Here are entries 55-51 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for a look back at a singer/songwriter rejecting the “dad rock” label; a middle-aged rapper turning his high school years into high drama, and so much more!
55. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (2018)
I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps than any record on this list, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. It sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”
54. Feist – Metals (2011)
In October 2011, Nitsuh Abebe wrote an iconic piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist were our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her third LP – released the same year as Abebe’s article – proved she’s more dangerous than you’d think. Metals features a color palette of dark and darker greys, which amass into looming storms that crack the heavens in our headphones. It was a far cry from the iPod commercial-ready twee-folk the Nova Scotia singer/songwriter had been known for up to that point. “How Come You Never Go There” swings with a dark, sinister rhythm. “Comfort Me” stomps and swoons. And “A Commotion” features a percussive blast that makes good on its title. This is what remains so compelling about Metals – there are soft rock hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you just might find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.
53. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010)
When Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, it felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that by 2010, Albarn had realized that his “other” band was the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula was pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs were as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn followed it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it became clear that these Gorillaz weren’t quite so cartoonish after all.
52. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (2018)
Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by confusing dystopian sci-fi premises. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album, but for the first time in her discography, it didn’t matter. The songwriting reckoned with real life. In this world. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It was the most politically present, and openly romantic, Monáe had ever been – and the melodies bubbled up and embraced us like always. “Pynk” turned an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasted one of the snappiest guitar riffs of 2018. And “Make Me Feel” did justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth.
51. Masta Ace – The Falling Season (2016)
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 wrote 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 was on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits were skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace had 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. It wasn’t the first rap album to romanticize an artist’s past, but it might still be the only successful one from a rapper who had reached middle-age. Which makes The Falling Season an especially rich self-portrait, full of conflicting feelings informed by decades of nostalgia and regret.
Here are entries 60-56 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for my musings on a band that dropped five albums in one year, a famous rapper who didn’t release a solo album until he was 36, and an even more famous rapper who charmed us with the lie that he started from the bottom, which is ironic because he’s been lost up his own bottom ever since.
60. Tribulation – The Children of the Night(2015)
If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”
59. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
I Love You, Honeybear is like a vintage Elton John performance in more ways than one – it features rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings, and it’s marked by a penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman fell into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. On the closing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the band takes five, and Tillman finds complete freedom in his disguise. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, he sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.”
58. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name(2013)
After the demise of Clipse in 2010, anticipation was high for the first official solo record from that duo’s more dynamic half – Pusha-T. But by 2013, the Virginia rapper still hadn’t proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned at all on My Name Is My Name. Over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of selling drugs in a way that still feels weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.
57. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (2017)
In November 2016, the genre-hopping Australian rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard announced they would be dropping five full-length albums of new music the following year. And not only did the ambitious sextet make good on this promise, but they did it without lowering their standards. These records actually picked up steam as the year progressed, with the fourth one, Polygondwanaland, reaching a dizzying pinnacle of exquisitely arranged psychedelic rock. From the epic 10-minute opener “Crumbling Castles” to the stoner metal freakout that caps off “The Fourth Color,” this LP sounds like anything but a rush job. In fact, these addictively energetic tracks segue into one another so effortlessly, it feels like we’re being shot into the sky on a ship piloted by careful, experienced adventurers.
56. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (2013)
The most compelling thing about Drake in the 2010s (other than it being a time before we knew what a fricking creep he is) was the way he had his cake and ate it too – crafting verses drenched in both bravado and insecurity; making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom; making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands, but on Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears coalesced into a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. It helps that he’s looking wistfully to the past instead of droning on about the present, creating a two-song sequence inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s magnanimous 1997 single “It’s Yourz” that marks the last time this problematic megastar sounded believably lovestruck.
Here are entries 65-61 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! This time around we have a pair of singular singer-songwriters, a famous indie-pop band swinging for the arena fences, a dance music legend, and one hell of a film composer.
65. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp(2015)
Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.
64.Daniel Knox – Evryman for Himself (2011)
When a singer/songwriter gets sarcasm right, the clouds part for me. So when I saw Daniel Knox perform live, as the opening act for a Rasputina show I was covering for my local paper, my jaw may have literally dropped. This disheveled Zach Galifianakis lookalike was putting his own spin on the Randy Newman formula – friendly piano shuffles that attempt to distract us from Eeyore-on-a-bad-day lyrics, inspiring big, ironic belly laughs in the process. Knox was touring behind his second album, Evryman for Himself, and it remains his best. “Billboards tell me where to go / Billboards to my favorite show / Syphilis and cancer!” he croons in his playful baritone on the closing “Armageddonsong,” projecting hopelessness and joy at the same time. If humans are capable of this level of nuance, maybe we’re not completely doomed.
63. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful(2015)
Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone.
62. Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite (2010)
I like to pretend I don’t care what anybody thinks about me – take one look at my car and you’ll almost be convinced. But ask me to dance, and the facade evaporates. I’ll respond by a) totally freezing up, and then b) doing “The Twist” ironically to cover up my crippling fear. This is my best way of explaining why Kylie Minogue’s music means so much to me. “Dance / It’s all I wanna do / So won’t you dance?” the Aussie legend asks – with zero judgment in her voice – at the beginning of her sublime 11th album, as burbling synthesizers build up to the first of many triumphant disco-pop choruses to come. Aphrodite explores various nuances of interpersonal dance floor dynamics, but mostly it’s about those moments where music hits us like Cupid’s arrow, blissfully transporting us to a place where our anxieties can’t reach us. So I can remain a wallflower, and still understand.
When asked to score this stunningly specific period romance from director Paul Thomas Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood opted against the style he had so memorably established on previous Anderson films. Gone was the stark horror of There Will Be Blood and the sad, shattered symphonies of The Master. Instead, Greenwood wrote orchestral suites as elegant and traditional as the gowns designed by Phantom Thread’s fastidious main character, Reynolds Woodcock. As the troubled minor-key strings of “Phantom Thread” give way to the enveloping warmth of “Sandalwood,” this score plays a critical role in establishing how Alma Elson is the nurturing, unflappable yin to Reynolds’s sensitive, self-protective yang. This is the sound of soul mates harmonizing.
“Ready or not / I’m a new kind of killer,” announces Merrill Garbus on her second LP as Tune-Yards. And if you consider what’s happening around her right after she sings those words, it’s clearly not an empty boast – a ukulele-driven Afro-Pop groove dissembles into chaos, as bass player Nate Brenner continues to play bubbly low-end notes as if he didn’t get the memo. Whokill is defined by this paint-can-hurling approach to genre experimentation, taking Garbus’s uke-and-loop-machine approach to live shows and splicing in homages to funk, folk, reggae, synth-pop, punk and power balladry with zero concern for overloading our eardrums. It all works, against all odds, due to the power of Garbus’s voice and the preternatural chemistry between her and Brenner. If we lose the thread among the layered vocal loops and stuttering drums of “Bizness,” it all locks in when Brenner’s bass arrives, locking it all down so Garbus can wail to the heavens, begging her partner, “Don’t take my life away!” Not every idea has aged well – particularly “Gangsta,” a well-intended but discomfiting depiction of the challenges of life in “my hood.” But it’s a rare misfire on a record that remains one of the boldest artistic leaps of the 2010s.
69. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)
Remember January 2012, when presidential candidate/alleged carbon-based life form Mitt Romney released his tax returns, and they revealed a shady Swiss bank account in his name? Me neither! Until I read what I wrote in this space back then about Miami rapper Rick Ross: “It seems like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that tells us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough,” wrote the younger, more casually vulgar me, blissfully unaware of how much worse a toxic-rich-guy president could be. And while the star of conspicuous consumption rap has definitely faded over the last decade, Rich Forever still works, because it still sounds as expensively aerodynamic as an Italian sports car. The tape’s thunderous, trunk-rattling production acts like an echo chamber for Ross’s performative ego, as he turns his drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache. While Rich Forever is loaded with quality guests – Nas, 2 Chainz, Kelly Rowland, Future, etc. – the boss is never outshone, coming up with a clever way to say he’s rich on every cut (e.g. “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”).
68. Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (2010)
Usually when you hear a PR narrative along the lines of “[LEGACY ARTIST] is rocking again,” it’s a red flag. Either because it’s not true (e.g. any post-2001 Radiohead album) or it sounds like warmed-up leftovers from the glory days (e.g. most of Metallica’s 21st century efforts). But when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds transformed into Grinderman in 2008, growing mustaches and skullets to match its brand of greasy, irreverent punk-metal, no spin was necessary. On its second LP, the Australian legends continued to drive our equalizers into the red, but in the context of more expansive soundscapes, favoring visceral slow-builds over the breakneck tempos of its debut. It’s an ideal balance, an evolution that took this band from a fun lark to a weighty artistic force, while still allowing Cave to howl like a wolf, growl “huuuh!” and “yeah!” like a whiskey-drunk James Brown, and deliver bawdy one-liners with aplomb – “Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster / Two humps and then I’m gone.”
67. Young Thug – Jeffery (2016)
One of the dominant storylines on the pop landscape in the ’10s was Drake’s refusal to come back to earth – co-opting one trend after another to maintain his stranglehold on the charts. At his peak, Young Thug was an opposing force to that massive star’s patient calculations – a rapper who records hooks like they’re burning a hole in his pocket, stuffing every track with unexpected melodic flourishes, stamping it as his own with visceral barks and yelps. On his hit mixtape Jeffery, that profound ability is paired with buoyant, dancehall-indebted trap beats that give Thug lots of space to do his thing. As a result, every track fizzes over with undeniable power, like champagne from a fire hose. “I’m geeked up like an astronaut / I’m off the Earth / I’m way in the moon” he raps over reflective piano chords, looking down on us affectionately from his perch at the top of the game. It’s ironic that Thug named almost all of these songs after his personal heroes – including Wyclef Jean, Rihanna and Harambe the gorilla – because he was transcending all of his influences, while creating some of the most infectiously exuberant music of his time.
66. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ(2015)
You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.
We thought we could see it this year. Brightening the edges of our curtains. Warming the pillows of our reading nooks. Landing on our screens to interrupt our binges. We thought it was The Light, and for a few glorious weeks we scrambled out of our tunnels into it, the possibilities blossoming with the spring.
Even me, who thinks the pandemic has been stuffed with silver linings – more time with my wife, working from home, the best excuse ever to avoid meeting new people – was excited at the prospect of going to restaurants again, traveling again, breathing again.
But it was just a temporary break in the clouds. Even so, I’m here to report 20 sightings of a different kind of Light. The kind that humans create when an undefined urge demands they express themselves, be it through an instrument, or their vocal chords, or their pen. These are the albums that reminded me what humanity is capable of in 2021 – if we can create these, surely we can figure out a way to leave this tunnel for good.
20. Georgia Anne Muldrow – Vweto III
The Light from a Crossing Signal Switching from “STOP” to “MOVE”
The third installment in this R&B visionary’s series of instrumental hip hop albums acknowledges that, even when you strip life down to its building blocks, it’s still complicated and intriguing as hell. “Vweto” is a Congolese word for “gravity,” but with every effervescent bass line and echoing drum pattern, Muldrow reassures us that we can still pick up our feet and move. Our tether to this planet might be unbreakable, but damn is it flexible.
19. Unto Others – Strength
The Light of a Bedside Table Lamp, Where a 15-Year Old Is Reading The Catcher in the Rye and Nodding Solemnly
On 2019’s Mana, the band formerly known as Idle Hands served up a bubbling cauldron of Satan worship and goth-pop hooks that spoke to the sullen young dork in all of us. A few years and a name change later, the Portland, OR, quartet returned with Strength – an attempt to be more serious that succeeds in spite of itself. The heart-on-sleeve Depeche Mode flourishes are tempered by chilly Police guitar figures, and the blasphemy is scrubbed away. But Strength sticks with me regardless, because this band remains utterly committed to expressing outsized, borderline-embarrassing emotions with a straight face, while churning out hooks for days.
18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
The Light of a Neon “OPEN” Sign In a 1980 NYC Dive Bar
This Brooklyn post-punk institution begins the second act of its decade-long career on its seventh LP, where it expands its scope to explore danceable, immersive, bass-driven new wave soundscapes without completely abandoning the Stooges and Velvets worship of its early records. On “Marathon of Anger,” a recounting of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, singer Andrew Savage engages in a mesmerizing call and response with his bandmates, while synths bloop, a simple bass line swings, and guitars deliver chilly funk accents. It’s an evocative RSVP to the similarly serpentine invitation David Byrne sent out over 40 years ago – to join him in embracing the passage of time, watching the water flow as the days go by.
17. iLoveMakonnen – My Parade
The Light of the Embers in a Fireplace That’s Been Burning All Night Long
The world has never seemed to quite be ready for iLoveMakonnen – a calm, level-headed rapper with off-the-charts emotional intelligence and a knack for party anthems. Back in 2014, Makonnen had a certified hit with “Tuesday,” complete with a Drake remix and a contract with his OVO imprint. But it wasn’t until 2021 that we got the artist’s first true LP, My Parade – a stripped down, casually catchy, profoundly introspective achievement. By splicing the bass drops and chittering hi hats of Atlanta trap with the patient fireside tempos of quiet storm R&B, Makonnen has made something perfectly of-the-moment – a pandemic classic full of vulnerability, paranoia, joy and intimacy. Who said parades had to be loud?
16. Helado Negro – Far In
The Light of a Sunrise on the First Morning of a Tropical Vacation
Just because Roberto Carlos Lange sings in a whisper doesn’t mean he can’t command your attention. On his seventh LP as Helado Negro, his deceptively quiet instrument is as agile as ever, shifting between finger-picked calypso ballads and sweaty disco hooks with the ease of a green thumb strolling between his veggie garden and beds of perennials. As a result, Far In won’t necessarily grab you by the ears at first. It further cements Lange’s status as one of our consummate “growers,” its melodic and textual depth revealing itself more with every listen, until before you know it, you’re surrounded by blossoms.
15. John Carroll Kirby – Cryptozoo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The Light of a Pair of Red Eyes in the Forest
For his contributions to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You alone, pianist/producer/composer John Carroll Kirby deserves the benefit of the doubt. So while you might not think you’re in the mood to hear a new age/yacht rock score to a psychedelic animated movie about a zoo full of magical creatures, I’d recommend pressing play anyway. Far from a “weird for weird’s sake” exercise, Cryptozoo is a restorative balm of laid-back experimentation, where beds of synths and acoustic guitars reverberate reassuringly, leaving us more open to the wonders of a breathy pan flute solo that we ever could have imagined.
14. Mustafa – When Smoke Rises
The Light of a Candle on a Coffee Shop Table, Blurred By Tears
While Toronto natives Drake and The Weeknd chose superstardom over self-reflection years ago, the template they laid for woozy, deep dives into an artist’s damaged psyche is still in the water up there. On his debut LP, singer/songwriter Mustafa infuses the long blue winters of his hometown into a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous folk eulogy for fallen friends and eroded innocences. “I didn’t want to risk it all / Oh I know what’s at stake / But you made yourself special / I wanna throw myself away for you,” he sings over plaintive Leonard Cohen finger picking – grief and rage and love freezing together as grey clouds cover the stars.
13. Lil Nas X – Montero
The Light from a Single Sparkler Setting Off the Entire Pack
“Funny how you said it was the end / Then I went and did it again,” boasts Lil Nas X on his debut LP. The guy has a right to feel chuffed. After all the reactionary panic over his 2019 country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road” – including Billboard pulling it off the country charts – the man born Montero Lamar Hill hasn’t just proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder. He’s made an entire album of potential chart-toppers, while staying true to himself and his eclectic muse. Montero has gleefully egotistical rap bangers, heartsick rainy-day ballads, “Hey Ya”-indebted acoustic thumps, and frank explorations of what it’s like to be a cultural icon on this beautiful, burning planet.
12. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World
The Light That Flared in Atlas’s Eyes As He Held Up the Heavens
Maxo Kream doesn’t need choruses, or hypnotically soulful beats, or guest stars with sparkling personalities. To be clear, the Houston rapper is gifted with all of those things on his third studio album. But his stories are so vivid, introspective, and casually devastating that it’s tough to focus on anything else. Weight of the World finds Maxo wrestling with all kinds of heaviness – survivor’s guilt for old friends still striving; raw grief from the March 2020 shooting death of his younger brother; the extra responsibility he feels toward his niece in the aftermath. It’s not only remarkable that the 31-year-old is willing to tackle such harrowing subjects, but he does it without surrendering to the darkness, spiking transparency with cleverness to create an effect that feels a lot like hope.
11. Shannon Lay – Geist
The Light We Keep On at NightBecause It Helps Us Sleep
“You’re on your own / But not alone.” When California singer/songwriter Shannon Lay serenades us with this couplet at the end of a song called “A Thread to Find,” the effect is a form of sonic therapy. Because not only does this proclamation of support help soothe our pandemic-warped nervous systems, but it also serves as a handy descriptor of what we’re hearing. For all of its reverberating lushness, Geist is a traditional folk album, with carefully plucked acoustic guitars and Lay’s lullaby tenor going largely unaccompanied. There are no drums at all here, which means every beautiful, searching note can initially feel like it’s rising into the ether on its own. But we’re there hearing it, so it’s not alone.
10. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
The Light of Multiple Laser Beams Combining Into One Indestructible Megalaser
If Roadrunner is indeed the beginning of the end for the Houston emo-rap collective Brockhampton, as bandleader Kevin Abstract claims, then they’re going out with a clear understanding of what they’re good at. After taking an unprecedented two-year break between releases, the nine-member group (four rappers, three vocalists, two producers) reached a new level of clarity on its sixth LP, leaving its kitchen-sink mixtape approach behind in favor of a focused 12-track statement that somehow leaves no stone unturned. Everything that makes Brockhampton great is here – lovesick pop-rap, yell-along hip hop, heartfelt alt-rock hooks, fearlessly confessional lyricism – and it all flows in a way that feels preordained.
9. Danny L Harle – Harlecore
The Light of Neurons Firing In an Android’s Positronic Brain
As one of the more accessible members of the UK experimental electronic collective PC Music, Danny L Harle has a knack of pairing thumping molly-trip beats with clear-eyed declarations of feeling. On his long-awaited debut Harlecore, the artist puts this ability to the test over 13 tracks, “collaborating” with various versions of himself (referred to as DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean in the credits). The result is a perfectly sequenced journey through the mind of an electronic music visionary, touching on tender pop balladry, pitch-bended weirdo R&B, instrumental electronica, and relentlessly grinding industrial. All without losing sight of the humanity behind the machines: “I can see your heart’s been broken too / So just lay here, on a mountain, me and you.”
8. Doja Cat – Planet Her
The Light ofa Newly Discovered PlanetThat Looks Like A Glowstick Necklace in the Sky
When Q-Tip rapped “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop” over 30 years ago, he clearly wasn’t able to conceive of a record like Planet Her ever existing. And I don’t blame him. Because Doja Cat has accomplished something many brilliant emcees have never been able to pull off – a seamless fusion of bars-heavy hip hop, tender-hearted R&B, and chart-baiting pop hooks that doesn’t feel like a misguided record label ultimatum. This charismatic L.A. artist can rap and sing with equal flair, with lyrics that can be gut-bustingly hilarious, effervescently lovestruck, and convincingly heartbroken. Planet Her combines these versatile vocal performances with island-inflected club grooves, delivering every clever turn of phrase on the back of a warm, welcoming breeze.
7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
The Light From Your Best Friend’s Cigarette That They Forget to Smoke Because They’re Listening To You So Intently
On her steamroller of a debut (my #1 album of 2015), Courtney Barnett was a master at finding poignancy in mundane activities, like riding an elevator or going house hunting. Six years later, with mundanity at a premium, the Aussie slacker-rock visionary has shifted focus to the thing we often don’t admit to needing in our troubled, disconnected world – real companionship. “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” she proposes as her band rides a swirling roots-rock groove, finding the silver lining in the apocalypse like it’s a silver dollar on the street. Barnett hasn’t lost that trademark so-over-it sarcasm in her voice, but she’s deploying it in a gentler way, underlining the irony in how we focus on personal needs when humanity’s existence is at stake, while also admitting that she’s doing it too. All while writing riffs that feel like they’ve been keeping us company all our lives.
6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
The Light Of a July 4 Fireworks Display That Makes You Smile Even Though You’re Depressed About the State of the Country
“After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” said Michelle Zauner in the press materials for the third Japanese Breakfast LP. Jubilee meets this expectation and then some, with every track attempting to reach the masses with an irresistibly positive pop touch – like the weightless mariachi horns on “Paprika”; the soothing, Peter Gabriel-worshipping electronics of “Posing in Bondage”; the instant-classic disco bass line on “Be Sweet.” But this is also not quite a party album, as Zauner sings from the perspectives of a craven billionaire, a grieving relative, and a lonely heart in Indiana. So while it’s tempting to label this as an “indie rock legend gone pop,” the record’s true narrative isn’t so tidy. Because Jubilee‘s joy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It came in the wake of pain, and is felt all the more intensely as a result.
5. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
The Light In an Electron Microscope that Lets Us See the Building Blocks of Life
On her fourth album, Little Simz is clearly in autobiographical mode. Not only is its title – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – a clear statement about the artist’s personality, but it’s also an acronym of her birthname (“Simbi,” short for “Simbiatu”). Perhaps the British-Nigerian rapper felt the need to drop these hints, because the 19 tracks on Introvert don’t soundlike stark, intimate confessionals. Simz partnered with producer Inflo to weave tapestries of lush, cinematic soul, greeting the ears with the reassuring tenderness of a Curtis Mayfield ballad. And the rapper proves to be just as bombastic as all the spy-flick horns and swelling strings, sharing her hopes, fears, traumas and inspirations like a timpanist establishing the low end so the symphony can soar. “Lived being angry my whole life / Like it’s part of my DNA,” she shares, grounding us distinctly in her reality. A few seconds later, a children’s chorus swoops in, and up we go.
4. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
The Light of a Slide Projector Warming Up in the Living Room
On her third album, this Virginia singer/songwriter doesn’t just tell stories. She writes letters – an offer to murder a partner’s dickhead father; an ode to a metalhead who wrote crappy poetry at Jesus Camp; an admission to a friend that she finds her boyfriend unworthy. Home Video deserves its title thanks to the specificity of these memories and the swells of emotion they can inspire in people who weren’t there. When Dacus gets less specific, it’s no less powerful – like the bridge on the gut-wrenching break-up ballad “Please Stay,” where the songwriter lists all the things her partner can do instead of leaving. “Quit your job / Cut your hair / Get a dog / Change your name,” it begins. It’s a stunning, honest admission of need, and a letter of encouragement to all who wonder if we’d be better off keeping our pesky feelings to ourselves.
3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
The Light That Guides Ships To Shore On Dark and Stormy Nights
Nick Cave’s singing voice is a marvel. After four decades of screaming, grunting and wailing as the frontman of The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the 64-year-old Aussie legend is not only showing zero signs of strain, he’s exploring the upper register of his instrument, with riveting results. On Carnage, Cave teams up with trusted partner Warren Ellis to surround his voice with soft, rippling synthesizers, as he sings about deep rivers, lavender fields and kingdoms in the sky – the grief from his son’s passing in 2015 audible in every lyric about god and the afterlife. Yet despite the state of the world and his own personal burdens, Cave ends Carnage with a shaft of light through the clouds, a line repeated over and over again, with the kind of fervency that could convert a nonbeliever: “This morning is amazing / And so are you.”
2. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
The Light Next To Thomas Edison’s Work Bench
When getting good at Guitar Hero 2 wasn’t enough for a young Yasmin Williams, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started experimenting with it. She laid it face up on her lap, tuned the strings in a harmonic structure that sounded right to her, and started playing it like a keyboard. On her second album of instrumental folk, this distinctive approach is apparent in the way her fingers glide across the frets, the resulting notes flowing and clustering together like streams feeding the ocean. As she translates this tablature of the mind to us on tape, we’re presented with utterly unique compositions full of fascinating harmonic shapes, punctuated by percussive slaps of wood and the refreshing spray of a squeaking string. If they ever come out with Guitar Hero Unplugged, any of these songs would make it incredibly hard to beat.
1. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
The Light from an MRI of Eve’s Brain At the Moment She Saw the Tree of Knowledge
Sinner Get Ready, the fourth album from the brimstone-spewing one-woman powerhouse Lingua Ignota, is categorized in iTunes as “Rock.” That’s not accurate, but I get it. What the hell else would you call an album that trembles with the conviction of gospel, soothes with the rustic sounds of Appalachian folk, and terrifies with sudden blasts of noise-metal? What singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Kristen Hayter has done here is some kind of righteous, cathartic miracle – long, patient songs of eerie majesty with lyrics that see the world through the eyes of fanatical Catholics, who plead to their Old Testament God to strike down the evildoers in their midst. And we’re not talking about people who skip church on Sunday – the “sinners” referenced in this album title are domestic abusers. A survivor herself, Hayter has described her creations as her way of getting “revenge” at her abusers – refusing to stay calm, while simultaneously turning pain into beauty. She cries out for divine murder on “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” screaming about golden scythes like a delirious preacher as a church organ hums in the shadows. And Hayter’s quieter moments are no less intense. “Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” she softly intones over the skeletal piano notes of “The Perpetual Flame of Centralia,” baptizing us in the fires of determination, and outrage, and god-given creative genius.
Honorable Mentions: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology; Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me; Froglord – The Mystic Toad; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon; Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog;Iron Maiden – Senjutsu; Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning; Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Aimee Mann – Queens of the Summer Hotel; Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties; The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here; Native Soul – Teenage Dreams; Queen Key – Your Highness 3; Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita; Tune-Yards – Sketchy; Tyler the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
When I was 15, a kind, patient older cousin of mine was killed in a freak accident. A few days after getting that news, I was in the middle of a driving class when my instructor asked me if anything was wrong. I was stumped at first. Nothing seemed off to me; I didn’t think my driving or behavior was erratic. But both were. It took me a while to realize that I had internalized my grief so much that I was tricking myself into believing everything was okay. Instead of crying about it, or talking about it, or confronting it in any way.
And because I was a boy, and the other men in my life were just like me in the feelings department, I accepted this lack of emotional intelligence as just part of who I was. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that the dam started to break. Because that was the year I met my wife, who is teaching me what it means to be self-aware to this day. It was also the year I bought Joni Mitchell’s Blue on CD. We would fall asleep to it in the middle of the day, comforted by how the intensity of its emotions resonated with ours.
Up until Blue was released 50 years ago today, the definition of a singer/songwriter was problematically narrow – essentially it described a man who did it all, except for telling us how he really felt. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were the recognized masters of this form, posing stoically on their album covers to make it clear they were brooding troubadours who answered to no one. And while they would pull the veil back occasionally, these were artists who wrote songs like English professors – shrouding any vulnerability in layers of metaphor and literary references. Given how good their music sounded, it was easy to associate their lyrical complexity with artistic worth. To believe that honesty is somehow simpler or easier.
An iconoclast from day one, Joni Mitchell wasn’t about to pay attention to what a singer/songwriter was supposed to be. The Alberta native didn’t even tune her guitar in the standard way, perpetually twisting the pegs in search of brand new clusters of notes, frustrating generations of campfire strummers in search of an easy cover. In the years leading up to Blue, she used these invented chord structures to give her first three albums an ethereal quality that folk fans hadn’t quite experienced before. Yet her lyrics, while reflective of her talent, needed some time to catch up. These early songs were written in the ’60s Greenwich Village mold, anthems anchored by metaphors intended to be applicable to all – life is like a merry-go-round; growing up is like seeing the clouds from above for the first time. One of her biggest hits was about Woodstock, and she wasn’t even there.
These songs I’m referencing remain rightfully iconic, and they resulted in Mitchell becoming very famous very quickly. And like a lot of artists who are both egomaniacally driven and emotionally sensitive, she ended the ’60s feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned with fame, and seriously considering retirement. In Malka Marom’s fascinating interview collection Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the artist describes this time in her life:
“I hadn’t cried for years, but at that time I cried all the time. They walked on the moon, I cried. Everything made me cry. […] Another day, I came upon a boat being pulled by a car crossing under the telephone lines as they went across the road. The name of the boat was The Wife’s Mink Coat. And I burst into tears. It had two motors and I just saw all the disruption those egg beaters were making in the water, and I felt sorry for the fish. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was weeping about that.”
Mitchell wrote and recorded Blue in this state of mind, and made no attempt to hide it, describing the nuances of her emotions with an honesty and specificity that would forever expand the boundaries of what a singer/songwriter could do. Gone were any attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. Blue is about what one person was going through, period.
Over sparse folk arrangements that feature only a handful of players other than her, Mitchell sings about her needs, regrets, and traumas, embracing how uncomfortably they could live alongside one another. The love songs are mournful. The travel songs are homesick. The sad songs shiver in the shadows of potential happiness. To someone like me, who struggled to understand the fact that human beings contain multitudes, this doubled as a psychology lesson.
On the opening “All I Want,” Mitchell sums up the mercurial push and pull of a passionate relationship in a few pronoun-laden lines, as her dulcimer and James Taylor’s guitar lay down the path ahead:
I hate you some, I love you some Oh I love you when I forget about me
Most relationship eulogizers would be satisfied with this passive, poetic sadness, like Dylan telling his ex not to think twice and just move on. But Joni Mitchell wasn’t kidding when she titled this song. She wants us to know all of the good things she wants for this person as well. Even though it’s contradictory, and an admission of vulnerability:
I want to be the one that you want to see I want to knit you a sweater Want to write you a love letter I want to make you feel better I want to make you feel free
On the devastating ballad “Little Green,” when singing to the child she gave up for adoption while mired in poverty –a personal trauma that was a closely kept secret until the 1990s – Mitchell keeps stubbornly looking for pinpricks of hope: So you sign all the papers in the family name You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed Little green have a happy ending
On the record’s more upbeat numbers, the reverse is true. “California” uses sprightly acoustic strumming to underline Mitchell’s largely rose-colored memories of adventures abroad. But in the last chorus, she asks her adoptive home state if she’s worthy: “Will you take me as I am?” “Carey” fleshes out another lively acoustic groove about international travel with conga hits and layered vocal harmonies. But her “fingernails are filthy,” and she has “beach tar on her feet.” And the red-haired Cretian man who inspired the title? He’s “a mean old daddy.”
“My insights became keener,” Mitchell tells Marom about her frame of mind while recording Blue. “I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”
As arguably the first “transparent” work from a singer/songwriter, Blue has inspired countless purveyors of confessional art over the last half-century. But I’ve yet to hear one that resonates as powerfully. Perhaps because this was a radical form of unguardedness, an artist knowingly twisting the pegs of misogynistic limitations by the mere act of being honest on tape. Or maybe Joni Mitchell just happened to be in an elevated state of self-awareness that aligned with her talents reaching their peak. Regardless, the alchemy of these sounds and words is timeless.
To this day, when I’m having trouble tracing the origins of my emotions, I’ll turn to this album. Because in life, when you try to ignore your feelings and make literary references instead, that just makes you an asshole. Thanks to my wife, and this album, I feel comfortable saying that I miss my cousin. That I will never forget the time he sat and played a board game with me on a family visit, even though he was older and cooler and absolutely had better things to do. That I wish he was still alive.
Feeling nostalgic for the 2010s yet? They weren’t great, but at least they’re not the 2020s amirite? And while we’re on the subject of things that aren’t fun, what about Mondays? Cold weather? That time the hometown sports team got robbed? Unpopular bloggers who drive stupid gags into the ground?
If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips in the 2010s – was there better advice during the Trump administration than “hold on for one more day”? – hopefully the rise of Haim corrected that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continued to revel in 1980s supermarket pop aesthetics, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drum machines and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs remain the singles, which pair absolutely massive choruses with quirky production wrinkles that make repeat listens even more rewarding – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender; on “Nothing’s Wrong,” it’s a series of oddly interrupted gasps. For all its obvious influences – Haim have definitely paid close attention to Stevie Nicks’s recipes – Something to Tell You is not some generic, store brand approach to pop hooks. This band figured out how to bottle their unadulterated joy. And so far, it seems like there’s no expiration date.
74. Thundercat – Drunk(2017)
Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner made an indelible mark on 2010s hip hop and R&B – Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicted, the potential of this artist as a vibrant new songwriting voice was only just beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of an artist with a kaleidoscopically imaginative vision all his own. The music was rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, which was important because it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sang about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with awestruck, childlike energy. By building these bridges between poetry and poptimism, Thundercat was able to pull off a love-against-all-odds ballad featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and then shift to a regret-laden Kendrick Lamar rap showcase on the very next track. It remains one hell of a balancing act, which leaves us feeling the opposite of wasted.
73. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2010)
To give a song the best chance at catching on, it’s best to stay vague. Listeners love to interpret lyrics in ways that fit their own situations, which is why The Police’s serial stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” is still a hit at weddings. But the Athens, Georgia, alt-country institution Drive-By Truckers hasn’t had much time for that advice since its inception in the late ’90s. On its eighth LP, the band rang in the 2010s with an album full of exhilarating specificity – detailed story songs with colorful characters, performed with the kind of chiming roots rock efficiency that made Tom Petty famous. “Drag the Lake Charlie” documents a small town’s reaction to a cheating man gone missing, and the looming danger of his trigger-happy partner. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” recounts the murder trial of a woman claiming self-defense, and the unusual exhibits that inspired the jury to reduce the charge. “The Flying Wallendas” tells the true story of a legendary family of tightrope walkers, many of whom fell to their deaths doing what they loved. When Hood encounters a surviving Wallenda in Florida, the awe flows from his pen: “I was stunned and astounded that the old lady who was out / Pruning her orange trees / Had flown to the heavens and back.”
72. Laura Marling – Semper Femina(2017)
Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”
71. CupcakKe – Ephorize (2018)
When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. For CupcakKe, Ephorize was that moment. The third LP from the Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory equity. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.
“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.
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 Playhouse. This album is a complete artistic statement; a celebration of an independent spirit, alive with humor and humanity. And it’s over in the time it takes to boil an egg. “Music is in my Billie genes,” she boasts. It’s the only explanation for how she could have pulled this off.
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.
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 heremight 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
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.