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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.

22

Green Day, ‘American Idiot’

The Nineties' most irrepressible punk brats grew up with a bang. They also proved they could take on the kind of gargantuan old-school concept album that nobody else seemed to have the guts to try. Not only did they pull it off, they made one of the era's lasting albums, raging against political complacency of mid-decade America with a Who-size sense of grandeur. From the nine-minute epic "Jesus of Suburbia" to the punk nugget "Extraordinary Girl/Letterbomb," they zeroed in on the rock audience's political outcasts and misfits as Billie Joe Armstrong snarled, "Welcome to a new kind of tension/All across the alien nation."

 

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2004 Review

Photos: A Look Back at the Punk Trio's Career

Video: Green Day Tell Rolling Stone About Punk On Broadway

21

Coldplay, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’

In the early '00s, starry-eyed Brit-pop boys doing a cuddly version of Radiohead were a dime a dozen. (Remember Starsailor?) It was Coldplay's second album that showed they were true contenders. Songs like "Green Eyes" and "The Scientist" brought back the comforting melodies of "Yellow" but revealed a band that was restless and hungry: The twinkling sonics suggested prime Smiths or U2. And darker stuff like the austerely beautiful death meditation "Amsterdam" and the OK Computer-worthy "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" showed the group had more than arena anthems on its mind.

 

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2002 Review

Video: Coldplay's "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall"

Photos: Backstage With Coldplay

20

Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’

It's hard to recall, before the tabloid barking drowned out all else, how fresh this sounded — how funny, hip, instantly classic. Producer Mark Ronson, with help from a band of devoted soul revivalists, conjured golden-era sounds with a sample-sculpting hip-hop edge. Winehouse, a tatted 23-year-old with a beehive crown, matched that spirit, cussing, cracking wise and casually breaking your heart. Her triumph triggered a resurgence of R&B traditionalism. But it also kicked open the mainstream door for pop oddballs from Lily Allen to Lady Gaga. Let's hope Winehouse and her fuck-me pumps stride back one day.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2007 Review

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Photos: The Tumultuous Life of Amy Winehouse

19

The White Stripes, ‘White Blood Cells’

The third album by Jack and Meg White was the right dynamite for a mainstream breakthrough. Jack's Delta-roadhouse fantasies, Detroit-garage-rock razzle and busted-love lyricism all peaked at once in tracks like the low-budget-Zeppelin opener, "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," and the rattling-pop delirium of "Hotel Yorba." White Blood Cells was also the first time, on record, that the Stripes' strict power of three — Jack's serrated guitar and brittle yelp with Meg's maternal-John Bonham boom — actually felt like an integrated band, bonded by roots and subversive delight.

 

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2001 Review

Photos: The White Stripes, From the Book 'Under Great White Northern Lights'

Photos: The White Stripes on Tour in 2001

18

MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’

Two hipster geeks from Wesleyan plug in their rad vintage keyboards, pick out some fetching headbands and compose a suite of damn-near-perfect synthesized heartache. The songs on Oracular Spectacular get even better if you tune in close to the vocals — but you don't have to figure out a single word of "Kids" to feel the poignant kick of that massive nine-note keyboard hook. The whole album is an odd collection of Seventies psychedelic love-bead sensibility and Eighties New Wave cool — but there's also a sense that MGMT only could have happened right now.

 

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Video: Checking in With MGMT

17

Beck, ‘Sea Change’

Sea Change was Beck's Blood on the Tracks: an acutely personal reflection on the end of an affair scored with desolate magnificence (lamenting strings, starbursts of guitar and miles of echo) and sung by the eternally boyish Beck in a manly, mortally wounded tenor. Producer Nigel Godrich, fresh from the harrowing modernism of Radiohead's Kid A, used pithy scarring electronics and desert-midnight suspense to heighten the pathos in songs like "The Golden Age" and "Guess I'm Doing Fine." In turn, Beck — stripped of hip-hop pastiche and sampled clutter — finally sang like the Bob Dylan of his generation, with vivid, lonesome honesty.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2002 Review

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16

Outkast, ‘Stankonia’

Only one crew in the universe had the juice to turn "Power music! Electric revival!" into a headbanger rock chant as well as a dance-floor battle cry. Not satisfied with ruling hip-hop, André 3000 and Big Boi decided to warp into rock gods, drum-and-bass hipsters, Quiet Storm hot-tub smoothies and wacko bohemian artistes. Stankonia outmuscled all the rap-metal clowns on the radio, but invited them to the party along with everyone else. From the futuristic "B.O.B." to the sentimental "Ms. Jackson" to the groupie-praising "We Luv Deez Hoez," they proved that they were the kings — and cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping on a milkshake in a snowstorm.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2000 Review

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15

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’

When the 9/11 attacks brought down the Twin Towers, shattering the nation and the lives of so many on Springsteen's home turf, he had to respond. The result was an extraordinary 15-song requiem that searched for meaning in the inexplicable tragedy while saluting the grace and courage of the dead and those who mourn them. Songs like "Into the Fire" were starkly beautiful short stories, but it was the sound of the record — the almighty roar of the E Street Band, captured by producer Brendan O'Brien — that lifted the songs skyward. The Rising was the first E Street album since the Eighties and kicked off Springsteen's history-making creative resurgence.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2002 Review

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14

Jay-Z, ‘The Black Album’

OK, so the retirement didn't last long. Jay-Z's vaunted "farewell record" is still one of the greatest albums by the rapper who is (if he says so himself) "pound for pound . . . the best to ever come around." With a phalanx of production all-stars on hand (Just Blaze, Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland), Hova gazed back and gloated — retelling the story of his rags-to-riches rise ("From bricks to billboards, grams to Grammys"), brushing the dirt off his shoulders, and body-slamming the critics, the police and just about everyone else in the walloping rap-rock epic "99 Problems." He should retire more often.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2003 Review

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13

U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’

"We're re-applying for the job [of] best band in the world," said Bono in 2001. After a decade dabbling in postmodernism, electronica and orange goggles, U2 transformed back to a world-beating pop band on Behind, an album that oozed arena-scale romance. Joshua Tree producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois came back to the fold, and Bono was Bono again, at once grandiose, warm and optimistic. "Beautiful Day" and the rafter-shaking "Elevation" were vibrant hits, and every song seemed somehow offhand, making this U2's most casual-sounding album — and an astounding comeback.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2000 Review

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12

LCD Soundsystem, ‘Sound of Silver’

James Murphy had already proved his kung-fu as the most badass electro-punk producer in clubland, with DFA, the label he co-founded. But not even fierce fans dreamed he'd make a masterpiece like Sound of Silver. Every track sounded like a different band's greatest hit, from the political punk goof "North American Scum" to the Detroit techno trip "Get Innocuous!" to the synth-pop breakup lament "Someone Great." "All My Friends" was huge, sweeping, ferociously emotional, disco keyboards and rock guitars pulsing as Murphy looked back on a youth of killer parties and silent mornings — a perfect song, from a perfect album.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2007 Review

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11

Bob Dylan, ‘Love and Theft’

The blood and glory of 1997's Time Out of Mind had raised the bar: This was the first Dylan album in years that had to live up to the fans' expectations. He didn't just exceed them — he blew them up. Dylan sang in the voice of a grizzled drifter who'd visited every nook and cranny of America and gotten chased out of them all. Love and Theft was full of corny vaudeville jokes and apocalyptic floods, from the guitar rave "Summer Days" to the country lilt of "Po' Boy." Dylan kept rambling through the album as if this time there really was no direction home, with his weathered voice hitting ragged triumphs in song after song.

 

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Rolling Stone's Original 2001 Review

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10

Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’

If this debut album was all Kanye West ever managed to accomplish, he still would have made his mark on history, beating the "producer tries to rap" jinx once and for all. But he was just introducing himself. West sounded determined to cram everything he loved about music into each one of his hip-hop grooves, even if that meant sampling Bette Midler and claiming, "The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/That's the way I need Jesus." Maybe all he wanted to do was become an international superstar, but in the process, Kanye expanded the musical and emotional language of hip-hop. His R&B-flavored productions ran the range from the gospel riot "Jesus Walks" to the Luther Vandross tribute "Slow Jamz." Calling himself the "first [rapper] with a Benz and a backpack," he challenged all the rules, dancing across boundaries others were too afraid to even acknowledge. Every track was a bold move. But for this guy, bold was never going to be the problem.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2004 Review

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9

M.I.A., ‘Kala’

The London-via-Sri Lanka art-punk funkateer came on like she knew she was kind of a big deal, and it didn't take her long to convince everyone in earshot. On her second album, she restyled hip-hop as one big international block party, mixing up a whole sound clash of beatbox riddims, playground rhymes, left-field samples and gunshots. It's a dance-off in a combat zone. Full of political fury and musical imagination, Maya Arulpragasam proved she could steal beats from anywhere — the Pixies, the Modern Lovers, Sri Lankan temples, Bollywood disco soundtracks — and turn it all into a party chant. From "20 Dollar" to "Bamboo Banga," she rolls from one Third World battleground to another: "Price of living in a shantytown just seems very high/But we still like T.I./But we still look fly." Kala lives up to the world-hopping promise of the Clash, so it makes cosmic sense that she sampled them in "Paper Planes" — which bizarrely blew up into a Top 10 pop smash in the U.S. Joe Strummer would have been proud.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2007 Review

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8

Bob Dylan, ‘Modern Times’

Except for the curious reference to Alicia Keys in "Thunder on the Mountain," these 10 songs of gnarly jump'n'grind, sung with the scoured growl of a drifting cowboy, sounded like Bob Dylan could have cut them 50 years earlier with Muddy Waters' band, and written them 20 years before that. Mother Nature's revenge, silk-suited robber barons, the spiritual and romantic salvation always just beyond reach: Modern Times is history repeating itself, in Dylan's specific echoes of Slim Harpo and Memphis Minnie, and his refusal to bend even in the harshest winds. "I'll be with you when the deal goes down," Dylan sings with cracked but firm comfort. The apocalypse is unrelenting: His rewrite of the Waters gallop "Rollin' and Tumblin'" is crammed with doom and ghosts. But Dylan's snarl cuts through the darkness like a light on a road ahead. "Heart burnin', still yearnin'," he sings in "Ain't Talkin'," the album's last song, a proud walk through a scorched Earth that Woody Guthrie would have recognized in an instant.

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7

Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’

"They said I can't rap about being broke no more," cried Eminem over the opening bars of his second album. Lucky for him, there was lots that he could rap about: celebrity and its discontents; Oedipal fantasies; murder fantasies; arson; self-mutilation; drug addiction; Britney Spears; Fred Durst; "Blood, guts, guns, cuts/Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts." The result was a masterpiece of psychodrama, 18 tracks that solidified Em's position as the new decade's most fascinating pop star and rap's most inventive new voice. Moralists slammed Eminem for everything from homophobia to misogyny to inciting America's teens to kill their . . . wives? Push past the surface, though, and Slim Shady's peppy pop-culture spoofs ("The Real Slim Shady"), macabre short stories ("Stan") and horror-movie narratives ("Kim") are distinguished not so much by their shock value as their sheer rhyme skill. Hip-hop fans knew what they were hearing, though, and responded right away to raw virtuoso displays like "The Way I Am."

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Rolling Stone's Original 2000 Review

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6

Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’

Loss, love, forced coming-of-age and fragile generational hope: Arcade Fire's debut touched on all these themes as it defined the independent rock of this decade. Built on family ties (leader Win Butler, his wife, Régine Chassagne, his brother Will) and a rich, folkie musicality, the band made symphonic rock that truly rocked, using accordions and strings as central elements rather than merely as accessories, with a rhythm section that never let up. Songs like "Wake Up," "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Rebellion (Lies)" were simultaneously outsize and deeply personal, like the best pop. But for all its sad realism — "I like the peace in the backseat," sings Chassagne at the album's end, knowing the sense of security is utterly false — this was music that still found solace, and purpose, in communal celebration, as anyone who saw them live during this period can attest. The upshot was an album that repaid countless listens — and made a generation of young rockers grateful for those childhood cello lessons.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2004 Review

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5

The White Stripes, ‘Elephant’

After they grabbed the world's ear with White Blood Cells, it turned out Jack and Meg were just getting warm. They went from minimal to maximal on Elephant, with a hot-blooded rock throb that blew every other band off the radio. In these savagely honest love-and-marriage songs, Jack White fleshes out the story of two scared kids in love, building a fort to keep the outside world at bay — but being unable to figure out why they keep ripping each other apart. It's a sad story, but that doesn't keep the guitar boy and the drummer girl from having a filthy good time together, from twisted acoustic soul ("You've Got Her in Your Pocket") to electric-blues freakery ("Ball and Biscuit"). They struggle to hold it together in "The Hardest Button to Button." And when they cut loose for the depraved sex stomp "Seven Nation Army," the music lets you know why this bond was worth fighting for. In "Hypnotize," Jack yelps that he wants to "be your right-hand man until your hands get old." There's no doubt he'll die proving it.

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4

Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’

Unlike many of Jay-Z's records — the retirement and comeback discs, the movie soundtracks, the posse albums and "rock" albums — The Blueprint didn't have a gimmick. It rounded up a bunch of surefire beats and turned the greatest rapper on Earth loose.

Presto: Jay-Z's best record, and one of the finest rap albums of all time. Much credit is due to producers Just Blaze, Timbaland and especially Kanye West, who made his name with relentlessly catchy tracks like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." The old-school soul samples give the record a lush feel, but Blueprint was recorded at the height of Jay-Z's feud with Nas, and he was out for blood. Punch lines arrive fast and furious — "Sensitive thugs/You all need hugs," he quips — but what really stands out is the rapper's sheer musicality: the new flows, timbres and tones that Jay-Z unveils in every song, with a virtuosity that marked him a vocal stylist on par with pop's greatest singers. "I'm the compadre/The Sinatra of my day," he rapped. For once, he wasn't talking trash.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2001 Review

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3

Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

Wilco's great leap forward was a mix of rock tradition, electronics, oddball rhythms and experimental gestures: a new vocabulary for an overwhelmed, dislocated age where we'd need to draw on both history and invention to survive. It is deeply tuneful but also fragile and unsteady. Its pretty acoustic-guitar melodies battled noise, skidded into dissonance or got chopped off abruptly. Its lyrics pitted hope against doubt, with all bets off. "You have to learn how to die," crooned Jeff Tweedy, "if you wanna . . . be alive."

The music was magnified by what came afterward: the band being dropped by its label; Wilco becoming new-media poster boys via the then-radical move of streaming their record for free ahead of the CD release; and, maybe most of all, the attacks of 9/11. The latter added metaphoric weight to songs about love and war, shaky skyscrapers and American flags. But nearly a decade after that perfect storm of history, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds just as jagged and beautiful.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2002 Review

Video: Wilco and Levon Helm Perform 'The Weight' at Solid Sound Festival

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2

The Strokes, ‘Is This It’

Before Is This It even came out, New York's mod ragamuffins were overnight sensations, jumping from Avenue A to press hysteria and the inevitable backlash, all inside a year. Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti were primed for star time, updating the propulsion of the Velvet Underground and the jangle of Seventies punk with Casablancas' acidic dispatches from last night's wreckage. Everything happened fast in "Barely Legal" and "Hard to Explain" — the attraction, sex and disappointment — but there was no missing the burn marks left by the guitars and Casablancas' vocals, mixed to the fore and ringed with distortion like he was singing from a pay phone. We got only two more albums from the Strokes, but they inspired a ragged revolt in Britain, led by the Libertines and Arctic Monkeys, and reverberated back home with the Kings of Leon. And for the bristling half-hour of Is This It, New York's shadows sounded vicious and exciting again.

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Rolling Stone's Original 2001 Review

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1

Radiohead, ‘Kid A’

"Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again," Thom Yorke said in October 2000, the week this album became the British band's first Number One record in America. "I find it difficult to think of the path we've chosen as 'rock music'."

In texture and structure, Kid A, Radiohead's fourth album, renounced everything in rock that, to Yorke in particular, reeked of the tired and overfamiliar: clanging arena-force guitars, verse-chorus-bridge song tricks.

With producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke, guitarist Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood and guitarist Jonny Greenwood created an enigma of slippery electronics and elliptical angst, sung by Yorke in an often indecipherable croon. The closest thing to riffing on Kid A was the fuzz-bass lick in "The National Anthem"; the guitars in "Morning Bell" sounded more like seabirds.

The result was the weirdest hit album of that year, by a band poised to be the modern-rock Beatles, following the breakthrough of OK Computer. In fact, only 10 months into the century, Radiohead had made the decade's best album — by rebuilding rock itself, with a new set of basics and a bleak but potent humanity. Yorke's loathing of celebrity inspired the contrary beauty of "How to Disappear Completely," with its watery orchestration and his voice flickering in and out of earshot. His electronically squished pleading in "Kid A" sounded like a baby kicking inside a hard drive.

Ironically, Radiohead, by the end of this decade, had fulfilled much of that modern-Beatles promise by following rock's first commandment: Go your own way.

"Music as a lifelong commitment — if that's what someone means by rock, great," Yorke said in that 2000 interview. By that measure, with Kid A, Radiohead made the first true rock of the future.

Related:
Rolling Stone's Original 2000 Review

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