20. Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak
If you’re looking for the most successful release by the Kings of Leon, look two albums ahead. If however you want their best work, look to the followup to Youth and Young Manhood. Aha Shake Heartbreak does not contain songs as anthemic as some found on Only by the Night, but there isn’t one so-so track on this 37 minute testament to southern rock. From the great opener in Slow Night, So Long to the whiskey laden Rememo, the Kings take their brand of sound and crank it up while broadening their collective musical chops. True, their next album had them almost venturing into a prog rock version of southern rock, but on Aha Shake Heartbrake, they find the right balance and deliver the goods in spades. Crank it up, roll down the windows and enjoy the ride.
Highlight Tracks: Slow Night, So Long – King of the Rodeo – Taper Jean Girl – Milk – The bucket – Four Kicks - Rememo
19. The White Stripes - Elephant
Just how much variety can a guitar drum duo make? How loud can it be? Just listen to Elephant to find out why. Starting off with the dirty blues glory of Seven Nation Army, Elephant possibly turns out to be the best album in the Stripes catalogue. It’s dirty, raw energetic, anthemic and superb just to use some superlatives that though overused when describing this album, are remarkably apt. Elephant is a raw angry album that is unapologetic in its musical approach and shows Jack White can definitely make enough crunchy goodness with his guitar to keep you headbanging throughout while Meg White keeps the basics on full drive to get the message through of what a memorable beat should truly sound like. Well, headbanging as long as it isn’t a mellow acoustic number, which this album has to balance the whole thing out. Honestly, the fact that the track selection is excellent and has no easily discernible weaknesses means that though this band has recently announced their demise, they left for us a yummy red and white nugget of musical greatness that ranges from dirty blues, to raucous punk and everything in between.
Highlight Tracks: Seven Nation Army – Black Math - There’s no Home for you Here – ball and biscuit In the Cold cold Night – The Hardest Button to button – Girl you have no faith in medicine
18. Elbow – Cast of Thousands
If there’s any band I’ve recommended to no end, it’s Elbow and it has a lot to do with this album. During the summer of 2004, I came across this album at a job I had in NYC. They had an extra copy and told me to take it with me. What has ensued is a little love story between a fan of music and a band that makes music in their own vein, without saying excuse me, or minding any of what’s going on. It’s great music based on great lyrics, with one of the best voices currently swooning into a microphone. Cast of Thousands has so many memorable moments, that you can get lost in it all, and without exaggerating, it’s probably one of my favorite albums because much like the band, the album came into my life out of left field. I wasn’t looking for them; I wasn’t desperate for that new band to see my feelings reflected… they just arrived. The level of influence these guys might have on me might actually come full stride if I ever become a successful writer, but that there tells you something… this is music to listen to, to get inspired by, to use as a backdrop to a life… not a killer epic life, but just life in all its ordinary glory. Add to that the fact that they seem fully committed to always developing an album and not just a collection of singles and you see why it all resonates. They’re bringing something new without forgetting the old. They’re classic, but revolutionary, prog but minimalistic, and every day people who do amazing things with just instruments and words.
Highlight Tracks: Ribcage – Fugitive Motel – Switching off – I’ve got your number – whisper grass – buttons and zips – crawling with idiot – grace under pressure
17. Fugazi – The Argument
It’s cute to see bands trying to be as do-it-yourself, innovative, relevant, and talented as Fugazi. It really is, because for every indy band labeled as such, they owe said denomination to one of the few truly independent stalwarts of rock music. Then Fugazi go and release The Argument, which is their best album yet. From Cashout to Argument, the entire album is a collection of great songs delivered raw but refined. On the album you often have two guitars going in very distinct directions and on their own, they could make their own track… but they’re collaborating to create a wall of sound. Behind that wall of noise you have a tight rhythm section that is inventive, distinctive and above all else original. I wouldn’t be surprised if people mentioned any of the musicians in Fugazi as their favorite in their respective instruments. Melodic, uniquely structured, catchy, yet always pushing limits… this could describe The Argument or the essence of Fugazi equally well.
Highlight Tracks: Cashout – Full Disclosure – Life and Limb – The Kill – The Argument
16. Tool – 10,000 Days
Tool is that band that spooks other musicians, because there’s no way human beings can be this good as a collective. 10,000 is another installment in a stellar catalogue that though with waiting periods bordering on the ridiculous, when you see the end result, you can’t help but feel the wait is justified. Tool is a band that has pretty much created a subgenre of its own and spawned dozens if not hundreds of clone bands like Chevelle wanting to cash in on their sound. The problem for half ass bands like them is that though they are quite capable of making pleasant music, they are not Tool, they will never be Tool and they will never be compared favorably to Tool. With 10,000 days, Tool cements their legacy as the band to look up to.
Highlight Tracks: Vicarious – Jambi – Wings for Marie 10,000 days – Right in Two – Rosetta Stoned
15. Explosions in the Sky – All of a sudden I Miss Everyone
Sometimes music is just supposed to transport you… It just so happens that with Explosions in the Sky, you can go farther than many bands. Every one of their albums seems to be a voyage of some sort and this time around you can see landscapes of a thousand horizons welcoming a thousand suns. You float and soar with the music and you realize that like the album, no matter how far you tread from home… missing people is something that comes natural to us since nostalgia is simply desire expressed towards the best times of our lives. When I listen to an album like this, I can’t help but be more thankful for everything I have and every experience I’ve lived… if that doesn’t merit a place on this list, I don’t know what does.
Highlight Tracks: The Birth and Death of A Day – Welcome Ghosts – It’s Natural to Be Afraid – What do you go Home to - Catastrophe and The Cure -
14. The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute
Occasionally music is so amazing that you can transcend the physical and achieve new found heights of consciousness. That’s what I think would happen to me if I did shrooms and listened to Frances the Mute. Mazelike, intense, odyssey-esque, uniquely complex, beautiful, powerful, transcendental and yes, weird… very weird. This is the work of true musicians who give a rat’s ass about what’s going to sell a record. They’re here to show you something new. Some cosmic post space punk with latin flourishes and enough string bending guitar greatness to let you ascend. But then you also have the drumming of Jon Theodore, a true highlight of my listening career because the groove this guy has is utterly amazing. The entire band behaves like an organic maelstrom of musical power vent on ebbing and flowing energy, pulsing back and forth between tempos, time signatures and wails to let you the listener, listen to something that doesn’t necessarily belong in any space time continuum. It’s something new, it’s always been here, it’s grandiose and it is amazing. Lest you be fooled by the length of the album, there is only one song that doesn’t clock in over ten minutes, and one song that lasts a full half hour. This means there are five tracks and in between each track, there’s layers of white noise that float about. It can be excessive at times (4 minutes of full blown Puerto Rican coquis is a bit much if you ask me), but overall the caliber of the music is astounding. That they recorded this is a testament to greatness, that they are able to pull it off live is a testament to the human spirit, and that you can listen to it is a testament that you are very fortunate.
Highlight Tracks: Cygnus Vismund Cygnus – The Widow L’Via L Vazquez – Miranda The Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore - Cassandra Gemini
13. Pearl Jam - Binaural
Pearl Jam shall always be considered one of the most sincere uncompromising bands in all of rock history for the fact that they never try to make an album to cater to the masses. Binaural is no exception and on this collection of great tracks the once gods of grunge have turned to their influences to open new paths of musical revelation. Breakerfall and Evacuation has a 70’s era vibe more akin to the Who than any of their contemporaries. Actually that trio of openers is the type of start Pearl Jam are known for only to throw in Light Years, a pensive folksy rock ballad that tells you that this isn’t a one trick pony. To further show their repertoire and versality they come back with Nothing as it Seems, an epic reverb soloing delight that soars as much live as recorded and after that track, you have Thin Air… an airy folk ballad that offers such sincere lyrics as “There's a light, when my baby's in my arms” And “And I know she's reached my heart in thin air.” This lovely tune gives way to Insignificance, one of the many drumming highlights of the disc and one of their most powerful songs on the album, especially due to the weird musical structure and soaring guitars. To add another screw ball into the mix, the set is followed by Of the Girl a kind of bluesy, Middle Eastern folk song if that makes any sense. And then back to another powerful offkey rocker in Grievance. These aren’t conventional rock songs by any means and when you listen to them live, you see that the recorded songs are great but are just precursors of what you’ll be assaulted with in a live setting. Two other highlights of the album include the mystic Sleight of Hand and the wonderful closer, Parting Ways. To be honest, Binaural is not as immediate as Yield or as offbeat as No Code. It treads familiar ground while taking various twists and turns to go into new territory for a band that are all about the journey and about not being complacent. If you don’t believe that, then just skip to track 12 to listen to a catchy ukulele song and realize that it shares territory with punk numbers, bluesy delights and folk ballads. Diverse and satisfying.
Highlight Tracks: Breakerfall – Light Years - Nothing as it Seems – Thin Air – Of the Girl – Grievance - Sleight of Hand – Parting Ways
12. System of a Down – Toxicity
How do you top one of the most raw demonstrations of metal music? System of a Down’s answer was to make it all accessible. Their debut album is a visceral affair that always seems as if it’s going a few miles per hour faster than what it can withstand, but through sheer will power, it all stays together. Toxicity is the well oiled version of System of a Down. It’s damn near perfect in execution. It’s not as raw as their debut, but it’s just as intense. At times funny, at times raw, at times manic, and always SOAD. While their self titled debut is the album you put on your playlist when you want to surf mean and hard, toxicity is the one you also listen to when you want to surf fast and crazy.
Highlight Tracks: Jet Pilot - Chop Suey! – Bounce – Aerials – Forest – Shimmy - Toxicity
11. Radiohead – In Rainbows
Radiohead have a way of coming out screaming with an excellent track on their albums, that being said, 15 step is quite possibly the second best opening after Everything in its Right Place. Then you have their crunchiest track in years with the lively dynamic and headbanging worthy Bodysnatchers. After making a series of avante garde albums that either had people saying they were geniuses or that they were full of it, they release In Rainbows, their most accessible album and a given to be on most any best of lists of the year, the decade and eventually all time. The ability this band has to mesh into one another and present new music that sounds truly different is something to admire. If anything is very present while listening to In Rainbows is that this was an album to give repeat listens to, not to unlock some musical mystery but because it calls for repeat listens. The question many people have is what the hell is over the rainbow for a band that seems to push the envelope with every album.
Highlight Tracks: 15 step – Bodysnatchers – Nude – Weird Fishes / Arpeggi – Reckoner – House of Cards - Videotape