There’s always the fear with these lists that the brain-spatula will miss something important from the crevices of your musical memories of the decade. We can, and do, hope that someone else will remember the bits that we forget. We also remember the word floccinaucinihilipilificate, which means “to consider [something] worthless”, and remember that many people hold this position regarding lists like these. The noughties, or naughties, might be the last decade in which it is appropriate to laud “albums”.

If that proves to be the case, then these are the ones we want to laud last.

< 60-41 |

40.

Studio
West Coast / Yearbook 1

Information, 2007

In Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the origins of American indie rock in eighties hardcore punk, there’s a description of Henry Rollins spying one of SST labelmates the Meat Puppets with a newly bought copy of The Jackson’s Victory album. Pointing at his supposed comrade he spat “I knew you were one of them!” Taste can be a serious business, revealing character. Be a punk rock kid looking too interested in a superstar r’n’b band and risk revealing yourself as a willing member of the undifferentiated mass. And taste stays contentious, which is why London club Guilty Pleasures has spun out into a series of compilation CDs that provide people with a cover for liking what they don’t want to admit to liking.

Which is where Studio’s 2006 album West Coast (and it’s more readily available counterpart 2007 Yearbook One with which it shares almost the same tracklist) comes in. It could almost specifically be a compendium of sounds which were once deemed beyond countenance as cheesy by a post-grunge nineties and early noughties coalition of alt-nation indie kids and IDM fans sure of how the future should sound. And an audacious mix of digi-piano, Spanish guitar, a surplus of bongos, faggily affected English accents and long guitar solos that take pleasure in their own circling logic wasn’t part of the plan.

Which isn’t to say what Studio are doing is unprecedented. Their sound palette (if not their song structure) is strongly drawn from the almost accidental 80s style that came to be known as Balearic; the music that the Essex kids who helped popularise the ecstasy-plus-clubbing-equals-good-times equation discovered on their initial trips to Ibiza. The euphoric, empathogenic effects of ecstasy broke down the rigid soulboy hierarchies of cool that prevailed at English clubs of the time, meaning that they found themselves losing it to a dance floor mix that included the house and proto-techno of Joe Smooth and Liassons Dangereuses but also The Cure, Manuel Göttsching and, crucially, the beyond the pale likes of Phil Collins, The Gypsy Kings, Chris Rea, Mandy Smith and the Hill Street Blues theme.

If ecstasy was the mindfuck that said no sound is forbidden in the late eighties then fast internet and the ease of grabbing any music from any time, anywhere has broken down taste barriers in the latter half of the noughties. It’s hard to be a rigid genre evangelist when the whole of history and geography is a click away, free and easy. Guilty pleasures are found to have rhythm. Even three years later, it seems hard to explain how weirdly transgressive this album sounded in its unabashed embrace of any sound as pleasurable and even after a wealth of bands making creative use of the previously untouchable in the last few years West Coast still stands as one of the most complete statements of the 21st century.

– Patrick McNally


39.

Cut Copy
In Ghost Colours

Modular, 2008

As long as we’re all giving into nostalgia—whether for the oughts just passed or for we Stylus alums—I can’t help but mention how many here at Stylus first heard Cut Copy. Stylus’ Editor-in-Chief Todd Burns—always a little ahead of the curve--uploaded the Australian trio’s debut, Bright Like Neon Love, to the staff message board. Even those with little history with even the poppier sideshots of dance music fell hard—these little quick-burst anthems that had partially digested all the right bits of New Order, Human League and numerous New Romantic touchstones. So skillfully segued and sequenced, Neon Love sounded like a mixtape made for blurry youth and parking-lot beer nights. But like the debuts that stick, it captured your imagination perhaps more than your ear. It was an alert more than a statement proper: watch and wait. As what was once the one-man project of Dan Whitford expanded to a three-piece, a few years passed, and teaser cuts like “Hearts on Fire” emerged, the announcement that DFA’s Tim Goldworthy was going to co-produce the record only intensified that interest. With each backward push in release date, disappointment seemed inevitable. Thus, perhaps, the unique placement of In Ghost Colours in Stylus’ run-down. Rarely do records with these delays and extended gestations actually surpass the expectations. Who knows? Maybe the record’s potency testifies to the band’s willingness to let it sit in their bellies all those months. Frankly, I think even few of those who’d fallen for Bright Like Neon Love were prepared for the cohesion and potential-single riches of In Ghost Colours. Released in the spring of 2008, the timing of In Ghost Colours’ birth date felt providential, as though the wait was calculated to unveil these fifteen shimmering shards and songs in the fond new growth of April. Mixing short instrumental interludes with chewier bits of the band’s polychromatic dance-pop, In Ghost Colours tweaked the band’s charms into, well, not so much a ‘mature’ record as one that showed a young band already familiar with the lure of nostalgia. The trick, perhaps, was simply in size; the band’s bits-n-parts aesthetic became BITS-N-PARTS. For every referential melody or musical nick were five moments of Cut Copy’s own, stitched into fluorescent pop anthems: the way standout “So Haunted” bursts in a brief fire from the dewy haze of “Midnight Runner”; the strobey strum-n-drum gallop of opener “Feel the Love”; the leadchain bass and ghostly vocals of “Lights and Music”; or how the fuzzy Rhodes and Fleetwood Mac guitar of “Strangers in the Wind” thread AM gold Balearic into the punchy gloss of early-eighties Manchester without showin’ a seam. Sure, it’s damn foolish to declare a record a classic before the years have laid their weight on it. Allow me, then, to take to that limb: this one’s gonna live.

– Derek Miller


38.

The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday

Frenchkiss, 2005

Upon the release of followup Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady’s new label Vagrant made available for download a podcast of Craig Finn talking about a few of his favorite songs growing up in Minneapolis. These tunes, by bands like the Replacements, Bad Brains, Soul Asylum, Gorilla Biscuits, and the Descendents don’t usually come up much when critics discuss this band’s influences, but there’s as much of those lurking in the sound of Separation Sunday as there is the more obvious bar band touchstones.

That ‘80s punk sound is sewn throughout Craig Finn’s lyrics, of course. While first album …Almost Killed Me was soundtracked by “Only the Good Die Young” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” the follow-up was soaked in the scene: “She’s got those Bones Brigade videos,” Finn shouts on the opening track, in reference to Halleluiah a.k.a. Holly, the album’s subject, muse and ingénue (“She knew it back and forth/She slept with so many skaters”).

If Separation Sunday is about a scene, then it must be about a town as well, and that town is the icy Minnesotan burgh of Minneapolis-St. Paul. “When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it,” says Finn in “Stevie Nix,” but he knew “Mary Tyler Moore, and Profane Existence” (that’s a local hardcore zine, not a religious state), and he knew enough to set his story’s action in bars like the Thunderbird, local pick-up haunts like Loring a.k.a Penetration Park, and make reference to specific suburban addresses like “Nicollet and 66th.” It sounds like a wild time, but though these parties start lovely, they get druggy, and they get ugly, and they get bloody, and the album’s story proper centers around little hoodrat Holly’s hallucinogenic baptism down by the Mississippi River; it relates how a Catholic girl with religious text tattooed into her skin who’s going through “real hard times” with some “some not sweet friends” winds up gate crashing a church and instructing a congregation as to “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”

If that all sounds a bit confusing, perhaps it’s meant to be; you could constructan encyclopedia from Finn’s rich references to rock ‘n’ roll lore, Twin Cities trivia, and biblical doctrine. But its sprawling, ambitious narrative is held together through staples as classic as bread and wine: Tad Kubler’s pounding guitar riffs, Franz Nikolai’s ecclesiastic organ swells and E-Street pianos, and a smart turn of phrase in every second couplet: “She got screwed up by religion/She got screwed by soccer players”; “I’ve laid beneath my lovers, but I’ve never gotten laid”; “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young/You’re passionate, you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” At the forefront of a wave of punk-derived, classic rock revivalists, Separation Sunday was the sound of a scene getting born again. Amen.

– Jonathan Bradley


37.

TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain

Interscope, 2006

Probably the most unpleasant and nerve-wracking thing you can do as a critic is admit you’re wrong. We’re expected to make firm pronouncements, even of ambivalence, and theoretically our words are on the record forever. If we suddenly start to hear something in a previously-dismissed band or album that wasn’t there before, are we not both risking our credibility as well as our very capacity for judgment? Allowing yourself the flexibility to always be able to reevaluate old beliefs is a healthy guiding principle that would probably make anybody a better critic in the long run, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a hell of a lot nicer to be right the first time.

TV on the Radio, and specifically the band’s tremendous sophomore full-length, Return to Cookie Mountain, represents perhaps my most egregious critical FAIL of the decade. I do still contend that the group’s debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, is cumbersome and dull, and if I’m feeling particularly self-charitable I might claim that my initial distaste for Cookie was based solely on residual antipathy towards its predecessor. There’s probably some truth to that, but ultimately I can’t duck the fact that I initially whiffed big-time on what turned out to be one of my favorite records of the decade.

Fortunately, I didn’t actually publish any invective against this masterful album, but I have no doubt there are extant message board threads, email exchanges and comment sections in which I witlessly ranted “where are the tunes?!” about a work of such strange power and unexpected grace. Typically I’m leery when people call an album a “grower” because I wonder if maybe they’ve just been worn down by its consensus acclaim (and who knows, maybe this did happen to me a little bit with Cookie Mountain) but TVOTR’s music does seem uniquely engineered to engender this phenomenon. Most of the album’s songs are slow, structurally unorthodox and even unwieldy, seeming like lumpen, shapeless masses at first blush, yet always managing to either coalesce around one or two moments of awe-inspiring beauty, or else simply eventually steamroll you under with their sheer intensity and force of feeling. It’s an ugly and often sluggish album, but also a richly roiling one, a black hole sucking up fun where every chorus and arrangement feels hard-earned. The band demands that you as a listener labor almost as mightily, and while that kind of arty edict is usually a losing proposition, TV on the Radio prove themselves eminently worthy of the work.

– Josh Love


36.

Junior Boys
So This is Goodbye

Domino, 2006

The Junior Boys came up to their second album, So This Is Goodbye, as almost as much of an unknown quantity as they were approaching their first. Johnny Dark, the half of the duo generally credited with bringing the itchy post-UK garage rhythmic tics that powered their first album, the excellent Last Exit, was no longer part of the band. In the event, the Junior Boys sounded different but no less distinctive. If electronic music had spent the eighties and nineties alternating between being cold as circuitry and wanting to sweatily fuck, then in the noughties the machine broke down and learned to weep. Or, put another way, indie kids picked up on cheap computer-based recording and made sobbing under the covers whilst illuminated by laptop light a boom genre. Superficially, the Junior Boys second album fits this trend—alternately verdant and spacious music with aching, overtly emotional singing—but this is a darker, more conflicted record than anything from the likes of the Postal Service or the Morr Music label; despite the group name the complexities of fucking and loving are not kids stuff.

Between albums, Junior Boys main man Jeremy Greenspan and new member (and ex-engineer for the group) Matt Didemus relocated to Berlin, and in place of their musics previous staccato push-and-pull there’s a four-to-the-floor electro-house pulse that reflects their new locations dominant techno sound and provides a necessary anchor to the trapped, fearful beauty of the music and Greenspan’s lasciviously wounded voice. This is speaker music with headphone singing. Before the albums release Greenspan spoke of a new found love for 70s AOR crooners (they even share a song title with an Eagles-featuring Steely Dan track, though here “FM” refers to the type of crunchy eighties synthesis used throughout the album) and there’s a little of Michael McDonald and the like in his singing but more than anything who he reminds me of is George Michael if he grew the stubble out into a full beard and learned to relax.

The heart of the record—if nowhere near the best track—is a beatless, woozily reverberating cover of Frank Sinatra’s “When No-One Cares” which lyrics and titles throughout the rest of the album splinter from. Greenspan is unable to face the directness of the heartbreak of “When No-One Cares” elsewhere, there’s always buried anger at himself or someone else (if the difference even matters) or even just the distractions of “just one more round in that tourist town” or “hotel lobbies like painful hobbies” to deal with first.

When the Junior Boys fully lose themselves it can sound joyous though. On “In The Morning” Greenspan may worry himself into loops about the ages of his partners and his partners partners but when locked into circles with the clucking guitar and “Your Love” synth arpeggios the effect is majestic. By the end of the song his voice has broken down into echo splashes, staccato intakes of breath and tremolo fx. Words have their limits.

– Patrick McNally


35.

Ghostface Killah
The Pretty Toney Album

Def Jam, 2004

Temporarily divested of his Killah status, Ghostface began Pretty Toney sounding like the whole world was against him, batting aside inane questions from weedy pretend journalists like a wounded lion growling suspiciously at a pack of circling hyenas. In the face of the adversity being thrown at him - proliferation of fake-ass gangstas, game changing, wrong Nutrament - he perhaps understandably felt the need to fly out of the traps to reassert himself with a shitstorm of near-hysterical aggression. The resultant ante-upping salvo dominates the first section of his fourth solo record, but without actually derailing his existing preoccupation with crate-digging old soul classics. “Biscuits” typifies the sense of schizophrenia that permeates the album, its elaborate threats and jarring gunshot onomatopoeia sitting awkwardly atop the wistfulness of the Sam and Dave loop in the background. The bizarre alchemical fusion of Ghost’s unhinged flow and his love of inappropriately pretty soul samples recurs pretty much throughout, reaching a peak when the irrational fury of his second verse on “Holla” segues back into the ridiculously idyllic harmonies of the Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”, and he somehow gets away with it.

There’s a notable shift in tone in the middle third when he temporarily gets the siege mentality paranoia out of his system long enough to turn his attention back to women, sex and relationships in various states of health. The overt sentimentality of “Save Me Dear” and the Jedi Mind Trick shit Jackie-O pulls to make Ghost do a 180 on “Tooken Back” are particular highlights, while the unstoppable force/immovable object standoff in his batshit sex duel with Missy Elliott on the single “Tush” will live long in the memory, even if it is a bit of an acquired taste.

The RZA-produced “Run” and the hypnotic semaphore of “Ghostface” bury their samples to create a more minimal, hard-edged sound, but generally the source material is left pretty unadorned for Ghost to rhyme over, which works because he can spit out weirdly evocative stuff like “We left the jewellery store, feelin like we left the morgue / We was frozen, and I brought an iced out Trojan / That's for pussies whose golden, who got Toney wide open / I put my ring up to my man's waves and seen the ocean” with such emotional conviction. The end result was a neat union of his permanently intense persona and his likeable musical obsessions that gave the impression that no matter how much shit he thinks life is giving him, this is a man who at least massively enjoys what he does for a living.

– Fergal O’Reilly


34.

Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica

Epic, 2000

The Moon and Antarctica was the point Isaac Brock sprawled his band's Pacific Northwest Gothic sensibility into epic proportions. The nasty whimsy of child-snatching dogs and soda-pop-fuelled sojourns to hell abuts fatalasitic musings on the metaphysics of time and space, death and post-death, and dizzying dives into the abyss of eternity. The album's centerpiece is also its mission statement; a mad-eyed and maddening descent into the band's shadowy netherworlds. "The Cold Part," "Alone Down There" and "The Stars are Projectors" shift uneasily, guitar lines curling about one another menacingly, the rhythm dragging painfully and the run times smeared to deadening lengths. Brock's phantasmagorical vocals moan spectral suicide notes and racked, rasping comfort messages. (He delivers, "I don't want you to be alone down there," in particular, with such a loose grip on lucidity as to make the lyric sound like your life is slipping away, and Brock's responsible.)

"In the last seconds of your life/They're gonna show you how/ How they run this show/They run it it into the ground." Because despite all his paranoia, Brock is no victim. He's a ringleader, cackling away as he surveys his self-devised illogical universe and revels in its contradictions. Oh, it's a show, and Brock runs it into the ground: the third planet is being watched by an eye in the sky, our lives are beamed like movies from space, Brock came as a rat to punch you in the face and smash up your glasses. And you can't even blame him, because in those frigid extremes, at the poles and up in the heavens, where the music is made up of scratchy zither scrapes and hollow pelting drums and gale-force guitar gusts, no one gets what he deserves and everyone's stuck in the same wretched holding pattern. Deserve ain't got nothing to do with it: It's dark, and hell is cold.

– Jonathan Bradley


33.

Miranda Lambert
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Columbia Nashville, 2007

Critics are such suckers for examples of girly muscle flexing that I ignored “Kerosene” in 2005. Worse, indie fans who normally don’t pay attention to Lee Ann Womack got suckered by a riff-rocker steeped in the tough-gnarl clichés of post-Exile in Guyville feminism. But the key ingredient in “Kerosene” isn’t its riff: just when we expect the chorus to soar, note the rather flat way in which Miranda Lambert tells us that she’s given up on love and love’s given up on her. The riff and insistent drums work as counterpoint, ballast, creating musical ironies without calling attention to themselves as such. Like one of the fast numbers on that other seminal album with Exile in the title, “Kerosene” uses energy, speed, and metaphorical nuance to underscore a statement about exhaustion and spiritual bankruptcy.

“Kerosene” came out the same year as Gretchen Wilson’s “All Jacked Up” – unfortunate timing. For all her shrewdness, Lambert looked like the author of another novelty pop-country crossover, an impression cemented by her decision to open Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with “Gunpowder & Lead,” whose aggression is unmediated. When the dust settles, though, a sequence emerges: she bitches about growing up in a dry town; reprises the role of mediator, this time between narrative and elegy in “Famous in a Small Town”; and decides to hell with both on the title track. Impressive literary qualities don’t guarantee successful albums, though, as the continuing story of the Decembrists has shown. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is Lambert’s best album because she’s finally written a clutch of excellent songs, played by a band as steeped in John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow as in seventies Merle Haggard. By the time Lambert gets to “Down” and “Guilty in Here” she’s turned the album title tag in on itself: she’s a hellion not because she’s wild, she’s a hellion because her emotional appetites have outpaced her physical ones. In a small, dry town, this makes her infamous.

– Alfred Soto


32.

Hot Chip
The Warning

EMI, 2006

I once spent over two hours trying to find parking in uptown Manhattan with nothing in the car but the first Hot Chip record. If the recording was ever lost to history, it could be reconstructed a la James Joyce's Dublin by downloading the contents straight from my skull. This is even more true of The Warning, but for a much less maddening reason: I've simply played the damn thing so many times. It's one of a small handful of albums on this list I could quite reliably hear at any given time, place; right here, right now.

And it all still crackles. "Boy From School" remains the most wistful disco song since the Paradise Garage shut its doors. "Over and Over" hasn't lost any of its wiggly magic, pushing that block-rocking bass through the hardest glockenspiel groove ever. "Look After Me" continues tugging at my unfeeling heartstrings with that synth so much more melancholy than the acoustic guitar. Best of all, "Colours" and "So Glad To See You" combine all the contrasting moods and sounds of the rest of the material into tight, shimmering mini-epics that slowly boil over, gliding into "No Fit State," which (almost) ends the whole affair with pop and circumstance. This is a record to be lived in, danced in, worn around the house like your ex’s clothing. If at the end you become curiously mournful without any real sense of loss, or want to giggle at no joke in particular, well, that's exactly how you should feel.

So many artists that try to fuse rock and pop styles and structures with electronic ones merely draw on two or three sets of clichés instead of just one. Hot Chip escape that trap because they ain't no fusion band, just a crew of rowdy geeks who play 21st century soul music with synthesizers and (finally!) a sense of humor. So while they'll never attain the dubious cachet of, say, the Killers, they'll most likely continue to surprise us with each new collection of bumpy, whimsical pop; each uneven, impetuous live show; each truly mental remix (see their lo-fi ode to "Passing Me By"). After all, one day these awkward 20th century contraptions called "albums" might become lost to history: nothing more than inexplicable track tags in your song folder, sorted by artist or by genre. If that's the case, well, this one is disproportionally represented in the former and ambiguously categorized in the latter.

– Mallory O’Donnell


31.

Bloc Party
Silent Alarm

Wichita, 2005

I think there’s something we should get straight before we begin. Silent Alarm is the only good record Bloc Party will ever cut. Fortunately for them, it happens to be kind of great. Though it may seem a little premature to ring the death knell on a band of as young as Bloc Party, the intervening years have shown the band incapable of focus. Hell, there were enough b-sides and iTunes exclusives to follow-up A Weekend in the City to fill an entire second record, labeled by many Another Weekend in the City (fittingly for a band that seems so incapable of judging its own material, much of that record trumps the one you can actually find in stores). Then they began to experiment with electronic textures and beats—word has it that even noted Glaswegian beatsmith Hudson Mohawke is currently helping Kele with his solo album—and, frankly, started overlooking their strengths. But to get back to Silent Alarm, the record arrived almost fully-formed in the winter of 2005. Bloc Party picked and chose cuts from a series of acclaimed singles and EPs like their eponymous, Helicopter, and Little Thoughts. With post-punk’s revivalist producer extraordinaire Paul Epworth at the helm, the band reveled in the genre’s kinetic kinship with dance music. Shit, they even upped the ante. The first thing most listeners first noted was how immense--how wake-the-neighbors and rally the bar-stooled and barely-breathing alike--their rhythm section sounded. Bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong provided the tracks with the kind of jubilant, bouncy rhythms that often almost overwhelm the structure of what Kele’s youthful anthems. Okereke himself had yet to really devolve into the saccharine diary poesie that would later dominate his lyrics. Instead, he hides himself with catchphrases and forceful abstractions. “I can heal the blind/I can cure the sick/I can say the right things/I can say the right things.” The band’s guitar parts are frayed, barely-formed, a series of crude sparks in short-burn against hard dark surfaces. Just listen to the chaotic duel at the end of “She’s Hearing Voices” or on “So Here We Are”—a spunky rhythmic base beneath this frantic, sputtering lead. Elsewhere, tracks like “This Modern Love” and “Pioneers” offered little stargazing shout-alongs that in a better world might have scaled to the top of teeny pop charts. Even before their short-lived tour with Panic! at the Disco, they seemed unabashedly emo, melding the genre’s lyrical nudity and packed-arena songcraft with slightly trickier sonic patterning and less cloying backdrops. Ultimately, that was much of Silent Alarm’s appeal—a record fully capable of crossing over that never really did. If, as I’ve said, Silent Alarm is the only record for which Bloc Party is remembered, it’s further proof of one of pop music’s golden rules: it ain’t the debut that carries the jinx.

– Derek Miller


30.

Radiohead
In Rainbows

Self-Released, 2007

I was working in a record store when In Rainbows came out, and although I liked it immediately I was nonplussed by the reaction of female coworkers: more than once I heard them refer to it as "Radiohead's sexiest album." I don't necessarily disagree with the contention; any album that has the bleak, sultry "House of Cards" and the oceanic yearning of "All I Need" – hell, even "Faust Arp" is kind of swoony – qualifies at least as sensuous. But out of all of the labels you could give Radiohead's music 'sexy' was one that never really entered the conversation before (I'd love to know what their second sexiest album is).

So In Rainbows marks where Thom Yorke and the guys start acting kind of like a rock band again (and if the band as a whole is sometimes overrated, the playing here reminds you that every individual member is actually kind of underrated), but the other thing that struck me on first listen was how unusual it sounds for Radiohead. Sure, I've been playing bootleg MP3s of "Nude" since the late 90s, but none of the versions I'd heard had boasted strings and a dubwise bassline. Unobtrusive strings are all over the record, but these ten songs sound more intimate than the band's ever been. Had they ever been as syncopated and kind of groovy before as "15 Step" and "Reckoner," as trippy as "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" or as tightly wound as the pinpoint-precise bar psychosis dirge "Jigsaw Falling Into Place"? The closing "Videotape" may cover the kind of depressive ground that's been Radiohead's wheelhouse ever since they were left high and dry, but even past high marks of sad-eyed crooning atmospherics like "Motion Picture Soundtrack" don't pack quite the same impact as "Videotape"'s clomping VCR tape beat and doomed piano march. Partly because, coming after the miniature adultery suite of "Reckoner" > "House of Cards" > "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," "Videotape" seems like both a sharp left turn and the only place the album could really go.

That brief run of songs marks the first time Radiohead's been primarily emotionally rather than sonically or existentially affecting since "Street Spirit," but much as Drag Me to Hell saw Sam Raimi using the skills he'd picked up doing Spider-Man movies to raise his traditional gore-and-slapstick brand of horror to a new level, those years reinventing themselves in the studio means that Radiohead have transcended the stirring but conventional strengths of their first few albums. In Rainbows shows off their ability to synthesize everything great about their past work into a streamlined form that (unlike Hail to the Thief) feels like more and not less than the sum of its parts. As good and as lauded as Radiohead's other albums have been, their newfound ability to engage the heart and the gonads as well as the head suggests that after another decade we may be looking at In Rainbows as the beginning of when they really got good.

– Ian Mathers


29.

The Knife
Silent Shout

Rabid, 2006

It‘s tempting to raid a thesaurus’ worth of synonyms for “weird” when vainly trying to encapsulate the eccentricities of Silent Shout, a record which ramped up predecessor Deep Cuts’ pitch-shifted vocal trickery to the point where it didn’t so much resemble a band with a lead singer as a V/VM-run carnival full of insane ghosts competing for your attention.

In retrospect though it seems the Dreijer siblings’ hearts weren’t fully into Deep Cuts’ uneven but frequently brilliant pairing of euphoric, broad-stroke Eurosynth hooks with a garish, unnervingly sleazy vibe. For all its distancing vocal manipulation techniques, Silent Shout is paradoxically a more accurate reflection of the aggregate Dreijer psyche, albeit still an abstract, warped one. It has a more subdued but also more unified feel than its forebear, the opening title track’s unspectacular synth arpeggios and low, droning harmonies subtly establishing its wacked-out new ground rules in a way that’s less like being sonically assaulted and more like having a door quietly locked behind you. Despite the creepy atmosphere that permeates the album, its gamut of experiences is as varied as it is bewildering. The song about domestic violence decides it needs to be lurching schaffel-pop halfway through; the cute, incomprehensibly squeaky one is actually about rape and castration; and the epic Kate Bush-style centerpiece features glacial synth strings, a guest vocal from an actual human being, and percussion that sounds like marbles.

The thing is, it’s also easy to overemphasize the these-guys-is-crazy shit to the point of neglecting the pronounced streak of beauty and pathos that runs through Silent Shout despite, or maybe because of, its eerie aesthetic. It’s particularly evident in “From Off To On” – basically “Take My Breath Away” for agoraphobics – and the way the tragic bedridden infant narrative of “Still Light” drops out to set up one of the more memorable “oh wait, that’s it?” fadeouts of recent years. The minimalist arrangements and out-there lyrical conceits give rise to a series of bizarrely evocative mental images and emotional responses, scratching a variety of psychological itches that saner people wouldn’t necessarily notice existed.

From Karin and Olof’s subsequent interviews about the recording process, it sounds like they found Silent Shout a pretty harrowing record to make, and as such it’s easy to see why they went on hiatus when they finished touring it; it can be pretty exhausting to listen to, so God only knows what it was like to make. The overall result was so intricate and fascinating that The Knife could call it a decade and people would still have plenty to talk about.

– Fergal O’Reilly


28.

Panda Bear
Person Pitch

Paw Tracks, 2007

As part of stinky indie hippy figureheads Animal Collective, Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear, provides the backbone on which the rest of his tribe hang their half-songs and random noises, sometimes to great effect, sometimes to, well, meh. So when a string of Panda’s solo singles started to trickle out in 2005, the sounds found therein might have come as a bit of a shock: sampled and looped, hypnotic and summery, melodic and psychedelic.

Despite the fact that most of it had already been made available by the time it finally came out in March of 2007, Person Pitch didn’t sound pieced together. In fact, it was a more cohesive vision than anything AC itself had come up with to that point, revelatory in its relative simplicity, soaked in unified, sunshine-y vibes as well as a healthy amount of tape hiss and static. It was like the soundtrack to a Frankie and Annette beach movie spiked with ‘shrooms; the Beach Boys as produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

The album’s undisputed centerpiece is the homoerotic epic “Bros”; the track soared across its 12-minute run time like a film of some bird in flight being shown in slow motion, then transitioned into a stalking jaguar right before your eyes. Elsewhere, our Panda sweetly laments that he doesn’t want to take pills, samples Kraftwerk, Cat Stevens, and Scott Walker, and makes you hum, drift, swoon, well up with tears, all as a giant wad of bubble-gum melodies sticks in your head.

Lennox has described the album as “sugary,” and there’s a certain logic to that term’s use. But to these ears, it’s as warm and wondrous a record as has ever been made, far more satisfying than mere empty calories.

– Todd Hutlock


27.

Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele

Def Jam, 2000

Appreciation and understanding are vastly different things. Although it received rave reviews in the winter of 2000, no one understoodSupreme Clientele: not me, not you, maybe not even Ghostface. It's rap by the possessed, with Tony Starks fresh off the Riker's bus, smoking blunts with snow laced inside the optimo, crushed out heavenly, delivering revelations. Every line is a logogriph, waiting to be unraveled; we hear the English language extended to its breaking point. It's Dennis Coles' wild-mercury amphetamine moment, his metal clip firing at an insane velocity, the closest rap will ever come to producing a Ulysses. Supreme Clientele needed accompaniment by Cliff Notes: 21 episodes set in Staten, with wordplay as crooked and crowded as the Stapleton projects (where the ambulance don't come. )

Ironman. Comic book heroes as the new Greek gods. Interludes punctuated by cartoon voices. Meanwhile Starks is the peripatetic protagonist: flawed, envious, but always above it all. Like the RZA rambled on Wu-Tang Forever, they'd come back like a comet in the 2-G, but this wasn't the fireball expected by the fanatics. Dennis Coles' debut was a group effort -- with Starks tellingly shadowed by Cappadonna and Raekwon on the cover -- but his sophomore effort found him solo, clutching a microphone like it was a life-or-death struggle. Not to disparage the other Clansmen's contributions: Raekwon decapitates "Wu Banga 101" and "Apollo Kids," Meth and Red shred "Buck 50," U-God mashes out on unlikely crossover hit, "Cherchez Le Ghost," and the RZA delivers his finest moment via Hip-Hop Quotable "The Grain." But as he says on "Stay True," Ghost is your host this evening, onhand to deliver the capstone of the second golden age: a vertiginous cryptic sprawl that cuts with Lissajous curves, slang stuck together like Sour Patch Kids left in the sun.

Ignore the cocaine crime saga concepts; listen for the courage and poetic detail alien to a genre then at its champagne-and-caviar apogee. Take "Child's Play," an unexpectedly tender paean to puppy love and a hint at the wizened older god role he'd later inhabit. Non-sequiturs that explain an entire universe: we never had baked Alaskan, Remy's on diamonds, champunching Mase over some bullshit. Even the skits are iconic, with Ghost clowning 50 Cent on the Clyde Smith interludes, pitting the cast of "Good Times" versus "Three's Company" on the self-explanatory "Who Would You Fuck?" and sketching the highs, lows, and eccentricities of the crack game on "Woodrow the Basehead."

RZA, abdicating beat duty, enlisted everyone from would-be also-rans (Black Moes-Art, Hassan) to kinsmen Mathematics, to Carlos Broady (Hitmen) and Ju-Ju of the Beatnuts. Somehow the sutures never show. This is a black-diamond sound: dazzling, opaque, and timeless. Like Blake and Joyce, Ghost understood the need to create his own language lest he be shackled by another man's. Take his word for it on "Buck 50:" "I start my own chapters./ We won't decipher them until the year 3-G."

– Jeff Weiss


26.

Spoon
Kill the Moonlight

Merge, 2002

Britt Daniel and Jim Eno’s band are the archetypal “vote splitter”; four awesome records spread across the decade (not to mention the pretty good ones from the 90s and the pretty good one set to drop early next year) gives a lot of sides of Spoon to choose to vote for. So I’m glad that this, my personal favourite, somehow managed to scrape together the most votes and end up reasonably high in our little list. Because if any one Spoon record manages to capture the spirit of their USP better than the others, it’s almost certainly Kill The Moonlight.

Following swiftly after the rejuvenating Girls Can Tell, which saw Spoon finding their feet after an unfortunate major label dalliance for the still excellent A Series Of Sneaks, Kill The Moonlight is stupendously confident; just get a load of the sassy, ultra-minimalist “Small Stakes” which opens proceedings – nothing but a tambourine, an organ riff, and Britt’s adenoids, but somehow the most exciting sound you could ever want to hear a rock band make.

And it doesn’t stop there; a succession of irresistible riffs and fills decorate a set of melodically and rhythmically tight compositions by Daniel, each note of piano or guitar, each drum hit, each nasal breath, each pause positioned immaculately. There’s absolutely nothing superfluous left in; every second of every song is absolutely essential to its success. Just take another listen to “Don’t Let It Get You Down”, the flutter of acoustic guitar that opens things up and then vanishes for most of the rest of the song, replaced by ringing piano until electric guitar licks bring it back. Take in the bassline, falling into free space between everything else, a slave, like everything else, to the song it’s a part of.

As well as their most concise, Kill The Moonlight is Spoon’s most experimental record to date too, the beatboxing and falsetto of “Stay Don’t Go”, the psychedelic abstraction of “Paper Tiger”, the weirdo percussion, maniacal laughter, and ultra-heavy reverb of “Back To The Life” all demonstrating that the band was as keen to deconstruct their sonics as their songs.

If I’m making it sound as though Kill The Moonlight is a record to be admired for its technical achievements rather than loved for its tunes, I apologise, because what’s kept us coming back to this record for seven years isn’t just the drum sound or the guitar lines, as magnificent as those are; it’s the way “Vittorio E” makes your chest tighten up with perpetually rising emotional anticipation, the way “Something To Look Forward To” is impossible to hear without tapping your feet at the very least, the way “Jonathon Fisk” just sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll band having the most outright rollicking good time imaginable, which is what rock ‘n’ roll bands ought to be about. Stripped of ostentation. Sharply dressed. If I was in a band, I’d want to be in a band like Spoon, and I’d want to make records like Kill The Moonlight.

– Nick Southall


25.

Boredoms
Vision Creation Newsun

Playhouse, 2000

The title is just about the only meaningful verbal cue you’ll get out of Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun, but it’s repeated just about every which way on the band’s towering thirteen-minute opener (represented with a circle: every cut’s named for some kind of Zapf Dingbat). Ringleader eYe draws out “new sun” miked like a weatherman reporting live from an oncoming hypercane. His band joins in semi-automatic spitfires of the seven syllables underneath Tommy-Gunned drums—these days, three intrepid percussionists have to man the Boredoms’ skins—and in comes the elliptical sixteen note riff that, like its Close Encounters inspiration, represents the most direct contact the band’s ever made with the planet earth.

First released in Japan in late 1999—forgive us for bending the “decade” rules a bit— VCN capped a truly remarkable push towards conceptual clarity beginning in the middle of last decade. During that span, the group once appreciated by a fringe audience for Stone Age “dumb rock” released seven Super Roots EPs and a transitional but spectacular full length Super æ, slowly morphing into a group fully aware of the rich world of rave, acid rock, minimalism and far-flung worldly rhythms. Newsun represented the culmination of the Boredoms’ six year, multipartite plan: unpack the rock guitar and repackage it stripped of its indulgent baggage; destroy the rock singer (even eYe’s hardcore parody posited via earlier Boredoms) and resurrect him as an acolyte; and reconfigure the rhythmic jams, once goofy Sabbath expositions, into cosmic drum circles.

The Bores released this one for the Bros Warner, but unlike their previous efforts, this one could be enjoyed by bros at Bennigan’s. Unlike their previous records, some of which somehow made it onto the Reprise label in the States, the Boredoms created an album true to their own screwy vision—that is, false at every turn—but which also reached for a universal something by crystallizing the vague and neverending rave in eYe’s mind’s, er, eye. It’s like the group realized that when they’ve come closest to achieving their complex vision, they’ve done it by colliding inordinately simple ideas as mashing together rock and roll and dancing, or simpler than that, with chants and drums and light.

But it’s not all pre-lingual voodoo-hoodoo. If you know Japanese, you know that the final track is named “Zutto,” the only linguistically meaningful title in the whole tracklist. “Zutto” translates roughly into “always” or “forever,” a one-word conclusion outlining a neverending policy of transcendence. Now, after the success of VCN, eYe kicked off a series of remix records with his own remix Rebore, Volume 0: Vision Recreation. If you’ve occasioned to give Rebore a listen, you might have noticed a curious little tone called the Shepard-Risset glissando adorning the fourth track (cripes-so-confusingly named “7777”), which appears to rise in pitch continuously for a number of minutes while never actually going anywhere. And that’s the whole point: Boredoms pull a lot of tricks—in fact, they pretty much only tricks. But there’s one direction you can reliably follow eYe and the gang, and that’s always up, always up.

– Mike Orme


24.

Bob Dylan
Love and Theft

Columbia, 2001

I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said, "Take it off the shelf - As great as you are a man, You'll never be greater than yourself." I told her I didn't really care High water everywhere

It was inevitable that at least one Dylan album should appear on this list, a tribute to the endurance of popular music’s ne plus ultra, all the more mandatory because his still being here has sometimes been tenuous.

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin Not as tight as the corner I painted myself in.

Far from inevitable was that the album in question should be so ludicrously good. For the twenty years or so prior, Dylan had done an admirable, enjoyable job of spinning his wheels, throwing up occasional great songs in a thickening slurry of appealing oddities. Time Out of Mind was a minor masterpiece but a dead end, both sonically (funereal, sententious) and topically (unless Dylan was going to taunt Death into finally making good on several earlier encounters).

Well the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay You can always come back, baby, but you can’t come back all the way

Dylan’s greatest album of the past thirty-dd years self-consciously heralded another era of secondary greatness. Dylan found yet another voice, the macerated rasp that could be the Grim Reaper or just the end of the road, and married it to a music that took the entire repertoire of American music as its palette, knowing noone’s right to borrow is stronger.

Been workin' on the mainline - workin' like the devil The game is the same - it's just up on a different level

With “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” Love and Theft fades in almost in mid-verse, as though you approach Dylan at a run rather than him coming to you. He knows that the greatest enemy of his art is redundancy, becoming merely the curator of his unparalleled songbook, so he can’t afford to let you see where he’s coming from.

I keep listenin' for footsteps But I ain't hearing any From the boat I fish for bullheads I catch a lot, sometimes too many

In the eighties recording session described in Chronicles, Dylan depicts himself as packing lyrics and little strands of melody at the mercy of the proclivities of Lanois and whoever else was in the chair. Not so now. With Love and Theft, Dylan took over production as Jack Frost, allowing him to sculpt fully the music rather than just the lyrics. Live, he stands off-centre prodding an all but ornamental keyboard, but the tightness of the band is ungodly, and there is no mistaking the hand on the helm.

Jump into the wagon babe, throw your panties overboard

The real clout of High Water is only revealed on “Tell Tale Signs,” where the band get downright apocalyptic, and Dylan marshalls his hoarse billy goat’s bleat to a doomsday preacher’s dire hoarseness. Folks out there in Ontario must have started building rafts.

Your days are numbered, so are mine

If Dylan were an ordinary mortal, this album wouldn’t exist. How fortunate we are that, given unbounded talent and more time than anyone bargained for, he chose to do something as obvious and inexplicable as make records.

Knockin' on the door, I say, "Who is it and where are you from?" Man says, "Freddy!" I say, "Freddy who?" He says, "Freddy or not here I come."

– Andrew Iliff


23.

Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino, 2009

There’s something terrible happening in the background of every Animal Collective record. Change is a strong and terrifying force, and there’s something perpetually pubescent about these guys: with wary whispers and hysterical yelps, they sound like they’re always ducking under and leaping out from cover, and checking every bend for monsters. When they attempt to speak, to make gratifying sense of their surroundings, all they have are voided bromides like, “It sucks that Daddy’s gone,” or, “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things,” accompanied by some incoherent specifier, or how they would like it better to just be hanging out by the lake, because this is what one says when something terrible is happening.

Anxiety is a tough sell. Despite their seeming ubiquity in certain circles, one still feels the need to pass them to others gingerly, with care and caveats: they can be—OK, often are—very silly, and freshly raw, and there’s some grating screaming; it’s just them, it’s what they do. Merriweather Post Pavilion, named for an idyllic patch of teenage memory, needs no kid gloves. The anxiety hasn’t abated: the whole thing is about abandoning and being abandoned (the home, the day, the gone Daddy of “Brothersport,” the “please don’t leave me” of “Lion in a Coma”), and so simply, but the frenzy has passed, the wailing is done, and the ground is far more stable. Beneath the reliance here on ambient loops and Cologne house is an understanding that electronic music gives you both the alien and the routine at once, a steady foot in our world from which to pop off fireworks as big as one pleases; rhythms are habitual, comfortable, a reliable port in a storm.

They’re also more sociable, and that’s MPP’s real magic: it isn’t just that they’ve gone pop, but that they’ve done so with their wild, formless swells of phase shift and precipitous frequencies fully intact, developing their weird squawk into something narrative without sacrificing its befogged delirium, and into a language which can name its monsters. It’s the sort of self-possession that lets a group round out the last two-thirds of a full length floating like weeds, only to end up dancing at a funeral, all the while trucking with the transcendent.

– Jeff Siegel


22.

Portishead
Third

Island, 2008

Portishead had some nerve. Tip-toeing back to us after an eleven year hiatus, the crest of the trip-hop wave having long since splashed back into the sea of genre buzzwords. How we tittered from behind our hands at the idea of a tired old re-hash of Dummy. Who did they think they were anyway -- Scott Walker?

Others knew better than to scoff. Those who'd heard Out of Season, Beth Gibbons' inspired collaboration with Paul Webb of Talk Talk, were aware that there could be plenty to look forward to. The Portishead fan-base presumably kept the faith. But even the most optimistic among us may have been surprised at how tremendous Third turned out to be.

On Out of Season Gibbons' voice was stark and sometimes uncomfortable, but there was a warmth to the arrangements and a sense of control at its vocal-as-instrument core. Third sounds like the loss of control. The mood is bleak, relentless, and anguished. This is not a stylised, Gothic darkness, but something fraught and harrowing. A kind of madness. "I stand on the edge of a broken sky," she sings on "Hunter": a moment where it seems that the whole world, not just the human mind, may be fragmenting. That spool gradually unwinds, proceeded by the inevitable fall. "Nylon Smile's" beat sounds like a perilous knocking on the other side of the asylum wall.

Even when it hints at softness, the instrumentation trends towards repeated phrases, echoing recurring worries that circle inside the heads of the anxious and desperate. The ticking clock beat of "Silence." Persistent, trilling tones on "We Carry On." The distant, high-pitched wavering throughout "Threads." Each sound needling away, nagging at the subconscious.

When Third does touch on the fantastical, it's through "Machine Gun's" appropriation of dystopian cinema. The synth line that wells over the ferocious, metallic beat directly recalls Vangelis' end theme for Blade Runner, and whole piece possesses an Alien-like industrial claustrophobia. But the album's despair is, overall, grounded in verisimilitude. So it's not surprising that the band chose to end with "Threads," name-checking a film that was always closer to grim reality than fiction. Consumed by self-doubt in these final moments, Gibbons' vocal distorts and shatters, before a booming pulse drowns her out forever.

Third is a difficult listen. Not because it is abrasive, atonal or structurally complex, but because it is emotionally draining. The experience is that of an honest, painful confession, the kind usually reserved for a therapist or priest. It invites the willing to share its fragile mental condition, to suckle and feed upon it, and leave in a state more distressed than that in which they entered. Listening to such personal explorations of a fractured mind-body duality ("If only I could see / Return myself to me") can feel like a dreadful act of voyeurism. But then who are these fears being poured out for, if not us?

– Peter Parrish


21.

Kanye West
The College Dropout

Roc-A-Fella, 2004

It's tempting to insert the Kanye West personal biography (or at least mythology) into any sort of reading of The College Dropout as a whole. There's good reason for it, considering West's difficulty in getting signed, his car crash, his relationship with Jay-Z, etc. Admittedly one of the most striking aspects is the album is the way it portrays a full view of a personality, with its strengths and flaws, its faith and doubt, its interests in sex, violence, and transcendence. Etc. And given where West has gone since then (and who he's insulted, offended, or interrupted), it makes that much more sense to invest the bio-criticism with heightened urgency.

But, really, why do that?

It's easy enough to access, and I'd even accept that it's essential to understanding the cultural importance of West's debut. But taking that route makes it more difficult to get to the album itself. Even accepting Kanye as a verbal icon, we need to forget him as author for a moment.

Agreeing that The College Dropout works on a biographical level, we can proceed to the conceptual issue. The disc succeeds brilliantly here, whether you take it as a depiction as a person's complexities or as a complicated approach to a hard world (this disc isn't really about education, or avoiding it). But, and this is critical, variety and juxtaposition do not equal artistic success.

The artistic success across the entire 75+ minutes depends more on the arcs (musical, thematic, and the like) developed across the entire album, and West has nailed it. The album opens tongue-in-cheek, but quickly moves into a quartet of social-spiritual tracks that provide the album's heart. The body around that beat becomes increasingly complicated until we reach "Through the Wire", the artistic statement that could have served as the album's preface (and did, in single format) but more properly works as a summation of what's come, allowing the following tracks a fitting epilogue status.

It's important throughout, of course, that the individual songs work. The earlier singles from the disc have gotten plenty of attention, but "The New Workout Plan" demonstrates the complexities of the album in a single instance. The song is simultaneously an offensive attempt to possess the female body, a parody of that mindset, a commentary on the culture that produce such issues, and -- starting with the club breakdown -- a complete farce that makes the song both more and less important than it seems to be. With that kind of intricacy in each cut, a track sequence that builds with appropriate releases, and a multitude of wit-laden thoughts [an aside: have I mentioned the production? Kanye, you might have heard is just a producer who raps], The College Dropout stands as an accomplishment nearly unequaled in the last decade.

So that's 450 words of formalist posturing, and that's why the record's good, but it's not why we care. Here's the hidden track: I'm barely done laughing at the opener before I'm reflecting on earned stereotypes in a way Crash would need two hours hammered hours to cover and then "Jesus Walks" has me tearing up because it's a completely broken prayer like I've never seen in public and rarely in pulpit and it's a puerile and mature look at sex and drugs and angry and as scared as it is brave and somehow there are still angels watching over this mess. Jesus, maybe this one really is here for a reason.

– Justin Cober-Lake


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