The Best Albums of the 21st Century (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of our three-part list of the 21st century's best albums, which covered the years 2000 through 2006, let’s now turn our attention to the next group of years. In many ways, these were years that saw a fundamental shift in the way music was written, consumed, and perceived. Landmark, forward-thinking records set the tone for the current era of music. Let’s look at the turn of the decade: 2007 through 2010.

C.C. Image: Vesna Tiricovska on Flickr.

C.C. Image: Vesna Tiricovska on Flickr.

2007: LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Though on their 2005 self-titled debut LCD Soundsystem released some of the greatest songs of the decade, that album suffered from an excessive running length (generally speaking, if The Beatles couldn’t fill two discs without including some filler, no one can) and the slight lack of a definitively original sound on many of the tracks. One got the sense that James Murphy and company took a little while to decide exactly what they were about as a band, and the moments of truly inspired self-awareness were only sporadic on their debut.

Sound of Silver fixed that: from the Kraftwerk-sampling opening of Get Innocuous!, to the manic funk rock of North American Scum, the anthemic Joy Division-esque classicism of All My Friends, the heartbreaking balladry of Someone Great, and the Velvet Underground style closing track New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, these songs are uniformly perfect. James Murphy wrote, performed, recorded, and produced the majority of Sound of Silver himself, and there is no greater evidence of his incredible, expansive talent.

Mixing his trademark half-ironic deadpan jokes with touching reflections on change and loss, Murphy broadened his lyrical palette, while striking the perfect balance between sonic innovation and respectful tribute to past greats of the genres from which he borrows. Funk, disco, dance, rock, and punk all collide here with unfaltering success; Murphy is a musical magpie, picking and choosing genre elements (and sometimes even borrowed riffs and melodies themselves) and injecting his own inimitable influence into them. The resulting songs are busy but not overwhelming, groovy but not shallow, sincere but not melodramatic. Murphy knows just when to stop before an idea is played out, and just what to do when something new is needed.

There is little to say except that Sound of Silver is a classic record, due to be remembered for decades to come, and full of the sort of music even Murphy himself couldn’t replicate on 2010's overwrought and disappointing follow up This is Happening. It is eternal music; a fitting soundtrack to the ecstasy of youth, the pains of ageing, and the joy of life itself. There is so much warmth here; it is an amber light shining from the window from an otherwise black New York apartment building; it is the feeling of belonging someplace good, with people who are real and kind; it speaks of the promise of good times to come, and of great times passed. Every moment on Sound of Silver sparkles with passion, innovation, and talent; this is a truly remarkable album, and the definitive work by one of modern music’s most important acts.

Honourable Mention: Burial - Untrue

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

It is a truly unfortunate prospect to ever be forced to demote Untrue to second place on any list like this, however 2007 was an unusually incredible year for music and accordingly difficult decisions must be made. However remarkable it may seem that Untrue is a mere Honourable Mention, it seems more remarkable still these days to think that Burial was ever releasing full length albums, in successive years no less.

Following from 2006's incredible self titled debut, Untrue is the sound of a unique artist well and truly coming into his own. Here, Burial ramped up the volume of his pop samples (taking soundbites from everyone from Ray J to Bobby V), and in doing so he re-purposed countless shallow commercial tunes into his ghostly epics; soul-crushingly dark, moody, claustrophobic, and at times plain scary songs that sound like an urban midnight nightmare. The rumble of trains passing, clicks from Zippo lighters, and terrified speaking voices are swaddled in emotive strings culled from video games and undercut by skittering, insistent 2-step beats. The recipe is predictable, and yet it never loses its potency; every song is a knockout punch.

Famously relying on SoundForge to create his productions and eschewing the use of more efficient, industry-standard software, Burial makes music which sounds alien, and at the time of Untrue his identity was still unknown. Nevertheless, this album proved to be his breakout; an incredibly influential magnum opus from a genre outlier who operates on an entirely different wavelength to his contemporaries.

Since Untrue, Burial has focused on releasing music in different formats - long-form EPs mostly, with tracks regularly exceeding 10 minutes as they chop, change, and spiral into new realms altogether. Yet many fans pine for another full length by the shady garage pariah, and Untrue is the answer as to why: this is supremely beautiful and haunting music, made for the night; made for urban wastelands, modern times, and shadowed sonic landscapes to which music had never taken us before. These songs penetrate deep into our subconscious, evoking fear, joy, pain, sadness, love, and regret; by some weird alchemy the sound takes on spectral form, stalking through the abyss of our wider mind and pulling on wires, causing thought and feeling to collide with spectacular results. It is breathtakingly original, singularly powerful, and unforgettably intense.

Undoubtedly, Untrue is a modern masterpiece; a warped vision of urban existence that pulls us through the rabbit hole and down into the depths of ourselves. It is the sort of thing too few people will ever hear, and yet which everyone most definitely should.

2008: Portishead - Third

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

In the eleven years that passed between Portishead’s incredible self-titled second album and their (fittingly titled) third release, the British three-piece did some considerable soul searching. Bored of the trip hop niche into which they felt confined, and unsatisfied with the new material they had written, Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley, and Beth Gibbons temporarily went their separate ways. When they finally did reconnect and resume sharing small pieces of their individual songwriting ideas, they did so tentatively; they were unsure, unsteady, and lacking in confidence.

Then, in late 2007, they found an intense creative streak and fleshed out the album Third as we would hear it. This was their comeback and the long-awaited return of one of the ’90s most beloved and groundbreaking acts, yet they came back as a group dramatically changed; adapted to the new era they were living in, and even more boundary-pushing than ever.

Incorporating a wider array of influences, instruments, and recording techniques, Third is a richly layered, complex record; strains of psychedelic rock, doo wop, jazz, folk, and krautrock are blended together, with pounding analogue synthesisers and arpeggiators playing alongside spaced out guitar riffs, skittering drum beats, and Beth Gibbons' inimitable, mournful singing.

Opening track Silence is an unsettling, moody song; surf rock chords drone on and on without ever reaching the crescendo they seem intended for, while urgent and messy percussion lays the rhythmic foundation. Then comes Gibbons’ vocal, as arresting as ever, as she asks in a voice dripping with melancholy, “Did you know what I lost? Do you know what I wanted?” As the song spirals past its fifth minute, it is cut off abruptly, mid-bar, and it doesn't return; before the shock of such an ending has settled, the album continues. It is a bold statement with which to open the record, as though the trio want to make sure their return is understood to be all about getting straight back into business, without messing around.

The next few songs are largely more gentle affairs; spacey, quiet songs, with plaintive acoustic guitars, tasteful electronic accents, and relaxed tempos. On The Rip, Gibbons explores similar sonic territory to at of her 2002 album Out of Season, which she recorded in collaboration with Rustin Man. At this point of the Third tracklist, we could almost be forgiven for thinking that Portishead were coming back into our lives as an altogether quieter, less challenging act - and then everything changes.

We Carry On is a seismic shift; a droning, uneasy organ riff and tick-tock percussion form the backbone of the song, as Gibbons’ dramatically gothic vocal - recalling Nico’s Marble Index era -and Utley’s shoegaze-esque, heavily distorted guitar build with intensity. And then it’s over; there is no resolution to all that menace, simply the statement and shock of such explosiveness of feeling.

Bizarrely followed by the short, pretty, doo wop ditty Deep Water - which would have felt more in sync with the first portion of the record - our reprieve is only brief; follow up track Machine Gun is the heaviest tune Portishead ever recorded. Five minutes of heavily distorted, aggressively industrial drums, and metallic, menacing electronic mayhem set alongside Gibbons’ tortured, fragile vocal, Machine Gun is a truly incredible recording, and the most inspired moment on Third. It pounds onward relentlessly, with harsh John Carpenter chords dramatically calling an end to the sound and the fury.

The trio of songs that follow are each masterworks; diving headfirst into psychedelia and experimental rock, we as listeners are dragged down into the dark pit that the first half of Third only occasionally hinted at. But there is no mistaking the overall effect of these eleven songs. This is emotionally severe, downright powerful music. The impact of Third was achieved by the group taking their former penchant for moping, introspective misery and turning it inside out, so that it exploded with fury and burning intensity upon our eardrums. Portishead could not have returned with a more perfect reminder that they must never be underrated, outdated, or ignored. In the seven years since, we’ve heard barely a peep from the trio; re-listen to Third and that wait will begin to feel unbearable.

Honourable Mention: Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Few rappers have ever enjoyed a period of such assertive, undeniable dominance as Lil Wayne in the period from the release of 2005’s Tha Carter II to its follow up, Tha Carter III three years later. The incredibly prolific artist filled the intervening period with four long, stellar mixtapes (continuing his series of Dedication and Da Drought releases) on which he consistently reaffirmed his status as the self-proclaimed best rapper alive.” Yet Wayne's songs were largely street-level bangers, made more for the club than for the radio, and he had still not crossed over into the mainstream as he had always seemed destined to do.

Appearing on his first studio album at the tender age of eleven, Wayne had taken his time to find his ultimate creative voice. Released at the age of 22, Tha Carter II had been the first album where the New Orleans rapper mastered his particular brand of southern gangsta rap. It was a great record, and the first time we had heard Wayne sound so convincingly on form, but by no means was it a breakthrough; while full of hardcore rap tunes and displays of innate lyrical dexterity, that album was by no means a pop record, and didn’t have any radio-ready hits as such.

On the sequel, Wayne came into his own as an unstoppable commercial force. Recruiting some of the biggest names in pop to assist him on the hooks, as well as a team of the best producers in the game to craft his beats, the result was a uniformly exciting album that saw a fruitful convalescence of pop and rap.

Lead single Lollipop featuring Static Major is a pop hit through and through; Wayne raps on the borderline between speaking and singing, through heavy autotune atop a woozy, catchy beat. There's no confusing Lollipop for a masterpiece of songwriting, but as a pop song it was ahead of its time; funny, fresh, and catchy, it was the radio breakthrough he needed, and it was the major factor that helped Tha Carter III to sell a million records in its first week.

Wayne boldly followed that single up immediately with the now-classic track A Milli. Featuring no hook, only verse after verse of hard-edged rapping, it was the very antithesis of Lollipop. With an unmistakable bass-heavy beat, few rap songs have been so popular, commercial, and memorable while remaining bare-bones hip-hop. On it, Wayne raps schizophrenically, spitting manic and at times nonsensical bars of witty, funny wordplay in dizzying succession: "They say I'm rapping like B.I.G., Jay, and 2Pac/ André 3000, where is Erykah Badu at? Who that?/ Who that said they gon' beat Lil Wayne?/ My name ain't Bic, but I keep that flame." We hadn’t heard this sort of energy on a studio album by Wayne before; A Milli was the sound of him bringing his wild, off-the-dome mixtape approach onto a commercial single, and it is instantly recognisable as only a few songs of the past decade have been.

Wayne also found space to explore deeper, more personal lyrical content. On Playing With Fire, atop a slow soulful beat featuring the powerful vocals of Betty Wright, he grows increasingly unhinged, revisiting dark memories. “Momma named Cita, I love you Cita/ Remember when your pussy second husband tried to beat ya?/ Remember when I went into the kitchen, got the cleaver?/ He ain’t give a fuck, I ain’t give a fuck neither/ He could see the devil, see the devil in my features/ You can smell the ether, you can see Cita/ You can see the Cita/ See the Cita in my features/ And she don’t play neither.”

Sure, there are a few missteps on III - Got Money, Mrs. Officer, and Phone Home are fairly generic, forgettable songs - but for a record running 76 minutes, it is a remarkably accomplished album. Wayne had never sounded so confident nor so unforgettably catchy, and the calibre of the beats he was rapping over - employing the talents of super-producers like Kanye West, Bangladesh, StreetRunner, and Alchemist - was unparalleled.

Tha Carter III is to date Lil Wayne’s most accomplished project; a record where almost every element aligned in harmony and produced a bona fide blockbuster hit which was the crowning achievement of a long-running period of creative dominance by one of rap music’s leading lights.

2009: Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

While their second album, 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare, had been a departure from the youthful, playful garage rock of their 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, it was only on Humbug that the Sheffield four-piece Arctic Monkeys finally reached their full potential and found a creative voice entirely of their own. Recorded with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in his Mojave Desert studio, on Humbug Alex Turner and company added new effects to their pedalboards, plugged in some unused keyboards, and began to experiment with a new, more psychedelic approach.

Retaining his trademark lyrical wit and verve, Turner wove joking asides, short stories, and bizarre poetic imagery into the vocals on every track, while bassist Nick O’Malley and drummer Matt Helders dramatically tightened the rhythm section into a lumbering, heavy beast. Every track is carried by a propulsive, insisted beat that rumbles like the sound of distant thunder, as Turner and fellow guitarist Jamie Cook’s trebly, sharp, fuzz guitar lines flash like peals of lightning flashing across a turbulent sky.

Humbug is a sonically dark record; mixed to be loud and chaotic, it serves a bassy sucker-punch in the lower register as the ghosts of surf rock, Hendrix psychedelia, and ’70s experimentalism swirl about in the upper. It is busy, bleary-eyed throwback rock with a persistent modal darkness that hints at jazz free-thought and chemical experimentation.

All the while, the Monkeys’ songwriting had never been better; from the catchy openers My Propeller and Crying Lightning, to the Beatles-esque romanticism of Cornerstone, the deafening wallop of Dance Little Liar, and the washed-out trance of closing track The Jeweller’s Hands, these tracks are prime examples of the unique, genre-saving talents that this group possess. Since their inception, the Monkeys have flown the flag for respectful classic rock in the current era, and the collection of songs on Humbug serve as a neat peek into the art of tastefully modernising the old and simultaneously striving for the new.

The songs on Humbug are intelligent, mature rock and roll, and at ten carefully tailored tracks, it was the most well-edited album produced by the Arctic Monkeys up until that point. They would unfortunately misfire on their next release, 2011’s Suck It and See, which saw middling creativity and a recession into boringly safe territory for the group; in retrospect, the band’s partnership with Homme and their travels to Los Angeles (which doubtless made Humbug such a sonic departure and in part such a success, and which would be revisited on the incredible AM four years later with even more impressive results), is one of the great success stories of modern rock music. Whatever the reason, when these four English lads wandered out into the desert, they managed to reinvent themselves and re-emerge the inarguable leaders of rock and roll for the modern age.

Honourable Mention: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

After guitarist Josh Dibb left Animal Collective for undisclosed personal reasons following the release of 2007’s Strawberry Jam, the group decided to approach the next record differently, in a way that wouldn’t require a guitarist to be directly involved. Utilising the same sample-based techniques employed by frontman Panda Bear on his incredible 2007 solo album Person Pitch, and recruiting the hip-hop and R&B producer Ben H. Allen, the band holed up in Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi and got to work.

The resulting record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a head-spinning art rock odyssey that takes everything AC had done on previous albums and turns the dial up to eleven, featuring gloriously detailed, completely over-the-top arrangements in which individual details become just a small part of the overall, towering wall of sound. The instrumentation is almost entirely electronic, and yet - by the band’s design, and the highly experimental nature of the way in which the sounds were recorded - everything seems as though it is being performed live. Listen to the chaos that is Brother Sport and try to grab on to one detail in the music; it’s impossible - everything is moving too quickly, too fluidly. As a listener, you have to disengage from the motion of the music completely; there is no fighting it, no picking it apart; you cannot control it, you just have to be swept away.

Panda Bear chants beautiful Beach Boys melodies like he is dancing around a campfire with feathers in his hair, and the hyperactive music rises and falls in turbulent waves. Somehow even the quietest songs still sound incomprehensibly busy: the lead single My Girls is easily the most accessible track here, but even so the catchy vocal harmonies and swirling arpeggiated backing belie heady musical concepts that probe our minds to delve beneath the surface and think more, see more, hear more. Guys Eyes actually threatens to make sense at some points, before the melody is suddenly lost, as it begins to feedback on itself during extended, repetitious trance-like bridges that bring us right back to the beginning of the cycle. Meanwhile, tracks like Lion in a Coma, and the overpowering closing track Brother Sport defy categorisation; they have to be heard to be believed.

Listening to MPP and attempting to take it too seriously is like watching ten movies at the same time, all on fast forward, and trying to internalise every picture, every bit of dialogue; you can’t, and you’re not meant to try. Take one look at the amazing front cover, try and focus on one point, and you understand Animal Collective’s intention here. This record is trippy chaos in audio form; funk punk synth rock that carries an undeniable, breathtaking impact, like a multicolour psychedelic comet slamming into earth and turning everything neon bright and luminescent.

2010: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Of the thirty choices necessitated during the making of this list, here we have the easiest decision by a wide margin. Kanye West released his undisputed, unparalleled masterpiece in 2010; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is everything it should have been and more. The product of immersive collaboration with a bevy of West’s most trusted fellow producers, rappers, singers, and instrumentalists, recorded in a studio out in Honolulu after a bleak period of self-imposed exile, MBDTF is a towering, shining, crowning achievement.

Following the conclusion of West’s college-themed trilogy with the release of 2007’s Graduation, the rapper was hit with a series of personal tragedies - namely, the death of his mother and the ending of a long romantic engagement. Out of that darkness came 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, which saw the Chicago native almost entirely cease rapping in favour of a heavily autotuned singing style, and eschew his trademark soul-sampling rap beats for cold, atmospheric electronic backings. It was a great record that proved years and years ahead of its time, which nevertheless largely lacked the songwriting brilliance for which West has always been revered. Afterward, following the infamous Taylor Swift incident, the rapper withdrew from the public eye, took a much needed break, and re-thought his approach.

It was therefore with baited breath that fans awaited West’s delayed return in 2010. He spent the lead up releasing a free mostly-non-album single every Friday for fourteen weeks; after these incredible records had passed, anticipation for MBDTF was at fever-pitch. Beginning with the RZA-assisted opening track Dark Fantasy, the message West sends us is clear - the king has returned. The artist later said in his 2013 BBC Radio 1 interview:

“I showed people that I understand how to make perfect. Dark Fantasy could be considered to be perfect; I know how to make perfect.”

Ego aside, the songs here are evidence if any were ever needed that West is one of our greatest musicians. Recruiting a huge group of guests - from Jay Z to Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Raekwon, John Legend, Elton John, and Bon Iver - and crafting tracks that were more grand, more symphonic, and more bombastic than anything he’d attempted before, MBDTF is epic in both scale and length.

The entire record is mastered in such a way as to more closely resemble classic lo-fi ’90s rap albums like Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), rather than what West perceived as the over-polished, sterile, digital modern standard. A longtime fan of trip hop trio Portishead, West also took specific inspiration from the lush string arrangements on that band’s 1998 live recording Roseland NYC, while tapping indie singer Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to add his soulful, otherworldly vocal to many of the tracks here. As a result, a number of these songs - Gorgeous, Runaway, Devil in a New Dress - feature ornate, grainy analogue warmth, introspective lyricism, and opulent melodic arrangements. At the same time, tracks like Monster carry a bass-heavy, club-friendly wallop to set the scene for boastful, ignorant verses from the assembled crowd of top-class MCs.

Lyrically, West is expansive; on the explosive anthem All of the Lights, given the perfect platform of chanting horns and quick-fire drum beats, he passes up the obvious route to fire off more lines about his greatness, and instead raps from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck estranged father. On Blame Game, he cuts right to the core of an emotionally abusive relationship before a hilarious Chris Rock takes over the Aphex Twin-sampling instrumental and turns the whole song into a skit. Elsewhere, Power is an egotistical, angry dissection of celebrity, popularity, and emotional instability; largely traditional West subject matter, and yet here he sounds more volatile, more unhinged than ever before. At one point he raps “I’ve got the power to make your life so exciting,” and the echoes of the final word instead sound as though West is repeating “suicide, suicide, suicide.” Then suddenly he’s singing: “Now this will be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ I’m letting everything go.”

As on the single Runaway, the tracks here often fall into repetitious phrases, where a core melodic or rhythmic element is singled out, replayed, and meditated on. West delights in identifying what carries each track, and building crystalline moments of harmony or groove around that element; it is in this way that his background as a producer is most an asset. Though he takes a less dominant hand in the crafting of every single element on MBDTF - an approach he has continued to use on all subsequent releases - he instead controls everything like a puppeteer pulling the strings, or a grand-master painter giving careful instructions to those who will actually lift the brush to paint the master’s grand frescoes.

It's clear that all the assembled contributors brought their a-game to MBDTF; every guest verse is first-rate, and Rick Ross turned in the best 16 bars of his career in the closing minute of Devil in a New Dress. One gets the impression that those involved in the secretive recording of this record knew exactly how monumental all of it was. MBDTF smacks of classic status from beginning to end; it is that rare thing: beautifully decorated, and yet full of substance. It is enigmatic, complex, intelligent, visceral, and unforgettable. Hard-edged, tough rhymes, over nostalgic rap beats are interspersed with accomplished orchestration, masterful songwriting, and cerebral conceptualisation.

Closing track Who Will Survive in America? borrows a furious, political sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s hugely influential live poetry, and closes with the polite applause of a canned audience. It’s a delightful moment of self-awareness from West; a tip of the hat to a hip-hop frontrunner, followed by an insightful acknowledgment that West will always be in front of an audience; he is always being watched, always being tracked, always being listened to. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is immaculate proof as to why anyone bothers.

Honourable Mention: Crystal Castles - II

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Ethan Kath and Alice Glass emerged from a period of hot-property, rising-star, label-bidding-war status in 2008 with their self-titled debut record. It was a fantastic collection of wildly original chiptune-borrowing electronic punk, with Glass’ banshee-like vocals screaming out almost incomprehensibly over the vintage, lo-fi, distorted beats that Kath provides. Crystal Castles were one of the most exciting acts in music at the time, and the hype around them was met only by the critical acclaim of their music.

For their second release, eager to escape the dreaded sophomore slump, producer and songwriter Kath traveled around the world to record; with little  for equipment due to the nature of the music, he recorded the tracks in a variety of locations, including an empty Icelandic church, a cabin he built himself in Ontario, a garage behind an abandoned Detroit drug store, and in acclaimed producer Paul Epworth’s London studio. He later said of the Icelandic experience:

“I recorded most of the record in the coldest winter in decades in a church without heat in Iceland. It was so cold that when I listen back I can hear myself shivering. I chose it because it felt right.”

Kath then handed over 70 instrumental tracks to Glass, who tracked vocals for half of them. It was an unlikely start to the recording of an album, although their debut record was crafted in much the same way, and Crystal Castles were - after all - always an unlikely band. Glass, who ran away from home at the age of fourteen, choosing to live in a squat community of punks under an adopted name and performing in a hardcore punk act name Fetus Fatale, and Kath, an anarchist punk drummer come circuit-bending old school video game fan, plus the only man to ever make such 8-bit nostalgic wizardry sound rebelliously cool.

It was typical for CC then, that upon the release of II these worldwide-recorded songs had upped the ante on every level since their debut; though that record had endured very few low moments, II is almost flawless. Somehow managing to sound more pop, more accessible, and more catchy, while still being none of those things at all - though there is no doubt that the production quality is higher (no doubt largely due to Epworth’s influence); the record benefits from a greater sense of lows and highs, as opposed to the ferocious midrange of the debut. Glass’ vocals are also a little more melodic (for the most part), and her lyrics a little easier to understand.

Opening track Fainting Spells is a rush of white noise, wailing, siren-like synthesiser tones, and indistinct screams, and then it’s over; following track Celestica is a dramatic change: an obvious single that is pretty and harmless, with lullaby-like melodies and four-to-the-floor kick drums, it almost sounds like the work of a far less interesting act than Crystal Castles. Then we’re hit by Doe Deer, and there is no mistaking who we are listening to: an absurdly abrasive beat; a manic, distorted shriek; a rush of wild, unrestrained aggression, and it has passed in only 96 seconds. Reminiscent of songs like xxzxcuzx me from the debut, it is a fantastic wake up call, and a reminder that we need never worry that II is the sound of a band selling out.

The album continues in a no-less-confusing manner; many of the songs are introduced with conventional electronic music melodies that hint at a false sense of security, before they are quickly shifted into more creative, experimental works, usually by the introduction of Glass’ singular vocal. Songs like Empathy get the balance of elements just right; a pop melody is buried in there somewhere, but it is as though Kath will never let us get to it, instead obscuring the vocal with snippets of distortion, punchy kick drums, droning bass synths, and a whining klaxon of a arpeggio. Suffocation opts for a similar approach, allowing Glass a quiet moment during each verse before abruptly exploding into a shoegaze-like explosion of sound that borders on white noise; the vocal is entirely lost, and we are left with an uplifting, soaring, weirdly dark climax. It is masterful bait-and-switch song-craft, and Kath invokes it with ease on may of these tracks. Not in Love, whose remix features a vocal from Robert Smith of The Cure, is the most accessible song of Crystal Castle’s career; a tense, synthpop bassline carries the verses, while Smith’s voice is lifted to stratospheric heights by the high-pitched, powerful synthesisers that surge during the chorus. It is emotionally magnetic, powerful music: it lifts us up, and brings us down; we cannot help but be drawn to it and moved by it.

Kath and Glass would return with only one more record before calling it quits as a duo. 2012’s III was a great record, more politically charged and lyrically challenging than I or II, but less inventive, and lacking in many of the sorts of songs that made the first two records so special. On II, Crystal Castles struck just the right balance between the playfulness and experimentation of their debut and the seriousness of their final release. These songs are clever, antagonistic club music; they draw you in, fool you into thinking you know what to expect, and then trap you in rippling gossamer webs of static, screams, and deafening electronic chaos.

II is one of the most subversive records to ever be described as pop, and the best work by one of the most interesting acts of their time. Groups like the experimental rap weirdos Death Grips would go on to borrow heavily from what Crystal Castles began, yet Kath and Glass have never been bettered; this is music as performance art; half-accessible, half-obscure, all-encompassing.


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The Best Albums of the 21st Century (Part 1)

As we pass the halfway mark of another year already filled with brilliant new music, and the halfway mark of this decade, it feels like a good time for a list to remind ourselves of all the great records we’ve enjoyed in recent years. With that in mind, let’s cast our thoughts back to all the incredible albums that have been released thus far during the 21st century.

In this post - the first of a three part series - we will cover the years 2000 through 2006.

C.C. Image: PauliCarmody on Flickr.

C.C. Image: PauliCarmody on Flickr.

2000: Radiohead - Kid A

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Radiohead ushered in the millennium fittingly, with their most inventive, bold, and ambitious album to date. Despite the initial shock that the record brought to those listeners expecting Kid A to be in the same vein as their ’90s classic OK Computer, the experimental, genre-defying tapestry that is Kid A would eventually prove to be one of the most influential records of its time. From the opening of Everything in Its Right Place, it was clear that Radiohead were re-entering our lives as a band dramatically changed since their last release.

The tracks on Kid A represent experimental songwriting at its finest; mixing mid-century classical music, jazz, and electronic wizardry into Radiohead’s already established sound was a masterstroke. Over the otherworldly backings Thom Yorke pushed the boundaries of his singular voice further than ever before, and guided by Nigel Godrich’s always stellar production, the  Oxfordshire five-piece crafted a collection of songs on which they managed to sound even more unified than on previous releases. Though Kid A features touches of Radiohead's former selves - as on How to Disappear Completely, one of the greatest tracks of their career - songs like Idioteque and The National Anthem were major departures for the band; complex and intricate sonic textures that push, pull, and play with our attention. It is music that makes us think, makes us feel - makes us reconsider what it means to really experience innovation.

The legacy and influence of this album is well-established; it needs little introduction. Kid A is a noun, verb, and adjective; an album as a movement and an idea; a benchmark against which other musician’s stylistic experiments will forever be measured. It is one of the few examples of its kind: a disenchanted band who successfully and permanently redefined themselves with one record; after 50 minutes of meticulous, lush, cerebral expressionism that still sounds as though it were made yesterday, Radiohead would never be the same.

Honourable Mention: OutKast - Stankonia

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Faced with the intimidating task of following up their 1998 classic Aquemini - one of the finest rap records of any era - André 3000 and Big Boi broadened their musical palette and ushered in the new century with a dizzying, kaleidoscopic masterpiece.

Incorporating styles seldom seen in hip-hop before - including drum and bass, techno, rock, and psychedelia - the influential Atlanta duo retired to their newly purchased recording facility Stankonia Studios and used the increased freedom this independence granted them to veer dramatically into new territory for themselves, and for an entire genre.

From instantly recognisable hits like B.O.B., Ms. Jackson, and So Fresh, So Clean, to chaotic and visionary cuts like Gasoline Dreams, Snappin’ and Trappin’, and Slum Beautiful, Stankonia would prove to be years ahead of its time; artists like Kendrick Lamar have mined this album in the decade and a half since its release and found endless inspiration. It is not only boldly original music, but utterly inspired; the songs are worked over to the absolute maximum, and yet they retain a genuine sense of discovery, spontaneity, and play. It is the sound of two hugely talented artists finally cutting loose and trying out a diverse array of ideas until something clicked - and on Stankonia, everything clicked.

The duo perform head-spinning lyrical acrobatics on every track, constantly flirting with the idea of straying off the beat and yet never losing time. André 3000 in particular branched out into a half-sung, melodic style of rapping on Stankonia , a technique he would further expand on his The Love Below record by embracing full blown pop and R&B. Yet Stankonia found the duo at a happy compromise between their tougher gangsta rap roots, and the experimental weirdness of later releases. Here, they were neither too predictable nor too alien; they were simply two masters in their creative element, and they could do no wrong.

The songs on Stankonia frequently spiral into jumbled, maximalist grooves that are trance-like, funky, and endlessly repeatable. It is a long, winding masterwork of an album, and a timeless reminder that OutKast were the most exciting act in music at the turn of the century. On Stankonia these two rappers were heading full-tilt into the future aboard a tricked-out spaceship, zooming right past their peers; mad visionary geniuses taking on the cultural zeitgeist (few songs have ever been as inspired and of-the-moment as B.O.B.), chewing it up, and spitting it back in the face of their audience in the form of catchy, intelligent, rap music.

2001: Daft Punk - Discovery

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Taking a journey back to the sounds of their childhood and leaving 1997's Homework - with its harder, Chicago house inspired style - firmly in the past, Daft Punk crafted a modern pop masterpiece on Discovery.

In an interview with Remix Magazine Online, Thomas Bangalter had this to say of the mentality behind Daft Punk’s shift in direction:

“This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”

From opener One More Time, with its unmistakable vocoder hook, to the fittingly titled 10 minute closer Too Long, every song here carries a feeling of lightness and play. Many of the tracks are centered around a core sample - usually very brief - that is repeated ad infinitum as the French duo carefully tweak parameters, add elements, and play with melodic and rhythmic flourishes, until eventually the song ends up somewhere altogether different than where it began. The samples are mostly obscure, but cleverly chosen and used in a remarkably clever fashion; the backbones of classic cuts like Crescendolls and Aerodynamic were created this way. It is fascinating song-craft, and no other act who attempted to copy the technique could ever achieve the same effect, though countless imitators have tried.

On the tracks that aren't sample-based, like Veridis Quo, the robots sculpt propulsive, nostalgic electronica out of bread-and-butter staples: pounding kick drums, arpeggiated harmonies, and droning synth pads form the basis of these songs, and yet they still manage to sound utterly singular. One listen to anything off Discovery and a listener can be clear who is playing.

Make no mistake: this is a pop record, masterfully achieved by weaving disco, house, and synthpop into 14 sprawling songs. The French duo have been unable to recapture the same magic ever since, including on 2013's disappointing Random Access Memories. There have been few albums in the history of music which are quite as potent as Discovery in terms of offering us pure, undiluted aural joy. Every second of this album sizzles with a lust for life that is truly infectious, and it serves as a lasting reminder of just why these two robots are so highly esteemed.

Honourable Mention: Jay Z - The Blueprint

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Jay Z was the biggest rapper in the world by a wide margin when he unveiled The Blueprint. He was also, by the way, in the middle of the second most infamous rap beef of all time against a furious and formidable Nas, under fire from a host of peers including Mobb Deep and Jadakiss, on trial for an assault charge and a separate gun possession charge, and he hadn’t released a great album album in three years.

His response was to barricade himself in the studio with only his bravado and the most promising beatmakers in the world, and create one of the greatest mainstream rap albums of all time. With only one guest feature on the entire album, in the form of Eminem on the highlight track Renegade, Jay set about re-establishing his undeniable dominance in the rap world.

Lyrically, Jay is confident and brash, but unafraid to show vulnerability and weakness. He touches on family, domestic violence, abuse, and lost innocence. He jokes, reels off puns, and taunts his enemies. He exposes first person tales from the street for the world to see, and all the while the ghosts of funk, soul, and jazz fill these songs through the stellar beats; this is intensely Afrocentric music. It could never be confused for conscious or political rap, but through his honest tales of making it big against the odds, and through the lineage of the musical forms themselves, on The Blueprint Jay is in constant joyous celebration of African American cultural and musical heritage.

His ear for beats was unparalleled; utilising the prodigious talents of Just Blaze, Bink, Trackmasters, Timbaland, and a little-known young man by the name of Kanye West, The Blueprint is a rich musical collage that ticks all the right boxes. This is commercial rap at its best; modern and yet vintage, lyrical and yet accessible, introverted and yet at the same time gloriously extroverted, Jay managed a careful balancing act on The Blueprint, and he never sounded more in-form and unbeatable.

2002: Boards of Canada - Geogaddi

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

On their first album of the millennium, Boards of Canada released a dark, disturbing, psychedelic, and beautiful tapestry, expertly woven from found sounds, obscure samples, and warm analogue synthesiser tones. Geogaddi is mind-bending music; a heady trip of an album that dives down deep into the heart of a listener and evokes emotions that they never even knew were there. This is headphone music in its rawest essence; these tracks conjure visions and sensations as colours, sounds, and visions fly by like half-remembered dreams. We smile and we shake, each track bleeds into the next, and by the time the record finishes we are unavoidably left changed by the experience.

Often subtly disturbing and yet pierced with joyous and touching moments, the instrumental nature of Geogaddi lets us draw our own conclusions and form our own opinions; we are never told what to think. From the 66 minute and 6 second playing length, to the ambiguous and mysterious cover artwork, the made-up title, and the small sonic details which constantly float just beyond our reach, this album is what we as listeners bring to it. Samples of children speaking are played for us - at times clear voices with innocent messages, and at other times with words which are distorted, indistinguishable, and somehow frightening. A persistent sample of a woman’s voice, either shouting in pain and sadness or crying out during intercourse - we can’t tell which - plays throughout Dawn Chorus, as subtly-out-of-tune synthesisers and off-kilter drums work us into an uneasy trance.

The darkest release by the reclusive electronic geniuses Boards of Canada, Geogaddi regardless carries the sort of ethereal magic which we can never quite pin down, never quite define. It is a spiritual experience of which no music lover should deprive him or herself. The two remarkably talented brothers who comprise BoC made their masterpiece here, and their visionary songs walk the fine line between sleeping, waking, nightmare, dream, and reality. This is a beautiful enigma of a record and a landmark for intelligent electronic music.

Honourable Mention: Sigur Rós - ( )

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

An album by four Icelandic experimentalists, sung in an entirely made up language called Hopelandic, named simply as a pair of parentheses and comprised of eight long, completely untitled tracks which are split up by snippets of silence and distortion. ( ) is an unlikely success; a bizarre, beautiful, warm, and vibrant record which is alive with an emotion that strays far beyond language and mere noise and into worlds fashioned by the indefinable magic of melody, rhythm, and unrestrained creativity.

The tracks on ( ) gradually build in intensity, from the meditative peace of Untitled 1 to the earth-shaking furiosity of the climactic Untitled 8, there is a natural progression to the tracklist. And yet, in the absence of lyrical content, track names, or any of the usual cues from which we usually derive context, we as listeners are left to bring what we may to the music. In that way, ( ) is a unique listening experience; conjuring varied memories of childhood, love, loss, and tragedy through the beautiful purity of singer Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson’s voice, and the daydream warmth of the lush instrumental tracks. Guitar, bass, drums, piano, and strings comprise most of what we hear, and yet there is a magic here, too; these songs contain rare brilliance, like sunlight bottled and held up in the dead of night, illuminating everything around.

Though the band’s previous record Ágætis byrjun is a grander and more accessible musical accomplishment, ( ) is a singularly precious record. There is a lightness, a sweet innocence to these songs; as a record, it is utterly universal, devoid of context or expectation, and instead overflowing with heart-stopping, breath-taking, undiluted beauty.

2003: Songs: Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The late Jason Molina will go down in history as the unsung hero of alternative American music during his time. Critically and yet never commercially recognised, Molina created some of the most beautifully haunting music in living memory; at times unbearably sad and at other times celebratory and free, his songs honestly and clearly unearthed the demons of his troubled wayward heart.

2002's Didn’t It Rain, was a mournful and dark album; a midnight journey down a desolate country highway and through the labyrinthine corridors of Molina’s mind. He had spent years making music that was pitch black, but on The Magnolia Electric Co., Molina stepped into daylight: the familiar tenderness of his lyrics is still omnipresent, but the themes of this album are wider and more objective. At the same time, Molina became unafraid of showing his influences more strongly than before, and he incorporated full-blown country and traditional rock and roll into his familiar template, and in doing so created a modern country rock masterpiece. Aided by regular collaborator Steve Albini and guest country vocalists Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, the album is predictably gorgeous, considered, and emotive.

We will not see the likes of Jason Molina again. His was a completely singular voice, and his loss is a great tragedy for the world of music and for the world in general. The Magnolia Electric Co. is perhaps the most complete record he left behind; the best place to start for those who have not heard his music before, of which there are surely far too many.

Molina's songs left scars in secret places; he could cut to the core of your soul with a single note, and rip a heart-string right out of your chest. He was a great American poet, whose plainspoken songs are destined to live on in the lineage of the wounded, searching souls who have long wandered the American desert highways with a guitar in their hand. He was our Townes Van Zandt, and he gave voice to his demons every time he sang; the pains of a tragic existence are all right there in his fragile, tortured voice.

“Hold on Magnolia/ I hear that station bell ring/ You might be holding the last light I see/ Before the dark finally gets a hold of me,” Molina sings on this album's heartbreaking closing track, his voice desperate, pleading, sincere. “Hold on Magnolia/ I hear that lonesome whistle whine/ Hold on Magnolia/ I think it’s almost time.”

Honourable Mention: The White Stripes - Elephant

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

For a band who were always destined to breakthrough, The White Stripes took their time to do so. When, on their fourth album Elephant, they finally reached the attention of the mainstream, they exploded in spectacular fashion.

Seven Nation Army and The Hardest Button to Button were inescapable at the time, and deservedly so: The Stripes’ songwriting had never been better, and they managed to take the best elements of their wonderful 2001 record White Blood Cells and build on them. Jack's fuzzed-out, mammoth guitar riffs and Meg's insistent, stripped-bare drumming made for an unforgettable pairing. Few acts in recent memory have had the same feeling of being so genuine, so eager, and so talented, and it is hard not to smile when a song like Hypnotize comes on; these are fun tracks which haven't been overworked or over-thought, simply recorded and thrown down on wax. It makes for exciting, raw listening and the Stripes were an unmatched and potent combination at this stage in their career.

Every song on Elephant is a showcase of the immense talent and unique sound that Jack and Meg White possessed together. They were never better than this; raw, wild, fun, and catchy, Elephant is an incredible album, and a landmark for rock music in the 21st century. Proof - if any were needed - that rock and roll is still alive and kicking.

2004: Kanye West - The College Dropout

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Today, it would seem remarkable to most to think that Mr. Kanye West ever had any trouble getting a record deal. It would also seem remarkable to many to think that West ever had aspirations of making the sorts of conscious rap that was popularised by artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common. It is fitting then that The College Dropout - a debut album which traces West’s years of pitching himself to labels and trying for success, in between retelling the near-fatal car crash he was involved in during the recording of the album, and writing scathing criticisms of consumerism and police brutality - is a truly remarkable album.

West was endearingly open and sincere on this album above all others; it is often odd to hear him so removed from the ego he would trademark in later years. The messages of love, compassion, family, and friendship on this record stand as fitting testament to the spirit of the young man before he was swallowed by the industry. Though he would go on to improve and develop as a musician, TCD stands as a historical artifact and encapsulation of a hip-hop movement at its very inception.

Though overlong (New Workout Plan, anyone?), The College Dropout is an incredibly passionate, expertly produced album. As a beatmaker, West was still firmly in his soul-sampling, vocal-chipmunking heyday, and the beats here are uniformly brilliant; the gospel vocal harmonies, tinkling piano, sweeping strings, and soulful percussion are immaculate. Every detail of the beats on TCD speaks of being worked over lovingly until reaching perfection, and every lyric gives voice to an upfront, funny, irreverent personality. Rap music hadn’t seen the likest of West before; here was a rapper who crafted his own beats, wore pink Ralph Lauren polo shirts, and rapped about dropping out of college, working in a mall, and enduring the many small pains of trying to get a record deal.

Some of West’s best songs are here; All Falls Down, Spaceship, Jesus Walks, and Two Words are each timeless classics, and the entirety of TCD stands as testimony to a West whom most people have forgotten. Before he was part of the Kardashian clan, before he sang through autotune, and before he put on shutter shades, West was a young, hungry producer who made a humble, warm, engaging, and topical record, years ahead of its time and profoundly influential. The College Dropout was the birth of an undeniable star who has dominated music ever since.

Honourable Mention: The Killers - Hot Fuss

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Borrowing heavily from late 20th century alternative music, Las Vegas four-piece The Killers crafted a debut album full to the brim with energetic, inspired stadium rock hits. Hot Fuss is haunted by the ghosts of British new wave and post punk music, yet these songs are undeniably made for modern masses: hits like Mr. Brightside, Somebody Told Me, and All These Things That I’ve Done endure today and shine as brightly as they ever did.

Formed through print ads in the Las Vegas Weekly, The Killers were immediately recognisable as a bankable group. Frontman Brandon Flowers possesses the kind of classic rock tenor that can carry entire songs, and here he is undercut by energetic waves of guitar, bass, drums, and synthesiser so effectively that we forget we have heard the same mixture so many times before.

There are no misses here; every song, from the menacing slow burner Andy You’re a Star to the sunny synthpop of Change Your Mind, is deftly, succinctly presented, and before we know it, 45 minutes of modern rock perfection has passed. It is the sort of record which carries lasting appeal for almost anybody; feel-good, heartfelt, catchy, inventive rock music that seemed to sum up mid-decade American rock music itself.

Tightly played, tastefully produced, and perfectly timed, Hot Fuss came along just as it was needed most. This is wild, ecstatic, sing-along-as-loud-as-you-can music; anthems for a generation who were deprived of such songs for too long.

2005: Kanye West - Late Registration

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Following the release of The College Dropout, there was no more exciting new prospect in hip-hop than Kanye West. That album had been a runaway crossover success; the sort of record that old school rap fans, college kids, teens, and even those who usually weren’t interested in rap music all loved.

On Late Registration, West ramped everything up: the production is more lush, grand, and opulent; the rhymes are more topical, worldly, and confident; the hooks are catchier, and the album is stocked full of guaranteed hits. The fact that TCD and LR came back-to-back in two successive years is nothing short of miraculous; rarely has music ever seen an advent of West’s like. He couldn’t miss: here was a surefire hitmaker; a prodigious beatsmith, an accomplished and diverse lyricist, and a chart-topping songwriter.

Late Registration is perhaps West’s most impressive record of all: not only did it follow his incredible debut in such short order, it improved on that album’s weaknesses in a way no one could have anticipated. Hits like Touch the Sky, Gold Digger, and Diamonds From Sierra Leone endure as strongly today as they ever did, and they are some of the pinnacles of 21st century popular songwriting.

West would stray from this early palette on 2007's Graduation, where he more fully embraced mainstream pop music and less political subject matter, thereby beginning a chain of dramatic album-to-album shifts; Late Registration was the second and final album to feature West’s original backpack-rap style which was so breathtakingly original.

Few in the history of modern music have single-handedly crafted such impressive pieces of music. As a producer alone, West deserves worldwide recognition; add into the mix his unfaltering talent for hooks, clever wordplay, and tasteful creative direction, and there is no wonder he is as widely known, widely envied, and widely debated as he is. Whenever anyone you know expresses doubt about West, is vexed by his ego, or hates on his poppier songs, grab Late Registration on vinyl and let the music speak for itself.

Honourable Mention: Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

We had last heard from Antony Hegarty on 2000's self-titled debut record Antony and the Johnsons. An accomplished album in its own right, that record nevertheless spoke of unreached potential; we were left with a strong sense that this incredible artist was capable of much more.

The follow up I Am a Bird Now was everything we could of hoped it would be. The breathtaking immediacy of the stunning opener Hope There’s Someone - every detail, from the delicate piano to the mournful, elastic vocal - makes it clear that I Am a Bird Now is a special record. Recruiting luminaries of music past and present, including Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Boy George, and Devendra Banhart, Hegarty wove intensely personal tales of abuse, emotional upheaval, gender identity, and loneliness into dark, fragile songs that ooze pure and genuine feeling from every note.

With the sort of voice that once heard can never be forgotten, Hegarty strolls through these gorgeous, stately songs in a heartbroken daze; we share in sadness, joy, love, and hate. It is a beautifully human journey; an album as a journal entry turned out to the world and set to stunning arrangements.

Seldom have we seen a suite of songs so intense and yet so fragile. A trembling moment of vulnerability, I Am a Bird Now is a warts-and-all exposé on love, hate, and the beauty of the human spirit.

2006: J Dilla - Donuts

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

The album cover, used on the grounds of fair use.

Released on his 32nd birthday, three days before his death, Donuts is the incomparable hip-hop producer J Dilla’s masterpiece. Not since DJ Shadow’s classic Endtroducing… was released a decade earlier had an instrumental hip-hop record reached such heights; a constantly shifting patchwork of reworked, re-purposed, and reinvigorated samples, Donuts seems to evolve from song to song like an organic organism with a mind of its own.

Bedridden in hospital with lupus and an incurable blood disease, the prolific producer was brought a Boss sampler and a 45rpm record player by his friends in order to keep him occupied and to keep his mind off the tragic circumstances in which he found himself. Completing almost the entire record during his time in hospital, few would have imagined that in such a situation Dilla would produce not only his greatest work, but one of the finest ever testaments to the art of beatmaking.

In a 2006 interview with The Fader, Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey, herself a former opera singer, spoke on the beatmaker’s time in hospital as he was crafting Donuts:

"I didn’t know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product.

He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change. Lightworks, oh yes, that was something! That’s one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time."

The short tracks - mostly around a minute in length - come and go in rapid, dizzying succession, while samples drawn from funk, soul, jazz, and rap are combined again and again, in ways that just shouldn’t work and yet Donuts never lacks cohesion. The entire record has a singular feel to it, enhanced by our knowledge of the environment in which it was crafted, though regardless, the music stands on its own.

The beats are largely repetitious; one sampled idea that is presented to us, looped, altered slightly, layered with some other sound, and then cut off and changed to something else. It shouldn't work as a full-length record, and yet it does. The ghosts of these largely forgotten artists roam through Dilla's world; their words give voice to his thoughts, their music gives form to his spirit. It is powerful, moving, and sincere.

Most of all, Donuts is a virtuosic expression of passion, talent, dedication, and love for a craft that is often forgotten, underrated, or ignored. Dilla will go down in history as one of, if not the, greatest rap producers of all time, and Donuts is a remarkable and touching crowning achievement.

Honourable Mention: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Following Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut record Frank, the singer recorded Back to Black in a series of recording studios in New York, Miami, and London. Recruiting the production polymath Mark Ronson, Winehouse here crafted a significantly more mature, focused, and more impressive collection of songs. With a voice that harked back to the golden era of soul, Winehouse's second record found the singer embodying a vintage spirit, and it was here that we first saw her true potential; an old soul shining through eleven spectacular, nostalgic songs.

The instrumentals are classic soul; horns, strings, and a purposeful, powerful rhythm section propel Winehouse’s vocals right where they should be: the foreground. Every word is sung in that voice; wounded, coated in emotion, while the subject matter is lyrically dark, vulnerable and yet defiant; melodies that stick in the mind and hit us in the gut at the same time. Winehouse came into her own as an artist on this record.

From the mission-statement single Rehab, to unforgettable cuts like You Know I’m No Good and the title track, Back to Black is the defining testament to the famously tragic and tragically famous singer Amy Winehouse. Though it was to be her last, this album set the foundation for the breakthrough success of artists like Adele in the years to come, and cemented Winehouse’s legacy as one of the greatest talents of her generation. Every era needs a frontrunner to remind them that it is okay, really, to wholeheartedly embrace the old, dusty records of the past, and Back to Black was such; a watershed moment for popular contemporary music and a lasting monument to a beautiful, troubled spirit.


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