20. Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner [XL]
Armed with a razor tongue, rapid-fire post-garage rhythms, and precocious insights, 17-year-old Dizzee Rascal, the youngest vet of the infamous Roll Deep crew, made an album that sounded like something new (the premier global document of grime), but also sounded like it could be his last. Where the Streets really should have been called the Pubs, Dizzee was the real sound of the British streets, a poor fatherless kid from London’s East End. He found salvation from the growing hopelessness of urban neglect in music, arguing of the toxicity of love in a hell of zero trust in “I Luv U” or watching the petty squabbles of youth devolve into battles “we settle… with the skengs” in “Brand New Day”.
Boy in Da Corner is a Bildungsroman with no arc, the cover image the full extent of its worldview, backed into a corner with defenses raised for the fight, flight, or straightjacket. There’s a pall from the diminished afterglow of what came after, which is grime and Dizzee’s mainstreaming. It’s odd because Boy in Da Corner avoided the aspirational pabulum that plagued the self-help chart chat of American hip-pop in the naughts. Instead, Dizzee invested in the “real”, an outpouring undercut by the alien mechanics of his productions; electro-dystopian digital strafes and glitchy battering kling-klangs — a true 21st-century merging of rave and hip-hop that didn’t condescend either (hello David Guetta). Boy in Da Corner‘s grime was as future as the 2000s got, even if the lyric sheet was as “no future” as the punk war cry 25 years previous. — Timh Gabriele
19. The Strokes – Is This It? [RCA/Rough Trade]
Much as Nirvana did with Seattle nearly a decade prior in 2001, the Strokes proved integral in revitalizing interest in a loosely affiliated scene in New York City. Along with their fellow Class of 2001 alums (the myriad “The _____s” bands that sprang up that year) offered an easily accessible gateway into the underground, ushering in a broader interest in musical styles predominantly labeled “indie” that has continued to this day.
Providing the perfect marriage of style and substance, Is This It? is a nearly flawless opening salvo. The lean, post-punk/garage rock hooks of guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi, coupled with the utilitarian, driving rhythm section of Fabrizio Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture, provided the perfect backdrop for vocalist Julian Casablancas’ often distorted, languorously delivered lyrics. With its unfussy arrangements and skillful approach to pop songcraft, Is This It showcased a band that was more than just a handful of pretty faces and privileged New York City brats.
Singles like “Last Nite”, “Someday”, and “Hard to Explain” displayed a sound rooted in a musical past born from the underground, marrying the best elements of the Velvets, Stooges, and countless other critical darlings that brought the group early and high praise. Had they not delivered an equally solid album, the critical barbs directed at the hype behind the group before Is This It?‘s release would have been warranted. As it stands, the hype proved well deserved and, all these years later, Is This It? stands as a modern classic, worthy of inclusion alongside the best work of its influences. — John Paul
18. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood [Anti-]
Before proclaiming herself a “man-eater” on 2009’s Middle Cyclone, such fear was implied in Neko Case‘s 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Based on fairy tales and myth, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is feral. Raw and symbolic, the songs are open to interpretation. The ambiguity of “Dirty Knife” and “Star Witness” — the latter arguably Case’s finest career moment — signals a palpable danger. Hunters and their prey weave their way through the record, building upon the dichotomy of “Margaret Vs. Pauline”.
Adding musical polish and density to the wash of reverb that had become her trademark, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was Case’s ascension from country crooner on her debut, The Virginian, to the role of honey-tongued Americana queen. Prolific prior to 2006, the album marked a turning point in Case’s career: having frequently used cover songs, Fox Confessor was composed of all original material, save for the rambling reworking of the traditional “John Saw That Number”. The album saw the beginning of a working relationship with Garth Hudson (The Band) as well as a decline in productivity on subsequent releases. (2009) debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, earning Case a Grammy nomination, as did her most personal release, 2013’s cathartic The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
Independent and mainstream artists clearly admire Case, as you can hear her influence across a broad spectrum of music, but none come close to matching her power. The air of suspense on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is visceral, not manufactured. Now just as famous for being a Twitter personality, activist, and New England farmer, Case the musician has seemingly been tamed since Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was released. Thankfully, we still have the music, which remains her best to date. — Eric Risch
17. Radiohead – In Rainbows [Independent]
Lush and spiritual. Enigmatic and troubling. On its seventh studio album, In Rainbows, Radiohead‘s music has never felt so effortless as it traverses the entire emotional spectrum. Always the paranoid androids, songs like the anxious, propulsive “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” ring with the same nail-biting excitement that has continuously seeped into all of the band’s discography.
In Rainbows‘ universal beauty can be felt in “Nude”, which finds Thom Yorke delivering his most indelible vocal performance yet. Even the hustle and bustle of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” has a tenderness to it that makes it equal parts a lullaby and a skittering rocker. Yorke’s longing, echoing vocals gracefully ebb and flow over the shimmering textures. As the final reflective moments of “Videotape” unspool, it’s evident that In Rainbows is a master class in musicianship and subtlety by not only one of the best bands of the modern era but ever. — Andy Belt
16. D’Angelo – Voodoo [Virgin]
Voodoo is perhaps the quintessential example of why one ought not to judge an album by its sleeve art. Taken at face value, there is nothing to suggest that anything more than generic, millennial R&B resides in its grooves; cornrows and old English don’t exactly inspire confidence, after all. So you can imagine my sense of shock when I realized that I was listening to one of the greatest albums ever made. I almost don’t want to talk about any of the actual music on this record; I’d rather you go a virgin into the music, as it really is that special. Like some kind of strange New Orleans brew, it possesses a sonic flavor that could only have been concocted from within the cauldron of D’Angelo’s psyche. At once embracing the legacy of Stevie and Marvin while at the same time laying the groundwork for the future, D’Angelo proved himself the true heir to the Kingdom of Soul.
Alas, like Sly Stone before him, he seemingly dropped out altogether. But in recent years, he has returned to the stage, armed with a new array of potentially revolutionary material. Rumors of a full-fledged comeback have come and gone, but he need not worry about his legacy; if this is his Citizen Kane, then so be it. The throne is his should he ever want to take it. — J.C. Sciaccotta
15. Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [Columbia Nashville]
At the start of the 21st century, the gates at the country-music ghetto were firmly locked. Artists did not get out unless, maybe, they appealed to that dubious prefix, “alt” — less a meaningful generic designation than a safety disclaimer allowing urban, Northern listeners to embrace the music’s ostensible rural authenticity without being contaminated by dreaded “mainstream” country. In 2005, Miranda Lambert‘s terrific Kerosene constituted a discernible blip on the radar screen, well-liked by critics who deigned to review country albums, its scorched-earth title track lending it just enough tough-chick cred to merit a thumbs-up from a few rock-critic fence-sitters.
Mostly, in a broader cultural sense, it was overshadowed by the debut from Carrie Underwood, whose American Idol win handily trumped Lambert’s third-place finish on Nashville Star. Still, if Underwood was more widely embraced thanks to her Idol fame, her music did not really escape the country-music ghetto until early 2007, when “Before He Cheats” was suddenly, unmistakably ubiquitous. Later that year, Taylor Swift, too, broke through the gates with the irresistible “Our Song”, an early preview of her soon-to-be super-stardom.
But the most exciting product of the 2007 ghetto break was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert’s thoroughly superb follow-up to Kerosene. From its hell-raising opener, “Gunpowder and Lead”, to the sweet would-be Friday Night Lights theme “Famous in a Small Town”, to the lovely, moving “Desperation”, to the confessional (but unrepentant) “Guilty in Here”, this was a masterful, constantly surprising record — not the best country album of its year, but the album of the year, period, as more than a few critical converts reluctantly conceded. If it failed to garner the massive, across-the-board success of the records by Underwood and Swift, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stood, no less importantly, as a new testament to contemporary country music’s potential for excellence. — Josh Timmerman
14. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch]
Chicago’s alt-country champions Wilco baffled their label Reprise with an album named Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The label was so baffled they told the band to get lost and sold the album’s master tapes back to them at a significantly low price. Wilco leaked Foxtrot‘s songs online, had a successful tour, sacked a valuable band member, and signed on with Nonsuch Records. From there, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a critical and commercial success, topping many 2002 year-end lists.
Reprise’s trepidation and Nonsuch’s praise came from Wilco’s subtle-yet-sudden left-field approach that nearly dropped all traces of the band’s alt-country sound. Instead, singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennet would stretch their pop knacks beyond the new boundaries drawn by their previous album Summerteeth and take the sounds up to the atmosphere and deep underground simultaneously. Between Tweedy’s songs, Bennett’s arrangements, and Jim O’Rourke’s mixing, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was an album unlike any other. Lyrics containing silvery stars, scraping skyscrapers, and aquarium drinkers have the potential to sink hard if given the wrong musical context.
But Wilco’s new sound haunted and taunted listeners with the full realization that their first three albums promised. It was a snapshot of a blossoming indie scene, an industry in change, and a major label band placing all their chips on creativity. — John Garratt
13. Robyn – Robyn [Konichiwa]
Midway through the first decade of the new millennium, I think it’s fair to say that few listeners outside Scandinavia were wondering where Robyn was or where she had gone. Back in 1997, the Swedish singer had scored a couple of amiable hits, then largely faded from sight the way amiable Euro imports are apt to do. This is what made Robyn such a deliciously bewildering “comeback”: no one was clamoring for Robyn’s return, and certainly no one was expecting the seemingly dime-a-dozen singer of “Show Me Love” to reinvent herself into a singular, swaggering, mercurial urban diva, riding hooks deeper and stranger than anything on pop radio circa 2005.
Equal parts tough and tender, dark and playful, tracks like “Handle Me”, “Bum Like You”, and “Be Mine!” sounded like secrets imparted in a nocturnal haze, yet crystalline in their songcraft. And given the long, two-year period between its release in Sweden and its official availability in the US, Robyn often felt like a weird, beautiful secret for the increasingly numerous listeners who encountered the album well prior to its proper stateside release. Insofar as Robyn borrowed liberally from the hip-hop-laden sounds of American pop, it may have felt vaguely familiar. But the elements that made it distinctive — above all, its moody, icy, sonically spacious aesthetic — have now become vital, commonplace tools for pop artists operating in Robyn‘s wake. — Josh Timmerman
12. Arcade Fire – Funeral [Merge/Rough Trade]
To say that the debut album from this Montreal group has had a lasting impression on the musical landscape would be a huge understatement. Arcade Fire’s Funeral is now widely regarded as one of the best albums released by a Canadian band, one that led to (eventually) a Grammy Award and massive concert tours where the outfit reportedly rakes in at least a million dollars a night. While some in Canada may feel that the impact is muted, thanks to excessive overplaying of the singles from that record on the radio and such, you can’t deny that Arcade Fire has essentially become this generation’s Big Thing.
Aesthetically, though, there is no inherent weakness with the LP, with each song building upon the last, and if you’re not moved by “Crown of Love”, you don’t have a soul in your body. It should come as no surprise that, according to Metacritic, Funeral has had the second most appearances on the Top 100 albums of the double aughts lists, right behind Radiohead’s Kid A. And here it is on our list. That may not come as a surprise, but Funeral still retains its power and beauty years after its release and stands as an important landmark in shining a light on music made in Canada. And, yes, it is still very list-worthy. — Zachary Houle
11. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine [Clean Slate/Epic]
The only album Fiona Apple would release during this decade, Extraordinary Machine was received by a fervent fan base after having been long delayed. What they got was essentially take two after some unreleased tracks from initial producer Jon Brion were leaked before being re-recorded. Either version would have been fit for inclusion on this list, and Extraordinary Machine makes you wish Apple would cut a new album more often than once or twice a decade (if we’re lucky). You can be assured that when she has amassed enough songs she deems worthy of release, they will pack an emotional punch.
Everything about this album is completely methodical, from the confessional lyrics on “Not About Love” to the deliberate sour notes in “O’ Sailor”, and you can almost hear her heartbreaking on “Oh Well”. A lot of preparation and thought went into each track, yet it captures spontaneous energy as if Apple only had enough studio time to record each track in one take, and whatever came out of those sessions is what we got. Not only does it stand out for sounding like nothing else released in the 2000s, but it’s also a welcome departure from Apple’s previous releases. The album showcases her ability to reinvent her sound and continue to evolve without betraying who she is as a person and as one of her generation’s best singer-songwriters. — Steven Scott