Dominick Presents: 20 Great Albums of the Last Decade

8 Apr


Though my list-making impulse has waned significantly since I entered my twenties, there are urges that, quite simply, are just too strong to ignore. One such urge is the one calling me to make an end-of-the-decade list. It’s nothing new, of course; you’d be hard pressed to find a publication that’s even vaguely music-related that hasn’t already done so. (A side note: I find Metacritic’s “Best Music of the Decade” list especially entertaining, not only because of how ill-suited its scoring system is to generating such a list but also because the author of the list’s introduction believes that the decade doesn’t end until 2010 (which is the equivalent of the 1930s not starting until 1931) and believes that Metacritic is publishing its list a year early only because every other publication in the world has already, erroneously, done so.)

This particular urge was difficult to resist because of the nature of the decade; I mean, 2000-2009 was the period in which I grew into my own musical body. I started playing guitar in the summer of 1999 and drums a couple years later. In 2001, I started having proto-critical discussions about music with Matt Lindsay in his VW Bus on the way to cross-country practice. One night in 2003 we drove to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of shopping at Amoeba. I played my first show with The Ugly American in 2004. In the last decade I’ve been in at least seven different bands. In the last decade I wrote music criticism for four different publications. In the last decade I listened to at least 1,500 albums in full. In the last decade I attended 120 shows and 4 festivals. How do I begin thank music for playing such a formative role in my life? In small part, by celebrating the great albums in whose musical shadows I dwelled.

So I ended up making my own list, but with some significant differences. First, I’m leaving off bands and/or albums that are on every other list almost by default (Radiohead’s Kid A, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, TV on the Radio’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica, etc.) because nobody really needs to read about those albums again; of course, they’re all phenomenal, but I’ve got nothing to say about them that hasn’t already been said. Second, I’m not putting these twenty albums in any sort of quality-based order; I don’t think that sort of thing is productive, so I’m settling for a nice, impartial, alphabetical order. Third: yeah I know it’s four months late, it’s a combination of laziness and my need for some time to digest the albums that came out in the second half of 2009. Fourth (and last), I’m not even trying to be objective here. I haven’t heard at least a third of the albums on most other people’s lists, I’m not genre-specific or genre-diverse enough to consider myself an authority in either respect, and I’m not concerned with pushing what might be objectively “great” over something that I love. Hell, I’m not even going to claim that there’s not something in my own collection I overlooked. So, with all that in mind, here (after the jump) are twenty great albums of the last decade.

Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. – Univers Zen ou de Zero à Zero (2002)

I could write 5,000 words on Kawabata Makoto, his Acid Mothers Temple “soul collective,” and his post-modern approach to the guitar. And, sometime in the foreseeable future, I probably will. But for now I will simply tell you that he is a personal hero of mine: not only because he is the poster child of psychedelic/experimental/improvisation-based Japanese underground music (my scene of choice, were I forced to choose), because he is the ideal desert-island artist (having released multiple albums almost every year since the late seventies), or because AMT puts on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen (the fastest five-song, ninety-minute set of your life), but because he has an understanding of music that’s so pure, so physical, and so intuitive that he can’t help but tap into some hidden Dionysian corner of my self, some sacred part of me that retains long-rusting collective memories of freedom, joy, and spiritual boundlessness in their primal states. Of the twenty-five-plus AMT releases of the last decade (admittedly, not all of which I’ve heard; come on, a guy only has so much money for records), this is my favorite, as it displays a range of aesthetics wide enough to make a really complete statement, whereas many of their other records leave certain areas intentionally unexplored (though, in my opinion, this is not a flaw). In short, it is an ambitious band’s most ambitious record, and one that is so successful largely because it was made by unambitious musicians. I don’t expect many people to like this band. But, if you do, sometimes it can be hard to understand why no one understands music quite like they do. Why no one else really gets it.


Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down in the Light (2008)

Will Oldham pretty much spent this last decade like he did the one before: pumping out excellent albums at an alarming rate. The only difference is that since 1999’s I See A Darkness (my third favorite album of all time, by the way), he’s mellowed out a little, and these days he spends most of his time writing folk tunes. And, with albums like this, I’m totally okay with that. His lyrics here are among his most down-to-earth, celebrating love, family, and music with a poetic honesty that’s hard to resist, though there are as always moments of Oldham-weirdness that remind you who exactly it is you’re listening to. His senses for melody and dynamics are particularly sharp here; the dialogue between vocal melody and violin line in “You Remind Me Something” is an album highlight, as are the high notes he hits at the end of “For Every Field There’s A Mole,” the album’s best track. “Where is the Puzzle?” has Oldham howling a little like he did in the old days and the modest melody of “I’ll Be Glad” recalls a church hymn and appropriately ends the album on a comforting, spiritual note. It’s not revelatory, but that’s not what Oldham has ever been about. He’s about the day’s victories and struggles, the simple song, and having a big heart. On this album, all those things soar.


Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)

Badu doesn’t waste much time before she lets you know: Hip-hop isn’t just music. It’s bigger than the black community, bigger than religion, bigger than government. It is, in a word, transcendent. But for an album that exemplifies just that (even transcending the definition of hip-hop, as there is no rapping on the album), this is a quiet one. It sneaks up on you. There are moments that strike you as just plain weird until you realize you’re witnessing an almost spiritual fusion of vocals and beat, as if Badu were delivered her parts by revelation; other moments, you don’t even realize anything’s changed until after you’ve internalized it—take, for example, the riotous chants that whisper in and out of “The Healer” like a radio with poor signal, or the rise of dissonant voices towards the end of “Soldier.” Badu is leading us into a new world in which hip-hop is a primal force as well as its high priest, signified as well as signifier. And we’ve got no choice to follow her: “If you think about turning back, I’ve got the shotgun on your back,” she sings in “Soldier.” It’s no coincidence that she finishes the next track vocalizing a pair of gunshots.


Finale – A Pipe Dream and a Promise (2009)

What I love so much about this album is that it brings hip-hop back to the basics. By which I mean good beats, good flow, good words. And Finale’s got all that, from the first track to the last. The beats are crisp, smooth, and interesting without being overcrowded. Finale keeps up with them beautifully, switching to double time, throwing in internal rhymes, putting on different voices; through it all he never misses a beat, never slows the song’s momentum. His lyrics are intelligent and down-to-earth; as someone who can’t really relate to rappers’ tales of crack-slinging and gangster-noir mayhem, listening to Finale is refreshing. He’s got verses about maintaining his artistic integrity, about how he’s sorry he didn’t take better care of his brother as a kid, about how he misses J Dilla, about how hard it is to make people listen to something that’s really important. You know, relatable stuff. When Awesome Dre deconstructs the myth of the gun-slinging millionaire mainstream rap hero at the end of “Issues,” I always get a little giddy. There’s no illusion here—only rap, real rap, rap that means something more than itself.


Iron and Wine – The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002)

In my opinion, Sam Beam is at his best when he’s got nothing but a guitar and his voice, which is why his first album, in all its low-fi, rustic glory, is still my favorite. The recipe is uncomplicated: lyrics so vivid they make you yearn for the southern rural upbringing you never had, vocals so delicate you can almost imagine him singing to himself on the back porch while the rest of the household sleeps, and arrangements so beautiful you forget how simple they are. It’s music that creates a world real enough for you to get lost in. Very rarely has anyone done so much so well with so little.


Liars – Drum’s Not Dead (2006)

This is one of those albums that I love but I always struggle to articulate why. An easy answer, of course, is that it’s a totally unique and concise collection of songs and that these songs would not make sense on any other album by any other band. But if I had to make a bolder (and more interesting) guess, I think I’d say I love this album because it brings ancient/primitive aesthetics (tribal drums, Agnus Andrew’s trance-like intonations) with decidedly modern elements (guitars effected so heavily that they sound like grinding gears, abstract and often vaguely sinister lyrics) with phenomenal results, making them seem as if they were somehow made for each other. And, if we’re to take the title seriously, that was exactly their goal: to take the oldest of instruments, the oldest of musical styles, and give it a relevant, starring role in the age of the four-minute song, the verse-chorus-verse structure, the guitar-centric industry. Or something. Who knows? It’s awesome.


Lichens – Omns (2007)

This album is, in a word, mesmerizing. Robert Lowe handles delicate vocal loops, growling guitar, and a whole host of peripheral sounds masterfully, weaving the repeating lines into a subtly shifting soundscape. This is patient music (with five tracks clocking in at over forty-three minutes), music that takes place in your mind as much as it does in your ears, music that asks you to focus more on what happens between the notes than the notes themselves. But it is also beautiful music, in which falsetto vocalizations swell in and out of birdsong-like whistles, in which an elegant guitar lines struggle against gritty feedback, in which notes that ought to be sour are twisted into some spontaneous new being. For an avant-garde, wordless, folk album, it’s strangely accessible. It makes only one request of you, and it’s a hard one to say no to: Just listen.


Man Man – Six Demon Bag (2006)

Listening to Man Man is like being aboard a ship full of insane pirates in the middle of the ocean. These pirates probably drink and fight a lot, and after a certain level of intoxication admit to you deep-seated insecurities about themselves and the nature of life and love. However, these pirates also happen to be incredible musicians and performers, and I believe that it’s on this album that their songwriting prowess and relentless energy are best captured. It’s also the only album I know to contain a bridge that involves repeatedly yelling the world “moustache” amid a mess of howling falsettos and 8-bit chaos. That alone earns them my undying affection.


The Microphones – The Glow Pt. 2 (2001)

This album is a testament to what one man can do with a vision, a few friends, and a basic home recording setup. Phil Elvrum here takes his modest, low-fi folk arrangements and fucks with them in every way possible, throwing in off-tempo guitars, panning instruments back and forth, distorting guitars almost beyond recognition, adding epic drum crescendos, sustaining haunting electric piano notes, even breaking now and then into what feels like metal. But all this only serves as a backdrop for Elvrum’s lyrical journey, one in which he delves almost impossibly deep into the nature of self, into where one ends and another begins, into the images that he understands as integral to his self without understanding exactly how or why. That the whole album is punctuated with spaces and sparse instrumentals affirms its status as a venue for self-reflection, for raw feeling, and for artist-listener dialogue. The whole album is a fascinating and ambitious exploration, one that asks for time and patience, but one that will never leave you once you’ve made the effort to speak its language.


My Morning Jacket – Z (2005)

This album witness Jim James in transition, shuttling between his alt-country-arena-rocker roots and what would later evolve into his bizarre-nü-folk-rock-diva persona; and it is a better album for it. After two straight releases that broke the seventy-minute mark (and did so a little too noticeably), this album reasserted James’ discretion as well as his pure songwriting ability. His melodies are stronger than ever, his arrangements are clean and engaging, and his sense of dynamics is untouchable. But this album is, above all, bursting with ideas and moments that are just impossible to resist: James’ vocalizations at the end of “Wordless Chorus,” Andrew Bird’s whistling cameo in “It Beats 4 U,” the cool jazz breakdown of “Off the Record,” the odd carnival shuffle of “Into the Woods,” and the ragged first line of “Anytime” are just a few. And there are almost no words for how this album ends: the glorious (and gloriously un-wanky) guitar solos at the end of “Lay Low,” the tender, “Knot Comes Loose,” and, of course, the mind-blowing, triumphant, eight-minute “Dondante,” easily one of my five favorite songs of the decade, one whose slow build and august apex take more of my breath way every time.


Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf (2002)

By this point in the list you’re probably wondering if I ever put away the heady bullshit and just listening to some straight rock and my answer to you is this album: the best rock album of the last decade. I mean, come on: here’s Josh Homme in his songwriting prime, Nick Oliveri’s still contributing a much-needed dose of adrenaline, Mark Lanegan still appears regularly to growl all over the track, and Dave Grohl makes all other drummers look Meg White wannabes. Check out those riffs between verse vocals on “No One Knows.” That squawking guitar on “Do It Again.” The insane drum work that opens “A Song for the Dead.” The explosive first note of “Six Shooter.” The cool groove of “God is in the Radio.” How do you say no? How do you deny that this is a band with a massive number of ideas, an unbeatable lineup, a psychotic amount of energy, and a vision clear enough to hold it all together? It makes sense that things started falling apart in the QOTSA camp after this album. This shit is dangerous. Explosive. Relentless. Aggressive. Incendiary.


Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – Cold Roses (2005)

Though it probably wouldn’t make the cut if I had to pare this list down to five or even ten, I’ve listened to this album more times than any other. And the reason is simple: Ryan Adams tells it like it is, holds nothing back, good or bad. This album is so free of pretension it’s almost alarming. The songs are modest, natural, and familiar. There are no surprises here, musically speaking. Nor are there any surprises vocally or lyrically; hell, half of the album’s lyrics would be cliché (rose imagery?; come on, that died with Poison) if they weren’t so honest, so casual, or so demystified. Because can you even be cliché if all you’re doing is putting how you feel in words you understand? This isn’t Ryan Adams trying to make Art, this is Ryan Adams being himself, however sad, love-struck, tired, original, or derivative that may be. And that’s why this album is great: he’s working backwards but doing it the right way. He’s breaking all the rules. He’s tearing down whatever wall’s still standing between the artist and the listener. He’s just a guy like you and me, and he could use a drink or two at the end of the day.


Six Organs of Admittance – School of the Flower (2005)

Ben Chasny’s a pretty consistent fellow, but on this album his blend of Robbie Basho-esque acoustic guitar, folk, and psychedelica is at its best. While intricate acoustic arrangements are the album’s backbone (and they should be, as Chasny is something of a miracle-worker in that department), understated noise breakdowns, atmospheric effected guitars, skittering avant-garde drums, warm vocals, and frenetic solos drift in and out. They never, however, take over; Chasny uses these different, often disparate, elements to explore folk’s versatility, its ability to communicate with music that is more modern, complex, and ephemeral. If this album were only the acoustic components of these songs, I would be more than happy, but to hear the slow evolution of a track like “School of the Flower,” the album’s centerpiece, from simple finger-picking to riotous psychedelic jam, you get the feeling that folk might actually work best when confronting something outside itself. Which, after all, isn’t all that different than what Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie were saying seventy years ago.


Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)

Jason Molina may be the most depressing man in my catalog (only Mark Kozelek [who’s on this list too, as luck would have it] gives him a run for his money), but damn, can he write lyrics and damn, does he know how to sing them like he means them. Ghosts, barren wildernesses, folk heroes, lost lovers, and about a hundred incarnations of bad fortune inhabit this album, all part of a rich language that you can tell wasn’t created solely for artistic purposes, but also to help understand the goings-on of his own mind. Their delivery is intimate, sentimental, and haunting, the spare but solid country-blues arrangements often leaving you ill-prepared for the lyrics’ poignancy. This album isn’t perfect (the countri-fication of “Old Black Hen” and some off-pitch contributions by Scout Niblett come to mind) but when Molina’s voice rises up and sings “There ain’t no ends to the sands I’ve been trying to cross / The real truth about it is / My kind of life’s no better off / If I’ve got the map or if I’m lost,” you can’t help but be a little shaken. This stuff cuts right to the bone.


Subtle – For Hero : For Fool (2006)

Four years later, I’m still not quite sure how to talk about this album. I mean, what is it? Rap? Rock? Rap rock? The Linkin Park associations that phrase conjures up gives me the chills. When I first went to Lou’s Records to buy this album the guy at the front desk directed me to the hip-hop section like it was a no-brainer. This band has six people in it. Five are white, one is black. One of them plays the electric cello. They’ve got an arsenal of stage props large enough to make Spinal Tap proud. Most of their percussion is programmed into drum machines, which they play live. And Doseone (Doseone! That slick-tongued genius that can set any line of words on fire like they were covered in gasoline!) is everything at once: singing it like a good nasally indie kid, pumping melodies through a vocoder, thespianing his way through spoken word sections, and rapping like a kung fu master, bitch-slapping every syllable into place with such speed and fervor that half the time you don’t even know what hit you. And then he goes right ahead and harmonizes those raps. Which, by the way, almost never rhyme. I mean, how do you deal with that? How do you explain a half-acoustic-electric, half-live-electronic, white, experimental, hyper-articulate, allegorical, rap-rock concept album to someone without making them want to kill you? I still don’t know. What I do know is that Subtle pulls it off and then some, that listening to this album is unlike listening to anything else, and that I am a little more enlightened for it. And those raps… oh my god, those raps.


Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Any chef will tell you that a person will always choose a dish that reminds them of their childhood over some new frou-frou creation, however tasty it may be. I’ll even admit that I still watch (and enjoy) the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episodes I watched as a kid. I think that this is part of the reason this album is so great—it’s a tribute to what makes Mark Kozelek nostalgic, to the people and things he keeps going back to, to the very foundations of his character. “Glenn Tipton,” the opening track, is practically dripping with the stuff: he remembers his dad watching Clark Gable moves (which he now loves), a donut shop that changed forever when the proprietor died, and how he first had his heart broken. The album’s title refers to boxers he used to watch as a kid: Salvador Sanchez, Pancho Villa, Cassius Clay, Sunny Liston, and many others appear throughout the album, serving as jumping off points for Kozelek’s labored remembrances. Here, his taste for long instrumental sections serves a clearer purpose than it ever has, allowing for the past to bloom before the listener’s eyes, simulating the way he gets stuck in his cycle of memory. That these instrumental sections are incredible doesn’t hurt either: the tracks are rich and vibrant, with gorgeous swelling strings, melancholy acoustic guitar, and muscular riffs taking turns at the forefront. The fact that the last track (“Pancho Villa”) is a sort of rewrite of the excellent third track (“Salvador Sanchez”) would normally bother me but in this case it’s a testament to how powerful these images are to Kozelek, to how inescapable they are. Appropriately, he ends the album looking back: “Have they gone / Felled by leather / So alone / But bound together?” And that’s exactly where Kozelek is, straddling past and present, alone as always but linked inextricably to these childhood heroes, these ghosts of the great highway.


Supersilent – 8 (2007)

A lot of bands throw around the word “improvisation.” The thing is, half they time what they really mean is that they haven’t bothered to learn their guitar solos or that they’re content to just camp out in a major scale for ten minutes. Supersilent is real improvisation. There are no conventional song structures, no efforts to avoid dissonance, no pre-written parts anywhere on this album. What is on this album is the music of four incredible artists who, in their ten years together, have developed an unwritten language that allows them to respond to one another as if they were parts of the same organism. Their instrumentation tends to land them labels like “electronic free jazz,” but they’re hardly ever appropriate. What is more appropriate is to say that Supersilent detaches sounds from their conventional roles and throws them back into the chaotic system from whence they first came. The result in this case is eight musical experiments, studying what happens when sounds collide but also studying their relationship to the silence that surrounds them. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s gorgeous. But it’s always challenging, inquisitive, primal, and invigorating.


Thee Oh Sees – The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In (2008)

John Dwyer’s pop and noise personas have never been as unified and streamlined as they are on this album. He’s still caterwauling unrecognizably through a distorted microphone and treating his guitar like most would a baseball bat, but here infectious melodies (aided in no small part by Brigid Dawson’s spot-on backups) manage to creep through, skipping with light feet across Petey Dammit’s tight garage-rock riffs. The songs are short, fun, and catchy with just enough growl to remind you how easily pop songwriting can fall under an onslaught of noise. It’s a seamless combination, a playful back-and-forth. It’s also one of the most enjoyable and breezy listens of the last decade, one that keeps your foot tapping and your inner beast howling.


Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)

When you read the term “atmospheric,” in some music-related piece of writing, it usually refers to either layered ambience or some reverb-laden guitar mixed low and panned hard. It’s almost always something tucked away in the background, difficult to hear but impossible not to feel. Here, Yo La Tengo completely inverts that. All the things that would normally be pushed to the back (droning organ lines, stoic shakers, brushed ride cymbals) are given lead roles, at times even outshining vocals, guitar riffs, and snare-heavy programmed drums. The result is a sound that’s so unique and so totally enveloping it’s hard to do anything other than let it wash over you. That Yo La Tengo approaches the music with its characteristic, masterful subtlety only enhances its ability to creep under you skin. But this album wouldn’t be half the album it is if it weren’t home to a similar lyrical inversion, one in which Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are struggling to understand why their marriage isn’t working and finally vocalize all the insecurity and frustration that’s doubtless been floating in the backs of their minds for a long while. It’s about turning themselves inside out, getting things out in the open, and giving things that tend to get lost in the ether tangible bodies and plenty of room to breathe.


Yura Yura Teikoku – Sweet Spot (2006)

To me, there’s only one way to talk about this album, and that is in terms of groove. That is what this Japanese three-piece cares about and that is what they do and they do it exceedingly well. They find the groove and then they milk it for all its worth. Whether it’s the smooth jazz-rock of the first track (all the song titles are in Japanese and thus I cannot reproduce them), the manic riffs of the fourth track, the stumbling NES guitar line of the fifth track, or the massive quarter-note stomps of the ninth track, everything else simply falls in line, whether it’s Shintaro Sakamoto’s snaking vocal melodies, his heavily effected guitar, or Ichira Shibata’s playfully accented percussion. Yura Yura Teikoku skips from genre to genre with ease; the cool confidence with which their separate instruments converse is one that can only come from playing together as long as they have (the band’s been around since 1989). But in the end it’s all in the service of the groove, a groove they worship, a groove whose potential they understand, a groove they allow to possess them. The album is called Sweet Spot, after all, and it’s a perfect fit: the thing is just one long sweet spot after another.


Honorable Mentions: Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me (2007); Ghost – Metamorphosis (2005); The Secret Machines – September 000 (2002); DJ Muggs vs. GZA/Genius – Grandmasters (2005); Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Matt Sweeney – Superwolf (2005); Charalambides – Joy Shapes (2003); Pelt – Ayahuasca (2001); Kawabata Makoto – Hosanna Mantra (2006)


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