The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (10-6)

So here we are, gang. Ten albums left. Can you believe it? It’s only taken me eight years to get here! EFFICIENCY. These next five LPs certainly meant a lot to me as a mumbling high school and college student who smelled weird because he’d never learned to wash properly.

ATribeCalledQuestTheLowEndtheory10. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)

In 1991, it was getting harder to disregard rap music as a fad. A year earlier, “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” gave the world a preview of the genre’s inevitable crossover dominance. (On the day I’m writing this, 9 of the top 20 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 come from rappers.) A Tribe Called Quest was decidedly not celebrating this. “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop,” scolded rapper/producer Q-Tip on the Queens trio’s second LP. Here were young artists on the cusp of stardom, who had already landed a hit by sampling “Walk On the Wild Side,” abandoning that path and consciously pursuing a different type of hook – anchored in the syncopations of jazz and the pentameters of poetry. “Don’t you know that things move in cycles?” Q-Tip asks his father on his iconic opening verse, openly acknowledging that this new and exciting genre was indebted to the record and book collections of generations past. And with this bold, anthropological mission driving them, Tribe recorded some of the wisest, funkiest, most sweepingly joyful rap songs in history. Tip and the forever-underrated Phife Dawg trade bars about everything from growing up together to dealing with psychotic A&R guys, giving other artists a blueprint for their own careers. They were never pop stars as a result. They’ll just have to settle for being legends.

220px-Pnyc9. Portishead – Live from Roseland, NYC (1998)

Of the handful of James Bond movies I’ve seen, my favorite parts are the songs. A talented vocalist belts their guts out, their voice trembling with emotion, the minor-key arrangement inevitably boiling over with a scalding spray of brass. Then the director credit fades, along with that feeling. Because James Bond is about as passionate as a cold shower. The Terminator feels more. A love of Bond themes was central to the aesthetic of Portishead, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers who combined throwback ’60s horn and string charts with blasts of synthetic noise and head-spinning displays of record scratching.  But it was singer Beth Gibbons that made the trio so much more than a formula. She approached these songs like a self-aware Shirley Bassey, who knows that these intense feelings are unrequited, marveling at the energy she can muster for one so undeserving. And Live from Roseland, NYC is the ultimate document of her achievement. Backed by a full orchestra, which gives Portishead’s ambitiously cinematic sound the dynamic scope it deserves – from whispering strings to trammeling trombones – Gibbons sings with the concentrated energy of a spirit trying to move something corporeal. “I can’t hold this day / Anymore,” she bemoans on “Over,” as a lone guitar delivers a two-note eulogy. By the end of that song, its singer is wailing; the orchestra is at triple fortissimo; the DJ is scratching like there’s bugs in the vinyl. And we are both shaken, and stirred.

Magnolia_album8. Aimee Mann – Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)

The soundtrack album for the film Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson’s indulgent masterpiece about the intersecting lives of despairing Californians – contains tracks from four different artists. Yet it’s credited, right there on the cover, to Aimee Mann. This is entirely appropriate, because Anderson has admitted that Mann’s lyrics heavily influenced these stories. At one point, Melora Walters’s character delivers the first line of “Deathly” in conversation: “Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?” That line is peak Mann, untangling the complicated internal lives of the victimized in a handful of syllables. Like the movie, she makes sure to let pinpricks of hope shine through over the course of nine tracks, making the sadness ring even truer. The richly layered folk arrangements have the color palette of a sunset – nuances of warmth form a halo around Mann’s steady, reassuring voice. And songs like the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” express a stubborn, foundational belief in romantic alchemy – broken hearts can find understanding souls. And when they do, they fuse together to create something new, and strong, and good. The balance of the Magnolia soundtrack is also spot-on – a pair of Supertramp classics about self-actualization and its aftermath; the cheerful self-help R&B of Gabrielle’s “Dreams”; the fairy-tale malaise of Jon Brion’s theme. But this soundtrack belongs to one person, who suspects they could never love anyone, singing songs that will immediately appeal to anyone who ever has.

https___images.genius.com_0e92782dd80e4fc1b0ea056705fba60b.1000x1000x17. Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997)

When Motown label head Kedar Massenburg introduced the term “neosoul” to describe artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, it was marketing at its emptiest. And most successful. “Neosoul” records, of which Baduizm remains the gold standard, were actually “retrosoul” records – summoning the organic warmth of ’70s Motown while supposedly slighting the slick, rap-influenced R&B that was ruling the charts. It was a white lie to make traditionalists feel like they weren’t out of touch. Lulled by Badu’s nightclub jazz arrangements and laconic, Billie Holiday drawl, they probably never picked up on just how much this Dallas singer, songwriter and iconically headwrapped Soulquarian loved hip hop. “You rush into destruction cause you don’t have nothing left / The mothership can’t save you so your ass is gon’ get left,” Badu sings with the swaggering syncopation of a rapper, on Baduizm‘s first single, “On & On.” This quiet confidence propels her performance throughout, as she dismisses those who dismiss her intelligence, confronts a guy who tries to roofie her, and wrestles with the risks of loving a drug dealer. Her songs and the way she sings them elevate the midtempo jazz vamps that are Baduizm‘s stock in trade. Also like a rapper, she turns to bass lines for guidance, wrapping her syllables around them until they become indelible earworms. In the process, Badu made an intergenerational soul album that reassured her elders, inspired countless rappers, poets and R&B singers, and wove a spell that holds to this day. It was something new, after all.

220px-Radiohead.okcomputer.albumart6. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

Countless rock bands have written songs about life on the road. Because touring is what bands do, and you write about what you know. But no artist has used their experience on tour to communicate larger metaphors as effectively as Radiohead did on its third album. Singer/songwriter Thom Yorke mined some terrifying and disorienting travel experiences for material, resulting in songs about car and plane crashes, insane thoughts in tight spaces, and grabbing your bags before dawn in a panic. “Transport, motorways and tramlines / Starting and then stopping / Taking off and landing / The emptiest of feelings,” he observes. But this is not an album about airports. By taking that odd sense of disconnection we feel while traveling and applying it to our relationships with our bosses, political representatives, and inner selves, OK Computer tapped into a creeping cultural malaise that would eventually overtake us. Listening today, its themes resonate as strongly as ever, pulled from the brink of fatalism time and again by the music, which is as towering and tender as the band has ever sounded. The six-minute anti-capitalist epoch “Paranoid Android” shifts from buzzsaw guitar screaming to a spine-tingling choral breakdown, giving Gen X its own “Stairway to Heaven” moment in the process. On “Let Down” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Jonny Greenwood’s clean guitar sounds wash over Yorke’s dour observations like cleansing foam. And the arrangement on “No Surprises,” featuring a major-scale glockenspiel loop that could just as easily have been whistled, sounds like brainwashing feels – just a little too perfect. As a result, Radiohead made an album about hopelessness that achieved unforeseen levels of melodic uplift. Like a plane that’s just left the ground, it’s a miracle. One that doesn’t give us much room to breathe.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (15-11)

OMG, we’re uncomfortably close to the end of this crazy countdown! Here are five albums that I adored in my underachieving, ironic-tee-shirt-wearing youth, and are only getting better with age. (You can check out the whole list here.)

51Cy7Aj+XdL15. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, my wife got bit by what we thought was a spider. The bite kept getting worse, so we called poison control. I was scared shitless that I was going to lose my person, while surrounded by the most vibrantly alive environment I’d ever seen. The Flaming Lips must’ve known this feeling. Because their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, is full of songs that are acutely aware of life’s impermanence. Yet they’re surrounded by optimistic, awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements that do justice to the laziest Pet Sounds reference. And oh yeah, there’s literally a song called “The Spiderbite Song,” which does not require a personal encounter with potentially deadly insects to appreciate. Producer Dave Fridmann goes borderline Disney with the arrangement, slathering it with trilling harps and tinkling pianos. Yet it’s a delivery system for a raw-as-hell truth – love and devastation are a switch, and it can be flipped by the tiniest twist of fate. “If it destroyed you / It would destroy me,” admits Wayne Coyne on the chorus, balancing the scales without dispelling the magic. My wife’s bite turned out to be from a non-poisonous scorpion, further proof that she’s a total bad-ass. But I’ll always feel a little bit shaken by the memory. Hearing Coyne’s voice, trembling with relief as it floats high above these flourishing soundscapes, it’s impossible to not be moved. Because at any moment, it could’ve fallen.

https___images.genius.com_658097527d975ba15bcaca96999f5f5e.500x500x114. Beck – Mutations (1998)

These days it’s common knowledge that Beck Hansen is a singer/songwriter capable of incredible pathos. But the first time I heard Mutations, I had no idea. The crate-digging hipster earthquake of Odelay was still ringing in my ears. So I was floored by this collection of languid folk and country sway-alongs, its rich, organic warmth somehow unscathed by an aggressively bleak lyric sheet (“We ride disowned / Corroded to the bone”). Nigel Godrich, fresh off producing OK Computer, buoys Beck’s tender crooning with reassuring swaths of synths, sitars, and harpsichords. Friendly, almost amateurish harmonica solos add to the humanity. And while there are no donkey samples or rapped non-sequiturs, Beck’s quirks are all over this album, giving it a ramshackle, lived-in feel. “Canceled Check” ends with the band having a collective stroke, randomly bashing on things. The hidden track “Diamond Bollocks” leaps between seething Stooges riffage and gentle birdsong. And his lyrical flights are as strikingly weird as ever: “A desolate wind / Turns shit to gold / And blows my soul crazy.” To encounter all of this unexpectedly was like having a profound conversation with somebody you thought you knew. Realizing there’s way more to them than you thought. And looking forward to hearing from them again.

buhloone mindstate13. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Grunge bands got tons of credit for rejecting the spoils of stardom in the 1990s. But none of them explored this conflict on tape quite like De La Soul, who made entire concept albums about what it meant to be a rap star. They called their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, shattering the cuddly, neo-hippie image that made them famous. A few years later, they dropped Buhloone Mindstate, its title borne from a stated desire to “blow up, but not go pop.” It sounds like what it is – a rap group at the peak of its powers, trying its hardest to not make hits. So we get thickets of ’70s soul and ’80s rap samples, live horns, and clips from the movie The Five Heartbeats (all of which appear on the monumental “Patti Dooke”). Maceo Parker gets five minutes to just solo. Same for the Japanese rap trio Scha Dara Parr, who get a stripped down drumbeat to freak out over. And then there’s Posdnous, De La’s de facto leader, who makes sure we’ve got our seatbelt on during all these thrilling left turns. He overstuffs his verses with introspective journeys and biting social commentary, stating his case clearly and prolifically. “I am Posdnous / I be the new generation of slaves / Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes,” he shares on “I Am I Be,” doing justice to the authenticity of that title. It’s lovely how much De La Soul cared about this stuff. They stayed true to themselves in the spotlight, exposed who was really benefitting from their hard work, and channeled it all into groundbreaking, revivifying music. It’s been 26 years, and it’s still blowing up.

https___images.genius.com_f08464da62a15725b3ea3a6a0a4c2da4.1000x1000x112. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Countless Westerns end with their male leads going out in a blaze of glory, because they valued their own concept of justice  over anything else. On her third album, PJ Harvey had had enough of that shit. To Bring You My Love is written from the perspective of the women in these stories, those unconsidered widows and jilted lovers whose existential pain is usually seen as acceptable collateral damage. “I love him longer / As each damn day goes / The man is gone / And heaven only knows,” she sings on the album’s final song, establishing the permanence of grief before the music fades. Her narrators plead with everyone from Jesus to a deadbeat dad named Billy. They travel “over dry earth and floods.” And on the mesmerizing murder ballad “Down By the Water,” they drown their own child and blame it on the fish. Harvey, making her first album as a solo artist, comes into her own as a producer, creating atmospheres worthy of these raw, gothic tales. Almost every riff is a simple pentatonic phrase, a shard of the blues poking through the skin of the session. And it’s all in full mourning dress, thanks to slow tempos, low, burbling organs, and heavy swaths of distortion – imagine Violator-era Depeche Mode doing an album of John Lee Hooker covers. “See it coming / At my head / I’m not running / I’m not scared,” she sings, both as a character with a death wish and a songwriter in complete control of her gifts. Our concept of bravery doesn’t always have to be a cowboy perishing in a rain of bullets. It can be an artist doing exactly what she wants.

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream11. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

In the summer of ’96, when Smashing Pumpkins was the biggest band on earth, I saw them deliver an unforgettable set of high-decibel melodrama. During the second encore, the band unleashed “Silverfuck,” the incendiary 8-minute shredfest from Siamese Dream. At the end, instead of smashing his guitar, Billy Corgan sat down on the stage and methodically took it apart, unfazed by the screeching feedback of this little experiment. It’s the perfect metaphor for what made Siamese Dream the greatest LP to ever be labeled “grunge.” Corgan was a neurotic guitar geek, and he used the Siamese Dream sessions to indulge in his obsession, foregoing sleep and the respect of his bandmates to ensure every blast of distortion met with his vision. In the process, he invented his own wall of sound – a steady thrum of multi-tracked guitars that flood our eardrums like bagpipes from heaven. (The only instrument he didn’t personally touch were the drums, probably because Jimmy Chamberlin was one of the best rock drummers on earth in ’93.) Unlike the ragged emotional outpourings coming out of Seattle, this was unapologetically fussy rock music, best experienced on pricey headphones with your eyes closed. Despite the darkness of Corgan’s lyrics – even the hits are cries for help – the majesty of his sonic vision lifts all boats. When he sings, “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” he means the opposite. But the way those guitars ring as they deliver the hook? It makes the line true for me. Like any raging perfectionist, Corgan’s insistence on taking things apart and putting them back together again would come back to bite him. But not before he proved that perfection was within his reach.

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (20-16)

Whoa, we’ve hit the top 20! I’ve been writing this column since 2011, because like a good Gen X-er, I didn’t care that much about following through. Alas, here we are. Five more ’90s classics in ya ear. (You can check out the whole list here.)

91pBFF64j-L._SL1400_20. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)

That cover image you’re looking at right now, with the Beastie Boys sitting on a curb next to their instrument cases? It wasn’t a joke. Even though Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock had just reinvented themselves, against all odds, on the triumphant samplepalooza Paul’s Boutique, they took an even bigger risk on the follow-up – ditching their old producers and proven formulas so they could play their own loose concoction of funk, rap and hardcore punk. Like the Monkees, novelty-act status had masked the fact that the Beastie Boys had legitimate musical chops. Check Your Head is stuffed with monumental riffs and meditative instrumentals, lovingly sequenced into 20 tracks that resist the shuffle button. The rapping reflects this anything-goes, jam-session mentality, summed up by Mike D on track one: “All I ever really wanna do is get nice / Get loose and goof a little slice of life.” Only six years after “Brass Monkey” squawked its way onto the charts, this deeply musical, effortlessly electrifying LP entered the world. It was irrefutable proof of one of popular music’s greatest evolutions.

220px-IllmaticNas19. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

There’s a moment, before Nasir Jones raps a word of his debut album, that underlines how incredibly fresh his artistry was. As the ominous, subway-rattling bass line of “NY State of Mind” ramps up underneath, the 20-year-old MC confesses into the mic, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then, even though the ink is still drying, he jumps in, telling stories about life in New York’s Queensbridge projects that are so detailed, you can hear the dice hitting the walls: “On the corner bettin’ Grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughin’ at base-heads tryin to sell some broken amps.” Illmatic is a masterpiece of scene-setting, a clinic of internal rhymes, and an emotional watershed from a composition-book-scrawling kid who grew up surrounded by violence and nourished by poetry. And the beats – crafted by top producers of the ’90s – dramatically soundtrack these vivid scenes, from the clave-clacking quiet-storm R&B of “Life’s a Bitch” to the mournful organ loop of “Memory Lane.” He may have had no clue how to begin, but once Nas took that leap, it would be 38 minutes before he touched the ground.

CarWheelson_aGravelRoad18. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Lucinda Williams wanted her fourth album to sound a particular way. Warmer, punchier, more like the Pretenders or Steve Earle – “His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound,” she said about the latter. And thankfully, she stuck to her guns, through six years of label flameouts and disagreements with stubborn male producers (Earle included). Because Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sounds big in the most authentic possible way, a deeply rooted Louisiana oak that we can lean up against for an afternoon. It opens with “Right In Time,” an achingly physical love song that pairs visceral yearning (“Think about you and that long ride / I bite my nails, I get weak inside”) with a chiming guitar riff that’s as fulfilling as the sound of your lover pulling into the driveway. As Williams goes on to explore the nooks and crannies of Southern music, from jukebox country to jailbird folk and dobro-happy roots-rock, the connective tissue is her voice – defiantly front and center, singing about wandering spirits seeking meaning, making it seem like the journey itself could be enough.

Things_Fall_Apart_4117217. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

With the millennium coming to an end, the Clinton crime bill wreaking havoc on black communities, and an extended era of anti-Muslim fear-mongering right around the corner, The Roots released an album called Things Fall Apart. It was, quite ironically, the moment where everything came together for them. There’s a feeling of unrest throughout, an understanding that now it’s time to spark shit. Beats fade away in the middle of verses, the rappers left alone to soldier on. Its lead single, a love song about trust, prominently features the line “sometimes relationships get ill.” Its bookends are an argument between musicians from Mo’ Better Blues and a spoken word screed about the cycle of abuse. But even with the pull of these serious undercurrents, Things Fall Apart is a delight to listen to, a telepathic group at its peak, lovingly laid to tape. The crisp crack of Questlove’s snare; Kamal Gray’s nourishing Fender Rhodes vamps; Black Thought’s sweat-on-the-mic intensity – it gels in that next-level Revolver way. Resulting in a record that makes you feel grateful for its artistry, and wary of what’s to come.

https___images.genius.com_f251dcf3649ff26ca4be1d103d3a9173.1000x1000x116. Smog – Knock Knock (1999)

“Let’s go to the country / just you and me,” goes the opening lines of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan’s seventh LP. But that invitation wasn’t as casual as it sounded. Knock Knock found Callahan expanding his palette, both lyrically and instrumentally, the obscure lo-fi vision of his early albums making way for richly rendered, naturalistic tone-poems about empathetic prison guards, bone-chilling childhood traumas, and restorative balms of affection. “I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me,” he sings in his rumbling basso, describing a moment of psychological healing like Leonard Cohen on a Thoreau kick. The music is equally exploratory, using bouncing cellos and children’s choirs to buoy Callahan’s lush, searching guitar. It’s a formula he’d take to even more panoramic heights later on in his career, a smirking cowboy wading through amber waves of pain, coming out the other side humbled and smitten. Making Knock Knock even more meaningful in context. This isn’t just some invitation to a three-day weekend on the lake. It’s an artist taking the first steps into the underbrush of his soul.

The Top 20 Albums of 2018

The term “escapist” is usually applied to story-based art forms – like a 1,000-page high-fantasy novel or a blockbuster IMAX adventure. But in 2018, music was my escape hatch. The one thing every album on this list had in common was that it drew me into its unique sonic universe. Whether it was satirical hip-hop, sci-fi death metal, or romantic pop-country, I floated through it, gobsmacked by melody, moved by poetry. It was indescribably comforting to know that, no matter what atrocity was leading the news that day, the play button was an arm’s reach away.

https_images.genius.com469bb24dc0e092bff3f3003c8229ecf3.1000x1000x120. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

This Scottish-by-way-of-Africa trio was one of 2018’s most successful genre omnivores, fusing lush, electronic R&B with bursts of twitchy grime and the occasional harmony-drenched sunshower. The third Fathers record, Cocoa Sugar, finds the group filtering its legion of influences through the framework of slow-build dance music, layering one subtle element on top of another in a determined attempt to reach that jumping-up-and-down moment of transcendence. “Border Girl” begins with three squelching bass notes and ends up with what might as well be 1,000 voices, beckoning for miracles. On “Lord,” the pristine first single, a falsetto gospel chorus greets us, only to drop out, leaving behind a unstable atmosphere of wispy piano, heavy bass drops, and chilly sentiments like “If wishes were horses / Then beggars would ride.” When the chorus makes its glorious return, we can almost feel the mane in our hands, and the wild breeze in our faces.

a3297919058_1019. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

After the runaway success of her 2015 debut, Courtney Barnett went through an extended bout of writer’s block. She tried writing only on a typewriter. She took a break to make a fun, freewheeling album with Kurt Vile. It was all worth it. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a darker, more conflicted work, a floodlight shining on a noisy world, overflowing with fake friends and sexist trolls. Everything you need to know about the album’s emotional grey areas is built into the first song title, “Hopefulessness.” Featuring a string tuning down, a tea kettle screeching, and lines like “It’s okay to have a bad day,” it’s not forthcoming with easy answers. The rest of the album is equally honest, but also sneakily catchy. Especially “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” which boasts a delightful power-pop crunch that belies its title. When Barnett and her band launch into the chorus, it’s like they’re simultaneously having one of the most depressing and freeing adult realizations – everybody is making it up as they go along. “I don’t know anything!” they harmonize. If certain powerful men were strong enough to admit this, the world would be an unrecognizably better place.

220px-Teyana_Taylor_KTSE_Cover_Art18. Teyana Taylor – KTSE

Teyana Taylor knows a thing or two about staying positive. Even though she signed to Pharrell’s label way back in 2007, her debut album didn’t drop until 2014. And by the time LP2 finally arrived this summer, it had zero chance of untainted publicity, thanks to the public self-immolation of its executive producer, Kanye West. Which is a goddamn shame, because KTSE packs enough joy into its 23 minutes to counteract even the heaviest dose of dragon energy. The title stands for “Keep That Same Energy,” and Taylor’s commitment to the mantra is something to behold. Her voice is tinged with reflective wisdom. It’s a confluence of talent and life experience, a direct ancestor of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. West provides little more than spartan soul samples on most of these tracks, and it’s all Taylor needs. Until “WTP,” that is. A ballroom-inspired ’90s dance tour de force, complete with clips from Paris Is Burning, “WTP” closes this record with a deliriously satisfying blast of self-confidence. “Save your tears honey,” advises guest emcee Mykki Blanco. “You’re a motherfucking diva!”

https_images.genius.comd556b68ca7ed856d1efd2badd494260a.1000x1000x117. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

Study after study has shown that life in America is stressful AF. And the imaginative indie rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have taken a deep dive into the causes of this collective anxiety, and our continuing addiction to baseless claims that it’s all gonna be okay. They bring in authoritative-sounding comedians like Nick Offerman and John Hodgman to repeat the album title over soothing elevator music, giving the record its own brand of insidious, hilarious propaganda. As a result, Everything’s Fine is that rare rap album where the skits are essential, because they put these formidable emcees on the offensive. Grae & Chris rap with fire and irony about police violence and lost childhoods, exposing the lie of the album title over hazy, atmospheric production. Grae is especially dynamic, her verses an encyclopedic whirlwind, her shit-talk positively elegant: “Fire, brimstone, magma, lava, Dylan, molten granite, dollars, kimchee / Longer it sits, stronger the MC.” On the next track, Offerman tries to make us forget. “Why would you have to do anything about issues that don’t directly affect you?” he purrs. This record is a herculean battle between truth and comfort; nutrition and junk. It’s like watching the news, if pundits were poets.

https_images.genius.com408f28c254a33a5d96647336a9e972cd.622x622x116. Tierra Whack – Whack World

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 Playhouse. This 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.

https_images.genius.comaee8d20d98f75c9f52ae97a5ebd8637c.1000x1000x115. Vince Staples – FM!

Exposing the illusion of California as a sun-dappled promised land has been a go-to writerly pursuit since Steinbeck was in his prime. But it’s hard to think of any artist who has broken this spell with the muscular precision of Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. On his perpetual motion machine of a third record, Staples plays with our expectations like an especially sly feline. Track one is called “Feels Like Summer,” and it outlines a different kind of heat wave, an ever-present danger that makes the artist sweat all year round. “Cold weather won’t stop no gunner / Wrong hat, wrong day, I’ll kill my brother,” Staples raps. (His everyday challenges would make the Beach Boys shit their shorts.) The genius of FM! is how Staples balances these grim street narratives with infectious energy. Whether he’s rapping about the sun coming out or the guns coming out, his flow is the great equalizer, delivering this stark street poetry with exhilarating percussive force, the perfect foil for the gritty minimalism of producer Kenny Beats. It’s the 2018 equivalent of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” except the good times rarely last for a whole couplet, let alone 24 hours. When Staples raps, “Broad day, I’m ’round your way / SK, come out, let’s play,” it almost feels like kid on summer break, until we learn that an SK is a Soviet semiautomatic weapon. It’d be enough to make your head shake, if it wasn’t already bobbing like crazy.

https_images.genius.com24c0326732e628586966e81c5ca9ea27.700x700x114. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology

It all started with a pun. UK metalheads Matt Moss and Kev Pearson couldn’t believe that out of all the sludge metal bands with animal obsessions, none had connected “sludge” with “slug.” So in 2012, Slugdge was born, complete with its own crackpot theological backstory, centered on a vengeful, slimeridden, interdimensional god named Mollusca. After years of wriggling its way through the metal underground, Moss and Pearson’s band truly burst from the soil in 2018, with the release of its fourth LP, Esoteric Malacology. The Lovecraftian mythology and Pythonian absurdity have reached delirious new heights – “The walls shall liquify beneath / The force of Rhaexorog’s harrowing screams.” And the duo has developed its own particular brand of pummeling prog-metal, proving that very heavy music can also be clear and accessible, without upsetting too many die-hards. The riffs writhe like tentacles, undulating to their own arcane rhythms as they rise to blot out the sun. Clean, worshipful harmonies sit shoulder to shoulder with low demonic growls. When it all comes together, like on the relentless track “Crop Killer,” Slugdge is metal at its most ridiculously fun – painstakingly crafted compositions played with whizbang ability, and delivered with utter dedication to a bonkers sci-fi narrative based on a tortured pun. All. Hail. Mollusca.

https_images.genius.com2a57c6ea1f460c4a71f44de202ea1330.620x620x113. Neko Case – Hell-On

“I’m an agent of the natural world,” proclaims Neko Case on her self-produced sixth LP. The singer/songwriter has long favored themes of mother earth as a sleeping giant; her discography is full of tornadoes and floods, pent-up cyclones and hovering bees. But Case has never written as caustically about our impending doom as she does here. “Don’t you tell me I didn’t warn you,” she sings omnisciently over the gloomy waltz of the title track. In fact, Hell-On finds the artist so appalled by our collective eco-ignorance that she goes full Howard Zinn, telling stories about groups that tend to be ignored by the conquering generals who write our history books – extinct lions, female sailors, traumatized children. If Case wasn’t such a skilled producer, all of this foreboding might make for a tough sit. But this is her lushest album yet, with each track possessing some kind of fulfilling sonic surprise. Like the ’60s pop bounce of “Bad Luck.” Or the swelling wave of a chorus that crashes over “Winnie”: “We were warriors!” The seven-minute “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a stone-cold spine-tingler, pairing the artist’s touching remembrances of her first days on the road with duet partner Mark Lanegan’s reassuringly scratchy basso. If we’re all going down with the ship, then what better time to sing?

Lucy Dacus_ Historian12. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations. Where pop artists tend to prefer briskly discovered a-ha moments, this Virginia singer/songwriter explores the periphery and then works her 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. Historian is Dacus’s first LP with Matador Records, who won a very public label war for her services. All signs point to the execs staying out of her way. Otherwise, the fantastic chorus from the opening track “Night Shift” would’ve been burned off within 30 seconds. Instead, Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins, including an image of a man staring at his feet, waiting for his guilt to be lifted, that works pretty well as a metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Then, only when we understand, does it happen. The chord progression changes; the band drops out; and Dacus sings, “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 – bright, and loud, and true.

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg11. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune

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. His 22nd album is absolutely influenced by his producers, but its similarities to other late-career triumphs ends there. 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. This isn’t some novelty record. The love swells. The loss hurts. And the Auto-Tune elevates it all, more then any dumb guitar solo could.

https_images.genius.comf9fec989d8a03a8204fd4ff1189d2dd5.1000x1000x110. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

When the Scottish dance-pop enigma Sophie released a collection of singles in 2015, she gave it the perfect title – PRODUCT. Because this DJ and producer has made her mark by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in shamelessly mechanical, outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound is still evident on her proper studio debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, but this time, her mission is a therapeutic one. It might be twisted and distorted beyond recognition, but Sophie begins this album by featuring her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” she shares. “But I think your inside is your best side.” Then there’s “Immaterial,” a hand-clap-driven pop reverie that presents 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 classic Sophie anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal, stray pieces skittering across the linoleum – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.

https_images.genius.comce9271c9c0f795669e05dfd21bf39cdd.1000x1000x19. Caroline Rose – Loner

Is it possible for an artist to be low-key ambitious? To explore all kinds of fertile new ground without being all in-your-face about it? Caroline Rose’s second album leads me to believe so. Loner finds the former Americana singer/songwriter leaving that down-home strumminess in the dust, using a phalanx of synth patches and a chameleonic singing voice to hearken back to ’60s garage rock, ’70s punk and ’90s trip hop. Along with co-producer Paul Butler, Rose manages to corral all of this mood- and genre-hopping into a small-group setting. Other than the keyboards, the instrumentation pretty much doesn’t change. All the hard work is left to the songs and players. And rightfully so. Loner should be, on paper, a fairly depressing record. Narrators sit alone at diner counters, and lose their sense of wonder in a homogenized world. But Rose approaches every song with a sardonic grin. She’s not hopeless; she’s bemused. And she’s at her absolute best when taking on the satirical role of a crass, Randy Newman-style huckster: “We’re gonna put you in the movies and on TV / All you’ve gotta do is put on this little bikini!” As the guitars churn and the synths rain down, the last thing we’re thinking about is the genre. We’re too busy being electrified.

https_images.genius.com8b54877e9543c6577be5d6e963e02452.750x750x18. Denzel Curry – Ta13oo

There’s a throughline connecting the rise of grunge in the ’90s, nü metal in the ’00s and Soundcloud rap in the ’10s – new generations flocking to the sound of young men venting. In all three cases, this has resulted in a lot of entitled, peacocking garbage. But with the release of Florida rapper Denzel Curry’s second LP, Soundcloud rap may have found its ideal torchbearer. Ta13oo features many of the building blocks of this much-derided/beloved genre. Confessional lyrics flow like open veins. Dark, electronic beats swoosh past like rusted throwing stars. A working knowledge of Nirvana, Korn and Stephen King is made clear. But Curry elevates the formula beyond your typical teen angst, by just writing and rapping his ass off. “Sky is the limit / I could die any minute / Got my mind in a skillet / Suicide not the mission,” he spits over the light, strolling synths of “Black Balloons,” beautifully encapsulating the painful uncertainties and careening energies of youth. He begins the record by pledging to always be there for a partner who suffered childhood abuse. He uses Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a cipher for materialism. He references Chowder and Jimmy Neutron and South Park and Black Sabbath. He reaches rap nirvana, over and over again.

https_images.genius.com22ebcc3f86cf57b0438e81d03b492955.1000x1000x17. CupcakKe – Ephorize

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. Which is just what Ephorize has done for CupcakKe. The third LP from this prolific, seemingly unstoppable 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 wokeness. “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.

DirtyComputer6. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

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 an utterly confusing dystopian sci-fi premise. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album. But for the first time in her discography, it doesn’t really matter. The songwriting reckons with real life. In this world. In 2018. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident ’80s pop 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’s the most politically present, and openly romantic, she’s ever been – and the melodies bubble up and embrace us like they always have. “Pynk” turns an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasts one of the snappiest guitar riffs of the year. And “Make Me Feel” finds Monáe doing justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth. What a perfect time for her to shake things up, and give us all the feels.

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x15. Noname – Room 25

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 delivers 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. When Noname admits “Everybody think they know me / Don’t nobody really know me,” producer Phoelix supports her with a synth patch that sounds like a music box – the sound of the adolescence she’s leaving behind. As she ponders the human condition on “Don’t Forget About Me,” the gentle snare hits and burbling organ are a balm. And on the opening “Self,” where she proves that quiet confidence can shatter foundations, we get an absolute motherfucker of a Fender Rhodes soul groove. It sounds like good news, like a long kiss, like maple syrup on your oatmeal. And Noname drops the verse of the year 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?”

a3868691890_164. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin makes dreamy, contemplative funk instrumentals. But that description doesn’t do them justice. I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps then every record on this list combined, 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. The end result sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. I could listen to it on repeat. 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!”

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad3. Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

“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 incontrovertible truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” has reached heights of sonic expression that transcend genre. Or song structure. Or the physical plane. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s lofty and amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art, and transfer her own feelings to listeners. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations – even the low end is rising skyward. Resulting in music that makes us feel like that batty old man in Mary Poppins, floating to the ceiling in his pajamas, laughing at the wonder of it all. What’s even more amazing is that, at its heart, this is a pop album, meant to connect with as many of us as possible. 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. Making us feel the way the artist must have felt – entranced and inspired, our goosebumps rising like voices.

RobynHoney2. Robyn – Honey

Nobody used dance music as a weapon of resilience like Robyn did in the first decade of a scary new millennium. The Swedish singer, songwriter and producer wielded bass drum eighth notes like emotional armor, resisting despair’s powerful undertow, bravely choosing to dance on her own. But in the eight years since her absolutely essential Body Talk albums turned our insecurities into ecstasies, a lot happened in this artist’s life. Relationships ended. A close friend and collaborator passed away. And the world kept spinning ever more out of control. So it shouldn’t be a total shock that Robyn has left her suit of armor hanging on the castle walls. On Honey, the pain of the past comes flooding in, exposing universal human weak spots – nostalgia, grief, love. Instead of being repelled by otherworldly pop hooks, their power is captured, and harnessed for good. “Because it’s in the music / Yeah, we’re dancing to it / I’m right back in that moment / And it makes me want to cry,” she sings, in perhaps the clearest example of how her perspective has evolved since 2010. But the track’s rolling, playful bass line and frolicking synth strings communicate the therapeutic nature of her words. Robyn pulls off this trick all over Honey, processing these emotions through the language of adventurous dance-pop, without blunting their impact. It’s a genius songwriter at work. And when she takes a break from soul-searching, we get the avant-garde banger “Beach2k20,” an entrancing ’90s dance concoction during which Robyn has a muffled conversation with herself arranging a beach trip. The only words that bubble completely up to the surface are “Let’s go party!” You’d think nine tracks wouldn’t feel like enough after an eight-year absence. It’s as generous as music gets.

Golden-hour-Kacey-Musgraves1. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings Kacey Musgraves, on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, it never feels the least bit trite. Because this songwriter has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis. “These are real things,” she marvels. Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.” This clarity is also evident in Golden Hour’s production. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records, but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem. “Oh What a World” features a chorus of robotic voices. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album. But for all these feats of songcraft, the moment that moved me the most was as simple as can be. The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Against All Logic – 2012-2017; At the Gates – To Drink from the Night Itself; Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest; Brockhampton – IridescenceCardi B – Invasion of Privacy; Mariah Carey – Caution; City Girls – Period; Cupcakke – Eden; Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs; Flatbush Zombies – Vacation In Hell; Future – Beast Mode 2; JPEGMAFIA – Veteran; Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread; Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens; Horrendous – Idol; Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – Mih-Ty; Kero Kero Bonito – Time ‘n’ Place; Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V; Mammoth Grinder – Cosmic Crypt; Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!; Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel; Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past; Pusha-T – Daytona; Rhye – Blood; Rico Nasty – Nasty; Saba – Care for Me; Screaming Females – All At Once; Sofi Tukker – Treehouse; Anna St. Louis – If Only There Was a River; Tenacious D – Post-Apocalypto; Kurt Vile – Bottle It In

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (25-21)

Being There

25. Wilco – Being There (1996)

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

BizarreRideIIthePharcyde

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

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

Introducing_happiness_album_cover23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

Kanye West – Ye

“Everything I did or thought was aimed at creating music that would make people happy and also keep them away from me, and because I was successful, my weirdness was accepted.” That’s a quote from Brian Wilson, the infamously troubled leader of the Beach Boys. For the handful of years that his band was on top, Wilson faced immense pressure from his label to keep cranking out hits. And from his bandmate Mike Love, who just wanted to keep making “Surfin’ U.S.A.” over and over again. And from his own desire to be revered, to be spoken of in the same breath as Gershwin, Spector, McCartney. This pressure, coupled with unresolved childhood trauma and drugs, triggered Wilson’s mental illness. He finally broke down in 1967, in the middle of the sessions for his greatest workHe never reached those artistic heights again.

I’m guessing Kanye West can relate. Ever since that night in 2009 when he crashed Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, the artist has had to compensate for his “weirdness.” Every uncomfortable interview and narcissistic tweetstorm would be chum for an American public with a voracious appetite for celebrity failures. But then he’d drop another masterpiece, and we’d lose the scent. We’d focus on his production choices instead of his personal ones. He could be spinning out of control, yet still control the narrative.

It’s amazing that it lasted this long. It would have made sense if West bottomed out after 2010’s astounding, leave-it-all-out-on-the-field My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But three years later came the stripped-down primal scream of Yeezus. And in 2016, the sprawling sinner’s gospel of The Life of Pablo. Which brings us to Ye, the artist’s eighth solo LP. And his first attempt at breaking the cycle.

Like all five of the albums West is releasing this summer, Ye is seven songs long, recorded in a remote studio in Wyoming. A loose, murky affair, it’s a clear aesthetic shift for the producer, a notorious perfectionist. (Merely weeks earlier, West was flexing his still-peerless ability to turn old soul tunes into luxurious summer hip-hop on Pusha-T’s Daytona.) For the first time, it feels like he walked into the studio and just shared what was on his mind, off the cuff, awkward vibes be damned. It’s as much of a performance as it is a purge.

“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” muses the artist during the extended spoken-word opening of “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s a mission statement on a record that explores what it’s like to be a bi-polar celebrity, the highs and lows, the likes and blocks, the emotional cycles and media cycles. That song title is more than just a provocation, with West sharing that because he’s thought about killing himself, it only stands to reason that he’s thought about killing you too. As he admits, “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he pitch bends his voice downward, a chilling moment of truth.

“Yikes” contains Ye’s most traditionally catchy hook, as he does some of the most convincing singing of his career over a chopped-up vocal sample from the underground ’70s psychedelic funk group Black Savage. But it’s a song about opioid addiction, and it’s appropriately haunting. “Sometimes I scare myself,” West croons on the chorus, which I absolutely can’t get out of my head.

The other major highlight is “Ghost Town,” a soaring, guest-heavy melodic sunburst reminiscent of The Life of Pablo’s gospel opener “Ultralight Beam.” Kid Cudi sings about unrequited love; Kanye sings about “taking all the shine,” and newcomer 070 Shake brings down the house with her extended outro, sung with pure, deliberate joy – “I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be.”

Notice I’m not talking much about rapping here. West has always been unafraid to bust out a cheesy play on words, but on Ye, he’s lost a lot of the conviction that could make those moments charming. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington / That’s gonna be an enormous scandal,” is typical of this newfound laziness. Then there’s “Don’t get your tooth chipped like Frito-Lay.” On the closing “Violent Crimes,” West finds his fervor for bars again – but its queasy father-daughter narrative does him no favors. “Curves under your dress / I know it’s pervs all on the net / All in the comments, you wanna vomit,” he raps. He may be opening his eyes to our culture of toxic masculinity. But he’s a long way from woke.

Hey, maybe he’s just more comfortable singing these days. Because that, along with his sparse, rain-spattered production choices, make Ye a rewarding listen. It’s a small album, not just in length, but in the space it inhabits – the internal world of one very famous and conflicted man. It is the absolute definition of what a self-titled album should be.

What it’s not is an event. In the headwinds of West’s latest stint in the news – the Trump support, the “dragon energy,” the victim blaming of slavesthat song where he raps “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” – it folds like a tent.

Perhaps he wants it that way. Perhaps he made a quiet album about mental illness and addiction because he’s tired of summoning the flood every few years. Perhaps he’s done making music to keep people happy, and away from him. Kanye West has made his Pet Sounds, and his Smile, several times over. He’s earned the right to just surf.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (30-26)

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

30. Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

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

29. Portishead – Dummy (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

26. Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey (1990)

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