It’s easy to dismiss the music of the 2000s as disposable, forgettable and frequently regrettable. And to be fair, the aughts are far better known for the American Idolization of our culture and the proliferation of Boy Banding than for producing any groundbreaking or lasting musical achievements.
But like any era in our history, the best of its musical output can be a window into a time and place now forever behind us. The 2000s began with a contested presidential election and ended in the Great Recession. These events bookended the September 11th attacks, the ensuing War on Terror, the emergence of reality television, mass proliferation of personal web access, the implosion of corporate America, the flooding of New Orleans, Botox, cargo pants, MySpace, The Sopranos, Duane “The Rock” Johnson, and Dance Dance Revolution. I’m sure there was some other stuff in there but that’s all I can remember.
It was also the decade that the record industry collapsed on itself and web users redefined how they bought, pirated or streamed their music. In the midst of these events, which are woven as common themes throughout this list, there was some truly awesome music. It’s just that in the 2000s—the Age of Information as it was often misleadingly called—you had to dig a little deeper to find the good stuff.
If the 2000s can be best defined by any musical trait, it is its unbridled deconstruction of musical barriers. The lines separating rock, hip hop, R&B, electronica, dub and reggae ceased to be. Those artists that rose above the pop pablum or dreary post-grunge of the decade did so by shattering genre boundaries, transcending sonic expectations, and generally embracing the mash-up culture of the era.
Qualifications for inclusion on this list were three-fold:
- The song must hold some lasting merit, either artistically or for its role in shaping the musical landscape of the era. This doesn’t mean that a song must be artful, merely that it has to be well-conceived enough to hold up with the passage of time. I’m not going to sit here and insult your intelligence by explaining why there are no Justin Beiber songs on this list. Just know that everything included here should sound as fresh and relevant today as it did when George W. Bush was president.
- The song must have had an impact on popular culture, whether because it succeeded as a hit in the traditional sense or because it achieved some broad and meaningful level of mainstream penetration. This doesn’t mean that we are limited exclusively to Billboard toppers, though these did factor into our consideration. It simply means that to warrant inclusion here, a song has to be something somewhat more familiar to listeners than your favorite tune from your cousin’s homemade death metal demo.
- The final qualification is that I have to like the song. Full disclosure: this list is highly subjective, as are all “Best Of” lists. You might feel differently than I do. You might think that Jay-Z is deeply over-represented here, or that Bruce Springsteen’s advanced age should prevent his inclusion, or that Amy Winehouse was highly overrated. You might agree with my inclusion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers but you might take issue with the song I’ve chosen. You might think the Strokes are ranked way too high and Daft Punk is ranked way too low. And I’m pretty confident somebody will send me hate mail for including nothing by Radiohead here. Of course, all lists are made to be debated, so don’t hesitate to tell me what I left out, what has no business being on this list, or, if you are so inclined, how much you want to be my friend because my list is so awesome and illuminating.
And with that, let us journey back to a time when Michael Jackson was still alive, Dave Chapelle was still funny, and iPods weren’t yet phones. Behold, The 25 Greatest Hits of the 2000s.
25. Jet—Are You Gonna Be My Girl (2003)
From its driving riff and boogie breakdown to its slurring vocals and pickup-bar lyrics, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is pure, derivative rock & roll cliché. And that matters not in the least. In the grand rock & roll tradition of borrowing unabashedly from history, Jet blasted out of the cannon with a tune that comes so close to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” that it’s practically a cover. (In their defense, the guys from Jet claimed they were really ripping off “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes.)
Anyway, none of these sordid affairs stood in the way of Jet’s early success. Signed to Elektra on the strength of a well-reviewed indie EP, Jet made “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” the lead single off of their 2003 debut album. It reached #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the Modern Rock chart, launching the band into the same heady airspace occupied by smartly-dressed punk upstarts like The Hives and The Vines.
Though Jet was swept up the charts as part of a short-lived garage-rock resurgence, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” probably owes more to classic rock revivalists like the Black Crowes and the Georgia Satellites. Either way, for a couple of guys from Australia, they made a convincingly American rocker. Jet would go on to chart a few more hits, including a #1 with “Cold Hard B***h” in the following year, but “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” remains the best and most lasting achievement from their 10-year run. Band members amicably parted ways in 2012.
24. MGMT—Kids (2008)
Quick, name all of the awesome bands you’ve ever heard of from the great state of Connecticut. Ok, MGMT is the only band I came up with too. With the 2008 release of Oracular Spectacular, MGMT took electro-pop to newly expressive heights. Borrowing liberally from new wave heroes like New Order and the Talking Heads, MGMT added a layer of emotional depth to a sonic realm often given over to cold detachment. Behold this moody and melodic hook, the third single from their debut.
By the time of the single’s arrival, MGMT had already landed a few good Billboard punches, but this marked their biggest success yet. “Kids” reached up to #9 on the U.S. Modern Rock charts and earned distinction as NME’s Best Single of 2008.
Opening on a playground of screaming children and rising into a sweet, driving synth riff, “Kids” feels instantly nostalgic even the first time you hear it. A spark of innocence runs like an undercurrent through the tune, suggesting that while evil persists in the world around us, we’re all nothing more than children. Inspired by the singer’s own sense of naivety and unworldliness as a student in college, it was the consequence of an alcohol-inspired songwriting session and feelings of despair over the War on Terror.
“Kids” also became the subject of a lawsuit filed by the band against French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who used the song during a national congress session without permission. When the band requested compensation, Sarkozy offered the insulting sum of a single Euro. Band members pointed out that this was pretty “wack” considering that Sarkozy had been a vocal proponent of France’s pending anti-piracy legislation at the time. Ultimately, the two sides settled for a somewhat respectable sum slightly in excess of $38,000
Though the band concedes that the lyrics of “Kids” are consciously abstract and mysterious, possibly even nonsensical at points, its warmth and sentimentality are instantly relatable.
23. Gary Jules and Michael Andrews—Mad World (2002)
The only actual cover on our list, “Mad World” technically dates back to 1982. A U.K. hit for new wave band Tears for Fears, the original is a synth-heavy affair with a driving mid-tempo pace, like the early part of a night at the club. When Michael Andrews was commissioned to produce a version for the soundtrack to cult film Donnie Darko, he enlisted his friend Gary Jules and, together, they stripped “Mad World” down to its naked core.
When they did, they discovered a song of haunting beauty, thoroughly reinventing “Mad World” as a stark meditation on death. Though only released as part of the film’s soundtrack in 2002, it attracted a cult following that ultimately led to a proper single release the following year. Dark and devastating as it was, “Mad World” clearly resonated with listeners in a time of war. On Christmas of 2003, it was a #1 hit in the U.K.
In fact, this version of “Mad World” would reveal the song’s timeless appeal. Putting aside the fact that the composition was reclaimed from the mellotronic scrapheap of the early ‘80s, this version has a funny habit of turning back up on the charts every few years. To wit, “Mad World” reached #30 on the U.S. Modern Rock charts in March of 2004, and again briefly flirted with Billboard after being featured in a well-received 2006 ad for the video game Gears of War, and charted once again after it was performed by a contestant on American Idol in 2009.
Each time “Mad World” finds its way back onto the charts, it defies expectation. Eerie, funereal and indelible, “Mad World” taps into the human experience with an unflinching honesty that never sounds outdated.
22. Amy Winehouse—Rehab (2006)
Sadly, the story of Amy Winehouse is shadowed by her substance-abuse and her predictable but still somehow unpreventable death in 2011. Passing from an overdose at age 27 (like so many others in her line of work), Winehouse left behind a sizable mark on the industry. When her sophomore record, Back to Black, dropped in 2006, it was received with critical elation. Produced by popsmith Mark Ronson, Back to Black cast Amy Winehouse as a modern day Ronnie Spector.
Her beehive bouffant and throw-back girl group aesthetic (and the same streetwise toughness that made classic girl groups like the Marvelettes and the Shangri Las so compelling) presented Winehouse as something altogether different from the pop-singing tween pin-ups that occupied the charts around her. The lead single, “Rehab” was a defiantly subversive personal statement in which Winehouse vigorously rejected addiction treatment. The tune reached #9 on the U.S. Hot 100 and #7 on the U.K. singles chart before ultimately sweeping the Grammys that year.
“Rehab” was deeply infectious and ingeniously painted from a late-60s palette of handclaps, horn charts, and Winehouse’s own dry, husky singing. The true tragedy of “Rehab” is not just that the singer’s suffering was its inspiration but that any critical appreciation of her accomplishments would soon be overshadowed by Winehouse’s constant tabloid humiliations.
In spite of her very public and inexorable decline, Winehouse did effectively set off an era of soul-revival that would basically pave the way for the success of figures like Duffy, Sharon Jones, and of course, the mighty Adele. When Winehouse ultimately succumbed to her addiction, few were shocked. “Rehab” told us that this was the only way it could end, a fact which makes it as powerful a real-world confession as any song to scale the charts.
Few Top Ten hits have ever been more autobiographical or more foretelling of the future.
21. Jay Z feat. Alicia Keys—Empire State of Mind (2009)
I include this entry with enormous reservation. I will eternally remember this as the theme song for the New York Yankees as they toppled my beloved Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series. But putting personal differences aside, this is a truly epic portrait of Gotham, undeniable in its power, authentic in its love, and enormous in a way that only New York is. Jay-Z rhapsodizes his city backed by Alicia Keys, performing at the very top of her game.
The third single from Jay-Z’s 11th studio album, The Blueprint 3, “Empire” is built around a piano sample from The Moments’ “Love On a Two-Way Street” and a photo album’s worth of landmark references. Jay-Z billed this as an “orchestral rap ballad” and its lush arrangement stands as something of a counterpoint to his typically spare production.
For all of Jay-Z’s tough-guy posturing as he built his reputation on hits like “99 Problems” and “Big Pimpin’,” his very best work of the decade is this open-hearted postcard to the town that made him. Its refrain calls to mind the same skyscraper dreams that color Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” or Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” the kind of tune that you knew would immediately and eternally become a part of the city’s perpetually swelling culture and identity.
Jay-Z and Alicia Keys even performed their hit before the opening pitch of Game two at the World Series that year, making its link to a painful moment in my personal life completely inextricable. Amazingly, this was also Jay-Z’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks. In fact, “Empire” rang out the last New Year of the decade, occupying the top spot as we flipped the calendar to 2010.
20. Daft Punk—One More Time (2000)
Before taking the world by storm with 2013’s “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk was just a couple of mysterious French guys in space helmets. Ok, that’s still pretty much what they are. But in the 2000s, they were also responsible for one of the all-time great late-night party kickstarters. A synthesis of Euro-electronica, early 90s candy rap, and pure disco, “One More Time” sounds kind of silly…until you hear it on a dance floor full of sweaty people at three-quarters past midnight. Then it sounds amazing.
I suppose the guys in Daft Punk had the advantage of always wearing masks, so they didn’t have to be embarrassed about creating a tune this perfectly cornball. It captures the bittersweet exhaustion of a night drawing down, a night that you’ve looked forward to for so long that its nearing conclusion can’t help but feel like a letdown. Released as a single in fall 2000, it was a belated millennial party anthem, driven by an over-the-top autotune vocal and highly conducive to extended live remixing.
Released first in France, it reached the top spot on the Syndicat National de l’Edition Phonographique (which is just a really poetic sounding chart name). “One More Time” reached #2 on the U.K. Singles Chart and became Daft Punk’s first charting success in the U.S., topping out at #61 on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition to subsequently making the Top 50 for nearly every music mag’s Best of the Decade list, “One More Time” is a song that you should hear at any wedding where the DJ is worth his weight in wax.
19. Bruce Springsteen—The Rising (2002)
In the months following the September 11th attacks, musicians—like most Americans—lined up on two opposing sides of a growing cultural dividing line. Every artist responded to the tragedy in his or her own way. Some expressed anger toward the attackers, vitriol for the culture that seemed to spawn them, and jingoistic patriotism in support of good old fashioned American retribution. Others expressed anger over the U.S. government’s impending military response, fear of its growing intrusion on personal privacy, and protest in the face of expanding executive powers.
Distinct among these expressions was Bruce Springsteen’s. Ever the patron saint of everyday life, Springsteen channels the personal and collective pain of September 11th into something triumphant, non-partisan, and unifying.
“The Rising” was the title track from the first official release by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 15 years. Indeed, with its inextricable connection to North Jersey and New York City, E Street was never more needed than it was at this moment in our nation’s history. “The Rising” is an unflinching retelling of the World Trade Center attacks through the eyes of a fireman ascending heroically to his death. In spite of its sobering subject matter though, “The Rising” offers a rousing and anthemic refrain.
Springsteen invokes the idea of rising not just to describe the fireman’s brave final steps toward heaven but to suggest our own capacity for transcendence in the face of unspeakable sadness. At this point in his career, Springsteen was far removed from the scruffy street poet of the 1970s and even the globe-trotting flag-bearer of the 1980s. This was the release that made him an elder statesman, a reassuring presence under the shadow of national tragedy.
“The Rising” was only a minor charting hit, just scratching #52 on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune did manage to secure that year’s Grammys for Best Rock Song and Male Rock Vocal Performance. But its legacy is in what it represented to listeners in its immediate time and place. It was a musical sentiment of monumental hope, comfort and even joy at a moment when all were in short supply.
18. Green Day—Holiday (2005)
If Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” was the cool side of the pillow, Green Day’s “Holiday” was the hot side, the side you’d been tossing and turning on all night. By 2005, the hope and unity that we glimpsed in the clearing smoke of 9/11 had decayed into fully unvarnished division. There were those who supported the War on Terror and there were those who opposed it. The only Americans in the middle, Green Day might have argued, were those who were too fixed on their own petty and materialistic affairs to care one way or the other.
“Holiday” is a pummeling punk-rocker aimed squarely at President George W. Bush, his policies, and the general conservative tenor of division, marginalization, and violence. On their 7th release, American Idiot, Green Day served up a concept album airing out all the anger, sadness, and frustration of a decade lost entirely to war. Dressing down the presidential administration and the American people who allowed it to run roughshod over their rights, the Green Day of 2005 is a pretty far cry from the sophomoric Dookie-hucking pranksters of a decade prior.
Truly, “Holiday” is a powerful blast of protest, grimy with apocalyptic fury, consciously designed to incite, and unapologetic in its ferocity. Obviously, more than a few listeners shared Green Day’s anger. The third single off of American Idiot, “Holiday” peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped both the Hot Modern Rock Tracks and Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks charts.
Putting aside the way that listeners or Americans might have felt about our costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, few bands were making rock music this raw or real in the 2000s. Older and wiser, Green Day remained no less faithful to the punk ethos that made them famous.
17. Modest Mouse—Float On (2004)
Modest Mouse was a well-regarded bunch of malcontents with a cult following and a small clutch of excellent full-length albums on its resume in 2004. Though their commercial success had been limited to this point, critics generally said kind things about them while expressing hope that the self-destructive impulses that drove their music didn’t ultimately kill them.
Lead singer Isaac Brock was hoping the same thing when he composed “Float On.” He viewed the song’s unrelenting optimism as a counterpoint to the negative themes that typically wove their way into his songs and as an antidote to the inherently negative vibes of the time. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Brock said that the song’s positivity was a highly conscious decision, a reaction to the War on Terror, bleak predictions about global climate change and the general cultural darkness of the era.
“Float On” is a celebratory, hooky, almost cathartic event. Brock’s hoarse vocals—suggestive of far too many late nights—offered an unlikely solution. Let it all roll off your back. Don’t worry about all the bad news, Brock said, because “Good news will work its way to all them plans.”
A bright spot in a dreary time, “Float On” earned Modest Mouse its first glimpse at mainstream success. “Float On” became an unlikely chart-topping hit on the Billboard Modern Rock chart a full six months after its release, suggesting that the band’s plucky optimism was well-placed and much-needed.
16. Arcade Fire—Wake Up (2004)
If the early 2000s saw artists like Radiohead and Beck exploring themes of isolation and modern alienation with somber resignation, “Wake Up” represents the counterpoint. The isolation and alienation are no less a presence but the Montreal-born Arcade Fire confronts these experiences with triumphant determination. The buzzy opening riff of “Wake Up” hits like something pitched between an alarm-clock and a runway takeoff, surging with optimism.
By the time of its release, “Wake Up” was already pretty familiar to Arcade Fire’s small but growing audience. As the fifth single released from the group’s highly acclaimed 2004 debut record, Funeral, “Wake Up” magnified what was already a monumental year for the group. At this point, Arcade Fire was an it band, fawned on by critics and oft-praised for a rousing live show that featured a rotating but always large cast of on-stage musicians.
“Wake Up” was simply the very best of the band’s releases and among the most moving post-alternative rock songs of the era. Where their peers in this era of hit-making preferred stylish detachment, Arcade Fire wore its heart on its sleeve. If you were among the disaffected young adults of the time, you probably felt they were in your corner.
And with its swelling choral refrain and crashing cymbals, “Wake Up” feels like the antecedent to the epic-rock that Florence and the Machine, Of Monsters and Men, and .fun would take to the top of the charts in the following decade. “Wake Up” was not itself a Billboard monster, instead earning its status as a highlight of the group’s live shows and through various commercial licensing deals. A performance of the tune alongside David Bowie for the U.K. “Fashion Rocks” television special didn’t hurt either. In spite of only being a modest charting hit, “Wake Up” ranked #42 among Rolling Stone’s best songs of the decade, #25 for NME and #7 among listeners on Rate Your Music.
More important than any of these rankings, though, is the fact that this song really does make you feel like, no matter what’s happening around you, everything will be ok.
15. Franz Ferdinand—Take Me Out (2004)
Slick, stylish Britpop was all the rage in the mid-2000s, suggesting that the generation of kids who grew up listening to Oasis and Blur were now getting their say. Franz Ferdinand got theirs in 2004, becoming the only group in history named after an archduke of Austria to reach the Top Ten in both the U.S. and U.K. (Of course, we all remember when the power trio Archduke Albert VI the Prodigal just barely scraped the Top 40…ok, just kidding. That’s not a thing). Anyway, Franz Ferdinand was a Scottish quartet with a small following and just one EP release under its belt when it catapulted to international stardom on the strength of this riffy Saturday Night nugget.
“Take Me Out” has the glammy, leather-clad feeling of a tension-filled night about town as singer Alex Kapranos mixes metaphors about lovers and gunplay. What makes this tune so simultaneously addictive and beguiling is its utterly unique inversion of traditional song structure. “Take Me Out” leaps directly into its first verse without warning, burying its monstrous riff more than a minute into the whole affair. By the time the band chugs into that first refrain, heads are banging.
According to Songfacts, the unusual tempo changes that drive “Take Me Out” were actually recorded as live takes in the studio and slowed or accelerated during production. The result was the year’s best song, according to the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll (curated by the venerable Dean of American Rock Critics, Bob Christgau). It topped out at #3 on the U.K. Singles Chart, #1 on the U.K. Indie Chart, #3 on the U.S. Modern Rock chart, and #66 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. At a time when truly energizing rock music was in short supply, this one reminded us that a solid guitar riff can still be a much needed kick in the pants.
14. Old Crow Medicine Show—Wagon Wheel (2004)
This recording of “Wagon Wheel” rolls onto our list in spite of making absolutely no commercial impact upon its release. Of course, if you’ve ever pulled this gem out during a campfire singalong, you’ll know exactly why it’s here. “Wagon Wheel” is alt-country perfection from its lyrical precision and world-weary yearning to a rousing chorus that compels everybody in earshot to join in.
Though Old Crow Medicine Show gave the song its official release in 2004, its origin stretches back quite a bit further. Lead singer Ketch Secor cribbed the song’s chorus using a long-obscured outtake from Bob Dylan’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid soundtrack. Dylan had recorded a snippet that contained only the song’s immortal chorus before abandoning ship. He left behind roughly a minute’s worth of studio tape, informally titled “Rock Me, Mama”
Secor said that after hearing the bootleg, he couldn’t get it out of his head for weeks. He penned a series of semi-autobiographical verses about a homesick hitchhiker making his way back to the Southland. With Dylan’s permission (and a 50/50 copyright split), Old Crow released the song on its debut album, O.C.M.S. (An earlier version was released on a 2001 EP but this is the version that everybody would come to know).
What makes “Wagon Wheel” particularly unique among the songs included here is that its legend grew almost entirely without the help of mainstream radio play. Instead, “Wagon Wheel” achieved an absolutely organic stature, surfacing around campouts, drum circles, concert parking lots and front porch swings. And somehow, in spite of its total lack of airplay, everybody seemed to know the words every time a guitar player picked the opening lines. So much had this song taken on a life of its own that some festivals have even placed a ban on its performance, which is frankly just wrong.
It took a decade of sales for “Wagon Wheel” to go platinum, but not before it spawned a number one Country Hit for Darius Rucker (also know as Hootie, of Blowfish fame). Today, “Wagon Wheel” is far better known than the group responsible for composing it and, with barely a nod of acknowledgement from the mainstream music biz, has become a timeless slice of Americana.
13. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot—Get Ur Freak On (2001)
If you remember the Super Bowl 2015 halftime performance—a generally horrifying musical abortion featuring Katy Perry riding atop an expensive Voltron knockoff and one forever-famous choreography-flubbing guy in a shark suit—then you may recall the only defensible part of the performance. This was the all-too-brief cameo by Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, whose resurrection of her biggest hit was so excellent that it actually re-entered the charts a full 15 years after its original release.
Frankly, we think “Get Ur Freak On” would be a hit in any time and place. Released in 2001 and produced by hip-hop hit-master Timbaland, “Get Ur Freak On” wrapped a punjabi lead around Elliot’s own breathless verse-spitting. Elliot’s first Top Ten hit, “Get Ur Freak On” sounds like “Night Rider” on ecstasy and Hennessy. The result is pretty much the best way we know to turn a party from hot to nasty.
Released on Elliot’s third full-length record, “Get Ur Freak On” became an inescapable fact of club life, house parties, and movie soundtracks and it remains so today. It peaked at #7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, which actually sounds kind of low when you consider how omnipresent this tune was upon its release. Though “Get Ur Freak On” has been covered and remixed a million times over, Elliot’s 2015 halftime performance introduced Misdemeanor to a new generation of listeners while reaffirming that nobody does it better than the OG.
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers—Californication (2000)
The Red Hot Chili Peppers marked the end of the 1990s in very much the same way they began them, with sheer triumph. Californication was the band’s seventh proper studio release and the first to feature guitarist John Frusciante since 1991’s epochal Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
From both a critical and commercial standpoint, this record marked a return to the height occupied by their landmark release. And like that modern classic, this one was also produced by studio ace Rick Rubin. Californication spawned three major hits and a few minor ones, ultimately moving 15 million copies worldwide and becoming the group’s most successful global release. Its title track articulates the record’s ethos and delivers one of Anthony Kiedis’ very best lyrics.
A meditation on the superficiality, sexuality, and bewitching lure of Hollywood, “Californication” invokes compelling celluloid imagery, referencing everything from Star Wars and the moon-landing to David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. Metered atop a haunting minor key melody, “Californication” is the group’s finest post-metal power ballad since the inscrutable “Under the Bridge.” It would also reach the top spot on both the U.S. Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts, reaffirming the Red Hot Chili Peppers as true survivors of the now long-gone alternative era.
Today, “Californication” is a staple of the Chili Pepper’s live show and its title the inspiration for a long-running TV series starring David Duchovny (dealing in pretty much the same themes). Though the record was released in the summer of ’99, this titular single was released in 2000. This timeline is fitting. Indeed, the themes of tainted fantasy and corrupted innocence, and the song’s melancholy nod to Hollywood’s deceptive moral vacancy, are quite prescient of the decade to come.
11. The Shins—New Slang (2001)
Many will remember the early 2000s as a time of alienation. For the youth culture in particular, this was a time of disaffected boredom, technological isolation, and material excess. “New Slang” captured with morose elegance the feeling of being a teenager in sterile post-millennial suburbia, trapped by listlessness, and cured of all feelings by prescription drugs. The achingly melodic and lyrically oblique “New Slang” was, in fact, singer James Mercer’s takedown of his hometown.
As an indie-folkster in an Albuquerque scene best known for its punk, hardcore and general heaviousity, Mercer channeled his sense of displacement into a sweet, dreamy, stream-of-consciousness strummer. With the help of a few of his industry friends (including Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock), Mercer scored a single release through legendary indie-house Sub-Pop in 2001. He assembled the Shins around the single and produced the hotly anticipated debut album Oh, Inverted World.
“New Slang” and the Shins became a minor indie sensation, even landing a lucrative ad-placement deal with McDonalds. Fans of the band were none too kind about the synthesis, accusing The Shins of selling out (a fairly humorous allegation to make against a band that didn’t even really exist just one year prior). Regardless of the commercial’s reception, it financed both Mercer’s new home and a sophomore record.
As it happens, all of this was really just a prelude to the story behind the song’s success. In 2004, a single moment in the Natalie Portman-Zach Braff film Garden State would place the Shins permanently on the pop culture map. When their characters meet for the first time, Portman hands Braff a pair of headphones and tells him that the song emanating there from will “change your life.”
It was “New Slang” and however it impacted Braff’s character, the moment certainly changed life for the Shins. Their album sales doubled almost over night, they became among the most in-demand performers on college campuses, and “New Slang” fully penetrated popular consciousness. In addition to perfectly capturing the muted loneliness of the modern era, “New Slang” was arguably among the first hits of the era to be realized entirely through licensing in commercials, television shows, and movies. To date, Mercer has said that he earned far more from licensing than record sales, an admission which would give prelude to the changing landscape of the music business.
10. Eminem—Stan (2000)
Eminem’s lyrical flow and his gift for channeling rage into deeply personal and evocative composition were already well-known. But “Stan” revealed just how innovative Slim Shady was in his prime. Each of its four verses is delivered in the form of a letter, the first three from an obsessive and increasingly addled fan (who is obviously named Stan) and the fourth, Eminem’s belated reply.
Overlaying a melancholy sample and chorus, both courtesy of Dido’s “Thank You” (also a charting hit that year), “Stan” escalates in desperation and ferocity while succinctly channeling Eminem’s own trepidation over his growing stardom. Indeed, it was the year 2000 and with his third studio release, The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem was the biggest, most outspoken, and most controversial star of the moment. The haunting narrative, the visceral rage, and the Phil Collins namedrop found Eminem at his most articulate.
“Stan” topped the charts in 12 different countries and, in spite of its liberal use of the f-bomb and absence of danceable beat, found its way to #51 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It also earned Eminem a truckload of awards, a heaping pile of critical praise, and a history-making performance with Elton John at that year’s Grammy Awards. The song even inspired the entry of the word “stan” into the urban dictionary, defined as an obsessive fan.
“Stan” expanded rap’s capacity for storytelling, articulation, and personal disclosure. It remains an essential achievement of its genre.
9. The Strokes—Last Nite (2001)
As the 1990s bled into the early-2000s, alternative rock largely receded into memory. In its place, rock music had become a bloated parody of itself, purveyed most visibly by the likes of Creed and Nickelback. Called post-grunge by corporate genre-makers and crap by pretty much everybody else, this was what passed for rock music at the turn of the millennium. It’s conceivable that during a different time in history, the Strokes debut record would have been a well-received but un-extraordinary release. But in 2001, Is This It and its lead single were the antidote to rock’s seemingly terminal illness.
With its buzzy opening riff, slag-off vocals, and spiky autumnal vibe, “Last Nite” was exactly what we needed, proof that rock music still had a pulse. In truth, the Strokes are kind of a bunch of arrogant style-monkeys, not the likeliest champions of genre-wide salvation. Borrowing a garage rock attitude and a tight, Britpop sensibility, the New York quintet offered a desperately needed shot of adrenaline, a tune about Sunday morning regrets perfectly tailored for a Saturday night spin.
I think that’s what it’s about anyway. This one won’t win any prizes for lyrical coherence, but it did hit #14 on the U.K. singles chart and #5 on the U.S. Modern Rock chart.
As it happens, the opening riff is somewhat irrefutably purloined from “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In fact, the Strokes openly acknowledged their petty theft (I swear, that pun was not intended, but I’m not changing it). In a 2006 interview, the oft-coopted Mr. Petty told Rolling Stone “That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ’OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me’”
It’s great that the late, great Heartbreaker was so cool about the whole thing because its arrival in November of 2001 signaled a minor garage revival that led to some of the decade’s best post-alternative rock.
8. Beyonce—Crazy In Love (2003)
You could call Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” a pop song if you’d like but the reality is, this dancefloor shake-up rocks as hard as anything from the decade. That opening horn vamp, borrowed directly from the Chi-Lites “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)”, places this one shoulder to shoulder with the best of 70s soul funk. Beyonce’s hiccuping vocals and Jay-Z’s guest verse transcend the usual syrupy R&B fare of the era with irresistible throwback grit.
How good is “Crazy in Love”? Good enough for former head Talking Head David Byrne to cover it in concert. In fact, ASCAP says that “Crazy In Love” was among the most performed songs in 2004. Hitting #1 in both the U.S. and U.K. (the only song to do so in 2003), “Crazy” would sell more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, making it among the best selling singles of all time.
Not only did “Crazy in Love” herald the coming of Queen Bey, but it cemented the music game’s new power couple. Together, Jay-Z and Beyonce were capable of greatness and this was evidence. From here into perpetuity, “Crazy In Love” will be featured in commercials, on film soundtracks, and in the coffee-shop repertoire of any number of hipster guitar strummers seeking to challenge an audience with a stripped down acoustic retread.
Endlessly repurposed and, in its original form, ceaselessly fresh, “Crazy in Love” is a perfect hit.
7. Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris—Yeah! (2004)
“Yeah!” essentially proves that a song doesn’t need to be good to be awesome. In fact, “Yeah!” is supremely stupid, but man, does it feel like a night out in the 2000s.
Somehow, Usher’s smooth as silk leads and Lil Jon’s gravel-throated fills paired like Tanqueray and tonic. Mix in a bank vault alarm sample and a drawling verse from Ludacris and you’ve got a mainstream breakthrough for crunk, the hip hop subgenre that would flood the charts in the early part of the decade. If this collaboration paved the way for crunk’s coming out party, none of the hits that came in its wake so successfully infused R&B’s chart-climbing sensibility and crunk’s southern abandon as did “Yeah!”
You really couldn’t go anywhere in 2004 without hearing this throwdown. “Yeah!” stood atop the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks, only budging from the top spot to make room for Usher’s next single. It was both the longest running chart-topper of the year and the year’s best-selling single. In fact, “Yeah!” ranks #2 overall on the Billboard Hot 100’s decade-end chart.
And all of this would be completely meaningless were it not for the fact that this one still kills at a party.
6. Gnarls Barkley—Crazy (2006)
If you guessed that soul-rapper and erstwhile member of defunct Dirty South cult band Goodie Mob would have scored the biggest hit of 2006, you’re a lot smarter than most people. CeeLo Green was already 15 years into his career and hardly a household name when he teamed up with super-producer Danger Mouse for this addictive meditation on mental illness.
Borrowing a spaghetti western sample from Giuseppe Reverberi, Danger Mouse wrapped CeeLo’s vulnerable croon in a blanket of foreboding. Like most of the best Danger Mouse productions, “Crazy” simply can’t be pinned to a single genre. It is at once a musical Frankenstein—a mash-up indicative of its time—and a whole composition until itself with no visible stitches or scars.
In many ways, “Crazy” is the culmination of the decade’s genre deconstruction. If Gorillaz and Outkast paved the way for this kind of genre-smashing, Gnarls Barkley walked the path to its logical conclusion. The duo was also aided by a shared eccentricity that came out in an array of costumed appearance, most notably a Star Wars-inspired MTV Movie Award performance that cast CeeLo as Darth Vadar and Danger Mouse as Obi Wan. Dig Chewie on the drums and the funkiest Storm Trooper ever on bass.
An online leak in late 2005 meant that listeners were hooked on this tune well before its official 2006 release. This helped “Crazy” to become the first tune ever to top the U.K. singles chart on downloads alone. Rolling Stone and Pazz & Jop called it the best song of 2006. And if you need another reason to despise the tone-deaf industry doofs who vote on Grammys, “Crazy” lost the prize for Record of the Year to the Dixie Chicks. Nonetheless, it finished the decade as the top hit on both the UK Singles and US Adult Top 40 Charts for the full duration of the aughts.
In addition to releasing a second album together in 2008, CeeLo and Danger Mouse emerged from their partnership as individual superstars.
5. The Flaming Lips—Do You Realize? (2002)
Until this point, the Flaming Lips were largely seen as pop eccentrics, one-hit wonders and, in some circles, critical darlings. You probably wouldn’t have called them superstars but that would all change with the lead single off of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Do You Realize? is an etherial meditation on life and death, encapsulating all the beauty and terror of human mortality. Lead singer Wayne Coyne poses a series of questions that force us face to face with the fleeting nature of our own existence, which doesn’t necessarily seem like fodder for a hit.
But this song is a joyful carnival of exploding light and sound, bursting with vitality and reminding us to hold close to one another while we can. Simply stated, there is no charting song from this decade that can compete with the emotional power of “Do You Realize?”
The Flaming Lips’ home state of Oklahoma seemed to agree. In spite of the band’s general oddness and their not particularly well-concealed penchant for psychedelic excess, it served as the state’s official rock song from 2009 to 2013. It also peaked at #32 on the U.K. Singles Chart. And most importantly, it served as the centerpiece for the epic touring circus that was the Flaming Lips live show during the 2000s. If you missed it, I have no words to comfort you because there truly is nothing like it.
As for “Do You Realize?,” it remains as powerful, devastating and uplifting now as it was more than a decade ago. I dare you to listen without getting a lump in your throat.
4. MIA—Paper Planes (2008)
“Paper Planes” was a defining moment of its decade, articulating and demonstrating the implications of globalization in a way that no song or performer had yet done. Rapper, producer, and visual artist M.I.A. was born Mathangi Arulprasam in London, but it is a youth spent in war-torn Sri Lanka that informs the unlikely smash hit of 2008.
The daughter of a revolutionary political activist and a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War, M.I.A. detailed life in her “third world democracy” with infectious style, rapping without affectation about slinging drugs and flashing fake visas over a Clash-borrowed sample (“Straight to Hell.”) M.I.A.’s casual subversiveness and Diplo’s tuneful production made “Paper Planes” at once provocative and unshakable.
In 2008, as the true effects of globalization came to light, “Paper Planes” painted a troubling picture. But it also demonstrated the possibilities for global reach that had not previously existed for independent artists. Indeed, though Kala, the album containing it dropped in February of 2008, its digital release came in August of 2007.
Its online buzz was building well before some advertisers thought well-enough to pair it with round-the-clock ads for the Seth Rogen/James Franco stoner pic Pineapple Express. The head-start (and international availability) ultimately helped “Paper Planes” glide (sorry) to the Top 20 in Belgium, Denmark, Canada, the U.K., and in the U.S., where it peaked at #4.
The border-hopping subject matter, the sardonically exotic portrayal of daily struggle in the developing sphere and the not-so-radio-friendly use of gunfire in the nonetheless addictive chorus made for an unlikely but perfectly timed global smash.
3. Gorillaz—Clint Eastwood (2001)
Few songs capture the genre-smashing freedom of the 2000s like this one, a project masterminded by former Blur-frontman and Britpop godfather Damon Albarn. Gorillaz are technically the first “Virtual Group” ever to score a Billboard Hot 100 hit. While Albarn is the leader, Gorillaz are not a group in the traditional sense. In actuality, Gorillaz are a quartet of anime-styled cartoon characters (2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel) designed by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. Said virtual band announced its existence to the world with this 2001 gem.
In non-virtual reality (also known as reality), Gorillaz would prove a revolving collective of guest musicians led by the always present Mr. Albarn. And on their breakthrough hit, this cast included husky-voiced rapper Del the Funky Homosapien and producer (as well as Kool Keith cohort) Dan the Automator.
Vaguely apocalyptic and ineffably cool, “Clint Eastwood” is a trip-hop nugget wrapped around Albarn’s smokey melodica, Del’s urgent verses, and an infectiously low-key refrain. Like a spaghetti western in dub, “Clint Eastwood” is a brilliant showdown with anachronism at the OK Corral. It was also a #57 hit on the U.S. Billboard charts and peaked at #4 in the UK, where Albarn is something of a national treasure. It also happens that the video for this, and pretty much everything else that Gorillaz would go on to do, is absolutely mesmerizing. This was a bonafide classic right out of the gate for one of the decade’s most inventive acts.
2. The White Stripes—Seven Nation Army (2003)
The 2000s are guilty of producing endless volumes of disposable music, temporal trash with the shelf-life of a half-opened milk carton. Credit to the White Stripes for producing a tune that will be played at sporting events until the very end of days. And it’s no wonder. I challenge you to find a more menacingly exciting rocker from this decade.
The White Stripes were already a big story by the time they released Elephant. Indeed, this was their fourth proper studio album, but the first to come out when the whole world was watching. The White Stripes were a duo comprised of Jack and Meg White. The two originally marketed themselves as a brother/sister combo but were eventually revealed as recent divorcees who were kind of stuck in a band together because of their general awesomeness.
The sound these two made together was absolutely enormous. Never was it more so than on this one. “Seven Nation Army” sneaks in on a slithering bass line, burns toward confrontation, and explodes into a fiery blaze of pyrotechnic warfare. When it sneaks back out on that same bass line, there is nothing but destruction left in its wake.
Don’t get me wrong though, it kills at a party. By the way, that “bass line” is actually Jack White’s “semi-acoustic, 1950s-style Kay Hollowbody guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal set down an octave” according to Wikipedia. Wikipedia also points out that “Seven Nation Army” spent three weeks at the top of the U.S. Modern Rock Charts, and ranked overall as the chart’s third most successful entry for the entire decade. Today, the song is inching ever closer to the mark of 1 billion plays on music streaming service, Spotify.
Not only is it a staple of European football matches and college marching band halftime shows, but the furious determination in its lyrics made it an unofficial anthem of the Egyptian revolution some 10 years later. The point is, if this one doesn’t get you amped, go see a doctor. You could have a thyroid condition.
1. Outkast—Hey Ya! (2003)
Before “Hey Ya!,” OutKast was already the beating heart of the rap subgenere called Dirty South. Channeling a decidedly Funkadelic eclecticism, they were beloved by critics, adored by fans, and graced with MTV-era hits. But few anticipated that, in 2003, they would become the biggest band in the world.
A duo comprised of Big Boi and Andre 3000, Outkast produced among the most ambitious records in hip-hop history with the massive double-disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. A towering collection of funk, soul, club, rap, and rock, the album’s centerpiece was also the year’s deepest burrowing earworm. “Hey Ya!” achieved a supremely unlikely nexus. At once its lyrics were thought-provoking, its chorus endearingly hokey, its breakdown a room-stopping call-and-response worthy of the Isley Brothers.
Sweet, booty-shaking, and boldly retro, “Hey Ya!” was the warm splash of energy that filled the floors at weddings and clubs, and even powered a major commercial comeback for Polaroid Cameras. If we have to explain why, we assume you were living in outer-space in 2003. (If so, welcome home spaceman or spacewoman. Consult the song below.) Its Beatles-on-Sullivan inspired video was also probably one of the very last staples on MTV in the era before music videos were supplanted by today’s vast wasteland of reality TV sadness.
An unflinchingly sincere meditation on fidelity, Andre 3000 characterized it as his take on love in the 2000s. He must have nailed it because “Hey Ya!” was the decade’s most enduring hit. Topping the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks, the digital sale charts for 17 weeks, and pretty much every single critic and listener poll for the year, it wins top honors on our list as well. If the best that we can say about music in the 2000s is that the preconceived boundaries separating genres largely ceased to exist, then “Hey Ya!” is the best of what can happen when these walls crumble.