When our parents discuss “the classics,” there is little leeway and little variation. How can one argue the greatness of The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Nirvana? The music of past generations existed in a pre-Internet age, when the masses were exposed to a precious few chart-toppers whose canonization was met with deservedly few objections. But since the turn of the millennium, genres have split sharply, and an exponentially expanded musical marketplace has made viable the potential for canonizing more ‘underground’ artists.
We won’t have to dig too deep for artists whose careers have been wholly synonymous with the success of their respective genres. And yet, there are many more landmark-making musicians whose relative obscurity might cause them to be missed by those still reliant on the FM dial.
Unbeknownst to many, these active acts are churning out generation-defining records to a gracious crowd of music insiders and indie rock aficionados.
The following is a list of ten artists, some of whom have become ubiquitous, and others who struggle for recognition outside high-brow cultural circles. These performers may well be considered the “classics” for future generations:
Countless new rappers are supposed to “change the game,” but few have matched the hype like Kanye did earlier this decade. Not content merely to popularize “positive rap,” the self-proclaimed “voice of this generation” has morphed sparkling production and pop sensibilities into several distinct formats since his 2003 debut, The College Dropout. In 2007’s Graduation, Kanye borrowed driving beats from European techno, threw down his signature rhymes and hooks, mashed it all together, and emerged with another Grammy. Just over a year later, with 2008’s sparse, Autotuned anti-rap 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye managed to both evade “career killer” status and drop several more irresistible singles. Aside from creating some of the era’s most emblematic music, West’s much-publicized personal exploits have revealed a sometimes arrogant, always eccentric, and yet utterly relatable pop star. Do yourself a favor and check out his perpetually CAPS LOCKED musings on Twitter.
James Murphy, the New York City-based DJ, producer, DFA Records honcho, and LCD mastermind is the first on this list whose music should be considered classic, but whose appeal might yet be too narrow for such a designation. Since 2002, Murphy has released two acclaimed albums, both lauded by critics as defining contributions to electronic and dance music. By combining decades’ worth of musical knowledge with entrancing disco-electro-house-synthpop, Murphy has brought a renewed legitimacy to a genre long dogged by passing trends and an ecstasy-ridden past.
Before they became the most frequently name-dropped band in the indie rock blogosphere, Arcade Fire was an unknown husband-wife project kicking around the Montreal underground scene. Funeral, their 2004 debut, entered the fray at a time when three or four-piece garage bands were the hot item. Then, suddenly, the concept of twenty musicians onstage simultaneously playing everything from guitar to glockenspiel became the new craze among music journalists. The band turned down offers from nearly every major record label and released 2007’s Neon Bible, their almost-just-as-good follow-up, on Merge Records – known for employing less then ten people. Not only are they indie rock’s saviors; Arcade Fire is also not for sale.
Dominated by disposable teen pop at one end and rap-metal at the other, mainstream popular music hit an all-time low at the turn of the millennium. JT of course cannot be blamed for Limp Bizkit, but for helping to popularize the boy-band trend as *NSYNC’s front man, he is guilty-as-charged. However, since going solo in 2002, Timberlake’s epiphany-like reinvention has mirrored the very rebirth of mainstream pop music in the latter half of the decade. Early critical claims of brilliance were ‘justified,’ pun intended, by 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds – the most authoritative pop album of the 2000s. Producer-extraordinaire Timbaland infused heavy R&B influence into the pop mogul’s sound, and the artist who was once ridiculed as nothing more than the object of middle school-aged girls’ wet dreams had arrived as the decade’s most mature face in pop music.
While some artists pride themselves on keeping a consistent sound, Radiohead has built a fanatical following with an album-by-album metamorphosis. Five years after “Creep,” their comparatively innocuous debut single, 1997’s career-defining OK Computer captured the paranoia of a generation just coming to terms with a new age of technology. Always ones to stay ahead of the curve, Thom Yorke and company released 2007’s In Rainbows exclusively as an online download, allowing purchasers to name their own price (including $0.00). As of late, the fivesome seems unwilling to craft another record by conventional means, an approach likely to be verified by a much-anticipated new album in 2010.
“Takeover,” the second offering on Jay-Z’s 2001 classic The Blueprint, is one of the most merciless diss tracks in the annals of hip-hop: the breaking point of his heated feud with Nas. Who other than Jay-Z could self-assuredly dismiss the artist behind Illmatic (arguably the genre’s greatest album) as a “little fuck?” Jay-Z is the hip-hop authority, the purveyor of countless hit tracks, and guest of honor on even more. By 2009, Hova declared himself “the new Sinatra” and wrote “Death of Autotune,” seemingly as the only man alive whose ego was big enough to stop the stampede of T-Pain imitators.
During an era in which mainstream rock has crumbled beneath the weight of post-grunge sludge and mall emo nonsense, these one-time new wave revivalists are one of the few dependable standards on the rock radio dial. From the synth-happy New Order worship of their 2004 breakthrough Hot Fuss, to the similarly detectable Bruce Springsteen worship on 2006’s Sam’s Town, Brandon Flowers’ crew has enjoyed remarkable consistency on the charts despite major shifts in sound. And really, who can blame the enigmatic front-man for taking well-deserved shots at Fall Out Boy and The Bravery?
The fascinatingly obtuse Sufjan Stevens has kept indie kids guessing his next move all decade with little success. His acclaimed “50 States Project,” which promised a concept album thematically based on every U.S. state, has produced only two entries since its 2003 inception – and may already be over. But for many, 2005’s Illinois will suffice; even with a limited discography, the Brooklyn minstrel is among the decade’s most successful artists, leaving fans holding their breath while he decides what to do next.
ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS
The indie scene was introduced to songwriter Antony Hegarty in 2005, when he was awarded Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize for best album, beating out a slew of heavy favorites. That year’s I Am a Bird Now and this year’s Crying Light are spellbinding orchestrations of dark cabaret, with Hegarty’s quivering vibrato as the focal point. As a member of New York’s gay community, his music explores issues of gender identity, self-perception, and life and death – with chilling immediacy.
In an Atlanta scene plagued by repetitive gangsta posturing, Outkast’s dynamic, left-brained persona has set the standard for innovative contemporary hip-hop. Is it any wonder that since the duo went on hiatus a few years ago, we’ve had to endure the rise of Soulja Boy-esque bangers and generic Auto-tuned money-grabs? Those whose thirst was not fully quenched by 2004’s uber-successful Speakerboxx/The Love Below should remain cautiously optimistic: Big Boi and André 3000 will be back sooner or later. The pair will carry with them the funkiest, oddball-est, and perhaps most meteorically successful catalogue of the decade, from “Rosa Parks,” to “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” to the crossover hit to end all crossover hits – “Hey Ya!”