10. The National – Alligator [Beggar’s Banquet]
By the time Alligator was released in late 2003, indie rock was already in a solid state. And with it came some of the most vibrant bands to land lengthy careers (e.g., Spoon, Interpol, Wilco). Amidst the typical “burnout” scenario, the National had basically put their career progression on display with their previous releases. Their self-titled debut, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and the Cherry Tree EP charted a typical indie rock band finding their footing in strange surroundings (from Ohio to New York) and landing just beside the next big thing (their rehearsal neighbors Interpol were early stars on the scene). The National could have been the perpetual bridesmaid.
All of that changed with Alligator, however, but not overnight. Alligator was the perpetual slow-burn of an album, and it’s easy to hear why. Riddled with songs that are eerily hollow and lyrically troubled, the album was a bit misleading for folks who purchased it on the strength of their single, “Abel”, a brutal punk triumph with a screaming chorus of “my mind’s not right”. Other tracks were equally tense and troubled; the album opener, “Secret Meeting”, with a shut-in protagonist, “Karen”, the narcissistic ode to a drunken stupor, and “Mr. November”, the nostalgic romp that relives the moment of being “carried in the arms of cheerleaders”.
What made Alligator such a slow success was a combination of authenticity, nervous anxiety, and a connection to deeper, darker themes running underneath America at the time. At a time when everyone was either grasping for larger themes or shutting them out for the common good, Alligator put everyone’s idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and dismay under a microscope. What we saw there was an unsettling reflection of lives gone wrong and a nation under constant fear. There was a little hope, but it was only discovered over several listens and several self-reflexive moments. Alligator doesn’t want you to forget what makes us human, but it doesn’t pull any punches either. And it does so in the quietest way possible. — Scott Elingburg
9. M.I.A. – Arular [XL/Interscope]
Usually, essential albums attain that status thanks to some timeless quality they possess. But what makes M.I.A.‘s 2005 debut Arular a milestone achievement is a sense of timeliness that can’t be recreated or replicated almost a decade after its release. Before being M.I.A. got in the way of her message and medium, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam delivered a revolutionary — in both senses of the word — pop manifesto on Arular, as she launched her war on the global war on terror through her socially-minded raps and guerilla iconography.
A document of its day, Arular introduced M.I.A.’s hybrid aesthetic just when the time was ripe for it. Her insurgent rhymes and Baile funk beats catered to first-world tastes dabbling in what was deemed exotic near the height of Hollywood’s Bollywood phase and just before indie rock “discovered” world music. Indeed, singles like “Sunshowers” and “Galang” resolved any contradictions between garnering commercial appeal and having a social agenda, as M.I.A. delivered her trenchant critiques on world affairs, economic inequality, and gender stereotypes by earworming her way into your consciousness.
Even though it’s been harder for her to find that sweet spot where pop and propaganda meet as her career and public profile have developed, M.I.A. took the fullest advantage of the platform she was given when it counted the most with Arular. — Arnold Pan
8. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver [DFA]
LCD Soundsystem are the only band I truly regret missing. I don’t fault them for calling it quits while they were at their peak — but damn it, guys, did you have to make such great music before sailing off into the sunset? Sound of Silver is LCD Soundsystem’s triumph, a brilliant collection of dance hits that could have you rolling on the ground with laughter one moment and crying the next. Sound of Silver would have been a great album just by having the monumental “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”, but that didn’t satisfy James Murphy and his bandmates.
Instead, they made the greatest David Bowie album never made by creating their own version of “Heroes” and “Let’s Dance” and stretching it out to delirious lengths, like the feverish titled track or “Us V Them”. It is an album about growing up; Murphy might have focused his mid-life crisis into his music, but Sound of Silver could speak to any age group. With grooves this good and lyrics this potent, it was impossible not to fall under the spell. So head out into the night and dance yourself clean. — Nathan Stevens
7. Portishead – Third [Island]
My baker, an elderly fellow from Bristol, asked me what I thought about Portishead‘s Third. I wasn’t expecting to find him in a dark corner of the grocery section, lurking like a local Yeti between the meat and the English beef. “So, what do you reckon? Isn’t it a great record?” “Obviously,” I replied. But was it? When Third came out in 2008, Portishead sounded like a completely different band. This is quite normal considering that 11 years had passed since their self-titled second record rewrote the rules of trip-hop at the end of the noughties. Faster rhythms (“Silence”), industrial digressions (“We Carry On”, “Machine Gun”), and psychedelia (“Small”) make this album a clear departure from that weird fusion of hip-hop and electronica which is the territory inhabited by the likes of Portishead, yes, but also Tricky and Massive Attack.
Third is a necessary anomaly that seals the fate of a genre. An array of influences over the cinematic attributes; more krautrock and less ambient, colorfulness over monochromatism, Third is the album the 1990s left behind. Time has gracefully changed it beyond recognition to make it sound so contemporary and beautifully unmissable. My baker, a good man, nodded and went back behind the counter. — Alex Franquelli
6. Sigur Rós – Ágætis byrjun [Aftermath/Interscope]
The image of a nascent, alien life on the cover of Sigur Rós‘ 2000 breakthrough Ágætis byrjun is perfect. No other image associated with the band so perfectly captures what it is that made the Icelandic group’s sophomore outing so revelatory in 2000. Although the album was released in 1999 in Sigur Rós’ native Northern land, it would not be until 2000 that the world fully experienced this ethereal, otherworldly sound.
Sigur Rós often gets labeled as “post-rock”, which, while not entirely inaccurate, is also not a truly fitting way to describe the impression it made on the world in 2000. The band’s sound does bring together elements of both post-rock and shoegaze, but its take on each style on Ágætis byrjun remains unmatched. Plenty of artists tried to ape the textural guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine long after Loveless‘ 1999 release. Three years prior to Ágætis byrjun, the crescendo-obsessed Scots of Mogwai laid down the archetypal post-rock formula with Young Team. But while the styles of these predecessors can in some way be heard on Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós created something wholly alien in its sonically pristine quality. Having been to Iceland, I can attest that the country’s gorgeous mountains, valleys, and vistas could have been the only place in the world to spawn something so crystalline.
Tracks like “Svefn-g-englar” have gone on to become Sigur Rós classics, and the key aspects of the song remain central to the group’s songwriting choices. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s angelic falsetto floats delicately in and out of the song’s spacious ambient arrangements. Pings of electronic noise echo throughout the wafting notes as were if they transmissions from a faraway planet. But while at ten minutes, “Svefn-g-englar” does feel like a world unto itself, Ágætis byrjun is best experienced as a whole. If you have the time to sit through the 72 minutes of music contained in this album, do it. Despite the modesty of the record’s title translated into English (“A good beginning” or “a fine start”, depending on who you ask), this is the kind of beginning that few artists in any medium ever pull off. — Brice Ezell
5. The Knife – Silent Shout [Rabid]
After making a strong impression with the acclaimed 2003 album Deep Cuts and bolstered by the success of the single “Heartbeats”, the enigmatic brother-sister duo of Karin and Olof Dreijer returned with a 2006 follow-up that stripped the pair’s already minimalist electronic music down to near-skeletal form. In fact, the Knife‘s Silent Shout was as much a musical evocation of the near-perpetual darkness of Swedish winter as the shimmering Deep Cuts resembled the brightness of summer, a decidedly icy, gothic affair that combined clattering, nervous rhythms, severe synth stabs, and unsettling, pitch-shifted vocals into a surreal, unforgettable, wildly original experience.
True of any music coming far removed from one particular “scene”, Silent Shout bears resemblances to established artists here and there, but more than anything, it was the twisted product of the siblings’ weird little world. There are moments of striking, stark beauty (the Umbrellas of Cherbourg-influenced “Marble House”) and haunting ambience (“Still Light”), while such tracks as “Like a Pen”, “We Share Our Mother’s Health”, and the throttling “Neverland” cast a pall over the proceedings while luring listeners with spectacular hooks. — Adrien Begrand
4. Jay-Z – The Blueprint [Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam]
The Blueprint is lounge rap — luxurious, laid back, and best served with a stirred martini. Jay-Z is in full Sinatra mode; he’s no longer the hungry hustler on Reasonable Doubt, nor is he the new money player on Volume 2. This is Jigga, in retrospect, enjoying the spoils of a hard-fought war. While Jay-Z peaks on The Blueprint, Kanye West begins his ascent. ‘Ye’s soulful production is still some of his best — check out the Jackson 5 sample on “Izzo”, or the Bobby Bland sample on “Heart of the City”. Elsewhere on the album, Jigga spits “The Takeover” — a wild haymaker at Nas that finishes their “feud”. Then there’s Eminem, who ditches the Slim Shady theatrics and kills on “Renegade”. It’s The Blueprint‘s only guest spot, and its quality over quantity, laid bare.
The Blueprint dropped on 11 September 2001. That morning was a gorgeous one, with a warm sun and clear blue skies. In hindsight, that’s exactly what The Blueprint was. It was that pre-9/11 New York beauty: the uptown opulence, the downtown swag, the cocky ‘make it anywhere’ pride before fire and steel fell out of the sky. — Kevin Wong
3. OutKast – Stankonia [LaFace/Arista]
It’s appropriate that OutKast released their quintessential album on the first Halloween of a new millennium. Stankonia was the result of Big Boi and Andre 3000 dressing up their already nuanced Southern rap template in a prismatic array of genres, tempos, and vocal deliveries, topping it all off with the kaleidoscopic dreadlocks of a George Clinton wig. By eschewing celebrity cameos in favor of hard-nosed underground rappers like Killer Mike and Gangsta Bo — and tackling its own verses with the confidence of veteran craftsmen — the Atlanta duo was able to make any wild flight of fancy sound like an organic extension of itself.
This wasn’t the first release to disprove the disrespectful notion that hip-hop artists can’t have long careers, but it was the first mid-career hip-hop album that proved experimentation in the genre could also sell tons of copies and win Grammys. There’s the speed metal jump rope rhyming of “B.O.B.”, the vintage cop show horn stabs of “Spaghetti Junction”, the Prince-ian boudoir compact that propels “I’ll Call Before I Come”, and the cheeky, unplanned pregnancy pop of “Ms. Jackson”, for starters. In hindsight, the artistic evolution that made this album special — Andre’s growing preference for singing and guitar playing mingling with Big Boi’s refined approach to straight rhyming — turned out to be a double-edged sword.
But think of it this way. Without the boundary-smashing example of Stankonia, Kanye West might not have had the nerve to make 808s & Heartbreak. Lil’ Wayne might not have felt free to explore all of that unhinged, hysterical territory on his mixtapes. Hip-hop today would certainly not have as many strikingly unique rabbit holes for us to get lost in. — Joe Sweeney
2. Radiohead – Kid A [Parlophone/Capitol]
Things were changing at the very start of the decade. The year suddenly, shockingly, started with a “2”. And the way pop music worked — not just how it sounded, but how it was made, how it was distributed, how it was listened to, and how it was received — was decidedly on the cusp of change. Who expected the best “rock” band of that moment, a band built around sturdy songcraft and serious guitar energy, to understand the change so utterly and reflect it to us in a stunning, immersive, seductive collection of tone poems?
Radiohead‘s Kid A arrived in 2000 with plenty of warning, but it still amazed us. “Idiotique” seems to be about an evacuation or apocalypse, underscored by a driving and syncopated loop of electronic percussion and a moving set of four sampled chord inversions from avant-garde classical music. “This is really happening,” Thom Yorke sings in his keening falsetto. “The National Anthem” rode a driving four-measure bass line to chaotic joy, allowing a group of eight saxophones and brass to play like a Mingus band on free-jazz amphetamines. “How to Disappear Completely” was delicate and shimmering, built on a strummed acoustic guitar, and a perfectly articulated vocal: “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.”
Kid A was (and still is) the sound of the biggest band in the land reinventing itself before our eyes — adjusting to a changing and terrifying world but doing so with beauty, humanity, and humility. That your tenth listen is better than your first (and your hundredth best of all) tells you that Radiohead made an album in 2000 that might still be around when the year ticks around to start with a “3”. — Will Layman
1. Burial – Untrue [Hyperdub]
Once upon a fog a million light-years from party-hard Skrillex, the UK was being torched by neoliberal policy, luxury condos bulldozing the high ideals of socialist modernist architecture as Blairite tanks replicated the damage tenfold in aid of their American buddies in the biblical realm of Mesopotamian Iraq. The soundtrack to the debris in the wake of this brave new millennium was dubstep, the b-side residue of wot-do-u-call-it grime that was as atmospheric as an UrbEx fever dream and more angular than a tetanus puncture.
The unsuspecting champion of this sonic, the archangel to excavate a shell of light from the shambles of a post-rave economy of careworn e-dreams purged of their remaining spinal fluid, was Burial, a shadowy figure who contorted Ray J and Christina Aguilera into sirenic trans and postgender beacons of luminance creeping through the hidden cracks of the suffering city. Burial didn’t wobble, didn’t glowstick, and preferred whole notes with evocative railway foley riddims to the epileptic spasms with bladder-shifting low-end that were so common in the scene.
Untrue is loner music, perfect for the earbud era, the echo of communality shifting away and the blistering melancholy that imparted on the unsuspecting solipsistic masses. The capture of this shift took form in textural shades of warm synth hums caked in reverb and drone, like spectral vapor trails drifting off some unseeable, unknowable center. It’s no wonder that a whole disparate genre (hauntology) came to be defined off its aesthetic. Meanwhile, its main impact on the scene it helped expose was blubstep, weepy dudes like James Blake and Jamie Woon, who took the expressionistic palette and extracted its emotional resonance for cheaper melodramatic effect.
Though Will Bevan has been ousted from his patented anonymity by the ensuing troll age, Untrue has refused to succumb to the historical burdens of its timestamp, poised to infiltrate the future like a ghost that refuses to stay buried. — Timh Gabriele
This series originally ran in October 2014. It has been updated and re-edited.