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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Top Albums of the Decade

Generally, I tend to think that things like "Best of the Decade" lists are ways for lazy editors (and bloggers) to fill space, though that never stops me from doing my own year-end lists.

However, reading Paste Magazine's take on the topic led me to reflect a bit on how much my musical life has changed in the last ten years. If the 90s were the decade when I discovered music -- when the power of melody, rhythm, lyrics and live performance were first revealed to me, and I made my initial tentative stabs at writing, performing, and recording music -- then the '00s were the decade in which I began to live it. In the last ten years, I've recorded three solo "bedroom" records, as well as a full-fledged studio record with my band The Lost Cartographers, played dozens of gigs, seen hundreds more, and increased the size of my music collection by a power of ten. iTunes changed the way we buy music, and made it possible for me to listen to that entire collection shuffled together (making the album itself a somewhat archaic way of organizing lists like these). And my iPhone allows me to take a large chunk of it with me wherever I go, as well as find and download new music from anywhere.

Through all these changes, the albums listed below are the ones that I most enjoyed over the past decade. I make no claims that these are the best albums produced in that time frame, but they are the ones that I would take with me to that other critical cliche: the desert island.

The Runners-Up:
The Finalists: 

5. Main Hoon Na (2004) - Main Hoon Na is the Bollywood movie I recommend most often to those who have never seen one: it's funny and smart, worldly and rooted in an ancient mythic tradition (it's based on the ancient epic Ramayana), and the music is great. The soundtrack takes the something-for-everything approach of masala films to a global level, mashing together styles as diverse as qawwali devotional music, American 1950s rock, and Latin pop just for the sheer joy of it, and it provided a big chunk of the soundtrack for my summer in Jaipur.

4. The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) - While 2007's Emotionalism and 2009 major label debut I and Love and You get most of the critical attention, Four Thieves Gone gets my vote as the Avetts' best, as it's one of the few studio albums that manages to convey the frenetic joy of a great live band in all its jagged glory.

3. Solomon Burke, Nashville (2006) - The larger-than-life "Legendary King of Rock and Soul" returns to his country roots on an album produced by Buddy Miller, and featuring collaborators from Patty Griffin to Dolly Parton. The result is an incomparably beautiful mix of soul and country, a truly American sound.

2. Old 97's, Blame It On Gravity (2008) - Currently my favorite band of all time, the 97's had an up-and-down decade, getting dropped by Elektra after 2001's 60s-pop-influenced Sattelite Rides, returning to their alt.country origins on 2004's Drag It Up (which unfortunately obscured some pretty good songs with muddy and overdone production) and coming back with six-guns blazing for their last album of the decade, an accomplishment that rivals their excellent late 90s albums for country swagger and pure melodic bliss.

1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)  - In the summer of 2002, while driving north from San Francisco in a rented car to visit friends and family in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped at a roadside mall to buy some CDs for the drive (this was a good four months before I got my first iPod). I had never owned a Wilco CD before, but the critical buzz over their new album was deafening, especially in my new hometown of Chicago (whose iconic Marina Towers also graced the CD cover), and I had heard enough bits and pieces of it to be intrigued. At that moment, driving away from the ruins of a failed relationship and toward a future that was thrillingly uncertain, the insect hum of homemade electronics, off-kilter drumming, and half-drunken piano plinking of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" held out the promise that, for all its heartbreak, the world remained a strange and beautiful place. By the end of the achingly lovely "Jesus Etc." I knew that this would be one of my favorite albums of all-time.

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