Ten years ago Arcade Fire's Funeral was released and in that short time span the album is already considered a classic. What are some of your favorite albums of this past decade? AudioHammock contributor Bryan Kocurek showcases a few of ours.
The Shins - Oh, Inverted World
It is not well-produced or perfectly effective but, man oh man, Oh, Inverted World is something special. It is a signature lo-fi album, a classic of its genre. None of the other Shins albums have been as innocent, humble, or optimistic as Oh, Inverted World. There are various early '90s indie influences tacked on with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys colloquialisms. Add poor production and haze, and you have an album ripe with glorious musical moments, from the guitar strums of "Caring is Creepy" to the guitar build-up on "Pressed in a Book." And, of course, there is "New Slang," the album's centerpiece. It captures the innocence and foreboding that the rest of the album hints at, a song that has always been in our mind but never truly found until now.
I have gone through many musical phases, but Oh, Inverted World has always stayed with me. It does not get by because it's ingenuous or clever; it gets by because at the time of its release, it was fresh, unknowing, and full of optimism and sincerity. That, translated through music, makes Oh Inverted World one of the most endearing albums of the past ten years.
Deerhunter - Microcastle
Band leader Bradford Cox takes the typical adage, pop music = escapism, and elevates it to disturbingly rewarding heights on 2008's Microcastle. The album's characters are trapped by walls of concrete, set aflame by neighborhood punks, or even crucified in front of friends. Of course, these images are easier to swallow because of Deerhunter's knack for melody. Second track "Agoraphobia" is a shiny pearl of indie pop: melancholic lyrics executed with a leisurely vocal line with the forward movement of hazy guitars that always keeps the song on its toes. Each track inhabits a specific space, both a part of its influences and separate. The major highlight of the second side is "Saved By Old Times," a '60s doo-wop number mixed with hazy guitars and Black Lips member Cole Alexander running on about Johnny Cash and halfway houses. "Never Stops" and "Little Kids" are smeared '90s indie rock, but the former rises above its influence with those howling guitars, and the latter drifts into a cathartic vocal line, not out of place on an oldies record. Did Deerhunter have all of this in mind while recording? They're a group of five intelligent musicians who all set out to make a worthwhile, well-crafted album, which makes Microcastle universal. So, maybe.
Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
On Veckatimest, their second album, Grizzly Bear perfected the pop song. The band took their time with Veckatimest, evolving a sound that seemed to come from the center of their past work: classic pop music. Elegant and articulate, the record is as much a vast movement of P-O-P pop music as modern indie rock. Much of the rhythm is taken from jazz, and much of the core instruments are taken from classic folk, yet intricately made '60s vocal melodies and well-built prog-rock sets pop up throughout the album. Opener "Southern Point" is well-made due to its folk and prog-rock transitions, and the purity of "Two Weeks" surely comes from the contrast between the glorious vocal line and that thick, meaty guitar at the other end. So, the power of the album is secured by the quality of careful attentiveness to detail, because few other 4-piece bands can create something so whole with as many patches of genres and ideas. With its 12 songs, Veckatimest becomes a detailed work of art that will be admired for years to come.
M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts
M83's Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts is the most majestic album. The electronic sounds create cathedrals of spaces to inhabit, mountains to climb, and even fields to explore (try "On A White Lake, Near a Green Mountain"). It could easily serve as a near perfect documentation of life and emotion through electronic music. "America" uses sampled voices and adds cascades of keyboard, programmed beats, and synthesizers, and it seems like those voices, those people are fighting through the noise, perhaps speaking through it. "Noise" is a behemoth of guitar, organ, and synthesizers, pushing the listener to crazy heights of space and sound. It is a privilege to listen to this album because it has such a grasp on human emotion even through technological means. What you are listening to on this album is nothing short of a machine trying to understand how to feel, how to know human emotion. Personally, no other electronic album was as cathartic as this.
Broken Social Scene: - You Forgot It In People
More than calling You Forgot It In People a pop classic, it has worth that makes it much more significant. The title suggests that we live in a society that has been progressively turning into something resembling apathetic mongers of terror and technology, yet there are times when we find people who are filled with hope, we find places that believe in redemption. Ultimately, the album is sunshine in darkness; it is telling us that there is still happiness out in the world. The whole thing sounds corny, but the music speaks towards that sentiment. "Stars & Sons" shimmers, and "Looks Just Like The Sun" is just that, a slice of sunny folk pop with angelic backing vocals, and "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl" is as naive as it is wise. There are multiple genre jumps but the optimism plays over perfectly because of the band's execution. You Forgot It In People is Broken Social Scene's breakthrough, a perfect bit of modern pop music from 18 musicians, and a testament to the LP format. Albums are supposed to be this cohesive, this intricate, this enjoyable, an earmark for any other independent release this past decade.
Interpol - Turn On the Bright Lights
Turn on the Bright Lights is the great rock album of the decade. Forget about all of the mainstream guitar albums of the last ten years, forget about the majority of guitar-based indie rock, and forget about pretty much every modern post-punk guitar record. Turn on the Bright Lights is a case for the overwhelming possibilities that post-punk can succeed at on the music scene. Album opener "Untitled" already finds Interpol with their signature sound, glacial guitars and monster bass, and "Obstacle 1" is a beast of layered guitars and rhythmic virtuosity. "PDA" is dark and gothic, "Hands Away" is a genuine rock ballad, and "Roland" is as punk as Interpol will ever sound with its kitchen sink production and blurry vocals. Lyrically, Turn on the Bright Lights is as clever and witty as its musical background. Hearing these parts coalesce is like watching a glacier slide down a mountain in slow motion: peaceful, frightening, sublime. Treat yourself to Turn on the Bright Lights and you will soon realize that few other guitar records matter. Guaranteed.
The Strokes - Is This It?
Is This It? is still as breathtaking as it was almost ten years ago. The bass line in the album opener is more hummable than most released this side of the decade, and the cheeriness of the guitars in "The Modern Age" and "Someday" only rival that of the influences The Strokes were referencing. Now after this release other bands tried to copy The Strokes, trying to rival either their skill or its pop immediacy, but none of them succeeded (including The Strokes themselves). There is nothing quite like Is This It?. From the swagger of the album opener to the melodic variation of "Trying Your Luck," Is This It? made rock inhabitable, a place of hyperconsciousness where it can reference the past and pave the way for what's to come all in one song. Is This It? used to live in the shadow of its influences, but these many years later, it is something entirely original, an influence itself. Thank God Is This It? was overhyped because no other guitar record this decade deserved it more.
Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
It is easy to call Agaetis Byrjun an enigma, a puzzle of an album that is at once complex and glorifying. It does not just transcend genres; Agaetis Byrjun pushes forward and creates something singular. Each song is expansive yet intricate, slowly building to what seems like an earth-shattering climax. Take "Ny Battery," the album's center. An intimate number with droned-out guitar chords, feedback, and Jonsi's intimate voice, it lays still for the first five minutes, and then spends its last moments with crashing drums and glacial guitars as Jonsi belts his way through the chaos. "Olsen Olsen" is one of the greatest rock songs ever to be recorded, and "Hjartao Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)" is as much jazz as post-rock, and probably the fastest song on the album, which isn't saying much. You are guaranteed to never listen to anything like Agaetis Byrjun, and I cannot help but think that its singularity comes from a higher place than creativity and craft. I listened to album closer "Avalon" six times in a row one evening, eyes closed. As corny as it sounds, the long, muted organ lines felt reverent; a release more than an escape. The album trumps almost everything that came after it because if in the right mood and place, this music can be life-changing, and what can be more satisfying than that?
Radiohead: - Kid A
It almost feels like a disservice talking about Kid A since it has been discussed so much this decade. And, to be honest, I cannot really explain why Kid A is not only one of the best records of the decade, but also one of the best all time. I can say "Well, man, it's Radiohead" and only a handful of people would understand me. I could write about its complexities, its production, and its impact on the music industry, but if you know anything about Radiohead or Kid A, there's no need. The album's emotional payload is entirely serendipitous; the right album at the right time. The haunting textures of "Everything In Its Right Place" is a perfect opener, the dissonant horns of "National Anthem" still floors after dozens of listens, and the melancholy guitar and abundant strings of "How to Disappear Completely" will always tear me up.
I guess I can only talk about Kid A on my terms. All 10 songs, perfectly sequenced, are very personal. I listened to this album constantly, such as flying over New York, driving in the car, staying up late on the roof. I do not want to contort the album's sound and execution with overblown adjectives and phrases; it speaks on its own. All I can say is: I have been a part of music that has changed me, I have listened to music that has changed me, but no other album in memory does so with every listen.
Arcade Fire - Funeral
There will be no other album like Funeral. Since its release, music has gone viral and the album format has dwindled. Artists throw albums together, package the singles, and release it in grotesque fashion. Funeral is not grotesque; it is an elegant testament to the power of the album, from its universal beginnings ("Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)") to its nerve-shattering end ("In the Backseat"). And in between those two songs contain eight of just a few of the most emotionally gratifying songs ever to be recorded. Well, Funeral is not entirely original with its discordant guitars, strings, and brass, but when did an album need to be original to be loved by fans? The parts are not as important as the sum.
The circumstances of the emotions on Funeral are what separate it from the hundreds of releases that came after it. Family members of various band mates passed away and were buried. Funeral is not just a testament to the album, it also serves as a fitting memorial to those deaths; a celebration of life in the face of death. Funeral is about understanding your place in the world, whether it is imagining a couple living in a cave of snow, living in darkness, or escaping a war-torn country. These songs are not loved because of a simple connection to the lyrics and its musical progressions; it is loved because listeners sense a greater power. No, it is not God. It is unexplained, unknown to me currently. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" made me cry on first listen, and to this day saying it is the simple use of a crescendo feels like an understatement. It is that unknown feeling that makes all 10 songs so replayable.