Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (55-51)

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (60-56)

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (65-61)

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.

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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.

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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.

61. Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2018)

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.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (70-66)

Here are entries 70-66 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years!

70. Tune-Yards – Whokill (2011)

“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.

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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.

The Top 20 Albums of 2021

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 Night Because 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 of a Newly Discovered Planet That 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 sound like 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

New Songs to Re-Batten Down the Hatches To, September 2021

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.

New Songs to Pull Me Back from the Brink of Total Cynicism, August 2021

I’m currently reading book two of The 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

New Songs to Sigh Through My New Mask To, July 2021

Sorry I’m a few weeks late with this one! I’ve been traveling a bit for work, which put my listening habits on hold and also reminded me that this pandemic is very much still a thing – I needed my mask for more than just the plane. Boy was I dumb to title my last playlist “New Songs to Gingerly Re-Enter Society To”!

1. Prince – “Same Page, Different Book”

It’s common for famous musicians to return to the sounds of their formative influences as they age, but rarely does it sound as cool as Prince’s late-stage embrace of Sly Stone funk-vamp mimicry. This track from newly unearthed 2010 sessions has some bass lines that will slingshot your soul to a distant galaxy.

2. Amyl & The Sniffers – “Security”

“I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love!” pleads lead singer Amy Taylor to a skeptical bouncer, over seething riffage and pummeling drums that threaten to clear the way.

3. Silk Sonic – “Skate”

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars deliver a Motown-indebted charisma bomb that makes every half-assed compliment (“In a room full of dimes / You would be a hundred dollars”) feel like a glittery proposal.

4. Maxo Kream – “Local Joker”

Maxo Kream is so good at telling stories, he doesn’t need a production full of big dramatic shifts. On “Local Joker,” the Houston rapper illustrates the difference between his previous life of crime and his current celebrity, filling our ears with nostalgia, sadness and relief. A low-lit soul loop quietly unfurls beneath him, and it’s absolutely enough.

5. Courtney Barnett – “Rae Street”

“Time is money / And money is no man’s friend,” goes the chorus to Courtney Barnett’s first single since 2018. Thankfully, she doesn’t apply this adage to this track’s production, letting her guitar chords ring out over a patient, sauntering arrangement. It all feels like a Sunday stroll with a sarcastic philosopher, with no particular place to go and plenty of time to get there.

6. Sleigh Bells – “Locust Laced”

The amp-stacking cheerleader-chant energy of this Brooklyn duo tends to toe the line between grating and exhilarating. “Locust Laced” is very much the latter – the kind of confrontational noise pop we need to short out the chaotic news ticker in our minds: “I feel like dynamite / I feel like dying tonight!”

7. Lingua Ignota – “Perpetual Flame of Centralia”

Anyone fascinated and/or repulsed by the effects of organized religion on the human psyche needs to light some candles, gird their loins, and play Kristin Hayter’s terrifying new LP, Sinner Get Ready. “I am covered with the blood of Jesus / Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” the noise-metal experimentalist croons over ominous piano chords, making us feel just how scary it can be when a dangerous person feels sanctified.

8. Shannon Lay – “Geist”

When Shannon Lay shifts from simple plucking to a finger-picking cascade, it’s like a seance meant to summon the spirit of Nick Drake.

9. Coldplay – “Coloratura”

The more complicated and uncertain our future becomes, the more I’m drawn to simple expressions of hope. And that has been Coldplay’s stock in trade for decades, reassuring us that everything’s not lost, that we can go back to the start, that we should be patient and not worry. “Coloratura” is a classic Coldplay hope-bomb genetically modified for the times – a 10-minute epic about the existence of some form of heaven. “We’re a slow burning tune / But we’ll get there,” Chris Martin sings, invoking the names of scientific visionaries as proof of humanity’s potential. As the arrangement swells to a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-esque panorama, I feel my cynicism erode, the simple chord progression aligning with that stubborn, tiny part of me that still believes.

New Songs to Gingerly Re-enter Society To, June 2021

With America opening back up at a dizzying pace, my emotions are all over the place. I hear a song about two zodiac signs that almost perfectly aligns with my wife and I’s astrological dynamic, and I feel like dancing with her until my ankles hurt. But then I hear another song about the facades we have to wear in social situations, and I want to hide under the covers. So with this list, I want to honor this rollercoaster of joy and anxiety that we’re all on in some way, shape or form. Get ready to party, then fall out, and then party some more!

1. Helado Negro – “Gemini and Leo”

Two years after sweeping us up in the whisper-delicate dream world of his last album, This Is How You Smile, Helado Negro feels like dancing. And by turning to the zodiac over this airy disco groove, the singer/songwriter elevates a simple story of two people vibing on the dance floor into a connection that must be written in the stars.

2. Jessie Ware – “Hot N Heavy”

Speaking of irresistible disco grooves about falling in love on the dance floor…

3. Tyler the Creator (feat. Lil Wayne) – “Hot Wind Blows”

Tyler the Creator isn’t just a sonic visionary who has left his gimmicky shock-rap roots in the dust – he’s an artist with the kind of big-tent vision that inspires old-timers to bring their A game. Over a flute-speckled Henry Mancini sample, Tyler sets the table for Lil Wayne, who lays into the cut with effortless, syllable-spraying glee.

4. Unto Others – “When Will Gods Work Be Done”

This Portland goth-metal hook factory, formerly called Idle Hands, had to change its name last year due to copyright issues. If you thought it might’ve disrupted their mojo, worry not. Their first track as Unto Others is a prime example of their Depeche Maiden formula, pairing a theatrically bleak worldview with punishingly catchy dual-guitar leads.

5. The Mountain Goats – “Lizard Suit”

Not super psyched for social situations to be making a comeback? This jazz-folk alienation anthem is for you: “Let my phobias control my habits / Let my habits form the shapes of days.”

6. Japanese Breakfast – “Jubilee”

When the horns come in on this chorus, it’s like the clouds parting in a way the weatherman could never predict.

7. Sault – “London Gangs”

Sault, the still-faceless UK rhythm & blues collective, dropped its fourth album of visionary jams in June. Including this one, where they make a bass line sound like a pot of water on a rolling boil, ready to receive any ingredient and make it sing.

8. Spellling – “Turning Wheel”

A sweeping, let’s-hold-hands-and-sway, Beatlesque ballad about how staying up on the hill doesn’t necessarily make you a fool.

9. Pa Salieu (feat. slowthai) – “Glidin'”

I love it when a rapper just tells me how a beat makes them feel.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Please Stay”

Break-up songs can be tough listens. But please-don’t-break-up-with-me songs? Those are the ones that break me.

So Bitter and So Sweet: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Turns 50

When I was 15, a kind, patient older cousin of mine was killed in a freak accident. A few days after getting that news, I was in the middle of a driving class when my instructor asked me if anything was wrong. I was stumped at first. Nothing seemed off to me; I didn’t think my driving or behavior was erratic. But both were. It took me a while to realize that I had internalized my grief so much that I was tricking myself into believing everything was okay. Instead of crying about it, or talking about it, or confronting it in any way.

And because I was a boy, and the other men in my life were just like me in the feelings department, I accepted this lack of emotional intelligence as just part of who I was. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that the dam started to break. Because that was the year I met my wife, who is teaching me what it means to be self-aware to this day. It was also the year I bought Joni Mitchell’s Blue on CD. We would fall asleep to it in the middle of the day, comforted by how the intensity of its emotions resonated with ours.

Up until Blue was released 50 years ago today, the definition of a singer/songwriter was problematically narrow – essentially it described a man who did it all, except for telling us how he really felt. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were the recognized masters of this form, posing stoically on their album covers to make it clear they were brooding troubadours who answered to no one. And while they would pull the veil back occasionally, these were artists who wrote songs like English professors – shrouding any vulnerability in layers of metaphor and literary references. Given how good their music sounded, it was easy to associate their lyrical complexity with artistic worth. To believe that honesty is somehow simpler or easier.

An iconoclast from day one, Joni Mitchell wasn’t about to pay attention to what a singer/songwriter was supposed to be. The Alberta native didn’t even tune her guitar in the standard way, perpetually twisting the pegs in search of brand new clusters of notes, frustrating generations of campfire strummers in search of an easy cover. In the years leading up to Blue, she used these invented chord structures to give her first three albums an ethereal quality that folk fans hadn’t quite experienced before. Yet her lyrics, while reflective of her talent, needed some time to catch up. These early songs were written in the ’60s Greenwich Village mold, anthems anchored by metaphors intended to be applicable to all – life is like a merry-go-round; growing up is like seeing the clouds from above for the first time. One of her biggest hits was about Woodstock, and she wasn’t even there.

These songs I’m referencing remain rightfully iconic, and they resulted in Mitchell becoming very famous very quickly. And like a lot of artists who are both egomaniacally driven and emotionally sensitive, she ended the ’60s feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned with fame, and seriously considering retirement. In Malka Marom’s fascinating interview collection Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the artist describes this time in her life:

I hadn’t cried for years, but at that time I cried all the time. They walked on the moon, I cried. Everything made me cry. […] Another day, I came upon a boat being pulled by a car crossing under the telephone lines as they went across the road. The name of the boat was The Wife’s Mink Coat. And I burst into tears. It had two motors and I just saw all the disruption those egg beaters were making in the water, and I felt sorry for the fish. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was weeping about that.”

Mitchell wrote and recorded Blue in this state of mind, and made no attempt to hide it, describing the nuances of her emotions with an honesty and specificity that would forever expand the boundaries of what a singer/songwriter could do. Gone were any attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. Blue is about what one person was going through, period.

Over sparse folk arrangements that feature only a handful of players other than her, Mitchell sings about her needs, regrets, and traumas, embracing how uncomfortably they could live alongside one another. The love songs are mournful. The travel songs are homesick. The sad songs shiver in the shadows of potential happiness. To someone like me, who struggled to understand the fact that human beings contain multitudes, this doubled as a psychology lesson.

On the opening “All I Want,” Mitchell sums up the mercurial push and pull of a passionate relationship in a few pronoun-laden lines, as her dulcimer and James Taylor’s guitar lay down the path ahead:

I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me

Most relationship eulogizers would be satisfied with this passive, poetic sadness, like Dylan telling his ex not to think twice and just move on. But Joni Mitchell wasn’t kidding when she titled this song. She wants us to know all of the good things she wants for this person as well. Even though it’s contradictory, and an admission of vulnerability:

I want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free

On the devastating ballad “Little Green,” when singing to the child she gave up for adoption while mired in poverty –a personal trauma that was a closely kept secret until the 1990s – Mitchell keeps stubbornly looking for pinpricks of hope:

So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending

On the record’s more upbeat numbers, the reverse is true. “California” uses sprightly acoustic strumming to underline Mitchell’s largely rose-colored memories of adventures abroad. But in the last chorus, she asks her adoptive home state if she’s worthy: “Will you take me as I am?” “Carey” fleshes out another lively acoustic groove about international travel with conga hits and layered vocal harmonies. But her “fingernails are filthy,” and she has “beach tar on her feet.” And the red-haired Cretian man who inspired the title? He’s “a mean old daddy.”

“My insights became keener,” Mitchell tells Marom about her frame of mind while recording Blue. “I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”

As arguably the first “transparent” work from a singer/songwriter, Blue has inspired countless purveyors of confessional art over the last half-century. But I’ve yet to hear one that resonates as powerfully. Perhaps because this was a radical form of unguardedness, an artist knowingly twisting the pegs of misogynistic limitations by the mere act of being honest on tape. Or maybe Joni Mitchell just happened to be in an elevated state of self-awareness that aligned with her talents reaching their peak. Regardless, the alchemy of these sounds and words is timeless.

To this day, when I’m having trouble tracing the origins of my emotions, I’ll turn to this album. Because in life, when you try to ignore your feelings and make literary references instead, that just makes you an asshole. Thanks to my wife, and this album, I feel comfortable saying that I miss my cousin. That I will never forget the time he sat and played a board game with me on a family visit, even though he was older and cooler and absolutely had better things to do. That I wish he was still alive.

And wouldn’t you know it? I’m crying.