9. Heaven or Las Vegas

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.

Heaven or Las Vegas — Cocteau Twins

In 50 Cent’s seminal pop hit “Candy Shop,” he compliments a woman (mid-coitally, we can assume) by saying he “ain’t never heard a sound like this before.” Fitty taps into a thrilling and primal sensory experience with that simple line. By the about age 14, we’ve got a handle on most forms of music. We know what rock sounds like, what hip-hop sounds like, what country and metal and jazz and etc. etc. Everything feels like variations on a similar theme, and so we grow tired of songs at the same rate that we dispose of chewing gum. Excepting the aggressively avant-garde, the majority of music is pretty much known to us. As such, discovering a sound that bowls us over as genuinely new is something we never forget. Something that so fully rankles us and shakes up everything we thought we knew about music that we might just want to write a pop-rap radio hit about it.
At sixteen, I had never heard anything like Cocteau Twins before. I wouldn’t even know what the word “shoegaze” meant until weeks later, when I did some determined Googling. Everything about it felt new but softly familiar. Elizabeth Fraser’s gobbledigook vocals changed the way I regard vocals in a song, not as a counterpoint to the music but as nothing more than another layer of sound in a grand synthetic tapestry. Like so many of the albums on this list, the guitar is stretched in every direction as far as it can go until it’s no longer an instrument, but a mode of creating the noise the artists wanted it to.
So maybe this entry’s going to be a lot simpler than I thought it’d be. “Heaven or Las Vegas” manages to be beautiful and moving in a way that struck me as new and thrilling. When you put it like that, making it onto my list of greatest records ever doesn’t even sound that hard.

10. For Emma, Forever Ago

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.

For Emma, Forever Ago — Bon Iver

It’s really fucking hard not to mention Justin Vernon’s nearly apocryphal origin story when writing about this album, so let’s get that all out of the way: boy gets dumped, pulls the “Walden” type move as all young white men dream of pulling, and emerges months later with a perfectly poignant collection of heartsick songs. The reason this mythos appeals to us all isn’t too complex, either. It’s nice to imagine that if we just feel intensely sad enough, a brilliant work of art will simply pour out of us with minimal effort. As long as you’ve got the power of emotion to back it up, the work simply must reflect the personal profundity raging within you. It’s a little vain, I think. In that archetypal creation process, the work becomes an extension of the self. The album is delicate and beautiful and deep because we are those things, too.
But that’s not fucking true, and all of Justin Vernon’s subsequent work proved that. He’s not just a man with a bleeding heart and an ethereal voice. We learned on his self-titled solo album that the guy has sonic tastes that run sky-high, and his collaborations with Kanye expanded the public’s perception beyond “beardy sensitive dude making woods music.” “For Emma, Forever Ago” is an impressive display of technical know-how, from the crystalline vocal layering on “Re: Stacks” to the animal howl at the climax of “The Wolves.” To succeed in music, you can’t just have a song in your heart. You’ve got to know music, and Vernon has an educated ear.
But all this is not to detract from the serious emotional heft this album carries. This record is a thing of terrible power, able to create an acute and personal sadness from nothingness in a matter of minutes. It’s got an evil superpower, and I regard it with a mixture of fear and awe. With nothing but words and sound, it can awaken long-dormant feelings of loneliness, resentment, fear and misery. It’s not something I listen to much anymore. But I like having it on my iTunes, behind a glass barrier marked “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY”. On those rare occasions when a person needs to wallow in his own chronic unhappiness, it’s there.

11. Sound of Silver

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.

Sound of Silver — LCD Soundsystem

I’m ready to come forward and reveal a big secret about myself: I kind of love that song “Sexy and I Know It.” The one that LMFAO does. It’s a thoroughly idiotic song, but it’s also got serious merit. The backbeat builds and crests and deflates at a sort of brilliantly gradual pace, owning the gaps between musical phrases. Genius in electronic music has always been defined by repetition and variation — it’s why we’re willing to call an eight-minute song that spends an entire minute repeating a twelve-second loop a work of serious art. “Sexy and I Know It” kicks ass in spite of its best efforts. What if we had an equally irresistible slice of electronica that also tackled more challenging subject matter?
Cue “Sound of Silver” and beacon of millennial cool James Murphy. LCD Soundsystem’s second record is all killer and no filler, nine club-crushing and deeply thoughtful feats of catharsis and restraint. At this point in a list of personal loves, we get to the records for which I’ve alternated my mantle of ‘favorite track’ so many times that I could make an argument for any track on it. “North American Scum” simultaneously apologizes for boorish dancefloor tourists while making a valiant case for New York as the hub of musical culture once more. “Someone Great” couldn’t possibly be more than a figment of my fevered imagination: an ultra-sleek disco masterpiece about death and loss. “All My Friends” ranks high on my list of greatest single songs of all time. In essence, it’s the sequel to “Losing My Edge.” We first met our hero fretting over fading street cred in an age where an encyclopedic knowledge of music can be downloaded in minutes. When we check back in during “All My Friends,” Murphy’s narrator has reconciled himself with aging. It’s a wistful look back on a life well spent, culminating in the closest thing to a mantra I’ll ever take up: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.” If this is Murphy coming up on age forty, I can’t wait to check in next decade.

12. channel ORANGE

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.

channel ORANGE — Frank Ocean

It’s pretty easy to hate that fucking “Same Love” song by Macklemore. It’s everything we hope socially conscious songs won’t end up being — preachy, condescending and vague. It drove me out of my mind that this song was trying to elbow itself into the stance of Official Queer Rights Anthem just because it’s so sickeningly fake at every turn. When I wrote a piece on why “Same Love” irked the shit out of me for an alt-weekly last summer in Boston, I gently submitted “Wut” by New York-bred rapper Le1f as an honest contender for the clarion call for queer youth everywhere. Not only does Le1f happen to be gay himself, but “Wut” is also simply a superior song. Where “Same Love” was lifeless and dialectical, “Wut” is charismatic and exemplary.
My idea was that the most effective push for queer presence in popular music could never be in something that chastises its listeners for their prejudices. The most revolutionary act of all is just to be gay in the public eye. “Wut” proves that a hyper-catchy, technically airtight and ferociously badass hip-hop cut could just as easily come from a gay man as a straight one (you can find a lot of the language Le1f uses to describe his varied and bountiful male conquests on tracks singing the praises of hoes, main bitches, etc. etc.). But Frank Ocean’s epochal album “channel ORANGE” proves an even loftier point, one that no bigot will ever be able to refute: longing, hurt, lust and (yes, the big one) love are things we all feel. This is literally the same love.
But the record isn’t just a groundbreaking sociopolitical statement; it’s a shimmering hunk of intricate songcraft, mature lyricism and jesus fucking christ, that voice. We learned back on “Nostalgia, Ultra.” that Ocean could tell a tale of heartbreak like few other songwriters of his generation, and here we get another collection of wonderfully sad short stories. Star-crossed addicts, spoiled brats with too much money and not enough supervision, hedonists numb to the world and gay angels all pour forth from Ocean’s holy pen. He breathes life into them with the sort of golden throat that sounds like a solid argument for intelligent design. One day, I’ll write like ten thousand more words about “Pyramids” alone. But for today, goddamn, I just need to go put this on.

13. The Moon and Antarctica

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 Moon and Antarctica — Modest Mouse

Lyrically speaking, a lot of albums succeed by narrowing their focus on a single, well-developed topic. good kid, m.A.A.d city shines a light on the corrosive effects gang culture has on urban youth. Merriweather Post Pavilion nervously toes the line between the unrestrained bliss of childhood and the duties and responsibilities of adult life. The idea is that (again, from a lyrical perspective) a memorable album ought to be about something. What makes The Moon and Antarctica a true-blue classic is that it does the exact opposite, widening its lens until it encompasses earth, the outer limits of the universe, and life itself. This isn’t an album about something — it’s an album about everything.
The album begins at the end of the world, with the first of what will be many casually profound lines: “Everything that’s keeping us together is falling apart.” Isaac Brock generously fills the album with these anti-platitudes, sentences you can keep in your pocket for whenever you need them. The meanings of these aphorisms isn’t explicitly clear, allowing the listener to project his/her own circumstances onto them. A smart girl once recommended I listen to “Gravity Rides Everything” at a time of personal tsuris, and I instantly felt awash with existential relief. The lines are perfectly open to interpretation: “All the spilt milk, sex and weight / it all will fall, fall right into place.” It can refer to whatever bullshit might be going on in your life at the time, lending the lyrics a rare and precious sense of universal importance. This is life-affirming music, the kind of thing that appears to you in moments of desperation and provides you with the exact emotional sustenance you need. Brock is in awe of all he can see, finding wonder in the smallest organism and vast, lifeless expanses of the title continent. The album is like a musical representation of Terence Malick’s film “The Tree of Life,” impossibly making the epic intimate. No matter how big and fearsome the massive undertaking called life might be, you’re surrounded on all sides by other people that’re most likely dealing with similar issues. You may all fall back on one another.

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.