The 100 Best Albums of the 21st Century according to music writers
The 100 Best Albums of the 21st Century according to music writers
The Guardian polled 45 music writers to rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far. Read their countdown of passionate pop, electrifying rock and anthemic rap – and see if you agree.
• This list was voted for by a panel of 45 Guardian music writers, who ranked their 20 favourite albums from 2000 to 2019 inclusive. Twenty points were allocated for a No 1 choice, down to one point for No 20. These points were totalled up, resulting in the following ranking. A total of 454 different albums were voted for.
100 Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
Seven years after her previous album, Apple’s return sidelined her orchestral trademarks for an austere, homespun sound that exposed her insular lyrics even more starkly. Listen to the album.
The first album album from an artist whose records had previously propped up killer singles with passable fillers turned her disaffection and disappointment into generational anthems. Listen to the album.
98 Rokia Traoré
The Malian guitarist set a new career benchmark with this intimate set, adding classical western harp and African ngoni to her subtle, bluesy electric guitar. Listen to the album.
97 Róisín Murphy
Ruby Blue (2005)
Trip-hop duo Moloko was dead, and Murphy teamed up with Matthew Herbert for this eclectic, saucy – and still underrated – pop record that anticipated the arrival of Lady Gaga by three years. Listen to the album.
96 Missy Elliott
Miss E … So Addictive (2001)
Drawing from house, psychedelia and even Bollywood soundtracks, Missy’s third – the one responsible for Get Ur Freak On – forced pop to catch up with her yet again. Listen to the album.
95 Charli XCX
Pop 2 (2017)
XCX stopped waiting around for mainstream acceptance and showed the normies what they were missing with this bracingly eclectic, guest-laden mixtape. Listen to the album.
The Teaches of Peaches (2000)
Merrill Nisker grafted sweaty, human filth on to the clean machine shock of electroclash on her hilarious, titillating debut as Peaches. Listen to the album.
Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)
Filled with crushing, funereal dirges and a song about wanting to encase a newborn baby in metal to prevent its growth, the Duluth group’s fifth album was nonetheless inexplicably beautiful. Listen to the album.
92 Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)
Part state-of-the-nation opus, part eye-opening trawl through the unexplored depths of Badu’s brain. Listen to the album.
91 Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté
In the Heart of the Moon (2005)
Two Malian greats met for this soothing, spontaneous record of guitar and kora that is as subtly textured as it is generous. Listen to the album.
90 Katy B
On a Mission (2011)
No disposable vocalist or featured artist, the charismatic, club-savvy south Londoner gave dubstep its first real star. Listen to the album.
89 Taylor Swift
Swift’s first “officially documented pop album” saw her shake off any remaining country trappings to become a gleaming synthpop behemoth. Listen to the album.
88 Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes (2008)
The Seattle group’s debut heralded a generation’s post-recession retreat into rural comforts, conjuring a pastoral idyll from the best of west coast folk and British traditionalism. Listen to the album.
87 Justin Timberlake
The finest boyband breakout since Robbie Williams’s Life Thru a Lens, and that’s not damning with faint praise: Timberlake’s Neptunes/Timbaland-helmed debut was slick, sexy and most importantly, convincing. Listen to the album.
86 Elliott Smith
Figure 8 (2000)
Smith’s final album followed his brief adoption by Hollywood, and added a cinematic grandeur to his work – but, thankfully, it didn’t swamp his haunted songwriting. Listen to the album.
Kill for Love (2012)
The album that ushered in the moody, neon-lit synthpop that would define the rest of the decade, Ruth Radelet playing Nico to Johnny Jewel’s Velvet Underground-worthy cool. Listen to the album.
84 Konono No 1
Twenty-five years after forming, the Congolese group made their name with this rhythmic explosion of likembes (thumb pianos) put through junkyard amplification. Listen to the album.
83 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Skeleton Tree (2016)
Written before the death of one of Cave’s teenage sons – not after it, as was often assumed – Skeleton Tree nonetheless cast Cave’s recurring themes in unsettlingly anaesthetised new light. Listen to the album.
82 Yo La Tengo
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
The album that every hushed, autumnal indie record aspires to be, a cocoon of disaffection. Listen to the album.
Madlib and MF Doom combined for an album that rattled with enough innovation and enough bars to prop up 10 records. Listen to the album.
80 Lady Gaga
The Fame (2008)
The provocative pop debut that made pastiche into an art form and revelled in the artifice and ambition of fame. Listen to the album.
79 Kanye West
Late Registration (2005)
West justified his arrogance by setting it alongside sharp political commentary (at a time when few of his peers were speaking up) and fiercely arresting production. Listen to the album.
Take Care (2011)
Despite an outstanding lineup of guests and producers, all eyes were on Drake’s journey into and out of heartbreak, variously bitter, angry and doe-eyed. Listen to the album.
77 The Bug
London Zoo (2008)
Kevin Martin’s discordant and seductive second, voicing his discontent via an array of guest MCs. Listen to the album.
76 Wild Beasts
Two Dancers (2009)
Wild Beasts were a sad casualty of the last decade, but Two Dancers found the Cumbrian lads at their prime, bringing Chaucerian ribaldry to football terrace hooks. Listen to the album.
A multicultural celebration, a political statement and a middle finger up to misogynists. Listen to the album.
74 Salif Keita
The Malian artist made his best album at the age of 53, his playing and duets with female singers conveying a sense of spontaneity that belied his deep craft. Listen to the album.
Hell Hath No Fury (2007)
A biting subversion of the era’s cocaine rap, evident in the despairing lyrics and magnetically ruined textures. Listen to the album.
72 Lily Allen
Alright, Still (2006)
The voice of a generation: pissed, pissed off and funny, Allen’s debut brought a welcome reality check to a sheeny era of pop. Listen to the album.
71 John Grant
Queen of Denmark (2010)
Midlake backed the former Czars frontman on this remarkable return to form following a period of heartbreak, addiction and depression. Listen to the album.
70 Lana Del Rey
Born to Die (2012)
Thought shaky at the time, her controversial debut – the one responsible for Video Games – has since acquired cult status. Listen to the album.
69 Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend (2008)
Single A-Punk masked a hugely diverse album: a strange yet winning mix of flutes, strings and Afrobeat. Listen to the album.
68 The National
The moment they made the transition from white-collar worriers to rarefied indie giants: the elegiac Boxer is as much of a New York totem as Is This It or Interpol’s debut. Listen to the album.
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Eminem’s third album has dated horribly with its homophobia and gleeful suggestion of violence against women, but in other parts of the album the incisiveness with which he unspools his misanthropic take on life remains transgressively vital. Listen to the album.
66 Alicia Keys
Songs in A Minor (2001)
Pristine neo-soul played by an old soul in a 19-year-old’s body. On her debut, Keys was a traditionalist steeped in pedigree, but not so schooled that it stifled her vulnerability. Listen to the album.
65 Primal Scream
Loaded, but only in the sense that XTRMNTR suggested heavy artillery locked and ready to fire: few good times here. Listen to the album.
Lascivious, soulful and compellingly weird, Kelis was ahead of her time – though it’s still thrilling to remember that the extremely unsubtle Milkshake was a No 2 hit. Listen to the album.
The Black Album (2003)
Supposedly Jay-Z’s last album before a retirement that never arrived, The Black Album was the apotheosis of the rapper’s self-mythologising, establishing him as an old-school classicist and innovator. Listen to the album.
62 The Knife
Silent Shout (2006)
Gothic and abrasive in equal parts, the Swedish brother-sister duo’s third album offered ceaseless electronic invention at a time when their synth-minded peers were content to till their way through music history’s trash. Listen to the album.
61 Kanye West
The College Dropout (2004)
Infectious ego, unknockable confidence and hysterical commentary: a relic from lighter days that did not foresee West’s extraordinary evolution. Listen to the album.
60 Jens Lekman
Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)
Matching Jonathan Richman for wry, detail-heavy storytelling and Sufjan Stevens for orchestral whimsy, Lekman elevated romantic mishaps in his Gothenburg home town to cinematic proportions. Listen to the album.
59 Janelle Monáe
The ArchAndroid (2010)
A bracing introduction to an uncontainable ambition: Monáe’s intergalactic debut proper straddled James Brown funk, pastoral whimsy and indie quirk, and later albums proved this was barely a fraction of her talents. Listen to the album.
58 J Dilla
This masterpiece in turning samples and meticulous tinkering into an era-defining production statement was released the week of the rapper’s death. Listen to the album.
57 Amy Winehouse
Winehouse at her most innocent – if you could ever call her that, given the cheekiness of songs like Fuck Me Pumps. Listen to the album.
56 Cannibal Ox
The Cold Vein (2001)
Mixing chilling realism with devastating metaphor, Vordul Mega and Vast Aire painted a grim, dystopian vision of their native New York City. Listen to the album.
55 St Vincent
Strange Mercy (2011)
Sex, sedition and Marilyn Monroe reveries fuelled Annie Clark’s third album, which slipped serrated blades through the barbiturate wooze. Listen to the album.
The Springsteen comparisons were fair: not since the Boss had music sounded so good driving along an empty highway. Listen to the album.
53 St Vincent
St Vincent (2014)
Whether shaking your ass to Digital Witness or drifting off with Prince Johnny, you did so under a constant cloudburst of ideas. Listen to the album.
In Search of… (2001)
Pharrell at his horniest ever – Truth or Dare hints at an orgy before Tape You records the sounds of one – but Bobby James is one of his loveliest ballads. Listen to the album.
51 The Microphones
The Glow Pt 2 (2001)
Overlapping acoustic guitars blend like plumes of smoke, and inspired snatches of melody flit by – but bursts of noise and distortion herald danger deep in the woods. Listen to the album.
Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Theirs was the New York of Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy: fraught with rain and danger, energy crackling like the wires of a vandalised phone box. Like their peers the Strokes, the quartet made rhythm guitar the lead and foregrounded the bass, but cast them in sombre black suits rather than artfully distressed denim. Their ballad NYC became an unofficial civic anthem, synthesising the mix of sorrow and tenacity that defined the city in the wake of 9/11. Listen to the album.
Black Messiah (2014)
After D’Angelo’s years in the wilderness, struggling with addiction and indirection, many thought he was finished. He not only came back, but did so with one of the most incendiary soul records in decades. The funk deepened – the way Prayer smears its on-beat is astonishing – along with his social conscience on The Charade, though the bedroom door still beckoned constantly. Listen to the album.
48 The White Stripes
It’s now impossible to imagine a world without Seven Nation Army, chanted from football terraces to political rallies. The band’s biggest hit set the template for Elephant: brooding moods, measured out in eighths by Meg White, would tip over into cathartic squalls of blues rock. Jack White’s much-lampooned fetish for analogue production is legitimate – you can almost feel the breeze from the amps on your face as the riffs strut out – and he squeezed more tone out of the electric guitar than almost anyone else that decade. Listen to the album.
The Woods (2005)
The trio had always sounded – appealingly – like a band rehearsing in a garage, but here they threatened to blow its door open and its walls apart. Like a superhero who doesn’t realise their own strength, everything hits too hard, burning the edges of the guitars and drums with fuzz. Their most ferocious album, then, though the wry and bitter ballad Modern Girl uses the distortion to prettier ends. Listen to the album.
Art Angels (2015)
A massive leap in ambition as the synthpop of Visions was pulled into HD, driven up a gear and transformed into pop-punk as thrillingly fast and trashy as a Nascar race. Tracks such as Kill V Maim were made for the balls of your feet, full of the chillingly cutesy pep of east Asian pop, but the best tracks were the robo-funky World Princess Part II and the demo version of Realiti: the sound of speeding through a city, its sounds muffled inside a luxury sedan. Listen to the album.
Released more than 10 years since their pair of trip-hop-defining albums, Third proved the west country trio still had it – it being their particular mood of bruised, bloodied tenacity in a world that wasn’t just uncaring, but actively violent. While they tease out the Morricone influence all the more, the highs are all their own – krautrock nightmare We Carry On; cyberpunk masterwork Machine Gun – on a record that has become one of the most influential of its era. Listen to the album.
44 Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
A relatively bummer record as the polo-shirted princes of prep entered an early midlife crisis: “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,” Ezra Koenig sings at one point. But that wisdom, an upgrade from the mere cleverness of their earlier work, led to their most rounded songwriting yet, still gassed up with the fizz of old. Listen to the album.
43 Kendrick Lamar
More accessible but no less skilful or hard-hitting than its predecessors, Damn rightly became the first non-jazz or classical album to win the Pulitzer prize for music. Kendrick’s brilliance is to swoop between scales – nations, communities and individuals – to create a truly rounded portrait of contemporary love and politics, and the sheer lip-smacking perfection of his flow on Humble made it his biggest track yet. Listen to the album.
42 At the Drive-In
Relationship of Command (2000)
A band working in perfect equilibrium, where wild prog and bug-eyed Burroughs-esque visions were tethered by earthy punk. The cracked poetry (“Jigsaw pattern dominoes left a trail / The whites of their eyes / Polaroids of the tale”) was chewed up and then spat out for moshpit soundbites (“Cut away!”, “Is it heavier than air?”), between see-sawing riffs and bursts of pure noise. Listen to the album.
41 Frank Ocean
Nostalgia, Ultra (2011)
That Frank Ocean appears three times in this list is a testament to his universal appeal – this mixtape debut opened with a Coldplay cover, and Radiohead, the Eagles and even a sample of Nicole Kidman crop up, too. Released by the Odd Future collective, he and they have done so much in the last decade to break rap and R&B out of tired, restrictive genre considerations. Listen to the album.
40 Antony and the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now (2005)
With its profile raised by a Mercury prize win, this album was the first time many people had encountered Anohni’s voice, which didn’t so much apply vibrato as become it: a beautifully wobbling, wavering thing that instantly entranced. Rooted in the cabaret songcraft of queer New York, she would go on to embrace electronic pop. Listen to the album.
39 Britney Spears
Made amid her most troubled phase, Blackout defied the odds to become a diamond pressed from trash. The production is all sleazy, buzzing electro, and Britney’s melodies have the twisted naivety of nursery rhymes. The two big singles are genius: Piece of Me bats back tabloid gossip with a sonic golf club, and Gimme More is her best-ever song, an erotic psychodrama where the purring come-ons of the title also sound like a woman drowning under her ambition. Listen to the album.
38 Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever to Tell (2003)
For all the hype, the Brooklyn scene of the early 00s didn’t produce many genuine rock stars, but Karen O was its finest. On the group’s debut, she could electrify her withering bluesy scorn with a single yelp, and suddenly she’d be a banshee screaming round the rafters; meanwhile the song Maps was pure vulnerability. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is not just O’s show: like Jack White, the other great guitarist of those years, Nick Zinner could make his axe into bass and lead at all once, and drummer Brian Chase pits tub-thumping toms against seething hi-hats. Listen to the album.
37 Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell (2015)
After bulging baroque creations The Age of Adz and The BQE, Stevens pared everything back to soft electronics and fingerpicking for this moving rumination on his stepfather and late mother. He stumbles, numb, through his own poetry, pondering suicide, gaining existential clarity and – crucially – finding beauty: “The breakers in the bar / The neighbour’s greeting.” Listen to the album.
Tiny, lisping and with a high-pitched voice, Grimes weathered plenty of sexism with her breakthrough – but converted even indie snobs with her take on rave, Italo and industrial synthpop. The electro bass lines are the album’s signature, lurching from the deep, but it is her vocals that make it: a shapeshifting chorus of chattering gothic cheerleaders, solemn choristers and trance divas. Listen to the album.
35 Daft Punk
After keeping their heads down for their brilliant 1997 debut, letting Spike Jonze videos do the talking, Daft Punk revealed themselves – sort of. The duo were obscured behind robot heads, and their music got equally playful: cock-rock guitars, vocoders and brilliantly manipulated slivers of records by ELO, Tavares and Eddie Johns condensed into tinny yet heavy filter-house. Listen to the album.
34 The Avalanches
Since I Left You (2000)
It has the air of a piece of obsessional outsider art: 3,500 samples stitched together into a dense tapestry of goofy hip-hop and lounge pop. Miraculously, it makes a virtue of its maximalism: the title track thick with jasmine and tropical heat, Electricity jumping out of the speakers like a jack in the box. Listen to the album.
33 Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
The backstory is almost a parody of a certain kind of earnest dude: retreating to the woods with just a guitar to get over a breakup and sort out his crappy life. But after listening to the songs he came back down the hill with, the story becomes gilded and mythic: lightly fleshed out with vocal harmonies and drums, they are sensationally beautiful. Listen to the album.
MIA frequently showed just how conservative the US is by doing ordinary things – rapping while pregnant, sticking her middle finger up – that nevertheless had people reaching for the smelling salts. It all began with her debut collection of blown-out rap and dancehall, stitched together with samples from a trolley dash down the unregulated internet – a harbinger of our cosmopolitan post-genre age. Listen to the album.
The ghosts of London raves gone by are conjured by this ouija board of a record, where garage vocals flit upward past dust-covered breakbeats. The influence of this and his 2006 debut cannot be overstated, feeding into the dub songcraft of the xx and James Blake, as well as an entire generation of ambient producers. It also anticipated the way London’s clubland – and indeed communities – would be hollowed out by gentrification. Listen to the album.
The Blueprint (2001)
Not only did it launch the career of Kanye West, showcasing his soul-sampling productions alongside those of Just Blaze, this album cemented Jay-Z as one of the greatest to ever do it. His evisceration of Nas on The Takeover made for a firebomb diss track, generating gossipy heat fanned further by some of his biggest pop moments: Girls, Girls, Girls, Izzo (HOVA) and Song Cry. Listen to the album.
White Pony (2000)
By blending the frat-boy energy of nu-metal with the goth moods of Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins, the northern Californians united rival factions of brooding teenagers with these strangely sexy studies in tension and release. Chino Moreno’s voice is magnificently plastic – rapping, bellowing, crooning, and deploying his secret weapon: vocal fry that creaks like a door to a haunted house. Listen to the album.
This album is lauded for the three masterpieces Aaliyah made with Timbaland – Try Again, More Than a Woman and We Need a Resolution – that lend a serpentine malevolence to her voice, but there are also strong old-school jams and languorous ballads. Lesser R&B stars match their voice to the beat – Aaliyah’s genius, tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash, was to slink through it with an almost Latin sense of rhythm. Album not on streaming services.
The gentle glitches and serene pulses on this intimate, sensual, clean record could sound naive, even simplistic, when put next to the complexity of her recent work with the producer Arca, but Vespertine remains one of Björk’s defining records thanks to the strength of its songwriting. Unison rivals Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy as the great ballad of trip-hop; It’s Not Up to You is almost Disney-esque in its sweeping beauty. Listen to the album.
26 The xx
Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim made the most compelling duets of the period: rather than singing to each other, it was as if two people were going through the same thing without the other knowing it – the perfect mood music for the disconnected interconnection of dating apps and social media. Listen to the album.
We’d seen Beyoncé angry before, whether defiant on Survivor or chillingly, wittily calm on Irreplaceable, but never like this. Made after notable incidents of police brutality, Lemonade was charged with real political fervour, while there were numerous sharp jabs at Jay-Z for doing whatever predicated that elevator fight with her sister Solange. As a result, the final call for her ladies to get in formation felt genuinely martial. Listen to the album.
24 David Bowie
Released two days before he died, Blackstar saw Bowie pour everything left of him into his best album since his 70s hot streak. He spliced the itchy drum’n’bass and industrial moods that fascinated him in the 90s with terrifically freaky jazz, symphonic balladry and – on Girl Loves Me – authentically heavy rap. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain / and fool them all again,” he sang. And he did. Listen to the album.
Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003)
Although less than the sum of their parts as they were on Stankonia, and with neither editing out the other’s longueurs, the divided members of OutKast nevertheless delivered a vivacious pair of solo turns. Big Boi embraced saucy brass licks and propulsive flow while André 3000 tapdanced through funk, though each arrived at solid gold pop: The Way You Move and Hey Ya! are both deserved wedding disco staples. Listen to the album.
22 Joanna Newsom
Newsom raised some eyebrows, even giggles, with her debut The Milk Eyed Mender thanks to her scrunched, cartoonishly girly voice. But on Ys, this unique instrument – alongside her beautiful harp, and orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks – plays out five masterpieces of American poetry to be filed alongside Whitman or the Beats: songs that move with the untamed direction of wind or water. Listen to the album.
21 PJ Harvey
Let England Shake (2011)
Harvey won her first Mercury prize for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea on 9/11. She won her second for her other masterpiece, released 10 years later, in the shadow of the wars that dragged on between them. There is such anger as she reaches back to the first world war to show how every generation destroys its young in the same way – summed up by the pompous fanfare in The Glorious Land, crushed by a tank of blues-rock. Listen to the album.
20 Arcade Fire
The deaths of relatives of band members Regine Chassaigne, Richard Reed Parry, and Win and Will Butler underpinned the (mostly) Canadian band’s debut. The songs here are full of the horrible electricity of grief, Win Butler sometimes hollering at the pain, sometimes burned out by it. But the massed choruses suggest relief can be found in family, be it blood or otherwise, marking the arrival of one of the period’s few great arena bands. Listen to the album.
19 PJ Harvey
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000)
More city than sea, PJ Harvey’s most accessible and open-hearted record conjures that feeling of being on a rooftop, wanting to hear every story in the streets below you. It is full of energy, Harvey stalking the gutters and subways; it is full of sex, most of it new and dangerously in flux. But then there are moments on songs such as Beautiful Feeling or Horses in My Dreams, where the mass of bricks and steel dissipates and you’re adrift on the ocean. Listen to the album.
18 Kanye West
Kanye dived into a hell of racism, commerce, relationship strife and his own ego, with beats made alongside a brains trust of experimental producers. It seethes with trauma both personal and social, and the strongest moments consider how black America is sticking its head in the sand – even Kanye himself, fretting about Kim while a sample of lynching lament Strange Fruit plays. But there are flickers of his old cheeky humour, especially in the immortal line: “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” Listen to the album.
The first rap masterpiece of the century was an epic that covered all of hip-hop’s bases – horndog G-funk on We Luv Deez Hoez and I’ll Call B4 I Cum, raunchy boom-bap on Xplosion, rap-rock on Gasoline Dreams, pop on Ms Jackson – but added endless new flavours: drum’n’bass, acid, psychedelic soul. Listen to the album.
Kid A (2000)
From the spine-tingling four-note downward melody that opens Everything in Its Right Place, it was clear that Radiohead had taken a huge leap into colder, stranger territory. The electronic influences that had filtered into OK Computer reached maturity – most spectacularly on techno anthem Idioteque – though there are way more guitars than its reputation suggests. Listen to the album.
Body Talk (2010)
By blending the earnestness of ballad singing with cascading waves of electropop, Robyn became the master of heartbreak on the dancefloor. There is another side here, too: chatty, puckish and getting over it all. The anchor of the album – initially released in a trailblazing three parts across 2010 – was Dancing on My Own, a breakup song with a wildly transgressive edge: is there a secret erotic thrill behind the pain of going to the club to watch her partner with their new girlfriend? Listen to the album.
14 Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012)
The breakthrough moment for rap’s greatest ever talent. Loosely based around an LA street narrative, the storytelling was gripping; the bangers banged hard and it has Lamar’s most gorgeous melodies, on Money Trees, Swimming Pools (Drank) and Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe. The blithe stoicism of his flow, seemingly resigned to a violent death at any moment, fills the record with poignancy, and transmutes his words into wisdom. Listen to the album.
Bringing in a more rugged hip-hop mood to the neo-soul of his 1995 debut, D’Angelo created a landmark in black American pop. His multitracked harmonies are some of the most beautiful sounds in all of music, and surely at least half of the Americans entering college this year were conceived to Untitled (How Does It Feel). Listen to the album.
12 Frank Ocean
Channel Orange (2012)
The sun-soaked indolence of being young in LA is etched in aquamarine, purple and, yes, orange on this psychedelic-pop landmark. The melody writing on Forrest Gump, Sweet Life, Thinkin Bout You, Lost and others is joyously accomplished and sturdy, leaving room for 10-minute electro suites, jazz-funk flexing, stoner rap and smoky neo-soul. A generation’s Stevie Wonder had arrived. Listen to the album.
In Rainbows (2007)
Initially grabbing headlines for its pay-what-you-want release online, it quickly became clear that this was one of Radiohead’s greatest albums. Undoing some of the knotted tension of the post-Bends era, it has rollicking rockers (Bodysnatchers, Jigsaw Falling into Place) and restless jitters (15 Step, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi), but the core songs are deep, considered trip-hop ballads such as Reckoner, House of Cards and All I Need. Listen to the album.
10 Frank Ocean
Less immediately catchy than its predecessor, Channel Orange, Blonde is the more ambitious and visionary record. Resistant to being boxed in any one genre, the percussion retreats, the voice warps, the focus wanders and the emotion deepens as Ocean slips and stumbles through a series of poetic romances. A magical, impossible-to-imitate record. Listen to the album.
Love and self have always been Beyoncé’s two grand themes, but they were each invested with more passion and nuance than ever before on her fifth solo album. Appearing from nowhere with videos for every track, it announced her as the era’s defining megastar – marketing campaigns, it implied, were for the little people. But the album has endured past its grand entrance thanks to its detailed, impassioned considerations of femininity and marital sexuality. Listen to the album.
8 Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
He may now sing in an ironic mid-Atlantic croon, but Alex Turner started off with the most tangibly south Yorkshire voice in pop since Jarvis Cocker. Over street-fighting indie rock, he told of dirty dancefloors and scummy men, an observer sitting with his faced pressed up against a taxi window on a Saturday night watching humans bounce off one another. Listen to the album.
7 The Streets
Original Pirate Material (2002)
You can almost touch the gold teeth, Valentinos and dreads in Mike Skinner’s debut, a love letter to living for the weekend written in UK garage that heralded the arrival of a brilliant British storyteller – Weak Become Heroes remains the single greatest evocation of being on ecstasy in a club. Listen to the album.
6 Dizzee Rascal
Boy in da Corner (2003)
If Wiley’s “eski beats” acknowledged grime’s froideur, then Dizzee Rascal turned the temperature down further: his debut is a chillblained study in urban harshness that remains grime’s masterpiece album. Amid videogame clatter, Rascal’s voice is full of scorn and bafflement as he considers girls, rivals and his place in the world. Listen to the album.
5 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver (2007)
James Murphy’s group were the smart, snippy toast of Brooklyn after the hyper-literate breakthrough tracks Losing My Edge and Yeah. On their second album, they broke through the snark, pondering their identities as New Yorkers, Americans and thirtysomethings – and with a range of potential dance moves, from pogoing to sleek disco shapes. Listen to the album.
4 Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Folding in influences from LA’s beat scene – including Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus – Lamar exploded the possibilities for rap in the 2010s, bouncing like a car down Crenshaw on to neo-soul, jazz and squelchy funk. The police-baiting Alright became a civil-rights anthem for the post-Ferguson era – indeed, as a celebration of the richness of black artistry, the whole album was a riposte to bigotry. Listen to the album.
3 Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
He would later lose the thread in a very public fashion, but Kanye West pulled every strand of his genius and torment together on his masterpiece: anthemic choruses, psychodrama lyrics and an all-star cast, from Bon Iver to that Nicki Minaj verse. West’s bombastic production, meanwhile, included samples of everything from King Crimson to Aphex Twin: a symphony to a new, omnivorous digital culture. Listen to the album.
2 The Strokes
Is This It? (2001)
After Britpop devolved into bedwetter indie and the US was churning out goofy pop-punk, the debut album by the New York quintet showed rock how to be cool again: all droll, drawling observations and guitar lines that steamed into a dive bar to show up the clientele. Oh, and your boss trying to be trendy by wearing a T-shirt under his blazer at the office on Fridays? Blame these guys. Listen to the album.
1 Amy Winehouse
Back to Black (2006)
That title sounds horribly prescient in the wake of the substance misuse that would kill her, but Winehouse was incandescently alive – funny, pissed off, in love – on her finest album. Producer Mark Ronson’s luxuriant backings, which cherrypicked from the previous century of popular music (doo-wop, soul, hip-hop), are saved from mere classiness by that voice: impetuous, inimitable, always reaching for the wrong interval that turns out to be totally right. Listen to the album.
Images and writing from The Guardian.