Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (40-36)

We continue our countdown of the greatest albums to be released in the decade when America thought David Schwimmer was really something. You can check out the full list here.

40. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana’s second album probably has more baggage than anything on this list. It’s been credited with loosening the Baby Boomers’ stronghold on pop culture, and inspiring the thrift-store fashion and blasé attitude of a new generation. It’s remarkable how little this mountain of hyperbole affects the experience of listening to it today. Sure, Nevermind no longer feels revolutionary – as one of the last world-dominating albums of heavy guitar music, it has more in common with Metallica’s Black Album then originally thought. But it’s as much of a blast as ever, the riffs and melodies gelling in ways that still feel exciting. A major key to this longevity: Kurt Cobain had no shame about letting his influences show, whether they were hip in ’91 or not. So while these songs buzz with the artful noise of The Pixies, they’re also girdered by the pop constructs of The Beatles. And “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that legacy-defining hit, lifts heavily from a Boston song. As a result, whether we’re hearing the irresistible “yeah yeah” chorus of “Lithium” or the primal screams of “Territorial Pissings,” our urge isn’t to break any rules. It’s to sing along.


39. Me’Shell Ndegéocello – Peace Beyond Passion (1996)

Like most people, the first time I heard Me’Shell Ndegéocello was when she duetted with/propped up John Mellencamp on a smash-hit cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” Her fluid bass playing breathed new life into one of Morrison’s catchiest riffs, turning a stale idea into one of the funkier things we heard at the supermarket in 1994. Two years later, Ndegéocello’s second solo effort delivered on that song’s promise and then some. Peace Beyond Passion is full of rich, meditative R&B grooves that have only a passing interest in chart success. While her band is full of ringers – Billy Preston on organ, Joshua Redman on sax, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet – her talents shine brightest. Her bass playing is incredibly expressive. Her singing voice is a deep, reassuring rasp. And her songwriting is bold. I love thinking about all the Mellencamp fans that must’ve checked out the first single – a heartbreaking, six-minute takedown of homophobia called “Leviticus: F****t” that boasts an irresistible three-note groove. It’s an eye-opening lesson about what funk can do. Ndegéocello is totally fine with you dancing to it. Just remember that she’s invited all of humanity to the party.

38. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)

The sleeve of this record says “GZA,” but it’s hard to think of it that way. Because while Liquid Swords is indeed a showcase for Wu-Tang Clan’s most cerebral, cold-blooded storyteller, it’s even more so for its producer. RZA’s run from ’93 to ’97 was jaw-dropping in both its quality and quantity. It should be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential tone as Brian Wilson’s mid-’60s streak. And Swords is the purest expression of his vision. Dramatic samurai flick dialogue sets the tone for beats that pulse with the dark exhilaration of vengeance fulfilled. On “Duel of the Iron Mic,” chopped pianos and mechanical thunderstorms underscore GZA’s tale of “bloodbaths and elevator shafts.” “Cold World” dresses the melody from Stevie Wonder’s “Rocket Love” in icy, dissonant strings. “4th Chamber” pairs a floating sitar loop with beds of frayed, crunching power chords. These are themes for flawed heroes, navigating a world where violence is unavoidable. “I got your back / But you best go watch your front,” goes the chorus to this album’s first single. On it, RZA fills our speakers with trumpets, as sad and proud as a military funeral.

37. Slayer – Decade of Aggression (1991)

It’s hard to capture the feel of any live show on tape – to transport listeners to that venue, in that moment, without sacrificing the clarity of the performance. But to nail what it felt like to see thrash titans Slayer in 1990? That’s pretty much a goddamn miracle. And it’s what producer Rick Rubin pulled off with this 10th anniversary double-disc set. Not only does Decade of Aggression give us a fantastic mix of the band’s punishing, quicksilver onslaught – so crisp you can hear every syllable hurtling from Tom Araya’s throat – but it gives us just enough of the ambience of venues like the Lakeland Coliseum, smack dab in the center of death metal’s Florida heartland. Rubin lets a full 40 seconds of crowd noise go by until the extended intro of “Hell Awaits” kicks in. A chorus of demons start hissing in a backwards language. Their numbers grow. The volume rises. The anticipation is palpable. Then Jeff Hanneman lays into the hyperactive Sabbath riff, and you can smell the sweat flying from 10,000 dirtbags, headbanging with abandon. No matter where this comes on, in my car or my cubicle, I make it 10,001.

36. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

The concept of “keeping it real” is about as relevant as raising the roof these days. But Mobb Deep’s second album will always stand as a reminder of just how grim things can get when you take this credo seriously. Emcees Prodigy and Havoc weren’t interested in glorifying the challenges of their day-to-day lives in the Queensbridge projects. So they painted pictures of anxiety and pain, fierce loyalty and sudden loss. Walks home alone at night are pregnant with terror. Decisions aren’t made until potential prison bids are weighed. Yet, completely due to the power of their flow and production that bends piano keys like Twizzlers, The Infamous had hits. There will probably never be another song like “Shook Ones Pt II,” which brought the dark night of the soul to the dance floor. “Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks,” the chorus proclaims over a bewitching, slithering beat. It’s about how the streets leave no room for pretenders. If you’re still sensitive enough to be shaken by life, you don’t know how lucky you are.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (45-41)

And we’re back to our countdown of the most earth-shattering earworms of the 1990s. None of them are the earth-shattering worms from Tremors and Tremors 2: Aftershock, even though both of those films came out in the ’90s. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection and Tremors 4: The Legend Begins came out in 2001 and 2004, respectively, but both movies starred Michael Gross, best known as the dad from Family Ties, which ended in 1989, but was in syndication in the ’90s.

45. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)

The first rapper we hear on this, the definitive statement from the California G-funk era, isn’t Snoop Doggy Dogg. Or Dr. Dre. It’s the forever slept-on Death Row mercenary The Lady of Rage, whose joyful, electrifying verse sets the tone for the record to come – “Kickin’ up dirt and I don’t give a god damn,” she spits. It’s an immediate sign that Doggystyle is going to be more fun than Dre’s iconic 1992 opus The Chronic. While that record was concerned with settling scores and establishing myths, Snoop’s is concerned with partying and making dick jokes. His laconic flow and youthful effervescence is the ultimate counterpoint to Dre’s bloodshot Funkadelic grooves. The opening salvo of “G Funk,” “Gin & Juice” and “Tha Shiznit” is a cresting wave of positive vibes that still makes me feel like I’m blissfully plastered, with the warm sun on my face. This is the record that should’ve been named after weed.

44. Pearl Jam – No Code (1996)

Even when Pearl Jam was conquering the world with sweeping arena rock anthems, they actively rejected the “arena rock band” label. They stopped making videos, fought Ticketmaster, defaced #1 albums with drunken accordions and bizarre sound collages. But it wasn’t until No Code that they actually stopped sounding like rock stars. It remains the band’s most patient and honest effort, with themes of spirituality taken to heart. What hits you at first is the eclecticism – Eastern melodies and spoken word and muddy punk all rubbing shoulders. But what’s endured are the ballads, some of the loveliest in ’90s rock. There’s no attempt to mask the weariness in Eddie Vedder’s vocals or Brendan O’Brien’s loose, shaggy production. Whether it’s the somber self-criticism of “Off He Goes” or the gentle country lullaby “Around the Bend,” we’re hearing musicians so exhausted by stardom, all they had left to do was be themselves.

43. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

I can think of no better example of sampling as an art form than Public Enemy’s third album. Of all the classics made during rap’s Wild West sampling era – before attorneys got wise to the fact that producers in this new genre were chopping up copyrighted material – Fear of a Black Planet has the most consistent, fully realized vision. PE’s production crew The Bomb Squad deploys 129 samples over the course of 20 tracks, leaning heavily on James Brown and Sly Stone breaks but also mining Prince, Uriah Heep, Sgt. Pepper’s, Hall & Oates, and Vincent Price’s laughter from “Thriller.” Amazingly, the album doesn’t sound like a collage or mash-up, because The Bomb Squad treats these samples like building blocks, just 129 of the instruments used to flesh out PE’s relentless, confrontational funk. This isn’t a wall of sound. It’s a skyscraper. And when the man rapping over it is Chuck D in his prime, his voice booming like timpani, full of righteous outrage and Afrocentric pride? You can’t imagine anything ever sounding bigger.

42. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Let Love In (1994)

When an artist begins and ends an album with songs called “Do You Love Me?” it’s fair to wonder if he’s a bit starved for attention. When Nick Cave did this, on his eighth Bad Seeds album, he was 36 years old, prime crisis territory for a rock star. It could just be dark fiction from a master storyteller, but either way, Let Love In is a towering work about sin, regret and death – a Leonard Cohen album adapted into a horror movie. Cave litters his lyric sheets with defeated characters, wasting away in bars and planning their funerals. Sacred thresholds are violated left and right, by lingering devils, or lying politicians, or lovers who have to be let in like vampires. I find it telling that Cave gets nostalgic on a pair of twitchy punk tunes that sound like old Birthday Party B-sides. Over the churning, serrated guitars of “Thirsty Dog,” he apologizes like he’s got nothing to lose: “You keep nailing me back into my box / I’m sorry I keep popping back up.” It certainly sounds like he was worried his career was toast. And rather than denying these feelings of fear and vanity, he faced them head-on in his songwriting. Something that I, for one, will always love him for.

41. A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996) 

When a genre is as young as rap was in the ’90s, its elder statesmen are too. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were only 26 and 25 when their fourth album dropped, but they were already done as influencers of the genre. By ’96, their jubilant, jazz-inflected Native Tongues movement was no longer a thing, with groups like Outkast, The Roots and The Fugees using it as a launchpad for their own signature sounds. Beats, Rhymes and Life succeeds by readily embracing all of this. Undeviating in its polished, radio-friendly approach, the record documents Tribe entering its accelerated golden years with ease. Never have they sounded slicker. And that’s not a complaint. Those trademark Fender Rhodes loops are even simpler and spacier. And the drum programming is just gorgeous. To this day I’ve never heard snares crack with such reassuring warmth, like pebbles hitting your bedroom window. As always, Tip and Phife float effortlessly through it all, resulting in some of the catchiest rap of the decade – especially “Motivators,” where Phife encapsulates the vibe with his typical conversational flair, “This here groove was made for vintage freestylin’ / Feelin’ like I’m chillin’ on a Caribbean island.” Moments like these make questions of age and relevancy feel silly, boiling hip hop down to a simple credo: When the beats are good, and the rhymes are good, life is good.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to not give up, a New Testament argument in favor of the basic decency of humanity.

Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, bluntly titled DAMN, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself.

It begins with a direct echo of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a story about Lamar seeing a blind woman on the street who looks like she needs help. This time, he does the Christian thing and goes over to lend a hand. Then she pulls out a gun and kills him.

The sound of that bullet represents a call to action. Lamar is absolutely on fire for the ensuing 13 tracks, all tagged with curt, one-word titles. He raps about the power in his blood, the clarity of his emotions, the resilience of his mind. He takes on a new nickname to match this new ethos of strength through self control, “Kung Fu Kenny.” Never has he gone in with such disciplined energy and irresistible swagger.

“I don’t contemplate / I meditate / Then off your fucking head,” he flexes over the levitating sitar n’ bass rumble of “DNA,” a song that finds Lamar digging so deep inside for inspiration that he’s talking shit about his genetic makeup and ability to reach nirvana in yoga class.

On “FEEL,” Lamar’s voice dances over a light, subterranean R&B groove, belying the weight class of the lonely-at-the-top emotions he’s contending with: “The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended.”

And then there’s “LOVE.” Over a dreamy P.M. Dawn-esque synthscape, Lamar duets with guest vocalist Zacari about the all-or-nothing thrill of finding your person. It’s as concerned with betrayal as the rest of the record, but with a sweetness and vulnerability that your average rap album wouldn’t touch with a 1,000-foot pole. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Lamar sings on the refrain. “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me.”

It’s technically correct to refer to DAMN as a “back to basics” record. The jazz/spoken word/Tupac ghost interview experiments of the past are firmly in the rearview – DAMN‘s closest relative in Lamar’s discography is his soulful, tightly concentrated 2011 debut Section.80. But it’s more than that. He’s gone back to basics psychologically as well, stripping away everything that he couldn’t count on in the world and starting over from there. His music has reached a higher plane in the process. The shorter the titles, the more meaningful the songs.

That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album in Kendrick Lamar’s absolutely bulletproof discography. It’s the purest representation of his katana-sharp storytelling gifts, is absolutely loaded with hooks, and is driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant.

“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence.

We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.

 

In Defense of Long-Ass Albums

A few weeks ago, the excellent Stereogum writer Tom Breihan wrote a rave review of the new Father John Misty album, effectively defining the the verbose singer/songwriter’s infuriating kind of talent. But toward the end, in an attempt to temper his hyperbole, Breihan leaned on a classic cliché: “It’s too long; no album needs to be this long.”

This is just not true. Sometimes an artist has a lot they want to say, and sometimes that’s absolutely what makes an album great. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is 115 minutes long, because a genius at his peak was bursting with ideas. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is 80 minutes long, because Roger Waters had to work through all of his issues with his father, and mother, and British imperialism on tape. In February, Future released two really good albums in two weeks, and it was exciting because he was sharing so much – 34 tracks and 132 minutes of intoxicating, conflicted rap, with hooks bubbling like raw crude just beneath the surface.

So why the long-ass shade? I’ve got three explanations: 1) Navel-gazing rock star narratives are hard to resist; 2) Music critics don’t have a lot of time on their hands; and 3) The album is legitimately bad. Let’s break them down, shall we?

1. Navel-gazing rock star narratives are hard to resist

For an example of the first reason, I present 2016’s biggest commercial success – Drake’s Views. For years, this album was hyped as the rap superstar’s unstoppable power move. The ever-savvy Torontonian insisted on labeling 2015’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late as a mixtape, despite the fact that it was sold and marketed like an album. The message was clear – if you like this little appetizer, just wait for the smorgasbord to come. As a marketing strategy, it was really smart. But it was red meat for critics, who greeted the 82-minute Views with ocular-vein-straining eyerolls.

“Drake’s navel-gazing is starting to wear thin,” proclaimed The Daily Telegraph. Pitchfork called it “obnoxious,” The New York Times “dauntingly long.” It was a convenient narrative when talking about an egotistical pop star, especially when he’s spending more time rapping about himself than is considered acceptable to do so.

Those assessments are over the top, but I get it. Views is Drake’s least accessible work. But this is exactly why its length is an asset. Drake can get all of that curdled male bitterness off his chest, and there’s still room for the ambitious melodrama of “Keep the Family Close” and the insidiously catchy one-two punch of “Controlla” and “One Dance.” On a shorter album, these tracks might have been seen as outliers and shelved.

From an artist who could throw together 10 songs and generate just as much hype and profit, 82 minutes feels like an act of generosity to me. Clearly, I’m not the only one – Views hit a billion streams on Apple Music alone and topped the Billboard charts with the authority of Billy Ray Cyrus in the ’90s.

Now, on the heels of that success is More Life, Drake’s decidedly looser, more vibrant follow-up. The artist digs even deeper into the dancehall rhythms and patois that flew in the face of the dour narrative about Views, while also showing an affinity for the rapid breakbeats and raspy British accents of grime. He’s singing a lot more, and relinquishing the spotlight more than ever – grime artist Skepta gets a whole track to himself; Young Thug gets to steal the show on two tracks. All of this has something to do with the friendlier critical reception that More Life has received, but let’s not discount the narrative here. Drake has made pains once again to not use the word “album,” calling More Life a “playlist.” Gone is the grist for the “navel gazing” diss mill. We can openly love it without sounding like we’re supporting a dickhead.

2. Music critics don’t have a lot of time on their hands

Back in the day when I was reviewing CDs regularly (R.I.P. Rockpile Magazine), I didn’t jump at the chance to cover a really long one. I need to listen to something at least five times before I can write about it without bullshitting – that’s almost seven hours of listening to Drake bitch about how he can’t trust his friends anymore. And when you’ve got a day job because writing about music doesn’t pay for shit, that’s a significant percentage of your free time. I mean, Lenny Kaye was probably getting decent checks from Rolling Stone in 1972, but his review of the 68-minute Rolling Stones classic Exile On Main Street is spiked with weariness: “Individually the cuts seem to stand quite well. Only when they’re taken together, as a lump sum of four sides, is their impact blunted.” This is in a five-star review.

And I’m definitely not immune to listening fatigue. In 2004, I completely mailed in a review of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ fantastic Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. I loved this record. But I spent most of my word count complaining about long-ass albums in general: “Both ridiculous and oddly fascinating, double albums can capture the imagination, but they’re most likely to get hit by a bus.” (Mixed metaphors! Broad generalizations! Hyperbole! You do not have to be good at writing to get published, kids!)

After all those hours of listening, I’m guessing I just wanted to get the writing over with so I could get drunk with my wife and watch The Two Towers Special Edition DVD.

3. The album is legitimately bad.

For all of my proclivities for long-ass albums, sometimes the last thing you want from an artist is more. Like in 2006, when The Eagles released the 92-minute Long Road Out of Eden. I’ve always been rubbed the wrong way by these guys, and I’m a classic rock apologist. Eden just further cemented my prejudice – The Eagles were cynical hacks selling empty stories. Here’s Glenn Frey singing the eminently lazy, not-creepy-at-all “I Love to Watch a Woman Dance”:

I could go on, but I’ll let The Guardian‘s Jude Rogers sum things up: “The Eagles’ double-disc comeback propels musical smugness to previously inconceivable proportion.”

If you’re still here after this 1000-word dissertation, and you’re still not sold that the long-ass album gets a bad rap, may I suggest these expansive, generous examples. None of them needed an editor. None of them could get any “tighter.” All of them are great for ignoring critical and commercial expectations, and meeting them nonetheless.

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
An album that begins by acknowledging that love is against the ropes, and has us all betting on it by the end.

 

Kate Bush – Before the Dawn (2016)
A grand cathartic journey through this reclusive artist’s incomparable oeuvre. It makes Frampton Comes Alive! feel like Sesame Street Live. Oh, to have been there.

 

Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
So many of rap’s most talented artists, peaking together on tape, for almost two hours. I wish it was longer.

 

Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)
This treatise against war, formal education and shitty parenting should be a bitter pill of anti-nostalgia. But Roger Waters’ knack for theater and David Gilmour’s lyrical, disco-influenced guitar make for one strange, glorious singalong.

 

Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (2015)
This Long Beach rapper’s gripping, hour-long debut is the opposite of pretentious, full of nihilistic swagger and unvarnished beats. Proving just how wrong I was in 2004.

 

 

 

The Top 20 Albums of 2016

You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.

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20. Black Mountain – IV

If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.

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19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him backHe may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.

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18. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.

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17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.

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16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.

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15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.

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14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”

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13. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles 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. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.

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12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.

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11. The Monkees – Good Times!

On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.

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10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.

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9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd

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.

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8. Anderson Paak – Malibu

Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”

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7. Solange – A Seat at the Table

In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.

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6. David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.

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5. Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.

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4. William Tyler – Modern Country

There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service

The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.

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2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.

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1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

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In the election year of 1992, Leonard Cohen wrote a song with this brilliantly subtle dig: “Democracy is coming / To the U.S.A.” Outraged by an imperialist nation that ignores its poor, yet buoyed by a beautiful, irrational hope, “Democracy” was gorgeously personal political commentary. By the end of the seven-minute track, Cohen is striking a chord with all Americans who love their country in spite of it all:

I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but 24 years later, Cohen has once again tapped into the mood of a nation that is on the cusp of sending a Clinton to the White House. You Want it Darker, the singer/songwriter’s 14th studio album, has dropped in our laps a few weeks before election day, and it’s a spare, haunting treatise on regret and betrayal that should act as a cautionary tale for anyone on the fence about voting. The 82-year-old continues to be uncannily good at comparing fraying love affairs to crises of faith. Inevitably, his narrators end up alone, muttering to themselves, and clutching a glass of wine – the only difference is whether it’s consecrated or not.

Musically, Darker is more meditative and mournful, closer to Cohen’s synth-goth classics of the 1980s then the wry, ramshackle folk and blues of albums like 2014’s Popular Problems. Producer Adam Cohen relies on muted beds of keyboards and ominous choral harmonies, lighting just enough candles to show his father the way to the altar. Lovely wrinkles pop up here and there – like the spirited, Kate Bush-esque violin on “Steer the Way” – but conceptually and tonally, this is the most consistent group of songs that Leonard Cohen has put out since he hit retirement age.

And good Christ, does he make the most of it. Cohen’s voice seems to get deeper by the decade; on Darker his deadpan croon sounds like a old bass clarinet – very deep and dependably cracked. He sounds like a man who has lived long enough to be played for a sucker 100 times, a worshipper who’s gotten used to being taken for granted by his deity. “You want it darker/We kill the flame,” he whispers over the gentle choral tides of the title track. Like he’s done so many times before, Cohen uncovers the seductive, dangerous pull of fundamentalist submission, being able to have your reality decided for you, to be told you’re right and good and that others are wrong and evil. With Donald Trump one step away from the White House, it should be mandatory listening.

Speaking of Trump, I’ve gotta believe he was somewhere in Cohen’s head when he wrote “It Seemed the Better Way,” a spine-tingling slow-build ballad that’s the record’s most harrowing moment. It could be written from the perspective of someone who’s saying “at least he’s not Hillary” on Facebook right now, standing in toxic rubble during year two of a Trump presidency:

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

You Want it Darker might only be a political album in context. But by taking one of the best artists to ever write about the pitfalls of faith and giving him one last crack at the god that never wrote him back, this record has the angry, weary energy of a nation that is sick and tired of being lied to. It’s easy to get depressed these days, but when I hear Leonard Cohen creating relevant, bewitching works of art in his ninth decade on Earth, I think about what humanity is capable of, and how incredibly resilient we can be. Fuck it. Democracy is coming.

Frank Ocean – Blonde

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I’m not exactly sure why, but I feel like Blonde, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited third record, could go away at any moment. Lemme just check real quick … yes, it’s still there.

There’s something about Blonde (née Boys Don’t Cry) that feels even more elusive than 2016’s other long-awaited splashes. It’s partly because of how much we’ve been teased – first it was a July 2015 release date, then July 2016, then 8/5 – but Avalanches fans scoff at an album merely 13 months overdue. Maybe it’s the last-second name change? That’s nothing compared to Kanye’s indecision. No, I think it’s because of the nature of Frank’s music itself.

2012’s channelORANGE was an emotional experience, prefaced by the artist’s moving Tumblr post about a man he fell in love with. It was one gleaming anthem after another about the triumphs and challenges of being honest with yourself. Ocean’s voice became the voice that told us it was OK to feel lost, OK to pour out our feelings to a stranger, OK to be hopelessly in love, thinking about forever. Four years is a long time to wait to hear that voice again.

And on the opening track and debut single, “Nikes,” Ocean toys with our separation anxiety. A bed of dreamy synths begs him to break out that falsetto, but instead Ocean pitch-alters his voice to unrecognizable lows. That warmth and vulnerability is stunted, fighting to stay pure through whirlwinds of materialism and drugs. “Demons try to body jump,” he warns, setting a bleak tone of self-preservation that is at least one of the prevailing themes of this overtly inscrutable record.

It’s awfully hard to analyze what Blonde actually means after a few listens. Ocean does not give us the benefit of a roadmap this time around; he’s far less interested in clear narratives – and for that matter, beats, hooks and choruses. The most immediately arresting tracks on the album are as stripped down as a folk song. A lone keyboard run symbolizes the thin line between heaven and hell on a song called “Solo.” “Godspeed” is in a similar boat, giving Ocean nothing more than some subdued gospel organ and scattered backup vocals to work with. “Self Control” wrings every drop of pathos out of a stranded, Tracy Chapman-ish electric guitar line. All of these songs are gorgeous, their messages of hope through loneliness, of integrity through selflessness, ringing all the deeper for how starkly they’re delivered. By following a richly layered, widely celebrated masterpiece with a raw singer/songwriter album that’s sure to divide his audience, Ocean has pulled a reverse Joni Mitchell.

It’s no coincidence that my favorite tracks are the ones where the production clears the way to let Frank flat-out sing. His voice remains his genius. While it’s probably going to be rewarding to parse the Othello and Little Mermaid references of “Nikes,” Ocean is still better at letters than poems. “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight,” he proclaims in “Self Control,” his yearning laid bare, full-throated and utterly heartbreaking. The more I feel the impact of moments like these, the less I worry that they’re somehow going to be stolen from me.

Ocean struggles a bit with the connective tissue tracks, those little 1-2 minute breaks that helped make channelORANGE such a perfectly sequenced experience. “Good Guy” dampens the poignant heartache of its lyrics with tossed-off tape-recorder fidelity. The French DJ Sebastian wastes our time with a story about a girlfriend getting upset because he wouldn’t friend her on Facebook (she’s right to be suspicious, dude). A voicemail from Ocean’s mom about being yourself is so on the nose, we may have to call an ambulance. When an album has been clearly obsessed over for as long as Blonde has, you’ve gotta wonder how these snippets still made the cut.

So, at first blush, this is not an instantly accessible, world-conquering work of art like its predecessor. It’s a messier, less sonically assured, more challenging experience. It’s entirely possible that I will like it less once the joy of hearing his voice again wears off.

But I don’t think so. The more I listen, the more I see Blonde as a bold, unfettered document of an artist beloved for his honesty, struggling with the trappings and temptations of fame. Struggling so much that I almost worry about him. “I want to see Nirvana / but don’t want to die,” he sings on “Nights.” It’s the first of two mentions of the band on this album“Close to You” is an interpolative cover of The Carpenters’ classic, with new lyrics but the same melody. “Why am I preaching / To this choir, to this atheist,” he sings through the trappings of AutoTune. Then, on the solemn, introspective “Siegfried,” he sings the chorus from Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell.” Here are callbacks to three artists, all destroyed by the burdens of societal pressure and their own personal demons. On some level, Frank Ocean feels a connection with them. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws.

OK, I feel better. Blonde has grabbed me. It’s here to stay.