The Indie Handbook: Best of the Decade (2000’s)

I don't know the dog's name...
Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, Photo (c) John Sann/DG

Now that you’ve perused our favorite albums and songs of the year, we hope you’ll enjoy our best of the decade lists.  Since both of us were incredibly uncool until about halfway through the decade, please forgive us any gaps, although I think we’ve done our research since then.  On this page, we’ll post our top 10, but don’t worry, we’ve linked to more extensive lists.

Kristin’s top 10 albums of the decade:

10. Jason Mraz, Live at Java Joe’s (self-released, 2001): I don’t care how “mainstream” Jason Mraz is, he is an incredibly talented guitarist and singer/songwriter.  This album is a lot different from “radio Jason” like “Wordplay” and “Geek in the Pink”–it’s poetry set to acoustic guitar.  “Unfold” is my favorite track, but I wouldn’t skip one.

9. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country (Merge, 2006): My favorite Camera Obscura album.  Lovely twee/pop to which you can dance and laugh and cook, apparently, because that’s what I do.  I discovered this band much too late.

8.  The Format, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006): Everyone knows I love the Format.  Dog  Problems is a work of angsty genius.  Incredible arrangements and Nate Ruess has the best voice ever.  I cried every night until he came back with fun., which is on my best of 2009 list.

7.  Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, Zomba, 2006): I don’t want to say too much about this (because I’m saying so much about my other picks), and I realize it isn’t a very indie choice, but it is an amazing album, and I think its sound is pretty revolutionary.  So, thank you Justin, for bringing sexy back.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador, 2005): I decided that compilations are allowed, even if the songs didn’t come out this decade, since it is my list and everything.  Every single Belle & Sebastian album is worth having and listening to on repeat, but this compilation happens to house some of my favorites, like “The State I Am In” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams”.  This storytelling twee makes me so happy I could die.

5. Stars, Set Yourself On Fire (Arts & Crafts, 2004): I think Stars may have changed my life a little bit.  This lovely, cathartic electropop is actually pretty epic, I think.  “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty” are, in my opinion, the most notable tracks.

4. The New Pornographers, Challengers (Matador, 2007): Another epic album; every song is cathartic, with haunting layers and perfect movement.  “Unguided”–the climax of Challengers.

3.  White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry V2, 2001): I don’t think anyone can deny that the White Stripes have made their mark on the music industry over the past 10 years–but which album is their best?  I’ve seen other albums on other lists, but White Blood Cells is my favorite, especially for “Hotel Yorba,” “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and “We’re Going To Be Friends”.

2.  Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge, 2004): EPIC.  In my search for cool, I listened to Neon Bible before I ever heard Funeral, and while Neon Bible did indeed make my extended list, Funeral is groundbreaking.  What a sound!  What lyrics!  Thank you, Arcade Fire.  “Crown of Love” and “Wake Up” are my favorite tracks.

1.  Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007): There was no question here for me about the best album of the decade.  This album reflects the work of a phenomenal classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with a great comprehension of musical theory and folk tradition.  His lyrics fascinate, and his arrangements stagger.  Can I pick a favorite track?  “Scythian Empires,” “Fiery Crash,” and “Armchairs” have the most plays on my iTunes.  Andrew Bird, we love you.

[see Kristin’s other favorites]

Eric’s Top 10:

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.

[see Eric’s full list of 51 albums]

I (Eric) would like to introduce one last superlative before we bid adieu to the first decade of the 21st century. That is “Most Vexing Album of the Decade”. To me, the winner is clearly In Our Space Hero Suits, the debut from Sweden’s Those Dancing Days. I’ve been listening to it for about a year now, and I still can’t figure out if I actually like the music, or if I just think the singer, Linnea Jönsson, is really cute. Watch the video below, and help me figure this out.

Two reviews for the price of one, which is free

Regina SpektorFar

Regina Spektor is back with a new album (her third or sixth, depending on whether you can count or not). There are a lot of things to like about Far, the new album, out on Tuesday. People who got all pissy over the Begin to Hope, will like that this leans more in the direction of her older albums on this record, while those who loved the last album will be happy to know that, while there is a lot to think about in this record, they don’t have to think about it unless they want to. (Read the rest)

God Help the GirlGod Help the Girl

It’s not unheard of for a band to provide the soundtrack for an album and history would indicate that it is really something of a hit or miss experience. Think about it. Where would we be if Once had not launched The Swell Season into the spotlight? Then again, Björk’s soundtrack for Dancer In the Dark (a sickeningly brilliant film by Lars von Trier) was a major disappointment, if only because the other actors who sang with her could not begin to approach the shear drama and power packed into every pitch she produces. God Help the Girl is, in a way, a soundtrack as well, but one accompanying a film by Stuart Murdoch that does not quite exist yet. So we have to begin the review process at a loss. (Read the rest)

An open letter to “cool” kids everywhere

In case you have forgotten, there are some big releases due out next Tuesday the 23rd (Monday for you Brits). I was going to review one of them, God Help the Girl, tonight, but I got distracted (more on that later). Instead, expect a double review on Monday (GHG, and Regina Spektor’s Far). Also on the cards in the near-ish future, Imogen Heap announced yesterday that her new album, Ellipse, will be released (in the States) 25 August, which is also the scheduled release date for Fun’s upcoming Aim and Ignite. But the biggest news of the day, at least for me (and not only because I love Welsh accents), The School have finished recording their debut LP! With mixing and stuff still to be done, they are aiming for an October release. So excited!

So, anyway, why are you not reading a review right now. Well, I was doing a bit of research whilst writing my God Help the Girl review and came across this analysis over at Drowned in Sound. I am not going to argue with the judgment of the author because he has had a lot of time to listen to listen to a hard copy of the record whilst I have had only recently had a couple of passes through an online stream. I do, however, take issue with the tone of the article, because it seems that Mr. Tudor has fallen victim to his own coolness.

We are not 100 words into the article before he declares God Help the Girl to be “another step backwards”–for Belle & Sebastian. Funny thing, though. This is not a Belle & Sebastian record. Judging GHG in light of Tigermilk or If You’re Feeling Sinister is like calling Band On the Run a step back for the Beatles because it’s not The White Album. I suppose it would not be completely justified to take Mr. Tudor too severely to task for the style of his critique. As a reviewer, it is essential to recognize that there are certain landmarks within each genre (for instance C86 or the Velvet Underground) and that they are necessary in describing other albums and artists. And in a genre that was in many ways created by Belle & Sebastian 13 years ago and dominated by them throughout the ensuing decade, B&S references are inevitable. Perhaps, he has simply taken that comparison a step too far. (Ironically, I suspect that, frequently, reviewers are not nearly as familiar with the reference points they invoke as they let on. I, for instance, have never actually heard the C 86 compilation, but that hasn’t stopped me from referencing it on several occasions. Or, everyone touts the “literary influences” of Belle & Sebastian, but how many of them have actually read John Whiting’s The Devils? [For the record, I have.])

Now, it is quite possible that, upon closer examination, I will not like God Help the Girl. They may not arouse in me the undying devotion that Belle & Sebastian do. Be that as it may, it will be a strike against God Help the Girl, not against B&S. Who knows, it might even awaken the ennui in me and I will find something in the album to be entirely indifferent about. You will have to wait until Monday to find out. But I have listened to it a couple of times and, unfortunately, I like it. I guess I’m not a critic after all, but one of those pathetic, toxic creatures who typically reserve their passion for football clubs and SciFi television programs. I am a fan. Luckily, I live in the American Midwest where we’re all backwards, inbred, and friendly to begin with and you will never have to come within 35,000 feet of me.

Come Monday Night

How did we miss this?  Stuart Murdoch, frontman of the iconic indie band Belle & Sebastian, has put together his own project called God Help the Girl, which he’ll be releasing on June 22nd.  The exciting news for today, though, is that the project’s first single was released on Monday!  It is conveniently called “Come Monday Night” (clearly come Monday night we still had not picked up on this news) and you can hear it on his myspace, or you can watch the video below!

After the lovely throwback beginning, you’ll hear more than a bit of Belle & Sebastian’s beloved lilt and soft strings. “Come Monday Night” is a delicious sample of what Stuart Murdoch must be doing with this new project–taking Belle & Sebastian’s ability to create intriguing characters and multiplying it by…an album. Only time will tell! For now, enjoy the first chapter of Stuie’s narrative!