Thursday, July 17, 2008

The 20 Best Albums Released Since 1970: 10-1

Read about albums 11-20 here.

Kid A10. Kid A - Radiohead
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#10 has been quite vexing - before I begin, a brief (and very tangential) history lesson.

This vacancy was first occupied by Taking Back Sunday's phenomenal Tell All Your Friends. The greatest album to come out of the New Jersey/Long Island scene since Glassjaw's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence? Yes. One of the twenty greatest albums in all of contemporary music? No.

Then I tried Brand New's Deja Entendu, likely the best release of 2003 behind Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place. But while I love Brand New with all of my heart (they are probably one of my three favorite bands of all time), it's the same problem as before: on a list that includes the works of the Clash and Modest Mouse, Deja simply can't hold its own.

I had finally settled upon Miles Davis' 1970 opus Bitches Brew when I realized that, although technically meeting the criteria, the album frankly did not uphold the spirit of this piece. It was recorded over three days in 1969, and was very much a product of that decade. Perhaps one day I'll write about Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's and the rest of the 60s - Bitches Brew would certainly be on that list.

What's that? Oh....right! Kid A. Sorry, I have a tendency to digress.

Radiohead has never really charmed me. I like them in the sense that I enjoy playing Creep on Rock Band. I like them in the sense that they helped make Scott Tenorman Must Die the single most hilarious half hour of television I have seen in my life. I like them in the sense that they're name-dropped in that scene in The Brave One where Jodie Foster shoots some guy in the fucking eye (!!). The music, you see, is pretty ancillary. The Bends was about as enjoyable to me as their namesake is to a scuba diver, Hail To The Thief wasn't bad (I guess), the most interesting thing about In Rainbows was its novel distribution, and I frankly think that OK Computer is much ado about nothing - although the consensus is clearly in opposition to that remark, so maybe that's just my problem...whatever. The point is, I find Radiohead to be a lot like cottage cheese: kind of bland, quick to spoil.

Except for Kid A. Dear God, Kid A.

Optimistic puts it best: "Try the best you can / The best you can is good enough". Words fall short of describing the power of this album. I'll try the best I can.

I can't wrap my head around the divisive critical reception this album received in comparison to OK Computer. Yorke's delivery is wistful and yearning, swelling with emotion while the band proper lays down an atmospheric bed that accents the record without overpowering it. The focus is on melody and harmony; on most of the songs, rhythm is an afterthought, if present at all (the most notable exception being the superlative National Anthem). How To Disappear Completely threatens to do just that, as the timid organic accompaniment and nearly-imperceptible percussive shuffle of its first few minutes seem weightless enough to be carried away by a light breeze. The arpeggiating horns at the back of the mix are icing on this sonic cake, the strings tear at your soul as they squeal in anguish with heartfelt sorrow, and the listener is left with what just might be the perfect song.

"I'm not here / This isn't happening," Yorke reassures us - reassures himself - on How To Disappear. Immediately upon the brink of disaster, however, it's suddenly real, as Idioteque warns that "We're not scaremongering / This is really happening." The rest of the record follows in a similar manner: a steady build of tension never completely released; a treatise on paradox and contradiction; an unstable chord which doesn't quite resolve.

On at least ten separate occasions, I've given OK Computer another listen, but it's never been to any avail. Maybe I just have shitty taste?

I'm not too upset though. Kid A is plenty.

Led Zeppelin IV
9. - Led Zeppelin
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The story goes that, in hopes of getting a record deal, Explosions In The Sky gave fellow Austin rockers The American Analog Set a copy of their demo tape. The latter was so enamored of the former's work that they passed along Explosions' demo to the famed instrumental label Temporary Residence, attaching only a note assuring the A&R men that "this totally fucking destroys."

I can't talk about such a storied album as for very long from a critical vantage point without my judgement being clouded by my own highly subjective memories. And even if I tried, the prose would be dull and lifeless, unbefitting of a record of such magnitude. Everybody knows just as well as I do the greatness of classic songs like When The Levee Breaks and Stairway To Heaven. Why should I waste my time with rehash?

The disservice that I do this album increases with every word I type, so I'll keep it brief:

This totally fucking destroys.

There's not much else to say. You all have your own memories of Led Zeppelin's untitled masterpiece - I won't spoil them.

The Lonesome, Crowded West8. The Lonesome, Crowded West - Modest Mouse
Up Records
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From the harsh, jagged angles of Teeth Like God's Shoeshine to the sprawling, nihilistic travelogue of anchor Trucker's Atlas to the fiddle-heavy hoedown of closer Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice Alright, it is apparent that there is nothing at all quite like Modest Mouse's breakthrough 1997 double LP The Lonesome, Crowded West.

Even before this record, the Issaquah trio had a knack for writing tunes that were simultaenously world-weary and restless, but The Lonesome, Crowded West's release marked the first time that they were able to craft something more than just a collection of songs. The whole was now greater than the sum of its parts; Modest Mouse had released an album.

The title of this album says it all: the songs all deal to some degree with that sensation of feeling alone in a crowd - like that Jack's Mannequin song, only better! Some of them sound like diary entries. Doin' The Cockroach's narrator doesn't believe in heaven or Hell, but his daily commute on the train or the bus or whatever sure feels like both. On Polar Opposites, he's "trying to drink away the part of the day [he] cannot sleep away", and Trucker's Atlas's stream-of-consciousness reads like William Faulkner's drunken LiveJournal posts. Other tracks are character studies: Cowboy Dan, a pornographer, even Jesus Christ - they all get treatment.

The best songs, however, lie somewhere in the middle. The wrenching Trailer Trash is a lesson in economy, a minimal arrangment of tercets and couplets, a portrait of divorcees and drunks, an ode to drop-outs and rejects. The picture Bankrupt On Selling paints is bleaker yet: the angels and apostles have sold us out for a ring and some sandals. In light of this, Styrofoam Boots arrives at the conclusion that "God takes care of himself, and you of you."

Even without such an explicit statement, though, the album's message is self-evident: "Nobody's running this whole thing."

Wish You Were Here7. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
EMI / Capitol
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I am a wholly inadequate and biased source of information when it comes to this album, or any other one by Pink Floyd. When you listen to one band nonstop for a year, you sort of lose your objectivity. Of course you like some songs better than others, and you spin certain records more often than the rest, but it's hard to choose an absolute "favorite".
I have a lot of favorite Floyd albums. This could be Dark Side of the Moon. Who cares? I could've chosen Meddle or Animals, and have still been satisfied. It doesn't really matter - this is Pink Floyd as it was in the 1970s, after Syd Barrett's psychedelic turn at the helm and before Roger Waters' reign of terror. You're going to like it or you're not; I can't really control that.

The best I can tell you is to go and listen to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and let the music speak for itself.

London Calling6. London Calling - The Clash
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Certain members of the press in the 70s and 80s deemed the Clash to be "the only band that matters". I don't think they could have been more right.

The Clash "got" the idea behind punk better than any of their contemporaries - they got that choosing the three-chord, sub-two-minute structure and sticking with it, or focusing exclusively upon guitar, drum, and bass, were as decidedly un-punk as anything that the prog-rock community (the movement punk was created to oppose) could come up with. There's a difference between being a punk band and making punk music, and the Clash exemplified this distinction to the fullest extent.

When Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer stepped out onto the stage or into the booth, they were frankly without peer. Dub, hip-hop, reggae, rockabilly, bluegrass, soul, dance, "world", jazz, lounge, pop, rock, grunge, and disco: all fair game. London Calling is arguably the greatest album by the only band that mattered, but don't be fooled into thinking that it is, by analogue, the only album that matters. Sandinista!, Combat Rock, and Black Market Clash are all leagues above the Pistols, Ramones, the Buzzcocks, or whatever other "punk" bands you can name. Think of London Calling as a gateway drug to the Clash's venerable discography, and you'll be in the right frame of mind.

A band like this deserve a better treatment than this, I know. But I'm just not feeling it, and Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Chinua Achebe declined to fill in for me. Bastards. Joe Strummer must be rolling over in his grave.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven5. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
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Godspeed You! Black Emperor have the typical instruments: drums, guitar, bass. Then they have some less common ones (for "rock" music, at least): violin, cello, viola, horns. But where exactly can one mention Fringe preachers, reflections on Coney Island, ARCO ampm, French children, and locomotives on the liner notes?

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven's massive influence on music can be seen right away by the fact that two bands (Canyons of Static and Antennas To Heaven) are named after material found on this release. Even indie rockers Manchester Orchestra namedrop this album on their song Play It Again Sam!, for crissakes! And that's not even to mention the fact that the vast majority of so-called post-rock bands making music in the slow build/furious release paradigm owe their sound to this album, and f♯a♯∞ before it.

One valid criticism of Godspeed is that they lack the gift of brevity. The songs run their course over 18 to 23 minutes each. But while there are definitely highlights, moments of musical bliss that stand out among the rest, I would not recommend skipping straight to them: without the dramatic build, there can be no satisfying payoff. If you don't have 80 minutes free, then don't start to listen to this album. It begs - nay, demands - to be digested in one sitting.

Some of those highlights? How about the triumphant horns that start the album on Storm, that crazy fringe preacher talking about the "heavenly man, the heavenly woman", the middle of Antennas To Heaven, where the floor just drops out, and the entire 23 minutes of Sleep? Those are some of my favorites.

This was, and still is, the best album Godspeed You! Black Emperor ever released. Given their current "indefinite hiatus", it probably will retain that honor well into the future.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea4. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel
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Does the world need more concept albums? In general, probably not.

Does the world need more concept albums about plans to go back in time to save Anne Frank and make gentle, passionate love to her? To quote The 40 Year Old Virgin, "I'm sorry, was that a serious question?"

Have you ever heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before?

You loved it? Great, me too! Scroll down and read about If You're Feeling Sinister, because there's nothing here you don't already know.

You didn't like/"get" it? Stop reading. Go listen to it again. Listen to it again and again and again until you do like it - trust me, you will eventually. It took me three years to find the right combination of open-mindedness and really-fucking-depressed-ness, but I became a Jeff Mangum convert in the spring of '07, and haven't looked back since.

You've never heard it? Ah, then this is for you. Same advice as above, but with a little bit more guidance. Listen to The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. II & III, and try not to screw up your face in a "WTF?" pose as Mangum wails "I love you Jesus Cuhhhhri-ee-i-ist! Jeeeeesus Christ I lo-ove you, yes I dooo-oo-oo-oooooo." Go ahead and play Holland, 1945, and see if you can do it without dancing or clapping or snapping or tapping your toes, or at least something. I defy you. When Communist Daughter starts raving about semen-stained mountaintops and the epic Oh Comely finds Mangun crooning about Anne Frank's ovaries, make every attempt not to crack a smile. Instead, save that smile for when Two Headed Boy Pt. II reaches its dramatic climax, declaring that "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life", and see how that works out for you.

Having a hard time? Congratulations. You officially "get" Neutral Milk Hotel. Now go and listen to it again and again and again. You'll thank me later.

If You're Feeling Sinister
3. If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle & Sebastian
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Belle & Sebastian are a bit like The Stars of Track and Field about which they sing: famous to those who follow the sport -or "scene" (God, I hate that word) - but largely unfamiliar to the world at large. What a crime.

Many critics feel that this was the apex of Belle & Sebastian's life as a band. I'd tend to disagree. If You're Feeling Sinister remains the highlight of a long and prolific career, yes, but it hasn't been all downhill since. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is easily one of their top two or three releases, and Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, while loathed by most, had some of their best material on it. But the problem that all albums (save Sinister) released before Dear Catastrophe Waitress had in common was that they were plagued by a single song that really killed the momentum and brought down the disc. Electronic Rennaisance, Chickfactor, Beyond The Sunrise: here's looking at you.

But we're not talking about any of those albums that are "one of their best" or contain "some of their strongest songs". We're talking about If You're Feeling Sinister, which is the best work containing the best songs. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying is three minutes of perfection, the title track is a literate and poignant narrative (vintage B&S), and Judy And The Dream Of Horses ties it all up with a wistfully melanchonic ribbon.

What else is there to be said? There is no better introduction to the world of independent pop music. End of story.

The Moon & Antarctica2. The Moon & Antarctica - Modest Mouse
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Does this list really need two Modest Mouse albums on it?

Absolutely. In fact, there is a strong case to be made for the inclusion of a third (Building Nothing Out Of Something). But if I had to choose one Modest Mouse album to listen to for the rest of my life, there is absolutely no question which one I would keep.

The Moon & Antarctica is Modest Mouse's crowning achievement, and it is unlikely to be topped - if I were to revisit this list in another 40 years, I am quite confident that The Moon's ranking would be safe. Ignore that number '2' in boldface next to the title at the top, because The Moon & Antarctica is as much the greatest album of the last fourty years as The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place. I guess I just have fonder memories associated with the latter, and I hope Isaac Brock & Co. will forgive my shortcomings.

Every concept, regardless of the medium in which it is realized - film, essay, painting, album - has a main idea, a thesis. On The Lonesome, Crowded West, that thesis was explicated in the record's stunning closer with the conclusion that "No one's running this whole thing." The Moon & Antarctica is more up-front: the first words of the album are "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart." An hour later, Brock revises. "The one thing you taught me about human beings is this / They ain't made of nothing but water and shit!"

Self reliance here is key. In Dark Center of the Universe, Brock is "pretty damn sure that anyone can equally easily fuck you over". If people are really made of nothing more than water and shit (clever wordplay belied by its crassness), then when everything that keeps us together falls apart, surely we can't rely on them to do anything but that: fuck us over. God's not the answer either, as I Came As A Rat observes that He will "stick it to you", first chance He gets. No salvation there.

Indeed, nothing created by society is a salvation for Isaac Brock, be it God or work or love or friendship. It wouldn't surprise me if he was a Transcendentalist, as the only salvation cited - outside of ourselves - is in unspoiled nature, barren and desolate. To this end, the album takes the same ideas as The Lonesome, Crowded West, albeit with more existential angst, and develops them further. The protaganist of Trucker's Atlas tried to escape modern life with a zig-zagging cross-country jaunt; now Brock aims a bit further off, to the moon and Antarctica. The anti-urban themes of Paper Thin Walls and A Different City will be instantly familiar to anybody versed in the gospel of Cowboy Dan. And gone are the days when Brock tried to drink away the part of the day he couldn't sleep away - on Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes he's put down the bourbon bottle and switched to "drinking Coca Cola" as the world crumbles before his eyes, surely the work of a God taking a chance to stick to him.

It's not all God's fault though, and society isn't always to blame either - sometimes the burden is squarely upon ourselves. On Lives, he groans, "My hell comes from inside myself / Why fight this?" - nihilism at its best. He's not perfect either, and despite his philosophy to the contrary, makes attempts to connect to other people. Life Like Weeds laments the lost opportunities for Brock to tell others how he feels ("I wish I could have told you I love you"), and Alone Down There finds him yearning to provide somebody with company, with comfort, belying what 3rd Planet described as his "only art of fucking people over". After all, Brock is an "anyone", so certainly he is not exempt from Dark Center's edict.

In the end though, none of that really has much to do with enjoying The Moon & Antarctica. The thick rhythm section; the warped, overdubbed guitars; the sinister, menacing yelp of Brock's delivery: those are far more likely candidates to sway your opinion on this album. The concept is, frankly, just gravy.

I love this album. You might not. But we're all of full of shit anyway, so what's the difference?

The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place1. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place - Explosions In The Sky
Temporary Residence Limited
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I think it's only fitting that an album with no words leaves me speechless.

I've already reviewed this album here, but that amounts to little more than a long-form diary entry, really. What I wrote there was admittedly a bit of a cop-out, less a critical review than a cathartic release at the expense of what is, to me, the greatest album of all time.

But maybe it wasn't. Maybe that review was indicative of the fact that much of this album's appeal lies in the fact that its content cannot be objectively analyzed, and its wholly subjective, emotional connection is what keeps me coming back for more time and time again. I've long thought First Breath After Coma to be the most beautiful piece of music ever committed to tape; it seems that Your Hand In Mine is a not-so-distant second.

For me, this release has achieved paradoxical status: a record that is so overwhelming in its greatness, I am sometimes hesitant to listen to it, for fear of overplaying it. I always manage to overcome my reluctance, but I am still scared of what might happen:

I am terrified that one day, the three minute mark of First Breath After Coma will fail to evoke picturesque memories of the clouds parting on a stormy June morning, God himself telling me that things would be okay; that the dynamics of Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean will no longer excite, the music instead sinking into the background like the Kursk into the icy depths; that somehow, Your Hand In Mine will cease to be the perfect ending to this album, its note of hope washed out, eroded by overexposure to the elements. I am terrified that one day, this will be just another record in my iTunes library, devoid of any meaning.

But until that day comes, this is the only CD I will ever need.


  1. Great list, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  2. thanks, i appreciate it. i have a few hesitations as to how i did 20-11, but i am happy with the top 10.

  3. I agree with about half of your list, but you have good taste!

  4. I don't know a couple of albums there, but judging from the ones I do know, I'll have to check them out :).
    Quite a post, kudos.

  5. I truly enjoyed what you had to say. I've bookmarked this page - and have so far purchased The Aeroplane Over the Sea, which is simply fantastic - with the intention of trying out all of the albums that you have suggested. Thanks!

    BTW, I found the blog through a post you made on

  6. thanks a lot, what's your username?

  7. wow great really like all your listed albums! one of the best lists i`ve seen in the www

  8. Really good list, don't know a couple of the albums, might have to check them out. :)

    ( username: Nimbuspony)

  9. LOVE this list...since Kid A and The Lonesome Crowded West might be my two favorite albums of all time, I might need to check out some of the others on this list that I haven't heard of. I really like The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place too.

  10. what about...

    - Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
    - Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars - David Bowie
    - Exile on Main St. -Rolling Stones
    - Dark Side of Moon - Pink Floyd
    - Who's Next - The Who
    - Bridge over Troubled Water
    - by Simon and Garfunkel..

    to be completely honest you should've made it 20 best albums released since 1990

  11. bob dylan never captivated me like he did a lot of people - don't get me wrong, i think he's a mad talented guy, but he just never charmed me as much as he did. ziggy stardust was a bit weird, but definitely would make top 25. exile on main st. is a lamentable oversight on my part. as for the pink floyd, read what i said on wish you were here regarding dark side.

    and i admitted it myself at the beginning of the article - i'm biased towards newer music because i'm fairly young. fair point though, i'll take that.

  12. Nice review, nicely done, suprized to read that Bob Dylan dosnt do anything for you, maybe you just need some guidance as to which albums are good starters, like highway 61 revisited, blond on blond, blood on the tracks, another side of bob Dylan(listen to black crow blues, on of my faves)anyways back to the review, i don't know all the artist but it seems you know what your listening to, and that you research the artist,nice review

  13. thank you for your kind words...i will have to check out those dylan albums - i figure everybody else really likes him, so it's got to just be my problem

  14. amazing taste. check out the mars volta de-loused in the comatorium. i'm gonna have to check out a couple albums from this last that i hadn't heard of. i found you through as well. ( username BigChief3000)

  15. haha word? i love mars volta, i think my favorite is frances, but de-loused is legit. cicatriz, roulette dares, drunkship and take the veil are classic

  16. Thanks for this, only just read it, linked by, I'm going to check some of these out! Saw you on the TREOS page.

  17. Also, from previous anon, please add me on, I need friends! :) name: Lillither

  18. i'll definitely add you, and thanks for the comment!

  19. Ha, quite grand. Not just the albums you choose, but also the way you write about them.

    I'm not got list other bands/albums and ask why not them? since that's always too subjective.

    Ok. Well. It's too hard not to... only two!


  20. in the realm of post-rock... where the hell is TORTOISE?! If you haven't heard them... well geez louise [shakes head]

    some more to check out:

    Shellac (At Action Park)
    Slint (Spiderland)
    June of 44 (Tropics and Meridians)
    Mice Parade (Obrigado Saudade)
    Don Caballero (American Don)

  21. "I Hate Your Musical Taste"
    -Me, before seeing your top ten.

    Good job pal.

  22. awesome, awesome, awesome list. love most of the albums on it.. gotta check out the rest. and i totally agree about the subjectivity of EITS being one of the most appealing aspects of their music. good job, man.

  23. Dude, I fucking love your list. Most I find are really lacking in at least one or two departments but yeah, man. I'm bookmarking the shit out of this

  24. you amaze me. love the way you write and almost every album of the list. ohgod. marry me?