Design of a Decade: The Albums
A little bit late into the new year, but nonetheless...
After listing all of the individual tracks that have thoroughly entertained me and left an imprint on my life during the last 10 years, I realized I had to take a look at the albums I continually set on repeat. And since this past decade was what I consider The Beginning of the End of the Album, it was somewhat of a challenge to find discs I owned that stood out as complete, rich pieces of work. After all, we now live in the Age of the Single where it's all about how many hits you can get on the radio and how many digital copies you can sell on iTunes. And ask yourself this: How often do you buy an actual album on which every single track is just as awesome as the next, not a single filler song tempting you to press that skip button?
These are my top 10 from the last 10 years, albums that, I believe, have wonderfully encapsulated the 2000s. While I've offered my reasons for their sheer brilliance and enjoyability, I have also noted some personal significance they hold. Because after all, only you can be the music supervisor of the soundtrack to your life...
10 ALBUMS FROM 10 YEARS
1. Movement in Still Life by BT (2000) - Years before the BEPs "Boom Boom Pow"ed themselves to the top of the charts and every other pop star discovered the "futuristic" sound of Auto-Tune, Brian Transeau - once known as the Godfather of Trance - produced his third album which, in retrospect, was ahead of its time. His velvety take on trance techno, typified by unusually light, liquidy melodies, smooth edges, and roomy breakbeats, became what all wise artists wish their music could be - transcendent. BT's dense, yet straightforward compositions and benevolent mixes incorporated themes of escape and rebirth, with songs that continue to leave an imprint on the subconscious. With this album he broke through the wall that separated techno from pop-rock, showing us that he was capable of branching into different styles. Rife with vocal collaborations that expose his influences and bend them toward his unique perceptions of song structure and sonic parity, his tracks also feature his signature stutter edits created by software he himself created. By consistently balancing creative and memorable songwriting, sonic innovation and the latest technology for a cutting-edge yet organic sound, BT has proven that he is a true revolutionary artist.
Personal Connection: Little did I know that, one year before Movement in Still Life was released, Mr. Transeau was the force behind the score to one of my all-time favorite films, the Doug Liman-helmed Go (the first of many film scores he would go on to compose). His standalone selection on the movie's 1999 soundtrack, "Believer," is the perfect anthem for any kid who had ever waved a glow stick in a dark and foggy warehouse.
2. A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay (2002) - A second album that improved upon the first and thrust its band into the global spotlight, Rush is one of the few rock albums to have been embraced by fans (and fellow artists) of all genres. Justin Timberlake claimed to have jammed to "Clocks" during late-night drives in his car. Kanye West was known to have dug Chris Martin's emotional yet non-whiny delivery (hence why he probably chose the fair-haired Brit to join him on 2007's "Homecoming"). This album never showed any signs of leaving the top of the charts either because everyone and their mother (literally) felt as if they had discovered a band worthy of being called The Heirs to U2 (a ballsy title to give, no doubt). The album is still a soulful, exhilarating journey, moving from the cathartic rock of "Politik" to the hushed tones of "Green Eyes" without once breaking its mesmerizing spell. The vocals soar, reaching places only Jeff Buckley previously dared to go. And the music is nearly flawless, a persuasive cross between Pink Floyd and the Verve - at times moody, other times inspirational. In a word: exquisite.
Personal Connection: I had been late to this particular party seven years ago, asking for this CD at Christmas 2003. It marked the end of my first full year of living in L.A., my Days of Innocence, a carefree time during which my wide-eyed self was unaware of the biting reality that was waiting for me around the corner: unemployment, the first taste of rejection, a family health crisis...and the first Saw movie.
3. Room for Squares by John Mayer (2001) - Just when boy bands were starting to become irrelevant, this 24-year-old singer-songwriter seemed to have come out of nowhere. With Abercrombie looks and a Dave Matthews-like delivery, he was the perfect idol for college coeds who sought an alternative to the frosted-tipped crooners who once covered their bedroom walls in high school. But upon closer inspection of his music, one could make a surprising discovery: the dude's an old soul - with legit talent. With singles like "Why Georgia," which coined the term quarter-life crisis, and "No Such Thing," which inspired many to tap into their potential and carve out a path of their own, Mayer spoke to a generation that was afraid to "stay inside the lines" during a time when Terror - the news topic du jour - had a vise-grip on their hopes and dreams.
Personal Connection: This album served as a soundtrack to my first chapter of adulthood: Post-College Adjustment. I compulsively purchased this CD at the Virgin Megastore (R.I.P.) in Union Square during the summer of '02 when I made the bold decision to leave my New York roots behind and relocate to Los Angeles. It constantly played in my then-new Ford Focus while I navigated the streets of a new city and dreamed of someday hosting dinner parties in my very adult, very Pottery Barn-ed hardwood-floor apartment.
4. Under the Iron Sea by Keane (2006) - This British trio came onto the scene in 2004 with their debut, Hopes and Fears, and their sophomore effort proved that they were not just another Radiohead clone. Pianist Tim Rice-Oxley, lead vocalist Tom Chaplin and drummer Richard Hughes helped elevate the sub-genre of piano-rock to a whole new level, delivering dreamy soundscapes ("A Bad Dream"), gothic choruses ("Atlantic") and pedal-driven distortions ("Is It Any Wonder?") that all conspired to create a truly progressive album.
Personal Connection: Also known as the Album That Helped Me Survive Career Purgatory.
5. Stripped by Christina Aguilera (2002) - Consider this album a victim of hypocrisy. The disc's first single (and polarizing video), "Dirrty," was considered a slap in the face to pop fans, a wake-up call to show everyone that a dainty little pop princess - with the help of some assless chaps, a boxing ring and a guest rapper - can pull a 360 and raise the bar for hip-hop/pop hybrids. Hard-hitting and jarring it certainly was. And there's a reason why clubs still blare it today: it's one helluva track to grind to. But the immediate criticism back then had been harsh ("She's trying too hard!" Who does she think she is?" "Reeks of desperation!"). It was easy to dismiss Miss Genie in a Bottle as a lame attention whore (or just plain whore), but then came the other singles: "Beautiful" proved to be just that, a powerful and timeless Grammy-winning ballad - with a universal message no less! "Fighter" entered the rock arena as a fierce I'm-Not-Gonna-Take-It-Anymore exclamation years before Kelly Clarkson "could breathe for the first time." It's also when Christina entered her Dark Phase, dying her hair black (gasp!) and revealing to us all that she had survived some family drama as a little girl, one of the first pop stars of the new millennium to bravely dig deep and parade around those closet-dwelling skeletons for the world to see. Overall, the album may have been guilty of being schizophrenic with its mix of seductive slow-jams ("Get Mine, Get Yours," "Walk Away") and uplifting anthems ("Soar," "The Voice Within"), but what it ultimately did was add a third dimension to an ambitious artist who refused to be buried along with most of her constituents in the Teen Pop graveyard.
Personal connection: Yet another album that came out while I was adjusting to a new life in a new city (L.A.), it also helped me find my groove - so to speak. The singles from this album, including the shout-inducing "Can't Hold Us Down," followed me wherever I went while I explored every nook and cranny of Tinseltown. And "Soar" was just the song I needed to do so, encouraging me to spread my wings and chase after a dream millions have chased after before me.
6. Hot Fuss by The Killers (2004) - For once, a turn-of-the-century rock band that didn't sound like another Linkin Park/Nickelback knockoff. Brandon Flowers and Co. heralded what appeared to be a renaissance of New Wavey dance rock (see: Franz Ferdinand et al). With just the right amount of flamboyant synth and heavily analyzed lyrics, these guys from Las Vegas (and I thought they were British!) were a sonic breath of fresh air, unironically channeling the likes of The Cure, Duran Duran and The Smiths. "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," the original ode to bad romance, could have also been the theme song to some gritty road trip love story. "Mr. Brightside," their biggest hit to date, was an unabashedly epic wonder, its music video an entertaining homage to 2001's Moulin Rouge.
Personal Connection: I remember driving through the Lincoln Tunnel shortly before midnight during a summer visit to New York and blaring "Somebody Told Me" while taking in the moment. It was the year I had experienced first-hand a family health scare. And during that short underwater drive through the Hudson River I was able to escape. Where to, I'm still not sure.
7. Missundaztood by Pink (2001) - Much like Xtina, Pink (a.k.a. Alicia Moore) shed her previously glossy image to expose herself to fans as a young woman with some angst to express. The ubiquitous "Get This Party Started," was a wise choice for a lead single, a funktastic jam to pump up the masses. Then came the others: "Don't Let Me Get Me," "Just Like a Pill," and "Family Portrait," which laid it all out. Which isn't to say the rest of the disc didn't have its other standout moments. "18 Wheeler" is an emotionally charged song of survival while "My Vietnam" is a daring study of the damaged psyche of a young woman scarred by a trauma she'll never forget.
Personal Connection: Back when I was a trendspotter for Teen People (giggle), I had the opportunity to attend a listening session with the singer herself at a bar in downtown Manhattan shortly after 9/11. After sampling the album and listening to her thoughts on each track - the first time I felt personally connected to a musician I admired - I was ready to run out and buy it after that party ended.
8. Born to Do It by Craig David (2001) - This debut from the U.K.-born R&B singer attempted to introduce Americans to two-step (or garage), a beat style that was seeping into the groove of many European club jams. The first single, "Fill Me In," was a perfect example of this, the musings of young man questioning his lover's intentions set to a rhythm that's both demanding and sexy at the same time. A bit more hardcore is "Rewind," a track he laid down with pioneers Artful Dodger. "Time to Party," with its easy-on-the-ears bass, is more than just a get-ready-to-go-out jam, it's a celebration of possibilities. And "Rendezvous" is pure baby-making music, a track that will keep those Do Not Disturb signs hanging on hotel suite doorknobs for hours on end. While his smooth tenor and hip-hop-oriented song structures may draw comparisons to the urban soul and new jack swing sound of D'Angelo or R. Kelly, the record oozes of his own individual sexuality. Above-average wordplay and irresistible grooves make this CD an impressive first effort.
Personal Connection: Possibly the first album to spark my interest in European pop imports (I frequently check the top 10 on iTunes UK and download from wherever I can), I couldn't escape the music of C.D. while studying abroad in London. It was only when I came back to the States that he started making an impact on American radio. That was in the summer of '01. One year later, the melancholy "Walking Away" conveniently played on New York's Z100 while I was being driven to the airport to catch a flight that would take me away to another life.
9. Under the Influence of Giants by Under the Influence of Giants (2006) - Or, what you would get if you were to cross-pollinate The Killers with the Bee Gees and Hall & Oates. This SoCal-based quartet defies easy categorization. Amazon practically took the words right out of my mouth: "As their self-titled debut bears out, the Giants' funk-inflected, hook-saturated pop-soul is a combination of the Talking Heads' African poly-rhythmic groove ('Ah-ha,' 'Got Nuthin''), the ethereal falsettos of Michael Jackson and Prince ('Mama's Room'), the blue-eyed R&B of George Michael ('In the Clouds'), the insinuating melodic pop of Rubber Soul ('Stay Illogical'), Earth, Wind & Fire's horn-driven, noirish funk ('Against All Odds'), McCartney's winsome balladry ('Lay Me Down') and even the throbbing beat of post-hip-hop by way of Madonna ('Meaningless Love')."
Personal Connection: I had the pleasure to watch these guys perform live at Hollywood & Highland, Key Club and The Viper Room on Sunset. What started as a free download I got through iTunes's Discovery Download of the Week (from a band I had never heard of) turned into a three-concert extravaganza during which I got to hang out with the lead singer ("Hiko? Kickass name, dude!") and get a few personalized autographs on a poster which hung above my desk at work - all in the span of four months. They also get the privilege of being the first new band I had ever blogged about.
10. Confessions on a Dancefloor by Madonna (2005) - Perhaps the most unapologetic dance album in years, Confessions was a return to M's dancehall glory days. Each track cleverly melds into the next, creating one big celebratory mosaic that had bodies bouncing at the gym, in the car and at the clubs. "Hung Up," with its catchy chorus (ABBA, who knew?) was a stellar kick-off single. "Jump" dares fans to take a plunge. And "Get Together" is an aural phantasmagoria, the soundtrack sex dreams are made of. The rest of the songs aren't anything new, but it was still a welcome departure from the R&B-flavored electronica the Material Mom had dabbled in at the start of the decade.
Personal Connection: With this album I got to see Madge in concert for the first time in my life, the first time I was able to witness a living icon at work. At the risk of sounding cliche, it was everything I could have ever dreamed of - a fantastic, spirit-lifting orgy of sound, light and movement. This ticket stub shall be treasured for years to come.
ALMOST BUT NOT QUITE...
Songs About Jane by Maroon 5 (2003) - Irresistible melodic pop-rock loved by everyone, from coffeeshop baristas to fratboys...to your Aunt Trudy.
The Fame Monster by Lady Gaga (2009) - Madonna's heir apparent or visionary diva of a new decade? Each one of these eight insanely entertaining tracks in this outstanding collection will have pop junkies debating for months.
Justified by Justin Timberlake (2002) - The former Mouseketeer and NSYNC frontman grows some balls, gains some respect and gets his proverbial groove on.
Now, on to the next decade...