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.

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Has any pop star generated an instant wave of baseless skepticism like Cardi B has? Such was the power of “Bodak Yellow,” her spell-casting swagger bomb of a debut single. The Bronx rapper made all kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies about how much richer and smarter and stronger she was than you. You know, like every rapper does. But there was something about Cardi, rapping lines like “I’m a boss / You a worker bitch,” that made Twitter and message board trolls crank up the old “new popular artist is a fraud” machine.

Why couldn’t everyone just enjoy this dominating new talent that came out of nowhere? Well, kinda because she came out of nowhere. Cardi B’s rise has broken all kinds of unwritten rules about how rap stars are made. She didn’t build a grassroots following by selling mixtapes out of her trunk – she got Internet famous from her real-talk Instagram posts about life as a stripper. She didn’t break into TV with an iconic rap video – she got cast in the sixth season of the rap industry-adjacent reality show Love and Hip Hop. Oh, and did I mention she’s a woman? The rules for female rappers are written to ensure either total failure or the loss of street cred. You can either try to be a “real rapper” and go hard 24/7, which keeps you off the pop charts. Or you can try for pop hits and get labeled a fake. Cardi had the biggest hit of the year by any metric – she’s only the second solo female rapper ever to hit #1 – with a track that starts with the line “You can’t fuck with me.” What’s gonna rile up sexists more than an ex-stripper kicking their rigged system in the dick?

So by the time Cardi finally released her debut album, it needed to check off an absurd amount of boxes. Invasion of Privacy had to prove that “Bodak” was no fluke. It had to go hard to satisfy the heads, yet also give glimpses of vulnerability that male rappers don’t have to worry about. It had to give the artist’s perspective on any number of highly publicized stories – her unorthodox rise to stardom; her marriage to the rapper Offset; that roiling sea of haters. And it also had to be a traditional major label smash, full of guest artists that complement but never outshine, on one potential hit after another. It had to prove that Cardi B is one of the best emcees and one of the most magnetizing pop stars.

It’s incredibly satisfying to hear her pull it off.

Track one, “Get Up 10,” is that fiery, look-at-me-I-can-rap, middle-finger-to-the-haters song she shouldn’t have to make. But it’s more than that too. It’s her goddamn superhero origin story.

Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose
Used to dance in a club right across from my school
I said “dance” not “fuck,” don’t get it confused
Had to set the record straight ’cause bitches love to assume

Right there, in her first stanza, is a crystal clear look at the choices this artist had to make, and the adversity she’s had to endure because of them. It’s hip hop storytelling at its best. And when delivered in Cardi’s live-wire Bronx sneer, it lands with authority.

By establishing her rap bona fides on the opener, Cardi is able to focus her efforts on making her album a hit. Instead of staying in her comfort zone of bass-throbbing, cracked-cement NYC hip hop, she dips her toes in all the styles of the moment, her lyrical flow and storytelling ability entertaining enough to be the lone connective tissue through it all. She drops jewel-encrusted knowledge on Atlanta trap earworms alongside Migos and 21 Savage; takes Chance the Rapper along on a sunny-day-in-Chicago reverie, and slays a DJ Mustard beat like a smoked-out Angeleno. It’s an absolute gauntlet, and she makes it sound like a party.

Those unfair expectations of vulnerability are met, and then some, by the single “Be Careful,” where the rapper unloads on a cheating boyfriend over light, dancing organ chords: “She don’t even know your middle name / Watch her ’cause she might steal your chain.” “Thru Your Phone” reveals the flipped-script origin of the album title, as Cardi invades her man’s privacy by going through his phone and realizes she was right to be suspicious.

Then there’s “I Like It.” This is precisely the kind of track that naysayers would point to as a shameless chart grab, like they did when Nicki Minaj put out her underrated Sir Mix-a-Lot reboot, “Anaconda.” A direct lift of the Pete Rodriguez hit “I Like It Like That,” the track has a naturally invigorating Latin groove. Cardi builds on that feeling by bringing in Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin. And like she does all over Invasion of Privacy, she outperforms her talented guests, going reverse Chief Keef and listing things she likes: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving n****s wrong, I do what they say I can’t,” she raps triumphantly. As the expensive sample plays underneath, on an album that methodically disproves every unfounded criticism of her abilities and positions her as the ideal crossover rapper of 2018, you’d have to be willfully ignorant to disagree.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Much has been written about the influence of drugs on popular music, from the effects of LSD on The Beatles to the role lean may have played in Future’s transformation into a glassy-eyed hedonist. But no substance has ever affected a musician the way falling in love does. Like ecstasy, it filters out cynicism. Like weed, it slows everything down. Like heroin, it makes you sick when it’s gone. Love is artistic steroids. And ladies and gentlemen, Kacey Musgraves is juicing.

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings the Texas singer/songwriter on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her nearly flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, the song – “Oh What a World” – never feels the least bit trite. Because Musgraves has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis, or a sea creature that emits an otherworldly neon glow. “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, or losing our balance. 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 the production choices made by Musgraves and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records – banjos are little more than signifiers, fiddles play second fiddle – but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem that feels like a friendly gauntlet thrown to Kylie Minogue, whose new Nashville-produced album also just came out (in a further bit of kismet, it’s called Golden). “Oh What a World” weaves a chorus of robotic voices into its National Geographic expedition. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album.

Yet for all its immaculate sonic details and instant-classic turns of phrase – e.g. “You can have your space, cowboy” – Golden Hour is great because it has good timing on its side. Kacey Musgraves is at her peak as an artist, and also happens to be going through a kaleidoscopically life-changing experience. The moment that moves me the most might be the simplest and most straightforward of them all. It’s the very last line of the album, on the piano ballad “Rainbow.” 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.”

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (35-31)

Here are the next five entries in my seemingly never-ending Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – wherein we get a devil’s haircut, witness the birth of the riot grrrl movement, remember when god told Prince to stop being so funky, and more! (You can check out the full list here.)

35. Beck – Odelay (1996)

After scoring an accidental smash hit with the slacker-M.C. cut “Loser,” Beck struggled with what to do next. He recorded an entire album of dour lo-fi folk and then scrapped it, eventually opting for the other extreme – a technicolor patchwork collage of golden age hip hop and singalong country that’s almost passive-aggressively catchy. He brought in The Dust Brothers (who weaponized ’70s radio hits so deftly for the Beastie Boys), to give a kitschy, sample-heavy sheen to his roots rock compositions. He wrote cryptic magnet-poetry lyrics that sounded good, but meant nothing, making an enduring meta statement about the inherent emptiness of pop hits. He used his disdain for the mainstream to create the most universally beloved album of his career. It’s as ironic as it is iconic. Does it get more ’90s than that?

34. Bikini Kill – The CD Version of the First Two Records (1994)

When we press play on an old recording, chances are we’re going to feel some kind of distance from it. This is not the case on the first two EPs from riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, re-released on one CD back in ’94. Kathleen Hanna leads the quartet through one 4-track punk thrasher after another, driven by the kind of unquantifiable energy that’ll have you driving 10 mph faster without realizing it. And her lyrics remain as exhilaratingly confrontational as her screams. “Does it scare you, boy, that we don’t need you?” she snarls. It’s amazing (and depressing) how relevant these songs remain. The patriarchy is still hurting us all, but the hairline fractures are getting easier to see. The louder we play this, and the more seriously we take its outrage, the faster we can watch them grow.

33. Prince – The Black Album (1994)

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to sound forced, it’s a rock star’s late-career attempt at shoring up their street cred. Unless you’re Prince, that is. In 1987, Prince made The Black Album to appease critics who accused him of selling out. It was the filthiest funk music he’d ever laid to tape, P-Funk and Sly-indebted vamps shot through with odd lyrical obsessions, with little regard for running times. He makes fun of rappers for not singing, steps into the mind of a celebrity stalker, and pitch-bends his voice to become the gun-waving chauvinist villain “Bob George.” Famously, the artist changed his mind about releasing The Black Album at the last second, convinced of its “evil” after a visit from god (or his ecstasy dealer). It sat on the shelf until 1994, when we all got to hear how wrong he was. Prince, playing funk guitar like he’s got something to prove? There is no clearer force for good.

32. Handsome Boy Modeling School – So, How’s Your Girl? (1999)

It’s gotta be hard enough for a band with multiple songwriters to deliver a clear, consistent aesthetic. But a group with two lead producers? It would seem almost impossible, given the complete control the best producers usually demand. Yet in 1999, the renowned hip hop knob-twisters Prince Paul and Dan the Automator joined forces to make an undisputed classic. So, How’s Your Girl? is many things – a silly concept album based on a Get a Life episode; a how-to manual for deploying guest artists; a summit meeting of peak ’90s rap and electronica. But most strikingly, it’s a pure distillation of the playfully deployed golden-age samples of Paul and the dramatic sci-fi soundscapes of Dan. Handsome Boy Modeling School eventually fizzled out due to artistic differences. But we’ll always have this album, and its grand, magnetized agreements.

31. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)

The summer Fight Songs came out I worked at a nursery, loading cedar chips into trunks and getting odd rashes from trees. And if my boss overheard what I was singing to myself as I worked, she would’ve had to consider an intervention. “Lonely / Baby I’m not lonely / I’ve got my imaginary friends” went this record’s most inescapable chorus, the high harmonies lingering over bright, strummy production. I could’ve used better friends back then, it’s true. But this was a case of whistling while you work – Fight Songs remains one of the catchiest damn things I’ve ever heard. Few artists have been able to take typical country-western themes of despair and simultaneously heal them through melody like this. Rhett Miller didn’t add an ounce of grit to his vocals, lending sincerity to sad-sack anthems like “Busted Afternoon,” “Jagged” and the aforementioned “Lonely Holiday.” The walls might’ve been closing in, but the ceiling was opening up.

The Top 20 Albums of 2017

Music is the best. Nothing that happened this year could change that. For every stress-inducing headline, there was a soothing melody. For every messy situation, there were 16 perfectly constructed bars. Every time we wanted to scream, a great metal song provided an outlet. Here are just 20 of the recordings that made life easier for me this year. The next time you can’t believe what you’re hearing, start listening.


20. Nick Hakim – Green Twins

Nick Hakim approaches his brand of earnest R&B like a master restauranteur, valuing the ambiance as much as the meal. On his debut LP, the gifted Brooklynite refuses to just point and say “isn’t this catchy?” It’s seductive. At first listen, the reverberating piano chords of “Needy Bees” are merely soothing; by listen five, they’re inescapably beautiful, supporting every twist and turn of the melody. As a songwriter, Hakim is refreshingly astonished by things like love, and dreams, and pregnancy. He attains poignancy through simple language, including one of the most romantic sentiments of the year: “If there’s a god / I wonder what she looks like / I bet she looks like you.”

19. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

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 applies these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it works. 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, this is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.

18. CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch

This Chicago rapper first garnered attention in 2015 with exuberant, X-rated club tracks like “Deep Throat.” But her music is as much about tension as it is about release. Her second mixtape, Queen Elizabitch, is full of empowering, sex-positive summer jams – she’s got clever genitalia metaphors for days. But these moments are complemented by darker tales pulled from the artist’s childhood, when she spent years living in homeless shelters. After hearing her spit fire about having to share clothes with friends or watch rats run over her mother’s feet, the calendar-exploding swagger of “33rd” and the horn-fueled sex-work anthem “Barcodes” become more than tracks to dance to. They’re states of mind to aspire to.

17. Drake – More Life

Ever the savvy brand manager, Drake decided to follow up his massively successful 2016 by pursuing a little less market saturation. More Life isn’t exactly a “playlist,” as its cover proclaims. But it is a gorgeously sequenced, decidedly low-stakes affair. The Toronto rapper steps down from his chilly CN Tower perch and ups the Celsius levels with forays into pulsing dancehall, UK grime and Atlanta trap. A lengthy guest list promotes the party atmosphere – Young Thug, Quavo and Skepta are given all the bars they need to steal the show. And whether he’s reflecting on pre-fame Applebees runs or picking through the ruins of a relationship, our headliner sounds more comfortable on the mic than he has in years.

16. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

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 unpacks 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.

15. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two

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.

14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe

This Australian psychedelic rock septet went on a studio bender in 2017, releasing five full-length albums and showing no signs of letting up. All are worthwhile listens, but Murder of the Universe is the crown jewel – a breathless fusion of propulsive riffs and sci-fi fever dreams that reminds us how fun a concept album can be. As spoken-word narration guides us through tales of human/beast mind-melds, balrog fights and cyborgs who would give anything to understand how it feels to vomit, the Gizzard’s relentless dual-drummer attack feels capable of carrying us anywhere – even to the end of it all.

13. SZA – Ctrl

SZA songs are the sonic embodiment of the phrase “hopeless romantic.” On her striking debut album, she cuts to the quick of how it feels to get cheated on: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me,” she sings to a philandering ex, mourning the self-confidence that could have been. The production is intimate, with little reverb added to contemplative guitar figures and raw, one-take vocals. But there’s a reason this record is called Ctrl. SZA is not wallowing here. She’s settling scores via slow jam, directly confronting assholes by exposing how they’ve hurt her. All while refusing to lose faith in love.

12. Brockhampton – Saturation II

This summer, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up two mixtapes with enough personality and adrenaline to distract the grumpiest pessimist. The first was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power. On the second, they start wielding their magic. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision: rappers getting shit off their chests over party-ready golden-age beats. 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. All I know is, I want more.

11. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic

God bless the power chord. Just three notes splitting an octave to create a simple, beautiful symmetry. As the Dallas thrash band Power Trip proved this year, these compact sonic gifts can be utilized to brutal, exhilarating ends. These guys aren’t just out to detonate your eardrums on their punishing second LP. Chaos isn’t their game. Instead, Nightmare Logic is a relentless succession of irresistible guitar riffs, which were crafted with as much attention to rhythm as volume level. Whether it’s the chugging eighth notes of “Executioner’s Song” or the circular triplets that kick off “If Not Us Then Who,” this shit swings. As frontman Riley Gale cries out against “the slumber of reason” in his strangled yawp, those power chords roil and slither underneath, girding us for whatever nightmare the world’s gonna belch up next, reminding us of the power inherent in noise.

10. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

2 Chainz has been a reliable source of fun, wordplay-encrusted bangers since “I’m Different” kicked off his second wind in 2012. But the Atlanta veteran has never made a record like this. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music finds the rapper formerly known as “Tity Boi” slipping wistful drug-game reminiscences in between inspired bursts of fantastical materialism (this time he’s got a see-through fridge). His knack for painting pictures is buoyed by a vibrant and versatile slate of beats – the opening “Saturday Night” features a dramatic torch song groove from the always-in-demand Mike Will Made It. “I went to work and I made an abundance / Gucci flip flops with the corns and bunions,” 2 Chainz raps over the sinister synth strings and throbbing bass of “Riverdale Rd.” All that hard work is paying off.

9. Haim – Something to Tell You

If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips, the rise of Haim should correct that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continues to revel in the supermarket pop of yesteryear, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drums and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs are the singles, which pair catchy choruses with quirky production wrinkles – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender. The sum and total of this commitment to fizzy pop hooks is a significant amount of joy. Even during this very, very difficult year, it made me sing in my car like a fool – helping me hold on for one more day.

8. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool

In 2014, while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and playing drums in several bands, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya wrote this on his Chicago apartment wall: “You’re not normal, so why are you trying to be?” Three years later, the restless artist turned his focus to rapping and made a record that is thrillingly, definingly weird. Drool weaves together squelching synths, programmed drums and rat-a-tat sing-raps like distorted DNA strands, with Ogbonnaya exploring his full vocal register in the process. It’s not as intimidating as that sounds. “Hop Off” marries thrumming bass with chirping organ runs, and when the rapper enters the fray, we get within a stone’s throw of the radio. It’s purposefully off-kilter, yet easy to enjoy – a sign we’re dealing with a serious talent. We should follow him closely, even if he doesn’t necessarily want us to.

7. Kreator – Gods of Violence

The legendary German thrash band Kreator released its 14th album one week after Inauguration Day. It was a bomb to my headphones, and a balm to my nervous system. “Resistance must rise when freedom has died,” screamed Millie Petrozza in a voice as violent and alive as it was in ’85. Gods of Violence is full of visceral rallying cries like this. It stares fascists in the face, catalogs their sins, and tells them to beware the power of the people, over jet-fuel drums and riffs full of manic, Pixie-stick energy. It’s a goddamn reckoning. And by the time we make it to the penultimate track, “Side By Side,” Petrozza has decided that catharsis isn’t enough. So he makes an oath: “As we crush homophobia / We’ll never let the shame turn our vision to ice / And I’ll remain by your side.”

6. Feist – Pleasure

A decade after a song called “1, 2, 3, 4” made her a star, Leslie Feist is thinking even simpler. Her fourth album, Pleasure, finds new depths within her moonlit folk aesthetic. It’s been six years in the making, and it feels like it’s been in a slow cooker for that entire time. Each arrangement has been boiled down to its essential elements, finding its rhythm in the marrow. The fortunes of “I’m Not Running Away” rest completely on a swaying blues guitar riff, and it’s as exciting as a high wire act. “Any Party” relies on a chorus of non-singers to deliver its grand romantic refrain. “Century” breaks down time itself into its smallest components. And through it all, Feist’s voice is strong and clear, never straining to get its point across. It’s the sound of an artist in complete control.

5. Thundercat – Drunk

Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has made his mark. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that have entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicts, the potential of this artist is only beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of a versatile, funny, kaleidoscopically imaginative songwriter. The music is rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, and it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sings about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with the same awestruck, childlike energy. As a result, Drunk makes you feel the opposite of wasted.

4. Laura Marling – Semper Femina

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

3. Pallbearer – Heartless

It’s appropriate that Pallbearer uses Roman numerals instead of typical track numbers on its staggering third album. The Arkansas quartet has written an honest-to-god symphony – a grand, interconnected composition that takes its time to unfurl, demanding to be seen as a whole. Heartless draws a direct line from the cavernous power chords of doom metal to the immersive atmospherics of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” In between long, seamless suites of guitar music, which bellows and soothes as it seeks our emotional core, singer Brett Campbell belts gorgeous vocals about the end of the world. It’s like hearing tectonic plates moving, conspiring our demise in ancient, beautiful ways.

2. Kesha – Rainbow

“I’m waiting for my spaceship to come back to me / And I don’t really  care if you believe me,” sings Kesha on her ambitious, assured comeback album. Released in a year when “I believe the women” began to be said out loud, in public, Rainbow is both a zeitgeist-capturing statement of what it means to be a survivor and a canny, genre-bending ’10s pop album par excellence. Kesha deftly augments the pulsing dance-pop we’ve come to expect with elements of arena rock, modern country, piano balladry and twee folk. She belts out sweeping anthems of empowerment, threatens a would-be cheater with a wink and a smile, and looks to the skies for hope, revealing an impressive vocal range for the first time on tape. Rainbow sounds better than anything Kesha ever recorded with her longtime producer Dr. Luke, who the artist sued in 2014 for sexual assault. She lost that lawsuit in all-too-familiar fashion. But no court can stop this album, this free-spirited outpouring of emotion, from inspiring others to believe – in UFOs, in basic human decency, and in themselves.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to trust in humanity. Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself. It’s a “back to basics” record both psychologically and sonically, where the artist has stripped away everything he can’t count on in the world and started over from there. That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album of 2017. It’s titanically satisfying music that’s driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” the rapper shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence. We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.

Honorable Mentions: 21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin – Without Warning; Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice; Beachheads – Beachheads; Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; Bjork – Utopia; Bob Dylan – Triplicate; Hus Kingpin – 16 Waves; Kamaiyah – Before I Wake; Migos – Culture; The Mountain Goats – Goths; Randy Newman – Dark Matter; Angel Olsen – Phases; Syd – Fin; Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm; Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls