Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (65-61)

Dear hypothetical reader –

I haven’t posted in a little bit, I know. But don’t worry, I’m OK. In fact, I’m goddamn marvelous! My wife and I decided to pick up and move to Maine – Portland to be specific – and the breathtaking ocean vistas have made it hard to focus on how I feel about music and movies and stuff. Although I had a complete blast watching The Last Stand and am once again completely in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sway. He’s the sheriff – of my heart. Anyways, let’s talk about some ’90s albums, shall we? It’s been a while since I left things dangling at #66 with Air’s Moon Safari.

 images-165. Alice In Chains – Dirt (1992)

I’m trying to figure out how to say something different from my take on Pearl Jam’s Ten earlier on this list, but the experience of listening to Dirt for the first time in a decade was similar. But before I crap on your memories, let’s be clear – this is a great metal album, steeped in a malaise that came from a frighteningly real place. It provides moments of clarity that feel like blasts of pain poking through the anesthetic. Alas, not being a teenager anymore means Dirt is not an album I will reach for often. What can I say, I like my bleakness with a chaser of hope these days. Plus, like vintage Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley isn’t as infallible as I once thought. He can truly haunt a song, a la Ozzy Osbourne in his prime. But also like Osbourne, it’s the only setting he’s got. The moments where Staley’s tortured crooning inhabits Jerry Cantrell’s demonically beautiful guitar riffs – e.g. “Them Bones” and “Would?” – are what made Alice In Chains special, and there are enough of them here to make Dirt a classic.

matthew-sweet-1991-girlfriend164. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1991)

To people who grew up on The Beatles, ELO and Cheap Trick, and then had to endure mainstream rock radio throughout the ’80s, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend must have felt like a warm hug from mom. Pairing feelings of elation and vulnerability with shimmering power pop riffage and stacked-high vocal harmonies, Sweet’s third album has a timeless quality to it (the song title “Winona” is the only clue that this is from the ’90s). The songs explore the creation and destruction of relationships in universal terms – love makes self-deprecating feelings vanish; somebody falls for a preacher’s daughter; a guy who thought he knew his girl realizes he was wrong. Without getting specific, Sweet turns phrases like knives – “You can’t see how I matter in this world,” he pleads amongst the beautiful wreckage of “You Don’t Love Me.” His kinda nerdy, straightforward tenor makes all of the sentiments feel genuine, those hooks still as fresh and addictive as a long gaze into the eyes of the one you love.

images63. Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999)

After 1988’s Land of Dreams, Randy Newman took a long break from traditional record-making to focus on film music (and his so-so Faust musical). I’d bet the 11 years between Dreams and Bad Love made for the most lucrative period of his career. You might’ve thought that all those Oscar nominations and Pixar paydays would soften the guy, that when he got around to recording another batch of songs, they’d be somewhat pleasant – even, dare I say, optimistic. But Bad Love isn’t just a work of caustic satire typical of Newman’s oeuvre. It’s the bitterest, saddest, most unflinchingly personal work of his career. The songs depict families falling apart in front of televisions, dirty old men cursing at women half their age, native peoples suffering and dying. Which would make for untenable listening if most of this stuff wasn’t also hilarious – especially “The World Isn’t Fair,” an open letter to Karl Marx that finds Newman acknowledging his good fortune by talking about how preposterously undeserving of it he is. Like most self-absorbed people, Randy’s incapable of change here, and we’re all the richer for it.

MercuryRev-DesertersSongs62. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998)

It’s impossible for me to listen to Deserter’s Songs without constantly comparing it to a record that came out a year later – The Soft Bulletin. Mercury Rev’s fourth record shared the same producer as that Flaming Lips masterwork, the brilliant and clearly influential Dave Fridmann. So it’s no coincidence that both records possess the same ambitious, slightly disorienting template, mixing lush, Nelson Riddle arrangements with quirky, contemplative musings, like a band used backing tracks for a Great American Songbook tribute to write songs about spider bites, or moles with telephones for eyes. But while they might be the same type of animal, these records are also different breeds – Deserter’s being one that prowls across much darker emotional territory. As singer Jonathan Donahue spins yarns about nightmares and doomed relationships with an unvarnished Neil Young yodel, Fridmann piles on the woodwinds, strings and saw solos like an old-time Disney composer. It’s a birthday cake with a scotch egg in the center, a walk to the gallows that runs through Martha’s Vineyard, an album with a title drenched in self-imposed loneliness that makes good on it in the most unexpectedly stunning way.

220px-SmashingPumpkins-Gish61. Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991)

Gish is one of the most compelling debuts in rock history, and not just because it gives us an unfiltered look at what made Smashing Pumpkins one of the greatest arena-rock bands of the 1990s. It’s that in those very same qualities laid the seeds of the group’s demise. While by far the rawest recording that Billy Corgan has deemed acceptable for our ears, Gish is still marked by a proudly meticulous approach to rock record-making, its guitars layered richly to create walls of sound that envelop you with warmth, even while they strain your speakers to the limit. Of course, once Corgan got on the short list of successors to the Cobain throne and became obsessed with his own brand of stylized melancholy, the speaker straining stayed, and the warmth didn’t. And that just makes songs like “Window Paine” even more of a pleasure to experience in 2013 – a jaw-dropping ballad that features some of the most gorgeously punishing guitar playing of the ’90s. Hopelessly yearning for Corgan to make another record like this someday? That’s a worthwhile kind of melancholy.

Movies From 2012 That I Saw And That I Liked

Yeah, I know, it’s totally 2013 now. I should have shared my favorite movies of 2012 with you weeks ago. But then I saw the cover of the John Travolta and Olivia Newton John Christmas album, after which I was briefly hospitalized. Now that I have my basic motor skills back, I can get to blathering! So here goes nothin’. My top 10 movies of 2012 are:

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10. Lawless

In 2012, Guy Pearce continued his criminally underappreciated run as one of the most versatile actors working, including a great, wiseass turn in the delightfully ridiculous “save the president’s daughter from space jail” tale Lockout. But it was in this Prohibition gangster flick that he truly shone. As the sadistic and vain Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, Pearce pursues the Bondurant bootlegging operation with a twisted sense of justice, his eyebrowless face and a thick central part in his hair making him look as disquieting as can be. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave aimed for a similar kind of grim morality with 2005’s very good The Proposition, but Lawless takes it to thrilling new heights – instead of cops and robbers, it’s just a whole bunch of guys with blood on their hands.

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9. The Queen of Versailles

If you ever need a reminder of the chasm that separates documentary film from reality TV, take in this stark, uncompromising but ultimately sympathetic tale of Jackie and David Siegel, a billionaire couple whose time share-fueled gravy train dried up after the economic collapse of 2008 – right after they started construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in the U.S. It’s the kind of story that seems readymade for a reality series, beaming dump trucks full of schadenfreude into our insecure brains every week. But Lauren Greenfield’s movie captures the stress, sadness and stubborn hope that’s the stuff of actual reality. The Walmart shopping binges, lingering dog turds and humiliated nannies could easily be treated like laugh-and-point moments, but when contrasted with images of David nursing his wounded pride and Jackie innocently trying to come to terms with the upper middle class life that lies ahead, it’s impossible to ignore their humanity.

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8. Django Unchained

Given how prevalent themes of revenge are in Quentin Tarantino’s stories, it was only a matter of time before he gave us his own, uniquely pulpy take on a Spaghetti Western. Django Unchained is just that – a revenge fantasy/love story/buddy action movie set in the antebellum South, where snappy dialogue and cartoonish, exploding-blood-capsule-style violence is grounded in unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are all at the peak of their powers – Foxx in the Eastwood role as the titular freed slave, natural sharpshooter and heroic husband, Waltz as a fatherly dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and DiCaprio as a monstrous Francophile plantation owner. The issue of whether slavery should be an off-limits subject for a genre picture like Django is a thorny one for sure, but to me, Tarantino has given us a reminder of the unforgivable sins our country has committed, and we can’t have too many of those. The fact that he weaves it into a dynamic, darkly funny, exceptionally entertaining midnight movie? What more would you expect from Hollywood’s own “little troublemaker”?

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7. Looper

Time travel will always be a touchstone of science fiction, because more than anything, time makes us its bitch. But in Looper, writer and director Rian Johnson attempts to depict what might actually happen if time travel was invented. Like the war on drugs, it becomes a highly illegal practice appropriated by a criminal underworld, who send people back in time to be killed by “loopers” – men who end their careers by “closing their loop,” a.k.a. killing their older selves. The first half of the movie is spent patiently building this intricate mythology, while introducing us to Joe, the brooding looper junkie played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But once Bruce Willis appears as Joe’s future self, Looper becomes much more than your typical sci-fi shoot-em-up. The third act moves the action from Johnson’s slums-o’-the-future to a farm house, and what happens there is a poetic exploration of the nature of evil, the consequences of our mistakes, and the immeasurable impact of the things we do right.

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6. Turn Me On, Dammit!

As heartwarming as it is frank, this Norwegian film explores the awkward lows and joyful highs of teenaged sexual awakening, through the prism of its main character Alma – played with believable angst by Helene Burgsholm. As Alma goes through the confusing process of growing up, she gains and loses friends, has innocent fantasies run aground by weirder, far more interesting realities, runs away from home, and bewilders her single mother until, eventually, their bond deepens. There’s no punishment or reward for Alma, no real danger or grand romance. Turn Me On, Dammit! is just trying to show how it feels to be a 15-year-old girl in a backwoods town, being picked on at school and getting caught calling phone sex lines at home. To see this kind of story told with such positivity is as refreshing as Scandinavian mountain air.

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5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I understand why Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy is called The Hobbit. But it would be more accurate to call it Middle Earth. Because while the basic plot follows that timeless children’s adventure story in all the important ways, Jackson’s first installment makes it clear that he wants to tell a grander tale, one that looks at Tolkien’s singular universe with the eye of a storyteller and historian. Hence, on top of the piles of breathtaking whiz-bang, and the skilled characterizations of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Gollum, we get to explore the tragic, pseudo-Biblical backstory of the dwarves of Erebor, see the seeds being planted for the return of Sauron (aka The Necromancer), and meet Radagast the Brown, a birdshit-covered Jane Goodall of the Hedgehogs. Many have accused this detailed approach of being nothing more than a shameless money grab. But in the eyes of this Tolkien nut, The Hobbit is as much, if not more, a labor of love than the Lord of the Rings movies (which I kinda liked a little). The fact that hours upon hours of lovingly adapted Tolkien texts can be seen as something remotely capitalistic is a credit to Jackson’s ability to film the “unfilmable.”

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4. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

On their weirdly endearing cut-and-paste cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor, and the subsequent public access acid trip theater of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim proved themselves to be masters of disturbingly hilarious short-form comedy. Which made the potential pitfall of their Billion Dollar Movie an obvious one – would their shenanigans translate to the longer, more plot-driven confines of feature film? Well obviously, I think that they did. Billion Dollar Movie is a delightfully anarchic middle finger to mainstream comedies, taking one of their most common plot lines – protagonist must save struggling school/restaurant/shopping mall, hilarity ensues – and using it as a backdrop on which to project their obsessions with local TV commercials, father-son dynamics and diarrhea. Fantastic supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Will Forte and Zach Galifianakis are just cherries on top.

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3. The Cabin In The Woods

When I first saw Scream, Wes Craven’s snappy 1996 satire of slasher movies, I enjoyed how it made fun of me and respected me at the same time. But after seeing The Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon’s writing credit from 2012 that wasn’t The Avengers, I felt more than entertained. As a self-aware horror fan, this movie felt like a new stage of enlightenment. Director/co-writer Drew Goddard and Whedon make the same broad point as Scream that slasher scripts tend to be like Mad Libs; just change out the location/monster/method of death and presto, you’ve got a different movie – but they do it with an initially baffling, and eventually mindblowing, top-secret government surveillance subplot. What at first looks like just another bunch of dopey teenagers venturing out to be killed in the woods becomes a psychological study of humanity that connects the popularity of horror movies to that of ancient pagan rituals, while taking the time to make an even more salient point – if you’re ever in a bind, trust the stoner, not the hunk.

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2. Moonrise Kingdom

It’s no accident that Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island. Its main characters, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, are kids who don’t feel connected to their surroundings, be it a foster home that looks like an Army barracks or a family that’s quietly fraying around the edges. Wes Anderson’s seventh film is the story of them finding each other, the bliss they feel at finally being understood, and the hilariously low-stakes havoc that their meticulously planned elopement causes. In case your twee-dar is starting to go off, never fear, because Anderson realizes Sam and Suzy’s puppy love in an achingly sweet, thoroughly realistic way, contrasting it all the while by the loneliness of the goofy adults who form the search party (including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis, who are all wonderful). Shot in the gorgeous detail that is Anderson’s stock in trade, Moonrise Kingdom posits that while you might feel like an island from time to time, you never know who might be canoeing your way.

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1. The Master

People are attracted to things that purport to define their personality, be it the signs of the zodiac or a quiz that tells you what Saved By the Bell character you are. But in the pivotal scene of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s relentless study of the underbelly of belief, this desire for enlightenment about ourselves is abused in the name of ego and profit. In it, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L.Ron Hubbard-ish leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause,” convinces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile WWII vet, to partake in something called “Processing” – a series of quick, probing questions, in which the subject is not allowed to blink. In the performance of the year, Phoenix shows us a deeply disturbed, utterly lonely man who is intoxicated by Dodd’s attentions, through his facial expressions alone. The title of the movie most obviously refers to Dodd, but by the end, it more poignantly applies to Quell – a twisted man who lost everything we see as respectable, except for his free will.

Honorable Mentions: Bernie, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, Lincoln, Lockout, Men In Black 3Prometheus

The Top 20 Tracks of 2012

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I listened to enough songs this year to choke a horse. And while digging through the bloated horse corpse that I like to call 2012, I found 20 of them that I especially liked.

20. Kanye West (Ft. DJ Khaled) – “Cold”

Over computer blips and orchestra hits, ‘Ye infuses his verses with that on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown passion we know and love, including a PETA-baiting line on the chorus that’s one for the ages.

19. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

There’s a moment in “Gangnam Style” where the music cuts out, and for just a second, Psy waits before delivering the chorus. The anticipation we all feel right then, in spite of ourselves? That explains how pop music can take over the world.

18. The Beach Boys – “Summer’s Gone”

Mike Love has done more than enough to deserve the claim of “the biggest asshole in rock history.” But there could be a silver lining to his latest dick move, because if the Beach Boys never record together again, their final musical statement will be this gorgeous, mortality-laden track. “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in,” Brian Wilson croons over a sea of swooning strings, echoey woodblocks, and artfully stacked harmonies – taking our breath away one last time before the leaves turn.

17. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”

Japandroids pull off quite a trick here, putting inspirational poster sentiments and stadium-ready riffage in a blender, and churning out a fist-pumping rock anthem for the downtrodden. No guitar could be loud enough to drown out its big, bloody, beating heart.

16. Dirty Projectors – “Impregnable Question”

The newly found, homespun sweetness of Dirty Projectors latest work is summed up in this chorus: “I need you/And you’re always on my mind.”

15. Ty Segall – “There Is No Tomorrow”

After a year spent pounding our eardrums like Tiny Keith Moon™, Ty Segall closed out his last of three records with this, a supremely catchy fuzzbox ballad that could be a lost Plastic Ono Band demo.

14. Frank Ocean – “Forrest Gump”

Over a smooth, Isley Brothers groove, Frank Ocean took a piece of pop culture I revile and transformed it into one of the sweetest romantic sentiments of the year: “You running on my mind, boy.”

13. Killer Mike – “Southern Fried”

The ultimate song to drive to in 2012, “Southern Fried” is quintessential Killer Mike, full of towering swagger, scythe-sharp wit, and a flow so commanding, it makes you feel like your 2005 Honda Civic is indeed your “meanest machine.”

12. Bob Dylan – “Soon After Midnight”

“I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises.” How great is it that this, the most romantic opening line I heard this year, came from a grizzled old goat like Bob Dylan? And it doesn’t hurt that what follows is a total stunner of a country & western ballad, one of the prettiest tunes of the legend’s third act renaissance.

11. Angel Haze – “Werkin’ Girls”

With little more than a basic beat behind her, this brilliant, up-and-coming Brooklynite makes you stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention. An ode to females gettin’ cheddar, “Werkin’ Girls” doesn’t just break the glass ceiling – it crushes it back down to the sand from whence it came.

10. Usher – “Twisted”

Over a Pharrell Williams beat that radiates classic soul sunshine, Usher reboots Chubby Checker in the guise of a possessive man whose woman just refuses to play it straight. A summer jam if there ever was one.

9. Tenacious D – “Roadie”

Mythologizing the concert roadie as the heroic warrior who never gets knighted, The D pairs skillfully melodramatic wordplay with soaring melodies. In between belly laughs, there lies the urge to sing along as loudly as can be.

8. Trey Songz – “2 Reasons”

I’m just finishing up David McCullough’s massive 1992 biography of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who had to fill the shoes of the far more eloquent FDR. I think that if Truman were alive today, he’d enjoy “2 Reasons,” at least on principle. Because when Trey Songz outlines, in no uncertain terms, the pair of reasons why he came to the club, he’s as straightforward as a Missouri farmer.

7. Nicki Minaj – “I Am Your Leader”

It’s too bad that Nicki Minaj albums remain nothing more than places to corral her singles, but damn, there’s nothing quite like those singles. “I Am Your Leader” was the best of several good ones this year, awash in Minaj’s masterful mic control and silly sense of humor, an example of the artist at her unpolished best. And Cam’ron’s hysterical cameo gets my vote for best guest verse of 2012.

6. Randy Newman – “I’m Dreaming”

No matter how many Pixar movies he scores, Randy Newman will always be one bitter son of a bitch. And “I’m Dreaming” – a piece of right-wing election year satire just begging to be misunderstood, a la 2004’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” – is as beautifully, caustically sarcastic as the guy has ever been.

5. Screaming Females – “Doom 84”

Very few guitar riffs can sound fresh after seven minutes of jamming. “Doom 84” has two of them, and Marissa Paternoster wields them like fiery broadswords, breaking down our natural inclination to refrain from banging our heads, caring not that our necks will be sore.

4. Mystikal – “Hit Me”

James Brown’s influence on hip hop can’t be overstated. But it’s never been so apparent as it is in this song, in which Mystikal appropriates Brown’s energy, rhythms and vernacular in pursuit of his own, Dirty South-ified version of “Star Time.” It’s an instant party, a blast of adrenaline, and a showcase for the emcee’s irresistible, raspy exuberance.

3. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion”

A soul-searching confession, a tale not only of unrequited love, but of potentially unrequited moral fiber, “Bad Religion” is a jaw dropper. Ocean sings his open vein of a lyric sheet with a power that only comes from autobiography, that one squealed high note a window to his vulnerability. Art rarely gets this real.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”

My grandfather passed away a few months ago, right around the time Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City album was released. Which left me in a state of mind to be floored by this song, a 12-minute existential epic about how human beings long to be remembered after they’re gone. They say that once you put something on the Internet, you can never truly erase it, so maybe these words about Thomas M. Sweeney, Sr., will indeed live forever: He was a good, humble man, who worked hard, loved his wife, and never had a negative thing to say to me. I miss him.

1. Miguel – “Adorn”

As devastatingly sexy a pop song as its clear influence, “Sexual Healing,” “Adorn” swoons in lady worship, Miguel’s voice gliding over the synths and drum machines, confident in its innate silkiness, like something beautiful that just happens naturally. Like love.

The Top 20 Albums of 2012

Beyond being the year that Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2012 was a hell of a good year for music. But what year isn’t, honestly? Oh yeah. 2002. Screw you, 2002.

front20. Action Bronson – Blue Chips

If Mario Batali could spit like Ghostface Killah (and was obsessed with hookers), you’d have the makings of Blue Chips, Action Bronson’s grimy, propulsive, breakthrough mixtape. Weaving through flurries of beats like the nimblest of driving range employees – often within the space of one track – this former chef paints disparate pictures of high-end gastronomy and sordid city streets. But whether he’s talking about drizzling vinaigrette on rosemary bread or a prostitute pissing in a fountain, Bronson does it with imagination, his flow loose and in the pocket, his nasal voice touched with post-bong-hit grit.

Santigold_-_Master_of_My_Make-Believe19. Santigold – Master Of My Make-Believe

If you had trouble distinguishing Santigold from M.I.A. before Master Of My Make-Believe, then you were in for a heap of trouble. Because while in the grand scheme of things, the album finds Santigold evolving the ska-tronica sound of her pre-copyright-lawsuit debut Santogold in intriguing new ways, it does sound a hell of a lot like that other funky lady. Full of stuttering rhythms, compressed electronic grooves, and lotsa shit talk, MOMMB toes the same fault lines that Maya did – between dance music and hip hop, punk and pop, bliss and rebellion. All of this is a good thing in my book, because Santigold does this whole swagger thing so well, whether it’s over the ominous kabuki funk of “Go!” or the murky dub of “Pirates in the Water.” The fact that we have two artists exploring this twisted pop terrain? To me, that’s something to celebrate.

Rize_of_the_Fenix18. Tenacious D – Rize Of The Fenix

All the backstory you need for Tenacious D’s first non-soundtrack album since 2001 lies in its opening, self-titled song. In which the f-bomb-toting classic rock satirists mourn their failed movie (Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny, which was a disappointment, yes), ponder the excruciating tattoo removals their fans must be suffering through, and eventually decide that a hit song could get them back on top. And while Jack Black and Kyle Gass didn’t achieve that elusive “one hit” on Rize Of The Fenixthey proved that they still got it on both levels – comedically, as a pair of melodramatic doofuses who love making fun of rock almost as much as rock itself; and musically, as two strong vocalists who write hard rock sing-alongs with the best of ’em, and get dudes like Dave Grohl to propel them heavenward. Fenix isn’t as generous as that 2001 debut, faltering on all of its skits and a song about the Death Star. But it’s got several of the best rock songs of 2012, especially the hilariously earnest “Roadie” – where else can you get chills while hearing someone sing, “I don’t want you roadie/I want KG’s chode!”

Nas_-_Life_is_Good17. Nas – Life Is Good

When something negative happens to an artist we love, and it results in them making some of the best music they’ve put out in years, it usually puts us in an awkward place. Are we thankful for that near death experience/loss of a loved one/messy break-up? Would we gladly have our heroes miserable so long as they keep delivering the goods? But when listening to Life Is Good, 2012’s prime example of career rejuvenation born from sadness, that conflict isn’t there. On top of featuring Nas’ most focused performance in years, one that gives us a unfiltered look into his state of mind after his divorce from Kelis, the artist’s 11th album leaves us feeling nourished instead of hopeless, its title a celebration of honesty over irony. Over one warm, immaculate beat after another (especially those provided by No I.D.), Nas wonders how good of a father he’s been, waxes nostalgic about his childhood in Queens, admits he’s been rich longer than he was poor, and directly addresses his ex-wife in verses full of regret, respect, and love. It’s tempting to call this the Blood On the Tracks of rap, but it’s really a much different animal – a work that respects the past no matter how tumultuous it might’ve been, foregoing bitterness in favor of a battle-scarred kind of hope.

Sleigh_Bells_-_Reign_of_Terror_cover16. Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror

It’s rare for an album cover to give you a precise idea of what the music inside might sound like, but that’s exactly what a bloody pair of Keds does on the front of Reign of Terror, a record full of simple sentiments delivered in punishingly loud ways. Sleigh Bells doesn’t reinvent the formula of its 2010 debut, Treats – huge-ass drum machine beats, Derek Miller’s huger-ass stadium riffs, Alexis Krauss’ cooing vocals – but it does buff the edges a bit in the name of atmosphere. The chorus of “Born to Lose” might deliver bass drum hits with an AK-47, but it’s part of a carefully constructed assault of sounds that support Krauss’ suicide-baiting vocals. Whereas Treats could sound like two people battling over the volume dial, its follow-up is more cohesive – with hooks as sticky as these, and sentiments as endearingly straightforward (e.g. “I’ve got a crush on you”), Reign of Terror stays in your head, even after your ears have stopped ringing.

Swing_Lo_Magellan15. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

With 2009’s Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors became indie darlings, thanks to a mix of angular riffs, wonky vocals and one especially lovely, Nico-biting ballad. But originality isn’t a synonym for quality, and as time passes and its sheen wears off, Bitte Orca’s flights of fancy tend to grate just a bit. But I doubt the same will be said of Swing Lo Magellan. Scaling back the dynamics and acrobatics of its predecessor, Dave Longstreth is in greater command of his talent here, building quieter, more pastoral templates to house his Geddy Lee-ish tenor. But this isn’t a McCartney/Ram kinda deal. Whether it’s a swirling pastiche of string plucks and drum machines or an out-of-leftfield horn section, Magellan is a rich, imaginative affair. It just doesn’t feel the need to declare itself in bold strokes. And thank god for it. Because while Dirty Projectors is far from done experimenting, it proves here that sometimes, a calculated move to the center can be revolutionary.

TySegallBandSlaughterhouse14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

There’s an art to fucking shit up. To making such an unholy racket that a portion of the population wouldn’t even classify it as music. In 2012, nobody perfected this art like Ty Segall. Slaughterhouse, the California dynamo’s second of three albums released this year (yes, you read that right), is the most off the rails of the lot, a seething onslaught of haymaker riffage, squalls of feedback and often-unintelligible screams. And thanks to Segall’s songwriting chops, weakness for British Invasion melodies, and palpable, youthful energy, it’s a freshly culled test tube of undiluted adrenaline unlike anything else I heard this year – except for those other Segall records, of course (see below). If for no other reason, the album matters because it reminds us that few things get the blood pumping like a talented artist beating the hell out of his instruments and vocal chords. You could call it the art of fucking shit up. Or you could just call it rock.

Bob_Dylan_-_Tempest13. Bob Dylan – Tempest

When Bob Dylan visited Woody Guthrie in the hospital, the latter was in his early 50s, and rapidly deteriorating from Huntington’s disease. Now that Dylan is 71 and still releasing music as textured, immediate and Americana-laden as Tempest, his debt to Guthrie is as clear as ever, and his presence as a going concern a rare gift to all of us. If we’d lost him after Time Out of Mind, one of the most brilliant ruminations on age and sickness in rock history, we’d consider ourselves lucky. Yet here he is, 15 years later, laying down haunted blues grooves and crystalline country love songs, singing about trains and the Titanic and John Lennon with wit and mystery. Roll on, Bob.

Miguel-Kaleidoscope_Dream12. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream

Anytime an R&B artist releases a single that sounds like Marvin Gaye, or an album that isn’t heavily influenced by hip hop, it’s hard not to just pigeonhole them as throwbacks, slap a tag like “neo-soul” on them, and call it a day. Miguel does both of these things on his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, but if anything, he’s looking to the future. Over production that nods to the dark, narcotic atmospheres of The Weeknd and the warmer instrumentation of Erykah Badu’s Amerykah albums, the singer delivers wry plays on words, romantic come-ons and spiritual rallying cries with creativity and conviction. Yes, his gorgeous single “Adorn” is indebted to “Sexual Healing,” but Miguel is reminiscent of Gaye on a deeper level here. Like the legend, he never sounds like he’s trying too hard; his lithe performance goes light on trills, sounding just as comfortable, believable and sexual no matter the context. Which makes Kaleidoscope Dream an album for contemplation, babymaking, and partying, depending on your mood.

Screaming_Female's_Ugly_album_cover11. Screaming Females – Ugly

With a remake of Total Recall, the reunion of Soundgarden and [insert questionable decision here] happening in 2012, it can’t be denied that 1990s nostalgia is something we’ll all have to deal with for a while. And instead of going down retread lane, I suggest listening to Screaming Females’ fifth album. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a rock record that hearkens back to Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly is much more than some rock and roll time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguishes itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the here and now.

homepage_large.60b385d010. Matthew E. White – Big Inner

After reading about Matthew E. White’s borderline-insane obsession with Randy Newman (he tracked him down at home so he could personally hand him demos), I had to hear his debut album, sure it couldn’t live up to the high standards set by my own Newman fanaticism. But impressively, Big Inner did that and more – this is a gentle, intoxicating bear hug of an album, one that pairs richly layered, Newman-esque arrangements with White’s deep, casual vocal stylings, on songs about drinking hot toddies, not having to rush love, and the friend we have in Jesus. Jumping from tender meditations to stone-cold soul grooves, while never making you feel like you have to move from your spot by the fireplace, White is something much more than a guy with great influences. He’s got a sound and a vision all his own, one that could inspire a whole new generation of hero worship.

kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-cover9. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

On the first single of his major label debut, Kendrick Lamar raps about being alone in his childhood bedroom, nursing a shot and dreaming of adoring fans. One voice in his head tells him that he should dive in a swimming pool full of liquor. Another says that he’s noxious and on the wrong path. It’s a compelling, heartbreaking metaphysical struggle, and only one kind of conflict that arises on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the rapper’s concept album about growing up with all the cards stacked against you. He falls in love, gives in to peer pressure, almost gets arrested and watches his friend commit murder, all while ignoring the voicemails from his mother (who isn’t worried about him, she just wants the car so she can leave the house). Words spill from Lamar’s mouth in a flow that’s second nature; every time he spits 16, it sounds like he could go for 160. Which makes his incisive personal and sociological observations all the more powerful, woven through laid-back loops that belie his Compton roots.

LeonardCohenOldIdeas8. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

With both this album and Tempest making my list, I guess my secret is out – I’ve got a thing for grizzled septuagenarians. When they complain about the cold, it makes me so, so hot … Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah. Old Ideas is really good. Even though Leonard Cohen’s resurgence on the road and in the studio has more to do with money than the need to create, the 78-year-old is still the best in the game when it comes to writing songs about religion from the perspective of a sinner. “Amen” is an elegant, seven-minute blasphemy shuffle that we can now turn to for solace after hearing the 11 billionth “Hallelujah” cover. And “Show Me the Place” casts Jesus as a slave to his father, humanizing him more than any Christmas pageant ever could. Couple this caliber of writing with producer Ed Sanders’ subtle country & western touches and some solemn female backup singers, and you’ve got Cohen’s best work in 20 years.

Chromatics_-_Kill_for_Love7. Chromatics – Kill For Love

It’s easy to think of the 1980s as a wasteland of synthesizers and gated reverb. But it was also a time period where those elements were used to create beautiful, otherworldly sonic experiences, supporting organic instruments instead of merely replacing them. And it’s these kinds of arrangements that Chromatics simply nail on Kill For Love. This is a band that understands the potential of synths to create expansive frameworks, making listeners feel like they’re in a sonic Monument Valley, horizons all around. Taking cures from The Cure’s artful melancholy and Everything But the Girl’s introspective techno, Kill For Love is generous when building these landscapes. The eight-minute opus “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” takes a subdued “Eye of the Tiger” loop and transforms it into a breathtaking alternate universe, narrated by an Auto-Tune skewed voice repeating the line “The screen stayed flashing in my mind.” Full of shameless melodrama and cinematic production (it comes as no surprise that band member Johnny Jewel had a hand in two songs on the Drive soundtrack), Kill For Love is stuck in an ’80s haze. May their DeLorean never work again.

6. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)

With details about Mitt Romney’s Swiss bank accounts clogging the news cycle, 2012 seemed like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that told us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough. But while practically every track on Rich Forever is concerned with materialistic one-upsmanship (in bed, Ross must count Benzes and Bugattis instead of sheep), it’s redundant in all the right ways, developing Ross’s drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, and featuring an unbelievable string of monster beats and instant-classic choruses that made me recalibrate my expectations of a mixtape. While Rich Forever is loaded with guests – most notably an in-top-form Nas on the standout “Triple Beam Dreams” – Ross is never outshone, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache, coming up with another dozen brilliant ways to say he’s rich on every cut (my current favorite: “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”). His steady baritone is the only thing about Rich Forever that follows a less-is-more aesthetic, providing a perfect counterpoint to all the tremendous, towering beats.

Jack_White_Blunderbuss_cover5. Jack White – Blunderbuss

I love that Jack White is a rock star. There’s just something beautiful about a mild-mannered guy who looks like an Edward Scissorhands stunt double making music that hipsters can listen to with their parents. And what finely crafted music it is. Blunderbuss is far from his first non-White Stripes album, but it is his first solo album, and a hell of a good argument against him ever forming another side project. Sounding more vibrant, organic and fully formed than anything since Icky Thump, the album hits a variety of Americana sweet spots, from the slinky soul of “Love Interruption” to the airy country of the title track and a seriously swinging cover of Little Willie John’s “i’m Shakin’.” Plus, White’s uncanny ability to turn mundane dude problems into poetry remains as sharp as ever. “Smile on her face/She does what she damn well please,” he bemoans on “Freedom At 21,” admitting defeat, yet sounding just a little bit like he enjoys it. It’s theater for sure, but like any rock star worth his salt, Jack White still has me believing every word.

fantasea-azealia-banks_3204. Azealia Banks – Fantasea

I am a big Nicki Minaj fan. But I can’t help but wish my first exposure to her wasn’t Pink Friday, but one of the world-beating mixtapes that put her on the map. Her official releases are packed with great singles, but their reliance on chart-baiting dance-pop minimizes her talents. Lucky for me, I can take solace that I’m with Azealia Banks at the ground floor, before she inevitably rockets into the hip hop stratosphere. Comparisons to Minaj on her debut mixtape Fantasea are inevitable, what with her rapid-fire flow, cocksure attitude and club-ready beats. But the differences are crucial – there’s nothing cartoonish about Banks; she’s not one to scream for attention, and her music follows suit. Fantasea is 19 tracks of quick-pulsed, subterranean dance music, with very few hooks to be found. Banks is the hook here, her brilliantly syncopated rhymes proving that the human voice can be the ultimate percussion instrument.

homepage_large.755e37bd3. Ty Segall – Twins

Ty Segall’s second entry on this list came out after he’d already blown our minds with Slaughterhouse, not to mention Hair, his album with White Fence. Twins is certainly proof of a prolific artist at work, somebody whose writing and recording processes must be as intense and immediate as the high-octane garage rock that is his stock in trade. And amazingly, it’s the best of the three. I mentioned Segall’s affinity for British Invasion melodies above, and he lets them shine through more than ever before on Twins, which, when coupled with his Lennon-esque tenor, inspires visions of The Beatles honing their chops in the dive clubs of Munich. Where Slaughterhouse took its name to heart in its sonic approach, Twins isn’t out to bludgeon, keeping its hooks relatively pristine, whether they’re part of the hyperactive hard rock of “You’re the Doctor” or the incredibly catchy ballad that closes the album, “There Is No Tomorrow.” If this kid finally takes a break, it’s safe to say he deserves it.

Vets_large2. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

On his sixth album, Killer Mike makes it absolutely clear that he thinks real rap music is “the opposite of bullshit.” So by his own definition, R.A.P. Music is as real as it gets, a masterpiece of the form from a true gangsta scholar who never sounds like he’s full of it – whether he’s threatening Atlanta tourists, proselytizing about his art form, or dancing on Ronald Reagan’s grave. Unless by “it,” you mean a booming voice, mastery of language, political incisiveness, and an exhilarating sense of swagger. Nobody on earth can give a middle finger to the man like Killer Mike, and here he delivers them like a man possessed, slaying every hard, thumping beat that’s thrown his way, making you feel bad for every guest rapper, and damn good to be alive.

Channel_ORANGE1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

After a long night reviewing at show at Darien Lake this past summer, I decided to take the back roads home. Once I escaped the hell that is that parking lot and entered the wooded regions of Route 62, I put on Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE for the first time. As the highway wound through farm country with open skies above, I was swept away by the starry-eyed romantic plea of “Thinking About You.” Then I reached the outer ring of suburbs, while being treated to  a pair of brilliant deconstructions of rich people problems – the breezy, Stevie Wonder-ish “Sweet Life” and the “Bennie And The Jets”-biting “Super Rich Kids.” As Buffalo’s troubled East Side neighborhoods loomed, the golden age hip hop beat of “Crack Rock” provided a spoonful of sugar for a frank take on what happens to addicts. And as I got closer to home, where my wife was waiting up for me, I heard the slinky Isley Brothers lick of “Forrest Gump,” and reveled in how she was running through my mind.

Homorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio; Beach House – Bloom; Himanshu – Nehru Jackets; Japandroids – Celebration Rock; Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded; Various Artists – Kanye West Presents Good Music: Cruel Summer

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (70-66)

70. Beck – Midnite Vultures (1999)

“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.”

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (75-71)

75. Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves (1999)

Given the gritty truths and intense melodramas that have been such a huge part of hip-hop – especially its 1990s golden age – it’s surprising that the genre has given us no stone-cold brilliant concept albums. Is what you’d say if Prince Paul had never made this, easily the greatest hip-hop concept album of all time, and one that I’d take over Tommy any day of the week. A Prince Among Thieves is the story of Tariq, an aspiring rapper and fast food worker who dreams of using his art to get rich and provide for his mother. When he lands a cherry meeting with Wu-Tang Clan, Tariq needs to raise some money to pay for studio time – his demo is a little rough – so he dips his toes into the drug game to make ends meet. While it’s predictable that this story would end tragically, Prince Paul infuses it with flash-forwards, Shakespearean betrayals and bursts of dark comedy, telling a tale that never gets confusing, and always keeps you on your toes. Paul’s production work is on the level with his classic De La Soul material – “Steady Slobbin'” and “What You Got” feature some of the most irresistible soul loops he’s ever dug up. The actors are totally convincing, and guest stars like Kool Keith, Chris Rock, Everlast and Big Daddy Kane make for a hell of a cast. Nobody shines brighter than the star though – Breeze Brewin’ is the main reason we sympathize so much with Tariq; he’s the perfect, unassuming hero in the skits, and his steady, tight flow is the backbone of the majority of the songs.

Take a listen to “What You Got,” whose funky sax loop and playful interactions between Tariq and his pal True are a sign that it comes early on in the story.

74. Roger Waters – Amused To Death (1992)

After releasing the final Pink Floyd album in 1983 – the underrated anti-war elegy The Final Cut – Roger Waters got into a weirdly allegorical groove, from his pervy-road-trip-as-metaphor-for-something-I-don’t-really-understand solo debut The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking to the guy-in-a-wheelchair-ends-capitalism follow-up, Radio K.A.O.S. Not to disparage those albums, both of which have aged far better than anything the David Gilmour-led edition of Floyd ever recorded, but everything about Amused To Death feels like Waters getting back to business, saying to hell with prog-rock librettos and writing the kind of acidic sociopolitical material that made The Wall and The Final Cut so unforgettable. “And the Germans killed Jews and the Jews killed the Arabs and the Arabs killed the hostages and that is the news,” his wonderful backup singer P.P. Arnold belts on “Perfect Sense, Part I,” and that’s the basic theme of the record – organized religion, governments and the media colluding to support humanity’s vilest sins. Because this is a solo Waters album, things do get too preachy for comfort from time to time (especially an uber-cheesy battleground play-by-play from Marv Albert). But you’ve gotta forgive him for these moments, because his rage is so pure, his hook-free arrangements so beautifully meditative, his vision so artful. He spends much of Amused to Death musing about what God wants (spoiler alert: it’s all bad stuff). Say what you want about the man upstairs, but he gave us Roger Waters, and that’s a check in the “pros” column for sure.

Tough to pick against “Perfect Sense, Part I,” but my favorite tune here is “Watching TV,” a heartbreakingly poignant take on the Tiananmen Square protests with some surprisingly effective guest vocals from Don Henley (the only saving grace of his career IMO. Yeah, “Boys of Summer” sucks too).

73. Helmet – Meantime (1992)

From the moment I first heard “Unsung,” which I’m guessing I saw on Headbanger’s Ball, Helmet’s major label debut became an album to save up my allowance and buy (quick side note – nothing will ever sound sweeter to me than the CDs I had to save for a month to be able to afford. Great music will always give me chills, but never again will I feel the blissful release of a record that lives up to my own, self-inflicted hype machine). And while the balance of Meantime didn’t possess anything quite as brutal as that amazingly simple riff, it was perfect for the kind of teen looking to project his weirdo angst on something harder and snarlier than Nirvana. Mixing the mammoth riffage and clipped shouts of Page Hamilton with drummer John Stanier’s deep-in-the-pocket breaks, Meantime was loud, nasty, groove-based hardcore, a sound that hurts just as good 20 years later. Sure, there’s plenty of pain-obsessed Trapper Keeper poetry – Hamilton’s jealous cheerleader screams of “You’re better … die!” being the lowest point. But the guitars are so punishing, and the rhythms so gut-punching, they would smother any attempt at refined lyricism like the runt of a litter.

Behold the brutal, brass tacks awesomeness that is “Unsung.”

72. Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (1997)

“Words and guitar/I got it!” What better way to sum up the joyful noise of Dig Me Out than this chorus to one of its many unshakeable standout tracks? Sleater-Kinney’s third album, and first for Kill Rock Stars, provides equal helpings of molten punk shredding and bouncy British invasion melodies – it’s not a coincidence that its cover is an homage to The Kink Kontroversy. The record sounds for all the world like a trio of gals who love nothing more than plugging in and screaming their guts out. (Which reminds me, Screaming Females’ Ugly, one of my front-runners for the best album of 2012, would in no way exist if not for Dig Me Out.) This palpable exuberance is what makes Dig Me Out something special; instead of wallowing into lines like “I wear your rings and sores/In me, it shows,” singer Corin Tucker sets fire to them, her wild, quavering pipes proving that the death of grunge didn’t stop the Seattle scene from spitting out some startlingly talented, unpredictable voices. Of course, you can’t get by purely on energy. Dig Me Out is riddled with killer pop melodies, Carrie Brownstein’s shit-hot guitar playing, and deftly layered sequences that belie the whole garage band aesthetic – take “Words and Guitar,” where Tucker’s vocal devolves into a primal scream and Brownstein chimes in with a cheery backup vocal (“Can’t take this away from me/Music is the air I breathe”), all over a sun-kissed riff straight out of a Searchers song. Sleater-Kinney makes it all sound exhilaratingly simple, as sure a sign as any that we’re hearing a great band at its peak.

I’ve said enough about “Words and Guitar.” Get to listenin’.

71. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)

When I was 14, I considered Ten to be one of the Great Rock Albums, on a level with Led Zeppelin II or Back In BlackBut if you’ve read my introduction to this list, you’ll understand why I was nervous to listen to Pearl Jam’s monster debut front to back, for the first time in at least a decade – what Ten has inspired in its wake has been pretty horrifying. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cringe during “Once,” the album’s propulsive opening track. I can appreciate melodrama, but as Eddie Vedder growled “Once upon a time/I could love myself,” I realized how rough around the edges this gifted vocalist was in 1991. Vedder connected with listeners from the get because he sang with naked emotion, but on Ten, he often gets lost in these waves of feeling, his grunts and wails coming off almost comical. At the end of “Once,” Vedder lets loose his most heinous guttural burst (“YUH-HEA-HEA-YUH-HEA-HEA!!!!”), which I will now claim as the #1 reason Chad Kroeger, Scott Stapp and Chris Daughtry sound like they do. That’s all to explain why Ten is #71 on this list, instead of in the top 20. It remains a smorgasbord of killer guitar riffs, and is full of songs that shamelessly aim for arena nosebleeds, with none of the artsy experiments and ham-fisted politics that would make vs. and Vitalogy so uneven. And when Vedder calms down, his vocals are gorgeous – the ballads “Oceans” and “Release” are two of the album’s strongest cuts as a result. Then there’s “Alive,” perhaps the perfect example of how Pearl Jam combined the angst-ridden energy of grunge with the comfortable, crowd-pleasing tropes of classic rock – if you thought existentialist crises and guitar solos couldn’t mix, here’s your proof.

Eddie Vedder might’ve had some developing to do as a singer at the time, but on “Oceans,” his raw ability can’t be denied. An exquisite ballad that alone absolves him for his “hunger dunger dang”-related sins.

Movies From 2011 That I Saw And That I Thought Were Good

So I don’t really go to the movies a lot. I know, sort of hypocritical for somebody who claims to write about movies in his blog subhead. It’s expensive, and I have Netflix, and I’m a miner with six children, who would hate me if I didn’t come home until 10:30 because I was out seeing The Descendants. But I must give my opinion regardless! Hence, here are five movies from 2011 that I really enjoyed, even though my popcorn was covered in soot.

Weekend

This is how people actually fall in love. Weekend begins the morning after a one-night stand between Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), taking us through the next two days, as they both realize they’ve stumbled across something real. Andrew Haigh (who wrote, directed and edited) lets the compelling chemistry between his two leads do the work, whether they’re goofing off at carnivals, getting coked-up and arguing, or tenderly making up. Filmmaking rarely gets more touching.

Buck

While Cave of Forgotten Dreams deserves all the praise it’s been getting, I was more mesmerized by Buck. This documentary of the real-life “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman would’ve been interesting enough had it just shown footage of Brannaman’s  shaman-like effect on troubled horses – his seminars are beautiful repudiations of corporal punishment. But Buck is generous enough to cast its namesake in three dimensions, venturing to explain why this cowboy genius has so much tenderness and patience to spare.

Insidious

I’d be the first to say that Insidious is not a masterpiece. The ending is underwhelming. The central monster looks like Darth Maul. The mom is impossibly dumb. But this possessed-kid-haunted-house-multiple-universe picture makes this list because its first hour is packed with more well-calibrated scares than a dozen Paranormal Activity sequels. If you’re a horror fan with a wandering eye, always looking in the background for odd movements or distorted faces, director James Wan rewards you kindly here. Sure, it’s a mash-up of Hellraiser and The Exorcist and Poltergeist and other stuff. But it made me feel scared, and then laugh at myself for feeling so scared. Which is exactly what I paid for it to do.

Meek’s Cutoff

Although it features effective, restrained performances from Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, the unforgiving landscape should get top billing in Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist tale about 19th century settlers who make the regrettable decision to leave the Oregon Trail. Paranoia abounds from the first minute, where it becomes clear that the settlers don’t trust their guide, the eccentrically brusque Stephen Meek (played by Sweensryche favorite Bruce Greenwood, who plays against his A Dog Named Christmas type). When a Native American crosses the group’s path and eventually becomes Meek’s unwilling replacement, the gap between cultures is as vast as those stunningly arid landscapes.

Certified Copy

You might wanna save Weekend as a chaser for the bitter shot that is Certified Copy, a cleverly conceived relationship study from writer/director Abbas Kiarostami. The film follows a British author (William Shimell) and French fan/skeptic (Juliette Binoche) as they spend a day exploring the verdant hills and sun-soaked neighborhoods of Tuscany. But what starts off as a Before Sunrise-ish snapshot love story becomes something very different when a friendly café owner starts asking questions. With a script like this, and performances like these, you never want the conversations to stop.

Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.

Top 20 Albums of 2011

Please read my words about these music records that I listened to and thought were good.

20. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

After a pair of masterfully ambitious rock productions made them critical darlings, these hyper-creative Brooklynites shipped their operation to California at the turn of the decade. And while it’s easy to give too much credit to the city where a recording was made, Nine Types Of Light sure does sound like TVOTR’s “L.A. album.” Overtly catchy melodies are the order of the day, with bright, relatively sparse production backing up Tunde Adebimpe’s newfound romanticism. As a result, we get some of the most unexpected, and memorable, love songs of the year. “You’re the only one I’ll ever love” isn’t exactly a tattoo-worthy lyric, but coming from a guy who used to sing about werewolf coupling, its sincerity is shocking.

19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

18. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest “love is nice” aesthetic, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay has a defined goal here – marry their arena-baiting elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of uber-producer Brian Eno, they get the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, is a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring its polarizing, sensitive-guy roots.

17. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

Here’s what Carrie Underwood couldn’t quite pull off with that car-upholstery-vandalism song. Hell On Heels is the debut album from Pistol Annies, a country supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Like Underwood’s hit, this is chart-baiting female empowerment country, but the comparisons end there. Yes, these ladies are sick of male bullshit, but they go deeper than petty revenge fantasies (although those crop up here and there, most entertainingly on the killer title track). With little more than guitar, fiddle and pedal steel to guide them, the Annies sing about shotgun weddings, pill addicted tour hounds, embarrassing family squabbles and various trailers of tears. The vocals are as plain and true as the tunes; all three members have the kind of friendly, Dolly Parton drawl that lends a sickly sweetness to lines like “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.”

16. Feist – Metals

It appears that Leslie Feist got just as tired of that iPod commercial as we did. Her third record is titled appropriately, if only because it’s an emotional palette of dark and darker greys. How decidedly un-twee are we talking? “What does sadness see?/The mirror has a mirror in its teeth/That’s what sadness sees,” the vocalist shares over the sullen acoustic chords of “Comfort Me.” Then, right when you’re starting to wonder if this is poignant or insufferable, a big “la-la-la” chorus kicks in, and you’re won over, whether you felt like moping around or not. This is what’s so compelling about Metals – there are hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

15. Mastodon – The Hunter

The conceptual insanity of Mastodon’s first three records – a water, earth and sky cycle with story lines that I dare you to try and follow – was a big part of their appeal. No metal band has provided better fodder for nerd arguments (“Who’s more powerful, Cysquatch or Megalodon?”). But The Hunter finds the band in a different place. They’ve moved on from the soul-searching grandiosity of Crack The Skye, content to hunker down and just make thunderous rock music. They’re still on their zoology jones, singing about owls and octopi, snakes and swamp creatures, but The Hunter‘s purpose is quintessentially human – to get the party started. When the post-apocalyptic aliens arrive to analyze our civilization, this record will explain why things that made us feel good were described as “kick-ass.”

14. Drake – Take Care

Drake’s 2010 debut Thank Me Later was remarkable for its mix of monster rap hooks and confessional booth R&B. For his follow-up, the 25-year-old has put all his eggs in the latter basket, revealing himself as the antithesis of “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” Take Care is a long, sumptuous gaze in the mirror, with the artist rapping and singing in equal measure over soft beds of synths. It’s a perilous road for any pop star to take, but Drake manages to come off honest, acknowledging his ego and the tax bracket that boosts it, while struggling to find a meaningful relationship with anybody beyond his trusted crew. “We live in a generation of not being in love,” he theorizes on “Doing It Wrong,” a gorgeous bit of quiet storm R&B. Then all the melodrama gets punctuated by a lyrical harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, and Take Care’s beautiful contradiction is driven home – this is self-centered music that treats its listeners with class.

13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a short piece of work by Radiohead standards, which was seen as a disappointment by some. I see it as a sign of the band’s maturity. This is a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid – but only after multiple listens. If it went on for an hour, it would wear down the most devout listener, much like the second half of Hail to the Thief. Plus, the band rewards us by ending the record with a pair of immediately accessible tunes – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” The only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

12. Beyoncé – 4

Were it not for an uncharacteristically awkward guest appearance from Kanye West, 4 would be the perfect Beyoncé record, a fantastically sung, finely tuned exploration of love’s ups and downs. Her vocals have never been better, relying less on Mariah acrobatics and more on emotional shading, turning treacle like “Best Thing I Never Had” into a quality pop ballad. All the singles are excellent, from the Sam Cooke-riffing ballad “1+1” to the hyper-charged family values jam “Countdown.” And the deep cuts present varied interpretations of popular R&B, from the unrequited belting of “I Care” to the breezy, ’80s Whitney groove of “Love On Top.” All of them work except for “Party,” a half-finished-sounding summer jam that relies way too much on Kanye’s worst couplet ever: “You a bad girl and your friend’s bad too/We got the swag sauce, we’re drippin’ Swagu.” Luckily, the rest of 4 is so indelible, you can just hum one of its choruses and pretend that you didn’t just hear an endorsement for the most disgusting thing in the grocery store.

11. The Cars – Move Like This

When a game-changing classic rock band decides to get back together these days, it’s to make bank on a tour, where they play their most famous record front to back and avoid new material like the plague. So when The Cars reunited in 2010, it was refreshing, and more than a bit ballsy, that they jumped right into the studio. Of course, it’s easier to respect a choice when the results are so great. Move Like This opens with “Blue Tip,” which picks up where the band left off, fusing synthesizer earworms with rock guitars and Ocasek sing-speak to create an off-kilter pop chestnut. “It’s Late” and “Sad Song” show that they haven’t forgotten the “Drive” ballad formula either. You could call it a time capsule, but these lovingly crafted synth-pop songs just happen to fit snugly in today’s ’80s-obsessed musical landscape. Move Like This should make us reassess our rock dinosaurs – shouldn’t they still have the urge to create? Isn’t that the least we should expect from them? Which means the next time Roger Waters or The Police ask you to drop $150 to see them trot out the oldies, it’s OK to say, “No, I deserve more from you guys.”

10. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons

Band names are by no means crucial to an artist’s success (Radiohead’s a pretty awful one when you think about it). But Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye has come up with a moniker that adds even more depth to the codeine-addled bump n’ grind R&B that’s his stock in trade. On his debut mixtape as The Weeknd, Tesfaye paints explicit pictures of twisted Friday and Saturday nights, with hazy melodies and underwater drum machines to remind us that every bout of wee-hour debauchery has its aftermath. “You wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye assures us on the opening cut. Don’t trust him, though. House Of Balloons is enough of an altered state on its own. A party album for the id with arrangements that swoon like the morning after, this is a gateway drug to one of the most compelling new artists of 2011.

9. Lil B – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Upon hearing that Lil B was releasing an album called I’m Gay, you had to wonder if he was setting himself up for the same backlash that Sasha Baron Cohen experienced with Bruno. Would this attempt at exposing homophobia be seen as kind of homophobic itself? One listen to the record puts those concerns to rest. A concept album it’s not – the title isn’t mentioned lyrically. But it does fit Lil B’s “love everything, make cheddar” philosophy, which he elucidates in simple, straightforward couplets (e.g. “Karma is real/And you gotta love it”). There’s plenty of materialism here, but it’s tinged with a sense of gratitude. Not to mention songs like “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber,” which pleads for fair pay for plumbers. The sample choices line up perfectly with this P.M. Dawn-meets-Cash Money aesthetic – interpolated soul ballads keep things grounded, and the Spirited Away-sampling cut “Gon Be Okay” beautifully overdoses on positivity. As an antidote to hate-fueled rap, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) doesn’t just do its title justice – it transcends it.

8. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy

It was a banner year for Beach Boys lovers, thanks to the revelatory Smile Sessions box set and a Brian Wilson album of Disney covers (although I admit I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the latter. Sounds like it could be OK, but I fear a tire fire). Then there was Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy, a ingenious and eccentric slab of sunshine pop that’s a direct descendant of Wilson’s and Van Dyke Parks’ most famous creations. Melodies runneth over here, from the children’s choir mantra of “Tracking Elevator” to the psychedelic chorus of “Lahaha,” but Port Entropy would be just a nice record if it weren’t for its arrangements. Each cut has its own distinct personality, with the Japanese multi-instrumentalist digging through his toy trunk for a seemingly endless mix of interesting combinations. “Lahaha” is a magnificently twisted concoction of glockenspiel and flute; “Linne” a piano and trumpet ballad; “Malerina” a pizzicato reggae jam. So if The Smile Sessions has you thinking that they just don’t make records like they used to, Port Entropy is here to prove you wrong. You crusty old coot.

7. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva

When rappers try to give themselves their own colorful mythology, they’re playing with fire. For every Wu-Tang, there are a dozen Nastradamuses. Which makes Big K.R.I.T.’s debut mixtape all the more remarkable. With a name that stands for “King Remembered In Time” and an album title that he describes as a “movement” on its opening track, the Mississippi artist sets the bar sky high before he even gets his first 16 bars off. But Return Of 4Eva’s dreamy, Organized Noize-esque production and measured, introspective lyrics deserve such luxurious boasts. Whether he’s baiting naysayers on “Dreaming,” reminiscing about career struggles on the gorgeous “American Rapstar,” or describing the frightening allure of drug dealing on “Lions & Lambs,” there’s a hard-earned knowledge in K.R.I.T.’s voice that makes them all different paragraphs from the same essay. By the time you get to the record’s heartbreaking tour de force, “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” the movement’s got you whole.

6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Even though the ’90s are far behind us, in 2011, the term “slacker” still dredges up visions of flannel and limp bangs. But before the record companies and film studios started telling us how cool slackers were, slackers were actually kind of cool. The way Bob Dylan lazily dropped those “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, it seemed like the guy could’ve given a shit, and didn’t we love him all the more for it? It’s this image that comes to mind when I listen to Kurt Vile’s deceptively ramshackle Smoke Ring For My Halo. The man delivers every lyric of these stoner folk songs in a gentle mumble – from the sarcastic “Society Is My Friend” to the romantic “Baby’s Arms.” But instead of coming off like some half-assed bedroom album, SRFMH creates a compelling headspace. Vile’s slacker vocal stylings are likely a put-on; the guy could probably hit all the notes if he wanted to. But I say bring on the posturing – there’s something captivating about this singer who sounds like he doesn’t care if anybody hears him, who just wants to get some things off his chest and then go to bed. Something strangely and indisputably cool.

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There was good reason to anticipate the release of PJ Harvey’s eighth album this year, a conceptual work about her homeland and the wars it fought during its centuries as a world superpower. Harvey’s last notable work was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, another album about a specific place, New York City. But if you pardon the pun, Let England Shake blows Stories out of the water. This isn’t a collection of protest songs, or an allegory for specific conflicts in the modern world. It’s a record that gets right into the trenches, and the heads, of British troops throughout history. The language is harrowing, with descriptions of body parts hanging from trees sitting alongside strident patriotic cries, streaking them with regret. And while the music is understandably subdued, with Harvey’s signature dark chord changes leading the way, there’s also beauty to be appreciated, with the singer’s voice rising above the somber acoustics and digital ephemera of “England,” telling us about “the country that I love.” By the time you get to the gut-wrenching Gallipoli singalong “The Colour of the Earth,” the history lesson’s over. But the feeling lingers.

4. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Yes, Tom Waits is avant garde. His voice is a hyper-expressive growl. His fusion of raw Chicago blues and garbage can-bashing performance art is jaw-droppingly creative. Now that we’re getting close to the 30-year anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the record that changed it all, it’s awfully easy to forget that before he became the bizarre, trend-bucking artiste, Waits was a loungey singer/songwriter, releasing piano-heavy, Edward Hopper paintings of records throughout the ’70s. Bad As Me, his 19th record, keeps the bar high in terms of legacy-worthy freakiness – especially the whacked-out boogie of “Get Lost,” which is Waits as psycho Elvis impersonator – but it also reminds us of the sensitive hotel bar crooner of old. “Kiss Me” is a crackling, “let’s spice up the marriage” time capsule of a ballad, a quiet, achingly sexy left turn after the screwy, anti-soulmate blues of the title track. And then there’s “New Year’s Eve,” which closes things with a gorgeous, drunken bout of nostalgia. When Waits breaks into “Auld Lang Syne,” you’re reminded of another old standard he knocked out of the park in 1976, “Waltzing Matilda.” Right then and there, it’s the best of both worlds.

3. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

In a year marked by politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we got an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

If PJ Harvey made the war movie of the year, then Bill Callahan made the western. On Apocalypse, his third solo effort under his own name instead of Smog, the singer-songwriter tells tales of cowboys sympathizing with their cattle, marriages dissolving in the dust of the prairie, and panoramic vistas that enchant the minds of men. But a traditional country album it’s not – meditative folk is Callahan’s bag, with arrangements that act as delicate foundations for his beautiful, mournful baritone. It’s circular, entrancing stuff, a cowboy Astral Weeks, an attempt to document how small our country can make us feel, and how proud. “It takes a strong/Breaks a strong mind,” Callahan sings about the American wilderness. “And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” He could be singing about his own record.

1. James Blake – James Blake

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

Honorable Mentions: Bon Iver – Bon Iver; Heidecker & Wood – Starting From NowhereLykke Li – Wounded Rhymes; My Morning Jacket – Circuital; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage; Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

Top 20 Tracks of 2010

I wasn’t gonna do this list. But now I did it. You wanna fight about it?

20. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “In Pairs”

Life ain’t like Noah’s ark – human pairings are little more complicated. But this ragged little sing-a-long reminds you that it’s OK to smile, even if nobody’s there to see it.

19. M.I.A. – “XXXO”
This thunderous dose of electro-pop warns that bad sex leads to social media. M.I.A.’s narrator discovers that tweeted love notes are too easily tossed-off – just like those symbols for hugs and kisses.

18. The Body – “A Body”
A delicate choral passage reaches its crescendo, only to be mercilessly deconstructed, resulting in a 10-minute hurtle from heaven into hell.

17. Big Boi – “Shutterbugg”
Funky, buoyant and celebratory, Big Boi’s single didn’t just make for mandatory summer listening, it also showed that the talkbox might be about to give AutoTune a run for its money.

16. Eels – “Little Bird”
Nobody does melancholy quite like Eels. Here, their bandleader E is so hard up for affection, he bemoans his unrequited love to a bird that ho
ps onto his porch. How gorgeously pathetic.

15. Kanye West – “Runaway”
“You’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long” – the closest thing to an apology you’re ever gonna get from a rock star.

14. She & Him – “I’m Gonna Make It Better”
Reassuring lyrics, floating on a bed of lightly twanging guitars. For fans of ’70s AM pop, it’s the cure for what ails you.

13. Vampire Weekend – “Diplomat’s Son”
I thought nostalgia trips resulted in some kind of sadness or regret. But when your memories are of lying around dressed in white, smoking joints with rich kids, they result in exhilarating synth-reggae songs.

12. The Roots – “Right On”
On a record about the power of positive attitudes, a beat that’ll make you feel invincible.

11. Rihanna – “What’s My Name”
How do you know you’re in love? When somebody gives you goosebumps, just by saying your name.

10. Sleigh Bells – “Crown on the Ground”
So. Damn. Loud.

9. Ke$ha – “Your Love is My Drug”
A melody that’s as tough to shake as lovesickness.

8. Jamey Johnson – “Heartache”
Heartache isn’t just a state of mind, it’s an evil entity. Johnson sings from the perspective of this grim reaper of relationships, breaking up everyone from caveman couples to Charles and Diana.

7. Janelle Monae – “Dance or Die”
Latin rhythms, undulating raps, soap opera organ – a lean, propulsive sonic assault unlike any other.

6. Antony & The Johnsons – “The Great White Ocean”
Spare, stunning chamber folk about family dynamics in the afterlife. Should be sung in church.

5. Gorillaz – “White Flag”
A Lebanese orchestra, a pair of imaginative British MCs, and Damon Albarn’s ever-expanding vision make for the most successfully eclectic track of 2010.

4. Bruno Mars – “Just the Way You Are”
The love song of the year, with a mighty catchy chorus to boot.

3. Cee Lo Green – “Fuck You”
The love child of “I Want You Back” and “Gold Digger,” brilliantly arranged and sung by the most expressive vocalist in R&B. Adorable.

2. Erykah Badu – “Window Seat”
An empowering anthem for both frustrated lovers and claustrophobic travelers, sung with the kind of quiet confidence we last heard on Baduizm.

1. Kanye West – “Monster”
The drums are huge, the personas even huger – a six-minute running time is barely enough to contain all the chest-beating rants and paranoid fantasies.
The year’s illest track, in both senses of the word.