The span of years roughly book-ended by the launches of Napster and Spotify -- a decade during which many perpetually proclaimed the album format dead -- was crammed with crates and crates and crates and crates of compelling music. And why wouldn't it be? Ones and zeroes do not obviate humanity's innate need to rock. But that is a subject for another day. Today, as part of Deckfight's ongoing Albums Of The Decade Blog Tour, we force ourselves to choose the 10 best of the last 10 years. For weeks we've debated how to weigh the best versus the most representative versus the most influential and so on. It's difficult stuff to parse, but we think ultimately what it came down to was giving respect where respect was due for songcraft, innovation and gusto. While we offer our picks for 10 best records below, we are not ranking them, as simply making the cut is the honor here. What is below is listed alphabetically.
In case you are just catching up, yesterday's Albums Of The Decade Blog Tourist was Eric from Can You See The Sunset From The Southside, and you can read his list right here; Monday you can check out Brendan from Count Me Out's list right here. And for those of you who want more in depth discussion of our favorite songs and records of the last 10 years should listen to our four-part appearance on Jay Kumar's Completely Conspicuous podcast [part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4].
1. The Books -- Lost And Safe -- Tomlab (2005)
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No matter whether you are gauging by songcraft or innovation, The Books deserve recognition for writing some of the most amusing, compelling and beautiful compositions of the decade. In particular we find Lost And Safe's closer "Twelve Fold Chain" incredibly moving. Here's a digested version of what we said in our review May 10, 2005:
Even on this, their third album, The Books sound like they've got secrets to tell. But the most solid clues they offer on Lost And Safe are fragments of dreams, stream-of-consciousness queries and allusions to spiritual questing. An intricate mix of serene vocals, spoken word samples, understated clattering percussion, guitar and cello, the duo's music is enchanting and hypnotic. "A Little Longing Goes Away" opens the record with soft vocals swathed in reverse reverb, making lines like "our minds are empty / like we're too young to know to smile" sound like prayer.
All musical elements are expertly but gently balanced like a series of birds on a wire. Although not overtly apparent, the band's lyrics, in addition to being spiritually inquisitive, can be quite funny. This is most apparent during the act's current live show, during which video accompaniment emphasizes the graduate school-level word play that characterizes songs like "Smells Like Content" and "An Animated Description of Mr. Maps." No matter the context or what you call it, The Books are in relatively uncharted territory with bountiful potential in every direction. Although Lost And Safe would be a crowning achievement for any band, The Books show no sign of running out of beautiful musical ideas to convey.
2. Destroyer -- Destroyer's Rubies -- Merge (2006)
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We didn't review this record upon its release (or ever). As with songwriter Dan Bejar's finest efforts, the record is self-referential, inscrutable, beautiful and biting. Destroyer's Rubies in particular seems like a record ripe for academic examination. But no matter how layered or diffracted the narratives, the songs themselves are hook-filled, generously melodic and wholly rewarding. Bejar's smarter-than-you lyrics, singular vocal delivery, and attention to production detail make all of his records great -- Destroyer's Rubies is exceptional. What else is there to say? We recently saw Bejar perform solo in Boston, and for much of the performance we were thinking how we wished he was performing with a full band. But even performing solo with a weather red acoustic under spare spotlights the songs were completely arresting.
3. The Hold Steady -- Separation Sunday -- French Kiss (2005)
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This list is not really about success stories, but The Hold Steady's sophomore set certainly qualifies as one, and -- of course -- one of the biggest of the decade. The burgeoning blogosphere was alight with praise when this was issued, and although our first inclination was to ignore the band because of the bountiful praise from seemingly every corner (we're contrarian like that), we were an embarrasingly ready convert when we finally stopped to listen to Separation Sunday. And what's not to like? As Mr. Kumar states, The Hold Steady is like Jim Carroll fronting Thin Lizzy playing Bruce Springsteen songs. Like the aforementioned Mr. Bejar, Hold Steady fronter Craig Finn is an amazing lyricist and he crafts on this record an amazing, conceptual collection that follows the rise and fall and rise again of certain gutter-frequenting, drug-gobbling drifters. Mr. Finn and his cohort take these losers and wring from them incredible tales of spine-tingling desperation and redemption. Also, there's a whole hell of a lot of rock music on this record, including the highlights "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" and "Stevie Nix." Ground-breaking? No. Awesome? Yes.
4. Johnny Foreigner -- Grace And The Bigger Picture (2009)
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Did you think a guy who co-operates the Johnny Foreigner fan site Keeping Some Dark Secrets wasn't going to pick a Johnny Foreigner record for his list? There are so many reasons why this record is awesome, front to back, but here is just one: on the rare mornings where we walk to the subway, ride the subway, and then walk to our office, it takes exactly one run through the entire record to get us from door to desk. Wonderful. Here's a digested version of our review from Sept. 28, 2009:
Grace And The Bigger Picture is pointedly heartfelt, jubilantly aggressive, road-weary and resigned all at once. The record is populated with wistful ideals of home ("we'll throw parties in the yard") and amazing letdowns ("all we have is miles and wires and all I am is calls tomorrow"), but there are also wonderfully carefree moments, as in the almost blindingly brief "Kingston Called, They Want Their Lost Youth Back." [The record] is painstakingly crafted, deeply layered, and hangs together as a collection more firmly than even its ambitious predecessor. The narratives sparkle like dizzying mosaics comprised of thousands of digital snapshots. Themes appear and re-appear, e.g. the clarion call "some summers!" in "Feels Like Summer" resurfaces in "The Coast Was Always Clear;" "More Heart, Less Tongue" is transmogrified into "More Tongue, Less Heart;" the breakdown to "Custom Scenes And The Parties That Make Them" even repurposes the breakdown from the band's break-out single "Eyes Wide Terrified;" and keen ears seem to hear the familiar cry of "Amateur! Historian! shouted in the closing moments of the squalling anthem "Dark Harbourzz." But even more impressive than the whole are the parts, as there is a remarkable compositional cleverness in certain of the songs that points to an ever sharpening songcraft among Berrow and company. This is no more apparent than within the almost linear, structure-flouting gem "Custom Scenes And The Parties That Make Them." Best Before Records releases the record 26 Oct. in the U.K.
5. The Mendoza Line -- We're All In This Alone -- Bar/None (2000)
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After it had exhausted a Superchunk fixation, a record label and Athens, Georgia, and before its late embrace of a rootsier sound enamored a major rock critic or two, this always-at-the-brink-of-destruction collective created this wondrous, sweet full-length. A slapdash concoction of literate, lo-fi balladry and everyman indie rock channeled through three songwriters is remarkable perhaps mostly because, like the band itself, We're All In This Alone somehow manages to hang together. All at the same time the proceedings sound like the end of the '90s, point toward the ascendency of the band's adopted hometown of Brooklyn and presage a decade that once more embraced folk rock. It's a weird record, but it's a fantastic record, held aloft by great songs including the devastating "I Hope That You Remember To Forget." Of course, The Mendoza Line did not survive this decade, but part of the magic of We're All In This Alone is that the record sounds like a band with a world of possibilities in front of it, which was fairly accurate in the year 2000.
6. Meneguar -- I Was Born At Night -- Troubleman Unlimited (2006)
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With the ascendancy of the related, more psych-leaning project Woods, and with silence from the band going on uninterrupted, we are starting to believe we may have seen the last of our beloved Meneguar. Which is a shame because the Brooklyn-based quartet's brand of desperate, shouty, smart and guitar-driven indie rock pushes all the right buttons for us, and we see no American successor really taking up the banner for the style. I Was Born At Night, so good it was issued twice, is seven anthems brimming with brawling attitude, splendid guitar interplay and heavy dynamics pounding home hooks galore. And it all comes down to the "The Temp," a fist-banging shouter about dead-end employment (or something -- who knows?) with a killer chorus that out-Slack Motherfuckers Superchunk's renowned "Slack Motherfucker." We recall that at one point Troubleman Unlimited had posted the MP3 for "The Temp" as a promo track, so here it is in all of its glory. Actually, this is the mix from the original Magic Bullet release -- retro!
[right click and save as]
7. The Notwist -- Neon Golden -- City Slang (2003)
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When we mentioned innovation supra, The Books weren't even the first band to come to mind. Instead we thought of The Notwist, and how in the wake of this landmark release that melded laptop electropop and indie guitar music suddenly, for at least a year, every one tried to replicate the Weilheim, Germany-based quartet's sound. Only by watching the amazing "On | Off The Record" DVD does one develop an appreciation for just how difficult an undertaking such replication would be (the opening seconds of the album were incredibly difficult, actually impossible, to perform), which is why -- despite seemingly providing the formula for an aesthetic perpetuated by labels like Morr Music for years afterwards -- so few acts came close to The Notwist. Even more amazing? The band's astonishing, dub-injected, Wii-dazzled live show, which we caught for the second time a year ago, makes Neon Golden and it's excellent successor The Devil, You & Me seem pale in comparison. But at the warm, digitally-pulsing heart of Neon Golden are 10 incredible, catchy songs delivered in Markus Acher's emotive deadpan murmur.
8. Spoon -- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga -- Merge (2007)
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Flawless, every song, from a songwriting and a production standpoint. Endlessly listenable. As we said here in our Best Records of 2007 wrap-up:
We listened to this record over and over and over: in the car; in the office; in the kitchen. It's exceptional. Taut, glistening pop-rock, touches of spacey, warts-and-all production, and hooks galore. The songs all flow with an ease, an internal logic that is so finite that each tune seems representative of what indie rock is, at its core. If (when?) space aliens come to the United States asking about indie rock, perhaps the most obvious example to hand them is Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
9. A Weather -- Cove -- Team Love (2008)
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Digested from our review posted Feb. 10, 2008 right here:
Portland, Ore.-based A Weather's beautiful full-length debut has a persistent but slippery allure. Populated almost entirely with murmured bedroom ballads driven by brushed drums, guitar and electric piano, the set somehow succeeds in not repeating the same tricks over and over again.
Is there a voyeuristic attraction inherent in pretty songs delivered in hushed tones simultaneously by male and female singers? Or is there something universal -- an inverse of voyeurism, in a way -- conveyed by these intimate, poignant tracks that make them so arresting. What we are certain of is that sping-tingling moments are frequent on Cove: when the ride cymbal pulses louder and louder during "Shirley Road Shirley" as fronter Aaron Gerber and drummer Sarah Winchester desperately assure "I swear, you won't even know I'm there;" when the duo stingingly confesses during "Oh My Stars" that "sometimes it's hard thinking about how the plans we make won't happen;" when the pair utters during "Spiders, Snakes" the unfathomably sweet sentiment (for those of us of a certain age, anyway) "I want to have you again, listening to Bedhead."
10. Yo La Tengo -- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out -- Matador (2000)
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When your band puts out what is arguably the best record of 1997, what is the likelihood that only three years later it will release one of the best, if not THE best, records of 2000? This doubt is why we were quite ready for Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out to be a disappointment. But it was nothing of the sort. Opening with the Mogwai-toned spook droner "Everyday" and closing with the 17-minute spectral masterpiece "Night Falls On Hoboken," the record provides easy exuses for lapsing into over-the-top praise. This is simply a perfect record, and we'd argue it is downright better than the admittedly fine records that the trio has released since. In addition to the droners we already named, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out also carried the sugary, caffeinated rocker "Cherry Chapstick," the marvelously affecting ballad "Tears Are In Your Eyes" and some bossa-tinted toe-tappers "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" and "You Can Have It All." For the rest of the decade Yo La Tengo delved into murky sounds, garage rock and shiny pop, but when we think of the band, we think of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.