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100 Best Albums of the 2000s

100 Best Albums of the 2000s

Radiohead Kid A

Radiohead's Kid A

All through the last decade, you’d find a lot of people insisting that the album was dead, a victim of the MP3, the iPod and a la carte downloading. But that never happened. If anything, artists doubled down on the format, resulting in a renaissance of long form artistic statements from a wide range of artists. This list of the decade’s 100 best albums includes the work of rock revivalists (the Strokes, the White Stripes), dance floor visionaries (M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem), hip-hop icons (Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West) and old standbys like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and U2, who reinvented their sound without losing touch with what made them living legends. This list is not just an argument in favor of the enduring appeal of the album format, but a compelling case that some of the best music of all time came out between 2000 and 2009.

100

Leonard Cohen, ‘Ten New Songs’

Leonard Cohen released Ten New Songs in 2001 after a nine-year period that included depression and seclusion living as a Buddhist monk at Los Angeles' Mount Baldy. On this spooky collaboration with producer and backup singer Sharon Robinson, Cohen sounds reenergized, his deep growl more ravaged and soulful than ever on a whole slew of new classics. He explores inner torment on "In My Secret Life" and reflects on both mortality and heartbreak on "A Thousand Kisses Deep." Cohen is known for his painstaking devotion to every line – and he clearly spent his time on these.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2001 Review

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99

The Hold Steady, ‘Almost Killed Me’

This Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis bar band took the world by surprise. They bashed out Seventies-style riffs as Craig Finn spluttered his one-liners about killer parties gone bad, from "She gets low in her seat when she gets high in her car" to "Mary got a bloody nose from sniffing margarita mix." The songs had a Springsteen-size cast of characters, lost kids staggering through America in search of sex, drugs and salvation. The band sounded so real and raw, so loaded with compassion and wit and raunch, they became a word-of-mouth sensation. Suddenly the 2000s didn't look so hopeless after all.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2004 Review

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98

TV on the Radio, ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’

Defying stereotypes, crossing boundaries, blending styles: the second album by Brooklyn's greatest band whipped indie rock, doo-wop, gospel, soul, punk and a dozen other genres into something magic and new. The music was timeless, but the message was unmistakably, furiously of its historical moment: a post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Iraq invasion dispatch from the depths of the Bush era. "I was a lover, before this war," sang Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe.

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97

Wilco, ‘Sky Blue Sky’

Wilco's Workingman's Dead is a chilled-out, acoustic guitar-centered set made shortly after leader Jeff Tweedy's rehab stint, but it isn't so chilled-out beneath the surface: "If you're strung out like a kite/Or stung awake in the night/It's alright to be frightened," Tweedy counsels on "What Light." If the band’s search for inner peace is qualified, it's also determined, and more often than not – in Nels Cline's startlingly pretty guitar lines, in Tweedy's avuncular man-child croon – they find it.

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96

The Streets, ‘Original Pirate Material’

"Streets riding high, with the beats in the sky," boasted Birmingham, England's Mike Skinner in his thick "brummie" accent – and for once, here was a U.K. rapper with the goods to back up the braggadocio. On his transfixing debut album, Skinner set himself apart by not trying to be American, instead rapping about clubbing, carousing, fistfights in fish-and-chips shops and other rituals of twenty-something working-class English life. To American ears, the U.K. garage-style beats were bracingly coarse and exotic. But it was Skinner's cinematic storytelling that grabbed you by the ears and held on tight.

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95

Alicia Keys, ‘Songs in a Minor’

The debut album by 20-year-old Alicia Keys introduced the world to a singer-songwriter with something for everyone: hip-hop flash, vintage soul song-stylings, gospel fervor, classically trained piano skills, pop melody, punchy beats, unabashed feminism, red-blooded romanticism – and a singing voice that sounded best when raised in an open-throated yowl. It sounded like Grammy bait, and it was: Keys scooped up five awards, and she deserved them all.

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94

The Libertines, ‘Up the Bracket’

Before his life imploded in a shitstorm of tabloid idiocy, Libertines’ singer-guitarist Pete Doherty and his songwriting partner Carl Barâ were on their way to becoming a shaggier, shiftier 2000s answer to Oasis. “It’s not about tenements and needles / and the all the evils in their eyes,” he sings “The Good Old Days.” Uh, yeah it was. The Libs mixed the wistful melodies of the early Kinks with the bruised punk rock romanticism of John Thunders and the Heartbreakers, sounding totally knackered even as they flicked out ace melodies with the ease of someone tossing a lit cigarette out of a moving taxi cab.

 

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93

Johnny Cash, ‘Unearthed’

More brilliance from the bottomless musical vaults of Johnny Cash. Released just two months after Cash's death in 2003, this box set collects rarities and alternative takes from Cash's American Recordings albums helmed by Rick Rubin – parlor ballads, country classics, Bob Marley songs – and adds a bonus disc of gospel and spiritual songs. It's not just the definitive record of one of music's greatest late-career comebacks. It's a piece for the time capsule: a slice of American culture as monumental, and as enduring, as Mt. Rushmore.

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92

Bon Iver, ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’

One of the all-time great breakup albums, not to mention one of the era’s surprise success stories. Justin Vernon, recovering from the end of a relationship and the collapse of his band, retreated to a cabin in rural Wisconsin with his acoustic guitar. He spent the winter chopping wood, growing his beard, and writing these songs, lamenting, “Can’t you find a clue/When your eyes are painted Sinatra blue?” Despite the stark folkie sound, it’s warm and caressing, with Vernon’s falsetto the kind of voice that can keep you welcome company on a bad-whiskey night.

 

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91

The Hives, ‘Veni Vidi Vicious’

Five Swedish meatballs who dressed like Gerry and the Pacemakers by way of the Love Boat, the Hives were a cartoon rock band come to life. On their debut they made the shtick work with super-charged tunes that took pimply Nuggets-era bubblegum-blues through a Nineties garage-punk lens. On awesomely titled songs like "Introduce the Metric System In Time" and "Declare Guerre Nucleaire," frontman "Howlin'" Pelle Almquist  yowled like a Nordic white blues maniac over triple-time pummel, and on "Main Offender" they gave us a stomping power-pop anthem for the ages.

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90

Amadou & Miriam, ‘Dimanche a Bamako’

A Malian guitar virtuoso and his soul queen wife team up with Manu Chao, the post-national post-punk and pop-savvy "world music" producer. Chao brings his trademark reggae grooves and cell phone-synth touches; Amadou Bagayoko cranks his guitar up, channeling Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy amid the Latin-flavored fingerpicking style of West Africa. No tribal nostalgia tripping here: on "Senegal Fast Food," the trio embrace the modern world in all its tasty, and sometimes unhealthy, contradictions.

 

 

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89

Radiohead, ‘Hail to the Thief’

Here's something you don't find every day: an underrated Radiohead album. Hail to the Thief, like everything else the band has done, perplexed fans at first, bristling with punk anger and art-rock ambition. But anyone can hear the raw emotion, especially in the way Thom Yorke combines his fiercest political rage with fatherly devotion in eerie ballads like "A Wolf at the Door" and "I Will." The guys later claimed they should have trimmed some of the extra tracks, but what fun would that be? The dazzling overabundance of ideas makes Hail to the Thief a triumph, from the guitar monster "2 + 2 = 5" to the slow-burning live staple "There There."

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88

Brian Wilson, ‘Smile’

The famously un-finished Beach Boys record, begun by Wilson in 1966 as an answer to Sgt. Pepper but abandoned in favor of the less-ambitious Smiley Smile, gets finished in 2004 with help from longtime co-conspirator Van Dyke Parks. Is it the album it might've been 30-plus years ago? Who knows. But it's Wilson's finest solo moment: cascading vocal arrangements, delicious melodies, and letter-perfect orchestral flourishes. A generation of vocal-obsessed indie rockers (Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes) owe him large.

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87

Gnarls Barkley, ‘St. Elsewhere’

Everybody went crazy for "Crazy"," the Gnarls Barkley debut smash that hovers seductively between eras and genres, hitting a chord with everyone from indie rockers and hip-hop headz to teenyboppers and their great-grandparents. But "Crazy" was just one of the pleasures offered up on Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse's debut. Blending spaghetti Western soundtrack music, Motown, club-savvy dance beats, rock and gospel, St. Elsewhere seemed to take like a little bit of everything while resembling nothing else out there – a primer on 20th century pop that heralded a brave new musically polyglot 21st century. Bonus: they performed in Star Wars outfits.

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86

The Postal Service, ‘Give Up’

It's quaint to think of it now: Electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard named their project Postal Service because they used to send demos back and forth to each other – in the good old-fashioned U.S. Mail. In a way, that suits the glitchy, retro computer pop the duo made on Give Up, with help from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and Temper Trap’s Jen Wood. Songs like "Such Great Heights" – whose inclusion on the soundtrack to Garden State elevated the album's profile – and "Nothing Better" bubbled with sweet little blips and bloops and bright patches of synth-manipulated  strings whose crispness balanced Gibbard’s delicate warble.

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85

Coldplay, ‘Viva La Vida’

From the beginning, it was clear that Chris Martin and company had designs on U2-level stardom – they wanted to be the Band That Matters Most. With their fourth album, they reached that goal, delivering 10 widescreen, windswept anthems about love, war and la vida. (Longtime U2 secret weapon, producer Brian Eno, helped the cause.) "I used to rule the world," sang Martin in the majestic title track, and "used to" was the only part that rang false.

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84

Eminem, ‘The Eminem Show’

On his third album, Eminem shifted from provocation to introspection, mulling fame, fatherhood and the psychic toll of being America's biggest pop star and – according to scolds on both ends of the political spectrum – number one moral menace. The rhymes were as densely packed and virtuosic as ever ("When I speak, it's tongue in cheek/I'd yank my fuckin' teeth before I'd ever bite my tongue"), but they were also poignantly confessional; the beats largely jettisoned perky hip-hop to embrace the power chords and grandeur of Seventies rock.

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83

The Black Keys, ‘Attack & Release’

If you're going to do a song called "Psychotic Girl," you may as well make it sound like it was bashed out by a couple of psychotic dudes. And the old-school blues-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, was more than happy to oblige. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were bringing the garage-rock noise when people dismissed the sound as a fad, but by teaming up with Danger Mouse, they were still topping themselves with their fifth album. Intended as a collaboration with Ike Turner, who died before it could happen, this down-home guitar ruckus could have come from any decade — but fit right into this one.

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82

Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Rated R’

The greatest LP by these post-grunge stoners begins with "Feel Good Hit of Summer" – which is just that, providing you’re not in rehab. ("Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol!" are pretty much the entire lyrics.) The album carried the torch for song-based hard rock awesomeness during the lean years of rap-rock, cribbing as much from the Beatles and glam-era Bowie as from avant-metal kin like The Melvins. Crushing, hypnotic, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious – like a good buzz should be.

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81

Ryan Adams, ‘Gold’

In the early 2000s, the former frontman for North Carolina alt-country also-rans Whiskeytown blossomed into a shockingly prolific, amazingly consistent song machine. On Gold, released two weeks after 9/11, he set evocations of hard loving and heavy drinking on the Lower East Side to eclectic, heartfelt roots rock. The rollicking anthem "New York, New York" could've been on AM radio in 1974, and songs like the singer-songwriter revelation "Silvia Plath" and the Hendrix-tinged boogie ''Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues'' showed how diverse his talent was. Adams' character sketches of pretty young things finding themselves in a city that was still on one knee made Gold one of that autumn's most therapeutic listens.

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80

Kings of Leon, ‘Youth and Young Manhood’

The Followills came blazing out of Juliet, Tennessee swathed in enough "Southern Strokes" hype to choke a mule. But they lived up to every bit of it on their fabulous debut, one of the decade's greatest garage rock records. Stylish but downhome, punky but purdy, it veered from short, sharp tambourine-banging rockers to sultry, guttural slow burners. Caleb's cotton-mouthed delivery fell somewhere between Kurt Cobain and an alcoholic tractor supplies salesman – the perfect slop-jowled squawk for their odes to wayward  Southern girls and the fallen boys who loved them. 

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79

The New Pornographers, ‘Electric Version’

This oddball indie-rock all-star team is one of those "only in the 2000s" stories. A.C. Newman, brilliant Vancouver songwriter and hard-luck veteran of the Nineties rock boom, retreats to his bedroom and writes a bunch of songs that would have been perfect AM-gold radio nuggets in the Seventies. He picks up a band to join him, including country vixen Neko Case and literary balladeer Dan Bejar. Then, to everyone's shock, the band becomes a hit, and just keeps getting better. This sophomore album is full of cheery guitars, loopy keyboards, and sly pop ditties like "The Laws Have Changed."

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78

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’

The literary indie-folk poet only got two discs into his threatened project of recording an album about every state in the union – but his ode to the Land of Lincoln is an American classic nonetheless. On songs like "Out of Egypt" and "Chicago," Stevens set wax-winged melodies atop delicately droning avant-classical compositions deeply indebted to Steven Reich and Philip Glass, and he balanced those sweeping moments with simple, acoustic benedictions – from "Decatur," a waltz-time cheer for our greatest president, to "Casimir Polaski Day," a meditation on religious faith in the darkest of hours that might serve for non-believers as a metaphor for keeping your head up in the decade of 9/11 and George W. Bush.

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77

Yo La Tengo, ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out’

On their most intimate, sonically rich album, the cutest couple in indie rock found a sweet spot between the elegant noise-guitar hum of 1993's Painful and the bedheaded grooviness of 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. Whether a gorgeous dance-pop tune inspired by a Simpsons episode ("Let's Save Tony Orlando's House"), recalling a dance-floor meet-cute over slow-dissolve guitar echo and a Latin-tinged rhythm ("The Last Days of Disco") or shyly covering a Seventies R&B chestnut (George McCrea's "You Can Have It All)," Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley's private revelations inspired scores of frumpy lovebirds to set aside their issues of the Believer and hit the futon.  

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76

Sigur Ros, ‘()’

Definitely not one for the Miley fans — over an hour of Icelandic psychedelia, with eight untitled tracks sung in an imaginary language the band made up themselves. But in any language, Sigur Rós created a stunningly widescreen work of beauty. Singer-guitarist Jónsi Thor Birgisson bowed his axe for an ungodly level of reverb, yet the mood was peaceful, fleshing out the slow-motion melodies with piano, church organ, and the female string quartet Amiina. In the 12-minute climax "Untitled #8" (also known as "Poppaglio," or "The Pop Song"), you can hear the almost telepathic communication between the musicians, as Birgisson brings the guitar thunder.

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