(Steve, you've outdone yourself with this exhaustive, yet informative list. I trust our readers have enjoyed it as much as I.)
51. Death Cab for Cutie: Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003)
Ben Gibbard's twee voice delivers some of the most poignant lyrics in indie-rock (though after this album, the band inevitably made the leap to the majors and has been on Atlantic ever since). All of Death Cab's albums are wonderful, but this one's where their production values and songwriting intersected with the zeitgeist for maximum impact.
52. The National: Alligator (Beggars Banquet, 2005)
There will always be a place for guitar-driven jangle-pop of melancholy bent, and in the 2000s nobody did it better than The National. Matt Berninger's unassumingly poetic lyrics and his everyman vocals were a good match, and the balance he struck between singing and speaking was quickly much imitated. But more than most bands, this one relies on carefully crafted arrangements that find every member of the band (and, on this album, an array of sessioneers) contributing crucially distinguishing elements that make every track much more than the usual riff-and-melody construction.
53. The Heliocentrics: Out There (Now Again/Stones Throw, 2007)
This U.K. band mixes funk, psychedelia, electronics, and jazz with a hip-hop sensibility, crafting spacey grooves that suggest the Sun Ra Arkestra using James Brown's rhythm section while making a mostly instrumental soundtrack for an interstellar blaxploitation movie. They manage the neat trick of sounding darkly sinister yet joyously uplifting.
54. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Sub Pop, 2005)
Switching to Sub Pop and having David Fridmann produce meant they didn't sound as tinny as on their Kill Rock Stars albums. They didn't have a bassist, but there was low end here like never before, providing a sonic heft that finally did justice to the power the'd demonstrated in concert.. And they started stretching their guitar chops with longer and more adroit solos (without slipping into self-indulgent showing off). All their good points remained, so they'd achieved a big step forward without sacrificing any of what made them great. And then, alas, they broke up. 55.
Sam Phillips: Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch, 2008)
If anyone thought that Phillips's divorce from T Bone Burnett, producer of all of her albums from 1987 through 2004, would result in an inferior record, this disc triumphantly nixed that misconception. But self-producing did slightly shift her sound into grittier and darker territory: lots of fuzztone guitar and thudding drums, and even when there's a string quartet, it's not a shiny song along the lines of her classic '90s albums, but instead distorted ("Don't Do Anything") or stark ("Signal"). The sound fits the grim lyrics; this is clearly a breakup album, but Phillips also reveals a deeper discontent later in the record that suggests a level of despair and dissatisfaction with this world that any relationship would be hard put to overcome. That said, when even the darkest lyrics are sung to such catchy melodies, and in Phillips's eternally alluring voice, the effect is transcendent.
56. TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain (4AD/Interscope, 2006)
This Brooklyn band's first major-label release finds its musical and lyric visions uncompromised but further refined, and drawing on such a wide range of genres as to be uncategorizable. Conceptually, it's reminiscent of David Bowie (who is one of the vocalists on "Province") if his career were condensed into a single album, in the sense that pop and experimental music, bits of prog-rock and R&B, are fuzzily interwoven in a sum greater than the parts (that whole sometimes resembles the heavy, primal, ritualisitic sound of Peter Gabriel). This is a real live band, but the operating aesthetic is akin to laptop electronica, as though the goal with each track is to create a sonic sculpture through the accumulation of interesting, seductive, and evocative sounds, with the vocals given equality rather than primacy in the mix. And sonically it sounds HUGE; it's possible to get so immersed in the tactile experience that on the few tracks where the songwriting is just okay, that doesn't matter.
57. Film School: Film School (Beggars Banquet, 2006)
This San Francisco shoegaze band's second album is full of brooding, monumental mid-tempo song-sculptures built from multi-layered, effects-drenched guitars that chime, drone, spatter, skirl, and most of all soar. And, in fact, when I play this disc at Sound Fix, customers often assume the band's English. As suits the style, the sound seems big enough to fill the universe.
58. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador, 2002)
I've always thought the frequent Joy Division comparisons this band endured didn't come nearly as close to capturing its revivalist sound as well as a Kitchens of Distinction comparison would've, especially considering how often Paul Banks's vocal timbre recalls Patrick Fitzgerald's. What matters, though, is how well Interpol captured the post-punk revivalist vibe; the artistic and (relatively speaking) commercial success of this, their full-length debut, undoubtedly encouraged many more bands to follow in their steps, but few equaled this album's quality or icy tone.
59. Orgone: The Killion Floor (Ubiquity, 2007)
Despite its three '70s covers (most famously a club-hit remake of "Funky Nassau"), this L.A. group is not just a revivalist group; it throws in a lot more influences (a bit of a hip-hop sensibility, African grooves) and transforms disco funk into a more modern sound. On the other hand, one of its secret weapons is the good ol' soul belting of singer Fanny Franklin, who's equally adept at smoothly sensual crooning and grittily urgent shouting. Even on the many instrumentals, though, this big band's deep grooves, hot horn charts, and swooping synthesizers are much more interesting than merely functional dancefloor fodder.
60. Iron and Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days (SubPop, 2004)
After two SubPop releases of solo home recordings, Sam Beam went into a studio with a producer for the first time and produced this quiet masterpiece, not sacrificing an iota of intimacy even while adding other musicians to his sound. The increased intricacy of the arrangements only made them more attractive; despite the addition of some electricity, acoustic instrumentation was still the focus, and his voice remained a whispery instrument gently insinuating itself into your attention. His lyrics are poetic rather than narrative, sometimes seeming like little puzzles to be parsed but always full of vivid imagery. After this, while still releasing fine albums, he moved away from the delicate beauty of this disc toward a beefed-up sound, so Our Endless Numbered Days stands as the epitome of his core style.
61. Benga: Diary of an Afro Warrior (Tempa, 2008)
The three greats of Dubstep -- Burial, Skream, and Benga -- all regularly throw in moments of neck-snapping WTFness, syncopations so extreme that they nearly stop the rhythm dead, an effect that's paradoxically more propulsive than a steady 4/4. In creating his special brand of shiny darkness, Benga uses few vocals, mostly on the second half of the CD, but with a considerable amount of imagination and variety. His 12" collaboration with Coki, "Night," included here, was supposedly the first dubstep record played on BBC Radio 1.
62. Richard Buckner: Meadow (Merge, 2006)
Reunited with producer J.D. Foster for his eighth album, Buckner rocks out while retaining his trademark musical and lyrical darkness. His words are evocative yet enigmatic; he describes situations so specifically, at such a fine level of detail, that paradoxically their definable meaning cannot be pinned down -- and yet, the mood is communicated unmistakably through his world-weary singing. Buckner retains some of his country sound but with a sometimes shimmering, often more muscular indie-rock impetus. It's as though he doesn't know where he's going but he's hellbent on getting there. On quieter songs keyed around acoustic guitar or piano, there's a sense of light piercing the darkness, but even as we see the scene more clearly, we quickly realize that we're looking at rubble, the aftermath of some ambiguous devastation. In the end we're left with questions, not answers, but somehow a satisfying feeling of having almost grasped or at least glimpsed the unknowable.
63. Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge, 2004)
I'm too lazy to research sales figures to confirm it, but surely this was the Canadian Invasion's most commercially successful and artistically influential album. The word "anthemic" was already a rock-crit cliché, but had to be used to describe this sing-along inducing set of songs in perhaps the most heart-on-sleeve, wide-screen, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, arena-ready production style yet heard in indie-rock -- for an invasion, you need an army, and at 15 strong on the climactic "Wake Up," they were positively overwhelming.
64. Six Organs of Admittance: The Sun Awakes (Drag City, 2006)
I'd liked and respected previous Six Organs albums, but until this one I was never knocked out by Ben Chasny (also of Comets on Fire, Current 93, etc.) and friends. This brilliant album added the last bit of focus and intensity, taking his droning psychedelic folk to a new level. Nothing's extraneous, and nothing -- not even the nearly 24-minute closing track "River of Transformation" (which includes the most players, including Al Cisneros from OM) -- overstays its welcome. Chasny's guitar fluency, on both acoustic and electric, is a means to a transcendent end.
65. Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005)
Amadou Bagayoko's lithe guitar playing has been heard since the late 1960s (at times, it resembles Ali Farke Toure's); Amadou met Mariam at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and they started recording together in 1988. Neither of them is a powerhouse singer, but they're both charming, and the variety they get by alternating and combining keeps things fresh.
66. Sally Shapiro: Disco Romance (Paper Bag, 2007)
This is the most lightweight item on this list, a sugary confection of loving nostalgia. Producer Johan Agebjörn crafts shimmering, attractively retro Italo-disco tracks under the pseudonymous Shapiro's girlish, sweetly melancholy voice. The lyrics are slight bits of rudimentary English, but their very simplicity is charming. Not great art, I suppose, but too delightful to omit.
67. Thom Yorke: The Eraser (XL, 2006)
I know, I know -- how can I have so little Radiohead on this list but include Yorke's solo album? Because it's so damn good, that's why. The intense foregrounding of his voice and the largely electronic nature of the accompaniment combine in one of the most alienated-sounding albums of the decade. Some have complained that it lacks the dynamics of Radiohead, but dynamics are relative, and they're just more subtle here. Many tracks are great, but "Harrowdown Hill" is the most haunting, and its herky-jerky beat suggests that Yorke had listened to dubstep appreciatively.
68. Tom Ze: Estudando O Pagode (Luaka Bop, 2006)
I suppose there may be precedents for a three-act operetta in Portuguese, in the Tropicalia style of '70s Brazilian progressive music. Just don't ask me what they are, especially when we get to the parts where a man has sex with a donkey in Scene 2 ("Stupid Boy") and a woman's explosively loud orgasm at the U.N. is heard in Scene 5 ("Vibrations of Flesh"). The point of it all is how messed up gender relations have become, and how society devalues women, but the storyline is so fantastical, and the lyrics so poetic, that what would be an unbearable hectoring lecture in most artists' hands is instead a fascinating -- and, in purely musical terms, thoroughly satisfying -- listening adventure.
69. Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen, 2006)
For its 21st studio album, Sonic Youth gave us a nearly flawless, highly enjoyable collection of songs. Whether noisy (the distortion-rich "Rats") or subdued (the low-key throbbing of Thurston Moore's dark and brooding highlight "Lights Out"), the tracks all have a solid spine of good songwriting, with Kim Gordon's lyrics more truly poetic than they've often been. It's mostly mid-tempo rockers enlivened by the guitar tunings, which give the riffing a ringing edge. With Jim O'Rourke too busy to be the fifth member, SY is back to a quartet. As a result, the muddiness and overcrowded sound that marred Sonic Nurse at times is replaced by crystalline tone and generally leaner arrangements.
70. The Wilderness: The Wilderness (Jagjaguwar, 2005)
This Baltimore band got compared to Public Image Ltd. a lot, but the precise reference is PIL produced by Bill Laswell, with jauntily chiming guitars and a big sound supporting the half-spoken, half-sung vocals of James Johnson. Amazingly, even though Johnson never really gives us a melody on this debut album, this is anthemic music, the dense layering of ringing riffs and the walloping drumming making every track memorable.
71. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars (Candlelight, 2009)
Blut Aus Nord, French black metallists of refreshingly undogmatic persuasion, often forego vocals, and when as here they do sing, they bury their howls deep in the instrumental textures, like post-rock using metal materials. But the majesty of their themes and harmonic progressions is my favorite sort of '00s metal. (I didn't realize this album had been released this year until after I'd put together my best-of-'09 list, or it would have been on there too.)
72. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone, 2007)
Freshly minted soul like the good old days. Daptone isn't much interested in moving the genre forward, preferring to recapture the old sounds as authentically as possible, but with an artist who's as fire-breathingly powerful a performer as Sharon Jones is, the result is no mere museum piece
73. Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (New West, 2004)
The band's best line-up, with Jason Isbell, whose "The Day John Henry Died" sports this brilliant verse: "It didn't matter if he won, if he lived, or if he'd run. / They changed the way his job was done. Labor costs were high. / That new machine was cheap as hell and only John would work as well, / so they left him laying where he fell the day John Henry died."
74. Love of Diagrams: Mosaic (Matador, 2007)
This Australian trio exudes the dark exuberance of real post-punk (not the discofied stuff perpetrated by more popular groups), thanks to Antonia Sellbach's throbbing bass and yelping vocals, Monika Fikerle's cascading drum rolls, and Luke Horton's coruscating guitars (and occasional duo vocals). This music sounds dangerous, not nostalgic.
75. Magnetic Fields: i (Nonesuch, 2004)
In the midst of his many projects, some rather esoterically oddball (Chinese opera, anyone?), Stephin Merritt found the time to explore an album's worth of acoustic material. Sounded great doing it, with cello a more than adequate substitute for synthesizer. Oh, and possibly his best batch of songs yet, all of their titles starting with the titular letter.
76. Mark Lanegan: Bubblegum (Beggars Banquet, 2004)
Lanegan had been recording since 1985 (with Screaming Trees), and over that 20-year span had deepened his music's complexity and variety while bringing in more rootsy and soulful influences. The hard living Lanegan sings about in so many songs here presumably also deepened and roughened his voice; he sounds Tom Waits-like, which fits the material.
77. Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked (Yep Roc, 2004)
One of Hitchcock's most beautiful and contemplative albums, recorded in Nashville with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and crowned with a gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door."
78. David Kilgour: Frozen Orange (Merge, 2004)
One of the guys from The Clean, in a gentle pop mood, spins out sweet songs of autumnal grace.
79. Eluvium: Talk Amongst the Trees (Temporary Residence, 2005)
Lovely ambient electronica that hits its peak on the majestic "Taken," the "Bolero" of ambient.
80. Clearlake: Amber (Domino, 2006)
Another opportunity to use the adjective "brooding."
81. Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (Fat Cat, 2004)
An entrancingly original sound, with imaginative use of vocals.
82. Akron/Family: Meek Warrior (CD, Young God, 2006)
Mostly for the epic opening track, "Blessing Force," which moves through minimalist Krautrock, a cappella vocals, Byrdsian guitar, an African groove (think Zimbabwe), prog-metal freakout, and free jazz blowout. 83. Girl Talk: Night Ripper (Illegal Art, 2006) Masterful mash-ups of '70s pop/classic rock and '00s hip-hop/R&B. Yeah, it's a gimmick, but it's both hilarious and sonically scintillating, and over the course of four albums (this being the third), it hasn't worn thin yet. Way too illegal to show its face on iTunes.
84. Antony & the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian, 2005)
Antony's voice is an acquired taste. After I acquired it, which took a couple of years, the sheer scope of the arrangements here also kicked in and I was smitten.
85. The Fucking Champs: VI (Drag City, 2007)
86. CocoRosie: The Adventures of Ghosthorse & Stillborn (Touch and Go, 2007)
Freak-folk goes hip-hop in a wonderfully weird yet dazzling way.
87. Radio Birdman: Zeno Beach (Yep Roc, 2006)
The first Australian punk band, Radio Birdman formed in 1974, broke up in 1978, and have been revered ever since. Zeno Beach was the group's first new studio album in 28 years, as ferocious and hard-hitting as ever; Rob Younger remains a great frontman. Aussie punk's garage-rock roots remains strong here, with organ and/or piano filling out the textures.
88. Nagisa Ni Te: Yosuga (JagJaguwar, 2008)
I would buy this just for the booklet with the English translations of the Japanese lyrics. "Premonition": "Birds singing/End of evening/Arriving somewhere else/Drinking dew on the grass/Somewhere else/Drinking dew on the grass/Take me to the heaven/A bird carrying a seed/Signs of morning." The dreamy psych-folk music is like a bonus wrapping around the words.
89. Phosphorescent: Pride (Dead Oceans, 2007)
The feeling that things are on the verge of falling apart, all the more since he's stripped down his sound, accents the edgy undercurrent in the poetic lyrics. Haunting.
90. Fennesz: Black Sea (Touch, 2008)
That Christian Fennesz has made a career out of ambient electronica without repeating himself overmuch is a mark of genius.
91. Finn Brothers: Everyone Is Here (Nettwerk, 2004)
I'm a sucker for perfectly crafted pop songs, and New Zealand's most tuneful brothers (Split Enz, Crowded House) know how to push all my buttons. For all its pop sheen Everyone Is Here has some of their darkest music.
92. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Mute, 2004)
This crusty old post-punk could still put together a striking album -- or two, as was the case here. Then he took it on tour and issued a four-disc set of that. They're both pretty awesome, and suggest he's one of the few rockers who gets better with age.
93. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (Capitol, 2006)
The audaciousness of the ambition on display here is mind-boggling: a rock opera based on a Japanese folk tale, in the band's mock-Brit 19th century-evoking style.
94. The Ex: Dizzy Spells (Touch and Go, 2001)
The clean sound producer Steve Albini gives Dizzy Spells displays the jagged dirty edges of this bastard child of Gang of Four and the Crass. After all, lines such as "A flea's dream is to buy a dog / and the nobodies' dream is to escape from destiny, from history" are merely clever if the music doesn't pound them home, and here they are whacked into listeners' skulls like furniture nails by the brutally skewed riffs. 95. The Fall: The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) (Narnack, 2003) For this "comeback" (artistically speaking; it's not like he'd been on break), Mark E. Smith enunciated better and sprinkled in striking lines and rhymes that reach out and grab listeners with his rough, off-kilter humor. And this time out, the post-punk mixed with bits of kraut-rock made by Smith and his cohorts seemed a lot more considered and a lot less slapdash. 96. Springhouse: From Now to Okay (Independent Project, 2008) The band's style had changed since their previous album in 1993; shoegaze treatments are largely replaced by keyboards, string arrangements, even a trumpet solo, fitting the more ruminative lyrics of Mitch Friedland, whose plaintive vocals, wistful lyrics, and appealing acoustic guitar ensured a triumphant return.
97. The Handsome Family: Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top, 2006)
A clever, lovable disc. The musical styles are country and other acoustic roots music, amid which Rennie Sparks's wryly witty lyrics' settings in airports, strip malls, bowling alleys, and drive-thru windows -- usually sung in Brett Sparks's rich, deadpan, authentic tone, sometimes in Rennie's reedier timbre -- are charmingly, amusingly incongruous and yet also just right. "Tesla's Hotel Room," "After We Shot the Grizzly," "Beautiful William," and "Hunter Green" are in the style of earnest, grim ballads from a century or two ago, but full of details so utterly modern as to be wryly witty.
98. Robert Randolph & the Family Band: Unclassified (Dare/Warner Bros., 2003)
Gospel pedal steel influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic. Randolph gets sounds out of his instrument that are so original that at times ("Why Should I Feel Lonely" offering a prime example) the natural assumption might be that it's a synthesizer.
99. Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: In What Language? (Pi, 2004)
Keyboardist Iyer combines jazz, electronica beats, and minimalism; spoken-word artist Ladd also uses electronics. Their collaboration is described by them as "a song cycle about people in airports, narratives of lives in transit, documenting the experiences of the new global worker," tales they identify with as "fellow brown-skinned travelers," but "also a series of views on history and human migration." Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Allison Easter, and Ajay Naidu also read texts, investing them with apt variety, while musically Iyer and Ladd are joined by horns and a hard-beated rhythm section, although not all the time.
100. Jesu: Conqueror (Hydra Head, 2007)
Once I got over Justin Broadrick's latest band not being Godflesh, I came to enjoy this shoegaze move, though this is my favorite Jesu precisely because it's the heaviest.
101. Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts/Paper Bag, 2003)
The beginning of the Canadian Invasion. There are so many styles on this album that it hardly sounds like the same band all the way through. In a way it isn't; this Toronto-area collective's membership is in the double digits. Core members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning were joined here by Leslie Feist (of Feist), Jason Collett, Emily Haines (Metric), and more for a nice little cross-section of early-'00s indie styles. In this concluding part of the list (though there will be a sequel of sorts looking at specific songs), I repurposed a few reviews (or extracted phrases from them) -- Richard Buckner, Six Organs of Admittance, Phosphorescent, Nagisa Ni Te, Finn Brothers, Lycia, Iyer & Ladd, The Early Years, Explosions in the Sky, Radio Birdman -- that originally appeared in The Big Takeover or on bigtakeover.com. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.