1. Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
More than just a great album, this was the moment when Radiohead made the conscious decision to keep striving for challenging, experimental music, rather than setting down for a cosy life as, say, U2. Radiohead have grown into this sound very well, merging it over recent albums with their more traditional instrumentation so successfully that this record doesn't sound as startling as it did at the time.
Though their use of electronics sounds unsophisticated to anyone familiar with the Warp Records catalogue, Radiohead brought their gift for songwriting to their new approach. There are at least six songs on here that stand comparison with anything in Radiohead's catalogue and there's not a weak track on the album. Is it as instantly likeable as The Bends or OK Computer? Possibly not, but I'm still hearing new things in Kid A a decade after its release.
2. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)
Until the last minute I was going to put White Blood Cells here, however, for the opening track alone this deserves second place. That song, Seven Nation Army, is, for me, the song of the decade. But the album is packed with other great songs too - Black Math and The Hardest Button to Button being two other examples. Overall it's darker and more challenging than its predecessor, with a stronger selection of songs than the two albums that followed it. It's hard to imagine Jack White ever bettering this.
3. Outkast - Stankonia (2000)
If Seven Nation Army is the song of the decade, Outkast's Ms Jackson runs it a close second. It's a mini-masterpiece and one that encapsulates the diverse influences and sprawling vision of the album as a whole. Bombs Over Baghdad is a ridiculously fast - almost too fast - drum n bass workout, while So Fresh, So Clean brings elements of neo-soul into the usual hip hop mix. Elsewhere the influence of Prince and P-Funk are prominent but the overall sound is Outkast's own.
4. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (2006)
A hard band to describe, TV on the Radio play alternative rock influenced by jazz and experimental music. All three of their albums are excellent - and distinct in their approach. This is the rockier of the three, particularly in the second half, but it's still remarkably versatile. The production is better than on their debut but the band uses it to deepen the murkiness of their sound, rather than to move towards the mainstream. Most of the songs here are challenging and reward repeated listens.
5. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
There was a trend at the turn of the decade for bands playing punk-influenced funk and electronica. While !!! and The Rapture both made great individual tracks, LCD Soundsystem made by far the best album. Sound of Silver has wit and energy, for example on Get Innocuous and North American Scum, but also surprising depth and, on Someone Great, genuine poignancy.
6. Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner (2003)
It astonishes me that some critics have placed The Streets' debut above this in their end-of-decade lists. Boy in Da Corner is perhaps the first British hip hop album to stand alongside the best of the genre from America. Mixing in elements of dancehall and garage, it sounds at times like it's landed from another planet. Dizzee Rascal is far from the best rapper - his flow is somewhat nasal and whiney - but he more than makes up for that in his energy, attitude and wit. Sonically, too, the album is extraordinary. Fix Up, Look Sharp sounds like it could knock down buildings, while I Luv U, Round We Go and Jezebel are all head-spinning, twitching pop tunes. An exceptional record.
7. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
This is a beautiful, fragile and folky record that was last year's coffee table album of choice. You shouldn't hold that against it though. It's unthreatening and conventional but so perfectly realised that it doesn't matter. The lofi recording, the connecting theme of many of the songs and Justin Vernon's plaintive vocals all work together to create an absorbing listen.
8. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (2009)
Well, this gives away my pick for album of the year. I've been unimpressed by The Decemberists before now, rating them as a mildly entertaining Neutral Milk Hotel tribute band. However, this is a revelation. Yes, it's very silly - a concept album about a woman who falls in love with a man who shape-shifts into a fawn every night and is kept prisoner in the forest by his adopted mother, the queen. But that's beside the point. This is the most ambitious thing The Decemberists have attempted and they're equal to the task. Melodies recur and re-emerge throughout the album, guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden make excellent contributions for their characters and the band moves impressively away from twee folk at times to deliver some thumping heavy rock. Very few of the songs work outside the context of the whole album, which will put off many listeners, but the complete work is well worth hearing.
9. K'Naan - The Dusty Foot Philosopher (2005)
He sounds a little like Eminem but K'Naan is a Somalian rapper who learned American rap songs phonetically before he even learned English. Having escaped the Somali civil war in 1991, K'Naan spent his teens in New York and Canada. His lyrics are informed by having grown up in the kind of ghettos that would terrify the most posturing of American rappers. As he explains on What's Hardcore: "If I rhymed about home and got descriptive, I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit."
10. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells (2001)
This was the album that brought The White Stripes to mainstream attention and it's not hard to see why. Taking garage rock on a Kinks-inspired pop detour, Jack and Meg White deliver a punchy selection of songs that show just how much can be achieved with only guitar, drums and occasional piano.
11. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (2006)
This list is pretty light on R'n'B, which is a genre in which I have little interest. So it's possible I'm guilty of over-rating the headline-grabbing white girl at the expense of those who've been doing the real work in the genre over the years. Still, Winehouse is no Joss Stone. There's a real individual vision here and a talent for writing the kind of soulful pop that a seemingly endless procession of wannabes have been trying to replicate over the last few years.
12. The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)
This is a far more conservative album than critics would have you believe, which is why you'll find it on more iPods than Dizzee Rascal's debut, above. Mike Skinner takes UK garage and a dash of hip hop - but just a dash, Skinner can't actually rap - and fuses it with elements of The Specials by way of Parklife-era Blur. That still leaves him in pretty good company and he delivers a collection of funny and sharp pop tracks. Occasionally his reach exceeds his grasp, such as when he throws in the word 'perchant' when he clearly means 'penchant'. Sadly misfires of that nature have dominated his subsequent work and he hasn't been able to match the quality of Original Pirate Material.
13. Battles - Mirrored (2007)
Putting the 'mental' into experimental music, this New York outfit have created an album that sounds thoroughly alien. With odd, clipped rhythms piled onto meandering guitar lines and distorted nonsense vocals, it would be easy to expect an unlistenable mess. However, it all holds together very well and the songs develop into a series of mesmerising journeys.
14. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (2009)
Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of The Knife, wrote this album following the birth of her second child. It brings all the magic of childbirth home. "Eyes are open and mouth cries; haven't slept since summer," she croons at one point, in a voice that sounds like someone who hasn't been troubled by sanity in quite some time. Sleep deprivation haunts the album, from the sound of Andersson's vocals to the creepy electronic tones that accompany her. It's an exhausting album but it's a breathtaking one too.
15. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
Merriweather Post Pavilion sounds like the Beach Boys played on a fairground organ - demented but peculiarly entertaining. It's probably the Collective's most accessible outing, focusing their energies into recognisable songs. My Girls and Summertime Clothes are the obvious stand-outs but there isn't really a weak song on the album.
16. Lambchop - Nixon (2000)
Alt-country has never been a broad enough genre to contain Lambchop. Kurt Wagner's loose collective takes classic country, adds in a dash of Philadelphia Soul and - most of all - the spirit of Curtis Mayfield. Nixon was the first of a string of superb albums released by Lambchop over the last decade. From the moment Wagner sings the first words of The Old Gold Shoe, the album has a warm, comforting feel to it. The highlight is the sarcastically jaunty Up With People but - and I seem to have been saying this in relation to a lot of the albums on this list - every song is a great one.
17. Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)
Neil Young, one of Thom Yorke's heroes, once wrote that the success of Heart of Gold put him "in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there". Radiohead, faced with a similar prospect in the late Nineties, took their own turn for the ditch in 2000 with Kid A. Their music ever since can be seen as an attempt to fuse the two sides of their split personality - to travel somehow in the ditch and the middle of the road at the same time. That impression is furthered by the age of some of the songs - Reckoner dates from 2001, while Nude was written in 1998. With In Rainbows, which opens with 15 Step's electronic beats slowly merging with Phil Selway's real ones, the finally seem to have managed it. The result is Radiohead's best album since Kid A and, encouragingly, one that hints at better to come.
18. Mclusky - Mclusky Do Dallas (2002)
Though not quite as melodically gifted as the Pixies, Mclusky were their nearest successors in the late Nineties and in the early part of the 2000s. Mclusky Do Dallas is their best album (though some of their best tracks were released as non-album singles between this album and its follow-up, The Difference Between Me and You Is I'm Not On Fire). The songs here are frequently hilarious slivers of hammering punk. The pace starts fast with the rattling cymbal intro to Lightsaber Cocksucking Blues and, apart from a brief lull for Fuck This Band, doesn't let up. It's an invigorating album.
19. Matthew Herbert - Goodbye Swingtime (2003)
Yet another appearance by Matthew Herbert, this time producing a swing album backed by a big band. Of course, in Matthew Herbert's case, things are rarely that simple. The big band are frequently constructed from samples and he makes his usual bizarre choices, such as creating percussion by recording the band tearing up copies of the Daily Mail. It doesn't matter whether you know any of this or not, of course, what matters are the songs and the ones hear a well put together to create an album that sounds both contemporary and like a relic from the past.
20. Kanye West - College Dropout (2004)
Before he disappeared up his own ego and before his distinctive production techniques became ubiquitous, Kanye West was actually making good records. This, his debut, is packed with mainstream-friendly tunes, sharp lyrics and a mischievous sense of humour.
21. Feist - Let It Die (2004)
Though her debut had been an underground success, Feist didn't begin to win mainstream attention until this follow-up (and even then she didn't truly reach the masses until Apple used her single 1-2-3-4 in an iPod advert). This album is half made up of cover versions and half original. All of it is mellow, easy listening fare. That's no bad thing because Feist's voice and the strength of the material make the whole record a delight.
22. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (2007)
This is another album you're unlikely to find on many best-of-the-decade lists but I love it. It starts out as a straight-ahead indie-glam romp and the highlight of the first half is one of the most upbeat songs about depression you're ever likely to hear as Kevin Barnes exhorts the chemicals in his brain to help him out. Halfway through Barnes is transformed into "Georgie Fruit" and the record turns into a lo-fi Prince album. All very odd but hugely enjoyable.
23. Matthew Herbert - Bodily Functions (2001)
With typical obsessiveness, Matthew Herbert has built this album about the human body on a foundation of samples created by the human body. He says there's some laser-eye surgery sampled in there somewhere. However, as always, the finished product is satisfying whether or not you know how it was made. Working once again with Dani Siciliano, Herbert creates a superb jazz-influenced house record.
24. Madvillain - Madvillainy (2004)
This collaboration between rapper MF Doom and producer Madlib is almost perversely uncommercial. The tracks here are so short that many of them are gone before they've really begun but over a few listens they get under your skin. It's artsy, jazzy hip hop and it's excellent.
25. The Postal Service - Give Up (2003)
This collaboration between Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and electronic music producer Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel was put together by the duo mailing tapes to one another, hence the name of the project. The result is an excellent collection of electronic pop songs, a little reminiscent of The Human League and Yazoo, among others.. The highlight is Such Great Heights, a wistful love song later reinterpreted by Iron & Wine, but there is plenty more to enjoy. Gibbard's dry humour works well on Nothing Better, an end of the relationship duet inspired by Don't You Want Me Baby, and on We Will Become Silhouettes. However, he does occasionally come unstuck, particularly on the cringeworthy Sleeping In. Nevertheless, even when Gibbard's lyrics lose their way, Tamborello's music keeps things moving along nicely.