Monday, 28 December 2009

The Best Albums of the Decade – as opposed to those which sold the most

As the millennium arrived music was, at least in my opinion, a fairly poor state. Having been subjected to the ‘rise of the boy band’, with Boyzone, Five, Backstreet Boys and N*Sync dominating the British charts, it was time for something different. However 2000 began in a similarly mediocre fashion, with Westlife’s Christmas Number One ‘I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun’ remaining at the summit; yet musical redemption for the British public followed as the Manic Street Preachers’ limited edition stand-alone single ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ gave the band their second number one. Whilst Robbie Williams’ not unimpressive ‘Sing When You’re Winning’ sold 2.4 million copies, spent 91 weeks in the chart and was 2000’s top-selling album, it was by no means the year’s most impressive offering. That honour must go to Coldplay’s Parachutes, one of the most critically and commercially successful debut albums of the decade. Upon its release the Guardian described Parachutes as “one of the year’s most uplifting albums”, with Rolling Stone magazine calling it “a work of real transcendence”. Whilst Coldplay have gone on to even greater commercial success and established huge popularity within the United Kingdom and around the world, for me Parachutes remains their magnum opus. Songs such as ‘Don’t Panic’ and ‘Shiver’ showed Coldplay’s indie rock inclinations, whilst the album itself was filled with sweet melodies and catchy pop-rock songs, albeit with a slightly dark focus, making it a deserving winner of the ‘Best Album’ award at the Brits in 2000.

The following year saw Dido’s ‘No Angel’ dominate the charts, become the biggest-selling album in the United Kingdom and go on to apparently shift in excess of sixteen million copies around the world. Whilst Dido’s offering was critically lauded and exceptionally popular, in no small part due to the success of ‘Stan’, it is a very different album that takes the crown for 2001. Whilst ‘Toxicity’, the second album from Armenian-American band System of a Down, reached number one in both the United States and Canada, the reaction to it from the British public was rather cooler. Despite this it is one of the most innovative, challenging and original metal albums ever released. Although lead single ‘Chop Suey’ caused considerable controversy due to its numerous references to suicide and the line “I cry when angels deserve to die” in the aftermath of 9/11, that cannot detract from the album’s brilliance. Few other bands, if any, have ever managed to provide such cutting social commentary, with no small degree of lunacy and shouting, and for this System of a Down deserve considerable recognition. Their example stands head and shoulders above many of System’s contemporaries, and given the general lack of attention and appreciation given to this genre, it thoroughly deserves this award. As Eduardo Rivadavia states, “Toxicity may well prove to be a lasting heavy metal classic”, and a total of sixteen million copies sold is also a rather impressive legacy for a truly unique band.

2002 saw the concept of the 'musical talent show' explode onto the British music scene, with former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller’s Pop Idol a huge success, depending on your definition of the word. Both winner Will Young’s single ‘Anything is Possible/Evergreen’ and Gareth Gates’ cover of ‘Unchained Melody’ sold a million copies, the former becoming the 11th biggest-selling single of all time in the United Kingdom. On the album American rapper Eminem’s critically-lauded The Eminem Show lost out to Robbie William’s critically-panned Escapology by a mere 110,000 copies in the ‘best-seller list’, but it has triumphed here. Whilst previous offerings The Marshall Mathers LP and Slim Shady LP were impressive, The Eminem Show constituted Eminem’s first mainly self-produced album, and showed his more personal and serious side. Songs such as ‘Sing for the Moment’ deal with the sensitive issue of poverty, on with which Eminem has for a long time been greatly concerned, and ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’, providing a rare glimpse into the rapper’s childhood. ‘White America’ deals with the issue of race in hip-hop, an issue becoming of increasing importance given the growing popularity of rap and hip-hop music in the commercial charts. Yet such social commentary does not mean the album lacks Eminem’s characteristic sense of humour; ‘Without Me’ essentially shows Eminem as back to ‘save the world’, whilst ‘Business’ shows Eminem and Dr. Dre working together to set the hip-hop and rap music world straight. The Eminem Show will long be remembered as one of the all-time great rap albums, and the moment at which “the world's most celebrated rapper examined life in the hall of mirrors he'd built for himself”.

2003 was in many ways the beginning of the end for the UK singles charts, as sales fell by 34% compared with the previous year and for the first time in ten years no single shifted more than a million copies. Yet this didn’t stop the almost unknown Black Eyed Peas topping the chart for six weeks with their song ‘Where Is The Love?’, whilst Dido’s Life For Rent ended the year as the highest-selling album, having sold over two million copies. 2003’s winning album is one which managed to superbly combine raw anger, energy, edginess and very real lyrics, and won the 2003 Mercury Prize. I am of course talking about Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, the debut album from the East London rapper. The fact that Dizzee was at the time just 18 years of age only adds to the album’s fantastic appeal. The bombastic ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ was like manna from heaven for millions of white suburban teenagers on whom the album’s themes and messages were perhaps lost, but Boy In Da Corner was by no means a half-baked rap record designed to appeal to everyone. The bleak ‘Do It’ details an account of apathy and discontent, “friend’s don’t understand us, adult’s don’t understand us, no one understands us”, whilst ‘Sittin’ Here’ shows Dizzee confronting the type of urban discontent and problems he would have faced growing up, describing “benefit claims and cheques in false names” and how “police don’t give me no peace”. It’s a huge shame for all those who hold Boy In Da Corner in such a high regard as myself that Dizzee has chosen to sacrifice his artistic integrity, originality, and everything that made him popular in the first place in favour of bland, dance floor numbers detailing his ‘new’ life of girls, clubs, alcohol, fame and fortune. I personally would rather hear the gun shots and police sirens of Boy In Da Corner than the meaningless and inane lyrics which characterise the far more successful ‘Bonkers’ and ‘Holiday’ every time.

For me 2004 was the moment at which the UK Singles Chart was truly rendered untenable, as the god-awful ‘songs’, if such terminology can be deemed appropriate, by Eamon and Frankee, ‘F*** It, I Don’t Want You Back’ and ‘F U Right Back’ somehow remained in top spot for seven weeks between them, despite both songs being aberrations and devoid of any appeal whatsoever. Luckily Eamon’s dismal effort, being the more popular of the two, was beaten to the crown of the year’s top-selling single by Band Aid 20’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’, but the album charts made for similarly poor reading. This is because 2004 constituted the real beginning of the recent indie revival, a term which has become so inaccurate that its replacement ought to be a top priority for those who choose to shoe-horn music into categories. As such albums by Franz Ferdinand, Keane and Maroon 5 were hugely popular, but in what is rapidly becoming a pattern in these awards, the prize must be awarded to an altogether far-less popular album. Despite its ominous title, Arcade Fire’s Funeral was by some distance the year’s best album. Funeral is an extremely unique album, and in the years following its release has remained so upon each listen. Unlike the samey and uninspiring ‘indie rock’ bands that followed, Arcade Fire truly set out to forge an independent musical style with their debut. Single ‘Wake Up’ is a stadium anthem of the highest proportion, no doubt a huge factor in its use by Aston Villa as the players’ entrance music, whilst ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ features constant changes in pace and musical style. The funereal ‘Crown of Love’ is by far the album’s most depressing and downbeat song, in which lead singer Win Butler begs “if you still want me, please forgive me”. However it is Arcade Fire’s musical variety that astonishes most listeners; whilst the majority of bands feature merely drums and guitar, Arcade Fire incorporate cellos, violins, xylophones, accordions and harps. Few bands, certainly in the 2000s, have been able to at any point be as versatile and all-encompassing in terms of instruments and musical styles.

The following year saw the indie revolution continue in the album charts with Coldplay’s X&Y, Kaiser Chief’s Employment, Gorrillaz’ Demon Days and the Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss all inside the top twenty. As for the singles charts it appeared that novelty records were back in vogue, as Tony Christie and Peter Kay’s ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo?’, Shayne Ward’s highly comedic and utterly horrific ‘That’s My Goal’ and Crazy Frog’s ‘Axel F’ constituted the top three best sellers across the entire year. There were a number of other entries which one could describe as being ‘novelties’, but that would perhaps be doing Akon, James Blunt and McFly a slight disservice. Of the new ‘indie rock generation’ the stand-out offering was Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, an album whose “spirit is closer to the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’ than Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut. Silent Alarm is indeed a rather more dark and introspective album than those of its contemporaries, as one would expect from a band listing Sonic Youth and Joy Division as influences. Kele Okereke’s vocals provide an instant uniqueness, whilst musically the album spans “edgy pop, atmospheric ballads, and angular, percussive tracks”. Highlights include opening song ‘Helicopter’, of the Championship’s Goal of the Month fame, as well as gorgeous ballad ‘This Modern Love’ and the murky ‘Positive Tension’ with its promise of “something glorious…about to happen”. The proclamation was correct, and Silent Alarm remains Bloc Party’s greatest offering to date and one of the high points of the indie rock revolution.

Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ topped the singles charts for an astonishing nine weeks in 2006, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that it had reached said position based on downloads alone, a phenomenon that would become far more common in the coming years. Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene with their debut album, the long-winded Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and whilst it received rave reviews, sold over a million copies and received the 2006 Mercury Prize, was far too inconsistent to be considered a contender for album of the year. That honour must go instead to Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, also extremely popular and well-sold as well as critically praised. Black Holes and Revelations in an exercise in the abnormal, from the title down to the band’s subject matter; themes include alien invasion, political corruption, astronomy and science fiction as well as conventional love songs such as ‘Starlight’. ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ stands out as the album’s most commercial point, mixing dance floor beats with “Rage Against the Machine riffs”, whilst ‘Knights of Cydonia’ pushes “the epic side of the band to almost comical levels”, in the words of Matt Bellamy. Black Holes and Revelations constitutes Muse exploring new musical possibilities and provides an album bursting with variety, songs ranging from the pulsating electro-orchestral Take A Bow to the industrial rock mixed in with alternative dance of Map of the Problematique, which drew unsurprising comparisons to 1980s innovators Depeche Mode. For the first time in their career, Muse had finally been able to shake off the ‘next Radiohead’ tag and firmly establish themselves as one of the leading British alternative rock bands.

Although they have by now become an entirely meaningless entity, having attained commercial success and near-universal popularity thanks to the now hugely annoying ‘Sex On Fire’, in 2007 the Kings of Leon were still a relatively minor player in the alternative rock scene in Britain. Whilst Amy Winehouse, then an excellent singer with a great future, ended the year with her album Back to Black as the top-seller, Because of the Times is for the me the year’s highlight. It appears to be an album on which single releases were clearly afterthoughts, as the songs are all of similar quality, as well as being an altogether “darker, less pop-orientated and more cerebral affair” than its predecessors. Opening track ‘Knocked Up’ is symptomatic of this new approach, and showcases lead singer Caleb Followill’s growing maturity as a songwriter, along with the moody ‘On Call’ and the stadium anthem ‘Fans’, all of which make comparisons with Bruce Springsteen not entirely unfounded. ‘Black Thumbnail’ is an excellent vocal performance from Followill, and one of the album’s most forceful tracks whilst the atmospheric and floaty ‘McFearless’ “while not immediately hummable”, does “sink into your memory revealing layers of melody and emotion on repeated listens”. I for one sincerely hope the Kings of Leon are one day able to return to these heights, and ditch the commercial pandering of ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ for their former garage rock glory days.

For those unable to stand Welsh singer Duffy’s rather grating vocals 2008 provided a number of great albums capable of standing up to her critical and commercial success Rockferry. American innovators Vampire Weekend laid down an impressive gauntlet in January with their eponymous debut, featuring its brilliant combination of African influences and indie-rock stylings, whilst Bruce Springsteen-esque the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive was the soundtrack to many a summer. Despite these deserving efforts the 2008 album of the year is one which I doubt many people within these Isles have yet had the pleasure to listen to. I am talking about TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, named the best album of the year by Rolling Stone, the Guardian, MTV and Entertainment Weekly amongst others. With such an impressive critical following first-time listeners would be forgiven for having high expectations, but Dear Science more than matches them. Stand-out tracks include the funky ‘Crying’, pop-rap hybrid ‘Dancing Choose’, described as “another example of this album’s rare balance between craft and passion” and the “self evidently sexy” ‘Red Dress’, possibly a comment on the loss of innocence given the repetition of “days of white robes have come and gone” and “come bear witness to the ‘Whore of Babylon’”. Tunde Adepimbe’s singing on ‘Love Dog’ and the use of harmony contrasts well with the constant drum beat and slightly melancholic feel, whilst giving the song an orchestral feel as the drums fade into gentle strings. The most remarkable thing about Dear Science is the way it manages to sound both deeply experimental and entirely natural and well put-together, and is an album deserving of a far wider audience than that it has achieved thus far.

Last but by no means least we come to 2009, a year of transition in British music with Noel Gallagher’s not entirely unexpected but still surprising departure from Oasis in the summer, which essentially brought the band to an end, as well as splitting up one of the most volatile musical partnerships in history. Elsewhere twenty million Britons tuned in to the final of singing competition X-Factor to watch Geordie sensation Joe McElderry join past winners including Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke, only for the 18 year old to lose out on the previously guaranteed Christmas Number One spot following an internet campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ to the summit. Controversial singer-songwriter and performer Lady Gaga was a mainstay in both the singles and album charts, with ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Bad Romance’ all reaching number one, and her album The Fame spending four weeks at the top. The music world was shocked by the death of the legendary Michael Jackson in June, just before he was due to commence his ‘This Is It’ tour, and that of former Boyzone singer Stephen Gately a few months later at the age of just 33. Meanwhile the Susan Boyle phenomenon spread through the Anglophone world following her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, with her debut album I Dreamed A Dream hitting number one in December. Yet away from the commercial world was an album designed as a tribute to a lost band member, from which no singles would be released. That album was Journal for Plague Lovers, not as many Manic Street Preachers fans would have hoped for, ‘The Holy Bible 2’, more a tribute to the song writing ability, wit and intelligence of Richey James Edwards. The combination of lyrics left behind by a man for whom no subject was too controversial and no thought or feeling inexpressible, and a band going through a musical renaissance following a number of years in the wilderness provides a truly special listening experience. No other album this year has felt so emotionally rewarding, at times painful and at others joyful, and for me Journal for Plague Lovers represented a riposte to the meaningless, insignificant and vacuous ‘music’ occupying the charts. We can only hope more bands decide to shock and appal in equal measure, including the Manics themselves, and that the succeeding decade will provide similar moments of lyrical excellence, musical variation and pure unbridled originality. For music can only last if it remains individual, and steers well clear of the homogenising tendencies our charts have unfortunately come to promote.

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