It was a banner year for producers. The Neptunes — a major commercial force since Ol’ Dirty Bastard‘s “Got Your Money” — helmed more great songs than we could fit on this list. (Shout out to NSYNC‘s “Girlfriend,” an all-time classic boy band single.) Timbaland, Kanye West and Dr. Dre were similarly on fire.
It was also a crucial year for several elite artists: You’ll notice we couldn’t help but include multiple songs from Radiohead, Daft Punk, Destiny’s Child and The Strokes. But there’s something for everyone here — from Southern hip-hop (Mystikal) to indie-rock (Spoon) to prog-metal (Tool).
So raise up, roll out and let us blow your mind. Here are the 50 Best Songs of 2001.
50. No Doubt – “Hella Good”
Though “Hella Good” wasn’t the forever end of No Doubt (the band reunited later in the decade), this pulsating banger was a bittersweet goodbye to the tragic kingdom we’d been living in since the mid-’90s. But what a way to go out! Everything to love about No Doubt seems to coalesce on this Neptunes-blessed sendoff. It has the funky thump of “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Billie Jean.” Its moody electronics make it sound like the evil twin of “Into the Groove.” Gwen Stefani turns up her sex croak to 11 without sacrificing an ounce of badassery. The reality is that these Anaheim ska nerds gave the world so many unfuckwithable classics, “Hella Good” might not even crack their top 10 songs. But in the end, all they asked of us was to “keep on dancing.” – Sarah Grant
49. Maxwell – “Lifetime”
The biggest hit from Maxwell’s first No. 1 album, Now, was the earthy and relatable “Lifetime” — a welcome change for fans and critics who found 1998’s Embrya a little pretentious. Co-written by Sade guitarist Stuart Matthewman, the song has a crisp drum loop with a distinctive snare drum hiccup and a philosophical lyric about taking life one day at a time. “’Lifetime’ is pretty much one of those songs that’s like a crossroads kind of song,” Maxwell said in a 2001 promotional video for the album. “I think it’s about just having faith. I struggled with that, too, because I worried, worried, worried: ‘Will things work; will things work?’ But when you let it go, then it works.” – Al Shipley
48. Eve (feat. Gwen Stefani) – “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”
“Drop your glasses, shake your asses / Face screwed up like you havin’ hot flashes.” I mean, it’s amazing humans continued writing songs at all after opening bars like that. “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” is the OG BFF song that launched a thousand bad bitch anthems like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert’s “Somethin’ Bad,” Bey and Jay’s “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” Saweetie and Doja Cat’s “Best Friend” — just to name a few. They all borrow Dr. Dre’s slinky, syncopated production and, in their own ways, pay homage to the genius pairing of Eve’s cocky flow and Gwen Stefani’s nasal coo. In every iteration of this song made in the last 20 years, there is always the “Eve” and the “Gwen.” The thing they can’t cop is Eve’s indelible wordplay because, as she sings, that’s hard to find. – S.G.
47. R.E.M. – “Imitation of Life”
The band almost killed off this song for sounding “too R.E.M.” But Reveal needed a rocker — so at the last minute, they swapped in a string section for the sluggish horns of what was called “Fake Trumpet Chorus.” And, thus, “Imitation of Life” was born. Their second single without drummer Bill Berry, “Life” was conceived in 1999, backstage in Denmark. But it swelled into something more ornate, with session players, including Ken Stringfellow on synthesizer, enriching this cynically sweet ode to life’s elusive “sugarcane.” At this pre-9/11 moment, the beginning of R.E.M.’s third act, singer Michael Stipe is 40. When life begins. – Patrick Flanary
46. Stereolab – “Captain Easychord”
Thanks to Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire’s production, Stereolab’s seventh album, Sound-Dust, is a dense listen home to some of the band’s best moments. But Stereolab never contently fixate on one idea, always quickly moving on to the next one. “Captain Easychord” starts off as a perfect slice of summer pop, complete with bright layers of slide guitar and brass, before abruptly switching gears into something brighter and smoother, covered with synth, almost as if the band cut up several different pieces of music and stitched them back wherever they pleased. That move could have gone incredibly wrong, even for the most proficient band. But on an album already full of unique ideas, Stereolab made it seem all the more endearing. – Jibril Yassin
45. Gillian Welch – “Everything Is Free”
Feeling the rub of losing income to file-sharing piracy, Gillian Welch wrote this minor-key front-porch lament of the internet devaluing art. And with the proliferation of streaming in the ensuing two decades, it’s no wonder the song continues to resonate. Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett and Phoebe Bridgers have recently covered the stark and mournful tune – originally found on Welch’s beautifully rustic breakthrough album Time (The Revelator) – and as musicians look to restore livelihoods blunted even further by the pandemic, it feels more poignant than ever. But even during hard times, Welch admits the pull of creativity is greater than the dark side of commerce, as she solemnly sings: “They figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.” – Jedd Ferris
44. Destiny’s Child – “Survivor”
“Survivor” is a staple for when you need a jolt of confidence. Going through a breakup? Got turned down from your dream job? Facing negative commentary about your R&B girl group? No worries — Destiny’s Child can help with that. It’s a breezy listen, loaded with Beyoncé-sung quips like, “Thought I couldn’t breathe without you — I’m inhalin’ / You thought I couldn’t see without you — perfect vision.” “Survivor” poses the ever-so important question: When faced with hardship, do you let it shatter your self-confidence, or do you build yourself back up and move along? Meshing that message with its danceable beat has given this tune such a long, iconic life. – Anna VanValkenburgh
43. Azure Ray – “Sleep”
The dreamy debut single from Azure Ray, Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink’s long-running collaboration, is a thing of stately beauty. Like their self-titled LP, produced with the help of Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers) and Brian Causey (Man or Astro-man?), “Sleep” originated as a response to the death of Taylor’s boyfriend. And the song defined a new, distinctively Southern style of haunting electro-folk. It’s been a stated influence on artists like Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers. It appeared in a climactic scene in David Frankel’s 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. And it continues to reassure us all of the transformative power of art in the face of overwhelming tragedy. – John Paul Bullock
42. Outkast (feat. Killer Mike) – “The Whole World”
Outkast did not have to go this hard on the obligatory new song strategically placed to get old fans to buy their greatest hits album. Nor did they have to make three of history’s greatest rap albums in one four-and-a-half-year stretch. By 2001, Big Boi and André 3000 had earned a victory lap, and they got one in the form of “The Whole World,” which rode a clattering shuffle beat and compulsively hummable hook to win them their second Grammy in a row. The track’s secret weapon is a breathless guest feature by a then-unknown Killer Mike, who had met Big Boi while attending Morehouse College in the mid-’90s and made his debut a few years later on Stankonia‘s “Snappin’ and Trappin’.” – Zach Schonfeld
41. The Strokes – “New York City Cops”
Just think: Back in 2001, a song mocking cops was considered controversial. The Strokes, New Yorkers themselves, took that gamble on their groundshifting debut LP, offering bitingly critical lyrics about New York’s Finest. Julian Casablancas ripped the boys in blue over the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, proclaiming, “New York City Cops, but they ain’t too smart.” Naturally, with Is This It? released after 9/11, the song went over like a lead balloon and was ultimately erased from the American CD version — at the band’s behest, given the police response to the terror attack. However, that doesn’t change the song’s message. And its deadpan vocals and revving riffs, like the rest of Is This It?, helped kick off a garage-rock revolution that rescued the mainstream from nü-metal for a spell. – Daniel Kohn
40. Tortoise – “Eros”
Standards opened with “Seneca,” a blare of Hendrix-esque guitar and complex rhythms. With the gauntlet thrown — this isn’t your older cousin’s TNT Japanese import LP, kiddo — “Eros” blasts off into the stratosphere and tunnels rapidly into the Earth’s core. A hectic, warped funk unspools: DJ-reminiscent tonal squawks and xylophone loops intersect; Doug McCombs’ relentless bass line digs a groove trench for the rest of the band to wild out in. A clinical restraint had characterized Tortoise’s oeuvre to that point, so it was refreshing to hear them really cut loose — even if the result was still imbued with its own dazzling, exacting sense of control, of spiraling sound and manic fury. – Raymond Cummings
39. N.E.R.D. (feat. Vita and Lee Harvey) – “Lapdance”
Remember when N.E.R.D was pitched as “The Neptunes…but as a rock band”? In hindsight, their debut, In Search Of, was so surprising because of how great the songs sounded with very few guitars in the first place. The core members — Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Shay Haley — seem happy to make up the rules as they go along, and this giddy enthusiasm sells every funk riff and synth blast found on the album. If anything, the hard rock songs like “Lapdance” would feel out of place had it not been for Pharrell’s vocal performances, clearly thrilled to play the role of the rock star. He sells “Lapdance” as a powerful collision of rap-rock, nu-metal schlock and hokey political rhetoric aside. – J.Y.
38. Mystikal – “Bouncin’ Back (Bumpin’ Me Against The Wall)”
Many artists released singles reflecting the fraught national mood following 9/11, but only Mystikal released one with a B-side called “Pussy Crook.” Continuing a hugely successful run of Neptunes collaborations that diversified the rapper’s sound after leaving No Limit Records, “Bouncin’ Back” filtered a New Orleans jazz funeral through Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s synth-funk aesthetic. The theme of perseverance in the face of adversity doesn’t get much more specific than lines about people “stuck inside scared watching CNN.” But Mystikal does offer a reference to the anthrax-laced letters sent to various public figures in the weeks after 9/11: “Tell my friends to call me, I ain’t acceptin’ no letters!” – A.S.
37. Incubus – “Wish You Were Here”
Rock critics have lambasted Incubus for many reasons: the DJ scratching, the lyrics’ cosmic hippie-isms, Brandon Boyd’s six-pack abs. But none of the naysayers could stop the California band’s fourth LP, Morning View, from peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — and spawning another earnest ear-worm, “Wish You Were Here,” for the alt-rock faithful. It’s the smoothest Incubus song, as oceanic as the album cover, with Boyd at his Boyd-iest (“The sky resembles a backlit canopy with holes punched in it”) and his bandmates maximizing the extremes of their dynamic range. Mike Einziger, one of rock’s most underrated soundscape artists, flows from rippling echo to pulverizing distortion, and drummer José Pasillas deftly bridges the gap between jazz-fusion, funk and punk. And in these moments we are happy. – Ryan Reed
36. Radiohead – “Like Spinning Plates”
Do you prefer the forward or reversed version of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”? Er, wait a minute — which is which? During the marathon sessions that produced their fourth and fifth albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, the band attempted to record a brooding synthesizer ballad named “I Will” — but they hit a roadblock, with Thom Yorke later describing their first draft as “dodgy Kraftwerk.” (A more straightforward guitar version wound up on 2003’s Hail to the Thief.) At one point, someone ran the original recording backward, and — aha! — the singer found a new path: He approximated that vocal in a new take, which was then reversed and mangled to create the vocal collage on “Like Spinning Plates,” a ghostly Amnesiac highlight. Luckily, the listening experience is more emotional than scientific: “My body’s floating down the muddy river,” Yorke observes, as solar eclipse keys carry us into the unknown. – R.R.
35. Britney Spears – “I’m a Slave 4 U”
When Britney Spears released “I’m a Slave 4 U” and its sex-soaked music video, it was a break-the-internet moment for a dial-up generation. The song’s smoldering funk-pop and R&B sound, written and produced by the Neptunes — and almost released by Janet Jackson before being given to Spears — was a major departure from the bubblegum of the ex-Mouseketeer’s two previous albums. The breathy vocals, the hips, the moans — such was the end of innocence for Britney and her droves of middle school fans. The track ushered in a new, purposely more adult era, punctuated by her iconic MTV Video Music Awards performance. (FYI: As of 2016, Banana, the burmese python she touted around her shoulders, was still alive.) – Bobby Olivier
34. Janet Jackson – “Someone To Call My Lover”
Over a snappy acoustic guitar sample from America’s 1972 hit “Ventura Highway,” Janet Jackson delivers a fun — and iconically sexy — performance on “Someone To Call my Lover.” The record, written and produced with regular collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, bounces with ease through this soft-rock setting, as Jackson fantasizes about the man who could fit her just right. “Maybe we’ll meet at a bar / He’ll drive a funky car / Maybe we’ll meet at a club / And fall so deeply in love,” she sings. Jackson is usually a great choice to set a romantic mood, but “Lover” is also a perfect soundtrack for driving down the highway. – Imani Wj Wright
33. Petey Pablo – “Raise Up”
A decade before J. Cole and DaBaby became two of the world’s biggest rappers, Petey Pablo helped put the Tar Heel State on the hip-hop map: making “North Carolina, come on and raise up” one of the most anthemic choruses of 2001 and inspiring a nation of shirt helicopters. Of course, a neighboring state helped make it possible, with Virginia’s own Timbaland supplying the busy, sparkly beat that Pablo darts and dodges around. After Timbo sampled Hossam Ramzy on “Raise Up” and other hits like Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” the Egyptian percussionist began working more with Western pop stars, later arranging songs for Ricky Martin and Shakira. – A.S.
32. The Dismemberment Plan – “The Other Side”
“And there are songs / That’ll make your skull ring like a dropped cup,” Travis Morrison observes over a wild dub-gone-math-rock groove and a colossal, cloud-splitting slide-guitar — an atmosphere somehow frantic and mellow at once. In this case, the skull-ringing inspiration came from “Little Things in Different Places,” a similarly experimental track from Baltimore post-rock act Lake Trout. “Joe [Easley, drummer] and I went to go see them and they played it, and we both looked at each other like, ‘Let’s make something like that,’” Morrison told SPIN in 2014. “It’s a little embarrassing how much we ripped off the song.” The inspiration is obvious, but the Dismemberment Plan build it into something more cosmic and heart-racing. – R.R.
31. Converge – “Jane Doe”
Jane Doe marked a colossal shift in hardcore, and its title track is a monument inside a monument. Most of the record is lightning-fast and jerky, and “Doe” pounds and ponders and gazes and languishes, an abstract take on doom-metal less about amps and more about heartbreak. Jake Bannon screaming “run on girl, run on” as the band vamps up towards a residency in hell — even if that song has likely soundtracked many a shitty cross-country hardcore relationship — remains one of heavy music’s most harrowing moments. It’s aggression at its most naked. – Andy O’Connor
30. Busta Rhymes – “Break Ya Neck”
Minimizing the monument of “Break Ya Neck” as ‘talented rapper rhyming fast” ignores the nuances that make Busta Rhymes stand-alone 20 years later. Every freestyle that tried to outdo its technical prowess missed the point. Recorded during a marathon studio session with Dr. Dre, “Break Ya Neck” is full-tilt, yes. You can visualize his eyes popping and neck bulging like a cartoon character, but Busta keeps the energy going with an array of flows and voices that make the effect feel even more pronounced. He rarely tackles the beat head-on; he skips over it, runs against the rhythm, stopping on a dime before shooting off again. It’s not one rapper you’re dealing with here — it’s a storm of Bustas ready to tear your head off. – J.Y.
29. Sparklehorse – “Piano Fire”
Mark Linkous’ barnburning duet with PJ Harvey is a near-perfect three-minute pop song. In another timeline, “Piano Fire” was definitely a huge hit, dominating MTV and ruling the FM radio airwaves. But in our reality, it was another in an extraordinary string of gorgeous, critically acclaimed — but commercially overlooked — tracks that defined Sparklehorse’s baffling tenure as a major label recording artist. Maybe it was a little too surreal or marked incorrectly. Perhaps the timing just wasn’t right. Regardless of what happened back then, Linkous left us an incredible legacy in his music, epitomized by “Piano Fire.” – J.P.B.
28. Bjork – “Pagan Poetry”
“I’d always wanted to work with music boxes, but it was waiting for the right occasion,” Bjork told Record Collector in 2002. The Icelandic singer found the perfect moment on her fourth LP, Vespertine, and she went all-in. “Pagan Poetry,” the album’s second single, feels like gazing out a castle window into a wintry landscape, with Bjork’s voice drifting on the reverbed chill of a custom-designed, plexiglass music box. “They wanted to make the plonky sound softer with wood, but I wanted it as hard as possible, like it was frozen,” she said of the instrument-makers. “In the end, they said it was the best thing they’d ever done.” Same goes for Bjork: The bewitching sound design — sorta programmed, sorta played, delicate and harsh — exemplifies her early 2000s work, framing a vocal that builds from near-whisper to throat-tripping scream. – R.R.
27. Opeth – “Blackwater Park”
Mikael Åkerfeldt named the fifth Opeth album after an obscure German prog-rock band — a telling sign for the contents of Blackwater Park, which expands the songwriter’s vision to even wilder, more ambitious heights. The Swedish group were already at the forefront of adventurous metal, but these songs — exemplified by the closing, 12-minute title epic — made their coronation official. “Blackwater Park,” like their other masterworks, thrives on dynamic extremes: intricate acoustic fingerpicking and gentle croon erupting into demonic death-metal growls and distortion. But the subtle flourishes on the fringes — Eastern-tinged riffs, clean solos, double-kick chaos — put this one in another category. – R.R.
26. Usher – “U Don’t Have To Call”
On this silky single from Usher’s third LP, the singer enumerates the sacrifices and missed opportunities he endured to keep his past relationship intact. But the vibe isn’t mournful: The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the era’s go-to producers, create a melodically mellow yet rhythmically assertive track full of booming drums and jazzy keys. “Gonna boogie tonight ‘cause I’m honestly too young of a guy / To stay home waiting for love,” Usher sings, seemingly finding motivation to move forward. On the surface level, it seems like he’s doing just fine. But if you listen to how he’s singing versus what he’s singing, you can tell he still wanted that girl to call. – I.W.W.
25. Destiny’s Child – “Bootylicious”
In the music period BB (Before “Bootylicious”), it was rare to hear women praising their rear-ends on the radio. So when Destiny’s Child unleashed their jelly on the world, it was like God’s gift to girls at middle school dances. Decades later, when that palm-muted riff comes through the speakers, it’s like the bat signal for savages to get the hell on the dance floor — because it’s either “Bootylicious” or “Edge of Seventeen.” Fact: most millennials had no idea who Stevie Nicks even was until they saw some blonde lady playing guitar in the Destiny’s Child video. So the Fleetwood Mac-aissance that’s been happening the last few years? We can thank Beyonce, Michelle and Kelly for that too. – S.G.
24. Jimmy Eat World – “Sweetness”
“Sweetness” is a feat of engineering, both sonic and physical — built on the sharp lines of its riffs and the elongated curves of its shouted melodies. Given that clear sense of purpose, it’s shocking to hear that songwriter Jim Adkins nearly threw it out before the sessions for Bleed American. “It’s just such a ridiculous melody,” the frontman told MTV. “I almost didn’t bring it to the band because I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t just say nothing. I can’t just use all these sort of alyrical ‘whoah’s for this much of a song.'” But he can, and he did. Who gives a shit what “Sweetness” is about anyway? It’s painful to imagine a world without its wordless hooks. Whoah is me — and all of us. – R.R.
23. Cake – “Short Skirt / Long Jacket”
In which Cake construct an ideal partner — but in that classically Cake way that no other band could even try to emulate. Singer John McCrea’s detached, deadpan lyrics list out human qualities acerbically (“with the right allocations,” “a mind like a diamond,” and “uninterrupted prosperity”) and with left-field imagism (“fingernails that shine like justice / And a voice that is dark like tinted glass”). No other song sounds more intrinsically Cake than this, their ubiquitous chart-topping hit. It’s a consummate opus containing all of their very best maneuvers: deep, nasal funk guitar like a drunken stumble down a flight of stairs, shouted backing vocals, ultra-low bass, trumpet, vibraslap. “Short Skirt / Long Jacket” puts the puzzle pieces together perfectly, much like the bespoke girl herself. – Logan Blake
22. Nas – “One Mic”
There’s nothing subtle whatsoever about sampling Phil Collins. “In the Air Tonight” is the ideal depiction of tension giving way to uncontrollable anger. The genius of “One Mic” is how those building blocks create an atmosphere that requires very little of the original’s bombast. One mic, according to Nas, is the escape parachute — escape from excess, spiritual malaise, images of war, clashes between ancient religions and scenes of shootouts set amid city bus stops. Each verse simmers, Nas’ narrative eye roaming to take in every detail. He sounds revitalized, narrating with clear lucidity. Later on, he’d be victim to cliche concepts, strange team-ups and the urge to experiment with derided flows — but with “One Mic,” the once and future rap messiah returned for a brief, blazing moment, the gloss of his Shiny Suit missteps burned off completely. – J.Y.
21. Alicia Keys – “Fallin'”
Alicia Keys emerged as a distinct talent — a classically trained pianist with a radio-primed R&B voice — on her debut single, “Fallin’.” The track, which details the topsy-turvy emotions accompanying love of any kind, makes impressive mileage out of a two-chord keyboard pattern and swaggering percussion. Barely out of her teens at the time of Songs in A Minor’s release, Keys showed wisdom and depth of feeling beyond her years — her vocal performance, intricate and hoarse in all the right moments, tells a story all its own. She remains one of pop’s essential songwriters, but it’s obvious why fans still cling to “Fallin’” 20 years later. – A.V. and R.R.
20. Spoon – “Everything Hits at Once”
After being dropped by a major label, Spoon rebounded from career uncertainty with their transformative third LP, Girls Can Tell. Album opener “Everything Hits at Once” is a gateway to the taut, hard-hitting indie-rock the band continued refining throughout the aughts. Anchored by a strutting drum beat, the track economically disperses a variety of sonic textures, from a casually creeping guitar line to a glowing Mellotron solo. And although he’s singing about the realization that a relationship is doomed to fail, Britt Daniel exudes the edgy swagger that has become his enduring calling card, both on stage and in the studio. – J.F.
19. Shakira – “Whenever, Wherever”
Shakira was four albums deep into Latin music superstardom before English-speaking audiences had ever pondered climbing the Andes only to count the freckles on someone’s body. Her historic crossover album, Laundry Service, would remedy this in 2001, with the mountain-shattering mating call that is “Whenever, Wherever.” The video hit TRL viewers like the birth of Venus. Here was this primordial goddess with the yodel of Jewel, the enunciation of Alanis and the strut of Xena the Warrior Princess. It turns out that Shakira only wanted to do an English album when she felt she could write her own songs in the language. That makes perfect sense since Shakira doesn’t merely sing. She swivels, stomps, lunges, writhes and testifies. Her music is transcendent because it’s always one with the Shaki-verse. And that’s the deal, my dear. – S.G.
18. Aaliyah (feat. Timbaland) – “We Need A Resolution”
One minute and 27 seconds into John Ottman’s “Tricks of the Trade,” a creeping orchestral piece from the 1997 thriller Incognito, a clarinet line snakes up its scale. In this setting, the part seems pretty ordinary — one of many woodwinds contributing to a sinister cinematic atmosphere. As sampled by Timbaland on Aaliyah’s “We Need a Resolution,” it’s a central hook — the perfect backdrop for the singer’s portrait of romantic hurt and shame. “I’m catching a bad vibe,” she sings. “And it’s contagious — what’s the latest?” There’s no cure — unless you count the balm of Timbaland’s booming beat, layering wobbly synth-bass and clanging percussion into an uncanny tapestry that still sounds about 20 years ahead of its time. – R.R.
17. Jadakiss (feat. Styles P) – “We Gonna Make It”
Jadakiss, the LOX’s most popular member, released his eagerly anticipated solo debut, Kiss the Game Goodbye, in summer 2001. But he just couldn’t do it without recruiting a groupmate for one of their signature bar-for-bar collaborations: “We Gonna Make It” finds Jada and Styles P passing the mic back and forth mid-verse for the album’s most enduring moment. Jadakiss is one of rap’s masters of colorful exaggeration, and throughout he spins tall tales about whale-sized shipments of cocaine and a house equipped with rotating walls and a hydraulic bathtub. But even those bars get a little upstaged by The Alchemist’s thunderous, spiraling strings, chopped from a 1978 soul-jazz obscurity by Samuel Jonathan Johnson. – A.S.
16. Gorillaz – “Clint Eastwood”
If someone told you in 2000 that the guy from Blur was about the achieve one of the greatest second acts in music history — in the form of a cartoon band of which he’s the only full-time musical member, with an enviable slate of rap guest spots — you’d have been forgiven for giving the time traveler a weird look. But Damon Albarn was too restlessly creative to let Britpop’s demise hold him down, and his embrace of hip-hop wasn’t wholly a shock. (What’s “Parklife” if not a cockney-accented rap song?) “Clint Eastwood,” the unexpected smash single from Gorillaz‘s 2001 debut, rendered this transformation possible. With its lo-fi Omnichord beat, eternally hooky chorus and effusive verses by underground rap hero Del the Funky Homosapien, it’s a joyful frankenstein of disparate genres and parts — a template for Gorillaz’s style-hopping career. – Z.S.
15. The White Stripes – “Hotel Yorba”
“Fell in Love With a Girl” may have hurtled The White Stripes through LEGO brick walls into the mainstream, but “Hotel Yorba” set them apart from the barrage of garage-rock revivalists taking over 2001. With this breezy folk-rock stomper, Jack and Meg showed far greater range than their skinny-jean-wearing peers. Inspired by a real-life building built in 1926 (where the single version was actually recorded), the song sounds like it could have been written during the same time. Like a lost campfire standard pulled from the ether of a haunted Travelodge, “Hotel Yorba” endures. – Jessica Gentile
14. Sum 41 – “Fat Lip”
These Canadian skate punks stormed through the Billboard rock charts like their band name was El Niño, pairing absurdist, Blink-meets-Jackass juvenalia (“We laugh when old people fall / But what would you expect with a conscience so small?”) with no-joke pop songcraft that conjures Dookie via McCartney. Sure, the one-liners are endlessly quotable, and the guitar riffs — octaves, harmonized leads, palm-muted chugs — still slay. But “Fat Lip” stands out among the Warped Tour masses for its hook-a-second detail: The boys even strip away the distortion for a cleanly picked bridge, with Deryck Whibley sounding…semi-tender. But it’s a fake-out. “Don’t count on me,” he snarls. “‘Cause I’m not listening!” – R.R.
13. Ludacris – “Rollout (My Business)”
You can never flex in peace, and Ludacris knows this too well. “Rollout (My Business)” is not so much an Atlanta-certified laundry list of what to envy — naked chefs whipping up three-course meals and then-novel PS2s in cars from the future aside — as it is a commentary of envy itself. Ludacris’ sly flow control, acting in concert with his keen humor and sheer braggadocio make one easily forget that he’s rapping from the perspective of a prying pest, not the victor he really is. – A.O.
12. Daft Punk – “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”
These days, Daft Punk’s robot dance classic is best known as the seed of Kanye West’s 2007 single “Stronger.” But the original Discovery jam, itself constructed on a heavy sample from Edwin Birdsong’s obscure 1979 funk cut “Cola Bottle Baby,” didn’t need a famous face to sell its ageless groove. It was already a genius move borrowing from and burrowing into Birdsong’s swiveling keyboard riffs, but the fancy vocoder part puts the track on another plane: The bridge section, with its descending lines and high-octave shimmer, is among the most exciting moments in electronic music history. – R.R.
11. Aphex Twin – “Avril 14th”
It’s ironic that Aphex Twin’s most-played song — famously utilized for Kanye West’s “Blame Game” — sounds most unlike him. Despite his status as electronic music’s alpha madman virtuoso, Richard David James crafted “Avril 14th” as a modest two minutes of tearful, rudimentary solo piano. Forsaking all his synthesized artifex for something this vulnerable and somber is at first jolting. But by God, is it rewarding. Radiating incomparable melancholy, it’s the kind of beautifully understated and soulful work that makes you remember every moment of existential serenity you’ve ever known. – L.B.
10. Tool – “Schism”
It’s the bass line that launched 1,000 awful prog-metal bands — none of Tool’s numerous imitators have glimpsed its grandeur. Indeed, “Schism,” like so many cuts on Lateralus, is a maze of shifting time signatures and dense rhythms — the kind of muso shit that warrants an entire Wikipedia section about its arrangement. But you can’t track the song’s emotional impact in 5/8 time. As the instrumentalists (guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor, drummer Danny Carey) pull the riffs apart and glue them back together, Maynard James Keenan meditates on a relatable topic: cyclical communication breakdown. “The circling is worth it,” he sings. “Finding beauty in the dissonance.” The same is true for “Schism” itself. The pieces fit. – R.R.
9. Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On”
Featuring Punjabi melodies, an intro in Japanese and a sample of a German new age song, “Get Ur Freak On” is such an ideal fusion of global harmony, the United Nations should take note. But all of those elements take a backseat to Missy Elliott‘s swagger and Timbaland’s beats, which sounded lightyears ahead of their peers upon the song’s arrival. Elliott pushed hip-hop boundaries throughout the decade — and on songs like “Get Ur Freak On,” she married experimental ideas with instantly memorable hooks. Two decades later, it remains as fresh and futuristic as ever. – J.G.
8. The Strokes – “Last Nite”
As party-starters about party-enders go, the second single for the Strokes’ debut, Is This It, is a lock: a rollicking rock’n’roll anthem about how one debauched night can accordion out into near-infinity when you’re young, sour and soused. If frontman Julian Casablancas flips the narrative Moebius strip he’s stuck on into a hero’s journey across the foyer, the rest of the band giddily simulates all the jangling, precisely disheveled fun his protagonist wishes he were having. Then again, the grass always looks greener when peeking back at the past from early middle age — or even just from the grizzled, jaded age of 22. – R.C.
7. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
A neo-disco banger of monstrous proportions, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” was a massive international smash for Kylie Minogue, already huge in Europe and her native Australia but far from a household name in the U.S. The track, flaunting a devilish “la la la” earworm and a hypnotic techno pulse, is far removed from the saccharine “Loco-motion” days of Minogue’s late ’80s emergence. It proved to be a wise shift: “Head” went No. 1 in more than 40 countries, cracked the Hot 100’s Top 10 and remains the signature song for Australia’s best-selling female artist. – B.O.
6. The Shins – “New Slang”
The Shins, much like their namesake anatomical part, are absolutely vital. Off their influential debut LP, Oh, Inverted World, “New Slang” is deceptively charming, containing a wealth in its simplicity. Both joyful and morose, it’s one of those really human tunes that pierces you, steeped in nostalgia as potent as an autumnal memory of your childhood neighborhood. A chipper acoustic guitar jangles out chords as a tambourine fits a consistent chute on the offbeat, backing James Mercer’s nano-sized earnest and melancholic lyrics on wishing ill unto others. “Godspeed are the bakers at dawn / May they all cut their thumbs / And bleed into their buns ‘til they melt away” might be out of self-hatred: “Am I too dumb to refine?” But then the song sputters out and spirals away like a rapidly deflating balloon, up and out and into the silence of the void. This is what won them their ascent to indie-rock angels. – L.B.
5. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
Remember when rock was fun — and didn’t need to make any fucking sense? “Party Hard,” the deliriously anthemic debut single from Andrew W.K., still rages with all the unsuppressed intensity of a Buffalo Bills fan pile-driving his best friend through a folding table. Why is the folding table on fire? Why does the song say everything is alright immediately after it stops feeling alright? Shut up — let’s party! The maximalist riff and bro-chants burned into every rock fan’s brain in ‘01, especially as the song was used in a bunch of mainstream commercials, film soundtracks — remember Stealing Harvard? — video games and more. W.K. is still touring largely on this song’s reputation, and it still brings the party. When he played it at Warped Tour’s 25th-anniversary festival in 2019, people lost their minds. – B.O.
4. Jay-Z – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
On one of his earliest productions, some chancer named Kanye West laced NYC emcee Jay-Z — then at the peak of his lyrical powers and arguably nearing the height of his popularity — with an interpolation of the majestic “I Want You Back,” a monster Jackson 5 smash. While pre-adolescent lead singer Michael Jackson begged us to take him back, the purported “eighth wonder of the world,” giddily confident, congratulated us for hanging out with him. The soft-shoe glitz fits the louche self-mythologizing like a sequin-studded glove on “Izzo,” an easy choice for any S. Carter hall-of-fame playlist. “I do this for my culture, to let them know / What a nigga look like when a nigga in a roaster,” our host confides. “Show them how to move in a room full of vultures / Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over.” Then he did. – R.C.
3. System of a Down – “Chop Suey!”
System of a Down’s second album, Toxicity, is a heavy music masterpiece — a rollercoaster ride through absurd zaniness, neck-breaking riffs and social-political commentary. But it all revolves around “Chop Suey!”, which — with its whiplash allusions to suicide, religion and, well, whatever you want to call “Wake up / Grab a brush to put a little makeup” — achieves an operatic level of emotional dynamics. Daron Malakian’s guitars seize and snarl, and Serj Tankian uses every tool in his bag: soft crooning, triumphant belting, pig-snort screaming. “When I wrote it, I did not think ‘Chop Suey!’ was gonna be any different to any of our other songs,” Malakian told Metal Hammer. “But that was the one that pushed open the door for us.” – R.R.
2. Daft Punk – “One More Time”
The ascendance of this Daft Punk classic from clubs to suburban weddings to the Trolls World Tour soundtrack proves one thing: “One More Time” is undeniable, and not even the cheesiest of settings can diminish its power. With the opener of their classic second LP, Discovery, the French electronic duo crafted an unrelenting ode to victory. Despite (or perhaps because of) Romanthony’s heavily processed, Auto-Tuned vocals, the track is a triumph of both the human spirit and technological progress. If the robots ever take over, it’s because they succeeded by distracting us on the dance floor. – J.G.
1. Radiohead – “Pyramid Song”
The melodious haunt of Thom Yorke’s voice comes into full bloom on this slow, celestial song from Radiohead’s fifth LP, Amnesiac. It feels like Yorke is a footstep in front of you, chin tucked, staring through your eyes with the chiseled look of experience and a panged premonition, his lyrics bare and unsettlingly otherworldly, like visions brought back from the chimera plane: “I jumped into the river / Black-eyed angels swam with me / And we all went to heaven in a little rowboat / There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.” You can’t help but wonder where he’s been. “Pyramid Song” possesses an ineffable, almost supernatural sheen, while renewing wonder in ordinary life. – L.B.