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The Aughties

Fifteen perfect pop albums from the 2000s

While it was a far from perfect decade on many levels, the Aughts produced some tremendous pop music. AV music editor Donny Kutzbach and frequent contributor Joe Sweeney teamed up to pick 15 records that were top shelf. Call these the Aughtie Awards.

Here they are, in roughly chronological order…

Radiohead, Kid A (2000)

Kid A begins with a run of warm, inviting notes from a Fender Rhodes, only to immediately eschew all feelings of coziness by piling on layers of robotic voices, which beckon and whisper underneath lyrics about sucking on lemons. The song, “Everything in Its Right Place,” makes it clear right off the bat that Radiohead’s follow-up to OK Computer was going to be something entirely different, a fearless furrow into a cold, binary world, where obtuse electronic squeals and eerily mumbled vocals take the place of tightly constructed choruses and guitar solos. OK might be the band’s best collection of tunes, but Kid A is its bravest, and ultimately most rewarding. Whether it’s the hyperactive brass section that closes out “The National Anthem,” the spazzed-out drum machine bliss of “Idioteque” or the gorgeous, shooting star guitars of “How to Become Invisible,” every track contains some kind of inventive twist, which join forces to create a lonely, beautiful universe—when Thom Yorke sings “I’m not here/This isn’t happening” over an expanse of synthesizers, one gets the sensation of being an astronaut staring at the void. From the deceptive welcome of its beginning to its fragile, awe-inspiring end, Kid A doesn’t just entertain lovers of adventurous rock music, it makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger.

—joe sweeney

Elliott Smith, Figure 8 (2000)

Art and tragedy go together all too well. Had Elliott Smith not been so good at putting a flashlight in those dark corners and places we all try to ignore, it’s doubtful he’d be remembered as such an important artist. He revealed all his malaise and melancholy through a wounded voice. This album is a sad masterpiece whose creator literally killed himself trying to follow up. Fans will argue whether or not this is even the best Elliott Smith record, and in fact it initially provoked considerable backlash among some of his early supporters for being too lush, too baroque, and betraying his initial four-track recordings whispered in a kitchen. While Figure 8 was miles away from his previous albums in terms of production values—Smith chased a Beatles White Album world of sound—it had the underpinnings of his previous songs but on a grand scale. Figure 8 is a widescreen existential epic of pain and disillusion (“Everything Means Nothing to Me,” “Easy Way Out”) that maintains the belief that the good can sometimes shine through (“Happiness”). Among the many low points of the 2000s was losing Elliott Smith.

donny kutzbach

Outkast, Stankonia (2000)

There’s hip-hop. There’s rock and roll. Then there’s Stankonia. Outkast’s fourth album is a massive achievement, a fusion of styles left to soak in each other’s juices until they possess one unique, mind-blowing flavor. Its slick, Dirty South synth-funk is still the foundation of it all, lending itself beautifully to the catchy gangsta satire of “We Luv Deez Hoez” and the endearing sex etiquette anthem “I’ll Call Before I Come.” Parliament-Funkadelic’s influence still breathes out of every pore, from the invented vernacular of the album title to its introduction—“Welcome to Stankonia, the place from which all funky things come.” With those aforementioned surefire fan-pleasers under their belt, Big Boi and Dre got to work on their pop crossover jams, every single one of which is a game-changing, creative coup. “So Fresh, So Clean” possesses one of those instantly memorable Outkast choruses and a simple, polished-to-a-sheen R&B groove that showed up every contemporary artist in the genre at the time and “Ms. Jackson” is as buoyant as hip-hop gets, using backwards snare hits and simple synth chords. The concept of apologizing to their “baby’s mama’s mama,” pledging loyalty to her daughter and grandchild, is smart, sweet and a bit cheeky. But as ingenious as those cuts are, they’re overshadowed by “B.O.B.”—as was every other song released in the 2000s.

—joe sweeney

Marah, Kids in Philly (2000)

The band that the sophomore slump couldn’t catch…at least until their third album. When City of Brotherly Love born and bred brothers Serge and Dave Bielanko made their second full-length, Kids in Philly, it proved a refreshing musical rebirth of Springsteen-meets-Van-meets-Clash-meets-Gamble/Huff through their uniquely Philified eyes. At times it’s like a street party (“Faraway You,” “Point Breeze”), at others it’s like a full-on soul cabaret (“My Heart Is the Bums on the Street”), and at still others like a gritty news report (“Catfisherman,” “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed”). Throughout it’s so steadily rich with details you felt like you knew these characters—some good guys, some bad guys, and plenty in between—who more than meshed into the street corner attitude, doo-wop highs, and swaggering bravado woven through the album’s 11 songs. Drink it in like a tough whiskey shot chased with something a little smoother and see if you can stay on the barstool.

donny kutzbach

Bjork, Vespertine (2001)

As uncompromisingly different as Bjork’s music has always been, sounding like the dance-pop experiments of an intergalactic diva, it’s also stuffed with the kind of raw emotion that couldn’t be anything but human. Vespertine is the most emotionally direct album of the Bjork oeuvre, detailing the inexplicable sensations of new love, both physical and psychological, over majestic, wintry arrangements. While it may not be a dance floor-primed, eccentric confection like Post, the artist’s fourth album is unapologetically beautiful, from the swooning strings of “Pagan Poetry” to the cathedral choir sampling of “Unison.”

—joe sweeney

Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

The record, and not the all too tired story behind it and its release. The labored, fractious creation and troubled, delayed release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot not only gave Wilco its legend but additionally proved the harbinger of the new millennium’s music business. Still, were Yankee Hotel Foxtrot not such a remarkable album, none of that would really matter at all. Jeff Tweedy’s sometimes grim, often obtuse, but almost always beautiful lyrics here proved to be real 21st-century poetry in music. There is so much human emotion on so many levels threaded through this album. It’s provoking and elegantly arranged in every detail and at each turn. Maybe I just listened to it so much in those first few years of the decade, but there’s so much millennial about the album: excitement and wonder eclipsed quickly by darkness, the way life’s vagaries can seemingly engulf us.

donny kutzbach

Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (2002)

A skewered pop masterstroke that is at its finest when delving into what at the surface seems minimalist, deceptively lo-fi rock. The album shows off Britt Daniel’s innate talent for creating those kinds of songs that you simply can’t get out of your head. Daniel’s sharp lyrics couple with sinewy, sawed-off indie funk and folk that bears a clipped charm, which initially only hints at the reality of deft and dense arrangements. Listen deeper, longer, and it is revealed. It’s a thrilling listen all the way through, not a dud on this record.

donny kutzbach

Missy Elliott, Under Construction (2002)

In a lot of ways, Under Construction was a typical Missy Elliott/Timbaland adventure, full of elastic, fluttering beats and sharp lyrical twists that embrace rhythms like soul mates. But on her fourth album, Elliott was in a back-to-basics state of mind. So amongst all the boundary-pushing music and wordplay, you’ve got prominent Run-DMC breaks, cuts with “funky fresh” in the title and a track that features Missy and Jay-Z having a mutual nostalgia trip. As a result, Timbaland’s beats are leaner and catchier than ever, the spare drum machines and theremin wails of “Work It” forming the foundation for what was far and away the best single of 2002. Ludacris’ guest spot on the album’s other monstrously addictive single, “Gossip Folks,” is the best of his career—something about Tim’s stuttering, Looney Tunes groove brought out the best in the guy. But of course, Missy Elliott is the star here. She flips the script on chauvinistic rappers on “Pussycat,” leaves other MCs and ex-boyfriends in the dust on “Funky Fresh Dressed” and raises her glass to rap history on “Back in the Day,” her verses spilling over with infectious confidence, marvelous metaphors and clever pop culture references.

—joe sweeney

Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (2002)

“I know it’s kinda low/But to me it’s high time,” sings Paul Westerberg in the opening track of Mono. It was a statement of exuberant freedom, and felt like a spirited casting off of old shackles, especially coming from a guy who was always part heckler, part miserablist, and part romantic. Issuing a pair of albums at the same time can be a dangerous proposal (consider Guns-N-Roses’ Use Your Illusion and that time when Springsteen did it), but when Westerberg did it, it proved the qualified great return of America’s barroom laureate. Even a decade after the band’s demise, the long shadow of the Replacements was still hanging over him—let’s face facts, it always will—but with these two albums of simple rock and roll recorded in his basement, he shook it down enough and showed he still had some of his best songs still in him.

donny kutzbach

My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (2003)

The arguments for It Still Moves as My Morning Jacket’s best work are similar to those for Revolver as the ultimate Beatles record—it documents the moment that the band’s influences gelled into a sound that’s completely theirs, just as their songwriting abilities reached a dizzying peak. Jim James’ affinity for the country-rock of Neil Young and the dream-pop of Jeff Buckley is as clear as day, but the light country shuffle of “Golden,” swooning romance of “Just One Thing,” and provocative note bends of “Run Thru” could only have come from his band. His voice is a supernatural force, whether it’s navigating us through stormy fuzz-rock freakouts or bewitching us with the most beautiful harmonies this side of Pet Sounds. My Morning Jacket messed with its formula on ensuing releases, like any remarkable band should. But while those experiments have been fruitful, none of them quite had the magic of It Still Moves. Greater forces are at work here.

—joe sweeney

Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

The College Dropout has everything you could hope for in a hip hop record. Ambitious, deeply musical production. Clever lyricism. Passionate rapping. Wonderful guest MCs. An over-arching concept that lends itself to both humor and social commentary. Moments of poignant positivity. Moments of infectious braggadocio. Surefire singles. Great slow jams. And one magnetic personality that holds it all together. As instantly appealing as every cut on Kanye West’s debut is, they’re also full of unexpected wrinkles, like the spiritual outcries of “Jesus Walks,” the prejudices of Gap store managers on “Spaceship” and the jubilantly defiant, anti-establishment sentiments of “We Don’t Care.”

—joe sweeney

Brian Wilson, Smile (2004)

Before hunkering down to listen to Smile, Brian Wilson’s attempt to complete his unfinished follow-up to Pet Sounds almost 30 years after abandoning it, I felt some hesitation to press play. After all, the set was preceded by two thoroughly disappointing Wilson releases, the cringe-inducing Pet Sounds Live and the unfortunately prophetic Gettin’ in Over My Head. And I’d gotten used to the mixed bag he’d offered since his comeback album in 1988—songs that occasionally sparkle and soar, but more often hit the ground with a big, out-of-touch thud. How could be possibly slay the white whale of rock albums, putting an end to decades of crappy bootlegs and blossoming mythologies? It just didn’t seem possible. Which makes Smile’s success all the more glorious. Wilson’s songwriting is at its most ambitious and playful from the outset; the singer/songwriter and his incredible band get churched-up on the a capella “Our Prayer,” which segues into the white-boy doo-wop of “Gee,” an ode to the Crows tune of the same name that in turn morphs into the stunning “Heroes and Villains.” As advertised since 1967, Smile is a seamless pop suite, utilizing wacky songlets like “Barnyard” and “Vega-Tables” to keep everything flowing smoothly. Hearing how familiar tunes from late-1960s Beach Boys albums fit into this puzzle is revelatory—“Cabin Essence” is indelibly unique no matter the context, but here it sounds like a troubadour that’s finally found his resting place. This is pop music of the highest order, put together so flawlessly, you barely have time to catch your breath.

—joe sweeney

The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (2005)

Perfect as a rock record. Perfect as a concept record. Perfect as a bit of storytelling. It’s a pot bubbling over with religion, drugs, sex, teen angst, and redemption with an unmistakable bark and vicious rock bite. Vocalist/songwriter Craig Finn’s narrator crafts streetwise parables of good and bad where everyday angels and demons can be hard to distinguish from one another. Different twists are revealed and wickedly clever wordplay that gets missed the first few times ultimately hits. It’s so easy to get caught up in the album’s lyrical strength and rich storytelling aspects that you again forget about the rock-and-roll glue: the muscling guitars and golden rhythmic thump loose that bind it together. The record was rock opera, but with a style so gritty and refreshingly bold that it belied that tired old tag.

donny kutzbach

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (2007)

If the Arcade Fire is not the finest band to emerge in the Aughts—or whatever your personal parlance is for the 2000s—it’s a tough case to prove. Like no other band of the era, Arcade Fire showed a skill at balancing the art-rock aesthetic with a massed, multi-instrumental collective teeming with equal parts of despair and hope signaled this band was capable of big things. Some days I might switch this album out with the band’s equally captivating debut album, Funeral. Neon Bible gets the edge as a beautiful record that balances human pathos with a unique artistic vision. A completely mesmerizing listen that can make you smile or cry, depending on where and when it hits you (or when you hit it). There was not a better band to emerge in this decade than Arcade Fire.

donny kutzbach

Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007)

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is full of the wild lyrical jaunts and ambitiously stacked harmonies of previous Of Montreal records, but this time around, he’s not talking about parades and LSD trips—he’s dealing with the dissolution of his marriage with stunning frankness. In this thematic context, the band’s impeccably crafted dance tunes become as nightmarish as they are blissful, like the deliriously catchy “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” in which Barnes begs his anti-depressants to kick in on the chorus. The astonishingly harmonic “Gronlandic Edit” details the interior thoughts and daily routine of a recluse. Then there’s the 11-minute “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” a slow-building, mind-blowing depiction of an argument that’s as intense as rock music got in the 2000s. The vagaries of love have never been the inspiration for such a kaleidoscopic treat.

—joe sweeney

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