Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999)
Truthfully, RHCP are not one of my favorite bands. Californication, though is a great collection of songs about loss, hope, and redemption. “Around the World” sets the tone from the start, building to a somber crescendo at its midpoint with the title track, and a refreshingly sparse “Road Trippin'” ends the album on a bright note. From start to finish, it just works.
Natalie Merchant (1998)
Although “Kind & Generous” and “Life is Sweet” had some modest success and single releases, they appear early in the album and give way to the icy, melancholy vibe that permeates the rest of Ophelia. This album, more than any other I own or have heard, makes me think “winter” with every listen. Hell, it’s cold outside – grab a mug and stare out the window listening to this album. It fits.
Pearl Jam (1993)
Pretty much a perfect representative of 1990’s rock throughout, Vs. slides down the list a bit due to sounding dated in parts. As great as songs like “Daughter” and “Animal” are, they seem anchored to the time they were recorded in. Still, great songs are great songs, and there’s a ton of them on this album.
Jack White (2012)
Jack White does two things amazingly well : name albums that sound like made-up words but turn out to be actual things, and crank out rock and roll so full of raw energy that you wonder what the hell everyone else is doing. “Sixteen Saltines” grabs your attention early on with sheer impact, and “Freedom At 21” follows right behind with sneaky unique instrumentation – two themes that weave together effortlessly through Blunderbuss.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s way too low for Nevermind. Meh, maybe. It’s a great album, and I know it, but I never want to listen to it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the anthem of an entire generation, “Something in the Way” is timeless and haunting, and “In Bloom” held up well; still, it’s been almost twenty years since I wanted to give it much rotation. I’ll blame MTV for ruining it for me.
Black Star (1998)
Let’s face it – as albums, Hip-Hop albums usually suck. Way too many filler tracks, comedy skits, incoherent ramblings of the star emcee’s boys, etc. Here though, we have nothing but two of the most skilled emcees in the game bouncing deftly off each other on track after track after track. The beats are average and largely nondescript, but Mos Def and Talib Kweli render it a moot point with their lyrical dexterity.
Modest Mouse (2004)
These guys are kind of… weird. This album is all over the place, but in a good way. The hit singles “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” reside in the front half of the record; while the songs become less accessible as the album plays on, they reveal themselves to be no less inspired or original. The pall of an overcast day hangs over the songs as they jangle and stumble their way into each other, quietly and violently.
Mr. Bungle (1999)
…and speaking of weird… Mr. Bungle, helmed by the brilliant and bizarre Mike Patton, reigned as the mad scientist of the music world through the 90’s. They threw peculiar poop at a musical wall and saw what stuck – the results ranged from unlistenable to transcendently gorgeous. On California, they struck the latter far more than the former. Take a minute to listen to “Retrovertigo”; no band had made a song that sounds like this before or since, despite how hauntingly simple it was. Note : the video is, amazingly, an unofficial fan video.
Lupe Fiasco (2011)
Lupe Fiasco generated plenty of buzz with his debut album in 2006, then slipped a bit with his sophomore effort. Throw in a nasty battle with his label, and Lasers was released to a Hip Hop audience that had largely moved on from his work. They missed out. The album suffers slightly from being perhaps too well groomed and poppy, but Lupe’s lyrics are on point, and the production is outstanding. At least half a dozen of these tracks will get lodged in your head with enough listens. Start with “State Run Radio” to get a sample of the album’s driving catchiness.
Ever have one of those albums that you loved, with the exception of the songs that – ironically – most other folks identified with the album? That’s Superunknown for me. Maybe it was the creepy-ass video, but I hated “Black Hole Sun”, and “Spoonman” never flipped my cookie either. Just about everything else on the album, though, bests those two singles in passion and originality. “The Day I Tried to Live” represented the best the seminal grunge band had to offer.
If the fire inside Nas that drove him to create this masterpiece of an album stayed alight through his career, or even for just a decade, he likely is considered the best emcee in the history of rap. Alas, he got rich and got lazy. Twenty years of albums hence show only flashes of the grit, passion, and craftsmanship that abounds on Illmatic. Nas had the benefit of an all-star roster of production help for his debut, but his lyricism and flow was flawless. Give a spin to “One Love” to get a taste of his mastery of the mic at this point in his career. Make sure to have tissue on hand, as you will weep tears of sorrow when you realize how far down guys like Drake have dragged this art form.
My first instinct is to say “this is what a perfect pop album sounds like,” but it’s not a pop album. Or an alternative rock album. Or an experimental rock album. What it is, though, is the best possible mix of all those genres. It pulls you in with pop hooks, then throws a curveball right before you get bored with it. Then, just when you think it’s strayed a little too far off the beaten path, it pulls you back to something easy on the ears. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot holds your interest for fifty-two minutes, deftly bouncing between styles and moods, all along giving you the sense you’re experiencing a special piece of music.
What happens when arguably the best American band ever* says “fuck it” and starts recording new ideas during their soundchecks on tour? New Adventures in Hi-Fi is what happens. An historic catalog of great albums already behind them, R.E.M. took sonic risks with raw ideas, and it worked. From the wailing siren of “Leave” to the lullaby that is “Electrolite”, there’s a touch of every volume and emotion in the album’s fourteen tracks.
* let me guess : in your head you violently disagreed with that statement, then ran through the bands that eclipse R.E.M. in music history… “British, British, British, British, holy shit he might be right”
Jay-Z and Kanye West (2011)
If ever a great album can be called “predictable”, it’s this one. Put two of the best emcees going and the best producer in the game in a bowl, stir, and get a tasty-ass result. Not much of a surprise. No new ground was broken here – the lyrics don’t stray far from color-by-numbers bragging and cheeky allusions, and the production is exquisite, but exquisite is par for West. Still, expected greatness is nonetheless greatness, and this all-star game of an album did not disappoint. “No Church in the Wild” sets the table nicely, and after “Lift Off” – seemingly an egregious excuse to get Jay-Z’s wife on the album – the disc cruises consistently far above average.
Jack White (2014)
Take everything I said about Blunderbuss at #42, and add “even better” to every thought. On Lazaretto, White takes the wide boundaries he managed to fill with energy on his solo debut, and pushes them further yet. When an instrumental like “High Ball Stepper” can breeze by in four minutes before you even realize there aren’t any words, it’s a sign that a great musician is feeling it.