Spencer's Favorite Albums Ever
I think I’m a masochist.
Every year I feel the need to bite off more than I can chew and embark on some project on this stupid blog that takes me way longer than I anticipated. In 2016, I sorted through my 100 favorite songs released in the first six-plus years of this decade. (I later went back and added nine additional songs, bringing the list through the end of 2016. Enjoy.)
This project is a bit wilder. Beyond just being a big music fan, I’m a huge fan of albums. With the rise of the iTunes Music Store a decade ago, it started to feel like the art of the album was getting lost in favor of plucking your favorite songs from a project, 99 cents at a time. Fortunately, it feels a bit like the rise of streaming services has stemmed the tide, and people are starting to appreciate the art of the album all over again.
While there are more than a handful of songs I have deep connections with, there’s something special about a great album. By the time I get to the top of this list, I’ll have written about projects that mean more to me than I could ever adequately express. Some of these have gotten me through difficult periods in life, while others have been there with me to celebrate my successes. Some of them remind me of friends, family, or a finite moment in my life. Albums have a funny way of doing that.
I started this project way back in 2017, knocking it out in chunks of 10. Predictably, this proved to be a poor way to do it. I went months between posts, which is a stupid way to handle a ranking based mainly on constantly shifting feelings. By the time I was set to write about the top 10, it was late 2018, the rankings felt stale, and there were additional albums I needed to add. I sat down and re-ranked everything, added some albums, and made a final push to get it done before my opinions shifted again. Here we have it.
I should note that I’ve ranked these fairly loosely. Think of it more as a spectrum than a rigid list. I don’t claim to be the end-all-be-all opinion on any of this stuff, and I don’t think this list will slightly resemble anyone else’s 50 favorites. However, isn’t that the point?
Here are 50 albums that mean a great deal to some random guy whose blog you’re reading.
50. The Notorious B.I.G. — Ready to Die (1994)
Rap music, as an art form, is relatively new. In college, I took a course called “Sociology of Hip-Hop”—it might as well have been “History of American Racism”—that covered the music’s origins. (It was an excellent, challenging class.) Rap has its roots in the ’70s but didn’t turn into anything identifiable as hip-hop until the ’80s. The earliest mainstream success came later that decade.
I say this to point out that the list of elite hip-hop albums is short. There’s Nas with Illmatic, Dr. Dre with The Cronic, Wu-Tang with 36 Chambers, and N.W.A. with Straight Outta Compton. However, the only legendary hip-hop album that ever left a lasting impression on me is Biggie’s Ready to Die. Hip-hop has always been about real life struggle, but long before artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi made it personal, there was Notorious B.I.G.
I know how it feel to wake up f*cked up
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you’s the user
Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser
But they don’t know about your stress-filled day
Baby on the way, mad bills to pay
On the album’s title track, Christopher Wallace’s past torments him, and he’s resigned himself to death. He was murdered two and a half years after the album’s release, but two decades later, kids can still rap “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis.”
Recommended: “Ready To Die”, “Juicy”, “Everyday Struggle”, “Big Poppa”
49. Godspeed You! Black Emperor — F♯ A♯ ∞ (1996)
I don’t remember the circumstances that led me to discover this album, but I know I was immediately rapt by it. Post-rock and instrumental rock is a genre in which I barely dabble. I’ve been a fan of Explosions In The Sky since my introduction via the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. Instrumental music is an interesting beast to me because conveying emotion without lyrics is kind of magical. Where Explosions In The sky typically expresses regret, nostalgia, and hope, Godspeed You! Black Emperor packs a delicious dose of dread.
The album’s opener, “Dead Flag Blues,” is one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It breaks from typical Godspeed territory by adding vocals — a narrator.
To give you an idea of my fascination with this, I should note I wrote an entire essay about the album a couple of years ago that I never published.
It’s dark and depressing, but also oddly enchanting and beautiful, especially when accompanied by the band’s narration. The violins are immensely sad, and the distant guitars are ominous. It’s apocalyptic. It would be like if someone turned Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road into a piece of classical music. The 16-and-a-half minute epic drags you through hell before ending with an upbeat and optimistic epilogue. The whole thing is mesmerizing.
It’s not for everyone, but the album is at least worthy of a field trip for those who consider themselves a music lover. (And if you’re weird enough to fall in love with this album, I guess I’d have to recommend Have a Nice Life’s 2014 album, Deathconsciousness, which is a post-rock album in the same vein.)
Recommended: “Dead Flag Blues”
48. Clipse — Lord Willin’ (2002)
The best part about Lord Willin’ is that it never sounds like it’s from 2002. Parts of the album feel perfectly retro and pay homage to hip-hop’s boom-bap roots; however, it’s such a groundbreaking spin on old school rap that it feels futuristic at the same time. Listen to Lord Willin’, and I swear you’ll leave thinking The Neptunes are the greatest musicians in history.
“Grindin’” is the defining instrumental for an entire generation of hip-hop fans. “Virginia” is a DMV autobiography. “When The Last Time” is one of the more inventive instrumentals in hip-hop history. Even the intro song gets in on the fun, using all two minutes to weave a web that sets the scene for the album, using better rhyme schemes and wordplay than most competitors were wheeling out in 2002.
I enjoy hip-hop, but keep most of it at arm's length, especially the stuff that isn’t making overarching social commentary like Kendrick Lamar tends to do. Clipse’s Lord Willin’ is the exception to the rule. This is perhaps the peak of early 2000s rap music.
Recommended: “Grindin’”, “Intro”
47. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Piñata (2014)
It’s fitting that this slides in just ahead of Lord Willin’ because I see Piñata as its spiritual successor. A long 12 years after The Clipse changed the game with inventiveness fused to old school sounds, Freddie Gibbs did the same with help from living legend Madlib.
Gibbs and Madlib are two musicians I’ve always loved in spurts, but in both cases, I’d been unable to find full projects to latch onto. Piñata was lightning in a bottle. Gibbs’ tales of life and struggle in Gary, Indiana melds perfectly with Madlibs’ wide-eyed sample-based instrumentals.
It’s incredible that the album managed to live up to expectations. The pair released the debut single in 2011, and the full project didn’t hit shelves until 2014. Gibbs described the album as “a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax,” which seems perfectly fitting, and gives listeners the right lens to view things through. “Thuggin’” starts with a blaxploitation clip much like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly did a year later. It provides both context and aesthetic, making a new album feel cozy and worn-in. Piñata isn’t very old but has always felt timeless and world-weary in the best way.
Recommended: “Thuggin’”, “Sh*tsville”, “Uno”
46. Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains — Love Songs For The Apocalypse (2005)
My personal definition of “real art” has always been anything that makes you feel something or changes your perspective on life. The best music can do both, drawing you into the artist’s world, making you feel their pain and understand their perspective—at least a little bit. The further the musician’s world is from my own, the harder it is to “travel” there, which makes this album’s success that much more impressive to me.
In short, Love Songs For The Apocalypse makes me want to drop everything, hitchhike around the country, and live under bridges. Not only is it folk-punk, but there’s a very heavy anarchist slant to it. “And in my dreams, I am dirty, broke, beautiful, and free,” lead singer Pat Schneeweis sings on “New Mexico Song.” It’s a wild statement, but it’s the thesis for Johnny Hobo. It’s not a brand either. These guys were living this stuff to the point that— while Schneeweis still plays music—he refuses to touch these old songs and their themes of alcohol, hard drugs, suicide, anarchy, and vagrancy.
The band didn’t last long before dissolving, but those years seemed to provide a necessary anthem to a marginalized group of people. Schneeweis is “grown up” now, leaving behind all of the drugs, alcohol, and nihilism, but this album is a time capsule.
And I’ll drink myself to death
Or at least I’ll drink myself to sleep
Chain smoke my way through the gaps in between
My aspirations and my apathy
As we drive past the last exit to home, I am waving goodbye
And I might be sleeping in the ditch tonight
But it’s alright, cause whiskey is my kind of lullaby
Recommended: “Whiskey Is My Kind Of Lullaby”, “New Mexico Song”, “Harmony Parking Lot Song”
45. Drake — So Far Gone (2009)
It’s hard to imagine a world in which Drake isn’t an international force. Back in 2009, the internet mixtape scene was at its boiling point, and artists like Kid Cudi and Drake were using blogs and social media to gain large followings and land groundbreaking record deals. Drake had been around since 2006’s Room For Improvement, but it was So Far Gone in 2009 that catapulted him to the top of the internet rap scene.
This was before Drake had mastered the art of pop music and still relied heavily on a hazy R&B sound that borrowed from what Kanye had pioneered on 808s & Heartbreak the year prior. “Lust For Life” is a perfect time capsule of this era of Drake. “Houstatlantavegas” is the ultimate strip club love song. “Successful” is perfectly 2009 with its features from Trey Songz and Lil Wayne.
Anyone who misses the era when Aubrey Graham was more of a critical darling than a commercial one needs to visit So Far Gone. Listening to this mixtape reminds me of how I liked Drake when he was chasing his dreams a lot more than when he got sick of living them. Oh, and “Best I Ever Had” is still an absolute smash.
Recommended: “Lust For Life”, “Houstatlantavegas”, “Successful”, “November 18”, “Say What’s Real”, “Best I Ever Had”
44. Jay Z — The Black Album (2003)
I’ve never been the biggest Jay Z fan, but I’ve always thought that The Black Album is the perfect project for him. It comes at the peak of his career. He had already conquered the rap world but had yet to come out of retirement to a slew of half-baked ideas, multi-million dollar corporate deals, and streaming exclusives. In short, before Jay Z got old, rich, and lame, he was young, rich, and cool. The Black Album is the final chapter in that part of Jay’s career.
Tucked among Jay Z classics like “Encore,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and “Change Clothes” is perhaps the best hip-hop song of its decade, “99 Problems”. Even the recording of the song is evidence of Sean Carter’s genius.
It’s a wonder the album isn’t held in higher regard considering it blends some of the best of Jay Z with production featuring peak Kanye West, Just Blaze, Rick Rubin, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, and The Neptunes. Especially when you consider the most recent era of Jay Z, this is museum-quality music.
Recommended: “99 Problems”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “Public Service Announcement”
Streaming on TIDAL only
43. Mr Hudson—Straight No Chaser (2009)
In the aftermath of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the entire hip-hop and R&B landscape shifted. While still perhaps overlooked from a critical standpoint, one could argue Kanye’s dystopian diary of an album is the most influential musical work of the 21st century. It propelled careers from artists outside of Kanye’s circle (see: Drake) as well as those within it (see: Kid Cudi).
While Cudi received all of the attention as the golden child of GOOD Music—and deservedly so—he wasn’t the only artist pioneering this new brand of futuristic soul-bearing. There was also Mr Hudson, who—by releasing just one solo album to date—joins the ranks of artists such as Jay Electronica and Jai Paul. Tiny output. Huge potential. No sign of a proper comeback.
Straight No Chaser succeeds where 808s & Heartbreak doesn’t. While Kanye lacks a singing voice and spurns catchy melodies in favor of heartbroken, moody scrawl, Mr Hudson (who joins Cudi among the ranks of 808s contributors) created a pop album on the platform Kanye pioneered in 2008. Nearly every song has a rich, English vocal performance pushed through a strong melody with catchy lyrics. While the depth of Hudson’s emotions aren’t felt as deeply as his counterpart, that’s a high bar that not everybody should be expected to clear.
Today, Straight No Chaser mostly exists as a tiny aftershock in the wake of Kanye’s influence, but it deserves a more significant place than that.
Recommended: “Supernova”, “Stiff Upper Lip”, “Central Park”
42. Wilco — Summerteeth (1999)
While it’s not my favorite from Wilco, Summerteeth can go toe-to-toe with any rock album on this list. It serves as a milestone in the band’s timeline because I see it as the album that took them from modest commercial and critical success to something higher than that. Many music critics today point to Wilco as a titan in rock and roll, and this was the first album that put them on that path.
There are legal adults who weren’t born when this album was released, but you’d never guess by listening. It’s aged well. The opener, “Can’t Stand It,” sounds fresh as ever. It’s a cacophony of sound with lines about speakers speaking in code—which all feels like a bit of a foreshadowing to their masterpiece they’d release three years later.
Unlike their more notable works, however, Summerteeth lives up to its name by packing some upbeat jams. “I’m Always In Love” is a personal favorite (and was also chosen by Nick Offerman as a theme song of his life). As someone who gravitates towards the band’s more serious works, it’s refreshing to hear them downright happy here.
Despite that, the album refuses to fall into that happy-go-lucky rut. “How To Fight Loneliness” dampens the mood before “Via Chicago” enters as an all-time favorite Wilco song of mine. In terms of covering the full scope of the band’s abilities, Summerteeth may be their best work—a big statement considering their storied history.
Recommended: “Can’t Stand It”, “I’m Always In Love”, “Via Chicago”
41. Miles Davis — Kind of Blue (1959)
Jazz runs in my family.
My grandfather was the biggest jazz fan I’ve ever met. We’re talking an entire room of his mountaintop home in North Carolina dedicated to shelves upon shelves off jazz LPs, cassettes, 8-track tapes, and CDs. When he passed away in 2010, my family donated his massive collection to a university. It was that unwieldy.
I think a lot of this rubbed off on my dad. Growing up, I often heard jazz around the house. To this day, warm trumpets are nostalgic for me. I wouldn’t call myself much of a jazz fan, although I’ve written a couple of times about BADBADNOTGOOD. Regardless of my feelings on the genre as a whole, I love this album. Davis is unparalleled, and here he drags in fellow kingpins like Adderly and Coletrane.
Miles Davis has more exciting music, such as Bitches Brew. However, nothing can top Kind of Blue—certainly nothing in Davis’ discography, and probably nothing in the entire genre. From the dulcet tones of “So What” to the dancing plot of “Freddie Freeloader,” this may be as close to an objectively perfect album as one can make.
Recommended: “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”
40. Drake — Take Care (2011)
Putrid album artwork aside, Take Care is an excellent project by an artist that’s always seemed to struggle properly harnessing his talent and influences. Before 2011, Aubrey Graham had dropped a debut album that felt mostly uninspired and cheap. For a rapper that was—at the time—releasing the most hyped debut of the year, he didn’t deliver on much. Since 2011, there have been a few high points and promising moments (2013’s Nothing Was The Same nearly made this list), but ultimately nothing that was able to consistently hit the right notes throughout a full album.
The end-all-be-all of Drake is Take Care.
He’s always had the aesthetics, the lyrics, the beats, the flows, and the voice, but nothing captures all of that at once like this. From the bittersweet opener, to the perfect blend of R&B and hip-hop on “Shot For Me,” to the radio singles “Headlines” and “Take Care,” to the early-career Kendrick feature, to song-of-the-year candidate “Marvin’s Room,” to a bonus track that coined the culture-transcending term “YOLO,” this album is packed to the gills with juice. If there’s a glaring weakness, it’s that the track list is overloaded. Coming in at a bloated 80 minutes, Take Care has at least four or five songs that could be scrapped. Given the subject matter and the mood, those 80 feel like even more. Regardless, a pared down version of this album would have a place among the best hip-hop works of the past decade.
Drake is easy to talk down upon, and I catch myself doing it on occasion, but you’d have to be ignorant to miss Take Care’s place in the recent history of mainstream hip-hop.
Recommended: “Marvins Room”, “Shot For Me,” “Under Ground Kings”
39. Mom Jeans—Puppy Love (2018)
The first Mom Jeans song I ever heard was “Edward 40hands.” The title is a reference to a drinking game and the song opens with a clip from Bob’s Burgers, referencing—you guessed it—mom jeans. The song goes on to describe a relationship. First, the good times: “I’m stuck on you like the smell of cigarettes on your flower dress.” Then, the loss: “Now I’m addicted to cigarettes ... every burn hole smells like home.” It’s a nuanced way to describe how the last remaining fragments of shattered relationships are the (sometimes nasty) artifacts they leave behind. It’s right there, hidden behind the wisecracks and cartoons.
The band’s sophomore studio album, Puppy Love, is the evolution. The sound has matured, but the antics remain. With it comes a sense of exhaustion. They’ve cut much of the nuance, and wax poetic on the frustrations and wonderment that the band and their peers experience. There’s the struggle with identity: “Tried eating vegan but I’m a fraud.” The struggle with relationships growing apart: “I'm not usually one to judge a book by what’s on the outside, but your face looks different every time you leave.” Lost love: “Tried reading a new book. It’s hard not to look, but I can't help from wondering what you're up to now.” Unrequited love: “Well, I think that you're just building up a wall to try and protect yourself from the fact that I'm going to spend the rest of my dumb f*cking life loving you.” And found love: “Nobody else knows me the way that you do. Nobody’s ever been this good to me, not even myself.”
It’s right there, hidden behind the weed, Cheetos, and references to The Office.
Recommended: “now THIS is podracing”, “you cant eat cats Kevin”, “Jon bong Jovi”
Taken from my favorite albums of 2018 list.
38. Kendrick Lamar—DAMN. (2017)
Kendrick Lamar is a prestige artist. It feels like you should have to purchase his music to listen to it rather than stream it via Spotify. The guy doesn’t miss, and the proof is in this album. I feel DAMN is his “worst,” and yet it’s in my top-40 of all time and boasts a 95/100 from critics. The man is insane.
The album opens with “BLOOD,” a dream in which Kendrick offers to help a blind woman only to wind up dead. The skit jolts listeners to attention, pulling the pin on the narrative arc of the album.
Kendrick surges into the menacing bounce of “HUMBLE,” the loping, woozy, punch-drunk “YAH,” and corrects course on the threatening “ELEMENT.”
It’s in these moments the album excels. “HUMBLE” exists at the intersection of internet classic and mainstream appeal. “LOVE” and “LOYALTY” are good but feel misplaced on the kind of album Kendrick makes. It feels like he’s spending an unusual amount of time aiming for radio success. “GOD” feels more appropriate. Things come back around with the project’s biggest surprise, “XXX.”
I have no idea how Kendrick managed to make a legitimately great song with U2 in 2017, but he did it. DAMN reached the world in the six-month window where every artist was offering their appraisal of America. This is Kendrick’s.
Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!
It's murder on my street, your street, back streets
Wall Street, corporate offices
Banks, employees, and bosses with
The album closes, fittingly, with one last story. I won’t spoil it, but it outlines a 20-year-old connection between Kendrick’s biological family and his musical one. Always the storyteller, Kendrick brought it back around one last time, providing an immediate narrative to contrast the centuries-old tale told on To Pimp A Butterfly.
Recommended: “HUMBLE”, “XXX”, “DNA”, “LOVE”
37. Volcano Choir — Repave (2013)
I’ve written far, far too much about Justin Vernon. This is already his second band on this list, and I’m only at #35. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, so I must apologize for how he manages to leave his fingerprints all over nearly everything I write.
Vernon’s fingerprints are also all over Repave—even though he contributed only vocals to the final recording. This hands-off instrumental approach gives the album a slightly different feel than something from Bon Iver. Repave leans more heavily on sampling, perhaps laying a footing for something Vernon would dive headfirst into three years later with Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.
While Bon Iver records have a certain unmistakable, unparalleled quality, the highs on Repave can hang with anything in Vernon’s vast body of work.
The chorus of “Byegone” is enough to send chills down my spine, even four years later. “Alaskans,” meanwhile, is reserved and somber. I love Volcano Choir for how it gives Vernon an excuse to leave behind his falsetto and use his raw voice. It’s perfect here. “Rely, rely, rely, rely, behave, behave, behave, behave,” Vernon sings, “And spend all of that time not wanting to.” The end of the song features a clip of a drunk Charles Bukowski grappling with his mortality that fits perfectly with the sprawling, reflective mood of the album.
Volcano Choir didn’t get nearly the attention as Bon Iver does, but Repave is a seminal work in the career of Justin Vernon.
Recommended: “Byegone”, “Alaskans”, “Comrade”
36. The Menzingers—After The Party (2017)
After The Party swims in the same waters as bands I grew up listening to, but trades in a currency fit for an adult—or at least someone pretending to be. Both cover the same subject matter—life, growing up, girls, hard lessons, rebellious youth—with the difference being that The Menzingers can speak from memories and experience rather than merely pretending to understand like we all did when we were 13 years old.
Rather than look at the past as an era slipping away too soon and the future as a terrifying blackness, the band takes things as they come. The Menzingers have accepted the fact that they’re all grown up, but don’t look back at the glory days with any regret, only with greater appreciation and understanding. It’s like how Superbad was much sharper and funnier than your idiot buddy’s story about his first beer as a junior in high school.
It’s this kind of calm resolve—a playful nod to the past with a brave face towards the future—that gives the band mature credibility, serving to bolster the record as a whole. The album is like a resume (or maybe a cover letter) that in turn makes you want to listen to what the group has to say.
They cover a remarkable amount of ground. On “Lookers,” there’s personal decay. On “Midwestern States” there’s the desire to pack up and escape home. On “House on Fire,” there’s the urge to seize the day. On “Bad Catholics,” there’s that weird way old relationships look after years of distance. On “The Bars,” there are lessons learned the hard way. On “After The Party,” there’s the little things that make the carefree days so great. The chorus is a good microcosm of the album.
Everybody wants to get famous
But you just want to dance in a basement
You don’t care if anyone is watching
Just as long as you stay in motion
We put miles on these old jean jackets
Got caught up in the drunk conversations
But after the party, it’s me and you
The way The Menzingers see it, neither the past nor the future is something to sweat. After the party, remember how great things were and keep moving.
“Your Wild Years” recalls a trip to a girlfriend’s childhood home. “We drove up to Massachusetts together. Your old house was just like you remember. We stayed in your adolescent room, rummaged through the boxes labeled ‘former you’: the souvenirs of happiness in the moment.” That’s what the album is. It’s a peek at a scrapbook through the lens of good old fashioned hard knocks experience. After The Party memorializes the magical and the mundane moments that make us, and it does a great job of it.
Recommended: “After The Party”, “The Bars”, “Midwestern States”, “Lookers”
Adapted from my review of the album, published in 2017.
35. The Front Bottoms — The Front Bottoms (2011)
While their magnum opus — and my 8th favorite song of the decade — wouldn’t come until the subsequent album, The Front Bottoms’ self-titled debut is a nearly perfectly crafted piece of emo folk-pop. The first seven or eight songs on this album are virtually unassailable.
Lead singer Brian Sella once said the song “Maps” is about “finding out life is a longer road than you had expected,” and I think that’s a pretty good explainer for the entire album. There’s a particularly scary point in life after you’ve realized that “real life” is going to get difficult but before you’ve realized that’s normal. That chapter is what this album is about.
Although the answers to any of the questions presented don’t start to come until Talon of the Hawk, there’s something fascinating about the grappling for them.
Recommended: “The Beers”, “Maps”, “Flashlight”
34. John Mayer — Continuum (2006)
There’s an alternate timeline where John Mayer is praised as one of the best artists of his generation, achieving the increasingly-rare blend of critical and commercial acclaim. Instead, we exist in this timeline, where a historically bad run of press (perhaps only exceeded by his buddy Kanye) derailed Mayer’s mainstream popularity and—combined with granulomas on his vocal cords—stole nearly three years of his career.
John Mayer is one of the most gifted guitar players alive, and perhaps nowhere is that fact more evident than on Continuum. It’s a marvelous blues-rock album that packs enough career-defining songs to last several careers.
If “I Don’t Trust Myself” and its upbeat soul isn’t your cup of tea, there’s one of the decade’s best ballads in “Gravity.” Maybe you’re a folksy blues fan, which leads you to “Stop This Train,” which may be the crown jewel of Mayer’s career. On the other hand, maybe you’re struggling with letting go of a crumbling relationship and turn to “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room.” That makes a full third of an album consisting of the kind of songs most artists would kill to have on their resume just once.
It took John six years to find his way again, and although he may never be sharper than he was here, his career is full of plenty to write about and fawn over.
Recommended: “Stop This Train”, “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room”, “Gravity”
33. Signals Midwest — Latitudes and Longitudes (2012)
The major debut from Cleveland’s finest features the band at its noisiest. While the group has always had a punk exterior with a thoughtful heart, things have mellowed out in recent years as noisy walls of guitars gave way to efficient production and purposeful melodies.
As the title suggests, Latitudes & Longitudes deals a lot with space (and time) and the effect that can have on relationships. “I was counting the miles, you were counting the days,” goes the album’s refrain. “Ain’t it strange that the numbers we wanted were moving in opposite ways?”
Beneath the heavy riffs and strained vocals is an undercurrent of post-adolescent exploration of human connection plastered on top of a Cleveland landscape.
One of my favorite Signals Midwest moments comes on the restrained “January & Seven,” a reflective song that’s only surpassed by the version recorded live in Germany.
So much of this album is heard best in a bar or a basement where guitars can do permanent hearing damage. However, the 38 minutes you spend on Spotify does the trick pretty well, too.
Recommended: “Monarchs”, “January & Seven”, “In Tensions”, “The Quiet Persuader”
32. John Mayer — Born & Raised (2012)
Following the release of his masterpiece Continuum in 2006, John Mayer was riding high. In the years that followed, he spent considerable time touring both nationally and abroad, appeared on a Kanye West song, released a highly-successful live album, and followed it up with a successful—albeit very safe—fourth studio album, Battle Studies. I believe he was also dating Taylor Swift at the time. All of this only made the ensuing death spiral more bizarre. Perhaps drawing inspiration from friend Kanye West’s trouble just months earlier, John Mayer coughed up a series of bafflingly stupid public relations incidents in February 2010 that forced him out of the spotlight.
None of this is particularly relevant anymore, and I think that has a lot to do with how he remade himself in the following years. Similar to Kanye, Mayer disappeared, isolated himself in rural Montana, and didn’t come back with a follow-up until 2012. Born & Raised is a deceptive title because it serves as Mayer’s rebirth. While most would contest Continuum is his best work by a wide margin, I’m always a fan of the comeback, and this is Mayer’s. He took the bluesy elements of Continuum and mashed it up with some of the early-career singer-songwriter elements you hear on albums like Room For Squares. Toss in some new folk touches, and you have Mayer’s most introspective album yet—something that completely shifted his persona from “try-hard playboy” to “thoughtful guitarist” while remaining distinctly his own.
While subsequent efforts haven’t quite hit the same marks, Born & Raised re-framed Mayer so successfully in my mind that it’s almost hard to believe he was ever the type to need re-framing in the first place. His Instagram account is a surprising source of insight, and not in the way that feels edgy or forceful, but in the way that feels like honest words from a guy who’s been around the block. In the end, that’s what Born & Raised is.
Recommended: “Born & Raised”, “Shadow Days”, “Something Like Olivia”
31. Wilco — Sky Blue Sky (2007)
While Wilco has never been a particularly heavy rock band, they’ve also never been the type to balk at letting things rip when it’s warranted. Sky Blue Sky took Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and sweetened it up, sanded off all the edges and replaced “I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn. You’re quite a quiet domino” with “Maybe you still love me, maybe you don’t.” They’re spiritual cousins while playing in entirely different sandboxes.
Sky Blue Sky, ironic title aside, has always felt to me like a rainy Sunday in bed. “Either Way” opens things up with laid-back guitars, lilting strings, and lullaby-level complexity, a vast departure from the group’s prior fare.
I didn’t become a fan of the band until after this release, and I think that gave me a big-picture view of the album. At the time, it must have made no sense. Wilco had started as an alt-country outfit before hitting their stride in the late ’90s and early ’00s with alternative and experimental offerings Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A ghost is born. The three-album run was the kind of legacy-cementing stretch that any band would kill for, which undoubtedly made Sky Blue Sky all the stranger at the time.
Wilco followed a three-year break with a departure from experimental and progressive and a return to the alt-country, folk-influenced sensibilities they carried in their early days. Summerteeth’s best moments were wailing guitars and sunny choruses, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s best moments were shrouded in feedback and a mess of tape loops. Sky Blue Sky’s most arresting minutes don’t feature lyrics at all, but a three-minute tidal wave in the form of a bluesy Nels Cline guitar solo.
The whole thing feels as if Jeff Tweedy is too weary and worn out to keep up his defenses. It’s very straightforward and disarmed.
What am I gonna do when I run out of shirts to fold?
What am I gonna do when I run out of lawn to mow?
What am I gonna do if you never come home?
The band cited The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones as influences in this new, efficient brand of themselves and you could easily convince me “What Light” is a Bob Dylan cover if I didn’t know it was Tweedy. Sky Blue Sky wasn’t universally loved upon its release, but I think it’s aged nicely. It’s a stripped back and bare version of a band on the heels of nearly a decade spent exploring all corners of themselves.
Recommended: “Impossible Germany”, “Either Way”, “Hate It Here”
30. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap (2013)
I first discovered Chance the Rapper off the strength of his 10 Day mixtape. That was April 2012. Before long, Chance’s music was hard to miss for anyone with an ear to the ground. “Nostalgia” swept me off my feet and Chance’s off-kilter voice and cozy lyrics had me roped in. 10 Day, for all its brimming potential, was painfully raw. It was a proof of concept and not a finished product, featuring harsh production quality and songs containing GarageBand loops. The prototype was enough to get me excited, and Acid Rap had become my most anticipated project of the year in 2013.
I’m a Chance The Rapper fan, so don’t take this the wrong way, but Acid Rap was Chance at his best. That’s more of a praise of this project than it is an indictment of work to follow, but it’s an opinion I stand behind. The mixtape is a perfect version of Chance, and I think it’s improved with age.
The project opens with “Good Ass Intro,” “Pusha Man/Paranoia,” “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” and “Juice.” If that’s not enough, there’s the star-studded trio of “Favorite Song,” “NaNa,” and “Smoke Again” later in the album.
It came before Chance got a little too polished, a little too mature, a little too gospel, a little too jazz, and a little too pop. What’s captured here in 2013 is a version of Chance still aspiring to be a rapper and still boasting all the rough edges. Chance has become a role model and something to aspire to, but this moment in time is his musical peak for me.
Recommended: “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, “Favorite Song”, “NaNa”
29. Foxing—Nearer My God (2018)
Until very recently, Foxing is a band I’d have described as “quaint.” Their most popular songs—offerings like “The Medic,” “Rory,” and “Night Channels”—largely inch along, finding emotion in muted melodies rather than at the top of their lungs. Nearer My God flips it all on its head. Suddenly the band is cramming much of the same subject matter into music designed to fill NBA arenas. It’s something like if Death Cab For Cutie turned into The Killers.
They’re not just cranking up the volume, though. This thing is meticulously crafted and seamlessly woven together. There are synths and bagpipes, pitch-shifted vocals and oceans of reverb.
The band wrote the title song about the shameless desire to be famous, a place they admitted they hoped the last record might take them. They seem to have washed themselves of that desire on Nearer My God, becoming content with sub-genre success and the creative freedom that can bring. Ironically, in doing so, they may have progressed in style and ambition enough to resemble the kind of mainstream indie rock band we haven’t seen in years. I don’t see them on the cover of Rolling Stone any time soon, but that doesn’t mean they’d be out of place there.
Credit the band for having the audacity to take their inner thoughts and worries and use them to rattle the dust off the rafters.
Recommended: “Bastardizer”, “Nearer My God”, “Trapped In Dillard’s”, “Lich Prince”
Taken from my favorite albums of 2018 list.
28. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter II (2005)
In 2008, Lil Wayne formally planted his flag at the top of the hip-hop world with the release of The Carter III. The album went platinum in a matter of days and solidified him as the most famous artist in the genre, if not in the music world as a whole. For most people, that’s where his career began. Following the album’s release, he embarked on a multi-year stretch as a premier artist. What most people don’t realize is that C3 was as much a culmination as it was an inauguration. While it began the commercial phase of his career, it also capped off a multi-year stretch of critically acclaimed releases that now serves as arguably the greatest hot streak in the history of rap. It started in 2005 with The Carter II.
Before Wayne became a radio mainstay with the catchy choruses like “Lollipop” or the marquee feature like T Pain on “Got Money,” he just rapped.
Really. It was just rapping.
C2 opens with “Tha Mobb,” a five-minute-and-20-second journey that’s nothing more than Wayne going wire-to-wire over a pulsating beat. There’s no chorus. There’s no fancy intro. The whole album feels like that, loaded with 77 minutes of rap fans’ delight. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its catchy moments. “Shooter” and “Receipt” both border on catchy and “Hustler Musik” is an all-timer of a Wayne song (with a Bape’d out video to match).
The album is threaded together by a series of short musical interludes that feature sparse pianos and an ominous tone. On “Carter II,” my favorite of the three interludes, Wayne talks directly to the listener. “So you made it this far,” he croaks. “We upstairs. I’ll let you up here.” Most music, especially hip-hop, is about letting listeners into the artists’ world. Rarely is it done explicitly, however. “All I have in this world is a pistol and a promise, a fistful of dollars, a list full of problems,” raps Wayne. “I address ’em like P.O. boxes. Yeah I’m from New Orleans, the Creole cockpit.”
The album is the first of many times Wayne frames himself as a larger-than-life figure, which is ironic considering the album artwork juxtaposes the 5’5” rapper with his enormous Rolls Royce Phantom, making him look smaller than ever. He’s like some kind of cartoon character parading through a theatrical experience.
Then there’s “Best Rapper Alive,” which is a moment. It’s a bold statement, but it’s also one that Wayne seems thrilled to provide evidence for, both with C2 and with subsequent releases: first Dedication and Dedication 2, then Da Drought 3, followed by the Carter III knockout blow. This album was Wayne calling his shot, and the following three years were him gleefully backing it up day after day with an unprecedented flurry of music.
Recommended: “Hustler Musik”, “Money On My Mind”, “Tha Mobb”
27. Modern Baseball — You’re Gonna Miss It All (2014)
Over time, I think I’ve come to believe that You’re Gonna Miss It All is objectively the best Modern Baseball album. With the band splintering in recent years and embarking on a hiatus that certainly feels indefinite, it’s beginning to look like MoBo will go down as a band with a trilogy of major releases. Sports was wonderfully youthful and doe-eyed while Holy Ghost felt weighty and mature. YGMIA seems to fit snugly in the middle. It has enough of their early-career exuberance with a healthy amount of post-adolescent realization.
There’s something oddly satisfying (read: relatable) about the band listing off a bunch of problems they don’t yet have solutions for. “I hate worrying about my future, ’cause all my current problems are based around the past,” sings Lukens. “And I hate when you call me late at night just to check in to make sure I’ve got nothing to be sad about.” It helps that none of these problems are too consequential yet. There’s lots of talk about girls—a topic Lukens will later beat himself up over for singing about so often. I don’t think he gives himself enough credit. On “Notes,” he describes a past relationship as “a brick-boot swimming lesson in the deep end of my adolescence,” which feels perfect.
“Your Graduation” serves as one of the great concert songs of the genre. It’s sad, happy, angry, fast, slow, quiet, loud, and everything in between. “Two Good Things” is a song about adolescent indecision. “One girl, one band, two paychecks are more than I can handle,” laments Sean. “Mathematically that can’t be more than one end of a candle. Bottom of the ninth, can’t find my socks.”
YGMIA is one of those albums that I have trouble writing about because its connection with me seems natural. I didn’t have to force myself to like this album. It just made sense.
Recommended: “Your Graduation”, “Fine, Great”, “Pothole”
26. Charles Hamilton — The Pink Lavalamp (2008)
I’ve always had a profound appreciation for Charles’ music. If I’m honest, part of it can be explained by Charles’ ties back to Cleveland (he was born in Garfield Heights, just miles from where I went to high school). However, it’s hard not to appreciate someone who borders on musical savant. Charles is like a hip-hop Daniel Johnston, battling lifelong mental health issues while making a name for himself as one of the most prolific do-it-all artists on the internet by the late aughts.
His style is reminiscent of a bird that builds a nest of random found objects. Pink Lavalamp isn’t the best example of this, but there’s still a web of samples and sounds culled together to create a home. You can’t help but get the sense Charles is an artist that creates music not because he wants to, but because he has to. The album’s opener states this explicitly: “No real family, no real friends, no real escape, no real end. So I’m gon’ die with my music by my side.”
“Loser” is the ultimate self-deprecation anthem, and probably the first song I’d show someone who was curious about Charles. “She’s So High” is a peak Charles sample, bending Telepopmusik into a tranced-out love song. “Left from the rave, hopped in a spaceship, off to the hard drive, west of the matrix. I was so high, didn’t think I could make it.”
The album’s highs and lows eventually end up at “Sat(t)elite,” a song that’s virtually unlike any else in Charles’ discography. “I know I can’t dance, so I can’t go to parties for us to dance slow. But I can go write you a song that can paint out my love, music of Van Gogh. I can’t hold a candle to your love, but it’s your love that I want more of. I lost your trust and your heart torn up ’cause I’m being selfish with a sophomore crush.” It’s a catchy, upbeat love song, three adjectives that can rarely be used to describe the music of Charles Hamilton.
At one point, he decided he wasn’t going to release this album. As the story goes, Hamilton had just finished recording “Shinin’” in the studio and was planning to leave it on the computer, head home, and kill himself. One of his friends walked in, fell head over heels after hearing the song, Charles decided to stick around, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, The Pink Lavalamp was merely the first heartbreaking chapter in Charles Hamilton’s story.
Recommended: “Loser”, “She’s So High”, “Sat(t)elite”
25. Relient K — Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…but Three Do (2003)
Speaking of early albums I remember vividly, this is one that’s practically ingrained in me.
I spent seven or eight of my first 12 years in Nashville. At the time, Gotee Records was perhaps the most significant player in contemporary Christian music and Relient K was the latest and greatest. Driving past the label offices on General George Patton Drive in Brentwood, I remember the band’s pink limo. (Google searches on such a vehicle have proved fruitless, making me question if this was just a figment of my imagination.) This is all to illustrate the point that Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right...but Three Do was a massive moment, or at least it felt like it to someone who was ten years old and living in the Christian music bubble that is Nashville.
I still maintain that this album has held up better than any I was a fan of at ten years old. The biggest knock against it is also its biggest saving grace: It sounds like quintessential early-aughts pop punk.
Songs like “Mood Rings” have stuck in my brain for a decade in a half, and, most people don’t know this, but Big Sean’s “Bounce Back” is a direct ripoff of “Forward Motion.” […citation needed…]
When car crashes occur
Then I’ll be what you were
When I see what I should
When see that it’s good
That it’s good
To experience the bittersweet
To taste defeat then brush my teeth
What I initially viewed as a joke song, “In Love With the ‘80s” has aged phenomenally, and probably stands as the album’s jewel. “And I’m only gonna pierce my left ear, and I’ve been working on this mustache all summer long, and my favorite band will always be Tears For Fears, and I’m gonna wear a pink tux to the prom.” Through the angsty layer, the back-to-back “I Am Understood?” and “Getting Into You” still ring true 15 years later. And, if nothing else, “Gibberish” is at least an achievement. I had this whole song memorized, made-up words and all.
In my opinion, the band held it together for another five years or so. “From End to End” is a preview of the next chapter. It’s much more serious and honed. It’s like Brand New using the end of Your Favorite Weapon to segue into Deja Entendu. On “Jefferson Aero Plane,” lead singer Matt Thiessen follows Relient K tradition in using the closer as a balled to flex writing chops. This one rips.
If it hurts, kiss it better
You wear skirts, I write nice letters
Never said nothing with flowers
Though we always talked for hours
And it seems to get much colder
When you cry on your own shoulder
And we know the show must go on
Guess I know, I guess I’ll throw on
Some Jefferson Airplane
I’m trapped and I am enclosed
But I won’t complain
I’ll open all the windows
’Cause when it’s colder
I feel much better
When I cry on my own shoulder
Just throw on a sweater and go
TLDMAR…BTD is my musical Sandlot. Nothing reminds me of the good parts of fourth through seventh grade more than this does. This one aged remarkably well.
Recommended: “In Love With the ‘80s”, “I Am Understood?”, “Jefferson Aero Plane”
24. Kanye West — Graduation (2007)
Graduation is one of the first albums in which I vividly remember release day and the subsequent takeover. It was Fall 2007, and I was a sophomore in high school. Kanye, no longer content to be a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, set his sights on pop music and sold-out stadium tours. I think it’s easy to forget that College Dropout and Late Registration painted Kanye as a (relatively) quaint artist. They were influential works, but Kanye didn’t yet have the international reputation as a brash, egotistical force. Look at the big singles from those first two albums: “All Falls Down,” “Spaceship,” “Jesus Walks,” “Through The Wire,” “Gold Digger,” “Touch The Sky,” and “Hey Mama.” None of those paint the full picture of the Kanye we know today.
Things were immediately different on Graduation’s first single, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which released in May 2007. The first verse set the stage:
I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven
When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace
I told God I’d be back in a second
Man it’s so hard not to act reckless
To whom much is given, much is tested
Get arrested, guess until he get the message
I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do? Act more stupidly
Bought more jewelry, more Louis V
My momma couldn’t get through to me
The drama, people suing me
I’m on TV talking like it’s just you and me
I’m just saying how I feel man
I ain’t one of the Cosby’s, I ain’t go to Hillman
I guess the money should’ve changed him
I guess I should’ve forgot where I came from
The second single was “Stronger,” a commercial monster that peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and featured a music video that spawned the shutter shades trend. Next was “Good Life,” another success that peaked at #1 on the hip-hop charts and boasted a chorus from the hottest man in rap and R&B at the time—T-Pain. Kanye had become obsessed with this “stadium status” vision, and it turned Graduation into a futuristic, high-gloss, rap-pop dream. I think he nailed this ideal so successfully that it made Graduation a popular vote for “worst Kanye album” among diehard fans for years.
That doesn’t mean it’s not really good.
“Good Morning” remains an unheralded gem in Kanye’s discography, perfectly setting the stage for his neon, animated adventure. This album came just before Kanye’s life unraveled with the death of his mother and the end of his relationship with his fiancée. We weren’t yet into the 808s & Heartbreak era, but you can catch glimpses of it poking through on songs like “I Wonder” and “Flashing Lights.” Things slow down on “Everything I Am” as a weary Kanye gets pensive. “I know people wouldn’t usually rap this, but I got the facts to back this: Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets. Man, killing’s some wack sh*t.”
The end of the album feels overlooked, as Kanye delivers some of Graduation’s best writing on “The Glory”:
What am I supposed to do now?
Man the game all messed up
How I’m supposed to stand out when everybody get dressed up?
So yeah, at the Grammys I went ultra-Travolta
Yeah that tuxedo might have been a little Guido
But with my ego
I can stand there in a Speedo
And be looked at like a f*cking hero
The glory, the story, the chain, the polo, the night
The grind, the empty bottles of No-Doz
Tank on empty, whippin’ my momma’s Volvo
I spent that gas money on clothes with logos
The fur is Hermes, sh*t that you don’t floss
The Goyard so hard man, I’m Hugo’s boss
Why I gotta ask what that Tudor cost?
House on the hill
Two doors from Tracey Ross
Say what you want about Graduation in comparison to the quality and influence of Kanye’s other albums, but it served as a turning point in his career, taking him from successful rapper to one of the most prominent artists in the world. Graduation made Kanye’s aspirations clear, and he hasn’t stopped shooting for the moon since.
Recommended: “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, “Good Morning”, “Homecoming”
23. Signals Midwest — Light on the Lake (2013)
Albums that are designed to be played live are the best, and I think Light On The Lake is that kind of album.
Cleveland’s own Signals Midwest is one of my very favorite bands. All three of their studio albums are unique in their own way, but this is probably my favorite overall, and I think you could attribute a lot of that to the fact that it seems to be written and recorded with a live setting in mind. Rising and falling energy connect blistering guitars and soaring, sing-a-long hooks. It’s moody and anthemic, built for the dingy houses and bowling alley basements that host so many shows for these kinds of bands in Cleveland.ey basements that host so many shows for these kinds of bands in Cleveland.
Despite this orientation to energy in a group setting, don’t think there aren’t layers to unpack here. “I always heard the devil lies in the details,” says lead singer Max Stern. “But it seems to me that we build the greatest monuments to the things we know but leave unsaid.”
I’ve written before about Stern’s fascination with the concepts of time and space, and those are manifested in the form of reincarnation on “Desert to Denver.”
Wish that I could have been the left lane
Under your car through the desert to Denver
Wish that I was the cell tower
That connected your calls back east
Hope that I come back as a thread that
Keeps the sleeve from fraying on your favorite sweatshirt
To keep you warm when I’m not there to
(And I’m never there)
The jewel of Signals Midwest’s catalog lies in “St. Vincent Charity,” probably my favorite song to see in concert. 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 into 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, over and over.
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.
Recommended: “St. Vincent Charity”, “Desert To Denver”, “In The Pauses”
22. Neutral Milk Hotel — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
This album is somewhat polarizing in the music community, so let me say this: I promise this is the most elitist I’ll get on here. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is stupendously good and I don’t understand those who disagree.
I’ve always loved history—ever since I was a little kid. For some reason, much of my fascination in elementary school centered around WWII and, therefore, Anne Frank. The story gripped me, and the fact that I became fascinated with it at a formative age must have left somewhat of a stain on who I am. Its role as an inspiration in this album makes perfect sense to me.
Inspiration aside, the beauty of the project is best summed up by Pitchfork: It’s a concept album that you can listen to without being aware that it’s a concept album. Anne Frank and her story are alluded to, but rarely with any level of specificity.
The album’s caginess combined with its ’90s grunge patina is its hallmark. In the end, it’s this lo-fi nature and extremely unpolished vibe that are a huge factor in my love for it. It sounds exactly like the cover looks. There just isn’t anything else that matches Jeff Magnum’s splintering voice on “King of Carrot Flowers pts. Two & Three.”
It’s the way his words frequently come across as desperate and hurried—a vocalist at the very limit of his physical capabilities—that adds to the album’s weathered feel. The whole thing jangles, rattles, and shakes from front to back. It just feels… old, warm, disorienting, heartbreaking, and magical.
There’s an ’80s animated movie called Little Nemo that I used to watch as a kid. Based on an early 20th-century comic strip by Windsor McCay, the story is about a boy who gets sucked into a dream where things have gone terribly wrong, and he has no choice but to save the day. It reminds me of this album. It’s both fantastical and haunting while somehow simultaneously feeling both old and futuristic. Darker undercurrents stain the childlike wonderment of the whole ordeal.
The difference between the two is, of course, the ending. While Nemo saves the day and returns home safely to his parents, Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at 15 years old.
The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side
In its immediate aftermath, the album wasn’t a commercial success. The band broke up not long after, never recording any more music together. All of this has done nothing but fuel the legend, as Neutral Milk Hotel’s second studio album maintains a cult of worshipers 20 years later.
Recommended: “Holland, 1945”, “Two-Headed Boy”, “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3”
21. Gang of Youths—Go Farther In Lightness (2017)
Somewhere at the intersection of Born To Run-era Springsteen, Suburbs-era Arcade Fire, and Trouble Will Find Me-era The National lives this album. Also, imagine if each of those artists were Australian. Its an insane description for an album, but listen and tell me I’m wrong.
Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this album in 2017. If I had, it certainly would’ve been my favorite album of that year. It’s criminally underrated. Wikipedia lists just two reviews. Australian outlet The Music gave it a 4.5-out-of-5, and Rolling Stone Australia gave it a perfect score. How did this not achieve any success in America?
It’s even more baffling when you consider the style itself. It sounds like a perfect indie rock adaptation of classic American heartland rock that Springsteen popularized in the ‘80s while pulling hard at strings that tie to fragile ideas.
It’s hard to think of anything but The Boss when the album opens with melodic piano and the lyrics, “We’re at the stumbling phase of the midnight waltz, at a bookend to the weirdest of weeks. Me and Arnold walk, pretty hammered and crying, ‘Hey, I’ll miss you man, when you leave.’”
When the song blossoms after about 90 seconds, it doesn’t slow down for the next few tracks. The album is a beast. On the second track, the album’s lead single, we’re already poking at profound questions about the loss of faith. “Can you still show me the way? Can you still show me a light? 'Cause I was only a kid when I fell, and you left me behind.” On the next track, the band immediately pivots to taking down Ayn Rand.
“Keep Me In The Open” is where I knew I was dealing with something spectacular. It’s a towering achievement in songwriting, tracing the demise of a relationship in the beautiful, faintly boozy way The National loves to do.
I don’t know if I blame you for being so distant
But I’m tryna be real with you, and God, it’s been a hell of a week
And I just wanna relate to you in a true way
If it means being here with you, then hey, I am trying to be
I’ll always struggle to think of you in a harsh way
I know that it’s weird but I still see you for the human beneath
I wish that I was in love with your endless bullsh*t
But I’m a "heart in the gutter" type, asleep on a stranger's knee
I’m getting used to the sleepless hours from sundown
The terrible dreams that lead me inward to terrible truths
But in my blood, some electric holy yearning
Carries an impulse to get sh*t-faced on you
When did everything get this weird? How the f*ck did it start?
Did you ever believe in me? Was it always so hard?
Tell me how I can do this thing
Tell me how I can help this thing go easily
'Cause I’m trying, honeybee
The project carries this kind of existential weight in both instrumental interludes and sprawling, haunting, seven-and-a-half minute retellings of dreams in which his wife and child are killed in a car crash while he’s getting drunk alone in his basement.
Go Farther In Lightness shies away from nothing. There are magnolia trees as a symbol of suicide attempts, characters from Greek mythology, and a deep conversation with a close friend experiencing the death of a child:
And predictably, the talking turns to God
So I throw him forty lines how I don’t think he exists
And he just smiles and takes a dignified pause
Says, "It’s okay to feel unbelievably lost"
And it’s there, in a quote from a friend reeling from one of life’s greatest tragedies, that the album finds its thesis. It’s not until the final track, however, that our narrator seems to realize it. “And I could almost take a whole life to disclose how I feel about the now … But I’m with you amongst the confusion.”
The band bit off a startling amount, and the fact that they keep it balanced over 77 minutes is impressive. The fact that it wasn’t given more respect upon release, from myself included, feels like a small tragedy in itself.
Recommended: “Keep Me In The Open”, “Fear and Trembling”, “Let Me Down Easy”
20. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
By 2010, Vampire Weekend was at the height of their power. They’d followed up their self-titled debut with Contra, a flying success that debuted at #1, becoming just the 12th independently-distributed album to do so. Seriously, before these guys pulled it off, the last four independent albums to top the charts came from Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Eagles, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. They were in rarefied air, dominating the indie rock scene.
Despite this, I can’t say I was much of a fan. I was graduating high school at the time, and the band was plastered over every corner of the internet music world. None of it connected with me. Their artistic direction and New England prep sensibilities were interesting, but it wasn’t until the band returned from a three-year hiatus in 2013 that something stuck.
The band partially wrote Modern Vampires of the City in Martha’s Vineyard, and it sounds like it. While the group’s first two albums included African pop-influenced styles (think Paul Simon’s Graceland), this one pulled those back, leaning on massive, meticulous production and analog recording equipment. The result feels warm and classic like Annie Hall. (The album cover here is one of my all-time favorites because it fits the music so perfectly. It’s a 1966 New York Times photo taken during NYC’s smog crisis.)
“Diane Young,” the album’s first single, is a frenetic piece of indie pop, sprinkled with mentions of flaming Saabs and the Kennedy family. “Step” carries the allusion game further, weaving a quilt of deep references to everything from Modest Mouse to Moby Dick. “Hannah Hunt” is a road-tripping tale of a dying relationship (and my #4 favorite song of 2010–2016).
The album is all over the place stylistically, sonically, and lyrically, playing out as a 43-minute tug of war over youth, politics, faith, love, and mortality. It’s incredibly rich.
It won a Grammy.
It’s been more than five years since Modern Vampires of the City’s release, and they haven’t released music since. In the interim, producer Rostam Batmanglij left the band. They say they’ve got Album #4 on the way. Even if that’s true, Batmanglij’s departure figures to be a significant blow. MVOTC will go down in history as the seminal masterpiece in the band’s first (and maybe final) chapter.
Recommended: “Hannah Hunt”, “Step”, “Diane Young”
19. Lana Del Rey — Born To Die (2012)
Peak Lana Del Rey was awesome. It was in the winter of 2011–12, I was in my freshman year at UC, and Tumblr was swarming with her and her music. It seems funny in retrospect, but it was at the tail end of an era where artists could amass instant followings on the backs of blog coverage and at the beginning of a period where a meticulously-groomed aura was seemingly essential to new music stardom. Lana was wielding both.
She was out there with a Kennedy-era swagger and a 21st-century bite, doing her best to cull the best aspects of each era. It was working flawlessly.
Her first single was “Video Games,” featuring a music video that was Tumblr cocaine. It was so perfectly-suited for its era that a popular rumor at the time was that Lana was an industry plant—an artist manufactured by a record label’s marketing team to achieve more success by faking a flawless aesthetic and a grassroots origin. To this day I’m still not sure it was ever disproven. Her entire existence may as well have been made in a test tube.
On the next single, the hits kept coming. The “Born to Die” video, unlike its predecessor, was meticulous. Picture-perfect cinematography accompanied a soaring piece of baroque pop perfection. My desktop background was a screenshot from the video for months, and even Kanye tweeted a bunch of frames.
I sometimes forget how stacked the album is. Beyond the two lead singles are “Blue Jeans,” “Diet Mountain Dew,” “National Anthem,” “Dark Paradise,” and “Summertime Sadness.” That’s seven songs on a 12-track album that I felt were well above average. That doesn’t happen much for me on a debut album, especially in pop music.
The two artists are different, but I’m not sure there’s a Lorde without a Lana Del Rey. Their debuts were very similar from a buzz standpoint, and both caught me off guard before nestling into the upper echelons of my favorite albums of their respective years.
I’ve written a surprising amount about Lana Del Rey on this blog, and I always end each piece in the same way: Things were never quite the same after Born To Die. There were a few hits, but nothing matching the front-to-back landslide of great music on her major-label debut. I’ll miss this era of her career.
From the opening, uplifting strings on the first song to the plodding dirge of “Summertime Sadness,” Born To Die is one of this decade’s classics.
Recommended: “Video Games”, “Born To Die”, “National Anthem”, “Radio”
18. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Kendrick is the type of artist that inspires sprawling think pieces. Every time he releases an album, you can be sure to brace for the flurry of incoming reviews and essays, peeling the project back layer by layer, looking for every scrap of meaning and significance. To Pimp A Butterfly probably inspired more of this than any other Kendrick album, which says something.
My favorite statement on the project may have also been the most succinct. It came from Oliver Wang and was originally heard on NPR’s All Things Considered. Here’s the gist of it:
[Kendrick] doesn’t just live up to outsized expectations, he upends them with an ambitious effort to craft the musical equivalent to the Great American Novel.
To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t remind me of other contemporary hip-hop albums so much as the musicals of Melvin Van Peebles. Both that playwright and this rapper invite us into noisy conversations between eclectic characters debating personal triumphs and social failures, black love and white hate, all under the looming shadow of America.
It’s telling that two of the album’s songs are simply titled “u” and “i,” but don’t confuse that for a universal “we.” Lamar wades into our moment of peril around race, inequality and brutality, but he’s not speaking to the rest of the nation as much as penning both an admonishment of, and love letter to, Black America. That’s the “we” he sets himself both above and below, and yet always within.
It feels weird to say that an album overshadows a genre itself, but I agree wholeheartedly with this observation. To Pimp a Butterfly feels less like a great rap album than it does an honest, incisive statement on the Black American experience in 2015. The album’s title is a 21st-century MacGyver-ing of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it’s perfectly apt.
My life and upbringing couldn’t be further from Kendrick’s. He and I may as well have been raised on different planets. Only helping to widen the gulf is the fact that this album was released while I was on vacation in Europe. There’s nothing quite like the dissonance of sitting on a bullet train through the Swiss Alps while listening to an artist split himself in half describing his (very different) version of the American experience.
Cultural weight and political relevance aside, the album is just really, really good. Kendrick brought funky jazz hip-hop to the masses in 2015, and I love him for it. “King Kunta” is a whale of a track, “The Blacker The Berry” is a doozy of blistering introspection, “i” is a beautiful break from the heavy tone, and “Alright” served as the year’s protest anthem: “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright!”
I never experienced life as Kendrick has, so I’ll never be able to understand his perspective fully. The beauty of To Pimp a Butterfly lies in the way it boldly and brilliantly documents that experience and tries to translate for the rest of us.
Recommended: “King Kunta”, “Alright”, “The Blacker The Berry”
17. Bruce Springsteen — Born To Run (1975)
Born to Run is one of those albums that seems larger than life—an impossible triumph—even before examining the circumstances surrounding it.
Consider this: Springsteen began releasing music in 1973, just three years after The Beatles released their final studio album. The two exist so far apart in my mind, yet there they are, practically butting up against each other. Springsteen released Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. in 1973, immediately followed by The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle later that year. Both were received well by critics but not exactly the type of thing that was going to make Bruce a megastar. He went back to the kitchen, disappearing for nearly two years.
(As an aside: Elsewhere in the music world, established rock and roll songwriter Bob Dylan is gearing up for the release of Blood On The Tracks and debuts lead single “Tangled Up In Blue.” It’s one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, but it’s hilarious juxtaposed next to what Springsteen was planning.)
On August 25, 1975, Springsteen unleashed Born To Run on the world with the title track as the album’s lead single. At the time, he was 24 years old. It seems impossible that one of the greatest albums in American history was written and recorded by an artist in the dawn of his career, whose greatest achievement at the time was “Blinded By The Light.”
Left in the dust were the jangling guitars and mood that was more Lennon and Dylan than what we imagine Springsteen to be. In its place was the title track: A power ballad of American optimism underneath a cascading avalanche of instruments and soaring lyrics.
This man really went from…
And she was blinded by the light
Oh cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
…in the span of two calendar years.
Springsteen’s ability to romanticize post-Vietnam War America on the decrepit Jersey Shore is nothing short of a superpower. In hindsight, the fact that he’s only 24 years old makes a lot of sense, because this is the kind of exuberant optimism that tends to die off pretty quickly. The album is 40 minutes of wide-eyed wonder, believing that everything is special, romantic, and spectacular—and doing so while riding on a locomotive of ’70s rock instrumentation. Springsteen’s lyrical naiveté is the only thing that makes the composition of “Born To Run” work, because I can’t even discern individual instruments—even on the remastered version.
Not to be forgotten is the fact that the album opens with “Thunder Road,” which is undoubtedly my favorite Springsteen song and near the top of my all-time list for any artist. It begins with a soft piano and a wistful harmonica before cascading into some of Springsteen’s finest writing.
A stupid thing I’m obsessed with is massive lyrics and how they came to be. Imagine what Bruce Springsteen thought when he sat down and wrote “The screen door slams; Mary’s dress waves.” Did he think it was pretty good? How many revisions did it take? Did he have any idea that it would be the enduring lyric of his career? Did he ever imagine that it would be plastered on the wall, winding up the spiral staircase at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day?
The whole song is like that. Trying to pick couplets is impossible when one leads directly into another. It’s a masterpiece.
The song ends with a moment of defiant triumph (and Lady Gaga’s favorite line), something that could serve as Born To Run’s thesis statement—or at least a pull quote: “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling outta here to win.”
Born To Run is an enduring piece of American romanticism, not because post-Vietnam America deserved to be romanticized, but because post-Vietnam Bruce Springsteen saw everything in a romantic way. Maybe there’s a lesson for 2019 in there somewhere.
Recommended: “Thunder Road”, “Born To Run”, “Jungleland”
16. Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)
I love details when it comes to creative work. If art is about letting the participant into the artist’s world, what better way to do it than with minutiae? I took a magazine writing course in college, and my professor stressed how much these specific details could help the audience relate. This album is proof.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” opens with this:
Me and my n*ggas four deep in a white Toyota
A quarter tank of gas, one pistol and orange soda
Janky stash box when the federales’ll roll up
Basketball shorts with the Gonzales Park odor
Kendrick seeks to bring us into his upbringing. The setting is Compton, and the tense is present. It’s a brilliant move because he isn’t serving as a narrator, he’s taken us back in time. There are sound effects, multiple characters, and three acts. It’s a narrative. We’ve dunked our head into Kendrick’s Pensieve, and we’re seeing his formative moments unfold in front of us.
It’s a strategy he lays out in the opening lines of the skull-rattling “m.A.A.d city”:
Brace yourself, I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane
This is not a rap on how I’m slingin’ crack or move cocaine
This is cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac and major pain
Not the drill sergeant, but the stress that weighin’ on your brain
It’s so blatantly authentic that he goes as far as bleeping out a person’s name a few lines later. Evidently, the statute of limitations isn’t up.
It feels stupid to analyze specific moments because they’re all crucial to the narrative. After all, the album is cinematic (the subtitle is ‘A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar’). It makes for a very immersive and entertaining listen.
It also explores some pretty dark memories and weighty topics. To Pimp a Butterfly is heavy as well, and it makes that album somewhat exhausting and defeating to re-visit. There, Kendrick lays out problems that are beyond him, stretching back centuries. He doesn’t have the answers. On good kid, m.A.A.d city, things feel manageable in comparison. There are certainly more significant factors at play, like gang infestation and gun violence in America’s most infamous inner city, but things mostly don’t stretch beyond the world of an adolescent Kendrick and this particular summer he’s chosen to unearth.
These are hurdles we know he can overcome because, well, he did.
He survived to show us.
Recommended: “The Art of Peer Pressure”, “m.A.A.d city”, “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Swimming Pools”
15. The Hotelier — Goodness (2016)
The Hotelier already has a modern day emo classic on its resume with Home, Like Noplace Is There. In 2016, they made their long-awaited return with Goodness. While their debut follows a more commonly tread path of depression, hopelessness, and anger, Goodness claws its way in the opposite direction, choosing a trajectory that’s remarkably and refreshingly optimistic, hopeful, and brave.
The uncensored album cover features a group of older people standing completely naked in a field. It’s attention-grabbing, but it also illustrates the theme of stripping things back to their innocent roots. “Withered down to our basic components, we are naked, at rest, and alone” sings Christian Holden on “Goodness Pt. 2.”
So much of this album begs to find in the world the very thing it’s named after: goodness. “Fawn, doe, light snow, spots on brown of white. Make me believe that there’s a God sometimes,” Holden pleads on “Soft Animal.”
I think it’s harder to pull off honest, thoughtful, hopeful music than anything else, and that’s part of what makes Goodness so unique to me. So much “uplifting” music comes off as incredibly fake, forced, and phony. Not this. The instrumentation is rousing, and the lyrics are nothing short of masterful, resolving to push forward out of the same darkness that enveloped their previous work. This passage is a highlight of 2016:
When the floor was all littered with pictures
Like the flora was drenched in the thaw
I was grasping to stay in the present
But your negatives flipped what I saw
A little bird from the side of sidewalk
Sings me hymnals of comfort in pain
Said “Give me you all disarmed and uncertain
And I promise that I’ll do the same”
And it sounded like something you’d say
The most incredible concert I saw in 2016 took place in a tiny, crowded bar in Columbus when The Hotelier came to town. It was a night I’ll never forget, and this album soundtracked it.
In a year that seemed to center around so much darkness, I can’t give enough respect to a band that so earnestly sought to find the light leaking through the cracks.
[This review is pulled from my Favorite Albums of 2016 list.]
Recommended: “Goodness Pt. 2”, “Two Deliverances”, “Settle The Scar”, “Piano Player”
14. Frank Ocean — Blonde (2016)
In 2016, Frank Ocean returned from the fog with his most intensely personal project yet, which surprised me. Given the intimate nature of his music and his trademark tell-all letters, it’s easy to forget that he seldom writes from an immediately personal perspective. Songs like “Thinkin Bout You” play things vague enough to apply to a wide audience while tracks like “Pyramids” and “Forrest Gump” put Frank in a fictional character’s shoes entirely. Ocean let listeners into his world but had previously kept them at arm's length.
Until Blonde, I’d never realized that Frank avoids being explicitly biographical. The most striking moment on the album — and one of the best musical moments of 2016— comes at the end of “Nights.” The beat switches and Frank gets nostalgic. Ocean, always the car buff, reminisces about his family’s childhood vehicle: “1998, my family had that Acura. Oh, the Legend. Kept at least six discs in the changer.” He sings about fleeing his native New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: “After ‘Trina hit I had to transfer campus. Your apartment out in Houston’s where I waited.” He also recalls ’90s New Orleans legends like Master P rapping about their millions while his family could “only eat at Shoney’s on occasion.” These pointed personal memories stick out like a sore thumb in the landscape of Ocean’s albums.
Much like Channel Orange, Frank isn’t re-visiting these places in his mind because they’re happy. The point of the album is that they aren’t. That’s not to say he doesn’t value them.
Again, like Channel Orange, Blonde came with a letter.
“Boys do cry,” writes Ocean, alluding to the original title of this album. “But I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid.” Then he drops the thesis of Blonde, making sure to bring in another of his car analogies. “Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rear-view mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”
There’s a certain amount of joy and pride in looking back upon our rough patches. In hindsight, the jagged edges appear softer, and the lessons learned feel clearer. I think it’s healthy to occasionally have a sober-minded examination of our worst periods because time tends to have a way of helping things make sense. There’s wisdom in reflecting.
Blonde gives Ocean an excuse to flex his command of this wisdom, as he bounds through his past, retrieving poignant observations. On “Ivy” he thinks back on a time in his life where his emotional walls were so high that it actually made him more vulnerable. On “Pink + White” he paints a picture of children cannonballing off the roofs of homes into hurricane-flooded streets. He then realizes Katrina’s destruction of his childhood home allowed his mother to teach him “tools just to stay alive.”
These moments flutter back and forth between hazy recollections and vivid memories, but it’s in the intensely sad moments that Frank shines. In the words of Pitchfork, “longing looks good on him.” It’s true. Frank is damn good at this. “White Ferrari” is an easy highlight. “I let you out at Central,” Frank croons. “I didn’t care to state the plain. Kept my mouth closed. We’re both so familiar.”
So yes, maybe the struggles are ultimately for our benefit, but I think a lot of that benefit can only come in hindsight. Ocean’s catalog is practically an exploration of this theory. It’s hard to believe he wrote Blonde at 28 years old. Frank is a writer that’s mastered his skills, but it’s his ability to see himself and his past that’s truly enthralling.
Recommended: “Nights”, “White Ferrari”, “Solo”, “Ivy”
13. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial (2016)
Teens of Denial is a 70-minute barrage of music that features lead singer Will Toledo talking to himself, mostly. He spends time mentoring himself (“Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk”), criticizing himself (“You have no right to be depressed”), and questioning his own sadism (“I don’t need the complications, I’m just in it for the beating”).
Things get introspective to the point of being humorous. On “Drugs With Friends”, Toledo details a really bad experience with mushrooms (“I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of s**t in a stupid-looking jacket”), and on “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” he puts himself—for 11 minutes—in the shoes of the guy who wrecked that cruise ship on the Italian coast.
The most dazzling moment of the year comes on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” as Toledo pleads with himself. “It doesn’t have to be like this!”
Critics of the album will point out that Toledo isn’t a great singer, and they’re right. They’ll point out that he’s self-centered, and they’re right. They’ll point out that he’s whiney and emotional, and they’re right. Fortunately, I’m also all of those things, so this album is perfect.
Teens of Denial succeeds where other albums fail in that it perfectly walks the line between razor precision and complete chaos. Toledo manages to channel madness and brings things together at the right moments while allowing others just the right amount of recklessness. If you like classic or indie rock, this is for you. If you like phenomenal songwriting, this is for you. If you like music, this is for you.
[This review is pulled from my Favorite Albums of 2016 list.]
Recommended: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, “Drugs With Friends”, “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”, “Fill In The Blank”
12. Kanye West — Yeezus (2013)
The first year I formally ranked albums was 2013. I won’t share a link here because (1) the list is not publicly available on the internet anymore and (2) I was not a good writer in 2013. There was, however, one observation that looks smart in hindsight. I ranked Kanye West’s Yeezus at #2 that year, and tossed this prediction out: “While many didn’t appreciate it this year, it’ll be something everyone points to in hindsight as a creative masterpiece.”
I had a sneaking suspicion the album would age well. Many Kanye West fans and mainstream outlets alike were critical upon release. By the end of the year, many of those same critics already had it moving up in their rankings. In a move Pitchfork would copy weeks later, I placed it just behind Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. As you can tell by the list you’re reading, hindsight has edged it in front, and it’s now my favorite album of 2013. Today, even those who don’t consider it one of Kanye’s best projects will admit it’s better than they initially gave it credit for. My “masterpiece” claim may have been a bit hyperbolic, but I don’t think it’s far off.
Ask a stranger for adjectives describing Kanye West and a few you’re likely to hear pretty quickly are “egotistical,” “brash,” and “rude.” In that sense, Yeezus is the most Kanye West-y album of all time.
On previous releases, Kanye often packaged his “difficult” personality in accessible containers. On Yeezus, he lights the containers on fire, approaching his audience aggressively and unapologetically. The album opens with the harsh synths of “On Sight.” “He’ll give us what we need… it may not be what we want,” croons the chorus. Track 2 is titled “Black Skinhead.” Track 3 is literally called “I Am A God” and Spotify lists the featured artist as ‘God.’ Seriously. It’s an album that takes joy in being abrasive. Its lyrics contain unprintable and unnecessary lines involving sweet and sour sauce and the black power fist. There’s a darkly fascinating track that sees Kanye flip a Nina Simone song about lynchings into a lamenting of… groupies?
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its beautiful moments. The end of “New Slaves” features Frank Ocean and is stunning. The beat drop on “Blood On The Leaves” almost has you forgetting the aforementioned problematic nature of the song. “Send It Up” features a chilling beat and a menacing guest spot from Chief Keef that nobody seems to appreciate enough. The final verse of “I’m In It” is one of my sleeper favorites in Kanye’s career: “I’m so scared of my demons, I go to sleep with a nightlight. My mind move like a Tron bike. Pop a wheelie on the Zeitgeist.”
The album closes with “Bound 2.” It was my least favorite track upon release but has since really grown on me. The intentionally-campy western/heartland vibe of the music video was misunderstood by nearly everyone but also seems to have been a kind of foreshadowing of 2018’s Wyoming-inspired album, ye.
I’ve pointed out plenty of drawbacks, yet it’s still nearly in my Top 10 of all time. Its weaknesses improve the final product. It’s offensive but relentlessly fascinating. In this sense, I think the entire album was a foreshadowing. It was the last time, in my mind, Kanye perfectly used his flaws in his favor, but not the last time he tried to. To lesser success, I thought The Life of Pablo used this same blueprint.
2018’s release saw Kanye flying too close to the sun. These days, his flaws are just plain old flaws. In 20 years, we may look back and decide this was the final home run before things started to go south.
Maybe a symbolic ending with Yeezus makes sense. After all, it’s the most Kanye West-y album of all time.
Recommended: “Blood On The Leaves”, “New Slaves”, “Black Skinhead”, “Send It Up”
11. Kid Cudi—A Kid Named Cudi (2008)
The fact that this mixtape came out 11 years ago floors me. I remember the early days of Cudi’s career and the amount of evangelizing I did. There’s not a word to describe those late-2008 to early-2009 days for me other than ‘obsessed.’ Somewhere at my parents’ house is the physical edition of this mixtape (handed out at the listening party) and the accompanying 10.Deep shirt.
It was a weird time for music. The internet had torn down the gatekeepers and suddenly artists, especially rappers quick enough to embrace it, could jump-start a Grammy career by releasing a free project largely consisting of sketches over other artists’ instrumentals. Most approached this like Lil Wayne did—trying frantically to outperform the original artist in a technical sense while slipping in some punchy one-liners.
Kid Cudi went the other way. His lyrics were sharp, and his wordplay was often clever, but he could pull off stunts like creating a visceral depiction of his life over Outkast’s “Chonkyfire” beat. That’s what ultimately made waves. This is how the project opens—with better-than-average, but mostly pedestrian takes on his favorite beats.
Then “Man On The Moon” hits.
The Nosaj Thing instrumental twinkles and we’re hit with something I’d never heard before 2008.
It’s the reason why so many bands balk at the “emo” label. It feels a little condescending to look at an artist who’s opened up (especially in a genre where it was rarely done at the time) and slap them with a dismissive “emotional” descriptor. If things weren’t sufficiently off-kilter yet, Cudi reached for a Band of Horses sample next.
I’d have a hard time ranking them, but “The Prayer” might be my favorite Cudi track. It’s got the right mix of nostalgia and excellence.
Cudi certainly went on to bigger things, first with his debut in fall 2009. While that felt relatively polished and clean, this one felt like a patchwork quilt of ideas and concepts, mostly stitched together across instrumentals Cudi didn’t even own.
This type of music is hardly shocking now in an era where every SoundCloud rapper is willing to pour their heart out and lay it all bare, but that’s largely because Cudi did it first. Things were different in 2008. While Lil Wayne was going platinum in a week and topping charts with money-fueled anthems (nothing against Tha Carter III), here’s a kid from Cleveland by way of Brooklyn making personal, hand-crafted hip-hop about his struggles, hoping someone out there might identify.
Say what you want about Cudi and the places his career has gone in the last decade, but you’d be a fool not to recognize his profound influence, both in front of the mic and behind the scenes. Without him, we likely don’t get the 808s & Heartbreak sound that inspired the first several Drake albums. We likely don’t get Travis Scott. We likely don’t get any artist that emerged from the SoundCloud rap scene. So many lines can be traced back to what Cudi was doing in the late 2010s, and his journey started with A Kid Named Cudi.
Recommended: “The Prayer”, “Man On The Moon”, “Heaven at Nite”, “Cleveland Is The Reason”
10. Modern Baseball—Sports (2012)
I feel reasonably confident saying this is objectively the “worst” Modern Baseball album of their three major releases. You’re Gonna Miss It All is evolved in its construction, and Holy Ghost is matured in its musicality and songwriting. There’s just something I can’t shake about the doe-eyed exuberance of Sports.
“I want a complete re-do,” starts lead singer Brendan Lukens. “Maybe change my name. Report the losses, grab the claim. ‘It's a shame. It's such a shame.’” Right off the bat, we’re thrown into adolescent torment. “Tears Over Beers” laments a potential relationship that can’t get the timing right.
“@chl03k” is about the kind of petty, passive-aggressive social media feuds I remember from my younger years. “But you sure know how to get right to me with all those Facebook statuses, about relationships and such,” sings Lukens, eyes rolling. “Poor grammar is a must, but I trust that you can do it.” Before the band grew up a bit on later albums, they loved these barbs, and I kinda did too. (“And I reckon you grew up in a town that said ‘reckon’ all the time,” they’ll quip later on the album. “But what gives you the right to wreck everything?”)
It’s a time capsule of late-adolescent problems. Relationship dynamics are described by mentioning locked texts, every interaction is met with nausea, and hormones are raging. In the fleeting 30 minutes, “The Weekend” (the holiest of times for 18-year-olds) fittingly serves as the album’s anthem: “You got a smile that could light this town,” they holler. “And we might need it. ‘Cause it gets dark around here.”
The album ends like all from Modern Baseball do—a restrained, introspective two minutes. “I'm alright, and I'm always getting better. Let the fire burn high cause we like it that way.”
Sports is both a scathing rebuke of the grief that comes with the early part of adulthood and a love letter to it. For as much as we all hated these painful relationship dynamics and frantic attempts to find ourselves, these stupid, unimportant problems ultimately help us grow up, which is kind of essential.
Recommended: “The Weekend”, “Re-Done”, “Tears Over Beers”, “Hours Outside In The Snow”
09. Bon Iver—For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
In my mind, Bon Iver is inseparable from the early narrative. I’m sure newer listeners are unaware, which baffles me. That’s how much the legend of For Emma, Forever Ago is linked to the album itself in my mind. In short:
The year is 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 initially 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.
Seriously, the original album wasn’t even supposed to be heard by the masses. It was simply made as a form of therapy for a guy who made music to cope. It’s the reason why you’ll see discrepancies in release dates. The album was completed and ‘released’ (about 500 copies) in 2007, but didn’t get into the hands of indie label Jagjaguwar and earn a wider release until 2008.
It should be no surprise that For Emma, Forever Ago is hauntingly lonely and starkly beautiful, given its origins. What was a surprise, and something Justin Vernon could’ve never expected, is how his grief played out at large scale. How surreal to watch a sea of people, on another continent no less, join together in a song about loneliness.
“Skinny Love,” for a good reason, is the pallbearer. “Flume” and “Re: Stacks” are stellar. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” soundtracks the ending of one of my favorite movies ever. I’ve always felt “Blindsided” was vastly underrated. For an album that spans just nine tracks and 37 minutes and wasn’t intended to see a legitimate release, it has a shocking number of songs that hold up to more than a decade worth of listens. Most heartbroken albums wear thin quickly, but Vernon’s superpower is this scalable grief.
He’d later do it intentionally on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but there was something special about the time it came accidentally.
Recommended: “Skinny Love”, “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, “Re: Stacks”, “Blindsided”
08. Kid Cudi—Man On The Moon (2009)
I’m reasonably sure I was the world’s biggest Kid Cudi fan in 2009. (In fact, 16-year old me would be upset I’m not correctly stylizing his name as KiD CuDi.) I think the story probably starts in 2008 when I got my first MacBook. Saying it changed my life sounds ridiculous, but it did open up a whole new world. It got me into creating stuff. I started to make videos (which was the only thing that got me into college with my pathetic high school GPA), and I started to mess around in Photoshop (I make a living designing stuff now, which is still crazy to me). The other thing this MacBook did was open Pandora’s box when it came to music.
The blog scene at the time was incredible. It’s not something you could understand if you weren’t there. This was after the time in which piracy had re-shaped the music industry, and it eventually led to a situation where random bloggers were earning reputations as tastemakers and shaping the music world as we knew it. Million-dollar signing deals were bestowed upon artists like Drake and A$AP Rocky because this guerilla network of writers had decided they were cool. Every new song was distributed to the masses via free download on thousands of blogs. This went unchecked for years before eventually dying out. It was truly a Wild West situation.
One artist at the forefront of this movement was Kid Cudi.
808s & Heartbreak released in October 2008. Cudi was one of its main contributors. While Kanye’s album remains one of my all-time favorites (wait for it…) what enamored me most at the time was this kid on “Welcome to Heartbreak.” He was 24 years old, and he was from Cleveland. Those who know me (or have read even two posts on this website) know I love Cleveland more than anything. I bring this up to illustrate the point that the 2008/2009 version of Kid Cudi was seemingly engineered to appeal to me. Throughout the fall of 2008 and the first nine months of 2009, I’d rush home from school and hit the blogs to see if he’d released any new music. I was obsessed.
At the time, I was struggling a lot with anxiety and depression. In hindsight, it wasn’t anything unusual for kids of that age, and the new push for mental health awareness has helped to normalize these struggles. Back then, however, I thought I was going crazy. I was constantly exhausted, worried, and hopeless for no real reason. I was eventually diagnosed, and my parents did the best they could. I went through a litany of counselors and medication but nothing seemed to help, and the aggravation of battling it usually made things worse. (It’s still something I struggle with, especially the anxiety, but I more or less grew out of it or learned coping mechanisms. Life is good. If you need help, please don’t be afraid to ask for it. The few things—and people—that were helpful probably saved my life.)
I was a 16-year old kid freaking out because his brain stopped working normally, and I stumbled across an artist from Cleveland that made me feel like what I was going through was normal. This wasn’t typical a decade ago, especially not in hip-hop.
MOTM is technically a concept album, intending to play out as a dream in the mind of Scott Mescudi. I recall this being cool to me in 2009, but I don’t think it’s particularly essential to the album in hindsight. This kind of high concept impacts the album’s aesthetic much more than it does its narrative, as several portions of the album do feel distinctly dreamlike.
I still remember the day Man on the Moon finally leaked to the world: September 8, 2009. I listened in bed; covers pulled up over my head. To this day, there are only a handful of albums where I vividly remember the first time I heard them and the way they felt. Each of them made the Top 10 of this list.
I think the winding career of Cudi affected how the masses view this album, but it still sounds incredible to me. The production is otherworldly. Say what you want about Cudi, but this has to be one of the most well-produced albums of its era. It opens with a plunge into spacey dream state on “In My Dreams” before prancing through bizarre worlds in “Simple As…” and “Solo Dolo.” Kid Cudi’s breakout track, two years old at the time of this album’s release, was “Day N Nite.” Miraculously, it sounds at home in its new space.
The second half of the album finds some type of happy medium between bravery and irreverence. I still remember the first time I heard “Sky Might Fall” on that clip from Transformers.
The perfect microcosm of the album and its achievements is “Pursuit of Happiness.”
I’m on the pursuit of happiness, and I know
Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold
Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it
I’ll be good
The album finishes with “Up Up & Away,” a triumphant achievement. It’s one of Cudi’s most uplifting songs, and it sounds incredible in this context. Sign of the times: The chorus was my ringtone at one point in ’09.
I see the dreams I made
So I’m cooler now
I can take care of my mom and my little niece Zuri
So sing along, lil mama
You ain’t gotta worry ‘bout no drama, no
I provide for friends and fam and fans
And Cleveland City grinding, man
I’ll be up-up and away, up-up and away
’Cause in the end they judge me anyway
The album gets its name from R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon,” a song written in tribute of comedian Andy Kaufman. Kaufman’s legacy is that of a genre-defying artist, continually bending the rules and warping the definition of what comedy truly was. He followed nothing but his internal compass, creating a career out of things he found amusing, even though it frequently flew over people’s head. That’s where the Cudi comparison lies. He was breaking walls and re-writing rules, at least for this brief moment in 2009.
Cudi and I have a dicey relationship. The darker Man on the Moon II was good but spoke to me less. After that, we went our separate ways. 2018's Kids See Ghosts is surprisingly good, but nothing will match the way Man on the Moon made me feel. In the nine years since its release, Cudi may not have had the career many expected, but I’m eternally grateful for the way he helped keep me sane in those first few years, and I think a lot of fans would agree. On “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” Cudi raps, “I tried to think about myself as a sacrifice, just to show the kids they ain’t the only ones who up at night.” He spoke up for a lot of kids like me, and I’ll forever be a Cudi fan for that reason.
Recommended: “Soundtrack 2 My Life”, “Pursuit of Happiness”, “Sky Might Fall”, “Up Up & Away”
07. Bon Iver—Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)
While the maximalist landing point of For Emma, Forever Ago was unexpected, Bon Iver, Bon Iver went for it out of the gate. The former was composed mostly of sparse acoustic guitars, but the latter rests on a swirling bed of synths and pads, sonically airy but lyrically dense as always.
While still being mostly reserved, the album’s first single “Calgary” sees more musical action in the first two and a half minutes than its predecessor saw in its full runtime.
“Holocene,” my third favorite song of the decade, perfectly expands (to put it lightly) on its wintery Wisconsin foundation. Named after the geological period since the last ice age—as well as a bar on the corner of 10th and Morrison in Portland, Oregon—“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.
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,” he croons, painting a portrait of a lonely, still, icy Wisconsin landscape and the kind of odd comfort and clarity that can come with that.
It’s a microcosm of the album’s mission—taking Vernon’s introspection right through the forests of Eau Claire and stretching them as far as geological periods.
It’s a towering achievement—and a monumental boast—for an artist to solo-record a classic album and turn around and make his next one a sprawling masterpiece created with a football team of musicians. That’s Justin Vernon.
Recommended: “Holocene”, “Calgary”, “Perth”, “Beth/Rest”
06. Noah and the Whale—The First Days of Spring (2009)
Objectively, this may be the biggest surprise of this list. If you look at the release dates of some of these, you’ll notice a pattern. The end of high school and the immediate aftermath was a bad time for me (read #8), and some of these albums meant a lot to me during that period. Perhaps none meant more than this one. I don’t listen to it that often because evokes such a strong memory of that period in my life. The soft strings that open the album still give me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I used to listen to this album nearly every night as I fell asleep and then dream about it. It’s haunting at this point. It makes me feel 17 again.
All of this is ironic, of course, because the album is gorgeously made and its narrative arc is hopeful. Try not to get goosebumps as the opening track crescendos after six minutes of buildup.
Before we get to triumph, “Our Window” returns to a whisper. “And you're talking like a stranger, so I don't know what to do. And I'm calloused, and I'm cruel to everyone but you.” The track eventually ends with the somber, foreshadowing refrain, “Blue skies are coming, but I know that it’s hard.” The album charts the valleys, flirting with perseverance in the form of glimpses of sunny guitars and warm trumpets.
The trio of “Instrumental I,” “Love Of An Orchestra,” and “Instrumental II” is the album’s turning point. “If you gotta run, run from home,” repeats the choir.
The jewel is “Blue Skies.” Maybe it’s mostly nostalgia and personal experience, but I think it’s one of the most powerful songs of its decade. “This is a song for anyone with a broken heart,” sings lead singer Charlie Fink. “This is a song for anyone who can’t get out of bed. I'll do anything to be happy. Oh, 'cause blue skies are coming, but I know that it's hard…”
The uplifting pianos hit, and it feels like the musical version of jumping into a cool lake on a hot, summer day. There may not be a more satisfying, singular peak to an album on this entire list.
The project was accompanied by a 47-minute short film, serving as a kind of music video to the entire thing. The care that was given to this album is kind of remarkable, especially when you consider the rest of the band’s career.
Noah And The Whale’s first album was (pretty enjoyable) jangly folk-pop, and their later efforts weren’t bad but mostly sounded like late-career Coldplay. They broke up in 2015. For one moment though, they had The First Days of Spring. It plays out like a 42-minute symphony chronicling a triumphant march out of despair. It slowly helped me do the same ten years ago.
Recommended: “Blue Skies”, “The First Days Of Spring”, “Our Window”
05. The Hotelier—Home, Like Noplace Is There (2014)
It starts: “Open the curtains. Singing birds tell me, ‘Tear the buildings down.’”
In my brain, Kanye West always gets credit for having the best album openers. Frank Ocean is probably in the conversation as well. When I think about it though, my favorite album opener of all time belongs to The Hotelier. Simply called “An Introduction To The Album,” it sets the stage for what’s to come. “I searched for a way out, don't we all?” wails lead singer Christian Holden, voice shaking. The song slowly builds until exploding at the 3:37 mark. Seeing this in concert is akin to being hit by a truck.
The album’s sense of forward momentum is one of its greatest achievements. Despite a handful of impressive changes in style, it continues hurdling perilously downhill through its 37 minutes, desperately grasping for something to slow its momentum. “And now I’m lost, and I can’t take this path back home,” cries the second track. “Send a birthday card; leave a one-way note.”
Home, Like Noplace Is There never ceases feeling dangerous, pulsating with reckless and aggressive life and death. “And on New Years you resolved to make your chaos external,” Holden recalls of a friend. They kept this promise: “As you climbed out the window, your face cold as stone, you lifted the towel, your wrist showed the bone. I held my breath in the ER; I swayed as I stood. I tried to stay steady to protect you the best that I could.”
One song later we’re at the funeral of a friend who committed suicide. “Your branching off had met an end, from all the weight that made you bend.” Holden can’t shake the guilt, feeling there was something that could’ve been done to stop it. “The sight of your family made me feel responsible. I found the notes you left behind, little hints and helpless cries.”
Nothing has grown on me more over than years than the closer, “Dendron.”
Do you recall the imagery from when I drove you away?
Through others’ rose prescription lens
Man, I’m sorry every day
Because we intersect internally
And then we take what we have and we run
And It all starts to unravel
Until we’re less than we were carrying before
I guess I expected more
Holden uses the imagery of trees to illustrate mental illness: “Count my rings to see how many winters I’ve been stuck here underground.” It’s a story of a relationship spiraling at the hands of this sickness—two people slowly beat down and torn apart by it, not strong enough to save themselves or each other.
Part of your charm
Was the way you would push me from
All of the traps that I just couldn’t see
Figures the one
That was there to have tripped you up
Would be the one that was set there by me
Wish I was there to say goodbye when you went away
Wish I was home but noplace was there
Like many such stories, it ends in a cemetery—a battle lost: “Engraved in the stone by request and recurse of friends dead is, ‘Tell me again that it’s all in my head.’”
It’s a heartbreaking, courageous project, but an incredible achievement of production, composition, and especially songwriting. It’s one of those albums you listen to and marvel that anyone could make it, especially someone barely older than I am. Holden was 22 when recording Home, Like Noplace Is There.
Perhaps more courageous is the fact that the band’s next album, Goodness, seeks and finds new life from all of this death. Stunningly impressive.
Recommended: “Dendron”, “An Introduction To The Album”, “Your Deep Rest”
04. Kanye West—808s & Heartbreak (2008)
For years, one of Kanye’s superpowers was his self-awareness. Perhaps never has an artist been so egotistical while so introspective, all at once beating his chest and picking at its contents. It’s his gasoline. In 2008, it found its flame. Kanye split with his fiancée and his mother died from complications after cosmetic surgery—for which Kanye internalized the blame.
What follows will go down as perhaps the most surprising turn in a career full of surprises. Kanye holed up in Hawaii for three weeks, just him, his grief, and a Roland TR-808 drum machine—most commonly used in ‘80s pop music and early hip-hop. What spilled forth is a kind of retro-futuristic pop album that stunned listeners at the time but set off a chain reaction in the music industry that’s still visible more than a decade later.
Kanye eschews rapping, instead wailing through a haze of Auto-Tune, mourning a life lost. To call it a breakup album would be an undersell, but many of its lyrics take aim at his former lover and his current existential crisis, sparked by the fracturing of their relationship.
He laments his fame and, by some domino effect, how it caused the death of his mother: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” He sees his life whipping past while he’s trying to recover: “Seems like street lights, glowing, happen to be just like moments, passing, in front of me. So I hopped in the cab, and I paid my fare. See I know my destination, but I'm just not there.” On “Coldest Winter,” he interpolates Tears For Fears and mourns for both his mother and his fiancée.
One of the album’s strongest legacies is in the surprising amount of waves it made in hip-hop trends. Thanks in large part to the contributions of Kid Cudi (whose career it helped launch), it rippled everywhere from Drake to Travis Scott. It’s crazy to think how different (or nonexistent) hip-hop and its fractured subgenres would be without this synthy crisis.
While Kanye albums are typically pieces of art both as a whole and in their separate songs, 808s & Heartbreak relies on the sum of its parts to stand up, which may be its biggest weakness, even as the years have aged it like fine wine in my eyes. I don’t know of many people who throw “Love Lockdown” on a playlist, but it’s still fun to listen to the album and get lost in its rolling tidal waves of synths and fuzz, exploring all the nooks and crannies of Kanye’s mind during this frenetic three-week period in 2008.
Recommended: “Welcome To Heartbreak”, “Streetlights”, “RoboCop”
03. Frank Ocean—Channel Orange (2012)
The audacity to record a 10-minute epic and make it the lead single for your debut album kinda sums up what Frank Ocean is about. “Pyramids” is a wide-ranging tale of the black condition, starting in Egypt and ending in modern-day America. It joins two separate stories into a single thesis atop a rocket ship of synths, capped off by a John Mayer guitar solo. It’s one of the best songs of the decade—and it’s the tentpole of Channel Orange—yet it’s a testament to the album that it barely scratches the surface of what Ocean is getting at.
As you have probably guessed by now, I listen to a lot of music. Few albums have the power to transport me. Channel Orange reminds me distinctly of Summer 2012. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was driving a truck all over Cleveland—probably 100 miles per day—with this album playing on a loop in my head.
There’s not much here that Ocean doesn’t offer. It has love songs (“Thinkin Bout You” was the first dance at my wedding), and tales of drug dealers, unrequited love, wealth, and longing.
For as personal as his music is, Ocean typically keeps his listeners at arm’s length, preferring to insert himself into fictional characters to illustration parable-style lessons. It’s something that Bruce Springsteen toyed with decades earlier, and Ocean cranks it up to 11.
“Sweet Life” places him in the shoes of the uber-rich to poke at classism in America: “The water's blue, swallow the pill. Keepin' it surreal.” On the very next song, he examines the other side of the coin. He’s on the roof of a mansion, showing how wealth can’t cheat death: “We end our day up on the roof. I say I’ll jump, I never do. But when I’m drunk, I act a fool. Talking bout, ‘Do they sew wings on tailored suits?’” “Pilot Jones” explores the high of young love: “Tonight she came stumblin' across my lawn again. I just don't know why I keep on tryin' to keep a grown woman sober.” “Crack Rock” explores the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs: “Your family stopped inviting you to things, won't let you hold their infant.” On “Lost,” he’s a globetrotting drug dealer. On “Bad Religion,” he’s an inconsolable taxi passenger, using his driver for cheap therapy. On the album’s final song, he’s Forrest Gump.
It feels like I’m glossing over so many songs because truly evangelizing about this album would lead to a novel (or an in-depth podcast), but there are more genuinely classic moments than on any album released in the last eight or nine years. In its 55 minutes, Ocean grips listeners for each one.
In a letter published before the album’s release, Frank opened up. “In the last year or 3 I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky, for some explanation,” he wrote. “Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow. 4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.”
It’s the album’s genesis and inspiration. However, there’s a line later in the letter that always stuck out to me more, and that I think better explains the album’s power:
“I’ve never had more respect for life and living than I have right now.”
Listening to Channel Orange, you can feel it. It’s laced with struggle, torment, and visceral heartbreak. It’s also filled with the type of humanity we don’t always get from truly prodigious artists. While Ocean has always carried the aura of someone—something—grander, he ultimately succeeds because he feels just like one of us. He struggles, he fails. He feels pain and heartbreak, yet accepts and respects it all. It just so happens he’s got the supremely God-given ability to write about it like this.
The fact that it reminds me of being 19 years old, reeking of sweat and diesel fumes, feels like kind of a weird bonus.
Recommended: “Pyramids”, “Thinkin Bout You”, “Forrest Gump”, “Bad Religion”
02. Kanye West—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
By 2009, Kanye had released 808s & Heartbreak—an album spinning forth from the split with his fiancée and the death of his mother. If it was possible for West to earn America’s respect and sympathy, he’d done it.
In that September’s MTV Video Music Awards, it all came crashing down in a heroic feat of self-sabotage. The Taylor Swift incident catapulted Kanye’s public persona into what we’d recognize today, making him public enemy number one with much of middle America and his celebrity peers. Shortly thereafter, his massive tour with Lady Gaga (aptly titled “Fame Kills”) was canceled and West disappeared.
His self-imposed exile in Hawaii would prove to produce his career’s most defining moment, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He set up “rap camp,” inviting scores of high-profile guests to visit his Oahu studio to work democratically on his comeback album. Everyone from Elton John to Soulja Boy made the trip, devoting hundreds of man-hours to the project.
While “Power” was the first single released, the public’s first look at Kanye West 5.0 came at the 2010 MTV Video Music awards—back where the whole mess started a year earlier. West strutted out to the center of the stage in a bright red suit, hunched over a Roland TR-808 drum machine, and pulled the ripcord. “Runaway” will go down as the defining song of his career (and my favorite song of the decade) for how it’s both an admonishment of everything Kanye and a celebration of it.
Let's have a toast for the douche bags
Let's have a toast for the ***holes
Let's have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let's have a toast for the jerk offs
That'll never take work off
Baby, I got a plan
Runaway fast as you can
The album dropped in October to instant universal acclaim.
It opens with a Nicki Minaj monologue lifted from a Roald Dahl story and an airy chorus from Teyana Taylor and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon: “Can we get much higher?!” Kanye was pulling up from half court and hitting nothing but net. After 67 seconds it crashes into a piano loop, and we hear from Kanye for the first time: “I fantasized ‘bout this back in Chicago,” he snarls.
By now it’s clear something serious is about to happen.
He’s balancing his sanity, his ego, and a laundry list of contributors. He’s doing it all while delivering the best work of his career. “Gorgeous” sees perhaps his best lyricism ever. “Penitentiary chances, the devil dances and eventually answers to the call of Autumn. All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’. Got caught with 30 Rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin.”
“Power” is one of the best tracks of his portfolio and this fact is nearly overlooked because of how good the album was. 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 Schizoid Man is just what Kanye had become, and all of MBDTF backs it up.
Looking back, this all came at the perfect moment for Kanye. It was a time where he was crazy enough to believe he was the greatest and produce an album without an ounce of restraint, but it was before that relationship with the rest of us became fully untethered—first a bit (Yeezus) and then a lot (ye).
Stylistically, the album finds itself at the intersection of Kanye’s first four albums. It packs a College Dropout approach to sampling, a Late Registration orchestral flair, a Graduation pop ambition, and an 808s & Heartbreak grizzled emotion into a single monolith.
The album proved to be a maximalist masterpiece.
A 35-minute short film accompanied the album, depicting Kanye’s attempts to protect a phoenix portrayed by supermodel Selita Ebanks. West would later claim that the production of the Runaway film—financed out of his own pocket—helped cause him to go bankrupt.
It was all worth it. It’s a perfect album.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is… just that. It’s a hedonistic juggernaut that sees a superstar at the peak of his powers. That doesn’t come around very often.
Recommended: “Runaway”, “Power”, “Gorgeous”, “Dark Fantasy”, “Blame Game”, “Devil In A New Dress”
01. Wilco—Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I’ve been dreading writing about this album, believe it or not. I have a hard time articulating why I love certain things. I can never seem to express my appreciation properly. Twice I’ve written full-blown posts about this album only to scrap them. I can’t dodge it anymore.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is my favorite album of all time.
I suppose it starts after World War I. Governments created shortwave radio stations (called Numbers Stations) that broadcast codes on loop. They targeted undercover spies who could tune in to a specified frequency and decipher a message to which only they had the key. In the ‘90s, artist Akin Fernandez collected a bunch of these mysterious, undecipherable recordings and published them on an album dubbed The Conet Project. I don’t know how Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy got his hands on this album, but he did.
He explained the fascination to the Chicago Tribune:
There is nothing more abstract to me than the idea of a country. These solitudes exist so apart from one another in this sea of white noise and information. And the beautiful thing is they keep transmitting to each other in the hope that somebody is going to find them.
And the beauty is that people still do, still find some meaning in another person, in a relationship, find some way to communicate, even though more often than not it’s in a way that’s not what they intended. Because some communication is better than giving up or not communicating at all.
It’s the album’s thesis. At the end of the day, we’re all just messed up humans trying desperately—often futilely—to form connections with others. The problem is that these tools we use to communicate can be difficult to master. Things get lost in translation, and it leads to a lot of heartache.
On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s opening track, Tweedy is fumbling. “I am trying to break your heart” opens with a tumbling mess of feedback and tape loops, sloppy drums, and chaotic flourishes. It’s cluttered, and our narrator is struggling to communicate his despondency:
Tweedy has something important to say to someone important, but he’s having trouble coming up with the right words. The whole album is like this.
On “Kamera” (typo purposeful) he asks for a camera to show which lies he’s been hiding. On “Radio Cure,” he’s alarmed: “There is something wrong with me. My mind is filled with silvery stars, honey, kisses, clouds of fluff.” His nonsense transmissions aren’t hitting their mark, and he laments that “distance has no way of making love understandable.”
“Jesus, Etc.” marks the portion of the album where our romantic narrator starts to notice all that’s going wrong around him. “Tall buildings shake. Voices escape singing sad, sad songs,” he notes. The next track is “Ashes of American Flags,” and it builds on this looming dread: “I want a good life with a nose for things. Fresh wind and bright sky to enjoy my suffering. A hole without a key if I break my tongue. Speaking of tomorrow, how will it ever come?” At this point, it’s probably relevant to note that the original release date for this album was September 11, 2001.
“Poor Places” sees Tweedy with “bourbon on the breath.” He wants to leave home to see his lover, but he’s too drunk, and it’s too hot out. He’s messing up again. The song disintegrates into a mountain of noise, and we hear our first message from The Conet Project. It’s a disembodied female voice: “Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.”
Suddenly, it’s silent. We’re at the back of the album. Bittersweet pianos rise, the song creaks, and electronic bleeps and bloops hover like fog on an autumn morning, remnants of the night before. Our narrator enters. He sounds tired but more clear-headed:
How can I convince you it's me I don't like
And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes
When I've always been distant
And I've always told lies for love?
I'm bound by these choices so hard to make
I'm bound by the feeling so easy to fake
None of this is real enough to take me from you
Oh I've got reservations
About so many things
But not about you
Tweedy finally gets it right. We don’t know what the recipient of this message thinks, but at least he’s been heard. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask for, right? “Some communication is better than giving up or not communicating at all.”
The album has a mythic reputation, not only for its music and eerie ties to 9/11 but also for its road to release. When the band took this insane project to their label, the suits loathed it. How do you sell an album that sounds intentionally unfinished, filled with nonsense lyrics? Warner Bros. rejected it, handing over the master tapes to the band to find somewhere else to release it. Ironically, it was another Warner Bros. subsidiary that ultimately bought it for distribution, but not before the group streamed the album for free on its website—one of the earliest glimpses at the future of the music industry.
By the time the album was released more than six months later, everyone had already heard it. It’s one of the few albums to become an instant classic—universally revered upon release.
Tweedy saw the haunting beauty in those Numbers Stations, constantly transmitting messages into the world, not knowing if anyone would be on the receiving end. Maybe part of the reason this has aged so well is the rise of the internet and social media. More than ever, we have the power to communicate, but the noise can make it feel like we’re shouting into the abyss. It’s almost a wonder any of us manage.
We all continue to speak though. Speaking is one thing. Being heard is another. Being understood is a kind of magic.
Recommended: “I am trying to break your heart”, “Jesus, Etc.”, “Ashes of American Flags”, “Reservations”