Looking back at the past decade was tough for us at Knox Road. This was the decade we grew up in. We went through puberty, graduated high school and drank our first beers to this music. So when looking at what music is the “best” of the decade, it’s damn near impossible to separate the ones that are critically better than the ones we feel strongly attached to on an emotional level.
So after creating and combining our individual “best of” lists, we have created a sort of patchwork of what we think are the greatest albums from 2000 to 2009. Although we individually ranked the albums and individually wrote about them, the list is a collective. It represents how three different music fanatics experienced the most important decade of their lives. So dig in. Love us, hate us and then go back to loving us because, in the end, this is just a list, you guys.
Kanye West – “Graduation” (2007)
Until 2007, Kanye West had found huge success with The College Dropout and Late Registration, but it wasn’t until Graduation that the rising rapper played so much with a different formula. Graduation shows a new interest in synth and an introspective West, before his ego was too out of control. The album is a gem of brilliantly written, genre-defining hip-hop.
The Mountain Goats – “The Sunset Tree” (2005)
In typical Mountain Goats fashion, only one song extends longer than four minutes long on The Sunset Tree. But The Sunset Tree stands out because of its deft mix of full-out pop with John Darnielle’s trademark downtempo spoken songs. The Sunset Tree is one of those rare albums where the music is meant to fit the words, rather than the other way around. You can hear Darnielle’s haunting poetry through the sound just as much as through his mouth.
Iron & Wine – “Our Endless Numbered Days” (2004)
On Our Endless Numbered Days, Sam Beam delivers a hushed elegance with every song, as he takes us on a heartbreaking journey through our own bizarro nightmares. Subtle flourishes (irregular spurts of harmony and percussion) and all, Our Endless Numbered Days’ true beauty lies in its gentle simplicity.
Antony and the Johnsons – “I Am a Bird Now” (2005)
Plain and simple, Antony Hegarty has one of the most unique voices in music. His liberal use of vibrato is definitely a turn-off for some, but regardless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a singer who invests so much of himself into each and every song. It comes together on I Am a Bird Now — between the piano, the voice, the strings and the band (the Johnsons, natch), Hegarty has created a stunning, emotional work that comes across as both strange and oddly inviting.
iLiKETRAiNS – “Progress Reform” (2006)
iLiKETRAiNS is not, by any means, a happy band, but they do churning sadness better than anyone. The band’s music often follows the tenets of post-rock — songs start slowly and build toward huge, distortion-heavy climaxes. The main difference, though, is the creaky baritone of David Martin, who imbues each song with a creepy emotional undercurrent that most other bands simply lack. Progress Reform is their best so far: seven songs of slow-building catharsis.
Cloud Cult – “The Meaning of 8″ (2007)
A surprise choice here? Maybe. But it’s just as surprising why more people haven’t taken to The Meaning of 8’s sound and ran with it. The elegant instrumentation and lead vocalist Craig Minowa’s fragile, raspy, and high-pitched voice creates an album of near-epic proportions (literally- the album is 19 songs long.) The Meaning of 8 is at its best when it’s using delicate electronica as the backbone to its sound. Which is just about all the time.
Stars – “Heart” (2003)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of male/female vocalists that work so effortlessly off of each other’s sound as Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan do. And that would be enough. But no, Stars doesn’t just stop with their smooth delivery, and on Heart they add in a near-flawless electro-acoustic background with an underlying synthesizer. “Elevator Love Letter” may just be one of the best songs of the decade.
The Decemberists – “Picaresque” (2005)
The Decemberists finally pulled it all together on Picaresque. There’s not a weak track to be found, as the album alternates between simple, sad acoustic songs (“Eli, the Barrow Boy”) and fun, funny anthems (“The Sporting Life”) all carried by Colin Meloy’s inventive lyrics. Picaresque is an example of how musical simplicity can prove advantageous…and if you’re still not sold, just listen to the band’s 9-minute opus, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.”
WHY? – “Elephant Eyelash” (2005)
Maybe Elephant Eyelash is so good because it’s just so damn interesting. The album — and band — is an odd marriage of indie rock and rap, track after track of guitar and mallets underscoring the singing and rapping of Yoni Wolf. It sounds silly on paper — a dumb Gym Class Heroes ripoff, perhaps — but it’s not even close. WHY? is distinctly WHY? It could be because of Wolf’s fantastic lyricism or the cool instrument setup, but maybe we should just go ahead and accept Elephant Eyelash for what it is: great song after great song.
Outkast – “Stankonia” (2000)
Stankonia is easily one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. The dichotomy of more straight-up rapper Big Boi with poet weirdo Andre 3000 works so well and is in top form on the album. Drawing from about as many musical influences as possible, it’s what made a lot of people start respecting the genre as a legitimate art form. The album defined what hip-hop would become, and set the standard for the rest of the decade.
Crystal Castles – “Crystal Castles” (2008)
The debut and thus-far-only album by duo Crystal Castles came out of left field and brought the party over with them. Marked by what can best be described as warped Game Boy noises set over heavy beats and distorted vocals, the album set a whole new standard for dance and electronica music by defying the very genre itself.
Anathallo – “Canopy Glow” (2008)
Never quite gaining the respect they so desperately deserve, Anathallo made one of the most emotionally visceral albums of the decade with Canopy Glow. Even the weary-hearted will find solace and excitement in Canopy Glow, as the blend of pop instruments, including bells, keys, strings and various forms of percussion, along with delicate and intricate harmonies create a celestial, stirring and uplifting sound.
The White Stripes – “White Blood Cells” (2001)
In 2001, the White Stripes came out of nowhere and took over the world. Simply a brilliant guitarist and a steady drummer, the duo made a stripped-down, blues and folk-heavy alternative album at a time when a lot of blues and folk influence was starting to fade from music. From “Hotel Yorba” to “Fell In Love With A Girl,” White Blood Cells was the last beautiful look at the band in their purest form.
The Hold Steady – “Separation Sunday” (2005)
Craig Finn of The Hold Steady tells stories about a handful of characters who pop up in and out of songs drinking, smoking and having sex. “Charlemagne’s got something in his sweatpants,” he rants. So the stories aren’t subtlety incarnate, sure, but Finn ends up saying some pretty surprising, interesting things regardless. Separation Sunday is possibly the band’s most fully realized album, brimming with crunchy power chords, powerful classic-rock-styled solos and the impenetrable sing-speak of the band’s ringleader.
Bon Iver – “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2008)
We all know the story: Justin Vernon holed up in a cabin in Wisconsin to record what would eventually become For Emma, etcetera, etcetera. It’s a nearly flawless folk album, from Vernon’s soulful vocals in “Skinny Love” to the horns and full-band arrangements of “For Emma.” Maybe the most exciting part of the album, though, is a quick moment in “The Wolves (Acts I and II)” where Vernon subtly pitch shifts his voice: Auto-tune for affect. He may be the decade’s de facto folkster, but those few seconds show us that there are even more exciting things to come from camp Vernon in the future.
Animal Collective – “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (2009)
Released in January, 2009, Merriweather Post Pavilion was instantly hailed, albeit mostly tongue-in-cheek, as the best album of the year. But as time went on, it slowly earned its title. What makes it stand apart is its unique ability to make experimental music accessible to the mainstream. The band manages to create something everyone, at the very least, can appreciate and, at the very most, can revere. The album bridges the gap between artistic expression and indie pop music just as a decade marked by the two sides winds down.
The New Pornographers – “Twin Cinema” (2005)
Twin Cinema could be a crash course for enterprising young musicians on how to make a near-flawless power-pop record. The vocalist trio of AC Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case play off each other brilliantly, occasionally letting one member take the reigns when it fits best. Most importantly, it’s a rare “power-pop” record that doesn’t only come across as a fun time — while it does, often, it also makes you feel. Sappy as that sounds, what else do you really need from an album?
The National – “Alligator” (2005)
The raw version of The National, uninhibited by the sleek production of future material, Alligator is confident in its demeanor and earthy in its nature. Pinning vocalist Matt Berninger’s crisp baritone versus an exuberant backing with prominent keys, intermittent strings and sharp crescendos, Alligator is a grower on casual listeners. This album was the breakthrough for The National boys, ultimately influencing the refined and masterful nature of Boxer.
Okkervil River – “Black Sheep Boy” (2005)
Weirdly, Okkervil River’s best album is a sorta concept album revolving around none other than a black sheep boy. But oh well! On Black Sheep Boy, singer Will Sheff and the band managed to keep the emotional pile-on of 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams while ridding itself of that album’s occasional processed feeling. What we end up with is an album split between quieter, more introspective songs, quick barn-burners and gestating testaments to the word “epic.” It’s the band’s most accomplished work by far.
The Strokes – “Is This It” (2001)
In 2001, people so badly needed a band to come along that made accessible music that wasn’t stuffed with bubble gum and hair gel. And so came The Strokes to deliver a sound that would ultimately help define the better part of a decade. Yes, it’s catchy, but it’s also rock music and it’s something new as well. A sort of more serious, artistic approach to the music that was so absent from any popular music of the late 1990s. Is This It became a staple in the soundtrack to a new generation.
The Shins – “Chutes Too Narrow” (2003)
The Shins were a breath of fresh air when they came out with 2001’s Oh Inverted World, and they were a permanent fixture of fresh air on their follow-up LP, Chutes Too Narrow. The band offers light, fresh pop with often somber, intense lyrics that meshes in just the right ways. The Shins have a good sense of reality and a great ear for music, and they shine more here than anywhere else.
Death Cab For Cutie – “Transatlanticism” (2003)
Yeah, Death Cab may be catching a little flak these days for an ever-changing sound, going back and forth between overly produced and unaffecting, but we can’t forget how influential and just plain ethereal Transatlanticism was and remains to be. Ben Gibbard’s trademark falsetto floats above dark and engaging pop. Transatlanticism is an album you turn to when you’re ready to make yourself wholly vulnerable.
Panda Bear – “Person Pitch” (2007)
Panda Bear, perhaps better known as a member of Animal Collective, defines flying under the radar. He released his 2007 solo album almost exclusively to the indie music community. With it’s beautiful complexities and understanding of song writing, it mixes experimental weirdness flawlessly with airy pop. Panda Bear shows off his true talents here, and makes it look easy.
The Postal Service – “Give Up” (2003)
Side projects can be hard to pull off, but the collaboration between Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello (a.k.a. Dntel) is a great example of how they can go so right. Give Up is their one and only album, but it’s so strong they don’t really need to ever make another one. It’s dark, soft and emotional electronic pop that sets the stage for a lot of the rest of the decade.
Radiohead – “In Rainbows” (2007)
In Rainbows is undoubtedly the latest entry in Radiohead’s constant sonic evolution — the band went from alt-rock to weird alt-rock to weirder alt-rock to screw-you-guys electronica to a combination of everything, all in the period of 10 years. And then In Rainbows came out. It seems the band’s not out to prove anything now, which is more than anyone could ask for. It’s a simpler, beautiful affair, full of stunning string arrangements (“Faust Arp,” among others) and Thom Yorke’s unmistakable drawl. It proves that, even after 15 years, Radiohead is still on top of the world.
The Flaming Lips – “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” (2002)
Experimental rock veterans The Flaming Lips struck gold early in the decade with Yoshimi. A great combination of pop ballads and experimental electronic tracks, the album captured the playful and genius energy of a bunch of guys just doing what they do best. It rocketed the Lips to fame and fortune (where haven’t you heard “Do You Realize??”) and established them as a solid force. It is easily one of the most beautifully constructed albums of the decade.
Frightened Rabbit – “The Midnight Organ Fight” (2008)
It’s hard to remember an album that evokes such raw emotion – on The Midnight Organ Fight, Scott Hutchison and co. bring us heartbreaking lyricism, overwrought instrumentation, and above all, a marked passion. It’s a quick riser, for sure, and certainly due to the fact that repeat listens lend a greater respect. Can anyone argue that The Midnight Organ Fight exudes nothing but high fervor?
Wilco – “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002)
You want a definition of pop consistency? Look no further than just about every song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so memorable is the mix of symphonic elements on songs such as “Ashes of American Flags” and the quick and easy chord progressions of such tunes as “Heavy Metal Drummer”. Engaging, simple and sophisticated (in instrumentation) all in one,Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for the ages.
Spoon – “Kill The Moonlight” (2002)
Spoon’s fourth full-length is arguably their best. Kill The Moonlight finds Spoon in their element with invigorating electric guitar and Britt Daniel’s vocal range on full display. We can expect the unexpected on Kill The Moonlight, as each track has a special riff and the melodies are far from traditional. Also, it should be noted, “The Way We Get By” nearly defined what has come to be a sort of hipster generation.
Of Montreal – “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” (2007)
Of Montreal’s full-length discography spans 9 albums over about 12 years, including six this decade, so what makes Hissing Fauna the band’s best? If the moment could be pinpointed, it would be the 12-minute trip that is “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” where singer Kevin Barnes chronicles his transformation into alter-ego Georgie Fruit. If you survive that song’s assault — which isn’t terribly hard, given the musicianship and Barnes’ evocative lyrics — you’ll end up in a shit-eating-grin world of danceable funk. And that’s great enough on its own, but don’t forget the first half of the album, with its glam-heavy, sublimely catchy offerings. It’s as much fun as you can have with an album.
The National – “Boxer” (2007)
Boxer is an exercise in mood. Whereas 2005’s Alligator (further up our list) was a rawer effort, more focused on the construction of songs, Boxer is largely quieter, content with affecting its listener over time after repeat listens. It’s all about learning and buying into the nuances — Boxer is the sound of a band becoming even more comfortable in their skin, not having to rely on their past loudness to achieve their goal. As a result, it’s a long-term grower, but when it finally does grow, it will stick with you for a long, long time.
Sigur Rós – “Takk…” (2005)
Takk… begins with what might be the most powerful one-two punch of the decade, “Glósóli” and “Hoppípolla,” two ethereal tracks that build and explode in the way only this Icelandic group can do it. Despite the fact that the rest of the album is similarly stunning, with its keyboards, strings, and simple drumming, the fact that Sigur Rós can do what it does so effortlessly is amazing enough. Takk… is where it all comes together: While we do have our standard climaxes, our standard quieter tracks, our standard interludes, it all sounds fresh and new on this album. You will never find another band quite like these guys.
Sufjan Stevens – “Illinois” (2005)
Rising above Sufjan’s previous albums because of its dynamic instrumentation and finely crafted orchestration, Illinois is a record not soon to be forgotten. Creativity is the word typically associated with Illinois, but without a meticulous approach to every measure; every lyric; every subtle complexity; Illinois would just be aspiring to greatness. At once affecting and captivating, Illinois changed the way we view the singer/songwriter.
Radiohead – “Kid A” (2000)
There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about Kid A: how it marked the turning point from CDs to MP3s, how it displayed a band doing a complete 180 in terms of sound. It is, of course, more than that. Every note is deliberate, from the comparatively straightforward tracks to the weirder, formless songs. But then again, it all seems on the verge of collapse: the processed snares of “Idioteque,” the simple-but-devastating ondes martenot of “How to Disappear Completely.” It’s a confusing album, a gorgeous album, and that’s exactly how Radiohead likes to swing it.
Arcade Fire – “Funeral” (2004)
Arcade Fire recorded Funeral in 2003, fresh off several family deaths. The album is said to evoke the feelings they shared then, and it emits an air of sadness and longing. Strings cry as drums waver in intensity like they have emotions of their own. Vocals are both empowering and devastating. What makes Funeral so different is that the intensity of the emotions are so pure and honest. They come from a fresh place where, rather than introspective, they’re raw and evolving. Musically, Funeral is unique and impeccable. Nothing like it has ever been made, and nothing like it will ever be made again. Because of the circumstances surrounding its creation, it’s a perfect picture of a tragic, fleeting moment.