These are the best debut records of the 2000s.
The fraying of the pop monoculture that began in the ‘90s exploded in the 21st century as increasing strides in hip-hop and R&B permanently shook loose rock’s dominance of the pop charts, catapulting new acts into the mainstream who pushed things forward with ambitious new sounds. The rise of internet radio and file sharing made it possible for niche scenes to attain global exposure without big label support. Thus, rising stars in the UK electronic and rap undergrounds could rub elbows with the hottest names of the final era of music television. There may not be as many immediate, mass-impact debuts in the 2000s compared to previous decades, but no longer was success confined to a handful of breakout artists. Business models may have faced an uncertain future, but musicians quickly embraced the possibilities afforded by new technology and outreach, crafting unique, memorable debuts that exploded the narrow confines of typical genres. – Jake Cole
What is there of the Strokes and Is This It? when one removes them from the historical context? This is, after all, the band that was hailed as the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll, here to rescue the listening public from nu-metal and butt rock with a healthy dose of urban nonchalance and punk dynamism. Given that that’s not how things ended up playing out, one could be forgiven for regarding Is This It as a product of rock-crit hyperbole more than a piece of music. But something funny happens when you actually sit and listen to the album: the effortless cool of Julian Casablancas’ delivery puffs out your chest, and the slyly skillful musicianship of the rest of the band makes itself known, and before you know it, you’re on your feet dancing or strutting down the street like you own the world. In the parlance of our current online moment, Is This It is a mood, and it’s an inescapable one at that.
For persons of a certain age from a certain place (specifically, well-off people who lived in New York in their twenties), Is This It may have some kind of deep meaning, but this is not a record designed to give listeners grand spiritual awakenings, and it’s a better record for that. In a decade defined by a massive tragic event right at its outset, pop music needed to serve both as escapism and as a coping mechanism, and Is This It more than provided that while simultaneously striking down what came in the decade before. After all, how does the internal turmoil expressed so bluntly by the post-grunge bands of the 1990s mean anything when millions of Americans had their illusions of safety shattered in an instant? In trying to cope with that realization, what else can one do but dance as if nothing matters? That’s what millions did, and Is This It was the perfect soundtrack for it. – Kevin Korber
The consistent knock on Interpol is that they’re pastiche artists ripping off Joy Division and the rest of the back catalogs of ‘80s post-punk, a charge often levied by people who seem to have forgotten how desolate and alienating many of those old post-punk records actually are. There is absolutely nothing alienating about Interpol, particularly on their lush, gorgeous debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights. Though their outward image as a group of pale, solemn men in fine-tailored suits gives off the impression of detachment, there’s warm blood and a beating heart at the center of this record. Paul Banks tries to disguise it with deliberately obtuse lyrics that would eventually become the stuff of legend (who could forget “Her stories are boring and stuff/ She’s always calling my bluff” or “The subway, she is a porno”?), but even his best efforts can’t mask the ache beneath the detachment. The pain of a hectic, meaningless life in an urban sprawl lies at the heart of Turn on the Bright Lights, and it leads Banks to focus on the minor imperfections of his loved ones and to conceal everything so deep that he ends up exclaiming like Stanley Kowalski just to feel something.
The music of TOTBL does its best to comfort the listener, even as it warns of dangers lurking in the shadows. Few bands would think to place the dreamscape of “NYC” next to the angular grit of “PDA,” but the gambit pays off in showing how a place like New York can love you one second and try to kill you the next. Daniel Kessler’s guitar effects create lush soundscapes while still sounding like guitars, and the handful of actual post-punk elements that do appear come from the stunning rhythm play of Carlos Dengler and Sam Fogarino, easily the best bass/drum combo to come from the early 2000s rock renaissance. Far from a simple pastiche, Turn on the Bright Lights is a dense, enveloping record that keeps revealing new dimensions with each subsequent listen. – Kevin Korber
Consider the ode to self-pleasure. In the ‘80s, New York firebrand Cyndi Lauper got on Tipper Gore’s bad side with the steely (and suggestive) “She Bop.” If that was offensive, it’s hard to imagine what the ladies and gentlemen of those congressional hearings would’ve done with Karen O screaming “Date with the Night” in their ears.
By the same measure, what the hell did everyone think when they picked up Fever to Tell on the strength of the uncharacteristically tender “Maps”? The Strokes were apathetic, the Walkmen old-school, Interpol mopey, but Yeah Yeah Yeahs were fucking dangerous. “You make me wanna…” moaned Karen O and the resulting word could have been anywhere from “love” to “stab.” Though she eventually became a priestess of electropop, for a few years O was the avatar of all of punk-rockdom, a perilous crossbreed between Exene Cervenka, Patti Smith and just enough of Lauper’s catchiness to reel you back in despite the peril. With some added muscle by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek in production, Brian Chase’s trash-can drumming and Nick Zinner’s crusty guitar gave the proper crime-scene background for O to stomp through.
So much of the post-punk revival amounted to rehashing the ‘70s. Though YYYs did give the Ramones a run for their money on the hooky “Pin,” so much of Fever to Tell felt immediate. The cracked speed everything was delivered with made rearview peeking impossible. When O sleazed “ride daddy ride,” it snuck in on a sludgy riff that wouldn’t have felt out of place on a Mastodon record. Fever to Tell was every helicopter parent’s nightmare and budding rocker’s dream. YYYs went to the darker corners that other New Yorkers wished they were cool/insane enough to venture to. – Nathan Stevens
Looking back, Funeral is the genesis and arguably the qualitative peak of a certain brand of indie music. A quasi-conceptual suite about dystopian life in a cozy suburb accompanied by precious orchestral arrangements and stiff disco beats, this hyper-emotional and musically indulgent brand of rock is incredibly of-its-time. Canada’s Arcade Fire explored a similar sense of nostalgic escapism as their critically-acclaimed American peers like Animal Collective or Sufjan Stevens. A prideful embrace of the most grandiose of feelings marks all of the impassioned outpourings of Win Butler. If Arcade Fire’s debut unfortunately inspired a slew of mediocre indie bands that wallowed in childlike reminiscence, and Butler has been steadily becoming a parody of himself, Funeral remains equally heartwarming and devastating like few other albums. Its warm sound and ability to turn personal dramas into fantastical fables retain their initial charm, even though the music would feel hopelessly out-of-touch in today’s musical climate.
The album’s conceptualism and influence aside, the longest-lasting success of Funeral is its wealth of unforgettable, chill-inducing moments: the first time the drums hit during the breakdown of “Un année sans lumière;” the revelatory switch to major in the disco section of “Crown of Love;” the seamless, collage-like transition between “Haiti” and “Rebellion (Lies);” Butler shouting “Well, whatever happened to them?” in “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels);” shouting “Is it a dream? / Is it a lie?” in “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out);” shouting “Turning every good thing to rust” in “Wake Up;” the papery, delicate string conclusion to the album in “In the Backseat” that feels as if it could crumble at any second. All of these and more speak to a musical and emotional understanding that remains Funeral’s alone. – Connor Lockie
Grime was best showcased by pirate radio, with its predominantly teenaged artists debuting tracks on broadcasts that fans would dutifully tape for the early mp3 era, or show up for group freestyles in which crews would take turns spitting impossibly complex bars into a few seconds of airtime for each participant. The first, and still best, full-length LP to truly capture the genre’s innovation and deceptive sophistication was Boy in da Corner, an impassioned State of the Union from its 19-year-old star.
Not since Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks had a debut boasted such wisdom from so young a performer, and it is difficult at times to reconcile Rascal’s age with the bleak, prematurely aged despair of “Sittin’ Here” or the lament of “Brand New Day,” in which he notes “We used to fight with kids from other estates/ Now 8mms settle debates.” Even the album’s punchiest declarations of youthful vigor, like the glam-ish stomp of “Fix Up, Look Sharp” or the blistering “I Luv U,” are filled with a level of hardened callousness that no teen should be able to embody so effortlessly.
Rascal’s production is the perfect distillation of grime’s sound of skeletal futurism, all laser-beam bursts and brittle drums that leave ample space around the rapper’s ferocious delivery but also brim with the same paranoid fervor that informs his vocal style. Along with a handful of seminal early releases in the UK’s grime and dubstep scene, Boy in da Corner remains the definitive musical statement of Britain under Tony Blair’s New Labour, a time of supposed prosperity and progress that wallpapered over the mass abandonment of the nation’s social safety nets. It is, of course, every bit as bitingly relevant today in the age of austerity, and no matter how many artists continue to help grime evolve, no one has yet matched the pure intensity of this introductory document. – Jake Cole
“Man, I promise/ I’m so self-conscious,” Kanye West confesses on “All Falls Down”—a rare understatement on an album otherwise rife with hyperbole. “Self-conscious” doesn’t even begin to describe The College Dropout: a hubristic attempt at the Great American Novel as a commercial rap debut album, refracting its wide-ranging theses on the Black experience under late capitalism through the hyper-specific lens of the artist’s rise to fame. It shouldn’t have worked—not least because West, a rising-star producer in early 2004, was still largely unproven as a rapper, with only a handful of features and some better-than-expected mixtapes under his belt.
Yet The College Dropout does work, almost in spite of itself. It isn’t perfect, falling afoul of the standard pitfalls of its time: an overabundance of skits—“School Spirit” alone is bookended by three—and a bloated 76-minute runtime. But its imperfections are key to its sense of humanity, as indispensable to Kanye’s art and identity as his o’erweening ambition. To listen to Kanye West in these early days was to identify with his shortcomings: to strive alongside him, to watch him fuck up and take comfort in the fact that we, too, could bounce back.
Today, it’s impossible to revisit the beginning of Kanye’s story without being reminded of where he would end up. Where once he had crafted an image so particular and yet passionately-inhabited that it became paradoxically universal, it’s now hard to imagine another human relating to him (or vice versa). In hindsight, The College Dropout can feel overly calculated. How seriously can we take musings on systemic racism from a man who later claimed slavery was a choice? Were all of his best lines written by Rhymefest, or just the ones we already knew about?
If these questions niggle, however, it’s only because the album resonated in the first place. The Kanye of 2019 may bear little resemblance to the Kanye of 2004—his achievements eclipsed by successors like Kendrick Lamar, who delivered similarly ambitious work with fewer caveats. But not even his precipitous decline can erase the raw brilliance of this debut. – Zachary Hoskins
Madvillainy is the perfect indie-rap record: an heir to the sampledelia of De La Soul and Paul’s Boutique, paired with the midlife criminal grumbling of the prestige TV nascent in the mid-‘00s, structured as the kind of baroque-pop odessey (sic) that would’ve appealed to indie rock fans bootlegging Smile at the time. Of all the unimpeachable albums in rap history, it might be the one that appeals most easily to those wary of the genre. Its craft is obvious, its writing literary, its beats the product of extensive crate-digging and elbow grease. There’s a lot to chew on but little to “get,” and like so many great rappers, MF DOOM writes dazzlingly about mundane subject matter. Halfway through “America’s Most Blunted” we’re wondering how he’s going to talk about weed next. And he’s such a likable curmudgeon your dad might see himself having drinks with him. If this DOOM character is actually a supervillain, it mostly serves to make him more interesting. Meanwhile, Madlib careens through beats like Spider-Man swinging from one building to another.
The Madvillain project will almost certainly only make this one record. An album of remixes titled Madvillainy 2 failed to dupe fans, and if a true sequel ever emerged it’s unlikely it’d be this good. DOOM still turns in vital rap now and again but is mostly interested in being a mentor to younger rappers and blessing tracks with a charisma that’s sharper than his bars. Madlib is working with Freddie Gibbs a lot these days (to inevitable Madvillain comparisons) and is still consistent if less bugnuts. The meeting of the Illest Villains is self-contained and should stay that way. It needs a sequel like it needs a hole in its head or a third tit. – Daniel Bromfield
Maya Arulpragasam didn’t take the usual road to international stardom. Her childhood in Sri Lanka was marred by civil war. Her father founded a Tamil resistance movement. In the ‘90s she developed punk sensibilities while attending art school in London. She wanted to make movies, and directed a music video for Elastica. This life experience may not be the kind of street cred that fuels typical gangsta rap, but M.I.A. witnessed a level of violence and oppression unknown in the West. And you can hear those diverse influences all over her 2005 debut, named after her father.
Arular signaled a distinct new voice, introducing sounds and subjects that came far from hip-hop’s roots, dressed in lo-fi 8-bit graphics that promised something raw and delivered radical politics by means of irresistible pop. “Sunshowers,” which would end up being used as the soundtrack to fashion shows, talked about murder and the PLO. The impossible catchy “10 Dollar” starts with a popular Tamil rhyme before turning into a violent story about child prostitution. The anthemic “Pull Up the People” calls for revolution more explicitly than anyone else would dare. M.I.A. gets her message across with a rhythm that’s at once violent and sexy–listen to the mesmerizing, wordless chant near the end of “Bingo,” which shifts from steel drums and cricket slang to something strangely seductive. If punk made audiences pogo to politics, M.I.A. kept them on subject and expanded the dance moves to something you might hear while you were out shopping, never dreaming of the issues behind that foot-tapping beat.
M.I.A. expanded her sonic palette with the more experimental Kala, named for her mother, but while her music grew, Arular remains her most accessible album, and the hardest to shake. –Pat Padua
While the initial illusion surrounding Burial’s debut album has been slightly shattered, the mystical charm that the album relies on and exudes is as potent as ever. The spacious, introspective takes on UK 2-step instantly spread into the room as soon as they leave the speakers. Between the low-end hums, tinny drum sounds and vocal lines that sound like angsty aliens, Burial’s approach to sound design is immediately recognizable, even at this early stage in his explorations. “U Hurt Me” glides in on a barely-there vocal before thundering down into a deconstructed beat, while the ambient tracks like “Night Bus” and “Forgive” offer an eerie, sentimental tone and predate the less club-oriented experiments the producer would craft in the decade to come.
Thankfully, the music here is still just a fraction of the emotional depths reached on Untrue or Rival Dealer. Burial’s use of vocals is haunting, but he would only find deeper niches in which to push these unnamable emotions. His structures have grown more convoluted, taking the repetitive layering of Burial and building multi-faceted electronic mini-epics. While his debut is only the first step into the start of a long and continually progressing career, Burial is also the beginning of one of the most successfully-sustained and entertaining musical mysteries of the 21st century. The cryptic music, matched with an impenetrable public persona and increasingly obscurest stylistic choices will always be intriguing, especially as we collectively engage in conversations around digital privacy and ownership (in the arts and elsewhere). – Connor Lockie
It becomes an increasingly rare thing that a debut album completely shifts pop culture, but 10 years ago, Stefani Germanotta accomplished just that with The Fame. Inspired by glam rock, materialism and the Gays™️, the album took a slow climb towards its eventual reign over 2009, the only singles outperforming Gaga being those from the Black Eyed Peas. Whereas “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling” became hokey reminders of the late 2000s, “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi” blossomed into standards that inspired a wealth of sounds to follow. Even non singles “Boys Boys Boys” and “Money Honey” found their ways onto soundtracks and radio stations alike, further signifying Gaga’s then supreme reign over not just music but pop culture as a whole.
This all happened largely from the persona of Lady Gaga, who crafted a perfect mix of music, camp and high fashion integral to her popularity. She sang of chasing after lovers and infamy with unabashed ardor, the way many of us would be hesitant to admit about ourselves. Playing into people’s innermost vices, Gaga sugarcoated them with a coat of electro pop to make them all the more palatable, and a bit superficial. Yet Gaga never came across as shallow nor foolish but the opposite. Rather, people saw her as a self-aware celebration of the luster and infamy we dreamt for ourselves but were too self-conscious to pursue on our own. It made her feel like an individual, so much so that pop culture began seeing her influence in every artist and sound that followed suit.
On top of that, The Fame contains hints of the Gaga to come, from the rock of Born this Way or Joanne’s “Perfect Illusion” (the extremely underrated “Summerboy”) to the bizarre provocateur behind The Fame Monster (“LoveGame,” “Poker Face”).
When even Beyoncé takes time out of her schedule to acknowledge and partake in your craft, you know you’ve done it perfectly. – Mick Jacobs