So here we are–part four of Brubaker & Flota vs. 1986-2016. I love the entire list Brian and I put together–even the albums that Brian lobbied for that I’m not all that familiar with–but I have a particular fondness for this set of ten. The titles are starting to get a bit more predictable, but you’ll still find some surprises. At the least, I suspect folks will be a little surprised by the one Wilco album that landed on the list. [spoiler alert] Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is great, but Being There remains the band’s finest achievement[spoiler alert]. Elswhere, this batch of ten albums includes two albums I can sing every word of from start to finish, my favorite cold weather, sad walking album of all time, one of the most foundational, beloved hip hop albums of all time, one of the weirdest and most divisive hip hop albums of all time, and well, I could keep going, but I don’t want to tease everything. Enjoy this month’s installment, and keep an eye out for the next installment in May, when we enter the top 50.
Most every other list without an explicit alt country skew will try to tell you that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) is Wilco’s masterpiece. While that’s a great album, it doesn’t hold a candle to 1996’s Being There. Fresh off the relative success of their debut A.M., and still reeling from whatever happened to Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy and co. surprised every-damn-one when they released Being There, a miraculous road opus pop album, heavily steeped in the alt country Wilco had helped define. What makes Being There feel so eternal is its sonic scope and grounded lyrics. Each disc of the album—lovingly released as a double cd for conceptual, organizational purposes—begins with a six minute song “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure,” respectively, that mixes country, folk, and noisy feedback to stunning ends. Across the rest of the album, there’s quiet country (“Far, Far Away”), blue-eyed soul (“Monday”), Big Star inflected power pop (“I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, Beatles-esque pop “Outta Mind (Outta Sight),” and good old fashioned country ravers (“Dreamer in My Dreams”). The result is a dizzying, ecstatic triptych through rock and roll history down to its roots to make something big, bold, and beautiful. As much a primer in American pop musical forms as a love letter to growing up on the road, Wilco have yet to top Being There—the album is the perfect blend of everything that has made Wilco one of the most beloved American bands in recent memory. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and Summerteeth (1999), Uncle Tupelo Anodyne (1993) and No Depression (1990), Sun Volt Trace (1995), Bright Eyes I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005), Califone Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (2003), Palace Music Viva Last Blues (1995) and Bill Callahan Dream River (2013).
[Warner Japan, 1999]
The Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun finds the Japanese noise act employing more structure into their music–only to completly turn it on its head. Here, the Boredoms make psychedelic music informed by hardcore punk, noise, the twitchy jazz of John Zorn, Krautrock, and rave culture. Though it consists of nine tracks, the album is essentially one long, lysergic suite that swells more than it contracts. The key propulsive engine behind this warped but somehow elegant music is the percussion. The Boredoms make full use of three drummers (Yoshimi, ATR, and E Da), giving this trippy concoction a polyrhythmic jitteriness that separates it from the rest of the pack. Vision Creation Newsun was a bit of a surprise when it was released back in 1999. Prior to its release, the Boredoms had rarely ventured into territory like this, though they hinted at the new direction on their previous album, Super Ae (1998). Thanks to the experimental outfit’s high dive into the fifth dimension, Vision Creation Newsun will likely remain a neo-psychedelic masterpiece for ages to come. –Brian Flota
Also Recommended: Boredoms, Rebore Vol. 0: Vision Recreation by Eye (2001), Seadrum / House of Sun (2004) and Yume Bitsu The Golden Vessyl of Sound (2002)
Raising Hell is the final word in old school hip-hop long-players. When the album dropped in 1986, hip-hop had not yet reached the mainstream. There had been several successful and important singles–like The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (1979) and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5’s “The Message” (1982) and “White Lines” (1983)–but, by 1986, the face of this new movement was Run-DMC. After two solid LPs worth of hard-hitting rap, the trio broke through with “Walk this Way,” their collaboration with has-beens (at least at the time) Aerosmith. Ultimately, the album sold over three million copies, but not solely because of “Walk This Way.” Thanks to co-producers Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s emphasis on hard beats, rock riffs, and spare samples, tracks like “Peter Piper,” “It’s Tricky,” “Hit it Run,” and “Raising Hell” are powerful, rising above the “novelty” the major labels saw in the genre at the time. Though their rhymes are quaint by today’s standards, it does close with “Proud to Be Black,” hinting at the pro-black rhymes Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest would soon deliver. Thanks to this album’s success, Run-DMC became almost immediately passé, in large part because they inspired so many up and comers (like Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Ultramagnetic MC’s, N.W.A, just to name a few).—Brian Flota
Also Recommended: Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill (1986), Biz Markie Goin’ Off (1988), Public Enemy Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987), Run-DMC Tougher than Leather (1988) and Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown (1988)
[Warner Bros., 1986]
By the time Paul Simon released Graceland in 1986, even some of his staunchest supporters must have been worried that he didn’t have any gas left in the tank. And why would he? After an impressive sixties and seventies spent churning out hits and otherwise beloved songs, Simon slowed down following 1975’s excellent Still Crazy After All these Years. After that album, he released the fine but not great soundtrack to the bad but not terrible film One Trick Pony, and the lackluster-with-bright-spots Hearts and Bones. Maybe Paul Simon was over? And then he took a trip to South Africa and made Graceland—and though it’s difficult to separate Simon’s masterpiece from its fraught cultural context, or the white, colonial rationale that followed, the album remains the finest of Simon’s career. Long before Graceland, Simon had already shown an interest in globetrotting sounds, but here, Simon leaned into those impulses and, instead of borrowing flourishes, gave himself over to the sounds, was letting the music borrow him. The result is an exuberant and joyful record, a celebration of life, despite its hardships. From the techno-paranoia of “Boy in the Bubble” to the playful “I Know What I Know” to the elegant and hopeful “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” Simon had yet to make an album this exciting and consistent, and hasn’t made another one sense—this is his masterpiece. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Paul Simon The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), Peter Gabriel So (1986), Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend (2008), Konono N°1 Congotronics (2005), Amadou & Mariam Dimanche à Bamako (2005).
Late in his run making music as The Microphones, deep enough in that fans could safely expect solid, weird, lo-fi artistry, and just a few years before he started going by the Mt. Eerie moniker, Phil Elverum made The Glow pt. 2, a gorgeous, howling masterpiece of lo-fi, navel-gazing indie folk. Pivoting on a dime between gentle acoustic strumming matched with Elverum’s stoic, but somehow still despair-drenched vocals and violent walls of noise that sound like the void shouting back, The Glow pt. 2 is a restless, challenging album that pits life’s smaller moments of clarity and/or distress against the bigness of mortality and everything else that anyone has ever felt up against. Through all of the album’s fuzz and noise, Elverum conveys a dire sense of urgency. When he sings “I could not get through September without a battle” over organ on the album’s stunning title track, the results are primal, almost painful. Meanwhile, on “I Felt Your Size,” Elverum’s delivery is so understated and sweet that it makes a poignant, gut wrenching breakup song—“…my loss was overwhelmed by this new depth I don’t think I ever felt,” he sings in one breath before, a few lines later, completing the thought, “I could have sworn I wasn’t alone”—feel like a love song, and that’s perfect. More perfect still, when that song’s quiet is devoured by the wall of feedback that gives “Samurai Sword” its shape, as Elverum sings, almost inaudibly, “You’re a bear foraging for a kill,” then, a few beats later, “I’ve got a samurai sword meant for you, polar bear.” On The Glow pt. 2, Elverum achieves the perfect balance between noise and melody, channeling that balance into one of the greatest albums ever made about existential dread. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: The Microphones Mt. Eerie (2003), The Mountain Goats All Hail West Texas (2002), Iron + Wine Our Endless Numbered Days (2004).
Belle and Sebastian are one of a handful of bands who managed to transcend their initial context to become timeless. In the back half of the 90’s, as Stuart Murdoch and co. were just getting started, they were shrouded in mystery. Conversations about Belle and Sebastian at the time were as much about their fans and mysterious aura as they were about the music itself and If You’re Feeling Sinister is still their best. A flat-out masterpiece on which every song is a stone-cold classic, Sinister finds Belle and Sebastian plumbing the emotional depths of hip, young intellectuals and cutting through the era’s irony to say something real about how people connect with one another. Whether it’s through the uplifting sadness of “The Stars of Track and Field,” the upbeat generational kiss off of “Me and the Major,” or the quiet storytelling of the title track, here, Belle and Sebastian established themselves as heavies of light melodies and storytelling with an eye towards the literary. Now, twenty years later, the songs on If You’re Feeling Sinister are written into the neurons of a generation of once-sad, wistful indie kids who Belle and Sebastian convinced to get out from under the headphones and out of their bedrooms to become a part of the world outside their houses. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Belle and Sebastian The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), Dear Catastrophe Waitess (2003), The Life Pursuit (2006), Arab Strap Elephant Shoe (1999), Mercury Rev Deserter’s Songs (1998), Beat Happening You Turn Me On (1992), The Field Mice Snowball (1989).
Yeezus, Kanye West’s follow-up to his insta-classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a confrontational, abrasive, eclectic, and bemusing release that confounded many of his most ardent supporters at the time it was released. After the biting introspection and epic musical sweep of MBDTF, West’s approach here is to strip down his songs to their barest essence while at the same time reveling in his legendary narcissism (there is a song on the album called “I Am a God” fer chrissakes). The techno-industrial “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” emerge as his most explicitly political songs, though the politics expressed in them lack coherence. He even samples Nina Simone (by way of Billie Holiday) on “Blood on the Leaves.” However, songs like “On Sight,” “I’m in It,” and the irresistible (and hilarious) closer “Bound 2” reveal Yeezus to be more of a warped party record than any sort of grand political statement. Those who sighed with relief because Ye took the blame for some of his past actions on MBDTF get no such satisfaction here. Thanks to co-producer Rick Rubin’s editing, West ditches the grand musical statements for an opening round knockout punch. BAM! –Brian Flota
Also Recommended: Lil B Im Gay (Im Happy) (2011), Death Grips Exmillitary (2011), The Money Store (2012) and Government Plates (2013), Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 2 (2014), and Kanye West The Life of Pablo (2016)
After three albums of drone-y, murky indie rock, nobody was expecting Deerhunter to make an album like Halcyon Digest. Still as texture-obsessed as the band’s previous albums, Halcyon Digest adds to that texture an impressive and surprising emphasis on melody, resulting in one of the most beautifully formed and elegant albums of the contemporary indie rock era. With a nostalgic eye (and ear) Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt’s songs explore loss, mortality, grief, and memory. The album’s first lyric doubles as its mission statement, “Do you recall?” Cox sings, “Waking up/on a dirty couch.” And so the album goes—we remember the past, and find beauty in even the gritty details, the dirty couches, and all the gray fogs and gray dogs. By the time the album arrives at its stunning, hypnotic finale, “He Would Have Laughed” (dedicated to Jay Reatard), Cox’s refrain of “Where did my friends go?” plays like a mission statement for everyone who has ever lost anyone. And even as the song longs for better times with those old friends, the speaker still tells himself, “Shut your mouth.” The millennial answer to Automatic for the People, Halcyon Digest is as close to perfect as any album has a right to be, and its ability to pit the present against memory is as honest a representation as has ever been committed to tape. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Deerhunter Microcastle/Weird Era Continued (2008), Animal Collective Strawberry Jam (2007) and Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009), Panda Bear Person Pitch (2007), Spiritualized Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997), Of Montreal Hissing Fauna, are You the Destroyer? (2007).
Picking a best Stereolab album isn’t easy. Is it going to be Emperor Tomato Ketchup, with its tight production and focused songs? Or maybe the minimalistic space-age pop of Dots and Loops? Or how about the sprawling avant-pop of Mars Audiac Quintet? I don’t know—fuck it. Might as well go with Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, one of the band’s weirdest, most experimental albums. Let’s say this is the Stereolab album we put on this list because it’s the one on which Stereolab found their footing, doubling down on their early krautrock influences while branching out adventurously into pop, drone, noise and good old fashioned rock and roll (trust me—it’s all in there). As much as I love Peng! and the band’s Switched On entries, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements marks the beginning of their assent to becoming the greatest electronic pop band of the 90’s, and nowhere is it more evident than on the album’s eighteen minute centerpiece, “Jenny Ondioline,” a stunning kraut rock and drone, bubblegum fueled opus that never gets tired or boring. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Stereolab Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996), Dots and Loops (1997), The Notwist Neon Golden (2002), Broadcast The Noise Made By People (2000), Caribou Swim (2010).
By updating the early acoustic guitar folk of John Fahey and fusing it with the spazzy rock of Slint, Godspeed You Black Emperor! (I never remember where the exclamation point goes!) became the standard bearers for a style that was dubbed “post-rock.” By eschewing the technical aspects of prog-rock while simultaneously embracing a vocal-less approach, the mysterious, pretentious, politically-charged act–at their best–represented one of rock music’s last refreshing gasps. Their hour-and-a-half-long, four song album Lift yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! is a stunning work of electric guitar-centric pieces that build build build to crescendos of chaotic beauty. Their wind-up is often punctuated by field recordings capturing jeremiads delivered by the dispossessed, which provide a stark juxtaposition to the general loveliness of their playing. Godspeed’s legend has grown as other groups of their ilk (think Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky) embraced the music marketplace. Lift yr Skinny Fists proves them to a be a great band that doesn’t fuck around. –Brian Flota