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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.

66

Antony & the Johnsons, ‘I Am a Bird Now’

One part Brian Ferry, one part Kate Bush, Antony Hegarty is a gender-blurring balladeer with a haunting vibrato, which got its proper introduction to the world on this set of beguiling, piano-based chamber music. He even pulls off a romantic duet with Lou Reed on "Fistful of Love," sounding like a bathhouse Otis Redding. An inspiration to transgender people everywhere – and to a new school of indie-rockers unafraid to push their voices into strange realms.

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65

Manu Chao, ‘Próxima Estación: Esperanza’

In Europe and Latin America, Manu Chao has long been a rock god on the scale of Bob Marley. But here in the U.S., it took this 2001 gem to give music lovers a taste of his wild-ass greatness. A Spaniard born in France, Chao rocks his acoustic guitar to horns and beatboxes, full of crackpot humor, singing in English, Spanish, French or whatever language he feels like at the moment. "Me Gustas Tu" is the one for the ages: a lazy reggae-rock guitar riff, a chorus you can't stop singing even if you don't get the language, and Chao rambling about crucial topics from politics to marijuana.

Related:
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Video: Manu Chao's "Politik Kills"

64

Gillian Welch, ‘Time the Revelator’

In which the reigning queen of old-timey Americana (and her longtime collaborator, singer-guitarist David Rawlings) give the mountain music treatment to a suite of rock & roll songs. Time the Revelator is gorgeous, dreamy, and a little bit weird – 10 finely honed songs about love, sex, dancing, Elvis Presley and other timeless subjects, adorned only with acoustic guitar, banjo and luscious harmony vocals. The result is a lovely exercise in anachronism: what rock & roll would have sounded like had it been invented in the 1930s Dust Bowl.

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Video: Gillian Welch Performs "The Way It Goes" on 'Conan'

63

Kanye West, ‘808s and Heartbreak’

In 2008, pop went bonkers for Auto-Tune, and on his fourth album, Kanye West jumped on the cyborg soul bandwagon, largely forsaking rapping to (kinda sorta) sing the blues. (West's mother had recently died and he had just split with his fiancée.) The results were occasionally gauche, and always monumentally self-pitying. ("How could you be so heartless?" he sobbed.) But no one before or since has wrung so much pathos from Auto-Tune; West sings in the voice of a man so stupefied by grief that he's become not quite human. 

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2008 Review

Photos: Kanye West's Career Highs — and Lows

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62

Johnny Cash, ‘American III: Solitary Man’

On his first album since being diagnosed with a neurological disorder in 1997, the 68-year-old Johnny Cash had a new vulnerability to his voice. Here he sings classics both old and new, harmonizing with Tom Petty on a defiant “I Won’t Back Down,” while the eighteenth century ballad “Wayfaring Stranger,” which Cash cut earlier in his career, is downright spooky: When he sings, “There's no sickness, no toil nor danger in that bright land to which I go,” he sounds like a man ready to go home.

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61

The Shins, ‘Oh, Inverted World’

From the jangling disaffection of "Caring Is Creepy," to the mournful, infamously synced "New Slang," the Portland, Oregon-based band's debut never needed a hype machine to make it worthy of repeat spins. James Mercer's disembodied tenor lifted tunes like "Girl on the Wing" from their low rumble and set the standard for indie-pop frontmen who could invoke gauzy nostalgia in the now – which, 10 years later, makes Oh, Inverted World a joyfully resilient listen.

Related:
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Video: Members of the Shins, Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney Play Imaginary Rock Band on 'Portlandia'

60

Phoenix, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’

After years of slowly building an audience with impeccably crafted Gallic rock, Phoenix finally broke big with an album full of tunes that were as romantic and danceable as anything from a classic John Hughes soundtrack, yet totally inscrutable. Why is the "meteor tower" in “1901” so "overrated"? Why do the lyrics of “Lisztomania” sound so much like a bad translation? But when head-scratchers come out sounding this heartbreaking, it hardly matters.

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Video: Behind the Scenes With Phoenix

Photos: 2010 KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas

59

Interpol, ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’

These dapper New Yorkers may have been the first band in history cocky enough to name the first song on their debut album "Untitled" — and that barely begins to hint at their mind-boggling pretensions. ("Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down," for fuck's sake.) Yet they crafted one of the decade's great guitar epics, demanding rapt attention for 49 expertly paced minutes of arty post-punk melodrama. From gothed-out power-drone ballads like "Hands Away" to the hard-charging Rock Band fave "PDA," Interpol capture the moment on a late-night city street when the crowd suddenly vanishes and loneliness stares you in the face.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2002 Review

Video: Interpol Perform Their Grim Ballad 'Lights' on 'Conan'

Q&A With Interpol Frontman Paul Banks

58

Danger Mouse, ‘The Grey Album’

The mash-up reached a conceptual and artistic plateau with Danger Mouse's fusion of The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album. It sounded like a stunt ("Justify My Thug" meets "Rocky Racoon"?) but it was really a love letter – a music geek's mash-note to hop-hop and classic rock – and a polemic: an argument that the best hip-hop warrants a place alongside the most revered gods of the pop music canon. But it was the sheer musicality of the thing that carried the day: Who knew that "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "Julia" could get along so beautifully?

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57

Death Cab for Cutie, ‘Transatlanticism’

Released at the peak of their career as indie heavyweights, Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album was their most aspirational yet, as the Seattle band stretched beyond angular, tightly wound jangle-pop to explore more nuanced tones and moods. Lush and bombastic (especially on "The New Year," "Transatlanticism" and "Tiny Vessels"), the album demonstrated multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla's growing prowess as a producer. But it was singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard's lyrics that made Transatlanticism their master work, as he distilled post-collegiate malaise, the feeling of distance from loved ones and apathy about romance into songs that peeled back the skin on the place – as mentioned in "Title And Registration," "where disappointment and regret collide."

Related:
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Video: Death Cab For Cutie Perform "You Are a Tourist" on 'Storytellers'

56

Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’

Vampire Weekend came out of Columbia University in the late 2000s, showing a pronounced affinity for boat shoes and button-downs as well as an intimate knowledge of African guitar music. Their debut backed up massive press buzz with suavely seductive pop-rock songs about college campuses and trysts with Benetton-wearing ladies. Ezra Koenig's Paul Simon-esque melodies were as refined as his education, floating over bright keyboards and Afropop-tinged grooves. Koenig had a term for VW's music: Upper West Side Soweto. However you label the sound, it was manna for indie-boys and Molly Ringwald girls all over the world.

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Video: Vampire Weekend and Black Keys Fight It Out on 'Colbert Report'

Photos: 2010 KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas

55

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’

One of rock's great voices meets one of country's great voices, tackling an inspired, roots-minded songbook with sonic guru T-Bone Burnett. Krauss sounds bluesy, even lusty; when she sings "I could never kill a man" on Gene Clark's "Through the Morning, Through the Night," you’re actually not 100 percent sure. Plant, meanwhile, dials it down so far, it’s often hard to identify the dude who sang "Black Dog." Yet the nuance in his vocals is as impressive as it is unprecedented. Tender, haunting, brilliant.

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54

Norah Jones, ‘Come Away With Me’

Though its surprising success (eight Grammys, 20-plus million copies sold) overwhelmed it, this seductively modest little record is a marvel of mood and invention. The songwriting and arrangements are sophisticated, often jazzy, yet full of catchy hooks. And Jones' vocals are silken and perfectly turned, setting a seamless mood that could soundtrack high-end restaurants and low-rent make-out sessions alike. And the sexy double entendre of the hit "Don't Know Why" ("…I didn’t come") still sounds sly as hell.

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53

Kings of Leon, ‘Only By the Night’

How soulful is it? Ask Beyoncé, who has covered "Sex On Fire" live, and Trey Songz, who does an impressive "Use Somebody." Those songs were the album's trumps. But the whole package burns with agitated good-ol'-boy hormones and lazily anthemic, unzip-those-jeans guitars. Add killer hooks and Caleb Followill's slurring down-home tenor, and you have rock enormity that isn’t supposed to happen anymore. Don’t call them the southern Strokes – call them the American U2.

Related:
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Video: Beyoncé Covers Kings of Leon's "Sex On Fire"

52

M.I.A., ‘Arular’

M.I.A.'s 2005 debut is both politically and musically radical, with the British emcee delivering biting, often nihilistic revolutionary rhetoric over tracks that blend rap, dancehall, club music and harsh British electronica into some of the most raging bangers of the decade. It's dark stuff, but M.I.A. has a wicked sense of humor, dropping bitter zingers into intense tracks such as "10 Dollar," "URAQT" and the single "Bucky Done Gun."

Related:
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Video: M.I.A. On David Letterman

51

Spoon, ‘Kill the Moonlight’

Though it came out in 2002, this masterwork of spiky texture and bummed-out sentiment seems even more appropriate for 2009, when a dismal economy makes college grads scramble even harder for jobs they hate. But Spoon's Britt Daniel made his gnomic soliloquies about directionless youngsters both humane and hooky, and he and his bandmates got tons of mileage out of a spare, signature sound, tossing in rollicking piano, sax and cold-eyed stomp. And not even the Shins or Death Cab came up with anything as insanely gorgeous as "Paper Tiger," a cryptic-but-sweet love song with budget-Radiohead sonics.

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