The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Tracks of the 2000s

  1. The White Stripes – ‘Seven Nation Army’ (2003) (XL / V2)

Armed with arguably the catchiest and most accessible guitar riff of the decade, Jack ‘n’ Meg went from being critically acclaimed to genuinely popular with ‘Seven Nation Army’. What surprised most established fans of The White Stripes’ stripped-down guitar and drums aesthetic with this track was its new-found complexity and sonic palette, particularly what sounded like an actual bass guitar (actually a 1950s semi-acoustic guitar played through a Whammy pedal set down an octave), Jack White mused about notoriety and fame over a tune so catchy that it’s still sung in football grounds today.

  1. Rihanna – ‘Umbrella’ (2007) (Def Jam / SRP)

Rihanna had been long established by 2007, beginning her career at the prodigiously young of age of 17 in the early noughties, but ‘Umbrella’ marked the point at which she earned crossover credibility, both critically speaking and in terms of raw sales. Sung with us-against-the-world defiance, despite its up-to-date production it was actually a good old-fashioned pop song ‘like they used to make’, making sense to listeners of all ages and in all contexts – a rare achievement in a music scene splintered by multi-media and tribalism. Scores of other massive worldwide hits for RiRi have followed like a conveyor belt, but none of them in quite the same category as this.

  1. Arcade Fire – ‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’ (2004) (Merge / Rough Trade)

The thundering, cathartic opening track from Funeral, Arcade Fire pulled out all the stops and displayed every musical element that made their dread-laden, post-millennial sound so compelling, projecting diary-like intimacy onto the widest of canvasses while rendering every nuance in high definition. The rhythm section moved like a speeding train as the song climaxed, lyrics that constructed a complex, psycho-social space in which childhood memories and fears for the future could co-exist, and a perfect blend of pianos, strings, bass and heavenly backing vocals that propelled ‘Tunnels’ majestically into the stratosphere.

  1. The xx – ‘Intro’ (2009) (Young Turks)

A track that’s surely familiar to every single person in the Western world through its extensive use in TV and film as setting music, ‘Intro’ was never a chart hit but propelled its creators, the shy and reclusive xx, to global fame and millions upon millions of Spotify streams. A 2:08 instrumental consisting of gently picked electric guitar and spectral production, it stands a musical shorthand for The xx’s entire vision. Absolutely perfectly evoking the strange quiet of a neon-lit cityscape at night, and creating the illusion of peacefulness and space, it was a masterpiece of epic minimalism.

  1. Outkast – ‘Ms. Jackson’ (2000) (Arista / RCA)

Before ‘Ms. Jackson’, Outkast had consistently wowed the critics in the ‘90s and had reached multi-platinum status, but never truly reached the audience that their forward-thinking brand of hip-hop, refreshingly free of the binary East v West Coast dichotomy, deserved. They’d never had a hit, in short, but all that was to finally change. ‘Ms. Jackson’ remains one of the most recognisable and catchy pop hooks since the turn of the millennium, it told a story of a broken family from a father’s perspective, with Andre 3000’s lyrics also doubling up as an open letter to the mother of Erykah Badu (the soul singer with whom he had a son). Winning the 2002 Grammy for Best Rap Performance, the Atlantan duo had at last arrived in the mainstream.

  1. Hot Chip – ‘Over And Over’ (2006) (EMI)

Showing just how creatively liberating it can be to not give a fuck, Hot Chip came off the unfashionable sidelines of electronic music in the mid-noughties to score a massive indie/electro anthem. With a squelchy rhythm of spaced-out cowbells, wiggly synths and sound effects set to a hypotic house beat, the nagging insistence and “joy of repetition” of ‘Over And Over’ was a clever change of pace to most of what was going on in 2006, and it made just as much sense to chill out, lie back and just listen to as it did in the middle of a packed dancefloor.

  1. Gnarls Barkley – ‘Crazy’ (2006) (Downtown / Warner Bros.)

Looping a short sample of the instrumentation from Reverberi Brothers’ dramatic ‘Last Man Standing’, a spaghetti-western soundtrack, DJ Danger Mouse (aka. Brian Burton) crafted an instant post-soul/hip-hop crossover with the help of CeeLo Green’s show-stopping vocals, at once plaintive, paranoid and mocking. ‘Crazy’ was a tasteful blend of modern beats and old-school soul, and was a massive hit months ahead of its official release when it was leaked to radio, so huge that it dwarfed its similarly brilliant but sadly unremembered parent album St. Elsewhere. It also holds the distinction of becoming the first Number 1 hit in the UK from downloads alone.

  1. Justice vs. Simian – ‘We Are Your Friends’ (2006) (Virgin)

Nothing about ‘We Are Your Friends’ should have worked: a track that, on paper, seemed to shoehorn and bludgeon all the tacky, glitzy, throwaway aspects of early ‘80s synth music into four minutes, complete with a cheesy, faintly headachy repeated vocal line, suddenly came to life on the dancefloors in 2006 and soundtracked decadent nights out all over the world with its universal appeal. French DJ duo Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay completed re-purposed British psych-pop also-rans Simian’s ‘Never Be Alone’ and created one of the finest club anthems of the decade. Its video, full of hungover party animals, promptly triumphed at the 2006 VMAs, to the ire of a certain Kanye West…

  1. The Libertines – ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ (2004) (Rough Trade)

In many ways the epitaph for Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s love/hate songwriting relationship, slyly acknowledging the tabloid portrayal of the band as rock’s favourite soap opera, ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ is the band’s finest hour, all pretences dropped and emotions laid bare. Recorded in a studio where, by all accounts, producer Mick Jones had to hire security to stop Pete and Carl from fighting each other, it perfectly captures the volatile chemistry that made The Libertines such a compelling and visceral experience, as you can imagine them trading lines into the same microphone in the studio while giving each other dagger-eyes.

  1. The Strokes – ‘Hard To Explain’ (2001) (Rough Trade)

Paired with the equally awesome ‘New York City Cops’ for an AA-side single release at the height of summer 2001, ‘Hard To Explain’ was the first chance the public at large got to experience The Strokes, and it stoked anticipation for their debut album Is This It to sky-high proportions. The band’s whip-cracking rhythm section was tightened up to the point it might snap, the band’s jangling melodicism was ramped up even further, and Julian Casablancas perfected his hungover, louche vocal style but infused it with the vaguest hint of refusenik generational rebellion (“I don’t see it that way”). Leather jackets, Converse and denim were back, and music was saved.

  1. The Avalanches – ‘Since I Left You’ (2000) (Modular / XL)

The opening track and lead single from the Australian DJ collective’s ground-breaking album of the same name, ‘Since I Left You’ was The Avalanches’ perfect calling card, an introduction to their aesthetic of assembling junk-pop culture into something surrealistic and meaningful. A kaleidoscope of gorgeous strings, laid-back rhythms and shimmering, summery sounds composed from samples ranging from The Main Attraction to Lamont Dozier and Rose Royce, it was curiously heartbroken and euphoric at the same time. After this, the bar had been raised for every artist out there using samples.

  1. Daft Punk – ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ (2001) (Virgin)

One of the stand-out moments from Daft Punk’s immensely pleasurable second record Discovery, which was teeming with memorable highlights, ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ was essentially the French duo’s personal signatures, a flourish of euphoric house and shameless retro-pop. With its vocodered lyrics and melody compressed and improvised upon until they made a kind of guitar solo effect near the end, wonderfully inventive and instantly accessible. It was also a track that enjoyed a second, much longer lease of life half a decade later when Kanye West sampled it for ‘Stronger’, and its prominent use throughout Daft Punk’s iconic Alive 2007 / ‘pyramid of light’ tour.

  1. LCD Soundsystem – ‘Losing My Edge’ (2002) (DFA)

A debut single unlike any other, James Murphy’s first statement to the world read like music criticism rendered as actual music, a scathing rant set to a beat. Narrated by an ageing hipster falling back on his credibility resume (“I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids”) and detailing his record collection, afraid that a new generation “with better ideas, and more talent” is catching him up.

Simultaneously savaging the tired clichés of turn-of-the-millennium indie rock and pointing the way forward, it was LCD Soundsystem’s manifesto, set to drum machines and crude, angular synths, signed with the kiss-off “you don’t know what you really want”. Not only was ‘Losing My Edge’ incredibly distinctive and inventive – the work of an alienated former punk who had reinvented himself as a club music guru, providing 12”-only vinyls in an MP3 world – it was acidic and hilarious.

  1. Portishead – ‘Machine Gun’ (2008) (Island)

Of all the post-modern invention that took place in the noughties and still managed to penetrate the charts, there wasn’t anything quite as alarmingly different as Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’. Beth Gibbons’ haunted, hunted vocals were worth the entrance fee by themselves, but what really caught the imagination was the track’s brutal, electro-industrial beat pounded out by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. It sounded like the score to some nightmarish, remorseless alien invasion, completely outside the realm of popular music, and proved that Portishead’s restless sense of creativity hadn’t been dulled despite more than a decade away from the studio.

  1. Vampire Weekend – ‘A-Punk’ (2008) (XL)

One of the last great guitar debuts of the decade, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut mined an Afro-beat / Graceland sound to make some of the most straight-ahead fun tracks in recent memory. But despite all their subsequent triumphs, they’ve never quite managed to make anything that’s penetrated the popular consciousness as much as ‘A-Punk’. With infectious, summery guitars hurtling joyfully around the mix, contrasting neatly with the cooling breeze of the flute-like organ sound in the chorus and muted, shifted drum patterns, it is 2-and-a-bit minutes of distilled sunshine with shards of psychedelic imagery like “turquoise harmonicas” courtesy of Ezra Koenig.

  1. Franz Ferdinand – ‘Take Me Out’ (2004) (Domino)

When Franz Ferdinand formed, singer Alex Kapranos said their mission statement was to make girls dance. With ‘Take Me Out’, only their second single, they achieved that noble ambition in memorable style with one of the most enduring and well-known indie floor-fillers ever. Crackling with doubt and sexual tension as the industrious rhythm section married the new-wave pop to the staccato, angular rhythms of post-punk, it began with a throbbing Strokes-y guitar pattern before decelerating into a stomping, loose-limbed funk that would have put even the legendary Gang Of Four to shame. With its surreal Dadaist / Soviet propaganda-styled video, it crash-landed into the Top 3 and made Franz Ferdinand into instant mainstream stars. 2004 belonged to them.

  1. Beyonce – ‘Crazy In Love’ (2003) (Columbia)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Beyonce was already a huge star before ‘Crazy In Love’ exploded around the world, as it so clearly sounds like a ‘year zero’ moment for somebody who is still one of the world’s most beloved pop icons well over a decade later. The sound of funk, hip-hop and soul in a blender, based on a prominent, propulsive Chi-Lites horn sample, a beat strongly reminiscent of The Meters and topped off with a rap from Bey’s future husband Jay Z, it was a mass-appeal, throwback hit that was desperately needed in 2003 as the internet age was fracturing the whole idea of what it meant to be a pop star.

  1. Arcade Fire – ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ (2004) (Merge / Rough Trade)

‘Rebellion (Lies)’ was the raging, cathartic denouement of Arcade Fire’s debut Funeral, and showed the Canadian band to be the true inheritors of Radiohead’s pre-millennial angst post-Y2K. Building out from a lone, heartbeat drum and bass signature, adding in fretful, worried strings and layers of piano, this would be the prototype that so much subsequent arena-rock would model itself on, without ever coming close to encapsulating the fevered anxiety that boils throughout.

A song raging against the dying of the light that seems more and more prescient in 2016 as paranoia and fear, to “scare your son / scare your daughter”, sets in, ‘Rebellion’ is a protest song seething with sarcasm and cynicism, built around a narrator who doesn’t want to admit that he’s scared that things might not work out alright in the end after all.

  1. The Knife – ‘Heartbeats’ (2002) (Rabid / V2)

Siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson twisted their distinctive, minimal synthetic sound to make something much more emotionally resonant with the spectral ‘Heartbeats’, the first single from Deep Cuts that represented their great artistic leap forwards. A magical combination of ominous synths and airy electronic flourishes that left the track in an emotionally fluid state, as Andersson’s haunted vocals channelled Björk and Siouxsie with intense, mystical lines about devils hands and wolves teeth. ‘Heartbeats’ passed under the radar in 2002, but was popularly discovered in 2006 when Jose Gonzalez turned his breathy, acoustic version into a hit courtesy of a Sony Bravia advert.

  1. Outkast – ‘B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)’ (2000) (Arista / RCA)

Outkast had been at the cutting edge of hip-hop for years in the 1990s over the course of three records, but nothing could have anticipated the headlong charge of experimental brilliance that was ‘B.O.B.’, the first single from Stankonia. A swirling, clattering cataclysm of jackhammering drum’n’bass rhythms, psychedelic Hendrix-ian guitars, gothic organs, turntable scratches, garbled rap and gospel, it was absolute mayhem. It stalled in the charts, but in truth this was because it was just so far ahead of its time. Perhaps more than any other, ‘B.O.B.’ presaged the genre-blind tendency to cross-pollinate styles to come up with innovative, winning combinations that would characterise so much of the groundbreaking pop of the noughties.

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