By the time you read this column, the folks over at Pitchfork will have likely published the results of their “People’s List”, the website’s first attempt at a crowdsourced look at the best albums of 1996-2011. In an extremely scientific and in-no-way totally subjective fashion, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the ‘Fork’s own favorite albums from those years, looking back at their pick for the best record of each successive year to examine how these albums have held up—both in overall critical esteem and to my own ears. For the years before Pitchfork started making its annual lists, I’ll choose the top-rated records for each year. I’ll rank the albums from Most Questionable Choice to Totally Great Choice. Off we go:
15. Walt Mink—El Producto (1996)
The most interesting, curveball pick on the list—and also the weakest. Minnesotans Walt Mink are surely beloved by a cult of devotees these days, though I don’t know any of these people myself. John Kimbrough’s vocals provide an archetype for this kind of clean, round-edged pop-punk: nasal, syrupy, unthreatening. Kimbrough has a great ear for melody, particularly displayed on “Stood Up” and “Overgrown”, but his delivery grates. El Producto epitomizes a certain strain of mid-‘90s pop-rock, and that’s not necessarily a good thing in 2012.
14. Fleet Foxes—Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes (2008)
Angelic harmonies, Appalachian color, beards. Can you imagine the Zen calm in the NPR studios when this press kit arrived in the mail? Finally, a Subaru Outback in album form. I’ll give you the break in “He Doesn’t Know Why”, a moment where Robin Pecknold finally lets loose his spectacular voice in the service of some real drama. “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Mykonos” churn and soar, but I can’t say I’ve listened to the majority of these tracks since 2008 flipped its final calendar page. If you can imagine your masseuse putting a record on while she lights incense and gets the power crystals arranged toward the light—you do have a masseuse, right?
13. The Rapture—Echoes (2003)
A Universal Law decrees one will always love that which one loved in college. Dance-punk broke when I was studying at my alma mater, and I can remember humming “I Need Your Love” while the crew and I rowed against State Tech. Later, we’d drink light beer out of the trophy, all the while shouting along to the countdown in “House of Jealous Lovers”—and why not stop at “eight,” anyway? In any case, you’d still do better with this record.
12. Interpol—Turn On the Bright Lights (2002)
A friend of mine diagnoses what he calls “Ray Liotta Syndrome”, in which one’s later failures reflect poorly even on one’s early successes. Maybe you pull out your Wild Hogs Blu-ray as much as you do Goodfellas, but I can’t help but think of Interpol as another case study here. Turn On the Bright Lights is a great record, even if it’s gotten harder to ignore Paul Banks’s lyrics the older we’ve gotten. (“Her stories are boring and stuff, / She’s always calling my bluff,” indeed.) The promise of the band on display here likely inflated our collective enthusiasm about the record’s actual material. I’ll just say this: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out in 2002, as well.
11. Sufjan Stevens—Illinois (2005)
Another golden boy seemingly trapped in mid-decade amber. A twee masterpiece on the level of Rushmore, Illinois is the type of record equally likely to provoke people to tattoo its liner notes on their chests and drive them into a murderous, frothing fugue state. There are two types of people in the world: hearing a fey tenor croon, “Stephen A. Douglas was a great debator, / But Abraham Lincoln was The Great Emancipator!” either makes you slap your knee and grin or sharpen your blade for the coming Culture War. Stevens’s musical acumen, his insane polymath skills as a player and composer, place him among pop’s most brilliant songwriters. But his preciousness—the glockenspiel, the flute, recorders with four different tonal ranges—can be a bit much to take. Still, his dedication to the concept album, his broad lyrical investigations and knack for imagery, make Illinois a unique creation in contemporary pop music. No small feat, that.
10. Arcade Fire—Funeral (2004)
People like a surprise hit. A band like Spoon, making its best albums late in its career, often gets overlooked in comparison to the band who comes out of nowhere with a debut, instant classic. Before Funeral, Arcade Fire had some solid rookie stats—great EP, ties to a much-hyped local scene, tour with much-buzzed acts (The Unicorns and Death From Above 1979, in its case). But no one could’ve predicted the response to this record and its successes, its visceral punch and for-the-rafters ambition. The Suburbs and Neon Bible, both middling albums at best, coasted on the glory of this record, and it’s not difficult to see why. A once-in-a-career grand slam.
9. The Flaming Lips—The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Before the giant plastic bubble, before the visions of apocalyptic nudity, we had the songs. The Flaming Lips’s spectacle has become as important to the band’s place in the cultural consciousness as its music itself. Wayne Coyne is weird. Did you pick up on that? He and his band can also write classic, idiosyncratic rock songs. Reacquaint yourself with The Soft Bulletin’s track list and be amazed—“Race for the Prize (Remix),” “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” “Waitin’ for a Superman”. If you don’t always hear the influence of The Lips in this record’s wake, it’s only because few others can make music at once so familiar and utterly possessed of a singular voice.
8. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) / Panda Bear—Person Pitch (2007)
Merriweather Person Pitch—different albums, same driving force. I’ll admit Noah Lennox, whether with his fulltime band or on his own, usually leaves me cold. I dutifully buy each Animal Collective record, I’ve seen them play multiple times, and I still don’t quite understand what makes that band—and Panda Bear—inspire the kind of fervent, messianic talk that surrounds its every move. But all right. Whether or not I connect with the music on an emotional level, I can see how these two records represent a zeitgeist of the late decade, a move toward synthesizing a few of the more prominent strains in late 2000s indie music—Brian Wilson, fuzzy dissonance, stoner repetition—into a single, essential whole. If that’s your bag, Lennox and Animal Collective do it better than anyone else.
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)
At once a kaleidoscopic collage and a cohesive composition, Justin Vernon’s second record as Bon Iver saw him advancing so far beyond the skeletal force of his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, as to make this record seem almost like a second debut. Vernon draws from a polyglot stew of musical languages—jazz, ‘80s soft rock, ambient, and more—to craft something all his own. His incredible voice, especially when it drifts into the falsetto that’s become his trademark, tends to obscure his imagistic lyrics, making Bon Iver, Bon Iver function more on emotional association and texture than explicit lyrical communication. At once otherworldly and entirely human, it finished the decade off on a powerful note.
6. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—I See a Darkness (1999)
One of two records to get a perfect 10.0 from Pitchfork’s editors in 1999, Will Oldham’s finest work sees him nudging toward a fuller, more varied sound. Still, the arrangements are all in the service of his vivid, incisive lyrics. Oldham is another example of an auteur on this list, the type of songwriter seemingly contained in his own world, or at least sprung from it before decided to join ours. Quietly devastating in a searing way, I See a Darkness burns you clean. It hurts, but it feels necessary, too.
5. Kanye West—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
The only hip-hop album ever to receive an Album of the Year accolade from Pitchfork, Kanye’s opus dropped late in 2010 and quickly shoved every other release of the year to the sidelines. Will Yeezy say hi to his haters on Fantasy’s follow-up? Are there any left? Only people who haven’t listened to the record. The bravado, the solipsism, the refusal to filter—the album is born of everything certain crowds love to hate about Kanye West. It also, by the way, contains the genre’s best production of the decade, with none of Kanye’s soul-sampling pitch-shifting that made his name early in his career. Say what you will about him, but Kanye is anything but complacent.
4. The Microphones—The Glow, Pt 2 (2001)
Phil Elvrum’s creative peak, The Glow, Pt 2 can be a lot to take in a single sitting. The album sprawls out in the best way, stretching itself over its listeners until they’ve gotten folded into its weird, expansive brilliance. For such a boldly ambitious record, it’s also a pretty subtle one. Elvrum mumbles and quavers his way through these twenty tracks, while his band lurches from spare and fragile to thundering and dissonant behind him. He serves as the core at the center of The Glow, Pt 2’s vastness, exerting a comforting sense of gravity in the midst of all this open-ended space.
3. The Knife—Silent Shout (2006)
Yikes. That’s my Christgau capsule review of Silent Shout. Thank you for reading. It’s a legitimately terrifying record, exploring the darker edges of emotional experience through frigid synth textures, manipulated vocals, and sing-song melody. While The Knife’s influence has finally started to show itself in other celebrated acts (hello, Purity Ring), Silent Shout still sounds as alien as it did six years ago.
2. Neutral Milk Hotel—In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Here’s a little Pitchfork revisionism for you. When In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was first released, the ‘Fork awarded it an 8.7. Upon its tenth-anniversary re-release, after the record had become almost universally acknowledged as a timeless classic, Pitchfork gave the reissue a 10.0 and deleted the old review. At least they got it right the second time. Jeff Mangum has since surfaced, playing shows after a decade-long absence from the public eye, but his reappearance hasn’t diminished the sense of mystery surrounding this record. Full of spiritual yearning, time-traveling desire, and blunt-force major chords, to call Aeroplane a singular achievement seems too easy. It’s a weapons-grade work of art, but don’t approach with caution.
1. Radiohead—OK Computer (1997) / Kid A (2000)
What else is there to say? I’m a Kid A man, myself. I think I’ll go listen now.