Best Albums of the 2000s
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The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s

With the benefit of hindsight and wanting a bit of nostalgia, PopMatters travels back to the 2000s in search of the decade’s best albums.

100. Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere [Downtown]

It begins with the click of a film reel. Then, it explodes into a manic gospel circus fronted by a multi-octave ringmaster. Two minutes later, 2006’s most infectious single cuts through the cacophony. In case you slept through 2006, that album is St. Elsewhere, and that song is “Crazy” by Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, aka Gnarls Barkley. Who knew that existentialism with a go-go beat could be so catchy? Like the album cover’s voltaic mushroom cloud, the songs on St. Elsewhere captured small slices of life, death, love, fear, and joy. Gnarls Barkley penetrated the collective psyche of its listeners and uncovered the angst underneath all the “bling” and bravado permeating popular culture. Remarkably, the album crossed over to an unlikely mix of hipsters, rappers, glitterati, boomers, yuppies, indie kids, and suburban dwellers to prove that St. Elsewhere is, in actuality, everywhere. — Christian John Wikane

99.  The xx – xx [Rough Trade]

When exhausted keyboardist Baria Qureshi ducked out of the band midway through their European tour, it was the first and thus far only signifier that the xx were anything other than preternaturally self-assured. As rare as it is, however, to discover such poise, grace, and general gorgeousness contained within the unaffected stylings of a group of 20-year-olds, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by the particular case of xx itself. Because the album — perhaps the finest, most revelatory debut 2009 has seen — isn’t about studied architectural complexities; it trades on the general feeling more than the concrete. It’s all moods and tensions, it’s empty space and the suggestion of what could fill it.

Skeletal and understated to the end, this is minimalist music with a beating heart, the reverb-sodden guitar, furtive basslines, and sultry vocal interplay seem so unselfish as to be unitary. It seems trite to reduce it all to a particular time, place, or mood, but such is the somnambulant, conversational intimacy of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim’s exchanges that xx feels like a window into late-night, whispered sweet nothings of two lovers, post-love. It’s customary to gesture to standout tracks in a précis such as this, but with xx, it would be an arbitrary motion; this is such a complete work of neat, sparse, and gratifying precision that it practically yearns — and undoubtedly deserves — to be swallowed whole. – Chris Baynes

98. Mastodon – Leviathan [Relapse]

After emerging from the primordial ooze of the underground with their debut Remission (2002), Mastodon voyaged to the cusp of metal’s mainstream with their conceptually-anchored second studio album, Leviathan (2004). Exploring the mortal conflicts contained within Herman Melville’s legendary tome Moby Dick, Mastodon created elemental music befitting the high-sea drama which formed Leviathan‘s thematic base. The levitating jazz-metal drumming of Brann Dailor led the expedition through metallic riff maelstroms of “Iron Tusk” and “ĺsland”, which followed the opening tidal impact of “Blood and Thunder”.

As Leviathan came to an end with the acoustic-led absolution of “Joseph Merrick”, after bringing legitimacy back to the much-bastardized descriptor “epic” during “Hearts Alive”, it was soon apparent that Mastodon had created a momentous moment in heavy metal history. By helping redefine a paradigm that had become over-reliant on basic down-tuned bludgeon since the dark days of late 1990s nu-metal, Mastodon cast technical musicianship, intelligent songcraft, and progressive structures to metal’s fore again while making the statement that concept albums were no longer resigned to prog-rock dignitaries of days past.

For these reasons, the Georgian fourpiece’s pursuit and attainment of the Holy Grail with Leviathan are immensely important to metal’s 21st-century revitalization. — Dean Brown

97. U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind [Island/Interscope]

After the pompous excesses of U2‘s 1997 album Pop and its gaudy lemon of a tour, U2 hit the reset button to record All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. Turns out the dawn of the decade was an appropriate time for a resolute return to the band’s fundamental songwriting and record-making, shedding everything (electronica, dance tracks, pop irony) except that which they couldn’t leave behind: soulful anthems, sweeping melodies, artful arrangements, and brilliant performances. Back were producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who helped incorporate elements of the band’s past glory while pushing the record into the new millennium with fresh sonic craftsmanship.

A return to more traditional songs found Bono reignited, pushing his voice to the top of his range, while the Edge refreshed his iconic chiming figures into the sturdiest set of U2 songs in a decade. In fact, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its opening run of “Beautiful Day”, “Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Elevation”, and “Walk On”, would provide the heights and sound templates that U2 would continue to chase, and fall short of, on every album since. It remains the last classic from the last of the rock stars. — Steve Leftridge

96. Autechre – Confield [Warp]

It’s unlikely that Autechre will ever go as far out as it did on its sixth album, Confield. That’s not to say that there aren’t other Autechre albums with disintegrated rhythms and drone sections (or consisting entirely of drones, as you’ll find in Ae’s collaborations with Hafler Trio). But Confield is a line in the sand in Autechre’s discography. After a series of albums that moved them from IDM pioneers to computer music for ravers (1999’s Cichlisuite EP was described on the packaging as “digitally reclaimed by Autechre”), Confield embraced uncertainty and cold, unfamiliar spaces like never before. Making things a bit personal, it was after hearing Confield that I was first introduced to the idea of Max/MSP — it all seemed so alien to my 15-year-old mind, writing code to make music.

“VI Scose Poise” is an appropriate sink-or-swim opener — it’s a few minutes of digital percussion and short, rubber-band delays before a gentle, meandering melody wafts in. “Sim Gshel” and “Uviol” might be anchored in beats that you can follow, but both constantly threaten to collapse in on themselves. Standouts like “Cfern” and “Parhelic Triangle”, meanwhile, play phrase repetition into an unsettling collection of layers that are just jagged enough to leave you constantly antsy. It’s little wonder that “Cfern” was picked up by the experimental ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

There’s a lot of beauty to Confield, even in the most confusing parts. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem as challenging as it did upon the first release. However, it still stands as a gorgeous and important album and one that makes a significant case for Autechre’s brilliance. — David Abravanel

95. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog [Sub Pop]

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the South: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th century). Some folks prefer the stripped-down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine‘s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. Texture and richness suffuse every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb, and echo, percussion, and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful, and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air, to be certain. — Sean Murphy

94. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Merge / Anti-]

Quiet excellence is Spoon‘s MO. While we were salivating over Animal Collective, Tame Impala, and other indie darlings, Spoon simply went to work, churning out great album after great album. There were no slip-ups, no sell-out moments, just a refusal to put anything less than fantastic to tape and a good ear for insidious melodies. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga still stands as their most realized record. It’s a sleek poppy package that’ll worm its way into your head and comfortably sit there until you listen to “Don’t You Evah” for the 15th time in a row. Spoon tempered their work with a casual grace and humor that evaded just about everyone else.

The pseudo-soul cut “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” opened with “Life could be so fair!” before warning a friend about holding grudges too long. But their enticing delivery could be used for evil as well. When Britt Daniel let drip “come let your socks fall down to your shoes” on “Rhythm and Soul”, the sexual tension is palpable, while “Eddie’s Raga” stomps along to the beat of jealous lovers. With the 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the best-crafted indie album of the 2000s. And they made it sound so easy. — Nathan Stevens

93. Elliott Smith – Figure 8 [DreamWorks]

I remember where I was when I found out Elliott Smith had killed himself back in 2003. I was in a dark place personally, lonely and far away from home. Though I didn’t know his music very well at the time, the act of envisioning the grisly details of his final moments latched onto the strands of my initial interest to form a deep connection that has grown exponentially over time. The parallels in our struggles, concerns, and quiet triumphs became obvious as I listened to his albums on repeat. I can hardly listen to a song of his these days without getting misty; Figure 8 churns the biggest wake of emotional baggage.

Released early on in the year 2000, Figure 8 would be the last album completed in his brief, dramatic life. His second album on a major label and arguably his most well-rounded, it balanced a bigger Americana power-pop studio sound with his more intimate, acoustic style honed on his mid-’90s albums. While grandiloquent moments like “Son of Sam” struck a classic Southern rock tone and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” exploded in Flaming Lips-esque neo-psychedelia, the emotional resonance on more delicately arranged tracks like “Everything Reminds Me of Her”, “Easy Way Out”, and “I Better Be Quiet Now” rivaled anything else in his catalogue. His broken voice echoed in lilting strings and somber acoustic guitar.

Figure 8 showed the uncomfortable genius at the peak of his creative powers and matched with an ideal team that included Sam Coomes (Quasi), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s long-time drummer), and producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who help shape Beck’s iconic Mellow Gold). The results were vulnerable yet grandiose, honest yet mystical. It’s perfectly flawed in a way only a handful of other musicians have ever been able to express, lyrically and sonically.

His work frequently became the soundtrack for key scenes in award-winning films, his album sales were steadily increasing, he was still regularly hitting the studio to record new works, and he had a loving girlfriend. Smith seemed to have everything working in his favor externally, but sadly, he was never able to stabilize internally. And so he left us, not unexpectedly but nevertheless shockingly, to join the ranks of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley as unparalleled song-writing talents who wore their hearts on their sleeves then abandoned their soul-crushing narratives on ellipses. Figure 8 remains Smith’s final testament, the album to remember him by, his Pink Moon or Grace. The mural in front of which Smith posed for the album art photography, located on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, has since become his memorial, the place to grieve and remember the man who still resonates so powerfully with so many all these years later. — Alan Ranta

92. The Clientele – Strange Geometry [Merge]

Suburban Light, the Clientele‘s full-length debut, landed with a whisper, a gentle breeze of unfiltered ’60s pop that was definitively English. Four years, Strange Geometry, their third LP, sounded like a full-formed realization of every nuance the band was capable of but just couldn’t coalesce for their debut or sophomore releases. (The Clientele claimed that they couldn’t find a recording studio suitable to help them achieve a warm sound, so they released Suburban Light as a set of demos.) If warmth was the goal of their sound, the Clientele achieved it in spades.

Strange Geometry is an LP held together by texture, imagery, and richness, melodically and lyrically. “Since K Got Over Me” and “Impossible” are as anthemic as the Clientele can become, stretching out their loose jamming capabilities but keeping them confined to the service of the song. “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and “Step Into the Light” are sweetly sincere ballads of Sunday morning melancholy and Saturday night regret. Even the more experimental, spoken-word track, “Losing Haringey”, fit the hazy mood of the record because, at heart, the Clientele are observers of human nature, and they translate human nature into snatches of verse that summarize slippery emotions: “Everything’s so vivid and so creepy / Every night the strange geometry.”

Two traits make Strange Geometry an impeccable album that still sounds vital: one, every note and lyric are in their right place, there are no missteps, and two, every angle is perfectly rounded to fit into an indie-pop schema. Geometry is cold math, but the Clientele shoot it through with weight and depth, the kind that bridges the gaps between Romanticism and Modernism. No band from the 2000s made pop music this perfect. — Scott Elingburg

91. Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night [Columbia]

Maxwell is a magician. He left the spotlight for eight long years, cut off his hair, and returned with an album that is nothing like what made him a star — and everyone still loves him. I bet lots of stars would like to take that kind of break and still have a career when they come back. The thing is, BLACKsummers’night is the best work of Maxwell’s career. Listening to it, you know that Maxwell has been out living his life. He brings a jazzman’s infectious sense of play with him and, in the process, strips away all that he thinks we think Maxwell is supposed to be. The last time a great black artist did this, Miles Davis gave us In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1969). One hopes that the next two albums in his proposed trilogy are as inspiring and as thrilling. — Tyler Lewis