Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

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

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings the Texas singer/songwriter on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her nearly flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, the song – “Oh What a World” – never feels the least bit trite. Because Musgraves has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis, or a sea creature that emits an otherworldly neon glow. “These are real things,” she marvels.

Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight, or losing our balance. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.”

This clarity is also evident in the production choices made by Musgraves and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records – banjos are little more than signifiers, fiddles play second fiddle – but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem that feels like a friendly gauntlet thrown to Kylie Minogue, whose new Nashville-produced album also just came out (in a further bit of kismet, it’s called Golden). “Oh What a World” weaves a chorus of robotic voices into its National Geographic expedition. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album.

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

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (35-31)

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

35. Beck – Odelay (1996)

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

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

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

33. Prince – The Black Album (1994)

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

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

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

31. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)

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

The Top 20 Albums of 2017

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


20. Nick Hakim – Green Twins

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

19. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

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

18. CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch

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

17. Drake – More Life

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

16. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacks feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.

15. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two

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

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

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

13. SZA – Ctrl

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

12. Brockhampton – Saturation II

This summer, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up two mixtapes with enough personality and adrenaline to distract the grumpiest pessimist. The first was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power. On the second, they start wielding their magic. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision: rappers getting shit off their chests over party-ready golden-age beats. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me. All I know is, I want more.

11. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic

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

10. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

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

9. Haim – Something to Tell You

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

8. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool

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

7. Kreator – Gods of Violence

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

6. Feist – Pleasure

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

5. Thundercat – Drunk

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

4. Laura Marling – Semper Femina

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

3. Pallbearer – Heartless

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

2. Kesha – Rainbow

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

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

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

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

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (40-36)

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

40. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

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


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

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

38. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)

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

37. Slayer – Decade of Aggression (1991)

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

36. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

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

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (45-41)

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

45. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)

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

44. Pearl Jam – No Code (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Defense of Long-Ass Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The album is legitimately bad.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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