves were the artistic winner, and this is their zenith.
Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic
Probably the greatest musical tragedy of the decade. Brilliant and exceptionally promising young band releases their first album, goes out to tour behind it, and encounter a tragic accident which claims the lives of many of the members. These guys could have been, should have been, huge. Instead, we just have this perfect scrappy garage-rock masterpiece to remember them by.
The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink
Say what you will about The Flaming Lips output this decade- it's AOR, mom-rock, whatever, and I will probably agree with at least part of what you say. I'm sad they lost the guitars as well. However, this record is GORGEOUS. When you have songs like "Fight Test" and "Do You Realize", who cares if people's parents like it? Everyone would fall in love with this record - it transcends every gap, like only that rarefied strata of pop music can.
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Of all of the bands riding the odd mid-90's neo-disco-punk wave, Franz Ferdinand was always the one that seemed to have an actual chance of sticking around after the fad ended, as their lyrics, tunecraft, and musical diversity were way ahead of the pack. This has clearly turned out to be the case, as the other promising bands (i.e., Bloc Party, The Futureheads, Maximo Park) have failed to live up to their initial promise. I'm sure it helped that they were actually some of the older players in the game, and had some serious chops to back them up. All three of their albums have been top-notch, but its their first album which still impresses me the most. "Take Me Out" and "Dark of the Matinee" are just perfect songs.
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
The best soul album of the decade. If Al Green had kept playing the sonic innovator and not become a traditionalist (not that I'm bemoaning the great albums he made this decade), he would sound like this. Their second album, The Odd Couple may be even better, but this one has "Crazy" on it, so it's the one on this list.
Guided by Voices - Isolation Drills
With this album, GBV embraced the chance to make a big rock record, and they drilled it. "Chasing Heather Crazy", "Glad Girls", "Skills Like This", and the rest are big and bold rock anthems with a ton of heart. While I love lo-fi GBV, it always seemed like Pollard that embraced that style out of necessity or novelty rather than because it emphasized his songwriting or the talents of his band. As anyone who has been to a good GBV show knows, these guys rock, and it was great to see them make their rock statement.
Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
Loud, anthemic quasi-punk rock with a singer who sounds like the guy from Trashcan Sinatras mixed with mid-period Michael Stipe. About as solid, durable, and lovable an album as came out this decade. Prior to this, they were a scrappy pop-punk act, following this, they moved toward bigger and bigger sounds (producing the indelible "You Held the World in Your Arms Tonight", by the way, which is easily among the top songs this decade), but also began to sink into some mid-tempo boredom. This album is their zenith so far, perfectly mixing fist-pumping ravers with beautiful ballads, and an easy recommendation to just about anyone.
Jay-Z & Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
I loved The Black Album, I love the Beatles, and after this record I knew I loved Danger Mouse. Is it a novelty record? Sure, but it's an ingenious one, and one that actually improves on The Black Album. The original version of "99 Problems"? Awesome. The Grey Album version cutting "99 Problems" with "Helter Skelter"? Crazy-Awesome.
Madvillian - Madvillainy
My favorite hip-hop album of the decade. Fabulously blunted beats with incredibly witty and impressive rhymes. As much as I love Madlib and DOOM separately, this album is just a huge step above anything else they have produced. It's a hard record to dissect briefly, because it is so dense, so, until I get the chance to devote a larger discussion to it, let's just leave my description as "brilliant".
Malory - Not Here Not Now
Is this a massive Slowdive rip? Absolutely. Is this incredibly entertaining and beautiful neo-shoegaze? Absolutely. Does this belong on a list of the best albums of the decade? Absolutely.
Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica
I would never use the word "sellout" to describe Modest Mouse. While their last two albums have certainly been more polished than their earlier work, it is still highly idiosyncratic and uniquely their own sound. This album was the start of that process, and their most effective and consistent start-to-finish album.
The National - Alligator
This record really snuck up on me. I was a little less than impressed the first time I heard it, but after about the third listen, I was enthralled. Smoky, smoldering rock which builds to beautiful and cathartic climaxes. A perfect record for late-night drives.
Okkervil River - The Stage Names
Black Sheep Boy may actually be the record that makes my top 10, but for now I'll leave this one. Perhaps the best lyrics of any record this decade - with impressively developed characters, clever jokes, tangible emotion, and just enough subtext and tricks to keep you on your toes. "Plus Ones" and "John Allyn Smith Sails" are brilliant inside baseball treats for record geeks like me, as well.
Old 97's - Satellite Rides
Sorry alt-country die-hards (God bless you for keeping the faith), but the twang is gone (it did come back, kind of). In its place, Old 97's created an indelibly strong set of Kinks-ish pop-rock. "King of All the World" is a perfect song, and "Rollerskate Skinny", "Buick City Complex", "Question", etc. are not far behind.
A Place to Bury Strangers - A Place to Bury
Beautiful, beautiful noise. While The Jesus & Mary Chain made perfect pop songs and bathed them in feedback and gnarled white noise, APBS's songs are simply built out of the stuff. This thing is punishingly loud even at low volume. I love it.
Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
I remember buying this album the day it came out in 2000 and just being thrilled at the idea that this was the way music was heading in the new decade. There is perhaps nothing more upsetting to me than the fact that this simply didn't happen. Primal Scream completely transformed themselves with this record, and created a series of exciting, complex mash-up of styles and attitudes that was genuinely inspiring, and it was pretty much ignored. The agit-punk-techno of "Swastika Eyes" and "Exterminator", the jazz-electronica of "Blood Money", and the shoegaze-industrial of "MBV Arkestra" (featuring Kevin Shields in one of his rare appearances of the early half of the decade) all could have supported an entire career for other bands. Not to mention that the lyrics and the tone of the album eerily pre-sage the Bush era of politics. This should have been the defining record of the decade, but instead, it's just a great, inspiring rush of an album.
The Red Telephone - Cellar Songs
If this list inspires you to buy one album, make it this one. The most over-looked record of the decade, without a doubt. Coming out on the ridiculously obscure Raise Giant Frogs label, this album melds Bends-era Radiohead's guitar workouts and atmospherics to a solid nineties power-pop melodic foundation (the press kit at the time compared them to Wilco, but I don't really see it). This is a GREAT album, front-to-back, and infinitely more people need to hear it.
Sloan - Never Hear the End of It
At the time this came out, Sloan was in a bit of a rut, putting out solid, if unexceptional records on a regular basis. They had their die-hards who would buy everything they released (guilty party right here), but they didn't seem like a band that would be taking any chances anytime soon. This is why this album, an 80+ monster that crammed a CD to its brim with a seamless suite of stellar songs (I seriously did not intend for that to turn into a tongue-twister). For my money, this is the best album Sloan has ever released, and it's certainly the most ambitious.
Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
It's cliche to say, but no album captured that post-9/11 dread and apprehension quite like this album. Without intending to (as the record was recorded before that date), Wilco captured the mood I was feeling at the time. It's a perfect comfort record that came out at a time when a lot of people really needed a comfort record.
The Wrens - The Meadowlands
Right now, this is my album of the decade. Stunning melodies, incredibly poignant and moving lyrics, great production, everything about this record clicks. On a personal note, this album really has managed to sort of clock my growth this decade, with the mournful tone soundtracking my mopey early twenties and the mature lyrics about love and loss speaking to me as a slightly more mature person. I've probably listened to it more than any other album this decade, and I imagine it will be the album I come back to the most in the future. As perfect as rock gets.