One of the hallmarks of Albumism’s content footprint is our unabashed affection and nostalgia for classic albums, as evidenced by our frequent anniversary tribute features that celebrate LPs dating back to the 1960s. But we also recognize that the 21st century has already produced a slew of modern-day masterpieces, albums that are destined to be regarded and remembered with high acclaim for decades and generations to come.
In acknowledging this, the Albumism team recently tasked ourselves with selecting the 50 albums that we believe constitute the finest long players to emerge since Y2K arrived nearly 17 years ago. It was far from an easy exercise to whittle down our selections to just 50, as the list could have very easily ballooned to 100 or even 200 titles.
As most lists of this type invariably are, the selections showcased here reflect the varied tastes and yes, the personal bias, of our staff of wordsmiths. As a result, it’s arguably a bit of an unorthodox collection that looks little to nothing like what you might expect a list like this to be. For instance, and perhaps surprisingly, albums by critical darlings Radiohead, Beck, Kanye West, Eminem, The Strokes, and Arctic Monkeys, among others, don’t figure here at all. For the admittedly excellent albums by these artists, you’ll likely need to consult our friends over at Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and the like.
Our list is broken up into five parts for easier reading with links to each part conveniently provided directly below. Whether you agree with our selections or not, we hope you enjoy rediscovering these wonderful albums as much as we have, and we encourage you to let us know what your favorite albums of the 21st century are so far.
NEKO CASE | Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Selected by Justin Chadwick
As if I needed any additional prompting, the release of case/lang/veirs’ excellent eponymous debut album earlier this year gave me good reason to revisit each of Neko Case’s albums to date. Though I’ve been enthralled by her since she released her debut LP The Virginian (1997) nearly two decades ago all the way through to her most recent project with kindred musical spirits k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, her fourth studio album is my clear-cut favorite.
The follow-up to the excellent Blacklisted (2002), Fox Confessor Brings the Flood reinforces that Case’s voice is indeed one of the most devastating and goosebump-inducing “instruments” you’ll ever hear. Few singers can claim to rival Case’s vocal power and range, best evidenced here on the short, spine-tingling “A Widow’s Toast.”
Case’s voice is complemented by the unequivocal strength of her songwriting, which is typically fueled by fictional narratives that evoke and provoke. “I don't really talk about myself in the songs but there are moments that are about me.” Case confessed to Pitchfork back in 2006, shortly after Fox Confessor’s release. “I try not to make those moments very clear so people can make it into their own story.”
Equal parts euphoric and subdued sonically, Fox Confessor’s lyrical depth largely derives from Case’s unique penchant for extracting redemption and solace from the darker dimensions of life. This is arguably most apparent on the rollicking “Hold On, “Hold On,” which finds Case confiding, “I leave the party at 3 A.M. / Alone, thank God / With a valium from the bride / It's the devil I love / It's the devil I love / And that's as funny as real love / And that's as real as true love."
Neko Case is a national treasure, her entire discography makes for essential listening, and the rather frightening thing is that her creative peak still seems to be ahead of her.
CAVE IN | Perfect Pitch Black
Hydra Head (2005)
Selected by Brian Grosz
“You’ve never heard this album?” the astonished concert promoter asked. “You play in a fucking post-hardcore band!” And I didn’t choose this album because the guy who engineered it later mixed my band’s album or the fact that when I saw them on their reunion tour I got my thumb broken in the slam-pit. It’s a killer album if you like some beauty in your heavy music.
The product of breaking away from RCA Records led to ethereal melodies from guitarist/singer Stephen Brodsky and the most brutal breakdown screaming from bassist/singer Caleb Scofield. While I have a soft-spot for dual singer bands (e.g., Fugazi), this is an intense slab of 10 songs that will turn anyone on to post-hardcore.
COLDPLAY | Parachutes
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Now bona fide global megastars that sell out arenas in seconds, grace the Super Bowl stage, and marry then “consciously uncouple” from Hollywood elite, ‘twas not always the case for the four gentlemen that comprise Coldplay. Before super-stardom arrived, and as first manifested throughout their breakthrough debut album Parachutes, there was a palpable, reassuring “everyman” innocence about their songs, unfettered by the influences and expectations of fame.
The largely downtempo LP explores the naiveté, longing and heartache of trying to define your identity in your early adulthood, with your teenage years fading in the rearview. Hence why its ten songs resonated so profoundly with me in the months immediately following its release, as I was then a 22-year-old recent migrant to New York City, seeking the fulfillment of heart, mind, and soul that had largely eluded me during my preceding years in Los Angeles.
Parachutes is not an extravagantly orchestrated affair by any means, but therein lies its profound charm. Its simplicity and many subtle sonic flourishes prove easy to embrace and hard to resist. And while no one would claim that Chris Martin has the most robust of singing chops, what he lacks in vocal dexterity, he more than makes up for in lyrical earnestness and emotiveness. “Yellow” was the massive hit that placed Coldplay on the musical map, but for my money, it’s not among the stronger tracks on the album. Give me “Shiver,” “Spies,” and “High Speed,” thank you very much.
The band’s superb 2002 follow-up A Rush of Blood to the Head saw the band ascend to astronomical, sold-out arena heights of worldwide popularity, and deservedly so. Their career and recorded repertoire have been wondrous things to behold over the past 16 years, but Parachutes remains the Coldplay record I revisit and cherish the most.
DAFT PUNK | Discovery
Selected by Chris Lacy
As the calendar switched from 2000 to 2001, the musical landscape changed drastically. We saw the rise of iTunes and the fall of Napster. Pop royalty (Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson) found themselves competing against the resurgence of bubblegum pop (N’Sync, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, etc.). Meanwhile, two European DJs opted to redefine music by taking the road less traveled.
On their sophomore album Discovery, Daft Punk, comprised of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, abandon their signature acid-house sound frpm their debut Homework (1997) with an emphasis on grand melodies and reliance on guitar, bass, and drums (save for the characteristically autotuned vocals). The end result is an excellent party record with every song title spelling out its intentions: “One More Time,” “Aerodynamic,” “Digital Love,” “Crescendolls,” and “Voyager” to name a few. Spanning 14 tracks in 60 minutes, Discovery is a grab-bag tribute to dance classics from Sister Sledge’s “IL Macquillage Lady” and Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby” to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman” and Prince’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
Discovery, in every respect, is a classic 21st Century album because it lives up to its wildly ambitious title and resounds in the subsequent works of Justin Timberlake (2006’s FutureSex / LoveSounds), Kanye West (2007’s Graduation), and Janelle Monáe (2010’s The ArchAndroid).
D'ANGELO | Voodoo
Selected by Brandon Ousley
As a kid, D’Angelo’s immortal 1995 debut, Brown Sugar was one of the mighty staples that defined my innocence. I was never much of a hip-hop fanatic nor did I grow up with my ears attuned to it. Somehow at only four years old, D’Angelo’s affinity for infusing luxuriant, gospel-doused 1970s soul with raw East Coast hip-hop and blues elements caught my attention. Plus, how could anyone deny the man’s honeyed voice that could blossom from a warm tenor to a strikingly beautiful falsetto?
Fast-forward five years later and something happened. My mother was one of many fanatical ladies in America who swooned at D’Angelo, in all of his muscular, mahogany-brown glory, when the music video for Voodoo’s steamy Prince-minded third single, “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” widely premiered on all video networks in 2000. On the promise of the revealing music video, she was more than determined to buy his hotly-anticipated sophomore release when it came out at the top of that year. I distinctly remember the brisk January evening she brought Voodoo home.
At only eight years old, my initial impression about Voodoo was that D’Angelo consciously emulated There’s a Riot Goin’ On-era Sly Stone, 1967-75-era James Brown, and Prince in the most disoriented way possible. I was completely baffled by it. Why did the production mix sound uneven? What happened to the traditional song structure and musicality that commanded his debut album? Why was D’Angelo’s distinctive voice reduced to garbles and mumbles? Was all of the hoopla about the album representing a revival of soul and funk music’s golden age merely hyperbole?
Admittedly, even at the prime of my adolescence, I coldly sneered at much of contemporary R&B and hip-hop from the late 1990s right into the millennium (“neo-soul” anyone?) Furthermore, my snobby curiosity over whether beloved figures in Black contemporary music could live up to their promise and defeat the odds of the “sophomore jinx” was alarmingly high. Voodoo was a tough cookie to crack at the time.
It took five more years for it to fully resonate. It’s clear that the musical ingenuity, sparse jazzed-funk edge, and progressive esotericism that D’Angelo and his Soulquarian comrades aimed for was no fluke. The atmosphere is brooding, sleazy, and relentlessly dense, but Voodoo’s greatest charm is in the emotion that lies within it. Voodoo distills the purest expression of D’Angelo’s personalities, anxieties, and idiosyncrasies—at their most fragile (“The Root” and “One Mo’Gin”), socially conscious (“Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease”), transcendental (“Africa”) and self-aware (“The Line”).
The joys and fate of intimacy always weighed heavily on his brain, but he never revealed it so organically and nakedly before. Just become enraptured in the sensual intensity of “Untitled”’s heavenly climax. Let him ease your mind during his prophetical testimony on physical love in “Send It On.” In addition to the stellar plethora of musicians and collaborators that contributed to D’Angelo’s funk brew (J Dilla, DJ Premier, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Raphael Saadiq, Roy Hargrove, and Pino Palladino); engineer Russell Elevado set a masterful sonic precedent for not only soul music, but the entire music world.
In all of its sprawling 79 minutes, Voodoo flashes a generous nod to Black music’s illustrious past, while delivering a brand new bag to its murky present. Every minute matters. A decade later, its seductive eclecticism, hypnotic textures, and thick grooves are still too rich and endearing to ignore.
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD | Black Messiah
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
The interminable 15 year wait for the follow up to 2000’s “Voodoo” was banished within moments of hearing Black Messiah. Mixing the sacred (“Prayer”) with the profane (“Sugah Daddy”) and the intensely personal (“Really Love”) with the public (“The Charade”), Black Messiah showcased a maturity of songwriting and a warmer production, making it easily the equal of any soul album since Prince’s 1987 opus Sign O’ the Times.
Stylistically, it veered wildly from the squally, white noise funk thrash of “1000 Deaths” to the Philly soul sounds of “Another Life,” via the winsome Withers whistling of “The Door.” Indeed, it left no stone unturned on its quest for brilliance. While “The Charade” may be dressed in achingly beautiful Revolution-era Prince psychedelia, its lyrical content floors like a right hook. It’s a velvet clad iron fist delivering a killer blow making it the stand out track, but only by a nose. For everything here is stellar and worth the wait.
DEVIN THE DUDE | Just Tryin’ ta Live
Selected by Christopher A. Daniel
It’s refreshing to vibe with an artist who can literally turn fetishes like blazing herb and drinking beer into soulful harmonies, funky melodies and hard beats. When raspy-voiced, Houston-based hip-hop artist Devin the Dude released his second album Just Tryin’ ta Live, he turned his indulgences (“R&B,” “I-Hi”) into witty, head nodding ditties that are hard to get out of your head (“Go Somewhere,” “Lacville ’79”).
Just Tryin’ ta Live even enlists a few cameo appearances from its share of musical superlatives. Dr. Dre offers his warped, Parliament-styled production on “It’s a Shame.” DJ Premier’s signature boom-bap and scratch compliments the anthemic “Doobie Ashtray.” Raphael Saadiq joins the St. Petersburg, Florida-raised chiefer with vocals and console knowledge on the funky “Just a Man.” Nas and Xzibit pass the mic on “Some of ‘Em.”
It’s off the grid in mainstream hip-hop, but Devin’s Just Tryin’ ta Live operates as an impressive, fun album that turns excess and pleasure into honesty and musicality.
THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN | Irony is a Dead Scene
Selected by Brian Grosz
Recorded while The Dillinger Escape Plan were in between singers, they reached out to Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fame and he agreed to sing on this EP. I cannot lie, I nearly vomited on the subway during my first listen. I don’t blame my hangover or the stinky homeless dude standing next to me. I blame my brain trying to do the calculus to wrap itself around the intricate time signatures played by dudes who obviously studied jazz theory.
To paraphrase their current singer, Greg Pucciato, “We don’t make new fans at shows. You have to do your homework.” Possibly some of the most brutally insane live shows I’ve ever seen have come from this band (and I’ve seen Slayer get 60,000 gallons of fake blood dropped on them, I’ve been jumped by racist skinheads at Murphy’s Law, and I’ve taken a dump in the CBGB’s bathroom). At one show, Greg grabbed a Marshall 4x12 guitar amp with one hand and threw it into the crowd and we surfed it around before throwing it back onto the stage. At him, and he caught it.
While this band is tighter than a nun’s c-word, Patton utterly slays it, proving that he truly has the greatest range of any living singer. Oh, and the last track is an Aphex Twin cover. They’re breaking up after their current tour so go see them if you can (and bring your earplugs).
DISCLOSURE | Settle
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Close your eyes, rewind your mind to a few years ago, and recapture that revelatory moment when you heard Disclosure’s inspired music for the first time. Your introduction to the fraternal London-based house tandem of Guy and Howard Lawrence likely came four years ago when your ears delighted in the dazzling single “Latch.” It was also your first taste of the precociously talented then-20-year-old crooner Sam Smith, whose career has been in non-stop ascension mode ever since. And if you’re like me, your mind was blown wide open by the heavenly track, as your faith in the power of music to stroke your soul and shake your spirit was instantly restored.
“Latch” was followed a few months later by the euphoria-filled, Mercury Prize-nominated debut long player Settle, which affirmed the Lawrence brothers’ penchant for crafting irresistibly addictive dancefloor bangers of the highest quality. Blessed by an impressive crop of collaborators including Jessie Ware (“Confess to Me”), Jamie Woon (“January”), London Grammar (“Help Me Lose My Mind”), Eliza Doolittle (“You & Me”), Sasha Keable (“Voices”) and AlunaGeorge (“White Noise”), Settle is a filler-free affair indeed and stands as one of the most thrilling LPs released this century thus far. Essential listening.
DURAN DURAN | Astronaut
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Fans of the Fab Five rejoiced when Astronaut came to life. By 2004, Duran Duran had lived through a variety of permutations with varying results. Collections like Duran Duran (a.k.a. The Wedding Album) (1993), Medazzaland (1997), and Pop Trash (2000) got mixed reactions from even the most loyal Duranies despite the often-interesting range of material. So for many, the glamorous, power-pop extravaganza that was Astronaut felt like a homecoming, and the quintet didn’t disappoint.
The riffs were relentless and the hooks as catchy as ever, with “Bedroom Toys,” “(Reach Up for) the Sunrise,” and the title track harkening back to the magnetism of their MTV heyday. Those of us fortunate enough to witness a show on the Astronaut tour found a high-gloss multimedia portrait of rock veteran chic that flew in the face of any has-been stereotypes. Though now a foursome, they are still doing the damn thing: Paper Gods, their latest offering released last year, is yet another extension of the band’s inimitable vigor.
Proceed to: PART 3