The 50 Best Albums of the Decade (2000-2009)

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30. Damien Rice: O [Vector] (2003)
Beautifully packaged as a hardcover book, the Irish singer/songwriter’s debut took us all by surprise. It was so beautiful and so grand, and we’d never even heard of this guy before. Rice struck a perfect emotional balance—dramatic but not tortured, romantic but not sentimental. And Lisa Hannigan’s angelic voice made every song better, especially the gorgeously melancholy “The Blower’s Daughter.” Kate Kiefer


29. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago [Jagjaguwar] (2008)
In early 2008, when I interviewed Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for a 4 To Watch profile in this magazine, he was snowed in at his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Ottawa, Canada. The circumstances seemed both fitting and ironic—a year and a half before, his heart a bit worse for wear, he’d decamped to the woods of northern Wisconsin and, quite accidentally, recorded one of the great bedroom masterworks of our time. When For Emma, Forever Ago was released to the world, it sparked a low flush that spun into a full fever, our defenses slowly broken down by the deep, desperate sounds of this man singing only to himself, so true and so sad, his falsetto aching and his guitar-strings worn ragged. “I want to be making records like this until I’m dead,” Vernon told me then. Here’s hoping. Rachael Maddux


28. Paul Westerberg: Folker [Vagrant] (2004)
A wistful letter to girlfriends past, his aging father and perhaps even that long-gone Roman candle of a former Replacements bandmate, Bob Stinson, this warm, well-worn, acoustic-anchored “folk”-rock record chugs along as Westerberg ruminates on middle age, endearingly toggling between heartbreaking sincerity and wise-assed self deprecation. Steve LaBate


27. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day [New West] (2003)
On DBT’s 2001 breakthrough double album Southern Rock Opera, the band traded its alt-country “Redneck Underground” approach for a Skynyrd-meets-Crazy-Horse vibe. And on the more concise follow-up, Decoration Day, the Truckers distilled their new sound from 80 to 100 proof. Start to finish, every cut on this gritty, unapologetic, punk-tinged roots-rock record is a classic, as master storytellers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley unravel one tragic, chilling small-town Southern yarn after another. With tunes like “Sink Hole” (based on Ray McKinnon’s Oscar-winning short film, The Accountant), the unflinchingly honest rocker “Marry Me,” “My Sweet Annette” (with its jilted title character), the and heart-crushing divorce ballad “Sounds Better in the Song,” the caliber of songwriting went through the roof like a shotgun blast. And that’s without even mentioning the debut of the Truckers’ secret weapon during this period—then-24-year-old singer/guitarist Jason Isbell, whose blistering leads and slide work gave the band a shot in the arm, as did the epic pair of tracks he contributed to the record: father-to-son ballad “Outfit” and the title song, with its bloody Hatfields and McCoys-style family feud. The Truckers have never been more themselves than they were on Decoration Day, and they’ve never been better. Steve LaBate


26. Over the Rhine: Ohio [Back Porch] (2004) In the liner notes accompanying Over the Rhine’s gloriously self-indulgent double-disc, Ohio, co-founder Linford Detweiler, writes, “We grew up in small coal mining towns in the Ohio Valley, listening to music that could have only been unearthed in America: Southern Gospel, Country Western and Rock ’n’ Roll. This music fertilized the soil of our early lives. We sit down at the upright piano these days with dirt under our fingernails.” And I suppose that’s what I love about this album. The songs feel gritty and real, unpolished and perfect. Just like people. All the artifice (both musical and emotional) has been carefully dismantled, traditional instruments—upright piano, pedal steel, acoustic guitars—have been dusted off, arrangements have been simplified, windows into souls have been propped open a bit wider. In stark contrast, Karin Bergquist’s voice has never felt as undressed and painfully honest as it does in these songs, as if she’s opened her gut and tugged the melodies out like a breach baby. This process is partly masochistic, partly exhibitionist, entirely self-consuming: but such is true art. Ohio, is more than simply a dense, rich, vulnerable collection of songs; it’s a dirt road companion on that difficult journey inward, upward. Homeward. Jason Killingsworth


25. Sigur Rós: Med ud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust [XL] (2008)
With a sprawling Icelandic title you’d swear meant “Drivers use caution: nude jogger crossing,” Sigur Rós’ fifth full-length balances majestic ethereality and primal, drum-pounding terrestrial fervor. On earlier records, Jónsi Birgisson’s crystalline
falsetto arrived like wind sifting through branches, brushing gently past and raising gooseflesh. That singular voice has matured into a confident and unmistakably human instrument, to say nothing of the evocative sonic bedrock from which it flutters ever upward. Jason Killingsworth


24. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow [Sub Pop] (2003)
It wasn’t that long ago, really, when the notion of this band changing your life was less the stuff of cringe-inducing Zach Braff screenplays and more plain truth. Today the idea seems just as unlikely as meeting your soulmate in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, but by some odd musical alchemy, all of Chutes Too Narrow’s unassuming parts—those tweaky guitars, bedroom symphonics and James Mercer’s wobbly self-harmonizing—gelled into the kind of album that demands to be proliferated by forcing headphones upon friends (and, yes, quirky potential lovers). Rachael Maddux


23. Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker [Bloodshot] (2000)
Between the simple romance of “Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains),” the drunken despair of “Come Pick Me Up,” the carefree energy of “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” and the nostalgic beauty of Emmylou Harris duet “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” Ryan Adams’ first solo record teeters satisfyingly between alt-country and plain-old country, rolling out one gem of a song after another. “I love that you can hear the South in Ryan in that record, very clearly,” says David Rawlings, who lent his guitar playing and vocal harmonies to the album. “In a way, I feel like Heartbreaker captures a time and a place more than any record he’s made.” When Rawlings got the record in the mail, he was surprised to see his name on the first track, “Argument with David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey,” a random bit of spontaneous studio banter. “We were arguing about which record ‘Hairdresser On Fire’ was on,” Rawlings recalls. “But the song was on both records—it’s on Viva Hate and Bona Drag—so there was no actual winner to the bet. Though I’m happy to go double or nothing with Ryan about some other Morrissey song at some point in the future.” Kate Kiefer


22. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife [Capitol] (2006)
Paste Hall of Fame: This beloved chamber-rock ensemble’s major-label debut topped our year-end list back in 2006. Here’s what we said about it at the time:
Forget sexy. Although people with an affinity for homesick soldiers, star-crossed lovers and cleaver-wielding gangsters will find plenty to swoon over, The Decemberists are bringing epic back—and in a big way. A classic Japanese folk tale is retold in the three-part title track, anchoring a bevy of gorgeous tunes, from the 12-minute prog-folk romp of “The Island” to the post-apocalyptic singalong of “Sons and Daughters.” Past releases have proven these fabulous fabulists some of the most innovative, intelligent fledglings in the indie world. But with The Crane Wife, The Decemberists really take flight. Rachael Maddux


21. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend [XL] (2008)
Squawky vocals, ska guitars, trembling basslines, tumbling drums. White boy Afro-pop. Graceland. Beach music, dorm music, dinner-party music. Smarty-pants lyrics. New England vacation spots. Sweaters. Linens. The United Colors of Benetton. Proper grammar. Lil Jon! Not colonialism. Not condescension. Real affection, real reverence, real melodies, real songcraft. A glance at the past. A vision of the future. Nick Marino

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