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Tops of the Pops

Our music editor looks back at some of decade's best albums.

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The entire music industry may have changed during the last decade, but what makes a great album stays the same. Does it reward repeated listening? Check. Does it contain little or no filler? Check. Is it one of those albums that, no matter how large your collection grows, you'll never get rid of it? Check. In short, does it make your life better somehow simply by knowing it exists? You bet.
Here, in chronological order, are the best music releases of the decade:

Outkast, “Stankonia” (La Face) 2000
Creative hip-hop that drew from multiple genres and two distinct personalities, “player” Big Boi and “poet” AndrAc 3000; this album updated P-funk for the Dirty South and spawned smooth hits “Ms. Jackson” and the slick “So Fresh, So Clean.” The greatest hit single of the decade, the ultracatchy, funk-hop hybrid “Hey Ya” — which had people everywhere “shake it like a Polaroid picture” — would drop on the group's next album.

The White Stripes, “White Blood Cells” (Warner Brothers) 2001
Impressive what these two Detroit pasties can do with just guitar and drums. Their commercial breakthrough rolled through the usual thunderously raw garage blues as well as punk (“Fell in Love With a Girl”), Ray Davies-inspired ballads (“I Can Tell That We Are Gonna Be Friends”) and kick-ass dramatic rockers such as “I Think I Smell a Rat.” As Larry David says, “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft” (Columbia) 2001
It may not compare to the decades when he could still sing like a human being, but good ol' American music icon Bob Dylan showed he had some songwriting fuel left in the tank with this lively roots-rock album, exploring themes of the American South with grace, wit, and a master's eye for artistic appropriation.

Gillian Welch, “Time, the Revelator” (Acony) 2001
Stunning Americana and folk song craft on display here. Not a bad track in the bunch. Some folk purists have problems with Gillian Welch because she was raised in L.A. (adopted by musicians working the Carol Burnett show) but who cares? She writes starkly beautiful songs that stay with you, and her gorgeous harmonies with partner David Rawlings could compete with country's all-time finest balladeers.
 
The Streets, “Original Pirate Material” (Vice) 2002
One of the greatest UK rap artists ever, this is another of those albums that just sounds like nothing else. I don't get too bogged down in lyrics when they come so fast — but this one makes you listen thanks to Mike Skinner's smart, conversational flow and vivid humor about his mundane existence in Birmingham.

Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch) 2002
The convoluted story behind this album got its own documentary film, but that shouldn't take away from the masterful post-Americana songs. The band personnel have gotten more dangerous since this album as well, but nothing since has matched the lyrical complexity or consistent musical quality of their breakthrough, mixed with artistry by revered producer and musician Jim O'Rourke.

Brian Wilson, “SMiLE” (Nonesuch) 2004
Thanks to crippling anxiety over the Beatles — as well as a drug-fueled mental breakdown that left him bloated and paranoid — Beach Boy creative genius Brian Wilson never released this baroque pop masterpiece after it was conceived in 1966 as a “teenage symphony to God.” Heavily orchestrated into three suites, with a cartoonish feel at times, the album nonetheless marks a multilayered creative peak for one of America's great pop songsmiths.

Girl Talk, “Night Ripper” (Illegal Art) 2006
We live in a remix culture, and DJ Gregg Gillis is one of the leading purveyors of sample-based, mash-up dance music. Released as a pay-what-you-will from Illegal Art, Gillis proved here that he was a genius at juggling song hooks — things as disparate as Britney Spears, Sonic Youth, Elton John and 2 Live Crew — while creating something original that plays on our multitasking, attention-deficit culture's need for instant gratification. And you can dance to it.

M.I.A., “Kala” (Interscope) 2007
British (via Sri Lanka) female rapper M.I.A. burst onto the scene sounding like a rough-hewn future diva of global hip-hop. Her strong sophomore album mixed genres such as electronic Bollywood, hip-hop, African music and alternative rock, but still managed to cross over to the pop mainstream. This was probably thanks to one of the best singles of the decade, “Paper Planes,” featured in the film “Slumdog Millionaire” — a track built around a reworking of the Clash's “Straight to Hell” and featuring a jarring sample of gunfire in the chorus.

LCD Soundsystem, “Sounds of Silver” (Capitol) 2007
One doesn't usually look to dance music for interesting lyrical themes, but ex-indie rocker James Murphy isn't your usual techno-flavored star. An analog fanatic, he seems to be channeling from his diverse record collection — including new wave, post punk, disco and kraut rock — while maintaining his edge whether on bittersweet relationship songs (“Someone Great”) or hard-hitting, club-friendly pop tunes.

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