Here’s a recap of how we got here. Click on the links to read the write-ups/listen to the song samples.
25. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
24. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
23. The Cardigans – Long Gone Before Daylight (2003)
22. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
21. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)
20. Elliott Smith – Figure 8 (2000)
19. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)
18. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People (2002)
17. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
16. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Click on to find out the next five.
15. Common – Be (2005)
If you’ve read a few of my top music posts, you may have assumed that I had already filled my hip-hop album quota with number 24. But here I am, with not one, but two hip-hop albums in my list. I am diverse. Be is not only one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade, I also like to think of it as a great soul album. Common has been one of the best emcees in the game since his debut, but it’s the magnificent production of Kanye West that sets this effort apart, rejuvenating Common after the weird interlude that was Electric Circus. The result is an album that not only returned the Chicago rapper to the level of fellow artists like Ye and Talib Kweli, but also fits in comfortably with an evening of listening to Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
Sample Track: “Go”
14. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Released in 2002, this debut by the NYC band captured the zeitgeist of a post-9/11 New York with its palpable sense of isolation and anxiety. This lead to an impressive hype machine for an independent release, along with the expected backlash from those who felt that any moody album from a band with a deep-voiced lead singer was clearly an affront to the late Ian Curtis. Thankfully, we’re far enough from the album’s release that we can judge it on its own, distanced from both the hype and backlash. What’s left is a post-modern classic of grit, romance, atmosphere, and mystery that stands on its own, no matter who may have influenced its creation.
Sample Track: “NYC”
13. Feist – The Reminder (2007)
Probably the only album on this list in your mother’s CD collection (unless you have a really hip mother), The Reminder is the rare example of the public at large responding to genuine quality. This may have lost her some of the hipster audience the Broken Social Scenester started out with, upset that her songs kept appearing in iPod commercials and Grey’s Anatomy, but who cares? People have to remember that just because a lot of what’s popular sucks, that doesn’t mean that being popular automatically means you suck. Instead, we should celebrate when a truly talented individual like Leslie Feist breaks through, especially when it’s the result of an album as completely realized as this one. Ubiquitous or not, “1234” is a hell of a pop song, matched by “I Feel It All”, “My Moon My Man” and her spirited cover of traditional African folk song “Sea Lion Woman”. But in case you thought she’s lost all her cred making great crossover pop songs, there’s the album’s highlight “The Park”, a song with the power and naked vulnerability of an Edith Piaf ballad, that can leave me shaken for several hours after listening to it, no matter how many times I hear it.
Sample Track: “The Park”
12. Tegan and Sara – So Jealous (2004)
Because they’ve spent their career writing clever pop songs that lean more toward earnestness than irony, Tegan and Sara often get overlooked in lists like this. Worse, because they’re a couple of cute twin sisters, they also have to deal with those who dismiss them as novelty. Both perceptions are mistakes, as though it’s somehow easy to write great pop songs that are as catchy as they’re unabashedly emotional without sounding like disposable pap or mockingly emo. The Quinn sisters have successfully been doing that since moving on from their folky roots, with So Jealous being their crowning achievement. Performing love songs with their hearts on their sleeves like “You Wouldn’t Like Me”, “Where Does the Good Go?”, “So Jealous”, and “Fix You Up”, Tegan and Sara show that while a lot of songs romanticize heart break with detached brooding, the truth is more often embarrassing anguish. But while anguish is at the heart of most of their songs, the effect is more affirming than depressing, thanks to their gift of sing-song harmonies, sly turns of phrases, and driving tempos that are as infectious as they are empathetic.
Sample Track: “I Bet It Stung”
11. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (2008)
The sequel to 2007’s The Stage Names, The Stand-Ins finds the band continuing to examine the emptiness and transitory nature of celebrity. This can be a dicey area for artists, who often come off as ungrateful and indulgent when complaining about the trials and tribulations of their fame to an audience that both gave them their fame and often craves it for themselves. Okkervil River get around this trap by staging their songs from the perspective of characters, be it the fading porn star of “Starry Stairs”, the bored rich kids of “Singer-Songwriter”, or a glam rock star turned cabaret act in “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”. It probably also helps that the band isn’t particularly famous, so their observations come off as more of a cautionary reminder to pursue your art for its own sake, rather than the fleeting fame it can provide. A band like Okkervil River has the ability to make rock songs that have the tempo and gloss to reach the masses, if they ever chose to dumb down the material enough, so it’s encouraging to note that they’ve released two straight albums that suggest rather definitively that they have no plans to do so. Greatness is its own reward.
Sample Track: “Singer Songwriter”