Popular music has seen a fractal explosion of evolution since the turn of the century. While all art forms shift and grow on their own accord, the new renaissance of artistic expression from the last 15 years has been buoyed by the juxtaposition of our pre-millennial dreams of flying cars and unlimited opportunity in the digital era, with the post-9/11 hyperawareness and inextricable hive-mind immersion through the rise of smartphones and social media.
In other words, we’ve adopted a new, nearly forensic critical analysis of music and its relevance in the cultural zeitgeist. Inspired by the paranoia, neurosis and instant gratification, the very first internet-connected generation in human history is reflected through a wild burst of innovation and expression. Below, we recount ten of the most unforgettable and influential albums of the 21st century thus far – records that have served as milestones and soul-blooming source codes for both fans and future artists alike.
Top 10 Music Albums Of 2015
Kid A - Radiohead (2000)
At the precipice of the new century, Radiohead delivered a small taste of the digital revolution we’d envisioned the 21st century being like when we were children, but never saw materialize. From the very first moments of
Everything In Its Right Place, the sounds of ethereal, melancholy electronica wash in like a digital flood, painting an entirely new picture from the biggest band in the world and completely reshaping the landscape of modern alternative music in the process.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West (2010)
Kanye West returns to the full-length two years after the release of the cold-beat pity party
808s & Heartbreak, and there’s a maniacally inspired ambition to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (formerly Good Ass Job) that immediately sets it apart from not only the entirety of his previous catalogue but the current climate of Hip-Hop as a whole. Every boast we’ve heard, every ridiculous claim we’ve seen is rendered somehow, some way, justified, if only for the duration of the album’s 68 minutes.
Naturally, once the music ends the hyperbole remains, and on its own all of that still looks pretty silly. But for all the egomaniacal dementia, there’s substance of genre-eliminating grandeur that scoffs at the notion of minimality for safety’s sake or even the remotest hint of mediocrity. The robot lovesickness of 808s & Heartbreak is firmly in the rearview, in its place a maximized & star-studded rewriting of the artistic rulebook of pop culture – or at least Kanye’s vision of it.
After all the meltdowns and dagger volleys, Kanye has turned his creativity towards examining the darker, more sonically aggressive shades of his musical persona. He further embraces his tabloid celebrity while insisting on proper definition and, alternately, expressing a greater sense of confusion and ambivalence about the role of women in his life than ever before. This is, after all, a man whose infamous meltdowns and revivals have occurred on an unprecedented scale since the demise of his mother – but now he’s embracing the caricature and furthering it, morphing it to his own will and redefining it – or at least rounding off the edges with a blizzard of creative activity.
Songs For The Deaf - Queens Of The Stone Age (2002)
It’s an extremely rare occurrence that one album will completely vaporize your concept of cool. This goliathan rhythmic melting-pot is the Rock equivalent of a trip out to the desert under a full moon with a lot of firepower, high-powered narcotics, great friends and a muscle car with a big-ass engine. It’s equal parts danger, mystery, fun and a mindblowing collection of talent providing a massive dose of steroids to the Queens sound. The result was something we’d been waiting for, whether we knew it or not; that first sign of a next evolutionary step in Rock music, like the
Appetites and Neverminds that came before it.
Dave Grohl made his first high-profile return to the drums here since the shotgun demise of Nirvana, providing the core piston charge in the engine that roars to life in the record’s first moments and sets the relentless pace of the entire album. He’s the determined rhythmic core, matching both raw power and the rooster strut so integral to the Sounds of Homme. Mark Lanegan, lone-wolf man of many projects, contributes his whiskey-soaked, gravel-rubbed throat to the proceedings, a haunting and hypnotically smooth low-end weaving seamlessly with Josh Homme’s familiar tenor. Coupled with former bassist Nick Oliveri’s final shreiking spaz-freak appearance on record with Queens,
Songs For The Deaf is that rare moment when the stars align and everything fits perfectly into place, creating a new standard.
Stankonia - OutKast (2000)
A permed André 3000 was the jester savant in this new world of electrified hyper gospel, cornering the radio market with the inescapably awesome rush of "B.O.B.," as well as "Ms. Jackson" and "So Fresh, So Clean". In doing so, Big Boi and André kicked down the walls of standard in hip hop and redefined the party album.
Elephant - The White Stripes (2003)
Jack White made me believe in the surviving soul of Rock N’ Roll, and
Elephant was the catalyst. Darker, more aggressive and focused than its three predecessors, Elephant eliminated the concept that the White Stripes were a gimmick act in candy cane colors, and exposed the broader scope of White’s creative vision and vehement rejection of modern Rock trends, even (or especially) in the face of inevitable superstardom.
The band played Coachella three weeks after the album was released, and Jack’s furious passion, mixed with an entirely unique minimalist style and staggering improvisational ability, resulted in an utterly devastating set that quite literally eliminated everything I thought I knew about a man expressing himself through a guitar, amp and microphone. The electricity of certainty that Jack had hit an unstoppable stride was thick in the air, and
Elephant is the reason. It’s the sound of a legend coming into full bloom.
Discovery - Daft Punk (2001)
Has a better dance record been released in our lifetime? Enormous beats, blinding lights and sharp flavor set the tone for more than just the EDM tidal wave that would follow, but borderless hip hop as well, and almost singlehandedly made dance music cool again.
The Black Album - Jay-Z (2003)
An instant rap classic,
The Black Album was supposedly Jay’s big kiss-off, a pre-retirement overdose of smash hooks by a melting pot of producers from the Neptunes to Rick Rubin. It was the first rap album white people could blast from their cars un-self-consciously since Stankonia, and several singles infiltrated mainstream radio markets as a result. Without getting caught up in beefs or top-heavy Blueprint expectations, The Black Album was a sleek, powerfully confident album that was easy to digest, but not because it dumbed down to the mainstream; the songs were just that good, the hooks were that infectious.
Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures (2009)
Our #1 album pick for 2009 is an undeniable classic right out of the gate.
As I said before, this one is special – a very rare melding of classic, psychedelic blues-rock authenticity and passionate groove-junkie sorcery. It’s not safe, it’s not slight, and the riff and tempo changes demand constant engagement. Trap doors are a vital component to the songs, with the sweet spots setting in unannounced as the poly-rhythms shift, the clouds part and a motherfucker of a riff suddenly lifts off, taking you in entirely unexpected and adrenaline-surging directions.
Binaural - Pearl Jam (2000)
The delicate, introspective beauty of 1998’s
Yield was traded for a driving return to motivated purpose and statement on Binaural, whether through sardonic apologies to imperialistic invaders, tales of impending heartbreak and lost loved ones or any of the other narrative themes explored on this complex, confident album. Buoyed by the stomping force of Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, invigorated survivalism is the main course on this 13-track banquet.
The Hazards Of Love - The Decemberists (2009)
An epic concept album that’s arguably the most committed – and best – since Pink Floyd’s
The Wall, The Hazards Of Love offers a complex narrative featuring formidable guest vocalists playing parts including a jealous forest queen, a malicious shape shifter, a child-killing rogue, and two ill-fated lovers. It’s grand, visionary and bursting with vibrant color.