Before you read any further, make sure you check out the first two thirds of the countdown! Click to see 101-90 and 89-80 and 79-70 and 69-60 and 59-50 and 49-40 and 39-29.5.
Okay, we’re up to the top echelon here, and things are getting crazy. Albums are getting tossed right and left, substituted for others that we thought were locks, and we are going to end up leaving out tons of stuff that deserved to be on the list. Ugh. Anyway, we press on…
29. Superaquello, Bien Gorgeous (2004)
Our favorite underrated Puerto Rican avant-pop group was tearing it up under the radar with three great records before breaking up, then coming back to record two more excellent things by the end of the decade. This one won the coin flip because it’s the most psychedelic and fractured thing they have done…at least so far. We can hope, can’t we?
Other albums that could have gone here: Mu Psiqui Ta (2002), La Emergencia (2005), Presenta La Tarde (2009).
28. Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003)
We have a deep affection for this highly literate and sensitive duo from Cincinnati; their well-crafted songs often skirt pretention but are saved by their sincerity, and by Karin Bergquist’s insanely sensuous vocal delivery. This is their best set of songs, each better than the last. Standouts: the riveting title track, “Jesus in New Orleans.” See them live if you can, like we do.
27. Gomez, Out West (2005)
We are the only critical authority to recognize the awesomeness of Gomez, a very British band that does songs about hating Britain and how unknowable we all are. But we don’t care because we are right and everyone else is wrong. Choosing this one is provocative but right, as it shows all sides of a great group that will always be underrated…except in our hearts.
Other albums that could have gone here: Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline (2000), In Our Gun (2002), Split the Difference (2004), How We Operate (2006), A New Tide (2009).
26. Baaba Maal, Mi Yeewnii (Missing You) (2001)
Severely conflicted choosing this instead of Salif Keita’s Moffou from 2002, which I should have on the list somewhere, too. Both are lovely acoustic albums by romantic Malian singers who embrace beauty and delicacy as well as power. But we heard Maal first, and saw him and his otherworldly band in one of the most thrilling concerts ever, so he’s in. Consider it an official tie.
Other albums that could have gone here: Television (2009).
25. Mannie Fresh, The Mind of Mannie Fresh (2004)
This is simply one of the most hilarious and creative hip-hop records in that genre’s history, high praise for a guy who was considered a gifted but limited producer before this album dropped. Wild love/hate songs like “Conversation,” sneakily deep stuff like “Nothing Compares to Love,” best skits ever, and Lil Wayne killing it in a parody of himself.
24. Tabla Beat Science, Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (2002)
This band is a supergroup made up of a lot of our favorite world music artists: Karsh Kale on percussion and drums, the stunning Ethiopian singer Gigi, MIDIval PunditZ on electronics and turntables, Bill Laswell on bass, Ustad Sultan Khan on sarangi, and the incomparable Zakir Hussein on tablas. They cook like a whole bunch of Iron Chefs in this live setting. Better, now I can shoehorn a bunch of their albums into the space below:
Other albums that could have gone here: Karsh Kale: Realize (2001), Liberation (2003), Broken English (2006), Breathing Under Water w/Anoushka Shankar (2007); Gigi: Gigi (2001), Illuminated Audio (2003), Abyssinia Infinite (2003), Gold and Wax (2006); MIDIval PunditZ: MIDIval Times (2005), Hello Hello (2009); absolutely anything by Khan and Hussein.
23. Norah Jones, Not Too Late (2007)
Scoff if you must at her success, her low-key delivery, her good looks, or her refusal to choose between country and soul and pop and rock and jazz. But please don’t sell her short as a singer or as a songwriter, because she’s grown into a complete original. This one contains her best and most cutting songs, as well as a mordant political wit (“Sinking Soon”) and real intelligence. Don’t hate on her, she’ll put out four more classics every decade.
Other albums that could have gone here: Come Away With Me (2002), Feels Like Home (2004), The Fall (2009).
22. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (2009)
Not sure if there was a more disappointing record than At War With the Mystics, because these guys were on such a roll after Yoshimi killed it. But this record brought them back to their anarchist core while managing to thrill even jaded hipsters with their new updated sound and the ferocity of a lot of their lyrics. So what if it’s not as good as Clouds Taste Metallic? We’ll take new great material any day, even if it’s harsh & crazy.
Other albums that could have gone here: Yoshimi Vs. the Pink Robots.
21. Cornershop, Handcream for a Generation (2002)
Another example of an eclectic-minded British group that has been almost completely abandoned by everyone. This was a huge gamble for Tjinder Singh, who here embraced blues and psych-rock and disco in addition to the group’s niche market in Indian-inflected pop weirdness. He might have done his job too well, as this record caused fans to run fleeing from the armadillo in his trousers. But a more lovable album might not exist.
Other albums that might have gone here: Judy Sucks a Lemon For Breakfast (2009).
20. Anthony Hamilton, The Point of It All (2008)
There is not enough space here for us to express our deep love and admiration for Mr. Anthony Hamilton. If he just sang the way he does, like a low-rent angel steeped in gospel and country and hip-hop…dayenu. If he just wrote shockingly well-constructed songs the way he does, often with steel-trap subtexts or wild turns of phrase…dayenu. But to do both as easily as he seems to? An embarrassment of riches. This one keeps rising up the chart and might end up top ten eventually.
Other albums that could have gone here: Comin’ From Where I’m From (2003), Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ (2005).