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.
BOB DYLAN | Love And Theft
Selected by Terry Nelson
I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground by stating that any album released on September 11, 2001 has probably been relegated to the clearance rack of time. Along with Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft was the exception to the rule. It was the first album he released after his 1997 comeback LP, the very dark and somber Time Out of Mind. Produced under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan went away from the hazy, artsy style of his previous producer Daniel Lanois to a more vibrant, free flowing vibe that allowed his backing band to cut loose.
Love And Theft is a glorious tribute to numerous styles of early 20th century American music. From “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”, a Bo Diddley meets New Orleans inspired number about drunken revelers determined go the entire route of a Mardi Gras parade to the swinging “Summer Days”, Dylan and his band sound like they are just enjoying playing the hell out of this music. Dylan’s gift for biting social commentary is in top form as evidenced by “High Water (for Charley Patton)”, a blunt look into the South’s troubled racial history.
Love And Theft was a very bright light during a very turbulent and dark time in America. It was also a great beginning to the twilight years of Bob Dylan’s great career.
EDAN | Beauty and the Beat
Lewis Recordings (2005)
Selected by Jesse Ducker
Whenever I listen to Beauty and the Beat, I feel like I need to listen to it all the way through, from beginning to end, preferably with no interruptions. Listening to it in a car is ideal, but it works just as well through headphones or on a home stereo. But regardless of the setting, it’s a joy to consume.
The album has a ton of replay value, because even at only 34 minutes in length, Edan spans the universe and different dimensions to take the listener through a trippy soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been filmed yet, without a single wasted moment. Edan continues to operate as a triple threat, rhyming, producing, and scratching for the album, but also enlists some friends to contribute memorable guest verses, including Insight, Percee P, Mr. Lif, and Dagha.
Beauty and the Beat is simultaneously reverent to golden era hip-hop and ’60s and ’70s psychedelic and prog rock, while still sounding futuristic, even eleven years after its initial release.
FLEET FOXES | Fleet Foxes
Bella Union/Sub Pop (2008)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
I’ll readily admit that I’m naturally suspicious of any pop culture phenomenon that becomes engulfed, whether wittingly or not, in the media hype machine. Sure, I loved The Strokes when they first surfaced as “the next big thing” with their debut album Is This It back in 2001, but I also felt that the end product didn’t quite justify the lavish, sycophantic adoration heaped upon the band by critics and fans alike.
Hence my cautious optimism slash skepticism when I first started hearing and reading the hype behind a new Seattle-based band called Fleet Foxes. But in the case of their 2008 Sun Giant EP (featuring the gorgeous “Mykonos”) and eponymous 2008 debut album that gloriously meld country, rock and folk with a throwback ‘60s flare in the vein of CSNY and even the Beach Boys at times, the praise was more than well warranted.
Propelled by the crystalline harmonies of Robin Pecknold and his band of brothers including Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty), coupled with incandescent, largely acoustic-guitar driven melodies, Fleet Foxes unfurls as a cohesive, dreamlike convergence of sound and vision. Tracks like the energized “Quiet Houses,” the chugging “Ragged Wood,” and the sweeping “White Winter Hymnal” are unquestionable standouts. Best of all is the multi-layered swell of the anthemic “Blue Ridge Mountains,” which still never ceases to send chills up and down my spine.
Quite simply a majestic record, and together with their excellent follow-up Helplessness Blues (2011), a painful reminder of how long it’s been since the band has blessed us with new music. Thankfully, recent signs appear to suggest that the hiatus will soon come to an end. Fingers crossed.
GHOSTFACE KILLAH | Supreme Clientele
Epic/Razor Sharp (2000)
Selected by Jesse Ducker
The “race” for the title of the best album of the ’00s was over barely a month into its first year, as Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele was released on February 8, 2000. The Wu-Tang Clan had been a bit lost in the weeds since the release of their second album Wu-Tang Forever (1997), and with Supreme Clientele, Ghostface once again made them a musical force to be reckoned with.
Supreme Clientele surges with life. Ghostface flexes his unique slang and oft-kilter, almost stream-of-consciousness, storytelling abilities to create a wild and weird listening experience. Despite a whole host of producers handling beats behind the board, the album is immaculately sequenced by Ghostface and executive producer RZA, so that it flows seamlessly. Ghostface and the rest of his Wu-Tang cohorts are in peak lyrical form, reminding the listeners of exactly why the Clan ruled hip-hop in the mid-’90s. Supreme re-harnesses all of the energy of the Wu-Tang and detonates with the force of a nuclear bomb.
ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT | Black Radio
Blue Note (2012)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
For nearly 10 years before Black Radio surfaced, Robert Glasper had developed a deserved reputation as one of contemporary jazz’s finest, most versatile pianists with an impassioned reverence for the storied tradition and culture of jazz. But four albums into his evolving career, he opted to branch out by launching his electric Robert Glasper Experiment ensemble (comprised of Casey Benjamin, Mark Colenburg, and Derrick Hodge) and merging cosmopolitan soul, hip-hop and jazz in glorious ways on the band’s debut Black Radio.
A showcase for Glasper’s expansive musical palette, the album includes sublime collaborations with the likes of Erykah Badu (“Afro Blue”), KING (“Move Love”), Ledisi (“Gonna Be Alright”), Lupe Fiasco & Bilal (“Always Shine”), Musiq Soulchild & Chrisette Michelle (“Ah Yeah”), Meshell Ndegeocello (“The Consequences of Jealousy”), and Yasiin Bay a.k.a. Mos Def (“Black Radio”), among a handful of others. Also notable are the handful of sparkling cover versions found here, including Bilal’s “Letter to Hermione” (David Bowie), Lalah Hathaway’s “Cherish the Day” (Sade), and the closing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)
With such an impressive variety of musical talent and inspirations collected on one album, it’s remarkable that the song suite avoids the hodge-podge syndrome and sounds so effortlessly connected. Which is surely a testament to Glasper’s ambition, vision, and perfectionism as a composer. Its successor Black Radio 2 released 18 months later is wonderful too, but it falls just shy of the Grammy-winning inaugural effort’s inescapable brilliance.
GNARLS BARKLEY | St. Elsewhere
Selected by David H. Miller
“Crazy,” the hit single from Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 debut album St. Elsewhere, seemingly appeared out of nowhere, the sui generis creation of a group nobody had ever heard of. Ten years and innumerable radio plays later though, “Crazy” couldn’t be more familiar. But raise your hand if you can name another Gnarls Barkley song. It would be easy, then, to label “Crazy” just another hit single, Gnarls Barkley just another one-hit-wonder.
There’s some truth to that assessment, but it misses the fact that neither Gnarls Barkley nor their hit single were quite like anything that came before them. The group’s simultaneous glorification of the human voice (in the form of singer Cee Lo Green) and technology (as wielded by DJ Danger Mouse) still feels fresh and modern, and their employment of pop culture-infused costumes remains inimitable.
The ubiquity of “Crazy,” meanwhile, belies the song’s essential weirdness. From its lyrical content to its production to the vocal performance it features, everything about “Crazy” is unusual for a pop mega-hit. My favorite detail comes just before each chorus: the bass jumps the gun, arriving on the chorus’s first note a beat earlier than the vocals and the sampled strings do, an oddity hiding in plain sight. What’s that about? I couldn’t tell you, and Gnarls Barkley probably couldn’t either. In a 2006 interview, Danger Mouse claimed that “there was no conscious decision” behind anything on St. Elsewhere. Maybe that, ultimately, is Gnarls Barkley’s legacy—weird for weird’s sake.
PJ HARVEY | Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
Selected by Justin Chadwick
I suspect that most of us who have ever lived in New York City would be hard-pressed to deny the magnetic, seductive allure of the world’s greatest metropolis (with condolences to London, a close number two). On her sonically stunning, Mercury Prize winning fifth studio album, PJ Harvey embraces the city, and more broadly love, as her central muses, imbuing the songs with allusions to her personal experiences of living there for a short time in 1999.
Released two months after I had moved to New York City from Los Angeles, evocative songs like “Good Fortune,” “You Said Something,” and “This Mess We’re In” (her amazing duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke), served as a companion soundtrack to my newfound immersion in, and affection for, the city. The soaring ballads “A Place Called Home” and “We Float” are unequivocal highlights as well.
“I want absolute beauty,” Harvey confided to Q Magazine in 2001. “I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work." Mission accomplished.
INTERPOL | Turn on the Bright Lights
Selected by Rayna Khaitan
The first time I heard Interpol’s debut album Turn on the Bright Lights was a revelation. For reasons inexplicable to me, nu metal made it past the millennium and dominated mainstream airwaves well into the early aughts. But thankfully, a new brand of indie rock was brewing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Stylistically, the movement resurrected post-punk and new wave aesthetics of the 1970s and 80s, but if these genres were originally defined in the UK, this revival felt quintessentially American, and often uniquely New York.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Interpol’s spellbinding homage “NYC,” which, in just over four minutes, somehow manages to venerate the city’s sprawling magnificence, intimate its many voyeuristic secrets, and reveal the individual’s complicated relationship with the metropolis. The whole of Turn on the Bright Lights is atmospheric, filled with mystery, intrigue, and moments of shadowy mania. For the thousands of plays I’ve given it, I’m still thrilled every time. But then, I’m utterly in love with New York. Here’s this skyscraping luminous city alight with excitement and possibility—what will you make of it? And so, in the spirit of human perseverance, the very heart of New York, the album title is a call: “It’s up to me now / Turn on the bright lights.”
J DILLA | Donuts
Stones Throw (2006)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
In retrospect, the late-great James “J Dilla” Yancey’s rapid evolution from devoted student to sage savant to universally revered ambassador of hip-hop within a remarkably brief ten-year period was truly a beautiful thing to behold. Largely recorded during an extended hospital stay and released just three days before his death, the brilliant Donuts is Dilla’s magnum opus.
Indeed, the 31-track album is the perfect manifestation of Dilla’s ingenious, imaginative approach to flipping soul, funk, jazz and hip-hop samples in never-heard-before ways to create truly original, never derivative compositions. Drop the needle on choice cuts “The Diff’rence,” “Time: The Donut of My Heart,” “Gobstopper,” “Dilla Says Go,” and “U-Love” and there’s no choice but to surrender to the headnod-inducing, soul-warming charms of these concise yet captivating compositions.
Describing her son’s recording process for Donuts to The Fader in December of 2006, Maureen Yancey explained that “He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change.” Ever the consummate perfectionist, J Dilla will forever be missed, but his musical legacy will shine with us for eternity.
JANET JACKSON | Unbreakable
Rhythm Nation/BMG (2015)
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Fifty and with child, Janet Jackson is the reigning queen of keeping it pushing, no matter how often trolls and haters try to diminish her 34-year legacy. Unbreakable is a perfect synthesis of the long-form escapes she perfected in the nineties with janet and The Velvet Rope and the more recent, unfairly disregarded electro-funk that underscored 20 Y.O. and Discipline.
“No Sleeep,” the album’s hit duet with J. Cole, easily stands as the best single she’s released in years and a warm return to the moody sensuality of her peak-period classics. In fine voice throughout, Janet delivers on gems like “Dammn Baby,” the Prince-inspired “Night,” and “Dream Maker/Euphoria,” thanks in large part to her enduring marriage to the sonic bliss of all things Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
One of the best albums of 2015, Unbreakable—which gave the icon the distinction of being one of only three artists to notch chart-topping albums in each of the last four decades—is pure joy.
Proceed to: PART 4