All original artwork by our favorite evil genius, Joseph Devens.
Other things worth putting on lists: The Wire (2002-2006), the U.S. occupation of Fallujah (2003), Tree of Smoke (2007), "What You Know" (2006), the fall of Touch and Go Records (2008), the creepy detuned voice on Napster downloads of "Treefingers" that said something like "This voice was placed here to protect against piracy; it will be removed before the official release" (2000), The Downing Street Memo (2002, 2005), the reappearance of Henry Grimes (2003), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the moment everyone realized that the band Stars was actually pretty boring (c. 2005), the Freedom Tower (whenever), Rihanna's remarkably disturbing and ill-advised new single (2009).
The rallying cry for Texas was "Free Pimp C."
Incarcerated as their post-"Big Pimpin'" success began to pay off, hip-hop's rising stars became respected elders in a flash. Bun B, UGK's other half, endured years without his rap partner and, more importantly, his chief beatmaker. Pimp C's dirty, unrefined observations (he doesn't like to mess up the bed whilst fucking and insists partners be courteous and fuck him on top of the sheets, for instance) make it possible to overlook his gift for programming drum knocks and perfecting southern, syrupy samples.
During the interim, Bun was six figures in debt without receipts, waiting for Pimp's parole violation sentence to near its end, uniting Houston symbolically and tangibly by pairing feuding up and comers like Mike Jones and Chamillionaire on the same song.
Bun held it down and in early 2007, the message boards were agog at the best hip-hop song of the decade, "International Player's Anthem," which dropped without warning or purpose.
Who found that Willie Hutch sample?
Who spliced these fantasy verses together?
The glue was Memphis' 36 Mafia, who did the beat and provided original guest vocals before Outkast dug the song and decided they'd like to engage the Texas twosome in a game of four-square. Andre 3000 rapped like 1996, Big Boi, Bun and a freed Pimp C were in top form. "Anthem" signaled a celebratory double-disc the underground catapulted to a number one Billboard debut upon its August release. It banged.
Tragically, Pimp C passed away months later and now the commanding, colossal, sorta-too-much double album lasts as a legacy starter kit to seminal voices.
- Ramon Ramirez
I could type a lot of examples, but it's the delivery that makes them work. "YOUR FORGIVENESS IS A FAAAAADING FICTIONNNNN". You get to track fucking 10 before you get to a song you feel comfortable skipping. Quite a feat.
- Jeremy Hurd
"The First Eviction Notice"
On Fishscale, Ghostface ("Killah" again) would find inspiration in the rising coke-rap trend, putting out a leaner, more aggressive, and altogether better album. But on Pretty Toney, the artist proves that wisdom and experience can be equally compelling.
- Ben Heath
Bang! Rock! More a declaration than a title: comic book sound effects proclaiming music's physical impact. Art Brut deliver their songs with tent revival conviction, substituting The Fall's nervous guitar clang and sing-song spattering for gospel organs and harmonies. The album forms a meta-commentary on the modern male psyche, played out through the blistering ramblings of lead singer Eddie Argos, whose lyrics wax girls, music, good times.
No rock star posturing, just a normal guy trying to manifest the condition: "Rusted Guns of Milan" is perhaps the finest song ever crafted about failing to get an erection and for "Good Weekend" there is both "Bad Weekend" and "Really Bad Weekend."
Argos' singing rarely rises to the challenge of hitting an actual note, but Art Brut are too self-aware to let this weaken their cause: "Yes this is my singing voice/ It's not irony/ It's not rock and roll/ We're just talking to the kids."
The lyrics are filled with references to all of the cool rock of the past 40 years - the Velvet Underground and Morrissey are name checked, Otis Redding is quoted. These are loud, noisy reactions to pop's failure to ever respect the revolutionary outsiders of music until they are old or dead. In trying to counteract the injustice of the musical world, we get the most energetic, tongue in cheek British rock in ages.
- Bryant Howell
Maudlin of the Well was a band with no middle ground. You either loved them or thought they were unlistenable. Kayo Dot, the band that MotW leader Toby Driver formed after the former's disbanding, only furthered this divide.Their debut, Choirs of the Eye, is a fusion of modern classical, metal, and harmelodics jazz. It sounds freeform, but is held together with marksman-like precision. The delicate and the heavy are complementary, not clashing; they're the modern surreal band. The elements of Choir may be bound by the earth, but the result is not. This album is fucked up, but not in the same way that Naked City is fucked up or that Kool Keith is fucked up. It seems to be ascending towards the abjured, impossible to reach mount of complete, pure sublimity. And that's exactly why this record rules.
- Andy O'Connor
"A Pitcher of Summer"
Remember in "Office Space" when Michael Bolton (not the one that sucks) was crawling through traffic getting his hip-hop on before conscientiously rolling up his window at an approaching black man? That song he was blasting was "No Tears," a track that remains one of the most cold-blooded, straight-gangsta songs ever. That was the first time I ever heard Scarface. Then I was just 12 years old, completely enamored that a person could get away with making a song so violent. Years later, when I was listening to the soundtrack at a friend's house, my infatuation was still there, but the focus changed. I was now amazed that someone could say the word "fuck" as many times in a song as Scarface manages to cram into those utterly profane and irresistible two and a half minutes. To say it was life-changing would be gross understatement.
So imagine my delight when I first popped in The Fix and some of the first words uttered were "I got the new 'Face tape I'm about to pop in". I was jacked, ready to consume more diatribes on murdering foes.
Now imagine my surprise when I didn't get those blood-bath bars.
It took me a while to really come around to the genius of The Fix. It's self-assured without being cocky, emotional without being heavy-handed or melodramatic.
Whenever I talk about favorite hip-hop albums, I try to work in a mention or two for The Fix because it's one of the most rewarding discs of the decade. There are so many layers. It takes years to take it all in and properly appreciate the craftsmanship at play.
The ever-fascinating themes of life and death are presented through the perspective of a dude from the block, a rapper, and a man. Scarface effervescently explores each perspective with the depth and detail of a novelist.
I keep trying to think of a way to draw attention to individual tracks, but I can't figure out how to do it without being facetious. Truth is that this is an album that must be consumed at such. Sure, the singles would be easy to recommend. Any track produced by Kanye (before he was Kanye) featuring Jay-Z is a must listen. So is the one with Nas. But so are the ones with just Scarface and his thoughts. To single out any track would be a disservice to the work as a whole.
- Eddie Strait
"On My Block"
Thief begins with Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On." It's a gimmicky start but a clever one, after all, it's a massively popular hip-hop single anchored by a bhangra beat and Bengali melody. A frenzied onslaught of diverse and eclectic underground music follows, consisting of crammed ragga, jungle, hip-hop, breakcore, noise, Arabic and African folk music. In other words: heavy bass and frantic breakbeats + oft politically charged rapping and toasting + world melodies and rhythms.
While the mixing is rough, arguably flat out messy, the cohesiveness and effect of his mix are impressive, as is his achievement of conducting a grand sonic journey in global music. By the end of the second half, just as the novelty of DJ/rupture's mix has begun to wear off, the chaotic and brutal assault of music takes an odd turn. As it becomes more ambient, a hypnotic track entitled "The Taliban" emerges and drones for a minute or so before ending abruptly (an eerily prophetic choice for an album released in August 2001). In its place, the beautiful song "Homeless" by the Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon) takes over, and shortly after that, the mix concludes with an upbeat live recording by fellow South African singer Miriam Makeba. It's a refreshingly blunt and realistic take on what "world music" really is: a complete opposite of the distasteful and cheesy muzak that emerged in the late 80s. Since this mix dropped, the decade has seen more prominent artists continue such efforts to shine light on the diverse and overlooked music of the oppressed and ignored worldwide, and the political and social strife that shape them, but nothing has quite equaled this unique effort.
- Josh Bradshaw
Nu-metal, rap-rock, whatever it was, popular metal in the late '90s-early 00s was truly a blight equivalent to hair metal in that it gave people the notion that metal is loud, dumb screaming music.
And that is one reason I am thankful for Mastodon and their sophmore effort.
While they would explore more progressive territory later, this was where they tightened up their songwriting and found a voice. Goddamnit, you know these guys were gonna go somewhere. When a whole album is based around "Moby Dick," it better damn well sound big, and Leviathan succeeds.
"Blood and Thunder" and "Iron Tusk" were the larger-than-life, horn-pumping anthems to the experimental explorations of "Hearts Alive" and "Seabeast," and they sit comfortably beside each other in no small part thanks to the dynamic drumming of Brann Dalior and the guitar syngergy of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. Oh, and that country-rock break on "Megalodon." Mmm mmm.
- Andy O'Connor
A struggling rapper keeps it real.
"They can peel pieces of me off the grill of her truck...Fuck you Lucy for not needing me."
Too real. You're too close mon. Too close.
Slug and Eminem (and the shitty rappers on Def Jux, and Cage) made it ok to rap about your feelings. As Em became the top selling artist of the aughts, Slug criss-crossed the country running self-help clinics at punk clubs. With producing partner Ant, the banner is Atmosphere and the songs are mostly stellar. Yeah, the focus on the ego wears a little and yeah, Ant gets a little dark and distorted with the instrumentals, but we all need a little self-help by way of headphones.
Atmosphere became responsible for a handful of sturdy discs (03's Seven's Travels is the breakthrough, '05's You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having houses their best song, '08's When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold is most ambitious) yet their biggest contribution to music remains helping destroy the hip-hop douche. Through Warped Tours and inclusive missions and self-serious yet disgestible material, the bearded northerner in horn-rims that only likes real hip-hop is an exceedingly extinct specimen.
- Fugazi is a vastly influential band forged from two vastly influential bands. Ian MacKaye was the creative force from Minor Threat (hardcore forefathers) and Guy Picciotto the creative force from Rites of Spring (emo forefathers).
- Fugazi started in the late '80s, dropped bombs throughout the '90s and this is the eighth post-hardcore classic from a band that's been on hiatus basically since its 2001 drop.
- There's dangerous screams, civil dissent rather than nihilism, strings, exotic rhythms, disappointed perspectives from worn journeymen, restraint, a wealth of intellect.
- Respect your elders.
70. Blu & Exile - Below The Heavens
Out of nowhere. This was sent to me by way of a friend of a friend and I remember being less than enthused about playing it considering the volume of music I was consuming at the time and the fact that I had never heard a word about any of its contributors. Fortunately, it doesn't take more than the first couple of songs to realize that Blu's debut album, in collaboration with fellow Californian producer Exile, is a precious gem among stones. With tomes as perfectly pitched as "In Remembrance" and as faithfully told as "Greater Love," the immediate comparisons are to Common's debut album Resurrection with No I.D., or, to a somewhat lesser extent, 9th Wonder's early work with Little Brother. But despite their credible claim to be "the new Pete Rock and C.L.," Blu has a voice of his own. His relentless introspection displayed on this recording would later be matched by a peerless work ethic and innovation streak manifested in a series of follow-up projects with other collaborators and alone. Thank God this first one came down to earth.
The most immediate way I can think of summarizing the impact of this album is calling it Gil Scott-Heron the godfather of "Adult Swim" bumper music. While I will not simply leave it at that it's not an insult, the plethora of producers making the stoned, wonky instrumental hip-hop at the moment have much to thank Prefuse 73 for, One Word Extinguisher being the first gift to address.
First of all, it is not the novelty of "glitch-hop" this album became synonymous with that makes it important, as he wasn't even the first artist to really create such music. Instead it was the tenacious attention to detail applied to the music on Extinguisher, not necessarily from the technical perspective, which is solid, but the diverse palette used in the process. All the digital effects, meticulous editing, and novel beats are impressive alone, and likewise the samples and melodies would still be effective with more "traditional" hip-hop bass and percussion; but without all of it used together it would be forgettable. For all the electronic beeps and bleeps, a warmth shines through in the production.
Scott-Heron handpicks so many elements from genres or influential producers his music no longer sounds like anyone or anything else yet it screams familiarity. The beats often aren't even that complex in regards to pattern, like in "Perverted Undertone," and instead the strange jazz textures of the sample are mesmorizing. Melodies are kept exotic despite being digitally smashed in a million pieces, never becoming cold or alien. Worn 808 drum machine beats or over-used breakbeats are thrown out, tracks rely on diverse changes in beat timbres, a plethora of effects, rhythm changes, and harmonics. It's a shift from emulation to innovation, not a far flung branching off from hip-hop but an update in its scope and potential.
- Josh Bradshaw
There's nothing like a great rap debut. Something about the medium turns its rising stars into more than musicians - they're like message bearers and community organizers with a fired up following. In the past decade, only an extremely short list of rappers managed an arrival as auspicious as that of Lupe Fiasco, and perhaps none were as distinctive. Food & Liquor was a left-field landmark. Its dense narratives, outsider themes and kinetic instrumentation from the likes of Soundtrakk, Mike Shinoda and Kanye West made it an instant manual for intellectual misfits everywhere. Playing it back it's amazing to hear the vision and voice packed into every painstakingly sequenced track. Has there yet been a breath of air as fresh as "Real"? And how did he get a retirement-era Jay-Z on here? They say you spend your whole life making your first album - if only more artists were this worth the wait.
Some albums are as defined by their faux-background noise as their actual music -- Sgt. Peppers, I'm looking in your direction. Ultraglide in Black is such a record, closing with a Junior Walker cover set to the chatter of conversation and the clinking of glasses. Those muffled sounds of an in-progress soiree under "Do You See My Love (For You Growing)" put to rest any ambiguity not settled by the preceding 12 tracks of rollicking soul -- Ultraglide in Black is a party record, pure and simple. It's also the only truly great album from Detroit garage rockers the Dirtbombs. Twelve stripped-down covers of soul gems join one original -- "Your Love Belongs Under A Rock," a throwback so effective nobody would be surprised to find it in 7-inch vinyl form in the quarter bins of Antone's Records -- for 44 minutes of sing-along, clap-along goodness. Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield songs are filtered through the naked howl of front man Mick Collins for a raw blast of grooves that recalls cheap whiskey in its intoxication potential. From the call and response charge of "Chains of Love" to the fuzzed-out walls of guitar on "Ode to a Black Man," Ultraglide is coarse, furious, uncouth and an awful lot of fun.
"I'm qualified to satisfy you," croons Collins on the penultimate track, borrowing a sexed up lyric from obese king of lovin' Barry White. "In any way you want me to."
Why, yes, Mick. Yes you are.
- Patrick Caldwell
Here we present another New York City, turn of the decade outfit. But while the Strokes purposefully suppressed emotion from recordings, the Walkmen had to struggle to hold themselves back.
When describing the band's sound, I always say singer Hamilton Leithauser sounds like Bob Dylan if Bob Dylan could sing. He has a similar rasp and tone and wails. He leans back, holds his mic in the air, and strains his neck as he screams during the driving parts. On "The Rat," when he proclaims, "can't you see me, I'm... pounding on your door?" art imitates life: dude has been pounding. It's obvious. He dresses business casual, but the formal facade quickly becomes distorted by the intensity in his performance.
The entire band is made of exceptional musicians and their retro gear, from the upright piano to the old-bodied guitars, are equal parts functional and symbolic, nods to the blueprints and toasts to improving on design.
Everything these guys dropped incinerated, but "The Rat," "Little House of Savages," and "Thinking of a Dream I Had" make Bows + Arrows rise and last.
- John Meller
65. J Dilla - Donuts
Despite the blatant bloody-shirt posturing of some, surely one of the great recent narratives was the posthumous and prodigious love and appreciation for one James Yancey. Gone too soon from complications due to Lupus, J Dilla was an unsung hip-hop hero on the production circuit for nearly all of his life. His talent for odd sampling techniques and syncopated drum patterns, demonstrated on celebrated albums with A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo and his own Slum Village to name a few, were the stuff of legend among those who paid attention. After he died, the floodgates opened. Donuts is Dilla's largest and most uncompromised song collection. The essence of everything he stood for is here, crafted with love while he was alive and brimming with the joy of ceaseless discovery. Rappers will rightly revisit these works for ages.
There was the winter fresh jam of '05, built on a clapping, summertime Dre beat ("This Is How We Do"). There was the Kanye leftover where Game confessed to Mya-related masturbatory fantasies she'd go on to indulge for the video ("Dreams"). There was the holy-shit-how-did-he-get-this-fucking-club-stopping-fucking-beat Timbaland moment ("Put You On The Game"). There was the Cool & Dre soul stirrer about childhood ("Hate It Or Love It"). There was lots of golden era Dr. Dre gangsta and Game, despite later unearthed humiliation on a game show, used every opportunity to flash his laminated, gangster credentials.
All these songs, however embellished, however harder 50 Cent's guest verses were, go hard.
- Ramon Ramirez
Soul music post-70s has mostly consisted of good, faceless, singing over smooth-jazz bullshit. Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse for the two or three people in America that don't know, would have none of it.
Cee-Lo channels Al Green, but the things he sings about might be more home with George Clinton. Danger Mouse's production prowess needs no introduction, and this combined for the most artistically accomplished pop sensation in decades, St. Elsewhere .
"Crazy" was the "Hey Ya!" of 2006, proving that everyone from mainstream critics to soul connoisseurs to mall poppers to metalheads could groove hard on paranoia. Of course, that wasn't the only song on the album. "Go-Go Gadget Gospel" and "Transformer" wear you out on whatever dance floor you're on, "Gone Daddy Gone" has the energy and power the original Violent Femmes version lacked, and "Smiley Faces" is a secular gospel firestarter. And Danger Mouse decided he'd rather work with The Black Keys later. Sad.
- Andy O'Connor
In December 2007, a few friends and I drove from Austin to Oklahoma City, ambassadors from a campus student committee that programs shows. We sought the legendary house of Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, notoriously layered in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The goal was to make a personal appeal to convince him to play our state school's spring fling concert. The signature event of the semester.
Shortly after dark, driving around his neighborhood for about an hour, we found his "compound": four houses combined into one giant lot, decorated festively for the holidays. Nervously, we knocked on his door, dressed as various Lips-related characters - Superman, Santa Claus, and a Martian.
He answered, wearing moon boots and holding a giant light bulb.
His reply was swift - a member of the band's wife was going to have a baby that month, so no, they could not play UT - but we still got a unique opportunity to visit with one of the most interesting and genuine musicians in the galaxy. He spent an hour talking, and showed us around. In his backyard, we saw the Lips UFO lying on the ground, sets from the infamous "Christmas on Mars" film, props from their blissful, festive live shows. He even tried to help us find a place to stay overnight in Oklahoma.
Coyne was incredibly kind and showed gratitude to in effect overzealous fans that drove seven hours with vague hopes of finding his home. I would've called the cops.
- John Meller
The big difference between Elephant and the Stripes' prior output lies in the production, the wealth of new sounds. Pushed aside is the crusty thunder from "Fell in Love With a Girl," (though it does return with "Hypnotize") and added is the gentle tickling of Jack playing piano, fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, and the debut of Meg's vocals. Elephant is an exercise in pushing the limits of what The White Stripes wanted to sound like and fundamentally could sound like given limited orchestration. Each song is its own beast, some resembling squirrels and others closer to dragons.
The experimentation ebbs and flows, but when "Ball & Biscuit" kicks in, you'd better pay attention. Seven minutes of utter mastery of the blues, Jack White digs out his own place among guitar greats, "taking his sweet little time about it." It's been a long time coming on the road to fame, and here, the Whites know perfectly well where the spotlight has turned. The biggest change however exists in the lyrics which have changed from young-minded themes - schoolyard crushes, memories, uncertainty.
Elephant is The White Stripes after finding their footing, seeing the world, and returning with a postcard of sexuality, confidence, and balls.
- Tom Hardy
"Seven Nation Army"