Blame it on Shawn Fanning, the tanking economy, American Idol’s shaping of the pop market, or the way the mainstreaming of “indie” music resulted in increasingly insular, niche-oriented consumers: The biggest talking points about albums in the 2000s is the precipitous decline in sales and how record labels’ hemorrhaging profits impacted the way we interact with music. Perhaps the trend was part of a greater cycle, and the current singles-driven market will shift in favor of LPs after a few years. Given what a phenomenal decade the aughts were for singles, plus the advent of iTunes and file-sharing options, it’s understandable that consumers gravitated toward individual tracks. But the quality of the proper studio albums released over the last 10 years was anathema to the drastic plummet in sales: Limited attention spans or otherwise, audiences short-changed some exemplary music.
Like many of the decade’s finest films, the best albums of the decade shared a preoccupation with subverting conventions of narrative, plumbing the depths of society’s collective memory, blurring the lines between the personal and the political, and exploring the mechanics of how we construct personal identity. From the shameless escapism of the first 20-odd months of the decade, to post-9/11 disaffect and alienation, and then to a tempered, guarded sense of optimism, the best work of artists like OutKast, TV on the Radio, M.I.A., the White Stripes, Madonna, and Animal Collective served as a cultural barometer, reflecting the broader zeitgeist and the trends that informed collective beliefs and perceptions. Put more succinctly, the best albums of the decade did exactly what pop art is supposed to do. That something vital to pop discourse might be lost if full-length albums disappear should give pause as we dive headfirst into the 21st century’s gangly, awkward teenage years. Jonathan Keefe
Editor’s Note: Head on over to The House Next Door to see # 101 – 250.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2
Initially released through her website after she was dropped by Interscope, Aimee Mann’s finest hour both heralds the dawn of the music industry after new media even as she keeps her sound classic. Jon Brion’s production richly fleshes out the Bacharach-tinged melodies (and Bacharach’s occasional collaborator Elvis Costello co-wrote “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist”), but the real star here is Mann’s witty, caustic lyrics. The album opens with Mann coolly asking a would-be suitor what his return policy is (“When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?”), perfectly coupling Mann’s gorgeous, unforgettable melodies with her knack for a charming cynicism. Jimmy Newlin
Sinéad O’Connor, Faith & Courage
Christianity got a bad rap this past decade, and with the far right co-opting Jesus’s message and using it as an oppressive tool to control women, gays, blacks, Latinos, and science, it certainly earned its reputation. So it’s easy to forget that, in gentler, wiser hands, religion can be a tolerant and empowering device. Ten years ago, Sinéad O’Connor did just that with Faith & Courage, challenging the patriarchal pillars of her faith and proving that it’s possible to be spiritual and optimistic and still have a healthy amount of rage. Sal Cinquemani
Clipse, Lord Willin’
Kanye West may have definitively proved that backpack and gangsta rap can converge on a shared mainstream plane, but Clipse had been working on subverting the ties between those two since their first album, giving their lyrics an almost geeky focus on the specific commerce of drug dealing. Seasoned with just the right amount of guest appearances and snarky brio, these songs are clever and expressive while still resolutely single-minded. Production by the Neptunes, who honed their craft with exquisitely wafer-thin stagger-step beats, didn’t hurt. Jesse Cataldo
Bat for Lashes, Two Suns
Natasha Khan is unabashedly melodramatic and her music is at turns spacey and cavernous, but you never get the sense that you’re dealing with a flake. The Pakistan-born beauty’s sensuality tethered her sophomore effort, Two Suns, to something earthly and tangible. It helps that both the album is slightly more grounded than 2007’s Fur and Gold and that, by the end of the decade, pop music was inching closer to the fringe (the tribal “Two Planets” would make Kanye a fan if he isn’t already). PJ Harvey and Kate Bush are obvious points of reference, but Khan etched out a heady, haunting spot in the pantheon of female singer-songwriters that’s truly all her own. Cinquemani
As Gorillaz, Blur’s Damon Albarn hides behind characters invented by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and in a way, you could say the music itself is a living, breathing comic book. Albarn’s influences span garage, pop, and hip-hop (rap interludes have found their way into the most celebrated singles, from “Clint Eastwood” to “Feel Good Inc.), and while the overall mood is downtrodden, it’s never sullen like Blur; like a cyberpunk movie, it’s futuristic and wistful all at once. That’s also thanks to the tight production work. A harmonica, a whistle, and a drum loop is all it takes to make even a low-key head-bopper like “Tomorrow Comes Today” ecstatic. Paul Schrodt