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.”
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 soundedgood, 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.
“Loud/quiet/loud” is about as standard as rock n’ roll formulas get. But few artists have applied the concept to entire albums the way Beck did from the mid-’90s to the early ’00s. After his sample-heavy, Def Jam-meets-Folkways pastiche Odelay made him an alt-rock hero in ’96, he followed it up with a gorgeous, late afternoon stroll of a country album. Which meant that he was due for a “loud” album by the time Midnite Vultures came around. And holy shit, did he deliver. Not only is the album in-your-face in a sonic way – being pretty much a string of intense electro-funk workouts from beginning to end – but its overall aesthetic is as thrillingly brash as the neon-green cover art. Beck’s trademark non sequiturs remain in full force, but they’re applied in a more distinctly sexual milieu, with titles like “Peaches & Cream” and “Milk & Honey,” and pick-up lines that reference satin sheets, tropical oils, Hyundais and JC Penney. It’s like a parody of a Prince album that just happens to be as musically adventurous as it is hilarious, a snapshot of an artist dealing with supersized expectations by making the craziest party album he possibly could. The music is wildly imaginative throughout, from the slick game show horns of “Sexx Laws” to the fembot synth pop of “Get Real Paid” and the classic Stax groove of “Debra,” Midnite Vultures’ shit-hot closer. With full-on falsetto verses, whispery sex talk and Vegas-ready horn stabs, “Debra” is an ingeniously absurd epic, and one of the most purely enjoyable R&B cuts of the decade. It’s that mix of rare quality and endearing irreverence that still makes Midnite Vultures a thrill of a listen. Of course, Beck’s next release was a tear-streaked breakup album.
No track embodies this album’s horndog-nerd-funk spirit like “Hollywood Freaks,” which satisfies your desire for hot milk nipple baths and Old Navy shout outs.
69. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
If a decision to make a double album ever felt like a no-brainer, it was this one. After Wu-Tang Clan blew the doors off of hip-hop with the indefatigable Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, ensuing solo albums from GZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man all became classics in their own right. So if Wu-Tang Forever was going to give all of these evolving mythologies and expanding egos any kind of breathing room, it was going to take two discs. RZA makes the most of the extended running time, his approach more cinematic than ever before, wrapping those trademark kung-fu sound bites and blaxploitation soul loops in ominous layers of strings. Which was all too appropriate, because if anything, the crew’s successes had made their worldview darker. This was the second album from the biggest rap crew on the planet, and they rarely, if ever, brag about money on it – something that would probably never happen in our post-Puffy and -Kanye world. The first single, “Triumph,” was a killer bee swarm of a showcase track; from the molten-hot rhymes of Inspectah Deck’s first verse on, the mood is more confrontational than triumphant. Because at its peak, the Wu wasn’t interested in non-fiction boasts. It was about world-building. They knew that if Wu-Tang Forever could do what most movie sequels can’t – stay true to the characters while taking them in compelling new directions – the money would come. And as all of the Wu Wear in my closet circa 1997 could attest, they most definitely pulled it off.
Give “For Heavens Sake” a spin, and marvel at how RZA can turn an old soul sample into a billowing thunderstorm.
68. Nirvana – In Utero (1994)
If what happened hadn’t happened, and In Utero didn’t end up being Nirvana’s de facto swan song, it wouldn’t be taken so gosh darn seriously. Which would be infinitely to its benefit. Because while the record does work as Kurt Cobain’s ragged middle finger to the trappings of rock stardom (his lyrics had never been so beautifully barbed), it works even better as a snapshot of geniuses fucking around. Beyond the accomplished demon-wrestling you get from the singles, In Utero is littered with blasts of punk deconstruction that are the sonic equivalent of a movie scene where an actor gets to destroy something. As Cobain screams maniacally during “Tourette’s” or bends his squealing guitar skyward on the riff to “Scentless Apprentice,” it sure sounds like he was having fun. Then there’s the irrefutable evidence. Toward the end of my favorite of these anarchic cuts, “Milk It,” Cobain laughs as he delivers the thoroughly batshit chorus for the last time – “DOLL STEAK! TEST MEAT!” In that moment, any angst you were feeling goes up in smoke.
Listen to “Milk It,” whydontcha?
67. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)
With the release of Ill Communication, its third-straight stone-cold masterpiece, the Beastie Boys had completed one of the most remarkable artistic evolutions in pop music history. Within an eight-year period, the trio had gone from a snotty frat boy marketing concept to one of popular music’s most sonically expansive and socially conscious acts. If Licensed To Ill purists had any hopes that this one would hearken back to that fun-in-spite-of-itself debut, they were dashed on the opening cut, “Sure Shot.” Over that hallowed jazz flute sample, MCA poured out his regret over the Beasties’ once-misogynistic bent: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I offer my love and respect to the end.” Blending this kind of soul-searching with infectious rap free-for-alls, blistering punk romps and Mayfield-caliber funk instrumentals, Ill Communication is the sound of hip-hop ending its adolescence, flexing its muscles and realizing its own power.
Can any rap song boast the kind of dynamic chemistry the Beasties and Q-Tip possessed on “Get It Together”? It makes for one of my favorite tracks of the ’90s, despite my dislike of pineapple Now And Laters.
66. Air – Moon Safari (1998)
If you wanted to look cool smoking a cigarette in the late-’90s, putting Moon Safari on repeat was a pretty safe bet. Taking all of the stereotypical American ideas of what constitutes “French music” – loungey jazz, whisper-soft female vocalists, songs with “sexy” in the title – and filtering them through electronica’s spaciest kaleidoscope, Air’s debut album was a beautiful, warm bath of an acid trip. This was music that people in the ’90s would put on “chill-out” mixtapes to show they were men of many moods, deeper than the stammering, opinionated goofball on the surface. Not that I ever did that or anything. But Moon Safari is so much more than “chill-out” music – it’s not so much dreamy as it is an actual dream, a hazy sonic adventure that makes good on the promise of its title, where elegant bass lines guide you through alien, synthetic landscapes, with the occasional full-blown pop song to remind you that you’re earthbound. Air went on to make even more adventurous music, much of it lovely, none of it a voyage like this one.
Here’s one of those aforementioned pop songs, the otherworldly “All I Need.”