January might be almost over, but if we concentrate hard enough, most of us can still remember those days of yore, those faint and misty memories, those nostalgia laden yesteryears that were the … um, the … the last 10 years. What are we supposed to call that decade, anyway? The two-thousands? The zeros? The aughts?
Anyway, the 00s are over, but, like any dearly departed decade, they’re still worth squeezing for every bit of sentimentality that they’re worth. In 20 years, that means the retro kids will be wearing skinny jeans while the classic rap stations play “Boom Boom Pow,” but for now, it means that I’m going to write a top 10 albums of the decade list.
“What?” you say. “A music article on GooseRadio? Isn’t that Alex’s job?” Touché, dear reader, but this is a special list: that is, it’s a list for people who aren’t Springsteen fans.
10. Black Holes And Revelations (2006), Muse
It’s a toss-up between this release and their prior effort, “Absolution,” but the British superstars showcase their variety just a little bit more on this outing. From the dramatic “Take A Bow” to the verve-driven “Supermassive Black Hole” to the incredibly flamboyant closer of “Knights of Cydonia,” you know you’re listening to a rock band that can do whatever it wants.
However, complete creative freedom didn’t ruin the three-piece band, or at least not right away. While some tracks (particularly “Cydonia”) served as forbearers of the self-aggrandizing self-parody that was 2009’s “The Resistance,” Muse managed to keep their egos in check on “Black Holes,” providing us with an album that’s just riff-laden and epic enough to enjoy.
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “Supermassive Black Hole”
9. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), Johnny Cash
The Man in Black still had one more in him. Released less than a year before his death, “The Man Comes Around” is (mostly) an eclectic group of stripped-down covers, from bands and artists as diverse as The Beatles, Sting, Cash himself and even Nine Inch Nails.
Yes, you read that right. Cash tackled Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” on this album, and, even more amazingly, he nailed it. In fact, almost every song on the album fits Cash so perfectly that you’d swear he had penned them all himself. He imbues each track with his own personality and experiences, and those who know anything about Cash’s life will understand the parallels that each song makes to the singer.
While the covers are already fantastic, Cash saved the best performance for the title track, the one new song he wrote for the album. It has an eerie, apocalyptic feel, which is only accentuated with the passage from Revelation that Cash reads at the end. Quite simply, “The Man Comes Around” is an album written by a man who knew he was not long for this earth. He didn’t waste the opportunity.
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “The Man Comes Around”
8. Fantasies (2009), Metric
The name fits, as the topics on display in the Canadian band’s lyrics flit from the serious (desensitization toward sex and violence on “Gold, Guns, Girls”) to the slightly thoughtful (an analysis of The Beatles’ longevity on “Gimme Sympathy”) to the truly fantastical (pretty words strung together on “Stadium Love”). However, the lyrics are far less important than the music on this album.
This is one of the most disciplined albums I’ve ever heard, not because of the extraordinary talent of the musicians (though they are talented) but because you get the sense that every song came out exactly the way the band wanted. Every strum is in place, every beat is precisely as catchy as it was intended to be, and every song packs just the perfect amount of aural punch.
Lead singer Emily Haines’ voice is mixed perfectly as well, acting as a finely tuned instrument of its own that ties every song together just right. Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for an album that set out to be a finely tuned exercise in catchy alternative and ended up as exactly that.
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “Help I’m Alive”
7. Give Up (2003), The Postal Service
Ben Gibbard’s music fascinates me. He has experimented with folk and alternative and various other things with “Death Cab For Cutie,” goofily covered Avril Lavigne in his solo work and has now even delved into some vaguely country roots with his new project with Jay Farrar. However, my favorite entry in his catalogue is his dabblings with electronic music in The Postal Service.
Gibbard’s vocals are pitch perfect, and Jimmy Tamborello’s electronic stylings create an almost ethereal feel while still remaining pure pop. It’s also nice to hear a less dour side of Gibbard, as songs like “Such Great Heights” and “Sleeping In” mark some of his happiest work to date.
The album is so smooth and polished that it almost qualifies as easy listening, but it’s so well-crafted that you can’t dismiss it as lightweight. It’s also super accessible, so those wary of an out-of-key Japanese woman singing over terrible loops need not worry.
If you’re only going to buy one song on iTunes: “Sleeping In”
6. Lightbulb Sun (2000), Porcupine Tree
Porcupine Tree is a progressive rock band, which is sometimes a code name for a band that is composed of theoretically good musicians playing completely inaccessible music. Ever since 1999’s “Stupid Dream,” however, Porcupine Tree have been combining an incredibly talented and unique rock ensemble with pop sensibilities, resulting in an odd sort of genre that I’d call “prog rock for the rest of us” or, in their later albums, “the thinking man’s metal.”
Lightbulb Sun is in the first category, and it’s probably the band’s most eclectic album to date. It has all of the trappings you’d expect from a prog album – the 13-minute song, the insane guitar riffs, the audio clipping of the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult – but it blends these elements with a desire to make truly good, even catchy, standalone songs.
While this still results in some things that sound weird – particularly the song with the Heaven’s Gate clipping and another short piano ballad about the death of a cat – the musicianship is impossible not to respect, and what sounds like a mishmash on paper actually turns out to be some finely crafted rock songs.
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “Shesmovedon”
5. Keep Color (2008), Republic Tigers
This album, like “Give Up,” could be mistaken for easy listening to the untrained ear, particularly because so many of the songs (purposefully, I would argue) blend together to form a cohesive unit. Don’t let that detail throw you.
This album kind of defies a genre. It’s almost always a bit too mellow to be considered rock or alternative, but if it’s not one of those things, what is it? Heavy layering and good production values create a dense soundscape populated with both musings and flowery language, and before you know it the album is over.
That’s when you realize how catchy it was and how many well-executed musical gems are hidden beneath the seemingly innocuous presentation.
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “Buildings And Mountains”
4. Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001), Ben Folds
The master of modern piano pop/rock, Folds here presents what I suspect will be remembered as his best album when all is said and done (although it will face fierce competition from his band’s “Whatever And Ever Amen”). Folds craved complete studio control over this album, and it shows: he played piano, drums, guitar and bass on the album, and several tracks rank at the top of his impressive repertoire.
Most people remember this album for the title track, which humorously takes whiny “male, middle class and white” bands like Korn to task, or for the closer “The Luckiest,” a sweet and simple love song (albeit one that is soured by knowing that most of Folds’ last album was dedicated to trashing the woman that song is written about). While those songs are good, they’re nowhere near the best of what “Suburbs” has to offer.
“Annie Waits” is an incredibly catchy, oddly upbeat song with melancholy lyrics, “The Ascent of Stan” sings mockery of the hippie wiseguy over a beautiful piano track, and “Fired” is nearly unparalleled in its snarky lyrics and jazzy keys. The best track, however, is “Fred Jones, Pt. 2,” one of Folds’ best story songs and proof that there’s a sentimental fool behind the cynical veneer. .
If you’re going to buy one song on iTunes: “The Ascent of Stan”
2. Good Monsters (2006) and Who We Are Instead (2003), Jars of Clay
Jars of Clay astound me. First of all, they are virtually unrivaled in lyrical depth, as songs like “Instead’s” “Jealous Kind” make abundantly clear. Second, their musicianship is wholly underrated, as shown by the veteran rocker sounds of tracks like “Good Monsters’” “Work.” Third, they have a nigh uncanny ability to reinvent themselves with every album and still sound exactly like Jars of Clay.
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in a comparison of “Instead” and “Monsters.” The former deals primarily with bringing gospel and roots music into an acceptable pop format, all the while weaving in worshipful and thought-provoking lyrics. The latter album is a driving, 80s tinted rock album whose lyrics create a real sense of world weariness. Are they both Jars of Clay? Unmistakably so.
Lead singer Dan Haseltine’s vocals and lyrics shine in their uniqueness, Charlie Lowell’s keys create a perfect backdrop, Stephen Mason’s electric guitar never does too much or too little and Matt Odmark’s acoustic guitar is always impressive. While almost every album in Jars’ catalogue is worth a listen, these two stand out in front of the other four that were made in the last 10 years.
If you’re going to buy one track on iTunes (from each album): “Mirrors and Smoke” from “Good Monsters,” “Jealous Kind” from “Who We Are Instead”
1. Trampoline (2007), Steel Train
This album dominated my CD player for the better part of a year, as every friend I gave a ride to can complain – er, I mean, attest. I just couldn’t help it. “Trampoline” is the quintessence of a rock n’ roll album.
I don’t know why Steel Train decided to do an about face from their (admittedly quite good) roots as a folk/jam band, but “Trampoline” makes them sound like old hands in the genre. That’s one of the many great things about the album: while there is an undeniable freshness, rawness and “live sound” throughout the album, there are moments when the band sounds far more experienced than they really are. This is perfectly embodied in the lyrics and raspy-yet-still-melodic vocals of lead singer Jack Antonoff, who, while knowing how and when to kick a song into high gear, also has some older-than-his-years moments reminiscent of the best of Paul Simon.
That being said, it is a rock album at its heart, and rock it does. The relentless “I Feel Weird” opens the album, followed by “Black Eye,” which contains one of the best screams I’ve ever heard in a song. From there, it knows when to scale back and when to come roaring back in. In short, it’s almost perfectly paced, and there’s not a bad song on the album. Listen to it now, and support one of the most underexposed bands out there.
If you’re going to buy just one song on iTunes: Either “Black Eye” or the blatant Beatles tribute “A Magazine” (But seriously, just buy the whole thing)