The 21st Century’s 10 Most Influential Musical Acts

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We’re not ones to bitch and moan here, but we did read a feature published a few days back (we’re not going to say where) about the bands who have allegedly defined the musical landscape in the years after Nirvana. It was a silly concept to begin with -– Nirvana were important, sure, but it’s hard to see why they constituted some sort of cultural year zero –- and made worse by the fact that the list included such luminaries as, um, Coldplay, Muse, and Dave Matthews Band. And, it has to be said, not one band whose chief creative force is a black person or a woman. Anyway, the whole sorry business did get us thinking about artists who have been truly influential over the last decade or so. So here’s our riposte to that publication that shall remain nameless: ten artists who’ve shaped some of the most important and interesting musical trends that have emerged in recent years.

Animal Collective

OK, an obvious choice, but also pretty much a compulsory one. The way in which Animal Collective have evolved from high school jam project into culture-bestriding colossus over the course of the 2000s has been remarkable, and has been synonymous with the rise of hipster culture. Pitchfork giving Merriweather Post Pavillion an exuberant 9.6/10 rating was one of those moments that seemed to get everybody talking, and the fact that the album reached #13 on the Billboard charts constituted a genuine crossover moment. You can argue that chillwave started with Panda Bear’s Person Pitch , and their distinctive, rhythmic, psychedelic sound has spawned a legion of like-minded bands, from contemporaries like Gang Gang Dance to latecomers like MGMT.

The Flaming Lips

If Animal Collective are the torch-bearers for neo-psychedelia, then the Flaming Lips are its spiritual godfathers. They’ve been in a band since before many of their fans were born, and and their finest records were made at the very start of the last decade (or, in the case of The Soft Bulletin , in the late ‘90s). But there was a generation of nascent musicians listening, and in the years since, their panoramic, joyous explorations of the possibilities of sound and psyche have been hugely influential -– you can hear echoes of their music in everything from The Arcade Fire’s widescreen epics to the weirdness of bands like of Montreal and the Polyphonic Spree and the lush productions of Bright Eyes and Grizzly Bear.

Missy Elliott

That robotic sci-fi hip hop sound that was pretty much everywhere during the 2000s? It started with Missy. In its own way, Elliott’s work in the early part of the last decade brought Afrofuturism back to hip hop, leading the way for the commercial acceptance of everything from the slick, futuristic minimalism of The Neptunes to the liquid sci-funk of Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Her fingerprints were also all over the work of some of hip hop/R&B’s other most influential artists -– Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child spring to mind. And for those who credit Timbaland with devising the key aspects of her distinctive sound, remember this: it was Elliott who discovered him, not the other way round.

DFA

It’s sad but somehow also fitting that LCD Soundsystem drew their career to a close this week, almost exactly a decade after James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy’s first notable production credit (The Rapture’s Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks EP) and their first killer remix (their slow funk re-working of Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon”). Dance punk, or whatever you want to call it, has been one of the defining sounds of the last decade, and it all comes back to DFA one way or another -– whether it’s production, remixes, or Murphy’s rise to bona fide stardom in his own right with LCD Soundsystem, the label that started as a weekend project for Murphy and Goldsworthy has been a fixture throughout the 2000s.

Kode9

Across the Atlantic, dubstep was the defining sound of the latter half of the last decade, emerging from the tail end of the UK garage scene and incorporating influences from genres as disparate as drum ’n’ bass, dub and trip hop to create a sound that’s defined by gut-clenching bass and ominous overtones. For all its distinct air of darkness, dubstep is a diverse sound, and there’s been no label more plugged into its endless possibilities than London-based Hyperdub. Founder Steve “Kode9” Goodman has been responsible for some of the genre’s best productions –- see, for example, his era-defining 2006 track “9 Samurai,” posted above –- and his label has released records by a virtual who’s who of dubstep production, including Burial, the genre’s genuine crossover artist.

Gogol Bordello

Let’s just think back for a moment to Live Earth, that overblown and underwhelming “global event” that surely signaled the end for large-scale charity benefits as a way to assuage white middle-class guilt. In among all the flag-waving and self-congratulation, there was one genuinely remarkable moment -– the appearance of Gogol Bordello on stage with Madonna. Whatever you think of Madonna -– in our case, not a great deal -– this was something to behold: a Ukrainian immigrant whose multi-cultural band play a deranged hybrid of punk and traditional gypsy music, on stage with the biggest pop star of the 20th century. It seemed like… if not validation, then at least some kind of victory for a band who only a few years before had been playing to bewildered crowds in East Village dives. The 2000s have seen a newfound interest of the US music industry in world music (a horrible term in itself, with all its connotations of us and them) -– you can see it in everything from overt influences like Beirut’s Eastern European fixation and Vampire Weekend’s love for Africa to more subtle examples like Timbaland “borrowing” Bollywood samples –- and there’s an argument to be made that it’s bands like Gogol Bordello who have made this possible, by bringing world music to America and thrusting it in our faces.

Sunn 0)))

Remember what a dismal state metal was in at the start of the 2000s? It had died and been buried in its spandex during the late 1980s, only to rise in a zombified form, sporting ragged dreadlocks and an Adidas tracksuit. By the turn of the millenium, the biggest metal star in the world was Fred Durst, and his unspeakably awful rap/rock hybrid would set the stage for the success of Linkin Park, Papa Roach et al. Happily, away from the mainstream, new things were brewing. As nu-metal dominated commercially, there were new trends emerging away from the mainstream. There were bands who resurrected the idea of merging metal with hardcore to give birth to genres like metalcore and (whisper it quietly) emo. But on the other tip, it was two black-clad gentlemen from Seattle who’d take metal in another direction entirely, revisiting the dark soundscapes of black metal and slowing them down radically to bring genuine darkness and power back to the genre. They might not have been the first band to explore this territory -– you can see bands like Earth, Electric Wizard and even the Melvins as setting precedents for the Sunn 0))) sound -– but they’re the defining exponents of a sound that’s metal’s most exciting and forward-thinking.

Autechre

While Radiohead (about the only relevant band included on the List That Shall Not Be Named) have definitely been a massive influence on rock ’n’ roll in the 2000s, they’d already lost interest in it by the time the new millenium rolled around. Much to the consternation of many of their fans, they’d started listening to what was rather pompously being called “intelligent dance music.” But they weren’t the only ones -– the glitchy electronic sounds being explored by the artists on the roster of UK label Warp were starting to make their way into popular music. It was Autechre who took the concepts of glitch and IDM to a whole new level -– the complexity of their music was often intimidating –- and the idea that dance/electronic music could be cerebral and fascinating has been a massive influence on everything from the intricate productions of Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer to the skipping, arythmic beats of dubstep. As with The Flaming Lips, some might argue that their best days were already behind them by the time the 2000s rolled around, but it’s in the last decade that their influence has been most pronounced.

Joanna Newsom

Another genuine original; who’d have ever thought that a harpist with a penchant for strange polyrhythms and a voice like Kate Bush after a heavy night on the helium would be one of the last decade’s most consistently fascinating artists? The re-emergence of folk as a genre that’s home to genuine innovation was one of the more unlikely occurrences of the 2000s, but nevertheless, there was a slew of fascinating folk types to emerge during the last decade –- see also everyone from Newsom’s freak-folk compadres like Devendra Banhart to those with more conventional takes on the sound like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine. Newsom stands at the forefront of them all, with three rightfully acclaimed albums and a sound that’s as unique as it was when The Milk-Eyed Mender dropped in 2004.

Jay-Z

We’ve never really rated Jay-Z as a rapper, but in 2011, that’s almost beside the point. And that, in itself, is the point –- from the beginning, Jay-Z has defined the idea of the hip hop mogul, a man as much entrepreneur as musician. He’s been the key figure the world of hip hop over the last decade -– along with a series of hugely successful albums, he’s got his clothing label, his record label, his bars, his endorsements… It’s also hard to ignore the fact that those he’s championed have gone on to big things (most notably Kanye West and The Neptunes) while those with whom he’s feuded (particularly Nas) have never quite enjoyed success equal to their talent. And these days he’s friends with Barack Obama. Now that’s influence.