14 Genre-Busting Albums
of the 21st Century

RIP musical genres.

The last two dozen years have seen artists and albums refusing to be pigeon-holed, so when it comes to categories, who needs ’em? 

Granted, record sellers need to sort it all out somehow. But in a century with every song imaginable at our fingertips, genres are having a tough time containing the musical explosion.

And it does feel like a big bang. The past quarter-century has been an incubator for any tunester with a laptop and a cozy corner (see bedroom pop artists: Billie Eilish, Arlo Parks, Skrillex and more). Combine those easy production capabilities with streaming platforms and the ability to collaborate with musicians across the globe, and genres are becoming a thing of the past.

And the artists leading the genre-busting revolution? They’re taking advantage of the all-access world we live in to just … create. From the invented languages of Sigur Rós to Kendrick Lamar's boundary-breaking hip-hop opus, these works are shaping our modern musical era.

Here are 14 genre-busting albums of our century.

by Jonah Von Spreecken

"Gorillaz" by Gorillaz (2001)

“Gorillaz” by Gorillaz (2001) If you’ve seen the viral clip of Damon Albarn showing off how he used a Suzuki Omnichord preset to create the backdrop for the song “Clint Eastwood,” you know why this album is on this list. With its blend of alternative, hip-hop and RadioShack electronica (RIP RadioShack), Gorillaz's self-titled debut was the perfect segue to the new century.

Not only does the music blend genres to create something new, but the album’s success is also defined by its multimedia elements, animated music videos and art by comic artist Jamie Hewlett. In 2001, this debut made it clear they weren’t just a band; they were a sonic and visual experience. The English band hasn’t taken their foot off the gas pedal since.

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“()” by Sigur Rós (2002)

"()" by Sigur Rós (2002) This album, simply titled "()", blends frontman Jónsi's otherworldly vocals with lush orchestration, sweeping strings and atmospheric textures to create an auditory experience borne on the wings of Reykjavikian elves.

At the heart of it all, this is the first Sigur Rós album sung entirely in the gibberish language known as Vonlenska or Hopelandic (previous albums didn’t feature the language on every track). This allowed the band to evoke imagery and emotions that shed not only musical barriers but linguistic ones.

As for albums that break the stereotypes of their genre, this is much more than just “ambient” music. Separated into two halves communicated by the parentheses in the album name, this is a journey with two parts, one lighter, one heavier, designed to uniquely resonate with every listener it encounters. From start to finish, "()" replaces traditional language and music with sounds sledding in their own direction, seemingly transcending recognizable genres eons ago.

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"I Am a Bird Now" by Antony and the Johnsons (2005)

"I Am a Bird Now" by Antony and the Johnsons (2005) This is a haunting testament to the power of vulnerability and the beauty of embracing one's true self. Led by the velvety voice of Antony Hegarty, now known as Anohni, the album transcends traditional genre and gender boundaries, weaving together elements of chamber pop, art rock, dark cabaret and soul into a singularly captivating sonic tapestry.

Anohni’s voice is really what makes “I Am a Bird Now” soar. It’s a beautiful and emotive instrument that defies easy categorization. With its soulful timbre, it’s the anchor of the album, guiding listeners through a journey of introspection, longing and self-discovery.

Listen to “For Today I Am a Boy” and you’ll get an idea of the all-or-nothing, soul-bearing vulnerability that shuns labels and categories. Anohni is on a mission to define true beauty in their own way. Luckily for us, that way happens to be a shimmering stake in the ground of new musical territory.

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“Arular” by M.I.A. (2005)

“Arular by M.I.A. (2005) When the opening lines of the track “Bucky Done Gun” command London, New York, Kingston and Brazil to “Quiet down, I need to make a sound!” there’s an urgent announcement being made: M.I.A. is on the hypnotic prowl, and we’re all under her dancehall spell.

"Arular” launched M.I.A.’s eclectic style in a globally frenetic way. It’s possible M.I.A.’s childhood played a role in it; having moved from London to Sri Lanka at six months old, then back to London after being displaced by civil war at eleven years old, her worldview seems to be reflected in her jarring rhythms and lyrics.

Never settling for just catchy beats or infectious hooks, “Arular” is a bold and politically charged statement, with M.I.A. tackling themes of war, revolution and cultural identities with unapologetic fervor. In short, this album is a jolt of fresh music, refusing to conform to musical categories and societal systems.

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"Merriweather Post Pavilion" by Animal Collective (2009)

"Merriweather Post Pavilion" by Animal Collective (2009) This album takes slivers of psychedelia, electronic and indie rock to craft a kaleidoscope of genre-bending music.

At the heart of the album lies the Baltimore band’s distinctive approach to instrumentation and production. Flipping from sparkling synths on "My Girls" to the tribal, sing-song rhythms on "Summertime Clothes," each track speaks to the band's willingness to push the boundaries of conventional songwriting and arrangement.

In moments, the songs might seem like they’re losing their edges; some harmonies are infectious, then an atmospheric wonderland takes over. These songs twist and reform anew (kinda like a kaleidoscope). There’s a psychoactive quality to it all – and that’s the point.

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“Fever Ray” by Fever Ray (2009)

“Fever Ray” by Fever Ray (2009) When your previous band only appears in public wearing giant-beaked Venetian masks, you’ve already established genre-defying street cred. That duo was The Knife, and when Karin Dreijer launched her own solo act as Fever Ray, she took her wraith-like persona to a new level.

These songs keep the avant-garde spirit front and center. Dreijer’s guttural vocals are creepy, but also boppy? It’s burial ground bop, and it’s in a category of its own. It’s a ouija board of an album, so pay close attention to your record player when you play “Triangle Walks”; the needle might be trying to tell you something.

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"Veckatimest" by Grizzly Bear (2009)

"Veckatimest" by Grizzly Bear (2009) With its lush harmonies, intricate arrangements and ethereal soundscapes, "Veckatimest" cements Grizzly Bear's status as one of the most innovative acts of the 21st century.

“Two Weeks” is a standout track from the album, exploring love, longing and vulnerability with a jouncy piano plinking in the background. Add to that their layered vocals and evocative lyrics, and you’re wrapped up in a delicate dance.

Where other acts might not get too personal, Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest” goes in for the musical embrace with its limitless possibilities of sound.

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"The ArchAndroid" by Janelle Monáe (2010)

"The ArchAndroid" by Janelle Monáe (2010) Janelle Monáe might be the closest thing we have to Ziggy Stardust this century. Leaning into sci-fi narratives, Monáe’s Cindi Mayweather is an android fugitive navigating rebellion, love, and self-discovery. Introduced in her first EP, “The ArchAndroid” continues this character’s narrative, unleashing a piece of art that rivals the sci-fi epics dominating the box office these days.

As far as concept albums go, this one is up there. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe built a city textured with secret societies, slaves and her messianic, Afrofuturistic “ArchAndroid” at the heart of it all. The album’s fearless experimentation and innovation never lands on just one musical genre, but a whole horde of them: rock opera, jazz, funk, bebop, classical music, to name a few. The result is an album that rebels against labels as it pushes listeners to join the journey.

If we see (and hear) Monáe’s android as a symbol for minorities everywhere (something she has put forward with this and other releases), then her music is the uprising.

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"Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" by M83 (2011)

"Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" by M83 (2011) Like some other albums on this list, transcending genres seems to have a lot to do with exploring the human experience. It makes sense; we’re complicated creatures. Digging into those complexities is bound to produce some genre-shattering stuff.

Not shying away from epic storytelling, this album weaves together themes of desperation and hope across 22 songs. This is music that combines elements from different genres: cinematic, shoegaze, dream pop, synth-pop and electronic music. Each song is carefully composed to be the listener’s own soundtrack.

There’s love, loss, redemption and unflinching vulnerability in every song. And since we’re talking about breaking out of genres, just listen to "Wait," a song like an urgent call from another plain of existence, piercing through with its refrain, “no time, no time, no time…”

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"An Awesome Wave" by alt-J (2012)

"An Awesome Wave" by alt-J (2012) This debut album from alt-J blends a lot of styles … a lot. Maybe there are dashes of indie rock, folk and electronic music, but the secret ingredient is its experimentation. Add to that a distinctly twangy voice (who knew voices could be this twangy?) from frontman Joe Newman, and you’ve got alt-J.

The album is both charming and haunting; it swells and retreats. "Breezeblocks" showcases how a simple same-note trail of “la-la-la-la” can serve as a brief reloading point, almost like the song is getting a new ammo cartridge before continuing.  Meanwhile, the slower paced "Matilda" feels like a restless pining for and dedication to the lady in the title.

Any listener will probably catch on to the album’s whimsicality. But with all these songs playfully dancing across musical tightropes, the landing is always solid.

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"To Pimp a Butterfly" by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

"To Pimp a Butterfly" by Kendrick Lamar (2015) The record scratch of playing an album is built into the opening track of this release, begging you to play it on a turntable. As far as genres go, this album can be found in the rap section (it also scooped up Grammys for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration).

But with a mix of jazz, poetry, hip-hop, funk and bullhorn spoken word, this album pushed rap into the literary realm, setting the table for Lamar’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize win for his album “Damn.”

They don’t give the Pulitzer to just anybody. Lamar is a gifted storyteller, and every song in “To Pimp a Butterfly” is laced with themes of African American identity, social commentary and Lamar’s personal struggle with insecurity. He revealed in his Grammy interview, “I wanted to make this record dense. I didn't want to actually make it for radio. I didn't really want to make it for the car.” In other words, newness was on his mind, and he did it his way with this album.

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"Blackstar" by David Bowie (2016)

"Blackstar" by David Bowie (2016) As we mourned the loss of one of music's greatest icons, he left one final piece of himself behind in the album, "Blackstar." A reflection on mortality and legacy, this album was released just days before Bowie’s death, a haunting sendoff to the greatest genre-buster ever.

As many noted upon the album’s release, this is Bowie confronting his own mortality with a powerful meditation on the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. Songs like "Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away" pulse with a sense of urgency and introspection, while the album's title track unfolds like a requiem for a fallen star.

R.I.P. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, The Blind Prophet and David Bowie.

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“The Book of Traps and Lessons” by Kate Tempest (2019)

“The Book of Traps and Lessons” by Kate Tempest (2019) This album is significant in part because of the collaboration between legendary producer, Rick Rubin, and spoken-word poet and rapper Kate Tempest (now Kae Tempest).

Rubin's involvement marks a pivotal moment in Tempest’s career, as his keen ear and vast experience in diverse musical genres catalyze the album's exploration of society and human emotions via poetic hip-hop, electronic and experimental sounds.

While poetry is not a new concept in music, this album defies easy categorization. Tempest is the one that shines at the mic, though, with a meditation on stomping out capitalist agendas, bucking internet gloom and reckoning with what “living a life” means today. In the end, love breaks through boundaries. Realizing this, love is the instrument Tempest wields best.

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"When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" by Billie Eilish (2019)

"When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” by Billie Eilish (2019)" is a sonic powder keg lying in wait, this century’s carefree bar-setter. It bobs and weaves between samples of canned laughter, a knife being sharpened, siblings cackling, lines from “The Office” (Billie and Finneas’s favorite show) and the result is … the most refreshing thing ever.

It’s pretty bold to kick off an album with “I have taken off my Invisalign, and this is the album.” Who knew this 17-year old’s whispers and soft trills combined with her gifted brother’s musical savvy would blow up the music world? If there’s a genre for songs that crawl up – and in – your spine, Billie Eilish and Finneas get credit for creating it in this album.

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