In comments k-sky linked to a post of his in which he gave his best of the decade top 10 list. I would normally hesitate from doing something like this, because I’m far too aware of the fact that I don’t listen to a wide range of contemporary music. But reading his post convinced me that it’s an interesting exercise, even accounting for that fact, because it reveals something about my tastes and a decade is a long enough time frame that a top 10 list will still be consistently good albums even if drawn from a narrow cross section of music released in the decade.
The other thing that I realized, after working on the list, is that I haven’t blogged anything about most of these albums, mostly because they’re all better as albums than any one song excerpted from the album would be. So this should also serve as a placeholder to encourage me to figure out how best to write about the albums in more depth at some point.
1) Teddy Thompson — Separate Ways. One criteria for picking a top album of the decade is the number of copies that I have given away as gifts and, by this standard, Separate Ways is the clear leader. I completely fell in love with this album when I heard it. The opening half in particular is astoundingly good. Five of the first six songs are as good as anything. In particular the sequence of three songs, “I Wish It Was Over”, “Separate Ways”, and “Sorry To See Me Go” is a masterful sequence demonstrating the ways in which sadness and anger about the break-up of a relationship can cause one to act like an idiot, and to know that you’re acting stupid while you do it. The way it moves from anger of, “I Wish It Were Over” to the self-pity in “Sorry To See Me Go” makes clear both that character in the songs (presumably semi-autobiographical) has both been emotionally hit by a train and has behaved badly as a result. They make no excuse for the bad behavior but ask, perhaps, for understanding. That set of songs breaks my heart every time I listen to it.
2) Caetano Veloso — A Foreign Sound. I’m surprised to see that this album came out in 2004. It altered my tastes in music in a significant way, and that feels like it happened longer ago. A Foreign Sound was my first exposure to Caetano Veloso, immediately convinced me that he is great, and got to me to listen to a bunch of Brazilian music. I liked it better than most of the other Brazilian music that I listened to afterwords, but starting with A Foreign Sound and Caetano Veloso made absolutely clear the level of emotional intensity that exists behind the smooth surface of a lot of Brazilian pop music. It could easily be my top album of the decade.
3) Jurassic Five — Power In Numbers. This is another album that changed my listening habits. I got it as a gift from ben, who comments here, and it was an entry point into hip-hop for me. It isn’t a style of music that I particularly like, or am comfortable with, but Power In Numbers convinced me that I was missing out, and that I needed to get over my prejudices. Just a great album, front to back. One track from it lead off my politics mix, and I included two J5 tracks in my (somewhat bashful) hip hop mix.
4) Corb Lund — Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer. The first album that I got by Corb Lund who I think is absolutely great. He is, literally, the only musician for whom I will buy his next CD, site unseen, whenever it comes out. His two albums following Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer haven’t been quite as good, but both are quite solid and I still feel like I will buy whatever he wants to put out, and that’s saying something for me.
5) Corb Lund — Five Dollar Bill. Possibly a better album than Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, it ranks lower partially because I got it and partially because the ability to put out a second great album says more about an artist than putting out one great album does.
6) Ken Stringfellow — Soft Commands. Another album that sent me on music buying and listening binge. This got me to listen to his previous solo album, the Posies last album, and the Big Star reunion album. Soft Commands suffers, perhaps, from being too restrained musically. The whole album is pretty, and very soft edged sonically, which can bury the emotions of the songs a little bit. But in the right mood it’s a completely successful album and gorgeous.
7) Willie Nelson — Live and Kickin’. This album is a really unlikely one to show up on this list. It’s a recording of a celebrity concert put on for Nelson’s 70th birthday. He performs with a different co-star on each track. I got it after getting interested in Willie Nelson after listening to this album and, despite using it as the basis for a long post, I was disappointed by it at first. I wanted more of Willie Nelson’s distinctive musical personality, and that’s somewhat in the background on most tracks. He’s sharing the stage and performing well but not taking over the mood of the songs. But the album has gradually won me over. It’s very good spirited, many of the performances are good, and and it’s just a fun album to listen to. I’ve listened to it a lot at work, and on days when I’m a little slow it’s a nice energy without feeling to pushy or aggressive.
8) Talib Kweli — Reflection Eternal. I cannot say enough good things about the song I discuss in this post. The rest of the album is good, but that song is amazing. It probably is my favorite single song from any album on this list.
9) Sinéad O’Connor — She Who Dwells . . .. Another album that I’ve given as a gift, the live concert is fantastic. At the time it was released it was going to be her final album and in the concert she sounds like she’s way more relaxed and comfortable with he music than she had be earlier and really enjoying the song and enjoying performing. I like the earlier, more tightly wound Sinead O’Connor performances, but I’m really glad to know that she got to the point at which she could do a concert like that one. Also, if it needs to be said, she has one of the most impressive voices in pop music. Nobody else can sing like her.
Update: 10) Joe Jackson — Summer In The City: Live in New York. I just noticed one album that I don’t want to forget. One of my favorite albums by one of my favorite musicians. The group is amazing, it’s astonishing how rich a sound they are able to get as just a trio. The two Joe Jackson CDs that I listen to most often are this and a greatest hits collection. No more edits after this, if I think of something else that I’ve forgotten I’ll put it in comments, but I thought Summer In The City deserved a place on the list.
11) Randy Newman — The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. Re-recordings of older songs with just him on piano, this is the only album of his, other than Faust that inspires genuine love on my part. Sail Away it fantastic, but it has so many sharp edges, who would want to love that. I like it, I appreciate it, but it doesn’t make me want to let my guard down. But The Randy Newman Songbook is much more emotionally open and engaging. Consider, for example, the version of “Louisiana 1927″ on my politics mix.
I’m probably forgetting something, but that list ends up being a pretty good snapshot of what caught my attention over the decade.