10. Kanye West – Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella, Island Def Jam)
When it comes to Kanye West’s second album, it’s really not worth keeping in mind that Kanye is an arrogant, hubristic, selfish egomaniac who crashes music video award shows and writes ludicrous blogs about his creativity. Admittedly, Late Registration does look from every angle like a representation of its creator’s psyche: 21 tracks across 70 minutes encompassing overarching themes of the Black Man’s Struggle and selected pivotal events from his own life, all tied together with as much bombast and daring as he can cram in. However, he wastes no time planting his foot down on ‘Heard ‘Em Say’ and setting off a musical odyssey that never feels bloated or wasteful. The man will inevitably eat himself before he ever gets truly comfortable – indeed, he might only be comfortable when he is Lord and Master of the Universe, as well as Most Appreciated and Recognised Hip Hop Artiste – but Late Registration, along with two other very good albums, shows that he is at the forefront of popular music trends for a reason and cannot be ignored by anyone. There is one fact that definitely is worth keeping in mind: this album is as much Jon Brion’s masterwork as it is Kanye’s, their partnership one of the more surprising and successful collaborations of the 00s.
Most representative track: ‘Heard ‘Em Say’
My favourite: ‘Gone’
9. Dan Deacon – Bromst (Carpark)
If some music is described as being a ‘wall of sound’, Dan Deacon brings to mind a hose of sound spraying with gleeful abandon. With Bromst he naturalised his sound from Spiderman of the Rings with real drums and guitars, but rather than just being an improvement in production values, this led to the hinted-at emotional core of his first major release being elucidated more clearly and openly. It takes a few listens to get past the shock value of having so many layers seemingly trying to out-do one another, but once you do, Bromst reveals several potential levels of appreciation: the story of a ghost wandering away from home, a collection of richly textured compositions, elements of shoegaze/techno/ambient, and some of the most pure enjoyment and fun you can have listening to a record. The chord progressions and song formulas may not be that variable, but the heady mixture of maths and chaos wins out. Not for everyone, but those who like it will love it.
Most representative track: ‘Woof Woof’… or maybe ‘Snookered’
My favourite: ‘Get Older’
8. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free (Vice/Atlantic)
In-between a glorious debut and a disappointing announcement of redundancy, Mike Skinner mined pure gold. On those first two albums, I see him as the Ray Davies of the 00s: a quintessentially British-sounding recording artist who, in narrowing his lyrical scope to focus on exactly what he knows, spoke to the hearts of fans worldwide. A Grand Don’t Come For Free isn’t as simple as a guy churning out a set of quality down-home rhymes, though. The sharp focus of Original Pirate Material is refined further into a complete story spanning the album, a conceit that often feels beyond the range – or limited by the ego – of the musician in question, but Skinner stays true to his art and to the listener. From those opening horns, you’re hooked. Each song works perfectly well on its own and as part of the story, so you can dip in if you must (though it’s hard not to listen from start to finish). And let’s not forget how vivid his lyrics are, wall-to-wall empty cans taking on a sort of timeless quality. I lost interest after the grievous disappointment of The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, but for this opus The Streets will always be a part of my life.
Most representative track: ‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’
My favourite: ‘Empty Cans’
7. Gorillaz – Demon Days (Parlophone/Virgin)
This was my favourite of 2005, and nearly five years on, few other albums of the 00s are as versatile – you can throw it on for a dinner party, a party party, if you’re working or even if you’re having a ‘big talk’ with your significant other. It’s comfortable but deep, danceable but mellow. It gives you space but seethes with agitation. It is of course the brainchild of Damon Albarn, his most successful and probably lasting creation, with help from producer genius Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley). I still remember how surprised I was on about the fourth of fifth listen after getting it, because Albarn’s debut of this ‘group’ four years earlier was interesting enough but hardly earth-shattering. I liked this even less at first, too, then Albarn’s lyrics and Danger Mouse’s little touches in production started to worm their way into my brain, and I started listening to it several times in a row every day. Though the music drifts along without ever pushing you to take notice of it (you will, eventually) Albarn seems incapable of making a record without Saying Something Important, and while having a gospel choir sing “These demon days are so cold inside, it’s so hard for a good soul to survive” might seem pretty hokey and cheesily earnest – ok, it totally is – it’s hard not to love the fact that Albarn desperately wants the listener just to stop coasting for a minute and think. We cannot have too many artists taking life seriously in these uncertain times.
Most representative track: ‘Feel Good Inc.’
My favourite: ‘Demon Days’
6. M.I.A. – Kala (XL)
M.I.A.’s first album Arular took a couple of goes round for me to take to it, but with Kala, I felt like the kind of music I’d imagined for years in my head had finally synched up with music that actually existed. It drives and pounds, all hips and fire, with her worldly and socially conscious lyrics scattered loosely over the top. In fact, where a good number of the other albums on this list – particularly those I’ve put up here in the top end – are meticulously crafted with hardly a drumbeat out of place, Kala is freeform and sometimes barely seems to hold together. I still remember when I saw her perform in Japan, where her haphazard button smashing on the DJ panel put about 50 extra gunshots in ‘Paper Planes’. What does keep Kala from imploding under its own pressure, then? Well, M.I.A. is such a committed artist that it’s the force of her personality as much as anything. Read any interview: you’ll see that she puts up with absolutely no bullshit and has no problem badmouthing anyone she sees failing to keep it real, or anything that she perceives to be a danger to society (naturally, she’s on pretty much every flying alerts anti-terror list). I in turn see her as a powerful force for global good, the spokesperson for the growing legions of folks who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. A third album will drop in a few months, and the movement will continue.
Most representative track: ‘Paper Planes’ (please, PLEASE ignore the Slumdog connection)
My favourite: ‘Bamboo Banga’
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