Some incredible things happened in June 2020. Protests against government-sanctioned hate swelled to unforeseen global heights, raising awareness of insidious systemic racism in the minds of the privileged. City councils voted to defund police departments. Statues honoring racists were torn down.
Also in June, fiery antiracist poetry entered our lives at just the right time. Songwriting legends reflected on love and marriage and divorce. And a resurgent diva reminded us that disco will never die. These songs might not change the world, but they’ll make a pretty good soundtrack for this harrowing, electrifying, emotional summer.
1. Coco – “I Love It (Black)”
This purposeful, pride-drenched blast of UK grime is as exhilarating as seeing Black Lives Matter protests go global.
2. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like Killer Mike’s explosive verse on “Walking in the Snow,” written before George Floyd’s death:
And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
3. Bully – “Where to Start”
If you’re a fan of cheerful, high-energy grunge hooks, well then Bully for you.
4. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
5. Bob Dylan – “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”
“Lot of people gone / Lot of people I knew,” admits a 79-year-old legend over the low, reassuring hum of his backup singers, who coax him to admit that he’s in love, even now, at the end of the road.
6. Dua Selah – “Cat Scratch”
“Posture of a pastor with his sheep / Planting hella seeds,” spits this Sudanese-American emcee over a mournful, trance-inducing guitar loop. So grateful to be in the congregation.
7. Spillage Village – “End of Daze”
A scathingly funky rap crew track about our American apocalypse: “God packed her bags and said ‘Bye bye.'”
8. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan is unexpectedly back: driving newlyweds around in his limo, reflecting on the universality of marriage, and doing his best Johnny Cash impression. We do not deserve this.
9. Dessiderium – “Cosmic Limbs”
A brain-liquefying display of technical death metal riffage, with rapid-fire note clusters that scamper down your ear canals like gremlins infiltrating a spaceship.
10. Saint Jhn – “Trap (Rompasso Remix)”
Burbling, chart-baiting dance-pop with a chorus that gives a middle finger to the police.
11. Neil Young – “Separate Ways”
Can a break-up song be romantic? The opener of Neil Young’s long-lost, finally released 1974 LP Homegrown certainly comes close. Over a trademark guitar and harmonica arrangement, Young celebrates a love gone by with stark, open-hearted tenderness.
12. Teyana Taylor ft. Lauryn Hill – “We Got Love”
“Love is the new money / I’m mentally wealthy,” posits Teyana Taylor on this buoyant R&B singalong about what really matters. When Lauryn Hill appears to share her own hard-won perspective on the emptiness of financial success, it feels like a torch being passed.
Here are my favorite tracks from November 2019. This Thanksgiving, my wife and I watched the Dennis Quaid home invasion thriller The Intruder (5 stars) while the bird was in the oven. I referred to it as The Hand that Rocks the Quaid-le, and she laughed. I am so thankful for her. I can’t fathom my luck.
1. Jessie Ware – “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”
Club music tends to bludgeon. But in Jessie Ware’s hands, it caresses. “Last night we danced / And I thought you were saving my life,” she sings with gentle confidence on “Mirage,” as the irrepressible bass line whisks our inhibitions away.
2. Earl Sweatshirt – “East”
Most rappers are content to rap over beats. Earl Sweatshirt raps through mazes. On “East,” it’s a drumless, three-second accordion sample lifted from a song by Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez. As Earl raps about all he’s lost – his phone, his girlfriend, his grandma – he somehow never loses his way.
3. Ozzy Osbourne – “Under the Graveyard”
Ozzy Osbourne’s voice has a troubled, mournful quality that has elevated even the dopiest of lyrics. And on this impeccably produced power ballad – his first single in nine years – our 70-year-old Prince of Darkness shows us he’s absolutely still got it. Pondering the finality of death, in a voice that can still sound stunningly forlorn.
4. Coldplay – “Cry Cry Cry”
Chris Martin dabbling in doo-wop might sound like the first idea Coldplay should’ve erased from their brainstorm whiteboard this album cycle. But this is a band who wrote a song called “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” and made it slap. So of course, “Cry Cry Cry” is an adventurous little ditty about romantic loyalty, its swaying Flamingos melody buoyed by vinyl hiss and Chipmunk harmonies.
5. NLE Choppa – “Forever”
This skyrocketing Memphis rapper celebrated his 17th birthday with a love song. “I got some trust issues / But I trust you,” he sings, the weight of the admission floating away in a haze of human chemistry and catchy organ chords.
6. Lauryn Hill – “Guarding the Gates”
Ozzy wasn’t the only legend flexing his muscles in November: 21 years after her first (and only) solo studio album turned the world on its ear, Lauryn Hill emerged on the soundtrack to Lena Waithe’s film Queen & Slim, with a jaw-dropping, six-minute R&B epic. As harpsichord notes declaratively ring, Hill sings about society’s expectations and the anxieties they bring, eventually finding freedom in another: “You can laugh at me / But I’m in love.”
7. Wiki (feat. Lil Ugly Mane & Denzel Curry) – “Grim”
What better subject for a sneering, ominous New York rap song than the cold indifference of the Grim Reaper? “Will it be late at night or in the early morning? / Either way, slurpin’ forties out in purgatory.”
8. Haim – “Hallelujah”
They might be from California, but Haim’s finger-picked ballad about spiritual bonds and crushing losses is well within sight of those snow-covered hills Stevie Nicks sang about.
9. Red Death – “Sickness Divine”
This DC hardcore band goes full 1986 Metallica on “Sickness Divine,” regaling us with a clean, melodramatic intro, which makes the subsequent skull-rattling riffage hit even harder.
For five years now, I’ve been lucky enough to review concerts as a freelancer for The Buffalo News. It’s a gig that’s gotten me free admission to some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. But there’s a small downside. Not only do I have to encounter artists that I don’t like from time to time, but I have to contemplate the reasons for their popularity. And in the case of a Daughtry show I recently covered, this experience shook me. The massively popular band represents the worst nightmare of a listener who once worshipped the likes of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains – not “post-grunge,” but “post-post-grunge.” Sure, Daughtry rips off Eddie Vedder, but it’s by way of Scott Stapp. It’s like a mad scientist created club-footed, brain-dead clones of the best bands of the 1990s, and then made those clones procreate. This concert filled me with pop culture paranoia – was any of the music I grew up with actually any good?
Which is a long way of explaining why I’ve decided to revisit the soundtrack to my high school and college years, and list my top 100 albums of the decade. It was refreshing to realize that, even seen in hindsight’s harsh, unforgiving light, a lot of the stuff I loved holds up. I’m sure nostalgia is clouding my judgment on many of these choices, but jeez, I’m human, for fuck’s sake.
So, when the biggest rock band of 2021 credits Daughtry as its main influence, I’ll have this list to come back to, and remind myself that yes, it was good. Let’s start with albums 100-91, along with my favorite track from each.
100. Moxy Früvous – Bargainville (1993)
Remember how I said that thing about nostalgia just now? Well, this record’s on here largely because of it. Don’t get me wrong, Moxy Früvous was teeming with talent – a Toronto quartet of multi-instrumentalists who harmonized like a hybrid of The Beatles and The Andrews Sisters. But in concert was where the group really shone; its energy, humor, and awe-inspiring tightness made for some of the most memorable live experiences of my teenage years. Bargainville is its best album, a mix of poignant folk and quirky novelty tunes. Listening to it today does make me cringe just a bit – why, oh why, does it begin with a ballad about our dying environment (“River Valley”)? Sure, Bargainville might be an awkward mix of the self-serious and the seriously nerdy. But that’s also a dead-on description of me at 15.
My favorite track is the album’s closer, the a cappella beauty “Gulf War Song.” Yeah, I know, groan. But you can’t deny those harmonies.
99. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
If this exercise was an attempt at listing the albums I loved and obsessed over in the 1990s, The Chronic would crack the top ten for sure. I was 10 when Straight Outta Compton came out, so Dr. Dre’s solo debut was my first exposure to the lurid, hilarious and irresistible world of gangsta rap. But listening to it now is a bit of a chore – the production remains some of the best in rap history, and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s flow is unimpeachable, but so much of the lyrics are bogged down by Dre’s obsession with his own personal beefs, and frankly, his mediocre rapping ability. To quote Chris Rock: “It’s hard to drive around singing songs about ‘Easy-E can eat a big fat dick.'” Also, this might be the most misogynistic hit record of all time. The song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is ironic, because the song is most definitely shit. Hearing this album now makes me understand why I can’t get with artists like Odd Future, despite a sound that appeals to my sensibilities – it’s a pain in the ass to have to constantly rationalize to myself why I like something. Despite all of this, I still can’t deny a genius when I hear him; The Chronic makes this list because of Dre’s production wizardry, a singular talent that would shine even brighter on the superior Doggystyle.
The obvious choice, but my choice nonetheless: “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” one of the greatest tracks of the decade, let alone this album.
98. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)
I don’t want to be one of those people who calls something like Lauryn Hill only releasing one album “tragic.” But it is a bummer. Especially when you consider the major flaw of her magnificent debut – its 77-minute running time. So much of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is so impressive, blurring the lines between R&B, gospel and hip hop, laying down a “neo-soul” template that few would come close to matching, brilliantly juxtaposing the bitterness of failed love with the hopes and mysteries of childbirth. Still, it’s tougher than it should be to get through the whole thing, what with the schoolroom skits, the hidden Frankie Valli cover, and the stretch of five long R&B tunes that get you from “Final Hour” to “Everything Is Everything.” One hoped that Hill’s future efforts would maintain this dizzying level of artistry, while exhibiting a stronger ability to self-edit. But that was a lot to expect, it turns out. This one’s all we have, and we should thank god for all 77 of those minutes.
My favorite cut is “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Miseducation‘s biggest hit, and the perfect distillation of its singular neo-soul gumbo.
97. Sublime – Sublime (1996)
By the time ska-punk and swing had infiltrated the mainstream in the mid-’90s, I was immersed in it. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to remember Carson Daly introducing a Reel Big Fish video in a two-tone suit, and it’s more embarrassing to remember how much I loved Reel Big Fish. But even after all this time, and all the guilt I’ve had to process, there’s no doubt in my mind – Sublime’s third album kicks ass. And I don’t care how many frat boys in pre-torn South Carolina Gamecocks hats agree with me. Bradley Nowell’s swan song revealed him as some kind of stoner-poseur genius. He appropriated hip-hop and reggae tropes in ways that should’ve been embarrassing. He sang about tits, butts and bong loads. But his voice ached and cracked with seemingly unwarranted pathos. Were we hearing an addict struggling to hold on to the good times? Were we just hearing a super-talented guy at his peak? No matter the reason, Sublime rules, bro.
I especially dig “Burritos,” Nowell’s Brian Wilson-ish ode to never getting out of bed, complete with period-appropriate O.J. reference.
96. Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)
Grunge is often credited as the genre that snuffed out hair metal, which is probably correct. But it’s ironic that Soundgarden was one of these vaunted acts responsible for killing the Crüe, poisoning Poison, and slaughtering Slaughter (I’ll stop there). While it did a better job with the follow through, the band’s formula wasn’t so different from Whitesnake’s – Zeppelin-esque ambition, Sabbathy riffage and a disarmingly pretty lead singer. If you had to bet on one of those Seattle bands becoming rock stars, they were the obvious choice. And Superunknown made good on all of this critical and commercial potential, a darkly tinged arena rock album with just the right mix of killer riffs, power ballads and moody meditations. Its only misstep is “Kickstand,” an workmanlike attempt at snarling punk that just underlines how different Soundgarden was from Nirvana. But what it lacks in gut-punching attitude, Superunknown makes up for in production value. An immaculately crafted work, performed by a singer and lead guitarist at the pinnacle of their powers, this is Soundgarden realizing its destiny – to play those big-ass venues that David Coverdale and company used to pack to the gills.
“Mailman” is my favorite tune here, a sludge-rock masterpiece spiked with an awesomely bitter chorus – “I know I’m headed for the bottom/But I’m riding you all the way.”
95. Primus – Sailing The Seas Of Cheese (1991)
“As I stand in the shower/Singing opera and such/Pondering the possibility that I pull the pud too much/There’s a scent that fills the air/Is it flatus?/Just a touch/And it makes me think of you.” This, my friends, is the essence of Primus, a band that thrived on bass solos, dissonance, nasal sing-speak and songs like “Grandad’s Little Ditty,” the old-weirdo-in-the-shower vignette that my friends and I would croon to each other like it was a Perry Como ballad. It’s just one of many moments on Sailing the Seas of Cheese made to be obsessed over by strange teenage boys, on an album that should’ve aged terribly on paper. But Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Herb Alexander happened to be very gifted musicians, and the obtuse nerd-funk grooves they let fly on “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver,” “Is It Luck?” and “Tommy The Cat” are evergreen. The band eventually lost me with 1995’s Tales From A Punchbowl, but for the record, it wasn’t because I’d become an adult or anything – to this day, “Grandad’s Little Ditty” makes me laugh.
This was a tough choice, but I’ve gotta go with “Tommy The Cat” as the ultimate Cheese cut. The guest spot from Tom Waits doesn’t hurt. Speaking of which …
94. Tom Waits – Mule Variations (1999)
After releasing the harrowing Bone Machine in 1992, Tom Waits took a break (1994’s The Black Rider was the soundtrack to a play he wrote and began recording in 1989). When he returned seven years later, it was to introduce yet another phase of his illustrious career. Not a Swordfishtrombones-level reinvention, mind you, but a nuanced move similar to the one Bob Dylan was making at the time – an organic, nostalgic embrace of Americana. The blues always informed Waits’ sound, whether through the hotel bar piano playing of his early records or the wonky pentatonics of his ’80s avant garde period. But on Mule Variations, the style comes through with a clarity that no Waits album, before or since, has possessed. “Lowside of the Road,” “Get Behind the Mule” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” could all be Muddy Waters covers, and ballads like “Picture In A Frame” take the 12-bar structure into achingly beautiful places. Waits also dabbles in gospel, spoken word and adult contemporary (still waiting for Rod Stewart’s cover of “Hold On”), all with the same clear-headed approach. He lets the songs do the heavy lifting here, minimizing his vocal flights of fancy and keeping the clanging percussion to a minimum. Now I happen to really like those two things, which makes Mule Variations a second-tier Waits album in my mind. One that still kicked the shit out of most of the albums released in the ’90s.
“Don’t want no Abba-Zaba …” Waits delivery of that phrase is just so damn cool, it makes the candy-coated blasphemy blues of “Chocolate Jesus” my favorite song on Mule Variations.
93. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
At NWA’s height, its most talented rapper broke away and went right coast, making a solo album with The Bomb Squad, the production team responsible for Public Enemy’s massive, martial sound. I was too young to know about all of this, but for rap fans at the time, it must’ve been like John Lennon joining The Rolling Stones. To top it off, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted delivers. Ice Cube is at his most breathtakingly volatile, charging out the gate yelling, “I’m sick of getting treated like another damn stepchild!” A simultaneous description of his falling out with NWA and the common plight of African-Americans, the song, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” proved Cube was up to the challenge posed by the Bomb Squad’s crackling soul thunder. Like every gangsta record from this period, Cube’s verses devolve into meathead misogyny from time to time. But the prevailing mood is righteous anger, with the ultimate goal of shining big, fat flood lights on life in Los Angeles ghettos, exposing the problem underlined by the Tom Brokaw clip that kicks of “Rollin’ Wit The Lench Mob”: “Few cared about the violence, because it didn’t affect them.”
Just try and resist the emotional and sonic onslaught of “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate.”
92. Everything But The Girl – Temperamental (1999)
I was never more than a casual fan of electronica during its ’90s heyday, appreciating its propulsive energy and imaginative approach to sampling, but always returning to rock and hip-hop at the end of the day. But a few of these records managed to break through my stubborn listening routine, including this one, in which Everything But The Girl suggested a world of listening possibilities that I was willfully ignoring. Temperamental wasn’t like any electronica I’d heard, a mix of moody synthesizers, jazzy samples and laid-back drum loops that wasn’t meant to get anywhere close to the dance floor. Tracey Thorn’s voice floated majestically over these post-punk techno pastiches, analyzing fizzled relationships with a resigned sense of grace. It’s a beautiful soundtrack for a long bout of after-hours introspection, and while this approach was nothing new to EBTG fans (Temperamental was its 10th album), it was, and remains, an eye-opener for me.
Check out “Low Tide Of The Night,” which includes one of the most elegant descriptions of depression I’ve ever heard – “Inside out in the daytime/Outside in in the night time.”
91. Cracker – Kerosene Hat (1993)
Cracker doesn’t get the breathless critical raves of its contemporaries, despite Kerosene Hat being in the same alt-country ether as Uncle Tupelo’s best work. That probably has everything to do with “Low,” the huge-ass hit song that was the only way a kid like me could become aware of David Lowery’s post-Camper Van Beethoven ensemble. Despite its rootsy, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers groove, “Low” bumped shoulders with “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Today” on radio playlists, meaning Cracker was seemingly all about the “alt,” and not about the “country.” Which just ain’t the case. Dusting off this disc has been the most pleasurable thing about this whole project so far; I’d simply forgotten how great these songs are – “Get Off This” and “Sick Of Goodbyes” join “Low” as examples of alt-country at its peak.
What a segue! Here’s “Sick Of Goodbyes,” whose chorus still gives me goosebumps.