Fifteen years. Three albums. This was my mission… and with Soundscan estimating 75 to 100 thousand new albums a year in the US alone, I had my work cut out for me. The soaring highs and unspeakable lows (I’m looking at you Carly Rae Jepsen) of the 2000’s yield 1.35 million contenders. Three spots. We needed some ground rules:
- Keep it single artist. No soundtracks, no compilation albums. (Sorry, “The Great Gatsby”)
- Keep it (mostly) clean. (Sorry, Childish Gambino)
- Keep it impactful. Influential albums, not their by-products. (Sorry, Arctic Monkeys)
- Keep it uncommon. (Sorry, “1989”)
- No “greatest hits.” Just… No.
We’re left with clean, non-soundtrack albums that shaped the musical landscape predicating them. An educational list of albums you might not have heard or even heard of. I’m here to show you something new, give you the gift of something I love, not reaffirm your convictions that Taylor Swift is the second coming of Christ… however amazing she is.
Without any further ado, my picks for the top three albums to come out of the last 15 years:
Sound of Silver – LCD Soundsystem (2007)
If anyone was going to cut the coolest album ever, it just had to be the Singer-Songwriter-Label Co-founder-Producer-DJ frontman of LCD Soundsystem, because if being a singer-songwriter makes you cool, James Murphy has broken the scale.
“Sound of Silver” is defined by Murphy’s synths and infectious voice. Flying in the face of autotune culture, Murphy croons, shouts, yelps, and otherwise half-sings unrestrained across the album in a way that should be grating, but isn’t. Perhaps it’s the unmistakable sense that Murphy doesn’t care what you think, or maybe it’s just the way that the irresistibly catchy repeated intros and outros worm their way into your head and live there for weeks… but all the while you’re not so much wishing the tune away as much as you are bummed out when it’s replaced with a Pharrell track that I won’t mention here.
Murphy expertly bounces between dance tracks and social criticism, the light and heavy hearted, with unmatched finesse. From the drumbeat of “Get Innocuous!,” for which it is literally impossible to sit still (trust me, I’ve tried) to the mournful lack of will and perfect encapsulation of the feeling of life moving on in “Someone Great,” Murphy is a genius. And sure, with more than enough cowbell in the bridge of “Us V Them” to satisfy even Christopher Walken, it’s not entirely surprising the album didn’t receive more than just the 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance Album… But this is Dance-Punk, a genre built on the dichotomy of pulsating electronic synths and classic rock instrumentals. What did you expect, and what more could you ask for?
In the album’s final track, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” the album begins wrap-up with sparse, heartfelt crooning to Murphy’s hometown and a bygone childhood, but listeners aren’t left on a low note. They’re left with strength, falsetto, and a sense of kinship forged in the shared emotional journey listeners can’t help but to enjoy.
“Is This It” – The Strokes (2001)
Standing at only 36 minutes long, “Is This It” is the bite sized powerhouse album that reshaped rock and roll as we know it, unpretentiously delivered by the band that many critics hailed as the saviors of genre itself.
It’s the music that Regina Spektor said “feels more like Classical music, except done with this awesome distortion” in an interview with NME, and the stuff Rolling Stone said legends are made of. It’s the album of lazy, distorted vocals that persuaded young rockers everywhere to get back in the garage, because lead singer Julian Casablancas made it sound easy, influencing everyone from the Arctic Monkeys and the Killers to (weirdly) Ke$ha.
Casablancas sings with an easy conversational style that exemplifies the Strokes bigger appeal: they don’t try to be something they’re not or say something they don’t know. The Strokes aren’t even insightful, simply narrating complicated relationships with none of the aftereffects, no computer, and none of the bell-and-whistle hallmarks of post-millennial production. Just five guys, a drumset, and a few guitars. No matter how much you pick out the flaws – because sure, it’s totally derivative of the 70’s – something remains intangibly right about “Is This It.” It’s an album that leaves you thinking “was that it?” and begging for more.
“The Suburbs” – Arcade Fire (2010)
I’ll never forget the first time I listened to “The Suburbs.” Squished into the backseat, headed to a soccer tournament, it was a religious experience. At the time, I didn’t know the album I’d stumbled across won both the 2011 Grammy and Juno Awards for Album of the Year, just that Arcade Fire, a band I’d never heard of, was awesome.
I’ve always been a sucker for concept albums, and “The Suburbs” concept of an allegorical “suburban war” sealed the deal. The album, a sprawling mass of seamless transitions, two-part songs, and internal references explores overarching themes of fleeting youth, finding shelter in the darkness or “half light,” and giving up childhood dreams for a stable job. Listeners are forced to confront complex ideas on the stifling conformity and impatience of modernity in “Modern Man” and “We Used to Wait,” but through the accessible beats of songs walking a line between Indie Rock and Baroque Pop. Lead Singer Win Butler draws on the nostalgia of hometowns to create the unique but strikingly familiar sound of “The Suburbs.”
The album breaks form only once, with the delightful hipster-skewering chamber pop of “Rococo,” poking fun at much of Arcade Fire’s fanbase as Butler cheerfully condemns the conformism of today’s “hipster” youth. Choruses of “rococo,” a particularly gaudy style of pre-French Revolution art, epitomize the kind of blind consumerism that Butler sees the hipsters as ultimately playing into through their pathetic attempts at counterculture.
“The Suburbs” masterstroke, however, comes on the fifteenth and penultimate track, “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” when Butler’s wife and fellow Arcade Fire vocalist Régine Chassagne retakes the lead, lending a gorgeous new octave to the composition. Far from just raising the pitch, Chassagne’s soprano voice relieves the tension built throughout the album, begging you to listen closer. Chassagne also sings lead on Half Light I, the album’s seventh track, lending a similar release.
All in all, “The Suburbs” is a smart storytelling album so peppered with Easter eggs, musical intricacy, and complicated references that, even approaching 20 top-to-bottom listens, still surprises and delights with something new every time.
The Great Gatsby – Various Artists
The Heist – Macklemore
Camp – Childish Gambino
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
AM – The Arctic Monkeys
All The Little Lights – Passenger
1989 – Taylor Swift
Contra – Vampire Weekend
Favourite Worst Nightmare – The Arctic Monkeys
Aim & Ignite – fun.
X & Y – Coldplay
American Idiot – Green Day
Absolution – Muse
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
(500) Days of Summer – Various Artists
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
This is All Yours – alt-J (∆)