*I don’t think I can justifiably call these the “best” albums of the last decade–it would be impossible to make that judgment without hearing everything–but these are my favorites. Also, once you get past the top 25 (really more like the top 10), the numbering is pretty much arbitrary and the rankings shift almost daily.*
Honorable mention (too short, in my opinion, to really count as “albums”):
Alive, Sa Dingding (Universal/Wrasse)
We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, Los Campesinos! (Wichita/Arts & Crafts)
51. This is How I Found You, Miwagemini (RockPark) – I never would have known about this if I didn’t spend hours with my nose buried in used record store clearance bins every month. You’ll track down a copy if you know what’s good for you.
50. Milk White Sheets, Isobel Campbell (V2/Insticts)
49. The Reminder, Feist – “1, 2, 3, 4”…49 (Cherrytree/Interscope/Arts & Crafts)
48. Half the Perfect World, Madeleine Peyroux (Rounder/Universal)
47. The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves, Cibelle (Crammed/Six Degrees) – Just as much as you hated Scarlett Johansson’s interpretation of Tom Waits’s “Green Grass”, you will love the version that gets this album started.
46. Live in Paris, Diana Krall (Verve)
45. Mirrored, Battles (Warp) – I heart math rock.
44. Punch, Punch Brothers (Nonesuch/Sugar Hill) – Chris Thile pulls off a 40-minute suite for bluegrass quintet.
43. The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Andrew Bird (Righteous Babe)
42. Verve Remixed Volume 3, various (Verve) – “Sing, Sing, Sing” has lyrics? Yes.
41. Long Gone Before Daylight, The Cardigans (Stockholm) – “And Then You Kissed Me” + “Couldn’t Care Less” = the most devastating 12 minutes on this list.
40. This is Alphabeat, Alphabeat (Copenhagen/EMI)
39. Strange Imaginary Animals, Eighth Blackbird (Cedille) – Probably the most decorated (in terms of Grammys) album on this list. (For you hipsters, Eighth Blackbird is essentially what you might call a “Pierrot ensemble”. No, I don’t expect you to know what that is. Just watch this video.
38. Everybody Down, Matthew (Rykodisc) – This is quite possibly the only good emo-ish album ever. But it is very good.
37. Icky Thump, The White Stripes (Third Man/Warner Bros.)
36. Hold On Now, Youngster, Los Campesinos! (Wichita/Arts & Crafts)
35. Tableau de Chasse, Claire Diterzi (Naïve)
34. Tree, Gaelic Storm (OM Town) – Sadly, this is Kathleen Keane’s only album with the band. I’ve never heard anyone else play the penny whistle quite like that.
33. Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura (Merge)
32. Girls and Boys, Ingrid Michaelson (Cabin 24)
31. The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo, The Puppini Sisters (UCJ/Verve)
30. Big Beautiful Sky, Venus Hum (MCA) – Listen to “Bella Luna” for the single most heartbreaking suspension in all of pop music.
29. Second First Impression, Daniel Bedingfield (Polydor) – The beautiful and sadly under-publicized follow up to the surprisingly mainstream Gotta Get Thru This.
28. Duper Sessions, Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet (Astralwerks)
27. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes (Sympathy for the Record Industry/V2) – The band’s best record as far as I’m concerned.
26. Amélie [soundtrack], Yann Tiersen (Virgin)
25. Live at Lime Kiln, The Mutual Admiration Society (not officially released) – Technically, this is a bootleg recording of a live performance, albeit a legal one, which can be downloaded for free at archive.org. Download it. Why? Because Nickel Creek + Glen Phillips + John Paul Jones = 5 world-class musicians, some blown speakers, and one killer “The Fox” medley.
24. Twentysomething, Jamie Cullum (UCJ/Universal)
23. Waiting For My Rocket to Come, Jason Mraz (Elektra) – Go make your next choice be your best choice, and if you’re looking for a boy with a voice, well, baby, I’m single…
22. A Balloon Called Moaning, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – Definitely the best unsigned band in the world. Also, they’re Welsh, which is undeniably sexy.
21. Morimur, Christoph Poppen with the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM) – A very old piece (J.S. Bach’s D Minor violin partita) re-imagined with excruciating poignancy: the soundtrack to my junior year at Wheaton College.
20. Marry Me, St. Vincent (Beggars Banquet)
19. The Trick to Life, The Hoosiers (RCA)
18. We Are the Pipettes, The Pipettes (Memphis/Cherrytree) – I could listen to this for hours on end. Currently, my record stands at four.
16. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case (ANTI-)
15. Deceiver, Chris Thile (Sugar Hill) – Chris Thile appears on 10% of the albums on this list, with a different band each time.
14. Le Fil, Camille (Narada/EMI) – A cappella techno at it’s finest (and probably only).
13. The Bottoms of Barrels, Tilly and the Wall (Team Love)
12. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle & Sebastian (Rough Trade/Matador) – It’s all about the orchestration, my friend. Well, that, and “Piazza, New York Catcher”
11. Emilie Simon, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – I’m sorry, but I still cannot believe I was able to interview her. I’m still swooning.
10. We Leave at Dawn, Envy & Other Sins (A&M/Polydor) – In my mind, Envy & Other Sins is the most significant casualty of the hipster delusion. I don’t care if they won their record deal on a TV show, We Leave at Dawn is still (and by a wide margin) the best album I heard in 2008. Their official break-up in July of this year will forever be a black mark on 2009, but then, even that gave us Malpas, so, you know, it’s not all bad…
9. Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories, Regina Spektor (Sire) – Another collection of impossible to find independent releases, this is Regina Spektor at her best, back when the only people who listened to her actually knew what anti-folk means.
8. Bring Me the Workhorse, My Brightest Diamond (Asthmatic Kitty) – Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond is another one of those enigmatic figures cultivating the no man’s land between pop and classical music. And she packs a punch. Reared on a healthy diet of Pierre Boulez, Nina Simone, Radiohead, and a dash of PJ Harvey, Workhorse was unleashed and it knocked me clean into next week—which is not meant to take anything away from the follow-up A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, but I had to pick a favorite. [Read my interview with Shara.]
7. Want One, Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks) – This is not Rufus’s harmonically adventurous album by any means (Release the Stars is), but in terms of campy grandeur, I challenge you to find any album that can reach this level without making a complete fool of everyone involved. With such sweeping epics as “Oh, What a World”, “Go or Go Ahead”, and “14th Street”, it’s a physically exhausting listening experience—and worth every minute.
6. Super Extra Gravity, The Cardigans (Stockholm) – It may come as a surprise, but The Cardigans probably have more to do with this the existence of this blog than any other band. Hearing this album on one of the British Airways in-flight music channels in January of 2006 opened the floodgates, if you will. It is, by far, the band’s most mature record to date and a major shift from the satirical bossa nova spirit they championed in the mid-90s. Pick up the UK bonus tracks edition if you can, because the final track, “Slow”, is the bleakest love song you will ever hear with a pretty slick symmetrical division of the octave (at the major third) to close it out.
5. Cuilidh, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine) – I took a few months off, then listened to this album again Christmas Eve and came to the following conclusion. This is the most beautiful album I have heard. Ever.
4. Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill) – One word: “Eveline”. This is Nickel Creek at the pinnacle of their combined compositional ability. I’m still waiting for that “Hello Again” tour I hope you are planning.
3. Ayre, Osvaldo Golijov/Dawn Upshaw (Deutsche Grammophon) – Yes, if you insist on seeking your identity in the esoterism of the avant-garde, you may keep telling yourself that Osvaldo Golijov is too much of a populist to be taken seriously. All I know is that 4 June 2007, the night I heard Dawn Upshaw perform this song cycle as part of the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNow series, still ranks among the top five most glorious experiences of my life.
2. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, Belle & Sebastian (Rough Trade/Matador) – Even though these songs all came out in the 90s, this is the first time they have ever been collected in the one place and, as far as I know, the only remaining way to obtain most of these recordings, so it counts. Ever wonder why B&S have the devoted following they do (ourselves included)? The answer is buried among these 24 tracks.
1. Végétal, Emilie Simon (Barclay) – The most intricate, controlled, and breathtaking effort from the woman I consider the quintessential songwriter/composer of the last decade. After three years, I am still peeling back layers of sonic architecture in hopes of reaching the foundation of this subtly monumental achievement. Emilie Simon is creating the future of music, and I don’t think even she realizes it. This is, quite simply, the masterpiece of the decade.