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The 50 Most Important Recordings Of The Decade: S-Z

All Songs Considered's list of the 50 most important recordings of the decade continues, from Britney Spears through Amy Winehouse.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

In the Zone

Mixing dance, house, crunk, Diwali beats and Neptunes-style hip-hop with a heap of campy sexuality and controversy, 2003's In the Zone is a primer on the sound of pop in the '00s. The lineup of producers is a who's-who of hit-makers: Bloodshy & Avant, R. Kelly, P. Diddy, Tricky, Moby, Frou Frou's Guy Sisgworth and The Matrix. Still trying to break free of her teen-pop past, Spears served as the ideal vehicle for a futuristic sound. The album features some of her best singles, including the critically embraced dance hit "Toxic" and the wrenching confessional ballad "Everytime." While the decade's history of celebrity obsession, paparazzi voyeurism and conflicted constructions of female sexuality and motherhood are written on Spears' body, the decade's history of impeccably crafted pop is written on her body of work. -- Amy Schriefer


In 2005's chilling Illinois, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens acts as a journalist, studying the stories of a single state and turning them into songs. When he wasn't paying tribute to Illinois' landmarks, Stevens looked at its historical figures, including 8'11" Robert Wadlow, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, President Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and many more. Illinois was the second in what was thought to be a series of records covering all 50 states in song; Michigan came first. Sadly, the only downside of Illinois is that turned out to be the last entry in a very short series; after a 2006 sequel with additional Illinois-themed songs (The Avalanche), Stevens moved on to other muses. -- Bob Boilen

Is This It

It didn't feel like it at the time, but The Strokes faced long odds when the band's debut came out in the fall of 2001. One of many anointed "saviors of rock," the band had an air of manufactured pop before hipsters learned to appreciate Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. It sold audiences impeccably curated retro cool at the last moment before technology turned everyone with a Napster account into librarians with unlimited access. Good riddance, right? Now, put the record on again. Is This It's melodies bounce lazily over a tightly woven aesthetic that hints at a co-opting of indie and classic-rock giants. But the band was too cool, the music too effortless, to acknowledge any debt; The Strokes' members were looking forward to the next 15 minutes. In 20 years, when children ask their parents what music they listened to when they were young, many will reach for this record first. -- Jacob Ganz

Once: Music from the Motion Picture

Glen Hansard's band The Frames made a bunch of tremendous records in the '00s, most notably 2001's For the Birds and 2005's Burn the Maps. But few people had any idea who he was until the tiny 2007 indie film Once -- and its lovely, unforgettable soundtrack -- made him a platinum-selling, Oscar-winning star. He and his co-star in the film, young Czech singer Marketa Irglova, became one of the decade's unlikeliest power couples; though their off-screen romance has since ended, they continue to perform and record as The Swell Season. Hansard's story, in particular, is one of boundless resilience and tenacity: Even in a shrinking industry, modest 20-year careers can still explode like supernovas overnight. --Stephen Thompson

In the Heart of the Moon

Two brilliant musicians from Mali came together without rehearsal to record one of the decade's most stunningly gorgeous records. Ali Farka Toure, the legendary guitarist, was 66 at the time of this 2005 recording; he would die only six months later. He'd known Toumani Diabate since the latter was an infant. (Toure was inspired to play music by Toumani's father Sidiki Diabate, the master kora player.) This recording blends two wildly different Malian traditions -- a mixing of cultures, which doesn't always happen there. The result is a classic. -- Bob Boilen

Return to Cookie Mountain

TV on the Radio's 2006 major-label debut begins with one of the band's most challenging and musically ambitious songs: "I Was A Lover" helps disprove the notion that moving to a bigger record company means having to play it safe. Awash in an explosion of Dave Sitek's feedback-drenched guitars, hip-hop beats and Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone's soulful vocals, the collage that is Return to Cookie Mountain seems to inhabit dozens of genres at once. The group's influences are somehow evenly distributed as it addresses post-Sept. 11 social issues and personal pain. The whole thing is held together by hypnotically danceable grooves that allow the songs to sound original and fun. -- Mike Katzif

College Dropout

The College Dropout made Kanye West one of the decade's biggest hip-hop artists. On the production side, he took the energy applied to Jay-Z's The Blueprint and shifted it to his own 2004 project. Lyrically, he went against the grain and took a more autobiographical approach, touching on his own insecurities, religion and his near-fatal car crash. West recorded his first single, "Through the Wire," with his mouth still wired shut from the accident -- a personally revealing approach uncommon in mainstream hip-hop. -- Robert Carter, aka DJ Cuzzin B

White Blood Cells

Jack White has long fused Detroit garage-rock with Zeppelin-worshipping bombast -- he's even explored country and bluegrass with Loretta Lynn and Ricky Skaggs -- but 2002's White Blood Cells is his main band's finest hour: a flawless slice of fuzzed-out, frenetic, trichromatic hip-shaking. The Lego-driven video for "Fell in Love With a Girl" is a classic in and of itself. -- Meredith Ochs

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Sometimes a band gets lucky and captures exactly what it intended on a record. And sometimes, as happened here with Wilco, the process of recording triggers profound creative change, dislodging old patterns and opening up new ways of thinking. Wilco starts with terrifically trenchant, earnest songs about the redemptive powers of love and music (and love of music), and then builds wildly idiosyncratic layered accompaniments to suit them. Since the release of 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's guitar-based instrumental backdrops have become bolder and at times thrillingly ambitious, even as its songs have grown both more straightforward and more cryptic. This album contains the seeds for all that stuff, and then some. -- Tom Moon

Back to Black

For all the endless, paparazzi-baiting spectacle of drugs, alcohol and divorce, it's easy to forget how talented Amy Winehouse is. A skinny, tattooed, rat-haired kid from London who takes vocal cues from Sarah Vaughan or even Billie Holiday, Winehouse was just 23 when Back to Black was released in 2007. Her lesser-known debut, Frank, had showcased Winehouse's jazz-inflected singing and skill at balancing bitterness with wry humor. But it was Mark Ronson -- the London-born, New York-based DJ and record producer -- whose influence helped land the best-selling Back to Black on this list. And, of course, it helped that the funk/soul revivalists in The Dap-Kings were there to make her songs pop. -- Meredith Ochs