70. Steve Earle – Jerusalem [Artemis]
It’s quite difficult to overstate how much the events of 11 September 2001 influenced the culture of the 2000s. The US and the UK were in a perpetual state of war for most of the decade, the West’s people were bathed in the fearsome light of endless yellow, orange, and red alerts, and anthrax packages kept showing up in the mail. It was the decade “terror” truly came home for the US, the UK being old hands at dealing with such anxieties.
Released nearly a year to the date after 9/11, the Americana poster boy Steve Earle chronicled and engaged the West’s, and specifically America’s, post-9/11 world with Jerusalem. “Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” took to task the diminution of personal liberties wrought by the massive “intelligence” infrastructure and detailed the many ways that government fails its citizens. The song administers a strong dose of cynicism and something of a pin prick to the so-called “American Dream”.
Earle is at his biting, lyrical finest on this tune. In the controversial at the time “John Walker’s Blues”, Earle imagines himself as the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, trying to understand a young man’s desire to find “truth” in places and spaces considered un-American. The song stirred up a storm of criticism for humanizing a man so demonized, but it accomplished what the best lyric writing does in creating empathy where we thought none existed.
Meanwhile, the title tune “Jerusalem” counteracts the cynicism of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Amerika V. 6.0” with notes of optimism, hope, and longing for a peaceful world where all the world’s people can come together in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s a dream to be endlessly dashed, but Earle wants to believe in it with all his might and very nearly convinces us during the four-minute runtime. Jerusalem is a powerful album that spends its time restlessly ruminating around the corners of America’s anxious imagination. — Sarah Zupko
69. Joanna Newsom – Ys [Drag City]
In place of the sophomore slump, the mid-2000s brought us a new trope: the obscenely ambitious second album. The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute and Liars’ They Were Wrong, So We Drowned were uneven efforts at best, but with Ys, polarizing harp songstress Joanna Newsom struck something much like gold, but stranger.
No one predicted this. How could you? Newsom’s 2004 debut was lovely if understated; with Ys, she recruited a full orchestra, snagged Van Dyke Parks on arrangements, sailed into prog-sized song structures, and crafted gorgeously rich, overflowing lyrics that resemble medieval verse more than contemporary songcraft. The results were difficult to classify or contain, but ultimately remarkable: with the animal odyssey “Monkey & Bear” and the epic “Only Skin” Newsom reaches a dramatic pitch only hinted on her debut; on the tender “Sawdust & Diamonds” she reveals an inner Joni Mitchell. Though the more personal Have One on Me — a 2010 triple album — far surpasses Ys in length, it says plenty that it hardly matches it in wide-eyed scope. Ys is a treasure without peer or genre. — Zach Schonfeld
68. Fugazi – The Argument [Dischord]
Losing Fugazi was like losing Lincoln, The Sopranos, or Hi-C Ecto Cooler: they just don’t make shit like that anymore. The Argument, the final record from the Only Band That Matters (apologies to Joe Strummer), saw Fugazi go out swinging: after almost 15 years of writing and recording, the band was still exploring new sounds and textures. “Full Disclosure” uses a full four-part harmony to beautiful effect, a fairly shocking development from the days of Ian MacKaye’s blunt-object vocals on the band’s debut EP. “Strangelight” pulls and pushes against the group’s typically taut, steel-coiled compositional style.
Longtime auxiliary touring drummer Jerry Busher becomes a fully-fledged member of the band and adds thick pounds of muscle to the rhythms of tracks like “Ex-Spectator”. The band kept its fundamental touchstones — bassist Joe Lally’s steady, confident grooves lock in perfect step with Brendan Canty’s relentlessly inventive drumming, while MacKaye and Guy Picciotto trade percussive riffs — while guaranteeing longtime fans plenty of surprises over The Argument‘s tight runtime.
But Fugazi was always more than a peerless, inimitable band. Their DIY convictions — no merchandise made or sold, tickets locked whenever possible at $5 an (almost always all-ages) show, a dizzying circuit of benefit shows for progressive causes, absolutely no corporate ownership or distribution of anything remotely having to do with the band’s music — forever outpaced discussions of their, you know, songs in the press. Irksome, but understandable. Fugazi meant something. The band proved you could do it on your own terms, that independent artistry was viable, vital even, in the face of the music industry’s insatiable appetite for co-option.
Fugazi didn’t change the music business, but they did something even more important: they offered an alternative example, an invention of their own system, less “thinking outside the box” than making its own damn box and kicking your fancy one to the curb. The Argument, a flawless album, marks the band itself transitioning into the past, but Fugazi the Idea lives forever. Forgive the earnestness: listen to The Argument enough, and you’ll start to believe, too. — Corey Beasley
67. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema [Mint/Matador]
The New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema doesn’t start off like a pantheon-level album. The chugging, dissonant guitar riff of the title track is a far cry from the joyful power-pop that A.C. Newman and friends had played on their first two records. But once the band gets to the chorus about 30 seconds in, their trademark gift for melody reemerges. Still, the ethereal, Neko Case-sung second track, “Bones of an Idol”, is a much better example of what the New Pornographers do well. The bouncy, straight-ahead power-pop of the first single, “Use It”, is even better, with Newman’s sardonic, oblique lyrics buttressed by constant harmonies from Case, a big sing-along chorus, and an even bigger sing-along bridge.
But it’s “The Bleeding Heart Show”, which starts softly and grows steadily for four and a half glorious minutes, that puts Twin Cinema on a different level. The song builds from Newman singing with minimal accompaniment to harmonizing with Case to the subtle addition of an accordion and Kurt Dahle’s gradually more active drums. Once the band gets to the famous “ooo” part (later regretfully immortalized in an ad for a for-profit online American university), the song takes off into a harmonized round of “Hey La” anchored by Dahle’s drums, which smash through the final minute of the song with amazing fill after amazing fill.
At that point, the rest of the record is energized, from Dan Bejar’s joyful sequel song “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” to the herky-jerky rhythms of ” The Jessica Numbers”. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” is, amazingly, the album’s second moment of glorious music, with an extra-long pre-chorus followed by Newman’s great falsetto in the chorus. The remainder of the album goes from strength to strength, from the gentle “Falling Through Your Clothes” to Bejar’s folky “Streets of Fire” to the powerful rock of closer “Stacked Crooked”.
Twin Cinema emphasized just how important Kurt Dahle’s drumming was to the New Pornographers’ sound and also introduced the piano of new member Kathryn Calder as the start of the band’s move towards steadily more organic instrumentation. — Chris Conaton
66. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest [Warp]
If the swirling, distant echoes of sound that brought Yellow House to such a beautifully dissonant conclusion left a few doors open for Grizzly Bear’s subsequent growth — the ending chants of “what now?” seem to infer that the band is just as confounded as the rest of us — nothing could have prepared their fanbase for the cataclysmic leap that is Veckatimest. It would be easy — maybe a little too easy — to assign weight to their assertive, ever-expanding command of the studio and all of the can’t-go-back-home-again sentiments that cling to its use, yet after absorbing these 12 songs, the emotional core takes utter reign over everything that encircles it and cuts right through to the audience’s heart.
What evokes such a tender, striking reaction to Veckatimest is in the unhurried essence in which Grizzly Bear approaches life’s struggles, their cerebral proclivity never sacrificing their humanity. The orchestral flourishes that flutter up and enshroud their gorgeous melodies are less an artifice of sound and more an extension of their doubts and uncertainties. And that’s really what this record is: a soundtrack to youth’s fleeting optimism and the fears it breeds when the dust settles.
By taking those heartful concerns and building them into this grand statement, Grizzly Bear not only face artistic and intellectual hardships with a strong backbone, they hold a mirror up to a scene’s worth of wound-lickers in their towering, majestic arrangements. The emotions explored are universal in their scope, but there are no blanketed generalizations here, no instances of insular navel-gazing; the band’s crystal-eyed documentations of time-worn subjects in pop music are fresh thanks in part to the dichotomy between their fearlessness and their vulnerability, and the ways in which they display those feelings with such a sense of self-discovery.
Sure, it helps that these songs are constructed with such sneakingly adhesive melodies, with a coating of such enveloping beauty, yet its aural audacity is ultimately vicarious to what’s inside of them. After hearing Veckatimest, it’s hard not to wish all of life’s adversities came packaged in oscillating choirboy harmonies. – Anthony Lombardi
65. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill [Anti-/Domino]
Elliott Smith took his own life before he could release this album. Although there will always be controversy about whether this was the exact album he intended to make, the songs here are all exactly what he recorded to tape without any additions or changes. And all I can say is thank god this album was released in some form. It continues Elliott’s evolution to ever more ambitious arrangements but has a greater focus on off-kilter production and grungy experimentation than the lush, studio sheen of his previous album Figure 8.
From a Basement on the Hill also happens to contain some of his most compelling songwriting, spanning the double drum track attack of opener “Coast to Coast”, the muddled majesty of “King’s Crossing”, and “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”, and the quiet, stark beauty of “Twilight”, which, to my ears, is one of the quintessential Elliott Smith songs. This was an artist who spoke to the vulnerability in all of us; whose recordings could be so intimate that calling him by his first name only seems proper when writing about him.
Elliott was constantly pushing the limits of his music, and while an argument can be made for any one of his albums being his best, this work stands as an undeniable masterpiece and a triumphant last word from one of the greatest songwriters of all time. — Eric Goldberg
64. System of a Down – Toxicity [American]
He’s part dance commander and part political bullshitter; he agonizes over self-righteous suicides and brings his pogo stick on dates, and he sang the decade’s weirdest horse song until KT Tunstall came along. Serj Tankian, the frontman for System of a Down, sang/screamed maybe the most compelling album-length vocal performance on this list, miles beyond what any other remotely nu-metal “singers” were doing. Tankian’s the vocal version of Queen guitarist Brian May, switching effortlessly between heavy bombast and swooning elegance, piling on the vibrato and grace notes, both projecting complete cocky mastery of their instruments. This being System, the elegance comes more from Middle-Eastern-European harmonic-minor melisma than British operetta, but it’s elegant nonetheless.
The rest of the band’s pretty good, too. System’s actual lead guitarist, the Flavor Flavish co-leader-and-producer Daron Malakian, interjected and squiggled while laying down immense riffs with the band’s wrecking ball of a rhythm section. Throughout Toxicity, words define grooves and vice-versa; what System thinks about any particular topic like subjugation or indoctrination matters less than the bloodshot charisma with which they say it — unless the topic is shimmying. When you listen to Toxicity, it really does help to SHIMMY SHIMMY SHIMMY TILL THE BREAK OF DAWN YEAH. — Josh Langhoff
63. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours [Modular]
True to their desired status as the progeny of New Order, Cut Copy’s lyrics are not their strong suit. Yet listening to the refined electro jewels of dancefloor bliss on the sophomore album, In Ghost Colours, you’d be hard-pressed to hold that against them. Refracting off the ever-strobing disco ball on the album’s 15 tracks are the teensiest shards of EDM-proper’s history — new wave, freestyle, acid house, Swervedriver/ Chapterhouse style shoegazer, neo-disco, ‘ardkore, and on back to electroclash and synthpop again.
Written and recorded using all of producer/DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy’s vintage equipment (though it’s definitely a product of the digital age), the album is a glut of quality music, almost too much for one album. Its shorter pieces like “Visions” or “We Fight for Diamonds” function like introductions to the album’s numerous club bangers, but even these constrained edifices stand alone as miniature amulets and forces of cosmic good for the world. For an album daubed with ghost colors and with a track called “So Haunted”, it’s vibrantly alive in a way that 2008’s culture of entropy desperately needed. — Timothy Gabriele
62. Underworld – Oblivion with Bells [ATO/Red]
Electronic music has always been about doing as many new things with knobs and buttons as possible, but in the 2000s, the genre splintered off into so many subgenres and niche scenes that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the lot of them. Subgenre names with suffixes like “-step” and “-house” are so numerous that they could fill a whole dictionary by themselves. Yet amidst the myriad developments in electronic music, Underworld remained an undisputed titan of the genre. 2006’s Oblivion with Bells is a sterling example of this British trio’s ability to remain at the forefront of electronic music whilst also continually reinventing their songwriting formulas.
The lead single, “Crocodile”, starts things off with a groovy, somewhat swampy riff that displays what is perhaps Underworld’s greatest strength: balancing the cerebral with the visceral. One can debate the merits of the tag “IDM” all day long, but if there ever was intelligent dance music, it’s exemplified by the songs of Oblivion with Bells. The tracks on this record invite you to pull them apart, to get at whatever is the central engine of the music. Even a deceptively simple riff, such as the John Adams-esque piano figure of “Best Mamgu Ever”, gets right into your brain, getting not only your foot tapping but your cognitive gears grinding. The mercurial movement to the album even takes some interesting turns: “Ring Road” shows that the group clearly spent some time listening to the early 2000s breakthrough UK garage acts like the Streets.
Yet, for all the cerebral groove of Oblivion with Bells, there are also moments of serene beauty. The spare piano ballad “Good Morning Cockerel” is a welcome late-album breather, offering up some of the LP’s most cryptic lyrics: “Black barbed wire kisses memories / Go right through us.” Best of all, though, is the lush synth landscape of “To Heal”, a song that would later go on to form a key part of Underworld’s score to Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi stunner Sunshine. In two and a half short minutes, “To Heal” forms a powerful emotional core to a record that, like all great electronic music, takes the listener to a whole other world. If this is the sound of oblivion, then bring on the destruction. — Brice Ezell
61. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose [Interscope]
While the current trend of legendary artist/younger, worshipful producer team-ups can be traced back 20 years to Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin’s American Recordings sessions, the subgenre’s apotheosis is, without a doubt, Loretta Lynn and Jack White’s unimpeachable 2004 offering, Van Lear Rose, the decade’s best country album by a — uh, country mile. White gave the 72-year-old icon Lynn the opportunity for a near-perfect victory lap simply by reminding everyone what made her so great in the first place: she’s fun (“Portland, Oregon”), committed to family (the campfire rave-up “This Old House”; the soaring title track), and hell on wheels if you mess with her (“Family Tree’s” evisceration of the homewrecker who’s “burning down our family tree”; gleefully hunting down a delinquent husband on “Mrs. Leroy Brown”). Lynn and White are having a blast making music together, and that joy shines through on every track.
Plenty of other fine albums have sprung from the fertile collaborative ground sown by Van Lear Rose — Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy’s One True Vine, Dr. John/Dan Auerbach’s Locked Down, Wanda Jackson/Jack White’s The Party Ain’t Over — but nothing will match the enduring spirit of the best album that either Loretta Lynn or Jack White have made. — Steve Haag