Instead of posting why I think these records are so great and other mundane crap, I figured I'd try and highlight why each record played such an important role in my life at some point. I mean, those are generally our favorite records, no? I love Springsteen's Born To Run mostly because I grew up hearing it blasting from my father's living room every other weekend. Uncle Tupelo's Still Feel Gone was a life-changer because it opened my eyes up to an entire world of music.
I would say that I've spent the past ten years listening to more music than in any previous decade. The mid-to-late 90s were the pinnacle for me, likely never to be matched, but the past ten years have turned music into far more than a hobby. It's now something that I simply can't live without. It's my therapist (when I'm not actually paying a trained one); it's my partner; it's the one medium that brings understanding, hope and just about every emotion that the mind elicits. And for the last ten years, the following records have done the most.
#10 Elliott Smith : Figure 8 (2000)
This is the first Elliott Smith record that catapulted me into my "Elliott Smith period." I was able to catch Smith live three times, one of which I believe was his penultimate performance. That show was pretty awful as Smith appeared to be nearing the end; he stumbled and mumbled over words and looked frail and desperate. But on the Figure 8 tour, I saw him with a full band at Irving Plaza and for about 65 minutes witnessed a great artist in peak form. He charged from one song to the next with nary a five-second pause in between songs. There was no fluff, no chatter, just songs. And it was perfect. Those songs hit me that night, and to this day, Figure 8 remains my favorite Elliott Smith record.
#9 Josh Rouse : 1972 (2003)
I could write forever about my year-long love affair with this record, but when I look back on this time, I think of one line: "Catch the last ride on the Brooklyn train. Thirty years old and nothing's changed" from the final track "Rise." At the time, I was going through a rough period. I was unhappy in my work life, couldn't figure out how to pivot to the next stage in life and felt at an utter standstill. And it lasted for months, if not a few years. But when I first heard that line, something changed. And I heard it over and over. I recall standing on the F train platform one night with a belly full of beer and *blasting* that line. And playing it over again. And at that moment, I'd convinced myself. Within a month or so I left my job, settled on volunteering for a political campaign and in a matter of less than 12 months moved 3000 miles away.
#8 Okkervil River : The Stage Names (2007)
This one is about the songs. If you're not moved by "Savannah Smiles," "A Girl In Port" or "Plus Ones," well, a pulse check may be in order. If "Unless It's Kicks" or "John Allyn Smith Sails" doesn't prompt you to form-tackle the person nearest you due to being pumped, well, it should. This is a collection of perfect songs on a perfect album. No other way to put.
#7 Eels : Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005)
When I moved from New York City to Sunnyvale, CA in 2005, despite the excitement of starting over, I quickly came to the realization that I was indeed living in the suburbs, surrounded by little other than Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and other tedious crap. Most of my free time was spent listening to music in my lifeless apartment or going to the gym (yes, seriously). But this one record (along with another which is on the way) provided all the comfort and inspiration I needed. Whenever I listen to this record I think of the 2-3 late-night drives I made to Las Vegas to visit my brother. I brought this record with me each time and as I plowed through hills at 3am with Vegas not too far off, this record meant the world to me.
#6 Wilco : Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I remember friends from Philadelphia visiting me in New York right after Sept 11th and one of them saying, "If not for 'Foxtrot.'" It sounded ridiculous at the time, but I later understood. It was a distraction, and given the huge sound, cryptic lyrics and artistic breath, it was where some of us turned. Add to that lines such as "Tall building shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs" and "Phone my family, tell them I'm lost, on the sidewalk, and no, it's not OK," and the knowledge that these songs were penned before that fateful day, and the eeriness only grew. But historical tie-in aside, this is a monumental album and one of the most important artistic expressions of the past 20 years.
#5 Centro-matic : Love You Just the Same (2003)
The best straighforward rock record of the decade. "The future is brimming, buzz with excitement" Will Johnson assures us on the gradually furious "Biology Tricks," a song I must have spun about 1000x in Brooklyn from 2003-2004. I think it was the late Jay Bennett who, when asked if he could pick one song he wished he'd written, answered "Flashes and Cables" from this record. On nearly every track, Will Johnson's emphatic lines summon a spirit that is missing in nearly every ass band-of-the-moment today. "Nobody told us, that the bastards were here," "Conventional hassles, they are all gone" and, of course, "I was tired, you were reeling" because, as Will knows, we were "Picking Up Too Fast."
#4 Aimee Mann : The Forgotten Arm (2005)
It's as if Raymond Carver suddenly became a recording artist. Mann's collection of short stories loosely based on the trials and tribulations of a retired boxer, is one of the most underappreciated records released in recent memory. When critics point to her best work, rarely is this masterpiece mentioned. It's rare that a record consists of great songs top-to-bottom, and even more rare when that collection of songs adds up to a story as compelling and moving as the best in PT Anderson or Larry Brown. But on "The Forgotten Arm," Aimee Mann does both, and seemingly with ease.
#3 The Arcade Fire : Funeral (2004)
Around the same time that Blinking Lights was helping me through a tough few months came Funeral. I initially discarded the record, but vividly recall leaving a diner on a Saturday morning, hopping on El Camino Real for a long drive to nowhere, tossing in this record and suddenly being overtaken. I must have spent about five hours on the road that day, listening to this record over and over and over. In the months that followed, I'd drive up to San Francisco and 280 or 101 would be my own byway to Funeral. I'd howl the opening track, move through Neighborhoods 1-4 and by the time "Rebellion (Lies)" began the city lights were usually in view.
#2 Josh Ritter : The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
The closest thing to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited ever produced, and the soundtrack of my life for two years. From the Bay Area through the woods of Oregon to Mendocino, Los Angeles, Crater Lake and all over the Pacific Northwest, this record rarely left the CD player. There's no record in my adult life that will bring on as many memories. Singalongs, yelling at the sky through the sunroof and feeling something for the constellations. And in conclusion, the words to "Right Moves" is where I'm left.
#1 The Wrens : The Meadowlands (2003)
Opening with crickets and street noise, "The House That Guilt Built" sets the stage for perhaps the greatest record ever about maturity and the uncertainty and responsibility that comes with adulthood. You can hear the strains of suburban life, dreams lost and the lust to recapture what you never even had. The guitars take minutes to take off, the lyrics ask you questions before allowing you to move forward and the songs ultimately explode. The build-up from 2:30 to 4:10 on "Happy" is remniscent of the spirit of Nirvana, if not the band, just the feeling. There is no question that this is the best record of the decade. We've heard very little from the band since, and like an athlete who retires in his or her prime, maybe that's ok.