Ten Must-Own Albums from the 2000s (#5 – #1)
5. Elliot Smith – From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
Elliot Smith is one of my favorite songwriters. His songs, from narratives about strung out ex girlfriends to poorly hidden political rhetoric, capture the tone of my adolescence and college years with perfect pitch. Often accompanying himself on acoustic guitar only (before later in life turning to larger studio productions) Smith rose above the crowd of acoustic noodlers to become a sort of big brother to an entire generation. When Elliot warned us about the dangers of cocaine and heroin, many of us listened.
Unfortunately, Elliot died in October 2003. This album was released posthumously in October of 2004, and is considered by many of his fans to be the most personal and honest set of recordings Elliot ever made. Still other Smith fans reject the album as having been thrown together for profit after the singer’s death. It is this strange and varied response to Smith’s last album that I find interesting — not just the rumors that his girlfriend murdered him (the autopsy results show his stab wounds were “not necessarily self inflicted”) or the buzz about there being tons of “unreleased” recordings.
Moving away from Smith’s mostly spare style, From a Basement finds Smith playing John Lennon in the studio — singing over a long poem recited by a friend of his, bringing in dozens of session musicians, clanging guitars and jumbly arrangements. This album is usually not considered Smith’s best (by critics or fans), but I select it for this list as an homage to one of my generation’s great songwriters, and because it was released nearly a year to the day after his controversial suicide.
Buy this album because: You probably didn’t buy it when it came out, and you should have.
4. TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mtn. (2006)
Return to Cookie Mountain is probably the biggest critical darling on this list. In 2006, every music critic and venue for writing about music went on and on about TV on the Radio’s greatness. Pitchfork Media, not known for their generosity, considers this album one of the best albums of that year, rating it a 9.1 out of 10. Spin magazine declared Cookie Mountain the “album of the year” well before the year was up. That nerdy guy you know who is always listening to his .mp3 player? Yeah, he knows about this album.
But that doesn’t mean you should be wary. TV on the Radio make some of the darkest and most beautiful pop music you may have never heard. This is a band more than willing to sample Lou Reeds’ seminal (and terrible) Metal Machine Music alongside vocal cuts by David Bowie and guest appearances by their indie rock pals. They may be a bit experimental, but never at the expense of the sound of the music.
And that sound is unique, something you can’t get from other big name acts. From the simple but powerful lyrics (listen to the song “Province” off this album for proof of their lyrical prowess) to the groovy backbeat and fuzzy guitars, this is music as it was meant to be made in the 2000s. Mysterious but loveable.
Buy this album because: Look, if David Bowie says they’re good, you can at least give them a listen.
3. Animal Collective — Feels (2005) and Gorillaz — self-titled (2001)
This may seem like a strange pairing at first — Baltimore’s Animal Collective (less a band than a gathering of individual talents) and the Gorillaz (an animated coverup for a collaborative band from around the world). I selected these two albums to represent two popular and common themes in music over the past decade — collaboration and false identities.
The members of Animal Collective resisted “naming” their band, preferring instead to perform in random combinations as the gig or their mood provided. Before deciding to perform under the name Animal Collective, they were known by their individual names — Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, Deakin, Doctess, and Eyvind Kang.
Their freak folk rock sound is easiest to hear on their 2005 release Feels, which depended on a badly tuned set of guitars for its unique sound. The track “Grass” became a big hit on college radio, and Animal Collective used the success of Feels to launch their first major international tour. Their most recent release, Merriweather Post Pavilion earned them even greater success, already popping up on some pre emptive “Album of the Year” lists.
Gorillaz came out of nowhere back in 2001. The hit single from the album, “Clint Eastwood”, is instantly recognizable, with its addictive beat, unique rapping (provided by the always bizarre rapper Del), and that “squishy”, bouncy, and highly danceable music. Yes, this album flew just under most people’s radar (peaking at #14 in the US though performing better overseas) but for those that were listening, Gorillaz were a big hit. Much like the example of Animal Collective, the members of Gorillaz hid their public identity behind animated characters designed specifically for the band. There were four fictional members of the group, voiced by the people “behind the curtain” — Del, Damon Albarn, Miho Hatori, and a handful of their friends.
There were plenty of acts performing behind masks, hiding their identities, and collaborating like crazy over the past decade. The reason collaboration is important in the 2000s? We’ve seen the collapse of the traditional music industry. Bands aren’t getting paid the way they used to. Venues for concerts are getting smaller. Radio is becoming impossible to break into without truckloads of payola — when bands collaborate, they get the opportunity to play with other musicians and in front of new audiences.
Buy these albums because: You have to have something weird from this decade you can play for your kids
2. Beyonce – Dangerously in Love (2003)
From simple beginnings (born in Houston in 1981), Beyonce Knowles became one of the most recognizable and talked about figures in pop music.
It doesn’t get much bigger than Beyonce in modern day R&B. She was first popular due to her role in the super group Destiny’s Child. After that group split up, Beyonce took off on her own (multi-platinum) career in 2001. Between record sales that were off the charts, multiple Grammy awards, a few big movie roles, and a well publicized romance with rapper/CEO Jay-Z, Beyonce became one of the biggest stars of the 2000s. She’s a sure thing at every entertainment event, from the Grammys to the Super Bowl.
Okay, I have to admit it. I’m not a fan. I don’t own this album and I probably never will. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important piece of music from this decade. The single “Crazy in Love” is ubiquitous — enter the mall and you WILL hear this song. Millions of fans know all the words to her songs, even the more obscure stuff that doesn’t feature Jay-Z, and it is likely that your mama and your grandma know who Beyonce is.
Buy this album because: Beyonce is the rags to riches story of the new millenium.
1. R Kelly – Trapped in the Closet (2005 – current)
Trapped in the Closet isn’t technically an album. Also, as it is a constant work in progress, it may be difficult to “own” the whole thing.
It is called a “hip hop opera”. The story, told so far in 23 parts, is related in its entirety by R Kelly, who sings all of the different roles, some in hilarious character voices. The story is too complex to relate here — suffice to say it concerns the very complex goings on in a small town.
Trapped in the Closet is epic, it lacks any sense of irony, and you get the feeling watching it that R Kelly really means what he is expressing. He’s trying to play storyteller, and the story he tells is almost always unintentionally hilarious.
It is also the second most popular thing R Kelly ever did on video. (Zing!)
I said before that this list is not in any particular order, but I have to make an exception here. For being bizarre without excuses, for R Kelly’s willingness to cling to motifs without breaking a sweat, for the hilarious video and the epic scale of the work, Trapped in the Closet is probably the most brilliant piece of music recorded in the past twenty years or more.
Buy this album because: When you need a laugh (or a good story) there’s simply nothing better.