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When Christian Fennesz set out to record the material that would become Endless Summer, he was bristling at the idea that abstract electronic music had to be completely devoid of melody. As he told Emma Warren at an interview at the Red Bull Music Academy, “I wanted to bring back things I’d been fascinated with in the past, like great melodies, great guitar chords.” So, armed with some guitars, a few effects pedals, and a laptop, he achieved that demure goal and had his biggest critical and commercial breakthrough as a result.
Fennesz has called the album “light and easy,” which does certainly sum up the feeling of getting swept up in the glistening bursts of “Caecilia” and the giddy glitches that flutter through “Before I Leave” like hummingbird wings. Not much of the rest of the album fits that description quite so snugly. “Got to Move On” feels like getting caught up in a bubbling lava flow and “A Year in a Minute” is set with the same crumbling tension that helped create Disintegration Loops. Nothing, not even the rumbling, crackling spirals of “Happy Audio,” comes across as being anything less than challenging to the discernment of anyone that comes into its blast radius. — Robert Ham
Everything that makes Chan Marshall such an intoxicating, one-of-a-kind talent is on display over the course of You Are Free’s 14 tracks. A mystic, a poet, an artist too sensitive for this world—Patti Smith with Odetta’s voice and Ophelia’s troubles. By 2003 the Cat Power legend had grown strong enough for Marshall to have Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, Warren Ellis and composer David Campbell join she and engineer Adam Casper for the proceedings, and the results are stunning.
Songs like “Werewolf,” “I Don’t Blame You,” and “He War” all quickly became Cat Power classics and the devastating “Good Woman”—featuring backing vocals from Vedder—is Marshall’s finest heartbreaking moment in a career absolutely full of them. The sparsely arranged album features several moments so inspired and so drenched in beautiful melancholy that it’s difficult not to correlate tumultuous period in Marshall’s life that followed with the record and its subsequent tours. Substance abuse and overwork contributed to live shows that devolved into highly erratic, rambling affairs so frequently that it seemed Marshall had become an emotional avatar for the broken characters that populate these songs.
Marshall’s Marlboro Reds and Southern bourbon voice is wisely allowed to shine throughout You Are Free, and in the history of modern music there are few vehicles that make emotional pain feel so alive, so beautiful and so relatable. The minimalistic and highly evocative album works so well that you worry about Marshall, you want to defend her, to protect her from this oft terrible world. But if Chan Marshall has proven anything over her storied career, it’s that she will never be fully defeated by the world—not ever. — Donovan Farley
It’s tough to listen to The College Dropout now. It’s not that its sound or lyrics have aged poorly (they absolutely haven’t), but the Kanye West on his debut was so drastically different from the one we know now. Reflective, funny, and even aware then of his egotistical reputation (“Some say he arrogant. Can y’all blame him?/It was straight embarrassing how y’all played him”), the West of The College Dropout is the kind of guy you want to just kick back with and talk about how you each got to where you are, without any fear of judgment. The issues affecting the black community (which are just as relevant today) are addressing not with lecturing or weepy melodrama but with understanding and wit. (“Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis”) In an era where conventional wisdom was that just about any non-gangsta rap-adjacent hip-hop album would be destined for meager sales, West released a critically-acclaimed blockbuster that shocked millions not out of vulgarity but through how it broadened the field for mainstream hip-hop success. You can rap about Jesus and having your jaw wired shut and still light up the charts, provided you give people a reason to care. He’s made plenty of great music since then, but his debut marks when Kanye West was at his absolute most lovable. — Brody Kenny
There are some albums that are difficult to listen to cover-to-cover solely because they are so intense and emotionally poignant that one can’t help but ugly cry, exploding with head-thrashing vigor, or spraining their knee dancing as they listen through. To me, this is Lemonade.
Unlike her eponymous record, we had some warning that Bey would be releasing new music in the spring of 2016. First she gave us “Formation,” a confusing yet ass-shaking hit I listened to 20 times on repeat to learn the sequencing of the lyrics (Taking his ass to Red Lobster comes BEFORE the black Bill Gates in the making bit). “Formation” was a sign of the album to come: an experiment in genre and form capable of topping her previous repertoire.
And that it did. Lemonade garnered a significant amount of its press attention for being ‘the story of Jay Z’s infidelity and how the couple survived it.’ I love the way Beyoncé goes through the seven stages of grief in Lemonade, and many fans and listeners found this straightforward address of processing loss and pain as the most relatable part of the record. Songs like “Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “All Night” affirm the fiery, loud emotions we often try to hide away. But “Daddy Lessons,” “Freedom,” and arguably “6 Inch” are the record’s most interesting tracks. Beyoncé always stays close to her H-Town roots, and her first-ever country song “Daddy Lessons” adds layers to her southern identity and previously contentious relationship with her father. “Freedom,” Bey’s collab with the #1 rapper in the world Kendrick Lamar, is the record’s peak, and its true power is manifested in this moment at the 2016 BET Awards when they performed it together live for the first time. And “6-Inch” is a sexy song about a hardworking stripper that features a somewhat laughable verse from The Weeknd, which leads me to ask: Is there any sound or vision our Queen can’t pull-off? — Jacqueline Zeisloft
Kevin Parker has a knack for condensing jam band sensibilities into bite-sized chunks of pop perfection. His recurring hat trick is sticky guitar riffs — a rock band’s only bargaining chip in the streaming era.
The music world of 2012 was in a weird state of transition. Buzz bands were a dying breed, but streaming hadn’t dominated listening habits yet. Mainstream approximations of indie were still reaching the top of the Billboard charts.
Then there was “Elephant.” This blues-psych stomper became omnipresent in commercials and TV shows. It didn’t exactly make the band a household name, but they crossed the threshold into Grammy-nominated territory. But the mainstreaming of Tame Impala’s hook-filled sheen belies complexly woven themes on Lonerism.
If “in medias res” could be applied to introspection, “Be Above It” would be the launching pad. From the get-go, we are lowered into a headspace fixated on isolation from society. The hypnotic repetition of the titular mantra sets the tone for an album that burrows into inner worlds in the face of alienation. The loop of his percussive enunciation accentuates the rollicking backbeat of the song.
It’s a theme that unspools across the psychedelic expanse of the album, between the labyrinthine guitar work on “Keep on Lying” to the self-defeated lyricism on “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?”
Maybe it’s a little ironic that it took an album about alienation to crossover into the music establishment. But Parker is bridging the gap between rock and the new mainstream in a way that doesn’t feel watered down so much as transformative. — Caitlin Kelley
After seeing their planned debut, Exclusive Audio Footage, shelved by Elektra Records (in one of the more boneheaded record industry moves in recent memory) when their debut single “The Funeral” underperformed, Virginia brothers Gene “No Malice” Thornton and Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton unleashed Lord Willin’ on the world in 2002. Pharrell Williams, a man who knows a thing or two about talent, scooped up Elektra’s fumble and signed the duo to Arista Records through his Star Trak imprint with plans to produce Lord Willin’ alongside his production partner in The Neptunes, Chad Hugo. The record, filled with elegant cocaine raps and slick production by The Neptunes, opened at #1 on the R&B/Hip-hop charts on the strength of irresistible lead single “Grindin,’” which features one of The Neptunes’ more delectable beats on a resume absolutely lousy with them.
The cooly menacing album announced the arrival of the Virginia Beach natives who trafficked in a sound informed by their Southerness, but also one that was wholly their own. A different, less humid brew than the funk emanating from OutKast’s Dungeon further down south in Atlanta. Lord Willin’ burst into a rap scene that at the time was more concerned with party anthems than dark, hard-hitting coke raps—but the record refused to be ignored. The juxtaposition of The Neptune’s often buoyant and joyous production and intense street raps seems on paper an odd marriage, but it’s not hyperbolic to say the pairing helped alter the direction of hip-hop. — Donovan Farley
The Milk-Eyed Mender is Joanna Newsom at her least intimidating, where she could soundtrack Victoria’s Secret ads and The Strangers and not seem too out of place. It’s odd to constantly have to compare her debut to the epics that would follow because she just has a different mindset here…most of the time. The first three tracks are Newsom at her most accessible, making songs with verses and choruses — I speak oddly of these things retrospectively considering the avant garde mad genius that would appear on Ys. “Sprout and the Bean” is still her best song. The balance between her harp, its echoes, and the brief silences is mesmerizing, but the defined, simple rhythms are the makings of pure pop. Despite the relatability and congeniality of this debut, none of her majesty is missing. There are still strong echoes of who she would become, and that is best exemplified on “Sadie,” which is an ode to her dog and the death of friendships. It’s the longest song here, and it drifts without a hook or anchor, free to be led by whatever Newsom deems natural. This was our introduction to Newsom’s inner clock and to truly listen to it is to be subsumed within her tempests and her reposes. It’s a magnificent quality she shares with peak Ornette Coleman and Björk. There’s an alternate timeline where Newsom capitalizes on her twee mischaracterization and goes down the dark, dark path of a She & Him-like career and soundtracks all of (500) Days of Summer, but you should never underestimate a voice that knows its own place, its own time. — Andrew Cox
Art Angels, Grimes’ 2015 fourth studio album, is nothing short of an alternative pop masterpiece. A testament to Claire Boucher’s artistic genius, inimitable vision and sonic craftsmanship, the album was both produced and engineered solely by the Canadian musician. She also self-directed some of the record’s music videos, created the album artwork and even learned how to play the guitar, violin, drums and more in order to expand her musical boundaries on the album — which, coincidentally, finds Grimes gleefully decimating the designation of indie music’s manic pixie dream girl so many male critics, listeners and producers attempted to bestow upon her early in her career. (“I’ll never be your dream girl,” she coos on “Butterfly,” a cool kiss-off to anyone who might have viewed her as a passive creator.)
Though not Grimes’ breakout album (that honor belongs to 2012’s much less glossy, much more cerebral Visions), Art Angels sees the singer-songwriter-producer bending, twisting and snapping pop into unusual shapes: she dabbles in the frenetic energy of rave on “Kill V. Maim,” flirts with synth-pop on “Easily,” and unleashes her female rage alongside Janelle Monáe on “Venus Fly,” a hip-hop-stadium-rock-electroclash mutant of anthemic proportions. Whether she’s spinning a galloping, neon-tinged Spaghetti Western on “California,” or splicing together Baroque pop and folk balladry on “Life in the Vivid Dream,” Grimes is a rebellious mad scientist and Art Angels is her candy-colored laboratory. Her pop experiments will likely inform the genre proper for years to come. — Erica Russell
My first two years of high school were pretty brutal. I spent every day going from class to class learning nothing and hating everyone and everything. In freshman seminar, when we were asked to name a song to best describe our mood, I picked the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” — not great. I had mainly one thing keeping me going, and it was my 160 GB clunky iPod classic with those thin earbuds that tuned everything out. Instead of going to lunch, I would go to the library and open up the CD booklets I took everywhere, so that I could listen and read in peace — again, not great. My mostly-defunct iTunes account from that time tells me I listened to one album more than anything: Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight. In middle school, I almost strictly listened to AC/DC, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, so moving towards alternative rock in high school wasn’t much of a stretch, but Spoon also satiated my need to find music that didn’t quite qualify as “normal” (I also really fell in love with Animal Collective and the Avalanches at this time). I listened to “Small Stakes” most of all with that guitar feedback loop sounding so cool to 14-year-old me. I was drawn to the minimalist style of songs like “Stay Don’t Go” and “Paper Tiger” with fun experimentation that shouldn’t go over anyone’s heads. Every song stays under four minutes, so the album never becomes a burden, but it’s also far from being lightweight. Spoon made other classics in this century, but you could swap the songs around on all of them without much change; it would be a sin to not have “Paper Tiger” follow “Jonathan Fisk,” and even the “Yer Blues”-loving me could see that. — Andrew Cox
Since his introduction into house music under the indie rock trio The xx, Jamie has been quietly making a name for himself in his solo work. On In Colour, we get a good glimpse into what makes the atmosphere that surrounds the trio so exceptional. Jamie’s ability to create a repetitive rhythm draws you in but keeps it refreshing by subtlety adding in different little sounds and vocals. It’s this reserved and intentional minimalism that really showcases the beauty of Jamie’s mixes. Take for example “Sleep Sound” — the rhythm and lead maintains for the majority of the track, but with many little additions, it slowly becomes an entirely different, more-upbeat song near the end. While most songs on the album follow this pattern, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t high points in the record that just make you want to get up and dance. “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” with Popcaan and Young Thug is a tropical steel drum banger, with the latter providing weirdly-fitting track riding verses.
Personally, I prefer this record much more than anything he’s made alongside his trio; being able to have full control over the pacing and stylistic choices on the record proved well for Jamie’s abilities. And while his two band members Romy and Oliver both make appearances on this record, it’s very clear that it is on Jamie’s terms — meaning that they were invited to add to a already great track rather than compromises being made alongside the bands members to create one cohesive body of art. Jamie xx has already cemented himself as a upcoming talent in the world of house music, and I look forward to whatever he has planned next. — Javier Rodriguez
“Where’s Your Head At?” came on recently while I was driving in a particularly maddening section of traffic. “You have now found yourself trapped in the incomprehensible maze” — it was the deepest I’ve ever connected with Basement Jaxx on a lyrical level. Maybe just a funny coincidence but upon further investigation, Rooty is all about breaking free and liberating yourself from the monotony of desk jobs, stale conversations, and, yes, traffic. The theme is most explicit on “Breakaway” with the lines “I gotta get away / I’m living in the same old shit each and every damn day.” That’s a grim declaration, but Felix Buxton of course sings it with that Crazy Frog pitch tampering that so many loathe. If you could play one album that clashes with the very idea of a useless business meeting, it’s Rooty. It’s not just “Dance your troubles away;” it’s like dunking your head in a pot of glitter and going to the most cartoonish drag show in town while on ecstasy. Rooty demands that you take coming out of your shell to 11 because that’s what it means to chase your dreams (“Broken Dreams”) or to find your “Romeo.” Apart from the big singles on Rooty and Remedy, Basement Jaxx don’t get much airplay anymore. Goofiness often becomes shorthand for novelty, and that makes them easy to write off, but there will always be times when you need to be told to “Do Your Thing,” and that’s what Rooty provides on every listen. — Andrew Cox
Usually an album presents a thematically cohesive collection of ideas, or a unified aesthetic that is wholly realized by the combination of its gears. This isn’t even really an album—it’s a mix-tape—but despite its collaged presentation, it is also the most consistent demonstration of the sole element that makes Wayne a god: he’s one of the most incredible rappers ever recorded. And I mean rap, as in literally the physical dexterity required to hold together the rhymes over the rhythms and to link concepts. Wayne has a phonetically driven free-associative style that creates new brags, insights, and quips in the time frame that it requires most of us to catalog what chores we have to do. Every instrumental on the record comes from what Wayne was hearing on the radio and decided he had to spit over. Think about that. He is so confident in his ability to captivate from his bars alone that he will completely forsake attention to anything else, everything else is simply peripheral. He is a wordsmith of the highest order and cannot be bothered by concerns that obscure where the focus should be: his lightning quick delivery, that if rumors are true, is almost completely an assemblage of what happens to cross his mind at any given moment. Wayne is the cultural moment of the Bush era incarnate. He is as cocksure, distracted, and jaded as the world he was rapping to, and because maybe interpretation had died at that point, the masterful onslaught of his lyricism is the highest and most identifiable source of truth. — Stephen Axeman
By 2012, the music industry finally figured out how to handle Fiona Apple’s greatness. She was removed enough from “Criminal” and her gross mislabeling as a ’90s one-hit-wonder so that generation X/pop culture geeks didn’t really care what Apple was up to. Her second album When the Pawn… had been cast aside as a flop rather than as the ascendency of the greatest singer/songwriter of her era; to many, she had served her purpose as being the difficult wunderkind that couldn’t accept being an industry pawn. Lo and behold, The Idler Wheel… arrives and the thinkpieces and reevaluations start flying.
Each song on The Idler Wheel is like a kitchen clanging and coming to life — cabinets fly open, dishes whip around the room and crash, the teapot wails with steam. Rage and chaos are bursting at the seams. Listen to Apple’s voice on “Daredevil” with her guttural scream of “Wake me up!” A Fiona Apple vocal performance has no competition; every fray and crack is left in as you can tell it takes everything out of her. It’s therapeutic in the most violent, rewarding sense of the term. There’s no holding back in tone, theme, or sound — no capitulations, compromises, or demos floating around that were like way better than the official versions. I could point to every lyric and its delivery on this album and just say “Nobody does it like THAT!” My favorite might be on “Regret” — “I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” I’ll just leave it on that. — Andrew Cox
When Radiohead dropped In Rainbows in 2007, their spot in music history was already solidified by their now-legendary prior efforts, most notably OK Computer and Kid A. As a band accustomed to keeping their fans and the music world at large on their toes, however, Radiohead again surprised fans not only with the musical content of In Rainbows, but also with regard to how they released the album.
Radiohead released In Rainbows with a pick-your-price model, something that flew in the faces of record labels during a time when industry executives and the FCC were desperately trying to crack down on loss of revenue they attributed to widespread use of peer-to-peer file sharing services and high-profile album leaks. They did this a year prior to the launch of Bandcamp, one of many websites now well-known for letting artists determine their prices, including the popular pick-your-price option.
While it may have been easier for a band that already achieved financial stability to release a record in this manner, it was simultaneously incredibly notable for such well-known artists to sacrifice money for the sake of sharing their work with as many people as possible. This positioned In Rainbows as an album uniquely of its time with a benchmark marketing scheme for the burgeoning digital world.
The musical content of the album is a perfect blend between the band’s heavier stylings found on The Bends and OK Computer, their more electronically-oriented music from Kid A and Amnesiac, and a then-newfound calm. Songs such as “House of Cards,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and “Nude” stand the test of time as excellent syntheses of everything Radiohead already accomplished paired with beautiful, aqueous sounds, sweeping chords, and droning bass lines that were not as present in their previous work. All of these features underneath Thom Yorke’s soft but powerful voice and lyrical ruminations on love, loneliness, and other nearly universally-understood emotions, came together on an album that stands out as one of Radiohead’s most beautiful works in their discography. — Matthew Hirsch
After albums like Section.80, good kid, M.A.A.D city, and, of course, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick has built a certain reputation for himself: He’s a poet, he’s wise, he possesses an unmatched ability; but now, he’s angry, fed up and needs to speak his mind. And so, DAMN. was born.
Lamar starts off the 14-song album with the track “BLOOD.,” a tale of a blind woman who kills him. The track sets a tone for how the album is going to go with the FOX News sample at the end — when Lamar’s lyrics are misquoted and he is misrepresented. The clip angered Lamar, because they took “…a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred…,” he says. Right after this, it goes into the track “DNA,” which was produced by Mike Will Made It and is a fan favorite. The confidence behind his words on this song is strong – he knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, and he’s confident and ready to back it all up.
Throughout the album, Lamar begins to stray from his old jazz influence heard in To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered. “HUMBLE.” and “XXX FEAT. U2” show this sort of a switch in style, but the language and flow ability is still there. DAMN. is what the world needed to hear in 2017, and it’s what Kendrick needed to do to get his anger out. — Happy Haugen
Upon the recent 15th anniversary of Madvilliany, Daniel Dumile, better known as MF DOOM, said he doesn’t listen to hip-hop. “I listen to jazz music and instrumental and shit like that,” he told SPIN. A surprising admission akin to Godard revealing he has never seen a movie (however, that would explain a lot).
It makes sense, though: DOOM doesn’t sound like any MCs who came before him. He doesn’t rap about the usual topics—in fact, he seems to pride skill over message—and his flow manages to sound relaxed despite his verses being packed with assonance and internal rhyme schemes.
Just as integral to the album’s originality is Madlib’s production, which samples a diverse mix of sources including oil snippets, jazz pianist Bill Evans, Frank Zappa, Steve Reich, and Brazilian and Indian music.
The fruitful collaboration between these two iconoclasts saw Madlib compiling CD after CD of up to 40 beats from which DOOM would choose a handful to rap over. A few bong-hits and DOOM would whip-up lyrics just as fast. “The spontaneity is what brings that Madvillain out,” he said.
Madvilliany has a stoned feel to it from DOOM’s dry wit to Madlib’s heady music inspired by his hero, Sun Ra. Each track runs seamlessly into the next despite disruptions from dialogue that furthers the villain motif. One such examples comes at the end of “Rainbows” when a vintage-sounding radio announcer says, “[DOOM] was a ruthless mass conquerer with aspirations to dominate the universe.” He never took over the world, but on this one he’s cemented his place as a hip-hop great. — Alex Wexelman
Kanye West: Raw genius and master of his craft. Yeezus was another style switch-up that shows the world just how far his capabilities stretch and the extent to how he can switch up his sound completely. Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy all sound like completely different albums, and Yeezus is fourth in that list.
It’s an industrial album fueled by an anger that’s not been fleshed out this well by anyone before. “On Sight,” the first track, is the first cue of that abrasiveness. On this Daft Punk-produced beat, it sounds like the opening distortion fluctuation is spilling out of your phone … or your phone speaker broke. But is sounds awesome. You’re going to want to buckle up for the rest of the album, right from the first line: “Yeezy season approaching/Fuck whatever y’all been hearing.”
It then goes into “Black Skinhead,” a track just as abrasive but somehow more angry. This track is different though, because the chorus captures the feeling of being in the heat of the moment, and taking a breath as you realize just how angry you are. Later on, tracks like “Hold My Liquor,” “Blood on the Leaves” and “Guilt Trip,” show a more subsided anger and West focusing more into his production ability.
Yeezus has everything that makes a Kanye West album: Production that inspires a generation, lyrics that may catch you off guard but that are eerily relatable, and a certain swagger that commands respect. — Happy Haugen
I arrived to the Orlando airport a few months ago to find a massive clusterfuck. All flights had been delayed, and everyone had been sent back through security. Overlooking the main lobby were seemingly hundreds of hotel balconies, and the people around us waiting said a TSA agent had gone up to a top balcony and jumped to his death. I had hours to just sit around and do nothing, so I would glance up from time to time and imagine the scene as he jumped. It’s terrifying, and it shook me to my core to just be near it. I keep looping it in my head — how long it took, the visual of seeing someone right before death in the most shocking of ways, the sounds (the silences, screams, and a final bang) — and it comes out different every time. Immediately, my mind connected to The Disintegration Loops.
The images of people jumping from the Twin Towers as they were burning are some of the most gut-wrenching photos ever taken. I can barely look at them without feeling guilty — that I’m gleaming aesthetic fascination from the worst disaster of my lifetime. The Disintegration Loops, with its connections to 9/11, provide a middle ground to reckon with the death and destruction on that day in abstract terms, where the associated feelings and memories carry you through each loop. I listened to “dlp 1.1” that night and kept re-envisioning jumping to one’s death and that liminal space between terror and serenity while one is in the air. The Disintegration Loops is the only music I’m afraid to stop listening to. Once it starts, I have to submit to it — like a higher power. I’m humbled and in awe of it. The melody is slowly dying, and you know it will be gone, but you’re so hypnotized that you have to see it through. The death — the disintegration — has to be felt in its entirety. It must be lived. — Andrew Cox
A staple album in the world of psych pop, Animal Collective’s eighth studio album is a blend of pop, synth-pop, electronica and so much more. A highly anticipated release, Merriweather Post Pavilion is an iconic record that claims their most popular song, “My Girls,” but it also shows the sheer collaboration ability between Avey Tare and Panda Bear, the two frontmen and vocalists. This album transcends all listener demographics, providing an experience for each and every listener. It’s a really good pop album – catchy hooks and choruses that stick with you, and it provides a soundtrack to all instances of life.
Over the course of 55 minutes, Animal Collective walks with you down a path through a variety of topics: personal identity, materialistic goods and physical and mental health, to name a few. Tracks like “Taste,” “Brother Sport” and “Summertime Clothes” are perfect insights into what Animal Collective is – the type of songs that if someone asked you, “What songs should I listen to first?”, you’d answer with those three. They’re fun listens, and they sound like a Friday night when you’ve got nothing to do except whatever you want to do; and yet, they’re introspective, inquisitive and reflective: “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?/Would I complete myself without the things I like around?/Does the music that I make play on my awkward face?” All of these factors make Animal Collective what it is. — Happy Haugen
As the grim album cover would suggest, Modern Vampires of the City arrived as if it wanted to be taken seriously following the small stakes of their first two classics. Vampire Weekend’s third album was relatively experimental and a change of pace from the pop-like albums they had created in the past. The beginning of the album tackles some harsh topics such as mortality and adulthood in songs like “Obvious Bicycle,” which conveys a fear of growing old, and “Diane Young,” which is a play on words for dying young. Musically, the album is more experimental to the pop-like sound that Vampire Weekend is known for and focuses more on using electronics, creating darker instrumentals, and layering vocals. The further into the album, the more it becomes apparent that lead singer Ezra Koenig is questioning many aspects of religion in songs like “Everlasting arms” and “Worship You.” The album ends back-to-back with “Hudson” and “Young Lion,” with the latter subtly coming full circle to the beginning of the album with instrumentation choice and tone. Overall, this album stayed true to the musical integrity of the band while allowing them to explore deeper themes and experiment in clever ways. — Ashley Porter
Modest Mouse, an American rock band formed by Isaac Brock, Jeremiah Green, and Eric Judy, released their third album The Moon & Antarctica in 2000 under their first major label. While trying to stay true to their small indie style, this album expands upon the ingenuity and creative thinking found in their earlier work by honing in on the diverse textures only this band is able to create. In the beginning, the album deals more with the idea of the Moon rather than Antarctica and works to build feelings of isolation and darkness through instrumental and vocal distortion along with minor guitar riffs. Further into the middle of the album, different instruments such as violins starts to appear and the metaphor of the coldness of Antarctica becomes more apparent in songs like “The Cold Part” and “Alone Down There.” This album focuses on the metaphorical isolation of life, but it also has a strong presence of difficulties with religion. Throughout the album, there are many religious references in songs like “The Stars Are Projections” and Lives” that show an overall struggle of coming to terms with religious views. On The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse continually dive deeper in the recurring topics of religion and loneliness and peak in their ability to form space-like instrumentals. — Ashley Porter
On July 4, 2012, Christopher Breaux — more commonly known as Frank Ocean — posted a heartfelt TextEdit screenshot to his Tumblr vaguely detailing the fact that the first person he fell in love with was another man. Six days later, Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange was released to essentially instantaneous mass appeal and critical acclaim. This sequence of events, from the Tumblr post to the album release certified Ocean as a superstar entirely in his own lane. While Ocean demonstrated his willingness to open up and be vulnerable with the public, he simultaneously maintained his privacy, in a way endearing him further to his fans. Furthermore, in Channel Orange, Ocean crafted a singular piece of work that stands today as a watershed moment in pop music and culture.
Sonically, the album is strongly representative of the blurring of genre limitations that is continuing today. While the album may be generally characterized as “R&B” or “pop” in the future, its music is incredibly diverse. Channel Orange’s range includes the synthpop-turned-nightclub-soul of three-part epic “Pyramids,” the piano-driven, slightly more hip-hop oriented “Super Rich Kids,” and the emotional balladry of “Bad Religion.”
With hindsight, Channel Orange remains an incredible project because of its broad emotional reach. I am far from the only person to feel this way, but as a kid who was beginning to come out as gay around the time of its release, the album stands as an emotional totem for me. It reminds me of my fresh-out-of-high-school days of intense emotional anxiety and insecurity relating to my sexuality in a way that is affirming rather than uncomfortable. Frank Ocean remains so alluring as he is able to be vulnerable with the public without making himself available all while engaging us with his incredible artistry and storytelling. To me, and likely many others, he is one of the most human superstars we have and in Channel Orange he crafted a timeless classic. — Matthew Hirsch
A Seat at the Table is unwaveringly direct. Knowles forgoes allusions and niceties for declarations: often outright commands, “Don’t touch my hair,” “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” etc. Her treacly falsetto feels calculated, powerful. Like when, as a child, you knew you were in serious trouble because your mom wasn’t yelling. The musical poise she demonstrates insures her righteous anger won’t be dismissed as mere hysterics.
Each track is laden with self-awareness—perhaps an example of the double standard forced on minority artists: the unspoken burden to represent all POC while also demanding something art that’s personal and original. No problem, says Knowles. A Seat at the Table lives up to this impossible demand but makes it clear “Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/For us, this shit is for us.”
It’s not the typical internet empowerment, more a branding opportunity than a conviction. The kind of self-acceptance Knowles is pushing feels well-earned because the album embodies a process. It displays the nuance, the circumstance that leads to her moment of self-actualization. This isn’t just a blanket call to love oneself; it’s a multigenerational look at the pain and beauty that accompanies being a black American. Clips of her parents recounting their encounters with racism and explaining their ideologies weave the album together. We see her through glimpses of formative relationships. We understand the weight and the strength it took for her to get here.
Musically, there isn’t a single loose thread—each lyric, pitch, and note is finetuned. Cutting. Punctuated by meticulous arrangements. Sparse where they need to be, minimalist beats and swelling instrumentation push Knowles’ voice to the forefront. She won’t be ignored. — Paula Ramirez
They Don’t Love You Like I Love You
I thank god everyday that my moms bought me Rock Band for Christmas back in like 2007. I got hip to many gems that otherwise were missing in my homogenous Black musical library. The segregation of music is depressing, and the longevity of music is even sadder.
My favorite track on Rock Band? Easily “Maps“by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was years late to the party. The soft and deep vocals from Karen O were more familiar and soothing than foreign. The crazy guitar solo in “Maps” from Nick Zinner prompted my youngest sister to actually pick up the electric guitar. And the percussive glue to the whole operation (shout out Brian Chase) was what prompted me and my brother to pick up drumsticks as kids.
When I was a little bit older, I downloaded Fever to Tell (Deluxe and Remastered) to my music library. One of the bands behind the revival of garage rock was my sh-t and nobody could tell me any different. The sassiest lady voice on my local radio stations back in the day was Beyoncé. Now the rawest women’s voice on my iPod was Karen O and this was groundbreaking.
Fever to Tell gives Karen O this platform to go off, get free and get raw. While I found her via “Maps,” a watery-like melodic song, I kept following because of the fire and smoke behind tracks like “Black Tongue.” I had Poetic Justice braids like Janet Jackson but I head-banged to “Pin” in my room.
Fever to Tell’s legacy is in it’s crunchy realness. It’s roses are in it’s powerful feminine lead. The album has stood the test of time because of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ musicianship and creativity. Growing up with predominantly hip-hop, I responded well to beat switch-ups, heavy percussion, vocal attitude and lyrics based in dispute.
Fever to Tell gave me all of that and opened the door for me to really expand my musical tastes to find those elements in more than just rap. I found the B-52s, got into Avril Lavigne’s music and went digging for Hole’s old sounds. It’s something powerful about music that educates. Sure, the kids growing up with rock and punk love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But if I could meet Karen O, I would comically remind her “they don’t love you like I love you”. — Chanell Noise
At the center of Deerhunter’s magnum opus, Halcyon Digest, is the unforgettably haunting “Helicopter” which takes its inspiration from a post on Dennis Cooper’s blog that tells the unimaginably haunting story of a young Russian named Dima who committed suicide after being coerced and eventually sold into sex trafficking by a wealthy elite. The album closes with a tribute to Jay Reatard who died prematurely in 2010. While Deerhunter moved firmly into “art-pop” territory with this album and its brittle walls of soft feedback and gauzy production, the band remained at their core the pre-eminent purveyors of despair and melancholy. The central motif of the album is the reworkable and elastic medium of memory. We continue to forget just how empty and awful certain moments of our life were, and against this optimistic revisionism, Bradford Cox takes us to a place where uncertainty and the inability to come to grips with what has passed are the laws of the land. Appetites are not trustworthy motivators of human behavior in this world, if anything they are indications of a lack of clear thought, of a perversion of reason and of exploitation waiting to happen. Uncertainty animates every action, and the belief in a crystal-clear reasoning underlying things is still a myth. Maybe it is the lucidity of this conviction, the well anchored foundation in experience of it that gives the soundscapes such firmness and directness. You are invited to rejoice that you will never know. — Stephen Axeman
You can try and silence her, but you can’t ignore M.I.A. Her music has an immediacy, her crunchy beats are imminent strikes on the establishment. On “The Turn” she declares herself a warrior and whatever she’s currently railing against you can bet it’s a worthy cause. (You don’t get added to a US Homeland Security Risk List, as she did in 2006, without speaking power to truth first.)
Like The Clash, whom she samples on global hit “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s globetrotting beats and difficult-to parse politics meld into a punk rock call to arms. She wastes no time, announcing on opener, “Bamboo Banga,” “M.I.A. coming back with power-power.” This can be heard in the album’s deeper textures and higher production, the latter on which English DJ, Switch, was her most frequent collaborator.
Guests Afrikan Boy and The Wilcannia Mob help push M.I.A.’s vision to represent the world town. Previously, Maya shouted-out Timbaland on Arular; this time he shows up to trade off verses on final track “Come Around.” It wasn’t long before Vampire Weekend were interpolating her and a star-studded Kanye produced track appeared featuring T.I., West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne. Despite her rising status, M.I.A. continues to support the little guy as she voices the plights of third world democracies. – Alex Wexelman
Kanye West will probably be remembered as a contemptuous narcissist who could either hone that energy into art-house brilliance or be utterly decimated by it. That inevitable retrospective is frustrating not because it’s undeserved—at this point, it’s not just valid, it’s accurate. It’s disheartening because Late Registration is such a phenomenal hip-hop album, and one that sounds virtually unrecognizable from the Kanye of today.
For one, he could actually deliver three solid verses on nearly every track on this thing. And the verses would contain arcs, nuances, and clever observations. Not just one-note brags that hinge entirely on being boisterous, edgy, and desperately provocative. Late Registration Kanye was actually more galling than he currently is. A passage like,“My aunt Pam can’t put those cigarettes down / Now my lil’ cousin smokin’ those cigarettes now / His job trying to claim that he too nigger-ish now / Is it ’cause his skin blacker than licorice now?” is an eloquent and biting piece of social commentary that makes his white listeners’ skin flare up. It’s both brash and vivid, not just the former, and therefore significantly more effective than anything to come out of his modern era as an incessant troll.
Late Registration is at once joyous, funny, poignant, inflamed, astute, and graceful. But more than anything, it sounds genuine. Whether it’s an artifact of a former self or a legitimate indication that he’s capable of one day doing it again is ultimately irrelevant. Late Registration exists, it always will, and fans should be forever thankful for that. — Eli Enis
This is the picture: mid-2000s, summer heat, jump ropes whipping the pavement, basketballs hitting backboards, sun glaring off the asphalt. The music of mindless chatter, the groans of Missy in the background. A few years since Miss E…So Addictive came out, it was still bumping like a heartbeat in the neighborhood.
Missy made me dance when I was young, before I understood anything she said. When “Get Ur Freak On” blasted at the Indian functions, all because of that groovy bhangra beat, that subtle tabla, that mad flow with that falsetto. She didn’t need to “scream it loud and proud” for that beat to get stuck in a mind loop, causing the brown aunties to cast disapproving looks. We didn’t care though; Missy didn’t either.
Like she started off, “I know some of y’all sick of songs y’all be hearin’ on the radio,” she wasn’t wrong. Missy was big, loud, a badass bitch that all the girls looked up to. This album, no doubtedly her best, went platinum. With the range of funky beats like “Dog in Heat” to the creative Busta Rhymes interlude, Timbaland’s ability to produce diverse tracks cemented him in the scene. With features by Method Man, Jay-Z, and even Ludacris, the record forced you to move at the function. This was more than rap, this was silence and her voice hollering, this was singing, this was a staple of growing up: Missy singin’ “I just wanna be the perfect match,” me singing it in the mirror. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay
Formed by husband and wife, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, Arcade Fire released their debut album of only ten tracks, Funeral, in 2004. This indie band opens their album by exposing various neighborhoods that experience different forms of mortality. Arcade fire make this album more personal by writing about the deaths they’ve experienced in their own lives and by incorporating some of Regine Chassagne’s Canadian roots in songs like “Une année sans Lumière.” Alongside this thematical depth, Arcade Fire use various structured vocal layering techniques and deviate from the standard instrument setup to change textures from song to song. Toward the middle of the album, the allusions to death get clearer in songs like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Crown of love” and are juxtaposed with personal deaths in songs like “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” and “Haiti.” These middle songs, become softer and more focused on the use of pianos and orchestral strings. The end of Funeral becomes more bass heavy and moves into the resolutional sounds your ears have been craving. “In The Backseat” concludes the album by letting Chassgne take the vocal lead and illustrate a literal funeral ending with longer and heavier instrumentals. Funeral continues to be one of the heaviest – thematically and sonically – debuts ever made and succeeds for it. — Ashley Porter
Kendrick Lamar is really good at filtering his formative years into an easier to swallow pill. While absorbing his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. City, it becomes easy to forget the pain and trauma Lamar lived through to create the album. Growing up in Compton, Lamar was surrounded by gang violence and a poverty-stricken environment, but found his outlet through music. Good kid projects Lamar’s ability to seek out the blue sky, evoking a dreamy style of rap, juxtaposing his harsh lyrics with hazy instrumentals. “The Recipe” samples Mr Twin Sister’s “Meet The Frownies,” evoking a muddy, drunken effect. Lamar’s delicate approach to tracks like “Poetic Justice” and “Money Trees” listen like the world he dreamed of as a kid, cracking through the unfair balance of power. Carrying his stories and history with him like a token, Lamar allows himself to fully unfold on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Here, Lamar steps up to tell not just his story, but his community’s, demanding justice and respect. Hoping to live to see change, all Lamar asks is remembrance, singing in a heart wrenching tone, “When the lights shut off… Promise that you will sing about me.”
Forever and always, Lamar sticks to his roots. The album’s penultimate track, “Real,” is nostalgic, Lamar featuring messages from his parents, his mother adding, “I love you, Kendrick.” Throughout the album, his mother’s love is a driving force, the constant in his life– the push behind his determination and perseverance. — Virginia Croft
There’s a still-prevalent, recurring narrative that if you’ve heard one Beach House song then you’ve heard them all. Teen Dream, their third album, was the moment this stopped being anywhere close to true, with the duo bringing (albeit extremely subtly) an abundance of new shapes, colours, and sound into the work. Where the two records which preceded it concentrated on blurred, interwoven dream-pop, Teen Dream found the gaps between, delivering spacious pop songs that soared and spiralled, echoed and unfurled. This sense of space is also found in Victoria Legrand’s beautiful voice which seems to find new timbre throughout, penetrating the instrumentation with a truly expressive delivery, as gently sad as it is sobering.
As the album title suggests, Teen Dream is a melancholy call-to-mind, reflections of a time too far away to be touched, no matter how much we might pine for them. It’s the lingering feeling found in the aftermath of a dream, one that brought back people and places you thought long forgotten. “Zebra,” the record’s opening track, and the vivid punch of “Norway,” are the album’s big-hitters, but perhaps Teen Dream’s most impressive facet is its balance. Where those first two records melted into one glorious mass, Teen Dream undulates, surging from quiet moments of candour (“Real Love”) to bold, shimmering pop choruses without ever upsetting the overall stability — a balance that adds a sense of genuine importance to Teen Dream, the idea that our best days might well be behind us unless we strive to better them. — Tom Johnson
You hear about artists who make debut/breakout albums with one good song who then go on to make great albums because they kept making that one good song (Nirvana comes to mind first). The Knife’s second album Deep Cuts is not that great, but it gave us “Heartbeats,” one of the greatest songs of the century and the Knife’s most popular song by a wide margin. So when the Knife released their third album, listeners expected a record full of “Heartbeats,” or simply more synth pop jams that united the world over. What they got instead was like a soundtrack to a desolate thriller designed to push away anybody uninterested in legendary figures of abstract animation like Oskar Fischinger. The chorus of the lead single/title track goes “I crack a smile and a silent shout” in a giddily-haunting use of pitching to make the Dreijers seemingly into one empowered succubus. The Knife finally found their aesthetic, and they decided to settle on “Hades’ Nightclub Dungeon.” The “nightclub” portion of that is essential because Silent Shout is a fun, bouncy album all around. “Like a Pen” has some “Oh-ohs” in the chorus even as it sounds like water dripping from the ceiling of some empty hellhole. Highlight “We Share Our Mother’s Health” could soundtrack some form of gothic cheerleading routine — you know, if that existed. Through this new aesthetic, the Knife created the synth pop classic everyone hoped for but in a way people didn’t know they need. They tapped into a fun — but certainly not hammy — sinister side of us all in this unrelenting, perfect album. — Andrew Cox
Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated albums of the 21st century, Blonde was worth the wait. Its release saw an entire following clawing for anything that Ocean teased or talked about. Four years after the wild success that Channel Orange brought, Blonde is a reflective and honest masterpiece.
Ever since Odd Future, Frank Ocean has been a standout persona that captivates fans. Throughout this album, that same attention is captured by Ocean’s vocal ability. “Solo,” the fifth track, is an anthem for people who value their time spent alone — or realizing when it’s too late that they’d much rather be alone. In the chorus, Ocean is scared of the truth, stuttering, “s-solo,” almost as though he’s questioning his first instinct. This song is almost the main theme of the album: Ocean takes a step back, looking inward and from all perspectives. He strips himself apart, telling stories in the most beautiful way he knows how. Frank Ocean is wise in the English language: His use of “Inhale/in hell,” “Solo/so low” and lyrics like “Now And Then You Miss It, Sounds Make You Cry/Some Nights You Dance With Tears In Your Eyes” show his honesty and sheer ability.
Blonde lives up to the hype that surrounded its release, and then some. With songwriting talent and a voice that turns heads, Frank Ocean delivers an album that everyone can gain from. — Happy Haugen
The Argument by post-hardcore legends Fugazi captures the band’s career over a 45-minute period. On this record, Ian Mackaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally and Brendan Canty all push themselves into a new direction completely. We find the band to be the same amount of pissed off, but they’re tackling their issues more melodically and focusing heavily on their lyrics.
They were 14 years into their career at the point at which they released The Argument, and on it we hear a more mature Fugazi, not only in their sound, but also their lyrics and the issues they focus on. While they have grown, their anger is still present — and relevant. One of the biggest takeaways from this album is the track “Cashout,” a song that sounds like Silkworm throughout. It tackles the issue of gentrification and the “forced removal of people on the corner.” This is just one example of Fugazi’s new-found growth that is a common thread throughout the album. “Epic Problem,” is another standout, with Ian MacKaye barking orders telegram-style (“Congratulations/STOP/Wish I could be there/STOP”) at the band, as he shouts about the façade he’s put up so that people can’t see his own “Epic Problem.”
The rest of the album will put you on edge and make you question yourself and your morality. Tracks like “The Kill,” “Strangelight” and “Life and Limb” will keep you hooked, anticipating what’s going to happen next. With mixing precision like Radiohead and anger dating back to their roots, Fugazi’s sixth studio venture is one of their greatest. — Happy Haugen
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time where Jay Dee, the Detroit rapper/producer became the greatest producer alive. But when you talk about his legacy and how he became a legendary icon in hip hop, ironically the last album made during his lifetime, Donuts, is probably where you would start. Since the mid 90’s and the early renaissance of hip hop, Jay Dee has been a staple in the scene. Working alongside artists like Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, he produced some of the most memorable songs in their respective discographies. When he wasn’t working with other artists he would produce for his own group Slum Village, producing a majority of their work. And while many tried and did recreate Dilla’s classic soul chops, no one was really able to do it quite like he was. At the time of the album’s inception, people began steering towards a more precise and perfectionist angle when it came to hip hop production. Opting for more electronic and synthesized drum patterns, often programmed directly into primitive DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) and quantized to hit at certain beats or counts. Dilla didn’t like this method. Instead he would chop the samples how he’d want, play the drums at whatever pace he’d want, and basically do whatever he wanted. Drums not hitting exactly on beat? Who cares! Is a certain section of the sample a few bars off? Who cares! This is the beauty of Donuts and what makes it so special. You can have a track like “Waves” which has these very un-programmed drums that pretty much replicate the sound of authentic drumming being played over this creatively chopped and screwed soul sample. And while Dilla’s time on this earth was short, passing away only days after the release of this album, his legacy has been fully cemented as one of the greatest ever to touch a microphone or MPC. — Javier Rodriguez
In the liner notes for D’Angelo’s seminal album Voodoo, Saul Williams wrote, “We seem to be more preoccupied with cultivating our bank accounts than cultivating our crafts. Nowadays, I find my peers more inspired by an artist’s business tactics than their artistry.” This excerpt represents one of D’Angelo’s primary missions in creating Voodoo — to make an album that deviated from the showmanship of popular R&B at the time and instead focused on the artistry.
Aside from some dissonance between the album’s sexualized marketing scheme and its intended goal of pure artistry, D’Angelo undoubtedly achieved immeasurable creative feats with Voodoo. From being recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s former studio to featuring contributions from legends such as J Dilla, DJ Premier, Questlove, and Q-Tip amongst a bevy of other hyper-talented musicians, Voodoo is steeped in lore and stands today as an undeniable classic. Even D’Angelo’s subsequent disappearance from the media and well-documented troubles further entrench the album in its spot in music history.
Due to the album’s influence and reach, it is sometimes hard to conceive just how incredible it is, but Voodoo feels and functions as a singular piece of work to this day. While D’Angelo remains mercurial, the record sounds like an extension of himself. Complex, harmonic vocal layers swirl in every song as grooving bass lines and swinging percussion combine to create a sound that leaves an indelible impression on listeners.
From the hip-hop-funk of “Devil’s Pie” to the laid-back soul of “Send It On,” Voodoo travels through textures and moods — touching on topics such as greed, sexuality, and blackness — all while maintaining its sonic identity. By the time “Untitled” comes on towards the end of the record, it feels like God has spoken to you multiple times.
Ultimately, Voodoo has withstood and will withstand the test of time because no one has been able to create anything similar despite countless attempts. Voodoo is a classic the caliber of albums such as There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Astral Weeks, and Purple Rain — a transcendent piece of work that is impossible to forget and even harder to replicate. — Matthew Hirsch
Although artists like Mount Kimbie, Actress, and even Nicolas Jaar have carried Burial’s grayscale beauty into the electronic lexicon of the 2010s, no one has been able to capture the mystique of Untrue. Like Boards Of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children in the decade before it, Untrue is an album that only makes less sense the more you listen and/or read into its vast encyclopedia of fan devotion. This album is like a ghost; no matter how many times you try to devour it to rid its presence, it’ll always return, lurking behind you and sifting through the dark corners of your memory while you sleep.
It’s an album that’s at once physical, palpable and full of texture. But also distant, ephemeral, and unreachable like the epicenter of a thick fog. Once you begin wandering into the mist, the perceived density reveals itself as an illusion; beauty that can only be experienced from the outside. Tragic, like a butterfly that can never appreciate its wondrous color. Untrue is a difficult album to ascribe specific sonic labels, and attempting to map its influences in search of comparisons is kind of missing the point. It’s rare that an album this critically adored, this widely enjoyed and dissected, can still contain so much mystery and yield such untarnished curiosity. In the era of infinite information, the striking lack of narrative surrounding Untrue is what makes it so endlessly marvelous. — Eli Enis
White Blood Cells is the third in line of the White Stripes’ studio albums, but in the history of the band, it has likely become one of the most well known for producing their rugged garage rock sound and bolstering their popularity worldwide. The album opens the sound of an amp switching on, three light drumstick clicks, and after a moment, an extended screech from front man Jack White’s guitar that drops right into the fiery yet relaxed “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” This sets the stage for the rest of the album in ways, which despite its brazen simplicity that seems beneath the clear talent of the rock duo, not many bands would be capable of reproducing. White Blood Cells perfectly captures the essence of the naturally unpredictable Jack who is more than capable creating anarchy and restoring order on guitar and piano, and the introverted but capable Meg on drums. The White Stripes emulate modest and simple rock principles through electric and acoustic twists all album long. Some of their most popular songs to date are “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Gonna Be Friends,” which are two cheerful, elementary songs featured on this album. “Fell in Love with a Girl,” “Offend In Every Way,” and “Aluminum” strike quite the contrast to some of those gentler songs, but all of the above function to create that signature lo-fidelity rock and roll quality that pushed the pair into stardom. — Graham Stoker
The first time I heard an LCD Soundsystem song was right before the credits rolled on a particularly dramatic episode of Gossip Girl.
“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” played over drone shots of Upper East Side apartments and early-gentrification Brooklyn lofts with impossibly high ceilings. Blake Lively pouted. James Murphy crooned. Somehow it made sense?
This dichotomy, I think, captures the sentiment at the crux of the album: It’s accessible work by a band whose music is played at the very cool house parties. Danceable music for unimpressed fans lovingly parodying the very folks who worship at the altar of “Daft Punk is Playing At My House.” Treading the line between tongue in cheek and insufferable (cough, Father John Misty) is difficult for even the most meta among us (cough, Father John Misty.) Murphy is standing in the middle of the living room, disco ball spinning, beer sloshing; equally jaded and enamored by this life he’s a part of.
The balance struck on Sound of Silver makes the pointed lines hit harder (see “North American Scum”’s vicious portrait of American youth culture) and the tender moments feel like earnest, albeit begrudging, confessions of love.
Droney extended intros and outros create chaos, motivation, stress, depending on your state. This is neither a downer nor inspirational. Murphy’s scowling levity is a relief: self-loathing you’re supposed to dance to. — Paula Ramirez
It’s difficult to find a Roland sp303, the sampler that Panda Bear made his triumphant and spectral masterwork Person Pitch on. Roland would go on to revamp the instrument and release a higher end version that is still very much the lower rung of what these things go for. How then, did Panda Bear create an epochal, genre-defining masterwork exclusively with this small, often ignored machine? Very carefully. While the list of influences that Panda Bear listed on the liner notes for the album can seem vast and sprawling, and at first glance overreaching, once you begin connecting the dots of what each detail in each track is doing you notice that not a single inspiration goes unaccounted for. This relation of the spirit to create with the available means is very much at the center of the album, and the central tension of the work derives from how exactly Panda Bear’s work achieves a deeply intimate personal quality despite being a mosaic of his tastes. It is very much in keeping with the Animal Collective ethos to source material from unpredictable places and then bend instruments to the point where you don’t recognize the source anymore, but it is an undeniably solo album that perfectly marries his anxieties and mantras to self with the form of its own construction. The album cycles through the anxieties of becoming a new parent, wanting to get off of anti-depressants, the difficult growth that happens in friendships, and the sense of inevitable change needing to be embraced. But its true power is in its very existence. It stands as a testament to the power of music to help us overcome even the worst crises by its assurances that this too shall pass. — Stephen Axeman
Continuously through his resonating chorus on “Alright,” from 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar passionately repeats, “Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.” Assurance and wisdom exude and prevail in Lamar’s tracks. He reads like a new, much needed preacher to the weary, jaded teens of today. Moreover, “Alright” served as an anthem at the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March celebration in Washington, D.C., the event’s overarching theme being “Justice or Else.” His tracks convey an overall message of understanding for the current generation, and he acts as a reassuring, “I feel you” omniscient narrator. After the release of Butterfly, Lamar became even more involved in connecting with his fanbase, living out the mission statement of the album.
After North Bergen, New Jersey High School English teacher Brian Mooney wrote a blog post titled, “Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album,” in March 2015, Lamar got a hold of Mooney’s writing. Lamar’s manager reached out to Mooney and expressed Lamar’s interest in visiting the school. In an interview at the high school, Lamar stated, “I was intrigued how somebody can—other than myself—can articulate and break down the concepts of To Pimp a Butterfly, almost better than I can.” In Lamar’s presence, the students of the high school had the opportunity to present their work with Mooney, such as reading poems about prejudices and performing rap lyrics about injustices. The acceptance of such expression reigns king throughout Lamar’s Butterfly. — Virginia Croft
I Grew up On The ‘Flag CD’
I was five years old when Stankonia came out. I couldn’t understand the lyrics very well. I didn’t know that Andre 3000 was even separate from Big Boi. I didn’t know that these guys were specifically from Atlanta, but I knew I liked their aggressive southern voices.
I loved their loud raps and danced to all the weird rock and funk-infused beats. OutKast was probably my first favorite band. I knew all the lyrics to “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson“ before I learned about algebra, or periods, or even my home phone number..
The music videos from this album would signal the start of my homework. My young parents would be glued to 106 & Park or MTV Jams while I was in the background at the dinner table head-bopping to “B.O.B.” I would head bop hard as hell. My plastic barrettes slapped me in the face as I let the vibe of the candy-colored video turn my attention from math to guitar solos.
The visual aspect of Stankonia formed the beginnings of my deep and fulfilling relationship with art, music then hip hop- in that order. I liked the videos but even the cover art was dope. My dad had the CD in the car always and when he’d (don’t try this at home) let me ride shotgun or even drive in his lap I’d ask if I could ‘listen to the flag CD’.
The early 2000s was a crazy time to be alive man.
Folks thought the world was ending because Y2K and a year later 9-11 shaped the rest of my globalized life. I lived in a suburb of Washington D.C. just as the DC sniper terrorized gas stations and other public spaces. I didn’t have recesses, I couldn’t play outside a lot because so many adults were losing their shit in the world.
So yeah, I didn’t know what I was really saying when I was singing along (I got notes sent home about saying ‘bombs over Baghdad’).
And I don’t know what my parents were thinking playing these bangers in front of me. This was in the time before “Baby Shark,” but I’m sure there were Blues Clues soundtracks I could’ve sponged up.
But I’m grateful for Stankonia. In a time of adults being really weird, the eclectic rap-duo Outkast made all the sense to five/six-year-old me. — Chanell Noise
While not every record is a product of the place it was created, it’s hard not to see Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as the quintessential Chicagoan album. It’s not just the image of Marina City which lends itself to the iconic album cover; there’s a stark atmosphere that runs throughout YHF which feels born of Tweedy’s home city — a bitter wind that occasionally takes the breath away, a smothering fog rolling in off the lake.
Initially sullied by band in-fighting — most notably between frontman Jeff Tweedy and the late-great Jay Bennett — and subsequent record label troubles (the band’s label at the time, Reprise, refused to release it upon completion resulting in Wilco leaving the label), YHF was finally and officially released in 2002 via Nonesuch Records.
Now cited as one of the most reliable bands on the planet, Wilco present a somewhat skewed take on their more-traditional indie rock here, and it’s become more clear over time that this, their fourth album, is the record upon which they truly came into their own. From that somewhat peculiar opening line which beautifully draws you into its world (“I am an American aquarium drinker…”), YHF expands like a picture book of grey decayed urbanism and the fractured lives that take place within it.
Lyrically dense and musically complex but with a weightless sense of abandon, YHF stands tall as simply some of the most interesting and affecting guitar music ever committed to tape: a wealth of ideas falling beautifully, uniquely into place. — Tom Johnson
Coming out like Tony Starks, the superhero-saving Wu-Tang slump, is Ghostface Killah’s second studio album Supreme Clientele. With features by RZA, GZA, Method Man, and Raekwon, the contradictory, outlandish, and verbose stream of consciousness rap is an almost-tribute, half-propaganda, fully-baked manifesto of the Clan. RZA is all over it (though he only offers verses on three tracks), sample loops, scratches, “the knowledge is how it sounds,” Ghostface tells The Source. RZA remixes the other tracks, though, so cohesive flow, boisterous beats, memories of West Africa, the medicine, diabetes spurned delirium. This record, interrupted by a prison sentence, untimely flood, the deteriorating body, is the return of Ironman. Ghost, proud as ever—“Wu Tang Clan and Ironman lead us to the Promiseland”—spits the Theme, amongst fade-outs, banter, sped-up synth, sounding signature. This is New York sound, gritty cartoon, zoom goes the traffic, hip-hop classic. Hyperactive “stress cadillacs” but packed into a pocket-sized hour, tracks weaving in and out like cars.
Yet the sound stays in the background, minimal beats, what matters is what slams on top, not the drugs, the business, the streets, the love. The record is about the tribe, less braggadocio, more amusement park. No one in New York raps like that, not Nas, not Jay, not even Biggie. That’s worth more than “Buck 50,” when “the words you talk / let it be the words you walk.” For someone who reversed Mary Poppins, a whole new blueprint of ideal form, Ghost and Friends stay not only superheroes but mortal gods. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay
Since I Left You is a modern masterpiece and a perfect display of plunderphonics. The album has garnered so much critical and fan praise that it’s hard to say anything about this album that hasn’t already been said. Instead of relying on traditional song structure and composition, the album instead is composed completely of samples. Robbie and Darren (The Avalanches) would exchange different records and sample chops amongst each other, spending whatever free time they had at record stores searching for the next piece for a song’s puzzle. What we got in the end was a collection 3,500 different vocal and instrumental samples all chopped, looped, and screwed into what became Since I Left You. The sources of these songs varies from dozens of different genres and time periods: while you can relax to some of the more vibrant and colorful woodwinds on a song like the title track, you can also hear remnants of very dark and abrasive old jazz tunes on songs like the hit single “Frontier Psychiatrist.” And while the genres and pacing of certain tracks maybe different, the cohesion and structure of the album is the best you will hear on any collection of songs you’ve ever heard. These perfectly blended array of transitions in between tracks adds a whole new dynamic for the album, making you want to play it through all in one listen. The genius that it takes to create an entire album comprised of only samples should not be ignored. This is a legendary record that will stand the test of time. — Javier Rodriguez
The Strokes’ debut album Is This It captures the raw, gritty essence and angst of a band of roguish early 20-something post-punk layabouts. With their simplistic but pulse-pounding New York candor, frontman Julian Casablancas and the boys rattle off the songs that brought life and critical acclaim to the group through their brand of youthful rock and roll. Hit songs like “The Modern Age,” “Last Nite,” and “Hard to Explain” pull us straight into the world of listless and lustful — yet apparently tender and sentimental — young men burdened by both apathy and aspiration. Not surprising for these new urban rockers that their world is full of relationship drama, sexual discord, and drug use — a world which they embody through their own brand of groovy garage rock. To put it plainly, this album epitomizes sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: the punk rocker’s mantra. The melodic guitar riffs, vigorous yet metronomic drumbeats, and choppy, buzzing vocals that make one reminisce of being called to the principal’s office over a spotty school intercom brought the band together to create the eleven-track album that jump-started their career. Despite this being their first run as The Strokes, songwriter Julian and his four band mates had seemingly perfected their unique but familiar blend of emotionally-fueled indifference to living modern life in NYC with a capacity for rock n’ roll that could only be produced by the fire of adolescent youth. — Graham Stoker
In an alternate timeline, Jay-Z would have been in jail right now. It’s easy to forget he was staring down incredible odds in 2001; between disses from the likes of Nas and Mobb Deep, not to mention a potential 15-year sentence in regards to a 1999 stabbing case involving producer Lance “Un” Rivera. Jay would plead guilty and ended up receiving only three years of probation, by all accounts beating the case. This went down the same week he was originally set to release The Blueprint, its release eventually pushed back by a week. Perhaps he had a premonition of his fate because The Blueprint consists of celebration music; the sound of jubilation and black joy recorded to beats. Abandoning the radio-friendly New York sound producers like the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz doled out, Jay-Z mined the past instead – taking lush soul beats made in part by Just Blaze and a young Kanye West. Between that and his inspired, rejuvenated delivery, The Blueprint was the high point of a Shawn Carter several years removed from his days as a hustler, taking us back to those days with stunning clarity and sounding all too relieved to be away from it all. — Jibril Yassin
The legacy of house music and electronic music in general cannot be discussed without talking about Daft Punk’s Discovery. An entire genre and generation of producers were created from not only this album, but everything duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De-Homem Christo created since the creation of Daft Punk. And while this album initially bewildered fans of their previous much more robotic (heh get it) work under the name, it was certainly for the better. The album was a clear distinction and separation from their debut album, opting for a much more soulful and synth-pop approach to house music. Rather than jarring and abrasive in your face synthesizers, the duo created lush and disco inspired landscapes. Take for example the track “Digital Love,” the sampled disco era guitar riff alongside (while still maintaining that classic robotic vocoder) relatively expressive and passionate vocals about love and romance. Then of course you get tracks like the legendary “One More Time,” which is just an uncontrollable and amazing display of rhythm and rich textures that fills me with genuine happiness anytime I hear it. The explosive trumpet sample alongside the dense and bass banging drum pattern make this an amazing party track — one that can liven up even the most depressing rooms. And while we can talk about how amazing these party tracks are, it’s also important to not discount the beauty of minimalism. Take the track “Veridis Quo,” the way the drums subtly creep up and become the mainstay of the track while other-worldly synthesizers begin to transport us almost to another planet. The album will go down as one of the greatest albums in not only electronic, but music history. — Javier Rodriguez
Thirteen tracks, seventeen cited samples, eighteen featured artists, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy compiles decades worth of talent into what I’d say was possibly Kanye West’s final hoorah before nose-diving into his current void of senseless disappearance (I do give credit for the poetic capabilities expressed in Yeezus, but even that era of Kanye was iffy). In MBDTF West juxtaposes dance enabling beats with intellectually provocative lyrics and perfectly arranged excerpts from a plethora of talent. The titular track “Dark Fantasy” is an exploration into Kanye’s current spot in the limelight- the monster that West fights throughout the album. Nearly every song in MBDTF is a rage filled yelling match between Kanye and his own self, arguing that he worked so hard to get here so he should be feeling euphoric, but instead he’s found drowning in sex, drugs, infidelity, paparazzi, gossip…all the typical Hollywood specialties. “Runaway” pinpoints West’s frustrations with his love life, being with one girl (that girl being the amazing Amber Rose) and being in love with another (West’s now wife Kim Kardashian). The elementary piano clinks layered with robo-tune verses showcases Ye’s trials and tribulations of having something so simple and beautiful with a woman he cannot have, and having to contort and strain himself in his commitments. At the end of the album Kanye’s animosity turns outward in “Lost in the World where West brought on Bon Iver’s own musical genius to be layered with Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken piece “Comment No. 1”, a tune designed to evoke the same anger towards America we experienced in the beginning of the album with “Gorgeous.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a swirled dimension of political protest and overall distaste for West’s life as public enemy number one. — Ally Engelbrecht
Radiohead’s Kid A has been considered one of the band’s most experimental albums when it came out in 2000 and rightfully so. This album marked a shift in Radiohead when they started incorporating different styles of electronic music, jazz, and other forms of traditionally classical music which helped to create an album that really pushed all of the limits. The beginning of the album is more personal for lead singer, Thom Yorke, who releases lots of his inner emotions from the OK Computer tour where his mental health was at its lowest. Musically, the first part of the album uses experimental electronics and vocal compression to create feelings of isolation and loneliness to reflect how Yorke was feeling. The further into the album, elements of jazz and classical music become more present and the topics that Radiohead tackle become heavier. In songs like “Optimistic” and “Idioteque” where Radiohead comments on real world issues like global warming and consumerism, they also come with extremely varying forms of electronic instrumentals and some traditional rock band setups. Kid A ends with angelic harp sounds in “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and an ambient instrumental called “Untitled” to tie together all of their experimental aspects. For a band that reached highs unlike any other, Kid A still stands out as their definitive, uncompromising mission statement. — Ashley Porter