40. Green Day – American Idiot [Reprise]
Who would’ve ever guessed that the most successful politically-charged album of the 2000s — a rock opera, no less — would be authored by the puerile punks best known for an album named Dookie? American Idiot heralded the second coming of a thoroughly revitalized Green Day after some commercial lean times, and the record’s critical accolades and gangbuster sales cemented the trio, once seemingly on the verge of being commemorated by music historians as little more than lucky chancers in spite of their authorship of roughly a dozen rock radio staples, as an institution. The funny thing is, Green Day hadn’t changed all that much in the decade since “Longview” vaulted the group to stardom. Really, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool are as bratty, restless, and irreverent as they had ever been on American Idiot (doubters need only listen to Cool’s “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” segment of the “Homecoming” suite for proof).
The key difference is that on this full-length the members’ bad attitude and the devil-may-care spirit found righteous inspiration in their outrage at the state of Bush-led America circa 2004, and that sense of purpose galvanized the band into making bold statements and tackling ambitious musical detours that in the end proved thoroughly rewarding. Running the gamut from the speedy punk blasts of the title track and “St. Jimmy” to the multi-movement centerpieces “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”, to the weepy stadium-ready ballads “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, American Idiot is as effective a manifesto of the band’s musical capabilities as it is its political leanings — it’s no wonder that Green Day has spent the following decade of its career trying to match it. — AJ Ramirez
39. Sleater-Kinney – The Woods [Sub Pop]
The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney‘s finest hour: a wonderful anomaly that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by the Pixies and brings it into Y2K, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.
Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do and often do it better. The Woods rocks as hard and drops jaws as low as anything anyone else did this decade. It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out.
The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as explode into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours”, and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. It’s an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place and made a defining statement. — Sean Murphy
38. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America [Frenchkiss]
During a year of High School Musical frenzy, the Hold Steady released an album about Boys and Girls in America having a sad time together (you could argue High School Musical’s Sharpay was depressed, Gabriella and Troy addicted to musical theatre). The Hold Steady’s hip alternative is a rousing, literate, wide-screen, sometimes alcoholic, and druggy view of the messy excitement we got ourselves into during the noughties.
With awesome riffs and hooks, the band is mostly at a musical peak, and the lyrical references to Kerouac, John Berryman, Tennyson, and Izzy Stradlin are pulled with ease. Most of the characters (some hung-over from previous albums) are struggling in one way or another, often due to the social curses of alcohol (“Citris”) and drugs (“Chillout Tent”), but the overall tenor is almost always upbeat.
The straight-ahead bar band approach may not be all that fashionable, but the Hold Steady are at their best re-creating the rush of youth culture (“Stuck Between Stations”, “Massive Nights”). As a listener, it’s easy to get carried away by the music of “You Can Make Him Like You”, become immersed in the collective recognition of “Southtown Girls”, or just get washed away in the righteous words. Passionate and non-ironic, this is a great album by some seriously clever kids. — Charles Pitter
37. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport [ATP Recordings]
Like the Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun before it, the pulse of Fuck Buttons is constantly elevated on Tarot Sport. It is alert and stalking. The epileptic tremolo and rhythmic pounce of “Space Mountain”, to take one example, races like a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. Yet unlike much noise music, which is how Fuck Buttons have been branded in the past, Andy Weatherall’s sound on the album is not ultimately about the inevitable violence of the kill but about the hunt itself. Thus, the entire album reads like a perpetual anti-climax, a progressive delight in the tantric momentum of the act, the fluid dance of bodies synchronizing to the speed of the universe.
Tarot Sport‘s title suggests an interplay of chance and fate, pre-scripture and the struggle to overcome it. Perhaps, it was an eagerness to break out of their own script that caused them to make the giant leap from the near-formlessness of 2008’s Street Horrsing into the guided brute physicality of Tarot Sport. In 2009, “tribal” is a quick standby, but Fuck Buttons take more from this term than the soma and the face paint.
Tarot Sport is an album deeply in touch with the dynamism of its surroundings, which is why the best part of the album is not the massive sound it compiles again and again as if it were tapping into an intrinsic tension inscribed on the waveform of every note. It’s the subtlety and beauty of the small noises that build that gigantic sound that stands out amidst the ear-shattering din. – Timothy Gabriele
36. St. Vincent – Marry Me [Beggars Banquet]
For most people, playing guitar for Sufjan Stevens or the Polyphonic Spree would be the highlight of an entire career. For Annie Clark (who we know as St. Vincent and who’s done both), it was just the prelude to her own remarkable solo debut. Thank god for that. Marry Me is one of those rare records that offers something new and imaginative with every track. Musically, Clark is as comfortable delicately placing a horn in the midst of a jazz-inspired torch song as she is building a distorted, choir-fuelled, indie-rock crescendo.
Lyrically, she’s just as hard to pin down. Marry Me echoes the whole anxious mess of our 21st-century lives (from our war on terror to our fear of commitment), and since it’s delivered with such sad whimsy, you’re never quite sure whether you’re supposed to break down and cry or just plain laugh at the glorious absurdity of it all. Either way, it’s a beautiful thing to listen to. – Adam Bunch
35. Kanye West – The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam]
It’s hard to believe that in only ten years, he was able to go from “Jesus Walks” to “I Am a God”, but in retrospect, all the elements of the loud, opinionated, triumphant, and ridiculous iconoclast that we know call Yeezus were present in his debut album. There’s the perfectionism, the musical eclecticism, the unhinged ego, tongue-in-cheek humor, the endlessly fascinating internal contradictions, and groundbreaking production, all united by West’s overarching vision in a way that makes this whole thing feel somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Still trying to work his way into the mainstream after years being the wizard behind Jay-Z and others’ hits, Kanye West managed to bring together elements of classic soul and gospel, bawdy mainstream rap, conscious hip-hop, and avant-garde art and combine them into a cohesive whole. Never before had these worlds sat so comfortably together, especially not on massive singles that hit both the street and the critics’ lists with equal force. Songs like “We Don’t Care”, “All Falls Down”, “The New Workout Plan”, and “Two Words” may be diverse in their scope, but they’re uniform in their musical insistence. The College Dropout is a record ambitious and accomplished enough to change both the sound and the substance of rap. — John M. Tryneski
34. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale [Def Jam]
Ghostface Killah distanced himself from his Wu brethren on his solo records by having the most carefully honed pop sensibility. Raekwon is smooth and post-Tical Method Man aimed as populism, but Ghostface always seemed away from pop’s (and hip-hop’s) history. Fishscale, his finest and most expansive album, seeks to defend that and other sorts of histories. As always, Killah is all irrepressible id, as full of anger as he is anguish, as capable of bragging as he is gritting his teeth or morning.
Fishscale, with its tales of drugs and crime gone bad mixed with Ghostface’s confusion over the state of hip-hop in 2006, is a statement of principles from a voice committed to hip-hop as a culture. He covers this declaration in two fascinating ways. The first is his untouchable wordplay on the record, from the ethereal redemption tale of “Underwater” to the business-like detail of “Kilo” to the heartbroken anger of “Back Like That”, Ghostface is a genius with detail on this record, but he also makes clear what his partner Raekwon makes impressionistic.
But more than his choice of detail, it’s the contradictions in the record that prove its most brilliant asset. “Back Like That” objectifies a woman but does it through an illogic that criticizes types of hip-hop masculinity rather than relying on them. “Big Girl” encourages young women to avoid the pitfalls of drugs and partying, while Ghostface himself supplies (here and all over Fishscale) the drugs they like. And then there’s the breathless “Shakey Dog”, the kind of long and perfect rap moment that really puts, say, Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” in perspective, which is as much a braggadocio crime story as it is a perfect encapsulation of in-the-moment fear most hip-hop avoids talking about.
Ghostface’s tales on Fishscale are complex and all over the map, but a murderer’s row of producers — from MF Doom to Pete Rock to J Dilla — give these tracks roots in the soul and hip-hop that came before. It’s dedication to the classics, and its ability to turn a careful, critical eye inward, is what makes Fishscale a classic in its own right. — Matt Fiander
33. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty/Secretly Canadian]
Sufjan Stevens‘ fifth album, Illinois (2005), was a landmark in progressive indie folk, and its influences still carry on. Stevens had famously declared that he was going to produce one album for each of the 50 states (with 2003’s Michigan being the first). That project died, and Stevens later said the idea was “a joke,” one he perhaps “took too seriously.” Yet Illinois was so ambitious and so good that at the time, ridiculously enough, people actually thought he might pull it off. He is currently pursuing a hip-hop side project and just scored a ballet.
On Illinois, Steven is a moving and plaintive folk singer, the music is rooted in Americana and Illinois history, and themes range from Abraham Lincoln to Superman (conceived of in Illinois). Yet Stevens also brings waves of instruments from his mini-orchestra, and he is more indebted to Stereolab’s post-rock minimalism than Bob Dylan. Highlights include the cornerstone song, “Chicago”, and the stunning spirituality of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”.
Illinois is lush, neo-Baroque/folk that you can either turn your brain off and relax while you listen to it, or you could otherwise explore its depths for another decade or so. — James A. Cosby
32. Beck – Sea Change [Geffen]
I’m not a fan of Beck. His nonchalant irreverence, which permeates albums like Odelay and Mellow Gold, can be quite grating and difficult to warm up to. However, with Beck’s beauteous eighth studio album Sea Change, he managed to do something that most artists so late into their careers could never do, a redefining of musical boundaries that drops the pretension and goes for the emotional jugular. Not only did Beck manage to produce a longing album of yearning and heartbreak, but he proved that beyond the icy and kitschy demeanor that made him famous exists a diverse and complex artist capable of stretching beyond his showy complex production style. Something that would make naysayers who may have prematurely written him off take a second look. — Enio Chiola
31. Björk – Vespertine [One Little Indian]
Vespertine functions as a document on the interplay of interdependence and independence, crafting precise documents about the inter-relational. For how strange she seems, Björk‘s best work is profoundly collaborative, and the beauty here is the beauty of a community working together on a singular practice. She auditioned a choir of Inuit singers from Greenland. Harmony Korine contributed a song. nominally about Will Oldham. The harpist Zeena Parkins brought the improvisational skills of the avant-classical and free jazz realms.
Two of the songs were adapted from literary sources, one from ee cummings and one from English playwright Sarah Kane (in this case, a unique version of Kane, one abstracted from the violence of her early work). Björk was never as interested in the abject like Korine or Kane. Bjork returns beauty into the shock of the new. The album makes these themes explicit in how a chorus that tells us “it’s not up to you” or a song that she talks about “trying to be a in a generous mood” or that it is not “meant to be a struggle” An album can be a struggle, a Björk album can be a struggle, but this? — this is pure pleasure. — Anthony Easton