Welcome to my blog. My maiden posts will cover my choices for the top 100 albums of the 2000s, chopped up into four somewhat digestible parts. Enjoy masticating part one, piggies!
100. Janelle Monáe – Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2008)
Equal parts Isaac Asimov and Mary J. Blige, this debut EP from the protege of Big Boi (Monáe’s performance on the track “Call the Law” was one of the bright spots on Outkast’s uneven Idlewild) is an introduction to a massive talent. Tied together by its concept of an android who risks disassembly by loving a human, and propelled by some of the most inventively stomping neo-soul grooves of the 2000s, Monáe’s brainchild marries the organic with the technological in more ways than one.
99. Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope (2006)
Say what you will about this Moscow native’s vocal quirks – if you want to put her penchant for lisping in the same category as Jewel’s unconscionable yodel, go right ahead – but her best songs possess a quirky power that puts it all in context. On Begin to Hope, Spektor finds the ideal balance between snappy melodies and self-consciously off-the-wall explorations. And on the piano/vocal suite and loose Biblical allegory “Samson,” the artist’s pop and avant garde sides come together with spine-tingling seamlessness.
98. Marianne Faithfull – Before the Poison (2005)
The human voice doesn’t deteriorate with age, it simply changes. At least that’s what Before the Poison would have you believe. Faithfull’s cracked, gravelly performance on this album bears little resemblance to her famous mid-’60s work, on which she sang with such serious clarity. But here she doesn’t opt for chamber pop odes to summer nights and little birds – instead she enlists artists like PJ Harvey and Nick Cave to write material to match her seemingly damaged instrument. The result is a work of dark, conflicted beauty, in which Faithfull’s voice is indispensable.
97. Gorillaz – Demon Days (2005)
After Gorillaz had a hit on its hands with “Clint Eastwood” in 2001, the virtual alt/hip-hop group released its self-titled debut, which didn’t contain one cut half as good. Perhaps Damon Albarn just needed more time to create his cartoon group’s definitive statement, because four years later, Demon Days was it. Full of songs that mixed moody Britpop with bursts of top-notch hip-hop, and peppered with moments of inspired weirdness (e.g. a spoken-word track featuring Dennis Hopper called “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”), this is where Albarn graduates from comic book geek to graphic novel visionary.
96. Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
2007’s Memory Almost Full might have had the more memorable single, but this record is as sweet and unfettered as McCartney’s ever been. Love songs abound, and they ain’t silly, thanks to universal sentiments like “This Never Happened Before” and “Follow Me,” and the steady hand of producer Nigel Godrich.
95. Dangerdoom – The Mouse & The Mask (2005)
The “Adult Swim” block of programming on Cartoon Network gets my vote for best pop culture development of the decade, not just for the platform it’s given to brilliantly deranged animators and comedians, but for its musical savvy as well. Without it, we wouldn’t have this collaboration between super-producer Danger Mouse and the king of underground MCs, MF Doom. Mouse’s beats are as funky as they are campy, Doom spits non sequiturs that burn into your brain, and guest spots from Talib Kweli and Cee-Lo are unforgettable. If cartoons weren’t already cool (they were), The Mouse & The Mask gave them more street cred than ever before.
94. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006)
By the end of the ’90s, the only Wu-Tang solo careers worth following were Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s, RZA’s and Ghostface Killah’s. 10 years later, with the passing of ODB (R.I.P.) and RZA continually stretching himself too thin, Ghostface stands alone. Fishscale finds the MC giving impassioned, forgiving odes to his mother, opining on the ins and outs of child discipline and boasting that he’s still the champ – over the kind of crackling soul beats that he’s been artfully tearing to shreds for years.
93. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
If autumn is your favorite season, you’ll probably dig this – a pastiche of big, warm harmonies, gently strummed acoustics and Mother Nature-heavy lyrics. It’s gorgeous folk-pop that, unlike its contemporaries Grizzly Bear, is absolutely content to stay within its own unique burrow of sonic serenity. And like autumn, Fleet Foxes is slowly paced yet not depressing, like a 2000s version of Harvest minus the junkie eulogy.
92. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan’s 2009 effort Together Through Life is a pleasantly tossed-off-sounding roots rock album, and also a total letdown. After the trilogy of sometimes morbid, sometimes whimsical masterpieces that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind and ended with this album, Together just sounds ordinary. Modern Times is a deliciously ironic title for a collection of songs that relies on grimy Chicago blues and Tin Pan Alley balladry to tell stories about romantic obsession, swollen levees and blue-collar strife. People used to think that Blood on the Tracks was Dylan’s last masterpiece – I’ll say the same about this album, in hopes that the artist surprises us yet again.
91. Lily Allen – Alright, Still (2007)
Forget about what Lily Allen said to Elton John at some award show, or anything else that could you could have learned from Access Hollywood, for that matter. The MySpace phenom’s debut album is a how-to manual of modern cheekiness, pairing breezy ska, new wave and lite hip-hop hooks with delightful wink-and-a-middle-finger anthems. “Everything’s Just Wonderful” is probably the best of the bunch, a lesson in how all your worries, body issues and financial troubles can get swept away by one excellent pop hook.
90. Beck – The Information (2006)
A new Beck album doesn’t have the same import that it did in the late-’90s, but those who’ve followed him through his patches of mediocrity have been occasionally rewarded. The Information is one of those gifts, a loose, clattering mix of funk, psychedelic balladry and white boy rap that channels the spirit of his most famous work much more effectively any of his ’00s records. And it’s much more than a retread – check the wishy-washy protagonist of “Think I’m In Love” or the ballad “Dark Star,” which takes the keyboard hook from Stevie Wonder’s “Have a Talk With God” and makes it the linchpin of a burbling, subterranean voyage.
89. Peter Gabriel – Up (2002)
If it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel’s apparent desire to add another “Sledgehammer” to his resume, Up would be much higher on this list. It’s a lush, dramatic and demanding listen, on which the artist’s still-enchanting voice guides us through a forest of slow-building soundscapes. Gabriel uses every second of these long running times to his advantage, using guests like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to spice up his ethereal universe, patiently constructing tensions and releases with the skill of a master craftsman – with one glaring exception. “The Barry Williams Show” is a massive sore thumb, an attempt at mainstream success that finds the artist embarrassingly out of touch. In such beautiful, inventive surroundings, a song that teaches us about how daytime TV talk show hosts are manipulative (no shit, Pete) is simply unfortunate.
88. Tracey Thorn – Out of the Woods (2007)
Everything But the Girl might be best known for one ghostly ’90s club anthem, but its scope always reached far beyond the dance floor. And never farther than on EBTG vocalist Tracey Thorn’s second solo effort, which mixes earnest, gorgeously produced pop balladry with the kind of rainy-day synth-rock songs that defined British rock in the ’80s. “A-Z,” a post-punk shot in the arm to every gay kid struggling with oppression, puts all of Thorn’s strengths into one three-and-a-half-minute package.
87. Wu-Tang Clan – 8 Diagrams (2007)
In the years leading up to the release of Wu-Tang Clan’s fifth album, its most entertaining member died, the remaining MCs struggled to advance their solo careers (except for Ghostface Killah), and there was apparently some serious infighting about RZA’s beats, which were getting more psychedelic and less street-wise. And by the sound of it, adversity suits Wu-Tang wonderfully. 8 Diagrams is easily their best album since Wu-Tang Forever, featuring one of RZA’s headiest bouts of knob-twisting and the newfound energy of many rappers that seemed to be dead in the water – especially Method Man, who dominates every track he appears on with verses that cut like rasping scythes.
86. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block (2006)
In 2004, my wife and I honeymooned in Paris. But even if you spent the whole year in Buffalo, the song “Paris 2004” could very well strike you the same way it did us. The track is the centerpiece of Peter Bjorn and John’s breakthrough album Writer’s Block, a pop record that’s clever in its starkness. Vocal harmonies and guitar heroics are practically non-existent, leaving the spotlight to whistles, glockenspiels and lyrics about waking up in Paris and feeling hopelessly in love. This is music that stays with you, romantic coincidences aside.
85. The Beta Band – Hot Shots II (2001)
After making an initial splash with an album patched together from older work, The Beta Band was in a strange sort of pickle – could an old-fashioned LP from the group possess the same sense of adventure? Honestly, Hot Shots II doesn’t possess the cavalier indie-electro-pop spirit of 1997’s The Three E.P’s, but it has its own sort of reserved, cohesive brilliance. Thanks to Steve Mason’s matter-of-fact voice, his group is able to pull off a brand of everyman space rock – big, reverberating songs that sound like they’re being whispered into your ear. There’s nothing as standout as “Dry the Rain” here, maybe because it’s a true LP, meant to be played from beginning to end to understand its intent – a gloriously ironic, and blissfully musical, turn of events.
84. Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)
It was a sad day when A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998. Looking back at hip-hop in the ’00s, it’s tough to pinpoint an artist that filled the void. And it didn’t help that Q-Tip’s solo career seemed irreparably cursed. But on Election Day in 2008, there were a few reasons to feel infused with hope, one of them being The Renaissance, the MC’s first release since his 1999 offering of crossover jams, Amplified. This is a great album for the same reasons that Midnight Marauders is – sharp rhymes delivered in Tip’s controlled, honeyed voice, soulful beats primed for backyard barbecues, and a pervading sense of positivity. It’s not a game-changer like Marauders, but it keeps its spirit alive, which is enough to make it a classic of the ’00s.
83. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
“Get ready for love!” growls Nick Cave on the opening cut of this elegant double album, which finds the artist continuing his exploration of the murky depths of the romantic impulse (why hasn’t he covered “Hurts So Good” yet?) over swelling arrangements that bounce between Waits-ian wallowing and glorious choral testaments. Its ridiculous title is not indicative of the songs, which yank on your heartstrings with forceful, direct language.
82. Santogold – Santogold (2008)
What if Gwen Stefani cared about crafting entire albums instead of just throwing an hour of tired dance-pop filler on the shoulders of one killer single? Well, she’d be kind of like Santogold (who is now called Santigold thanks to the threat of legal action from some jeweler called Santo Gold, which is dumb). The duo, led by producer/songwriter/vocalist Santi White, packed all kinds of hooks and genre-hopping experiments into its self-titled debut, resulting in an irresistible mix of soul, ska, electronica and surf that makes you want to throw open the windows and sing, air conditioning/blizzards be damned.
81. The Weakerthans – Reconstruction Site (2003)
John Samson’s songs tend to be beautiful things, even though they go out of their way to sound mundane, dry or just plain sad. On this, his third Weakerthans record, the singer/songwriter lets his down-to-earthness fly over pleasing, plugged-in folk progressions, resulting in some lyrical jags that are tough to forget (e.g. “I broke like a bad joke somebody’s uncle told at a wedding reception in 1972, where a little boy under a table with cake in his hair stared at the grown-up feet as they danced and swayed”).
80. Old 97’s – Satellite Rides (2001)
As one of the best bands to emerge from the alt-country revolution in the 1990s, Old 97’s always had impeccable pop sensibilities lurking under all that raucous Texas twang. On Satellite Rides, Rhett Miller and company let their catchy sides take the reins, proving they’re as good at power-pop as they were at country-rock. The love songs are instantaneously lovable, whether they’re about being the shy guy (“Designs On You”), the happily whipped guy (“Bird in a Cage”) or the head-over-heels guy that’s about to propose (“Question”).
79. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
With the death of Elliott Smith in 2003, fans of quiet, torchered folk songs needed the Trey to replace their Jerry. And while the jury’s still out on whether anyone’s worthy of carrying on the Smith legacy, Justin Vernon makes a serious claim with this album. His songs quaver with a soft, delicate, Sparklehorse-like ache, but Bon Iver isn’t quite as abstract as that group, using the track “Skinny Love” to describe a failed relationship in gory detail (“Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer”).
78. Danger Mouse – The Grey Album (2004)
Unless you’re on a dancefloor and drunk as hell, you shouldn’t be listening to a mash-up. They’re pointless, gimmicky productions that get old faster than “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Unless you’re talking about The Grey Album, that is. Of all of Danger Mouse’s clever, game-changing projects (Gnarls Barkley, Dangerdoom, Dark Night of the Soul, etc.), this remains the smartest. By laying the vocal tracks off Jay-Z’s The Black Album over some brilliantly interwoven samples from The Beatles’ White Album, the producer did more than mix seemingly disparate colors. He made us think – about the inherent similarities between rock and hip-hop, the artistic legitimacy of creating something new from material that’s already incredibly popular, the overlooked coolness of “Long, Long, Long.” All this from an album that was never released. Oh music industry, you so crazy!
77. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (2009)
The press went apeshit about an album with a weird title by a relatively unknown Brooklyn indie-folk band. Lots of people listened, went out and bought it. And it’s terrific. What a refreshing thing to think about as the “death of the album” decade comes to a close. To those going in pre-hyped, Veckatimest might not be an immediately rewarding listen, because this isn’t typical pop songcraft. It’s lofty, hypnotic music, where the verses draw you in and the choruses only serve to deepen the mystery.
76. Nick Lowe – The Convincer (2001)
After giving Elvis Costello his start in the mid-’70s, Nick Lowe was quickly overrun by his prodigy. But the singer/songwriter’s latest work finds him balancing the scales a bit. While Costello’s been all over the stylistic map on his ’00s records, missing as often as he hits, Lowe has settled into his role as a snarky soft-rock crooner, and The Convincer is as good as it gets. Whether it’s the sexual desperation of “Homewrecker,” the sad-sack lament of “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” or the sweet, antisocial romance of “Let’s Stay In and Make Love,” Lowe’s voice remains cool and observant, a natural fit for these laid-back arrangements.
75. Of Montreal – Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004)
As this decade progressed, and Kevin Barnes’ music became progressively wilder, his band picked up an almost Bowie-ish quality, leaving fans unsure what to expect and loving every second of it. And Of Montreal’s sixth record, Satanic Panic in the Attic, was the first snapshot of the artist in transition. It’s a thrilling bridge between Barnes’ early heart-on-sleeve folk and the kaleidoscopic, freaked-out dance-pop he prefers these days. This is still a rock album, just an impeccably arranged, deliriously catchy one – when Barnes stacks harmonies like Lincoln Logs on the majestic, sun-streaked “Lysergic Bliss,” both smiling and thrashing around are in order.