Best Albums of 2000-2009 (#40-#31)

40. Okkervil River – The Stage Names
(Jagjaguwar, 2007)

An incredible tour de force – expressively and musically – Okkervil River’s fourth album is still their most overwhelmingly emotional work. Borrowing from themes that encompass everything from television, film and being a rock band, The Stage Names combines all of these subjects into a whirlwind of masterful music.

You see, that hand on the cover – grasping for life – was never more appropriate. Reaching, trying and ultimately failing is just one of the small themes covered on The Stage Names but this time, it’s all about taking that failure and rolling it into a positive. Realizing your dreams were possible never felt more real than it does now: the superb hand claps and twangy guitar on “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” the lovely sadness of “A Girl in Port” and the entrance into death from a torrid life of “John Allyn Smith Sails” are a few of the enormous reasons why this is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of music that makes you feel like your alive all over again, the kind that will shake to the very core and furthermore, the kind of music that can bring you out of the darkly dangerous abyss and back to the foreground, where it’s music can soothe over you like a gentle hand. – Bryan Sanchez

39. The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas
(Emperor Jones, 2002)

Any of the 14 tracks on this record could be given a full-length novel adaptation (and, probably, film adaptation of said novel); there’s simply so much here! John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats, doesn’t write songs so much as loose musical character portraits – as the album art states, All Hail West Texas is “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.”

Some tracks chronicle ambition, others detail desperate lives, but, at the core of the album, is a plainly human direction, full of freedom, flaws, and fuck-ups. All this is aided by the austere recording conditions for which Darnielle is now known: just an acoustic guitar and a janky Panasonic boom box that hums alongside John’s own uneasy warble. What is known as lo-fi nowadays is little more than the sounds of not trying as articulated by those consciously trying to not try, but this record alone is nearly enough to redeem the genre label. – Jacob Price

38. Wilco – A Ghost is Born
(Nonesuch, 2004)

For some, A Ghost is Born could never live up to the luster and grace of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. However, far more experimental than even that aforementioned album was, the album’s noticeable greatness comes from all over and never lets down. After much pressure from producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke to sharpen his guitar skills, Jeff Tweedy played lead guitar for the first time in Wilco’s career and the results paid off in dividends. Channeling Neil Young and Television, it’s still just as good as anything they’ve ever done.

The intensified amount of bliss that prevails on A Ghost is Born is caused by many changes that occurred during its recording. There was the attraction of new production techniques, Tweedy’s drug problems and the exploration of new sounds that inevitably created what Tweedy dubbed as the song “99% of Wilco fans will hate,” with “Less Than You Think.” Ultimately, these challenges win out with an album that’s sprawling with heartfelt lyrical material, diverse music and an undisputable air of brilliant musicianship. It was a transitional period that we’ll never see Wilco return to but while they were here, it was nothing but gold. – Bryan Sanchez

37. The Decemberists – Picaresque
(Kill Rock Stars, 2005)

Before The Decemberists made their way onto a major label, their growth and maturation as a band was beginning to spill over like a boiling pot of water. Fittingly so, themes of water – lost at sea, sailors’ tales, the whale and the harpoon – are what decoratively make their last album for Kill Rock Stars, Picaresque, an album of epic proportions. After modest success with their first two features, all of their strengths were put on display for a revealing look at what indie rock concept albums are capable of: excellent deliveries, intertwining stories and unforgettable moments.

For many, it placed their sound into a new spell of beauty and luster and while Colin Meloy was still singing about love songs of despair on one end and about love songs of happiness on the other, Picaresque was always about the affecting touch of music. Sustained and prolonged, the album’s music seamlessly flows: the perfect chamber pop is noticed, the study of the song suite is felt and Meloy sings “How we kissed so sweetly, how could I refuse a favor two?” The same can be asked of us, how could we refuse more and more of the same? – Bryan Sanchez

36. Animal Collective – Feels
(FatCat, 2005)

Sung Tongs was Animal Collective’s breakthrough and instead of hinging on their big success, they stayed true to themselves and warped into another shape entirely. The end result was a hypnotic concoction that again reinvented the aesthetic of Animal Collective. Feels swapped out Sung Tongs’ acoustic guitars for electrics and dosed them with copious amounts of affected sounds. Avey Tare and Deakin would caress the woozy noise, while Panda Bear’s percussion would be simple in equipment but timely in execution.

Sometimes the music felt jellyboned, sometimes piercing but it never lacked in the way of engaging. “Grass,” “Purple Bottle,” and “Banshee Beat” made one wonder what exactly a pop song could be, while “Loch Raven” and “Bees” lured off into a sleepy world. Avey Tare’s customary unique melodic sense came full circle on Feels, making the album a collection of the strangest sing-alongs anyone could imagine. Who couldn’t help but to jump around when he started screaming the chorus of “Grass?” It was the follow up album that made it clear that Animal Collective was for real and they were radiating with brilliance. – Bradley Hartsell

35. The NotwistNeon Golden
(Virgin/Domino, 2002/2003)

When The Notwist showed back up on the scene just after the turn of the decade, it immediately set itself apart from other post-millennial song-based electronic artists. Whereas Kid A buried its soul behind sound-bitten obfuscations, Vespertine gave voice to a twinkling fantasy world, and Give Up escaped into preciously blippy domesticities, Neon Golden sounded clear, transparent, and grounded with nothing to hide. As minimalistic and alien as the synthetic kitchen-sink arrangements sound, the result is the opposite of alienating.

Like E.T.’s thin skin, there is a warm heart glowing through Neon Golden at all times, communicated with subtlety through Markus Archer’s delicate, soft-spoken vocals and simple lyrics about the psychic weight of mundanities. Incorporating many styles (jazz, dub, dream pop, banjo blues, and orchestral pop) but maintaining a unified introspective and mournful esthetic, the album plays out more in frustration than self-pity, seeking connections and searching for beauty amidst the schizophrenic discontinuity of the magically technological and hyper-mediated new digital modernity. Like the best artists, they don’t just locate beauty in all of this – they also salvage through the pieces and create it themselves. – Greg Argo

34. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(Glass Note/V2 Records, 2009)

Phoenix always knew how to write the rapturously magnetic pop hit. Their other landmark album, It’s Never Been Like That, was filled – from the top to the bottom – with great song after great song. The largest difference between that album and 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was just how precisely accurate they became and in that same vein, their capability at adding depth and dimension was paramount to their success. Now, when you’re able to do that and make it all seem effortlessly easy, then you know you’re really onto something.

Just a few years ago, Phoenix was still trying to break free onto a world that could accept them. They’d already fine tuned their craft and now were just waiting for a couple of smooth transitions to break onto the scene. Fashionably poppy, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is catchy and hook-laden with melody after melody of radiance and even more impressively, it features a song suite in “Love Like a Sunset” that covers instrumental landscapes of exceptional wonderment. Somewhere along the way, everyone caught on and it couldn’t have come at a better time because ridiculously well overdue, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is chock full of stunningly fantastic music. – Bryan Sanchez

33. Spoon – Gimme Fiction
(Merge, 2005)

Consistent, constant and reliable are words that many usually use to describe Spoon’s music but one that they often forget is: great. They’re not the kind of band that will win you over with grand arrangements and in fact, they relish the opportunity of tackling with directly fantastic music with a small twist here and there. “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” is all about what Spoon is: clashing drums, a melodically distinct guitar line and Brit Daniel’s snarky lyrics. Only this time, they welcomed the sound of booming, atmospheric modifications that once again, proved just how much better they are than everyone else.

You can take the bag of tricks away from ‘band A’ and you’re left with nothing but a bunch of gimmicks. Luckily for us, Spoon is all substance and no fluff. Gimme Fiction is a career-changer because after the brief interlude of two back-to-back albums of stellar music, it matched them with swirling music, rousing rockers and even more of the same head-nodding, toe-tapping killers. Its worth lies in the band’s ability and with such extremely high quality, Gimme Fiction remains one of the band’s, albeit many, finest moments. – Bryan Sanchez

32. Sigur Rós – ( )
(FatCat, 2002)

It was nearly two years after the initial Icelandic release of Ágætis Byrjun in 1999 that Sigur Rós finally saw their critically acclaimed debut album receive stateside distribution.  It arrived in record stores with little fanfare in the spring of 2001, but director Cameron Crowe’s decision to prominently feature the band on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack just a few months later indicated that Sigur Rós was ready to court a larger audience with their grandiose ambient soundscapes. Yet, on the verge of widespread success in the U.S., vocalist Jónsi Birgisson and his bandmates returned to the studio and decided to construct a slowburning 70-minute epic with only eight tracks, no liner notes or song titles, and the pervasive usage of a gibberish language known as Vonlenska.

Igniting further claims of pretentiousness was the record’s title, ( ), a vague tag that had an unlimited number of metaphors attached to it. The backstory may have indicated an imminent flop, but listening to ( ) was an entirely different affair. A lush and elegant album, the band seemed perfectly content to meander along at a dirge-like tempo for 90% of the time while the listener was enveloped by fragile strings, towering crescendos, and Birgisson’s trademark falsetto coo. It was a long distance to the finish line, but the goose bump-inducing coda at the end of “Untitled 8” made it all worth the ride. – Adam Costa

31. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
(Domino, 2007)

After a full decade with them, I think it’s fair to start analyzing Animal Collective’s arch as a band. They started off experimental with free-forming songs that were created through variously dissimilar techniques. They hit a stride where melodies could take over (Sung Tongs) and they then followed that with stridently proud hazy ambience and cherished bouncing songs (Feels).

Strawberry Jam is where David Portner and Noah Lennox completely let go of inhibitions and briskly worked as a team and it still features those precocious moments that made Animal Collective such a sought after band to begin with. Lennox, combining his ear for melody and rhythmically joyous patterns and Portner’s knack for amazing lines and those unique vocals worked towards one amazing goal. Each was able to write music into a realm of togetherness (“Peacebone,”) they challenged each other in composing equally magical music (Lennox with the gorgeous “Derek” and Portner with the stomp of “Cuckoo Cuckoo”) and they fused to deliver one of the decade’s best middle sections with the one-two punch of “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks.” Their best album to date – yes, even after the 2009 album – is still Strawberry Jam, where everything came full circle into one dashing maze of splattered jelly. – Bryan Sanchez

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