Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Top 10 Albums of the 21st Century (so far)

The all-mighty KEXP is asking its listeners to select their favorite albums of the 21st century, with the results being broadcast during the nonprofit station's Fall Donor Drive starting September 13. (You have until September 4 if you'd like to submit your own ballot.)

This countdown seemed like a perfect excuse to start thinking about my own picks for the new century. You may recall that I put together a list of the top albums of the first decade -- the "Aughts" or whatever it was we decided to call it -- and occasionally I'll mentally rearrange that list and add new worthy albums to the hopper as each year passed. But KEXP's pledge drive inspired me to put them down in some sort of concrete form.

It also inspired me to do some serious listening. There were about 15 albums I considered for my final 10, and the last two weeks have been devoted to me popping them in, an album at a time, and focusing from start to finish. This was incredibly valuable, revealing how a record's strength can sometimes grow significantly by hearing its songs in order. This should be obvious, but it was good to be reminded of such a simple truism. Even in our digital, single-driven era, sequencing matters.

As is probably obvious, I spent more time thinking about my KEXP ballot than probably any other contributor did, including maybe even some of the station's DJs. As a longtime list obsessive, I believe that putting one of these things together should be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Of course there's pleasure involved -- you're judging different degrees of artistic excellence -- but if it's actually possible that something this subjective can be done "correctly," I'm hellbent on achieving it.

So, of course, I also went to the trouble of ranking them. And explaining why each album appears where it does. You'd think I actually had the free time to waste on such enjoyable ephemera. 

10. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)

Erykah Badu's first album in five years came about after suffering from writer's block and finding a new way of expressing herself by screwing around making music on the computer. New Amerykah Part One extends the hypnotic black-hole introspection of D'Angelo's Voodoo and points the way toward Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak (which came out nine months after New Amerykah Part One) and later gems like the Weeknd's House of Balloons. Bedroom funk that wrestles with issues both personal and political, New Amerykah Part One can't help but feel a touch self-absorbed, but the intensity of Badu's feelings extend out to the rest of us, touching on death ("Telephone"), self-empowerment ("Me") and sex ("Honey"). 

9. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

The Neptunes' best production work, even better than In Search of..., comes on this dense, hard, not particularly listener-friendly effort by Clipse, the Virginian duo who were angry about their label issues and wanted everyone to know how much better they were at the crack game than your favorite gangster rapper was. Unsentimental and sonically inventive, Hell Hath No Fury is hardly the first hip-hop album obsessed with money, crime and loose women. But what's endlessly startling is how little Pusha T and Malice's rhymes benefit from shock value. The violent "Chinese New Year" and the jet-setting "Mr. Me Too" are equally matter-of-fact in their steeliness, Clipse going about their ill-gotten business as if it's just another day.  

8. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

Yo La Tengo's most beloved albums tend to be the ones where the trio stretch out in all directions, as on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. But I've preferred this more monochromatic follow-up for more than 10 years now, which I suppose means it's a permanent condition. With Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon having called it quits, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan are our greatest indie-rock marriage, their albums a fascinating and comforting back-and-forth between the two musicians about the minute ups and downs of a relationship that sure sounds like it's built to last -- but only if they continue to do the work that all great relationships require. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is one of the band's quieter, gentler efforts, but you'd be hard-pressed to name an album with so many ballads that are so suffused with anxiety. But there's guarded optimism in these songs, too -- the same sort you see at the end of Before Midnight, when everything seems terrible between Celine and Jesse and yet you're sure they're going to find a way to figure it out.

7. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012)

First catching my attention with his supremely soulful, moving and searching "We All Try" from his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, Frank Ocean went on to release this official debut, which the whole world loved, including me. Navigating a musical terrain where R&B and pop are essentially the same thing, just more intriguing and more personal, Channel Orange got a lot of press at the time because of Ocean's admission that his first meaningful romantic relationship was with a man, which no doubt inspired some to scan the album for clues. (They needed to look no further than the wrenching gospel confessional "Bad Religion.") But my hunch is that, as time goes by, we'll forget that media frenzy and simply appreciate the fluid musicianship of the record, which calls to mind Prince and Stevie Wonder while displaying a sharp eye for lyrical portraits, such as the spoiled L.A. of "Super Rich Kids" and the sympathetic tale of a drugged-out loser on "Crack Rock."

6. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001)

Forever linked to 9/11, the day the album hit stores, Love and Theft seemed to echo the dark, uncertain months that followed the deadly terror attacks. But from today's vantage point, it's also clear that the album was Dylan at his most lighthearted and devil-may-care, staring down bad women, war and metaphorical floods with a shit-eating grin and a debonair strut. Bono once called Love and Theft a comedy album, and he meant it as a compliment. I do, too: The juxtaposition of bad puns, good puns and clever turns of phrase matches the easy sweep of the album's transition from rockabilly to swing to Bing Crosby-style balladry. That he made such a life-affirming album as he was approaching 60 is both humbling and inspiring.

5. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

The 21st century's greatest musical artist quite possibly made his best album first time out. But the richness of The College Dropout, especially thematically, is such that it's provided the road map for the rest of his career. His love/hate relationship with materialism ("All Falls Down"), his struggle with the divine ("Jesus Walks"), his troubling attitude toward women ("The New Workout Plan"), his constant reminders to the world that we haven't given him his rightful props ("Last Call"), his tenderness toward his family ("Family Business") and his anger toward White America ("Spaceship") have powered powerful, glitzier subsequent records -- all of them with their distinct selling points. But The College Dropout tops them because of the one quality none of the others possesses: a winning, natural charm that the young up-and-comer utilized as deftly as his beats and samples.

4. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)

It seems that Arcade Fire fans prefer the band's first record, Funeral, which has always felt too self-consciously "arty" and "epic" to work fully on me. By my count, this group has only gotten better with each album, crystallizing Bush-era angst superbly on Neon Bible and then delivering a mature self-portrait on this third disc. It is very easy for acclaimed, commercially successful indie acts to write songs about those damn hipsters and how weird it is getting old. But The Suburbs is something different: a genuinely stately and personal approach to overdone topics like fame and age that's matched by music that rarely reaches for the epic but is far too supple and deeply felt to be described as navel-gazing. 

3. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)

This album's first two tracks, "Margaret vs. Pauline" and "Star Witness," are so perfect -- fraught with feeling, dense with inscrutable detail -- that one can be forgiven for overlooking the array of treasures that stretch on afterward. But with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the onetime punk and New Pornographers vocalist lives up to her promise by adopting an Old Weird America persona that's attuned to gospel, country and rock in equal measure. She's always had that unbelievable voice, but with Fox Confessor she found a language to express her enigmatic longing that's always enchanting without ever being concrete. You keep listening in the hopes of unraveling the song's mysteries that, happily, are never, ever revealed.

2. The Roots, How I Got Over (2010)

Has any band benefited more from selling out? When the Roots decided to accept Jimmy Fallon's offer to be the house band for his late-night show, they secured for themselves one of the most stable paying jobs in all of popular music, especially for acts of their age and profile. And all the Roots have done during that time is produce some of the finest work of their career. The anxiety of balancing that day job is all over How I Got Over, sometimes explicitly in the lyrics but also subtly in the let's-get-down-to-business vibe of the no-nonsense arrangements. Reaching out to indie rock but focusing on the urban fears that fame hasn't completely erased, How I Got Over is astoundingly eloquent in wondering how life's choices open some doors while closing others.

1. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)

What would the world think of James Mercer if Garden State had never happened? That 2004 film with its earnest indie-rock soundtrack cemented him and his band the Shins as the champions of a particular era's sensitive-feelings musical sweepstakes. Consequently, Garden State also made anything the Shins did afterward anticlimactic: Their glowing pop craftsmanship had reached its peak, and it was destined to be all downhill from there. Which is my way of saying that while Chutes Too Narrow may seem like little more than a time-capsule item, it remains stunningly fresh. A wimp he may be, but Mercer enters the pantheon of indie songwriters on this 10-track, 34-minute beauty, in which the songs are predominantly gentle while masking their darker feelings about modern life ("So Says I") and irretrievable happy memories ("Pink Bullets"). Only rarely since has Mercer produced songs of such emotion and effortless precision. That's fine: For one exquisite album, he went 10-for-10.