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 music-obsessed 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.
FIONA APPLE | The Idler Wheel…
Clean Slate/Epic (2012)
Selected by Matt Koelling
Fiona Apple is the best lyricist of the past two decades.
Fiona Apple is the answer to that age-old question…
What would Bob Dylan be if he grew up in the eighties and was a bad-ass bitch?
Fiona Apple’s album titles are so long, typing them out may exceed word count.
This might all be a bit much to take in lesser genius-level hands but here it works.
I love Fiona Apple more for all of the above reasons, among many other things.
So much so that if I ever have a daughter, her name will be Fiona Apolonia.
Shout out to Prince, we miss you every day and thank you for your service.
Which brings us to this underappreciated and criminally (pun intended) underrated most recent offering by your homegirl and mine, Fiona Apple.
Why all the love for this album?
Because we love music & lyrics more than Drew & Hugh could ever pretend to do.
This album opens with “Every Single Night”, which is the single greatest ode to insomnia since John Lennon made “I’m So Tired” on The White Album.
Even that fact feels fitting, because Fiona Apple is such a B.A.B. that she murdered him on his own shit with her cover of “Across the Universe” on the Pleasantville soundtrack.
This album, lyrically and conceptually, is Fiona’s most cohesive unit out of the four great albums that she has produced, at Sade-like pace, since she shook up the game back in ’96.
It reflects her full spectrum of emotions, with an intoxicating lyrical potion, letting these words flow slow like honey, then slicing thru your soul like a hot knife through butter.
Speaking of “Hot Knife,” this is the curtain call song here.
It features Fiona and her elder sister Maude (Fiona is from a Vaudevillian family) on shared vocals, all sung in the round.
You will be glad that you came upon their musical town.
As Fiona tells you on “Valentine,” which, like “Werewolf,” represents a full song stuffed with killer lines…
I’m a tulip in a cup, I stand no chance of growing up
We hope you never do, Boo.
Growing up, in this world, as you famously declared on MTV at age 17, is bullshit.
ARCADE FIRE | Funeral
Merge/Rough Trade (2004)
Selected by David H. Miller
Arcade Fire, the band that has become a symbol of annoying hipsterdom, employs one of the most annoying hipster-band gimmicks of all: they feature a violinist. But before they were a symbol of anything, Arcade Fire was just a damn good band, and the violin was an integral part of the sound of their debut album, 2004’s Funeral.
On “Neighborhood 4 (7 Kettles),” violinist Sarah Neufeld’s shakes, quakes, and trembles blend with the sound of whistling teakettles as part of the song’s extended analogy between watched pots and the impatience of early adulthood (“I am waiting ’til I don’t know when / ‘cause I’m sure it’s gonna happen then”). Leave out the violin and the song—the album’s most moving—just wouldn’t be the same.
The violin gets the last word on Funeral, too. The album’s final track “In the Backseat” celebrates the solitude afforded to those riding in the backs of cars. Appropriately, then, the guitars and drums fade away towards the end of the track and Neufeld’s violin takes over, forming a musical representation of that solitude. The melody is gently looped over a backdrop of squeaks and squiggles not unlike those heard on “Neighborhood 4,” and Funeral draws to a shimmering, radiant close. Call it a gimmick if you like, but Funeral wouldn’t be Funeral without the violin.
ATMOSPHERE | You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having
Rhymesayers Entertainment (2005)
Selected by Brian Grosz
I had been given a copy of their previous album God Loves Ugly and really dug this “backpack rap” that I had never heard of before—and MC Slug has gotten very “posi” on later albums—but this album is fucking ANGRY with some great lyricism. Plus, I think the track “Panic Attack” was omniscient given that it has several samples of Bill Cosby saying “Do you think you need a pill to make you feel better?”
Hard beats, outstanding production, and a gut-wrenching tribute song (“That Night”) to a young lady who was raped and killed at one of their concerts. Who knew that two white boys from Minneapolis Minnesnowta could create a hip-hop empire? Also, be sure to check out Slug’s side-project Felt with MC Murs. Not to be slept on, the third Felt album was produced by Aesop Rock, another “backpack” genius.
BADLY DRAWN BOY | The Hour of Bewilderbeast
XL/Twisted Nerve (2000)
Selected by Rayna Khaitan
Strings and horns beam majestically, then radiate quietly, all while singer-songwriter Damon Gough’s masterful poetry pangs in bare, but brazen, delivery. Filled with allusions to light and darkness, Badly Drawn Boy’s 18-track debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast recounts lost love, and the aching in its aftermath, with warming poignancy. There’s strength in this vulnerability—in this process of reliving, laying bare, and letting go.
Apt timing for me, as my introduction to the album followed the interminable freeze of a brokenhearted winter and spring. The gentle chorus (“Soleil all over you / warm sun pours over me”) of lambent opener “The Shining” willed my walls to soften, summoning summer, first dates, and self-discovery.
At home alongside timeless talents like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy’s writing is raw yet confident, coaxing emotion from our most desperately secret places, while offering sanctuary for the sentimental. Truly, The Hour of Bewilderbeast is no ordinary album. Fulfilling for all forlorn times, there’s a song (and solution) here (“The stars above shine on me / I beckon them to fall on me / I'll catch and save them in a jar”) for us all.
PETE BELASCO | Deeper
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Pete Belasco’s Deeper was the kind of record that didn’t really fit neatly into a particular box. In hindsight, that may have been the reason it didn’t reel in a broad audience upon its release. Belasco, a passionate vocalist and saxophonist (he also chipped in on drums, bass, and keys), positioned himself as a cross between Boney James and Michael Franks throughout 11 tracks that evoked seventies FM R&B or supper club jazz at any given moment.
The breathless ease of his falsetto croon are a soulful delight on “Hurry Hurry,” “Keep On,” and “Wonderful Woman,” while the instrumentals “Nia” and “Zoe” are first-rate expressions of Belasco’s dexterity as a composer and instrumentalist. A Washington Metro Area favorite, Deeper remains in rotation on WHUR’s Quiet Storm broadcast to this day.
BJORK | Vespertine
One Little Indian (2001)
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
Breathtakingly beautiful and delicately haunting, Björk’s fourth studio album Vespertine is a chronicle of love’s greatest thrills against a backdrop of music boxes, string sections, angelic choirs and gently throbbing electronics. Somehow managing to be evocative of her glacial Icelandic homeland, the album also generates the warm glow that only love’s passion can fire.
That neither ice nor fire wins out is down to the fragile, perfectly pitched production and, whilst production duo Matmos and others lend a hand, this is undoubtedly all Björk—lyrically unique, musically idiosyncratic and replete with drama. Impossible to separate, songs bleed into one another, ecstatic choral parts soar and Björk’s voice unites it all in one glorious suite, making it impossible to pull out highlights. Just hit play and be transported for its duration.
BLUEPRINT | 1988
Rhymesayers Entertainment (2005)
Selected by Jesse Ducker
It’s an enduring belief that 1988 represents hip-hop’s finest vintage. Seventeen years later, Columbus, Ohio’s Blueprint decided to pay homage to that era with the 1988 album. Blueprint manages to honor that period’s music, drawing influence from its distinctive sound (dusty soul loops and crispy drum breaks) without making the endeavor sound like clever mimicry.
Like many of the great artists from the late ‘80s, Blueprint keeps the beats banging and the subject matter varied. There are tracks to blast through your speakers (“Boombox” and “Lo Fi Funk”), make you marvel at the lyrical wizardry (“Fresh” and the title track), make you laugh (“Big Girls Need Love Too” and “Where’s Your Girlfriend At?”), and inspire (“Trouble On My Mind” and “Kill Me First”). And while the sound may be retro, it never feels dated. With 1988, Blueprint honors his idols and makes a unique artistic statement.
DAVID BOWIE | Heathen
Selected by Terry Nelson
A big mistake many music icons make in the latter years of their careers is to try and replicate the sound of their greatest success, often with disastrous results. The same cannot be said for the late David Bowie’s Heathen, the twenty-second studio album of his legendary career. For this album, Bowie reconnected with producer Tony Visconti, who last worked with him on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980), and together they managed to merge the Bowie sound of the ‘90s with modern production and instrumentation and develop the sonic feel and tone of a classic Bowie album.
Bowie manages to push out covers of The Pixies’ “Cactus” & Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and put his own stamp on them. Who else could write and sing a song about Uncle Floyd (“Slip Away”) and have it be one of the highlights of their album? Recorded before and after 9/11, Bowie always insisted that the material was not written about that tragic day, even though its themes are about despair and a hope for a better future.
What easily could’ve been a big downer of an album turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. It’s Bowie in his comfort zone, not worried about anything but putting out a solid album for himself and those of us who stuck by him all these years.
CANNIBAL OX | The Cold Vein
Definitive Jux (2001)
Selected by Jesse Ducker
Certain types of great albums, like certain types of great films, paint pictures of a specific time and place. Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein creates a vivid vision of pre-September 11th New York City. Rappers Vast Aire and Vordhul Megallah, members of the Atoms Family collective at the time, collaborate with producer El-P to create a vivid 70+ minute journey through desolate streets, deserted alleyways, and smoke-filled hallways of pre-gentrified Harlem.
Cold Vein is as perfect of a storm of beats and lyrics as you’ll find. Vordhul flows and intricately puts phrases together, while Vast rhymes like he’s got “The Glow” (a la The Last Dragon). And El-P’s production goes from dark and mechanical to soaring and inspirational. The album juxtaposes the lows and highs of trying to exist in NYC, describing the artery of pain that flows through the city, as well as the feelings of hope of transforming into something that can rise above it all.
THE CARDIGANS | Long Gone Before Daylight
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Twenty years have passed since The Cardigans ascended to worldwide prominence beyond their native Sweden on the strength of the irresistible lounge-pop of “Lovefool,” which was featured on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and their third studio LP First Band on the Moon that same year. However, despite the fact that the quintet has released three excellent albums since (not to mention Nina Persson’s stellar solo work and A Camp recordings), way too many people still immediately associate the group with their most commercially successful and radio-friendly hit single.
Though many critics incredulously didn’t embrace the record as they had the band’s previous efforts, for me, 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight is The Cardigans’ crowning achievement musically, lyrically, and thematically. It’s also the album that proved, once and for all, that Persson is one of the most gifted and underappreciated songwriters working today.
Never complacent in their songcraft, nor content to recycle their music of the past, the band delivered a considerably more plaintive and sophisticated song suite with Long Gone Before Daylight, their fifth studio album. From the heartbreakingly gorgeous lullabies “Couldn’t Care Less,” “Feathers and Down,” and “03:45 No Sleep” juxtaposed with more soaring love songs like “You’re the Storm,” “For What It’s Worth,” and “Live and Learn,” this is an indispensable album that demands to be heard and adored.
Proceed to: PART 2