21st Century Breakdown: R. David Smola’s Best Albums of the Decade

The 2000’s weren’t great for breaking new and exciting artists but some established folks sure put out some good material. The Purple one returned to make his best record in a long time and a metal specialist put out a mellower, kinder disc with compelling results. One of the best characters the music business has ever produced created an incredible record about saying goodbye with grace and dignity; he pulled it off with a little help from his friends. In our final final installment of our series on the best of the 2000s, here are the ten best releases from the most recent decade:

1. Warren Zevon: The Wind (2003)
Zevon was a ridiculously clever songwriter and half the time you couldn’t tell if he was making fun of you while you found him clever or not. He was intelligent, witty and knew how to construct a great song. Faced with terminal cancer, he willed himself to complete the album and see it completed (in direct contrast to his doctors’ orders). It was more than a simple swan song; it was a graceful and bittersweet conclusion to his life and underrated career. An all-star cast of cameos (Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Don Henley and Tommy Shaw, to name a few) really enriched the material. “Keep Me in Your Heart” is the sweetest, most haunting ballad ever written and a further demonstration of the class and dignity of the artist.

2. Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (2000)
No one quite knows how to tell someone to fuck off as intellectually as she can. The fact that she had to rescue the album from the record company just like Wilco had to rescue Yankee Foxtrot Hotel makes this album even more satisfying. She always comes up with strong material but this record is perfect. Several tracks appeared on the “Magnolia” soundtrack. The rest of the material is sharp, melodic, catchy and full of unmistakable and brilliant Aimee Mann lyrics.

3. Sugarland: Twice the Speed of Life (2004)
A flawless country record with incredible pop crossover appeal. Jennifer Nettles establishes herself as a tremendous front woman and the material is top notch. There isn’t one wasted track. “Baby Girl” is a tremendous tune because the story feels authentic and the ballad “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” is Nettles at her best as she sings the hell out of it.

4. Johnny Cash: American IV – The Man Comes Around (2002)
As Cash is dying, Rick Rubin gets one more gem out of him, including the haunting version of “Hurt” in which Cash clearly steals the song away from Trent Reznor. Guest appearances by Fiona Apple, Don Henley and Nick Cave really enhance this marvelous record of Cash covering other artists and re-interpreting a few of his own. I suppose, off the top of your head, you would figure that Johnny and Nine Inch Nails, or Johnny and Depeche Mode would be silly, but you would be wrong. This is the best of the four American Recording records, but the other three are terrific also.

5. System of a Down: Mezmorize/Hypnotize (2005)
The three previous records indicated how good SOAD could be, but these two records realized all that potential and to this point is the pinnacle of their work. Angry, assaultive, and full of noise and tempo changes, these two records leave you exhausted and your ears begging for both mercy and for more. Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian blend their voices perfectly similarly to the way that Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell did in Alice in Chains. Serj is clearly the lead, but Daron (like Jerry) adds an intense layer of complementary harmony and occasional leads. Serj’s solo record is very good (Elect the Dead) and Scars on Broadway (Malakian’s band) had some solid moments, but I believe the whole is better than the sum of the parts. The parts have put out some compelling stuff: bring back System of a Down.

6. Cathy Richardson: Delusions of Grandeur(2006)
Now that she is a member of Jefferson Starship and busy touring with her own band, I wonder if she will have time to produce any more records under her name. This is an incredible work of art, from the songwriting to the soulful vocal performance to the album packaging. It is exquisite and her talent is overwhelming. It was my favorite record of 2006 and belongs on this list as one of the best of the decade. Her ability to move seamlessly through genres and sound equally at home and competent is unique. “Overwhelmed” is an absolute gem and a perfect example that Ms. Richardson knows exactly how to use that extraordinary vocal talent. “Ain’t No Home” is flawless laid back soul which much like the rest of the record sharply expresses the pain of loneliness. This is a great record, period.

7. Devin Townsend: Ki (2009)
Talk about a change-up. Townsend has been the songwriter, shredder and lead screamer for Metal monsters Strapping Young Lad, sang lead for Vai (the one album band project for guitar God, Steve Vai) and produced some fascinatingly heavy records under his own name and the Deven Townsend Band. After taking a break from touring and writing to clean up and recharge, Towsned’s first record in a four-record cycle is mellow, engaging, beautiful and melodic. Many of those adjectives shocked Townsend enthusiasts, but the man has depth. Ki is an incredible record which shows that the man can write very interesting introspective stuff and sing, yes, he can sing. Ki adds to the amazing range of a gifted musician. His sense of purpose in following his own muse, not what is expected, is a necessity that the music industry desperately needs.

8. Prince: 3121 (2006)
The little purple fellow finally put out a record that was worthy of his royal name. Yes, he borrows heavily from himself, but he funks the heck out of the album and it is a fabulous addition to his accomplished catalog. Most of his records after Purple Rain featured excellent tracks, but no record is as consistent as this one. He turns up the volume on the bottom end and really lets it fly. It took a long time to get to 3121, but it was well worth the wait.

9. The Mob: The Mob (2005)
There is something exhilarating when a band comes out of nowhere (unfortunately they’re most likely a one-off) and produces a spectacular melodic hard rock record that no one saw coming (and probably no one outside of Europe heard much). This super group made up of shredder Reb Beach (Winger, Dokken, Whitesnake), Dug (yep he changed his name) Pinnick (King’s X) on vocals, keyboardist Timothy Drury and drummer Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger), was produced by Kip Winger. The music is tight, the production is pristine and the songs are memorable. “The Magic” is a great power ballad and the best thing sung by Kelly Keagy (his only lead on the record) since “Sister Christian”.

10. Richard Marx and Matt Scannell: Duo (2008)
I am going to catch hell for this, but the ’80s ballad schlockster and the lead voice and songwriter of Vertical Horizon combine for an absolutely gorgeous recording of nine previous hits and one original. The production on this is clear; every strum on the guitar and vocal harmony is treat for the ear. Their voices blend naturally and the material sounds fresh and revitalized by these simple but elegant arrangements on acoustic guitars and occasional piano.

Honorable mentions certainly can be passed out to the following which just missed out on the top ten:

2000
XTC: Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2
Nik Kershaw: To Be Frank

2002
Maroon 5: Songs About Jane

2003
Switchfoot: The Beautiful Letdown

2004
Incubus: A Crow Left of The Murder,
Green Day: American Idiot
Tears for Fears: Everybody Loves a Happy Ending
Bowling For Soup: A Hangover You Don’t Deserve

2005
Glenn Hughes: Soul Mover

2006
Queensryche: Operation: Mindcrime II

2009
Heaven & Hell: The Devil You Know

  

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