New Songs to Quarantine (and Count Votes) To, October 2020

Making mixes for people has always soothed me. Something about the challenge of finding just the right songs, and putting them in just the right order, makes me feel like I have some level of control in this chaotic, ever-expanding universe. And as a form of communication, it suits me better than the art of conversation. My wife is my soul mate for a thousand reasons, and one of them is that, amazingly, she has always intently listened to, and given feedback on, the mixes I’ve incessantly made for her. As they have progressed from tapes to CDs to playlists, they have only deepened our bond, as celebrations of how our tastes, and hearts, align.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that on day 3 of the 2020 election, I have taken a break from refreshing the The New York Times Pennsylvania tracker to make a mix of my favorite songs from October 2020. I hope listening to it gives you a similar respite.

Love you Jen.

1. Wynonna – “I Hear You Knocking”

As Wynonna Judd reminds you what a force of nature she is on this stripped down cover of a ’50s R&B classic, let’s all fantasize about being able to say this to Donald Trump, very, very soon:

I hear you knocking / but you can’t come in
I hear you knocking / go back where you been

2. Stevie Wonder (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, CHIKA and Busta Rhymes) – “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate”

An uplifting, timely, harmonica-sweetened ballad from the master of the form, who is most definitely not calling just to say he loves us.

You say that you believe in all lives matter
I say, “I don’t believe the fuck you do”

3. Tierra Whack – “Dora”

“Please have common sense,” pleads this Philly singer, rapper and pop visionary over a post-Rugrats beat that features synthetic voices harmonizing in a charming, reassuring way.

4. The Mountain Goats – “Picture of My Dress”

Inspired by a tweet from poet Maggie Smith, John Darnielle gives us an opportune story-song about how good it can feel to come to terms with a bad decision. As a divorcee drives cross-country, taking pictures of her old wedding dress at various locations along the way, Darnielle writes about Burger King bathrooms like Shelley wrote about the wind.

5. Cakes da Killa – “Don Dada”

An absolute beast of a club rap single from an emcee who always seems to have adrenaline to spare.

6. War on Women – “Her?”

This Baltimore punk juggernaut gives us a space to pour all of our feminist rage, be it from 2016 or the entirety of recorded history.

7. Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean”

A year after dropping his ’80s hard rock Camaro album, Sturgill Simpson has pulled a 180, releasing an LP of bluegrass versions of songs from his back catalog. And it slaps harder.

8. Busta Rhymes (feat. Q-Tip) – “Don’t Go”

If ’90s Native Tongues rap is your nostalgic safe space, get ready to feel cuddled.

9. AC/DC – “Shot in the Dark”

The rock-solid 4/4 drums. The high-powered but simple riff. The gloriously mindless mosh chorus (“A shot in the dark beats a walk in the park”). The overwhelming feeling of celebratory camaraderie. We missed you, mates.

10. Tom Petty – “Hung Up and Overdue (Home Recording)”

This previously unreleased demo of a song from the She’s the One soundtrack is a highlight of the fantastic new Wildflowers and All the Rest box set. And while it is a somber breakup ballad in line with the tone of Tom Petty’s mid-’90s post-divorce period, its chorus rings true today in an utterly uplifting way:

We’re overdue / For a dream come true

11. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love”

In 1977, while working together on NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Project, astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan fell in love. The project involved sending two spacecraft into the great beyond, carrying recorded evidence of life on Earth, including the sound of a kiss, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and greetings in 59 languages.

Also included are recordings of Druyan’s brain and body functions, captured at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. While the tape was rolling, Druyan meditated on “the wonder of love, of being in love.”

In December, the electro-pastiche experts The Avalanches will release its third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by Druyan and Sagan’s romance. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to transcendence:

Spirit guide
Love provides
Spirit guide, spirit need
Love provides all that we need

The Song of the Election: “Grandma’s Hands”

On October 8, a week after being hospitalized with COVID-19, Donald Trump released a two-minute video on Twitter directed to his “favorite people in the world,” the senior citizens of America. And while the obvious goal of the piece was to shore up his poll numbers – on the same day, Politico ran a piece with the headline “Why Senior Citizens Are Flipping On Trump” – even that purely selfish motivation could not compel our president to express any remorse whatsoever for the nearly 170,000 Americans over 65 who have been killed by this virus.

But as we’ve learned over the last four years, abject cruelty and the refusal to admit fault are the default state of this administration. The reason this video stands out to me is the moment at the beginning, where Trump tells his favorite people that he’s ashamed to be one of them:

“I’m a senior. I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell ’em, but I’m a senior.”

Presidents are supposed to at least pretend to care about their most vulnerable populations, because to do otherwise would offend a loyal voting bloc and make you look like a deranged asshole. Why on earth couldn’t this 74-year-old lie factory express pride in being a senior citizen, even if he doesn’t mean it? The answer to that question cuts to the core of why Donald Trump is extremely unfit to lead our country, and absolutely cannot be re-elected on Tuesday.

He hates vulnerable people.

In 1971, the R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers released a hauntingly beautiful acoustic-blues ballad about how much he loved a vulnerable person – his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, who died when Withers was 15. Like Trump’s video, “Grandma’s Hands” clocks in at just over two minutes. It’s the loving, heartbreaking, empathetic antidote to his obscene narcissism.

Over a mournful, minor-key riff, Withers starts the song with a reassuring, now-iconic hum. The sweetness of his voice is an immediate comfort, a signal that we’re about to be smiling through our tears. Then the artist starts singing about how his grandma looked out for him. His lyrics, which often quote Galloway, are direct, honest, and effective – perhaps a stylistic homage to the way she treated others:

Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
Might be snakes there in that grass

In the second verse, Withers points out his grandmother’s physical vulnerability, but as a way to provide further evidence of her strength – her painful arthritis can’t stop her from offering solace to a woman who was likely being shunned by others:

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell

The song’s simple blues arrangement continues, steady and slow, for the entire track – three verses, no chorus, no bridge. Even the studio ringers brought in by producer Booker T. Jones cede the spotlight. Stephen Stills’s lead guitar runs are quiet and gentle. Drummer Jim Keltner plays a basic 4/4 beat. All so we can truly feel the warmth and gratitude in Withers’s voice, as he passes down memories like the elder he’s memorializing.

On the final verse, we understand just how much Galloway protected her grandson – and not just from hypothetical snakes:

She’d say, ‘Mattie don’t you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core,’
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

On March 30 of this year, Withers passed away at 81, from non-COVID-related heart complications. Weeks into the pandemic’s terrifying, disorienting first wave, everyone was listening to him again, finding solace in his lyrical sensitivity and deep, burnished tenor. So many of his hit songs were about love and compassion and the beauty of being together, from the blissful “Lovely Day” to the gut-wrenching “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the profoundly supportive “Lean On Me.” He wrote “Grandma’s Hands” before all of those classics, showing the world how he learned to love before teaching us.

What if Lula Galloway had contracted a horrible virus and died before her time? What impact would that have had on her grandson who loved and needed her? Would he have been inspired to write these songs that, even today, make me feel like everything’s going to be okay? Or would that legacy of love have been ripped from us?

Every time a senior dies unnecessarily from this unchecked pandemic, we are losing so much more than their physical presence. We’re losing the knowledge they have to impart, the love they have to give, the lessons they have to teach. These are precious natural resources that help our younger generations grow into well-rounded, kind-hearted adults who know what true strength really looks like – someone who uses their hands not to grab whatever they want, but to protect the people they love.

So if you haven’t voted already, please vote for Joe Biden on Tuesday. He’s an (admitted) senior citizen who understands grief. Who will tell our nation every day that wearing a mask is an act of strength. Who will work to protect the vulnerable populations of this country, and teach our children to respect them.

Until I read the headline that announces his victory, I know what I’ll be listening to.

R.I.P. Bill and Lula.

The Funniest Album of 2020

In the mid-1960s, a meme was cropping up on the streets of London. Spray painted on walls and scrawled in bathroom stalls, it hyped the ability of a rising young guitarist in a preposterously overstated way: “CLAPTON IS GOD.”

As a music critic, I’ve been guilty of my share of hyperbole over the years. And as a music lover, I understand the attachment we can feel to artists whose work moves us to tears. But I draw the line at cult-speak. No guitar player is god. No pop singer deserves to be worshipped. No songwriter can truly “save” us.

The absurd intensity of music fandom makes it ripe for satire. And on his new album Mouth Dreams, the comedic mash-up virtuoso Neil Cicierega has a blast taking the piss out of “serious” artists by combining their sacred texts with the most obnoxious bullshit he can find, and making it all, somehow, sound good. It’s one of the funniest things to happen in this nightmare year, a necessary reminder that the world is chaos, that celebrities can’t save us from it, and that it’s hilarious to think we would expect they could.

When this Boston-born comic, animator and puppeteer started dropping his mashup albums for free back in 2014, his collages were just as expertly curated, but they were ruder, containing purposely dissonant sonic hellscapes that practically dared you to keep listening. Toward the end of his debut LP Mouth Silence, the track “Space Monkey Mafia” takes R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and throws Billy Joel’s equally wordy rip-off “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on top of it, creating an unlistenable cacophony of ’80s pop sing-speak. Then he throws a “Weird” Al-esque polka beat underneath it all, propelling the song and listener off a cliff together.

On his third album, 2017’s Mouth Moods, Cicierega had begun to master his craft to the point where he could wreak utter havoc on your ears, but in a way that kept you listening even after the initial joke landed. On “AC/VC,” the artist isolates a vocal track from AC/DC’s gravelly lead singer Brian Johnson, who sounds like a goat dying from laryngitis when paired with the twinkling pianos of Vanessa Carlton’s hit “A Thousand Miles.” Yes, it’s hilariously strange, but the mash-up is also seamless – the chords and melodies and rhythms in sync, even though they’re breaking all the rules of good taste. It will always make me laugh my ass off, while listening to the whole thing.

Mouth Dreams, released on October 1, finds Cicierega in full crowd-pleasing mode, making us laugh while we also drop our jaws at how effectively all the elements align. Peter Gabriel and Limp Bizkit. Johnny Cash and Justin Bieber. Ludwig van Beethoven and Britney Spears. None of these mash-ups sound forced, no matter how silly they look on paper. They’re perfectly executed, while also being perfectly ridiculous.

Perhaps the biggest coup is “Ribs,” which pairs the zombified doo-wop of the Chili’s “baby back ribs” jingle with the instrumentation of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Marilyn Manson’s vocals from “The Beautiful People.” Every layer is totally unexpected, patently silly, and somehow just right.

Cicierega’s music is no longer an endurance test for absurdist comedy nerds. Mouth Dreams is an incredibly entertaining exposé of how thin the line really is between art and commerce, poignancy and idiocy, masterpieces and fiascos.

So the next time you’re tempted to call an artist you love a god, remember how close their songs could be to that jingle from your local car dealer. Also, Eric Clapton is terrible.

New Songs to Quarantine To: September 2020

This summer, as each month came to a close with no end in sight for COVID-19 or systemic racism or climate change or the rule of law, etc., I let my anxiety and outrage influence these playlists quite a bit. For some reason, now that we’re officially in autumn, my favorite tracks from September sound a whole lot like a mix I’d make for a backyard party – 48 minutes of braggadocious rap and glittery dance and psychedelic funk and blistering metal. Yes, the election is around the corner. Yes, that debate was a diarrhea hurricane. But I say let’s forget about all of it, and move to some music, if only for 48 minutes.

1. Rico Nasty – “Own It”

Over some bouncy synth bass, Rico pours Dom Perignon, brags about her Crocs and provides sweet relief to our battered egos

2. Kylie Minogue – “Magic”

Under the lights of a disco ball, with Kylie Minogue singing about the beauty of living in the moment, hell yes I believe in magic.

3. SAULT – “I Just Wanna Dance”

This faceless, secretive British soul-funk group has gotten me dancing in spite of it all.

4. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”

Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.

5. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi” 

This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”

6. Porridge Radio – “7 Seconds”

Synth-driven goth-pop that sticks like Robert Smith’s hairspray.

7. Napalm Death – “Zero Gravitas Chamber”

These legends of extreme British metal formed almost 40 years ago, but they’re still cranking out adrenalized chaotic events like this track, which makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack while seeing the face of God.

8. Kamaiyah & Capolow – “Gimme Dat”

Sonic sunshine from two of Oakland’s finest.

9. Chris Stapleton – “Cold”

Chris Stapleton has become a crossover Nashville star on the strength of his booming, whiskey-barrel-splintering voice, and this fantastic breakup ballad gives those pipes the melodramatic, orchestral backing they deserve.

10. Prince – “Soul Psychodelicide”

In the early ’00s, I was lucky enough to see Prince play an after-hours show at a small club – his full band, including Maceo Parker, was crammed onto a tiny stage, just a few feet from me. They jammed for hours, a living dream of melody, chemistry and charisma. This 12-minute funk freakout on the mind-blowing new Sign O the Times box set brings me back to that moment – Prince calling out cues to his incredible players, channeling Sly and James and George while carving out a groove all his own.

11. Gorillaz ft. Robert Smith – “Strange Timez”

Speaking of Robert Smith, the Cure legend made a rare guest appearance this month, singing about odd sunshine and Belarusian fascists while giving Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project its best track in years.

New Songs to Quarantine To, August 2020

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As we say goodbye to August and look to November, Joe Biden is maintaining his slight lead in the polls. But it should be an 80 point lead. Americans are dying from a virus that our president has ignored, and from racist police officers and vigilantes that our president has encouraged. It makes me wonder, do we really hate each other and ourselves this much? Counterpoint: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts this month with a watershed of a song that celebrated the joy that human beings can give to one another. We do love ourselves! Now we just need to apply all that positive energy to canvassing, and donating, and VOTING.

1. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”

Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores in this House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.

2. Bully – “Stuck In Your Head”

Alicia Bognanno’s alternative-nation rocker seems to be about never acting on your feelings, and then dealing with the fallout of that inaction. But its blistering hook will get stuck in your head all the same.

3. Marie Davidson – “Renegade Breakdown”

This bilingual robo-funk banger is so catchy, I don’t even mind when it reads me to filth: “Your cheap headlines, your lazy writing / I wonder how it feels for you to sit around all day.”

4. Machine Drum (feat. Freddie Gibbs) – “Kane Train”

What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.

5. Orville Peck (feat. Shania Twain) – “Legends Never Die” 

Shania Twain is indeed a legend, and she sounds as charismatic and arena-ready as ever while harmonizing with old-school country’s most compelling modern torchbearer.

6. Mourn – “This Feeling Is Disgusting” 

I never understood music theory, so I can’t tell you what note this Barcelona pop-punk quartet is playing at the apex of this track’s rollicking lead riff. A seventh? A suspended fourth? I was too busy bouncing around my living room to look it up.

7. MF Doom – “Coco Mango (FloFilz Remix)”

A German producer gives a 2012 MF Doom track a summery piano-jazz makeover.

8. Laura Veirs – “Turquoise Walls”

A ballad about being alone in a room, waiting for a text from someone who betrayed you, that somehow feels like hope.

9. Black Thought (feat. Pusha-T, Swizz Beatz & Killer Mike) – “Good Morning” 

This quartet of forty-something rappers might be over the hill, but holy shit are they gaining speed.

10. A.G. Cook – “Today”

Smashing Pumpkins’ deceptively sunny-sounding classic gets a loving electro-pop makeover from the head of the PC Music collective, bringing out its inherent darkness without blunting its shimmer.

New Songs to Quarantine To, July 2020

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There is some telling symmetry on my list of the best songs from the past month. Two tracks openly wish death to an immoral man. Two others fantasize about falling in love using amusement park themes. All of them resonated with me during a time defined by crimes against humanity and a yearning for intimacy. It’s a wicked world, but it can’t stop us from singing.

1. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.

2. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”

This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.

3. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”

Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.

4. Aminé (feat. Young Thug) – “Compensating”

“It’s hard to admit that I’ve made my bed,” this Portland, OR, rapper shares on this track, where a sprightly marimba loop is as refreshing as the artist’s ability to accept blame.

5. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”

Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”

6. Sylvan Esso – “Ferris Wheel”

Here’s another addictive summertime amusement park romance jam, this one literally pining for the chance to make out at the top of a ferris wheel on a hot August night.

7. Black Thought – “Thought vs Everybody”

In the same month we said goodbye to one of the founding members of The Roots – the perennially underrated rapper Malik B – his old foil Black Thought dropped an intense, chorus-less rap exercise that makes me believe he could battle the world and win.

8. Widowspeak – “Plum”

How is it that a simple chord progression, strummed in just such a way, can make me want to go for a drive in the country? This song was made for watching rolling fields go by, and feeling grateful for every one.

9. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”

Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue has made an album called Disco. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single heals through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”

10. Pallbearer – “Forgotten Days”

The progressive doom cosmonauts in Pallbearer have returned with a new single, with the kind of giant, lumbering riff that could casually destroy your town.

11. Bill Callahan – “Another Song”

Bill Callahan just keeps on reveling in romantic domesticity, and it just keeps on making me cry: “As the shadows of the leaves on the wall / Grow and dissolve / Almost in time to our chests’ rise and fall / As we lay on the bed wanting for nothing at all.”

New Songs to Quarantine To, June Edition

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Some incredible things happened in June 2020. Protests against government-sanctioned hate swelled to unforeseen global heights, raising awareness of insidious systemic racism in the minds of the privileged. City councils voted to defund police departments. Statues honoring racists were torn down.

Also in June, fiery antiracist poetry entered our lives at just the right time. Songwriting legends reflected on love and marriage and divorce. And a resurgent diva reminded us that disco will never die. These songs might not change the world, but they’ll make a pretty good soundtrack for this harrowing, electrifying, emotional summer.

1. Coco – “I Love It (Black)”

This purposeful, pride-drenched blast of UK grime is as exhilarating as seeing Black Lives Matter protests go global.

2. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”

Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like Killer Mike’s explosive verse on “Walking in the Snow,” written before George Floyd’s death:

And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”

3. Bully – “Where to Start”

If you’re a fan of cheerful, high-energy grunge hooks, well then Bully for you.

4. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control” 

An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.

5. Bob Dylan – “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”

“Lot of people gone / Lot of people I knew,” admits a 79-year-old legend over the low, reassuring hum of his backup singers, who coax him to admit that he’s in love, even now, at the end of the road.

6. Dua Selah – “Cat Scratch”

“Posture of a pastor with his sheep / Planting hella seeds,” spits this Sudanese-American emcee over a mournful, trance-inducing guitar loop. So grateful to be in the congregation.

7. Spillage Village – “End of Daze”

A scathingly funky rap crew track about our American apocalypse: “God packed her bags and said ‘Bye bye.'”

8. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”

A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan is unexpectedly back: driving newlyweds around in his limo, reflecting on the universality of marriage, and doing his best Johnny Cash impression. We do not deserve this.

9. Dessiderium – “Cosmic Limbs”

A brain-liquefying display of technical death metal riffage, with rapid-fire note clusters that scamper down your ear canals like gremlins infiltrating a spaceship.

10. Saint Jhn – “Trap (Rompasso Remix)”

Burbling, chart-baiting dance-pop with a chorus that gives a middle finger to the police.

11. Neil Young – “Separate Ways”

Can a break-up song be romantic? The opener of Neil Young’s long-lost, finally released 1974 LP Homegrown certainly comes close. Over a trademark guitar and harmonica arrangement, Young celebrates a love gone by with stark, open-hearted tenderness.

12. Teyana Taylor ft. Lauryn Hill – “We Got Love”

“Love is the new money / I’m mentally wealthy,” posits Teyana Taylor on this buoyant R&B singalong about what really matters. When Lauryn Hill appears to share her own hard-won perspective on the emptiness of financial success, it feels like a torch being passed.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (85-81)

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Here are entries 85-81 in my arguably pointless countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years. We’ve got some mesmerizing R&B fan letters, a fire-breathing emcee at the top of his game, the greatest metal band of all time, a visionary hip-hop boy band, and one of the 21st century’s most popular (and reviled) groups.

a2334189316_1085. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019)

The second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods was a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. “What is it with these independent men? / It’s always something / Threatening your masculine energy / You think it’s fleeting,” Woods croons in her laid-back tenor on a song dedicated to the iconoclastic funk genius Betty Davis. You can feel the lessons Woods has learned from Davis, who famously had to put up with Miles Davis’s bullshit, subsumed in this music. Other tracks are dedicated to Muddy Waters and his resistance to appropriation; Nikki Giovanni and her defiantly triumphant poem “Ego Tripping”; Eartha Kitt and her refusal to compromise. Musically, Woods continued down the neo-Badu R&B path she started on her 2016 debut, coasting on the fluidity of the drums and bass lines until we were damn sure we must be floating. Her voice is never showy, and it doesn’t need to be, hitting the notes with a confident grace, borne up on the vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.

Cakes-Da-Killa-Hunger-Pangs-608x60884. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs (2014)

Every time another gorgeously produced triumph showed up on DatPiff in the 2010s, the line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums got thinner and thinner, to the point where it has pretty much vanished. But one listen to Hunger Pangs and we knew we were hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is utilized as a coda with no concern of legal action. And the Atlanta-based emcee just absolutely goes off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa was no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs was a whole new strain of adrenaline. While Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise in 2014 for inspiring us to run through walls with their molotov cocktail of a second album, no rapper in that year could quite match Cakes’s energy. Just listening to one of his verses from “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n—-as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

cover_2253201862015_r83. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (2015)

Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I could relate to when listening to the band’s excellent double-LP The Book of Souls, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula – dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens.  The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.

Brockhampton

82. Brockhampton – Saturation II (2017)

In the summer of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up three mixtapes with enough personality and emotional honesty and creative left-turns to make even the grumpiest pessimist feel hopeful about our next generation of leaders. If the first Saturation was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power, the second is where they start wielding their magic for real. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision that transformed the club into a confessional booth. These rappers had no qualms getting shit off their chests, whether it was over a playful party-ready beat or a laconically strummed electric guitar. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me.

81. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (2011)

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest (some would say naive) belief that romantic love is an engine of hope for the world, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay went after a concentrated aesthetic concept – to marry their arena-baiting alt-rock elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of their best collaborator, producer Brian Eno, they got the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing.  “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, was a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring the band’s forever-polarizing lovestruck roots. The lead single, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” was pretty much a middle finger to all the critics of Chris Martin’s lyrical clumsiness – an un-ironic Afropop-flecked singalong about soaring walls together to overcome despair. If that description doesn’t make you roll your eyes, you might be a Coldplay fan.

Check out the full list here!

New Songs to Quarantine To, May Edition

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Here are my favorite songs released in May 2020, the month we decided a pandemic was over because we just really super wanted it to be. While any news of America’s blind “reopening” scares me to no end, even I, the guy at the grocery store who still wears gloves, can support one thing opening up again – your car window. On your next drive, press play on this mix and crank the volume. Because the only thing that’s contagious about it are the hooks.


1. Pa Salieu – “Betty”

Spacious, dancehall-infused UK hip hop that shows how mesmerizing vocal syncopation can be.

2. Charli XCX – “Enemy” 

Over some full-blown Cyndi Lauper slow-dance synth-pop, Charli XCX realizes the person she loves has the power to destroy her.

3. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist (ft. Rick Ross) – “Scottie Beam”

On the same week George Lloyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs dropped this chillingly appropriate chorus: “The revolution is the genocide / Yeah, my execution might be televised.”

4. Moses Sumney – “Keeps Me Alive”

Here’s a falsetto that can dance in the rafters of a track like an acrobat.

5. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”

CRJ shared a whole album of B sides this month, and per usual, they’re catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides.

6. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”

“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me.”

7. Kim Petras – “Malibu”

’80s Whitney Houston reverie pop that fills our need for party music like summertime comfort food.

8. Kamaiyah – “Go Crazy”

The last time I heard a rapper be this intoxicatingly melodic over a cookout-ready G-funk beat, Warren G was asking us to mount up.

9. Orville Peck – “No Glory in the West”

Everybody’s favorite Orbison-ian masked country singer is back, with another gorgeous, stripped-down showcase for his honeyed rumble of a voice.

10. Grave Digger – “Lions of the Sea”

Shamelessly catchy retro power metal about Scottish military history from a group of middle-aged German dudes? That’s my kind of escapism.

11. Nick Hakim – “Qadir”

Seven healing minutes of low-lit, slow-building, grief-stricken R&B.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (90-86)

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And so it continues. Entries 90-86 in this countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years. This time around, four of the five come from rappers. And I’m struck by how each of them tackle internal, personal struggles head on, and emerge triumphant – or at least in a healthier headspace – by the end. Functioning pretty effectively as metaphors to live by this spring.

a2343898464_1090. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two (2017)

The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.

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89. Kvelertak – Nattesferd (2016)

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

The-Roots-How-I-Got-Over-Album-Cover88. The Roots – How I Got Over (2010)
Philly rap legends The Roots reached mainstream fame in the ’10s as the house band on The Tonight Show, where their effortless charisma remains a necessary distraction from Jimmy Fallon’s needy celebrity worship. But they never stopped doing what they do best. How I Got Over was their first post-Fallon LP, and it crackled with a new kind of energy – of veterans looking back on their road to success, and reenergizing themselves in the process. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – optimistic, Native Tongues-inspired grooves and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band was able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Early on, Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone.” But by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing: “I should start living today.”

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x187. Noname – Room 25 (2018)

As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivered verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. On the opening “Self,” we’re blessed with a Fender Rhodes loop that sounds like good news. And Noname dropped the ultimate verse of 2018 over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

https___images.genius.com_a751544c0f22d3c1f71ad541d8b0be66.1000x1000x186. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (2014)

Two years after Drake brought “YOLO” to the mainstream as a rationale for conspicuous consumption and casual sex, Nicki Minaj applied the concept in a much more meaningful way. “Life is a movie, but there’ll never be a sequel,” she philosophizes on “All Things Go,” the autobiographical opening track of the Queens rapper’s third LP. As she spits with atypical candor about her cousin who was gunned down, her abortion, and her hopes for her daughter, the idea that you only live once becomes a soothing reminder that nothing is permanent. It’s a mantra she follows across the 22 tracks of The Pinkprint, blocking out the torrent of criticism that defines life as a female rapper and looking inward instead. Over an eclectic sonic expanse that covers everything from gleeful rap nostalgia to full-blown power balladry, Minaj admits to fears of commitment; celebrates the joys of having a physical body; and finds hope on the dance floor. Resulting in a work of art that rewards us for investing time in it, all the more so because that time is limited.

Check out the full list here!