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.
100. 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
99. 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
98. 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
97. 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
95. Silent Shout
Putting a decidedly modern spin on the concept of “danse macabre,” Swedish duo the Knife pushed well beyond the set boundaries of dance music on their chilling sophomore album, Silent Shout. While much of the decade’s dance music leaned on its synthetic origins as a means to create an icy, detached remove, Silent Shout rejects that impersonal approach. Instead, the album teems with palpable menace, tapping into the violence found in the disconnection between society’s crippling dependence on technology and deep human emotions of fear, rage, and regret. Keefe
94. Felt Mountain
Released in 2000, Goldfrapp’s debut was either a signpost of trip-hop’s impending second wave or the last masterpiece to come out of a movement that began a decade earlier. Sadly, it seems it was closer to the latter, signaling the end of the genre’s creative peak. But oh what a lofty peak Felt Mountain was. Namesake Alison Goldfrapp’s voice is at turns evocative of Shirley Bassey, Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and any number of French-pop chanteuses from the ‘60s, while Will Gregory’s lush, orchestral arrangements swing effortlessly between vaudeville and something from Rosemary’s Baby. Cinquemani
93. The Warning
People tend to remember this album for its hits: the stone-cold Party Jam™ “Over and Over” and “(Just Like We) Breakdown” and its monumental DFA remix. But the album tracks are all aces too, representing the band’s most successful attempt to reconcile its opposing poles: weepy, white-boy soul and dorky prankster disco. Just listen to the title track, a cooing lullaby flush with skittering subliminal percussion and twinkling ascending synths and a lyric that endears and takes the piss in equal measure. Sly, wry, and persuasive, it sneaks up on you slowly before smacking you upside the head with a perfectly nursery-sized synth rush. One punch and you’re floored. Dave Hughes
92. St. Elsewhere
Cee-Lo squeals on the opening track of St. Elsewhere as if he were a jack unleashed from his box, courtesy of the gorgeously propulsive force of Danger Mouse’s winding backbeats. The funkiest and most spontaneous of pop records, about hot topics as wide-ranging as suicide and receiving good head, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere libidinously slaps Cee-Lo’s bizarrely infectious and soulful vocals atop Danger Mouse’s cool experiments in sound to create a marriage of styles that isn’t perfect so much as perfectly fun. Ed Gonzalez
91. Chutes Too Narrow
The Shins’s debut, Oh, Inverted World, was a pleasant enough set of anti-rock songs that evoked 1970s AM radio, but despite what Zach Braff’s Garden State claimed, it was far too mellow to really change any lives. Follow-up Chutes Too Narrow, on the other hand, explodes with twee exuberance: Opener “Kissing the Lipless” starts with a Neutral Milk Hotel punk-folk strum before moving toward a shrieked, psychedelic chorus. Chutes’s songs are delightful, but they’re also jagged, making for one of the most interesting about-face sophomore records in recent memory. Newlin
90. Worldwide Underground
Upon the release of Santogold’s debut album, Touré anointed her America’s first “post-black” artist. Erykah Badu hews closer to the soul of what she proudly calls “my people,” but no recent singer has more defiantly and fascinatingly refused racial or aesthetic categorization. Worldwide Underground is a rapturous riff on the music that inspires it, full of flabbergasting digressions that deepen upon further listens, like the 11-freaking-minute-long “I Want You,” a pulsating pant akin to an extended orgasm every bit as hot as Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” Schrodt
89. In Rainbows
When it was released (pay what you want OMGZ!!), a lot of commentary on this record focused on how it was Radiohead’s most accessible work in years, which tells you a lot about how far the band has managed to move the goalposts of accessibility. After a decade’s worth of provocations and obscurantist (if also frequently genius) experimentation, even an album bookended with the flanged, ultimately compromising minimalism of “15 Step” and the shuddering, forbidding “Videotape” seemed like inviting in comparison. Especially as it included the band’s most generous ballad since The Bends in “Nude.” It wasn’t full of their biggest ideas, but small can be beautiful too. Hughes
88. Transfiguration of Vincent
Transfiguration of Vincent is inveterate recycler M. Ward’s most enjoyable collage: gorgeous Ry Cooder-esque guitar work, haunting vocals reeking both of Portland fog and Delta dust, and shuffling bluesy songs that dance from the ditch to heavens. There’s also an imagining of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” as a plaintive lullaby. The album is as disciplined as a graduate thesis while being as wild as a hootenanny, which has always been Ward’s special skill, but it’s never as perfectly rendered as it is here. Ward may be correctly tagged as a sepia-toned regurgitater, but damnit is he ever good at singing like a ghost. Wilson McBee
87. This Is Not a Test
Though the album didn’t really live up to its war-meets-blaxploitation cover art, Missy Elliott came off like the Ntozake Shange of hip-hop on This Is Not a Test!, waxing poetic on the state of the genre on the first couple of tracks and then sounding like a 21st-century post-feminist on songs like “Toyz” and “Let Me Fix My Weave.” Because in times of war and exploitation, sloppy sex, self-gratification, and good hairpieces are what truly matter. Cinquemani
The decade’s ultimate example of a “grower,” the National’s third album Alligator was released to relatively little exposure in the spring of 2005. The record was a kind of a phenomenon by the end of the year, though, after the band won fans the analogue way while on a semi-infamous tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and most of the listeners who were at first put off by Matt Berninger’s moody baritone eventually found it to be a voice of poetic power. Thus, “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls” is the kind of lyric that, taken out of context, appears a dark joke, but set against the landscape of Alligator’s white-collar desperation it becomes the “I am Spartacus” of the drunk man’s cubicle. McBee
85. Magnola Electric Co.
Jason Molina’s last and best work under the Songs: Ohia moniker, Magnolia Electric Co . fittingly opens with the nearly perfect “Farewell Transmission,” an aching distillation of the album’s air of routed sadness. The resolute bleakness presented by Molina reaches some of its deepest points on Magnolia, his voice crackling with despair, lonesome notes arcing coldly into infinity. Even the songs he doesn’t sing—like the Merle Haggard-inflected “Old Black Hen,” and Scout Niblett’s perfectly off-key “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”—ache with that same transposed sorrow. Cataldo
With collaborations with Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Emmylou Harris on his résumé, Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams was already established as pretty hot shit in the alt-country scene when he cut his first solo album in 2000. But Heartbreaker has all the sass and brilliance of a great debut and every minute—from the just-gone-electric Dylan howling of “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” to the extraordinary ballad “Come Pick Me Up”—rings with promise. Adams’s later output has been spottier, but Heartbreaker announced one of the decade’s finest songwriters. Newlin
83. The Mik-Eyed Mender
Joanna Newsom may have gone from dressing like an elf and dating Bill Callahan to posing in Vogue and dating Andy Sandberg, but the power of her bizarrely beautiful debut has not receded one iota. The music here is among the decade’s most adventurous, from the archaic style of lyrics to the plucking of harp strings to the infant-like warble of Newsom’s unique vocals. Unlike a lot of freak-folk that was popular during the same time period, though, there is some real meat beneath Newsom’s fairy-world razzle dazzle, partially proven by the fact that songs off Milk-Eyed Mender have been covered by people like Final Fantasy, M. Ward, and the Decembrists. McBee
Not to take anything away from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose lilting, emotive Irish folk-pop elevated the otherwise pedestrian love story of Once, but Damien Rice and right-hand woman Lisa Hannigan covered the same territory on Rice’s debut record, O, with far greater depth. Documenting each phase of a doomed relationship, from its lust-fuelled origins to its crushing, death-wish aftermath, O is a heady meditation on the nature of romance, with Rice and Hannigan demonstrating a real mastery of melody, arrangement, and dramatic scope. Keefe
81. Learn to Sing Like a Star
I had never listened to Throwing Muses when I first heard Kristin Hersh’s Learn to Sing Like a Star, my first foray in what became a love affair with her and Tanya Donelly’s music. Hersh does not tread lightly: “Put a rock into my brain,” she sings unceremoniously at the beginning of “Nerve Endings,” one of many songs that deal with the singer’s personal psychodrama (a kind of living performance art). It’s hard not to love if you grew up listening to the Top 40 versions (Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette), but like Apple’s own Extraordinary Machine, Learn to Sing also counts among Hersh’s most accomplished musically: Acoustic guitars and swooning strings give “In Shock” and “Ice” thrilling, lived-in texture. Schrodt
80. Long Gone Before Daylight
Sexual politics are fascinatingly evoked in telephone calls, horse races, and war on the Swedish group’s fifth album Long Gone Before Daylight. “You’ve been aiming at my land/Your hungry hammer is falling,” Nina Persson sings without any hint of cheekiness on “You’re the Storm,” which could be the soundtrack to Neve Campbell’s character in When Will I Be Loved—a vixen who’s also a slave to her vagina. The subdued music, almost country, puts Persson’s potent heartache front-stage, where it belongs. Schrodt
79. Black Cherry
It may not have started the electro-pop revolution, but Goldfrapp’s second album made disco and new wave revivalism cool again. Of course, without Debbie Harry, there would be no Alison Goldfrapp, but without Black Cherry, there might be no Annie, Little Boots, or Sally Shapiro—what with its sleek, airbrushed synths and artfully braindead lyrics (“Touch my garden…all day long”). But the grumbling bassline of “Strict Machine,” the group’s enduring club classic, proves that even though they’ve since steered away from the dance floor, no one worships it with as much sheer force as Goldfrapp. Schrodt
78. Out of Season
It might’ve seemed ill-fitting that the Portishead frontwoman would go on to record a folk record. But Beth Gibbons was always miscast as a grunge goddess—her lyrics are more elegiac than angsty—and she’s perfectly at home in the warmth of these songs, which are more straightforwardly tinged with the jazz that influenced Portishead’s first two albums (Gibbons is a dead ringer for Billie Holiday on “Romance,” another example of her remarkable tonal range). These songs offer a more direct, almost umbilical connection to the singer’s inner consciousness and deep despair. Schrodt
77. Van Lear Rose
Forty years into a career that had already earned her legendary status, Loretta Lynn finally released an album on which she sounds comfortable. Her rough-and-tumble narratives and feisty, powerful vocal performances fit perfectly into producer Jack White’s stripped-down aesthetic, making for a harmonious and critically dense match between form and content. White’s authenticity fetish sometimes results in over-reaching, but on Van Lear Rose, he managed to come up with an album that stands as career-best work for both himself and for the woman he’s called “America’s greatest songwriter.” Keefe
76. Person Pitch
In a decade that brought us a plethora of great ambient records, Person Pitch reigns supreme for its nerdy sense of repetition, overlapping textures, and grandiose symmetry, but also for its surprising bursts of soulfulness. Even in the Badalamenti-style dread that closes the magisterial “Comfy in Nautica,” Noah Lennox’s influences are almost impossible to detect: From the Beatles and Nina Simone to Aphex Twin and Kylie Minogue, he creates a highly personal, kaleidoscopic vision from the album’s shape-shifting triumphs small (“I’m Not”) and large (“Good Girl/Carrots”) to evoke a dreamer traveling through life and experiencing its wonders and horrors high off the sense of possibility. Gonzalez
75. Boys and Girls in America
If the Hold Steady were only about their stuck-in-your-head melodies paired with arrangements that sound like a classic-rock radio station exploding, Boys and Girls in America would still be one of the most deliriously enjoyable albums of the last decade. Craig Finn’s drunken grumbling about literature, rock, and an expanding cavalcade of fictionalized losers with curiously epic names like Charlemagne and Hallelujah cements it as one of the greatest. With some obvious nods to Springsteen and Thin Lizzy, Boys and Girls is an absolute firecracker of an album that sounds like the world’s greatest cover band trying to do their influences one better—and coming really damn close. Newlin
74. Vampire Weekend
A year ago, my Slant colleague Dave Hughes nicely summed up the racket over Vampire Weekend’s debut by calling it “the best album about which to have stupid, pointless arguments in 2008,” and as the heated discussions about colonialism, preppiness, and cultural appropriation renew their engines amid the release of the band’s follow-up, it’s worth remembering that the original fire-starter still sounds fresh, smart, and engaging. Some people may never be able to get over the considerable stumbling blocks to enjoying this record, but for the rest of us, Vampire Weekend are simply responsible for one of the most enjoyable slices of clean, mannered guitar-pop this side of Orange Juice. McBee
73. ( )
Its threshold for suspension of disbelief may be uncommonly high for a pop record, but Sigur Ros’s ( ) makes up for its pretentious gimmickry with its nearly peerless degree of songcraft. With their subversion of traditional notions of “pop” and their insistence that meaning is the sole domain of the individual listener, the band may be the ultimate one-trick pony. And ( ) is perhaps the finest execution of that trick, an uncommonly beautiful song cycle that offers no limitations on possible interpretation. Keefe
From the time she was a teenager, Aaliyah had a distinct talent for collecting talented producers (R. Kelly, Timbaland, Missy Elliott) and labels (Jive, Virgin) like furniture. And on Aaliyah, she was able to use those collaborations to create her own sound, a smoldering, sophisticated, and decidedly adult R&B. She lets Timbaland guide, not hijack, the album (he only produced three tracks, one of them being the standout lead single “We Need a Resolution”), but what’s most memorable today is the voice of Aaliyah herself, who had long ditched teen coquettishness for a slinking sexiness (“We can be like Bonnie and Clyde”) that only hinted at the full-blown artist she might have been. Schrodt
71. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
Because my hopes of making a case for Brian Eno’s Another Day on Earth as one of the most tragically underrated triumphs of the last decade were dashed, I come to Sound of Silver—so lovingly indebted to both Eno and David Byrne’s experiments in sound—with a bit of a wounded heart. It’s a less personal and risky record than Eno’s, but the marriage of James Murphy’s playfully summersaulting dance-rock beats to his intriguingly, almost pathologically detached vocals (he sounds like the cagey little brother of Art Brut and Zooropa-era Bono) still stuns, especially on the haunting wonder of “Someone Great.” That song alone is enough to mend a wounded heart. Gonzalez
70. Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1
With Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, the Philly soulstress simultaneously posed the titular question and answered it. She is a poet. She is a singer. She is a lover. She is a fighter. She is a woman. Aside from being the best R&B debut of the decade (and one of the best R&B albums of the last 10 years, period), it also produced one of the decade’s sexiest lyrics: “Love slipped from my lips/Dripped down my chin/And landed in his lap/And us became new.” Cinquemani
69. Hail to the Thief
Hail to the Thief may be the red-headed stepchild of aughts Radiohead albums, but there are plenty of rock records that wish they could be so disrespected. The truth is that had this album been released by any other band, it would have been a watershed event, and even now, its prescient anger (“2 + 2 = 5” is a spine-tingling prediction of the Bush administration’s illogic and criminality) and disjointed, cavernous rawk (“There, There” and “A Punch Up at a Wedding” could have been blueprints handed to the Brooklyn indie heroes of recent vintage) make it as good a representative of the decade’s efforts in art-rock as any of the more notable Radiohead albums appearing elsewhere on this list. McBee
68. White Blood Cells
Scooped up in the weird garage-rock revival of the early aughts, which entangled any band pushing across the slightest element of grit, White Blood Cells showed something different, inhabiting a deeper, weirder focus, blowing up blues tropes to a massive level. Yet all this was conveyed with a continued sense of strange minimalism, the willfully simple drum beats, the slim, messy compositions, skipping the Led Zeppelin influence, a seemingly mandatory ingredient of blues revivalism, and heading straight back to the source. Cataldo
67. The Magic Position
The Magic Position was a decisive move away from both the avant-garde indie-rock of Patrick Wolf’s debut and the slightly more accessible but still dour Wind in the Wires. The first words on the album, “It’s wonderful what a smile can hide,” might sound cynical, but Wolf goes on to ask “Don’t you think it’s time?” with all the wide-eyed optimism of someone ready to embark on life for the very first time. Wolf would venture back into darker territory on The Bachelor, which reprised and even perfected some of the narrative themes and structures he began exploring here, but Magic is, from start to finish, nothing short of magical. Cinquemani
66. Dear Science
Following up the moody and muddy Return to Cookie Mountain with the lush, polished Dear Science helped further cement TV on the Radio as one of the most exciting rock bands on the planet. Dave Sitek’s production is cleaner and tighter than on the band’s earlier work, but the grooves here are no less adventurous or exciting. Still, TVOTR is a vocalists’ band: Kyp Malone’s growl brings not sexy but fucking back on the gritty “Red Dress,” while Tunde Adepimbe’s range-defying vocals shine like a diamond from the ecstatic opener “Halfway Home” to the gorgeous “Love Dog,” which melds Brian Eno-looping with Curtis Mayfield-falsetto. Newlin
65. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The most singular artist to emerge from Nashville since the Dixie Chicks exploded onto the scene a decade earlier, Miranda Lambert solidified her status as a country music legend on-the-make on her outstanding sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Boasting the depth of thematic coherence and critical fecundity rarely found on country records, Ex-Girlfriend’s whip-smart balance of traditional know-how with genuinely progressive pop smarts raised the bar for all contemporary country acts and, just as significantly, allowed Lambert to develop an artistic persona of exceedingly rare complexity and intelligence. Keefe
64. Oh, Inverted World
Thinking about how this album sounded before Natalie Portman got her sexy paws around its neck and nearly killed it for you may be too much of a challenge, but try anyway: Those Brian Wilson-worthy melodies that move around the brain with mathematical precision and effortless charm, the unpolished accompaniment, James Mercer’s nervous vocals like a sheltered monk who just discovered his world-altering set of superpowers. It was the album you took pleasure rooting for, shoved it in the face of every sensible music fan you knew until it no longer needed your help and it was just out there taking care of itself, and you were another dope among millions, bewitched by the power of pop. See? There, I did it. McBee
63. Hercules and Love Affair
Hercules and Love Affair was a brilliantly conceived and calibrated re-contextualization of some of the most idiosyncratic and impressive yet overlooked facets of the last couple of decades of American music: garage disco, Chicago house, Antony Hegarty’s protean, smearing voice. But more than an inspired critical project, it was also an album! A gently paced, easy-to-digest, completely solid album punctuated by two fantastic singles (“Blind” and “You Belong”), and one which stands as the most consistent LP released by the decade’s most consistently necessary label, DFA. Hughes
62. Merriweather Post Pavilion
It’s tough to make a case for an album that’s just a year old as being one of the best albums of the last 10 years, but Animal Collective’s landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion immediately cast itself as an album that will surely rank among the most influential records over the coming decade. A structural marvel that is as soulful as it is topical, Merriweather is simply beyond the capabilities of the vast majority of modern bands and stands as a challenge to be met by the next generation. Keefe
61. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
Only a group as brilliant, adventurous, and, uh, old as Yo La Tengo could release an album that’s both a make-out album for married people and one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard. Copping song titles from Pynchon, The Simpsons, and Whit Stillman, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out might have been a hipster’s vapid, self-referential mess in lesser hands. But sleepy cellos and keyboards supporting Ira Kaplan’s always-terrific guitar work and some of the most romantic lyrics cooed so far this century instead make for an album as beautiful as the Gregory Crewdson cover art. Newlin
60. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Arguably the decade’s greatest comeback album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress saw the Scottish chamber-pop innovators escaping their late-‘90s slump for an open pasture of upbeat, rollicking fun. It was if Stuart Murdoch and his colleagues finally realized they could never recapture the somber, fey magic of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister and decided to start over from scratch, digging into glam guitars, bubblegum keyboards, and a committed devotion to AM gold and retaining only the band’s most important characteristic: brilliant, character-based songwriting. McBee
59. Supreme Clientele
I guess if you put a gun to my head and demanded I give you my favorite line from Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, I would probably choose “Lightning rod fever heaters, knock-kneeder Sheeba for hiva,” off the album’s incendiary opening track, “Nutmeg.” But almost immediately I would be begging for a correction. No, no, “Scooby snack Jurassic plastic gas booby trap” instead, from “One.” Or wait, what about “Milk on my mustache, drop to my chiny-chin” from “Stroke of Death”? Okay, okay, it has to be “Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious/Dociousaliexpifragalisticcalisuper” at the end of “Buck 50.” Point being, the album offers up such an embarrassment of literary riches, supported by a dais of soul samples, that even thinking about it in the abstract sends the mind spiraling down Ghostface’s unique poetic vortex. McBee
58. Tanglewood Numbers
Partly about his own struggles with substance abuse (“K-Hole”) and suicide attempt, David Berman’s always-brilliant lyrics reached a fever pitch with this shaky masterpiece. Populated with quirky characters (“My ex-wife’s living in the suburbs with her guru and her mom”), haunting aphorisms (“Time is a game only children play well”), and mystic experiences (“I saw God’s shadow on this world!”), Berman’s words drill through his rawest, most rollicking songs since the Joos’s first lo-fi experiments with a nerve that’s as exciting as it is devastating. A uniquely powerful record. Newlin
57. The Disconnection
In his Consumer Guide, “Dean of Rock Critics” Robert Christgau described Carina Round’s The Disconnection, on which the songs stutter and spit and entirely change direction with such abandon that it’s nearly impossible to feel entirely comfortable listening to it unfold, with a single throwaway line: “The Kate Bush of PJ Harvey.” But why let the full scope of Round’s influences get in the way of a chance for some juvenile, verbless wordplay? Keefe
Andreas Kleerup, the man who produced wonders for Robyn and Cyndi Lauper in the last decade, crafted for himself a soaring space odyssey guided by compulsive electronic beats and lilting vocal performances by divas young (Lykke Li on “Until We Bleed” and Marit Bergman on the equally infectious “3AM”) and old (have mercy for Neneh Cherry). Easily among the great collections of electro-pop balladry ever produced, Kleerup uses the beauty of a perfect harmony and a hypnotic synth to remind us of the horrible twinge of a broken heart. Gonzalez
55. A Grand Don’t Come for Free
If Original Pirate Material pushed things forward, A Grand Don’t Come for Free pushed them over the edge. Birminghap rapper Mike Skinner applies his innovative mix of garage and hip-hop to the story of a bummed-out, heartbroken protagonist who sits on his couch all day “roaching a spliff.” Like the blue-collar Brits he rhymes about, Skinner suggests that his music must be taken on its own terms: The stoner humor and thumping guitar hooks of “Fit But You Know It” serve as a counterpoint to “Dry Your Eyes,” the most devastating breakup song of the decade, but it’s the sum effect that makes Grand a masterpiece, that rare kind of concept album that works as sonic experiment and social commentary. Schrodt
54. Under Construction
The backward-looped vocal hook on “Work It” may have gotten the bulk of the attention on Under Construction, but that wasn’t the only thing Missy Elliott flipped over the course of the album. Making a case that she exerted more control over her sound and her persona than any other act in commercial hip-hop, Missy overturned the genre’s sexual politics with a real sense of ferocity and vision. That she and partner-in-crime Timbaland did so with perhaps their oddest collection of hooks made Under Construction a record that neither has been able to top since. Keefe
53. Return to Cookie Mountain
Following the fuzzy, off-kilter allure of Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, TV on the Radio did something slightly unexpected, getting bigger, faster, catchier, and maximizing both their sound, literally and figuratively, and their audience, fine-tuning all the elements that made that previous album a success and adding a persuasive sense of newfound energy. A song like “I Was a Lover” uses the same prototypical formula as those on their first album but is invariably richer and more tightly executed, resulting in a series of firm songs that’s enviably short on filler. Cataldo
52. The College Dropout
Who says rap can’t be insecure and hopelessly neurotic? Kanye West proved the possibility of this kind of finicky introspection without losing a hint of swagger, hopping from big issues to self-involved bluster, always with one eye on the mirror, second-guessing himself all the way to the top. Before the ego-infused outbursts, before the anti-academic motifs became hopelessly stale, The College Dropout found West as a relatively blank slate, as well as the first rapper to score a hit single with his jaw wired shut. Cataldo
51. Mama’s Gun
Recorded at the same time as her fellow “Soulquarian” D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Mama’s Gun came out when the neo-soul movement was at its most innocent, when Aaliyah was still alive and the music was made between friends messing around. The arrangements are surprisingly spare for an artist known to flaunt her experimental side, but more surprising is the frankness with which Badu lays her emotional problems bare. “Guess I was born to make mistakes,” she sings on “Didn’t Cha Know,” “but I ain’t scared to take the weight”—proof that even when she’s playing the sensitive sister, she’s still got bite. Schrodt
Worth the wait of three decades? No, but what album could be? The even-better-but-how successor to Pet Sounds it was long rumored to be? Sadly, no, but that level of expectation would crush almost any album. Entirely successful as a teenage symphony to God? No, but Brian Wilson is hardly a teenager, so the question is somewhat unfair. Better than the various bootlegs and compilations put together by the die-hard contingent over the years? Probably not. Still among the finest and most meticulous, most sophisticated pop albums in history? And then some. Keefe
It’s debatable, but this is probably the best Timbaland album ever. Sure, he’s had more technically talented (Aaliyah) and insanely creative (Missy) collaborators, and some of his other projects exude more raw originality (Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance). But this is the album most representative of what you might call the Timbaland Ideal, as typified by his Shock Value albums, where you’ve got the big electro chart-toppers shoved up against the vaguely Coldplay-esque big-emotion rock ballads next to the Orientalist R&B. The stylistic ADHD works well here because all the parts are so strong. Also, Justin Timberlake is on this album, and he is a talented singer and performer. Hughes
48. I Am a Bird Now
Describing Antony Hegarty’s heartbreaking vibrato with mere words is one of the trickier tasks a rock critic can take on. Comparisons to other great androgynous warblers (Nina Simone, Bryan Ferry, Klaus Nomi) fall short when you actually listen to this otherworldly talent who, on I Am a Bird Now, blows such A-list guest stars like Rufus Wainwright, Boy George, and Lou Reed out of the water. But despite Hegarty’s undeniable, awesome gifts and penchant for the bizarre, Bird is still a thoroughly humble work that investigates the sorrow of loss and the brief respite of dreamlife. Newlin
47. New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War)
Like her equally trippy, diggable Worldwide Underground, Erykah Badu’s New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War) was a promise and benediction, lush with big beats and even bigger ideas, braving to suggest that hip-hop in the last decade became a mode of learning more crucial than religion to a generation of people. Grandiose and intense, sincere even in its imperfections, it paid courageous homage to the teacher, the solider, the dreamer, the healer, even the telephone—which is to say, all messengers. Gonzalez
46. Come with Us
It’s no wonder Gregg Araki chose “Star Guitar” as the theme song for his stoner flick Smiley Face: There’s no better music to get blitzed to. “It Began in Afrika” and “Denmark” are stacked with bigger-than-life beats, but Come with Us isn’t just an interplanetary acid trip. The Chemical Brothers are the ultimate mood-enhancers, and what’s amazing is how fluidly each epically proportioned track flows into the next. The eerie opening notes of “My Elastic Eye,” which sound like the prelude to an Edgar Allen Poe reading, gradually segue into Beth Orton’s calming voice on “The State We’re In,” the perfect 7 a.m. comedown. Schrodt
In less than a decade, dubstep has gone from a British house curio to a Rihanna-endorsed name. But by the sounds of Hyperdub’s recent compilation album, much of it just isn’t very listenable. Untrue is as dense and difficult as anything to come out of the subgenre, but it also speaks to its crossover potential. Burial takes what’s right about house (an undulating, propulsive beat to get lost in) and layers it with found vocals, looped and manipulated into unrecognizable howls. The result sounds like a skittish dance party haunted by dead lovers. Schrodt
44. The Woods
Even in a decade that included Boris’s Pink and A Place to Bury Strangers’s debut, the absolute loudest single moment of the last 10 years of music is the opening shrieks and squall of “The Fox,” the first track on Sleater-Kinney’s explosive coda The Woods. The energy—and noise—doesn’t let up for 10 straight tracks, building toward the Monks-y, 11-minute freakout “Let’s Call It Love” and the still quite loud but hypnotically melancholy closer “Night Light,” proving you can apparently go out with a bang and a whimper. Newlin
43. Miss E…So Addictive
Tweet’s wispy PSA on Miss E…So Addictive’s intro about not needing drugs or weed to enjoy the album would be laughable if it weren’t so true. That’s because beatmaster Timbaland had uncannily refined his signature sound to create an album where every song constituted a different kind of mood enhancer—bump-and-grind songs as MDMA blasts straight into our brains’ pleasure centers. Like the equally empowered Erotica before it, the album is an emboldened exaltation of its maker’s narcissism and sexual agency; yes, indeed, as Missy insists at one point, no drugs are needed because she is the high. Gonzalez
42. Twin Cinema
Hideous album artwork aside, there’s not much to criticize about the third record by preeminent power-pop supergroup the New Pornographers. Yes, Mass Romantic is rawer, and Electric Version hits harder, but this album is more expansive and emotionally generous than either of its predecessors, and, if anything, its hooks are even more ruthless. And from the windswept grandeur of “The Bleeding Heart Show,” to the oddball melodic superglue of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” to two of the three best Dan Bejar New Pornos songs (“Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” and “Streets of Fire”), it’s wall-to-wall hits. Hughes
41. Neon Bible
Hookier, groovier, more affecting, contemplative, and adventuresome than Arcade Fire’s more revered (at least by the indie sect) than Funeral, more expansive in its thematic obsessions, even if a tad more sinister in tone, Neon Bible has the biting introspection of John Kenney Toole and exudes the immaculate grace of a Terence Davies composition. Its sonic landscape is immediately striking for its expansive scale: Its songs, which sound less performed than hurtled or exorcised, suggest immaculate visions reflected and refracted by the opening “Black Mirror.” Gonzalez
40. Tha Carter III
After a spectacular run of mixtape and guest-spot home runs over the course of 2007 and 2008, Lil Wayne would have been forgiven for releasing a cash-in collection of radio-ready hits. Instead, Tha Carter III managed to be both bankable (“Lollipop,” “Mrs. Officer,” “Got Money”) and terrifically weird. The conceptual rigor of “Dr. Carter” and potent social protest on “Tie May Hands” proved that Wayne’s lyrical powers extended beyond punchlines. And word-spewing shoot-’em-ups like “A Milli” and “Nothin on Me” confirm Wayne’s place in the pantheon of rap’s greatest wordsmiths. McBee
Rumors of the ganja-flavored hip-hop super-duo Madvillain had the Internet buzzing for a year before the group, featuring red-eyed rapper MF Doom and jazzy producer Madlib, released its debut. When the thing came out, it was appropriately hailed as weed vision of bizzaro profundity and loopy madness: “Psycho, his flow is drowned in Lowry seasoning/With micropower he’s sound and right reasoning.” The fact that these dudes have been too disorganized and/or lazy to put together a follow-up only solidifies the album’s position as the undisputed pinnacle of aughts underground rap. McBee
38. Confessions on a Dance Floor
Confessions on a Dance Floor could’ve just as easily been called Ghost of Madonnas Past: at once a thumping tribute to the restorative power of dance music (this was the workout album of the decade if there was one) and a treatise on the singer’s own fame (“I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about”), in which all her musical tics headily come to fore (singing in foreign languages? Check. Faux-tribalistic hymn? Check.). References to the past are everywhere, from the ABBA sample of “Hung Up” to her silly love letter to the city where she got her start, “I Love New York,” but Madonna has always been a thoroughly postmodern pop artist, and as such, songs like “Hung Up,” Sorry,” and “Forbidden Love” aren’t so much throwbacks as updates of the disco sound to which she’s indebted. Schrodt
37. You Forgot It in People
Listening to this record, the fact that Broken Social Scene operated as a fairly loose collective rather than as a band in the conventional sense isn’t exactly a surprise. The decade’s warmest-hearted indie-rock record ranges from strength to strength like a pot-luck where everyone slaved over their contributions and included all their most special spices. Full of big, fuzzy rockers (“Almost Crimes,” “Cause = Time”) and queered, tender sympathies (“Anthems for a Seventeen Year,” “Lovers’ Spit”), everything’s anchored by the wry basslines of Brendan Canning, the founder of the feast. It’s many great tastes that taste great together. Hughes
36. Rock Steady
The Stephen Sprouse-inspired graffiti cover art suggests punk, but Rock Steady is soaked in the sunny sounds of pop (the album was, fittingly, recorded in Jamaica). From the moment you hear Gwen Stefani panting on “Hella Good,” it’s clear the band has ditched the indie-rock pretense that made Stefani the pinup dream of every liberal-arts undergrad in America. “Hey Baby” incorporates dancehall, while “Making Out” is driven by a propulsive ‘80s synth beat. Stefani reportedly wrote lyrics on the spot, and the result is a freeform and playful, drunk-on-Red-Stripe-and-pool-water party album. Schrodt
Even if Santogold’s self-titled debut was all too evidently the calculated effort of a music industry vet (and a team of A-list producers like Diplo and Switch), and those M.I.A. comparisons were dangerously close to being spot-on, it was still hard not to get down to this mixture of hip-hop, pop, and indie rock. Santi White coos and purrs like a hipster chanteuse, and her army of smoky synths, angular guitars, and pulsating drum beats catapult her nine-to-five songcraft to the realm of timelessness. McBee
34. Fever to Tell
It’s too bad “Maps” was so good. The single’s popularity made the transition to It’s Blitz!’s mannered East Village post-punk mimickry almost inevitable. Gone is the spontaneity of the band’s noisy, rough-around-the-edges debut album. The guitars screech, and the energy is concentrated in shorter songs like “Tick” and “Pin,” in which Karen O barks nonsense into the microphone like an avant-garde Japanese punker. That kind of vitality is exactly what’s missing from most of today’s garage bands. Schrodt
33. Turn on the Bright Lights
Much of the appeal of Interpol’s calculatedly gloomy debut is encapsulated in its second track, “Obstacle 1.” First, and really foremost, the rhythm section: lithe and insectile, hiding sledgehammers behind their backs, Sam Fogarino and Carlos D dance around each other, tossing off little catchy fills and drops like it’s cake. Then, of course, the guitars, skyscraping and dressed all in gray, and Paul Banks, with his Ian Curtis impression and cheaply mocked, brilliantly vivid lyrics. For every “Her stories are boring and stuff, she’s always calling my bluff,” there’s a gem like “She puts the weights into my little heart.” If there was a record better suited for well-staged suicides during the aughts, it wasn’t as good. Hughes
32. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Some people claim that Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a concept album. You probably have to ingest a fistful of acid to follow the storyline, so it’s easier to appreciate this album by Oklahomas’s trippiest natives as an unrivaled psychedelic-pop masterpiece. Even if it has appeared on more television commercials than Billy Mays, the idealist paean “Do You Realize” is still a stunning bit of big-hearted rock balladry. See also the Cat Stevens-aping “Fight Test” and the disco-on-quaaludes “Are You a Hypnotist” for instances of irresistibility. McBee
Though Madonna would collaborate with William Orbit on three tracks on her follow-up to Ray of Light, the album otherwise represented a seismic shift from its predecessor’s warm-and-gooey spirituality (a Book of Revelation to many fans, anathema to others). Mirwais’s defiantly experimental, Eurotrashy, wholly artificial production—awash in Auto-Tune and Nintendo beats—was bound to disappoint some, but no one does ersatz like Madonna, and fittingly, this is also one of her most soul-bearing works, from the feminist “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” to the Toni Morrison-alluding “Paradise (Not for Me), to “Nobody’s Perfect,” a slow burn that’s never less than affecting. Schrodt
30. The Moon & Antarctica
After the surprise hit “Float On” landed them squarely in Kidz Bop territory, it’s easy to forget how fucking weird Modest Mouse used to be, and what a shock it was when they released this stunning major-label debut. From the balls-tripping, nearly nine-minute-long freakout “The Stars Are Projectors” to the walls-shaking closer “What People Are Made Of,” The Moon & Antarctica is a psychedeli-punk masterpiece. Thanks in no small part to Brian Deck’s hallucinatory production, the album marks the moment Isaac Brock’s peculiar, druggy fever dreams were elevated into vision. Newlin
If you ever need to win an argument with someone who asserts that anyone other than Jack White is the most ridiculously shredtastic guitarist of the aughties (this happens to me a lot), just play them “Ball and Biscuit” and have fun watching them shut the hell up. Sure, White Blood Cells has “Fell In Love with a Girl,” but this is the album where the White Stripes emerged as the most inspired interpreters of the blues riff since, um, maybe Led Zeppelin? And it’s full of wicked little fuzz-rock songs like “Seven Nation Army” and the criminally underrated “The Hardest Button to Button,” t’boot. Rock. Hughes
28. Original Pirate Material
Mike Skinner provides the excitement geezers young and old need, fusing electronica and hip-hop as imaginatively as Missy Elliott and Dizzee Rascal, turning a better phrase than Eminem, and name checking philosophers with a surprising lack of pretension. This great album’s 14 tracks are a crackling, richly detailed introduction to a middle-class British wanker’s social and artistic purview, a robust blitzkrieg of purposeful beats and even more purposeful lyricism. He earns his cynicism because few at his game are so tender or open about their emotional shortcomings. Gonzalez
Robyn raps with humor and knowingness, and even though the album’s sonic landscape suggests she’s trapped inside a PlayStation console, short-circuiting its motherboard before busting right out of it, there’s nothing cold or canned-sounding about this platinum blonde’s voice. Even her boasting is charming. Robyn’s complex feelings on everything from the nature of seduction to escape are thrillingly paralleled to the album’s equally emotive production, most thrillingly on the writhing “Cobrastyle” and “With Every Heartbeat,” the most vibrant jewel in a crown of perfect pop songcraft. Gonzalez
26. Kill the Moonlight
Following the too-glossy sheen of Spoon’s Girls Can Tell, which played as a half-ditched attempt at winning back Elektra after the label cut them loose, sparse opener “Small Stakes” felt like something of a rebirth, indicating the sparse focus of Kill the Moonlight that singles out certain elements (a plinking key, a clomping bass-drum hit) pulling the album’s best moments from their straightforward simplicity. It set the standard for all Spoon albums to come, which, if not exactly appearing to diminishing returns, haven’t reached this level since. Cataldo
A good college party is usually made great by one thing: Basement Jaxx. The group’s noisy, raunchy house is the most fun thing about electronic music right now, as well as the one thing everyone seems to agree on, even if for all their superstar-studded collaborations (Yoko Ono, Cyndi Lauper, JC Chasez), they remain a relatively underground sensation. Rooty featured one of Basement Jaxx’s most popular tracks, “Where’s Your Head At,” a swirling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sensation—that rare electro crossover that even the fratboys dug. Schrodt
A beautifully weird and evocative kaleidoscope of a record, a socially-conscious dance record that finds M.I.A. reckoning with the hypocrisy of lobbing cherry bombs at the very capitalist system that has padded her pockets. Arular is the catchier, prettier record, but Kala is the more thoughtful one, what with its slyly intelligent and honest considerations of cultural displacement and ponderings of travels through the third world. M.I.A.’s moral conviction, emotiveness, playfulness, and crafty musical innovation shames almost every artist who produced music in the last decade. Gonzalez
Candy-coated pop with barely any cloying aftertaste, Anniemal set off a chain reaction after its release, minting dozens of similar-minded Scandinavian chanteuses, all suavely radiant, all mysteriously withholding, while helping define the expansive borders of the dance genre. Certain songs, like the surprisingly moody “Always Too Late” and “Helpless for Love” are darker than they seem, while others, like “Chewing Gum,” remain enjoyably straightforward, a mix of buried emotion and mindless, forthright fun that provides something for everyone. Cataldo
22. Boy in Da Corner
“Grime” may never have reinvigorated hip-hop in the way it was hyped, but the scene did boast one truly watershed record. But what makes Dizzee Rascal’s debut, Boy in Da Corner, one of the decade’s most essential recordings isn’t just its introduction to a new, aggressive take on hip-hop. Instead, it’s in the way the production’s take-only-what-you-need minimalism channels Dizzee’s aggression and his inimitable flow and cadence into his fearless narratives, making Boy play out as an ethnographic study and a compelling, insider’s portrait of urban rot. Keefe
The Mickey Goldmill-style trainer on Fishscale’s “The Champ” pumps up Ghostface Killah by claiming he “ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele,” and though fans of The Pretty Toney Album may take umbrage, Fishscale meets the challenge nonetheless by delivering the rawest, most explosive rhymes of Ghost’s career. Passing effortlessly through hysterical drug narratives (the breathless “Shakey Dog”), slow jams (“Back Like That”), wistful remembrances of childhood (“Whip You with a Strap”), and ecstatic dance cuts (“Be Easy”), Ghost is aided by some of the sharpest producers in hip-hop, including the late Jay Dee, making for a nearly flawless hip-hop record. Newlin
Disco never really died, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be resurrected. And while it certainly didn’t lack for prominent advocates during the last decade, perhaps the earliest and most important champions of disco’s rebirth were the rascally robots in Daft Punk. Discovery was a surprise not just because Daft Punk was using their post-Homework cred to resuscitate a much-reviled genre, but because they also chose to embrace its cheesier sounds: the gossamer harp on “Voyager,” the strings on “One More Time.” “Yes, we love disco,” they said. “We love it big and gaudy, covered in melting makeup and glitter, ecstatic and wistful and magical. So should you.” Hughes
19. Is This It
While rippers like the bouncy, post-punk/post-pop/post-everything “Last Nite,” “The Modern Age,” and “Barely Legal” made untold numbers of hipsters jump and dance around their rooms, the Strokes’s secret weapon on their breakout and excessively hyped debut is just how exhausted vocalist Julian Cassablancas sounds. His jaded sneer puts every Sid Vicious wannabe in their place, establishing the vocalist as a frontman to be reckoned with even as he makes it clear he’s got nothing to prove. Is This It makes for a party record that sounds just as great during the next day’s recovery. Newlin
18. Extraordinary Machine (Jon Brion Version)
Its vaudevillian, orchestral sound may seem like it was channeled from some bygone era, but no other album captured the zeitgeist of the decade—at least in terms of the state of technology, consumerism, and the industry as a whole—than Extraordinary Machine. The album defied its reluctant, dithering owners by taking on a life of its own and becoming an online phenomenon after Seattle DJ Andrew Harms first leaked the tracks on his radio show. There’s a feeling of daring and wonder in the original recordings, a sense of two people locked in a room beyond the reach of outside context and influence—which makes its viral dissemination and eventual impact on that outside world, in a word, extraordinary. Cinquemani
The full-on, unapologetic tribute to the 1980s that I’ve long been dreaming of, Saturdays=Youth is a pop masterpiece. Marrying shoegaze’s volume with John Hughes-style adorability (dig that album cover!), S=Y touches on the ethereality of the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush without completely embracing pure navel-gazing nostalgia. In a decade where “art” and “pop” became increasingly indecipherable from one another, S=Y was practically a flagship album, from its radio-ready single “Kim & Jessie” to its stirring, drone-driven closer “Midnight Souls Still Remain.” This is the new classic rock. Newlin
16. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
A moving, seductive ode to New York City as an aphrodisiac pleasure center, at least for half its running time, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea attained a striking poignancy after the 9/11 attacks. Polly Jean Harvey loves the Big Apple but understands herself a tourist to it, and so her stories from the city are rife with ruminations on displacement. Bewitchingly conflating the geography of the city—and of the sea—with the geography of love, this lovelorn triumph in a career full of them also accomplished the impossible by making Thom Yorke sound recognizably human for the first time in years. Gonzalez
15. Sea Change
Like Tori Amos, Beck has continued to pump out new albums with a frequency that borders on compulsion but with increasingly mixed results (witness: half of Guero), and the two-turntables-and-a-microphone knob-turning is starting to feel like so much old shtick. By contrast, Sea Change, an album that felt like its own kind of folk-rock shtick when it first came out, has only gotten better with time. Like his underrated work on Mutations, Nigel Godrich’s orchestral-folk production is melancholic but strangely beautiful, and Beck makes you believe his rambling lyrics are almost poetic. Schrodt
14. Hell Hath No Fury
After stewing in record-label limbo for four years, filling the interim with two classic mixtapes and building a rabid underground and web-based following, the Thorton brothers finally released their second album in late 2006. Featuring the Neptunes at their iciest and most minimal, with beats that recall car windows shattering, mortuary doors slamming, and bank vaults locking up, Pusha T and Malice rap with a joyless clarity about the vicissitudes of dealing coke and being unrepentant hard-asses. No rap album in recent memory can match Hell’s narcotic swirl of anger, amorality, and pride. McBee
13. Late Registration
Though his public appearances and constant blogging demonstrated an ego run so amuck it headed right into South Park fish-in-a-barrel territory, signing up to co-produce a rap record with PT Anderson mainstay Jon Brion was a pretty genius move. Brion’s strings and general sense of kooky bombast make for a consistently challenging record that never forgets that it’s still a pop record. Despite a tinge of melancholy on tracks like “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” or the outrage of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration mostly captures the joy that can only be found in creative invention. Newlin
It’s impossible to hear a superstar’s debut the same way again. I chanted “pull up the people, pull up the poor” in my car like so many bored white kids when Arular first came out, not realizing I was part of a commercial phenomenon. Make no mistake: A superstar is what M.I.A. has become, one who knows the power of posturing. She uses first-person throughout the album, yelping over a low-fi drum machine and affecting the attitude of a third-world guerilla fighter: “I’ve got the bombs to make you blow.” But the point isn’t rote hip-hop self-aggrandizement so much as consciousness-raising. Like the candy-colored tanks on the cover, the beats are as addictive as they are explosive. And like the best political pop, from Public Enemy to Madonna, Arular is an album that demands to be heard. Schrodt
11. Ágætis Byrjun
It was a clear sign in 2000 when an Icelandic band that sung in a made-up language and played their guitars with cello bows actually went platinum that things might get a little “different” this decade. The echo-laden 70-plus minutes of Ágætis Byrjun include some of the most devastatingly beautiful tracks ever recorded (if you’re not consistently blown away by “Svefn-g-Englar,” you might not be human). These songs are so unique and operatic it seems like a disservice to even call them “songs.” Newlin
Portishead was always an outlier in the ‘90s grunge scene—the Bristol misfits with the pretty noir music and a singer whose voice was more haunting than bitter. They left as quickly as they came, and in 2002 Beth Gibbons released an under-the-radar folk album, Out of Season, the minimalism of which would point the way to the band’s third collaboration, called simply Third, a reunion that couldn’t have been less sentimental or more austere. This anti-return-to-form comes in the form of an industrial dirge, synths hammering on “Machine Gun,” Gibbons whispering tormented thoughts, never wallowing because they seem so completely new, like every Portishead album, beamed-in from somewhere in outer space. Schrodt
Among the many delights in returning to Illinois (a.k.a. Come on Feel the Illinoise) again and again is thinking about how such a soft-voiced, banjo-pickin’, goody two shoes could realize such a brash and enormous vision. Practically overwhelming, Illinois’s 22 tracks make for a forager’s dream come true, whether rediscovering the quiet folk confessional “Casimir Pulaski Day” or getting lost in the bombast of “Chicago” or “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” Fun as hell and damned difficult, Illinois is like a gigantic anthology of short stories you’ll never finish but leaf through year after year. Newlin
8. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The stupidity-of-the-record-industry fable illustrated by Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is well told by now, so let’s just skip it. The eventual outcome of Warner’s blundering mismanagement is a riveting document of Americana anxiety. From the plodding, hiccupping overture of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the last static-y gasp of “Reservations,” the album thoroughly deconstructed that tricky genre label Americana, and in the process turned Wilco from the prime of the alt-country pack to America’s best answer to Radiohead. McBee
7. The Black Album
He may not have the decade’s most egregious fake retirement (that dubious honor goes to Brett Favre), but Jay-Z’s break from the game lasted about as long as one of the interludes that punctuate The Black Album. While authorial intention may be anathema to true criticism, there’s still an element of pants-on-fire stunt posturing that hangs over the record, hyped as the final statement from the (rightfully) self-proclaimed best rapper alive. It’s a testament to the album’s power that, even if it no longer functions as a swan song, the record still stands as Jay-Z’s most dense and personal work. Keefe
6. Since I Left You
Two years before Girl Talk started straining 40 years of popular music through the garbage disposal, the Avalanches perfected the art of album as reclaimed quilt with Since I Left You, stitching mounds of disparate samples into a quivering tableaux of jagged beauty, a medium where the samples, rather than settle in the background, were effectively transformed into song itself. Nearly 10 years after its release, the band’s sole album has yet to be challenged by a follow-up, despite a decade’s worth of hearsay and rumors. Cataldo
5. The Blueprint
Only after the waters have receded can you accurately pinpoint a high-water mark. So it took eight years of relative disappointments like Kingdom Come and The Blueprint 3 and near-matches like American Gangster and The Black Album—not to mention the bottoming out of the record industry—before we could say with absolute confidence that The Blueprint represents Jay-Z at his finest: curbing competitors (Mobb Deep, R.I.P.), narrating his compelling autobiography, playing the globe-trotting man of luxury, and nurturing young talent. The production styles of Just Blaze and Kanye West, then-unknowns who produced more than half of the album between them, dominate rap to this day. McBee
In fall of 2004, in the middle of a frustrating election season, the Montreal bleeding hearts in Arcade Fire appeared out of nowhere (back when a nascent hype cycle still allowed such things to happen) with an album of emotionally stunning, death-afflicted, pitch-perfect pop songs. There was a dash of Springsteen, heavy Cure, generous helpings of Joy Division, and, um, the Verve (come on, think about it). We all swooned. And are still swooning: Even after the band was elevated to Rolling Stone rock saviors, released a second album that sounded more amenable to arenas than churches or bedrooms, jammed with the Boss, and worst of all, was imitated by a host of lesser strings-and-tears outfits (ugh, Plants and Animals), Funeral still has the power to stop your heart. McBee
Vespertine finds everyone’s favorite shrieker barely rising above a whisper. Backed by subtle clicks and bloops from Matmos and some elegantly unobtrusive strings, Björk sings the praises of solitude, monogamy, and quiet days at home—all topics that would seem out of character if they weren’t brightened by her uniquely glamorous oddness. On the wonderful closer “Unison,” Björk claims she “thrives best hermit style/With a beard and a pipe/And a parrot on each side” before sweetly confessing that she “can’t do this without you,” in a moment representative of the record’s innovation and loveliness. Newlin
2. Kid A
One of the watershed albums of the last 10 years, Radiohead’s Kid A is really more of a ‘90s album, capping off that decade’s alienated computer angst in a wave of post-Y2K catharsis, a chillingly detached work that signaled a newfound ambivalence with the omnipresence of machines. From the phase-shifting opening of “Everything in Its Right Place” to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” everything about the album seems right, resulting in a starkly unified vision, the perfect closing note for one decade while also serving as a lasting emblem for the next one. Cataldo
Though OutKast’s “B.O.B.” seems prescient now for other, more specifically historical reasons, Stankonia as a whole seemed to forecast the mood of this past decade by its very nature. Excessive, weird, endlessly ambitious and cryptic, and very, very long, Stankonia is a record that must be reckoned with as well as listened to, even 10 years later. From the hits (the omnipresent “Ms. Jackson,” the mind-blowing “B.O.B.,” the fantastically sleazy “So Fresh, So Clean”) to the bizarre personal mythology about a place “seven light years below sea level,” no other album from the decade better presses the limits of what popular music can do. On “Humble Mumble,” André 3000 confronts a rock critic who “thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol,” and makes her “shit her drawers” with a groovy “Oh, hell naw!” Thus, a decade was born. Newlin
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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