80. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance [Lookout!]
Ted Leo’s music has never tried to hide the fact that he was an English major in college, but nowhere more than in The Tyranny of Distance does Leo manage to capture that elusive goal of fiction — capturing “the feeling of what it means to be a fucking human being”. It’s a record chock full of five-dollar words, antiquated contractions, and references to the literary canon, but the effect is far from pretentious. Written at a crossroads in Leo’s life, Tyranny finds him grappling with the Big Issues: life and death, love and loneliness, language and (loss of) faith — but seeking small, human-scale answers.
On Tyranny, Leo combines his ear for melody with a satisfyingly diverse range of styles from lilting folk to Zeppelin-esque riffing to soaring jangle pop, all run through his overly-caffeinated punk rock filter. The result is songs like “Biomusicology”, “Timorous Me”, and “The Gold Finch and The Red Oak Tree” that still sound timeless nearly 15 years on. Released months before 9/11, The Tyranny of Distance stands out as a ray of poppy sunshine from a band that would spend the rest of the decades being a voice crying out in a politically darkened wilderness. — John M. Tryneski
79. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not [Domino]
Always in danger of crumbling under the weight of word-of-mouth hype — which saw sell-out gigs before record contacts had even been signed (let alone any actual records released) — the Arctic Monkeys delivered a noisy and triumphant V-sign to all the doubters and doom-mongers and found themselves with the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Sharp and jagged as a chainsaw, these three-minute bursts of adrenalin recalled the focused anger of the Jam, except that singer/lyricist Alex Turner turned his gimlet-eyed social observations toward his hometown of Sheffield instead of London.
On songs like “Mardy Bum”, “Riot Van”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”, Turner gave us tales of grimy discos, underage boozing, prostitution, and urban heartache that were suffused with wry humor and killer lines, all delivered in his uncompromising Northern vernacular. The music displayed a depth and maturity that belied the youthfulness of the band, managing to be raw, discordant, angular, and irresistibly catchy all at once. The result was an album of biting observation and strident originality that also had enough pop hooks to fill the dance floors. — John Dover
78. Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life [Capitol/EMI]
In 2000, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse began recording It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2010, he committed suicide at age 47. Though Linkous’s works are not popularly regarded as definitive markers of their times, It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) continues on as a brilliant and unsung highlight of the decade remembered here.
Released by Capitol Records, It’s a Wonderful Life was a rare departure from Linkous’s one-man-band approach to playing and recording. Earlier Sparklehorse albums utilized elements such as defective equipment and intrusive static as pointed defenses against commercial exploitation. The addition of producer Dave Fridmann to the recording process transformed Linkous’s aesthetic into a new, still strange, but more palatable landscape. It’s a Wonderful Life was the fourth annual masterpiece of that peak period of Fridmann’s career, following Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs in 1998, the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin in 1999, and the Delgados’ The Great Eastern in 2000.
Themes of death and decay haunted It’s a Wonderful Life. Presently, the knowledge of Linkous’ suicide lends a retrospective layer of melancholy. But on plain musical merit, the album was, in fact, a rally for its creator. Collaborations with Fridmann and guest musicians, including PJ Harvey, Nina Persson, and Tom Waits revealed a variety and depth that belied the media characterization of Linkous as a cloistered and depressed genius. In 2010, Steve Albini eulogized Linkous by saying, “he was a good dude, and his art was genuine.” It’s a Wonderful Life is evidence of that. It’s an album that acknowledges beauty and truth even in the midst of darkness. — Thomas Britt
77. The Postal Service – Give Up [Sub Pop]
The Postal Service’s Give Up came out in 2003 and promptly became one of those releases that impacted music for the rest of the decade, however unlikely it seemed. A side project between Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, Give Up took off in a way that neither of their main bands had up until that point. The album is a distillation of two genres, and the electronic sounds and emo lyrics defined indie rock for the time.
One of the album’s greatest strengths is how it’s able to bring warmth to a sound that might initially seem disconnected or cold. Much of the credit for the fuller sound should be given to the backing vocals provided by Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood. Their voices meld exceptionally well with Gibbard’s, and in the end, the album feels complete in a way that belies the piecemeal way it came together. Exchanging CD-Rs through the mail, Gibbard and Tamborello stumbled upon a sound that never feels like one of them is overshadowed by the other. Give Up‘s cultural importance is unquestionable, as it helped bring indie rock into the mainstream, but apart from its groundbreaking appeal, it’s simply an immensely listenable album that, ten years on, still feels dynamic and makes for an essential 2000s addition. — J.M. Suarez
76. Harvey Danger – King James Version [Sire]
The sophomore album is challenging for any band looking to exceed expectations, and that was no different for Harvey Danger. Riding high off the massive success of that song, it was a question of whether or not they could maintain that momentum while continuing to build upon a solid foundation. Despite a noble effort, King James Version fell through the cracks, not only failing to recapture their debut album’s mass audience but essentially fading from existence as quickly as it landed with the mainstream having decided that Harvey Danger had worn out their welcome, thus sentencing them to “one-hit wonder” status.
In retrospect, they did exactly what a band is supposed to do for its follow-up. They one-upped their songwriting with biting lyrics offering thought-provoking entertainment value all their own (singer Sean Nelson remains one of the most criminally underrated lyricists alive), not to mention killer hooks courtesy of irreplaceable bassist Aaron Huffman, not afraid to lead the melody. The so-called “alternative rock band” even managed to sneak a piano ballad in there, highlighting guitarist Jeff Lin’s classical training, while also serving as a good primer for their (as of now) final album Little By Little, hinting at the direction their music would take.
In essence, Harvey Danger is everything you think they’re not and King James Version is definitive proof of that. — Steven Scott
75. Doves – Lost Souls [Heavenly]
In 2000, Britpop was over in England. In America, it had never happened. Atmospheric British indie rock was making a comeback, but it had taken a decided turn toward the fey in the form of Coldplay’s Parachutes and Travis’ The Man Who. Doves, however, had a background in dance music, having released some singles under the name Sub Sub. They were from the Manchester area, whose “Madchester” scene had eventually given way to Britpop. Lost Souls brought things full circle, with a twist: it took electronic dance music’s detailed production and dynamic use of space and put it together with the melodicism of Britpop. A crucial third ingredient was a Madchester-inspired sense of swagger and groove.
The result was large-scale, epic indie-rock that would have been bombastic had it not been so tender and atmospheric at the same time. It was as if the trio knew the ensuing decade was going to be trying yet not without its share of catharsis, and they were offering up the soundtrack in advance. At a time when dream-pop was little more than a pejorative synonym for bygone shoegaze bands, dream-pop was exactly what Lost Souls delivered, single-handedly making the term clean again with a volley of hard-hitting, soft-landing, unforgettably evocative songs. — John Bergstrom
74. The Bug – London Zoo [Ninja Tune]
Kevin Martin’s third album as the Bug came at a time when dubstep was arguably at its peak. The genre’s bass-heavy, half-step template was firmly in place. Burial had just released his second album, and the United Kingdom’s fickle audiences were beginning to tire of the familiar tropes and ideas being strung out by copycats and soundalikes alike. Enter London Zoo, an album that saw Martin streamline and refine the murky dancehall sound that was last seen on 2003’s Pressure into something more in line with the bass-heavy dubstep sound of London’s dancefloors.
Enlisting a startlingly brilliant array of vocal talent — Roll Deep’s Flowdan and Killa P, Spaceape, future King Midas Sound member Roger Robinson, Ricky Ranking, Warrior Queen, and dancehall veteran Tippie Irie — to bedazzling effect, Martin completely threw all expectations of what bass music coming out of Britain’s capital could sound like. The UK’s vibrant dance music heritage has always been influenced by Jamaican soundsystem music, from jungle all the way through to today’s grime, and with London Zoo, the world was served a real reminder of how transformational London’s producers are in perverting their influences into something totally new and exciting. — Al Kennedy
73. Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City [Wichita]
As fitting a title A Weekend in the City is for Bloc Party’s second album — it’s a dead-on summation of its lyrical contents — the name of its follow-up Intimacy would have been just as apt. Even when the four-piece is cranking out impassioned squalls of noise, it feels as if singer/guitarist Kele Okereke is sitting right by you, his plaintive voice entrusting you with his hopes, insecurities, and regrets. Sometimes he is psyching himself up to conquer the night (“Tonight make me unstoppable / I will charm / I will slice / I will dazzle them with my wit”). Other times he is taking stock the day after (“I love you in the morning / When you’re still hung over / I love you in the morning / When you’re still strung out”).
In all instances, his vulnerability is affecting and imbues A Weekend in the City with a mournful spirit, even in its more triumphal moments. That raw-nerve humanity plus the group’s aptitude for completely rocking out when called for (drummer Matt Tong earns the title of the band’s MVP in that regard) made Bloc Party 2-0 following its full-length 2005 debut Silent Alarm, and the record’s virtues helped further distinguish the group amongst its contemporaries during the neo-post-punk heyday of the 2000s. — AJ Ramirez
72. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed [4AD]
If the Mountain Goats’ second studio album (after many non-studio albums) were “merely” the best album ever written about the damage and pleasure of drug addiction, it would still warrant a place on this list. But We Shall All Be Healed also sees John Darnielle’s first sustained bout of autobiography (which brings an extra layer of insight and despair into these songs about tweakers trying to make it through the day and the world, even when you don’t know the context) even as he hits a high water mark in his songwriting.
Plenty of his work since has been excellent, but he’s rarely been as bitterly anthemic as he is on “Slow West Vultures” and “The Young Thousands”, as wisely tender as he is on “Your Belgian Things” and “Cotton”. Few people have ever nailed the dichotomies of human nature (chemically assisted or not) as squarely as Darnielle does on the combination of “All Up the Seething Coast” and “Quito”, let alone on “Against Pollution”, a song that can tell you something new about yourself and the world every single time you play it. As always, Darnielle’s work contains all the wonder and folly of the world. — Ian Mathers
71. J Dilla – Donuts [Stones Throw]
By the middle of the decade, J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, aka James Dewitt Yancey, was a living legend among hip-hop fans and artists. He had taken the innovations of earlier ‘name’ producers — Pete Rock, Marley Marl, DJ Premier, etc — and run it in unlikely and unique new directions, flipping and warping and shirking off expectations. He did that while remaining in some ways anonymous to the general public, more a musician’s musician than a celebrity.
The story behind 2006’s Donuts may have cemented the album’s reputation forever. He essentially edited it on his deathbed, from a hospital bed. It was released three days before his death. And the music itself can be read, if you’re so inclined, as a statement on mortality. Yet I’m firmly of the opinion that the music transcends the circumstances; this would be a classic of the genre in any case.
No matter how many imitators and influences live among hip-hop DJs, producers, and ‘instrumentalists’, there is nothing like Donuts. It is essentially a beat tape, yes, but one that was pieced together as an infinite loop built of miniatures. It’s filled with jokes, puzzles, quick emotional reveries, and samples both familiar and disguised. It’s a masterpiece of hip-hop ingenuity that’s a testament to its creator’s genius but also stands in for the very spirit of the genre. — Dave Heaton