What Do You Think? Most Important Music of the Decade

January 14, 2010
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Continuing with our series (film still to come, TV and websites already here and here), what musical recordings would you nominate as the most important of the decade? We’re discussing albums primarily, though singles are certainly welcome as well. As with the other lists, we’re not asking for the “best” per se, and we’re leaving it open with regards to what constitutes “importance,” but humor us and play along. We’ve started the ball rolling with a few personal picks, but the list needs your participation too.

All we ask is that you only list one item per post, then let others have a turn, since we want this list to form communally, not simply to be a collection of everyone else’s lists. Also, be sure to say why it’s important.

Death Cab For Cutie Narrow Stairs (Andrew Bottomley): If you were to ask me to name the “best” albums of the 2000s, Death Cab probably wouldn’t feature anywhere in the Top 100, or at least certainly not with this 2008 effort. But this album is significant for entirely different reasons, namely that it debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, the highest chart position reached by an “indie rock” band during the aughties (besting The Shins, who entered the charts at #2 with Wincing the Night Away a year earlier). The fact that indie rock music even reached the Billboard 200, yet alone outsold the likes of Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra, is what I find remarkable, and it is representative of the rise of “indie” both as a genre and as an aesthetic over the past decade. Now, indie has always been a vague and contestable term, and one that I’m not about to debate here. But what the popular culture loosely regards as “indie” music became increasingly pervasive throughout the 2000s, soundtracking everything from cell phone commercials (lots and lots of commercials) to primetime dramas to major Hollywood motion pictures to shopping malls (I recently heard Animal Collective’s “My Girls” in a Timberland outlet store of all places). Indeed, indie became a sensibility denoting anything that was young and hip yet quirky and sincere, and indie rock by the likes of Death Cab was used to underscore it, moving from the subculture to seemingly everywhere.

Amit Trivedi Dev.D (Sreya Mitra): Ask any Hindi film connoisseur about the best/most important film soundtrack of the decade and it would invariably be a A.R. Rahman album. After all, not only is the man extremely prolific, but also somewhat of a musical genius. It’s hard to ignore the “Mozart of Madras,” but my two cents would be for Dev.D, a rather psychedelic take on Devdas, a 1917 Bengali novella that has seen nearly ten cinematic adaptations. Though the film was lauded by the critics, for me one of the most interesting aspects is its soundtrack. The film has 18 tracks (yes, 18!) but they aren’t in the mold of the run-of-the-mill Hindi film song and dance sequences (in fact, there are hardly any “dance sequences” in the film). Rather, the songs function more as a score, often interpresed and interrupted by dialogues and narrative events; the songs of Dev.D do not offer the “break” or respite from the narrative trajectory that is often associated with the generic Hindi film song. Music director Amit Trivedi (this was Trivedi’s second feature) offers an eclectic mix that fuses Indian classical and folk with rock and western beats. While the brass band version of “Emosanal Atyachar” (“Emotional Torture”) offers Elvis wannabes and a north Indian wedding band, its rock version brings out the angst of the film’s coke-snorting alcoholic protagonist. Then there are the folksy “O Pardesi,” “Payaliya,” “Dhol Yaar Dhol,” “Mahi Mennu,” and the more fusion tracks like “Nayan Tarse,” “Saali Khushi.” What makes Dev.D more interesting is that it simply doesn’t eschew the generic convention of making its protagonists “sing” the songs, but rather the songs add and enhance not only the narrative but also the characters – while Paro has the folksy numbers and Dev the angst-ridden tracks, Chanda’s story is in the songs, “Yahi Meri Zindagi,” “Aankh Micholi,” and “Dil Mein Jaagi.” For Bollywood, Dev.D is certainly a “hatke” (different) soundtrack.

Kanye West The College Dropout (Nick Marx):  Forgive my bombast, but methinks the subject matter warrants it:  Kanye West is 2000s hip-hop.  I’m not sure what that means, but, goddamn, it sounds right.  Yes yes, most of us first met Kanye on Jay-Z’s 2001 The Blueprint, a fine and important album in its own right.  But whereas Jay-Z tends to fixate on the past and how his legacy stacks up to his predecessors, Kanye’s gaze is focused on the here and now, in all of its indulgent, vainglorious glory.  It’s tough to think of another musician in the aughts who courted both commercial success and critical acclaim as aggressively (and successfully) as Kanye did.  Or one as inextricably linked to so many zeitgeist-y moments.  Or one as instantly recognized and respected by everyone from hipsters to the khaki khrowd, from rappers to rockers, from club DJs to wedding DJs to those DJ machines that excrete top 40 playlists and inane chatter (at 7:43).

Danger Mouse The Grey Album (Josh David Jackson): Let’s go with Danger Mouse’s marriage of The Beatles and Jay-Z in his The Grey Album (2004), which received glowing reviews from dozens of newspapers and magazines (including The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, NME, and Spin) while at the same time being totally copyright illegal.  Chased out of independent Los Angeles record stores and onto the web by rights-holder EMI, The Grey Album quickly became a cause célèbre for the information-wants-to-be-free folks, who used it as an opportunity to organize a little civil disobedience (most notably Downhill Battle’s Grey Tuesday, which purportedly resulted in 100,000 additional album downloads over the course of the day) with little legal repercussions (a few perfunctory cease-and-desist letters). Virtuosic, brazen in a you-got-your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate sort of way, and generally pretty damn listenable, The Grey Album put the word “mash-up” on the lips of the general public, got people talking about fair use, and inspired dozens of imitations of variable quality from bedroom producers and aspiring pros.


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14 Responses to “ What Do You Think? Most Important Music of the Decade ”

  1. Megan Biddinger on January 14, 2010 at 5:28 AM

    Great post, all! In a similar vein as Andrew’s selection, I offer:

    Kelly Clarkson Breakaway: I remember watching the finale of the first American Idol. I remember feeling OK about Clarkson’s victory. But I also remember that I had already lost most interest thanks to the unmitigated awfulness that is “A Moment Like This,” Clarkson’s musical victory lap and later a track on her debut album, 2002’s Thankful. It was a little sad watching what appeared to be a talented performer’s career ending before it had even begun. At the same time, it wasn’t completely unsurprising given that I was watching a carefully orchestrated, internationally franchised talent show on prime-time broadcast television; I hadn’t been expecting her to channel the ghost of Wendy O. Williams or anything. That said, what merits the inclusion of Breakaway, Clarkson’s second album (2004), in any discussion of the most important music of the last decade is the fact that by and large it lives up to its title without leaving the very center of the mainstream. Anthems like the title track and “Since U Been Gone” (which is still in regular rotation on my off-brand mp3 player) and more personal ballads like “Because of You” serve as reminders that pop music can be both familiar and interesting. And listeners were most definitely interested in Breakaway, keeping it in the Billboard 200’s top 20 for two years. Breakaway‘s multi-platinum sales did a lot to legitimate the Idol machine, but that model churns out a new supposed Idol every year. Breakaway‘s significance is that both it and Clarkson defy the notion that pop music is anathema to innovation or longevity.

  2. Mike Chopra-Gant on January 14, 2010 at 10:20 AM

    First, let’s be clear that this isn’t my favourite music, or that which I think best but very precisely ‘most important’. On that basis there is little contest, I think for ‘Best of Both Worlds’ by Hannah Montana, Disney’s most succesful franchise to date. If there is any contest then it comes from High School Musical/Camp Rock/Jonas etc etc, which is really no competition at all when you think about it.

    • Jonathan Gray on January 14, 2010 at 2:54 PM

      oh, Mike, don’t be coy about your love of Miley 😉

      • Mike Chopra-Gant on January 14, 2010 at 4:07 PM

        Jonathan, OK, you got me busted. I have to confess to actually having seen the Jo Bros live. In my defence, I do have an 8 year old daughter.

  3. Michael Dwyer on January 14, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    For rock music, at least, the answer has to be The Strokes’ Is This It. Like another album that I assume (hope!) will be mentioned in the comments eventually, Outkast’s Stankonia, The Strokes’ breakthrough LP not only shifted the balance of power in its genre (away from god-awful nu-metal and the vestiges of grunge) but it also changed the way we thought about and evaluated rock — after years upon years of rock that was alternately strutting braggadocio, brooding nihilism and shallow anger, The Strokes offered rock music that was joyous even as it was thoughtful. “Last Nite” and “Hard to Explain” had people dancing at rock shows again–even the same ones who were staring at their shoes at emo shows the night before. The Strokes offered us an alternate genealogy of rock, one that replaced the Stones with Television as the primary ancestor, and allowed for The Libertines, Kings of Leon, and a criminally-underrated sophomore effort from the strokes themselves to come after. Even the people who hated this band as the proto-hipsters of the 2000s could identify it as a point of reference. And aside from being an enormously important and influential record, it’s also a great one. Give it a listen today and it still sounds fun, nuanced, and important.

  4. Erin Copple Smith on January 14, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    Great choices and explanations! I kept thinking I wasn’t going to be able to contribute to this particular list, since although my husband is a HUGE music fan and could come up with some thoughts in a nanosecond, my own musical tastes and experiences are ultimately filtered through his.

    BUT! Then it occurred to me–surely we have to consider the Garden State soundtrack, right? That soundtrack made indie artists mainstream and was played in every coffee house and clothing store for months…nay…years. It was so ubiquitous, in fact, that I designed and ordered my then-brand-new-boyfriend (now-husband) a t-shirt that said, “Yes. This is the Garden State soundtrack” because it seemed we couldn’t go anywhere without someone murmuring the question under their breath when trying to place ambient music.

  5. Jonathan Gray on January 14, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    I’m inclined to nominate The Beatles’ remastered CDs too. No, I’m not stuck in the 1960s, but their rerelease was huge, the Beatles Rock Band videogame hype was massive, and the local poster stores on State St. tell me that Beatles posters have overtaken Klimt and Monet (as an episode of Buffy joked) as the undergrad dorm posters of choice.

  6. Myles McNutt on January 14, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Figure I at least have to throw in a hat for Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” the first example of a major artist having the gall to offer their album for “whatever people want to pay.” Of course, as with any experiment, it’s impossible to say it truly started a trend of digital distribution: after all, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, and I doubt any other album released in this fashion would still manage to grab a Grammy nomination. But it was one of those moments where the music industry saw a glimpse of its future and actually seemed to stop and take notice…for a few months, after which things went back to normal.

    Also: Susan Boyle.

  7. Jason Mittell on January 15, 2010 at 7:15 AM

    I was also going to say “In Rainbows,” but I think the most important “music” in the decade was an interface: Guitar Hero/Rock Band. Not only did it relaunch a dormant genre (shout out to the old school Parappa the Rapper fans!), but the musical game mode arguably has the potential to be the most transformative new development in musical culture since MTV. It hasn’t yet happened, but I anticipate we’ll see a band hit big based on a Rock Band track, and maybe even a band whose primary fandom is through this interactive interface. As a fan, I can say that mastering a track on GH/RB is a transformative experience in terms of how I listen to music, and thus is more “important” than any single album/artist.

    • Michael Dwyer on January 15, 2010 at 7:15 PM

      This is a phenomenon also worth watching in terms of the future of the record label: Rock Band / Guitar Hero are already propping up sagging record sales by offering on-demand playable tracks from labels’ catalogs. Between that, the reduced stigma over licensing songs for commercials and the re-birth of the single (via American Idol and Glee) labels are learning to develop alternates to the album for generating revenue.

      There’s a great Sound Opinions podcast on this topic, too.

  8. Christopher Cwynar on January 15, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    I am going to nominate Lady Gaga here. She has dominated the pop music scene over the course of the past two years through elaborate videos, carefully arranged fashions, and infectious singles. Although there is little new in this combination of classic influences like Bowie and Madonna with more contemporary elements, I think that Gaga will nevertheless be regarded as a traditional figure. The post heading called for ‘recordings’, yet I think that Gaga’s career to date reflects the manner in which the relative importance of popular music ‘events’ is shifting away from recordings and towards live concerts and videos, which achieved new currency in the 00s through on-demand streaming sites like Youtube.
    This is a process that really accelerated over the course of the past decade, which saw Napster, Kazaa, the emergence of ringtones, and now multiple content-streaming options via various websites including Youtube and Spotify. The live performance has always been a key legitimator of so-called ‘recording artists’ in culture, and it now stands as the only popular music commodity that cannot easily be pirated. As a consequence, it has become more important for the industry and more meaningful for fans who can easily access any popular recording or video at any given moment. When Gaga’s detractors dismiss her as a superficial pop confection, her champions trot out the Youtube clips of the younger Gaga doing her unique brand of off-kilter schtick at the piano of some Lower East Side club. Similarly, fans of all stripes have flocked to her recent tours to take in the spectacle. This is no mere adherence to a well-worn rock authenticity trope; it is a tacit acknowledgement that recordings are increasingly ancillary to the one popular music medium that cannot be easily reproduced for pirating or sharing. We see the increased relevance of the live performance in indie/independent music, but it is Gaga who best illustrates that this trend began to take hold in the mainstream during the 00s.

  9. Tim Anderson on January 15, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    Record of the decade: For me the record that summarizes the first five years of the decade is Eminem’s “The Marshall Mather’s LP”. On purely symptomatic levels its resonance with the popular horror of 9/11, the Iraq debacle and Katrina make it the most important American pop music record of the period. Indeed, the cover art of Eminem sitting in front of what seems to be an abandoned Detroit home is even more pertinent as the Midwest collapses under a housing crisis and systematic postindustrialism that it could never prevent. So as Eminem espouses fantasies about killing his wife, homophobia and an inability to deal with stardom over Dre’s big fat commercial beats, you hear as much dystopia as say “Children of Men” or “The Wire”. As many people hand the crown to Kanye, here’s the rub about Kanye’s many concerns versus Eminem: somehow they seem to have solutions whereas Eminem’s don’t. Kanye’s ego is inflated while Marshall Mather’s hates himself. I’m all down with positivity, but in the most horrific decade of my life the shivers of “Stan” still consume me.

    More later.

  10. Josh Shepperd on January 16, 2010 at 12:25 AM

    I’ve been thinking about this lately… At least symbolically, how about Joanna Newsom – ‘Milk Eyed Mender’ (2004)? Looking back, the indie rock movement of the early 1990s was a unique time for musical innovation and business practices, for at least a few years (1990-1996ish) having introduced a viable alternate model to commercialism, with designated independent record stores and mail-order groups serving as distribution nodes, college radio stations devoting entire programming to non-commercial music, and indie labels offering 50/50 (over profit) contracts instead of commercial label ‘advances’. The period also assembled a richer and wider swath of aesthetic variation than commercial music, exemplified by proponents of ‘low-fi’, to post-punk, to riot grrl music–accompanied by newly and (for the first time) _intentionally_ constituted ‘scenes’ that synthesized regional labels and the musical approaches associated with each locality. Consequently, a generation of musicphiles attuned to a richer palette for ‘permissible’ performance, and began to rediscover everything from 1960s Turkish garage rock to 1980s ‘outsider’ musicians to the folk revival–further expanding indie’s imagined canon of influences. By the late 1990s, many labels had already gone out of business or been sold to majors, and indie’s legacy split into two groups: 1) enjoyable commercial/focus group derivations of 1990s indie, such as the Strokes, Vampire Weekend, and Franz Ferdinand, & 2) what I would call the ‘reissue revivalists’, like Newsom, who have interpreted what they see as the anachronistic ‘authenticity‘ of 60s folk music, while maintaining the allure of the ‘credibility’ associated with indie’s limited distribution, intimate audiences, and unorthodox song structures. ‘Milk-Eyed Mender’ was released by one of the ultimate ‘cred’ labels, ‘Drag City‘, and features simple, sad songs by a singer with a harp. The album avoids any nuance of commercialist opportunism or emo kitsch, yet I would argue that Newsom’s ‘1960s revivalist’ revivalism is indebted to the same period that gave us the ‘indie rock split’ in the late 1990s. It’s a great album, and as an industrial and aesthetic artifact an enjoyable example of the shifts in the independent music industry between the late 1990s and early 2000s that set the stage for current musical innovation.

  11. Tim Anderson on January 16, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    After Eminem, the two most interesting artists of the decade for me are MIA and Gogol Bordello. They are globalization with attitude. And unlike almost every indie rock record I heard this decade, seemed to embody a desperate swagger that, with the exception of the Black Keys or the White Stripes, the baby bumpers never really had. Rock and Hip Hop need that bite. MIA’s “Kala” is arguably the most important record of the second half of the decade, with “Paper Planes” arguably the most important single of the last five years. For me, though, Gogol is the best rock band since The Clash. Gogol live has no comparison. Yes, they are gypsy punks and, no, they don’t make “world music” so much as espouse a world that isn’t necessarily blues based but still demands you boogie.