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.

The Indie Handbook: best of 2009

The best according to Kristin:

10. Our Temperance Movement, Cats on Fire (Matinee)
9. A Balloon Called Moaning, The Joy Formidable (self-released)
8. The Yearling, Piney Gir (Hotel)
7. The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats (4AD)
6. Where the Wild Things Are [soundtrack], Karen O. and the Kids (Interscope)
5. Tarpits and Canyonlands, Bombadil (Ramseur Records)
4. God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade / Matador)
3. Aim and Ignite, fun. (Nettwerk)
2. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD)
1. Know Better Learn Faster, Thao w/ the Get Down Stay Down (Kill Rock Stars)

Honorable mentions: A Very Cherry Christmas 5, various artists (Cherryade); Reverence for Fallen Trees, The Black Atlantic (In a Cabin With / Beep! Beep! Back up the Truck)

The best according to Eric:

10. Rockwell, Anni Rossi (4AD) – If you caught Camera Obscura on their US tour this summer, you now have a better idea just what one girl and her viola are capable of, but I saw Anni twice this year, and I still can’t believe it.

9. Actor, St. Vincent (4AD) – Though my review of this album for a certain e-zine was “improved” by some hack of an editor who considered my avoidance of clichés downright unpalatable, Annie Clark remains one of the great musical geniuses at work these days.

8. The Big Machine, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – It’s a departure from her last (and my favorite) album, Végétal, but this, the first of what you might call Emilie’s “American” recordings, proves that a creative powerhouse starting anew is still better than any number of pop idols doing what they do best. [interview]

7. Uam, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine/Cadiz) – I hesitated to include this since none of the songs on this album were even written in this century, but few (if any) have done more to make one of the world’s great musical traditions relevant again than Ms. Fowlis. That combined with impeccable musicianship and a killer set of tunes spanning several centuries are enough to obliterate my reticence.

6. Pays Sauvage, Emily Loizeau (Polydor) – On her sophomore release, Emily Loizeau copes with, among other things, the loss of her father. In the process, she will tear your heart to shreds – and you will never again be more happy to be heartbroken. If you had told me a year ago that a French woman would prove this year to have a better grasp of American roots music and slave songs than almost anyone I’ve heard in recent memory, I’d have written you off as a complete nutjob (no offense).

5. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD) – Apparently, it’s been a good year for 4AD. “French Navy” is probably the catchiest song by a band I like that your average Starbucks customer may have actually heard this year. Still, I think “Honey in the Sun” is my favorite from the second Scottish act on this list.

4. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors (Domino) – The only album on this list that I do not actually own and I am ashamed. Even worse, I missed their Columbus show this year because I suck. I streamed this about 3,487 times when it was streaming on the NPR website. Holy crap, it’s brilliant.

3. Lungs, Florence + the Machine (Universal Republic/Island) – You Brits have been hearing about Florence Welch for ages now, but I guess Paste hasn’t given the American indie subculture permission to trade in their Grizzly Bear CDs for one of the most monumental voices of the decade yet, not to mention the super sexy percussion. But her time will come, kids. Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor. I suspect that, if I’d had more than two months with this album before writing this, Florence + the Machine would be finishing even higher on this list.

2. A Balloon Called Moaning/First You Have to Get Mad, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – If you have not heard of The Joy Formidable by now, you a) live outside of the UK and/or b) do not read this blog enough. Technically, these are two albums, one studio and one live and there is a lot of overlap between them. But together, they prove two things conclusively: The Joy Formidable are the best unsigned band in the world (yes, I said it); and they are the band to watch in 2010. If you don’t already own these albums, ask yourself why and the go out and buy them. Then, when they play their three shows in NYC with Passion Pit in January and all those cool Brooklyn kids think they’ve discovered something groundbreaking, you can (gently) remind them that you and some unenlightened hick from the Midwest got there a year before them.

1. The Love Language, The Love Language (Bladen County) – This album took 150% more turns in my car stereo than any other album released in 2009. That fact alone made my album of the year decision an easy one. (Not a bad accomplishment for one guy sitting alone in his bedroom.) Then there is the fact that the live incarnation of The Love Language, which is considerably larger, put on what is, at the very least, the second best show I saw this year (Los Campesinos are pretty phenomenal in their own right). I am speechless just thinking about it, so go back and read what I wrote after that show, if you’re interested. And, Stuart McLamb, if you’re reading this, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for this record. I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a second one.

Honorable Mentions: Welcome to the Walk Alone, The Rumble Strips (Island); God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade/Matador)

thoughts on pop culture, what i’ve been doing for 3 weeks

Well…I’m back!  Sorry about all the time off (not really sorry), but I’ve been settling in to a new house and a new routine and all that, so that’s my excuse.  Oh, also I was in Florida for a week sitting by a pool and drinking a lot and going on airboat tours in the Everglades, so, that’s my other excuse.  I feel a little bad for sticking Eric with writing so much, but also he knows more than I do, so you guys were really getting a good deal.

Let me inform you that while Garr & I were in Florida, all we had to listen to was the radio, and the only station we could agree on was a Fort Meyers/Miami station that played top-40/rap.  DJ Scrappy’s monologues about Kim Kardashian’s “fine ass” and his compassion for domestic violence victims (probably singularly fueled by Rihanna’s suffering) were just too outrageous to pass up.  Since then I’ve also made up a story in my head about Lady Gaga really being brilliant and her whole image being completely satirical and mocking of the very industry that pushes her music and the very people who love it.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the case.  Also, I was dragged to New Moon by my friend because it was his birthday and I like him more than I hate Twilight, and the only thing that got me through it other than laughing at all the melodramatic teenage vampires and werewolves was the soundtrack, which included tracks from Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, and Thom Yorke.

Perhaps the most redeeming thing I’ve done in the last few weeks musically (getting married trumps everything) happened on Saturday night, when I went to a Camera Obscura show here in good ole Hampton Roads, where the area tagline should be, “where no one good ever comes to play.”  Except they did the other night, which was cool, because Papercuts and Camera Obscura were both (duh) incredible and it had been way too long since I’d been to a good show.  The venue was kind of strange, though–it was an actual theatre.  There wasn’t really room to get up and stand up front or to get up and dance around, and so everyone pretty much just sat there and swayed, other than some little kids who were dancing up in one of the boxes.  My sister and I eventually gave in and tried to get to the front and dance…whatever.  I’ll go back to the Attucks Theatre if they keep bringing in good people.  ANYWAY, off topic, I had only ever listened to My Maudlin Career so I went to the library and stocked up on older C.O. albums and have enough to keep me busy for a bit, anyway.

The opener, Papercuts, is definitely worth mentioning to you guys.  They’ve been around for awhile, but I’m a latebloomer and had never heard of them.  Their most recent album, You Can Have What You Want, came out in March of this year.  They have a very full, layered sound, with a lot of wonderful synth that creates that sort of ethereal musical fog we all know and love.  Jason Quever’s voice makes Ben Gibbard jealous, I think, because he achieves melancholic preciousness without whining.  Just kidding, I like Ben’s voice, but I like Jason’s better.  Anyway, apparently while I was sitting on my butt before Camera Obscura came onstage, my sister and husband went to get drinks and had a mini-conversation with Jason outside by the merch. table.  So, great job me for missing a prime opportunity to ask any questions at all to post on the blog.  From what I can gather, Jason likes playing music and says that either us coming to see Papercuts play or him playing in Papercuts is better than being bored (it was one or the other, I can’t remember what they said).  It’s okay, talking to people in bands scares me anyway.  You can check out their myspace page here.  Their older albums are clearly worth checking out as well, I especially like Can’t Go Back.  Moody music makes my life on rainy days like today.

And finally, for those of you in the States, happy Thanksgiving!  And wherever you are, I hope you all have a wonderful weekend of love and peace and appreciation for all the good things in your lives  and in the world.  And the bad stuff too, I guess…to quote Frank in Little Miss Sunshine, talking about Marcel Proust:Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.”  So…happy Thanksgiving everyone!

17 is kind of a sexy, unlike Megan Fox

Someone from Paste magazine recently posted his top 25 songs of 2009 so far (I’m too lazy to go looking for it, so you can find it for yourself). I only agreed, I think, with one of the tracks on his list, so I have made my own. I’m also too lazy to actually come up with 25 songs and put them in any sort of real order, so here are 17 songs, more or less in the order they ranked in my mind at the time I posted this. (Why 17? I don’t know. I like it. It’s prime number and a rather attractive, if slightly abrasive, one at that.) I’m sure, if I had an entire day to work on this (and didn’t have to drive to Chicago after work tomorrow), it would probably look somewhat different. Also, I can’t promise that these all came out in 2009, it’s a little hard to tell with unsigned bands.

1) On My Usual Catch Up with Cecilia – Hari and Aino I think you all already know how I feel about them

2) Close My Eyes – The Peekers Life in the Air is a pretty fabulous album. This song reminds me a lot of Pink Martini’s “Sympathique” 

3) In Knowing – Swimming in Speakers Yeah, we love them a lot. It looks like a lot of people are coming round to our way of thinking.

4) Good at That – The Hard To Get It’s encouraging to know that producer agrees that this is the best song on the EP 

5) Bobby on Repeat – Parlours I haven’t told you about Parlours yet, but I will. Right now it’s a handful of demos recorded by Dana Halferty but I am very excited about the future of this project.

6) And Suddenly – The School Granted, it’s not my favorite song on the MySpace page, but it is my favourite of the tracks to be released this year. 

7) Funny Little Frog – God Help the Girl Yeah, it’s a cover, but Brittany Stallings’ voice is brilliant. This is one sexy recording. 

8 ) Sad Eyed God of Lovers & Drunks – Bitter Things I forgot how much I love this band until I listened through their MySpace again in preparation for this list. 

9) At Least I’m Not as Sad as I Used to Be – fun The new album will be out in August, but you knew that already 

10) French Navy – Camera Obscura This is the one that made the Paste list.

11) Mess of Hope – This is Ember I am sorry to admit that I haven’t really thought about This is Ember since Dutch Week. I miss them. 

12) Keep Cooler – Nancy They are from Brazil. I am pretty sure it is not pronounced quite the way it looks, but I might be making that up.

13) Seventeen – Casxio *Note the irony…

14) Sweetheart – Mari Persen Mari is also a member of The Royalties, from Bergen, Norway. The Royalties have an American tour coming up in October, but it looks like it is going to be limited to the NYC and L.A. areas. Sad. I like them a lot. Mari’s solo work is more inspired by Blossom Dearie and will appeal to fans of the early Cardigans (like Emmerdale and Life). There is an album due out around October.

15) The Magic Between Us – Venus Hum I still don’t really know when the album is going to be coming out, but I’m gettin’ antsy. I love you, Annette. (By the way, is anyone keeping track of the crushes I have admitted to since starting this blog?)

16) Whirring – The Joy Formidable Technically, this song was released in 2008 on A Balloon Called Moaning, but the eponymous 7-inch came out in May. My copy is autographed because they love me and because I pre-ordered. 

17) It’s not the End of the World, Jonah – The Secret History I admit it. This kind of sneaked in at the end of 2008, but I didn’t hear it until February of this year. That is the only reason it falls so low on the list, otherwise it would probably hover somewhere around 6 or 7.

So, there’s my hastily assembled “17 Best of 2009” list. You probably think I’m a complete whackjob. That’s fine. I’m used to it. Argue with me here or on Facebook.

Oh, I totally forgot that Dear Reader‘s Replace Why with Funny came out this year. In that case, stick “Dear Heart” somewhere up there in the top five.

That’s a mighty big violin you’ve got there.

Wow. I thought I was going to get home a lot sooner than this, so I will make this quick. Our friends The Hard To Get set out on the West Coast leg of their tour this weekend. I was listening to both of their EPs today, and, in case you were wondering, I still like them as much as I did the first time, maybe more. I’ll post the dates below. Make sure you get out and support them, because they are way cooler than anyone else you know and I will accept no excuses less urgent than weddings, funerals, and severe medical emergencies (and no, you can meet your new nephew tomorrow). And check out their tour blog, because it can be pretty doon hilarious (and there is a video of Tim and Melissa singing Sleater-Kinney songs in the car).

Speaking of concerts, I went to one last night. Camera Obscura. And though I was surrounded by so many trendy, skinny, beautiful indie kids that I found myself wishing I had the will power to be anorexic (no, I am not kidding; yes, it did freak me out.), it really was a great show. (Have I mentioned that I love Scottish people, especially Glaswegians?) And while I agree with Paste that “French Navy” is definitely one of the 10 best songs of the year so far, I am not going to talk about them. Besides, you probably already know who they are. You may not, however, have heard of Anni Rossi who is opening for them. Consequently, you probably have no idea how amazing she is, so let me tell you. She is amazing. Anni Rossi is Anni Rossi and a viola. A viola! You don’t see a lot of violas outside of symphony halls, and for good reason. They have something of a reputation for being–how shall I put it–boring.

Anni Rossi‘s viola is not boring.

Think of Anni as something of an Andrew Bird figure, with (you guessed it) a viola and no loop pedal. And this was the amazing thing to me. The way she uses her instrument more than makes up for what could easily come across as a detrimentally thin texture. Yes, the rich color of the viola’s tone (reaching into a lower register than the ubiquitous indie violin) helps a great deal, but it is her use of varied bowing techniques (e.g. col legno, sautillé, and jeté, if you care about such things and also lots of pizzicato, if that counts as bowing [if you have no idea what I am talking about, read this]) that is most effective in enriching her sound. Also, there is the occasional use of scordatura (awesome!), at least I think that was intentional and not just an unfortunate side effect of the high humidity. Also, I absolutely love her voice. Think of something like Bjork’s phrasing and idiosyncrasies with the color of a Vanessa Carlton and all the charm of a cross between Jena Malone and Regina Spektor. (There is probably a simpler and more accurate way to describe it, but I am at a loss). Anyway, check out the video for “Wheelpusher” below, and catch her in concert. I think she is playing a few dates with Micachu later this summer after she finished up with Camera Obscura.

Go die, kid.

I had planned to liveblog the new St. Vincent album, Actor, which came out today. But it was sold out everywhere I looked. That makes me happy, but I am still annoyed. I will just have to pick up a copy  before the Manchester Orchestra show I am going to tomorrow.

In retrospect, I could have just picked up the new Camera Obscura and blogged that one instead, but the thought did not occur to me until I got home because I am an idiot.

During my Actor quest, I parked next to a silver Jaguar XK8. Sexy car. Almost as sexy as this blog. But more money than I was planning to spend on the CD, so I didn’t buy that either.

So, since I didn’t have anything else prepared, you are getting a label spotlight from me tonight.

Go Die Kid Records is a small upstart based in Columbus, OH. In the interest of full disclosure, you ought to know that I do happen to know one of the owners (he makes my coffee). Before listening, I asked my friend if they specialise in any particular sort of music. He told me that, as long as they like the music and they are cool people, they will represent them. I like that attitude. I also like the music because I did, in fact, listen to it. Here are a few of the highlights, but check out Go Die Kid on MySpace for the full roster.

Steamboat: Strikingly sparse. Check out “What did I do so long ago”

Civil War Generals: Not quite as stripped down as Steamboat, but with a distinct Appalachian folk sound. Think “Sacred Harp”. Plus, how many other bands do you know that prominently feature photographs of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on their MySpace pages? Try “Footprints in the Snow”.

RUM TUM: Experimental, ambient, instrumental. Not quite IDM type complexity, but I really dig this stuff. See: “Sea Pods”

I Am Mute: This music (kind of folksy with nice harmonies, violin, and glockenspiel) makes me happy and is not lacking in occasional outbursts of passion on numbers like “Tall Tales of Taller Giants”