This past decade, the digital revolution has changed how we listen to music. Ten years ago I took a portable CD player and a case of discs on car trips. Now I have all that functionality and much more in pocket-sized device. Amazing.
Digital music has changed how we buy music. Ten years ago, iTunes didn't exist. Now it is the world's largest seller of music, digital or physical. I bought my last CD two or three years ago.
Some people speculate that digital music will eventually kill the album format. Artists will instead opt for shorter, more frequent releases - perhaps regularly releasing singles. I hope and pray that won't happen.
The album is a wonderful format. Like a good book or movie, a good album has a central theme or feeling. A good album isn't a collection of good singles; it's not even a collection of good songs. A good album is a series of songs which play off and compliment one another contributing to the work as a whole. This involves pacing, variety, and creativity in each individual song. In other words, a good album is greater than the sum of its parts.
I decided to make a list of my "Top 5 Favourite Albums of the Decade" almost six months ago. I quickly discovered I couldn't narrow it down that much, so I've gone with a more traditional "Top 10" list. Here are the rules:
1. Only one album per artist
2. Must be full-length albums (no EPs)
3. Must have been release between 2000 and 2009 (obviously)
I'm sure I will look back on this list in the future and wonder why I picked some of these albums. It is inevitable. But I am human. I reserve the right to be inconsistent. For now, these are my favourites.
10. I See Things Upside Down
“I’ve got faith in the bank and money in my heart”
I would be remiss if Christian singer/songwriter Derek Webb did not make this list. I have long been disillusioned with the Christian music scene for lack of creative innovation and imitation of the secular music business. There are a few exceptions, however. Three of them made my list.
Actually, I say Webb is a “Christian musician” but he’s something of a pariah in the CCM world. His usage of “strong language” has gotten him in trouble with Christian bookstores on more than one occasion. But I don’t have time to discuss that controversy here. Beside, those were different albums.
Despite some Christians’ dislike of Webb’s approach, I would argue that he, in fact, writes better, more honest, more Christian music than the likes of Mercy Me and Casting Crowns. Webb has taken Matthew 7:3’s admonition to fix one’s own faults before others. His debut solo album (he’s also a member of Caedmon’s Call) She Must and Shall Go Free was a criticism of the modern American church.
I See Things Upside Down carries Webb’s message further and moves from folk-influenced acoustic rock to more broad and artful musical territory sometimes bordering on the experimental. What remains unchanged are his brilliant, beautiful and challenging lyrics. Through them we are shown how we as Christians, as a church; as a culture do indeed have things backwards.
The title comes from the album’s final song: “And I give myself to what looks like love//and I sell myself for what feels like love//and I pay to get what is not love//and all just because I, I see things upside down.” We do indeed. I cannot say the things Webb says in this album any better than he, so I won’t try.
I don’t always agree with everything Derek Webb has to say or how he says it, but I appreciate what he’s doing and for now, at least, he seems to be the only one doing it.
9. Sea Change
“These days I barely get by"
This might be the saddest album ever. Admittedly, I’ve never heard Blood on the Tracks, but come on. I’m not a “professional.” Also, Bob Dylan can sure write some awesome lyrics, but his voice – uh, eh, ugh. So let’s just call this the saddest album of the decade, ‘k?
Oh my. Beck Hanson. What a weird dude. Allow me to list for you some of his singles: “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack,” “Steve Threw Up,” “Beercan,” “Mixed Bizness.” Wow. That tells you a lot right there. There are others I can’t (shouldn’t) even list the names of. Nevertheless, I like a lot of this guy’s music. He’s always done his own thing in deference to most popular music and for that he gains a bit of my admiration. In recent years he’s classed-up his act significantly beginning with this album.
Sea Change is the product of Beck’s grief after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. The pain of that loss is palpable. It does a better job of conveying the emotion of deep personal loss and loneliness better than any other album I’ve heard. When Beck comes to the titular lyric on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” I just want to shout to him, “No, man! No you aren’t!” and give him a hug. Ok, maybe that’s a little weird. Listen to the song; you’ll know what I mean.
Among the best songs are “The Golden Age,” “Paper Tiger,” “Sunday Sun,” and “Little One,” which have the sonic fingerprints of producer Nigel Godrich (who also produced my number one pick. Hint! Hint!) all over them. Godrich’s distinct “layers of sound” elevate Beck’s “guy with a guitar” approach to another level. Though intensely personal, the songs sound sweeping and epic. The tragedy is small in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re the one experiencing it, your world is being rocked.
Sea Change may be a downer, but it’s a beautiful downer.
8. Letters to the Editor, Volume 1
“I caught myself looking in the mirror wishing I was someone else”
Technically, this isn’t a full album. It’s only 6 songs and 20 minutes long. But it’s awesome and I don’t care. I’m breaking my own rules.
This album is the essence of singer/songwriter music. It’s honest, personal, heartfelt, and just a bit sappy. Plus artist Andrew Osenga gave this away as a free download on his website (you can still get it as of this writing). C’mon, go give it a listen. It’s free.
Listening to this, you might not believe that it’s actually a concept album. Sort of. Osenga had his fans send him inspirational tidbits – photos, poems, stories, quotes, etc. – that he could use as inspiration. Using only one acoustic guitar per song, his voice, and as much multi-tracking of the two as he wanted, he wrote and recorded the album within two weeks. He struck gold as far as I’m concerned.
There’s a PDF attached to the download which explains where all the inspiration comes from. It’s really cool to hear how the making of this album was a collective effort and yet it sounds very personal.
I absolutely love every one of these songs for the same reason I love all good folk. Either I have experienced these feelings and situation myself or I can easily relate to them. “Wanted,” which as far as I’m concerned is one of the best love songs ever, describes that essential element of any relationship “and if you say that you want me to//I’ll believe you to follow through//all I want is to be wanted by you.” “The Ball Game” is about the clash between dreams and reality; “The Blessing Curse” poignantly reminds us “getting what you want is both a blessing and a curse.”
But my favourite song is the closer “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates” a beautiful song about the promise of Heaven. Osenga wisely chose to break his own rule (much as I have in choosing this album) toward the end of the song by including a choir of voices sent in by his fans.
If this were a full-length album, I’d probably place it much higher on my list. Just the fact that I’m breaking my own rules should tell you how much I love this album… or how little regard I have for my own rules. Either one. But seriously, I love this album.
7. In Between Dreams
“Love is the answer at least for most of the questions in my heart”
I feel confident saying this is the best album Jack Johnson will ever produce. If I am wrong, I will happily acknowledge my mistake.
I wouldn’t say I’m a Jack Johnson fan. I’m an In Between Dreams fan. Most of Johnson’s stuff sounds the same no matter what he’s singing about or what kind of guitar he’s playing. So whether you like Jack Johnson’s music will depend directly on how much you like his style because he hasn’t and isn’t likely to change it much. Somehow all his distilled essence as a songwriter and a person wound up on this single album. And it’s magnificent.
Jack infuses the whole album an obvious Hawaiian flavour. It’s the use of Hawaiian phrases, the ukulele, and the general relaxed sound. There’s no hurry, no rush to get anywhere which makes this album sort of a nice music refuge from the insufferable fast-pace of the modern world.
In fact, this album is a genial criticism of modern life. Jack seems to be telling us all the slow down especially “Banana Pancakes.” In “Good People” he questions the ethics and morality of television; on “Crying Shame” he questions our motives for war. If there’s any central message to this album it’s probably “chill out.”
Having been fortunate enough to vacation in Hawaii, I can understand this frame-of-mind. There they have a concept known as “island time.” Maybe it’s just something they tell tourists. Maybe it’s an actual psychological effect of living on an island. I don’t know. But I felt it when I was there. We’re always rushing. Why? It seems like some people just can’t take a break no matter how badly they need to recharge.
So next time you’re overstressed and you need a break, turn on In Between Dreams: perhaps the most relaxing album of this past decade. Hang loose.
Ok, I promise this is the last singer/songwriter album on the list!
6. Mute Math
“Can I break the spell of the typical”
In a word: yes.
Mute Math is in an odd place as a band right now. They’re still flying below the radar in many circles but are beginning to gain traction in others. I am proud to say I discovered them back in 2006 when this gem of a debut album first gained wide release. Is this how indie-music people feel all the time?
I was immediately hooked by their lead single “Typical” and its accompanying music video. Even if you generally dislike music videos, you owe it to yourself to watch “Typical.” Seriously. Go do it right now.
That video and song are a perfect nutshell description of the band: their energy, creativity and quest to break the mold. And somehow they have. Mute Math is a nigh-perfect merger of post-rock, experimental electronica, and progressive influences into an accessible pop form. The result is something futuristic, though not entirely avant-garde.
Plus these guys are just talented. All of them are great at what they do and if that’s not enough, they’re also multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Darren King’s mad skills shine throughout, especially when he goes nuts toward the end of “Reset.” More than anything, Mute Math is a drum-driven band. Bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas whom I had the good fortune to meet in person, gets to rock the double bass on the fantastic instrumental “Obsolete.” Keyboardist and vocalist Paul Meany who used to rap with Earthsuit (wow) can be alternately smooth and gentle or rough and wild with his voice which is perfect for their style. Guitarist Greg Hill displays the ability to play a variety of styles to suit the many influences of the band.
All this talent carries over into the live experience. If you ever get the chance to see Mute Math live, do not pass it up. I when to a show last October and I can safely say it was the most amazing concert I’ve ever seen. Just talk to anyone who’s been to a Mute Math show and they’ll tell you a similar story.
And though talent and showmanship doesn’t always lead to fame and popularity, I think if Mute Math continues on their present course they have the potential to be one of the major bands of this coming decade.
5. The Eleventh Hour
Jars of Clay
“Your love can make these things better”
Those who know the band and especially those who know me are probably wondering why I picked this album over Good Monsters which is generally considered superior. Good Monsters won numerous accolades upon its release and brought many former Jars listeners back into the fold. But wait a second - ! The Eleventh Hour won the band their third consecutive Grammy and was also critically acclaimed (not that I care about the critics).
So both albums are very, very good. What makes The Eleventh Hour superior in my estimation? One word: pacing. When Monsters was first released I loved it. I totally ignored the one complaint consistently lodged against the album. But it’s true, unfortunately. Good Monsters is a better collection of songs; this is a better album.
In one word The Eleventh Hour is about love, possibly the most common theme in all of music and especially in Jars’. But this isn’t a simple collection of love songs though it may seem like that at first glance. Nearly every song can be seen as a romantic love song or a song about God’s love for humanity and for every individual in particular. And it works. Sure, this is an approach that’s been tried before, but nothing is unoriginal which is done excellently.
Although there are a few exceptions, this theme is evident in songs like Scarlet: “And this old scarlet letter won’t keep me from holding you//and there is nothing you do” which might speak of a lover’s willingness to forgive a wayward partner or God’s willingness to forgive us. Silence centers on doubt and loneliness: “I thought you were silent//and I thought you left me for the wreckage and the waste//on that empty beach of faith”. The album’s closer The Edge of Water longs for the return of a lover which is an illusion to the Second Coming: “Will you chase away these shadows when you come back again?”
Musically, this album is an adept blend of alternative rock, pop, and folk. It’s not as acoustically-driven as the band’s earlier releases or as heavy as some of the stuff on Good Monsters.
It’s a lot of fun to listen to a given song in one context and then again in the other. On the one hand you get a deftly-written love song, on the other you get a song with deep theological implications. This album is for those in love either with another person or with our Creator. I think it does an equally good job of illustrating both.
“We live in a beautiful world”
Let me begin by saying I love all of Coldplay’s current albums. This was the most difficult choice for this list. I knew Coldplay had to be represented somehow. Not only were they perhaps the biggest band of the decade, but they were also one of the few massively popular artists I feel actually deserve their large following. Are Coldplay overrated? Absolutely. Most bands are.
Aside from the massive cultural influence the band enjoyed this past decade, I just love their music which is odd because I certainly don’t like all arena rock. There’s just something about Chris Martin’s longing, emotive lyrics and vocals that smacks of utter sincerity even if he is singing to the entire world.
Parachutes, however, is a different story. Before they blew up, before they went semi-arena rock, they were just Coldplay: a little English band-that-could. It’s the group’s only album where the name “Coldplay” seems to really fit the music. It’s largely mellow and relaxed – not rushing to build itself up to a higher plane, just content to meander though visual metaphors and sweet emotional expressions. To illustrate the difference between Parachutes-era Coldplay and later Coldplay, just listen to the hit songs “Yellow” and “Clocks” back-to-back.
Not everything on Parachutes is mellow. “Shiver,” one of my favourite rock songs, showed not only what the band could do, but also the versatility of Chris Martin and his amazing trademark falsetto. “Spies” brings the tempo and volume down with a beautiful guitar arrangement and from there the tranquil mellow sound takes over.
Of all Coldplay’s albums, Parachutes is the sweetest and most sincere – but, y’know, in a good way.
The White Stripes
“A seven nation army couldn't hold me back”
Ah, Elephant. What can I say about this album? What can I say about The White Stripes for that matter? You’ve got to admire Jack White’s attitude about making music. You can tell that it’s absolutely one of his favourite things in the world. To him, making music is about love. Music is love and anything that gets in the way or covers up the raw emotion and feeling (like overproduction) should be done away with. Yes, music is a business, but not during the creation process!
Thus we have The White Stripes and band that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: a guy with a guitar and a girl with a drum set. Though they’ve lately broken away from that simple beginning in favor of a more varied instrument set, this is their best album. It stands halfway between the very indie-sounding (read: rough) first few albums and the experimentation with their formula found on later albums. It’s a good place to be.
Of course you’ve got the rocking single “Seven Nation Army” to kick things off but it turns out that’s not terribly representative of the album’s sound. “Army” always sounded modern to me while most of the other songs clearly have older influences.
“Blues rock” is the best descriptor of this kind of music, I think. It’s like if B.B. King played everything with fuzz guitar and talked primarily about unrequited love and self-doubt… and used lots of power chords… and was white. That’s basically Jack White. Sort of. Not exactly. My apologies to B.B. King and everyone knowledgeable about popular music for that analogy. Please disregard.
If you’ve only ever heard “Seven Nation Army,” you owe it to yourself to check out the rest of this album. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s a throwback to a time when music was more about heart and style than production and grooming.
My only problem with is album is the cover. It’s supposed to somehow form a hidden picture of an elephant though I’ve never been able to see it. Grrr.
“I've been learning to drive my whole life”
Originally I was going to list Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible in third place. Neon Bible though generally well-thought-of is widely considered inferior to their debut. It was my first exposure to the band and is definitely more polished and reserved than Funeral.
Fortunately I came to my senses in time to declare this my number two album of the decade.
Actually, when I “discovered” what this album was about, I thought about debunking my long-chosen number one pick, but no. I think this is the right decision. For now.
The album, quite simply, is about growing up. The title Funeral refers to the death of childhood either figuratively or literally. Lost is our childlike innocence and ignorance. Open to us is the frightening new world of adulthood with a set of new challenges and lessons.
This is an absolutely beautiful album start-to-finish. It’s an especially applicable theme for me since I “came of age” this past decade. Arcade Fire makes it seem personal by using language, experiences, and feelings that broadly evoke memories of childhood. I know that magical feeling described in “Tunnels”: “And if the snow buries my neighborhood… then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.” And those clipping, screeching, “unpolished” vocals that I couldn’t stand on my first few listens so beautifully convey the emotional heights and depths of childhood and growing up.
My favourite song “In the Backseat” contains the entire theme in a perfect, poignant nutshell. As children we ride carefree in the backseat of the car while our parents worry about the logistics of travel: “I don’t have to drive//I don’t have to speak//I can watch the countryside and I can fall asleep.” But we are growing up whether we realize it; whether we want it. The cycle of life continues and age comes to us all: “My family tree’s losing all its leaves//crashing toward the driver’s seat.” And suddenly we wake up and realize we are adults: “Alice died in the night//I’ve been learning to drive my whole life.” Lyrically, vocally, and musically it’s an amazing finish to an album that’s as sweetly beautiful, tragic, and emotionally tremulous as childhood – and indeed life – itself.
1. Kid A
“Everything in its right place”
I bet there are some eyes rolling. "Oh, he picked Kid A. Everybody picked that." But I'm seriously one of those strange people who "get" this album. I genuinely think it's brilliant and not because I was told to think that. In fact, I hated it during my first few listens. But there was something strangely enticing that kept me coming back.
Music is an inherently strange thing. When it comes right down to it, it’s just an arrangement of sonic patterns which somehow appeal to us. And music has power. Music entertains, makes us dance, makes us sing, and moves us emotionally. But only very special music can transport your mind to another place. Kid A will do that if you let it.
As I indicated, this album has made numerous “album of the decade” lists, often landing at number one. Beyond being a spectacular sonic journey, this album was an incredibly bold offering from a band that was already considered to be at the top of their game. Their previous album OK Computer, also a masterpiece, was universally acclaimed but if you listen to that album and then play Kid A you’ll wonder what in the world happened to Radiohead’s guitar-driven alternative rock sound.
It takes guts for a band to reinvent themselves while at the top of their game, but it takes true genius for that reinvention to work as well as Kid A does. Radiohead took the basic formula of 3 – 5 minute rock songs, stripped out many of the familiar sonic elements, rearranged others and ended up with something that wasn’t entirely new, but sounded completely original and unfamiliar… and amazing.
This album has some of the best art ever. It's a perfect visual illustration of the music. Kid A is a dream. Perhaps it’s the fantasy we in modern society have been living for years.
At first we are out on the ice in a veritable winter wonderland with tall, icy mountains lingering on the horizon. We do not even notice the fire that burns beyond them. We are happy and oblivious. Everything in its right place. But soon cracks in the dream begin to show. “The National Anthem” declares “everyone has got the fear.” “In Limbo” outright tells us “You’re living in a fantasy world.” By the album’s conclusion we finally see the harsh reality behind the dream. The final track, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” is an ethereal symphony led by an organ. It sounds lofty and magnificent, but somehow hollow – like our dream. “It’s not like the movies; they fed us on little white lies.” The façade is gone. The nightmare is creeping in.
Of course that’s just my interpretation of this confusing and hazy album. But I find it eerily fitting for a decade defined by fear, mistrust, and the disillusion of naïve dreams. Let’s hope Radiohead’s follow-up album Amnesiac isn’t an accurate description of the 2010s.
And that's it! I'd really love to hear your opinions. What are your favourite albums from the past 10 years? If you've bothered to read this far, you might as well comment, right? End long, long post!