The 21st century, for a brief moment, seemed as though it was destined to bring the human race into a new moment of technologically advanced utopia. Now, of course, we know better than that. But one thing that hasn’t disappointed the world is the ream of musical expressions that have emanated from the new millennium. Across an ever-changing landscape of genre, style and sonic structure, musicians have provided some of the finest records of all time.
Though many people will point to the 20th century as the golden moment for music, this is largely driven by record sales. Sure, looking back at the supreme number of records bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles shifted every week you are likely to cast aspersions on the new generation of creators.
In comparison to the heyday of selling physical copies, the 21st century pales in comparison. That said, there is simply no argument to suggest that music is any less loved now than it was then.
In fact, there’s good cause to say that now, more than ever before, music is welcomed into our lives at every turn. Barely a journey is made without a commuter plugging in their headphones and being transported away to another plane of being. It’s a unique property that only the best records have and, below, we’ve got a stunning collection of them.
Whittling down 21 years of extensive music is a difficult task. It means that we are bound to be routinely hunted down and asked the question: “Hey, why no Limp Bizkit!?” but that is a cross we must bear. Below, we have only the finest, most potent and most powerful albums of the new century, featuring everyone from David Bowie to The Strokes.
It may not please everyone, but one thing the 21 albums listed below will guarantee is confirmation that the art of music is far from dead.
The greatest albums of the 21st century:
21. Let England Shake (2011) — PJ Harvey
Polly Jean Harvey may well be one of the most overlooked artists of her generation. Of course, she has routinely collected the rave reviews of music critics across the globe, but such is the power of her work, we’d argue she should be revered as highly as all of the rock and roll greats. Let England Shake from 2011, was just another reminder of her sheer brilliance.
Beginning an album with ‘The West’s asleep’ is one of the more menacing introductions we’ve ever listened to and, across the following 40 minutes, Harvey leaves no stone un-thrown, as she takes aim at a society she believes to be crumbling. Using her usually disturbing lyrical style, Harvey demonstrated her sincere artistry at every turn.
Though more reserved than her earlier work, Let England Shake proved Harvey was a true legend, no matter what century she was in.
20. Youth & Young Manhood (2003) — Kings of Leon
When Kings of Leon first arrived on the scene, they were like nothing music had ever seen and not enough can be said about that. To be truly Promethean after the turn of the millennium requires a great deal of originality, which with barely illegible screeching vocals and Southern swagger the befringed band delivered.
In an era when iPod’s had limited space and the skip button was a novelty that loomed large, Youth & Young Manhood was a play-right-through classic. With every song, the LP provided a change of tempo with slower tracks like ‘Trani’, acoustic diversity on ‘Talihina Sky’, absolute road trip anthems with ‘California Waiting’ and indie bar classics with ‘Red Morning Light’.
19. Joy As An Act of Resistance (2018) — IDLES
The array of topics tackled with sincerity and knowledge on IDLES’ 2018 LP Joy As An Act of Resistance, across tracks such as ‘Colossus’, ‘Samaritans’ and ‘June’ to name a few, is not only promising from a musical point of view but astounding from a societal one. Not only can this band write punk songs about toxic masculinity but they can do it without being immediately judged and labelled.
The title of the album is the most poignant point, in this regard, Joy As An Act of Resistance is the point of the album, the point of the band, and should be the point we are willing to push through the of an establishment so dependant on our despair.
Whether it’s the power punk, the football chants, the harrowing moments of sadness or the indie dancefloor bangers, on their second record, IDLES showed that they were growing, they showed off their political and poetic prowess, they proved themselves on every track that they were, without a doubt, the most exciting band in the country. This album will certainly stand the test of time.
18. Boy in Da Corner (2003) — Dizzee Rascal
Sometimes albums can sneak up on you and, for the majority of the British public outside of the Tower Hamlets borough in London, Dizzee Rascal was a hip hop ninja. His 2003 record Boy In Da Corner can not only hold the title of launching his stratospheric career but perhaps grime as a genre itself. It was this album that suddenly turned hip hop head towards the UK.
Unfiltered and unadulterated, songs like ‘I Luv U’ and ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ painted a vivid image of a Britain that was drastically changing. Helmed by Dizzee as one of the flashest MCs the country had to offer, Rascal provides a sincere and savage reflection of the world he grew up in, the world that had tried to swallow him up, the world he wanted to break free from.
Across a myriad of pulsating tunes, Dizzee let rip with an infectious cadence that nobody could match. The real reason it was so beloved is that it was the first bonafide UK hip hop album of the last two decades that didn’t make us all wince. Move over PJ and Duncan, the age of grime had finally landed.
17. xx (2009) — The XX
Is there a sexier album opener than ‘Intro’? Within the first few seconds of the album, it hooks you, and from that point on, XX takes you through a dreamy late-night whistle-stop tour of young love, lust, and heartbreak.
Their minimalist sound was revolutionary, and the impact of this record can be felt immensely across alternative music over the last decade. Across the album, there’s an alluring level of intimacy that The XX transmit, which is seductive and impossible to escape from across every single track.
After the plethora of so-called ‘landfill indie’ in the mid to late 2000s, The XX ushered in a new era of alternative music that was progressive and looked forwards rather than backwards.
16. The Blueprint (2001) — Jay-Z
Jay-Z had been working on his rap game for five years within the public eye after his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt and, on 2001’s Blueprint, everything came together to assert Hova as the best rapper around. Everything that makes Jay-Z a true king can be heard on this LP. From the soulful seventies beats, the introduction of Kanye as his producer, to the way he tells stories with consummate ease, on Blueprint, Jay laid it all out.
Songs like the title track, ‘Never Change’ and ‘Song Cry’ are all moments that will live in his legacy for a long time to come. Of course, we can’t forget about ‘Takeover’ either, which is right up there as one of the greatest diss tracks of all time.
As well as that murder, there’s an argument that Eminem, the only feature, also dealt out his fair share of bloodshed. But nothing can take away from this being easily Jay-Z’s greatest album of all time.
15. For Emma, Forever Ago (2009) — Bon Iver
Justin Vernon’s 2009 debut project, For Emma, Forever Ago, is the most unlikely masterpiece. After growing tired of his life, getting kicked out of his band, Vernon felt like he was going nowhere and needed to start again.
He broke up with his girlfriend, placed all of his musical equipment into his car and drove to his father’s hunting cabin in the woods. As he dealt with his life coming crashing down, Vernon poured his existential crisis into his music and made one of the albums of the decade.
It’s heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. For Emma, Forever Ago is Vernon picking himself off and gaining the courage to finally return to the person he once was before losing sight of himself. It’s one man’s journey from battling back from the brink and always makes for a therapeutic listen.
14. The English Riviera (2011) — Metronomy
A lot of the albums on our list were huge smashes as soon as they landed. For Metronomy’s 2011 effort The English Riviera, named after a special piece of Devonshire coastline close to the band’s hometown, it was a slower burn. Just like sitting on the aforementioned beaches, slowly being cooked to a crisp by the overcast skies while eating a dripping ice cream, Metronomy’s sting came a little later in the day.
The sleek production and jangled tones made this record a favourite with indie dancefloors and that’s about where the adoration stopped. However, years later, it is easy to see how this album would not only encapsulate a moment in time but become a foundational stone for the reams of electro-tinged Baroque bedroom pop that would soon flood the market.
Songs like ‘The Look’ and ‘Everything Goes My Way’ are stand out hits, but it is the underlying current of feel-good amblings and electronic nuances that keep us coming back for more. As time passes, The English Riviera just keeps looking better and better. Maybe this is why old age pensioners flock to the south coast?
13. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) — Kanye West
If you doubt whether Kanye West is a genius, then you’ve probably stopped reading as soon as we mentioned his name, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is all the proof you need if you’re still not convinced on Ye.
Nowadays, it’s become all too common for West to talk the talk rather than walk the walk. Here, however, he emphatically delivers the goods. There’s an implicit biblical feel to the album, and every single track on the record is killer as West throws standard conventions to the wind. It is a pop album undoubtedly, but like all the best pop music, the chart had moved to him rather than Kanye consciously chasing commercial acclaim.
It’s a swaggering effort that remains the benchmark for his career and is the cultivation of West’s evolving sound across his first four records, blending to create a show-stopping work of art that became Kanye’s magnum opus.
12. Up The Bracket (2002) — The Libertines
In 2002, the emerging music scene in Britain left a lot to be desired. There hadn’t been an exciting band to emerge since Britpop began before it ate itself and turned tedious. Coldplay, Embrace, and Travis had become the new saviours of music, but there was nothing for people who don’t want their bands to look like geography teachers.
The Libertines answered everyone’s prayers. They were unhinged, feral and chaotic, arriving like a breath of fresh air among the tiresome state of affairs. They didn’t just have the rock ‘n’ roll swagger and attitude; The Libertines had the tunes to back it up.
Produced by Mick Jones from The Clash, The Libertines created a modern-day British classic that got feisty guitar music back in vogue and made rock music cool again.
11. Boxer (2007) — The National
The National are solidly one of the most consistent bands of this millennium. Their rise to fame was a long time coming, but after the widespread critical acclaim of 2005’s Aligator, The National followed it up with a perfect ten with Boxer.
The hauntingly beautiful ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ epitomises the best of The National and their unparalleled talent for juxtaposing emotions in a track.
From the devastating ‘Fake Empire’ to the hazy ‘Apartment Story’, Boxer is a faultless body of work that catapulted The National from cult-like status to one of the most vital bands of a generation.
10. Ghosteen (2019) — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
The tragedy of losing a child is one that in an ideal universe art would never even have to think about, however, in an ideal universe, it is unlikely that art would even exist. When Nick Cave spoke about the loss of his son he wrote, “Language falls short before the immensity of grief,” adding, “One desperate morning […] I called upon my son by name […] I said ‘you are my son and you are beside me’.”
In the song ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ those four little words, “I am beside you”, hold the weight of all language, but emboldened by the lightness of the music and empowered by the actualised release from boundless grief, they soar transcendently, and four simple words bring comfort to those that need it most. They embody the cathartic and spiritual power of music that Cave has harnessed and sheltered throughout his records.
Ghosteen is at the peak of art; it divulges hard truths and makes them bearable, illuminating, with beauty, that misery does not have to be tackled morbidly and that despair and deliverance coexist. And it does this in a scintillating musical style.
9. White Blood Cells (2001) — The White Stripes
From the notorious opener ‘Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground,’ the precedent is set, and The White Stripes are ready to rip your face off.
That song, perhaps showcasing the band’s unique songwriting talent, then makes way for a charming indie-pop bop that wouldn’t look out of place at a Violent Femmes show. It’s the perfect example of the album’s duality. One side showcases Jack and Meg as lovelorn romantics, trying to make it in a tough world. At the same time, the other side offers glimpses of the duo holding Molotov cocktails and ready to burn this chapel to the ground. ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ is the perfect match of both while ‘I’m Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman’ is very much smelling of petrol.
Across the board, the album is doused in the kind of powerhouse performance that proved The White Stripes to be the real deal. This album would prove to be a seminal moment for the group and launch their career in earnest. When you add that to the potency of the songs at hand, you have a concoction that could knock over a whole town.
8. Kid A (2000)— Radiohead
On this record, Radiohead changed rock music forever and just in time for the new century too. It’s not only a great album but it has great artistic integrity behind it too. Workling as a sonic collage of sorts, the album relies on these fractured moments to welcome their audience and achieve cracks in their impenetrable theme. It made sure that Radiohead fans were truly fans, not just people who happened to hear a song they liked on the radio. No, after Kid A, everybody had to pay attention.
OK Computer may well be the more universally accepted album, it may even have more fans spread across the globe, but Kid A is an album for the fans. It is rich and luxurious but supremely complex and highly textured. It doesn’t want any fairweather fans or looky-loos screeching past on the way to pick up a McMadchester revival act. It wants you to sit down and enjoy the ambience as they serve up the latest in sonic gastronomy.
This record remains one of the most influential albums of all time because of this fact. It said to hell with commercialism and put art in the driving seat.
7. Funeral (2004) — Arcade Fire
Released in their native Canada in 2004 and hitting British shores the following year, Arcade Fire’s Funeral is anything but a morbid affair. Though the title of the album may have solemn connections, band members Regine Chassaigne, Richard Reed Parry and Win and Will Butler all tragically lost relatives during recording, there is a palpable verve to the record that feels energising.
Full t the brim with indie dancefloor fillers, the album addresses some of the most vulnerable moments of our society with a baroque-pop prowess that, legendary fan, David Bowie would be proud of. Paying tribute to lost love is a personal moment but it was the connection that the band of merry musicians shared with each other and the audience that made the experience enriching.
Huge choruses and singalong moments that guaranteed Arcade Fire’s headline status from the off, Funeral is somehow joyous
6. Back to Black (2006) — Amy Winehouse
It’s impossible to appreciate Back To Black without contemplating of tragedy attached to the record. Winehouse wasn’t ready for the fame and adulation that the album would serve in her direction, which is a difficult fact to escape.
Winehouse received critical acclaim with her debut album, Frank, but Back To Black elevated her career to the stars. She was a timeless artist in the truest sense, and no matter what the era, Back To Black, would still have an identical impact.
Her highly documented troubled relationship with Blake Fielder played a large part in the record’s theme, and her ethereal voice leaves you hanging on every last heartbreaking note.
5. Blackstar (2016) — David Bowie
Released in 2016, shortly before his death, Blackstar is the final breath of one of the world’s greatest artists and for that reason alone it very nearly topped our chart. An artist to the end, Bowie’s final album, an unexpected one at that, with many people believing The Next Day to be his swansong, was a brutal reflection of a life we will all eventually lose.
Bowie is not only inspired by jazz and electro on this album but his own mortality, something he was acutely aware of around the time. It’s a confessional record that sees Bowie open up about death, the fear of it and the idea of rebirth, across seven intense songs.
It is a courageous piece of artistry and one that confirmed Bowie’s ultra-legendary status like no other disc before it. Yes, there are better Bowie albums but none are so arresting or painful for a Bowie fan. For those people, this is confronting life and death itself.
4. Currents (2015) — Tame Impala
When it comes to Tame Impala’s output this century, any one of their first three records could have happily graced this list. However, the reason Currents cashes in is the measure of its influence and the bold step that it represented for the band. Like the first cavemen to chuck salt in his stew, there has been at least a pinch of this record in everything that has followed.
Like a mad sonic scientist, Kevin Parker basically resided in a studio, sweating over drum sounds and equalisers like somebody who was perennially celebrating shaking the trapped water loose from his ears, he perfected a bottomless swathe of adrenalized mood music.
Ubiquity and influence are not the be-all and end-all by any means, but on this occasion, Tame Impala achieved it in such a sui generis way that there wasn’t even a bandwagon to jump on, fans of every respective genre simply emerged for a while to marvel in a record that somehow takes space-age crafting and imbues it an almost outsider-music-esque bedroom-bound deeply personal vibe.
3. Original Pirate Material (2002) — The Streets
It was a watershed moment in 2002 when Mike Skinner made his unexpected arrival under the moniker of The Streets with the zeitgeisty Original Pirate Material.
Skinner’s unique approach to music remains the main appeal, and he changed lyricism forever. The magnetic way in which he discussed the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Skinner’s way of focusing on the minutiae of life was groundbreaking and made him somebody that everyone in Britain wanted to have a pint with.
While the album sees Skinner celebrate more trivial things like rave culture on ‘Weak Become Heroes’. He also delves deeply into the young British man’s psyche in a matter of fact way, especially on closer, ‘Stay Positive’, and it was refreshing to hear someone who spoke like one of your friends be so frank about their troubles.
2. Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not (2005) — Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys exploded onto the scene like mainstream bank robbers. They were pockmarked bandits of benevolent intent, and all everybody wanted to know was whether they could believe the hype. With an atom-splitting opening riff and an agile beast blitzkrieg behind the drums, the band suddenly not only made sense of the working-class adolescence that lay ahead of many fans but coloured it with the fluorescent palette of piled-up passions in a poetic punch-up of visceral rock ‘n’ roll and snarling lyrical introspection.
There have been very few albums released in the interim 15 years that rival Whatever People Say I Am… for quality, fewer still where you can say ‘I remember where I was when I first heard that’, and absolutely none where an entire generation can recite every word of every song.
It captures the energy of youth culture in such a way that it rattled anyone of age like a pinball in an earthquake, but beneath the blood guts and vitriol, there’s a reverie of melody that seems to capture the in-house nostalgia of memories not yet made, that sepia-toned sanguine feeling, that seemingly abides through youth until those wistful daydreams never matched, crystalise as the real thing in the lines around the eyes of adulthood. This implacable life-chapter snatching perfection still makes it a classic to this day.
1. Is This It (2001) — The Strokes
By the time of the millennium, guitar music was flailing. The Strokes didn’t so much pick it up off the floor but rather thrashed around in the gutter a bit, and aside from the rhythmic brilliance that splashing about in the mire produced, they very importantly made it cool again. While a term like ‘cool’ might seem frivolous, there is far more depth to it than any cynics would care to accept.
It takes a keen eye on culture and a depth of originality to seize the seething passions of youth, thrives on naïve recklessness, colour it in the sound of the New York rock music that inspired you in the first place, and make the sort of art that usurps the status quo and spawns a new generation of its own.
Is This It rattled indie bars back to life, beginning with the fizzing of a fading out guitar, and the defibrillation of Fab Moretti’s daringly simple drumbeat. With euphonic guitars and snarling vocals that undoubtedly recalled the Velvet Underground of old, the band were the perfect tonic to enliven a hungover music scene in a swaggering declaration that the hair of the dog was the way to go, in a glowing revival of all that was best about the night before.
The measure of it now is that it’s just about the work of the century where many people listen to the whole album more often than a single song from it.