Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 21 albums of the 21st Century

There were a lot of great albums released in the 2000’s. MSN.com recently did their list of the 21 albums of the 21st century. I thought it was a good idea for a post, so I began compiling my own list. There were a lot of artists that deserve a place on the list that didn’t release an album that I thought was cohesive enough, or that I only loved part of (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janelle Monae, Kings of Leon, Regina Spektor, OutKast, Justin Nozuka, The Roots, and many others fall into this category), and yet my shortlist was about 50 albums or so. I know I’ll likely not have whatever your favorite album was, and I’ve probably forgotten albums that I love as well, but feel free to tell me what you think I’m missing. Some artists that people go nuts for (The White Stripes, Radiohead) will not appear on my list because I’m not a fan, and I don’t claim to be an expert who has heard every album released in the 2000’s, but here we go with my list, chronologically:

D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
The definitive groove record of the 2000’s, no neo-soul artist ever really put together an album so thoroughly enjoyable as Voodoo. Front to back, every song grooves like nobody’s business and there’s no let down. Even the great Lauryn Hill couldn’t match D’Angelo’s masterwork. Now where the hell is the follow up?

Sleater-Kinney – All Hands on the Bad One (2000)
Corin Tucker's voice is one of the great instruments in all of rock music, and when combined with Sleater-Kinney’s best group of melodies and pop hooks, combined with the intricate guitar interplay between Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and the group always infectious punk energy, you have one of the best albums of the 2000’s.

Tenacious D – Tenacious D (2001)
The best comedy album of the decade also has some good music on it. If it was just about laughs, I probably wouldn’t have listened to this so many times over the last 11 years. Kyle Gass is a damn fine guitar player, and Jack Black has an amazingly elastic singing voice. Add the great Dave Grohl behind the drum kit, and it’s a recipe for success.

Corey Harris – Downhome Sophisticate (2002)
Corey Harris is a kind of black music chameleon. He’s released reggae albums, blues albums, and even Mississippi to Mali where he played blues songs with African instrumentation and influence. Downhome Sophisticate (one of my favorite album titles too!) is the best meshing of all his fascinations. There’s a little hip-hop, some blues and rock, and even some Calypso and Zydeco flavored songs. A roots music buffet from one of our great stylists.

Counting Crows – Hard Candy (2002)
Not my favorite album from Counting Crows (that’s 1999’s This Desert Life), but Hard Candy is one of the best pop-rock records I’ve heard. Adam Duritz has an odd way with melody and lyric combos, and this one is no different. I was a little cold to it at first, but it grows in my estimation every time I listen to it.

Ben Harper – Diamonds on the Inside (2003)
As close as Ben will probably ever get to a masterwork, Diamonds on the Inside is another entry that has a lot of influences. There’s gospel, country rock, reggae, and on the climactic song “Picture of Jesus” the presence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo behind Ben’s impassioned lead vocal. It would be among my picks for favorite song of the 2000’s, and the album as a whole, with only a couple of missteps, has to be on this list.

Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
No Waits record is perfect, but every one has something brilliant on it. Real Gone is no different, and Waits adds some politics to the mix in the great “Day After Tomorrow”. His gruff voice and odd music has become an inimitable style all his own, and his ability to create characters and atmospheres with a synergy of his lyrics and his music is unsurpassed. Real Gone may not be his best release, but it’s not far behind.

Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (2005)
I actually prefer Fiona's second album, When the Pawn..., but that came out in '99 and doesn't qualify for the list. After the Jon Brion produced original songs were scrapped (actually all but two), I was worried that Fiona might scrap the whole album. But she went back into the studio to re-work the songs, and actually made them better. I just wish she didn't take so damn long between releases.

David Gray – Life in Slow Motion (2005)
It’s maybe the best rainy day record of the 2000’s, but Life in Slow Motion doesn’t get a lot of love. Some write off Gray’s work as bland, which I’ve always felt his voice makes impossible no matter what the song is. Others didn’t pay attention to it because it didn’t have “Babylon” “This Year’s Love” or a similar hit. But it’s one that I often turn on when the clouds show up, and I think it’s a terrific album from one of the best singer/songwriters around.

Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam (2006)
My pick as the best album of the 2000’s, Pearl Jam has a punk rock energy that none of their other releases have (Eddie Vedder has said the album was inspired by the late Johnny Ramone). It also has the requisite politics, love songs, and angst that all of their albums have, only it’s better. The relentless rock of the first half of the album segues eventually into the emotional final two songs, “Come Back” being maybe my pick as their best song.

Ray LaMontagne – Till the Sun Turns Black (2006)
What actually would be my pick as the best rainy day album of the 00’s, Ray LaMontagne’s second record unfolds with organically used strings and horns, while also letting Ray’s raspy voice take us on the journey of the album. It’s a true album, playing better as a whole than as an individual collection of songs, which I always appreciate.

Ben Kweller – Ben Kweller (2006)
Simply the best pure pop/rock album of the decade. Actually, probably my favorite pop/rock album that doesn't have the name The Beatles on it. My brother had made friends with Ben’s former drummer, so when this one came out and it was Ben playing all of the instruments, there was a certain part of us that wanted it to not be as good as his first two albums. But it was, it was way, way better, and now I’m happy about that.

Derek Trucks Band – Songlines (2006)
Derek Trucks is, at worst, the third best guitarist alive. His skills have been otherworldly since he was just a teenager, but with Songlines, he finally molded his world music-via-Duane Allman sound into something more palatable to the rock world. Singer Mike Mattison makes a nice addition to the group, but make no mistake, this is Derek's show and he doesn't disappoint.

John Mayer – Continuum (2006)
Most people know the lead-off song “Waiting on the World to Change”, which I thought was a remarkable political statement for a pop star of Mayer’s stature, but not everyone knows the genius of the album as a whole, including the signature Mayer song “Gravity”. It’s Mayer’s guitar playing (the guy does need to cut loose more, though, he can play his ass off), and much more mature songwriting that really elevate Continuum into the realm of “best of the decade”. Even he has said he’ll probably never better this record.

The Flaming Lips – At War with the Mystics (2006)
Ah, The Flaming Lips. Eccentric geniuses of my home state of Oklahoma. Although 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is their masterpiece, At War with the Mystics has “Mr. Ambulance Driver” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” probably their two best individual songs. Like all of their albums, it plays best as a whole, and it plays wonderfully.

The Black Keys – Attack and Release (2008)
The Black Keys have been a favorite band of mine for a while, so I was slow to warm to the multitude of strange new sounds that were added to the mix by producer Danger Mouse on Attack and Release. As I listened to the album more and more, the songs grew, the arrangements seemed just as organic as they should be, and I was bowled over by its greatness. Dan Auerbach's voice is one of the best out there, and Patrick Carney can't be underestimated as a drummer. I was initially wary of Danger Mouse's presence, but he proved himself to be in the upper echelon of producers, able to bring a different side out of the duo without pushing his own vision over theirs. They started really achieving the recognition they deserve for their next record, 2010’s Brothers, but this is their best album.

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (2008)
This album was doomed from the moment “Crazy”, from 2006’s St. Eslewhere, became one of the defining songs of recent times. The follow up album couldn’t possibly have any songs to compete, and the release was destined to be forgotten by the listening public. But listen closely, and you’ll hear the great “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” and “Run” alongside a host of other terrific songs that make up a superior album.

Hockey – Mind Chaos (2009)
With the same sort of retro-new wave vibe as The Strokes or The Killers, but with more interesting music and lyrics, Hockey got dropped from their record label (Sony) before climbing back with their album Mind Chaos, which eventually got released by Capitol Records in 2009. It’s a great, fun, record. If it doesn’t sound particularly “new” or “fresh”, as some have argued, I’d ask: why does it have to? I thought all it had to do was be good.

Paolo Nutini – Sunny Side Up (2009)
Miles beyond his debut, Paolo Nutini’s sophomore album is something of a masterpiece. He genre hops like crazy, going from the neo-ska of the opener “10/10”, to the Otis Redding influenced “Coming Up Easy” and “No Other Way”, to country, folk, old school swing jazz, and others. Actually, my least favorite song on the album is the lead single, “Candy”, which is a fine song, but not indicative of the overall quality of the record. If this list were ranked, this one would certainly be near the top.

Hanson – Shout it Out (2010)
The most surprising entry on the list, to me anyway. Despite wanting to love all Oklahoma artists, “MMMBop” came out when I was about 14 or so, and I became an instant hater of the blonde brothers and everything they did. This hatred ebbed over the years as I came to think “well, in the era of boy bands, at least they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments.” Then when I first heard this album, I was blown away by the impossibly pure pop the trio had infused into their take on old school soul and r&b. It’s melodically one of the strongest albums I’ve heard, and bolstered by the singles “Give a Little” and “Thinking ‘Bout Something”, this album had a bit of the success they actually deserved this time.

Adele – 21 (2011)
The only entry I share with MSN’s list, its inclusion in undeniable. One would think, after starting the album with this generations “Respect”, the powerhouse “Rolling in the Deep”, that the album would have gone sharply downhill. Instead, Adele crafts an album full of rhythmic and funky soul-pop. Adele’s voice is remarkable, powerful without having to push, gritty and pure at the same time, with endless range and impeccable phrasing. Honestly, the only song I didn’t care for is not even Adele’s song, it’s her cover of The Cure’s “Love Song”. The same was true of her debut, 19, where the cover of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” was sub-par. Unlike most divas, Adele is not a stylist who does better with songs written by others, she’s best left to her own material. She suits it and it suits her perfectly.