American Culture

The Best CDs of 2009: the Album of the Year, and the Band of the Decade


For the better part of 15 years Green Day was merely one of the two or three best punk bands in the world. Unless you’re one of those hard-core types who missed the joke – that punk was a pop movement from the outset – and in that case let’s just call them one of the best alternative bands in the world.

Regardless, beginning in the early to mid-’90s they released a string of CDs that managed to sell very well while at the same time impressing the critics – perhaps because if you listened carefully you could detect things like a deeply-felt debt to The Kinks and The Who and an obvious disinterest in arguments over whether they were, you know, really a punk band. In one show at the old Mammoth in Denver, Billie Joe mocked their detractors with this: “We are not a punk band. We’re a melodic California pop band.” Then they ripped the lid off the joint. Any questions?

There was always more going on beneath the surface than you got from contemporaries like Bad Religion and Rancid. Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz had plenty to say, and they didn’t feel a need to be terribly subtle about it. Why should they? After all, punk is defined by an unwavering surface stance, an in-your-face defiance of convention and authority (or, at least there’s an in-your-face pose) that juts out its chin and says “make me shut up.” So perhaps the critics were right. When 75% of what’s going on lies beneath the surface, maybe it’s not punk after all.

But then 2004 rolled around, and America found its democracy being rolled by the most cynical and destructive administration in anyone’s memory. And unlike the 1960s, there didn’t seem to be any artists standing up to provide marching music for a social revolution. On the contrary, all the radio stations were owned by Clear Channel and they were hosting pro-war rallies. Any artist who did have the temerity to voice an unpatriotic opinion (“dissent is treason,” you know) quickly learned that there were consequences. Just ask The Dixie Chicks.

So the soundtrack for Decision ’04 was slated to feature a lot of rock & rollers who’d chosen career over controversy. But then something very … punkish … happened. On September 21 Green Day released American Idiot, an overtly political rock opera that became an instant, 5-star classic as soon as the first chord was struck. St. Jimmy’s life was a howl of protest played out on a stage of spiritual and social blight, a suburban landscape so empty of meaning that even a festering ass-boil like George Bush began to make sense in a “what difference could it possibly make” kind of way. “American Idiot” was us, the legion of everymen who made it all possible and life along the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was precisely as its architects intended. In an era when most of our musicians had decided to shut up and sing, Billie Joe Armstrong realized that somebody had better be Bob Dylan, and now.

The greatest punk record since London Calling? Maybe. Maybe better, assuming it was really punk.

Stop, Drop & Roll

How in the hell do you follow that act? Only a handful of bands have ever produced anything as epic as American Idiot, and damned near none of them managed to hit the same high note twice in a row. How to avoid a letdown? Wisely, Green Day decided to put on fake noses and dark glasses and masquerade as The Foxboro Hot Tubs until the heat died down.

Then, last year, they assaulted the summit again, this time with 21st Century Breakdown. Critics found things to carp about, for sure. For instance, this CD set out to be taken seriously, and that kind of ambition often leads the artist to overreach – overproduction, loss of perspective, abandonment of humor, more pianos and orchestras than the essential character of the band will sustain, that kind of thing. And Green Day was accused of all of this.

The thing is, even if you thought the trappings were a little much, the core of what made Green Day great remained: superior songcraft; a finely tuned sense for how to balance muscle and reflection; and when all was said and done, a good deal more restraint than they were given credit for.

In truth, 21CB didn’t overreach at all where the narrative was concerned. It merely gave voice to the reality of the audience’s lived experience – a trend that establishes itself on the first track in a studied interplay between the frustrations of the X and Millennial generations. Billie Joe’s lyrics pointedly avoid manipulation by refusing to assign more gravity to a situation that the facts warrant. While sprawling, grand and anthemic in places, in the true tradition of the rock opera form, 21st Century Breakdown is utterly free of hype and hyperbole. It speaks to the significance of modern life as it is rather than trying to gild the mundane. Orchestras and pianos and zillions of dollars of studio technology notwithstanding, the album is, from the first note to the last, intently honest.

You Are Here

A friend recently said that 21st Century Breakdown was American Idiot, part 2. I suppose that’s an argument with some merit – taken together, the two discs represent a cohesive examination of American society during a turbulent and troubling time. Each piece is at once sweepingly political and intensely personal, and in each suite of songs vast swaths of our population can readily find the large, black X that marks a place and a defining moment they will never forget, no matter how hard they try. A century from now a historian (if there are still such things as historians in a hundred years) might play them back-to-back and perhaps not realize at first that they weren’t the same album.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine that American Idiot, part 2 is a criticism. 21CB is hardly derivative – on the contrary, it expands the scope of the commentary significantly. Put mathematically, it’s the difference between 1+1=1 and 1+1=100. If anything, the fact that Green Day was able to produce a sequel that amplified the myth is an argument for its greatness, not against it.

The Band of the Decade

For these reasons, 21st Century Breakdown is the Scholars & Rogues/Lullaby Pit CD of the Year for 2009.

Additionally, let’s consider American Idiot, our CD of the Year for 2004; 2005’s exceptional live CD, Bullet in a Bible; and Warning, one of our top CDs of 2000 – a release that, looking back, perhaps should have signaled that something bigger was on the way. No band posted such a consistent record of excellence across the decade of the ’00s, and more importantly, no other band came close to defining the decade musically. As suggested above, American Idiot is the single, landmark moment that people will be turning to for decades to come when they think about the music that was to the ’00s what Dylan and The Beatles were to the ’60s, what Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were to the ’70s, what U2 was to the ’80s or what Nirvana was to the ’90s. It will be impossible to do a movie about this moment in American history without including Ámerican Idiot” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in the soundtrack.

Normally we might wait a couple years to let our view lengthen a bit before making this kind of pronouncement, but in this case it’s clear enough that Green Day is the Band of the Decade. May the artist who eventually earns this honor for the ‘0teens have less dire material to work with.

26 replies »

  1. American Idiot is a fine album, and it’s in the top ten of the decade, but like most follow ups to something so huge, 21CB was a real let down. I gave it it’s fair share of spins, and it was very average.

  2. D: I strongly suspect that your disappointment would have been minimal if it hadn’t been for AMERICAN IDIOT. That’s always a problem for a band following up something great, and it’s also a problem for fans and critics. We can’t help receiving a work into a context that previous work helped create.

  3. I never really was a huge fan, and I actually probably listened to Dookie more times then AI. Something about his fake British Accent that gets to me.

    • So, I think it’s more than clear by now to anyone who has paid attention to your comments that your biggest criterion, by far, for a band or album’s greatness is what we’ll call the “game-changer” factor. I’m going to speculate that in your mind Green Day never really changed the game musically, and to some extent they have worked an established genre (punk/alt rock borderlands), and unlike other legendary game-changers of the past, the world of rock won’t necessarily sound different in the future because of what they did.

      Now, I’m having to speculate here because you dog 21CB, but you don’t tell me why.

      Assuming I’m right, are you discounting the importance of the social/political dimension of their last two works?

  4. I have a hard time believing that last two albums really did much politically, or are even looked at by casual music fans as a political statement. AI had some fantastic pop hooks, that’s why it sold. When Boulvard of Broken Dreams is being played on MOR raidio, that shit’s going to sell. I follow music, and I don’t really think of the last two Green Day albums as being a political statement. Sure they had political themes like a lot of music, but I bet more people would categorize the Dixie Chicks as a political band, right or wrong.

    I really can’t say much about the last album because it’s been so long since I listened to it. After about 5 listens I really forgot all about it.

    I don’t think an “Album of the Year” has to go to a band that broke new ground, that criteria was for the TOR. My choice for album of the year would be Backspacer, it’s not groundbreaking by any stretch of the immigration. However it does contain some serious rock riffs and catchy chorus’. It’s probably the most complete album by Pearl Jam in a long time. I think I actually listen to that more then I listened to Ten when it came out.

    • So it doesn’t matter how great a political statement an album is if the audience is too dumb to get it?

      If so, enjoy the Fall of Rome. There will never again be a political statement worth talking about.

  5. People got it, they just didn’t care as much as you did about the content. They liked the hooks.

  6. Darrell wrote: People got it, they just didn’t care as much as you did about the content. They liked the hooks.

    Ah, I get it. The “American Bandstand” criteria – on that old chestnut of a show, Dick Clark had a segment called “Rate a Record.” This consisted of Clark asking carefully chosen teens to “grade” new records on a scale from 35 – 100. Two songs were used each week. The week “She Loves You” by the 5th-8th greatest band in the opinion of OUR knowledgeable readers THE GODDAMNED BEATLES, appeared, the teens gave the song an “85.” They gave the other tune, by that rock immortal Lesley Gore, a “90.” I was 12, and I knew then that America was populated with idiots….

    Oh, those criteria that make a song really, really great? “It’s got a great beat and I can dance to it.”

    Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” got a 70. “You’d have to think while you’re dancing,” I remember one rater commenting.

    Sam: I understand your admiration of Green Day, and I think AI is a fine record. I just haven’t paid enough attention to 21stCB yet to say that it’s AI2 or a slightly lesser effort. (I find that it takes me months now to digest and appreciate records now.)

    Our tastes vary as much as they coincide, as you well know.

    Band of the decade? I know it’s heresy, and I don’t want to precipitate apoplexy, but I’d suggest that Coldplay has an argument. Especially if social relevance is not the primary criterion. It pains me somewhat to say that, but I believe it true. I’ll write about why later this week. And, btw, I think Viva La Vida is another level – and a contender for 2009….

  7. If we’re going decade I think Radiohead and White Stripes have to be in that conversation. I’m not in love with either band, but both were hugely popular and critically acclaimed. Maybe to a lesser extent the Killers, although I really only loves Hot Fuss, while critics love Sams Town.

    • I wondered how long it would take somebody to say “Radiohead.” Look, I thought In Rainbows was pretty good (I’m about convinced it’s the best thing they’ve done), but I’m baffled by people who argue that they’re the greatest band in the world or of all time or of the decade or whatever. They’re artistically adventurous and they’ve exerted a measure of influence (although I continue to think that Verve, who they clearly owe their souls to, are the more important influence in that particular neighborhood) – I’d argue that it was Verve (and My Bloody Valentine and Catherine Wheel and JMC before them) who changed the game, not Radiohead. I’m not trying to take anything away from them. The problem is that others are giving them too much credit. They hype has been unbearable at times, and more than a little silly (when I see alleged “critics” telling me that Radiohead did three CDs that are better than anything The Beatles ever did, I know that we have officially rounded the corner into a ridiculous subdivision).

      As for White Stripes, well, that’s Radiohead’s only competition for the title of Most Overhyped Band in the World. Jack White has the distinction of being a very good guitarist in an age where fashion decrees that guitarists avoid virtuosity, so he stands out by default. Had he come along in the late ’60s he’d either have had to practice a lot more or you’d never have heard of him. Again, not saying he’s bad – just that he’s not as good as everyone pretends. And he’s no songwriter at all. Listen to White Stripes, then listen to The Raconteurs, then get last year’s Brendan Benson solo record. Conclusion: Jack would a lot better off in a band with BB where Benson handles 90% of the songwriting and Jack concentrates on being the axe-master. That, I think, would be an awesome band, given time to develop.

      However, I agree with you that The Killers are in the conversation, as is Franz Ferdinand (who, based on each band’s latest release, I’d have to rate ahead of The Killers). And maybe even Interpol, although we have less to judge them on at present. To this list I’d add VAST, although they’re not nearly as well known. The Killers and Franz have the potential to be the two biggest bands of this generation (and you have to see The Killers live to understand just how good they are, and how much of a throwback to the Almost Famous era of great bands).

      Once I get a little more perspective – you need time to think about these things – I’ll be doing a greatest CDs of the ’00s piece. American Idiot will be there, as will In Rainbows, probably Sam’s Town, one of the last two FF discs, probably something by White Stripes (because whether I like him or not, he has emerged as a major figure and that matters), Music for People and maybe Turquoise and Crimson by VAST. And absolutely, without question, Jeffrey Dean Foster’s Million Star Hotel, which is among the 10 or 20 best albums I’ve ever heard. That he’s as unknown as he is … that’s just a tragedy. One critic called it his Born to Run, and that’s apt in a lot of ways. Had Above Ground and Vertical, Jeff’s CD with his band The Pinetops, come out in 2000 instead of 1999, I’d have him in the band of the decade conversation, relative obscurity be damned. Those two discs are that damned good, whether people have heard them or not.

  8. I’m in the same boat with you with Radiohead and White Stripes, but I had to mention them because like them or not; they are huge with critics and fans. Some people may also throw in Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” in there as well.

    If I’m picking an album of the decade, it’s “World Container” by the Hip, followed by Songs for the Deaf by QOTSA. Very easily those 2 CD’s were listened to the most in the last 10 years. Also just about everything the Flaming Lips have done in the last 10 years has been thoroughly enjoyed.

  9. The QotSA was, in fact, outstanding. The Hip CD I haven’t heard, although they’re an excellent band (that has been really good for a very long time). Arcade Fire and The Lips – two bands that I just continue to not get the attraction. I’ve listened to them, and I can’t help thinking of Talking Heads – sometimes I wonder if people don’t too easily confuse oddness with genius. How else can we explain Bjork?

  10. There’s a real good documentary about the lips The Fearless Freaks, it may not change how you feel about the music, but it will help you understand where these guys are coming from. Some may say that Steven Drozd is a genius, but in the documentary they pretty much all make fun of Wayne Coyne for being talentless, nd he knows it. They’re an acquired taste, and I really got into them when I saw them live. Just a real fun live concert experience.

    The Hip CD was recorded by Bob Rock. It’s slick, filled with great hooks, and as usual great lyrics. Bob Rock is really good at one good album with a band, once he does two it’s down hill.

  11. from MusicRadar: “Joe Satriani’s lawsuit against the band Coldplay, based on his claim that Chris Martin and co plagiarized his 2004 song If I Could Fly for their 2008 single Viva La Vida, has been dismissed from court.”

    So, that’s out of the way – and has Jeff Dean Foster been sued by Jeff Lynne yet? It’d be the same case – as when George Harrison was sued by the “He’s So Fine” composers….

  12. I don’t know the details of the dismissal. Lawyers, you know. But I’ve heard those songs side by side and they’re, you know, the same song. Show me the JDF and ELO side-by-side that you’re referring to and we’ll talk. (And yes, I know, he riffs a couple of bars at the beginning of “Lost In My Own Town.” A two-bar homage and a full-song rip are vastly different things.)

  13. Considering the noise that’s driving pop culture nowadays, I’m not so sure historians from a hundred years from now would know that GD even existed. :-/ AI might be a blip, but I bet no one except music critics, musicians, and audiophiles will even remember 21CB 10 years from now, let alone 100. That’s not so much a commentary on GD or 21CB, of course.