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)

I will touch the harp-strings of my voice to see if it can fashion a little song for me.

(I promise, unlike Friday’s post, this one is about music.)

There is an elegance about the Gaelic language – a certain tactile satisfaction that lingers on the tongue after forming the words – that purveyors of such a vulgar language as English more than likely have difficulty understanding (I should know, I used to be one). So I was understandably offended when I read today that Highland councillor John Rosie called the establishment a Gaelic development officer for Caithness an attempt to “impose” upon the citizenry “an alien language, of no value to them”. Even more ironic is the fact that I first learned of this on the official release date for Uam, the third solo album from Julie Fowlis who, at least in my circle, has done more to spread the beauty of Scots Gaelic abroad than any other person.

If you are familiar with Julie’s other two albums, Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe and Cuilidh, you more or less know what to expect from Uam, though a few things have changed. Most notable is the presence of English, be it only on one track and used with interesting effect (more on that in a moment), it certainly stands out in context. Uam again features several songs native to Julie’s home island of North Uist (in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland) and Barra (to the south), but also includes a Breton song (“Rugadh mi ‘n teis meadhan na mara”) and one Irish-American tune (“Wind and Rain”). Somewhat less important, though still interesting trivia, Chris Thile doesn’t play on any tracks. As whole, Uam is a beautiful album rivaling in cohesiveness Julie’s hugely successful breakout album Cuilidh.

The first two tracks, “M’ fhearann saidhbhir”, a set beginning with a traditional waulking song followed by three tunes (two recent compositions and one traditional Highland tune) and “Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach” (a slower piano/vocal number featuring lush three-part harmonies) set the tone for the whole album: an album that (thankfully) never settles on one style or tempo for too long. Still, this album is full of stunning moments, the most immediately captivating (at least for me) being the pairing of two songs recounting the story of “The Jealous Sister” (a story which has been dated as far back as the 16th century). The first song, “Wind and Rain”, of Irish-American origin, is performed here (partially translated into Gaelic) as a duet with Eddi Reader. This comes across as, more or less, typical Celtic festival fare, but the ensuing Hebridean take on the same tale, “Thig am Bàta”, is absolutely arresting. Featuring only Julie’s vocals and Martin O’Neill on bodhrán, it is highly percussive, rhythmically intoxicating, and easily the coolest song I’ve heard in months.

Of course, if there is one thing Julie Fowlis does well (and there are actually at least a dozen), it is to bring an album to a memorable conclusion. Whether it is “Moladh Uibhist”, the haunting ode to Uist that closes out Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or “Aoidh, Na Dèan Cadal Idir”, the a cappella lullaby at the end of Cuilidh, they are without fail, the most charming, organic moments of their respective albums. The case with Uam is no difficult. Allan MacDonald and Mary Smith join in with striking parallel modal harmonies on “Hò bha mi, hé bha mi”, a night visiting song with the most beautiful, lingering lyrical image of the album: “’Cò tha còmhl’ riut, a Sheònaid? / A bheil thu ‘d ònrachd a’ bruidhinn?’ / ‘S làbhair Seònaid ghrinn uasal / Air uachdar a cridhe / ‘Barail leam gur e bruadar / A ghluais sibh nur dithis’.” (“’Who’s with you, Seònaid? / Or are you talking to yourself?’ / And noble, beautiful Seònaid / spoke from her heart. / ‘I think it was a dream that roused the pair of you’.”).

It deserves to be noted as well what a pleasure it is for me to once again hold an actual CD booklet in my hand as I listen to this record, especially one with real, substantive liner notes. The texts, translations, and detailed song histories are an integral part of this album, of the culture, and of human history. I read somewhere once that people of Scottish decent, no matter how distant, can feel the tug of the Highlands and Islands pulling them gently toward home. Had I never read that, I would still attest to the strength of that call. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but a great many of my clan had already settled in the Americas by 1745. And even now, 250 years removed, listening to Uam (or Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or Cuilidh for that matter), it has taken all the pragmatism I can muster not to drop everything and move to North Uist or Perthshire (where the Robertsons come from) and learn the (“alien and [useless]”) language and spend a few years studying this music – my music. (If anyone knows how I can do this, or can introduce me to someone who can help make it happen, and I mean this in all seriousness, please email the.indie.handbook@gmail.com. Let’s talk.)

Kristin is taking a week off.

Yesterday was Kristin’s birthday and because she is my friend and I have been slacking off lately, I suggested she take the week off. (Also, I am too cheap to buy her a real present.) Sorry folks, you’re stuck with me for the week, but at least you’ll get a brief respite on Wednesday, because I have another guest submission from Dan Holloway. I guess every cloud really does have a silver lining.

But wait, it gets worse. I have been crazy busy lately: the Dublin Irish Festival last weekend followed almost immediately by four and a half days out of town (that’s a lot of hours in my car and even more scones). Consequently, I have had very little time to explore and have been listening almost exclusively to Julie Fowlis, Tilly & the Wall, and the Pipettes. (In the process, I learned a beautiful Scots lullaby, which I will be happy to sing to you, if you are a girl.) So, unless you really want to hear more about one of those artists, you will have to content yourself with the news contained in this article.

In case any of you actually expressed interest in the initial clause of that last sentence, you may be interested to know that Rose Elinor Dougall, formerly Rosay of the Pipettes, is in the process of releasing her second single as a solo artist, with plans to put out a full LP some time in 2010. Also, Gwenno Saunders, currently of the Pipettes, had some success with Welsh and Cornish language electropop before joining the band.

Word from Cardiff is that The School are in post production of their debut LP. Mastering and production work were completed on Wednesday. From what I hear, all that is left to work out are the singles, artwork, and that sort of thing, hopefully to be completed in time for an October release.

Not to mention, we are but a fortnight removed from Fun’s Aim and Ignite and Imogen Heap’s Ellipse. Of course, you knew that already. What you may not know is that you can stream Aim and Ignite on MySpace right now.

Even more pressing, however, is the imminent release of the new album, Silent City (featuring Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, on three tracks), by Columbus, Ohio’s own Brian Harnetty. That is, it comes out tomorrow. For you locals, there is a release party at Rumba on Friday. Super Desserts will also be playing. I’ve heard Brian perform once before, in a local used record store. It was a low-key affair, but I was transfixed. He is Paste’s “Artist of the Week“, and deservedly so.