Sean McCarthy's Top 100 Of The 2000s (Part IV)
[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.
40. The College Dropout – Kanye West – 2004
A guy at a record store I frequent called this album "The Chronic for this decade." It would be hard to dispute that statement, given the fact that West shaped what hip-hop was to sound like this decade much like Dr. Dre did in the '90s. Like it or not, the much-imitated "chipmunk"-like vocal effects you hear in hit songs today can be traced back to The College Dropout. But the album is known for far more than just funky audio effects. Though drugs, partying and sexual escapades were frequent topics, West also addressed the value (or lack there of) of higher education, the trauma of an accident in "Through The Wire" and religion with "Jesus Walks." Middle-class worries mixed with urban swagger, The College Dropout was as subtle of an entrance as a Bollywood dance number.
39. – Transatlanticism – Death Cab For Cutie – 2003
"Emo" was as prevalent and misunderstood of a genre this decade as "alternative" was in the '90s. Any genre that could include both Bright Eyes and My Chemical Romance under the same umbrella has some issues. And Death Cab For Cutie was the perfect "emo" band thanks to their ridiculous name and Ben Gibbard's frail voice. But any "emo" haters who passed on Transatlanticism risked missing out on a purely wonderful pop album. The album could have easily landed on a Top Ten of the Year list on the strength of the song "Expo '86" and the title track. Thankfully, there are nine other great songs on Transatlanticism. Emo? Call it what you will. Just call it a fantastic album.
38. Fever To Tell – Yeah Yeah Yeahs – 2003
Karen O was the rock star we desperately needed this decade. And on Fever To Tell, she could do no wrong. The songs, accentuated by Nick Zinner's buzzsaw guitar, were pure blazing punk with a bit of glam added for good measure. The titles alone ("Rich," "Tick," "Man") conveyed the band wanted each song to get to the point and quickly get the hell out of the way for the next three-minute blast. But it was on "Maps" where Karen O truly delivered – a ballad with a guitar solo that sounds like a beating heart put through a shredder.
37. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out – Yo La Tengo – 2000
One of the best late-night albums ever created was made by a husband and wife couple that is best known for creating some of the most ear-ringing sounds in rock. On And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley slightly tweak the formula that made I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One their breakout album into a more intimate setting. Kaplan's whisper covers you like a warm blanket in "The Crying Of Lot G" and the gorgeous "You Can Have It All." The band's power is on full display in "Night Falls On Hoboken," possibly the shortest 17-minute rock song you'll ever hear.
36. Bubblegum – Mark Lanegan – 2004
Former Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan's sixth solo album recruited PJ Harvey, Guns N' Roses vets Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagen and beloved Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli. But unlike other guest-heavy albums, Bubblegum is a unified statement that truly brings out the talent of the main artist. Whether it was on a slow-burner duet with PJ Harvey on "Come To Me" or laying down an intensely heavy groove on "Head," Bubblegum was a dark, lush album that will infect you on the first listen.
35. Ágætis Byrjun – Sigur Rós – 2001 My first exposure to Ágætis Byrjun was a visual I would like to forget. It was 6:30 in the morning and I was waiting to take doughnuts into work. As I was getting everything arranged in my car, I heard the opening strings and Jónsi Birgisson's angelic falsetto on "Svefn-g-englar." The song, though sung in Icelandic, conveyed an unmistakable air of longing. As I was hearing the last phrases from that song (something that still sounds like "It's you"), I saw two officers bring out a body bag from an apartment across the street. It's one of those songs that will forever be tied to a moment you can never shake from your mind. However, you don't need an event like that to make Ágætis Byrjun resonate.
34. I'm Wide Awake It's Morning – Bright Eyes – 2005
Conor Oberst is most likely going to go down as the whipping boy for "emo" music. His meekish frame, quivering vocals, spitting political statements and jet-black comb-over hairstyle seem ripe for parody, but it's sort of silly that an artist who has yet to sell a gold record has amassed such hatred. On I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, Oberst releases a wonderful road album for Gen-Y. "At The Bottom Of Everything" has a wide-eyed, optimistic sound, despite the song being about an inevitable airplane crash. The chugging guitars by Oberst and Mike Mogis on "Another Traveling Song" has an almost giddy, freewheeling feeling to it. But it's on the closer "Road to Joy" where Oberst actually lives up to the "new Bob Dylan" comparison with an anthem that proudly goes from apathy ("So when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothin' / It's best to join the side that's gonna win" to pissed off defiance ("But failure always sounded better / Let's fuck it up boys, make some noise!").
33. Sound Of Silver – LCD Soundsystem – 2007
As more artists filled up CDs with as much material as they could to justify the price of a CD, it was a revelation that James Murphy's follow-up to LCD Soundsystem's debut was a scant nine songs. Sound Of Silver's power was slightly dinged by a weak opening ("Get Innocuous!") and ending ("New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"). These songs would have been a-list songs on any other album, but not compared to the amazing three-song run of "North American Scum," "Someone Great" and the generation-defining "All My Friends." Out of these three songs, "Someone Great" is the real standout – a song that still sparks argument about whether it's about a death in the family or a breakup.
32. Lateralus – Tool – 2001
If Tool had not released another album after Lateralus this decade, that would have been fine because the album was so dense, people are still wading through its labyrinth. The band proudly wore their King Crimson influence by pushing its first two songs (minus the ambient "Eon Blue Apocalypse") past the seven minute mark. The mirrored reflection of "Parabol" and "Parabola" is music geek heaven – giving fans ample material to analyze and for the headbangers, the band throws in "Ticks & Leeches" when things get a bit too heady. The band would reach overkill on 10,000 Days, but on Lateralus, Tool struck a near-perfect balance between the aggressiveness of their early work and the progressive dominance of their current selves.
31. One Beat – Sleater-Kinney – 2002
On "Faraway," Sleater-Kinney sang one phrase that virtually everyone remembers hearing on September 11: "Turn on the TV." It was a universal phrase in an album that dealt with universal themes, particularly the themes of motherhood and how to respond to an event like 9/11. But for an album addressing such heavy themes, One Beat sounded almost giddy in songs like "Step Aside," "Oh!" and "Hollywood Ending." This was Sleater-Kinney's call to arms.
30. Blazing Arrow – Blackalicious - 2002
One of my best memories of my senior year of college was pulling out Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow from a stack of new releases at my college paper. Having never heard of them, and instantly curious about the ridiculousness of the band's name, I opted to give Blazing Arrow a spin instead of the other new releases on the Arts and Entertainment's new desk that day. Each song was a shock – how an album this good received so little pub. Whether celebrating the simple joys of "a big ass book and some vodka" on "4000 Miles" or managing to join Saul Williams and Zach De La Rocha on "Release," Blazing Arrow took you in directions few hip-hop albums have dared to venture.
29. Kill The Moonlight – Spoon – 2002
It doesn't take much to make a Spoon song. Throw in some piano or percussion-like hand-claps and a real catchy chorus and Britt Daniel's stuffed nose delivery and you're done. As easy as the formula sounds, no one has been able to replicate that sound. Taking pointers from Motown, The Kinks and even early '90s Pavement, Spoon craft three-minute pieces of perfection with songs like "Small Stakes" and "The Way We Get By." Spoon's craft always seemed perfect for a film and in 2006, Britt Daniel scored one of the best soundtracks of the decade with Stranger Than Fiction.
28. Dig…Lazarus…Dig! – Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – 2008
The normally dour Nick Dave strutted and sauntered his way through Dig…Lazarus…Dig!, perhaps the Bad Seeds' most surprising album in that they utilized a trait most people don't associate with Cave: a killer sense of humor. The Bad Seeds reimagined some of the most pivotal Bible stories being played out in seedy Vegas casinos and strip clubs. As a songwriter, Cave performed some serious literal acrobatics, be it calling Charles Bukowski a jerk without being pretentious in "We Call Upon The Author" and going through a litany of failed relationships on "More News From Nowhere." "It's getting strange in here / It gets stranger every year," Cave sings on the closing track. True, but thank God we have a scribe like Cave to make some sense of this strangeness.
27. The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem – 2000
There was a time where albums could still piss people off. Eminem was able to bring together right-wing religious moralists along with left-winged gay rights groups with their disgust toward the rapper. More apathetic artists and critics wrestled with a valid concern: "Does a truly great album exonerate the artist from the horrific content within the album?" If you're Elton John, the answer was "yes" as and Eminem managed to make the Grammys relevant and interesting again with their duet of "Stan."
26. For Emma, My Love – Bon Iver – 2005
After hearing hundreds of singer/songwriter albums in the ‘90s and this decade, I thought the genre was pretty much exhausted in terms of being able to produce a uniquely new sound. That was before For Emma, My Love, an album that Justin Vernon famously recorded alone in a cabin in Wisconsin after a breakup. Vernon’s voice incorporates elements of ’70s soul with some amazing confessional songwriting. For Emma, My Love is an album that actually makes you look forward to winter.
25. ( ) – Sigur Rós – 2002
Speaking of great winter music, Sigur Rós’ ( ) is an album that is noted as much for the music as the band’s stubbornness. The album was sung in “Hopelandic,” a language the band created. The album title consisted of only a set of parenthesis. And all eight tracks were untitled. If you just ignored all of these rules and surrendered yourself to the music, you discovered an amazing sonic wall of distortion, feedback and ethereal vocals. The final two tracks proved to be an epic conclusion to an album that forced you to “feel” without entirely understanding the true meanings of any of the tracks.
24. Return To Cookie Mountain – TV On The Radio – 2006
In terms of what music will sound like in the future, this decade mostly proved inconclusive when it comes to “rock.” Sure, we have a good indication of where electronic and techno are heading, but in rock, the first half of this decade was dominated by a lot of regression toward '60s and '70s garage rock thanks to The Strokes and The White Stripes. With TV on the Radio, people started to get a good indicator of what rock would sound like in the next decade. With rave-ups like “Wolf Like Me” and the chanting “A Method,” Return To Cookie Mountain is an album that sounds like it would be played incessantly in one of David Bowie’s ’70s futuristic concept albums.
23. The Argument – Fugazi – 2001
Fugazi has yet to break up, but The Argument currently stands as the last statement by the band. And what a statement to possibly end a career on. For more than 20 years, Fugazi has been at the forefront of the post-70s punk DIY movement . With The Argument, Fugazi created a sound that was fuller than its previous releases, but it did not diminish white-hot intensity of tracks like “Full Disclosure” and “The Kill.”
22. A Rush Of Blood To The Head – Coldplay – 2002
Coldplay’s reputation was ruined long before The 40 Year Old Virgin, but that movie cemented the band’s status for being a punchline for its heart-tugging, ballad-heavy blend of piano rock. The fact that the band managed to weather that criticism and release the stellar Viva La Vida after their momentum-killing X&Y is a testament that the band may actually earn its “the next U2” accolades. Even Coldplay detractors have to give a begrudging nod to A Rush Of Blood To The Head, an intensely moving and moody piece of pop art. Even if you could go the rest of your life without hearing “Clocks,” the brooding beauty of tracks like “Green Eyes” and the hard-hitting opening track “Politik” make A Rush Of Blood To The Head a blockbuster album worthy of its multi-platinum success.
21. Is This It – The Strokes – 2001
The first major Internet-fueled buzz band of the decade was a great case study of how so many bands rose to fame only to burn out in a magnesium flash. Be it Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah, The Hives, The Vines or The Strokes, the 15 Minutes of Fame adage shrank to about 45 seconds this decade. But fame only gets you so far and then talent has to carry you further. The Strokes may have unfortunately created millions of hipster wannabes, but Is This It proved a worthy trade off with tracks like “Take It Or Leave It” and “Last Night.” Pabst and Old Style beer should be paying these guys royalties.
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