I’m a little late in posting all my favorites of the decade so I’ll start the new one looking back on the old one. I’m not calling these CDs “Best” because there are other, more important CDs that were released these separate years. These are my favorites of each year of the first decade of the 21st Century.
For those who want the quick hit, here's the list. I write in more detail following the list.
2000 - David Bowie, Bowie at the Beeb
2001 - Cousteau (self titled)
2002 - Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
2003 - Robert Lamm, Subtlety and Passion
2004 - Garden State
2005 - Caedmon’s Call, Share the Well
2006 - Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
2007 - Bruce Springsteen, Magic
2008 - Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal
2009 - Roy Hargrove, Emergence
Bowie at the Beeb - David Bowie
There were some great CDs this year (the debut of Coldplay, the Robert Lamm/Geoff Beckley/Brian Wilson “Like a Brother” project, my personal discovery of saxophonist James Carter) but Bowie’s 2000 concert was a gem. His characteristic trait of reexamining his own catalogue is on full display here. Not only do we get reinterpretations of hits like “Let’s Dance” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” but we get rare tracks (“This is Not America”) thrown in. As much as I love the piano poetry of Mike Garson on “Absolute Beginners,” it’s Bowie’s new take on 1976’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car” that keeps me coming back to this CD again and again.
The music that preceded the 9/11 attacks was good but there wasn’t a stand-out huge CD that I liked. Instead, the debut album by Cousteau captured my ears and attention. Lounge-inspired, film-noirish, with deep baritone vocals, Cousteau’s music belonged in the 1950s rather than 2001. But I loved it.
The other major CD in 2001 was Sting’s concert CD, “All This Time.” After two years touring behind 1999’s “Brand New Day,” Sting was to record a concert at his Italian villa on 9 September. The attacks of that day almost cancelled the show (as you can see in the DVD documentary of the rehearsals). The band forged onward albeit with a substantially altered setlist. Starting with a rearranged (see a trend in things I like?) version of “Fragile,” the musicians coped with the terrorist attacks through music. By the last song of the night, some semblance of normalcy had returned and, via the power of music, some order had been restored if for only a few hours.
This year saw a flood of music from some of my favorite artists. David Bowie’s “Heathen” is arguably the best thing he had released since 1976’s “Low.” Sheryl Crow’s “C’mon C’mon” is a tightly-written collection of songs that praise good times and summer. Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited CD “Up” finally landed. Coldplay’s sophomore CD, “A Rush of Blood to the Head” proved they were not a one-album wonder. Guitarist John Williams issued his CD recorded in Africa and “his Graceland” contains some of the best guitar music out there.
The 9/11 attacks produced some musical responses as well in 2002 and none was a substantial as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” This was the first E Street Band album since 1988’s “Tunnel of Love” and it was, as is, phenomenal. The title track vaulted into my all-time favorite status, rivaling only “Born to Run” in my book. Redemption has always been a theme of the Boss and it’s here, too. But the songs directly dealing with the tragedy (“Into the Fire,” “Empty Sky,” among others) sear the heart and leave it altered.
While I counted Bowie’s “Reality” (to date, his last CD), Chris Botti’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” Stephen Delopoulos’s “Me Died Blue,” Jet’s “Get Born,” and Roy Hargrove’s “Hard Groove,” among my favorites, one album clearly stands tall in my book. The irony of my favorite CD of 2003 was that it was the greatest “Chicago” album since Chicago VII. Robert Lamm’s solo CD, “Subtlety and Passion,” was everything a Chicago fan could want and more. With all but two then-current fellow band members playing on the ten-track collection, Lamm basically writes Chicago 7-1/2. Half of the songs would have been major hits in the 1970s but the songs didn’t sound like they belonged in the 70s. A highlight is the use of a Terry Kath guitar solo, recorded before his death in 1978, for a new song in 2003. Lamm perfectly captured the essence of Chicago.
Rarely does my Tree of Music grow new branches but it did this year. Here’s what I mean. While I love all sorts of rock and roll, it all boils down for me to my first, favorite band, KISS. I’ve come to enjoy many artists more than KISS but they started it all. Ditto for classical music: I like a lot but my first taste of instrumental music was the Star Wars soundtrack.
Up until 2004, I rarely, if ever, listened to indie music. That changed with the soundtrack to the movie “Garden State.” These thirteen tracks could easily have been called “Indie Music 101.” I learned about The Shins, Remy Zero, Iron and Wine, Zero 7, Colin Hay, and others. This one CD created a huge new branch to my musical enjoyment, one that followed these past five years. If I define the Album of the Decade as one that changed me rather than one that merely contained my favorite songs, this would be it.
Interesting year, 2005. Springsteen returned to acoustic songs (“Devils and Dust”), Paul Anka showed that modern rock songs might just be timeless as jazz standards (“Rock Swings”), and Rob Thomas showed that he can create fun pop songs almost in his sleep (“Something to Be”). However, Caedmon’s Call trumps them all with their version of “Graceland.” The Christian band from Houston had traveled the world in 2004, primarily in India and Central America. What they saw there touched them and changed them. The subsequent album is like nothing in their catalogue. Where they were a folk/acoustic band, for this one time, they brought in musicians from the countries they visited. What emerged was an amalgam album, full of hope, joy, pain, and musical abandon.
With the release of Chicago’s 30th CD, you might expect me to pick it for favorite of the year. Not even close. As much as I looked forward to Chicago 30, the album didn’t live up my expectations. There were half a dozen albums I liked better. Springsteen’s “The Seeger Sessions,” the debuts of both Amy Winehouse and Rodrigo y Gabriela, Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible,” The Decemberists “The Crane Wife,” and two selections from Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse” and “My Flame Burns Blue.” What I loved more than any other album was Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere.” One could argue that it was the first true album of the decade, bringing together a multitude of styles and influences. The lead single, “Crazy,” just might be my favorite song of the decade. I never tire of hearing this album.
Another winner from Springsteen. “Magic” was Springsteen doing what he does best: looking around at the state of the world and reporting on it. While not as consequential as Walter Cronkite, Springsteen’s songs seemed something of a harbinger of what was to come in 2008. “Long Walk Home” summarized all of the Boss’s thoughts about modern America. But he was not averse to releasing a good, old-fashioned rock song with “Radio Nowhere.” And “Girls with the Summer Clothes” proved Springsteen could croon if he had the right song.
Other standouts: Brian Setzer’s “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out”; Springsteen’s “Live in Dublin” (the Seeger Sessions Band); The Shins “Wincing the Night Away”; California Transit Authority “Full Circle” (band created by Chicago’s original drummer, Danny Serephanie); Turtle Island String Quartet “The Legacy of John Coltrane”
A fun year for music. Bill Champlin’s “No Place Left to Fall” showed how consummate a musician he really is, Gnarls Barkley released their second CD, “The Odd Couple,” Tom Jones (yes THE Tom Jones) put out an album that was spectacular in its blend of old and new, Coldplay rebounded with “Viva la Vida” after the disappointing “X&Y,” and another odd couple, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, recorded a surprisingly fresh CD. Vampire Weekend debuted on the scene with their unique blend of indie and African rhythms (look for the follow-up later this month) and was the freshest thing on the block for awhile. But it was Springsteen that introduced me to my favorite CD of the year, Alejandro Escovedo’s “Real Animal.” The Boss brought out Escovedo for the encore of his April 2008 concert in Houston. Three months later, “Real Animal” was released. Fantastic CD. I’ve written about it twice (here and here) and can’t say anything better.
I’ve already written about the music of 2009 here. I made that list before my birthday. The only thing I have to add is a CD I received for my birthday. “Declaration Of Dependence” from Kings of Convenience is a quiet, introspective, yet ravishing CD. I’ve never heard of this band before December 6. Now, I’m out to acquire the rest of the catalog.
There you have it, in more detail than you probably wanted.