50 Best Albums of the Decade
The most important music of the ’00s as chosen by more than 100 artists, critics and industry insiders
“Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again,” Thom Yorke said in October 2000, the week this album became the British band’s first Number One record in America. “I find it difficult to think of the path we’ve chosen as ”˜rock music’.”
In texture and structure, Kid A, Radiohead’s fourth album, renounced everything in rock that, to Yorke in particular, reeked of the tired and overfamiliar: clanging arena-force guitars, verse-chorus-bridge song tricks.
With producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke, guitarist Ed O’Brien, drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood and guitarist Jonny Greenwood created an enigma of slippery electronics and elliptical angst, sung by Yorke in an often indecipherable croon. The closest thing to riffing on Kid A was the fuzz-bass lick in ”˜The National Anthem’; the guitars in ”˜Morning Bell’ sounded more like seabirds.
The result was the weirdest hit album of that year, by a band poised to be the modern-rock Beatles, following the breakthrough of OK Computer. In fact, only 10 months into the century, Radiohead had made the decade’s best album ”“ by rebuilding rock itself, with a new set of basics and a bleak but potent humanity. Yorke’s loathing of celebrity inspired the contrary beauty of ”˜How to Disappear Completely,’ with its watery orchestration and his voice flickering in and out of earshot. His electronically squished pleading in ”˜Kid A’ sounded like a baby kicking inside a hard drive.
Ironically, Radiohead, by the end of this decade, had fulfilled much of that modern-Beatles promise by following rock’s first commandment: Go your own way.
“Music as a lifelong commitment ”“ if that’s what someone means by rock, great,” Yorke said in that 2000 interview. By that measure, with Kid A, Radiohead made the first true rock of the future.
2. The Strokes
Is This It
Before Is This It even came out, New York’s mod ragamuffins were overnight sensations, jumping from Avenue A to press hysteria and the inevitable backlash, all inside a year. Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti were primed for star time, updating the propulsion of the Velvet Underground and the jangle of Seventies punk with Casablancas’ acidic dispatches from last night’s wreckage. Everything happened fast in ”˜Barely Legal’ and ”˜Hard to Explain’ ”“ the attraction, sex and disappointment ”“ but there was no missing the burn marks left by the guitars and Casablancas’ vocals, mixed to the fore and ringed with distortion like he was singing from a pay phone. We got only two more albums from the Strokes, but they inspired a ragged revolt in Britain, led by the Libertines and Arctic Monkeys, and reverberated back home with the Kings of Leon. And for the bristling half-hour of Is This It, New York’s shadows sounded vicious and exciting again.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco’s great leap forward was a mix of rock tradition, electronics, oddball rhythms and experimental gestures: a new vocabulary for an overwhelmed, dislocated age where we’d need to draw on both history and invention to survive. It is deeply tuneful but also fragile and unsteady. Its pretty acoustic-guitar melodies battled noise, skidded into dissonance or got chopped off abruptly. Its lyrics pitted hope against doubt, with all bets off. “You have to learn how to die,” crooned Jeff Tweedy, “if you wanna”¦ be alive.”
The music was magnified by what came afterward: the band being dropped by its label; Wilco becoming new-media poster boys via the then-radical move of streaming their record for free ahead of the CD release; and, maybe most of all, the attacks of 9/11. The latter added metaphoric weight to songs about love and war, shaky skyscrapers and American flags. But nearly a decade after that perfect storm of history, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds just as jagged and beautiful.
Unlike many of Jay-Z’s records ”“ the retirement and comeback discs, the movie soundtracks, the posse albums and “rock” albums ”“ The Blueprint didn’t have a gimmick. It rounded up a bunch of surefire beats and turned the greatest rapper on Earth loose.
Presto: Jay-Z’s best record, and one of the finest rap albums of all time. Much credit is due to producers Just Blaze, Timbaland and especially Kanye West, who made his name with relentlessly catchy tracks like ”˜Izzo (H.O.V.A.).’ The old-school soul samples give the record a lush feel, but Blueprint was recorded at the height of Jay-Z’s feud with Nas, and he was out for blood. Punch lines arrive fast and furious ”“ “Sensitive thugs/You all need hugs,” he quips ”“ but what really stands out is the rapper’s sheer musicality: the new flows, timbres and tones that Jay-Z unveils in every song, with a virtuosity that marked him a vocal stylist on par with pop’s greatest singers. “I’m the compadre/The Sinatra of my day,” he rapped. For once, he wasn’t talking trash.
5. The White Stripes
V2/Third Man, 2003
After they grabbed the world’s ear with White Blood Cells, it turned out Jack and Meg were just getting warm. They went from minimal to maximal on Elephant, with a hot-blooded rock throb that blew every other band off the radio. In these savagely honest love-and-marriage songs, Jack White fleshes out the story of two scared kids in love, building a fort to keep the outside world at bay ”“ but being unable to figure out why they keep ripping each other apart. It’s a sad story, but that doesn’t keep the guitar boy and the drummer girl from having a filthy good time together, from twisted acoustic soul (”˜You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket’) to electric-blues freakery (”˜Ball and Biscuit’). They struggle to hold it together in ”˜The Hardest Button to Button.’ And when they cut loose for the depraved sex stomp ”˜Seven Nation Army,’ the music lets you know why this bond was worth fighting for. In ”˜Hypnotize,’ Jack yelps that he wants to “be your right-hand man until your hands get old.” There’s no doubt he’ll die proving it.
6. Arcade Fire
Loss, love, forced coming-of-age and fragile generational hope: Arcade Fire’s debut touched on all these themes as it defined the independent rock of this decade. Built on family ties (leader Win Butler, his wife, RÃ©gine Chassagne, his brother Will) and a rich, folkie musicality, the band made symphonic rock that truly rocked, using accordions and strings as central elements rather than merely as accessories, with a rhythm section that never let up. Songs like ”˜Wake Up,’ ”˜Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’ and ”˜Rebellion (Lies)’ were simultaneously outsize and deeply personal, like the best pop. But for all its sad realism ”“ “I like the peace in the backseat,” sings Chassagne at the album’s end, knowing the sense of security is utterly false ”“ this was music that still found solace, and purpose, in communal celebration, as anyone who saw them live during this period can attest. The upshot was an album that repaid countless listens ”“ and made a generation of young rockers grateful for those childhood cello lessons.
The Marshall Mathers LP
“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more,” cried Eminem over the opening bars of his second album. Lucky for him, there was lots that he could rap about: celebrity and its discontents; Oedipal fantasies; murder fantasies; arson; self-mutilation; drug addiction; Britney Spears; Fred Durst; “Blood, guts, guns, cuts/Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts.” The result was a masterpiece of psychodrama, 18 tracks that solidified Em’s position as the new decade’s most fascinating pop star and rap’s most inventive new voice. Moralists slammed Eminem for everything from homophobia to misogyny to inciting America’s teens to kill their”¦ wives? Push past the surface, though, and Slim Shady’s peppy pop-culture spoofs (”˜The Real Slim Shady’), macabre short stories (”˜Stan’) and horror-movie narratives (”˜Kim’) are distinguished not so much by their shock value as their sheer rhyme skill. Hip-hop fans knew what they were hearing, though, and responded right away to raw virtuoso displays like ”˜The Way I Am.’
8. Bob Dylan
Except for the curious reference to Alicia Keys in ”˜Thunder on the Mountain,’ these 10 songs of gnarly jump’n’grind, sung with the scoured growl of a drifting cowboy, sounded like Bob Dylan could have cut them 50 years earlier with Muddy Waters’ band, and written them 20 years before that. Mother Nature’s revenge, silk-suited robber barons, the spiritual and romantic salvation always just beyond reach: Modern Times is history repeating itself, in Dylan’s specific echoes of Slim Harpo and Memphis Minnie, and his refusal to bend even in the harshest winds. “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down,” Dylan sings with cracked but firm comfort. The apocalypse is unrelenting: His rewrite of the Waters gallop ”˜Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is crammed with doom and ghosts. But Dylan’s snarl cuts through the darkness like a light on a road ahead. “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’,” he sings in ”˜Ain’t Talkin’,’ the album’s last song, a proud walk through a scorched Earth that Woody Guthrie would have recognised in an instant.
The London-via-Sri Lanka art-punk funkateer came on like she knew she was kind of a big deal, and it didn’t take her long to convince everyone in earshot. On her second album, she restyled hip-hop as one big international block party, mixing up a whole sound clash of beatbox riddims, playground rhymes, left-field samples and gunshots. It’s a dance-off in a combat zone. Full of political fury and musical imagination, Maya Arulpragasam proved she could steal beats from anywhere ”“ the Pixies, the Modern Lovers, Sri Lankan temples, Bollywood disco soundtracks ”“ and turn it all into a party chant. From ”˜20 Dollar’ to ”˜Bamboo Banga,’ she rolls from one Third World battleground to another: “Price of living in a shantytown just seems very high/But we still like T.I./But we still look fly.” Kala lives up to the world-hopping promise of the Clash, so it makes cosmic sense that she sampled them in ”˜Paper Planes’ ”“ which bizarrely blew up into a Top 10 pop smash in the US. Joe Strummer would have been proud.
10. Kanye West
The College Dropout
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2004
If this debut album was all Kanye West ever managed to accomplish, he still would have made his mark on history, beating the “producer tries to rap” jinx once and for all. But he was just introducing himself. West sounded determined to cram everything he loved about music into each one of his hip-hop grooves, even if that meant sampling Bette Midler and claiming, “The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/That’s the way I need Jesus.” Maybe all he wanted to do was become an international superstar, but in the process, Kanye expanded the musical and emotional language of hip-hop. His R&B-flavoured productions ran the range from the gospel riot ”˜Jesus Walks’ to the Luther Vandross tribute ”˜Slow Jamz.’ Calling himselfÂ the “first [rapper] with a Benz and a backpack,” he challenged all the rules, dancing across boundaries others were too afraid to even acknowledge. Every track was a bold move. But for this guy, bold was never going to be the problem.
11. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft
The blood and glory of 1997’s Time Out of Mind had raised the bar: This was the first Dylan album in years that had to live up to the fans’ expectations. He didn’t just exceed them ”“ he blew them up. Dylan sang in the voice of a grizzled drifter who’d visited every nook and cranny of America and gotten chased out of them all. Love and Theft was full of corny vaudeville jokes and apocalyptic floods, from the guitar rave ”˜Summer Days’ to the country lilt of ”˜Po’ Boy.’ Dylan kept rambling through the album as if this time there really was no direction home, with his weathered voice hitting ragged triumphs in song after song.
12. LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver
James Murphy had already proved his kung-fu as the most badass electro-punk producer in club-land, with DFA, the label he co-founded. But not even fierce fans dreamed he’d make a masterpiece like Sound of Silver. Every track sounded like a different band’s greatest hit, from the political punk goof ”˜North American Scum’ to the Detroit techno trip ”˜Get Innocuous!’ to the synth-pop breakup lament ”˜Someone Great.’ ”˜All My Friends’ was huge, sweeping, ferociously emotional, disco keyboards and rock guitars pulsing as Murphy looked back on a youth of killer parties and silent mornings ”“ a perfect song, from a perfect album.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind
“We’re re-applying for the job [of] best band in the world,” said Bono in 2001. After a decade dabbling in postmodernism, electronica and orange goggles, U2 transformed back to a world-beating pop band on Behind, an album that oozed arena-scale romance. Joshua Tree producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois came back to the fold, and Bono was Bono again, at once grandiose, warm and optimistic. ”˜Beautiful Day’ and the rafter-shaking ”˜Elevation’ were vibrant hits, and every song seemed somehow offhand, making this U2’s most casual-sounding album ”“ and an astounding comeback.
The Black Album
OK, so the retirement didn’t last long. Jay-Z’s vaunted “farewell record” is still one of the greatest albums by the rapper who is (if he says so himself) “pound for pound”¦ the best to ever come around.” With a phalanx of production all-stars on hand (Just Blaze, Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland), Hova gazed back and gloated ”“ retelling the story of his rags-to-riches rise (“From bricks to billboards, grams to Grammys”), brushing the dirt off his shoulders, and body-slamming the critics, the police and just about everyone else in the walloping rap-rock epic ”˜99 Problems.’ He should retire more often.
15. Bruce Springsteen
When the 9/11 attacks brought down the Twin Towers, shattering the nation and the lives of so many on Springsteen’s home turf, he had to respond. The result was an extraordinary 15-song requiem that searched for meaning in the inexplicable tragedy while saluting the grace and courage of the dead and those who mourn them. Songs like ”˜Into the Fire’ were starkly beautiful short stories, but it was the sound of the record ”“ the almighty roar of the E Street Band, captured by producer Brendan O’Brien ”“ that lifted the songs skyward. The Rising was the first E Street album since the Eighties and kicked off Springsteen’s history-making creative resurgence.
Only one crew in the universe had the juice to turn “Power music! Electric revival!” into a headbanger rock chant as well as a dance-floor battle cry. Not satisfied with ruling hip-hop, AndrÃ© 3000 and Big Boi decided to warp into rock gods, drum-and-bass hipsters, Quiet Storm hot-tub smoothies and wacko bohemian artistes. Stankonia outmuscled all the rap-metal clowns on the radio, but invited them to the party along with everyone else. From the futuristic ”˜B.O.B.’ to the sentimental ”˜Ms. Jackson’ to the groupie-praising ”˜We Luv Deez Hoez,’ they proved that they were the kings ”“ and cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping on a milkshake in a snowstorm.
Sea Change was Beck’s Blood on the Tracks: an acutely personal reflection on the end of an affair scored with desolate magnificence (lamenting strings, starbursts of guitar and miles of echo) and sung by the eternally boyish Beck in a manly, mortally wounded tenor. Producer Nigel Godrich, fresh from the harrowing modernism of Radiohead’s Kid A, used pithy scarring electronics and desert-midnight suspense to heighten the pathos in songs like ”˜The Golden Age’ and ”˜Guess I’m Doing Fine.’ In turn, Beck ”“ stripped of hip-hop pastiche and sampled clutter ”“ finally sang like the Bob Dylan of his generation, with vivid, lonesome honesty.
Two hipster geeks from Wesleyan plug in their rad vintage keyboards, pick out some fetching headbands and compose a suite of damn-near-perfect synthesised heartache. The songs on Oracular Spectacular get even better if you tune in close to the vocals ”“ but you don’t have to figure out a single word of ”˜Kids’ to feel the poignant kick of that massive nine-note keyboard hook. The whole album is an odd collection of Seventies psychedelic love-bead sensibility and Eighties New Wave cool ”“ but there’s also a sense that MGMT only could have happened right now.
19. The White Stripes
White Blood Cells
Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001
The third album by Jack and Meg White was the right dynamite for a mainstream breakthrough. Jack’s Delta-roadhouse fantasies, Detroit-garage-rock razzle and busted-love lyricism all peaked at once in tracks like the low-budget-Zeppelin opener, ”˜Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,’ and the rattling-pop delirium of ”˜Hotel Yorba.’ White Blood Cells was also the first time, on record, that the Stripes’ strict power of three ”“ Jack’s serrated guitar and brittle yelp with Meg’s maternal-John Bonham boom ”“ actually felt like an integrated band, bonded by roots and subversive delight.
20. Amy Winehouse
Back to Black
It’s hard to recall, before the tabloid barking drowned out all else, how fresh this sounded ”“ how funny, hip, instantly classic. Producer Mark Ronson, with help from a band of devoted soul revivalists, conjured golden-era sounds with a sample-sculpting hip-hop edge. Winehouse, a tatted 23-year-old with a beehive crown, matched that spirit, cussing, cracking wise and casually breaking your heart. Her triumph triggered a resurgence of R&B traditionalism. But it also kicked open the mainstream door for pop oddballs from Lily Allen to Lady Gaga. Let’s hope Winehouse and her fuck-me pumps stride back one day.
A Rush of Blood to the Head
In the early ’00s, starry-eyed Brit-pop boys doing a cuddly version of Radiohead were a dime a dozen. (Remember Starsailor?) It was Coldplay’s second album that showed they were true contenders. Songs like ”˜Green Eyes’ and ”˜The Scientist’ brought back the comforting melodies of ”˜Yellow’ but revealed a band that was restless and hungry: The twinkling sonics suggested prime Smiths or U2. And darker stuff like the austerely beautiful death meditation ”˜Amsterdam’ and the OK Computer-worthy ”˜God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’ showed the group had more than arena anthems on its mind.
22. Green Day
The Nineties’ most irrepressible punk brats grew up with a bang. They also proved they could take on the kind of gargantuan old-school concept album that nobody else seemed to have the guts to try. Not only did they pull it off, they made one of the era’s lasting albums, raging against political complacency of mid-decade America with a Who-size sense of grandeur. From the nine-minute epic ”˜Jesus of Suburbia’ to the punk nugget ”˜Extraordinary Girl/Letterbomb,’ they zeroed in on the rock audience’s political outcasts and misfits as Billie Joe Armstrong snarled, “Welcome to a new kind of tension/All across the alien nation.”
The decade’s most magnificent R&B record was also its most inventive ”“ so far ahead of its time that it still sounds radical. The Virginia-born sex mystic spent almost five years on this suite of experimental make-out ballads, with collaborators like the Roots’ ?uestlove. Voodoo pushed old-school soul and funk into a futurama of pelvic-raygun bass lines and zero-gravity polyrhythms. As he testifies in ”˜Chicken Grease,’ “I’m like that old bucket of Crisco/Sitting on top of the stove.” Always a mystery man, D’Angelo vanished almost immediately and hasn’t been heard from since ”“ but the way Voodoo lingers in the mind, he’ll get a warm welcome whenever he returns.
24. Bruce Springsteen
From the squalling guitars in ”˜Radio Nowhere’ to the true patriotism in ”˜Long Walk Home,’ Magic was about life during a wartime built on lies. The returning vet in ”˜Gypsy Biker’ arrived in a coffin; ”˜Last to Die’ crackled like ”˜Thunder Road’ headed for a cliff (“Who will be the last to die for a mistake?”). But for every shiver of fear, Springsteen and his reunited E Street Band defiantly gunned their Seventies party power, mixing echoes of the Beach Boys and Born to Run in ”˜Girls in Their Summer Clothes’ and ”˜Livin’ in the Future.’ The implied message on those tracks: Sometimes it’s worth proving that the devils aren’t calling all the tunes.
The greatest sequel since The Godfather: Part II. Amnesiac was the second half of the one-two punch Radiohead began with 2000’s Kid A. It was smoother on the surface yet just as disorienting underneath, delivering the rock guitars that its predecessor held back, but in all kinds of warped and mutated forms: ”˜Knives Out’ soared like vintage Smiths, and ”˜I Might Be Wrong’ rode an Allman Brothers riff into the trip-hop hinterlands. The piano nightmare ”˜Pyramid Song’ remains terrifying, even if nobody has ever figured out what the hell Thom Yorke is saying ”“ probably not even Thom Yorke.
26. Cat Power
Chan Marshall’s early career was defined by haunting tunes and onstage meltdowns that were literally showstopping. The Greatest marked a turning point for the Georgia native: Recording in Memphis with former members of Booker T and the MG’s and Al Green’s band, Marshall delivered a sensuous, grooving masterpiece, driven by gentle funk, lilting country and a voice that sounded weathered by bad love and two packs a day. Songs like the rootsified ”˜Empty Shell’ drew you into Marshall’s world, but instead of making you feel her pain they invited you to follow her dreams.
27. The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Warner Bros, 2002
Wayne Coyne took two decades and a long, bizarre road through drug-addled metal and alt-pop before he nailed the Pet Sounds in his psychedelia. Yoshimi is a delightful iridescent bomb of buoyant electronics, imaginary Japanese animÃ© and plaintive vocal surrender. The real war ”“ inside the steam clouds of synthesiser and Cat Stevens echoes on ”˜Fight Test’; under the tubular-bell sunshine of ”˜Do You Realize??’ ”“ was between Coyne and his insecurities. The Lips’ 10th album was Coyne’s first as a wide-open songwriter ”“ inviting and vulnerable ”“ and the result was total, dazzling victory.
28. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever to Tell
Ladies and gentlemen, Karen O! The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut introduced the world outside New York to the beer-swilling frontwoman, who sounded like she’d eaten Pat Benatar for breakfast while rocking out to Siouxsie and the Banshees. The gorgeous ballad ”˜Maps’ was the surprise hit, but most of the album found O spitting fiery
slogans ”“ “We’re all gonna burn in hell!” ”“ like a crazed art-school diva. With Nick
Zinner dishing thick, badass riffs and Brian Chase laying down thudding drums, this was vicious garage punk that put fear into the hearts of bass players everywhere.
29. Sigur RÃ³s
Beautiful and alien, Ãgaetis Byrjun was like being plunged into an Atlantis where language, gender and songforms were largely indeterminate. Sigur RÃ³s conjured magic with drones, using strings, brass, electronics and guitars that took Jimmy Page’s bowing technique to new heights. But the showstopper was JÃ³nsi Birgisson’s
otherworldly voice, swooping between tenor confessions and falsetto ballet. Filmmakers Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe have since used Byrjun in their soundtracks, but it was tough to beat the movies that this music conjured inside your own head.
After the pay-what-you-like release hoopla died down, what were Radiohead fans left with? One of the band’s best albums: expansive and seductive, full of songs they had been fleshing out live for a couple of years. You can hear the musicians’ exhilaration all over the tracks, from the shivery tambourine buzz of ”˜Reckoner’ to the jagged guitar waves of ”˜Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.’ These are the most intense love songs Thom Yorke has ever sung, especially ”˜All I Need,’ and the warm live-percussion feel gives the whole album the vibe of a hippie jam session. One that’s taking place at the end of the world, of course.
31. My Morning Jacket
These Kentucky boys took a giant leap forward on their fourth album ”“ giant enough to take them from a jammy Americana band to awe-inspiring purveyors of interstellar art rock. Jim James’ songs were shorter and more focussed than ever before, from the pummelling ”˜Gideon’ to the playful ”˜Wordless Chorus,’ where James boasted appropriately, “We are the innovators/They are the imitators.” My Morning Jacket infused Z with both Eno-esque keyboards and sculpted guitars, but also Skynyrd-style riffs and bar-band grooves. The result brought Radiohead down South and rocked with supersize soul.
32. Lil Wayne
Tha Carter III
Cash Money/Universal Motown, 2008
Between 2006 and 2008, Lil Wayne went on an astonishing creative bender, churning out mixtapes, lending his amazing rasp to other people’s hits and earning that Best Rapper Alive tag. When it came time to release a proper album, we expected a letdown. Instead, he made a pop-rap masterpiece, complete with fizzy Auto-Tune novelties, a Hurricane Katrina elegy and the classic ”˜Dr. Carter,’ in which Wayne dons scrubs to resuscitate hip-hop. He likened himself to Biggie Smalls and to ET, and no one argued. “I am so far from the others,” he rapped. “I can eat them for supper/Get in my spaceship and hover.”
33. Daft Punk
The French techno duo taught a generation of indie kids to dance with this international club hit, building a disco empire out of house bass lines, off-kilter keyboards, mysterious robot vocals and a stack of old Chic records. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo never liked to show their faces, but for all their glitz and sci-fi costumes, they sounded inescapably humane. Their 1970s sci-fi moves were a true time warp ”“ like watching TRON and Saturday Night Fever morph into the same movie. And with the Wurlitzer burble of ”˜Digital Love,’ they made the Supertramp-keyboard sound seem funky.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
It sounded crazy: For their fifth record, both members of hip-hop’s most creative duo would record his own LP. What they ended up with was hip-hop’s White Album, an overlong but thrilling behemoth fuelled by weed, ego and a thousand old funk records. Big Boi’s pulverising Speakerboxxx deepened OutKast’s adventures in crunk. Far wonkier was The Love Below, where AndrÃ© 3000 tried to be Prince, Beck and George Clinton all at once, crafting tunes as bright and strange as his wardrobe ”“ including the smash ”˜Hey Ya!’ and ”˜Roses,’ which “really smell like poo-poo.”
35. PJ Harvey
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea
Polly Harvey, happy? It was a surprise: Harvey had spent four records howling her sexual obsessions and romantic disappointments over stark postmodern blues. But album number five found her in New York and in love, crowing, “I’m immortal/When I’m with you” in the surging opener, ”˜Big Exit.’ Her guitar attack was still forceful but softened around the edges by marimba, piano, organ and guest vocalist Thom Yorke. The result was lusher than anything she had recorded but also vibrant and catchy as all hell, especially the garage-y ”˜Good Fortune’ and the yearning ”˜A Place Called Home’ ”“ mash notes to lovers in the big city.
No Line on the Horizon
U2 aimed sky-high on their 12th album, recording with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and combining lessons from all over their career: their Joshua Tree-era anthems; their abstract, modern Nineties; and the renewed focus of their last decade. The result was an open-hearted disc with dizzying high points: The joyous ”˜Magnificent,’ the locomotive title track, the party-hearty ”˜I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.’ Bono infused everything with gospel yearning, even when he expressed doubt and dislocation in ”˜Unknown Caller’ ”“ but most clearly, and gorgeously, on the on-your-knees testimonial ”˜Moment of Surrender.’
37. 50 Cent
Get Rich or Die Tryin’
In Fiddy’s hands, the thug life was not merely a lifestyle ”“ it was a code, an ethos, a Zen path to showbiz glory. When Dr Dre and Eminem unleashed him in 2003, America couldn’t get enough of the ripped, tatted, bullet-riddled stud. 50’s debut was full of dark, nickel-plated songs where he played up his hardcore image, but he also had no shame making songs for the ladies: With hits like ”˜In Da Club,’ he packed dance floors at discos and bar mitzvahs alike. Fun fact: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ went nine-times platinum, making 50 the first rapper to sell a million for each time he had gotten shot.
38. Ryan Adams
“When you’re young, you get sad, then you get high,” whooped Ryan Adams on his solo debut. As the leader of alt-country heroes Whiskeytown, Adams had written his fair share of songs about youth, sadness and altered states. But Heartbreaker gave these themes a classic heft, in weather-beaten country-folk songs that marked Adams as an heir to the Band and Gram Parsons. Best of all was the slow-rolling ”˜In My Time of Need,’ an alternately devastating and transcendent neo-Dust Bowl ballad. “Can you take away the pain of hurtful deeds?” he sang, sounding plenty sad, but not quite so young, or so high.
39. Kings of Leon
Aha Shake Heartbreak
The Followill brothers grew up in Tennessee with a Pentecostal preacher for a daddy. But Lord knows even down-home boys fall prey to the sinful temptations of the rock & roll life, and every last one of those temptations gets chronicled in lip-smacking detail on Aha Shake Heartbreak. The Kings’ second album is a hilariously raunchy Southern-rock travelogue about all the girls they met on tour for their first album. Songs like ”˜Slow Night, So Long’ and ”˜Taper Jean Girl’ are populated by gold-digging mothers and groupies with motel faces; the grooves are as sweaty as a long shag, and the hard-edged guitars aim below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2005
The College Dropout introduced the world to a polo-shirt-wearing preppy who merged backpack-rap politics and bling-rap materialism. But it was on Late Registration that Kanye really started showing off, calling in LA pop geek Jon Brion to co-produce an album that ranged from triumphal autobiography (”˜Touch the Sky’) to witty club pop (”˜Gold Digger’) to heartstring-tuggers (”˜Hey Mama’), packing in Chinese bells, James Bond themes and Houston hip-hop. The end result was a near-perfect album that remade the pop landscape in Kanye’s own oddball image.
41. Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Now this was one strange Brit-pop success story: Where were the fashion statements and model girlfriends? It turned out that all the Monkeys needed to conquer the world was scrappy, lager-fuelled tunes about being young and bored in a bleak steel town. Alex Turner sang about waiting all week for Saturday night, only to strike out with the same local girls he bombed with last week. Thanks to Turner’s big bag of creaky melodies and the band’s snaggletoothed guitar attack, even America couldn’t resist pub-punk gems like the raging, sexy ”˜I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.’
42. Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith’s remarkable melodic sense had its perfect yin-yang match in the bottomless darkness of his lyrics. Figure 8, the last album Smith completed before committing suicide in 2003, was his most ornamented work. Yet there is joy in even the busiest arrangements: Dazzling music-hall piano drives the Beatlesque ”˜In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)/The Roost’; a guitar curlicues like wild ivy on the morbid power-pop number ”˜L.A.’ It’s hard to imagine the wave of rustic, gorgeous music coming out of Smith’s adopted home, the Pacific Northwest (Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists), without this haunted high-water mark.
43. The Killers
So what if they were from Vegas, not the UK, and the year was 2004, not 1983? The Killers were determined to be Duran Duran anyway. Hot Fuss was a blast: Irresistible synth-bolstered grooves and lyrics about sex, dancing, jealousy and gender-bending, blasted out by Brandon Flowers in the world’s greatest bad British accent. A couple of years later, Flowers would develop a Springsteen fixation and a preposterous moustache. But Hot Fuss was the Killers at their sleazy best, singing about boyfriends who look like girlfriends, and dragging dance rock from the hipster fringes back to the down-and-dirty mainstream.
44. System of a Down
The most political metal record of the decade somehow managed to be the weirdest and most intimate as well. Paired with Rick Rubin, the Armenian-American band exploded time signatures and conventional rock-speak, denouncing drug laws and druggies, praising spirituality while cracking dirty jokes. Musically, System crushed, juicing prog-metal with Eastern rhythms and surprising beauty ”“ most amazingly on ”˜Chop Suey!,’ a breathtaking rant ballad haunted by suicide and religious abandonment. Neither System nor any other metal band has come close to replicating Toxicity, which is as mind-boggling today as it ever was.
45. Kanye West
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2007
Kanye’s third album was his tightest and sleekest yet, with the Louis Vuitton don picking designer beats to match his designer clothes: There was the Steely Dan-sampling ”˜Champion’; ”˜Stronger,’ which cribbed from Daft Punk; and even a Chris Martin hook on ”˜Homecoming.’ Kanye was more self-obsessed than ever, but the music’s hypnotic sheen helped his fame-sucks rants go down easy. “I’m doin’ pretty good as far as geniuses go,” he rapped on ”˜Barry Bonds.’ No one argued.
46. Justin Timberlake
Was this the teen-pop Kid A? On his second solo joint, the Timber-Snake teamed up with Timbaland for an avant-garde sprawl of abstract electronica and hallucinatory space funk, all in a heroic quest to bring sexy back. Both guys were on a historic creative roll, willing to try anything. ”˜LoveStoned/I Think She Knows’ was their madcap peak, flowing from hip-hop bump-and-grind to an ambient wash of Interpol-inspired guitar drone. It was like sexy never went away.
47. Fleet Foxes
Sub Pop, 2008
The most inviting song set to come out of the freak-folk/beard-rock movement was a reminder of the simple power of harmony. On elegant pastoral jams like ”˜Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,’ 22-year-old Robin Pecknold used CSNY-style timbres to build a clapboard-church choir of sound that seemed to exist in its own world. The fact that bands like Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors subsequently pushed intricate, multipart -vocals to the forefront may be a coincidence. But it probably isn’t.
48. TV on the Radio
Infernal visions! Portents of doom! Awesome keyboards! One of the decade’s most innovative bands greeted the end of the Bush era with a cry of horror. But David Sitek’s production also brought pop clarity to the New York quintet’s blend of soul, punk, Afrobeat and doo-wop. Amid the desolation, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone sang of having sex (”˜Lover’s Day’), defying the man (”˜Red Dress’) and glimpsing better days ahead (”˜Golden Age’). Alternative title: The Audacity of Hope.
49. Fiona Apple
This was the record that made Kanye West want to be the hip-hop Fiona Apple. Yet during the three years Apple laboured over this ambitiously ornate song cycle, fans wondered if the album would ever see the light of day. After recording with producer Jon Brion, she scrapped the results and re-recorded most of the album from scratch. But with the pained, confessional balladry of ”˜O’ Sailor’ and ”˜Red Red Red,’ Apple sings with enough emotion to make Machine worth every day of the wait.
50. Bright Eyes
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Saddle Creek, 2005
Conor Oberst, the folkie boy-child from Omaha, started putting out his own indie records at 13, so he was a weathered vet by the time he made this Gram Parsons-inspired gem. Oberst sounds youthfully self-absorbed and all the better for it, with acoustic guitars, earnest poetry and harmonies from Emmylou Harris herself. ”˜Lua’ is a heart-shredding love song about a doomed girl whose heart is too heavy for him to lift. But he vows to try anyway, and the melody gives him ”“ and us ”“ some badly needed strength.
Contributors: David Fricke, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield