21st Century Breakdown: David Medsker’s Top 10 Albums of the Decade

There has been much speculation about the real reason for the dramatic decline in record sales. I am here to give you the answer.

It’s my fault.

The first rumblings that all was not well in Musicland began right as my wife and I were planning our big move from Chicago (Rock Records, R.I.P.) to Columbus. I was traveling a lot, either to Ohio to look for houses or for the last few media boondoggles that my wife was invited to. (The trip to Orlando to meet the Atlanta Braves and take BP in the batting cages was the best.) Then I took a consulting gig, flying to Baltimore and back every week. Long story short, this cut greatly into my record shopping time.

In the spring, after we had settled into a house, I walked away from the world of finance and took the Bullz-Eye job. Pretty soon, I didn’t have to buy anything anymore. I was awash in a sea of free music. My first act as senior editor was to bring in Will Harris, one of only two people I knew who bought more music than I did. So then he stopped buying music, too.

And that, my friends, is when the shit hit the proverbial fan. My bad.

All kidding aside, I’m having a hard time trying to put the decade in music into words. The ’90s were so easy by comparison. There was 1990, one of the worst years for music EVER. (Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Wilson Phillips. End of story.) Then there was grunge, and then industrial (or, if you were an Anglophile like me, this is when you got into Brit pop), and then ska (or Big Beat), and then teen pop. It was pretty easy, really.

The ’00s, by comparison, were a complete clustercuss of styles. Punk pop and nu metal ruled the early years. The pop landscape turned into a hip hop free-for-all (and still is to this day). Modern rock suffered a bit of an identity crisis, as stations had to decide between the Evanescence/Linkin Park branch of the tree and the Franz Ferdinand/Yeah Yeah Yeahs branch. Classic rock artists were renamed “heritage” acts – a word that got one hell of a response from Lindsey Buckingham when the aforementioned Will Harris interviewed him – and pop songwriting became as faceless and boring as it has ever been. I personally blame Rob Thomas for that last one.

MySpace was huge in getting music into people’s hands and promoting up and coming talent. And almost as quickly, people devised ways to register fake hits on their site in order to make them seem more popular than they really were. Recording equipment got really cheap, and believe it or not, that actually made things worse; suddenly everyone was an artist, and the already crowded market was now three times more crowded. Band names, meanwhile, went to complete and utter shit.

And somehow, some way, after sorting through the wreckage – which led me to completely give up on popular music made by anyone not named Madonna – I found some damn fine albums. Some were by old friends, others from newcomers. Most of them, as is my tendency, were British. Here are my ten favorite albums of the decade, the second in our series of our writers’ recaps of the wacky aughts. Let’s hear your faves of the year in the comment section.

10. The Feeling: Twelve Stops and Home
Never in a million years did I think a group like this would appear after the power pop bubble burst in 1997, never mind sell millions of records (in England, anyway). “Sewn” and “Never Be Lonely” are the finest songs Supertramp never wrote. And just when you least expect it, they will completely rock out. Will wrote me before the album even came out in the States and simply said, “You need to hear this right now.” Man, how right he was.

9. The Silver Seas: High Society
Props to staff writer Mike Farley for hipping me to these guys. Many artists received accolades for their AM radio-inspired pop, but for my money, no one did it better than the Silver Seas. I’d bet dollars to donuts that Brian Wilson is trying to buy the rights to “Miss November” right now, the song is such a dead ringer for his glory days with the Beach Boys. The only bad thing I can say about them is that one of our writers did some graphic work for the band, and was never paid for it. It’s never too late to make amends, guys.

8. Attic Lights: Friday Night Lights
The tale of how I found this band is pure serendipity. I wrote a piece about Teenage Fanclub, and I get an email from a UK publicist, who says, “Hey, if you like Teenage Fanclub, check out this band that’s managed by TFC member Francis MacDonald.” Every publicist compares their client to a band that they couldn’t hope of duplicating on their best day, so I was understandably skeptical. Watched their video “Wendy,” couldn’t get the song (or video) out of my head. He sent me the record. And here it is. Gorgeous guitar pop, with a healthy dose of alt.country when the guitarist sings lead. It’s a travesty that this album didn’t sell better.

7. Green Day: American Idiot
Quite possibly the last Event Record. This album sent shockwaves through the industry, outselling all of the bands other albums at a time when punk pop was considered passe and, considering the lackluster performance of the band’s previous album, 2000’s Warning (which I quite like, for the record), Green Day was very much in a make-or-break scenario. They made, and then they broke. Two monster song suites, a song that Cheap Trick would kill for, and that title track, a surefire candidate for Single of the Decade.

6. Kirsty MacColl: Tropical Brainstorm
I still get misty thinking about the fact that Kirsty’s gone (killed in a boating accident in 2000, right in front of her children), and right after she made one of her best albums. This blend of bone-dry British wit and Cuban rhythms is irresistibly good, not to mention funny. Who else would sing about stalking one of her fans, or having online chats with a guy that works in a porno shop? I still put the one-two punch of “Alegria” and “Us Amazonians” on mix discs to this day.

5. Kaiser Chiefs: Employment
Man, would I like to have a do-over on this review. This fast became one of the most-played albums around the house, and their live performances at Lollapalooza in 2005 and 2009, well, ask anyone lucky enough to have seen them, and they will tell you that they were awesome with a zillion exclamation points. It is not a coincidence that they are my two-year-old son’s favorite band. “This is ‘I Predict a Riot’!” Damn right it is.

4. Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
It would have been very easy for Muse to play it safe on this album, after achieving some breakthrough success with 2003’s Absolution. Instead, they let it all hang out, ramping up the rock choruses – “No one’s gonna taaaaaaake meeeeee aliiiiiiiiive!” – and dabbling in electronic stylings, funk, and Pink Floyd-esque grandeur. This is a hard album to top, and those of you who bought their 2009 album The Resistance know exactly what I mean.

3. Daft Punk: Discovery
I remember seeing the five-star review for this in Q Magazine and thinking, “They’re nuts.” Sure, “Da Funk” was a badass track, but were they really capable of making a five-star album? Hell yes, they were. It served as both a flawless dance album and a great pop record at the same time, and even included prog-esque keytar elements. My single biggest regret of the decade was deciding to go home early the first night of Lolla in 2007 when Daft Punk were the headliners, and missing what people would later tell me was the single greatest live performance they’ve ever seen in their lives.

2. Jon Brion: Meaningless
Despite the fact that he’s scored a dozen major motion pictures and produced a dozen major label artists (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, Keane, even the Crystal Method), Jon Brion remains one of the best kept secrets in music. This is all sorts of wrong. Dude’s a pop genius, and this album, which was supposed to be released by Atlantic in 1997 but never saw the light of day until Brion released it himself in 2001, is the proof. The drum track to “I Believe She’s Lying,” recorded at half speed like the piano solo to “In My Life,” is brilliantly low-tech studio wizardry, while “Ruin My Day” explained my feelings for an ex-girlfriend better than I could explain them myself. Jon, you’re welcome to record a follow-up album any time now.

1. New Pornographers: Twin Cinema
It doesn’t hurt that they have one of those singers that can make the phone book sound like the sweetest, sexiest thing ever said. (Neko Case, *swoon*) But what separates Twin Cinema from the rest of the New Pornographers’ outstanding body of work is both its incredible depth of style – Zulu chants, surf drums, wordless choruses, songs modeled after Charles Manson tunes – and the quality of each and every song. Fans of the band are not unlike “Twilight” followers; odds are, you’re in Team Carl or Team Dan. Twin Cinema was the one album where Carl Newman and Dan Bejar met in the middle, and in the process created their most focused, consistent album to date.

  

Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Senior Editor David Medsker’s picks

Abraham Simpson once succinctly explained about how he used to be “with it,” but then they changed what “it” was. Suddenly what he was “with” wasn’t “it,” and what was “it” seemed weird and scary to him. He then pointed a bony finger at his son Homer and said, “It’ll happen to you.”

It happened to me this year.

The thing is, I’m okay with it. Pop is a young man’s game, and I just turned 40, so the vast majority of songs climbing the charts are not aimed at me. In fact, I feel sorry for anyone who feels compelled to remain hip and cool as they hit their late 30s. It’s hard work, and you will invariably find yourself on the other side of the fence from the hordes of people who think (insert indie band of the week here) are the saviors of rock and roll. Don’t fight it: embrace it. Circle of life, etc.

Having said that, I made a concerted effort this year to give a listen to the music that was being aimed at our impressionable youth and see if I could hear what they hear. After trolling through the muck that is Rocco’s ”Umma Do Me” and contemplating whether I wanted to live on the same planet with people who gave Rocco their hard-earned money, I found a few pop singers that I quite liked. The problem is that no one bought their records, which sums up my CD collection – and my favorite songs and albums from 2008 – better than anything: pop music that isn’t popular. Sigh.

Top 10 albums of 2008

1. Midnight Juggernauts: Dystopia
A little Goth rock, a little Daft Punk dance, a little Muse-ish paranoia, and a whole lot awesome.

2. Panic at the Disco: Pretty. Odd
The kids, apparently, were furious with Panic at the Disco’s decision to make a, ahem, more traditional pop album. To that I say: fuck the kids, Panic. I’ll take this over the needlessly wordy songs from your first album any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

3. Airborne Toxic Event: Airborne Toxic Event
I still haven’t read Pitchfork’s brutal 1.6-rated review of this album. Just knowing that they would do such a thing to an album so completely undeserving – their song “Sometime Around Midnight” is worthy of three or four points all by itself – is confirmation that I need not worry what their opinion is about anything, ever.

4. Attic Lights: Friday Night Lights
Odds are the debut album by this Scottish quintet will never see the light of day in the States. The reason? It’s filled with smart, sunny, harmony-laden pop songs that aren’t produced within an inch of their lives, which fell out of favor with Stateside radio programmers about ten years ago. Still, I’m willing to bet that more people are listening to this album ten years from now than anything Akon ever does.

5. Republic Tigers: Keep Color
Much like the Attic Lights, though the Tigers were lucky enough to get their fabulous debut album released on this side of the pond. Being American certainly had a lot to do with that, though it didn’t help them much with getting on the radio. I guess that spot on the “Gossip Girl” soundtrack will have to suffice.

6. Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It
Again, showing my age here, but this is my idea of R&B. Saadiq’s slavish attention to detail results in the finest Smokey Robinson album in decades. Could have done without the drop-in by Jay-Z, though.

7. They Might Be Giants: Here Come the 123s
So maybe I am into music aimed at the kids, if the kids happen to be my two-year-old. They Might Be Giants’ follow-up to their wildly popular Here Come the ABCs is even better; “Seven” was produced by the Dust Brothers, for crying out loud, and the kids’ screams of “We want cake! Where’s our cake!” will stick in your head for days. The videos on the accompanying DVD are awesome as well. Anyone with a toddler should buy this, stat.

8. Joe Jackson: Rain
At long last, a proper follow-up to Ben Folds Five’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

9. Sunny Day Sets Fire: Summer Palace
Think New Pornographers, on a global scale.

10. Benji Hughes: A Love Extreme
Occasionally juvenile, yes, but hot damn, is Hughes hard to beat when he’s on his game. Look for Beck to cover half of the songs here before long.

Honorable Mentions
Coldplay: Viva La Vida
Keane: Perfect Symmetry
R.E.M.: Accelerate
Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken: Ampersand EP
James Hunter: The Hard Way
Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords
Army Navy: Army Navy
We Are Scientists: Brain Thrust Mastery
Foxboro Hot Tubs: Foxboro Hot Tubs

Songs I loved from albums I loved… less

Never Miss a Beat,” Kaiser Chiefs
Instant classic, this one. All bands should be challenged to write a catchier melody using five notes or less, like the verse here.

Shut Up and Let Me Go,” The Ting Tings
You just know that Debbie Harry loves this.

Chasing Pavements,” Adele
This song went Top 10 in eight countries. In the States, it peaked at #82. Jesus, people.

You Don’t Know Me,” Ben Folds w/ Regina Spektor
The one truly brilliant moment on his most recent album, though once you’ve been married four times, you should by law lose the right to complain about how it’s your ex’s fault.

“A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend
Ey! Ey! Ey! Ey!

Wow,” Kylie Minogue
Meow, meow, meow, meow!

I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie
Eight and a half minutes of delusional stalkerism disguised as bold determination. We’re used to the former from them, but not the latter. Bravo.

Money, It’s Pure Evil,” Bigelf
I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison yet, but I’m pretty sure a chunk of the guitar solo here is taken note-for-note from “Comfortably Numb.”

Cantaloupe,” Carlon
Hollies, Hollies, Hollies, get your vocals here.

“Join with Us,” The Feeling
For being a bunch of pop boys, they freaking bring it at the end. As of press date, their second album (this is the title track) has no US release date. D’oh.

This Is Only,” Charlotte Sometimes
‘She’s Half My Age,’ Crush #1. I am positively smitten with this girl. Cute as a button, sassy lyricist and with one of the most unique voices in pop, I can’t believe a major actually signed her. And that’s part of the hypocrisy with the music press: had this been an indie release, and not as slickly produced, people would be lining up with Liz Phair-style rapture for the girl. Ugh.

Fragile,” Kerli
‘She’s Half My Age,’ Crush #2. Here’s another one that would be better served positioning herself as a modern rock goddess than a Goth-tinged popster, and this song’s the proof. Oh, and don’t ever use the ‘G’ word in her presence, if you don’t want your eyes gouged out.

Slave to the Rhythm,” Shirley Bassey
Dame Shirley Bassey covering Grace Jones, with Primal Scream’s “Loaded” serving as the drum track. Does it get any cooler than that?

Girls,” Walter Meego
Daft Punk, crossed with David Cassidy.

They Live,” Evil Nine
Daft Punk, crossed with zombies.

Sensual Seduction“/”My Medicine,” Snoop Dogg
Pity Marvin Gaye isn’t still alive to cover the former. Pity Johnny Cash isn’t still alive to cover the latter.

Never let me down…again: Artists I love making albums I thought were just all right

Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers
She may have hated making albums for the majors, but they sure were better when she did.

B-52’s: Funplex
Better than Good Stuff, but that’s not exactly saying much.

Gary Louris: Vagabonds
I still think he has one of the finest voices in music, but this record could have used a couple shifts in tempo.

Jack’s Mannequin: The Glass Passenger
Want a little cheese with that whine?

2008: The year of the bad band name

Are all of the good band names truly gone? You’d certainly think so, judging from some of the releases we saw this year. Even good bands – including two bands in my Top 10 – gave themselves bad names. Here is a small list of the ones I found to be particularly bad.

Unicycle Loves You
Biography of Ferns
Does It Offend You, Yeah?
Airborne Toxic Event
Sunny Day Sets Fire
Uh Huh Her
The Sound of Animals Fighting
What Laura Says
The Number Twelve Looks Like You
Dancer vs. Politician
We Landed on the Moon

Phony of the Year

Katy Perry. “I Kissed a Girl” and “Ur So Gay” are such manufactured controversy that even Madonna blushed.

Fare thee well

Junior Senior has called it quits. Damn.

  

Related Posts