Sometimes I wish every band would be like Andrew W.K. (who is crazy in a good way) but more often than not bands end up having a Tim Kasher (who a lot of times seems crazy in a bad way). Still, you can’t argue with results. The Ugly Organ almost completely abandons what Cursive did on Domestica, which was a complex, multi-layered indie album rife with aggressive post-hardcore moments to mirror its relatively simple story perfectly – a man and his wife on the road to divorce. Instead, The Ugly Organ throws much more into the mix, including Pinocchio and lyrics where Kasher actually refers to himself as opposed to a doppelganger. There are strings and hopefulness aplenty, and I would say that the end of “A Gentlemen Caller” is the most inspiring thing ever if “Staying Alive” didn’t sit at the end of the album like the Incredible Hulk about to tie helicopters into pretzels with its message of holding on. Overall, while Domestica might be a better musical statement, The Ugly Organ offers more of everything and also it won’t depress the hell out of you. – Channing Freeman
It is hard for me to define exactly why I disagree with the Tool haters, why I do not find Lateralus to be a heaping pile of pretentiousness, and why I find it a masterful work of music. I mean, in the title track, Maynard James Keenan writes the syllables of his lyrics in the Fibonacci sequence. The lyrics of the whole album are shrouded in code and extended metaphor. The time signatures in “Schism” just aren’t natural; one could say it is complex for the sake of being complex.
But Tool just does it all so well. Despite the high concept, elitist tone of the album, everything works. And when it comes to their particular style, no one in the first decade of the 21st century comes even close to their level of excellence on Lateralus, not even themselves. 10,000 Days drops off after the first half of the album into exactly what Lateralus should have been–overthought and pointlessly pretentious music. Lateralus works because of that growth from “Parabol” into “Parabola”, where the music truly fits the concept. Because “The Grudge” kicks so much *** on its own. Because despite the extended length, high concept, and complexity, Tool maintain a sense of direction throughout Lateralus, an achievement to be recognized at the highest level. – Tyler Fisher
I think What We Must would have still made the decade’s list if the entire album were only that moment in “All I Know Is Tonight” when the simple 4-note trumpet melody soars over the ensemble. The moment is one of glorious catharsis that, instead of giving the listener chills, forces the listener to sit back and look again at his or her surroundings. The song falls into this place of serenity rather than rising to it, from the cascading synth riff that seemingly comes out of nowhere into the farthest depths of Jaga Jazzist’s many, varied tone colors.
Luckily, the rest of What We Must does not disappoint. Norway’s Jaga Jazzist had been, for years, experimenting with jazz and electronica as forerunners of the Scandinavian nu-jazz scene. What We Must transformed the group into something else entirely. The jazz was still there, if only in the saxophone, trombone, clarinet, and trumpet melodies that float throughout the album; however, the album introduced different song structures, an increased use of guitar, and heavier live percussion to create a fantastic post-rock album unlike any other. It’s the presentation of memorable melody in the context of powerful harmonic progressions and a sense of direction. It’s the combination of simplicity and virtuosity. And it truly sounds like the album title; Jaga Jazzist plays with such conviction that it seems they had to record this album. The melodies pour out of the instruments; they must pour of the instruments. – Tyler Fisher
Instrumental hip hop is a difficult genre to excel in. The subgenre’s core differentiator from its parent genre is the absence of vocals, which is a cornerstone of hip hop and the primary driver of the genre’s personality and emotional relevance. Therefore crafting a moving and distinct track is that much more difficult and elegant. On top of this axiomatic conceit, fans of the subgenre, both casual and extreme, typically regard DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and J Dilla’s Donuts as touchstone releases, often to a fault. These albums are so ubiquitously appreciated that any entrant to the genre will invariably be compared to these albums and ruled out if too similar or dissimilar in sound.
Blue Sky Black Death’s 2008 album Late Night Cinema is remarkable because it blazes past both of these petty concerns without thinking twice. The album is endlessly evocative and lyrical thanks to detailed and varied production that taps into a bottomless collection of smooth trumpets, fluttering violins, soulful vocal samples, and thick, awe-inspiring beats. Late Night Cinema also carves out a compelling niche within the subgenre that sits close to the dark, brooding Endtroducing, but clearly differentiates itself by being vastly more dense and detailed and embracing post-rock’s affinity for transcendent crescendos. – Nick Greer
Listening to the Game and Young Jeezy brag about their cocaine exploits every day on the radio back in 2006 was a tiring proposition, and one that dragged my already low expectations for drug rap even further into the dirt. I was shocked, then, at just how damn good Hell Hath No Fury turned out, an album that showed how even the most contrived of genres could be made into something unrelentingly harsh and real, like a crime-scene photograph. And that’s just what the brothers Thornton did on this, their long-delayed second album: make a record that shows the dark underbelly of coke and the attendant lifestyle, graphic and unflinching in its portrayal but realistic as well, something its more popular purveyors sorely lacked. Malice may glorify the trade on “Keys Open Doors” when he raps “gemstar razor, the fruit of my labor / and I walk with a glow, it’s like the Lord’s shown favor,” but there’s always a faint tinge of disgust, like Malice and Pusha T do it because they have to, not because they want to. It’s this gift to transform an admittedly one-dimensional concept into such a multifaceted album that is Hell Hath No Fury’s greatest feat, from the double-sided “Momma I’m So Sorry” to the venomous “Mr. Me Too” to the ironically vapid “Dirty Money.” And that’s not even mentioning twelve of the best productions the Neptunes have ever served up, right before Pharrell got too full of himself and Chad Hugo disappeared – minimalist, innovative, and perhaps the best top-to-bottom effort the duo has ever laid down. Jeezy can have the radio – Clipse can rest easy knowing they’ve already made it to the top of the game. – Rudy Klapper
Mark Kozelek could have my babies. Seriously; dude is mad skilled. The knock on him is that he does the same thing with every album; that he does little to deviate from the slow, brooding folk-rock that he established with Down Colorful Hill and perfected with Red House Painters I. But these people act like this is a bad thing: Kozelek stumbled onto a sound that perfectly encapsulates his bleak tales of lost love, drugs, and dusty nostalgia. Which is nice and all, but what made RHP such a great band was that Kozelek’s songs weren’t just pity parties. Kozelek sang and wrote with such an empathy that made his songs very listener-friendly, despite however long and unwieldy they may have gotten.
But Ghost of the Great Highway isn’t like that. Kozelek may dismiss the moniker shift as little more than attention-getting, but there is a serious change in sound and approach here. For one, Kozelek has eased up on only writing about himself. Songs like “Glenn Tipton”, which chronicles a murderer’s feelings from an unnervingly and disturbingly understanding point of view, and the epic “Duk Koo Kim”, which should go on Kozelek’s epitaph as the greatest thing he ever did, are focused on completely different protagonists than you or me or Kozelek are used to. But yet Kozelek’s humane touch makes these characters as easy to identify with as was when Kozelek wrote about himself. Also, Ghosts of the Great Highway is definitely an album not of the modern age, unlike the RHP albums. The dusty, breezy feel of the songs here thematically recalls what I get when I read Steinbeck or watch an early Terrence Malick movie; that kind of bright, wide-eyed sort of Western feel of nostalgia and hope and infinite possibilities lies within Ghosts of the Great Highway’s framework. Considering this is 2010, it’s amazing that a record can conjure such images that are so, so completely gone, never to be felt again, as sad as that is. - Cam
Donuts is a swan song – a complete breakdown of a man’s career through borrowed samples and chopped drums. The stories of how Jay Dee composed portions of this record in his deathbed have become that of urban legend; those close to him have recently said that Dilla simply mixed the record from his bed, but while the reality will probably never be fully explained, what doesn’t need to be fully explained is the strength of this record. Overwhelming and tough to swallow at first, this record requires repeat listens to grasp the full concept. Dilla was the master of sequencing and this is the masterpiece of his work. It may not be my favorite record that he was associated with and it may also not be his perceived best, but in terms of artistic statements this is one of the classics in the hip-hop genre; beat tapes have been released before but never with such compassion (is this the right word?). Telling are the responses of Dilla’s contemporaries to this record as many see it as a eulogy or a farewell letter to them, as numerous tracks reference leaving and death all in a sorrowful manner. Singling out specific tracks is pointless, this is a complete statement and in terms of instrumental hip-hop probably the most complete statement released in the decade. Jay Dee is hip-hop’s main casualty in the past ten years and his influence on the genre will stretch into the unforeseeable future. The one thing we can be happy about is that he left us with records as good as these. – Jared W. Dillon
Whenever I think of the perfect album, blink-182’s self-titled record comes to mind before anything else. I would say it’s also the most surprising album I’ve heard, but in the context that I heard it (a thirteen year old who was just starting to get into music), I had no point of reference to consider it a surprise. So perfect it was and perfect it remains, and it’s not even really surprising that it has stood up as well as it has the past seven years. It didn’t come out of left field as much as some people like to think – Tom Delonge’s work in Box Car Racer was a huge precursor – but it still made their haters hate them even more, and even some of the band’s die-hard fans hated them for it as well, protesting the lack of “fun” and displaying their own unwillingness to move on from adolescence. blink-182 didn’t miss them. While romping tracks like “Feeling This” and “Always” hearken back to their older days, it’s songs like “Obvious” and “Violence” that really shine with fantastic songwriting and dark atmosphere. While Mark Hoppus took a vocal backseat (to the chagrin of fans), Tom Delonge proved that he was pretty damn amazing before he went batshit insane, as most of the unique ideas on the album came from him. Can we really blame him for letting that go to his head a bit? – Channing Freeman
You want to know how good this album is? Just look at Interpol’s career after its release: two records of middling-to-poor quality and a ludicrous album from Paul Banks have left the band with its tail between its legs and promises that its fourth album will return to the masterful sound of Turn On the Bright Lights. Not many albums loom over entire careers as grandly as Turn On the Bright Lights does to Interpol’s, but that’s precisely why it’s something to be so treasured. It’s practically a fluke, an album whose genius seems accidental. After all, how often does something so ominous and so heavily indebted to Joy Division get away with a lyric like “My best friend’s from Poland, and um, he has a beard”? Practically never, and yet Interpol conjured up an atmosphere so unrelentingly dark and dreamy on Bright Lights that Paul Banks could pretty much bleat whatever he wanted (an allowance he took full advantage of), and it would work.
But what separates Turn On the Bright Lights from other Interpol albums and the massive wave of post punk revivalist records it inspired is its unwavering character. Yes, it’s quirky, and yes it owes Ian Curtis a free dinner, but all the flaws that would plague Interpol’s subsequent albums are masterfully blended into a dark and hypnotic hour packed with killer tunes and bass lines that have made Carlos D’s extra-Interpol career. Go track by track and just try to find a duffer in these eleven songs. It cannot be done; Turn On the Bright Lights is one of the closest things to flawless we’ve seen this decade. The shimmering intro of “Untitled,” the drum-vocal breakdown of “Obstacle 1,” the entirety of “Stella was a Diver and She’s Always Down”… these are moments whose brilliance Interpol have been trying to recapture for years. That they’ve not even come close adds to Turn On the Bright Lights‘ allure; hanging over the whole project is the knowledge that, in all probability, we’ll never hear anything quite like this again. – Adam Downer
Daft Punk have long been credited with jumpstarting the whole electro/house scene that so dominated the latter half of this past decade, but the record that vaulted the French duo to prominence actually bears very little similarity to the monster it helped create. It’s a homage, a salute to the glory days of dance: namely, disco, funk, and all manner of filthy bass lines that helped the coked-out masses get down when Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter were but wee Parisian lads. Sure, there was some crossover material here, much of it (like the brilliant “Harder Better Faster Stronger”) largely responsible for Daft Punk’s explosion in popularity, but for the most part this is cheesy, shameless instrumentals with tongue firmly planted in cheek and ass constantly shaking. But it’s faithful rather than cloying, worshipful rather than mocking, and, most important of all, wastes nary a note. Who knew disco would start one of the biggest revivals of the new decade? – Rudy Klapper
Though they may have been usurped as the archetype for European screamo by fellow Frenchies Sed Non Satiata, Daitro have something their ex-splitmates (not to mention just about everybody else in the genre) have yet to obtain: a landmark record. While many won’t consider Laisser Vivres the best skramz album released this past decade with unique standards such as d0cument #8 and As the Roots Undo looming so prevalently, Laisser Vivres might be the most technically perfect. It’s an outline, an example of just exactly how to make a record of this nature, perfecting the loud-soft-loud dynamic while supplying the pathos to legitimize its melodramatically post-rock tendencies. But most importantly, it fucking kills. A barrage of power chords and crash cymbals, Laisser Vivres is an assault, mixing everything together at max volume to form a violent, cagey atmosphere not dissimilar to other, Kurt Ballou produced Sputnik favorites. It helps that the screamer cuts through all this chaos with the passion to match it. It helps that his screams are in French. It doesn’t matter that few of us actually understand what he’s saying- we can project our own emotion onto this gem. And even though the followup, Y, seemed to signify the rejection of the genre Daitro helped perfect, Laisser Vivres stands as the prime example of post-rock tinged emo, and is one of if not the benchmark by which so many similarly presented records of the past five years have been measured against. – Adam Downer
The capacity of human intelligence seems to limit the capabilities to expand upon any possible creative aptitudes. Indeed, if one cannot even notice the facets that the ingenuities around him are comprised of, how can he be expected to fashion a beast of his own? This inveterate sense of constraint is a great blow to the veracity of mankind’s abilities. It restrains us and holds our minds to the ground below, averting any possibility of rising above ourselves to something greater; something not fathomed by the conventional mind. This concept of seeking to go beyond one’s self, known as “transcendence”, is essentially a gateway to unlocking pieces of ourselves that can lead to some of the most elaborate and significant creations of our world. For many, this quest to transcend and form creations that were once considered unthinkable and overwhelming consumes life. Certainly it is rare to find such people, but when they are found, creative barriers are destroyed.
No, but seriously.
As far as Opeth albums go, Blackwater Park might not be their darkest (My Arms, Your Hearse) or heaviest album (Deliverance). It’s certainly not their most unique work (Damnation) and it’s probably not their most ambitious, either (Still Life). And yet it somehow remains all but their unanimous favourite and the undeniable peak of their iconic, unmistakable sound. Blackwater Park is the culmination of all that comes before it; it is their most cohesive work and very likely their best. While their earlier works might draw allegiances to certain tracks or sounds, no album unifies each as coherently as this. Perhaps the brightest indication of just how brilliant of an album Blackwater Park is would be how fluently it unfolds over its daunting 67 minute run-time.
Opening with its two strongest tracks, Blackwater Park risks overwhelming its listeners too soon, but by enlisting “The Leper Affinity”’s growing tension and varying timbers alongside “Bleak”’s hyper-melodic chorus and foreign guitar-flair the band instead ensures the full attention of its audience for the remaining six tracks. Whether it’s the disparate nature of “The Drapery Falls” and its demonic, atonal mid-point or the title tracks almost Southern emphasis on overpowering guitars, Opeth’s separates its dark and light sides by bridging the two using frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s vocal prowess, his inquisitive, soothing clean vocals and enuncianted, overpowering growls acting as a barometer of both the album’s musical dynamics and masterful presence. – Tyler Munro
The ambition, the scope, and the diversity of this project is there for all to be seen, but here’s something else that might drill home what makes The Alchemy Index so special – the staffer that’s stepped up to gush about how brilliant this album is doesn’t even like Thrice. I think it’s great that they’re so popular on Sputnik among both users and staffers – God knows there isn’t enough music we all agree on – but I have never really seen the appeal of The Artist in the Ambulance, found Vheissu pretty boring, and though Beggars was a deeply disappointing regression. And yet, here I am, loving every minute of The Alchemy Index so much that I’m not only agreeing with its lofty placement here, I’m wondering whether it should be even higher.
That’s the thing with The Alchemy Index – it undeniably feels like a meisterwerk, a moment of real, enduring greatness. Maybe it’s “Broken Lungs” that does it, by dealing with the events of 9/11 in a way so eloquent and so tender that it almost seems to stop time. Maybe it’s “Come All You Weary”, a song so far removed from every previous Thrice album that its quality makes absolutely no sense, and seems all the more impressive for it. Maybe it’s “Digital Sea”, a track that manages to feel like something that could flatten a whole town while still sounding like Sigur Ros. Or maybe it’s just the way that the band manage to take on four radically different without ever faltering, and without ever losing their identity. Whether it’s the raging, metallic Fire or the homely, intimate Earth, the breadth of mood and feeling this album hits upon is absolutely staggering. It must have been absolutely exhausting to write this album, but every second was worth it. – Nick Butler
Admittedly, Thrice’s early sound was a bit raw and undeveloped, especially in comparison to much of their later work. But what The Illusion of Safety lacked in terms of development, it makes up for it through its youthful exuberance. A number of things came together to make Thrice’s sophomore effort such a force (and certainly among their best), but its infectious energy is more or less what got me listening to Thrice in the first place. It’s an intense listen, but not overly so; technical musicianship and harsh shouting gives way to the melodic singing styles and riffing that hankers back to heavier pop punk acts. Thrice often blurs the line between the styles they employ, though on occasion they’ll swing in favour of one or the other, such as in the restrained, yet powerful closer, “The Beltsville Crucible”. And while The Illusion of Safety may lack the maturity of The Alchemy Index or even The Artist in the Ambulance, it’s a blistering effort that is a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. – Mike Stagno
Were Alligator only successful for its blend of dynamic pop structures with classical orchestrations and its brash Americana roots, there is no doubt the National’s seminal fan favorite would have made many decade lists. What pushes it even further (and played a major factor in Alligator’s status as something of an enigma upon its release and why it gathered steam as a deserved cult classic) is the baritone that fills Alligator’s pulpy narrative with morose sentiments on middle-class America. MVP award goes to drummer Bryan Devendorf (there’s really no overvaluing the guy, he’s just splendid) but it is lead singer Matt Berninger that wrings out the most highlights with his alternately daft and plaintive one-liners, many drawn from real-life experiences. Berninger isn’t afraid to appear ugly for his art (“It’s a common fetish for the doting man…” begins one particularly incriminating passage) and it is that sense of vulnerability that brings this perfectly calibrated rock record full circle, a true product and illustration of the underdog story that we so adore and that the National so easily transcend. – Lewis P.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a musically-inclined teenager who not only hasn’t heard a Say Anything song, but also wouldn’t cite Max Bemis as an influence on their lives. So sometimes it is easy to forget that before …Is A Real Boy, released only six years ago, Say Anything were relative unknowns. Max Bemis was a nobody, writing punk rock songs only nobodies could write. Brutally honest, savagely hormonal, unashamedly shaming and angry as hell, Bemis captured the flames of a fire that roared inside every emotionally conflicted, secretly screaming public school loser (guilty) and set them to a hungry tank of gasoline. With no one appearing to care for what he had to say, Bemis let it all hang out, and, in doing so, became the spokesperson for his generation. Fortunately, his lyrical talent for a then 20-year-old was devastatingly good, with a tongue spiked so sharp it would burst egos faster than eardrums. Suffering from bi-polar disorder at the time, and combating an addiction to marijuana, the thirteen tracks on …Is A Real Boy may seem messy, sprawling, discordant and over-long, but, individually and as a unit, they somehow pull together with an uplifting level of purpose, direction, focus and belief. Whilst some may claim that Bemis has become a part of the music scene he was so disillusioned by six years ago, there can be no argument that Say Anything’s true debut is a triumphant and inspiring middle finger to the scene, the source, and the spirographed sense of self that resonates in adolescents and adults alike across the globe. Say Anything created an army with this album of anthems. Take them on at your peril. – Matt Wolfe
It says a lot about Cynic that in the fifteen year gap between their two albums, not a single band came even remotely close to challenging or threatening their sound. Of course there were imitators, with Neglected Fields coming the closest to success, but as Traced in Air, the band is without contemporaries. What’s more impressive is that the sound they trademarked fifteen years prior sounds as fresh and ageless as ever. With only the slightest tweaks—the synthesized vocals have been toned down and the band has stripped their sound of its final death metal remnants—Cynic has managed to continue their legacy as if they’d never left. The result is quite possibly the most ethereal metal album ever released. Traced in Air’s free-flowing structure allows the album to unfold at its own pace, and while new recruit Tymon occasionally chimes in with unintelligible growls, there’s really nothing threatening about the album, which gives it the freedom to evolve at its own pace. More impressive is that the album’s calmness translates to the band’s virtuosic instrumental abilities: they can play, and they make no efforts to hide that fact, but it never overpowers the music. – Tyler Munro
Joanna Newsom’s has drawn praise and ire from music communities, like that of the Marxist clash between the proletariats and the bourgeoisie, the haves and the have-nots. Expanding on that thought without a condescending tone, the bourgeoisie were known to have inherited wealth and be among the upper class, and with Newsom it’s simply acquiring her soaring, squeaking story-telling voice. Meanwhile, the proletariats feel undermined, living in poverty, only knowing and appreciating contrive working tasks, like those who may not appreciate the intricacies of Newsom’s dramatic tendencies.
Her 2006 release Ys moves gracefully from track-to-track, with the whimsical nature of Newsom’s harp providing a beautiful soundscape. With Ys, there are hardly moments that can be taken out of context, as each song is slowly creating a massive piece of art, like that of classical composition, but in the form of freak-folk, such found in “Only Skin” which climaxes with such unbridled enthusiasm. The subtle transitions coupled with changing tempos within songs like “Cosmia” and “Emily” add to the mystique behind her work. The bottom line is Ys is as captivating for its place in this past decade’s music as it is important, stemming from Newsom’s daring, passionate, and powerful demeanor; it certainly does not take a bourgeoisie or proletariat to realize that. – Ryan Flatley
Would you believe that when we were negotiating and divvying up the soundoffs for this feature that no one wanted to do maudlin of the Well’s seminal album, Bath? Seriously, of the three albums that went unclaimed after the initial scramble, I was most surprised to see Toby Driver’s most Sputnik-beloved album sitting without a name next to it. This is one of this website’s favorite albums, a universally praised, nearly unchallenged masterpiece that undoubtedly needed a place on a list such as this. After volunteering to pick up Bath- it is, after all, one of my favorite records- I now suspect that no one wanted the responsibility of writing a Bath soundoff because, well, it’s kind of one of those albums that’s really difficult to talk about without sounding like a total toolbag.
If post-rock albums force reviewers to become ridiculous poets heavy on nature imagery, Toby Driver albums force reviewers to become tennis playing, polysyllabic jargon using supermods with more power than anyone realizes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; to explain the awesome uniqueness of the material here, one has to have some idea of just exactly what the fuck Driver’s doing. Bath, though more metal based than Driver’s later, more orchestral Kayo Dot works, is no less technically impressive or masterfully crafted than, say, Choirs of the Eye. In fact, looking at Driver’s career arc, the peak he achieves with Bath and Choirs of the Eye is indicative of his strengths as a composer; in both records, Driver uses metal not as a crutch or a tool to show off his band’s musical ability, but as a compositional tool, a way to attack a greater concept. Take, for example, the double-bass chugging in “The Ferryman” or the (I’ll just say it) Cookie Monster-esque growls in “They Aren’t All Beautiful”- both employ cliches bound to metal, but are surrounded by parts that make the contextual significance of these passages massive. Bath weaves seamlessly between post rock, pastoral folk, demonic metal, and jazz, but there’s never confusion or a misplaced influence. Even the saxophone breakdown in “They Aren’t All Beautiful” is one of the most badass moments of the late decade, and the incredibly nuanced, gorgeous, furious, heartbreaking Bath one of the most badass albums. And this isn’t even Toby Driver’s best stuff. – Adam Downer
“Cause all this time you’ve been searching for something real,” Modern Life is War’s Jeffrey Eaton screams on “Outsiders”, the first track of Witness. For myself and many others, that one line perfectly described our experiences with more traditional forms of hardcore before we discovered Witness. That’s, of course, not to say that Witness was the only ‘real’ hardcore punk record of the decade, but it was almost certainly the best. Coming out of blue collar Iowa, Eaton’s lyrics were some of the best ever written in hardcore, and his painfully honest delivery only enhanced their impact. Eaton’s presence conveyed such a tangible sense of place and so perfectly captured a sense of human struggle that few songwriters since Bruce Springsteen have managed. Musically, the band eschewed hardcore cliché by slowing down considerably, focusing on melody and harmony, and not playing a single breakdown. But what is most wonderful about Witness is its sincerity, which is apparent for every second of the album’s 27 minute playing time. This, its unrelenting intensity, and its no-bullpoop attitude make Witness the best straight-up hardcore record of the decade. – Andrew Hartwig