The Second Best Album of the 1990s

My second-favorite album of the 1990s is unbreakable, shatterproof.

71h631BJGLL._SL1417_.jpg

2. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)

From 1984-87, a sci-fi adventure cartoon adapted from a Japanese anime series became a hit in syndication. It told the story of five young pilots defending their planet from the armies of an evil alien king. When things got especially perilous, these soldiers would literally unite – their lion-shaped planes locked together to form a giant, sword-wielding robot called Voltron.

The nine members of the Staten Island rap crew known as the Wu-Tang Clan would have been teenagers when Voltron was on the air. And being the innately talented storytellers that they were, they absorbed the show’s messages about the power of togetherness, of how courage under fire can grow exponentially when it’s shared. When it came time for them to hole up in a tiny studio and knock out their debut album, they kept their egos in check. Even though the odds were against them ever getting another chance at fame like this, eight mega-talented rappers uniformly agreed to let their producer/bandleader RZA make the final decisions on whose verses made it in. If the results of these sessions achieved mere coherence, it would’ve been an achievement. But Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers is one of the most focused, balanced LPs in rap history. Its off-the-charts energy hits as hard as it does because of how expertly it’s been channeled. Every single outsized personality gets his moment in the sun, without one rhyme, sample, or snippet of kung-fu movie dialogue ever feeling extraneous. This wasn’t just the debut of a new artist. It was the invention of a myth. One album in, and Wu-Tang had slain the king.

In hindsight, ceding artistic control to RZA was the smartest thing these guys could’ve done. He was in the midst of developing a signature sound built on martial drums and sped-up soul samples, with just enough grit in the mix to make it sound like a rare find at the bottom of the bin. His productions ran the gamut from rugged to rollicking to rueful – and he had a cast of characters to suit any mood. So the confrontational, elephantine drums of “Bring Da Ruckus” sound like they were tailored bespoke for Ghostface Killah’s hyperactive, ultraviolent style. “Shame On A N—a,” with its catchy R&B horn breaks, is the ideal showcase for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s wild, oxygen-sucking wisecracks. And the wistful, Gladys Knight-sampling ballad “Can It Be All So Simple” gives Raekwon a rain-spattered backdrop that perfectly frames his gritty childhood reminiscences. It’s incredibly rare to encounter a debut album that covers such a wide swath of emotional territory.

Part of it was timing. These guys had been rapping all their lives, scribbling in notebooks, developing their characters, discovering their flows. And here they were, getting their shot, over some of the nastiest beats ever created. (This was technically RZA and GZA’s second shot; both of them had brief, pre-Wu solo careers under different names.) The energy in their voices is palpable. Which meant they could compare themselves to cocaine straight from Bolivia, or threaten to kill you while making a Family Feud reference, or dip into a couplet from Green Eggs and Ham, and it all would feel like it was shot straight from a cannon into your adrenal glands.

Once Enter the Wu-Tang established them as visionaries, the members of Wu-Tang would go on to create hours upon hours of legendary, boundary-pushing hip-hop, most of it on their own solo albums. But they never could reach the heights they achieved when they were young unknowns, hungry as hell and utterly in it together. “So when you see me on the real / Formin’ like Voltron / Remember I got deep like a Navy Seal,” warns Raekwon on “Shame on a N—a,” evoking that larger-than-life cartoon machine that ran exclusively on human bonds. It’s a perfect metaphor, one of many on this flawless, unflagging LP. Because when Wu-Tang Clan first formed, it was into a shape that has yet to be replicated.

 

 

 

November’s Bestest Songs

Clean Nov.jpeg

Here are my favorite tracks from November 2019. This Thanksgiving, my wife and I watched the Dennis Quaid home invasion thriller The Intruder (5 stars) while the bird was in the oven. I referred to it as The Hand that Rocks the Quaid-le, and she laughed. I am so thankful for her. I can’t fathom my luck.

1. Jessie Ware – “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”

Club music tends to bludgeon. But in Jessie Ware’s hands, it caresses. “Last night we danced / And I thought you were saving my life,” she sings with gentle confidence on “Mirage,” as the irrepressible bass line whisks our inhibitions away.

2. Earl Sweatshirt – “East”

Most rappers are content to rap over beats. Earl Sweatshirt raps through mazes. On “East,” it’s a drumless, three-second accordion sample lifted from a song by Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez. As Earl raps about all he’s lost – his phone, his girlfriend, his grandma – he somehow never loses his way.

3. Ozzy Osbourne – “Under the Graveyard”

Ozzy Osbourne’s voice has a troubled, mournful quality that has elevated even the dopiest of lyrics. And on this impeccably produced power ballad – his first single in nine years – our 70-year-old Prince of Darkness shows us he’s absolutely still got it. Pondering the finality of death, in a voice that can still sound stunningly forlorn.

4. Coldplay – “Cry Cry Cry”

Chris Martin dabbling in doo-wop might sound like the first idea Coldplay should’ve erased from their brainstorm whiteboard this album cycle. But this is a band who wrote a song called “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” and made it slap. So of course, “Cry Cry Cry” is an adventurous little ditty about romantic loyalty, its swaying Flamingos melody buoyed by vinyl hiss and Chipmunk harmonies.

5. NLE Choppa – “Forever”

This skyrocketing Memphis rapper celebrated his 17th birthday with a love song. “I got some trust issues / But I trust you,” he sings, the weight of the admission floating away in a haze of human chemistry and catchy organ chords.

6. Lauryn Hill – “Guarding the Gates”

Ozzy wasn’t the only legend flexing his muscles in November: 21 years after her first (and only) solo studio album turned the world on its ear, Lauryn Hill emerged on the soundtrack to Lena Waithe’s film Queen & Slim, with a jaw-dropping, six-minute R&B epic. As harpsichord notes declaratively ring, Hill sings about society’s expectations and the anxieties they bring, eventually finding freedom in another: “You can laugh at me / But I’m in love.”

7. Wiki (feat. Lil Ugly Mane & Denzel Curry) – “Grim”

What better subject for a sneering, ominous New York rap song than the cold indifference of the Grim Reaper? “Will it be late at night or in the early morning? / Either way, slurpin’ forties out in purgatory.”

8. Haim – “Hallelujah”

They might be from California, but Haim’s finger-picked ballad about spiritual bonds and crushing losses is well within sight of those snow-covered hills Stevie Nicks sang about.

9. Red Death – “Sickness Divine”

This DC hardcore band goes full 1986 Metallica on “Sickness Divine,” regaling us with a clean, melodramatic intro, which makes the subsequent skull-rattling riffage hit even harder.

10. Kacey Musgraves (feat. Troye Sivan) – “Glittery”

Kacey Musgraves has written indelible love songs using metaphors as trite as butterflies and rainbows. So who better to write us a new, hopelessly romantic Christmas carol?

The Third Best Album of the 1990s

My third-favorite album of the 1990s is the one that made me realize that American rap music was one of the most exciting things happening on earth.

c73a879653bc2c67fc124dc8ca678667.1000x1000x1.jpg

3. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)

Sometimes things align in just such a way. You encounter a work of art at the perfect moment, when the context of your reality leaves you especially open to its aesthetic. There’s a grand interlocking of gears. And this creation forever becomes a part of you.

A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, Midnight Marauders, was the first rap CD I ever bought. Up till that point I had been thoroughly ignorant of any genre that wasn’t rock, thinking Led Zeppelin and Metallica were all I would ever need. Luckily, some new friends with better taste entered my life. One of them played Tribe’s deliriously fun crew single “Scenario” for me, and in that moment I was given permission to pursue so much more in my BMG Music Service orders – artists that put rhythm first, that interpolated the history of jazz and funk and R&B and rap into something exhilaratingly new, that put an absolute premium on cleverness.

So Midnight Marauders arrived at the precise moment where I was ready to expand my definition of what music, and friendship, could be. It featured two rappers, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, who had been BFFs since they were two years old, and had the chemistry to prove it. Tip’s smooth-talking philosophy gelled with Phife’s raspy underdog humor in a goosebump-raising way – the energy they created on tape together transcended mere artistic talent. These guys loved and needed each other, and they never sounded happier to be trading bars together than they did on this album. Factor in the panoramic, viscerally funky productions from Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and you’ve got music that hums with powerful, positive vibrations. It was the lightning bolt that knocked me off my rockist donkey for good.

And this record doesn’t just loom large in the context of my mundane life story. It holds a place in the history of rap as a beacon of brotherhood, shining brightly at a time when the battle lines between East and West Coast hip hop were being drawn. For the album cover, Tribe reached out to rap artists across the country, asking for a headshot of them wearing headphones. Dr. Dre is on there, along with Sean Combs, Chuck D, Ice T, the Beastie Boys, Souls of Mischief, MC Lyte, and dozens of others. It’s a testament to the unifying power of good music, and the perfect visual accompaniment to the infectious camaraderie that takes these particular songs over the top.

Midnight Marauders begins with two songs that celebrate how much fun it is to make music with friends, and then share those creations with the world. The first, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” shouts out the trio’s Queens roots over a fluttering Woody Shaw sample. Phife fully embraces his “Five Foot Assassin” persona for the first time here, “knocking fleas off his collar” with wise-cracking ease. Tip ends the track on a beautifully introspective tear:

Ok, I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
Is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
Because opinions are like voices, we all have a different kind
So just clean out all of your ears, these are my views and you will find

That we revolutionize over the kick and the snare
The ghetto vocalist is on a state-wide tear

Then comes “Award Tour,” a laid-back chronicle of the bonds formed by travel, where guest rapper Trugoy of De La Soul uses each chorus to check off cities around the world that have been lucky enough to watch Tribe represent. As Weldon Irvine’s irresistible electric piano loop takes the track airborne, Phife provides some ballast with one of his greatest verses – outlining the superior nature of his skills, the philosophy of Tribe’s music, and the bone-deep quality of his friendships, all with a wink and a smile:

So Shaheed come in with the sugar cuts
Phife Dawg’s my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt
When was the last time you heard the Phife sloppy
Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky’s the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
Sit back, relax, get up out the path
If not that, here’s a dance floor, come move that ass
Non-believers, you can check the stats
I roll with Shaheed and the brother Abstract

This same formula is perfected across every track of Midnight Marauders. Even the short skits (one of the few things about ’90s rap that I don’t miss) support the album’s refreshingly unpretentious, all-you-need-is-a-dance-floor philosophy. In a spoof of humorless robocall voices, the album’s electronic narrator interrupts the proceedings from time to time, to deliver various messages: She tells us the names of the band members, suggests that education is the best way to combat the AIDS crisis, and lets us know what BPM levels to expect. Perhaps most appropriately, she pops in at the end of the drum-heavy classic “Clap Your Hands” with some advice that could very well be this album’s mission statement: “Keep bouncing.”

The Fourth Best Album of the 1990s

If I could only take four albums from the 1990s on a desert island with me, this would be one of them. How else could I process all the loneliness? 

Elliott-Smith-XO-1535044205-640x640

4. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)

There’s a generally agreed-upon theory when it comes to vocal harmonies – nothing sounds better than two blood relatives singing together. And there’s a bevy of DNA-sharing crooners to back up this “blood harmony” argument (e.g. the Everlys, Andrewses, Wilsons). But in 1998, Elliott Smith released an album stuffed with dazzling vocal harmonies, without a family member on hand. It was perhaps a depressing exception to the rule. Because the only person this artist wanted to sing with was himself.

After releasing a trilogy of quietly devastating folk albums on indie labels, Smith unexpectedly blew up when director and fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant caught wind of him, using six of his songs on the soundtrack to his movie about how hard it is to be a handsome white genius, Good Will Hunting. The track “Miss Misery” got an Oscar nomination alongside the likes of Celine Dion and Faith Hill. And Smith performed it on the telecast, with artfully mussed hair and a white suit, looking tentative but sounding absolutely at home with the melodic flourishes of the pit orchestra.

After this unforeseen dalliance with the mainstream, it was time for Smith to make good on all the attention, and elevate his game in the recording studio. He was more ready than it may have seemed. The singer/songwriter’s willingness to sound vulnerable on tape didn’t mean he didn’t know how to take control – he spent five years leading the alt-rock band Heatmiser, which landed a contract with Virgin in 1996, right before Smith’s solo career became too big to ignore. So while the songs on XO are rooted in feelings of inadequacy, the arrangements are the work of a confident artist coming into his own.

Take the bridge of XO’s first single, “Waltz #2,” for example. The song is a poetically veiled story about Smith going to a bar karaoke night with his mom and stepfather. He no longer recognizes her, and tries to brush off being triggered by him. All over a waltz tempo sprinkled with rickety saloon piano runs. Which builds to the bridge, a heartbreaking sigh of resignation:

I’m here today and expected to stay
On and on and on
I’m tired

Musically, Smith treats this moment like a rocket launch. The band revs its engines to the first line. Then his multi-tracked vocals reach higher and higher with each ensuing “on.” As we arc back down to earth, our narrator might be tired, but us listeners are inspired. XO is loaded with dissonant moments like these, beauty and sadness spiraling into one another until they’ve bonded. It’s a forensic analysis of what a big fucking mess life can be, delivered in perfect pitch.

All of it is anchored by Smith’s underrated guitar playing. Years spent recording alone into four-tracks honed his chops to the point where he could play the chords, bass line and lead melody simultaneously, giving himself and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock fully formed blueprints to build on. The opening “Sweet Adeline” relies on little more than his bouncing acoustic melody for a full 90 seconds, before the dam breaks and the drums, piano and backing vocals drown us. And his finger-picked intro to “Independence Day” is so deeply, fluidly melodic, it could’ve worked as an instrumental.

But that first blast of full-bore instrumentation in “Sweet Adeline” showed us that XO was not going to be another tape-hiss-heavy, stripped-down affair. Smith, an avowed Beatles fan, was ready for his big, Revolver-style, studio-driven artistic evolution. And he sealed the deal with an album closer that’s every bit as jarring as “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“I Didn’t Understand” finds Elliott Smith alone. No instruments, no guest vocalists, a lyric sheet that gives him nowhere to hide. The only sound is his voice, stacked to the heavens in an audacious display of vocal harmony. It begins with yet another majestic sigh, a parishioner in a confessional clearing his throat before laying himself bare. And then he begins, singing in his uniquely cryptic way about a breakup, mostly about how much he deserved it:

And so you’d soon be leaving me
Alone like I’m supposed to be

Then, with the vocals-only arrangement underlining the stakes – intricate waves of beauty when he exhales, nothingness when he inhales – Smith ends his song with a stanza that will crush anyone who has been too stupid or self-absorbed to realize that somebody was right there in front of them, needing them:

You once talked to me about love
And you painted pictures of
A Never Never Land
And I could have gone to that place
But I didn’t understand

A short five years after XO cemented his genius, Elliott Smith left us. But not before he showed us how beautiful it can be to create your own sense of harmony.

 

 

The Fifth Best Album of the 1990s

Well lookie here. There are only five entries left in my Top 100 Albums of the ’90s countdown. I’m gonna spend a little bit more time on each of our remaining classics, starting with #5 – the album that transformed Atlanta, Georgia, into a hip hop mecca.

what-millennials-should-know-about-outkast-aquemini-compressed

5. Outkast – Aquemini

There’s something inherently captivating about duos. Two people whose chemistry is inevitably intertwined with their creations, who push one another to heights they could never achieve individually. It’s why Simon was never as good without Garfunkel. Jack is lost without Meg. And Tip sounds incomplete without Phife.

In 1998, the rap duo Outkast released an album that was about this specific dynamic. They called it Aquemini, a portmanteau of the rapper/producers’ zodiac signs (Big Boi is an Aquarius; Andre 3000 is a Gemini), and proceeded to write songs about the intensity of their friendship and the magic of their chemistry, while exhibiting a zen-like acceptance of its eventual demise.

And all of this held water, because musically, these guys were at their absolute peak. They invited live musicians to their Atlanta studio to stretch, deepen and distort their sound, slow-roasting it until any resemblance to East or West Coast rap had sloughed off onto the coals. Aquemini absorbed the sprawling, earthy aesthetic of Parliament-Funkadelic more organically than Dr. Dre’s samples ever could. It set a bar for Dirty South hip hop that has arguably never been cleared. It’s one of the boldest, most self-aware recordings in rap history.

“Stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough / We worked for everything we have and gon’ stick up for / Each other,” proclaims Big Boi on his first verse of the album. The song, ironically titled “Return of the ‘G’,” is a spleen-vent against anybody who was weirded out by Outkast’s 1996 LP, ATLiens (#83 on this list). They’d left the “harder” gangsta rap of their hit debut in the dust, in favor of longer, spacier, more overtly Southern funk experiments. They weren’t pimps anymore. They were aliens. And that was alienating to people who don’t take kindly to change.

“Some of my fashion choices people didn’t accept at the time. I started getting flak from some people, so they were like, ‘Either he’s gay or on drugs,’” Andre shared in an interview. It’s the kind of situation that regularly destroys artistic partnerships – blowback from fans largely directed to one artist, who ends up getting an inordinate amount of attention. Outkast responded by closing ranks.

Aquemini’s lyrical scope is as wide as its sonic palette, including stories about how poverty can strangle hope, detailed deconstructions of failed relationships, and a myriad of ways to let us know why Big Boi and Dre are the type of people that make the club get crunk. But that sense of brotherhood is the common thread, the unifying vision that makes this ambitious, 75-minute album feel not only coherent, but full of exhilarating urgency right up until the last wailing guitar note of “Chonkyfire.” Even the few skippable moments – a pair of skits set in a record store where Outkast haters can’t wait to hear the new “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album – are rooted in the adversity that tempered their bond.

Aptly, it’s on the horoscope-melding title track where everything comes together, and the core ethos of this record is laid bare. Over a syrupy R&B groove where glittering guitar chords can seemingly ring out forever, Andre whispers a chorus about impermanence:

Nothing is for sure
Nothing is for certain
Nothing lasts forever
But until they close the curtain
It’s him and I, Aquemini

Some people use the inevitable end of things as a good reason to give up. This pair of 23 year olds took it as irrefutable evidence that they needed to work even harder. Because the energy created by their duality was special. And thanks to the miracle of recording technology, they had the ability to trap that energy in amber.

Eight years after Aquemini ruled the world, Outkast dropped their clunky film project Idlewild. It was the duo’s first true misstep, and Big Boi and Andre 3000 went their separate ways soon after. They could’ve stayed together and made expertly crafted rap music for years to come. But they could feel that curtain closing. Even when they broke up, they were absolutely on the same page. Today, with popular music an ever-growing cult of personality, there are very few duos making noise. But we can still press play on Aquemini and sit in wonder of what can happen when two driven, talented individuals find inspiration in one another.

 

October’s Bestest Songs

CLean Oct.jpegHere are my favorite tracks from October 2019. I will not be trading these pieces of sonic candy for ANYTHING. Nope, not even Junior Mints.


1. Gang Starr – “Bad Name”

I don’t understand how Gang Starr is releasing new music, and not just because 50% of the group was lost forever when Guru succumbed to cancer in 2010. Rap has evolved and splintered in so many ways since the duo’s mid-’90s peak. Yet when the serpentine rasp of an unearthed Guru verse finds the pocket of DJ Premier’s rumbling, trumpet-flecked beat, “Bad Name” feels impossibly, thrillingly alive.

2. Caribou – “Home”

You know you’re doing something right in life when the return of a daily routine is cause for celebration.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Eternity”

On Neil Young’s new LP, which seethes with environmental outrage, this sweet, ramshackle love song is the eye of the storm – an effective reminder of all we have to lose.

4. Pusha T – “Succession (Remix)”

Pusha T sounds completely at ease rapping over the theme to HBO’s white-collar depravity drama Succession. And of course he does – he’s our poet laureate of dirty deals.

5. Kim Petras – “Close Your Eyes”

EDM Elvira realness.

6. Sudan Archives – “Glorious”

Violin-fueled R&B is not something I knew I needed.

7. Danny Brown – “Combat”

Danny Brown might be the most versatile rapper working. He’s got a voice that could drown out a marching band, but here he is, gently cracking wise over a muted trumpet loop: “I don’t give a fuck / I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck.”

8. Coldplay – “Arabesque”

Based on this advance track from its impending double album, Coldplay is getting back to doing what they do best – writing catchy, atmospheric songs that shamelessly, earnestly embrace us. Don’t we all need a hug these days?

9. Ghetto Sage – “Haagen Dazs”

A memo to Chance & Kanye: Chicago has left you behind. Ghetto Sage is the second dynamic Windy City rap crew to make this list in 2019, and they’ve got the heady slam poetry of Noname to anchor this ice cream-metaphor-laden jam: “Looking at Ben and Jerry / Hope one of my n—-s coming through.”

10. Wiki – “Fee Fi Fo Fum”

As sitars burble under the surface, this self-proclaimed New York giant casually raps about sipping Arnold Palmer. Damn, does it go down easy.

11. Bask – “Three White Feet”

Celebrate the early darkness of late fall by cranking this – a beautiful, billowing cold front of progressive Southern metal.

September’s Bestest Songs

September.jpegHere are my favorite tracks from September 2019, the month in which the temps started dipping, it got easier to sleep at night, and it became socially acceptable to make chili again. I am going to make pounds of chili, and it will be just for my wife and me. STEP AWAY FROM THE LADLE. BAD!


1. Hannah Diamond & Danny L. Harle – “Part of Me”

A luminously sad banger from two of the PC Music collective’s fiercest talents. As Diamond sings about the imprints we make on one another, Harle’s dreamy xylophone leaves its own indelible mark.

2. slowthai (feat. Denzel Curry) – “Psycho”

This intense British emcee invites one of America’s finest to shred syllables over a diabolical, Bernard Hermann-sampling beat.

3. Sturgill Simpson – “Best Clockmaker On Mars”

Of all the compelling ways this country visionary has bucked the Nashville establishment over the years, this ZZ Top Eliminator cosplay is the most fun.

4. Begonia – “Fear”

Over a stripped, claps-and-bass groove, this Manitoba singer/songwriter laundry lists her fears. Taking musical risks is not one of them.

5. Danny Brown – “Dirty Laundry”

Danny Brown is one of the best rappers alive, and his new Q-Tip-produced LP is imminent. If it’s as loosely confident as this track, we might have to lose “one of.”

6. Van Morrison – “Dark Night of the Soul”

It’s extremely reassuring to learn that, at 74, Van still sounds like Van. Buoyant, just a little bit restless, and hopeful as the morning sky after a rainstorm.

7. Mariah Carey – “In the Mix”

On the theme song to the new Black-ish prequel, Mariah Carey also takes a look back – to that carefree, roller-blading-in-the-sunshine, “Fantasy”-era sound.

8. Red Death – “Face the Pain”

I’ve never met a chugging Motorhead riff I didn’t like.

9. Charli XCX – “White Mercedes”

Charli XCX’s brand of delirium-inducing club-pop often sounds best at full volume. On this majestic synthed-out ballad, the artist confesses why: “I hate the silence / That’s why the music’s always loud.”

10. Bull – “Love Goo”

Long live the Kinks.

11. Angel Olsen – “Lark”

Sometimes an artist releases a song so epic, so overwhelmingly emotional, so technically awe-inspiring, that it can’t go anywhere but at the end of a mix. Like “Lark,” which rises from folk murmurs to orchestral eruptions, like the ocean engulfing a volcano.