Welcome to the teens! The aughties have reached their end and all of us who smugly ignored 2000 and celebrated the new millennium as 2001 rolled in are psyched about the new decade. Why? Because a new decade means that it’s prime time for retrospectives on the last decade! So, just in time for the Chinese New Year (shout out to all my fellow Rabbits!), I offer you a recap of those stars who have defined the past ten years in American music, those who are quantifiably the best and the brightest.
Yes, you read that right: my list is mathematically sound. All rankings are strictly by the numbers. Now, there are a great many statistics I could’ve used to compile the list. I have gleaned the record books looking for songs and albums matching any or many of these criteria:
- Spent at least 5 weeks at #1 on the Mainstream Top 40, based solely on radio airplay
- Spent at least 5 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, based on a combination of airplay and sales
- Sold at least 3 million copies in the United States (“Triple Platinum”)
- Sold at least 5 million copies worldwide
- Was the best-selling album of the year in which it was released, as reported by Nielsen SoundScan
- Won a Grammy for Album of the Year, Song of the Year (for great songwriting), or Record of the year (for great performance in studio)
I have combined scores from each of these categories through a complex Sabermetric formula to produce a final score for each song and album, a score that I call the Coltonic Quotient. No, not really, but that would be pretty sweet, right? I just made a big graph of those six values and looked for artists who stood out. Enough with the exposition, let’s jump to the winners!
10. Norah Jones
“Top ten artists of the decade, huh? Then why does the first one have me scratching my head?” If that’s how you feel, I understand, and that’s why this soulful young songstress barely made it in. But her accomplishments cannot be ignored. Her success was both immediate and staggering and went arguably unmatched in subsequent years.
At the age of 21, she debuted on the mass market with 2002’s Come Away with Me and lead single “Don’t Know Why”. These won her the Triple Crown of Album, Song, and Record of the year, a feat achieved by only one other artist in recent memory: the Dixie Chicks in 2006. Come Away with Me also happens to be one of only five RIAA-certified Diamond albums from the aughties, which means 10 million copies sold domestically. Worldwide, 20 million men, women, and children own a copy of that disc, making it the best-selling album of the decade, straight up.
And, just for kicks, Norah Jones claimed another Record of the Year title two years later for her collaboration with Ray Charles, “Here We Go Again”.
9. Taylor Swift
While we’re on the topic of immediate success, here’s a spunky pop princess who certainly hasn’t escaped your attention. When 16-year-old Taylor Swift dropped her self-titled debut in 2006, over 4 million American fanboys and fangirls rushed to pick it up for her. Five singles went Platinum and the country world was hootin’ and hollerin’. (Over the years, her crossover success has changed their tune a bit as true blue country people find themselves facing down a new generation of pop-a-matic Carrie Underwood sing-alikes, inspired by Swift, who can’t tell steel strings apart from nylon.)
Swift was impervious to sophomore slump as critics and consumers alike cheered 2008’s Fearless to a Grammy for Album of the Year and a sales record for 2009, overshooting 6 million copies in the US. The lead single, “Love Story”, tallied nearly 7 million sales worldwide. With Speak Now just sneaking in at the end of 2010 and already Triple Platinum and counting, and with Swift now not only legal but of drinking age, we shouldn’t expect her fanbase to cool off anytime soon.
Who would’ve thought it. A white rapper! Honey, tell the neighbors, I just saw the strangest thing on tv… wait, what did he just say? Kids, bedtime, now!
We’ve been through it all a long time ago. But, far from wearing out, Marshall Mathers has remained an ever-present part of our collective consciousness. Yep, there’s a little bit of Slim Shady in all of us. And while his numbers don’t make your eyes pop out the way Taylor Swift’s do, he gets credit in my book for sheer longevity. Our part of the story begins in 2002 with The Eminem Show, which outsold every other album that year and gave us all the words to “Without Me” that we still remember. Months later, a little track that wasn’t ever on an Eminem album managed to top the Top 40 for 7 weeks and the Hot 100 for 12 weeks. “Lose Yourself” might have singlehandedly accounted for a fair portion of 8 Mile‘s success (grossing $240 million at the box office), but I’m not one to speculate.
As proof that Eminem is still relevant, since The Eminem Show he is 3-for-3 on getting his albums to Multi-Platinum status, and in 2010 spent 7 weeks on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Love the Way You Lie” f/ Rihanna.
Oh yes. Say, why don’t we all take a quick break from all this reading and go watch “Tik Tok” on YouTube. Don’t tell me it’s overplayed. You love that song. I love that song. Everybody loves that song. “Tik Tok” is #9 on the list of best-selling singles, worldwide, of all time.
It’s true. No Beatles song, no Elvis song, no Eagles or Michael Jackson or Norah Jones song has sold to 12.8 million people, but “Tik Tok” has. (And it came out August 2009! The Beatles have had 40 years to move their product!) With two other Platinum singles off her only LP to date, Animal, and a 6-week reign atop the Hot 100 on Flo Rida’s “Right Round”, that dirty, drunken blond slut (I don’t think Ke$ha would mind me saying that) is evidently a force to be reckoned with. And I, for one, welcome our new skank overlord.
6. Justin Timberlake
J-Tim, as nobody calls him, is a true child of the aughties. Lest we forget, he was once a part of *NSYNC, sister group of the Backstreet Boys, and as such gets credit for the Quintuple-Platinum 2001 release Celebrity. Shortly after that release, *NSYNC went on what is technically still a hiatus. J-Tim was always the one with the starpower and he quickly wound up spending 6 weeks at #1 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart when he was featured on the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love?” in 2003.
Everyone already knew his name, and some high school girls still carried his face on their lunchbox, but I don’t think there’s much question that 2006 set a new high-watermark for J-Tim. In chronological order, that year saw him star in Alpha Dog, top the charts for a month and a half with the Triple-Platinum “SexyBack”, support Samuel L. Jackson with a leading role in Black Snake Moan, and finally captivate the world as the featured guest in a little SNL Digital Short known as “Dick in a Box”. That last one was of great importance – since the end of *NSYNC, some fans had questioned J-Tim’s egocentricity, and “SexyBack” did little to quiet these thoughts. “Dick in a Box” cemented him as a man of the people.
It’s something of a shame that we haven’t heard new material from J-Tim since FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006 since he’s been busy with his acting career. I do hope that he’ll get the chance to break out some sweet dance moves in one of these roles sooner or later.
5. Katy Perry
Let me tell you some things you pretty much know about Katy Perry. In 2008, she released One of the Boys and immediately spent 7 weeks on top of the Hot 100 with the Triple-Platinum “I Kissed a Girl”, which was only the second-best-selling single from the album, behind “Hot n Cold”. As her low voice, which I personally am wont to describe as boyish rather than sultry, left its indelible mark on our brains, she found herself invited to work with 3OH!3 on their Platinum hit “Starstrukk” and with Snoop Dogg on “California Gurls”, her most successful release to date. “California Gurls” was one of three Multi-Platinum singles spawned by 2010’s Teenage Dream within the decade.
Now let me tell you some things you don’t know. In 2004, before her big break, Perry recorded vocals for the self-titled debut album from The Matrix, a production team responsible for penning such gigantic successes as Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)”. The Matrix, the album, was held back at the last minute and only hit the shelf in 2009, released in confidence following Katy Perry’s skyrocket ascent to popularity and fame.
But here’s the gold nugget: Katy Perry’s first album was actually a self-titled Christian rock release under her birth name, Katy Hudson, featuring songs with titles like “Faith Won’t Fail”. This was, evidently, prior to her discovery of the joys of bisexual experimentation, through which we came to meet her. Katy Hudson once called up Bryce Avary (a.k.a. Christian recording artist The Rocket Summer) to let him know how much she liked listening to his song “TV Family” while she was making out with her boyfriend, Matt Thiessen, frontman of punk rock’s favorite Christian band, Relient K. And for that, Katy Perry, we salute you.
4. Alicia Keys
It’s okay if you’re surprised to see Alicia Keys so close to the top of the list; at least you all know who she is. Perhaps another writer wouldn’t have put so much stock in longevity, but I do – dominating throughout the decade goes a long way toward dominating the decade as a whole – and in that department Keys excels. The 2001 Grammy for Song of the Year went to the then-20-year-old soul sister for “Fallin’”, a heartfelt and moving piece that, to my surprise, capped out at a Gold certification despite spending 5 weeks at #1 on the Top 40. In fact, while Songs in A Minor sold over 6 million copies, Keys would have to wait until 2007’s “No One” (from her third LP, As I Am) to experience the thrill of her own Multi-Platinum single.
You could alternatively argue that “her own” first Multi-Platinum single was “My Boo”, a 2004 collaboration with Usher. Between the three songs mentioned thus far, Keys had a set a trend of landing 5-week spans on top of the charts once every three years; but the next song in the pattern came a little early. It was 2009 when Keys played and sang on her best-selling single to date: Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”.
Amidst her consistent string of musical successes, Keys has graced the silver screen with her characteristic passionate composure in films such as The Secret Life of Bees and has contributed to movie soundtracks as well, perhaps most notably joining Jack White to perform “Another Way to Die”, the theme to the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace.
3. Kanye West
Between February 2004 and November 2010, Kanye West released five LP’s that have all gone Platinum or better. I don’t care who you are, that’s productive. His most impressive streak begins with “Gold Digger” f/ Jamie Foxx in 2005, which gave us 10 weeks to get to know Kanye better while he presided over the Hot 100. Two years later, “Stronger” went Triple Platinum. In 2008, it was “Love Lockdown” that sold 3 million copies domestically. And after that, “Heartless” did even better in the States while making it to 5.5 million in worldwide sales.
At this point I’m starting to wonder if you’re suitably impressed or just drowning in numbers. If I’ve still got your attention, let me make it clear that the monotonous drone of domination represented by these highlighted artists is far beyond what anyone else managed to achieve in the last decade. When I say that a single went Triple Platinum, keep in mind that only 41 songs over the last 10 years made it that far. Out of all the music makers in the world, if Kanye West accounts for 3 of those 41, I’d say he’s doing pretty darn well. “Gold Digger” was one of only 10 songs since 2001 to make it to a 10th week on top of the Hot 100. (Only three songs locked up 10 weeks on the Top 40: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”, Nelly’s “Over and Over” f/ Tim McGraw, and Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me”.) And “Heartless” was among the top 25 singles of the aughties in terms of worldwide sales.
With all that in mind, I could also bring up Kanye’s success as a producer for himself, Jay-Z, Common, John Legend, etc. But let’s keep it simple.
Pop quiz: how long has Beyoncé been flying solo? How long ago did Destiny’s Child call it quits? Okay, those are two different questions, but the answers are probably “Not as long ago as you think.” Destiny’s Child, including Ms. Knowles, found Triple-Platinum success with Destiny Fulfilled in 2004, three years since the somewhat more profitable Survivor. It was in between that the solo debut Dangerously in Love hit the market, bringing us 8 glorious weeks of “Crazy in Love” f/ Jay-Z leading the Hot 100, followed by 9 glorious weeks of “Baby Boy” f/ Sean Paul doing the same.
Since focusing exclusively – in the musical realm, anyway – on solo work, Beyoncé has steadily picked up power like a juggernaut. In 2005, it was “Check on It” f/ Slim Thug that topped both the Top 40 and the Hot 100 for a month and change while selling a million copies. “Irreplaceable” just about doubled those marks in every department the next year. And the capstone, at least so far, has been 2008’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, which managed Quadruple-Platinum sales here, 5.5 million accumulated sales here and abroad, and a Grammy for Song of the Year. If I may speak from the heart, there have hardly ever been more deserving recipients of that award than the team who wrote that gem.
Beyoncé has been married to Jay-Z since 2008, making them approximately a gazillion times richer, more beautiful, and more successful than you and your deadbeat boyfriend will ever be. (I mean, I ain’t sayin’ you’re not pretty, but… come on.) That makes the aughties a true red-letter decade for this empire with legs.
So, did you guess that? Did you see #1 coming? It’s tricky to argue that the success described below should be attributed to the Dutchess herself rather than to the Black Eyed Peas at large, but hear me out. Before Fergie, those other guys were nothing. Nobody has ever heard of Behind the Front or Bridging the Gap and they were both put out before 2001 anyway. In 2003, Elephunk introduced us to Stacy Ann Ferguson and all of a sudden the band sold 2 million albums and held #1 on the Top 40 for 6 weeks with “Where Is the Love?”. Besides, this way I can make the interesting and contentious claim that the top ten artists of the aughties were all individuals and no bands! (Did you notice?)
Anyway, around the middle of the decade, Fergie went rogue. All by herself, she released The Dutchess and watched 3 million of her fans pay for it while five of its singles went Platinum or better. Five! Fergie had us wrapped around the only real part of her body: her little finger. And how did she abuse this power? Ever a gracious mistress, the Dutchess merely rejoined forces with the good guys: will.i.am, apl.de.ap, and Taboo.
In 2005, the Black Eyed Peas saw their group effort Monkey Business come up empty. The only successful single was, to nobody’s surprise, the oversexed Fergie feature “My Humps”. By contrast, 2009’s The E.N.D. was a veritable goldmine. From that decade, “Boom Boom Pow” was one of only six Quintuple-Platinum singles. “I Gotta Feeling” was the only Sextuple-Platinum single. Each spent at least 6 consecutive weeks atop the Top 40 and 12 consecutive weeks leading the Hot 100, selling 7-9 million copies worldwide. Oh, and there were a couple of other Multi-Platinum singles off The E.N.D., but can we just sit in awe for a minute? Two of the top 10 selling singles of the last decade were on the same record. If there is a manual for success in the music industry, the Black Eyed Peas must have written the dang thing.
They’re not done, either. Fergie and the Fergettes managed to push through another release just before the buzzer. The aptly named The Beginning didn’t have time to set any sales records within the decade, but could usher us into a new era in music. If the Black Eyed Peas can match their previous success – not necessarily with this album, but ever – then they’ll probably find themselves on top of this list when we look back on the teens ten years from now.
Agree? Disagree? What loser did I put on a pedestal? What lord or lady did I snub? Hit me up in the comments!