It boggles the mind that as recently as a decade ago, if you wanted to hear "Knockin' da Boots" by H-Town (and you did, believe me), you'd have to perform a primitive prayer ritual: you'd call some creepy guy with a really deep voice and beg him to play it, then wait by your radio for an hour in the hope that he'd answer your plea. Now, anyone with a computer and half a brain can listen to practically any track in existence, instantly and for free. Over the past 10 years, the music industry has fully transitioned to the honor system, and, no surprise, it's all come crashing down.
If you're over 10 years old, it probably goes without saying that this was the decade when everything changed. Not since sheet music gave way to phonograph records has the business of producing, distributing, and consuming music been so thoroughly transformed, and it all happened in a dizzyingly short time. Artists can effortlessly collaborate across thousands of miles. Major artists are ditching labels in favor of self-releasing. A&R types are trawling social-networking sites instead of clubs. The top music retailer in the USA — if you should choose to pay for your music, like some kind of Boy Scout — doesn't even exist in physical space.
Meanwhile, new technology and declining record sales are persuading artists to prostitute themselves in ways we couldn't even have imagined 10 years ago — from band-branded Guitar Hero video games to Snoop Dogg's voice guiding TomTom GPS systems, we're entering a brave new world of selling out. In another decade, the line between pop music and consumer products may become so blurred that we won't be able to tell Lady Gaga from a waffle iron.
Unfortunately, as the world grew busier with all this futuristic upheaval, hardly anyone remembered to make decent records. It seems the most creatively forward-looking releases came near the decade's start: OutKast's Stankonia, Radiohead's Kid A, Primal Scream's XTRMNTR, and even the Strokes' Is This It (which was forward-looking in its backward-lookingness). But then we were visited with the twin ills of the miserably failed post-punk revival and the endlessly tedious freak-folk orgy, and the decade all but sank out of view under the weight of its pretensions.
Oh, and in 2003, one of the boot-knocking dudes from H-Town died in a car wreck. I think that's where it all started to go wrong.
The albums-of-the-decade lists are now trickling out, and they're pretty depressing. The Top 200 from Pitchfork is admirable for its scope but so laden with forgettables that you suspect its comprehensiveness overreaches the decade's actual merits. When a list has also-rans like Andrew WK and Bloc Party propping up the backside, it might be time to redefine the perimeters. NME's Top 100 is similarly padded out with mediocrity, but at least there are some laughs — those wacky Brits are still pretending to like the Streets and Arctic Monkeys. Entertainment Weekly's Top 10 is downright hilarious — Sasha Fierce? Are they fuckin' with us?