In a decade fueled by hyperconsumption and paranoia, some musicians stood out by balancing cultural relevance, technological innovation and raw lyrical and sonic power.
These artists and their recordings — the best of the millennium so far — significantly upped the ante in their respective genres of rock, pop, hip-hop and beyond (usually by obliterating those labels). These musicians’ beautiful noise will only grow louder as the next decade unfurls.
Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (2000), One Beat (2002), The Woods (2004)
Although this conscientious Pacific Northwest power trio went on indefinite hiatus after lobbing The Woods‘ deafening truth bomb on our blitzkrieged global village, you can still feel that record’s reverberations from every corner of the globe. It was a splendidly noisy, invested affair, shot through with scathing riffage (listen to “Entertainment,” below) and wrenching human heartbreak (listen to “Jumpers,” below that). If Neil Young was right that it’s better to burn out than fade away, Sleater-Kinney’s swan-song incineration was a kiss-off for the ages.
What’s crazy is that few saw it coming. After the defiant All Hands on the Bad One found guitarists and vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and incendiary drummer Janet Weiss at the top of their musical game, it seemed like there was nowhere to go but down. But when Sleater-Kinney’s fiercely political post-9/11 full-length One Beat arrived with a horrific scream, it quickly became clear that the trio’s best work was yet to come. And once The Woods came into earshot, there was nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide.
Rest in peace, Sleater-Kinney. Unless you want to awaken and return, at any time. That would be fine too. Really. Rock so sucks without you.
El-P: Fantastic Damage (2002), I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
It’s apropos that El-P is pictured above in front of what looks like a lie detector, because he’s rock and hip-hop’s eminent truth-teller. His apocalyptic twin missiles Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead may have flown beneath hip-hop’s hopelessly distracted mainstream, but that’s only because their personal and political pain was too much to bear for hearts and minds that sold their souls to the twin hallucinations of reality TV and the war on terror.
Songs on both efforts mashed the political and cultural madness of the decade with sci-fi standouts like Star Trek, THX-1138 and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (in “Deep Space 9mm” at right). El-P’s labyrinthine rhymes were backed by beats fed through two Technics, an Ensoniq sampling keyboard, one Vestax mixer, a Korg Chaoss Pad and more comparatively lo-fi recording tech.
His profile escalated sharply on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, in the form of a kinetic beat upgrade and cameos from Trent Reznor (in “Flyentology” at right), Cat Power and other all-stars. But even that abrasive classic unsettled more soma-sniffing hip-hop heads than it awakened upon its release in 2007.
“I’m more interested in saying something that will mean something,” the former Company Flow member told Wired.com. The group’s stunning debut Funcrusher Plus was reissued earlier this year. “My solo work made sense of the inevitable Third World War. Which is why I ended up bringing more of who I was into the picture, and became more influenced by matters of the heart and head.”In the end, it was El-P’s decision to abandon the music industry and form the respected indie label Definitive Jux in 1999, setting the stage for his brilliant bow as the finest hip-hop artist of the ’00s. From its slew of releases from intelligent, talented hip-hop artists like RJD2, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and Rob Sonic to team-ups with television tastemakers like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Def Jux turned out some of the most potent artistic work of the ’00s.
Through it all, El-P churned out the best hip-hop of our still-new millennium, and raised the stakes for electronic music speaking truth to power and paranoia. Tell a friend.
The Mars Volta: Deloused in the Comatorium (2003), Frances the Mute (2005), Amputechture (2006), The Bedlam in Goliath (2008), Octahedron (2009)
Rodriguez-Lopez is probably, pound for pound, the most talented and electrifying guitar player in rock, a cerebral hybrid of Jimi Hendrix, Alex Lifeson and Carlos Santana capable of annihilating his fretboard on a daily basis. As the group’s chief sonic architect, he’s responsible for not just the labyrinthine rock tomes found on all of The Mars Volta’s releases, but also well over 10 solo efforts released under his name in this decade alone.
Meanwhile, Bixler-Zavala has some of the most diversely powerful pipes since Robert Plant and Black Francis — his voice hop-scotches from punk to rock to funk without losing breath, delivering dizzying lyrics that slipstream between suggestive poetry and naked portrayal like something William S. Burroughs could have written. In addition, the band’s influences vary wildly from esoteric cinema to the art of Storm Thorgerson, who designed mind-warping cover art for The Mars Volta as he has for legends like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. All told, The Mars Volta’s technical and creative artistry faced little real competition in our Auto-Tuned ’00s.
“Half the time, it’s about staying interested and not getting bored with the repetition,” Rodriguez-Lopez told me in 2005.
Mogwai: Rock Action (2001), Happy Songs for Happy People (2003), Mr. Beast (2006)
In the ’00s, Mogwai picked up where it left off in the ’90s: Making immortal, mostly instrumental mood anthems hiding behind deliberately nonsensical song titles. The Scottish atmosphere factory’s ’90s efforts like Mogwai Young Team were nearly impossible to match, but the band managed to do just that, with a sonic diversity that comes from five sharp musical minds at the peak of their powers.
“All of us write, so [the sound] depends from song to song,” Mogwai guitarist and vocalist Stuart Brathwaite told Wired.com in 2008. From the epic majesty of Rock Action‘s “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” to Happy Songs for Happy People‘s pathological “Hunted by a Freak” (viewable in the creepy, probably NSFW video at right), all five Mogwai talents have written like pros.
They’ve also reached out to their fans more than most, whether through the band’s website or their Rock Action label. Now they just have to get on Facebook. Don’t they?
“I don’t do Facebook,” Brathwaite said, “so I don’t know what that means.”
Pinback: Blue Screen Life (2001), Summer in Abaddon (2004), Autumn of the Seraphs (2007)
Of all the indie laptop pop bands to emerge this decade, Pinback’s sci-fi serenade resonates most forcefully. Built wholly from the multi-instrumental talents and intertwining vocal harmonies of bassist Zach Smith and guitarist Rob Crow, Pinback’s accessible-yet-estranged pop masterpieces proved entrancing.
Better than that, they were all made in Crow and Smith’s respective apartments, on personal technology that can make anyone with talent an indie standout.
“It was amazing that we didn’t have to sit around in the studio and watch some dude change the reels,” Pinback’s Smith told Wired.com in October, before the band hit the road. “Computers and software have gotten better since then. But in the beginning we were scared to death that nothing was going to render. We thrashed so many CDs trying to burn the first Pinback album, because we never had backed up a computer before that. It never crossed our minds until we “lost about half that album.”
Named after the doomed philosophical astronaut at the heart of John Carpenter’s cult sci-fi classic Dark Star — the spacesuits for which Crow is wearing in the video for “From Nothing to Nowhere” above — Pinback has consistently produced extensively brilliant material in this darkening decade. From the aforementioned full-lengths to a gripload of EPs and relentless touring, the band has spread Sly Stone’s simple gospel: You can make it if you try, on your own terms and with your own tech.