I’m going to keep it short this time, because what else is there really to say that the list won’t say for itself? A lot of lists like this tend to get increasingly predictable the closer they get to the top, and maybe this one does a little bit, but there are still some surprises here. We hope you’ll enjoy!
Through the end of the 80’s and the first half of the 90’s, hiphop was on a roll—we had Nas, Tribe, De La Soul, Dr. Dre and, of course, Wu Tang and its many offshoots. That is to say, by the mid-90’s hip hop had asserted itself as a cultural force to be reckoned with, and many of its greatest, most influential artists were just getting started, were at the top of their game, and/or had recently released the defining works of their career. 1996 looked to be more of the same—the best hiphop albums of the year are Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Outkast’s ATLiens, The Fugee’s The Score, and—Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst? Fresh off of his decade long stint with Ultramagnetic MC’s, Kool Keith struck out on his own as Dr. Octagon and made one of the most bizarre and influential albums of the decade. Without Dr. Octagonecologyst’s warped mix of freaky, Dan the Automator produced beats and odd-ball rhymes, one has to wonder what weird, underground hip hop would have sounded like, how long it would’ve taken to develop, and how it would have been received when it did start to evolve—but as it stands, that thread starts here, and it’s not difficult to trace that thread through MF Doom and Madvillain, through the Odd Future crew, and even “indie” hip hop staples like Aesop Rock. And hell, with bizarre rhymes like “You be there, like Michael Jackson in my atmosphere/Gerbils for rectums, I break you off like Richard Gere” and “Hold upright, I burn your anus with the purple light/Use up your power, make phone calls for an hour” it’s not that difficult to imagine a separate thread through the weirder, spastic bits from Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP and the back half of OutKast’s discography. That is, through Dr. Octagon, Kool Keith re-opened and began to grow a space where hip hop could be about more than turf wars, self-referential diss tracks, and politics. Of course, even if we disregard the album’s influence on the genre, Dr. Octagonecologyst is a fascinating and exceptional exploration of the abject, of sex, of the body, and of mental illness. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: King Geedorah Take Me To Your Leader (2003), Ultramagnetic MC’s The Four Horsemen (1993), Kool Keith Sex Style (1997), Masters of Illusion Masters of Illusion (2000), Aesop Rock Bazooka Tooth (2003), Earl Sweatshirt Earl (2010), Tyler, the Creator Bastard (2009).
On the original draft of this list, Beyoncé’s self-titled album held this spot. Truth is, as fantastic and important an album as Lemonade is, a few of the tracks didn’t quite click for me at first. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “6 Inch,” and “Daddy Lessons,” in particular, while important to the overall album, just didn’t quite click for me. And while they still are far from the best tracks on the album, they’ve grown on me. But that’s not the important thing here—no, the important thing here is that Lemonade is Queen Bey’s master opus, a stunning mixture of personal history, personal drama, and the politics of race and gender. The album works so well as a whole, is such a powerful, affecting artistic statement that a few songs that drag don’t matter. Even still, those songs are offset by some of Beyoncé’s all-time greatest cuts—“Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “Freedom,” and “Formation” among them. Has any album in recent memory so captured the zeitgeist in so short a time. From “Becky with the good hair” memes, to parodies of the video for “Hold Up,” to the frequent Apple commercials with “Freedom” blaring over them, to Hillary Clinton saying she carries hot sauce in her purse Lemonade made its mark on our culture. For an album so focused on the politics of race, relationships, and gender, it might seem stunning that pop culture embraced it so openly and immediately. But we shouldn’t really be surprised—this is Beyoncé, after all. And, in the end, Lemonade is a stunning and impressive album, a necessary album that won’t fix our broken world, but might help begin to heal the wounds that word regularly inflicts. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Beyoncé Beyoncé (2013) and 4 (2011), Rihana ANTI (2016), Destiny’s Child The Writing’s On the Wall (1999), Lady Gaga The Fame Monster (2009), Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience (2013), Adele 21 (2011).
After producing three albums of quirky, frenetic, mind-bending, and, most of all, noisy prog-punk-metal whathaveyou, Lightning Bolt’s Hypermagic Mountain finds the band leaving behind their cutesier elements. Instead, they are replaced by the equivalent of a sonic trash-compactor, as amps are turned up to 27, bludgeoning the listener into sweet oblivion. Somehow this two-piece, consisting of Brian Gibson on bass and Brian Chippendale on drums and vocals, generates even more kaleidoscopic riffs and race car engine beats than ever before here. With slightly crisper production this time around, Hypermagic Mountain eschews the rather chipper amphetamine-fueled Chipmunk aesthetic found of their previous efforts for an insistent, head’s-down-moving-forward grimness that suggests both a maximizing and an exhaustion of their approach. The album’s first few tracks don’t effectively communicate this slight shift in direction. With “Mega Ghost,” the record’s fifth track, Hypermagic Mountain begins to transform into a glorious puke tornado of a rollercoaster ride. It reaches dizzying heights on numbers like “Magic Mountain,” the anti-Bush 43 screed “Dead Cowboy,” and “Mohawkwindmill.” The most effective and brutal cut in this cycle is “Bizarro Zarro Land,” as both Brians play so fast they start smoking, turning to ash by song’s end. By fusing a variety of extreme but accessible musical influences into their cauldron–such as Hüsker Dü, Slayer, Rashied Ali, Captain Beefheart, Van Halen, and Void–they create something with Hypermagic Mountain that is itself inimitable. This album will inspire no copycats, but will leave generations of future musicians with their jaws perpetually dropped. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Lightning Bolt Lightning Bolt (1999), Wonderful Rainbow (2003), Earthly Delights (2009) and Fantasy Empire (2015), Black Dice Beaches and Canyons (2002), Wolf Eyes Dread (2001), Aaron Dilloway Modern Jester (2012), Shellac At Action Park (1994), Deerhoof Reveille (2001), No Age Nouns (2008), Mclusky Mclusky Do Dallas (2002).
While strong cases could be made for ATLiens and Aquemini as Outkast’s strongest album, for our money, the honor goes to Stankonia. In the run up to Stankonia, Big Boy and Andre3000 were mashing up genres and styles in breathtaking, dizzying ways—Stankonia was the end result, the perfect synthesis of larger than life, hard hitting bangers with slick, smooth grooves and plenty of weird beats and rhymes. Serving as something of a bridge between hip hop’s, at the time, re-emerging underground and the genre’s more visible mainstream success, Stankonia ended up being a gateway album for a shitload of kids who wanted to get into hip hop but couldn’t hang with 2000’s other high profile release from the likes of DMX, Silkk the Shocker, and a not very good posthumous release “from” Notorious B.I.G. And maybe that’s why Stankonia is the Outkast album for this list—the duo’s previous albums had been successful, but not as successful: Stankonia was effectively the album that brought OutKast international acclaim. And how could it not? From the instant perfection of “Mrs. Jackson” to balls-out-banger “B.O.B,” to the bizarre future funk of “Red Velvet” and the even more bizarre freaky production, and surprisingly poignant, considering the title’s bad pun, lyrics of “Toilet Tisha,” Stankonia announced itself as that rarest of rare pop music feats—it was a visionary album that suggested a way forward for hip hop while also being a blast to put on at parties. Sure, hip hop may not have gotten that “way forward” memo for a few years, but it came around and the album’s influence can still be heard, today, in albums by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .paak. – James Brubaker
Also Recommended: OutKast ATLiens (1996), Aquemini (1998) and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003), Big Boi Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010), Anderson .paak Malibu (2016), Kendrick Lamar Section.80 (2011), Lil Wayne Tha Carter 2 (2005), Future DS2 (2015), Young Thug Jeffery (2016), Danny Brown Old (2013).
As the lines between Pop Music and everything else increasingly blur, artists like Grimes (aka Claie Boucher) have come to fill an interesting role as pop subversives who work with many of the raw components of the genre (electronic production, vocal hooks, and a sheer exuberance of spirit) to blow apart the genre, making something optimistically transgressive and utterly enthralling. With Visions, Grimes deconstructs Pop’s laser-focus, blending it with techno, indie pop, experimental music, dance hall—really, anything and everything she can cram in. The result is almost as much music criticism as excellent album, as, in Grimes’ hands, Pop’s tropes become both the euphoric bursts of melody we expect from Pop, but also examinations of how those tropes work and how we listen to music. We need look no further than album highlight “Oblivion” to see this tension play out. On the one hand, the song’s refrain finds Boucher singing “To look into my eyes and tell me Lalalalala.” The la’s sound like a haunted echo from the sixties, and the bit about the eyes sounds like it could be from literally any romantically inclined pop song of the last fifty years. On first listen, this, along with the also vague “See you on a dark night” line, are what we hear, and that’s the kind of song “Oblivion” becomes—until we begin to explore the verses and find lines like “I never walk about after dark/It’s my point of view/Cause someone could break your neck,” at which point we begin to understand that, yes, the song is about the struggle to find connection, but that the struggle arises from a genuine fear of harm. These are the kinds of moves that Visions makes every step of the way, and the result is a stunning, masterful, and sincere examination of how Pop works. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Grimes Art Angels (2015), How to Dress Well Total Loss (2012) and “What is this Heart?” (2014), Sky Ferreira Night Time, My Time (2013), Robyn Body Talk (2010), Carly Rae Jepsen Emotion (2015).
[AUM Fidelity, 1998]
Emerging from the loft jazz scene in New York City in the 1970s, bassist William Parker’s long steady climb to securing himself as the face of avant-garde jazz paired him with titans such as Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Charles Gayle, Roscoe Mitchell, Bill Dixon, and Peter Brotzmann, to name but a few. He began to hit his stride as a bandleader and album artist in the 1990s. His most celebrated album, The Peach Orchard, is a 2CD set that beautifully blends 60s-era free jazz with the compositional brilliance of pioneers such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Andrew Hill. His group In Order to Survive–consisting of drummer Susie Ibarra, pianist Cooper-Moore, and saxophonist Rob Brown–show more restraint than some of Parker’s fierier former collaborators (most notably Taylor and Gayle). But they know when to let it loose, as they do on “Thot,” “Leaf Dance,” and the closer “In Order to Survive.” Ibarra provides elastic beats, allowing Brown to go on circuitous runs akin to Jimmy Lyons. Cooper-Moore’s playing compares favorably to Shipp’s, and would not seem out of place in an Arnold Shoenberg composition. Despite the album’s imposing two hour run time, Parker’s deft enough as a bandleader and as a composer to prevent the proceedings from getting dull. With The Peach Orchard, it is easy to see why Parker is one of jazz’s living legends. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Charles Gayle / Dominic Duval / Arkadijus Gotesmanas Our Souls (2009), William Parker Violin Trio Scrapbook (2003), William Parker Quartet Sound Unity (2005), David S. Ware Quartet Wisdom of Uncertainty (1997) and The David S. Ware Quartets Live in the World (2005).
Following David Bowie’s stints as a 70s glam and art rock god and an early 80s pop superstar, he became an artist who fell to Earth, settling into the life of an elder statesman of rock. There were a few intriguing stops along the way, including 1. Outside (1995), the single “I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997), and his return to form album The Next Day (2013). Prior to the January 8th, 2016 release date of his final album, Blackstar, pre-release reviews were glowing. Then, sadly, and shockingly, Bowie died two days after the album’s release. From then until the end of time, it will be increasingly difficult to disentangle the quality of the album from the sadness associated with this death. While this might sound like an insurmountable critical hurdle, it isn’t, in large part because Blackstar is so excellent, rivaling in quality his 1970s masterpieces The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Diamond Dogs (1974), Low (1977), and “Heroes” (1977). At only 36-minutes in length, the album is compact, the mood somber yet exploratory. Though many people have described Blackstar as “jazzy,” that descriptor is not entirely accurate. Yes, Bowie uses a jazz combo, led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, as his backing group. There is a looseness to their playing that is more reminiscent of jazz than rock. But, essentially, McCaslin’s backing group gives Bowie an updated version of Radiohead’s 90s sound. There are only seven songs, none of them weak. In fact, “’Tis Pity She Was a Whore,” “Lazarus,” and the closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” are among the jewels in Bowie’s vast discography. Though dying of cancer while recording the album, Bowie’s vocals are strong throughout and achieve an emotional pitch he scarcely reached on his earlier recordings when he was inhabiting a variety of characters. Ultimately, Blackstar is as perfect a musical swan song as there has ever been, aided by thoroughly intriguing and timeless music. –Brian Flota
Also Recommended: David Bowie 1. Outside (1995) and The Next Day (2013), Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree (2016), Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker (2016), Scott Walker Tilt (1995) and Scott Walker + Sunn O))) Soused (2014).
Who in indie rock has had a career as impressive as Yo La Tengo? Maybe Sonic Youth, but they’re done. The other “indie” rock royalty heavies? Who’ve we got? The Flaming Lips? Not as consistent. Wilco? Definitely not as consistent. Pavement? They’re close, but only lasted for a few years, really. Guided By Voices? I mean, they’re one of my all-time favorites, and Pollard has probably released more great songs than Yo La Tengo, but his batting average is considerably lower and GBV takes so much work to get into. Sleater Kinney? Maybe, yeah, they’re probably up there, too. So maybe we need to all acknowledge that Yo La Tengo is at least one of the greatest “indie” rock bands of all time and leave it at that. They’re certainly the perfect go-to for anyone needing a way in to the genre (which, let’s be honest, “I need a way into indie rock,” said nobody ever), and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (along with its equally stunning follow-up, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out) is probably their finest moment. So what makes ICHtHBaO so good? Is it the crisp, skewed pop sensibility of songs like “Moby Octopad” and “Autumn Sweater” (both of which, I’m sure, populated a shitload of romantically minded late-90’s mixtapes)? Is it the playful eclecticism that finds songs like the jangly “Stockholm Syndrome” and the delicate retro-pop of “My Little Corner of the World” mixed along the noisier, more expected material? Is it all the fucking drones? Well, of course it’s all of that and more. It’s the overall sense of joy and play running through the entire album. ICHtHBaO is a masterpiece precisely because it’s the sound of a band experimenting and figuring shit out, even though they already had plenty of shit figured out on their previous albums. This album is a celebration of the creative spirit, and of this group of brilliant, wonderful musicians coming together and loving what they do. And while 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Out might be the more refined, cohesive album, it’s got nothing on the pure bliss of discovery shining through every song, here. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Yo La Tengo President Yo La Tengo (1989), Painful (1993), Electr-O-Pura (1995) And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000), Popular Songs (2009), and Fade (2013), Beach House Teen Dream (2010) and Bloom (2012), Galaxie 500 On Fire (1989), Spacemen 3 The Perfect Prescription (1987) and Playing With Fire (1989), The Breeders Last Splash (1993).
[Stones Throw, 2006]
It’s impossible to write about J Dilla’s Donuts without mentioning that it was mostly recorded in the hospital and released three days before his death to cardiac arrest, the likely result of his fight with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. Like Finnegans Wake before it, the album is conceived of as an endless loop, its closing moments wrapping neatly into its opening. Pair that with the cosmic beauty and elegant uplift running through Dilla’s compositions and the album begins to feel like the man wrote his own eulogy—and what a great goddam eulogy it is. But even putting aside the album’s connection to mortality, Donuts is a perfect album that showcases Dilla’s influence to hip hop, as the tracks, here, feel like a guided tour beginning in the genre’s mid-00’s production all the way through to a future that hadn’t yet materialized. Sure, folks like Flying Lotus and Thundercat probably would have arrived at their sounds and styles on their own, but it’s hard not to hear Donuts as those artists’ spiritual predecessor. And as for the beats themselves, is there another album in which thirty-one cuts unfurl so seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly over forty-odd minutes? Even now, more than a decade after its release, we can still marvel at the seamless transition from the gritty percussion of “People” into the laid back soul horns and sirens of “The Diff’rence.” Or be gobsmacked by the move from the utterly chaotic “The Twister (Huh, What)” into the gorgeous, stoned soul of “One Eleven.” It’s also thrilling to hear beloved tracks on their own, such as “One For Ghost” that would see release a month after Donuts as “Whip You With a Strap” on Ghostface’s Fischscale. Of the album’s title, Dilla’s label famously said, “Easy explanation. Dilla likes donuts.” And while it’s tempting to look for some meaning in every aspect of the release, including the title, no interpretation of that title is quite as perfect than just a thing the artist loved. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Flying Lotus Los Angeles (2008) and You’re Dead! (2014), Thundercat Apocalypse (2013), Madlib Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Bluenote (2003), Clams Casino Instrumentals (2011), Kaytranada 99.9% (2016), Danger Mouse The Grey Album (2004), Quasimoto The Unseen (2000).
Washing Machine was the Sonic Youth album that returned them to their experimental roots and provided the trajectory of the rest of their career. The noise rock legends made the leap from the indies to the majors in 1990, and quickly delivered Goo (1990), a slicker version of their masterpiece Daydream Nation (1988). They followed it up with an even more popular album, Dirty (1992), their most accessible to date. Perhaps under the impression they could further boost sales, they delivered their most mainstream album yet with Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994). It proved to be a critical dud and it failed to generate the sales figures that were projected for it. Finding themselves at a crossroads, Sonic Youth decided to eschew commercialism with their follow-up, Washing Machine. On it, Kim Gordon noticeably ditches her bass, resulting in a three guitar and drum lineup. The album is built on atonal guitar jams, all lasting more than four minutes (save for the “Becuz” coda), two of them surpassing the nine-minute mark. The three-guitar attack results in a drone-driven variation on Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound aesthetic. “Becuz” is an effective, repetitive opener, followed by the somber “Junkie’s Promise,” which evokes the memory of Kurt Cobain. The album’s first centerpiece, “Washing Machine,” slowly builds to a crescendo of guitar pedal white noise, and is sure to clean all your clothes. While these are some of the most impressive numbers on the album, it’s tracks like “Unwind,” the girl-group flavored “Little Trouble Girl,” and the twenty-minute closer, “The Diamond Sea,” that point ahead to future Sonic Youth albums, especially Murray Street (2002). Though Goo and Dirty introduced many listeners to the band’s quirky approach to alternative rock in the early 1990s, it’s the sprawling Washing Machine that emerges as their greatest major label effort. –Brian Flota