Ground rules: No compilations. Nothing recorded significantly earlier than 2000 but not released until the period under consideration. Albums on which artists re-record their hits are not considered, which also means no live albums unless they consist largely of new material. Genre definitions are the broadest; jazz and classical will be covered separately. Don't take the order TOO seriously; while I'm absolutely sure that I prefer #1 more than #25, from day to day the order of the top 5, or any range of similar size, could completely reverse.
1. Asobi Seksu: Citrus (Friendly Fire, 2006)
The most impressive product of the shoegaze revival, this Brooklyn band's sophomore release is full of massive shimmering washes of effects-laden guitar a la My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, heavy reverb on Yuki Chikudate's breathy female vocals (perfectly winsome at times, perfectly ethereal at others, recalling Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and, less often, Cranes' Alison Shaw), hooks sometimes darkly subtle and sometimes brightly brilliant, and extended song-ending thrash-aways. They've got more than just a great sound; the songwriting's impeccable, and it was no surprise when "Thursday" quickly became soundtrack fodder. There's a fair amount of variety, and more fast tempos and aggression than my comparisons might suggest -- the vocals may often recall dreampop, but the drumming usually doesn't. Absolutely beautiful.
2. Stars: Set Yourself on Fire (Arts & Crafts, 2005)
New York-born, Montreal-based Stars crafted a modern-rock update of the male/female vocal template, complete with lush arrangements including horns (trumpet, French horn, trombone, saxophone), glockenspiel, a string quartet, and lots of synthesizer. Mellow at times (though with an internal tension), it can also rock out with bouncy vitality, with guitars offering contrasting textures. There are plenty of sonically daring moments, plenty of sharp edges that prick one's attention. The memorable melodies deliver acutely observant dissections of romantic relationships, mostly wistful, occasionally humorous, but sometimes filled with desperate yearning.
3. John Fahey: + [Red Cross] (Revenant, 2002)
With just a guitar and lotsa reverb (and, on one track, two other guys adding organ, chimes, and bass guitar), Fahey made a far better album while teetering on the edge of death than most stars with unlimited resources can make in the primes of their lives. This is that album. The guitar virtuosity and profound blues knowledge of Fahey's early years occasionally pop out from its textures, but he had transcended such things and seemed intent on some metaphysical search for psychologically significant sounds and combinations of sounds, a sort of fat, white, geriatric Coltrane of the guitar who was playing purely to satisfy himself, disregarding any other audience, in spite of which this is a timeless, emotionally evocative album, infinitely rewarding to aesthetically attentive listening. In a way, the ranking of this album is an averaging of goal and accomplishment; I sense that what Fahey was chasing is unobtainable on the physical plain, and having to utilize mere instruments and fingers marred the result. But this is as close a listen to a Zen-like ineffable music (a la solo shakuhachi music) as I've heard any Westerner attempt with any degree of success, because even though Fahey's accomplishment falls short of the ultimate goal, through a kind of satori he manages to allow us to sort of hear that goal, to hear the ineffable.
4. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004)
Before this album was even released, it had a strike against it thanks to iPod commercials bombarding us with lead track "Vertigo." I skipped over that track for a long time as a result, but the rest of the album is nothing like that up-tempo bombast, instead mostly consisting of, well, mid-tempo bombast, which they do better than anyone. Bono's singing is some of the best he's done, and he flaunts his social conscience (to best effect on "Crumbs from Your Table") without sounding overbearing. The Edge comes up with some of his best riffs, too, which makes this their best album since Achtung Baby, though its musical forebear is obviously and unashamedly The Joshua Tree. Some of the critical reaction found this to be too conservative, risk-avoiding, but I say it's U2 doing what it does best.
5. Lali Puna: Faking the Books (Morr, 2004)
A big part of this disc's attractiveness is the way the cool vocals of Valerie Trebeljahr are complemented by some of the warmest electronica of the decade. Actually, some electronic fans complained that it wasn't electronic enough -- songs too rock verse/chorus structured, too much guitar (from The Notwist's Markus Acher), occasionally even real drums with much cymbal-bashing ("B-Movie"). Usually, though, the songs percolate steadily, keyboard textures dominate, and the average rock fan would consider it electronic. Since I believe the rock/electronic divide to be a false dichotomy, what's more important to me is how wonderfully the tunes grow in intensity, building through gradual addition of layers; how primal the melodies seem; the imaginativeness of the non-drum beats.
6. Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator) (Acony, 2001)
Playing off the album's title, I take this to be something of a concept album about the American psyche as seen through the filter of history. It's not that there aren't highly personal songs, such as the banjo tune "My First Lover"; it's not a dogmatic concept at work here, but more of a feeling. But there's something inherently high-concept about an acoustic, defiantly folkie group, its sound based in old-timey duos such as the Stanley Brothers, casually referencing Elvis Presley and Steve Miller but also devoting two songs to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Welch's plaintive voice has a high lonesome tone that's ideal for this kind of music. The album ends in a double climax: the unsettling "Everything Is Free," then the long (14:40), ruminative "I Dream a Highway." Folk music doesn't come more daring and epic than this.
7. Dengue Fever: Escape from Dragon House (M80, 2005)
Sixties-style Cambodian garage psych from Los Angeles, with a real Cambodian pop star, Chhom Nimol, on Khmer-language vocals and the occasional English number. This might scream "novelty" to some observers, especially with the addition of a trendy Ethiopian flavor to some arrangements, but both execution and material (mostly original this time out, though with a compelling cover of Ros Serey Sothea's "Tip My Canoe") are so solid that this disc held up quite well over time. The language barrier is rendered insignificant by Nimol's colorfully emotional singing, and the eerie English track "Made of Steam" is an unmitigated success. The band wisely foregoes the lo-fi fetish of other garage-psych bands in favor of clear (but certainly not slick) engineering that plays up the vivid timbres of horns, vintage organ, and surf guitar, along with some rock-solid grooves.
8. Getatchew Mekurya & The Ex: Moa Anbessa (Terp, 2008)
What seemed on the face of it an unlikely pairing -- 69-year old Ethiopian jazz saxophonist with Dutch anarchist post-punk band -- proved a rollicking good time. Mekurya's big, vibrant tone and modal style are just as compelling as on his '70s classics (some of which are reprised in new arrangements, with "Musicawi Silt" a highlight), and The Ex adjust a bit to his style and lay out their best grooves, with singer/co-founder G.W. Sok throwing in some of their typically trenchant lyrics in his last full-length CD with the band. Joyously uplifting.
9. M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Gooom/Mute, 2003)
A highly original mix of electronica and shoegaze, this finds the French duo of Nicolas Fromageau and Anthony Gonzalez layering vintage keyboards on largely instrumental tracks of epic scope and grand density. Vocals are either wordless or snippets of sampled film dialogue. Beats come from drum machines firmly embedded in the mix (another retro aspect I appreciate, as modern beats tend to be foregrounded). The thickness of the textures ebbs and flows dramatically with the dynamics, chord progressions go beyond the pop-music norm to heighten the grandeur, and the melodies and hooks are slow-moving but inexorable. Taken all together, it's the musical equivalent of chocolate layer cake: unbelievably rich and thick, deliciously irresistible.
10. Patti Smith/Kevin Shields: The Coral Sea (Pask, 2008)
This meeting of punk icon Smith and My Bloody Valentine mastermind Shields is an epic celebration of Smith's friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer who was her roommate in her early years in New York. After he died of AIDS in 1989, she eulogized him with a long poem cycle, The Coral Sea, by turns ecstatic and heart-rending. As she writes in the liner notes to this two-CD set, "I had tried to read it publicly, but could never sustain reading the entire piece. Performing with Kevin Shields gave me an all-encompassing landscape on which I could explore the emotions that drove me to write it." Mostly she reads, occasionally she sings; sometimes she sounds like she's about to cry. Shields accompanies her with sustained electric guitar tones, sounding at times like an organ. Some people might think that two CDs of an emotionally draining poetry reading lacking melodies or beats couldn't rock, but believe me, even though you probably won't dance to this, its utterly transfixing catharsis will rock your soul.
11. Shearwater: Rook (Matador, 2008)
This is the second Shearwater album on which Jonathan Meiburg (Okkervil River) wrote all the songs, and his songwriting, arranging, and producing all stepped up, with much greater clarity in the sound. The chamber music arrangements, which occasionally blossom into anthemic crescendos, include at various times brass, glockenspiel, strings, and clarinet. Quiet moments suggest a hybrid of Astral Weeks, Sufjan Stevens, and Rachel's; the droning, dissonant, scraping instrumental "South Col" hints at more avant-garde modernists, and Meiburg's vocals often flip into a quietly striking falsetto. Rook is an emotionally rich, profoundly beautiful, mostly contemplative but occasionally rousing record that -- despite all those comparisons -- sounds quite distinctive.
12. James Blackshaw: O True Believers (Important, 2006)
This twenty-three-year-old English guitarist is a 12-string virtuoso who often spins out three lines at once (melody, counterpoint, bass) while giving each a distinctive color -- he's like a one-man trio. That might sound like it's complex, abstract, and overly busy, but nothing could be further from the truth: this is gentle, meditative music, harking back to Sandy Bull's raga-influenced, droning style, but minus all the rock influences. On this album Blackshaw overdubs tamboura, harmonium, cymbala (an Eastern European psaltery), and some twinkling percussion ("The Elk with Jade Eyes" is even guitarless for awhile). Absolutely beautiful music.
13. Jennifer O'Connor: Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars (Matador, 2006)
This Brooklyn singer-songwriter went indie-rock on her third album as she leaped to Matador and presumably had a slightly bigger production budget. What really matters are the assured songwriting (full of telling yet unpretentious, unshowy verbal triumphs), her voice's open vulnerability wrapped around an inner toughness, and the bittersweet melodies. Notably, â€œSisterâ€ is the most deeply moving song of the decade. In dealing with deaths, one after the fact and one pending, bombarded by memory and emotion and dread and so much more, the singer starts out matter-of-fact, tightly contained, but slips into an eruption of feelings, her voice cracking, as the music builds perfectly from acoustic simplicity to dense support. Though one more refrain follows it, the climax of the song is the despairing end of the last verse: "There's no way it's ever gonna be right ever again." Nor is this a song that gets by on topic and empathy more than craft or quality; the lyrics are pure poetry without ever being falsely fancy.
14. M83: Saturdays=Youth (Mute, 2008)
Our friends M83 reappear. By this point Fromageau had left and Gonzalez had moved in a more pop direction that made vocals an integral part of the sound rather than decoration, singing songs with lyrics. The concept took him a while to master, but master it he did on this tribute to the mood and sound of the early '80s. Majestic electro-pop glides sleekly through stark dynamic and textural contrasts, evoking old John Hughes films and teenage angst. (That this ranks below Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts is due not so much to quality as to originality of concept and difficulty of execution; the more conceptually audacious earlier album took more imagination to pull off so successfully.)
15. The Wrens: The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)
After a seven-year recording hiatus caused by an asshole label owner, this New Jersey band returned with a quirky masterpiece that comments on their troubles without ever sounding like they want you to feel sorry for them. Instead, it's a relationship album that's not about sexual relationships, but still explores issues of trust and self-worth. While there are some rockin' uptempo tracks, and the sound tends to be bright and chiming, the overall mood is brooding but resolute. Recording as always in a home studio, the band spent several years crafting imaginatively structured songs, urgent vocals, and a scintillating array of guitar textures while occasionally adding accordion, slide guitar, and harpsichord to their sonic palette. Shaky starts and endings (and coughs) are left in, heightening the impression that the album's a fragile creation that could easily crumble -- but it doesn't, and that's sweetly inspiring.
16. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol, 2000)
A lot of people rejected this album for being so dissimilar to The Bends and OK Computer, but its daring style change is part of what makes it so alluring. The band's incorporation of electronica even went as far as alteration of Thom Yorke's trademark vocal timbre on "The National Anthem," and of course tracks with drum machine beats. On the other hand, "The National Anthem" also includes some avant-jazz horns wailing above its throbbing groove, neither trend-jumping nor populist/rockist. Ultimately, this was Radiohead's declaration that they would not repeat themselves, not become formulaic. It's a collection of haunting songs built on complexity and subtlety. The only drawback was that this left the field open to those who would imitate and dumb down the most populist aspects of Radiohead's earlier style (Coldplay being only the most famous offender in this regard).
17. Que Verde: The Most Important Thing (Petticoat, 2004)
It was a good decade for wistful female vocals, a good decade for Brooklyn artists, and a good decade for DIY/home recording. This one-woman (Christine Back) album combines all three of those into one jangling package. Usually multi-tracking her vocals -- her voice small and speech-like, her lyrics simple but poetic in detail -- and strumming/fingerpicking a guitar (sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric), she creates little song gems, as pretty and seemingly fragile as a dewy spiderweb in the morning light, yet like that web, they last longer than appearances would suggest and catch you in their sticky lines. The title track is a masterpiece, with a slightly more elaborate arrangement that slowly builds along with the lyrics to reach a quietly stunning final verse.
18. Bell Hollow: Foxgloves (five03, 2008)
One of the biggest musical disappointments of the decade (not counting deaths) was the breakup of this New York band just a year after releasing its first full-length. On the other hand, what an album to go out on! There were lots of acts looking to the early '80s for inspiration, but few managed to do such a good job of drawing on that era's iconic sonic aspects without actually sounding like they were imitating particular bands. Sure, comparisons could be made, but the bright, chiming, larger-than life guitar riffs, low, fat, throbbing bass lines, and high, keening vocals, however familiar they might sound, were combined in a non-imitative way. More importantly, the combinations proved infectiously tuneful in a darkly brooding way.
19. Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union/World's Fair, 2006)
It was inevitable that Seventies styles would be revived, but far from a given that the dark, slick, critically disdained style that stood on the cusp between country rock and soft rock, epitomized by such bands as Firefall, could make a comeback. Others will mark this revival by listing Fleet Foxes, but these guys got there first and sound even better. All the uncool aspects are boldly flaunted: flutes, piano, effeminate male vocals with lush harmonies. The difference is that there's no pandering, the lyrics are highly literary, and the restless ennui of the style seems more existential and less like a bunch of guys bored by groupie sex and abundant coke. A melancholy, pastoral concept album about living on the frontier a century ago, isolated and grasping desperately for human connection, its lush magnificence proves wonderfully haunting.
20. Bjork: Volta (Atlantic, 2007)
The far-out ingredients that Bjork had previously deployed prominently but more conceptually on Medulla and the Drawing Restraint soundtrack were here poured into song structures with beats underneath. The secret to Bjork's creativity is her utter disregard of genre boundaries; all musical styles -- no, make that all sounds -- are fair game. She builds a song intro out of sampled foghorns, boats, and water sounds and it's more than a gimmick. She draws from different cultures -- electric likembe (similar to mbira, the so-called "thumb piano") and homemade percussion from the Congo's Konono No. 1, the eerie vocals of Antony Hegerty (Antony & the Johnsons), pipa (Chinese lute) player Min Xiao-Fen, kora (West African 21-string harp/lute) player Toumani Diabate, the 300-year-old European clavichord played here by Bjork and Jonas Sen -- and, because she incorporates their sounds purely as sounds rather than as cultural signifiers, the result is not musical tourism but abstract art. The brilliant results fit in no genre other than Bjork music. My full review is here.
21. Burial: s/t (Hyperdub, 2006)
Dubstep, a product of and for London clubs, seemed a purely 12" medium until Burial unleashed his debut. For those of us who weren't frequenting clubs in the middle of the decade, this was our first exposure to dubstep. It works as an album (and as home listening) because its nocturnal mood unifies tracks that have a surprising amount of variety. The thump-thump-thump-thump factor that makes other dance styles come to seem repetitious across the length of an album is strongly mitigated by the asymmetrical character of dubstep beats and the way the sparse production style leaves a huge amount of room for sheer weirdness and to highlight specific sounds that stand out in stark contrast in such uncluttered sonic landscapes.
22. Burial: Untrue (Hyperdub, 2007)
On this, his second full-length, his sound became even more gloriously eccentric. Perhaps inevitably, it was attacked by some as not really being dubstep, but that's just purist nitpicking. There is more use of vocals this time out, though still used in a dubby way (no verses and choruses here), evocative rather than narrative or poetic. And partly because of that, the tracks are catchier and more specifically memorable -- one remembers not just timbres and beats, but actual hooks. There's also a broader, occasionally brighter palette of timbres. (I'm cheating a little with the order here; Untrue is slightly superior to the debut, but not enough that it's worth separating them, and it was easier to discuss them in chronological order.)
23. Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut, 2009)
Astatke, the self-proclaimed inventor of Ethio-Jazz, finally started getting long-overdue recognition for his distinctive composing and arranging when he dominated the Broken Flowers soundtrack; now in collaboration with London funkateers The Heliocentrics he emerges with a whole album of new recordings mixing new compositions with a few old favorites. The Heliocentrics match their deep grooves to Astatke's heritage with wonderfully elliptical beats under his haunting modal melodies.
24. Snooky Pryor: ...and His Mississippi Wrecking Crew (Electro-Fi, 2002)
Never mind the title/band name, this was pretty much the last gasp of first-generation Chicago blues, made by the men who moved from Mississippi to Chicago and invented the genre in the late '40s (men who would think of Buddy Guy as a youngster), because the late James "Snooky" Pryor was practically the last of the greats and he's joined here by pianist Pinetop Perkins, senior even to Pryor (though he arrived in Chicago later). For Pryor, who claimed to be the first man to play harmonica pushed up against the microphone going through an amplifier, this isn't a style he learned, it's a style he originated, which imbues his singing and playing with a primal vitality missing among younger players who have to be careful to stay within the lines of their chosen style. There's nothing careful about Snooky's performance here -- he lets it all hang out. (At one point, during a Mel Brown guitar solo, Snooky blurts out "oh shit!" and a few bars later adds, "y'all have to excuse me, I got the blues.") Nor had age slowed him down; you'd never guess from his energy that he was 80 years old when this was recorded.
25. The Postal Service: Give Up (Sub Pop, 2003)
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie had already guest starred in Jimmy Tamborello's electro-pop project Dntel when they brought a similar sensibility to a more extensive collaboration, which they dubbed The Postal Service because they worked together by mailing their parts back and forth. (In a wonderful bit of irony, after The Postal Service was prevented by the United States Postal Service from using its name for any further work, the instrumental introduction to "Such Great Heights" was used by competitor UPS in a TV commercial.) It turned out, at least in the indie world, to be massively successful. This, their only album, is one of those perfect projects where the band comes up with an immediately distinctive sound (bright and percolating) and every tuneful track sounds like a luscious hit single. Gibbard's vocals are often backed by those of Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), though the most prominent female vocal, on the duo track "Nothing Better," comes from Jen Wood (Tattle Tale). - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.