I’m taking a break from not writing poetry to hunker down and consider my own list(s) for the best things of this decade, as this is the first decade of my life I can claim to coherently remember almost all of. I’m tempted to go with a film list, as it’s what I’ve had the most experience speaking critically about on the internet. But for no better reason than it’s just what I’m in the mood for, I’m going to break down my top albums of the ’00s.
But the thing is, I’m completely self-indulgent (I have a poetry blog, for fuck’s sake), so this list has nothing to do with trendsetting or societal/industry/cultural impact. In fact, calling this a “Best-of” list is probably a misnomer, since it’s really just “All the Shit I Liked Over the Last 10 Years.”
Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (2002)
It’s a long drive from the Mojave to Los Angeles, and Songs for the Deaf is the perfect accompaniment to such a strange trip. This album, which features the strongest drumming of Dave Grohl’s career, to say nothing of Josh Homme’s knack for making simple ideas seems complex and vice versa, rocks in a dozen different ways from start to finish. Progressing not unlike a David Lynch film, it starts out with enough punch to hook you in, and slowly gets a little more strange as it goes on, culminating with a set of songs that are a little creepy, a little sexy, and endlessly intriguing.
Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American (2001)
I don’t want to sound like a dick, but Bleed American is easily Jimmy Eat World’s best album. And why is that? Because it’s their most DIY effort, eschewing major-label support and forcing the band to take day jobs to pay for the recording. In my opinion, its a near-perfect pop rock record, starting off with a huge bang (the title track) and moving smoothly through upbeat anthems and heartfelt acoustic songs. The biggest charm to this album is that a lot of its songs are about songs, or more specifically, how much songs can mean to people and the way they encapsulate moments and memories. Bleed American is an album for music lovers, by music lovers.
Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
It was the first time he recorded in an actual studio, but all the technology in the world can’t affect Samuel Beam’s voice, and he sings with such intimacy that it’s as if he were a tiny bearded angel perched on your shoulder. Iron & Wine’s debut, Creek Drank the Cradle, was lauded for being stunningly good for something recorded on four tracks in someone’s house. But there is absolutely no authenticity sacrificed by Our Endless Numbered Days being recorded in a studio. If anything, it benefits from the scene change, allowing for a fuller sound thanks to outside musicians and proper mixing. Iron & Wine won hearts by being soft, emotional and intimate, and Our Endless Numbered Days is all of those things.
Maps & Atlases, Tree, Swallows, Houses (2006)
Math rock is a notoriously difficult sound to get into; its performers are often more concerned with flamboyant displays of technical wankery than with writing catchy songs. Maps & Atlases, however, don’t need to make that distinction; their songs are fast, frenetic, and best of all, accessible. With influences from spanish flamenco to speed metal, the two-hand finger tapped guitars move lightning quick while still supporting pleasant hooks. Rare is the band who can write songs so technically complicated yet so ready for the radio. The deftness and virtuosity with which each member of the band plays not only impresses and boggles the ear, but also betrays an underlying pop sensibility. It’s a slim 7 tracks, but god damn, there’s a lot of playing in this album.
Daft Punk, Discovery (2001)
By incorporating a little disco into their already-infectious house music style, Daft Punk crafted what might be the most danceable album of the decade. Spin magazine said of the album, “It feels like a concept album — in this case, the story of how wine-flow disco circumnavigated intellectual pretensions on all sides en route to a temporary utopia that may finally believe in nothing but the boogie but still has the infinite on its mind every minute.” Every second of this album seems to be a joyous celebration of something.
Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
Ambition has never been a problem for Mastodon. Leviathan is a heavy metal-retelling of Herman Melville’s epic descent into madness, Moby Dick. And like the seas which hide the White Whale, it is bottomless and infinite in the best possible way. By incorporating some studio polish and gaining a wider fanbase, many early underground supporters balked at the success of Leviathan, but make no mistake, there is nothing compromised on tracks like “Megalodon,” which e-breaks from angular post-hardcore to chugging boogie thrash using the coolest southern rock guitar lick I’ve heard in the ’00s. And thematically, the music all fits in with their stated theme; it’s the best audio interpretation of being pulled underwater since Tool’s Undertow. Mastodon hasn’t released a bad album yet, but nothing since has had the same laser-focused clarity of purpose heard on Leviathan.
The Postal Service, Give Up (2003)
I’m not seeing this show up on anyone else’s lists, but I’m putting it on here, because up until Owl City recently aped the shit out of their sound, nothing else sounded quite like this did in the early half of this decade. The combination of Ben Gibbard’s earnest-to-a-fault lyric and singing style and Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel’s crisp, catchy beats invokes a kind of nostalgia – not a pop-culture nostalgia, but rather a personal one, using Gibbard’s smooth tenor to create that rare thing: universal relatability. Plus, they wrote arguably the decade’s best pop love song, “Such Great Heights,” which rose to popularity thanks to Iron & Wine’s cover featured in Zach Braff’s indie wank, Garden State. Give Up has the power to grow on you. Songs whose catchiness seemed annoying prove lovely; tunes whose quietude come off as wan reveal their catchiness. But what it does best is effortlessly make you relate to whatever Gibbard is singing about.
Incubus, Morning View (2001)
After growing tired of the oppressive studio environment they felt during the recording of 1997′s Make Yourself (which, 12 years later, still somehow sounds like it was recorded in the not-too-distant future), Incubus rented a house in Malibu to record what would become Morning View. The change in scenery proved to spark something prolific in the band, who sketched out 30 songs to use on the album (13 made the cut). The quasi-bohemian atmosphere sets the tone for the whole album, as the band almost completely drop their rap-metal influences to focus on creating sharply-crafted pop songs that are more comfortable at a late-summer beach party than a nu-metal mosh pit. Whether it be during the acerbic “Blood on the Ground,” the quietly understated “Mexico,” or the ridiculously positive “Are You in?” Incubus manages to be compelling throughout. Their sound would prove to evolve more with subsequent releases, but Morning View found Incubus at their most relaxed and comfortable, and it gave them the courage to embrace the experimental, subtly psychadelic nature their next albums and tours would display.
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (2004)
Danger Mouse didn’t really think he’d get away with marrying (arguably) the best rapper of the decade with (arguably) the best band of all time without stirring up a little controversy, did he? Once this Jay-Z/Beatles mashup started garnering attention, Beatles-rights-holder EMI attempted to shut down its distribution. In protest, many websites put the album up for free download for 24 hours, during what is now known as Grey Tuesday. As it usually does, the controversy overshadowed the actual music, but after the initial shock wears off, there is a supremely cohesive album to be heard. The beds which Mouse lays for Jay-Z’s lyrics by chopping, dicing and jumbling the Fab Four are weird and astonishing, and he keeps the sentiment in sync as well as the beats (pairing “What More Can I Say” with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” for instance.) The moments of invention can be jaw-dropping, and it carries enough clout to beat out most all remix albums to come before or since (including 2005′s almost-as-good 50 Cent/Queen mashup, Q-Unit.)
Foo Fighters, In Your Honor (2005)
As if Dave Grohl hasn’t had enough shadows to crawl out from under, Foo Fighters seemed to be looming in the shadow of the three best songs the band ever wrote, all of which appear on the same 1997 album, The Colour and the Shape. Subsequent releases were never bad, per se, but no singular album or single matched the instant affinity fans felt with Colour despite its inconsistency. After the release of the flat, tired-sounding One by One, Grohl wanted to try something different: a split album; one disc filled with accelerator-to-the-floor rock, and one disc with mellower acoustic material. Strange that the division and double-album nature has yielded the most consistent Foo Fighters album to date. While no one track stands out as much as “Monkey Wrench,” “My Hero,” or the immortal “Everlong,” they don’t need to. The rocking disc kicks off with an epic title track that sounds like a call to arms and never slows down from there, but the disc never feels monochromatic. The acoustic disc features a number of guests like Norah Jones, Joshe Homme and John Paul Jones serves as a perfect complement to its sister disc. Each side of the album contains its own sense of drama and progression, yet taken together it all still seems cohesive. In Your Honor is easily the best singular album the band has ever released, and hopefully the one to one day make people ask “Wait, Dave Grohl was in another band before Foo Fighters?”
Tool, Lateralus (2001)
After spending the early 90′s inadvertently laying the groundwork for nu-metal, Tool then engaged in a five-year dispute with its label, during which time singer Maynard James Keenan joined Not-Smashing-Pumpkins band A Perfect Circle. but Tool quickly came galloping back into the spotlight with Lateralus, a magnum opus of a record that saw the band shift from high-class chug-a-chugging to a composition one would expect to see more from prog-rockers like King Crimson. Lateralus plays out like the angriest classical suite you’ve ever heard, replete with time signature changes as the instruments move in jarring cycles between hyperhowl and near-silence. Don’t let the extended running time of its tracks fool you into thinking it meanders, either; the entire album rolls and stomps with grim purpose. The lyrics, though still sung in Keenan’s epic, God’s-angry-man fashion, tell of a desire for psychological evolution and spiritual enlightenment, and anyone who can write a vocal melody to a song whose chorus rotates between 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8 time can write with the best of them. Tool long abandoned the idea that they were making music “for” anybody but themselves, and the self-indulgence is palpable, but so what? Lateralus is a monolithic puzzle box that demands to be listened to again.
Kanye West, Graduation (2007)
In what would turn out to be a pretty lousy year for hip hop, Kanye West stepped up and gave the valedictory address of Graduation. His previous albums, College Dropout and Late Registration, set quite a high bar of expectation for West, who further evolved his distinctive style by incorporating arena-rock elements inspired by his tour with Dublin blowhards U2. I fell in love with this album the minute I heard a sample aped from Steely Dan, but that’s probably not quite a good enough reason to name it his best of the decade. There’s an interesting dichotomy on Graduation, where Kanye is crafting songs that would sound just as good, if not better, at a packed stadium show as they would in a dance club, yet lyrically he seems to turn inward, spending much of the album analyzing himself and conveying an ambivalent outlook toward his newfound fame. None of the hooks on Graduation floor you in the way “Gold Digger” or “Jesus Walks” did, but like many albums with staying power, Graduation is an album you like and then love. And its experimental style goes just far enough without collapsing on itself, as it did on his autotune-saturated followup, 808s and Heartbreak.