Alicia Keys

Songs in A Minor (2001)

This marks the only instance in my life I can think of where after hearing a new artist’s debut song just once, I immediately went out and bought their whole album. “Fallin’” immediately captivated me — I particularly love how towards the end the vocals just keep layering themselves on top of each other, and just when you think its as vocally rich as it can be, a whole additional set of harmonies kick in. American Idol hopefuls have done their best to ruin this song for everybody (I’m not sure what logical gap led so many to think the best way to stand out was to sing the same song as everyone else), but 8 years later, Alicia’s original has stood the test of time. It felt like an instant classic the moment it was released, and that seems to be proving true. What a fine way for one of the decade’s most talented musicians to enter the world stage.

Also check out: John Legend’s “Ordinary People”


Get Ur Freak On

Missy Elliot

Miss E… So Addictive (2001)

Missy Elliot is probably the most talented female rapper out there. I’m not even sure I need to use the “female” qualifier there either. “Get Ur Freak On” is perhaps the epitome of her striking combination of weird, catchy, and rhythmic. Sounding more like a Talvin Singh track than a hip-hop smash, she even establishes her superiority by… spitting at you (and the video shows this acted out, even). She and Timbaland could pretty easily be credited with keeping hip-hop as the one genre that can still innovate and surprise above any other.

Also check out: This other Missy song just missed the top 50, but the frantic “Lose Control” still blows me away


Mad World

Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules

Donnie Darko Soundtrack (2001)

Who would have guessed that a stripped-down cover of an early ’80s synth-pop single would end up, 20 years later, as one of the most haunting songs of the decade? Everything about this song is a fluke — it was re-recorded by two virtually unknown artists (can you name another song by Michael Andrews or Gary Jules?) and released on the soundtrack to “Donnie Darko,” a film which flopped on initial release, and virtually no one knew of the track. But as “Donnie Darko” began to obtain cult status over the next few years, the song was re-released to become a surprise Christmas #1 in the UK, and eventually reached a worldwide audience. But enough with the back story — the song itself is fascinating enough on its own. The lyrics are sad and direct in the simplistic phrasing of a child, referencing birthday parties and the first day of school, longing for guidance and meaning, only to find emptiness. By dispensing with flowery metaphors in favor of plainspoken desolation, the song cuts deep — “I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I’m dying / are the best I’ve ever had.” The subdued vocal is perfectly complemented by a stripped-down accompaniment of piano and strings. This song feels like the eye of an emotional hurricane — a brief moment of quiet and calm in the middle of a “mad world.”

Also check out: “Distractions” by Zero 7




#1 (2001)

In the wake of Lady Gaga, the face-painting and odd costumes of Fischerspooner seem somewhat tame in comparison, but this duo is more about dirty, underground showmanship than shiny pop. “Emerge” is their calling card, a triumph of incredible music production, at times quietly skittering along with chopped-up vocals and submerged instrumentation, at other times forcefully hammering at you with a rapid-fire, fat-synth bassline and a shouted chorus. And despite the song not having any of the trappings of a typically uplifting pop tune, the repeated refrain is oddly optimistic: “you don’t need to emerge from nothing / you don’t need to tear away.” This is sung in half-time and double-speed, pitch-shifted up an octave, and layered until the song explodes in a scream near the end. Fischerspooner never really lived up to the promise of this first single with subsequent work, but on its own, this is easily one of the best songs of the decade.

Also check out: The Fischerspooner remix of Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World,” which transforms a bubbly pop tune into a desperate, sexual plea.