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That Was the Decade That Was

Famine, war, terrorism, corruption and economic collapse: the Noughties haven’t exactly been a laugh-riot. It’s just as well, then, that the decade has been rich in memorable music, film and literature. David Davies offers a (highly subjective) view of the decade now drawing to a close.

2000: The economic boom of the 1990s was very selective with regard to those who felt its benefits, but it nonetheless lends the first year of the new millennium an unmistakable air of optimism. Well, until December, that is, when the ascension of George W. Bush to the most powerful job in the world is accompanied by a global shiver of anxiety. In retrospect, Radiohead’s Kid A – released a mere two months beforehand – appears to foretell the change of mood in its unsettling, uncertain electronic textures. Ten years on, the album sounds better than ever.

2001: No prizes for guessing the defining event of the year – and, for that matter, the entire decade. The al-Qaeda-orchestrated terrorist attacks of September 11 create a new fault line in global politics and usher in an era of (ultimately catastrophic) militarism. Bruce Springsteen captures some of the era’s inherent sadness on his 2002 album, The Rising, but other areas of the artistic world are slower to offer coherent responses. The idea of a direct film account, in particular, seems crass for years afterwards, but in 2006 British director Paul Greengrass achieves a considerable feat with his sensitive portrayal of what befell the ‘fourth plane’, United 93.

2002: In one of those periodic jolts to the system in which the British music scene specialises, a wave of new bands arrives to shake things up, of which the most interesting is arguably The Libertines. In the talented but wayward persona of Pete Doherty, UK music has its first iconic figure of the decade. The band’s debut, Up the Bracket, has stood the test of time, as have albums by artists of a more vintage hue, including Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Tom Waits’ simultaneously-released Alice and Blood Money.

2003: Against a backdrop of global protests and condemnation, George W Bush and Tony Blair bring the invasion of Iraq to a world already destabilised by war in Afghanistan. Within months, Bush declares ‘mission accomplished’, but the claim proves to be horribly premature and Iraq continues its slide into violent chaos. Playwright David Hare proves to be one of the conflict’s most tenacious chroniclers, and his powerful 2006 play, The Vertical Hour, explores the war from multiple viewpoints. Away from the controversy, The White Stripes’ major label debut, Elephant, signals the rise to prominence of one of the decade’s greatest new talents – singer/guitarist Jack White.

2004: Perhaps in response to the tenor of the times, manufactured (or should that be ‘pre-chewed’?) pop is more in vogue this decade than at any time since the 1950s. Launched this year, The X Factor is the dispiriting trend’s most obvious symbol, although after half-a-decade it has only managed to deliver one truly bankable international star (Leona Lewis) and virtually no memorable songs. Fortunately, 2004 also delivers some musical knock-outs, not least the eponymous debut of Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.

2005: Despite huge and enduring controversy surrounding his role in the Iraq War, Tony Blair leads Labour to an unprecedented third UK election victory. Musically-speaking, the enormous success of Destiny’s Child symbolises a resurgence in American R&B, whilst Bob Geldof pulls off the seemingly unthinkable by effecting a rapprochement between David Gilmour and Roger Waters when Pink Floyd reform to play epic charity event Live8. Meanwhile, in the Daniel Auteuil/Juliette Binoche-starring Hidden, director Michael Haneke quietly makes one of the most haunting films of the decade.

2006: Four years after Pete Doherty’s emergence, Amy Winehouse becomes the second ever-present figure of new British music with the release of an infectious album of retro soul-pop, Back to Black, and her subsequent, well-publicised difficulties. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion heralds a wave of books addressing religion’s problematic role in the modern world, whilst Black Swan Green confirms David Mitchell (no, not the panel show stalwart and Peep Show actor) as one of his generation’s most original novelists. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein ‘says goodbye’.

2007: After the hopelessly flawed attempts to arrest the downloading revolution by pursuing individual file-sharers come the more innovative responses to the situation, and none more so than Radiohead’s ‘name your own price’ strategy for its seventh studio album. Fortunately, the exhaustive analysis of the band’s bold gambit does not mask the fact that the record in question – In Rainbows – is bewitchingly beautiful and, ironically, a great argument for the continued validity of the album format. Led Zeppelin stages a triumphant one-off reunion at the O2 in London, but Robert ‘Percy’ Plant declines to take it further. Meanwhile, after waiting ten long years, Gordon Brown finally achieves his dream and succeeds Tony Blair as PM. It doesn’t go well.

2008: There was final, stunning proof that the economic boom could not last forever when debt problems in the US housing market provided the spark for the deepest financial crisis in 80 years. Art thrives in austerity, goes the old saying, and there is plenty of evidence to support the claim this year with a particularly fertile crop of debuts: Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and eponymously-titled releases by Fleet Foxes and Friendly Fires, to name only three. In other developments, Twitter rises to global prominence as the latest manifestation of the blogging phenomenon.

2009: A visionary writer with a profound influence not just on literature but on music and film – JG Ballard – dies at the age of 78 after a life’s work that encompassed 15 novels and hundreds of short stories. At a considerably younger age (50), Michael Jackson’s demise provides the celebrity story of the year. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle – both funny and thought-provoking – provides a welcome tonic to the new wave of arena-filling but ultimately anodyne stand-ups (and yes, at last, comedy really is the new rock & roll...). The much-anticipated climate change conference ends in disarray, while economic misery persists with a continued rise in unemployment and talk of a ‘double-dip’ recession. Music-wise, it’s not exactly a landmark year, but Doves’ Kingdom of Rust and – at the year’s very end – Them Crooked Vultures’ eponymous debut are among the keepers.

What now?: Expected albums from Massive Attack, Midlake and Goldfrapp, and new books from Jonathans Coe and Franzen suggest that 2010 will get off to a strong start. And then there is Tony Blair’s forthcoming appearance in front of the Iraq War-pondering Chilcot Inquiry to look forward to...!

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