The aughts will inspire no generation-defining Stones vs. Beatles debates, or, more likely, the arguments will just be really, embarrassingly lame. Fall Out Boy vs. Coldplay? No thanks. Gucci Mane vs. Soulja Boy? Get out of here. Sufjan Stevens vs. Conor Oberst? Who the hell invited you in the first place?
As a music critic, I’m pretty much required by law to mention Radiohead as one of the decade’s best musical acts, and it’s tough to argue against. When they released Kid A in 2000, rock critics were dumbfounded by the fact that some of the tracks featured little to no guitar. This year, a huge chunk of what we classified as indie-rock is all electro-bloops, and guitars come with USB cables and plastic buttons. The band followed that game-changer with the similar, and severely underrated, Amnesiac in 2001, and helped popularize the “pay what you want” scheme for releasing music in the age of leaks and illegal downloading with 2007’s In Rainbows. But they also released 2003’s Hail to the Thief — an album I’ve listened to several times but can’t, on the spot, remember a single song from — and then spent four years sitting around in money and fueling speculation that they’d broken up.
But that’s the problem with defining things in decades — 10 years is a long-ass time, especially today as technology advances exponentially, altering our lives and attitudes in the process. In 2001, my grandmother was struggling to view photos in AOL mail and the Strokes were proclaimed the saviors of rock ’n’ roll. Nine years later, she’s checking her Facebook page on her smartphone and the best thing Julian Casablancas has been involved in since 2003 is singing the hook to a Lonely Island song about old people having sex. I’m not sure how those things are related — and I swear to god they better not be, Casablancas — but you get my point. Two other bands that broke at about the same time — the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes — deserve mention just for staying relevant all these years, and extra credit for actually finding enough commercial success to show us that modern-rock radio doesn’t have to suck.
And that brings up another difficulty in deciding whose music most defined the Aughts. The question seems to require at least three qualities: artistic merit, influence on other performers, and record sales. Outkast, for example, released two exemplary best-selling albums this decade, 2000’s Stankonia and 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but they’ve since spent the rest of the decade making an inessential movie with an all right soundtrack (Idlewild) and announcing fake release dates for albums that may or may not exist. TV on the Radio, on the other hand, released three incredibly brilliant and moving records, but they lose points on influence because they’re mostly too weird to imitate, and though Dear Science charted at number 12 in 2008, TVOTR is not exactly a household name. Billboard graded musicians using only sales stats, and came up with three names: Eminem, Beyoncé, and Nickelback. Those first two are pretty decent picks by most standards (especially if you cheat and give Beyoncé credit for all the Destiny’s Child stuff and ignore Em’s five-year pill binge), but Nickelback’s long-lived chart supremacy is less an indication of their artistry than an outward symptom of a horrible sickness devouring America’s soul. OK, that’s probably a little unfair, and any argument I can make for replacing the ’Back with a better band would ultimately be based solely on my own preference, which seems small and irrelevant in the face of the millions of fans who want, no demand, that radio stations play “Something in Your Mouth” at least twice per hour. To quote Jay-Z, “Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t.”
Speaking of Jay-Z, he’s not a bad nominee, either, considering he technically retired several times throughout the decade — few artists if any matched his balance of commercial success and consistent quality. That also goes for sometime Hova producer Kanye West who earned a lifetime jackass pass for 2004’s College Dropout. That pass has since grown worn with overuse, but remember he also released Late Registration, Graduation, a better-than-it-should’ve-been all-Auto-Tune album (808s & Heartbreak), and produced singles for youngsters like Lupe Fiasco and Lil Wayne.
You could argue, in fact, that the Aughts were the decade of the producer, because at least two other candidates come immediately to mind — Timbaland, who saved Justin Timberlake from hasbeenhood (“Cry Me a River,” “SexyBack”) redefined radio-rap with Missy Elliot (“Get UR Freak On,” “Gossip Folks”), and somehow made Björk sound even crazier (“Earth Intruders”); and the Neptunes, who took breaks from producing number-one hits for Britney Spears (“I’m a Slave 4 U”), Nelly (“Hot in Herre”), and Gwen Steffani (“Hollaback Girl”) to make beats for two coke-hop classics (Clipse’s Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury).
So there you have it, a field of diverse, talented, innovative artists dominated the decade in hip-hop and R&B, while the two top contenders in modern rock are a band that sells millions of records that no one will admit to listening to, and a group who probably released its best album in 1995. But think of the “cutting-edge” rock the critics drool over nowadays — all drum machines, synthesizers, and sampling — and that shouldn’t be a surprise.
And I’ll leave it to the Coup’s Boots Riley to predict the biggest rock artists of next decade: “Ten years from now, it’s gonna be some white kids making music that sounds like Lil’ Jon.” •