Damn, I hated the ’00s — a decade so crappy that nobody ever even figured out what to call it. From the recession and stolen election that kicked it off to the near-economic collapse at its tail end, and all the bullshit in between, the last ten years was one long bummer after another. To my ears, the music of the decade didn’t make things much better. Fleet Foxes and Fiery Furnaces, Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and the Jonas Brothers, Bright Eyes and The Darkness, emo and screamo, and that goddamn Autotune. Almost all of it made me go “feh,” “eh,” or “meh,” if not all three.
But as the old saying goes, there’s always good music out there, it’s just that sometimes you have to hunt a little harder for the good stuff. I guess my problem was that, as a record store guy (now a former record store guy) in the age of downloads, blogs and viral marketing, I lost interest in hunting. So the ten records that made my decade may not be the most cutting-edge or most obscure or significant of groundbreaking. But they’re mine, and I love ‘em all passionately. Here’s my soundtrack to the decade of “Mission Accomplished”:
10. BRENDAN BENSON – My Old, Familiar Friend (ATO, 2009). I’m somewhat suspicious about placing a record that’s barely four months old in my top ten of the whole darn decade. I’m still largely in my infatuation phase; there’s no telling how it’s going to grow on me, or how much I’ll remember it six months from now, let alone ten years. But I can tell you that I haven’t gotten such intense pleasure out of a record for one listen, let alone the hundred or so times I’ve probably spun it, since the Dow Jones was still around 14,000. You probably know Brendan Benson from his stint with The Raconteurs; if you were paying closer attention, you may have checked out the critically acclaimed, sparse-selling power-pop masterpieces he’s been putting out sporadically for more than a decade. If you ask me, My Old, Familiar Friend is the most consistent of the lot. If the power chord-laden rockers don’t get you, the ballads will. If the harmonies don’t get you, the hooks will. If the Motown pastiche doesn’t get you, the new wave takeoff will. There’s something here for everyone, and all of it sounds dandy to me.
9. MOSQUITOS – Sunshine Barato (Bar/None, 2004). Combine a nerdy Brooklyn indie-popper with a wispy-voiced Brazilian chanteuse, and you get a warm, sunny, melodic and utterly charming album that’s just about guaranteed to transport you to a breezy beach somewhere, even if you’re standing ankle-deep in January slush. Sunshine Barato is a wispy album full of small pleasures which I never thought would make my end-of-the-decade list when it first came out. But every time I hear its jangling guitars, bossa-rock rhythms, and JuJu Stelbach’s girlish vocals, I fall in love with it as though I’m hearing it for the first time. This was their second album — a few years ago they put out a third one which was darker and less infectious, and they subsequently dropped out of sight. Wherever they are now, I hope there’s sand between their toes and a cold glass of cachaca in their hands.
8. BECK – The Information (Interscope, 2006). One thing you could count on with Beck is that each album would sound nothing like the previous one. The wiseguy pomo hipster of Odelay morphed into the oddball bluesy-folkie of Mutations, which begat the funky party animal of Midnite Vultures, followed by the morose singer-songwriter of Sea Change. None of these records were ever less than interesting, and they were all brilliant in places, but after a while I grew tired of the gimmick. Starting with 2004’s Guero, he started integrating the Many Moods Of Beck into a seamless whole, and he really hit paydirt on the followup, The Information. If you like Beck for his aural collages, his funky beats, his introspective songwriting, his dark lyrics, well, it’s all here in one handy-dandy package. And in every facet of his game, he’s in top form. Not only that, but you also get to make your own CD cover with a sheet of enclosed stickers, AND there’s a cheap, hastily-shot DVD featuring a video for every song. What’s not to love?
7. MORPHINE – The Night (Dreamworks, 2000). Morphine’s leader, Mark Sandman, died onstage in July 1999, with this album having just been completed; it was released the following February. Even though there were no warning signs of the heart attack that killed him, The Night seems eerily prescient — the music is haunted and somber, and many of the lyrics deal with mortality and abandonment. As Morphine’s saxophonist Dana Colley told me, “I think a lot of people who are big fans of Morphine couldn’t bring themselves to listen to it because so much of it sounds like a eulogy, in a way, or a swan song.” The Night was also intended to be a beginning. It adds strings, backing vocals, a second drummer and more to Morphine’s traditionally lean bass/saxophone/drums brand of “low rock.” It’s a tentative step in a new direction, and it’s not always successful. I was disappointed with it at the time, and I still think that Morphine’s next album, had Sandman lived, would have achieved everything he set out to do on this one. But I kept coming back to The Night for the entire decade, and its beauty and richness hits me anew each time. If that’s not the hallmark of a great album, I don’t know what is.
6. THE DETROIT COBRAS – Life, Love And Leaving (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 2001). Ever since the Beatles and Bob Dylan made the scene, the presumption has been that to be a truly Great Artist, you must write your own material. Well, the Detroit Cobras have made half a dozen killer records over the last decade which feature a grand total of, by my count, one original song. Bon Iver they ain’t — and I mean that in the best possible way. The Cobras dig up forgotten nuggets of rock n’ roll and R & B from the ’50s and ’60s, rev ‘em up, and spit ‘em out garage-punk style, making them their own in the process. Sounds easy enough, but try doing a version of “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” by Mickey Lee Lane or the Otis Redding obscurity “Shout Bamalama” that can hold a candle to the original, and you’ll see just how tough it is to pull it off. Much of the credit must be given to frontwoman Rachael Nagy, whose bruising yet vulnerable vocals — think Joan Jett meets Motown — can caress a soulful ballad or belt out a 4/4 stomper as well as anyone on the planet. Truly awe-inspiring stuff.
5. THE LIBERTINES – Up The Bracket (Rough Trade, 2002). 2002 was a nonstop drag of a year, with its post-9/11 hangover and pre-Iraq buildup, not to mention the evisceration of the Democrat party in the midterm elections. It was also the year it became clear that music retail — or my store, at least — was not going to survive the MP3 wars intact. It was such an annus horribilus that I must have blocked most of it out, because a few years later, when I tried to think of some of my favorite records of ‘02, I couldn’t recall a single one apart from this classic. The British music press annoints a new Greatest Band Ever every six months or so, but this is one of the few that lived up to the hype. Up The Bracket isn’t quite punk, postpunk, or Britrock, but some attitude-laden, adrenaline-heavy combination of the three, attacking the eardrums with one infectious raver after another. How co-frontman Pete Doherty survived the decade given his pharmaceutical excesses is a mystery. The band wasn’t so lucky, splintering after a good-but-not-great second album. This record, however, is a hell of a legacy.
4. WHITE STRIPES – White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 2001). If there was one band in this decade that just about everyone from teenyboppers to 20-something hipsters to grizzled classic rockers could agree on, it was the White Stripes. At first they were lumped in with the rest of Detroit’s lo-fi garage-rock revivalists, but if they resemble any one band to me, it’s Led Zeppelin. The coolest thing about Jack and Meg White, however, is that they betray no evidence that they’ve ever even heard one of their records. Rather than listening to Zep and imitating them, they took their inspiration from the same country blues and folk records that inspired Plant, Page and Co., and put a 21st century Dee-troit spin on them. The result is a record that sounds like a classic without being a study in classicism. And for the record, I never thought Meg White’s drumming was as bad as the kvetchers claimed.
3. THE STROKES – Is This It (RCA, 2001). It’s all bullshit, of course, whenever we talk about a proverbial age of innocence in which we lived immediately prior to some awful game-changing event. But the summer of ‘01 does exist in my memory banks as a pretty idyllic time, especially for a New Yorker. The Twin Towers still stood, the Yankees were three-time world champs, and the hippest new band around — the Strokes — were NYC natives. Is This It, their debut record, didn’t come out in the States until after 9/11, but my store stocked the import version, and that summer, when it seemed like CDs and MP3s could possibly coexist, I sold it by the truckload. You can pinpoint their primary sonic influence not just to one band — The Velvet Underground — but to one song, “Coney Island Steeplechase” (from Another View, if you’re curious). But their catchy, concise and astute songs also took cues from downtown legends like Television and Richard Hell, as well as transplanted Manhattanite John Lennon. And what you get is a classic rock n’ roll record about what it’s like to be young and jaded and stoned, in a certain place, at a certain time, that ceased to exist all too soon.
2. NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – Twin Cinema (Matador, 2005). This band features not one but three certified geniuses (certified by who, exactly, I don’t know): A.C. Newman; Dan Bejar; and Neko Case, all of whom also make records on their own. But they all bring their A games to the New Pornos’ records, which magnify their strengths and obscure their weaknesses. Newman’s songs are equal parts ’70s pop, ’80s new wave and ’90s alt-rock, but always with a unique twist that sends the hooks down a slightly different path than you’d expect. Case’s vocal showcases (written by Newman) prove that, as great as she sings her own mournful alt-country ballads, she’s an even more masterful pop chanteuse. And Bejar, whose quirky songwriting and speak-singing can wear thin over a whole album, is perfect for a couple of changes of pace per LP. Twin Cinema, their third of four records to date, finds the whole band firing on all cylinders, cranking out 14 ebullient, gorgeous pop songs that are as close to perfect as anyone came in this godforsaken decade.
1. BOB DYLAN – Love & Theft (Columbia, 2001). Say this much for Dylan — the man has amazing timing. This album was released, as luck would have it, on 9/11. Not knowing what else to do that morning, I showed up and opened the doors of my store for business. And wouldn’t you know it, we sold every copy we had that day. “I don’t care if the world’s ending,” one customer said, “I’ve gotta have my new Dylan.” For weeks and months afterwards, this record was one of the things that kept me sane. Dylan had already kickstarted his comeback with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, a dark, resigned album about mortality and lost love. But what the hell was this? Rocking out like Bill Haley, making like a ’30s jazz combo, cracking corny jokes, casting a lecherous eye on sweet young things — Dylan wasn’t contemplating his mortality, he was giving it the finger. Without sounding anything like his seminal ’60s work, Love & Theft damn near matches it. A life-affirming album that came at the exact time when we desperately needed it.
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