My Favorite Songs of the Decade (So Far)
UPDATE (2/28/17): This will probably be a one-time update, but I wanted to bring this through the end of 2016 so it’s a full seven years of songs. I didn’t want to eliminate older songs as I added new stuff, so you’ll notice it’s an odd number. You also may notice inconsistencies with some of these same songs on other lists I’ve done. That’s just how it works when they’re all made at different times. It’s not that serious to begin with.
This may be a case of biting off more than I can chew, but I wanted to see if I could cover my 100 favorite songs released since January 1, 2010. This was a fun process, because, unlike last decade, I remember when these songs first came out, and what it was like discovering them. On New Years Day 2010, I was halfway through my senior year of high school. These are the songs that have shaped the first six-plus years of my “adult” life.
I guess maybe it’s important to mention that I don’t think these are the “best” songs of the decade, just my favorites. I say this because I have a soft spot for a lot of less-than-stellar music, and there were a couple incredible songs that had to get cut. So again, this is 100% opinion. I know others will disagree. I also thought it was important to make the distinction because calling these the best songs of the decade implies I’ve heard all that the past seven years has had to offer. That’s definitely not the case. I know next week I’ll find some album from 2013 that I’ll fall in love with. It happens.
A couple notes: For dates, I used the album release date. A lot of these songs are singles, and they may have been released in the year prior to the album they were on. In all cases, the year listed is the year the album was released. To listen to each song, click the arrow next to the song title. That will open up YouTube.
109. Frank Ocean — Forrest Gump (2012) →
Frank Ocean is one of my favorite songwriters in the world, but his strength has never been catchy hooks. “Forrest Gump” is an exception. With a melody that will bury itself in your head, Ocean channels (no pun intended) the love between Forrest Gump and Jenny while leaving his own fingerprints. Like the rest of Channel Orange, it’s dreamy, passionate, and perfectly crafted. Nobody makes songs like these better than Frank Ocean.
108. Modern Baseball — Hiding (2016) →
While Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost didn’t feature a ton of standout tracks in my opinion, the album as a whole showed a lot of progression for the group. One specific track I find myself returning to is “Hiding.” Co-lead singer Jake Ewald pens some of Modern Baseball’s most biting lyrics. This is Modern Baseball, all grown up. “Still, some nights I find the ideas that bring me rest are the ones that used to prod and pester and keep me up. Swinging open doors I swore I’d shut.”
107. Signals Midwest — January & Seven (2012) →
Signals Midwest frontman Max Stern is one of my favorite songwriters. Due to the band’s sound and energy, it feels like his lyrics sometimes get lost. On “January & Seven” things get stripped back and songwriting shines through. The quaint sound reflects the harsh stillness of a Cleveland winter, something Stern and I know a few things about. For bonus points, watch this incredible performance in Hanover, Germany. I think half of the YouTube plays on this are mine.
106. M83 — Midnight City (2011) →
M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming is the kind of album you can get lost inside of. With hazy, airy vocals, enthralling lyrics, and a retro-futuristic dance landscape, the album is like a weird Tron dream. Through it all, “Midnight City” sticks out, and found impressive commercial appeal. This was all over television and movies for years, and for good reason. It’s upbeat, phenomenally catchy, and earned M83 the oh-they-sing-that-song audience. Your mom doesn’t know who M83 is, but she recognizes this song.
105. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die — You Can’t Live There Forever (2015) →
Every album needs a strong opening track, especially the good ones. How many of your favorite albums start with something forgettable? TWIABP sets the stage on Harmlessness with the soft and beautiful “You Can’t Live There Forever,” which slowly swells into something more triumphant, setting the stage for a project that’s all about beating back our demons. The chord change when the song flips is one of the highlights of an album that’s full of incredible moments. These guys know how to paint a picture.
104. The Hotelier — An Introduction To The Album (2014) →
Another example of an incredible stage-setter, the band allows energy to ebb and flow before swelling to a point of breaking. You can feel it coming with your entire body, like they put a dubstep drop in an emo song. Nobody has ever accused The Hotelier of being coy, and this is proof of their beautiful rage. Home, Like Noplace is There tugs at the heart throughout, but the introduction threatens to fully tear it in half. Mental illness is a cruel beast, and one of the emotions that sometimes gets overlooked is anger. “An Introduction To The Album” is poetically desperate and angry. “I searched for a way out. Don’t we all?”
103. Fun. — Some Nights (2012) →
I won’t pretend to be some kind of a theatre buff, but I certainly have an appreciation for it. “Some Nights” sounds like the triumphant number played during a musical’s climax. I feel like this should make it’s way into the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King or something. I have a series going on here called “Popular Songs That Are Actually Really Good.” This song isn’t quite ubiquitous enough for that, but it’s in the same vein. “Some Nights” got played so much that I heard more people bemoaning its saturation than appreciating its beauty. Fun. has bigger songs, but none are this good. For a while in 2012, it was an island of solace in the sea of Top 40 radio.
102. Destroyer — Blue Eyes (2011) →
Of all the traits one could assign to music, I think “haunting” is one of my favorites. I love albums that set a strong mood and stop you in your tracks. Destroyer’s Kaputt is one of those albums. It utilizes some weird blend of retro pop and soft jazz. Kenny G? I don’t know. I feel like this should be playing in a sleazy ’70s jazz club. I can practically smell the sweat and stale cigarettes. “Blue Eyes” is beautiful, soft, and seductive. I was a few years late to the album, but it’s an enrapturing, adventurous listen. Play “Blue Eyes” at 2 AM for extra oomph.
101. Grimes — Oblivion (2012) →
When Pitchfork put together their favorite songs of the decade in August 2014, this was at the top. While I don’t quite share their admiration, I still think “Oblivion” is special. Its weird, trancy instrumental would fit perfectly in Ryan Gosling’s Drive. Beneath its bouncy, twinkling surface is an eerie, unsettling underbelly. The track recounts a sexual assault: “…someone could break your neck, coming up behind you always coming and you’d never have a clue…” When sung in Grimes’ high pitched, upbeat tone, it shows the power of lyrical dissonance. It’s the kind of song where you stop dancing after listening to the lyrics.
100. LCD Soundsystem — Dance Yrself Clean (2010) →
Long songs are great. Long songs that open albums are even greater. Noah and the Whale did one of my favorites. “Dance Yrself Clean” is a veritable dance epic, building from slow percussion before exploding and powering for a full nine minutes. This Is Happening was to be LCD Soundsystem’s farewell, and this was the introduction to their opus. It’s a full-blown dance party in one song. The instrumental itself is so sprawling that Kid Cudi and Cleveland’s own Chip Tha Ripper used it as the backdrop for their mixtape cut “All Talk” later in 2010.
99. Noah and the Whale — Wild Thing (2011) →
Noah and the Whale’s 2009 album The First Days of Spring remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and one that I feel has been criminally overlooked. Neither of their albums since have come close to capturing the same magic, but “Wild Thing” is a really strong effort that is worth revisiting. It’s lyrically biographical and the electronic elements of the instrumentation make for a nice progression from the very soft, organic nature of The First Days of Spring. “Wild Thing,” fittingly, could fit in pretty well on that album. Makes sense it’s my favorite post-2009 Noah and the Whale track.
98. A$AP Ferg — Work (Remix) (ft. A$AP ROCKY, French Montana, Trinidad James, & ScHoolBoy Q) (2013) →
Sometimes you just need to bounce around and bang your head while yelling “PUT IN WORK.” The beat, which kicks like a herd of rhinos, gets 99% of the credit here. Guys like French Montana and Trinidad James aren’t exactly bringing a lot of lyricism to the table. This is a song that makes no effort to be intelligent, but those songs are still important. “Work” is pure energy. Blast it in the car with your friends for maximum enjoyment.
97. Destroyer — Kaputt (2011) →
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar uses the “Kaputt” video to give us a wink that he’s fully aware of how bizarre a lot of this album is. This one’s an elevator music-y tribute to the rock and roll lifestyle. “Wasting your days chasing some girls… Alright, chasing cocaine.” The album, like the video, is full of little nods like this. Instrumentally, it sounds serious and passionate, but there are lots of lyrical quips that are sarcastic and even funny. Kaputt is unique in that way, and deserves all the praise it’s gotten. Not many great albums save room to giggle at themselves.
96. The Lumineers — Ho Hey (2012) →
This is another one that people grew to hate, but is honestly pretty awesome. The Lumineers don’t get enough respect as a band — probably due in large part to this track — but it’s not completely fair. Of all their music, “Ho Hey” comes the closest to being too twee, but it’s catchy enough to save itself. Sorry, but I enjoy the sappy, excessive optimism of “I belong with you. You belong with me.” The Lumineers conquered this song, and now their only job is to steer clear of the temptation to ever return.
95. Jai Paul — Jasmine (Demo) (2012) →
Jai Paul is the Jay Electronica of the R&B world. This is both the highest praise and the ultimate insult. He’s mysterious, closeted, and seemingly unwilling to release more than a stray track, but damn are the few songs we have impressive. Jasmine, which is — incredibly — labeled as just a demo version, is a jangly, muffled dance track aimed at a girl named Jasmine. “When I see you, Jasmine. What’s a boy to do? Please come back to me. Make my dreams come true.”
94. Lady Gaga — Dope (2013) →
Maybe it’s the wild, attention-grabbing outfits, but people seem to really dislike Lady Gaga. However, Lady Gaga is the exact kind of musician that music-lovers should root for. She has the mainstream eye (or at least she did at one point), yet she’s consistently intent on using it to bring thoughtful, artistic music to the masses. “Dope” never got much shine, but is probably my favorite Gaga offering. The stripped-back ballad allows her incredible voice to shine through, and she bares all. “Dope” deals with addiction, be it to fame, love, drugs, or alcohol (things that Gaga has struggled with). This one was produced by Rick Rubin, and recorded at his famous Shangri-La Studios in Malibu.
93. The Hotelier — Goodness Pt. 2 (2016) →
So much of living with depression is walking some kind of tightrope between desperation and happiness. You need to have both highs and lows in order to be healthy, so a balance has to be struck. That’s what a lot of Goodness explores. While Home, Like Noplace Is There expresses a lot of anger and uncertainty, “Goodness Pt. 2” seems to find a sort of peace in the midst of the fight, while still grappling with the confusion of it all. “If we spin without compass in circles, will we fall in the same exact place?”
92. Re-Done — Modern Baseball (2012) →
One of the things I love most about “Re-Done” is how fleshed-out it feels. I love Modern Baseball to death, but most of their songs are so damn short. “Re-Done” is a healthy four-and-a-half minutes, allowing the whole thing to develop. So much of the band, especially on this album, is built around being something listeners can relate to. It was a revelation when I discovered MoBo through Sports, because there were so many little moments where I thought “Oh, wow. Too real.” They don’t even have to be serious moments. “Re-Done” makes mention of locking texts, which is definitely something me and my girlfriend used to do when much of our relationship was conducted through flip phones on monthly text message limits. Also, the end of this song is more proof of Modern Baseball’s talent for writing powerful sing-a-longs, even as younger artists back in 2012. This song wasn’t even a single, and still winds up being anthemic. They’re the best at it.
91. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors — The Wine We Drink (2013) →
Dial the romance to 11. Drew Holcomb celebrates the love he has for his wife, and the fact that true love isn’t about the grand gestures or show-stopping displays of affection. It’s in the little moments, “the wine we drink, the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.” I saw them perform this live in Cincinnati a few years ago, and it’s just as special that way. “I’m not a sunset, or a hurricane, or a Vincent van Gogh” gets me every time.
90. Lana Del Rey — Florida Kilos (2014) →
To put it kindly, Lana Del Rey has been on a steady downhill decline since 2012’s Born To Die. I loved that album, and she’s done okay commercially and critically since then, but nothing has come close to capturing me like her major debut did. “Florida Kilos” is a nice exception. The song sounds like it could be the Miami Vice theme song in an alternate universe. Fittingly, Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine gets a writing credit here. It took Lana writing a concept song about selling cocaine to get out of whatever rut she’s been in. “Florida Kilos” is really good.
89. Travis Scott — 90210 (2015) →
Travis is the king of crafting a moody landscape over incredible production. “90210” is no exception, as he lulls listeners to sleep with dreary instrumentation and soft background vocals from Kacy Hill for the first half of the song before breaking into a guitar solo. The longer run-time and the driving percussion gives this a strong 808s & Heartbreak vibe, but with a decidedly more upbeat, determined tilt to it. “Don’t worry, I’mma get it, granny,” Travis pledges. Seriously though, whoever did the guitar here deserves a medal. “90210” is a mood.
88. Chief Keef — I Don’t Like (ft. Lil Reese) (2012) →
Chief Keef put Chicago’s underground drill scene on the map in 2012 with “I Don’t Like,” perhaps the simplest of explosive rap singles. Keef, then an astonishing 16 years old, simply lists off the things he dislikes. In addition to the straightforward hook that makes it easy to learn, Keef got production from his buddy Young Chop, who helped put the song on the map with blistering trap production. Snare rolls everywhere, folks.
87. The Chainsmokers — Closer (ft. Halsey) (2016) →
Follow this website — or my Twitter page — long enough and you’ll notice that I’m a sucker for a massive single or two each year. I don’t think I’d call them guilty pleasures (because that implies the music is bad), but it’s definitely along those lines. While the rest of America grew tired of “Closer” and The Chainsmokers altogether, I continued to groove along. This single is just massive. If you don’t like it just a little bit, I think you’re lying to yourself.
86. Gorillaz — On Melancholy Hill (2010) →
I’m fine with admitting I’ve never been the biggest Gorillaz fan, but “On Melancholy Hill” is pretty much impossible to resist. It’s perfectly hazy, blissful, and upbeat. It’s the kind of song that makes you happier. It sounds like it fell off the soundtrack of some crazy video game, and the music video does a good job of capturing that playful magic. The title of the song is fitting, because “melancholy” is the perfect way of describing this.
85. Beyonce — Formation (2016) →
I’d argue that “Formation” is the most Beyonce song ever. “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils. Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” Beyonce took lyrics like these to halftime of the Super Bowl in full Black Panther garb. 2016 was full of defining moments, and that was one. Don’t overlook the visual album, because this song’s chapter is noteworthy.
84. Kevin Abstract — Yellow (2016) →
When 2016’s most simmering up-and-coming artist hit Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Radio show, he said “We just wanted to make some Vanessa Carlton-type stuff.” It’s not exactly something you’d expect to hear from one of the year’s hottest music kids, but it’s exactly what “Yellow” is. Abstract’s statement probably sounded puzzling to those unfamiliar with his work, but it’s hilariously accurate. “Yellow” sounds like an early 2000s pop song. He’s never been a straight-up rapper, but I still never really expected to hear “I wanna build a sandcastle for no reason” on a song. It’s sunny and fantastic.
83. Kanye West — Ultralight Beam (ft. Chance The Rapper & Kirk Franklin) (2016) →
Who would’ve figured that one of the bigger songs of 2016 would be a full-blown gospel song by Kanye West, complete with a prayer by gospel legend Kirk Franklin? And while Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book underwhelmed me, his verse here may be the pinnacle of The Life Of Pablo. He manages to reference Psalms, Luke, Martin, PBS’s Arthur, Sia, Harriet Tubman, Kanye’s scrapped Good Ass Job album, “This Little Light of Mine”, his own Warmest Winter initiative, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and the Gospel of John. God bless Chance The Rapper.
82. Travis Scott — Drugs You Should Try It (2015) →
I’m not a big advocate of drug use. In fact, I think drugs are probably something that isn’t really worth trying. What you should try, however, is blasting this song at full volume with some good headphones. Let it wash over you. Travis is the king of the sonic landscape. In that regard, this might be his greatest work yet. The lyrics here do their job of just staying out of the way. “Drugs You Should Try It” is enchanting. It’s a much safer alternative to actual drugs.
81. Lana Del Rey — Born To Die (2012) →
Born To Die is such a good album, and the title track is one of the highlights. In 2012, I learned that baroque pop music was a thing, and I was in love with Lana Del Rey. There’s something special about the soaring vocals she put over lush string sections. Combine that with one of my favorite music videos ever and a Marilyn Monroe-esque aesthetic she was working, and my 2012 featured a lot of Lana. “Born To Die” is lots of red lips, live tigers, and American flags. It’s awesome.
80. Rich Homie Quan — Type of Way (2013) →
This song came out of nowhere in 2013. It was the second single from a mixtape; not even an album. Not to mention the fact that Rich Homie Quan wasn’t exactly a well-known artist at the time. It managed to hit the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hip-Hop Hot 100, and it’s now RIAA Certified Gold. It was all over the radio, and played at more than a few sporting events I attended. It’s got an infectious flow and enough off-kilter charm in its lyrics to be the kind of sleeper hit it was.
79. Kid Cudi — Just What I Am (ft. King Chip) (2013) →
From 2008 to 2011 or so, I was a really big Kid Cudi fan. He was new, he was refreshing, and he was even from Cleveland. Since the release of Man On The Moon II, he’s made more missteps than I can count. I could write a whole post on how Cudi drove me from devoted fanhood to complete disinterest, but I try not to be negative on here. In 2013, he had one of his moments of clarity, and he released Indicud. It was a triumphant return to hip-hop, and it carried a few tracks I really liked. One of them is “Just What I Am,” featuring his fellow Clevelander King Chip. It’s a huge feel good song with just enough weirdness and adventure to remind you that it’s still Kid Cudi. “I’m just what you made, God.”
78. Family of the Year — Hero (2012) →
This song was created to play in movies. I first heard it in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in 2014, and it was later in an early cut of my friend Robert G. Putka’s Mad. Both times it worked flawlessly, which I think says something about the song. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it packs an emotional punch. It’s nostalgic and inspirational, asking for nothing more than the American Dream. It doesn’t want to be a hero, it just wants to have an equal shot as anyone else. That’s all any of us can really ask for.
77. Bon Iver — Calgary (2011) →
If Bon Iver’s music is anything, it’s emotionally overwhelming. Justin Vernon’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, carries all of the legend, but I think I prefer his self-titled 2011 album. As with most of Vernon’s work, “Calgary” is lyrically poetic. It’s all a collection of pretty words until you start breaking things down. I think it’s a celebration of old love, perhaps shared by an elderly couple. “Don’t you cherish me to sleep. Never keep your eyelids clipped. Hold me for the pops and clicks.” Either way, it’s gorgeous. Even the cover artwork is something I can’t get enough of.
76. The Lumineers — Flapper Girl (2012) →
As much as I’ll stick up for “Ho Hey,” it’s not exactly a complex song. If you want something very similar with more nuance, “Flapper Girl” is your ticket. The Lumineers combine their folk sensibility with Roaring Twenties Americana. The piano here is flawless, and it makes the whole song. Long distance relationships are really crappy, and the lyrics here are mimicking a romantic letter home. The protagonist promises he’ll never leave, that he needs his girl, and that he’s gonna buy a “big Cadillac” when he gets back home. Ahh, the 1920s.
75. Jai Paul — BTSTU (Demo) (2011) →
“BTSTU” or “Back To Save The Universe” is another random track from reclusive English R&B sensation Jai Paul. This is a little rowdier than his other popular offering, “Jasmine.” It booms, and Jai Paul threatens, “Don’t f**k with me. I know I’ve been gone a long time. I’m back and I want what is mine.” Not many songs can say they took over the internet twice in one year, but after blowing up on its own, “BTSTU” come back for another round when Drake used it as the background for his “Dreams Money Can Buy” street single leading up to Take Care.
74. Miguel — Sure Thing (2010) →
Miguel has expressed some resentment in the past over his first commercial release. He was under a lot of pressure from his label to be a mainstream success, and as a result he feels that he didn’t break out as an artist until his second release, Kaleidoscope Dream. I agree. All I Want Is You is nothing compared to his sophomore effort. (I mean, look at that cover art.) That said, “Sure Thing” is a Goliath of a single. I don’t care what you say, this is an R&B home run. It may be a lot more TRL-friendly than his better work, but I refuse to admit that this song is anything less than incredible. America agreed. The song peaked in the Top 10 of the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and went Platium in the US.
73. The National — Bloodbuzz Ohio (2010) →
The National is from Cincinnati. They’re even Bearcats. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” reminisces about home, and the fact that our birthplace will always have a place inside of us, whether we like it or not. It’s in our blood, just like the alcohol our protagonist has been drinking. Lead singer Matt Berninger sounds like he carries guilt about the fact that his ties back home aren’t as strong as they maybe should be. “Ohio don’t remember me,” he admits. Maybe this is his reason for writing the song.
72. Wilco — One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) (2011) →
“One Sunday Morning” is a song about love, life, and loss. The protagonist mourns the loss of his father, the important moments they shared, and the important moments they’ll no longer be able to have. There are a lot of spiritual elements to the song, and certainly more than a few interpretations out there. I see it as a Prodigal Son-esque tale. It’s twelve minutes long. It’s written by Jeff Tweedy. It’s really pretty. That’s all that needs to be said.
71. John Mayer — Wildfire (Reprise) (ft. Frank Ocean) (2013) →
It’s kinda misleading calling this a John Mayer song. Even though it appears on his album Paradise Valley, there isn’t a single Mayer lyric on here. He provides the instrumentation, but this is the Frank Ocean show. He reminisces about a love interest and a tumultuous trip to Paris. It’s short, sweet, and beautiful. Frankie can write. “Back in Paris you told me you were suicidal. It’s not a vacation if I lose you to the Eiffel. You’re gorgeous, but you can’t fly.”
70. Miguel — Adorn (2012) →
Miguel returned with his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, which easily surpassed his debut. Miguel does a lot to shake up the stale world of R&B, kinda like if Frank Ocean actually released music still. (sad face) “Adorn” is something decidedly different, especially instrumentally. R&B as a genre has been one of the slowest to step off the beaten path, but artists like this, albums like this, and songs like this are doing a lot to change that. “Adorn” found itself commercial and critical success in 2012.
69. Jay Z & Kanye West — Otis (ft. Otis Redding) (2011) →
When Watch The Throne dropped in 2011, it felt like a musical holiday. The two biggest names in the last decade of hip-hop teamed up for a buddy album. It wasn’t really a boundary-pusher, and never got a ton of love from critics, but it’s fun as heck. You can tell these two have tons of chemistry and genuinely love making music together. There are a whole lot of boasts about wealth. In the music video, the two hacked a Maybach to pieces before cruising around with supermodels. Perhaps the most underrated boast is the “feature,” Otis Redding. The pair paid a ton of money to use an Otis Redding song on their lead single. I don’t even want to know what that cost them. Worth it, though.
68. Earl Sweatshirt — Sunday (ft. Frank Ocean) (2013) →
Earl’s trademark sleepy flow feels just like a Sunday afternoon, which suits the track perfectly. He struggles with a broken relationship and the kind of strain that being a musician can cause on one’s love life. “And if I hurt you, I’m sorry. The music makes me dismissive…” Frank Ocean comes through and steals the show with a rap verse. It’s pretty unfair that the most revered R&B star can casually capture an audience with hip-hop, but that’s Frank Ocean for you. He caps his verse with some wonderful jabs at Chris Brown, whose crew jumped Frank outside of a recording studio. Frank takes time to remind him of the time he won a Grammy at the Staples Center, and everyone gave him a standing ovation — except for Chris.
67. Chief Keef — Love Sosa (2012) →
Like all of Keef’s discography, “Love Sosa” is effortless, catchy, and brimming with energy. He hasn’t found this level of mainstream appeal since 2012, and maybe he never will, but the 16-year-old’s hold on the hip-hop scene that year will be remembered for how unexpected and impressive it was. He was just a high school kid from the south side of Chicago, and he was suddenly worldwide, making music with the likes of Kanye West. He’ll forever change the way we think about “local” music and what that means in the internet age.
66. Kanye West — Blood on the Leaves (2013) →
Yeezus was Kanye West’s American Psycho moment. He was shooting from the hip, and — while some of it missed — some of it was spectacular. I won’t pretend to understand how Nina Simone’s paramount “Strange Fruit” (which was sampled heavily) ties in with Kanye’s tale of fame and lost love, but when a song threatens to send a crack through the Earth’s crust, you kind of just roll with it. The horns come courtesy of TNGHT, and they are incredible.
65. TV On The Radio — Will Do (2011) →
I first discovered TV On The Radio through this music video. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking. (I wrote about it here.) But no music video can be truly successful without the song it’s portraying. “Will Do” details the final, fragmented stages of a relationship where things are too far gone but you aren’t quite ready to accept that fact so you’re willing to sacrifice your dignity and self-respect to win the person back. “But I’ll be there to take care of you, if ever you should decide…” Unrequited love is a painful thing.
64. Justin Bieber — Love Yourself (2015) →
Oh, Justin. I could write about you all day. “Love Yourself” depicts the less-common vantage point of a break-up, as Justin plays the role of the instigator. I don’t know if this one is directed at a particular ex of Justin’s, but I’d hate to be on the receiving end of this. There’s something extra terrible about a cute upbeat ditty that tells you to go screw yourself. “My momma don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” If anyone ever said that to me, I’d feel pretty terrible about myself. Oh, and trumpets. Thanks for the trumpets, Justin. They’re my favorite part of the song.
63. Ab-Soul — The Book of Soul (2012) →
“The Book of Soul” is the kind of thing you want to listen to over and over again, even though it hurts to do so. Ab-Soul gets autobiographical, re-tracing his steps. The opening lines serve as a pretty good thesis statement: “Your momma told me ‘Read the Book of Job.’ They shoulda called it ‘The Book of Soul.’” He tells of his childhood struggles with the rare Steven-Johnson syndrome, which left him disfigured. He talks about how girls wouldn’t give him the time of day growing up, yet somehow he was able to fall in love. It’s revealed that his companion died unexpectedly, and he offers a heartbreaking message to her: “Stick to the plan. I’ll meet you at our spot, if reincarnation is true and we don’t get too lost. Even if you forget me and everything you left behind, I never lied, I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.”
62. Lil Uzi Vert — Do What I Want (2016)
In a year that gave us all plenty of reason’s to feel down, it makes sense that a few shamelessly cheerful songs found their way onto this list. If there was a happier song released in 2016, I didn’t hear it. Lil Uzi Vert had a bit of a coming out party this year, but this song got overlooked, short of appearing in the year’s most fantastic commercial. Had it come from a more established artist, it could’ve had “Hey Ya”-esque mainstream appeal. It’s the motivational song of the year. We all needed it.
61. Frank Ocean — Lost (2012) →
On “Lost,” Frank Ocean plays the role of an international drug smuggler. He’s in too deep to get out, and he’s starting to feel his lover’s apprehension. He promises they’ll be able to escape the lifestyle soon, settle down, and start a family. The beat here is one of my favorite on Channel Orange, and the music video is equally charming. “Lost” is a testament to Frank Ocean’s talent, because he makes this one feel positively effortless.
60. Skrillex and Diplo — Where Are Ü Now (ft. Justin Bieber) (2015) →
I love songs that seem to take over the summer, especially songs that are really good. “Where Are Ü Now” is that song. While I’ve always been a Bieber supporter, I’ve never liked Skrillex, and my knowledge of Diplo begins and ends with Riff Raff tracks. Somehow these three were able to join forces for the unstoppable song of Summer 2015. The instrumental is a pop masterpiece, and even the music video is well-crafted. I’d be cool if every summer featured one of these monsters.
59. Kid Cudi — Mojo So Dope (2010) →
With my love for Kid Cudi dwindling around the end of 2010, I think this song may have been the jumping point. “Mojo So Dope” was part of the end of the original Cudi era, which was a time when I could count on enjoying 90% of his output. There were stray singles I enjoyed after this, but nothing quite as much as the menacing spaceship that “Mojo So Dope” is. There’s something magical about the collision of Cudi and producer Emile Haynie that was totally lost when the two split ways after this album (Emile to produce for Lana Del Rey, Cudi to make half-baked rock music.) “Mojo So Dope” is one of Cudi’s many monster concert songs.
58. Bon Iver — 715-CR∑∑KS →
Post-Bon Iver isn’t a genre of music, but that’s what “715-CR∑∑KS” is. When I called 22, A Million Justin Vernon’s Yeezus, this is what I was talking about. Someone grabbed the Bon Iver knob and cranked it to 11. Vernon is compressed and garbled and warbled beyond recognition and there isn’t even a backing instrumental. This is what sad people in the year 2064 listen to. Our protagonist begs and pleads and tries to will himself out of a rough patch while alluding to the story of Moses. “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds, but all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease!” There are several standouts on 22, A Million, but this won me over with its character. It’s weird and wonderful and completely Bon Iver.
57. Father John Misty — Bored In The USA (2015) →
Fittingly debuted on Letterman on the night before the 2014 U.S. Presidential Election, “Bored In The USA” is a critique of life in America, especially its middle class. There’s sometimes a strong sense of disappointment among people my age. You do your time, get your degree, become an adult, and the American Dream doesn’t quite look like how you were promised. You’ve got a bunch of debt, there aren’t enough jobs, and the 2016 presidential race is between two people who don’t seem to understand or care. “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted? Who said that? Can I get my money back?”
56. Young Thug, A$AP Ferg & Freddie Gibbs — Old English (2014) →
“Old English” felt like one of the crowning moments in the rise of Young Thug in 2014. It was a Well, this guy isn’t going anywhere, is he? kind of moment. He helped transform a random song from a Mass Appeal compilation into one of the biggest hip-hop songs of the year. Freddie Gibbs got some help from two guys who aren’t renowned for their lyricism and fans reaped the benefits. And the music video was created by RUFFMERCY, who I’ll never get sick of.
55. Told Slant — Tsunami (2016) →
When I bought spur-of-the-moment tickets to see The Hotelier this year, Told Slant was simply part of the package I blindly signed up for. In doing some quick cursory research, I stumbled across this one. Later that night, in a sweaty, crowded Columbus bar, it filled me up in the kind of way that only live music can. “Tsunami” is a open letter that begs for a solid rock in the midst of a storm — something we’ve all longed for at one time or another.
54. The Smith Street Band — Why I Can’t Draw (2012) →
I think The Smith Street Band (along with lead singer Wil Wagner) may be the only music I listen to coming out of Australia. I’m not even totally sure how I discovered them, but I have a feeling it was via Signals Midwest. Clever lyrics will get you really far in my book, and it helps when there’s a lot of substance to back it up. This is one of those songs where it doesn’t feel like enough to just listen to the words. They need to be printed out and framed and hung on a wall, or something like that. There’s so much here that I identify with. “If society’s taught me anything it’s that writing is much easier than speaking.”
53. Lorde — Tennis Court (2013) →
Lorde’s rise in 2013 feels like an instance where mainstream America comes so close to getting it right, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. The youngster out of New Zealand had a few big singles. “Royals” was the massive one, but “Tennis Court” was the best. I don’t think Lorde can see the future, but “Tennis Court” predicted her world-hopping success before it happened. It contrasts life in her small home town with the trappings of her soon-to-be fame and success. It’s also painfully catchy.
52. The Hotelier — Goodness Pt. 1 (2016) →
The Hotelier’s Goodness is currently one of my favorite albums of 2016, and this was the first song that got me really excited for it. It was used in the album trailer, and just seemed so perfect. It didn’t even end up making the album, which I don’t quite understand, but it’s still great. It’s soft and sweet, which is something The Hotelier doesn’t do often, and also probably the answer to the question of why it wasn’t included on the album. Fortunately the group released it as its own single. “When this began this was a thing that we could both share. A bit of shame, the goodness fades, and we’d begin there.”
51. Drake — Marvin’s Room (2011) →
When this song first came out, I liked it much more than I do now. As good as it is, there’s something inherently creepy and pathetic about calling your ex and leaving voicemails saying “You can do better” after she’s found someone else. Minus points, Drake. Regardless, Marvin’s Room is sort of the crown jewel of Take Care, which is the one Drake project I’ll stand by until my death. A lot of the sappiness of the first two verses is assuaged by Verse 3, wherein Drake goes hip-hop and delivers one of the better verses on the album. Sometimes I wish Drake would return to his formula of Top 40 R&B with a good rap verse tacked onto the end.
50. Phosphorescent — Song For Zula (2013) →
Really great country/folk/Americana is some of my favorite music, perhaps because it seems like there’s so little of it. (If you have recommendations, let me know.) On “Song For Zula,” Phosphorescent channels Johnny Cash in describing love that’s turned sour. The lyrics here are beautiful and sorrowful, but the real clincher is the lush instrumentation. It feels very nostalgic and has me yearning for a lost love that I never had. All of Muchacho is worth a listen, but this one is something special.
49. King Krule — Easy Easy (2013) →
King Krule (real name Archy Marshall) is an English singer-songwriter who released 6 Feet Beneath The Moon as a kind of celebration of his 19th birthday. Suffice it to say, he’s really young and really talented. “Easy Easy,” the album’s opener, is my personal highlight. In it, Archy urges someone (himself? his listeners? the cops reference in the opening lines?) just to take it easy. Calm down. “If you’re going through hell, just keep going.” I suppose it works, because the laid-back vibe is infectious, and Archy’s thick English accent is almost too much to handle.
48. Runaway Brother — Moth (2015) →
“Moth” is a dead sprint of guitars from Cleveland’s Runaway Brother. This song is practically a microcosm of the album, which I felt I covered pretty succinctly on my Favorite Albums of 2015 list: “There’s something to be said for experiencing music live. I saw these guys play four times in 2015, all before autumn rolled in. Having this music cranked into your ear canal by large speakers or belted at the top of your lungs in the middle of a crowd only makes it more endearing, which is something the album succeeds at anyways. If coming-of-age is your cup of tea, Mother is your album.”
47. Car Seat Headrest — (Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem) (2016) →
“Drugs With Friends” charts Will Toledo’s run-in with psychedelic drugs. “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms. I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of sh*t in a stupid looking jacket.” He has a bad (read: paranoid) trip, walks around his town (which he describes as Sodom), laid on his friend’s floor, tried not to “piss his pants,” and meets Jesus. Teens of Denial is incredible front to back, but “Drugs With Friends” is one of the more soaring highs… no pun intended. [Note: The version of the song linked above is not the album version. I’d recommend listening on Spotify or something similar.]
46. Pusha T — Numbers On The Boards (2014) →
I’m not really one of the real hip-hop types. I don’t care much for boom bap production and I’m pretty hit-or-miss on the super lyrical types. Basically, traditional hip-hop tends to bore me. Pusha T does not bore me. On “Numbers On The Boards,” he comes riding in on what’s essentially a repackaged old-school hip-hop beat. It’s boom bap goes experimental. It’s impossible to listen to this without nodding your head. Like lots of old-school hip-hop, it’s boastful to its core. Pusha describes himself as Derrick Rose and “’88 Jordan, leaping from the free throw.” This is wordplay front to back. I’m not a rap purist, but songs like this make me question that.
45. Ramshackle Glory — Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist (2012) →
Ramschackle Glory is one of the brainchildren of Pat The Bunny, one of the best, most tortured songwriters around. Like most of his music, this is some weird blend of empowering and depressing. Pat wrote this song about his friends and the daily choice to keep fighting his demons. “Keep on loving. Keep on fighting. And hold on, hold on, hold on for your life,” the chorus begs. The final friend the song mentions is Chuck, and it’s revealed (plainly) that he committed suicide. A lot of Pat the Bunny’s music is this way. It’s a weird journey to get into it, but it’s worth it.
44. Father John Misty — Holy S**t (2015) →
“Holy S**t” is so cool because it blatantly bucks the rest of I Love You, Honeybear, which is often self-deprecating and cynical. Written on his wedding day, lead singer Joshua Tillman spits in the face of anything pessimistic he’s ever heard about love. “Oh, and no one ever knows the real you and life is brief. So I’ve heard, but what’s that gotta do with this atom bomb in me?” Translation: I keep hearing that love is a big hoax and will only leave me hurting, but what’s that have to do with this wedding? For a guy who spends so much time on this album being a relative downer, this is a patch of bleached-white optimism, and it’s great.
43. Signals Midwest — Alchemy Hour (2016) →
I had the opportunity to hear this performed live in early 2015 at Mahall’s in Lakewood, Ohio. I was instantly in love and anxiously awaited its release. In fact, there isn’t a song on this list that I waited for longer than “Alchemy Hour.” It’s a song about how the human experience can simultaneously be enduring yet fleeting and hard to grasp. It’s a song about the past and future that ultimately begs to live in the present. It’s a song that starts with a memory and ends with a promise: “We will not wash away.”
42. Joyce Manor — Constant Headache (2011) →
Joyce Manor is probably the closest thing to pure punk I enjoy on a regular basis, although “Constant Headache” is one of their more melodic offerings. The narrator tells the story of unexpectedly falling in love, despite being emotionally guarded, not worth it, or a “constant headache.” I got to see this performed live when I saw Joyce Manor open for Modern Baseball last month, and it was exactly as amazing as I could’ve hoped for. Joyce Manor puts on the kind of show you can love even without knowing all the words by heart.
41. Beyoncé — XO (2013) →
Although I’m not nearly as much of a Beyoncé fan as some, I’ve always enjoyed her music. While aggressive go-getters like “Single Ladies” and “Formation” are awesome (and get most of the shine), my personal favorites have always been the ballad-esque tracks like “Halo.” Her self-titled album featured one cut from that cloth: “XO.” Every single aspect of this song is perfect. The lyrics, her soaring vocals and the back-ups, the trance-y synth instrumental, Terry Richardson’s Coney Island music video, and even John Mayer’s gorgeous acoustic cover. It all makes me so happy. You cannot be sad while listening to this.
40. Kendrick Lamar — King Kunta (2015) →
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is one of those albums that feels monumental from the first moment it hits the public. The whole project carries a palpable weight, but one of the lighter cuts is “King Kunta.” I can’t recall hearing a hip-hop album with this level of funk to it, but Kendrick pulls it off with flying colors here. As someone who loves allusions in music, the callback to Roots here is perfect. Try not to move after hearing “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you.” Kendrick rarely mis-executes on anything, so the music video is fittingly sublime.
39. Chance The Rapper — Cocoa Butter Kisses (ft. Vic Mensa & Twista) (2013) →
Chance the Rapper has proved to be at his best when reminiscing, being nostalgic, or talking about his mother and grandmother. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” is further proof, and catches Chance longing for the days when his mom used to kiss him and see him as innocent, rather than the tainted adult he feels he’s become. We all miss childhood sometimes, and that’s what this one is about. Personally, I mostly just miss when Chance was doing stuff like this on a more regular basis.
38. Kendrick Lamar — B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (2013) →
These are maybe my favorite opening lines in any Kendrick song: “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me. Things I don’t understand. Sometimes I need to be alone.” Rarely do songs about frustration feel so effortless and laid back, but this one is. good kid, m.A.A.d city is what put Kendrick on the map, and this song is where he predicted it. It’s a message to those trying to hold him back from accomplishing his mission. “I’mma break out and then hide every lock,” he promises. So far, he’s lived up to that promise.
37. Kendrick Lamar — The Blacker The Berry (2015) →
The Blacker The Berry is a 1929 novel by Wallace Thurman, an American author who used a fictional story to depict racism within the black community during the Harlem Renaissance. In 2016, Kendrick Lamar circles back and doubles down on Thurman’s ideology, mourning the life of Trayvon Martin while recognizing his own hypocrisy: Black-on-black crime occurs on a daily basis, largely powered by racism that he himself has helped perpetuate. White people will never fully understand what it’s like to be black in 21st century America, but To Pimp A Butterfly struck me as the type of album that tries to explain it. “The Blacker The Berry” discusses something I’ll never understand, but Kendrick’s eloquent and searing analysis has provided some insight.
36. Grieves — Lightspeed (2011) →
It’s weird getting smacked in the face with vivid memories of your childhood. It’s even weirder when it comes from an artist you’ve never heard before. I’ve talked about it elsewhere on this list, but I’m not the biggest fan of hip-hop based heavily in lyricism. Regardless, Grieves (who is signed to Rhymesayers) hit close to home with this one. The first verse describes parts of his childhood that are incredibly similar to my own: bike rides, playing with the dog in the backyard, the mystery of a brown-bag lunch, riding the last bus home from school, buying baseball cards, loving mom relentlessly, and knowing nothing but happiness. In the second verse, Grieves takes a turn into something I’m unfamiliar with, dipping into his struggle with substance abuse. However, I feel like I’m able to sympathize a lot more given the striking similarities of our childhood experiences. Funny how that works.
35. Signals Midwest — Monarchs (2012) →
I’ve never gone on tour, but I have been in a long distance relationship. Lead singer Max Stern describes the conflicting sides during a period apart: On one hand, his girl is at home waiting for him, and he misses her. On the other hand, life (and tours) are about adventure. “I was counting the miles. You were counting the days. Ain’t it strange that the numbers we wanted were moving in opposite ways?” It’s a line that’s rekindled throughout Latitudes and Longitudes, which is one of my favorite parts about it. This song is also incredible so see performed live. The whole thing begs to be screamed, especially the refrain.
34. Courtney Barnett — Depreston (2015) →
We all have to face our own mortality at some point, but I’ll bet few reach that point while house hunting. While touring a potential new home, Courtney Barnett meets reality in the form of what was left behind by the previous owner. “Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour, and a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.” At the end of the song, Barnett wanders back around to the reason she’s there. “I wonder what she bought it for,” she ponders. It’s a snapshot of the brief interaction between two people who never meet. If you’re unfamiliar with Barnett’s Australia, the music video sets the scene.
33. Drake — Know Yourself (2015) →
“Know Yourself” is Drake trying his hand at arena rock. It was written for Toronto, and written to be screamed at the top of your lungs. It’s the type of song that was created so this could happen. It’s an anthem. It had all of America screaming about their “woes,” despite the fact that pretty much none of us knew what the word meant. It’s also somewhat unfathomable that the best beat switch/drop of an entire calendar year came on a Drake song. I probably wouldn’t have believed it in 2011 or 2012, but the climax of “Know Yourself” is a full-blown experience.
32. Kanye West — New God Flow (ft. Pusha T & Ghostface Killah) (2012) →
Rap, as I’ve said, has its origins in brags and boasts. When it first got legs, hip-hop primarily existed in the form of battle rapping. The end goal was to prove how great you are while humiliating your opponent. Many artists still play by these rules, but few do it better than Pusha T. His opening line here is so fantastic because it’s incredibly simple, yet completely, wonderfully Pusha T: “I believe there’s a God above me, I’m just the god of everything else.” Not many guys would come to the conclusion, or have the gall to vocalize, “Hey, God is number one, but I’m definitely number two.” Only Pusha.
All that said, this is here pretty much off the strength of Kanye’s verse, which is one of my very favorites of his entire career. Rarely does Kanye seem to completely unload lyrically, but sometimes he’s able to connect like this and reel off 32 bars of pure magic. He opens: “Hold up, I ain’t trying to stunt, man, but the Yeezys jumped over the Jumpman. Went from most hated to the champion god flow, I guess that’s a feeling only me and LeBron know.” He goes on to say his career is the culmination of three people’s dreams: Biggie Smalls, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rodney King. Eventually the beat breaks down and Kanye discusses the certainty of his own success. “Did Moses not part the water with the cane?”
Not to be forgotten, this beat is a throwback, borrowing a hook from Ghostface Killah’s “Mighty Healthy.” Topped off with ominous pianos, it allows these three veterans to spin their webs. It’s the highlight of G.O.O.D. Music’s otherwise-forgettable Cruel Summer project.
31. The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die — January 10th, 2014 (2015) →
Grandeur trumps a lot of things in my mind. Nothing is quite as grand as one woman’s face-to-face battle with her living, breathing demons. Born out of an episode of This American Life, “January 10th, 2014” rises and falls, whispers and shouts, walks and sprints, cries and bleeds. It’s beautifully biographical and completely mesmerizing.
Rousing instrumentation and rising and falling guitars serve as the backdrop for the story of Diana, The Hunter of Bus Drivers, a woman who donned a blonde wig, got on the #4 bus, and murdered two bus drivers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to avenge for a string of un-prosecuted sexual assaults.”Ease the babies out of their wombs. Make your hair blonde, hop on the number four,” the song opens. The lyrics are a very literal take on the true story, and many lines are direct quotations from the episode of This American Life that covered Diana. “I am an instrument,” declares Diana. TWIABP basically had a song written for them; they just had to assemble the dialogue. In a way, that makes it more impressive to me. It’s like a musical documentary.
At the end of the song, Diana vows to “make Evil afraid of Evil’s shadow” over crashing guitars. If it doesn’t get you amped up, you are dead inside.
30. The Front Bottoms — The Beers (2011) →
“The Beers” is the story of a high school crush. I think we all can remember them. Sometimes they lasted for a week, sometimes for a summer, sometimes for a year or two. Regardless of the duration, they all seemed very intense, charged by raging hormones and rampant curiosity of the unknown.
The scene opens with a stereotypical high school party, like something cut from a bad teen movie. Our star is discreetly drinking beer out of a coffee mug (or maybe a water bottle), and struggling to communicate, like high schoolers tend to do, especially with the opposite sex. The romance department during high school years is universally frustrating like this. To top it all off, there’s also this willingness to completely alter yourself to cater to this person you’ve become infatuated with. This goes away as you get older, but there were probably times I would have sawed off a limb in high school to go on a date with a girl I didn’t even think about two weeks later. “The Beers” hilariously echoes this in the chorus: “And I will remember that summer as the summer I was taking steroids. Because you like a man with muscles, and I like you.”
In the case of The Front Bottoms, the crush is worse because it’s inescapable. We’re dealing with the girl next door. Literally. “But it’s an aerial view from your house to my room…” Topped off with acoustic guitars and cascading pianos when the song reaches its breaking point, “The Beers” is an anthem of young love.
29. Frank Ocean — Bad Religion (2012) →
When Frank Ocean took to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in the early hours of July 10, 2012, he was mostly an unknown. Not necessarily in the sense that nobody knew him (because that wasn’t quite true), but in the sense that nobody was quite sure what he would become. It seems weird to picture Frank in that way in 2016, but on that night, he was a question mark. His debut, Channel Orange, had just hit iTunes at midnight, and he was making his first television appearance. The moment was sort of a culmination for Frank; a transition from potential to prominence. He sung “Bad Religion.”
It’s a song about a particularly painful bout of unrequited love. Frank had just come out publicly the week before, and none of his music up to that point had dealt with his relationship as blatantly as “Bad Religion” did. “I can never make him love me,” cries Frank. In the beginning of the song, he hops in a taxi and sets out on an impromptu therapy session from the backseat, telling his driver to get into rush hour traffic and leave the meter running while he shares his problems.
He equates his love for this person to a “bad religion” due to his devotion to it, and the fact that it’s always bringing him to his knees. “To me, it’s nothing but a one-man cult.” It’s a sad and desperate song that finds him trapped in his current situation. “I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise. I can’t trust no one,” he tells the driver. In a beautiful twist, Frank used maybe his most painful song as the culminating moment of his young career. That’s special.
28. Sun Kil Moon — Carissa (2014) →
Sun Kil Moon’s Benji completely blindsided me in 2014. I don’t know what I expected, but I wasn’t prepared to be emotionally drained by something that only vaguely resembles singing. Mark Kozelek uses his birthplace of Ohio as the backdrop for the sad tale of the death of his cousin Carissa. One morning, he “woke up to so many 330 area code calls” and learned that his cousin had died after a freak accident. She put an aerosol can in the trash and it exploded as she was taking out the trash before leaving for her “midnight shift as an RN in Wadsworth.” She left behind two children.
Kozelek meanders through the story in a half-sung fashion with one of the most simple, beautiful guitar melodies anchoring the chorus. He even makes sure to carve out space to say the things we’re all thinking: “G*ddamn, what were the odds?” he wonders to himself. “You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” He considers Carissa’s two children, and how the tragedy will affect them. “Was it even you who mistakenly put flammables in the trash? Was it your kids just being kids? If so, the guilt they will carry around forever.” I mean, this is bleak. I don’t know of many songs about personal catastrophe that take the time to consider the psychological aftermath that ripples through families when something thus sudden, senseless, and tragic happens.
To put the icing on the cake, this same thing happened to this family once before. Carissa’s grandfather (Kozelek’s uncle) died in the exact same fashion. On top of that, the last time Kozelek saw Carissa alive was at her grandfather’s funeral. Talk about dramatic irony.
Benji gets to you like this. It’s stark, stripped-back, and blisteringly bare. It’s also beautiful.
27. Mac Miller — The Star Room (OG Version) (2014) →
I could probably write a good bit on Mac Miller. He was one of those artists I despised for years, until one day it seemed a switch flipped and he could do no wrong in my eyes. It was an overnight transformation from despised to respected. “The Star Room” wasn’t one of the first songs that won me over, but it still encapsulates a lot of the same attributes that made me change my mind about Mac.
Produced by RandomBlackDude (an alias of Earl Sweatshirt), the instrumental for the OG Version of Mac’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off opener is carved from a track on the Moonrise Kingdom soundtrack. The source material is one of those songs that you hear in the movie (which is great) and it gets stuck in your head for a few days afterwards. Later, you hear this version of “The Star Room” and it just seems so… obvious. Like it was always destined to be the canvas of a Mac Miller song.
Early Mac Miller material seemed to mostly focus on smoking weed with his buddies. It was internet hip-hop white noise. As soon as Mac started to open up, I instantly bought in. “The Star Room” is the epitome of that transformation.
He treats the song like a diary entry. He laments the pressures of fame. He worries about his parents’ relationship, while recognizing the strain his choices in life have put on it. He’s unhappy with his record label situation, and worries that he’s been blackballed in the music industry. He notes that his afraid to answer the phone when his dad calls. “Will he recognize his son when he hears my voice?” He admits that his friends are more like acquaintances, and he doesn’t have true companionship. You can feel the walls of his life closing in on him. “If y’all would leave me the f**k alone, that’d be divine.”
This version was ultimately scrapped in favor of the released version, which, to be fair, fits the album’s tone much better. Regardless, it’s a surprisingly open window into the world of a kid who was conquering the hip-hop world while dealing with a lot of personal adversity.
26. Drake — Worst Behavior (2013) →
I guess I would consider myself a Drake fan. I listen to new music whenever it comes out, and there are more than a few songs I come back to frequently. However, Drake hasn’t been able to totally nail it, in my eyes. He’s done a lot of “pretty good” and a lot of “I’ve played this every day for two weeks,” but hasn’t left a lot of music I’d consider a lasting work. To put it one way, he’s a better commercial artist than Kanye, but I can’t picture my grandchildren tossing aside My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to put on some Thank Me Later. “Worst Behavior” is the closest Drake has come to a lasting moment for me. This song pops off.
“Started From The Bottom” isn’t even the best rags-to-riches song on Nothing Was The Same. That distinction belongs to “Worst Behavior.” Easily. Much like “Started From The Bottom,” “Worst Behavior” feels like less of a personal anthem than it does a rallying cry for an entire community. The thesis here is: “Nobody cared about us, now look what we’ve accomplished. They sure as hell care now.”
The first verse documents the struggle, such as cleaning your shoes with a toothbrush. (We’ve all done it.) The second verse is the warning shot. Drake’s made it to the top, and he’s coming for you. “I’m liable to do anything when it comes to that you-owe-me.” The third verse is the celebration. More money, more problems. In fact, Drake literally lifts Mase’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” flow. It’s one of my absolute favorite Drake verses ever.
“I just asked for some blessings at my grandmother’s grave. And it’s back to L.A., open the mail, starin’ at the check. Enough to make you throw up, man it’s gross what I net.” If this isn’t classic enough for you, the verse is stuffed full of great one-liners:
“I’m with my whole set, tennis matches at the crib. I swear I could beat Serena when she playin’ with her left.”
“Where I reside, it look like a resort inside.”
“Bar Mitzvah money like my last name Mordecai.”
“This ain’t the son you raised who used to take the Acura at 5 AM to go and shoot Degrassi up on Morningside.”
It’s all spun over what’s probably the best beat of 2013. “Worst Behavior” might actually be the kind of thing my grandkids listen to.
25. Chance The Rapper — Nostalgia (2012) →
“Nostalgia” was my introduction to Chance The Rapper. In my experience, any song that introduces you to an artist you end up loving has a special place in your heart forever. “Nostalgia” is proof. Like #34 on this list, it was an unexpected flood of, well, nostalgia.
Chance evokes Nickelodeon VHS tapes, watching movies inside blanket forts, and cracking his head open at his Auntie Linda’s house. He takes time to reminisce about Indian burns, Pillsbury biscuits, SpongeBob, Smart Guy, party favors, playing Seven Up at school, and the wonderment of a childhood Christmas.
Like many Chance songs, it quickly takes a serious turn: “’Round here we lose best friends like every week. I like to think we playin’ a long game of hide and go seek. And one day maybe I’ma find Terrance…” Chance’s innocent childhood is interrupted by the realities of violence in his Chicago neighborhood. 10 Day, as a whole, is a very innocent project. It was born out of a 10-day suspension from high school, so a lot of the naivety makes sense. Chance was just a kid, and the sense of wonderment on his face on the album cover sort of captures how the mixtape feels. He’s grown up a lot in the last four years.
24. Frank Ocean — Novacane (2011) →
Frank Ocean spread like wildfire in 2011, largely on the power of this song. After rotting in a bad label situation, he finally got fed up and decided to unleash a mixtape of material. Within a few weeks, he was the hottest artist on the internet. He released his debut Channel Orange the following year, and the rest is history. (Including the still-ongoing wait for his sophomore effort.) Almost exactly five years ago, the song turned heads by peaking at #82 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was an unexpected turn for a guy who couldn’t even get the attention of his own record label.
“Novacane,” Frank Ocean has stated, is not autobiographical. The songs deals a lot with drug use, especially cocaine, but Frank isn’t a coke head by any stretch. It’s a love song, of sorts, and Frank describes meeting a girl at Coachella who has aspirations of being a dentist, but is in school making ends meet in less-than-savory Hollywood ways. The girl is Frank’s Novocain, and he’s addicted to the way she makes him numb and disconnected from reality. He throws in a Stanley Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut reference before revealing that the aspiring dentist has him hooked so bad that he’s experimenting elsewhere: “Now I’m something like the chemist on campus. But there’s no drug around quite like what I found in you.”
Frank is the master of these kinds of songs. They’re sometimes slimy and uncomfortable, but they’re extremely real. As Pitchfork said, “Novacane” is “a song about personal connection but also about all the stupid numb human s**t that gets in the way of personal connection, which means it’s probably the most honest song about personal connection on the radio.”
23. Youth Lagoon — 17 (2011) →
In an era wrought with this kind of hippy emo flavor, it’s a wonder that Trevor Powers (alias: Youth Lagoon) was able to poke his head above a deluge of hipster, Bandcamp, bedroom artists. He was just 22 when The Year of Hibernation released. It was his debut, so wasn’t working off of any kind of rapport with fans. He truly managed to succeed at doing what many others were also trying. The Year of Hibernation is soft, melodic, and even minimalist. It’s an emo album that doesn’t quite sound like the emo albums that preceded it or followed it. It’s emo wrapped in a bedroom dream pop wrapper, and it’s magnificent for it.
So much of the album deals with Powers’ inner monologue, and his ongoing wrestling match with it. “17” is no exception. It longs for the past and notes a coming-of-age, at least a little bit. (The good kind, not the kind where you have to lose the best parts of childhood wonderment.) He describes a time where he went camping, hunted for snakes, and swam in lakes. It’s only a memory. “It’s just me in my room with my eyes shut,” he admits.
“When I was seventeen, my mother said to me, ‘Don’t stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die,’” cries Powers on the song’s chorus. But does it also note a loss of innocence, despite that? “Now I pull a one-ton carriage,” he says.
Earlier this year, Powers laid his Youth Lagoon project to rest. “It is a space I no longer inhabit, nor want to inhabit,” he said. “Youth Lagoon is complete. I’ve reached the top of a mountain, only to then be able to see a much larger one I want to ascend.” I can’t wait to see where Powers goes next, if only because the beginning of his journey was so enchanting.
22. Frank Ocean — White Ferrari (2016)
Frank tips his hand to the song’s meaning by briefly quoting “Here, There and Everywhere” and giving Lennon and McCartney a writing credit. While the Beatles staple is about bringing your lady along while globetrotting, “White Ferrari” is encompasses more ethereal elements like time and space. It’s Ocean’s “Lost” meets Interstellar. It scarcely gets above a whisper, making it gentle and gorgeous like everything that Frank Ocean has ever done. The song needles and stretches like a midnight desert mirage and Frank drops one-liners like “Mind over matter is magic, I do magic” before the track splinters and plunges into a For Emma, Forever Ago-esque outro.
21. Lana Del Rey — Video Games (2012) →
“Video Games” is peak Lana Del Rey. I’m not sure if she has a better song in her, and that’s not an insult. The song was an internet Titanic when it release, garnering polarizing reactions across the board. For each person that wanted to crown her the next female pop sensation, there was another person drafting up a written takedown targeted at her lips, her stiff performance style, or her heavily-curated aura. In what felt like an instant, Del Rey, who wasn’t exactly brand new to the music industry, was the internet’s biggest talking point. I was never a fan of the drama surrounding her, and never saw the point in trying to attack her persona, despite its clearly fine-tuned nature. (Find a pop star that isn’t carefully crafted.) Internet BS aside, Lana Del Rey made some really great music, and none if it is better than “Video Games.”
It’s impossible to talk about this song without mentioning the music video. It’s the essence of Lana Del Rey, and part of what propelled her career, for better or worse. In perfect 2012 fashion, the video is simply a bunch of random video clips — mostly ’50s and ’60s Zapruder-style types — interspersed with webcam shots of Lana lip-syncing the song. That’s it. She cut it together herself, probably in iMovie. It captures her DIY, flower girl, Marilyn Monroe meets Steve McQueen persona. It’s assembled in a sloppy, relaxed manner, taped together like a scrapbook, and it’s currently closing in on 122 million plays on YouTube.
The song itself is painfully bittersweet. Lana has found her dream man, but he’s flawed. He has his own life, and she feels like she’s just along for the ride. She loves him, but so far she’d had to give up her own life for the relationship. She’s the American housewife stereotype, only semi-fulfilled in life at home while her husband gets to be the playboy with the career. To go back to her ’60s aesthetic, she’s Jackie Kennedy. She’s keeping up appearances, living her “happy life”, while the man she loves is out sleeping with Marilyn Monroe. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” she cries on the chorus. “Everything I do.” Her happiness is only an illusion.
The song’s most poignant line is also one of its simplest. “I heard that you like the bad girls. Honey… is that true?”
Lana’s vocals rise and fall over large, swelling orchestration and delicate, plucked strings. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. Say what you want about everything Lana has done since 2012, but you can’t take “Video Games” away from her.
20. Kanye West — Gorgeous (ft. Kid Cudi & Raekwon) (2010) →
Two years before the murder of Trayvon Martin pushed racial injustice back to the forefront of American consciousness, Kanye uncorked “Gorgeous,” a semi-autobiographical telling of his own quest for equality and fame in 21st century America. For fans of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this is the perfect prequel to “Power,” the song that follows it on the album. The two are spiritual partners, and “Gorgeous” is the buildup.
As Kanye’s career progressed, his desire to be a proficient lyricist waned. He was never an intricate songwriter to begin with, so by the time 2010 rolled around, not many people expected him to write genre-defining music. “Gorgeous” proved everyone wrong by becoming arguably his best top-to-bottom song from a lyrical standpoint. His three verses are filled with double entendres, wordplay, internal rhymes, and pure truth. “Got caught with thirty rocks, the cop looked like Alec Baldwin,” he drops in the first verse, referencing the star of NBC’s 30 Rock.
Kanye says he sees his music as “inter-century anthems, based off inner city tantrums” before acknowledging that “Jerome get more time than Brandon, and at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random.” To mainstream America in 2016, this all sounds timely and relevant. To mainstream America in 2010, this sounded like the ranting and raving of an angry, tinfoil-hat-wearing black man. So much of this song is poignant in 2016. Kanye discusses the fact that America loves him as long as he’s behaving himself and acting how they want him to act: “As long as I’m in Polo, smiling, they think they got me. But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me. I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me, if a n-gga ain’t shootin’ a jump shot, running a track meet.”
He circles back, referencing the American Apparel sexual harassment lawsuits: “She told the director she tryna get in a school. He said, ‘Take them glasses off and get in the pool.’” And the deteriorating state of America as depicted on the 24-hour news cycle: “It’s been a while since I watched the tube, ’cause like a Crip said, I got way too many blues for any more bad news.”
One of the album’s most enduring lines comes in the third verse, as Kanye has fully careened off the rails and tosses in an oh-by-the-way: “And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a f — king roach? I guess that’s why they got me sitting in f — king coach.”
“Gorgeous” is Kanye at his best. It will never be remembered as a commercial success, but it will be referenced years from now as one of his strongest, sharpest statements on his own life and life in America.
19. WZRD — Teleport 2 Me, Jamie (2011) →
“Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” is a beautiful Desire-sampling pop song about love, longing, and the struggle with distance. The video features Cudi wailing on a guitar and wandering through a starry room in a cable knit sweater. It’s quintessential Cudi. It’s a good song that rightfully earned its place on this list. I was once a huge Cudi fan, and this song has managed to cement its place in my mental Cudi Hall of Fame, a rarely-visited room that has since gathered dust.
“I can’t stand the times when I’m alone at night and I feel your side of the bed and it’s cold,” he sings.
Rarely can such a good song wind up being a milestone moment in an artist’s career for all the wrong reasons. It sounds nuts, but hear me out. By 2011, Kid Cudi was just starting to veer from his successful path. He had released a highly-acclaimed mixtape (A Kid Named Cudi), a stellar debut (Man On The Moon), and a strong follow-up (Man On The Moon II). He had three projects to his name, and within those three projects he had managed to create a huge buzz, fulfill that buzz, and avoid the sophomore slump. He was one of the bigger artists in hip-hop, but he wasn’t satisfied.
Much to the chagrin of many of his loyal fans, he started to test uncharted waters. At the time, the WZRD experiment seemed like a wild deviation from his career path. In hindsight, compared to his later projects, it wasn’t really. There was still a decent amount of hip-hop influence, and he was still working with his closest creative partner, “Day N Nite” producer Dot Da Genius. It was a bit of an unnecessary risk, but the lead single showed a lot of promise.
“Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” is a really good song that got virtually zero credit. This should have been Cudi’s biggest commercial success since “Day N Nite.” It was a pop music smash whose day in the sun never came. It under-performed commercially and critically, and I think it may have pushed Cudi further from that successful path he had found. Rather than receive a proportionate amount of praise and success for the song, I think it helped foster a “me vs. them” mentality. Cudi felt he had tried something new, that he had succeeded, and that the public and the critics were wrong. He was correct, and I think it created a grudge against “the establishment” that would end up only hurting his career. In the five years since, the public and the critics have continued to ignore Cudi, except this time they’re right. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if this song made waves on the radio. Would Cudi have declared victory and returned to hip-hop for Man On The Moon III? We’ll never know.
18. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Thuggin’ (2014) →
Freddie Gibbs is a throwback to the early days of hip-hop when artists combined potent lyricism with authentic tales of life in an artful, thoughtful package. In many ways, producer Madlib is the same. Each are old souls delivering “old-hearted” material to a modern music scene, and each have been very successful at it. When framed that way, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib joining forces for Piñata may be the most logical musical collaboration of the decade. They’re the perfect marriage of both worlds. Forward-thinking music with throwback style. You’d be fairly hard-pressed to find any serious hip-hop fan who disliked Piñata. According to Metacritic, the album scored an 83/100 across all critical reviewers, earning the “universal acclaim” label. (For what it’s worth, fans liked it a bit more, grading it at an 8.3/10, on average.)
“Thuggin” is the pinnacle of Piñata, as it combines Freddie’s story of life in the street in an unforgiving but beautiful package. It opens with a sample from a blaxploitation movie trailer before launching into Madlib’s production. The beat is built around a strung-out sample of Rubba’s “Way Star” that’s being sped up and pulled so thin that it feels like an old, threadbare t-shirt that’s somehow the most comfortable thing you own. Gibbs treats it as such, and nonchalantly eases his way into the first verse.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a verse begin like this. Gibbs starts out jogging before hitting his stride right as he mentions the song’s title a few lines into the verse. It’s like watching a drifter effortlessly hop onto a train that’s already in motion. It’s the kind of thing you only think to do (much less figure a way to pull off) if you’re more of a season vet like Gibbs.
Along the way, he brings enough of his usual one-liners. “59Fifty to the left, but I’m in my right mind.” He bemoans the life he used to lead while crediting himself for the current one he’s built for his family while making music. “I live on borrowed time. My expiration date, I passed it. So lock me up forever, but this s — t is everlastin’.”
Even if this revitalized take on old-school hip-hop isn’t quite your taste, you can at least appreciate the fact that Freddie Gibbs & Madlib found a place for it in the 2016 mainstream.
17. Frank Ocean — Thinkin Bout You (2012) →
“Thinkin Bout You” leaked before its official release as the lead single for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. At the time, I was listening to Nostalgia, Ultra on occasion, but I wasn’t too sure what to make of Frank. Some of the mixtape excited me, some didn’t, and there was the issue of me not even liking R&B to begin with. Regardless, something about Frank kept me coming back, and forced me to keep an eye out for his approaching album. All of that changed when I heard “Thinkin Bout You.” It was a revelation. I was no longer curious to hear Channel Orange. Now I needed it.
I think most of us have been in a relationship where we realize (or at least worry) that we’re way more into the other person than vice-versa. It’s kind of a scary thing. “Thinkin Bout You” has Frank Ocean realizing that he might be the only one in the relationship who’s head over heels. “I’ve been thinking ‘bout you. Do you think about me still? Do ya, do ya? Or do you not think so far ahead? ’Cause I been thinking bout forever,” he croons on the chorus. Frank Ocean is the master at conveying this sense of passion and longing.
On the second verse he plays it coy, getting sarcastic and flirtatious. “No, I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it,” he teases. “I don’t love you I just thought you were cute, that’s why I kissed you.” Certain people, myself included, are the type to instantly fall for someone and start thinking about marriage before the one month anniversary. On the bridge, Frank finds his mind wandering towards eternity. “It won’t ever get old, not in my soul, not in my spirit, keep it alive. We’ll go down this road ’til it turns from color to black and white.”
Frank’s silky falsetto is enough to carry the song on its own. Toss in his songwriting, the plodding percussion, and the silky string section that was added for the album and you’ve got Frank’s tidiest package to date. Play this in your car while driving around at night and try not to put on a Oscar-winning performance. It’s impossible.
16. Vampire Weekend — Step (2013) →
When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had a wall of the classroom he called the “Wall of Allusions.” On the first day of school, when giving a tour of the room, he got to the wall and explained what it meant. You see, it wasn’t a wall of illusions. There was no trickery going on. Instead, the wall was covered in comics and posters which featured allusions. As he explained, an allusion is where something indirectly references something else.
I was a stupid 13-year-old, but loved the idea of being able to make a joke or comparison with some assistance from something else that people already knew. You may not know what the word “allusion” meant, but you hear them everywhere in music. They’re my favorite thing to look for and pick apart, because it’s like a puzzle or scavenger hunt within the song. A great example of a song filled with allusions is “Step.”
The song itself is a kind of allusion. It was heavily inspired by Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl,” a throwaway track from their 93 ’til Infinity debut. Vampire Weekend lifts the title, chorus, and looped melody in an effort to almost recreate the song in their own vision. Within the song, the first verse as a whole is a kind of reference to early Vampire Weekend material in that it’s borderline nonsensical. Ideas and lines are strung together with more concern for rhyme and melody than for relation to the rest of the verse itself. Regardless, the guys still manage to point to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world), the prolific Jandek (who I had a fascination with for a few years), Modest Mouse, The Talking Heads, Croesus (the ancient king), Run-D.M.C., Astor Place in New York, Moby Dick, and perhaps even The Bible. While it’s beautifully intricate and begs to be picked apart and unpacked layer by layer like a nesting doll, the true beauty comes in the fact that it doesn’t have to be. The song can stand on its own and has plenty of meaning without being surgically dismantled.
In 1994, rapper Common released “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” a veiled love letter to the genre of hip-hop and the sadness he felt over what he viewed as its deterioration. “Step” is a love letter to Vampire Weekend’s own music, music released by their peers, and music as a whole. There are some similarities between the two songs, but Vampire Weekend looks down from their mountaintop with a much rosier view, even being so bold as to stand in defense of their work.
The first verse is nostalgic, recalling cassette tapes, boomboxes, and Walkmen. The second verse expresses frustration with doubters and older music fans who looked down upon their music. “Ancestors told me that their girl was better,” lead singer Ezra Koenig recalls. The third verse is the “romantic” one, and Koenig whispers sweet nothings. He believed in his own work before others did: “We saw the stars when they hid from the world.” He recognizes that the music speaks for itself: “The truth is she doesn’t need me to protect her.” And he believes in its timelessness: “Everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet.”
My favorite part is the chorus, as Koenig directly addresses those who have discredited his music on account of his age. “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out. What you on about?” It’s as if he’s saying, “Here I am. I’m all grown up. Now what were you saying again?”
It’s a testament to Vampire Weekend’s talent that they could form such a beautiful defense of themselves. It’s a testament to their relatively short career that they had to.
15. Kanye West — Power (2010) →
In an era that was a landmark moment Kanye West’s career, “Power” was the first pin to fall. In 2009, he ensnared himself in the Taylor Swift VMAs drama and seemed to reach a breaking point in his career and relationship with the public and the media. He holed himself up in a Honolulu recording studio, determined to fly under the radar while things back on the mainland blew over. He was creating an album, but had decided that anyone willing to help would have to come to him. He flew in scores of collaborators and treated the creation process like “rap camp.” He slept in the studio and poured thousands of man hours into what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
On May 24, 2010, he resurfaced back in New York City. It was his first public sighting in months, and it signaled that something was about to happen. Four days later, “Power” leaked its way into the world. A month later, he was opening the BET Awards, performing the song while standing on a damn volcano. He was clad in a bright red suit — a staple of the MBDTF era that he would later explain increased his visibility on stage — and a comically oversized Horus chain. Kanye was back in a big way, crashing into the zeitgeist and grabbing the steering wheel just a month after his Hawaiian exile.
“Power” was also a triumphant return to hip-hop. Kanye’s previous album, 808s & Heartbreak, was a genre-bending futuristic pop effort that was only loosely influenced by the kind of music Kanye had built his whole career on. “Power” was a swing back in the opposite direction, with Kanye riding a beat built heavily upon samples, something he had become infamous for not only in his first three albums, but also in his producing career for artists like Jay Z. The song primarily samples “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson, a progressive rock band from London. It’s the perfect sample, because a 21st Century Shizoid Man is just what Kanye had become, and all of MBDTF backs it up.
It’s perhaps the most “Kanye” song ever created, and it’s the perfect embodiment of this era of his career. Kanye the egomaniac is also a big believer in people as a whole having the power. Arguably the largest single force in hip-hop history is anti-establishment. The “Power” chorus is his thesis. “No one man should have all that power,” he emphasizes. Now having reached the height of his own power, he threatens to let it all go, committing suicide while he’s on top. “Now this will be a beautiful death,” he announces. “You got the power to let power go?”
“Power” is the scene in Kanye’s career where he fully harnesses his superpowers and threatens to destroy everything. It’s powerful.
14. Kendrick Lamar — Cartoons & Cereal (ft. Gunplay) (2012) →
Kendrick Lamar had made a lot of great music in his career, but it’s hard for me to put anything ahead of this one right here. “Cartoons & Cereal” is his magnum opus, and it wasn’t even released officially. There is no (official) album cover or Spotify link because the best Kendrick Lamar song ever made only exists in bootleg form. Surprisingly, that’s only the third most bizarre part about this song. The second most bizarre aspect is that Kendrick Lamar doesn’t even have the best verse on his best song. Kendick Lamar gets out-rapped on his best song by… Gunplay.
The song is beautiful in that it calmly paints a picture of what’s to come before unleashing all hell upon listeners. The introduction deserves its own paragraph, because it needs to be read in full. Here’s Kendrick:
Now I was raised in a sandbox, next to you and her
You was holding the handgun, she was giving birth
To a baby boy to be just like you, I wonder what’s that worth
I-I wonder if you ever knew that you was a role model to me first
The next day I-I woke up in the morning, seen you on the news
Looked in the mirror, then realized that I-I-I had something to prove
You told me “Don’t be like me, just finish watching cartoons”
Which is funny now cause all I see is Wile E. Coyotes in the room
I love when I listen to a piece of music by an artist and think Only this artist could do that this well. I found myself thinking that here, because I’m nearly positive that only Kendrick could’ve equated growing up under misguided role models in gang-riddled Compton to the Looney Tunes and make it perfect and powerful.
“Cartoons & Cereal” sees Kendrick at his most intricate, right from the start. He opens the first verse tap dancing back and forth through internal rhymes. “Apple Jacks and after that I hit the TV Guide. Animaniacs the only thing that gave me peace of mind.” Just like he would later do on To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick excels and dragging you into his world and explaining by showing, with his lyrics. “Hope another homicide don’t numb you, and none do,” he raps. His second verse recalls times he watched cartoons and overheard family members recounting successful armed robberies: “House lick went down perfect. Two shots to the head, he deserved it. I overheard it hit my bed with a bowl and remote control.”
This is where Gunplay comes in and runs away with it. I want to just post the whole verse here, but I won’t do that. It’s worth listening to and reading. It’s explicit and gruesome, but it’s fascinating to hear an artist tap into something he’s never reached before. Gunplay dug down deep. “I ain’t seen the back of my eyelids for about the past 72 hours. Hand on my heart, face to the hood, I pledge every word you ever heard was honest. Yeah this me. No mic, no cameras, no lights. Just pain. Mama, how much trauma can I sustain?”
“Cartoons & Cereal” is the tale of an innocent childhood marred by violence, looked at through the lens of nostalgia. Kendrick uses a shared childhood experience to bring us all into his world. Only he could’ve done it.
13. Blake Mills — It’ll All Work Out (2010) →
Blake Mills is one of those artists who could be described as “your favorite musician’s favorite musician.” He’s not the type to ever gain mainstream notoriety, but people within the music industry regard him as one of the best guitar talents around. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Eric Clapton said “Blake Mills is the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal.” He’s received producer credits on projects by artists like Sky Ferreira, Connor Oberst, Fiona Apple, and Alabama Shakes. If you’re a big music fan, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard something influenced by Blake Mills even if you don’t know his name.
In 2010, he released his first solo album, Break Mirrors. (The title sounds like his name just enough to make me think it was an intentional choice.) It’s a good album, and worth a listen. “Wintersong” and “Hey Lover” are both great songs, but “It’ll All Work Out” is the clear standout. Perhaps it’s a fitting irony that Blake Mills, the guitar guy, excels on a song with a simple acoustic guitar riff. Here, it’s his songwriting that carries things.
“It’ll All Work Out” is a generational story. He tells the tale of his mother growing up in a Mormon household, and how she learned how to be a mother at an early age by virtue of the fact she was the youngest of seven children. She grew up, but didn’t go to college (“wasn’t ever her style”), electing instead to get married and be a housewife. As the title says, “It’ll all work out.”
When Blake was a child, the family struggled financially. His father would stay up late balancing the checkbook and worrying about money. Despite this, he “became a victim of the mortgage spikes” and debt collectors began calling every night. But again, as the title says, “It’ll all work out.”
Because of where his parents had come from, they urged Blake to go to college. They were concerned that his future would end up like theirs. He obviously didn’t end up pursuing a normal career. “Well, thank you, Dad, I love you, and I hope you’re proud. And I’m sorry that I didn’t take the road you laid down.” But again, as the title says, “It’ll all work out.”
He then transitions into tales of his own adult life, telling what appears to be the story of a girlfriend cheating on him with a man she told him was gay. “I guess he was a closet straight,” Blake sarcastically quips. But again, as the title says, “It’ll all work out.”
I love this song to death because it embodies so much of the way I view life. I’m not sure how I could get through everything without constantly reassuring myself that things will somehow work out one way or another. This song is proof that setbacks don’t ruin us, they just help shape us.
12. Frank Ocean — Nights (2016)
So much of Blonde is like a nesting doll. Every track has additional ideas tucked inside of it waiting to be uncovered. “Nights” starts out with a bouncing beat and the story of a past relationship with someone holier-than-thou before Frank decides he’d like to share a bit more about how this relationship came to be.
The track disintegrates and the year’s best instrumental kicks into gear and Ocean gets explicitly autobiographical, which reminds you: He never does this. Weknow a lot about Frank’s story through ideas and metaphors, but this feels more like an intimate retelling of a memory — specifically his childhood in New Orleans before Katrina displaced him to Los Angeles. It’s a rare peek behind the curtain from music’s most famous recluse.
11. Modern Baseball — Your Graduation (2014) →
I hated high school so much. If you enjoyed high school, I’m not sure I can find any common ground with you. We can’t be friends. The whole experience soured me so much on the concept of school that I ended up taking a year off after graduation before leaving for college (which I loved every minute of). High school is complete trash and graduation has a funny way of taking everything you know about life and turning it upside down. That’s what this song is about.
It wasn’t until researching this song that I noticed the connection back to the Sports track “I Think You Were In My Profile Picture Once.” (In both songs, the narrator talks about spotting the object of his affection from the bottom of a staircase.) That was the very first Modern Baseball song I ever heard, in April 2014, and it’s what got me into the band. It’s a short song ending in a duet which tells the story of saying goodbye to someone that the narrator cares about. It appears to take place at some kind of social gathering, and based on “Your Graduation,” we can infer it was a graduation party.
Flash forward three years later, and our storyteller’s feelings about this girl haven’t subsided at all. “It’s been three whole years of me thinking about you every day, sometimes for hours, sometimes in passing.” Now he’s drunk and upset, acknowledging the fact that their bad timing keeps him up at night. He didn’t tell her how he felt, she moved on, and it’s too late for him. “You weren’t the only one who thought of us that way,” he screams. He wishes he had a second chance to get things back to how they were. “Remember all those countless nights when I told you I loved you and to never forget it? Oh, just forget it.”
It’s a pretty straightforward song, which makes it even better. It’s a classic Modern Baseball anthem that was an absolutely barn burner when I saw them live in June. Modern Baseball is amazing. High school, and graduation, is not.
10. John Mayer — Born & Raised (2012) →
John Mayer does not get enough credit. He occasionally displays an abrasive personality, and he’s infamous for dating A-list actresses and pop stars as well as speaking before he thinks. He’s someone who’s often misunderstood, which I understand. He’s a Kanye-esque character. You have to look past the rough edges and big ego to see someone whose greatness is pretty undeniable.
Much like Kanye, after a series of bad publicity moments, Mayer withdrew from the public eye in 2010 to work on Born & Raised in solace. He retreated to Montana, and shortly thereafter discovered granuloma on his vocal chords. He couldn’t speak, much less sing, record, or go on tour. The recovery time pushed back the release of Born & Raised until mid-2012. When the album landed, it was a departure from his earlier work, which primarily consisted of versions of rock which could be described as “pop,”or “soft.” Born & Raised steered into Americana, folk rock, and blues, something that had been a thread through his first four albums. John Mayer is an incredible blues guitar player, and he got to flex those muscles on Born & Raised.
The album felt like Mayer was trying to make a classic. Like many classic albums, it features a killer title track, which sees John Mayer at his absolute best. I consider that high praise.
“Born & Raised” finds Mayer grappling with his own mortality and reflecting on his life’s journey. He’s reaped a great deal of professional success, but at what cost? He’s realizing that he’s got nowhere else to go. He’s reached the mountaintop, but he did it alone, so how much did he really get to enjoy it? I’d imagine these are the kinds of things Mayer thought about in the months he spent in Montana on vocal rest. Mayer woke up one day to discover he was “all grown up.” Now what? It sounds grim, but I suppose that’s how blues is supposed to be.
I guess it’s kind of poetic that the realization of reaching the end of his life’s ambitions created his most ambitious, powerful album. “I still have dreams,” he notes. “They’re not the same. They don’t fly as high as they used to.” He mentions his parents divorce: “Got a mom, got a dad. But they do not have each other.”
The song is written like a warning to a younger recipient. Don’t take your youth for granted, hold your family close, dream big, and seize every day. He sums it up in the outro: “So line on up and take your place. Show your face to the morning. Because one of these days you’ll be born and raised, and it all comes on without warning.”
It’s really hard to not be moved by a John Mayer song with harmonicas, bluesy guitars and sharp, thoughtful, honest lyrics.
09. Signals Midwest — St. Vincent Charity (2013) →
There’s nothing I don’t love about Signals Midwest. If I’m being critical, I could bemoan the fact that they haven’t released an album since 2013’s Light On The Lake, but they’re fixing that in just a few weeks with the release of At This Age. Other than that, they’re perfect. They make great music, lead singer Max Stern is one of my favorite songwriters, they’re incredible live (I’ll be seeing them for the fourth time in October), and best of all, they’re from Cleveland.
If you consider yourself an avid music fan and you don’t make every effort to get to shows, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Good concerts, especially at smaller venues, are a spiritual experience. Nothing is quite as special as going to a show, grabbing a beer, and falling in love with a new band. That’s what I did in early January 2015 when I stumbled into Cleveland’s Grog Shop unaware of Signals Midwest’s existence. I left as an avid fan, and went out of my way to see them twice more in the next few months. Their shows are a ball of energy from front to back, but they’re anchored by “St. Vincent Charity.”
I’ve discovered that certain songs have something extra special in a live setting. The Front Bottoms have “Twin Size Mattress.” Modern Baseball have “Your Graduation.” The Hotelier have “An Introduction To The Album.” Perhaps my favorite of all is “St. Vincent Charity.”
The first, and most important thing to know about the song is that it takes its name from St. Vincent Charity Medical Center on the eastern edge of downtown Cleveland. Once you know that, the meaning of the song falls in to place.
“St. Vincent Charity” appears to be about a loved one attempting suicide. “Maybe I could have prevented something,” Stern wonders. He receives a phone call from the hospital that catches him off guard. “You said you were sorry, but you didn’t say what for.” I’d imagine there’s a lot of confusion when something like this happens. “I wish I could know what you’re thinking,” he begs.
Instrumentally, the song was created to burn down the house. It opens with a distant guitar riff before cascading into the first verse. The chorus hangs suspended before crashing down with full force when the lyrical blow of the song is delivered. It’s the perfect live song. It’s loud, energetic, and emotional. It starts and stops, races and slows, rises and falls. It alone is worth the price of admission.
08. The Front Bottoms — Twin Size Mattress (2013) →
I saw The Front Bottoms in concert recently, and had a great time. No complaints. Fun show. One thing I thought was funny was how young the audience was. I knew I wouldn’t be the youngest person there, but seriously the average age was probably somewhere around 16, tops. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. The Front Bottoms are cool because I, a 24-year-old sports fanatic, can enjoy the same music as a bunch of 16-year-old girls with black fingernails. Music is cool like that.
I find it interesting, then, when the band’s showstopper is a song like “Twin Size Mattress,” a song that deals with serious and mature ideas that most (although probably some) high school sophomores know anything about. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. The Front Bottoms have a knack for burying serious ideas inside catchy anthems. This is why I love them.
It’s a terrible feeling watching someone you know slide deeper and deeper into addiction. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never experienced it to a best friend, but I’ve seen it happen nonetheless. “Twin Size Mattress” deals with that helpless, sometimes guilty feeling.
You eventually come to a realization that, while their body is consumed by addiction, deep down somewhere remains the same person, powerful and strong. “This is for the lions living in the wiry broke-down frames of my friends bodies,” the song opens over plucked guitar strings. People who become addicted to drugs don’t realize they won’t be able to handle it on their own; that their decision will eventually catch up with them. “When the flood water comes, it ain’t gonna be clear, it’s gonna look like mud,” lead singer Brian Sella sings, while making a promise. “But I will help you swim.” He tells the story of a friend who came to his house after escaping what sounds like a rehab facility. “With tears in my eyes, I begged you to stay. You said ‘Hey man, I love you, but no f — king way.’”
It’s fitting that the lyrics mention the Jaws theme song as a symbol of impeding trouble, because the song itself has the same quality. It ascends from quiet plucked strings to pure chaos in such a subtle way over the course of the song. It’s a mounting tension that can be felt before eventually snapping and breaking, which I suppose is similar to addiction in some ways.
The title of the song doesn’t come into play until the story’s climax, which cleverly uses a twin size mattress as an analogy for loneliness.
It’s an exhausting song, physically and emotionally, but it’s beautiful for it. If the band broke up tomorrow, if feels like something they could happily hang their hat on. “Twin Size Mattress” is a tidal wave.
07. Sufjan Stevens — The Only Thing (2015) →
Two summers ago, I blasted at least two or three layers of skin off my hip while sliding into second base in a co-ed softball game. (I was safe, thanks for asking.) The stupid thing oozed and bled and took forever to heal because it was in an extremely inconvenient location. My day-to-day life got in the way and irritated it to the point where it couldn’t seem to ever heal.
That’s what Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell feels like: An open wound that’s struggling to scab.
You can find details of the album’s inspiration elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Stevens and his mother had an extremely rocky relationship prior to her passing from cancer in 2012. It’s clear that Stevens’ wounds are slow to scab, because this “goodbye letter” is arriving three years after the fact.
The album chronicles the ebbs and flows of their relationship (“When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store”, “Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head. Was it all a disguise, like Junior High?”) before reaching a head on the album’s starkest moment, “The Only Thing”.
The track, like the rest of the album, is marked by an almost uncomfortable tone. It sounds like Stevens is sitting next to you singing this wildly saddening music into your ear. It’s intensely personal. When the song opens with a pretty frank threat of suicide, it strikes a chord. In fact, the whole thing reads like a suicide letter on the surface. Stevens threatens driving his car off a cliff, cutting his wrists, drowning, tearing his eyes out, tearing his heart out, tearing his arms out, etc. You get the idea.
But I don’t think that’s really the message here. This is not “I’m going to kill myself.” It’s “C’mon, God. Cut me a break.” It’s not a threat, it’s a plea.
Stevens wonders aloud if life is even worth living after someone you love is gone: “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow. Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.”
Ultimately, the song never finds a true resolution, although Stevens does give us a reason why he hasn’t “checked out” in the three years since this life-altering event actually occurred: “The only reason why I continue at all: Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb. Signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark. Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart.”
The complex depth of his relationship with his mother is splayed for everyone to see on Carrie & Lowell. By his accounts, he has every reason to hate her, but “The Only Thing” displays an incredibly deep longing, despite the fact that he never even truly knew his mother: “In a veil of great disguises; how do I live with your ghost?”
I think perhaps the most honest and intimate aspect of the song is that there isn’t a true conclusion. From the listener’s perspective, Stevens doesn’t seem to ever reach a point where he can say, “Okay, I’m at peace.”
But that’s real.
Sometimes conclusions don’t make sense or look pretty, especially to outsiders. Sometimes you just have to sort through everything until it feels right. There’s not a neat little bow here, just a vomit pile of memories and emotions. Despite the brutal nature of it all, I can’t help but get the feeling that Stevens’ wound is finally starting to scab, happy ending or not.
06. Car Seat Headrest — Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales (2016) →
Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo says “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is about “post-party melancholia. Wishing to either be a better person or care less about the whole deal.” He also seems to use the after-party depression vibe to draw a parallel to life itself. Sometimes life manages to feel like that 30 minutes between the end of the party and the arrival back home: just a tired, weary slog.
In a literal sense, he’s chiding himself for driving home after too many drinks. He knows it was a terrible thing to do, but he was “only trying to get home.” In the same sense, we all do things that are bad in order to simply help us get by. In some way or another, we’re all drunk drivers just trying to “get home.” You may be thinking “Yeah, but that’s not something to celebrate.”
So is Toledo.
“It comes and goes in plateaus,” he says of his depression. “One month later, I’m a f — king pro. My parents would be proud.” There’s a lot of realness here, and while it sounds initially like Toledo has succumbed to what ails him, there is redemption later in the song. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” proclaims the explosive chorus, before Toledo urges himself to leave behind everything he uses to distract him from the trials of real life. “It’s not too late. Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk.”
I love a six-minute song where the first chorus doesn’t come until the second half. Toledo allows himself time to set the scene before punching you in the face with some good, old-fashioned retaliation. What starts Toledo confessing “I’ve become such a negative person” ends with him screaming “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
I’ve noticed I like a lot of generally depressing music, but a common theme throughout is this determination to fight back against the enemy. Artists like Car Seat Headrest offer a healthy take on life because a perspective like this is real and honest without being defeatist. Life will never be flowers and butterflies, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting to get there. Will Toledo hasn’t.
05. Modern Baseball — The Weekend (2012) →
I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I’ll miss high school. I had such a disdain for the whole experience that it irritates me to even think about it. That said, there are certain aspects of being 16 or 17 that are unique and never come back. Modern Baseball, especially on Sports, manages to capture the few things I did like about life in my late teens.
Our narrator struggles to muster up the courage to talk to a girl he has a crush on, an experience that somehow always managed to turn out perfectly fine: “Kinda just counted on her to turn me into goo. Praise whatever, it ended in a smile.” He shows up to a party in a jacket that doesn’t fit, which gives me flashbacks to my saggy jeans phase. Sports is able to trigger so many of these mini-flashbacks. When I first started sharing this album with friends, there were so many times we had to pause and say, “Oh my gosh, do you remember that time senior year when…”
There’s something about “The Weekend” that’s perfectly, blissfully naive. It encapsulates the era of life just before cynicism starts to creep in and turn us into grumps. Our narrator is a hopeless romantic. “You’ve got a smile that could light this town, and we might need it. ’Cause it gets dark around here, real dark around here.” It’s the perfect dose of romanticism with a dash of the hometown loathing that every kid starts to feel around the time they learn to drive. The chorus also manages to carve out the clear distinction between friend and best friend, which is crucial during adolescence. “Most of my old friends I can only stand for the weekend. But that doesn’t apply here.”
It’s all so wonderfully juvenile, especially compared to current Modern Baseball. The album was recorded by the band in the studio at Drexel University overnight and between classes, and you can tell. It has a charming DIY quality to it that’s lost now that they’ve “made it” and have toured the globe. Of course, Modern Baseball had to grow up, just like we all did. Turning back the clock and re-living it would be torture, but there’s plenty of nostalgia to be found in the memories.
04. Vampire Weekend — Hannah Hunt (2013) →
My favorite moments of music ever:
The intro and first verse of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” (0:00–1:01)
The lead-in to the second verse of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (1:40–2:26)
The bridge on The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (2:08–2:25)
The last verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” (2:58–4:29)
The wild flute solo on Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” (1:44–2:14)
The instrumental portion of American Football’s “Never Meant” (2:13–2:57)
The intro and first verse of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (0:00–1:31)
The outro of Kanye West’s “RoboCop” (2:51–4:34)
The first chorus of Noah And The Whale’s “Blue Skies” (1:00–1:45)
The piano outro to Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” (2:41–3:57)
As you can see, “Hannah Hunt” is in rarified air. I was able to pin down ten portions of songs that I love, and “Hannah Hunt” is the only one from the 2010s. Anyone can make a great song, but it takes a special kind of magic to have 30–90 seconds I want to return to over and over again.
“Hannah Hunt” has a certain timeless element to it that’s hard to pin down. Something about it feels like a classic coming-of-age love story set in New York, like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher In The Rye, or Annie Hall. Even the album cover helps to convey this kind of classic New York backdrop. In my researching for this article, I learned that Hannah Hunt is a real person who’s even named Hannah Hunt. Lead singer Ezra Koenig sat next to her in a college course at Columbia. I don’t know if they ever had a relationship, but Koenig chose her as the object of his affection here.
The song follows the relationship from health to destruction, and there’s probably a lot to be gleaned from the fact that Koenig says they made their way from Providence to Phoenix. You can feel the honeymoon phase at the beginning of the song, when Koenig describes a scene on a train. “A man of faith said hidden eyes could see what I was thinking,” he says. “I just smiled and told him that was only true of Hannah.”
The relationship starts to crumble in Santa Barbara, as Koenig goes into town to buy kindling for the fire and “Hannah tore the New York Times up into pieces,” which — given their hometown — is a double entendre if I’ve ever heard one. It’s at this point Koenig comes to the realization that the relationship is doomed. First, calmly: “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah. There’s no future. There’s no answer.”
Here comes the breaking point.
Soft keys stretch and strain before giving way to lively, jangling, emotive pianos and percussion. It’s so bittersweet that it pulls at your heartstrings. Now Koenig is crying out in his frustration. “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah. There’s no future. There’s no answer.” The whole album is worth listening to, if only for this 83 seconds or so.
Who knew that watching someone’s relationship come apart like shreds of newspaper in the wind could be so beautiful. Ezra Koenig turned the death of a relationship into something universal and timeless.
03. Bon Iver — Holocene (2011) →
Bon Iver has always seemed to strive for some extra level of introspection. It started with frontman Justin Vernon’s fairytale beginnings. He became an internet folk hero. His story starts like this:
In 2006, North Carolina musician Justin Vernon encounters a Kanye-esque patch of bad luck. His relationship ends, he falls ill with mononucleosis, and his band breaks up. Searching for rest and recuperation, he heads to his father’s cabin back home in the woods of Wisconsin to wait out the impending winter in solace. Instead, the isolation serves as musical inspiration and an album spills forth. After originally passing it around to his group of friends, the album takes on a life of its own and the rest is history. For Emma, Forever Ago becomes one of the most iconic and revered albums of the 21st century.
When 2011 rolled around, he returned with the eponymous Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an album that saw Vernon expand his palette. What started with intimate acoustic guitars had grown into sprawling ethereal landscapes. On For Emma, Vernon handled the lion’s share of production, with just three additional musicians making small contributions. This time around, a dozen additional musicians joined Vernon, most of whom were actually full band members. Bon Iver was no longer the name of Vernon’s pet project, it was a full blown operation.
And you can tell. The album is captivating, and one of my favorites of the past six years, but “Holocene” is the crown jewel.
Named after the geological period since the last ice age — as well as a bar on the corner of 10th and Morrison in Portland — “Holocene” takes a nihilistic idea and gives it meaning. In the big picture, our lives are nothing but a blip on the radar or a grain of sand on a beach. That idea sounds hopeless, but Vernon takes the time to find meaning and value for the tiny moments within our tiny moment.
He recalls a breakup that drove his significant other to run away to Milwaukee: “You f — cked it friend. It’s on its head, it struck the street. You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet.” He remembers a fire that claimed a house in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where some of his early music was recorded: “3rd and Lake, it burnt away. The hallway was where we learned to celebrate.” He pondered a specific Christmas with his brother, where it sounds like they finally let go of childhood: “Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright. Above my brother, I and tangled spines.”
On the chorus, Vernon points to each of these significant moments as times where he realized his insignificant place in the universe. “…And at once I knew I was not magnificent,” Vernon croons. He paints a portrait of a lonely, still, icy Wisconsin landscape and the kind of odd comfort and clarity that can come with that.
While our lives may not move the needle on a geological scale, the little moments that shape our short time on earth are still of monumental importance. That’s what “Holocene” recognizes.
02. Frank Ocean — Pyramids (2012) →
“Pyramids” is something only Frank Ocean could’ve done, because it feels like something that previously only someone like Michael Jackson or Prince could’ve done. The first single from Channel Orange was “Thinkin Bout You,” but that was only added to the album after it received acclaim from listeners. It was given the label of “lead single” after the fact. Because of this, “Pyramids” was billed as the first taste of the album when it was released. Not many artists have the guts to tell the public, “Hey, here the first peek at my first album. It’s a 10-minute R&B odyssey that you’ll never hear on the radio. I hope you enjoy it!”
The song is practically a mini album in itself, encompassing two full stories that tie together, complete with beat switches, transitions, and allusions. It’s a self-contained behemoth.
“Pyramids” chronicles the rise and fall of African Americans in society. The first half of the song tells the tale of Cleopatra, a powerful, noble African ruler, and her pharaoh husband. When his wife goes missing, he exercises his full power to get her back, even deploying his cheetahs to catch the thief. It’s discovered that Cleopatra left on her own accord. “I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair,” the pharaoh cries. His wife cheated on him and his world is shattered. “Our war is over, our queen has met her doom.”
Ancient Egypt fades away, as if it were nothing but a dream. We awake in modern America.
“Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds. Wake up to your girl. For now, let’s call her Cleopatra.” Cleopatra in the modern story is not a queen, but a stripper and a prostitute. The pyramid in this story is not in Giza. It’s a strip club. Her protective husband isn’t the pharaoh, he’s a pimp, and he’s living in a sleazy motel. “Top floor, motel suite, twisting my cigars. Floor model TV with the VCR. Got rubies in my damn chain. Whip ain’t got no gas tank, but it still got wood grain.” It’s quite a fall from grace. The final verse of the song is from the perspective of a john. He describes a sexual encounter before revealing that perhaps he’s an ex lover, making the whole story even more depressing and gross: “But your love ain’t free no more…”
Instrumentally, the song is an absolute masterpiece. The first half sounds regal and grand. If Cleopatra herself listened to R&B in 30 BC, this is what it would sound like. It stretches and warps like much of Ocean’s music, which serves the dreamlike state of the story. Driving synths take over, painting pictures of cheetahs sprinting across an Egyptian desert before the beat dissolves into a dreamy haze. When it returns, it’s a bass-driven euro club banger. Close your eyes and imagine a fever dream of neon and strobe lights.
The song ends with the first of several collaborations between Ocean and John Mayer, as Mayer drives the song home with a wandering, echoey guitar solo that sounds like it was salvaged from a burial tomb.
“Pyramids” is an ancient epic that spans millennia, using just ten minutes to run the gamut of emotions, sounds, and concepts. Choruses and verses twist randomly in and out of each other and essentially two full songs are joined by a murky intermission. Not many artists would bite off this much. Even fewer would make it feel effortless. Only Frank Ocean would make it the first release from his debut album.
01. Kanye West — Runaway (2010) →
One of my favorite things as a music fan is experiencing an iconic moment as it happens. It doesn’t come around often, so you have to cherish it. I’ve gotten to experience this twice my lifetime. One time was the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. The second was Kanye’s 2010 MTV VMAs performance. I cherished every second of it as it was happening, because I knew it was going to matter. He walked out there in a bright red suit, hunched over his MPC, plucked out lonely piano notes, and pulled the ripcord on what will end up being the defining song of one of the greatest musical careers of all time.
In a way only Kanye can, he used his first post-Taylor TV performance to unleash a song that falls somewhere in between an apology for his douchebaggery and a celebration of it. For all of Kanye’s rough edges, he excels at self-awareness, and this is the epitome. “Runaway” is a letter to the women in his life. “I always find something wrong,” he starts. “You’ve been puttin’ up with my sh-t just way too long.” He toasts “douchebags, a — holes, scumbags, and jerk-offs” before closing with a suggestion to his lady friend: “Baby, I got a plan. Run away as fast as you can.”
He acknowledges his struggles with fidelity. “I don’t know what it is with females, but I’m not too good with that sh-t. See, I could have me a good girl and still be addicted to them hoodrats.” As we hear later on “Blame Game,” he likes to point the finger. “I just blame everything on you. At least you know that’s what I’m good at.”
It’s at this point Kanye drags in a brand new collaborator for the biggest song of his career. Pusha T tells the story of working with Kanye on “Runaway”:
This is Kanye, it’s my first time working with him, I’m trying to make it polished and so on and so forth. He was like, ‘Listen, I need more douchebag. I just need more douchebag.’ That became the mission statement. He made me rewrite it like four times or more.
During the VMAs performance, Pusha T casually strolls out in a salmon-colored suit (which he later revealed was selected by Italian Vogue and Michael Jackson stylist Rushka Bergman) and uncorks something with plenty of the “douchebag” Kanye was looking for. Summary: “Yeah, I’ve been cheating on you. Leave if you want. See if I care. Good luck finding another dude with a Versace sofa.”
The third verse on “Runaway” is one of my favorite of Kanye’s career, and there isn’t a bit of rapping. It’s here where we get some of Kanye’s remorse. He’s finally realizing the consequences of his actions and his inability to stop making the mistakes that continue to ruin his romantic life and leave him lonely. “Never was much of a romantic, I could never take the intimacy. And I know I did damage, ’cause the look in your eyes is killing me. I guess you are at an advantage, ’cause you can blame me for everything. And I don’t know how I’mma manage if one day you just up and leave.”
Kanye then devolves into a warble of vocoder and Auto-Tune, turning his own voice into a kind of guitar solo. These are the kinds of risks that Kanye continues to take in the biggest moments, yet continue to pay off. No artist does something this wild on such a defining song. It’s like if LeBron tried a 360 dunk with 30 seconds left in Game 7.
It all works together in such harmony, at such a large scale. The lonely piano keys. The crashing drum loop. The James Brown samples (“And I wanna show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight”). The perfect guest verse from Pusha T. The long, gritty outro. The perfect harmony throughout. The blazing honesty and transparency front to back. It’s all breathtaking.
He turned the album into a movie named after the song, rife with symbolism, imagery, and ballerinas. He turned his music into high art and distributed it to the masses in a way that hasn’t been done since… ever?
You could argue that “Runaway” isn’t the best song of Kanye’s catalogue, but I’ll stand firm in my opinion that it will end up being the most iconic. Nothing quite sums up Kanye West in such a perfect way as this one. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out nearly six years ago and has only grown stronger in my eyes. I still remember where I was when I tuned in for the 2010 MTV VMAs. It was special to see Kanye unveil one of my favorite songs ever made, and the most important of his illustrious career.
By The Numbers:
Songs about the first part of January: TWO
January & Seven by Signals Midwest
January 10th, 2014 by The World Is A Beautiful Place…
Songs about Sunday: TWO
One Sunday Morning by Wilco
Sunday (ft. Frank Ocean) by Earl Sweatshirt
Songs with food or beverage in the title: FIVE
The Wine We Drink by Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
Old English by Young Thug, A$AP Ferg, and Freddie Gibbs
The Blacker The Berry by Kendrick Lamar
The Beers by The Front Bottoms
Cartoons & Cereal (ft. Gunplay) by Kendrick Lamar
Songs which have numbers for titles: TWO
90210 by Travis Scott
17 by Youth Lagoon
Songs with a person’s name in the title: ELEVEN
Forrest Gump by Frank Ocean
Jasmine by Jai Paul
Otis by Jay Z and Kanye West
Love Sosa by Chief Keef
Marvin’s Room by Drake
Song For Zula by Phosphorescent
King Kunta by Kendrick Lamar
Carissa by Sun Kil Moon
Teleport 2 Me, Jamie by WZRD
St. Vincent Charity by Signals Midwest
Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
Songs which have a body part in the title: THREE
Blue Eyes by Destroyer
Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist by Ramshackle Glory
Constant Headache by Joyce Manor
Songs which have a country, state, or city in the title: FOUR
Florida Kilos by Lana Del Rey
Perth by Bon Iver
Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National
Bored In The USA by Father John Misty
Artists with most appearances:
Frank Ocean; eight
Kanye West; six
Kendrick Lamar and Signals Midwest; four
Drake, Lana Del Rey, Modern Baseball, Bon Iver, and The Hotelier; three
Artists with most appearances in the Top 25:
Frank Ocean; five
Kanye West; three
Modern Baseball and Vampire Weekend; two
Songs by year:
Songs by year in the Top 25:
Highest-ranked artist with a single appearance:
It’ll All Work Out by Blake Mills (#13)
Lowest-ranked artist with a single appearance:
Midnight City by M83 (#106)
One Sunday Morning by Wilco (#72); 12:04
Wildfire (Reprise) (ft. Frank Ocean) by John Mayer (#71); 1:26
Words in this article:
Typos in this article:
Probably a bunch. I don’t have an editor, okay?