Despite now officially being in the 2020s, the current millennium still feels pretty fresh if you ask me.
It feels like just yesterday that I logged onto Myspace, got my first iPhone and heard Taylor Swift, all for the first time. And who could forget when phrases like “the tribe has spoken” and “you are the weakest link” were still new, hot parts of our lexicon?
Since we’ve got 20 years of memorable pop-culture moments under our belts — I decided to rank the years of the 21st century according to their pop-culture greatness (or lack thereof). This ranking includes every year from 2000-2019 — ranked from worst to best.
How We Did It
Ranking individual years is a tough business and obviously requires judgment calls about our collective tastes and what qualifies as life-changing events from each year. For this list, I considered everything from the year’s debuts on TV and in music to the most popular movies, from the most dominant celebrities to how memorable the year’s major sporting events were.
To keep things from getting too contentious, we left political events aside, focusing instead on culture and major innovations in our lives. So, where did your favorite year land?
Take a trip down memory lane with us through the first 20 years of the millennium.
#20 — 2009 (aka The Worst)
Let’s start our trip in 2009, the year that counted Michael Jackson’s unexpected death as its biggest moment (and we wouldn’t see “Finding Neverland” until 10 years later!). This was the year you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas. The major sporting events were completely dull, seeing franchises like the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers add to their championship collections. It was also the year that “Avatar” came out, eventually surpassing “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie in history — which is still a crime against culture, especially considering that virtually nobody remembers anything about it.
However, we did get introduced to “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation” and Drake in 2009, so it wasn’t all bad.
#19 – 2003
In 2003, we got awesome TV shows like “MythBusters” and “Chappelle’s Show,” but otherwise the year was mostly forgettable or worse. The phrase “Freedom Fries” and a then-new disease called SARS became global topics of conversation, while Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy was mauled by one of the duo’s famed white tigers. It was all pretty brutal, but at least we got iTunes and were able to enjoy 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” for the low price of 99 cents a download.
#18 — 2006
The entire world was bummed out in 2006 when “An Inconvenient Truth” came out and informed us that we were causing the world to literally end via man-made climate change. It was also the year that Pluto was downgraded from being a planet and Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth on MLB’s career home run list, which looks pretty bad in retrospect. The music was also pretty bad, with Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” topping the charts, even if we did get introduced to Taylor Swift.
#17 — 2002
It was the year that gave us HBO’s “The Wire,” arguably the best TV show in history, but 2002 also gave us “American Idol,” which is now limping along nearly 20 years later. That year saw Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” become its biggest hit, making it a pretty pitiful year in popular music history. On top of all that tragedy, the NFL saw the New England Patriots win their first Super Bowl, beginning a dynasty that has yet to relent.
#16 — 2018
Remember when the dated narrative that was “Green Book” won best picture at the Academy Awards in 2018? That was just the start of a pretty forgettable calendar year. The Avengers dominated the box office and Taylor Swift dominated record sales yet again, while the world’s highest-paid celebrity was a man who’s served time for beating up women. At least it gave us Cardi B, “Killing Eve,” a Philadelphia Eagles championship and the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to take our minds off that other stuff.
#15 — 2015
For all the good you can say about Star Wars returning to theaters, the year 2015 was mostly a weak one. In sports, it saw the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl and the Golden State Warriors win yet another NBA championship. There were surprises at the Grammys, when Beck won album of the year, and when the world was introduced to Caitlyn Jenner, but nothing else was too memorable when we moved on to 2016.
#14 — 2001
When you think of 2001, your mind probably goes right to the worst events many of us have ever witnessed, but in pop culture, there were some great parts of that year. It was the year that gave us iPods and Wikipedia. We also got shows like “Six Feet Under” and “Scrubs,” as well as the first movies in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings film franchises. However, the Super Bowl was a beating, the doomed XFL was introduced and Fox’s “Temptation Island” took reality TV to new lows.
#13 — 2012
In 2012, we were all amazed the first time we saw the Avengers assemble on the big screen. Sports may have been pretty boring that year but we got several acclaimed woman-led TV shows that made their debuts, including “Scandal,” “Girls,” “Veep” and “The Mindy Project.” The music scene was also pretty strong in 2012, introducing many of us to acts like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey, while Adele continued to dominate sales charts and the Grammys.
All that took a bit of the sting away from the horror that happened at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
#12 — 2005
The Grammy Awards got 2005 off on a heartfelt note, with Ray Charles winning album of the year just months after his death, but all we could think about was New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina when it was over. On the plus side, we got introduced to Michael Scott and his staff at “The Office,” as well as the world’s sexiest doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy.” The music scene was overall pretty forgettable, with 50 Cent’s “The Massacre” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” crushing the charts, and the big Oscar win for “Crash” in the category of best picture is still a monumental head-scratcher.
But at least we all saw YouTube for the first time!
#11 — 2017
The year 2017 was one of empowerment, with the #MeToo movement finally holding Hollywood accountable and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” bringing a stark future to our TVs and winning Emmys in the process. We also got some great pop music, as “Shape of You” and “Despacito” dominated radio and Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” was the year’s top-selling album. Sports fans also saw some memorable moments, with the Patriots pulling an unbelievable comeback in the Super Bowl and the Houston Astros winning a seven-game World Series — even if the latter is slightly tainted today.
#10 — 2014
The whole mood in 2014 just felt a little more fun than some other years in the 2000s. It was the year that Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” got stuck in our heads and Disney’s “Frozen” took over our hearts. It was the first time we met Amazon’s helpful assistant, Alexa, and it was our introduction to smart watches, like the Apple Watch and Android Wear. Sports fans were rejoicing after the implementation of the College Football Playoff system, and TV lovers watched great new shows like “True Detective,” “Fargo” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Not even the news about Bill Cosby could dampen the mood completely in 2014.
#9 — 2010
At the turn of the last decade, we were introduced to Instagram and the first iPad — and the positive aspects of both innovations can still be debated today. It was also a year where we first got acquainted with now-beloved musicians like Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe, while the charts and Grammys were dominated by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Susan Boyle. We were also introduced to some very popular TV shows in 2010, including “The Walking Dead,” “Adventure Time” and “Downton Abbey.”
Plus, who could forget the New Orleans Saints winning their first Super Bowl just five years after their city was devastated by Katrina?
#8 — 2016
No matter which side you were on during the 2016 presidential election, you’d have to agree that the tone of that political season was downright embarrassing at times. However, it wasn’t all negative that year.
In 2016, we also got to see the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, and LeBron James led his Cleveland Cavaliers to that city’s first championship in more than 50 years. Plus, we got to see incredible shows like “Stranger Things,” “This Is Us” and “The Crown” for the very first time. If those distractions weren’t enough for you, you always had “Pokémon Go!”
#7 — 2013
Sports fans were in heaven in 2013, as the Super Bowl was decided by just three points, the NBA Finals went to seven games and the World Series went to six games. It also ushered in a new era in television, as Netflix debuted its game-changing shows “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” announcing streaming networks as major players. Gamers can also thank 2013 for giving them two new systems in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, both of which are still in heavy use in 2020.
If all that wasn’t enough to make you think this was a great year, how about the fact that we first heard music by the likes of Ariana Grande and Lorde.
#6 — 2000
Do you remember where you were when the ball dropped and brought a close to the 1990s? If you do, then you probably also remember the first time you heard Britney Spears sing “Oops!…I Did It Again,” which was the biggest hit of the year 2000, or when you first saw an episode of “Gilmore Girls,” which debuted then. We also got debut albums by Pink and Coldplay, and the entire world was inspired after watching Tiger Woods dominate three of golf’s four major tournaments in a single year.
However, it wasn’t all great. After all, 2000 is when we were first introduced to shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “Jackass,” all of which would dominate ratings and bring us into an era of bad reality television.
#5 — 2019
The memory of 2019 is still fresh and it should stay that way because it was a pretty awesome year for pop-culture. Movie lovers saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe come to an epic and satisfying culmination in “Avengers: Endgame,” and TV-lovers said goodbye to HBO’s monumental “Game of Thrones.” The music world was full of surprises, as “Old Town Road,” a hillbilly rap song, and Billie Eilish, a wonderfully offbeat teenager, dominated the charts.
We also got to see two long-suffering teams win their first championships — the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and MLB’s Washington Nationals — and a crafty player named James Holzhauer brought “Jeopardy” back to the cultural forefront.
#4 — 2004
Speaking of “Jeopardy,” it was 2004 when Ken Jennings became arguably the most famous player in the game show’s history by going on a historic streak of wins. It was also the year that gave us Facebook, saw Martha Stewart go to prison and the phrase “Nipplegate” become a global headline, so you have to take the good with the bad.
Who can forget watching ABC’s “Lost,” hearing music by Kanye West or John Legend and seeing Michael Phelps swim for gold at the Olympics, all of which happened first in 2004? And it feels like old news now, but seeing the Boston Red Sox snap their 86-year World Series drought that year was also pretty awesome.
#3 — 2007
2007 was a massive year for tech innovations. It was the year that Apple unveiled the first iPhone and the year that Netflix first started streaming instead of relying solely on mail-order discs. It also marked the first time we got to see era-defining TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mad Men.”
Sure, 2007 also marked the release of the final Harry Potter book, making it a bit sad, but you had songs like Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” playing on the radio 24/7 to help you get over it!
#2 — 2008
Back-to-back awesome years? Yep, that’s what you can call 2007 and 2008, from a cultural standpoint, at least. In 2008, the way we watched current TV shows changed forever with the launch of Hulu and the way we thought of blockbusters also changed forever with the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both of which remain vital today.
In sports, the New York Giants pulled off an unforgettable upset of the then-undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, giving nearly all football fans a reason to celebrate. It was also the year we first saw “Breaking Bad” and “The Dark Knight,” and the first time we heard music from Adele and Lady Gaga. How can you top a year like that?
#1 — 2011 (aka The Best)
The year 2008 was almost impossible to beat, culturally speaking, but because of a little ongoing thing called The Great Recession, we had to bump it behind the amazing year that was 2011. This was the year that saw the final Harry Potter film dominate at the box office and saw HBO debut its decade-defining series, “Game of Thrones.” It also saw us introduced to music by Ed Sheeran, a little Adele album called “21” and an app that would forever change transportation in Uber.
We also all came together early on a Friday morning to watch the elegant royal wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton. No matter how silly you may have found that whole craze to be, it was probably the most gorgeous distraction in a 20-year span where we needed plenty of them!