Top 100 Albums of the 2000s
By The Staff
70 :: Aaliyah
You’ll forgive me if I go on about Timbaland again. Spoiler: his name isn’t on this list, nor are any of his latter-day superstar productions. Nevertheless he stands, barely obscured, behind a bunch of records on this list with an influence unmatched by his contemporaries. Tim doesn’t have the kind of co-writer/producer/whole-album-collaborator role here that he had on One in a Million, but his fingers are all over Aaliyah. “We Need A Resolution” finds one of his great early-2000s beats—soft marimba-y synths and a snake charmer sample over a taut thump clack—alongside one of his lame early-2000s raps. Even Timbaland’s “GIRL HO-LLAAHHHHH” can’t keep this opener from its invincible progress, slouching toward clubland to be born.
And so it goes, on to the arctic chrome of “Loose Rap.” Here, as everywhere, Aaliyah’s bullseye whisper delivers each line just right, never too hot or too cold. Such precision lends her voice a staggering authority, and she will brook none of the following: rumours, weak pick-up lines, loose talk. Things take an impossible step up with the Marvin Gaye deep burn “Rock The Boat” and the R&B circa 2035 banger “More Than a Woman.” Sultry, funky, and laden with tight hooks, these tracks complete a colossal opening run. Aaliyah is thus front-loaded, but in the best way, immediately establishing the album as a monster and lending credibility to the more experimental and offbeat material contained in the rest of the track list.
Five years in the making, this record was Aaliyah’s bid for artistic credibility and a grown-up career. She’d already hit platinum as a teenager, but she was always the disciple: first of R. Kelly, then of Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Though she didn’t write or produce any of these tracks, she used her role as executive producer to push the limits of her craft. It succeeds in this and more, yet it will always be indelibly linked to her too-early death in a plane crash mere months after its release (Aaliyah filmed the beach scenes for the “Rock The Boat” video just hours before the crash). Arriving at her peak in 2001 with no sign of slowing down, Aaliyah died on top of the R&B world, never to deliver a follow-up to this, her greatest achievement.
69 :: Boris
I have heard arguments leveled against Pink by longtime Boris fans, but I literally do not understand them. It shatters them; it steamrolls them; it is a monolith whose shadow is oblivion, and it de-verbs such counterarguments. It is a language- and rhetoric-free artistic statement. I get that overplaying the band’s heaviness is tired, and it irks me, too—sorta like a new Clipse fan so aw-shucks about their violence/etc. that they fail to notice the Neptunes, or that Pusha’s an Andre-caliber lyricist, or so on. But to be fair, it cannot be ignored how absolutely devastatingly loud Pink is, from the gut-shuddering post-rock intro “Farewell” to the coke-party-in-hell blooze-rawk of “Afterburner.” The counterargument would note that the band has been worshipping their amplifiers for quite awhile: but the counter-counterargument is the feedback squawl at the end of “Women on the Screen.” Another counterargument would note that the band’s acid-drenched Hendrix-quest is explored more rewardingly on the twin records Smile: but the counter-counterargument points a sweaty finger at the Mitch Mitchell death-funk that closes “Just Abandoned My-Self.” In truth the only beef one could have with Pink is that it’s Boris’s most popular record, its shortest and most hook-y. Those that would fault them for this have no palate. Sometimes one dash of sugar makes a five-alarm chili both tastier and hotter, and if that dash is too much for your sweet tooth you can go sweat bullets at the habanero ranch. By which I mean cassette-based noise labels. I think.
You see what I mean about this thing being supra-rhetorical? I’m in metaphor hell here. (Too much sugar in the chili = Torche?) Anyway, fuck it: Pink is the best heavy metal record of the decade. Not in spite but because of the surplus of cowbell. Eat shit, chili fans.
68 :: Flying Lotus
Before Los Angeles fully animates, FlyLo lets a few dying phasers bleed into and over one another for a minute and a half, simmering. What emerges from the pot is the most forward-thinking instrumental hip-hop record of the decade, so ahead of the curve it ties the astral plane in knots. The compositions on LA are as deep as a mass grave, marrying synthetics to a specifically human vibrancy in a way that feels innately correct. So correct, in fact, it’s easy to forget how splendidly weird it is—weird like living comfortably inside a gigantic pineapple for months before asking, “Wait, are my walls made of delicious fruit?” So yes, that is a muted soul sample being subsumed by the bottle clicks and rising sludge on “Camel,” and later Lotus manages to disembody Laura Darlington’s voice on “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum” and place it amongst gasping embers without laying a finger on her heart. This approach births an uncanny experience, at once otherworldly and like home, rife with rippling implications on top, its opulence held in its depth, in its roots somewhere unfathomably subterranean. In the same way a large city is composed primarily of people, concrete, and steel, but is simultaneously less and more than the sum of its parts—something that transcends and is fundamentally different than all those things—Los Angeles is neither skin nor artifice, but achingly other.
67 :: Binary Star
Masters of the Universe
Binary Star’s Masters of the Universe features on its cover a microphone floating in space, either large enough or close enough in perspective to look like some alien monolith. Fittingly, the record’s power lies simply in the classic-caliber mic skills of OneBeLo and Senim Silla; if profundity can be found in nothing more than the effusive flow of a sharp mind, then this record’s profound x2. It’s the exact kind of hip-hop document that could only have happened not long after the advent of the aughts and probably only come from somewhere in the Midwest (in this case Detroit) because of the way in which it idealizes the power of the spoken word along with boom-bap production but also the way in which it realizes the limitations of ’90s conscious rap (the kind of rap the Midwest scene has in its blood) and so proceeds to legitimize its roots while reaching for its crown—a crown that represents an undivided dominion of excellence.
OneBeLo’s verse that opens the album on “Reality Check” is one of my personal all-time favorites, unrelenting with the punch of each end-rhyme (“got everybody riding on my wagon like the Amish”) while sounding so at home in the gorgeous beat’s pocket it pays off the mortgage. This same organic, er, “rightness” continues without deviation for the record’s remaining hour—on through the late night cruise of the title track to Senim Silla’s terse re-living of a jail stint over a sweet chime loop (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Part I”) to Lo’s earnest yet mad palatable defense of rap as poetry on “Honest Expression” right down to seven-minute closer “KGB,” the most epic posse cut this side of early Wu-Tang. Importantly, the attitude with which Binary Star approach their material here is totally on-point: they know that rap without intensity is pointless but rap without a chill vibe sounds desperate. This—their debut (being the mulligan for Waterworld ) and likely swan song as far as recorded output goes—is calmly subversive, inciting drastic action towards a state of equilibrium and peace; it is wise yet also moving, the flows and the music a soul-piercing kind of sonorous; essentially, Masters of the Universe is hip-hop as beatitude.
66 :: Walkmen
You & Me
(Gigantic/Fierce Panda; 2008)
At first blush, Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser may appear to be the preppiest, handsomest indie-devil this side of Ezra Koening, a dude of untouchable cool. But unlike the latter, Leithauser’s stock in trade is wistful melancholy, maybe even a sort of fatalist nostalgia for the New York City Class of 2002, of which his band is clearly the most underappreciated member, despite releasing the most records out of that ilk. The Walkmen are still probably best known for “The Rat,” a driving rant off of 2004’s Bows & Arrows awesome enough to get them a gig on The OC, and while nothing on You & Me, their fourth full-length of original material, quite approaches the fever pitch of that track, it’s still indisputably their best album, downplaying traditional rock tempos in favor of something more languid, something smokier, something closer to what I imagine Leithauser’s been wanting to feel all this time.
The band’s signature use of pump organ and Paul Maroon’s peals of church bell guitar remain, as does the drunken Tijuana brass section they fell in love with on A Hundred Miles Off (2006). But You & Me is a downright elegant record, the Walkmen at their most mature and measured, due in no small part to the fact that many of the band members had recently turned 30 around the time of album’s completion. Waltz tempos pop up frequently; the entire album smacks of a boozy (scotch, not beer) last hurrah, of celebration mixed with sadness borne from acceptance instead of reluctance to watch things change—which, while evident in reverb-soaked rave-ups like “In the New Year” and career high watermark “I Lost You,” really comes out in the album’s mid-section via dusky R&B numbers like “Red Moon” and “Canadian Girl,” both of which are just screaming for Cat Power to cover them. Far from a reinvention, You & Me is the band’s strongest effort, a record about solidifying everything the Walkmen hold dear—and then letting that go.
David M. Goldstein
65 :: Prefuse 73
Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives
To my uneducated ears, Prefuse 73 sounded like the first, best fusion of electronic (like Boards of Canada) and old hip-hop. It was a combination that I’d never been presented with before, and when this and One Word Extinguisher (2003) became big early in the decade, it blew my mind. Now, nearly a decade after its release, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives remains deliciously difficult for this Beach Boys nerd from Oshawa to pigeon-hole; I’ve had nine years to live with it and I still can’t approach this record with anything close to an insider’s facility with the surrounding discourse.
It’s not glitch-hop. That’s something, according to Prefuse, it predated and got thrown in with. It’s not even particularly “electronic”: “it’s not like I make my music on a computer,” he claimed in an interview in 2003. My best guess is that Prefuse himself would be most comfortable with simply calling his music hip-hop and leaving it at that: “For me, Prefuse is about making beats” (2005 interview). I basically agree: it’s hip-hop, but that’s not all.
The first minute of opener “Radio Attack” encapsulates the Prefuse experience. First we hear some twitchy noise, then a freestyle sliced up to a furious jumble. The drums enter and we have the basic DNA: noise, fucked up rap vocals, and beats. It’s a potent formula, and though it didn’t come from nowhere, that’s how it felt, that’s what made this record and One Word Extinguisher sound like a revelation. Other vocals and textures pop up in the mix, but it’s Prefuse’s fracturing and splintering of his beats, textures, and verses that constitute his peculiar, stunning achievement. This orientation toward the shard inheres on the level of the whole track as well, with beats and verses spliced and chopped into chunks, tossed into the air, and gathered up again. Repetitive structures of verses and hooks are tossed out the window in favour of the intuitive, pacing-based structure that characterizes much ambient, post-rock, and atmospheric electronica.
Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives is a whole-album experience, a record that laughs at (and then splices into a thousand bits) the idea of a single. Nevertheless a track like “Black List” featuring MF Doom and Aesop Rock is a window into an alternate universe where Prefuse made beats for, like, actual rappers—or rather, a dimension in which he chilled on the turning-rap-vocals-into-just-another-rhythmic-element vibe and let his listeners actually hear the words being spit. “Nuno” is a mid-tempo, break beat banger, and “Last Night” is a laid back chill jam. All highlights, I guess. Dip into the album for mixtape fare if you will, but the true Prefuse experience is a fifty-minute skullfuck of rap beats all mangled to shit. And if you’re wise enough to trace the logical, boring development of this sound from influences and predecessors, don’t fill me in. I prefer my fantasy, where Prefuse 73 grabs a genre with both hands, smashes it, and shows us the glory of hip-hop destroyed.
64 :: New Buffalo
Last Beautiful Day
(Dot Dash; 2004)
Celebrity, even the fifteen-second blogosphere kind, has yet to come knocking on Sally Seltmann’s door. The New Buffalo frontwoman’s closest brushes with fame have come by association: She’s married to Darren Seltmann of the Avalanches, whose influence can be heard on the low-fuss samplework here; Feist turned the Sally-penned “1234” into a breakthrough latte-drinker hit; Jens Lekman joined Sally for a duet of “Inside” on an EP release but failed to bring the track the critical accolades his own catalog has earned. But lists, especially decade-spanners like this one, were made to correct such oversights. The Last Beautiful Day is a stunningly pretty record, from its vinyl-scratchy jazz samples to the piercing beauty of Sally’s voice. Sad songs are a dime a dozen, but New Buffalo’s strength is in legitimizing happy ones: Take “I’ve Got You and You’ve Got Me (Song of Contentment),” a title that might otherwise belong on a Michael Bolton greatest hits but feels in practice as delicate and sanguine as the soft filter of morning light and no real reason to get out of bed. The Last Beautiful Day may not have earned her a spot in the Starbucks rotation, but maybe that’s for the best.
63 :: Nina Nastasia
The Blackened Air
(Touch and Go; 2002)
No other album of the past decade has rewarded me way the The Blackened Air has. It was love at first listen: Nina Nastasia’s songs felt like they came from nowhere, and existed on their own. In truth, Nastasia fits comfortably into the alternative vision of American roots music fostered in the late ’90s. She inhabits the same world of Will Oldham and Vic Chesnutt, her music languorous and simple, her words both microscopically quotidian and existentially doomed. But her voice is vastly superior to those contemporaries, and her lyrics are more sophisticated; the music is less funny, more creepy. I can’t imagine Nastasia has ever covered another writer’s songs.
As such, she seems more influenced by the weather and soil. The Blackened Air is a map from an imaginary country of Steinbeck’s or McCarthy’s, at once oppressively somnolent and seething with violence. Dogs chase girls around the meadow until they are burned to death (by the singer?), plumes of smoke darkening the humid horizon; a wife kills her infirm husband, arguing that since she’s “served him right,” she’ll go with him to heaven; later his ghost frightens her in the graveyard, leaving her to wail only that “his house is gone.” Everything that isn’t on fire here is smoldering: “you’re beautiful,” she sighs to her absent minded lover in the teeming death-march of “This is What it Is.” “I couldn’t take a bigger bite of you.” A would-be pedophile eyes the singer as a young girl, and is lucky to escape with his life. “My dad chased him down the driveway. He could have killed him. We wished he killed him.” “I wish that I could throw you once,” she tells a lover on “The Same Day.” “Be the steed to break himself.”
Harrowing stuff, and all of it rendered brilliantly by Nastasia, long-time arranger Kennan Gudjonsson, and engineer Steve Albini. Albini’s resume speaks for itself, but his work is especially deft here: you can feel the vibrations of the drum skins, which colors the album’s dynamic shifts. Gudjonsson’s work is no less important: he provides hissing, tense string arrangements and adds unusual instrumentation to Nastasia’s elementary chord progressions. The anxiety this lends songs like “Ocean” and “Oh My Stars” is palpable. But it’s Nastasia’s record, and she shines. Possessed of a sturdy voice, she never projects, even when the music is teeming. The effect is that she is always singing directly to the listener. The Blackened Air, as a result, is simultaneously effortless and painstakingly crafted; organic and counterintuitive; intimate and expansive.
Nina Nastasia has made four other albums that are as startling and beautiful as The Blackened Air, but this is her definitive work. I have attempted to valorize it, in print, three times now, on each occasion feeling foolish and in awe of the achievement. It’s exactly the sort of thing that made me want to become a critic: it presents a challenge for the writer to convincingly describe it, and is the kind of album that deserves, and needs, to be championed. Everyone who’s heard Nastasia agrees she’s brilliant, but for some reason she’s gone under the radar. I want everyone to hear this record, because I wish to be understood, and The Blackened Air will let you know exactly what I’m talking about. But at the same time, it feels like it’s mine.
62 :: Viktor Vaughn
(Sound Ink/Traffic Entertainment Group; 2003)
Full disclosure: Vaudeville Villain is not my favorite MF Doom record. It is, however, a MF Doom record, which is good enough. When this record emerged he was one of independent music’s most endearing enigmas, the mask still confounding and dramatis personae intriguing, the absurdist flow evergreen but lyrics at this point still discernible. Time will be kind to his late-decade triumph Born Like This, wherein his wordplay sort of Oedipally crawled back into the womb of his mind, but there are, here, slamdunk punchlines about videogames and beer, battle raps and straight verses about hip-hop and chasing girls. Never mind the suite-like “Open Mic” tracks or the sparse robo-clap of “Modern Day Mugging”: on Vaudeville Villain Dumille rests his experimental jones and aims for the steady mark of a great hip-hop record, top to bottom. Listening to a savant like him nail this mark is like having Bobby Flay whip you up a plate of nachos. He dials up a trillion beat styles and murders them all, and one can practically hear the indie set messageboarding with riotous approval in response—which I don’t mean backhandedly. Bracketing this release are albums like the largely instrumental King Gheedorah (2003), the brutally flawed Madvillainy (2004), and the twin jokes (one funny, one not) of MM Food (2004) and The Mouse & the Mask (2005). This body of work is important for hip-hop—and, it’s rarely noted, for Dumille—but difficult to love fully. No such problem plagues Vaudeville Villain. In hindsight we know that it is the sound of a mind on the verge of bursting with music.
61 :: Chad VanGaalen
(Flemish Eye/Sub Pop; 2004/2005)
Chad VanGaalen is endowed with the sort of rare musical muscle that enables its possessor to chuck his first full-length album with the right force and torque to land it somewhere out beyond the seemingly endless expanse of small-time backyard separating any new release from the world at large. Infiniheart, recorded in VanGaalen’s basement and initially released on then-tiny Calgary label Flemish Eye, fell into Sub Pop’s outstretched arms in 2004; it was whittled down to a still-intimidating sixteen tracks from the original nineteen, and slipped easily into a waiting hole in musical memory, managing to exist in interdimensional limbo between the parallel worlds of “hip new thing” and “old standby.” And this is perhaps the only unintentional sci-fi trope contained within these speculative fictions inhabited by machines ruling the world, anti-musings on the nature of time, and dreaming-as-dying-as-deep-sea—or maybe it’s actually the literal ocean, hard to say. This album is either set in a blood-sharing cyborg-infested digitocalypse or is just full of really crazy metaphors.
In the spirit of incongruity, Infiniheart kicks off with a bit of a red herring. “Clinicly Dead,” the chocolate-covered pretzel of pop songs—addictively sweet with just a hint of brackishness, and gone too soon—is so immediately gratifying that the depth and endurance of what follows comes as a surprise. The ground covered between the twee-baiting opener and, say, the hushed squealing and woodwind swells of “Somewhere I Know There Is Nothing” doesn’t seem to be eclecticism by design, but rather the product an audiophile who refuses to let anything go. “Murder your darlings,” said someone. Thankfully, Chad VanGaalen is too in love with every moment to listen, leaving out nothing, preferring disorder. He himself puts it best in “Cronograph #1”: “I listened to that music for four hours, and it drove me mad in a good way.”