It's been well over a year since the noughties (as we've been forced to call them since no one could think of anything better) finished up, ushering us into whatever trendy name we have for this decade. That, I think is sufficient time for me to look back on the previous decade and pluck out ten albums which, in my opinion, were the best ten albums released in those ten years (that way I don't have to go into as much detail and can pass myself off as a critic). To give the rest of the decade a fair chance, I'm excluding live albums and thereby my favourite album, Daft Punk's Alive 2007. That notwithstanding; let's do this shit.
10. Who Killed Amanda Palmer? by Amanda Palmer (2008)
This gorgeous album from the illustrious Amanda "Fucking" Palmer (also of The Dresden Dolls) is a masterpiece of thematic development and instrumentation. I have never before or since heard a non-concept album with such rich thematic material. The balance between the music and lyrics is sheer perfection and the style stands well apart from her previous work with The Dresden Dolls.
Stand-out tracks include the opening number, "Astronaut (A Short History of Nearly Nothing)", as well as "Runs In The Family", "Guitar Hero", "Strength Through Music" and "Have to Drive". The album is essentially a series of musical discussions of mental health issues such as isolation ("Strength Through Music"), depression ("Another Year (A Short History of Almost Something)") and obsession ("Leeds United") which examines the symptoms ("Have To Drive" looks at paranoia and hysteria), the causes ("Runs In The Family" looks at how your family fucks you up) and the effects they have on your daily life ("Astronaut (A Short History of Nearly Nothing)" looks at relationship strains caused by mental ill-health). A strong, recurring theme is a disconnect from reality, developed most extensively in "Guitar Hero" and "Oasis".
Overall, the album is a strong solo debut (which makes the lackluster follow-up all the more disappointing) that showcases in great depth the amazing composing abilities of Amanda Palmer and ultimately proves itself as a musical case study in mental health with its textured, melancholic instrumentation and evocative lyrics.
9. American III: Solitary Man by Johnny Cash (2000)
I must confess to a massive boner for minimalism, so I've understandably had quite a few eargasms while listening to each and every part of the late Johnny Cash's amazing American series of albums. While not quite as fucktacular as the later American IV: The Man Comes Around, this album is still undeniably one of the greatest country albums ever recorded.
The selection of songs captures, magnifies and exemplifies the many different faces that Johnny Cash has worn through his life; the defiant rebel ("I Won't Back Down"), the spiritual man ("One"), the chuckling jester ("Nobody"), the loving family man ("Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)"), the bardic storyteller ("The Mercy Seat") and, ultimately, the small town boy who became the undisputed king of American country music ("Country Trash").
The instrumentation is simple, elegant and powerful, while Cash's vocals are strong, steady and never overpowered by the guest singers. This is album is a picture-perfect portrait of a man who has been rightly described as a lens through which one can view the human condition of the American nation.
8. All That You Can't Leave Behind by U2 (2000)
When U2 released this album, they said that they were reapplying for the job of the best band in the world. While I don't think they got the position, it's impossible to say that this album wasn't a darn good swing at getting there.
After their disappointing and overly-experimental 90s era, this album brought U2 back to their catchy, hook-based rock songs while utilising the sonology of their experimental work to develop a more polished and progressive sound. The result is their finest work since 1983's War (although most people tend to count from The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, which were kind of meh for me) and an absolute stunner of an album. "Beautiful Day" is just unavoidably uplifting, not so much a rejection of materialism as a lesson in embracing and loving what you have, while "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is one of the most honest and heartfelt songs about suicide I have ever heard in my life. "Walk On" was such a powerful dedication to Aung San Suu Kyi and her moves for democracy that the Burmese government banned the whole album.
While I'll always prefer the U2 of the 80s, you'd have to be insane to not appreciate this as a fantastic rock album. They might not have succeeded but U2 made their best attempt at regaining their position as the best band in the world and made a marvellous album along the way.
7. Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens (2004)
I'll start this section straight up by saying that I am not a Christian. I do believe in a higher power but the whole organised religion thing is really not my cup of tea and I generally prefer to rely on my own thoughts and feelings for morality, especially when the universe has demonstrated time and time again that the higher powers of this reality are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, openly hostile to our race. That said, this Christian folk album by the endlessly talented Sufjan Stevens is an absolute gem.
The great gift of Sufjan Stevens, apart from his coherent and detailed composition, which I will touch upon more later, is his ability to discuss Christian themes in a non-intrusive way. Stevens never preaches when he writes, he discusses his own faith in a very personal way, often by stomping on the myth of the perfect Christian and openly admitting to the struggles and doubts of the modern Christian in such an honest way that it's impossible not to sympathise. This sentiment is perhaps epitomised by "To Be Alone With You", in which the singer seems to feel his salvation was not worth all that Christ gave on the cross.
Compared to the pomp and bombast of Stevens' later efforts (which is not at all a bad thing, they are simply marvellous), this album is a well-cut balancing act between minimalism and melodrama that discusses the Christian faith in such a relatable way that it becomes possible to extrapolate the themes and emotions on to situations far beyond those of the modern Christian. Simply wonderful.
6. Thirteenth Step by A Perfect Circle (2003)
Oh man, what an album. It's a perfectly proportioned dark, dreary and desperate examination of addiction from a variety of perspectives. The instrumentation is bizarre, droning and mesmerising, enrapturing and encapturing, beautifully worked down to the most minute detail. You will never hear another band like A Perfect Circle.
In addition to the opening track, "The Package", the sound of this album is defined by "The Noose", "Blue" and the band's cover of Failure's "The Nurse Who Loved Me". There's a bit of a duelling guitars aspect to the playing that adds a sense of fraught tension to the whole arrangement, which naturally panders to the themes of addiction. The balance between the vocals and instruments is always pitch perfect - to be expected from a band started by a guitar technician. As I've said previously, the thematic dialogue never gets stale; each perspective is as different as the accompanying song and the album simply gets richer as it goes on.
One of the real strengths of this album is how the emotions come out both through the lyrics and the guitars, with their delicate interplay and dynamics. As emotive as the lyrics are, this is a real guitar lover's album and an essential listen for anyone who is truly passionate about the instrument.
5. Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree (2007)
Porcupine Tree are a band who consistently either put out pretty flimsy material or absolutely mind-blowing albums. Although second to 1999's Stupid Dream, which I can't list here for obvious reasons, this album is still probably the greatest realisation of progressive rock since Pink Floyd's The Wall and even threads some similar themes in a modern context.
It's a concept album of only six tracks that deals with the social isolation of disenchanted modern youth who find themselves turning insularly to the Internet as an outlet for their frustrations. It starts with the buzzy rock tone of the title track but as it becomes "My Ashes" and then "Anaesthetize", the scope and sonic landscape of the album reach proportions far too epic for me to express in mere mortal words. Just know that this is a work of great musical accomplishment and inspired and intelligent lyrics.
And never, ever compare Porcupine Tree to Pink Floyd near Steven Wilson.
4. Broken Bride by Ludo (2005)
At their shortest, Pink Floyd did a concept album in forty minutes. At their most amazing, Ludo did a whole rock opera in half an hour. 'NUFF SAID.
If "'NUFF SAID" is not, in fact, 'nuff, I will continue with the merits of the music itself. Ludo are the nerd rock band. On their other albums, the nerd rock balance has always been tipped in favour of "nerd" and that's what I attribute to my enduring displeasure with them. However, in this album, despite the science fiction storyline, Ludo are heavily on the side of rock and show with gusto their abilities as both technically-skilled instrumentalists and absorbing lyricists. The plot concerns a man who builds a time machine to go back in time and prevent the death of his girlfriend in May, 1989, but overshoots and ends up in dinosaur times. He then hops around another bit before things really go to shit and he's forced to learn difficult lessons about loss and fate and stuff.
There are five tracks and each of them is utterly awesome but the crown has to go to "Part III: The Lamb and the Dragon" because not only is it a really solid track on its own but it includes an epic reprise of the main theme of "Part I: The Broken Bride" that really just sells the whole thing. If you want unabashedly epic rock married with an awesome storyline, this is the album you want to listen to.
3. American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash (2002)
I mentioned it earlier, so you really should have seen it coming. There are few albums, if any, that embody the principle of minimalism better than this album, the final album released by Johnny Cash before his death, and there are even fewer albums that can be composed mainly of cover songs and still be so personal and emotive.
The most famous song from this album is, of course, Johnny's stunning cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" but, great as that cover is, it's by no means the best song on the album. When he made this album, Johnny Cash, at the very least, had a pretty good idea this would be his last one before he died, even if he didn't know for certain. If American III was Johnny Cash showing all the faces he wore during his life, this album is him showing off the soul beneath all those faces and, you know what? Johnny Cash had a beautiful soul. Listen to his cover of The Beatles' "In My Life" and tell me otherwise. Hear him sing The Eagles' "Desperado" about himself and fucking come at me, bro. The ending to the whole album is just unsurpassable; the final line of the penultimate song, "Streets of Laredo", rings out ("he was a young cowboy and he knew he'd done wrong...") and then comes "We'll Meet Again", in which Cash is joined by some cool folksy-sounding backing singers for the finale. Is there anything that could make Johnny Cash's performance more amazing?
Yes, there is. A duet with Nick Cave. Which he did on this album. Boo-fucking-yah.
2. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)
This album is probably one of the most musically impressive albums ever conceived. The pomp and bombast of the whole thing is perfect for an album based around the history and culture of Illinois because the state has a rich heritage, while the quieter pieces end up more poignant in contrast to the more voluminous tracks.
In addition to the rich and varied instrumentation, which, according to the liner notes, ranges from glockenspiel to church organ, this album is marked by its exploration of a variety of human themes through the lens of the state of Illinois. The dark side that inevitably resides in everyone's heart is discussed in reference to one of the state's most infamous residents, serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., in the song of the same name while the story of a childhood friend who died of bone cancer becomes a challenging of the fairness of God's judgement in "Casimir Pulaski Day". The singer's relationship with his stepmother is examined in "Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!", which is filled with references to the folklore, so to speak, of Illinois, as well as several namedrops to famous Illinoisans such as Abraham Lincoln. In one of the rockiest moments in the whole menagerie, the Messiah figure is reconstructed by way of Superman to the tune of a gritty guitar in "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts". The album is broken up by several instrumental tracks of varying length that add a great deal to the listening experience and make the album almost cinematic in breadth.
Although the aftermath of this album lead Sufjan Stevens into an existential crisis that nearly drove him to end his musical career, I think there are few people who can deny that this album is, thusfar, his magnum opus and one of the most beautifully realised indie pop albums ever conceived. Certainly, it is Sufjan Stevens' finest hour, though I don't doubt that he can up the ante again in the future.
1. Ghost by Radical Face (2006)
As much as I enjoy the theme and issue of music, at the end of the day, music must be enjoyable to listen to. The greatest of music evokes a wide spectrum of emotions, but, in the end, leaves you feeling like you've spent your time well and in a better mood than when you started.
In that vein, Radical Face's Ghost is probably one of the greatest albums ever made. It's based around the idea of houses retaining memories of events that have occurred within them, with each song being a story that has happened inside the house, some of them told from the house's perspective. The thematic developments are subtle but fascinating, with nostalgia and a sense of belonging being important recurring ideas. The stand-out tracks are undoubtedly "Welcome Home, Son", "Wrapped In Piano Strings" and "Homesick" but the whole album is just wall-to-wall amazing songs with a consistent general tone rendered distinct with individual nuances.
However, what really makes Ghost a truly brilliant album is that it is exceedingly pretty and I mean that in the least condescending way. The songs are just genuinely pleasant to listen to and evoke exactly the kind of emotions (nostalgia, fondness, comfort) to leave you feeling uplifted when the album is over. Because, at the end of the day, whatever grand artistic vision you are trying to express through your songs, the songs have to sound nice to listen to and, without any trace of doubt, I have to say that Ghost is the prettiest and thereby greatest album of the noughties.