Features

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

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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20. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips – 2002

The Soft Bulletin finally gave The Flaming Lips the exposure they so deserved (minus the exposure they earned by having a minor hit featured in Beverly Hills 90210). Unfortunately, it took a few years for people to catch on to The Soft Bulletin, so you could forgive the Flaming Lips for recording an album similar in style. Fortunately, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is less a sequel than a companion piece. The album was accessible enough to have one song adopted by the state of Oklahoma, yet it retained the band’s freakishly innovativeness, especially with tracks like “Are You a Hypnotist?” and “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.”

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19. Illinois – Sufjan Stevens – 2005

Your love for Sufjan Stevens is going to depend a lot on your tolerance for cuteness and irony. If you worship "This American Life" and enjoy seeing concerts where people dress up like they're putting on a high school play about a certain state, chances are you'll love Sufjan Stevens. If you're a tad on the bitter side and have little patience for kids dressed in ironic heavy metal t-shirts, donning oversized glasses, chances are you may want to punch Stevens in the nose. Even if Stevens said some of his theatrics were gimmicks, that does doesn't diminish the amazing songwriting that permeates Illinois. Live, he may be cloying, but there isn't a speck of inauthenticity on this fiercely original work.

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18. – The Moon And Antarctica – Modest Mouse – 2000

On The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse finally came into their own as a band. Isaac Brock's ringing guitar work was a great contract to the propulsive percussion and Brock's throaty vocals. But on The Moon And Antarctica, Modest Mouse took the promise of Crowded West and turned it into a gothic classic. Death hovers over Antarctica, be it funeral parlor pacing of "The Cold Part" to even a sing-song nursery rhyme-like "Wild Packs of Family Dogs." The band has yet to record a weak album, but The Moon and Antarctica stands as their greatest work so far.

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17. Late Registration – Kanye West – 2005

As the Internet gradually eroded radio listenership and MTV stopped playing videos, there were fewer and fewer albums out there that could bridge generation gaps. Arguably the last album to really cross cultural and even generational lines was Kanye West's Late Registration. Housewives could be heard humming "Gold Digger" at Starbucks. Indie kids may have picked up the album thanks to co-producer Jon Brion. And any person who can enjoy listening to an artist at their peak could marvel at the wordplay and amazing production of songs like "Gone" and "Touch the Sky."

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16. The Woods – Sleater-Kinney – 2005

There was a scene from Children Of Men when Julianne Moore's character explains to Clive Owen the ringing he hears in his ears (he narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing) was the sound of ear cells dying – the frequency he was hearing would be the last time he'll ever hear that frequency. The Woods was the swan song for at least two frequencies for me. The first one was hearing the first chords of the album while accidentally having the volume in my car stereo at a medium setting. Yes, it's that loud. The second frequency was lost hearing the band play at a medium-sized club while supporting The Woods. On this album, Sleater-Kinney recruited Dave Fridmann (of Flaming Lips fame) to do nothing short of creating an absolute monster of an album. Janet Weiss absolutely destroys her kit in "Entertain" and the 12-minute epic "Let's Call It Love" sounds like Godzilla destroying Portland. It was a radical departure for the band that made people wonder where they would go next. The answer: indefinite hiatus. Sad, yes, but what a way to go out.

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15. The Blueprint – Jay Z – 2001

The formula was so simple, you would have swore it had already been co-opted: release an album that was as heavily indebted to 70s-era soul as it was to contemporary rap. But The Blueprint was exactly just that as it became one of the most copied formulas in hip-hop. The album launched the career of Kanye West and was cut in a lean two week stretch. Rappers spent the rest of the decade trying to catch up, including Jay-Z himself, who wound up releasing two vastly inferior sequels.

 

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14. Turn On The Bright Lights – Interpol – 2002

Even if Interpol will never live up to the heights achieved on their debut album, that does not dismiss the simple fact that when they are on, they absolutely slay. Turn On The Bright Lights was a debut album that reveled in darkness. Paul Banks declares on the seductive first track "I will surprise you sometime I'll come around." He's not kidding. "NYC" was more authentic than most any other post 9/11 ode to the city because it never shied away from the city's underbelly. So they may not be able to top this. How could they?

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13. Separation Sunday – The Hold Steady – 2005

It only takes the second song on Separation Sunday to hit a listener: THIS is songwriting. In less than four minutes, Craig Finn packs a novella worth of detail and a beginning, middle and end narrative to boot. Finn's tales of drunkenness, religious struggles and miscreants make all Hold Steady albums great purchases, but Separation Sunday takes his storytelling to a slightly higher level, thanks to Tad Kubler's punk/blooze guitar work. Separation Sunday ends with "How A Resurrection Really Feels." It's a bold boast that the band backs up in spades. 

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12. Twin Cinema – The New Pornographers – 2005

A few hours after I attended the funeral of my uncle, I ran to our local record shop to pick up Twin Cinema. I heard it was amazing even for The New Pornographers and at that moment, I needed something that was life affirming. Not necessarily the message, but just something that sounded absolutely life-affirming. Twin Cinema does not disappoint in the life-affirming department. A.C. Newman's joyously loud call-and-response title track leads a listener into the Neko Case showstopper "The Bones Of An Idol." You keep waiting for the album to lose momentum, but it just keeps getting better.

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11. American Idiot – Green Day – 2004

Green Day was unfavorably dismissed as a joke after Insomniac disappointed. What casual fans may not have noticed was that Billy Joe Armstrong has always been a great songwriter. Any doubt of this was obliterated with American Idiot, the protest album this decade so desperately needed.  Sandwiched between two nine-minute epics were songs about two people beaten to the point of numbness from the shitstorm that was this decade. It may not have offered any solutions, but sometimes screaming is a solution onto itself.

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10. Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective – 2009

Merriweather Post Pavilion managed to do something miraculous: make cynics fall head-over-heels in love with these noise rock hipsters. The band's freak-folk output leading up to their latest album could definitely put off listeners who do not put their entire stock with Pitchfork critics, but on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band's eclectic tendencies are ever so slightly tempered and replaced by some amazingly gorgeous songs. "Summertime Clothes" may have been released six months before summer, but that did not take away any of the effect from blasting it on the first hot summer day. On "Bluish," the band sings about "getting lost in your curls" – one listen and you'll be utterly lost in this huge step forward for the band.

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9. White Blood Cells – The White Stripes – 2001

Detroit has been decimated this decade. From the catastrophic loss of industry jobs all the way to the recent, humiliating sale of the $50-million Pontiac stadium for a paltry $500,000, good news has been sparse. Through this chaos though came the best overall band of the decade with The White Stripes. While The Strokes quickly painted themselves into a corner, The White Stripes have weaved garage rock, old-style blues and later on, a gothic sound that was anything but rock into their arsenal. Either Elephant or White Blood Cells qualify as essential purchases, but White Blood Cells was the first dinosaur-sized musical footprint planted by Jack White. 15 seconds into the first track "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground" and you realize that rock just underwent a reinvention.

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8. In Rainbows – Radiohead – 2007

It won't be a surprise if I tell you another Radiohead album is in the Top 10. So is it fair to claim "overkill" if 20 percent of a decade's Top 10 list is populated by Radiohead. To get another album in the Top 10, that album would have to contain the strongest set of Radiohead songs since OK Computer. It would have to be a striking return to the band's guitar-oriented attack without sounding like a slight gesture of fan appeasement ala Hail to the Thief. It would have to contain some of Thom Yorke's most beautiful and heart-wrenching ballads ("House Of Cards," "Nude"). No favoritism for the band here. Yes, some mention about how the album got people talking about how much monetary value people are willing to put on an album, but in short, In Rainbows was an astoundingly good album that over time could be regarded as the band's best. 

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7.  Sea Change – Beck – 2002

When Beck released Sea Change after the sextastic Midnight Vultures, some fans were taken aback with the album's somber tone. Beck fans who bought One Foot In The Grave and Mutations were far less surprised and even possibly felt slightly proud of Beck for releasing an album they always thought he could make. No musical waves were made. No landscapes changed. Sea Change was just an overwhelmingly beautiful album Beck recorded after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. With help from his father on strings and a serious appreciation of Gordon Lightfoot, Beck recorded one of the most heartfelt breakup albums ever. Music genres have been fractured beyond repair, but singing about a broken heart is universal. Sea Change just happened to sing about this universal ache better than any album this decade.

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6. Blacklisted – Neko Case – 2002

Taking some heavy pointers from David Lynch films, Blacklisted is the soundtrack of rural decay much like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Victims of the Green River killer are sketched in "Deep Red Bells," other songs like the title track or the devastating "I Wish I Was The Moon" talk about packing up and leaving. The topics would be off-putting had it not been for Neko Case's show stopping voice, a mixture of Patsy Cline and a film noir starlet. Other artists with great voices have released subpar albums, but it appears unlikely we'll tire of Neko Case's blend of cold and shivering warmth anytime soon.

 

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5. Funeral – The Arcade Fire – 2004

What does it take to record the debut album of the decade? First off, lose your two grandparents and aunt while recording an album. Then somehow have the stones to wear your heart on your sleeve in an era where hipster ambivalence was a valuable commodity. Then, you write a batch of songs that seem to defy any certain era (e.g. "Neighborhood #3", "Wake Up") and include at least one fist-pumping anthem ("Rebellion (Lies)"). Shrouded in death, Funeral was nothing less than a husband and wife couple and a few friends screaming for dear life.

 

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4. Love And Theft – Bob Dylan – 2001

"I got my back to the sun because the light is too intense" Bob Dylan states in the closer "Sugar Babe." If Time Out Of Mind was the sound of Dylan's at death's door, Love And Theft was the sound of that same person in complete remission, vowing to pick up any girl in sight and spent every last dime in his bank account. Of course, this newfound friskiness takes place in a semi-apocalyptic background filled with flood ("High Water (For Charley Patton))" and pestilence imagery ("Cry A While"). Love And Theft was released the day the Two Towers fell. People poured over the album's apocalyptic imagery of the album, but more importantly, people gravitated toward Love And Theft because it was the sound of an American icon walking tall through the ashes. 

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3. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco – 2002

Listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot now, you wonder why the album was dropped by Reprise. It contained some of the band's catchiest songs ("Heavy Metal Drummer," "Kamera") and even through there were definite moments of weirdness, the album was far from a difficult listen. But that comes after nine years of hindsight. The first listen to the shimmering sound of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" and its migraine-inducing final buzz was bound to put people off guard. The storybook ending of the album (getting dropped by Reprise, only to be picked up by Nonesuch – both companies were owned by Warner Bros.) was a great sign of things to come in this decade: if your album was good enough, it would eventually find an audience.

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2. Stankonia – Outkast – 2000

Stankonia is far from perfect. With 24 tracks (including skits), there is bound to be some weak and even forgettable tracks and with Stankonia, the weaker tracks are unfortunately lumped into the last half of the album, which more than magnifies its flaws. But I would gladly take another Stankonia over most any other album, hip-hop or rock. Coming off of their amazing Aquemini, Big Boi and Andre 3000 were so confident, they thought they could pull of anything – from the pure, clean funk of "So Fresh, So Clean" to Daliesque avant garde ("Toilet Tisha") and stark confessionals "Ms. Jackson." Everything comes together though in "B.O.B," the best song of this decade. Overstuffed with rapid-fire ideas, futuristic effects and a gospel closer, the song, like Stankonia, was the sound of a band who could not wait for the aughts to arrive. 

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1. Kid A – Radiohead – 2000

In the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise from three different time periods investigate an anomaly that keeps getting larger in the past. Think of Kid A as the flip side of this episode. When it was released, people were off-put that the album was no OK Computer. Thom Yorke's voice wasn't even heard clearly until the third song. Johnny Greenwood's guitar work was buried behind a wall of computer bleeps. Kid A may not have been the follow-up fans wanted, but there were enough memorable tracks to at least make Kid A a helluva winter album. Somehow though, with patience and repeated listens, everything fell into its right place. The mournful atmospherics of "How To Disappear Complete" and "Treefingers" lead into one of the only guitar-heavy songs ("Optimistic"). Only Radiohead could name a song "Optimistic" and include a lyric like "Flies are buzzing 'round my head/vultures circling the dead." The respirator-like percussion of "Idioteque" borderlines on dance until Thom Yorke starts singing "Ice age coming/Ice age coming." Kid A became the metaphor critics and fans would use for a band that took a radical left turn with their music. Almost ten years later, Kid A doesn't sound that radical, but only because it helped shape a musical landscape that eventually made albums like Kid A sound less like a radical departure and more like just a great rock album for the ages. 

 

 Part I

Part II

  Part III 

  Part IV 

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