The 50 Best Albums of the Decade (2000-2009)

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20. The National: Boxer [Beggars Banquet] (2007)
On first listen, The National’s 2007 breakout album Boxer sounds pleasant, evocatively understated and dense with atmosphere. It rewards your attention. So you play it again, from the beginning. After several listens, you’ve moved beyond basic plot awareness—broken, insecure men and women trying to shake off the malaise of grown-up responsibility, wondering how so many cherished friendships escaped like water from a fist. Now you can finally appreciate the astonishing instrumental nuance and finely chiseled artistic care invested in this timeless record. Jason Killingsworth


19. Beck: Sea Change [Interscope] (2002)
For a man so used to wearing musical masks, Beck laid himself bare on Sea Change. It’s the most aching, honest album he ever made, a musical breakup memoir on par with Blood on the Tracks or Shoot Out the Lights. To say his heart was on his sleeve doesn’t capture the emotional nakedness; his heart was speared on a record spindle, and he let us all listen as it revolved on the turntable, the stylus reading every single crack. Steve LaBate


18. Amy Winehouse: Back To Black [Universal Republic] (2007)
“It sounds like such a wank thing to say, but I need to get some headaches goin’ to write about,” beehived diva Amy Winehouse said in the raucous months following the release of Back To Black—an album that, sure enough, sounded like 50 pounds of headaches shoved into a 10-pound sack. Winehouse had fallen head-over-stilettos for a runabout ne’er-do-well named Blake Fielder-Civil—marrying him and tattooing his name over her left breast—and their tempestuous relationship evidently brought the pain she required: “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good,” the album’s title track and, most poignantly, “Love Is a Losing Game” tapped a bottomless well of soulful sadness, funneling the hurt through a hugely influential amalgam of soul, hip-hop, jazz and R&B. While subsequent starlets Adele and Duffy emerged in her wake, Winehouse lived through a supernova’s ascent to megafame and an equally precipitous descent into personal hell. Co-produced by Mark Ronson, backed by Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings and fueled by the demons and tragedies of divas past (think Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Martha Reeves), Winehouse rode the zeitgeist hard and was put away wet, concluding what is likely to be her finest musical hour. “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen,” Winehouse once insouciantly explained. Lady did, indeed, sing the blues. Corey DuBrowa


17. Kanye West: The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella] (2004)
Every so often, an album rewrites the musical rulebook, and this one effectively murdered gangsta rap. It also redefined what a rapper could look and sound like, expanding the role an MC could play in popular culture. With his precocious debut, the collar-popping, Jesus-walking, beat-making provocateur became a kind of hip-hop prophet, venting about his interior life in a way that spoke for millions. Witty, angry and eminently quotable, Dropout kickstarted a four-album streak that made West the most important pop solo artist since Prince. Nick Marino


16. Rufus Wainwright: Want One [Dreamworks] (2003)
Paste Hall of Fame: Wainwright’s baroque third album topped our year-end list back in 2003. Here’s what we said about it at the time:
While so many of his peers seem content writing music with narrative arcs bearing all the emotional complexity of an episode of Saved By The Bell, Wainwright offers not a sitcom, but a sort of pop musical based on the sordid drama of his own existence. Building on the painstaking songcraft of his 2001 release, Poses, the arrangements on Want One prove delightfully over-the-top, brimming with soaring operatic peaks and emotional valleys shadowed in almost certain death. Jason Killingsworth


15. Patty Griffin: 1000 Kisses [ATO] (2002)
After showing promise on her sparse mid-’90s debut, Living with Ghosts, and then delving into more rocking territory with Flaming Red and the unreleased Silver Bell, singer/songwriter Patty Griffin pared back, recording most of 1000 Kisses live in the studio and delivering what remains the album of her career. Her voice flat out slays, its beauty and power on display whether she’s performing her own compositions or interpreting others’. And the songs display a mastery that places her alongside Dylan, Cohen, et al. Griffin mines the mundane and finds the rich meaning in its details. On “Making Pies,” when she sings, “Did I show you this picture of my nephew / Taken at his big birthday surprise?”—she transforms clunky conversation into poetry. Tim Regan-Porter


14. The Strokes: Is This It [RCA] (2001)
It’s 2001. Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park’s shouty, self-pitying debut, is the best-selling album in America. This same year, five young men cast turn-of the-century rock into stark relief with a half-hour-long album of 11 swaggering, scruffy pop songs—a fictional greatest-hits collection that seemed to capture everything great about underground 1970s rock. Is This It might not have toppled the nü-metal Goliaths in terms of sales, but it saved rock ’n’ roll from the bloat that seemed inescapable in the Fred Durst era. Assertive but not boorish, charming but not sleazy, ironic but not empty, The Strokes’ debut was as cool and arrogant as it had the right to be—as it suddenly seemed, once again, that rock music had to be. Julian Casablancas’ ambivalent lyrics and the band’s pinpoint precision rendered the album both wry and accessible. The record’s mood and attitude—those ineffable, un-reproducible qualities—solidified its status as a masterpiece. By 2001, modern rock had become so generic as to be placeless, but the first time you played Is This It, you heard the elusive, seductive sound of New York, a city devastated by 9/11 that somehow lost none of its gritty allure. Is This It, it turned out, was—and is—as dynamic, soulful and enduring as the city itself. Mark Krotov


13. Josh Ritter: The Animal Years [V2] (2006)
After the latter third of the 20th century became littered with “new Dylans,” it became obvious that no one could ever fill that role. So when Ritter made his first few strummy, literate records, there were no lofty expectations to keep him from developing his talent and fanbase. After three promising albums, the masterpiece arrived. Recorded with producer Brian Deck, who stretched Ritter’s rootsy folk in more ambitious directions, The Animal Years is bookended by a pair of epic ballads—“Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame”—which helped secure his place at the table of great songwriters without ever having to live in anybody’s shadow. Josh Jackson


12. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight [Merge] (2002)
The first time I heard Kill the Moonlight in my friend’s car, I was so jealous. I couldn’t recall a more satisfying minimalism on any record. For all its swagger, to have the coolest drummer in rock sit the album openers out struck me as the ultimate in not giving a shit on a record that seemed to be about not giving a shit as a way of life. Who needs concern when you can make music as cool as this? But after dozens of spins, the thing that hits me most is what a calculated, careful record it really is. All of Britt Daniel’s and Jim Eno’s deep musical and personal concerns are there; they’re just implied. Kill the Moonlight has so much depth because it subtly reveals that Spoon does give a shit, they just want you to have to dig through some very sexy music to feel it. Fucking introverts. David Bazan


11. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America [Vagrant] (2006)
The early promise of The Hold Steady came to full fruition on this career milestone that made classic rock cool again. Craig Finn’s story songs about desperate losers and God-obsessed hedonists were as literate as ever, Tad Kubler rocketed power chords to the back of the arena, and Franz Nicolay added vintage E Street Band keyboard fills. And thanks to a full slate of killer melodies, this time the boys and girls could not only chant along—they could sing along, too. Andy Whitman

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