15. Radiohead – In Rainbows (released October 10, 2007)
I'm not as nuts about Radiohead as lots of people I've met, and the only time I saw them live at Bonnaroo, I experienced genuine disappointment. But this digital-first, hard-copy-later, pay-what-you-can “download heard round the world” marked such an important moment in the evolution of musical and social commerce that I clicked my mouse, made my donation, and joined the movement. There's no debating the enduring, head-pleasing twinkle and sparkle to these songs thanks to Thom Yorke's yowl and Jonny Greenwood's guitar.
Favorite track: “All I Need”
14. Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days (released March 23, 2004)
Our generation of folk music has found many almost painfully gorgeous answers to the legacy of Nick Drake, and the former film professor and father of four that fronts Iron & Wine seems bound for a more sustainable career than the legendary Drake with his lonely, premature demise. The soft, southern strums and rustic, melodic moans of Sam Beam bring us all to a mythic back porch where the yarns extend into eternity.
Favorite Track: “Love And Some Verses”
13. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (released June 3, 2008)
Marking the summer season when this record was released, I took these songs on the headphones as I went deep into the thickets of brambles to pick blackberries deep in the hollows of central Tennessee. Music for noting the sunrise, the sunset, the beginning or the end of anything important, Fleet Foxes take us so far back into our inner heart of musical backwater as to make the adjective throwback irrelevant.
Favorite Track: “Blue Ridge Mountains”
12. The Killers – Hot Fuss (released June 15, 2004)
Pop glitter gains longevity and floats across the hype of interwebs; songs sustain gravity and prove surprisingly durable. This is the immodest miracle of The Killers: intoxicating new wave keyboard hooks meet the unlikely charisma of a skinny Mormon from Las Vegas, and some of us middle-aged music fans have to admit how much we love enjoying the same bands that our teenagers do.
Favorite track: "All These Things That I've Done"
11. Kings of Leon - Because of the Times (released April 3, 2007)
Back in 2005, some U2 fans spoke quite disparagingly of Kings of Leon (KOL) when they opened up several US arena shows on the Vertigo tour. Based on the strength of Aha Shake Heartbreak combined with a whole lot of Tennessee pride, I showed up early for KOL and cheered loudly and favorably. In 2009, the Tennessee boys are one of the most popular rock bands in the world, and their Only by the Night outsold U2's No Line On The Horizon. While I could have chosen any of the last three KOL records as one of the best of the last ten years, the sexy swagger and slinky snarl of Because of the Times cooks my cornbread as good as any straight-up southern rock record not just of this last decade but of all time.
Favorite Track: “Fans”
10. The White Stripes – Elephant (released April 1, 2003)
With The White Stripes, their entire catalog and career of old-school integrity and intensity so perfectly define what's great about the music of our times that it's particularly difficult to pick one record as definitive. The thought that some contemporary kids who consider themselves “classic rock” fans never listen to the already classic rock being made by their peers still annoys and infuriates me. Sadly, the oft-repeated adjectives “alternative” and “indy” tend to distract based on a cultural mindset or fashion code as opposed to a more universal musical sensibility. Gratefully, the guts of Jack White pushes past all this. While his Detroit to Tennessee trajectory reminds me of my own, he mostly just reminds all of us that artistic greatness is possible with pure intent, no matter where you're from or in what time period you find yourself living.
Favorite Track: “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself”
9. The Raconteurs - Consolers Of The Lonely (released March 25, 2008)
When I moved to middle Tennessee back in the mid-1990s, I never expected to have so many mind-blowing bands in my backyard. Fellow former midwesterners, The Raconteurs are one of Jack White's many bands, and the song “Top Yourself” speaks volumes to the man's incomparable work ethic. Depending on the day or the mood, I sometimes prefer Raconteurs to The White Stripes to find rock and roll revelation but choosing one is never a negation of the other. As with the many Stripes records, I could have picked either of the Raconteurs discs for this list.
Favorite Track: “These Stones Will Shout”
8. Tool – 10,000 Days (released May 2, 2006)
When I first heard Tool, I had no idea what had hit me. Was it metal? Was it punk? Was it that mythic, pompous, and pretentious beast known as "progressive rock"? This epic album and song (by the same name) deal with lead singer Maynard James Keenan's love and grief surrounding his mother's death. This record faces death as a leveler of all playing fields, an equal opportunity harbinger for all – for even you, your time will come.
And it's a heart-breaking homage to mom. It's the kind of song that turns the big, bad rock star into a little boy in his mother's arms. Like all Tool records, this is dark, deep, and emotional stuff, but it is also surprisingly affirmative and redemptive in many ways.
Favorite track: "10,000 Days (Wings, Pt. 2)"
7. Ben Harper – Diamonds on the Inside (released March 11, 2003)
Ben Harper's music traverses the fullness of funky humanity and frail humility, blending the sexy and the soulful, going the gamut from gospel confession to anti-war anthem. Seeing him live over the years has brought me to tears, and I'm tickled by the diversity and devotion of his fanbase. I'd almost forgotten this record and the emotional resonance it had for me when first released. Scouring the personal collection as I questioned every choice on my “best of” list, I listened to this record with new ears and fell in love with it all over again.
6. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (released July 16, 2002)
The Lips I rediscovered in the early Oughties were not the same Lips I remembered from the late 80s. But Wayne Coyne's wild mind and generous spirit have given us a new kind of sweet, goofy, conceptual, psychedelic pop that somehow made everyone simultaneously more and less nostalgic for the 1970s. This great record is no substitute for the confetti-splayed insanity of seeing the band live at a festival, but its cartoon-colored loveliness on record is forever and can outlast even the best concert memory.
Favorite track: "Fight Test"
5. Band of Horses – Cease To Begin (October 9, 2007)
Of all the beautiful things about Ben Bridwell's voice, even more beautiful and bountiful to boast is how we believe the beautiful things about love and life that he's singing. Band of Horses are folks who relocated from the northwest to the southeast just as they moved from punk roots towards the denim, beards, and boots sound that makes them kin to so many other like-sounding and lovely outfits of the era.
Favorite track: "Ode to LRC"
4. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses (released May 3, 2005)
It's been a long time since I saw Jerry Garcia perform live with the Grateful Dead, but I don't think that comparing Cold Roses to American Beauty as Rolling Stone magazine did when it was released was all about the rose depicted in the album artwork; there's some kind of spiritual brotherhood between Adams and Garcia that transcends the decades and descends on the soul via the ears. Seeing Ryan Adams & The Cardinals in Nashville last year on the alleged farewell tour provided more than its share of mountaintop moments, but it's listening to the alt-country jams on this timeless record that always redeems my faith in the power of music to move emotional mountains.
Favorite Track: “Magnolia Mountain”
3. Arcade Fire – Funeral (September 14, 2004)
I'm not ashamed to say I discovered Arcade Fire when U2 chose to play “Wake Up” just before taking the stage on the Vertigo tour. Even hearing this song today, its spirit moves me to wave my arms and tilt my eyes to the sky. Place the passion and intensity of punk inside an old church with enough instruments form a small orchestra or marching band and you end up with something like Arcade Fire. Watching recorded footage of a live performance by Arcade Fire mesmerized me once, and that memory lingered and finally motivated me to travel to see them perform a glorious show when touring in support of Neon Bible.
Favorite track: “Rebellion (Lies)”
2. TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain (released September 12, 2006)
Whether it's what Dave Sitek does with production or what Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe do with vocals, whether it's the memorable line that “love is the province of the brave” or the cultural mood of the decade as seen from the borough of Brooklyn, TV on the Radio breed blasts of fuzzy funk that tempt assumptions and test boundaries, forming an incredibly unique and remarkable art rock ensemble.
Favorite track: “Province”
1. My Morning Jacket – Z (released October 4, 2005)
On “Wordless Chorus,” Jim James asks “Tell Me Spirit - What Has Not Been Done?” Then he quickly replies, “I'll Rush Out And Do It” before asking “Or Are We Doin It Now?” Later in the track he boasts, “We Are The Innovators. They Are The Imitators.” Just like the wash of reverb and no matter what hairs on which necks James can raise with his wicked falsetto, these lines describe the miraculous nature of My Morning Jacket. Incorporating country, folk, and soul influences into an incomparable rock ethos, the Jacket compose jams that remain reliable after hundreds of listens, and the sacred sonic vision maintains magic in the versions recorded at the band's superb live shows and later released on Okonokos.
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