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12.21.09 Top Ten Recording Artists of the DECADE!

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Sufjan Stevens

This man is so prolific, creative, awe-inspiring and above all else, has made music listening in this decade a challenging joy. His albums are filled to the brim with gorgeous melodies, stunning orchestration and beautiful stories, be it about a state, transforming swans, an expressway in New York, Christmas (over the course of five albums no less) or the Chinese calendar. But he demonstrated even further musical prowess taking on such luminaries of the music world as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, taking their classic tunes, keeping the essence while totally transforming them into his unique voice. I cannot think of another artist these past ten years that I so impatiently have waited for new albums with such eager anticipation.

Brandi Carlile

Her self-titled debut demonstrated an incredible voice that knows no boundaries. Her follow-up album proved that her songwriting capabilities were no fluke, and while her bid for more mainstream success didn’t quite take, she was still a champion of the upcoming onslaught of female singer/songwriters. Her third album proved that she bested the competition by being able to float capably between so many styles while maintaining a through-line in her work, creating eleven tracks, each one better than the one before, and all so listenable that it’s impossible to not take the whole thing twice in any given sitting. And even in her one off for last year’s Hotel Café Winter Songs, she created a heartbreaking Christmas classic that embodies the season so elegantly.

Bjork

I’m not sure any other artist has shown us so many sides over the course of ten years. She began the decade with amazing strength in the haunting Selmasongs, the soundtrack from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and while people may be divided about the film, there is no doubt that the score is a triumph. Then she gave us the insane splendor of Medúlla, an album made up solely of voices, turning a cappella on its head as only this Icelandic wonder can. The album is at once confounding and a delight, floating between odd noise and melody with the greatest ease. She closed out the decade with Volta, an insane collection of bombastic tunes that elegantly entertain with full instrumentation and electronica. She’s a true artist, whether people like it or not.

Over the Rhine

I cannot think of another band that has been more prolific with simply gorgeous songs. After the year 2000’s less than stellar Films For Radio (which isn’t a bad album, just a little stuck in the past, sound-wise) the band launched into a stellar series of albums. Their double disc Ohio came out in 2003 demonstrating unbelievable skills at crafting a complete sound that tugs at every bit of emotional depth, even on poppy delights like “When You Say Love.” My personal favorite came two years later with Drunkard’s Prayer, a series of songs that remind you what it is to be human, never more evident than on the elegiac “Born.” The group triumphantly closed out the decade with a beautiful take on Christmas and the intelligent and more rocking The Trumpet Child. This is certainly a stand out voice of my decade.

Glen Hansard & Marketa Inglova aka The Swell Season

It might be a little unfair to include these guys in this list, because it is so clearly wrapped up in my thorough enjoyment of the film Once, but musically these two are a glorious collaboration that produce something so fresh and essential. In their newest form, they’ve created two albums that have demonstrated a continuing ability to craft defining music that is unrelenting in its ability to motivate. There is something so pure in their craft that keeps me coming back to the songs, and maybe it’s a sense memory to their film work, or the reflected joy of their winning the Oscar, but they certainly grace my speakers repeatedly.

Kanye West

It’s hard to believe that his four studio produced albums occurred over the course of only four quick years of this decade, and there is no doubt in my mind that he has changed the face of hip-hop with his trend setting ways. Hell, he even got me to listen to hip-hop and that takes some real talent. It is with great pleasure that I listen to his three college-based albums, with such incredible tracks like “All Falls Down,” “Stronger” and “Jesus Walks.” But for me, Kanye proved himself with 808s and Heartbreaks, a complete departure in sound that revolutionized and demonstrated a whole new depth of creativity. It’s too bad that his more horrifying public attitude has gotten in the way of appreciating what is a considerable talent, but I’m not letting that take away from my music.

Sugarland

It is with great pride that I include this band on the list, standing by the somewhat cheesy countrified pop that they create and saying that I understand you America! No, they aren’t changing the way I listen to music, and no, they aren’t tapping deep into my emotional psyche, but sometimes I just need to hear good music, and this music is beyond good. It’s a strong combination of songwriting, excellent production and an amazing ability to tap into that vibe that makes you want to sing a long with the amazing drawling Jennifer Nettles voice. In happy and sad times, this is the music that keeps reminding me that innate power of music to uplift.

Rufus Wainwright

I hesitated to include Rufus on this list, mainly because I think his decade has ended a little less bright than it started, but looking over his discography, I couldn’t deny the totally unique talent that deserves recognition. Starting with Poses in 2001, Rufus’ songwriting is unrivaled, filled with unique instrumentation, charged lyrics and an unending creativity. Followed up with the amazing companion pieces Want One and Two, the man had stolen my heart with “Agnus Dei,” “The Art Teacher” and “Old Whore’s Diet” alone. And then it began to fall apart a bit. I’m actually a fan of Release the Stars, but I can admit that it’s overblown in many respects. And then there’s the whole Judy Garland thing which I wont even get into. But he is really one of the most unique and to be treasured voices of the past ten years.

The Decemberists

Talk about prolific and unique! This band has created its own sound that is instantly recognizable and surprisingly accessible despite being decidedly odd. They’ve also evolved so wonderfully from the start of the decade with Castaways and Cutouts, an excellent album of independent singles, to the stunningly focused and transforming nature of The Crane Wife, which amazingly also had some more mainstream singles mixed into the elegant framework. I’m not the hugest fan of their decade closing Hazards of Love, but I’m working on it. But for me, it has always been about Picaresque, a complex joy from “Infanta” to “Of Angels and Angles” with that violin-heavy gem “We Both Go Down Together” nestled in the middle.

Andrew Bird

It seems only fitting that I’d close out this list with Andrew Bird, the perfect bookend to Sufjan Stevens. He’s also ridiculously prolific, creative, awe-inspiring and I would argue has made music listening in this decade a pure joy, as opposed to a challenging one. The complexity of his music never stands in the way of musicality. He started the decade so strongly with his Bowl of Fire outfit and The Swimming Hour, a violin filled, epic in scope, but intimately beautiful album. He closed the decade with the double delight, Noble Beast and Useless Creatures, pushing his musical vocabulary into more tonal and ambient niches. In the middle there was Weather Systems, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha, the last of which is quite possible my favorite entry with the amazing “Scythian Empires” and “The Supine.”

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