BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 10-4

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)

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I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)

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Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

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Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)

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Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)

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My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)

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This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)

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It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.

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BEST SONGS OF THE DECADE: 20-1

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Here concludes my look at the best songs of the decade.  For this edition, I will also have a link to each track on YouTube.  Just click on the last part of each write-up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this version of favoritism.  Please leave some comments about what you view as the best songs.  Also, check in tomorrow to see the first part of my Decade’s Best Albums list.  Thanks for reading!

20. “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk

Techno is a tough thing for me to get behind.  I appreciate all the rhythm and neat computer-ish music.  But the whole thing just seems so fake and cold to me.  But then there’s Daft Punk.  I can’t help but like them.  They know how to conjure a beat and get your body to move.  “Harder, Better” is the highest point of their work.  Thanks to an amazing vocoder breakdown and a real swagger, even just hearing the song causes heads to bop and feet to tap.  I like to believe that, were I a break dancer I would freak out to this song.

19. “Staralfur” by Sigur Ros

Soundscapes can tend to be a bit boring, generally left for those relaxation mixes to be heard before sleep.  Sigur Ros manages to pull the soundscape into a new land, thanks to innovative instrumentation.  The powerful strings blend with light piano notes and production noises.  Things take off when the voice comes in.  Sigur Ros has a real give in their lead singer: he transforms songs from otherworldly to angelic.  You needn’t know what he’s saying, you just feel it.

18. “Energy” by Apples in Stereo

It’s a pretty instant attraction when this song turns on.  The mood can be completely somber, but then “Energy” turns everything bright.  The bright chords, bright voices, optimistic lyrics and fun tempo all add up to something great.  Where Sigur Ros could bring you to another planet, Apples in Stereo carry you to a better place – a state of personal satisfaction.  “And the world is made of energy / And there’s a lot inside of you, and there’s a lot inside of me.”

17. “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead

It bothers me to leave Radiohead so low on my list.  But such was the nature of song content this decade.  “Pyramid Song” has the distinctive nature of being a decidedly unique song in the Radiohead canon.  Everything feels eerie, right from the start.  Syncopated piano rhythms ride above strange electronic sounds and strings.  Soon enough, the drums kick in, slowly dragging their way in, adding to the strangely swung feel.  The whole thing feels like it’s carrying you off to heaven, or maybe hell.  But then Yorke’s last clear claim rings out in your mind: nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.  Believe in this song.

16. “Lisztomania” by Phoenix

One of the best songs from this year, “Lisztomania” is a pop masterpiece.  Catchy lyrics and bright music carry this song along.  Great guitars and solid bopping music are complimented by a touch of electronica, giving the song an interesting touch.  Really, you could pick “1901” here, too.  Both are great songs, proving Phoenix one of the best from 2009.

15. “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Antony)

Disco tends to seem cheesy to me.  Maybe it’s the stereotyped guy-in-white-suit thing.  Whatever the case, “Blind” is strangely freed from any sort of bad disco feeling.  Maybe it has to do with Antony’s vocals.  They really steal the show here, transforming the careful emotional classical singer into a dominant power.  I can’t help but feel like dancing through this song and yet feel terrible for doing do.  Perhaps that is where Hercules & Love Affair really succeed.  They get complex emotions to work in music.

14. “Reena” by Sonic Youth

“Reena” is so wonderfully constructed, making it one of my all-time favorite Sonic Youth songs.  First, it grabs you with those ringing guitars.  Then Kim Gordon manages to sing without sounding annoying.  But after all of the introductory “pop song” stuff, they decide to go all Sonic Youth on us.  For my money, it’s one of their best breakdowns since Daydream Nation.  Everything just goes crazy, drums pounding, guitars thrashing, and then Steve Shelley pulls it back together.  Very circular, very awesome.

13. “The Funeral” by Band of Horses

Songs can have some powerful effects, but it’s rare for me to be actually bothered by music.  Band of Horses succeeds here with those haunting, lightly plucked notes that open the song.  Instantly, you realize that this is something very weighty and somber.  Of course, the careful vocals only add to this effect.  “The Funeral” is so powerful that even the loud rocking sections manage to add to the mood.  Repeated listens diminish some of this song’s power, but never leave you feeling comfortable.  Maybe it’s better that way.

12. “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

For all of the loud rock and crazy moments on Fever to Tell, it is the one ballad-like song that we all remember.  Everything about this song gives shivers down the spine.  Those crashing drums, that intro guitar, even the loud rock guitar.  But, of course, it’s Karen O that we all adore here.  Instead of yelling and stalking the stage, she lightly explains her love.  It’s powerful, tragic, and stunning.  This is an impact song.

11. “I’ll Believe in Anything” by Wolf Parade

This song and “Shine a Light” stand tall as the highlights from Wolf Parade’s debut album.  But for some reason, “I’ll Believe in Anything” always seems a step ahead.  I think it has to do with the unashamed emotion that flows in this song.  Seemingly a tale of longing for a lost lover, the whole thing is a bit difficult to dissect.  But it is clear that there is a distinct pain in Spencer Krug’s voice.  The loud crashing music only adds to the raw strength of this song.  By the end of the song, you are also willing to believe, if only for your own happiness.

10. “Clocks” by Coldplay

Coldplay is a very overrated (yes, really) band that garners popular attention because of their refined combination of Radiohead and U2.  They’re big, don’t really have a distinct message, and can generally be described as dull.

So why are they in my top 10?  Because this song is so good.  Perhaps Coldplay was just meant to play this one song and get on with their lives.  I’m a sucker for a good piano song, and this thing is just fantastic.  Chris Martin sings without getting overly annoying, and the looping piano phrase is just brilliant.  And I can’t help but feel taken away when that last phrase hits: “Home, home, where I wanted to go.”

9. “Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives” by Voxtrot

This may be the most low-key song included on my list.  But the whole thing is wonderful rock.  A great, clear voice works well with the instantly appealing guitars and tight drums.  It’s a shame that this band hasn’t really caught on.  With the EP named for this song, they unleashed a set of five amazing tracks.  Every one of them features memorable music, but this is the best of the bunch.

8. “While You Wait for the Others” by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear made a huge leap from enjoyable folk to super songwriters.  The key track off this year’s Veckatimest is a real highlight.  Its atmosphere is powerful and evocative, bringing forth real emotional responses.  Those voices, that guitar… it’s musical brilliance, with just enough muscle to keep it around your brain for months.  This song clearly eclipses all others from this year, constantly echoing in my head.  This is one to remember.

7. “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse

It starts so simply.  Lightly plucked, quietly entered.  And then the self-admissions happen.  And then the world starts to open up with giant faith statements, and comments about the nature of the earth.  Oh, yeah, the guitars kick it up too.  This song is a great way to enter the land of The Moon & Antarctica, it’s familiar and disarming all at the same time.  Of course, this was the one song where we all wondered, “Is this really Modest Mouse?”  It’s unfortunate they haven’t reached a height like this again.

6. “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes

If you don’t like the singing, then I don’t know what you’re doing.  I mean, first there is the lead voice, strong, right on pitch, beats the pants off any American Idol-type pop artist today.  Then there are the backing voices.  Each of these singers could take the lead spot and this song would still be in the top ten.  Instead, they blend and create a harmonious point of glory.  This only functions to add to the amazing musical arrangement, thus creating a powerful, memorable song.

5. “Nothing Ever Happened” by Deerhunter

In an album full of abstract ideas, “Nothing Every Happened” stands out as a beautiful culmination of all the strange noise-rock, but with a very accessible mindset.  Of course, it helps to have one of the best outros of the decade working for you.  Big bold drums give up the limelight for the stunning guitar work.  From the noisy breakdown comes the huge finish: clear, powerful, singular notes.

4. “My Mathematical Mind” by Spoon

It’s sometimes hard to point out what makes Spoon so great.  I guess it’s that they break down their songs into the most minimal of ideas, removing the unimportant fuss.  They kind of make you work for it – fill in the gaps almost.  Here, there’s a sort of self-assured power on display.  I don’t really know why exactly this song strikes so much more than any other Spoon song though.  I think it has to do with the pianos, the ideas (“I’m gonna stop riding the brakes”), and Britt Daniels’ smooth voice.  Or maybe it’s just that this song is really one of the four best of the decade.

3. “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend

The best song of last year is certainly the best pure pop on from the decade.  It’s extremely bright, and from the moment you hear that chord structure, you’re hooked.  For the next two minutes, you have no choice: you bop your head, and you let the music get at you.  Or you watch the video and enjoy even more.

2. “Rebellion (Lies)” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire are all about big song and big emotions.  While some may argue that a few of the “Neighborhood” songs are better, I don’t think you can go wrong with “Rebellion (Lies)”  It stands out as such a strong song.  Call-and-response ending in yells of “Lies,” and a string part that acts as primary instrumental melody.  The guitar flourishes and an enraged lead voice closing out the song.  Each of these moments mean so much to those who have heard the song.  If you’re not amongst the believers, let this song prove the might of the Arcade Fire.

1. “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem

So Pitchfork nearly got it right, placing “All My Friends” at second in their decade-list.  But I view them as wrong.

There are so many great songs focusing on emotion, devastating tragedy, and difficult choices.  But it’s rare for a song to confront the idea of growing up like this.  Yeah, many have taken the general “I hope I die before I get old” path, but how many have really taken the idea of age and turned it into a 7-minute opus?

The whole song grapples with life and this transitional idea.  It’s really strange at first, but by the third minute you’re left wondering where else this guy will go.  It’s an intelligent analysis of the self, and James Murphy has some of the best lyrics in recent memory strewn together to make “All My Friends” work.

Of course, without the backing track, his words are just a poetic reflection.  Instead, the base layer of piano kicks the whole thing along, allowing a gradual build across the entire song.  More guitars are added, louder drums, and even more piano.  Everything almost becomes overwhelming, finally ending in the stunning, maybe empowering reflection, “If I could see all my friends tonight.”

James Murphy has penned the greatest song of this decade.  Its musical, lyrical, emotional, and human elements are all greater than any other single track from another source.  His mastery of his craft and an understanding of himself have resulted in a brilliant song that is forever echoing for me.  It is like no other.

Best Albums 2008: 1 – Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes have everything going for them. They’ve got amazing vocal skills. The multi-part melodies and powerful lead parts are unmatched in all of music (sorry Aretha – you’ll have to move over for a bunch of guys from Seattle). Fleet Foxes also play great music, with excellent guitar lines and brilliant drumming.

And then there’s the atmosphere. Fleet Foxes is a very organic album, full of natural imagery and a timeless scope. Open spaces fill out with the gorgeous echoes of guitar and crooning in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Yet no particular era or location seems to account as the source of such beauty. You can’t seem to pinpoint a winter theme, a spring awakening, a summer journey through the night, or an autumn jaunt through the leaves in a forest. But it all seems so natural, so perfect, for whenever you are.

Fleet Foxes released this debut in June to much fanfare and its power is such that it still feels fresh in the frigid climates of December. This is a magical album that enchants the mind with every listen. Very few releases in the past twenty years have held such a distinction. Yes, Fleet Foxes is the best album of 2008. That was easy – there was no competition. This is miles ahead of any followers.

More importantly, Fleet Foxes is the best album of the decade, eclipsing even the majesty of The Moon and Antarctica and the stunning urgency of Kid A. It’s absolutely priceless in every way, representing the height in folk music and the true power of “indie” rock. Emotions and music combine here in the best way – get this and treasure it forever. Fleet Foxes is a keeper.

Best Songs 2008: 2 – Ragged Wood

The general consensus concerning Fleet Foxes is that “White Winter Hymnal” is the highlight and summarizing document of their self-titled debut album. While I will gladly support the song (it’s an excellent piece that displays outstanding musicianship), my nod will have to go to “Ragged Wood.”

The main reason for the superiority of this song is the more “epic” nature of the experience. While “Hymnal” is a very organic song, “Ragged Wood” shows more pure power from the band. Yes – the trademark vocal harmonies are there and completely gorgeous. But the song simply feels bigger than its counterparts. A large reason for this is the presence of multiple parts. The song opens with a beautiful vocal call from the whole band (a simple-yet-powerful “whoa” that is uttered with wonderful harmonic splendor). Then the loving call kicks in as the main voice pleads, “You should come back home.”

Following this, the song lightens to mainly acoustic guitars, providing a sense of introspection as “evening arrives.” It’s a very spiritual experience, further improved by a minimal guitar solo (that involves slightly louder, lyrical plucking). Soon enough, the band comes back in full, expanding to fill the space again, aided by more powerful drums. It’s a stunning change that brings a smile to the face. From here, the band carries this style out to the song’s conclusion. The end is met with a decrease in volume and a final organ chord.

This song is simply a joy for the ears. Gorgeous guitars meet perfect percussion and only elevate the stunning vocal delivery. Fleet Foxes is an amazing band and “Ragged Wood” is the highlight of their spectacular debut album. In any other year, this would probably be my flat out favorite for song of the year. But there’s another band with the top song of the year, and you’ll see that soon.