Regular contributor Brian Flota and I have been talking about a project like this for quite some time. We originally wanted to put together a list of the 100 best albums of all time, but the list ended up looking a little too conventional (too much Dylan! Too many Beatles!). Then we talked about expanding beyond 100, but as I’m stepping away from regular duties at The Collapsar to helm my school’s university press and Brian has plenty of work to keep him busy, we didn’t think that was a good plan. And so we arrived at this—a list of our favorite albums of the last thirty years, 1986-2016. Thirty years seemed like a nice round number, and it also challenged us to get outside of our normal lists of favorites to pick some exciting, interesting, sometimes predictable, and sometimes weird and surprising albums to populate this thing. Case in point: this first batch of fifteen records, #’s 100 – 86, is a bizarro mix of canon masterpieces, recent stunners, and oddball classics.
We’ll be rolling this list out throughout 2017, with one installment a month until we reach our #1 album. We hope you’ll read along with us and let us know what you think on social media. Let’s get to that list, then.
100 | Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream
Born out of a decade that found mainstreamed “alternative” music settling into a comfortable genre rut that mixed and matched metal, punk, and power pop, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream feels downright otherworldly. While the rest of the Modern Rock Radio crowd was dressing in earth tones and flannel, Billy Corgan and co. made space-prog-punk-metal dipped in silver and lava. From furious opener “Cherub Rock,” to acoustic anthem “Disarm,” to the shimmering, gorgeous and wistful “Mayonnaise,” Siamese Dream is, and will always be, The Pumpkins unimpeachable peak. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), Pearl Jam Vitalogy (1994), Jane’s Addiction Ritual De Lo Habitual (1990), Radiohead The Bends (1995), and Soundgarden’s Superunknown (1994).
The quirky hypnogogic indie pop icon Ariel Pink turns in his strangest and most proficient effort with Pom Pom. Listening to this set of Bizarro-World hits, all glazed over with a Dazed and Confused-era AM radio sheen, is what I’d imagine a musical car crash between Wings, Frank Zappa, and Pere Ubu would sound like. By taking the best aspects of the cheesiest radio hits from the 1970s and 1980s, he makes music that is somehow both alien and completely familiar at the same time. Highlights include “Nude Beach a Go-Go” and the beyond whacky “Dinosaur Carebears.” –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti Before Today (2010) and Mature Themes (2012), and Destroyer’s Kaputt (2011).
[Deathlike Silence, 1994]
The most infamous Norwegian black metal is, without a doubt, Mayhem’s De mysteriis dom Sathanas. The story behind the album is nearly as compelling as the music on it: the album’s lyricist, Dead, committed suicide; the album’s guitarist, Euronymous, was murdered; and the album’s bassist, Count Grishnackh (also known as Burzum or Varg Vikernes), murdered Euronymous. Got all that?! As grimy as all that sounds, the music is just as terrifying, as Attila Csihar’s blood-curdling vocals rumble atop typewriter beats and a musical backdrop akin to a windy night spent on a snowcapped mountain possessed by Satan. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Bathory Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987) and Blood Fire Death (1988),Darkthrone A Blaze in the Northern Sky (1992), and Pig Destroyer’s Terrifyer (2004).
[Warner Bros., 1997]
There is no other album quite like Zaireeka. Released at the height of the CD era, the set came with four discs, all with different pieces of the same songs, to be played at the same time on four different CD players. Because no two CD players play at exactly the same speed, certain echoes and effects occur, generating an interactive, surround-sound-psychedelic-punk-rock experience. Following the exit of guitarist Ronald Jones from the band, these songs are less guitar-driven and markedly darker than the Lips’ earlier work, best exemplified on tracks like “How Will We Know?” and “A Machine in India.” –Brian Flota
Also recommended: The Flaming Lips Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) and Embryonic (2009), Animal Collective Sung Tongs (2004) and Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009), Caribou Up in Flames (2003), and Liars Drum’s Not Dead (2006).
[Caldo Verde, 2014]
With Benji, Mark Kozelek makes the change from moody Americana to rawly confessional story-songs. Whether chronicling the bizarre death of a second-cousin on stunning album opener “Carissa,” contemplating memory and mortality on “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same,” or talking about blue crab cakes and Ben Gibbard on “Ben’s My Friend,” Kozelek’s songs demonstrate a gorgeous melodic sensibility, a shitload of empathy, and an almost transgressive intimacy. An album for the age of over-sharing, Benji celebrates our common humanity through hyper-personal narrative. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Sun Kil Moon Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) and April (2008), Red House Painters Red House Painters (Rollercoaster) (1993), Iron and Wine The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002), Fleet Foxes Fleet Foxes (2008), and Palace Brothers’ Day in the Wake (1994).
From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Johnny Cash’s career reemerged precipitously. When presented by producer Rick Rubin with the opportunity to reboot his career, he leapt at the chance. Cash sounds renewed on the stark opener, “Delia’s Gone.” He also tackles material by Glenn Danzig (“Thirteen”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird on a Wire”), and Tom Waits (“Down There by the Train”), making it wholly his own. There’s even some humor on tracks like “Tennessee Stud” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” Armed with only an acoustic guitar, Cash transforms himself from a country icon into a country monk. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball (1995), Willie Nelson Spirit (1996), and Keith Whitley I Wonder Do You Think of Me (1989).
A Seat at the Table was a highpoint in 2016, a year that was partially defined, musically anyway, by the resurgence of exceptional protest music. What makes 2016 different from many previous surges of politically-minded music, though, is how profoundly human and personal much of this music felt. Nobody did this better than Solange. And with gorgeous, soulful standouts like “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” A Seat at the Table is more than just protest music or more than just important—it’s a beautiful, resonant work of art. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: D’Angelo Voodoo (2000), D’Angelo and the Vanguard Black Messiah (2014), Anderson .Paak Malibu (2016), Thundercat The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011), Janelle Monáe The Electric Lady (2013), Jamila Woods HEAVN (2016), and Q-Tip Kamaal/The Abstract (2001).
During the peak of the hair-metal bubble, no album better represented the subgenre’s excesses than Appetite for Destruction. On the strength of frontman Axl Rose’s barbaric, operatic rocker yawp, lead guitarist Slash’s metallic, bluesy solos, and drummer Steven Adler’s rudimentary but immediate beats, the band takes us through a dark world of sex, drugs, and misogyny, where everybody uses and everybody gets used. Rose’s lyrical paranoia, sociopathy, and cynicism is buoyed by the occasional feeling (“Rocket Queen” and the huge hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) and irresistible hooks. After this album, there was nowhere else for hair metal to go but down. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Danzig Danzig (1988) Pearl Jam Ten (1991), Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf (2002), and The Replacements Pleased to Meet Me (1987).
Alex Zhang Hungtai’s follow-up to Badlands finds him leaving behind the rockabilly slant of Suicide and diving into the murkier recesses of club music. The first section (Drifters) loosely adheres to pop structures (though it does feature the ominous ten-minute instrumental “Mirage Hall”) while the second section (Love is the Devil) is mostly instrumental, relying on ambient textures that evoke an exhaustive collapse after binge partying with complete strangers for days on end. With its structural similarities to David Bowie’s first two Berlin albums (Low and Heroes), Hungtai here creates stark club music for the clubless. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Dirty Beaches Badlands (2011), Oneohtrix Point Never Garden of Delete (2015), Xiu Xiu A Promise (2003), Crystal Castles Crystal Castles (II) (2010), and Cliff Martinez Drive (2011).
[Tommy Boy, 1989]
Had 3 Feet High and Rising been released a year earlier, it likely would have been remembered as the album that changed hip hop. But because it landed in 1989, just a few months before the Beastie Boys’ landmark Paul’s Boutique, which somehow took everything Prince Paul did on 3 Feet High and did it just a little bit better, the album is just remembered as one of the albums that changed hip hop. That said, 3 Feet High still stands as a monument to early sample culture; its dizzying array of samples—Funkadelic, check; Steely Dan, check; Billy Joel, check; Sly and the Family Stone, check—creates a hazy, wild psychedelic wall of borrowed sound that redefined hip hop’s relationship with popular culture. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: De La Soul De La Soul is Dead (1991), A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory (1991) and We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), Erik B. & Rakim Paid in Full (1987) and Follow the Leader (1988), Company Flow Funcrusher Plus (1997), and The Pharcyde Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992).
[Asthmatic Kitty, 2011]
Barwick beautifully transcends the experimental trappings of her musical approach on The Magic Place. She utilizes loops and minimal instrumentation to build ethereal, soaring songs that transport the listener to misty, castle-bedecked hillsides. Her album arrived on shelves at a fascinating moment when artists such as Grouper and Julia Holter began to emerge, fusing the early ambient experiments of Brian Eno with the dream pop of acts like the Cocteau Twins. Her intricate yet accessible vocal harmonies on The Magic Place separate her from her peers. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Oneohtrix Point Never Replica (2011), The Caretaker An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011), Grouper A I A: Alien Observer (2011) and A I A: Dream Loss (2011), Air Talkie Walkie (2004), Nicolas Jaar Space is Only Noise (2011), and Julia Holter Tragedy (2011) and Loud City Song (2013).
After a spate of excellent albums, Boris sum up their experiments in metal with 2005’s Pink. They somehow manage to recall many of the genre’s most popular (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath) and most innovative acts (Earth, The Melvins, Kyuss) while simultaneously leaving their own heavy stamp on the genre by injecting extrametallicular influences such as Mogwai, the Boredoms, Merzbow (who they have collaborated with), and Hüsker Dü. Furthermore, the Japanese power trio accomplishes all this without being precious, pretentious, or ironic. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Boris Absolutego (1996), Boris at Last –Feedbacker- (2003), and Smile (US Version) (2006) and Boris with Merzbow Rock Dream (2007).
While, regrettably, Houston-based DJ Screw is mostly known for popularizing “purple drink” (he died from complications related to codeine cough syrup in 2000), he should be most recognized for inventing the Chopped and Screwed subgenre of remixing. Simply put, DJ Screw took records, slowed them down considerably, and complemented them with scratching and various effects. On his most well known mix, All Screwed Up, DJ Screw creates a disorienting, sinister soundscape. Utilizing bleak tracks by Houston rap artists UGK, Point Blank, and 20-2-Life, All Screwed Up proves to be just as relevant as ever twenty years after its creation. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: DJ /rupture Minesweeper Suite 2002, Scarface The Fix (2002), Clipse Hell Hath No Fury (2006), and Goodie Mob Soul Food (1995).
Boards of Canada’s are less known for influence than for craft. That is to say, Music Has the Right to Children was never innovative, but it was satisfying in ways that nobody had managed before, or has managed sense. Be it through the haunted and weird “The Colour of Fire,” the lush bounce of “roygbiv” or the gorgeous drones of “Open the Light,” across its eighteen tracks, this album quietly reveals itself as a masterpiece of retro soundscapes and fragmented memory. One suspects that, as we leave the album’s source material further in the past, these songs will grow increasingly haunted and mysterious both for listeners trying to remember and those who couldn’t possibly begin trying. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Boards of Canada Geogaddi (2002), Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992) and drukqs (2001), Flying Lotus Cosmogramma (2010), Autechre Tri repetae (1995), Gas Pop (2000), Oneohtrix Point Never Returnal (2010), Oval 94 Diskont (1995), Daft Punk Discovery (2001), James Blake James Blake (2011), Burial Untrue (2007), and Air Moon Safari (1998).
M.I.A.’s most popular album, Kala, anchored by the surprise, Clash-sampling hit “Paper Planes,” perfectly synthesizes her expansive, multicultural vision of hip-hop. Fusing Western beats and canonical bites (like The Modern Lovers and the Pixies) with elements of Tamil music, M.I.A. here generates a stunning, fresh, postcolonial rap album informed by global activism and feminism. Her flow has plenty of authority. She manages to mix serious topics, such as misogyny (“Boyz”), with darkly humorous bangers like “Bamboo Banga” and “Paper Planes.” The production team, including herself and future stars Diplo and Switch, generates state of the art, off-kilter, and infectious beats. –Brian Flota