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.
JAY Z | The Blueprint
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam (2001)
Selected by Matt Koelling
Jay Z’s The Blueprint will always be inexorably linked to 9/11 as Jay Z himself is to his Yankee fitted. His first indisputable classic since his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint is an album actually befitting of its name. Cribbing a portion of the longer title of a 1989 Boogie Down Productions’ album, as Nas helpfully pointed out three months later, The Blueprint quite literally became just that for many early 2000’s rap cats. For many, the “where were you when the second tower got hit?” story later blends into the “after I got done trying to call friends or family in NYC to no avail and trying to process the horrible events, I drove to the record store” tale.
Some people instead bought Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft that day. Some like yours truly, copped both. Yet it was The Blueprint which would go on to sell nearly 500,000 copies in its first week, despite the obvious obstacles that fateful day put in our path. It would be a musical salve to hold us down during a painfully uncertain time in that fall and winter.
The subsequent scaled back Blueprint Lounge tour that followed and the MTV Unplugged where The Roots and Hov extend a musical olive branch between the jiggy and backpacker sets further solidified his vision. The end result, some sixteen years, three million sold and near-consensus critical acclaim later, is right at the top of the short list of Jigga’s crowning aural achievements.
It is nearly impossible to overstate this album’s impact on the pop music landscape, let alone the impact it had on the genre. This album went all in on the career-transforming rap beef buffet among New York’s biggest rappers. This album sonically sent the late ‘90s keyboard tinkling of early Swizz Beatz and The Trackmasters back to the lab looking for new formulas. This album is single-handedly responsible for birthing Kanye West and Just Blaze’s career. Revisionist historians will always underrate Bink!’s contributions to this record, yet they were equally as crucial in providing the unified sound running throughout it.
This album’s musical backdrop took RZA’s sped-up soul sample style displayed on Wu-Tang Forever to its logical conclusion. It produced big hits without the time-period formulaic tropes of earlier Jigga singles. Anyone bumping “Hey Papi” or “Diamonds Best Friend” recently? Didn’t think so. You may still hear “Girls, Girls, Girls”, “Song Cry” or “Izzo” though. More than the singles however was the fact that Jay-Z, at the peak of his powers, took the challenge of trying to take real risks with his craft. It’s a bit similar to how his now-wife Beyoncé has done the same over the past few years with this year’s Lemonade and the self-titled album that preceded it.
Nothing timeless can exist without taking that initial risk. It’s a lesson that Eminem never learned, while making the same carnival sounding lead singles with dated pop-culture jokes for four straight albums during his own commercial pinnacle. This despite having a built-in audience that would have bought absolutely any kind of music he dropped.
Speaking of Eminem, it’s fitting that he gets to be the only other rapper, even among Jay’s own Roc-a-Fella crew, to spit bars on this album. It was a tacit acknowledgement that Marshall Mathers was Sean Carter’s only real peer by 2001. While once he dropped The Blueprint, it became clear that even though Em murked his “Renegade” verse, when it came to making full albums that stand the test of time, the winner is Hov.
KING | We are KING
KING Creative (2016)
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Full disclosure: I can’t say too many new artists do much for me. However, Anita Bias and twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother—collectively known as KING—embody all that’s right with R&B in any era or form. We are KING, their outstanding self-produced debut, is a stroke of genius replete with sweet vocal blends and open, synth-based backing that achieves the rare feat of stirring organic textures. In certain moments, the trio radiates the chilling romanticism of R&B diva tunesmiths like the Emotions, Deniece Williams, and Minnie Riperton.
There’s an honesty there that’s particularly enveloping on “Red Eye,” “Supernatural,” “The Story,” and the “The Greatest,” a rousing tribute to the late Muhammad Ali. Thankfully, lead singers Anita and Amber never descend into overwrought clichés or histrionics, favoring simple melodic lines and smooth harmonies to bring you into their world. If you’ve experienced KING in concert, you know these young women are destined to be in it for the long haul. A much-needed breath of fresh air, indeed.
KENDRICK LAMAR | good kid, m.A.A.d city
Top Dawg/Aftermath (2012)
Selected by Matt Koelling
Kendrick Lamar is the greatest hip-hop artist to debut this millennium. This is not up for debate. Kanye West, who helps himself with his work behind the boards is not in Kendrick’s zip code in terms of rap skills. Still, the overall package is enough to garner him runner-up status. Please refrain from any mention of Drake. No one else beyond these two likely even merits discussion.
This is a mantle that Kendrick, who had a dream like Martin once did, was being groomed for by 2010 or so. It’s a goal he drew closer to via his stellar previous “mixtape albums” Overly Dedicated and especially Section.80, plus the all-important Dr. Dre co-sign.
By the fall of 2012, when it came time to deliver on all of this promise with his major-label debut, Kendrick did so with the self-assurance of a savvy veteran. He would do so again a few years later with his 2015 follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly, but it is the more streamlined good kid, m.A.A.d city that contains more replay value. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so with the weight of the rap world on his shoulders, Kendrick or K-Dot for that matter, started at the beginning. He bears much of his soul, as well as family history, over the course of a day-in-the-life narrative of a young Compton teenager.
The end result plays like a movie, Kendrick’s Do the Right Thing or Friday level of seminal neighborhood classic to the more worldly and lengthy Malcolm X or Straight Outta Compton opus to come later. Without much actual production help from Dr. Dre, who would later be inspired enough by his young protégé’s album to finally make a return to album work of his own, Kendrick takes his child of Compton cue.
The album would generate hits such as the have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too alcoholic ancestry of unlikely club banger of “Swimming Pools,” the tasteful Janet Jackson vocal flip on “Poetic Justice”, the street-certified pseudo-freestyle street anthem “Backseat Freestyle” and of course the Anna Wise alien-girl-assisted weirdness of the inimitable “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
good kid feels fresh while also warmly familiar, innovative while also an extension of the great West Coast gangsta-infused rap that came before. A classic that shares a similar spiritual DNA with late-80’s/early-90’s L.A. rap while shunning the first-person participant narrative of N.W.A, Snoop, Compton’s Most Wanted, or Ice Cube.
KENDRICK LAMAR | To Pimp a Butterfly
Top Dawg/Aftermath (2015)
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
Already a star in the ascendant, To Pimp a Butterfly saw Kendrick Lamar go stratospheric. With minimal warning, this dazzlingly ambitious album proved that hip-hop still had one foot in jazz and the other in social consciousness. A host of jazz and soul titans lent their talents to concoct a glorious mélange of sounds and atmospheres that summoned the thread of African-American music running from jazz, through soul and funk, before arriving at hip-hop. Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Bilal, Kamasi Washington, and P-Funk legend George Clinton all threw their weight behind the kid from Compton, but at the heart of it all is a remarkable vocal performance from Kendrick Lamar.
The twisting and turning in and out of self-loathing on “u,” the soaring redemptive cries of “i” and the prowling, vitriolic “The Blacker The Berry” all showcase a voice that is by turns tender and irate, but always gut-wrenchingly emotional. Factor in a fiercely intelligent lyrical touch and you have an album that transcends labels and speaks to and nourishes the soul.
LOW | Trust
Selected by Rayna Khaitan
I’m not religious, but Low is sacred to me. Well-suited to celestial reverie, their records unfold like unending waltzes through winter—slow, ceremonious, and hypnotically beautiful. In part, we have their home of Duluth, Minnesota, to thank for this glacial glory. But the spiritual allure of Low lies in the love between guitarist Alan Sparhawk and percussionist Mimi Parker. Connected by marriage, and in their Mormon faith, their vocal harmonies are perfectly transcendent.
Despite—or maybe due to—this incredible foundation, Low delve into doubt and constantly question their standing. Testament to this ongoing reflection is Trust, which is compelling in all its duality. It feels murky and unresolved, but also lush and barren. And flawless. As their sixth album in just eight years, Trust combines Low’s trademark sparseness with elements of shoegazey drone and indie pop to create a nuanced masterpiece that balances buoyant childlike bliss (at least sonically; “Last Snowstorm of the Year” is just magical) with holy despair.
MADVILLAIN | Madvillainy
Stones Throw (2004)
Selected by Jesse Ducker
The one MC with one producer collaborative albums have become a well-known staple these days, but Madvillainy was one of the first. The album showcases a partnership with the legendary MF DOOM and LA-producer extraordinaire Madlib. Both had a penchant for creating eclectic projects on their own, but the collaboration produced a strange alchemy that forged an unforgettable album.
DOOM, aka the resurrected Zev Love X of KMD fame, pushes all the right buttons lyrically on Madvillainy. His rhymes are packed with obscure cartoon and pop-culture references, and his drunken-flow somehow always seems sharp. Madlib crafts immaculate beats to complement DOOM, drawing influences from Brazilian jazz, Frank Zappa, easy listening, and ’80s R&B. The often short, single verse (two verses max) songs give the album a feel of a fever dream, but the album is by no means sloppy. On the contrary, not a hair on this entire album is out of place.
MAXWELL | Now
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Maxwell’s carefully curated mystique was a revelation when he surfaced in the nineties. The tuneful, low-key colors of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and Embrya lifted him above his peers in the crowded spaces of male R&B and neo-soul. If there was any doubt that he wouldn’t survive R&B’s shift away from throwback posturing, Now proved there was no cause for concern.
Bright and crisp, the album brims with an energy and accessibility that the singer hadn’t quite tapped up to that point and hasn’t really mined since. And that’s OK, as the beauties “For Lovers Only,” “W/As My Girl,” and the hits “Get to Know Ya” and “Lifetime” continue to reflect a certain time in both Maxwell’s artistic journey and the lives of those of us approaching the 40-year mark. A memorable piece of my young adult life.
JANELLE MONAE | The ArchAndroid
Wondaland/Atlantic/Bad Boy (2010)
Selected by Chris Lacy
Billed as “an emotion picture,” The ArchAndroid is a 70-minute, 18-track masterpiece intended to be experienced from start to finish in one sitting. R&B/pop sensation Janelle Monáe plays Cindi Mayweather, female android #57821, who falls in love with a gentleman named Anthony Greendown. Unfortunately, in the year 2719, fraternizing with humans is illegal, so the powers-that-be call for Mayweather to be apprehended and disassembled.
The genre-hopping, Kansas City native manages to acknowledge all of her musical influences—Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Prince, OutKast, and Pink Floyd to name a few—while remaining uniquely her own. The album is comprised of irresistible funk workouts (“Faster,” “Tightrope”), gorgeous balladry (“Sir Greendown”), and cinematic dream capsules (“Cold War,” “Mushrooms and Roses,” “Wondaland”). However, the most important element of The ArchAndroid is Monáe’s maturity complemented by her wildly ambitious vision. At no point does the then 24-year-old overreach or let her ego stand in the way of the music.
In closing, I’ll let Slant magazine’s Matthew Cole have the final word to echo why The ArchAndroid is one of the best albums of the 21st Century: “By all rights, this should be a star-making debut for Monáe, but it’s got all the trappings of a cult hit largely ignored by the mainstream. Because it’s so stylistically left field in terms of its sound, it’s almost impossible to imagine an audience for it.”
THE NATIONAL | Alligator
Beggars Banquet (2005)
Selected by Rayna Khaitan
An artful seducer, Alligator revealed its mischievous charms in measure, luring me into a love affair for the ages. The National’s third album was my first encounter with the NYC quintet, and its entrance coincided serendipitously with my first grown-up visit to New York itself. Where it took my brain some time to unpack Alligator’s many treasures, my draw to the city was immediate and irresistible.
While considering my move that summer, I caught myself reaching for The National nearly every night. And, randomly, throughout the day, Matt Berninger’s deep, decadent vocals would steal my focus, encircling my thoughts with fanciful images (“I wake up without warning and go flying around the house”) and intimations of characters that I hungered to meet and know.
Electrifying both brain and body, Alligator catalyzed a newfound independence in me, abetting my desire for adventure as I flung around my new home of New York. Against the limitless slinkiness of the city, Alligator careens and screams with invincibility and doubt, searches existentially, and even grapples with more quotidian concerns like career goals.
Eleven years after Alligator’s release, “I [still] try to untie Manhattan” and cling to both opuses adoringly.
OUTKAST | Stankonia
Selected by Matt Koelling
Don’t everybody like the taste of gasoline?!?
Well burn motherfucker, burn American dreams!
These are the opening words of Andre Benjamin, from this moment forward to be known as André 3000, over the opening chonkyfirey, funkadelic-ized guitar drenching the first song of Stankonia.
Were these words timely in Fall 2000?
Or were they instead eerily prophetic?
If only those lines didn’t, 16 years later, sound apropos and even more so.
This was before 9/11 or the retroactively cuddly innocence of the Dubya era.
If only this wasn’t the last album that the legendary ATLiens known as OutKast were to record together as a group, in the studio that bears this album’s name.
Remember where you were the first time you heard “Bombs Over Baghdad”?
If you don’t, try it again and see if you can chase that high like it was the first time.
Who needs a Bible while under the church tent of a power music electric revival?
For the fourth straight time since OutKast began, the bar had been raised.
Was it as consistently great as Aquemini, one of the greatest albums of any genre, released just two years earlier?
Not exactly, though between “B.O.B.,” “So Fresh, So Clean,” and “Ms. Jackson,” it had one more monster single than their prior two classic albums did put together.
Sure, a few of its genre-excursions at times seemed then to exceed its star-swiping grasp, while at 75 minutes it did at the time feel slightly bloated.
Yet when heard with today’s ears, you’d be fine if its running time was 75 years.
This turned out to be the swan song of a truly unified OutKast.
How were we to know that the towers would soon fall, or that the group would go on to release a diamond-selling pair of solo LPs sold as a group double-album?
Who amongst us, including André himself and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, knew that “Spaghetti Junction” would become their last true tag-team killer album cut?
How does this album still feel like some funky dystopian interstellar future, nearly two full decades after its release?
All aboard the Underground Smellroad.
Take a trip thru the mind to an earlier time, all while knowing that compared to these partners-in-rhyme, the rest of us remain 984 years behind.
Proceed to: PART 5