Aught Lang Syne: Musical Artist of the Decade

Ten years can be an eternity in music. Ten years after The Beatles released Please Please Me, they had become the biggest band in the world, recorded 12 more albums, and been broken up for three years. Ten years after Elvis came onto the scene and practically invented rock and roll for most of the country, he was an old clown singing boring movie soundtracks. Ten years after Nirvana released Nevermind, Courtney Love had more or less undone the grunge movement with the help of her band Hole.

The lesson: It’s really hard for a band or performer to be good for 10 years. This is probably why we end up remembering decades for small snippets: The 1970s are forever linked to disco, which was popular for a little over two years. The 1990s are best remembered for grunge’s dominance, which was waning by 1994. It’s hard to the think of a similar “moment” from the 2000s.

What we instead remember, with regard to music, are acts. Think of the ’50s and you think of Elvis, the ’60s and The Beatles, the ’70s and Led Zeppelin (or The Clash, or Pink Floyd), the ’80s and Guns N’ Roses (or Bon Jovi), the ’90s and Nirvana, etc. I’ve hypothesized about how this decade will be remembered musically, but that may be less important than who this decade is remembered for. What band or performer had the best decade from 2000-2009? Well, before we breakdown the list of contenders, let’s go over the criteria:

Quality*: A musician cannot be said to have a good decade unless said musician produces good music. Who judges if music is good? Well, me.

Originality: An artist of the decade must sound reasonably different from the artists of preceding decades; this is what makes them distinctly identifiable.

Popularity: It’s hard to remember bands that toiled in obscurity; not impossible, but hard.

Durability: You know who was huge in the 1950s? Fabian. But nobody really listens to him now, so we don’t really think of him as the ‘artist of the decade.’**

*It should be stressed that quality includes quality THROUGHOUT the decade, so a band that produced two great albums and four bad ones may get a worse score than a band with five solid albums.

**Now, granted, it’s a little early to tell how an album released in January of 2009 will be received down the road—this category will be largely speculative.

These are the qualities in descending order of importance. I have a very complex and algorithmic method of coming up with a final score, but I’ll let you try and figure that out. Here are the candidates:

Animal Collective

Quality: 8

Originality: 8

Popularity: 4

Durability: 4

The Case For:

The mere breadth of Animal Collective’s output during this decade makes them worthy of consideration. Since 2000, they’ve released seven albums, at least three of which could be classified as “great,” four EPs and two live CDs. They’ve been a popular “buzz band” since 2003, and they’ve shown steady progression throughout the decade. Animal Collective is one of the few bands that improved as the decade went on.

The Case Against:

They never achieved mainstream success: Most music fans have never heard of them. The fact that they are a very “trendy” or “hipster” band means that there is a high probability that the popularity they do have is fleeting: It doesn’t take long for a band to become uncool. And though I can say with near certainty that I’ll be listening to them once the Aughts end, I don’t know how much we’ll hear about them once their time as an “it” band runs out.

The Arcade Fire

Quality: 8

Originality: 6

Popularity: 5

Durability: 4

The Case For:

They produced one of the most discussed debut albums of the decade, which was probably the best album put out by any artist since 2000. They also produced a solid follow-up, developed a reputation as a great live band, and were cited as influential by such luminaries as Davids Bowie and Byrne. They were also an indie band that achieved a fair amount of mainstream success, with radio play, MTV appearances, and the like.

The Case Against:

Only two albums to Animal Collective’s seven? That’s pretty pathetic. Truthfully, though, it is hard for one great album, no matter how great it is, to cement your status as the performer of the decade—just ask Television. It can be done (see: Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses), but the band needs to be a cultural phenomenon in a way Arcade Fire never was.

Beyonce

Quality: 4

Originality: 4

Popularity: 10

Durability: 5

The Case For:

Between her time in Destiny’s Child and her solo career, she was part of a string of commercial hits this decade: “Survivor,” “Bootylicious,” “Independent Women,” “Baby Boy,” “Irreplaceable,” “Single Ladies,” as well as one of the biggest hits of the decade, “Crazy in Love.” She also produced a music video that at least one person thinks is “one of the best videos of all time.” She has sold over 100 million records, all told, and has remained relevant and popular throughout the entire decade.

The Case Against:

Well, her music’s not that good. She is a hit machine, but, with the exception of “Crazy in Love,” none of her hits have very much longevity or musical impact. A lot of her success can be attributed to her image and her looks, and the fact that she dated and married Jay-Z; if these kinds of things were part of the criteria, then the “artist of the decade” would clearly be Britney Spears. But it’s not.

Coldplay

Quality: 3

Originality: 0

Popularity: 8

Durability: 3

The Case For:

50 million records sold worldwide. Four albums in the decade, all received well by critics and all selling over a million copies in the US. They also had huge success with singles “Yellow,” “Clocks,” “The Scientist,” “Speed of Sound,” etc. During the early 2000s, multiple sources referred to them as “the best band in the world.” (Also, Chris Martin was funny in Extras.)

The Case Against:

Their music is derivative, maudlin and boring. They sound like a watered down version of U2, and not even good U2. There is no denying that Coldplay has been popular, but they haven’t been influential, innovative or interesting. Most of what they have been produced is forgettable, and will be forgotten in a few years.

Eminem

Quality: 6

Originality: 7

Popularity: 10

Durability: 4

The Case For:

Nobody was bigger than Eminem at the start of the decade. The Marshall Mathers LP was the apex of his fame, riding the popularity of “The Real Slim Shady,” but also featuring a deep track list. The Eminem Show and Encore were also incredibly popular, each selling over 10 million copies. Eminem was also a completely distinct and original voice in the rap community, and he was able to appeal to people who were only mildly interested on rap. His influence on his genre may be unmatched in the Aughts.

The Case Against:

Dude took over three years off after releasing Encore. You can’t sit out a third of the decade and still expect to coast to “Artist of the Decade.” Plus, when he came out of his semi-retirement, he released the subpar Relapse, which brought down his overall quality score.

Kanye West

Quality: 7

Originality: 9

Popularity: 9

Durability: 10

The Case For:

West has released four albums this decade, three of which have sold over 2 million copies, and the fourth of which is probably on its way (808s and Heartbreaks currently sits at over 1.5 million a year after its release). His first three albums were all incredibly well-received by critics, and spawned some of the biggest hits of the Aughts: “Through the Wire,” “Jesus Walks,” “Gold Digger,” and “Stronger.” He’s also been at the forefront of innovations in hip hop, the dominant genre of the decade.

The Case Against:

West’s solo debut didn’t come out until almost halfway through the decade. Before 2004, West was known—to those who knew of him at all—mainly for his behind-the-scenes production of The Blueprint. His work is also largely overrated, if you ask me. Plus, he’s an asshole.

The New Pornographers

Quality: 7

Originality: 6

Popularity: 5

Durability: 5 

The Case For:

The New Pornographers released four albums this decade, three of which are great. They also span a wide range of sounds, incorporating the different styles of Carl Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar seamlessly into something distinct. Over the course of the decade, they managed to produce great singles, like “Letter from an Occupant,” as well as complete albums, like Twin Cinema.

The Case Against:

The release of Challengers, their latest album and a modest disappointment, certainly hurts their overall score. Their albums are also more noteworthy for the way they combine elements of pop, indie, and country music, and less for their own innovations. And the fact that they are really a “power pop” band that was never that popular hurts their cause, through no fault of their own.

OutKast

Quality: 7

Originality: 10

Popularity: 9

Durability: 7

The Case For:

Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below were two of the best and most popular albums of the decade. They also spawned classic singles like “B.O.B.” “Ms. Jackson,” “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” The band was incredibly innovative—it’s hard to pin their music down to a genre, or to find another act of the decade that sounds quite like them.

The Case Against:

After Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2003, Andre 3000 and Big Boi released the soundtrack to the film Idlewild but were more or less broken up (unofficially) for the rest of the decade. Also, the fact that a large portion of OutKast’s output came before 2000 hurts their chances of ever being identified with the Aughts.

Radiohead

Quality: 8

Originality: 10

Popularity: 8

Durability: 8

The Case For:

Kid A, Hail to the Theif and In Rainbows were all excellent albums, particularly Kid A, which may be the best of the decade. The band completely reinvented itself and its sound this decade, becoming the most original rock band in the world. Radiohead was even innovative commercially, releasing In Rainbows themselves in a “name your own price” fashion—to allegedly resounding success.

The Case Against:

Even moreso than OutKast, Radiohead is already identified with the 1990s. The band’s biggest hit (“Creep”) and probably their best album (OK Computer) came out before the Aughts. Also, Amnesiac, released in 2001 after Kid A, was probably the band’s worst album since Pablo Honey and relatively disappointing. Their brief hiatus in the middle of the decade–they released only one album after 2003–hurts their chances even more. 

TV on the Radio

Quality: 8

Originality: 9

Popularity: 6

Durability: 8

The Case For:

TV on the Radio continuously evolved and progressed throughout the decade, starting with the unconventional OK Calculator in 2002, and eventually culminating in 2008’s Dear Science. Throughout the Aughts, their experimental sound was unparalleled. They also released a great EP in 2003, Young Liars, and produced one of the greatest songs of the decade, in “Wolf Like Me.”

The Case Against:

The band didn’t really produce a complete album that was great from top to bottom until 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain; a fair amount of this decade was developmental for the band. They also suffer from the same “It” band stigma that afflicts Animal Collective, leading to questions about their ability to stay relevant.

The Verdict

Well, in the end it’s a three-horse race, with Radiohead, OutKast, and Kanye West clearly outpacing the rest of the contenders (Eminem would be in the discussion as well, and probably win it running away, were it not for his hiatus), and I think West barely beats out the other two. Part of this may be timing—the peak in West’s popularity came later than the peak in Radiohead’s and OutKast’s, meaning that his influence and cultural impact are fresher in my mind. But this is also the result of Radiohead and OutKast’s having careers that spanned decades, which means they aren’t really identifiable with the 2000s; if AD had started seven years earlier, and the 2000s covered 1993-2003, Radiohead and Outkast would clearly have the edge. West is also possibly helped by his outsized personality: Andre 3000 and Big Boi are more low-key, and Radiohead is practically Howard Hughes compared to Kanye. But I do think—as I’ve mentioned—that something about West’s sound and impact will be identified with this decade in the same way Nirvana is linked to the 1990s. So while he’s certainly not my favorite artist of the decade, I think he is the artist of the decade.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Warren on December 3, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    decent list, but don’t you think Britney Spears warranted some consideration? She produced 20 singles that charted this decade, including at least one in every year…

    Reply

  2. Posted by Warren on December 3, 2009 at 12:38 PM

    I now see the qualification above under beyonce’s entry*

    Reply

  3. Posted by Stacey on December 3, 2009 at 2:45 PM

    BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
    this entry is toxic.

    Reply

  4. […] Aught Lang Syne « Aught Lang Syne: Musical Artist of the Decade […]

    Reply

  5. Posted by James Schneider on December 13, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    good job, but where did you get outkast from? Who listens to outkast outside of andre 3000s frestyle stuff(which is suprisingly good)? So you thought that Outkast had a bigger impact on the decadde than Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, or Rihanna?….and through the wire was not 1)one of Kanye Wetst’s 4 biggest songs 2) big…

    Reply

    • Posted by james Schneider on November 26, 2010 at 12:24 PM

      So since I made this comment, I have started listening to Outkast. I suppose I have some egg on my face…

      Reply

  6. byonce is the most beautiful.

    Reply

  7. Posted by angelo on January 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    I think coldplay is not boring……but we all have our own opinions…….They might be forgotten to you but i will always remember them as one of the greatest bands…….Im sure that alot of people are also going to remember them in the future.

    Reply

  8. Posted by vahser on February 7, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    I think you are a little off saying that coldplay will be forgotten by everyone, if anything U2s music is boring cliche and over done, they haven’t done anything new since joshua tree and amnesiac is a great album…what is wrong with you.

    Reply

  9. Posted by ynna on April 25, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    yeah you think beyonce is beautiful you should see her without makeup and with her real hair then you could say if shes beatiful or not.

    Reply

  10. YOU ROCK BEYONCE YOU ARE ONE OF MY INSPIRATIONS I USE WHEN IM NOT FEELING CONFIDENT IN MYSELF BUT THANKS 2 YOU I NO LONGER HAVE THAT PROBLEM THANKS FOR BEING MY INSPIRATION…!!!!!!!!!!!
    LOVE TAYMARRA

    Reply

  11. Posted by Olubusola Ogunbekun on June 10, 2010 at 3:46 AM

    Sexy B,wat can i say,u blow away everyone’s mind with ur sexiness & amazing voice.My Jay is lucky to have u,i always wish i had ur kind of shape,most of all,really appreciate wat u’re doin,u have inspired me in so many ways.You rock,keep it up

    Reply

  12. […] Thom Yorke thinks the music industry is going to implode in months, so it’s a good thing Radiohead already had a pretty good couple decades. […]

    Reply

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