Then & Now: Revisiting my favorite albums, 2000-2021

I made my first year-end albums list in 2000, and have been making them ever since. Sometimes, my initial instinct proves to be unerring. Other times, my tastes shift, albums rise or fall in my estimation, or I discover something I missed the first time around. Here’s a summary of my Album of the Year picks, as I made them in real-time, along with a more current-day appraisal. 

2000

Then: U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with Radiohead’s Kid A just half a step behind it.

Now: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which has revealed itself to me as one of the great R&B records of its own or any era. Though let me say, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has gone from being a slightly-overrated U2 album to being a slightly-underrated one. It may be the last time they really seemed self-assured.

2001

Then: Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft”

Now: Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft.” I mean, have you heard it?

2002

Then: Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Now: 2002 was one of those years in which the album that was clearly the most visionary, adventurous, and significant wasn’t necessarily the one I wanted to play all the time. So while I’ll stick with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album I still admire very much, even if some of the self-loathing in its lyrics has become a bit grating), I reach for Solomon Burke’s irresistible Don’t Give Up On Me just as often.

2003

Then: Joe Henry, Tiny Voices

Now: Joe Henry, Tiny Voices

2004

Then: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus

Now: There are years where picking my favorite album is a breeze, and then there are years like 2004, where I remember agonizing between this one and Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe right up until my deadline. Both are masterpieces, though in very different ways; the former a towering achievement of poetry, prophecy, useful beauty, and ribald humor, and the latter an intimate exercise in self-examination and spiritual inquiry. I guess I’ll still pick Cave, but if you don’t consider it too much of a cheat, feel free to consider this one a tie.

2005

Then: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs

Now: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs

2006

Then: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America

Now: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America

2007

Then: Joe Henry, Civilians

Now: Still Civilians, an elegant and multi-faceted masterpiece, though the year also offered two other masterpieces (Bettye LaVette’s The Scene of the Crime and Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) that have really risen in my estimation.

2008

Then: Barry Adamson, Back to the Cat

Now: I’d likely change this one to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, but the Adamson record is so great. If you haven’t heard it, you really should.

2009

Then: Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi

Now: Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi. One of the easiest album-of-the-year calls I’ve ever made.

2010

Then: The Roots, How I Got Over

Now: I still love The Roots’ record, but would probably name Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels as my favorite of the year. And related to The Roots, let me make a tangential observation. At the time, I remember thinking of 2010 as first and foremost a banner year for hip-hop. If you asked me today, I’d tell you that 2010 was notable largely for its bumper crop of jazz. In particular, I return to a couple of all-time-great piano trio albums, one by The Bad Plus (Never Stop) and one by Jason Moran & The Bandwagon (TEN). (And obviously there was some good country, too.)

2011

Then: The Roots, undun

Now: Another year of anguish: I just couldn’t pick between this, Joe Henry’s Reverie, and Over the Rhine’s The Long Surrender. The years since have been clarifying: All three albums are great, but The Long Surrender is far and away my favorite now.

2012

Then: Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio

Now: Taylor Swift’s Red, followed by Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… The Glasper album is good, but in hindsight, seems like a fairly baffling pick.

2013

Then: Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World

Now: Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World

2014

Then: Joe Henry, Invisible Hour

Now: D’Angelo, Black Messiah (which, to cut myself some slack, came out a few days after I made my initial list)

2015

Then: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Now: Same, though I do remember another one of those struggles between naming the album that made the greatest impact (Kendrick) and the one that I found myself playing most compulsively (Ashley Monroe’s The Blade). To Pimp a Butterfly is a masterpiece, but it also demands a lot from the listener. Monroe’s album is just sheer, easy delight.

2016

Then: Birds of Chicago, Real Midnight

Now: I was never happier naming my album of the year than when I named Real Midnight, an incredibly soulful and charming record from a really special, deserving band. The album has lost none of its appeal for me, though I have realized that the band is capable of far more than I imagined at the time. (See Allison Russell’s great solo album.) I wouldn’t change my pick for anything in the world, even if these days I spend more time with Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, which I love more and more as time goes on.

2017

Then: Joe Henry, Thrum

Now: Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over

2018

Then: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

Now: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

2019

Then: Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water

Now: Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water

2020

Then: Taylor Swift, folklore

Now: I might be more inclined to go with the year’s consensus pick (Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters), though folklore was certainly the one I played most last year. I still think it’s a beautifully crafted set of songs, even if evermore diluted its impact a little. I still like the Run the Jewels record a lot, too!

2021

Then: Too early to say!

Now: or is it?

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