I'm one who would normally insist that the decade we're in started in 2001 and ends on December 31, 2010*, but I'm willing to ignore this for a series of posts reviewing highlights of "the decade". I know I'm in a tiny minority and most people think mine's a quibble. I only reserve the right to add some items produced in 2010 to the current decade's best, if appropriate.
So, if this is indeed the last quarter of the last year of this decade, where are the usual pieces about the highlights of this decade? I haven't seen or heard one yet; maybe they're coming (I know these issues have a long lead time, so the intrepid paid journalists are probably slaving away putting these pieces together, and I just don't know about it.) In that case, I'm happy to get out in front.
Somehow, I don't think so, though. The problem is, this decade has pretty much been s--t. Remember back to the 2000 election campaign and what a disappointment it was, exceeded then by the election itself and its revolting aftermath. Then, a short breath and September 11, then a brief period when we sucked it up, followed by even worse events. The 2004 election--what a drag! The only redeeming event of the decade, really, was the 2008 election (OK, previewed by the '06 one), and it was in the middle of an economic disaster. The Era of Good Feelings from Obama's election is over, lasting about six months. Those who think we're out of this funk are fooling themselves. I suppose every decade has its nostalgic follow-up, usually 20-30 years later, and this one might have its fans down the road, but it's pretty hard right now to celebrate it.
The second problem with a best album review is that the rock album now appears to be in really big trouble. This might be the last decade where the concept proposed in the title would even make any sense. At the end of the oh-tens, all we'll need to do is go to the stats for the top 10 video downloads--not much suspense about that, though they may be good ones. Recognizing the pendulum swing--in vinyl terms--back to the 45 from the LP, two of my faves are collections by various artists, but at least there's some unifying theme in them. I'm looking for conssistent quality throughout the albums I'm picking, but I ended up settling for a couple really strong tunes and decent quality through the rest.
Having listed all my caveats, it's time for the actual list. The order isn't clear or important, but I'm pretty certain about number one:
o) Green Day, American Idiot. I don't think there's even a close competitor for #2. Hardcore punks or metal fans view it as too melodic or soft, and as pop it's much too emotionally forceful, but for me it's power pop with purpose. It may be the last successful concept album (it put impossible expectations on this year's GD release, "21st Century Breakdown"), but it proved, once again, why an artist would bother trying.
o) Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. There's no question about Conor Oberst's talent; the only question is how will it best come out and be enjoyed. For me, this is the best expression yet from him, in terms of both good variety (one of Oberst's hallmarks is how he covers the waterfront despite starting from a clear folkie perspective) and consistent quality. Here you'll also find what I think is his most honest self-referential piece, "Landlocked Blues", featuring some beautiful backup vocals from Emmylou Harris, which is clearly about his struggle with fame at an early age.
o) Steve Earle, Jerusalem. True Earle fans will point out other releases by him that are more raw, more authentic, whatever; this is the only one that grabbed my attention and kept it. I'll admit that's mostly because of the political content.
o) Gomez, In Our Gun. I'm afraid my list from just 1997-1999 would be far superior to this one, and Gomez had two albums in that period that I'd rate above this one. In Our Gun, though, has good variety, some good jamming tunes (I saw them live during this release's tour), less of those annoying "Sha-la-la's" than their later stuff, and a good quota of Ben vocals.
o) Coldplay, Viva la Vida. In these late days, they surpassed their previous peak, "A Rush of Blood to the Head". Good for them! Typical of their better efforts, there are several good songs appealing to different folks: I like the rueful title cut best.
o) soundtrack album, Garden State. Apparently these were just tunes that the movie's star and director, Zach Braff, was humming at the time. A couple good ones from the Shins, and from Iron and Wine, Thievery Corporation, a few more obscure groups, and an oldie from Simon and Garfunkel. Compared to my favorite soundtrack from the '90's, "Until the End of the World", we're talking about a better movie here.
o) Mars Volta, "De-Loused in the Comatorium". The title gives a good feel--ickily incomprehensible, possibly gibberish. Frankly, the only word I can understand from the entire work's lyrics is "exoskeleton"--or is it "exoskeletal"?--either way, it's a good word. Thrilling guitar leads, frenetic drumming, exuberant energy--whatever it's all about.
o) King Crimson, "Happy With What You Have to be Happy With". I found this one recently, in Costa Rica--although dated 2008, it appears to be a re-release of material from 2002 or 2003. Now that we are living out 21st-Century Schizoid Man, it is good to still find Robert Fripp out there working. The usual mix of unbelievably gorgeous and unbelievably loud and obnoxious, just the kind of schizoid mix I like.
o) U2, "All That You Can't Leave Behind". A narrow call over both this year's "No Line on the Horizon" and "How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb". All three have better consistency than their previous work (excepting "Achtung, Baby!", of course). "All That" has better anthemic hits than the other two. U2's new tour is supposed to be called "Outer Space": Welcome back!
o) various artists, "Future Soundtrack for America". This was sent to me free in 2004 for a contribution to moveon.org.("All profits to non-profit progressive organiations working to involve more Americans in our political process...") A grab bag of offerings with mildly anti-Bushite political overtones from the famous and obscure. Best are the offerings from David Byrne, will.i.am, and Death Cab for Cutie (respectively, "Ain't Got So Far to Go", "Money", and "This Temporary Life"). A good notion, four years too soon, and I wonder if it's still available to purchase.
Honorable Mention: Garbage, "Bleed Like Me" (not their best, but might deserve better); Warren Zevon, "The Wind" (nice swansong); Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (his best--so far--of the decade, but far short of "Time Out of Mind" or "Oh Mercy" from the '90's); Sleater-Kinney, "One Beat" (impressive energy); Modest Mouse "Good News for People Who Like Bad News" (if you're new to their off-putting sound, don't give up on it); Radiohead, "In Rainbows" (two terrific songs); Thievery Corporation, "The Cosmic Game" (pleasant-to-nice, but no deep impressions); Killers, "Hot Fuss" ("Mr. Brightside" is good, but like most of their stuff, there's angst toward no identifiable purpose); Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (one terrific song, and a couple others that are pretty good); Katy Perry, "One of the Boys" (good, clean, bisexual fun). And, what the heck, Neil Young, "Living with War--In the Beginning" (never thought I'd have him listed among my favorites).
Please don't suggest The White Stripes, The Strokes, or Portishead. I'm not doing drab and mopey. I should probably give a better look at TV on the Radio, though.
*Logically, think of how the first millennium A.D. must have begun with year 1, not year 0, and must have ended at the end of 1000. Then, logically, we have 1001-2000, and 2001-3000 is the current, third millennium. Go ahead and apply that to centuries, then decades.