Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (final thoughts)

Well, here we are! You read the intro, where I laid out the project of reviewing what a cross-section of critical opinion regards as twenty of the best albums of the decade that must not be named (or at least, never properly was), 2000-2009. You thrilled to the reviews of albums 1-5, 6-10, 11-15 and 16-20. Here, at the end of all things, what have we learned?

First off, having spent a lot of the decade distracted by other things and back-filling older artists and genres, it was a pleasant surprise to find some things I really liked. My “top” picks from among the albums I listened to were:

  • Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • Beck, Sea Change
  • Eminem, Marshall Mathers LP
  • Jay-Z, The Blueprint
  • Kayne West, Late Registration
  • Madvillian, Madvilliany
  • MIA, Arular
  • Outkast, Stankonia
  • Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  • The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Then there was another whole patch that, while I can’t think they’re the best albums of this last or any other decade, I would call “good”. They don’t reach “top” status for various reasons (musical or thematic inconsistency, lightness of lyrics or theme compared to the top albums, or just being a kind of good clean fun that doesn’t quite rise to greatness):

  • Daft Punk, Discovery
  • Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights
  • LCD Soundystem, Sound of Silver
  • MIA, Kala
  • Spoon, Kill the Moonlight
  • Sufjan Stevens, Illinois
  • TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

And, then, well…I have to respectfully disagree with the critics on the following albums. The first I found too experimental and not enough listenable, and the second was just kind of derivative and blah:

  • Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion
  • D’Angelo, Voodoo

We’ll get back to this “good” and “great” question in a moment. First, a pair of further observations.

1. This was not Rock’s decade. Of the 20 albums in this list, more than half were hip-hop, soul or dance music. Not that I don’t have a lot of love for those genres, but I do hope that Rock makes a rebound sometime in the 2010-2019 decade. For which, we are currently accepting naming bids…

2. You could make a very decent case that many of the best albums of the decade were basically 90s-afterburn. I will illustrate with one of my favorite data formats, the histogram. In this case, of the year the albums came out in. As you can see, fully half come from the first three years of the decade.

Now, back to this best/great/good question. In my previous installment, I got into an interesting commentary stream with my friend Matt, who besides being generally a groovy guy and great writer is an audiophile and astute pop culture critic. One of his contentions was that I’d gone too easy on the decade by calling anything that came out of it good compared to albums of decades past. I’ll let him speak for himself on this point:

“Maybe you need to shift your categories downward some more. “Good” should mean “adequate” and “adequate” should mean “terrible” and “terrible” should mean “I feel sorry for this band, I really do.” 

To me, I think it comes down to this: if I met somebody who was more or less intelligent but had little familiarity with the popular music of the last 60 years, what music would I recommend to them? And what albums from the ’00s would I include in my recommendation? 

Rolling Stone just recently “updated” their 500 Greatest Albums list by adding several albums from the ’00s to it, which now makes me less inclined to recommend the list to people. It’s just so awkward seeing Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., and Arcade Fire right next to Roxy Music, Santana, and N.W.A. I just want to shout out to a potential reader, “No! This is not the right list!” To be fair, the highest an album from the ’00s ranks on the new list is at 118 (Late Registration?), but honestly, they should have just left the damn list alone.

Hey, if writers and musicians genuinely believe that LCD Soundsystem and Wilco deserve to be lumped together with Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder, then I guess I just have some lint stuck in my ears. But I really believe that recorded music in the album format simply will not have the cultural and emotional impact it did up until the ’00s.

All these people are in denial!”

He has a point about where the music on this list fits in the grand scheme. There are specific entries I might argue with him on, and time of course is the great arbiter. But none of these albums are epochal. I don’t think it was that kind of decade, I think it was largely a decade of reflection and remixing that lacked the galvanizing new musical movements of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s. I’m hopeful that it was one of those periods of consolidation and musical drift that have preceded a “next big thing” in the past. Then again, thanks to technological change, maybe pop culture is too atomized now to have a “next big thing”. I wouldn’t bet on it, but there is an interesting neo-Marxian argument to be had about how the technological shift in the means of production may preclude this. It may certainly, as Matt contends, diminish the importance of the album as a form. Music lived before the album as we currently know it arose in the 60s, though, and I think it will live just fine in its next phase as well.

In the meantime, I haven’t given up on the album as an art form. And while this project has given me some new albums to like, I happen to think there were plenty of great albums in the 2000s. My own personal list of the top 20 albums of the decade (only three of which appeared on the nine critics lists I perused, again proving that, if nothing else, this was a very idiosyncratic decade) is (in alphabetical order):  

Bangs  Call and Response  (2002)
There’s a kind of female-powered punky and yet poppy band that I really, really like, and hope will hit it big, but they break up and vanish after producing one or two great albums. The 2000s had a lot of bands like this, and there is another on this very same list. But my first sadly gone girl-group love of the decade was the Bangs. 10 years later, this still sounds fresh, fun and eminently listenable.  

Breeders  Title TK  (2002)
As documented above, there’s a good case to be made that some of the best music of the 2000s was actually 90s afterburn. This is true on my list as well, witness this fine outing by one of the best bands of the 90s, the Breeders, headed by one of the driving forces behind another of the best bands of the late 80s/early 90s (and, in my opinion, of the entire history of Rock) the Pixies. It’s dark moodiness was one of the things that carried me through post-divorce early 2000s, and I love it still today.

Bruce Springsteen  Magic  (2007)
While I like Bruce Springsteen a lot in general, I tend to like best the dark Springsteen albums that he comes out with every other album or so. Magic is that, and is also a kind of perfect distillation of the mid-decade despair of the Bush years, delivered by a Springsteen that has aged into the world-weariness and mythic presence that he sometimes had to pose at in younger days.   

Death Cab For Cutie  Narrow Stairs  (2008)
I’m not sure the last decade had a better lyricist than Ben Gibbard, the lead of Death Cab for Cutie. Structurally, the songs are often simplistic, but what I’ve observed about them is that they linger. And the mellow, seemingly straightforward package in this album delivers things like a haunting wrestle with Jack Kerouac’s legacy, seeing smoke from the grapevine turned into a timeless struggle against the elements, and one of the most chilling “love” songs ever recorded, laying bare yet again how many of our favorite “romantic” songs are actually creepy obsession when you think about them.     

Deerhoof   Reveille  (2002)
If somebody took perfect pop rock, exploded it, and reassembled the pieces out of sequence but in a way that strangely still works, it would sound like this album. I don’t just love Deerhoof because they’re a Bay Area band. I love them because (and particularly on this album) they show just how creatively lazy every other band this last decade was, and that surprising, idiosyncratically beautiful things can still be done in Rock.

Drive-By Truckers  Brighter Than Creation’s Dark  (2008)
I said in the intro piece to this series that nobody in any pop genre had really had a great decade in the 2000s. In fact, that isn’t entirely true, and this album would be one of my prime exhibits in the contention that some of the best music of the 2000s was in fact Country music. Granted, it wasn’t by people you were going to hear on any Country station, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This is an amazing band, and an amazing album by them. Whether they’re writing about the rise and fall of Grunge (yes, really), a lament to a friend’s downfall through crystal meth, a sympathetic portrait of a soldier’s regret at having to kill, or just good old fashioned country themes, they are superb throughout, and adept at mixing Country and Rock together in way that you can’t really say which is which.     

Gillian Welch   Time (the Revelator)  (2001)
Some of the best music of the 2000s was Country music, but you won’t hear it on any Country station Exhibit II. I guess technically she might be Bluegrass, but let’s not split hairs. The point is Gillian Welch is a living encyclopedia of American roots music, channeling decades of influences to make her own outstanding contribution on this album.  

Hank William III  Straight to Hell  (2006)
Some of the best music of the 2000s was Country music, but you won’t hear it on any Country station Exhibit III. They just happened to all end up in a row alphabetically, but it still makes for a nice exhibit. They didn’t quite make my top 20, but you could add the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams to the list as well. As for this album, the way Deerhoof should make everybody working in Rock ashamed of how little they’ve strived for, Hank III should make everybody working in Country ashamed of how lame they are.

Kristin Hersh  Sunny Border Blue  (2001)
And I suppose this might be Exhibit II in my “90s afterburn” theorem. Nee of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh is an amazing songwriter and a powerful musician. The songs here are spare, confessional and harrowing. This was another album that helped me burn through post-divorce darkness early in the decade, and it’s taken on whole new meaning to me as we both (the album and I) have aged.   

Martha Wainwright  Martha Wainwright  (2005)
Martha Wainwright is one of the lushest, most true to herself voices of the decade. Here is a woman not worried about being popular or likable, laying it all out, good, bad and ugly. Which, of course, ends up lending the proceedings a vulnerability that wins through the darkness. Loudon Wainwright is great, Rufus has his many fans, but give me Martha any day!    

Northern State   Dying in Stereo  (2003)
Hip hop can be great. Feminism too. Political records sometimes. Empowered women creating something, always. Put them all together, and you get one of the best albums of the past decade. 

Raveonettes  Whip It On  (2002)
Rock is dead, they say. Pretty regularly. And there are long stretches of certain decades (80s, 2000s) that you think they might have a point. Then something like this comes along, and you realize that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast. Not to mention all in Bminor! It took a Danish band to do it, which would make me sad as an American, except we had the White Stripes in the same decade. So go Danes, go!  

Red Hot Chilli Peppers  By The Way  (2002)
There’s something wise and melodically bittersweet about this album. Which makes sense, since it comes almost two decades in for the group, and after lead singer Anthony Kiedis got into recovery. Which maybe is part of the reason it works for me. I think it suits the decade too- a moment to pause and reflect in a rough era that’s seen a lot go by.   

Rilo Kiley  Under the Blacklight  (2007)
If there is anything to not like about this album (or indeed the band in general) I don’t know what it would be.  Between Jenny Lewis’ lush and precisely delivered vocals, the intelligent and more than occasionally emotionally chilling lyrics and the inventive and skillful musical craftsmanship on display here, this album is a delight.    

Sleater Kinney  One Bea(2002)
I used to think of this album as a kind of predecessor to American Idiot, full of a similar disquiet over post-9/11 America that the later album delivered even more thunderously. As the years wear on, what impresses me is how Sleater Kinney’s effort is more perennial than Greenday’s, which started to sound dated to me a two or three years after it was released. I find it to be an excellent illustration of my general theory that to produce political art that lasts, you have to prioritize the personal over the polemical.    

Soviettes  LP III  (2005)
Remember in the opening entry above about the Bangs, how I described that certain kind of female-powered punky yet poppy band that I’m always hoping will make it big and instead collapses? Meet my mid-decade heartbreak, Minnesota’s the Soviettes, on the third and best of three excellent albums they put out before breaking up.  

Tanya Donelly  beautysleep  (2002)
Picture me in 2002, post-divorce, starting to re-connect to who I am as a person and artistically. I’m alone in the dark, sitting next to the stereo with the first new music I’ve bought in years. On comes Tanya Donelly, 80s co-founder of the Throwing Muses and 90s veteran of the Breeders and Belly. Through moody billowing music and shimmering vocals she’s celebrating the birth of her first child, and the renewal this represents after decades of wandering. And I’m right there with her… 

Tanya Donelly  Whiskey Tango Ghosts  (2004)
Or, you know, here with her two years later. She’s now in a more acoustic vein, looking back over the years and through the complexity and ambiguity of marriage with well-worn wisdom and tenderness. I lvoed it from first listen, but this album has played better and better for me as I’ve gone through the same journey myself.  

The White Stripes  De Stijl  (2000)
Other White Stripes albums made the best of the decade lists I compiled my twenty albums from, and indeed one of my sources, Paste, made the following pretty excellent case that Jack White owned the whole damn decade musically:
2000: The White Stripes, De Stijl 
2001: The White Stripes, White Blood Cells; White founds Third Man Records
2003: The White Stripes, Elephant; White contributes to Cold Mountain soundtrack and appears in the film
2004: White produces and performs on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose
2005: The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan
2006: The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
2007: The White Stripes, _Icky Thump _
2008: The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely; White records “Another Way to Die” with Alicia Keys for Bond flick Quantum of Solace
2009: The Dead Weather, Horehound; White Stripes tour film Under the Great White Northern Lightspremieres at Toronto Film Festival; White stars in guitar love-note doc It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge
While White Blood Cells and Elephant deservedly draw a lot of praise, De Stijl is my favorite. It starts rocking the second you put it on, and pretty much never stops. 

U2  All That You Can’t Leave Behind   (2000)

I recall reading some music critic (I’m sure someone can remind me who) describing the Clash’s London Calling as the album that perfectly personified the 70s collapsing into the 80s. I feel like this album is the same thing for the liminal knife-edge of the 90s becoming the 00s. Here are U2 as world weary veterans producing an album that almost crystallizes the transition from the hopefulness of 90s globalism to the post-9/11 global unease of the 00s. Yes, it was a little before that. But the artist as prophet can do that, call the coming zeitgeist before it comes.  

So there you go. We’ve seen me reviewing the critics call on the best albums of the last decade  and now you’ve seen my picks for the 20 best albums of the decade. What do you think? The next move is your’s…

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting the 2000s: 20 albums (final thoughts)

  1. Little Earl

    Hey, you should just let your friend Matt write large chunks of each of your blog posts.

    Also: Did you consider breaking this post up into several smaller posts? You've got like 20 videos in one post! You need to space it out and wring every last drop of interest out of your readers.

    Also: you don't need to put quotes around a block quote.

    Also: you misspelled “Donelly.”

    OK, I'm outta here.

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  2. Chris LaMay-West

    I should just quote Matt- his views are sometimes quite insane, but always interesting,

    I considered my urgent need to be done with this experiment after many months to trump further installations. Of course, that does shortchange my list, which is the most interesting part- to me!

    Revised! Back to you, Earl…

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  3. Little Earl

    To elaborate a little further:

    I might have sent you an e-mail about a year ago (which is, if you recall, roughly when you began this project?) listing some of my favorite albums from the '00s, as you just did. I have to say that (and this illustrates our point quite well) there doesn't seem to be much of any overlap, other than … the White Stripes? That's the thing about the '00s. Everyone's tastes have become really segregated and unpredictable. It's like the Wild West out there.

    Out of that ungainly hodgepodge, you definitely lean more towards slightly noisy, guitar-based rock than I do. I think you feel that music peaked in 1990. Are you still clinging to your stain-encrusted Pixies/Throwing Muses/Breeders/Belly mix tape?

    I'm starting to think that the most interesting “music” of our time is probably being made on YouTube and other corners of the internet, not in recording studios. It's probably music that nobody takes “seriously” right now, but when we look back, we might see that it did a better job of capturing the special qualities of our particular cultural moment than the new U2 or Bruce Springsteen album did. I can't even name examples right now; I'm not nearly hip enough. But a three-minute clip on YouTube is more likely to surprise me than the kind of albums that end up on these lists. That environment seems more likely to create a “next big thing” than “Ooh, look, it's a neo-garage rock revival revival.” It's just that we're not expecting it to come from there.

    I've actually been listening to a lot of pre-rock 'n' roll pop music, from the '40s and early '50s and such, and it's been fascinating, but one thing I've learned is that popular music was not always creative and interesting. Yes, “music lived before the album as we currently know it arose in the 60s,” but before about 1955, it was mostly tame white singers perpetuating a cartoonish version of romance, with the occasional latin-tinged, mildly racist number and novelties like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window”? Pop music WAS bad once; it just happened to be a long time ago.

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  4. Chris LaMay-West

    L.E., my apologies on not posting your comment earlier- I just got back from a two week time-delayed (like two years delayed) honeymoon!

    We probably always will have that divide (me more noise & chaos-oriented, you more pop and production), but there’s not a right or wrong to that, and I don’t think it prevents either of us from appreciating quality products in the other category. And I absolutely agree with you, one thing that strikes me about 2000s music is how idiosyncratic it is. As mentioned in my intro, I put together a list of around 200 potential albums from my 9 sources, and 143 of them only appeared once, i.e, something like 2/3 of the list contents were unique to each list. It really has been a “choose your own adventure” kind of decade. Now that I’ve reached the end of this long and bloody road, I look forward to going back to your original e-mail and reviewing your picks. And in the meantime, you have mine, which contains the actual bonafide 20 best albums of the decade, as determined by the final arbiter of universal taste. Me.

    The “music will survive” comment really was an outgrowth of thinking about the neo-Marxian shift in the means of production. I.e., the album became possible through production, media and mass market trends, and then hung in there through several technology shifts- vinyl to cassette/8-track to CD. But the latest technology shifts (digital music and social media sharing) really probably are inimical to the album as dominant form of musical narrative. I think you’re probably right, and it won’t make it. But something will. And that something will still be capable of bringing out meaningful, arresting music. Along with, no doubt, a lot of crap.

    As far as popular music goes, I think that’s a slightly different argument- popular music frequently is mostly dreck. It gets less dreckish when there are major “big new things”, but even in those eras, the shallow, clichéd and pre-programmed were well represented in top 40 lists. Conversely, there was great music being made in the pre-1955 era, even if it wasn’t at the top of the charts. The original blues recordings of the 20s and 30s, Woody Guthrie, weird spooky country, pre-rock R&B before it was “discovered” by Whitey, etc. There’s always something interesting going on somewhere beneath the surface. I don’t think popular music will ever get as totally straight-jacketed as it was in the 40s and early 50s- post-superpower, hi-tech, multicultural America is too different a place for that. But there will no doubt be times (for example, the current autotune lip-synch every song sounds the same era) when popular music is largely completely uninteresting. And looking back, some future historian will say, “Yes, that was true of the top of the charts, but the ukulele neo-polka singers of YouTube were meanwhile making music that continues to inspire and influence people to this very day.” Or some such damn thing…

    That last comment was only partially tongue-in-cheek, I really do think you’re on to something with the idea that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al (and whatever next iterations come our way) may be the most fertile breeding ground for the new out there. I wonder, though, does the proliferation of channels and shortening of attention spans mean that the “hot new things” will have smaller audiences and last for shorter periods of time? It will be interesting to keep an eye on…

    P.S.- My mix tape may be dated, but I can assure you it came by its stains honestly.

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  5. Little Earl

    Thanks Chris. You seem to prefer this “comment approval” system, but on my blog I have no such beast. I was trying to come up with a theory as to why my comment didn't show up earlier. Unfortunately for you, I tend to save my comments on my own computer. After a couple of weeks passed, I figured I would just try and post it again. I thought about prefacing it with some sort of explanation, but in the end I just said, “Fuck it, I'll just re-post it and see what happens.” And I found out what happens.

    I feel like this is the kind of conversation people end up having about 2000s music:

    “You know, most of it is crap, but if you know where to look, there's actually been some great stuff out there.”

    “Yeah!”

    “Like (band name)!”

    “Oh. No, I don't really like them. But I really like (band name)!”

    “Really? Yeah, I don't really like them. Actually, I also like (band name).”

    “No, they're too weird. I'm a big fan of (band name).”

    “Yeah, they're OK. You know what? Let's talk about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones instead.”

    “OK!”

    It's funny that the biggest difference of opinion we might have over '60s rock is that, oh, say, you like the Beatles a little less than I do, and I like Dylan a little less than you do … and that's pretty much it. But in the 2000s, we're all over the map. I'm not sure what that means.

    I've actually been listening to some more 2000s music myself as of late. I downloaded Pitchfork's “Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s” list, and my plan was this: if I came across a song I liked, then I downloaded the album the song came from. Excluding songs and albums I already knew, that's come to about 50 albums. Sometimes the song they chose for their list was the best song on the album, but sometimes not. I have a lot of thoughts on what I've heard, but I'll spare them at the moment, other than to say that I listened to that Animal Collective album, and I thought it was some of the worst music I've ever heard, and I'm completely puzzled as to how it received praise of any kind.

    In other news, I wrote a 10 minute play. Want to read it?

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  6. Chris LaMay-West

    First and foremost, yes I would! Send it on over whenever you have a chance. And let me know what level (if any) feedback you'd like.

    Second, I would actually prefer an un-moderated auto-comment, but at some point my blog somehow got linked to something spammy. So if I didn't approve first, I'd have tons of comments on Rolex watches and Luis Vitton.

    Third, Animal Collective- yes, wtf? Not only did the critics love it, when I posted my blog series on reddit I got tons of people there who are fans as well. like you, I am utterly baffled. All I have to say is, when both the guy who loves Todd Rundgren at his most super-produced and experimental and the guy who likes grating lo-fi nosie-rock both don't dig you, it's a sign that you're too avant garde.

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  7. Little Earl

    Then you've really lost the plot.

    Animal Collective was like if you took some Pet Sounds and Revolver outtakes, chopped them up into random little bits, lumped them back together, added a couple of synthesizer overdubs, made up your vocals on the spot, and called it an album. Sure, it might sound kind of interesting, but it would be missing that extra element of … human emotion? Expression of thoughts or sentiments I might share with the artist?

    This is how you know it's over. In order for rock to “progress,” it has to be “anti-musical” (see the evolution of Radiohead's career). To make something “new,” you have to make something that doesn't sound good. Classical music ran into the same problem around the turn of the (20th) century; if you tried to compose something melodic, you were too “traditionalist,” and if you tried to compose something “innovative,” no one liked your work other than music professors.

    Some of the spam comments can be rather fascinating I find. On our blog we once had a complex thread in Japanese that, when translated, seemed to be about a young girl named Peach who was potentially kidnapped in the Toyko underworld.

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