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A decade in songs: A look at the most timeless tunes of the 2000s

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By Todd Martens

Looking back at the last decade in songs is not an easy task. There were plenty of great singles, and works by Beyonce and Justin Timberlake are reflected in the pages ahead. But the 2000s meant more than having a sexy-back and taunting an old lover. Unlike cinema or television, music has the ability to react and reach almost instantly. In a decade marked by war and depression, music was often on the front line. So sure, pop music can make you dance, but the decade won’t be defined simply by shaking a bootie.

Here’s a look at some of the timeless songs of the 2000s, with an honorable mention for each year. (Images: Kid Sister (Don Flood), Kanye West (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times); Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (Kim Kulish / For The Times)
2001: Wilco’s ‘War on War’
Though not given a proper record label-sanctioned release until 2002, Wilco‘s “War on War” captured a band in transition and a country awash in anxiety. Written before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the imagery in the song was suddenly hauntingly familiar -- flaming doors and miles flying by. Yet the song, released to the Web in late 2001, is one of resilience -- a melody boosted by electronic effects and a lyrical refrain that aims for fearlessness. (Los Angeles Times)
2001’s honorable mention: Gorillaz, ‘Clint Eastwood’
The cross-genre pollination of the ‘90s gives way to a full-on multimedia hybrid. A faceless band, led by Blur‘s Damon Albarn, doesn’t merge genres so much as blur them. With cartoon images out front, courtesy of Jamie Hewlett, the Gorillaz may have been seen as a gimmick, but were ahead of their time. As sales declined over the next 10 years, the very concept of a rock star only got more mysterious. (Los Angeles Times)
2002: The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realize?’
Longtime Oklahoma weirdos the Flaming Lips smoothed things out a bit for this ballad, and it doesn’t hide its message in metaphors. “Do You Realize,” singer Wayen Coyne begins to ask, “that everyone you know someday will die?” Yet this isn’t a song of sadness, and perhaps that’s why it was still in heavy rotation as the decade came to an end. It’s a lushly orchestrated song about taking the time to appreciate the smaller moments -- be it the sun, or the face of your lover. (J. Michelle Martin)
2002’s honorable mention: Moby’s ‘We Are All Made of Stars’
Long removed from the now-dated synth sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the 2000s represented a growth spurt of sorts for electronic music. Though his licensing efforts make nearly all of Moby‘s songs ubiquitous, this is a buoyant, uplifting dance number with a simple message, and as close as music can get to a sparkle. (Los Angeles Times)
2003: OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’
Just because some of the earlier choices in this list may have leaned a tad toward the slower side doesn’t mean that people didn’t know how to party in the 2000s. This celebration became one of the decade’s stand-out anthems, walking a line between rock and R&B, and hiding some pretty intense domestic issues among its cheer-like booty-shake. (Jennifer S. Altman)
2003’s honorable mention: Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Maps’
Granted, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” would have been easy vote from the rock ‘n’ roll camp, but the relaxed beauty of “Maps” is something rather unique. One never quite knows if the song is going for a slow dance or a grand-finale explosion, as this is a love song that’s all tension. (Stefano Paltera / For The Times)
2004: Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks’
With this faith-questioning single, West went from a middle-class rapper simply trying to make it to church on time to an international celebrity, and one who would dominate headlines for much the remainder of the decade. Here, he mixes old-soul, Chicago homeliness and a bevy of hooks. He never looked back. Say what you will about West, to this day he doesn’t fail to challenge himself and the audience. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
2004’s honorable mention: Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’
The snotty West Coasters finally grew up and offered an album detailed with youngsters focusing on suburban alienation, political turmoil and a future without many promising options. It was a tale as rich as a Broadway musical. (Kim Kulish / For The Times)
2005: LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Tribulations’
The dance-rock project of James Murphy never quite reached superstar status, but his beats were coveted by the likes of Britney Spears, and LCD Soundsystem awoke a new generation of young’uns to disco and electronic music (“Daft Punk is Playing At My House,” anyone?). But perhaps Murphy’s biggest achievement was getting the kids to dance to self-effacing lyrics that seemed destined for a midlife crisis. (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)
2005’s honorable mention: Common’s ‘The Food’
There are grittier and more philosophical songs on Common’s 2005 masterpiece, “Be,” but this trade-off with pal Kanye West has aged perhaps better than all of them. It’s a tale of survival, but less about the street than it is the recession. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)
2006: Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’
Along with OutKast‘s “Hey Ya!” this was quite possibly the most ubiquitous song of the decade. Rapper Cee Lo Green, working with hot producer Danger Mouse, was remade into a soul singer, and the resulting sounds of the single are all over the place.

Lyrically, this is a paranoid freak-out, but also a bit aggressive. Musically, it’s vintage, but with plenty of modern touches. Crazy? No doubt, but even more chaotic. If there was a sound to the decade, this was it. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
2006’s honorable mention: Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’
A more critical choice may have been Lily Allen’s “Smile,” but “SexyBack” was the rarest of breeds. A pop hit that sounded wholly unfamiliar and unique, and completely sold its silly lyrics. The fact that it remade a teen star into a certified celebrity only made it all the more fascinating. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
2007: Radiohead’s ‘All I Need’
In some ways, the pay-what-you-want back story was the star of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” but the music was some of Radiohead’s warmest, most accessible to date. The song “All I Need” is mesmerizing in its build and frightening in its honesty. “I only stick with you,” Thom Yorke sings, “because there are no others.” A crash of cymbals and piano soon devour everything, with Yorke lost in sound screaming, “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” Sounds about right. (Robert E Klein / Associated Press)
2007’s honorable mention: Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Little Weapon’
The song opens with a solemn, almost hymn-like backdrop before revealing the gripping rhythm, a sharp militaristic beat that sounds as though it’s being played by a tiny toy drum. Fiasco then launches into a narrative about boy soldiers, 10-year-old rebel fighters killing for soccer balls and “shooting into heaven like they trying to kill the ‘Jetsons.’'

Wartime hip-hop if there ever was. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
2008: Kanye West’s ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’
West stops rapping and gets sappy, using what had become trendy Auto-Tune mechanics to illustrate human emptiness. A shocking change of pace from one of the world’s biggest superstars, “Welcome to Heartbreak” is also a uniquely modern break-up anthem. Images of report cards, sport cars and jet-setting emptiness play over synthesized drums, which somehow seem to be the only thing that actually feels real. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
2008’s honorable mention: Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’
This stark rhythm-heavy dance became a global phenomenon and managed to champion female independence while still upholding old-school values. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
2009: Phoenix’s ‘1901'
After a 2008 election in which “hope” was the operative word, these Parisian rockers delivered an optimistic blast of rock ‘n’ roll sunshine. Synthesizers could reach the rafters, and guitars could echo even further, and with soft vocals and a hard-to-resist chorus, Phoenix captured what should have been the sound of the future. (Karl Walter / Getty Images)
2009’s honorable mention: Kid Sister’s ‘Daydreaming’
The song serves as a sort of bookend to Phoenix’s “1901" but takes a much more narrow view in its optimism. Nevertheless, the whole song feels sort of nebulous, as if conjured out of Kid Sister’s sheer and irresistible exuberance. (Don Flood)
2010: Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’
Alternately vulgar and fascinating, West does away with any niceties or emotional roadblocks and puts the human mind up for examination, including all of its warped fears, sadistic dreams and selfish bravado. And he does it all while asking you to join him in a toast. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
2010’s honorable mention: Arcade Fire’s ‘We Used to Wait’
The easy choice would have been Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” which is not the song’s official title. Although the latter is no doubt a great cut, and one sure to be heard for years to come, the Arcade Fire have crafted a more quiet anthem. It rocks, but does so without a specific chorus, and is a reminder of a time when instant gratification wasn’t the norm. It’s a sing-along that celebrates patience, and perhaps that’s an important lesson looking ahead. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)