10. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (2002). After a disastrous major-label stint that nearly dissolved the band (chronicled on the scathing “The Agony of Lafitte”), Spoon signed with the more artist-friendly Merge Records label. On their second Merge release, they put together their greatest album by actually subtracting elements of their sound. Empty spaces drove the band’s Kinks-meets-Wire sound, emphasizing subtle elements such as handclaps, background vocals, and the greatest use of a tambourine since Phil Spector’s heyday.
9. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). Nobody who latched onto Oklahoma’s greatest band way back in the 80’s could have predicted they’d become commercial darlings. Yet after occasionally flirting with the alternative rock charts in the 90’s, they found themselves hitting the mainstream with this weirdly beautiful, electronic collection of melancholy, psychedelic bubblegum. Sure, it’s a bit disconcerting to see “Do You Realize” used to hawk products on TV, but I’d rather a deserving act get some commercial cash than the usual Beyonce/Black Eyed Peas garbage.
8. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (2005). It’s amazing that in a decade where the album all but disappeared in favor of shuffled individual tracks, so many bands released their own Tommy-ish semi-concept albums. On their second album, The Hold Steady mastered their gritty Replacements-ish bar band sound. While the story is pretty vague - it involves lead singer Craig Finn, an addicted born-again prostitute, her pimp, and a skinhead and their hard-living travels around the country - Finn’s Jim Carroll-ish delivery and unusual song structures (no typical verse/chorus/verse here) are complemented by the band’s classic rock delivery.
7. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001). A little personal story on this inclusion. I woke up so excited on the day this album was released. It was my birthday, and I couldn’t have been more pumped that the greatest songwriter of my life was releasing an album on my special day. By the time I made it into work, though, the world had changed as news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. I still hit the record store that day, though, and sat in tears that night as I listened to Bob’s musical and lyrical ode to the “old, weird America”. Clearly his greatest album since “Blood On The Tracks”, and it sits rather nicely next to his holy trilogy of albums released almost 40 years earlier.
6. The Wrens, Meadowlands (2003). In some respects, The Wrens are The Feelies of this decade. Like the Feelies, the Wrens came out of Jersey with an underrated release but spent a number of years in limbo before releasing new music that rivaled or excelled their original material. In the case of the Wrens, they made the mistake of signing with a label, Grass Records, that had dreams of becoming major players in the music business. Grass became Wind-Up Records, and made millions with the godawful Creed. After being in limbo for seven years, The Wrens were finally allowed to record and release the album of their career. Not surprisingly for a band in this situation, much of the album concerns personal hardships and failings, delivered with perfect pop melodies and shimmering guitar goodness.
5. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001). It’s not always easy ranking the catalog of the bands you love. The reality is that The White Stripes catalog is strong enough that you can’t really argue with anybody who claims that Elephant or De Stijl (or any of the others) is their best album. My reason for choosing White Blood Cells as their greatest release is primarily because it was the first one I heard, and due to that reason it’s the freshest slab of noisy garage rock they ever released. Plus, “Fell In Love With a Girl” may be the single of the decade, and tracks such as “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “Hotel Yorba” aren’t far behind.
4. Paul Westerberg, Folker (2004). “Westernerds” have different opinions as to Paul’s greatest release of the decade. Most choose the garage-y/folk-y mix of “Mono/Stereo”, while others choose the mega-medley of “49:00” or the traditional varied song cycle of “Come Feel Me Tremble”. For me, however, it was Folker and its song cycle of adult issues (infidelity, midlife crisis, parental loss) that emotionally captivated me. Just as Tim captured the feelings of a young adult unsure about his future way back in 1985, twenty years later Folker did the same for the forty-something set. Plus, I love the fact that “Folk Star” is such a biting tirade against younger artists who made a lot more money off the Replacements’ sound than he did.
3. Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004). It’s the ultimate sleeper album on this list. Although it was in my collection shortly after its September, 2004 release, I was originally under whelmed. In fact, Funeral didn’t even make an appearance in my roundup of that year. Over the course of the next few months, however, it was rarely far from my stereo. In some respects, though, this should be no surprise, as the album is a haunting, yet eventually uplifting look at death (various band members lost loved ones during the recording). It’s also one of the most unique indie rock albums of the past few albums, with unlikely instruments bashed together in a cacophonous racket that drives leader Win Butler’s desperate yelp.
2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002). The story of this historic album is well-known - acclaimed roots rock band enters studio to record material unlike anything they’ve previously recorded. Dissension occurs, and two members, including the co-writer of much of the material, are eventually replaced. Although the band is proud of their finished product, the label rejects the project. The band negotiates a buyout, and while waiting for a new label begins streaming the album on their website. A new label is eventually found (and turns out to be a subsidiary of the same company as the original label), and the album becomes the most successful release of their career. Oh yeah, and all of this is captured by a documentary crew. Described by many as “Hillbilly OK Computer”, leader Jeff Tweedy and the rest of Wilco utilized feedback, loops, and even stray short-wave radio transmissions to add tension to some of the Tweedy’s most beautiful songs. The story behind the album may be a record company morality play, but this is one case where the hype is much deserved.
1. Radiohead, Kid A (2000). Radiohead began the decade in a unique position. Having just released the seminal OK Computer in 1997, the band could have coasted for the next few years with second-rate copies of that same sound. Instead, they ditched everything the band was known for in favor of explorations in sounds, song structure, and studio wizardry. While band members have expressed that there was some dissension in the initial recording sessions, this belief in pushing the boundaries of writing and recording became the band’s standard for the entire decade.