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.
OUTKAST | Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
Always more than the sum of their parts and ever eager to push boundaries for a rap group, OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” still astonished in its scope, style and brilliance when it arrived in 2003. Confounding listeners with its dual album status, it seemed to indicate a seismic split in the group that had the potential to lessen the impact of their combined talents.
What emerged though, were two albums that allowed both parties to shine, experiment and grow, rather than shrink under the weight of expectation. OutKast’s music had always sounded like Prince, had he been born 20 years later under the hip-hop flag, but here André 3000’s The Love Below radiates an even more pronounced purple hue. Funky, daring and dazzlingly ambitious it gave us the pop perfection of “Hey Ya,” the scratchy Camille funk of “She Lives In My Lap,” and the bold, beautiful direction change of “Pink & Blue.”
Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx on the other hand gives us the hyperactively schizophrenic “Ghetto Musick”, the thundering P-Funk groove “The Rooster” and the always relevant “War” complete with its dynamite “Basically, America you got fucked” refrain. Was this the beginning of the end for OutKast? Maybe it was, but what a peak to have scaled.
OVER THE RHINE | Ohio
Back Porch (2003)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
As I’ve written about recently, my affection for Over the Rhine, the dynamic husband-wife duo of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, is unconditional and eternal. So much so that I had one helluva tough time selecting which of their many exquisitely crafted albums to feature here in this “Finest of the 21st Century” feature. 2005’s Drunkard’s Prayer and 2011’s The Long Surrender pose stiff competition, but alas, I ultimately opted for Ohio, the group’s mesmerizing reverie of a seventh studio album released in 2003.
A double album that pulls off the rare trick (and treat) of containing nary a throwaway song, Ohio offers sophisticated songcraft of the highest, most life-enriching caliber. As with all of Over the Rhine’s long players, standout songs are found in abundance here, though “Suitcase,” “Professional Daydreamer,” “Jesus in New Orleans,” “How Long Have You Been Stoned,” and “Bothered” (a more polished take on the stripped-down version that appeared on the group’s 1997 Besides compilation) are the handful of songs my ears typically gravitate toward.
The piano-driven title track is one of the most gorgeous compositions you’ll ever hear, with the heavenly-voiced Bergquist affirming her devotion to her stomping grounds, when she reflects, “Hello Ohio / The back roads / I know Ohio / Like the back of my hand / Alone Ohio / Where the river bends.”
“The songs on Ohio connect us to the piece of earth we call home….This music was made with an ear to the ground we walk on everyday,” Detweiler eloquently explains in the album’s liner notes. “We live on this ground, and we will be buried in this dirt. We love the roads that take us far from this place, but those same roads have a way of bringing us back home in the end.” A lovely sentiment for an undeniably lovely album. Now if I could only track down a vinyl copy, my life would be complete.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE | Songs for the Deaf
Selected by Brian Grosz
This was the first album I had ever heard from a band who deafened me at live shows for years whilst whirling through improvisations. As a musician and a music fan, I was always happy that their live show never sounded like the record—otherwise I would have just stayed home and listened to the album.
As a musician with two handfuls of albums under my belt, I know what it’s like to spend half a year writing an album, half a year recording it, and then you NEVER WANT TO HEAR IT AGAIN. But frontman Josh Homme has always made sure that things were different by essentially choosing different personnel for all of the QoTSA records—and this album was no different. Josh and Nick, sure—mainstays for the most part. But Mark Lanegan, Dave “nicest guy in rock” Grohl, Alain and Natasha from Eleven, Dave Catching and Chris Goss from Masters of Reality… I could keep listing off the liner notes, but Homme apparently has the rolodex to get a shit-load of awesome musicians in the same place to make great music (see also: Desert Sessions).
Though the album swings from blistering, to brutal, to beautiful, what I find fascinating about it is the “concept.” While I hate “skits” on rap records, each song here is prefaced with a brief spoken/montage intro. Homme claimed that he wanted to make it sound like his drive from Joshua Tree to Los Angeles while spinning the radio dial, which works brilliantly because you never know who is going to be on lead vocals for any given track.
If you don’t own it already, quit fucking about and buy it. In fact, buy all of their albums.
RAPHAEL SAADIQ | The Way I See It
Selected by Christopher A. Daniel
Singer, songwriter, musician, producer and composer Raphael Saadiq is a significant talent because of his ability to demonstrate musical appreciation in everything he does. Eight years before he collaborated with Solange on this year’s chart-topping A Seat at the Table and contributed music to Marvel’s Luke Cage and WGN America’s Underground, the Oakland-born former member of ‘90s R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! clearly dusted off his record collection. He stepped back into the ages of the Motown Sound (“Sure Hope You Mean It”), Stax (“100 Yard Dash”), Muscle Shoals and Philadelphia Soul (“Oh Girl” featuring Jay Z, “Just One Kiss” featuring Joss Stone) to create his third solo effort (and major label solo debut), The Way I See It.
Layered over Saadiq’s delectable homage to classic soul and previous eras of black musicianship are contemporary themes and subject matter given subtle treatments. The former Lucy Pearl member addresses loss via Hurricane Katrina (the Cajun-flavored “Big Easy”). There’s a call for perseverance on the Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions-like “Keep Marchin.’” Of course, he explores the dynamics of love and relationships (“Let’s Take a Walk,” the Stevie Wonder-featured “Never Give You Up,” “Love That Girl”).
Nominated for multiple Grammys and ranking on various critics’ end-of-year picks, The Way I See It saw Saadiq solidify his status as one of the most hard-working artists on wax and behind the console.
JILL SCOTT | Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1
Hidden Beach (2000)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
As I’ve frequently written about here in Albumism’s pages before, my recollections of time and place are always inextricably connected to the music I was consumed with whenever and wherever I happened to be. My memories of my first few months in Brooklyn after moving here from Los Angeles in the summer of 2000 are no exception to the rule. I can immediately pinpoint three albums in particular that functioned as my most intimate musical companions during that transformative period of my early adulthood. Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Coldplay’s Parachutes, and Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1.
In fact, the latter was the first album I ever bought in New York, the day after I arrived in my new city. So among the three aforementioned albums, Scott’s debut LP is the one I most closely associate with my introduction to the Big Apple and my newfound feelings of rejuvenation and redemption upon making a new home there.
One of the most balanced and engaging R&B albums you’ll ever hear, Scott’s dazzling debut is both a cerebral and visceral affair that simultaneously strokes the intellect, stirs the emotions, stimulates the body, and caresses the soul. As she once confided to Vibe, “It’s music. It’s writing. It’s experiences. It’s vulnerability. It’s honesty. It’s being a woman—an African-American woman. Being a daughter and a sister, and a grandchild, and a godmother. It’s life. It’s deeper than what I know. It’s bigger than what I can see. I guess it’s a dive into the human spirit.” And in the case of Scott, her spirit is bold, bright, and quite simply, beautiful.
The album title itself suggests the ongoing formation of an identity, and throughout the LP’s 19 tracks, the listener does gain quite a bit of insight into the album’s creator. Though one also gets the sense that the keenly self-aware Scott is always seeking to define and refine who she is. A perpetual work-in progress, in other words.
From the moment I first heard Who is Jill Scott? in all of its seductive, soulful splendor, I was instantly converted into a devoted champion of its charismatic creator. In Jill Scott I trust, then, now, and always.
SIGUR ROS | Takk…
Selected by Rayna Khaitan
Even as an introvert, I’d say it’s possible to spend too much time alone. One gray afternoon, I stood on a deserted pier off the San Francisco Bay, re-immersing myself into society after a four-day fugue fueled by working from home. Immured by soulless calls and instant messages, I had all but lost contact with humanity—and my true being.
Walking back into the world was awkward. My exchanges with the corner-store cashier and tourist passerby were beyond stilted. Embarrassed, I bolted up the Embarcadero and attempted refuge in Sigur Rós’ “Gong,” a crescendoing track that, like most of Takk, clenches the heart and erupts in ever-building levels of empyrean beauty.
Palming my iPod, I let my mind drift, soar, and restore. I then caught myself suddenly, and peered down at the screen. It was blank. “Gong” wasn’t on. The device was locked. Bewildered, I slipped off my headphones. But the music played on. I searched for the source before arriving at the stunning conclusion: The music was all in my head.
This is the magic of Takk. Symphonic and sublime, this album encapsulates the rapturous purity of Sigur Rós’ home country of Iceland, awakening connections within, and all around.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE | The 20/20 Experience
Selected by Chris Lacy
With the world eagerly anticipating what a Justin Timberlake album would sound like seven years after FutureSex/LoveSounds, his grand musical return proved to be as remarkable as expected. His November 2012 marriage to actress Jessica Biel has made him more romantic than ever, with several of the best ballads he’s ever sung (“Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Spaceship Coupe,” “That Girl”) plus the smile-inducing “Mirrors.”
Vocally, Timberlake’s at his peak here, musically he’s overflowing with ideas, and the genre-blurring is more focused than usual. The smash hit “Suit and Tie” switches effortlessly from Motown swing to slow-drawl hip-hop. The bursting-with-life samba of “Let the Groove Get In” packs a serious punch. “Blue Ocean Floor” brings this 10-song, 70-minute LP to a fitting conclusion, drawing inspiration from Radiohead.
Although The 20/20 Experience, Pt. 1 didn’t match the Diamond-certified sales of FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006) or Justified (2002), you’ve got to give it up for anybody who can make a seemingly effortless comeback like this, and sell 6 million copies in the process.
USHER | 8701
Selected by Christopher A. Daniel
It’s one thing to deliver on a rather mature yet suggestive 1994 self-titled debut LP followed by a multimillion-selling sophomore effort, My Way (1997). But for Usher Raymond IV, 8701 is to the Atlanta-based performer what 1999 is to Prince or what Off the Wall is to Michael Jackson: a magnificent collection of music that signals a well-rounded talent on the brink of becoming a forerunning superstar in his own right.
8701’s title is an amalgamation of the multi-faceted entertainer’s first time singing before an audience (1987) and the year the mononym-blessed artist released his third album. The full set features a well-sequenced collection with production contributed by Mike City, Pharrell Williams, She’kespere, Soulshock & Karlin and Babyface. In the process, 8701 delivers some impressive, memorable R&B/pop staples: chart-toppers like the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced “U Remind Me,” “U Got it Bad” courtesy of Jermaine Dupri and the Top Five, Neptunes-produced “U Don’t Have to Call.”
8701 would certify quadruple platinum, selling over four million copies in the U.S. (eight million worldwide) and earn Usher his first pair of Grammys. Three years later, Confessions would become the project that sends Usher into a different musical stratosphere.
USHER | Confessions
Selected by Chris Lacy
Usher’s My Way (1997) and 8701 (2001) projects impressed critics and resulted in a string of memorable R&B hits. However, mainstream appeal remained elusive, due in large part to his teeny-bopper image at the time. Usher didn’t tone it down on Confessions. In fact, he took everything he did previously and amplified it into grown-man territory.
The iconic crunk anthem “Yeah!” the page-turning drama of “Confessions, Pt. 2,” and the Jermaine Dupri-produced ballads (“Burn” and “My Boo” featuring Alicia Keys) all shared the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts at various points in 2004. As a result, “Caught Up” peaked No. 8 on the charts, and it may be the hardest funking thing on Confessions. There are several noteworthy album cuts: “Superstar” harks back to the smooth glories of Stevie Wonder circa 1980, the swaggering “Bad Girl” contains a wicked guitar riff, and the bass-propelled groove of “Take Your Hand” proudly roots itself in ‘70s soul.
Balancing sexy storytelling with introspective expression, Confessions stands firmly as one of the most influential and successful albums of the 2000s. Not only did it sell 20 million copies globally, but it also brought Usher new levels of success that arguably rivaled Michael Jackson in his ‘80s heyday.
THE WHITE STRIPES | Elephant
Selected by Matt Koelling
Elephant wasn’t the beginning of the White Stripes. They had started harnessing the power of their trademark two-piece blues-punk-garage fusion by 2000’s De Stijl. Commercial appeal came in the form of a Michael Gondry-directed Lego animation video for “Fell In Love With A Girl” off White Blood Cells a year after that. It was Elephant, however, that the group used as a springboard to solidify themselves as the bellwether band of the early 2000’s garage-rock-revival that brought us The Strokes, The Hives, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and eventually The Black Keys.
We knew Jack White and his sister or wife or whatever, drummer Meg White, were on it with Elephant. What we would find out later as Jack formed two other bands (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) while the White Stripes were still active, while also producing records for artists as wide ranging as The Von Blondies and Loretta Lynn, was that Jack and his sister/wife/musical-partner Meg would never be this locked in again. There would also never again be a mainstream movement in rock music that mattered or held up against this era or the “grunge” era, let alone penetrating the all-time rockist canon.
But even if they never released a record after this collectively or separately, Elephant stamped Jack and The Stripes’ induction for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2024. While the power of the leadoff track “Seven Nation Army” will continue to give Queen a run for their stadium chanting money for decades to come.
For this singular album and perhaps no other, Jack harnesses his music-geek affinity for genre-bending into a singularly great cohesive whole. There’s not a skip worthy track included amongst the fourteen songs on it. Even stuff that seems like it shouldn’t work, like Meg singing lead on “Cold Cold Night” or Jack taking on a Burt Bacharach number, come up aces here. “The Hardest Button To Button”, while too obtuse to turn into a soccer hooligan anthem, might go even harder than “Seven Nation Army” does. Jack’s fuzzy blues blowout “Ball & Biscuit” sounds like a more authentically raw blues number then anything British Invasion appropriates like Eric Clapton has put out in 40 years, or for that matter anything Gary Clark Jr. or John Mayer get praised for playing today.
Jack has gone on to have an impressive, chameleon-like career while Meg has seemingly stepped away from public life. He found his way into films with Jimmy Page and even the final album produced by A Tribe Called Quest. But in large part due to the impact and quality of Elephant, history will first and foremost remember him as the leader of The White Stripes.