Best of the 2000s: Top 100 Albums of the Decade, 20-1

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Take a deep breath — you’ve made it to the final day of The Rawking Refuses To Stop!’s countdown of the Top 100 Albums of the Decade. I promise only greatness. To click through the entire list, click below.

100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-1

The 20 best albums of the decade, 2000-2009, after the jump.

20. Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies
The album that brought me into the fold — and Dan Bejar’s most fully realized release. Whether by choice or by necessity, Destroyer had never sounded as expansive and hi-fi as they do here, thanks to better production values and a fantastic new band (which remains his touring band, I believe). Each song explodes with unreal lead guitars, trademark Dan zingers and endless ba-da-da choruses. Tall ships made of snow, invading the Sun.
>> “Your Blood”: mp3

19. The Wrens – The Meadowlands
That we’ve had only one Wrens album to get us through this decade (and that it hasn’t sold a million copies and allowed them to quit their jobs) should be punishable by death. But The Meadowlands is about living — through suffering, through bum jobs, through break-ups, through punk rock. Few bands in rock music thread the needle of soft and loud better.
>> “This Boy Is Exhausted”: mp3

18. Beulah – The Coast Is Never Clear
Speaking of break-ups — Beulah left us too soon, still at the peak of their game with this album and its follow-up, the edgier Yoko. After a muddier start, with the summery Coast, the band embraced hi-fi production that let its ’60s influences — Beach Boys harmonies, Motown horns — have their day in the sun. Come back, guys!
>> “Popular Mechanics For Lovers”: mp3

17. Weakerthans – Left and Leaving
Ostensibly a punk band, the Weakerthans have too fine a sense of melody and too broad a vocabulary to shout along with the best of them, which leaves Left and Leaving in a peculiar, massively enjoyable place. More of my friends, from all walks of life and listening, count this as a favorite than any of the higher profile releases on this list — it remains a special record, quietly waiting for future generations of not-quite-angry geeks to stumble upon it.
>> “Aside”: mp3

16. Jon Brion – Meaningless
Like his pal Aimee Mann, Jon’s sense of humor knows no bounds — Meaningless, a very important pop record and the only true solo disc of the L.A. legend/producer’s career, is full of self-deprecating odes to lost girlfriends and ghosts of the past. The real album, of course, is the ever-evolving show he puts on at Largo every Friday night, but until he drops a sophomore disc, this will continue to hold us over.
>> “Meaningless”: mp3

15. Elliott Smith – From A Basement on the Hill
As an Elliott fanatic, I had my qualms with Basement, the posthumous album gathered from the late singer/songwriter’s last sessions. In many ways, I still prefer the live, acoustic compilation I’d compiled in the run-up to its release, but Basement, if not quite the gritty White Album he’d said he was planning, is a blistering record. Noisy and chaotic, it found a musician tired of the orchestral pop he’d delved into, turning toward something far more raw. Basement also contains a number of his best lyrics — high praise, given the rest of his catalog. His state of mind during what are thought to be drug-influenced, dark recording sessions may never be truly known, but Basement is his look, stunning and brutal, into the abyss.
>> “King’s Crossing” (live): mp3

14. The Softies – Holiday in Rhode Island
Sadness doesn’t need noise to show its face. The strength of the Softies, a guitar-playing, twee-pop duo that remain probably my favorite musicians after Elliott, has always been in their subtlety. The album’s title track says it all: entrancing and mysterious, its brittle major 7th chords pull you in before Rose Melberg’s words leave you hanging. What really brought her out to Rhode Island? And why so serious, for a love affair? You’ll have to keep listening to find out.
>> “Holiday In Rhode Island”: mp3

13. Hem – Rabbit Songs
This album should have been titled Gorgeous Songs. Thanks to lavish arrangements and the singular voice of Sally Ellyson, Hem — a New York band who sound steeped in Nashville’s finest traditions — craftede a record of elegance and beauty that adds more than a few numbers to the Great American Songbook it pays tribute to.
>> “Half Acre”: mp3

12. The Strokes – Is This It? (UK edition)
9/11, among other things, ruined this album’s flow — the U.S. version kicked off the awesome, inflammatory “NYC Cops” in favor of the half-assed “When It Started.” That aside, though, give the Strokes credit for the decade’s first great garage rock album and more importantly, for making it mainstream cool to play rock music again instead of wearing a damn baseball cap and pillaging Kurt Cobain’s grave. Some of you may be too young to remember, but the early 2000s were a dark time, filled with bubblegum pop, third- and fourth-wave grunge knock-offs and frat boy rap/rock acts. The Strokes started the paradigm shift, even if they were on a major label and trust-fund babies to boot — so are the Arcade Fire. And so, as likely as not, are you! The jams, and that timeless, early twenties urban disillusionment, are beholden to no one.
>> “New York City Cops”: mp3

11. Radiohead – Amnesiac + b-sides
I’m cheating a bit on this one because the Knives Out single looms ever larger in retrospect — a fork in the road Radiohead failed to take. Songs such as “Fog” (my favorite Radiohead song, easy), “Worrywort” and “Cuttooth” were recorded in a fresh session after the long haul that led to Kid A and Amnesiac, and as such, revealed a band with innovation yet ahead of them. Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows went elsewhere, but at least we have those scattered tracks — and of course, Amnesiac, to these ears a richer record song-for-song than Kid A. The Christmas version of “Morning Bell,” “I Might Be Wrong’s” inexorable stomp, the broken jazz of “Life in a Glass House” — it’s Radiohead gone wild.
>> “Fog” (live): mp3

10. Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance
Like Jon Brion’s Meaningless, Insignificance is an album with an extremely untruthful title. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche play on this record, which may have led to the trio’s collaboration on this list’s No. 4 album, but for this blurb’s purposes, they’re just players in Jim’s laser-sharp vision. He rarely turns his solo material toward pop, making this album valuable as both a rarity and evidence of his blackened sense of humor. There are laughs here, sure, but the music’s tenderness makes one wonder if the joke’s on him.
>> “Therefore I Am”: mp3

9. Ryan Adams – Suicide Handbook
Cheating again — this album was never officially released. Recorded between Heartbreaker and Gold, it captures a stripped-down Adams with only guitars and vocals to aid in his lovelorn pleas. Apparently there’s a version with strings that we’ll maybe someday get to hear — till then, though, this one’s pretty much perfect.

8. Sufjan Stevens – Michigan
It helps to see Michael Moore’s Roger and Me before listening to Michigan, Sufjan Steven’s sad-eyed chronicle of the fall of the Great Lakes State. Whether or not Sufjan ever continues in his touted 50 states series, it’s hard to imagine him ever topping this collection, a symphony of orchestration and delicate folk filtered through his most intimate, personal songwriting.
>> “Holland”: mp3

7. Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Earning the title of “Decade’s Most Depressing Album” may not be the career crown Yo La Tengo were gunning for when they made this, a subdued, cocktail-hour rumination on marital woes made all the more poignant by Ira and Georgia still being married. So I guess they worked it out. Whatever happened, happened, but either way, they’ve left one of the all-time great guy/girl albums as a lonely document of, well, whatever it was.
>> “Madeline”: mp3

6. Sigur Ros – Agaetis Byrjun
Some albums don’t just seem otherworldly. Sigur Ros’ celestial soundscapes — e-bowed guitars, clattering drums, swelling string sections, Jonsi’s Thom Yorke-toppling vocals, all building into a tumultuous bombast unmatched by any album since – could’ve legitimately been from Saturn. I suppose that saves the band’s native Iceland the trouble of putting a guy on the Moon.

5. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People
Sometimes too many cooks hit on something incredible. The recipe for You Forgot It In People included some dozen ingredients from the Toronto indie scene’s many movers and shakers, all of whom saw their popularity grow as this album was unleashed upon the world. I say “unleashed” because an album this staggering is unstoppable — from the opening notes of “Capture the Flag” to the searing guitar solo of “Cause = Time” to the post-Bono solemnity of “Lover’s Spit,” You Forgot It In People holds the kind of the music you remember for a lifetime.
>> “Cause = Time”: mp3

4. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t need to be told again, so I’ll note the elements that made YHF the album that turned Wilco from one in a handful of Great American Bands to the only one that mattered: New addition Glenn Kotche’s playful, unpredictable drumming; last-minute producer Jim O’Rourke’s sculpting of a mess of static and guitars into a statuesque art record; Jeff Tweedy’s lyrical shift toward poetic images over pop song cliches; and finally, song after song of rich, endlessly satisfying music striving tirelessly to be something more than just a very good band’s next studio album.

3. Sea Snakes – Clear As Day, The Darkest Tools
Luck was against Sea Snakes. Their first and only album came out a week before Christmas 2004; their label, the beloved Three Gut, folded the next year; they broke up six months later and, as far as I know, never really toured. But those who have heard Clear As Day, The Darkest Tools can agree that listeners have largely missed a revelatory record, an intimately, warmly produced disc with the atmosphere of a vintage Blue Note collection applied to a set of passionate, cinematic folk. And then there’s the voice of frontman Jim McIntyre, an instrument so pure and sweet it would make Ben Gibbard blush — or anyone fall in love.
>> “A Pall-Bearer’s Calendar”: mp3

2. Hayden – Skyscraper National Park
The 2000s, almost more so than with any other genre, were an amazing time to be a folk fan. The best artists of the ’90s (Oldham, Callahan, Smith, etc.) were still firing on all cylinders, while new artists from Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens to Grizzly Bear and Chad VanGaalen were breaking ground with vital new releases. But none of the many, many guy/gal-and-guitar albums I’ve listened to in the last decade (and there are many) have affected me as much as Hayden’s Skyscraper National Park. Its title, and the song “Dynamite Walls” seem to be in answer to the ugly battle of man against nature, but that’s hardly its only conflict. Hayden’s waveringly falsetto’d narrator faces off against robbers (“The Bass Song”), friends, lovers and his own insecurities. It’s an intimate, tuneful record made miraculously more inviting by some of my favorite recording and production work of the decade. In an era where too many people’s exposure to music consists largely of 128kpbs MP3s through iPod earbuds — the equivalent of dipping a rotten apple in dog shit before biting into it — Skyscraper National Park was recorded for those with the patience and means to really hear its singer’s delicate vocals, his soft guitar strums, the violence of “Dynamite Walls’” fiery electric climax. This album could be your best friend — but being a good friend means being a good listener.
>> “All In One Move”: mp3

1. The National – Alligator
So here we are. The best album of the decade. Alligator is special for not being special — not a great leap forward or something shockingly new. It’s a rock album, pure and simple. There are no production tricks, no samples, no genre-hopping, no lo-fi, no mud-covered Brian Wilson homages. Just a few layers of solemn chamber-pop, brittle guitars and the baritone of singer Matthew Berninger, a vocalist of quiet power and charisma. Sometimes, he cuts loose — amazingly so, on ragers such as “Mr. November.” But his words stand out even when he steps back. “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink / I’ve lost direction, and I’m past my peak”… “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls”… “I pull off your jeans, and you spill jack and coke in my collar / I melt like a witch and scream.” There are dozens of these, these lines that shudder with imagistic magic, windows into a darkened noir fantasy. Berninger’s protagonists are sarcastic, self-involved, depressive, hubristic, would-be Bonnies and Clydes — it’s an album about towering over the staid limits of modern life from the safety of one’s cubicle. An album about the mysterious, heroic selves we can’t be. About pulling things together as they threaten to be fucked over. It’s an album for the overwhelmed. An album for New York City. “I’m the Great White Hope,” Berninger sings on “Mr. November.” He was wrong. Alligator is Muhammad Ali: the greatest, pure and simple.
>> “All The Wine”: mp3

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The Rawking Refuses To Stop!’s Top 100 Albums of the Decade:

100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-1