The current decade — the "aughts" seems to be the closest we have to a consensus on this — is coming to a close, which is, of course, a great excuse for rampant list-making. I'm starting here with my own Top 50 albums and singles of the decade, counted down over the next month. End-of-decade material on film and local music will follow.
The bulk of the music on this list comes from three general areas — guitar rock of most types and any level of popularity, hip hop both mainstream and indie/underground, and country both Nashville and alt. For me this is where most of the action has been, with strong contributions from three other general areas — R&B/soul, African music, and chart pop. (I lack a better term for what is typically dred ’90s teen pop all grown up.)
There are a few more song-oriented examples of the disparate dance musics I'm ill-informed/gauche enough to still collectively call "techno," but generally I don't know as much about this stuff as I'd like to. If I'd expanded the list out to 100 (and believe me, I was tempted) there may have been token blues (Corey Harris) and jazz (James Carter) entries, but the former has sadly not produced many records that break out (or even deserve to break out) of its niche and the latter is more tangential to the music I care about. There is, I believe, one non-English-language/non-African record on the list. If I had more access and more time it would not be so lonely. As for other genres, I've never been able to drum up much interest in dancehall and I'm lost with metal that has any degree of purity. Anything else is pretty much off my radar.
Finally, where this list will veer from critical consensus the most will be on the presence of mainstream country (which critics don't take seriously enough) and African music (a personal interest most of my demographic ilk don't share) and the relative lack of the tasteful indie rock that outlets like Pitchfork Media and NPR have helped turn into cultural status items for educated, liberal white people. The way I heard the past decade, semi-obscure songwriters like Amy Rigby, Todd Snider, and Bobby Pinson had a lot more to say about the world than Beck, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, or Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
Those caveats out of the way, here we go. I'll be counting down albums and singles in pairs at the rate of a new post every day or two (25 total) throughout the next month:
What I wrote last year still applies:
There are suddenly a surfeit of artists tapping into '60s and '70s soul sounds, but former Tony Toni Tone singer Raphael Saadiq has been working in the vein for 20 years now: He's not a tribute artist; he's a practitioner. And the nonstop groove, compositional detail, and sometimes surprising songwriting ("Keep Marchin'" the campaign theme Curtis Mayfield wasn't around to write; "Sometimes" a family meditation of Smokey Robinson-level grace) on The Way I See It is the closest he — or anyone else — has been to the muse since his old band's 1996 swan song, House of Music.
Song sample: "Sometimes"
Single: "On My Block" — Scarface (2002)
The former Geto Boy's guided tour of his hood. I'm a sucker for hooking a beat up to a piano loop and converting it into hip-hop form. The official video:
The most recent record on the list. My review from last month:
Brad Paisley will never be considered a major artist by listeners who insist modern country be anachronistic or constipated to be taken seriously; who think marriage, work, and parenting unworthy pop-song subjects; who can't stomach a little schmaltz. But the multi-threat singer/songwriter/guitarist is a master craftsman on a big-time roll, one that stays on the upswing with this career-best seventh album. American Saturday Night is remarkable in part for being everything country music's target demo doesn't seem to be these days: Friendly, optimistic, pluralistic. The third-verse swerve and closing exhortation of "Welcome to the Future" leaves a lump in your throat long after you know what's coming, and it's made more meaningful in the hands of a country-music megastar from Obama-resistant West Virginia. And when that song bumps up against a testimonial to the value of a good marriage while the lead-off cultural diversity anthem is matched by a nimble, lived-in testimonial to the value of a good fishing trip, you start to believe that mainstream country's most skilled musician — his own guitar rarely letting the music flag — might be able to carry his audience along with him on this journey.
Song sample: "Welcome to the Future"
Single: "High Cost of Living" — Jamey Johnson (2008)
The new face of outlaw. One-Liner of the Decade candidate: "That Southern Baptist parking lot is where I'd go to smoke my pot."