The 50 Best Songs of 2002

From Beck to Bright Eyes to Blackalicious, from chart-dominating pop hits to obscure rap gems
SPIN 50 Best Songs of 2002
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Does any freeze frame scream “2002” more than Chris Martin, at peak alt-rock dreaminess, crooning while splayed out on a used mattress? Maybe it’s Justin Timberlake, in all white and a questionable goatee, flaunting post-boy-band moves against a backdrop of blinking neon? Could it be Missy Elliott, joined by a crew of dancers at a post-apocalyptic playground?

Classic video moments, no doubt. But all three artists had also reached broader creative peaks, just like a lot of the other acts on this list: Interpol, the Flaming Lips, Clipse, Broken Social Scene, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and so on. Looking back, the year’s Hot 100 charts look endearingly goofy — for one, there’s more butt-rock than you may remember. But — and maybe this is just the nostalgia talking — that messiness is part of the charm.

Here are the 50 Best Songs of 2002. – Ryan Reed

50. Mr. Lif (feat. El-P, Jean Grae, and Akrobatik) – “Post Mortem”

 

 

This Boston emcee’s underrated debut, I Phantom, is a multi-layered character study, tackling everything from existential ennui to contemporary courtship. But its third act takes a surprising turn: The closing numbers, “Earthcrusher” and “Post Mortem,” find our narrator looking grim-faced at the world’s end, nukes having gone off with only seconds left to live. Rounding up three other horsemen of the apocalypse (El-P, Akrobatik, and the always-great Jean Grae), “Post Mortem” is so well-crafted that it ends up being harrowing. Despite all the incredible help, Lif’s verses are the most effective, as he often slips in economic two-word asides that do so much narrative lifting. As Lif lists his regrets and has a phone call to his partner, the world abruptly ends — as does the album, leaving listeners broken and breathless. – Evan Sawdey

49. Agalloch – “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms”

 

 

Agalloch’s The Mantle was a black metal record ahead of its time, laying the groundwork for (and surpassing most of) the 2000s American black metal explosion, and “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms” encapsulates all of their profound influence. Contrasts between soft and loud abound — but not like post-rock, rather refining Opeth’s transitions and transplanting their own Pacific Northwest gloominess. Its focus on personal loss is something a lot of later bands would explore, if not quite with their disarming and un-shrouding poignancy. It’s not a constant assault, but it does strike too close to the heart, making “Ghost” deadlier. – Andy O’Connor

48. Kathleen Edwards – “Six O’Clock News”

 

 

Tragedy unfolds across three lean verses to open Failer, the debut album from Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. But despite the startling narrative – about bad choices leading to a hard-luck character’s brutal murder – the song is actually quite easy on the ears, mainly due to Edwards’ vulnerable vocals and a jangly alt-country arrangement highlighted by scrappy, melodic guitar fills. It’s a mournful introduction to an artist who continued to craft unflinchingly vivid lyrics — even while moving beyond her roots-rock palette, influencing many artists during the Americana boom. – Jedd Ferris

47. Musiq Soulchild – “Halfcrazy”

 

 

Twenty years before “Halfcrazy” was flipped on Lucky Daye’s “Over,” it was in the hands of R&B crooner Musiq Soulchild. While the singles from his 2000 debut, Aijuswanaseing, were mainly lighthearted and amorous, “Halfcrazy” marked a turn in Soulchild’s trajectory: Here, he contemplated relationship woes (“I’d hate to walk away from you as if this never existed”) over a booming, waltzing beat and poignant nylon-string guitar sample. “Halfcrazy,” the first single from 2002’s Juslisen, became Soulchild’s biggest single and signature track, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Who can’t relate to the singer’s introspective outpouring? – Jaelani Turner-Williams

46. Sleater-Kinney – “Oh!”

 

 

Electrifying, experimental, and political, One Beat is Sleater-Kinney’s post-9/11 war cry. “Oh!” is the album’s rambunctious punk rock love song, providing some much-needed emotional relief from the unyielding intensity. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein trade springy riffs and bounding declarations of devotion — proving, more than anything else, just how much this band loves rock ‘n’ roll. Janet Weiss’ backing vocals add some ’60s girl-group sweetness, while her constant attack on the crash cymbal and hi-hat makes this one of Sleater-Kinney’s most danceable moments. “Oh!” still creates room — and presents the case for — love and joy, even on the darkest days. – Beverly Bryan

45. High on Fire – “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered”

 

 

“Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” was High on Fire’s first single and the point where Matt Pike became Matt Pike. Sleep’s thick stoner haze hadn’t entirely cleared, yet Pike was beginning to come into his own with his Motörized Sabbath riffs, the world’s most aerodynamic boulders. Metal had a new guitar hero — it just took folks a few years to catch up. More crucial, though, is Des Kensel’s ominous tom barrage that opens this trial where death was the foregone verdict. Pike gets all of the worship — but Kensel is one of the few who can keep up with him, and he deserves as much recognition. – O’Connor

44. N.O.R.E. – “Nothin'”

 

 

Queens rhymesayer N.O.R.E. gave the Neptunes one of their first hits with 1998’s “Superthug.” The production duo – who were dominating American radio by the early 2000s – returned the favor with “Nothin’.” The Capone-N-Noreaga member gruffly spits over the hypnotic groove, with Pharrell Williams providing a memorable “what you wanna do” hook. N.O.R.E. maintains that he’s “been a hustla,” with nods to former HBO prison drama Oz and, hilariously, Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit “All Star.” Once a statement track in the Y2K nightclub scene, “Nothin’” was given new life through sampling — its distinctive beat popping up in Armani White’s TikTok hit “Billie Eilish.” – Turner-Williams

43. Talib Kweli – “Get By”

 

 

Once upon a time, an ambitious young producer named Kanye West had hopes to place one of his best beats, anchored by a sample of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” on a Mariah Carey album. But when that didn’t pan out, the propulsive track became one of conscious rap’s biggest crossover moments — before West’s own rap career kicked off. Rawkus Records rapper Talib Kweli, making his solo debut after acclaimed albums with Black Star and Reflection Eternal, reined in his wordy flow to paint a picture of everyday perseverance over a massive gospel hook. He scored his first radio hit, even releasing a remix with Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. – Al Shipley

42. The Books – “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again”

 

 

Experimental duo the Books arrived fully formed with 2002’s Thought for Food. Woozy and stirring and unlike anything else in electronic music at the time, opener “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again” is a perfect litmus test for their appeal. Do you find the track’s idiosyncratic mélange of acoustic instrumentation, sound snippets, and perturbing voice samples to be hypnotic and brilliant? Please proceed. Do you find it alarming when an indie-folk instrumental dissolves into an extended sample of a woman ranting about her heart condition on a daytime court TV show? Back away slowly without making eye contact. – Zach Schonfeld

41. Tribalistas – “Velha Infância”

 

 

As MPB greeted the new century with exciting collaborations and impromptu genre fusions, three of its main heads — Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes, and Carlinhos Brown — secretly recorded a joint album in less than two weeks. The self-titled Tribalistas dominated the Brazilian charts, a feat much owing to its stunning single “Velha Infância.” Conceived as a hymn to the childlike spirit the trio says takes hold of them when they make music together, the track was so instantly and thoroughly cherished that it eventually became Brazil’s most-played song of the entire decade. – Ana Leorne

40. Nas – “Made You Look”

 

 

When Nas was making his embattled mid-period albums with Fugees producer Salaam Remi, some Illmatic fans complained about the Queens rapper’s ear for beats — yearning for him to get back in the studio with DJ Premier. But few Nas singles have better production than Remi’s apocalyptic beat for “Made You Look,” which slowed down the Incredible Bongo Band’s b-boy favorite “Apache” just enough to become surprisingly menacing. With the Jay-Z beef still in the air, Nas sounds energized and hungry, stacking rhymes together in thinly veiled threats, but also loose enough to crack uncharacteristically goofy jokes like “Don’t say my car’s topless, say ‘the titties is out.’” – Shipley

39. Tegan and Sara – “Monday Monday Monday”

 

 

For a brief time in the early 2000s, Tegan and Sara could reasonably be described as a pop-punk outfit. “Monday Monday Monday,” from the band’s first great album, If It Was You, captures the sister duo’s angst and unfailing melodicism at its best. “I say damn your mood swings, damn your mood swings!” Sara Quin sings, exorcising a tumultuous relationship. The song also initiated the band’s tradition of writing standouts with repetitious titles (“I Know I Know I Know,” “Soil, Soil”). Just another manic Monday, indeed. – Schonfeld

38. Coldplay – “The Scientist”

 

 

One of the essential Coldplay songs, “The Scientist” marshals aching earnestness — this band’s M.O. since the beginning — into a superpower. Chris Martin croons and mopes over a treasured relationship’s dissolution, his heartbreak culminating in a pained howl during the stadium-friendly climax. The track’s high-concept, reverse-motion video signifies the desire to turn back time and helps explain why anyone ever hailed Coldplay as “the next Radiohead.” If you took piano lessons in 2002 and you didn’t bang out the somber chords to “The Scientist” on the regular, did you really take piano lessons in 2002? – Schonfeld

37. Rilo Kiley – “The Execution of All Things”

 

 

The title track from Rilo Kiley’s acclaimed second album has a bit of everything, including cello. Though its vision of American waste and devastation remains evergreen, it also perfectly encapsulates so much fear and anxiety of the Y2K era — along with a lot of what made indie-rock so great at the time. Jenny Lewis serves bitter irony and piercing social criticism with a cool, silvery voice, backed by cinematic chamber pop made for wide open spaces. Guitars crunch and bass rumbles as the song expands westward, consuming everything in its path. In the end, we are left floating in nothingness, forced to confront ourselves. – Bryan

36. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”

 

 

This short-lived Danish pop duo only found one major hit. But their debut single, with its sleek beat and chant-along chorus, remains an undeniable banger. While Junior Senior has long since disbanded, only releasing two albums, the ubiquity of “Move Your Feet” has solidified the group’s legacy. This song seemed to be everywhere in the 2000s, appearing in countless commercials and soundtracks — plus, it’s stuck around, with a delightfully goofy cover version highlighting the 2016 Trolls movie. That groove is still irresistible, beckoning you to dance around the discotheque like the eight-bit animated creatures gracing the equally classic music video. Oh yeah! – Jessica Gentile

35. Truth Hurts – “Addictive”

 

 

In 1989, at the height of Eric B. & Rakim’s legendary run, the duo guested on Jody Watley’s “Friends,” arguably the first top 10 hit in the rapper/singer collaboration template. Thirteen years later, with similarly styled songs dominating pop music, Rakim again reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 with his verse on “Addictive” by Truth Hurts. The ubiquitous summer jam, produced by DJ Quik and co-written by the late great Static Major, stood out by sampling one of India’s most famous singers, Lata Mangeshkar, who passed away in 2022. (Aftermath Records reportedly didn’t clear the sample, which led to a copyright infringement lawsuit.) – Shipley

34. Dälek – “Spiritual Healing”

 

 

Before Death Grips and clipping., there was Dälek: the New Jersey industrial-rap act spitting hellish visions over the most cacophonous loops this side of a Godflesh album. The leadoff track on From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots, “Spiritual Healing” is the most pointed and accessible moment of the group’s career, in spite of the piercing feedback, casting a judgmental eye to those who thump their good books the loudest. “If Abraham freed us, why there still Abner Louimas?” raps MC Dälek. Later, he adds, “Sick of bullshit preachers concerned with aborted fetus / but don’t give a fuck who feeds us.” “Spiritual Healing” doesn’t seek the very thing its title invokes but, perhaps, something more satisfying in the short-term — they’re here to burn it all down. – Jeff Terich

33. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body”

 

 

Oh, glory to the early days of Justin Timberlake, when the ex-NSYNCer was still trying to prove his solo staying power and not playing dopey woodsman, writing miserable songs called “Flannel” and “Montana.” “Rock Your Body,” the third single from his debut solo LP, Justified, was penned by the Neptunes and originally offered to Michael Jackson, who turned the song down. While the MJ influence is obvious, the disco-laden jam is an all-time millennial pop banger, all smoldering ‘70s retro synth, and playful bass. And yes, there was a time when Timberlake’s goofy beatbox solo was considered very cool, assuming you were a 14-year-old girl. – Bobby Olivier

32. Tweet (feat. Missy Elliott) – “Oops (Oh My)”

 

 

On her 2019 comeback single “Throw It Back,” Missy Elliott spits one of the most unique boasts of recent memory: “I did records for Tweet before y’all could even tweet.” While Charlene Keys’ moniker has become a search engine victim in the social media era, her solo single “Oops (Oh My)” still sounds TikTok-fresh, even two decades removed from its CD-single debut. Dexterously produced by Timbaland and co-written by Elliott, “Oops” uses an insane Casio clarinet loop to create a pulsing, weird, and surprisingly sensual landscape for Tweet’s breathy, flustered vocals. It’s often cited as a sly nod to self-love, and Tweet excelled in the role of helplessly high ingenue, turning “Oops” into an instant radio smash. While she co-wrote all of her material and has contributed vocals to numerous rap releases, Tweet never matched the heights of her debut outing. “Oops (Oh My)” remains her calling card, leaving us so high, hypnotized. – Sawdey

31. Neko Case – “Deep Red Bells”

 

 

“Deep Red Bells” is the most affecting song on Neko Case‘s second solo album, Blacklisted. A murder ballad drawing from her experience of growing up in the same time and place as the Pacific Northwest’s Green River killer, it uses well-placed lyrical details (“and tastes like being poor and small / and popsicles in summer”) and vivid imagery (“while the red bells rang like thunder”) to convey uncertainty and fear. Vocally, Case draws from these deep wells of sorrow and anxiety; her performance is piercing, filled with the kind of stunning moments that stick with you forever. – Annie Zaleski

30. Brandy – “Full Moon”

 

 

The title song from Brandy’s third album had a life of its own. “Full Moon” brims with warm sensuality and resonant vocal textures, marking a new level of maturity for the former Moesha star — and showcasing a deeper, more adventurous sound than her self-titled 1994 debut or 1998’s Never Say Never. During her more futuristic era, even the singer’s signature adolescent braids were traded in for sleek, wispy hairstyles. Equally grown up, “Full Moon” solidified Brandy as “the Vocal Bible,” her deep tone fluttering and trilling over Mike City’s bouncy, piano-driven production. – Turner-Williams

29. Jurassic 5 – “What’s Golden”

 

 

For a brief, glorious time in the early 2000s, California hip-hop collectives like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and Blackalicious pointed the way toward a sound rooted both in lyrical virtuosity and music that was actually, well, good. In the mainstream, we’ve had to settle for Puff Daddy and mumble rap instead, but the oft-synced “What’s Golden” shows us where the genre could have gone: an unabashed old-school banger complete with a Public Enemy sample, scratch-heavy production by Cut Chemist and Nu Mark, and magnificent verses by Chali 2na, Akil, Soup, and Marc 7 about staying true to the game and being “tight like dreadlocks or Redd Foxx and Ripple.” – Jonathan Cohen

28. The Flaming Lips – “Fight Test”

 

 

If 1999’s The Soft Bulletin helped steer the Flaming Lips toward the mainstream, follow-up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots announced the band’s arrival there. The music was big, bold, and accessible — and never more so than on the album’s opening song. Without sacrificing the weirdness that had always underpinned their music, “Fight Test” made it candy-colored and supremely catchy through brightly strummed acoustic guitars, booming drums, and bleeping electronics. Wayne Coyne’s wistful vocals topped it all off, delivering melancholy lyrics about a loss of innocence. By 2002, some still knew the Lips for their 1993 novelty hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.” But the off-kilter philosophizing and tightly ramshackle arrangement of “Fight Test” proved they could go deeper, both emotionally and commercially. – Eric R. Danton

27. Enon – “Natural Disasters”

 

 

John Schmersal’s bug-eyed intensity, honed with the criminally short-lived Dayton, Ohio, noise-rock act Brainiac, found full flowering in Enon. On the trio’s second album, High Society, he traded front-person duties with electro-pop partner Toko Yasuda, adding brilliantly skronky guitar to her buzzing sensibilities. It’s a diverse and faultlessly propulsive LP, but it crests with this unlikely anthem about “birthday cake, steak, and wine.” Paranoid and vibratingly intense, Schmersal’s sideways melodies and crinkled, contorting guitar interlock like damaged robot parts, dancing at odd angles while throwing off sparks. It exemplifies his unique guitar sound, but also the sort of steely, dark-eyed indie rock that deserved more play among that year’s bouncy garage-rock revivalists. – Wenzel

26. Sum 41 – “Still Waiting”

 

 

After the breakthrough success of Sum 41’s 2001 debut, All Killer No Filler — “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep” were inescapable during MTV’s pop-punk obsession — there was plenty of anticipation (see: pressure) surrounding quickly issued follow-up Does This Look Infected? But while most of the rock-listening world knows only All Killer, Infected is the band’s best all-around album: a markedly heavier and more thoughtful blend of punk-rock and metal that pulls no punches to the groin. Lead single “Still Waiting” is heavy on hooks but carries a post-9/11 protest’s weight: “What have we done? We’re in a war that can’t be won,” frontman Deryck Whibley wails with vitriol. – Olivier

25. Mastodon – “March of the Fire Ants”

 

 

“March of the Fire Ants” is what happens when some death metal guys collide with a Southern axe-slinger and hash out their differences with a lot of stitches. Even as they’ve gotten both proggier and more mainstream over the years, that’s still basically Mastodon’s dynamic. In “Fire Ants,” it was sludgier and burlier, with the choruses flipping rock convention and diving further into darkness than the verses do. Resolution is at hand toward the end, but then the intro riffs back, as the despair never really ends. The fire ants will (and should) upend and consume us all. – O’Connor

24. Bright Eyes – “Bowl of Oranges”

 

 

Bright EyesLifted remains an emotional magnum opus in Conor Oberst’s very emotional discography. The album may be ensconced in chamber pop histrionics, but in the midst of the bleak melodrama, “Bowl of Oranges” offers a jaunty — dare we say joyful — respite. A smile in the guise of a song, “Oranges”’ tuneful optimism evokes the camaraderie of a newfound friend who acknowledges your pain without trying to invalidate it. “Bowl of Oranges” is bound to provoke some tears in the most vulnerable fans, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, as the lyrics suggest, “Your eyes must do some raining / If you’re ever gonna grow.” – Gentile

23. Blackalicious – “Make You Feel That Way”

 

 

Blackalicious’ first brush with the mainstream after ascending the Northern California Quannum/Solesides scene, “Make You Feel That Way” is 100% good vibes. A nostalgic recollection of events and items stirring warm and fuzzy feelings — among them hearing Big Daddy Kane for the first time, finding a hundred-dollar bill, and getting a promotion — Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel offer a litany of gratitudes through breezy boom-bap that makes any time of year sound like a summer evening. Never preachy, corny, or heavy-handed, the song — like every item on its list — simply makes you feel that way. – Terich

22. Foo Fighters – “Times Like These”

 

 

While initially a minor hit, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Rock chart, “Times Like These” has grown into an unexpected anthem. As evidenced by numerous performances — the Biden inauguration, the reopening of Madison Square Garden, the tribute concert for late drummer Taylor Hawkins — it’s served as a musical balm during tumultuous times, on both the personal and political level. The song is a tightrope act of seething ferocity and disarming vulnerability from Dave Grohl, one of rock’s remaining elder statesmen. And that remarkable balance is bound to endure, taking on layers of new meaning in the years to come. – Gentile

21. Interpol – “Obstacle 1”

 

 

Interpol’s second single is what turned every casual, Joy Division-dropping listener into a believer. “Obstacle 1” has everything the band could ever promise — and more. To start: Paul Banks’ half-possessed howls, Daniel Kessler’s ringing guitar, Sam Fogarino’s insistent rhythms, and, of course, Carlos D’s slinky bass, a character far more menacing and complex than the protagonist who goes stabbing herself in the neck. The whole song is a study in tension and texture, with all four members locking into a foreboding dance, continually shifting directions as they careen ever faster into cathartic madness. Name one song after it that’s pulled off such thrilling urgency. – Stephanie Garr

20. Coldplay – “Clocks”

 

 

On their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay settled into the piano-pop-meets-synth-rock groove that propelled the band to superstardom. “Clocks” — which won a Record of the Year Grammy, beating out Beyoncé‘s “Crazy in Love” and Outkast‘s “Hey Ya!” — was a major part of this rise, driven by Chris Martin’s keening vocals and shimmering keyboard flourishes. Lyrically, the song is darker than it might seem at first: It’s built on thorny philosophical musings, as Martin sings of feeling torn (“Am I a part of the cure? / Or am I part of the disease?”) but finds no easy answers. – Zaleski

19. Broken Social Scene – “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”

 

 

“Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” showcases much of what makes Broken Social Scene, the polymorphic musical collective led by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, a Canadian national treasure. It’s a startling piece of baroque experimental pop that opens with a delicate banjo and swells to a mighty orchestral crescendo. All the while, Metric’s Emily Haines repeatedly urges us forward with gentle demands like “Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me.” It’s a perfect example of how the band, which has incorporated dozens of Toronto-area musicians since 1999, always manages to unite disparate ideas and make something beautiful. – John Paul Bullock

18. Iron & Wine – “Upward Over the Mountain”

 

 

While rooted in a revivalism of sparseness, Sam Beam’s debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, helped set the tone for the ensuing lo-fi indie-folk movement; and “Upward Over the Mountain,” the album’s slow-burning standout, is still a touchpoint for melancholic bedroom troubadours. In this bare-bones stunner, four-track hiss and mournful acoustic guitar chords usher in Beam’s wistful, hushed vocals and lyrics laced with literary allusions — both of which remain calling cards. This recording was intended to be a demo, but it’s perfect in its threadbare form. We’re lucky it was never embellished. – Ferris 

17. Johnny Cash – “Hurt”

 

 

Only the rare great cover can transform a song’s meaning and resonance without changing a word. In its original form, Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” was a disturbing dispatch of addiction and self-harm, rooted in Gen-X angst. Sung by Johnny Cash, “Hurt” was born anew as a wrenching meditation on mortality and regret by a 70-year-old man staring down the end of his life. Its spare music video by Mark Romanek stakes its claim as one of the great clips of the 21st century. So definitive is Cash’s cover that people commonly believe the song was his own — and at this point, maybe it is. – Schonfeld

16. Wilco – “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

 

 

Though Wilco had released three albums of their own (plus the Billy Bragg collaborations) before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” felt like a mission statement. Stretching to nearly seven minutes, the experimental song set the tone for the whole album — and, in some ways, for the next two-plus decades of Wilco. Jeff Tweedy (and Jay Bennett, lest we forget) channeled the turbulent uncertainty of a changing world by intercutting melodies with noise, abrupt instrumental transitions, and hypnotic rhythmic repetition. Tweedy’s lyrics veered into abstraction (“I am an American aquarium drinker” is the album’s first line) yet somehow arrived at a fuller picture of the modern world, in a manner at once murky and deeply resonant. – Danton

15. Coheed and Cambria – “Devil in Jersey City”

 

 

Before “A Favor House Atlantic” anointed Coheed and Cambria the lovable weird kids of the emo/pop-punk movement, the New York prog-rockers landed with their debut LP, The Second Stage Turbine Blade. The album introduced a rock fan base to frontman Claudio Sanchez’s conceptual universe The Amory Wars, which finds characters Coheed and Cambria under siege by…You know what? It’s not important. Lead single “Devil in Jersey City” is an explosive entré with a double-barreled hook and some generally indecipherable lyrics (“sayonara, oh-oh” / “down on the floor, bleeding bastard”). The guitars are big; Sanchez’s voice pierces, and groundwork is laid for one of this millennium’s most underrated alt-rock bands. (Fun fact: What appears to be nonsense in the song’s opening moment is actually a giggling Sanchez saying “Shabutie,” the band’s preceding name.) – Olivier

14. Frou Frou – “Let Go”

 

 

By the premiere of Zach Braff’s debut film, Garden State — which memorably featured Frou Frou’s dramatic electro-pop number “Let Go” in its emotional ending sequence — the group behind that song was already disbanding. Singer Imogen Heap and producer Guy Sigsworth (the latter fresh off working with both Madonna and Björk) earned a major label deal, partly through their industry credits. Debut single “Breathe In” underperformed, all but dooming their only album, Details. Still, bad timing can’t keep a great track down: “Let Go” has become one of the era’s most powerful songs, making “bedroom house music” a tangible, personal thing. From Sigsworth’s echoing synths and swelling string samples to Heap’s yearning voice and fascinating lyrics (“these mishaps you bubble wrap”), everything about “Let Go” is delivered with nuance, confidence, and a beautiful sense of drama. – Sawdey

13. Interpol – “PDA”

 

 

An era-defining blend of cool kid ennui and oh-so-early-2000s inscrutability (“We’ve got 200 couches where you can sleep tonight”), “PDA” is the song you’d play an alien visitor who wanted to know what New York sounded like at the turn of the century. Even for local scenesters who’d heard Interpol play “PDA” for several years before the band hit big, it was still hard to resist Paul Banks’ icy intonations about “past dinners” and “last winners,” guitarist Daniel Kessler’s Edge-y wall of sound, and especially Carlos D’s deep, driving bass lines. “PDA” makes you want to smoke, drink, and make out, preferably in the back of a dimly lit East Village bar. Somewhere, Ian Curtis is cracking a smile. – Cohen

12. Avril Lavigne – “Complicated”

 

 

Avril Lavigne came off as brash and rebellious with “Complicated,” her relentlessly catchy debut single. The Canadian singer, sweetening her punk edge through soaring pop hooks, is exasperated here — flashing a curled-lip sneer toward someone who shows one face to her and another in a crowd. Sure, Lavigne leaned more toward Hot Topic than Trash & Vaudeville. But with “Complicated,” she offered an alternative vision of pop stardom to a new generation of budding music fans, exploring a path beyond lip-syncing and choreography. – Danton

11. Justin Timberlake (feat. Clipse) – “Like I Love You”

 

 

Although the Neptunes had already helped Justin Timberlake transition from boy band heartthrob to semi-convincing R&B lothario on NSYNC’s “Girlfriend” a year earlier, “Like I Love You” was the big leap into solo territory. The groove is tougher, with pounding drums and a syncopated, aggressively strummed acoustic guitar. And instead of another guest verse from Nelly, the rapping comes from the dope boys who’d just made “Grindin’.” Timberlake still sounds a little out of his depth, muttering silly pickup lines like “here, baby, hold my jacket,” but his chemistry with the Neptunes is undeniable. After “Like I Love You” stalled at No. 11 on the Hot 100, he kicked off a long string of top 10 hits. – Shipley

10. The Used – “The Taste of Ink”

 

 

It’s funny: Despite the Used’s standing as a pillar of weepy mall-emo, their debut single was actually quite hopeful. “So here I am / It’s in my hands,” frontman Bert McCracken belts with triumph on the chorus. “And I’ll savor every moment of this.” “The Taste of Ink” was more or less about the band’s fevered optimism to leave their constrictive home state of Utah, and how McCracken, then only 20, craved a new chapter after his stint in rehab. Sonically, the song remains deeply infectious, between the bounding hook and the stabbing verses, which are no less iconic in enduring emo lore: Who doesn’t love to scream that “four o’clock in the fucking morning” line? “Ink,” along with fellow fan favorite “Buried Myself Alive,” led the band’s self-titled LP to eventual platinum status and, as they wished, got them the hell out of Utah. – Olivier

9. Missy Elliott – “Work It”

 

 

It’s a bit cruel that, for an artist this game-changing, Missy Elliott has yet to earn a chart-topping single or album in the U.S. Then again, most pioneers don’t get the credit they deserve, even when they’re in their empirical era. Using a break that samples Run-DMC‘s “Peter Piper,” Elliott and Timbaland constructed a future-facing track grounded in rap’s past. Endlessly quotable (“Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?”) and remarkably playful (as evidenced by reversing the phrase “put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it” — in the chorus of all places), “Work It” became an instant classic, crossing over to Top 40 radio despite its deliciously raunchy lyrics. – Sawdey

8. Spoon – “The Way We Get By”

 

 

Austin’s Spoon had already mastered their minimalist indie rock by 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. But they perfected it with breakout hit “The Way We Get By.” Britt Daniel is as effortlessly cool as ever, spouting out Iggy Pop references in a punchy, piano-rocking manifesto for escaping ennui by any means necessary. The lean, mean rhythm section ties it all together, making this the clap-along anthem for restless 20-somethings — and anyone nostalgic for such a time. With a hook so undeniably sticky, the song couldn’t be resisted by the masses, thanks to a particularly game-changing feature on The O.C. – Garr

7. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles”

 

 

Debut singles don’t get much more indelible than Vanessa Carlton‘s “A Thousand Miles.” Built around cascading piano spirals and leaping strings, the song details the lengths a person would walk just to see someone they adore. (Guess how far.) “A Thousand Miles” is based on a true story — Carlton wrote the song, which she originally called “Interlude,” about a mystery crush she’s declined to name. However, the vivid nods to New York City (“Making my way downtown”) and Carlton’s confident vocals imbue “A Thousand Miles” with magical romance anyway. No wonder it was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at that year’s Grammys. – Zaleski

6. Clipse – “Grindin'”

 

 

“Grindin’” is easily the definitive Clipse song, but it almost wasn’t a Clipse song at all: Before landing the hard-hitting Neptunes beat, they nearly lost out to Jay-Z. As fate intended, the single wound up on their debut LP, summertime essential Lord Willin’, pairing the Virginia rap duo (brothers Pusha T and No Malice) with music’s hottest producers. The emcees kicked mischievous drug-dealer flows (“I bake them cakes as fast as I can / And you can tell by how my bread stack up / Then disguise it as rap so the Feds back up”) with Pharrell Williams as their hype man, and “Grindin’” took the block to the mainstream. – Turner-Williams

5. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows”

 

 

The lead single from Queens of the Stone‘s third album, Songs For The Deaf, is first and foremost a nervous song. This contagious electricity, brought to the forefront through an insistent guitar riff, comes from a solid spinal cord superbly sustained by Dave Grohl‘s disquieting drumming and a throbbing bass line by Nick Oliveri — the latter becoming all the more imposing when given the space to breathe on its own. Written by Josh Homme and the late, great Mark Lanegan, “No One Knows” stands out as an impeccable supergroup powerhouse. It’s the textbook definition of what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to sound like — and how it should make you feel. – Leorne

4. Beck – “Lost Cause”

 

 

On his 2002 breakup album, Sea Change, Beck revealed the sad-sack troubadour behind all that sardonic funkiness. It was a brilliant, unexpected twist from the “Loser” star, with “Lost Cause” the airy, aching centerpiece. Here, Beck’s typical deadpan delivery dissolves, leaving behind a sincere tenderness: “I’m tired of fighting,” he mumbles with the faintest lilt, as if threatening to sink into a resigned dread if he doesn’t get those words out. The woozy synth and delicate weave of acoustic guitars keep him afloat in a sort of pastel-colored fever dream. Beck somehow makes heartache an inviting, ethereal experience. – Garr

3. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – “How Near How Far”

 

 

After the major label signing-then-dropping binge of ‘90s indie, it’s a wonder that a band like Trail of Dead wound up on Interscope. They’d built up a following based on their incendiary live shows — two drummers, broken instruments, rowdy punk rock rave-ups — and their music seemed more suited to not-quite-up-to-code DIY venues than stadiums. But they could write one hell of a rock anthem. “How Near How Far” wasn’t even a single, yet it stands as one of the most towering moments of Source Tags and Codes, a mysterious and affecting examination of the relationship between painter and muse (“Looking back in time / Through verses set in nursery rhyme / At oil painted eyes / of muses left behind”). Driven by repetitions of the title phrase between driving, all-pistons-firing verses, it’s an example of art nerds made curiously populist. – Terich

2. The Roots (feat. Cody ChesnuTT) – “The Seed (2.0)”

 

 

Few tracks slap with the intensity of “The Seed (2.0),” the collaboration/remix by Cody ChesnuTT and the Roots — it’s impossible to resist the massive hook, beefed-up bass, and patented ?uestlove backbeat. On the surface, it scans as a song about infidelity, but upon closer examination, it explores the cross-pollination of music itself. (ChesnuTT’s lyrics reference the Muddy Waters song “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) The Philly hip-hop group, updating the singer-songwriter’s bluesy neo-soul jam, pointedly linked Black American musical inventions past and present. And they did it in a way that made everyone want to dance. – Bryan

1. The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??”

 

 

Wayne Coyne and company had already recorded plenty of trippy music prior to this instant stunner, which endures as much for its psychedelic overtones as its self-contained utopian spirituality. As the lead single from the transcendent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, it announced a truly cosmic version of the Lips — the Pink Floyd of the 2000s, with mind-blowing, theatrical live shows and Coyne’s burgeoning weirdo-hero status. Already ascendant thanks to 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, “Do You Realize??” heralded Yoshimi as another album leap forward, a la Radiohead’s evolution from The Bends to OK Computer. Working with producer David Fridmann, the band married a simple, sweet melody with squiggly synths, paper-thin guitars, and a Hollywood Bowl-sized chorus. The lyrics are good-faith but not naive, with a vulnerable Coyne offering a scientifically sound vision of humanity. But upon contemplation — or the 4,000 listen, as the case may be — there’s more insight into consciousness here than you’ll find through an army of wellness gurus. It’s a bittersweet tearjerker in the best sense: profound, heartbreaking, and beautiful to its last note. It’s never too late to tell your friends you love them. – John Wenzel

 

All the songs on this list were selected by the SPIN editorial team. However, we may earn an affiliate commission if you purchase an item through one of these links.

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