Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (80-76)

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

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80. Denzel Curry – Zuu (2019)

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

79. GFOTY – GFOTYBUCKS (2017)

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

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

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

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77. Tierra Whack – Whack World (2018)

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

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76. Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff (2019)

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

Check out the full list here!

The Top 20 Albums of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B

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

19. Nnamdi – Brat

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

18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell

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

17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

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

16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

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

15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

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

14. Polo G – The GOAT

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

13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times

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

12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad

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

11. Fireboy DML – Apollo

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

10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)

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

9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now

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

8. Ka – Descendants of Cain

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

7. Caribou – Suddenly

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

6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter

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

5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline

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

4. Moses Sumney – Grae

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

3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

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

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

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

1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

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

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

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

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

The Funniest Album of 2020

In the mid-1960s, a meme was cropping up on the streets of London. Spray painted on walls and scrawled in bathroom stalls, it hyped the ability of a rising young guitarist in a preposterously overstated way: “CLAPTON IS GOD.”

As a music critic, I’ve been guilty of my share of hyperbole over the years. And as a music lover, I understand the attachment we can feel to artists whose work moves us to tears. But I draw the line at cult-speak. No guitar player is god. No pop singer deserves to be worshipped. No songwriter can truly “save” us.

The absurd intensity of music fandom makes it ripe for satire. And on his new album Mouth Dreams, the comedic mash-up virtuoso Neil Cicierega has a blast taking the piss out of “serious” artists by combining their sacred texts with the most obnoxious bullshit he can find, and making it all, somehow, sound good. It’s one of the funniest things to happen in this nightmare year, a necessary reminder that the world is chaos, that celebrities can’t save us from it, and that it’s hilarious to think we would expect they could.

When this Boston-born comic, animator and puppeteer started dropping his mashup albums for free back in 2014, his collages were just as expertly curated, but they were ruder, containing purposely dissonant sonic hellscapes that practically dared you to keep listening. Toward the end of his debut LP Mouth Silence, the track “Space Monkey Mafia” takes R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and throws Billy Joel’s equally wordy rip-off “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on top of it, creating an unlistenable cacophony of ’80s pop sing-speak. Then he throws a “Weird” Al-esque polka beat underneath it all, propelling the song and listener off a cliff together.

On his third album, 2017’s Mouth Moods, Cicierega had begun to master his craft to the point where he could wreak utter havoc on your ears, but in a way that kept you listening even after the initial joke landed. On “AC/VC,” the artist isolates a vocal track from AC/DC’s gravelly lead singer Brian Johnson, who sounds like a goat dying from laryngitis when paired with the twinkling pianos of Vanessa Carlton’s hit “A Thousand Miles.” Yes, it’s hilariously strange, but the mash-up is also seamless – the chords and melodies and rhythms in sync, even though they’re breaking all the rules of good taste. It will always make me laugh my ass off, while listening to the whole thing.

Mouth Dreams, released on October 1, finds Cicierega in full crowd-pleasing mode, making us laugh while we also drop our jaws at how effectively all the elements align. Peter Gabriel and Limp Bizkit. Johnny Cash and Justin Bieber. Ludwig van Beethoven and Britney Spears. None of these mash-ups sound forced, no matter how silly they look on paper. They’re perfectly executed, while also being perfectly ridiculous.

Perhaps the biggest coup is “Ribs,” which pairs the zombified doo-wop of the Chili’s “baby back ribs” jingle with the instrumentation of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Marilyn Manson’s vocals from “The Beautiful People.” Every layer is totally unexpected, patently silly, and somehow just right.

Cicierega’s music is no longer an endurance test for absurdist comedy nerds. Mouth Dreams is an incredibly entertaining exposé of how thin the line really is between art and commerce, poignancy and idiocy, masterpieces and fiascos.

So the next time you’re tempted to call an artist you love a god, remember how close their songs could be to that jingle from your local car dealer. Also, Eric Clapton is terrible.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (85-81)

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Here are entries 85-81 in my arguably pointless countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years. We’ve got some mesmerizing R&B fan letters, a fire-breathing emcee at the top of his game, the greatest metal band of all time, a visionary hip-hop boy band, and one of the 21st century’s most popular (and reviled) groups.

a2334189316_1085. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019)

The second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods was a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. “What is it with these independent men? / It’s always something / Threatening your masculine energy / You think it’s fleeting,” Woods croons in her laid-back tenor on a song dedicated to the iconoclastic funk genius Betty Davis. You can feel the lessons Woods has learned from Davis, who famously had to put up with Miles Davis’s bullshit, subsumed in this music. Other tracks are dedicated to Muddy Waters and his resistance to appropriation; Nikki Giovanni and her defiantly triumphant poem “Ego Tripping”; Eartha Kitt and her refusal to compromise. Musically, Woods continued down the neo-Badu R&B path she started on her 2016 debut, coasting on the fluidity of the drums and bass lines until we were damn sure we must be floating. Her voice is never showy, and it doesn’t need to be, hitting the notes with a confident grace, borne up on the vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.

Cakes-Da-Killa-Hunger-Pangs-608x60884. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs (2014)

Every time another gorgeously produced triumph showed up on DatPiff in the 2010s, the line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums got thinner and thinner, to the point where it has pretty much vanished. But one listen to Hunger Pangs and we knew we were hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is utilized as a coda with no concern of legal action. And the Atlanta-based emcee just absolutely goes off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa was no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs was a whole new strain of adrenaline. While Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise in 2014 for inspiring us to run through walls with their molotov cocktail of a second album, no rapper in that year could quite match Cakes’s energy. Just listening to one of his verses from “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n—-as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

cover_2253201862015_r83. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (2015)

Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I could relate to when listening to the band’s excellent double-LP The Book of Souls, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula – dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens.  The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.

Brockhampton

82. Brockhampton – Saturation II (2017)

In the summer of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up three mixtapes with enough personality and emotional honesty and creative left-turns to make even the grumpiest pessimist feel hopeful about our next generation of leaders. If the first Saturation was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power, the second is where they start wielding their magic for real. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision that transformed the club into a confessional booth. These rappers had no qualms getting shit off their chests, whether it was over a playful party-ready beat or a laconically strummed electric guitar. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me.

81. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (2011)

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest (some would say naive) belief that romantic love is an engine of hope for the world, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay went after a concentrated aesthetic concept – to marry their arena-baiting alt-rock elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of their best collaborator, producer Brian Eno, they got the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing.  “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, was a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring the band’s forever-polarizing lovestruck roots. The lead single, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” was pretty much a middle finger to all the critics of Chris Martin’s lyrical clumsiness – an un-ironic Afropop-flecked singalong about soaring walls together to overcome despair. If that description doesn’t make you roll your eyes, you might be a Coldplay fan.

Check out the full list here!

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (90-86)

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And so it continues. Entries 90-86 in this countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years. This time around, four of the five come from rappers. And I’m struck by how each of them tackle internal, personal struggles head on, and emerge triumphant – or at least in a healthier headspace – by the end. Functioning pretty effectively as metaphors to live by this spring.

a2343898464_1090. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two (2017)

The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.

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89. Kvelertak – Nattesferd (2016)

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

The-Roots-How-I-Got-Over-Album-Cover88. The Roots – How I Got Over (2010)
Philly rap legends The Roots reached mainstream fame in the ’10s as the house band on The Tonight Show, where their effortless charisma remains a necessary distraction from Jimmy Fallon’s needy celebrity worship. But they never stopped doing what they do best. How I Got Over was their first post-Fallon LP, and it crackled with a new kind of energy – of veterans looking back on their road to success, and reenergizing themselves in the process. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – optimistic, Native Tongues-inspired grooves and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band was able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Early on, Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone.” But by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing: “I should start living today.”

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x187. Noname – Room 25 (2018)

As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivered verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. On the opening “Self,” we’re blessed with a Fender Rhodes loop that sounds like good news. And Noname dropped the ultimate verse of 2018 over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

https___images.genius.com_a751544c0f22d3c1f71ad541d8b0be66.1000x1000x186. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (2014)

Two years after Drake brought “YOLO” to the mainstream as a rationale for conspicuous consumption and casual sex, Nicki Minaj applied the concept in a much more meaningful way. “Life is a movie, but there’ll never be a sequel,” she philosophizes on “All Things Go,” the autobiographical opening track of the Queens rapper’s third LP. As she spits with atypical candor about her cousin who was gunned down, her abortion, and her hopes for her daughter, the idea that you only live once becomes a soothing reminder that nothing is permanent. It’s a mantra she follows across the 22 tracks of The Pinkprint, blocking out the torrent of criticism that defines life as a female rapper and looking inward instead. Over an eclectic sonic expanse that covers everything from gleeful rap nostalgia to full-blown power balladry, Minaj admits to fears of commitment; celebrates the joys of having a physical body; and finds hope on the dance floor. Resulting in a work of art that rewards us for investing time in it, all the more so because that time is limited.

Check out the full list here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad92. Esperanza Spaulding – 12 Little Spells (2018)

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

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

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

Check out the full list here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But little britches, lying is not gon—“

“I said… SHUT UP.”

[silence]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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97. Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)

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

Lucy Dacus_ Historian96. Lucy Dacus – Historian (2018)

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

 

The Best Album of the 1990s

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1. Björk – Post (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.