I think music is the one field where “the decade” really is a delineator. I try not to extrapolate broader trends from my own experience, but this is one case where I think I’m just part of the new shape of things.
Which is to say, my music-listening habits were flat-out transformed over the course of this decade. The changeover to digital began in the 1990’s, but went bananas in the past 10 years. My iTunes library contains around 45,000 songs, incorporating my and my wife’s CD libraries, the songs I stole back when that was cool, and other friends’ libraries, copied in toto. In fact, that’s why I didn’t get an iPod for the first 18 months or so after their introduction; I was waiting for one with large enough storage capacity to handle my library. (Okay, I was also on a PC and hadn’t yet drunk the Apple Kool-Aid.)
Sure, my music library today is filled with songs I’ll never listen to â€” such as my IT manager’s collection of German industrial aggro-something (rock?) or my pal Fink’s collection of, um, every single thing that Robyn Hitchcock ever recorded â€” but with storage space plummeting in price, why not keep it all?
I tend to just set iTunes and my iPod to shuffle, so I can discover unfamiliar music or recontextualize music I’m familiar with, but that carries the downside of missing out on albums qua albums. Add to that the fact that I rarely sit still long enough to listen to a 40- or 50-minute collection of music, and I’m left in a position where I can barely think of ten albums that I’d put on a “faves of the decade” list. We can download everything, so why listen to a single collection of songs by an artist?
On top of this, I have to make the embarrassing admission that I really don’t know much contemporary pop music. I don’t listen to the radio, don’t go to a gym, and don’t have, um, friends. My only experiences with Kanye West were his two awesome ad libs: blowing up Taylor Swift (who?) at that awards show and The Greatest Live TV Moment Of All Time, when he declared, “George Bush hates black people” during a Katrina benefit broadcast.
Similarly, I’d heard OF Lady Gaga for a while, but I never heard a song of hers until an episode of Parks & Recreation a month or two back. (It was fine, but I’m putting her in the same boat where I keep John Waters and Andy Warhol, the S.S. Love It In Theory, Not So Much In Practice.) Of course, the snob in me would reply would be that contemporary music sucks and I’m not missing anything, but that attitude’s gotten me in trouble in the past.
On my trip to Los Angeles in November, I decided to turn off my 120gb iPod’s shuffle setting and listen to albums in their entirety. I’ve stuck with that since my return, doing my best to go through entire records over the course of my commute and on drives out to the train station to pick up my wife. I’m so used to randomization, to the infinite jukebox, that it’s a real test for me to just let an album go to the end. Maybe it’ll help me to slow down.
Favorite Albums of the Decade
Time (The Revelator) (2001) – Gillian Welch – I wrote about this (finally!) for this year’s 9/11 post, so go back there and check out what I had to say. This is my favorite record of the decade, hands down. Nothing else comes close. The 9/11 context is a big factor for my attachment this album, the same way other people find Kid A or Is This It to be The Album of the Decade. (I’ve never made it through either of those records, so hey.)
Boxer (2007) – The National – I stumbled across a song from this in my iTunes library in 2008 (not sure who I got it from), tried out the album, and fell in love with it. I’m no good at describing genres, so you’re outta luck. I tried telling someone it’s “this sorta mellow modern rock sound,” and that’s about all I can do for you. This album, with its not-quite-sensical lyrics, unobtrusive orchestral additions, and Bowie-esque baritone, has become a key piece of my traveling soundtrack. I tried some of The National’s earlier music but didn’t dig them: things were a little too harsh, too fuzzy, too hip rock-‘n’-roll.
Simple Things / When It Falls / The Garden (2001 / 2004 / 2006) – Zero 7 – My go-to for chillout. I first heard their breakout single, Destiny, on the radio near the end of a 400-mile driving day in 2002. I was still 45 minutes from home, so I kept repeating the band and the song to myself. I stole the single the next day, fell in love with it, and bought the CD. I don’t love any of Zero 7’s first three albums on their own enough to put them on this list, but the combo of all of them has meant a lot to me this decade. I find their soul-chillout sound a lot more engaging than records by Moby, Blue 6, Photek, etc. Their sound evolved over the course of the first three records, with vocalists coming and going. Sia Furler is the mainstay/anchor for those albums. The fourth record, from which she’s absent, is a disaster.
Everything, Everything (2000) – Underworld – My affinity for Underworld’s pounding techno beats and chopped-up lyrics boggles my wife’s mind (as does their music), because of my utter lack of drug-taking and club-hopping. Still, something about their work utterly possesses me. Maybe it’s just a “this is who I could’ve been” if I had taken drugs and went to clubs. Everything, Everything is a live album and most of the songs are actually better than their album versions, bursting with a vital force that I didn’t even realize was lacking on their studio releases. Only one â€” Pearl’s Girl â€” fails to live up to the studio, for reasons that are too technical for me to get into.
Sea Change (2002) – Beck – One of my favorite contemporary writers told me he listened to this album incessantly to get over a heartbreak, just like I did. I later discovered that we may both have been getting over the same girl. Beck apparently recorded the songs to get over a breakup, too, but not with the same girl (as far as I know). This album is a change of pace for him: the sound is more acoustic, the lyrics are less non-sequitur-ing, and the overall result has a lot more heart than Beck’s other music.
Give Up (2003) – The Postal Service – A friend of mine played me this record when I was traveling, so I picked up the CD before going home. When I tried to import it into iTunes, I discovered that I already owned the whole album, courtesy of a cloned library. That’s the only time this has happened; I swear. It’s a twee album, but what can I tell you? If you’ve made it this far in my blog, you know I’m a big geek.
Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003) – Outkast – Embarrassing admission: I’d never heard Outkast until this 2003 double-album. Then I heard Hey Ya!, was blown away, declared it the best pop single I’d heard in a bazillion years, and started checking out their stuff. I had no idea music like this was being made, and was flabbergasted by the stylistic leaps the duo was making. In part, this was due to my sad-ass racist stereotyping of hip-hop. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about Outkast’s album-to-album growth left me comparing it with the Beatles’ progression throughout the ’60’s. Outkast really made some remarkable music. Of course, I showed up just when the party was ending.
St. Elsewhere (2006) – Gnarls Barkley – Crazy was one of the greatest singles of the decade, matched only by the aforementioned Hey Ya! The rest of this album is awfully good, but I don’t find myself listening to it too often.
A Friend of a Friend (2009) – Dave Rawlings Machine – This was released in November 2009, so perhaps it’s too new for me to consider it a fave. But it’s the closest thing I’ll have to a new Gillian Welch album, it’s been on heavy rotation since I bought it, and a couple of songs will likely make their way onto my next Mad Mix CDs (yeah, I still make mix-CDs for people), so it’s at least an Honorable Mention.
I Was Only Just a Chorus Girl (2002) – Ari Scott – We dated for a while, and I still enjoy listening to her first record. It’s (generally) bouncy, catchy, piano-driven singer-songwriter sorta stuff.