10 Best Albums of the 21st Century (So Far)
Yeah, we're well aware that there are another 80 or so years to go, but we happen to think that these are the 10 Best Albums of the 21st Century (So Far). And, quite reflective of 21st-century music, the list spans everything from primitive garage-rock ragers to electro-blipping future shock. In between are some of the era's greatest artists, innovators who'll most likely go down as musical visionaries once the century crawls to a close all these years from now.
'White Blood Cells,' from 2001, was the Detroit duo's breakthrough, but their masterpiece came two years later, when Jack White turbo-powered the bluesy fuzz of his garage rock and tore through the history of 20th-century America in 49 or so blazing minutes. White expanded his arsenal of musical weapons on 'Elephant,' but the result is still raw, primal and totally abrasive.
Bruce Springsteen had been stuck in no man's land before 9/11 revitalized him and his music. Packing away the acoustic guitar and singer-songwriter hat, and picking up the E Street Band again, Springsteen reflected on post-tragedy stories -- the personal as well as the universal. 'The Rising' not only made him relevant again, it's one of his best records in a long career filled with them.
It's kind of hard to tell how seriously James Murphy takes the electronic dance music he's mastered over a decade. After all, his best songs ride dangerously close to parody. He's certainly not part of that world. And on LCD Soundsystem's masterpiece, he weaves in and out of genres with an eye (and ear) close to New York's streets and the friends he meets and loses along the way. Sentimental, nostalgic and bursting with life, 'Sound of Silver' is the sound of mid-'00s restlessness wrapped up in super-catchy hooks.
Outkast landed their galaxy-hopping mothership somewhere between '70s-era P-Funk and '00s hip-hop on their best album, an atmosphere-exploding mind trip that found new corners for contemporary rap to play around in. They were already one of the genre's most visionary groups before 'Stankonia' planted its flag. Afterward, they were in a genre all their own.
After the messianic poses of the '80s and the career change-ups at the start of the following decade, U2 hit a slump at the end of the '90s that revealed just how bloated they had become. But they started the new millennium with a rafters-shaking set of songs that ranked among their all-time best. A year later, when a nation, and the world, needed them, they were there, bigger than ever.
The tricky rhymes, multiple personalities and potty-mouth s--- slinging found on the debut album by one of the millennium's most significant artists was amped to another level and beyond on the follow-up. Beats and rhymes are hurled recklessly from all directions -- no one is safe, not even Em's mom. And in 'Stan,' he managed to make hip-hop something it hadn't been in a long, long time: downright poetic.
This Canadian collective came out of nowhere in 2004 with a concept album all about death. And if you listen close enough, the songs' mournful tone pokes through. But focus on the group's celebrated musicality -- this is pop music at its biggest, grandest and kitchen sinkiest -- and 'Funeral''s songs are joyous wonders on the celebration of life itself, death be damned.
No other artist has commanded the 21st century like Kanye West. A visionary rapper, producer and, yes, self-promoter, the guy has made some of the best records of the past decade. His greatest statement is this 2010 concept album on the perils and pleasures of fame. West's self-awareness is strong (he raises his glass to all the douchebags, including himself), but so is his single-minded focus to make records that sound unlike anything else that came before them -- even his own.
The backstory behind Wilco's fourth album is part of its eternal legend: The band delivered the music to its record company, which rejected it because it didn't sound commercial enough. By the time the album finally found a home, 9/11 happened and 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' took on a whole new meaning, finding the pain, scars and healing in everyday life. It grew deeper and more relevant out of tragedy. Wilco have been trying to live up to it ever since.
'OK Computer' was just booting up for Radiohead's makeover three years later. No longer afraid of the technology that permeated and freaked out the band that made 'OK Computer,' the group crafted a blippy, tech-heavy wonder that embraced the machines that were taking over the music. The 2001 album of leftovers, 'Amnesiac,' is almost as good, but 'Kid A' sounds like the blueprint for the 21st century.