Originally Posted December 31, 2009
Music became less and less important to me over the course of this decade. At the beginning of the 2000s, I was still dabbling in professional rock criticism; by its end, I was having trouble coming up with ten 2009 releases I enjoyed beginning to end.
I know, it’s a cliche for old farts like me to stop listening to new music and just replay their golden oldies. But I didn’t really retreat into nostalgia; rather, I kept discovering older albums I found more compelling than the new stuff. The three records I’ve listened to the most in the past few years were all old, but new to me: the Steve Reich Ensemble’s Music for 18 Musicians, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, and Orchestra Beobab’s Pirate’s Choice. I also just spent less time listening to music period. After troubles with vertigo early in the decade, I stopped listening to music while working at the computer, and discovered the virtues of mindfulness over multitasking. While driving, I found podcasts and books on tape more consistently engaging.
I still try as much music as ever – more, actually, since eMusic and Lala make it so cheap to check out new albums. That may be part of the problem – an info glut, in which my iPhone clogs up with dozens of releases to which I never get around to giving more than cursory attention. I bought into the trade-off from vinyl’s warmth to digital’s portability, and now I wonder if I’ve shortchanged myself in the process – nothing on my iPhone sounds nearly as good as my vinyl copy of In Rainbows. I’m trying to even things out a little by at least ripping my old CDs uncompressed. But it’s hard to give up the convenience of instant $5 MP3 downloads – even when I get the feeling the compression is sucking the soul out of the new Dinosaur Jr. It may be time to go totally analog. If only I could fit my turntable in my car . . .
In any case, I’m clearly out of step with this generation’s aesthetics. I grew up on the old-fashioned album as a coherent artistic statement, and I still love the experience of listening to a single record – or, more atavistic yet, album side! – from beginning to end. But when I try to listen to new releases that way, they don’t hold up, and I realize the problem’s not just them, but me – they weren’t built for that kind of listening practice. Bands expect you to pick and choose your favorite cuts, then put your whole library on shuffle. But I rarely find that algorithmic experience satisfying – for me, it leads less to serendipity than to impatience, as I keep wondering if I’ll like the next song better than the current one.
I’m sure some of this past decade’s music will eventually grow on me. It took me years to warm to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – it wasn’t until I heard the live Wilco record, Kicking Television, that I realized how much life there was in those songs that initially seemed so cold. Likewise, I was late to Radiohead because I never liked OK Computer – although when I finally heard Kid A, it grabbed me from the first cut. Maybe a few years from now Animal Collective will similarly speak to me – but for now, even after repeated attempts, I just don’t get the fuss, and I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of other listeners feel the same, but are afraid of crossing the Pitchfork mafia. I do see the point of Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio, but neither band has ever grabbed me for an entire album. Although maybe they would if MP3 wasn’t subjecting my ears to continual sonic fatigue.
In this midst of this midlife sonic crisis, there were still a handful of artists who made music I couldn’t get enough of. Not only Wilco and Radiohead, but also Hem, LCD Soundsystem, Calexico, and Stephen Malkmus. And Axl Rose, who made the great lost guitar-rock record of the decade. Future generations will rediscover Chinese Democracy for the masterpiece of power balladry it is. Or they won’t, and it’ll be their loss.
Below, my top 50 albums of the decade. Tomorrow, I’ll post a separate list of my top 50 songs.
1 Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2 Radiohead, In Rainbows
3 LCD Soundsystem, The Sound of Silver
4 Daft Punk, Discovery
5 Beck, Sea Change
6 Hem, Rabbit Songs
7 Bebel Gilberto, Bebel Gilberto
8 Bob Dylan, Love and Theft
9 Badly Drawn Boy, About a Boy
10 Calexico, Feast of Wire
11 M83, Before the Dawn Heals Us
12 Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It in People
13 The National, Boxer
14 Radiohead, Kid A
15 Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy
16 The Langley School Music Project, Innocence & Despair
17 Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
18 Loudon Wainwright III, Here Come the Choppers
19 The Cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More with Feeling
20 Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus
21 Norah Jones, Come Away With Me
22 Stephen Malkmus, Real Emotional Trash
23 Hem, Funnel Cloud
24 Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
25 Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music
26 Zero 7, Simple Things
27 Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now
28 Nick Lowe, The Convincer
29 Kanye West, The College Dropout
30 The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
31 Arcade Fire, Funeral
32 Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers
33 Jens Lekman, Night Falls over Kortedala
34 Matthew Dear, Asa Breed
35 NERD, In Search Of . . .
36 Stereophonics, You Gotta Go There to Come Back
37 Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
38 Kanye West, Late Registration
39 D’Angelo, Voodoo
40 Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Come Poop With Me
41 Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs
42 Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals
43 Outkast, The Love Below
44 Lambchop, Is a Woman
45 Various Artists, O Brother Where Art Thou
46 Son Lux, At War With Walls and Mazes
47 Suzanne Vega, Beauty & Crime
48 M83, Saturdays=Youth
49 Randy Newman, Harps and Angels
50 MC Paul Barman, It’s Very Stimulating