Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (35-31)

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

35. Beck – Odelay (1996)

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

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

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

33. Prince – The Black Album (1994)

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

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

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

31. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)

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

Prince (1958-2016)

prince

Many of my formative years were spent going to a small Catholic elementary school. For most of my time there, I was all in – obsessed with stories of the saints; eager to partake in the sacraments; honored to be an altar boy. And as a quiet kid who bit his nails, I was totally down with the meek inheriting the earth.

Eventually, I started to see the holes in my teachers’ arguments. Why were there no dinosaurs in the Bible? “It’s a mystery,” they’d say. How could God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit be the same person? “It’s a mystery.” Why don’t animals go to heaven? “Because they weren’t baptized or something. Now shut up.”

But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized how much that experience shaped me, especially when it came to sex. In second grade, when we were prepping for our first confession, we were told that any sexual thought was a sin, literally an “impure thought.” We needed to confess them all to make sure our souls were “clean.” I took that teaching to heart. Shame and physical desire were inextricably linked. At least until I got older, met the girl who would become my wife, and started listening to Prince.

Prince died yesterday. He was 57. It’s impossible to properly explain his influence on the world as an artist, sex symbol, fashion icon and restless creative spirit. Since his debut album in 1978, he married funk with synth-pop, hard rock and slow-jam R&B, forging a signature sound whose effect on the pop landscape has been seismic. The depth of his talent was staggering – one of the most expressive guitarists of all time (and merely great at several other instruments); a coy, elastic vocalist with a pitch perfect falsetto; an innovative producer and arranger; a tireless and explosive performer. When a major artist gets stylistically ambitious, chances are they’re trying to sound like Prince – see Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Andre 3000’s The Love Below, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. There’s a long list of brilliant artists, like Miguel and Janelle Monae, who would not exist without him. His love songs were come-ons, and vice versa. He luxuriated in pleasure, in a way that felt rebellious, even political. Take this line from my favorite Prince album, Controversy – if he were a corporation, it’d be his mission statement: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there were no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” Prince didn’t lay you down by the fire, he was the fire.

I picked up Purple Rain during a time when I was driving a lot – several 90-minute trips a week to be with my impossibly gorgeous girlfriend. I made a questionable investment in a Dodge Neon, 100% because it could get me to her. I craved her more each day (a phenomenon that’s never stopped). She washed away any vestige of those old “impure thoughts” lessons, fully exposing them as propaganda. And Prince was the soundtrack to this awakening. Take the gospel-tinged opening salvo of “Let’s Go Crazy”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince preaches over a pulsing synthesizer chord. “Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else. The afterworld. A world of never ending happiness. You can always see the sun – day or night.”

This opening is so important. It haloes all the emotion and eroticism to come. It’s a preemptive strike against anybody who thinks sex is dirty. Prince was rewiring my subconscious, giving the steely nun who lived in there some pharmaceutical-grade sleeping pills, and leaving me open to fully appreciate the line on the record that stays with me the most to this day, the line that would probably still get my vote as the sexiest of all time:

“Animals strike curious poses / They feel the heat / The heat between me and you.”

Hearing this while yearning to be with the love of my life affected me more than any prayer ever could. Because my lust was not sinful. It was a feeling that connected me to all living things, to the grand, mysterious engine at the heart of “this thing called life.” It was not something I needed to confess. It was a pure thought.

Thank you, Prince. And god bless you. Now, you can always see the sun.

 

 

 

The Top 20 Songs of 2013

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

Prince

20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

pusha_t_my_name_is_my_name

6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

timthumb

1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

Suddenly, This Summer: A Playlist

Today’s the first day of summer! Here are some tunes that’ll be perfect for that unforgettable summer car trip – you know, where you go to Home Depot to buy an air conditioner, so you can close all of your windows and watch reruns until the leaves start to turn.

1. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”
It’s no contest. This is the song of Summer 2011 – 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!”).

2. Prince – “Play in the Sunshine”
Worried that the world’s going to shit and you’re never gonna find true happiness? Take a page from the Prince playbook, and dance your way to enlightenment to this exuberant blast of synth pop  – “Some way, somehow, I’m gonna have fun.”
 

3. Gordon Lightfoot – “Carefree Highway”
This makes me want to drive drunk.

4. Kylie Minogue – “Get Outta My Way”
A beautiful summer day can make you feel invincible. Add an irresistible dance song with defiantly independent lyrics, and you might try to walk on water.

5. Lil Wayne – “Best Rapper Alive”
Speaking of bouts of egomania, this straight-faced claim of greatness from a pre-superstardom Weezy is guaranteed to get the adrenaline flowing while you mow your parents’ lawn.

6. The Velvet Underground – “Who Loves the Sun”
What would the summer be without that crippling moment when you realize that all the good weather in the world won’t keep you warm at night?

7. Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean”
“Singing in the sunshine/Laughing in the rain.” Not the most bad-ass lyrics in Zeppelin’s oeuvre, but when you throw in Page’s gnarly riff and Bonham’s massive beat, you’ve got something earth-shattering.

8. The Beach Boys – “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”
Forget “California Girls.” This beautifully arranged cut (woodwinds!) about forgetting somebody’s number, then remembering it, then calling them and getting no answer, then writing them a letter, perfectly captures the vibe of a lazy summer day.

9. Outkast – “Skew it On the Bar-B”
Whether you’re an old school player or new school fool, this cut showcases Andre 3000, Big Boi and Raekwon at the top of their game – it’s guaranteed to make your barbecue sizzle.

10. The Zombies – “Time of the Season”
A sexy hit single from a British Invasion band previously known for expressions of towering wussery, this song’s percussive “ahhs” and “Who’s your daddy” pick-up lines could be seen as a relic of the late-’60s. But when the warm weather hits, that groove sounds like it was meant for today.