Tony K's Best Albums of the Decade 25-1
25. Bruce Springsteen – 'The Rising' (2002)
'The Rising' was birthed out of the pain and confusion of 9/11, for that reason alone it's a remarkable document of a specific time where our fears got the best of us. When anxiety runs one's life, we need to be reminded that love and fear go hand in hand, and that the former can overcome the latter. The first part of the album deals with the initial shock and horror and the characters are reeling in their emotions trying to make sense of what happened. The second part finds the voices at a crossroads wondering "where do we go from here". The final side is the resurrection. They come to terms with the deathly blow and their faith guides them through the mess onto tomorrow. Tackling a subject so fresh in people's minds was a tremendous task and at the time, I found it to be epic. The album hasn't aged as well as I would have liked; the specific nature of the record doesn't appeal to the world at large, but I still find it to be a sincere triumph that was as dour as a funeral but simultaneously as renewing as baptism.
24. The White Stripes-'White Blood Cells' (2001)
Rock writers, in the wake of Kurt Cobain's death, have been foaming at the mouth for a new rock disciple to christen who will show us the way. The White Stripes (specifically Jack White) are a complete throwback to the meat and potatoes days of rock n' roll where glorious noises arise from a few instruments with minimal overdubs. If you don't believe me, see 'It Might Get Loud' and you'll understand what he's all about. So when you hear the distorted buzz that opens "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", you will understand it's not about being a hipster but about evoking those who came before. White is a no-nonsense architect who believes the answers to making illuminating music can be found in the records from the past. Each of the White Stripes records has an edge to them, but is recorded as if it was 1966. "Fell In Love With A Girl" could have been ready-made for radio waves with the inclusion of a fist pumping organ or some overdubs, but that would go against what White knows. Instead it's a furious two person attack that roars. The sweet sentimentality of "We're Going To Be Friends" finds the twosome finding a spiritual place with a tale of childhood friendship. The song is such a treat that many listeners overlook the fact that the Stripes don't just turn the dial back on our own clocks, but music's as well to a time when everything was more macrobiotic. "Hotel Yorba" is a foot-stomping country song thrown on its head. Evoking the nostalgic world where country music, the blues and rock n' roll was in its infancy, the sound of the White Stripes are not for everyone, but their intuition and drive to keep the music and the emotions laid out before them alive is more than admirable, it's a powerful four-chord declaration.
23. Jesse Malin-'The Fine Art of Self Destruction' (2003)
Painting vivid pictures in chilly New York apartments, cold city streets and bars where hearts break and memories shatter inside your psyche; Jesse Malin made a record that is completely and utterly compelling top-to-bottom. His friend Ryan Adams was in the producer chair for Malin's solo debut where the songs are refined to the nth degree but they still house enough of an edge to feel raw. "Wendy" is a radio-ready song that sizzles, "TKO" ripples and "Xmas" provides a lucid flash of the past. The world is full of thousands upon thousands of sing-songwriter types who want to convey something and have interesting biographies where we look into their music like it holds some hidden meaning like scripture. But few have the songs to match the biography, but Malin stunned everyone with this disc that in the end is an intoxicating, refreshing and enlightening listen. This is one of the decade's great discoveries; it is an album I have played constantly since its release. 'The Fine Art of Self Destruction' is full of romantic sincerity that ached with vulnerability largely disguised as rock anthems. These are near perfect rock manifestos for lost urban lovers.
22. Dave Matthews Band-'The Lillywhite Sessions' (2000-01)/ 'Busted Stuff' (2002)
The second best story behind an album on this list (after Wilco's 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'), but this album is still technically unreleased. The Dave Matthews Band road tested much of 'The Lillywhite Sessions' and when it came time to record it, they had hit a wall mentally and creatively, so the sessions were abandoned. Dave Matthews teamed up with producer Glen Ballard and they wrote, produced and recorded the friendlier 'Everyday'. However, someone managed to snag a copy of 'The Lillywhite Sessions' and it was leaked. Upon its leak, the reviews were unanimous; this was the DMB's masterwork as it found Matthews at a crisis of faith (as demonstrated in his rich lyric writing) and the band showed more shades of their live performances than on any other record. The band continued to road test these songs to ecstatic enthusiasm everywhere and eventually in July of 2002, most of these songs were released on 'Busted Stuff', an excellent album produced by the band themselves, but as good as it is, it's lacking some of the magic and more importantly, the innocence in their performances from those initial sessions. Now, what makes "Bartender" so epic on 'The Lillywhite Session's is the song passes the 10-minute mark, the band's longest studio recording (even if it is unofficial) and in my mind, their preeminent. There is a renewal and a silver lining in the cloud in his solo which gorgeously partners with Matthews meditative and evocative lyrics. This is Matthews defining moment as a songwriter and the band's tour de force performance on record. The song goes from being grand to immense in the last 4-minutes and it's mostly because of Moore's rumbling horns which are an essential character unto themselves. On 'Busted Stuff' Moore's horns are more buried in the mix (as they originally probably had been intended), but on 'The Lillywhite Sessions' they make the song more imposing as his horns compliment the weighty lyrics. While there are not huge difference in the beginning of the song between the 'Lillywhite' and 'Busted Stuff' recordings, the 'The Lillywhite Sessions' feature LeRoi Moore's career defining performance. The last 4-minutes of this 10-minute epic find Moore adding sonic and delicate touches of his horns that build up the song into a larger than life presence. On 'Busted Stuff' he ends the song and album with a delicate flute solo but on 'The Lillywhite Sessions' Moore's horns bring an ominous almost God-like presence to the song that teeters between the spiritual and the nether worlds. Moore provides the rhythm (ba-ba-ba-ba-dah-dah-dah!) while a separate but stunningly penetrating solo is sprinkled and layered on top. There's a battle between God and Lucifer and as the heavens thunder rapturously; Moore's layered horns provide us with the darkness…and more importantly… the light.
21. Dixie Chicks – 'Taking the Long Way' (2006)
There are sly references to the infamous backlash the Chicks suffered in 2003 on the albums opening title track. However, by the time you hit the albums third track, "Not Ready To Make Nice" it's apparent the band will not shy away from any controversial subjects on their bravest and most simplistic record to date. I never understood the Dixie Chicks until I was sent to review a concert of theirs a few years back. The Vegas style review was a blast and made me appreciate the arrangements of their songs, especially the material off their third album "Home". However, Patty Griffin wrote their strongest material, so when I heard they would be writing all of their own songs for this album, I had my doubts. Despite my hesitation, with the guidance of producer Rick Rubin and some fellow co-writers, they may not have made an album as resilient as "Home" but an album that is far ballsier and more truthful than anything they have ever created. While it may shy away from their country roots, the songs are at the heart if the disc proving that home is where the heart is.
20. Johnny Cash- 'American III: Solitary Man' (2000), 'American IV: The Man Comes Around' (2002), 'American V: A Hundred Highways' (2006)
Without question, I'm cheating here. I couldn't choose only one. 'American III' accompanied me right from the day of its release with mesmerizing covers of "One", "Solitary Man" and "I Won't Back Down". 'American IV', best known for Cash's haunting delivery of Nine Inch Nails "Hurt", is a dour and 'American V' is downright celestial. And I didn't even mention the 'Unearthed' box set. I can't ever recall hearing a voice from beyond that was as thought provoking as Johnny Cash's. It is rare to find a piece of art that has made me think about the preciousness of life as much as these three. During the last few years of Cash's life, he worked with Rick Rubin and collaborated on what would be his final three studio recordings. What appears here on these three albums isn't just astounding, but is as bone chilling as hearing a confession of a murder in Reno. One thing people continually don't understand about voices is one does not need stunning vocal capabilities to astound. Sure Celine Dion can out sing anyone every day of the week, but can she express and put forth emotions? This is where American Idol fails year after year. I don't care about ones vocal ability, but the ability to express emotions. What Cash accomplishes is nothing short of extraordinary as he was recording these songs knowing that the end was near. Immortality is prevalent on all three albums, which is not surprising since Cash was faced with death daily while recording these songs and he never knew how many breaths he had left in him. Cash's spellbinding voice gives me an entirely different take on the song. I now view the road as a final destination in the promised land. The original composition "Like The 309" and the cover "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now" represent a man who faced numerous demons throughout his life, overcame them, found and lost his partner in crime and was ready to meet his maker on the other side.
19. The Rolling Stones – 'A Bigger Bang' (2005)
"Once upon a time I was your little rooster, now I'm just one of your cocks"; those are the lyrics that flutter out of Mick Jagger's infamous lips on the Rolling Stones only full length record released this decade. Let's clear the air here. In my world, the Rolling Stones don't make bad records. They make good ones and great ones. The absurdist cockiness from their late 1960's and early 1970's is on exhibit for all to revel in on 'A Bigger Bang', making it a remarkable record. Even at sixteen songs, the album is their dirtiest in three decades and their strongest set of songs since 1981's 'Tattoo You'. "Back of My Hand" is the most bona fide blues song recorded since their ABKCO days while "Streets of Love" is a compelling ballad featuring a throbbing vocal by Jagger. Then there's the coarse and foul fuzz from the guitars of Keith Richards and Ron Wood. The pop luster on all their post 'Tattoo' recordings, the albums suffered in lieu of lead singles, whereas on 'A Bigger Bang' the songs work as an entirety rather than scattered chapters. I can only hope this isn't their swan song, there's still fight left in them.
18. John Mellencamp – 'Life, Death, Love & Freedom' (2008)
'Life, Love, Death and Freedom' is one of John Mellencamp's best albums…period. Its themes, lyrics and arrangements cut right through your soul. Even at fourteen-songs, Mellencamp has crafted a lean and reflective album with some of his most ingenuous and illuminating lyrics ever committed to tape. More importantly, he's found a way to properly present them thanks to the guided hand of producer T-Bone Burnett. The poignancy of his lyrics hasn't been this compelling in eons. One listen to "Longest Days" will leave you emotionally drained as his reedy voice reveals layers and elevates what is already magnificent poetry to art that is relevant to the here and now. These songs ring true to Mellencamp's ideologies and the themes in his larger body of work. T Bone Burnett's subtle production pulls you in and doesn't let go. The entire album is bursting with divine lyrics which find a common ground of redemption. There's a lot of life in these songs yet one can still see the same determination in Mellencamp from a quarter of a century back, he's still full of piss and vinegar.
17. Ryan Adams-'Love Is Hell' (2003-2004)
On "The Shadowlands" Ryan Adams very plaintively pleads, "God please bring the rain". 'Love Is Hell' is more than a record of heartache; it's a collection of prayers spoken from one's knees. This album was to be the true follow-up to 'Gold' but was deemed "too depressing" by his label and as a result, Adams went back to the studio and came out with 'Rock N Roll', a loud and boisterous less polished record full of wailing anthems (if this list had been expanded to 150 albums, it would have been on it). But a deeper reflection and time has shown 'Love is Hell' to be the true heart wrenching masterpiece. Originally released as two separate EP's and then later as a full album, 'Love Is Hell' explores the dark depths of Adam's soul where he proves himself to be vulnerable in ways that are even weighty for Adams. My favorite rock albums are where the artists cut themselves open for the listener to hear, feel and see who they truly are. We've all been lost and discontented at some point in our lives and it's during these times that we long to find someone who can understand how we feel inside. Adams excised profound demons on this record with stark declarations. This is a perfect record for a rainy day where you put it on and just let the music take you away.
16. Everclear – 'Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile' (2000)
Everclear singer and guitarist Art Alexakis wrote about his second divorce in such a laborious and philosophical manner that this broken hearted exorcism took two volumes to encompass his vision, but 'Volume 1' is the true magnum opus. 'Volume One' finds the relationship awash in woozy hand-holding love where there is a silver line of optimism where love can conquer all. The cracks in the surface begin to creak in towards the end of the record ("Wonderful" & "Thrift Store Chair") but even then, the instrumentation radiates such splendor, it's hard not to fall in love with these songs and confuse their inner truths. The album houses eloquent compositions full of bright eyed sonic sunshine and is infused with irrefutable passion. Most records about betrayals of the heart cut deep from within the context of the relationship, but on this record, Alexakis stretches far back to his childhood ("AM Radio" & "Brown Eyed Girl") to begin the story where he searches for that innocence we all yearn for through the empirical joys of love. The production on this record channels the spirit of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector (if he produced an alternative pop band) and is one of the reasons this album holds up a decade later. Finding a brilliant middle line between brashness and luscious melodies, this is a masterwork. Most albums full of anguish don't have peaks and valleys, but Alexakis documents an entire life balancing the lightness and darkness. It wasn't until my revisit to this album for this article, where I began to appreciate the immensity of the truthfulness and its wide ranging scope.
15. Will Hoge-'The Man Who Killed Love' (2006)
With the release of "The Man Who Killed Love" Will Hoge finally made an album that matched the energy of his live shows and it's not just good, but a mesmerizing masterpiece. The energy, aggression and immediacy of Will's live shows are captured immaculately on these ten songs. There is an understated urgency in Will's lyrics which are searching for meaning in this music business, his life and his world. For an artist who has seen some of the darkest sides of the business, it's miraculous he is still creating and able to even have a sense of humor about it (showcased conspicuously on "Pocket Full of Change"). The no nonsense rock sound, with a bluesy edge, does not fit into any genre of rock music (alternative, emo, metal, etc). However, its lack of radio readiness is its blessing in disguise. This album will be timeless for decades to come. Will Hoge has an ingenious way of taking the best of the past and molding it into his own style. If you love any genre of rock n' roll, this is an album that will endear itself to you. Despite all of the obstacles he has faced, he intertwined them into art and made the best album of 2006.
14. Butch Walker – 'Sycamore Meadows' (2008)
In the year leading up to the release of this record, Butch Walker's life had been on a topsy-turvy ride and the doubt, anguish and desperation he has experienced has been crafted into his most mature and enduring work to date, 'Sycamore Meadows'. Titled after the street where his house resided before a fire destroyed it (and everything he owned) in November 2007, it's a somber, philosophical and ultimately invigorating record. "Going Back/Going Home" was written at the urging of his manager in the wake of the fire and it may be the best song Walker's ever done. The discreet life-affirming reflective song where he offers up insight into his entire life and career but at the end it becomes apparent that he indeed is in tune with himself and where he needs to go. It's true, you have to go home and acknowledge your past in order to go on with the future. The entire album is full of the same bedroom intensity and intimacy found on Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska'. For an artist who has made a career of creating rich melodic records made for radio, Walker finds the perfect fit for each of these tracks never overreaching and never under delivering; Walker always finds the perfect medium that showcases the song in the best light possible. Sycamore Meadows is a dreamy and raw vista full of insurrectionary rage finding a fine balance between innocence and experience and features an artist at a crossroads with his foot on the gas pedal full speed ahead towards redemption with a unified and assertive collection of songs.
13. Arcade Fire –'Neon Bible' (2007)
I'm surprised many publications have held their debut 'Funeral' in such high regard. It's an important and very good debut (on this list as well), but it doesn't hold a candle to their tour de force sophomore release, 'Neon Bible'. The Canadian indie band's lush instrumentation and harmony vocals feel like a reviving prayer being sung to you as you are attached to the top of a car speeding along at sixty miles per hour. Melding non-traditional instruments with unbridled passion, the Arcade Fire chiseled away at my insides until I relented and embraced them and this album features eleven hymns one can live their life by. The track "Intervention" is maybe the most exquisite track I've heard in the last few years and listening to this group morph into entirely different bands from track to track is nothing short of superfluous as they deliver exultant pained crescendos. Pulling philosophical topics and layering them with imaginative arrangements make 'Neon Bible' one of the decade's most inventive, integral and liberating records.
12. Will Hoge-'During the Before & After' (2006)
Back in 2005, I was sent to review someone and the opener was Will Hoge. This one performance was my most defining of the decade, I had only known of Hoge before this and during the performance I watched him wallop an inebriated yuppie filled crowd into frenzy. I immediately went to the merchandise booth and bought this just released live album. No other live album in my collection has received more spins…ever. 'During The Before & After' seized me by the jugular and the live performances captured on this disc are some of the most magical since the Who recorded a few shows in Leeds after the mega success of 'Tommy' three decades back. The immediacy of the crowd mixed with the bands adrenaline took every song to a level the studio counterparts could not touch. It's a shame the physical release of this album is out of print, because it's a defining document of Hoge's first half of this decade. The polish and sheen of his first two records is absent and in place, is a raw and revealing band ready to show the world that they're as good as any live band on the planet. A soulfully stirring "Ain't No Sunshine" feature Hoge's southern flavored vocals that evoke pure soul. "Bible vs. Gun" and "America" had only been released on a EP before now, but here they are housed definitively. "Bible vs. Gun" may be the most in tune song with the American experience of the 21st Century. It evokes the Dylan of the 60's and the Springsteen of 'Nebraska' and Hoge's pleading prayer-like vocal, sung from the point of view of a soldier at war, is one of the greatest songwriting accomplishments of the last decade. There's a nearly ten-minute "She Don't Care" full of spunk while "It's A Shame" delivers an avalanche of emotions in a vocal delivery full of brewing rage. Hands down, this is one of the greatest live documents the rock n' roll era has ever produced.
11. Michael Franti & Spearhead-'Yell Fire' (2006)
There are days when I feel it is wrong for me to want so much from music. Asking artists to surpass potential and continually progress in not just their craft but as humans as well is almost as unrealistic as wanting every prayer answered. However, Michael Franti and Spearhead take their art as seriously and they demonstrate a group of musicians who put their life experiences hand in hand with their art. Franti has never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and on 'Yell Fire', he does more than express his inner emotions but his politics as well while simultaneously being apolitical. 'Yell Fire' houses is fourteen potent pronouncements about the state of the world which he drew from the inspiration he had from a trip to the Middle East in 2004. Tackling worldly topics as war, love and communication, "Yell Fire' is the record Bob Marley would have made if he were still alive. Songs like "I Know I'm Not Alone", "One Step Closer To You" (featuring harmony vocals by Pink) and "See You In The Light" synthesize the best of what they are capable of. 'Yell Fire' is a testament to the art form of music as it reminds us that there are musicians who take their craft seriously and believe in it so much that it can be used as a tool to steer you through the rough roads of life where you may learn a thing or two in the process.
10. Peter Gabriel-'Up' (2002)
This decade's greatest mind-f**k from an established artist is Peter Gabriel's decade in-the-making somber collection of songs about the cycle of life, 'Up'. A torturous and penetrating record featuring some of the most soul baring songs he's ever written. "I Grieve" mystically puts death into perspective, "The Barry Williams Show" opens up day time talk shows as manipulators of people seeking nothing more than love, the eye-opening life affirming "More Than This" and finally "Growing Up", a transforming journey amidst distortion echo sequences. Most people listened to this album once and designated it to the shelf never spinning it again. The excursion of life, from birth to death is encompassed within these ten songs in a way I've never seen anyone do before. The cumulative effect of listening to the album in its entirety (with lyrics in hand) is more than stirring and resounding, it's emancipating. These ten exquisite and intricate compositions ponder the existence of life as well as any film, book or work of art ever has.
9. Mick Jagger- 'Goddess In The Doorway' (2001)
This may be the most personal and reflective work of Mick Jagger's career. While nothing he ever does outside of the Rolling Stones will ever been appreciated fully, 'Goddess' is a stunningly naked reveal from one of rock n' roll's most secretive and closed off rock stars. The Rolling Stones have a template of rock n' roll that works and Jagger isn't really allowed to step outside of that world to wrestle with his inner demons, but he does here. Dismissed by many as too soft or poppy, they're missing out, because it's here where Jagger pulls back the curtain and lets us into his world in a way that no autobiography ever could. Bono helps out on the inspiring "Joy", Lenny Kravitz provides Jagger the meanest guitar riff this side of Jimmy Page on "God Gave Me Everything and Wyclef Jean provides an urban feel to "Hideaway". Is Jagger writing from the first person or merely as an observer? He would never admit anything, but when you hear him croon "I was trying to forget you, but you won't tell me how" on "Don't Call Me Up", you hear the rock God at his most vulnerable as if you were having a conversation with him and a tear escaped from an eye duct. He admits his shortcomings, his insecurities and rips his heart out of his chest for us to see. "Too Far Gone" and "Visions of Paradise" finds him admitting his own fears of being hurt which keep him from truly accepting love ("Don't hold me tight, cause I could get use to your vision of paradise"). Released mere weeks after 9/11, there are no words as to how comforting this record was to me. I was lost in my own world of conflicted emotions and trying to make sense of relationships that would never work, but hearing the same doubts and questions from the rocks most confident and brash singer made me feel like I wasn't alone and whenever a piece of music makes you feel less isolated, then that's a work of art that has to be admired.
8. Coldplay – 'A Rush of Blood To The Head' (2002)
"Yellow" was a great single, but I figured that was all we would hear from Coldplay. 'A Rush of Blood To The Head' changed all of that. No sophomore album should be *this good*. Lead singer Chris Martin pleads with the listener ("Open up your eyes") on the epic and thrashing opener, "Politik" and this was just the inauguration. This album has an awe-inspiring elaborate quality to it all. "Clocks" was ready-made for stadiums while "The Scientist" can only be defined as epic and a song Radiohead and U2 most likely are envious of. Even the non-singles "Green Eyes" and "Warning Sign" engage the listener with a spiritual gallery of comfort. The sonic frame work is nothing short of astounding as it begs borrows and steals from decade's worth of canonical influences and they twist and turn them into their own. These compositions are full of eye-opening lyrics, thriving sonic soundscapes and enough breathtaking abandonment to cue lighters. With a wide brush stroke Coldplay proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with…worldwide.
7. The White Stripes – 'Elephant' (2003)
Up until 'Elephant', The White Stripes were accused of being a one trick pony, but they silenced their critics right from its opening track, "Seven Nation Army", a spacious and sprawling song with grooves, beats and melodies so simplistic one wonders why someone else hasn't made a recording like this before. On 'Elephant' the songwriting reaches astounding levels where they become more about the songs than the way they are performed and recorded. "In The Cold, Cold Night", "The Hardest Button To Button" and "There's No Home For You Here" still exhibit rawness but the pedigree of the material is at an entirely different level with the production being more than a tool but a method of bringing the listener to an arousing harmonious apex. Meg White was more involved and her presence could be felt on the entire record, helping the listener identify with this mythic two-some as we digest and dissect the lyrics looking for hints or a reveal that the White's may or may not have given us. In the end, it doesn't matter one bit as we are enthralled from the opening chord to the last asking ourselves "How do they do that with only two of them?" The energy and cohesiveness of this album is awe inspiring and seismic. Garage rock would never be the same after this.
6. Butch Walker – 'Letters' (2004)
Reflective records shouldn't sound as celebratory and blissful as this one. After a decade-plus of playing, producing and playing the big league games of the industry, Walker unleashed an intensely personal collection of songs awash in picture-perfect pop production. Don't let that last sentence dissuade you. Walker is one of the best producers on the planet at the moment and his formula for crafting enthralling and easy-on-the-ear melodies is unrivaled. However, while there is plenty of sonic splendor on 'Letters', Walker made sure the instrumentation could breathe, so that the piano and acoustic guitars sounded innocent, invigorating and most importantly intimate. Look no further than the intense and solemn "Joan" for opulent production and elegiac lyrics that haunt you long after the song reaches its conclusion. Upon listening to this record, I felt as if I knew Walker intimately (in a non-religious sense) because he doesn't hold anything back. One listen to the broken hearted narrator of the wistful "Mixtape" (the greatest mega-hit of the last decade that wasn't) and it's impossible to not hop on the Butch Walker bandwagon. I've yet to meet someone who hasn't seen him live and walk out a devout believer. Finding the right blend of lyrical poetry paired with bravura production, Walker made a record that should be studied by the industry as a whole as the perfect concoction of illuminating intimate pop epiphanies.
5. Will Hoge – 'Draw the Curtains' (2007)
Will Hoge's 'Draw The Curtains' is a collection of ten stunningly crafted songs that are as multifaceted as the relationships he sings about. This album stirs your soul and yields a genuine truth so rarely found in today's music with each song essential to the underlying theme. Hoge has shaped an emotionally severe and intuitive masterpiece that is not just timeless but the best album of 2007. This is an album deeply embedded in reactionary tales that permeate into you more and more with every listen. Will Hoge sings these songs like a lost bluesman. The rockers are full of roadhouse exuberance that are so smoky sweet I felt like I was in a bar where the liquor flows like a river and the smoke wraps itself around you like a cloud. In 2006 and 2007, Hoge masterfully crafted two perfect albums constructed of ten songs each filled with heartache, hope and romantic giganticism. We all know someone who yearns for the good old days and have lost faith in modern times and technology. Back in 1994 when I would meet a cynic who would tell me "they just don't make movies the way they used to", I'd told them to go and see 'The Shawshank Redemption' so they could recapture not just their own personal faith but in the film medium as well. The next time someone tells me "they don't make albums like they used to", I'm going to tell them to buy Will Hoge's 'Draw The Curtains' so they can have that same spiritual awakening.
4. James – 'Hey Ma' (2008)
'Hey Ma' delicately balances the beauty and bleakness that life has to offer. The Manchester band James created an immense masterpiece finding middle ground between relevant themes and sonic landscapes that simultaneously elicit tears of happiness and sorrow. It's almost unheard of for a group to reunite after an extended hiatus to create a work of art on par with their best offerings, but James has gone one step further by creating a biting, boiling and blissful collection of songs that align like the stars in the sky. James has made an album that lies somewhere between mainstream programming and indie fanaticism. They haven't just made a great reunion record; they've made the best album of their career. Not since U2 released 'All That You Can't Leave Behind' has there been a collection of potent and powerful hymns as stalwart as 'Hey Ma'. James provides an admission of emotional vulnerability and has proven to be raw and dangerously alive. The lofty topics of 'Hey Ma' are drowned in pop sensibilities that would invigorate any FM dial. No topic goes unturned; God, war, self-loathing, desperation, dislocation, separation, temptation and most importantly revelation are all here. With each intoxicating listen, I'm drawn into the reverberating music, the ebullient melodies and the world weary lyrics. The depth of the subjects found on 'Hey Ma' prove to be socially provocative; war ("Hey Ma" & "72"), awakening ("Bubbles" "Waterfall" and "I Wanna Go Home") and ultimately life and love ("Oh My Heart" and "Upside"). For the first time in a while, I feel an artist has created a complete album that speaks to me in the here and now while simultaneously enrapturing my ear drums with ambient pop and soulful sounds. Not since Bruce Springsteen's 'Born In The U.S.A.' has an artist so effortlessly converged pop melodies with lofty, weighty and biting topics. James sound like a band with an insatiable hunger willing to do anything to make their mark. Their lack of innocence gives way to experience, knowledge and wisdom. James hasn't just mined a victorious reunion album with 'Hey Ma' they've created one of the best albums of the decade.
3. Ryan Adams – 'Gold' (2001)
Distilling ideas and thoughts from every source of American music possible, Ryan Adams made the record everyone was hoping he had within him. Ryan Adams is not an easy artist to love, but I'll be damned if there wasn't another poet in this past decade who I continually was blown away by year after year. 'Gold' is an expansive and unyielding collection featuring a wide array of musical styles; classic rock, country, soul, bluegrass, alternative, alt-country and boogie shaking energy. "New York, New York" is a love letter to a lost love that took on new meanings in a post 9/11 world (the video featuring the Twin Towers in the background was shot mere days before they fell). The whole album aches with vulnerability ("Somehow, Someday") which is why the songs resonate so strongly. While most people prefer 'Heartbreaker', I find 'Gold' to be a more ambitious collection of matters of the heart. It is one thing to toss off one song after another of lovelorn missteps and ache, but it's another to be as arrogant and ruthless as Adams is here (evidenced on "Nobody Girl"). Originally planned as a double album (the 4th side was excised and released as a bonus disc), 'Gold' houses such an array of diverse sounds, it's hard not to admire its ambition. But beneath all of the aspiration are the songs, sixteen of them full of golden harmonies and brooding lyrics you wrap around yourself to feel shielded from the world. Inside each one is not just a mini film, but a full blown cinematic experience glowing off a screen in a darkened room as we sulk it in, evidenced beautifully on "La Cienega Just Smiled", in a mere five minutes and three seconds, I felt an entire relationship start, stop and evaporate in front of my eyes, but as the song fades out, the pain from the heartache can be felt. Of the one-hundred records on this list, no other did I return to more and mine for answers time after time. 'Gold' may have reached further into the commercial realm at ten or twelve songs, but it wouldn't have been as majestic and in the end, if it's not over-the-top and ostentatious then it wouldn't be Ryan Adams.
2. U2 –'All That You Can't Leave Behind' (2000)
Released in the fall of 2000, this was a glorious return to form for U2. Instead of being ironic and industrial, U2 went back to writing songs with big hooks, arm-waving choruses and melodies that soar ("Beautiful Day" & "Elevation"). The tour that followed was equally restrained allowing the listener to revel in the glories of these songs once again. In U2's determination to be not just the best but biggest band in the world, the spectacle at times blinded the music, evidenced by the icy reaction to 'Pop'. On 'Behind', U2 embraced the charming novelty of pop songs with soul ("Stuck In A Moment" & "Walk On") while not being afraid to indulge in simplistic sugary pop sensations ("Wild Honey"). The singles are well known, but it's the deeper cuts that define the record. "Kite" was written about Bono's children, but after the death of his father in August 2001, it transcended to something far deeper and more personal. "In A Little While" was on constant rotation by Joey Ramone in his final hours of life, "Peace on Earth" became a staple of their concerts in the wake of 9/11 and "New York" a song about isolation, seemed to take on a noir element in the post 9/11 world. The album while heralded by many upon its release in the fall of 2000 truly had its watershed moment in the fall of 2001. It's almost impossible to discuss the impact of this album and not mention 9/11. When the world was reeling from pain, dislocation and separation, these songs became sources of comfort and in many ways helped burst spirits back to life. The shows in the fall of 2001, their assorted television appearances culminating with an heroic Super Bowl performance early in 2002 found the band at the peak of their powers. Truly illustrious art rises above borders and becomes something more significant. Listeners take the songs, lift them upon their shoulders and wear their themes and melodies as a badge of honor. It's one thing to write about a series of events and it is another entirely to create a collection of songs so universal and wide reaching that the world at large is able to revel in its beauty in entirely different ways. These were religious hymns for those without religion while simultaneously renewing faith for others. Embracing the fragility of life and death in these songs (all written and recorded by the band before a single member turned 40), 'All That You Can't Leave Behind' is one of the most endearing and rejuvenating records of the last few decades because of the way the songs have been able to surpass what they were initially written about.
1. Green Day- 'American Idiot' (2004)
Resounding, defiant, triumphant, explosive, stratospheric, resounding, strident, anguished, catchy…and epic; adjectives that describe and herald Green Day's 'American Idiot', without question the album of the decade. What makes this collection so mouth gapingly impressive is that no one felt that Green Day had this record in them. If you had taken a survey in March of 1994 as to what current artists would release a larger-than-life masterpiece a decade onward that could be a soundtrack that would define the chaos and confusion of the world I am sure Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and U2's names would have been thrown around, but no one would have even dared to mention Green Day, who had just released 'Dookie' a few months earlier. At the beginning of the millennium Green Day was maturing and evolving past the punk-pop template they forged and produced the decade's most unlikely work of genius. Embracing rock's heroic lineage Green Day set out to not just leave their contemporaries in shock and awe, but the world as well. The explosive opening riff of "American Idiot" is a call inviting everyone into a musical world of booming political exuberance. The characters within these songs are more than fictional works of art, but authentic voices of a generation. "Jesus of Suburbia", an epic nine-minute track, finds Green Day entering territory once largely dominated by The Who and Clash, but they proved to not just be worthy of making bold sophisticated statements but tearing the roof off in the process as well. 'American Idiot' is a winding and breathtaking collection of songs that barely allows the listener to breathe because they unremittingly rip through you in machine gun fashion. "Are We Waiting", "St. Jimmy", "She's A Rebel" and "Extraordinary Girl" all could have been singles, they are as engaging and alluring as anything you've ever heard on the radio, yet are integral to the overall scope and story being told on 'Idiot' and they all further the cinematic story at hand.
I am a firm believer that every artist should follow their own muse and create within their limits of their own talent and should never be chided for doing what they do best. However, I do find that when art becomes more than mere entertainment, it truly stands the test of time. Green Day raised the stakes with 'American Idiot' and pushed themselves to not just give a biting commentary about the state of the world, but did so in an exhilarating fashion that no one else even came close to in the past decade. From the blatant "Holiday" to the confessional "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to the ravaging and elaborate nine-minute "Homecoming", Green Day found a way to embrace all of the greatest qualities of the fifty year history of rock n' roll housed within a thirteen song collection. They rocked, they rolled and they transformed our view of the world in the process. Green Day's 'American Idiot' is living proof that music does matter and can be as dominant and captivating as any painting, film, book or work of art. There will be a day when my daughter will ask me what it was like to live in the first decade of the 21st Century. She'll look upon me with her baby blue eyes and wonder if I had doubts, fears, failures, success or whether I questioned my faith by the state of events that occurred. Instead of telling her a story, I'll take put on 'American Idiot' and tell her that the sounds of this record better defines my life and my generation than any documentary film or time machine ever could.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.