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
Thundercat gets the award of the decade for me of being able to win me over across the longest period of time. His debut full-length album The Golden Age of Apocalypse came out in 2011, but I don't think I heard any of his music until the next album Apocalypse came out in 2013. I actually didn't care for
it at all until I heard his song "Them Changes," which was released on an EP in 2015. That song to me is one of the best of the whole decade!
Thundercat has a sound to his music that is truly his own. He takes pieces from funky Miles Davis era, smooth jazz, yacht rock, Nintendo 8-bit chip music, hip-hop, electronica, and fuses it into his own narrative. His sense of humor really comes through, not just in lyrics, but in the songs themselves, and particularly in his bass playing. He's an incredible, master-level player, but fortunately his chops don't outshine his compositions. Simultaneously introspective and bold, Thundercat has the ability to make you laugh like a kindergartener and also remember times in your adulthood when cried into your drink on a lonely night out. Similarly to lyrics and songs by Frank Zappa and Thom Yorke, there's seriousness in the humor and sincerity in the satire. If this album were a movie, it would be The Muppet Movie + Blade Runner, directed by Woody Allen.
There is truly something for everyone on this album. There are a few songs that have explicit lyrics, but I believe this could appeal to kids for sure. Buy this album and support an artist who truly deserves appreciation. There's no telling the places that Thundercat could go in the future. Notable lyric: "From the minute I wake up I'm staring at the screen, Watching the world go insane, Gotta stay connected so I know what's happening in these streets, Thank God for technology 'cause where would we be if we couldn't tweet our thoughts? Won't you leave somethings to mystery? Opening your mouth removes all doubt, So be quiet, Technology is the key to it all"
6. Beck - Colors
When Beck won his grammy for best album for Morning Phase, Kanye West walked onto the stage and faked like he was going to interrupt on behalf of Beyonce not winning in the category for her album. It was clearly a joke and an obvious nod to his Taylor Swift moment. But it was a real shock, I would say. Beck has not been a very commercial success for a long time, although he has continued to maintain a fan base and a place in rock history. His tendency to bounce around stylistically and vacillate between sincerity and humor in his lyrics, has led some to question his authenticity as an artist.
Whether you are more a Sea Change fan or more of a Midnight Vultures fan, you can't help but be impressed that Beck is now 14 studio albums deep into his career. I doubt anyone was expecting him to have any sort of longevity after "Loser" became a ubiquitous mid-90s hit. Perhaps he'd be hanging out with Carrot Top and working the circuit in Las Vegas? Or touring with Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray?
Colors is front-to-back filled with pop/rock hits. There are so many good songs on here, I can't believe it wasn't a bigger success. To me, this is the album that deserves a Grammy album of the year award. Colors is mostly co-written with Greg Kurstin, who has worked with chart-toppers, such as Adele, Sia, Kelly Clarkson, and P!nk. It has that very well produced and expensive sound. Certainly it is the most straight down the middle album that Beck has ever released. I really, really enjoy listening to it and dare anyone not to find something to love here. Notable lyric: "You drove your Rolls into the swamp, You stole away like a thief, reeling from the sticker shock, Of the price they put upon your soul, You buy it back from the burning ashes of the devil you know, Dear life, I'm holding on"
5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
"Dreamers, they never learn... Beyond the point of no return... It's too late, the damage is done." These are the opening lines of the 2nd single "Daydreaming" that Radiohead released ahead of this album A Moon Shaped Pool. It was accompanied by a short film by director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has a working relationship with Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood. The song is stunning in its soft and nuanced performance, the layers of instrumentation, and its drawn out conclusion of pitched and backwards vocals. The short film follows vocalist Thom Yorke opening and passing through a series of doors and spaces, seemingly looking for something. What he finds in the end is the opening to a small cave atop a snowy peak with a small crackling fire inside. He curls up next to it and falls asleep.
This track signifies the mood of A Moon Shaped Pool, one that is both epic and intimate. Not confrontational like 2003's Hail to the Thief, and not angry like 1997's OK Computer. It's the most reserved and mature album of their catalog. This may translate as "boring" to casual listeners. Indeed, this album can slip into the background when listening to it while around the house. But it's definitely not relaxed. Present, as always, is dread and sadness.
This is an album of mourning: the death of a friend, the loss of personal privacy, the slow abandonment of environmental protections. This is Thom Yorke's most introspective set of lyrics to date. 30+ years into their career as a band, Radiohead are still finding new directions. Notable lyric: "Now as I go upon my way, So let me go upon my way, Born of a light, born of a light, The wind rushing 'round my open heart, An open ravine with my spirit light, Totally alive and my spirit light, Through an open doorway, Across a street to another life, And catching my reflection in a window, Switching on a light, one I didn’t know, Totally alive, totally released "
4. Kanye West - Yeezus
When the decade began, Kanye West was entering into one of the most fruitful periods in popular music of the 2000s. The year 2010 saw him come out with the career defining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, followed by the JAY Z collaboration Watch the Throne. He was instrumental in helping sky-rocket the careers of Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, Hudson Mohawke, Big Sean, and Travis Scott.
Just before the release of Yeezus, Kanye famously met with Rick Rubin who suggested stripping the music down to a more minimalist sound. As inspiration for the album, West has cited the film Holy Mountain by Jodorowsky, designer and architect Le Corbusier, and 1980s Chicago house music. It’s clear that Kanye was attempting to make an aggressive artistic statement, like a punk album, but one that had been so thoughtfully executed by design that it could sit on a pedestal like an expensive lamp.
I wasn't crazy about the Watch The Throne album and I was suspicious of Yeezus coming out and being a flop. It seemed like Kanye was doing so much, was so caught up in his own myth, that he was bound to put out a brick. At first listen, my suspicion seemed to have been correct. I mean, it seemed like a mess of an album. But I kept coming back to it and kept coming back to it. It was addictive.
In 2020, when thinking about Kanye West, I feel dismay and disappointment. His music since Yeezus has been so bad, so rushed, so unfocused. His public persona has been borderline disgusting and completely confusing. If it's all due to mental health issues, then I hope he's getting help. But if the MAGA hats and the comments on slavery are just Kanye 2.0's idea of entertaining the public, I hope it doesn't ultimately tarnish some of the best music of the last 20 years. Notable lyric: "Meanwhile the DEA, Teamed up with the CCA, They tryna lock niggas up, They tryna make new slaves, See that's that privately owned prisons, Get your piece today, They prolly all in the Hamptons braggin' 'bout what they made, Fuck you and your Hampton house, I'll fuck your Hampton spouse, Came on her Hampton blouse, And in her Hampton mouth, Y'all 'bout to turn shit up, I'm 'bout to tear shit down, I'm 'bout to air shit out, Now what the fuck they gon' say now?"
3. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
I was born in 1976, basically 20 years after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Widely regarded as “the mother of the Civil Rights movement,” Rosa Parks became an America folk hero; someone who stood up and claimed her humanity in the face of the harshest realities. As kids, we studied the Civil Rights era as a period of time in America’s past, one that we came out of smarter, more compassionate, and more united.
But when I watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) it seemed to be showing us that we were still just as segregated, just as prejudiced, and just as capable of violence as ever. Following on the heels of this movie, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet. They were reiterating the same things that Spike Lee was in his movie, the same things that James Baldwin was writing about in his books decades earlier. The beating of Rodney King was to follow in 1991, and so on and so on.
We are now in the era of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, among dozens of others. Eric Garner was killed in a particularly eerie fashion akin to Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. And like Rodney King, some of these atrocities have been caught on film, seeming like clear cut cases of wrongdoing. Yet, justice is not done and citizens are left wondering who represents who and what invisible lines still exist around communities.
Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp A Butterfly addresses these issues and so many more, operating somewhat as a concept album about Kendrick's rise to fame from an anonymous ghetto kid to a superstar rapper. And rapping, to be fair, is only one of the things that Kendrick does on this album. He sings, he produces, he takes on various characters, performs spoken word sections, and he does it all so deftly, on top of confirming his status as one of the greatest living MCs.
Two collaborators with Kendrick on this album are the aforementioned Thundercat and the bandleader/saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop on TPAB shuttles the listener through different eras of American music, with Kendrick as your tour guide. He takes you from dark streets, to hotel rooms, to night clubs, and quite literally on stage during the album version of the single "i" where a scuffle breaks out in the crowd and the show stops to address the incident.
More than your average rapper, Kendrick is a real story teller. He displayed this on the prior album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but takes it to a whole other level on TPAB. When some hip-hop artists seem to be doing the bare minimum to score a hit song, Kendrick and his collaborators give you more and then some. Kudos to the mixing engineer Derek Ali, aka MixedbyAli, for blending the collage of sound so beautifully. (Producer Tony Visconti told the press that To Pimp A Butterfly was a big influence on Bowie's Blackstar album).
Notable lyric: "They wanna say it's a war outside and a bomb in the street, And a gun in the hood, and a mob of police, And a rock on the corner, and a line for the fiend, And a bottle full of lean, and a model on the scene, yup,These days of frustration keep y'all on tuck and rotation, I duck these cold faces, post up fi-fie-fo-fum basis, Dreams of reality's peace, Blow steam in the face of the beast, The sky could fall down, the wind could cry now, The strong in me, I still smile"
2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Being that this album is now 10 years old, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds kind of quaint, considering the music Kanye West would go on to make with Yeezus and The Life of Pablo. To me it sounds like the last time Kanye really gave a fuck about pleasing anyone but himself. My good friend Abraham said that Kanye could pretty much get away with saying anything he wanted as long as he was still killing it with his music. Musically, this is the high water mark, from which the myth of Kanye began an epic slide.
Here are just some of the collaborators that appear on this album: Rihanna, Elton John, Raekwon the Chef, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, RZA, Jay Z, Bon Iver, Common, John Legend, Alicia Keys, and Q-Tip. During the recording/writing process, guests were split up among 3 full-time studio rooms that Kanye bounced between, writing lyrics, taking feedback, and making notes. Apparently, he never spent a full night away, and opted for 90 minute power naps at the studio. The result of the work is this fever dream of an album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
This was Kanye taking off his skin and exposing what was underneath. Maybe because he’d been so publicly dragged through the mud following the infamous Taylor Swift incident, and President Obama calling him a jackass on a hot mic, he figured he had nothing to lose. Kanye goes fully into his battles with celebrity life and excess, the degrees to which he embraces wealth and attempts to escape with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Kanye’s demons that push him to achieve, also dare him to fail. He loves to be a hedonist, but he also fears God. There’s so much duality on this album, appearing most starkly on the song “Runaway.” He sings – “Let's have a toast for the douchebags, Let's have a toast for the assholes, 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, Run away fast as you can.”
As a fan, I was quietly imploring him to actually run away for a while, not end up like Kurt Cobain, or Michael Jackson. Not let celebrity fuck you up so bad that you can’t live, or you have to surgically destroy your face and body. The real drug that Kanye was/is addicted to is being Kanye West. But at the end of the day, it’s been his own fault the whole time. That is what makes him such a tragic figure, and of course it played beautifully on this album.
A great song from this album, “Power,” came out with a clip that Kanye referred to as a “moving painting.” It depicts Kanye, God-like, with a huge gold rope around his neck, standing on steps between Greek columns. As the song progresses, the view pans out to show half-naked women strewn about the steps and a sword of Damocles floating above his head. Additionally, two assassins close in on him from both sides, with swords above their heads, slashing down. The women depict the temptations that come along with fame and power, and the sword of Damocles represents the anxiety and pressure of being subject to scrutiny, that there is always a danger around the corner. The assassins are obviously the paranoia that someone is coming to take away the power. I don’t believe Kanye means that he is going to be killed, but rather that his art is in danger of being destroyed. He’s talked at length in interviews of being denied his creative freedom. That people don't want him to express himself.
Paranoid? Definitely. Overreachching? Probably. Entertaining? Absolutely! Notable lyric: "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, Inter-century anthems based off inner-city tantrums, Based off the way we was branded, Face it; Jerome get more time than Brandon, And at the airport they check all through my bag, And tell me that it’s random, But we stay winning, this week has been a bad massage, I need a happy ending and a new beginning, And a new fitted, and some job opportunities that's lucrative, This the real world, homie, school finished, They done stole your dreams, you dunno who did it, I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS: I won't be satisfied til all my niggas get it, get it?"
1. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
Up/down. Hot/cold. Noise/silence. Black/white. Blessed/cursed. In every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. - "Newton's Law"
Opposing forces is the essential heart of Kendrick Lamar's imposing DAMN. Throughout the album this is explored in man's relationship to God, America's relationship with black and brown people, and the dichotomy of good and evil in the souls of humankind. Given the choice between righteousness and wickedness, which will you choose?
Although more sonically mainstream than its predecessor To Pimp A Butterfly, and shorter by almost 30 minutes, DAMN. is filled with fire and brimstone. Kendrick likens himself to a prophet, no less than the son of God, "Yeshua" from Hebrew, on the song "DNA." He sees himself as a voice for the voiceless, advocating looking inward for salvation, and gives a harsh warning: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In Kendrick's view, redemption is only possible if you submit to a higher power. His God is the Old Testament God, and He expects you to tow the line or pay the consequences.
Elsewhere in “DNA,” Kendrick references the 10 plagues of Egypt from Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. That story follows the Israelites, the "sons of Jacob," who are forced into slavery by the Egyptian Pharaoh, over fears of their growing number and strength. A slave mother frees her child by setting him adrift on the river Nile, only to be found by the Pharaoh’s wife, and brought up as her own. He is given the name Moses, and aware of his origins, grows up to kill an Egyptian overseer and flee the kingdom. He encounters God in the burning bush and is told to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites to the promised land. Moses goes back to plead of the Pharaoh the release of the slaves, but is refused. God then unleashes 10 terrible plagues on Egypt (river of blood, frogs raining from the sky, etc.) and Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. After an arduous journey through the desert, God provides manna and water to nourish the people and tells Moses to ascend the mountain. Atop the mountain, God pronounces the 10 Commandments to Moses and tells him that he will save the Israelites if they declare him to be the one and only true God, and obey his commands.
The parallel for Kendrick and Black America is obvious. We know who the slaves are, and ostensibly, Uncle Sam is the Egyptian Pharaoh. The whole album begins with a track called "Blood"in which Kendrick encounters an old, blind woman on the street and goes over to assist her. He says “It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it.” She replies “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost your life.” BANG. He is shot, the track ends, and goes right into a sound bite from Geraldo Rivera reciting Kendrick's lyric "And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo' sho." His female co-anchor groans "Oh please...ugh...I don't like it."
For Kendrick, born in Compton, CA, and other young black men from inner cities, the daily reality is "I could do everything right and still end up dead." All you have to do is watch the evening news and witness stories about honor-role kids who were killed by crossfire, or janitors from the Minnesota school system gunned down in their own cars by police. In a world like this, how does one continue to have faith? Even without sin, can one escape the curse? So, there is a struggle at work in Kendrick: the desire to follow the temptations that come with fame and money, and the fear that he will fall out of favor with God.
I could go on and on deciphering context in the lyrics, but there is a link to Genius.com if you are interested in diving deeper. Analysis aside, DAMN. is just plain dope. I keep coming back to this album, and have been spinning it for the past 3 years. It can make your head nod, chill you out, make you cry, have you laughing, AND you can play it backwards from the last track to the first for a totally different, and intentional, experience. In my opinion, no artist since Prince has been able to so vividly balance the sacred and profane like Kendrick Lamar. He's goddamn good and I can't wait to hear what he has coming next for us!
THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!
For all of the music in the world and for reading this post!