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

Just like it took years to realize what an incredible year 1999 was to cinema, expect the "What was the best album of the last decade?" debate to go on for 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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.