21st Century Breakdown: Greg M. Schwartz’s Top 10 Albums of the 2000s

It’s been a decade of strange contradiction for the music industry. The historic decline of sales might suggest to some that rock ‘n’ roll is waning – the demise of Tower Records could even be viewed as a sign of an impending global apocalypse. But there’s a somewhat hidden story of the 2000s, which is that it’s been a fabulous decade for live music. While the RIAA cried that the sky was falling, a new wave of improvisational rock bands made a steady living by touring the country with exciting live shows that differed every night. These bands won die-hard core followings of music fans in search of peak experiences not offered by one-hit wonders and paint-by-numbers performers. Following a path blazed by the Grateful Dead and then Phish, a whole new movement blossomed into a thriving scene that made the 2000s the decade of the jam band.

Phish kicked the new decade/century/millennium off in maximum style by throwing down the most epic performance in rock history with their 12/31/99 New Year’s Eve show at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Everglades before 80,000 revelers (the largest ticketed millennium party on the planet.) After having played a three-set show on December 30 and an afternoon set on the 31st, the band returned to the stage at midnight and played until past the dawn, delivering a monumental seven-hour plus set with no breaks. Phish would go on to have their ups and downs in the decade (a hiatus in 2001-02, a stunning “permanent” breakup in 2004, a triumphant return in 2009), but the jam band scene grew to the point where it could flourish without an arena-level entity like Phish to lead the way. There are a slew of great bands touring clubs, auditoriums and theaters year-round now, keeping alive a counterculture music scene birthed in the ’60s but evolving in fresh, exciting ways in the 21st century. These bands rarely make classic albums, because the songs don’t fully evolve until they’re worked out on the road. But for many fans, the live experience delivered by these bands far surpasses anything that passes for “popular” music.

The growth of the jam rock scene also led to the rebirth of the festival movement. The inaugural Bonnaroo Festival in 2002 was built on the template of the big Phish festivals – lots of custom psychedelic scenery, fan-friendly event staff, reasonably priced amenities and remote location to better establish the alternate reality of counterculture utopia. The first Bonnaroo was a jam band Woodstock, featuring nearly all of the top acts from the scene. Bonnaroo kept growing and branched out to include more genres, only to see the Rothbury Festival created in 2008 to rekindle that jam-centric vibe. Lollapalooza was also reborn as a weekend festival, while Austin City Limits flourished and the similarly-scoped Outside Lands Festival was launched in San Francisco. A slew of smaller regional festivals dot the music calendar. The bottom line is that there are more opportunities than ever to see great live music here in the 21st century.

Another secret of the jam band success is that all of of these groups encourage audience recordings and many allow them to be freely available for downloading at Archive.org, a site that is easily the greatest gift the music gods could have bestowed on Earth at this juncture. It’s an absolute treasure trove. And conjunction with our End of Decade series, here are my top ten albums of the decade. Stay tuned for my top ten concerts I had the good fortune to witness this past decade, with links to hear the shows where available.

Top Albums of the 2000s (in chronological order)
Michael Franti & Spearhead: Stay Human (2001)
Franti and crew blew everyone away at the 6/15/01 CD release party at the Fillmore in San Francisco with a mix of socially conscious hip-hop, funk, soul and rock that I’d never heard blended together in such a strong way before. This powerful concept album features lamentations for all that’s wrong with the world mixed with a cathartic and uplifting vibe about taking the power back. Woody Harrelson guests as a right-wing governor to serve as a foil to Franti’s pirate radio station. “Oh My God” and “Rock the Nation” were the post-9/11 songs of the year, presciently released in the summer.

The String Cheese Incident: Outside Inside (2001)
This is one of the rare jam band albums (Widespread Panic’s Til the Medicine Takes from 1999 is another) where the band’s collection of songwriting matches their instrumental prowess. SCI’s third studio album saw them shifting from a bluegrass-based sound to more of a rock flavor, yet without abandoning their roots. A socially conscious tone that most larger bands eschew also helped make SCI the unique entity they became. “Black and White” is a funky take on hidden history, while “Rollover” warns of impending Earth changes. “Close Your Eyes” and “Sing a New Song” demonstrate the band’s melodic rock talents and instrumental chemistry, as does the hard rocking title track. Nearly all 11 songs became live fan favorites, the true mark of a classic album.

Incubus: Morning View (2001)
Alternative rock didn’t all collapse into rap metal at the turn of the century. Incubus had blown up with 1999’s Make Yourself and followed it up with this gem of an album that mixes hard rock with heartfelt vocals, melodic hooks, and some turntable flavor. Vocalist Brandon Boyd scored the only rock radio hit of the decade that mentioned UFOs with “Wish You Were Here,” while the band also demonstrated their versatility with feel-good funk on “Are You In?” and ambient psychedelia on “Aqueous Transmission.” Guitarist Mike Einzeiger is a master of mixing hard rock crunch with psychedelic flair on tunes like “Nice to Know You,” “Circles” and “Warning,” showing that you can be a metal head and a Phish-head too.

Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
The Bay Area trio evolved from mere pop-punkers into one of the most ambitious rock bands on the planet with this concept album that got back to what punk is really supposed to be about – taking issue with authority and commenting on society’s ills. “American Idiot” was not only the anthem of the year, it summed up the Bush regime’s entire first term. Billy Joe Armstrong’s songwriting brought in a majestic Queen flavor, while still retaining punk rock roots for one of the top audience crossover albums of all time. It’s too bad more bands don’t have the guts to show such ambition. The follow-up, 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, is also a most worthy successor that could have made this list as well.

Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
There’s been little in hip-hop this decade that combines the Beasties’ knack for mixing funky grooves with insightful social commentary. Tunes like “Right Right Now Now,” “All Lifestyles” and “We Got The” deliver an uplifting vibe about bringing the planet together, with slamming beats and psychedelic tricks. The lyrical flavor is a sharp and welcome contrast to the petty rivalries and superficial obsessions that infect hip-hop like a cancer. But tracks like “3 The Hard Way,” “Triple Trouble” and “Hey Fuck You” still flat-out jam with the party vibe that made the Beasties famous, all of which makes this album a mainline into the cultural zeitgeist of the decade. The Beasties know that we want to party and save the planet too, and they dare to dream it possible to do both.

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cold Roses (2005)
Adams put out a string of great albums throughout the decade, arguably making a case as songwriter of the decade. Rolling Stone may favor 2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold, but this double-album opus is Adams’ true masterpiece. It caught Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s ear to such a degree that he not only invited Adams to collaborate, but brought in a number of Adams’ tunes into his own repertoire after Adams left the fold. Adams has an amazing knack for tapping into universal emotions that correspond to all levels of love and loss. The depth and variety of emotion he explores on this album is a supreme achievement. “Mockingbirdsing” might be the most heartfelt song of the decade, with “Magnolia Mountain,” “Easy Plateau,” “Let it Ride” and “If I Am a Stranger” close behind.

Neil Young: Living with War (2006)
It’s kind of a shame that a younger band didn’t put out this album, but thank the music gods that Neil was up to the task of putting out “Let’s Impeach the President.” Pearl Jam had taken a disturbing amount of flack for “Bush Leaguer” in 2003, so maybe younger bands were afraid to speak out. But with the Bush regime plunging the planet into utter chaos and ruin, it was imperative that rock ‘n’ roll have a response. Young recorded this album in a matter of days, and it’s utterly brilliant in its urgency and social commentary, all of which takes on renewed relevance here at the end of the decade with Obama escalating the Afghanistan war. This album rocks like a Crazy Horse classic, filled with catchy melodies, grungy guitars, a choir of harmonies and brilliant lyrics. It’s a shame on America that it didn’t sell better.

Pearl Jam: Pearl Jam (2006)
Pearl Jam has always been a force to be reckoned with in the live arena, but they started the decade off with a couple of lackluster albums with 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act. So it was most inspiring to hear them come back with an album that rekindled the band’s original fire with more up-tempo energy and some instant classic tunes. “World Wide Suicide” was not only one of the most prominent songs of the year, it was an anthem for the entire decade, taking the powers that be to task for their reckless ways that endanger all humanity, yet doing so in the context of one of the catchiest songs the band has ever written. “Severed Hand” is one of the most electrifying guitar workouts the band has ever laid down, and that immediacy bleeds over into other hot tunes like “Life Wasted,” “Big Wave” and the grandeur of “Inside Job.” Eddie Vedder’s lyrics are consistently strong throughout, with the birth of his daughter stoking his justifiable anger at the state of the planet.

Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007)
I didn’t have this album as best of the year in 2007, but it really grew on me after witnessing the band’s awesome set at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival in 2008. Trendy consensus ranks 2000’s Kid A as the band’s best album of the decade, but for my money, there’s only one song on there (“National Anthem”) that rocks like “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fish/Arpeggi” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” three songs as good as anything the band has ever produced. There’s a power at work here that only continued to build the band’s aura as a cultural force to be reckoned with. This was augmented by the band’s bold and innovative decision to release the album online with only a digital tip jar to collect donations. This made In Rainbows more than just another big rock album, it made it a true cultural touchstone.

The Black Crowes: Before the Frost… Until the Freeze (2009)
After putting out a merely decent comeback album with a handful of great moments on 2008’s Warpaint, the Black Crowes dug deep into the well for this magnificent double album that re-stakes their claim as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands of their generation. Recorded live at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock, NY, there’s an immediacy missing from albums of most bands that like to jam like the Crowes do. Chris Robinson is at his soulful best on bluesy southern rockers like “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love),” “A Train Makes a Lonely Sound” and “Houston Don’t Forget About Me,” as well as deep ballads like “Appaloosa” and “Last Place that Love Lives.” Guitarist Rich Robinson leads the band in a dazzling array of musical depth and maturity that runs a gamut of stylistic references, with lyrics from Chris that clearly come from deep in the heart. The Freeze disc features a collection of acoustic-oriented winners that are tasty icing on the cake. This is the kind of rare mid-career album that enables a band to really expand their repertoire with quality material.

  

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.

  

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