Decade in Decibels

Here we are! Look upon this new decade! The Tens are upon us, and all else is old! With that, here are the 10 albums from 2000 to 2009 that rocked my rocker, which in truth isn't all that notable, since I only started seriously listening to music in 2000 anyway. I mean, I was 12 years old. It's hard to develop any specific affinity for types of music before then.

Included is a handy, inaccurate metaphor that I haphazardly wrote up without a second thought. So if you're looking for an experience to correlate with listening to this hour of emotionally engaging music, maybe this add to your experience! Or maybe it will make no sense, and you will be weirded out, but then you look it up anyway because you have to know, that's just the type of person you are, always seeking, always curious.

I count a decade as '00 to '09, and save '10 through '19 for the next decade. I know years didn't start with zero, thus the first decade was 1 through 10. But 1970 was part of the 70's, not the 60's.

Whatever. List:

10. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns (2009)

Listening Metaphor: A passive-aggressive vacuuming of your apartment in a loveless engagement that escalates into throwing all of his things out the window.
Maybe it's because they signed my vinyl record, the only vinyl I've ever bought, but it didn't feel right leaving The RAA off my list. This is the newest album and the newest band i'll list, but exemplary of everything I look for in music. I haven't had this strong of an emotionally engaging listen since freshman year of college. If it had been a cassette, the magnetic tape would be in tangles from overplaying. That never happens anymore. The drums are simultaneously rapid fire and melodic, the lyrics touch on emotional centers of isolation and hope, and it's all feels so calibrated for my brain. It's a great feeling to seek out something specific and then to get it in spades.

9. Elliott Smith - New Moon (2007)

Listening Metaphor: Living inside a tiny, bottled city with no one you know.
Before Twilight recently associated this title with shirtless werewolves, this was attached to Elliott Smith's second, and most recent, posthumous album. Unlike his first posthumous release, which he at least had partial input in before he stabbed himself twice, this is a compilation of rarities and unreleased material that he never foresaw. And somehow it's some of his best stuff. That might sound like an insult to Smith, a tireless craftsman who probably wouldn't think these demos were up to snuff. But there's a contingent of fans who connect the most to his stripped down, intimate numbers that consist of little more than finger picking and multitracked vocals. We can appreciate and even love something like XO, but no one brings it close like Smith.

8. Cursive - Cursive's Domestica (2000)
Listening Metaphor: A shouting match with your room mate, but also, you're dragons.
Cursive goes high, goes low, goes real low, and then goes high again. Tim Kasher's got one of the best coherent screams, and one of the most sincere and affecting falsettos. This album, which just seems to vampirically live off of the negative vibes of a trauma and a divorce, is dark, dissonant and damning to all parties in the stories. There's blame, guilt, self-deprecation, confessions, and all the while rocking guitar contrasted with starkly quiet interludes. I know listing off these things make sit sound terrible, but trust me, I mean to be enthusiastic about its devastation. "It's growing as we speak / It's sucking us both in / A vacuum of sorrow / to swallow up the day." This is what emo bands thought they were doing when they were screeching "what it is to burn!" a couple years later. They'll never match the vulnerability, the sincerity, the uncompromising unease that this sadness classic mined.

7. Good Life - Black Out (2002)

Listening Metaphor: A blindly fun drunken night on the town to forget a bad break up.
When I got my hands on this album sometime in 2006, it crystallized what I liked about Cursive & Bright Eyes when I first discovered them. Here was another Tim Kasher album, but on his side project, and a strangely upbeat and lavishly produced piece. There are pop hooks and electronica effects but then slurred, internal monologues. Whereas Domestica had one specific, dissonant rocking sound, Black Out never stuck to one flavor. It kept consistent on the mood to make the pieces feel whole. First you're enjoying the electronic bleeps & bloops and vocal effects, next you're in a slow electric guitar ballad, and somewhere along the way you're falling into a trumpet-swept, soft-focus limbo of love. The running theme, characterized by bookends and one instrumental central all titled "Blackout," brings you along a drunken desparation, but it's a journey of ups and downs, not purely a fall.

6. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (2005)
Listening Metaphor: Following the dust on the highway.
Conor Oberst is an absurdly prolific guy (when he's not recording, he's touring, and vice versa. I don't know if he's ever stopped.) and in 2005 he proved it by simultaneously releasing two distinct albums. A darker edged electronic pop album and one croon-filled lap steel guitaring folk exemplar. This is the latter. Upon first listen, I liked the electronic album, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, better. That was because I was biased against things that smelled of country music. But this is the album that turned me and helped me understand what it is about the music of Americana that so many love. It is helped by the absolute poetry of words which have attached themselves to the deepest parts of my brain, waiting to be summoned at will. "She pinned a small silver wreath and pinned it onto me / She said this one will bring you love / I don't know if it's true, but keep it / For good luck."

5. Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (2008)
Listening Metaphor: Flipping off the person you hate as you ride by on a galloping, white unicorn.
You are in danger of punching things in energy and excitement. It has a righteous snarl, a proud fuck you with lines like, "I identify my star sign by asking which is least compatible with yours," or more tellingly, "You said he got his teeth fixed / I'm gonna break them." Everything is an exclamation point with them. Some of the best moments come off like big messy choirs of a thousand pop punk voices. Other people on this list may pour their heart out but Los Campesinos! rips their heart open and showers the crowd with all that blood and glory. The violin work adds a much needed contrast, infusing twee to even the most electrifying riffs. It proclaims life is a misery, embraces it, and gets revenge on god. And you'll be cheering the whole way.

4. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005)
Listening Metaphor: Hugging a massive, morose, Balrog.
I used to think that this album was as introspective and life-mining as everything else on this list. As you can tell, I'm a sucker for that strategy. But as subsequent albums show, it's not, at least, not in the way I thought so. Okkervil River, it turns out, are just really excellent fiction writers. It's just this, their most successful story, was earnest enough that I bought its reality for years. In any case, here they play the role of the mourning, the unloved, and the black sheep. Will Sheff has a yearning voice and his lyrics are worthy of being quoted. It's an album that swallows listeners alive.

3. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)
Listening Experience: Flying high above the city at sunrise as the people get up to go about their Saturday.
Sufjan Stevens is an inspiring musician in the way he writes music and the way he performs it. He has this strange likeability that comes through both in the studio and live. He claps and thanks you at concerts, tells endearing quick stories, and sings so delicately and smoothly. He's also a harsh critic of himself, to the point that he hasn't put out an album of entirely new content since. There was a b-sides collection, some Christmas songs, and then a cover for a bunch of different compilations. This leaves the masses starvin' for Sufjan, and we all go back to this epic 23-track masterpiece during those hunger pangs. It is upbeat. The darkness on the album is like rain in heavy winds, but the brightness -- they are colorful, celebratory, and enriching to your day.

2. Bright Eyes - Lifted (2002)
Listening Experience: Ordering the sampler platter of your life in heaven's restaurant.
Two Bright Eyes album! Five Saddle Creek albums! Truly, I am in the can for what they sell. I am predictable and into navel-gazing and it's all true. But if I had to choose a favorite Bright Eyed album, it would be this one. The album oscillates between different extremes: from a last will and testament read in an urgent, apocalyptic panic ("Method Acting,") to a slow, communal ballroom waltz ("False Advertising"). One of my favorite songs of all time, "Bowl of Oranges," blows this damn thing up with Springtime optimism. Then there's the vicious "Lover I Don't Have to Love," a song that taught us all to think of our romances as doomsday lit in red. To critics, it sounded like a whine, but to me, back in high school, I couldn't believe how tortured a song could be and oh my god whats wrong with me why do I like this. This album showed me the possibilities of songwriting, and floored me with its ability to say exactly what you need to, but still have it fall in melody and rhyme.

1. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2002)
Listening Metaphor: Absorbing the universe into the marrow of your soul.
The perfect album for sensibilities like mine. Without a single bad track and a range of emotions and tempos and atmospheres, tt feels so whole yet full of diversity. You're treated to some short ambience in "Capture the Flag," and then you are being dragged by the bullet train of "KC Accidental," which rides one 90's guitar riff until the wheels fall off. I imagine the players just punching their instruments to play them by the end of it. You want to crash into things.

But track 3, "Stars and Sons", hits the perfect sweet spot between bass groove dancing and feelgood emotionalizing. Unique, catchy, appealing and it is somehow always what you need to hear at the moment, whatever your situation. "Almost Crimes" comes on and you wish you had written this song because it must be fun to sing and play and dance to on stage. "Looks Just Like The Sun" is a gentle reprieve made for sippin' tea on the porch, "Pacific Theme," is for sippin' tea with friends on a beach, and "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl," is for falling in love, or at least, remembering love while clenching your headphones to your ear. It's a cold, robotically distorted voice, but it sounds like the casual pleading of love, and when the strings come in, you are compelled to close your eyes and think of a person close to you, even if they do not exist in your life yet. It makes you a sap, sells you a dream, and you don't care for those 4 elegant minutes.

"Cause = Time" is a return to danceable-but-mellow beats, where the words don't matter as much as how they sound strung together. It is the uptempo event horizon of the album. "Late Nineties Bedroom Rock..." is a 3 minute trance to make sure you're still immersed when it gets to "Shampoo Suicide", a champion anthem charactgerized by a relaxed beat until it becomes an unrelenting wall of sound. "Lover's Spit" is vulgar and gorgeous, brash and glorious, artful and erotic. "I'm Still Your Fag," is a comedown that plays with beauty and taboo set to an army of acoustics playing tightly timed mathematic plucks. The prettiest song to include the line, "I swore I drank your piss last night."

Then it all ends on the memorable, "Pitter-Patter Goes My Heart," which appears to be the perfect title for an instrumental violin track. It's basically the string section from "Anthems" a few tracks ago, but when they get the starring role, it really shimmers and serves as a callback to one of the album's most tender moments. They swell and exhale in ways that all album enders should. That's my album of the decade. Full of impossibly big feelings. I can hardly imagine an improvement.

Honorable Mentions, or, things that would have made it if I wasn't enslaved by Saddle Creek:

  • Joanna Newsom, Ys(2006) - Her voice is fine, your brain just needs to pay attention to the writing.
  • Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets (2004) - Ted Leo is a masterful, fun and sweeping rock music maker.
  • Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (2007) - Elegant and vivid.
  • Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, We Brave Bee Stings And All (2008) - Folksy, endearing, whimsical, clever, playful, and quietly moving.
  • Mirah, Advisory Committee (2001) - Great songwriting and an infectious singer.
  • Feist, Let It Die (2004) - One day, Feist is going to be that ubiquitous choice to play the Super Bowl halftime or some other big mega-event.
  • Son Lux, At War With Walls And Mazes (2008) - One or two lines per song, but a totally pitch black and interesting sonic landscape around it.
  • The National, Boxer (2007) - A dream of a hearty, deep, poetic and mature alt-rock.
  • Her Space Holiday, The Young Machines (2003) - Glowing xylophone beats setting up breathy whispers and total defeat.