America’s audiophiles love to stack vinyl, collect rare cassettes, and can’t bring themselves to toss out their monetarily worthless CD collection. Yet that dusty, clunky hard drive full of swapped tunes from your roommate, well, you lost it somewhere between a semester in the English basement and the move to a more dignified living space that boasts a half-bath.
That’s OK. No one misses the desktop file-based age that arrived shortly after Napster dropped a symbolic hammer on the record industry at the turn of the century—one that was shot into space thanks to the original iPod.
The iPod debuted on Oct. 23, 2001, but didn’t become a widespread way of life until three years later when Hewlett-Packard decided to license and adapt the mp3 player into its Windows XP platform (Dell’s failed Digital Jukebox left no bones about who ran this arms race), and the new click-wheel caught the world’s imagination. By 2005, early collegiate Facebook groups would exist solely to proclaim to classmates: “I have an iPod and you don’t yet.”
Despite Apple‘s “1,000 songs in your pocket” miracle angle, this era of files and manual labeling was tedious and nerve-wracking. Ten years ago, the biggest music fans were constantly pirating records on sites like Soulseek and Ares, believing this in their hearts to be a noble and just pursuit because record labels were exploitative caste systems and burning the house down was the only way forward. Music fans were opening bundles of albums only to find incomplete LPs and maddeningly inconsistent labeling. They were tinkering with iTunes playlists and nervously waiting for them to sync.
Often the iPod outlasted the laptop and you carried the this hunk of frozen-in-time music with you, constantly nervous that it’d take a tumble and erase dozens of perfect mixes that could not be recovered. Today this pre-streaming and post-CD window is mostly scanned and ignored. It was an unpleasant transition, plus it’s difficult to feign nostalgia for countless wasted hours of data entry.
But like always, it was an era where music geeks felt compelled to listen to everything that was critically acclaimed at that moment and render a personal verdict. Such an act was possible with a handful of artless files, played out of sequence, stuffed into a tiny white paperweight.
This is not pointless nostalgia. Throughout the year, we’ll be revisiting these widely acclaimed albums on the given month that they turn 10. Thanks to services like Spotify, these works are readily accessible and, more importantly, labeled and sequenced properly. We can finally process them in a bubble, sans a time-sensitive and superlative-laden media boost. Let’s meet our first batch of birthday LPs that were released in January and February 2005—complete with a highly scientific countdown.
5) LCD Soundsystem — LCD Soundsystem
What critics said then: “LCD Soundsystem doesn’t quite overcome the high bar set by its bonus disc. That might sound rough, but fortunately, just compiling all of Murphy & Co’s singles on one handy CD provides a valuable service for newcomers to his eclectically retro style.”
Most dated thing about it: The hipster look where a brown blazer with a band’s button on the lapel was worn over a T-shirt, which James Murphy sports during this Letterman gig.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.345
This is the building block LP that would help LCD Soundsystem morph into the 21st century’s best band. Before the Chuck Klosterman-shepherded documentary, the teary farewell concert in 2011 at Madison Square Garden, and the ’72 Dolphins-esque perfect records, the band put out this van of a recording. Spread over two CDs, LCD Soundsystem is a collection of singles, remixes, a pu-pu platter of ideas from Murphy that serve as a warning. Thrilling standards like “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” were elongated gags with veritable highs, but these days lull you to sleep relative to, say, the uptempo live version of the same cut found on 2010’s London Sessions. Before Murphy wrote “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” he raved about the dark corners of his now-gentrified-tenfold New York City on “Yr City’s a Sucker.” It’s still an after-hours peacock strut down a steamy street, and the most enduring song here.
4) M83 — Before the Dawn Heals Us
What critics said then: “Still, however cathartic, these baroque bursts will more than likely overwhelm listeners pragmatic and/or cynical enough to reject the purple poetry of a John Hughes first kiss or a flitting cliffside Robert Smith love note.”
Most dated thing about it: This album was chosen as one of Amazon‘s Top 100 Editor’s Picks of 2005 and you remember that, yes, for a brief window, Amazon’s editorial voice mattered.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.459
Richard Linklater would snake “Teen Angst” for the trailer to 2006’s A Scanner Darkly. It’s the most perfectly labeled song since “Fuck tha Police”—a Rainbow Road staircase with unstable steps and wobbly emotions. You’re suddenly nostalgic for the 10-minute window between when the iMac G3 fired up and when Netscape rudely opened itself. Hearing the whole thing, I’m nostalgic for my off-brand mp3 player and how it got me through tedious overnight security shifts at parking garages. It’s effective dream pop, but it’s also somewhat predatory because this composition from French electro wizard Anthony Gonzalez is built around warm, after hours synths for lonely people with headphones. It was the first album from M83 following the departure of founding member Nicolas Fromageau, and it’s still the most urgent and towering.
3) Bloc Party — Silent Alarm
What critics said then: “A warm-blooded, street-level reaction to more measured, careful, chart-topping pop bombast, Silent Alarm simmers with a poseless passion that fixes the best bits of wiry ’70 post-punk to solid songs, not just exercises in rhythm.”
Most dated thing about it: That this band got on thanks to a demo winding up in the hands of Franz Ferdinand, and how that fact makes you think about the wave of indistinguishable retro U.K. bands that flooded American charts 10 years ago (Maxïmo Park, Editors, the Libertines, the Futureheads, Kaiser Chiefs).
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.864
Newsweek wrote about Bloc Party in March of ’05. This was a mainstream indie band with strong ties ready to evaporate the game. There was almost Strokes-like hype here: the post-rock heartthrobs with the ceiling to… wait for it… save rock and roll. Roman-Catholic Igbo Nigerian, Liverpool, U.K.-born singer Kele Okereke sang with an underhanded point of view that made commonplace existence seem transcendent (“Do you wanna come over and kill some time?”). Silent Alarm sold a million copies in the U.K., and NME named it album of the year; in the states, the momentum was parlayed into early evening festival slots. But Silent Alarm was an ideal, highly burnable CD for college freshmen figuring out how to dress well. The noisy highs are great for late-night food court binges, and the romantic stuff beautifully adorned uncomfortable dorm lovemaking.
2) The Game — The Documentary
What critics said then: “Has there ever been a more aptly named MC than the Game, who arrives in his swaddling clothes right at hip-hop’s tipping point, its ongoing transition from street hustle turned gold to vertically integrated multinational capitalist tool. How telling is it that after listening to 18 tracks on mi hombre’s debut, The Documentary, the verse that sticks out is ‘If my Reebok deal isn’t finished soon/I’ll still be rocking these Air Nikes?'”
Most dated thing about it: Game’s red and black iPod in the “How We Do” video. Game and 50 Cent as friends. Game’s mantra, “anything is possible, if 50 fucked Vivica [Fox].”
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 9.2
When 50 Cent slides into the second verse of “How We Do” with opening line, “I put Lamborghini doors on that Escalade,” it’s one of the most thrilling moments in rap history. The Game’s major label debut doubled as a thug life action figure magnum opus, complete with posable gang signs—a hardwired-for-success operating table bride of Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Dr. Dre and his Rolodex handled production duties (Timbaland, Kanye West), as Game was roped into 50 Cent’s dominant and corporate rap clique, G-Unit. Game was on board as G-Unit’s West Coast branch, and, partnered with Dre, the resulting Documentary became an instant G-funk revivalist epic. Game was gruff, thoughtful (rapping about pining for R&B songstress Mya, getting shot while playing Madden, abortions, purple kush, Cadillacs), and just the right amount of talented and paranoid to not sound ridiculous when he bragged about bringing back Compton, Calif., as a rap mecca. This disc you actually snagged from Best Buy on a Tuesday for $6.99 and blasted at the drive-thru. And it turns out that 50 Cent is one of the best role players around, but the big bang was short-lived—50 and Game soon devolved into professional enemies, and their feud has a lengthy Wikipedia entry. Neither has matched this creative apex since.
1) Bright Eyes — Digital Ash in a Digital Urn | I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
What critics said then: “His two new albums are completely different animals. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is a masterpiece of country-flavored heartland angst, plowing the musical ground between The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is a more self-conscious studio experiment, with Kid A-inspired synth diddles. Any mortal songwriter would get slaughtered attempting the emotional excesses of these tunes; sometimes it takes four or five minutes to tell whether it’s a good one or not. But Oberst is brilliant at going too far, riding the subways with grievous angels and lost souls even more screwed up than he is.”
Most dated thing about it: Boy composing two albums with entirely different themes and textures and then dumping them on the same winter day seems like an off-brand power play that would not fly in this economy.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 9.3
Conor Oberst is probably underrated in that his best work is quintessential, lunging songwriting that has struggled to gain indie kid nods because of his emo roots. By 2005, Oberst had released 16 albums and EPs across five monikers. He was 24 years old. During Bright Eyes’ more heartbreaker years, Oberst was stigmatized as a sensitive dude for girls; it was a stupid oversimplification that reverberated across a thousand Livejournals at the time. Ten years ago, Oberst shed the baggage and undertook a masterwork project that meant two independent, standalone LPs with different operating systems. One was folksy and featured Emmylou Harris, the other featured the fuzzy math of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1983 blueprint, Dazzle Ships. Both featured profound writing like, “the end of paralysis, I was a statuette. Now I’m drunk as hell, on a piano bench.”
Photo via Todd/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)