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)

14808597-2.jpg

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)

14808597-2.jpg

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)

14808597-2.jpg

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)

14808597-2.jpg

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.)

338877bda16788115a46af967eabbf25.jpg

“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.

Aimee Mann

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.

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover

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

bjork_1995_stephane_sednaoui_01_post_large.jpg

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!)

The Top 20 Albums of 2019

2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of me uselessly shouting my opinions into the void writing this blog. Why am I still doing it? Because I am constantly hearing great music, and am incapable of not writing some flowery bullshit to express how much I love it. And this past year was no exception. A country legend mounted an improbable comeback. A pop star who had always bored me brought me to tears. Oregonian Satanists and Miami rappers and Swedish folksingers all brought me joy. And to top it off, one of my all-time favorite songwriters made a masterpiece about domestic bliss. So as I kick off another decade with my Top 20 Albums of 2019, let me say, from the bottom of my heart – thanks for reading. I truly have no idea why you do it.

https___images.genius.com_7dc1f9644ce16b2e9cfa89d132240124.600x600x120. Brutus – Nest

“Fire! Burn them all! I’m breaking your walls down,” goes the opening lines to Nest – the blisteringly loud, sweepingly emotional second record from the Belgian trio Brutus. And walls do indeed get pulverized here, between about a dozen subgenres of punk and metal, and between society’s expectations for female musicians and the formidable talents of vocalist/drummer Stefanie Mannaerts. On “War,” a wrecking ball of a metal ballad that begs comparison to Metallica’s “One,” Mannaerts pledges the destruction of her ex, and her choice of weapon is her drum sticks. When the guitar and bass follow her lead, it’s insufficient to say this trio is merely “in the pocket.” They’re nested – intertwined; inseparable; utterly at home.

https___images.genius.com_49a7f3fdf3f030a23c30bc2cabc3fad9.1000x1000x119. Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’

Since 2002, when Tanya Tucker dropped her last LP of original songs, the outlaw country legend lost both of her parents, and released a doomed covers album that made the industry wary of a comeback. But singer/songwriter and Grammy favorite Brandi Carlisle was determined to turn this tide, and do for Tucker what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash in the ’90s. She sent Tucker a clutch of raw, open-hearted songs for a proposed LP. Tucker was nervous, but she made the right call and followed Carlisle’s lead. While I’m Livin’ foregoes Tucker’s usual countrypolitan sheen in favor of an earthier twang, which suits the 61-year-old’s gritty, powerful voice. And the songs themselves were penned bespoke for her outlaw image – its narrators include an escaped prisoner, a fed-up housewife, and a country singer who wouldn’t change a thing about growing up poor. “The days are long / But the years are lightning,” Tucker ponders on the gut-wrenching, reaper-tempting ballad “Bring My Flowers.” She sure did electrify the hell out of 2019.

https___images.genius.com_d0bc88e39fc7bedd05a4a8079445a357.1000x1000x118. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana

In the push-pull relationship between rappers and producers, it’s the guys with the microphones who tend to do the pushing. So it’s pretty remarkable when the opposite happens – like on Bandana, the second effort from Indiana workhorse Freddie Gibbs and Bay Area beatmaker/wizard Madlib. On their 2014 debut, Piñata, Gibbs hadn’t yet gotten the hang of how to inhabit his partner’s woozy, sample-heavy atmospheres. No such trouble this time around. Gibbs just takes a deep breath and flows. I’m talking seemingly endless cascades of syllables, about slinging coke and the prison industrial complex and flat tummy tea and watching Dora with his daughter. “I done been dropped before / Talked about and wrote off before / Heart on my sleeve and the ATF at my mama door,” he spits on “Giannis,” throwing grit and grime all over Madlib’s dreamy glockenspiel loop, pulling it down from the clouds into the complicated rhythms of the here and now. Gibbs is still absolutely the Garfunkel of this shit, but Garfunkel was Simon’s vessel to transcendence. (Don’t tell your parents I said this, but Graceland is overrated.)

c0pgud81zws2117. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated

Once you’ve taken pop music to its absolute peak, where do you go from there? In 2019, Carly Rae Jepsen went right to the dance floor. With the neon glow of her richly layered, sweep-you-off-your-feet-romantic triumph E•MO•TION in the rearview, the British Columbian pop star spent years figuring out what to do next, writing hundreds of songs, toying with everything from a disco theme to a concept album called Music to Clean Your House To. Eventually, she just gathered all of these threads and made Dedicated, a breezy, cheeky, low-key delight of a dance-pop LP. Her disco jones shows up on the opening “Julian,” and the fizzy synth-pop hooks of “Now That I’ve Found You” could easily be sung into a broom handle. “I’ll do anything to get to the rush,” she confesses on the instant-classic drunk-on-love ballad “Too Much.” Dedicated is the result of that drive, that desire to get these light, blissful moments exactly right.

a4071199145_1016. Annika Norlin & Jens Lenkman – Correspondence

In the early moments of 2018, a pair of expressive Swedish songwriters agreed to a year-long experiment. Jens Lenkman would write a song dedicated to Annika Norlin in January; she would respond with a tune of her own in February, and so on. The resulting LP, Correspondence, is a triumph of emotional communication. Both artists commit themselves wholeheartedly to the concept, reacting to their counterpart’s sadness with words of support. “I just want someone to talk to or maybe not just anyone / I’ve always liked what goes on in your brain / So would you like to correspond?” pleads Lenkman over his finger-picked acoustic on the opening “Who Really Needs Who.” Norlin responds with an ingenious song about her fear of showering in locker rooms, sharing her own insecurities in solidarity. The metaphors just get more evocative from there, especially Norlin’s, who wishes she could hibernate like a bear, or be as certain about life as a cult member. People might not write letters anymore, but they sure do write masterpieces.

d1cd15de102b996097a8100b1ddf77b0.320x320x115. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿

Eight years after telling us he was gonna “die like a rockstar,” the squawky Detroit rapper Danny Brown has thankfully proven himself wrong. In 2019, his charming, Pee Weeinfluenced talk show Danny’s House premiered, after which he dropped uknowhatimsayin¿, his most assured, sonically ambitious LP. Dude’s a star. But he’s seemingly a much happier one than he predicted he’d be. “What’s in the dark, always come to light,” he shares on “Dirty Laundry,” airing out some old sexual escapades while riding one of his healthiest metaphors. This album never reaches the intense heights of his masterpiece, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, but the softer, subtler soundscapes introduced by executive producer Q-Tip have inspired Danny to scale back his helium-huffing rants and let his word choices thrill us all on their own. “I don’t give a fuck / I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck,” he boasts, calmly and hilariously, on the trumpet-flecked closer “Combat.” Relaxation looks damn good on him.

a81f1051f61c93c3ad4489700ee04328.1000x1000x114. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell 

At the end of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression epic The Grapes of Wrath, the character Rose of Sharon, mourning her stillborn child, breastfeeds a starving man in a rundown California barn. Life, and hope, somehow continue on, all thanks to a woman. On her starkly produced, magnificently written sixth album, Lana Del Rey takes some cues from Rose. As she sings about California’s empty promises and the deeply rooted misogyny that makes them downright dangerous for her gender, Del Rey simultaneously refuses to give in to the malaise. On “Mariner Apartment Complex,” she throttles a guy who misinterprets her sadness as weakness, begging him to wake the fuck up and bask in her strength. On her nostalgia-spiked state of the union address “The Greatest,” she calls one of pop’s biggest stars to the mat and administers the casual savaging he deserves: “Kanye West is blonde and gone.” And over the barnboard-bare piano chords of the closing track, she goes full-on Rose of Sharon – admitting with a tremble, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it.”

60712a7b6cbcc792502d877fb9a170c5.1000x1000x113. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

“I hate wasted potential,” sighs comedian Jerrod Carmichael toward the end of Tyler, the Creator’s sixth album. Of all the little pearls of wisdom that Carmichael delivers on IGOR, this one resonates the loudest. When Tyler first broke in 2009 with his Bastard tape, he was both obviously talented and frustratingly hateful, littering his lyric sheets with violent misogyny and homophobic slurs. Fast forward a decade, and that anger has ebbed, leaving self-awareness in its wake. IGOR is a concept album about falling in and out of love with a man, beautifully detailing the butterfly flutters of infatuation, the cold-sweat panic of realization, and the eventual acceptance that it’s over. The music is loose and groove-based, a mix of R&B and acid jazz and old-school Neptunes that creates a consistent feeling of warmth. And the vocal performances are truly special: “Other than air, oxygen and financial freedom, yeah / I want your company,” Tyler raps on “Puppet,” clipping the syllables with nervous energy, clearly conveying the worry that his neediness will drive his love away.

Purple_Mountains_-_Purple_Mountains12. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

It’s impossible to listen to David Berman’s shattered, plainspoken comeback album without remembering that it was also his last. The 52-year-old singer/songwriter, best known as the leader of the indie rock band Silver Jews, took his own life less than a month after its release. It’s a lot of emotional freight to put on a listening experience. But while Berman doesn’t mince words about his struggles with depression, he also made an album of exemplary sonic warmth, caustic humor, and ingenious turns of phrase. “I’ve been forced to watch my friends enjoy / Ceaseless feats of schadenfraude,” he sings on the opening country strut “That’s Just the Way I Feel,” using internal rhyme and a good vocabulary to create an effortless blend of sadness and cleverness. That upbeat country & western arrangement pops up a few more times, providing welcome emotional ballast. “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” effectively employs saloon piano runs, letting us know it’s absolutely okay to LOL at the line, “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.” Even when the arrangements get slower, and the sentiments get bleaker, Berman’s skill as a performer is a balm. When he sings, “The dead know what they’re doing / When they leave the world behind,” it’s with a matter-of-factness that rivals Lou Reed. He’s not trying to make us cry. That’s just the way he feels.

dc8c722b0a00da9ef6c558a51f45d361.596x596x111. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever

Two of the most successful artists of 2019, Lizzo and Lana Del Rey, had one other thing in common – public struggles with negative reviews. Now I’m biased on this issue for obvious reasons, and I have no idea what it must be like to have your art casually torn apart by some random Internet dork. But I have to admit, they’d have been better off taking a cue from Megan Thee Stallion. “Fuck all the critics and fuck how they feel!” the Houston rapper trumpets on the trunk-rattling opening track of her debut mixtape, Fever. There is no doubting her sincerity on this point. Absolutely nobody sounded as inherently confident, as I’m-the-shit-and-I-know-it dominant, on the mic as Meg did this year. With the bass-heavy thump of classic Dirty South production to egg her on, she delivers endlessly entertaining boasts – sexual, financial, and artistic. And she does it with the skill of a rap technician, transforming flexes into self-fulfilling prophecies, and living up to the Foxy Brown power-move artwork that graces the cover. Fuck what I feel, indeed.

Charli_XCX_-_Charli10. Charli XCX – Charli

As one of the most dependable singles artists of the 2010s, Charlotte Aitchison (aka Charli XCX) knows a thing or two about crafting deliriously cheerful dance-pop bangers. On her third LP, tellingly titled Charli, the boundary-pushing artist throws back the veil, exploring the complicated impulses that drive her to make music that helps you forget your worries. “I hate the silence / That’s why the music’s always loud,” she admits over the twinkling guitars of “White Mercedes.” This is part of a mid-album string of deeply personal ballads that place Charli among the best lyricists in pop. “Official” is the love song of the year, outlining how shared affection can transform potential problems into deeper bonds: “You know the words to my mistakes / You understand because you made ’em too.” Even the club-ready earworms have an emotional twinge, like the nostalgia-ridden Troye Sivan duet “1999,” or the self-sabotaging Lizzo team-up “Blame It On Your Love.” Music is no longer an escape for her. It’s a place to work out her feelings, and help us do the same. So when the last track fades out and we’re left in the silence, that won’t be such a bad thing after all.

Goldlink-DIASPORA-cover9. GoldLink – Diaspora

On his second album, the DC rapper GoldLink achieves a thrilling level of synergy between his sound and his name, linking together global genres on the strength of his next-level sequencing skills, effortless-sounding flow, and murderers’ row of intercontinental guest stars. “No bad vibes coulda enter my yard,” beams the British Afroswing singer Haile on one of Diaspora’s many sinuously catchy choruses, encapsulating how this record’s syncopation alone can make you smell honeysuckle in December. GoldLink is more than talented enough to carry an album himself – evidenced here by his incredible, triplet-heavy turn on “Maniac.” But he’s even more comfortable operating as a curator of sounds and talents, like on “Joke Ting,” where a sun-dappled reggae groove is brought to life by Ari PenSmith, a vocalist and producer getting his first shot here. It all comes to a head on the propulsive dancehall masterpiece “Zulu Screams,” where Nigerian singer/producer Maleek Berry and German singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly team up to deliver a chorus doused in celebratory adrenaline. Transcendence having already been reached, GoldLink has no problem admitting that anything he could add is nothing more than a nice bonus: “Calm down, all good, baby it’s gravy.”

a0427656644_108. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile

With a potential second term for Donald Trump looming, anger is a valid and necessary response. But there’s also something to be said for quiet optimism. On his sixth album as Helado Negro, singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange delivers soothing balms of hope, in the form of whispered, bilingual electro-folk ballads. When the weight of 2020 feels too heavy to process, Lange’s reassuring truths are going to be my medicine for sure. “We’ll take our turn / We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” he softly croons to the president on “Pais Nublado,” embodying the polar opposite of his spittle-flecked neuroses, buoyed by washes of electronics and leisurely acoustic strumming. The achingly beautiful, steel drum-infused “Imagining What To Do” also preaches patience: “We wait softly / Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow.” Yes, we need to fight for what we believe in. But first, we need the peace of mind to believe it’s possible.

a4123579682_107. Idle Hands – Mana

The adage “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings” is basically parental propaganda, threatening satanic possession if you don’t stop moping and mow the damn lawn. The Portland, Oregon, trio Idle Hands has done an incredible job reclaiming these words for the mopers, the sighers, and the lonely daydreamers – Mana, their debut LP, is the perfect album to have playing in the background the next time you tell mom and dad to go to hell. Taking as much from the melodic goth-rock of Depeche Mode as it does from the supercharged gallop of Iron Maiden, Mana has pop hooks embedded deep in its accursed bones. As lead singer Gabriel Franco illustrates the rush of surrendering yourself to the Dark Lord on songs like “Give Me to the Night,” the blitzing guitar and pommeling drums provide adrenaline boosts of their own. Franco’s tenor is rich, impassioned, and clean, further adding to the outright catchiness of this thoroughly dark material. But when the moment calls for something more brutal, he unleashes a desperate, throat-wrenching yawp – the sound of a soul begging to be saved from the hypocrisies of heaven. Whether they’re reveling in the devil’s embrace, or bemoaning the absence of any embrace at all, Idle Hands draws us in, by combining authentic emotion with absolutely killer melodies. Mana begs to be played loud, and felt deeply.

unnamed-1-1569341614-640x6406. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

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. “We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar / And everything is as distant as the stars / I am here, and you are where you are,” Cave posits, acknowledging the frailty of life while finding magic in death. 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. “I am here beside you / Look for me in the sun,” he sings, looking beyond the trauma, traveling past a world of concrete beginnings and endings. The fact that we get to go with him feels like some kind of miracle.

a2334189316_105. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!

One of the more well-known take-downs of music writing is that it’s “like dancing about architecture.” Everyone from Martin Mull to Lester Bangs to Elvis Costello has said this. It is, of course, preposterous. Artists are inspired by other art forms all the time, and their art is better for it. Like the second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods – a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. These aren’t covers, or attempts to replicate anybody’s style. They’re more like poetic odes set to music, explanations from Woods as to what these people mean to her. “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 continues 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’re 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 remarkable vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.

Denzel_Curry_-_Zuu4. Denzel Curry – Zuu

“Big talk / Speedboat / Pray to God I don’t get repo’d,” raps 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 the clearest, deepest, most indelible stories of any rapper this year. “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.

Angel-Dust-Pretty-Buff-1552663392-640x6403. Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff

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.

Titanic_Rising2. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Songwriters have long been inspired to write about their childhood bedrooms, which serve as sturdy metaphors for a refuge from the storm. On her fourth album as Weyes Blood, singer/songwriter Natalie Mering gives a 2019 update to this trope, applying Brian Wilson’s personal ennui to a world of rising seas, vapid summer blockbusters, and esteem-destroying dating apps. On the cover, the artist floats in a womb-like, subaquatic bedroom, speaking to our collective environmental anxiety while simultaneously romanticizing the creative potential of personal space. It’s a perfect echo of the dichotomies Mering explores on these ten tracks, wrapping her existential fears and romantic frustrations in the softest of soft rock packages, ensuring they don’t get shattered during delivery. “Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe,” she croons over a vintage AM piano ballad backdrop, pedal steel notes cresting across the speakers like shooting stars. On the synthesizer-drenched “Movies,” she wishes life could be as easy as the silver screen makes it out to be. And “Wild Time” references “a million people burning,” while a swaying, late-’70s Joni Mitchell arrangement has the effect of high-grade aloe vera. By translating Mering’s search for meaning into art, Titanic Rising reveals a few things she does believe in – the soothing power of music, and the restorative energy of introspection. If we can prevent these complicated feelings from retreating into our subconscious, maybe we won’t be sunk once and for all.

Bill_Callahan_-_Shepherd_in_a_Sheepskin_Vest1. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

I recently started reading Jane Austen for the first time, injecting Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice straight into my bloodstream. Of all the ways these classics moved me, I was especially awestruck by the quietness of their romantic denouements. When Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy finally profess their love for one another – after 250 pages of nervous misunderstandings in drawing rooms – it’s over in a minute. No grand gestures are made. Darcy doesn’t even get down on one knee. Their feelings are enough. On his loose, unassuming double LP, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Bill Callahan channels Austen’s straightforwardness about love. Six years removed from his last album – the more traditionally lovestruck Dream River – Shepherd finds the artist reflecting on the joys of being a husband and father, more rooted in his bliss, performing humbly arranged songs in his home studio as if his wife had requested them via a note on the fridge. “The panic room is now a nursery / And there’s renovators renovating constantly,” he shares on “Son of the Sea,” finding peace in the ebb and flow of domestic life. For the majority of his career, Callahan has been more of a wandering cowboy type, philosophizing about life’s grandest mysteries, with the dramatic instrumentation to match. So it’s especially moving to hear him speak plainly, as a man grateful for finding his people, and for the way they’ve shepherded him home. “True love is not magic / It’s certainty,” he declares in his rich, incomparable basso. I’m certain that Ms. Austen would agree.

Honorable Mentions: Anderson .Paak – Ventura; Angel Olsen – All Mirrors; Bask – III; Bleached – Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?; Brockhampton – Ginger; Coldplay – Everyday Life; The Comet Is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery; Czarface – The Odd Czar Against Us; Gang Starr – One of the Best Yet; Hatchie – Keepsake; Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs; Kevin Abstract – Arizona Baby; King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Fishing for Fishies; Kim Petras – Turn Off the Light; Little Simz – Grey Area; Maren Morris – Girl; Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks; Moon Tooth – Crux; The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons; Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits; Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management; Solange – When I Get Home; Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between; Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury; Tree & Vic Spencer – Nothing Is Something; Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride; Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth; William Tyler – Goes West; Young Thug – So Much Fun; Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium

The Second Best Album of the 1990s

My second-favorite album of the 1990s is unbreakable, shatterproof.

71h631BJGLL._SL1417_.jpg

2. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)

From 1984-87, a sci-fi adventure cartoon adapted from a Japanese anime series became a hit in syndication. It told the story of five young pilots defending their planet from the armies of an evil alien king. When things got especially perilous, these soldiers would literally unite – their lion-shaped planes locked together to form a giant, sword-wielding robot called Voltron.

The nine members of the Staten Island rap crew known as the Wu-Tang Clan would have been teenagers when Voltron was on the air. And being the innately talented storytellers that they were, they absorbed the show’s messages about the power of togetherness, of how courage under fire can grow exponentially when it’s shared. When it came time for them to hole up in a tiny studio and knock out their debut album, they kept their egos in check. Even though the odds were against them ever getting another chance at fame like this, eight mega-talented rappers uniformly agreed to let their producer/bandleader RZA make the final decisions on whose verses made it in. If the results of these sessions achieved mere coherence, it would’ve been an achievement. But Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers is one of the most focused, balanced LPs in rap history. Its off-the-charts energy hits as hard as it does because of how expertly it’s been channeled. Every single outsized personality gets his moment in the sun, without one rhyme, sample, or snippet of kung-fu movie dialogue ever feeling extraneous. This wasn’t just the debut of a new artist. It was the invention of a myth. One album in, and Wu-Tang had slain the king.

In hindsight, ceding artistic control to RZA was the smartest thing these guys could’ve done. He was in the midst of developing a signature sound built on martial drums and sped-up soul samples, with just enough grit in the mix to make it sound like a rare find at the bottom of the bin. His productions ran the gamut from rugged to rollicking to rueful – and he had a cast of characters to suit any mood. So the confrontational, elephantine drums of “Bring Da Ruckus” sound like they were tailored bespoke for Ghostface Killah’s hyperactive, ultraviolent style. “Shame On A N—a,” with its catchy R&B horn breaks, is the ideal showcase for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s wild, oxygen-sucking wisecracks. And the wistful, Gladys Knight-sampling ballad “Can It Be All So Simple” gives Raekwon a rain-spattered backdrop that perfectly frames his gritty childhood reminiscences. It’s incredibly rare to encounter a debut album that covers such a wide swath of emotional territory.

Part of it was timing. These guys had been rapping all their lives, scribbling in notebooks, developing their characters, discovering their flows. And here they were, getting their shot, over some of the nastiest beats ever created. (This was technically RZA and GZA’s second shot; both of them had brief, pre-Wu solo careers under different names.) The energy in their voices is palpable. Which meant they could compare themselves to cocaine straight from Bolivia, or threaten to kill you while making a Family Feud reference, or dip into a couplet from Green Eggs and Ham, and it all would feel like it was shot straight from a cannon into your adrenal glands.

Once Enter the Wu-Tang established them as visionaries, the members of Wu-Tang would go on to create hours upon hours of legendary, boundary-pushing hip-hop, most of it on their own solo albums. But they never could reach the heights they achieved when they were young unknowns, hungry as hell and utterly in it together. “So when you see me on the real / Formin’ like Voltron / Remember I got deep like a Navy Seal,” warns Raekwon on “Shame on a N—a,” evoking that larger-than-life cartoon machine that ran exclusively on human bonds. It’s a perfect metaphor, one of many on this flawless, unflagging LP. Because when Wu-Tang Clan first formed, it was into a shape that has yet to be replicated.

 

 

 

The Third Best Album of the 1990s

My third-favorite album of the 1990s is the one that made me realize that American rap music was one of the most exciting things happening on earth.

c73a879653bc2c67fc124dc8ca678667.1000x1000x1.jpg

3. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)

Sometimes things align in just such a way. You encounter a work of art at the perfect moment, when the context of your reality leaves you especially open to its aesthetic. There’s a grand interlocking of gears. And this creation forever becomes a part of you.

A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, Midnight Marauders, was the first rap CD I ever bought. Up till that point I had been thoroughly ignorant of any genre that wasn’t rock, thinking Led Zeppelin and Metallica were all I would ever need. Luckily, some new friends with better taste entered my life. One of them played Tribe’s deliriously fun crew single “Scenario” for me, and in that moment I was given permission to pursue so much more in my BMG Music Service orders – artists that put rhythm first, that interpolated the history of jazz and funk and R&B and rap into something exhilaratingly new, that put an absolute premium on cleverness.

So Midnight Marauders arrived at the precise moment where I was ready to expand my definition of what music, and friendship, could be. It featured two rappers, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, who had been BFFs since they were two years old, and had the chemistry to prove it. Tip’s smooth-talking philosophy gelled with Phife’s raspy underdog humor in a goosebump-raising way – the energy they created on tape together transcended mere artistic talent. These guys loved and needed each other, and they never sounded happier to be trading bars together than they did on this album. Factor in the panoramic, viscerally funky productions from Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and you’ve got music that hums with powerful, positive vibrations. It was the lightning bolt that knocked me off my rockist donkey for good.

And this record doesn’t just loom large in the context of my mundane life story. It holds a place in the history of rap as a beacon of brotherhood, shining brightly at a time when the battle lines between East and West Coast hip hop were being drawn. For the album cover, Tribe reached out to rap artists across the country, asking for a headshot of them wearing headphones. Dr. Dre is on there, along with Sean Combs, Chuck D, Ice T, the Beastie Boys, Souls of Mischief, MC Lyte, and dozens of others. It’s a testament to the unifying power of good music, and the perfect visual accompaniment to the infectious camaraderie that takes these particular songs over the top.

Midnight Marauders begins with two songs that celebrate how much fun it is to make music with friends, and then share those creations with the world. The first, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” shouts out the trio’s Queens roots over a fluttering Woody Shaw sample. Phife fully embraces his “Five Foot Assassin” persona for the first time here, “knocking fleas off his collar” with wise-cracking ease. Tip ends the track on a beautifully introspective tear:

Ok, I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
Is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
Because opinions are like voices, we all have a different kind
So just clean out all of your ears, these are my views and you will find

That we revolutionize over the kick and the snare
The ghetto vocalist is on a state-wide tear

Then comes “Award Tour,” a laid-back chronicle of the bonds formed by travel, where guest rapper Trugoy of De La Soul uses each chorus to check off cities around the world that have been lucky enough to watch Tribe represent. As Weldon Irvine’s irresistible electric piano loop takes the track airborne, Phife provides some ballast with one of his greatest verses – outlining the superior nature of his skills, the philosophy of Tribe’s music, and the bone-deep quality of his friendships, all with a wink and a smile:

So Shaheed come in with the sugar cuts
Phife Dawg’s my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt
When was the last time you heard the Phife sloppy
Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky’s the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
Sit back, relax, get up out the path
If not that, here’s a dance floor, come move that ass
Non-believers, you can check the stats
I roll with Shaheed and the brother Abstract

This same formula is perfected across every track of Midnight Marauders. Even the short skits (one of the few things about ’90s rap that I don’t miss) support the album’s refreshingly unpretentious, all-you-need-is-a-dance-floor philosophy. In a spoof of humorless robocall voices, the album’s electronic narrator interrupts the proceedings from time to time, to deliver various messages: She tells us the names of the band members, suggests that education is the best way to combat the AIDS crisis, and lets us know what BPM levels to expect. Perhaps most appropriately, she pops in at the end of the drum-heavy classic “Clap Your Hands” with some advice that could very well be this album’s mission statement: “Keep bouncing.”

The Fourth Best Album of the 1990s

If I could only take four albums from the 1990s on a desert island with me, this would be one of them. How else could I process all the loneliness? 

Elliott-Smith-XO-1535044205-640x640

4. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)

There’s a generally agreed-upon theory when it comes to vocal harmonies – nothing sounds better than two blood relatives singing together. And there’s a bevy of DNA-sharing crooners to back up this “blood harmony” argument (e.g. the Everlys, Andrewses, Wilsons). But in 1998, Elliott Smith released an album stuffed with dazzling vocal harmonies, without a family member on hand. It was perhaps a depressing exception to the rule. Because the only person this artist wanted to sing with was himself.

After releasing a trilogy of quietly devastating folk albums on indie labels, Smith unexpectedly blew up when director and fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant caught wind of him, using six of his songs on the soundtrack to his movie about how hard it is to be a handsome white genius, Good Will Hunting. The track “Miss Misery” got an Oscar nomination alongside the likes of Celine Dion and Faith Hill. And Smith performed it on the telecast, with artfully mussed hair and a white suit, looking tentative but sounding absolutely at home with the melodic flourishes of the pit orchestra.

After this unforeseen dalliance with the mainstream, it was time for Smith to make good on all the attention, and elevate his game in the recording studio. He was more ready than it may have seemed. The singer/songwriter’s willingness to sound vulnerable on tape didn’t mean he didn’t know how to take control – he spent five years leading the alt-rock band Heatmiser, which landed a contract with Virgin in 1996, right before Smith’s solo career became too big to ignore. So while the songs on XO are rooted in feelings of inadequacy, the arrangements are the work of a confident artist coming into his own.

Take the bridge of XO’s first single, “Waltz #2,” for example. The song is a poetically veiled story about Smith going to a bar karaoke night with his mom and stepfather. He no longer recognizes her, and tries to brush off being triggered by him. All over a waltz tempo sprinkled with rickety saloon piano runs. Which builds to the bridge, a heartbreaking sigh of resignation:

I’m here today and expected to stay
On and on and on
I’m tired

Musically, Smith treats this moment like a rocket launch. The band revs its engines to the first line. Then his multi-tracked vocals reach higher and higher with each ensuing “on.” As we arc back down to earth, our narrator might be tired, but us listeners are inspired. XO is loaded with dissonant moments like these, beauty and sadness spiraling into one another until they’ve bonded. It’s a forensic analysis of what a big fucking mess life can be, delivered in perfect pitch.

All of it is anchored by Smith’s underrated guitar playing. Years spent recording alone into four-tracks honed his chops to the point where he could play the chords, bass line and lead melody simultaneously, giving himself and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock fully formed blueprints to build on. The opening “Sweet Adeline” relies on little more than his bouncing acoustic melody for a full 90 seconds, before the dam breaks and the drums, piano and backing vocals drown us. And his finger-picked intro to “Independence Day” is so deeply, fluidly melodic, it could’ve worked as an instrumental.

But that first blast of full-bore instrumentation in “Sweet Adeline” showed us that XO was not going to be another tape-hiss-heavy, stripped-down affair. Smith, an avowed Beatles fan, was ready for his big, Revolver-style, studio-driven artistic evolution. And he sealed the deal with an album closer that’s every bit as jarring as “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“I Didn’t Understand” finds Elliott Smith alone. No instruments, no guest vocalists, a lyric sheet that gives him nowhere to hide. The only sound is his voice, stacked to the heavens in an audacious display of vocal harmony. It begins with yet another majestic sigh, a parishioner in a confessional clearing his throat before laying himself bare. And then he begins, singing in his uniquely cryptic way about a breakup, mostly about how much he deserved it:

And so you’d soon be leaving me
Alone like I’m supposed to be

Then, with the vocals-only arrangement underlining the stakes – intricate waves of beauty when he exhales, nothingness when he inhales – Smith ends his song with a stanza that will crush anyone who has been too stupid or self-absorbed to realize that somebody was right there in front of them, needing them:

You once talked to me about love
And you painted pictures of
A Never Never Land
And I could have gone to that place
But I didn’t understand

A short five years after XO cemented his genius, Elliott Smith left us. But not before he showed us how beautiful it can be to create your own sense of harmony.