All For Naught: Considering the end of the first decade of the new millennium

December 9, 2009


Since this month marks not only the end of 2009 but the conclusion of the first decade of the new century, more contemplation from the pop music desk seems in order.

Though any such glancing overview is by necessity full of gaping holes and glossed-over details, in the grand scope of things, the nearly 60-year history of rock 'n' roll breaks down pretty cohesively decade by decade in terms of each 10-year span offering a handful of key movements that dramatically changed the music we love.

The '50s gave us the birth of this new sound from its roots in country, R&B, blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop. The '60s witnessed the reinterpretation of those roots via the British Invasion and the Technicolor expansion of the psychedelic era. The '70s saw the emergence of heavy metal and disco, as well as the punk explosion. In the '80s, we had synth-pop/New Wave and the origins of hip-hop, while the '90s found hip-hop becoming the major force in popular music, even as alternative rock exploded at the beginning of the decade and teen-pop surged up at the end of it.

So, what are the key developments that have shifted the ground in popular music during the 2000's? The changes that spring to mind all have been technological or commercial rather than strictly musical.

The digital revolution has prompted a greater seismic shift in the music world than any development since the onset of recorded music at the turn of the century before last. Though its impact started to be felt in the '90s, this decade is when digital distribution via the Internet overtook the sale of physical product to become the primary way we consume music, confining CDs and vinyl albums (resurgent though the latter may be) to an ever-shrinking fraction of all the music sold worldwide.

Yes, given that many listeners now download their music for free, this technological shift has been a mixed blessing--certainly for the major record companies, which now seem doomed to extinction, but also for some artists, though few indeed have been those who've ever made the majority of their incomes from sales of recorded music via any medium. Still, as we move ever closer to the notion of the digital "cloud" letting us instantly access literally any piece of music ever recorded with the click of a button, it's hard to see how this can possibly be a bad thing for voracious music lovers.

The trade-off for musicians who've seen CD sales decrease has been the technological leaps that now give them the ability to have an idea, record it with a modest investment of computer equipment that offers infinitely greater capabilities than, say, the Beatles had at Abbey Road, and make their music available to potentially millions of listeners around the world all within the space of an hour.

Given that revolution in the ability to create, some argue that it's harder than ever as an emergent artist struggling to be heard amid the flood of new music. The industry to date has done a horrible job in helping the cream rise to the top, as radio and MTV have either mired in ever narrower playlists or stopped playing new music entirely, prompting some artists to turn to selling their souls to advertising or, even worse, pandering to pop phenoms such as "American Idol" because they think those are the only ways to win a mass audience.

The notion of a brave new world where everyone is his or her own gatekeeper is a noble one, but the fact is, not everyone has the time to surf 10,000 MySpace pages to find the one Lily Allen or Kid Sister. Call it self-serving optimism, but I believe we will emerge from this transitional period with a bold new age of criticism--whether in the form of blogs or podcasts, old-school dead-tree media or the next innovation we haven't even imagined yet--where the recommendations of trusted listeners, amateurs or professionals, will be more valuable than ever to help us tune in to the Next Big Thing.

At the same time, I also believe that devoted musical communities also will be more important than ever--in the real world, as well as in the digital realm. Consider our beloved Chicago. Though we've lose some great institutions in the last 10 years--from the rock club Lounge Ax, which closed on January 15, 2000, to the record store the Quaker Goes Deaf, shuttered a few years back, to the radical downsizing of the mighty independent Touch and Go Records last summer--we are incredibly fortunate to still have a wealth of brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood centers of musical community, including dozens of mom-and-pop record stores, a staggering number of consistently brilliant independent labels, and a bounty of rock clubs that stand with some of the finest anywhere in the U.S.

Music lovers can share their enthusiasms on the Net, but ultimately, the most rewarding encounters happen in person, face to face, with the volume turned way up in giant speakers instead of tiny ear buds. A strictly digital musical world is like virtual sex--it's just can't compete with the real thing.

As for the broad picture of the music of the last decade, Next Big Things were few and far between: Rather than the emergence of exciting new movements like punk or hip-hop upending the status quo, it was an era of artistic consolidation and reconsideration, with many of the best artists reworking the past to suit their present--whether we're talking the Strokes updating the Velvet Underground for the post-grunge years, Kanye West merging the dusty soul grooves of his youth with the electronic dance sounds of Daft Punk, or the Flaming Lips remaking the Beatles' "Revolver" for a Christmas party in a space-age disco on Mars.

Sure, there's nothing new under the sun, and punk and disco and hip-hop and electronica and any other sound you care to name that once seemed utterly bold and new in reality built on much of what had come before. But it seemed as if the innovators of the Naughts, as some have called this decade, were so consumed with just keeping up with the technological changes that they had little energy, imagination or audacity left to position what they were doing as a new pop movement.

Either that, or the combination of sound, attitude and style that is about to change everything once again is still incubating in a South Side bedroom or a Schaumburg basement, preparing to turn the world on its ear in 2010. and really giving us something to marvel at in the decade to come.

Meanwhile, as we're waiting, here is a quick look back at the albums that I listed as the Ten Best from 2000 through 2008.



1. D'Angelo, "Voodoo" (Virgin)
2. Common, "Like Water for Chocolate" (MCA)
3. Queens of the Stone Age, "Rated R" (Interscope)
4. The Blue Meanies, "The Post Wave" (MCA)
5. Veruca Salt, "Resolver" (Beyond)
6. Everlast, "Eat At Whitey's" (Tommy Boy)
7. P.J. Olsson, "Words for Living" (C2 Records)
8. Screeching Weasel, "Teen Punks in Heat" (Panic Button/Lookout!)
9. Mary Timony, "Mountains" (Matador)
10. The Smashing Pumpkins, "Machina/The Machines of God" (Virgin)

(N.B.: For the first few years of the decade, I stubbornly held to a personal tradition of listing my Ten Best Albums alphabetically, declining to rank them from 1 to 10 in terms of excellence. Since readers invariably read the album that fell at No. 1 alphabetically as my choice for the No. 1 album qualitatively, however, I have rearranged the lists in those terms, something I finally gave up and started doing around 2004 anyway.)



1. Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (the initial digital release; the official Nonesuch release followed in 2002)
2. The Strokes, "Is This It?" (RCA)
3. Macy Gray, "The Id" (Epic)
4. Monster Magnet, "God Says No" (A&M)
5. Iggy Pop, "Beat 'Em Up" (Virgin)
6. Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (Columbia)
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "No More Shall We Part" (Reprise)
8. Mellow, "Another Mellow Spring" (CyberOctave)
9. Kelly Hogan, "Because It Feel Good" (Blood Shot)
10. Prince, "The Rainbow Children" (Redline Entertainment)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2001 can be found here.)



1. The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (Warner Bros.)
2. Beck, "Sea Change" (Interscope)
3. Common, "Electric Circus" (MCA)
4. Mary Timony, "Golden Dove" (Matador)
5. Marianne Faithfull, "Kissin' Time" (Virgin)
6. Steve Earle, "Jerusalem" (Artemis)
7. Peter Gabriel, "Up" (Geffen)
8. Moby, "18" (V2)
9. The Roots, "Phrenology" (MCA)
10. The Warlocks, "Phoenix Album" (Birdman)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2002 can be found here.)



1. Outkast, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (LaFace)
2. Granddaddy, "Sumday" (V2)
3. Thursday, "War All the Time" (Island)
4. Macy Gray, "The Trouble with Being Myself" (Epic)
5. The Strokes, "Room On Fire" (RCA)
6. Cherrywine, "Bright Black" (DCide/Babygrande)
7. Deftones, "Deftones" (Maverick)
8. Longwave, "The Strangest Things" (RCA)
9. Wire, "Send" (Pink Flag)
10. Neil Young, "Greendale" (Reprise)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2003 can be found here.)



1. Kayne West, "College Dropout" (Roc-A-Fella)
2. Green Day, "American Idiot"
3. Wilco, "A Ghost Is Born" (Nonesuch)
4. Steve Earle, "The Revolution Starts Now" (Artemis)
5. Franz Ferdinand, "Franz Ferdinand" (Domino/Epic)
6. Mark Lanegan Band, "Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet)
7. The Polyphonic Spree, "Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood)
8. The Roots, "The Tipping Point" (Geffen)
9. Jill Scott, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2" (Hidden Beach)
10. The Secret Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2004 can be found here.)



1. Common, "Be" (Good Music/Geffen)
2. LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem" (DFA/Capitol)
3. Kanye West, "Late Registration" (Roc-A-Fella)
4. The Go! Team, "Thunder Lightning Strike" (Columbia)
5. Moby, "Hotel" (V2)
6. Ladytron, "Witching Hour" (Ryko)
7. Coldplay, "X&Y" (Capitol)
8. The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan" (V2)
9. System of a Down, "Mezmerize" & "Hypnotize" (Sony)
10. The New Pornographers, "Twin Cinema" (Matador)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2005 can be found here.)



1. Art Brut, "Bang Bang Rock & Roll" (Downtown)
2. Lily Allen, "Alright, Still" (EMI International)
3. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown/Atlantic)
4. The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife" (Capitol)
5. Lupe Fiasco, "Food & Liquor" (Atlantic)
6. Grandaddy, "Just Like the Fambly Cat" (V2)
7. Neil Young, "Living with War" (Reprise)
8. Peaches, "Impeach My Bush" (XL Recordings)
9. The Dresden Dolls, "Yes, Virginia..." (Roadrunner)
10. Rhymefest, "Blue Collar" (Allido/J Records)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2006 can be found here.)



1. Grinderman, "Grinderman" (Anti-)
2. Glenn Mercer, "Wheels in Motion" (Pravda)
3. Tim Fite, "Over the Counter Culture" (
4. Modest Mouse, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" (Epic)
5. Kanye West, "Graduation" (Roc-A-Fella)
6. LCD Soundsystem, "Sound of Silver" (DFA/EMI)
7. Spoon, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" (Merge)
8. The Apples in Stereo, "New Magnetic Wonder" (Simian/Yep Roc)
9. Radiohead, "In Rainbows" (
10. Air, "Pocket Symphony" (Astralwerks)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2007 can be found here.)



1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" (Anti-)
2. David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" (
3. Vivian Girls, "The Vivian Girls" (In the Red)
4. The Knux, "Remind Me in 3 Days" (Interscope)
5. Brazilian Girls, "New York City" (Verve)
6. Local H, "12 Angry Months" (Shout Factory)
7. Saul Williams, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!" (
8. Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes" (Sub Pop)
9. Kanye West, "808s & Heartbreak" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
10. Erykah Badu, "New AmErykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War" (Motown)