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.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (75-71)

Feeling nostalgic for the 2010s yet? They weren’t great, but at least they’re not the 2020s amirite? And while we’re on the subject of things that aren’t fun, what about Mondays? Cold weather? That time the hometown sports team got robbed? Unpopular bloggers who drive stupid gags into the ground?

Anyways, here are entries 75-71 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years.

75. Haim – Something to Tell You (2017)

If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips in the 2010s – was there better advice during the Trump administration than “hold on for one more day”? – hopefully the rise of Haim corrected that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continued to revel in 1980s supermarket pop aesthetics, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drum machines and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs remain the singles, which pair absolutely massive choruses with quirky production wrinkles that make repeat listens even more rewarding – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender; on “Nothing’s Wrong,” it’s a series of oddly interrupted gasps. For all its obvious influences – Haim have definitely paid close attention to Stevie Nicks’s recipes – Something to Tell You is not some generic, store brand approach to pop hooks. This band figured out how to bottle their unadulterated joy. And so far, it seems like there’s no expiration date.

74. Thundercat – Drunk (2017)

Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner made an indelible mark on 2010s hip hop and R&B – Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicted, the potential of this artist as a vibrant new songwriting voice was only just beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of an artist with a kaleidoscopically imaginative vision all his own. The music was rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, which was important because it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sang about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with awestruck, childlike energy. By building these bridges between poetry and poptimism, Thundercat was able to pull off a love-against-all-odds ballad featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and then shift to a regret-laden Kendrick Lamar rap showcase on the very next track. It remains one hell of a balancing act, which leaves us feeling the opposite of wasted.

73. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2010)

To give a song the best chance at catching on, it’s best to stay vague. Listeners love to interpret lyrics in ways that fit their own situations, which is why The Police’s serial stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” is still a hit at weddings. But the Athens, Georgia, alt-country institution Drive-By Truckers hasn’t had much time for that advice since its inception in the late ’90s. On its eighth LP, the band rang in the 2010s with an album full of exhilarating specificity – detailed story songs with colorful characters, performed with the kind of chiming roots rock efficiency that made Tom Petty famous. “Drag the Lake Charlie” documents a small town’s reaction to a cheating man gone missing, and the looming danger of his trigger-happy partner. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” recounts the murder trial of a woman claiming self-defense, and the unusual exhibits that inspired the jury to reduce the charge. “The Flying Wallendas” tells the true story of a legendary family of tightrope walkers, many of whom fell to their deaths doing what they loved. When Hood encounters a surviving Wallenda in Florida, the awe flows from his pen: “I was stunned and astounded that the old lady who was out / Pruning her orange trees / Had flown to the heavens and back.”

72. Laura Marling – Semper Femina (2017)

Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”

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71. CupcakKe – Ephorize (2018)

When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. For CupcakKe, Ephorize was that moment. The third LP from the Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory equity. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (80-76)

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Here are entries 80-76 in my arguably pointless countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years.

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80. Denzel Curry – Zuu (2019)

“Big talk / Speedboat / Pray to God I don’t get repo’d,” rapped Denzel Curry on one of 2019’s most indelible choruses. As partly-cloudy piano notes do their best to dampen the mood, the gifted Florida emcee clusters his syllables in irresistible ways, all while completely subverting what most of us would expect from a Miami rap song about an expensive sea vessel. It’s one of several instances on his spectacular fourth album where he’s able to spin autobiographical anxieties and ominous sonic atmospheres into something you’d bump on a summer drive. “Zuu” is a nickname for Curry’s hometown of Carol City, a Miami neighborhood with serious hip-hop pedigree (Rick Ross, Flo Rida, Gunplay and Spaceghostpurrp are all from there, with Trick Daddy and Trina growing up close by). The artist has never sounded this focused before, and it’s because he’s writing about what he knows – advice he got from his parents; the music that inspired him growing up; the shit he had to put up with to pull himself out of poverty; the deaths of his brother and his close friend. This album clocks in at just 29 minutes, and it’s all Curry needs to tell deep, indelible stories. “A real-ass n—-a from the 305 / I was raised on Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies,” he boasts on “Carolmart.” His rapping abilities have taken off, because his feet are planted firmly on his home turf.

79. GFOTY – GFOTYBUCKS (2017)

When musicians actively push the boundaries of what is acceptable to our ears, the results can be “noble” or “interesting,” but still unlistenable (e.g. free jazz, Frank Zappa). But when UK vocalist Polly-Louisa Salmon recorded a bunch of purposely abrasive, dance-pop cheerleader chants as GFOTY, the experiment just straight-up worked. With her fellow members of the avant-garde collective PC Music building frenetic techno beats that sound like the Vengaboys being eaten by a robot, Salmon sings about love and kissing and Christmas, resulting in moments of serious dissonance that also land like effective pop songs. Like “Kiss,” where Salmon’s voice gets pitch-bended into oblivion on the verse, only to return on the chorus, clearly and earnestly pleading, “Turn around and close your eyes.” Or “Mysterious GFOTY,” where a twinkling, glockenspiel-sprinkled jaunt down the beach starts to digitally fray, as Salmon peppers the background with scene descriptors: “Umbrella.” “Pina colada.” When the chorus hits, with a genuinely huge hook, she sings, “I wanna get close to you.” And despite all the different ways this music is trying to push us away, we believe her.

78. At the Gates – At War with Reality (2014)

When the Swedish melodic death metal giants At the Gates reunited for their first LP in 19 years, they probably weren’t thinking it would be ahead of its time. Its sound is in no way a departure from the hard-charging, face-melting riffage of the record that cemented their legend – 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul. Yet, two years before Donald Trump’s election, this band from a proud socialist nation wrote a dozen songs about humanity’s shattered relationship with truth, and called it At War with Reality. “With every dawn / The world deforms / And as we fade / Our truth it dies,” screams frontman Tomas Lindberg over the bone-rattling cacophony of “Death and the Labyrinth,” introducing us to a stark, greyscale world of pain and confusion. Lindberg consistently focuses on darkness, and ashes, and dust throughout these songs, his hopeless worldview as relentless as his band’s exhilarating tempos, resulting in that ideal death metal alchemy – an artist who’s not afraid to confront the reaper himself, because they’re wearing impenetrable armor of distortion, bombast, and melody. “A black lung of ash / A parasitic void,” Lindberg bemoans on “The Circular Ruins,” the chaotic, drum stick-splintering swell beneath him seemingly giving him the power to predict COVID-19, six years in advance. Holy hell, what a comeback.

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77. Tierra Whack – Whack World (2018)

Sometimes, limitations are an artist’s best friend. Like John Lennon having to belt out “Twist and Shout” with a hell of a cold, and only 15 minutes of studio time left to do it. 15 minutes also happens to be the running time of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s debut album – that’s 15 tracks, at precisely one minute a piece. I call Whack a rapper, but Whack World is so much more than a rap album. Within these cozy confines, she bounces from moody trap to sunshine pop, introspective R&B balladry and a full-on country twang. She sings about board games and dead pets, and raps with feeling about how she loves to see her mother laugh. Every transition feels effortless. And the same can be said about Whack World’s accompanying video, which depicts the artist’s ideas with the technicolor verve they deserve – imagine if Lemonade was shot in Pee Wee’s PlayhouseThis album is a complete artistic statement; a celebration of an independent spirit, alive with humor and humanity. And it’s over in the time it takes to boil an egg. “Music is in my Billie genes,” she boasts. It’s the only explanation for how she could have pulled this off.

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76. Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff (2019)

The history of rock music is littered with men full of unearned confidence, telling us how awesome they are. So what a delight it was to see Baltimore quintet Angel Du$t take the piss out of that cliché with the deliciously sarcastic title of its third LP. Pretty Buff finds this group of hardcore punk veterans embracing decidedly non-hardcore things – like acoustic strumming and epic sax solos and full-throated declarations of love. “Say it ain’t so / I don’t ever wanna let you go,” pleads frontman Justice Tripp over the sugar-high riffage of “Big Ass Love,” a moment of unadulterated exuberance designed to blast any cynicism from our weary-ass minds. On “Park,” Tripp wrestles with the death of his dog, making for the kind of heartbreakingly sweet moment you never hear on classic rock radio: “Time can be so cruel / But it gave me memories with you, dude / So I guess it’s cool.” And the opening “No Fair” is a 100% non-toxic expression of romantic disappointment, a tambourine-fueled fist-shake at fate that welcomes everybody to sing along about something that just didn’t work out. This wasn’t just the catchiest LP of 2019. It was an enthusiastic, optimistic, adorable ass-kicking of the highest order.

Check out the full list here!

The Top 20 Albums of 2020

Music wasn’t the only thing that got me through 2020. My wife, who makes my home life perpetually exciting and meaningful and new, had me guiltily enjoying quarantine. My job allowed me to work from home, out of harm’s way. My coffee maker never broke down.

But this is a music column, and I did spend many precious hours of this past year playing old records and streaming new masterpieces while “trapped” inside my humble Maine bungalow. So if you’ll humor me, here are a few of the ways that music was there for me in 2020:

Music kept me engaged. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world this summer, new albums from several artists on the list below channeled righteous, motivating anger at America’s deeply rooted, white supremacist systems. And many classics felt even more urgent and alive – when I played my vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 triumph What’s Going On and heard him so effortlessly croon, “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” the realization of how little has changed brought tears to my eyes. A few weeks later, my wife and I were on the streets of Portland, chanting George Floyd’s name.

Music made me appreciate my age. I’m firmly in my 40s now, which means I’ve been obsessing over certain albums for decades. So when I decided to play several of my long-time favorites back to back on a long summer day, I was floored at how deeply they were ingrained in my psyche. I hadn’t properly listened to Randy Newman’s Sail Away or Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in years, but the lyrics came flooding back to me in a wave. As I puttered around the house, unashamedly singing along, it truly felt like some old friends had come to visit. I wouldn’t trade that connection to be 20 years younger if you paid me.

Music helped me relax. As a teen, I’d fall asleep to music all the time. I’d put five CDs in my beloved stereo, set them on shuffle, and let them take me away. In 2020, for the first time in ages, this happened again. I didn’t plan on napping when I put Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express on the turntable, but its cold, soothing bleeps made the book in my hand feel as heavy as my eyelids, and I drifted off. Waking up to the sound of the needle gently bumping against the label was like being told, “You’re coming back to reality now. And that’s okay.”

Here are 20 more examples of how music got me through this bizarre and challenging year. Each of these albums reminded me that the world was still turning out there, and that while creativity can be shaped by current events, it cannot be stopped by them. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!

20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B

When Carly Rae Jepsen named her 2019 LP Dedicated, she wasn’t kidding. The feel-good pop juggernaut wrote close to 200 songs during those sessions, in search of that perfect embodiment of love’s effervescent, organic swell. She pulled it off – and then some. Because for the third release cycle in a row, CRJ has followed up an LP with a “Side B” companion album, and this collection of Dedicated outtakes is just as effortlessly catchy and casually profound as Side A. Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s-inspired synth pop is as low-stakes-joyful as ever, combining the disco-ball sparkle of Kylie Minogue with Cyndi Lauper’s subtly emotional delivery. When she sings, “This is what they say / Falling in love’s supposed to feel like,” it’s with real wonder in her voice. And the synths and drums and backing vocals help her translate that feeling into the kind of starry-eyed, idealized pop music we especially needed this year.

19. Nnamdi – Brat

In the three years since his breakout LP Drool allowed him to quit his day job at a law firm, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been wrestling with career-based survivor’s guilt. On his emotionally and sonically kaleidoscopic follow-up Brat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist wonders if he’d be more valuable to the world as a farmer or astronaut, confessing that “I mostly live in silence.” Ironically, the way he confronts these feelings of self-doubt is proof that he’s in the right line of work. Brat jumps from acoustic folk to rubbery hip-hop to synth-chilled art-pop with a boldness that belies its themes. It’s a world where the materialistic banger “Gimme Gimme” and the vulnerable ballad “It’s OK” feel of a piece, because they’ve grown from the same soil of self-awareness and melodic ambition.

18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell

“We’ve gotta stop this fascist creeeeeeep!” screams Shawna Potter on “Wonderful Hell,” the fist-pumping thrash-punk centerpiece of her band War On Women’s uncompromising, anthemic third LP. While it’s no mystery who Potter is referring to, this riot-grrrl-inspired Baltimore quintet is more concerned with the petrie dish of systemic racism and misogyny from which our soon-to-be-former president is just the latest mutation. Whether the subject is domestic violence, mass incarceration, or do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” politicians, the message is delivered with the clarity of a punch to a Nazi’s face, and paired with melodic riffs that are wired directly to our adrenal glands. This is righteous indignation, distilled into one irresistible call to action after another. The louder it gets, the more hopeful it feels.

17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

At its best, dance music has a transcendent effect, its rhythms triggering something in our subconscious that shelves our worries so we can focus on the present moment. Jessie Ware’s fourth LP is dance music at its best. Over simmering, synth-driven R&B arrangements that hearken back to the ’80s post-disco reveries of Grace Jones, the London vocalist tells her glitter-flecked stories of dance-floor infatuations with leisurely confidence. Instead of just belting out these bangers, she adds to their nostalgic spell by tenderly crooning them, the reassuring warmth of her voice as welcome as a happy memory. To complete the effect, Ware closes with “Remember Where You Are,” a towering morning-after ballad written in reaction to the election of Boris Johnson and designed to help us cope with the world outside: “When life is hard, that’s how it goes / As your destiny unfolds, hold on.”

16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

On April 17, when it was starting to really sink in that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, the Finnish psychedelic black metal sorcerers Oranssi Pazuzu took us on a journey of the mind, in the form of its brain-flambéing fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi. By layering synthesizer patches and guitar effects to create uniquely unsettling atmospheres, and then vaporizing them in the cleansing fire of drums and distortion, the band expresses no interest in soothing our jangled nerves. When singer Juho ​”Jun-His” Vanhanen enters the fray, croaking like a disturbed cryptkeeper, the spell is completed, resulting in extended suites that stick in our heads like lucid nightmares. “Uusi Teknokratia” is perhaps the boldest display of disregard for genre norms, shifting from new age synth flutes to chaotic thrash to avant-garde horror-score classical without ever losing sight of its hellish destination.

15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

The polarizing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa is back in the news these days, thanks to an acclaimed documentary, which I’m not rushing to see. After all, with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in my record collection, I have even less incentive to try and “get” Zappa’s intentionally difficult catalog. An astoundingly gifted bassist, Thundercat could probably build a loyal following by just showing off. But on his third LP, he continues to do what I always wished Zappa would – value hooks as much as chops. It Is What It Is has its share of jazz-fusion fireworks, but they’re leavened by sensual R&B grooves and synthetic yacht rock melodies. His lyrics, delivered in a crystal falsetto, are often funny, but in a sweet, self-effacing way. “I may be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good,” he belts with a wink on the adorably non-threatening pick-up song “Dragonball Durag.” This is ambitious music, exquisitely played, that also wants everyone to sing along.

14. Polo G – The GOAT

This summer, America was forced to think about how dangerous it is to be a Black person within its borders. As complicit white assholes like me played catch-up, long-released books like The New Jim Crow re-entered the best-seller lists. And there were few albums better suited to soundtrack this overdue racial reckoning than The GOAT, the unflinchingly honest, sneakily melodic second album from the 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G. Released two weeks before the murder of George Floyd, The GOAT pairs heartbreaking descriptions of life in a racial caste system with minor-key piano and guitar loops that ring out like bad omens. He has no time to mince words when discussing the stark reality of this rigged game: “You gon either die or see the system / Ain’t no slippin’ up.” Yet, through the ease of his singing voice and the deftness of his pen, Polo G is somehow able to stuff these songs with hooks, turning would-be dirges into profoundly emotional pop music.

13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times

In 1964, Sam Cooke released a single called “Good Times,” an homage to the power of music to “soothe our souls” amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. 56 years later, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion gave a similar gift of irrepressible joy to beleaguered Americans. Good Times declares independence from holier-than-thou body policers, patriarchal gender roles, bad lovers, Instagram haters, racist cops, and the misogynistic victim blaming the artist had to endure after being shot in the foot by rapper Torey Lanez this past July. Over thunderously catchy beats that hearken back to classic tracks from Naughty By Nature, Biggie Smalls and Eazy-E, Meg raps like a force of nature, melding the past and present into something exhilaratingly new. “They tried to knock me off, but a bitch still grindin’,” she proclaims with a smirk, creating a space for anyone who feels beaten down by 2020 to take a break, crank the bass, and let the good times roll.

12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad

Dana Margolin embraces contradictions. As the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Brighton, UK, post-punk quartet Porridge Radio, she’s drawn to themes that explore the faultlines between adolescence and adulthood, when we know just enough about ourselves to be dangerous. “Oh I don’t know what I want / But I know what I want,” she sings in her deep tenor on “Don’t Ask Me Twice.” “I am okay all of the time / I am okay some of the time,” she shares on “Circles.” “Baby, I was born confused,” she repeats on the opening “Born Confused.” The band soundtracks these cripplingly uncertain narratives with the care of a supportive parent, going silent when Margolin needs to whisper, bashing wildly when she needs to scream, lending structure and shading to every bittersweet melody. Resulting in one more glorious contradiction: Every Bad is very good.

11. Fireboy DML – Apollo

“Time doesn’t exist / When you’re listening to your favourite song,” observes Nigerian pop sensation Fireboy DML in the middle of his unselfconscious-grin-inducing second album, Apollo. The track, “Favourite Song,” stands as proof of its own hypothesis, its dopamine-summoning groove marked by bouncy “Sussudio” horns and an honest-to-god “Macarena” sample. The artist has a knack for taking us out of time, especially on tracks that fuse the fiery syncopations of his native Afrobeat with the pillowy sounds of ’80s adult contemporary. And despite the god-complex album title and delightfully confident opening track “Champion,” this is far from an ego fest. Apollo gives us plenty of time with Fireboy on his own, sifting through his regrets, searching for answers. “I just want to be alone / I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he admits over the gentle “In Your Eyes” synths of “Airplane Mode.” Press play, and set your soul to vibrate.

10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)

Perhaps there were some PR considerations behind the decision to completely conceal the identities of this mysterious UK outfit – it worked for Daft Punk, after all. But it makes for a more meaningful, holistic listening experience as well. Sault’s second “Untitled” LP of 2020 sounds like it could be a lost R&B masterpiece from the late-’70s, discovered in an auction of Prince’s record collection. Sweaty funk, rippling Afrobeat, catchy Motown, soothing spoken word, and achingly pretty jazz – it’s all here. Couple that with its restorative, motivational themes of inner peace and racial justice, and we have a record that felt like a gift from a benevolent entity. With nowhere else to look in the liner notes, we have no choice but to examine the song titles. The first three are all we need to know: “Strong.” “Fearless.” “Rise.”

9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now

One of the silver linings of quarantine has been how it stripped away life’s extraneous bits and forced us to inspect the foundation. The experimental pop cosmonaut Charli XCX spent the first few months of lockdown putting her own self-assessment on tape. What she discovered will be recognizable to any of us lucky enough to be hunkered down with someone we love. Over the malfunctioning robot glitches of producer A. G. Cook, she sings indelible hooks, evoking the bliss and terror of realizing someone else has the keys to your heart. “So I made my house a home with you / I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she swoons. A few tracks later, she confronts the power that her partner now wields: “Maybe you’re my enemy / You’re the only one who knows what I really feel.” Charli XCX may have been trapped inside, but her feelings were free as a bird.

8. Ka – Descendants of Cain

“When age speaks, youth listens sometimes,” states a crackling, uncredited voice at the outset of Ka’s fifth solo album, the gently haunting biblical allegory Descendants of Cain. And while Gen Z may not go wild for the Brooklyn rapper’s low-lit, open-hearted, hungover Wu-Tang vibes, he continues to set an incredible example, one gorgeous track at a time. “Got to be in grace first, to fall from it,” he murmurs over the ringing minor-key guitar licks of “Solitude of Enoch,” speaking to the inherent value of every American Cain driven to violence by forces beyond their control. Ka delivers every line, no matter how sad or outraged, in the same quiet, level-headed tone, like a Zen master telling stories anchored in universal truths, their life lessons burrowing deep into our consciousness.

7. Caribou – Suddenly

The title of Dan Snaith’s fifth LP under his Caribou moniker might have you expecting a bunch of sonic jump scares. But the eclectic electronic artist reportedly chose Suddenly because his daughter was “obsessed with the word.” She’s not the only Snaith who is fixated on the way things sound. Every track on Suddenly is its own carefully curated sonic universe, with constellations of pillowy synthesizers and modified soul samples that ensure Snaith’s angelic falsetto points heavenward. The overarching mood is soothing and supportive, the soundtrack to an afterparty that makes it feel less scary to come down and reenter that stark, sunlit world. When Snaith sings, “She picks up all the pieces / She’s going home,” over a touching Gloria Barnes sample, it feels like we’ve arrived at a warm, graceful place, where nothing sudden can happen.

6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter

In 2001, Leonard Cohen released a ballad called “Alexandra Leaving,” where he lies on satin sheets while using ancient Greek metaphors to brood about getting dumped. 19 years later, Laura Marling asked a question that never seemed to cross Cohen’s mind: “Where did Alexandra go?” On the UK folksinger’s impeccably crafted concept album Songs for Our Daughter, she writes about the interior lives of women who have been often cast as villains in her genre, her voice a guiding light of warmth and understanding. Marling doesn’t have a literal daughter; she’s singing to her younger self, her friends, and her future hypothetical charges. “I love you my strange girl / My lonely girl / My angry girl / My brave,” she sings, her confident acoustic strumming a reminder of how it feels to be the protagonist, walking away from pain, having chosen a better life.

5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline

When Andy Shauf’s sixth album dropped in late January 2020, its easygoing, low-stakes, clarinet-flecked folk felt as comforting as a cup of hot tea. But less than a year later, the story told here might as well be science fiction – while hanging out at a bar called The Neon Skyline with friends, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend unexpectedly shows up, after which the group heads off to a different bar. “Oh I’m just fine / I’m wasting time / Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that,” Shauf sighs on the title track, his laid-back Paul Simon phrasing making it feel even more like a reassuring relic from a simpler, mask-free time. After his ex, Judy, shows up, it sparks all kinds of memories in our narrator, including a fight after a car crash where his selfishness gets the best of him. As the night goes on, his untreated ache grows, and we feel a different kind of social distance in the room. But Shauf ends things on a hopeful note, making it clear he believes that this guy, and all of us, can change. “I make a silent toast to the things I do and don’t miss,” the narrator proclaims toward the end, much like we all have done this year, figuring out how to make the absolute best of a challenging situation.

4. Moses Sumney – Grae

In most creative endeavors, it’s usually good advice to “kill your darlings” – cutting ideas that aren’t essential, no matter how profound you think they are. But on his sprawling double LP Grae, North Carolina auteur Moses Sumney threw this advice in the trash, writing about some of life’s most frustrating obstacles while dipping his brush in whatever genre he damn well pleased. Heavenly R&B, orchestral art rock, profound spoken word, dreamy jazz – it all works, because its connective tissue is Sumney’s voice, an impossibly elastic instrument that welcomes us in like a surprisingly friendly celebrity. Over the course of 20 tracks, he sings about the variety of boxes that society tries to trap us in: its self-destructive definition of masculinity; its cruelly efficient social media self-esteem compactor; its insistence that love is one very specific thing. “Honesty is the most moral way,” he sings in a Minnie Riperton falsetto, refusing to check any boxes in this backwards binary world, or listen to any tired old advice about how to make an album. His darlings are legion here. And we all get to listen to them, defiantly running free.

3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

This summer, my wife and I saw new potential in our long-ignored backyard. I made a fire pit from stray bricks; we bought a projector and a big screen; and spent many unforgettable nights watching old movies under the stars. Fate had pushed us to reassess a familiar thing, and it felt good. Singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield didn’t need quarantine to shift her focus inward. Her fifth LP as Waxahatchee is the result of years of introspection, a document of an artist’s shift from cynicism to optimism, from self-loathing to self-love. “I’m a bird in the trees / I can learn to see with a partial view,” she sings on “Fire,” accepting she’ll never have all the answers and that actually, life is pretty damn good perched on this particular branch. Musically, the album is one shimmering moment of clarity, its richly hued country arrangements directing steady sunshine on Crutchfield, who lets her voice soar like never before. And as she assembles the stray bricks of her psyche into something whole, she’s free to write honest, vulnerable, built-to-endure love songs. “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she confesses, discovering that incandescent truth is within arm’s reach.

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan spent the majority of his 70s singing the songs of his childhood, releasing a trilogy of Great American Songbook cover albums and pretty much exclusively playing those live, I imagine to the chagrin of many an entitled boomer. But this was more than just a weird rock star flex. This year, we realized that all that time dwelling in the past was preparing this grizzled poet to look clear-eyed into his future. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” the 79-year-old softly sings at the beginning of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The song, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a quiet autumn wood of ringing guitars, a breathtakingly simple backdrop for a Whitman-biting summation of the artist’s many contradictions. Everything on this album, even the full-bore blues stomps, bears the mark of this restrained, spacious approach – on the deeply catchy “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” drummer Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit his crash cymbal once. This commitment to openness, both sonically and emotionally, comes to a head on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a 9-minute ballad about a Florida island famous for drawing legendary storytellers to its shores. With each sun-kissed note, with every creak in this septuagenarian’s voice, it sinks in deeper – this is about an ideal death. “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality,” goes the final chorus. While others rage at the dying of the light, Bob Dylan croons at it like a weary Sinatra, convincing me definitively that the best is yet to come.

1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

“Black child in America / The fact that I made it’s magic,” marvels the Atlanta rap inferno Killer Mike on the final verse of the fourth Run the Jewels LP. In a just world, that line would be hyperbolic. But in a year where violent, institutionalized American racism ran amok on the world stage, the continued existence of this brilliant, outspoken, 45-year-old Black man really did feel like a miracle. After a four-year hiatus, Mike and producer/rapper El-P returned at the perfect time to throw us all a cathartic party, summoning our deepest reserves of adrenaline to spew righteous anger at a system built to destroy Black lives. Whether the duo is exposing the “slave masters posing on your dollar,” eviscerating people who are only outraged on Twitter, or proving that shit talk is an art form (“You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”), their voices are crackling with purpose, like pissed-off preachers with something to prove. El-P’s production is as fluid and supercharged as ever, his bass lines and drum breaks guiding us through bursts of static like a getaway driver with ice in his veins. And Killer Mike has never been better. Over the twisted, reverb-drenched synth funk of “Walking in the Snow,” he breaks down our country’s ugly legacy on a verse written before George Floyd’s murder:

They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”

It would be enough if this album just featured this kind of raw, urgent, necessary poetry. It would be enough if it featured music that made you feel invincible. The fact that it contains both, and that it came out when it did? That, my friends, is magic.

Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1; Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China; Bully – Sugaregg; Bill Callahan – Gold Record; The Chicks – Gaslighter; Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams; Fat Tony – Exotica; Haim – Women In Music Pt. III; Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo; Kamaiyah – Got It Made; Kylie Minogue – Disco; The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives; Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism; Oceanator – Things I Never Said; Pallbearer – Forgotten Days; R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages; Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; Tops – I Feel Alive; Thy Catafalque – Naiv; William Tyler – New Vanitas

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.

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!

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.

kvelertak_nattesferd

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!

The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (95-91)

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So much has changed since we kicked off this new column, where I count down my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years. So many previously mundane things about life – opening doors; buying groceries; finding a hair in your food and eating it anyway – are now terrifying. But take solace, gentle reader. Because lo, there remains at least ONE mundane exercise that is as boring and inconsequential as ever. My friends, I am still making lists of albums and posting them on the Internet, even though literally no one is asking for them. Some things, even now, will never change.

Screen-Shot-2019-03-21-at-08.51.4395. Orville Peck – Pony (2019)

Few things have been romanticized by Americans more than the idea of men traversing the great Western plains, facing danger together, loyal to nothing except one another. It was tempting to say we’d heard it all before, at least until last year, when a Canadian punk singer changed his name, started dressing in bespoke cowboy suits with matching veils, and dropped one of the most enigmatic debut LPs of the decade. “The sun goes down, another dreamless night / You’re right by my side,” croons Orville Peck at the outset of Pony, his silken voice making it clear it’s a love song just like Roy Orbison’s used to do. Though the languages of forlorn ’60s pop, ’70s countrypolitan balladry and ’80s new wave, Peck creates a honky-tonk atmosphere all his own, a world of glitter balls and sawdust, where lovers can slow dance unafraid.

https_images.genius.comf9fec989d8a03a8204fd4ff1189d2dd5.1000x1000x194. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (2018)

The dance-pop enigma Sophie made her mark this past decade by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound was still evident on her 2018 studio debutbut this time, her mission was a therapeutic one. She featured her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” On the hand-clap-driven reverie “Immaterial,” she presented our metaphysical selves as our true selves, resulting in a pure expression of freedom: “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live?” Throw in some of that trademark anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.

93.unnamed-1-1569341614-640x640 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (2019)

In the fall of 2018, three years after losing his 15-year-old son to a tragic fall, Nick Cave began a blog called “The Red Hand Files,” in which he answered questions from fans. The first post tackled a question about how his writing process has changed. “I would say that it has shifted fundamentally,” Cave responded. “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma, authentically … I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.” The double LP that resulted from these writings, Ghosteen, is just as Cave described – a heartbreaking eulogy that searches for meaning behind the veil of mere biology. The music of Ghosteen supports his solemn voyage, with blankets of vintage synths lending a gorgeous sense of otherworldliness throughout. Also, for the first time in his career, the 62-year-old sings for long stretches in a stunningly clear falsetto, his voice like his soul, reaching ever higher.

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad92. Esperanza Spaulding – 12 Little Spells (2018)

“There’s a vibrational current between every fingertip and the unseen,” declares Esperanza Spalding on 12 Little Spells. In the context of the soundscapes she builds around it, this line feels like the truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” had reached heights of sonic expression that transcended genre. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations. Few things stuck in my brain in 2018 like the gentle, swaying funk of “Thang.” “‘Till the Next Full” evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell with its swirling, nocturnal acoustics. The title track swells like a old movie score, toeing the edge of dissonance but always choosing beauty.

51GqlPejStL._SY300_91. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again (2015)

Jessica Pratt is the kind of enigmatic folksinger who sounds like she was meant to record alone, hurling complicated emotions into the void. Her phrasing is messy, her pronunciation odd – “can” is “keen”; “time” is “tam” – but in the psychedelic malaise of her second LP, these quirks sounded less like affectations and more like the artist’s own personal language. The joys of her guitar playing, however, are clear as day. She interrupts gorgeous finger-picked cascades with staccato minor notes, playing with a narrative thrust that gives the record its bone density. When we hear that scratch of pick on acoustic, we’re trained to expect some diary-entry-type emoting. Pratt plays against that expectation beautifully, leaving just enough breadcrumbs to get us lost.

Check out the full list here!

The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (100-96)

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So I just finished reviewing my 100 favorite albums from the 1990s, a process I began in 2011, as a relatively energetic guy in his early thirties excited about reevaluating the music of his youth. It took me NINE YEARS to finish it, which of course meant that by the time it was done, another decade had elapsed, which meant I had another 100-album list on the docket. I’m a lethargic 41 now, so I considered waiting a few months to start writing about my favorite LPs of the 2010s. The conversation went a little something like this:

“Time to get right back on that 100 album horse,” the sad, honey-voiced cowboy that lives in my mind said to me, right after I declared Björk’s Post the #1 album of the ’90s.

“Do I hafta, Dusty?” I responded, lisping just a little bit like Brian from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (see image below) in hopes of melting down his resolve. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my mind-cowboy’s name is Dusty Sleeves.)

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“You have to,” Dusty responded. “Some folk were born to break horses, or till the land, or paint pictures that make grown men cry. You, you were meant to make lists. Lists that feed your malignant narcissism because they make your opinion seem important. Lists that feed the compulsive urge to organize the chaos that runs rampant on this good-for-nothin’ blue marble we call Earth.”

“Gee Dusty, you’re mighty ornery and depressin’ sometimes!” I responded.

“Well Sweensryche, consider that I’m trapped in the tumbleweeds of your mind for eternity. It ain’t exactly a picnic.”

“Sorry about that Dusty! I’ll try to mentally project a basket of cucumber sandwiches, and send it your way. But I gotta say goodbye for now! The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s ain’t gonna write itself!”

“Well aren’t you just going to basically repurpose reviews you already wrote?”

“Shut up Dusty! This is ALL NEW CONTENT.”

“But little britches, lying is not gon—“

“I said… SHUT UP.”

[silence]

And now, without further ado, enjoy the first five entries of my Top 100 Albums of the 2010s!

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg100. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune (2018)

By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional.

Ulver99. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)

As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applied these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it worked. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.

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98. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (2017)

When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacked feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.

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97. Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)

Seventeen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. In 2016, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestled with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian96. Lucy Dacus – Historian (2018)

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations, exploring the periphery before working their way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. On the opening track “Night Shift,” Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins. Then, only when we understand, does the chorus finally kick in: “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs.

 

The Best Album of the 1990s

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1. Björk – Post (1995)

It’s hard enough for an artist to sound ahead of their time. But on Björk’s second album as a solo artist, she was ahead of her time, and behind it, and looping back through it like a reincarnated spirit, and angling jagged shards of it at the sun to melt away whatever barriers we thought existed between post-punk balladry and thrumming house beats and musty old showtunes.

The Icelandic singer/songwriter and ex-Sugarcube had already taken some gargantuan strides on 1993’s Debut, using her newfound artistic freedom to see how her operatic supernova of a voice held up in a variety of contexts. That album crackles with experimental energy, and the growing confidence of a superhero who’s just starting to understand how much power she really has.

If Post merely kept this feeling going for another album cycle, it would have been a worthy achievement. But a lot had changed in the artist’s life in those two intervening years. As her star rose, she relocated to London, a global hub for pop-adjacent, emotionally complex club music. From this new, rain-spattered catbird seat, Björk approached the Post sessions with an auteur’s vision and an ice climber’s confidence, taking over lead production duties for the first time in her career. And to make it absolutely clear how much we were about to be blindsided by her evolution, she kicked off the record’s debut single with the sound of a fiery explosion. “Army of Me” is one of the all-time gauntlets thrown in the history of pop music – right at that precise moment when this buzzy alternative artist was primed to reach unforeseen levels of popularity, she hurled a ball of fire right down the throat of Generation X. As the distorted circular bass line slithers its way through one of the best-ever interpolations of John Bonham’s “When the Levee Breaks” beat, Björk drops bombs on slacker-chic culture, a full decade before it metastasized into the YouTube commentariat:

You’re alright
There’s nothing wrong
Self sufficiency please!
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me

With the sheer snarling force of “Army of Me” as its opening salvo, it’s clear that this record is going to have plenty to say about the burgeoning self-confidence of an artist coming into her own. The sonic palette expands to encompass an entire Pantone book – the fluttering acid house drums of “Hyperballad”; the soft, cinematic strings of “You’ve Been Flirting Again”; the fire-breathing horn section of “I Miss You”; the cheeky, zing-boom Broadway orchestra of “It’s Oh So Quiet.”

Lyrically, Björk is just as ambitious, bending time and space to suit her mood. “I miss you, though I haven’t met you yet,” she tosses off, sounding not like a lonely person searching for hope, but like a traveler from the future with otherworldly insights on her fate. “Hyperballad” details how amazing it feels to crawl into bed beside someone you trust by focusing on what happens before that moment – the narrator stands at the top of a mountain, dropping things off the edge and watching them break, in order to fully appreciate her safety. And over the gritty, churning bass of “The Modern Things,” the most visionary artist of the ’90s talks about technological innovations like they’re buried treasure, just waiting for a truly special human being to unearth them:

All the modern things
Like cars and such
Have always existed
They’ve just been waiting in a mountain
For the right moment
Listening to the irritating noises
Of dinosaurs and people
Dabbling outside

In 1995, Björk had this treasure map. And she was well aware of its power. She called this album Post to create a clear delineation line between it and Debut – an overt “before” and “after.” It’s a grand, futuristic promise of artistic evolution, and Post makes good on it in ways that I am still processing 25 years later. Feeling free to explore whatever sounds, subjects and potential collaborators were fascinating to her in that moment, Björk made a record that is post-modern, post-punk, and post-linear. It was ahead of its time then, and still is now, and will be until the seas swallow us whole.

This completes my thoroughly narcissistic countdown of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – also known as “100 Things That Are Better Than Better Than Ezra.” Check out the full list here. (It took me almost a full decade to write it! I’m lazy!)