Here's 50-1. Last list-oriented post until December, I hope.
50. Graduation—Kanye West
49. Toxicity—System of a Down
Basically prog-metal with one foot in the mainstream, Toxicity was No. 1 on the Billboard chart when the planes hit on 9/11. The music’s jagged rhythms and jumpy transitions aptly represent the chaos of the moment—a sense only reinforced by lyrical references to “self-righteous suicide” and “the toxicity of our city.”
48. Kill the Moonlight—Spoon
47. 808s & Heartbreak—Kanye West
Haunted by the sudden death of Kanye’s mother, 808s & Heartbreak stands as his most radical and introspective album to date, nearly leaving hip-hop behind in favor of a Princely amalgam of R&B and synthpop. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but I look forward to finding out.
46. Ys—Joanna Newsom
It sounds like it should be a pretentious, unlistenable mess: 24-year-old neo-folkie harpist sings five songs, backed by orchestral arrangements, ranging from seven to 17 minutes in length. But somehow it all comes together beautifully, with the arrangements by Van Dyke Parks and Jim O’Rourke’s mix creating the perfect context for Newsom’s cosmic ponderings.
45. Discovery—Daft Punk
44. Rounds—Four Tet
43. ()—Sigur Ros
Recorded in a (presumably dry) swimming pool, this lengthy mood piece lacks the bold melodic flourishes of its predecessor, Agaetis Byrjun, but nearly makes up for it in atmosphere.
42. London Zoo—The Bug
I fell hard for dub reggae sometime in 2007, and this album, released a year later, extends the legacy of that music (as well as that of the original dub revival of the mid-'90s) into the 21st century.
41. Yesterday and Today—The Field
40. Extraordinary Machine—Fiona Apple
39. Fishscale—Ghostface Killah
I initially mistook this album for little more than a retread of Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx (1995). But if you can get past the de rigueur references to Scarface, this might be the most purely enjoyable of the many Wu-Tang solo albums. And the all-star roster of contemporary producers, including Just Blaze and the late J. Dilla, ensures that it's no mere nostalgia trip.
38. The College Dropout—Kanye West
The first third or so of Kanye’s debut is so great that the rest can’t help but be a slight letdown, making the album somewhat difficult to get through in one sitting. And his anti-education shtick is still stupid.
Radiohead was on such a roll in 2001 that this album was almost taken for granted. But what seemed at the time like a slightly unwieldy collection of rejects from Kid A now plays like one of the band’s more unified and substantial records.
35. Good News for People Who Love Bad News—Modest Mouse
Isaac Brock and bandmates find a little bit of emotional stability and artistic sustainability. Many of the guardians of indie-rock purity complained about this album, but it has some of the sharpest songs of the band’s career.
34. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes
33. Nothing’s in Vain—Youssou N’Dour
32. The Private Press—DJ Shadow
I suppose you could argue that Shadow was repeating himself a bit. But Endtroducing… is one of the greatest albums of all time, and nobody else sounds like this.
31. The Blueprint—Jay-Z
29. DFA Compilation #2
Dispositive evidence that James Murphy’s career as a producer has been far more adventurous than LCD Soundsystem alone would suggest.
28. Rooty—Basement Jaxx
The best Prince album of the 2000s.
27. Modern Times—Bob Dylan
26. XTRMNTR—Primal Scream
Opening with a track called “Kill All Hippies” and closing with a cover of the Third Bardo nugget “Five Years Ahead of My Time,” XTRMNTR is the fullest articulation of Primal Scream’s complex relationship with the musical legacy of the 1960s. The album’s bleak tone and pervasive sense of a world falling into chaos, however, were all too contemporary, even prescient.
25. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark—Drive-by Truckers
24. Rings Around the World—Super Furry Animals
Smart, funny, weird, original Welsh indie rock. What more could you ask? Paul McCartney chomping celery? Done!
23. The Further Adventures of the Lord Quas—Quasimoto
22. The Woods—Sleater-Kinney
On their final album, the Washington state post-postpunk stalwarts finally let loose and bring the noise.
21. Smile—Brian Wilson
For obvious reasons, this was the single most difficult item to rank, which may explain how it got pushed out of the Top 20.
Mid-’90s legends return triumphantly with a new sound, channeling Syd Barrett and the Silver Apples through the Bristol murk.
19. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—Spoon
The indie-rock MVPs of the 2000s deliver their most ambitious and consistent album, their signature new-wave-inspired sound expanding to encompass dub, raga, and Memphis soul, among other things.
18. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea—PJ Harvey
Perennially tortured soul gets happy, accessible. It wouldn’t last.
17. Agaetis Byrjun—Sigur Ros
16. Original Pirate Material—The Streets
Mike Skinner proved to be something of a one-trick pony, but this debut, unburdened by the cramped production and narrative fixations of his later albums, aches with the troubles of drug- and Playstation-addled post-adolescents with little money and limited prospects.
15. Since I Left You—The Avalanches
14. In Rainbows—Radiohead
13. Everything Ecstatic—Four Tet
One of my favorite musicians working right now, Kieran Hebden has made a career out of the joining the dots and loops of laptop music with the fearlessness of free jazz and an obsession with pure sound. The rhythmic restlessness of this album lifts it slightly above his others.
12. No Line on the Horizon—U2
I’ve written enough about this album already. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.)
11. Murray Street—Sonic Youth
Following a series of albums that had moved the band away from the pop mainstream and back toward the experimental noise-rock of the ’80s, Sonic Youth, with new member Jim O’Rourke, tries its hand at classic rock (sort of). The result is the band’s best late-period album, and possibly its best since the epochal Daydream Nation (1988).
10. Proxima Estacion: Esperanza—Manu Chao
That’s “Next Station: Hope” for all you monolingual Americans.
9. Is This It?—The Strokes
Young American rock band arrives to great fanfare. Critics go nuts. Backlash ensues. Nine years down the road, the whole Strokes phenomenon feels less like a rebirth than a last hurrah, but the album’s a stone-cold classic.
8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind—U2
Hardly a return to the expansive sound of the band’s ’80s period, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is basically Bono’s Tunnel of Love, an intimate, soulful plumbing of the hopes and fears of adulthood featuring U2’s sharpest batch of songs to date.
7. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not—The Arctic Monkeys
Further evidence of the shrinking half-lives of critical acclaim and rock stardom.
Less immediately accessible than her earlier albums, Björk’s masterpiece both demands and rewards close attention. There may not be another great album from the past 10 years that’s so dependent on duration and song sequence for its impact. On the opening track, the singer announces that she’s going to a “Hidden Place” and the rest of the songs—mostly about fundamentals like love, sex, and family—unfold in this private, interior space until the closing “Unison” blows the lid off the whole thing and lets the world back in.
5. Love and Theft—Bob Dylan
Dylan’s late-career comeback with the death-haunted Time Out of Mind (1997) was one thing, but who could have seen this coming? Glossing musical forms ranging from roadhouse blues to cabaret to swing to I-don’t-know-what, the astonishing Love and Theft has the generic range of a Beck album with nary a sample in sight. Less unified than Dylan’s follow-up, Modern Times, it’s warmer and funnier, and its wizened master of ceremonies has never sounded looser.
4. Kid A—Radiohead
Feel the cool electronic breeze.
If there’s a musician more underrated than Kieran Hebden, it would have to be Madlib, who’s virtually reinvented hip-hop over the past decade or so. This (so far) one-off collaboration with MF Doom is all about the flow, channeling the musical spirit of truly classic rock in ways never heard before.
I’ve already written plenty about this one too. (See “Combat Rock,” posted September 20, 2007.)
1. Late Registration—Kanye West
If Jay-Z is Jordan, then Kanye must be the Steve Nash of hip-hop—a master playmaker who can make the most ordinary of teammates look like a superstar. On his best, most expansive, most fully realized album, he gets terrific performances from inferior talents like The Game, as well as greats like Jay and Nas. The opening “Heard ’Em Say” is so perfectly arranged and performed that you forget that it’s the dude from freakin’ Maroon 5 singing background. “Touch the Sky” must be one of the most obvious uses of a classic soul sample that doesn’t make you wish you were listening to the original song instead. “Gold Digger” takes on the gender wars with humor and generosity. I could go through the whole record like this, but all good things must eventually come to an end.