Chump Scares: Horror Movies to Avoid

There are a few movie genres that I will obsessively support, despite their poor batting averages. #1 on the list is horror – I watch at least one terrible haunted house/slasher/zombie/demonic doll picture per week, as part of a perpetual quest for that transcendently good scare. So why not put that wasted time to good use? Why not warn you, loyal reader, to not go down into that dark, musty basement … and watch The Prodigy?

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Chump Scare #1: Ma (2019)

A promising premise – a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spencer, too good for this shit) opens up her basement so a bunch of privileged white teens can get their drink on – is ruined by the warped priorities of its filmmakers. Writer/director Tate Taylor rushes through every disturbing revelation about “Ma,” despite the fact that a) her motivation is the engine of the whole story; b) every other character here is Saltine-bland; and c) the struggles of a woman of color do not exactly lend themselves to the 30 Rock smash-cut treatment. Taylor spends significantly more time outlining the mother-daughter dynamic between Boring Teen #1 (Diana Silvers, sleepwalking) and her single mom (hey, it’s Juliette Lewis!). It would be offensive if it wasn’t so bafflingly stupid. This is where I mention that Taylor directed The Help, and admit it’s my fault for expecting more.

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Chump Scare #2: The Prodigy (2019)

Where to start with The Prodigy? How about the description from the Netflix DVD slipcase: “In her much-anticipated foray into the horror-thriller genre, Taylor Schilling stars…” Like you, I’ve been on pins and needles for years, waiting for the perfectly okay actor Taylor Schilling to leave prison dramedy behind and FINALLY make a goddamn horror movie. And, dear reader, our thoughts and prayers have paid off. Schilling stars in The Prodigy – a done-to-death possessed-kid story full of borrowed ideas from classics like The Omen and The Babadook, and crappier forebears like Audrey Rose. The more her son starts to act like the Hungarian serial killer who has taken up residence in his body (He asks for paprika at dinner! Spooooooky!), the more Schilling … doesn’t change. Maybe I missed a scene that showed her character popping opioids, but she is inexplicably chill for what felt like an interminable 92 minutes. I’d rather listen to Prodigy than see this one again.

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Chump Scare #3: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

As someone who grew up watching the charmingly cheap, straight-to-VHS Puppet Master movies, as marathoned on TNT’s MonstervisionI was initially excited at the prospect of a self-aware reboot. Something that retained the campy flair of the originals and added some winking, fan-service humor. But even though it has the dependably hilarious Thomas Lennon in its lead role, The Littlest Reich doesn’t offer much in the way of either. Lennon’s mopey comic book store employee is there as a stand-in for the aging nerds of the film’s target audience, so he gets a half-baked, sure-to-be-murdered love interest and whisks her off to a Comic-Con-style event for collectors of dolls designed by a Nazi puppeteer. These Nazi demon puppets then start killing minorities, because they’re Nazis. This feels wrong for obvious reasons. But even more so in the context of this universe. The puppeteer from the original films, André Toulon, was an enemy of the Third Reich who infused his puppets with the souls of friends who died in the struggle. Which made it feel pretty good to root for those bloodthirsty marionettes back in the day. I have no clue what made these filmmakers think we’d want to cheer on some Nazis this time instead. There are most definitely not good puppets on both sides.

May’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from May 2019, the month we all celebrated the 10th anniversary of the movie Angels & Demons. We savored Ron Howard’s direction of Tom Hanks’s wig in The Da Vinci Code. But Howsie & Hanksie took us even higher in ’09. Angels & Demons, available now in 4K Blu-Ray.

1. Denzel Curry – “Ricky”

Conflicting parental advice has never slapped like this.

2. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everything He Needs”

Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye, is sacred ground, one of the greatest songs ever written about how love can translate into self-worth. So there’s only one way to explain how Carly Rae Jepsen has been able to interpolate “He Needs Me” into a breezy, sex-positive, lite-disco jaunt, without jettisoning its emotional weight – she is a pop music magician.

3. Jamila Woods – “Giovanni”

Jamila Woods kicks off her Nikki Giovanni tribute song with an appropriately bad-ass couplet – “You might want to hold my comb / When you find out what I’m made of.” Her voice floats just behind the beat, smirking with its collar popped.

4. Megan Thee Stallion – “Realer”

Right now, nobody on earth is rapping with more authority than Houston emcee Megan Thee Stallion. On “Realer,” she wields syllables like free weights, knocking us out at the end of every couplet, while only getting stronger for the next one.

5. Flying Lotus – “Say Something”

Nestled in the back half of electro-visionary Flying Lotus’s sprawling new LP lies this weird-ass piano instrumental, which could soundtrack a quirky British crime procedural. I would watch the shit out of that show.

6. Bill Callahan – “Morning Is My Godmother”

Bill Callahan, one of our finest living songwriters, has a new album out in June – his first in six years. His voice still sounds like whiskey aged in a hickory barrel, and he’s still writing about nature like Thoreau with better weed.

7. Tyler, the Creator – “Earfquake”

Ever since he rode a tired shock-rap provocateur act to fame in 2009, I’ve actively avoided Tyler, the Creator’s music. I’ve clearly missed one hell of an evolution. He’s moved on, both sonically and self-consciously, sounding vulnerable, and inspired, and free.

8. Vampire Weekend – “Sympathy”

Like many a classic double LP, Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is designed to reveal its riches over time. One of these growers has been the mid-album spazz-out “Sympathy,” which pairs a four-on-the-floor groove with acoustic flourishes, megaphone-feedback-drenched breakdowns, and references to Diego Garcia and “arrogant mosquitoes.”

9. Idle Hands – “Nightfall”

If you like your Satan worshipping with a spoonful of sugar, don’t sleep on these Portland, OR, occult rockers. “Nightfall” has hooks to rival The Cure and Blue Oyster Cult, along with an irresistible dark energy all its own. So grab your sacrificial daggers – and dance!

10. Ider – “Wu Baby”

Religious imagery will always be a compelling way to talk about romantic obsession. So when this London duo sings “I prayed all of my love to you / Can you feel it?” over a moody electro-pop synthscape, it feels like more than a crush. This is faith, in all its intoxicating, terrifying vulnerability.

11. Goldlink (feat. Maleek Berry & Bibi Bourelly) – “Zulu Screams”

Over an unrelenting, percussive Afropop beat, Goldlink doesn’t drop rhymes. He pours them, his preternatural flow a tributary to oceans of hooks, rhythms, and overwhelmingly good vibes.

12. Lana Del Rey – “Doin’ Time”

For the first time in a long time, it feels good to be a Sublime fan. Lana Del Rey’s cover of Bradley Nowell’s dreamy, Gershwin-meets-Snoop toxic relationship fable is a summer playlist no-brainer.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (15-11)

OMG, we’re uncomfortably close to the end of this crazy countdown! Here are five albums that I adored in my underachieving, ironic-tee-shirt-wearing youth, and are only getting better with age. (You can check out the whole list here.)

51Cy7Aj+XdL15. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, my wife got bit by what we thought was a spider. The bite kept getting worse, so we called poison control. I was scared shitless that I was going to lose my person, while surrounded by the most vibrantly alive environment I’d ever seen. The Flaming Lips must’ve known this feeling. Because their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, is full of songs that are acutely aware of life’s impermanence. Yet they’re surrounded by optimistic, awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements that do justice to the laziest Pet Sounds reference. And oh yeah, there’s literally a song called “The Spiderbite Song,” which does not require a personal encounter with potentially deadly insects to appreciate. Producer Dave Fridmann goes borderline Disney with the arrangement, slathering it with trilling harps and tinkling pianos. Yet it’s a delivery system for a raw-as-hell truth – love and devastation are a switch, and it can be flipped by the tiniest twist of fate. “If it destroyed you / It would destroy me,” admits Wayne Coyne on the chorus, balancing the scales without dispelling the magic. My wife’s bite turned out to be from a non-poisonous scorpion, further proof that she’s a total bad-ass. But I’ll always feel a little bit shaken by the memory. Hearing Coyne’s voice, trembling with relief as it floats high above these flourishing soundscapes, it’s impossible to not be moved. Because at any moment, it could’ve fallen.

https___images.genius.com_658097527d975ba15bcaca96999f5f5e.500x500x114. Beck – Mutations (1998)

These days it’s common knowledge that Beck Hansen is a singer/songwriter capable of incredible pathos. But the first time I heard Mutations, I had no idea. The crate-digging hipster earthquake of Odelay was still ringing in my ears. So I was floored by this collection of languid folk and country sway-alongs, its rich, organic warmth somehow unscathed by an aggressively bleak lyric sheet (“We ride disowned / Corroded to the bone”). Nigel Godrich, fresh off producing OK Computer, buoys Beck’s tender crooning with reassuring swaths of synths, sitars, and harpsichords. Friendly, almost amateurish harmonica solos add to the humanity. And while there are no donkey samples or rapped non-sequiturs, Beck’s quirks are all over this album, giving it a ramshackle, lived-in feel. “Canceled Check” ends with the band having a collective stroke, randomly bashing on things. The hidden track “Diamond Bollocks” leaps between seething Stooges riffage and gentle birdsong. And his lyrical flights are as strikingly weird as ever: “A desolate wind / Turns shit to gold / And blows my soul crazy.” To encounter all of this unexpectedly was like having a profound conversation with somebody you thought you knew. Realizing there’s way more to them than you thought. And looking forward to hearing from them again.

buhloone mindstate13. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Grunge bands got tons of credit for rejecting the spoils of stardom in the 1990s. But none of them explored this conflict on tape quite like De La Soul, who made entire concept albums about what it meant to be a rap star. They called their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, shattering the cuddly, neo-hippie image that made them famous. A few years later, they dropped Buhloone Mindstate, its title borne from a stated desire to “blow up, but not go pop.” It sounds like what it is – a rap group at the peak of its powers, trying its hardest to not make hits. So we get thickets of ’70s soul and ’80s rap samples, live horns, and clips from the movie The Five Heartbeats (all of which appear on the monumental “Patti Dooke”). Maceo Parker gets five minutes to just solo. Same for the Japanese rap trio Scha Dara Parr, who get a stripped down drumbeat to freak out over. And then there’s Posdnous, De La’s de facto leader, who makes sure we’ve got our seatbelt on during all these thrilling left turns. He overstuffs his verses with introspective journeys and biting social commentary, stating his case clearly and prolifically. “I am Posdnous / I be the new generation of slaves / Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes,” he shares on “I Am I Be,” doing justice to the authenticity of that title. It’s lovely how much De La Soul cared about this stuff. They stayed true to themselves in the spotlight, exposed who was really benefitting from their hard work, and channeled it all into groundbreaking, revivifying music. It’s been 26 years, and it’s still blowing up.

https___images.genius.com_f08464da62a15725b3ea3a6a0a4c2da4.1000x1000x112. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Countless Westerns end with their male leads going out in a blaze of glory, because they valued their own concept of justice  over anything else. On her third album, PJ Harvey had had enough of that shit. To Bring You My Love is written from the perspective of the women in these stories, those unconsidered widows and jilted lovers whose existential pain is usually seen as acceptable collateral damage. “I love him longer / As each damn day goes / The man is gone / And heaven only knows,” she sings on the album’s final song, establishing the permanence of grief before the music fades. Her narrators plead with everyone from Jesus to a deadbeat dad named Billy. They travel “over dry earth and floods.” And on the mesmerizing murder ballad “Down By the Water,” they drown their own child and blame it on the fish. Harvey, making her first album as a solo artist, comes into her own as a producer, creating atmospheres worthy of these raw, gothic tales. Almost every riff is a simple pentatonic phrase, a shard of the blues poking through the skin of the session. And it’s all in full mourning dress, thanks to slow tempos, low, burbling organs, and heavy swaths of distortion – imagine Violator-era Depeche Mode doing an album of John Lee Hooker covers. “See it coming / At my head / I’m not running / I’m not scared,” she sings, both as a character with a death wish and a songwriter in complete control of her gifts. Our concept of bravery doesn’t always have to be a cowboy perishing in a rain of bullets. It can be an artist doing exactly what she wants.

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream11. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

In the summer of ’96, when Smashing Pumpkins was the biggest band on earth, I saw them deliver an unforgettable set of high-decibel melodrama. During the second encore, the band unleashed “Silverfuck,” the incendiary 8-minute shredfest from Siamese Dream. At the end, instead of smashing his guitar, Billy Corgan sat down on the stage and methodically took it apart, unfazed by the screeching feedback of this little experiment. It’s the perfect metaphor for what made Siamese Dream the greatest LP to ever be labeled “grunge.” Corgan was a neurotic guitar geek, and he used the Siamese Dream sessions to indulge in his obsession, foregoing sleep and the respect of his bandmates to ensure every blast of distortion met with his vision. In the process, he invented his own wall of sound – a steady thrum of multi-tracked guitars that flood our eardrums like bagpipes from heaven. (The only instrument he didn’t personally touch were the drums, probably because Jimmy Chamberlin was one of the best rock drummers on earth in ’93.) Unlike the ragged emotional outpourings coming out of Seattle, this was unapologetically fussy rock music, best experienced on pricey headphones with your eyes closed. Despite the darkness of Corgan’s lyrics – even the hits are cries for help – the majesty of his sonic vision lifts all boats. When he sings, “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” he means the opposite. But the way those guitars ring as they deliver the hook? It makes the line true for me. Like any raging perfectionist, Corgan’s insistence on taking things apart and putting them back together again would come back to bite him. But not before he proved that perfection was within his reach.

April’s Bestest Songs

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These songs came out in April 2019. I feel like I should compare them to fresh tulips, or dewy mornings, or baby rabbits frolicking in dewy tulip patches. And I guess I just did! Check out these 10 amazing tracks from the dew-tastic month that was.


1. Otoboke Beaver – “datsu . hikage no onna”

This Kyoto punk quartet has tapped into a reservoir of adrenaline potent enough to reanimate a long-dead heart.

2. Rico Nasty – “Hatin”

Rico made a Neptunes beat her own last year. Now it’s Jay-Z’s turn.

3. Annika Norlin – “Showering in Public”

A staggeringly beautiful folk song about locker room anxiety.

4. Kevin Abstract – “Joy Ride”

The visionary behind the electrifying hip-hop collective Brockhampton adds some humidity to his forecast, in the form of 1998 Outkast horn charts.

5. PUP – “Kids”

Ideally, getting older comes with some level of certainty. And when that certainty is about love, well that’s something to shout about.

6. Weyes Blood – “Everyday”

The Beatles made it sound easy, but “I need love” can be a pretty terrifying thing to say out loud. Weyes Blood makes this admission, over and over again, wisely bringing a soothing, 1970s soft rock orchestra along for the ride.

7. Pivot Gang – “Colbert”

This long-distance love song nails the reason why I bought a Dodge Neon in 2000. “I don’t wanna waste time / I don’t wanna FaceTime / I wanna be where you are.”

8. The Mountain Goats – “Clemency for the Wizard King”

That Council of Elrond moment, where Frodo Baggins realizes this impossible burden is his to bear, despite his size, lack of training and non-violent nature? This song makes me cry like that scene does.

9. Your Old Droog – “Babushka”

Musty clarinets, meet crusty NYC shit talk.

10. Beyoncé (feat. Jay-Z) – “Deja Vu (Live)”

It begins with what might be the greatest bass line in 21st century pop. Which then seamlessly shifts into the groove from Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” fleshed out with reverence and vivacity by that incredible Homecoming marching band. Then Jay-Z plays the hype man to our Most Valuable Pop Star, in full control of her astonishing voice, singing about the hallucinatory power of love. It’s gonna be a long time before I hear a live album without wishing it was this one.

Catching Up with Stephen King: On Writing

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I got in touch with that small, pathetic part of myself that believes he could write a novel, and cracked open On Writing.

61xk7zg4GqLPerhaps more than any other artist, writers want us to know that they’re suffering ever so much. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” whined George Orwell. “I think all writing is a disease,” bemoaned William Carlos Williams. “All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed,” bitched Ernest Hemingway. Has anybody in human history ever been more full of shit? These guys got to work from home, keep their own hours, explore their every creative whim, and make good money in the process. Karma dictates that they be punched in the stomach by a factory worker.

Now, with the melodramatic, self-mythologizing tone of those writers fresh in our minds, let’s bask in this quote from Stephen King’s 2000 autobiography/manual On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”

For 280 pages, King talks about his job just like this – with refreshing candor, and the genuine desire to help us understand that while the work isn’t easy, it’s also incredibly fulfilling. He uses blue collar metaphors, like his grandfather’s toolbox, to underline the fact that writing is a trade, not a magic trick. And while he does admit to having a “muse,” he still manages to successfully Bob Vila-fy the situation:

“He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words.”

By talking about “the craft” in terms that anybody can understand, and outlining rules that anybody can follow, King embraces a concept that drives writers nuts – the written word as the populist art form. Good Ol’ Joe Six-Pack can’t just pick up sculpting, or illustration, or playing the harp. But he can start stringing words together, even if all he has is a Bic and some junk mail. I think that’s partly why those big-time writers liked to bemoan the horrors of their plight – they were trying to scare away the competition.

King devotes the majority of On Writing to the nuts and bolts stuff, from the importance of grammar and style (his hatred of adverbs is a highlight); to the non-negotiable fact that reading is as important as writing itself; to the nuances of crafting believable dialogue. For somebody interested in taking a crack at their first novel, it’s a must. To everybody else, not so much. But these sections do give some valuable insight into King’s process – he rarely knows the ending before he starts writing, for example – and his no-frills enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.

stephen-king-on-writing.jpgStill, to this reader – who realized a long time ago that his fiction was irreparably bad –  the autobiographical bookends are the main reason to read On Writing. King begins the book with charming snapshots of his childhood, hopping around the country being raised by his mother. As he gets older, he starts writing in his little attic room, amassing rejection letters like Tennessee Williams. And as we get whisked through the rest of the 20th century, from his big break with Carrie to the summer day in 1999 when he got hit by a van while taking his daily walk, there’s one constant – his wife and fellow author, Tabitha.

King writes about his partner of 29 years (at the time) not with “thanks for putting up with me” Oscar speech condescension, but with respect for her as a colleague and “first reader.” Even here, in the realm of romance, lives the craft – he knew he loved her when he heard her poetry.

“Cables seemed to run through the poem, tightening the lines until they almost hummed. I found the combination of crafty diction and delirious imagery exciting and illuminating. Her poem also made me feel that I wasn’t alone in my belief that good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven.”

On Writing ends with the story of how King began to write it. He’d planned it out a few days before his accident. And began it in the midst of a long and painful recovery. All thanks to Tabitha, who rigged a desk for him that accommodated his wheelchair – one writer helping out another.  It’s the perfect capper to a book that calls bullshit on the “writer’s plight.” From writing came love and inspiration and an escape from pain.

Sorry Ernest. Your secret’s out.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

6. 11/22/63

7. On Writing

8. The Stand

9. The Gunslinger

10. Bag of Bones

 

March’s Bestest Songs

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Spring has sprung! Daylight has been saved! Beef has been corned! Something about basketball! Hey gang. March 2019 sure was fun, and it was a heck of a time for new music. Here are the tracks that came in like a lion for me.


1. Angel Du$t – “Big Ass Love”

This supergroup of moonlighting hardcore screamers happens to be incredibly good at writing catchy power-pop love songs.

2. 2 Chainz (feat. Lil Wayne & E-40) – “2 Dollar Bill”

It doesn’t matter how many times the youngsters shame online braggarts with their uncool-now-that-I’m-referencing-it meme, “Weird flex but okay.” They cannot stop 2 Chainz – a walking, talking weird flex who might be the most purely entertaining rapper working. To wit: “I’m rare / Like Mr. Clean with hair.”

3. Vampire Weekend (feat. Steve Lacy) – “Sunflower”

This riff just isn’t fair.

4. Solange – “Way to the Show”

Solange has followed up her 2016 masterpiece A Seat at the Table with an even looser R&B hang-sesh, full of tracks that pulse with authenticity. Like this homage to Houston night life, heavy with the syrupy air of a perfect summer Saturday.

5. Partner – “Tell You Off”

Remember when people yelled at each other in person?

6. The Comet Is Coming – “Summon the Fire”

The latest twist on the post-Stranger Things horror synth revival comes from these Londoners, who pepper their ominous atmosphere with distorted sax leads, like Kamasi Washington being chased by Michael Myers.

7. Little Simz – “Boss”

We stay in the UK for this blast of raw, Neptunes-inspired swagger. Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.

8. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”

Calypso Nick Drake.

9. Mykele Deville – “Free Soul”

Beginning with a shoutout to Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb (the 59th best album of the 1990s), this Chicago emcee delivers a mix of jazz loops and positive vibes that lights up my nostalgia centers like a Christmas tree.

10. Quelle Chris – “Obamacare”

Over a swirling cold front of scary-ass piano loops, Quelle Chris raps about how his music is for everybody.

11. Honey Oat – “A Stranger Spring”

Electric piano vamps and jazz drums should be the recipe for a Holiday Inn lounge set, but Honey Oat uses them as the base ingredients of an effervescent, experimental stew.

12. Brutus – “War”

The lead single from this Belgian post-metal trio’s forthcoming LP has a lot in common with Metallica’s “One” – a simple title; martial lyrics; an extended dramatic intro; a thrilling, headbanging flashpoint. But Stefanie Mannaerts is a better singer than James Hetfield, and a better drummer than Lars Ulrich. “One” was a ground battle. This is an airstrike.

 

 

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (20-16)

Whoa, we’ve hit the top 20! I’ve been writing this column since 2011, because like a good Gen X-er, I didn’t care that much about following through. Alas, here we are. Five more ’90s classics in ya ear. (You can check out the whole list here.)

91pBFF64j-L._SL1400_20. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)

That cover image you’re looking at right now, with the Beastie Boys sitting on a curb next to their instrument cases? It wasn’t a joke. Even though Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock had just reinvented themselves, against all odds, on the triumphant samplepalooza Paul’s Boutique, they took an even bigger risk on the follow-up – ditching their old producers and proven formulas so they could play their own loose concoction of funk, rap and hardcore punk. Like the Monkees, novelty-act status had masked the fact that the Beastie Boys had legitimate musical chops. Check Your Head is stuffed with monumental riffs and meditative instrumentals, lovingly sequenced into 20 tracks that resist the shuffle button. The rapping reflects this anything-goes, jam-session mentality, summed up by Mike D on track one: “All I ever really wanna do is get nice / Get loose and goof a little slice of life.” Only six years after “Brass Monkey” squawked its way onto the charts, this deeply musical, effortlessly electrifying LP entered the world. It was irrefutable proof of one of popular music’s greatest evolutions.

220px-IllmaticNas19. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

There’s a moment, before Nasir Jones raps a word of his debut album, that underlines how incredibly fresh his artistry was. As the ominous, subway-rattling bass line of “NY State of Mind” ramps up underneath, the 20-year-old MC confesses into the mic, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then, even though the ink is still drying, he jumps in, telling stories about life in New York’s Queensbridge projects that are so detailed, you can hear the dice hitting the walls: “On the corner bettin’ Grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughin’ at base-heads tryin to sell some broken amps.” Illmatic is a masterpiece of scene-setting, a clinic of internal rhymes, and an emotional watershed from a composition-book-scrawling kid who grew up surrounded by violence and nourished by poetry. And the beats – crafted by top producers of the ’90s – dramatically soundtrack these vivid scenes, from the clave-clacking quiet-storm R&B of “Life’s a Bitch” to the mournful organ loop of “Memory Lane.” He may have had no clue how to begin, but once Nas took that leap, it would be 38 minutes before he touched the ground.

CarWheelson_aGravelRoad18. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Lucinda Williams wanted her fourth album to sound a particular way. Warmer, punchier, more like the Pretenders or Steve Earle – “His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound,” she said about the latter. And thankfully, she stuck to her guns, through six years of label flameouts and disagreements with stubborn male producers (Earle included). Because Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sounds big in the most authentic possible way, a deeply rooted Louisiana oak that we can lean up against for an afternoon. It opens with “Right In Time,” an achingly physical love song that pairs visceral yearning (“Think about you and that long ride / I bite my nails, I get weak inside”) with a chiming guitar riff that’s as fulfilling as the sound of your lover pulling into the driveway. As Williams goes on to explore the nooks and crannies of Southern music, from jukebox country to jailbird folk and dobro-happy roots-rock, the connective tissue is her voice – defiantly front and center, singing about wandering spirits seeking meaning, making it seem like the journey itself could be enough.

Things_Fall_Apart_4117217. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

With the millennium coming to an end, the Clinton crime bill wreaking havoc on black communities, and an extended era of anti-Muslim fear-mongering right around the corner, The Roots released an album called Things Fall Apart. It was, quite ironically, the moment where everything came together for them. There’s a feeling of unrest throughout, an understanding that now it’s time to spark shit. Beats fade away in the middle of verses, the rappers left alone to soldier on. Its lead single, a love song about trust, prominently features the line “sometimes relationships get ill.” Its bookends are an argument between musicians from Mo’ Better Blues and a spoken word screed about the cycle of abuse. But even with the pull of these serious undercurrents, Things Fall Apart is a delight to listen to, a telepathic group at its peak, lovingly laid to tape. The crisp crack of Questlove’s snare; Kamal Gray’s nourishing Fender Rhodes vamps; Black Thought’s sweat-on-the-mic intensity – it gels in that next-level Revolver way. Resulting in a record that makes you feel grateful for its artistry, and wary of what’s to come.

https___images.genius.com_f251dcf3649ff26ca4be1d103d3a9173.1000x1000x116. Smog – Knock Knock (1999)

“Let’s go to the country / just you and me,” goes the opening lines of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan’s seventh LP. But that invitation wasn’t as casual as it sounded. Knock Knock found Callahan expanding his palette, both lyrically and instrumentally, the obscure lo-fi vision of his early albums making way for richly rendered, naturalistic tone-poems about empathetic prison guards, bone-chilling childhood traumas, and restorative balms of affection. “I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me,” he sings in his rumbling basso, describing a moment of psychological healing like Leonard Cohen on a Thoreau kick. The music is equally exploratory, using bouncing cellos and children’s choirs to buoy Callahan’s lush, searching guitar. It’s a formula he’d take to even more panoramic heights later on in his career, a smirking cowboy wading through amber waves of pain, coming out the other side humbled and smitten. Making Knock Knock even more meaningful in context. This isn’t just some invitation to a three-day weekend on the lake. It’s an artist taking the first steps into the underbrush of his soul.