(10) The Wrens "The Meadowlands" (2003, Absolutely Kosher)
Down but not out, New Jersey's definitive indie rockers returned seven years after "Seacaucus" with a world-weary set that would be their definitive statement. They looked like dads because they were dads, and to an extent they acted the part, carefully crafting each song like a good father nurtures his kids. But they still played with the enthusiasm and emotional bareness of boys with their first guitars. It could have been a bizarre monstrosity: emo for adults. Instead, it became one of the greatest albums of the decade and proof positive that there's a graceful way to bare your soul, even with amps to 11.
(09) Outkast "Stankonia" (2000, LaFace)
"Stankonia" was built around a few incredible tentpole singles, yet its brilliance goes deeper than "So Fresh, So Clean" or "Ms. Jackson" or even "B.O.B." Outkast used every last track to flesh out their vision of a deeply funky, highly sexualized alternate universe. Now if only they would get around to doing it again.
(08) Bon Iver "For Emma, Forever Ago" (2007, self-released/Jagjaguwar)
Too many troubadours plunge the depths of despair with some sad stories set to acoustic guitar. "For Emma, Forever Ago" could have lived up to every sad-sack cliche, but Justin Vernon sidestepped the booby-traps and turned in the decade's most poignant portrait of a man at the end of his rope.
(07) Clipse "Hell Hath No Fury" (2006, Jive)
Singular in sound and vision, Clipse and the Neptunes coughed up an amoral ode to dirty money's spoils and toils. Pharrell's stark backdrops proved to be an ideal playground for the Thornton brothers' smart, sadistic narratives.
(06) LCD Soundsystem "Sound of Silver" (2007, DFA)
Before "Sound of Silver," James Murphy was best known for the merciless wit that made tracks like "Losing My Edge" and "Yeah" underground hits. This album offered plenty of his stock in trade, from the gleeful Euro-snob takedown "North American Scum" to the snarky scene travelogue "Watch the Tapes." But Murphy's sophomore LP shined brightest when he let his guard down and poured his soul into songs - "All My Friends," "Sound of Silver," "Someone Great" - that subvert conventions of balladry while delivering all the requisite emotional heft.
(05) Kanye West "Late Registration" (2005, Roc-a-Fella)
Can anyone but Kanye stake a legitimate claim to artist-of-the-decade status? He produced or rapped on more hits than I can begin to count, and he certainly ran his mouth enough to leave an imprint. (Just ask George Bush, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift and Beyonce about that.)
More importantly, he kept releasing albums that changed hip-hop forever. "The College Dropout's" "Benz/backpack" dichotomy blew open the possibilities of what a rap album could be. "808s and Heartbreak" offered an even more liberating paradigm shift. But his finest hour was this Jon Brion-assisted wonderland, a messy masterpiece overflowing with ideas and ambition.
(04) Arcade Fire "Funeral" (2004, Merge)
I can't remember an album since "Funeral" that garnered such immediate and widespread approval, and for good reason. Arcade Fire struck on something magical here, delivering widescreen emotional catharsis without stumbling into excess. OK, it's excessive, but it's some of the most glorious, irresistible excess in rock history.
(03) The Strokes "Is This It" (2001, BMG)
If Arcade Fire were the kings of consensus, The Strokes were the princes of polarization. Like so much of this decade's cultural politics, the band's divisive powers seem comically overblown now - this is just a really amazing rock record, nothing more, nothing less - but at the time, battle lines were drawn: poseurs or saviors, and nothing in between.
(02) Radiohead "Kid A" (2000, Capitol)
I remember falling deeply in love with "OK Computer" on a jazz band trip during the spring of my sophomore year. I remember spending the summer reading news reports about Radiohead's long-awaited follow-up with breathless anticipation. I remember scoffing at folks who used Napster to download the album early, but secretly listening to a few minutes of "Everything In Its Right Place" on the official online stream and feeling puzzled by the warm keyboard surges and spliced robot vocals.
I remember driving to Sour Records (R.I.P.!) with my buddy David to buy the album at midnight, Oct. 3, 2000, and staying up late listening on repeat at our respecting houses, dissecting every track over AIM (R.I.P.?). I remember making everybody listen to it all day at school the next day, forcing it into the stereo during English class and again during physics and again during journalism. I remember not minding that my date didn't want to hang out after Homecoming because it allowed me to hurry home, cue up the VCR and watch Radiohead's frantic, instant classic SNL performance from earlier that night. I remember playing that video for anyone who would watch.
I remember driving around late on Saturday nights getting swallowed up in the sobbing strings of "How To Disappear Completely," the eerie quiet of "Kid A" and the majestic rush of "Motion Picture Soundtrack." I remember thinking these five lads from Oxford were the greatest band in the world, and nine years later, I still do.
(01) Wilco "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002, Nonesuch)
I racked my brain thinking of albums I liked better than "Kid A" so I wouldn't suffer the cliche of making Radiohead my top pick, and this is the only one I genuinely enjoy more. Fittingly, it comes from "the American Radiohead," a tag that got attached to Wilco when they unveiled an album every bit as intricate, expansive and dumbfoundingly gorgeous as "Kid A."
Forget all the contextual "little guy beats the man" mumbo jumbo that surrounded YHF's release and just listen to these 11 stupendous songs. Despite its grand ambitions, YHF feels humble beside the decade's high-stakes, top-of-your-lungs odes to grief ("Funeral"), paranoia ("Kid A") and partying ("Stankonia"). Those albums seem bigger than life, but YHF shines by zeroing in on minutia (cash machines, cameras and air-conditioned apartments are littered throughout) and chronicling the anxious drama of one man feeling weighed down by his world.
A woozy sense of despair categorizes many of these tunes, but the bleakest moments are balanced out by an impervious hope that even in a world that's falling apart, somebody somewhere is carrying the torch for the good guys.