Popular music has witnessed some amazing developments over the last decade. But if advances in genre conventions and recording quality hadn’t translated into a whole lot of brilliantly composed records, we'd have another decade of '80s music and nobody would care. Sure, Napster and iTunes and radio stations killed the CD just like CDs killed vinyl, but we’re witnesses to how stubbornly the album has stuck around at its own funeral. So here are some of my favorites from the last 10 years:
10. Andrew Bird - “Armchair Apocrypha” (2007)
The vocal melodies on Andrew Bird’s greatest album are whistled as often as they’re sung. The singer-songwriter hides a smile while he utters surprisingly eloquent philosophical musings peppered with history and theology, and the folk-rock instrumentals are relentlessly chill.
9. Death Cab for Cutie - “Transatlanticism” (2001)
Death Cab is “Transatlanticism.” This is a defining record, against which all the band’s subsequent efforts have been measured. That’s because the album has it all: obvious radio favorites like “Title and Registration” and "The Sound of Settling," along with less catchy but equally compelling tracks like “The New Year” and “Tiny Vessels;” and of course there's the understated but nonetheless epic ballad “Transatlanticism.” The bar is set high.
8. Modest Mouse - “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” (2007)
Unlike most fans, I think Modest Mouse has gotten better with every album. Their newest still has some of the rough edges that made their old material unique, but it’s smooth in places too. If you ask me, that’s what makes songs like “Florida,” “Spitting Venom” and “Little Motel” so compelling.
7. The Arcade Fire - “Funeral” (2004)
“Funeral” has been so persistently imitated since its release six years ago that it’s easy to forget how utterly original it was. So remember back to those days, when you had no idea what “orchestral indie-pop” meant because nobody had invented it yet, and listen to “Funeral” with virgin ears. It’s way better than all the pretenders riding its coattails.
6. Brand New - “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (2006)
The music rises and falls like a vessel in troubled water as Brand New’s Jesse Lacey struggles between belief and doubt, hope and despair. It’s intense at times, beautiful at others. And it’s brilliant. After the line about the crucifixion in the bridge of “Jesus Christ,” there’s a three-measure pause before the song picks back up. Enough said.
5. Sigur Ros - “Takk” (2005)
There might be other music as beautiful as the songs on “Takk.” But I doubt it.
4. Radiohead - “Kid A” (2000)
Remember the Y2K scare? Ridiculous, sure, but there was something about that fear of the new millennium that tapped into a deeper anxiety; a fearfulness of what the digital age will mean for privacy and individuality. Radiohead got it, and listening to “Kid A” is like reading a dystopia novel. The journey from “Everything in Its Right Place” to “Morning Bell” is a deeply complex tale of alienation from oneself and others. The album led a revolution in electro-rock, pioneering new instrumentation and unconventional song-structures, and breathed new life into a tired genre. And it's completely listenable from beginning to end.
3. mewithoutYou - “Brother Sister” (2006)
This concept-album about turning to God after a breakup is probably the greatest lyrical triumph on the list. Frontman Aaron Weiss condenses complicated existential theology to indelible metaphors and effortless aphorisms. The clever instrumentation layered behind Weiss’s distinct vocals give mewithoutYou a unique and unmistakable sound.
2. Bon Iver - “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2008)
Justin Vernon’s 2008 opus is at least as good as the story behind it. He spent the winter of 2007 in the woods in Wisconsin, trying to work through the breakup of his band and his last relationship. There he recorded the nine tracks he would title “For Emma, Forever Ago” when a record company informed him that his demos were good enough to stand in for studio recordings. The record’s sound varies more than it gets credit for. There are typical folk tunes, and Bon Iver is compared fairly enough to Elliot Smith and Iron and Wine. But the four-on-the-floor beat in “Lump Sum” and “Blindsided” steps beyond the genre, and experimental touches like moments of auto-tuning in “The Wolves” make us wonder if we’re really in familiar territory. The one constant of the album is Vernon’s haunting and totally unique voice, a well of unabating emotion that doesn't sound like anything you've heard before. The result is a minimalistic album as elusive as it is spare, and it’s just about perfect.
1. Sufjan Stevens - “Illinois” (2005)
The second installment in Stevens’ attempt at orchestral indie-folk albums for each of the 50 states looks like it will be his last, as the songwriter keeps pursuing other projects than writing songs. I think that’s okay; “Illinois” delivers so completely on Stevens’ goals for the whole project that episodes like “Kansas” and “South Dakota” would just be redundant. The album is a series of disparate anecdotes with little in common except geography, masterfully crafted into a thematic progression that builds enough momentum to transcend the gaps between its subjects. From lyrical folk-ballads like “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” to instrumental tracks like “Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind,” the songs are packed not just with beautiful melodies but with meaning. The record juxtaposes references to Abraham Lincoln and to Stevens’ own childhood, blurring the lines between present and past, personal and universal. Stevens has put his finger on what it is to be an American, and he does it so subtly and intangibly that the album offers hope for a generation of Americans disenchanted with their country. Listening to “Illinois” makes being American mean something good, and that’s no small feat.