Ask A Music Critic: What Is The Best Album Of The 21st Century So Far?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at [email protected].

We are now almost 22 years into the 21st century. It’s been a pretty weird couple of decades! But rather than dwell on the many disasters of our era, I’m going focus on something positive: Music. Also: Lists! Here’s a big question for you: What is the best album of the 21st century so far? — Kenny from Little Rock, Arkansas

That is a big question, Kenny! And one that I feel like is impossible to answer definitively, because it can be answered in so many different ways.

For instance, I wrote a book a few years ago called This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ And The Beginning Of The 21st Century. (Have I somehow not mentioned this before? It is still available wherever you buy books!) The thesis of This Isn’t Happening is that Radiohead’s fourth album is an overture for the 21st century, in that it captures how it feels to be alive during this moment in history better than any other record I can think of. What I’m arguing, I suppose, is that it’s the most important album of the past 22 years, which is usually how music critics contextualize a “best album” for a particular period of time. It’s understood that for an album to be designated “best” it must have the following qualities (aside from being musically great, of course): cultural import, widespread influence, lasting relevance across generations, an ineffable “meatiness” or “weightiness” that suggests a certain towering stature. Kid A to me fits the bill better than any other album released during the 21st century.

But I am only one person! Clearly, there are people for whom the idea of a British rock band making the best album of this century is laughable. Didn’t British rock bands stop impacting culture in a major way after the last century ended? I can’t say I have a compelling argument to refute that. If the standard then for “best album” is wider critical consensus, I would say that the best album of the 21st century is a toss up between Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. I’m basing this on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, published in 2020, in which those two albums placed the highest (No. 17 and 19 respectively) of all the albums released this century. This is an imperfect metric, I know, but anecdotally those two records (along with Beyonce’s Lemonade and Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black) seem like the most canonical records of recent times.

But what about influence? I’m not sure if any of those records are as influential as Daft Punk’s Discovery or Frank Ocean’s Blonde in terms of how pop music in general sounds in our era. If we’re talking strictly about Kanye West records, you could make a case that 808s And Heartbreak changed hip-hop more profoundly than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, paving the way for Drake, Kid Cudi, Post Malone and so much Soundcloud rap.

How about the populist angle? If we judge “best” strictly on the basis of record sales — an insane proposition, I know, but let’s proceed with the thought experiment anyway — then the top record is easily Adele’s 21 — it’s moved a staggering 31 million units! — followed by Eminem’s The Eminem Show, Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, Adele’s 25, and Evanescence’s Fallen. How’s that for a list to make you regret that music continued to exist after Y2K? The list of most streamed albums is somewhat better: Ed Sheeran’s ÷ is No. 1, followed by Post Malone’s Beer Bongs And Bentleys, Dua Lipa’s Dua Lipa, Post Malone’s Hollywood Bleeding, and Ed Sheeran’s x.

Finally, I guess I’ll just go with my gut: My favorite album of the 21st century so far is probably Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs. I can’t say it’s the best based on the aforementioned criteria, but it’s the one I’ve played the most, and maybe that’s enough.

As we’ve watched tours from 2020 finally get off the ground in 2022, I can’t remember a time when so many bands face possible tour-destroying injuries. I personally was present for Pearl Jam’s recent Oakland shows where Matt Cameron had Covid and they had a rotating cast of drummers helping them out. Recently, My Morning Jacket had to cancel shows due to Jim James contracting Covid. Now Rage Against The Machine canceled their European tour due to Zack De La Rocha’s torn achilles. Fans are obviously bummed, especially with “destination” shows like Red Rocks. The financial pressure to keep these tours going must be immense. We’re so used to injuries in sports, but now it seems like music is experiencing its own DL. Do you see the way bands tour changing in the future? — Scott from San Jose
Hey Scott, this is an interesting question. Before now I hadn’t really considered that not touring for a few years might have been especially detrimental to aging legacy bands whose members aren’t as limber as they once were. All of that downtime might have really softened up those old bodies! In the future, these bands might have to start touring with a bench of support musicians who can step in should one of the starters pull a proverbial hammy and have to go on the DL. That’s basically what happened this summer during the Dead & Company tour, when drummer Bill Kreutzmann exited a show in Cincinnati and was swiftly replaced in the second set by substitute drummer Jay Lane.

Obviously, RATM can’t just plug in another singer when Zack De La Rocha goes down. (They already tried that with Chuck D in Prophets Of Rage.) So, how can bands avoid these types of costly and frustrating cancelations in the future? I imagine one of two scenarios will unfold, and possibly at the same time. One, bands will continue to tour in a bubble, in which interactions with anyone outside of the tour party will be all but eliminated. That’s been the rule with a lot of tours post-Covid, though it hasn’t always kept Covid out of the inner circle. Two, Covid will slowly be normalized to the point where it’s equated with the flu, which means if you feel well enough to play you will go on stage in a mask.

As for De La Rocha, rock laws might have to be changed so that singers over the age of 50 are no longer allowed to jump around on stage.

Curious to hear your take on Cass McCombs, who to me is only getting better as time goes by. He seems to be the guy that your favorite artist will namecheck, but will never get that same level of props. He literally seems like he stepped out of a Topps baseball card from the ’40s. Does he pass the Hyden Five Album Test? It might be eight or nine for me, depending on the new one. I know. I’m a nerd for this guy. — Justin in Los Angeles

Hey Justin, your question is very well-timed, considering that “the new one” from Cass McCombs — it’s called Heartmind, and it’s his 10th record — is out on Friday and it’s very, very good. If you like the jammy turn that his albums have taken in recent years, you’ll definitely enjoy this record, though there is less of an emphasis on guitar solos than there was on 2019’s excellent Tip Of The Sphere.

For me, he definitely passes the Five Album Test — including Heartmind, he’s put out six albums in a row that I flat-out love, going all the way back to the 2011 double-shot of Wit’s End and Double Risk. I’m admittedly not as familiar with his aughts-era work, but it’s safe to say that he’s never made a less than good album. And I agree with you — I think he’s definitely getting better over time. The problem (in terms of his career anyway) is that he’s a pretty unassuming person with a reputation for being a difficult interview. (Though when I spoke with him in 2019 I found him to be perfectly pleasant and engaging, if also deeply thoughtful and prone to long silences as he pondered his answers.)

Here’s an idea: We need a new version of the Traveling Wilburys made up of eccentric, brilliant, and very middle-aged singer-songwriters from the indie world. Enlist McCombs, Dan Bejar, Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, and Damien Jurado. This tour will take over 1,500-cap rooms across the nation!