In this latest installment of my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s, we look back at a Chicago rapper not named Kanye who seemed destined to take over the world, a resurrected British death metal band defibrillating our hearts, a singer/songwriter who taught us just how beautiful sadness could be, and more!
45. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (2014)
Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warranted comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.
44. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)
Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fueled Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives the performance that first launched him to stardom – and one he’s yet to match. Chance already had a fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He littered his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but ends up being essential to the experience. “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m still addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.
43. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (2019)
Anger is a valid and necessary response to the times we live in. But there’s also something to be said for quiet optimism. On his sixth album as Helado Negro, singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange delivered soothing balms of hope, in the form of whispered, bilingual electro-folk ballads. When struggling to find a healthy perspective, Lange’s reassuring truths are good medicine. “We’ll take our turn / We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” he softly croons to our 45th president on “Pais Nublado,” embodying the polar opposite of his spittle-flecked neuroses, buoyed by washes of electronics and leisurely acoustic strumming. The achingly beautiful, steel drum-infused “Imagining What To Do” also preaches patience: “We wait softly / Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow.” Before we can fight for what we believe in, we need the peace of mind to believe it’s possible.
42. Carcass – Surgical Steel(2013)
I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, I feel a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This was Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it was (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, as the guitars deliver just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it made me especially grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.
41. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away (2013)
If anybody was worried that original guitarist Mick Harvey’s 2009 exit from the Bad Seeds would finally blunt the superhuman momentum of Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the opening track on their first album without him – “We Know Who U R” – made it quite clear that all was well. Or should I say mesmerizingly unwell: “The tree don’t care what the little bird sings,” Cave croons over stark, echoing synths, launching into a gothic environmentalist lament that ends with a literal scorched earth. Push the Sky Away is full of songs like this – ominous pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. It’s as if the group decided to let their old mate’s absence be an instrument of its own. Gone were Harvey’s catchy riffs and split-lip punk ragers, replaced by open spaces for minor synth chords to gently reverberate. Far from a sign of a band in decline, its 15th album marked a new beginning; the Bad Seeds have been exploring the dark corners of our consciousness in starker, more vulnerable ways ever since.
Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter was just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like a solemn promise.
49. Bjork – Vulnicura (2015)
When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later came the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.
48. Behemoth – The Satanist (2014)
It makes sense for a person to find religion after a near-death experience. This was true for Adam Darski (aka Nergal), the screamer/songwriter of Polish extreme metal band Behemoth, who fought a harrowing battle with leukemia in 2010-11. It’s just that after coming out the other side and cracking open his Bible, he proceeded to tear it to shreds. On The Satanist, his band’s 10th LP, Nergal wrings an absurd amount of drama out of songs that lay bare the hypocrisy of the goings-on in Eden, Gethsamene, and Mount Sinai, using mournfully plucked acoustic guitars, blaring horn sections, spoken word breakdowns, and ominous choruses as dynamic counterpoints to Behemoth’s trademark onslaught. “Art must destroy,” Nergal muses in the liner notes. “True Artists need a personal abyss to peer into and to let it stare back into them.” When I hear the latest crime against humanity shrouded in the piety of Christ, The Satanist is that abyss for me.
47. Screaming Females – Ugly (2012)
Back in 2012, nostalgia for the 1990s was starting to become a real pitch point for pop culture makers, with Lisa Frank, Men In Black, Boy Meets World, Soundgarden, and Total Recall all returning in some form. And while the New Brunswick, NJ, rock trio Screaming Females had been making eardrums rattle since 2005, the timing of its fifth album felt of a piece with a year where Old Navy put the cast of 90210 in an ad. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a record that hearkened back to Gen X touchstones like Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly was more than a time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguished itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the 2010s.
46. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2(2014)
The chemistry between indie-rap legends Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on their 2011 debut, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of talented wise-asses having fun. This second effort, however, was the first time Run the Jewels felt like something more than a side project. The beats were richer and rangier. The subject matter was more serious. And that top-shelf shit-talk came from pride and momentum as much as the need to blow off steam. Ironically, these aging legends who had never sniffed the mainstream had found each other at just the right time, stumbling across an unimpeachable formula for rap bangers that brought political outrage to your gym playlist without ever feeling inauthentic. Run The Jewels 2 remains a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s that release of pent-up frustration that still makes me want to thank god for each breath while setting fire to the neighborhood.
Here are entries 55-51 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for a look back at a singer/songwriter rejecting the “dad rock” label; a middle-aged rapper turning his high school years into high drama, and so much more!
55. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (2018)
I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps than any record on this list, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. It sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”
54. Feist – Metals (2011)
In October 2011, Nitsuh Abebe wrote an iconic piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist were our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her third LP – released the same year as Abebe’s article – proved she’s more dangerous than you’d think. Metals features a color palette of dark and darker greys, which amass into looming storms that crack the heavens in our headphones. It was a far cry from the iPod commercial-ready twee-folk the Nova Scotia singer/songwriter had been known for up to that point. “How Come You Never Go There” swings with a dark, sinister rhythm. “Comfort Me” stomps and swoons. And “A Commotion” features a percussive blast that makes good on its title. This is what remains so compelling about Metals – there are soft rock hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you just might find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.
53. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010)
When Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, it felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that by 2010, Albarn had realized that his “other” band was the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula was pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs were as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn followed it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it became clear that these Gorillaz weren’t quite so cartoonish after all.
52. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (2018)
Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by confusing dystopian sci-fi premises. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album, but for the first time in her discography, it didn’t matter. The songwriting reckoned with real life. In this world. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It was the most politically present, and openly romantic, Monáe had ever been – and the melodies bubbled up and embraced us like always. “Pynk” turned an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasted one of the snappiest guitar riffs of 2018. And “Make Me Feel” did justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth.
51. Masta Ace – The Falling Season (2016)
A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace wrote about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC was on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits were skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace had been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. It wasn’t the first rap album to romanticize an artist’s past, but it might still be the only successful one from a rapper who had reached middle-age. Which makes The Falling Season an especially rich self-portrait, full of conflicting feelings informed by decades of nostalgia and regret.
Here are entries 60-56 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for my musings on a band that dropped five albums in one year, a famous rapper who didn’t release a solo album until he was 36, and an even more famous rapper who charmed us with the lie that he started from the bottom, which is ironic because he’s been lost up his own bottom ever since.
60. Tribulation – The Children of the Night(2015)
If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”
59. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
I Love You, Honeybear is like a vintage Elton John performance in more ways than one – it features rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings, and it’s marked by a penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman fell into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. On the closing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the band takes five, and Tillman finds complete freedom in his disguise. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, he sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.”
58. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name(2013)
After the demise of Clipse in 2010, anticipation was high for the first official solo record from that duo’s more dynamic half – Pusha-T. But by 2013, the Virginia rapper still hadn’t proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned at all on My Name Is My Name. Over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of selling drugs in a way that still feels weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.
57. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (2017)
In November 2016, the genre-hopping Australian rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard announced they would be dropping five full-length albums of new music the following year. And not only did the ambitious sextet make good on this promise, but they did it without lowering their standards. These records actually picked up steam as the year progressed, with the fourth one, Polygondwanaland, reaching a dizzying pinnacle of exquisitely arranged psychedelic rock. From the epic 10-minute opener “Crumbling Castles” to the stoner metal freakout that caps off “The Fourth Color,” this LP sounds like anything but a rush job. In fact, these addictively energetic tracks segue into one another so effortlessly, it feels like we’re being shot into the sky on a ship piloted by careful, experienced adventurers.
56. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (2013)
The most compelling thing about Drake in the 2010s (other than it being a time before we knew what a fricking creep he is) was the way he had his cake and ate it too – crafting verses drenched in both bravado and insecurity; making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom; making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands, but on Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears coalesced into a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. It helps that he’s looking wistfully to the past instead of droning on about the present, creating a two-song sequence inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s magnanimous 1997 single “It’s Yourz” that marks the last time this problematic megastar sounded believably lovestruck.
Here are entries 65-61 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! This time around we have a pair of singular singer-songwriters, a famous indie-pop band swinging for the arena fences, a dance music legend, and one hell of a film composer.
65. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp(2015)
Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.
64.Daniel Knox – Evryman for Himself (2011)
When a singer/songwriter gets sarcasm right, the clouds part for me. So when I saw Daniel Knox perform live, as the opening act for a Rasputina show I was covering for my local paper, my jaw may have literally dropped. This disheveled Zach Galifianakis lookalike was putting his own spin on the Randy Newman formula – friendly piano shuffles that attempt to distract us from Eeyore-on-a-bad-day lyrics, inspiring big, ironic belly laughs in the process. Knox was touring behind his second album, Evryman for Himself, and it remains his best. “Billboards tell me where to go / Billboards to my favorite show / Syphilis and cancer!” he croons in his playful baritone on the closing “Armageddonsong,” projecting hopelessness and joy at the same time. If humans are capable of this level of nuance, maybe we’re not completely doomed.
63. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful(2015)
Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone.
62. Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite (2010)
I like to pretend I don’t care what anybody thinks about me – take one look at my car and you’ll almost be convinced. But ask me to dance, and the facade evaporates. I’ll respond by a) totally freezing up, and then b) doing “The Twist” ironically to cover up my crippling fear. This is my best way of explaining why Kylie Minogue’s music means so much to me. “Dance / It’s all I wanna do / So won’t you dance?” the Aussie legend asks – with zero judgment in her voice – at the beginning of her sublime 11th album, as burbling synthesizers build up to the first of many triumphant disco-pop choruses to come. Aphrodite explores various nuances of interpersonal dance floor dynamics, but mostly it’s about those moments where music hits us like Cupid’s arrow, blissfully transporting us to a place where our anxieties can’t reach us. So I can remain a wallflower, and still understand.
When asked to score this stunningly specific period romance from director Paul Thomas Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood opted against the style he had so memorably established on previous Anderson films. Gone was the stark horror of There Will Be Blood and the sad, shattered symphonies of The Master. Instead, Greenwood wrote orchestral suites as elegant and traditional as the gowns designed by Phantom Thread’s fastidious main character, Reynolds Woodcock. As the troubled minor-key strings of “Phantom Thread” give way to the enveloping warmth of “Sandalwood,” this score plays a critical role in establishing how Alma Elson is the nurturing, unflappable yin to Reynolds’s sensitive, self-protective yang. This is the sound of soul mates harmonizing.
Well well well, here we are again loyal readers (aka my wife – hi honey!). This Sunday is the 94th annual Academy Awards, where producers have decided to pre-tape the awards for Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound, Makeup and Hairstyling, Documentary Short, Live Action Short, and Animated Short. So it’s gonna be a tight 20 minutes – one monologue joke, Best Picture and the montage of everyone who croaked last year.
Seriously though, did the producers think the only thing keeping Gen Z from watching their 94-year-old program is their hatred of Documentary Shorts? This is the kind of thinking that results in Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble rapping about cereal. It’s a fragmented world, people. Stop trying to appeal to everyone and pay attention to weirdos like me, who enjoy the initial high of Best Supporting Actress being followed by an hour of speeches from people we’ve never heard of.
Oh who am I kidding? I’ll always watch this trainwreck. If only to use it as an excuse to share “My Best Pictures” with you all, every single year. (Thanks again for reading, angel.)
In the not-so-grand tradition of prank comedy, from Candid Camera to Punk’d to Nathan for You, the joke has typically been 100% on the victim – our prankster and their audience get to feel superior as some unwitting dope steps right into their trap. Bad Trip, the prank show/road movie experiment starring the gleefully chaotic comedian Eric André, successfully subverts this tradition. Given the thinnest of plotlines to get us from set piece to set piece, director Kitao Sakurai leans on the goofball charisma of his actors, making us feel invested in the preposterous misadventures of Chris (André), his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) and Bud’s teardrop-tattooed jailbird sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), even when they’re projectile vomiting or sticking their hands in blenders or ripping doors off police cars. Your mileage on gross-out humor may vary – one scene in a zoo crossed the line for me. But the beauty of Bad Trip is that even when these pranksters go too far, it’s with the goal of making themselves look stupid, and revealing the sweetness, bravery and charm of everyday people in the process.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
As a fan of puzzles, locked-room murder mysteries, and movies that utterly commit to a ridiculous premise, the second installment in the Escape Room franchise was readymade to be my favorite action movie of 2021. Returning director Adam Robitel builds on the lore he established in the first film, where we learned that a shadowy cabal was constructing elaborate escape room challenges with the intent of murdering each player. Not wasting too much time on exposition, Tournament of Champions immediately throws our hero Zoey (Taylor Russell, whose palpable expressions of fear make it harder for us to laugh at the premise) into another over-the-top obstacle course of death. The frying-pan-into-the-fire nature of the gimmick works even better this time, because the rooms are more imaginative – the bank lobby and seaside cabana sticking out most vividly in my mind. And the inevitable twist is both surprising and smart, tying the first two films together while fleshing out the universe in the process. Put this on in a locked room and I’ll be just fine.
The Green Knight
I watched The Green Knight in the most unforgiving way – on a red-eye flight with those complimentary headphones that never stay in my ears. I still felt transported. Because director David Lowery’s patient, dream-like adaptation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unlike any quest narrative I’ve ever seen. Sure, you’ve got your dashing heir to the throne (a fantastically expressive Dev Patel), on an epic journey to confront a magical creature. But it’s the creature – a Treebeard-looking, forest-dwelling enigma who calls himself The Green Knight – who represents nobility and honor. Patel’s Gawain, on the other hand, is foolhardy, gullible, and aimless – a man spoiled by privilege, lost in the wilderness yet not intelligent enough to respect it. As a visual spectacle alone, The Green Knight is its own form of poetry. But as an allegory for how so-called heroes can be unchivalrous to our planet, it packs more punch than a 747.
Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson dropped Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, we’ve had more than our share of split personality thrillers. At first, Malignant feels like it could be just another decent addition to the genre, a sufficiently creepy story about a woman who keeps having visions of a shadowy killer murdering people from her past. Problem is, they’re not just visions. The more we learn about what’s really happening to Madison (Annabelle Wallis), the more unhinged, hysterical, and visually striking this big-budget B-movie becomes. In his first feature since helming the blockbuster Aquaman, 21st century horror auteur James Wan clearly relished the opportunity to go for broke with Akela Cooper’s script – a critical action sequence in a police station where our villain gets revealed is a skillfully directed, batshit insane moment for the ages. And Wan must have had some fun, because he’s already thinking about a sequel. Really! It’s not all in my head, I swear!
I’m not qualified to comment on whether or not director Rebecca Hall’s debut accurately portrays the intersectional dynamics of race, gender and sexuality in 1920s Harlem. So I’ll say this: Passing is a movie that lingers in your mind, in the same way it lingers on screen. This quiet, subtle character study depicts the accidental reunion of two Black women who were once childhood friends. Ruth Negga plays Clare, who has been “passing” as a white woman for years, marrying a blond banker (Alexander Skarsgard) who says the N word like it’s an article. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, who has achieved the American dream on the surface but gives pretty big hints that she’s also hiding something. Hall, adapting the 1929 Nella Larson novel, makes the smart decision of just letting these actors shine, utilizing recurring jazz piano licks, pitch-perfect period details (love that collapsible shot glass), and shimmering black and white to make their world feel real. Meanwhile, Negga and Thompson imbue every line with fascinating subtext, saying the things they can never say through glances, hushed compliments, and outstretched hands.
We think we know how this story is supposed to go. Nicolas Cage plays Robin Feld, a reserved, unkempt man living in the woods of Oregon. Some meth addicts beat Robin up and steal his prized truffle pig, who was his meal ticket and beloved companion. Hurt, angry, and absolutely certain he can rescue his porcine pal, Robin follows the scent to downtown Portland. This is where Pig zigs when it’s supposed to zag. Turns out Robin is not out for bloody revenge a la John Wick. And Cage never hams it up, playing Robin as a haunted, calming presence – even during a bare-knuckle boxing match in an underground tunnel. It’s a tremendous performance, an actor inhabiting a character who knows for a fact that his happiest days are behind him. A moving meditation on grief, sense memory, and the blessing of a fulfilling job, Pig leverages our expectations for revenge fantasies and Cage vehicles against us, slowly revealing Robin’s nature like a surprisingly robust four-course meal.
The Power of the Dog
There’s a moment in Jane Campion’s instant-classic cowboy picture The Power of the Dog that surprises our usually stoic and sarcastic main character Phil Burbank. When he asks Peter, his brother’s stepson, if he sees the same shape in the Montana mountains that Phil always has, Peter responds with the correct answer. Phil, played with sneering superiority by Benedict Cumberbatch, simply can’t believe it: “What the hell? You just saw that now?” Luckily for us, Campion doesn’t treat her audience like Phil treats Peter. She places an inordinate amount of faith in us to understand what we’re seeing, right up to an iconic final sequence that gives us just enough information to weave all the harrowing pieces together. In adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion scraps the internal monologues, challenging us to get to know characters who either don’t speak the truth or barely speak at all. And by contrasting a heartbreakingly romantic straight courtship with Phil’s embittered torch-carrying for the long-dead love of his life – a man called Bronco Henry – she makes all-too-relevant points about the damage we do when we shame human beings simply for who they love.
Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul is a long-overdue introduction to a star-studded 1969 music festival (no, not that one). The Harlem Cultural Festival, held in what is now Marcus Garvey Park, had better performances than that future-Republican’s convention over at Yasgur’s farm, and also said more about the state of our country. Yet footage of this “Black Woodstock” sat in a basement for a half-century, a cultural casualty of systemic racism. Questlove does all he can to reverse this wrong, including contextual social commentary with clear analogues to problems we still face. Crowd reactions to the recent moon landing, for example, foresee a wealth gap problem that is still getting worse: “The cash they wasted getting to the moon could have been used to feed the poor Black people in Harlem and all over.” Mostly though, the music is the message – Steve Wonder playing drums like a possessed octopus; Mavis Staples being passed the mic by her hero Mahalia Jackson; Nina Simone debuting “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” singing it like the syllables are loaves and fishes. It’s the epitome of what a concert documentary can do, showing how these incredible performances impacted the lives of the people playing and watching. Now, finally, we can join them.
Honorable Mentions: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; Cruella; Dune; Julia; King Richard; Lamb; Plan B; The Tragedy of Macbeth
“Ready or not / I’m a new kind of killer,” announces Merrill Garbus on her second LP as Tune-Yards. And if you consider what’s happening around her right after she sings those words, it’s clearly not an empty boast – a ukulele-driven Afro-Pop groove dissembles into chaos, as bass player Nate Brenner continues to play bubbly low-end notes as if he didn’t get the memo. Whokill is defined by this paint-can-hurling approach to genre experimentation, taking Garbus’s uke-and-loop-machine approach to live shows and splicing in homages to funk, folk, reggae, synth-pop, punk and power balladry with zero concern for overloading our eardrums. It all works, against all odds, due to the power of Garbus’s voice and the preternatural chemistry between her and Brenner. If we lose the thread among the layered vocal loops and stuttering drums of “Bizness,” it all locks in when Brenner’s bass arrives, locking it all down so Garbus can wail to the heavens, begging her partner, “Don’t take my life away!” Not every idea has aged well – particularly “Gangsta,” a well-intended but discomfiting depiction of the challenges of life in “my hood.” But it’s a rare misfire on a record that remains one of the boldest artistic leaps of the 2010s.
69. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)
Remember January 2012, when presidential candidate/alleged carbon-based life form Mitt Romney released his tax returns, and they revealed a shady Swiss bank account in his name? Me neither! Until I read what I wrote in this space back then about Miami rapper Rick Ross: “It seems like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that tells us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough,” wrote the younger, more casually vulgar me, blissfully unaware of how much worse a toxic-rich-guy president could be. And while the star of conspicuous consumption rap has definitely faded over the last decade, Rich Forever still works, because it still sounds as expensively aerodynamic as an Italian sports car. The tape’s thunderous, trunk-rattling production acts like an echo chamber for Ross’s performative ego, as he turns his drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache. While Rich Forever is loaded with quality guests – Nas, 2 Chainz, Kelly Rowland, Future, etc. – the boss is never outshone, coming up with a clever way to say he’s rich on every cut (e.g. “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”).
68. Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (2010)
Usually when you hear a PR narrative along the lines of “[LEGACY ARTIST] is rocking again,” it’s a red flag. Either because it’s not true (e.g. any post-2001 Radiohead album) or it sounds like warmed-up leftovers from the glory days (e.g. most of Metallica’s 21st century efforts). But when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds transformed into Grinderman in 2008, growing mustaches and skullets to match its brand of greasy, irreverent punk-metal, no spin was necessary. On its second LP, the Australian legends continued to drive our equalizers into the red, but in the context of more expansive soundscapes, favoring visceral slow-builds over the breakneck tempos of its debut. It’s an ideal balance, an evolution that took this band from a fun lark to a weighty artistic force, while still allowing Cave to howl like a wolf, growl “huuuh!” and “yeah!” like a whiskey-drunk James Brown, and deliver bawdy one-liners with aplomb – “Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster / Two humps and then I’m gone.”
67. Young Thug – Jeffery (2016)
One of the dominant storylines on the pop landscape in the ’10s was Drake’s refusal to come back to earth – co-opting one trend after another to maintain his stranglehold on the charts. At his peak, Young Thug was an opposing force to that massive star’s patient calculations – a rapper who records hooks like they’re burning a hole in his pocket, stuffing every track with unexpected melodic flourishes, stamping it as his own with visceral barks and yelps. On his hit mixtape Jeffery, that profound ability is paired with buoyant, dancehall-indebted trap beats that give Thug lots of space to do his thing. As a result, every track fizzes over with undeniable power, like champagne from a fire hose. “I’m geeked up like an astronaut / I’m off the Earth / I’m way in the moon” he raps over reflective piano chords, looking down on us affectionately from his perch at the top of the game. It’s ironic that Thug named almost all of these songs after his personal heroes – including Wyclef Jean, Rihanna and Harambe the gorilla – because he was transcending all of his influences, while creating some of the most infectiously exuberant music of his time.
66. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ(2015)
You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.
We thought we could see it this year. Brightening the edges of our curtains. Warming the pillows of our reading nooks. Landing on our screens to interrupt our binges. We thought it was The Light, and for a few glorious weeks we scrambled out of our tunnels into it, the possibilities blossoming with the spring.
Even me, who thinks the pandemic has been stuffed with silver linings – more time with my wife, working from home, the best excuse ever to avoid meeting new people – was excited at the prospect of going to restaurants again, traveling again, breathing again.
But it was just a temporary break in the clouds. Even so, I’m here to report 20 sightings of a different kind of Light. The kind that humans create when an undefined urge demands they express themselves, be it through an instrument, or their vocal chords, or their pen. These are the albums that reminded me what humanity is capable of in 2021 – if we can create these, surely we can figure out a way to leave this tunnel for good.
20. Georgia Anne Muldrow – Vweto III
The Light from a Crossing Signal Switching from “STOP” to “MOVE”
The third installment in this R&B visionary’s series of instrumental hip hop albums acknowledges that, even when you strip life down to its building blocks, it’s still complicated and intriguing as hell. “Vweto” is a Congolese word for “gravity,” but with every effervescent bass line and echoing drum pattern, Muldrow reassures us that we can still pick up our feet and move. Our tether to this planet might be unbreakable, but damn is it flexible.
19. Unto Others – Strength
The Light of a Bedside Table Lamp, Where a 15-Year Old Is Reading The Catcher in the Rye and Nodding Solemnly
On 2019’s Mana, the band formerly known as Idle Hands served up a bubbling cauldron of Satan worship and goth-pop hooks that spoke to the sullen young dork in all of us. A few years and a name change later, the Portland, OR, quartet returned with Strength – an attempt to be more serious that succeeds in spite of itself. The heart-on-sleeve Depeche Mode flourishes are tempered by chilly Police guitar figures, and the blasphemy is scrubbed away. But Strength sticks with me regardless, because this band remains utterly committed to expressing outsized, borderline-embarrassing emotions with a straight face, while churning out hooks for days.
18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
The Light of a Neon “OPEN” Sign In a 1980 NYC Dive Bar
This Brooklyn post-punk institution begins the second act of its decade-long career on its seventh LP, where it expands its scope to explore danceable, immersive, bass-driven new wave soundscapes without completely abandoning the Stooges and Velvets worship of its early records. On “Marathon of Anger,” a recounting of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, singer Andrew Savage engages in a mesmerizing call and response with his bandmates, while synths bloop, a simple bass line swings, and guitars deliver chilly funk accents. It’s an evocative RSVP to the similarly serpentine invitation David Byrne sent out over 40 years ago – to join him in embracing the passage of time, watching the water flow as the days go by.
17. iLoveMakonnen – My Parade
The Light of the Embers in a Fireplace That’s Been Burning All Night Long
The world has never seemed to quite be ready for iLoveMakonnen – a calm, level-headed rapper with off-the-charts emotional intelligence and a knack for party anthems. Back in 2014, Makonnen had a certified hit with “Tuesday,” complete with a Drake remix and a contract with his OVO imprint. But it wasn’t until 2021 that we got the artist’s first true LP, My Parade – a stripped down, casually catchy, profoundly introspective achievement. By splicing the bass drops and chittering hi hats of Atlanta trap with the patient fireside tempos of quiet storm R&B, Makonnen has made something perfectly of-the-moment – a pandemic classic full of vulnerability, paranoia, joy and intimacy. Who said parades had to be loud?
16. Helado Negro – Far In
The Light of a Sunrise on the First Morning of a Tropical Vacation
Just because Roberto Carlos Lange sings in a whisper doesn’t mean he can’t command your attention. On his seventh LP as Helado Negro, his deceptively quiet instrument is as agile as ever, shifting between finger-picked calypso ballads and sweaty disco hooks with the ease of a green thumb strolling between his veggie garden and beds of perennials. As a result, Far In won’t necessarily grab you by the ears at first. It further cements Lange’s status as one of our consummate “growers,” its melodic and textual depth revealing itself more with every listen, until before you know it, you’re surrounded by blossoms.
15. John Carroll Kirby – Cryptozoo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The Light of a Pair of Red Eyes in the Forest
For his contributions to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You alone, pianist/producer/composer John Carroll Kirby deserves the benefit of the doubt. So while you might not think you’re in the mood to hear a new age/yacht rock score to a psychedelic animated movie about a zoo full of magical creatures, I’d recommend pressing play anyway. Far from a “weird for weird’s sake” exercise, Cryptozoo is a restorative balm of laid-back experimentation, where beds of synths and acoustic guitars reverberate reassuringly, leaving us more open to the wonders of a breathy pan flute solo that we ever could have imagined.
14. Mustafa – When Smoke Rises
The Light of a Candle on a Coffee Shop Table, Blurred By Tears
While Toronto natives Drake and The Weeknd chose superstardom over self-reflection years ago, the template they laid for woozy, deep dives into an artist’s damaged psyche is still in the water up there. On his debut LP, singer/songwriter Mustafa infuses the long blue winters of his hometown into a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous folk eulogy for fallen friends and eroded innocences. “I didn’t want to risk it all / Oh I know what’s at stake / But you made yourself special / I wanna throw myself away for you,” he sings over plaintive Leonard Cohen finger picking – grief and rage and love freezing together as grey clouds cover the stars.
13. Lil Nas X – Montero
The Light from a Single Sparkler Setting Off the Entire Pack
“Funny how you said it was the end / Then I went and did it again,” boasts Lil Nas X on his debut LP. The guy has a right to feel chuffed. After all the reactionary panic over his 2019 country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road” – including Billboard pulling it off the country charts – the man born Montero Lamar Hill hasn’t just proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder. He’s made an entire album of potential chart-toppers, while staying true to himself and his eclectic muse. Montero has gleefully egotistical rap bangers, heartsick rainy-day ballads, “Hey Ya”-indebted acoustic thumps, and frank explorations of what it’s like to be a cultural icon on this beautiful, burning planet.
12. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World
The Light That Flared in Atlas’s Eyes As He Held Up the Heavens
Maxo Kream doesn’t need choruses, or hypnotically soulful beats, or guest stars with sparkling personalities. To be clear, the Houston rapper is gifted with all of those things on his third studio album. But his stories are so vivid, introspective, and casually devastating that it’s tough to focus on anything else. Weight of the World finds Maxo wrestling with all kinds of heaviness – survivor’s guilt for old friends still striving; raw grief from the March 2020 shooting death of his younger brother; the extra responsibility he feels toward his niece in the aftermath. It’s not only remarkable that the 31-year-old is willing to tackle such harrowing subjects, but he does it without surrendering to the darkness, spiking transparency with cleverness to create an effect that feels a lot like hope.
11. Shannon Lay – Geist
The Light We Keep On at NightBecause It Helps Us Sleep
“You’re on your own / But not alone.” When California singer/songwriter Shannon Lay serenades us with this couplet at the end of a song called “A Thread to Find,” the effect is a form of sonic therapy. Because not only does this proclamation of support help soothe our pandemic-warped nervous systems, but it also serves as a handy descriptor of what we’re hearing. For all of its reverberating lushness, Geist is a traditional folk album, with carefully plucked acoustic guitars and Lay’s lullaby tenor going largely unaccompanied. There are no drums at all here, which means every beautiful, searching note can initially feel like it’s rising into the ether on its own. But we’re there hearing it, so it’s not alone.
10. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
The Light of Multiple Laser Beams Combining Into One Indestructible Megalaser
If Roadrunner is indeed the beginning of the end for the Houston emo-rap collective Brockhampton, as bandleader Kevin Abstract claims, then they’re going out with a clear understanding of what they’re good at. After taking an unprecedented two-year break between releases, the nine-member group (four rappers, three vocalists, two producers) reached a new level of clarity on its sixth LP, leaving its kitchen-sink mixtape approach behind in favor of a focused 12-track statement that somehow leaves no stone unturned. Everything that makes Brockhampton great is here – lovesick pop-rap, yell-along hip hop, heartfelt alt-rock hooks, fearlessly confessional lyricism – and it all flows in a way that feels preordained.
9. Danny L Harle – Harlecore
The Light of Neurons Firing In an Android’s Positronic Brain
As one of the more accessible members of the UK experimental electronic collective PC Music, Danny L Harle has a knack of pairing thumping molly-trip beats with clear-eyed declarations of feeling. On his long-awaited debut Harlecore, the artist puts this ability to the test over 13 tracks, “collaborating” with various versions of himself (referred to as DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean in the credits). The result is a perfectly sequenced journey through the mind of an electronic music visionary, touching on tender pop balladry, pitch-bended weirdo R&B, instrumental electronica, and relentlessly grinding industrial. All without losing sight of the humanity behind the machines: “I can see your heart’s been broken too / So just lay here, on a mountain, me and you.”
8. Doja Cat – Planet Her
The Light ofa Newly Discovered PlanetThat Looks Like A Glowstick Necklace in the Sky
When Q-Tip rapped “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop” over 30 years ago, he clearly wasn’t able to conceive of a record like Planet Her ever existing. And I don’t blame him. Because Doja Cat has accomplished something many brilliant emcees have never been able to pull off – a seamless fusion of bars-heavy hip hop, tender-hearted R&B, and chart-baiting pop hooks that doesn’t feel like a misguided record label ultimatum. This charismatic L.A. artist can rap and sing with equal flair, with lyrics that can be gut-bustingly hilarious, effervescently lovestruck, and convincingly heartbroken. Planet Her combines these versatile vocal performances with island-inflected club grooves, delivering every clever turn of phrase on the back of a warm, welcoming breeze.
7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
The Light From Your Best Friend’s Cigarette That They Forget to Smoke Because They’re Listening To You So Intently
On her steamroller of a debut (my #1 album of 2015), Courtney Barnett was a master at finding poignancy in mundane activities, like riding an elevator or going house hunting. Six years later, with mundanity at a premium, the Aussie slacker-rock visionary has shifted focus to the thing we often don’t admit to needing in our troubled, disconnected world – real companionship. “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” she proposes as her band rides a swirling roots-rock groove, finding the silver lining in the apocalypse like it’s a silver dollar on the street. Barnett hasn’t lost that trademark so-over-it sarcasm in her voice, but she’s deploying it in a gentler way, underlining the irony in how we focus on personal needs when humanity’s existence is at stake, while also admitting that she’s doing it too. All while writing riffs that feel like they’ve been keeping us company all our lives.
6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
The Light Of a July 4 Fireworks Display That Makes You Smile Even Though You’re Depressed About the State of the Country
“After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” said Michelle Zauner in the press materials for the third Japanese Breakfast LP. Jubilee meets this expectation and then some, with every track attempting to reach the masses with an irresistibly positive pop touch – like the weightless mariachi horns on “Paprika”; the soothing, Peter Gabriel-worshipping electronics of “Posing in Bondage”; the instant-classic disco bass line on “Be Sweet.” But this is also not quite a party album, as Zauner sings from the perspectives of a craven billionaire, a grieving relative, and a lonely heart in Indiana. So while it’s tempting to label this as an “indie rock legend gone pop,” the record’s true narrative isn’t so tidy. Because Jubilee‘s joy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It came in the wake of pain, and is felt all the more intensely as a result.
5. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
The Light In an Electron Microscope that Lets Us See the Building Blocks of Life
On her fourth album, Little Simz is clearly in autobiographical mode. Not only is its title – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – a clear statement about the artist’s personality, but it’s also an acronym of her birthname (“Simbi,” short for “Simbiatu”). Perhaps the British-Nigerian rapper felt the need to drop these hints, because the 19 tracks on Introvert don’t soundlike stark, intimate confessionals. Simz partnered with producer Inflo to weave tapestries of lush, cinematic soul, greeting the ears with the reassuring tenderness of a Curtis Mayfield ballad. And the rapper proves to be just as bombastic as all the spy-flick horns and swelling strings, sharing her hopes, fears, traumas and inspirations like a timpanist establishing the low end so the symphony can soar. “Lived being angry my whole life / Like it’s part of my DNA,” she shares, grounding us distinctly in her reality. A few seconds later, a children’s chorus swoops in, and up we go.
4. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
The Light of a Slide Projector Warming Up in the Living Room
On her third album, this Virginia singer/songwriter doesn’t just tell stories. She writes letters – an offer to murder a partner’s dickhead father; an ode to a metalhead who wrote crappy poetry at Jesus Camp; an admission to a friend that she finds her boyfriend unworthy. Home Video deserves its title thanks to the specificity of these memories and the swells of emotion they can inspire in people who weren’t there. When Dacus gets less specific, it’s no less powerful – like the bridge on the gut-wrenching break-up ballad “Please Stay,” where the songwriter lists all the things her partner can do instead of leaving. “Quit your job / Cut your hair / Get a dog / Change your name,” it begins. It’s a stunning, honest admission of need, and a letter of encouragement to all who wonder if we’d be better off keeping our pesky feelings to ourselves.
3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
The Light That Guides Ships To Shore On Dark and Stormy Nights
Nick Cave’s singing voice is a marvel. After four decades of screaming, grunting and wailing as the frontman of The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the 64-year-old Aussie legend is not only showing zero signs of strain, he’s exploring the upper register of his instrument, with riveting results. On Carnage, Cave teams up with trusted partner Warren Ellis to surround his voice with soft, rippling synthesizers, as he sings about deep rivers, lavender fields and kingdoms in the sky – the grief from his son’s passing in 2015 audible in every lyric about god and the afterlife. Yet despite the state of the world and his own personal burdens, Cave ends Carnage with a shaft of light through the clouds, a line repeated over and over again, with the kind of fervency that could convert a nonbeliever: “This morning is amazing / And so are you.”
2. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
The Light Next To Thomas Edison’s Work Bench
When getting good at Guitar Hero 2 wasn’t enough for a young Yasmin Williams, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started experimenting with it. She laid it face up on her lap, tuned the strings in a harmonic structure that sounded right to her, and started playing it like a keyboard. On her second album of instrumental folk, this distinctive approach is apparent in the way her fingers glide across the frets, the resulting notes flowing and clustering together like streams feeding the ocean. As she translates this tablature of the mind to us on tape, we’re presented with utterly unique compositions full of fascinating harmonic shapes, punctuated by percussive slaps of wood and the refreshing spray of a squeaking string. If they ever come out with Guitar Hero Unplugged, any of these songs would make it incredibly hard to beat.
1. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
The Light from an MRI of Eve’s Brain At the Moment She Saw the Tree of Knowledge
Sinner Get Ready, the fourth album from the brimstone-spewing one-woman powerhouse Lingua Ignota, is categorized in iTunes as “Rock.” That’s not accurate, but I get it. What the hell else would you call an album that trembles with the conviction of gospel, soothes with the rustic sounds of Appalachian folk, and terrifies with sudden blasts of noise-metal? What singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Kristen Hayter has done here is some kind of righteous, cathartic miracle – long, patient songs of eerie majesty with lyrics that see the world through the eyes of fanatical Catholics, who plead to their Old Testament God to strike down the evildoers in their midst. And we’re not talking about people who skip church on Sunday – the “sinners” referenced in this album title are domestic abusers. A survivor herself, Hayter has described her creations as her way of getting “revenge” at her abusers – refusing to stay calm, while simultaneously turning pain into beauty. She cries out for divine murder on “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” screaming about golden scythes like a delirious preacher as a church organ hums in the shadows. And Hayter’s quieter moments are no less intense. “Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” she softly intones over the skeletal piano notes of “The Perpetual Flame of Centralia,” baptizing us in the fires of determination, and outrage, and god-given creative genius.
Honorable Mentions: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology; Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me; Froglord – The Mystic Toad; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon; Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog;Iron Maiden – Senjutsu; Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning; Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Aimee Mann – Queens of the Summer Hotel; Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties; The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here; Native Soul – Teenage Dreams; Queen Key – Your Highness 3; Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita; Tune-Yards – Sketchy; Tyler the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
I’m one of those walking clichés who “loves fall the most, actually.” But in the age of the delta variant, it’s pretty hard to be basic. While I’m relishing the tell-tale elements of autumn – cool breezes at night, curated horror movie collections on all the streaming services, the way-too-busy ice cream store at the end of my street finally shutting down for the season – it also means we’re headed back indoors, aka COVID’s home turf.
But let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let me remind you that fall is the time to close your windows – which means you can crank this playlist as loud as you want. Everything might feel more complicated these days, but that volume knob still works just the same.
1. Payday (feat. Danny Brown) – “Vampire”
Massive drums, weird operatic vocal loops, and chest-beating vampiric rap verses = an instant Halloween classic.
2. Courtney Barnett – “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To”
I don’t know too many artists who could earnestly sing, “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” without sucking every positive vibe out of the room. But cool matter-of-factness is Courtney Barnett’s stock in trade. So she extends that invitation over sweetly jangling guitar chords, and makes our shared human destiny feel full of reasons to smile, ever-so slyly.
3. Lil Nas X – “That’s What I Want”
As an acoustic guitar strums with an irresistible “Hey Ya” pulse, 2021’s savviest, most fully realized pop star lays his vulnerabilities out there in a way that brings all of us into the fold: “I want someone to love me / I need someone to need me.”
4. Unto Others – “Instinct”
On its second album, these goth-metal masters scrap the satanic rituals and throw a 47-minute sullen-teen tantrum – which would be somewhat silly if it weren’t so damn catchy.
5. Little Simz – “Little Q, Pt. 2”
“Real criminals live in the suit!” raps this London MC over a honey-glazed old-Kanye gospel arrangement, shining light into painful corners of her past, encouraging those who’ve caused her harm to step back and focus on the real enemy.
6. Aimee Mann – “Burn It Out”
Over a gorgeous folk waltz arrangement that she should be able to trademark by now, Aimee Mann sets her empathetic sights on a person who just set themselves on fire: “All of the shame that was yours to bear / Will it ignite like a signal flare? / Can you just burn it out?”
7. Bartees Strange – “Weights”
An indie rock song so gleefully and relentlessly buzzy, your hair just might stand up on end.
8. Native Soul – “The Beginning”
This hypnotic, mid-tempo dance groove was my first exposure to amapiano, a type of meditative South African house music that builds but never quite peaks. Its disinterest in grabbing our attention has the opposite effect; I could burrow deep into Native Soul’s world of unshifting shakers and synthesizers and feel eerily fulfilled.
9. Latto – “Big Energy”
Tom Tom Club begat Mariah. Mariah begat Latto. Amen.
10. Parquet Courts – “Black Widow Spider”
A loose, short, weird single about trying to outrun pain and inevitably getting squashed.
11. Open Mike Eagle (feat. Armand Hammer) – “Burner Account”
“Making sure the bass slap, Ndegeocello!”
12. Iron Maiden – “Hell On Earth”
Iron Maiden released its 17th studio album in September, and it smartly focuses on what the band does best these days – long, slowly unfurling epics that wrestle with big questions, and only provide answers in the form of exquisite guitar playing. “Hell On Earth” is the best, and most resolutely hopeless, of the lot. “Lost in anger! / Life in danger!” bemoans Bruce Dickinson in the song’s eighth minute, the musicians behind him affirming his righteous outrage by playing slowly and determinedly. Iron Maiden is no longer urging anyone to run for the hills. Because there’s no escape from what humanity has wrought. If this ends up being their final song laid to tape, I can’t think of a more honest – and thoroughly metal – farewell.
I’m currently reading book two ofThe Stormlight Archive, an exhilarating door-stopper fantasy series where ancient knights can breathe light that heals their wounds. (What, you thought I was, like, cool or something?) As hospitals fill right back up with anti-vaxxers who trust Facebook more than science books, these 10 songs have been my form of magical oxygen. Some are dance-floor-ready bangers; others are spacey instrumentals; all are imbued with the kind of positive vibes that make me feel like I can do impossible things. So go ahead. Breathe.
1. Queen Key – “What I Do”
After giving birth to triplets at the beginning of the pandemic, this Chicago rapper cannot be bothered to sound stressed, casually sharing her plans for world domination over sunny piano notes: “I want them to think that I’m slow / Think I’m a ho / So I can take their souls and put em in my fro.”
2. Sturgill Simpson – “Shamrock”
This usually idiosyncratic country star has given us three old-school bluegrass LPs in the last year, all of them barnburners. On “Shamrock,” he lets his band absolutely pop off, while managing to not drown out the mouth harp. The world needs more mouth harp!
3. Becky Hill (feat. Topic) – “My Heart Goes (La Di Da)”
A dance-pop anthem with a sound so convincingly ’90s, I coulda sworn CeCe Peniston had became a cardiologist.
4. Abstract Mindstate – “A Wise Tale”
Turns out there was a reason to celebrate Kanye West’s return this August – as the producer on this low-key comeback LP from a forgotten Windy City rap duo. This rich, playful, soul-sample-flipping beat might be old hat for Ye, but it’s perfect for slightly wistful late-summer barbecues, and better than anything on Donda.
5. Marisa Anderson & William Tyler – “News About Heaven”
From the first cascading guitar notes of this serene instrumental, you know this song title is perfect.
6. Caribou – “You Can Do It”
I hope Dan Snaith’s don’t-overthink-it lounge-house groove rips this phrase out of Rob Schneider’s big dumb mouth, once and for all.
7. Denzel Curry – “The Game”
This Florida rapper is capable of such exceptional acrobatics, his straightforward, martial approach on “The Game” hits even harder. Here’s to him and Kendrick coming to our rescue at the end of this fairly boring year in rap.
8. John Carroll Kirby – “Mystic Brine”
The soundtrack to the new psychedelic animated oddity Cryptozoo is an appropriately otherworldly stoner daydream – but it’s also undeniably real, man.
9. Tierra Whack – “Walk the Beat”
The first full embrace of club music from this Philadelphia rapper/singer/visionary is refreshingly blasé about haute couture: “Fashion shows, fancy clothes / That’s just the way it goes.”
10. Wanda Jackson (feat. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts) – “That’s What Love Is”
This is the last song on this 83-year-old country legend’s final album? Holy shit:
It isn’t just the way we felt that first day It’s an ongoing thing, I fought more along the way It’s knowing you’ll be there when I call your name That’s what love is