20. Nick Cave, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (2008). It’s clear that the raw, noisy sound of Cave’s side project, Grinderman, was the major influence of this Bad Seeds follow-up. The familiar themes of faith and devotion are present, but there’s an raucous energy on this album that’s usually missing on his releases. Sure, the sound is much more expansive than on the Grinderman album, but this collection is much more looser and humorous than what we usually see from Cave.
19. Bright Eyes, Lifted Or the Story Is In the Soil (2002). Out of all the articles and reviews I’ve read about Conor Oberst, Nebraska’s biggest rock star, I really can’t top this line from Amazon - “this precocious singer/songwriter croons with the astonished intensity of a homeless Robert Smith singing for his supper”. Although he may have spread himself a bit thin over the course of the decade, ala Ryan Adams, when Oberst is good he’s one of the best, and this is one of those albums where he pulls it all together.
18. Beck, Sea Change (2002). To put it simply, this is Beck’s version of Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks. Supposedly inspired by what was obviously a horrible breakup, Sea Change is a lush, primarily acoustic album of personal devastation, but by dropping the usual gimmicks and wackiness we finally see Beck as a pretty talented songwriter.
17. The Strokes, Is This It (2001). While it’s commonplace for the British media to build up an act based on only a handful of shows and a 7” or two, it’s rare to see that happen in America. Partly due to a resurgence in the New York rock scene, The Strokes found themselves on multiple magazine covers long before the release of this debut album. Luckily, in this case the hype was deserved, as Is This It is an exciting collection of songs that isn’t afraid of showcasing their love of the poppier side of The Velvet Underground.
16. Wilco, The Album (2009). After a couple of somewhat lackluster albums, Sky Blue Sky and A Ghost Is Born, Wilco responded this year with their finest album since 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sure, the somewhat restrained sounds of those two releases are present here, but Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting has never been better and renowned guitarist Nels Cline is now fully integrated (he had joined shortly before 2007’s Sky Blue Sky).
15. The Libertines, Up the Bracket (2002). Leader Pete Doherty may be known more these days for his excesses, but this first blast onto the music scene was one of the greatest debuts in recent history. Produced by Clash’s Mick Jones, Up the Bracket is a raw, punk-inspired collection of power pop that teeters, but never completely falters, on the edge of disaster. Just like Ray Davies in the mid-60’s, Doherty conjures up a vivid image of life in London.
14. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (2006). Most people were surprised that when this purely left-of-center band was signed by Capitol Records. Would the label force an overwrought producer on the band? Would their literary-influenced, high-concept ideas be allowed? Surprisingly, the least hip major label let the band to their own devices, and they responded with what is arguably the album of their career. Sure, there’s nothing as purely melodic as Picaresque’s “16 Military Wives”, but it’s the richest, deepest work of their career.
13. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (2000). Shortly after he finally buried Whiskeytown, Adams corralled a handful of friends into a studio and bashed out this remarkable album in just twelve days. The influences of R.E.M., Uncle Tupelo, and the Replacements were completely tossed aside, with Dylan, Steve Forbert, and the Band the new touchstones. In fact, “Too Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” is quite possibly the most overt Blonde on Blonde copy ever released. The highlight of the album (hell, Adams‘ career), however, is “Come Pick Me Up” - “I wish you would come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit, with a smile on your face, and then do it again”.
12. Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (2002). After a three-year silence, Westerberg finally returned in the guise of the “cranky old man recording in his basement”. One disc (Mono) is the most fiercest rock ‘n’ roll he’s recorded since the glory days of the Replacements, while the other disc (Stereo) is primarily acoustic singer/songwriter tunes of the “Born For Me”/”Here Comes a Regular” variety. Yes, there are limitations to the one-man band style that’s become his method for the entire decade (and his drumming does indeed stink), but it’s also clear that after a disappointing decade Westerberg was again inspired.
11. Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007). It was obviously big news when Radiohead announced that they were going to release this album on a “pay what you want” basis, but in the long run it wouldn’t matter if the actual album was middling dogshit. Thankfully, that’s not the case with this wonderful collection. After a decade of sonic experimentation, In Rainbows was a return to (almost) straightforward songwriting and production. In fact, the album is easily the warmest, most subdued of their career.