Prelude to the Best of the ’00s…Bands that Defined the Decade

October 17, 2009

wilco

The end of the year is a few months away but I always start ordering my top 10 albums, movies and the like about this time each year. I try to place everything in the spot it stands as of now and wait to see what upsets the list will have based on end of the year releases.

This year while starting on that, I’ve decided to also do a top 50 albums and top 50 singles for the entire decade of the 2000s, seeing as it’s over come January. In doing so I’ve noticed a lot of older, established artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s made seminal, career-worthy work over the past ten years across all genres and many of those will factor into the list. There are also plenty of great albums that popped up unexpectedly from bands who had never before and haven’t since managed to recreate the magic.

But thinking about artists who’ve come to the forefront during the 2000s, releasing all of their work in the new millennium or just the bulk of it, a few come to mind that simply define the decade in terms of consistently excellent album, songs and live performances.

Wilco- Wilco released three very entertaining alt-country albums in the ‘90s and then got extensively creative and genre abandoning in the 2000s. The best example of the bands melding of experimental and approachably warm is their decade defining “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in 2002. From there they got weirder – “A Ghost is Born,” then scaled way down with “Sky Blue Sky” and followed that with this year’s “Wilco: (the album) the most straightforward folksy album they’ve released this decade.

Drive by Truckers–  Although DBT released a few independent, small press albums in the late ‘90s, they really didn’t emerge notably until 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.” Released on Universal (and then dropped by Universal and left labeless until New West signed the band), SRO was a critically acclaimed yet initially low selling work but a masterpiece nonetheless.  They haven’t released a bad album since – ““Decoration Day,” The Dirty South,”  “A Blessing and a Curse” and “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”  are all tremendous records and DBT was one of the best live shows you could catch this decade, which it was usually possible to do up close in a relatively small venue. If you’ve never been able to make a show, “Live at the 40 Watt Club” and “Live from Austin TX” are two wonderful rock concert DVDs you can catch.

Ryan Adams– Adams was an alt-country pioneer with Whiskeytown in the ‘90s. His first solo record, “Heartbreaker” from 2000 remains his best work. He’s a consummate songwriter, with the potential to be one of the greatest but despite his surplus of recordings his personal quirks and indulgences dampen that potential sometimes. But, with the exception of “29,” any of Adam’s 10 albums is a great listen.

Neko Case – From 2000s “Furnace Room Lullaby” to 2009s “Middle Cyclone,” Neko has put on record the decades best voice. A perfect singer capable of traditional country, blues, power-pop or gothic, none of her work is to be missed. The record on which her best lyrics and her best singing match up is “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” from 2006, but arguably her best single song is from “Deep Red Bells” from 2002’s “Blacklisted.”

Lupe Fiasco – So far we only have two official Lupe albums, 2006s “Food and Liquor” and 2007s “The Cool,” but one more is due by the end of the year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Lupe’s not released a weak track yet, or a weak verse for that matter. He touches on every imaginable social issue in his songs and could very well be the best and brightest political commentator rap has had since Chuck D–and not nearly as suspect as some of D’s propositions. Lupe’s ethical intelligence is never suspect in his songs.

The Hold Steady – With 4 studio albums and 1 live album over the past 5 years and tremendous live shows to boot, The Hold Steady are the best bar band in America. The lyrics are consumed with parties, scripture, drugs, God, sex, death, Mass, angels, love, chill out tents and interesting characters. Like a punk Rock-Springsteen-Tom Waits milkshake, The Hold Steady get better every year.

Death Cab for Cutie – Sure, they’re a bit pretentious and a lot of those emo kids dug them a bit too much for comfort. Yet they’ve captured a lot of this entire decade in their sound. The use of the title track of “Transatlanticism” in Six Feet Under with the characters stonily singing along was a generational signifier. Every album they’ve released in the 2000s has been good, but their last three have been  classic – “Transatlanticism,” “Plans” and “Narrow Stairs.” Even on years without an album they’ve stayed present- this year with a great EP and nice singles.

Ghostface Killah – Okay, in the context of Wu Tang Clan, Ghost is very much a 90s rapper. But aside from his solo debut “Iron Man” in 1996, every solo albums he’s released has been in the 2000s, starting with “Supreme Clientele” in 2000. He’s been pumping out an album a year almost, and you won’t get any Lupe worthy socially conscious moments on any of it. Check all that at the door–there’s nothing morally redeeming in the lyrics, there’s just insanely killer flow. Ghost constructs rhymes that are so hilarious, sad, exciting, repulsive, and sensory observing that it’s a little miraculous. He can make a good agreeable point from time to time, but mostly you’re going to get urban poetry steeped in vivid detail– crime narratives more cinematic than any movie as well as jokes, double entendres and metaphors with a lot of tongue in cheek.

Sufjan Stevens – Stevens may be the decade’s best songwriter if only people could fully understand him without looking up the lyrics. That’s a turn off for many, but for the rest of us his hushed, frail and almost whisper like melodies backed by a slew of sounds uncommon in pop music (he’s a wildly talented multi-instrumentalist) are engaging, addicting and reveal just a bit more each time you hear them. Then there’s his ambitious project to make a concept album depicting the history and culture of every American State. “Greetings From Michigan” is his best overall work, followed by the close second “(Come on Feel the) Illinoise.” The “Illinois” track “Casimir Pulaski Day” may be the most heartbreaking yet beautiful song of the decade with lyrics about God, love and teenage loss by death and disease.

Kanye West– Hate him love him, or simply be sick of him due to his latest string of rude shenanigans, but some of the 2000s best hit singles were from ‘Ye. Three Grammy winning albums that actually deserved a grammy and one flop of an album that can’t be criticized in terms of ambition at least. Here’s hoping he takes a break and comes back down to earth a bit.
So, that’s the big ones. Some of the albums by these folks will rank high on the top 50 list when I post it toward the end of the year. Others by artists who managed just one great album, and albums by already established artists will all intermix with them.

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