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Decade in Review: Top Ten CDs from the 2000s

December 28, 2009

I’m not sure many music historians will look back on the 2000s and find much. There didn’t seem to be a sound that defined the decade the way previous eras did. The 50s had rock and roll, the 60s had the British Invasion/psychedelia. The 70s had disco, the 80s had pop and color to make up for the lack of substance. The 90s had grunge. The 2000s?

Someone’s inevitably going to  look back on Radiohead or Wilco as the sound that defined the decade. Others might see it as an era where 70s and 80s powerhouses such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, or the one shot Led Zeppelin reunion marked a return to glory. I think most will say that musically, the 2000s were just there, as there are only so many ways you can redefine music.

Whatever one’s overall opinion of the decade are, there were some great releases. Bruce Springsteen had three, U2 had 3, Ryan Adams . . . well. . . just about everything he touched was “Gold” (no pun intended, that album was great, too). Some bands gave us a look back to former glory; the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve Cow Palace show and a few Widespread Panic live archival releases spring to mind. Some splintered off into a brief solo career (Phish’s Trey Anastasio and The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson), others created bands in order to pay homage to another great (Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band). Even though none of us can come up with a singular sound, we can come up with great albums. Below, in no particular order, are the ten releases that stood out above the rest.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb – U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind saw U2 ditching the techno sounds that alienated much of the longtime fanbase. The follow up, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” was a more cohesive release, sounding like “The Joshua Tree” with much sharper teeth. The bombastic “Vertigo,” “Love and Peace or Else” (a not-so-distant cousin to “Bullet the Blue Sky”), the sweeping “City of Blinding Lights,” and the emotional tribute to Bono’s dad, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” Most will probably give the nod to All That You Can’t Leave Behind as the one to choose from the 2000s. To me, How To Dismantle . . . was the best of their three releases during the decade.

Magic- Bruce Springsteen: If “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River” had a baby, it would probably sound like Magic. Easily the best of his three releases during the decade, Magic was a return to the classic E Street sound. Vocally, Springsteen sounded more like the guy who sang “Prove It All Night” and less like the guy who sang the x-rated “Reno.”  “Girls in their Summer Clothes,”  “I’ll Work For Your Love,” and “Livin’ in the Future” were pure E Street glory. And who cares if “Radio Nowhere” sounds a lot like “Jenny (867-5309)?” It served its purpose, kick starting the best disc Springsteen released since Born in the USA.

New Year’s Eve 1995 Live at Madison Square Garden – Phish: Regarded as one of the band’s greatest shows (easily the best I’ve ever seen by this band), the band practically started off on a different planet and stayed there for each of its three sets. The first set, “Reba,” can only be described as transcendental. “Runaway Jim” was taken for a wild twenty minute ride. The Who’s “Drowned” contained a subtle nod to Jerry Garcia with a tease of “Fire on the Mountain.” “Mike’s Song” ended the second set with a mysterious sounding loop delay jam played solely by Trey Anastasio. The midnight set was as incredible as the first two, with a magnificent “Weekapaug Groove” to start off 1996. That incredible playing would last straight through to the “Johnny B. Goode” encore. Okay, so I mentioned a show that took place nearly 15 years ago. It was released in 2005. My list, my rules.

Cold Roses – Ryan Adams: This was a hard one. Adams released nothing but amazing albums throughout the decade. “Gold”, “Heartbreaker,” “Jacksonville City Nights,” “Easy Tiger,” “Follow The Lights,” “Cardinology” each could have made the list. The double CD Cold Roses barely edges the rest, partly due to the volume of songs, but also because each song is as good as the one  you just heard and the one you’re about to hear. Adams can play it majestically on “Magnolia Mountain,” rock you on “Beautiful Sorta,” and break your heart on “How Do You Keep Love Alive.”  He also started taking on Grateful Dead style influences in songs such as “Easy Plateau.” Cold Roses has lost none of its power, beauty, and brilliance since it’s release back in 2005.

wormwood – moe.: As close to perfect an album as any jamband has ever released, wormwood was moe.’s masterstroke. Recorded as one continuous piece of music, wormwood weaved through musical genres with ease. “Okayalright” was fist pumping arena rock, “crab Eyes” could have been a reggae substitute to the theme from “Cops,” “Shoot First” sounded like a merengue “Kyle’s Song” could have been a minor hit, and the title track/instrumental “wormwood” showcased the band’s anything-can-happen live feel. It took a long time for this one to leave the CD player. Every once in a while wormwood still finds itself an extended stay.

Love – Beatles: This was the incredibly unique soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas “Love” show. A reimagining of the Beatles’ music, “Love’s” 26 tracks contained 130 fragments of Beatles songs. “Get Back” contained the chaotic whirling sound from “A Day in the Life,” bits of “The End,” the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night,” and segued cleanly into “Glass Onion,” “Gnik Nus” is “Sun King” played (and spelled) in reverse which blended beautifully into “Something” . . . you get the idea. Songs grafted over other songs, some ever so slightly sped up or slowed down in order to create one continuous disc. Each song took on a different power of its own, yet no less amazing from its original form.

This Magnificent Distance – Chris Robinson: Maybe at the time Chris Robinson was being held back by The Black Crowes. Maybe he’s still apologizing for “Lions.” Regardless, This Magnificent Distance was Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson’s return to roots. If you’re a classic rock or southern rock fan, this was for you. From the Grateful Dead to The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, Robinson’s influences are everywhere. “Girl on the Mountain” owes as much to psychedelia as it does to The Allman Brothers. “. . . If You See California” could’ve been a 70s AOR staple. It sounded dated and relevant at the same time, no small feat. Each track was at least a triple, with a few that were home runs (“Like a Tumbleweed in Eden” and “Eagles on the Highway”). The entire CD was a winner.

Blue Country Heart – Jorma Kaukonen: Can you really go wrong with a lineup containing Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and Byron House playing American roots music on authentic 1930s instruments? It would have been difficult to fail, and too easy to succeed. With Kaukonen’s weary, yet somewhat restful voice, a band that was recorded live without a single studio overdub, this was a back porch pickin’ collection for the ages. Eight of the disc’s 13 tracks contain some form of the word “blues” in it, yet it still manages to sound joyous. To pick a single song that stands out is nearly impossible (gun to my head, “Blue Railroad Train” by a hair, just don’t pull the trigger). If you’re a fan of old time country/bluegrass music, this has to be in your collection.

Trey Anastasio – Trey Anastasio: A lot of us wanted Trey to get this one wrong. He had just broken Phish up for the first time, a bitter pill to swallow. When this first solo disc came out, it was more of a “let’s see what you got” mentality from his fans, a subtle way of saying, “You’re making a big mistake.” Unfortunately, or fortunately, he had a lot. “Alive Again” wouldn’t sound out of place if it was playing at a Mexican restaurant. From “Cayman Review” on it was all groove. .  . and a pulsating groove at that. Bassist Tony Markellis provided a low register bed for the rest of the band to play over. Sure it had softer interludes such as the instrumental “At the Gazebo” and the ballad “Drifting.” You still had “Mr. Completely” which sounded like a traffic jam in your speakers, and the hyper “Last Tube.”  Thankfully in 2009 Phish is back, playing nearly as good as ever, and we still have this release to fall back on, the one we wanted Trey Anasatasio to get wrong–but he still got right.

One Fast Move or I’m Gone – Jay Ferrar and Ben Gibbard: This was genius. Genius in its sparse instrumentation and playing, genius in the way Jack Kerouac’s words and freewheeling style were incorporated into this release. Filled with music that sounded like pure Americana, One Fast Move or I’m Gone was like an east coast to west coast trip to Big Sur. I don’t think anyone saw the pairing of members from Uncle Tupelo and Death Cab for Cutie coming, united only due to a mutual admiration of Kerouac’s writings, but it worked on every conceivable level. In a year that saw new releases from Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Phish, One Fast Move or I’m Gone stood above the rest in 2009.

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