For the better part of the ‘90s, Sonic Youth made themselves comfortable within the framework of traditional rock music rather than trying to bend it to their will. But as the century turned, they used the money and goodwill they had accrued in that time to fuck with the formula more and more. Which meant by the time they started creating the music that would make up Murray Street, they had their own studio space to play around in and had fully integrated a fifth member into the fold in producer and multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke. And they had enough creative control to be able to welcome in noted sax honkers Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter of Borbetomagus to add a layers of agonized tones to “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style.”
The album swings gently between the supposed extremes of ruminative, slowly untwisting psych and freeform expressions. Sometimes those two halves were smushed together as on the show stopping “Karenology,” which gives over the majority of its 11 minute running time to guitar explorations that by turns squealing and shimmering. But often it meant sticking the tense, wiry “Plastic Sun” between “Radical” and album closer “Sympathy For The Strawberry,” both of which sprawl and undulate like a pile of snakes. — Robert Ham
Return to Cookie Mountain is often paired with Dear Science as TV on the Radio’s peak leaving the former occasionally out of the spotlight. Last year, TV on the Radio performed Dear Science in full for its tenth anniversary, while Return to Cookie Mountain did not receive the same treatment back in 2016. Being released in 2008, Dear Science thrived off it being a pivotal election year. Dear Science also sold better, but that tends to happen when indie acts build upon acclaim. The simple truth is that Return to Cookie Mountain is the superior album — more austere, tonally consistent, and packed with subtler, more-impactful melodies.
In 2006, there was certainly questioning about whether or not TV on the Radio could match or better their Young Liars EP with the sinister, lustful “Staring at the Sun.” On Young Liars, TV on the Radio sounded more indebted to Suicide than anybody else, but by Cookie Mountain, they had morphed into an experimental art rock smorgasbord à la Scary Monsters-era Bowie, who contributes backing vocals on “Provinces.” Songs start with horn blasts (“I Was a Lover”), ambient fuzz with drowned-out vocals (“Playhouses”), and a lone whistle with clapping (“A Method”). Each song has its own identity, but they manage to bind together because they pine for the same spiritual, grunge-y highs. What really set TV on the Radio apart though were the vocals by Malone and Adebimpe, who pushed themselves into an untapped fervor with each line. Return to Cookie Mountain refuses to share the spotlight. — Andrew Cox
Every note played and every observation made detoured to this moment in time where Newsom would coalesce her unique blend of allegorical, pastoral lyricism and baroque neo-folk into an entire universe unto itself. The album is long, the songs are long, and if patience is not a virtue then I don’t believe this album would have delivered many rewards. Fortunately, fortune favors the bold and so Newsom’s ungodly ambition to create an entire world brings us closer to what we know we know by pushing us past what we had previously known. Equal parts nursery rhyme under a Tuscan twilight and scalloped hedges of snow on a country plain, Newsom evokes the entirety of our known geography in order to stake out a territory that she remains the sole resident of. Newsom deepened her sound considerably for this record, not only dropping her register because of some injuries to her voice during the recording sessions, but also adding in more low-end instrumentation and grounding her abstract visions with suitably esoteric instruments like the tambura and kaval. It is a sprawling album, to be sure, but the consistent thrum of life and meditations on fate and the sacrifices we make in order to define ourselves holds everything together as Newsom weaves through pagan Celtic sprawls, Brillobox pop, impressionistic West Coast folk, and blues inspired revelations. The album is an epic poem, conceived in a fever dream with one hand sculpting the clay and the other beckoning us to lean in and see what she’s made. — Stephen Axeman
What you think of The Tyranny of Distance opener “Biomusicology” says a lot about what you’ll think about Ted Leo in general. Either you hear an earnest tryhard who can’t decide between a preening falsetto or an anguished “voice-of-the-youth” howl or you don’t notice because you’re too caught up in how magnetic everything about him is. Tyranny kicked off one of the best runs of any American band this century. Analyzing what makes it work so well can almost feel like being Dale Cooper and asking what exactly makes the cherry pie at the Double-R Diner taste so good. You know from the first bite that it’s absolutely delectable and that you’ll be coming back to it again and again. It’s the kind of record you could imagine a college kid putting on for their dad in the car and both nodding their heads in enjoyment, though maybe at different moments. Leo’s energy is portioned out masterfully, giving moments of fist-pumping triumph, like the chorus to “Under the Hedge”, all the lift they need. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists have played arenas, opening for the likes of Pearl Jam, but they don’t need Jumbotrons and tiered seating to convince us that they’re rock stars. — Brody Kenny
The Montreal-based group Godspeed You! Black Emperor is known for lengthy albums that push boundaries consistently and are not afraid to show you something you’ve probably never heard before. The same is true on their sophomore record, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.
The album is split into four different sections, titled “Storm,” “Static,” “Sleep” and “Like Antennas To Heaven…” Each of these sections has different tracks within them, and each evokes a different sensation for listeners. “Storm” starts off with a long, drawn out buildup that will turn you over once the drop wreaks havoc upon any expectation you had for the song. The slow parts in are sweet, almost nostalgic, as if the group is yearning for a past of which we’re unaware. Later, the song sounds like My Bloody Valentine’s effects and Swans’ ongoing drone ability. “Sleep” is a track that makes you want to do anything but. It shares a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety for something that’s chasing after you, but you can’t see it nor do you know anything about it. The musicianship on this track has been the biggest takeaway, with Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron’s drumming giving you that feeling of a chase and anxiety.
Antennas to Heaven gives the listener fear of something that is beyond them, through incredible musicianship and the talent each member brings to the table. The collaborative skill creates a record that is unmatched. — Happy Haugen
At this point in the career arc of Liz Harris, the musician who records and performs under the name Grouper, she hadn’t completely obscured herself in lo-fi gauze and a thick haze of reverb. She was well on her way, as heard on tracks like “Tidal Wave” and “Invisible,” and it was still a small challenge to clarify what she is singing throughout, but there was still enough clarity there to draw listeners in and have these emanations from a psychedelic laboratory of her own design leave them blissed out and slightly paranoid.
Because what has long laid just under the surface of Harris’s work is a darkness that she doesn’t dare try to obscure. In fact, she’s come to terms with it more than most artists that work with the same dream pop/shoegaze color palette. What pieces of lyrics float to the surface reveal deep wells of self-doubt and strife. But mostly the shades of melancholy are feeding her vocal performances. They aren’t perfect takes on any song. Little shaky notes are scattered throughout and some small patches of discord exist in the multi-tracked harmonies. But those flaws affirm the human hands and throat creating every note. Her whole body is in each moment, sagging under the weight of memory that flushes with warm sentiments and winces at flickers of regret. — Robert Ham
No album presents marriage as the tragic farce it often ends up being quite like Tallahassee. On the Mountain Goats’ breakthrough, a middle class couple drink themselves into and out of despair wondering if being together is ever worth it. This sounds like a depressing slog you already know the ending to, but John Darnielle’s potent lyricism and comically-indie voice douse the songs into a charming picturesque fable. The songs often tread the same ground to represent the dead-end nature of marriages that have unsolvable problems, but there’s variety in how they approach the main theme. “The House That Dripped Blood” deconstructs the house to its disappointing features with the cellar door as an “open throat” — the unavoidable problem that will resolve itself in the worst of ways. In “Game Shows of Our Lives” and “Idylls of the King,” there are fleeting moments of promise that turn into more opportunities for the couple to hurt and destroy each other (conveyed as alcoholism in the former and the symbol of “clay pigeons” in the latter.) “No Children” is the crowning achievement here as the lyrics descend completely into ironic destruction and hopelessness; the subtle black humor found elsewhere on the album turns into a full-on farce with “I hope we both die!” The album’s conclusion with “Alpha Rats Nest” is a celebration of their relationship’s end like it comes from a house band for a romantic comedy wedding; the credits roll and the couple are at each other’s throats bursting into flames likes vampires in sunlight. Don’t worry — they didn’t have children. — Andrew Cox
Taking its name from Sufjan Steven’s mother and step-father, and written about the interpersonal relationships within his family upbringing, Carrie & Lowell plays out like a crushing tale of heartache, loss and the acceptance that comes in the afterwards.
In the years previous, Sufjan had already proven himself among the greats of his time, a radical pioneer of the pop song, the album, the live show. Here, however, he became something else; a voice and a writer as raw and, well, brave as they come.
Death, in all of its power and harrowing, hangs like a fog across the whole record, and Carrie & Lowell never attempts to hide away from such things. It’s in every nook and dark corner, every grain of dirt which sits upon the sparse landscape. Across the record, Sufjan sings of cedar trees, of tired old mares, of willow tress that offer no retreat, and they invariably become the backdrop for each of these tender melodramas to play-out. .
Stylistically, Carrie & Lowell sits in his discography as something of an anomaly, but it’s also true to say that, despite the uneasy landscape it inhabits, Stevens has never sounded more at home. There is a current of beauty, of love and all its remains, and while it never does enough to shift the blanket of cloud, its presence is crucial to providing the record with a striking humane power, a heart that keeps beating no matter how weary things might get. — Tom Johnson
Once purveyors of dance punk, for 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead, Liars tugged at the seams of their music until the stuff exploded out in every direction. Like a dog working meticulously at just the right spot on a chew toy, the process of that explosion is at times endearing and at others menacing; Liars are capable of elegant beauty (as on “Drum Gets A Glimpse”) and tooth-gnashing furor (like the constant thrum of “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack”). The record was conceived as a concept album in which the characters of Drum and Mt. Heart Attack come into conflict—Drum ostensibly embodying instinct and confidence, Mt. Heart Attack replying with caution and demurs. But though the precise narrative might not necessarily be super clear, the distinct motions and countermotions between the tracks bearing each side’s name are entirely palpable. The infectious, circular floor tom patterns, quick-twitch guitar drones, and moan-chant vocals essentially bypass the ears, digging into the bloodstream and causing emphatic head-nods and limb-flails before the brain even processes the delights of the deceptively simple music. But upon reflection, there is ethereal beauty in the lyrics as well as the visceral music—particularly on the surreal, cloudy closer “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”. “If you want me to stay, I will stay by your side,” Angus Andrew repeats. After some of the most artistically joyful pummeling over the previous 40 minutes, the ballad brings the whole ambitious record into a serene repose. — Adam Kivel
What is there left to say about Boards of Canada? Even if you don’t know them, you know their sound. Their 1998 full-length debut Music Has the Right to Children was a watershed moment for late-90’s electronic music, and is often prescribed as the tab any burgeoning musichead should take to open their headspace to the possibilities of tape sampling and synthesizers. Rightly so — it’s a veritable playground of electronic tricks and light-leak melodies, full of childlike wonderment and joyous experimentation.
So much of what Boards do is rooted in the transitory feelings of childhood, their songs like shapes whipping past the window on a long drive. Their music is more than just youthful regalia, though. They understand the woozy darkness of being young- how boundless imagination animates fantasy and fear alike, turning clouds into stories and shadows into nightmares.
On their 2002 follow-up, Geogaddi, the darkness encroaches and their kaleidoscopic vision of youth begins to curdle at the edges. There’s the string swells on “Beach at Redpoint” that never resolve, the wild-hunt drums of “Gyroscope” that tumble into the volcanic narration of “Dandelion”. There’s even the cover, all geometric fire, a far cry from the washed-out blues of the rest of their catalog. The songs on Geogaddi have a paranoid, plodding weight that pulls them out of the stratospheric domain of the band’s debut and down onto Earth, where the scary part of falling asleep isn’t the darkness in the corner, but what’s waiting the next day. — Justin Kamp
Let me start with a cliché: nobody sounds like the Hold Steady. Now more importantly, nobody fucking wants to. Who listens to “Hornets! Hornets!” — with references to skateboarding videos, Humbert Humbert, Kate Bush, and Minnesota streets — and turns to their musician friends to say “Let’s start a band”? To some, the Hold Steady represents everything wrong with mid-’00s Brooklyn indie rock: overwrought concept albums, definitely finished college, and you have to wonder whether their love of Thin Lizzy is ironic or not. To write about the Hold Steady and not address how uncool they are is a disservice to their greatness. You have to cater to a band’s peculiarities, so that means break out the ballpoint pens and start annotating the CD booklets, haters.
Separation Sunday is an album devoted to how the drug scenes in downtown Minneapolis intertwine with the religious/skater youth. The narrator follows Holly — or Hallelujah — as she falls in and out of faith and drugs while getting involved with him and his hoodrat friends. The parties are never-ending and the drugs keep being stuffed down socks; religious allusions fly incessantly, but it’s the guitar solos that are righteous. That’s the weirdest part of the Hold Steady; they play FM classic rock as straight up as anybody since grunge took over — the only flourish you get are some periodic horns. When Holly comes back from the dead on “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” we get to where rock music should always end up: fist-pumping catharsis. Few albums conclude better. — Andrew Cox
At the center of this inimitable and superbly grandiose, freewheeling, absurd tale of the streets is the tension between humor and pathos. On the one hand, you have witty, deeply intricate lyricism that will at times completely abandon any known language. On the other hand, the subject matter of tracks like “Harlem Streets” and the fading grandeur of tracks like “Soap Opera” are enough to crack the hardest exterior. There are absurdist skits that involve arguments over what the sounds chickens make are, and then there is the misogynist posturing that sounds a lot like a petulant boy trying to insulate himself from being hurt again. Even within the same song Cam’ron will fill you with an ever-evolving sense of the possibilities for interpretation. Cam raps with detached cool, a flow that borders on sluggish but is so lyrically inventive and ambitious that his attitude is simultaneously an expression of huge ambition, and a jaded world-weary view of the limits of what he can accomplish. In some ways, Cam was correct to tune into this cynicism as this album would mark his last with Roc-A-Fella on account of his lack of chemistry with Jay-Z, or potentially something more, no one really knows. But then again, he never short circuited himself. He would see it through to the end and deliver one of the most singular albums in rap history. The samples are full of chipmunk soul and reggae loops, and Cam delivers hilarious and insightful lines. It inspires laughter and frowns in equal measure, but there is never a doubt that his talent is unparalleled. — Stephen Axeman
We Liked Kanye’s Pain More Than Our Own
808s & Heartbreak is a mood. The album is a vibe, an era, and an indication of the change in Kanye West’s sound. I was in the 8th grade, moody-as-hell, navigating how I felt about everything changing around me. Kanye was doing the same.
808s & Heartbreak is one of the greatest albums of our day because it highlights both an artistic and commercially successful departure from what was tried and true. Tried and true for West, was never the norm or wheel reinvented; his previous studio albums were innovative in that they dethroned gangsta-rap as the norm. So this album here, 808s, marked yet another unique turn in where hip-hop could go.
This album meant (and will mean) a lot to people who suffered and survived loss. The emotions packed into 808s & Heartbreak are timeless. Deteriorating relationships, comparisons to others, familial loss and any other feeling of inadequacy or sadness is unfortunately relatable.
This album was for the unpopular kids, children who prematurely survived one or both parents and anyone who was scorned by a lover. 3/3 in these departments, I didn’t mind so much that Kanye began to rely heavily on singing in auto-tune. I also didn’t mind his departure from sample-based production.
I found that that I liked his use of 808s, bass and layered vocals versus how his peers would use the same elements. West carved out his own lane for sonic comparison early in his career. 808s & Heartbreak widened the gap between Kanye and his peers in either electronic or hip hop communities.
I’ve always wondered what kind of check Kanye got from Apple; this album helped push iPod sales, for sure. I remember getting an iPod shuffle for Christmas a month after this album dropped and subsequently buying the album from (the now defunct) iTunes store. Apple music wasn’t a thing yet — ha.
And any music-aficionado can tell you there are certain albums you are excited to hear in certain venues. There are certain albums to listen to in the car, see live or enjoy personally through some headphones. 808s & Heartbreak is the personal/headphones album for me.
The deep sounds (see “Love Lockdown”) juxtaposed against the tom-tom-like drums and West’s emotional auto-tuned wails transported me into a world different than my own. Kanye West was successful here and we are forever indebted to him because he gave us refuge in his pain to get away from our own. — Chanell Noise
From the opening notes of “Caring Is Creepy,” there’s a quick hush over every exterior distraction. As The Shins’ debut album, Oh, Inverted World wastes no time getting to the crux at hand. On “Caring,” frontman James Mercer rushes into his special brand of boisterous vocals, greeting the listener with the proclamation “I think I’ll go home and mull this over / Before I cram it down my throat.” The album feels far from needing a mull over– if anything, the band’s lack of outside intrusion creates an honest palette that feels extremely authentic. For The Shins, beginning their career allowed them to start off with a sound that is truly their own, unaware of any intruding opinions, simply creating the music they felt passionate about. The result is eleven explosive tracks, each taking a stab at a different emotion. While “Girl Inform Me” features a hopeful overtone, “Girl On The Wing” feels exasperated, with a wave of confusion and misunderstanding. Different tracks achieve various atmospheres, like the mellowed slow-rock feel of “New Slang” in comparison to the experimental sound of “Your Algebra.”
Nothing cuts deeper than the closing lines of “New Slang,” when Mercer admits, “Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall / Never should have called / But my head’s to the wall / And I’m lonely.” Here, breaking down any barrier that could have been between band and listener, The Shins lend a hand to the broken hearted, reminding them of the togetherness within loneliness, as nobody is ever truly alone. — Virginia Croft
St. Vincent has always had darkness in her, but she’s never been as casually cruel as she is on her third album. Her first not to feature her on the cover, Strange Mercy feels like a new era for Annie Clark, one that is cryptic, more brooding, and all the more tantalizing as a result. She sings of a dominatrix with a horse hair whip, threatens vengeance on a dirty policeman, and admits to telling “whole lies with a half smile.”
Across eleven wallowing tracks, Annie Clark airs anger, hurt, and the ways in which she is complicit in these feelings. Rarely, if at all, does she sound excited about anything. In fact, she sounds depressed. On “Northern Lights,” a steady rocker propelled by indefatigable snare hits, she sings in disbelief, “If you say it is, then I guess it is / What you say it is, but I don’t feel anything.”
Clark seems to be suffering a loss. Of confidence, of a lover, of serotonin, all three? Whatever it is, sometimes you have to lose something to find something else first. She’s more world-weary but wiser and that maturity resonates throughout her most personal collection of songs.
Gone is the baroqueness of the first two albums. Whimsy is jettisoned in favor of seriousness and the stripped back set focuses on building atmospheric tensions. There are guitar fuzz freakouts, proggy piano lines, electronic drums all of which under the direction of producer John Congleton build a claustrophobic world. That said, Strange Mercy is still an album brimming with pleasure from the pure pop of the first four songs (“Chloe in the Afternoon,” “Cruel,” “Cheerleader,” and “Surgeon”) to the post-punk ballad title-track. Clark is raw in her nakedness making this a sympathetic listen that rewards with each revisit. — Alex Wexelman
Elephant follows White Blood Cells in The White Stripes’ discography, and is most likely their most well-known album around the world. Most of that renown is based solely in the album’s first released single and opening track “Seven Nation Army.” Even if you are not familiar with this album or the band itself, there’s just no mistaking the song’s central guitar riff. Often confused for a bass guitar, Jack White’s Whammy pedal distorts his guitar and is set down by an octave while Meg “the metronome” White pounds out yet another simplistic beat. To this day, “Seven Nation Army” is chanted en masse across stadiums at sporting events and even at other band’s shows, and could conceivably have the most well-known guitar riff in the world. Regardless of the popularity of the opening track, the rest of the 14-track album can easily hold its own with more angry alternative punk anthems like “Black Math,” “Ball and Biscuit,” “The Hardest Button to Button,” and “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine.” In their own juxtaposed style, The White Stripes also showcase their sensitive side with several low-key alternative songs such as “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” “In the Cold, Cold Night,” (one of very few White Stripes songs to feature Meg White’s vocals) and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.” Scoring the rock duo two Grammys in the following year for Best Alternative Rock Album and Best Rock Song, Elephant and “Seven Nation Army” brought astounding praise to the two-piece rock group that skyrocketed their popularity worldwide. — Graham Stoker
There is a moment on Antony & the Johnsons’ pure and expansive second album where it seems like an immigrant is telling of the long-delayed fulfillment of their dream. “Free at Last” is barely a pulse; it flickers briefly across the album in less than two minutes, but within those two minutes are compressed an almost uncontainable sense of wonder, hardship, catharsis, and finally liberation. While the Morse code that opens the track might be purely textural, it is difficult to think of the choice to encode a cryptic language that must be interpreted to be understood in the album as not belonging to the larger meditations on place and identity and the vast barriers we all must cross to commune with one another. Something I learned recently was that birds adjust their songs according to the area they are in. So, for instance, a heavily trafficked and congested city center will alter the ways birds sing their tunes, causing them to adjust their frequency ranges to be more readily heard. When do you know that you have adjusted your frequency range just so that you might communicate your deepest recesses and bare your soul at its most unadorned? I think this album meditates on the process of transformation necessary to gain that voice and offers itself as an answer to the questions it poses. The hushed cabaret vocals effortlessly and beautifully meld with the graceful piano and strings to deliver us a portrait of what it is to leave oneself and reach new heights. — Stephen Axeman
Power-pop supergroups are practically unheard of and in the year 2000, the New Pornographers were the biggest supergroup nobody had heard of, comprised of a dude from two indie rock bands nobody had heard of (A.C. Newman), an American/Canadian alt-country singer (Neko Case) and uh, the Destroyer guy (Dan Bejar). Rounded off by other well-known members of the nascent ‘90s Vancouver alternative rock scene, singer/guitarist Newman did well to play up the unassuming stance of the band in the press. But the New Pornographers eventually became a supergroup in reverse, launching the careers of nearly everyone in the band including Case and Bejar.
In retrospect, Mass Romantic is a masterclass on how to craft thrilling, giddy songs that rush with energy and don’t feel overstuffed. The band’s maximalist approach was something of a rarity at the time; bands opted for a two guitar approach and god forbid even thinking about synths. These were rules the New Pornographers gleefully ignored. Nothing was too wild – from recording gang vocals and editing them to sound like a child choir to a rush-forward Moog-friendly bridge. One could look at songs like “Jackie” and “Execution Day” to see just how the band were able to create hooks out of the most unconventional elements in their songwriting arsenal. The New Pornographers showed just how to establish highlights while creating consistent wall-to-wall albums, a practice they’ve yet to drop twenty years into their career. — Jibril Yassin
Hot Chip made an album before The Warning; it’s called Coming on Strong, and it’s perfectly fine — a lovely minor synth-pop debut that wouldn’t fill the living room in a house party. The next thing they would release is the first single off The Warning — “Over and Over.” They ask if they’re laid back enough as the guitar wails over the iconic stomping beat, and if the chorus wasn’t enough, they deconstruct the song into a descending spelling of “KISSING SEXING CASIO POKE YOU ME I.” It was a top 40 UK hit, and is still an alternative dance anthem for the ages. Where did this come from? Part of the growth was EMI in their waning days taking a risk on these cornballs. You can hear the money in The Warning‘s production value. It paid off on songs like “Colours” with its dynamic twinkly underpinnings. The other top 40 hit “Boy from School” has a 4-note keyboard riff that subtly squirms around with each pass, and as you recognize each shift, it comes back around. It’s brilliant and impossible to replicate. They kept the lovely simplicity of their debut and used the newly-available resources to make everything bolder and richer. Hot Chip’s unshakeable kitschy vibe is a deal breaker for some people, but for this listener, it’s their endearing affableness that separates them from their contemporaries. It completely carries less-dynamic songs like “Look After Me” and “No Fit State,” and is the defining characteristic in their later hits (think “Ready for the Floor” and “Flutes”). Even with the three great albums that followed, The Warning is undeniably Hot Chip’s greatest contribution. — Andrew Cox
It’s hard to separate the Portland power-pop band The Exploding Hearts from the big what-if: would they have gone on to become guitar gods had they survived the car crash that ended the lives of three-quarters of the band on July 20, 2003? Their sole album Guitar Romantic was making serious traction in the garage underground, earning rave reviews from the likes of Pitchfork to Rolling Stone to Maximumrocknroll. It’s easy to see why. Guitar Romantic is an unabashed tribute to bubblegum garage, with plenty of charm encased between its razor-sharp guitar chords and rollicking drumbeats that recall every great ‘60s and ‘70s power-pop band ever: the Who, the Ramones, Cheap Trick, Buzzcocks, the Nerves, you name it. The Exploding Hearts were sneering throwbacks dressed in sunglasses and leather jackets who happened to know their material well: adolescent love, drugs and boredom. From the anthemic opening chords of “Modern Kicks” to the acoustic intro that leads into “Jailbird” or the rocket fuel guitar lead that defines “Crazy For You,” Guitar Romantic one-ups the past simply by doing it better. — Jibril Yassin
The opening song on Mistki’s fifth album, “Geyser,” sets the tone for much of her latest endeavor: hints of vulnerability but also a comfort with expressing rawer emotions via passionate guitar riffs. Mitski’s distinctive sound has once more evolved without leaving her niche, one known for its experimentation and strong grasp of synth mixing alongside more traditional instrumentation. Her vocals are often simply accent points that leave room for the truly original compositions to shine. Don’t be discouraged however, if you look forward to Mistki’s beautifully laid back crooning, “Old Friend” allows vocals to take a front seat and drive the narrative. The song appears quite empty with moments that almost resemble acoustic, and very purposefully recalls simpler times. “A Pearl” follows its laid back and calming vibes with some significantly busier and louder angst in the form of Evanescence-style wailing ( not to say it isn’t enjoyable) only interrupted by some truly beautiful moments of stillness where it seems as though Mitski is leaning over to whisper secrets in your ear. This interplay between the dramatic and subtle seems to be the crux of Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. Her skillful interplay between the two moods makes for some emotional attachment on the listeners’ behalf, and the relatively short length of each song keeps from any feelings of repetitiveness. Shoutout to “Me and My Husband” for managing to perfectly capture that quintessential wholesome American sound of heteronormativity and then slowly tearing it down via a combination of witty lyrics and sound distortions. The album finishes with “Two Slow Dancers,” one of the strongest songs on the album. The understanding that silence can make or break a song serves her well and reinforces the vulnerability that is found throughout the albums less frenetic moments. — Pauline Mireles
In many regards, You Forgot It in People, the second record from Canadian collective Broken Social Scene, simply shouldn’t have worked. Firstly, there were so many people involved. Wikipedia lists fifteen band members/players on the record, a vast leap forward from their debut record which was primarily conceived by founding members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning.
Secondly, there’s the nature of the music itself, a kind of ramshackle approach to indie rock that borrows from all manner of genres and styles. If it had been a total mess, it wouldn’t have taken long to point out why. And yet, here we are.
Some seventeen years down the line, You Forgot It in People still sounds breathlessly, remarkably fresh. An innovative, offbeat, peculiar-yet-warm beast, the thirteen-song record offers a sprawling journey, through boisterous indie-rock peaks, and simmering jazzy pastures. Alongside Drew and Canning, the record boasts contributions from Leslie Feist and Metric’s Emily Haines, as well as members of Stars, Do Make Say Think, and more.
The plaintive, banjo-led “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” might still hold the spotlight to this day, but in truth this record truly thrives because it presents a fascinating, rousing gut-punch at every corner: the mesmerising rush of “KC Accidental,” the skewed pop-shimmer of “Cause = Time,” the blissed-out “Lover’s Spit.”
In short, there’s really nothing else like it. It exists now, as it did then, in an electrifying world all of its own. — Tom Johnson
In ten concise tracks the decade-defining band Phoenix gave us some of the greatest pop tracks of the 2000s. The album is incredibly refined indie rock and methodically crafted with track after track being just absolute pop bangers. The introduction the album gives us one of the catchiest of the album in “Lisztomania.” The track is only 4 minutes long but feels much bigger with its many twists and turns that provide a refreshing yet accessible look into modern pop and indie music. “Love Like A Sunset, Pt. 1” provides a great instrumental display of skill in the way the well-known instruments clash with new age synthesizers. It all comes to a head near the midpoint of the track, with an almost childish and playfully-glitchy keyboard that leads us into a funkier, ’80s style outro. In the end, every instrument collaborates to create this chaotic, abrasive end that leads into “Pt. 2.” And of course, it would impossible to discuss this album without the smash single on the record. “1901” is a perfect example of what I referred to earlier as refined indie rock. The way the opening keyboard is slowly and skillfully drowned out by the pristine sounding guitar is absolutely intentional and another testament to the staying power that this album has had on modern music culture. It still holds up and is as great as it was 10 years ago — a true masterpiece. — Javier Rodriguez
The year was 2013. It was a night in mid-December like any other. I was sitting in my basement, doing an accounting homework assignment for community college, when I got a text from my best friend. If I recall her words correctly, the text read:
“JACQ. BEYONCE. NEW ALBUM.”
From that moment on, my world, and pop music, changed. Beyonce? Drop an album? With no singles and no warnings? The Internet seized with ecstasy. With the release of her self-titled album, Queen Bey blew the concept of “album roll-out marketing strategy” to pieces. The ‘digital drop’ would change the way artists in the 21st century release music, inspiring those like Frank Ocean and Rihanna to act with immediacy and just put-the-damn-thing-out-already, instead of teasing a finished album for months and months (looking at you, Ezra Koenig).
Beyonce’s collaborators told tales of secret meetings, non-disclosure agreements and the “I would tell you but then I’d have to kill you” aura surrounding the creation of the most influential pop release of the millennium so far. We could talk forever about this seismic, unprecedented moment in pop culture: the visual album, the surprise drop, Beyonce’s contributions to fourth wave feminism and the internet subculture that grew out of the record. But for me, all I have to do is listen to the Blue Ivy-featuring track “Blue” to know how special this record is. It is, above all things, an honest reflection on motherhood, womanhood and personhood. We are so lucky to have humanist artists like Beyonce creating in our time. — Jacqueline Zeisloft
Perhaps no album has influenced the pop-R&B landscape of the post-millennium as the late Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled opus. From Ariana Grande to Drake and nearly every pop and R&B artist in between, Aaliyah’s singular sparkle is splashed over so many releases (both mainstream and alternative) like a trail of stardust. Her airy, neo-futuristic vibe on “Loose Rap” can be heard in any of Kelela or SZA’s work; the stormy drama of “I Refuse” reverberates in Beyonce’s solo music; the glossy sex-charged swag of “Rock the Boat” undulates on Tinashe’s similarly titled “All Hands on Deck.”
Aaliyah, only 22 at the time of the album’s release, was a prodigious talent who, alongside the genius production work of Timbaland, helped usher in a new age for contemporary popular music. She was ahead of her time and boldly experimental, fusing hip-hop, neo-soul, trip-hop, electronica and pop hooks to create a new radio-friendly sound. She also set the standard for modern R&B’s chill energy, popularized an ethereal vocal style and cemented the futuristic aesthetic that would permeate the genre for years to come — as well as the wardrobes of pop stars twenty years later. (Her visual hallmarks can be seen in any video from Charli XCX, Rina Sawayama or Little Mix.) More than a tribute to her lasting influence, though, Aaliyah remains a musical memento mori — a devastating yet celebratory reminder of both the star Aaliyah was and was going to become. — Erica Russell
It’s tough to remember the world before Justin Timberlake brought Sexy Back. Who could have guessed that a white kid from Tennessee, famous for boy band pop and for dating Britney Spears, would release one of the finest albums of 2000s R&B?
Luckily, the state of 2000s R&B felt ready for a shake-up. JT & Timbaland took this personally and, pulling from a massive swath of influences, gave the world FutureSex/LoveSounds. Nothing else sounded like this: there are doses of trance, trap, new wave, funk, dream pop, New York rock, and even Turkish folk music (you know which riff I’m talking about). And for the first and only time, beatboxing sounded cool.
The pair also assembled an impressive array of features: T.I., will.i.am, Three-6-Mafia. FutureSex/LoveSounds came at a unique moment when the mood in the pop charts began to shift away from smoother R&B and towards rap and electronic music. Two years later, Lil Wayne would release Tha Carter III, cementing the precedence of rap over R&B in the mainstream charts.
It can be easy to take the album’s influence for granted. FutureSex/LoveSounds essentially cemented both artist and producer’s legacies for years to come (even though they would not follow it up for another seven years). But in a year where the top-selling album was the first High School Musical soundtrack, nothing came close to this. And nothing has come close since. — Logan Rifenberg
Haha Sound marked a turning point for Broadcast. The clanging industrial electronics and hissing atmospherics that were present on their debut, The Noise Made by People, were hued with a gauzy pastel glow that softened their impact. Now, while maintaining the adoration for lilting lullabies and beguiling hooks that defined so much of the 60’s pop that Broadcast frequently mined for inspiration, the skittering backdrops were freed and presented in all their lush harshness. Trish Keenan’s disaffected but sensuously expressive vocal delivery drifts atop radio feedback and drums that shuffle with the bombast of a Phil Spector production. A spectral presence lurks throughout these tracks, hidden somewhere in the fuzzy frequencies that underlie the elegiac harmonies. Keenan is candid and oblique, intimate and detached all at once, evoking the allusions to the impossibly coy, lovelorn chanteuses of yéyé. The haunting melancholy in these tracks is unique to their author however, and in her descending melodies there is a repeated motion of falling where the rhythmic loops provide a sort of constantly transforming certainty. The only force that is a constant in this universe is the force of change, and throughout the album Keenan grapples with the weight of her uncertainty as her voice ebbs and flows beneath the waves of drums and electronics. Even the albums most tightly arranged tracks are surrounded by sonic sketches of an unfinished quality, building in distance as a structural device that echoes the isolation found in the songs. Keenan might be the most distant star in a beautiful constellation, but how brightly she shines. — Stephen Axeman
Currents is Tame Impala’s third studio album to date, and in following the lead of the first two albums, was written, recorded, and produced by the band’s lead Kevin Parker. Parker’s intricate blend of psychedelic pop/rock in this album stands alone from his former works, culminating in a 50-minute collage of melodic synthesizers and funky bass grooves. Lyrically, Currents is an autobiographical callout to Parker’s transition through life and time in the years since Tame Impala’s previous release Lonerism in 2012. Of the 13 total songs, some of Current’s most popular tracks “Eventually,” and “The Less I Know The Better,” give the listener a glimpse into Parker’s life through the scope of break-ups and how both partners move on after a relationship fails. Following the theme of life, the songs “Let It Happen,” “Yes I’m Changing,” and “’Cause I’m A Man” are all about finding, knowing, and accepting yourself even with all your faults amidst all of life’s curveballs and transitions. In the album’s closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” Parker makes an attempt at determining whether people are truly capable of changing by exploring the duality between the parts of himself that want to change and continue to grow, and the parts that are filled with fear and self-doubt because of the coming changes and what they mean down the road. Ultimately, Currents brings the funky psychedelic pop/rock jams that, whether you’re kickin’ back and trippin’ sack, or taking an hour long introspective look at your life, moves the listener to just go with the flow as life sorts itself out. — Graham Stoker
Joanna Newsom burst into international attention with the endlessly charming debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, a record whose cross-stitched cover perfectly suited to her musical formula: harp, harpsichord, Wurlitzer, swooning emotionality, and wondrously raw vocals. So when the followup came packaged in an immaculately rendered oil painting of Newsom in a Renaissance pose, dripping with seemingly mystic symbolism, it would follow that the record would carry a similar weight. Though recorded by Steve Albini, mixed by Jim O’Rourke, and co-produced/arranged by Van Dyke Parks—each a legend in their own right—the true genius here is Newsom. Her voice showcases a redoubled strength; though perhaps more traditionally beautiful in its delivery here than on her debut, she retains a prismatic field of emotional depth as well as once-in-a-lifetime quirks. The songwriting and storytelling are similarly exponentially more complex, unsettling in their poetry, intimate in their wit. “There’s a bell in my ears/ There’s a wide white roar/ Drop a bell down the stairs/ Hear it fall forever more,” she sways on the heartrending “Sawdust & Diamonds”. Elsewhere on “Monkey & Bear”, she unravels a weary love story of in the trappings of Aesop: “My heart is a furnace/ Full of love that’s just, and earnest.” And though the orchestral drapings may bolster the tunes, Ys finds Newsom sitting alone at the harp as its magnetic core, the swirling tunnel around her drawing you in ever closer. — Adam Kivel
Clipse do not receive the credit they are due. Sometimes, I even get the impression that the youth of today are not aware that Pusha T had a career before he separated himself as a solo act. Hell Hath No Fury, released in 2006 after extensive hold-ups relating to problems with their label, remains a cornerstone for the foundation of today’s hip-hop.
The combination of expert production from then-burgeoning production group The Neptunes (featuring a younger Pharrell Williams) and hard-hitting, convincing bars from Pusha T and No Malice — at the time just Malice — proved to be a powerful synthesis in hip-hop and helped to put the Virginia Beach area on the map, following in the footsteps of other artists such as Missy Elliott. Despite this, the partnership between Clipse and the Neptunes rarely gets the credit it deserves when compared to other producer-rapper combos.
When discussing hip-hop history, people often wax poetic about duos like Guru and DJ Premier or Timbaland and Missy Elliott but again, Clipse and Pharrell are rarely mentioned. While the Neptunes were already established hitmakers, there was a natural comfortability that abounded when the Virginia-based production duo teamed up with their hometown peers. Pusha and Malice sounded entirely too comfortable painting unabridged accounts of their life over the bright, bouncing, and eclectic Neptunes production.
Featuring the unabashed coke rap of “Keys Open Doors,” the paranoid Geto Boys tribute “Nightmares,” and the pop-crossover success of “Mr. Me Too,” Hell Hath No Fury proved Clipse to be some of the best and most versatile artists of their generation, all while not sacrificing who they were and where they came from. — Matthew Hirsch
I owe any and all my street cred to the media library at Belmont University. I stumbled on the media library in the first few weeks of my freshman year, in a Room of Requirement sort of way. What was my necessity? To be cool (duh). What liberal arts school freshmen doesn’t want to be cool? On my first visit to the media library I picked up Blonde on Blonde (the first Dylan record I listened to cover-to-cover!), Lana Del Rey’s Paradise, Wincing the Night Away and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz. I listened intently and went back for more albums a week later. You’d have to ask my friends if my plan to become cool worked or not, but regardless of that I am so happy to have had access to all the records I skipped over when I was listening to John Mayer’s Continuum on repeat for all four years of high school.
Come sophomore year I was still making regular trips to the media library. If I wasn’t sure what to pick up, I’d judge an album by its cover and take it home with me. One fall day I settled on Teen Dream and some record with an aesthetically-pleasing black and white cover by some group called LCD Soundsystem. This is Happening came into my life by pure accident, and maybe that’s why it felt so revolutionary when I heard it for the first time. Listening to “I Can Change” on my CD player, I thought, “Has anyone in the world out there ever heard this song before?!” And of course they had. LCD Soundsystem’s 2011 farewell show at Madison Square Garden had came and went long before my sophomore year. I later found out that LCD Soundsystem were legends, and still are legends, to many an indie boy and girl. But that afternoon they opened up a new part of musical existence to me, influencing my pre-existing ideas of what indie rock usually says or sounds like. So many special moments occur throughout this record; the drop in “Dance Yrself Clean,” James Murphy’s droning auto-tuned vocal on “Somebody’s Calling Me,” and everything about the closing track, “Home.” But my favorite comes on “Drunk Girls,” with the lyric: “Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut, it comes back but it’s never the same.” Fun, poetic, new. This is Happening was everything I hoped to find in the racks of albums at the media library. — Jacqueline Zeisloft
Garage and two-step had already worked their way into the U.K. charts but it took a skinny lad from Birmingham, England who went by the simple moniker of The Streets to help wake American audiences up to the music’s stuttering, wowing potential. The secret to Mike Skinner’s success was, in part, his plain-spoken delivery, a slang-heavy Sprechgesang that blessedly didn’t attempt to replicate the patois and patter of the music’s hip-hop and reggae roots. For the purposes of his music, his weedy whiteness was a feature, not a bug.
Skinner’s greatest trick though was his ability to shoot so much of his best work through with a sense of romanticism and melancholy. The core of Original Pirate Material is the joys of youth; late nights at bars and chip shops fueled by cocktails and sundry illegal substances or nights in smoking blunts and playing video games. But Skinner is savvy enough to see how empty those fleeting moments of pleasure can be. That comes across sonically through his love of minor key piano chords and strings that evoke a bone deep sadness that can kick in the morning after. But it’s through songs like his first breakup anthem “It’s Too Late” and the crushing album closer “Stay Positive” (“’Cause this world swallows souls/And when the blues unfold, it gets cold, silence burns holes”) that his poetic, dour heart is made manifest, and the parties and pills that suffuse the rest of the album begin to feel even more suspect and desperate. — Robert Ham
It’s pretty hard to think about Phil Elverum’s music outside of the personal and devastating series of albums he released as Mount Eerie in 2017 and 2018, which outlined his experience of the tragic death of his wife, Geneviève Casrée. In a sense, though, 2001’s lo-fi home run The Glow, Pt. 2 isn’t actually that far removed from those albums. Misty, Pacific Northwest melancholy threads through every burst of distortion and lone piano line here, and in the center is always Elverum’s soft-spoken voice, which is unlike that of any other singer. The Glow, Pt. 2, perhaps more than any of his other works, showcases Elverum’s ability to conjure imagery that is simultaneously organically beautiful and overwhelmingly sad. “Oh, what a loss,” he sings in “Headless Horseman.” “I miss my closest friend/ And now I cling to rocks and wind/ It’s a precious thing we lost.” But it’s actually in the previous song, “The Moon,” a track about loss and memory, where Elverum delivers one of his hardest refrains: “I went back to feel alone there/ I went back to wipe it clean/ I took the lights and radio towers out of my dreams.” It’s like his entire project in three lines. And it’s all gorgeous. — Adam Rothbarth
Your first taste of Visions is with the cover art, created by Grimes (Claire Boucher) herself over a period of 2 days. This piece features an aggressive skull in the center, surrounded by russian lettering as well as some lines of a made up tongue, and hearts, bows, eyeballs, and aliens falling into place across the piece. It’s very clear from the beginning, with this art, that Boucher made this album as she wanted to, for herself; she wasn’t (yet) falling into creating just for the masses. Boucher described wanting the album to be akin to a symphony, lifting the listener up to joyful highs and devoid lows. Existing in a space between the harsh/ industrial synths and the singer’s dancey soprano harmonies, Visions does indeed put you the listener in that headspace. “Vowels = space and time” will leave you in a sunshine yellow dew, making the world feel like the first warm spring day, countered with the next track’s aura of dark blue and purple bruise hues. A personal favorite off this album for me is “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U),” a ballad- like piece filled with emotional highs and lows, it is perfectly situated after the effervescent chords of “Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus)” and dark filtered coos of “Nightmusic.” Visions wraps up with “Know the Way,” a somber tune, which may be just about as stripped down as Grimes may get. Visions stirs up a desire for exploration, however you may define it, leaving your consciousness as an afterthought. — Ally Engelbrecht
Yo La Tengo had one of the greatest runs of all ‘90s indie bands with Painful (1993), Electr-O-Pura (1995), and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997). Then they went and topped it off with And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000, so technically not ‘90s, but who cares). Their ninth album saw them at the absolute apex of their sonic powers, and releasing possibly their last front-to-back masterpiece. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out took a step back from the experimental jamming and bedroom post-punk moments of their earlier work, finding a kind of static balance in its themes, which mostly revolve around being vulnerable and falling in love (although one could argue that most of Yo La Tengo’s music keeps pretty close to these ideas, even when it doesn’t appear to). From the misty reminiscences of “Last Days of Disco” and “Our Way to Fall” to dream pop-via-shoegaze jaunt of “Cherry Chapstick,” this is an album for lovers, by lovers. It may require you to slow down a bit, to be a little still, a little more open, but it’s completely worth it. Meet Yo La Tengo on their level here and you’ll find very few other experiences like it. — Adam Rothbarth
Kaputt initially sounds so normal, so smooth. Recurring saxophone interludes, chorus-like female background vocals, and a relatively controlled lilt contribute heavily to the false sense that this is a Completely Normal Album. It’s not.
The stylized tableau is a masterful double entendre—listen to it once for the intensely likable and meandering driving music. Twice for the dark and sordid lyrics and underlying weirdness.
Dan Bejar has created more of a spiraling cinematic world than one of easy listening. It’s easy to forget when listening in 2019 that the 2011 album is predictive in its oddities. Indie music’s pivot toward a disco-inspired, groovable mezcla may be a given eight years later (see newcomer Faye Webster’s “Kingston” for a very recent example,) but Kaputt’s substantive and witty lyrics set to a jangly dreamscape was far from mainstream in its heyday. The title conjures images of a sputtering end but Kaputt is a definitive step forward in an evolving career. Bejar avoids all the usual pitfalls of pastiche and delivers an album that’s inventive in its references.
Standout opus “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” is a distilled synopsis of the eight tracks prior. “Listen, I’ve been drinking” Bejar warns, launching into the 11-minute album closer. What starts as an ambient musical interlude abruptly switches to a full-blown pop bop with a “sha-la-la” and a synth riff. He switches rapid fire from careless croon to voice of God to rambling manifesto. It’s here that the subtle 80s motifs handled lightly earlier in the album are fully released as New Order-style synths riff over acoustic guitar taken straight from an early album by The Smiths. Bejar shines at the center of it all. — Paula Ramirez
Before the release of her debut, FKA Twigs dropped two EPs that established her brand: electronic, experimental R&B with themes of love and sex. With LP1, she expanded on these themes easily by creating dark, haunting soundscapes which capitalize on the singer’s signature sensuality.
She opens the album with the eerie “preface,” in which she repeats the lines “I love another, and thus I hate myself” in ethereal harmonies over a smooth but heavy hitting beat.
Throughout the record, Twigs explores various elements of a relationship from passion, as can be heard on “Two Weeks” and “Hours,” to issues of trust in songs like “Lights On.” Concerning “Lights On,” the minimalist production and use of primal, tribal sounding beats makes the track sound like it belongs in the soundtrack for shows like “American Horror Story.”
Songs like “Pendulum,” “Closer” and “Kicks” all interpret the element of longing in their own chillingly beautiful way while the tunes “Video Girl” and “Give Up” best showcase Twigs’ R&B sensibilities in a more conventional way.
Though very experimental in how each song is arranged, the pristine production and Twigs’ hauntingly soulful vocals put this album among the best in both the electronic and R&B genres. — Drew Pearce
There are few records that have the ability to transport me back in time the same way that Microcastle by Deerhunter does. The evocative nature of the psychedelia-meets-shoegaze-meets-garage aesthetic of Microcastle fit my angsty early high school days and immediately brings me back to them upon listening to the album. While contemporaries such as Beach House, Grizzly Bear, and Fleet Foxes opted to make more soothing, elegant music, Deerhunter opted to make a more rock-oriented record that still featured the ethereal qualities that their peers drifted towards.
Even when Deerhunter made something calming, a strange, underlying heaviness in how they communicated with the listener existed. The first full song on the record, “Agoraphobia,” is one of the most beautiful songs on the album. Its hypnotic chord progression and melody trick listeners in to feeling comfortable, but upon closer inspection it features dark themes as Lockett Pundt sings things such as, “Feed me twice a day / I want to fade away.” The song truly evokes the anxious phobia referenced in its namesake — after listening, it seems credible that Pundt would be uncomfortable leaving his home.
From this point on, the album takes various, sometimes frenetic, turns. “Microcastle” starts out a percussion-less ballad and then devolves into a thumping garage anthem before dissolving into a trippy three-song suite. Towards the end, album centerpiece “Nothing Ever Happened” is a nearly six-minute song which starts out rather poppy before the vocals completely cut off around the 2:20 mark and the song becomes a heavily psychedelic vamp.
By the time album closer “Twilight at Carbon Lake” arrives, the listener has taken a journey through a plethora of sonic moods and textures. During the final song, when the guitars and Bradford Cox’s voice begin to erode, the anxious tension of the album climaxes and gives the impression that you, too, may fade away once the sound is cut off. — Matthew Hirsch
The glorious swan song by music’s foremost chameleon is as webbed, multifaceted, and ultimately unknowable as the man himself. Is Bowie’s paramount virtue mystification? Is he simply the most grandiose and committed personification of our shared lack of a continuous self? It certainly seems that whatever the answer is, these concerns of authenticity and mutation are the cornerstones of his entire body of work, which itself is something of an endless knot. Bowie was born, he lived, and then he died. And somewhere in between all of that he left in his wake one of the most singularly innovative discographies that any individual on planet earth has managed. Despite, or rather because of his endless searching, he eventually collapsed back in on himself to finalize the journey. As his album The Next Day was, Blackstar is uniquely concerned with Bowie’s own relation to music and cultural history. He even took inspiration from groups such as Boards of Canada whose output in a world without Low is impossible to imagine. As one of the living embodiments of a decentered self, it makes complete sense that Bowie’s work is highly collaborative and as Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, Mike Garson, and Mick Ronson did before, Donny McCaslin and his jazz quartet give full shape and substance to Bowie’s virtuosic range of vision. The album feels undeniably mature, like an album that has some core truth to it that only in old age will fully disclose itself, and that isn’t only because of the avant-jazz leanings. I’ve hardly mentioned the sound of the album, but it’s just as well, as Bowie explains, “at the center of it all” is a void waiting to be filled. — Stephen Axeman
The greats know when they need to have a self-titled album that’s not their debut. Prince’s second album with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was self-titled, the Beatles and the Velvet Underground both did it, and elsewhere on this list, we saw Beyoncé, her true take-the-crown moment. Add Robyn to that list, with her mostly-innocuous first decade of her career (she had some hits, but they’re not all that memorable). On intro “Curriculum Vitae,” Swingfly describes Robyn as “World record holder with a high score of two gazillion in Tetris / Two-time recipient of the Nobel prize for foxiest female ever.” Robyn — the greatest pop star of our generation — had arrived.
Robyn is chocked full of pop classics. The first on the album is “Cobrastyle,” which repurposes Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” into something enjoyable. “Handle Me” is that effortless style Robyn displayed all during the Body Talk releases with the running theme of never feeling lonely if you’re better off being independent. “Be Mine!” was the first single, and those churning violins were the alarm bell. The best song here is “With Every Heartbeat,” which rivals Annie’s similar “Heartbeat” as the most awe-inspiring disco-pop anthem of the new millennium. This reinvention was all possible due to Robyn, inspired by the self-sufficiency of fellow Swedish greats the Knife, buying out of her major label. She was no longer forced to consider what American pop star she should aspire to be; all she had to consider was how to be Robyn. — Andrew Cox
S, Z, A? Scissor? Si-Za?
I wish I could say that I knew how to pronounce her name before the “Ctrl” album, but this is the album that introduced me to SZA. Better late than never as they say. The floating, haunting vocals stacked on top of string instruments and hollow drums creates an album that is anything but typical. SZA’s voice is one of those that you could hear playing in the background with people talking over it and still be able to pick it out in an instance. The longing tone and casual nature with which she uses for this album comes off like a phone call between best friends. My first listening of the album was in the car on the way home from the beach with my sister and our friend. It was overcast and drizzling. I only remember this because we listened to the album a few times through and each time found a song to which one of us would respond, “Oh my God. I feel that.” “Ctrl” could be described as a coming-of-age album; the epitome of that comes through in the song “20 Something”. The album ends on that song and closes with a phone call conversation with her mom where she explains what control means to her. SZA has managed to create a highly produced album, while also having it feel like an album you could discover on Soundcloud and show off to all your friends. If it’s a sunny day and you have a car, I suggest rolling down the windows and driving around to “Anything” and “Go Gina”. You won’t regret it. — Megan Beck
This is the album that began a nearly unprecedented half-decade streak of constant evolutionary change and reinvention, all while its creators simultaneously refined and deepened the approaches of previous works. Animal Collective occupies a fabled position in the history of 2000’s indie, or just music in general, and much of the reason for it is contained in this album. The focus of every song is on the microscopic, the trivial routines and small graces that awaken us to the transcendent that lurks in the everyday. Other times it is literally impossible to make out what they are saying. I’ve accepted that to love this album is to lose oneself in it, that to fully appreciate it there is a component of surrender and unintelligibility necessary. I have no clue what is being said on “Visiting Friends,” but I have the clearest idea of what it feels like to visit a friend and hear the speech grow alien, the distances widen and feel both familiar and close with someone, yet conscious of a shift that has muffled all of our expressions. It’s a bittersweet symbol of growth rendered with the utmost attention to our deepest levels of experience, sculpted with pure sound. Consisting of only Tare and Bear, you know the ones, this album feels like the most synchronous and unified body of work they ever made. It’s a vocal album, not in the usual lyrical sense, but with yelps—ecstatic and waifish—that penetrate to a pre-linguistic moment in our shared unconscious. Though the band would shift its focus dramatically in only a year, this album’s sentiments remain at the core of every album they would release after. — Stephen Axeman
If there was ever a marker in Drake’s career where he felt comfortable enough to confidently accept his celebrity, the change occurred on his sophomore album, Take Care. Here, Drake comes into his own skin, dropping any attempt at putting up a front. His honesty takes reign as the overall motif, especially on songs like “Marvin’s Room” and “Shot for Me.” Letting his guard down, he creates cathartic tracks, reaching down to a deeper level of understanding. Take Care is an album for everyone, Drake’s hand reaching out to remind us that he’s been there too.
Throughout Take Care, Drake speaks freely, holding nothing back– creating the voice his fans desperately need. Instead of tearing apart those he is missing, Drake allows himself the moments to reflect on how good he had it in the past. “Marvin’s Room” acts as the standout track, a heartbreaking ballad of regret and the painful, gritty pill that must be swallowed to move on. Drake takes a stab at genre-bending, as “Buried Alive Interlude” forays into darker, Panda Bear territory, and “Over My Dead Body” listens like Thundercat-fused velvet. Sticking to his roots, Drake doesn’t try to talk about anything he doesn’t know firsthand, leaving that to his guests. Taking the opportunity to experiment more on “Under Ground Kings,” a heavier beat produces a harder Drake, as his inner monologue of indecisiveness makes itself known. Take Care listens like a day in the mind of Drake, touching on all of his deep anxieties, bludgeoned by bursts of celebration. — Virginia Croft
Sasu Ripatti AKA Vladislav Delay AKA Luomo is the greatest microhouse producer to record music, and Vocalcity is the crown jewel of this ever-rewarding subgenre. As the genre name suggests, microhouse is the median between IDM and House music. Essentially, it’s honoring the roots of electronic music (i.e. dancing the night away) while utilizing the growing possibilities of manipulation and processing in computers. Ripatti’s first album as Luomo consists of six massive tracks brimming with the nighttime lust and tension of a ’80s De Palma flick. Once you start the album, the runtimes are inconsequential because there are never any lulls; even when the base drops out, you get to appreciate all the floating elements that have steadily seeped into the mix. Microhouse is at its best when it’s easy for the listener and insurmountably hard to imagine creating as the producer, and that’s what Vocalcity is. I’m reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote about spending half the day taking a comma out and then the rest of the day putting it back in; these tracks are fussed over on every note but the need to keep the rhythm, and subsequently the head and the body moving, keeps the listener engaged. The best producers today — DJ Koze, Jon Hopkins, Nicolas Jaar — follow in the footsteps of Vocalcity with, yes, their immense talent displayed on every song, but they never lose that desire to be accessible, to rely on samples, 4/4 beats, and those pure highs we only get from music. — Andrew Cox
The second studio album from critically acclaimed duo Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 is full of harsh production, wild features and an energy that will make you want to box anything on sight, and that’s exactly what El-P and Killer Mike want you to do.
There’s a theme of anger throughout, the type of anger that arises when your boss yells at you, or you get grounded for the weekend and you’re helpless. “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” is the song that’s playing when you’re driving fast down the interstate, pissed off at anything and everything that dares get in your way. El-P and Killer Mike know that they’re good at what they do, and they’re going to be loud about it — they want you to know that they know.
“All My Life” is the song that’s playing when it’s dark out, and you get in your car and just sit there and think. You might yell, scream, get your feelings out, and Run the Jewels are there for it. The production alone is enough to get the listener angry, making them want to confront whatever is troubling them. This album gives you bursts of energy, and it gives you the drive to call out your boss for yelling at you and your parents for grounding you. Run the Jewels 2 is loud, harsh and ready to help you get your rage out. — Happy Haugen
On album opener “The Fox,” Corin Tucker sings, “The duck knew this game she had to quit / And her own pond she was headed too quick / ‘I’ll go I’ll go and there’s no looking back.’” Setting up the central theme of the album, Tucker sheds light on the gendered imbalances of society, grabbing hold of the listener to throw harsh reality in their face. Each track on The Woods is chock full of feminist power, pulling the women to the front of the crowd for their chance to feel safe. There’s a constant heartbeat within each track, bonding Sleater Kinney’s members together in a mutual hope for fairness and respect. Just the sheer power of Tucker and Brownstein’s vocals provide hope and a moment of epiphany for any girl listening, that they too can rock.
The Woods was recorded at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios in Cassadaga, New York, and this adds an isolated effect to the album. There’s a sense of complacency pushing behind the tracks, as if the members are experiencing reverse cabin fever. The three find their niche within the album’s hardest moments, like the crazed, cymbal heavy “Wilderness,” with its strung out guitars and raucous cacophony infused bridge. “Modern Girl” allows the band to step back and reflect on the confusion and chaos that has ensued, looking back on easier times, albeit with the addition of a sunshine-soaked harmonica riff. Within their brand of rock, Sleater Kinney’s minimal approach makes for a deeper understanding of their message, allowing the listener to fully ooze into the undeniable rawness of their work. — Virginia Croft
The xx’s self-titled album opens with “Intro,” a song that almost everyone I know has some sort of emotional connection to. Each chord and note on the track lifts you up. It still brings a couple tears to my eyes every time I hear it. And, of course, being the intro, it’s a perfect way to start this incredible album– a powerful, emotional set of chords that make you feel like you’re in a movie (after all, it’s been used in many a movie), perfect for listening to on the bus with your headphones blasting, looking out the window, imagining your own little life. “Crystalised” is another track that jumps out from the record; it opens with a high note, something organic like wolves howling, then launches into a more upbeat rhythm that lets you walk down the street a little straighter. The musical stylings of Jamie xx and the rest of the band contributing organic, raw instruments and the vocal inflections and breathy singing of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim suck you in and don’t let you turn the album off or even skip a song. From “Crystalised” we move into “Islands,” which opens low, then takes you into another carefully produced rhythm. “I don’t have to leave anymore,” Romy says. “Cause I have this right here.” It’s how I feel about the record. I don’t have to leave; I have this right here. The whole album is perfect in movie soundtrack options, perfect for bus rides, for walks down the street, perfect for any mood you might be feeling. “I am yours now, so now I don’t ever have to leave.” — it’s an ideal descriptor; the record hooked me (and many others) on first listen, and didn’t let any of us leave. It grew fans for life. — Sofie Mikhaylova
While Bjork’s discography features many beautiful, daring pieces of art, her fourth album, Vespertine, ascends the Icelandic singer-songwriter to another uncharted level. It’s a hike through the space-time continuum, if the result was a land speckled in diamond dust and poetry constructed of computer code. There’s a futuristic quality present throughout Vespertine: Bjork conjuring creations way ahead of her time that will be looked back upon with similarity to its preceding music and similar to the paints of Hilma af Klint — symbols bringing to mind that of later IBM code, as if both of these women had a keen eye into the future. On Vespertine, Bjork creates her own world of sound, literally — with the ever changing world of technology, her forward-thinking approach led her to utilize everyday sounds, like the cracking of ice and shuffling a deck of cards, to embellish the tracks. “Hidden Place” is a mesmerizing track, weaving in and out of twinkling instrumentals and Bjork’s warming, glowing vocals. She releases her best vocal outpourings throughout Vespertine, pushing past a limit that didn’t seem possible. With her vocals acting as a focal point throughout the album, they are consistently complemented through innovative instrumentals, twisting and turning through her lyrics.
Additionally, Bjork released her self titled coffee-table book simultaneously with Vespertine. Looking at her discography, it makes the most sense that her physical literature moment would come with this release — while a motif of storytelling creates a compelling audio experience, the foundation for a visual exploration, as Bjork examines the intersection of reality and imagination. — Virginia Croft
As debut albums go, there are fewer more impressive than Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights. Though the band would go on to release more commercially successful records, their darkly atmospheric debut still stands tall as the finest record in their now-heavy discography.
In the near two decades on from its release, it’s hard to imagine a review that fails to mention that word: “atmosphere.” To this day, the sense of foreboding in its songs feels overwhelmingly thrilling. In fact, there aren’t many records that can conjure imagery in quite the way that Interpol do here; the eleven-track collection offering a searing, stifling snapshot of New York’s underbelly — of the sweaty backstreets in summer, of the darkened corners and those lost within them.
A heady concoction of muscular instrumentals and propulsive percussion, TOTBL is undoubtedly best taken as one whole piece, presenting a mesmeric unraveling that begins with the burned out simmer of “Untitled” and ends some fifty minutes later with the epic closing track “Leif Erikson.” That said, the album is still spiked with stand-out moments — the punchy brilliance of indie-disco behemoth “Obstacle 1,” the decadent punch of “NYC.”
Arriving in the wake of Is This It and amid a throng of aimless copycats, TOTBL captured something else. It’s a dark celebration of style over substance, of validity over hollow fanfare. Spacious, cold-blooded, agitated, and unhinged, it’s no wonder that they never quite reached the same heights again, for TOTBL is a lightning bolt of inspiration, a burst of black-magic in a diminishing world. — Tom Johnson
As a 24-year-old white dude from Arlington, Virginia, I can not conceive what life is like growing up in an impoverished and sometimes dangerous area of the country. I think that a lot of kids who grow up in the suburbs turn to hip-hop to try and experience something they are unfamiliar with. This can become problematic as some of these kids adopt attitudes and vernacular incongruous with their upbringings that, put simply, do not belong to them.
With my extremely limited perspective in mind, I think that Vince Staples’ debut album Summertime ‘06 effectively communicates some of the chaos involved in growing up in a hectic and underserved environment. The production, mostly crafted by longtime Kanye collaborator No I.D. with help from Clams Casino and DJ Dahi, skitters and clangs around, with various jarring sound effects popping in and out, almost always featuring a foreboding 808 bassline beneath.
Some hip-hop albums feature production that upstages the lyricism or vice versa — not this one. Vince Staples does his job and then some lyrically. His bars go hand-in-hand with the production to further paint a picture of his life. On “Lift Me Up,” he contrasts his upbringing with his rising fame, referencing white kids who recite the n-word at his concerts while pondering, “Wonder if they know / I know they won’t go / Where we kick it at.” On “Street Punks,” he discounts anyone coming for his spot — from the police to rival gangs — over twinkling piano with a purposefully blown-out low-end.
Summertime ‘06 is not all chaos, though. On literal album centerpiece “Summertime,” Staples gently sings, “This could be forever, baby,” over ethereal production from Clams Casino. “This” is peaceful and comfortable — it breaks up the chaos found on other album tracks and deviates from the widespread depictions of impoverished neighborhoods the media provides; the same depictions force-fed to suburban kids which skew the realities of life in the hood and remove the humanity of its residents. On Summertime ‘06, Staples cogently communicated the complexities of his life and personality, whether we were truly listening or not. — Matthew Hirsch