21st Century Breakdown: James B. Eldred’s Top 10 Albums of the Decade

Oy, this decade was a mess. The ’90s were easy. Rock had grunge, hip-hop had gangsta rap and a genre-defining electronic album seemed to come out every week thanks to artists like Aphex Twin, the Prodigy and the Orb (just to name a few). There was no Zeitgeist-turning moment in music this decade, no Next Big Thing. Instead, we saw mainstream rock dissolve into a post-grunge funk from which it might never recover, while pop music infiltrated rap music in insulting and embarrassing ways (thanks, Auto-Tune). Meanwhile, both the punk rock kids and hippies discovered electronic music, giving Pitchfork whole new genres of music to build up and tear down.

We’re more fragmented then ever – case in point: of all the albums selected by the writers who’ve contributed to our End of Decade series, only one album has been selected twice – which means that there’s something out there for anyone, but nothing for everyone. It sucks if you like the idea of a rock band being bigger than Jesus, especially if you don’t want that band to be U2. But if you like the idea that at any given moment there’s probably an album being released that will appeal to just you a few thousand other people, then this is a great time to be alive. However, that also means the chances of finding something truly “original” are next to nil. We’re getting to a point where it feels like everything has been done, and everyone is just paying homage, making pastiche or ripping off something that came before.

That being said, there were still a few original albums to make their way to my ears this decade, and almost all of them ended up being my favorites. So while you say this is my “best of” list for the decade, you could also call it my “most original” list as well.

1. Fucked Up: Chemistry of Common Life
Canadian indie rock seemed to be the scene of the ’00s, and while it gave us some good music, most of it bored me. It was just so damn pleasant. And Fucked Up is a lot of things, but pleasant isn’t one of them. In fact, almost everything about them, from their R-rated name to the abrasive vocals of their lead singer (who goes by the name Pink Eyes) almost dares you not to like them. I sure as hell didn’t at first; it seemed like they were trying too hard to be “outrageous.” But when they give you a song as brilliant as “Son the Father” with its goosebump-inducing riff and the best lyric of the decade (“It’s hard enough being born in the first place / Who would ever wanna be born again?”), it’s impossible not to take notice. This is hardcore punk’s Dark Side of the Moon and will probably be just as influential in the years to come.

2. Arcade Fire: Funeral
Okay, so not all of the indie-rock from Canada bored me. I didn’t want to like Arcade Fire, I didn’t want to fall for their melancholy lyrics and haunting melodies, and I didn’t want to be put under enchantment by the haunting closing track “In The Backseat.” It just kind of happened that way. Damn Canadians and their near-perfect records.

3. Hell: Teufelswerk
An as-yet-unheard masterpiece, although there is some hope still since it only came out this year. Teufelswerk picks up where The Orb’s Adventures into the Underworld left off, taking the listener on a journey across two discs that include ambient, house, electro and just about everything else in between. Not made entirely for the dance floor, it’s the kind of electronic album that should have mainstream appeal, even with its 13-minute tracks and bizarre guest appearance roster of Bryan Ferry and Diddy. If you consider yourself a fan of electronic music and you don’t have this album, you’re doing it wrong.

4. At the Drive-In: Relationship of Command
It came out in 2000, and nearly 10 years later there’s still nothing that sounds remotely like it. It’s usually pegged as an emo record, (the first time I heard the word “emo” was in regards to this record) but modern emo has little in common with this masterpiece of tempo changes, passionate vocals and adrenaline-fueled insanity. Too bad the band couldn’t survive much past the album’s release, and the two offshoots they formed after the break-up, the Mars Volta and Sparta, have come close to even matching this record in the years that have followed. Of course, almost no one else has, either.

5. Marnie Stern: This Is It And I Am It…
“This chick is kinda nuts,” said my editor when he pitched this CD to me. I’m naturally attracted to insane women, so that’s partially why I took a shine to Stern so quickly, but it mostly had to do with the fact that I’ve heard nothing like her before. She’s some heavenly combination of Van Halen and Sleater-Kinney, taking guitar virtuosity and mixing it with riot grrl passion to create an entirely one-of-a-kind sound in the process. She’s her own beast, creating her own genre which should just be called “holy shit music,” because that’s all I can think to myself when I hear her.

6. Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030
Indie hip-hop may be easy to find now, but in 2000 there was no scene for that, at least there wasn’t in my consciousness. I still don’t remember how I found this record, which is a crazy concept album about an intergalactic rap battle in the year 3030, but I remember being pleasantly surprised when a year later everyone involved on it (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, DJ Kid Koala, Dan the Automator and Damon Albarn) went on to form Gorillaz. But this album is still better than anything those animated monkeys put out. It isn’t only the best hip-hop album of the decade, but the most original as well.

7. Mastodon: Leviathan
Prog-rock and heavy metal, two great tastes that taste great together, especially when used to create a concept album based on “Moby Dick.” Mastodon’s early albums showed promise, but this seafaring epic really sealed the deal and heralded their arrival as “the” metal band in 2004. It was also the first album to show me that popular metal was finally getting past that nu-metal BS that nearly ruined the genre at the turn of the millennium. There needs to be more metal based on classic American novels. I’m waiting for a metal interpretation of “The Age of Innocence.”

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!
The biggest 180 of the decade. Sounding nothing like their previous records, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t go dance-punk for their third LP, they went full-on dance – like a rocking version of Kylie Minogue. You’re not going to hear a better dance track this year than “Zero,” unless you count all the other up-tempo numbers on this flawless record.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell
Oh yeah, and their first album wasn’t half bad, either.

10. The Strokes: Is This It?
The poster band and the poster album for the for the poster genre (post-punk revival) that was supposed to become the Next Big Thing. And while that didn’t really happen, we still got some really good records out of it, this one still being the best. And even if you didn’t like it, you have to admit that it probably got a bunch of kids listening to the Stooges for the first time. And the UK version (see photo) had the best album cover of the decade as well.

  

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