Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (25-21)

Being There

25. Wilco – Being There (1996)

In 1996, things weren’t exactly going Jeff Tweedy’s way. It’d been a few years since the nasty breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy’s new band wasn’t doing as well as his old partner Jay Farrar’s. So he literally doubled down, recording a double album and refusing to budge when his label balked. He called it Being There, after the 1979 Peter Sellers movie about a clueless man named Chance who floats to the top of society. “Misunderstood,” the album’s first song, starts as a ballad about not belonging, and ends with a thunderous punk catharsis: “I wanna thank you all for nothing!” It’s Tweedy trying the Chance method of getting famous, sharing what’s on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s selfish, and dynamic. But thankfully, Being There isn’t all vitriol. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco for these sessions, burnishing every track in some way, be it a ringing pedal steel note or a heartfelt backing vocal. And Tweedy full-on embraces his love of classic rock, from the shameless Stones rip-off “Monday” to the T. Rex boogie of “I Got You.” He may have missed the point of that movie – Chance is a stand-in for every idiot who’s coasted to the White House on white male privilege – but he made himself a masterpiece all the same.

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24. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)

There’s something inherently rewarding about talented people not taking themselves seriously. Like Meryl Streep playing an ego-drunk Danielle Steele villain in She-Devil. Or Werner Herzog narrating an episode of Parks & Recreation. Or a quartet of accomplished dancers forming a goofy rap group called The Pharcyde. After landing a record deal on the strength of a song full of mom jokes (e.g. “Your mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand”), Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani and Bootie Brown poured all their youthful energy and comedic chops into Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Whether they’re rapping about getting high, or arrested, or ignored by a woman, their rapid flows, class-clown antics, and legitimate moments of clarity formed the backbone of a record that was so much more than funny. These guys were smart enough to avoid the kind of wooden sketch comedy that marred many a ’90s rap album – instead, they freestyled about hypothetical presidential power over a vamping live band. Oh, and did I mention Bizarre Ride is a clinic in sample-based beatmaking? J-Swift’s celebratory, jazz-inflected production has aged wonderfully – it’s entirely possible the inventor of the confetti gun was listening to it when inspiration struck.

Introducing_happiness_album_cover23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)

Sire Records had no idea what to do with Rheostatics’ fourth albumEven though it featured “Claire,” by far the biggest hit of this Ontario cult quartet’s career, Introducing Happiness was a carnival of clashing ideas – the deep cerulean of a sci-fi ballad, next to a lime green fever dream of a giant hummingbird, blurring into the mercury-silver glow of a jazz ode to the Russian lunar cycle. Factor in singer Martin Tielli’s anti-Vedder quaver and guitarist Dave Bidini’s explosive, angular noodling, and the Buzz Bin probably felt out of reach (although the Flaming Lips, this band’s closest American counterpart, managed to pull it off). Who cares about this 24-year-old industry context, you say? Well, you may have forgotten just how deeply odd, and disarmingly pretty, this album is. You may have forgotten about “Cephallus Worm/Uncle Henry,” which sounds like a room of amateur impressionists covering “Purple Haze” through a fog of nitrous oxide. You may have forgotten about lines like “I’m dripping water on your gills / You’re such a beautiful thing.” These guys had been given a second chance to prove themselves as a commercial force, and this is what they made. God bless them.

https---images.genius.com-8d8af1e45dbeada213405d9aa7a539d6.1000x1000x122. Björk – Debut (1993)

There’s a moment on Björk’s solo debut where we get a chance to step back and truly take stock of what we’re hearing. In the middle of the deliriously catchy raver “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer pulls us out of the club – a door slams, muffling the music behind it. It’s a disorienting experience; I thought my speakers had shorted out the first time I heard it. But before I could start messing with the wires, Björk was singing again, in full-throated a cappella – “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island!” When the beat comes back, it’s a whole new kind of high. This, right here, is what it was like to listen to Björk in the ’90s. Anytime we thought “perfectly enjoyable” was good enough, we felt a pull at our sleeves, away from complacency and toward a previously unimaginable Icelandic adventure. Debut isn’t quite as richly layered as her future triumphs, but the building blocks alone make it a classic – the insanely creative techno production, the vintage movie musical balladry, a voice with a majestic ornithology all its own. There’s more to life than this, but only because Björk’s next album was even better.

https---images.genius.com-cd0a26733cc459710d0986b7b64de8f0.1000x1000x121. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)

In the summer of 1997, Bob Dylan was hospitalized with a fungal infection that was attacking his heart. He’d already had his 30th album, Time Out of Mind, in the can by then. Its songs weren’t inspired by this particular crisis. But it’s a haunting, melancholy struggle just the same – a man on the verge of becoming a boomer relic, coming to terms with the mortality of his mind and body. Here was rock’s most renowned lyrical obfuscator, writing with eerie clarity about failed marriages, stale hopes, and looming shadows. “I got no place left to turn / I got nothin’ left to burn,” he sings on “Standing in the Doorway.” He’s spent. But ironically, Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s most fulfilling work in decades. With producer Daniel Lanois back in the fold – he produced Dylan’s underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – these songs of woe get the sonic TLC they deserve. From the ominous, echoing organ of “Love Sick” to the sauntering blues vamp that makes the 16-minute “Highlands” feel like a reasonable length, Lanois’s warmly evocative touches remind us that while the narrators are alone, the musicians are anything but. “It’s not dark yet / but it’s getting there,” Dylan confesses. His talent has rarely shone brighter.

The Top 10 Bands of the 1970s

It’s been a while since I randomly ranked something. So why not list my ten favorite bands of the decade when the rock group was supposedly king? In eighth grade I would’ve told you that the ’70s was the only decade a music fan needed. Zeppelin and Floyd were my world. I’ve gotten less stupid since then, but as you can see here, 13-year-old me is still in there somewhere.

To be clear: solo artists are not eligible. But bands that were crucial to a solo artist’s body of work – e.g. The Heartbreakers, Crazy Horse – are in the running. Why? Because this is the only sliver of the universe that I can control. My cyber-roof, my rules. To the list machine!

Television

10. Television

The sound of a single bird chirping can be pleasant. But combine it with other feathered friends, and it’s an entirely different experience – a psychologically restorative level of ambient noise. Such is the guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. On the two albums that Television released before breaking up in 1978 – the jaw-dropping, all-time-great debut Marquee Moon and its merely fantastic follow-up Adventure – the duo plays like a pair of skylarks, instinctually aware of one another as their riffage soars heavenward. These CBGB regulars did more for punk artists drawn to artful forms of rebellion than any other ’70s band. Two albums were all they needed.

 

Sly and the Family Stone

9. Sly and the Family Stone

If Sylvester Stewart could’ve somehow just retired in 1970, he could’ve spent the rest of his life teaching seminars on how to use effusive, unbridled positivity as a weapon. Instead, he spent the decade dimming the lights, retreating to his home studio/heroin den, refusing to sing a simple song. But before fading into obscurity, he gave us the two finest Sly and the Family Stone albums. The murky, conflicted There’s a Riot Goin On walked through the valley of personal and political corruption. And Fresh came out the other side, doing justice to its title with pristinely funky treatises on thankfulness and peace of mind. In the ’60s, Sly and the Family Stone took us higher. In the ’70s, they helped us cope.

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8. Black Sabbath

“What is this that stands before me?” sings Ozzy Osbourne on “Black Sabbath,” the opening song on his band’s 1970 debut. I’d imagine a lot of listeners felt the same way. Because Black Sabbath was a true original, frighteningly ahead of its time. Like many English bands of this era, the Birmingham quartet was drawn to the intoxicating pentatonics of American blues music. But they were never content to just rip it off. Black Sabbath, and the three equally masterful albums that followed it, favored slower tempos and lower registers, letting each minor chord marinate in its own midnight. In the process, they invented heavy music as we know it. Tony Iommi made it okay for guitarists to value atmosphere more than muscle. And Osbourne showed how the right vocal inflection could make even the hokiest weed pun sound utterly, believably haunting. What stood before us was a revolution.

 

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7. Fleetwood Mac

When I was a young man, the soft, multi-platinum sheen of peak Fleetwood Mac did nothing for me. It just felt harmless and inconsequential to someone who’d never had real adult feelings. But in my thirties, I heard “Over My Head,” seemingly for the first time. That song was the key to a treasure chest of unparalleled grown-person songwriting, made even more profound by the hard-won wisdom in Stevie Nicks’s voice. The band’s trio of ’70s classics – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk – are full of nuanced, conflicted, reassuringly human observations about love and aging. Qualities that don’t really come into focus until you reach a certain age, and start needing that reminder to keep thinking about tomorrow.

 

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6. Led Zeppelin

Critics were famously dismissive of Led Zeppelin in its heyday. To an extent, the band deserved it, having gotten famous by passing off American blues songs as their own, while not exactly caring about lyrics. But starting in 1970, Zeppelin stopped coasting on these hyper-masculine thrust-fests. The traditional folk and country of Led Zeppelin III, Tolkien-inspired proto-metal of Led Zeppelin and kaleidoscopic cloudburst of Houses of the Holy make for one of the most stunning growth spurts in rock history. The swagger of the world’s biggest rock band is still there, but it has evolved from male confidence to artistic confidence. Instead of giving us every inch of their love, these guys were exploring every corner of their imaginations.

 

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5. Parliament/Funkadelic

Like a Kleenex is a tissue, like a Xerox is a photocopy, Parliament is funk. The music George Clinton’s group released in the 1970s could be experienced on a variety of levels, each of them incredibly rewarding. 1) As the greatest bass-driven, shout-along party music ever recorded, 2) As compositional big band achievements that deserve professorial study alongside Duke Ellington, 3) As an audacious social statement that upended the perception of black culture as an alien presence in America. When Parliament/Funkadelic emerged from its mothership, it was The Day the Earth Got Down. They expanded the possibilities of funk music, inventing new ways to utilize synthesizers and guitar solos, giving a whole new attitude to the art of spoken word.  “Most of all you need funk,” they advised, with a sense of joy and purpose that’s healthier than the air we breathe.

 

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4. Steely Dan

In the beginning, Steely Dan flirted with the idea of sounding pretty. Its 1972 debut had two lead singers – the honey-throated David Palmer and the feistily froggy Donald Fagen. The songs were good enough to work with Palmer’s lite-FM falsetto croon, but luckily, Fagen and his guitarist/songwriting partner Walter Becker had left him in the dust by ’73. Because then they proceeded to geek the fuck out on one fantastic, ridiculously polished record after another. The more money that rolled in, the more Steely Dan became a studio creation, with Fagen and Becker directing top session players to satisfy their every obsession. Their style was always leaping around, from jazz and blues to bossa nova and country, but it always carried that same expensive sheen, and that same knack for insidiously catchy chord progressions. When paired with Fagen’s biting, imperfect voice, singing about cast-offs and criminals and pathetic old men, every fussed-over note gains something that no other classic rock band ever gave us – a sense of humor that’s dry as Ritz.

 

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3. Queen

Lots of bands made rock operas in the 1970s. Only Queen did operatic rock. Because only they had a frontman who could pull it off. Freddie Mercury had the god-given stuff – golden pipes, compositional brilliance, preternatural charm. But he also had that opera singer quality, a technically perfect vocalist that is able to convey how heartbreakingly imperfect life can be, through intonation alone. Like most folks my age, I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the Wayne’s World soundtrack, alongside the likes of Cinderella and the BulletBoys. It was like seeing a unicorn at the zoo. I had no idea what the song was about, but at the end, when Mercury sang “Nothing really matters,” I got a lump in my throat. I’d never heard such a fatalistic phrase delivered with such warmth. Queen could deliver scorching proto-metal songs about ogres and toweringly theatrical pop epochs, with equally hair-raising results. Because Freddie Mercury somehow made it all magical, and real.

 

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2. Pink Floyd

When bands become huge, that success tends to dictate what happens next. Radiohead hid behind electronics; Pearl Jam stopped making videos; U2 explored the depths of its own butt, etc. Pink Floyd was immune to such childishness. Its colossal 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, was already the band’s eighth LP. Its very public fallout with founding visionary Syd Barrett was five years in the rearview. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason had already seen it all. So they had no problem taking years between each ensuing masterpiece, making sure that every synth exuded that specific ethereal warmth; that every guitar solo swayed just enough to hypnotize us; that every bitter observation on war, the record industry, lost friendships and absent fathers was balanced out by just the right amount of British wit. As a result, even 40-plus years of zombified classic rock radio programmers have not been able to kill them. To this day, moments like Wright’s opening synth suite on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” and Waters’ vocal work on “The Trial” make me drop everything and pay attention. Because even with millions in the bank and the world at their fingertips, Pink Floyd didn’t have their pudding until they ate their meat.

 

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1. The JB’s

The year just happened to be 1970 when James Brown introduced his brand new band, after the previous one had left him high and dry over a pay dispute. “The JB’s” included original Famous Flames member Bobby Byrd and a bunch of unknowns, including a young bass player named William “Bootsy” Collins. With stunning immediacy, they introduced a whole new style to the mainstream – a gritty, spacious, heavily syncopated sound retroactively known as “deep funk.” On songs like “Super Bad,” “Soul Power” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” there were no need for catchy choruses. The groove was the hook. For the first time, Brown was playing with musicians that were as raw and fiery as he was. As the decade wore on, and Bootsy left to join Parliament/Funkadelic, ringers like trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker returned to the fold. And the JB’s continued to churn out the world’s nastiest rhythms and riffs, in the process building the foundation of the yet-to-be-invented genre destined to replace rock and roll in the hearts of young America. Rap would not exist  without the 1970 single “Funky Drummer,” where Clyde Stubblefield played the kind of groove that samples were made for – simple, insinuating, poetic. Like the entirety of The JB’s catalog, it’s not impressive in a technical, look-what-I-can-do kind of way. These guys were some of the best players around, but they valued the feel of the music more than the intricacy of their solos. By ceding the spotlight to James, they shone brightest of all.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (30-26)

And we’ve entered the top 30 of our Albums of the ’90s list. Spoiler alert: All of them are better than Better Than Ezra.

30. Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

In 1993, at the height of grunge’s marketability, Radiohead released “Creep,” a single that nailed the genre’s central oxymoron – self-loathing art that draws a crowd. Suddenly, these guys were getting what seemed like their 15 seconds. Except they didn’t relish their dalliance with stardom. It made them feel alienated and exhausted, to the point where they started to seriously ponder the fleeting nature of life itself. And then they made an album about that. “You can crush it, but it’s always here,” warns Thom Yorke on the opening track of The Bends, as if the reassuring swirl of Wurlitzer and guitar was the only thing keeping the reaper off his back. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood utilizes way more than his volume knob this time around, creating atmospheres of aching wonder and wanton destruction. From the consumer culture nightmares of “Fake Plastic Trees” to the raw existentialist dread of “Street Spirit,” Radiohead confront one unfixable, harrowing reality after another, while writing choruses that blot out the world. Instead of eating hot dogs like most of us do when we feel like nothing matters, they made an attempt at shared catharsis. Self-loathing had made way for selflessness.

29. Portishead – Dummy (1994)

Seattle wasn’t the only rain-spattered town to become famous for its gloomy music scene in the ’90s. Bristol, UK, was ground zero for “trip hop” – a fusion of rap, electronica and post-punk that played like the soundtrack to a Bond movie where his greatest nemesis is loneliness. In 1994, the genre landed its own Nevermind, in the form of Portishead’s bewitching debut. Dummy was a trip-hop blueprint, with an emphasis on the blue – singer Beth Gibbons confronts the day-to-day realities of depression in an absolutely haunting voice. The music fits her like a shroud. Theremins cry over echoing minor chords. Single words become garbled and transformed by bandleader Geoff Barrow’s emotive scratching. “In this moment/How can it feel this wrong?” Gibbons asks, like a forgotten spirit trying make herself heard. In that moment, you know why people decide to investigate that mysterious sound in the attic. Some part of us wants to be haunted.

28. The Beta Band – The Three E.P’s (1998)

In 1994, an album called Chant hit #3 on the Billboard charts. It featured old recordings of Spanish monks doing what the title promised, and was marketed as a surefire stress reliever. It sold two million copies. My dad had one of them. I have no idea if the Scottish “folktronica” outfit The Beta Band were Chant fans, but their music strives for a similar kind of transcendency – not exactly the status quo in indie rock back then. Over the course of three EPs, the band explored the limits of patient, circular songwriting, finding a throughline from “Alice’s Restaurant” to ambient techno – a mix of acoustic guitar strumming and entrancing electronic noise that feels like it could go on forever without losing steam. (The only artists less concerned with radio play? Those monks.) All three of these extended players were collected on this single disc, and while it did land them a minor hit with the slow-build stoner ballad “Dry the Rain,” these guys were after something deeper than mere hooks. The Beta Band didn’t just catch your ear. It absorbed you, tip to tail.

27. Mos Def – Black On Both Sides (1999)

I’m a sucker for artist autobiographies. There’s always the chance those pages contain a deeper understanding of a performer’s state of mind during the creative process – ideally resulting in an even closer relationship with their art. Rap is the only genre that regularly weaves these meta commentaries within the music itself; emcees often explain what drives them to write rhymes, how the process makes them feel, and why they’re so much better at it than you. And I can’t think of any rapper who has written about writing better than Mos Def on his solo debut. “My restlessness is my nemesis / It’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page / I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days / Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature,” he raps. He devotes a whole chorus to Rakim’s classic bars about being trapped between the lines. He wrestles with his responsibilities as an artist but decides to soldier on and follow his Umi’s advice: “Shine a light on the world.” Black On Both Sides does just that, with golden-hour production that makes samples sound like backing bands, leaping from R&B to jazz to hardcore without ever losing that comforting sheen. Fluid, openhearted, and buried deep in the pocket, it’s got all I ever need to know.

26. Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey (1990)

It started with one note. A strange, reverberating synthesizer, drawing us in like a UFO tractor beam. Then the chimes tinkle, the vocals do a melismatic dance, and we’re there, swaying to the timeless doo-wop melody of Mariah Carey’s first single, “Vision of Love.” To an aspiring R&B singer at the time, that note must have felt like the X marking the spot of their way forward, their opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The song, and the self-titled album it anchored, introduced Carey as a writer and singer with an innate ability to craft worldbeating hits from R&B and gospel ingredients. Her fingerprints have been all over pop music ever since – Beyoncé has credited “Vision of Love” with inspiring her to do vocal runs. That powerhouse of a voice naturally gets all the attention, elevating this record’s twinkling Whitney arrangements into something more profoundly human. But Mariah Carey remains a spine-tingling listen because of the crispness and unexpectedness of the writing – like “Someday,” with its finger-wagging prognostications of regret. Or “It’s All In Your Mind,” which rubs Tiger Balm onto a partner’s trust issues. Or the closer, “Love Takes Time,” which features a narrator that didn’t follow the lesson of the song title, staring in the mirror, trying to forgive themselves. Three of the four songs I’ve mentioned here were #1 hits. This was pop music that gave you so much more, right from note one.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (35-31)

Here are the next five entries in my seemingly never-ending Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – wherein we get a devil’s haircut, witness the birth of the riot grrrl movement, remember when god told Prince to stop being so funky, and more! (You can check out the full list here.)

35. Beck – Odelay (1996)

After scoring an accidental smash hit with the slacker-M.C. cut “Loser,” Beck struggled with what to do next. He recorded an entire album of dour lo-fi folk and then scrapped it, eventually opting for the other extreme – a technicolor patchwork collage of golden age hip hop and singalong country that’s almost passive-aggressively catchy. He brought in The Dust Brothers (who weaponized ’70s radio hits so deftly for the Beastie Boys), to give a kitschy, sample-heavy sheen to his roots rock compositions. He wrote cryptic magnet-poetry lyrics that sounded good, but meant nothing, making an enduring meta statement about the inherent emptiness of pop hits. He used his disdain for the mainstream to create the most universally beloved album of his career. It’s as ironic as it is iconic. Does it get more ’90s than that?

34. Bikini Kill – The CD Version of the First Two Records (1994)

When we press play on an old recording, chances are we’re going to feel some kind of distance from it. This is not the case on the first two EPs from riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, re-released on one CD back in ’94. Kathleen Hanna leads the quartet through one 4-track punk thrasher after another, driven by the kind of unquantifiable energy that’ll have you driving 10 mph faster without realizing it. And her lyrics remain as exhilaratingly confrontational as her screams. “Does it scare you, boy, that we don’t need you?” she snarls. It’s amazing (and depressing) how relevant these songs remain. The patriarchy is still hurting us all, but the hairline fractures are getting easier to see. The louder we play this, and the more seriously we take its outrage, the faster we can watch them grow.

33. Prince – The Black Album (1994)

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to sound forced, it’s a rock star’s late-career attempt at shoring up their street cred. Unless you’re Prince, that is. In 1987, Prince made The Black Album to appease critics who accused him of selling out. It was the filthiest funk music he’d ever laid to tape, P-Funk and Sly-indebted vamps shot through with odd lyrical obsessions, with little regard for running times. He makes fun of rappers for not singing, steps into the mind of a celebrity stalker, and pitch-bends his voice to become the gun-waving chauvinist villain “Bob George.” Famously, the artist changed his mind about releasing The Black Album at the last second, convinced of its “evil” after a visit from god (or his ecstasy dealer). It sat on the shelf until 1994, when we all got to hear how wrong he was. Prince, playing funk guitar like he’s got something to prove? There is no clearer force for good.

32. Handsome Boy Modeling School – So, How’s Your Girl? (1999)

It’s gotta be hard enough for a band with multiple songwriters to deliver a clear, consistent aesthetic. But a group with two lead producers? It would seem almost impossible, given the complete control the best producers usually demand. Yet in 1999, the renowned hip hop knob-twisters Prince Paul and Dan the Automator joined forces to make an undisputed classic. So, How’s Your Girl? is many things – a silly concept album based on a Get a Life episode; a how-to manual for deploying guest artists; a summit meeting of peak ’90s rap and electronica. But most strikingly, it’s a pure distillation of the playfully deployed golden-age samples of Paul and the dramatic sci-fi soundscapes of Dan. Handsome Boy Modeling School eventually fizzled out due to artistic differences. But we’ll always have this album, and its grand, magnetized agreements.

31. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)

The summer Fight Songs came out I worked at a nursery, loading cedar chips into trunks and getting odd rashes from trees. And if my boss overheard what I was singing to myself as I worked, she would’ve had to consider an intervention. “Lonely / Baby I’m not lonely / I’ve got my imaginary friends” went this record’s most inescapable chorus, the high harmonies lingering over bright, strummy production. I could’ve used better friends back then, it’s true. But this was a case of whistling while you work – Fight Songs remains one of the catchiest damn things I’ve ever heard. Few artists have been able to take typical country-western themes of despair and simultaneously heal them through melody like this. Rhett Miller didn’t add an ounce of grit to his vocals, lending sincerity to sad-sack anthems like “Busted Afternoon,” “Jagged” and the aforementioned “Lonely Holiday.” The walls might’ve been closing in, but the ceiling was opening up.

My Best Pictures

Hello, Oscar junkies! We’re only two days away from that global TV event that’s just like the Super Bowl, except you watch what’s in between the commercials instead! Usually this is the place where I bemoan the bland/whitewashed/Hollywood-worshipping nature of the odds-on favorite. But I have some reasons to be hopeful this year, and goddammit I’m gonna make the most of it.

Reason #1: Upsets are a thing now

For two years running, the expected winner has lost. Spotlight beat out The Revenant in 2016, and last year, Moonlight upset La La Land.

Reason #2: Celebrating diversity in Hollywood is kinda sorta starting to become a thing now

It would be ignorant to expect Academy voters to be seriously swayed by the #TimesUp, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. One Moonlight nod does not erase 89 years of American Beautys. But notions of equal representation in film have never been so prominent. An optimist could assume that in this revolutionary new context, one might think twice about voting for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, the movie version of every think piece that told us we need to empathize with blue-collar Trump voters.

Reason #3: Reasons to have Oscar optimism don’t come along every day.

I’m still smarting from Crash beating Brokeback Mountain over here. So let me have my moment and predict a win for Get Out, the most relevant, intensely entertaining movie I saw in 2017. I really think it will happen! What the hell is wrong with me?

While I’m surfing this newfound wave of Oscars optimism (a.k.a. “riding the golden man”), why not talk about the movies that I’d nominate for Best Picture? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name looks like how falling in love feels. Luca Guadagino’s sumptuous coming-of-age story wrenches every drop of chlorophyll out of its Italian countryside setting. As our main character Elio finds strength, encouragement, and exhilarating joy in his budding relationship with his father’s assistant Oliver, Guadagino fills our eyes with lush vegetation, fresh water and bountiful fruit. Their happiness is palpable, and Elio’s father notices. And what he eventually tells his son is a lesson in how all such love should be treated – as a precious resource, given all the freedom in the world to grow.

A Dark Song

This slow-burn Irish horror film is like its protagonist Sophia – determined, patient, and in search of something extraordinary. Writer/director Liam Gavin spends a majority of his first feature letting us wonder about the schlubby occultist hired by Sophia to summon her guardian angel, using a real-life ritual called the Abramelin Operation. Is it all for real? Or is he just some creep? When we finally get our answer, so does Sophia, who rises like a phoenix from her grief, surrounded by a level of visual splendor that must’ve taken a lot of willpower to save for the end.

Get Out

Every horror fan has found themselves urging a character to leave the dark basement/ancient burial ground/abandoned mental hospital they’re bravely wandering around in. In Jordan Peele’s prescient “social thriller” Get Out, that dangerous, haunted place is America. It’s the story of Chris, a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. What happens on this family’s finely manicured home turf is a terrifying, crystal clear allegory for our country’s twisted obsession with the cultural and physical appropriation of an entire race. In this idyllic little hamlet, there are most definitely not very good people on both sides.

Happy Death Day

“What if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie?” sounds like one lazy-ass pitch. But that perfectly describes Happy Death Day, which turned out to be a clever rumination on the weight of social pressure on young people. As our main character Tree finds herself in a time loop that always ends in murder, she gains more self-confidence with each repeated day. She’s more true to herself in public; she takes time to process her grief; she investigates, and successfully unmasks, her murderer. Refreshingly unpredictable, empathetic and self-aware, this is something I’d happily experience again. And again.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Gone are the days of Commando, where the relationship between John Matrix and his daughter is established by the end of the opening credits, leaving as much time as possible for quippy, campy carnage. But the second installment of the John Wick series contains some echoes of that 1980s no-nonsense muscle. Keanu Reeves returns as the titular grieving husband and dog lover, and it only takes a few minutes for him to be on the run from hundreds of highly trained, heavily armed vigilantes. It’s one extended action sequence after another, blocked with the style and precision of ballet – bodies undulating through space, armories akimbo.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes this list for the second year running, with this deeply disturbing tale of a troubled teen leveraging a doctor’s warped priorities to wreak havoc on his family. Lanthimos’s characters all talk in stilted, disinterested monotones, resulting in a funhouse mirror abstraction of suburban life that shifts from awkwardly hilarious to intensely chilling as the film unfolds. Barry Keoghan gives an unforgettable performance as the vengeful, blackmailing, child-poisoning Martin. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman relish their chance to play Martin’s socially stunted victims. By the end, the story gets as dark as anything I saw in 2017, without ever striking a tone that wasn’t completely its own.

Phantom Thread

The main character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s intoxicating eighth feature is Reynolds Woodcock, the head of a couture fashion house in 1950s London. Or at least, that’s how most people see him. Until he meets a waitress in a country pub named Alma, who sees him entirely. There’s a reason why a central crisis in Phantom Thread involves a wedding dress. It’s a story about marriage, and the very specific kinds of human synergy that make the the most successful ones work. Anderson gives Alma and Reynolds a push-pull narrative that reaches a level of intensity others could see as grounds for divorce. But for this particular husband and wife, there couldn’t be anything more nourishing.

The Top 10 Outkast Songs

Until Big Boi and Andre 3000 came along, it wasn’t cool for rappers to brand themselves as outsiders. They could be antiheroes, or media moguls, or poets, or rock stars – but outcasts? Aliens? Georgians? Outkast rose from the hip hop backwater of Atlanta by not pretending they were from New York. They made records with the patience of a BBQ chef, backloading them with luxuriously long, funk opuses, showcasing their love for George Clinton more deeply than Dr. Dre ever could. They exuded confidence on the mic by being themselves, rapping in rapid-fire triplets over organically produced funk and R&B compositions, establishing Southern rap as we know it. Even their failures were bold and individualistic, like Andre’s off-key Prince impression/electro-jazz opus The Love Below. It’s no coincidence that rap artists have reveled in being different ever since. Lil Wayne is “not a human being.” Young Thug rocks designer parasols and celebrates Slime Season. Migos tops the charts while dressed like 19th century fur trappers. Largely because of these two dope boys in a cadillac, who scored a massive hit by bragging, “I am for real.”

Here are the 10 best Outkast songs, now and forever until the inevitable comeback album. Playlist below.

10. “Git Up Git Out” (1994, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik)

This Southern-fried, horn-fueled triumph from Outkast’s debut is the funkiest self-help seminar of all time: “You need to git up, git out and git something / How will you make it if you never even try?”

9. “Aquemini” (1998, Aquemini)

On a song that uses a portmanteau of the rapper’s Zodiac signs as its title, they expound on the impermanence of it all, over a cascading opiate of a groove. You never want it to end. But like everything, it does.

8. “Da Art of Storytellin’, Part 1” (1998, Aquemini)

Boasting a hypnotic, descending melody that aliens should use to calm us upon arrival, this song also delivers on the promise of its title, especially when Andre 3000 fits an entire tragic story arc in one verse.

7. “Elevators (Me and You)” (1996, ATLiens)

“We done come a long way like those long-ass cigarettes,” shares Andre on “Elevators,” the first truly special Outkast single. The beat doesn’t slap; it sinks into a cavern of reverb, making this reflection on success sound more like a séance than a celebration.

6. “I’ll Call Before I Come” (2000, Stankonia)

To this day, the idea of a man being a considerate lover does not jive with our toxic, “they only care about one thing” concept of masculinity. Yet 18 years ago, Outkast teamed up with Three Six Mafia’s Gangsta Boo to make a witty, boisterous summer jam about putting your partner’s pleasure first. The older it gets, the more incredible it sounds.

5. “Babylon” (1996, ATLiens)

This harrowing, slinky masterpiece of mood is drenched in lapsed Catholicism. As Andre outlines how religion demonizes sexuality and Big Boi takes down every preacher that blames rappers for crime waves, the background vocals ominously hum.

4. “The Whole World” (2001, Big Boi and Dre Present … Outkast

In 2001, Big Boi and Dre were on top of the world. But on this single, they were also feeling the weight of it. Over a careening carnival beat, they vented about the appropriation of black culture, and the extremist hatred that the 2000 presidential election did nothing to quell. Dre’s opening lines are as honest as a hit song ever gets: “Yeah I’m afraid / Like I’m scared as a dog / But I’ve got a new song / And I want y’all to sing along.”

3. “So Fresh, So Clean” (2000, Stankonia)

Unlike most of their peers, Outkast wasn’t in the myth-building business. They just rapped about how they felt, whether that was vulnerable, or proud, or sexy. So when they claimed “ain’t nobody dope as me” over a slick-as-hell Joe Simon sample, we believed them. That’s the kind of self-confidence that catches.

2. “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (1998, Aquemini)

Here is where we started to wonder if the alien metaphors were metaphors after all. This otherworldly seven-minute slow jam blurs the line between rap and spoken word, exhaling between verses with a horn arrangement that dances up our spines, on the way to flooding our pleasure sensors. We hear Andre talk about a drunken night at the club, and Big Boi opine for the mother of his child – “Her neck was smelling sweeter / Than a plate of yams with extra syrup.” The vibe was so relaxed, it almost made us feel like we were spending time with these guys, finding out what was on their minds as they so casually blew ours away.

1. “B.O.B.” (2000, Stankonia)

Outkast’s best song is fueled by an almost dangerous level of energy. “B.O.B.” is a sky-splitting sonic boom; when it’s over, you can smell the ozone. Its beat is a monster that would swallow up most rappers – snare hits spray the vicinity like AK-47s while a pipe organ soundtracks the funeral of our preconceptions. What a thrill it is to hear Andre 3000 and Big Boi enter this maelstrom and tame it. “Like a million elephants and silverback orangutans, you can’t stop a train,” flexes Dre, perfectly describing the breathtaking energy, speed and dexterity on display. Many of the songs on this list could be described as “electrifying.” This one could power the Eastern seaboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Top 25 Songs of 2017

So you’ve read my Top 20 Albums of 2017 and find yourself wanting more. Here you go, person who doesn’t exist! It’s my Top 25 Songs of 2017. My all-time favorite songwriter is on here. A segment from a radio show is on here. And Fergie is on here? Yes, Fergie is on here. There’s a full playlist below, after I’m done yammering.

25. Fergie ft. Nicki Minaj – “You Already Know”

Over a dynamite interpolation of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two,” Fergie catches fire, outrapping her legendary guest against all odds.

24. Laura Marling – “Soothing”

“I banish you with love,” croons Laura Marling over one of the grooviest bass lines of the year. Getting dumped never sounded so good.

23. Young Thug – “Do U Love Me”

This preternaturally melodic rapper sings a love letter to himself over a sprightly dancehall beat, teaching us the difference between ego and self-confidence.

22. Randy Newman – “She Chose Me”

If you’re lucky enough to know how it feels to have a partner you don’t deserve, this stark ballad from our greatest living songwriter hits hard.

21. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – “Continental Breakfast”

Two brilliant slacker/songwriters, singing about their intercontinental friendship over a loose, rolling groove. Should be played in lieu of presidential speeches to the UN from now on.

20. CupcakKe – “Barcodes”

This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns we heard all summer.

19. Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”

A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.

18. Brockhampton – “Gummy”

We get a few seconds of lush, harp-trilling Disney music before the plug is pulled, the feedback squeals, and rap’s most energetic crew takes off.

17. Kreator – “Side By Side”

The loudest anti-fascist music in 2017 was made by Germans. The pealing riffs and pummeling drums of “Side By Side” are almost as explosive as the rallying cries.

16. Offset & Metro Boomin – “Ric Flair Drip”

Metro Boomin beats don’t hook us. They mesmerize us. So while Offset unleashes his masterful triplet flow on “Ric Flair Drip,” it’s the producer’s dark, pinging synths that linger on in our memory.

15. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut to the Feeling”

On paper, lyrics about breaking through the ceiling, dancing on the roof and playing with the angels are pretty cliché. But when paired with the sonic equivalent of carbonated helium, they’re perfect.

14. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – “Hop Off”

The dive-bomb bass and chirping synths are fun enough on their own. Then one of the most elastic voices in hip hop jumps in, and we reach a whole new plane of party.

13. Thundercat – “Tokyo”

An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”

12. Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”

The headbanger of the year, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.

11. Big Boi – “All Night”

The still-underrated half of Outkast made this year’s anthem for the blissfully monogamous. “Hit you with your bonnet on by the nightlamp,” he raps, over a big toothy smile of a piano loop.

10. SZA – “Drew Barrymore”

This devastating breakup song was inspired by Drew Barrymore’s insecure character Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed. There’s no Hollywood ending here. But when the strings swell, so do our hopes for one.

9. Black Thought – “Hot 97 Freestyle 12/14/17”

Sometimes, nothing is flashier than stamina. Like when the voice of The Roots hopped on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show and unleashed 10 minutes of fiery, perfectly crafted bars. By the end, he was sweating. And so were we.

8. Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”

I can’t shake this tune. Bold declarations of loyalty are held up by little more than Feist’s stark, bluesy guitar. She finds a kind of rhythm that drummers can’t reach.

7. Drake – “Passionfruit”

Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. It’s emotional and entrancing – in other words, a signature Drake summer smash.

6. Jeremih – “I Think of You”

Jeremih seriously flirts with MJ status here, making sunset references sexy again over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.

5. Julia Michaels – “Uh Huh”

This accomplished pop songwriter has apparently saved the best material for herself – especially this starry-eyed acoustic gem that crescendos to an instant high of a chorus.

4. Calvin Harris ft. Frank Ocean & Migos – “Slide”

A smooth-as-ever Frank Ocean sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Corona wishes they could bottle this.

3. Haim – “Little of Your Love”

Our finest purveyors of ’80s adult contemporary singalongs serve up a chorus so effervescent, it made this especially heavy year feel lighter.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “DNA”

Over the levitating sitar n’ bass rumble of the year’s best rap song, Kendrick Lamar brags about his ability to reach nirvana in yoga class. As his rapid-fire syllabic mastery carries us away, we get a real idea of what he’s talking about.

1. Kesha – “Woman”

The New York Times ran a story last July about the health benefits of cursing – including stress relief and higher pain tolerance. The best song of 2017 definitely backs up these findings. When Kesha sings “I’m a motherfuckin’ woman!” punctuated by the profoundly funky Dap Kings horns, the combination of positive vibes and disregard for pop norms is exhilarating. Unlike the way our president talks, “Woman” is not vulgar. It’s defiant, and important, and very, very good for us.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – “Sleep When U Die”; Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”; Nick Hakim – “Cuffed”; Hus Kingpin – “Wave Palooza”; Jonwayne – “TED Talk”; Kamiayah – “Dope Bitch”; Kesha – “Hunt You Down”; King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Crumbling Castle”; Kendrick Lamar – “Element”; Aimee Mann – “You Never Loved Me”; Migos – “Slippery”; Frank Ocean – “Chanel”; Angel Olsen – “California”; Pallbearer – “Thorns”; Syd – “Got Her Own”; TT the Artist – “Real Bitch Problems”; Tove Lo – “Disco Tits”; Ulver – “Nemoralia”; White Reaper – “Eagle Beach”; Your Old Droog – “Grandma Hips”