Hooray! It’s more of my ramblings! YEAAA! WHOOO! Ramble on, me!!! WHOOO!!! Score one for the rambler!! Ramblin’s my name, and ramblin’s my game!!! My Christian name is Rambling J. Stephenson, and I’m Chair of Rambling Studies at Grambling University!!! I’m tenured!!!!! So suck it, President of Grambling University!!! You can’t touch me!!!
74. Bjork – Medulla (2004)
So many wonderful things happen on Bjork records, but none of them would really work without her voice, which interprets the alien transmissons of her music, making it all feel urgent, impassioned and personal. Hence, Medulla is a no-brainer of a musical experiment. Comprised completely of vocals, with Rahzel’s superhuman beatboxing and Mike Patton’s general oddness complementing Bjork’s elastic, otherworldly pipes, the album doesn’t have mainstream success in its crosshairs. But it’s not all that challenging of a listen either – these are songs first, vocal showcases second, and every moment of it is just plain gorgeous.
73. TV on the Radio – Dear Science, (2008)
“Rock” has become such a general term, because it encompasses so many things. And Dear Science is a rock album in this redefined sense. These tracks are enriched with subtle versatility, weaving early Beach Boys backing vocals, chattering funk guitars, post-punk keyboards, and lush string and horn arrangements into a sonic framework of remarkable consistency. “Red Dress” grinds and bashes its way to the dance floor, and it’s followed by “Love Dog,” a ballad that floats through your speakers like an out-of-body experience. Only on an artfully produced album like this could they become ideal bedfellows.
72. Al Green – Lay it Down (2008)
Comeback albums are suspicious things, like an established actor in a piece-of-shit horror movie. When there’s a new Motley Crue album on the shelves, or Gary Oldman plays a rabbi exorcist in The Unborn, one question comes to mind – what made them so desperate for cash? But on this magnificent offering of joyful, slow-burning R&B, Al Green’s not after the Benjamins, just love, pure and true. The 62-year-old artist’s falsetto is as sexy and chill-inducing as ever, and his songs position love like it’s the central force of a religion (which it’s not, no matter what the Christians tell you).
71. Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)
Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand released a trio of angular rock entertainments in the 2000s, and while they’re all more than worth a spin, the middle child is the most consistently rewarding. You Could Have It So Much Better has its ambitions, dabbling in arena rock riffs, punk dissonance and delicate, Beatlesque reprieves, but its excellence lies more in its pervading mood – loose, fun and free of the fussy neuroses that can turn promising follow-ups into second album curses.
70. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (2009)
Take an infectious, harmony-drenched pop album of enviable quality. Now stick it in a jam jar and shake it up violently. You might have something resembling Bitte Orca, a record that’s stuffed with stunning vocal melodies and intricately beautiful guitar passages, put together in jarringly unconventional ways. Odd time signatures, jittering solos and acquired-taste falsettos abound, and instead of giving the sense of a masterpiece marred, Dirty Projectors reminds us of the beauty of broken rules.
69. De La Soul – AOI: Bionix (2001)
When a hip hop album begins with somebody saying “Better. Stronger. Faster,” that’s usually a dead giveaway – the group is past its prime and in denial. And there was no reason to believe that AOI: Bionix was any different. It’s the second installment of the ultimately abandoned “Art Official Intelligence” trilogy that De La Soul hoped would bring them back to the forefront of the genre, and the first was the tepid crossover attempt Mosaic Thump. So it was awfully refreshing to hear the trio in top form, from the crunching piano chords of the title track on. And even more refreshing to realize that they were operating on a higher spiritual plain this time around, encapsulated in the magnificent “Trying People” – an invigorating, open-hearted cut that’s exactly the kind of reflective art we should expect from once-hip artists approaching middle age.
68. Feist – Let it Die (2004)
Years before the iPod commercials and Colbert guest spots, Leslie Feist gave us an album of delicate beauty, equally suited to college radio stations and French cafe patios. The Francoise Hardy pop of “Gatekeeper,” the lilting cover of Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart” and the extraordinarily catchy “Mushaboom” are three of this decade’s most satisfying moments.
67. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
The term “contemporary country” should apply to Neko Case, not any singer who adds a pedal steel and fiddle to Celine Dion-worthy arrangements. On this album, Case’s songs describe states of mind instead of establishing clear narratives, marrying haunted country-folk chords with lyrics that explore our jealousies, obsessions and gospel music-driven reveries. Where traditional country’s best moments lie in its unadorned emotions, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood succeeds by being less cut and dry, letting its reverberating vocal harmonies fill in the blanks as they sweep you away.
66. Pharoahe Monch – Desire (2007)
After the release of his promising debut album in 1999, Pharoahe Monch performed a bit of career suicide, waiting eight years to release the follow up. But while the gap hurt his ability to stay at the forefront of the game, it definitely didn’t dampen his talents. Desire is as versatile as hip hop got in the 2000s, putting expertly crafted club bangers alongside a tune written from the perspective of a bullet, a nine-minute soap opera about an avenging lover and a cover of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.”
65. Animal Collective – Feels (2005)
Crazed, uninhibited human screams don’t make for effective pop music. This is one of the seemingly common sense ideas that Animal Collective blows to smithereens on Feels, a record that treads the line between traditional pop and nutso avant garde with a breathtaking sense of balance. “Grass” is the tune in question, which pairs those screams with Beach Boys-ish “whoo hoos” on the chorus. Yes, Brian Wilson’s an influence here, but this indie-pop-head-trip of a record makes those Smile session eccentricities seem almost rational.
64. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul (2009)
When two absolute masters from different genres team up on a project, the expectations are overblown, and the results usually can’t meet them. But when Danger Mouse joined Mark Linkous, the one-man wonder behind Sparklehorse, for a cinematic, star-studded affair called Dark Night of the Soul, the final product was as good as advertised. This is much more of a Sparklehorse record, which means it’s weird, whispery and sad (the most upbeat cut is called “Daddy’s Gone”). Mouse gives Linkous’ songs more room than they usually get to breathe, resulting in the most far-reaching album of his career. Guests with defined personalities (e.g. The Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, David Lynch) blend gracefully into this tapestry, not a small feat. And in true Danger Mouse fashion, the record still hasn’t been released – a frustrating fact that only adds to its intoxicatingly mysterious vibe.
63. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha (2007)
Whistles and violins are dominant elements of Andrew Bird’s music, which on paper sounds like some kind of sweet Lovin’ Spoonful jaunt. Armchair Apocrypha, while consciously poppy in parts, is anything but a soundtrack for a healthy, high-on-life stroll. Bird’s whistles are produced to sound more like theremins, and songs like “Plasticities” and “Scythian Empires” tackle serious sociological issues over lavish string melodies. It’s as pretty as a no-nonsense worldview can get.
62. Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008)
It’s easy to like Coldplay, what with their sweeping melodies and earnest, somewhat generic anthems about love and friendship and stuff. And it’s easy to hate them, given the band’s utter media saturation in the 2000s. When they released this record, though, it became clear that anybody bashing these guys for being in over their heads was just player hatin’. After the overwrought, overlong X&Y showed that mainstream success might be getting to Chris Martin & crew, the band wisely circled the wagons, brought in Brian Eno, and made the most musically satisfying record of its career. From the instrumental atmospherics of “Life in Technicolor” to the stunning “Death and All His Friends,” this is finely crafted, ambitious pop music performed with confidence and heart – if only all mainstream rock giants sounded this good.
61. N.E.R.D. – In Search Of … (2002)
When a massive R&B or hip-hop single entered your subconscious during this decade, and its beat was actually worthy of all the cash it was making, chances are it was produced by Pharrell Williams. His trademark style brings everything back to rhythm, combining huge, gut-punching drums with a fuzzy guitar riff or keyboard flourish as window dressing. Nowhere is this philosophy better showcased then on this album, Williams’ debut as an artist in his own right. Together with fellow Neptune Chad Hugo, Williams uses the N.E.R.D. umbrella to let his ideas run wild – slamming dance-rock jams like “Lapdance” and “Rock Star” live next to the woozy folk of “Provider” and the gliding, Fender Rhodes R&B of “Run to the Sun.”
60. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (2009)
Until this year, Mos Def was a shoo-in for the most disappointing hip hop artist of the decade. His 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, is one of the masterpieces of the genre, but it’s had to tide us over since then – 2004’s The New Danger was hazy and uneven, and 2006’s True Magic is best left forgotten. But from the opening, acid rock/Bollywood strains of “Supermagic,” where the MC spits a twisted Mary Poppins-inspired chorus, our faith is instantly renewed in his ability to get our heads nodding and spines tingling. The Ecstatic is more an album of vignettes than full-blown songs, and it keeps Mos Def constantly on his toes, crushing one mesmerizing analog beat after another, two-three minutes at a time. His acting is enjoyable, but here’s hoping he leaves the multiplex by the wayside and continues this musical resurgence.
59. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (2008)
It had been a while since the last wholeheartedly successful fusion of rock and Afro-pop, and on this NYC band’s debut album, those famed experiments of more than 20 years prior loom large. Vampire Weekend is clearly indebted to Paul Simon’s Graceland, in all the good ways – bouncing, ingratiating melodies, inherently celebratory pseudo-African grooves, smart storytelling. This is that rare record that can live up to the most bloated media buzz, thanks to tracks like the thrillingly effervescent “M79,” which features the best pop string arrangement of the decade.
58. Prince – Musicology (2004)
With this album, one of the greatest artists of the 1980s finally made peace with over a decade’s worth of eccentricities. No more name changes, label battles and bloated triple-disc releases – just Prince singing his guts out over classic funk and R&B vamps. The title track is his own “Sir Duke”; lyrics about the way music “made you feel back in the day” weave through a minimalist funk groove that could live on any Sly Stone album. And when he decelerates things with “On the Couch,” he belts out the kind of impassioned slow-jam wails that just might steam up the windows on their own. A welcome return to form, and one of the decade’s mightiest party records.
57. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)
This is the least adventurous Wilco album since the rollicking alt-country of its 1995 debut, but there’s a whole lot of confidence in its fairly straightforward approach. Every track is infused with an unworried, been-there-done-that air; it opens with an ode to passivity and pretty much follows its philosophy throughout. Sky Blue Sky rarely strains to get your attention, and does just that in the process. There are several more ambitious, boundary-pushing Wilco albums out there, but this one cemented the band’s status as the most dependable American rock act we’ve got.
56. Radiohead – Amnesiac (2001)
After the stroke of disaffected, interplanetary genius that was Kid A, it was easy to discredit its follow-up, which was released only eight months later and reeked of leftovers. Eight years later, it’s easier to look at Amnesiac outside of its predecessor’s significant shadow, and some brilliant, elegiac electro-art-rock is what comes to light. Sure, the alternate version of “Morning Bell” shouldn’t be there. But if songs like “You and Whose Army?” and “Life In a Glass House” are throwaways, then I’ll be the first to say “Mmmmm … garbage.”
55. Tom Waits – Blood Money (2002)
Tom Waits has never been full of sunshine and lollipops, but this album is probably the bleakest of his illustrious career. One of a pair of Waits records released on the same day in 2002, Blood Money explores a hopeless world of dominating ids and absent gods, colored with the murky marimbas, clattering percussion and mournful piano that’s been his calling card for the last quarter century. As always, his lyrics are crushingly good – “All the good in the world you could put inside a thimble/And still have room for you and me.”
54. The Kooks – Konk (2008)
The Kooks are confident little buggers. Not only did they take their name from a Bowie song, they christened their second album after the studio it was largely recorded in, which is owned by Ray Davies. It’s lofty company to associate yourself with, but this quartet must’ve known what a great batch of tunes they had on their hands. Konk is good enough to name-drop so willfully, boasting a free-wheeling power-pop attack that any Kinks fan should eat up with a spoon. And in between surefire singles like “Always Where I Need To Be” and “Mr. Maker” sit some equally effective bits of plaintive acoustic strumming – the relationship eulogy “One Last Time” being the biggest winner.
53. The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
Contemporary blues artists are a fairly sickening lot, defined by self-serving guitar wankers that will forever draw crowds. Which makes The White Stripes even more of a blessing. The Detroit duo has been the opposite of bullshit since it first paired slide guitar shredding with huge, methodical drums. White Blood Cells was the band’s commercial breakthrough, and for good reason – Jack White is at his catchiest here, evidenced by the Beatles-biting “We’re Going To Be Friends” and the full-tilt country romp “Hotel Yorba.” But that doesn’t mean the artful blues swagger of earlier albums is M.I.A. “I Think I Smell a Rat” will bust your speakers with as much glee as any track of the 2000s.
52. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raising Sand (2007)
“I WANNA BE YOUR BACK DOOR MAN!” This was the legacy of pre-Raising Sand Robert Plant – the source of those mind-blowing, sexually charged screams that made Led Zeppelin the most kinetic rock band of the late-’60s and ’70s. Which made this project, a T-Bone Burnett-produced set of ethereal covers that pairs Plant with modern bluegrass legend Alison Krauss, sound ill-advised. But holy god, it’s a pretty thing, thanks to Plant’s downright angelic vocals, which perfectly intertwine with Krauss’ equally beautiful pipes. On the lush country ballad “Killing the Blues” and ghostly folk of “Your Long Journey,” the duo puts on a two-part harmony clinic, making this odd little experiment seem nothing less than predestined.
51. The Roots – Rising Down (2008)
The Roots rose to prominence as the logical extension of the Native Tongues, favoring warmth and positivity in the waning years of gangsta rap’s reign. But as the group got older and the world went to hell in the 2000s, those rich Fender Rhodes chords and thoughtful party anthems gave way to a colder, tougher, more passionate approach. And while Rising Down isn’t the definitive example of these evolved Roots, it’s a barnburner just the same, thanks to some (literally) breathtaking verses from Black Thought and guest Mos Def, seas of chilling synths, and fearless explorations of strife, both personal and sociological.
50. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) (2008)
Nothing Erykah Badu ever does will be as instantly gratifying as the two records she released in 1997 (one studio, one live), which single-handedly ushered in the style now known as “neo soul.” So it’s a wonderful thing that she’s long since moved on, preferring slow-to-develop, tripped-out sprawls of songs (and horrible sprawls of album titles). Badu isn’t interested in hooking listeners, but rewarding them for their patience – slinky, meditative tunes like “Soldier” and “Telephone” are pleasant at first blush, and epiphanies by the time you’ve completely let them in.