50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s (Pt. 1)

By: Dennis Cook

Hey, we love Radiohead's Kid A, OutKast's Stankonia and My Morning Jacket's Z as much as all the other music press hailing these albums as the best produced in the first decade of the new century. But, there was a LOT of incredible music made between 2000-2009 that isn't showing up on the mega-lists at Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc. As is often the case, the most exciting music is frequently made outside the spotlight, working in bedrooms and basements to inch sound, composition and musicianship forward with sweat, determination and great invention.

This feature is an attempt to gather up a healthy sampling of some of the most amazing albums we encountered during the past decade that aren't getting the recognition that their craftsmanship and creativity deserve. We at JamBase consider it our mission to seek out and share such quality work with our readers. We understand how the right album brought into someone's hands can impact their life in ways that go way beyond entertainment or distraction. Oh, those are good, too, and we're the first ones to encourage y'all to have a good time on this planet (trust us, as the old ditty goes, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think...), but we approach music as something bigger and more important than just another commodity to be consumed and discarded. And so do each and every one of the artists included in this piece.

These selections represent a yearning for something - be it release or revelation, empathy or endorphin stimulation, a chance to set history straight or simply a telling of stories that need to be shared. Even the most jovial albums here engage with their craft with a seriousness and intent that's palpable. With a few notable exceptions, most were made without much thought of charts, video exposure or People Magazine spreads. Something deeper and more intensely intangible drives these folks, and the results are albums that richly reward our own dedication of time and attention in endless ways.

This is not an attempt to be hipster-cool or one-up the competition. There's no hierarchy of any kind to this assortment. This feature's intent is much simpler: We aim to lay some beautiful, brightly thoughtful music at your feet in the hopes you'll discover something that moves and delights you. Hidden amongst this intentionally jumbled selection are albums with the power to shake your foundations or just shake what mama gave ya. Either way, there's gold in them hills and it's waiting there for you happy prospectors.

50 Unsung Classics of the 2000s (Pt. 1)

1. Chris Whitley featuring Billy Martin & Chris Wood: Perfect Day (2000)
Whitley was snatched from us by lung cancer in 2005, but before he shuffled off he produced one of the most amazing catalogs in the past two decades, and this collaboration with MMW's rhythm team stands amongst his best work. Ostensibly a cover tune set, the trio, through empathetic interplay and wisely chosen platforms, puts an individual stamp on every tune, even iconic numbers like Dylan's "4th Time Around" and Willie Dixon's "Spoonful." What's remarkable is how these heavyweights under-play throughout, using their talents with sharply focused discretion and instinct. They play to the song and to one another, and the convergence of these elements results in a collection that makes one look at Whitley, Wood and Martin AND the artists they cover in a brand new light.

2. Joe Bataan: Call My Name (2005)
The King of Latin Soul reclaims his crown on this career-resurrecting marvel. A household name in ghettos and barrios everywhere in the 1970s, Bataan had been out of sight for almost 20 years when young NYC producer/composer Daniel Collas came calling. He'd created a series of instrumentals with Bataan in mind and managed to lure the legend back into the studio. What the pairing created is every bit the equal of Bataan's heyday Salsoul records, a genre he almost single-handedly birthed that blends Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and South American musical motifs and has influenced everything from disco to reggaeton to mainstream soul. Tracks like dance floor dynamite "Chick A Boom" and slow jam extraordinaire "I'm The Fool" revealed a richness and maturity to Bataan's voice, and surrounded by a largely unknown but absolutely stunning group of young musicians, the man has never sounded better.

3. Marc Ford: It's About Time (2003)
Known primarily as the on-again, off-again lead guitarist in The Black Crowes, Ford's solo debut revealed a mature, highly satisfying composer and singer very much in the vein of Ronnie Wood's '70s solo efforts. The title is a nod to the six years after his first expulsion from the Crowes that it took him to release this, but listening to stunners like the prickly "Feels Like Doin' Time," the unvarnished sweetness of "Darlin' I've Been Dreamin'" or the thundering smack of "Two Mules and a Rainbow" (where he's backed by the original trio lineup of Gov't Mule, who also appear on the Crazy Horse-like "Just Let It Go") one can't help wonder how the Crowes might've evolved had they welcomed Ford's compositions into the mix. Ford is one of the guitarists of his generation but this album showed there was far more to him than solos.

4. Subtle: For Hero: For Fool (2006)
One of the most underrated bands of the past decade, Subtle have aggressively sought newness, originality and angular accessibility. A furious swirl of future forward hip hop, advanced electronica, antique prog flavors and stratospheric experimentation, For Hero alternates between bludgeoning and tickling one's psyche. Often it's felt first before the mind can comprehend what this snarled cultural pipe bomb is blowing up about, but there's simply no way to NOT react to what they're laying down. This Oakland/S.F.-based crew melds academic level discourse with devastating musicianship and fearless sonic curiosity. For all the accolades Radiohead, Beck (who once asked these guys to be his backing band!) and others have received in recent years, Subtle is equally, if not more, deserving.

5. Opeth: Blackwater Park (2001)
The metal world knows and loves Sweden's Opeth, but it's albums like the landmark Blackwater Park that make them one of the finest bands – genre tags be damned – on Earth. Inserting exciting atmospheric rumbles and nakedly beautiful melodic elements into an incredibly heavy sound not only changed the game for themselves but for metal in the larger sense. With this release, stunningly produced by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, Opeth showed one could have both grumbling, black tinged vocals and proper, even pretty singing, not only on one album but within a single song. Everything about Blackwater screams of an artistry way beyond most of their metal peers, and announced an ambition to reach beyond the clichés of their chosen genre. Everyone in thrall to Mastodon's Crack The Skye is encouraged to explore one of the cornerstones in that band's sound and approach.

6. Caetano Veloso: A Foreign Sound (2004)
While revered in Brazil and Europe on the level of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen or Bob Marley, Veloso is known primarily to a dedicated cult in the U.S. This is partially due to the fact that he's rarely recorded in English. And while his native Portuguese is pleasing to the ear, to most monolingual Americans it's just sound. For only the second time in his long career – the first being his brilliant, sorrowful self-titled 1971 album made while in exile in England – Veloso puts his golden pipes and sublime phrasing to work on English language material, delving into Jerome Kern ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"), Elvis Presley ("Love Me Tender"), Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies," "Always"), Talking Heads ("Nothing But Flowers") and Nirvana ("Come As You Are"). It's a dizzying assortment handled with utmost class, and perhaps the finest gateway into Veloso's work a neophyte could find.

7. Buck 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (2003)
Canada's Richard Terfry (aka Buck 65) had been filed under hip hop since his emergence in the late '90s, but this release pushed him further afield than that simple category could contain. Madly snatching scraps of Woody Guthrie, Gil Scott-Heron, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Eric B and Rakim and countless other visionaries, Buck expunged a brilliant song cycle that neatly bridged the worlds of underground hip hop, spoken word, and post-Radiohead rock, and managed to do it without overt studiousness. Instead, this Honky spills positivity and thoughtful enzymes everywhere, encouraging us to find happiness and purpose no matter how little our bank accounts hold.

8. Autechre: Draft 7:30 (2003)
Much of the bleeps and bloops of today's electronic players is informed by English duo Rob Brown and Sean Booth. Never anxious to fill dance floors, these studio artisans excel at breaking preconceptions of what constitutes a song or even what one calls "music." Full of sharp angles, disorienting digressions, unstable rhythms and noises that seem not-of-this-world, Draft 7:30 adds something like a groove. It was and remains their most accessible album and a landmark blueprint for all the button pushers and pitch wheel benders that have followed in their footsteps.

9. The Society of Rockets: Our Paths Related (2007)
The word 'psychedelic' is so overused it should probably be retired. But, it's also an incredibly useful shorthand for an altered state of consciousness and perhaps a more tactile engagement with the universe at large. Which brings us to this stunning, honestly psychedelic album by this criminally unknown San Francisco group. For sure it's rock 'n' roll – the kinetic guitars and slicing, fabulous vocals make that clear – but one can reach out and tug on the Super Strings of culture and consciousness woven into this song cycle. This Path leads us to engagement in an age that encourages us to remain separate and build walls against our neighbors. What's incredible is how it takes us on such a road without sounding holier-than-thou or preachy, and even manages to be great fun while it skips through the fire and tumult around us.

10. Fannypack: So Stylistic (2003)
Lookin' mad cute and taking sips of your ripple, Fannypack exploded out of New York City, shakin' that ass and proud as hell to hail from the home of Biggie and P. Diddy. Few albums of any time period exude this level of whoo-ha, hands-in-the-air excitement and bargain basement ingenuity. Cat, Belinda and Jessibel – three deceptively goofy yet curiously skilled lady MCs – backed by the beat manipulation and sample savvy of two dudes named Matt and Fancy sounds like a recipe for forgettable dance fluff. Yet, this is one of the few albums to really capture the mojo of hip hop's revered ancestors like the Sugarhill Gang and Liquid Liquid and run with it. Between the irresistible handclap frenzy, laugh out loud rhymes and near-cartoon Brooklyn accents you almost miss how damn good the songwriting, production and performances are. If all you know is novelty hit "Cameltoe" – easily the weakest cut here – then it's time to get knee deep in this Fanny. Throw this on – LOUD – fire up a few thrift store strobe lights and crack open a case of cheap beer and you've got a party. Believe that!

Continue reading for next batch of sublime selections from the past decade...

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