1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002, Nonesuch)
Disregard the David vs. Goliath record-biz mythology, disregard the band’s internal conflicts, disregard the phenomenal making-of documentary and what you still have is an absolute masterpiece – a perfect record for the decade, for any decade. This is timeless rock ‘n’ roll – energetic, ambitious, tuneful and as finely balanced as an album could be.
Lyrically it’s both compelling and mysterious as Jeff Tweedy shrugs off a bit of Summerteeth’s darkness, yet still puts together songs wrought with uncertainty, anxiety and a completely familiar yearning. YHF is one of those albums that simply requires the use of the adverb sonically in any description. Layered with sounds as well as music, so much floats in and out of the songs, but with each listen, there everything is, falling together perfectly, yet again.
Remember that at the time, Wilco was simply another ascendant band, capable of adding pop sheen to rough-and-tumble alt.country, one for the rock snobs to keep an eye on (though I’d been a fan dating back to the Uncle Tupelo days), and not a festival headliner. YHF is the difference.
It’s also an album that’s deeply personal – one that took me through the final year of college, thousands of miles on the road the following summer and the one that cemented Wilco as the favorite band of my generation.
2. Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004, Epic)
At turns spacey, sharp and stomping, this record found Modest Mouse tighter than ever, with songwriting focus replacing some of the rawness of the band’s earlier albums. To my ears, it’s just what the band needed, and the fact that “Float On” exploded that summer is hardly a surprise.
Second to “Hey Ya” on my list of the decade’s best songs, “Float On” has a dance-punk stomp, guitars that sound like sharpened steel blades, a bouncy lead-guitar melody and impressively optimistic lyrics.
But the record’s strengths don’t end there: “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “The World At Large,” “Blame It On The Tetons,” “Black Cadillacs,” “One Chance” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” should’ve all been No. 1 singles as well.
On the heels of The Moon And Antarctica, Modest Mouse was king of the indie world, but it’s this endlessly enjoyable album that I’ve been listening to as much as anything else for the last six years.
3. Steve Earle - Transcendental Blues (2000, E-Squared)
Perhaps no other album has better embodies the Gram Parsons’ term “Cosmic American” music than Transcendental Blues, a rich stew of psychedelic rock, bluegrass, folk, Celtic and country. Steve Earle shot for the moon here and hit it, with a forward-looking and magnetically irresistible record that meanders purposefully in and out of atmospheric haziness to deliver many of the strongest songs of his career.
The opening title track is awash in fuzz, a swirling opus type song that stands alone in Earle’s lengthy catalog. The song itself bottles a certain sort of transcendence, like the last fading rays of a bright afternoon’s sun.
There’s heartbreak, hope, loneliness, rambling, love, longing and the final desperate thoughts of a condemned prisoner. And throughout, the album is a meditation on the two sides of feeling the blues – the misery and the release.
4. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (2006, Vagrant)
The most amazing thing about The Hold Steady is how the band instantly transports you to the Best Saturday Night ever. The magic is in the potential, drawing near to those tipping points when lazy routine gives way to adventure, and that adventure gives way to some unexpected party, or roadtrip, or encounter.
Rock ‘n’ roll is glorious, the band reminds everybody who might have forgotten, even for a moment. Boys and Girls in America encapsulates that attitude as well as anything, with big, shout-along hooks in the driver’s seat. Craig Finn as slacker poet and mumbly singer is the sort of successful everyman I find endlessly inspiring. He stuffs his songs with weirdos that reoccur album to album, a charming way of inviting his audience along for the ride.
The Hold Steady is a rush of a band, embracing and defiantly clinging to the good times, while also finding redemption in the morning after. DOWNLOAD: Chips Ahoy.
5. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005, Jagjaguwar)
At times as spooky as the fantastic album artwork that ties together this album and its Appendix, at times an energetic surge of rock n’ roll, this album is a songwriting triumph that never lets up in its examination of the outsider archetype.
Will Sheff runs through plenty of paces in stretching out this “black sheep boy” into a sort of antihero with many faces, pairing harsh imagery with chaotic, crashing sounds to create the feeling of a lost outsider, hurt and strange and longing for solid ground. It’s like the swirling TV static dizziness of a head rush, but with stronger emotions and more dimensions than you know what to do with. The songs build together, each taking little detours into its own little world of abandonment and the identity-questioning of a born outsider.
The most intricately meditative record of the decade, it’s filled with hopelessness, anger, abandonment, listlessness, optimism, confusion, paranoia, love, hate and ultimately an inescapable sense of solitude, for good and bad, out of choice and out of necessity. DOWNLOAD: Black
6. Crooked Fingers - Dignity and Shame (2005, Merge)
This album is such a creeper that I’m sure very few music critics and serious fans stuck with it long enough to recognize just how brilliant Eric Bachmann’s odd, elliptical tale of love and loss, inspired by a real life bullfighter and Spanish actress. At first it may appear like a stylistic mess, careening from Spanish folk to piano ballad to driving indie rock, but it’s more accurately a patterned complexity.
The album unfolds like a film, with Bachmann sketching each song as a scene. “Call To Love” is amazingly catchy, a duet about not letting go, and one of the decade’s best songs. “Twilight Creeps” has Bachmann pondering how toughness and tenderness are employed to build and bridge gaps between people. “Destroyer” follows a slow drumbeat and piano before cracking open with a mournful, distorted guitar lead.
Throughout, Bachmann searches for whatever underlying honesty exists in how people relate to one another. And when he sings on “Sleep All Summer,” with a gruff and weary voice, “I would change for you, but babe that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a better man,” he just might have found the very core of what the album has been searching for.
7. Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator) (2001, Acony)
Spare and haunting, this record doesn’t come within a country mile of a wasted note. Two guitars, sometimes a banjo, and two perfectly intertwining voices make this a deceptively simple album. But the mood and spirit conjured as this album slowly unspools becomes a dominating, hypnotizing presence, gradually stripping away the here and the now until all that’s left is this other world, a slow and dusty one, with a simple cabin and scruffed wood floors, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
This album sounds like the woods where I grew up. More specifically, it somehow sounds like those types of memories formed on dirt roads, with sunny afternoons and chilly dusks, and sitting on rocks or stumps around a backyard campfire.
The opening title song sets the rustic stage with an immediacy to Welch’s plaintive vocals, while the closing “I Dream A Highway” is a 14-minute song that passes as if in a dream. Folk music is nothing new. But Time (The Revelator) is itself a revelation – that brilliance, talent, honesty and ambition together can add up to perfection, and make folk music sound new again.
8. The Helio Sequence - Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop, 2008)
I’ve been more and more impressed with this album each time I’ve listened to it over nearly two years – which is a rare feat for a band that I’m already been following for a while. Somehow the Helio Sequence went from good to amazing on this record, a dense soundscape that hardly seems like the work of just two musicians.
I even missed seeing the band play on three separate occasions since the album came out. And I still love it – every song. The songs are crisp and carry a bright sheen that instead of indicating overproduction strongly suggest that the band absolutely nailed their vision for the album.
It’s largely an energetic album, filled with pounding rhythms and an urgent bombast. But the delicate moments give an overall balance. Ultimately, it’s a taught and surprisingly melodic 37 minutes, with songs that just haven’t stopped burrowing into my head yet. DOWNLOAD: Can't Say No
9. Calexico - Feast of Wire (Quarterstick, 2003)
Calexico’s fourth album is the band’s most varied, and, no surprise, most compelling work. Opener “Sunken Waltz” is the Calexico calling card – insistent and distinctive drumming, acoustic guitar and accordion, all wrapped together in an evocative indictment of desert sprawl.
Feast of Wire has Calexico exploring all the sounds in the band’s arsenal – folk, country, mariachi, jazz and their signature combination of it all. And rather than sticking to formula, Calexico transcends it here, making the elements exist in a harmonic balance that the band hadn’t quite achieved before, or since.
All excellent songs on their own, “Black Heart,” “Across the Wire” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks” remain live favorites, but it’s the pacing and careful sequencing of Feast of Wire that makes them work best.
10. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar, 2008)
Muted and hushed, this record breathes with an often aching solitude. Justin Vernon’s vocals, that high and borderline spooky howl, that his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation.
Almost as mythologized as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, For Emma’s story is so compelling because it’s so hard to separate from the music. Recuperating from breakups of both his band and relationship, Vernon hid out in a Wisconsin hunting cabin and when he left, he had this amazing record.
The songs – “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” in particular – get under your skin and stick to your bones. They bleed with raw emotion. And what’s more, the now-four-piece band sets them on fire live, with a show as intense as a gathering storm. DOWNLOAD: Skinny Love
11. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Warner Bros., 2002)
Uncompromisingly weird, even by the Flaming Lips’ standards, Yoshimi is the sort of listening puzzle that few bands can ever pull off. The imaginative sci-fi distopia of the album’s central story is treated with utmost seriousness, a combination that could only come from this band.
With a sound equally driven by electronic dissonance and steadily strummed acoustic guitars, Yoshimi manages to both collapse into pools of psychedelic noise as well as come together like a beautifully balanced orchestra.
12. Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL, 2009)
On his second album, this extraordinarily talented songwriter assembled a full-time band to perfect a ramshackle folk sound — full of horns, organ and unorthodox percussion — that updates The Band by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Doomsday” is the song of 2009, with an exultant horn intro becoming a stomping celebration of life, defiant even against doomsday.
Elsewhere, Perkins’ careful and concise songwriting paints incredibly vivid mental pictures, touching on dreams, loneliness and evocative images of nature. Lines as rich as “I’ll be arriving ‘til the day I die, when the golden chair comes down from the sky” are everywhere.
If Elvis Perkins’ first album indicated tremendous songwriting potential, this one shows he’s already capitalized on every bit of his skill. DOWNLOAD: Shampoo
13. The Pernice Brothers – Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont, 2003)
Few bands fit the music writer cliché of “shimmering” quite so well as the Pernice Brothers, and this album finds the band at its peak. With a sharp sense of how to build memorable hooks into a dense sound, Joe Pernice has crafted one compelling song after another.
The album touches heavily on the twin themes of nostalgia and longing – meditating on how we fall short of being the people we want to be. It’s a dreamy and gorgeously melodic trip through wants and desires, all strung together in hopes of brighter days to come.