10. Cornershop — Handcream for a Generation
Tjander Singh is like that freshman-year girlfriend you’re embarrassed to run into after college because she reminds you what a sucker you once were. Ultimately, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time contributed about as much to postcolonial pop as Odelay did to hip-hop, true. But significance was never Singh’s thing, and his beatwise indie has proven a durable record of the lovely delusion that was the post-grunge 90s. Here he charms his way through a series of texturally varied two-chord vamps; stick with him and occasionally he’ll toss in a third, while chomping up bits of house, bhangra, and Noel Gallagher’s guitar. It’s all roots music to Singh–you could call it Britannica.
9. Desaparecidos–Read Music/Speak Spanish
Forget “When the President Talks to God.” A concept album paralleling the suburbanization of Omaha and the deterioration of a relationship–that’s the kind of political analysis Conor Oberst was born to wrap his bitter little brain around. Flaunting his Weezer influences and emptying his pockets full of poesy, Oberst offered the first inkling that he might just be both smarter and dumber than his fans in all the right ways. Yes, Bright Eyes’ Lifted… may have been his proper debutant moment. But there will always be a New Dylan impressing grown-ups with his logorrhea. How often do you get to hear Robert Smith threatening to enlist at a zoning commission hearing?
8. The Streets — Original Pirate Material
Mike Skinner would later come to coerce more character from his rappity sing-song, especially once grime’s ascendance freed him from misrepresenting UK hip-hop. He’d bolster his garage beats with beefier choruses, too, and construct more detailed narratives to boot. But with the rave reverie “Weak Become Heroes” establishing his underdog sympathies, Skinner both bestowed and generated empathy from the start with his “cult classic, not bestsellers,” and not coincidentally, proved himself adequately clued-in about male cluelessness, without acting like that earns him a get-into-bed-free card. Yep, you probably overrated his originality at first, but that’s no reason to slight his talent today.
7. Youssou N’Dour–Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du réér)
After spending the bulk of the ’90s in Dakar, perfecting a studio that may well be his home continent’s finest, the greatest singer on earth initiated his mature period on Nonesuch in 2000 with Joko and hasn’t misstepped since. This was his “acoustic” move–you know, that back-to-your-roots thing stars pull around this point in their career, in quotes because Africa’s go-to synth-man Jean-Philippe Rykiel’s drizzling electronics. But Senegalese strings (kora, xalam, riti) predominate, and drums both hand and trap combine for rhythms less breakneck and more pliable than the m’balax norm. Fools who still hold Peter Gabriel against him should start to catch up here, and so should their kids.
6. Spoon–Kill the Moonlight
Britt Daniel justifies the austere precision and lyrical puzzles of his most tightly coiled song-set by writing what he knows–the rewards and exigencies of a self-chosen life at the bottom of the cultural food chain. With triumph out of the question, he and his aciturn friends sell themselves short but feel fine as they swap inside jokes, welcome pretty girls to the city, and, being indie rockers, let reverse snobbery befoul their taste. (C’mon Britt, Stripes over Har Mar, easy.) As I bet Daniel’s TV licensing residuals alone testify, being screwed over by Elektra was the best thing to ever happen to him.