Where were you on September 11th, 2001?
As for me, I was nine hours ahead of my family and friends in Seattle as I was finishing a day of work. Sitting in my office in the Divinity faculty at the University of Glasgow, I received a phone call from Diana saying that “something was happening in New York” and that I should log onto the computer. An hour later I was in my flat watching the unfolding of this decade’s most defining few hours. Nine years later and the aftershocks of 9/11 are still with us. Few events have globally shifted culture in the last hundred years like this and popular music has certainly been re-framed by it. As one could expect, pop music took up the events and aftershocks of 9/11 and painted both with the broad strokes of a Monet and the pointillism of a Pollock by pouring energy and space for contemplation into the violence, the patriotism, the wars and rumors of wars. Perhaps even more so than other art forms seeking to make sense of this apocalyptic moment where what we understand the world to be was shattered before the eyes of millions, pop music in all its immediacy, its primacy of emotion, its desire to communicate quickly and resolutely in a matter of minutes, and its disposable nature and willingness to be discarded for the next 4 minutes vocal exclamation and pounding beat was THE form that has framed what 9/11 was and is for a generation. Sure, the scholarly monographs are being written with its the critical analysis giving arguments for the why and how of such an event and this too will have some effect on how generations will seek to understand those events. But it was the pop song that showed up first and they are the artifacts that show we people were not only thinking… but feeling.
To this end, compiling a list of top albums for this first decade of the new millennium is impossible without seeing pop music through the dust clouds, death, and wreckage of those events on September 11th. Everything that followed those days has some symbiotic relationship to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit, capture, and execution of Saddam Hussein, and the reality that all of this is far from being ‘over’.
One last thing to mention is Columbine. On April 20th, 1999 Columbine High School was assailed not by terrorists from another country but from ‘within’ as two teenage American boys entered a public high school in Colorado with semi-automatic weapons injuring 21 people, killing 12 students and 1 teacher. America entered the decade haunted by the reality that all was indeed not well in our land and the fear and anxiety of losing our children in a place that is supposed to be safe – a school of all places – meant that nowhere was safe. Layering this on top of 9/11 made the decade one marked as fearful both within our borders and from without.
So in picking ten albums for the past decade that have marked out a path for pop music and pop culture, it is with the ever-present reality of Columbine and 9/11 that I listened to these albums and think they offer a representative taste of the decade in its anxiety, its disappointments, as well as its hopes and glory. I haven’t listed them in any hierarchal order in part because I honestly can’t put one over the other (with the exception of my top album which is the last entry at the bottom… by the way… spoiler alert… it isn’t Kayne, Arcade Fire, or Taylor Swift… so don’t hold your breath for one of those) so I offer the list as a whole as they have become in my remembrances – they are a ‘shuffle’ play of the decade that saw so much pain, such loss, and many surprises and new beginnings that showed that life isn’t done with us yet.
Once – Music to the Motion Picture Soundtrack
Small things change the world in more ways than we realize. My decade began with starting my first faculty post, Diana starting her PhD program, and my first daughter being born. To say that so-called little things don’t have big impact hasn’t held a newborn infant and realized that the world just shifted under the weight of it all. The indie film “Once” was a small thing that brought big changes as well. Here was a small film set in Dublin where the primary characters were fairly depressed, sad people and nothing sizable happens in comparison to the global turmoil that surrounded its release in 2007 as the war in Iraq continued on. Yet here was a simple little story – Glen Hansard (lead singer of the Frames) played a lost soul busking on the streets of Dublin amidst the heartbreak of lost love and meets Marketa Irglova, another lost soul selling roses in the street who is in a difficult marriage yet yearns for something more for herself and her young daughter. In releasing the film, the trailer pushes you to believe that this is a love story between these two and yet the true story (like love itself) is so much bigger and courageous than that. The song “Falling Slowly” won the Best Song Oscar and the scene in the movie of the two sitting in a music store working on the song is heart warming in ways only a Wesleyan conversion experience can describe. What the album achieves is a simple, deep collection of songs about love lost and found, about a desire to love in a world so damaged that it doesn’t know where to begin, and about the power of creating art as a way through the madness of a world at war with itself.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
We all thought that the tipping point for music distribution was going to come with MySpace – the idea that the grand democracy of the web would allow artists to break free from the record labels and get to the audience directly thereby cutting out the middle man and making music affordable again. It never happened. But what did happen in the past decade was a band offering up one of the best albums of their amazing career for… well… whatever you wanted to pay for it. On October 10th, 2007 amidst a number of email blasts, a simple website offered Radiohead’s latest album – not a single or three song EP mind you, but a complete album – for whatever you could (or were willing to) pay for it. But this wasn’t the surprising thing. What was most surprising was that In Rainbows wasn’t some cast-off collection of B-sides thrown together for a publicity stunt – this was (and is) a stunningly great album. The record industry was knocked silent for a bit waiting to see what would happen next – would Radiohead lose money? Would fans demand this model? Well, Radiohead moved a lot of copies… and eventually sold a lot of physical CDs as well and the fans embraced Radiohead even tighter. Whether people will hold up In Rainbows as a great album on it own remains to be seen, but coupled with the breakthrough of showing that great music can get out to people, can make a profit, and doesn’t have to be stolen (read: burning someone else’s copy or using Bitorrent)
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
There was a world before 9/11 and in many ways Ryan Adams’ debut solo album is the bridge from that world and the world we have now inherited. At the turn of the millennium Ryan Adams was quite possibily one of the truly coolest guys in music. Only 26 years old at the time, he was the voice and primary songwriting talent behind the alt-country band Whiskeytown which along with seminal alt-country bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Wilco help to usher in a revival of the Gram Parsons legacy of the ‘cosmic cowboy’ vibe for a new generation. Overly confident, musically gifted, charisma to burn as he blended punk and country and Hollywood stardom into a New Yorker ‘look at me, I’m the center of the earth’ presona – Ryan Adams was simply something to behold in concert. The album begins with an argument between himself and David Rawlings (partner of Gillian Welch – see the discussion of Time (The Revelator) below) about Morrissey’s song ‘Suedehead’ and then leads into the barn burner opener “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”. This crash of genres – moving deftly from Morrissey to this alt-country hard core twang opener speaks to the mash up of genres that feel so at home for Ryan Adams such as the story that he named the album while in the studio and saw a poster of Mariah Carey who was wearing a T-Shirt that had the word “Heartbreaker” on it. Yet with all this arrogance and swagger, Heartbreaker is exactly what it’s title states – a real album of heartbreak. Songs like “(Oh My) Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up” are simply stunning in their lyricism and depth with the latter song being one of the best break up songs written… ever. To hear some of these songs is to be astounded that they came out of this swaggering, mouthy 26 year old punk who just liked being a rock star. In many ways I don’t know how he pulled it off as the subsequent albums over the decade just haven’t touched what this album did. But at least lightening struck this boy when it did. A great album for long haul driving and watching the sun set in the horizon. Pitchfork put “Come Pick Me Up” as one of its top 500 songs and it certainly deserves to be on that list.
Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
Perhaps it isn’t fair to put a collection of B-sides, unreleased tracks, and music for soundtracks and consider it a worth album for this list. Perhaps. But this is Tom Waits and Tom Waits’ garage is freakin’ gold. Released as a 3 CD set thematically organized around the themes of ‘brawlers’, ‘bawlers’, and ‘bastards’, it is a testimony to Tom Waits’ gift as a songwriter and performer that all these supposed throwaway tracks are stunning in their own right. As a song that embodies the zeitgeist of the decade, go buy ‘Road to Peace’ and put it on constant rotation.
U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
U2 released three strong albums this past decade, but they started the decade in 2000 with one of their most integrative efforts to date. All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit the streets in October of 2000 and launched what Bono said in a number of interviews as their “campaign to reapply for the title of ‘best band of the world'”. The album took the best of the bands’ twenty year history and distilled it down into a series of songs that are both classic and yet move the band confidently into the 21st century. The political power of “Walk On”, the idealism of “Beautiful Day”, the stadium punch of “Elevation” and others blend into a truly potent album and still sounds fresh. What is astounding is that although these tracks were written prior to the events of 9/11, they were the very songs that many people found solace and hope within during the chaos and discouragement of the next few years. Is it a stretch to say that U2 is prophetic? Not for this fan. Just seeing their 9/11 tribute performance where they blend “Peace On Earth” with “Walk On” as if they wrote it for that night is a wonder to behold.
The National – High Violet
For those of you who followed my top ten of 2010, you will recognize The National and their amazing 2010 release as my top pick of the year. As such, it bears repeating that The National really came into their own in the latter part of the decade and while some would place their earlier release – The Boxer – higher, I will stand with High Violet. As I mentioned in my previous post, Matt Berninger who is the lead singer of The National, has a voice and writes songs that get compared to a lot of other artists – Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits to name a few. What I have yet to hear is the comparison to artists found on John Hughes movie soundtracks. Take just about every cut on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack could be covered by The National and I would venture to guess that Berninger spent a good portion of his adolescence with many of the misfits that populate the Hughes teen film canon. As demonstrated in their last release The Boxer and this years High Violet, The National is a band concerned with coming-of-age
On High Violet, you could also argue that the effect of Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series and millennial fever is part of the back story given the apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies. In this way the album is truly a product of this 9/11 haunted decade. Most of what this conjures up for the listener though is the strange effect loving something more than yourself means in a world that is falling apart at every turn. Given that Matt Berninger became a father during the recording of High Violet speaks to this anxiety of now having to provide and protect a life other than your own. to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself. “Afraid Of Everyone” is what encapsulates this anxiety to perfection. As Berninger sings of being afraid ‘of everyone’ you honestly believe him. And yet the movement of the album doesn’t live in the paranoia of Radiohead nor the burn-the- world-down-and-start-again anthem that is found in Nine Inch Nails. No, with songs like “England” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National sing of being fearful for others and the love that breaks their heart over and over and over again. In short, it is just a stunning album filled with complexity, brooding, wonder and at times quick wit and one of the lasting releases that I can imagine playing again and again.
The White Stripes – Elephant
Here is a serious question: where would popular music be right now without Jack White? I am glad I don’t have to answer that question for a number of reasons, but three readily come to mind: (1) resurrecting the career of country singer Loretta Lynn by producing her album Van Lear Rose which simply buries most country albums and puts some serious post-punk energy into her already storied and passionate gifts as the Queen of Country Music, (2) proving that there were other things going on in Detroit other than Motown, and (3) giving the world the challenge to rip open the studied, boring, factory slickness of the studio album and bring it back to its rawness and immediacy – if it ain’t fresh… don’t bother listening. Like a freakish mutation of The Carpenters from the sweet innocent 70’s, Jack and Meg White took the weird, creepy ‘brother/sister’ act to a whole new level. Take The White Stripes’ album Elephant and the now ubiquitous sounding “Seven Nation Army”. While there are haters and imitators alike, the needed push that The White Stripes offered the decade was a gift. In the end, throw the sound board in the pickin’ river and rip up the stage with your guitar and a drum kit. Elephant sounds like something that Robert Plant only dreamed of but isn’t capable of imagining himself into these days (granted, I like the whole T-Bone/ Alison Krauss move… ) It is both a nightmare and dream but one that we are still not ready to wake up from. Where Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” is my vote for the ultimate break-up song for the decade, Elephant gets my vote for the album that gets played once you are fed up and ready to pound your fists against the wall. I don’t know if that is a category… but it worked for me many, many times.
Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer
Marriage is not an easy thing and anybody who tells you different has watched too many Disney films. Having a marriage survive beyond the first few years these days is something of a miracle and being able to put a song together (let alone an entire album) that gets the pathos and joy of this wild, strange endeavor of intimacy is truly rare. Karin Berquist and Linford Detweiler – the songwriting duo and core of Over The Rhine – have put out some astounding albums over the twenty years that they have been a band, but the angels and demons that they wrestled to the ground in the midst of a marriage that teetered on the brink of oblivion is a wonder and is a gift for the ages. Drunkard’s Prayer is a love letter written in blood, sweat and tears of real love put to the test and facing the darkness before any hope of a dawn. It is a simple, painful, truly drunken romp through a love gone dead and lifeless and two lovers being asked to identify the corpse that was their life. It is an album I want to give to couples on their 10th anniversary, and their 20th, and for every decade after. Like the good wine that was drunk in times of joy and sorrow… it is an album that truly gets better with age.
Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)
In a decade that seemed to have lost all its innocence, there was certainly a turning back the clock with the move of alt.country acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, Whiskeytown, Jeff Tweedy, and Wilco to name a few who rose in stature during this decade. Probably nothing launched this movement though quite like The Coen Brothers brilliant film O Brother Where Art Thou released in 2000 but gained a strong cult following once it was released in DVD following the 9/11 attacks. The soundtrack was a bluegrass tour de force produced by T-Bone Burnett to great acclaim and introducing the world to Gillian Welch. Gillian Welch, an orphan born in New York City and moved to Los Angeles at the age of three with her adopted parents, isn’t the person most people would pick as the legacy bearer for bluegrass. But like a pastoral vocation, one doesn’t choose their calling… its chooses them. Having bummed around University of California, Santa Cruz as a bass player in punk bands, it was when she heard bluegrass and Patsy Cline era country that all the lights went on. Her albums take time seriously and if you are not patient, then she is not someone you will enjoy because akin to public transit to can’t rush it and it will come to you when it is good and ready. But Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings (my vote for the best guitarist of the decade next to Mark Knopfler) create a space that is deep yet won’t drown you. Every time I have seen them live (four times now) I have come away feeling like I wanted to be a better person… few musicians do that. Her last album – Soul Journey – came out in 2003 and she is way overdue for another release so lets pray that we get sometime to start the new decade with. But of her releases this past decade, it is Time (the Revelator) that truly stands as a masterwork. Joyous and cautious at the same time, it is an album that takes stock of what is precious and worth loving and holds it before with gentleness and grace. While her previous releases dealt with the internal canvas of a person struggling with being an orphan and the poverty that infects our past both spiritual and economically, Time paints a much larger picture by taking on what it means to be an American in a world that after 9/11 seems so strange. Drawing on such diverse themes as the sinking of the Titantic, Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and the endlessness of time itself, Time is truly the central character in this album and the one figure for Welch that has the perspective to render our momentary frustrations and longings in a context worthy of souls created by God. The ending track “I Dream A Highway” is a universe in miniture: a 15 minute testimony to the movement of time and the grace that will carry us through this life and beyond. This song alone makes Time (The Revelator) worthy of this spot in a top ten list, but the album is strong as steel and worth a listen.
The video below is from an amazing performance in 2004 that Welch and Rawlings performed as part of a BBC in-studio. In this great venue of a church, you get a nice taste of this magical duo and especially Rawlings amazing guitar work:
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (Come on feel the)
I have to admit feeling like a hipster wannabee putting Sufjan Stevens at the top of my decade list and I went an entire day trying to figure out a way to take him off the list entirely. There is now such a backlash against the Sufjan cult that I just want to run way from all the skinny jeans, blogging, emo, self-reflective indie cool of it. But standing in the rain scrolling through my iPod I kept coming back to Illnois and the wonder of it all. Spin magazine had anointed Sufjan with the appropriate title of “Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school” and perhaps this is the best way to think of him – a mash up of Smith and sanctification peppered with pathos yet dripping with the sublime. His vision of art has been something of seeking beyond the art itself and Illinois captures this madness at its true blinding reality. In an interview in the Grand Rapids Press, Stevens spoke of art in this way:
“Art is … a reflection of a greater divine creation. There really is no separation…There’s a fullness of being in the world that takes into consideration the supernatural and the natural, and everything we do and say is evoking and expressing eternal things without even knowing it.”
One of the things I have loved about the career of Sufjan Stevens has been his unwillingness to be pulled into the CCM orbit nor to seek so far into despair as to abandon the very thing that gives life to his art – namely his appreciatation for wonder and mystery in the face of God. As he notes in an interview in Pitchfork around the time of the release of Seven Swans:
“I do have to reckon with the material I’m singing about. And I want to be responsible for what I’m singing about. But I can’t be responsible for an entire culture, or an entire church. I can’t be responsible for Christendom. I think that when people react reflexively to material that is religious, they’re reacting to the culture of religion. And I think an enlightened person is capable, on some level, of making the distinction between the institution of the culture and the culture itself.”
Sufjan Stevens inhabits a strange sub-genre of “good musician artists” who happen to be Christians: (David ‘curse those branches for dropping me” Bazan, Danielson, Rosie Thomas, Ester Drang, and Half Handed Cloud among others) – as opposed to so-called “Christian artists” found only in Christian bookstores. They are different because they are subversive Christian musicians. They do not directly evangelize and they barely even mention the name Jesus. They are not under pressure to convert any souls through their music, only pressure to make good art.
Sufjan signed with Asthmatic Kitty, a small label in Holland, Michigan near Hope College where he attended. After releasing Michigan he went headfirst into his Anglicanism with Seven Swans which began his journey of flexing his “I’m brooding, I’m happy, I’m brooding, I’m happy” style that flew Icarus-like towards the Holy of Holies in one instant and then fell into the arms of a lover the next – melted wings and all.
Seven Swans is a quiet, intimate work, wholly concerned with Stevens’ relationship with God. The ‘Seven Swans’ of the title represent the gifts of the Seven Sacraments of the Holy Spirit, willing to persist in the face of the mystery of God and fully engaged with the world through art and liturgy. Stevens writes as a believer not willing to accept the easy answers, as one who knows the failures of sin, the silence of God and the complications of belief. The work often has the tone of a Lamentation or a Psalm.
Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications you could do without /When I kissed you on the mouth/
Tuesday night at the bible study /We lift our hands and pray over your body /But nothing ever happens/Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications when I see his face /In the morning in the window /Oh the glory when he took our place /But he took my shoulders and he shook my face /And he takes and he takes and he takes
—“Casimir Pulaski Day”
And in my best behavior /I am really just like him /Look beneath the floorboards /For the secrets I have hid
—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ”
“In the Tower above the earth there is a view that reaches far/Where we cede the universe/I see the fire, I see the end/Seven miles above the earth, there is Emmanuel of Mothers/With His sword, with His robe, He comes dividing man from brothers.”—from the Revelation themed “The Seer’s Tower”
As an Episcopalian who is a bit embarrassed by the institutionalization and commodification of most church culture, Stevens stands in line with artists like Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Conner, who considered excellence at their craft the primary discipline of a Christian. One gets the impression that Stevens doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece or a preacher, but rather that he wants to be someone who lives and looks for God in the doubts, the stories and the musical movements of the Spirit.
I have mentioned to some that I have not taken to The Age of Adz yet – his latest release that frankly confuses me more than anything. Being a hater of a Sufjan Stevens project is a dangerous game in some circles (those skinny jeans folks will bludgeon you with their messenger bags, chuck copies of The Believer at you, dump a cold Americano on your laptop and cut off your wifi just to add insult to injury) but I am risking vulnerability and ignorance in hopes of finding something redemptive in it since I think that of the artists this decade, Sufjan Stevens provides one of the clearest blueprints for what true artists should be engaged in – art that matters and transcends the rubble of this age and hopefully leaving us with a smile that is only joy when shared with others and we seek for justice and reconciliation.
So… that’s it for the list. So many that should be here and are not.
What do you think?
Where did I hit and where did I miss for you?