1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2005)
It’s not The Strokes, or Arctic Monkeys, or Radiohead. It doesn’t tout angular guitars or zeitgeist-y electronic experimentation. What’s so good then about Funeral that it should be considered the album of the noughties, ahead of others that are perhaps more reflective of the period? The answer is that, in this decade, no other band has come close to creating such an emotionally affecting, tragic yet optimistic narrative of life, death, love and the pains of existence across ten immaculate songs. From it’s release in 2005 until the present, no other album has retained the same sense of grandeur and force of emotional impact without either seeming dated or beginning to appear bloated and pompous.
The album’s longevity is helped by the fact that it sets itself up in a parallel world, one closed off from the fads and trivial concerns our comfortable lives. ‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’ and ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’ are staged in small towns cut off by cold and snow, where parents and names are forgotten, and with them the sadness that accompanies loss. It’s part adolescent dream of a world without rules, part American Dream of self-sustainability and part apocalyptic nightmare.
It’s not a coincidence that Funeral has strong resonances with our number one book of the decade, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both artworks explore the perverse beauty of a landscape in which everything is stripped back to the basics of survival – something that, in an era of needless life-enhancing gadgets and irreparable damage to the planet, has emerged as both a fantasy and a nightmare for our noughties consciousness.
But forgetting is only half of the story. Other songs are about remembering difficult realities, like the ghosts of Haitians murdered under Papa Doc’s brutal regime in ‘Haiti’, or as a child, coming to terms with deceit in ‘Rebellion (Lies)’, or a lingering fear of driving in ‘In The Backseat’. All these songs have adolescent overtones, harking back to a period when the questions that adults repress about life (and death) were fresh and urgent. ‘Funeral’ is a masterstroke that hits on the nub of all our deepest fears and hopes in an age when these real feelings are threatened by the plastic veneer of progress.
2. The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)
There’s something about this otherworldly, beautifully weird electropop classic that stands up to repeated listens, and never gets dull. Fellow Swede Jose Gonzalez shone the limelight on The Knife – a brother and sister duo – in 2003 when he covered their song, ‘Heartbeats’ and turned it into a worldwide hit.
A large part of The Knife’s appeal is down to Karen Dreijer Andersson’s haunting voice – sometimes shrill, sometimes droning, she adds a spookily dark edge to the pounding synthpop and chiming melodies going on in the background. Her solo debut (this year’s self-titled Fever Ray) was a 2009 favourite, but the atmospheric electronica on Silent Shout remains hard to beat.
3. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
Not usually placed in the same stratospheric league as their previous opus, OK Computer, Kid A is arguably a better Radiohead album – their best in fact. Its themes are less obvious, its musical arrangements more difficult to get into, its lyrics harder to penetrate … In truth it’s an obscure album than hovers on the brink of arch pretentiousness, except that listen to it a few times and its deceptively rich texture becomes apparent. Even if Thom Yorke wrapping the words ‘Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon’ around the muddled synths of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, makes no sense to you, there are more obvious pleasures in lush, non-existence fantasy ‘How To Disappear Completely’ for instance, and, best of all, the pounding proto-electronica of ‘Idioteque’. Light years ahead in its vision and intelligence.
4. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Forget the hype surrounding the circumstances of the recording (man alone and heartbroken in a cabin in the woods etc), Bon Iver's collection of frail and intimate guitar songs captures perfectly the atmosphere of a melancholy winter in the countryside, with a falsetto and wistful temperament not heard since Neil Young's finest. Originally recorded as demos and self-released, word-of-mouth momentum led to US indie Jagjaguwar picking it up to bring to the world. In an artform full of attention-seeking noise and marketing, this innocence and lack of concern for any 'marketplace' resulted in something rare: a real work of art.
5. The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
It’s hard to remember how exciting and different The White Stripes seemed in 2001. Their stripped down two man (and woman) band format, the intrigue into their marital/sibling relationship but at the heart of it all was a passionate album of garage blues rock. Kicking off with the blistering ‘Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground’ and the heady ‘Hotel Yorba’, across 16 tracks they captured the darkness (‘Aluminium’) and joy (‘Fell in Love With a Girl’) of rock on just guitar, drums and vocals. Raw, powerful and passionate they tore down the walls at King Tuts and the Liquid Rooms in 2001 (and were soon selling out the SECC and headlining Glastonbury), it may have been their third album but White Blood Cells perfectly captured the essence of Jack and Meg White.
6. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (2004)
7. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
Flirtatiously looping you in to a merry dance of reverberating, summery vocal harmonies, sparkling melodies and catchy rhythms, Merriweather Post Pavilion will suddenly trip you up with some kind of atonal crunch or a bit that sounds like it’s being played backwards, only to catch you again, swooning, in those luscious crescendos that just sound right. Lyrical intrigue, passionate delivery, sonic richness, variety and wholeness – technically, it’s all there, but what elevates this work into the realm of the truly great is its sheer, effortless, joyous ebullience, and that sense that it’s operating outside of fashion, fancy, or chronology. There’s something primal at work here: an appeal to the animal inside, perhaps?
8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever To Tell (2003)
(Interscope) 20032Karen O got us hooked with this debut LP; an itchy, messy, noisy, drunken party of an album, with the occasional tug at the heartstrings between art-punk rock outs. Fronted by a bowlcutted beauty with a filthy mouth but a soft centre, Yeah Yeah Yeahs came good on the teasing promise they’d made on an EP two years earlier.
Fever To Tell (produced by Dave ‘TV on the Radio’ Sitek) showed they could lose control on ‘Man’ (‘I’ve got a man who makes me wanna kill’, she screams), then reign it back in with tear-jerking ‘Maps’ (even Karen O couldn’t avoid crying when she filmed the video). Sublimely infectious pop-rock.
9. The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002)
In a world where Tinchy, Dizzee and Dappy are kings, it’s perhaps easy to forget where it all began: in Birmingham, in 2002, with the rough-and-ready rapping of Mike Skinner over the innovative garage beats of his debut Original Pirate Material. It was a shock when an album this different appeared, blasting all other ‘urban’ contenders out of the water (a now obvious fact that was lost of the Mercury Prize committee who that year gave the award to Ms Dynamite’s feeble offering). In the end, Skinner can speak for himself: ‘I excel in both content and deliverance / so let’s put on our classics and we’ll have a little dance shall we?’ Gladly.
10. The Delgados – The Great Eastern (2000)
At the heart of the Glasgow indie mafia of the time, The Delgados remained a band of unfulfilled potential until this astonishingly ambitious album emerged in 2000. Produced by Flaming Lips’ Dave Fridmann, it was a breathtaking, wide-eyed slab of orchestral rock majesty, lush arrangements complementing the wry, self-deprecating singing of Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock perfectly. Despite the swathes of sound, there was always a touching fragility at the heart of this record, and a diversity and originality of songwriting never matched by their indie contemporaries. An object lesson in what can be achieved with guitars, talent and vision.