Mr. Jones' 21 Favorite Albums of the 21st Century (so far)

[As always, when attempting this kind of exercise, familiarity and poignancy—as well as considerations of time, space, length, reader interest, etc etc etc—will inevitably lead to some favorites falling by the wayside. But such are the pitfalls of compiling a list of any kind, although slightly less stress is involved when the main criteria is favorites. And so, with that out of the way, and in alphabetical order by artist, have at them. Cheers. - KJ]

If you are of the faction that enjoys Adams’ alt-country leanings but have more of a hankering for his rock and roll exploits—namely, um, Rock n Roll [Lost Highway-2003]—then the final Cardinals album is the one for you. Adams and his mates are in full-on rock mode here and despite the common quality control pitfalls of a double album, they amply succeeded in putting together a batch of rockin’ tunes that don’t let up and coalesce into a consistent album. The Cardinals’ final bow was quite the farewell and arguably one of Adams’ best overall.

BECK Sea Change [DGC-2002]
Returning to the full-on singer/songwriter mode he mined on 1999's Mutations [DGC] with even better results, Sea Change was Beck’s breakup album. And while the man is in fact grieving over the demise of a long-time relationship on disc, Sea Change is not a dark, mournful listen. No. This is a slow, sadly beautiful piece of music. A late night or Sunday morning record of the highest order with simple, heartwarming songs driven by wonderfully recorded acoustic guitars and supple arrangements. A classic.

BRIAN BLADE & THE FELLOWSHIP BAND Season of Changes [Verve-2008]
A gifted drummer whose talents extend into composition as well, Blade has played with many a great, including Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Daniel Lanois, Brad Mehldau, Joni Mitchell, Joshua Redman, and Wayne Shorter. He also leads the Fellowship Band, one of the finest jazz ensembles out there. Season of Changes, their third album, is incredibly accessible, pregnant with soaring melodies that never pander, while firmly planted in the jazz realm yet eschewing unwarranted instrumental indulgence. No gimmicks, tricks or nonsense, this is the real deal.

JON BRION Meaningless [Straight to Cut Out-2001]
The Los Angeles-based producer/multi-instrumentalist/composer is a name familiar to anyone who has perused the liner notes to records by Fiona Apple, Eels, Jellyfish, Aimee Mann, Rhett Miller and many more. And although he has only one album under his own name at this point, it’s clearly a winner. Released on Brion’s own label and almost guaranteeing it very limited exposure despite the artist’s high profile production/session work, Meaningless is a wonderful album in the singer/songwriter vein with a healthy dose of classic pop chops definitely worth seeking out.
Feel Good Lost [Arts & Crafts-2002]
One of the privileged few who have gone thru the reverse sophomore slump—their second album, the Juno Award-winning You Forgot It In People [Arts & Crafts-2002] was their critical and commercial breakthrough and set the stage for members Leslie Feist and Emily Haines to become stars in their native Canada—this beloved collective started out as a 2-man operation on this, their debut album. Before the group swelled to around a dozen or so members and became an indie rock powerhouse, Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew put together dreamy, mostly instrumental soundscapes that can be as effective a soundtrack for late night seduction as for a sober Sunday morning.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR. The Futurist [Sony Classical-2004]
A mostly piano-driven singer/songwriter album reminiscent of latter day Elton John, The Futurist is a moving full-length debut from a talented musician better known for his day job and past run-ins with the law, and one that should appeal to anyone looking for mellow, more adult-leaning fare.

FREELOADER Cantina Claqueur [JSS-2005]
Sort of a more down home version of Wilco—2/3 of the band were from the South—but edgier than Tweedy and company, on their sophomore release killer grooves and blissful vibes effortlessly share space with hooky, deep-fried licks. Of special note is "6 Train", a stunningly beautiful acoustic tribute to the band’s adopted home of NYC, courtesy of frontman Scott Sinclair, a talented guitarist and vocalist, not to mention a keen lyricist, with a gift for atmosphere and observation. Why this kickass trio didn’t blow up…

GUIDED BY VOICES Isolation Drills [TVT-2001]
Amidst a couple of lo-fi masterpieces, the Rob Schnapf-produced Isolation Drills has the highest quality sound to quality song ratio in the GBV catalog, which also makes it a perfect starting point for the uninitiated, as well as the studio album that comes closest to capturing the energy of their legendary live shows. (Isolation Drills features Elliott Smith playing keyboards on a couple of tracks.)

JUMBO D.D. Y Ponle Play [BMG US Latin-2001]
The exact opposite of what is commonly known as a sophomore slump, the follow-up to the Monterrey, Mexico quintet’s tentative 1999 debut Restaurant [BMG US Latin] is quite a spirited affair. Chock full of soaring choruses, solid playing and held together by a finely tuned production approach that gives the proceedings its underlying fluidity, D.D. Y Ponle Play is a rousing rock and roll record from start to finish.

THE LEMONHEADS self-titled [Vagrant-2006] 
Released almost 10 years to the day after their last studio album—the spotty but noteworthy Car Button Cloth [Atlantic-1996]—Evan Dando dusted off his nom de band and showed the young’uns how it’s done. The old pop/punk pin-up (along with The Descendants rhythm section of Karl Alvarez and Bill Stevenson, the latter also serving as the album’s producer) was smart enough to rejoin us with a gem of a disc that recalls the joyous, infectious sound of their '92 classic It's A Shame About Ray [Atlantic]. As the All Music Guide plainly states, this was "the right kind of return for a band that should never have gone away in the first place."

AIMEE MANN Bachelor No.2 or the Last Remains of the Dodo [Superego-2000] 
With the exception of ‘Til Tuesday’s debut we’ve not been big supporters of this lady’s work, before or since this album. But this one, oh, this one…    

JASON MORAN The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note-2003]
Moran is tremendous. And The Bandwagon, recorded live with his trio in NYC, is a gem. His covers of Brahms’ "Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2"—one of the most sadly beautiful pieces of music we’ve ever heard within the realm of jazz—and the standard “Body and Soul” are pure genius; Moran’s own “Gentle Shifts South”—featuring sampled members of his family narrating their genealogy—is not be missed. Oh, and his reworking of “Planet Rock" is none too shabby, btw.

NADA SURF Let Go [Barsuk-2003]
Avoiding the frequent comparisons to Weezer that plagued them since the release of their hit single "Popular" (which was also produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek), Brooklyn-based rockers Nada Surf returned from a 3 year hiatus with an engaging, gimmick-free collection of top-notch guitar pop. Yes, the crunchy guitars are in the mix, but there’s a lot more subtlety, maturity and definition to their sound on Let Go. That doesn’t mean the tunes don’t rock: au contraire, mes amis. This is what a band sounds like when they’ve assessed their gifts and weaknesses, balanced them out, and delivered their very best.

THE RACONTEURS Broken Boy Soldiers [Third Man/V2-2006]
Jack White always had our respect, if not necessarily our admiration. That all changed when he teamed up with fellow Motor City singer/songwriter/guitarist Brendan Benson and the eminently talented Greenhornes rhythm section of Little Jack Lawrence (bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums) for one of the most anticipated pairings of the ‘00s. Like it or not, Broken Boy Soldiers answered the question, “What would the White Stripes sound like with a rhythm section carried by a real drummer?” (Sorry, Meg.)

RADIOHEAD Kid A [Parlophone-2000]
With a couple of classics under their belt, Radiohead once again surprised fans with a new musical direction on their next album. Disturbed by the legion of groups copping their style and disillusioned with the traditional parameters of rock music, vocalist and main songwriter Thom Yorke was motivated to go for a change of musical scenery. (Although, it must be said, "The mythology around [rock music] has run its course" is truly one of the most pretentious statements ever made by Yorke or any other rock star.)
Despite experimenting with an electronica-based sound, Kid A managed to retain much of the majesty of their previous album and undisputed landmark, OK Computer [Parlophone-1997], and reach the top of the album charts shortly after its release, later winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album on the strength of "Everything in its Right Place", "The National Anthem", "How to Disappear Completely", "Treefingers", "Optimistic" and "In Limbo", among others.  

SUN KIL MOON Ghosts of the Great Highway [Caldo Verde-2003]
The debut album under the former Red House Painters frontman/main songwriter Mark Kozelek’s third moniker was universally acclaimed and for good reason. Nary a cover nor a duff track anywhere, Ghosts of the Great Highway is at times an acoustic elegy while also mining a Crazy Horse revisited terrain. Regardless, this is simply a hauntingly beautiful record by a talented artist who has been toiling in the not-so-bright spotlight while making some of the most timeless music of the last couple of decades.

MATTHEW SWEET Kimi Ga Suki [Superdeformed-2004]
Sweet and the land of the rising sun have conducted an equally requited love affair for some time now. So, four years after his previous official release, In Reverse
[Volcano-1999], Sweet got together with most of the crew from his landmark album Girlfriend [Zoo-1991]—except the late guitarist Robert Quine—returned to the studio and delivered this power-pop valentine to his Japanese fan base. Recorded in a week and produced, engineered and mixed at home by Sweet, Kimi Ga Suki is a raw, loose and wonderful showcase for the man’s plentiful songwriting talents.

TEARS FOR FEARS Everybody Loves a Happy Ending [New Door/Universal-2004]
With their classic panoramic production and a strong late-period Beatles influence in place, this album is nothing less than prime TFF. Granted, in an era of segregated musical tastes mainstream pop fans did not care and indie rock fans stayed away in droves. Which is a shame, since this is pop music of the highest caliber; written, performed and arranged with precise attention to detail but with enough kick to please pop purists and rockers alike. Nobody makes records like this anymore, but thankfully Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith made sure that at least one band still did.

VAN HALEN A Different Kind of Truth [Interscope-2012] 
After the Van Hagar era and the lone album with Gary Cherone, to expect a classic Van Halen record was nothing short of foolishness. That a damn good one appeared 14 years after the band’s last studio album and almost three decades since they’d parted ways with Diamond Dave was, well, as close to a miracle as anyone could aspire to, in this case.

THE WEBB BROTHERS Maroon [Warner Bros-2000]
Virtual unknowns here in their homeland—they got their first record deal in the UK and even snagged a slot at the Reading Festival—the Chicago-based sons of legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb haven’t had much commercial success in these United States. The critically lauded Maroon is undeserving of such neglect for, among other things, its catchy, sophisticated pop occasionally suggests a cross between Ben Folds and latter day Flaming Lips (especially on the last third of the album). Engaging and rewarding, Maroon may be just one more in a long line of hidden gems out there, but its dreadful commercial fate does not diminish its power and beauty one bit.

WILCO Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch-2002]
It’s been long enough that one can easily listen to the fourth Wilco album while forgetting all the inherent drama surrounding YHF. It also served, at the time, as the basis for an interesting thought experiment: What kinda record would Radiohead’s OK Computer have been if they’d hailed from the Midwest and had alt-country roots?


Milestones: Sueño Stereo

Sueño Stereo 
[BMG US Latin-1995] 

Despite what could be described as a cross between the dark yet accessible electronica of Depeche Mode’s Violator [Warner Bros-1988] and the panoramic soundscapes of U2’s Achtung, Baby [Island-1990], the band’s sixth studio album Dynamo [Sony-1992] failed to ignite the expected enthusiasm from either their fanbase or the rock en español crowd in general. (Lukewarm reception aside, the album is a shoegazer touchstone in Latin America.) 

But a worthwhile plateau had been reached: the use of a more modern and expansive palate had yielded significant musical dividends. And with the lessons learned—as well as the further groundwork laid by Amor Amarillo [BMG-1993], the solo debut album by frontman Gustavo Cerati—there would be plenty to work with next time out. 

Studio album number seven turned out to be their swan song, but what a way to go—electronica-treated, Beatlesque guitar pop, flawlessly performed, recorded and produced; a heady, spacey mix of 21st century rock and roll half a decade early, yet arriving not a moment too soon. (The album’s title translates as “stereo dream” and it couldn’t be more appropriate.) Not only the band’s best but one of the finest rock records ever recorded in Spanish. Released August 15, 1995.

Highlights: “Ella Uso Mi Cabeza Como Un Revolver”, “Disco Eterno”, “Zoom”, “Ojo de la Tormenta”, “Paseando por Roma”, “Planta”.