Listening to Before Today now, it's hard to see it as anything other than exactly what it is: a funny, strange, richly detailed piece of revisionist pop helmed by one of music's most notable eccentrics. But when it was released in 2010, it was greeted with shock and skepticism. What did a dingus like Ariel Pink do to deserve to even be involved in making a record as good as Before Today? How did this cantankerous weirdo get it together (and keep it together) long enough to lead a band as pro-sounding as the one Pink gathered for this recording? Why is a meltdown-prone provocateur like Pink now the go-to influence for a generation of young, obtuse music makers? "I'm just this fake musician who really gets off on people thinking [that] he's a musician," he told Pitchfork a few years ago. A mighty cynical statement, sure, but not a totally untrue one. With Before Today, Pink finally pulled off his big moment, one that many had hoped for, but few thought he was capable of.
Pink’s been doing his fake-it-'til-he-makes-it schtick since Animal Collective plucked him from Beverly Hills' nether-regions in 2004, freaking out the squares for the next half-decade with a series of homemade releases that were either brilliantly intolerable or intolerably brilliant. So when Before Today came along—a sharply produced fever dream of schlocky ‘70s and ‘80s lite-rock radio fluff—it felt entirely suspect, as if its 12 tracks had been wormholed from some wiggy alternate universe instead of meticulously crafted in a studio. But even skeptics found Before Today scratching that ungettable itch, its timeless screwball charm feeling somehow alien and inborn at the same time. The funky downtown vamp of "Beverly Kills", the unctuous downer grooves on "Menopause Man", the cloud-bursting chorus that made "Round and Round" eternal—there was nothing else like them in their respective orbits. Before Today was no fluke, but rather a lovingly made, beautifully realized piece of work, a nifty garage sale oddity that was too good to keep secret. Every time you put it on, it's like finding something you didn't know you lost. —Zach KellyEmbed is unavailable.
At the top of the decade, it was time for Flying Lotus to make the album he’d always dreamed of making: Cosmogramma, a cosmic drama, a record that would incorporate all the different sounds that he loved. He’d always wanted to include live instrumentation in his records, but was waiting for the "right people." Sure enough, a cast of players helped push his astral explorations further than they had been pushed before. Thundercat’s skittering bass, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s dramatic string arrangements, Rebekah Raff’s harp, Ravi Coltrane’s saxophone—these are load-bearing elements, essential in defining the album’s tone and making Cosmogramma feel major.
It started in late 2008, just after his great album Los Angeles, when he created a song called “Computer Face//Pure Being”. It’s one of his all-time bangers; on an album with no lack of spacey jazz explorations, “Computer Face” has an orbital pull to it. With its frenetic beat and elated melody, it stands out on an album long on standout moments. "I felt different creating it," he said, and he kept chasing that energy to craft his best and most ambitious LP to date.
Cosmogramma plays out like an epic journey—the only pauses come when you stop to flip the record, and it all culminates in an exploration of the “Galaxy in Janaki”. There’s no need to get caught up in where, or what, that galaxy is. (It’s likely a nod of reverence to his aunt, Alice Coltrane, whose spiritual discourses helped provide the album’s conceptual backbone.) Cosmogramma, according to Flying Lotus, is a term for "the studies that map out the universe and the relations of heaven and hell." "I need to know you’re out there somewhere," sings Thom Yorke on "...And the World Laughs With You", highlighting that Cosmogramma isn’t about scientific precision. It’s exploring the cross-section of all there is: this world and the afterworld, darkness and light. —Evan MinskerEmbed is unavailable.
- Drag City
Have One on Me
"You need to eat, just like you need to listen to music," Joanna Newsom told Arthur magazine in 2006, right around the release Ys. "[B]ut it never feels good if you do it like that. So I am trying to set my life up in a way where I don’t have to listen to music anyway other than putting on a record and sitting and listening." In this increasingly distracted age, Newsom's impossibly generous third LP Have One on Me still feels like an anomaly: two hours, give or take, to clear everything else away and just listen. It's not an album you put on while you fiddle with your phone or rearrange your furniture; it's something you spend time with, taking in every bow and quake in Newsom's exquisitely wrought songcraft. Have One on Me, more than just about any other album of this young decade, seems designed with the utmost care, and it requires of its listeners that same kind of patience and deliberation. Four years on, Newsom's westward-bound song-cycle of loss and renewal still has stories to share and secrets to reveal. It's a record about finally figuring out what it is you want, casting aside all the things you can no longer bear, and reconciling your old self with the new one. And it, like us, keeps changing, keeps deepening, keeps accruing new meaning with each passing year. I confess I don't play it all that often, and when I do, I don't always get all the way through it in one sitting. But every few months or so, on a slow Saturday morning, I'll carve out a couple hours to take it all in. Years later, it remains a marvel, grand and immaculate, a world unto itself. —Paul Thompson
- Young God
The Seer has to be the least inspiring album on this list. Can you imagine someone sitting through all two hours of this album, picking up a guitar, and thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna give that a shot”? Not when every second of The Seer—all 7,152 of them—makes its inconceivable degree of difficulty very, very apparent. For beginners, you need three solid decades of experience in the most uncompromising post-punk S&M and the most earthy freak-folk just to get started, as well as the impatience to come up with the two-note chromatic riff of “Mother of the World” and the patience to play it for five straight minutes without variation. And let’s not forget the sheer physical stamina required here: have you considered what it takes to begin writing a song like “The Seer”, let alone to see it through to its 32-minute completion? Do you think they recorded it on its first take? You’ll also need to ask your acolytes for some reciprocity and mend some fences, as Low’s eerie harmonies bring doomsaying proclamation “Lunacy” to light, Karen O finds peace amidst the post-apocalyptic calm of “Song for a Warrior”, and the subtext of “The Seer Returns” is basically “Jarboe Returns”. I mean, fuck, do you even have any friends named Thor? If all of that isn’t discouraging enough, Swans dropped To Be Kind as a sequel two years later just to prove that they’re the only ones capable of doing something like this.
Look, there are plenty of records here that will grow on you, ones meant to be reconsidered after an indifferent first experience, some that can make you see what’s possible for the future. The Seer is nothing of the sort. It wrests your appreciation through intimidation, an impressive, awe-inspiring work that lets you know what music is capable of on rare occasions. Of course, you might hear it and think it’s all bullshit, and you might set out to tear down every one of these old ideas. If so, congratulations—you’re where Michael Gira was 30 years ago, so you may as well give it a shot. —Ian CohenEmbed is unavailable.
- Dead Oceans
The braintrust behind the satirical online series "Yacht Rock" never transcended the realm of mere internet phenomenon to become an Apotowian mainstream-movie powerhouse. But they can at least take this to heart: when you consider the course of overground indie-rock over the past 10 years, "Yacht Rock" now seems less of a parody than an uncanny prophecy. Once-verboten devices like New-Agey synths and saxophone solos have displaced discordant guitars, while prevailing facial-hair practices among emergent artists gamely conform to ‘80s-Loggins standards.
But as an early indie-rock acolyte who’s old enough to remember when such lite-FM signifiers represented all that was vulgar and vile about "'Me' Decade" overindulgence, Dan Bejar embraced the smooth on Kaputt for reasons that have nothing to do with nostalgia. Rather, this is precisely the sort of sickly sleek record that Bejar’s craven first-person characters would’ve been listening to 30 years ago while thrusting their six-figure paychecks up their noses or in a table dancer’s G-string. Of course, in his vivid rendering of ’80s excess, Bejar effectively holds up a mirror to our post-recessionary present. On two separate songs, he croons, “wrote a song for America… who knew?”, as if to reinforce the notion that this record’s thematic resonance was a fortuitous accident, like a dream that only makes sense after much morning-after reflection. But Kaputt is a concept album in its yuppie-scummy sound as much as its lyrical concerns—whenever that omnipresent brass section blares out atop Bejar’s cautionary-tale narratives, it’s less a champagne-room mating call than an air-raid siren signaling the fall of an empire.—Stuart BermanEmbed is unavailable.
"Everybody thinks that I'm boring/ Many people think I've got no clue." There's not a chance these words apply to Grimes in 2014. But when Claire Boucher sang them on her debut tape, 2010's Geidi Primes, she sounded more than a bit defeated, as if caged in her mind. Listen to any of Boucher's cassette recordings from that era in succession with 2012's Visions, and the truth reveals itself: Aside from being one of the most monumental "post-Internet" releases in any genre, Visions is the sound of a young web-addled person who continued believing in herself long enough to become free.
“Modern” is the only word for Visions, an intensely nuanced master-work of pop collage, pegging down bubblegum synth-pop and 90s R&B and K-pop and metallic IDM with Boucher's distinctive falsetto, variously featherlight or fierce. Along with 2012's "Vanessa", Visions soundtracks Grimes' ongoing claim for space in the continuum of great pop eccentrics. In the time since its release, this record has become omnipresent; at least in New York, I cannot go a week without hearing it at some bar or café, but most often it loops in my head, an antidote. It is hard to imagine that Grimes used one of these little boxes in front of us to make magic. The Internet can be a kind of prison—with its subliminal trappings of tabs and streams and data-mining likes and tweets—but Grimes' ability to morph the endless nature of web culture into something that is pointed and pleasurable gives me hope. It is a more appealing expression of infinity, sung from a high-pitched human heart, one of ecstasy, hurt, and calm bliss.
Amid comparisons to fellow "Small Pop" case-studies like Sky Ferreira and Solange, it can be hard to remember that this is a girl who, just five years ago, tried sailing down the Mississippi River on a DIY houseboat with live chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes. A streak of self-reliance still pervades her music and its encompassing world of video, performance, and written word—a gravity center for fans of both mainstream and underground music, if those words have retained any meaning. Boucher has now tried writing for Rihanna, but the occasional wordlessness of Visions reminds me more of Elizabeth Fraser. She is at once signed to Jay Z's management firm and an inspiration to Kathleen Hanna, who has noted her admiration of Grimes' "feminist electronic punk" music. Last year, when Allison and Katie Crutchfield (of Swearin' and Waxahatchee) covered the album's greatest achievement, “Oblivion”, Katie commented on the song's theme of street harassment: "It's something a feminist punk band would write about," she said. "I felt politically aligned with ["Oblivion"]." Boucher's own list of the "Greatest Songs of All Time" put Mariah Carey alongside Butthole Surfers. Grimes' seemingly endless power lies in these multitudes—Visions is some kind of nirvana, capturing every element at its peak. —Jenn PellyGrimes: "Oblivion" (via SoundCloud)
Where were you when Beyoncé sneak-released Beyoncé? I was asleep, but plenty of my peers were watching videos and Gchatting deep into the night. When I woke up on December 13, 2013, the pop landscape was different. It was too early to say for sure if we'd have to swap out our respective albums of the year, let alone the decade so far, but this much was clear: As pundits kept proclaiming the death of the album, "the album" itself had been redefined. Any record that happened to be merely great suddenly had a tougher case to make.
And yet, now that the novelty has worn off, Beyoncé endures on these lists because it's staggeringly great. David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine had already demonstrated the power of surprise, issuing music earlier in 2013 with no advance warning; "Weird Al" Yankovic hinted at the idea of the "visual album" with 2011's Alpocalypse, which had a video for every song. The real shock of Beyoncé was that a seasoned pro who looked to be headed toward adult-contemporary blandness and inoffensive commercial tie-ins had instead used the most adventurous means her money could buy to express an alternate vision of contemporary adulthood. Settling down, having kids, working hard at your job: It's not always easy, sure, Beyoncé tells us; but within that fairly conventional setting there's more to grown-up intimacy than music's myriad aging Lotharios—coming soon to an arena or state fair near you—could imagine.
How Beyoncé redefined the album carries over to how you want to define Beyoncé itself. The videos count, right? And what about the bonus tracks? But Beyoncé's indomitable vision is plain to see. There's the arena-ready romance of "XO", a song that John Mayer cannily re-recorded as his own single; the idiosyncratically explicit bawdiness of The Big Lebowski-quoting, Monica Lewinsky-alluding "Partition", new-D'Angelo-album substitute "Rocket", and Skittles-sexualizing "Blow". As the thrill of "serfbort" wears off, even the unappetizing secret language Jay Z seems to be using to address the mother of his child on "Drunk in Love" can become strangely endearing. Those not interested in Beyoncé's lyrical concerns can still get lost in the music's dark, lush textures; the eerie throb of "Haunted" deservedly launched a search for little-known producer Boots, who shares credits on the album with such big names as Pharrell, Timbaland, and The-Dream.
Politics inevitably factor into this discussion, and I'm not sure who the person is to sort out what Beyoncé means in an area where people have such strong pre-existing views. You certainly don't need to be told how you feel about the "perfection is the disease of a nation" sloganeering of opener "Pretty Hurts", or the TED Talk sample on feminism amid the Houston-rooted "bow down, bitches" hip-hop of "***Flawless". At its essence, though, Beyoncé masterfully demonstrates one human being's evidently triumphant quest for the deceptively simple life goal a young "Miss Third Ward" describes in the album's opening seconds: "To be happy."
One day in late December 2013, we woke up like this. And whatever the calendar says, that day isn't over yet. Whether sharing an irrepressibly ribald remix with Nicki Minaj or booking a performance at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé is still standing on the sun. —Marc Hogan
There are people who find Real Estate a little too sedate, like the Chill Situations Twitter come to life; as someone who's considered using his entire lunch break to pet the neighborhood dogs, though, they're just my speed. Like the Grateful Dead, whom they’ve covered live, Real Estate are principally concerned with maintaining the vibe; unlike the Dead, they’ve managed to refine their melodies to a sparkling precision, rather than let them sprawl for miles. Their second album, Days, launched like a pointed reaction against overt aggression, against rudely distorted guitars and elbows thrown in throbbing mosh pits. Instead, the band wrote songs that sounded like clouds drifting by. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Martin Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” over Matt Mondanile’s sleepily sketched guitar lines, a graceful voice affirming its inner harmony. “I don’t think rock'n'roll needs 'masculine arrogance',” a teenaged Jonathan Richman once wrote to Creem magazine regarding an unfavorable review of the Four Seasons. “You call them ‘featherweights.’ They’re heavyweights to me.” This would have knocked him out, too. —Jeremy GordonReal Estate: "Green Aisles" (via SoundCloud)
- Cash Money
- Young Money Entertainment
- Universal Republic
As the calendar flipped from 2010 to 2011, you could still reasonably front on Drake. He had already established himself as one of the brightest stars in rap—in a stunningly brazen admission on the 2010 track “Money to Blow”, Lil Wayne rapped “We gon' be alright if we put Drake on every hook”—but it wasn’t difficult to poke holes in the art behind his unparalleled chart success. Wayne was right that Drake had displayed preternatural ability as a hook writer, but his lyrics were overly eager and simplistic, relying mostly on obvious and corny metaphors that were often jammed to fit the “hashtag” flow that had infected all of rap, with Drake as patient zero. On the one hand, Drake fans could point to his unassailable numbers. On the other hand, there was “Two thumbs up/ Ebert & Roeper.”
But as 2011 wore on, Drake began to obliterate all of that, first with a series of refined one-off tracks (“Dreams Money Can Buy”, “Trust Issues”, "I'm on One") and then with Take Care, a masterstroke of an LP that represents basically all you could ask for in a sophomore album. Where its predecessor Thank Me Later had the feel of being designed from a First Album Checklist—beats from Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland, check; verses from Jay-Z, T.I., and Young Jeezy, check—Take Care is one of the most idiosyncratically written and produced albums of a generation. Drake’s triangulation of droopy-lidded Houston screw music and Aaliyah’s whispered R&B changed urban radio, but here he cracks that sound open in a myriad of creative ways. On “Shot for Me” and “Crew Love”, the album’s darkest tracks, he nicks bass wobbles from James Blake. On “Take Care” he buys throbbing house music from Jamie xx by way of Gil Scott-Heron. “Cameras” sharpens an oozing Jon B. album cut into a fine point, “The Ride” molds the Weeknd into a soul sample, and “Look What You’ve Done” lifts piano and vocals from a YouTube video of stylistic forbearer Static Major. For good measure, “Doing It Wrong” interpolates Don McLean and features original harmonica playing by Stevie Wonder. This is Drake—and his longtime producer 40—pouring his entire life into the sound of an album while still maintaining a connection to the hyper-contemporary trends (the ethos of screw and Timbaland’s R&B productions drive the album) that he himself had ushered in.
All of which would’ve been for naught had he not improved as a rapper and made himself more approachable as a personality. The jokes here—“Pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations”— are still goofy, but in a way that is endearingly imaginative. More importantly, we get a clear-eyed look into Drake the person, from the testosterone-fueled party boy to the struggling MC to the caring son to the desperate and emotionally reckless ex-boyfriend. Some of these personas are harder to reckon with than others, but they nonetheless feel genuine and honest. Though Drake already carried a reputation of “introspection,” on Take Care we are offered the full scope of his life as a manner of reflecting upon our own.
The Take Care album cycle began to wrap up with “HYFR (Hell Ya Fucking Right)”, released as a single in April 2012. At that point, Drake was just months away from breaking Jay-Z’s record for most number one singles in the history of the Billboard Hot R&B/Rap chart. It was widely accepted that his sophomore album was a classic. In the “HYFR” video he gets “re-Bar Mitzvah’d.” We see him read from the Torah and hoisted up on a chair during the traditional horah dance. Lil Wayne is in the audience. The symbolism was 20/20: the boy had become a man. —Jordan SargentEmbed is unavailable.
This Is Happening
You know that feeling when you really want to be somewhere but you can’t be there, and you know there’s a thing happening and you’re missing it? That’s pretty much what the intro to This Is Happening is like. Here was a hugely anticipated record from a band known for unimpeachable decision-making, and the first song on it made us wait outside the club for a minute and a half while the band played before finally opening the door.
If anyone could toy with our expectations like that and get away with it, it was James Murphy, who hung up the band after this record in the exact sort of deliberate way you always figured he would. Dance music about dance music never sounds like an interesting idea when you say it out loud, but Murphy and company made it into something vital, something filled with understanding of the way time slips by, second by second, minute by minute, year by year.
Murphy found himself growing old in a world where everyone was supposed to die young. He wasn’t getting up in the morning and brushing his teeth with a bottle of Jack before rushing back out the door. He was finding it hard to get up at all. And so we get “I Can Change”, that signature LCD song that pulls the revelry inside-out, turning the most ecstatic emotions over and over in its hand to find all the gut-wrenching doubt and terror that go with them, hand-in-glove.
Even though his vision for the band was as fresh and unique as they come, Murphy was always first and foremost a fan of music, and he references everything from Talking Heads to Barbara Streisand, going to Berlin with Bowie and picking a fight with a critic along the way. He brought it all together without seams. He did his best singing right before he said goodbye to us and hung his band up. He wasn’t afraid to confound us, and he wasn’t afraid to stare the consequences of too much fun, too much love, and too much rock in the eye and turn them into a song we could all feel at home in.
This is not a perfect record, but it wouldn’t be as compelling or generous if it were. Turn it up and let the volume spike on the first song. Let it exhaust you. Let it exasperate you. Let it shut the door (twice) on terrible times. It’s been five years, but this is still happening. —Joe TangariEmbed is unavailable.
The Idler Wheel...
Some albums become classic because everything ends up sounding like them. The Idler Wheel is getting there because in 2012 it sounded like nothing else, and it still doesn’t—it almost doesn’t sound like a Fiona Apple album. On a macro scale, you can sort of see what’s going on; The Idler Wheel is as if Apple extrapolated an entire album from the anxiety-tremor percussion of “Fast as You Can” and the tumbling logorrhea of “Not About Love”. You can trace individual songs to their antecedents if you try: “Regret” and “Valentine” are slow seethes of a kind with “Sullen Girl” and “Red Red Red”. “Left Alone” is “Get Him Back” as tragicomedy, turning calcified emotional deadness into sad-clown vaudeville; many songwriters attempt this theme and most make it gripping, but only Apple, with her cabaret background, would practically throw in jazz hands. But while the most outré moments on Apple’s previous albums were contained in tangents, The Idler Wheel is a whole album filled with them.
The Idler Wheel is so singular it confounds every narrative one can apply to it. “Hot Knife” and “Left Alone” are chokingly thick with sound, while tracks like “Periphery” owe a clear debt to Apple and Jon Brion’s lush, discarded first take of Extraordinary Machine. Critics that accused Apple of emotional overindulgence—musically or otherwise—clearly disregarded “Werewolf”, a breakup postmortem of which the most prudish of advice columnists would find disarmingly well-adjusted. Those dismissing her as a sulk definitely skipped the final two tracks, the latter of which, “Hot Knife”, hits the blood like a big Halloween-costume syringe of crushed-out dopamine; this far into Apple’s career and several years out, it still sounds like the first time she or anyone else processed falling in love.
When songwriters attain the “genius” tag—as Apple unquestionably has—they do it by sounding so resolutely them that every lyric is like they’re writing in their own private, untranslated language. The joy of relating to these songs is like figuring out the translation of a word or two, and Apple’s genius is in making found-sound idiosyncrasies sound like the rumblings that everyone’s got inside them. In making words and images nobody else would put together, the songs on The Idler Wheel sound like the most universal sentiments in the world. —Katherine St. AsaphFiona Apple: "Werewolf" (via SoundCloud)
- Caldo Verde
It seems weird to use the word for an album so muted and quiet, but when it arrived early this year, Benji was shocking. For much of the record, arrangements consist of a fingerpicked nylon string guitar. The tunes are just barely tunes, as Mark Kozelek sing-speaks the lyrics and worries more about fitting all the words in than he does about the conventions of rhyme and meter. How could a record that sounds so simple and states things so plainly be this moving? Kozelek had for some time favored stripped-down, detail-packed narratives about the particulars of his life, but he needed a thread to tie them together and transform the fragments into something powerful. Here, that binding idea is death.
It’s not that every song on Benji is about someone close to Kozelek dying (though most of them are), but they all focus on relationships between specific people. And underneath the mundane observations about Kozelek loving his mother and father and having fun thinking about his friend Ben and telling the story of his first kiss is the pulsing reality that there’s only one way it all ends. But while there’s a long history of music explicitly about this territory, rare is the album with this much empathy and, ultimately, acceptance. That last part, delivered with a wisdom that takes some living to access, is the key to the whole thing, why these songs, despite their subject matter, are so uplifting. Even in the face of the worst horror imaginable, Benji tells us, the only way through is to keep on keepin’ on, making your way in the world with a heavy and open heart. —Mark RichardsonEmbed is unavailable.
- Def Jam
You could say Yeezus is about sex, religion, race, celebrity, regret, and true love—and you’d be wrong. Yeezus is the Album About Everything, an unrestrained id stomping through a landscape of sputtering drum machines, queasy klaxons, and synths sharp enough to cause lacerations.
Clocking in at a svelte 40 minutes, Yeezus is unbelievably dense for what is easily Kanye West's shortest album; he packs so many ideas, statements, and unreliable narratives into it that language itself becomes clipped and brutish; “Racism” becomes “racim”, Deepak Chopra becomes “Deepak Chopa”. The thoughts come quick and fast, taking shapes that are energizing, audacious, brave, and repulsive—sometimes all at once. Contradictions arrive in clusters; on “Blood on the Leaves”, tales of courtside seating-as-apartheid and wasted-cocaine regrets are laid out as Nina Simone wages an intergalactic war with TNGHT's flattening synthetic horns. Throughout Yeezus, Kanye claims to be a lot of things—a wolf, a king, a priest, a reincarnation of a still-alive Shabba Ranks—but he remains, tantalizingly, at arms’ length.
Sonically, Yeezus is similarly impossible to categorize, a record that moves from nasty to terrifying to contemplative. Much has been made of how it stands out in relation to Kanye’s catalog, but squint a little and you can see the call-backs to his past work—the hyperspeed soul of The College Dropout, 808s & Heartbreak’s electronic isolation, Graduation’s opulent bray, Late Registration’s considered orchestration, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s proggy sprawl. Underneath all the chaos, Yeezus’ strangest moments unfold with an eerie sense of patience: the fizzling synths on the end of the sad-eyed “Guilt Trip”, the tangled guitar fantasia that emerges midway through “Hold My Liquor”, the 65 proclamatory seconds before “Blood on the Leaves” unleashes one of the most satisfying beat-drops of the last five years. The guest list on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy resembled an IMDB page for an entire year’s worth of Oscar winners, while Yeezus treats its collaborators like band logos written on the back of a spiral notebook, squashing their voices into one claustrophobic space. Dozens of people worked on Yeezus—even the guy from Salem gets a writing credit—but it’s a testament to Kanye’s all-encompassing vision that the end result sounds like nobody but him.
When Yeezus saw release, a colleague suggested that Kanye had, for the fourth time, changed hip-hop’s sonic trajectory. A year isn’t much to measure the legacy of something as titanic and intangible as Yeezus, but so far, that person was wrong: nothing sounds like Yeezus. The dip of notable hip-hop and electronic releases in 2014 suggests that the shock of innovation froze both genres in their tracks. Even so, it’s a mistake to think of this music as “futuristic”: when Yeezus is in the air, time stands still. —Larry Fitzmaurice
How do you make a psychedelic rock album about the future? Tame Impala did it with Lonerism by setting their sights on achieving pure interstellar pop pleasure. Lonerism has plenty of familiar 1960s-era signifiers: Lennonesque vocals, lysergic-powered string sections, harpsichords that sound like guitars, guitars that sound like harpsichords, and so on. But the sum total of these references is a futurist sensibility that belongs to no specific era, but rather is dedicated to exploring the space between abstract weirdness and conventional pop-rock melodicism.
With his stated intention to write "cheesy pop songs" that he re-worked and perfected while stationed in a tiny Paris apartment, Kevin Parker sought to bridge Syd Barrett and Kylie Minogue on his would-be masterpiece, simultaneously engaging in an ecstatic exploration of the mind and an exhilarating celebration of the body. Lonerism isn’t dance music, but it sets out to push the same buttons. “Apocalypse Dreams” could be the best disco song ELO never wrote, and no matter the thrust of the mighty guitar riff on “Elephant” or the wonder of Parker’s beatific vocal on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” Lonerism is built from the bottom up, with kinetic drum fills constantly pushing the songs heavenward.
Like all great psych-rock, Lonerism is ultimately an exercise in introspection—an exploration not of space but inner space, as Roger Waters once said of Dark Side of the Moon. Parker knows his music history, and with Lonerism he successfully indulged his auteurist, Brian Wilson/Paul McCartney pop genius fantasies. But what ultimately makes Lonerism such a captivating listen is how it pulls your forward into an uncertain, exciting sonic terrain where the tangible past is reconfigured into an intangible set of fresh possibilities. —Steven HydenTame Impala: "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" (via SoundCloud)
Modern Vampires of the City
Pigeonhole them as fops and rich kids if you want, but Vampire Weekend have long outgrown such petty concerns. Coming from a band whose early press included a Teen Vogue story doting on the recent purchase of a Ralph Lauren sweater embroidered with tiny dogs, Modern Vampires was a tough, pensive album, burdened by thoughts about mortality (“Don’t Lie”), personal failure (“Ya Hey”), and the lengths to which people go in order to give their lives a little meaning (“Unbelievers”). An observer of life more than a student of books, Ezra Koenig keeps his big ideas tethered to small, everyday details, and usually ends up confessing that for all his occasional insights, he’s just a guy in the street trying to sort it out like everyone else.
Never has the synergy between him and Rostam Batmanglij been so realized. These are fussy, precise songs—built with ticking clocks, processed saxophones, sounds old and new, natural and anything but—but they project with the clarity and size of anthems. If the band seem like overachievers, it’s not because they want power, but because achievement is its own reward. Don’t hate them because they’re beautiful; hate them because their ambition paid off. —Mike Powell
- Sub Pop
- Bella Union
At one time Beach House were a modest, bookish secret, a band with two beloved little albums that sounded like residents of cramped, dusty spaces—a mildewy small-town antique shop, or disintegrating cardboard in an attic. They hinted distantly at sensuality, as if once they had might has been someone's makeout music, long since mothballed and forgotten. Alex Scally's synths and drum programming fit neatly into the mid-’00s fascination with faded, analog objects, and Victoria Legrand's low and alluring voice rose faintly above them, suggesting a vibrant spirit captured only on a crackly 78.
Now, Beach House tour internationally, and Legrand's contralto rises into festival skylines from Primavera to Coachella. They've joined the top tier of powerhouse indie acts, alongside Arcade Fire and the National, and Volkswagen even tried to rip them off. It's a place no one would have previously thought to slot them, and it was entirely due to 2010's Teen Dream. The album was a glorious hinge point, springing the duo from the broom closet and ushering them permanently into the open field, bringing all of their previously muted allure with them.
Produced by Chris Coady and released on Sub Pop, it was everything their first two albums were (alluring, romantic, remote, faintly mysterious) and everything they were not (overwhelming, sweeping, grand). Scally's guitar sounds, which had always been soft-edged, swelled into the new space, bringing the band closer to the majesty of My Bloody Valentine. And on autumnal anthems like “A Walk in the Park”, Legrand graduated from siren into someone more forceful and interesting—someone who had fallen permanently beneath the spell of Stevie Nicks' arm scarves at an early age, for sure, but also a corporeal woman with dark, elliptical thoughts about love and loss. —Jayson GreeneEmbed is unavailable.
- Def Jam
Days before Channel Orange became available on his website, Frank Ocean posted a note to his Tumblr. It was a love note, poetically worded but simply stated, to a boy he'd shared an intense summer relationship with, only to discover the boy had a girlfriend. Or something like that. The details were hazy, but the message was crystalline: Frank Ocean was coming out after several years of private torment, on the eve of his long-delayed major label debut. "Before writing this I'd told some people my story. I'm sure these people kept me alive, kept me safe," he wrote. "I feel like a free man. If I listen closely... I can hear the sky falling too." "The night I posted it, I cried like a fucking baby," he told GQ shortly afterward.
It was an extraordinary moment, one in which "the personal and political merged into publicity," as Eric Harvey wrote in a lovely turn of phrase for BuzzFeed that year. The note, and its clear-eyed bravery, merged into the discovery of Channel Orange itself, an album that exists in a liminal space entirely of Ocean's creation. The music had some clear sources: It cribbed a gently astonished, pillowy feeling from Shuggie Otis, to whom Ocean seems to be paying direct tribute to with instrumental sketches like "White". And the "domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools" of "Sweet Life" is a well-scrutinized pop landscape, from Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac and onward.
But the mood and tone of Channel Orange, a mix of superhuman empathy and wisdom, remains unique. Ocean's characters struggle for human-sized achievements—grace through sorrow, hard-fought self-acceptance. His eye catches emotions of all sizes: a wail of desolation ("Bad Religion"), a tender late-night glance at a sleeping baby ("Sierra Leone"), and a junkie's descent (is there a sadder observation of addiction's effects than "your family stopped inviting you to things"?). The songs melt through each other's borders, sometimes stopping after just a verse and a chorus and sometimes flowing through nearly 10 minutes. It's a sturdy, exquisite act of craftsmanship, one that creates a legacy no matter what its creator does or doesn't do next. —Jayson GreeneFrank Ocean: "Pyramids" (via SoundCloud)
By the turn of the decade, Deerhunter had already come close to perfecting their synthesis of the last five decades of popular rock music—from the Everly Brothers to Sonic Youth—with their art-damaged, avant-garde sensibilities. Their ambitious, enigmatic Southern Gothic rock was refined and perfected on Cryptograms and Microcastle / Weird Era Cont., forging a distinct sound from a complex network of influences. In many ways, the band mirrored an ancestor, Georgia brethren R.E.M.: both groups challenged their listeners, treated atmosphere and texture with the same importance as melody, and were led by charismatic queer oddballs in Bradford Cox and Michael Stipe.
On Deerhunter's first four full-lengths, that sort of queerness was mostly relegated to the realm of the subliminal: off-hand lyrical references, little sonic suggestions, hints of pent-up lust and frustration and loneliness. And then, like a bolt from the blue, Halcyon Digest: the sexual and social undercurrent that had laid in waiting for almost a decade exploded to the forefront, a burst of thematic clarity mirrored by a shift towards pristine, direct recording and composition. The album is one of the great documents of the queer experience; it's a true digest, a collection of stories and elements of the gay experience pulled from real life, literature, and the province of the mind.
Halcyon Digest gives voice to characters that never had a chance to speak for themselves, to feelings that are too often relegated to journals and goodbye notes. On the cover there's Dennis Dinion, an Atlanta-area school teacher taking part in the 1982 Miss Star Lite Pageant on 1983's doorstep; it was the club's last night open. At the center of heartbroken requiem "Helicopter", there's Dima Marakov, a Dennis Cooper protagonist who went from studying fashion design in Russia to gay pornography and forced prostitution. There's the nameless child of the autumnal, jangling "Memory Boy", dealing with swirling October lust and his father's shame. "Revival" casts homoerotic passion in the language of religion, with Cox putting on his sluttiest moan; "Don't Cry" and "Sailing" are documents of loneliness and pure isolation. The album ends with a sprawling expression of platonic love. Courage, hope, sadness, loss, the beautiful and the grotesque, the divine and the queer: it's all here, rendered in painstakingly personal detail.
There's a truly generous message at the heart of Halcyon Digest, one intended for anyone who's struggling or feeling alone regardless of personal circumstance: you are not alone, and you will know moments of joy that justify your fight. Less an individual collection of memories than an anthology, it transcends the limitations of its form. This is more than an album: it's a tribute to those of us who aren't able to find the peace they deserve, and a celebration of everyone who makes it through to the other side. —Jamieson CoxEmbed is unavailable.
- Top Dawg
good kid, m.A.A.d city
Music this resonant—of a moment in time, of a turning point in a genre, and especially of the person making it—is typically seen as a sign that an artist's finally figured out who they are. But Kendrick Lamar's greatest album (so far) is such an achievement because it lays out the vivid picture of a younger self who hasn't figured out who he is—only what he's good at—and is surrounded by others unwilling to let him come to an identity easily or naturally. The core of the conflict on this album is powerfully familiar, albeit in multiple definitions of the term. On one end, there's the family itself, traditionally religious and tight-knit and constantly mindful of teenage Kendrick's well-being but mostly present through voicemails and tape recordings and things Kendrick has borrowed from them (his mother's van, his father's dominoes). On the other, there are all the outside forces that his classmates, friends, enemies, complete strangers, and the whole city of Compton are pulling him through—threatening his life through antagonism or peer pressure, an immediate end via gunbarrel or a slow death disguised as a celebration.
It's an immersive experience, musically. Filtered through the legacy of Compton and the hip-hop that took the city's tribulations and victories international, the production and guest roster is powerfully cognizant of its G-funk precedent (complete with torch-passing Dre and MC Eiht guest spots). But it's also restless, anxious, wanting to step out of its elders' shadows and forge its own path through hazy ambience and minimalist soul. And Kendrick has many ways to command that atmosphere. There's his next-level storytelling, so detailed and evocative of places you've been or seen—L.A. or otherwise—it renders the entire idea of music videos redundant. There's his ability to step into other peoples' shoes and truly inhabit outside perspectives and mindsets in a way scarcely heard since late '90s OutKast. And there's that rare knack he has of being technically, lyrically, and narratively-minded all at once, with a three-way focus that doesn't sacrifice clarity for flash or intricacy for coherence.
But what pushes him into rarefied territory is his ability to own his ambivalence, his confusion at the unknown, and his coming-of-age work at just figuring shit out. Even when he's at his most top-of-the-world boastful—"Backseat Freestyle" being the early-album highlight of premature triumphalism—he keeps switching up his style through repetitions of the same verses and hooks just to find the one that registers right. The majority of the time—staring down bottomless Solo cups in "Swimming Pools (Drank)", pushing himself into isolation ("Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe"), trying to figure out if there's any escape from his seemingly imminent mortality ("Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst")—a voice in the back of his head projects outwards to ask if this is really what he's about. good kid, m.A.A.d city plays like a eulogy for the person Kendrick could've been trapped into dying as, or a remembrance of people who really did find their lives cut short or derailed because their search for identity led them through routes that warped them into lost souls. —Nate PatrinKendrick Lamar: "Backseat Freestyle" (via SoundCloud)
- Def Jam
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This is a list that ranks sustained musical greatness in the new decade, so Kanye West’s name absolutely deserves to be at the #1 spot. But wouldn’t it be more accurate if it was just Kanye West’s name? If Benz vs. Backpack was the dichotomy that defined his early creative struggle, now it’s Kanye West vs. The Album, an antiquated format that increasingly seems ill-equipped to quantify the magnitude and influence of his multimedia celebrity and forward-thinking artistry. Yes, your grandparents and cousins and coworkers know who he is, but could you have a conversation with them about any of his songs? When was the last time they heard “Power” or “All of the Lights” in a public setting without their permission? West’s decade-long imperial phase is every bit as impressive as those of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder... except on the charts and on radio playlists. Where’s his document of pop culture singularity?
Well, sometimes the moment calls for a There’s a Riot Goin’ On or a Stankonia rather than Thriller or Purple Rain, a reality check for the fractious, dystopian present where “who will survive in America?” doesn’t seem like a rhetorical question. And the fact that an album that captured the beautiful, dark twisted reality of 2010 still managed to sell 1.5 million copies is one of its lesser triumphs. Smarting from his Taylor Swift and Bonnaroo PR disasters, the death of his mother, and his first critical failure, all while incapacitated by his volatile relationship with Amber Rose, the disharmony of Kanye West’s personal life was in tune with the state of hip-hop, the music industry, and the economic and political state of America as a whole midway through the first Obama administration—still unable or unwilling to process the turmoil of a hard couple of years, still tripping off the power, hedonism, and nihilism engaged in mortal combat. Equally accounting for West’s artistic adaptability and personal stubbornness, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy builds a monument as Rome burns.
While his first two masterworks presented a complex and complete portrait of a man, you likely bought The College Dropout and Late Registration on CD and could resolve the contradictions and flaws by cutting out the skits and skipping the last couple of tracks. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy impresses with its impenetrable wholeness. Befitting a record that owes its creation to a mythical, Dream-Team recording process on a Hawaiian island, there’s one way in and no guaranteed means of escape: unusually lengthy songs impervious to fast-forwarding are filled with guitar solos, extended outros, surprise guest verses, and French horns. It's post-Twitter, pre-Vine and Snapchat; the decade's information overload with a vinyl-era attention span, forcing you to acknowledge and appreciate every stumble on the way to an emotional and musical breakthrough.
And so, everything fascinating about Kanye West, the person, is inextricable from Kanye West, the artist, and becomes shorthand for nearly everything fascinating about pop in 2010. “Sex is on fire/ I’m the King of Leona Lewis”, the "Obama-nation of Obama’s nation" and, in between, a guy who out-raps Raekwon on his A-game. Nicki Minaj’s terrible British accent and a guest verse that altered the landscape like none other since Busta Rhymes’ on “Scenario”. “All of the Lights” has about 50 Grammys in its credits and yet it’s mixed like a Sleigh Bells song and features Fergie rapping about sniffing coke. A mogul gets emotional and schizophrenic during “Blame Game”, a harrowing breakup song that ends with Chris Rock discovering a new part of Pussy Town. Aphex Twin and King Crimson are beautifully sampled, the already dumbass “Iron Man” melody is dumbed down even further on a song about fucking a porn star, which is also about Kanye West's spiritual awakening. 808s & Heartbreak is redeemed with the 9-minute opus “Runaway”; the first half was used for a beer commercial and the second for the true death of Auto-Tune, a burial at sea. The careers of Pusha T and Charlie Wilson are revitalized, while in the span of 16 bars, the career of CyHi Da Prince begins and then ends with indignity and schadenfreude worthy of Lamar Odom and Matt Leinart. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy asks “Can we get much higher?” and ends with polite applause.
Which is ridiculous in light of its bold conception, but let's not forget its sillier working title (Good Ass Job), the untested G.O.O.D. Friday rollout, and the fact that Kanye West's cultural cachet was at its lowest point. The easiest way to separate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from the baggage of its critical and commercial praise is to remember and appreciate the instability of its moment; there was no guarantee that this wasn't going to be a career-killing flop.
But in 2014, the best way to appreciate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to step outside the fortress and meet the neighbors. West broke the ground upon which the new decade’s most brilliant architects built their masterworks; Bon Iver, Take Care, Channel Orange, and good kid, m.A.A.d city don’t exist without the blueprint of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The list ends here because it’s where the decade truly begins. —Ian Cohen