[Editor’s Note: My Top 21 of the 21st (So Far…) is a retrospective feature where our writers were invited to write a list of top 21 favorite songs, albums or anything else music-related, of the new millennium, explaining why it was picked, or what particular significance it has had over the past ten years. (There is an ongoing debate on whether or not 2000 A.D. counts as part this millennium. For sake of argument, we’re going to go ahead and count it. Hey, a lot of good music came out that year, anyway, so suck it up, and enjoy the feature.)]
It’s nutty. This was the first decade where I was an adult through the entire thing, thus it’s the first decade where I’ve really been able to have an opinion about the “best of the decade” topics. It’s a weird feeling; it’s excitement coupled with obligation.
There were so many albums that having to winnow it down to just over twenty of my favorites was difficult. I literally obsessed over this list.
Anyway, here it is. And as I always do, it’s in alphabetical order.
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
Rare is the album that lives up to universal acclaim, but Back to Black manages it. Winehouse’s voice coupled with the production of Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson create an album that feels both new and vintage. There’s just something about her cooing profanity that works. Perhaps it’s the forthright nature of the album that makes it so charming. It feels like a phone call set to music and it’s definitely one of those calls that makes you mourn its end.
Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
This may be Jay-Z’s masterpiece, but he didn’t do it alone. Without Kanye West and Just Blaze’s production this album wouldn’t have had nearly the impact. Jay’s intricate rhymes over soulful beats equaled an album that is as close to perfection as Hip-Hop gets. The content and tone were easily the product of Jay’s mental state—at the time he was facing criminal assault charges and his beef with Nas was reaching its apex. His lyrics are biting and funny, sharp and engaging. The Blueprint is Jay-Z’s argument for G.O.A.T., and it’s a strong one.
Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030 (2000)
Underground legend Del tha Funkee Homosapien finally fulfills his potential with this album. This collaborative effort between Del and Dan the Automator showcases Del’s imagination and storytelling abilities and Dan’s propensity for being an excellent wingman. Del’s future is almost typically dystopian, but it really comes to life on the album. You believe that Del’s battling technology and the powers that be. And Automator’s beats are strong enough that the instrumental version stands as a classic in its own right.
TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004)
Cacophony never sounded so reassuring. On their debut album, TV on the Radio border on dissonance yet create an album that actually pays dividends to the attentive listener, it’s both challenging and rewarding. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are like a bizarro version of Hall & Oates, harmonizing on songs that won’t fully be appreciated for years, while Dave Sitek might be the second coming of Rick Rubin. Seriously, it’s amazing how well this album comes together.
Daft Punk – Discovery (2001)
Listening to Discovery is like traveling to a parallel universe where disco not only never died, but is still a vibrant musical genre. It’s also easily one of the most pleasant house albums to listen to. Daft Punk used all the cool in their cache to create an album that doubled as the soundtrack to an anime flick, and they ended up with an album that’s still a joyous spin to this day. There’s a purity to the songs on Discovery that transcend genre and speak strictly to the inherent sense of that which defines “good” within everyone.
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (2005)
It’s hard to distinguish Extraordinary Machine from its mythical journey. Still, after all of the news stories and internet leaks, the finished product stands as a stellar album. The departure of Jon Brion actually adds a freshness to Extraordinary Machine—’s a Fiona Apple album, only with outside influences and hired help. “Get Him Back” thumps and “Red, Red, Red” is bulging with lament. The only negative for the album is that it makes you wonder where Apple has vanished to.
Slum Village – Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000)
This was Jay Dee’s coming-out party. Fantastic Vol 2 lingered in limbo for two years due to label woes, all the while gaining famous proponents. When it finally saw the light of day it was a breath of fresh air at the dawn of the millennium. It’s lighthearted and humorous. C’mon, when was the last time you heard a song about a proposed threesome that sounded less like a lecherous come on and more like a harmless proposition? Fantastic, Vol. 2 has beats that knock. And it’s a group where the group members actually had chemistry. Sadly two of the original three members of Slum Village have since passed on, which really only adds to the legend of this album.
The Roots – Game Theory (2006)
It’s amazing, but on their seventh studio release, The Roots produced their best album. Clocking in at under an hour, Game Theory is a thrilling ride through the psyche of America circa the middle of the decade. This is a political album, and as such, The Roots seemingly channel Public Enemy (whom they also interpolate into the album.) Game Theory is an album of righteous fury and frustration. Yet, it’s still an album full of beats that demand head nodding. Malik B returns and Dilla is mourned. For all of the grief that the country suffered through with eight years of G-Dub, including the Patriot Act, Game Theory almost makes it worth it.
De La Soul – The Grind Date (2004)
The Grind Date is a De La Soul anomaly; it has no skits, no goofing off and few guests. It’s also De La’s best album of the decade, and that’s counting the extremely strong AOI series. The Grind Date derives its strength from the complete and utter lack of filler. No songs need to be skipped and every bar is relevant. Here De La Soul is like the Al Gore of hip-hop; they point out what’s happening, why it’s wrong and do their best to correct it.
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (2000)
This was the album of the decade. It’s a weird hodgepodge of musical influences and instruments that could only be found on a debut album. There’s also an innocence on Hour of the Bewilderbeast that’s refreshing. It’s almost as though Badly Drawn Boy didn’t know that albums weren’t supposed to sound like this; like he didn’t know the rules. It sounds like nothing else. It’s whimsical and fun and bounces from track to track, yet it also has pangs of lament and the occasional haunting tune. Badly Drawn Boy hasn’t made another album that’s come close to this career high point, which is both sad and a testament to how great this album is.
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)
This album is an adventure and almost an exercise in escapism. Stevens transports the listener to Illinois, which almost becomes mythical. He explores folklore and infamy with equal detail. The characters that he creates are just a real as the characters that he profiles. And it all happens over a lush backdrop of pop symphonies that never feels overdone.
Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
Kid A is as infamous as it is famous. It’s a genre-bending album that, even today, is still as murky in meaning as the day it was released. Yet even in Radiohead’s most prolific decade, Kid A impresses. The risks that were taken equal the accomplishment achieved, and those risks were extreme and uncalculated. Kid A seeming channeled the dread of a populace for whom the year 2000 wasn’t a mythical future, but a matter-of-fact present. It’s spooky and beautiful and occasionally rocks.
Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)
Late Registration proved that Kanye West wasn’t a fluke. After all of his antics and hype, Kanye West turned around and backed up all of his arrogance. Late Registration is an accomplishment because it actually exceeds the astronomical expectations that everyone had Kanye’s sophomore effort. Kanye tackles blood diamonds, political topics and materialistic women without missing a beat. He manages an appearance by Nas, when Nas was still beefing with Jay-Z. Perhaps most amazingly he keeps with the college motif established on his debut. Of course Jon Brion deserves a ton of credit for co-producing Kanye’s best-sounding and most fully realized album.
Little Brother – The Listening (2003)
At a time when hip-hop was arguably at its most stagnant, Little Brother released a classic. A throwback to a the sound of the early 1990s The Listening provided a glimmer of hope that perhaps hip-hop was cyclical. Ultimately it wasn’t, but this album, which referenced Rain Man and EPMD with equal regard, still bucked the trend of making music about materialism. Everything that Kanye West’s The College Dropout got acclaim for doing, the return of sampling, the new perspective and unique voice, The Listening did too. And it did it a year earlier on an indie budget.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Madvillainy sounded like The Beatnuts on acid, which turned out to be a great thing. How revolutionary is an album that has no commercial aspirations? Only one song hits the four-minute mark. Calling the rhymes esoteric is putting it nicely. Still Madvllainy is an example of the decade’s best trend in hip-hop—the collaborative album. Madlib and MF Doom played well together while staying true to themselves and their fanbases. They also created an underground classic that continues to bubble up toward the mainstream consciousness.
Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun (2000)
R&B has taken a couple of decades off, but one of the few bright spots has been Erykah Badu. Mama’s Gun is an example of an artist truly finding her voice. On Mama’s Gun, women are strong and vulnerable. They’re imperfect yet powerful. Badu provides a counterpoint to oversexed R&B video chick; that of a wise and feminine woman who knows her power. She’s self-deprecating to show her humanity and that humanity is what makes Mama’s Gun stand out.
Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)
As Sam Beam exemplifies on The Shepherd’s Dog, growth can be a good thing. Which isn’t to say that Iron & Wine’s previous albums weren’t great, but the sonic layers that Beam added on The Shepherd’s Dog are what make the album great. He maintains hushed whisper delivery while still cranking things up to “11” (ok, so it’s actually “7”). His songwriting remains as sharp as ever, but his compositions grew exponentially. Seriously, anyone who doesn’t love “Boy with a Coin” is either dead or deaf.
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)
Silent Alarm is a thrilling album that bustles with the energy of youth. While stateside indie rockers were whiney, indifferent or into glam, across the pond Bloc Party sounded angry and scared enough to change the world. There are few things as powerful as Kele Okereke’s voice; you can feel his anger and frustration in “Like Eating Glass” and his raw vulnerability in “Blue Light”. In a better world, Bloc Party would have provided the soundtrack to the youth rebellion that should have happened during Bush’s second term.
The Avalanches – Since I Left You (2000)
Since I Left You is a masterpiece of piecemeal. Remember before stereos were digital and you had to use a knob to tune to a radio station? Since I Left You sounds like someone spinning that knob back and forth. But in a good way. The album contains over 3500 samples, yet feels intricately put-together. This album is an album that you can listen to while clutching your headphones to dissect every track. It’s also an album you can have on as background music when you host a gathering. You can literally lose yourself for an hour in this album.
Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Interpol made mope seem cool and almost fun. Despite being derivative, Turn on the Bright Lights felt refreshing. Sure, more often than not the lyrics could be nonsensical, but it wasn’t about coherency, it was about the evocative nature of the music. Turn on the Bright Lights made you want to be a New York hipster and wear a suit with a skinny tie.
D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
This album is so great that its lack of connection to an audience caused D’Angelo to withdraw from public life. People who expected a sequel to Brown Sugar were disappointed. But people who accepted that D’Angelo was a growing artist coming into his own were overjoyed by Voodoo. With songs much more freeflowing and looser in structure, Voodoo felt like an album from an artist who was finding his voice. Voodoo should have been the blueprint for a genre devoid of creativity instead of being remembered for the naked video of a song that’s far from the album’s strongest.