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.

50. Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out [Matador]

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out was released early in the year 2000, and its legacy endures after all these years. Generally regarded as Yo La Tengo‘s first “quiet album”, the record does bristle with noise, such as on “Cherry Chapstick”, which, when played live at a gig in Ottawa, Canada, on the Summer Sun tour, Ira Kaplan proceeded to play much of the opening guitar part with his instrument strapped behind his back. There’s a real sense of tenderness on many of these ballads, and a bit of a quirky sense of humor sometimes, too — “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” references an episode of The Simpsons — and many of the album’s songs were given temporary titles based on Troy McClure’s filmography. And I swear that if you are hypnotized by the swirling, 18-minute “Night Falls on Hoboken”, a wizard appears out of your speaker cone to give you a hit from his bong.

Kidding aside, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is, as already pointed out, an album obsessed with pop culture (the title itself is even derived from a Sun Ra quotation) and remains one of a kind in the band’s discography. While you could pretty much pick from most of Yo La Tengo’s albums of the 2000s, well, save perhaps Summer Sun, to be represented on this list, this one is an obvious go-to and shows the group maturing and growing as musicians, and is their most endearing release of the time period covered here. — Zachary Houle

49. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera [Soul Dump]

On the heels of two promising studio albums and a live album, Drive-By Truckers got the crazy idea to make a big, sprawling double album rock opera, and after much scratching and clawing, nearly imploding, and relying on the financial assistance of the band’s loyal fanbase, Southern Rock Opera arrived in 2001 amidst rapturous critical acclaim, and for good reason. No album had confronted with this much eloquence and poetry just what it means to come from the American South, and Muscle Shoals native Patterson Hood and his partner in crime Mike Cooley. “Proud of the glory, stare down the shame,” Hood snarls, “The duality of the Southern thing.”

More a concept album than a proper rock opera, the band touches on everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to George Wallace, to Bear Bryant, to working-class life, and most importantly, growing up with the burning desire to play rock ‘n’ roll and follow in the doomed footsteps of the late Ronnie Van Zant. Featuring Cooley’s brilliant wordplay and Hood’s gift for storytelling, Southern Rock Opera remains a landmark American rock record of the 2000s, a desperate lament, and celebration of their heritage, a flawless combination of rustic country soul and sheer punk rock fury. — Adrien Begrand

48. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War) [Motown / Universal]

A journey through the creativity that resides beneath Erykah Badu’s funky Afro makes for an amazing ride. Ever since her debut, Baduizm, she’s been working her mojo of mystical lyricism and soul-tingling harmonies into a one-woman revolutionary movement. New Amerykah is an epic achievement about positioning oneself in the world and being participatory in its paradigm shifts. While its political leanings suggest attention to family, community, and national identity, the album is most potent in the personal realm. Ms. Badu is not afraid to explore her own struggles and shortcomings. Heady stuff packed in aspirin-sized lyrical doses, New Amerykah pays homage to artists J. Dilla and Ol’ Dirty Bastard as well as hip-hop culture in general. Badu’s cinematic vision drives this tour de force of jazz stylings, hip-hop swag, and R&B — everything a soul sista needs to keep you groovin’ to her righteous rhythms. Quentin Huff

47. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots [Warner Bros.]

The Flaming Lips are perhaps best known for their tongue-in-cheek vibe and colorful timbres; however, there’s also plenty of melancholic realism and social commentary underneath the surface, as their 2002 masterpiece, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, demonstrates perfectly. Packed with wonderful songwriting, unique arrangements, bizarre effects, and a ton of emotion, the record is both playful and heartbreaking, as it’s ultimately a poignant, wholly universal allegory about facing love, life, death, and fear.

Album opener “Fight Test” arguably puts this message best, as Coyne utters, “There are things you can’t avoid / You have to face them when you’re not prepared to face them” with beautiful fragility. These ideas serve as a thesis that’s carried throughout the piece too. For example, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1” offers subtle yet powerful encouragement for conquering your troubles, while “In the Morning of the Magicians” explores sorrowful philosophical ponderings, as well as the anxiety and social judgment of growing up. Really, the entire disc is overwhelmingly touching and earnest.

Although these sentiments are timeless, one could argue that, given its release date, the LP was specifically commenting on Americans’ attitudes following the events of 9/11. After all, it was a time in which the entire country united and empathized over our shared losses, struggles, confusions, and hopes. I’ve never heard a record encompassing all of that (and more) in such a gently impactful way, which makes Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots one of the most seminal discs of the 2000s. — Jordan Blum

46. Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator) [Acony]

For all the archaic trappings that surround Gillian Welch and her songs, she’s always chafed at the idea that she makes old-timey music. Time (The Revelator) shows why. The album sounds timeless, full of myths and folktales, grounded in the acoustic music that she and partner David Rawlings have perfected, but drifting from song to song in a hypnotic dream state that doesn’t belong to any one era. It’s a landmark achievement that towers over pretty much every Americana release that’s come out since. Welch sews together imagery from tall tales told when America was spreading westward and finding its identity, from disasters that checked humanity’s enthusiasm at its progress, from the grief that life grinds into our time here on Earth, and from the electricity in Elvis Presley’s hips.

Time (The Revelator) takes all of these proto-building blocks and constructs a reality where the fiction of folklore holds as much weight as reported fact and feels like it touches the hem of some greater understanding. Welch and Rawlings caught sepia-toned lightning in a bottle, showing not only what the genre was capable of but also providing a soundtrack for our own individual musings on rebirth, growth, and identity. — Andrew Gilstrap

45. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid [Fiction/Polydor/Geffen]

Elbow‘s breakthrough album, The Seldom Seen Kid, includes the song that became their signature tune. The compelling string arrangement of “One Day Like This” ensured that track’s ubiquity in TV spots and the like, and 11 years and four albums into their career as a band, Elbow became something of a big deal. But for the most part, this is a languorous, wistful album: in tracks like “Starlings”, “The Bones of You”, and “Weather to Fly”, there is a yearning that’s manifest not only in Guy Garvey’s lyrics but also in the often intricate music. Space and texture are used wisely, perhaps as a result of Elbow’s prog-rock influences: collectively, they cite their favorite band as Talk Talk.

But there’s a wonderful sense of warmth throughout The Seldom Seen Kid, and again that’s on account of both music — the lush, quasi-orchestral arrangements — and lyrics. Garvey has become a kind of figurehead of avuncular northern English bonhomie, knowing exactly when to be florid — “the vino de vici will flow like a river in spring”, he sings in “The Fix” — and when to keep it simple. The straightforward line “Love you, mate”, from “Friends of Ours” perfectly sums up the spirit of the album. — Alan Ashton-Smith

44. OutKast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below [LaFace / Arista]

“Ready for action / Nip it in the bud / We never relaxin’ / OutKast is everlastin’.” Having already attained hip-hop immortality with the ambitious Stankonia in 2000, OutKast wasn’t about to limit its horizons for its next LP. The plus-size Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the next logical step for the duo, with Big Boi and Andre 3000 each allotted a full disc to themselves to indulge their freakiest musical fantasies.

Both men were certainly game: even though each disc has a clearly defined character (Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is a rambunctious party record, while Dre’s The Love Below is a humorous, honest examination of the artist’s love life), the Atlanta rappers call upon down-and-dirty rap, bebop jazz, Prince-inspired guitar freakouts, Earth, Wind & Fire-indebted soul, British Invasion-style pop, and everything else that could add color to their already-heady sound over the course of the set’s sprawling tracklist.

Heralded by the one-two punch of chart-topping singles “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move”, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the crowning glory of OutKast’s decade-long ascent, and though Big Boi and Dre’s output rate as a duo dropped sharply thereafter, that album assured their legacy would be secure. — AJ Ramirez

43. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning [Saddle Creek]

Released in 2005 alongside the stylistically opposed Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning features ten brilliantly crafted songs about frustrating love, the struggle for identity, and the youthful uncertainty that accompanies the hazy landscape of post-collegiate life. Like an updated version of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, it’s Conor Oberst’s New York story, snippets of recollection detailing various madcap adventures, boozy train rides, and leery temptations beckoning around each and every street and avenue.

Musically, it’s a sweetly arranged folk album, running the spectrum from arrestingly earnest near-lullabies (“Lua”, “First Day of My Life”) to shuffling country ditties (“Train Under Water”, “Another Travelin’ Song”) to combatively cranky and politically charged pleas (“Road to Joy”, which advises that “if you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing/It’s best to be on the side that’s gonna win”). Oberst has never before nor since sounded as confident and assured of himself, and the freewheeling abandon of his musical accomplices backs up the self-assured vibe. The album remains a fascinating document of mid-20s life, where fear and hesitation often stood in the way of personal growth and how sometimes you could be your own worst enemy. — Jeff Strowe

42. Alcest – Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde [Prophecy]

By the mid-2000s, black metal was already flirting with the sounds of early 1990s shoegaze, with artists starting to notice a similarity in the hypnotic, atmospheric side of that most extreme of metal sounds and the hazy, innovative sounds of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Interestingly enough, the most significant breakthrough in this budding marriage between the two styles was made by a French musician in one of the happiest accidents imaginable.

Multi-instrumentalist Stèphane Paut, working under the black metal nom de plume “Neige”, to forego the negativity of his past projects, decided to try to create the musical equivalent of an otherworldly vision he’d had as a child, the only way he knows how, by approaching the black metal sound through innocent, optimistic eyes rather than nihilism and misanthropy. He had no clue what shoegaze was, and had never heard any such bands, but Neige wound up creating an album of stunning pastoral beauty, his harsh, distorted guitars offset by dreamy melodies that rival such classics as “When the Sun Hits” and “Vapour Trail”. Its sheer positivity was unprecedented in metal music, its power — metal’s most crucial characteristic — coming from the heart instead of the gut, yielding a landmark album in what would subsequently be deemed the “metalgaze” movement. — Adrien Begrand

41. The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat [Rough Trade]

It’s not often that an album comes along that’s as completely overstuffed, both lyrically and musically, as the Fiery Furnaces‘ polarizing 2004 breakthrough Blueberry Boat. Sibling bandmates Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger had demonstrated plenty of restless creativity on the previous year’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, but that album at least kept one foot firmly planted in garage / indie-rock tradition — enough so that the listening public largely knew how to approach it. The same can’t be said for Blueberry Boat, where the songs ballooned into long-winded adventure stories, and the guitars gave way to a jumbled mass of keyboards, electronics, and odd sounds.

With its convoluted song structures and off-the-wall arrangements, the album attracted plenty of criticism, including one NME review that memorably dismissed the work as “toe-curlingly unlistenable”. But for listeners with the patience to wade through it all, the album revealed new treasures with each play, as melodies bubbled to the surface and recurring themes came together in a way that rewarded careful study of the lyric sheet. Perhaps most importantly, Eleanor’s vocals lent the group’s tales just the right amount of warmth, making even the most bizarre plot events (keeping pirates away from precious blueberry cargo, discovering a runaway dog preaching at a church service, and so on) strangely relatable.

A celebration of wide-eyed imagination, childhood nostalgia, and unchecked musical appetites, Blueberry Boat stands as one of the decade’s most ambitious and original pop statements. — Mike Noren