Welcome to the exhaustive, comprehensive second half of my Albums of the Decade coverage! After feeling rushed to put out the past list, I was determined to do this one right. And believe me, after solidifying my opinions on these records, it took a strong will to not just tell everyone my thoughts before posting the finished drafts. Especially when so much painstaking work was required to finish the mundane details.
I’ve been through a lot with this venture, and having finished, I can say I learned a lot too. (Seriously! I wouldn’t attach a lesson to all of this unless I actually experienced it.) I got better at listening to music, hearing it for what it is and not what I’m expecting. I’d also like to think I became something of a better writer over the course of this project. At the end of the journey, I found that by practicing my criticism, I was undeniably getting better at it. I was able to totally ignore any preconceived notions on the first listen and pick up on much deeper aspects of the record in question. I integrated what would previously have been separate theoretical essays (when I had extraneous things to muse on) into the throughline of the reviews. As a result, for example, the Turn On the Bright Lights review is also about originality in the 2000s, while the Night Ripper review is about the morality and value of sampling.
I also became generally more adroit and specific at addressing the pros and cons of the work at hand. I noticed that for the most part, the longest reviews here are for the first albums I listened to (The Argument, American Idiot, No More Shall We Part, Songs For the Deaf, Turn On the Bright Lights, Transatlanticism and Middle Cyclone, among others). Once I got more focused and eloquent while practicing the evaluation process, I was able to pare things down and tighten the reviews while still articulating what I wanted to say. I suppose that even if this undertaking turns out to be worthless in my professional career, it will at least have given me some experience. Needless to say, it expanded my tastes a bit as well, as I grew quite fond of things I probably would never have listened to of my own volition. Bands I once appreciated as a one-album wonder grew in stature as I heard their other work, until I almost came to respect them as a favorite group. (I’m referring here to Ween, Wilco, Belle and Sebastian, LCD Soundsystem, Neko Case, and the Decemberists.)
In the spirit of completeness, for this installment, I’ve written everything I had to say about each record. Obviously I’ve edited and honed these essays (hopefully to your satisfaction), but for the most part, all my opinions and thoughts have been compiled for posterity’s sake. I also listened to any B-sides or bonus tracks I could get my hands on from the LPs in question.
If I come across as overly critical and picky toward last decade, it’s only because I’m measuring it against the much higher expectations of years gone by. Ultimately, I was optimistic about these new experiences, especially since they were all very heralded. I went in trying to like them and gave them a second chance if I didn’t. If I started this project expecting to hate everything… well, that would have been an extremely boring endeavor and I probably wouldn’t have done it at all. And no, I won’t hold a grudge against the few monstrously terrible albums, because I’m just glad I got to hear so much more great music.
Although I tried to be robotically objective with these essays (you’ll see a handful of possibly confounding reviews where I verbally abuse the recording in question just because I personally dislike the band/genre, and then proceed to give it a lukewarm *** out of fairness), I am just as biased as anyone else. So rather than eliminate the slant completely from my journalistic perspective (criticism without any bias at all is no fun to read!), I’ll just inform you beforehand of my own particular pet peeves and such.
After some thought, I’ve realized I’m quick to deride a song for sounding too much like other compositions by the same band (or any other compositions, for that matter). I guess it’s a musical pet peeve of mine. In fact, I wish it didn’t bother me so much, but the reality is, if I hear just a few notes in a tune that remind me of another group’s song, in particularly conspicuous cases, I’ll dislike the track just for that.
I suppose I’m always in favor of maximalism over minimalism – at least, when the music’s inherent quality is still high. So this could partially explain why I dislike Spoon. (Another reason: they flat-out STINK!)
One more caveat: a great deal of the time, I believe hip-hop is more formulaic and restrictive than rock music. So, the rating handicaps of yore are still in place, to some extent. For those genres that I consider less creative or limiting, I will forgive artists a typical amount of complacency and consider the mode’s limitations, focusing merely on their quality relative to the shortcomings of their style. So rap records get an artificial boost, and for the few of those that are unbelievably creative on the level of great rock music, an exceptionally lofty ranking is in order. That’s why Tenacious D and Incredibad are getting a higher score than, for instance, Turn On the Bright Lights – they’re not necessarily better works of art, but for comedy albums, they’re near-perfect. Also, I reviewed some albums this time around that were so avant-garde (or pretentious, if you like) that judging them by the same standards as everything else didn’t seem fair. They were more in the format of classical music or jazz or ambient or something. So for the few really strange artsy records herein, I will be assigning a handicap instead of showing the piss-poor rating they would have received if I judged them by normal criteria.
Just to clarify, I went into all these experiences with the same standards and expectations for what makes a song good. So forgive me if it becomes tiring, but I’ll be constantly referring to the lyrical quality and diversity, because those things are important to me.
Speaking of which, if I may be so bold as to compare my analytical process with that of the immeasurably great critic Roger Ebert (brashly assuming that I have a consistent procedure to begin with), I decide how music is good roughly the same way he decides whether a film is any good (again, I do so in an infinitely less informative, poetic manner, but still). What I’m referring to is a maxim of his that really opened my eyes: “It’s not what a movie’s about – it’s how it’s about it.”
The quote is admirable because, although one cannot experience any art without some sort of previous bias, this credo attempts to overlook all that baggage and simply get at the root of the work. This implies a level of sophistication, broadness and tolerance in that anything is fair game to the reasoned, open-minded, impassioned critic; the variation and distinction of quality is merely in how well that thing is done. So to avoid any needless explanation and elaboration piled upon my already run-on rants of specious qualification and detail, most qualitative statements I make don’t refer to the subject itself, but rather, to how effectively that feature is used. Otherwise, it would be quite easy to construct an argument of hypocrisy against me, along the lines of “you liked x quality here, but not here”. If I’m doing my job well, I will address the contextual differences that make one case better than another. Because more than being fervent condemnations and enthused benedictions, these are explanations.
If that whole approach doesn’t do it for you, here’s something else I came up with while trying to explain my rationale to a friend, which you may take as an alternative distillation of my critical mind: I’m all about how effectively, creatively and accessibly a song/band/LP communicates whatever it wants to communicate. If it relies on stale and unimaginative means, elitist and obtuse strategies, or elements that are totally at odds with its perceived goal, then I get mad.
In a much more specific vein, I’ll now attempt to list the things I appreciate in songwriting (which you’ll no doubt see mentioned countless times here):
– Adequacy (lack of pretension and contrivance, or at least making the music complex and artful enough that the pretension is justified and not distracting)
– Ambiguity (never being too overbearing, obvious, clichéd or literal)
– Density (having a lot going on in a composition, so that every successive listen is entertaining and holds the listener’s interest)
– Diversity (trying lots of styles, structures, moods and arrangements so the presentation never grows old or grating)
– Economy (the ability to convey a lot of creative thoughts in a short amount of time, with efficiency)
– Energy (songs are brisk and fun when they need to be, ballads are still engaging and powerful, intense songs really kick ass, and experimentation is apt and exciting)
– Experimentation (trying relatively new things with the art of songwriting, bands attempting things outside of their established sound and succeeding at adapting new influences)
– Musicianship (the performers are all adept or disciplined at their particular instrument, or at least find cool things to do with it)
– Replayability (I found myself compelled to relisten to the record for one reason or another; it never gets boring or tiresome)
– Tunefulness (having a logical, intuitive, memorable and unique way with melody)
– Vision (the artist’s music has overarching themes, moods, messages, symbols or goals that combine into a unified, cohesive body of work with a distinct aesthetic)
I earnestly hope these parameters will be of use to you in informing future listening decisions. (Even if you thoroughly disagree with my ratings, you can use them as a reverse indicator for stuff you haven’t heard before!) Maybe my ramblings will give you further insight to tunes you know. If they don’t, I hope they’re at least entertaining for you all to read. For the most part, they were fun to write!
Once the reviews are all up, I’ll post the finished, updated master list. This time, I deliberated precisely where to place these albums so that I won’t have to bother you with this process again if I changed my mind drastically. All rankings on the list are final, though as with the previous countdown, several groups of consecutive records are very closely tied.
Like I said before, some LPs, though inadequate and possibly overreaching, get bonus points simply for trying to project an ambitious artistic statement. Additionally, sometimes this slightly pretentious sprawl can still be endearing and interesting, so that gains my favor as well. A record with an intriguing artistic vision or original concept will always take precedence over a comparably enjoyable one that’s unassuming and lightweight, even if the former is a bit flawed and the latter is fairly consistent.
After the smoke had cleared, I had reviewed enough recordings to put the total count over 150, which allowed me to whittle it down and leave the ten or twelve most pitiful ones off the final tally. Next, I created a list that wasn’t just a ranking of anything I happened to listen to, but rather, of 100 releases from the 2000s that I could recommend to some degree. (That is, a top 100 list.) But that’s not all! In late September, as if this undertaking wasn’t massive enough, I decided to review thirty EPs as well, so analyses of those will follow. Then, when I was growing really disillusioned with the project, I started making random, slightly relevant lists, which I fleshed out for subsequent publication. Last but not least (I feel wary revealing this now, as people may just wait for it and skip these wordy reviews), I made a specialized “tl;dr” capsule overview of every album I’ve listened to, summarizing each in a sentence or two. I’ll post it after everything else, so people don’t overlook the rest of my labor. (Oh yeah, there will also be a breakdown of best albums by year.)
As you can see, this endeavor has consumed more waking hours of my life than you can possibly imagine. I tentatively began in December of 2009. All told, it took more than 20 months. Just this batch of reviews was over 100,000 words long, and covered almost 240 pages. I almost regret spending that much time and effort on this, but hey, you’ve gotta do something to pass the hours, right? During that time, it was my primary motive in life to finish this behemoth. Most other responsibilities took a back seat to it as I toiled constantly. From late September 2010 onward, things became complicated with schoolwork, fatigue, and an incredible girlfriend who was WAY more important to me than these silly essays, but I still pressed onward (admittedly, at a much slower pace). Then, in late January 2011, I finally found the time and enthusiasm to keep working feverishly. After that, I worked off and on until I was finally done.
These were not written in the exact order presented here, so some reviews may refer to later albums. I apologize if a temporally displaced reference ruins the “surprise” of the next year’s reviews for you. My first review was of Transatlanticism and my last was Get Guilty, which I saved until the end as a reward for completing everything else.
During the whole venture, I made sure I had an enormous backlog of writing that was ready to post before I announced that the reviews were commencing. Furthermore, I will publish these year by year in a controlled, even fashion, so that I don’t unexpectedly run out of new stuff should I go on an unscheduled posting binge. With the amount of time I have invested in this, the payoff couldn’t possibly justify the interminable delay. Nevertheless, I toiled on it just for the sense of satisfaction in completing it by my own nitpicky standards.
In fact, I even checked over the quality of the reviews I’d posted in the past. While going over records I had already ranked in my first batch of essays, I was pleased to find that I still agreed with my early assessments of almost all of them, and my quibbles with the rest were minor. However, a few of the placements themselves changed significantly, honoring LPs I had previously shortchanged. The biggest examples of this would be Fleet Foxes, Them Crooked Vultures, Veckatimest, Icky Thump, and Z. Then, of course, there were a few albums I slightly overrated because of hype and a bit of groupthink, and so At War With the Mystics, Embryonic, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain, and Elephant got demoted slightly. Other than that, the first installment reviews’ opinions still stand, although they’re incredibly primitive in comparison to these.
However, despite all this perfectionism, I do have some regrets about the project as a whole. Although I learned a lot about the music of the past ten years, grew to love it a lot more and found some things I wasn’t expecting, I feel it would have been far more rewarding and interesting for me to explore another decade of rock, seeing as I still consider last decade to be possibly the worst since its creation (especially in the realm of what music was actually popular). But that would be folly, as I wouldn’t even know where to begin – the originality, notability and quantity of available releases looms even greater and broader the farther one goes back. It would be the enormous time-suck that this undertaking was times one thousand – simply not feasible.
So that, in turn, discounts a “my favorite albums of all time” list as well. Suffice it to say that OK Computer, the Beatles discography, Kid A, Stevie Wonder’s Seventies material, and Paul’s Boutique would all be up there. (As long as I’m being long-winded, I’d have to give props to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and the Who as well.)
Then again, if you guys are interested, I am working (very slowly, as it’s my last priority now) on a best of Nineties and best of Seventies list. (I need more experience with the Eighties to be reasonably well-versed in the decade’s music.) After such a prolonged endeavor as this, I may dispense with written analyses altogether and just name them, at the risk of not doing justice to the records. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I still consider the Sixties and Seventies (and possibly the Nineties) to be, musically speaking, far more fertile and notable eras than the most recent one. Nonetheless, I fatefully chose to cover the 2000s, as it was the decade in which I discovered music and matured as a listener – and since I spent much of it ignoring the present and focusing on those golden oldies, I felt I owed the aughties another look. So I reconcile myself to the fact that I’ll probably never get to meticulously document my feelings on all the old CDs I own. It’s a sad truth, but in all likelihood, I’ll never undertake a task of this scope ever again.
But it’s not time to bury this beast just yet – now is when it all pays off and I enjoy the fruits of my labor! So let’s keep this introduction train going. Now, it’s all well and good that I’ve assigned these random clusters of stars to each record, but here’s a short assessment of what those designations really mean:
***** – Pure genius, a total masterpiece (unqualified recommendation of the highest order)
**** 1/2 – Awesome, extremely notable, definite classic (strongly recommended unless you hate the band)
**** – Excellent, very respectable (recommended unless you hate the genre in general)
*** 1/2 – Above average, likable but flawed, or ambitious and interesting, yet not totally engaging (recommended for fans of the genre only)
*** – Okay, decent, unremarkable (recommended for fans of the band only)
** 1/2 – Mediocre, disappointing, possibly pleasant but very flawed (not recommended; at best, benign)
** – Decidedly subpar, not worth listening to (definite distaste or complete irrelevance)
* 1/2 – Bad, unenjoyable, waste of time (recommendation against listening, resentment)
* – Disgusting trash, an outrage, almost complete failure, awful, few redeeming features
1/2 – F**K THIS (offensively, oppressively terrible; an experience I deeply regret)
0 – This rating is purely theoretical. These are albums whose every second of content makes me want to brutally murder everyone involved, along with several innocent bystanders.
N/A – Not applicable to be judged by the standards of modern music. Avant-garde fudging that messes with my scale.
Overall, I reviewed 165 records and twenty-one EPs. Though circumstance dictated that the pictured artist for the first few years had the only ***** album therein, I didn’t pick only one each year to give the honors to. That was just coincidence. The best year I reviewed was 2005, with eighteen records earning **** or higher. A close second was 2007, with sixteen ****+ albums. The worst year I reviewed was 2008 (mostly because I didn’t review much from that year). The average rating was around **** out of *****, so I guess it was a pretty good decade. Then again, I handpicked from a pool of the best, so… probably not. At the present moment, I actually physically own fifty-four of the records I reviewed. Which reminds me of something.
At this juncture, I’d like to take a moment to grovel to the great God called Grooveshark. It made this procedure go much smoother and more easily once I found out it existed. It’s a free MP3 download site that’s easy to navigate, totally not sketchy or virus-ridden, has a slick interface, tons of customizability, and a mind-bogglingly vast database of songs (far more than can be found on Youtube) with far better sound quality than one can find on Youtube as well. (I have since found some evidence that this comprehensiveness may just extend to the last decade of music; they still have plenty of random stuff from the past, but it’s kinda hit or miss.) It’s also absolutely, no-strings-attached FREE, and the site is hardly ever down. I love it.
Speaking of which, I’d like to take an opportunity to recognize some important people who contributed to this effort and helped me get through the past one and a half years:
First of all, I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for reading this, and for enduring the long, long, long, LONG wait until it was posted. I really do appreciate it, and I’m flattered that so many folks told me they were excited to read these. I hope it was worth the delay!
My sincerest thanks to Emily Barnes for so patiently waiting for CDs I could have burned and sent her if I weren’t so lazy and/or occupied with this monstrous thing.
I’m extremely grateful to Eric Simons for launching Winslowisms and managing the business side of this stuff, and to Brian Gallagher, for being a kind sir.
Also, many, many thanks to Corey Richier for being stoked about this project as always, and the only person I felt comfortable bothering with boring questions about formatting and stuff. Much obliged!
Of course, lots of love goes out to my family, who were proud of me and encouraged this crazy, timewasting hobby from the beginning. I really appreciate it, you guys!
Lastly, I give the utmost gratitude and affection to the girl of my dreams, Amanda Klimek, for her constant encouragement, support and geniality. If not for her, my decent-sized, necessary sabbatical from the project never would have taken place, and I probably would have given up on it entirely or compromised its content in some way. You saved me, honey. I adore you so much.
Anyway, at long last, it is now time for the reviews themselves to commence. To clarify, I will continue mentioning the best three songs and worst song on an LP; however, this time, I’ll post them with each review. The lists are organized as follows:
Most representative song\Biggest hit or most accessible song\A personal favorite of mine
I’ve also made the format of each essay more streamlined and, hopefully, reader-friendly. This is how each header will look for the preliminary EP reviews and for the main course, the album reviews:
ALBUM – Band
Finally, since this project is so freaking long, I’ll obviously be splitting it up into parts. I’ll post the reviews one year at a time, from 2000 to 2009, once a week on Fridays. Each segment will have an index at the beginning for those who just want to skim through. I’ll be posting links and reminders on Facebook as well, in case you forget about these from one week to the next. Once I post the last year’s reviews, there will be special bonus material, too. And that is all the introduction you require. Here we go!