Top 10 (American) Albums, 2000-2009

Since I don’t agree with any of the highly-publicized end of the decade lists making the rounds, I decided to create my own. Since this last decade has seen some tremendously good and innovative pop and rock across the Atlantic, I decided to focus instead on the good stuff we’ve been doing here in the states. As you’ll probably notice, my definition of “good” music relies heavily on the quality of storytelling in the lyrics and sounds of an artist – a criterion that excludes some very good emotion-driven pop music, but does encourage an interest in a wide variety of genres.

Here are my top ten (American) albums of the decade 2000-2009, in no particular order: 

Steve Earle, Washington Square Serenade.

A beautiful and moving tribute to New York City, second chances in love and music, and fierce determination. Earle explicitly leaves behind his past on “Tennessee Blues” – singing “goodbye Guitar Town” – and crosses into his new metropolitan home by introducing electronic elements into his folk-rock sound. Simply an incredible journey, as told by a master storyteller, and highlighted by his duet with wife Allison Moorer, “Days Aren’t Long Enough”.

Roots, Phrenology.

I don’t have any explanation for why this isn’t on more critics top lists. From straight ahead hip-hop to jazz beats and neo-soul, ?uestlove and the gang are completely in control while expanding the horizon of pop music.

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP.

Em brings the storytelling back to hip-hop, exploring the dark side of his personal disasters, fame, and contemporary culture in general. I mean, it just doesn’t get better than “Stan” – unless you’re talking about the incredible live version of the song he performed with Sir Elton John.

Green Day, American Idiot.

I confess that I never really liked Green Day in the 90s. I just never got into the goofy pop-punk of Dookie, Insomniac, and Nimrod – frankly, I thought Offspring did a similar thing much better. As a result, I was very skeptical of the early positive reviews of American Idiot. But this is the ultimate execution of the concept album as pop art – blending the political with the personal, and episodic storytelling with great motifs. At times, it’s even reminiscent of The Who in their heyday – and that’s the kind of compliment that I don’t give lightly.

Bruce Springsteen, Magic.

Yes, I like Magic better than The Rising – there, I said it. While The Rising perfectly captured the feel of New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it still feels stuck in that time. In contrast, Magic feels liberated and timeless. From the quiet title track to the rocking protest of “Last To Die”, this album showcases the best of what America’s best storyteller can do.

Outkast, Stankonia.

Bombs Over Baghdad – need I say more?

The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan.

Less guitar-driven than their previous work, this album showcases Jack White’s songwriting and ability to absorb and reinvent any genre of music. Ranging from the hard-hitting distortion of “Blue Orchid” to the folksy bluegrass of “Little Ghost”, and finally to the stomping piano-driven blues of “Denial Twist”, there’s nothing Jack can’t do.

Jim White, No Such Place.

Before signing to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, Jim White’s previous careers included snake-handling preacher, pro surfer, runway fashion model, and New York cab driver. No one has a better understanding of what makes American music, well, American. Blending Southern-gothic storytelling folk with blues, hip-hop, electronic, and country elements, No Such Place includes brilliantly unclassifiable songs like “10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road”, “God Was Drunk When He Made Me”, a creepy and desolate cover of “King of the Road”, and my favorite song of all time, “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi”.

Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

They were trying to break my heart.

Pearl Jam, Backspacer.

This album simply explodes with uncontainable energy from the opening. While keeping the usual blend of impenetrable metaphor and sharp observation, Eddie Vedder’s lyrics are significantly more upbeat than what we’re used to. This album is never angry, but exudes a determined and hopeful energy – maybe better capturing the late 2008 – early 2009 zeitgeist better than any album out there.

Honorable Mentions:

Beastie Boys, To the Five Boroughs. Part tribute to their resilient home of New York, part political statement, and all the barely-contained raucous energy that you expect from the Boys.

Alison Krauss & Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways.
Somehow managing to be simultaneously very polished and very honest, the pop-bluegrass supergroup is supremely comfortable showcasing their talents. While it’s not a groundbreaking effort, it’s another solid entry and one of my favorite rainy day listens.

Grant Lee Phillips, Virginia Creeper.
Southern gothic storytelling mingles romance with tragedy, while the music mingles alt-country blues with great pop hooks. I don’t know how this album didn’t become a huge hit.

Crooked Fingers, Red Devil Dawn.
Lo-fi brilliance from the former Archers of Loaf frontman, this stripped-down album is full of dark acoustic treasures that will make you wonder why Iron & Wine gets so much press.

Fine Arts Militia, We Are Gathered Here.
Originally conceived as a spoken-word album of Chuck D’s lectures on the college circuit, he instead collaborated with Brian Hardgroove on a funk- and hard rock-infused crusade against ignorance, complacence, and George W. Bush.

Keb Mo, The Door.
While some blues purists and fans of his first albums were disappointed with this effort, I
find that it’s only gotten better with time. It’s a winning combination of his charm, rootsy acoustic blues, and some creative arrangements.

One final album of note: Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. The Chicago rapper’s critical and commercial breakthrough tried to push hip-hop away from the gangster rap dead end, back into greater questions of social criticism and existential strife. But both this album, and his next work, the extra-ambitious and sprawling Electric Circus, are disqualified from consideration due to Common’s more recent activities. I just can’t forgive him for those super-annoying Gap holiday commercials, his celebrity-seeking dating life, and his endorsement of the Microsoft Zune.

Looking over this list, I’m really surprised by the lack of hard rock albums. While there were some hard rock bands that put out some good music, there weren’t any really great albums that hold up from open to close. Sevendust’s Animosity is pretty good, as is System of a Down’s Toxicity, Tool’s Lateralus, and A Perfect Circle’s Mer de Noms. But none of them are really the kind of complete album that belongs on this list.