This past August, Pitchfork writer Stuart Berman found himself in the position of defending the publication’s pick for top track of the decade: Outkast’s “B.O.B.” “You’ve spent the past five days clicking through pages of this countdown only to find out that the best single of the 2000s was released just 10 months into the decade,” quipped the critic. “Now you know how your parents feel when they tune into a long-weekend classic-rock radio countdown for the inevitable valedictory spin of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.”
And so describes the pang of déjà vu accompanying the epic unveiling last week of the Top 200 Albums of the 2000s. Of the top thirteen, all but two— Person Pitch and Funeral —were released (and critically recognized) in 2002 or earlier. Odd, right? Have the past seven years really yielded less veritable masterpieces? Puzzled, I sought answers the best way I know how: by making a list of my own.
But first, a few guidelines: I don’t posit my list as any sort of objective tabulation. Countless brilliant records from the decade have flown well beneath my radar; many I’m still discovering with awe today. The selections here are as intensely personal—to me —as music itself.
Oh, and by the way: I still love you, Kid A —I just think we need some time apart.
10. The Arcade Fire —Funeral [Merge; 2004]
September 2004: A few scraggly, Montreal-based twenty-somethings struggle to make sense of their family members’ sudden deaths. They emerge from the studio with this—a sweeping, elegiac meditation on mortality; a sort of earthy Canadian answer to the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin .
September 2009: A few talented freshmen perform “Wake Up” at Orientation Open Mic Night. The singer has a request for audience participation: could we, the wide-eyed Wesleyan Class of 2013, maybe possibly join in on those godly “Ahh! Ahh!” harmonies? Please? What’s wonderful is that it worked: everyone knew it, and everyone fucking nailed it.
What the hell happened in those five years? The answer lies beyond the hype and obsession, in the music itself—the sheer warmth and humanness of it: the stories of vampire brothers to Haitian immigrants, from the orchestral swells to the new wave backbeats. It’s all there, and after that artificial flurry of “new Arcade Fires” (anyone remember Clap Your Hands Say Yeah?), nothing feels quite as right.
9. Edan —Beauty and the Beat [Lewis Recording; 2005]
When hip hop starts to sound predictable and classic rock too tame—that’s when I slip in Beauty and the Beat . One of the forgotten masterworks of 2000s’ hip hop, Edan’s sophomore effort is an acid-drenched convergence of ‘60s psychedelia and rap, fitting squarely into neither category. “I work with the aesthetic of a brain medic / Cutting up the reels with crystal shards to make the tape edit,” the rapper declares. “Without the LSD, I see colors.” Under the album’s influence, so will you.
8. Destroyer —Destroyer’s Rubies [Merge; 2006]
“You looked okay with the others / You looked great on your own.” Such is the story of Dan Bejar; some know him from the New Pornographers, but here, on his sixth LP as Destroyer, he sounds fiercely liberated and obsessively lyrical, breathlessly squeezing in his esoteric wordplay and abstruse references (sample line: “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd / I cast off those couplets in honor of the void”) atop the album’s jangly, glam-tinged sprawl. Wordy, literary, and unique, Destroyer’s Rubies is an enthralling work, revealing itself slowly over time.
7. Yo La Tengo —And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out [Matador; 2000]
What does that title even mean? At least I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass had its clear reference point, arbitrary though it was, in the testosterone-fueled outburst of NBA player Tim Thomas. Is this record the sound of the Hoboken trio turning itself inside-out?
Maybe. Gone, almost entirely, are the MBV-style noise blasts that colored ‘90s classics Painful and Electr-O-Pura ; in its place comes YLT in sleep mode—for 78 fucking minutes. That description doesn’t sound exciting, I realize—until the album’s moody, nostalgic tones seep like rain into your subconscious. It’s the perfect late-night record in so many ways—tales of relationships gone awry set to subdued drone (“Everyday”), warm pop (“Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”), and even a ‘70s funk cover (“You Can Have It All”).
6. The Avalanches —Since I Left You [Modular/Interscope; 2001]
DJ Shadow, you might know, made the Guiness World Records book for the “First Completely Sampled Album.” But it took these Aussies—plus an estimated 3,500 vinyl samples—to repeat the trick and make it fun as hell. Since I Left You is like a sampledelic plunge into this hallucinatory aural dream state, where Madonna samples float amidst an impenetrable swirl of flight announcements and horse neighs—and yet the album remains compulsively danceable. It remains a pinnacle in the history of Sampling As Art—the sort to make Girl Talk, talented as he is, feel like the Clip Art to the Avalanches’ Picasso.
5. Blackalicious —Blazing Arrow [MCA; 2002]
“Yo, Kanye, I’m really happy for you, I’m’a let you finish, but Blackalicious had one of the best hip hop albums of all time! ”
No, but I’m serious— Blazing Arrow sounds like the archetype for the perfect hip hop opus, mind-expanding in ways that Late Registration only wishes it could match. There’s the maniacally talented emcee (Gift of Gab, at his absolute peak here), the progressive production guru (Chief Xcel), and the tasteful guest spots (Jurassic 5, DJ Shadow, Ben Harper, Gil Scott-Heron, Saul Williams). There’s the laidback anthem (“Make You Feel That Way”), the furious rhyming gymnastics (“Chemical Calisthenics”), the ambitious three-part epic (“Release”), and—at the end of it all—the perfect comedown groove (“Day One”).
“An open microphone can be dangerous,” declares a sample on the album. Here’s proof.
4. Sufjan Stevens —Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty; 2005]
I’m almost glad Sufjan never got around to the 48 other states. It just makes Illinois (and, to a lesser degree, Michigan ) that much more singular an experience. At its core, the album feels like a rumination on the sheer power of place in a historical and personal context. But beyond that—beneath the obscure Stephen A. Douglas references and paragraph-length song titles and lofty instrumentation and obsessive interludes—lies 74 minutes of fiercely inventive, emotionally-charged indie pop. Personally, I’m partial to the gorgeous choral theatrics of “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!,” but still—who the hell else could write a devastatingly moving ballad about John Wayne Gacy, Jr.?
3. Madvillain —Madvillainy [Stones Throw; 2004]
If Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is hip hop’s sprawling, overblown White Album, then Madvillainy spazzes in the corner like its Trout Mask Replica. Like Captain Beefheart, MF Doom lures us into his surreal universe, where songs are cerebral fragments of attention-deficit genius that need not exceed the 2:00 mark to make their point. But Doom has a partner-in-crime: cult producer Madlib, whose dusty jazz-hop backdrops—culling as freely from Frank Zappa as Steve Reich—mesh with Doom’s delirious delivery like Eno with Bowie.
Half a decade later, two irrefutable observations feel like further testaments to the album’s brilliance: first, that no hip hop collaboration since—not even Doom himself—has managed to match this sheer stream of creative energy; and second, that the record is appreciated today even by those whose tastes veer closer to the Jurassic 5 than cLOUDDEAD edge of the hip hop spectrum.
2. Joanna Newsom —Ys [Drag City; 2006]
Ah, the Newsom debates. To some, her voice landed with the tenor of a naïve child; to others, she sounded unspeakably old. Some consigned her to the short-lived ’04–’05 freak-folk aesthetic; far freakier to others was this perverse need to label a work so inherently singular in its ambition and scope. And those rich, tongue-twisting lyrics—poetic or precious? A few years removed, these questions strike me as hollow; Ys is all of the above, as shockingly accessible—at least in melodic sensibilities—as it is immense and complex and brilliant and grand. Everything else feels trivial in comparison.
1. Wilco —Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch; 2002]
Sometimes I think I have it pinpointed: the exact moment where breezy Americana gives way to detached, post-modern paranoia; the precise instant when Chicago’s alt-country heroes became America’s supposed answer to Kid A . It’s right there —that alarm-clock whirring that closes out “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Or the way Jeff Tweedy’s voices cracks at exactly 4:24 in “Radio Cure.” Or the piercing guitar stabs that render the twisted pop of “I’m The Man Who Loves You” about as welcoming as the Butt Tunnels.
Except it’s not. That moment doesn’t exist; the signs were there all along. Here, Jay Bennet’s sonic exploration enhances, maybe overwhelms, but never quite obscures the most vital songwriting of Jeff Tweedy’s career, and that paradox is key: YHF is the quintessential headphones album—and yet its potency diminishes not one iota in an unplugged context. And at the center of it all sits “Jesus, Etc”—the arguable song of this band’s career, its haunting refrain endowed with unforeseen prophetic urgency in the wake of 9/11. “Strung down your cheeks /Bitter melodies turning your orbit around”—that’s as accurate a description as any for the finest album of the 2000s. Simply perfect.