Record Geek Heaven’s Top 50 Albums of the Decade (part 1)

Note: The original plan was to do a list of 100, but with how whirlwind this last month has been for me, there was just no way to write about that many records. Plus, no one wants to read that much, and in that regard, even 50 is pushing it. So without further adieu, here they are.

50. Brendan BensonThe Alternative to Love (2005)

This enigmatic power-pop songsmith has consistently put out great albums since 1996, and this third in the series is no exception. Though Benson hasn’t really broken through to huge mainstream success, I would bet money you have heard at least two of his songs and don’t even realize it. This is because he has a great publishing team, and many of his songs have ended up on commercials (“What I’m Looking For”, from this album, was on one for Sears). It also helps that is songwriting is of such high quality, and though he isn’t credited as co-writer on this album, props should be given to Jason Falkner for more or less teaching Benson how to write songs (Falkner co-wrote about half of Benson’s first two albums). He certainly led Benson down the right path, as proven by excellent songs like closer “Between Us” and their abundance of sing-able moments.

49. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of DeadSource Tags and Codes (2000)

This was one of my favorite guitar records of the year when it came out, and it still has a lot of songs that are windmill-worthy. One or two of them just might land me onstage at Aireoke one of these nights, now that I think about it! “It Was There That I Saw You” is still one of my favorite Trail of Dead songs and contains one of the most vicious rock and roll attacks of maybe any song in history. That machine-gun snare roll rivals those of Dave Grohl, and the production utilizes the room sound in such a way that everything just sounds so fucking HUGE. Though it’s by far the best song on the album, there are many other gems to be found as well. The title track, which closes the album, has a great creepy catchiness about it, and “Baudelaire” is pure thrash-romp paradise. Don’t forget about the single “Relative Ways”, either—definitely one of the best of that year.

48. Ashtray BabyheadRadio (2000)

Though the band reformed as the Kicks and re-recorded many of these songs for later releases, it was as Ashtray Babyhead and with the album Radio that this band experienced their artistic peak. A nearly flawless pop-punk record, it contains all the required animosity against mainstream culture while still aspiring to be part of it somewhat. “Satellite” sums up this idea nicely, and is a classic anthem for anyone who has ever lived a rock and roll lifestyle in any capacity, famous or not. “We’re tuning in, and we’re taking all our fans—taking all our friends.” Apparently, Ashtray Babyhead knew where they were headed, but by this point they had already accepted it and were comfortable enough with it to be tongue-in-cheek about the whole ordeal.

47. The JayhawksRainy Day Music (2003)

This album is subtle and fragile and seems to just kind of float by, but soon it becomes apparent how many great songs are contained within. The Jayhawks have become known mostly for country-rock masterpieces like Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall, and after an era of experimentation that yielded their best and most underappreciated album (1997’s Sound of Lies), the band more or less returned to their roots. It was a welcome return, as gems like “Eyes of Sarah Jane”, “Angelyne” and “Stumbling Through the Dark” never would have existed otherwise. Rainy Day Music also contains one of the decade’s greatest love songs, “All the Right Reasons”. “I don’t know what day it is, I can’t recall the seasons, and I don’t remember how we got this far—all I know is I’m loving you for all the right reasons.” Isn’t it everyone’s dream to say that and actually mean it?

46. Ben FoldsSongs for Silverman (2005)

People didn’t seem to respond much to this album, which is kind of sad. It’s one of Ben Folds’ most accomplished works, and it shows him attempting to create something affecting and sad that still expresses a sort of dark joy for life. But, it wasn’t “Bitches Ain’t Shit” or “Rockin’ The Suburbs”, so people were kind of thrown off by it. The single “Landed” was a saving grace for me that year whenever I would turn on the radio, and it’s a song that still hasn’t really lost its luster for me. I know a lot of people criticize Folds for being the “Bitches Ain’t Shit” guys and the “Rockin’ the Suburbs” guy, but he’s so much more than that. The beautiful penultimate track “Time”, which features backing vocals by friend Weird Al Yankovick, shows Folds truly thinking outside of his box and becoming something more than the vaudevillian showman everyone makes him out to be.

45. Modest MouseThe Moon and Antarctica (2000)

Despite the overwhelming success of 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, The Moon and Antarctica still seems to inspire the most resounding acclaim from longtime Modest Mouse fans. It highlighted a point in Modest Mouse’s career where, even though radio still wasn’t really playing them, they were becoming impossible to ignore. Their enormous fan base was built almost solely from extensive touring, and when a band plays together that much for that long, the music can reach insane highs. Moon proved two things to haters* of Modest Mouse: 1) They weren’t going to be fading away any time soon, and 2) They were capable of much more than ripping off Black Francis. Those things were important to establish, but the record is actually much more than a stone of proof—though thematically similar to MM’s other albums, Moon has the ability to work on many levels. There’s a sort of code of ethics to its moral ambiguity, a kind of spirituality to its atheism. It’s a very human record that deals with human afflictions, while not failing to comment on how silly many of these afflictions are and how badly they cause some people to screw up. “3rd Planet” and “Dark Center of the Universe” have both become anthems on this topic in their own right, boasting melodic yet dreary guitar lines that tend to inspire ornery grins—the stuff from which rock and roll is brewed. Amazingly, Modest Mouse never lose themselves in this process of reinvention, a sure-footed attitude that no doubt helped to poise them for the great takeover.

44. Apples in StereoThe Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (2000)

Still the best album from the Apples to this day, Discovery is as sweet of a slab of chamber pop and 60’s-influenced bubble-gum rock as one is bound to find anywhere. It’s really easy to just put this album on repeat and leave it playing for about three hours while you drive around the outskirts of Holland or something—believe me, I’ve done it. Albums like that are hard to find, though. It’s hard enough to get anyone to listen to a record even once all the way through these days, so it’s safe to say we could use more records like this one out there. The first track, “Go”, has a lyric that sums up the entire record in my eyes: “You’re such a pretty, pretty, pretty little girl—let’s leave this ugly, ugly, ugly little world.” That idea of dropping all cares and concerns, grabbing someone you love and just running out to enjoy life is a pervasive one on the album. It could be a soundtrack to some kind of romantic voyage like The Rescuers, or something.

43. The White StripesElephant (2003)

At the time of its release, this album was so blown up that it was impossible to ignore—even Rolling Stone gave it five stars. So of course, I wanted to hate it. I wanted it to be the biggest piece of shit I had ever heard so I could completely write off any rock band that was shoved down my throat by the great media giant. The White Stripes were going to be my great determinator, my stone of proof that all the best music fell through the cracks and that was just the way life happened. But then I heard it, and I knew that attempting to prove that theory would have to be put on hold, at least for awhile. The Stripes may not be the great musical geniuses everyone makes them out to be, but they are innovators in many ways. Jack White’s guitar tones and style of playing are not short of revolutionary, and much of his work in this area on Elephant is a breath of fresh air. “Seven Nation Army”, for example, is a damn unstoppable monster. It was a great song when it came out, it’s still a great song now, and it will always be a great song to rock out to—it’s just got a completely undeniable riff, that great riff that everyone looks for. It’s not a perfect album, but Elephant is full of moments like that, where you know The White Stripes are really hitting on something.

42. Andrew W.K.I Get Wet (2002)

He’s a novelty. He’s not really a songwriter. All his shit sounds the same. If I am not mistaken, similar things were said about a 70’s songwriter named Marc Bolan, and his little band T. Rex. I don’t know anyone who talks shit on T. Rex…do you? So let’s leave Andrew W.K. out of that pool as well. Regardless of how talented he actually is (classically trained) or how dedicated he really is (more so than anyone, maybe) or how his music may have taken a dive recently (this is true), I Get Wet remains a classic album. It’s not perfect, but nearly all of its 12 songs hit the mark, whether it be on a musical level, a purely entertainment level, or both. I Get Wet is pure mindless fun, but its mindlessness gets misinterpreted—it’s made to sound mindless because that is what’s fun to get crazy and rock the fuck out to. But there is meticulousness present in the record, and a sense that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing. “Party Hard” is just a great song, there’s no fucking question about it. It’s a song you can pump your fist to completely unapologetically, while at the same time wondering why four million other people aren’t hearing the same song at the same moment. I swear I could make the perfect playlist for Chiefs games. That should be my job.

41. The WhigsMission Control (2008)

One of my biggest addictions of 2008, Mission Control is a rock album that surprises. It’s one of those records that, upon first listen, sounds like nothing remotely significant or special. While listening, you may even think, “Why am I listening to this?” But, for some reason, if one little vocal hook or guitar part or bassline finds its way into your psyche, it spreads like a fucking virus and next thing you know, you’ve played the damn record over and over again. Maybe it sneaks up because there is nothing about this record that is very original—everything from the band name (remember the Afghan Whigs?) to the straight-up, no-frills rock production seems familiar. But this is the kind of rock music that inherently does not care whether or not it has been done before, so criticizing it for that is pretty counterproductive. The Whigs make this music out of a pure love for doing it—you can tell.

40. The Sheila DivineWhere Have My Countrymen Gone (2001)

Meet Aaron Perrino—the greatest, most underappreciated vocalist of the decade. Every time he sings, I listen. I don’t even have to like the song, and his operatic tenor completely catches my attention, not to mention the attention of anyone else within earshot (listen to his current band, Dear Leader). The songs on Where Have My Countrymen Gone are downplayed and melancholic (which is in stark contrast to those of the band’s debut, New Parade—those were rocking and melancholic), and there are seemingly a few melodic themes that pop up in several of the songs. At times, the relentlessly hopeless mood of the record makes it a challenging listen, but the payoff is in songs like the white-hot “Ostrich”, the power pop of “Every Year”, and the record’s powerful closer, “Vanishing Act”. This band may never have gotten their dues in America and they certainly deserved it, but they were HUGE in Belgium. Not even kidding.

39. Guided by VoicesIsolation Drills (2001)

Though not the best GBV album by a long shot, Isolation Drills is easily their best of the 00’s. At some point after 1997’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars, it became apparent that songwriter Robert Pollard was beginning to scrape the bottom of his big-ass barrel of tunes. It would seem, however, that he saved a lot of great ones for this record—it’s almost as if he knew it would be the band’s last chance to make a GREAT album with GREAT production. The production, provided by a more than capable Rob Schnapf, is most certainly spot-on. But at 16 songs, it may be a little too long—which is nit-picky to point out, really, because so many of the songs hit home runs. The definitive version of “Fair Touching” (which debuted on the Lexo and the Leapers EP) kicks off the record, and some of the best GBV songs of all time follow—“Chasing Heather Crazy”, “Twilight Campfighter”, “Unspirited”, “Glad Girls” and “The Brides Have Hit Glass” are all winning rock anthems that possess Pollard’s trademark old-boy swagger.

38. The Flaming LipsYoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

There isn’t a whole lot that can be said about Yoshimi that hasn’t been said already, but one thing does have to be reiterated: it is NOT a concept album. It gets tiresome to hear people say something over and over again when it’s just inherently wrong—it’s been confirmed by Wayne Coyne himself, so just let it go already. Besides, it’s not like it has to be a concept album for it to be a great record. It doesn’t matter how many times we have all heard “Do You Realize??”, it’s still a great song and it always will be. The same goes for “Fight Test” (though it playfully rips off Cat Stevens, so much so that Yusef reaps benefits to this day) and the title track, all three of which have occupied “overplayed” status at one point or another yet never fail to put smiles on our faces when we need them the most. But for all its uplifting moments, Yoshimi has a dark patch or two—delightfully dark, as only the Lips can do it. “In the Morning of the Magicians” is one of the album’s high points, but also one of the heaviest. “What is love and what is hate, and why does it matter?” Coyne sings. If anyone is going to ask that question, it should be him.

37. Aimee MannBachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (2000)

The Aimee Mann backlash was pretty harsh. She exploded into everyone’s hearts with this album, and a year later, nobody wanted anything to do with her. Mann doesn’t seem like the kind of person that takes kindly to bullshit, so it would make sense that she could still have a music career without being a big hit-maker. I can see her kind of being her own manager, in a way—taking control of the situations, paying out her own band, etc. Maybe I’m wrong, but she does seem like she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She must have if she had an album this good in her at one point. The thing is almost a decade old, and I still find myself loving almost every song, especially “Calling it Quits”. It’s always been one of my faves on the album, though it never garnered much attention or anything. The production on it is fucking incredible—Jon Brion, folks. The man is a genius. Some of the tape effects on this song tread in cream-dream territory. And as always, Mann has a way of twisting well-known clichés around her own clever wordplay and making lyrics so memorable and almost Dylan-like in their revelations sometimes. Though at times bogged down by slower songs, Bachelor is a triumph for one of the best female songwriters alive today.

36. DungenTa Det Lugnt (2004)

I can’t understand a damn thing this Swede is singing about, but that doesn’t keep me from singing along in a monosyllabic, nonsensical manner. Ta Det Lugnt is a true blast from the past, sounding as if it were recorded in the late sixties, probably with vintage equipment. Despite the fact that this album seemingly could have been plucked from that era, it kind of makes sense that Gustav Ejstes started his musical career as a hip-hop artist. Some of the instrumental tracks and segues don’t sound too far removed from a rapper’s backing track, and in a lot of cases could definitely be used as samples for exactly that. But make no mistake—this is a rock album. Opening track “Panda” proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt, with rollicking drums and bass that catapult the song’s undeniable chorus to magical highs, and the title track combines first-rate psychedelic noise-make with the immediacy of all the best 70’s guitar rock.

35. DeerhunterMicrocastle (2008)

Microcastle sounds like it was created by some spoiled-brat cynic. Shoegaze influences, lazily muttered vocal lines, and a poor man’s psychedelic tendencies are powers that Deerhunter combine to make their glorious noise. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, honestly—it all seems too much like a hipster’s wet dream. Haters can hate all they want, but it doesn’t change the most beautiful thing about this album, which is that it simultaneously sounds really new and like something that could have come out in the nineties. Deerhunter have found a way to take the best parts of nineties rock and re-imagine it into something more relevant. It almost seems like in this age, to be a throwback of any kind is to risk sounding like your grandparents or something. But on songs like “Nothing Ever Happened”, I can almost hear them shuffling through their Pavement albums for inspiration—which is not a bad thing, by any means.

34. RadioheadAmnesiac (2001)

This is the best Radiohead album. It may be arguable, since the band has gone through so many shifts in style over their career, therefore varying the opinions of the fan base as to which era best represents the band. Even Thom Yorke dismisses Pablo Honey and has said it “doesn’t even feel like us when I hear it”. Most long-time fans would probably opt for The Bends, since it captures the band in that early middle-ground between rock band and experimentalists. OK Computer, which might be their most widely admired album, captures that late middle-ground. Kid A was a surprise to the music world—it was adored by critics and accepted by most fans, though it did alienate some of the band’s older audience. Kid A acted as the initial shock to the system so reaction would not be as muddled when Amnesiac hit. While Kid A is made up of more traditionally arranged songs, Amnesiac acts as kind of an album-length side two of Abbey Road—everything runs together to make up one big song, or at least one big idea. It begs to be listened to all the way through, and once the listener warms up to the idea, it’s surprisingly easy to do. Plus, “Pyramid Song” is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. For those who were hoping for Rainbows, no apologies here—that album has great songs, but as a cohesive work, Amnesiac trumps it.

33. CaribouAndorra (2007)

Caribou may have had its beginnings as an electronic project with sole member Daniel Snaith, but it quickly became something much more—darkly sunny sample-pop that simultaneously embraces the joyful and the discomforting. “Melody Day”, Andorra’s opening track, sets this tone perfectly. The beautiful, minor-key verse washes into a chorus of barely controlled disarray, only to stumble back together again in the first of a number of challenging moments on this record. The best song may be “After Hours”, if only because it works on so many levels—it’s a dance tune, it’s a psychedelic sound collage, it’s a pop song, it’s a love song, and it’s innovative as hell. It’s also one of the best examples of Snaith’s compelling drumming, which has enough personality to propel every song in different directions. Andorra’s production is light and airy, and sometimes feels a bit lacking in the low-end department. But this feel helps to make the album seem odd yet timeless, like something no one has ever heard before or will ever hear again.

32. The LemonheadsThe Lemonheads (2006)

I was ready to be done with Evan Dando forever when this album came out, and it ended up making me fall in love with his songwriting all over again. Maybe I was caught off-guard—at the time of this album’s release, Dando had not contributed anything to music since his solo album a few years before, and though it boasted some good tunes, it was underwhelming at times. Here, with a backing band consisting of the rhythm section of legendary punk band the Descendents, The Lemonheads undergo a rebirth of sorts. Though Dando is a gifted songwriter, he has always had a knack for channeling other people’s work, and on The Lemonheads, he becomes the muse of drummer/songwriter Bill Stevenson. The most winning result of this collaboration is “Become the Enemy”, which easily ranks among the best songs to which Dando has ever lent his voice. Tom Morgan (songwriter of the Australian band Smudge who has collaborated with Dando for years) makes a couple contributions as well, most notably “No Backbone”, a wonderful punk rock ode to a pathetic life, with killer licks provided by Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis.

31. The NationalBoxer (2008)

The National make up part of the Williamsburg scene, but were it not for this, they might not seem so hip. After all, they are all actually from Cincinnati, OH. Plus, Matt Berninger’s deep baritone simultaneously recalls Leonard Cohen and the crooners of old, and it’s never been cool to listen to your parents’ music. If his lyrics didn’t so candidly reflect the nomadic hearts of today’s youth, The National’s songs may not work as well, and Boxer might not be as near-perfect as it is. As with most of The National’s music, much of Boxer seems to play with the idea of things falling together, whether or not it is in the desired form. The unique chemistry of the band—a morose yet controlled chaos—coupled with the indifferent confusion of Berninger’s lyrics provide the perfect soundtrack for embracing helplessness. As Berninger sings on “Racing Like a Pro”, “Sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something, sometimes you stay in bed/sometimes you go la de da de da de da until your eyes roll back into your head.” Never have mundane tasks done so much for the greater good.

30. Dr. DogFate (2008)

One of 2008’s most pleasant surprises, Fate was proof that year that rock and roll didn’t need to be big and flashy. Even the White Stripes sound like pure arena rock when put up against Dr. Dog, a band that combines the intricacies and complexities of Wilco with the older styles of bands like The Beach Boys. Even with that formula, Dr. Dog sound like they are light years away from everyone else here. The album opens with “The Breeze”, a kind of ode to feeling weird and the circumstances that arise from it. “Do you like things the way they seem, or are you lookin’ behind the scenes?” It’s almost as if Dr. Dog is quizzing the listener here—if you can truly answer yes to this question, then this is the album for you. There’s a bit of country, a bit of folk, and a lot of rock, and overall, it’s just an album that feels really good to listen to over and over again.

29. Rogue WaveOut of the Shadow (2004)

Seemingly out of the shadow of the sudden success of the Shins came this album, which was more or less a bedroom project of songwriter Zach Rogue. At the time, it excited a lot of folks about future Rogue Wave prospects. The next two Rogue Wave albums were recorded with full bands, but didn’t quite capture the magic of Out of the Shadow. This first album retains an honest, homemade feel that really lends itself well to Rogue’s subtle phrasing, and it’s almost as if putting him in front of a whole band was too much pressure, or just not his thing or something. Whatever the case, Out of the Shadow paints an excellently raw portrait of a Camus-like stoic trying to map the inner workings of his heart, and Rogue’s Paul Simon-esque delivery on “Man-Revolutionary!” adds just the right amount of vulnerability to make us think he could eventually figure out how to work the thing.

28. PortastaticBe Still Please (2006)

Superchunk may be the banner under which Mac McCaughan achieved his status as indie cult auteur, but Be Still Please (the 2006 offering from Portastatic, McCaughan’s solo project) is one of the finest records he has made—bold proof that he not only deserves more credit as a songwriter, but is in fact one of the indie generation’s greatest. As an album, it is a departure from everything McCaughan has done in any of his projects, boasting Dylan-esque arrangements and loads of unorthodox instrumentation like clarinet, oboe and bassoon. Given this fact, as well as the ultra-personal nature of the songs, one could wonder why McCaughan didn’t choose to release the album simply under his own name. It probably has something to do with the fact that—despite the overall melancholy tone of Be Still Please—he is still too rock and roll to pull that move. He could easily become the old guy who is still making music because a handful of people like him enough to buy his records, and to make it easier for them, he records and performs Michael McDonald style. But, as proven by the track “You Blanks”, he is anything but that guy: “All my songs used to end the same way/Everything’s gonna be okay/You fuckers made that impossible to say!” Whomever those “blanks” are, the tone is not an accommodating one, and it’s clear from this album’s beautiful beginnings to its whispery end that McCaughan is doing this for himself.

27. Band of HorsesCease to Begin (2007)

Creating something simple and beautiful is underrated anymore, and hopefully Band of Horses will get what they deserve for doing it so well. In this decade, they have made two glorious, 10-song gems of records that somehow sound completely original and realized without being over-produced or overwrought. Both albums sound like effortless breaths of fresh air in a world that has forgotten that possibilities still exist for rock music; Cease to Begin is simply the better one of these. “Is There A Ghost?” is the song that got them noticed, but aside from the minute-long filler of “Lamb on the Lam”, there is not a bad song on this album. The oddly titled “Detlef Schrempf” is one of the brightest moments—it boasts an incredible wordless hook fit for filled arenas everywhere, but is way too subdued to be considered a power ballad. Lead singer/songwriter Ben Bridwell has a great voice that just kind of inspires a passionate sing-along, and his songwriting goes hand in hand with this. It’s a winning formula that works just as well on slower songs like “Schrempf” and the incredible “Window Blues” as it does on rock tunes like “Islands on the Coast” and “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”.

26. Teenage FanclubHowdy! (2000)

Long-awaited but mildly received upon release, Howdy! was not the album fans of Teenage Fanclub were expecting at the time. Their previous release, Songs From Northern Britain, was a tour de force of Byrds-esque pop full of love anthems and power ballads and layer upon layer upon layer of vocal harmonies. For Howdy!, the Fanclub dial it back a few notches, exploring their patented extended riffs (“Near You”, “I Can’t Find My Way Home”, “My Uptight Life”) with a patience that only the experience of age can bring. They may be older and light years away from their 90’s weaning here, but Raymond McGinley, Gerard Love and Norman Blake each offer up a near-perfect batch of songs that play with what one experiences while growing older and realizing what one wants to make of their lives. “If I Never See You Again”, the album’s closer, sums up this idea with a simple picking pattern and a mere twelve words, while “My Uptight Life” does it with the help of a moog organ and a stellar refrain that continues for nearly four minutes. Though it is done quite subtly, it seems both extremes of power pop’s possibilities, and almost everything in between, are celebrated on Howdy!.

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