20. The Bravery The Bravery (2005)

Released in 2005, the self-titled album was The Bravery’s UK and US debut. The band, hailing from New York City, hit it big in the UK when first single “An Honest Mistake” was released. The song was also widely popular in Japan. A little later in 2005, The Bravery gained recognition in America. Next single “Fearless” was released, followed by “Unconditional” (one of my personal favorites), leading to the album placing #14 on the US charts and #5 in the UK.

If not for The Bravery resonating so well in the alternative charts, the band’s second album, The Sun and The Moon, probably would not have had as much of a reaction. This first album really set up an assurance for the band, especially in the UK and Japan. Cassandra

19. The White Stripes Elephant (2003)

Though the White Stripes were certainly not “new” artists when their major label debut Elephant hit in 2003, they may as well have been to the majority of America. In a just world (and one with YouTube), the video for “Fell in Love with a Girl” alone would have gotten them into the spotlight, but as it were, most of the world learned about the stripes through their smash hit single “Seven Nation Army”, which suddenly gave bassists everywhere a cool riff to bust out at parties (guilty as charged). White’s always been a time vortex of sorts, part 1970’s hard rocker and part early-mid century blues artist, who dresses like Oscar Wilde and upholsters furniture, and the music on Elephant captures his temporal shiftiness (according to the liner notes, no computers were used during writing, recording, or production). The result is a pure nugget of rock and roll, from full speed ahead tracks like “Black Math” to the bluesy and smooth “Ball and Biscuit” to the garage rock meets revival preacher masterpiece “Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine”. Best of all, it was an album whose style crossed generational gaps, one I could just as easily listen to with my high school friends as with my then 40 year old father. Stephen

18. Gnarls Barkley St. Elsewhere (2006)

Pure lightning in a bottle. In 2006, prior to the release of St. Elsewhere, it was common knowledge that you’d simply have to hear a collaboration between The Grey Album impresario and in-demand Gorillaz/Jemini/Black Keys producer Danger Mouse and rapper/singer/songwriter/mad-genius/offspring of Elton John and a thumb Cee-Lo; the resulting record would simply be too restlessly creative to ignore. So, in a way, I suppose the weirdest thing about Gnarls Barkley’s debut record is that it’s so accessible; DM’s soundscapes cull from every possible cobwebbed corner of pop music history to create a pop-culture pastiche astonishing in its variety and in its sense of melodic adventure, while Cee-Lo’s reedy, high tenor dances nimbly across each bed of sound, tying the whole enterprise together with idiosyncratic hooks and jittery leads. It’s perhaps the most high-concept and creative release to also harness the basest, most carnal pleasures of pop and rock and hip-hop and r&b and trip-hop in one thrilling, compulsively listenable package. And it’s poignant, too; the trip through the pop-music hall of mirrors delights and surprises, musically, but Cee-Lo’s smart, economical songwriting cuts right to the heart of several mental conditions, including near-suicidal depression (the chilling “Just A Thought”), schizophrenia (new Halloween mixtape staple “The Boogie Monster”), and garden-variety psychosis (cross-genre megahit “Crazy”). Drew

17. System of a Down Toxicity (2001)

System Of A Down’s self-titled debut was a great album that showcased their unique take on metal music, but sophomore effort Toxicity absolutely blew it out of the water. I remember when this album first came out, I must have listened to it 3 or 4 times a day for 3 weeks straight as it was the audio equivalent of crack cocaine. Around the time this album was released (2001), there were an overwhelming amount of bands in the metal arena mixing the melody with the metal riffing and the good cop/bad cop vocal style… and most of them were failing miserably at finding a good formula. System Of A Down succeeded in finding the right recipe, but that description oversimplifies the style of music they are playing. Nobody quite sounds like Serj Tankian and in terms of vocal ability, he is up there with Mike Patton. Guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian’s ability to go from insane Slayer-inspired riffs to a beautiful harmony on the stop of a dime is the other key factor. None of his playing feels formulaic, but simply inspired. And lyrically the songs range from political and social matters to ones about psychotic groupies which gives the album a few touches of humor mixed in amongst the seriousness.

The other thing that makes this album so worthy of praise is that not only was something so heavy and aggressive released on a major label (although many metal bands were doing well on majors at the time), but that it was a HUGE success. First single “Chop Suey!” was an unlikely monster hit on MTV and radio and put the band squarely on top of the rock heap alongside another unlikely superstar LA band, Tool.

Simply put, Toxicity is one of those metal albums that appeals to metalheads, but also opened up the genre to a much larger audience, not unlike what Metallica’s Black Album had done the decade before. Nick

 

16. Ben Folds Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001)

At the time, a divorce from Ben Folds’ exceptionally tight piano-rock three-piece Ben Folds Five may have sounded daunting; a change in line-up will do little, as it turns out, to stop a songwriter who grew into one of the most irreverent, intelligent, and humanist artists of the decade. When his first true solo record’s title track and first single hit the airwaves and the idiot box, Folds seemed to be heralding a full-scale return to flippant, casually profane enfant terrible rants and catchy choruses; what we actually got on Rockin’ the Suburbs was a different beast entirely, a mature, vital, and reflective record about aging, uncertainty, and the human experience. It’s also Ben’s finest set of songs to date, a cycle that doesn’t sacrifice enthusiasm and honesty in its maturity, and a varied bed of song that pulls from vintage Elton John balladry, Smiths chamber pop, and even stomping doo-wop. It’s all quite potent stuff, and Ben’s ability to engender sympathy for his richly-drawn characters in the span of a four-minute pop song is remarkable and unparalleled: the upbeat numbers are fabulous, sure, but if you’re not shedding a silent tear for the hero of “Fred Jones, Part 2” when he’s unceremoniously muscled out of his longtime job and subsequently forgotten, or the elderly woman who simply lays down and passes away after the death of her husband in “The Luckiest”, I’d like to find a way to chip away at your coal-black heart, thank you. Drew

15. Incubus Morning View (2001)

For a long time, Incubus was a good band with the Rodney Dangerfield curse: they were just looking for a little respect. Despite having a great fan base, Incubus was generally critically panned until their third major LP, Make Yourself. Even then, many critics remained skeptical, openly wondering whether this band had it in them to repeat the task, and a common opinion seemed to be that the follow-up to their 1999 release would make or break the band’s reputation.

Incubus delivered. In spades. When Morning View dropped, critics and fans were almost unilaterally enamored with the album (well, with the exception of Rolling Stone, but really, who gives a crap what they have to say any more?), knowing that they had just received what was certainly the finest work of the band thus far (and, arguably, to date). The album has a very positive vibe, and a wide variety of textures. Incubus’ more traditional guitar-and-scratch aggressive sound is still present, but it is balanced by a lot of ambient and groove-based tracks. This combination also produced four singles (“Wish You Were Here”, “Nice To Know You”, “Warning”, and “Circles”), and even many of the album’s deep cuts got radio play, resulting in a greatly expanded (and well-deserved) fan base. The nearly-eight-minute closing track, “Aqueous Transmission”, got a large boost from über-guitarist Steve Vai, who donated a Pipa (a Chinese instrument) to be used on the track and worked with guitarist Mike Einziger to develop the main riff. Morning View ends up being catchy, trippy, epic, introspective, fun, enlightening, and nearly danceable all in one package. Grez

14. Jay-Z The Black Album (2003)

While I imagine most would choose Jay-Z’s The Blueprint as his best album of the 2000s, I’m not sure I agree. For its time and place, you could probably twist my arm. But if you play The Blueprint and The Black Album back-to-back, the latter holds up better. While The Blueprint sounds slightly more cohesive on a sonic level, The Black Album contains more edge. Also, Jay-Z was out to prove that he was at the top of the rap game. 

The original premise was that it was Jay-Z’s “retirement” album and it was supposed to feature 14 cuts with 14 different producers. It was supposed to tell a story and the last song was to connect with the first. While it didn’t actually happen that way, it’s probably for the better. Kanye West and Just Blaze, who produced the bulk of The Blueprint, produce two songs each. The Neptunes also show up twice, but produce two of the weaker songs. But it’s Rick Rubin and Timbaland who produce the two most timeless songs on the album. “99 Problems” has received its fair share of publicity of late, but it’s well deserved. It’s a hard track and Jay-Z’s storytelling is near its best. “The year is ’94 and in my trunk is raw. In my rearview mirror is the motherfucking law.” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” still hits today and holds up much better than Jay-Z and Timbo’s other memorable collabo “Big Pimpin’”. I’m not sure that Jay-Z will ever match the quality of his supposed retirement album ever again, but it’s a high bar to reach anyway. GG

 13. The Roots Game Theory (2006)

Remember Myspace?

I remember posting on Myspace the day my Game Theory pre-order CD and T-shirt bundle arrived in the mail from Okayplayer, that Game Theory was “The new ‘Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’…..” I was so excited, so amped and so impressed I instantly threw it atop a pedestal, one that admittedly should be reserved for very, very few special albums. OK, I admit I may overreact at times, may be a tad presumptuous as well, and perhaps I was somewhat rash to go so far, but it was love at first listen and I jumped in with both feet. While it may be unfair to compare any album with one so important and special as NationGame Theory is a classic nonetheless. The Roots are on-point, dropping their trademark style, displaying their other worldly talents and conscious, no fluff, listen and learn type lyrics for 47 thrilling minutes. “Don’t Feel Right” instantly became my all-time favorite Roots track, and that’s saying a lot from a self proclaimed Roots groupie. It hits hard, with ?uestlove supplying the foundation upon which ominous piano and revolutionary lyrics from Black Thought are laid. “The struggle ain’t right up in your face, its more subtle, but it’s still coming across, like a bridge and tunnel.” Black Thought is not playing on the track, or the album as a whole. If there is a game to played, the Roots are like the Monopoly man, in full control…switching the system on its backside and running things to give you what you need….whether you even realize it or not.  Chuck

12. Coldplay Parachutes (2000)

Who’d have known when MTV began playing the music video for “Yellow” on heavy rotation that the little band from Britain that was behind it, Coldplay, would still be around twelve years later? Yes, it’s been a full twelve years since Coldplay made a name for themselves with their debut album, Parachutes.  The disc, mostly compromised of mellow, acoustic-guitar numbers and soft vocals from frontman Chris Martin, is often overlooked in Coldplay’s repertoire. It’s funny to say this now, but I’d definitely classify the sound as “old school Coldplay”- the drastically stripped back production and simplistic songwriting is a far cry from some of the band’s newer, busier stuff. However, this is one of the few CDs I can actually listen to from start to finish without stopping. Opening track “Don’t Panic” features some lovely guitar work , “Sparks” is an incredibly romantic ballad, “Trouble” has that beautiful and unforgettable piano melody- even the :46 second title track/interlude features some of the most heavenly seconds of music you’ll ever hear. Though I came onto the Coldplay scene much later in their career, it wasn’t until I went back and purchased Parachutes that I truly fell in love with band and their sound. Brittany

11. Kanye West Graduation 

It seems strange now that Graduation sounded a bit disappointing at first listen. Kanye hadn’t fallen off as an emcee – his limited rhyme skills seemed to improve, in fact, as he went along – but as a record, Graduation just didn’t seem as huge as The College Dropout or Late Registration. Kanye dared to cram those records with sound from wall to wall, filling what seemed like every inch of wax with ideas and sounds; Graduation was slightly shorter, seemed a bit more economical. In hindsight, of course, that’s nonsense: Graduation is  every bit as ambitious, epic, and hubristic as his first two records. Kanye just takes a different route to get there. Here, Kanye’s oft-cited production skills take center stage; as he raps about Kanye things like fame and haters and insecurity, he’s building a wall of sound that’s fit for a lonely, isolated king, drawing from ’70s rock, house music, and Europop along the way. Glitzy synths rise and fall; restless minor keys creep into the mix; and all the while, there’s Kanye, forever the toppled martyr from the Twisted Fantasy artwork, doubting himself every step of the way. A work of dizzying artifice, yes, but one that pulls back the curtain just enough to let the fractured soul seep out; in a lot of ways, Graduation is the album that paved the way for certified best-thing-ever My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Also, “Flashing Lights” is the best thing you’ve ever heard, and “Drunk & Hot Girls” isn’t nearly as awful as you remember it being. – Drew

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