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October 12, 2009 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Salient’s Top 10 albums of the decade


#1 Radiohead
Kid A

Kid A. Even the name suggests enigma. To hear the gentle modulations and eerily disembodied vocals of the first few bars of ‘Everything in its Right Place’ in y2k was to hear the sound of music being reshaped, forever. Thom Yorke’s processed voice on the title track, the Eno-esque ambience of ‘Treefingers’, the whirring no-dance drum machines of ‘Idioteque’ and the Dadaist randomness of the lyrics (Yorke famously pulled lines out of a hat in an attempt to overcome writer’s block) were, in combination, a potent deathblow to the rhetoric of instrument-based determinism.
After Kid A, anything was fair game for anybody, and the notion of a major band producing its “difficult” or “experimental” album had become banal, if not redundant. In a decade where music has been defined by its variety and democracy, it is entirely apt that Kid A be remembered as a kind of a singularity, a jump-off point for the advances which were soon to follow in its wake. That Kid A hit #1 on the billboard album charts as a result of buzz generated by a series of viral “blip” advertisements and an advance Napster leak was not only delightfully serendipitous, but also further evidence that Radiohead were, as always, ahead of the game. They had, in one fell swoop, erased the past, defined the terms of the present, and forecasted the future. Simply put, Kid A is the best album of the last ten years because when it came out it sounded like nothing else, but by the decade’s end you could practically hear its influence in everything that had been made since.

#2 Arcade Fire

I can think of at least ten albums that I’d rather listen to right now than Arcade Fire’s Funeral—but that’s a good thing. It means it’s become an integral part of my collection, in the vein of Abbey Road, Chutes Too Narrow and Kid A. Sure, I may stray in favour of newer and more exciting releases, but I’ll always return to my old faithfuls—and when I do, I’m once again struck by their brilliance, which never grows old. Funeral is one of those albums where you pick up something new with each listen. It’s sincere, thoughtful and emotional, as well as astonishingly well-formed for a debut—and despite its theatrical element, it has none of the pretentiousness that plagues certain other indie bands. And what’s more, it acts as a reminder of music’s cathartic power, in an era when unfortunately, it’s all too easy to see it as a commodity.

#3 Panda Bear
Person Pitch

Panda Bear just seems to nail everything on his 3rd album, Person Pitch. Even though it seems kinda reductive to reference Brian Wilson when talking about Person Pitch, it’s somewhat unavoidable—while reggae/dancehall and minimalist techno play important parts in the album’s construction, it’s the exultant warmth and beauty of Lennox’s voice over his flawlessly looped pop dreamscape that sees Person Pitch rise head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Children playing among handclaps, chants and a fucking Cat Stevens sample may not seem credible ostensibly, but once you finish the epic ‘Bros’, it manages to fit wonderfully. An incredible album that not only subverted the expectation of music fans entirely, but became a Wilsonic tome that is yet to be equalled. As close to pop perfection as you’ll get in this decade.

#4 Kanye West
The College Dropout

Of course there’s going to be something by Kanye in the top ten albums of the decade. The question was which: Late Registration is a gem, and Graduation ain’t half bad either (there was no 808s as far as I’m concerned). It was, however, The College Dropout that won the enviable number four spot. This album marks Kanye’s leap from first-class producer to respected rapper/pop-star, a role he’s adopted with aplomb. It’s The College Dropout’s frankness (the forthright discussion of religion in ‘Jesus Walks’) and humour (the frenetic pace and tongue-in-cheek comedy of ‘The New Workout Plan’) that make it an instant classic. Hell, on ‘Through The Wire’, the dude is rapping with his jaw wired shut. I’ll just come out and say it: I love Kanye, and if you dispute this placing, I’ll fight you. Okay then? Okay then.

#5 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver

Imagine for a moment that you’re in a room with a friend or two, just relaxing, having a conversation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, people are quietly slipping in through the doors and windows, and before you know it, there’s a full-blown party going on with you at the centre. This is what Murphy’s beautifully subtle dance/punk hybrid feels like: he builds his songs up with such a quiet, workmanlike intensity that they often catch you by surprise. The culmination of his talents is Sound of Silver: a painstakingly crafted work that roots you to the spot as you discover its layers of complexity while simultaneously commanding you to forget your troubles for a moment, get up, and just dance

#6 Grizzly Bear
Yellow House

With atmospheric flourishes used to intensify core pop sensibilities, Grizzly Bear’s second album marked a turn away from the oughtie’s instrument du jour: synth. Yellow House is like a collection of sinister little lullabies, but just as we drift off to sleep on Droste’s droll voice, eerie knocking sounds (‘Marla’) or crashing cymbals (‘Lullabye’) jolt us back to reality. ‘Knife’ and ‘On a Neck On a Spit’ are standout tracks; their hum-ability testament to Grizzly Bear’s impeccable melodic songwriting, while their inability to be done justice in the shower point to the vital layers of instrumentation stacked into every song. Yellow House heralded a welcome return to vocal harmonies: Fleet Foxes, Department of Eagles and Bon Iver soon followed suit, but none so delicately, none so darkly, none so well.

#7 The Strokes
Is This It

Is This It is important for a couple of reasons: firstly, it served as a broker between the mainstream and the growing underground garage rock revival, and secondly, in a time when bands were beginning to discard the traditional ideas of what a rock band should sound like, it showed what great music you could still make with a couple of guitars, bass, drums and vocals. Lead singer Julian Casablancas has called it a “time capsule” and that’s exactly what it is. In fact, Is This It sums up the prevalent garage rock sound of the early 00s so well you wonder why the other bands even bothered.

#8 Death From Above 1979
You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine

 “FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT… james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.”
This is what Sebastian Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler wrote after Murphy’s label forced the then-1979less Death From Above into changing their name. Their singular album, You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, doesn’t so much speak the same sentiment as it does scream it. The whole album is the decade’s loudest “fuck you”, sizzling by in a maelstrom of kiss-off shallow lyrics, curb-stomping riff brutality, and the ability to deliver more beats than Ike Turner. They broke up soon afterwards, but thanks to this album, DFA1979’s legacy remains brutally untouchable.

#9 Interpol
Turn on the Bright Lights

One of the least discussed musical trends of the last ten years has been the quiet death of the guitar solo. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that the best guitar album of the last decade doesn’t feature a single moment of 6-string showboating. The clever dynamics and telepahtic interplay of Paul Banks and Daniel Kesseler on Turn on the Bright Lights captivate in a different, and altogether more genuine fashion than the often heavy-handed attempts of axe heroes of yore. But despite the peerless excellence of Interpol’s musicianship, the central irony of Bright Lights is that it’s the consistently unshowy vocals of Paul Banks which really steal the show. The essence of his performances is an at times unsettling tendency towards naked emotional honesty. And like Ian Curtis before him, the dryness of Banks’ baritone voice ensures that he can deliver great lines (“She puts the weights into my little heart / And she gets in my room and she takes it apart”) without ever running the risk of sounding overwraught.

#10 Danger Mouse
The Grey Album

To those who would pose the question of whether the mashup is a valid form of art in and of itself, I would respond with a three-word answer: The Grey Album. Yes, it represents a landmark moment in music history, and yes, it took some serious confidence to mix and mangle the work of the most successful band and the most successful MC of all time, but none of that really matters. What matters is that The Grey Album succeeds unequivocally as an album. Furthermore, Danger Mouse’s arrangements not only cast Jay-Z’s songs in a new light, but they also extend them into previously untraversed realms of sonic possibility.


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Comments (22)

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  1. Franko says:

    You forgot the Yeah yeah yeahs, Franz ferdinand

  2. Hank Scorpio says:

    you forgot poland ahaha owned

  3. Josh says:

    You forgot that these lists are stupid..

  4. Jemima says:

    You forgot Three Inches of Blood’s Advance and Vanquish.

  5. Flora says:

    Get off Pitchfork.

  6. Williamsburg Sound Scene Sucks... says:

    It has been a weak decade for music and art in general (compared to the 90s let alone the decades before that). I love Kid A but it came out at start of decade and for nothing to get close to it (and for everything to be influenced by it) shows the lack of real decent music this decade.

    When 9/11 and Iraq invasion happened I was braced for another 1960s with original and fiery art and music (other than the pop punk of GreenDay)…

    Instead it seems that everyone ran out of original ideas and right at the moment it seems that anyone who travels on the L train in NY is quoted in the music media the next big thing (thanks MGMT)…

  7. Phoenix says:

    Yay for Arcade Fire! They are awesome, they’re gonna get me through exam leave …

  8. Christopher Lambert says:

    Seriously, I’m with Flora, get off Pitchfork. The top ten albums of the year list was a re-hash of almost everything that they have championed this year.

  9. Ryan Eyers says:

    In our defence, this list was written before the Pitchfork one came out…

  10. Adam says:

    Plus, there’s no Outkast. Any self-respecting Pitchfork rip-off would have an Outkast album in the Top 5.

  11. Hank Scorpio says:

    adam goodall evil you decide i think he’s a crim

  12. Adam says:

    You got me, Hank Scorpio. I’m really a psychopathic serial killer who kills anyone with a ginger beard. Which means I must constantly shave so that I do not see myself in the mirror one day and shoot myself.

    You have a ginger beard, don’t you, Mr. Scorpio?

  13. Tristan says:

    The lack of really vital musical responses to America’s wars this decade has been pretty sad. Most of the time people just replay old anti-Vietnam War tunes, like Country Joe or something. I would list the video (and to a lesser extent the song) of System of a Down’s Boom! as the sole real exception – watching that video of the largest global protest ever is powerful stuff, but what is most powerful is knowing that it had absolutely no effect.

    To put the politics aside and focus on the art – Kim, I’d say this is a pretty damn decent list, obviously these things are ultimately subjective but I’d definitely put your top two picks in my top ten. However, I’m going to have to give top two to the Deftone’s White Pony and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Both are sublimely beautiful – you would never think metal could be as pretty as it is on White Pony, and the Passenger is my favourite gay anthem (tho I’m not sure Maynard and Chino meant it that way). As for Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam’s voice is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and tracks like Soddom South Georgia can be both clever and sublime at once. But I’m not going to say that you “missed” either album since these lists are about personal taste. And I don’t agree with Josh that these lists are stupid (provided there’s no pretence at objectivity); they’re a way of sharing what you love with other people. Miao.

  14. Cherie says:

    Agreed Tristan. Iron and Wine’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ is a damn good album.

  15. Kim Wheatley says:

    In response to Tristan:

    Today’s world seems to be more skeptical, and more cynical, than that of the ’60s and ’70s. I think musicians haven’t bothered with getting political simply because they know that they’d be stating the obvious. Bands have rarely been good at political gestures anyway, they almost always just end up rehashing hackneyed cliches. Everybody knows that America’s wars were stupid (except for ~1/2 of voting Americans apparently), so writing songs about them would be kinda like writing songs about how Hitler was evil. Also, after the failures of the counter-cultural movements in the ’60s, as well as the huge let-down of the Bush re-election, many young people simply lost faith in politics, and trying to engage with them in song would probably have seemed trite and a bit pointless. Of course, that all changed with you-know-who, but unfortunately the quality of the music which he inspired hasn’t been much good either (, I’m looking at you).

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked the list, but I should probably clarify that it isn’t just mine. The Salient music writers (Ryan, James, Elle, Maggie and myself) got together, had some drinks, and came up with the list together. We each chose one album which we felt we personally wanted to see in the top 10, and the other 5 albums were selected by consensus.

  16. MBS says:

    Tristan, I would like to say that the one album I can think of that spoke to me about the post 9-11 world is Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’. As I was so young during the invasion of Iraq, and even younger during the attacks, this album – released a few years on – helped me understand how the world had changed. It communicates the landscape of fear and conspiracies beautifully. I don’t know if it would warrent a top ten spot, but it would definitely be in my top 20.

    Also, Endless Numbered Days also sprang to my mind when I read this list.

  17. MBS says:

    Oh, also, Music peeps: I think the inclusion of Sound of Silver is a mistake. There are three or four amazing songs on there, granted, but it has by no means the strength and consistency of LCDs debut. I don’t need to list the amazing tracks on the debut for you to understand what I’m saying. I can’t see how Sound of Silver deserves a higher spot.

  18. Tristan says:

    *facepalms himself for not reading the author’s names at the bottom of each album review*

    I agree that cynicism and musicians shying away from stating the obvious was behind the lack of really powerful protest music this decade, but…. I’m not sure that writing about how Hitler was evil would have been pointless, at least in the 1930s. I was having a discussion with a history lecturer about the “Don’t invade Iraq” protests in early 2003, and we agreed that although they failed, nothing else could really have worked. So that would suggest that yes, there was good reason to avoid “hackneyed cliches”. But…

    Isn’t art at its most vital when it has something to communicate, something to change? Sure, Theophile Gautier would say “no, absolutely not,” but… dammnit, maybe it’s just me wanting art to mean something other than prettiness. Having said that, neither of my favourite albums of the decade were political, so, perhaps I’m forced to agree with you. But I don’t want to. Dammit I don’t want to. Maybe I just want the self-congratulatory feeling of listening to a song that makes me feel like I care. Eep.

  19. Elle Hunt says:

    Why is this article only written by Kim and me? Let’s get Ryan, Maggie and James added to the byline. Also for the albums of 2009 article. Thnx Salient web editors :D

  20. Mikey says:

    Fixed. I definitely did put you all as authors when I uploaded everything, but it must have not registered or reverted somehow. Did you make any revisions Kim?

  21. Amy says:

    Death From Above 1979! Just when I was starting to think no one listened to them. These guys brought the bass guitar back from the dead.

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