I'd recommend meal bases such as pasta, rice, couscous and grains like kasha, quinoa and corn meal. Right there you have the possibility of making pilafs, polenta and pasta dishes (didn't plan the alliterations).
Other things that are good to have on hand:
Italian/mediterranean: olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil-packed tuna, water-packed red peppers, cannelini beans, chick peas
Asian: Sesame oil, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, chili paste, fish sauce, udon noodles and other Asian noodles, canned water chestnuts (I don't like bamboo shoots, but those are useful), fresh ginger (wrapped tightly or vacuum packed and stored in the freezer), coconut milk, curry paste, dried shrimp
If you've got freezer space, some of these vacuum-packed or tightly wrapped goodies can help: pancetta, prosciutto, pork tenderloin, fish fillets, chicken breasts. Broth or stock (chicken, beef, veggie, veal, fish) frozen in small amounts or even in ice cube trays can give you the basis for sauces and soups. Some frozen veggies can be used in pasta dishes, stir fries and soups.
As for spices: I recommend buying small jars from Penzey's. You can get them online at reasonable cost if you don't live near a store. Their site is very informative and they're a reputable company. Here's their link:http://www.penzeys.com/cgi-bin/penzeys/shophome.html
I have a FoodSaver vacuum machine that I like very much. This can give your dry pantry items and freezer-stored items longer life. The prices are coming down, so if you can swing it, I'd recommend it. I use it almost every day.