[Introduce the list and discuss the era of the 21st century. Say something about this being the “digital age” — whatever that means. Research for 30 seconds about what devices were prominent in 2000 and compare it with today. Say something about CDs at the turn of the century (insert fun fact about Hybrid Theory sales). Then talk about CDs today (insert link to Best Buy when they stopped carrying CDs).
*Jeff Goldblum voice* “But music, uh, finds a way.” Talk about streaming. Spotify: artists aren’t being paid. Something about playlist culture. Talk about iPods. Wait, that should be before streaming. No, just keep going; everybody already skipped to see what was #250.
“What even is an album?”
Social media. Proliferation of music sites, blogs, places to upload music. Too much? Losing the forest in the trees? Or the trees in the forest? (Self-reminder: don’t force idioms.) “An album does not have strict guidelines, but you know it when you see it.” (Insert link to Miller v. California).
No need to explain why it’s 250 albums — good even number. Maybe say that Ágætis Byrjun and Vision Creation Newsun were excluded for being released in 1999. Prepare for people to say “uhhhh there’s still 80 more years in the 21st century. Dumb list.” ]
Thank you to all the contributors on this project. This is the first time I have sought this sort of help, and I was excited by the enthusiasm people displayed in wanting to be involved.
Contributors: Stephen Axeman, Megan Beck, Virginia Croft, Dylan DePriest, Ally Engelbrecht, Eli Enis, Donovan Farley, Robert Ham, Happy Haugen, Matthew Hirsch, Tom Johnson, Justin Kamp, Caitlin Kelley, Brody Kenny, Adam Kivel, Carson Lystad, Sofie Mikhaylova, Pauline Mireles, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay, Chanell Noise, Drew Pearce, Ashley Porter, Paula Ramirez, Logan Rifenberg, Javier Rodriguez, Adam Rothbarth, Erica Russell, Graham Stoker, Alex Wexelman, Jibril Yassin, and Jacqueline Zeisloft
Graphic design all done by Rebecca Arp.
Thank you for reading! Enjoy!
One of the great short statements of the 21st century, Air France’s No Way Down succeeds through vague nostalgic romps, like the sensation of the first warm weather of the year bringing up childhood memories. This 22-minute EP is the longest piece of music we heard from the Swedish duo before they broke up in 2012, and it’s tantalizingly enough to constantly revisit and become reacquainted with one of the most fully-formed Balearic soundscapes offered in the late-’00s. “Collapsing at Your Doorstep” is the classic centerpiece here with the thematically-binding, mood-setting question/answer sample: “Sort of like a dream, isn’t it? No…better.” The perfectly wide-eyed charm may be ruined by the fact it comes from the late-’80s Beauty and the Beast TV series, but it displays the thin line between mawkish sentimentality and tender nostalgia that Air France straddle with perfection. “No Excuses” follows and is more in line with the high-octane indie pop found elsewhere on their label Sincerely Yours — run by The Tough Alliance — yet it speaks to their M.O. that even at their most accessible, their lyrics would not even fill out the palm of your hand (and maybe with some scribbling involved to get them right). They would rather you not obsess over the details; it’s all about being transported, somewhere far yet always within. In their short lifespan, Air France endearingly strove for the big picture in small doses. — Andrew Cox
Before a single note floats out of the stereo, before noise, the listener of any song-cycle is confronted with an image: the album’s cover. The picture on the front of Dev Hynes’ third album as Blood Orange is a photograph from artist Deana Lawson titled “Binky & Tony Forever.” Of the portrait, Lawson wrote, “A lot of my work is about what I don’t see in popular media culture, and to me I felt like I needed to make an image that was about embracing and intimacy and support, physically, between young people, particularly young black people.”
Binky & Tony Forever offers the perfect signifier, as enumerated in Lawson’s artist statement, for the album, which is ripe with references to the multitudinous ways black people can both celebrate and suffer as a result of their culture. This is summed up on the song “With Him” when a sample of a woman singing a hymnal concludes “Black can get you over and black can set you down.”
When drum machines and synths aren’t propelling the dance-y R&B tracks, Hynes gives as much time to his vocals as he does to highlighting the voices of female musicians like Prince did before him. Throughout the concept album, there are contributions from Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez, and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others.
Freetown Sound is a hodgepodge of soulful ballads that cohere through its message of hope. At times, Hynes slides into self-loathing, such as in the conclusion to “Chance” where he bolts from a crowded hip-hop show after feeling ashamed by having his culture appropriated. But this is always tempered by self-love such as that same song’s intro during which an account of Noah’s son asserts proudly that “Shem was a black man.”
In an Instagram post announcing the album, Hynes wrote, “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way … it’s a clapback.” What is the sound of one clapbacking? In this case, it’s the sound of Hynes finding his voice and not letting it quaver in the face of external and internal adversity. — Alex Wexelman
Producer James Stinson eschewed the idea of putting his name or face on his work, or that of his electro duo Drexciya, that few people knew he was responsible for the music on this one-off gem until after his untimely death in 2002. He hid his tracks well within these tracks as this album lacked the somewhat harder edge of the music he made with his bandmate Gerald Donald. In its place was a lusher techno sound that recalled the genre’s earliest days as a strictly underground phenomenon heard in clubs or spun by late-night radio DJs.
With that mindset in place, Stinson keeps these tracks spare, intertwining a couple of melodies and vocal samples atop steady rhythms. Sometimes, a more discordant element comes into play, like the stumbling arpeggios that float atop “You Said You Want Me” or the off-center drones that work their way around “Lifestyles Of The Casual.” They don’t feel unwelcome however. It’s those little details and surprises that work to snap you out of your blissed out, endorphin-flooded reverie. The music is clearly meant for the dancefloor but Stinson seemed to want folks to stay focused on the sound even as they got lost in the rhythm and motion. He wanted these tunes to stay with you long after the night is through, and to stay in the world long after he had departed it. — Robert Ham
Love Is All sound so decidedly New York or London that it may come as a surprise that they came from Sweden. You hear the vibrant dance-punk No Wave of acts like Delta 5, ESG, Liquid Liquid, and the Slits all over this lo-fi, saxophone-blaring classic. Also like all those bands, Love Is All are grossly underrated. Love Is All do not just ape the sound of their forefathers and foremothers for a new generation; their sound is also influenced by the trendy, twinkly indie pop of the time (you could be forgiven for comparing them first to Camera Obscura or Peter Bjorn & John.)
Nine Times That Same Song plays like a live set where the energy is naturally palpable; the jubilation behind each track is earned, and you can’t help but feel it too. One of the best tracks “Busy Doing Nothing” is closer to their No Wave influence — like hearing James Chance and the Contortions getting back together and being better than ever. It’s followed by their biggest track “Make Out. Fall Out. Make Up.” which makes the phrase “I’ll think I’ll spend all day in bed” sound like the most exciting cause for celebration you can think of (honestly, pretty relatable.) Josephine Olausson’s vocals are shrewdly layered throughout and features background help that rarely harmonizes; it all adds up to an indecipherable excitement only they offered at this time, including New York. — Andrew Cox
It’s no surprise Josh Tillman, AKA Father John Misty, begins his second album on a positive note, repeating his new bride’s pet name, “Honeybear.” Sweet and serene, the album has a constant filter of golden haze and dewy mornings, the kind Tillman seems to have pretty frequently post nuptials. While PDAs and loud declarations of love may be nauseating, Tillman’s are refreshing — his newfound love chipping away at the cynicism he built upon on 2012’s Fear Fun.
Each song feels influenced by the honeymoon phase, but with a more permanent stance. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” is a whoosh of emotion, tearing off any veil Tillman may have tried to hide behind. With his guard down, Tillman is ready to give up anything, singing, “People are boring / But you’re something else completely.”
In true Father John Misty fashion, the song with the highest breaking point (“The Ideal Husband”) is followed by a slow burn of a come down, his moment to sit on the shower floor and take stock on his life (“Bored in the USA”). On “Bored,” Tillman wallows in his self deprecation and the state of America, kicking himself while he’s down, a canned laugh track accompanying his distress and confusion.
At the close of Honeybear, Tillman reaches out to his wife, Emma, bearing his soul to her, with us as witness. It’s a daring ballad, reading like a poem, as most of his lyrics do– their flow is undeniable, and the intention is nothing but pure. — Virginia Croft
Even during its quieter moments, It’s Blitz! emits an undulating shimmer that refuses to be still. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ third studio album, released in 2009, stays true to its name: the album is a riot from start to finish. Even as it plays out into the ether on “Little Shadow” — one of the album’s aforementioned quieter moments — it does so defiantly, like a punk gospel. Where the record really shines, however, is on arena-shaking bangers like “Zero,” a synth-punk ode to fame and rock stardom, and “Heads Will Roll,” a post-Thriller slice of spooky, frenetic pop that twinkles like a disco ball covered in blood.
In fact, It’s Blitz! owes as much of its inherent sonic edgy and lasting memorability to its punk and garage rock trappings as it does ‘80s new wave. For every punchy guitar riff, there’s a sharp synth and a neon-bathed beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Berlin nightclub circa 1987. (“Dragon Queen” is the most incredible Siouxsie and the Banshees b-side never recorded by the ‘80s rock icons.) And sure, you could call magnetic frontwoman Karen O a goth Debbie Harry or an art-punk Dale Bozzio… but that would be an unfair reduction. Karen O is simply the first Karen O. On It’s Blitz!, she’s her own kind of rebellious pop star — and she makes it’s impossible to look away from her. — Erica Russell
The Flaming Lips had a tough act to follow. They just had their critically acclaimed breakthrough in The Soft Bulletin, but they managed to follow that up with a happy-go-lucky dystopia. These connoisseurs of camp know how to fill 45 minutes with grandiosity while philosophizing on the deeper questions of life. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots explores themes of pacifism, mortality and machinery.
Part of what makes the album so thrilling is the plasticity of meaning. The robots can be a stand-in for anything you want — from actual robots to cancer to the narrator’s sadness. Yoshimi Battles is a breeding ground for the kind of transformative fandom a rockist could love.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 2” is the most compelling entry in their conceptual storytelling. The battle is on, but it’s sound engineered without a word. The electronic fanfare guides the highs and lows of the action. Synths build up and down, growing louder and quieter. Suddenly we hear a crowd cheering before they’re drowned out by what is presumably Yoshimi’s deafening scream. The band manages to build an action sequence without dialogue or lyrics.
By the time the album gets to “Do You Realize??” any semblance of plot has already broken down. But it doesn’t matter — this is one of their most beautiful (and commercially successful!) releases. It sounds so hopeful, not in spite of but because of the ephemerality of life. The Flaming Lips are giving life to well-worn clichés. — Caitlin Kelley
On her third album, Puberty 2, Mitski leads listeners through the winding complexities of loneliness and desperation. Album opener “Happy” begins muffled and muted — the anxious heartbeat of a drum machine backing the home visitation of a man. The first of many difficult lovers on Puberty 2, this man appears to be the antidote to the narrator’s desperate longing for connection and partnership. She is overjoyed at his arrival, and does everything she can to get him to stay. Of course, as the static clears, Mitski’s voice surfaces to reveal the worst: “Happy” has abandoned the home, leaving our narrator to clean up the mess. The characters on Puberty 2 burn with desperate longing for companionship, powered by many of the same chemicals as a hormone-charged adolescent: fear, confusion, and blindness. Most of these songs either wallow in beautiful paralysis (“Once More to See You,” “Crack Baby,” “Thursday Girl”) or anxiously navigate the possibility or impossibility of love (“Dan the Dancer,” “Fireworks,” “A Loving Feeling”). Only one song on Puberty 2 seems to find its way out of the trapdoor-ridden path to belonging: “Your Best American Girl,” the album’s centerpiece and arguably Mitski’s most successful single ever. As the narrator comes to terms with the inevitable differences between herself and her lover, thundering guitars shatter the anxious tension built up by the album’s first half, and Mitski proclaims that she “finally” approves of who she is, regardless of what some mythologized lover thinks. As she bravely drags a sled full of damaged souls through the muck, Mitski never fails to be transparent: these songs openly portray her own fear and trepidation in the face of adult life and intimacy, but an unwavering determination to “get to the bottom of all this” prevents any loss of momentum along the way. — Carson Lystad
We celebrate rap music because of the honest, yet exciting, pictures that lyricists paint in their verses. Barter 6 follows this formula; Young Thug and the featured artists weave their experiences within witty bars and creative ad-libbing, all over ethereal production from London on da Track and Wheezy. Furthermore, on Barter 6 Young Thug found mainstream success by being honest with his creative vision and not falling victim to tropes that some hip-hop artists fall victim to.
It may sound silly, but Young Thug is truly a pioneer of the hip-hop ad-lib. The way that he chose to musically phrase many of his ad-libs on the record differed from many of his contemporaries and also kept his songs moving in a way that his contemporaries’ ad-libs didn’t — whether structurally or melodically, Thug’s ad-libs had purpose. For instance, on “Halftime,” Thug harmonizes his ad-libs to his main vocal track, indicating an ear for harmony that few rappers tend to display.
Barter 6 is undoubtedly a hip-hop album, but it is also emblematic of a trend in hip-hop occurring at the time that continues today. The record is much more melodic in terms of its production and Thug’s vocals than many other “trap” albums. While Drake and Kanye West had already broken down many of the barriers between hip-hop and R&B as well as the personae of the artists of the respective genres, Thug brought this blurring of genre lines and blurring of how a rapper should present themselves to southern hip-hop.
Overall, while Thug already released a slew of excellent mixtapes, Barter 6 solidified his position as a different kind of rap star — one completely in his own lane and willing to take risks to prove this truth. — Matthew Hirsch
Los Campesinos! are Glasgow punks with deep literary obsessions and no qualms about looking cool. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they aren’t at all embarrassed about it. Hold On Now, Youngster… raged with the voracious appetite and sprawl that defined younger millennials, with Los Campesinos’! passion and rage letting them break out of every twee-shaped box writers and audiences put them in. There were guitars meeting head-to-head with glockenspiels, gorgeous string sections clashing with hardcore punk rave-outs, and lyrics that felt like they were copied-and-pasted entirely from Livejournal entries and exuberantly shouted by the pub down the street. Mastering every indie trope with withering self-deprecation, songs like “You! Me! Dancing!” and “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” made twee touchstones like the infamous C86 tape or The Queen is Dead feel antiquated. Los Campesinos! gleefully made the idea of feeling like a young person not feel like a chore or simply a transition phase but the best place to be. — Jibril Yassin
Yes, the HAIM sisters — Este, Danielle and Alana — conjure the irreverent spirit of good ol’ fashioned ‘70s and ‘80s Americana rock on their sparkling debut album, Days Are Gone. But the band also transcends their rock trappings, thanks to tight, catchy pop-minded production and expertly incorporated R&B grooves. The result is a collection of shiny, impossible-to-dislike anthems, from the swirling synth-pop urgency of “Falling” to the sultry rock ‘n’ roll of “The Wire.”
It’s no wonder this is the album that drew impressive comparisons to the work of icons like Pat Benatar, Debbie Gibson, Fleetwood Mac and Heart: Like their rock goddess predecessors, sisters HAIM create timeless, genre-defying music that is both relatable and empowering. On Days Are Gone, bright chords, fuzzy chords, summery rhythms and big, joyful harmonies propel the sisterly trio’s brand of magnetic pop-rock to soaring heights, but it is the artists’ inimitable charm and knack for playful lyrical storytelling which solidifies the record as a modern classic. — Erica Russell
It’s worth remembering that, upon the release of Alligator, The National weren’t particular well-known. Following on from a couple of somewhat middling indie rock records, its arrival contained very little fanfare. We didn’t know much of the Dessner brothers, or the magic of their touch, and neither the Devendorf brothers and what they brought to the party, and we knew a lot less about Berninger — the man, the character. It’s safe to say, therefore, that this — a cinematic ode to the magic and madness of its characters — is the record that truly made them.
Somewhat strangely, however, that kind of context doesn’t seem to matter that much for The National. The pieces of the puzzle that led them to Alligator don’t feel important. Where they went afterwards doesn’t feel particularly significant either. That they’ve reached far greater heights since its release is a nice aside to the record but it doesn’t make it any more or less powerful and impressive. Alligator exists now as it was then: a sprawling, woozy, agitated, smack in the face. A punch-drunk awakening and realization of its protagonists place within this world and its utterly confusing walls.
The songs and lyrics act as tributaries of Matt Berninger’s psyche, little glimpses in to dark corners he’s never confronted head-on until now. Caged thoughts, trapped emotions, his haunts and fears, are ripped from within and then thrown in to the sky to explode like fireworks, blazingly alive in one moment and scattered on the ground the next. It’s this madness, this frenzied flaring and the inevitable collapse, which feels so completely thrilling, so heart-racingly alive, even now, so far on from its release. — Tom Johnson
The first voice we hear on Some Rap Songs is James Baldwin’s. The pairing would be more left-field if we weren’t aware of Earl’s parentage and his near story-book rise to fame that featured him shrinking from a ravenous public interest that was based around his uniquely precocious talent for words. What all this tells us about the artist is that he is beholden, as James Baldwin was, to using “imprecise words” to locate a truth that is much deeper, that might in fact be in the process of creation through the synthesis of words. That’s also part of what makes this album so interesting, and perhaps frustrating if you were someone who was desperate for him to display in grandiose fashion an emphasis on his lyrics. Here the mix is decidedly lo-fi, using cut and jagged loops that constantly surge over his voice in a constant flux. Earl is showing himself by concealing himself publicly, and in this paradoxical gesture we get a glimpse of the deeper sense of his identity, what lies behind the words, those “imprecise words.” Samples range from slack soul and South African jazz, to poorly aged public service announcements that discuss the Black dialect. Underneath the walls of sound and syncopated loops, we catch an artist utilizing the sound field itself to come to grips with the many existential and social problems he faces. His voice rises up cautiously, blends with the noise, and confides behind a screen. We’re lucky to be on the other side listening. — Stephen Axeman
Platinum Era of Mixtapes: “Dedication 2”
Lil Wayne (aka Weezy F Baby, please say the baby) is one of the most prolific and successful southern rappers, or rappers period, of a generation. When I was tasked with giving the skinny on a couple albums that make the 250 Best Albums of the 21st Century list, I expected to see any of Wayne’s amazing projects. I had to spit out a drink at Dedication 2 making the lists alongside studio albums from celebrated artists from every genre.
Dedication 2 is a freaking mixtape! Coming in at over an hour of material hosted by DJ Drama, the tape cemented Lil Wayne as the coldest emcee in music at that point. Just from a production standpoint, the mixtape is a beautiful gumbo-pot of all contemporaries. 9th Wonder, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Don Cannon and more contributed to this street staple.
Dedication 2 stays true to southern vibes of bass-laden and syrupy-slow sounds sprinkled with bells or tightened hi-hats. Although a southern man through and through, Weezy’s Louisiana accent doesn’t slow up his raspy and quick cadence too much. In a way, his flow on Dedication 2 (much like his cadence on Tha Carter II) birthed the quicker and slippery flow that so many southern rappers emulate today.
My favorite track on the tape is “Where da Cash At (feat. Curren$y and Remy Ma).” The track samples the legendary “Fireman” by Wayne and was produced by Florida duo, The Runners.
You looking at a real pimp, ask my old h-es. And they’ll tell you, no remote, I control h-es…. Broke n-ggas only make jokes n-gga. I make more than I could fit in this quote n-gga. – Lil Wayne, “Where da Cash At”
Dedication 2 raised me on a generation of hip-hop, illustrated how hip-hop as a platform is solid enough to carry criticisms for our government, and highlighted the peak of Weezy’s lyrical dexterity. His witty and tongue-in-cheek wordplay is unique to him, yes. But to be honest, when I hum the interpolated songs to myself, I think of Wayne’s verses.
I was in the fifth grade dancing to everything that Dem Franchise Boyz dropped. But if I hear that “Oh I Think They Like Me” instrumental, I better hear DJ Drama yelling about “doing this Hollygrove” and shouting out the “Magnolia projects.” — Chanell Noise
I thank God every day that Taylor Swift now has her music on Spotify. I don’t always listen to her music, but when I do it’s because I need her. 1989 provides the perfect soundtrack for walking around the streets of New York City, and no, not just because of the song “Welcome to New York.” It’s an album that I self-describe as being full of pop-bops. From “Bad Blood” to “Blank Space,” each song is rooted in synthesized, programmed drums and chantable lyrics that seem to roll off the tongue. I cannot count the amount of Instagram bios that were influenced by Swift with the “nightmare dressed like a daydream” line. Any true fan will tell you that a listening of 1989 is not complete until you’ve listened through the voice memos from the deluxe album. Swift once again found a way to be the down-to-Earth, girl next door by letting us all in on her songwriting process. The production genius that is Jack Antonoff (Bleachers) put his touch on a handful of songs from the album, and it shows. His use of synthesizers and echoed vocals leave us feeling as though we are actually listening to an album from, you guessed it, 1989. This is the type of album someone might write off because of its pop prominence, but it was in fact this album, in my opinion, that allowed Swift to shed her country roots and push past every stereotype given to her. 1989 was, in quite a literal sense, a rebirthing of Taylor Swift. — Megan Beck
After releasing three EPs of excellent electronic and sample-based music in 2010, James Blake flipped the script on his fans and the music world by releasing a beautiful debut album which synthesized the electronic dub of his previous work with bonafide songwriting chops which, at the time, the public knew nothing about.
James Blake stands out eight years later because it still defies definition. Is it a dubstep album? Is it the work of an adept singer-songwriter coming into his own? The most accurate answer to this inquiry is that the album is both and more. It features all of the skittering percussion and bass of a dubstep project and all of the emotion and careful lyricism conveyed by the best songwriters of our time — oftentimes on the same track.
Where most contemporary singer-songwriters use either the guitar or piano as their primary means of communication, Blake used synthesizers to manipulate the harmonic movement of his songs and buried his vocals with vocoders and Auto-Tune. Through these means, Blake communicated feelings of loneliness, unrequited love, and regret just as well as the likes of Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens with an updated face for the digital age and often with far fewer words. On tracks such as “Unluck,” “I Never Learnt to Share,” and album-closer “Measurements,” Blake largely repeats similar phrases over and over and lets the evolving synthetic elements of the songs dictate their narratives.
Overall, James Blake’s debut album set him up for unlikely superstardom. Nowadays, Blake is not only a fixture in the electronic music world but is entrenched as a contributor to America’s hip-hop community, having worked with artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Without his signature sound, Blake likely would not have received many of the opportunities afforded to him. With his debut record, Blake redefined the limits of electronic music forever. — Matthew Hirsch
It’s hard to narrow down A Deeper Understanding’s greatest moments, but “Pain” sticks out, purely for its thirst for meaning. Rooted in bleak guitar lines and melancholic vocals, the track provides a ballad to aid grief and strife. It’s a companion to days of darkness, blended with a hint of bravery ready to face it all. Bold resolutions like “I resist what I cannot change / But I wanna find whatever can’t be found” express a want for more. Throughout his fourth album, Adam Granduciel explores the harder parts of life, wrapping them up in a blanket, attempting to bring peace and a deep sleep in times of deep strife and turmoil. “Knocked Down” just does as the title suggests, pushing the listener to succumb to a wave of melancholy, reminiscent of first heartbreak, and the togetherness that loneliness can provide between broken souls. Granduciel’s extraordinary instrumentals strike a chord that can wake up even the most closed off humans.
“Thinking of a Place” is a long stretch of emotional highway, coming in as the album’s longest track, eleven minutes of exploration and winding nostalgia. Granduciel reaps what he sows, bearing the burden of his work as we experience the euphoria of his cathartic melodies. Revelation and acceptance cut deep as he sings, “’Cause there’s a rhythm in the way that we’ve been moving / Yeah, there’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going.” A Deeper Understanding hones in on the balance of emotions– facing the daunting, acknowledging the pain, but turning towards the sunlight. — Virginia Croft
No artist has ever been able to completely capture the feeling of love-scorned angst as well as Snail Mail. Lush might be her debut album, but it’s a masterful stroke of lo-fi bedroom indie, that paints a perfect picture of the anxiety, delusion, and ultimately disappointment that comes with unrequited love. The album takes you through a journey of emotional turmoil, oscillating between manic highs and somber lows. Following a brief, hollow-like intro (fittingly named “Intro”), the album opens with “Pristine,” one of the album’s more-energetic tracks. However, this mania is rooted in both remorse and aggression. “Speaking Terms” builds on these feels further until taking us to the first drop of the album, “Heat Wave.” “Heat Wave” is a masterpiece of a song that wrestles with the safety of grasping onto unrequited love in the musically depressed verses, and the pain of moving on in the manic choruses. Ultimately, it’s a struggle that leaves her confused and unsatisfied in the outro. “Stick” marks the middle of the album, as a deeply personal interlude, where she’s at her lowest. She slowly gets back up on her feet with “Let’s Find An Out,” where she tries to rectify the situation through a new understanding. “Golden Dream” and “Full Control” are some of the most aggressive songs on the album, but also the moments where she moves past the idyllic vision she had painted her unrequited love with, and then stands up to the cruel reality she had been facing. “Deep Sea” and “Anytime” bring the album back down, to a point where she’s feeling lost and insecure, and relapsing back into old habits. In the end, the album just repeats itself as a never-ending cycle of unrequited love and dissatisfaction. Over half a year later, Lush is still a masterpiece that will forever be the anthem of jaded hearts. – Dylan DePriest
Andy Stott spent much of the first part of this century slowly adding layers of smog and murk to his music, hiding otherwise straightforward techno and electro tracks under effects and accumulated crud. By the time of his second album Luxury Problems, the added pressure of those muddier sounds was finally starting to produce diamonds.
The mere eight tracks on the record are slow building storm fronts, that crackle and spark in the atmosphere as Stott builds a rhythm. Once it takes its complete shape and coalesces into something close to danceable, the little shocks on the skin become pleasant and almost welcome. The source of much of that delicious static is the vocals of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher who he enlisted for this project. Her untrained and earthy performances throughout have are far more impactful than a more well-known singer could have reached. She sounds like she wants to hide within the grey skein of the music, cushioned by dubby basslines and melodic groans surrounding her. Luxury Problems can feel almost claustrophobic, like the stifling air within a car with no A/C on a mid-July afternoon. But it’s those moments of major chord brightness that he blends into the mix become as invigorating and life-giving as pockets of cool, clean air. — Robert Ham
“Arcade Fire, I’m going to let you finish, but St. Vincent had one of the best concept albums about the suburbs of the last two decades!” I never thought I’d use this dumb, dated Kanye device, but it’s apt in expressing how St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark’s Actor is so overlooked in the canon of indie rock records about suburban life. As a long-time suburban girl, I know an ode to the suburbs when I hear one, and Actor’s scenes of girls “pouring wine in coffee cups” and driving aimlessly around the neighborhood brings me back to youth in the cul de sacs and quiet streets of my native ‘burb. Suspicious married couples (“The Party”) and repressed housewives (“Save Me From What I Want”) haunt the corners of Clark’s obscure lyrics. I’d consider this album ‘kinda creepy’ if it weren’t for lighter, fun moments on songs like “Actor out of Work” and “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood.”
In press interviews, Clark has said she listened to Disney scores and Woody Allen movie soundtracks while she was making the record. That cinematic influence is heard on “Just the Same But Brand New,” the second-to-last track off the album. What starts as a soft and verby, lyric-driven ballad eventually breaks out into a tasteful halftime breakdown with an ethereal organ/synth track behind it. What you hear on “Just the Same” is raw, unadulterated liberation — the freedom of a woman transformed by a moment and yet doesn’t dwell on moments to come.
Actor is a challenging listen, for sure, and harder to emotionally access than Strange Mercy or Masseduction. But to me, the record symbolizes St. Vincent’s shape-shifting, experimental ethos better than any of her other work. I feel at home in the eerie strangeness and suburbs of Actor. — Jacqueline Zeisloft
Ten years after The Shape of Punk to Come, Fucked Up answered the call. The Chemistry of Common Life offered a further extension of the mature hardcore found in Refused and Converge around the turn of the century with refined production, heavy thematic weight, and melodic-driven contributions from Vivian Girls, Death from Above, and City and Colour. No longer beholden to a rushed production schedule, Fucked Up had the creative leniency on Matador to layer and dub guitars in a decidedly non-hardcore manner — genre purism be damned. And honestly, they needed to separate from the genre’s immature, supremacist background to thrive. One of their early singles featured a Hitler youth rally on the sleeve, which got a glass bottle thrown at lead singer Damian Abraham’s head. Thankfully, the only flirtation with hardcore’s inflammatory culture on this album is a song uselessly titled “Black Albino Bones.” It’s actually a beautiful song dealing with finding solace in a hell-bent world — just like the rest of the album.
The Chemistry of Common Life is an agnostic spiritual quest, where the barriers to enlightenment are tangible in the constant pillaging of nature and the human spirit. That reading makes the lyrics seem heavy-handed, but each song takes a different angle alluding to this central theme. The narrator in “Crooked Head” looks at loneliness as a reprieve from the groveling around him; “Royal Swan” uses an image of Canadian royalty as a decider in who will be saved; “Twice Born” sees the death of our dreams and bodies as being betrayed by God. It adds up to a pretty hopeless album until the concluding title track. The lyrics are informed by passionate religious imagery but are hard to follow; it’s simply pure fervor in the world molded around us. What is religious passion to an agnostic but the most desirable form of ignorance? — Andrew Cox
Ricardo Villalobos, like most electronic producers, took his sweet time getting to his first album. For a decade, the Chilean musician contented himself releasing 12”s and EPs that established him as one of the best voices in the microhouse and minimalist techno extended universe. No need to make a big, extended statement when little expressions will do the trick just fine. Still, Alcachofa (Spanish for “artichoke”) was the move Villalobos needed to make to bring he and his work out of the club world and into the greater consciousness of music heads worldwide. He didn’t miss his shot with his debut LP. Heard in its proper configuration on CD, Alcachofa works like a particularly great DJ set, one song flowing into the next with practiced ease and well thought out sequencing. Villalobos is telling his life story to that point with a cinematic scope to it complete with backstory details coming from his past absorbing the rhythms from his home country to him finding his energy in the electric pulse of disco and electronic music. The images that he conjures from such spare materials, like the dank and beautiful backdrop that appears courtesy of a creaking series of notes and an unrelenting kick hit spritzed with odd samples on “I Try To Live,” is proof of a master at work. — Robert Ham
More than favorites, some records become friends, and few do so as easily as Jens Lekman’s Night Falls Over Kortedala. There’s something about the Swedish singer-songwriter’s voice—unpretentious, soft but exactly where it needs to be, plush like a favorite armchair. And pairing that no-frills, all-heart delivery with the opening credits timpani and orchestra of “And I Remember Every Kiss,” the conga-disco of “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar,” and the aw-shucks indie pop violin and piano of “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” as if transporting the ideal of “normal sweetheart” into a big-budget romantic comedy. Except the romance isn’t always quite right, Lekman’s lyrics living at the quirky realm adjacent to ideal love (AKA the real world). On the masterpiece “A Postcard to Nina,” Lekman details the experience of being used as a beard for his pen pal who can’t tell her parents she’s a lesbian. “Your Arms Around You” beguiles with its title and matching chorus, but listen closely and the verses describe how a surprise hug lead to an accident somewhere between sharp knife and avocado, and eventually the hospital. There’s something indelibly real about Lekman, especially when sitting in the midst of a set of such precise, ecstatic set of grand, dramatic compositions. — Adam Kivel
Yearbook 1 combines the best of Studio’s little output — the full-length West Coast and the “No Comply”/”Radio Edit” single — for a 70-minute epic bolstered by Balearic beat, Cure-inspired guitars, and classic EDM trance. The “No Comply” single starts the album, which immediately gives Yearbook 1 its own identity; if it was tacked on at the end, this would just be West Coast deluxe edition. “No Comply” is an easy access point sounding like New Order with flip-flop tans. “Radio Edit” is the more exciting of the two; it’s a deconstructed “No Comply” more in line with what the Field and Gui Boratto were perfecting at the time.
With different releases glued together and seemingly disparate influences battling each other on each track, Yearbook 1 could have been a muddled affair with ambitions upending focus. Maybe having only two members helped with clarity, but the better answer is that their era-jumping influences created a timeless aesthetic that went beyond the late-’00s Balearic/Chillwave fads. A track like “Origin” unites Madchester guitars and percussion with DFA’s attention to detail, while “Life’s a Beach!” grinds that all down into an Afrobeat slow jam. It’s refreshingly like a lot of music you’ve heard before but rarely together. — Andrew Cox
Both listeners and artists put a lot of trust in a DJ whenever they release a mix into the world. For the latter, it’s the hope that their work will be treated kindly and placed among songs that are thoughtfully chosen and carefully edited. For the former, they toss up a small prayer in hopes that the DJ can do the simple job of keeping them dancing. With the release of the first volume of Michael Mayer’s Immer series, that trust was built, cemented and secured. This journey through the world of European electronic music, as created by artists like Thomas Fehlmann, Phon.o, and A Rocket In Dub, was being guided by set of sharply attuned ears and steady hands. This mix also provides further proof of dance music’s appeal outside the world of fellow DJs, producers, and those folks haunting the world’s nightclubs. So much of Immer resonates with warm, wistful tones that stir up long dormant memories that lean positive or negative dependant upon what kind of state of mind you are in when you hit play. More than that, there’s a luxuriousness to this mix that feels downright naughty. Immer is a high calorie sweet treat that melts slowly on the tongue and leaves no bitter aftertaste. Just pure pleasure. — Robert Ham
Originally slated to drop in 2011, the commercial failings of a series of dance-pop singles released in 2010 forced the debut album by Sky Ferreira to go through a seemingly endless set of delays. These delays led to Ferreira reinventing herself, transforming from a wannabe Britney Spears into a performer with a grunge-chic look and an affinity for the ’80s and ’90s.
Once 2013 came around, the rising indie pop star was finally ready, dropping Night Time, My Time with racy artwork, but the music thankfully managed to outshine the controversy sparked by the album’s cover.
Opening the track with the grunge rock-influenced yet sincere “Boys,” Ferreira let listeners know that they were in for a wild ride. Throughout the record, she switches up her genre, effortlessly moving from the ’80s synth influences in “You’re Not The One,” “24 Hours” and “I Blame Myself” to post punk stylings in tracks like “Ain’t Your Right,” “Omanko,” and “Kristine.”
Although Ferreira changes things up constantly in her risky debut, her smooth, sultry vocals keep everything together, making everything cohesive.
If this album were to have one standout track, it would be “Love in Stereo,” an ’80s-inspired dance song reminiscent of her breakthrough single “Everything Is Embarrassing” that can get anyone one grooving on their feet. Though it is infectious and catchy, the real magic of the tune comes from Ferreira’s heartfelt lyrics and emotional delivery, which blend with synths and beats to create a wistful pop masterpiece. — Drew Pearce
The Hold Steady’s perfectly-titled 2006 banger does exactly what it claims to: it presents a thrilling, sympathetic, and intoxicating image of what it meant to be young in America in the ‘00s. What does that mean? Well, among the many topics covered here, it means kissing, drinking, doing drugs, fucking, partying, being confused, feeling sad, and, above all, connecting with other people. In a time where most bands were flocking to the claustrophobic, New York post-punk sound of groups like The Walkmen, Interpol, and the Killers, The Hold Steady kept it Midwest in the best way possible: by blending big-idea Heartland rock à la The Replacements with the particularity and pathos of musicians like Bruce Springsteen and John Darnielle; these Minneapolis rockers captured their moment in a seriously unique way. Part of what’s been so enduring about Boys and Girls in America is that there’s something new to glean from each listen, from the “driving around town” logic of “Southtown Girls” to the whole of “First Night,” which contains a moving depiction of the overwhelming, late night/early morning freakout-level emotions that come with going hard with your friends. — Adam Rothbarth
Air was in the business of crafting cinematic moodscapes before big moods became algorithmic fodder. The album is interpretable in a way that you can still project an image onto it but have a very specific mood template. Universality is mined from specificity, after all.
As one of the duo’s most personal records, darkness permeates this soft-pop gem. “Run” has the highest concentration of haunting atmospherics. The track strings together demented wind chimes, a robotic vocal filter and an airy synth that eerily mimics a choir. Talkie Walkie is a record where digitized voices often veer into the uncanny valley.
But the emotional range of the album is varied. Take lead single “Cherry Blossom Girls”: this lounge music in space captures the excitement of a blossoming romance. Then there’s “Alone in Kyoto,” the pensive song that fleshed out Sofia Coppola’s mumblecore-adjacent Lost in Translation.
Every song is its own self-contained world, no assemblage required. The listening experience isn’t exactly like a patchwork, though. Standalone tracks flow seamlessly together in this introspective journey through headphone-ready pop.
It’s mind-boggling that two men are responsible for this lush symphony of layered sounds, guided by the masterful production of Nigel Godrich. In these dispatches from the control panel, emotions become programmable. Air makes ambient music for popheads and pop for ambient lovers. — Caitlin Kelley
Mike Hadreas’ work has always carried in itself the sort of cathartic fury that exhumes the deepest traumas of our past and tames them in roughly three minutes. His unflinching perseverance through the bleakest landscapes of his life tended to be delivered through the medium of minimalist piano ballads that were seldom ornamented with more than his baleful vocal melodies. Too Bright marked the moment when Hadreas’ soundscapes rose above the clouds and conjured the indomitable confidence that always lurked underneath. Whereas before, though always enlightening and engaging, Hadreas’ sounded more like the smart kid at the back of the class whose own uncertainty in their wisdom tended to efface the truth of what they contributed. Here, backed by palatial soundscapes of horns, synths, double bass, and even a wine
case, Hadreas assumed the podium as a wise sage who had finally transcended the traumas of his past with wisdom to confidently impart that mirrored the deep understanding he had to offer. The songs are not without their melancholy, but the melancholy of the tracks in Hadreas’ hands is where the strength resides. Whether flipping social alienation into its own strength or telling you that you only have one life, Hadreas shows how these strictures become the very means by which we can forge a sense of identity and through this achieve a place in the world. The ecstatic neo-pagan synth ripples throughout the album give the feeling of a community of specters that know just what you are going through, and in them you can trust. — Stephen Axeman
The rare sample-based album that never comes across as such, Kieran Hebden’s third album as Four Tet could be both an ideal point of entry for those new to electronic music and, for longtime listeners, a reminder of just how endless the possibilities are. You can almost picture his look of glee as he cracks the code of how and where to use a sample. The melodies he sources are angelic, and the rhythms provide the ideal contrast. Even if you actively know that these are samples, the magic isn’t spoiled, because Hebden sources and manipulates them in such a way that they never feel like anything but his own compositions. Fits of chaos on tracks like “She Moves She” and the extended splendor that is “Unspoken” are hypnic jerks just as you think you’ve been lulled by Hebden’s loops. But just about every aspect of the album has its place and moves properly. It’s like every sample is a vehicle on the interstate during rush hour, but under Hebden’s guidance, everyone gets to where they need to be. The best producers are sleight-of-hand artists astonishing you with misdirection you didn’t even register. On Rounds, Hebden has countless cards up his sleeve. — Brody Kenny
A small detail in Lady Bird exemplifies the film’s brilliant characterization. Kyle, Lady Bird’s #woke and emotionally-distant boyfriend, has a huge poster in his room of one of presumably his favorite albums: Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. It’s such a Kyle album (ca. 2003) — perfect choice from Greta Gerwig & co. You listen to The Cold Vein to enter a bullshit-free zone with dead-eyed urban malaise rather than gold luxury and mainstream success. Hope isn’t around the corner — just the next guy ready to start some shit. Cannibal Ox — the duo of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega — are as New York as it gets; they’re like Desus & Mero if they were too cool to crack a smile. They’re proud to live at the center of it all even if it’s Hell on Earth.
Abstract hip-hop leader El-P handles the production, and it’s his best work alongside Funcrusher Plus and RTJ2. To provide the beats for Cannibal Ox is to create boundaries for their internal rhymes and assonance which strive to overwhelm the listener with lyrical dexterity. Mostly without hooks, these songs rely on El-P to set place markers, like some scratching and a faint piano on “A B-Boy’s Alpha” or a heavy sample of Dexter Wansel’s “All Night Long” on “The F-Word.”
Kyle is not a great guy, but Lady Bird does go out of its way to let you know he’s legit, politically speaking. They have him accurately predicting the NSA spying on us through phones and the internet; it sounds obnoxious coming from him, but he was fucking right. He’s also right about putting Cannibal Ox on his wall. You have to admire him somewhat, though I’m going to assume in the future, he would put those intellectual chops towards emotional maturity. — Andrew Cox
Someone I loved once was a big fan of Majical Cloudz. An iffy, impatient Aquarius could never work with a nervous, demanding Virgo (that one’s me), and so we never worked out, but I’m always grateful to the former lovers I had who showed me something beautiful, even if that meant being alone with it afterwards. Impersonator is a record that, like many others, tells a story, but this one is a little bit sadder. It’s a gorgeous, gloomy record that, I believe, went heavily underappreciated, something about it made you feel like you were underwater. Welsh’s strong, baritone voice transports you to a place where everything echoed, and the opening titular track is dizzying and immediately demands you listen to the album fully– the whole thing, not just piece by piece. He wants nothing more than to be loved and understood, and the album is very clearly a raw, bloody piece of them, focused, and stuck in some sort of echo chamber. I listened to it when I was missing her. I lay on the couch and tried to nap, the melodies from “This Is Magic” on repeat and catching in my eardrums. “I wanna feel like somebody’s darling.” There’s something so very familiar about the songs on Impersonator, it feels as though I’ve heard them a hundred times before. I feel like I’m in a submarine, and Welsh’s voice sounds like it’s singing to me through some type of tunnel, caught on another waveform. I’m desperate to grab it, but I’m also content to lie down and float away while he croons. — Sofie Mikhaylova
I just typed the phrase “art punk” and all the deceased Ramones started rolling in their graves. The idea that punk, a genre whose entry point is limited to your ability to learn a few power chords, needs to be filtered through any kind of fussiness, seems like an exercise in deliberately missing the point. But Los Angeles guitar/drum duo No Age’s first album, Nouns isn’t some kind of calculated effort to make punk into high art or vice versa. The two mindsets fuse together so beautifully that a rager like “Teen Creeps” can find a bridge to a post-mortem piece like “Things I Did When I Was Dead.” Vocalist/drummer Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall perform like a couple of teens in the garage figuring out everything their yard sale-bought gear can do and realizing how much of a difference breathing room in sound makes. Speaking of “punk vs. high art”, I’ve seen No Age performed in both a dive bar and the basement of an art museum, and they were suited beautifully to both environments. They might never match the hype they had at the time of its release, but listening to Nouns today, it sounds like anything but a dated flash-in-the-pan. — Brody Kenny
In their 2-hour-long opus The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, Texas ambient duo Stars of the Lid find the impossible textures and incredible temporalities they’d been searching for across their previous five albums. To be sure, those albums contain greatness, but Tired Sounds upped the ante by giving listeners a massive, droning record where almost nothing melodic or lyrical happens, instead focusing all its energy on complex figures that move and change at a glacial pace, mostly without even a beat. In other words, this album is a study of how electronic and acoustic sound moves through time. But what’s truly interesting about this music that it never wants to be background music – it beckons you to come inside, to stay in its stream, to let yourself live at a different pace for a bit. Its messed-with acoustic instruments and synths never really break apart like they do in works by composers like Keith Fullerton Whitman and William Basinski; instead Stars of the Lid let everything simply be what it is, without dissonance, friction, or disintegration. — Adam Rothbarth
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was the right way for Tribe to go out. Most groups or artists don’t know when to say when and begin to fade out. It’s also nerve wracking when there’s an 18-year gap in studio records, and yet, Tribe still pulled together another fantastic album. From an enormous features list — including the likes of Kanye West, André 3000, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar — to the energy that Tip, Phife and Jarobi are feeding and taking from one another, it feels like no time has passed. “Dis Generation” is a standout on the album; Tribe is passing on the torch to the new “gatekeepers of flow,” Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. And the production is some of Q-Tip’s finest – that first 11 seconds will make you feel like you’re on top of the world, and that sample from Musical Youth for the chorus is a pure, unmatched banger. “Lost Somebody” is the perfect tribute song to the “Five-Foot Assassin,” Phife Dawg. Both Jarobi and Q-Tip wrote their own verses for this song, and they walk you through Phife’s upbringing, struggles they faced, their hopes and their dreams AKA everything! You’ll feel more connected to him than you ever have before, as if you knew Phife personally. That’s something that Phife and this album share – their legacy will transcend time through the generations that they helped inspire to create. Rest in power, Phife. — Happy Haugen
Staying true to their minimalistic and soft style, Low create complex songs out of as little as they can on their fifth studio album in eight years. While some of the songs on Things We Lost in the Fire are strikingly different in style, the band’s touch is still very present. The beginning of the album highlights the band’s ability to change texture in their songs and also exposes the relationship between female vocalist Mimi Parker and male vocalist Alan Sparhawk. The further into the album you go, the more the band starts to focus on slow methodical background instrumentals and the harmonization of the two lead vocalists. Even though it sounds dull for a rock band, Low is able to add different textures such as harmonizing electric guitar parts and heavy bass lines to give their songs a sort of flare. As the end of the album approaches, there is a build-up characterized by more instrumental layering and upbeat riffs as well as the use of violins. Overall, Things We Lost in the Fire is the best snapshot of the type of dense-yet-minimalist music this band excels at like no other. — Ashley Porter
The Postal Service — formed by the lead singer of Death Cab For Cutie Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello after their one-off 2001 collaboration “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” — released their only album Give Up in 2003. This album not only focuses on the personal experiences of Ben Gibbard but also on real world issues and references such as in songs like “Clark Gable” written in relation to the famous actor and “Sleeping In” which references global warming and JFK. The beginning of the album introduces the upbeat electronic vibe that is strikingly different from Ben Gibbard’s usual DCFC aesthetic. Gibbard makes this album very personal by using a lot of his own relationship experience throughout different parts of the album in songs like “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” Jenny Lewis also provides background vocals on most tracks creating a more universal softer vocal sound throughout. The further into the album you go, the more the electronic textures start to change and create differing effects. In their short reign, the Postal Service displayed their ability to tackle a breadth of topics in their songs, while utilizing their different styles and backgrounds to create a cohesive album that is yet to be replicated. — Ashley Porter
With their eponymous debut record, Fleet Foxes carved out a lane for themselves in indie rock by doing something that no one else was even coming close to. By synthesizing elements of folk music, prog rock, and harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys in their prime, Fleet Foxes elevated the artistry of indie rock. What really set the record apart, however, was the songwriting prowess and pure vocal chops of Robin Pecknold.
Pecknold has a hauntingly beautiful voice and used it to its fullest extent on Fleet Foxes’ debut. His voice powerfully carries the pastoral, quieter folk songs such as now-classic “White Winter Hymnal,” but does not falter during the louder peaks of songs such as “Your Protector.” During a time when other folk-oriented artists such as Bon Iver aimed at evoking the spare loneliness of the woods, Fleet Foxes used their music to paint with wider, more vibrant brushstrokes, musically conjuring the entire forest rather than solely a cabin in the woods.
Often, songs on the record start on a certain aesthetic path and end up somewhere else completely, almost like walking through the woods when you come upon a clearing. “Blue Ridge Mountains,” for example, begins as Pecknold informs his brother he is “ever welcome with me any time you like,” over some gentle guitar strumming. Halfway through, however, the mood changes as more nuanced instrumentation comes in with Pecknold crooning the simple yet powerful refrain, “In the quivering forest / Where the shivering dog rests / Our good grandfather / built a wooden nest,” and, for a moment, it feels as if you are in the cabin that Pecknold wrote the song. — Matthew Hirsch
Hedonistic doesn’t have to mean artless. For its best-night-of-your-life, instantly unforgettable anthems like “Can’t Do Without You,” it’s the little flourishes Dan Snaith fills the record with that make Our Love an album you keep spinning once the party’s over. The deftness with which Snaith was able to meld hip-hop and R&B influences and present them through his electronic music lens resulted in a wholly unique amalgamation of sounds.
After the success of the house-influenced Swim, Snaith looked inwards toward matters of the heart on Our Love. Inspired in part by the birth of Snaith’s daughter, it’s difficult to bring to mind another electronic album that feels so intimate, so filled with the easy joy that comes with being filled with love. It’s not all bliss on the record however. With any deep, life-altering love there comes a certain anxiety—parents live in constant fear for their children’s safety for instance—and this collection of songs is colored by that anxiety, but not in an obvious way. The nuance with which these ideas are presented make the record akin to a painting that presents a new layer every time you look at it. The Jessy Lanza collaboration “Second Chance” exemplifies this, as do Snaith’s own lyrics.
The small but essential musical flourishes are too myriad to mention in this space, but suffice it to say that Owen Pallett, who plays violin and viola on Our Love, doesn’t just show up on any old record. It’s that unteachable knowledge, that preposterously deft touch that makes Our Love an unimpeachable classic that stretched what electronic music can be. — Donovan Farley
Love vs. Money is the middle child of the greatest trilogy of the 21st century; yes, that includes Lord of the Rings. The Love Trilogy is not a story involving universal acclaim or radio success, but rather a look at the creative floodgates opening for a pop music craftsman. Love vs. Money can neither lay claim to being first (Love/Hate) or having the best song (the epic “Yamaha” that just passed a million streams on Spotify). However, it might be the most consistent, even with the electric singles all packed up front. “Rockin’ That Shit” was the big hit — a great “throwback” party jam you can play alongside Ciara, Rihanna, and Beyoncé (all artists Nash and fellow producer Tricky Stewart worked with at the time). Terius Nash’s connections pay dividends here as he gets Kanye and Mariah Carey for the next two singles. Kanye doesn’t make a lasting impact like he did with “American Boy” or “Put On,” but Mariah Carey gives her best on “My Love.” The way The-Dream and Mariah Carey blend so perfectly on the chorus speaks to his underrated vocal capabilities and makes you wonder why he wasn’t a bigger star. Almost prophetically, The-Dream answers those questions in “Put It Down”: no, he can’t sing like Usher or dance like Chris Brown, but he does say “as much rubbing as we do, I could start a fire.” That still doesn’t clear things up, but who cares? At this point, he was better than all of his contemporaries. — Andrew Cox
Apologies to the Queen Mary, a magnum opus from one Montreal band that nearly seemed doomed to self-destruct before capitalizing on their songwriting much like another Montreal group, is a patchwork of emotions and ideas. Wolf Parade, helmed by Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, at times could be a band with two singer-songwriters fighting for dominance. What’s so great about the Isaac Brock-produced Apologies is how the band was able to make room for both, becoming a dirty rock band skilled in the art of emotional catharsis. Much like that other Montreal band with an ear for gargantuan choruses, Wolf Parade could take unconventional elements like toy keyboard leads, ragged guitars, howling vocals and irregular arrangements yet convey that feeling where you’re drunk and it’s 3 AM but the one song that happens to be playing on the jukebox is the most important song in the world and soon enough the entire bar just so happens to be singing along and it’s euphoric. One song on Apologies fits that bill: the anthemic “I’ll Believe In Anything,” a song that culminates in Krug delivering “Nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn.” with so much regret and yearning that hearing it feels like sweet release. Wolf Parade would never feel hit raw nerves with as much force as they would on Apologies but for a brief fleeting moment, they capture just what it’s like to scream and reach for the stars lying at the bottom of a gutter. — Jibril Yassin
Inspired by a run of shows he did opening up for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, where he confounded the arena rock crowds, Daniel Lopatin found himself mentally returning to the heady days of his adolescence — the years when grunge was in the air and a lot of emotional and hormonal insanity was going on within. Those feelings and sounds fueled his 2015 album Garden of Delete, where snippets of dialogue and heavily processed vocals mingle roughly with a loud, pulsating synth attack and dreamy calm is upended by proto-industrial fury and guitar shredding.
The picture Lopatin creates with Delete is not a pleasant one, a reflection apparently of the rough time that he had as a teenager and his fractured memories of that time. Taken as a whole, the album plays out like the internal dialogue of a kid on the outskirts, trying to come to terms with the simple truth that he’s not going to fit in. The music’s buckshot explosions are like synapse bursts of confidence fighting with rage and insecurity as translated by skittish rhythms that never stick around for long and inescapable drones. If the dejected outcast in the video for Rush’s “Subdivisions” had an internal soundtrack, this would be it. — Robert Ham
“An astonishingly boring band.” — Under the Radar, issue #5
“You say you don’t give a shit about lyrics? That’s good; most of Echoes‘ lyrics aren’t worth giving a shit about.” — Splendid E-zine (R.I.P.)
“Prolonged exposure to the Alienated Yelp can make listeners feel like having a little cry as well, but this doesn’t seem to have deterred [singer Luke] Jenner.” — Alexis Petridis, The Guardian
Clearly, the Rapture’s lone classic Echoes is not beloved by everyone. For many, they were condemned to be a fad — a band liberally borrowing from early-’80s dance-punk (Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, Delta 5, etc.) that struck gold with “House of Jealous Lovers.” That view isn’t necessarily wrong; “House of Jealous Lovers” stands at the middle of this album like a Great Dane in a dog park. The surrounding album has to cater to this behemoth, and it does so excitingly. “The Coming of Spring” works as a prolonged intro with fuzzed-out cymbals and crowd yells that would be terrifying if the Rapture weren’t so affable up to that point. There are also some songs that try their best to match “House of Jealous Lovers” — “I Need Your Love,” “Olio,” and “Sister Savior” also account for some of the best electroclash/dance-punk material of this time.
Echoes was the first full-length produced by The DFA (James Murphy & Tim Goldsworthy) for their own label, and this album’s mission statement helped found DFA’s aesthetic throughout the ’00s. Hot Chip shared the Rapture’s corniness; Hercules & Love Affair cribbed from late-’70s disco balladry with glee; LCD Soundsystem brought rock and electronic music under the same umbrella and begged you to complain. Maybe the Rapture’s fault was just having to live up to the hype. Pitchfork did name it the best album of 2003, but they would have been better off being a no-name you stumble upon in the used CD bin. They can wow you under tempered expectations. — Andrew Cox
Noname Writes For All the Rappers That Can’t
In the age of mumble-rap, the EDM or electronic golden era and microwave pop drivel (which all has its place) the music community was devoid of celebrated songwriters. Songwriters or lyricists were merely collaborators, feature artists and even ghost-writers. Then, enter from Chicago, IL — Noname.
Her most recent release, Room 25, is not a lengthy body of work. It however is a heavy body of work. She packs words into songs like NYC packs people per capita. In “Prayer Song (featuring Adam Ness)” her entire first verse is a poem’s stanza:
“If you wanna help me then kiss me and fuck me later
Gentrify all my people, there’s heaviness on the table
If you wanna help me to put me inside the cusp
Put the cigarette inside my back
Keep the hospitals over run-run-run
Run run run run run chicken little…”
She goes into the next song and references Philando Castille’s loss of life[murder] at the hands of police. Noname comments heavily about the politics of Black life, of womanhood, of urban-living and so much more.
The juxtaposition of her soft voice and hurried cadence against dark themes of depression, police brutality and loneliness is unique. There is no writer, no rapper and no artist like Noname. You know her songs as soon as you hear them. The way she whispers the word “fuck” and laughs on tracks is like nothing her era (or any other) of music has heard.
In a sea of rappers saying nothing- Noname uses Room 25 to say everything. — Chanell Noise
At the time that the first recordings by Battles came out, the ensemble was viewed as a kind of indie supergroup, boasting former members of Helmet, Don Caballero, and Lynx, as well as the son of celebrated avant garde jazz musician Anthony Braxton. But by the time the group’s first full-length album Mirrored was released, all those former associations were quickly snapped into non existence like a quick slap of a crash cymbal set to almost comical height.
The four musicians behind these songs brought their pasts to bear on this new material, particularly drummer John Stanier’s brutal assault on his kit and his preternatural, metronomic ability to play a breakbeat and multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams’s mathematical approach to composition. Somehow, though, everything they did as a collective pulled from much different sources: hip-hop, avant electronica, deep funk cuts, free jazz, technical metal, and contemporary classical. All capped off by Tyondai Braxton’s squirrely vocals, sent through various levels of effects to approximate the sound of a faltering bit of AI begging for repairs or, at the very least, some kind of empathy from its creator. Listening to it now, the fuzzy reasoning behind Braxton’s departure from the band starts to take logical shape. After pouring so much of yourself into a musical statement this bold and angular and rich with expression, what more is there to say? — Robert Ham
Pluto, Future’s debut album, is still only available on Spotify as an edited version; it’s not even available on Apple Music or iTunes. Future does not want you to remember this version of the album because six months later, he released Pluto 3D, the weird remix/reissue/redo that I have never bothered to listen to in full. This erasure of the original Pluto makes zero sense because it is anything but a false start. You ask Future aficionados which album is his best, and Pluto is almost certainly #1 — sorry DS2.
Pluto is Future’s happiest album, simply just because of his wide-eyed underdog status here before he became the ringleader of codeine-fueled masculine depression. The giddiness in his vocals on songs like “Tony Montana” is rare for him nowadays. The way he normalized wacky vocal inflections by throwing it in on classic Gucci-style bangers like “Same Damn Time” (“Spike Lee need to get this shit on fiiiiiiillllllm”) influenced a whole generation even if they could never quite match it. He was equally adept at taking The-Dream-style R&B slow jams into uncharted territory with “Turn on the Lights,” undoubtedly the coolest love song this side of FutureSex/LoveSounds. In the midst of the Drake ft. Drake era, Future has carved out his own era, and it all starts with Pluto. — Andrew Cox
Ghostface’s run of solo albums starting from Ironman onwards is the stuff of legends. In the early 2000s, a time when rap fans found it easy to write off Wu-Tang and its glut of solo releases, Ghostface maintained a remarkable consistency thanks to his surreal stream-of-consciousness rap style and his penchant for vintage soul beats. Fishscale is by no means on the level of Supreme Clientele, but it’s a thrilling document thanks to Ghostface’s ear in beats, amassing production from the likes of Pete Rock, Just Blaze, J Dilla, Lewis Parker and MF Doom. Fishscale is centred around pushing and dealing coke, but it’s not a concept album. Where it shines is how it allows Ghostface to take each sketch presented and fill in narrative details other rappers would gloss over, treating his lyrical eye much like a filmmaker would a camera and a storyboard. Ghostface boasts about mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts, defends his art as crafty darts, compares himself to ’80s soap opera stars, spills tartar sauce on a pair of Reeboks and manages to find time to reunite his estranged Wu brothers on the aptly-named “9 Milli Bros.” It’s the kind of madness the man who calls himself Tony Starks revels in. Having a major hand in defining what a coke rap album could do, it’s only right one of Wu-Tang’s generals returns to show just what a high-grade coke rap album could feel like. — Jibril Yassin
By every measure—as an Aphex Twin album, an electronic album, and as just an album—Syro is an absolute masterpiece. And just to get my bias out of the way right off the bat, I think it’s Richard D. James’ greatest work. To try to contextualize it in his discography is pretty difficult, because between his alter egos (AFX, Polygon Window, The Tuss, and more) and his weird, internet-released stuff, an “Aphex Twin album” could mean a lot of things. But if we’re being technical, this 2014 record was his first official Aphex Twin LP in 13 years, after 2001’s Drukqs. In it, textures shift and explode on a dime; beats seem to drop and pick up at the same. Perfectly timed (and deeply complex) melodies crash up against guttural synths and rollicking beats. The lyrical dexterity here alone is staggering. Syro is a total symphony of electronic sounds, a through-composed document of surgical precision and otherworldly creativity. Over 130 pieces of equipment were used on Syro. I mean, I don’t know what else to say about Syro. It is mind-blowing to me that a human being made this music. — Adam Rothbarth
Okay to be honest, for YEARS the only Death Grips album I listened to was Government Plates. That’s the album that got me into DG and due to my tendency of binge listening to albums, I didn’t do much exploring into the discography of the infamous experimental hip hop troupe. I was pulled out of that rut via The Money Store. Death Grips first studio album, following their Exmilitary mixtape and various EPs, The Money Store showed us what we should be expecting from Death Grips: aggressive hostility, obscure sampling, and impossibly addicting melodies. The album opens with “Get Got,” slamming listeners immediately into a paranoid, manic bender through the force of fast paced, harsh industrial beats and lyrics that paint a picture of a drug fueled police chase. Unlike other bands that release music and leave the meaning of their art up for interpretation, the central theme of The Money Store is easily handed over by Death Grips. The album focuses heavily on how it feels to exist on the periphery of society — living life under the influence of hard drugs, talking yourself in and out of paranoid delusions, perpetually being targeted by law enforcement. Though you would expect such an abrasive vessel to be punishing, there’s a glorious, sometimes inexplicable enjoyment you can find in Death Grips. — Ally Engelbrecht
Inspirational pop singer, Carly Rae Jepsen, released EMOTION in 2015, fusing different 1980’s styles with her own pop signature. From the title of the album, it becomes apparent that Jepsen is trying to decipher through her own emotions. The beginning of the album introduces a saxophone sound and various layers of 80’s dreamscape synthesizers that Jepsen focuses on in her instrumentals. In a more metaphorical sense the opening of the album deals with the overwhelming feelings behind the beginning of love seen in songs like “Run Away With Me” or “I Really Like You.” The further into the album you go, the more the initial allure of a pop romance starts to fade and becomes more focused on the struggles of an overload of emotions. Musically, toward the middle of the album, synthesizer layering takes it down a notch, becomes more focused, and allows for Carly Rae Jepsen to spotlight her vocals. This persists into the ending of the album where the bass gets heavier and the songs get edgier. In songs like “LA Hallucinations” and “When I Needed You,” Jepsen is concluding her search for love and answers in her emotions through more upbeat guitar riffs and synthesizer beats. EMOTION was Jepsen’s deserved breakthrough by honing in on the simple, broad allure of feelings and retro-futuristic production. — Ashley Porter