It’s the end of the ‘00s, which means it’s time for top ten lists. Below are my picks for the best albums of the last ten years. Honorable mentions: Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, The Killers’ Day and Age, Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, The Strokes, Is This It?, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way, The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow, Arcade Fire, Funeral, and Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
10. Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004) – The Kings of Leon Just when it appeared that no one would make a great rootsy, blues-based rock again, the Followill boys arrived on the scene to prove it can still be done…and how. Aha Shake Heartbreak was the sophomore effort from the Kings of Leon, a marked improvement on their debut which earned critical acclaim in its own right. These guys are the full package, soulful at every instrument with the chemistry of kin to boot. This album soars from the start and never lets up. Highlights: “King of the Rodeo” and “The Bucket”
9. Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006) – Morrissey For his second album since his return from a seven-year hiatus, the Moz put legendary ‘70s producer Tony Visconti at the helm. The results lived up to the hype, as Visconti built innovative orchestral elements into most of the song arrangements. Combined with the fact that the songs were among Morrissey’s strongest compositions ever—both technically and emotionally—it’s no surprise that some critics hailed it as the best ever from the Pope of Mope. Highlights: “The Youngest Was the Most Loved” and “In the Future When All’s Well”
8. No Line on the Horizon (2009) – U2 Following two strong but less than groundbreaking efforts, the legends from Dublin looked to find some fresh musical inspiration in the unlikely country of Morocco. Setting up camp in a studio in Fez, some of the songs on the album bear the marks of Arabic musical influence. During the long recording process the band invited producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to make songwriting changes as well in hopes to make the material still stronger. The results on No Line speak for themselves, as it is the most fresh and inspired U2 album since Achtung Baby. It is also less commercial than anything they’ve done since Zooropa, which explains the cool reception of the album in some quarters. But let’s hope this doesn’t discourage the band from further musical exploration.
7. Hail to the Thief (2003) – Radiohead On the heels of their landmark Kid A and Amnesiac albums, what could the Oxford quintet do next? How about create another masterful album which is even more unified than its predecessors, if only because it’s creative explorations are not as multifarious. The album also has a discernible theme, which is evident in its title. And the interpretive Rosetta Stone for the 16-song cycle is “A Punchup at a Wedding,” where the most sacred of events is marred by a drunken brawl. For Radiohead the wedding is nature, and human beings are the intoxicated fighters. A powerful image, even if it does seal Yorke & Co. as misanthropes. Such a dark theme, however, does not diminish the sheer beauty of this album. Highlights: “Go to Sleep” and “Scatterbrain”
6. Retriever (2004) – Ron Sexsmith This unsung Canadian songwriter’s songwriter has yet to make an album that isn’t at least very good. Retriever features a dozen artful tunes which demonstrate why everyone from Elvis Costello to Paul McCartney count themselves among Sexsmith’s biggest fans. Producer Martin Terefe effectively created an organic warmth which perfectly reinforces the wistful melancholy of most of the tracks. Several songs are achingly beautiful. Some still move me to tears. Highlights: “Imaginary Friends,” “For the Driver,” and “Wishing Wells”
5. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) – Wilco Recorded in 2001, Wilco’s record company, Reprise Records, refused to release the album because of its perceived lack of commercial viability. Eventually the band was released from their Reprise contract and signed with Nonesuch Records, who released the album the next year. Naturally, the album sold like hotcakes. It’s a brooding, sometimes dark record with plenty of atmospherics and interesting turnarounds. Probably the very things that turned off the Reprise execs are what turned on listeners. So much for the convergence of market sense and aesthetic sensibility. If you haven’t discovered the raw rock paradise of Jeff Tweedy and friends, this album is a good place to start. Highlights: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Pot Kettle Black”
4. Neon Bible (2007) – Arcade Fire After the critical exultation over their first album, Funeral, most fans of the indie band Arcade Fire braced themselves for a let down with their follow-up. But Neon Bible proved to be even stronger than their debut. Both albums are melodically and emotionally rich, but Neon Bible is more mature in terms of lyrical vision. The album’s abiding theme of spiritual angst is especially compelling, with several songs wrestling with the realities of sin, death, and redemption. Highlights: “Intervention” and “The Well and the Lighthouse”
3. Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) – TV on the Radio This unique outfit from Brooklyn, New York blends progressive rock, jazz, hip-hop, and electronica. The song’s lush textures, thanks to the production wizardry of band guitarist Dave Sitek, reward repeated listening. Layers of melodies, rhythms, and vocalisms create a unique and hypnotizing soundscape for stream of consciousness lyrical explorations. One of the album’s standouts, “Wolf Like Me,” is quite possibly the song of the decade. Other highlights: “Hours,” “A Method,” and “Dirthywhirl”
2. Love and Theft (2001) – Bob Dylan Just prior to the album’s release, the Bobster was quoted as saying Love and Theft felt like a greatest hits album. This seemed like pre-release hype at the time, but he turned out to be correct. Each song feels like a classic, whether the style is rockabilly, swing, bluegrass, parlor jazz, or blues. Dylan and his band—featuring the incomparable tandem of Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell—move effortlessly from genre to genre, humbly serving each tune. Lyrically, Dylan is at the top of his game—which is no small boast—spinning captivating yarns, tossing off wise proverbs, telling jokes, and creating an abiding feeling of riverboat adventure and Old South nostalgia. All in all, a flawless album. And to think he did it as a man in his sixties.
1. Kid A / Amnesiac (2000-01) – Radiohead Okay, so these are two albums rather than one, but I’m combining them because all of the music was recorded during the same sessions. The band didn’t want to release it all on one double-length CD, so they divided the songs into two separate albums. In actuality, it’s more like a time-released double album, with half of the songs appearing about six months after the others. The novelty of the release format only hints at the originality of the music itself, which felt at the time—and in many ways still does feel—as if it had been recorded in the year 2050 and sent back to our time to blow our minds. Amazingly, the albums have “aged” well. The truth is, as with all great music, it doesn’t seem to age at all. Kid A highlights: “Optimistic” and “Idioteque”; Amnesiac highlights: “I Might Be Wrong” and “Knives Out”