The 2000s ushered in the dawn of the blog and the age of the iPod, sending the music industry into a chaotic spiral; suddenly, it seemed every niche pocket of the industry now had a fighting chance at making it big. What ensued was a glorious 10-year run where rap and hip-hop reclaimed commercial success, indie rock leaned into its subversive pop side, and pop music had to rethink its dependency on the mass-produced boy band blueprint.
To celebrate the early aughts in all its expansiveness, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite songs of the era: from Timbaland and Pharrell’s back-and-forth beats to pop princesses Britney and Christina and the ever-adapting indie mainstays like Animal Collective and The White Stripes, here are our picks for top songs of the 2000s.
The early 2000’s did not give Amy what she deserved. As she battled addiction, she became the face of the early 2000’s tabloid craze, making her first single “Rehab” an easy pun for lazy late night pundits. Obviously, there was much more to be said. Amy was a jazz scholar and perhaps one of the best singer-songwriters of the decade. She had an innate ability to write about heartbreak and unyielding despair in a way that few ever rivaled. “Back To Black” was one of her best showcases, a stinging take down of a wronged lover and the subsequent melancholia via Mark Ronson’s signature retro funk production.
For all of the “genius” talk that surrounds (and is perpetuated by) Kanye, “Jesus Walks” is one of the handful of tracks that makes the claim seem more real than ridiculous. It was the first big hit from the Chicago rapper and it was shockingly political when compared to other MTV hits of the era, as West questioned the place of black culture, capitalism, and religion in America.
“Paper Planes” had an entire nation making finger guns and cheerily singing along to a song about scamming and robbing. It catapulted the ever-mischievous Sri Lankan-born rapper MIA into quick fame, and over a decade later, she’s still making a ruckus.
The Roots remains one of the most criminally underrated bands of the 21st century. “The Seed 2.0” is one of their biggest commercial successes. It’s a perfect mix of funk, R&B, and rap, and of course, a promise to name their first-born “Rock-N-Roll.”
t.A.T.u. walked so hyper pop could run. The Russian duo manipulated the press by cosplaying as a queer couple in their videos, and, most famously, by making out during their 2003 MTV VMA performance. While they had everyone’s attention, the pair pumped out a handful of decadent, vast, and vaguely electronic pop singles, including “All The Things She Said."
“American Idiot” was the standout headbanger of a track from Green Day’s 2004 magnum opus by the same title. The rock opera album opened the door for a lot of the pop punk that followed, proving that Billie Joe’s punk prowess still had a kick.
Caught somewhere between a propulsive trip-hop loop and industrial noise, Thom Yorke’s voice pokes through the noise. Like watching a slow-moving car wreck, Radiohead is disarming and hypnotic, and never straightforward.
Behind a veil of animated characters, the Gorillaz have painted a surrealist world of genre-less music for over twenty years. Spouting off fantastical one-offs with collaborators like Elton John, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg, it’s hard to think of a time when the group wasn’t one of music’s greatest equalizers. But when they did come onto the scene, they entered with the perfectly weird single “Clint Eastwood,” which includes an airtight rap and a conversation between multiple voices inside the narrator’s head.
There are very few songs that have anointed a phrase into the cultural lexicon in the way that “99 Problems” did. Jay-Z wrote about the woes of being a womanizer and the rap game hasn’t been the same since.
In the 2000’s, D’Angelo reluctantly became a sex symbol, emerging as the handsome face of a new wave of neo-soul and R&B, among contemporaries like Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott. His biggest single “Untitled” is often unfairly remembered solely for its (shirtless) music video, but in its entirety, it’s one of D’Angelo’s most telling proclamations of his own roots in soul music. The song slowly unravels itself across seven minutes, as D’Angelo leads with an inimitable guiding hand.
Britney Spears has lived many lives. From enduring the suffocating, squeaky-clean pop princess frame, to finding some freedom as a sexually liberated grown woman, to all the shaky moments in between, every step of Spears’s iconic career has been lived out in front of us. “Toxic” sits at the intersection of her many sides, as her signature airy baby-girl vocals clash with unexpected violins and an insanely high falsetto.
In her entirely-too-short career, Aaliyah gave us a lifetime of material. “Rock the Boat” was one of her final gems: a sun-soaked, breezy anthem to making love that made its obvious euphemisms feel cozy and natural with Aaliyah’s undeniable charm.
“Lose Control” packs in its excellence from all sides. Missy Elliott’s unpredictability, Fat Man Scoop’s hypeman hollers, and Ciara’s silky-smooth hook somehow seamlessly combine to produce a mind-melting dance track.
At some point in the early 2000s, hip-hop beats embraced a homegrown, almost experimental aspect to them, as Timbaland and Pharrell incorporated beatboxing, hydraulics, and the sound of a baby wailing into their catalogue. “Drop It Like It’s Hot” followed suit, constructed with tongue pops and an elongated, falsetto “Snoooooop!” Paired with a user-friendly dance, “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is a downright classic.
Christina Aguilera, who spent her preteens as a prominent presence on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, alongside stars like Spears and Ryan Gosling, endured a restricting early career that found her churning out bubblegum-pop hits, like “Genie in a Bottle,” before really hitting her own stride. By 2002, Aguilera had rebranded herself as a fully liberated woman with Stripped, a record dedicated to the new Christina, a young woman who was bolder ... and a bit dirtier. “Fighter” celebrates her new freedoms and acknowledges the power in learning from the past: “’Cause if it wasn’t for all of your torture / I wouldn’t know how to be this way now,” she sings.
In the ’90s, Mariah Carey was the It girl. She was a fresh-faced, doe-eyed vocal assassin, gracing the hook of every rap song that was smart enough to have her and shocking the nation with a register that was so expansive it made almost no sense. But by the 2000s, Carey was a certified icon, a grown woman who knew her worth and asked for what was rightfully hers. This made “We Belong Together” an even more noteworthy performance, as Carey stripped herself back a bit, offering a moment of unexpected, angelic vulnerability.
Without the consummate harmonies and the convincingly sharp confidence, it might be hard to sell a word like bootylicious or make a statement like, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” sound anything but incredibly cringe. But with a perfectly timed Stevie Nicks sample and Prince-like squealing ad-libs, Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams were able to do just that.
“Maps” is a lasting haunt, a devastating song that lingers in the subconscious well after it’s finished. Karen O, a queen of the post-punk revival of the early aughts, warbles through the first verse before succumbing to a wave of vulnerability, repeating the iconic plea (immortalized nearly 12 years later in Beyoncé’s “Hold Up”): “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” Between the airtight drumming and building propulsion of an electric guitar beneath her, “Maps” captures the despair and rage that comes with unrequited love, while still honoring the preserved power in O’s emotional ownership.
Schoolyard love will forever hit different. “My Boo” is the official puppy-love anthem centering on first kisses and playground flirtation, and the special spot those memories hold.
While Gen Z might be more familiar with the Nelly track for its “Buss It” infamy on TikTok, “Hot in Herre” had a life of its own in the early aughts. With an almost comically straightforward hook and poetic, painfully relatable conversations among friends about butt size, Nelly offers a simple solution to the all-too-familiar, too-hot-in-the-club problem: Just take off all your clothes.
Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion redefined the idea of commercial indie music. As their unofficial magnum opus, the album amplified their already-unhinged sound to unheard-of new levels, while simultaneously ushering in pop-adjacent, approachable melodies that were never on previous projects. Through the multiple layered vocal tracks, hand drumming, and warped instrumentals, “My Girls” is a whimsical sing-along with lyrics focused on life’s simple pleasures: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things … I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.”
For all of Beyoncé’s high-energy empowerment anthems and dance tracks, there’s the rarer side of her that’s present on songs like “Me, Myself, and I.” A woman eerily calm in the face of infidelity, Beyoncé proves her composure through reserved vocals and angelic whispers of self-actualization as she makes a promise to herself to protect her heart in the future.
In his signature sleepy drawl, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas works his way through a series of fleeting promises, questionable proclamations, and backward figures of speech. Sparing the usual lofty romanticism, “Someday” indulges in the realistic longevity of a fun relationship, offering no long-term vows. It’s a beautiful summation of The Strokes’ appeal: honest and straightforward rock and roll with no added frills, just endearing realness.
“What You Waiting For” was Gwen Stefani’s explosive step into her own path. The opening song of the former No Doubt front woman’s first solo record, the track is a saucily sleek and urgent take on electronic pop.
Everything Timbaland touches is gold. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t a track that Timbaland couldn’t make hot, and somewhere in the mix, Justin Timberlake became one of his most effective vehicles. With the help of Scott Storch on lyrics, “Cry Me a River” is a timeless and ruthless cut on the consequences of adultery.
Before Alex Turner coiffed his hair and cleaned up the Arctic Monkeys’ sound to something a bit slinkier, there was 2006’s “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Propelled by madman Matt Helders’s impossibly fierce drumming, the track is a supercharged anthem for the lads that fills every crack and crevice with grime and noise, as Turner drunkenly “makes the eyes” with someone flirting at the bar.
Avril Lavigne’s aesthetic promised a much harder sound than her actualized prowess as a pop superstar. But Lavigne didn’t owe us anything, and this is a fact she didn’t let us forget, as she cosplayed a petulant punk girl with a pink tie and pin-straight waist-length hair for much of the early 2000s. “My Happy Ending” is Lavigne at her best, as she trash-talks an ex and his “dumb friends” on a punchy ballad.
“Young Folks” is whimsical and simple, placing its melody on the back of a sweet little whistled hook. Its endearingly stripped-back nature lent itself to new interpretations and samples from the likes of Kanye West, James Blake, and even Halsey.
Keyshia Cole’s “Love” is a vocal performance for the ages, but you don't need to have require her pipes to sing along. From karaoke basements and sticky bar floors, “Love” is the undisputed people’s anthem, as every woman, man, and child can seemingly relate to falling in love with an unavailable partner.
Ja Rule and Ashanti were the 2000s’ Sonny and Cher, or Marvin and Tammi. With nearly 10 collaborations between them, Ja Rule’s gruff New York style of rap is the sonic equivalent of a fine wine when paired with Ashanti’s ethereal hot-girl vocals. “Always on Time” interpolates between Ja yelling about “late-night loving” and Ashanti smoothly swearing to be better about answering calls.
Rick James’s “Give It to Me Baby” was the ultimate ’80s horny anthem, making it the perfect callback for Jay-Z and Pharrell at the height of their himbo stage. With an endearingly off-key wail from Pharrell on the chorus, “I Just Wanna Love You” sticks out as one of the best in a handful of collaborations between the two.
“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” followed its title: a groovy, disco‐fueled dance track that seems to embed itself into the deep crevices of the subconscious. Kylie Minogue picks the perfect moments to pull back vocally, opting for an occasional smooth and quiet vibrato, making the moments of intensity hit even harder.
On “Ms. Jackson,” Big Boi and André 3000 take on the tall task of apologizing to single mothers everywhere on behalf of absent fathers who are elsewhere, as they delicately work through the plights of thoughtless young love and its consequences. Over a beat that audibly warps as the song progresses, André 3000 speaks on a tender sentiment that remains largely untouched in hip-hop, adding Beach Boys-esque dog barks over mentions of “puppy love” and apologies.
Devastating and arresting, “Chasing Pavements” was Adele’s first major entrance into pop culture’s continuum. Just a teenager at the time, her emotional depth and soaring vocal range was well beyond her years, and captivated us all.
If we’re being technical, “No Letting Go” is a ballad. Flooded with the already effervescent stylings of traditional dancehall production, Wayne Wonder’s earnest proclamations of love (“very special, really and truly”) seem to pour out of him, and yet for all the self-indulgent romanticism, Wonder still lets the beat rock enough to save some room for shaking ass.
MGMT’s “Electric Feel” was an omnipresent force when it dropped in 2007. The song offered a new era of psychedelic, synth-heavy pop rock that called back to the psych dawn of the ’60s, but the reception alone proved that the band was onto something with their groove renaissance.
Sandwiched between a song about nearly being shot to death and a track about constantly being high lies 50 Cent’s biggest commercial success. “In Da Club” was 50’s crossover from beloved rap icon to household name, and though the radio still had to edit out his drug offerings and weapon talk, it was continued proof that the “gangster rap” of the ’90s was not some sort of subculture dying out anytime soon.
To say that Usher was guilty is an understatement. The man made an entire album dedicated to his infidelities, a searing tale of cheating incessantly and then sloppily fighting to get his partner back, and somehow … it worked. Blame it on the incomparable vocals, the incredible narrative, or the six-pack seen around the world, but Usher’s “Confessions Pt. 2” remains one of modern R&B’s best tracks, a song that is deeply likable despite its undeniably flawed subject.
“So Sick” is a breakup song meant for a very specific moment in the healing process. It’s a track that laments on that stage of melancholy when there seems to be nothing left to cry about, but there’s still somehow a lot of self-indulgent sadness left. “I’m so sick of love songs / So sad and slow / So why can’t I turn off the radio?” Ne-Yo asks, before succumbing to fantasies of what could have been.
Among the insurgence of pop punk, rap, and manufactured pop, The Shins’ presence in the early 2000s felt like an unintentionally subversive breath of fresh air. “New Slang” is a standout from their 2001 record Oh, Inverted World, a delicate, folky pop morsel with soft hums and softer guitar strums.
“Hips Don’t Lie” is a fusion of horns and hips with a delightfully catchy hook, thanks to an unforgettable trumpet loop and the perfect pairing of the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean and Colombian icon Shakira. While the song was originally written to spark a Fugees revival, Wyclef had to flip it quickly, adding Shakira as a writer and a producer, making its backstory nearly as fascinating as the song itself.
“Hey Ma” is quintessential Cam. The New York rapper puts on a relentlessly flirty show, only to call on a fleet of friends, including a baby Juelz Santana, to come along with and spit their best game right alongside him.
JoJo was just 13 years old when “Leave Get Out” reached the top of the Billboard charts. For someone who was barely a teenager, the R&B-minded pop star somehow captured the rage of an unhealthy relationship, famously asserting, “You were just a waste of time.” The song’s success catapulted her into well-deserved fame.
“Fell in Love with a Girl” is the pulsing, head-banging single from The White Stripes that came at a moment when the band still hadn’t completely earned their Hall of Fame plaque in indie rock. Meg White’s searing but straightforward drumming is perfectly timed with Jack White’s wails, as he begs to be freed from a brain completely taken over by a new love.
In the early 2000s, any beat that could be played out by banging on a lunch table had a shot at commercial success. But “Grindin” didn’t just work because of an undeniably hot Neptunes beat, it also shined because of airtight verses from No Malice and Pusha T, who unconvincingly apologizes for his newfound arrogance: “Excuse me if my wealth got me full of myself.”
Danger Mouse and CeeLo Green’s St. Elsewhere was an unhinged record that tackled and celebrated moments of madness, its hooks interpolating between retro funk and pop-heavy disco-infused morsels. “Crazy” became an omnipresent song of the summer (and eventually undisputed song of the year) thanks to Green’s vocal performance, as he cosplayed a madman aware of his insanity.
Mary J. Blige is a beacon of hope, a fabled success story that includes rags to riches and triumph over tragedy. For all that she’s been through, Blige’s moments of bliss seem to hit even harder. “Family Affair” invites us to dance with her as she sails over a Dr. Dre beat, leaving us with an iconic request: “Don't need no hateration, holleration in this dancerie.”
Every era has its own version of teen-angst music. For the mid-2000s, it was the very online branch of emo pop punk. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” somehow made its way to the mainstream, becoming an unexpected ubiquitous smash hit. And it still finds itself a fan favorite at karaoke joints and sticky college bars across the country.
Despite the shakiness of his political legacy in 2021, Kanye West’s 2004 track “All Falls Down” is an evergreen sociopolitical portrait. Co-written by none other than The Ms. Lauryn Hill, the track is a two-person perspective on the plights of consumerism and status as a Black American, oscillating between both a man and woman’s perspective. “We buy our way out of jail but we can’t buy freedom,” West quips.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, dancehall made its way to the United States, ushered in by its unofficial ambassador Sean Paul. “Like Glue” remains one of its brightest moments, as he delivers three straight minutes of absolute sunshine.
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