2004: Arcade Fire Funeral — Who could forget this Montreal-based collective’s hauntingly uplifting debut, which ranks among the most impressive debut albums of all time? Funeral, inspired somewhat by the passing of several band members’ relatives, is both solemn elegy and a heartrending celebration. Famously veered towards stardom by perhaps the most positive Pitchfork review ever written, Arcade Fire’s youthful army of multi-talented musicians came storming out of the gate with Funeral’s thoughtfully anthemic choruses, which frequently transitioned from lines about the death of childhood to stunning wordless chants. NME made Funeral their No. 2 album of the 2000s, but it’s my No. 1.
Honorable mentions: Danger Mouse The Grey Album; Joanna Newsom Milk- Eyed Mender
2005: Spoon Gimme Fiction — Texas gave us numerous great bands in the last decade, from The Black Angels to Midlake to Explosions in the Sky, but none of those bands have given us a truly great pure rock album that stays fresh from start to finish with every listen like Gimme Fiction, Spoon’s fifth album. You might remember the head-bopping poise of “I Turn My Camera On” from a Simpsons episode, or the thumping wisdom of “My Mathematical Mind” from the (great) movie Stranger Than Fiction, but Gimme Fiction is best appreciated as one seriously cool piece of melodically and lyrically thematic smart-rock.
Honorable mention: Animal Collective Feels
2006: Midlake The Trials of Van Occupanther — Midlake’s first long-play, 2004’s Bamnan and Silvercork, revealed what Midlake basically were at the time: a bunch of music majors transferring their stilted classical and pop talents to transparent attempts at mimicking Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. On their next album, however, Midlake utilized the early 70s production of records by artists like Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young to lushly support a collection of songs about a rural scientist presumably born in 1891. The result was unforgettably beautiful, from the band’s intricate use of many-part harmonies, finger-picking and violins to mesmerizing lyrics about log cabins and deer. How these boys from Denton, Texas, will follow up an accomplishment like Van Occupanther, we’re still waiting to hear.
Honorable mention: Sonic Youth Rather Ripped
2007: Animal Collective Strawberry Jam — Baltimore-, NYC- and Lisbonbased freak-poppers Animal Collective reportedly recorded some of their seventh album under the influence of Salvia Divinorum, an over-the-counter psychedelic. Whatever effect that drug had, at least musically, seems to have actually helped focus the band’s stereotypically gorgeous fragments of deranged harmonies and melodious noise. Strawberry Jam (sort of an Aoxomoxoa for the 00s) finally succeeded in juxtaposing Animal Collective’s brilliantly weird lyrics (i.e. “it was the clouds that carved the mountains/it was the mountains that made the kids scream”) and mad musical experiments with more accessible pop arrangements.
Honorable mention: Dr. Dog We All Belong
2008: Fleet Foxes Fleet Foxes — At this point it’s pretty tough to say anything original about the truly breathtaking beauty that still is the Fleet Foxes’ picturesque debut LP, which quickly underwent a metamorphosis from underground revelation to Starbucks ubiquity. If you haven’t yet, try listening to the woodsy charm of “Sun It Rises” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” while hiking through the Flatirons at dawn; don’t forget on your harmony-enhanced walk that socially anxious front-kid Robin Pecknold was only 21 when Fleet Foxes was recorded, though his voice was already timeless. Like the bulk of Midlake’s own masterpiece Van Occupanther, these organically stoic tunes about forests and ghosts could’ve found a similarly receptive audience in 1808.
Honorable mention: Jolie Holland The Living and the Dead
2009: Andrew Bird Noble Beast/ Useless Creatures — Even for an allaround virtuoso like Andrew Bird, a master-whistler and phenomenal violinist whose lyrics mystify as deftly as they engage the intellect, Noble Beast was an astonishing artistic success. Songs like “Oh No” and “Nomenclature” made the standard edition of this album a linguistic and musical showcase for Bird’s idiosyncratic genius, tempering playful pop-rock and wordplay like “from inside me grows a man who speaks with perfect diction as he orders my eviction” with stunning bursts of world-class violin. Useless Creatures, a bonus disc of skillful and imaginative instrumentals, could be the album of the year on its own. If you’re game, curl up with “Carrion Suite” on a snowy afternoon and forget your troubles.
Honorable mention: Alela Diane To Be Still