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20. Bob Dylan – “Love and Theft” 

With another great album released last year, Bob Dylan doesn’t seem to have a creative endpoint despite all the presumptions and speculations over 50+ years. A horrific motorcycle crash, evangelism, the natural process of aging, or whatever the hell that Christmas music video was haven’t been his death knell; Zimmerman’s still a rolling stone. The surprise of 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways inevitably has changed the perception of his previous “final” classic “Love and Theft.” Hell, this one can be seen as a mid-career classic now. This one’s often grouped in with Time Out of Mind as his resurgence period, but it’s important to separate the two for stylistic reasons. In 1988, Dylan started the Never Ending Tour with a backing band that has featured twenty different musicians over the years (he’s now up to over 3,000 shows on this tour). Starting with this album, Dylan has recorded with the backing band and has leaned heavily into the live, roots rock sound throughout the 21st century. It’s arguably the Dylan album most devoted to America in tone and sound. Some songs sound like they come from a Dust Bowl patio — others from a dive bar. Dylan knows he as much a part of American music legacy as his heroes (Guthrie, Williams, Patton, etc.) now; this is his subtle plea to cede the stage back to them. — Andrew Cox


19. Stars of the Lid – The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid

Maximalism and minimalism are both on full display in Stars of the Lid’s greatest album and quite possibly the greatest drone album of all time. It’s a 2+ hour magnum opus with 5 multi-part movements amongst other standalone tracks. The SotL sound features no drums or vocals — just drawn-out, heavily-treated instruments and orchestral arrangements. It’s music distilled down to a steady stream of unobtrusive noise. The connotations of drone — the genre and simply the word in everyday speak — suggest this dull, monotonous entity that has to be tuned out for our own sanity, but SotL clarify the genre as an act of noise-refinement. The recent Oscar-winning picture Sound of Metal has made me wonder in what ways would we choose to be deaf if possible — could we sit with our thoughts and live in the moment better? The calming trance of the music found in The Tired Sounds of… provides an opportunity to choose the next of kin to silence — purely-refined sound that is artfully made and not with the intentional tag of “spa music” and that sort of ilk. — Andrew Cox


18. Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life 

By today’s standards, Sparklehorse’s third album isn’t too accessible and emotionally-transparent, but for Mark Linkous and the work he had put out in the ’90s, It’s a Wonderful Life was a potential commercial breakthrough. Linkous had recorded the previous albums essentially by himself with a home studio, but Capitol Records under new management wanted him to expand his production style. Linkous would collaborate with PJ Harvey and Tom Waits and record with a backing band. The end result is still pretty much Sparklehorse but slightly streamlined (apart from the industrial-sounding Tom Waits collab “Dog Door”). The amount of territory covered is pretty remarkable; you get dream pop on “Comfort Me”, chamber pop on “Gold Day” and shoegaze on “Piano Fire”. His previous albums have the added bonus of DIY charm and experimentation, but if you want the pure songwriting mastery of Linkous, this album is the one to go to. The opening song and title track has become one of the defining Sparklehorse songs, almost comically upping the tragedy of the lyrics (“I’m the dog that ate your birthday cake”) in response to critics calling his music too depressing. With his near-fatal overdose in ’96, Linkous could’ve also been speaking to gratefulness about having the chance to live again. — Andrew Cox

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17. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein 

A small detail in Lady Bird exemplifies the film’s brilliant characterization. Kyle, Lady Bird’s #woke and emotionally-distant boyfriend, has a huge poster in his room of one of presumably his favorite albums: Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. It’s such a Kyle album (ca. 2003) — perfect choice from Greta Gerwig & co. You listen to The Cold Vein to enter a bullshit-free zone with dead-eyed urban malaise rather than gold luxury and mainstream success. Hope isn’t around the corner — just the next guy ready to start some shit. Cannibal Ox — the duo of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega — are as New York as it gets; they’re like Desus & Mero if they were too cool to crack a smile. They’re proud to live at the center of it all even if it’s Hell on Earth. Abstract hip-hop leader El-P handles the production, and it’s his best work alongside Funcrusher Plus and RTJ2. To provide the beats for Cannibal Ox is to create boundaries for their internal rhymes and assonance which strive to overwhelm the listener with lyrical dexterity. Mostly without hooks, these songs rely on El-P to set place markers, like some scratching and a faint piano on “A B-Boy’s Alpha” or a heavy sample of Dexter Wansel’s “All Night Long” on “The F-Word.” Until their follow-up in 2015, The Cold Vein stood as these guys’ only album and what a statement it was. — Andrew Cox

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16. Radiohead – Amnesiac 

Is Amnesiac better than Kid A? No, but it’s never inviting comparisons to Radiohead’s magnum opus. Despite being birthed in the same sessions as the likes of “Idioteque” and “Morning Picture Soundtrack,” and capturing the icy isolation and cosmic gloom that engulfed its months-old predecessor, these songs stand on their own. They even offer a new version of “Morning Bell,” filled with even more dread than before.

More crowd-pleasing at some points (like the feisty riffage on “I Might Be Wrong”) and more challenging at others (the bitcrushed ProTools adventure of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”) Amnesiac casts Radiohead as all-but impossible to pigeonhole, but also as thoughtful as they are creative. It’s telling that the most-enduring song here is little more than Thom Yorke, a piano, and a deceptive time signature, and they achieve the resonance of a dozen post-rock crescendos. Amnesiac isn’t an alternate version of Kid A; it’s another dimension. — Brody Kenny


15. Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet 

Enough exposure to toxic positivity can cause radioactive effects. At your lowest, hearing a bro-science explanation of how your low mood is all due to a deficiency of some kind of shady supplement or reading even a paragraph of a DJ Khaled book can feel as dispiriting as actually being told you’re as useless as you feel. And don’t get me started about the people who treat the act of smiling as some kind of emotional panacea.

And through it all, my love for Andrew W.K. and I Get Wet stays as strong as ever, an album I’m actually most drawn to when times are tough. It may be that knowing of W.K.’s past struggles and empathy and advice for people going through hard times helps me see him as an equal-opportunity communicator. It may be that those chintzy synths and brolic vocals are so shameless I can’t help but be cheered up by them. But ultimately, it’s an album for realizing the party within all of us, no matter where we are in life. — Brody Kenny


14. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance 

Ted Leo is not as beloved as he should be. Consider the indie rock acts we’ve seen on this list so far and how Ted Leo & the Pharmacists fares in popularity and cult status in relation: Destroyer, Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse, Low, The Dismemberment Plan, & Spoon. Every artist has more streams, more retrospective reviews, more popular social media pages, and (to be fair) longer careers with other highly-esteemed albums. But I’m here to tell you that in the year of ’01, Ted Leo outranked them all with his best album with the Pharmacists, a thrilling display of nerdy pop punk that will leave you air-riffing like it’s Back in Black. The melodies come hard and fast like any of the jaunty pop rock bands that charted around the late-’90s (think Matchbox Twenty, The Goo Goo Dolls, etc.). Unlike those acts though, Leo never suffers from sentimentality as his lyrics always remain sharp and incisive. If I had a cassette of The Tyranny of Distance, I would’ve wore it out cycling between the fantastic opening five tracks which features possibly Leo’s two best tracks (“Biomusicology” & “Timorous Me”). Now make no mistake, tracks 6-12 are also great. — Andrew Cox


13. Life Without Buildings – Any Other City 

The great T.S. Eliot once began his epic poem The Wasteland with the line “a heap of broken images.” This always pops into my head when I listen to Life Without Building’s Any Other City. The sound and style of their only album was widely influential to the great post-punk revival that produced bands like Broadcast, Young Marble Giants, and Bloc Party. Frontwoman Sue Tompkins forgoes verses and choruses in favor of fractured sentences, images, and chants—audible landmarks that disappear and shift as soon as you recognize them. Furthermore, her sprechgesang-style delivery only flirts with traditional melody, creating the record’s overall feeling of transience. What separates Any Other City from its post-punk contemporaries is it’s personal nature. Where other bands use the harsh, blocky genre to express institutional and societal discontent, this album is a journey into reflection. The heavy lyrical and vocal repetition works as if Tompkins is working through each feeling, piece by piece. — Harrison Smith

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12. The Shins – Oh, Inverted World 

From the first track of Oh, Inverted World, it becomes clear that The Shins aren’t choosing the easy path for their subject matter. Opener “Caring is Creepy” digs into the demise of a relationship, plunging into the despair and pain heartbreak presents. As James Mercer sings, “Underneath the power lines seeking shade / Far above our heads are the icy heights / That contain all reason,” his writing style presents itself as a thoughtful one. On “New Slang,” Mercer takes a moment to wave away his hometown of Albuquerque, penning a ballad of endings, and the beginnings they bring. They are certainly not the easiest things to share, but the emotions we feel the deepest are sometimes the ones that come out eloquently on paper. Throughout the album, accompanied by quippy guitar licks and relaxed percussion, Mercer fills his lyrics to the brim, with lines that are hard to get your mouth around. But that’s what adds so much to Oh, Inverted World. Mercer has a lot to say and he won’t shy away from the unusual remark. For a debut album, it’s punchy and unapologetic, sticking to what works best for The Shins. — Virginia Croft


11. Aaliyah – Aaliyah 

The third and final studio album before her untimely death in the latter half of 2001, Aaliyah’s self-titled release was perhaps the most important work in the singer’s short-lived career. Boasting elements of funky dance-pop, hip-hop, electronica and even alternative rock music, the album played a crucial role in redefining the R&B genre. This is thanks to the innovative production by Timbaland, Eric Seats and Rapture Stewart as well as Aaliyah’s otherworldly vocals, especially on tracks like “We Need A Resolution,” “Those Were The Days” and “U Got Nerve.” Elsewhere, the R&B icon brings the heat on sensual tracks like “Rock The Boat” and “More Than A Woman,” while using her voice to almost ethereal effect on ballads “Never No More” and “I Care 4 U.” A major highlight at the end of the album is “What If,” largely due its production that sounds like it could belong on today’s hyperpop playlists. Known as “The Red Album” due to its artwork and packaging, Aaliyah was a blueprint for modern R&B talents such as FKA Twigs, Tinashe and even The Weeknd. — Drew Pearce