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.

I love fun.!

Ok, all you who are broken-hearted because of the Format’s break-up, come to The Indie Handbook and we will give you rest.  We have all been waiting so patiently for fun.’s album, Aim and Ignite, trying to subdue our anxious ears with “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be),” but now is the time to rejoice because the album is here! It is here for real tomorrow, and it is here now streaming on their myspace page!

We’ve talked about these guys before because Eric got to see them live which makes me so jealous  I could scream, so you probably already know that fun. is the collaboration of the Format’s Nate Ruess, Anathallo’s Andrew Dost, and Steel Train’s Jack Antonoff.  And ohh my gosh their album is streaming.  Am I over eager?  (no such thing).

I’ve heard mixed feelings about fun. from friends who saw them live and have streamed Aim and Ignite, and I have to agree most with a friend who said that their name truly fits them–they’re really just a lot of fun to listen to, and probably even more fun to see live.  To the assertion that they’re not catchy enough, I must disagree.  After listening to Aim and Ignite, I would say that fans of the Format’s Dog Problems will appreciate this album the most.  I’m sure fun. would rather not be constantly compared to the Format (sorry!) but I hear definite stylistic parallels between the melodramatic structure shifts and incredible orchestration in the two albums.

I have no idea if fun. claims Queen as an influence, and maybe I’m committing some kind of musical treason in saying this, but I hear elements in Aim and Ignite that are very reminiscent of Queen–strong lead singer, complex orchestration, a tendency towards the anthemic, raw emotion, and a general songwriting courage…there’s no shrinking from drama here, but somehow it isn’t kitschy or annoying–it’s awesome, actually.  Could fun. be the next Queen?  I don’t know.  I’m just sayin’.

So now let’s play a game called, listen to Aim and Ignite and tell us your favorite song on the album.  I can’t pick just one, but I really enjoy “Benson Hedges” (kind of an interesting gospel influence that you also hear  a bit in “Barlights”) and “I Wanna Be The One.”  And I still love “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be),” even though it isn’t so new.

I Miss You, The Format

Tonight is a night of mourning, because I am reviewing The Format, who I love and have no more.  They are the biggest teases ever…giving us but two albums and then splitting.  I know when I’m unwanted!  These two albums, however, are two of the best, most personal albums I have ever owned.  So, I forgive them for the split.

Anyway, many of you may already know and love The Format, in which case you should probably honor them with me by listening to their albums on repeat and looking into fun., Nate Ruess’s brand new band, who actually toured with Manchester Orchestra and who Eric got to see in concert while I listened to top-40 radio in Hampton Roads.  However, many of you may not have heard The Format because you are too young or were too uncool in high school/college to listen to them.  It’s  okay.  I was uncool at one time as well.  Now is a time of celebration for you–and a time of spending money on some new albums.  Listen up, kids.

My second favorite of The Format’s albums is their first album, Interventions and Lullabies (Elektra, 2003).  In their first album, The Format begins showcasing what sets them apart from others–quite literally, the format of their songs.  As far as I can tell from their lyrics, the band members seem to be personally acquainted with restlessness and change–one reason why I connect so deeply with them, I guess–and these qualities play a significant role in their music-making.   Perhaps the most prominent examples of this are the bridge on “Let’s Make  This Moment A Crime,” the general structure of “Sore Thumb,” and the surprising last minute or so of “Career Pay,” which by the way, is my favorite track.  Just in case you were wondering.  Beyond the interesting FORMAT (haha it never gets old!) of their music, their lyrics = genius.  From “I’m Ready, I Am,” The Format hits what is important to me as an artist and listener: “I”m trying to find truth in words and rhymes and notes and all the things I wish I wrote”–isn’t that the point?  Their twentysomething/graduate feelings are familiar…”old classmates please drop all your pens/don’t write a word caus i won’t reply/i’m not bitter no it’s just i’ve passed that point in my life” or “as for joe oh i’ve seen him around/then there’s adam/he’s afraid to go out/i don’t blame him/i just wanted to go out to eat/then there’s mark goddamn i wish him the best/we were kids back then/as if we could progress/sometimes i, i just can’t sleep/thinking of the things we could have been.”  I know, it sounds kind of emo.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Well,  I feel like that a lot.  So that’s enough.

Moving on, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006) is my favorite of the two albums, because at this point, the Format has grown into musical  maturity.  The interesting changes in FORMAT!! are not only in the bridge or the last thirty seconds of a song, but they keep occurring…not too many key changes because that is annoying as hell, but tempo and style…it’s incredibly intriguing, and incredibly ADHD-friendly, which is always nice.  They have figured out how to use background vocals brilliantly (“I’m Actual” — great example) and have played with instrumentation.  The melodies are interesting, the writing is creative, and it’s singable.  So, that’s pretty fantastic.  Because I’m a self-aware lyric whore, “Oceans” (“why am i scared of people in a room?/why can’t they see a good time/are the people close to you?/why don’t i just give in/have a drink and shake some hands…”) and “If Work Permits” (“now standing in a room/it’s filled with older folks/they’re pleading ‘baby listen’/and i scream as loud as anyone/but when asked to make a point/i tend to whisper”) are my favorite tracks on the album.  They make me want to scream, I feel that way!!!!!!!!!! But I don’t, I just listen.  Anyway, despite these being my favorite, the title track is amazing and in my opinion, puts all of the great characteristics about this band into one song.  The lyrics, the swing to ballad style changes, the awesome instrumentation… it’s all here.  And check it, yo.  You can watch the video.

You can also listen to some of their songs on myspace, but really I’d just recommend buying the albums.  You can probably get them cheap on Amazon.  Is that cheap of me to mention?  I don’t care.  We’re poor, you probably are too.

I miss you, the Format…

Dutch Blitz!!

Welcome to post #2 of Dutch Week!  I have been learning a lot already this week, including that Dutch = from the Netherlands = the same thing as Holland.  This is helpful knowledge, especially when I continue asking Eric stupid questions, like if the Shout Out Louds, Jens Lekman, or Sondre Lerche count as Dutch music, and could I review them since I already know and love them?  No.  They do not count.  I’m an idiot sometimes.  I think I’ve said that before.

But!  As not to let you, our adoring public, down, I have explored some great music while staring at my computer at work.   Just kidding.  But I have explored some great music!  And while I have found several bands that I would like to share with you (one involving people wearing bear suits, NOT EVEN KIDDING), tonight I have chosen … We Swim You Jump!!!  Partly because they have an awesome name, and partly because they are on the same record label as The Very Sexuals (Subroutine… also have you all downloaded the free album yet?  It’s freaking free!)

We Swim You Jump is a pretty new band hailing from (let’s all say it together) the Netherlands!  They have a demo EP out and they are working on a full album to be released *hopefully* at the end of 2009.  There are only 2 songs up on their myspace (but they only have like 5 anyway, so whatever) but you should definitely listen to them because… they have a tight sound with strong folk/rock influences.  I appreciate their unexpected chord changes and rough-edged voices, and they kind of remind me of the Format (Interventions and Lullabies).  My final reason for listening to them is that one of their songs is called “Sharks,” and I’m confident that they, like us, live every week like it’s Shark Week (or Dutch Week, I guess).  Love it.

Check out their myspace:  http://www.myspace.com/weswimyoujump
Also, if you happen to speak Dutch (is that a language?  Eric will answer this question in his next post!) or just enjoy watching foreign boys speak: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3BfMX9PDzU