Review of the Decade: Music

GEORGE OSBORN decides his top 30 albums of the past decade for your reading pleasure.

Albums Decade Interpol Music Noughties Strokes

Best album of the decade. It’s a bloody difficult accolade to give out in the best of times but when the decade hasn’t even ended yet and I’ve not had any opportunity to go back and think “God those were amazing albums” then my responses are likely to be wrong. Should I go for Zeitgeisty stuff that really echoed the time, the best music regardless or combine both? Frankly, I wanted to hold off until January at least before I wrote anything. But TCS’s piece on the decade pissed me off to no end. Other than jumping firmly through the cliché hoop, the choices felt uninspired. Not obvious so much, but that they weren’t justified as the four albums to really define the Noughties and neither were they the best. My question was this: should this decade really be defined by The Killer’s good, but not spectacular, debut? Personally, I felt not and hence I came up with this.

The top 30 I put forward tries to identify the genuine best 30 albums I’ve heard in this decade and can think of a good reason to include them here. I’ve only really expanded on the reasons for the top 10 being included as I actually do have a degree to work on, I’ve only allowed one album per artist to keep it balanced and the goal has been to filter in mainly for quality alongside allowances made for albums that are revolutionary.  The list doesn’t include albums by the Arctic Monkeys, Kings of Leon or Bloc Party, they just missed the cut along with numerous other bands (The Open, Ed Harcourt and Engineers particularly) and I must stress this list is no means definitive. Complain in the comment box if you feel particularly offended, but bear in mind I’ve tried my best to sum up a decade of fantastic music in 2000 words. Anyway, here goes nothing:

30) Arcade Fire – Funeral
29) White Stripes – Elephant
28) Dogs Die in Hot Cars – Please Describe Yourself
27) Coldplay – Rush of Blood to the Head
26) The Go! Team – Thunder! Lightning! Strike!
25) M.I.A. – Kala
24) The Zutons – Who killed the….?
23) Cat Power – The Greatest
22) The Streets – Original Pirate Material
21) Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
20) Richard Hawley – Coles Corner
19) Muse – Black Holes and Revelations
18) Guillemots – Through the Windowpane
17) Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
16) Liam Frost and the Slowdown Family – Show me how the Spectres Dance
15) Jim Noir – Tower of Love
14) The Libertines – Up the Bracket
13) The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
12) The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters
11) Avalanches – Since I left you

10) TV on the Radio – Dear Science

After “Return to Cookie Mountain” gained a shed load of attention after David Bowie provided backing vocals to one of their tracks, TV on the Radio followed it up with their current Magnus Opus “Dear Science”. What I can definitively say about it is that it is one of the most fantastic examples at genre bending I have ever seen produced. Mixing electro with hip hop, indie with funk and god knows what else together; “Dear Science” remains one of the most eclectic albums ever released. It’s also packed full of fantastic songs, including the absolutely mind blowingly brilliant “Dancing Choose”, and never drops for a moment into mediocrity. The only question I still have is this: can they get better?

9) The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium

Winning a top ten place possibly on the basis of being the decade’s most mental band, The Mars Volta are ceaselessly entertaining. “Deloused in the Comatorium” is, by some distance, their most coherent moment and the coherence lends the psychedelic chaos that follows real credibility. The combination of Cedric Baxter-Zavala’s vocals and the insane guitar riffs from Rodriguez Lopez create a powerfully psychotic experience that flows seamlessly throughout. Although I highly recommend exploring their later more steady descents into insanity following this release, such as the music found on the track “Tetragrammatron”, I also think that Deloused remains both your best introduction to the El Paso nutters and their finest hour in terms of what they have produced. It’s loud, it’s at times messy and very often trippy and it’s all the better for it.

8 ) The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow

While most people know the Shins from the song “New Slang” which features in nigh on every production the actor Zach Braff gets his mitts on, their second album remains both their best release and the most perfectly formed pop album since Belle and Sebastian’s “If you’re feeling Sinister”. Clocking in at just a shade over 33 minutes, “Chutes too Narrow” is the evocation of the phrase “small but perfectly formed”. The sumptuous “Saint Simon” is the highlight of the album, but the entire track listing forms what can only be described as a loving tribute to the wide variety of pop music out there. From the coca cola fizziness of “Fighting in a Sack” to the quiet introspection of “Those to Come”, “Chutes too Narrow” is the love letter to pop I could never write. Stunning stuff.

7) Elbow – Cast of Thousands

Now officially flavour of the month following “One Day Like This” being used on the new Children in Need single, Elbow’s transformation to a mainstream band has been one of the best stories of the decade. Even better news is how much this has been based on their ability to write fantastic music consistently, rather than on media hype love ins. Although all their albums could claim this spot, “Cast of thousands” remains my favourite. At times claustrophobic, upsetting and deeply moving, the raw emotion of “Switching off” or “Fugitive Motel” is equally matched by the triumphant “Grace under Pressure”, showing a band firmly in touch with pulling the listener’s heart strings after years of hard graft. Elbow remain one of the finest bands ever to emerge in this country and richly deserve every success in the future.

6) Burial – Untrue

Burial’s nomination to the Mercury Music Prize marked a watershed moment for dubstep, but while I know admittedly fuck all about the genre I know that “Untrue” is a brilliant and thought provoking album. Playing against your expectations of what to expect from an album from someone who lists his love for drum n bass and jungle music in interviews, we instead get an album drenched in the atmosphere of the lonely urban lifestyle. Fragments of vocals go missing, get distorted or lost in beats but somehow remain lodged in the head as sad echoes, while the devastatingly arranged computer generated landscapes really conjure up the imagery of urban silence in the early hours. From the pounding “Archangel” to the devastatingly beautiful “In Mcdonalds”, Untrue becomes an astonishing record as soon as you immerse yourself into it and when you listen to it for the first time in the car driving through a city it becomes a life changing experience. 

5) Radiohead – In Rainbows

Now here is my beef with the TCS review piece. Excluding Radiohead’s music on the basis that it “miserably haunts” best of lists is, to be frankly honest here, a crap reason and misses the point that the whole idea of a list is to celebrate the best albums of the decade. In Rainbows is definitely one of them: not because of musical snobbery or anything but rather because it is ten tracks of perfectly crafted mastery that ebbs and flows with haunting beauty. The calm of “Weird Fishes” and the deadly patter of drums in “Reckoner” are examples of a band that continues to push the envelope and deserves to be recognised for  their achievements and not lambasted for being too obviously good. In Rainbows deserves the slot here because it’s a quality release, not because it’s Radiohead.

4) The National – Alligator

Probably the highest up left field choice on the list, but “Alligator” is a fine album on many fronts. A combination of mournful ballads and explosive rockers, Matt Berninger’s superb lyrics and vocals mixed with fantastic arrangements are lit up by some of the most incredible drumming ever heard on an LP transforms this into a special album. The sober “Baby We’ll be fine” contrasts with the fury of “Mr November” which contrasts again with the devastating ballad “Karen” creating an album that remains relentlessly fresh on every track without losing any of its power or emotion. Out of the albums recommended, “Alligator” rewards those patient enough to listen to all the nuances with an unforgettable album.

3) The Strokes – Is this it?

It’s hard to ignore the impact of this album on the decade. Without this album being released, you can practically delete the entire British Indie scene from the Libertines onwards and all the sub groups that may have spun off the back of it. “Is this it?” burst out from New York and breathed fresh life into the indie scene with vim, vigour and garage band guitar riffs that everyone dared to one day copy. Everyone knows “Last Night”, but the fury of “New York City Cops”, the energy of “Hard to Explain” and the hip swagger of “Soma” explain why this album is so important: it didn’t just redefine indie music; it redefined it as the coolest genre around and gave life to a decade long scene. “Is this it?” was the Big Bang to the indie scene both in terms of influence and music quality and has to be recognised for how important it is.

2) Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

9 songs and 37 minutes of minimalist acoustic guitar does not seem the obvious choice for the Second best album of the decade. But Justin Vernon’s album, a document of his heartbreak at the hands of an ex girlfriend, is an album without peers in terms of sheer depth of emotion, song writing quality and the ability to really connect with the listener. “Flume” is a strong contender for both greatest love song and greatest opening track to an album, while highlights abound throughout such as the euphoric “Creature Fear” or the devastating raw emotional sound of “Re: Stacks”. “For Emma, Forever ago” is a triumph of music: stripped to the bare essentials of a man, his guitar and his emotions this album is a reminder of the power that simplicity can provide when harnessed fully. A truly unbelievable and brilliant record.

1) Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights

So why is this album my choice of the best for the decade? “Turn on the Bright lights” succeeds on the two fronts that I established at the start of this article better than any others: being a fantastic record and having the all important element of relevance to the decade. Following the traditions of New York cool the Strokes had established, Interpol’s debut release took the hip attitude and the electric guitars and used them to create a darkly atmospheric, and at times furious, album that highlights everything fantastic that indie music becomes in the right hands. The opening track “Untitled” sets a tone of foreboding and fear, but this album thrives in the shred humanity that it develops throughout underneath the cold and dark exterior. The love letter to “NYC”, the fury of “Say Hello to the Angels” and the cool “don’t give a damn “attitude of “Obstacle 2” could in far less established hands develop into emo style rants but instead form the core of some of the most fantastically and effortlessly brilliant indie rock tracks ever recorded.  “Turn on the bright lights” has enduring quality: it still remains both as aloof and alienated a record as it was when I first heard it, it still remains packed with fantastic songs and as a result it is, in my opinion, the best album that this decade has thrown at me.

Click for other Reviews of the Decade: TVFilm