Features

Sean McCarthy's Top 100 Of The 2000s (Part III)

by Sean McCarthy

[Editor's note: Cover images of albums previously reviewed on the DV have been linked to the review.]

In the '90s, we saw hair metal and boy bands destroyed by grunge and alternative rock, only to have boy bands resurface stronger than ever at the end of the decade. At the beginning of this decade, we saw boy bands be destroyed once again, but by what was up for debate. Thanks to file sharing, MySpace and Internet radio, musical tastes became more and more divergent. As a result, there was no galvanizing movement like grunge or superstar like Michael Jackson to steer the masses in a certain direction. Videos virtually disappeared.

For a record executive, this decade sucked. For a music fan, you couldn't ask for a better environment. Don't want to pay for a CD? Try Lime Wire. Afraid of potential viruses from Lime Wire? Listen to albums for free on LastFM, LaLa, Spinner and MySpace. Several bands cited diminished album sales as reasons to start selling their music to car companies and in the case of The Flaming Lips, Kraft mayonnaise. "Selling out" became less and less of an artistic sin as shows like Grey's Anatomy and Gossip Girl had artists actually clamoring to be featured on their soundtrack.

World events also played a significant role in shaping the musical landscape. Beginning with the most devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, September 11 brought forth an era of anxiety and uncertainty. The Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen and Sleater-Kinney took on the Bush administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the handling of Hurricane Katrina.

The best albums of this decade proved to be a reflection of our times before many of the events even took place. Two of the decade's more influential albums, Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Bob Dylan's Love And Theft, were released September 11, 2001. Radiohead's Kid A took the isolation in OK Computer to a new plateau of alienation. Perhaps the only major movement of new music this decade, indie, showed that good music could find an audience without video or radio airplay. There was still the occasional blockbuster, but bands had to settle for a mere "double-platinum" award rather than then five million-plus sales marks of decades before. And like most decades, some years were packed with potential "album of the year" releases and others were on the lean side (one of my albums of the year didn't even wind up in my top 100).

This decade saw the music world get a lot smaller. But the following 100 albums show that ambition, bravery and just plain kick-ass skills were still a commodity.


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60. My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade – 2006

My Chemical Romance was a band hated by both the indie emo community and the vast majority of people who claim to hate emo. Their loss. Grand statements were lacking for most of this decade, but My Chemical Romance unabashedly put on a big, grand show with The Black Parade, a concept album about, what else, death. "Dead!" and "Sleep" sounded like lead singer Gerard Way was trying to reconcile his love for Johnny Rotten as well as Freddie Mercury. In the closing moments of "Famous Last Words," Way sums up the band's audacity to create a grand epic in an age of overt modesty: "awake and unafraid." 

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59. Welcome Interstate Managers – Fountains of Wayne - 2003

As we become less of a manufacturing job market and more of a service-oriented economy, white-collar jobs are rapidly replacing blue-collar jobs. While the general misery of some of these jobs (long, soul-crushing commutes; being slumped over in a cube farm for 10-plus hours; office politics) pales in comparison to destroying your body working on a highway or in unsafe factories, these are legitimate miseries that are qualified to be documented by a rock band. Fountains of Wayne are that band. And Welcome Interstate Managers, so far, is Fountains of Wayne's finest hour. Songwriters Chris Collingswood and Adam Schlesinger shame most indie singer-songwriters by packing so much detail and heartache into each three-minute song. But fortunately, they also pack in a ton of humor and their pop craft makes songs like "No Better Place" and "Bright Future In Sales" irresistible without giving you a toothache.

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58. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea – PJ Harvey - 2000

One of the most surreal moments in rock for me in a decade full of them was hearing the opening chords of "Big Exit" during an ad for the NFL playoffs. Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea was PJ Harvey's "Sex And The City" album. She found love, she moved to New York and she wasn't afraid to add a few coats of studio gloss to an album. Harvey and her band make you think you're actually on a rooftop in Brooklyn in "You Said Something." The album went on to sell more than a million copies, but true to Harvey's form, she abandoned the formula on her most commercially successful album in favor of a brutal, punkish departure with her follow-up Uh Huh Her.

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57. Under Construction – Missy Elliott – 2002

By 2002, we already had a slew of albums that addressed 9/11. In addition to that tragedy, Missy Elliott was reeling from the loss of her best friend Aaliyah. But in true Elliott form, she knew the best way to honor Aaliyah's memory and make her own 9/11 statement was to continue to do what she does best, which is to create one helluva party soundtrack. At the time, Elliott and Timbaland could do no wrong, out-freaking their smash "Get Yer Freak On" with "Work It" and the thumping "Slide." It was a classic nod to old-school hip-hop, reaching fans from New Jerz to Berlin.

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56. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Various Artists – 2000

It's heartening to think that one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade was also one of the most authentic. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring archived recordings from Alan Lomax, O Brother, Where Art Thou? showed what alt-country really should sound like. Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch supply some great new-generation talent, but the show-stopper was Ralph Stanley's Biblically-chilling "O Death."

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55. Stay Positive – The Hold Steady – 2008

If Boys and Girls in America was a drunken, party-seeking Zen Arcade, Stay Positive was New Day Rising – an album not as ambitious, but damn near perfect in almost every way imaginable. Few artists could get away with laying on a ton of literary references in their songs without sounding pretentious. Craig Finn manages to do so by turning each song into a story, backed up with a band that obviously owes a significant share of their royalties to the E Street Band. Stay Positive has plenty of party anthems, but the song that sticks with you is "Lord, I'm Discouraged," which manages to be poignant enough to make you want to cry in your can of Old Style, but also has a rip-roaring guitar solo courtesy of Tad Kubler.

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54. Middle Cyclone – Neko Case – 2009

If I have one complaint for this decade, it's the shrinking pool of female artists in alternative music. Last decade, we saw a flood of artists like Tori Amos, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and Bjork. One major exception for this decade is Neko Case. In addition to being a powerhouse vocalist for The New Pornographers, she has released four great albums this decade. Like previous albums, Middle Cyclone is heavy with animal metaphors and dark, murderous imagery. "Red Tide" and "Prison Girls" showcase some of her finest vocal work ever.

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53. The Hour of Bewilderbeast – Badly Drawn Boy – 2000

Damon Gough surprised folks in 2000 when his band Badly Drawn Boy won the coveted Mercury Prize with The Hour of Bewilderbeast. A mostly acoustic singer-songwriter album that surpasses 60 minutes can oftentimes double as a sleep aid, but Gough's sense of melody keeps the listener's ear throughout the journey. His work would finally find a mass audience two years later when he scored the film About A Boy, a film many people remember for the soundtrack as much as the movie itself.

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52. Southern Rock Opera – Drive-By Truckers – 2001

If a 60-minute album from a singer-songwriter is difficult to sit through, try listening to a double-album of southern rock. But in the Drive-By Truckers' case, this is hardly a burden. A concept album partially based on the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, Southern Rock Opera was a bitch to record and hell to release (the band finally campaigned their fans to help with the funding). Their follow-up, Decoration Day, was almost as good, but the ambition and pain that poured into SRO gives it the narrowest of advantages. 

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51. Scarlet's Walk – Tori Amos – 2002

Tori Amos' response to 9/11 was to record a road album. Scarlet's Walk is a loosely-based concept album that tries to do nothing less than paint a musical geographic map of America. Like all of Tori Amos' recent albums, it's a lengthy listen at 18 songs, but unlike her most recent output, there's an accessibility in her songwriting as well as in the songs themselves. "Amber Waves," and "A Sorta Fairytale" were some of the poppiest songs she has recorded, but it's on "I Can't See New York" when Amos showed she can still create a song that can make the hairs on your neck stand up.

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50. Microcastle – Deerhunter – 2008

On Cryptograms, Deerhunter provided a sort of shoegrazer Renaissance by proving a post-millennial spin on the fuzzy-sounding, feedback-drenched genre. On Microcastle, lead singer Bradford Cox edged slightly toward the pop spectrum, with some gorgeous harmonies, namely on "Never Stops" and "Saved By Old Times." As rules about what qualifies as "alternative," "indie" and "pop" eroded this decade, Deerhunter turned noise into pop.

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49. The Grey Album – DJ Danger Mouse – 2004

If there was a zeitgeist album of the decade, you would be hard pressed to find a better qualified choice than DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album. It was an album most people got for free. It was also an album that showed just how much people have started to immediately customize other people's work of art to fit their own artistic wants. Add some hip-hop beats to "Glass Onion." Interject the anarchy of "Helter Skelter" into "99 Problems." Whatever suits your fancy. Lawsuits were unleashed, but DJ Danger Mouse ultimately won out by becoming one of the most sought-after producers in years.

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48. World Without Tears – Lucinda Williams – 2003

Essence was an impulsive album from Lucinda Williams. After almost 20 years of releasing meticulously-crafted pop albums, Essence was like a reflexive kick to the gut. On World Without Tears, her studio obsession returns, but the raw emotional honesty of her previous album is very much intact. On "Ventura," Williams makes loneliness take the form of a physical sickness and on "Sweet Side," a wreck of an emotionally abused man is neither romanticized nor pitied. With any luck, time will move this album into the category of "classic," on the level of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

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47. Z – My Morning Jacket – 2005

My Morning Jacket started out as being a post-millennial version of Jackson Browne or Neil Young, but album by album, MMJ have woven more sounds into their arsenal, namely freak folk, funk and soul. On Z, all of these divergent sounds threaten to careen out of control, but they're held together by the band's amazing musicianship. On "Worldless Chorus," Jim James gives Beck a run for his money for "best Prince imitation" and on "Gideon," James and Johnny Quaid's guitar work and Patrick Hallahan’s drumming raise that song into the heavens.

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46. Silent Alarm – Bloc Party – 2005

Silent Alarm was one of the best workout albums of the decade. It started with the nervous, building energy of "Like Eating Glass." The album's energy grows with each song, climaxing with "Pioneers" and "The Price Of Gas" before easing into the post-workout chill of "Plans" and "Compliments." But it would be foolish to dismiss Silent Alarm as just an album to get your heart pumping. The icy, staccato drumming of Matt Tong may make Bloc Party seem a tad unapproachable for some, but lead singer Kele Okereke supplies plenty of fire in his vocals, most notable the quietly devastating ballad "This Modern Love."

 

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45. We Will Never Turn Back – Mavis Staples – 2007

Mavis Staples' We Will Never Turn Back was recorded partly to recapture the energy, unity and protest that defined the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Far from being a retread, We Will Never Turn Back was a fresh, vital and important piece of work from one of the best singers in R&B. Producer Ry Cooder of Buena Vista Social Club fame put some modern touches on Staples' album, but mostly he wisely stayed out of the way and let Mavis do her magic.

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44. Mass Romantic – The New Pornographers – 2000

Much has been made about A.C. Newman's songcraft and Neko Case's vocals on a New Pornographers album, but the real key for any great NP disc may lie with the drummer. On their Juno award-winning Mass Romantic, drummer Kurt Dahle threatens to careen each song into a brick wall with his "catch me if you can" drumming, especially on the soaring "To Wild Homes" and the aptly titled "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism." Mass Romantic was a pop album meant to be played at top volume, especially on "Letter To An Occupant."

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43. Original Pirate Material – The Streets – 2000

Michael Skinner seemed to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the hip-hop world, spitting long, detailed verses about parties, burning off a hangover at a diner and giving the finger to politicians who support the criminal justice bill. As our world got a lot smaller, Skinner was there to make even the most minute details, such as playing Playstation while waiting for the pizza delivery guy, seem like a literary epic. Even if the geezer wasn't a Jay-Z on delivery, Skinner deftly documented that great, scary, awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood.

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42. Demon Days – Gorillaz – 2005

Gorillaz's Demon Days expertly creeps up on a listener. On the first listen, it may be too weird of a listen. "O Green World" has a chorus that sounds like Damon Albarn is getting a root canal. Dennis Hopper pops in for an inexplicable voice-over cameo with "Fire Coming Out A Monkey's Head" and the late Ike Turner plays a piano solo on "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead." But throughout the album, you're rewarded, especially with the uber-infectious dance hit "DARE" and the amazing chorus that ends the title track. The mix of weirdness and smart pop blends in perfectly with "Feel Good, Inc."

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41. Supreme Clientele – Ghostface Killah – 2000 

Released a mere three weeks into this decade, Supreme Clientele set the bar from which any post-Wu-Tang output would be judged. While Ironman came within an eyelash from attaining the same greatness as other Wu-Tang solo albums (Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx, Liquid Swords), Supreme Clientele fully established Ghostface Killah as a master rapper and storyteller.

 

 Part I

Part II

Part IV

Part V 

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