Editor’s note: this post is the second in a series of posts covering the Most Important Musicians of the Aughts. Click here to view Part I.



RAKOWSKI:

If Simon Fuller was my center (keeping it simple to match positions and get in the flow of the analogy), then this next act is my power forward: bull in a china shop, not afraid to do the dirty work, disguises poor shooting by going to the hole hard and drawing fouls. However, once you get enough miles on a power forward’s legs, performance begins to dip and it’s noticeable.



#4 (at Power Forward): BRITNEY SPEARS
BOOM! Windmill dunk from the baseline with a primal scream for emphasis.

Let me be the first to point out that I am well aware I cannot include Spears’ debut album as part of her repertoire in the 2000s, as it first charted in 1999. Luckily for my argument, her 2nd album is her best seller with 9.2MM copies. Aside from that, here are some facts:

  • #1 Female Artist of the decade
  • Just shy of 23MM albums sold (not counting the debut album)
  • Eight Grammy nominations, One win
  • Youngest artist on the Best Sellers of 2000’s list
  • Five full-length albums in 10 years, all debuted at #1 or #2, making her the only female artist in history to have that happen
  • Major influence for a new decade of female starlets: Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus

  • Britney Spears

    Ten years, five albums, tons of touring and more pop culture coverage than I think we all care to admit actually happened. For these ten years, she was a guaranteed double-double in the post without hurting you on the defensive end. Commercial success? Check. Ten years of longevity? Check. “It” Factor? Double-check. One could argue, in fact, Britney’s “it factor” rubbed off on those around her. She was as cutting edge as you could get in the pop world and gave big names in the industry (producers, collaborators, acquaintances) their names before they were big.

    The biggest knock on this pick? She can’t sing live. I hate this fact and it almost relegated me to leave her off of my list. Ultimately, her importance to pop for these 10 years was just too big to ignore.

    Finally, you can sense the fade coming, if it hasn’t already happened. They say a basketball player’s performance is almost guaranteed to significantly dip after 1,100 games. Let’s just say Britney is well past that mark. Oh sure, she’ll plug along a few years too long like David Robinson or Chris Webber, and it may even tarnish the legacy of her prime years. But as much as I hate to admit it, that would be a shame. With that, I urge you to go back and re-read the paragraph preceding my #4 pick and challenge anyone not to laugh when all double-meaning and parallels to Britney’s career are taken into account.

    Possession arrow – back to MC.


    CORONA:

    Oh Bryan, Bryan, Bryan ... you've submitted your first two out of five selections, and I'm still wondering when you will pick someone who can sing and/or write songs. So far, oh-for-two, my friend. But before I respond about Britney, let me get a quick rebuttal in on some of your points about my starting Center.

    First, of course there were more commercially successful artists in the Aughts than Ben Gibbard. We didn't say that they had to be the most successful, just that they needed to be successful. Consider Sufjan Stevens: most music critics laud Sufjan Stevens for his pioneering song-writing skills. But he's never going to present a strong argument for his importance to music with his "50 States" album campaign. The fact that he'll be 80 and writing an album about the great state of Idaho is an impressive artistic drive, but it’s not anything you’d expect to change the course of music.

    Now, as for allowing the Cuckoo's Eleven lists to influence my selections ... of course they will! If I think four albums by a given artist are some of the decade's best, then I would be hypocritical not to consider that individual in our list. As for being influential, I didn't mean to imply that Ben Gibbard holds a monopoly on recording pseudo lo-fi albums. What I was suggesting is that he knew when to shake things up with his band, and as a result their latest album was fantastic. I'll go a step further ... there have been many songwriters in the past decade admired for their ability to contrast upbeat melodies with melancholy lyrics (e.g., Chris Martin, etc.), but I would argue that none have demonstrated a greater command than he. And yet one step further ... in ten year's time, I believe that many will look back at Gibbard's discography over this time and compare it to the likes of Neil Young's first ten years. Oh yes, I did.



    Alright, most likely too long of a response to rebuttal. But hey, my blog. Now, on to Spears. Here's what I want to know: was the windmill dunk primal scream auto-tuned? If this were a list of top five entertainers of the decade, I'd give you the nod on this pick. But when it comes to musicians, she fails the test across the board.

    She has enjoyed unbelievable commercial success, no question in that. Similarly, Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys, and *N SYNC have sold over 350 million albums combined, but you won't find anyone considering them anything other than temporary blips in the history of music. Correlation versus causation, Mr. Rakowski. Our stats professor would be disappointed.

    You yourself admit that she can't sing live. I'll go a step further: SHE CAN'T SING. Let me be clear: if you were at a birthday party for someone and happened to be standing next to her when the candles were lit, you wouldn't bristle and move to the other side of the room. And I bet she's decent at karaoke. I'm just saying, as a woman paid professionally for her vocals, she is the most over-indexed commodity since potatoes in Ireland, 1845. Coincidence that Baby One More Time dropped a year after studios opened the floodgates on pitch-correcting software? I think not.

    And while my biggest complaint is her vocal ability, a close second is that she is considered a "co-writer". Yes, she is credited on eight songs over her ten-plus year career. But let's be honest: do you really think that the likes of Annie Lennox, Madonna, and Max Martin would seriously consider anything more than suggestions like "I'm kinda sad, today. Can we write a song about that?" or "Should we, like, put a mult in there, or something?"

    Regarding influence on other musicians: while the Taylor Swifts and Miley Cyruses of the world may list her as an influence (I contend that Lady Gaga is being ironical), the truth is a world without Spears wouldn't have stopped a Swift or a Cyrus. Spears was window dressing, and if it wasn't her then it would have been Jessica Simpson or, more deservedly, Christina Aguilera. And even then, performers of that era were running an industry-designed playbook that was perfected by the likes of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Did Spears run the play well? Yes. In fact, based on her accelerated rate of commercial success, you can argue that she (or her management) paid attention to the 80s and 90s to make improvements on the positioning strategy. And, Aguilera excluded, here's the main difference between the names I mentioned in the Aughts and those from prior decades: Jackson, Madonna, and Houston can all legitimately sing (some of them more strongly then others). Now, I should note that there have been several female pop singers who have been hailed as 'The Next Britney', and many have enjoyed success for a month or two. While I consider Britney Spears a manufactured superstar, she is a superstar nevertheless ... and a sustained one at that. But a musician, let alone the fourth most important musician of the Aughts? I think not.

    If Britney Spears is considered important at all, it should be to serve as a warning to aspiring female entertainers: the industry will discover you, turn you out, push you to the brink of destruction, then attempt to build you up for the inevitable comeback. And if you don't follow everything to a 'T'? Then step aside, because there are dozens of others just as talented as you who are willing to go shocking lengths to become the next "it" girl.

    PS - Your two-degrees of separation from the Fab Five is far more entertaining (and uplifting) than mine. A friend of mine was dunked on by Chris Webber ... in eighth grade. Gave up the game. Turned out okay, though: he became a Collegiate All-American Lacrosse player

    PPS - During the last decade, another common gimmick was to cover songs in an ironic fashion. Travis, one of my all-time favorite bands, used this gimmick to their advantage in 2000 by playing "Baby One More Time" on Top of the Pops and VH1 Storytellers. Gold, Jerry. Gold! Two other examples worth noting: Dynamite Hack covered EzE's "Boyz in da Hood" (shouldn't ever have heard of these guys otherwise ... Dynamite Hack, indeed), and one Eric Hutchinson's deconstruction of JT's "My Love". I had wanted to personally cover Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" for the longest time, but then realized that a thirty-something white dude about a post-riot LA would most likely sound contrived. In retrospect, I am surprised this was has not occurred more and believe this needs to happen more often. We need to do a future article about wish lists in this category.

    PPPS - Evidently, there already is a thirty-something white dude sounding contrived while covering Ice Cube. WATFO?


    Alright. Moving on ... rather than designate my next pick as a Power Forward, I'm going to shake things up a bit and designate him as my Shooting Guard. Now some may wonder why I would designate what is often considered the most exciting player on the court as my fourth overall selection, perhaps questioning whether this is a sign of either a Swingman or Point Forward to be designated later ... and they would be right. But more on that later ...

    What does one expect from a Shooting Guard? For starters, the ability to shoot the lights out. While their ability to play team ball may be sound, the expectation remains that the ball will be in their hands at the game's most critical hour. And when that time comes, you are in for a treat. There are few things more exciting to watch than a versatile Shooting Guard when s/he is in the zone. Whether it be a fadeaway jumper, a crossover, or a hand-check, the Shooting Guard always has a trick up his/her sleeve. It's best to buckle in and enjoy the ride.


    #4 (at Shooting Guard): BECK HANSEN

    Now I know what you're thinking: Beck is more Nineties important than Aughts important. But you're wrong.

    I just read that last sentence, and I think I just said, a) I know the words that are about to come out of your mouth, and b) that they are patently wrong. Maybe it's a good thing we're doing a guest blog - this may be going to my head.

    Let's begin a review of commercial success:

  • Two Gold albums, three if you count Midnight Vultures, which dropped 38 days before Y2K (for those of you keeping score at home, -3 points to me for referencing "Y2K" first)
  • Four straight top ten albums
  • One Grammy, plus one additional nomination
  • Eight Top 40 singles
  • Combined total of 109 weeks on the Billboard 200 and combined total of 98 weeks on Billboard Alternative Songs Chart
  • One video with a pre-High Fidelity Jack Black watching a refrigerator dry hump a range oven


  • Beck Hansen

    In the late Nineties, Beck had shown a steady evolution from electronic, sample-heavy exploration to songs more heavily influenced in other genres. On the brink of the new millennium, Midnight Vultures served as a familiar bridge for Hansen who, after dropping the sampling shtick on Mutations, began to intertwine contrasting genres like funk, bluegrass, and electronica. Somehow, he made them sound as if they were destined to be together.

    2002 then marked a noteworthy change in Beck's repertoire. In the matter of two weeks, he penned all of the songs which eventually appeared on Sea Change. It was the musical equivalent to Michael Jordan opting for pull-up jumpers in 1991 - even when defenses came to expect the outside game, Jordan still scored at will. With lyrics missing the typical irony, muted arrangements, and simplified instrumentation, Beck had nowhere to hide. And yet, he surprised everyone, ultimately being named Album of the Year by Rolling Stone Magazine.

    In order to be a good Shooting Guard, an outside shot is critical. However, it's also critical to understand the ebb and flow of defenses, knowing when to strike and when to run motion. The greats find opportunities and then exploit them for as many points possible. His next three albums, Guero, The Information, and Modern Guilt displayed a growing blend of genres and influences. By blending a myriad of influences, his compositions and lyrics transformed his already idiosyncratic style into the gold standard for postmodern / anti-folk music.

    Another critical element is the crossover: is he going left or right, will he use a killer or a double? Just when the you think you have his jukes figured out, you get juked again by a new move and another basket is scored. I submit to you Beck's instrumental experimentation, which is arguably the widest ranging this side of the Atlantic. Consider his array of musical instruments: Guitar, Bass, Drums, Harmonica, Synth, Banjo, Celeste, Glockenspiel, Kalimba, Melodica, Sitar, and Game Boy. You read that right ... Game Boy. Beck collaborated with producers 8-Bit and Paza Rahm to release an EP of Guero remixes exclusively using 8-bit technology from the gaming device. Yet another feather in his cap in terms of commercial success: "GHETTOCHIP MALFUNCTION (Hell Yes)" was the number one download it's first week on iTunes.

    Two final thoughts on why Beck has been so important. First, consider his 2007 release, The Information: in a decade in which the idea of music as albums was on life support, Beck breathed new life into how a physical album was perceived. Rather than packaged with traditional sleeve art, the disc was issued with a graph-page cover and four separate sticker inserts, thus allowing consumers to customize their album’s artwork. Instead of being the typical post-computer-rip toss away, consumers began sharing with one another their renditions online. In addition, a complementary DVD was included with low-budget, homemade videos for each album track. Cynics may argue that this was merely a gimmick to sell more physical copies to combat individual track sales on iTunes or, worse yet, piracy. I'm sure that's true to some extent, but it also made "the album" relevant again. While it is unlikely to become the norm, it remains a concept that changed the way the RIAA and listeners appreciate music.

    Second, Record Club. In the waning months of the Aughts, Beck launched an experiment in which he invited friends to learn and cover an album in a single day. Even better, footage is shot over the course of the day to show the process by which musicians set arrangements and the produce a recording. The end result? An entire album's worth of video tracks, individually posted online. Four albums in, and we've seen original artists varying from The Velvet Underground to Leonard Cohen ... even INXS's Kick, of which the cover for "New Sensation" was too good to not provide a link. Record club provides not only an outlet for some of the most popular musicians of our time, it also allows fans a glimpse into the creative process.

    So there you have it. Beck Hansen: a skinny white dude who dominates from the outside, but knows when to change things up, leaving others flatfooted and wondering how he just scored.


    RAKOWSKI:

    Well, well, well...we might finally end up agreeing on something. Sort of. Before I get into my critique of your #4 selection, allow me a quick counter-rebuttal (huh?) of my #4 pick. I was hoping, nay, praying you would harp on the things that you decided to nitpick about my #4. I bring into the courtroom what can henceforth be referred to as Exhibit A = 1 email from a Mr. Matt Corona to a Mr. Bryan Rakowski:

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------
    From: Matt Corona
    Sent: Thursday, March 25, 2010 12:32 PM
    To: Rakowski, Bryan M
    Subject: Re: Meant to ask you ...

    Also meant to ask: one of me top fives coming up is most important musicians/artists of the aughts.

    Was thinking you might want to write a contrarian POV? Let's define what it means to be important,
    pick our five individually, and then if it's interesting enough, we can point/counterpoint via
    email. Similar to simmons/gladwell articles.

    Don't have much to offer, other than witty banter about music. Interested?
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
    ---------------------------------------------------------------------

    Why the official cut-and-paste job? Let me call your attention to the very first line in the body of the message where Mr. Corona refers to our subject matter as “musicians-SLASH-artists” (“/” spelled out for effect, of course). You’ve been harping on the former at the expense of the latter. If the argument was about musical abilities, musicianship, or best vocals, my list would be entirely different from #1 through #5. (My #2 pick might remain, but I digress.)

    I bet if we expanded this “most important” argument to encompass the last 60 years, Bob Dylan would surely enter the conversation (rightfully so)...but he sure as hell can’t sing and you could easily find 5 better musicians. But he’s an artist, bringing something else to the table that no one else did for the timeframe in question that had a lasting effect on music. Which is exactly why I’m comfortable with my Britney pick...Christina, Pink, Jessica...none of them had the complete package to carry the genre at time when showmanship and performance art (whether right or wrong) superseded musicianship.

    Record deals changed because of Britney. The role of the producer changed because of Britney (in the past, the producers role was mostly to enhance and guide the artistic vision, not BE the artistic vision). Pop music changed because of Britney and the way to make money off of pop music changed because of Britney...possibly forever. Using your counterpoint, the fact that a superstar could be manufactured was important enough to rock the foundations of the industry itself and (finally!) cause the backlash against auto-tune and cookie-cutter artists. The harsh realization was needed and Britney was the one that got us there. To me, that’s damn important.


    On to Mr. Beck Hansen. You know what? I like this pick. In fact, Beck made my short list in consideration for my top 5. I will not argue that he wasn’t important (awesome double negative, eh?) because he was important. I just happened to find five (or six or seven) artists that were incrementally (or exponentially) more important. I think of it this way...Beck is kind of like the international lottery pick in the NBA Draft. He’s so far off in his own league (be it the Russian National Siberian Conference or some yet-undefined music genre), you’re not sure how he’s going to stack up against the pureblood NBA talent. There’s no way to compare apples-to-apples until you put them on the same court. Ninety percent of the time, they fail miserably (Darko Milicic, anyone?). But then there is that ten percent that is so beautifully dominant or on par with the rest of the NBA talent, it gives rise to the risky, self-fulfilling, chicken-or-the-egg first ninety percent I spoke of. A vicious circle, if you will.

    Now that I’ve written it, I hate this basketball analogy I just made, but I can’t think of any other way to explain how Beck almost made my list. I guess what I mean is that there are 5 picks that I would select higher in this year’s draft b/c Beck’s game is better suited to the niche, audiophile, music snob circles (to which I proudly subscribe) than the far-reaching, all-sweeping masses that ultimately drive album and concert ticket sales and allow the industry to keep humming along. To that end, I’ll move on to my #3 pick.

    I’m also going with my Shooting Guard, but the Rakowski All-Stars are playing a version of smallball that requires this position to deliver deadly marksmanship equivalent to Jude Law’s sniper, Vassili Zaitsev, in Enemy at the Gates. (Our swingman will bring the versatility described by the Corona All-Star’s shooting guard.) Our shooting guard must unapologetically fire at will, must do so often, and must have ice in his veins and a killer instinct. Shooting slumps are a fabrication of the media and the only reason he won’t pull up from half court is because his coach threatened to cut off his shooting hand.

    Much like JJ Redick in his first 3 years at Duke, this shooting guard will appear to be one-dimensional only to finally realize the limitations of his game and surprise everyone in the offseason by learning to create space for himself to get his own shots.



    #3 (at Shooting Guard): MARSHALL MATHERS (aka EMINEM)
    First and foremost, he’s the #1 selling artist of the decade. I will not harp on this point, because (1) I was surprised to hear this and (2) it is borderline irrelevant to how important Eminem has been to music these last ten years. (Ok, outselling The Beatles is a pretty big deal...moving on.) He’s sold over 80 million albums worldwide to date, and, even with a two-year hiatus in this decade, has still released 5 albums in 10 years. Even more interesting? He’s won 11 Grammys and one Academy Award.

    Em became the Aughts rags-to-riches story. He grew up poor on the wrong side of 8 Mile road in Detroit, was discovered by Dr. Dre, and now drops some of (if not THE) the most intricate, detailed rhymes in all of rap. He doesn’t apologize for where and what he came from...he embraces it in a way that made even this guest-blogger proud to be from Detroit.

    But to me, it is what Eminem has been rapping about that cements him in the Top 5 Most Important. In an era where rappers were supposed to be rhyming about money, cars, b****es, and the thug lifestyle Em decided to rap about being depressed, troubles with his wife/ex-wife/fiancée/etc Kim, his daughter, and the dump of a trailer where he came from. His life has been an open book and anyone that has picked up an album has been given access to read it. He wrote about obsessed fans via elaborate role-playing rhymes, he wrote about all the bad things he had done (or had to do) in his past, and he waxed poetic on the pitfalls of fame. Quite a far cry from the other rap anthems of the decade, eh?


    Marshall Mathers

    Of course, Em has been unapologetically unafraid to embrace a feud, trash talk artists he didn’t like, and continually back it up with some of the most innovative tracks hip-hop has ever heard. Think of the 3-point specialist who leaves his hand in the air with the follow through motion until he reaches the defensive end of the court. Only in this case, Em’s “hand” is his middle finger. You keeping missing 3’s, you don’t have the right to keep your hand in the air. Em has earned that right.

    The best part? He never takes himself too seriously. Where most rappers would never let anyone see them as anything but gangsters, tough guys, and walking branded billboards...Em gladly embraces his inner child, his actual child (Haley), and a white t-shirt with sweatpants. But apart from the funny videos, the walking PR firestorm he continually causes, and his public family troubles, one thing has always remained...his talent. An unmistakable style with an unmistakable voice...just as Ray Allen is considered the greatest pure shooter of the last 20 years with his unmistakable shooting stroke, Em is considered by many to be the best rapper ever. (Vibe Magazine readers voted him as both “Best Rapper Alive” and “Best Rapper Ever” by landslide margins.)

    And just when you thought his combative nature and rhyme cadence was played out and old...Em unleashed a few new tricks. First was his semi-autobiographical portrayal of Jimmy “B-Rabbitt” Smith in the critically acclaimed movie 8 Mile. Then it was his label, Shady/Aftermath Records that has showcased artists like 50 Cent, Obie Trice, G-Unit, and D12...all successful in varying degrees in their own right. Finally, the guy has already lived enough to write and release a tell-all memoir.

    Finally, as mentioned earlier, Em hasn’t been without significant controversy. From legal troubles with his mom and estranged wife to homophobic and misogynistic raps and press snippets...Em isn’t public-relations-trusted or mom-approved. But just when you thought the homophobic rapper from Detroit couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn his lesson, he went and delivered one of the greatest moments in live performance history, surprising audiences yet again about his ability to change and still maintain credibility and relevance.

    After flooding ears by making it rain for years with his spot-up 3-pointers, Em flips the switch and begins creating space off the dribble to get off a few key pull-up jumpers in crunch time.


    Oh, right ... Did I mention he’s white?


    I have no intention of getting into racially charged territory in this blog. While the philosophical, cultural, and racial implications of a white rapper being crowned the #1 rapper of all time can be saved for another marathon blog session, the fact remains that this is...for lack of a better term...important. Em broke down stereotypes, knocked down walls, and crossed lines. And he’s done it in such a way that you almost don’t notice the color of his skin, which is the way it should be. It was only upon my 3rd re-read of this entry that I realized I missed perhaps the most important piece of the Em puzzle: he’s the #1 rapper of all time, he’s white, and he doesn’t give a s***.


    Stay tuned for the next installment of Starting Five debate, slated for Monday, June 28.

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