PopMatters recently reached out to me and a horde of other writers to compile a list of the best music of the naughts, asking for top ten lists and assigning selections based on some secretive tally that the magickal editorial doktor Brice Ezell comprised in his lair. This was a task that both myself and PM intentionally put off at the end of the decade. For me, the scope was just too vast. More music had been released during that decades than perhaps in all previous ones combined, and it was also what many would call the prime period for music consumption for a young man (ages 18 to 28). There was so much room for error and misremembrance, and frankly the selections that kept running through my head made me look like the worst type of hipster plankton.
Yet, the naughts are fascinating because for all the vastness of its archive and the stellar quality of many of the selections on this list, it really wasn’t a terrific time for music. It was a period in which music mattered so much, but was valued so little. Music was everywhere. We constantly retreated into earbuds to ignore the world for it, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and a first world reduced to the rubble of permanent precarity in all out class warfare. Lyrics became far less relevant as the words that slipped from vocalists mouths’ either sounded too opaque, too sincere, or too in touch with those anxious influences. Thus, much of the best music was that which circumvented language altogether to distort the voice and rupture its capabilities in defining an era. Autotune, chopped and screwed lines, pitch-bent genders, and glitchy stutters proved how disoriented and disconnected we truly were, and how preferable that was to being in sync with the fucked reality of a kind of permanent dystopian end-of-history narrative. However, if we were to look at all we really have to show for the decade in terms of era-defining scenes or movements, the outlook is equally grim.
If the music got worse and less aligned with its peer network, I’m of the (admittedly minority) mindset that music writing actually got better- the blogs pushed the conversation forward, online zines scoped depth print mags never dared, and writers challenged each other in public, indirectly including everyone in conversations that had previously been decided to the backs of those who might disagree. Depth of knowledge certainly progressed as we dug deeper into the crates. Music began to cross-pollinate, unafraid to dip its legs into pop/dance/experimental terrains it previously wouldn’t have dreamed of approaching. Nearly every couple of months, we were treated to return of some big thing we had treated unkindly on the first go-around (prog!, Balearic!, yacht rock!, Italo-disco!) and thus our scope of music’s historicity grew exponentially.
Upon review, many of the things I got caught up in at the time (dubstep, dancepunk) seem vastly overhyped and timestamped while others I enjoyed as guilty pleasures (electroclash) or rarely at all at the time (mainstream hip-hop) proved to have massive staying power in my collection. In my tendency to get carried away, I expanded the top 10 proposed by PopMatters to a cool 100.
In the PM writer forums, a list of “best albums” that I submitted circa 2010 or so was criticized by other writers for a lack of diversity, which I found to be fair (and a little embarrassing). Yet, I created this list with no foresight or caution towards representation and it just so happened that many of the albums with a more naturalistic lasting affect tended to fall equitably amongst releases by women, artists of color, and others not of the lumpen (white) indietariat. Which I think speaks even better of the present moment than of the era in question.
What follows is by no means comprehensive and I’ve got scrolls and scrolls of unheard/sat-upon lists to fill the 10 year vintage blog for many moons to come, but it’s a decidedly improved picture of the decade than the one I would have painted five years ago. To avoid the “Radiohead” syndrome many lists suffer from, I’ve limited myself to only one album per artist. Plenty more topics I’d love to go in depth about from the era (maybe even a book’s worth?), but for now here’s a teaser for a hundred albums worth your time:
100. Chicks on Speed- The Un-Releases/ The Re-Releases of the Un-Releases (2000 Chicks on Speed/K)
Larry Tee’s Electroclash comp promised high camp and ironic poses to save the earth, which sounded A-Okay to the music’s sponsors, its fashion spreads more numinous than records sold (something that surely caught the eye of YBA affiliate and mediocrity czar of the naughts Queen Gaga). But poised right in the middle of Tee’s collection is a toxin-filled little catwalk ditty by conceptually-minded German electropunks Chicks on Speed called “Fashion Rules” which calls models “Bacteria inbred in fashion schools”, Gucci “victim luxury” and offers advice to the fashion industry thusly; “Off with their heads is what we say/Marie-Antoinette, it’s the only way”. Which is quite a nice way to shit on a party you’ve been invited to that seems to be getting too cozy with the status quo.
Chicks on Speed were not immune to the humor or fun-seeking of their peers, but unlike that disaffected lot they actually sounded like they had a stake in the game. Their best was a messy Faust Tapes style splattershot LP called The Un-Releases, an off-the-wall masterwork that injects the actual spirit of postpunk into the ’79 to ’82 obsessed scene. With its half-baked sketches and incidental dialogue bits, The Un-Releases has a hallucinatory documentary feel to it.
“It was interesting watching what the Spice Girls were doing because everything was so plastic. You knew they had producers, but you didn’t know who the producers were. We wanted to turn that inside out and say we are a produced band, but we want to look at the way the mechanism of production works”- Alex Murray Leslie of Chicks on Speed
All the wires are showing, but they’re all connected to jacks of the band’s best material- the brutal millennial room-shaker “Turn of the Century” (intended as gabba to ward off the Fascists, according to an interview of the band by the late Steven Wells in the NME), creatively repurposed takes/rescue assignments on Delta 5 and B-52s songs, and the glitchy cyberpunk nightmare “Night of the Pedestrian”. Inbetween are blipvert-length cameos by various European producers of note and pedigree (Pan Sonic, Florian Hecker, DJ Hell, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, G.D. Luxxe). But perhaps, the most novel take is the euro-feminist-lesbian take on Cracker’s jocular “Eurotrash Girl”, in which the girls attempt to reclaim the offending term as their own rallying cry.
99. Chromatics- Plaster Hounds (Gold Standard Laboratories) (2004)
Deep, dark, and dubby is usually a prescription to get on my good side and Chromatics did it particularly well. Perhaps the first example of a band whose ironic name would switch throughout their career and eventually become sincere, Chromatics are ashen gray on Plaster Hounds. It’s filthy lo-fi carcinogenic scuzz, music that just sounds unwell. The band would eventually veer from monochrome to the glistening and colorful but still damaged Italo-synthpop of their Italians Do It Better material (and eventually becoming the sound of the surprisingly influential Drive soundtrack), but it’s this earlier rawer material that stands the strongest in their discography. Recorded either at the tail end of real lo-fi or the dawn of digital imitation, the album gleans a hint of retro, importing cues from no wave scratches and Cabaret Voltaire sub-frequencies. Its driving force though is complex and prickly rhythm with cymbals that sound like they’re made of broken glass and stick magic that sounds like broken bones from the Zero Kama camp, a sound so perfectly shitty that Ancient Methods should pay top dollar for the masters for their next release. There’s also intimations of what was to come in the disco beat and solemn piano of “Ice Hatchets”, which for a second feels like it’s going to float off in starry-eyed “In the City” splendor until you realize that it’s anchored by the heavy starkness of their own design.
Mi Ami- Watersports
Various- After Dark
98. Pinch- Underwater Dancehall (Tectonic) (2007)
Right off the bat, Pinch commits a number of cardinal sins on Underwater Dancehall. A) Lyrics B) Lyrics specifically over his then year-old –yet-already-classic “Qawwali” C) Lyrics over the dark anthem “Qawwali” that asks its listeners to “push that negative energy aside, rude boy”. Dubstep was perhaps the first dance trend in history heard mostly outside of the clubs. To these ears, it sounded intensely dark and desolate- if not explicitly negative then at least somehow aligned antithetically against the positive. However, Underwater Dancehall is an appeal to transcendence, for it takes a somewhat inaccessible scene’s obtuse and somewhat forbidding tones and makes pop out of them. The half-beat has always sounded to me like a hesitation marker, as if the complex riddims were aching to be jungle, but bound by their own repression. Perhaps that’s why to me the best dubstep has always been the early, dark stuff, the kind that speaks most to dance music’s utopian failure and the anxiety of accepting the toxic realism of apocalypse over peace, love, and ecstasy. This kind of defeated approach feels better suited to the pop theatrics of the album-oriented-nuum of something like Underwater Dancehall than to a night out partying. So, it’s a bit of a surprise that Pinch’s debut full length was one of the only of its kind at the time (later crossover records by the likes of Darkstar or Magnetic Man bastardized the classic dubstep sound to accommodate pop rather than forging its sullen grimaces and Adderall gait onto a pop façade).
Once upon a lifetime, I stumbled my way through a review of this album, which happened to be probably the 4th or 5th dubstep thing I’d ever heard (I’d downloaded all the cuts from the Children of Men soundtrack, which actually would be a great time capsule worthy of this list had the soundtrack not left two of the best cuts- Digital Mystikz’s “Anti War Dub” and Pinch & P Dutty’s “War Dub” off the actual album). One insight that still sounds apt though is the comparison to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, both smartly produced, sophisticated crossover albums full of guest vocalists and little compromises to achieve their vision. At the time, Underwater Dancehall seemed like the start of something, but its legacy now declares itself as more of a standalone. It’s sad we didn’t get to hear more albums like this.
Martyn- Great Lengths
Kode9 feat. Spaceape- Dubstep All Stars Vol 3.
97. The Strokes- Is This It (RCA) (2001)
The point at which the reader either thinks “Oh, okay, he admitted it” or “Well, this jag’s drank the Kool Aid; time to read something else”. The album that either soundtracked at least one perfect memory of life in the early naughts or that inescapable dull dross that oppressed your ears and is partly to blame for a shitty song still stuck in your head a decade plus past its expiration date by a band whose name started with “The”. The truth is, Is this It (and has history written a title that anticipates its iffy historical legacy more than that?) is neither bottom feeder nor perfect art. It’s burgers and French fries. It’s beautiful in exactly how it neither creates new desires nor sets out to destroy old ones. It’s fucking normcore numero uno, selling us what had been in front of our faces all along, but that which we’d been too scared to admit we wanted. Joe the Plumber for liberals. The last Rock n’ roll forever hurrah proving rock n’ roll probably needn’t be around forever. Our baseline.
Also recommended: Ketchup
96. Arpanet- Wireless Internet (Record Makers) (2002)
Within the first few minutes of 2002’s Wireless Internet, Gerald Donald as “The Analyst” predicts the worldwide dominance of mobile cell phones as the premier platform of future connectivity. He claims that these wireless networks will be connected in such a manner as to establish of a worldwide surveillance and control apparatus, using the urban legend of the Beast of Belgium to illustrate its grasp. Phew. Good thing that didn’t happen.
Donald’s every movement, from his earliest work in Drexciya and Underground Resistance through his solo tinkering under the guises Dopplereffekt, Der Zyklus, Heinrich Mueller, Japanese Telecom, et al., has been a carefully constructed piece of a conceptual suite, positing electro as a kind of reluctant gateway into the future, but not always a future we’d welcome with open arms. The cold, sterile, and clinical output of his dark melodies seem to paint in broad strokes, mutating the clockwork beats into a video game techno-dystopia (In Arpanet, the vocals assume no side. Rather, they are neutral, like investors examining a claim). As such, this is a hyperreal perception of reality as it was emerging, the vision of corporate control slipping through the cracks in our machinery painted in vivid neon-rotoscoped menace and moving in such stilted lurches as to appear more mechanical and anemic than one of Pierre Bastien’s automated wind-ups. Later on, the likes of James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual would stalk and critique the warmth of the information age, but Donald denaturalized the marketing and reduced its mechanizations to just the wiring, putting that front and center.
Der Zyklus- Biometry ID
Various Artists- This is Not the 80s (excellent compilation of post-Drexciyan electro and electropop that falls outside the purview of the overly campy electroclash camp)
Turzi- Made Under Authority
95. Mordant Music- SyMptoMs (Mordant Music) (2009)
Somewhere on the other side of the dark side of the Autobahn is a town with “rabid solutions and bent institutions” where they drink “industrial slurry”. There it’s “expensive to leave and expensive to stay”. Mordant Music’s principle concern over ten years or so has been narrative and nowhere in Baron Mordant’s back catalogue is he more articulate in his ambiguity than on SyMptoMs. Partly, this is because SyMptoMs is Mordant Music’s singer-songwriter album, his “vocal” piece. Once upon a time, eccentrics like Mr. Mordant used to put out albums like this regularly, the kind which didn’t neatly fall into a #trending subset of micro-genres. This lot was too song-based or lyrical to be experimental, too off-kilter to be pop, and too interesting to be indie. In the Roxy era, there was a word for it; art-pop. There’s perhaps nothing more deserving of the title than something like the baffling “You Are a Door”, which seems to float as it’s sinking; a bleeping, pulsing mess that wants nothing more than to continue building until it can explode, yet is caged by its own anxiety. Or the simple dewdrop synth-chords of the opener “Where Do You Scream?”, whose dark critiques and simplicity remind me of early psych-folk a la Psychic TV’s A Pagan Day. Singular stuff.
94. The Mountain Goats- The Sunset Tree (4AD) (2005)
“I played video games in a drunken haze/ I was seventeen years young” is the kind of risible line you’d hear gushing forth from the (dashboard) confessionals of an emo singer, the kind that spawned the Livejournal era descended into Myspace bulletin posts descended into Facebook statuses descended into cryptic Instagram captions for food and color-washed photos of exes. When John Darnielle says it on The Sunset Tree, he’s sincere. There’s no trace of irony. He intones with a crystal clear enunciation, the kind which makes a lyric sheet on an album like this unnecessary. Surrounding it is an equally lucid production where the piano sounds present in the room, worlds away from the muddy lo-fi of Darnielle’s early recordings.
However, to isolate these two lines from their stanzas or the narrative of the album as a whole is to do a disservice to the life-spanning portrait Darnielle carves here. The line above is memorable because individual words on this album, in their clarity, cut out like bones from the flesh, wounds exposed often only in the panoramic rather than the closeup. The lines in question are from the album’s most anthemic and instantly serviceable tune, “This Year”, whose chorus “I am going to make it through this year/If it kills me” provided an apt soundtrack to one of the roughest years of my, Darnielle’s, and denizens of other listeners’ lives. This alone could have secured the album’s place on innumerable lists of significance.
With the broader scope of the storyline though, it’s easy to see how “video games” function as a cathartic escape, once removed from the oppressive reality of being trapped in a broken home. The drunken haze becomes precursor to addiction and dependence. And then there’s the enunciation on “Seventeen years young”, as opposed to the more standard “seventeen years old” (which is what Darnielle declares he is on “Dance Music”). It’s in this desperate moment of hedonism, a tossaway line in any lesser song, that Darnielle feels the age he should feel, “young” rather than atrophied and prematurely aged by the stress of abuse.
Some say Darnielle abandoned the complexity of his earlier story-song structures (of which I’m admittedly not very familiar) in favor of naked autobiography on The Sunset Tree, but it’s more of a stylistic shift than a renege on depth. The details may be stark, but the personal and contextual weight they carry makes them feel far more prescient than any ornamental language could. Besides if Darnielle’s ultimate goal was to write a tragedy, all us music nerds would recognize it as the saddest story ever told if the only words were these from “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”; “And then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face/Hoping you don’t break my stereo/Because it’s one thing that I can’t live without”.
Also Recommended: Cat Power- You Are Free
93. Pamelia Kurstin- Thinking Out Loud (Tzadik) (2007)
A Theremin player this side of Clara Rockmore who’s every bit as talented, but way less stuffy than either Rockmore or her conservatory peers. At this album’s release, Pamelia (who picked the offshoot of her birth-given Pamela out of a supermarket checkout lane book of baby names) had an Angelfire page full of goofy humor and fart jokes to accompany a genuine celebration of her artform, quite the opposite approach from the normal Tzadik-listening/The Wire-reading/chin-scratching crowd, whose press releases read like rejected grad school theses. Her C.V. spans David Byrne to Foetus to the score of remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still and she only learned the Theremin from dating the dude from Geggy Tah.
Blah Blah Blah. Kurstin’s brilliant Thinking Out Loud makes you forget that releasing a Theremin album in the 21st century is about as relevant than as cutting a Moog LP or starting a surf rock band during said period, but there’s such beauty and gravity to these recordings (mostly live captures of performances in various European cities) that it shows you how inconsequential all that periphery of her background and the instrument’s novelty history is. And for substance she doesn’t even fall back on the sad moan, the vibrato that naturally mews out of the instrument embedding it with a forlorn emotional resonance. Nor does she play up the drama and bombast a la the aforementioned sci-fi. In fact, Kurstin does the opposite. Most of the record is understated, wandering, and shiftless. She plays against a minimalist array of instruments and filters her sonic through some drone-inducing reverb or grimey feedback that makes the instrument barely recognizable. Whereas once Theremin was employed as the go-to weird effect before becoming totally date-stamped, Kurstin remystifies it and scopes its broad uses via the lens of all that came after the good vibrations of yore.
|Kreng- L'Autopsie Phenomenale De Dieu|
Pierre Bastien- Mecanoid
92. Tool- Lateralus (Volcano) (2001)
What made Tool such an amazing force capable of enthralling legions of slavish teens to recite their tentpoles (the author includes himself in this category- “Carl Jung, Bill Hicks, fuck L. Ron Hubbard, Brothers Quay, pry open your third eye, man”) was that they were the band that could unite metalhead meatheads, artsy geeks, prickly poets, and the virginal lot who were really into counting the time signatures in Dream Theater songs alike. They hid their proclivity under layers of accessibility and lyrics about anal sex (“Prison Sex”), fisting (“Stinkfist”), religious anal sexual abuse (“Opiate”), and, oh, probably a bunch of other stuff too. In interviews, Maynard James Keenan, known affectionately on a first name basis by his fans, was coy about song meanings or dropping the names of influences. In early online chats, the band would openly mock their fans for what they perceived to be simple or clichéd questions, breaking the hammy faux bond of the band who “have the best fans in the world”. They revealed no faces in the album art, which was the main entry point into a band’s career before everything was a search engine away and instead replaced it with naked pictures of beautifully posed morbidly obese women. They were pretentious, ambiguous, unapproachable and refused to play by the rock star gamebook. As such, a code of entry evolved in Tool fandom.
Lateralus is Tool’s fundamental downshift from their amplified stardom on the heels of their first two successful full-lengths. It’s their proggiest and most musician-oriented release of all. Song lengths are stretched out, with no less than five song passing the eight minute mark and three others over six minutes in length. One of the six minute tunes is actually conjoined to another to form the album’s core (“Parabol/Parabola”), a slow burner with prominent digeridoo that has a full-on dubstep-style drop into a violent burst of melodic intensity in which the vocals plead, with no shred of irony or Hallmark sincerity, for the listener to “Recognize this as a holy gift/And celebrate the chance to be/Alive and breathing”. A somewhat jarring new age sentiment that nevertheless carried a strong resonance seeing the band perform it several days after September 11th outside of Boston. That performance also included guitarist Adam Jones stretching out the chords from the suite’s third act into a a lamented 12 minute loop and Keenan getting booed by his adoring fans for warning them against the quick march into war. The title track is constructed somehow so that the song structure locks geometrically with the Fibonacci sequence, a move which many called brilliant. However, those who praise this form of composition are also saying that there is literally a correct mathematical formula to making astounding music.
But Tool don’t demand respect just because they’re obviously unconcerned about what their fans or critics (such as Christgau, who bashed the band every chance he got) thought. They’ve got the wares to back it up. Whereas prog usually suffers because it tries to cram too much in, Tool rarely drop a note in the wrong spot or take a turn that doesn’t seem like the logical (albeit unexpected) step forward.. Lateralus is an easter egg for fans with its clunky egghead lyrics and elliptical patterns folding into patterns so obtuse that one needs to listen repeatedly to make any sense of them. Or, as the album’s most accessible song, which switches time signatures 47 times, puts it “I know the pieces fit/ ‘Cause I watched them fall away”. There’s something to be said for a difficult album that you put on again not just from the intrigue factor, but because you actually enjoy it.
Also recommended: Battles- Mirrored
91. Britney Spears- In the Zone (Jive) (2003)
Somewhere a teenage me is baffled, weeping in the corner, unable to contemplate how I put Britney Spears directly above Tool in any superlative list. God, someone go beat the shit out of that kid. Of all the pop posers out there in the naights, Britney Jean was the ultimate faker. K-Punk was wont to make the sacreligious comparison to glam. There’s no deviation between image and persona for Britney. She is a fabrication concocted for and by the tabloids, what’s now known as the insta-clickholes of the interwebs. Every little piece of her pesona, on down to the Bush endorsement, is designed to provoke. Sure, Britney is troublesome and problematic and ace college essays-worth of wrong in equal measure, but she embodies the spectacle in ways that Gaga couldn’t ever wish for by embodying its crassest appeal, be it shtick, titillation, or, what I fall most for, sick beats, fat synth basslines, and perfectly succinct and economical pop. Her naughts output is a slow embrace of herself as cyborg and cypher, culminating in Blackout, a close second contender for top Britney album in which she fully secedes to the machine and signs alms to being but a Chaplin-esque machination herself.
Let’s be honest about In the Zone. “Toxic” sells the whole thing. It’s the album’s obvious core because it’s one of the most perfect pop tracks of this or any entire decade. I remember it debuting on MTV as an event and feeling a wave of adolescence drift away.
To my stubborn young mind, Britney had been the epicenter of my high school musical alienation. I felt no connection to the music of my peers, who seemed dangerously uncurious, including those who tastefully kegstanded to Sublime, puffed to Puff Daddy, spiced things up via The Spice Girls, or kneed each other in the parts of the anatomy that only metalcore dudes who find metalcore somehow tolerable share. As soon as Britney was thrust into this environment, I was repulsed by the way she demanded attention, asked you to pick a side. No one had asked for her, but she was soon to be inescapably everywhere, embodying every sexist trope of the American male fantasy (pedophilic virgin-whore voluptuous white blonde). I was saddened as a number of my friends were outed as dupes of this dull sexual fantasy (even adding their own misogynstic twists to it- “heh, I only watch her videos with the sound off”, said the Tool fan). Britney from the git-go was an antagonism whose cheap targets made her easy for me to write off.
But goddamn if I wasn’t hooked the moment Bloodshy and Avant’s mix came on with its screechy sample straight out of a 60s thriller, dark bass breakdown, howling interlude, vocoded drop, and post-disco string section. Indie rock friends around me watching the video as it played for the first time proceeded to mock it, which compelled me into the unlikely position of defending it and, before long, declaring my unwavering love for it, dumbfounding said indie rock friends. The song was undeniable.
If “Toxic” is the star performance, the rest of the album is a strong supporting cast. The super-charged pop bravura of “Brave New Girl” is like something Bis would have parodied a few years prior, but could have never actually written themselves. “Showdown” is a confrontational vamp whose infectious vigor can only side you on team Britney. “Breathe On Me” is the kind of glorious post-Kylie 21st century pop we all imagined we’d be listening to in the decade in question, but which we had to seek out instead in deep cuts.
The crucial difference between Britney and the more critically-lauded, but undersold pop stars like Annie or Cassie is the expensive production. In an era where it became cheaper and easier to produce music than ever before, Britney kept the budget high and made sure not a penny was wasted. Again, this is an aggravated stance from the left-leaning punk-central aesthetic of music, a celebration of the glories capitalism, fame, wonton indulgence, and status quo can bring.
If there’s a penultimate peak on In the Zone, it’s “Everytime”, a sullen piano ballad that seems perfectly out of place in an album of bouncy slinky pop. Britney is always pretty soft on lyrical content, which could be a product of her limited vocal range. On record, she sounds perpetually sexed-up, breathy and often playfully pouty, with a youthful timbre that suggest that she is perpetually playing out some pedophiliac fantasy, even well into her twenties and thirties. “Everytime” drops this mode for a tune that could have just as easily been written for Tori Amos.
The song was given some added weight by its now-iconic appearance in Spring Breakers, but even before Harmony Korine’s nightmare hedonic vision of a solipsistic video game dystopia the song seemed to have a special voice aimed towards millennial teendom. “Notice me…”, the very first line of the song begs, the equivocation left behind from every Facebook post since the platform’s inception shortly after In the Zone’s releasee. “Why are we strangers when/Our love is strong?”: A heartbreaking anthem from the world’s biggest troll, written deep in the nerve center of the spectacle. Lonely Crowd 2.0, who could list every fact about their peers, but who know nothing about each other. Britney’s not only our disease, but proof of how good it feels to be stricken with it.
Britney Spears- Blackout
STILL AHEAD: Bitshift's best, Jaunty tech house, proto-chillwave, Timbaland's last hurrah, and (sigh) more indie canon.
STILL AHEAD: Bitshift's best, Jaunty tech house, proto-chillwave, Timbaland's last hurrah, and (sigh) more indie canon.