For one glorious moment it seemed as though the 21st century was going to drag us kicking and screaming into a new, technologically advanced utopia. Of course, now we know better, but the one thing that hasn’t disappointed is the abundance of brilliant music that’s emerged in the new millennium. Across an ever changing, ever thrilling sonic landscape of substance and style, artists have produced some of the finest albums of all time, not that you’d ever know it!
Frustratingly, music critics continue to point to the sixties and seventies as the golden age of music, a view reinforced by ‘The Canon’ of Rock’s Rich Tapestry, that supposedly definitive list of albums that can be traced back to 1974 when, like a university English department sending out a reading list to its undergraduates, the NME polled its writers and published its list of the top 100 of all time. Sadly, when it comes to ‘The Canon’ and those infernal lists, the albums of the 21st century don’t stand a chance.
Take a look at Acclaimed Music, a website that statistically aggregates every published critics list it can find into rankings to draw up the poll of polls, or rather the canon of canons. A breakdown of their current top 100 albums consists of one from the fifties, 26 from the sixties, 29 from the seventies, 18 from the eighties, 15 from the nineties, seven from the noughties and just four from the twenty tens.
The biggest problem the albums of the 21st century face is that while the MP3 players and iPods of the noughties and the streaming services of today have made listening easier than ever before, the sheer volume of music available (100 million songs and counting on Spotify alone) and our shortened attention spans has undoubtedly diminished the primacy of the album while increasing that of the playlist. As far as music is concerned, we may live in an age of plenty but for most folk listening to Spotify’s algorithm generated Global Top 50 or Songs to Sing in the Car is an easier, far more attractive proposition than wading through Black Midi’s latest masterwork. And yet paradoxically, new millennium artists continue to thrive and create fully immersive musical journeys of the highest order.
In a possibly futile attempt to appease my own sense of injustice at this state of affairs, I took on the rather tricky task of reducing the last 23 years of music down to 33 of my own favourite albums. Something of an educational experience in itself, the final list may not please everyone, but one thing it does do is to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the albums of the 21st century are every bit as innovative and expressive as those from any other era.
01. Lambchop / Nixon (February 2000)
Favourite Track ‘The Old Gold Shoe’
A drowsy masterpiece pushing the nineties ‘No Depression’, alternative country movement in an unpredictable direction, the lush strings and languid horns of Nixon wrapped Kurt Wagner’s stretched falsetto in an otherworldly, soulful glow. Ballad heavy and infused with a rare kind of beauty, grace and nostalgic wistfulness impossible to define, songs like ‘The Old Gold Shoe’, ‘Grumpus’ and ‘Up With People’ transcended categorisation to become something timeless and classic.
02. Goldfrapp / Felt Mountain (September 2000)
Favourite Track ‘Utopia’
A delightful yet disturbing trip into darkness and corruption, Alison Goldfrapp and film composer Will Gregory’s collaboration produced an album inspired by a time when sultry cabaret types sang their songs of woe in seedy, velvet wall lined, European dens of iniquity, the soaring string crescendo of ‘Utopia’ alone reminiscent of a bizarre cross between Sally Bowles and The Fifth Element soundtrack.
03. Avalanches / Since I Left You (April 2001)
Favourite Track ‘Electricity’
Famously built on 3,500 samples, Since I Left You was designed to be evocative of another time and place, although exactly when or where that was changed every time I heard it. With unpredictable sonic delights hiding around every corner, on occasion it did sound like pop literally eating itself, but as a standalone project about the power of music it still has few, if any, equals.
04. Bjork / Vespertine (August 2001)
Favourite Track ‘Unison’
There is a perception amongst Bjork haters that her albums can be a tough listen, and it’s certainly true that from the noughties on she began to slip more and more into her own unfathomable universe of experimentation. In fact, Vespertine was her last album to sound in any way ‘traditional’ in a pop sense. Bound by her new found domesticity and relationship with avant-garde artist Matthew Barney, the songs timeless beats and delicate, pristine sounds provided a welcome retreat from the chaos and craziness of the outside world.
05. Boards Of Canada / Geogaddi (February 2002)
Favourite Track ‘Dawn Chorus’
The concept of ‘Hauntology’ in music was an interesting one appropriated by scholarly music journalists Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher. While their theorising was mostly intellectual nonsense, Geogaddi did contain elements of what they were writing about, the latter in particular feeling very much like renewing an acquaintance with a long dead relation, albeit that the voices subtly layered on top of some truly memorable tracks added an unsettling quality that was impossible to forget.
06. Beck / Sea Change (September 2002)
Favourite Track ‘Lost Cause’
One of Beck’s more downbeat, world weary albums, the often overlooked Sea Change remains one of his finest. Packed with twelve wondrous paeans to heartache and confusion, his father David Campbell’s mournful string arrangements and producer Nigel Godrich’s electronic trickery, it might not be his most commercial, but it’s certainly one of his most important.
07. Four Tet / Rounds (May 2003)
Favourite Track ‘As Serious As Your Life’
2003 was a crossroad of sorts. In the post Napster landscape, sonic experimentalists began to mess around with everything; from rock guitar juxtaposed with avant-garde electronica to cutesy indie on top of beats from the most out there hip hop. Nonetheless, music critics continued to invent all manner of unnecessary genres, Kevin Hebden’s Four Tet having the misfortune to be tagged ‘Folktronica’. Of course Rounds was nothing of the sort. Instead it was a transcendent mish mash that weaved IDM glitches, experimental jazz, R&B production, dubstep, Afrobeat, a dog’s heartbeat and the kitchen sink into a glorious modern masterpiece.
08. Air / Talkie Walkie (January 2004)
Favourite Track ‘Run’
As children of the sixties and seventies, we imagined a great many things about the future yet we never imagined that it might be a disappointment. Indeed, had Air not come along we may never have had cause to remember how the future made us feel. Somehow 1998’s Moon Safari managed to reconcile the 21st century we imagined with the one we grew into. Talkie Walkie, the Air album no-one remembers, did a different kind of job to its predecessor, tracks like ‘Run’, ‘Universal Traveller’ and ‘Alone In Kyoto’ no longer the sound of trying to reawaken the future we once expected, but the sound of the future made human, which invariably is what happens once you start living it.
09. Madvillain / Madvillainy (March 2004)
Favourite Track ‘Shadows Of Tomorrow’
Talking of the future, as hip hop descended into a depressing, never ending litany of production line robots with lyrics saying the same old thing about bling, bitches and much, much worse, Madlib and MF Doom’s brilliant Madvillain concept of mind blowing, abstract hip hop had to be heard to be believed, the innovation it displayed impossible to explain in mere words.
10. Antony & The Johnsons / I Am A Bird Now (March 2005)
Favourite Track ‘Fistful Of Love’
A class album from a virtually unknown, UK born, American raised, cabaret artist with a voice reminiscent of classic Nina Simone and Billie Holliday, I Am A Bird Now was remarkable in so many ways. Featuring deeply personal songs about identity, gender, spirituality and mortality, and with appearances from Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, it managed to be both profoundly meaningful and accessible at the same time, a rare skill indeed.
11. The Knife / Silent Shout (March 2006)
Favourite Track ‘Silent Shout’
The third installment of ghost in the machine music from Swedish brother/sister duo Olof and Karin Dreijer was like an enormous kick in the head, the albums hard edged rhythms, pitch shifting vocals and inventive electronics creating an atmosphere of encroaching dread that was so real it allowed songs such as ‘We Share Our Mothers Health’, ‘Forest Families’, ‘Marble House’ and the title track to thrive.
12. LCD Soundsystem / Sound of Silver (March 2007)
Favourite Track ‘All My Friends’
A hugely influential album, amongst Sound Of Silver’s spine tingling punk-funk-art-techno lay some extraordinary tracks including ‘North American Scum’, ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’, ‘Someone Great’ and best of the lot ‘All My Friends’. A heartfelt, thoroughly personal James Murphy song about the ageing process and feeling disconnected while simultaneously reckoning with and missing the past, it was without doubt one of the greatest of the decade.
13. M.I.A. / Kala (August 2007)
Favourite Track ‘Bamboo Banga’
Kala was exactly the kind of album I didn’t believe could be made in the 21st century, the kind of album so different to the norm that it made you really sit up and take notice. Even more out there than M.I.A.’s epochal 2005 debut Arular, Kala offered a willfully irreverent attitude to classic rock and pop. Cherry picking the most subversive elements from the past to tackle heavy duty issues like illegal immigration and the gun trade over a hotch potch of hip hop, bhangra and punk, for a while it sounded like another version of the future.
14. Portishead / Third (April 2008)
Favourite Track ‘We Carry On’
A new millennium comeback after a long absence and an album no-one was expecting, Third was an absolute triumph. A harrowing, post-apocalyptic soundtrack that got under my skin and wouldn’t let me rest, tracks like ’We Carry On’, ‘Machine Gun’ and ‘Threads’ make for uneasy listening to this day, Beth Gibbon’s sounding more harrowed and hollowed out than I thought possible while still breathing.
15. The XX / XX (August 2009)
Favourite Track ‘Basic Space’
Dressed in black, the sullen faced, youthful XX represented the voice of the iPod shuffle generation who weren’t afraid of combining their own like’s and loves no matter how disparate. Whether it was gentle yearning melodies, quiet minimal beats, R&B, dubstep or sparse love songs, they had no problem creating a soundtrack to their lives in South London. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim added an intimate tension to Jamie XX’s sonic concoctions that was all their own, and yet it was only when I listened to their debut again recently that I realised just how influential they’ve been over the last ten years or so.
16. John Grant / Queen Of Denmark [Bonus Edition] (April 2010)
Favourite Track ‘Fireflies’
John Grant’s hugely satisfying debut heralded a return to the best forgotten but ever popular British singer songwriter era of the early seventies. Not that Grant’s subject matter - growing up gay in a devotedly religious family and hiding his pain in drink and drug addiction - was ever as twee or humourless as the likes of Clifford T. Ward or Gilbert O’Sullivan. Indeed, Queen Of Denmark eclipsed all of those dodgy influences by concentrating on Grant’s rich croon of a voice, top class arrangements and a fistful of irresistibly sad yet ultimately hopeful songs.
17. Flying Lotus / Cosmogramma (May 2010)
Favourite Track ‘Do The Astral Plane’
Cosmogramma had the misfortune to be so different that whether it was any good or not was difficult to determine. Thirteen years later I’m still of the opinion that it’s one of those challenging albums which gets decidedly stranger the more it progresses. Pretentious nonsense (with Thom Yorke thrown in for good measure) or teetering on genius, I couldn’t tell you. Then again, that’s exactly why it’s here!
18. Destroyer / Kaputt (January 2011)
Favourite Track ‘Kaputt’
After years as a minor cult act, Destroyer’s ninth album got them into the American Top 100, albeit at number 62 for just one week. Yet even that tiny modicum of success was surprising given how Kaputt was in effect a self-conscious homage to the sophisticated, mid-eighties style of pop perpetuated by the likes of Prefab Sprout, Black, The Adventurers, Deacon Blue and far too many others to mention. Featuring super glossy production, fretless bass, sax solo’s and a professed love for Steely Dan, those groups existence was like punk never happened. And yet almost thirty years later, Dan Bejar’s recollections of such a willfully unfashionable, vanished era sounded strangely revolutionary to my jaded ears.
19. James Blake / James Blake (February 2011)
Favourite Track ‘Unluck’
While John Grant and Destroyer referenced the seventies and eighties respectively, James Blake looked to the future. Following a string of critically feted singles on tiny independents, his self-titled, major label debut proved disappointingly straightforward for those same critics. However, to me, just one listen to opener ‘Unluck’ signified otherwise. Strange and unsettling with a distorted, disjointed beat and treated vocals buried in all manner of effects, it pointed the way forward for an album that sounded completely of the moment.
20. Death Grips / The Money Store (April 2012)
Favourite Track ‘Get Got’
Confrontational and chaotic, Death Grips demanded attention for the maelstrom of ideas packed into 41 unpredictable minutes of what was originally tagged ‘rap rock’ but in reality was more like having your head rammed repeatedly against a wall. The greatest racket of the 21st century, at the very least it was a reminder I was still alive.
21. Frank Ocean / Channel Orange (July 2012)
Favourite Track ‘Bad Religion’
In 2012 Channel Orange singlehandedly reinvented R&B as a genre that might be worth listening to after all. Easily one of the finest albums of the century thus far, Frank Ocean’s mini vignettes, in particular ‘Lost’, ‘Super Rich Kids’, ‘Bad Religion’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ drew compelling portraits of the darkest of subjects. And then there was the once heard never forgotten ‘Pyramids’ that evolved from trippy ambience to synthesized funk jam and seventies prog guitar solo in nine minutes and 52 seconds. Truly remarkable.
22. Vampire Weekend / Modern Vampires In The City (May 2012)
Favourite Track ‘Step’
Columbia undergrads Vampire Weekend’s third album found them forsaking their privileged ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ aesthetic to write a bunch of heartfelt songs about mortality and the passing of youth. Unlike their hardcore fans who weren’t so keen, I found them instantly more appealing and listenable, their too clever by half, gimmicky bullshit of the past giving way to an album of real substance and value.
23. Damon Albarn / Everyday Robots (April 2014)
Favourite Track ‘Hollow Ponds’
Considering the high number of projects Damon Albarn has immersed himself in since the heady days of Blur, at first glance his only solo album to date may seem like an underwhelming selection for a list of 21st century classics. However, I found something in the songs of Everyday Robots I hadn’t been expecting, a rare kind of melancholic Englishness that may not have told me much about him but told me plenty about myself and the lives of other middle aged, lower middle class men in this beautiful, busted nation of ours.
24. Jamie XX / In Colour (May 2015)
Favourite Track ‘Loud Places’ Feat. Romy
In 2015 Daman Albarn was a songwriter with a reputation forged over a 25 year period while Jamie Smith’s lay with The XX in the late noughties and early twenty tens. Odd then that his debut solo album should reference early nineties rave and pirate radio, styles that Smith himself was too young to remember. And yet, and yet, and yet, In Colour was so much more than just a simple tribute to the past because for all the euphoric dance anthems there were songs of wistful, melancholic nostalgia (sung by his old bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim) made more for the lonely introvert alone in their bedroom than for ‘20,000 people standing in a field’.
25. Bowie / Blackstar (January 2016)
Favourite Track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’
Here’s a question. If David Bowie hadn’t died two days after the release of Blackstar, would it still be so highly regarded? Of course, I like to think the answer would be yes but I have to say it has always been a challenging listen, and even now seven years after the event, apart from the hugely symbolic ‘Lazarus’, the mid-tempo, vaguely ‘Heroes’-ish ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ and the epic title track, it’s been imbued with a meaning that is arguably beyond its true worth. Nevertheless, it deserves to be here if only as a truly ingenious swansong from a truly incredible artist who in 1972 literally changed my young life.
26. Bon Iver / 22, A Million (September 2016)
Favourite Track ‘666 ʇ’
I believed Justin Vernon to be a dyed in the wool, angsty folky until 22, A Million proved me wrong. Following a flirtation with the fascinating if seriously fucked up Kanye West, he began to take his songwriting in a daringly abstract direction, serving up lashings of Autotune, random ambient noise and all manner of electronic effects which weirdly seemed to make his effortless melodies and stunning harmonies shine even more. Hopelessly complex and grandiose yet stunningly beautiful, 22, A Million signified a different path for others like him to follow.
27. King Krule / The Ooz (October 2017)
Favourite Track ‘Logos’
To be saddled with the dreaded ‘Voice of a Generation’ tag at nineteen years of age must cause untold agony to any emerging artist but that’s what happened to Archy Marshall when he released his debut 6 Feet Beneath The Moon. Four years later his second album The Ooz did its utmost to match the hype and more or less succeeded. Consisting of a dense, messy, genre defying nineteen songs in a little over an hour, it wove together a tapestry of dark, seductive soundscapes with painstakingly detailed lyrics about Marshall’s own suffering and the hazy, urban backdrop he inhabited, a world where the dreamy and romantic sat uneasily alongside the grit and the grime. Ultra-heavy and initially hard going, the reward was more than worth the effort.
28. Young Fathers / Cocoa Sugar (March 2018)
Favourite Track ‘See How’
Young Fathers are a group like no other, an idiosyncratic, multi race, Edinburgh trio unwilling to conform to a ‘normal’ prototype, whatever that means. Tethered to no rules but their own, they thrive at the crossroads between industrial hip hop, gospel and krautrock with added blasts of shrieks, wailing car alarms, feedback and god knows what else. And yet it is all of that which makes them so great. Fascinating and foreboding in equal measure, Cocoa Sugar was a broken sounding album for a broken era, a reaction to looking on in horror at the state of the world and creating a soundtrack for our everyday existence. I couldn’t get enough of it.
29. Lana Del Rey / Norman Fucking Rockwell (August 2019)
Favourite Track ‘California’
For all her faults and flaws there’s something about Lana Del Rey that connects with me in a way I really can’t explain. On her fifth album Norman Fucking Rockwell, she created a weird, retro, sonic aesthetic with subtle classic rock references to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, John & Yoko and oddly, even Led Zeppelin’s Houses of The Holy. That all of those influences gelled to create her most cohesive album was an achievement in itself, the hauntingly brilliant ‘California’, the nine minute ‘Venice Bitch’, ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – but I Have It’ and the goosebumps inducing ‘The Greatest’ some of the most touching and impressive songwriting I’d heard in a long while.
30. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Ghosteen (October 2019)
Favourite Track ‘Bright Horses’
There’s only so many ways for me to write about an album conceived and written as a treatise on the death and aftermath of Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur in 2015. Having been in the same situation myself five years before, listening to Ghosteen‘s eleven songs was not easy because they are so very, very sad. But in an attempt to explain Cave’s unfathomable pain and the deep well of love entwined within, it was absolutely necessary and unexpectedly cathartic.
31. Fiona Apple / Fetch The Bolt Cutters (April 2020)
Favourite Track ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’
Fetch The Bolt Cutters was my first experience of Fiona Apple and only came about because I was looking for something new and challenging to listen to during the first few weeks of lockdown. Her fifth album proved to be the perfect companion during that confused and confusing period. Recalling Kate Bush at her finest, another female artist who soon outgrew the confines of pop, sonically the albums brave experimentalism pushed into uncharted waters while the 42 year olds intensely personal lyrics reached back to her early adolescence. I had never heard the like of them before and three years later that is still the case.
32. Black Midi / Calvalcade (May 2021)
Favourite Track ‘Dethroned’
After the freeing, noisy, proggy improv experience of their debut, Geordie Greep, Cameron Picton and Morgan Simpson opted for something a little different for album number two. Inserting some glorious melodies and heartfelt lyrics into their creative process, Cavalcade was all the better for it, songs like ‘Ascending Forth’ and in particular ‘Marlene Dietrich’ surprisingly listenable and (whisper it) almost romantic.
33. Oliver Sim / Hideous Bastard (September 2022)
Favourite Track ‘Hideous’ Feat. Jimmy Somerville
Still to pass the two year mark, it’s a little early to determine whether Oliver Sim’s debut will stand the test of time but the signs are promising. Shocked and ashamed to find himself HIV positive at seventeen, Hideous Bastard was his heartfelt exploration of his experience as a gay man in today’s world with all of its triumphs and tribulations, heartbreak and alienation, his unflattering honesty perfectly matched by his alluring, often twisted tunes. For any artist to let the listener in so much on their debut really was quite remarkable.