Eminem, “The Marshall Mathers LP” (Aftermath/Interscope) 2000 – Filled with both self-loathing and self-affirmation, this album doesn’t inspire in the uplifting way much of the best music does, but it is a remarkable portrait of the dark, troubling influences and attitudes that many young people seemed to wrestle with at the turn of the century.
Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft” (Columbia) 2001 – This is the first time since “Highway 61 Revisited” that the music in a Dylan album is likely to catch your attention before the words. The arrangements are filled with various pre-rock strains, including country, blues, folk and even supper-club pop. Not that Dylan has ignored the words. The lyrics serve as a wondrous, deceptively casual jigsaw puzzle of wit and wisdom that sometimes teases, but more often jabs.
Beck, “Sea Change” (DGC) 2002 – The folk-flavored singer-songwriter gives us an album about the break-up of a relationship that is so poignant and naked that it ranks with such haunting emotional exorcisms as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.”
OutKast, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” (Arista) 2003 – Big Boi’s half of this double album is an exuberant, funk-driven work in the grand, eccentric tradition of James Brown, George Clinton and Prince. Andre 3000’s half mixes OutKast daring with R&B, jazz and rock influences in a set of loosely autobiographical songs about having trouble finding, or believing in, a lasting relationship.
Kanye West, “The College Dropout” (Roc-A-Fella) 2004 – In this explosive debut, West establishes himself as the new creative leader in rap. Fusing hip-hop and pop influences in a bold and exciting way, he looks at life’s temptations and consequences in ways that provoke as well as entertain.
Arcade Fire, “Funeral” (Merge) 2004 – When I first heard this debut, the Canadian band’s artful, richly imaginative music reminded me of Talking Heads, but I soon began to see that it reached into a deeper emotional territory that is haunting and original. There is a spirit to the band that is as joyous in places as U2. The songs are about longing and loss, but they also address finding (and holding onto) values in an anxious age.
Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose” (Interscope) 2004 – In producing this album for the veteran country star, Jack White aimed for the classic country sensibility that would enable it to fit on a honky-tonk jukebox alongside records by Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell—and it ended up exactly that. The best country album of the decade.
Bright Eyes, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” (Saddle Creek) 2005 – It’s not Conor Oberst’s intention necessarily, but it’s hard for followers of Bob Dylan not to see a parallel between what Oberst is doing in albums like “Lifted…” and “I’m Wide Awake” and what was laid down in Dylan’s landmark 1960s albums: examining the political and cultural landscape with unusual insight and eloquence. This is Oberst at his most commanding.
White Stripes, “Get Behind Me Satan” (Third Man/V2) 2005 – Jack White was the rock ‘n’ roll newcomer of the decade and each of his White Stripes albums was a marvel, but “Satan” is the duo’s boldest work. Not only did White add layers of imagination and depth to what was already a thrilling sound, but he also gave us more personal subject matter: anxious, even desperate looks at conflicts between innocence and morality on one side and compromise and betrayal on the other.
Bruce Springsteen, “Devils & Dust” (Columbia) 2005 – This is the Alternative Bruce of “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”—the singer-songwriter who steps away from the superhero “Boss” persona of the E Street Band spectacle to examine the gritty, dimly lit world of characters who have been pushed to society’s extremes. The tales here range from the Iraq battlefield—where fear can “take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust” to migrant workers in the Southwest, where devils and dust of a different kind can be equally threatening.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand” (Rounder) 2007 – The idea of the voice of Zeppelin meeting the queen of bluegrass/country seemed an unlikely mix, but it turned out to be a spectacular combination of beauty and brawn, exotic blues and pristine country. It’s a bold, brave, passionate work in which Plant and Krauss put their talent and faith into the hands of producer T Bone Burnett and he rewarded the trust with a mini-masterpiece. As with OutKast, the Grammy voters got it right when they named it the album of the year.
U2, “No Line on the Horizon” (Interscope) 2009 – Much of the strength of U2 is that it doesn’t look back musically. Where so many bands lean on signature sounds and themes, U2 seems determined to open new doors. This has filled each of the band’s albums this year with both overwhelming seriousness and joy. The music is as personal as a prayer and as majestic as midnight mass as they explore complexities of the heart and soul in ways that are increasingly trailblazing in popular music.
(Note: Alphabetical by year.)
D’Angelo, “Voodoo” (Virgin)
PJ Harvey, “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” (Island)
Shelby Lynne, “I Am Shelby Lynne” (Island)
U2, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (Island)
Alicia Keys, “Songs in A Minor” (J)
Angie Stone, “Mahogany Soul” (J)
White Stripes, “White Blood Cells” (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Lucinda Williams, “Essence” (Lost Highway)
Ryan Adams, “Demolition” (Lost Highway)
Bright Eyes, “Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” (Saddle Creek)
Eminem, “The Eminem Show” (Interscope/Aftermath/Shady)
Norah Jones, “Come Away with Me” (Blue Note)
The Roots, “Phrenology” (MCA)
Bruce Springsteen, “The Rising” (Columbia)
Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch)
Alicia Keys, “The Diary of Alicia Keys” (J)
Rufus Wainwright, “Want One” (DreamWorks)
White Stripes, “Elephant” (Third Man/V2)
Lucinda Williams, “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Greendale” (Reprise)
Franz Ferdinand, “Franz Ferdinand” (Domino/Epic)
PJ Harvey, “Uh Huh Her” (Island)
U2, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” (Interscope)
Rufus Wainwright, “Want Two” (Geffen)
Wilco, “A Ghost Is Born” (Nonesuch
Anthony and the Johnsons, “I Am a Bird” (Secretly Canadian)
The Kills, "No Wow" Rough Trade/RCA
LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem" DFA/Capitol
M.I.A., “Arular” (XL)
Kanye West, “Late Registration” (Roc-A-Fella)
Artic Monkeys, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (Domino)
Bob Dylan, “Modern Times” (Columbia)
Gnarls Barkley, “St. Elsewhere” (Downtown/Atlantic)
The Hold Steady, “Boys and Girls in America” (Vagrant)
Arcade Fire, “Neon Bible” (Merge)
M.I.A., “Kala” (XL/Interscope)
Radiohead, “In Rainbows” (Radiohead)
Bob Dylan, “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs” (Columbia)
Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes” (Sub Pop)
Conor Oberst, “Conor Oberst” (Merge)
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (Domino)
Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” (American)
The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (Third Man)
Bob Dylan, “Together Through Life” (Columbia)
Monsters of Folk, “Monsters of Folk” (Shangri-La)