In recent history, music has been a defining feature of the way we view society. Following the diabolical shake-up of World War II, culture began to flex its muscles and forage a more frontline role in society. It came to the fore and had a defining impact; after all, could the rockabilly fifties be embodied with any more fidelity than the matinée idol good looks of the hip-shaking, greased-up King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? Then, you hear ‘sixties’ and one of the first words brought to mind will be “swinging” and images of the great jaunt of peace and love high on psychedelics and war surplus will spring forth from the grey in technicolour brilliance.
We live in the age of individualism where self-expression is king and the personal is given equal billing along with the collective, and as a result, the pop culture explosion has been incredible. New scenes leapt up out of nowhere. The hippies ducked out of the rat race; the punks became a personal protest against everything; the romantics eviscerated macho and so on… The various art installations that were coughed up along the way became woven into the tapestry of history with a viscerally amplified edge. At the heart of each of them, was the voice of youth saying we’re going to do things differently from our forefathers…
…All the way up until the 21st century when the internet happened, and it served up the requiem from consistent youth culture. There was no longer any need to conform to that which surrounded you, or to seek out a niche of your own. Everything was absorbed into the world wide web that blurred the milieu of culture-defining microcosms and dispersed them into the insignificant macrocosm of an endless data stream.
For some people, this has created the illusion that music is on a steady downward slide. However, in truth, there is a mass of unsung depth amid the current mixed-up artistic milieu that simply goes unheralded. Granted, the huge seismic culture forces of old might be missing, but the quality of artistry remains.
Recently we focussed on the 21 best albums of the 21st century, and naturally, impact ran alongside quality when it came to our thinking. Today, we’re looking at the LPs that might not have made such a mark on the mainstream but stand out as records of remarkable quality that, if anything, highlight the great music of the era even more by beaming with brilliance from the shrouded depths of relative obscurity. And who knows, maybe even a few of them will be new to you and you can snaffle them up and say life in 2021 isn’t so bad after all.
The 21 most underrated albums of the 21st century:
21. Melody’s Echo Chamber (2012) – Melody’s Echo Chamber
It is safe to say that Kevin Parker of Tame Impala fame has made his mark on the sound of this century. Like the first Neanderthal to chuck salt in their stew, there has been at least a pinch of his work in everything that has followed. He started spreading his influence early when he teamed up with Melody Prochet to alchemically cook up her solo debut with a finely harvested sonic atmosphere from the floating ether around his homely Perth studio.
The heady mix of their brew is an intoxicating one. While it might be clear at times that studio experimentation has sneaked to the forefront and songwriting has slipped to the wayside, it still proves to be a highly involving listen all the same. The album takes space-age crafting and imbues it with an almost outsider-music-esque bedroom-bound vibe.
20. Un, Deux, Trois (2020) – Juniore
The fact that the French trio of Juniore are little-known outside of their native land is a crime. Both Un, Deux, Trois and their self-titled debut could’ve happily graced this list as hidden gems of perfectly à la mode garage psychedelia.
At the height of the pandemic, this swirling sonic geyser offered up a coracle of escapism to float above the despair and marvel as the depths below were transfigured into a splurge of sui generis musical stylings.
Don’t be put off by the language barrier, this is ethereal dreaminess that anyone can drift into given a couple of listens.
19. Yours to Keep (2006) – Albert Hammond Jr.
With The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr. had helped to inspire a generation of future guitar music, but with that came a heap of stress. Suffering in the depths of addiction and mourning the soured dream of his band’s Promethean feat, the beleaguered guitarist took to the studio in a solo capacity and, sadly, much of the music press at the time had gnawed their teeth and were hoping for no less than Is This It II.
Naturally, that proved impossible, but the album that he did somehow manage was grossly misjudged and maligned by many. There is a real humility to the sound and a wounded sense of introspection that imbues the tracks with depth, while the melodic ways of The Strokes echo in the rhythmic stiff-wristed style of his guitar playing.
18. When the Storms Would Come (2015) – Holy Holy
Fathoming why Holy Holy are a band that not a great many music fans have heard of is not an easy task. Their back catalogue is filled with the sort of perfectly crafted melodies, first-rate musicianship and crisp production that should make them as accessible as an open window to fly and entrap listeners thereafter like that same bumbling bastard trying to retrace its entry point.
Their debut album found their pop-rock ways at their purest. Like a modern-day Rumours, it is an album to play aloud for any occasion and crowd that surely nobody would besmirch. But by no means does that make it beige. The album might saunter with butter cutting ease, but it bristles with vibrancy as it does so.
17. Titanic Rising (2019) – Weyes Blood
Natalie Mering has the sort of beguiling voice that she could harp every cliché in the book and it would still stir like a siren’s call. But that’s a laurel that she buoyantly leaves behind in a splurge of infused creativity as she juices every element of her talents to the pith.
A lot of the reporting upon the release of Titanic Rising used the word “retro” all too often, considering that ‘Movies’ stills sits as one of the finest pieces of modern production that has ever been put forward. Sure, there is a timeless timbre to her soulful tones, and the bravura of the melodies could easily be transposed into classics for a time-travelling plagiarist like Skeeter Davis in the 1950s. But the brave brilliance of meddling that with the rich density of music’s culminating journey disavows the past and establishes Weyes Blood as one of the boldest innovators around.
16. Not Waving, But Drowning (2019) – Loyle Carner
South Londoner, Loyle Carner, has continually offered up an expert analysis of the social climate just as the original tenets of hip hop decreed. However, as the soft music-box-like stylings of the albums opening track, ‘Dear Jean’, suggests from the off, he wasn’t about to get mindlessly caught up in it all.
The album continues in the same cognizant and creative vein throughout, offering flourishes of the literary grounding that its title, in reference to the poet Stevie Smith, proposed. Over 15 tracks and 45 minutes, Carner explores all the far reaches that the blank canvas of 12 inches can offer, and he creates a welcoming insular space as he does so.
16. In the Heart of the Moon (2005) – Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté
As far as underrated goes an album like In the Heart of the Moon pretty much defines the extremities of the phrase. It is basically unknown to most of the world but quietly its reverberations are beginning to be felt as the records seismic impact on the epicentre of the Sahara begins to weave into the global sonic consciousness.
For the album, the two Malian legends added an infusion of impetus to the pioneering force of Tinariwen and helped to inspire the next generation of Taureg people to seek solace away from the disruption of political turmoil and climate change in music, by offering up some of the most technical and enchanting guitar work ever recorded.
If spawning a revolution with beautiful sounds and contemplation, and still being barely known in the west doesn’t make an album underrated, then nothing will.
15. Docks (2016) – Amanda Bergman
Swedish musician Amanda Bergman is a songwriter who knows her strengths which is a huge hill for any artist to climb. Bergman seems to have sauntered to the top where she happily picnics on the fruits of her own effortless artistry.
Her voice is among the smoothest you’ll ever hear as it wraps around melodies like a spring breeze. And, alas, the melodies she crafts are similarly the sort of easy, natural, joys that also have your mind racing towards thoughts of sanguine hue of the golden hour.
From start to finish, this dreamy offering is a welcome addition to our dismal daily lives and is due the thankful recognition that it deserves.
14. Halcyon Digest (2010) – Deerhunter
By 2010, indie music was looking like it was turning away from a slew of regrettable choices. Then Halcyon Digest came along and seemed to reclaim the joyous nostalgic highlights of the decade that had gone before in a captivating sonic capsule of vibrant reverie.
The album seemed to reach out from the slumber of an era in tentative transition and rattle the indie-rock scene about like a pinball in play during a hurricane. The youthfulness of old was suddenly paired with the magnetism of experimentation and the result was a rousing celebration that tore banality to shreds.
13. If… (2011) – Bill Ryder Jones
When Bill Ryder Jones left The Coral, it was a bold step into the creative unknown for someone who had been in the band since his school days. His next step, however, was so joyously unexpected that the resultant glory thudded into the back of the net like a 40 yarder from Tony Yeboah.
His bold debut solo project was based around Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller. The premise of the book is that each chapter is divided into two sections as it focuses on the processes the reader goes through as they make their way through the novel. This highly post-modernist premise doesn’t seem primed for an album, but Bill Ryder Jones’ treatment was also befittingly leftfield.
For the record, he composed music as a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist. While all that might sound fairly confusing the result is something that adds relevance to orchestral music with bucketloads of originality, and the searing pieces themselves do the rest of the talking.
12. There’s No Leaving Now (2012) – Tallest Man on Earth
As the second Swedish musician to grace our list, Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man On Earth, has seen his popularity hindered by the fact the for many fans, he is the one artist so personally precious that you keep him under lock and key.
Nick Cave once coined the term “Hidden Songs” to describe songs that “shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect him from the corrosive glare of the world.” While Matsson’s back catalogue might not fit that description entirely, there is something to be said about the personal aura that they exist in stirring personal evocations as they whisk you along.
With There’s No Leaving Now, he welcomed softer instrumentation into the studio for a record of astounding beauty and filigreed craft. Amid the wider musical scope that the album took his strumming hand remains as fluid as the intonation of bird song and made sure he resides as one of the greatest acoustic guitar players in music.
11. Grinderman 2 (2010) – Grinderman
Amid the triumphant torrent of releases from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and the first Grinderman effort, the second LP from the spin-off outfit has been wrongfully stowed away in the corner by many casual fans.
This, however, is purely circumstantial, because the record itself is another gilded masterpiece of guttral expression.
Taking a less manic approach than the first Grinderman outing, the album sat a little closer to the tenets of The Bad Seeds but still freed itself creatively to shoulder out its own space. The result is one of the tightest and most honed records that Nick Cave has been involved with. And for ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ alone it deserves far more credit.
10. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015) – Courtney Barnett
For the first time in its short, westernised history, Australia is perhaps leading the way for alternative music. Given its relatively small population size, the swathe of great new bands that it has offered up this century has been a triumph. While Courtney Barnett herself might doth her hat to the lesser-known likes of Dick Diver, You Am I and The Peep Tempel’s as inspirations, she can consider herself the chief songwriter from Down Under.
Sometimes I Sit… offers up some of the best and most original lyricism that has ever wrapped its way around a distorted guitar. The symbol of her quality in this regard comes from the amalgamation of the songs on the album as a whole. She traverses narrative tales about the contentedly disenfranchised youth in ‘Elevator Operator’, looks at the struggles of upholding leftist ethics on ‘Dead Fox’ and tells a story that tackles the malaise of mortgage-bound shackles on perhaps the record’s best song, ‘Depreston’.
Like a fruit stall of sincerity, everything is on offer, and absolutely all of it is fresh.
9. Harps and Angels (2008) – Randy Newman
When it comes to Pixar’s inhouse musical Dean of Satire, most people are happy to accept that a song like Toy Story’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ is a wonderful ditty that comforts and disarms both adults and kids, but not quite as many people are as happy to rightfully regard him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Harps and Angels is a collection of songs that shows off his talent to craft charming songs of every variety. With playful and poignant scenes, he pairs story and sonic accompaniment like no other. With tracks that are like short literary tales, the album is an odyssey through life that explores its full joyous range; or as he puts it himself: “God bless the potholes on memory lane.”
8. A Deeper Understanding (2017) – The War on Drugs
Certain records have an inherent characteristic wrapped up in their sound. A Deeper Understanding is sonically synonymous with driving or maybe even a long walk. Its effervescent modulating swell simply cries out for movement of some sort and, if possible, a dazzling sunset.
With a repetitive rhythm section and retro production, it is no doubt not to everyone’s taste, but in some ways that is its unabated triumph. The album never errs or falters from its one-track mind, blazing a trail of bliss for fans as it breezes along. It is an album all about atmosphere and serves it up with a finely tuned aplomb.
7. Hours Were Birds (2014) – Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker described her first solo effort as “basically just like a live solo show.” She had just moved to New York, she scarcely knew anyone and clearly felt subsumed into the swarm of the Big Apple. All of that is wrought out on an album of sheer simple grace.
In truth, there isn’t much more to say about it other than to eulogise. The summation springs forth to any listener almost immediately: these are ten perfect tracks that will be endlessly open-armed for the warm embrace of a revisit when needed. Not many records can offer themselves up as simply as that, but Lenker beguiles with such calm and beauty that the album sits in the rare realm of LPs that have to be listened to all the way through and enjoyed with dreamy uninterrupted contentment.
Such simplicity serves as a soaring reminder of the profound gift of music; it’s a record that asks for nothing and offers exultant bliss in return.
6. New Long Leg (2021) – Dry Cleaning
From start to finish Dry Cleaning’s debut continually plays with sound and poetry like a child who has inadvertently cracked anti-matter and is using it to power a Scalextric. The album effortlessly forages forward into what academics might refer to as futurist art.
In the same way that Marcel Duchamp spawned the Dadaist movement by capturing the mindless horrors of World War One by hanging a urinal in an art gallery, operating on the logic that the only way to reflect the senselessness of society was through equally senseless art; Dry Cleaning’s barrage of near-maddening lyrics is reflective of the bombardment of information that we receive daily in this technological-info age.
This cognizant and satirically comical reflection of society, whether intended that way or not, is highly credible and champions Florence Shaw as one of the most original songwriters for many years. The fact like a Television post-punk masterpiece elevates the playfully cerebral intent to the jubilant levels. Which other album is talking about the new format of the Antiques Roadshow?
5. Black Hours (2014) – Hamilton Leithauser
When Hamilton Leithauser took up residency at The Café Carlyle in Brooklyn the post-Walkmen future that awaited was unclear. However, what followed was one of the most celebrated live shows of all time (for the select coterie of people who have seen it that is). With a record as inventive and polished as Black Hours that high praise shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those that have heard it.
Actor Ethan Hawke remarked to Amoeba records: “The best live show I’ve seen in years was Hamilton in Brooklyn and that’s nice, but Hamilton did something bigger than that, he did what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do, he lit the stage on fire.” Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys took that praise a set further and said the show reinvigorated his love for live music.
If you want to get a feel of that incendiary energy then dive into the rapturous pit of this unflinching album that throws everything into the mix with the confident bravado of knowing well in advance that it can pull it off. There is a self-assured mastery to this album that allows it to effortless throw a glockenspiel into the mix without it approaching a gimmick and that is a rare mark of excellence.
4. Dogrel (2019) – Fontaines D.C.
Guitar music has apparently died and been saved more times this century than a cat with a cliff-hanger churning Netflix series. Fontaines D.C.’s Dogrel was the latest Uma Therman-esque shot to the heart. And much like Pulp Fiction, it was an album that hit the industry like a cold splash of water and wiped the Etch-a-Sketch clean.
Frontman Grian Chatten may well be one of, if not the best lyricists to emerge in recent times, and the thunderous instrumentation delivers on all fronts, but the true triumph of Dogrel is its singular daring to be youthful.
There is no hint that the record is there to appease anyone at all. Like all the best art it remains entirely uncompromising without ever being cynical.
3. Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) – Interpol
Any album that is able to sit ‘Specialist’ on the subs bench is surely a winning force. This depth of quality seemingly comes from a band thrashing in the mire of its own sound and seeing the best permutations they could come up with. Naturally, that sound was often linked to the darkness of Joy Division, but in an era of happy-clappy anthems even being derivative was highly original, it came from a sound that had largely been sequestered from the scene of the time.
The depth to the album is not in the lyrics, subject matters, or any profound innovation; it lingers in the obfuscated reaches of mangled energy and atmosphere that unfurls through jarring guitar epics and bittersweet darkly tender odes. The closest you can come is to say that it sounds like a band seizing the zeitgeist in some weird spiritual sense like indie suit-clad alchemists. New York has a history of doing this, in fact, it has its own unique sound, and in its hour of need post-9/11, Interpol offered up a befitting dirge to its underbelly.
2. All Mirrors (2019) – Angel Olsen
The first track on any album sets an artist’s stall out, with ‘Lark’ Angel Olsen delivered a kitchen-sink explosion of sound that could shake the moss off of a sloth’s back loose. What follows is a maelstrom of unflinching musical artistry and perfectly realised pieces of songwriting.
All that being said, there is a joyous nuance to the album. This isn’t just a musician cutting loose, but one doing so with exacting artistic intent, that traverses themes aplenty in a declaration in an album of such swirling sonic depth that it throws off GPS systems in a maze of mercurial mood swings.
Nothing seems sacred, whether that being the changing opinions in the lyrics, instrumentation or abiding influences and rarely has such flippancy sounded better or more befitting.
1. The Gritterman (2017) – Orlando Weeks
If there is to be one criticism of the century’s music so far, which as the introduction hinted is underpinned by the blur of the internet, then perhaps not as many records have transcended the clutches of culture and permeated our lives in the same monolithic way that bands of bygone eras enforced change. With The Gritterman, however, Orlando Weeks humbly offered up a concept album with that same life enlightening potential.
His first project post-Maccabees seemed to be a stored-up share of his own individualistic creativity. He released a short book brimmed with his own stunning illustrations that regaled the tale of a man who took to the snowy roads of winter in an ice cream van that had been modified to grit. The accompanying record was part voice-over (Paul Whitehouse) and part brooding musical triumph. The creativity is awe-inspiring, and its gentle beauty exists in a rarefied realm that paints truth with such poetry that you’ll be gladdened by the simple joys of life throughout, which is perhaps the highest purpose of any album.
It’s the greatest Christmas record ever written, but a listen at any time of the year is a much-needed gift to yourself. Check it out for God’s sake!