Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Best Albums of the 2000s

The end of a decade is always a fun time for music coverage, with critics and commentators scrambling to sum up what defined the era, how music evolved, what the best records were, and ultimately predict the future. But if you really think about it, our sense of time is already such an ambiguous concept, and so let's face it: organizing these massive examinations by every ten years is just silly. Why not 8 years? Or 15? We ignore this fallacy because terms like "the 80s" or "the 60s" are just catchy, and luckily enough, for most of the past 50 years, musical movements and narratives did vaguely fit into their neatly-packed increments.

But looking back on this decade in particular makes it difficult to ignore thoughts about how we should start thinking about music. Because how do you try to thoroughly sum up or characterize a decade that seemed to be defined by how fractured and spread out music had become? For true music-philes growing up in the 2000s, there wasn't a clear, single, overarching narrative; simply thousands of smaller ones. The fractured breakdown and diversion of music was already getting started in the 80's and moreso in the 90's, but throughout the 00s it's been extremely obvious. And so it's really hard to deny that a discussion of "significance," when most of the highest-selling albums are absolute crap, has begun to seem more and more irrelevant. Sure, we could talk about the cultural impact of Kelly Clarkson's "Since You Been Gone," or the meaning of Peter Wentz's myspace/MTV whore antics, but that's just depressing.

So, it makes sense that as time goes on, these "end of the decade" lists and indeed, music coverage in general, might begin to embrace the more subjective human experience that goes into music-listening. The popularity of Pitchfork, blogs and their occasional, more informal style of writing has proven this. All the music in the world is available to us with just a coupe of clicks, and there's such a huge amount of good music in such a wide variety (very little of which gets the attention and fame it deserves) that every individual experience has become drastically different. Public taste has gotten so specific and complex that attempts to gather them all into a single group and definitively, 'objectively' cover it (say, in the way that Rolling Stone once did), is just impossible. So why not just embrace the subjectivity?

This list was created with that in mind. Influence, impact, importance, weren't factors in deciding what made the cut; these are just the albums that I personally enjoy more than any other. Most of the choices themselves are probably not what you're gonna find on most of the typical "end-of-decade" lists (even though some are). Furthermore, it's ordered from the earliest I heard to the latest, and I make my subjective experience of each album very clear, dissecting why the album is personally important to me; the memories I have listening to it, the chapter of my life that it soundtracked, or what the album means to me. Afterward, I talk about the album on a more generalized level; what it sounds like, what it means for its respective music scene, influence, importance or why I think it deserves to be singled out as one of the best of decade. But the goal is to analyze not only the past ten years of music, but also the past ten years of my life, because for those of us truly consumed by the art form, the two are inseparable.

Honorable Mentions

There are hundreds upon hundreds of albums that didn't make this list, and not enough time to name drop all the good or great ones that came out of this decade. But there is time to mention the incredible ones. They're not quite perfection, but are still classics of the era.

Aesop Rock - Float (2000)
At The Drive In - Relationship Of Command (2000)
The Avalanches - Since I Left You (2000)
Boris - Flood (2000)
Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 (2000)
Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (2000)
Jedi Mind Tricks - Violent By Design (2000)
Modest Mouse - The Moon And Antarctica (2000)
Queens of The Stone Age - Rated R (2000)
Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
Reflection Eternal - Train of Thought (2000)
A Silver Mt. Zion - He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms... (2000)
Sunn O))) - Void 00 (2000)
Blink 182 - Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (2001)
Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein (2001)
Converge - Jane Doe (2001)
Daft Punk - Discovery (2001)
Death Cab For Cutie - The Photo Album (2001)
Fugazi - The Argument (2001)
Liars - They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top (2001)
M83 - M83 (2001)
The Microphones - The Glow Pt. 2 (2001)
Opeth - Blackwater Park (2001)
A Silver Mt. Zion - "Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward" (2001)
The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
Beck - Sea Change (2002)
Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2002)
The Decemberists - Castaways And Cutouts (2002)
Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)
Mastodon - Remission (2002)
Sonic Youth - Murray Street (2002)
Spoon - Kill The Moonlight (2002)
The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)
The Books - The Lemon of Pink (2003)
Boris - Boris At Last: Feedbacker (2003)
Explosions In The Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (2003)
The Mars Volta - De Loused In The Comatorium (2003)
Menomena - I Am The Fun Blame Monster (2003)
The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Sunn O))) - White1 (2003)
Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain (2003)
Xiu Xiu - A Promise (2003)
Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
Blonde Redhead - Misery Is A Butterfly (2004)
Brian Wilson - Smile (2004)
Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm A Machine (2004)
Elliott Smith - From A Basement on The Hill (2004)
Madvillain - Madvillainy (2004)
The National - Alligator (2005)
Opeth - Ghost Reveries (2005)
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)
Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies (2006)
Ghostface Killah - Fishscale (2006)
Jay Dee - Donuts (2006)
Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)
The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America (2006)
Liars - Drum's Not Dead (2006)
Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam (2007)
Battles - Mirrored (2007)
Burial - Untrue (2007)
Dan Deacon Spiderman of The Rings (2007)
Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog (2007)
LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
M83 - Digital Shades Vol. 1 (2007)
Menomena - Friend And Foe (2007)
Omar Rodriguez Lopez - Calibration (Is Pushing Luck and Key Too Far) (2007)
Panda Bear - Person Pitch (2007)
Have A Nice Life - Deathconsciousness (2008)
The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (2008)
Lindstrom - Where You Go I Go Too (2008)
Omar Rodriguez Lopez - Old Money (2008)
A Silver Mt. Zion - 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons (2008)
TV On The Radio - Dear Science (2008)
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (2008)
Atlas Sound - Logos (2009)
Bat For Lashes - Two Suns (2009)
The Decemberists - The Hazards Of Love (2009)
Do Make Say Think - Other Truths (2009)
MF Doom - Born Like This (2009)
Mono - Hymn To The Immortal Wind (2009)
Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2 (2009)

...and without further ado...

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennaes To Heaven (2000)

I first heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor not long after getting home internet access, and so they represented a major milestone in the development of my music taste. This was exactly the kind of band that I could have only gotten into through a computer; the sort of music that no matter how much I heard about, I could never find on the radio. It was a challenge; not only were the track lengths intimidating, but I didn't have a laptop or even an ipod yet, so in order hear all this new music and my fingertips, I had to sit in the the living room at the desktop and deal with my dad being drunk and vile-mouthed In the background all the time. I remember coming across "Sleep" through my last.fm radio but not being able to finish it because the program kept crashing, and Limewire didn't seem to have any reliable downloads that weren't damaged. I must've spent almost an hour trying to finish that song, listening to the senile old man speech about sleeping on Coney Island at least 5 times and still preferring that to the loud belligerence of my dad. When I finally got to the last movement of the song, around 19 minutes in, he had turned his insults towards my mom. I heard things being thrown, objects crashing, as the cascading, driving hopeful progression built to a moving climax. It was a long wait, but that was one of the first times my hair actually stood up while listening to something. Lift Your Skinny Fists taught me how gloriously patience with challenging music could really pay off.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor may very well be the greatest and most important Post-Rock band of all time. They didn't stick around like Mogwai, Mono or Do Make Say Think, but that's only because they didn't have to. In 3 LP's and an EP, they led each and every wave of the post-rock movement, from the late 90's to the late 00's, and provided a near-perfect template for soundtracking the apocalypse. One would be hard-pressed to deny the greatness of at least 3 of those 4 albums but Lift Your Skinny Fists... especially, stands tall in stature above every other post-rock album of its time. While most of their albums were about mankind screwing themselves over through greed, global warming and capitalism, Lift Your Skinny Fists... felt more about the passion, will and triumph amidst all the inevitable fire, brimstone and chaos. For many burgeoning teenage indie-kids, it had to be an essential tool for retaining idealism throughout the frustration of adolesence. If GY!BE, a band that once opened their albums with cheery declarations like, "We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death", could aknowledge that there's hope for humanity, then ANYONE could.

2. Xiu Xiu - Fabulous Muscles (2004)

"Cremate me after you cum on my lips, Honey boy place my ashes in a vase, beneath your workout bench. No romance no sexiness, But a star-filled night, kneeling down before the now familiar flesh of your deformed penis, Wigging out before the unfamiliar flesh of my broken neck" Few songs have confused me upon first listen as much as the title track from my first Xiu Xiu album. When I first heard those lyrics, I didn't know whether to laugh, be disturbed, disgusted, or moved. I was still a kid. The indie-alternative world of grays and striking emotions was gradually opening up to me, but my preferred style was still simple stuff; bands like Bad Religion and Green Day. Xiu Xiu was one of the bands that changed that. The idea that dysfunction was a measurable, quantifiable element of human behavior had just become a major belief of mine; I could see layers of fog inevitably settling over people who were once abused or neglected, and there seemed to be very few people who I would tell my anxiety about this to who really picked up on it or even seemed at all concerned. Everyone wants to believe that people have choice and the power to change. No one wants to think that they're inclined to negativity or attracted to drama. But Jamie Stewart understood perfectly. Rape, abused families, war, self-loathing, and an appropriately confrontational way of exposing it all that bordered on the avant garde. With Fabulous Muscles, He expressed himself in a way that made me completely jealous. Today I have way more faith in people, but every single time I re-listen to Fabulous Muscles, that visceral feeling of hopelessness in the face of conditioning hits me just as hard as it used to.

Why listen to music that only offers straightforward, catchy entertainment or that only explores serious lyrical issues and intellectual stimulation from experimentalism, when you can listen to music that does both? Fabulous Muscles is the de-facto example of the decade. The almost nonsensical video game bleeps of "Crank Heart" and "Brian The Vampire" seem determined to irritate the listener, but they can't overpower Jamie Stewart's ear for a good hook. Adversely, the hum-along qualities of a perfect track like "Clowne Towne" can't drown out his preference for unsettling lyrics and a quivering self-destructive voice. The percussion throughout feels like it was simply pulled out of a hat of miscellaneous objects, drum machine fragments, and cut-copied found sounds and yet...some of this actually manages to be danceable. There's also the sheer variety of everything. "Support Our Troops OH!" is a pure exploration of the avant-garde, abrasive poetry, menacing noise and performance art. But, what follows? A gorgeous and delicate acoustic ballad. Some might say the result is just too scattered, but if the goal is to make something striking and confrontational, this balance of aesthetics can't be overlooked. Jamie Stewart's sense of conventionalism is inherent just enough to fool the listener into a false sense of security, so that when he does whip out something overflowing with emotion and abrasiveness, it hits even harder than it would; perhaps harder than anything else could. Good luck finding an album that sounds more generally unsettling than Fabulous Muscles.

3. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (2005)

My first two years at High School was the most awkward time of my life. Don't get me wrong, no one shakes off every single insecurity by the time they're my age now, but from 2003 to 2005 the mental muck was just crippling. The one time that I felt like a real person, however, was record shopping. I took off during open lunches to go to the local Tower Records, skipped classes to travel to Amoeba in the Haight, left class early to go downtown and flip through Rasputin. Sometimes I didn't even buy anything; I would just browse records and listen to what was being played on the speakers. If it was good, I'd ask who it was. What I was doing was building an identity through musical knowledge and taste. I covered my backpack with pins and patches, decorated my binders with collages of stickers, band pics and liner note fragments and shamelessly wore music t-shirts from hot topic. It was my way of saying, "look, I know I don't talk much, but there's a lot of passion for life and curiosity under this veil of shyness and acne," but it probably just made me come off as a poser. And there was a part of me that sorta knew I was a poser as well, because here I was, purchasing an album by a band I knew nothing about, from a genre I had no interest in (Riot-Grrl), because the empire of cool (spear-headed by a certain unnamed publication...) had told me to. A lot of the bands I got into and name-dropped before this, I didn't really have much of a deep-seated interest in. I just felt like I should - I had an interest in having a challenge, especially if the end result would be mastering something; even if it was as insignificant as music know-how. Imagine my surprise to find how easy it was to like Sleater-Kinney; they yelled, they rocked out for 11 minutes straight, they were political, they were angry. I always thought a lot of indie music wasn't known for a reason; because it was challenging, it was subtle, it was well...sometimes boring. But this was so immediate and in your face. The barriers between mainstream and indie were starting to break down in my mind. Why did I even care about these tags? In retrospect though, I don't regret trying to make myself like music that I didn't immediately. It trained my ears, deepened my open-mindedness, and enabled me to just grow the fuck up. When I listen to The Woods today, it reminds me of how standing at the edge of adolesence felt, ready to plunge into some early semblance of maturity.

The producer for The Woods was one of the most unlikely choices of the decade. With distortion constantly in the red, solos that squirm and crunch as discordantly as possible, vocal chords that aggressively clutch balls while kicking faces in and dinosaur drums that take their John Bonham worship very seriously, music this sloppy could have just as easily been handled by Steve Albini. But instead, the credits list the producer of calculated symphonic pop masterpieces like The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs. Pre-release, Sleater-Kinney fans were probably pretty worried. So Dave Fridmann deserves extra credit for reigning in his taste for the expansive and using his knowledge of sound just to finally allow these 3 northwestern vixens be as loud as they've always wanted to be. Where some might have cried "sell out," others perceptively observed how Sleater-Kinney's entire timeline of reinventing the riot-grrl wheel seemed to be leading up to this fiery implosion of impassioned, jam-tastic guitar bliss; an album in which feminism claimed the signature Led Zeppelin cock-rock of the 70's as their own and twisted it into something that rivals even the best of the bunch.

4. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

I was a lover before this war, right? It had been a while since I knew the way. I could recall being against the wall, under the stars, talking about love meaning. And well, I wasn't dreaming. I meant every word, just to know her demons. But the weather changed and the river froze and when it thawed?... Well, there was this Cookie Mountain I kept hearing about, see? Something to wash the day away. And I had never inquired how to be free, I Just stayed on my knees. I kept trying to slice through the ether, but she was still gleaming like mother of pearl. And I know it was somewhere, but where?... My senior year of high school wasn't very stable. There was a lot of relationship drama. But Return To Cookie Mountain kept me sane during the turbulence. I started going on lot's of aimless walks throughout the city, with it spinning on repeat. It actually didn't leave my regular rotation for more than 2 months; a record for me at the time. I explored a lot of the city I had never even seen before and the choruses of New York art-student Doo Wop voices and tribal-urban-noise seemed to be seeping out of the nooks, crannys and sewage holes of of every neighborhood corner. There was something about the album that made it sync up with the San Francisco environment and truly speak to me; the two coasts were working together, trying to tell me that something was not right with my current reality. I really don't know what I would've done without this album.

Has New York ever been anything less than a breeding ground for talent? From The Strokes debut early in the decade to the recent explosion of creativity in post-modernist tribalism in pop-fusion, the city seems to be incapable of going a single year without offering something truly special to the new music scene. The chances of there not being a NY album on this list, or indeed any "best of the decade" list should be slim to none. The question of which album is more pressing, but not that much more. What it will ultimately come down to for many is Turn On The Bright Lights or Return To Cookie Mountain. Return To Cookie Mountain, however, has more modern relevance going for it. Turn On The Bright Lights was a revolution for the way it brilliantly gathered old influences (Joy Division, The Smiths, Gang of Four) into a new whole, but it just as easily could have been released any time of the 90's or even the late 80's. The same goes for classics like Is This It or indeed, most of the early decade's best albums. But TV On The Radio has been a band born distinctly out of the 00's. Post punk, 80's jangle pop and college radio staples were replaced by world music, electronica and hodgepodge miscellania like doo-wop or dub. Along with artists like Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend and MIA, they helped give the current decade an identity of its own and represented a new breed of artists entirely; a completely new pot of influences far more removed from what so many in the jaded world of indie music had become so used to.

5. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

After a long year of ups, downs and constant unsureness, the finality of things were finally starting to set in. Summer was ending, college was gonna begin, and the breakup of my first, longest, and most significant relationship to date began and ended with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Since that experience, it's continued to be my recurring breakup album. Laying awake at night in the dark not sure what to do, Jeff Tweedy's confusion gave me instant clarity. Yeah, the purposeful vagueness of a lot of his gestures meant that the album could essentially mean whatever I wanted it to, depending on how I was feeling. It was just reaffirmation therapy and happened to hit me at the right moment. But the more I listened, the more I began to feel that all the self-doubt inherent in the lyrics and the way the music would fall apart at random just couldn't be about anything else. "I've got reservations about so many things...but not about you." This was a breakup album. It could change from situation to situation, but it still always will be my breakup album.

In retrospect, it's hard to believe that Warner Bros couldn't accept Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yes, it's quirky, forward-thinking, experimentally produced and obtuse, but at the core of all the fragmented soundscaping are conventional Jeff Tweedy classic rock songs. This is still Americana, it's just an upgraded version, tweaked for the new cynical-minded, post 9/11 America. Recently, I've begun to realize that this change of tone with the basic Rock language must have struck a nerve in the same way that anti-American sentiments in the aftermath of the Twin Towers did. There had to be something unsettling to the powers-that-be in the way that something so essentially American (whether Classic Rock or patriotism) could be tweaked into something so un-American (whether experimentalism or lack of faith in ones country). But the reactionary success of the album should have been a good sign at least. In the same way that people ultimately wised up a little politically, the music industry began to turn around for the better. If there's anything that characterizes the 00s in music, it's in the way artists and fans have used digital distribution and the internet to "take back" the art form. The CD is dying, artists are releasing albums for free online, bands are getting deals through social networking sites or ignoring record labels altogether and, in some cases, even making way more money because of it. And in retrospect, the way Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was denied by Warner Bros, released independently for free, and then bought back by the same company because of its critical acclaim and fan adoration, set an important standard. As for the music itself, it's a masterpiece, but all the hype means you probably already knew that.

6. Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

As much as the digitization of music throughout the decade has benefitted many bands, it's also taken something away from the music listening process. The ability to chop up albums into bite-size tracks, the increase in internet leaks and being able to listen to anything you want at any time for no fee makes it extremely easy to not appreciate music for the developmental process that it can provide. I had gotten to the point where I had too much music in too little time, and wasn't giving any of it the time and attention that's required to really form "bonds" with certain works. It had been too long since I had actually appreciated an album from start to finish in its intended form. With its "pay-as-much-as-you-want" internet-only release, In Rainbows cured this for me. Nevermind the implications it suggested to the music industry; just think about the profound experience huge Radiohead fans like myself had, waiting till midnight on October 9’th, 2007 to get the first listen. Released merely ten days after it’s announcement, the album never had a chance to lose momentum. There was no chance for a leak. Fans didn’t have to deal with that slow anti-climatic process of waiting months and months after a release date is announced, then drag themselves to the nearest record store during their lunch break. Everyone heard the album at the exact same time and, for a single night, a record release was once again an event. Throughout the year, I was beginning to prefer film and television over music, but this experience brought me back to my home-base with every bit of passion as I used to have for it.

The often-made comparison between Radiohead and The Beatles may be a bit of a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true, especially when examined on an album-to-album basis. You see, Pablo Honey represents the entirety of The Beatles' pre-Rubber Soul work - pleasant, but ultimately shallow, dated and ordinary. The Bends, much like Rubber Soul, was the band's first sign of ambition. Although firmly rooted in the same style, it showed mastery of the form, greater depth, and hints of future experimentations. Taking the place of Revolver, OK Computer pushed that adventurism to the forefront and introduced the “new Radiohead” as we know them now - paranoid, uneasy, and brilliant. Kid A, however, was their Sgt. Pepper. It was their single-minded and bodied statement, their great leap into the unknown and their vie for perfection. And then they dropped their White Album with Hail To The Thief: a sprawling work that went in all directions at once. So, as you guessed it, In Rainbows completes the parallel and functions as Radiohead's Abbey Road. On it, Radiohead take their last 10 years of experimentation and graft it onto their old style of songwriting, resulting in a work that concisely sums up their career in 10 distinct tracks. Another parallel is that In Rainbows is always relentlessly beautiful – warm and lush, where their other albums since the big change in sound (OK Computer and onward), were cold and a little detached. But as grand as In Rainbows gets in its most climactic moments, it’s usually defined by spaciousness, and so it’s perfect that it ends with the understated minimalism of “Videotape”. Such a choice seems to be in direct contrast with the closer of Radiohead’s other magnum-opus, Kid A, and is the conceptual stamp the album needs to establish it as a complimentary masterpiece to that classic. I mean, it's obvious that Radiohead knew that they knew they were composing a perfect album here. In interviews, Ed O’ Brien called it the last great album they needed in order to secure a legacy, and Thom Yorke cleverly makes his last line on the album, “I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Fans may have trouble shaking off the feeling that the album feels a bit too much like a collection of leftovers from throughout the band’s career, but that too, feels like it was part of the concept. Kid A and In Rainbows form two sides of the same coin. The former is conceptually precise with very few individual moments rising above the overall experience, while the latter is a scattershot collection of nothing but shining individual moments. And both are, track-for-track, two of the most accomplished and stimulating musical works of art of the decade.

7. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

Thank you, Santa. Merriweather Post Pavilion's leak on christmas morning was one of the best presents I've ever received. I remember being at my annual Xmas family get-together at my aunt's house in castro valley and just being distracted the entire time by how much I wanted to just rush home and play the shit out of those digital files. Merriweather Post Pavilion really hit me at one of my happiest times of the past couple of years (discounting now) and so every time I put it on, I just feel so happy. Good relationship, good grades, good financial standing, not much drama, everything was going swell and I had received something that I could hold as a tribute to one of my better years of the decade. Animal Collective reaffirmed my feelings of optimism and reminded me of my intentions to live as uncomplicated and stress-free a life as I could: "There isn't much that I feel I need, A solid soul and the blood I bleed...I don't care for fancy things, or to take part in the freshest wave, but to provide for mine who ask, I will with heart on my father's grave."

If you allow them into your life, well-done concept albums comprise the peaks of musical experience. They can change lives, they can alter minds and they can dig into your subconscious in ways that regular albums can't. As much as MPP may have appeared to fans like a simple performance document of their 2008 tour, the conceptual coherence of the work is what makes it the greatest album of the decade. Close listening reveals it to be the Dark Side of The Moon of our time; an Odysseus-like, hi-fi, pilgrimage through an alternate reality. Assuming that the tripped out album cover is not a coincidence, the album could be seen as an argument for subconscious exploration, whether that journey is embarked upon through drugs, dreams, music or any other form of therapy. The first track resembles going to sleep and entering the sub consciousness; taking the drug; beginning the album. The song opens with indecipherable noise, as if to signify all the obstacles from your daily life, before Avey Tare's otherworldly chants lulls you into a calm. He slyly suggests a form of relief; "If I could just leave my body for one night..." All of a sudden the band shows what he's talking about, with a blast of holy radiation. Heavenly synths rain down from the skies and the listener is drawn straight into the world of Merriweather Post Pavilion with the intention of discovering the euphoria this intro has hinted at. The following eight tracks represent that deranged trip through the minds' tangled weaves with various ups and downs and after a long stretch of fake-outs and misadventures though (see the textural feast, "Daily Routine" or the contrast between ugliness and excitement on "Summertime Clothes"), a definite epiphany is reached on the simple yet beautiful "No More Runnin"...and it's surprisingly quiet. Nighttime finally falls in this mystical land and the narrator seems ready to face his fears and challenges head on: "No more runnin...it's what I hoped for..." yawns a collection of sleepy voices in the distance. The final track, "Brothersport" takes that new initiative and charges forward with a fiery determination; straight faced optimism is abound with chants like "you've got to open up your throat!" and "You gotta have a real good time!" After a wonderful bridge in which Animal Collective get as close to Trance as they've ever gotten, the song breaks into one last orgasm of harmony. For 2 minutes, the culmination of all this soul searching is chanted repeatedly over a relentless hook: "You've got so much inside, let it come right out!" When it finally ends, don't be surprised if the colors of the world suddenly appear brighter.

8. Kanye West - Late Registration (2005)

Almost 4 Smirnoff ices, a shot of whisky and I was gone (keep in mind, I’m a lightweight). The dizziness kicked in, but I quickly guzzled 2 full glasses of water and I was stable, riding on a high. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t really celebrated New Years Eve in years. But here I was at a 2009 New Years party with most of my friends, meeting people left and right counting down the hours… A mental recreation of the stomping, celebratory “We Major” snuck into my head and stuck there until I finally arrived home at almost 6 in the morning. I was tired, but I just had to stay up another hour to listen to Late Registration from start to finish, because the infectiously boasting, pompous nature of the album was perfect for such an epic night… the following morning when I was laying in pain on the floor of the hospital waiting room, dry-heaving due to gastric-intestinitis, it wasn’t as appropriate, but once I had rehydrated myself later that night, another full listen to the Mr. West’s colorful and pristine production helped me recover from one of the most painful experiences of my life. Kanye West – the perfect soundtrack for partying and puking.

No one defending Late Registration as one of the few pop masterpieces of the decade is denying that Kanye still can’t rap for shit. But constant criticisms leveled at the Mr. West as a rapper is sorta missing the point. If all the people throwing accolades towards Kanye’s skills as a producer spent any time listening to what he had to say…well… they would’ve never listened to Kanye in the first place, because let’s face it: in the past decade, very few personalities in the music world have been more vocal and open about their total dedication to unjustified douchebaggery. To embrace Kanye is to embrace one of the purest, most undeniable examples of the style-over-substance aesthetic of the era. But once you manage to disconnect of the man from the music, what’s left is one of the more influential sound-scapers in modern pop (popularizing sped up chipmunk voices, and really deepening and diversifying the Rza-signature usage of soul samples) turning his signature style inside out and reaping relentlessly golden material from live instrumentation, trip hop and jazz influences, and classical arrangements. At the end of 2009 there still hasn’t been a song that’s sounded quite like “Heard ‘Em Say,” no handclap-infected banger as humorous and playful as the Ray Charles’ sampled “Gold Digger,” no single production as glamorous, shiny and pompous as the horn-infected stomp into heaven, “Celebration,” and very few tracks have reached the same drama as “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Hate on Ye as you want, but there hasn't been too many artists as successful as him in keeping musical sophistication alive in the billboard charts.

9. MF Doom - MM..Food (2004)

Mediocrity never felt so fun. When I got around to digging into the MF Doom library, I wasn't exactly at the most triumphant time of my life. I was unemployed, broke, single, smoking a lot, really bummed about still living at my parents house and the only conceivable cure for my loser blues was a long all-nighter on the computer screen with AIM, a quart of ice cream and MM..Food blasting at full volume on my headphones. Listening to this album from start to finish, track by track, with internet friends, was always worth it and no other album was played more frequently when it came to my forum browsing. Every single time the glorious webs of guitar on "Rapp Snitch Knishes" came on, I was the life of an imagined party, champagne in one hand, blunt in the other. How lame, I know, considering the reality of socializing on a computer. But I can't deny the role of escapism and down-time in maintaining my sanity, and MF Doom is the ultimate junk-food, fantasy rapper. No disrespect to Pavement, but this is my slacker album of choice.

In many circles, putting MM...Food ahead of Madvillainy would warrant being burned at the stake. But as much as there's probably no better album on the planet to listen to while high, Madvillainy isn't perfect. For one, it feels a little too long (even though this album is longer). Besides, does anyone ever actively want to listen to "Rainbows"? Plus, it feels more like a Madlib release, rather than something that's characteristically DOOM. In a conversation dealing with the best DOOM album it makes most sense that what's picked should be something that's actually characteristically DOOM; in other words, cartoon samples, smooth corniness, clever-as-fuck fun wordplay about nothing at all in particular, geeky pop culture references, straight-up FUN hip hop that sounds straight from a comic book nerd garage... If that's what you want to hear, MM..Food is track-for-track-perfect. It contains some of the most playful, clever rap on the planet, reviving the excitement of early 90's golden-era hip hop for our more irony-obsessed post-modernist generation.

10. Royksopp - Melody AM (2001)

One of the most carefree albums on this list is actually the saddest for me to revisit. There's no way to be subtle about it; Melody AM = sex, specifically from my last relationship, because we both discovered the album by using it as a soundtrack for said activities. But the physical act itself isn't what I miss when I listen to Melody AM; it's what the sex-discovery process coincides with: the honeymoon period; when two people are still getting to know eachother and everything is still fun and enjoyable, before the unsettling reality of individual insecurities sets in and before they stop wanting to make the other person happy. Before all that, there's something very pure, smooth and irresistibly downbeat about that initial attraction and mutual agreement to not want to be alone; the feeling of compromise and teamwork. Melody AM is lava lamps and lube; cuddling and standing naked by the fridge at 3 in the morning; oxytocin-induced bonding and innocent, wide-eyed romance, with the unsettling inevitability swept under the bed for a brief moment while both parties pursue the pleasure of the present.

Considering the spectacular output of electronic artists this decade, Melody AM has a ton of competition. But Royksopp's debut has something that you'd be hard pressed to get from any albums by Boards of Canada, Air or even Daft Punk. There's no single song on Melody AM that compares to the best of those classic Electronic outfits, but this sort of short, stripped down consistency is something the bigger names should really try out more often. Ten tracks under 50 minutes is bound to be an awfully familiar format to anyone who worships Portishead's timeless debut, and if there's any album that could live up to Dummy comparisons, it's this one. Both are set to soundtrack jazzy, chilled out, late night drives home in empty streets after parties. Both employ the highest technology of their respective times to paint beautiful yet danceable sound portraits that hypnotize and groove. And on both albums, the songs, especially the singles, speak for themselves. In this case, the sulking intro of "So Easy", the electronic bird tweets and shimmery waves of "Epie", the unsettling sultry lounge stylings of "Sparks", the IKEA-furniture, elevator music vibes of "Remind Me" and driving reverb-rave off, "Poor Leno", make this sound like a "best trip hop of the 00s" compilation. With the gradual trickle-down of imitators in the 'chill out' scene, and almost every song being chosen for a commercial or Mac-promotion at some point, the more you think about Melody AM, and the more time you spend with it, the more it begins to feel like the Nevermind of 00's Electronica.

11. El-P - Fantastic Damage (2002)

It took me a long time to appreciate Fantastic Damage fully. I can recall downloading and deleting it at least 4 times throughout my long-term exploration of the underground hip hop scene. It just always seemed so inferior to Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein in every conceivable way. Mainly, it was just so dense and hard to get into, whereas The Cold Vein was inviting to me because of how spotless and shiny the production felt. Today, however, the lo-fi qualities of Fantastic Damage appeal to me because of their vintage b-boy vibes that I've grown to appreciate moreso than sleek and shiny surfaces. The main turning point for my appreciation of this album came when I took a quick temporary job going door to door, asking for money to help with Obama's economic plans. Of course, if I related Fantastic Damage to the job itself, I'd never listen to it again. (I spent two full days struggling to get donations and was fired because I didn't get a single dollar). Instead, Fantastic Damage reminds me the people who worked there - confident, informed activists using their speaking prowess to get people to help a good cause. They inspired me because, I saw in them what I wanted to master in myself; clear purpose, complete comfort, social anxieties and awkwardness totally dispersed, and the clear ability to really control how they connect with people. There had once been a friend in my life who really stood out to me because of these traits, and here were a colony of people who reminded me exactly of her (one of my trainers even looked like he could've been her brother). The music being played at their headquarters office? Nothing but Fantastic Damage on loop, El-P angrily proclaiming over a sea of wavering distortion and squelching guitar chords, "This is for kids worried about the apocalypse! Do something, prepare yourself, and stop talking shit!" I went home, downloaded El-P's debut one last time and lo and behold...

El-P's style before 2002 was already dense as diamond, but on Fantastic Damage things were taken to an unparalleled level of complexity. Aggressive metaphors, unintelligible, nearly impossible phrasings and rhythmic twists, science fiction references ranging from the obscure to the downright esoteric, all swirling in a smoothee of some of the most menacing, futuristic, acid-soaked, shroom addled soundscapes ever recorded in hip hop history. So the most amazing thing about it, especially compared to some of the works of Aesop Rock or Cannibal Ox, is how the human element is still retained. For example, check out the emergency evacuation noises and hypnoticly bobbing red-alarm bass on "Constellation Funk." El-P's subsequent message - a completely searing attack of the entire structure of the hip hop capitalist machine - is undoubtedly vital, but the delivery is still rooted in sky-high, unrelateable sci-fi fiction... that is, until the second verse, where El-P dishes out a quick summary of his entire musical aesthetic. Very rarely has he ever gotten this sincere and biographical: "See I'm a man for what it's worth, an idea, love it. My family grew up without manhood in its structure, And we were stronger for that fact I do believe so, We held our own against some fuckin' evil people. And now I'm grown and I still can't protect my sister, But I know she has her mother's strength within her, And maybe I can tap that strength and burn with greatness, expose these alcoholic stepfathers and rapists!" If music were compared to television, this wouldn't just be Star Trek... it'd be Battlestar Galactica - one of the only sci-fi series to really appeal to people who aren't sci-fi fans. Admittedly, the most astounding thing about the Def Jux label this past decade has been their unwavering sense of humor, even in the face of their own pitch-black material. But as hilarious and effective as the usual tongue-in-cheek concept-raps on Fantastic Damage are (the shit-grin psuedo love story, "T.O.J," exaggerated b-boy stylings on "Dr. Hellno and The Praying Mantis" and of course, "Stepfather Factory," where A.I. meets The Shining), it's those moments of blue-eyed activism and passionate sincerity that propel it above even the best typical fare for a Def Jux release.

12. Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass (2007)

Riding BART across the bay from SF to Berkeley to hang out with my last girlfriend for weekends this past summer, Def Jux was my most played record label, and this was the single most played album. Coming out of the underground tunnel into Oakland with the sun setting over those industrial looking machines was such a surreal sight when Aesop Rock and El-P were trading obtuse webs of street poetry about flesh eating ants and dove's blood baths in the background. I don't know what those giant metal monsters are for, but every time I see them, I expect them to slowly start moving like humble Brachiosaurs. And every time I can hear the bobbing menacing bass lines and slinking electronic buzzings of an orwellian future... "I stood before the glittery borders of new radius in search of the fabled city of mud and crushed velvet, what I found was a gutter where the love of entertainment meets the lust for blood and demerits, cutters of the pie throw your summers in the sky, collar pop jolly roger, die motherfucker die."

If you really want to spend some time splitting hairs, try deciding between this, Labor Days, Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein and El-P's Fantastic Damage. The lines of greatness between the Def Jux catalog are so fine that they barely exist. None Shall Pass is actually the album that people listen to and obsess over the least but hopefully time will reveal the reevaluation it deserves. From the contemplative digitized beeping of the title track to the jagged space-bass of "Bring Back Pluto", None Shall Pass is every backpacker's and hip hop head's dream. El-P only drops just enough to show his continuing growth and maturation as a producer with the cyber-western "39 Thieves" and horrorcore jog, "Gun For The Whole Family", while Blockhead makes his return to glory known with funky, slinking tracks like "The Harbor Is Yours" and "No City". Even Aesop Rock himself pushes his limits, by taking his reputation as the densest lyricist in hip hop and solidifying it even further. Arcane, impenetrable, symbollic and infinitely interpretative, the words of Aesop Rock stand toe to toe with some of the greatest and grandest poets of the past century.

13. M83 - Before The Dawn Heals Us (2005)

My vacation to Chicago was a very mixed experience. On one hand, the second half of the vacation solidified my love of the city - the people, the brick buildings, the clean downtown streets, the seasonal summer weather; as much as I love SF, Chicago spoke to me in ways the bay never could. The towering nature of the few songs from this album that played from my ipod through shuffle were appropriate, considering the immensity and beauty of some of the city's architecture, but what really stuck with me was the tear-jerking disney-influenced whimsicality of "Farewell/Goodbye" when I was in the airport shuttle, driving away from Sears Tower, Marina City and especially Millennium Park. On the other hand, however, the first half of the trip found me struggling to endure some of the most excrutiating emotional abuse I ever allowed myself to be put through (think the frenzied, distorted delerium of "Car Chase Terror"). After getting back to the city, I had time and space to think about things, specifically how I had allowed myself to be sucked into such an emotionally abusive relationship. And it was to the swooping torrents of "Don't Save Us From The Flames" and synthetic skyline pummeling of "Teen Angst" that I slowly began to realize how much my fear of being alone had taken control. So Before The Dawn... inadvertently became my next breakup album, but to pigeonhole it into such a tag would be a downplaying the bigger picture. M83 effectively functioned in very much the same way that getting out of the city did; it exhilerated me, refreshed my mind, inspired passion and perspective, reminding me of my aspirations for life and making me realize that the place I was at and direction I was going wasn't bringing me any closer to those goals. Whereas YHF left me wracked with guilt, sadness and unsureness about my future, Before The Dawn... just left me with clarity.

In the past ten years, Anthony Gonzalez has pulled off some spectacular Brian Eno, Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine imitations, but considering the fact that he initially didn't even know half of the artists he got compared to, the similarities must be coincidence. All the brainchild of M83 has ever wanted to do is ride waves of holy synths, drama, rocket-ship guitars and romance into beautiful, epic oblivion, and if the necessary touchstones to reach that level of hair-raising, mind-blowing grandeur have to be obvious, so be it. In the case of Before The Dawn Heals Us, the end justifies the means. You see, "Safe" and "Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun" are without a doubt the two most beautiful things ever recorded and, as a whole, Before The Dawn Heals Us makes most modern-day emo, a genre supposedly priding itself on its forthright approach to expressing heartbreak and angst, sound like Stephen Hawking singing the standards. This is what the spectrum of human emotion really sounds like; love, loneliness, longing, triumph, fear, all contained within something as cinematic ("In The Cold I'm Standing") as it is earthy ("A Guitar and A Heart"). There's some sort of epic, earth-shattering, timeless, inspiring film to be found here, and Anthony Gonzalez may have decided to record an album instead, but none of the power is lost in the translation.

14. Sunn O))) - White2 (2004)

This has been one of my most recent 5 star albums, and I'm gonna forever correlate it with the recent aftermath of a life-changing chemical-excursionary experience; being hungover, getting a cold, being scared that I've affected my body in a negative way permanently, but also feeling like a new profoundly new and vital person, having my first week of school and too much work while being in a weird state of revelation, fear and sick delirium. There were several times in my strange state of limbo when drifting in and out of sleep on Tylenol while the subterranean lurking of "bassAliens" or the drifting shimmering "Decay2" made me feel like I was had actually died and was waiting to be reborn.

You either love Sunn O))) or you hate them...or so many say, as is the case with most experimental music. Sunn O))) is a special case of experimental, however, because it seems far more common for opinions of them to differ drastically and widely from album to album and person to person. For those who aren't Earth fans, their huge reputation for doom-drone sludge probably doesn't hold much weight. But if your favorite aspect of the Sunn O))) sound is when they're performing animal sacrifices, flirting with the darker sides of human suffering, covering themselves in pig fecal matter, and reading from dark magic textbooks, then White2 is where you need to be. It's the dark texturing, defecation-inducing volume, and drone-centered ideals of Sunn O))) without actually having the drone background. The closest approximation is probably Darkwave Ambient...some of the most terrifying and effective Darkwave Ambient you'll ever hear, actually. "Hell-O-Ween" is what being grinded into tiny bits must feel like. "bassAliens" recreates the experience being chained in a pitch-black prison cell with some monster-like figure you can't quite identify moving in the darkness in front of you. And don't even get me started on "Decay2." The closing long, slow descent into hell is usually excrutiating to listen to. However, like most of White2, in the right frame of mind there's nothing more hypnotizing.

15. Boris - Dronevil (2005)

Moving out is going to be great. It's gonna be low-income living, barely getting by, and traveling long distances to get everywhere, but finally breaking away from the toxic environment of my parents will be worth it. Stacking my money, painting the new house, collecting household items and everything I've been doing in preparation has absolutely needed something monstrous and powerful like Boris to soundtrack it; something that is constantly saying "FUCK YES" every time it's being played, burning walls, busting down doors and making everyone and everything in the room its bitch. That may be why they've become my favorite metal band. The timing is just perfect: there's a dark, evil hellfire behind me and i'm rising out of the chaos like a decimating psychedelic guitar solo.

When listening to Boris, good luck thinking anything other than, "Holy shit, this is so heavy." One constantly feels the weight of their demonic distortion and colossal crescendos tilting and towering, demanding any bystanders to cower in awe of the sheer power. But what's most amazing about their career as a band is all the different ways they've made their fans feel that fear. From epic post-rock to long droning ambient sessions, raging Motorhead-style maniac metal and menacing doom-sludge... Since dropping their debut in the form of a single hour long drone track, the Japanese power-trio never let self-subscribed restrictions come in the way of their mission to become the biggest and baddest metal band on the planet. Their commitment has perhaps even worked against their goal, because as dedicated as their cult following is, the obscure and experimental nature of a lot of their albums has insured their spot below worldwide aknowledgement. But the pay-off is for those willing to dig into the trenches of their large, confusing discography is massive, and the lack of compromise on the part of the band is a huge part of it. Dronevil is a perfect example. Two separate discs meant to be played simultaneously ala' Zaireeka (one with ambient/drone textures and the other with guitar based doom metal) isn't exactly the friendliest format. But if you manage to come across the synced version (or better yet, sync the two manually with two stereos) you will be treated to some of the most immense sounds on the planet. Dronevil is comprised of all the peaks of Feedbacker, Flood or Absolutego without any of the excess. It shakes and shivers, inspires and horrifies, blends into the background or engages note-for-note; it is the exact middle point of everything that the greatest metal band of the decade has aspired to be.

16. Dan Deacon - Bromst (2009)

17. Sleater-Kinney - All Hands On The Bad One (2000)

18. Do Make Say Think - & Yet & Yet (2002)

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