14. Madvillainy

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

Madvillainy — Madvillain (MF DOOM and Madlib)

The first time I listened to “Madvillainy,” it kind of pissed me off. I was well aware of its rep as a canonical classic of alterna-rap, and so expectations were high, as was I. When I first looked at the tracklist, confusion immediately struck me. Why the fuck were all these songs so short? Only a handful of tracks out of the album’s 21 broke the two-minute mark. This is a hip-hop album, so where would they put the rapping? When I completed the first run, I was angry. This was so great, a great album for sure, but it was so fucking thin! Aside from “America’s Most Blunted” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” rhymespitting deity MF DOOM doesn’t even stick around for a second verse. This was fantastic stuff but I was furious because I felt like I deserved more.
Over time, my allegiances shifted. I realized that Madlib isn’t just here to hold down the fort while Lord Quad drops mind-boggling rhymes (though he often does, and with great relish), but that these are two equal components of an essential whole. “Madvillainy” is a marvel of production, a loosely-bound packet of esoteric curios that’d make the ghost of J Dilla crack a little smile. Shorter tracks aren’t just tossed-off outtakes or filler used to pad the album’s already-slim running time. Tracks like “Bistro” and “Hardcore Hustle” show up, make a wonderful impression, and then duck out before they overstay their welcome. The album casts Madlib as a fountain positively overflowing with creativity, the vinyl just trying to capture as much of his genius as possible without letting it slip away.
Not to diminish Doom’s talent — we get some of his best work on this album. “America’s Most Blunted” is the smartest, most dextrous track about the joys of getting stoned I’ve ever heard and “Rhinestone Cowboy” (I wonder if you can tell which tracks are my favorite yet) reminds the listener that the English language can just be a fun fucking toy to play around with (“I’m known as the grimy limey slimy / try me / blimey”).
Much like its closest disciple “Duality,” the pleasures of “Madvillainy” are simple. Smart ‘n’ easy rhymes, beats you want to wear like an old hoodie, and a tightly rolled j. That’s awful close to heaven.

15. The Velvet Underground & Nico

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

The Velvet Underground & Nico — The Velvet Underground and Nico

Just shy of fifty years out, and legends of New York City have swirled from anecdotes into folklore. Everything was dangerous and disgusting and gritty and sickly and real. The clothes were in tatters, which was super-cool. The heroin was cheap, everywhere, and fantastic. Prostitutes and criminals were rubbing elbows with the world’s edgiest artists and musicians on city streets. It’s like an evil Eden, all glorious filth until fuckin’ Giuliani cleaned it all up. Every time a fat tourist snaps a selfie in Times Square, Andy Warhol does another spin in his grave.
Sarcasm’s hard to communicate through print sometimes, so let me be plain: I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the cultural context from which this charismatically dark album came. It’s a thick, jaded masterwork of simple songcraft. Shit, one of my favorite songs on the album only has one chord. But the sound had never been achieved before and hasn’t since. It’s the aural equivalent of just-got-outta-bed hair; lesser artists have dropped millions just trying to get their music to sound as cheap and scratchy as this album. Like anything that has ever been cool, the sound could only happen organically. But what’s kept this album so close to my heart is the attitude it takes towards the miserable wretches that people its songs. We’re dealing with some heinous, unseemly shit here, but Nico and Lou Reed steep these bleak tales of urban poverty in a pop sensibility that repels and entrances in equal measure. A white dude going into Harlem to cop a heroin fix, a boy heartsick over a dreamy prostitute, a raga-influenced whips-and-chains fuck jam — these are not the sorts of songs you find yourself humming in an elevator. But these are savory pop cuts that get stuck in your head after sticking to your ribs. And for the interludes when the gang cuts the AM radio shit and ducks into stranger, more secluded alleys (“All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Heroin”, for instance), it floors you. They can make Nico’s flat, affectless voice sound ten stories tall. They can make Lou Reed getting the heroin shakes sound like a sun rising over a filthy city.


this is from 3 years ago and I’ve never really let people listen to any of my recordings so ahhhhhhh

My girlfriend is a woman of diverse talents and this is a marvel

16. 3 Feet High and Rising

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

3 Feet High and Rising — De La Soul

Quick: Imagine a rap song. Don’t think too hard about it, just try to draw on elements that you feel are as typical to the genre as possible. Do you hear booming beats, trunk-rattling bass, maybe a crate-dug vocal sample? The track might be little more than a glorified drum kit sample, or it could be an ornately produced work of electronic grandeur. What’s the rapper saying? If you imagined a guy, I get that, sure, there are more male rappers than female rappers (though that isn’t a fact I’m pleased with). But chances are it’s a big, intimidating dude, probably talking about the drug trade or bitches or guns or whatever, you know the drill. Street stuff. Even guys like Wu-Tang, more survivors of the drug game than players within it, were stone cold motherfuckers. Lil Wayne, pint-sized weirdo that he’s always been, always projected an aura of badassery in his music (and in case haters didn’t recognize, he carries himself during interviews like the questions are coming from behind the glass pane at a prison visitors’ center).
Along came De La Soul, smiling and hugging everyone in sight like we’re at a ghetto Woodstock. Posdnuos, Plug Three and Trugoy happily zigged every time the dominant rap narrative zagged. They traded the musty bump then popular in production for a sunny psychedelia. Sampling was still a relatively fresh technique in 1989, but De La Soul took it down stranger, friendlier alleys. Though they certainly fucked with the likes of forefathers such as Funkadelic and Michael Jackson, De La’s gaze was liable to land anywhere. Make a rap song about the children’s tune from Schoolhouse Rock? Sounds groovy! Title our album from a few-second snippet of a Johnny Cash tune? Right on.
Not to mention the sweet, delicious skits. If anyone could possibly get mad at De La, it’d be for unknowingly spawning one of hip-hop’s most tiresome trends, the skit as track interstitial. De La used them to create an atmosphere of easygoing, funny fun on the album. Listeners can jam out as long as they want, and then catch their breath while laughing at a goofy contestant on a fake dating game show. We can’t blame De La that countless rappers interpreted that as “Let’s break up a record with intermittent bursts of random, painfully unfunny bullshit.”
“3 Feet High and Rising” has been constantly and reductively characterized as the album from the hippie rappers, miring the three adult men behind this masterwork in daisy chains and peace signs. It’s a bit more complex than that. The attitude on the album is, first and foremost, bright and playful. As a novelty in the era’s rap landscape, this is the most flashy detail on which we might focus. But the things that make this album great are simple, commonplace, impossible-to-replicate things. It’s an extremely intelligent, well-written, and sonically challenging album. Shit like that defies time and you bet your ass it defies whatever scene might be in vogue.

cross-posted from my own Twitter

I really don’t like Boston. I think it’s a nasty city too densely filled with aggressively and proudly stupid people. I got called “faggot” in a bodega for saying “excuse me” as I edged around a guy. But all that stuff that happened this time last year scared the sweat out of me. I was here while my family and friends were back in MA. Part of what terrified me was the disconnect; all I had were panicked first-hand accounts. Friends told not to leave their apartments, etc. A friend living near the site said that as night fell, the only things illuminated outside were red lights. She said it looked like Hell. But what really scared me was that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, an attack on America. 9/11 was a carefully orchestrated effort designed to demolish centers of American government and commerce. Last year, a kid placed a bomb at a race. It never would’ve shaken the foundations of our country or anything. It just made people miserable. What happened last year wasn’t a political threat to our way of life — that’s why I was so afraid. This guy just hated people. I’m afraid because no matter how political landscapes shift, Earth will always harbor disturbed individuals with a hatred of humanity. I don’t know what my point for this is supposed to be, other than that I’m still pretty scared. Sorry for taking y’alls feed and thanks.

17. id

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

id — Wise Blood

Chris Laufman always struck me as a hooligan. His sporadic earlier releases as Wise Blood characterized him as an enfant terrible of hooky collage-pop, sweet-talking girls with promises of coke and glamour once that fame finally comes along. Among the first intelligible lyrics on “These Wings,” Wise Blood’s most polished EP, are a straightforward warning in “Intro (Fantasize)”: “You should never trust a kid that acts like me.”
“id” doubles down on his mischievous streak by restraining his antics to the banal mundanities of everyday life. No longer Wise Blood the rock star-in-training. “id” presents Wise Blood the suburban fuck-up, making do with daily trips to Target, the local big-chain cineplex and the gym. As a product of the faceless suburban sprawl myself, there’s an odd sort of homespun comfort in the instant familiarity of this small-town ennui. There’s a good reason that the music video for lead single “Rat” simply shows Kaufman wandering around a nondescript neighborhood and messing things up. When you’re smart and bored in a ghost town, there’s not much else to do than hang out and listen to the radio.
But this is all counterbalanced in a surprising way by the lush and occasionally elaborate production that Laufman brings to each of these songs. “Rat,” besides being the album’s thematic mission statement, is a marvel of songcraft. I’ve documented before (on here, even) how much I love that stupid fucking song. The crazed horn solo soars while the churning, insistent bassline anchors it to earth, keeping it from flying away. “Rat” is just the exemplar of a consistently appealing form, though. On tracks like “Alarm,” “Universe is Blessed” and “Consumed,” Laufman piles on layers of pop noise. The resultant product is compulsively listenable, but slightly off. Kaufman tinkers with the component parts of trap music in “11 P.M. - 1 A.M.”, but his efforts skitter more nervously than those from TNGHT or Rustie. I’d say that Wise Blood has the makings of a truly great, distinctive producer, if he could just team up with an equally idiosyncratic rapper. I would say that, but that’d ignore the subtle genius Laufman shoots into his lyrics. I would never want one without the other.

18. Fleet Foxes

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes

I wrestled for a little while with the question of why I would do project like this in the first place. My chief reason when I decided to go for it, my chief reason now, is really nothing more than that I want to get into the habit of writing something every day. Writing is a muscle, needs to be maintained, blah blah blah. But my secondary (and I think much more read-worthy) reason was a kind of justification, me making a case for my most beloved albums. When I write these pieces, I see myself as defending them from imagined detractors. In organizing my thoughts and pinning down what makes these musical works great, I’ll be able to take on any haters at a later date.
Not so much with “Fleet Foxes”, though. Disliking this album seems impossible to me. There are loads of entries on here (all of them, probably) that I willfully recognize as personal favorites, but that they might not be for everyone. The first studio album from Fleet Foxes, however, seems hateproof. I’ve never heard music so inoffensive without becoming bland (which, incredibly, can create offense and consequently make for a nifty mind-busting paradox). Pecknold’s voice is so comforting, the guitars so soothing, percussion is comfortable and far-off — the music’s practically a gentle sedative. But it still touches on a range of emotions, with the exquisite melancholy of “Blue Ridge Mountains” counterbalancing the cheery “White Winter Hymnal”. I don’t feel the need to write more than this. Just listen to the album, if you doubt me. What more is there to say?

19. Merriweather Post Pavilion

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

Merriweather Post Pavilion — Animal Collective

For dudes making pop music (which, for all intents and purposes, they are), Animal Collective are a weird bunch. Their music is all contradictions, miraculously chilling in perfect harmony.
“Merriweather Post Pavilion” is an album consistently fretting about the responsibilities accompanying our shared transition into adulthood. At the time of the album’s release, Panda Bear and Avey Tare were both family men, learning how to balance a wife and child with the lifestyle that accompanies being a touring musician and recreational weirdo. As such, the album’s lyrics touch on the loss of a father, fading sexual virility and the difficulty of providing for loved ones. But, like all Animal Collective music does, it resides in a childlike realm, full of crayon drawings and burbling infants. The sonics evince a guileless innocence, with Panda’s vocals faithfully emulating the original broken child trapped in an adult’s body, Brian Wilson.
The album is alien, yet familiar in its primal tribalism. “Pavilion” begins with what sounds like an unidentified flying object settling to land in a distant cornfield. That track, “In The Flowers,” blossoms into its own lush fullness with the singer’s wish to “leave my body for the night.” When not completely inscrutable, the lyrics tend to invite the listener into an escape; there are no jobs or bills when you’re floating in space. But once Animal Collective works itself into its trademark freakazoid froth, the music hits somewhere instantly known. When “Brothersport” gets comfortable in its whooping groove, it activates our innermost instinct to move. It locates a sort of central, communal respite in dance.
Which brings us to the third and most fascinating paradox: how an album so committed to strangeness could manage to stay irresistibly listenable and danceable. “Pavilion” is a fun-ass album in practice, but sounds insufferable and overstuffed in theory. Songs in 9/8 time signature? Didgeridoos? Song-length metaphors comparing fucking to lions? Not in a million years would that album play to droves of adoring hipsters in states of near-religious ecstasy. No album this weird ought to make you feel like singing along at the top of your scarred lungs. And yet!

20. Duality

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

Duality — Captain Murphy

Cloaked behind a secret identity straight out of the darker comic books, an oddball beatmaker drops an album sparsely populated by deliriously clever-dumb raps that instead leans heavier on winning, weird production numbers and eclectic found-audio sampling. Before Captain Murphy says one word on the efficient, mind-palpating mixtape “Duality,” he’s already cut a figure suspiciously similar to that of Madvillain. Not to say that Flying Lotus’s rapping alter ago is jacking swag — Madlib tacitly gives his blessing by contributing the “Children of the Atom” instrumental. But after one listen, it’s abundantly clear that Steven Ellison has spent more than his fair share of afternoons holed up in his basement with an eighth of weed and “Madvillainy” (an album which, spoiler alert, will make an appearance in this series later in the game) on repeat.
So a lot of the same things that drew me to “Madvillainy” are at play here. Cap Murphy embodies a sort of half-goofball half-menace persona throughout the album, alternating between left-of-center pranksmanship (before they both dissolve into sludgy instrumentals, “Drive Thru” and “Mighty Morphin Foreskin” are impressive displays of technical skill) and hardheaded hip-hop standards (“spent a lotta time / snortin’ lines / off this bitch’s titty,” Murphy growls on “Shake Weight”).
But “Duality” is a few shades weirder than “Madvillainy” could hope to be, and all the better for it. Framing the mixtape as some kind of cult assembly kit lends it an attractive aura of brightly-lit creepiness. Murphy also roots the mixtape’s dense referentiality in neighborhoods far from the beaten path, but close to my heart. How the fuck could I not love an album that checks the X-Men, 60’s Italian horror cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Gojira, and Alan Moore? Murphy’s favorite stylistic flourish struck a chord with me, too; the undulating pitch-shifted vocals make Murphy sound like the unseen killer in a techno-horror movie.
The real secret weapon in “Duality” is its svelte length: clocking in at 34 minutes, it’s the perfect album to put on directly post-burn. “Duality” ends before it’s even begun and perfectly readies itself for another listen.

21. Kill For Love

I needed a new project, so I’m starting this series, which I’ve chosen to call “The Big 30”. For each of the thirty days of April, I’ll write a short piece about each of my thirty favorite albums.

Kill For Love — Chromatics

Chromatics released their phenomenal fourth album “Kill For Love” on the cheekily-named Italians Do It Better record label. A bit of history: Mike Simonetti got an enterprise called Troubleman Unlimited Records off the ground in 1993 and made a name for himself by representing a lucky handful of really solid punk, indie rock and noise bands. Hoping to expand his reach, Simonetti contacted an artist calling himself Johnny Jewel with an offer to create a label imprint dedicated to releasing material from electronic and dance groups. Jewel dug the idea, and dubbed it Italians Do It Better. At the time, Jewel was fronting a band called Glass Candy. Though he does still release the occasional single with Glass Candy, Jewel now devotes most of his time to the other band he leads — Chromatics.
Jewel didn’t just pick that name out of thin air. Chromatics’ work draws heavily on a brief-lived yet influential subgenre called Italo disco. “Kill For Love” evinces a somber nocturnalism while staying true to its stylish roots in the electronic scene, which is as close as we can come to putting Italo disco in a nutshell. On the titular single, Ruth Radelet hides an aching heart behind a coolly detached vocal. “No Escape” is a vast, spacious trek through a wasteland dotted with defunct discotheques and smashed neon tubes. The opening track manages to take Neil Young’s classic “My My, Hey Hey” into an even dourer depth, stretching Young’s clarion call to rock and roll into a chilly death knell. Chromatics trudge through a bleak and decaying world, but counterbalance that pessimism with a dreamlike pop sensibility that makes their miserablist streak oddly magnetic.
Jewel was instrumental in creating the sleeper-hit soundtrack for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film “Drive,” and rightly so. The film strikes the exact same aesthetic chord as “Kill For Love.” Two subtle, quiet and deeply human dramas that won critical acclaim and high-minded fans through a carefully curated sense of broody, sexy-sad artistry. Halfway through the film, morally ambiguous and emotionally withdrawn Ryan Gosling unveils his inner fire by smashing a bullet into a thug’s head with a hammer. it only takes Ruth Radelet two tracks to break down and admit it: “Everybody’s got a secret to hide, everyone is slipping backwards.”