Usually, lists touting the best music from a preceding decade are anesthetized. They fall into a neat ten year span, and praise the albums that in hindsight have become canon to that decade. They also tend to be hourglass shaped with repeat entries coming in at the beginning and the end of the decade as representations of either an influence that shaped a decade or a culmination of change in the sonic landscape.
My list is much messier; one album per year starting in 2003 and ending in 2012. There are no repeat years, and inclusion was based entirely on what album I remember liking the most from a particular year.
- 2003: The White Stripes- “Elephant”: I received this album as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2003. I spent the next couple of weeks ruining my ear drums with my portable disc player at my side.
“Elephant” was released at the tail end of the two year span known im music circles as the garage rock revival. However, it sounded nothing like the other bands that were flailing away at their instruments. “Elephant,” filtered blues, country and folk music through the prism of classic Detroit garage rock.
Recorded using only technology available in the ‘60s in a matter of weeks and including a cover of a Burt Bacharach song this album was a revalation.
- 2004: Danger Mouse- “The Grey Album”: When this album first came out it was almost an urban legend. A new musical trend called mash-ups was becoming in vogue, and this was its epitome.
A then fairly unknown DJ by the name of Danger Mouse had taken the lyrical content of Jay-z’s “The Black Album” and remixed it with vocals and instrumentation from The Beatles’ “The White Album.”
Despite being instant lawsuit fodder and being given away as a free download this album would prove groundbreaking enough to make Danger Mouse as a hit maker and producer de jour for the rest of the decade.
- 2005: The Hold Steady- “Separation Sunday”: The Hold Steady are what I imagine Bruce Springsteen would sound like if he had spent a decade toiling at shows in bars from Minnesota to Boston and eventually New York.
The Hold Steady’s lead singer, Craig Finn, belts out sloppy Americana tinged lyrics while the rest of the band plays straight ahead rock with flourishes and horn sections that set it apart from simple meat and potatoes bar music.
Add in the fact that “Separation Sunday” is a loose concept album steeped in semi-ironic Christian themes, and you get an amazing album from the world’s most ambitious bar band.
- 2006: The Arctic Monkeys- “Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not”: This album a sensation in most of the English speaking world when it came out. Instantly making Arctic Monkeys a household name in the U.K. and breaking decades old sales figures.
The album is an aggressive mix of cheeky lyrics, early observations about the youth in the early 00’s and hard charging rock.
This simple but well-execute formula was so effective that at the time of its release British politicians were expected to have a familiarity with this album.
- 2007 Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?”: This album is schizophrenic. It bounces between euphoric singing and caterwauls of lament, and it’s all the result of one man.
While ostensibly a band, Of Montreal is mostly the work of one man, Kevin Barnes. In 2007 Kevin Barnes was going through an existential crisis after a separation with his wife
This is the catchiest, funkiest and most psychedelic break up album I could imagine. It features Barnes singing with himself in barbershop quartet fashion while a thudding bass line propels songs along.
It also includes an existential freak out song, which in David Bowie fashion Barnes transitions in an alter ego named Georgie Fruit who transcends race and gender.
- 2008: Los Campesinos!-“Hold on Now, Youngster”: This English band by way of Wales burst onto the indie music scene with their debut.
All band members went by the same last name, Campesinos! (Yes, with an exclamation point), their lyrics name checked everything and everyone from LiveJournal and Spider-man to Jane Eyre.
Audible elements of any given song include electric guitar, glockenspiel, violin and three or four singers. It’s an explosive, unpredictable debut.
- 2009: Phoenix- “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”: This album is the rare case in which extremely popular and extremely good overlap.
The good will generated from this catchy pop-rock album from the French band Phoenix has them slated to headline Coachella Music Festival this year, and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is four years old.
The album title is a reference to Mozart and the opening track is a simpatico view of Franz Liszt’s songwriting. A smart pop album was correctly beloved.
- 2010: Kanye West- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: This is not the rap album that any sane person would construct with lyrical elements that question sanity, the pitfalls of fame and substance abuse and features multiple songs that take over six minutes to play.
After a painful breakup, the death of his mother and the public backlash West faced after interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards ceremony West set out to make a magnum opus.
He retreated to a Hawaii recording studio, and he flew all contributing artists to the studio on his own expense. West also required full formal attire of his guests at all times during the recording process.
It’s hard not to see comparisons to Brian Wilson’s notoriously fickle recording techniques during The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” as both efforts resulted in near unanimously praised works.
Ultimately, this album proved that while West may not be the ideal person he can create one heck of an album.
- 2011: F*cked Up-“David Comes to Life”: This post-hardcore band from Canada was not a likely candidate to release the best rock opera since The Who’s “Tommy”, but they did.
While the singing (bellowing would be more accurate) featured on the album falls in line with the bands profane name, but the music does not.
Twin guitar attack, tight rhythm and steady, pounding drumming provide a melodic contrast to the gruff vocals.
“David Comes to Life” is made even more intriguing by being a concept album about a factory worker’s doomed love that features multiple unreliable narrators and frequently breaks the fourth wall.
- 2012: Japandroids-“Celebration Rock”: Every song on this album could stand alone as a shout along anthem, and yet it never gets exhausting.
This album is the result of just two young men capable of making a wall of sound that captures the wistful longing for the next party even as one rages on around them.
There is also an underlying angst to the album that keeps it from being too saccharine or from feeling underdeveloped. It was certainly my favorite of 2012.