The Scourge of Aesthetic Atrophy, and the Top 50 Albums of the Aughts
If you've lost your faith in love and music
Oh, the end won't be long
Because if it's gone for you, then I too may lose it
And that would be wrong
I've tried so hard to keep myself from falling
Back into my bad old ways
And it chars my heart to always hear you calling
Calling for the good old days
Because there were no good old days
These are the good old days
I've chosen to use the Libertines song "The Good Old Days" as a vaguely pretentious opening quote not only because it sums up what I'm about to say, but because it's also an artifact from the time I'm about to talk about. That time was October 2002, the release date for Up The Bracket, the ridiculously brilliant debut from The Libertines, a British band that's probably better known for co-leader Peter Doherty's drug problems and dalliances with Kate Moss. I was 22 and in the full throes of music aficionado-hood, listening to the garage-rock revival unfold on my pre-iPod MP3 player while searching for new buttons to affix to my messenger bag and trying not to scuff my Steve Madden faux bowling shoes.
At that point, I knew everything about any new band worth knowing about. I had a $200 annual subscription to NME, the legendary English music magazine that, as Kurt Cobain noted in the liner notes of Incesticide, "we need, need, need." I was acquiring vinyl, the true mark of any seriously dysfunctional music fetishist, a habit that I thankfully abandoned shortly thereafter.
I'm not sure I should admit to this in print, but this is right around the time I ripped a piece of cement off the Hotel Yorba, the Detroit flophouse that gave The White Stripes' first big single its name. I may or may not have put that piece of cement in my mom's garden, planting red and white impatiens around it in tribute to Jack and Meg. You'd have to do some trespassing in suburban Ohio to know for sure.
I was at an apex that anyone who's read this far (thereby braving admittedly creepy details about my White Stripes fandom) probably also hit at some point, the point at which I had an insatiable thirst for new music. The newer and the more obscure, the better. Just like pretty much anyone like that who eventually goes on to live The Dream and write about music professionally, I eventually got some other hobbies and a girlfriend and am much better off for it.
With the deadline to compose a Decade's Best list bearing down on me, I've been thinking a lot about those Good Old Days. It's been taxing. Maybe the pressure I feel to compile the definitive Best of the Naughties list seems pathetic to people who do real shit for a living, but this is a solemn professional duty of a music writer, which I take seriously. For the past eight months or so I've been reminiscing and listening. I've also been wondering how I got to the point I'm at now.
Sometimes I have to force myself to listen to a new record. I do it, sure. It's my job. But often, I admit it, I'd much rather listen to something familiar. Sometimes I listen to a new record and feel like a responsible music fan; other times I gorge myself on Old 97's or T.I. and feel a little guilty about it. Perhaps you've had that sensation. If you haven't yet, you will someday soon. It's a byproduct of something I call "aesthetic atrophy."
Aesthetic atrophy is a wasting away of the ability to appreciate new, different, or avant-garde music. I believe it to be an unavoidable consequence of aging, though the process can be slowed through therapeutic episodes of forced exposure to various stimuli (more on that later). In some people, the slip is more noticeable than in others, which I think has a lot to do with where the person peaked. For me, someone who probably peaked with that chunk of cement from an indie-rock landmark, it's been a pretty steep fall.
It's not that I believe new music to be, by nature, inferior to old music; I don't. It's not that I have found there's any musical high better than discovering something that's both amazing and totally new; there isn't. The problem is me. I'm lazier. Slower on the uptake. Too comfortable.
As I age, I've found I retreat to the tatty and perfectly creased comforts of lifelong favorites. That's stuff like Pet Sounds or one of the many, many amazing records put out by various bands affiliated with the old Elephant 6 collective — which were purposefully recorded to sound like Pet Sounds. It's musical comfort food, and I gravitate to it the way I gravitate to McDonald's fries, even when there's a perfectly good pho place down the street that needs some business.
In truth, there's probably nothing wrong with giving in to aesthetic atrophy. If anyone out there wants to set their filters to "high" and give something a shot only after it's passed the muster of four or five trusted tastemakers, I won't judge. I'm just not ready to move into the home yet.
So, on this 31st day of December 2009, I make it my 2010 New Year's resolution to listen to more new music. ("To do my fucking job," some might say.) I'm re-committing myself to the habit of discovering and exposing new shit on a constant basis.
What's more, in my capacity as music editor of New Times, I'm forcing this resolution on someone else, in grand fashion. Jay Bennett, our trusted copy editor, who is as open-minded as any 40-year-old dude who plays guitar in a garage-rock band can be, has committed to a yearlong project called "Nothing Not New" on our blog, PHXmusic.com.
Jay will listen to at least one brand-new record every weekday for the next year. Also, he's not listening to anything not released in 2010 during the workweek and as little as possible on weekends. That's right: Jay's MP3s are backed up to an external hard drive and his media player has been wiped clean. Tomorrow, Jay can listen only to the first record I've picked out for him, London indie-rock outfit Scanners' joyfully Moog-y sophomore effort Submarine, which is due in stores on January 26.
For the next year, he can go back and listen to whatever he wants from 2010, but nothing else. The goal is to halt the progress of Jay's aesthetic atrophy through intensive therapy, something he has his own reasons for doing, which I'll let him tell you more about at PHXmusic.com.
And, about that Decade's Best list . . . That is what started me on this whole thing, and what doomed poor Jay to the onerous duty of hiding all his Kiss records. I've compiled one — probably the best one you'll find anywhere — assembled thoughtfully and with care to avoid the nasty habit people have of putting critical reputation far above lasting appeal, wider cultural impact, and basic quality. It also includes country, as any responsible critic's list will, because I don't believe in ghettoizing any particular type of popular music. Take it from the guy who stole a piece of the Hotel Yorba: Toby Keith's Shock'n Y'all is still a slightly better record than White Blood Cells.
Perhaps it's appropriate that my top album — a record I'll argue to the death is the best album of the decade — is a retirement-themed concept album, because I have one more resolution.
And that is this: This is the final decade-end list I'll publish. If I'm still writing about music professionally in 10 years — a fate that seems as possible as something can without crossing the threshold to "likely" — I'll refrain. Why? Well, this much soul-searching probably isn't healthy. Also, as herein discussed, I've already been victimized by a mild case of aesthetic atrophy at the tender age of 29. Even with my resolution, that makes me worry. As with Alzheimer's or any other truly terrible wasting disease, it's impossible for the afflicted party to fully comprehend how much ability they've lost. The last thing I'd want to do is make a mockery of myself in 2019, doing something as stupid as Rolling Stone's editors did by putting their old rentboy Bob Dylan's Modern Times at number 8 on their Best of the '00s list.
No, for better or worse, this was my decade in top form as an appreciator of popular music. I might have preferred a time period Billboard could not say Nickelback lorded over as "Band of the Decade," but those are the breaks. This list is the result of literally thousands of hours of meditation and I'm confident it's better than anything Pitchfork, Stereogum, Rolling Stone, or Spin can offer up.
Now, after much deliberation, my list is finally done. I'm relieved, honestly.
I might even have me a cappuccino. Fuck it.
1. Jay-Z, The Black Album
2. of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
4. Kanye West, The College Dropout
5. The Strokes, Is This It
6. Arcade Fire, Funeral
7. At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command
8. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow
9. The Libertines, Up the Bracket
10. The Postal Service, Give Up
11. Beulah, The Coast Is Never Clear
12. Toby Keith, Shock'n Y'all
13. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
14. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
15. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
16. T.I., Paper Trail
17. of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins
18. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
19. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
20. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell
21. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
22. Paris Hilton, Paris
23. Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi
24. Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American
25. Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor
26. The Wrens, The Meadowlands
27. Beck, Sea Change
28. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
29. Islands, Vapours
30. Taylor Swift, Fearless
31. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
32. Bright Eyes, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
34. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
35. Radiohead, Kid A
36. Against Me, New Wave
37. Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights
38. The Black Keys, The Big Come Up
39. Super Furry Animals, Rings Around the World
40. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz
41. Ida Maria, Fortress Round My Heart
42. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf
43. Daft Punk, Discovery
44. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin'
45. Green Day, American Idiot
46. The Hives, Your New Favourite Band
47. Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise
48. The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone
49. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
50. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
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