Angsty? Rage It Out With XXX
Danny Brown isn’t given his roses enough, in my opinion. Having seen him several times live, I believe he is perceived as too alternative a rapper for mainstream love. His fanbase, like many other rappers heavy on the drug-references, is really young.
This is not a bad thing at all; hip-hop welcomes people from all walks of life and technically his discography is critically acclaimed. For all I know, these white kids at his shows may relate harder to his messages of deterioration of community, rock-star living and being overlooked than his older Black peers. Whatever — these themes mixed with Danny Brown’s raw delivery is why I love XXX.
I don’t get why his name is not in more GOAT (greatest of all time) conversations. His flow lends itself to high-energy live performances, and his ability to switch cadences during a song is one of many reasons his music is so compelling. He’s up there with the wild lyricists Lil Wayne, Juicy J and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, for me.
XXX is nice for so many reasons. Brown name drops with no remorse; on “Pac Blood’s” hook he references The Pope, Sarah Palin, Mahatma Gandhi and popular Black preacher TD Jakes:
…make Gandhi grab the burner while they shoot sh-t
Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his d-ck sucked
Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up
Make Sarah Palin d–p-thr–t ’til she hiccup
Had T.D. Jakes round this b-tch doing stick-ups…
The production value is up-to-snuff as well. It appeals to the southern ear, for sure, with heavy 808 percussion elements and Three 6 Mafia-influenced melodies. There are also more Detroit-based, crunchy and electronic sounds present later in the album. The punk-elements scattered throughout XXX cements it as a house-party staple.
The raunchy, nasty and brash lyrics are so aggressive. They aren’t so much angry as they are enticing and energy-fulfilling. Danny Brown does an expert job as ‘master-of-the ceremony’ aka the emcee in exuding or gathering up the most powerful feelings on XXX.
This album is in all of our music libraries. Perhaps, songs from XXX is more of a ‘deep-cuts playlist’ for some of us than others (I’m always playing “Blunt After Blunt,” however). But Brown’s incendiary raps are something that we love to rage to. His flow is something easy to follow, and his subject material is ridiculously relatable. Yes, folks really get drunk off of PBRs, word to “Bruiser Brigade.” — Chanell Noise
The only reason Songs For The Deaf should be retrospectively analyzed as anything other than just a great rock album is because it’s one of the last relics of an age where something as heavy and quirky as this could attain mainstream adoration. It’s an album that nestled between the psychedelic metal of System of A Down (“First It Giveth” sounds more like a Toxicity cut than many of us thought at the time) and the stadium garage-rock of The Strokes (“No One Knows”, obviously). And the rest of it filled the gaps in what was a weirdly disoriented year of radio rock focus; the nu-metal bubble was bursting but the post-grunge (buttrock) movement had yet to gain its legs.
It’s strange to think about how much of this record sounds like Kyuss (Josh Homme’s stoner-rock band that gained a cult following in the ’90s but never broke into sports arenas the way Queens of the Stone Age would), particularly because no other band of their stature resembled that idiom. It was metallic-minded music for kids (and old-heads turned off by nu-metal) who were too high to handle metal, who therefore appreciated the album’s oddball interludes and kinda trippy (albeit kinda kitschy) skits. But it’s even stranger to think how those same people weren’t bothered by a spastic, Glassjaw-esque rager like “Six Shooter” crammed into the middle of the tracklist.
Songs For The Deaf sounds classic without also sounding derivative, a balance that Greta Van Fleet (depressingly, one of QOTSA’s most common contemporaries) could never strike. — Eli Enis
The first album from Swedish electronic musician Axel Willner (under the moniker The Field), From Here We Go Sublime skates the razor’s edge that separates techno and trance in a way that’s so deeply conceived that it comes across as effortless. But this painstaking, masterful set of orchestrations come not only from a learned musician, but a sophisticated and proven DJ as well. From his work in the Stockholm scene, Willner clearly gained an incredible understanding of musical drama and flow, which serve him perfectly in the subtle layering and slow builds of these gorgeous tracks. Although From Here We Go Sublime is spectacular for everything from dancing to studying, it also rewards deep listening—as its loops churn into each other and percussion flows in and out of itself, this record goes on a sonic journey that few techno records have the facility to maintain. It’s truly an encyclopedia of what was possible in this kind of music in 2007, and in that sense, it’s a revelation. — Adam Rothbarth
The International Mixtape
One of the best mixtapes of the 2000s, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol.1, was the blueprint for future club mixes. M.I.A. and Diplo came together and had the awesome idea of not letting their heavily sampled work go to waste.
Although working on her debut album, M.I.A. was forced to delay her release due to uncleared samples. Solution? Like many other artists in her heyday, she dropped a mixtape. Diplo infused her vocals into the crunchy mixes we learned to love in club settings and festival performances from DJs.
The mixtape rose to critical acclaim thanks to its hodgepodge of sounds. There was something for everyone on this. The sampling efforts from Diplo and M.I.A.’s part borrows influence from the world. The international variation transports a listener from New York to Brazil and even Latin America.
It is truly the production that sets this body of work apart from other studio albums. M.I.A’s contemporaries were just beginning to clean up their sounds. Think about where pop was going in that time (Think Gwen Stefani and Kelly Clarkson).
Even Hip Hop was still growing and just around 30 years old. It was bold for M.I.A. to jump on all of these budding sounds unofficially- it was classic to hop over other popular beats in a mixtape fashion in the Hip Hop community. But what were listeners to make of this British-born Sri-Lankan singing and rapping over the instrumental of “Goodies” by Ciara?
Further, the song transitions into “Definition of a Roller” with Clipse, which functions as a rap song with southwest Asian musical elements (sitar, flute, etc.).
M.I.A. was cool enough and smart enough to secure Diplo as the executive producer as well as a few key features (like Clipse) to infiltrate each market. “Cutty Ranks” put her in the ears of dancehall and reggaeton fans. “Definition of a Roller” put her on the rap community’s radar.
Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1’s true classicism lies in its format. These aren’t M.I.A’s best lyrics, Diplo’s best mash-ups or even the best collab of all time. Piracy Funds Terrorism is, however, really cool, was really rare (only 2000 physical copies pressed) and diverse. — Chanell Noise
James Murphy knew the future because he’d seen it before. When the DFA co-founder released “Losing My Edge” in the summer of 2002, the new-New York rock renaissance was in full swing. But Murphy had a full decade of living on the purveyors of that sound, and he wanted them to know that it wouldn’t last forever.
By 2005, the novelty had worn thin. Post-9/11 New York had shed the last vestiges of its grittier past, and the music birthed by those rougher edges began to follow suit. Right on time and riding the wave of several more singles, LCD Soundsystem injected just the right cocktail of dance punk and electronic that the hipsters never knew they needed.
LCD Soundsystem works less as a proper album and more as a showing-the-cards moment. Much like the name-dropping list of influences that closes “Losing My Edge,” the individual tracks on the band’s debut serve as sonic references both drawing from those influences and pointing towards larger ideas that the band would explore throughout the remainder of the decade.
There’s a whole lot that could have gone wrong with those building blocks: the repetition, the lyricism. But it works because James Murphy knew what he was talking about, both musically and experientially. Each track, each note, each line is expertly and forcefully delivered with the ethos that only 30 years of coolness can give you. It worked so well that Murphy unleashed the next wave of guitars becoming turntables — luckily, the kids had him to show them the ropes. — Logan Rifenberg
Eminem is angry, but also, as he makes evident in the intro, he doesn’t fucking care what you think. Don’t mess with him or he’ll kill you, he warns, throughout a track that is disturbing in its violence. Yet at the end of the track, he laughs everything he’s rapped off saying, “I’m just playing, ladies / You know I love you.”
How much Slim’s second major-label effort, The Marshall Mathers LP, can be enjoyed versus just tolerated depends on a healthy suspension of disbelief. Take him at face value and Em is a sociopath unleashing his most vile feelings; allow yourself to believe that by joining him, you’re in on the joke and his calculated mix of autobiography with exaggerated ire is all a gag. Maybe he’s an asshole. Maybe by addressing the darkness inherent inside of all of us he’s helping us to exorcise it as well. That’s for you to decide, though.
In the near two decades since “Stan” was released the song has become an eponym for a pop-star’s most fanatical follower sans any of the irony of the original text. A well-known story by now, the track chronicles an obsessive Eminem fan’s attempt in vain to reach his celebrity idol, which leads the unhinged young man to take his life and that of his pregnant girlfriend’s. When Em finally gets around to replying to months of unanswered letters, his tone is grounded. “Why are you so mad,” he asks, as if the whole thing is an exercise in role-reversal.
“Get a sense of humor,” Slim tells his detractors on “Who Knew.” He’s clearly fatigued by fame and the responsibility it confers. Addressing his listeners in a spoken word intro on final track “Criminal” Em sets the record straight for the umpteenth time. No, he says, he is not going to kill anyone, but this doesn’t absolve him of the weight of his words. There’s a real nastiness in the song “Kim,” during which Eminem murders his ex-wife, that despite any claims to the contrary, can’t be written off as just in jest.
Despite this faux pas, Eminem is in top form here. He slings rhymes like a verbal Billy the Kid, only with a larger outlaw status. Dr. Dre’s production is sharp and has more hooks than a meat factory. All the other Slim Shady’s might be imitating, but on this one, the real Slim Shady has risen. — Alex Wexelman
A Memphis legend and undisputed garage rock champion, Jay Reatard paved the way for all that followed after his untimely death in 2010. He was loud, he was angry, and he wanted to play fast. He was the leader of an entire generation of freaks – you walk into any house show, say the name “Jay Reatard,” and heads turn faster than Reatard shouts “Death is forming” throughout the album. What sets Blood Visions aside from others he put out is that you can hear the confidence behind the music – Reatard knows exactly what he wants: how it will sound, how it will be produced, and how the listener will hear it. This is his life (Literally. He dropped out of high school and moved away at 16.), and you can hear the creative effort that goes into this album.
You can hear the frustration Reatard feels, anger as a result of the break up not only of one of his bands, The Lost Sounds, but also of his relationship with his Lost Sounds bandmate Alicja Trout. It’s full of iconic hooks and riffs: “My Shadow,” the cult classic, palm-muted anthem; “Oh It’s Such a Shame,” which sounds like it’s straight out of a montage scene in a movie; “Turning Blue,” which is the perfect example of what music will sound like in a couple of years. Blood Visions is Reatard’s thesis, his masterpiece, and a groundbreaking album in the world of garage rock. — Happy Haugen
On Spoon’s sixth studio album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, there’s an overwhelming sense of rolling with the punches. The men of Spoon simply throw their cares to the wind, and approach Ga with the same candor as the album’s title– they’re here to rock and work hard, but they also know how to joke around. At the beginning of the band’s cover of Natural History’s “Don’t You Evah,” frontman Britt Daniel heckles Jim Eno to “record the talkback,” pushing forward the playfulness and celebratory style the band has found their niche within.
Joy and pure rock reign king throughout Ga, resulting in rip-roaring fun and a solid collection of laid back tracks. “The Underdog” stands up for anyone who has been underestimated and underappreciated. When Daniel sings, “Uh-huh ’cause you don’t talk to the water boy / And there’s so much you could learn but you don’t want to know,” there’s a moment of victory for anyone who has been talked down to, Daniel pointing out a big flaw in society. Throughout Ga, this theme of being the bigger person rings true, Spoon acting as a bit of a Superman powerhouse, speaking up for those who can’t. “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” is a moment of self-recognition, cutting slack when needed, and reminding us all that humans can disappoint, but knowing your worth and value is most important. And in regards to the tongue twister album title– Britt Daniel told Austin 360 that it is a “great little Dadaist term.” — Virginia Croft
Ariel Pink: A cult legend with an affinity for creating music that’ll make you dance, cry, ponder and feel everything on your personal emotional spectrum. His discography is full of these tracks, and Before Today is no exception – it’s a testament to the quirky pop of the past with songwriting that would inspire an entire generation of lo-fi musicians.
The record starts off with “Hot Body Rub,” a song that almost sounds like it’s being played by the Mos Eisley Cantina band – but it’s actually Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Pink’s supporting band, on the album. Not only is this album the first to be credited to Haunted Graffiti, it’s also the first album in Pink’s discography to be signed to the legendary indie label 4AD. Despite this, however, his sound is retained, and the music is what we’ve come to know and love. “Lestat (acc. to the widows maid)” has back-and-forth that inserts the listener right into the album, as if you’re in the studio with them. “Menopause Man” starts off with a simple intro, straightforward bassline and vocal part. The track is reminiscent of The Goonies – the verses are when they’re exploring the tunnels, hoping they don’t get caught, and when the chorus hits, it’s the same sensation as discovering The Inferno.
Before Today is Ariel Pink’s entire personality over the course of 12 songs: all over the place, yet cohesive and organized, with a crazed appetite for anything considered strange. — Happy Haugen
Keeping Mama’s Gun To My Head
Erykah Badu is unique in that she sidestepped the sophomore slump (counting studio albums). Baduizm is indeed timeless and her follow-up, Mama’s Gun, is also a gem. I grew up listening to Badu and felt funky as hell- super connected to my roots.
Seriously, the album has a funk attitude and makes excellent use of live instrumentation. The percussion and guitars on the opening track, “Penitentiary Philosophy,” are reminiscent of Isley Brothers’ songs where the music and instrumentation reigns supreme and the track is alive.
Mama’s Gun is what happens when songstresses keep the music first and essentially set ego aside as wholesome musicality and creativity take front and center.
The albums of old took their time giving a message. Badu drips soul and feminine divinity in each three to six minute track. There are no shortcuts in her hooks, her bridges or her production. The album, recorded at Electric Lady Studios in NYC at the turn of the millenium, was Badu’s return to the studio after giving birth to her and Andre 3000’s son, Seven.
She took no shortcuts with honesty in her music either: her relationship with Andre, her relationship as a Black woman with the US, her relationship with herself and her relationship with music pop up in the album. Most tangible is her relationship with music and the authentic process of recording. Russell Elevado, one of the nicest recording engineers to do it, used analog or vintage gear to mix Mama’s Gun.
If I had to choose a favorite song from this album, it would be “…& On.” The transition from “My Life” is dope and interpolating or sampling yourself (“On & On”) is always a boss move. Even how the song bleeds into “Cleva” is smooth.
It’s not enough to say that Badu skipped the sophomore slump- she was and still is in her creative bag with music. From that first album to the timeless piece Mama’s Gun, to even the mixtapes she drops today- she continues to hold a mirror up to the world and do important work. — Chanell Noise
Creating a nearly three-hour album consisting of a 10-piece jazz band, 32-piece orchestra and 20-member choir, working on To Pimp A Butterfly, and touring with Snoop Dogg and Chaka Khan – Kamasi Washington is truly, for lack of a better word, epic. The Epic is a triple LP, split into three volumes: The Plan, The Glorious Tale, and The Historic Repetition. Throughout each volume, you can Washington’s knowledge of a legendary past: you hear piano like John Coltrane and fusion like Miles Davis.
“Miss Understanding,” one of the album’s singles, was the perfect sample of what The Epic would be offering. It starts off loud, with cymbals crashing, horns blaring, voices calling out to you, lightning-quick drum fills, warning you of what’s coming – and then it starts. A crazed, adventurous nearly-nine-minute track that has some of the tightest jazz playing this world has to offer. It takes you all over Washington’s writing ability, and you’ll start to feel like you’re sitting with him, a part of the action.
“Change of the Guard,” the album’s first track, introduces you to a whole new world of jazz, but not Coltrane’s world, not Davis’ world, not Hancock’s world, not even Rollins’ world – Kamasi Washington’s world. That’s what makes The Epic truly epic: Washington has taken what his elders have taught him and he’s run with it. — Happy Haugen
2008 feels worlds away. All those years ago, Vampire Weekend were able to set themselves apart by positioning themselves squarely in between the guitar-driven rock of contemporaries such as No Age and Deerhunter and the more ethereal, synth-based music of M83 and Cut Copy while also incorporating a wide range of outside influences in to their sound.
Rather than making lovelorn or angry music like many of their peers, these four upper-middle class kids who met at Columbia University sold listeners on an upbeat dream of being young, educated, and well-off in the northeast. While they achieved this through their frequent use of African rhythms and textures, easily danceable bass lines, and songs written in major keys, the lyrical content of the album ultimately defined the music’s aesthetic and, in turn, the band’s image. From the girl who “spilled kefir on her keffiyeh” in “Campus” to ruminations on diction and grammar on “Oxford Comma,” Ezra Koenig’s songwriting during this period, while sometimes tongue-in-cheek, was evocative of the life that the quartet knew from their formative years — or at least pretended to know.
Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut achieved one of the most beautiful things that can be done with music: they transported listeners into their world, and those who exist on the margins of the buttoned-up, elite Northeastern society could close their eyes and become a part of it. Whether the perspective of a bunch of well-off kids is important to broadcast or not is beside the point — the simple fact that they created such a transportive piece of work is enough. While everything the band has done since is similarly excellent, to this day the youthful exuberance of their debut sets the record apart from the rest. — Matthew Hirsch
French indie pop band Phoenix released their third album It’s Never Been Like That in 2006 expressing many of their upbeat stylistic choices and incorporating their consistently present French culture. In the beginning of the album, their French roots are extremely apparent in songs like “Napoleon Says” and “Rally,” which display their wide range within the refined space of 3-minute indie pop jams. The rest of the album follows suit. The middle of the album focuses on different aspects of love and relationships from long distance in “Long Distance Call” to the ending of old relationships in “Courtesy Laughs.” It’s Never Been Like That is a stellar look at the universal desire of relationships, from their inception to their conclusions. Not only is the deeper meaning present in these songs but the use of different forms of percussion intros adds to the upbeat pop effect that Phoenix typically creates. The album ends by showing off the band ability to contrast with an instrumental piece called “North” and an almost erratic, fast-paced song, called “Sometimes in the Fall”. Ultimately, Phoenix is able to use different pop variations with their own signature repetitive style on songs to create a cohesive album that highlights some of the band’s best features. — Ashley Porter
My introduction to Courtney Barnett’s debut was when I stumbled across the music video for “Pedestrian At Best,” and at first I had mixed feelings about the song. This is probably because she was one of my first encounters with the indie rock genre, and I found myself taken aback by the track’s brashness.
However, the song quickly grew on me as I learned her genius comes from both her lyrics and her delivery of them.
Throughout the album she sings about mundane happenings that often take a twisted, as can be heard in tracks like “Elevator Operator” and “Aqua Profunda!”
The former centers around a man who, after deciding to quit his job, finds himself having to stop a boy from jumping off the rooftop of a building. The latter tells the story of someone who passes out trying to hold his or her breath while trying to impress someone else as they swim laps at the pool.
The Aussie Rocker’s songs are also incredibly relatable, especially in tracks like “Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go to The Party,” where she deals with the age old dilemma of choosing to go out or stay in. Barnett rocks out on the track, strumming chords and playing melodies which contain echoes of ’70s classics like The Romantics’ “What I Like About You.”
With witty lyrics, her signature deadpan delivery and rock stylings of the ’60s and ’70s, Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is one of modern indie rock’s finest. — Drew Pearce
I like to say the only country music I listen to is The Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain. Now I’ve added Kacey Musgraves to the list. With the style of a young Dolly Parton and the lyricism of a seasoned songwriter, Musgraves has solidified her spot in country music. There’s a genuineness that comes off both in her songs and her performances. Golden Hour is a beautiful expression of love and optimism without all the sap that makes you want to gag. When I first looked at the track listing and saw a song titled “Space Cowboy”, I have to admit I was a little put off. After one listen, I was sold on the clever word play. Since “Same Trailer, Different Park”, Musgraves has been able to pull of puns and cliches without it ever being overdone or being anything other than lovely. Much like The Dixie Chicks, Musgraves uses her quick wit and sense of timing to create music that appeals to more than just a country audience. Winning the Grammy for Album of the Year just offers further proof that Musgraves thrives at writing a cohesive, succinct work of art. She was able to capture a snapshot of the female experience with “Wonder Woman” and tap into a feeling we’ve all had with “Happy and Sad”. It doesn’t hurt that she fully supports weed legalization and the LGBTQ+ community. Musgraves has garnered massive success by not only creating beautiful music, but also by embracing everyone that traditional country music has loved to leave out. — Megan Beck
There’s a lovely introduction on Pitchfork’s review of Any Other City which says that we should cherish singers who were never intended to be singers as they help remind us that “there are still new ideas under the sun.” Move away, it suggests, from the taught, from the conventional, from the much-trodden path, for that’s where the real magic can be found…
Glasgow’s Life Without Buildings only made one album during their short stint as a band — but, oh, what a record it turned out to be. A poetic collection set to thrilling math-rock instrumentation, and delivered with wide-eyed erraticism by Sue Tompkins, Any Other City is a gleaming beacon of idiosyncratic outsider-pop, ten songs and forty-five minutes of music that feels so distinctly unique you’re left wondering how they even created it at all. Or, perhaps, whether they ever intended for anyone else to listen to it.
It’s hard to think of a more charismatic vocal (and delivery) than Tompkins. From the outset, her voice grabs the centre-stage, spitting out a frantic collection of words, yelps, and squeals: “Lately looking in your eyes / I’ve been feeling neo / I’ve been feeling neo / I forgot, I forgot, I forgot, I forgot…”
On paper, those lyrics are bizarre and nonsensical, but to hear them bursting out of the song, maniacal and dizzying, they’re utterly exhilarating, like running around the city at night, led by hand that you don’t know, trust, or understand, but never once consider letting go of. — Tom Johnson
Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut has the cocky self-assuredness of a swaggering lothario whose coat’s popped collar belies the fact that deep in its pocket is a well-thumbed through copy of Delta of Venus. The foursome’s post-punk Nick-Lowe-disco tracks have a literary quality that raises them above lusty tales for libidinous lads to songs with wit and a healthy dose of self-awareness.
It’s vigorous uptempo fun that blends good ole rock’n’roll with Britpop’s dancier moments. There’s some ineffable Kinks influence perhaps best exemplified in the tale of conquest with a homoerotic sheen “Michael” on which singer Alex Kapranos urges the titular character to sidle up closer. Breakthrough single “Take Me Out” has little in the way of competition for early aughts indie anthem status with its medley-like shifts in tempo from its pleading intro to its barn-stomping chorus.
While at times the band’s wry seductive charm can sound like it’s aping Pulp or as on the slinky and foreboding intro to “Auf Asche” Berlin-era Bowie, Franz Ferdinand carves out its own space occupying a missing link between Modest Mouse and Arctic Monkeys. (You can almost hear the sound of Alex Turner’s pencil scratching paper as he vigorously takes notes.)
The record closes glibly as its narrator stares down death from 40 feet above. Yet, our friend sounds so assured that jumping off a cliff is a good solution that you might forget the old adage of moms everywhere and join in his descent. It’s a good metaphor for the album as a whole: throw caution to the wind, try something dangerous, just have a good time while you do it. — Alex Wexelman
Twenty-two years after the release of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s third studio album m b v is full of what makes My Bloody Valentine who they are – there are songs that put you out of your body, gliding guitars, and vocals that are whispering right into your ear.
m b v starts off with the Loveless-esque track “She Found Now,” with a simplicity that is common for the band, but uncommon for the rest of us. Common to them means something completely different than common to listeners. There’s minimal percussion, but the repetition in the downstrokes of Kevin Shields’ guitar playing adds a sense of rhythm that drums simply couldn’t produce. He’s singing to you, just barely above a whisper, to the point where you’ll be hanging onto his every word (if you weren’t already captured by the prettiness in his voice).
Later on the album, you hear a side of the band that you weren’t expecting: it’s almost like a fusion of electronica, shoegaze, and noise pop. That typically wouldn’t sound like it’d add up and work, but time and time again, MBV has shown us that they are capable of anything they want to be capable of. “In Another Way” is an example of that fusion, creating a new kind of sound that nobody would’ve expected of the band, and yet, it works perfectly. m b v is a standout, because the band isn’t fading out – they’re staying true to themselves while still pushing themselves to create new sounds. — Happy Haugen
Sometimes it is fitting to view an album not as an accompaniment, a follow-up, or a sequel, but worthy to stand alone in its entirety, on its own terms. After the unanticipated success of For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon threw himself head-first into the band’s self-titled second record, gradually expanding into a nine-piece group which featured the likes of Colin Stetson and Sean Carey.
The Grammy-winning Bon Iver is a vast leap from the earthy innocence found on For Emma, yet the trademark poetry of Vernon’s interpretive lyrics persists here. On “Perth,” he is “still alive for you, love”, roaring and building, piece by piece, until there is nowhere left to go but to sink within the surreal dream that spreads out before us. From there, the record weaves into meticulous arrangements, refined instrumentation; these are larger soundscapes, yet the mythical and alluring nature of such music remains.
Striking a balance between the secular and sacred, it is Vernon’s voice that holds together all ten magnificent tracks — the rustic, warm husk that curves around our ears, vast and full of beauty, not of this earth but grounded somewhere else, in a midst of raucous drums and bountiful horns. With each song transitioning sweetly, albeit perfectly into the next, this is a record to lose yourself within — ten vignettes from places both real and fictional, a journey through the mind of a master truly coming into his own. — Tom Johnson
Polly Jean Harvey made five classics in a row from 1992 to 2000, so her greatness is never questioned. It’s a little hard to write about someone like this — like Nick Cave in the ’80s or Sleater-Kinney who overlapped during this time. How do you parse out what makes each album unique and not just say “Well, they did it again.” For starters, on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey is decidedly no longer in the ’90s (duh). The angst of her early work is no longer the default setting, and the guitars rarely attempt to shock you. Her sound is clear and crisp like the American alternative rock of the time that no respectable music critic would recommend. This all sounds like a negative, and there were some naysayers at the time of Stories release, but that commercial rock sound usually faltered due to lame vocals and uncomplicated lyrics. Here, Harvey is doing her best Patti Smith-like sneering, while her lyrics romanticize the city without overlooking its seedy underbelly. There are also still instances of decidedly-indie freak-outs like “Kamikaze” that switch up the pace. The album also takes another leap with the final two tracks — “Horses in My Dreams” and “We Float.” These piano-driven tracks lengthen out like a blissful city stroll where you allow yourself time to think. For the first time, Harvey sounded content with her place in the world — “We’ll float / Take life as it comes” — but for Harvey, that never comes close to complacency. — Andrew Cox
An amnesiac is someone who is experiencing partial or total memory loss. On the fifth studio album by Radiohead, it sounds like they’ve forgotten their past selves – in the best way possible.
Recorded during the Kid A sessions between 1999 and 2000, Amnesiac finds Radiohead straying further and further from their alternative, guitar-heavy roots and delving into a completely new era for the band. If someone showed you The Bends and Amnesiac, you would think it’s two completely different bands; and yet, maybe it is two different bands. Throughout the record, Radiohead pushes themselves to new heights as they explore the extent of their abilities. There’s sweeping vocal ability on the first half, on tracks like “You And Whose Army?”. Yorke’s vocals capture listeners, drawing them closer and pushing them away at once. Despite it being the fourth song, it’s as if it’s daring you to listen to the rest of the album, saying, “This is us now. Join our quest, see what we’ve got to say.”
Amnesiac is a beautiful soundscape, with Silkworm-esque tracks like “Knives Out,” to songs that make you feel like you’re about to embark on an adventure you might not make it back from, like “I Might Be Wrong.” While on previous albums Radiohead was dipping their feet into experimental waters, whereas on Amnesiac, Radiohead is completely submerged in uncharted territory. — Happy Haugen
Japandroids’ Celebration Rock has one of the least ambiguous titles in the history of rock music. And it’s not for nothing. In this Canadian duo’s second album, everything clicks – the hooks, the riffs, the towering walls of sound, the (continuous) thunder of the drums. Indeed, listening to this music, whose every crevice and plateau is rich with noise, it’s hard to believe that there’s only two guys in this band. But Celebration Rock isn’t just a celebration of rock itself. Japandroids’ instant classic is an ode to the angst of youth and the melancholy of starting to let that angst slip away. In “Younger Us,” singer Brian King muses, “Remember when we had them all on the run/ And the night we saw midnight sun/ Remember saying things like ‘we’ll sleep when we’re dead’/ And thinking this feeling was never gonna end.” In absolute slammer “The House That Heaven Built,” which is surely one of the best rock songs of the past two decades, he ruminates on a failed romance with, “It’s a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give/ But you’re not mine to die for anymore/ So I must live.” In these words comes the true heart of Celebration Rock, the extremely rock n’ roll idea that we’re gonna push through whatever bullshit’s trying to slow us down. Because that’s what it means to grow up. — Adam Rothbarth
Random Access Memories was the album French house duo Daft Punk had always dreamed of making. Working alongside a full orchestration and a large array of instrumentation for the Tron: Legacy soundtrack had opened their eyes to a whole new form of creating the dance music they were known so fondly for. They almost completely 180’d their approach to this album than any studio record they had done before, opting for almost no samples and replacing them with live instruments from all classes. With both classic woodwinds, horns, and guitars and their patented vocoder style vocal inflection they let their creativity run free. “Beyond” is a good example of how they were able to incorporate two clashing styles into beautiful melodies. The introductory orchestration followed by very airy and non-programmed drums practically teleports us back to the ‘70s. With ‘70s disco-influenced hits like “Get Lucky” or “Lose Yourself to Dance” and more-synthesized and futuristic ‘80s-sounding tracks like the Julian Casablancas’ led “Instant Crush,” it’s easy to see why many saw this as a sharp and surprising turn from their previous work (especially the very jarring and robotic Human After All). The album surpassed all expectations, delivering a very heart-filled and loving ode to the genres before them all while bringing their own unique style and blending it perfectly. — Javier Rodriguez
Throughout the sophomore album from Real Estate, there’s a perpetual question: can we truly enjoy the moment we’re in? The New Jersey band tackles the reality of life in the neat package of Days, examining the journey between their kick back with a beer styled self-titled debut. Growing up is hard to do, but Real Estate takes the ebbs and flows with a serene disposition, especially on penultimate track “Younger Than Yesterday.” While the track itself contains less than fifty words, the lack of vocabulary lends itself to a higher meaning– the band submerges themselves into the repetitive nature of powerful instrumentals and hones in on taking the moment to truly listen to what they are putting out into the world. As frontman Martin Courtney sings, “If it takes all summer long / Just to write one simple song / There’s too much to focus on / Clearly that is something wrong.” Here, there is a realization of the ever-present difficulty of productivity– time won’t stop for anyone, and even in the lazy days of summer, the flow must continue.
Days is an experience of all four seasons, the band’s wistful, melancholic instrumentals carrying both a summer and fall breeze. “Green Aisles” looks back on easier days, full of carefree, “aimless drives.” The track has the gooey feel of first love, riding your bicycle to see your crush, with nothing but time on your side. Real Estate excels here, curating a mood board of all the memories not yet made, writing the soundtrack ahead of time. — Virginia Croft
Best of The Golden Era of Mixtapes
Pusha T is rap royalty at this point- but how did he get there exactly? Let us not forget him as half of the prolific and accomplished Virginian duo Clipse. Their mixtape, We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2 was raw.
Young, obnoxious, hand on our crotches
Swagga out of this world, call us the Diddy-boppers
Fuck the shit out your girl, let the city watch us
Hit her with the Dougie like Cam’ron
Move bitch, move bitch; throw that shit, my jam’s on
White Lambo, hear them fans blow
Black interior, I’s a modern day Sambo
So niggerish, they flow’s frivolous
Tickle us pink like white girl clitoris
Fuckin’ the game up, Re-Up,
them niggas deceive ya
We get ’em for thirteen fiva, we don’t believe ya
My reputation carry stripes in hood, I am Zebra
— Pusha T, Re-Up
The tape was hosted by Clinton Sparks. Like other critically acclaimed tapes, it’s the format being celebrated that sets the project apart. Sparks was able to arrange the tape in a way that allowed a listener to get a Vol. 1 refresher, be told story and breathe between features.
Every emcee holds their own, the interludes are informational/educational (remember our lesson in black card credit?) and the beats are weird but familiar as hell. The Pusha- Interlude I referenced breaks down for the listener exactly why Clipse was in a lane of their own.
The golden era of rap mixtapes is arguably right in the decade from ‘99 to 2009 – ten years. In that ten years, Clipse released several mixtapes, one of the nastiest coming out in 2005. Clipse’s secret weapon? Neptunes production.
Like other pieces on Clipse’s discography being cemented as classics, the importance of the Neptunes production cannot be downplayed. The Virginian duo is comprised of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. The Neptunes’ punchy, sample-based production acted as solid loops that laid the foundation on which Pusha, Malice and any features layered on their drug-references and hometown-heroisms on thick.
We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2 elevated the bar for street rap. Malice and Pusha T’s lyricism is thick. Their flow lends itself to their storytelling style but they are both able to incorporate witty word-play, name-dropping lines and off-handed braggadocio.
This was the tape that inspired southern emcees to step their game up. This was the mixtape that pushed hip hop production into bigger conversations about the innovations in musical engineering. This was the mixtape that solidified to the world listening that Pusha T was one of the greatest pens alive and music based out of VA was to be respected. — Chanell Noise
The Future is Female
Take Me Apart by Kelela is a slept-on rhythm and blues diamond. Her Disney-princess like voice does all the heavy lifting on an album with progressive and futuristic beats. “You’re the only one I want you know-” she croons on the track “Blue Light.”
Yeah, her lyrics are similar in taste to her R&B peers, contemporaries and OGs. Women have been singing from a collective broken heart (as well as a hopeless romantic lens) for decades. What sets Take Me Apart ahead of the game is its cohesive variability.
Her beats, bless Arca and Jam City’s hearts, are nasty. The layered percussive textures create sonic distortion. With Kelela’s voice bringing everything together, her songs sound like the marriage of electronica, house, hip-hop and soul. You could argue that her songs sound like the future of R&B.
In a press release, Kelela explained that the album expresses an “honest vision of how we navigate dissolving ties with each other and yet remain sanguine for the next chance at love,”. Again, matters of the heart or relationships being the basis of Take Me Apart give it a timeless relatability.
“Despite it being a personal record, the politics of my identity informs how it sounds and how I choose to articulate my vulnerability and strength. I am a black woman, a second-generation Ethiopian-American, who grew up in the ‘burbs listening to R&B, jazz and Björk. All of it comes out in one way or another,” Kelela said.
It is her personal perspective and the vision of her collaborators that propel her album, and the R&B genre, into the future. The juxtaposition of smooth and rough, past and present and soft and hard exist on Take Me Apart. The R&B of yesteryear based in pianos and soprano songstresses is important.
But Kelela’s new wave of experimental, yet honest music is also important. — Chanell Noise
Liz Harris is known for her alluringly airy sound. In excellent albums like Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and A I A: Alien Observer, she created voided out dream pop tunes that mostly comprised heavy, enveloping synths and seriously reverbed vocals. But with 2014’s Ruins, she scaled everything back, crafting her sparsest and most intimate album yet. Recorded on piano with a portable 4-track and a stereo microphone, this album sounds more like nature than anything Harris had released before. I’m not a very floral writer, but this music sounds like a cold, fall day to me. It sounds like trees without leaves. It sounds like someone who’s totally comfortable in their sadness. There’s something naked about this music, and that seems absolutely intentional. The piano melodies are uncharacteristically clear, and the reverb on the vocals is unusually minimal (but that doesn’t mean you can understand what’s being said). “Holding,” my favorite track here, evokes a kind of pastoral romanticness, full of meditative refrains and bouts of silence. It may have been recorded among some kind of emotional ruins for Harris, but sometimes things need to be destroyed before they can be rebuilt. — Adam Rothbarth
On their 12th studio record, Swans continues to push the envelope, as they drag the listener through mud, filth and sludge, while remaining rhythmic and musical.
On the opener, “Lunacy,” you’ll feel like you’re falling in line and being forced to obey a force greater than yourself, as the word “Lunacy” is repeated over and over again, growing more powerful each time. “Your childhood is over” is repeated at the end of the track, building your anxiety, making you feel like you’re about to explode, as you gear up for the rest of the record. It creates a sensation that forces discomfort, and yet, creates excitement; you’re in uncharted territory, and you want to know what else is out there, ready to be explored – similar to becoming an adult.
“Song for a Warrior” is a testament to Gira’s abilities as a songwriter, showing how flexible he is in his work. With Karen O on vocals, it begins with an acoustic guitar that surrounds you and put you to sleep, but not because it’s an uninteresting song – it’s like when you’re a child, and your mother is singing you to sleep, and everything feels certain.
The Seer is more than Swans’ comeback album: It’s them, taking a knife to the past and exclaiming, “This is us! Take it or leave it, we could care less!” Abrasive, shrill, genuine – Swans will push you to the ground, but you’ll still come crawling back. — Happy Haugen
As a teenager, I became a big fan of Bill Bryson’s travel writing. Filled with candour, his work didn’t try and frame places with sweeping generalizations but, instead, focused on the nuances that underpin any community — stories, both big and small, that, over time, form the fabric of a place. Illinois, the second record in Sufjan Steven’s (presumably now defunct) “50 States” project, thrives in much the same fashion: a multi-layered, multi-coloured splash of wives tales and whispers, of grand ideas within small, fragmented lives.
Much like its predecessor, Michigan, the surface of Illinois is scattered with ticker tape and American flags, bright folk-pop songs that, initially, feel somewhat wishy-washy when taken as one whole 74-minute enveloping. But that sprawl, that overwhelming sense of grandeur, is also The Point. It might be set within the great state of Illinois but this is chiefly, as many people have said, a record about America itself in all of its growth, change, and bluster: of hopes, and dreams laid toe to toe with its great, dark underbelly.
With a heap of glowing sincerity, choirs, strings, and rabid instrumentation, Sufjan presents a flip-book of signature events: from UFOs and serial killers, to youth-defining road trips and cancer patients. In other hands, it would be crushed under the weight of endeavour, but Illinois is a vivid illustration of an artist truly coming into their own, and, instead, it thrives, thanks to the sheer strength of the songwriting at its core. It might pull all of its content from reality but it remains in a dazzling world of its own. — Tom Johnson
From the moment Lorde utters the vivid opening line of Melodrama, it becomes clear that the New Zealand music phenom’s 2017 sophomore album will be equal parts indulgent and bittersweet in a way very specific to someone teetering on the cusp of their twenties. Featuring some of modern pop’s glossiest hooks and borderline iconic lyrics (the shrugged-off singsong of “They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre” will reverberate in the pop collective for all eternity), the singer-songwriter leans into the drama and emotional acrobatics of growing up across eleven perfectly curated, sometimes cutting tracks.
Youthful heartache and hedonism burst from every warm Jack Antonoff and Lorde-produced beat on Melodrama, which the artist herself has described as a concept album surrounding a single party. True to theme, the record captures the frantic high-highs and low-lows of youth and party culture over a soundscape of intoxicating synth-pop and hyper-emotional piano ballads: “Writer in the Dark” finds Lorde at her most soulbare and self-loathing, while “Green Light” and “Supercut,” with their euphoric electric glow, will undoubtedly linger in the zeitgeist as two of the 2010s’ most revelatory and well-written anthems. Two years later, the rightfully acclaimed album remains an exercise in brilliant songwriting and popcraft, a space it will likely occupy for decades to come. — Erica Russell
Beth Gibbons, the bruised and bluesy voice that anchored Portishead, doesn’t make its first appearance on the band’s third album until a full two minutes into the opening track. That was really all the notice anyone needed to realize that this Bristol, U.K. outfit was playing from an entirely new rulebook this time around. And why not? They had already fomented the sound of what we still know as “trip-hop” with their first two brilliant LPs. With the burden of expectation on their shoulders and a desire to not repeat themselves, why wouldn’t Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley want to build an entirely new sonic edifice on album #3? Probably because it took the better part of a decade for them to find the inspiration to move forward. Once those doors opened, revealing a shelf of records stuffed with early electronic experiments, world beat and Krautrock, the songs poured out of the trio in a sustained burst.
Truth be told, they didn’t get that far away from the moody, groovy work of their first two albums. The funk underpinnings of “Magic Doors” and the blunted waltz of “Hunter” could have slipped into Dummy’s track listing without anyone noticing. What they did was turn up the malaise that Gibbons could embody so well and push harsher elements (that ugly, ugly beat imitating the title of “Machine Gun,” an array of modular synths, the retching guitar tones that Utley delights in) to the center of the stereo field. — Robert Ham
In the mid-’00s, this town was definitely big enough for two beat-boxing lothario acts that brought intelligent, effervescent production back to electropop. Comparing Junior Boys to Justin Timberlake seems tacky considering one will always be a global superstar while the other is barely talked about anymore, but that’s where my mind goes when listening to Last Exit. This stunning debut appeals to the type of listener who puts Drexciya and Janet Jackson in the same playlist without contemplating how different they are. Pop and IDM converge here in a way that was sure to put off genre purists on either side. Take “High Come Down” — I hear glimpses of Fergie’s “Glamorous” in the falsetto, but it’s floating on top of jittery synths and drums machines that are tantalizingly unstable. This is all to say that Last Exit is an “easy” album for those that seek richer, more-complex production. “Easy” is best displayed in “Birthday,” their first release in 2003. The two-note repetitive intro immediately gets the head bopping, but it’s the chorus with those accented rises (“Is it TRUE that it’s ME? / You can say ALL the things you want to”) that will make you sing along on first listen. Despite the accessibility, Junior Boys are unmistakably indie, and that is most evident in the mixing of Jeremy Greenspan’s vocals. He often gets drowned out in the verses, but you can still hear his breath. Refined is the last thing I would call it; awkwardly seductive is closer. Junior Boys would rattle off another classic two years later with So, This Is Goodbye which fine-tuned their sound, but it’s Last Exit‘s mix of amateurism and melodic sensibilities that made them legends to introverted audiophiles. — Andrew Cox
My first exposure to this album was through a one night stand. She was 10 years older than me. I was 19, maybe 20. We were drinking in her bedroom (she was a mattress on the floor type), and she put on “White Noise.” I was floored. Drunk, but floored, and the next morning, when I left, I found the sound on Spotify and devoured the album on the bus ride on the way home, thinking about the previous night and the ones coming up, my makeup smudged but my ego intact and Settle covers all the bases. Sexy, intimate songs like “Latch,” featuring Sam Smith, deliver closeness, desire, want. When I DJ, I can play it at parties and instantly change the mood, but it’s still a great song to groove to. You’re hungry, itching, aching for skin, for contact. “When A Fire Starts To Burn” gets your head bopping. You’re excited, ready for the next track to take you to the next level of the night. “You & Me” awashes you with emotion again. The album is a journey, but each song open to interpretation. An impeccable dance album that, ultimately, achieves every single one of its goals: To make you move. — Sofie Mikhaylova
“Ooh ooh” is the perfect pop hook to set the tone for Cut Copy’s breakthrough record, In Ghost Colours. The onomatopoeic phrase is repeated throughout the opening track “Feel the Love,” which, hovering around 130 BPM, is an indie-inflected New Wave anthem that will invariably cause movement. Reviews at the time of its release stressed how it was fun light fair that would heat up the dance floor as the winter’s chill fell into summer. Perhaps the changing tides of the early crest of Poptimism, despite some incredulity, played in its favor. Listening to it now, the bouncy synths and shifting melodies point to a moment when indie lost its patronymic rock and expanded to include myriad genres.
Despite the surface sheen of good times, DJ Dan Whitford sings, in a Rick Ocasek staccato, of heartache ( “The holidays we spent will fade / Now that I’ve been gone” ) and desperation ( “Lights and music / Are on my mind / Be my baby / One more time” ). But I know of no better cure for longing than dancing, and so on “Hearts on Fire,” a track that sounds like it could fit snugly on Madonna’s self-titled debut, our tour guide to the end of Lonely Street is reborn. “There’s something in the air tonight,” he sings, “A feeling that you have that could change your life.” This album feels like a good night out, and on a good night out anything is possible. — Alex Wexelman
The central theme in Coloring Book is sticking to your roots, as Chance the Rapper makes a point to connect to his spiritual side throughout the album. On opener “Blessings,” the jubilant vocals strengthen the motif of joy and celebration that Chance pushes through, as the singers fuse their words with excitement and total happiness. The clever beats and musical arrangements add splashes of life to his observations, as if we are walking through his home city of Chicago and seeing it through Chance’s eyes.
Throughout Coloring Book, various guest artists navigate their way through pleasantly surprising cameos. Kanye West appears on opener “All We Got,” alongside the Chicago Children’s Choir. Justin Bieber contributes some flirty vocals on mellow track “Juke Jam,” and to close out the album, T-Pain lends a hand alongside acclaimed gospel musician Kirk Franklin on “Finish Line Drown.” What lies between these tracks are honest revelations about life and all the obstacles that accompany it.
The simple appreciation of life is central in Chance’s music. Two of the tracks on Coloring Book are titled “Blessings,” though each song acts as Chance’s personal reminders to count those very blessings, no matter the size or scope. Beyond this, Chance’s ability to find the sunlight in the darkness lends to his themes of thankfulness. He has some experience in that arena. In music critic Jessica Hopper’s book, “The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic,” Hopper wrote about Chance: “He got busted smoking weed while ditching class at Millennium Park and spent his subsequent 10-day suspension recording a mixtape of songs that birthed his rap career.” Talk about making the best out of a bad situation. — Virginia Croft
Cosmogramma: the “cosmic drama” that showed an entire generation of new music listeners the underside of the beast that is electronic hip-hop. Flying Lotus is the brainchild of Steve Ellison, a critically acclaimed producer, DJ, filmmaker, rapper, musician and founder of Brainfeeder, his record label that has put out Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, just to name a few.
On his third studio attempt, Ellison finds his groove, focusing on what really makes Flying Lotus his project. Obviously, the production is there – insane, heart-pounding songs like “Pickled!” and eerie dance tracks like “Do The Astral Plane” show not only how versatile of a producer that he’s grown into, but the range of influence that he takes on what makes it more personal to him. There’s jazz influence, probably due to the fact that Alice Coltrane is his great-aunt (and also the inspiration behind the album title, when FlyLo misheard her saying “cosmic drama”). There is also incredible collaboration on Cosmogramma, with features from Thundercat, Thom Yorke, Ravi Coltrane and more. It was also in the recording process when his mother was in the hospital, and in the last track “Galaxy In Janaki,” you hear recorded samples of vital-sign monitors and respirators, as Ellison “didn’t want to forget that space.”
Overall, Cosmogramma’s versatility is its strong suit: it has an ability to hook you and show you Ellison’s crazed, beautiful, all-over-the-place world. He’s created a dimension for the listener to experience. — Happy Haugen
Not unlike her project with her brother, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s debut as Fever Ray shimmers and gnashes, at first dark and impenetrable—but when you break through the neon-black meniscus and sink into her world, it becomes an affectionate and constant companion. After reaching universal acclaim and love with The Knife, the Swedish siblings/musicians returned to their respective homes; Andersson gave birth to her second child. Fittingly, Fever Ray sits at the surreal intersection of grand electronic bombast and the familial intimacy. “We talk about love/ We talk about dishwasher tablets, illness/ And we dream about heaven,” she sings on “Seven”, using everyday words and eternal concepts in equivocal tandem, both slithering between ethereal synth rhythms. In a 2018 tweet, Andersson explained that “Triangle Walks” details a particular route she took with her kids in the stroller; but without that bit of context, the track’s botanical imagery and worldweary tiredness could feel taken from a mythic world. The opening one-two of “If I Had A Heart” and “When I Grow Up” contain some of the best production in her catalog. The ceaseless thrum of the former propels the entire album forward, while the staccato guitar and heartbeat bass drum on the latter inject the adrenaline. That complexity of meaning and attachment—paired with Andersson’s riveting synthwork, tightly composed tracks, and heady use of dynamics—make Fever Ray somehow both unique and universal, a record that continues to deepen and grow. — Adam Kivel
Retirement makes for one hell of a send-off. Threatening to quit at the peak of your success was a bold move as a rapper – you worked so hard to elevate your surroundings and now you want to throw it away? But Jay-Z saw The Black Album as the perfect spot to end his first act. The Black Album isn’t Jay-Z at his brightest (That would be The Blueprint), nor would it be him at his most dexterous and hungry (That’s Reasonable Doubt) but it’s Hov at his most evocative, already teary-eyed and nostalgic for his rise from the Marcy projects to selling out Madison Square Garden. Jay-Z’s biggest strength lay in his self-mythologizing; he made boasts and casual threats feel like they already belonged in the annals of legend. It helped that he had a star-studded list of producers ready to wish him well – just Timbaland, 9th Wonder, DJ Quik and the Neptunes would be enough to stoke an average rap fan. Jay managed to coax Rick Rubin out of retirement for the rocksteady “99 Problems,” a song that has yet to lose its lustre years later. Meanwhile, Just Blaze gave Hov a powerful last-minute serve in the form of “PSA” and Kanye West gifted the fiery “Lucifer,” a powerful meditation on the politics of death.
‘Who you know fresher than Hov? Riddle me that.’ Jay mused on the beginning of “Encore.” Years later, we’re still grappling with that very question. — Jibril Yassin
When you review the collection of albums Beck had created before his eighth album, Sea Change, many of them felt other-worldly, as if Beck was tuning into another dimension to create music that could pull the listener away from any struggle or tumult they were experiencing. But, on this album, Beck takes a moment to sit back and have a real, honest talk with the listeners, finally taking the veil away from his usual cheery music. Beck cited his breakup with his longtime girlfriend as a major influence for the lyrical content of the album.
“Guess I’m Doing Fine” stands out, a true testament to the changes heartbreak bring to a life. Beck sings, “Press my face up to the window / To see how warm it is inside / See the things that I’ve been missing / Missing all this time,” letting his guard down and examining all that has occurred during his relationship. It’s an anthem for moving forward, but without force — healing doesn’t happen overnight, and Sea Change is a place of acceptance and support. By offering his listeners this album, Beck extends a hand, reminding them that he’s been there too, and while it is not easy, there’s power in numbers.
Themes of solitude, heartbreak and loneliness wind throughout Sea Change, amidst melancholic instrumentals, with chords that rip open old wounds. Beck’s ability to provide the listener with a true understanding of what is happening within his soul transcends his musical ability, and the album is a next level endeavor. — Virginia Croft
Welcome to the Kanye Era
Kanye West, regardless of how you feel about him, is one of the most prolific and innovative artists of an era. His album, Graduation, signaled the resurgence of a particular style of production in hip hop. West’s ability to chop samples and stitch together in a way that appealed to a new generation of fans was his cornerstone.
Many young producers and beatmakers today credit their affinity for their craft to Kanye West. His style, unconventional at the time, stood out against his contemporaries in that day. He took home a Grammy for Best Rap Album of The Year in 2007, beating out rap OGs Nas (Hip Hop Is Dead) and Jay-Z (Kingdom Come), southern king T.I. (T.I. vs T.I.P.) and even hometown peer Common (Finding Forever).
Unlike Nas’ album of that time suggests, Kanye West illustrated the vitality of hip hop. Many great albums employ what I like to call the ‘Three V’s”. Graduation practiced variability, versatility and virility in a timeless way.
Kanye West’s knowledge and style of sampling gave Graduation a boost in the variability department. Each song would distinct from the next was only linked via West’s raps. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” bops along slower and more reminiscent of an east coast sound than say, “Stronger,” which was a faster song with more Chicago-house-like touches.
His ability to rap over the many types of beats speaks to his versatility- even the features on this album are a mixed bag. But West hold his own with T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Chris Martin and DJ Premier.
As for virility- Graduation sold tons of physical copies when that kind of thing mattered. RIAA certified this album double platinum and five singles rocked the world. Almost all of these singles are still relevant and in heavy syndication. “Stronger” is a popular song for advertising, and I’ve literally heard “Champion” played at a high school graduation.
Kanye West left a profound mark on music with Graduation that not only spawned an entire generation of producers but emcees and even songwriters. Hip hop swung from this genre dominated by gangta emcees from the east and west coasts and the south. Kanye re-introduced Chicago as a artistic powerhouse in music and he paved the way for many contemporary artists to not only feel comfortable in their unique sound but find profitability in it. — Chanell Noise
This album poses more questions than solutions. It finds itself located somewhere between a newly harvested field in the plains where one tills the earth with quiet dedication and patience, and high atop the Adirondacks, etherealized and removed from all manner of the social. This album is not as much of a geographic album as it is a meditation on the psychic spaces that the country carves out of its history. The duality of American dominance and freedom, the openness and forced enclosure, the sometimes-competing interests of liberation and belonging, these are the threads that are woven through the tapestry of bison and lavender that make up the object world we know as America. And while the album is uniquely concerned with liminal spaces, with what transcends nations and borders, the backdrop of this meditation is uniquely American. Even when Callahan sings “I watched David Letterman in Australia,” he is singing of the inescapability of America, with wry insinuations of its hegemony, but also with a true earnest longing for the homespun comfort he has come to know. Wispy synth chirps fuse the backdrop of the wearied vocals that long for transcendence and sounds flash by in odd fashion as if you were digging through the brush at twilight or watching the objects on a roadside blur into a contiguity because of the speed you’re moving at. The album ends with a respite from the dizzyingly abstract thoughts that have predominated through the album and returns us back to the physical world where both our flourishing and decay find their ultimate realization. — Stephen Axeman
If traveling to the moon ever needed a creepily accurate soundtrack, King Krule created just that with his sophomore release. Sure, Archy Marshall’s debut as Krule was titled 6 Feet Beneath The Moon, and conjured images of other-worldly parties, but The Ooz delivers in a different way. Throughout the album, distaste reigns over Marshall’s dominion, the ability to express his jaded thoughts leading to a motif of isolation. It’s easy to picture On “Biscuit Town,” Marshall delivers a barely melodic monologue, jumping between his come hither vocals and borderline dictation rap. Follow up track “The Locomotive” listens like Marshall’s full understanding of what he has become trapped in– a dystopian panic sets in, forcing him to face his demons on a planet alone with his thoughts. Marshall’s tone holds an air of nonchalance, without a care for consequences or structure.
Beyond overwhelming revelations and even darker subject matter, Marshall’s musical game is kicked up a notch, as lush guitars and saturated riffs meld effortlessly with his velvety tone. Frequently, his laid-back demeanor is juxtaposed with haunting images, adding a Lynchian vibe. On “Half Man Half Shark,” Marshall spends five minutes waxing poetic on just that, backed by a pulsating beat akin to a mellowed version of “Born Slippy.” Throughout The Ooz, Marshall provides a rope for the listener, grounding them and preparing them for the return to their own planet. In Marshall’s ideal world, however, his musings of another society would be best delivered from his own little hut, millions of miles away. — Virginia Croft
The highest points on Lil Wayne’s 2018 comeback record, Tha Carter V, are when he proves he still has what he had on Tha Carter II. His contributions to the modern sound of hip-hop (particularly his early adoption of auto-tune and the personality that shone through in his delivery) are vast. And he deserves immense credit for his influence on what would become mumble-rap, as well as his co-sign of one of the most popular rappers of all time (Drake). However, the success of Tha Carter III hits like “A Milli” and “Lollipop” must not overshadow the sheer rapping dexterity he exhibited on his 2005 breakthrough—which has gone largely unmatched, save for his protege Kendrick Lamar, in mainstream hip-hop throughout the 2010’s.
Tracks like “Money On My Mind,” “Fireman,” and “Hit Em Up” feature the young Weezy’s natural inclination for linguistic gymnastics. Like a trapeze artist, he flips and flings himself between complex rhyme schemes, letting lines dangle for just enough time to make the listener nervous before reaching out and landing the finale. Take this section from “Hit Em Up”: “But if the thermostat switch and that needle move / Then the attitude switch and that heat’ll move / I got that Chiquita banana clip for the tool / Meet a disaster, pity the fool / Eat a catastrophe, swallow the truth.”
In terms of its sound, Tha Carter II is more of a subhead in the big book of hip-hop than a chapter, as Tha Carter III would be. Though it struggles to retain sonic relevancy in 2019, the subtext remains a valid argument to this day: best rapper alive? — Eli Enis
Dancehall, alternative, hip-hop, worldbeat—there are many genres that M.I.A.’s debut clashes with and combines, but the best way to describe her sound is that of the impending revolution. Arular is her weapon; a toy gun whose trigger, when pulled, doesn’t unfurl a flag that reads “BANG” but instead issues an edict. As a refugee of the bloody Sri Lankan Civil War, Maya understands the intricate ways violence can destroy as well as build solidarity among the disenfranchised. When she sympathizes with insurgent rebels, she’s flipping the script by pointing out that the word terrorist often is how her native U.K., or the U.S., brands enemies of its colonialist regime.
In an interview at the time, M.I.A. complained that the mainstream doesn’t communicate with marginal people. “[R]eally, [the music industry’s] actually playing a part in dumbing people down […] I wanted to make a statement and be like, no! You can carry on doing that this is how you build the other.” She positions herself within the album’s first 30 seconds as an educator on “Banana (Skit).”
M.I.A. is a guerrilla soldier armed with the beats to “make you bang” as she sings on “Pull Up the People.” Her musical raison d’être is to rally anyone whose personal or political proclivities have isolated them and labeled them freaks. When she namedrops Lou Reed, Pixies, Missy Elliott, and Beastie Boys, she’s aligning herself with artists who have never shied away from following their own unique vision despite public backlash.
Yes, “Bucky Done Gun,” “Sunshowers,” and many of the other tunes here are smashes, but the reason Arular is a lasting record runs deeper than catchy songs. M.I.A.’s conviction in airing her point of view, and, in doing so, subverting the lens through which we usually understand structures of power, offers a refreshing voice in the landscape of pop. — Alex Wexelman
Listen to any pop song released over the past near-decade and you’ll likely hear the gears of Body Talk popping, spinning and whirring under the shiny machinery. From Lorde to Charli XCX, Allie X to Carly Rae Jepsen, Swedish pop whiz Robyn’s 2010 album has served as a spectacular prototype for perfect dancefloor pop, informing emerging and established artists alike with its dizzying before-its-time electronic production, gloriously vulnerable writing and off-kilter… well, everything.
It’s no secret that Robyn is a veritable genius and one of the music industry’s greatest pop stars. On Body Talk, she proves her prowess on each and every song: From the futuristic electro-industrial thump of “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” to the complicated euphoria of “Dancing On My Own,” often considered one of the most triumphant pop records of the 2010s, the album unfurls over a memorable synthscape of brazen melodies, strobe-lit Eurodance beats and some of the cleverest, refreshingly honest lyrics ever dared by a mainstream pop star. Years later, the album is still as fresh and influential as ever, as well as a plain-and-simple catchy listen from start to finish. Body Talk is truly Robyn’s opus — that is, until she decides to rewrite pop’s formula again with another groundbreaking display of what a modern pop star can be outside of the industry’s norms. — Erica Russell
The album cover for Internal Wrangler is inspired by Ornette Coleman’s 1962 album Ornette! — it was the album that followed maybe the greatest four-album run of all time (The Shape of Jazz to Come to Free Jazz). So that’s where Clinic starts — not inspired by the best but by the other stuff. They also wear surgical masks on tour, play with cheap equipment they find at flea markets, and are the biggest fans of reverb since Phil Spector. It all adds up to being the most inscrutable band of the 21st century. They can sound as epic and percussive as Can on album opener “Voodoo Wop,” or as melancholic and efficient as Young Marble Giants on, well, the second half of album opener “Voodoo Wop.” Did I mention “Voodoo Wop” lasts 1:44? Despite their experimental influences, Clinic kept it short on Internal Wrangler — 13 tracks, 31 minutes. In one half hour, they cemented themselves as the leaders of synth-punk, dream pop, DIY aesthetics, and retro futurism, but you can kind of guess they would hate all this genre label bullshit. I once thought that streaming would break down barriers — genre, year of release, pop radio confinements. It’s actually way worse with playlist culture and major label rigging running amok . When I listen to Internal Wrangler, I hear that liberation in just playing what seems right for however long it takes before it becomes boring again. The best music respects and repurposes the music that came before, and on Internal Wrangler, Clinic carved out just enough space to somehow honor all of it. Also, “Distortions” is still breathtaking. — Andrew Cox
Few metal albums have been as divisive as Deafheaven’s Sunbather, which enraged a lot of black metal purists with its unique blend of metal, shoegaze, and post-rock. Alongside groups like Liturgy—famous (and famously controversial) for their innovative and philosophical “transcendental black metal”—Deafheaven was part of a new wave of groups that sought to challenge the categories and genres that metal has subscribed to for the past few decades. And between Sunbather’s combination of long, dramatic stretches of fuzzed-out, wall-of-sound guitars, its crazily dextrous blast beats, and its ultra-romantic lyrics, one would be hard-pressed to argue that they failed. A major breakthrough not for “hipster black metal,” as it was called by the haters, but for metal itself, Sunbather trades in its forefathers’ morose themes and dark mythology for more digestible sounds and forms that insinuate that perhaps it isn’t violence but reconciliation that should move us most today. — Adam Rothbarth
M83 albums are meant to be colossal. Anthony Gonzalez’s vision of the ‘80s, evoking pastel-soaked awe and skyscraper-sized ambition in his heaven-adjacent dance pop, accepted no less. So it was a given that M83’s sixth full length would be a double album. How could it not? Yet Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming absolutely spares no expense, with Gonzalez creating monolithic slabs of sound built on organs, synths, guitars and reverb-gated percussion that sound like galaxies and stardust. It’s an album that inspires plenty of wonderment and as a songwriter, Gonzalez doesn’t sacrifice the pop instincts that he developed on Saturdays = Youth, meaning these heart-stopping moments tend to come with emotional heft. We’re talking widescreen moments like the stadium chants that take “Steve McQueen” to liftoff or the hair-raising vocal turns that swallow you whole on “Intro,” that titular saxophone solo that comes at the end of “Midnight City,” and the gentle flutter of synths and acoustic guitars that come to greet you at the end of “Wait” like a warm hug from a good friend. It’s moments like that on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming which work every time. — Jibril Yassin
At the end of a grueling tour behind his breakthrough record Slave Ambient, The War On Drugs maestro Adam Granduciel found himself at both a personal and creative crossroads. Coming out of long term relationship, Granduciel was about to undertake the most important record of his life, one that could change the trajectory of his career—and he inarguably delivered.
Already a studio obsessive, Lost in the Dream saw Granduciel create like a man possessed. Songs were recorded, re-recorded, re-re-recorded and then scrapped all together. The War On Drugs’ previous records were akin to sound experiments, Granduciel figuring out his sound—Lost in the Dream is where those sounds coalesced into a triumphant amalgamation of Spacemen 3 and Springsteen.
Granduciel has said that the recording of the album literally made him sick, and song titles like “Under the Pressure,” “Suffering,” and “Disappearing” give an inkling into his mindset when he began recording. This is, however, an undoubtedly triumphant record. Synths and organs lay the groundwork for guitars so soaring you raise your fists towards the heavens. The passion in Granduciel’s voice is palpable, and his excitement is palpable in every excited yelp he lets out before a solo. An epic, affecting rock record in a time without epic affecting rock records, Lost in the Dream is the auditory equivalent of a beloved denim jacket. While getting swept up in epics like “Red Eyes,” one half expects Courtney Cox and The Boss to suddenly materialize and start dancing together.
If asked to play a song for someone that has never heard The War On Drugs before, I do not hesitate even a split second before reaching for Lost in the Dream centerpiece “An Ocean in Between the Waves.” One of the finest rock songs of the new millennium, the show stopping track is indicative of the life altering epicness of this record, one that changed Granduciel’s life forever and irrevocably altered the modern rock landscape. — Donovan Farley
The prodigal son of neo-soul was not set to make a return on the scene according to anyone’s calendars. Following the release of Voodoo and the hypersexualized video for its third single “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo became jaded and disaffected with the industry. Feeling as though he was being manipulated into something that did not represent the value of his music, D’Angelo hibernated for twelve years in his native Richmond. Prompted by the growing urgency of the world’s unchecked and wanton murder of black people, specifically the impunity the officers who murdered Michael Brown and Eric Garner faced, D’Angelo released the album ahead of schedule to a world that was unaware just how badly it needed and missed his singular voice. The album is everything that Sly would have made if he had grown up listening to J Dilla, with all the auteurisms of psych-funk, obscure sectioning, and distillations of every genre’s production devices packed tightly together into a mosaic that is as timely as it is timeless. The personal and political calamities that were circulating around D’Angelo, and which, on the political level remain presently unabated, could have led to an album heavy in preachy sophisms designed to make us feel like we should escape from reality by retreating into dreams or nostalgia. D’Angelo is much too discerning a diagnostician to allow for retreat, instead delving right into the heart of the storm, conjuring disorder and rupture with every available sonic means you can imagine, and the result is an emboldened determination to push through every trial on the other end. — Stephen Axeman