The Top 20 Albums of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c0pgud81zws2117. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated

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

a4071199145_1016. Annika Norlin & Jens Lenkman – Correspondence

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

d1cd15de102b996097a8100b1ddf77b0.320x320x115. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿

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

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

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

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

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

Purple_Mountains_-_Purple_Mountains12. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

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

dc8c722b0a00da9ef6c558a51f45d361.596x596x111. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever

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

Charli_XCX_-_Charli10. Charli XCX – Charli

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

Goldlink-DIASPORA-cover9. GoldLink – Diaspora

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

a0427656644_108. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile

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

a4123579682_107. Idle Hands – Mana

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

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

In the fall of 2018, three years after losing his 15-year-old son to a tragic fall, Nick Cave began a blog called “The Red Hand Files,” in which he answered questions from fans. The first post tackled a question about how his writing process has changed. “I would say that it has shifted fundamentally,” Cave responded. “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma, authentically … I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.” The double LP that resulted from these writings, Ghosteen, is just as Cave described – a heartbreaking eulogy that searches for meaning behind the veil of mere biology. “We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar / And everything is as distant as the stars / I am here, and you are where you are,” Cave posits, acknowledging the frailty of life while finding magic in death. The music of Ghosteen supports his solemn voyage, with blankets of vintage synths lending a gorgeous sense of otherworldliness throughout. Also, for the first time in his career, the 62-year-old sings for long stretches in a stunningly clear falsetto, his voice like his soul, reaching ever higher. “I am here beside you / Look for me in the sun,” he sings, looking beyond the trauma, traveling past a world of concrete beginnings and endings. The fact that we get to go with him feels like some kind of miracle.

a2334189316_105. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!

One of the more well-known take-downs of music writing is that it’s “like dancing about architecture.” Everyone from Martin Mull to Lester Bangs to Elvis Costello has said this. It is, of course, preposterous. Artists are inspired by other art forms all the time, and their art is better for it. Like the second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods – a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. These aren’t covers, or attempts to replicate anybody’s style. They’re more like poetic odes set to music, explanations from Woods as to what these people mean to her. “What is it with these independent men? / It’s always something / Threatening your masculine energy / You think it’s fleeting,” Woods croons in her laid-back tenor on a song dedicated to the iconoclastic funk genius Betty Davis. You can feel the lessons Woods has learned from Davis, who famously had to put up with Miles Davis’s bullshit, subsumed in this music. Other tracks are dedicated to Muddy Waters and his resistance to appropriation; Nikki Giovanni and her defiantly triumphant poem “Ego Tripping”; Eartha Kitt and her refusal to compromise. Musically, Woods continues down the neo-Badu R&B path she started on her 2016 debut, coasting on the fluidity of the drums and bass lines until we’re damn sure we must be floating. Her voice is never showy, and it doesn’t need to be, hitting the notes with a confident grace, borne up on the remarkable vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.

Denzel_Curry_-_Zuu4. Denzel Curry – Zuu

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

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

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

Titanic_Rising2. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

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

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

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

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

The Second Best Album of the 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Third Best Album of the 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Best Album of the 1990s

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

Elliott-Smith-XO-1535044205-640x640

4. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Fifth Best Album of the 1990s

Well lookie here. There are only five entries left in my Top 100 Albums of the ’90s countdown. I’m gonna spend a little bit more time on each of our remaining classics, starting with #5 – the album that transformed Atlanta, Georgia, into a hip hop mecca.

what-millennials-should-know-about-outkast-aquemini-compressed

5. Outkast – Aquemini

There’s something inherently captivating about duos. Two people whose chemistry is inevitably intertwined with their creations, who push one another to heights they could never achieve individually. It’s why Simon was never as good without Garfunkel. Jack is lost without Meg. And Tip sounds incomplete without Phife.

In 1998, the rap duo Outkast released an album that was about this specific dynamic. They called it Aquemini, a portmanteau of the rapper/producers’ zodiac signs (Big Boi is an Aquarius; Andre 3000 is a Gemini), and proceeded to write songs about the intensity of their friendship and the magic of their chemistry, while exhibiting a zen-like acceptance of its eventual demise.

And all of this held water, because musically, these guys were at their absolute peak. They invited live musicians to their Atlanta studio to stretch, deepen and distort their sound, slow-roasting it until any resemblance to East or West Coast rap had sloughed off onto the coals. Aquemini absorbed the sprawling, earthy aesthetic of Parliament-Funkadelic more organically than Dr. Dre’s samples ever could. It set a bar for Dirty South hip hop that has arguably never been cleared. It’s one of the boldest, most self-aware recordings in rap history.

“Stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough / We worked for everything we have and gon’ stick up for / Each other,” proclaims Big Boi on his first verse of the album. The song, ironically titled “Return of the ‘G’,” is a spleen-vent against anybody who was weirded out by Outkast’s 1996 LP, ATLiens (#83 on this list). They’d left the “harder” gangsta rap of their hit debut in the dust, in favor of longer, spacier, more overtly Southern funk experiments. They weren’t pimps anymore. They were aliens. And that was alienating to people who don’t take kindly to change.

“Some of my fashion choices people didn’t accept at the time. I started getting flak from some people, so they were like, ‘Either he’s gay or on drugs,’” Andre shared in an interview. It’s the kind of situation that regularly destroys artistic partnerships – blowback from fans largely directed to one artist, who ends up getting an inordinate amount of attention. Outkast responded by closing ranks.

Aquemini’s lyrical scope is as wide as its sonic palette, including stories about how poverty can strangle hope, detailed deconstructions of failed relationships, and a myriad of ways to let us know why Big Boi and Dre are the type of people that make the club get crunk. But that sense of brotherhood is the common thread, the unifying vision that makes this ambitious, 75-minute album feel not only coherent, but full of exhilarating urgency right up until the last wailing guitar note of “Chonkyfire.” Even the few skippable moments – a pair of skits set in a record store where Outkast haters can’t wait to hear the new “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album – are rooted in the adversity that tempered their bond.

Aptly, it’s on the horoscope-melding title track where everything comes together, and the core ethos of this record is laid bare. Over a syrupy R&B groove where glittering guitar chords can seemingly ring out forever, Andre whispers a chorus about impermanence:

Nothing is for sure
Nothing is for certain
Nothing lasts forever
But until they close the curtain
It’s him and I, Aquemini

Some people use the inevitable end of things as a good reason to give up. This pair of 23 year olds took it as irrefutable evidence that they needed to work even harder. Because the energy created by their duality was special. And thanks to the miracle of recording technology, they had the ability to trap that energy in amber.

Eight years after Aquemini ruled the world, Outkast dropped their clunky film project Idlewild. It was the duo’s first true misstep, and Big Boi and Andre 3000 went their separate ways soon after. They could’ve stayed together and made expertly crafted rap music for years to come. But they could feel that curtain closing. Even when they broke up, they were absolutely on the same page. Today, with popular music an ever-growing cult of personality, there are very few duos making noise. But we can still press play on Aquemini and sit in wonder of what can happen when two driven, talented individuals find inspiration in one another.

 

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (10-6)

So here we are, gang. Ten albums left. Can you believe it? It’s only taken me eight years to get here! EFFICIENCY. These next five LPs certainly meant a lot to me as a mumbling high school and college student who smelled weird because he’d never learned to wash properly.

ATribeCalledQuestTheLowEndtheory10. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)

In 1991, it was getting harder to disregard rap music as a fad. A year earlier, “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” gave the world a preview of the genre’s inevitable crossover dominance. (On the day I’m writing this, 9 of the top 20 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 come from rappers.) A Tribe Called Quest was decidedly not celebrating this. “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop,” scolded rapper/producer Q-Tip on the Queens trio’s second LP. Here were young artists on the cusp of stardom, who had already landed a hit by sampling “Walk On the Wild Side,” abandoning that path and consciously pursuing a different type of hook – anchored in the syncopations of jazz and the pentameters of poetry. “Don’t you know that things move in cycles?” Q-Tip asks his father on his iconic opening verse, openly acknowledging that this new and exciting genre was indebted to the record and book collections of generations past. And with this bold, anthropological mission driving them, Tribe recorded some of the wisest, funkiest, most sweepingly joyful rap songs in history. Tip and the forever-underrated Phife Dawg trade bars about everything from growing up together to dealing with psychotic A&R guys, giving other artists a blueprint for their own careers. They were never pop stars as a result. They’ll just have to settle for being legends.

220px-Pnyc9. Portishead – Live from Roseland, NYC (1998)

Of the handful of James Bond movies I’ve seen, my favorite parts are the songs. A talented vocalist belts their guts out, their voice trembling with emotion, the minor-key arrangement inevitably boiling over with a scalding spray of brass. Then the director credit fades, along with that feeling. Because James Bond is about as passionate as a cold shower. The Terminator feels more. A love of Bond themes was central to the aesthetic of Portishead, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers who combined throwback ’60s horn and string charts with blasts of synthetic noise and head-spinning displays of record scratching.  But it was singer Beth Gibbons that made the trio so much more than a formula. She approached these songs like a self-aware Shirley Bassey, who knows that these intense feelings are unrequited, marveling at the energy she can muster for one so undeserving. And Live from Roseland, NYC is the ultimate document of her achievement. Backed by a full orchestra, which gives Portishead’s ambitiously cinematic sound the dynamic scope it deserves – from whispering strings to trammeling trombones – Gibbons sings with the concentrated energy of a spirit trying to move something corporeal. “I can’t hold this day / Anymore,” she bemoans on “Over,” as a lone guitar delivers a two-note eulogy. By the end of that song, its singer is wailing; the orchestra is at triple fortissimo; the DJ is scratching like there’s bugs in the vinyl. And we are both shaken, and stirred.

Magnolia_album8. Aimee Mann – Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)

The soundtrack album for the film Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson’s indulgent masterpiece about the intersecting lives of despairing Californians – contains tracks from four different artists. Yet it’s credited, right there on the cover, to Aimee Mann. This is entirely appropriate, because Anderson has admitted that Mann’s lyrics heavily influenced these stories. At one point, Melora Walters’s character delivers the first line of “Deathly” in conversation: “Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?” That line is peak Mann, untangling the complicated internal lives of the victimized in a handful of syllables. Like the movie, she makes sure to let pinpricks of hope shine through over the course of nine tracks, making the sadness ring even truer. The richly layered folk arrangements have the color palette of a sunset – nuances of warmth form a halo around Mann’s steady, reassuring voice. And songs like the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” express a stubborn, foundational belief in romantic alchemy – broken hearts can find understanding souls. And when they do, they fuse together to create something new, and strong, and good. The balance of the Magnolia soundtrack is also spot-on – a pair of Supertramp classics about self-actualization and its aftermath; the cheerful self-help R&B of Gabrielle’s “Dreams”; the fairy-tale malaise of Jon Brion’s theme. But this soundtrack belongs to one person, who suspects they could never love anyone, singing songs that will immediately appeal to anyone who ever has.

https___images.genius.com_0e92782dd80e4fc1b0ea056705fba60b.1000x1000x17. Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997)

When Motown label head Kedar Massenburg introduced the term “neosoul” to describe artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, it was marketing at its emptiest. And most successful. “Neosoul” records, of which Baduizm remains the gold standard, were actually “retrosoul” records – summoning the organic warmth of ’70s Motown while supposedly slighting the slick, rap-influenced R&B that was ruling the charts. It was a white lie to make traditionalists feel like they weren’t out of touch. Lulled by Badu’s nightclub jazz arrangements and laconic, Billie Holiday drawl, they probably never picked up on just how much this Dallas singer, songwriter and iconically headwrapped Soulquarian loved hip hop. “You rush into destruction cause you don’t have nothing left / The mothership can’t save you so your ass is gon’ get left,” Badu sings with the swaggering syncopation of a rapper, on Baduizm‘s first single, “On & On.” This quiet confidence propels her performance throughout, as she dismisses those who dismiss her intelligence, confronts a guy who tries to roofie her, and wrestles with the risks of loving a drug dealer. Her songs and the way she sings them elevate the midtempo jazz vamps that are Baduizm‘s stock in trade. Also like a rapper, she turns to bass lines for guidance, wrapping her syllables around them until they become indelible earworms. In the process, Badu made an intergenerational soul album that reassured her elders, inspired countless rappers, poets and R&B singers, and wove a spell that holds to this day. It was something new, after all.

220px-Radiohead.okcomputer.albumart6. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

Countless rock bands have written songs about life on the road. Because touring is what bands do, and you write about what you know. But no artist has used their experience on tour to communicate larger metaphors as effectively as Radiohead did on its third album. Singer/songwriter Thom Yorke mined some terrifying and disorienting travel experiences for material, resulting in songs about car and plane crashes, insane thoughts in tight spaces, and grabbing your bags before dawn in a panic. “Transport, motorways and tramlines / Starting and then stopping / Taking off and landing / The emptiest of feelings,” he observes. But this is not an album about airports. By taking that odd sense of disconnection we feel while traveling and applying it to our relationships with our bosses, political representatives, and inner selves, OK Computer tapped into a creeping cultural malaise that would eventually overtake us. Listening today, its themes resonate as strongly as ever, pulled from the brink of fatalism time and again by the music, which is as towering and tender as the band has ever sounded. The six-minute anti-capitalist epoch “Paranoid Android” shifts from buzzsaw guitar screaming to a spine-tingling choral breakdown, giving Gen X its own “Stairway to Heaven” moment in the process. On “Let Down” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Jonny Greenwood’s clean guitar sounds wash over Yorke’s dour observations like cleansing foam. And the arrangement on “No Surprises,” featuring a major-scale glockenspiel loop that could just as easily have been whistled, sounds like brainwashing feels – just a little too perfect. As a result, Radiohead made an album about hopelessness that achieved unforeseen levels of melodic uplift. Like a plane that’s just left the ground, it’s a miracle. One that doesn’t give us much room to breathe.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (15-11)

OMG, we’re uncomfortably close to the end of this crazy countdown! Here are five albums that I adored in my underachieving, ironic-tee-shirt-wearing youth, and are only getting better with age. (You can check out the whole list here.)

51Cy7Aj+XdL15. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, my wife got bit by what we thought was a spider. The bite kept getting worse, so we called poison control. I was scared shitless that I was going to lose my person, while surrounded by the most vibrantly alive environment I’d ever seen. The Flaming Lips must’ve known this feeling. Because their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, is full of songs that are acutely aware of life’s impermanence. Yet they’re surrounded by optimistic, awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements that do justice to the laziest Pet Sounds reference. And oh yeah, there’s literally a song called “The Spiderbite Song,” which does not require a personal encounter with potentially deadly insects to appreciate. Producer Dave Fridmann goes borderline Disney with the arrangement, slathering it with trilling harps and tinkling pianos. Yet it’s a delivery system for a raw-as-hell truth – love and devastation are a switch, and it can be flipped by the tiniest twist of fate. “If it destroyed you / It would destroy me,” admits Wayne Coyne on the chorus, balancing the scales without dispelling the magic. My wife’s bite turned out to be from a non-poisonous scorpion, further proof that she’s a total bad-ass. But I’ll always feel a little bit shaken by the memory. Hearing Coyne’s voice, trembling with relief as it floats high above these flourishing soundscapes, it’s impossible to not be moved. Because at any moment, it could’ve fallen.

https___images.genius.com_658097527d975ba15bcaca96999f5f5e.500x500x114. Beck – Mutations (1998)

These days it’s common knowledge that Beck Hansen is a singer/songwriter capable of incredible pathos. But the first time I heard Mutations, I had no idea. The crate-digging hipster earthquake of Odelay was still ringing in my ears. So I was floored by this collection of languid folk and country sway-alongs, its rich, organic warmth somehow unscathed by an aggressively bleak lyric sheet (“We ride disowned / Corroded to the bone”). Nigel Godrich, fresh off producing OK Computer, buoys Beck’s tender crooning with reassuring swaths of synths, sitars, and harpsichords. Friendly, almost amateurish harmonica solos add to the humanity. And while there are no donkey samples or rapped non-sequiturs, Beck’s quirks are all over this album, giving it a ramshackle, lived-in feel. “Canceled Check” ends with the band having a collective stroke, randomly bashing on things. The hidden track “Diamond Bollocks” leaps between seething Stooges riffage and gentle birdsong. And his lyrical flights are as strikingly weird as ever: “A desolate wind / Turns shit to gold / And blows my soul crazy.” To encounter all of this unexpectedly was like having a profound conversation with somebody you thought you knew. Realizing there’s way more to them than you thought. And looking forward to hearing from them again.

buhloone mindstate13. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Grunge bands got tons of credit for rejecting the spoils of stardom in the 1990s. But none of them explored this conflict on tape quite like De La Soul, who made entire concept albums about what it meant to be a rap star. They called their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, shattering the cuddly, neo-hippie image that made them famous. A few years later, they dropped Buhloone Mindstate, its title borne from a stated desire to “blow up, but not go pop.” It sounds like what it is – a rap group at the peak of its powers, trying its hardest to not make hits. So we get thickets of ’70s soul and ’80s rap samples, live horns, and clips from the movie The Five Heartbeats (all of which appear on the monumental “Patti Dooke”). Maceo Parker gets five minutes to just solo. Same for the Japanese rap trio Scha Dara Parr, who get a stripped down drumbeat to freak out over. And then there’s Posdnous, De La’s de facto leader, who makes sure we’ve got our seatbelt on during all these thrilling left turns. He overstuffs his verses with introspective journeys and biting social commentary, stating his case clearly and prolifically. “I am Posdnous / I be the new generation of slaves / Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes,” he shares on “I Am I Be,” doing justice to the authenticity of that title. It’s lovely how much De La Soul cared about this stuff. They stayed true to themselves in the spotlight, exposed who was really benefitting from their hard work, and channeled it all into groundbreaking, revivifying music. It’s been 26 years, and it’s still blowing up.

https___images.genius.com_f08464da62a15725b3ea3a6a0a4c2da4.1000x1000x112. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Countless Westerns end with their male leads going out in a blaze of glory, because they valued their own concept of justice  over anything else. On her third album, PJ Harvey had had enough of that shit. To Bring You My Love is written from the perspective of the women in these stories, those unconsidered widows and jilted lovers whose existential pain is usually seen as acceptable collateral damage. “I love him longer / As each damn day goes / The man is gone / And heaven only knows,” she sings on the album’s final song, establishing the permanence of grief before the music fades. Her narrators plead with everyone from Jesus to a deadbeat dad named Billy. They travel “over dry earth and floods.” And on the mesmerizing murder ballad “Down By the Water,” they drown their own child and blame it on the fish. Harvey, making her first album as a solo artist, comes into her own as a producer, creating atmospheres worthy of these raw, gothic tales. Almost every riff is a simple pentatonic phrase, a shard of the blues poking through the skin of the session. And it’s all in full mourning dress, thanks to slow tempos, low, burbling organs, and heavy swaths of distortion – imagine Violator-era Depeche Mode doing an album of John Lee Hooker covers. “See it coming / At my head / I’m not running / I’m not scared,” she sings, both as a character with a death wish and a songwriter in complete control of her gifts. Our concept of bravery doesn’t always have to be a cowboy perishing in a rain of bullets. It can be an artist doing exactly what she wants.

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream11. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

In the summer of ’96, when Smashing Pumpkins was the biggest band on earth, I saw them deliver an unforgettable set of high-decibel melodrama. During the second encore, the band unleashed “Silverfuck,” the incendiary 8-minute shredfest from Siamese Dream. At the end, instead of smashing his guitar, Billy Corgan sat down on the stage and methodically took it apart, unfazed by the screeching feedback of this little experiment. It’s the perfect metaphor for what made Siamese Dream the greatest LP to ever be labeled “grunge.” Corgan was a neurotic guitar geek, and he used the Siamese Dream sessions to indulge in his obsession, foregoing sleep and the respect of his bandmates to ensure every blast of distortion met with his vision. In the process, he invented his own wall of sound – a steady thrum of multi-tracked guitars that flood our eardrums like bagpipes from heaven. (The only instrument he didn’t personally touch were the drums, probably because Jimmy Chamberlin was one of the best rock drummers on earth in ’93.) Unlike the ragged emotional outpourings coming out of Seattle, this was unapologetically fussy rock music, best experienced on pricey headphones with your eyes closed. Despite the darkness of Corgan’s lyrics – even the hits are cries for help – the majesty of his sonic vision lifts all boats. When he sings, “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” he means the opposite. But the way those guitars ring as they deliver the hook? It makes the line true for me. Like any raging perfectionist, Corgan’s insistence on taking things apart and putting them back together again would come back to bite him. But not before he proved that perfection was within his reach.

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (20-16)

Whoa, we’ve hit the top 20! I’ve been writing this column since 2011, because like a good Gen X-er, I didn’t care that much about following through. Alas, here we are. Five more ’90s classics in ya ear. (You can check out the whole list here.)

91pBFF64j-L._SL1400_20. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)

That cover image you’re looking at right now, with the Beastie Boys sitting on a curb next to their instrument cases? It wasn’t a joke. Even though Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock had just reinvented themselves, against all odds, on the triumphant samplepalooza Paul’s Boutique, they took an even bigger risk on the follow-up – ditching their old producers and proven formulas so they could play their own loose concoction of funk, rap and hardcore punk. Like the Monkees, novelty-act status had masked the fact that the Beastie Boys had legitimate musical chops. Check Your Head is stuffed with monumental riffs and meditative instrumentals, lovingly sequenced into 20 tracks that resist the shuffle button. The rapping reflects this anything-goes, jam-session mentality, summed up by Mike D on track one: “All I ever really wanna do is get nice / Get loose and goof a little slice of life.” Only six years after “Brass Monkey” squawked its way onto the charts, this deeply musical, effortlessly electrifying LP entered the world. It was irrefutable proof of one of popular music’s greatest evolutions.

220px-IllmaticNas19. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

There’s a moment, before Nasir Jones raps a word of his debut album, that underlines how incredibly fresh his artistry was. As the ominous, subway-rattling bass line of “NY State of Mind” ramps up underneath, the 20-year-old MC confesses into the mic, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then, even though the ink is still drying, he jumps in, telling stories about life in New York’s Queensbridge projects that are so detailed, you can hear the dice hitting the walls: “On the corner bettin’ Grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughin’ at base-heads tryin to sell some broken amps.” Illmatic is a masterpiece of scene-setting, a clinic of internal rhymes, and an emotional watershed from a composition-book-scrawling kid who grew up surrounded by violence and nourished by poetry. And the beats – crafted by top producers of the ’90s – dramatically soundtrack these vivid scenes, from the clave-clacking quiet-storm R&B of “Life’s a Bitch” to the mournful organ loop of “Memory Lane.” He may have had no clue how to begin, but once Nas took that leap, it would be 38 minutes before he touched the ground.

CarWheelson_aGravelRoad18. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Lucinda Williams wanted her fourth album to sound a particular way. Warmer, punchier, more like the Pretenders or Steve Earle – “His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound,” she said about the latter. And thankfully, she stuck to her guns, through six years of label flameouts and disagreements with stubborn male producers (Earle included). Because Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sounds big in the most authentic possible way, a deeply rooted Louisiana oak that we can lean up against for an afternoon. It opens with “Right In Time,” an achingly physical love song that pairs visceral yearning (“Think about you and that long ride / I bite my nails, I get weak inside”) with a chiming guitar riff that’s as fulfilling as the sound of your lover pulling into the driveway. As Williams goes on to explore the nooks and crannies of Southern music, from jukebox country to jailbird folk and dobro-happy roots-rock, the connective tissue is her voice – defiantly front and center, singing about wandering spirits seeking meaning, making it seem like the journey itself could be enough.

Things_Fall_Apart_4117217. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

With the millennium coming to an end, the Clinton crime bill wreaking havoc on black communities, and an extended era of anti-Muslim fear-mongering right around the corner, The Roots released an album called Things Fall Apart. It was, quite ironically, the moment where everything came together for them. There’s a feeling of unrest throughout, an understanding that now it’s time to spark shit. Beats fade away in the middle of verses, the rappers left alone to soldier on. Its lead single, a love song about trust, prominently features the line “sometimes relationships get ill.” Its bookends are an argument between musicians from Mo’ Better Blues and a spoken word screed about the cycle of abuse. But even with the pull of these serious undercurrents, Things Fall Apart is a delight to listen to, a telepathic group at its peak, lovingly laid to tape. The crisp crack of Questlove’s snare; Kamal Gray’s nourishing Fender Rhodes vamps; Black Thought’s sweat-on-the-mic intensity – it gels in that next-level Revolver way. Resulting in a record that makes you feel grateful for its artistry, and wary of what’s to come.

https___images.genius.com_f251dcf3649ff26ca4be1d103d3a9173.1000x1000x116. Smog – Knock Knock (1999)

“Let’s go to the country / just you and me,” goes the opening lines of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan’s seventh LP. But that invitation wasn’t as casual as it sounded. Knock Knock found Callahan expanding his palette, both lyrically and instrumentally, the obscure lo-fi vision of his early albums making way for richly rendered, naturalistic tone-poems about empathetic prison guards, bone-chilling childhood traumas, and restorative balms of affection. “I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me,” he sings in his rumbling basso, describing a moment of psychological healing like Leonard Cohen on a Thoreau kick. The music is equally exploratory, using bouncing cellos and children’s choirs to buoy Callahan’s lush, searching guitar. It’s a formula he’d take to even more panoramic heights later on in his career, a smirking cowboy wading through amber waves of pain, coming out the other side humbled and smitten. Making Knock Knock even more meaningful in context. This isn’t just some invitation to a three-day weekend on the lake. It’s an artist taking the first steps into the underbrush of his soul.

The Top 20 Albums of 2018

The term “escapist” is usually applied to story-based art forms – like a 1,000-page high-fantasy novel or a blockbuster IMAX adventure. But in 2018, music was my escape hatch. The one thing every album on this list had in common was that it drew me into its unique sonic universe. Whether it was satirical hip-hop, sci-fi death metal, or romantic pop-country, I floated through it, gobsmacked by melody, moved by poetry. It was indescribably comforting to know that, no matter what atrocity was leading the news that day, the play button was an arm’s reach away.

https_images.genius.com469bb24dc0e092bff3f3003c8229ecf3.1000x1000x120. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

This Scottish-by-way-of-Africa trio was one of 2018’s most successful genre omnivores, fusing lush, electronic R&B with bursts of twitchy grime and the occasional harmony-drenched sunshower. The third Fathers record, Cocoa Sugar, finds the group filtering its legion of influences through the framework of slow-build dance music, layering one subtle element on top of another in a determined attempt to reach that jumping-up-and-down moment of transcendence. “Border Girl” begins with three squelching bass notes and ends up with what might as well be 1,000 voices, beckoning for miracles. On “Lord,” the pristine first single, a falsetto gospel chorus greets us, only to drop out, leaving behind a unstable atmosphere of wispy piano, heavy bass drops, and chilly sentiments like “If wishes were horses / Then beggars would ride.” When the chorus makes its glorious return, we can almost feel the mane in our hands, and the wild breeze in our faces.

a3297919058_1019. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

After the runaway success of her 2015 debut, Courtney Barnett went through an extended bout of writer’s block. She tried writing only on a typewriter. She took a break to make a fun, freewheeling album with Kurt Vile. It was all worth it. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a darker, more conflicted work, a floodlight shining on a noisy world, overflowing with fake friends and sexist trolls. Everything you need to know about the album’s emotional grey areas is built into the first song title, “Hopefulessness.” Featuring a string tuning down, a tea kettle screeching, and lines like “It’s okay to have a bad day,” it’s not forthcoming with easy answers. The rest of the album is equally honest, but also sneakily catchy. Especially “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” which boasts a delightful power-pop crunch that belies its title. When Barnett and her band launch into the chorus, it’s like they’re simultaneously having one of the most depressing and freeing adult realizations – everybody is making it up as they go along. “I don’t know anything!” they harmonize. If certain powerful men were strong enough to admit this, the world would be an unrecognizably better place.

220px-Teyana_Taylor_KTSE_Cover_Art18. Teyana Taylor – KTSE

Teyana Taylor knows a thing or two about staying positive. Even though she signed to Pharrell’s label way back in 2007, her debut album didn’t drop until 2014. And by the time LP2 finally arrived this summer, it had zero chance of untainted publicity, thanks to the public self-immolation of its executive producer, Kanye West. Which is a goddamn shame, because KTSE packs enough joy into its 23 minutes to counteract even the heaviest dose of dragon energy. The title stands for “Keep That Same Energy,” and Taylor’s commitment to the mantra is something to behold. Her voice is tinged with reflective wisdom. It’s a confluence of talent and life experience, a direct ancestor of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. West provides little more than spartan soul samples on most of these tracks, and it’s all Taylor needs. Until “WTP,” that is. A ballroom-inspired ’90s dance tour de force, complete with clips from Paris Is Burning, “WTP” closes this record with a deliriously satisfying blast of self-confidence. “Save your tears honey,” advises guest emcee Mykki Blanco. “You’re a motherfucking diva!”

https_images.genius.comd556b68ca7ed856d1efd2badd494260a.1000x1000x117. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

Study after study has shown that life in America is stressful AF. And the imaginative indie rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have taken a deep dive into the causes of this collective anxiety, and our continuing addiction to baseless claims that it’s all gonna be okay. They bring in authoritative-sounding comedians like Nick Offerman and John Hodgman to repeat the album title over soothing elevator music, giving the record its own brand of insidious, hilarious propaganda. As a result, Everything’s Fine is that rare rap album where the skits are essential, because they put these formidable emcees on the offensive. Grae & Chris rap with fire and irony about police violence and lost childhoods, exposing the lie of the album title over hazy, atmospheric production. Grae is especially dynamic, her verses an encyclopedic whirlwind, her shit-talk positively elegant: “Fire, brimstone, magma, lava, Dylan, molten granite, dollars, kimchee / Longer it sits, stronger the MC.” On the next track, Offerman tries to make us forget. “Why would you have to do anything about issues that don’t directly affect you?” he purrs. This record is a herculean battle between truth and comfort; nutrition and junk. It’s like watching the news, if pundits were poets.

https_images.genius.com408f28c254a33a5d96647336a9e972cd.622x622x116. Tierra Whack – Whack World

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.

https_images.genius.comaee8d20d98f75c9f52ae97a5ebd8637c.1000x1000x115. Vince Staples – FM!

Exposing the illusion of California as a sun-dappled promised land has been a go-to writerly pursuit since Steinbeck was in his prime. But it’s hard to think of any artist who has broken this spell with the muscular precision of Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. On his perpetual motion machine of a third record, Staples plays with our expectations like an especially sly feline. Track one is called “Feels Like Summer,” and it outlines a different kind of heat wave, an ever-present danger that makes the artist sweat all year round. “Cold weather won’t stop no gunner / Wrong hat, wrong day, I’ll kill my brother,” Staples raps. (His everyday challenges would make the Beach Boys shit their shorts.) The genius of FM! is how Staples balances these grim street narratives with infectious energy. Whether he’s rapping about the sun coming out or the guns coming out, his flow is the great equalizer, delivering this stark street poetry with exhilarating percussive force, the perfect foil for the gritty minimalism of producer Kenny Beats. It’s the 2018 equivalent of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” except the good times rarely last for a whole couplet, let alone 24 hours. When Staples raps, “Broad day, I’m ’round your way / SK, come out, let’s play,” it almost feels like kid on summer break, until we learn that an SK is a Soviet semiautomatic weapon. It’d be enough to make your head shake, if it wasn’t already bobbing like crazy.

https_images.genius.com24c0326732e628586966e81c5ca9ea27.700x700x114. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology

It all started with a pun. UK metalheads Matt Moss and Kev Pearson couldn’t believe that out of all the sludge metal bands with animal obsessions, none had connected “sludge” with “slug.” So in 2012, Slugdge was born, complete with its own crackpot theological backstory, centered on a vengeful, slimeridden, interdimensional god named Mollusca. After years of wriggling its way through the metal underground, Moss and Pearson’s band truly burst from the soil in 2018, with the release of its fourth LP, Esoteric Malacology. The Lovecraftian mythology and Pythonian absurdity have reached delirious new heights – “The walls shall liquify beneath / The force of Rhaexorog’s harrowing screams.” And the duo has developed its own particular brand of pummeling prog-metal, proving that very heavy music can also be clear and accessible, without upsetting too many die-hards. The riffs writhe like tentacles, undulating to their own arcane rhythms as they rise to blot out the sun. Clean, worshipful harmonies sit shoulder to shoulder with low demonic growls. When it all comes together, like on the relentless track “Crop Killer,” Slugdge is metal at its most ridiculously fun – painstakingly crafted compositions played with whizbang ability, and delivered with utter dedication to a bonkers sci-fi narrative based on a tortured pun. All. Hail. Mollusca.

https_images.genius.com2a57c6ea1f460c4a71f44de202ea1330.620x620x113. Neko Case – Hell-On

“I’m an agent of the natural world,” proclaims Neko Case on her self-produced sixth LP. The singer/songwriter has long favored themes of mother earth as a sleeping giant; her discography is full of tornadoes and floods, pent-up cyclones and hovering bees. But Case has never written as caustically about our impending doom as she does here. “Don’t you tell me I didn’t warn you,” she sings omnisciently over the gloomy waltz of the title track. In fact, Hell-On finds the artist so appalled by our collective eco-ignorance that she goes full Howard Zinn, telling stories about groups that tend to be ignored by the conquering generals who write our history books – extinct lions, female sailors, traumatized children. If Case wasn’t such a skilled producer, all of this foreboding might make for a tough sit. But this is her lushest album yet, with each track possessing some kind of fulfilling sonic surprise. Like the ’60s pop bounce of “Bad Luck.” Or the swelling wave of a chorus that crashes over “Winnie”: “We were warriors!” The seven-minute “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a stone-cold spine-tingler, pairing the artist’s touching remembrances of her first days on the road with duet partner Mark Lanegan’s reassuringly scratchy basso. If we’re all going down with the ship, then what better time to sing?

Lucy Dacus_ Historian12. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations. Where pop artists tend to prefer briskly discovered a-ha moments, this Virginia singer/songwriter explores the periphery and then works her way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. Historian is Dacus’s first LP with Matador Records, who won a very public label war for her services. All signs point to the execs staying out of her way. Otherwise, the fantastic chorus from the opening track “Night Shift” would’ve been burned off within 30 seconds. Instead, Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins, including an image of a man staring at his feet, waiting for his guilt to be lifted, that works pretty well as a metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Then, only when we understand, does it happen. The chord progression changes; the band drops out; and Dacus sings, “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs – bright, and loud, and true.

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg11. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune

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

https_images.genius.comf9fec989d8a03a8204fd4ff1189d2dd5.1000x1000x110. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

When the Scottish dance-pop enigma Sophie released a collection of singles in 2015, she gave it the perfect title – PRODUCT. Because this DJ and producer has made her mark by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in shamelessly mechanical, outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound is still evident on her proper studio debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, but this time, her mission is a therapeutic one. It might be twisted and distorted beyond recognition, but Sophie begins this album by featuring her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” she shares. “But I think your inside is your best side.” Then there’s “Immaterial,” a hand-clap-driven pop reverie that presents our metaphysical selves as our true selves, resulting in a pure expression of freedom. “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live?” Throw in some classic Sophie anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal, stray pieces skittering across the linoleum – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.

https_images.genius.comce9271c9c0f795669e05dfd21bf39cdd.1000x1000x19. Caroline Rose – Loner

Is it possible for an artist to be low-key ambitious? To explore all kinds of fertile new ground without being all in-your-face about it? Caroline Rose’s second album leads me to believe so. Loner finds the former Americana singer/songwriter leaving that down-home strumminess in the dust, using a phalanx of synth patches and a chameleonic singing voice to hearken back to ’60s garage rock, ’70s punk and ’90s trip hop. Along with co-producer Paul Butler, Rose manages to corral all of this mood- and genre-hopping into a small-group setting. Other than the keyboards, the instrumentation pretty much doesn’t change. All the hard work is left to the songs and players. And rightfully so. Loner should be, on paper, a fairly depressing record. Narrators sit alone at diner counters, and lose their sense of wonder in a homogenized world. But Rose approaches every song with a sardonic grin. She’s not hopeless; she’s bemused. And she’s at her absolute best when taking on the satirical role of a crass, Randy Newman-style huckster: “We’re gonna put you in the movies and on TV / All you’ve gotta do is put on this little bikini!” As the guitars churn and the synths rain down, the last thing we’re thinking about is the genre. We’re too busy being electrified.

https_images.genius.com8b54877e9543c6577be5d6e963e02452.750x750x18. Denzel Curry – Ta13oo

There’s a throughline connecting the rise of grunge in the ’90s, nü metal in the ’00s and Soundcloud rap in the ’10s – new generations flocking to the sound of young men venting. In all three cases, this has resulted in a lot of entitled, peacocking garbage. But with the release of Florida rapper Denzel Curry’s second LP, Soundcloud rap may have found its ideal torchbearer. Ta13oo features many of the building blocks of this much-derided/beloved genre. Confessional lyrics flow like open veins. Dark, electronic beats swoosh past like rusted throwing stars. A working knowledge of Nirvana, Korn and Stephen King is made clear. But Curry elevates the formula beyond your typical teen angst, by just writing and rapping his ass off. “Sky is the limit / I could die any minute / Got my mind in a skillet / Suicide not the mission,” he spits over the light, strolling synths of “Black Balloons,” beautifully encapsulating the painful uncertainties and careening energies of youth. He begins the record by pledging to always be there for a partner who suffered childhood abuse. He uses Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a cipher for materialism. He references Chowder and Jimmy Neutron and South Park and Black Sabbath. He reaches rap nirvana, over and over again.

https_images.genius.com22ebcc3f86cf57b0438e81d03b492955.1000x1000x17. CupcakKe – Ephorize

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. Which is just what Ephorize has done for CupcakKe. The third LP from this prolific, seemingly unstoppable 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 wokeness. “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.

DirtyComputer6. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

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 an utterly confusing dystopian sci-fi premise. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album. But for the first time in her discography, it doesn’t really matter. The songwriting reckons with real life. In this world. In 2018. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident ’80s pop 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’s the most politically present, and openly romantic, she’s ever been – and the melodies bubble up and embrace us like they always have. “Pynk” turns an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasts one of the snappiest guitar riffs of the year. And “Make Me Feel” finds Monáe doing justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth. What a perfect time for her to shake things up, and give us all the feels.

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x15. Noname – Room 25

As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivers verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. When Noname admits “Everybody think they know me / Don’t nobody really know me,” producer Phoelix supports her with a synth patch that sounds like a music box – the sound of the adolescence she’s leaving behind. As she ponders the human condition on “Don’t Forget About Me,” the gentle snare hits and burbling organ are a balm. And on the opening “Self,” where she proves that quiet confidence can shatter foundations, we get an absolute motherfucker of a Fender Rhodes soul groove. It sounds like good news, like a long kiss, like maple syrup on your oatmeal. And Noname drops the verse of the year over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

a3868691890_164. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin makes dreamy, contemplative funk instrumentals. But that description doesn’t do them justice. I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps then every record on this list combined, 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. The end result sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. I could listen to it on repeat. 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!”

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad3. Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

“There’s a vibrational current between every fingertip and the unseen,” declares Esperanza Spalding on 12 Little Spells. In the context of the soundscapes she builds around it, this line feels like incontrovertible truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” has reached heights of sonic expression that transcend genre. Or song structure. Or the physical plane. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s lofty and amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art, and transfer her own feelings to listeners. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations – even the low end is rising skyward. Resulting in music that makes us feel like that batty old man in Mary Poppins, floating to the ceiling in his pajamas, laughing at the wonder of it all. What’s even more amazing is that, at its heart, this is a pop album, meant to connect with as many of us as possible. Few things stuck in my brain in 2018 like the gentle, swaying funk of “Thang.” “‘Till the Next Full” evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell with its swirling, nocturnal acoustics. The title track swells like a old movie score, toeing the edge of dissonance but always choosing beauty. Making us feel the way the artist must have felt – entranced and inspired, our goosebumps rising like voices.

RobynHoney2. Robyn – Honey

Nobody used dance music as a weapon of resilience like Robyn did in the first decade of a scary new millennium. The Swedish singer, songwriter and producer wielded bass drum eighth notes like emotional armor, resisting despair’s powerful undertow, bravely choosing to dance on her own. But in the eight years since her absolutely essential Body Talk albums turned our insecurities into ecstasies, a lot happened in this artist’s life. Relationships ended. A close friend and collaborator passed away. And the world kept spinning ever more out of control. So it shouldn’t be a total shock that Robyn has left her suit of armor hanging on the castle walls. On Honey, the pain of the past comes flooding in, exposing universal human weak spots – nostalgia, grief, love. Instead of being repelled by otherworldly pop hooks, their power is captured, and harnessed for good. “Because it’s in the music / Yeah, we’re dancing to it / I’m right back in that moment / And it makes me want to cry,” she sings, in perhaps the clearest example of how her perspective has evolved since 2010. But the track’s rolling, playful bass line and frolicking synth strings communicate the therapeutic nature of her words. Robyn pulls off this trick all over Honey, processing these emotions through the language of adventurous dance-pop, without blunting their impact. It’s a genius songwriter at work. And when she takes a break from soul-searching, we get the avant-garde banger “Beach2k20,” an entrancing ’90s dance concoction during which Robyn has a muffled conversation with herself arranging a beach trip. The only words that bubble completely up to the surface are “Let’s go party!” You’d think nine tracks wouldn’t feel like enough after an eight-year absence. It’s as generous as music gets.

Golden-hour-Kacey-Musgraves1. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings Kacey Musgraves, on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, it never feels the least bit trite. Because this songwriter has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis. “These are real things,” she marvels. Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.” This clarity is also evident in Golden Hour’s production. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records, but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem. “Oh What a World” features a chorus of robotic voices. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album. But for all these feats of songcraft, the moment that moved me the most was as simple as can be. The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Against All Logic – 2012-2017; At the Gates – To Drink from the Night Itself; Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest; Brockhampton – IridescenceCardi B – Invasion of Privacy; Mariah Carey – Caution; City Girls – Period; Cupcakke – Eden; Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs; Flatbush Zombies – Vacation In Hell; Future – Beast Mode 2; JPEGMAFIA – Veteran; Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread; Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens; Horrendous – Idol; Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – Mih-Ty; Kero Kero Bonito – Time ‘n’ Place; Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V; Mammoth Grinder – Cosmic Crypt; Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!; Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel; Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past; Pusha-T – Daytona; Rhye – Blood; Rico Nasty – Nasty; Saba – Care for Me; Screaming Females – All At Once; Sofi Tukker – Treehouse; Anna St. Louis – If Only There Was a River; Tenacious D – Post-Apocalypto; Kurt Vile – Bottle It In

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (25-21)

Being There

25. Wilco – Being There (1996)

In 1996, things weren’t exactly going Jeff Tweedy’s way. It’d been a few years since the nasty breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy’s new band wasn’t doing as well as his old partner Jay Farrar’s. So he literally doubled down, recording a double album and refusing to budge when his label balked. He called it Being There, after the 1979 Peter Sellers movie about a clueless man named Chance who floats to the top of society. “Misunderstood,” the album’s first song, starts as a ballad about not belonging, and ends with a thunderous punk catharsis: “I wanna thank you all for nothing!” It’s Tweedy trying the Chance method of getting famous, sharing what’s on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s selfish, and dynamic. But thankfully, Being There isn’t all vitriol. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco for these sessions, burnishing every track in some way, be it a ringing pedal steel note or a heartfelt backing vocal. And Tweedy full-on embraces his love of classic rock, from the shameless Stones rip-off “Monday” to the T. Rex boogie of “I Got You.” He may have missed the point of that movie – Chance is a stand-in for every idiot who’s coasted to the White House on white male privilege – but he made himself a masterpiece all the same.

BizarreRideIIthePharcyde

24. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)

There’s something inherently rewarding about talented people not taking themselves seriously. Like Meryl Streep playing an ego-drunk Danielle Steele villain in She-Devil. Or Werner Herzog narrating an episode of Parks & Recreation. Or a quartet of accomplished dancers forming a goofy rap group called The Pharcyde. After landing a record deal on the strength of a song full of mom jokes (e.g. “Your mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand”), Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani and Bootie Brown poured all their youthful energy and comedic chops into Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Whether they’re rapping about getting high, or arrested, or ignored by a woman, their rapid flows, class-clown antics, and legitimate moments of clarity formed the backbone of a record that was so much more than funny. These guys were smart enough to avoid the kind of wooden sketch comedy that marred many a ’90s rap album – instead, they freestyled about hypothetical presidential power over a vamping live band. Oh, and did I mention Bizarre Ride is a clinic in sample-based beatmaking? J-Swift’s celebratory, jazz-inflected production has aged wonderfully – it’s entirely possible the inventor of the confetti gun was listening to it when inspiration struck.

Introducing_happiness_album_cover23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)

Sire Records had no idea what to do with Rheostatics’ fourth albumEven though it featured “Claire,” by far the biggest hit of this Ontario cult quartet’s career, Introducing Happiness was a carnival of clashing ideas – the deep cerulean of a sci-fi ballad, next to a lime green fever dream of a giant hummingbird, blurring into the mercury-silver glow of a jazz ode to the Russian lunar cycle. Factor in singer Martin Tielli’s anti-Vedder quaver and guitarist Dave Bidini’s explosive, angular noodling, and the Buzz Bin probably felt out of reach (although the Flaming Lips, this band’s closest American counterpart, managed to pull it off). Who cares about this 24-year-old industry context, you say? Well, you may have forgotten just how deeply odd, and disarmingly pretty, this album is. You may have forgotten about “Cephallus Worm/Uncle Henry,” which sounds like a room of amateur impressionists covering “Purple Haze” through a fog of nitrous oxide. You may have forgotten about lines like “I’m dripping water on your gills / You’re such a beautiful thing.” These guys had been given a second chance to prove themselves as a commercial force, and this is what they made. God bless them.

https---images.genius.com-8d8af1e45dbeada213405d9aa7a539d6.1000x1000x122. Björk – Debut (1993)

There’s a moment on Björk’s solo debut where we get a chance to step back and truly take stock of what we’re hearing. In the middle of the deliriously catchy raver “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer pulls us out of the club – a door slams, muffling the music behind it. It’s a disorienting experience; I thought my speakers had shorted out the first time I heard it. But before I could start messing with the wires, Björk was singing again, in full-throated a cappella – “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island!” When the beat comes back, it’s a whole new kind of high. This, right here, is what it was like to listen to Björk in the ’90s. Anytime we thought “perfectly enjoyable” was good enough, we felt a pull at our sleeves, away from complacency and toward a previously unimaginable Icelandic adventure. Debut isn’t quite as richly layered as her future triumphs, but the building blocks alone make it a classic – the insanely creative techno production, the vintage movie musical balladry, a voice with a majestic ornithology all its own. There’s more to life than this, but only because Björk’s next album was even better.

https---images.genius.com-cd0a26733cc459710d0986b7b64de8f0.1000x1000x121. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)

In the summer of 1997, Bob Dylan was hospitalized with a fungal infection that was attacking his heart. He’d already had his 30th album, Time Out of Mind, in the can by then. Its songs weren’t inspired by this particular crisis. But it’s a haunting, melancholy struggle just the same – a man on the verge of becoming a boomer relic, coming to terms with the mortality of his mind and body. Here was rock’s most renowned lyrical obfuscator, writing with eerie clarity about failed marriages, stale hopes, and looming shadows. “I got no place left to turn / I got nothin’ left to burn,” he sings on “Standing in the Doorway.” He’s spent. But ironically, Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s most fulfilling work in decades. With producer Daniel Lanois back in the fold – he produced Dylan’s underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – these songs of woe get the sonic TLC they deserve. From the ominous, echoing organ of “Love Sick” to the sauntering blues vamp that makes the 16-minute “Highlands” feel like a reasonable length, Lanois’s warmly evocative touches remind us that while the narrators are alone, the musicians are anything but. “It’s not dark yet / but it’s getting there,” Dylan confesses. His talent has rarely shone brighter.