Make sure to start at the beginning: 250-201
Perhaps the greatest hat-tip you can offer towards Grizzly Bear’s 2009 masterpiece is that it is both a record defined by one single song and also the most cohesive and complete album in their discography. The band’s third studio effort, Veckatimest does, upon reflection, offer the perfect meeting-place between the more ambiguous and shapeless work that preceded it and the more avant-garde nuances that have slowly been diluted in the work since.
Exemplified by the totemic album cover, Veckatimest is a vibrant, brilliantly colourful display, the calm pockets of retreat, where most of the beautiful harmonies are to be found, matched by the spiralling, emphatic boldness of the instrumentation that never ceases to illuminate.
Despite this, however, it’s also hard to talk about the record without immediately leaping to its second track, “Two Weeks” — a song that remains far-and-away the band’s biggest and most notable achievement to-date. A four-minute moment of indie-rock magic, it finds Ed Droste in enigmatically romantic mood, his voice truly glowing amid the nostalgic, evocative back-drop of the instrumentation — an indefinable moment of magic that could have overshadowed the whole thing.
Thankfully, however, that proves not to be the case at all, the rest of the album unfolding with just as much sumptuous ingenuity as that pinnacle moment. From the skewed pop of “Ready, Able” to the glorious surge of “While We Wait For The Others,” Veckatimest is a glowing example of everything falling into place at just the right time. — Tom Johnson
As the 2000s came to a close, young people faced an existential crisis. Just as they entered the workforce, the global economy collapsed, forcing a reevaluation of the future that was promised to them. What they found—climate change, endless war, technocratic materialism—left little room for optimism. These were Big American Problems, and only a band with a sound as big as Arcade Fire could handle such mass generational disillusionment.
Fittingly, Arcade Fire sounds positively North American here. See: the title track’s iconic parlor-piano, the garage-punk influenced “Month of May,” and Blondie-hearkening “Sprawl II” (produced by “North American Scum”-lord himself, James Murphy). This pallette did more than just make the band accessible enough to win Album of the Year; it provided the sonic space for the album’s story to unfold.
Reckoning with growing older is nothing new, but The Suburbs speaks to the unique experience of today’s young: “I want a daughter while I’m still young / I want to hold her hand, show her some beauty before all this damage is done,” pleads Win Butler on the opener. That feeling of impending doom permeates the album.
The Suburbs is a historical leger for both the dying suburbs and the youth they raised, both of which saw their bright identities and futures stripped away throughout the 2000s. It speaks to a distinctly modern grief: the regretful impossibility of providing to your children the kind of carefree security that marked your own childhood. Progress marches on; all that’s left to do is appreciate what’s left, and what we lost:
“If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.” — Logan Rifenberg
Your feelings on Fiona Apple’s third full-length depend entirely on which version of Extraordinary Machine you’ve happened to have heard. The original version, produced by collaborator Jon Brion, was an expensive affair, rejected by Apple’s record label in 2003 when they failed to hear any hits on the level of 1996 single “Criminal.” Rather than re-record the album, Extraordinary Machine was shelved. Tracks from the sessions would leak to the Internet a few years later and the ensuing publicity would revive Extraordinary Machine, with Apple reworking tracks for a 2005 release while the original sessions would eventually leak to the press. The version that saw retail release is by no means a weakened album; Extraordinary Machine follows in the vein of the wry art pop found on debut Tidal and its follow-up When the Pawn…, bouncing back and forth between sparse piano tracks redone with producers Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo (much was made in the press about his role as Dr. Dre’s right-hand man, having worked on tracks such as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”) and quirky symphonic compositions recorded with Brion. Apple holds center stage, capable of sounding equally plaintive and brash, having lost none of the emotional power that gave weight to her past songwriting. It makes for engaging listening with Extraordinary Machine, an album that rises above its troubled origins to comfortably rest in the 2000s canon of singer-songwriter albums that lean a little closer to the left. — Jibril Yassin
On the sublime God’s Money, New Yorkers Gang Gang Dance sound like Brian Eno and Tom Tom Club taking hallucinogenics, putting on a ton of jangling jewelry, and spinning around for hours until unable to walk in any semblance of a straight line—and having a really good time while doing it. A blend of traditional hand-drums, guitars and synths, MIDI, electronic percussion, and more, there’s a ritualistic methodology to the jubilant reverie, the ways in which the 39 minutes flow together like a winding river. Lizzi Bougatsos’ vocals drip with giddy hyperactivity, tripping out syllables that sometimes pass too quickly to register what language they’re in—or whether they’re in any language at all. Flares of completely placeless “World music” pop up in the form of rain sticks, polyrhythms, and palm-muted guitar plinks. There’s a cinematic urgency to the record, not necessarily following an A-to-B story but certainly a compelling set of scenes; “God’s Money V” wanders down a shady alleyway, “Untitled (Piano)” finds a surprising respite near a crumbling, ornate fountain, and “Nomad For Love” reaches a wild romantic climax in a slippery haze. God’s Money is an incredibly textured record, one that carves out its own world in grand swathes and dares you to follow along the shifting path. — Adam Kivel
Though it came on the heels of a decadent concept album (the Gigi-indebted Loud City Song), Julia Holter’s 2015 record Have You In My Wilderness feels perhaps even more like stepping into a fully realized world. Like a short collection of scenes rather than a single narrative musical; each song comes replete with its own narrative and fully fleshed characters. Holter’s classical background and composition degree ensure that the stage remains stable and the set lushly decorated. If there is a thematic throughline, it’s a nostalgia-driven wash of greenery and seaside breeze. “I can’t swim/ Its lucidity/ So clear,” Holter repeats on “Sea Calls Me Home”. Swimming acts as a metaphor for a way to move through life on “Silhouette” a few tracks earlier, as well: “And he said I will swim to you.” A story by Colette serves as the impetus for “Lucette Stranded on the Island”, another moment where a relationship is broken and a woman is surrounded by water. Though the symbols may string together, the production jumps from sunset twang (“Everytime Boots”) to gaslamp-lit sigh (“How Long?”). Liquid synths and winged strings shuffle on and off the stage, Holter’s wafting, beguiling voice leading the proceedings. As the album closes, the water remains a conflicted symbol: “Oh, in your waters I’ve dropped anchor… Tell me, why do I feel you running away?” Like ocean water, there’s a shimmering beauty immediately visible on Have You In My Wilderness, and immense, mysterious depth beneath it. — Adam Kivel
From “Horchata,” a drink of Spanish/Latin origins, to a soccer battle with a “Diplomat’s Son,” Vampire Weekend’s Contra is an album that relays many different cultural novelties through their carefully crafted sound. This album opens with a mix of obscure rhythmic instruments and light synthesizers setting the stage for many different styles heard throughout the album. The deeper into the album you go, the more often you hear complex vocal layering and contrasting styles. Going from an almost erratic song like “California English” to a smoother, more relaxed song like “Taxi Cab” stays true to the contrasting themes at play. The middle of the album ultimately serves as a pool of clashing styles from string instrumentals, to upbeat poplike synthesizers, to rock band style riffs: Vampire Weekend don’t put anything past them. Every album must come to end and this one ends with some of their most popular and longest songs. Here Ezra Koenig shows off some subtle vocal flares and makes his allusions to social hierarchy blatantly obvious. Overall Contra did exactly what it set out to do, with clashing musical stylings, ideas, and talent exuded in each song. — Ashley Porter
The last album of new material that Wolfgang Voigt would release as Gas for nearly two decades contains a sense of finality. Or at least a sense that its creator had finally made his way out of the darkness of the forest towards some much-needed sunlight and inner resolve as evidenced by the simple cover art featuring a small array of tree branches, lush and green under natural light. The seven untitled compositions on Pop certainly felt much crisper and clearer than anything Voigt had lent the Gas name to by this point. Hints of the fuzzy kick drum tones and rhythms were still evident, but there was an almost New Age quality that wiped away some of the smears and grime of previous albums. These tracks in all their repetitive and hypnotic glory felt ready to soothe and sharpen the senses. The title of the album, in retrospect, feels like a feint, or a small bit of humor from its creator. No one would mistake this for Top 40 fare or try to slip it in to the playlists of Z100, but this was likely as close to pop music as Voigt was ever going to get. — Robert Ham
Listening to Honey is like palming dry ice and never letting go. It’s not her “mature” album; Honey is bare a.k.a. what it looks like for someone to be reborn. The greatest artists are always able to do so. On the title track, Robyn sings as if numb while giving her best lyrics to date: “Let go of your doubt, say yes / Let it soak up into the flesh / Never had this kind of nutrition.” The beat pulses but drifts, peaks and valleys at random. “Honey” acts as a song unaware of its own duration. It’s an updated “Love to Love You Baby” — condensed but richer. You can feel Robyn searching alone in the studio — for herself, for finding passion in making music again. It’s the most gorgeous song she’s ever made; I’ve been consumed by it for months and see no end in sight. Elsewhere, the best of Honey refines the best of Robyn. “Missing U” examines how to move on, but she can’t dance it out. The best she can muster is “I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass / It don’t leave no shadow.” “Send to Robyn Immediately” offers mantras to live for the moment and take chances because you’ll never know when you won’t be able to. It’s especially poignant coming from Robyn with the death of Christian Falk and her relationship struggles.
Honey might end up being seen as Robyn’s best album. Among her three classics, it’s the only one that arrived fully formed, without multiple parts or versions to sift through. For now, we’re just digesting it, but we’re realizing all of it is sticking to the ribs. — Andrew Cox
It’s impossible to nail down the music of English singer-songwriter Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat For Lashes. Alternative just doesn’t seem to cut it; transcendent feels a bit more appropriate, because that’s what she does: Bat For Lashes transcends. On her mystical 2009 LP, Two Suns, Khan certainly dabbles in genre — dipping into prog rock, new age, folk and dance-pop among so many other sonic spaces — but she hardly remains tethered to any single sound, style or format. Ten years on, the enigmatic album remains an exciting herald for today’s increasingly nuanced, boundary-less musical creation.
The record opens with “Glass,” an aptly titled concoction of gossamer chamber pop and stadium rock. Like the other ten songs on Two Suns, from the sinister sorta-synth-pop of “Pearl’s Dream” to the haunting electro-folk balladry of “Daniel,” it defies pure categorization. In this way, Khan is a rogue, feral troubadour — howling, cooing and pouring her crystalline sirensong across eleven tracks that feel more like magick spells than songs in any traditional sense. Truly, there is a pagan energy that vibrates throughout the album; for all its neon gloss, the record feels equal parts earthy and ethereal, ancient and futuristic. It makes sense, then, that at its beating heart, Two Suns is a rumination on duality: light and dark, night and day, outward self and inner self. Björk and Kate Bush comparisons be damned, Khan’s bewitching sophomore album is inimitable. — Erica Russell
Johnny Jewel’s work has always been informed by cinema. He’s said that he envisions album artwork for his records before he begins recording, and in the past few years he’s made quite a name for himself scoring films. Perhaps the best example of Johnny Jewel’s cinematic sensibilities—even more so than his actual work for film—is Kill For Love, Chromatics’ fourth LP.
Never has Jewel’s brew of nocturnal danger, love and sex been as crystallized as on Kill For Love. The minimalist guitar lines, icy synths and Ruth Radelet’s Nico-like croon combine for a feeling akin to the ominous sensuality of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. This is music for the saddest, sexiest, most stylish person at a party in the Hollywood Hills.
The record is filled with classics, and there is perhaps no one song that so readily defines the Chromatics ethos—and Jewel’s Italians Do It Better imprint as a whole—than “Lady.” It’s sensual, it’s menacing and it sounds like it was recorded by highly stylish humans dressed in all black (probably because it was). It could be said that humanity’s primary concerns are sex and death, and few modern artists of any stripe have commingled the two as ably as Chromatics, and no band has personified stylish nihilism this well since the Velvet Underground. Johnny Jewel and his cult-like group of talented compatriots were always the coolest kids in the room—Kill For Love is the moment the rest of the world figured that out. — Donovan Farley
There’s nothing quite like seeing Lightning Bolt live. The Providence duo set up on the floor, circled by rabid fans. Bassist Brian Gibson seems to enter a zen trance, his rubbery fingers bringing rapid, thunderous riffs to life. Next to him, Brian Chippendale pummels the drumkit within an inch of its life—and then two feet further. Oh, and Chippendale’s got a luchador-esque mask with a built in microphone, howling through concrete layers of distortion and fuzz. The nosie rock duo may have made their name on the back of those punishing, fascinating tours, but on Wonderful Rainbow, they bring that feeling to life in headphones as well. After the noisy welcome of “Hello Morning”, “Assassins” propels the record forward like a dynamite blast, the duo synchronizing on a mind-bending trip through prismatic hyperspeed. The concussive “Dracula Mountain” practically brings listeners inside of Chippendale’s mask, complete with the scorching heat and rivulets of sweat. Gibson rings circles around a relatively simple pattern on the beguiling “Longstockings”. By the time everything combusts on album closer “Duel in the Deep”, you’ll feel as if you’ve been roughed up in the roiling crowd surrounding the duo—complete with the massive smile plastered on your face. — Adam Kivel
Spoon might be the best 21st century act from “The Live Music Capital of the World,” and their first album for Merge Records is where it starts. Girls Can Tell strongly incorporates experiences from family deaths to ex-girlfriends that come straight from Britt Daniels, the lead singer’s, life. In the beginning of the album, they start with songs that are more bass heavy and include low-fi-like synthesizer sounds. These first couple of songs include the cover of “Me and the Bean” as well as songs that discuss Daniels own state of mind. The further into the album you go, the more personal experiences start to show through. In songs like “Anything You Want” about Daniel’s ex-girlfriend and “1020 AM” illustrating the death of his grandpa, the band is able to bring true meaning into their songs. Not only does the meaning of the songs grow deeper further into the album but the rock feel grows with it using more energetic synthesizers alongside creative electric guitar riffs. The album ends with an instrumental smooth rock piece and a song called “Chicago at Night” that mixes their use of synthesizers, bass, electric guitars, and deep vocals in order to truly capture the rock image of the band itself. Like they would continually do, Spoon ease their way into a quiet classic. — Ashley Porter
Kicking off with the addictive lick of “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” Kurt Vile retains his knack for painting a nostalgic image of America. His brand of rock lends itself to the same tinge of yearning that bands like The National and Wilco can bring about– and just like them, Vile creates an environment to come together, and figure out the confusion of life. Wakin’ is simple in its message but complex in its innerworkings, tracks like “Pure Pain” unraveling towards an unknown end, as Vile waxes poetic on indecision.
Perhaps the most rewarding moments of the album are the near-end breakdowns, like on “Was All Talk,” not the longest song, but pretty close. Its last three minutes are a hazy whirl of washed out guitars, overpowered by heavier pluckings. Vile takes us into the inner-workings of his take life as it comes persona, drifting deeper into a tumbleweed of rock. Then, to follow the confusion, Vile mellows out on the melancholic, dreamy ballad “Girl Called Alex,” a reflection accompanied best by a long stretch of dusty highway.
Vile summed it up best when, regarding the album, he explained, “It’s just about my life, without thinking too much about it.” The most admirable trait Vile possesses is his ability to not care, and doesn’t even seem to care about that– his guitar licks go where he pleases, the beats per minute change on a whim, but it always feels right. Listening to Wakin’ makes the dream of nonchalance real, if only for an hour and ten minutes. — Virginia Croft
“Found yourself in a new direction,” sings Victoria Legrand on the opening track of Beach House’s fourth album, her deep bellowing of those six words gleaming like a totemic statement of intent from the outset. Released just two years after the breakthrough success of Teen Dream, Bloom is a striking act of nominative determinism, a record in which every idea they’d previously had was left in the sun to burst brilliantly, beautifully into life.
The most impressive aspect to all of this is that so many of us thought they’d already done exactly that on Teen Dream: taken the bare-boned elements of their early workings and then thrust them into the stratosphere. Bloom, however, raised the ceiling once more, every aspect of the Beach House sound bursting at the seams, allowing more space for the words, the voice, and all of the rich instrumentation that so dutifully elevates it.
And yet still, Bloom’s upsurge feels entirely organic, the natural culmination of the band’s slow and supremely steady rise across those first few years. It also feels, in spite of its spaciousness, like it belongs to one strict moment in time. Which is perhaps another reason why Bloom feels like such a perfect title for it, the album playing out like a soundtrack to one single moment, in one single life, where all of the toil and struggle suddenly comes to fruition, allowing us to bask, for a moment, before the inevitable sucker punch tells us that nothing will ever quite be the same again. — Tom Johnson
We made it: Urban Outfitters‘ #1 album of 2008 (maybe because the album cover resembles their “hip” advertisements). Kudos to UO, though; this was before M83 became the band behind “Midnight City,” which catapulted them into every curated indie playlist that made them white noise at university ice breakers. Let’s try not to forget M83’s uncategorizable greatness displayed in Saturdays = Youth‘s constant whiplash. Even on an album with certified bangers such as “Kim & Jessie” and “Graveyard Girl,” the first single was the 8 1/2-minute, almost-instrumental “Couleurs” that was pure Underworld-like rave — not exactly material your twee coffee shop will vibe with. Or consider “Skin of the Night,” which has the glacial bounce of the Knife underscoring ambitious shoegaze guitars. The beauty of Anthony Gonzalez and co. maybe lies in consistently reaching for the same highs while always changing up how to do so. The most popular song on Saturdays = Youth by a country mile (according to Spotify) is “We Own the Sky.” We can’t gleam much from the lyrics, as is the case with most of M83’s work, so the title does the thematic heavy-lifting. There’s not just youthful ambition here; the sky (the heavens, humanity’s natural limits, etc.) has already been claimed, and it belongs to all of us. M83 is the rare dream pop for the collective rather than the insular — for the dreams you shout into the streets rather than into your pillowcase. — Andrew Cox
It seems as though every single Deerhunter record is birthed during a trying period. With the exception of their debut album Turn It Up, Faggot, Deerhunter have never seized on this chaotic energy as forthrightly as they did with Cryptograms. What Bradford Cox once described as the band’s true beginnings, likening their debut to a final project at film school, Cryptograms acts as the most unmediated expression of the angst and anguish that characterizes their entire discography. The palpability of such strain is primarily due to the encyclopedic synthesis of krautrock rhythms, groove-laden post-punk bass, and washed out shoegaze guitars all set atop a swirling mixture of delicate vocal harmonies that continually border on the edge of disintegration. During the recording of the album, the tape reel literally spun off at the end of the first half. Something that is key to getting Deerhunter is that they are not interested, or at least weren’t at this time, in promoting a healthy lifestyle. They weren’t going to give you advice on how to clean yourself up and get your act together. They were more likely to remind you of the decay inherent in every endeavor and the torture waiting just around the corner, waiting for your inevitable slip-up. The only moments of any sort of relief come as dissolutions into the ether, sonic landscapes that mirror the complete forgetting of self when you let your mind relax enough to get to the point where you simply experience the inexorable march of time flow through you. — Stephen Axeman
Opening an album with a 10-plus-minute song brimming with hyperspecific nautical terminology, pidgin Inuit slang, and a handful of different time signatures might suggest a concept album from a ‘70s prog group, or perhaps a slab of epic metal a la Mastodon. And though “Quay Cur” may share some similarities with, say, King Crimson or Marillion, The Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat takes a jittery, orchestral indie pop approach that became a staple of the early ‘00s. Sibling duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger lean heavy on their encyclopedias and dig deep into the instrument closet, pulling out sitars and references to 1920s-era baseball players in equal measure. It’s tempting to see the Fiery Furnaces’ second record as a series of short stories set secondarily to crashing waves of music—and there’s plenty of joy in close reading the Friedbergers’ tales of high seas adventures, chief inspectors, and steam trains. But distilling the record down to awe-inspiring whimsy reduces the twisting, turning music, capable of producing an earworm flourish around any unexpected corner. “Tea time at Damascus computer café,” becomes a hook in the sonorous, pointed voice of Eleanor, Matthew’s honkytonk piano chop the kind of contagious riff that you can’t help but play along to. Though the record’s undeniably heady, there’s a compelling physicality to Blueberry Boat as well, a sugar rush that will leave you scrambling for a dictionary. — Adam Kivel
The Summer We All Got To Feel Rich AF
It’s the summer of 2011, everyone is plugged into YouTube, music is shifting from physical to digital sales and Kanye West and Jay-Z are best buds. It was a different time then; Watch the Throne was their collaborative baby and all was well in hip-hop land.
There wasn’t a more popular song in the summer of 2011 than “N-ggas In Paris.” This song, and more importantly the album, celebrated commercial success due to internet virility. This wasn’t a song that was passing FCC radio rules.
Couple this with the crazy tour that Jay and Ye undertook: Watch the Throne was all you could be around, radio or not. In my opinion, the celebrity of these two OGs, the successful tour and the virility of their music on the interwebs is what catapulted these older rich guys’ music to the number one spot.
I can’t speak for everyone but I certainly couldn’t relate to all of Watch the Throne. That line Ye spits about “not being accustomed to going through customs- you ain’t been nowhere huh?” was just for me. I liked the wedding between the kings of NYC and Chicago more than I could find myself in their music like projects previous.
I liked the return to sample-based production. “Who Gon Stop Me” was dope electronic flip of “I Can’t Stop” from Flux Pavillion. Watch the Throne sounded like a wrap-up for “old Kanye” — the final boss level of his previous distinctive production style, if you will.
It was like the big paper for Jay-Z as well. Watch the Throne is where he embraces his uppercrust status. Hip-hop was built off of the foundation of struggle- at this point Jay-Z is neither struggling or emptily bragging. He’s rapping about black cards with no limits and laughing at other rappers who flaunt faux-wealth.
This joint album was a successful rich-guy experiment, due in part to timing. Everyone wants to flex and have a good time in the summer. So what… you don’t “really have my lady money” as Jay-Z says in “H.A.M,” we had a good time anyway.
Jokes aside, these legends gave us the expected pro-Black staple with “Murder to Excellence.” The album, although not lengthy, had several pieces of commentary about Black success. Whether we as a people could relate to it or not, is not a charge against the duo but as Jay explains, a “crabs in a barrel” issue long withstanding. — Chanell Noise
Welsh noise rock trio McLusky made music that felt both violent and neurotic. Guitarist Andy Falkous’s vocal delivery could go anywhere between spastic inflections reminiscent of Frank Black or full-throated screams that had you worried for the man’s diaphragm. With their roots in post-hardcore and noise rock, McLusky were capable of making aggressive statements. But they had a knack for killer hooks, making earworms out of fuzzy bass, caustic lyrics and raw guitar lines that dipped in and out of the fracas like a customer trapped in a funhouse. Their second album McLusky Do Dallas refused to concede to either end, presenting McLusky as a band that hadn’t softened their approach despite the pop hooks of “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” or “To Hell With Good Intentions” or the humor present in songs like “Fuck This Band” or “The World Loves Us And Is Our Bitch.” Part of that comes from Steve Albini’s recording work, wisely keeping every throat-shredding scream of Falkous high in the mix and giving the drums an unrestrained low-end that absolutely knocked. McLusky Do Dallas remains a thrilling punk rock document not solely due to its visceral impact but also because skittish humour and good songwriting have yet to badly age. — Jibril Yassin
Thanks in part to being gifted her first computer for Christmas by Roots drummer Questlove in 2007, Erykah Badu returned to recording after an intense bout of writer’s block sidelined her from creating new music for years. Badu came back with a fury, and New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), a concept record in which Badu preaches on identity, urban violence, the African American community, poverty and other heady subjects gave the artist her best opening week since her smash debut Baduizm.
A fantastic distillation of what makes Badu so great, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) finds the artist alternating between soul, funk and R&B with a master’s ease. Excited by the new freedom the computer gave her, Badu began messaging back and forth with Questlove, Madlib, J. Dilla and 9th Wonder, sending music, beats and ideas to each other. Flooded with creativity once more, Badu ended up recording 75 tracks in the session, releasing many of them on her follow up New Amerykah Part Two.
It seems odd to consider now, but in the mid-aughts many had written off Badu as out of ideas. On the contrary and in typically Badu fashion, she returned with this homerun of an album concerned with her world, her race and the entirety of the planet. Perhaps no other Badu release so successfully blends her style—loose and funky, yet direct and poignant—as New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), a record that thankfully saw the queen return to form. She hardly slowed down since. — Donovan Farley
“Cradle me so I can see if I’m doomed.” Moses Sumney sings on Aromanticism cut “Doomed,” his fragile voice floating in the air. Aromanticism, named after the concept of being unable to reciprocate romantic feelings, is a slow burn. It took Sumney years to formulate, each song emanating warmth, intimacy and remote detachment in its quiet grooves and soul-folk. Songs can begin with a stark foundation before Sumney adds layers and layers of sound that may include synths, ad-libs, horns, bass, acoustic guitar, harp, or percussion. Then there’s Sumney’s voice itself; gentle and airy, able to occupy every open space you hear on Aromanticism. Aromanticism is stark but by no means, is it linear. As Sumney moves his gaze inward, tackling the issues surrounding his disinterest in romantic love, he’ll often add layers of raw vocal the way a mass choir would, representing the hundreds of multitudes hidden within a single person. Sumney may reject conventional love but songs like “Make Out In My Car” and “Self-Help Tape” show he’s by no means a stranger to the idea of conveying attachment and solace. Aromanticism is an album that does not make for easy, accessible listening but amidst its textures and layers, advocates for radical self-examination in a manner that promises to be emotionally relieving. — Jibril Yassin
Jlin is an inspiration and I believe that Black Origami is a Biblical work. It stopped my lungs when I first heard it; the opening notes came on, and I had to relearn how to breathe. Opening with the titular song, “Black Origami” already starts off experimental and unusual, a repetitive, interesting rhythm accompanied by a low tone in the background assorted, seemingly random sounds. Accompanied shortly after by intense, serious vocal samples, while listening to the album, you realize how absolutely carefully arranged and intentional every sound is. Black Origami starts off complicated, and only gets more inspiring; the fourth song on the album, “Holy Child,” is carefully constructed, with patterned rhythms mimicking my racing heartbeat, the way it speeds up when I listen to it. “Calcination,” the shortest song on the record, checking in at a sparse 1:38, also utilizes the typical Jlin vocal samples with thick drums and echoes, creating an eerie, unusual listening experience. The whole album is always unexpected; tracks will appear to be going in one direction and will somehow switch without your knowledge or understanding; more than one listen is required for Black Origami for sure. The beeps and boops created by Jlin are accompanied by raw, organic sounds that elevate the music and take it to new directions; it sounds like robots and computers in the rainforest, something glitching in the real-life matrix of time and space. — Sofie Mikhaylova
At the start of the 2010s, Waka Flocka Flame was considered to be everything wrong with hip-hop. An Atlanta street dude who made no bones about his rapping ability, Waka favored Lex Luger beats that left no room for subtleties and as a writer, his approach was a blunt one: ignoring technical flourishes to prioritize energy and feeling instead. Every “rap is the new punk rock” thinkpiece you’ve read starts with Waka Flocka, arguably making Flockaveli, largely produced by Luger, his Never Mind the Bollocks. The calling card is Waka’s voice; he’s capable of delivering intense bursts of energy with his battering ram of a street gruff, dominating beats other rappers would likely struggle to overtake. The songs on Flockaveli are all-caps missives, succeeding in part due to their nihilistic intensity. There is no room for pop crossovers or complex rap storytelling: each track reduces the gangster rap ethos into hyperviolent cartoons. “I go hard in the motherfucking paint,” Waka sneers on “Hard in the Paint,” sounding neither an antichrist nor an anarchist but willing to beat you down all the same. — Jibril Yassin
After her 2012 album Unapologetic, it seemed like Barbadian singer Rihanna was headed into the direction of pure pop. When she dropped the dancehall-inspired single “Work” in 2016, she made it clear that she was still a pop artist, but her new sound was in no way traditional.
About a month later, Rihanna released Anti, which as a whole did not sound like anything she put out before but at the same time was a perfect fit for her.
The record opens with “Consideration” a hazy, dub-inspired track with a wild feature from breakout R&B star SZA. The following song, “James Joint,” is a trippy, synth-laden experience lasting only 1 minute and 12 seconds.
Coming next is “Kiss It Better,” a standout track inspired by pop music from the ’80s and ’90s. In the power ballad, Rihanna sings about a volatile relationship over synths and electric guitars before entering into a soaring chorus.
“Love On The Brain,” another ballad inspired by ’50s and doo-wop music is also a standout as well as “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a magnificent cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Along with pop and R&B, the singer also explores the country and folk genres on tracks like “Desperado” and “Never Ending.”
Slowed down grooves are all over the album, which are especially present in ear-pleasing songs like “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It.”
The biggest highlight, however, is “Close To You,” which is the simplest track on the impressive LP. The slow piano ballad is sung with beautiful jazz stylings, and Rihanna’s emotions show through the song in full force, ending the album on an honest, perfect note. — Drew Pearce
“I am my mother’s only one,
A record of introspection, a record to spur a movement. Hymnal and tender, For Emma, Forever Ago is a faraway echo in the darkness of what seems to be an eternally frozen winter. Sometimes thundering and plentiful, elsewhere quiet and fragile, Justin Vernon’s first complete record remains a seminal masterpiece, a debut quite unlike any other.
What was originally a product of an isolated escape to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, For Emma has deservedly flourished from its somewhat convenient back-story into one of the most celebrated albums of the century thus far.
Over the course of its nine tracks, we are transported into the ether as poetic, avant-garde lyricism is married with Vernon’s iconic and harrowing falsetto in a warm embrace, the record unweaving gracefully before us, like the thawing winter depicted in its closing track.
Embodying the natural state of its creation, Vernon omits nothing from the finished product. We hear creaking floorboards, the sound of a harsh hand against guitar strings, tactile nuances that bring us into his surroundings, right there in the cabin alongside him.
Though it was “Skinny Love” that thrust the record into the stratosphere, For Emma is the epitome of a finished puzzle, a singular piece of work that makes so much more sense when viewed as a whole; a document of human endurance set to music so wonderful it’ll shake the very foundations you walk upon. — Tom Johnson
On his sophomore album, Vince Staples kept the darker side we had become accustomed to on Summertime ‘06, but pushed his musical ambitions, landing almost in a realm of anti-pop. Think Crystal Castles up against Danny Brown, refereed by Widowspeak. While his debut stayed right on the line of undeniable rap, Big Fish Theory starts veering off into notes of electronica, house, and a heavier hip hop influence. Featuring singer Kilo Kish on multiple tracks adds another layer to Staples’ schtick. His brash declarations are juxtaposed by Kish’s soulful and mellowed responses, all accompanied by punchy beats with a strong English feel. The beats on tracks like “Crabs in a Bucket” and “Samo” have a sense of urgency to them, but Staples sticks to his mellowed roots on “745.” On the note of collaborators, Big Fish Theory boasts an impressive list, featuring vocals from Kendrick Lamar (“Yeah Right”) and Damon Albarn (“Love Can Be…”).
Clearly driven by the political and social turmoil, Staples dives into tackling the overwhelming stress head first. On “BagBak,” he takes a moment to reflect on police brutality, using his platform in a way that he was not yet ready to on Summertime ‘06. Staples raps, “Clap your hands if the police ever profiled /You ain’t gotta worry, don’t be scary ’cause we on now / Ain’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town.” There’s a constant tinge of dissatisfaction with the world throughout the album, and frankly, it’s refreshing. Constantly questioning allowed Staples to write unapologetically, and sound like an artist who isn’t backing down. — Virginia Croft
As far as finales go, The Knife provided a pretty outstanding one with Shaking The Habitual, but Karin Dreijer still had more to say. Plunge came out nearly a decade after her eponymous debut as Fever Ray, and it doesn’t use topics like femininity and queer identity as an afterthought to spice up predictable electropop. Everything about Plunge is restless and reckless, from the off-kilter beats to her provocative lyrics (“I want to run my fingers up your pussy”). It could be dismissed as shock value if Dreijer’s only intent was to titillate, but every listen is eye-opening, for those who can empathize with Dreijer’s anxieties and worldview and especially for those who aim to better understand those different from them. This is not an album for everyone, and it’s not all that easier to digest than Shaking The Habitual, despite being roughly half the length. What it is, however, is a testament to how the best “challenging” art isn’t about creating a mind game between creator and consumer with one ultimate victor; it’s about creating and expanding conversations that shouldn’t be glossed over. Dreijer might not have the answers, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to close herself off. — Brody Kenny
Todd Terje comes from a line of DJs who scoff at making albums — that’s capitulating to the music business, to the people that don’t respect true disc jockeys. How can you truly capture the thrill of knowing what a crowd wants and improvising or letting a remix ride just because it feels right? Classic DJ albums that truly honor the nightlife are not as common as we would hope (Black Secret Technology, Ammnesia, and Metro Area spring to mind first). Here, Todd Terje is accepting his popularity and doing what his forefathers were also required to do — make an album.
And so he did. First came the easy part — compiling recent singles and offering “official” versions. Any album with “Inspector Norse” and “Strandbar” can’t fail. The former had already achieved GOAT status with praise from Pitchfork, Resident Advisor, Mixmag, DJ Mag, and uh, NPR. Much of the new material stays in line with Terje’s comical take on nu-disco. Despite his talents, Terje never seems above his listener; he injects colorful characters into the titles and artwork to take the focus off of him. The “Preben” tracks play out like the soundtrack to a lighthearted short film — something new develops in every 4/4 measure. One track is different, though, and you already know which one — “Johnny and Mary.” The album slows to a crawl and Bryan Ferry croons over a Robert Palmer track like it was his all along. It might be the biggest risk any album on this list makes — not just for what Todd Terje’s aesthetic included at the time but for what these sort of albums are supposed to do. It’s a magnificent upending. Who would want a ballad in the middle of a high-octane mix? People that want a goddamn album. — Andrew Cox
Spanish singer Rosalía is all about crossing boundaries when it comes to music, often mixing elements of flamenco, pop and R&B together to create something magical. With the success of her most recent album, El Mal Querer, she managed to also cross language boundaries.
This is because of Rosalía’s effortless genre bending and because of the album’s relatable theme of toxic relationships. Based on the 14th century novel Flamenca, the LP follows a young woman who gets married, experiences domestic abuse and finds the strength within her to leave the relationship.
Opening track and smash hit single “Malamente” acts as a prelude to the rest of the record, using dark beats, hand claps and eerie synths that hint at unfortunate events to come. “Que No Salga La Luna,” a traditional flamenco song which describes the wedding between the protagonist and her soon to be abusive husband, follows and is a highlight of the album.
Other highlights include “Pienso En Tu Mira,” a song that masterfully blends the beats of R&B, the vocal stylings of flamenco and the arrangement of modern pop, and “De Aquí No Sales,” which employs the roars of motorcycle engines as instruments to build an angry, intense soundscape. — Drew Pearce
“I started out in search of ordinary things…”
Beginning with those seven plain-stated words, the opening track on Bill Callahan’s second solo album finds the former Smog man in remarkably contemplative mood, quietly ruminating on the finest fabric of the funny old world he finds himself in: “How can a wave possibly be?” From there, the whole thing unrolls beautifully, a suitably evocative collection of nine songs that marries Callahan’s weary and worn voice with a rich production ordained with little flickers of strings and horns that elevate the whole thing into a magical but melancholy world. Perhaps as confidential as he’s ever sounded, the record feels tentatively placed on a knife-edge, even the warmest moments seemingly ready to crumble away at the smallest hint of pressure.
Eagle was produced by John Congleton, and his little flashes of singularity help to bring out the best in these stark self-portraits. The stings, for example, were recorded by gathering a handful of players around one single microphone, illuminating the intimacy with the subtle light these songs deserve. The key to the record’s true sense of magic, however, belongs fully in the hands of Callahan, who pours himself into these songs with a subtle but almost overwhelming sense of reverie: a bird caught in the breeze. — Tom Johnson
Much like their early touring partners and collaborators in Animal Collective, Black Dice cracked open the early ’00s indie rock paradigm with abstract structures of sound, intricate layering, chant-like vocals, and heavily affected instrumentation. For their first album, Beaches & Canyons, the Providence, Rhode Island, quartet of brothers Eric and Bjorn Copeland, Aaron Warren, and Hisham Bharoocha pushed that formula to a combustive expanse. Black Dice had built a reputation for violent, cathartic, propulsive live shows, and there’s plenty of that bombast in the burnt synths of “The Dream Is Going Down” and the thunderous bass drums of “Things Will Never Be the Same”. But then the record is capable of haunting fragility as well, as on the twinkle and bubble of “Endless Happiness”, well-deep subbass, windchimes, and windy recorder combining for Coltrane-adjacent meditation. The wash of seafoam that ends that track may be the most obvious element of the sonic landscape collage, but the psychedelic swirls of synth tone and organic dynamics come together like a soundtrack to an extraterrestrial version of Planet Earth. There’s tension and release in every single layer, every bit of fuzz and every static crinkle. Beaches & Canyons lays groundwork for noise bands, indie rockers, electronic artists, and more, all in about an hour of ecstatic beauty. — Adam Kivel
Broadcast was a band unmoored in space and time, initially fashioning together songs inspired by ‘60s psychedelia and the optimism that ‘90s downtempo hinted at. Vocalist Trish Keenan gave their woozy mind-bending a necessary grounding point, opting to serve as a gentle guide to listeners through an oblique world of sound. Broadcast’s first string of limited single releases in the ‘90s showcased a band with plenty of promise and ambition, crafting a universe where BBC film soundtracks shared equal billing with krautrock and psych-pop all idealized in widescreen glory. Their debut The Noise Made By People, released on Warp Records, capitalized on that early promise but marked a new evolution for the band, now sounding more focused than ever and refusing to be tied down to any time period. It’s a disorienting listen of gentle haze and nebulous noir married to sublime pop songwriting. The one-two punch of “Come On Let’s Go” followed by “Echo’s Answer” ranks high in a list of best surprise musical knockouts from the year 2000. Broadcast would continue down this road of juxtaposing studio-indebted futurism with nostalgia-informed attentiveness for the rest of their career, following their muses down any and all music time portals they pleased. — Jibril Yassin
You hear about albums growing on you all the time, but what does that mean? Is there something obscure in the album’s more satisfying moments that takes a while to suss out? Or is it truly more of a personal growth in taste? The latter takes the form of growing up to meet an album’s standards, and no recent album conveys that for me as much as ANOHNI’s reinvention on Hopelessness. I was 20 when this album came out and was still mostly formless in my convictions — why am I majoring in English if I rarely read the material? Why am I so passionate about wanting Hillary Clinton to be the nominee rather than Bernie Sanders? Why do I spend all my free time determining whether an album is good or not? Amidst this blah personal state, Hopelessness arrived as a plea to shout your convictions, your desires, your righteous anger; I wasn’t fully listening.
“Drone Bomb Me” and “4 Degrees” begins the album with the needle to the max. Formerly Antony (high priestess of chamber pop), ANOHNI was now gnarly with beauty and a side of twisted malice — “Explode my crystal guts / Lay my purple on the grass.” Her empathy is equal parts furious and heartbreaking when she conveys what it means to be bombed for no reason or to be a fish and die because the world is too hot. Hopelessness is the rare political album that refuses to hedge for fear of political consequences. This is maybe best exemplified in “Obama” — a song that 20-year-old me hated. Sonically, it’s the least-rewarding track, but its sparsity clarifies its grim tale of hopelessness. But it was an election year. How could she criticize Obama when we all need to stand against Trump? As I’ve aged, hopelessness has set in — the environment, deep-rooted sexism and racism, the inexorable tie of money and politics, etc.; it all builds into an endless cycle of numb existential dread day after day. But here, ANOHNI never sounds hopeless. Somehow, she pushed through into a state of call-to-arms. This isn’t a #resistance; we all have to be disturbed into convictions. — Andrew Cox
On their sophomore album, The Shins never slump — if anything, their posture improves wholeheartedly. There’s a refreshing addition of vigor throughout Chutes Too Narrow, pushing their brand of indie rock to a higher level. On fast-paced tracks like “Fighting In A Sack,” frontman James Mercer challenges not only his songwriting abilities but also his vocal stamina, rattling off his witty lines in a quick, Gilbert & Sullivan-esque manner. His delivery is precise, and lines like “We’ve taken on a climb / And it’s long enough to put the best of us on our backs” immediately result in a chuckle. Chock full of cheery chord progressions and the occasional harmonica cameo, the band is quick to shed the rainy gloom of their Portland, OR residence. Many of the tracks dip between the classic indie rock sound of the early ‘00s, and their own take on more folk-influenced sounds. On tracks like “Kissing The Lipless,” the band could almost pass for accompanying a backyard wedding stocked with homemade moonshine. There’s a carefree quality to the overall sound of Chutes— although the band members experienced their share of stress and struggle, they have a knack for coming together through song, to shine a much needed light on darker times.
Similar to their debut’s “New Slang,” Chutes finds its melancholic moment on “Gone For Good.” When Mercer proclaims, “You want to fight for this love, but honey, you cannot wrestle a dove,” the experience and growth he has gained rings out, proving The Shins’ ability to tackle the serious but dance in the sun when necessary. — Virginia Croft
As artists age, they tend to get more reflective. (They’re human, after all). But it’s rarely laid out as explicitly as Mark Kozelek does on Benji. There had always been twinges of real-life nostalgia on Sun Kil Moon albums, but this was when Kozelek become a full-fledged storyteller. It’s a distinctly Midwestern travelogue, largely grounded in the mid-sized cities and small towns of Ohio where Kozelek came of age, and that stick with him even as a San Franciscan eating “blue crab cakes.” The melancholy that’s pervaded his music since the days of Red House Painters becomes all the more clear when he recounts the friends and family he’s lost and the regrettable choices he’s made (like attacking an elementary school classmate unprovoked). Bad things don’t befall Kozelek anymore than they do anyone else, but he takes things to heart like few others do. He never lays out a message of “appreciate people and moments while you can.” You’re meant to pick it up through the honesty and vulnerability of his narratives. The novelty of his career shift has worn off, as his albums have become less albums and more glorified, uninterrupted podcasts with one host. Nonetheless, Benji is one of the most nakedly human albums in recent memory, created by someone who you might’ve never expected to let his guard down to this extent. — Brody Kenny
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott is a work in progress. Or so she says in a voiceover introducing her Timbaland-produced masterwork, Under Construction.
At this point in her career, she had already released several classics that changed the game for ladies who rap. She carved out a place for herself by toying with beauty standards, bringing experimental visuals to music videos, and centering the stories of black women.
The guest spots on the album are a roll call for early-aughts renown. She gets nostalgic with Jay Z over old-school hip hop on “Back in the Day.” “Nothing Out There For Me” is a game of phone-call-and-response with Beyonce.
Under Construction is also responsible for her biggest hit of all time: “Work It” The track lays down exactly how innovative and outlandish her wordsmithing is. Her flow is animated by sonic literalizations of the lines. When she says, “I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” the line plays backward twice. An elephant trumpet forms a creative stand-in for a double entendre on a trunk. She doesn’t even need words to create wordplay.
Missy knows how to take a crass idea and spin it into a hilarious turn of phrase. Exhibit A: “Pussy don’t fail me now,” a perfect distillation of the anxieties of dating as a woman.
But her raunchiness is also a conduit to gender parity. She says it best at the end of “Pussycat”: “We always had to deal with the guys talking about how they’re gonna wear us out on records.” In typical Missy fashion, she smashed through double standards with style. — Caitlin Kelley
Arthur Russell’s music sounds insane. I mean this literally—his highly experimental sound turns pop, dance, and classical paradigms totally inside out in a way that barely makes sense. But it totally works. Case in point: within the first two minutes of Calling Out of Context, a 2004 compilation of Russell’s music, you can hear warm bases of synths, meandering organ, an isolated and weird trombone melody, distorted cello, and a funky, post-disco beat. When vocals finally come in, they phase against each other in pure Steve Reich-style fashion, and they’re overlayed on top of incredible distortion that comes decades before rock and pop music started using sounds like it. Of course, ths avant garde bent makes sense: Russell worked in the New York scene with everyone from Reich and Philip Glass to the Talking Heads. He tragically died in 1992, but many of his forward-thinking albums and compilations continue to take contemporary music to task. To me, few songs of the current generation have surpassed the sheer romanticism and pure fucking catchiness of tracks like “That’s Us/Wild Combination.” This one is very special. — Adam Rothbarth
The Destroyer catalog is densely packed with poetic meaning, meta self-reference, and complex allusion; and there at the middle of the lyrical labyrinth sits Dan Bejar, a minotaur more interested in mulling the mysteries of life than chasing off intruders. And with the opening line of 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies, it feels as if a decade of groundwork laid reveals a stunning new vista: “Dueling cyclones jackknife, they’ve got eyes for your wife, and the blood that lives in her heart,” Bejar calls. Sheets of bronzed electric guitar unfurl like crimson banners behind him, an acoustic joins the fray, and then the whole band breaks in at about a minute into the track. Bejar and his band don’t look back from there, expanding and expounding over 10 dazzling songs. Inspecting the record’s myriad facets in a sort of literary analysis reveals haunting moments; the opening to the second verse of “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point” is somehow funny, tragic, and unknowable: “Have I told you lately that I love you? Did I fail to mention there’s a sword hanging above you? Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd/ I cast off those couplets in honor of the void.” But Rubies reaches an apex of pure musical complexity and beauty that Bejar hadn’t yet reached. While lacing together threads of previous albums had put together a fascinating backdrop, the vibraphone, saxophone, Wurlitzer, and trumpet on Rubies come together to paint an expressive set and stage that stands impressively on its own. — Adam Kivel
Footwork would reach new heights on DJ Rashad’s sole full length for Hyperdub. A Chicago native and member of the Teklife crew, Rashad had been honing his sound for years, an irresistible combination of high-BPM bass and clattering jungle percussion meant to encourage frantic dance movements. On Double Cup, he perfects it, crafting a thrilling collection of kinetic dance tracks that look to Chicago’s past, present and future. Largely made in collaboration, Double Cup sounds like it’s bursting to the seams with ideas, ignoring genre rigidity in favor of a fluid approach that took from sources like Chicago hip-hop and vintage house. Sadly, Rashad wouldn’t live to see the crew he built begin to flourish, passing away in 2014 at the age of 34. Five years removed from its release, Double Cup stands as one of Teklife’s crowning achievements, the peaks of a growing regional scene crystallized in amber. — Jibril Yassin
Dirty Projectors have a habit of making their music impossible to fit into a genre-selected box. From a theory standpoint, their creations are fascinating, jumping between meters and keys effortlessly. On their sixth album, Bitte Orca, the band ventures into new musical territory, impossibly hard to categorize. The tone constantly changes from track to track, as “The Bride” has a warming effect, like a sunrise coming to fruition, but “No Intention” feels a bit standoffish to a prospective relationship, the quick-paced instrumentals imitating indecision. “Stillness Is The Move” is the crowning achievement of Bitte Orca. Vocalist and bandmember Amber Coffman sings of reaching new heights, elaborating, “On top of every mountain / There was a great longing / For another even higher mountain / In each city longing for a bigger city,” her vocals ascending past any peak a human could reach.
Closing track “Fluorescent Half-Dome” takes the burden of explanation, honing in on the finer purpose of Bitte. David Longstreth’s writing leaves the listener heavy-hearted with the near closing line, “Birds of infinity glisten, shimmering, for the rest of my life / And I conceived them, not what they mean.” Molding together drops of wisdom through punctuated instrumentals, the band creates a brave new world– dictated on their unpredictable terms, but always taking the listener where they didn’t even know they wanted to arrive. In a sense, Dirty Projectors are impossible to squeeze into a genre, because one listen to Bitte makes it clear that the bandmates teamed up to create a whole new one, a secret language just for them. — Virginia Croft
Drake is really in his feelings on this one. Half of his third studio album is devoted to gloomy admissions while the other half is rife with braggadocios proclamations. Nothing Was the Same sees Drizzy oscillating between two personas that oftentimes contradict each other. On Degrassi-to-riches track “Started from the Bottom,” he fronts like he’s misrepresented (“Boys tell stories ’bout the man / Say I never struggled, wasn’t hungry, yeah, I doubt it”) and has, in fact, had a hard-knock-life, but on the very next song, “Wu-Tang Forever,” of the streets he raps, “Luckily I didn’t have to grow there / I would only go there cause ni**as that I know there.” It limply reads like, “Lots of my friends are black.”
This critique, which in later years was much more appropriately lobbed by Pusha-T, is one Drake can brush off his shirt with a Gucci lint-roller. Challenges to his authenticity, even the eviscerating diss track “The Story of Adidon,” can’t penetrate Drake’s unassailable brand. “This is nothin’ for the radio,” he boasts on opener “Tuscan Leather,” “but they’ll still play it though.” He’s right and he knows it. Drake is rap’s biggest star and in the process of his ascent, he’s also re-written the game’s rules inventing new heights for pop and hip-hop.
Drake has studied the formulas, but sounds most authentic when he’s crooning instead of spitting bars. (While listening to this album, the one I kept comparing it to in my mind was Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye’s underrated classic whose title track caused liner notes scribe David Ritz to describe Gaye as “self-serving, self-justifying [and] self-pitying.” (Sound familiar?) A quick Google search revealed the album was Drake’s “primary source of inspiration.”
The clear standout here, “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” has more in common with Marvin than Wu-Tang Clan. Its moody electric piano fits the album’s late-night introspective feel. Noah “40” Shebib’s sparse and ambient production sulks perfectly alongside Drake’s sullen rhymes. You might remember Drake as Jimmy, but the best role he’s played is that of victim. The lyrics are preoccupied with settling scores and setting the record straight. But Nothing was the Same doesn’t succeed in spite of Drake being a downer; it succeeds for exactly that reason. It’s his M.O. It’s an essential ingredient in his brand. — Alex Wexelman
Andrew W.K. is a sincere motherfucker. It’s what made his debut I Get Wet so hard to take at first. Was this man for real? Did he really wanna party all the time? Was he a piano prodigy? A FBI sleeper agent doing a long-term case study on the youth of America? It turns out W.K. was just a solid Midwest dude who loved both Billy Squier and Napalm Death with equal gusto. Issues of irony and dubious authenticity claims aside, I Get Wet operates like a greatest hits album from an obscure ‘70s hard rock band you’ve just discovered. The key is Andrew W.K. – who sells his non-partisan party platform with complete and utter sincerity. The songs were largely split between those that broke down W.K.’s ethos to partying and life (“It’s Time to Party,” “Party Hard,” “I Get Wet,”) and those that were tributes to women and love (“Girls Own Love,” “She is Beautiful” and “Got to Do It”). By the time you reach “Don’t Stop Living in the Red,” a fists-up singalong that felt like it was engineered to be played in stadiums, all questions about Andrew W.K. and his intentions cease. “Who cares? Keep partying” is the answer I Get Wet seems to tell you. — Jibril Yassin
Trap’s roots run deep through Atlanta and while we may never truly decide upon the real originator of trap, (Was it Gucci Mane and his initial flood of mixtapes? Or Young Jeezy and Thug Motivation 101? Or did T.I. lay claim when he crowned himself King of the South?) it’s easy to draw direct links to T.I’s Trap Muzik, recorded in a hair salon and named for the lifestyle he would lovingly recreate in stunning detail. After being dropped by Arista for a debut album that was underwhelming for both artist and label, T.I. went back to the drawing board, going independent with a slew of mixtapes and a new approach that drew from his upbringing in the drug hustle. It was this upbringing, coupled with T.I’s charisma and Southern drawl, that would help ground his ruminations on Trap Muzik, giving the day-to-day reality of the trap a level of empathy unseen since Biggie went platinum rapping about how depressing being a drug dealer actually was. “If you are a drug dealer you are either Nino Brown or Scarface.” T.I. told an interviewer in 2018. “Trap Muzik let people know how day-to-day it was.” — Jibril Yassin
Erika M. Anderson might be the only notable musician from South Dakota — does Shawn Colvin count? — and Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like it could only come from there. It’s a nothing state, and nothing is a key theme throughout the album. “The Grey Ship” and “California” are still her best songs and begin this album as reflections of each other focusing on loneliness, wasted youth, living on the plains, leaving, and death. EMA is in limbo; the plains are nothing, but something (“Fuck California / You made me boring”) is worse. The ship that comes for EMA isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Echoes of “Pyramid Song” come through in the unity of all coming on board an ill-fated ship. When she finally says “I got the same feeling inside of me / Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin,'” the guitars have bottomed out and no percussion can be heard. The music and lyrics are perfectly symbiotic in that way throughout; it makes me hang on every word, which is something I rarely do (Bill Callahan and Dan Bejar have this same effect).
A common comparison is Kim Gordon, and it’s impossible to avoid: the voice, the guitar, the unwillingness to make something presentable or neat. Once the harrowing, epic conclusion “Red Star” builds, it sounds like mid-to-late-’80s Sonic Youth reunited. Experimental indie rock at its purest yet most human is so rare — raw in every sense of the word. Past Life Martyred Saints offers that unlike any other album this era. — Andrew Cox
Over the course of Kurt Vile’s discography, he has a knack for transporting the listener to a curated highway, creating a soundtrack for long stretches of desert and milkshakes at roadside diners. On his fourth album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, Vile tones down his instrumentals, making for a moodier, sunset-heavy sound. “Baby’s Arms” is Vile’s brand of a declaration of love, a ballad if it was written by Cormac McCarthy. There’s a rustic quality to Vile’s tracks, and Smoke Ring feels especially reflective, as Vile creates a soundscape of understanding and the growth that change can bring. While the majority of the tracks lay on the slower side, Vile delivers his harder rock on “Society Is My Friend,” a bold and brash declaration of sticking it to the man, and “Puppet to the Man,” daring listeners to rip away from expectations.
In an interview about the album with The Line of Best Fit’s John Freeman, Vile added, “But, I could be walking down the street, or I could be in Montana; it is about letting your brain drift wherever you are… I can’t tell you that I was up a mountain and a song came out, but it is about keeping yourself open to anything without thinking about – and just letting it happen.” It’s as if Vile’s experiences and travels all blend together in his music, bits and pieces from various stages lending to a journey of an album, a cumulative story of where he’s been and what’s coming next. — Virginia Croft
Pulling themselves out from the dense brush and woodsy introspection of Sung Tongs, the band migrated into more traditional pop structures with more standard rock instrumentation while still maintaining the singularly disorienting and cathartically expressive voice that is a hallmark of their sound. Textures abound, but they are channeled into climactic arcs that faintly resemble pop music, but heard from a distance or behind a screen. It sounds as if Animal Collective were isolated from the popular history of music, instead subsisting on a fittingly esoteric diet of Faust, Sun City Girls, and Linda Perhacs. Joined now by the full line-up (Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin) the band ventured into their most carnivalesque and celebratory music yet. The colors here are indistinct and overlapping to form alien mixtures, and the overarching palate is brightly toned and triumphant even when they venture into darker zones. Where their previous work sounded like pages pulled from a diary that was never meant to be read, these songs read as letters and burst forth with a determined sense of expression. Avey’s yelps here are full throated and harsh, but set in periodic bursts above burbling samples and heavily processed guitar, they are clearly heard as an overflowing of affection. One of the most astonishing features of the album is how perfectly the rhythm and pacing of the songs matches the lyrical situations as they go through different romantic contexts. They wouldn’t stay here for long, setting their sights on the heavily electronic sound of Strawberry Jam, but they once again achieved something only possible for them. — Stephen Axeman
After putting out Burn Your Fire For No Witness, indie rocker Angel Olsen wanted to avoid being labeled as strictly a lo-fi artist. Thus, My Woman, a poppier, more sonically diverse album was born.
“Intern,” a song that showcases Olsen’s experimentation with synths, opens the record. The synthpop track sounds like nothing she has done before, which tells listeners this album will serve as a departure from her previous works and her signature folk sound.
She then segues into more hard-hitting rock anthems like “Shut Up Kiss Me,” one of the major standouts. Olsen’s angry delivery and intense instrumentation perfectly matches the lyrics detailing desperation during relationship’s rocky point.
The St. Louis native follows up the hit with songs like “Give It Up” and “Not Gonna Kill You,” which offer more up-tempo indie rock goodness. “Heart Shaped Face,” a 1960s country pop-inspired ballad about leaving a negative relationship.
The most captivating track on the album, however, is folk rock ballad titled “Sister.” Olsen opens the song with minimal percussions, quiet guitar strums and her ghostly vocals reminiscent of Stevie Nicks only to seamlessly transition into an almost psychedelic sounding instrumental break.
Going with these instrumentals is Olsen shakily repeating the lines “all my life I thought I’d change,” creating a hauntingly introspective soundscape. Every track on this album is great, but “Sister” alone is what makes My Woman something truly special. — Drew Pearce
While it was 2001’s The Photo Album that added a wealth of new textures to Death Cab’s sonic scrapbook, it’s the band’s follow-up, the monumental Transatlanticism, that sent them spiralling into whole new worlds, showcasing both a more considered and notably expansive sound than had come before.
Mostly written, as always, by frontman Ben Gibbard, the record’s production was handled sublimely by guitarist Chris Walla, and it showcased the visceral sound of a band growing and flourishing in tandem. Transatlanticism was the first record where Death Cab dove into the more polished and dense production path that they would continue down in the intervening years, and it still feels truly thrilling because of that.
Wistful indie-pop was still their forte, and songs such as “The New Year” and “The Sound of Settling” are punchy and direct, big singalong choruses and all. But in the gaps between these moments of brightness, Death Cab found news ways of expressing old sentiments, the dark shades of “Tiny Vessels,” with its explosive second-half, creating an unsettling undercurrent that came to the fore on the striking title track, an eight-minute tour-de-force that rises and falls in dramatic, knee-shaking fashion.
It was the record’s follow-up that would send the band into indie-rock stratosphere, Grammy Awards and all, but Transatlanticism remains a true sensation; the sound of a band who felt cornered by the world they found themselves in, so simply made a whole new one of their own. — Tom Johnson
The Life of Pablo, despite its disorganized and confusing release, is amongst the greatest of Kanye’s discography. Throughout his seventh studio album, Kanye shows that he is aware of his impact not only on rap, but on music as a whole: “I Love Kanye,” the 45-second self-reflective narrative, on the surface seems like a narcissist’s anthem, but it actually shows Kanye digging deep, realizing that while he has strayed from his roots, he has created and mentored so many more “Kanyes”: Big Sean, Vic Mensa and even Tyler, The Creator. “Saint Pablo” is a stunning track, where Kanye picks himself apart and talks about his deepest insecurities, ranging from his very public mental health issues to the $53M debt he faced.
The Life of Pablo is raw, and while there isn’t a giant musical resurgence that we’ve heard on 808s and Heartbreak, Yeezus, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s an incredible insight into West’s mindset and his thought process. The crazy transitions between songs can make you feel on top of the world, and you’re going higher, and then you’re let down right at the climax, like in “Waves” into “FML.” The best part about this album, though, is the fact that you can be feeling any type of way, and it can be the perfect soundtrack to that mood. Anger, insecurity, happiness, partying, loneliness, hope … The Life of Pablo is an album for the people. It’s Kanye asking people to think with mindsets that may be different than their own, and that in itself is a respectable initiative everyone can — or at least should — get behind. — Happy Haugen
Making R&B Nasty Again
The defining sound of R&B in the late 2000s is summarized in The-Dream’s Love/Hate. More importantly, the defining sound of production techniques in the late 2000s (2005-2009) is also captured in The-Dream’s debut studio album.
Love/Hate gave many quality singles- not necessarily rare for an album of that time but a requirement for classic albums. From “Shawty Is the Shit” to “I Luv Your Girl” and even “Falsetto” the club-like mixes attained critical acclaim. These singles charted on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
From what I remember back in the day- these singles also received heavy airplay. I was but 12 when the album dropped in the holiday season of 2007 but I knew the album front to back thanks to my local R&B and Hip Hop station. The radio stations loved The-Dream.
The-Dream’s artistry, once filtered through FCC filters for “clean” music was quite versatile. His debut, although provocative, was derivative of dancier more upbeat sounds from the late 80s. The-Dream’s R&B was homage to something we all could agree that we loved: MJ’s pop influence and Prince’s sexiness.
The-Dream picked up where artists like Usher and Brandy left off. Like I mentioned, his sound was the brainchild of the popularized production style of the day- think Rihanna-type beats with club-like low end and synths. Kanye-type grooves built to sample or interpolate pop music of yesteryear.
The album is iconic in that it also plays through in a cohesive and blended format. “Nikki” bleeds into “She Needs My Love” and so on.
Overall, Love/Hate is pretty much required listening when remembering or studying music in the 2000s. The-Dream walked so artists like Kehlani, Jacques, Jeremih and Justin Bieber could run. Love/Hate made R&B nasty again, and it was versatile.
Although the album was only ever granted gold status from RIAA, the album cemented itself in playlist notoriety. Specifically, the single “Falsetto” became and still is a tool in many DJs arsenal. Perhaps you heard the album in the club on a night out or on your commute over the radio- you’ve heard this album.
The-Dream gave us a soundtrack that scored our day-to-day as well as the more intimate moments of our lives. — Chanell Noise