The best music of the decade

The best music of the decade

For our best-of-the-decade music list, it was more about the gut than the strict math we use to determine the best albums of each year. We took a general poll of our music writers, then whittled things down to a manageable number, then talked some more about what should go where. It probably doesn’t need saying that not everyone will agree with these choices, but that’s what the comments are for—let us know what your favorite records were from 2000-2009. (Try and make an intelligent case that doesn’t start with “You guys are retards!” if you can.) Later today, we'll also post a companion article in which a few of the voters offer up the discs they loved that didn’t make the big list. Also, Lala.com is offering a discount on downloads for many of these discs, and you can sample a bunch of ’em right on the page. Unless you’re in a different country. Sorry.




50. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People (2002)

Considering how many musicians are featured on Broken Social Scene’s breakthrough, it’s impressive that it feels so effortless. There’s no easy explanation for how the Canadian collective managed to seemingly toss off a collection of tracks as astonishingly diverse and unfailingly beautiful as these; it seems strange to think of these songs as actually written. Who could premeditate the joyful space-punk of “Almost Crimes,” or the ambling pastoral layers of “Pacific Theme”? Doesn’t it seem natural to assume that “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” was jammed out late some night around a campfire? You Forgot It In People feels like 13 one-shot experiments gone completely right; its arrival felt like an unearthing, and its continued power is drawn at least partly from listeners’ inability to understand the logic behind its creation. (Spencer Kornhaber)


49. Drive-By Truckers, The Dirty South (2004)

If Drive-By Truckers were filmmakers instead of a kick-ass rock ’n’ roll band, The Dirty South might have been the decade’s great sprawling cinematic crime epic—a sort of redneck version of The Godfather where good ol’ boys from Alabama bury more bullet-ridden judges than cottonseed, and wonder if they’re going to die alone someday like Richard Manuel. As an album, The Dirty South boasts the best storytelling this side of a Ghostface Killah record, and nearly as many dead bodies. Some are famous, like Carl Perkins, John Wayne, and Sheriff Buford Pusser, who gets a memorably underhanded tribute (from a hard-working mob guy) on Patterson Hood’s “The Buford Stick.” Others are never named, like the daddy who gets hauled away for moonshining and other unidentified crimes in Mike Cooley’s astounding “Where The Devil Don’t Stay.” DBT’s trio of supremely gifted songwriters—rounded out by Jason Isbell, whose “Goddamn Lonely Love” brings the album to an unbearably heartsick conclusion—speak nearly as loud as their rampaging guitars, which slam listeners’ guts while the words come after their hearts. (Steven Hyden)


48. Mclusky, Do Dallas (2002)

So much of the music of the ’00s was about being clever: dropping coy allusions to obscure history, winking at forgotten music, or engaging in insufferably arch self-deprecation. And even when it seemed like bands were using their cleverness to deliberately mock their audiences (LCD Soundsystem or Arctic Monkeys, for example), they still wanted to be loved above all else. But Mclusky was an altogether different sort of clever. In a manner familiar to any picked-on kid who adopted a sense of humor as a defense mechanism, Andy Falkous’ and Jonathan Chapple’s acid-tongued barbs landed preemptive strikes on anyone who dared be stupid enough to dislike them. Hiring Steve Albini to produce Do Dallas was probably overkill, like feeding meth to a rabid dog, but his signature trash-compactor crunch is the only sound mean enough to match wits with the sputtering, scattershot bile of “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” and the acerbic egotism of “To Hell With Good Intentions.” It didn’t matter if you were in on the joke; in Mclusky’s world, we were the joke. And if we had more bands kicking ass like that on a daily basis, we’d all be better people. (Sean O’Neal)


47. Girl Talk, Night Ripper (2006)

In a decade where irony took a beating and even the most ornery rockers saw gains from pegging hearts to sleeves, it still took an apparel-phobic laptop-twiddler to show the world how to really tap into a song’s emotion. Greg Gillis’ mash-up masterpiece works as a party-starter and a parlor game (even Wikipedia can’t ID all the samples), but it deserves further props for reminding us how lily-livered modern music can be. Gillis provides a reminder that rap’s lasciviousness is just a form of glee—glee at the thought of getting laid—and that the hammiest rock riffs too often aren’t paired with appropriately fuck-yeah lyrics. Cohesive, caffeinated, and physically affecting, Night Ripper marks a summation of 50 years of music history. Alternately, it represents a new era, one in which the mash-up might just be the new, Prozac-popping emo. (Spencer Kornhaber)


46. Midlake, The Trials Of Van Occupanther (2006)

Nothing about Midlake’s ramshackle 2004 debut LP Bamnan And Silvercork indicated that the Texas folk-rock band was capable of the kind of musical sophistication and mystical wonderment that pervades album No. 2. Drawing heavily on the moody enchantments of late-’70s FM—Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, David Crosby, and the like—Midlake weaves together rumbling electric guitars, rippling piano, muted percussion, and the high, nasal croon of bandleader Tim Smith, who sings about woodland rituals and half-forgotten legends with a mixture of quiet awe and creeping unease. With The Trials Of Van Occupanther, Midlake builds a fragile fantasy world out of rustic Americana and deep compassion. Whether the band will tear that world down, expand on it, or build something entirely new will be revealed when its long-awaited third album arrives early next year. (Noel Murray)


45.
The Thermals, The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006)

Like a nice, head-clearing sledgehammer to the temple, The Thermals’ first two albums, More Parts Per Million and Fuckin A, brought a necessary dose of punk energy and gleeful bitterness to the indie-rock world in the early ’00s. There was no reason to expect that the band’s third disc would be any different—and in a sense, it isn’t. The Body, The Blood, The Machine certainly doesn’t let up on the hooks, velocity, or snotty vocals. But instead of clever little dollops of snide philosophizing, frontman Hutch Harris concocted a trim, disciplined concept album that rang with apocalyptic fervor. Not so much ambitious as desperate, The Body is the album we all needed to hear at the height of Bush’s second term: an epic purging of the bleak and nihilistic before better (or at least more hopeful) times rolled around. (Jason Heller)


44. Devin The Dude, Waitin’ To Inhale (2007)

Houston cult hero Devin The Dude is blessed and cursed with a reputation as a critical darling and the quintessential rapper’s rapper. (Those are both nice ways of saying he sells far fewer albums than he should.) From his early days with Odd Squad, Devin has imbued freaky tales of wine, women, and weed with oddball, self-deprecating humor, laconic charisma, and abundant spaciness. On “Broccoli & Cheese,” from Waitin’ To Inhale, for example, he tries to convince a skeptical would-be lover that his dick is so clean “that you can boil it in some collard greens” and that it “would probably go good with your broccoli and cheese.” Inhale was Devin’s last official album with groundbreaking Southern independent Rap-A-Lot (though the label cobbled together old tracks for a cash-in called Hi Life after he left), but he went out on an appropriately high note, appropriate given his career-long advocacy of marijuana smoking. (Nathan Rabin)


43. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (2009)

There’s no better yardstick for measuring the artistic leaps and bounds of the past decade than with an evolutionary chart of “New York buzz bands” spanning The Strokes to Dirty Projectors. We kicked off the decade stoked on purist, backward-looking rock ’n’ roll; we ended it debating 3/2 time signatures and throwing around heretofore-alien terms like “kwassa kwassa picking” and “vocal hocketing.” And even though the current obsession with overintellectualizing pop music will inevitably give way to another minimalist revolt, Bitte Orca proves that just because an album is slightly pretentious in its construction doesn’t mean it has to be joyless. Sometimes it can be a ragged, fascinating mess even when it’s planned to an inhuman degree, and sometimes genre mash-ups that resemble the Icarus-like overreaching of music-comp majors (“We’ll start with West African-inspired guitar patterns, Timbaland beats, and cut-up harmonies that sound like live Steve Reich remixes, then make them into an R&B song!”) become visceral, throw-your-hands-in-the-air moments on record. Apparently we’ve learned a lot this decade. (Sean O’Neal)


42. The Coup, Party Music (2001)

In an era where political rap feels increasingly defanged and irrelevant, Boots Riley of beloved Bay Area Marxist outfit The Coup angrily demands to be heard. Party Music deftly combines humor, humanism, and a superlative short-story writer’s gift for narratives as compelling as they are succinct. “Nowalaters” beautifully synthesizes those gifts into a heartbreaking story about the life lessons learned by a naïve teenager who seemingly knocks up his girlfriend, only to learn that he isn’t the father. Yet in spite of this betrayal, Boots radiates tenderness rather than bitterness. “Ghetto Manifesto” is just that, a rabble-rousing proletarian anthem, as is “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.” Party Music grabbed headlines thanks to an incendiary, thankfully abandoned original cover that showed The Coup blowing up the World Trade Center (just before September 11, and scarily accurate) but as always with The Coup, there’s substance, wit, and compassion underneath the brazen provocation. (Nathan Rabin)


41. The Killers, Hot Fuss (2004)

The Killers didn’t ape the ’80s on Hot Fuss—they were the ’80s. The Las Vegas band’s debut was structured like a Reagan-era hit machine, front-loaded with irresistible (and inescapably ubiquitous) odes to candy-colored coming-of-age hedonism like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” that seem almost quaint in these comparatively gray and seemingly distant times. The first half of Hot Fuss is such a coke-and-caviar-fueled head-rush that it’s mostly forgivable when it falls off after “All These Things That I’ve Done.” (Though as filler songs go, “Midnight Show” and “On Top” are still solid U2 rip-offs that sound better than anything Bono has sung on in the ’00s.) The Killers haven’t aged well—never has a band’s artistic development been so crippled by the decision to wear bolo ties—but that’s pretty ’80s, too. Still, we probably won’t fully appreciate the reach of Hot Fuss for another five years, when the generation of kids who drank, screwed, and did drugs for the first time to this record start forming bands and performing semi-ironic covers of “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine.” (Steven Hyden)


40. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

Neko Case’s third album, 2002’s Blacklisted, hinted that the singer-songwriter with the knockout voice would likely transcend the alt-country world that introduced her. She fulfilled that promise on 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, her debut for her new home, Anti Records. On it, Case settles in the shadowy, airy fringes of Americana and makes some of her finest work to date. Much of the talk about Case rightly focuses on her soaring voice, but Fox Confessor (and its 2009 successor, Middle Cyclone) also testifies to her abilities as a songwriter and arranger. The album all but eschews choruses and eagerly deviates from traditional song structures without sounding off-putting or labored. Case follows her muse wherever it leads, and five studio albums into her career, it has yet to steer her wrong. Fox Confessor is loaded with songs that will become classics of her catalog, including one—“Star Witness”—that may be her best, period. (Kyle Ryan)


39. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (2009)

Pretty much since rock ’n’ roll was invented, beauty has been sorely underrated in music. Too much of it, and you’re accused of being sappy or soporific; combine it with careful, deliberative composition, and you’ve got no balls. So there’s no way Grizzly Bear’s patiently crafted Veckatimest could ever connect with people who demand a little danger from their music: It’s made by guys whose traditionalist trappings—choirboy harmonies, an appreciation for Tin Pan Alley pastiche artists like Van Dyke Parks, the ability to play their instruments well—just seem airless and fuddy-duddy compared to all the dick-swingers going for the gusto out there. But for those who have outgrown the idea that beauty equals blandness, Veckatimest is the musical equivalent of a pre-Raphaelite painting, full of concise construction, bold lines, and vivid colors that leave no room for sloppiness, but harboring an air of elusive mystery that makes it worth returning to over and over again. And “I Live With You” kicks ass, actually. (Sean O’Neal)


38. TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

A century from now, men in lab coats will be hunched over Return To Cookie Mountain, meticulously picking apart songs in order to discover just how TV On The Radio made an album so monumental and unexpected. Suddenly, one will look up and shout, “I’ve found David Bowie! In track three!” “Big whoop,” his colleague will reply. “I just unearthed the fundamental genome of 20th-century music. And your car keys.” Cookie Mountain is the postmodern rock record of the ’00s, meaning it chewed up all the modern music history had to offer (plus the kitchen sink), and spit out a wonderfully convoluted yet impeccably arranged pile of previously unimagined work. From the skronky sampler-funk of the opener “I Was A Lover” to the haunted doo-wop of “A Method” to the bizarre future blues of “Blues From Down Here,” there isn’t a song on the album that isn’t its own perfect painting—dense little masterpieces brought to life in dark swaths of raw pigment. The empirically inclined will one day explain that Cookie Mountain was the result of five gifted player-producers whittling their way to brilliant confluence, but folklore will get it right: TV On The Radio just had the magic. (Chris Martins)


37. Justin Timberlake, Justified (2002)

Before FutureSex/LoveSounds, “Dick In A Box,” and attaining his unquestioned status as the top male pop star in the world, Justin Timberlake was just another teen idol trying to sit at the big kids’ table. Though the title of his solo debut Justified was a tad too on the nose, Timberlake’s dazzling collaborations with honest-to-God geniuses The Neptunes and Timbaland left no doubt that he was deserving of the grown-up respect he openly craved. Well, maybe there was a little doubt—some critics were tempted to attribute the spine-tingling pop aria “Cry Me A River” strictly to Timbaland. But the song’s “Billie Jean”-style psychodrama undeniably came from Timberlake, who overtly emulated the King Of Pop on two of the decade’s finest pop singles, “Rock Your Body” and “Like I Love You.” It’s a testament to how great Justified is that it single-handedly made ’N Sync a footnote in Timberlake’s career, which is no small feat. Just ask JC Chasez. (Steven Hyden)


36. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

The Marshall Mathers LP captures Eminem at the moment he began to evolve beyond the cartoonish Slim Shady caricature of his debut, and before he began to devolve into the cartoonish Eminem caricature of his later works, the one desperately trying to piss off an audience long since inoculated to his vitriol. Setting aside the bouncy MTV-tailored single “The Real Slim Shady”—a template he would revisit for every subsequent album—and the epic storytelling of “Stan”—a career zenith he’s arguably never reached again—the album as a whole seethes with anger, confusion, and righteous indignation as the suddenly white-hot MC gets caught up in a shitstorm of his own creation. The loping production of Dr. Dre and Bass Brothers provides the perfect foil to Em’s chaotic lyrical machinations, the pulsing, irregular heartbeat propelling a deeply personal yet expertly engineered moment of hip-hop catharsis. (Genevieve Koski)

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35. Clinic, Internal Wrangler (2000)

No one in ’00s rock did matched opposites like Clinic. Opulent and grungy, immediate and remote, expansively psychedelic and sounding half the time like it was recorded in a closet, Internal Wrangler offered the Liverpool quartet as a bunch of artful formalists who cared less about hooks (which they nevertheless had in abundance) than with perfectly calibrating expertly chosen sonic touchstones: the 13th Floor Elevators crossing wires with Augustus Pablo channeling The Penguins, all under cover art that tips its hat to Ornette Coleman’s 1961 classic Ornette! Clinic’s Internal Wrangler is as deeply sourced as a DJ Shadow sample-fest and as briskly brute as Pixies (another crucial source), yet its high point is “Distortions,” a doleful ballad about feeling completely uncomfortable in your own skin. No wonder these guys wore surgeons’ masks and scrubs onstage. It creates a record geek’s paradise in a mere 31 minutes and change. Everything is possible; less is more. (Michaelangelo Matos)


34. Clipse, Lord Willin’ (2002)

What a couple of jerks: Virginia Beach siblings Pusha T and Malice not only portrayed themselves as players without portfolio or (much) conscience on their 2002 debut, they stuck their blasé sensibility in fans’ faces along with a set of beats that smoked from beginning to end. The tracks came courtesy of the rappers’ old Virginia homeboys The Neptunes, and with the exceptions of Kanye West and Timbaland, no big-named producer in this decade of the big-named producer put together a collection of beats this hot: the door-slam drums of “Grindin’,” the rave-stab synths of “When The Last Time,” and the grunting James Brown sax of “Young Boy” could have made Asher Roth sound credible. But Pusha and Malice kept up admirably with their steely rhymes, deadpan punchlines (Pusha T, rejecting an “S&M chick” in “When The Last Time”: “What did it, the whip appeal, or my baby face?”), and endless fascination with the drug game they claimed was their real bread-earner. (Michaelangelo Matos)


33. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism (2003)

Prior to 2003, Death Cab For Cutie showed a lot of promise—particularly on its 2000 sophomore record, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes—but Transatlanticism announced the Seattle band as something more than an able crafter of sweetly melancholic pop. As good as Death Cab’s three preceding albums were, the band leapt to a new level of artistry on Transatlanticism, expanding its sound into ambitious new territory and perfecting its sense of atmosphere. And it wasn’t afraid to go epic: The eight-minute title track builds and builds before erupting into a group chorus. With Transatlanticism, frontman Ben Gibbard became a particularly affecting, incisive lyricist, and in the six years since, “The New Year,” “Title And Registration,” and “The Sound Of Settling” have become Death Cab classics. (Kyle Ryan)


32. Fugazi, The Argument (2001)

By the turn of the millennium, Fugazi had lured the indie-punk world into complacency after a string of good-to-great albums, even though 1998’s End Hits felt a little ho-hum. The band’s reliability and refusal to draw much attention to itself made it easy to take for granted, though The Argument—released to little fanfare in the fall of 2001—proved Fugazi had grown even more powerful. Surprisingly, that didn’t mean wringing more bombast from the D.C.-style post-punk sound it helped define. From the beginning, Fugazi knew the power of restraint, and The Argument merges guitar-fueled intensity (“Cashout,” “Full Disclosure,” “Epic Problem,” “Ex-Spectator”) and more contemplative songs that simmer instead of boiling over (“The Kill,” “Argument”) into a cohesive whole. Propelling them all is ace drummer Brendan Canty (along with second drummer Jerry Busher), whose rhythms elevate everything. When it becomes clear that Fugazi’s “indefinite hiatus” will never end, The Argument will stand as a fitting, worthy finale. (Kyle Ryan)


31. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (2002)

The Streets’ striking debut, Original Pirate Material, is a record thick with context that also happens to play just as well without any outside consideration. It sprang from the UK dance-music genre known as two-step garage, and its wordy speak-rap mode of expression situated it in a realm that would come to be known as grime. But Mike Skinner proved to be a singular presence in the way he pushed himself into a new mode of musical narrativizing. His plain-bloke delivery scans as hip-hop of a distinctly British sort, and his deceptively weighty writing manages to pack lots of stirring detail and drama into just a few clipped lines at a time. The milieu is post-rave London, where schemers smoke weed and turn contemplative when considering their own mundane blight. They also play videogames. For his part, Skinner would expand his method (even laying out an album-length story on 2004’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free), but Original Pirate Material remains his masterpiece for all its surprise and seeming effortlessness. It’s the kind of album that’s easy to sink into without noticing where all your time and spirit went. (Andy Battaglia)


30. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)

There’s so much death on Sufjan Stevens’ second (and perhaps last) “50 States Project” disc, it’s a wonder so much light shines through. In his quest to document, via stately orchestral pop and the loudest whisper in the biz, the trials of the prairie state, Stevens studies John Wayne Gacy and a friend with cancer (on the devastating “Casimir Pulaski Day”) with equally devastating quietness. It’s a gift that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed easily: Stevens is an incredibly agile songwriter who not only writes affecting lyrics, but knows exactly the right way to present them. Whether ultra-spare or everything but the kitchen sink (as on the massive single “Chicago”), he writes perfect musical sums. Here’s hoping the next 48—should he decide to actually follow through—are anywhere near as good as the first two. (Josh Modell)


29. Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash (2003)

By their third album, the two guys in Basement Jaxx could pretty much do anything they wanted. So they tried to do a little of everything, and audaciously, it worked. Kish Kash made explicit the post-punk brashness that suffused the duo’s predecessor, 2001’s Rooty, by hiring Siouxsie Sioux to snarl the electro-crashing title track; turned their longstanding Prince fixation into a flat-out love letter with help from Meshell Ndegeocello on “Right Here’s The Spot” and JC Chasez of ’N Sync on the squealing “Plug It In”; and merged drum-and-bass breakbeats with Phil Spector-style wall-of-sound melodrama on “Good Luck,” featuring the BellRays’ Lisa Kekaula hollering louder than anything else on the album—quite a trick, given how dense Kish Kash’s arrangements are. Yet Jaxx-men Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe could dial things down expertly: See “If I Ever Recover,” a tribute to the languid work of Chicago house pioneer Larry Heard that’s a rare isle of calm in the midst of its creators giddily blowing up the world. (Michaelangelo Matos)


28. Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (2000)

Ghostface Killah was never the odds-on favorite to be the breakout star of Wu-Tang Clan: He lacks Method Man’s lip-licking charisma, RZA’s two-steps-ahead versatility, and even though he can be hilarious, he isn’t a loveable life of the party like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Plus, his verses sound like stoner Mad Libs, full of crazy-ass metaphors and inside-joke allusions that probably only resonate with 10 people on a very specific block of Staten Island. But when Supreme Clientele dropped, it became clear from his free-jazz word splatters—and his ability to make lines like “Hit Poughkeepsie crispy chicken verbs, throw up a stone richie” work through sheer force of personality—that Ghostface was a weirdo savant, a Jackson Pollock in a field crowded with paint-by-number Norman Rockwells. And while you could spend a lifetime sketching out the Burroughs-rewrites-Clockers storyline of “Malcolm” or the ghetto Jabberwocky symbolism of “One,” the power of Supreme Clientele is that when you’re lost in its deep, dark thrums, somehow it all makes perfect sense. Ghost brought surrealism to the streets and made them love it; no one else could have pulled that off. (Sean O’Neal)


27. Björk, Vespertine (2001)

By the time Björk released Vespertine, a critical consensus had already formed about her previous album, 1997’s Homogenic. One of the finest electronic-pop albums of all time! A masterwork of deft songwriting and sonic exploration! A sneak preview of 21st-century musical postmodernism! Vespertine is different. It’s more intimate and less dense than Homogenic’s swirling brew, and it scans more like a personal journey than a definitive musical statement. Which isn’t to say the songs are afterthoughts—not at all. The arrangements are lush, but they’re unsettled and brim with quiet conflict. The album highlight, “Pagan Poetry,” works with ethereal harp and bells until the music stops and Björk’s voice enters alone. “I love him,” she sings, aggrieved and vulnerable. A female chorus starts up, the music returns, and Björk continues: “This time, I’m going to keep it to myself.” (Paul Caine)


26. Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (2006)

The moody undercurrents of Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album are rendered even darker in light of the walking tabloid tragedy she became, but that doesn’t change the record’s status as the pinnacle of the Brit neo-soul wave it ushered in. Back To Black’s appropriation of retro production styles and lyrical themes as old as pop music itself—heartbreak, bad decisions, and more heartbreak—felt familiar, yet of-the-moment, aided in no small part by Winehouse’s sultry voice and wholly believable persona. Then there’s “Rehab,” a massive single fueled by one of the most indelible hooks of the past 10 years, and a compellingly antagonistic sass that’s rarely employed so well by modern female pop singers. Even if Winehouse never manages to make another album as good—or another album, period—she’s still created the sort of enduring record that will never be eclipsed by its creator’s personal struggles. (Genevieve Koski)


25. Madvillain, Madvillainy (2004)

What happens when one of underground hip-hop’s most brilliant wordsmiths joins forces with one of its most inspired beatmakers? If everything works out perfectly, hip-hop is blessed with an instant masterpiece like 2004’s Madvillainy, a tour de force from rapper MF DOOM and super-producer/conceptual mastermind/mad scientist of sound Madlib. Hip-hop’s preeminent supervillain litters his incredibly dense rhymes with surreal imagery, ingratiatingly old-timey turns of phrase (DOOM is a one-man museum of outdated slang), and left-field pop-culture references he wrote in cold blood with a toothpick, all while Madlib channels Pete Rock, Sun Ra, and Firesign Theatre on the production side and kicks in some guest appearances as alter ego Quasimoto. DOOM and Madlib have sadistically teased cultists for years with promises of a follow-up, but the closest they’ve come to delivering on that promise was an underwhelming remix album called Madvillainy 2. (Nathan Rabin)


24. Beck, Sea Change (2002)

There’s no shortage of breakup albums in the world, but few luxuriate so deeply in the depressive aftermath of a love gone wrong as Sea Change, whose unrelenting bleakness would be unbearable if it weren’t so pretty. Beck wraps 12 songs of heartbreak in mournful acoustic guitars and weepy strings to create an uncharacteristically unguarded album. No one expected the 21st-century equivalent of Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely from a singer last heard riffing (albeit brilliantly) on oversexed R&B themes on Midnite Vultures. But heartbreak hits everyone, even those used to using irony as a shield. (Keith Phipps)


23. Missy Elliott, Miss E… So Addictive (2001)

Pretend for a moment—and this will be difficult, but try—that “Get Ur Freak On” doesn’t exist. That seems unnatural, sure: Much of what made pop great in the ’00s seemed to sprout from that track’s try-anything example, if not necessarily its sonic blueprint. But do it anyway. Now pay attention to everything else on Miss E: the infrared disco of “4 My People”; “Lick Shots’” bionic funk guitar, bouncing like a rubber ball; the cut-off string stab, so truncated it sounds like just another beat, that flits through “Dog In Heat”; the shaking-off-the-cold acoustic-guitar flutter of “One Minute Man” (both the original, featuring a lascivious, eager Ludacris, and the remix with Jay-Z, whose verse is one of the most entertainingly callous ever recorded). Nearly a decade after Missy and Timbaland devised these MDMA-saturated tracks, they still sound as audaciously forward-thinking—hell, futuristic—as any hip-hop or R&B ever made. Get “Freak” back on and forget it: Nothing sounded like it then, and even after its bhangra beat became a pop meme, nothing sounds like it to this day. (Michaelangelo Matos)


22. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

Animal Collective’s evolution over the past decade has been slow and systematic, and part of the wonder of Merriweather Post Pavilion is how it works as both a logical next step and an outright aberration. Its sound is huge—a swelling, strobing mass of noises and voices scaled way up from anything in Animal Collective’s past. But its feeling is suitably small—an intimate, internal sense of questing that fits well within a discography full of monastic moans and folksy campfire jams. Most impressive is how seamless the sounds and the subjects mesh in songs like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes,” which lean heavily on electronic swirling while foregrounding the increasingly striking vocals of Panda Bear and Avey Tare. Both function as splatter-happy songs that could work just as well a cappella, and the same goes for a superabundant pop marvel like “Brother Sport,” which keeps growing aurally over time. The guys in Animal Collective clearly learned the ways of excess, but they also learned how and when to excise little bits for big effect. (Andy Battaglia)


21. New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (2000)

Begun as a kind of busman’s holiday by a bunch of Canadian musicians in other bands and singer-songwriter Neko Case, New Pornographers’ debut arrived with little fanfare. But it quickly found an audience that didn’t know it had been hungering for cryptic, new-wave-informed power-pop. Though A.C. Newman, formerly of Zumpano, ultimately led the band, all its members exercise their voices, whether it’s Case breaking out of alt-country mode or Destroyer’s Dan Bejar channeling his eccentric glam instincts into poppier forms. It’s the rare supergroup (of sorts) that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. And unlike most such assemblages, it has continued to thrive, releasing three more memorable albums to date. (Keith Phipps)

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20. Daft Punk, Discovery (2001)

The reason Discovery is the most wondrous, lush, beguiling house album imaginable is because it never stops going for the gut. Everything about it—from the squalling, glow-in-the-dark keytar solo of “Digital Love” to the polymorphously perverse loop that drives “Crescendolls” to the deadpan time-keeping bell-cymbal in the midst of the squiggling Vocoder meltdown of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”—is shameless. No keyboard texture is too milky, no vocal-processing effect too stuffed full of yearning, no sentiment bald enough, be it “One more time, we’re gonna celebrate” or “Love is in the air” or “You know you need it, I need it too.” Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s ultra-vivid production—with a crucial assist on the hidden highlight “Face To Face,” from New Jersey cut-and-paste whiz Todd Edwards, who also sings—makes everything seem gleaming, high-tech, and as personal as a heartbeat. (Michaelangelo Matos)


19. The Strokes, Is This It (2001)

The Strokes’ debut arrived saddled with massive expectations. Doing anything other than defining the sound of the bubbling New York underground while bringing it to a wider audience, as Nirvana did with the sound of Seattle 10 years earlier, would be considered a failure. No band could carry that weight, but The Strokes gave it an honest try, and years on, Is This It sounds better than ever, condensing downtown attitude and stunning musicianship into a punchy statement of purpose. The only shame is that its classic status only became clear after the smoke cleared from the accelerated hype-to-backlash cycle. The sort-of-on-hiatus band’s other two albums weren’t bad either. Maybe next decade? (Keith Phipps)


18. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)

It’s been heartening to watch how rapidly Phoenix has risen from “cool band that not enough people listen to” to “consensus favorite.” Over the course of its first four albums, the French dance-rock group established a cut-and-paste methodology, overlaid with a breathy warmth provided by Thomas Mars’ foregrounded lead vocals and a lattice of analog instrumentation steeped in second-generation soul-jazz. Guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai stagger rockabilly jangle and New Order tautness, creating a well-cushioned space for Mars to grapple with the ways that nostalgia and lust can cohere into the same frustration. Phoenix first brought all their components together properly on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, serving up 10 compositionally similar but collectively daring pop-art constructions. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix lowers the accessibility threshold for the band’s music considerably, offering 10 easy-to-like tracks that keep the rhythms brisk and the melodies catchy, with such casual confidence that they sound like they’ve been part of our shared musical heritage for decades. (Noel Murray)


17. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)

For better or worse, The Shins were partly responsible for the mainstreaming of indie-rock in the ’00s, working (inadvertently) in tandem with bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Rogue Wave to convert indie-rock’s low-key melodies, echoing guitars, and thoughtfully considered emotional reactions into something more like a style than an ethos. This transition to wider popularity—coupled with an unexpected nod in an unexpected indie-film hit—briefly cost The Shins some support from tastemakers. But the band never seemed unduly swayed by any of the conflicting buzz. The band’s 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, was a determinedly small-time affair, working in the muted watercolors of ’60s British Invasion pop and cosmic Americana; it’s a set of songs concerned with scribbling in the margins, unobtrusive and unassuming. The 2003 follow-up Chutes Too Narrow is bolder in style and songwriting, backing James Mercer’s pretzel melodies and conversational cadence with confident, low-boil guitar-pop. It’s the sound of a band developing a command of its own sound, and applying it to songs that don’t sound like a pastiche of influences so much as the expression of a point of view. It’s a compelling point of view, too—one that sees the world as a place of infinite surprise, where a new clarity can be found over every rolling hill. (Noel Murray)


16. Interpol, Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that Interpol actually didn’t sound that much like Joy Division. The only similarity between Interpol’s Paul Banks and JD’s Ian Curtis was that they sang in a lower register—just like Eddie Vedder or Robert Goulet. While Interpol clearly did its late-’70s post-punk homework before setting down to make Turn On The Bright Lights, it was equally clear that these hot-to-trot New Yorkers simply sounded too alive to be compared to a bunch of British miserablists. Released just 11 months after Sept. 11, Turn On The Bright Lights was the sound of young people in the Big Apple rediscovering their libidos as darkness finally started to break over the city. (If you have a better interpretation of Banks’ characteristically cryptic line from “Leif Erickson” about leaving “his urge in the icebox,” let’s hear it.) (Steven Hyden)


15. Spoon, Kill The Moonlight (2002)

Proving that its 2001 breakthrough album Girls Can Tell was no fluke, Spoon’s 2002 classic Kill The Moonlight arrived packed with more memorable hooks and witty lyrics in 35 minutes than most modern rock bands can manage in 70. On album No. 4, singer-songwriter-guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer-producer Jim Eno synthesized their influences into a recognizable “Spoon sound”—one that consists of pulling apart the rhythms and textures of danceable rock music and leaving only the snappiest beats and notes. Moonlight is a thornier record than Girls, with Daniel and Eno demonstrating less interest in surface appeal. Even Daniel’s compendium of character sketches, self-analysis, pet peeves, and candid pleas serves a dual purpose, revealing some of the singer’s psyche while providing him with syllables that have their own musicality. Daniel’s words sound cool and sharp when sung along to, making Kill The Moonlight a righteous lifestyle accessory that’s still fashionable eight years on. (Noel Murray)


14. LCD Soundsystem, Sound Of Silver (2007)

It starts like a carbon copy of “Losing My Edge,” the 12-inch single that James Murphy debuted his LCD Soundsystem alias with five years before. Then a metronomic bass pattern, obsessively hammering piano chord, and live drums—played as though Murphy was in a footrace with programmed ones, and winning—ease in and take over, and Sound Of Silver is off to the races. Murphy embellishes his already-ace dance-music formula with live instrumentation and lyrics so pointed and assured (“You can normalize / Don’t it make you feel alive?”), they make the distances between dance and rock, past and present, classic and cutting-edge seem less relevant than ever. The eddying, popping synths that give “Someone Great” its lift are also what cushion the heartbreak of its scenario (“And nothing can prepare you for it / the voice on the other end”); the minimalist piano overlays of “All My Friends” help give its mid-’30s angst some bite. These are some of the clearest-eyed lyrics ever written about the unease of getting older while still feeling young. And it’s sequenced to feel like a coherent story even if it doesn’t exactly tell one, like Let It Bleed gone to Ibiza. (Michaelangelo Matos)


13. Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Sigur Rós created a new musical language with its second album, Ágætis Byrjun: No previous band before sounded like it—not even earlier Sigur Rós—and many bands after would feel the influence, from Radiohead to Explosions In The Sky and beyond. The disc—yes, it was technically originally released in 1999, but didn’t find its way out of Iceland until 2000, and wasn’t released in America until 2001—sculpts huge musical glaciers, but never loses sight of the tiniest details: One minute it’s the tinkle of a music box, the next a full chorus and orchestral complement. At the center sits Jonsi Birgisson’s otherworldly voice, delivering Icelandic words that somehow translate perfectly without translating at all. And for some strange reason, Ágætis Byrjun was a huge hit, giving birth to something approximating a hit single in “Svefn-g-englar,” a 10-minute opus propelled by what sounds like a sonar ping. Later albums—each uniformly excellent in its own way—would ditch some of the less atmospheric sounds on Ágætis Byrjun, like the bluesy harmonica and electric piano of “Hjartað Hamast,” but refine the sound that started, wondrously, right here. (Josh Modell)


12. M.I.A., Kala (2007)

Though either half of M.I.A.’s one-two punch of 2005’s Arular and 2007’s Kala should be counted among the decade’s best, the edge goes to Kala for pushing its predecessor’s melting-pot mentality to the brink of chaos without sacrificing an ounce of its world-dance-party ethos. To list the influences that permeate Kala—Bollywood and Tamil cinema soundtracks, Aboriginal hip-hop, and Trinidadian soca music, just to scratch the surface—is an exercise in musical esotericism, yet Kala never feels inaccessible or abstruse. Credit that to the brilliant sampling deployed by producers Switch, Diplo, and M.I.A., who cherry-pick unfamiliar sounds in service of the only thing that matters when it comes to dance music: a damn good hook. (See: the urumee drum-fueled “na na na na” chorus of “Boyz.”) Then there’s the inescapable, Clash-aping “Paper Planes,” which proves that M.I.A. can mine more familiar musical veins just as capably. Though the radical political posturing that she weaves into her lyrics might read as shtick to some, it adds another level of intrigue to an album that spits in the face of Western homogeny, and reinforces the album’s singular point of view. (Genevieve Koski)


11. The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows (2004)

As with most of the albums on this list, The Walkmen’s sophomore release Bows + Arrows marks the point at which a good band took dead-eyed aim at greatness, and served notice that more than just a small circle of indie-rock adepts would have to reckon with them. The woozy Bows + Arrows focuses the atmospheric jangle of The Walkmen’s 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, into a rougher, angrier, but no less lyrical sound. Singer Hamilton Leithauser perfects his Bob-Dylan-circa-1966 mannerisms, while his mates perfect their dust-on-the-needle sonic aesthetic, careening through songs that frequently devolve into sound-swallowing echo and boozy bellow, until the whole album becomes one long, moody abstraction. Bows + Arrows is just track after track of tribal beats, vibrating guitar strings, reckless yelping, and the occasional instrumental flourish to let listeners know that there are some green shoots under all the dirt. On the albums that followed, The Walkmen would work in more monochromatic palettes, but in spite of its black-and-white cover art, Bows + Arrows bursts with colorful sonic ideas, worked into songs that process deep hurt in the best way: by deflecting it with a litany of resounding “Well, fuck you too”s. (Noel Murray)


10. The National, Alligator (2005)

Alligator is The National’s third full-length, but the first that introduced a fully realized vision of the Brooklyn band: brooding, smart, and uniquely capable of soundtracking the ennui of rainy city life. It’s been accused of being boring, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s moody and subtle, to be sure, but even the slowest moments, like the gorgeous, acoustic guitar-driven “Daughters Of The Soho Riots,” offer plenty to latch on to—especially Matt Berninger’s terrific lyrics and smoky voice. And then there are the sparingly used rockers that come to brilliant life when the band plays them live: “Mr. November” and “Abel” are showstoppers by a band that never seems showy. But the quiet sense of place is really what puts Alligator near the top of this heap: It sounds both immediate and classic, a spiritual heir to Leonard Cohen that may someday be spoken of in the same hushed tones. (Josh Modell)


9. Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)

With The Blueprint, Jay-Z followed a template as simple as it was brilliant: In an age when no major-label rap album was complete without a softball team’s worth of guest rappers, Jay-Z limited his guest roster to Eminem, who famously stole “Renegade.” And in a day of bloated double-disc monstrosities and 23-track opuses, Jay-Z limited his best album since Reasonable Doubt to a lean, filler-free 15, including the two hidden bonus cuts. Jigga shocked and delighted hip-hop with “Takeover,” which hijacked the deranged blues of The Doors’ “Five To One” for a sneak attack on longtime rival Nas. With “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” the former drug dealer established himself as one of the biggest pop stars in the world with a candy-coated ode to the good life powered by the life-affirming uplift of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” The Blueprint also helped break a hot young producer named Kanye West, who began the decade as Jay-Z’s secret weapon and ended it as the loudest, flashiest, most fascinating superstar in hip-hop, if not pop music as a whole. The Blueprint brought soul and emotion back to hip-hop; its sound and style would echo throughout the decade. (Nathan Rabin)


8. Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)

What bands was Arcade Fire compared to when Funeral first came out? Modest Mouse? Talking Heads? Roxy Music? Those all seem silly after just two albums and six years together: Arcade Fire sounds like nothing else, though it’s also intensely familiar. Neon Bible, the more studied, slick follow-up to the debut full-length Funeral, was also excellent—some lobbied hard for its inclusion here instead—but so much of Funeral’s beauty comes from what feels like a complete naïveté that Bible lacked, a rare commodity in the indie-rock world. Funeral sounds like a bunch of friends making music outside of any scene other than the one they made up themselves, shouting to the rooftops about neighborhoods, tunnels, love, death, and joy. Songs like “Wake Up” feel primal and mannered at the same time, and completely guileless, a call to arms for those through being cool (or something like that): “Children, wake up / Hold your mistake up / Before they turn the summer into dust.” (Josh Modell)


7. Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

Alternate title: The Major-Label Slickifying That Actually Worked. To be fair, Isaac Brock was already heading toward a slightly less ornery sound when he signed to Epic for The Moon & Antarctica, which polished some of the rough edges off the excellent but slightly overlong Lonesome Crowded West. More importantly, though, Brock’s skewed pop sense underneath didn’t change. He’s still willing to stretch into multi-part madness (“The Stars Are Projectors”) and scale back to intimate simplicity (“Lives”). And that list of unskippable songs goes on, which is why The Moon holds up so well: There isn’t a weak moment on it, and it isn’t short—it slinks and slips through an hour, but doesn’t waste any of it. Brock and Co. are still doing it, too. Their last couple of discs have been great, but they don’t capture the weird magic that Moon did. (Josh Modell) 


6. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (2005)

When The Hold Steady released its 2004 debut LP, Almost Killed Me, the band seemed like the very model of an iPod act, capable of commanding attention for four minutes in the middle of a shuffle, but too samey to listen to at length. Separation Sunday flipped that perception on its ear, showing a group with a rare sense of how to pace and structure a record so that it flows from track one to the closing note. Ostensibly a concept album about intoxicated punkers hanging out in the park and gabbing about God, Separation Sunday threads together the era-spanning street-punk romanticism of Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle with Hüsker Dü’s classic punk opera Zen Arcade. Guitarist Tad Kubler pounds out Joe Walsh power chords and Thin Lizzy riffs while Craig Finn bellows like a drunken observer standing against the wall across the street, recalling how it feels to want to get wasted—both as a way of fitting in with the crowd, and a way of forgetting that you can’t. The Hold Steady’s winning streak has continued post-Sunday, but this album was the moment where Finn, Kubler, and company established themselves as a band ready to compete with the all-timers. (Noel Murray)

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5. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

The story surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sometimes overshadows the actual music, but label woes and personal conflicts apparently did wonders for the creative process. YHF was a quantum leap from its excellent, more pop-leaning predecessor, Summerteeth, and it also marked the point at which Jeff Tweedy officially went from superior songsmith to fully accredited artiste. It’s almost shockingly somber, even in moments that seem slightly upbeat: There’s death, drinking, heavy-metal drumming, and a pervasive sense of loss that the band hadn’t explored in such depth in the past. Beyond that, it just sounds great, like a band freeing itself from whatever vestiges of “alt-country” remained and becoming something bigger than any genre tag could encompass. Witness Foxtrot’s seven-minute bookends for proof: “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Reservations” are two of the most powerful songs—lyrically and musically—the band has ever produced, and each sports ingratiating hooks and serious musical meanderings. They’re apocalyptic and gloriously in love, a pairing that stretched throughout the disc. (Josh Modell)


4. OutKast, Stankonia (2000)

Before they blasted off into separate stratospheres with 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi collaborated on 2000’s Stankonia, a massive leap forward in the duo’s musical evolution. “Gasoline Dreams” kicks the album off on an appropriately enraged note; it’s a Molotov cocktail of a song rife with righteous indignation. “Ms. Jackson” tenderly explores the collateral damage of a broken relationship, as Big Boi and Andre 3000 take turns addressing the mothers of the mothers of their children with alternating currents of outrage, sadness, regret, and weary resignation. With genius, eclectic production from OutKast and longtime producer Organized Noize, Stankonia fearlessly embraced a broad sonic and emotional palette. If Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was OutKast’s White Album, then Stankonia was its Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a towering magnum opus from musical supernovas headed in different directions. (Nathan Rabin)


3. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)

It can be all too easy to forget how just how radical and out-of-nowhere Kid A sounded in the sepia-toned days of ye olde 2000, but it can be just as easy to fixate on the gesture at the expense of the album’s warmth. There’s no mistaking the opening notes of “Everything In Its Right Place” for anything other than a pointed call to newness, but it isn’t long before Thom Yorke’s voice starts to assert itself as no less human than ever before, even as it slides around in electronically processed, cut-up fashion. Yorke sounds fantastically desolate in “How To Disappear Completely,” and the band at his side seizes the constraint all around them in the rocking “The National Anthem.” Songs of that sort don’t sound especially progressive in sole terms of sound, but then comes a moment like “Idioteque,” an eerie transmission from a far-away realm being invaded by data and bad deeds. Kid A is more invested in texture and tone than the more song-oriented Radiohead albums that followed, but the textures and tones tell a story that we’re still sorting through almost a decade later. (Andy Battaglia)


2. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

When he released The College Dropout, Kanye West was the rapper we could all agree on: restlessly inventive, unswervingly poppy, likeably eccentric, simultaneously retro and futurist, and charmingly humble. That’s right, West was actually a down-to-earth guy back then—well, relatively down-to-earth for a superstar producer and soon-to-be-superstar MC, anyway. Now, West is the rapper we can all agree on in the negative sense—even fans were tiring of his uncontrollable megalomania before he made that nice white girl cry on the VMAs. But that shouldn’t obscure a discography that was the gold standard for hip-hop this decade. It all began with The College Dropout, which applied the signature sped-up soul samples West had made famous working for other artists (particularly Jay-Z on 2001’s landmark The Blueprint) to songs about surviving a near-fatal car accident (“Through The Wire”), fighting low self-esteem with materialism (“All Falls Down”), and Jamie Foxx’s surprisingly decent vocal skills (“Slow Jamz”). As a wordsmith, West doesn’t match his mentor Hova, but The College Dropout had such a broad appeal that he really could talk about Jesus and still get on the radio. So, sure, he’s kind of an asshole, but he’s earned a pass. (Steven Hyden)


1. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)

“Well you’re in your little room / and you’re working on something good / but if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room.” So goes the minute-long “Little Room,” from The White Stripes’ third and best album, White Blood Cells—and the one that took them from little rooms to much, much bigger ones. It was the sound of the duo coming into its own, and particularly Jack White finding his songwriting voice after a pair of scrappy sets (The White Stripes and De Stijl) that only nailed it sporadically. But White Blood Cells is damn near perfect, a slice of sweetly snarling blues-pop so convincingly original that it rendered the whole garage-rock revival immediately irrelevant. White Blood Cells’ big trick might be that it didn’t even belong in the garage to begin with: Its little love songs owe as much to Led Zeppelin as Nuggets (and a dozen more disparate sources). From “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground,” with its slinky guitar and odd couplets, though “The Union Forever,” which turns Citizen Kane into a pop song, down to the half-assed piano-led album-closer “This Protector,” it’s all a bit shambling and unselfconscious—loose but never sloppy. More than that, every song on White Blood Cells just feels true, which is about the best thing a record can be. (Josh Modell)