Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 100 greatest songs of 2001, we’re writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, our staff goes beyond the hits of ’01 to look at the deeper cuts that also endure — the album tracks from the year’s best LPs, which, 20 years later, prove just as essential as the official U.S. singles and radio hits they surrounded. Below is a list of our 50 favorites, with a Spotify playlist of all 50 at the very bottom.
50. Wu-Tang Clan, “Rules” (Iron Flag)
Produced by Wu Essentials’ Mathematics, “Rules” came out on Iron Flag three months after Sept. 11, with Raekwon opening with the declaration, “America/ United we stand, divided we fall/ Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” With its classic Wu-Tang three-bar, one-bar turnaround pattern and James Brown grunt, this sample-heavy track features seven Clan rappers who can still put the outer boroughs of New York on their shoulders, even in times of crisis: “If you f–k with Wu,” the song’s hook reminds listeners, “we gots to f–k wit chu.” — DAVE BROOKS
49. Zero 7, “Give It Away” (Simple Things)
Simple Things, the Mercury Prize-nominated debut from British ambient duo Zero 7, is the album that launched a thousand chill sessions — and no track is chiller than the instrumental “Give It Away.” This sonic scavenger hunt layers soft snare drums, a soothing keyboard melody, shimmering glockenspiel and disco strings with a dozen other cosmic sounds to create an alternately relaxing and stimulating listen. Look elsewhere on the project for soaring vocals from a pre-fame Sia (“Destiny,” “Distractions”), but this one is all about the mellow vibes. – KATIE ATKINSON
48. Tenacious D, “F–k Her Gently” (Tenacious D)
Don’t be fooled by that tender plucking of an acoustic guitar: This is not your everyday love song. Instead, on the self-titled debut album from comedy/rock duo Tenacious D, frontman (and now leading man) Jack Black delivers a cheeky public service announcement asking fellas to go easy on their ladies and maybe take cues from their partners instead of porn. You know, throw in “smooches” here and there or order some takeout like a real gentleman. The song’s NSFW video, animated by the twisted minds behind Ren & Stimpy, became the perfect raunchy-but-strangely-sweet visual accompaniment for the devilishly funny song. – K.A.
47. 112, “Caught Up” (Part III)
Over a clicking beat and sweeping strings that sounds like Pharrell remixing Kraftwerk, Slim of 112 recognizes that relationships aren’t all Peaches and Cream, especially when two becomes three: “I made the wrong decision/ I’m in the middle of a love triangle.” He’s clearly in a dilemma of his own making, but the chorus is so frantic and claustrophobic that you can’t help but hope he finds a way to wiggle out of it anyway. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
46. Pete Yorn, “Just Another” (musicforthemorningafter)
On Pete Yorn’s near-perfect debut album musicforthemorningafter, it’s tough to pick one standout aside from his pair of Triple A chart-toppers “Life On a Chain” and “Strange Condition.” But this forlorn acoustic number endures, thanks to its spot-on encapsulation of the melancholy of a breakup, especially the New Jersey rocker’s scratchy, can’t-sleep vocal. Just like Adele is convinced she’ll find “Someone Like You,” Yorn tricks himself (and us) into thinking the song’s subject is “Just Another” girl, and not the one that got away. – K.A.
45. Spoon, “The Fitted Shirt” (Girls Can Tell)
It may start with a riff reminiscent of “Kashmir,” but this track smack in the middle of Spoon‘s Girls Can Tell is as lean and mean as the Led Zeppelin classic is heavy and opulent. Against a backdrop of taut ’70s rock riffs interspersed with brief moments of melodic, harmonized repose, Britt Daniel recites what feels more like spoken word than a song: a tightly conceived metaphor in which a tailored button-down shirt stands in for longed-for old-fashioned decorum, but which could just as easily symbolize Spoon‘s own artistic ethos. With its crystalline lyrics and a run time clocking in at just over three minutes, it’s a wonder “Fitted Shirt” didn’t become a single, but it still stands out as the minimalist masterpiece at the center of an album that is, itself, one too. — REBECCA MILZOFF
44. Babyface, “Stressed Out” (Face 2 Face)
Babyface’s multi-song teaming with The Neptunes on 2001’s Face2Face stands as a fascinating summit between two generations of behind-the-scenes paragons of popular music, somewhere between a passing of the torch and a “we’re not so different, you and I” handshake. “There She Goes” was the single, but “Stressed Out” was just as good — a dense, frisky shuffler with Face dispensing advice about taking chances, which could apply to his own commendable malleability as a legendary recording artist then approaching middle age: “We go round only once/ Don’t waste your time not having fun.” — A.U.
43. Saves the Day, “Nightingale” (Stay What You Are)
At the height of emo punk, Saves the Day dropped their album Stay What You Are, home to 11 razor-sharp gems with a very pop appeal. “Nightingale,” however, has become a timeless standout: penned by the entire band, the melodic track resonated with an entire generation. Its simple but meaningful lyrics perfectly encapsulated the teenage angst of wearing your heart on your sleeve, and the doubts of unrequited love. — JESSICA ROIZ
42. Rilo Kiley, “Pictures of Success” (Take Offs and Landings)
The earliest music from four-piece indie rock band Rilo Kiley, led by former child actors Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, bordered on twee, with boy-meets-girl lyrics sung in the eternally teenaged voices of Lewis and Sennett. “Pictures of Success,” Lewis’ nearly seven-minute overture about mortality from the band’s debut album, Take Offs and Landings, shifted the mood. “It must be nice to finish/When you’re dead,” Lewis sings dreamily, strapping her “best shoes on” on the bridge and marching toward the black hole that is California while bellowing, “I’m ready to go!” — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
41. Jack Johnson, “Drink the Water” (Brushfire Fairytales)
“The closest I’ve come to dying,” is how Jack Johnson once described the high school surfing accident described in “Drink the Water,” the tranquil ninth track on the Hawaiian native’s 2001 debut album “Brushfire Fairytales.” Johnson’s lyrics may be urgent (“I need some air if I’m going to live through”) but his vocals are characteristically laid back, almost buried in the mix, amid a sparse guitar, bass and drum arrangement, highlighted by just a touch of surfer psychedelia — his musical calm forever unbroken, even when facing oblivion. — THOM DUFFY
40. Janet Jackson, “When We Oooo” (All For You)
Like Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” without the climactic high note, the intimacy is so heavy on Janet Jackson’s finest All For You seduction that she lacks the vocabulary to properly express it. It’s always persuasive coming from Janet’s breathy, smiling sing-sigh, but the sound of “When We Oooo” that really sticks with you comes from the metallic production — also courtesy of Ms. Jackson, along with longtime creative soulmates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — which sounds like bedsprings squeaking on an alien spaceship. — A.U.
39. The Shins, “Caring Is Creepy” (Oh, Inverted World)
In case you were wondering, Shins frontman James Mercer doesn’t actually think caring is creepy — in fact, quite the opposite. “I was talking about how in my circle of friends, you drink and you hang out and you talk and you make jokes…but as soon as you start talking about anything real, something that actually moves you or anything like that, it’s just f–king awkward,” Mercer told The A.V. Club in 2007. “I’m talking about anything that’s heartfelt. That used to grump me out.” This luscious mix of words and tricks opens The Shins‘ debut studio album Oh, Inverted World, and also appeared in the 2004 cult dramedy Garden State, where it was somewhat overshadowed by lead single “New Slang” — but despite not getting the same attention, “Caring” is just as real and heartfelt. — GAB GINSBERG
38. The Coup, “Wear Clean Draws” (Party Music)
“Wear Clean Draws” is a rare moment of levity for Boots Riley, addressing his young daughter as he explains his Black liberation philosophy with lines like “Tell you teacher I said Princesses are evil/ How they got all they money is they kill people.” Between its gospel inspired chorus and call-and-response shout to Pam the Funktress, “Wear Clean Draws” succeeds where many father-daughter songs fail, because Riley puts everything on the table. “It don’t matter who you do it with,” Riley says, “Just remember when I tell you baby, you the shit.” — D.B.
37. Lucinda Williams, “Steal Your Love” (Essence)
On Essence, the follow-up to Williams’ 1998 breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the gritty Americana singer-songwriter really let it bleed on an emotionally naked collection about heartbreak and regret. While the gospel-tinged “Get Right With God” earned a Grammy, the painfully introspective “Steal” opened the deepest vein. Singing in a near-whisper, molasses drawl, Williams catalogs a larceny of the heart, exhaling, “I don’t need a knife, I don’t need a gun/ I know how to steal your love,” as both a steely confession and an amorous warning. — GIL KAUFMAN
36. Ben Folds, “Zak and Sara” (Rockin’ the Suburbs)
Ben Folds’ debut studio album Rockin’ the Suburbs was rather unfortunately released on September 11, 2001, though some fans were able to find solace in the record. One of its highlights is the rollicking “Zak and Sara,” who are two of many fictional folks named on the LP, along with Annie, Fred, Stan, Lisa and Cathy. The mystical lyrics of “Zak and Sara” are much-debated over, but whether you think Sara (without an “h”) is a clairvoyant or schizophrenic or another option altogether, you have to admit that the song is damn Catchy (with a capital “c”). — G.G.
35. Ash, “Walking Barefoot” (Free All Angels)
Perhaps rock’s finest purveyors of endless summer since the Beach Boys, Irish pop-punkers Ash had their true moment in the sun with 2001’s Free All Angels, a U.K. best-seller, even though its stateside impact was limited to a couple appearances in Roswell and The O.C. “Walking Barefoot” was the set’s opener and most idyllic track — “Don’t need money when it’s sunny… Just good music and sun and laughter,” frontman Tim Wheeler muses over perfectly tanned guitar chords in the second verse — even though it was already preparing for colder days: “It’ll be sad my friend/ To see it come an end.” You’ll weep to even think it a possibility. — A.U.
34. Basement Jaxx, “I Want U” (Rooty)
As cohesive, melodic and accessible as Basement Jaxx’s 2001 hit “Where’s Your Head At” is, that’s as much as the album’s deep cut “I Want U” isn’t those things. All frenetic dings, weird sound effects, tempo changes and a chorus made up of monosyllables delivered in a cockney accent, the track is bizarro dance-pop for those strange hours of the night when the club floor has cleared of the crowds and the real heads are still hanging out and singing along to every word of the deep cuts. — KATIE BAIN
33. Ludacris feat. Three 6 Mafia, “Go 2 Sleep” (Word of Mouf)
Still a few years away from delivering iconic beats for Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne (“Lemonade” and “A Milli,” respectively), producer Bangladesh provided this slow-grinding, appropriately monumental backdrop for Ludacris‘ Three 6 Mafia collab “Go 2 Sleep.” With a generous runtime that gives everyone room to spit hard and heavy, “Go 2 Sleep” is wake-up call to anyone still underestimating Southern rap in the early ’00s. — JOE LYNCH
32. 311, “Champagne” (From Chaos)
Though its parent album is titled From Chaos, this breezy, free-flowing jam is far from frenzied. Just like “Amber” (the album’s biggest hit), “Champagne” transports listeners to a SoCal beach with its glimmering guitar line, laid-back beat and melodic flow. Unlike the idyllic “Amber,” however, there appear to be some cracks in this long-distance relationship, with references to bursting blood vessels, the “dark side of Hollywood,” and keeping company with “other girls.” Maybe if the song’s rocky couple just crack a bottle of bubbly and close their eyes, they can get carried away by the song’s tropical production and forget all their troubles. – K.A.
31. Paul McCartney, “Rinse the Raindrops” (Driving Rain)
It’s not often that the man who wrote “Helter Skelter” brings out his inner hellraiser, but when he does, take cover. The penultimate track on Driving Rain, “Rinse the Raindrops” is a mesmerizing 10-minute psychedelic blues jam from Sir Paul that boasts some relentless piano-pounding and one of his all-time best banshee wails (9:22). It’s the spiritual sequel to Wings’ 1978 deep cut “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose” no longtime Beatlemaniac knew they needed. — J. Lynch
30. Old 97s, “Designs on You” (Satellite Rides)
Texas’ Old 97’s played solidly alt-country songs until their fifth album, the pop-rock-leaning Satellite Rides. Though the Winona Ryder-based “Rollerskate Skinny” became an audience favorite and “Question,” a song about a proposal, tugged at heartstrings, the guitar-led “Designs on You” and its temptations of infidelity ended up making the rounds on college radio. “You can go ahead and get married/And this will be our secret thing,” promised lead singer-songwriter Rhett Miller, though he was not to be trusted: “I won’t tell a soul except the people in the nightclub where I sing.” — C.W.
29. Shakira, “Rules” (Laundry Service)
“Rules” is a bit of an outlier on Shakira‘s 2001 English language crossover album, Laundry Service. While embracing her Lebanese, Spanish and Colombian heritage across other album cuts (particularly on the Andean music-influenced hit “Whenever, Wherever”), with “Rules” she leaned into a style native to the market she was trying to break into. An amalgamation of pop-punk and new wave, “Rules” is composed largely of rumbling drums, surf guitar and a peppy brass section over which Shakira delivers a punchy chorus, with a vibe that’s altogether more high school dance than Latin heat. — K.B.
28. Eve feat. Da Brat & Trina, “Gangsta Bitches” (Scorpion)
Even in the year of “Lady Marmalade,” it was still a too-rare treat at the turn of the century to hear more than one of the game’s biggest female MCs on the same track — so to get three greats in Eve, Da Brat and Trina bringing their A-games over an ice-cold Swizz Beatz production makes it near criminal this one was reserved only for those who bought Eve’s Scorpion. (Luckily, at least a million folks still did, since the album became her second straight to go platinum.) “When three raw bitches get together, it’s off the chain,” the Ruff Ryders First Lady declares; by now the industry might actually take her word. — A.U.
27. Andrew W.K., “I Love NYC” (I Get Wet)
While the Strokes were busy making New York look cool in 2001, Andrew W.K. made it feel like home with “I Love NYC,” a gleeful ode to the Michigander’s chosen place. “I love New York City/ Oh yeah, New York City!” he sing-shouts with a voice that’s part Randy Savage, part metal god. Blast-off guitars, plinking keyboards and a major-key melody run through the celebratory track, and though the verses are about who-knows-what (“We are your mother’s father/ We are your fighter friend”), the song ends with a full minute of AWK screaming about how much he loves New York City, and that’s really all that matters. — C.W.
26. Blake Shelton, “Same Old Song” (Blake Shelton)
That couldn’t be Blake Shelton, old-fashioned man’s man from God’s Country, Oklahoma crying out for more diverse perspectives in country music, could it? You might need to hear Blake’s “Same Old Song” belly-aching to believe it, but it’s certainly worth a listen to hear the future Voice coach pleading over jangling guitars, “Tell me about a cowboy in Australia/ Tell me about a prisoner in China,” while expressing his frustration with “the same old vanilla” that was populating the country airwaves in the feel-good days before 9/11. His cries may have largely gone unheeded at the time, but the country world could still stand to be reminded of them 20 years later — few more than Shelton himself. — A.U.
25. Rufus Wainwright, “Poses” (Poses)
A debauchery-filled, six-month stay at the Chelsea Hotel inspired the self-reflective ballad from Rufus Wainwright‘s second album of the same name. Though string instruments give the song its moody ambiance, Wainwright’s gentle piano propels it as he details the hedonistic scenes around him. “There’s never been such grave a matter/ As comparing our new brand-name black sunglasses,” he deadpans, though beneath the humor, there is concern: “I did go from wanting to be someone/ Now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue.” In the decades since, the balladeer has indeed become a someone, proving that nothing could restrict his talent, not even flip-flops. — C.W.
24. Cannibal Ox, “Iron Galaxy” (The Cold Vein)
“It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I think I’m getting a little frosty myself.” Opening an underground hip-hop album with chopped-and-screwed dialogue from The Big Chill certainly constitutes a bold choice, but Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire and Vordul Mega — along with El-P, playing virtuoso producer here — open their 2001 classic The Cold Vein with a dose of hard reality, the words leading directly into the bleak beats and pinpoint wordplay of “Iron Galaxy,” setting the tone for the rest of the album to follow. — J. Lipshutz
23. Weezer, “Don’t Let Go” (Weezer (The Green Album))
When Weezer‘s Green Album kicked off with that upbeat opening riff and a “whoo-whoa-whoa,” fans understood that they certainly were not in for another Pinkerton. “Don’t Let Go,” a straightforward but nonetheless rad track about Rivers Cuomo hoping his girl holds on tight, was allegedly the label’s pick for a first single over “Hash Pipe,” due to the latter’s “lurid” subject matter; the label lost, but the stickier and sweeter “Don’t Let Go” lives on as a Green Album fan favorite. The band hasn’t played it live since 2013, but you can live vicariously through its two best recorded performances, in which the band changes up the instrumentation and vocal patterns. — G.G
22. P!nk, “M!ssundaztood” (M!ssundaztood)
“I know what you think about me,” Alecia Moore acknowledges on the stage-setting title track opener to her 2001 sophomore album. And from that album on, she’d do her damnedest to subvert those expectations, whether that meant ditching her signature hair color or her hip-hop beats or any other skin she felt like shedding to make riotous dance-pop, melancholy piano balladry or whatever she else wanted in between. “It’s not that complicated,” she shrugs over a lightly jazzy acoustic saunter here, “I’m just misunderstood.” Ultimately, she probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way over the past 20 years, and neither would we. — A.U.
21. Björk, “Undo” (Vespertine)
Björk’s Vespertine is characterized by moments both grandiose (“It’s Not Up To You,” “Pagan Poetry”) and hushed (“Cocoon,” “An Echo a Stain”) in its quest to capture physical and emotional intimacy; “Undo,” then, serves as the album’s subtle centerpiece by expertly channeling her loud and soft impulses. A full choir and string section coalesce around Björk’s simple declaration to help untangle complex feelings: “It’s not meant to be a strife / It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill.”– J. Lipshutz
20. The Dismemberment Plan, “The Face of the Earth” (Change)
When someone who you’ve known for a short period of time suddenly dies — vanishing from your life just as you were starting to unpeel who they were — how are you supposed to feel? Travis Morrison and the rest of the Dismemberment Plan prod at the question on the gorgeously contemplative “The Face of the Earth,” which was partially inspired by a story Michael Jordan told of a young girlfriend who died in a tragic accident. There’s no devastation here, but the lack of resolution nags at Morrison, his syllables stretched out as he grasps for clarity. — J. Lipshutz
19. Destiny’s Child, “Dangerously in Love” (Survivor)
If we made a list of the most melodramatic love songs we sang with unquestionable conviction as 7-year-olds in the back of our mom’s sedans, “Dangerously In Love” would sit somewhere towards the top. The sentimental ballad served as a singalong staple and, more importantly, represented a major step towards Beyoncé’s solo career — considering she single-handedly performs the entire topline, with Michelle and Kelly quietly nestled in the background. Queen Bey’s ostentatious display of her mind-blowing vocal range showed the world she could not only stand on her own two feet, but run circles around many R&B vocalists of the era. The track then lived a second life on her debut solo album of the same name, which featured a near-carbon copy of the track titled ”Dangerously In Love 2″ — which if we guessed, was tenderly included with hubby Jay-Z in mind. — NEENA ROUHANI
18. John Mayer, “Neon” (Room For Squares)
This after-hours cautionary tale is a far cry from Room for Squares‘ breakout singles “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “No Such Thing,” but of all the tracks on John Mayer‘s dynamic debut album, “Neon” captures what the soft rocker does best: bluesy guitar riffs, symbolic lyrics, and hopeless romanticism. While the song itself is a better fit for a coffeehouse than a club, it paints a vivid picture of how hypnotic the nightlife can be (“mixed drinks and techno beats,” “city lights a trail of ruby red and diamond white”) and why it’s hopeless to try pinning down a party girl who’s burning too bright, too fast. — K.A.
17. Bob Dylan, “Mississippi” (Love and Theft)
Much like the drifter’s story it recounts, Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” traveled around before settling down: Dylan originally wrote the wistful track for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but left it on the cutting room floor — before passing it off to Sheryl Crow, who recorded it for 1998’s The Globe Sessions. Ultimately, he reclaimed it for his own Love and Theft, with a version that sounds uptempo and bright throughout, thanks to the crisp drums and cheery mandolin, but whose lyrics still convey a sense of regret (“So many things that we will never undo”). That sentiment, coupled with references to old prison songs (“Stayed in Mississippi a day too long”), have led some listeners to believe that the song is about America’s history of slavery and racial inequality. But whether you hear it as a weary traveler’s lament, a social commentary or both, the song remains one of Dylan’s most dynamic compositions. — C.W.
16. Radiohead, “You and Whose Army?” (Amnesiac)
Radiohead didn’t really do anthemic by the turn of the century — they left that for Oasis and Coldplay, and other bands a lot more interested in selling a lot more records. That’s what made Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army?” such a novelty: a song that served as a fairly explicit call to arms in protest of those in power, taunting, “Come in if you think you can take us on/ You and whose army?” and pronouncing, “We ride tonight!” But appropriately, the somnambulistic pacing and distant, distorted vocals make the revolutionary spirit of “Army” already sound like something of a lost cause — and frontman Thom Yorke has admitted that before the song’s lyrics came to be directed at British Prime Minister Tony Blair, they were simply a declaration of war against “the voices in my own head that were driving me ’round the bend.” — A.U.
15. Mary J. Blige, “PMS” (No More Drama)
Over a sample of Al Green’s contemplative soul strummer “Simply Beautiful,” the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul boldly tackles a topic that, while not exactly taboo, wasn’t often addressed in music around the new millennium: premenstrual syndrome and the aches, discomforts and depression that sometimes tag along. For an artist like Mary J. Blige who has become synonymous with strength and resilience over the years, there’s an undeniable power to her no f–ks given lyrics on this one: “Feelin’ real bitchy, and I don’t feel like being nice to nobody/ Don’t feel like smilin’, no.” — J. Lynch
14. The White Stripes, “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” (White Blood Cells)
In Jack and Meg’s early days, it was easy fun to go hunting for references to their former relationship — especially in this poignant tune, a musing on a bygone partnership that in some way persists, which begins with a cryptic reference to Meg’s birthday month (“Pretty tough to think about/ The beginning of December”). It starts out quiet and reflective, but with successively thrashier and smashier guitar and drums builds to a desperate conclusion, and an anguished realization on Jack’s part: “If there’s anything good about me/ I’m the only one who knows.” In the years since its release, White has called it one of his favorite songs to sing, and even the one he’d want played at his funeral — understandable, as it’s still an emotional standout in the White Stripes catalog. — R.M.
13. Nas, “Rewind” (Stillmatic)
The same year that Christopher Nolan’s Memento got its stateside release, another backwards-playing thriller had fans doing mental gymnastics to try to make sense of its out-of-order narrative. Nas’ “Rewind,” produced by the great Large Proessor and co-written with the swami Rick Rubin, occasionally lays it on a little thick with the action-in-reverse: “The smoke goes back in the blunt, the blunt gets bigger in growth,” we get it. But thanks to the enjoyably retro Golden Age energy of the beat, and Nas’ always-on-point delivery, it still remains a gripping listen throughout — lyrics the in happens actually what out figure to enough care don’t you if even. — A.U.
12. *NSYNC, “Do Your Thing” (Celebrity)
“Do Your Thing,” the final track on *NSYNC’s final album, has a lot of layers. The foundation is the decidedly spare (for a boy band, at least) production, with its plucky violins and twinkly keys. Then there are the literal layers of the quintet’s trademark harmonies, beautifully blended in this true vocal team effort. To top it all off, there’s the double meaning of that title: “Do Your Thing,” you say? Don’t mind if we do, the group responded following Celebrity, as they all went their separate ways. On an album that often puts the spotlight solely on unofficial frontmen Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez and treats the remaining three members as backup, “Do Your Thing” proves how essential each voice was to creating the blockbuster boy band’s singular sound. – K.A.
11. Alicia Keys, “Butterflyz” (Songs in A Minor)
Alicia Keys’ first love song “Butterflyz” details a pit-of-your-stomach emotion that’s all too familiar. At the age of 14, the singer-songwriter used a popular idiom to pen an innocent ballad about feelings that were real and true to her at her young age. Keys crescendos and decrescendos her way through the track, her vocals complementing her rapid piano riffs, as well as the live bass and the acoustic guitar undertones heard throughout. Keys has cited “Butterflyz” as one of her favorites and — due to its tenderness — is the type of love song that thrives better left buried for the real fans to find. — CYDNEY LEE
10. Usher feat. P. Diddy, “I Don’t Know” (8701)
If you came to party in 2001, you could do a whole lot worse than to bring Usher, P. Diddy and The Neptunes with you. That star trio linked up for “I Don’t Know,” off Usher’s blockbuster-before-the-blockbuster 8701, proving that you can create a killer floor-filler with mostly just a single chord if the chord is funky enough — and when it came to peak Pharrell and Chad Hugo and their deep wells of aqueous synth stabs, “funky enough” was never really a concern. Sorta perplexing that this wasn’t a single, though you can be assured that if and when Usher ever does sign on for a Verzuz, this is the jam that’s gonna bring the real fans out on your Twitter timeline. — A.U.
9. Jimmy Eat World, “If You Don’t, Don’t” (Bleed American)
Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins says a whole lot across four verses of “If You Don’t, Don’t” — the kind of over-anxious, first-thought-best-thought, borderline-incomprehensible spray of sentences that comes out when you have too many emotions and/or too much alcohol inside of you. But the real wallop of the Bleed American favorite comes in what Adkins doesn’t say over the chugging guitars and nervous bass in the chorus, the key words missing in sentiments like “Would you mean this please if it happens?” and “I need this now more than I ever did,” and of course, “If you don’t, well honey, then you don’t.” You could fill in those blanks any number of ways, and every one of them is heartbreaking. — A.U.
8. No Doubt, “Don’t Let Me Down” (Rock Steady)
After the tortured behind-the-scenes of 2000’s Return of Saturn, No Doubt just wanted to have some fun. So they cashed in on their rock star status and took their dancehall and new wave influences straight to the source with collaborators like reggae legends Sly & Robbie, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Prince and Ric Ocasek, whose production work here — chugging guitars, a truly transcendent synth solo — aids a gliding Gwen Stefani vocal in nailing the bittersweet rush of recommitting to a relationship in the face of past transgressions. — NOLAN FEENEY
7. Missy Elliott feat. Redman & Method Man, “Dog in Heat” (Miss E… So Addictive)
The same year we found out precisely How High Method Man and Redman could get, the dynamic duo hopped on a fat, funky bassline for Missy Elliott’s sultry, hilariously filthy “Dog in Heat.” Miss E… So Addictive is a pretty unassailable top-to-bottom entry in her classic catalog, and non-singles like “Dog” — whose lyrics might’ve been a little too ruff for radio at the time — show just how effortlessly Missy and Timb could toss off a hypnotic groove around the new millennium. — J. Lynch
6. System of a Down, “Prison Song” (Toxicity)
Years before prison reform in the U.S. received concentrated attention from artists and celebrities, System of a Down opened their breakthrough second LP Toxicity with the lyrically blunt, musically blistering thrash classic “Prison Song.” In lesser hands it might’ve been didactic, but SOAD’s whiplash-inducing changes in time signature and vocal pitch prevent it from feeling like a lesson; instead, it’s a harrowing, damning and infuriating appraisal of the way drugs, law enforcement and a sky-high incarceration rate combine to oppress so many Americans. — J. Lynch
5. Britney Spears, “Anticipating” (Britney)
While the bump and grind raunch of “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys” were the pillars of Spears’ 2001 LP Britney, betwixt the heavy breathing club hits she leaned into lighter disco-pop with the effervescent (and Rick Astley-reminiscent) “Anticipating.” Britney explored themes of sexual maturity, and was more overt about coming of age on the album’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” ballad — but with lascivious lyrics (“my body’s taking over and I want some more”) couched in strings as light as cherry-flavored lip gloss, “Anticipating” actually embodied the sense of being old and young, inexperienced and a slave 4 u, all at the same time. — K.B.
4. The Strokes, “New York City Cops” (Is This It?)
Released overseas in August 2001 as the B-side to the scuzz rock band’s first single, “Hard to Explain,” this spiky rocker was written in response to the plainclothes police killing of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. The propulsive, angsty track was wiped from the U.S. release of their debut album following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, largely on the basis of the controversial chorus, “New York City cops, they ain’t too smart.” Its legend, of course, only grew when it was replaced by the fresh track “When It Started,” as the band acknowledged the poor timing and the NYPD’s heroic response to the city’s unspeakable tragedy. But in February 2020 — just months before the national BLM protests over the treatment of Black and brown Americans at the hands of police — the band unexpectedly performed it a rally for then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, with the message suddenly taking on renewed relevance amidst the latest coast-to-coast reckoning over police killings. — G.K.
3. Aaliyah, “Loose Rap” (Aaliyah)
When it came to romance, babygirl never beat around the bush — and “Loose Rap” was no exception. The song’s title, a reference to corny pick-up lines, sent suitors a clear message: If you want to step to Aaliyah, come correct. “Too many times you guys will come and step to me,” she eye-rolled, before warning, “I hope you don’t plan on bugging me, that would be ugly.” Featuring lyrics written by Static Major, an infectious arpeggiated chorus, experimental production and thick harmonies, the track foreshadowed the sonic direction R&B’s princess was moving in. While tragedy prevented the world from witnessing her evolution, the songstress’ captivating sound and aura live on, influencing generations to come. — N.R.
2. Daft Punk, “Face to Face” (Discovery)
This strutting Discovery highlight was a collaboration with dance legend (and Daft Punk idol) Todd Edwards, who co-wrote and co-produced the house-funk heater. In a less-expected move, Edwards also was tasked with singing on the track, delivering a soulful, urgent and nonetheless extremely cool vocal performance that oozed human warmth (and ’70s radio rock vibes) on an album otherwise largely defined by robotics. (“Can you sing a little raspier,” Edwards recalled the duo asking him during recording sessions, “like Foreigner?”) “Face to Face” may have been a deeper cut as the penultimate track on Discovery, but it didn’t go totally under the radar, hitting No. 1 on Dance Club Songs in a remixed version for the Daft Club set in 2004. — K.B.
1. Jay-Z, “Never Change” (The Blueprint)
“With ‘The Blueprint,’ there was one specific theme — soul music,” Jay Z told Billboard in 2002. And it’s fitting that on his fifth album, which debuted on Sept. 11th to universal acclaim and became his fourth straight Billboard 200 chart-topper, the two most soulful songs of his career appear back to back, anchoring the second half of what is probably, still, the best work of his career.
But whereas “Song Cry,” the album’s popular fourth single, is an emotional ode to past loves, “Never Change” is a different undertaking entirely. It’s a song that, perhaps more than any other in his catalog, encompasses the entirety of Shawn Carter as a rapper, a hustler and as a human being. It’s also a thesis statement of sorts — “This is crew love, move music or move drugs” — and one that provides an explanation for how Jay-Z moves, and why, using some examples so specific that it made some of his inner circle a little anxious.
Indeed, it is that comfort with the uncomfortable that gives the song so much of its emotional resonance. The one section in particular that made Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith (then vp of A&R at Def Jam and now a co-founder and president of A&R at Roc Nation) balk is built around one of the enduring myths of Jay’s drug dealing past — one which he’d repeatedly referenced on previous albums, without ever totally digging into the reality of the rollercoaster that it was: “Lost 92 bricks, had to fall back/ Knocked a n—a off his feet, but I crawled back/ Had A-1 credit, got more crack / From the first to the fifth, gave it all back/ If I’m not a hustler, what you call that?/ This is before rap/ This is all fact / I never change.” Referencing losses like that, when the prevailing fashion of hip-hop at the time was flaunting kingpin status at every turn, was revelatory for its humility; years later, Pusha T would point to that line as “something Jay taught me: You can’t always be the superhero.”
The production on the song is helmed by Kanye West, one of four tracks he produced on the album, a look often credited as helping launch his career. And while the other three (“Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and “Takeover”) are more celebrated, it’s “Never Change” — with West, uncredited, handling the hook (whether he lifted it from someone else or not) and sampling David Ruffin’s “Common Man” — that feels the most heartfelt. And as their careers, and lives, became more intertwined as the years went on, it’s appropriate that they would have been together for the genesis of one of Jay’s best and most introspective songs, with real relationships bringing out real emotions, real situations and real admissions.
The song is chock full of references that most casual listeners were never meant to understand, hustlers and friends from the street life who helped shape and mold the person before he became the artist, the businessman, the icon. But there’s a loyalty to those people and their shared tribulations — “What up to my Miami and St. Thomas connects/ I’ll never mention your name, I promise respect/ Death before dishonor, correct, yep/ That’s what you promised me, since the Bomber League,” or, “Plead the fifth when it comes to the fam/ I’m like a dog, I never speak but I understand” — that feels universal, that allows those same listeners to connect to those specific references, and that once again lends emotional resonance.
But one of the most enduring aspects of “Never Change,” even after hundreds more entries in Jay’s song catalog, is that its title and central theme seem to be one that Jay has never really wavered from, despite a few departures over the years in a handful of songs. No matter the riches or fame, the changing names of the liquor and champagne, or the number of paintings that adorn the walls or Grammys with his name, there are foundational principles laid out in the song that helped create the man that exists to this day, still thriving 20 years after its release. This is Jay, every day. And that makes “Never Change” the best deep cut from a once-in-a-lifetime album. — DAN RYS