I love music. I have for some time, probably spent more money on music than any other form of media. This has resulted in a pretty massive collection–one that with the rise of the mp3 has caused me to invest in an external hard drive and eventually sell my 80 GB iPod because it could no longer hold my entire library. The 2000’s were tremendous years of musical discovery for me. I suppose many people could relate to my experience of discovering music in college, but if I could summarize it in one sentence it would go something like this, “wow I can’t believe I spent so much money on terrible music!” I still peruse my old collection of 90s alternative and “gangsta” rap CDs from time to time, though it’s more out of nostalgia than artistic appreciation.
I wanted to list a top 10 of the last decade because in so many ways, this last decade was probably the most significant era for me in terms of music. This is due to at least two factors. One is some great friends who introduced me to great music and secondly to the rise of the internet. The internet has forever changed independent music. I am not sure its really fair to talk about most of what we consider to be “indie” as truly independent any longer. Sure there are lots of independent music labels, but the internet has transformed many such labels into household names (i.e. Matador, Sub Pop). Also as having a computer with high speed internet became more and more common, and thus the ability to discover really great music was something most anyone could do. If you are like me, soon enough all your friends were discovering great previously unknown bands and the musical landscape ceased to be dominated by MTV, VH1, and what you would typically hear on “Power 98 FM.” Original, genre-crossing, meaningful, socially conscious, and down right hip artists were being discovered left and right.
In many ways I wonder if the art of writing an album isn’t dying with the rise of the mp3 and iTunes. I have long been a fan of the album, but in many ways I suppose it limits artistic direction to 10-20 songs ranging from 50-80 minutes of music. So while I am wondering if the album will be around much longer, I better go ahead and give you the 10 most significant albums from the 10 most significant years of my music fandom.
I don’t claim to be an expert in music appreciation, song writing, or theory, but I have for some time been a huge fan of all types of music, so this list will be as much anecdotal as it is a sampling of great music. And yes, I mean that unequivocally–this is a list of great albums–I often tell people that I have the best taste in music of anyone I know!
Along the way, I will lend my hand at some lyrical criticism, but only to show why I think most of these albums though not Christian, are important for the Christian to think about and even include lessons worth learning.
10. It’s Never Been Like That – Phoenix – infections, pop rock, with oft repeated lyrics that never get old every time they are repeated. Plus there are too many great songs to pick a favorite. This was a very hard decision, there were so many albums that could have made the cut, but It’s Never Been Like That was so much better than the other albums from bands that they often get compared to (Strokes and the like), that I felt this gem of mid 2000’s music had to be listed for the simple fact that if you haven’t invested in a Phoenix, album, now is the time to do so. Phoenix doesn’t take itself as seriously as many of bands that it is compared to, and the music comes across as more genuine, bright, and refreshing as a result.
9. You Forget it in People – Broken Social Scene. – Because I am going to say much more about some of the other band’s lyrics, I will go ahead and admit upfront that I have never paid a lot of attention to BSS’s lyrics and I am not sure they want me to–the few times I have paid attention, I have found them strange and disturbing. So if you can get over that, this is a tremendous album. Broken Social Scene, whether they will admit it or not, is an indie supergroup–made up of members who have all had successful solo careers–some would not blossom until after this project like Leslie Feist. Despite its member’s individual success, BSS’s individual parts have never been as good as they were together on this album (though 2005’s self titled albums is quite good too).
8. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire – Though not nearly as critically acclaimed as their debut album, Neon Bible feels simultaneously less revolutionary and more ambitious. Its most popular songs are epic indie rock ballads and its less popular songs are intimate but scathing social commentary. Neon Bible has unfortunately been misinterpreted as a slam on the Bible which I think is unfair and misses the point. Rather than a slam on the Bible, the album comes across to me as a critique of American consumerism and how we all have fallen prey to it religious and irreligous alike. “Windowsill” is probably my favorite song as it is a desperate cry for escape from the trap of American consumerism–“I don’t want it faster, I don’t want it free . . . MTV what have you done to me?” Further, its critiques of religion are just that critiques of religion and abuse of the Bible rather than critiques of Christianity. I can’t listen to “Intervention” without feeling rebuked for my lack of concern for other people or “Neon Bible” without thinking about how much the culture around me defines my “Christianity.” “(Antichrist Television Blues)” the most personal song on the album and seems to be a prayer of self justification before God for a man’s greedy influence on his daughter. Neon Bible challenges our lack of social conscience, condemns religious hypocrisy and the deadly allure of consumerism. Though Win Butler and his band mates never seem to find an answer for the hopelessness of living in a culture consumed with stuff, the album is nonetheless a biting critique of our culture which makes it a much less personal Funeral but far more interesting.
7. The Stand Ins – Okkervil River – Sprawling, epic, Southern folk rock goodness. Strange lyrics, great music. “Blue Tulip,” “Lost Coastlines,” and “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” are just fantastic songs.
6. Give Up – Postal Service – Songs of love lost, loneliness, and honest self-reflection come together beautifully on what I find to be the best Ben Gibbard project to date. Ben Gibbard is the front man and main song writer for popular indie rock band, Death Cab for Cutie. I am a big Death Cab fan, I love The Photo Album and Translanticism and yet Give Up still seems to possess Gibbard’s most mature song writing and simultaneously its most infectious melodies–so infectious that its songs were being covered by Iron and Wine and being played on numerous movies and commercials (UPS, M&Ms etc).
4. Takk – Sigur Ros – I have no idea what any of Sigur Ros’ songs are about. They are written in this sort of dreamy form of Icelandic that I doubt most Icelanders can decipher. It doesn’t matter, the ballads of Sigur Ros are beautiful, lush, and sprawling. This is one of Sigur Ros’ least critically acclaimed albums, but I think its their best–an improvement on Agaetis Byrjun in so many ways. This album is so beautiful, I don’t know how a Christian can listen to it and not revel in the fact that God created men worship Him with beautiful music. I doubt whether Sigur Ros understands that, but nonetheless, these Icelanders, created in the image of God have made a beautiful album that should be in every music lover’s collection. Its really that good.
3. Kid A – Radiohead – I have heard people call Radiohead the Beatles of our generation–fair enough I suppose, but I would say based on their discography to date, they may have already surpassed the Beatles. I remember when this album first came out–it had the ambitious task of following up what many were calling the greatest album of the 90s, Ok Computer. Its hard to compare the two albums because they are so refreshingly different. Sure they are both deeply pessimistic and darkly beautiful, but the Kid A was such a bold step in a new direction that it really set itself apart from Ok Computer. Thom Yorke is brutally honest about the complexity of the world in this album and even admits a desire to give up on it (“How to Disappear Completely) and yet he hopes to make a difference–“if you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” (“Optimistic”) and the album ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, “I will see you in the next life.” While Yorke’s lyrics usually make me sad, they remind me of the lostness of the world we live in and that is a much needed reminder even if it comes from such a pessimistic voice. This album was so startlingly different that it couldn’t be ignored and despite the darkness found within, it ends with Yorke and company grasping for hope that they know not of.
2. A Ghost is Born – Wilco – I must admit that I am biased about this album. I saw Wilco live for the first time in Albequerque, NM shortly after this album was released. It was the first of many live shows I would attend by more artistically substantial artists. It marks the first time I stopped feeling guilty about enjoying secular music (that is a whole different story altogether!). Wilco probably played every song on that album and it was amazing from start to finish. If you haven’t ever seen Wilco live, you really must.
From ambitious alternative rock ballads to more Uncle Tupelo-esque religious wanderings, A Ghost is Born is in every way an improvement upon perhaps the most controversial and celebrated album in indie rock history, Hotel Yankee Foxtrot. The Grammys got it right–this was not only the alternative album of the year but in my opinion the alternative album of the decade. Tweedy and company tackle some seriously thoughtful terrain–violent lovers spats and the devastation of addiction. Through trudging through dark waters, Tweedy emerges hopeful as he seems to have overcome his demons–only time will tell. This is perhaps Wilco’s most honest and spiritual album. Tweedy surprisingly sees the darkness within himself in “when the devil came, he was not red, he was chrome” but in all cases Tweedy seems to think the answers to his demons is found within himself. This is such a common theme in music, that it is worthy of taking note and Tweedy expresses it winsomely. Such a notion is by no means Christian and should cause us to think about how we can help those who are looking to themselves for deliverance to see that they will never find it there. The overall theme of A Ghost is Born man’s need for self expression, if only he could see that self-expression is only truly experienced in the true self which is found in Christ. Tweedy expresses himself more clearly in this album than any other and the result is their most beautiful album to date. If only Tweedy could see that the hope he is looking for inside himself and community speaks to a far greater need that can only be met in Christ.
1. Greetings from Michigan: the Great Lakes State – Sufjan Stevens – Michigan was the first Sufjan album I ever heard–and after my first listen, I was quickly telling anyone with ears that they MUST listen to this album. I have always loved folk music, but Sufjan seemed to revolutionize the genre–he told rich and deeply moving stories about everyday people, he wrote with deep historical awareness, and he seemed to love Jesus. This may seem a surprising pick because the critics choice would easily be Illinoise but all the seeds that made that album so wonderful and memorable were present in Michigan. The deep humanity and historical clarity that Sufjan writes with on Illinoise were present in Songs from the Great Lakes State. Sufjan writes about industry, unemployment, and broken families all the while moving the one who has ears to hear to ponder far greater realities. Because in the “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fathers in Ypsilanti” is actually about a far more devastating loss than what is seen at first glance and “Vito’s Ordination Song” is about far greater realities than a friend’s ordination to ministry. These songs are hymns for the downcast, full of hope, joy, and wonder. Stevens writes socially conscious, culturally relevant worship music. Music that makes me think and sometimes even weep. The last lines of “Vito’s Ordination Song” wrap up the journey through Michigan that Stevens takes us on:
And when you write a poem
I know the words
I know the sounds
Before you write it down
When you wear your clothes
I wear them too
I wear your shoes
And your jacket too
I always knew you
In your mothers arms
I have called you son
I’ve made amends
Between father and son
Or, if you haven’t one
Rest in my arms
Sleep in my bed
There is a design
To what I did and said
I can’t make sense of what is going on in the state of Michigan much less the rest of the world, but when I listen to this album, I find peace, but not a peace that encourages inactivity, a peace that is proactive, more self-aware, and more appreciative of my Lord and Savior.