My old buddy Plato used to say “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Or in the words of Frank Zappa; “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” This is the music that informed my DNA and defined my decade 2010-2019.
30. Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty
Less a collection of songs than a schmear of sounds, words, and rhythms, spread over the top of a lucite bagel floating in slow motion. You could be listening to this while having breakfast in zero gravity on the space station, or hurtling underground at 500 mph on a magnet-driven commuter train from one metropolis to another.
I bought this in the summer, when I still had a portable CD player, and played it on repeat while I lay in the sun soaking up the rays. Hard to understand, not easy to digest, but rewarding on many levels, and across multiple spins. Notable lyric: "Time travel fast and far to the last oceans, Pour potion, pimp pirate pushin' plush prose in, Curtains closin', You ain't knowin' he was just posin'"
29. The Roots - undun
In the Twenty-Tens, The Roots moved away from boom-bap / neo-soul and into more of what I would call "chamber rap." undun features some of their most moving and melancholy music, which feels like it's been recorded in black and white, quite like the picture on the album cover. Every sound and vocal on this album feels like it has just had the dust blown off of it, to be presented anew. Forever an underdog in the industry of bling and big money, The Roots champion the everyman, blue collar, poor but urbane, individual. Like Rocky, who also hails from Philadelphia, the Roots have never been the prettiest or flashiest, but they have what it takes to dig deep, not only surviving, but excelling. Black Thought remains their featured singer/lyricist, but their albums include a vast number of collaborators. Their own band alone, features 8 musicians. So it does feel like an ensemble piece, presented like a chamber concert, and you've been given a great seat in the house. Notable lyric: "All the halted motion of a rebel without a pause, What it do is done till you dead and gone, The grim reaper telling me to swim deeper, Where the people go to -- lo and behold, the soul keeper, I’m not even breaking out in a sweat, Or cold fever but I’m never paying up on my debt or tolls either, I’ll leave the memories here I won’t need them, If I stop thinking and lie, now that’s freedom, Your body’s part of the Maritime museum, Face down in the past is where I’m being"
28. DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better
Just when you thought that sampling was dead, or played out, Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow, comes back out from whatever dingy record crate he's been hiding in and destroys every notion you have of instrumental / hip-hop / DJ / soundtrack / whatever-the-hell / emo music. You can't listen to this without playing the whole album from front to back. There is no single, or club track to be found.
Apparently, we humans are losing our attention span, or it's dwindled down to some ridiculous nano-second. Cockroaches have been around for 200 million years, yet we claim to be the center of the universe because we walk upright. But aren't we also self-destructing demi-cretins who are managing to ruin our only home planet because we have to package our heavily processed foods inside layers of ozone killing plastic!? Wait, where was I...
27. Skeletonwitch - Forever Abomination
I was first introduced to Athen, Ohio's Skeletonwitch when I was mixing shows at Empty Bottle in Chicago. First off, I gotta say, metal bands are across the board, the nicest bands to work with. You wouldn't think so, given the artwork of this album, but these guys were so nice and entertaining I bought a t-shirt and their debut album Beyond the Permafrost at that show.
Vocalist Chance Garnette (no relation to either Chance the Rapper or NBA hall-of-famer Kevin Garnett) was later booted from the group for being a drunk asshole, but he is great on all of the first 4 albums. He vacillates between a shredded, edgy bark and one of those "I drank Satan's kool-aid" growls that emanates from the taint.
The music harkens to an earlier metal sound, ala Kreator and Exodus, with a twin guitar attack that recalls Iron Maiden's epic gallop. You'd probably group this band in the death metal category, but what I think sets them aside from others is that their songs are just so much fun. The titles are incredibly dark and hilarious, such as: "Choke Upon Betrayal," "Rejoice in Misery," and "Cleaver of Souls."They obviously don't take themselves too seriously and give the listener a lot to chew on in their under 3 minute songs. Each of their tunes has somewhere between 5 and 10 different guitar riffs. Most bands settle for 3 or 4. That makes Skeletonwitch, at least in this formation, one of the most creative and rewarding bands to listen to. Notable lyric: "This mind of unspeakable horror, These hands of unstoppable pain, My breath gives life to your destruction, Revel in the salt of your remains"
26. Slayer - Repentless
Slayer just played its final show this summer, after being an active band since 1981. That is a lot of individual head bangs. If each of those head bang was a nickel, you could pay to have Trump's name removed from the building in Chicago.
Founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman died before this album was recorded and obviously missed the final tour, which is truly a shame. He was a major part of the music and lyric writing. Gary Holt from the band Exodus stepped into his shoes and really nails his playing style on the guitar solos he created. Absent also on this album is drummer Dave Lombardo, who had left and returned previously from the band. He was on the previous two albums to this one; Christ Illusion and World Painted Blood. But, all that aside, Repentless is a fucking assault. Slayer has always had the best riffs, best blast beats, best solos, and best lyrics. You need this album for the Trump era. Turn it up very loud. Notable lyric: "Stop and think of society's impotence, And the reason behind its incompetence, Faith in God is the vice, bring on the tyranny, Won't be long 'til you find the real irony, Life drags on, and we watch it bleed, On controversy and madness we feed, It's a rush you can't deny, A little violence is the ultimate drug, Let's get high"
25. Melody's Echo Chamber - Bon Voyage
And now for something lighter...
This is an album that I love to recommend, because feel like this band is woefully underrated. Bon Voyage was delayed for over a year, because Melody suffered an aneurysm and broken vertebrae from an
undisclosed accident. It's too bad, because I think the momentum the group may have had from its debut album was lost as a consequence. Thankfully this did finally see the light of day and it is just special.
This group reminds me of Blonde Redhead in that you can't easily pinpoint the influences and nobody else sounds like they do. Part psychedelic pop, part shoegaze indie, and full of delicious tunes, Bon Voyage is a definite must for fans of Stone Roses, Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, and Tune-Yards. And since marijuana will be legal in Illinois starting January 1st of 2020, you can blaze one up and put this gem on! Notable lyric: "This is the promise to my heart, I can't keep falling from so high, All the oceans keeping us apart, And the seasons passing by, And I'm still sad"
Rihanna - Anti
There are some that say you are either in Camp Beyonce or Camp Rihanna. I think unless you are a sexist pig, you can have both. But if I had to choose, like at knife point, I'd choose Rihanna. And this was The album that tipped the scale for me.
"Same Ol' Mistakes" was my JAM on this album. And I mean "my JAM" like I would get down to my skivvies and lip sync Risky Business style to that one.
Dark, mysterious, and sexy, ANTI truly nails it for me. It feels produced, but also fairly loose. It feels like the first album that Rihanna got to call the shots on. She's been successful enough that she can be trusted. And when the record company police finally uncuffed our girl, the real Rihanna got to breathe in the fresh air of freedom. A great album to listen to while driving, or perhaps wading into the cold lake with your jeans on. Notable lyric: "All that I used to hate, Worried 'bout every trait, I tried but it's way too late, All the signs I don't read, Two sides of me can't agree, When I breathe in too deep, Going with what I always longed for"
23. Run the Jewels - RTJ2
El-P and Killer Mike shocked the world when they teamed up as Run The Jewels and proceeded to rule every summer festival from then on. Both of them can rap at a ridiculous level and they feed off one another's energy in an old school give-and-take from New York's heyday of hip-hop. El-P makes tracks that would be compelling on their own sans vocals. His style is a direct descendant of NY's Bomb Squad production team responsible for classics from Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Both Bomb Squad and El-P make beats from seemingly any music source or recorded sound. And make it funky to boot.
RTJ updates their old school vibe with a Southern bounce and a Trap-style menace that makes them perfect for the kids to mosh to and wing their half empty Evian bottles up in the air. I doubt El-P or Killer Mike thought they'd see this resurgence in the second half of their careers, but it has definitely been welcome. And I hope has taught these youngster rappers that there is value in competitive lyric writing and not just mumbling a half baked hook and calling it a song. Notable Lyric: "Life is hell, death's a bitch, And these fubar rulers getting rich, I cop a zip, it opens up, I smoke it up, go home and fuck, C'est la vie girl, when in Rome, I gave the face, please pay with dome, My business card says, 'You're in luck I do two things, I rap and fuck'"
22. Rufus Wainwright - Out of the Game (2012)
In my somewhat humble opinion, Rufus Wainwright is the most talented singer-songwriter in America today. Technically, he's half Canadian, but lives in New York. My wife Jessica and I strolled past Rufus in the Village once and didn't realize it was him until it was too late to gush like crazy. Thankfully we were able to meet him not too long after this album was released. We saw Rufus perform for this album's tour with a full band and then later at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where I was working as an audio engineer. I actually sat side stage and did monitor mixing for his solo show.
This album was produced by Mark Ronson and has his signature dry, Motown influenced (by way of the UK) sound. Out of the Game contains Rufus's most pop oriented music yet and features the Dap-Kings as the main backing band. Not a note is wasted here, and this album forgoes much of the dramatic orchestrations that pepper Wainright's catalog. Unfortunately, this was probably never destined for the charts or for the radio, which is just a damn shame, because this guy should be way more famous and popular than he is. Notable lyric: "Baby I know that you’re too sad to cry, But my little darling guess what? So am I, Still I believe we ought to shed a tear, The open hearted have no thing to fear"
21. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Generally I think it's corny a.f. to self title one
of your albums if it's not your debut. Stinks of desperation to me. It feels especially out of place for an artist like St. Vincent, who's got such great artistic vision. She's a style icon, a friend of David Byrne, a filmmaker, and has her own signature guitar from Ernie Ball. Basically, she's got it going on.
When I first heard the singles "Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness", I said to myself "This is what pop music of now should sound like." If I had my way, these would be big hits on radio. Maybe that's because I'm a weirdo. But St. Vincent has always been a bit ahead of the curve. I actually think that some of the charting artists like Lil Nas X, Post Malone, and Travis Scott owe some bit of debt to St. Vincent for combining pop and outsider art so boldly. Of course, they all owe it all to David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed...but that's for another post. Notable lyric: "Digital witnesses, what's the point of even sleeping? If I can't show it, if you can't see me, What's the point of doing anything? This is no time for confessing"
20. Metallica - Hardwired...To Self-Destruct
Yes Metallica sucks to a lot of people and are the example of bloated ego and rock bro-ism. If you have not seen the documentary Some Kind of Monster do yourself a favor and watch it. It's amazing that this band even stayed together and made anything relevant ever again. Or perhaps it was instrumental in making the band better by holding up a mirror to their ass-hattery.
Metallica attempted to get past that nauseating blunder by making Death Magnetic in 2008. It was better...but flawed by some of the worst modern rock production ever. Fans petitioned the band to re-master it because it was so loud, squished, and hard to listen to.
Somehow, in 2016 Metallica managed to write their best record of past 20 years, situating it musically between Kill 'Em All and the "Black Album." It's got some great thrash tunes, like the titular song and the album closer "Spit Out the Bone". There are some mid-90s clunkers on here too, but they are outshined by the album's first half killers "Moth Into Flame," "Dream No More," and "Atlas, Rise!"
If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it must be a duck. I'm grateful that Metallica remember how to walk and talk like the band they are, and didn't produce something akin to the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon. Notable lyric: "Accelerate, Utopian solution, Finally cure the Earth of man, Exterminate, speeding up the evolution, Set on course a master plan, Reinvent the earth inhabitant"
19. Mastodon - Emperor of Sand
I was waiting for Mastodon to come back with an album that I liked as much as 2009's Crack the Skye. They did not disappoint with this shredder from 2017 Emperor of Sand. I love their mix of desert psychedelia, classic metal riffing, and progressive rock precision. For dorm room guitar nerds, this is definitely drool-inducing stuff. It's hard to believe there are only two guitar players in this band, because there is so much going on. Three out of four of the guys sing lead vocals and the drummer is incredible. He's so intense, it sounds like the guitars are running for their lives.
The album details the story of a traveller banished to the desert by an emperor, in effect giving him a death sentence. The story is a metaphor for someone diagnosed with cancer, as were family members of Mastodon during the time leading up to this recording. There are some moments of true brutal beauty on this album. This one will live on for decades, allowing younger fans in the future to discover its heavy luxuries, somewhere in the dark corner of a teenager's angst ridden depression. Notable lyric: "You're not as safe as far as I can tell, And I can tell, Only you can save yourself, Soon this will all be a distant memory, Or could this dream be real at all?"
18. N.E.R.D. - No_One Ever Really Dies
Pharrel Williams has had an amazing career, working with the biggest names in music and kickstarting a number of careers. He's had songs in the biggest movies and did a damn interview with Oprah for Pete's sake. So what do you do when you have it all? You go back to the hip-hop / punk / ska band you started with your homies and knock out a great album that no one asked for.
Who would have thought that music for doing keg stands could also have a political and spiritual message behind it?? N.E.R.D. strikes a queer balance between The Clash, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, Devo, and Kraftwerk on this career defining platter. Guest features include heavyweights - Rihanna (rapping!), Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, Future, M.I.A., and Andre 3000. There's so much swag here, it's almost offensive. If only we could all do it like Pharrel. Notable lyric: "Live wire going through your body, Burn the old, make you anew, It's a mystical experience party, The universal connection to you"
17. Christine and the Queens - Chris
The first time I heard Christine and the Queens was a YouTube clip of her performing Girlfriend with her dancers. At first I thought, "Ew, this is kinda bad." But by the middle of the performance I was like "Oh wow, this is actually super sexy and great!" Christine has this masculine toughness on top of a tiny, fragile tenderness. She radiates an energy like a true star, something akin to a cigarette smoking Care Bear that didn't make the cut and was never adopted.
Someone tried to get me into Robyn, but it didn't appeal to me. This is what appeals to me. The songwriting is super strong, really catchy, and has an international chic to it. If you are missing Madonna, Paula Abdul, and/or Pet Shop Boys, check this album out. You may end up cutting the sleeves off your jean jacket, putting on your white Reeboks, and heading out to the 10th grade dance at the public school gymnasium. Notable lyric: "Even though you just demured, 'Cause my nerve passes for rude, I'm the warmth that now exudes, Through your lips as you start to obsess on, Now show me how you care to hum along"
16. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
At a time when EDM was exploding all over the world and drawing huge audiences at festivals it would have made sense for Daft Punk to cash in on the moment and put out more electronic gems. But they threw a curve ball and released Random Access Memories, which draws its influences from disco and dance music of the 70s and 80s. Much of the instrumentation was recorded by studio musicians, altering the process for the cloaked French duo.
I had a theory for a while that Daft Punk was actually Air. It made sense to me: both are duos, both are from France, both create melodic art pop with overlapping influences. But alas, not true. Would have made for a great Behind the Music though...
I don't know if you grew up in a house that watched Solid Gold, but it was often on in mine, and this album conjures up those memories. The show always featured dancers in gold lamé, sparking pyrotechnics, hit stars, and corny jokes. It was like Hee Haw for coke heads. Putting this album on transports me to that place. I'm putting on my brown leather platform shoes, shaking a can of spray-on tan, loading my pants with a ripe cucumber, and stepping out into the New York nighttime. We're destined for a good time, and neither Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev is going to stop us! Notable lyric: "I know you don't get chance to take a break this often, I know your life is speeding and it isn't stopping, You take my shirt and just go ahead and wipe up all the Sweat, sweat, sweat"
15. Danny Brown - Old
I've been rocking Danny Brown for a decade now and it stills surprises me that music heads I talk to don't know who he is. I mean, he's not exactly commercial, but he has been on tracks with Eminem, Big Sean, A$ap Rocky, Drake, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar. It doesn't get any bigger than that. As close to fame as Danny Brown has gotten, it hasn't changed his ethos as an artist. He still works with a number of the same collaborators, still lives in Detroit, and if anything, it's driven him to make even stranger, more singular music.
Let's say, he's like the Gilbert Gottfried of hip-hop. I know some people can't stand his voice. I find it really fun and exciting. And Danny raps like it is really the only thing in the world he can do. He's pretty autobiographical in his writing, describing what life was like before he got a record deal and what living in poverty in Detroit is like.
I was lucky to be working Pitchfork festival when he performed in support of his XXX album. Purity Ring was the headliner that evening on my stage, which I'm certain led directly to their contribution on Old called "25 Bucks," one of the best songs on this album. I will always wish Danny success in entertainment and hope he continues to expand his career. Notable lyric: "Now I'm trapped in the trap, And the devil ain't forgettin', Wanna see me dead or locked in a prison, In the system with division only thing that add up, Fucked up 'cause a n*gga tryna get a couple bucks"
14. Aphex Twin - Syro
For a while it seemed like we wouldn't hear any more music from Aphex Twin. Once music went fully digital with downloads and streaming, I got the sense that what once was motivating for Richard D. James was simply gone. 13 years went by between the double album Drukqs and the follow-up Syro.
While Drukqs seemed to be a pretty serious and heavy album, Syro sounds light and bouncy, dare I say "funky?"
Aside from being musically genius, the most appealing thing to me about Aphex Twin is the mystery surrounding the art. It's never clear where something begins or ends, what sound produces what, who is in control, or what any of it means. Are we in on the joke? Or are we the joke? There's clearly something fishy going on and only Richard D. James will ever know. He is hands down the most versatile artist to ever make electronic music. From the flesh burning hot oil sound of "Come to Daddy," to the poetic frolic of "Film," to the Satie-like piano ballad "Avril 14th,"and all the way up to the Star Wars cantina meets Studio 54 track "XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]" from Syro. Props to Aphex for putting the BPM into each of the song titles too. Oh, and track one is 120.2 BPM, while track two is 120 BPM. If he can really tell the difference, then ok!
13. Turnstile - Time & Space
I know nothing about this band except they fucking rule. If I was a teenager and I heard this, I would go ape shit. Do yourself a favor and check out what the kids do at their shows.
This is just pure youth energy. Pure boy angst. I know I'm about two decades away from this music being for me, but as soon as I heard it I wanted to push it into my chest and let it storm around in there. If there exists any of that in you, please support this killer band. They're out there keeping the dream alive. Notable lyric: "Real thing I'm feeling, No eyes can see it, Part dream, part memory, Got to make myself believe, But can I keep it all together, Waiting for the real thing?, Can I keep it all together, Waiting for the real, the real thing?"
12. JAY Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail
In 2013, even though he was still considered to be in the GOAT conversation, the general population was sort of "over" JAY Z as a
zeitgeist leading artist in hip-hop. And that the release of this album was so closely on the heels of Kanye's Yeezus album didn't help either, because of the way the song "New Slaves" was being promoted by Ye all over the world: he was projecting the video in super large scale on buildings in major cities and creating a social media game out of finding the locations and showtimes. JAY Z promoted this album through a Samsung loyalty program that allowed new owners of Galaxy phones to get a free download in advance of the rest of the population. It smelled pretty lame honestly. Far from the guerilla style Kanye was using.
All that aside though, Magna Carta Holy Grail shows JAY Z in high form and delivers musically and lyrically. It is a little on the long side, but "Picasso Baby," "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit,"Oceans," "FUTW," and "Crown" are straight bangers. "Crown" features production by Travis Scott, who was about to rise to superstar status in the next few years. I think because it's so easy for JAY Z to make music on this level, the fans took it for granted and sorta tuned out. It's my belief that looking back on his catalog, this will be given a second life and be seen as a branch between the Jigga era of the early 2000s and the trap era we're currently in the middle of. Notable lyric: "Question religion, question it all, Question existence until them questions are solved, Meanwhile this heretic I be out in Marrakesh, Morocco smoking hashish with my fellowship, Y'all dwell on devil shit, I'm in a Diablo, Yellow shit, color of Jell-O shit"
11. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - The Social Network
Being a big fan of David Fincher movies, I was stoked to hear about his movie The Social Network, although a film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed an odd undertaking. It was to be based on real life events, but clearly took fictional liberties with the actual portrayal of what this person is like. Jesse Eisenberg killed in this movie, creating a persona that is, at the same time, desperate, funny, ambitious, sad, powerful, prescient, and petty. (Three p's!)
The music in the film is not only incredible, it elevates the experience. The curious piano theme of "Hand Covers Bruise," underscores a walk across the Harvard campus after Zuckerberg makes an absolute ass of himself with his girlfriend. It impresses on the viewer that the sad reality of Facebook, is that while it was created to "bring us closer" we're only actually interacting with a faux impression of intimacy, that it is much harder to be humbly honest and vulnerable in real life.
The track "Intriguing Possibilities" provides the glue through scenes of Zuckerberg under fire from a prosecuting attorney, his co-founder engaging with his frat pledges, and the Winkelvoss twins finding out they're about to get screwed by Zuckerberg stealing their campus social website concept. The sequence is so masterfully edited for the film that it has its own rhythm already, but the pulse of the music and the repeated question of the melody, creates action where there is seemingly no action.
On its own, The Social Network is a great album that I would have liked without the movie. Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails always seemed like it was creating soundtracks with its music and he so deftly transitioned into the film composer role that he won an oscar with his first try.
10. David Bowie - Blackstar
The thin white duke gave us a big surprise with the release of his final album; he was dying of cancer.
Blackstar was released on January 8, and Bowie was pronounced dead on January 10. Considering how sick he must have been while making the album, to listen to how good he sounds, is enough to make one crumble next to the stereo and cry like a baby.
I wish this album was longer, because at just 7 songs, it is over much too soon. I bought every Bowie album from Earthling to Blackstar and they all have their great moments. I think because of his sheer star power, every album he put out had expectations set on it that were unfair. In my opinion the 2003 album Reality is the best of the bunch. But given the dramatic timing of Blackstar fans gravitated to this album and really digested it. If you haven't gone back a few albums and given those a listen, you must!
The title song "Blackstar" is my favorite on this release and easily the weirdest of the bunch. It clocks in just under 10 minutes and rolls from a synth-prog jam to a swinging ballad, and back again, complete with a harmonized saxophone section. Bowie once sang of a Starman, waiting in the sky. When you close your eyes and listen to the waning notes at the end of "Blackstar" you can practically see his glowing aura, hovering in the ether above the Earth; his spirit in a place it was always destined to be. Notable lyric: "Look up here, man, I'm in danger, I've got nothing left to lose ,I'm so high it makes my brain whirl, Dropped my cell phone down below, Ain't that just like me?"
9. Autechre - Exai
Man, I'm not even going to say much about this one. It's two discs long, clocking in around 2 hours. Words can't describe it. Is it even music?! Totally in a class of their own, Autechre is the greatest electronic music act ever. They've simply written their own language. I know this is not for everyone. I would not be able to play this in the car with my wife and daughter, they'd throw a fit. Haha. The sheer audacity and wherewithal to make this album, sold me immediately. Every time I listen to it feels like the first time.
8. Faith No More - Sol Invictus
Faith No More has always been an important band to me, but I figured they were finished and would never return. It was sad to me, because each player in the band brings something totally unique to the project that it seemed like they could make unpredictable music together for eons.
Lo and behold, they do actually reunite for this brisk blast of art-rock intensity. They even toured considerably for a while on this album, but alas, I did not catch a gig.
Perhaps the most complete collection of all facets of FNM, Sol Invictus succeeds on two levels: providing long-time fans with a dose of exactly what they were looking for, and surprising skeptics who bemoan "cashing in" by sounding as fresh as if they'd been jamming in the studio since the day the disbanded in April 1998. "Separation Anxiety" sounds like a tune from The Real Thing era."Superhero" could have been on the Angel Dust album. "Sunny Side Up" sounds ripped from King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime. And "Motherfucker" would have been right at home on Album of the Year, perhaps a friendly neighbor to "Naked in Front of the Computer."
I really hope this isn't the last thing we hear from Faith No More, because I'd love to be the old man taking his teenage daughter to one of their concerts and shouting "I used to listen to this band on the school bus when I was your age!!" Notable Lyric: "What love can do when love's lost, Grow overweight and smile as if, There's nothing left to say, Wear the cone of shame"
7. Thundercat - Drunk