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The Hapless Codger scans a decade

The older I get the more I realize I can’t get away with anything.

My days as a silver-tongued devil have passed me by (along with my ability to stay up all night with no regrets the next day, my willingness to fight for stage front and center at a general admission show and my full head of hair).

Whatever magical quality my Irish charm once possessed has long since been met with steel-eyed realism, the world’s fist firmly flattening my nose and retribution in my corner with a snapped ammonia capsule. The days of talking my way out of a traffic ticket or a 3 a.m. appearance have been replaced by days of reckoning. The judge tired of me standing before him in his courtroom.

Although I can’t pinpoint the day my charms dissipated, I do know that our technological age has turned silver tongues green with a patina of verifiable truth. Politicians seem to be the most clueless as they deny saying the very things they actually said captured on someone’s cell phone/camcorder/other nifty new device.

That new technology first appeared for me in 1998 and, with other appearances in 2001 and 2002, has continued to confound my capacity to get away with anything. Of course I’m speaking of my three children who are living, breathing chroniclers of my every move: “Daddy said,” or “Daddy did,” or “Daddy taught me that.”

Even if I’d held onto some shred of my ability to talk my way out of any amount of mire, my kids would be there to report, “Daddy said he could walk on it without falling in and that the sinking part was because of his telescopic legs.”

The Artful Dodger has become the Hapless Codger, my charms thinning along with my hairline.

Having accepted certain realities of my hastening decrepitude and its effect on my ability to pretty much get away with anything, it occurred to me that I had skirted an obligation to create a Best of the Decade list.

The more I write this thing, the more I realize that again, I couldn’t get away with shining off the list: someone out there would put the fire to my feet (or fingers). Last year, I rejected the notion of a Best of Decade list based on my assertion that the decade was not over yet. This year, with just days before this century’s first decade closes, the piper demands payment.

As I explained last year, 2009 was not the last year of the decade and it had nothing to do with counting. If it was a matter of numbers, I wouldn’t be arguing this point and we’ll all be quaffing something cold as we agreed on the elementary nature of integers and the orderly way in which they march onto infinity: positive numbers to the left, negatives to the right (no political overtones here).

Rather, it’s the fault of historians and how time has been determined, with the birth of Jesus Christ pinning down the timeline. Thing is, those historians (talk about a bunch successful at getting away with things!), did not set a Year Zero — we begin our common calendar with 1 A.D. with the previous year identified as 1 B.C.E. (which must have ended with one helluva New Year’s Eve party). The way we have numbered our years for over two millennia entails that every decade begins with a one and ends with a zero. Q.E.D., 2010 is the end of the decade.

So, the cruel trick of time obligates me to finally make good on the promise I made here last year.

Unlike last week, wherein I merely jumbled together a list of titles that I felt were the most fun, this list is ranked, the remaining ten culled from probably over a hundred releases that I thought worthy as the Best of the Decade. And really, I wonder how I’ll feel about these albums in another decade and how I have them ranked. But after thinking about this list over the past year, I can honestly say that I’ve made very few revisions during the past 365 days.

The problem for me was that I think this has been a great decade for music, certainly better than the previous decade (which was redeemed by Radiohead and Nirvana almost dual-handedly), a dismal period in music for the most part.

The paranoid fears of Y2K must have kick-started some primal urge in bands, as these releases are full of either dystopian ennui or a celebratory glee (or a little of both). What resulted was a decade that far outstripped the quality of the 90s and made music fun to discover again — as opposed to, by and large, necessitate gobbling handfuls of E to merely make the music palatable.

2001, 2004, and 2008 seem to have been exceptionally good years during the decade but I can’t think of a single year that was particularly thin during the last ten years. Conversely, I can recall years during the ’90s when New Year’s Eve conversations amounted to, “What didn’t suck this year?”

Maybe it was the zeitgeist then but I can count on one hand the years during the ’90s when I felt some really good music came out.

Not so in the years preceding the end of 2010.

Interestingly enough, this decade’s best album was released just a little before the decade ended and thematically and contextually provides a perfect exclamation point for the last ten years. But we’ll get to that soon enough...

I wouldn’t say Punk took a hit during the decade but much of the genre fell into disrepair as many of the “new” Punk bands entered their 40s while Emo (shudder) infected the form with its self-mutilating mirror gazing. Fortunately, when No Age released “Noun” in 2008, it pointed to a new direction for Punk and the makers of serious noise. More focused and intentional than the previous year’s “Weirdo Rippers” (excellent in its own right), “Noun” took a take-no-prisoners approach to music that could once again make parents pound on the bedroom door and scream “Turn that crap down!”

Sure, Sonic Youth seemed to have made a resurgence the past few years (with some truly astounding releases), Green Day had one of the biggest albums in the universe (with “American Idiot”) and Fugazi never faltered, but it was No Age, along with And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead (I hated to leave them off this list) who seemed to keep Punk from becoming a stinking corpse.

While Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002) captured the hearts and minds of critics upon release — leading me to initially accept and simultaneously reject it — it took awhile for Wilco fans and casual listeners to accept it. Moving far, far left from the roots rock that marked previous Wilco releases, YHF was a kind of “Revolver” or “Blonde On Blonde” for Wilco — a distinct break from the direction the band had been taking, jarring audiences with how it took Americana influences through a grater then reconstructed the slag on the electromagnetic coils of a guitar pick up.

In a year when we needed something to sing about, it took the New Pornographers “Mass Romantic” (2001) to remind us how well-crafted pop could help us forget how bad things were (indeed, just as I remember the exact moment — where I was and what I was doing — when the planes hit the towers, I remember I turned off the TV after I got home and put on “Mass Romantic” and turned it up very loud.

The power pop is shameless, here — Sweet, Cheap Trick, the ubiquitous Big Star — but is seamlessly delivered by the likes of A.C. Newman and Neko Case. There is no buffed note here, no filler, no half-assed attempt to be something it’s not. What it is is the most idiosyncatic and fun record of the past decade.

Despite the unfortunate and all-too-common comparisons to Joy Division (and any number of other post-Punk gloom bands), “Turn on the Bright Lights” by Interpol (2002) transcended the reputation they’d been saddled with (and the ridiculous outfits they wore). Not nearly as depressing as the critics would have made us to believe, Interpol arguably laid the ground work for a significant portion of what has happened in Indie rock over the past several years.

Likewise, the ground where Interpol’s influence was not heard was already being felt by the release of the Strokes “Is This It” (2001). Although the great Garage Band revival was under way (and you’ll notice no White Stripes albums here, on principal), these New York City trust funders took the best of the Velvet Underground, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Buzzcocks and brought that music to a whole new audience.

Refusing to indulge in class warfare (it’s easy to dismiss the Strokes for their Fifth Avenue upbringing), I have to say that I’ll remember 2001 not just for the attack on America but also for the release of this album.

While “Ga Ga Ga” was on most critic’s Best of the Decade list, I give the nod to Spoon’s “Kill the Moonlight” (2002) — better songs and a huge leap forward for the band. Few bands have taken up the mantle of the pop direction the Beatles were taking at the end of the 60s without resulting in sad parody. Fortunately, Spoon did not make that mistake and the music here is not just an echo of the pop direction the Beatles were taking but an evolution.

Likewise, the evolution of ’70s soul and R&B is heard on TV on the Radio’s “Dear Science” (2008) — via Talking Heads and the Ramones. It’s a shame that these guys haven’t received the kind of popularity that they sorely deserve. They are head and shoulders above anything on Top 40 playlists or “Twilight” soundtracks. It didn’t hurt that “Golden Age,” probably the funkiest song of that year, stood as a celebration of that November’s election results as a call for unity and moving forward — unfortunately rejected by the Neanderthal racist elements that have donned tea bags on the tri-corner hats while waving the stars and bars.

Oddly, one of the best releases of the past decade was originally recorded during the ’60s. Fortunately, earlier in the decade Brian Wilson agreed to return to master tapes he’d recorded in 1966-1967 to release “SMiLE” (2004), an unfinished project that Wilson had squirreled away for nearly 40 years.

Conceived of as an evolution of the musical experiments produced on the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” (arguably the greatest Rock and Roll album ever made), “SMiLE” is broken into four suites that are no less than symphonic in scope and breadth, marking Wilson as one of America’s greatest composers (unfortunately, his 2010 release “Reimagines Gershwin,” a homage to America’s other great composer, while interesting, was not great).

There is not a single album on this list that does not echo Wilson’s influence.

That includes Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009). Torn between several AC albums released over the last 10 years, I finally settled on “MWP” as it is a culmination of ideas and themes that Animal Collective has developed over the years. It is also their most accessible and successful album.

Yet, there is no bow to classic-rock convention or commercial sellout here: it is Animal Collective at their weird and wondrous best, switching gears in a way that hearkens back to the mid-’60s work of the Mothers of Invention. Yes, if you could only own one AC album, I’d say this is the one to have but I’d insist that “Sung Tongs” and “Feels” were worth snagging (as well as Panda Bear’s solo “Personal Pitch”).

As I said, it seems that the decade’s crowning achievement came out just as the decade comes to a close. Although much has already been written about Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (saving me the trouble of saying much here), I’ll just say that it is his most expansive and eclectic work to date — in a decade he pretty much ruled (love him or hate him, he undeniably did that).

In a most memorable decade for music, West wears the crown.

jim@pagosasun.com