What’s the Best Album of the Decade? Try Calling Back in Five Years

More than ten years ago, I was reading reviews of the just-released Flaming Lips album The Soft Bulletin. As Napster and music downloads were still pretty much in their infancy in 1999, and our one college radio station maybe played one song from The Soft Bulletin every third day or so, I trusted critics and shelled out the $15. All it took was one listen to floor me. But I kept thinking about the few reviewers who were claiming it as “Album of the Decade.” Really? A few months before the decade ends, how can you give that distinction to an album that you just listened to?

Hence the problem with decade lists. When I was making up my decade list last year, I started to count up the albums by year. There was a baffling 16 albums from the year 2000. About a dozen from 2002. And a scant three albums from 2008 and only four from 2009. When I made my “Ten Best” for the year 2000, there was absolutely no way I could have imagined that 16 albums from that year would end up on my “100 Best Albums of the Decade” list. At that time, I even had trouble coming up with ten albums I liked from that year.

Time has a way of doing that to people’s music listening habits. It can make you discover releases that you should have caught on to when they were first released (sorry, Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica). It can make you see flaws in albums that you didn’t at first see because you were caught up in the hoopla when it was initially released (Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). And it can supply the essential buffer zone for albums that will eventually grow on you (Los Lobos’ The Town and the City). None of the albums released in 2009 get that type of luxury. As a result, any “Best of the Decade” list needs to be seen more like an election where 15 percent of the precincts are reporting and less like a final tally.

The Internet has greatly narrowed this time gap, especially in the musical discovery department. Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is now regarded in rock critic circles as one of the greatest albums of the ’90s. But when several magazines came out with their “Best of the Decade” lists in 1999, that album popped up on just a few lists. Mainly because if you didn’t have a college radio station with a decent budget for new releases, chances were you weren’t going to hear that album. Nowadays, thanks to sites like LastFM, Spinner, Lala, and savvy record label websites that stream releases for free, the chances of an album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea falling through the cracks of obscurity are far less than they were a decade ago.

Unfortunately, this environment doesn’t bode well for albums that require a patient ear. As digital downloads replace the physical product and four large boxes of CDs can be fit into a device half the size of a cigarette pack, there is sort of an unwritten desire for people to fill up as much space on these devices as possible to get your money’s worth. You rip your own CDs. You rip friends’ CDs. You download your brother’s external hard drive full of music. This all creates an environment where if a release doesn’t catch you on the first listen, it’s going to be a helluva lot harder to come back to that release as opposed to having a physical product that you’re stuck with until you either sell it or throw it away. The end result: that copy of Blur’s Think Tank may not have been so bad if you had given it a chance to sink in, but it got lost in the iPod shuffle.

Looking at my “best of the decade” list, I see 2005 as the last year that had more than ten releases on my “100 best” list. Were 2008 and 2009 horrible years in terms of music? No way. It’s just that there hasn’t been enough time to truly appreciate what has come out. Most readers are probably now in “list overkill” mode as they were hit with both “Best albums of 2009” and “Best albums of the decade” lists the past two months, but the “decade’s best” argument is years from being decided.