This post is an ongoing post.
Hüsker Dü – “Candy Apple Grey”
RIP Grant Hart. Hüsker Dü is one of the best American rock bands Q.E.D. This is their first big studio album, but their fifth overall. Engaging and creative as all of their albums are.
Pavement – “Slanted and Enchanted”
A true classic that is not too serious or too silly. Pavement was part of the 90s lo-fi alternative scene (Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, The Fall etc.), but in my opinion they had a distinct voice that was a bit GBV/Fall mixed with Dead Kennedys and Dead Milkmen. Literally everything about Pavement you will read will bring up The Fall comparison, which is just silly and inconsequential. Block that out, Pavement, and this album, are awesome. Slanted sounds amazing even today. I have yet to find someone of any age that can’t at least tolerate it being on.
Dr. Octagon – “Dr. Octagonecologyst”
Dr. Octagon is Kool Keith, Dan the Automator, DJ QBert, and Kutmasta Kurt. was a side project concept album that became a classic. This album made a dent in the larger hip-hop arc while remaining fairly underground. The album is even cooler than its name. The sequels are not Kool Kieth sanctioned and likely suck. This is an album that could never be duplicated again in spirit. In fact, Kool Keith made a concept album whose persona kills Dr. Octagon (twice). Octagonecologyst is a perfect hip-hop record in my opinion. It has very creative beats, the poetry is deep and wide, and it showcases brilliant turntablism.
The Smiths – “The Queen is Dead”
This is my favorite Smiths album, but most of my favorite Smiths songs were not on albums (panic etc.). All of their albums are great, but if I had to only keep one this would be it. The range of topics and atmospheres on this record are remarkably broad. Songs like Vicar in a Tutu are dark and whimsical at the same time.
GZA – “Liquid Swords”
Liquid Swords is one of the best hip-hop records period. For me, this records is close to flawless. It feels like a rare accidental masterpiece, except GZA is incredibly talented and RZA (on the beats) was at his peak here. I am not including about ten other classic and incredible Wu-Tang solo records that prove this was no fluke. The story of the 36 Chambers era of Wu-Tang was the RZA basically stayed locked away in the basement working his a** off on the first batch of solo records as he knew the Wu was on to something. On this record, you can hear RZA and GZA psychotic dedication. Killah Priest deserves props for BIBLE, which is an incredible track, but it also fits this record perfect. KP also drops an exceptional verse on “4th Chamber.”
De La Soul – “3 Feet High and Rising”
This album was so good even De La Soul had issues with it. The lore is that the band was super pissed off at the mod aesthetic Prince Paul was able to pull off. Today, we would say this is the first hipster hip-hop album. It is not an understatement to say this record created a new arc in Hip-Hop at the time. It was an arc that A Tribe Called Quest, KMD, DJ Shadow and others would happily follow, but one that De La apparently were happy to distance themselves from.
My fondest memories of this album are from skating. I skated with three factions of skaters and I could find a slice of this album that appealed to each.
311 – “Grassroots”
I like too much music to have favorite bands, but 311 is the closest thing I have to a “favorite band.” They are certainly the band I have seen live most often, and I’d skip just about anything but a Talking Heads reunion to see 311 instead. I think 311 is more of a live band than an album band, but their first four studio records are all exceptional, and a bit underrated. Grassroots is their second record and it captures what most fans see in their live performances best. Grassroots is just one of those rare post-1990 records that you can throw on and let it play through, even on repeat and it just works. It was their sophomore record, but they were grinding small venues building their fanbase bit-by-bit, and the love and energy shines through on this record.
311 is both loved and hated for blending rap, rock, reggae, lovers rock, English Beat style alternative and math rock, but in my opinion this is the record where all of their influences come together in the most unique and seamless way. I’m not certain, but I bet if you were to look into their most frequently played live tracks, the top five would be from this album. My second favorite love song is “8:16 AM,” which is fresh, simple and beautiful.
Not technically about grassroots, but great:
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – “Trout Mask Replica”
Perhaps one of the most hipster albums of all time. Don Vilet was very interesting and I am a fan of essentially all of his music. One thing I love about music is its ability to contextualize non-sequiturs and this album is a celebration of this. I played this record for my daughter when she was six and she loved it. She is a few years older and still remembers hearing it the first time. When I played it for her, I did so without any pretext. The reason I mention that is albums like this tend to seem interesting to some because of its mystique and the cult of personality around the artist. While I do think the story behind this album specifically is very interesting, I believe this album to be a true triumph that will still be relevant 60 years from now.
DJ Shadow – “Entroducing”
Entroducing is one of those albums that is lauded for its impact on the way music is made and the music itself. It was and still is a beautiful album.
David Axelrod – “Songs of Innocence”
Fitting to mention after Entroducing. I worked for a very smart man who introduced me to this after hearing a sample in DJ Shadow’s Entroducing that I was playing. Axelrod was DJ Shadow’s biggest inspiration. Axelrod was a key behind the scenes figure in music history. He was also an exceptional musician and this album is a great example of his talent. Timeless sound. I think this record starts off better than any other record I’ve heard.
Master P – “Ghetto D”
This is admittedly very different than any of the other records. I have a lot of respect for this record, but not because it is a musical triumph. Nevertheless, this record is terribly fun. It was a party staple in my teenage years, and I bet it would still get a room full of teenagers moving. This record was peak “No Limit,” which was a very consequential era in hip-hop’s arc. Master P proved to be a good artist and businessman and cast a mold that would transform the rap industry in a way that we can still see.
Technically about the preceding “Ice Cream Man” record, but same difference:
Pj Harvey – “Rid of Me”
I love PJ Harvey and this is my favorite of her records. 50ft Queenie!
Erasure – “The Innocents”
I’m a fan of just about all of Erasure’s material (the new albums sound great too). However, I’m torn between “Chorus” and “The Innocents” as far as my favorite record of theirs is concerned. I think that “The Innocents” is the most consistent of all of Erasure’s albums. “Chains of Love” was the breakout single on Innocents, but the whole album is stellar. If you have any interest in pop dance, this is a rare pop dance record that you can put on just about anytime and play all the way through. If you’ve never given Erasure a chance (you should), this is the place to start.
On the remaster (worth it):
Metro Ranks Erasure (they messed up their numbers 🙂
Daedalus – “Invention”
Daedalus is an amazing artist. First, what a coup on being the first to distinguish that name in music. Second, he puts out material at a rate that is staggering. Third, his catalog is as diverse as it is deep. From a traditional record point of view, “Invention” is hands down his best record. Invention is also a stellar record period. This record is one of many beat records in the same vein of Entroducing, but it is a distinguished entry in that catalog. The samples used here are inventive and used in an inventive way. For example, Daedalus uses dot matrix printer sounds in places that seem natural, so much so that you wouldn’t know what it is. I liken Daedalus to Wylie Dufresne, and this album is WD-50. Much like Wylie’s food, Daedalus makes music differently than most, but he is a musician and his goal is to make good music, not to just experiment. Madvillain proudly samples “Experience” for Madvillainy’s “Accordian.” This album is even better than its cover, which is pretty damn cool.
B-52s – Cosmic Thing
The B-52’s are simply awesome. This record is known as their “comeback” after a tragedy. But, I believe it is their most interesting sonically, it’s sparse, but still sounds like the future — hard to pull off. The early records are crazy good, but this record is one of those that sounds good in any room of your house (Outkast’s “Aquemini” also works this way). I don’t think there is much analysis needed here. If you haven’t really listened to B-52s start here.
Charisma and Peanut Butter Wolf – Big Shots
Killer album. The background is interesting, but written about very well all over the place. I’ll be short. Charizma and PBW were best friends in high-school and got a record deal together with Disney’s hip-hop imprint. Charizma was killed, tragically, soon after. Once PBW started his record label Stones Throw, he found the recordings, cleaned them up and put this record out as a memorial really. The album is amazing. Simple and fun. Too bad they couldn’t make more music, but this record is timeless IMO.
Themselves – Crownsdown
Fantastic album. There was so much ‘alt-hip-hop’ clap-trap in the mid 2000’s that I feared the good stuff would get buried by all the navel gazing. F’ that, CrownsDown is a killer and unique sounding record.
The Clash – Combat Rock
There isn’t one best Clash album. If I could only have one, it would be London Calling. But, Combat Rock is their album I have the closest emotional connection with. Combat Rock was the first Clash album I owned. My mother introduced me to The Clash. She would ALWAYS watch MTV when I was growing up. When I was seven or so, the video to “Rock the Casbah” came on and she grabbed me and danced with me to the song. The random dancing wasn’t strange, but the music was, but in a marvelous way. The video resonated because it is a trip through a Texas that was all too familiar to me. I grew up around pump-jacks. Love The Clash.
David Bowie – Low
Bowie is great, but we all know that, and he’s been written about endlessly. This is my favorite.
Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend
Perhaps a perfect record. It fits every mood. Even if you have never heard this record, you will swear you have — it’s that good. In 1991, there was so much great Alt Rock (Belly, Cocteau Twins, etc.) and hip-hop that it seems crazy in hindsight that a pop record would stand out.
Aesop Rock – Labor Days
“I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent.”
Led Zeppelin – IV
My mother’s favorite band is Led Zeppelin. She has an almost spiritual connection to their music. I didn’t fully get it when I was kid, but I loved this record. I still love this record, but I get it now. Love you mom.
Los Stellarians – Cholo Soul
This record is a side project of Doug Martinez (SA) from 311, made with his nephew covering some of SA’s favorite funk and soul 45s. Incredible.
KMD – Mr. Hood
MF Doom and his late brother’s hip-hop group. One of their records was actually legit censored because of the cover. This was controversial too. The beats are crazy, complete with Sesame Street samples, and weird character storybook record samples. This is an intensely political record, but you may not even notice.
MF Doom – Operation Doomsday
If you are a fan of Doom’s beat records this record will still sound fresh to you. I don’t think any other record sounds like this.
Madvillain – Madvillainy
I accidentally bought the 12″ for “Moneyfolder” and I was pissed off. I was buying records at an awful record shop in San Antonio, Texas. SA has some decent record spots, but not “the” record shop. These clowns re-shrinkwrapped all of their hip-hop 12″s for some reason they couldn’t explain. For this record and the aforementioned 12″ the names in the upper right were obscured by three different price tags.
I was putting together a hip-hop set for a house party and grabbed the 12″, with art similar to the album, and set it aside to see if this was an MF Doom thing (was a big fan since KMD, see above). I was skeptical because there were a ton of bootlegs of Doom’s “special herbs collection” and bootlegs of “Operation Doomsday” as it had been out of print in CD or vinyl. I was also not certain what the actual price of the records were because of the crazy multi-labeling. At the time $5 was the correct price for a domestic 12″, but the labeled prices were well north. I grabbed a copy of Adventure Time’s record and a handful of 12″s that I believed I could afford if I got hit with the high price. Long story less long, I had to make a hasty funds-related decision at the check out line and ended up selecting Money Folder in a flummoxed state. I took the damn thing home and I was blown away. It was a track that was a clearly new direction for Doom and clearly Madlib beats (I had been big on the Quasimoto record and the YNQ stuff). I dug around for enough cash to go get the full record and the next number of weeks it was Madvillain nonstop. Killer record that is still ridiculous good.
Quasimoto – The Unseen
The story of Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib’s relationship is really interesting. I really hope they write a book. I know there is a Stones Throw documentary and endless interviews. But, I really want to read the long-form version outside of a directed interview grid.
The Quasimoto record is reportedly one of the many records Madlib was negative to indifferent too until PBW harassed him into releasing it. This record in many ways feels like a Madlib autobiography told over psychedelic-blunted jazz beats through the rants of a domineering alter-ego. During the 2016 election I really wanted to dub the republican debates with Trump spouting out snippets of this record. I’m not getting into the +/- of that guy, but no doubt the Republican primary was crazy. He slay’d 12 fools by being full Trump and I just kept thinking The Unseen was the primary’s soundtrack:
“It’s Lord Quas droppin’ shit like some horses
Iritate your mindstate have you split like divorces
Of course it’s the new breed fuckin’ up the mainstream
Plus we gon’ gain cream
Keep doin’ the same thing
Elevatin’ styles beyond explication
Turned up the notch increase the amplification”
Would have been cool. An interesting project is there for the taking. Regardless, this album is rich and smooth. It fits damn near any mood and to this day I find something else to like about it. I love Madvillainy, but this is Madlib’s best work IMHO.
GusGus – “Polydistortion”
GusGus is a pop-electronic band from Iceland. It now purports to have always been an art project, but I’m not buying it. I think they just got bored with music. Many of their songs were remixed and became dance floor staples in the late 90’s. I admittedly overplayed Sasha’s remix of “Purple” and I’d do it again!
Sasha and John Digweed – “Renaissance”
This is not an album, but a dance mix CD, which was not really a thing when this came out. It is hard to fully capture the impact this release had on dance music, and the music industry in general. There were mix CDs before Renaissance, but they were made for a short format and most were (are) forgettable. Renaissance was a three disc endeavor designed to capture the feeling of the multi-hour sets Diggers and Sasha were crafting at the eponymous UK club. Being able to hear this kind of house music (acid and progressive house) outside of the club was close to impossible before this. The two DJs captured the trajectory of house music perfectly in this mix, and they catalyzed its assent with it as well. The packaging was insane, a gatefold CD that expanded to a full piece of art on both sides. I think the original CD was ~2″ thick and it was a nice cardboard package, not a plastic jewel case.
The CD was near impossible to get a hold of after its first shockwave and print run. Most of the artists whose music was part of this mix blew up big time after Diggers and Sasha put them on the map with this. This had the effect of making it impossible to license many of the tracks again for a second printing. It remained out of print for ~10 years, during which time it sold for hundreds of dollars, assuming you could find a genuine copy. It was eventually re-released with some various Deconstruction Records (ironic as they were Sasha’s label) left off. Since, those tracks have been cleared and I believe if you dig this up on Spotify you will get the OG mix (If M-People tracks are in the mix still, then it is the OG). The mix itself is still enjoyable. It is hard for me to judge how timely it sounds as I am too close to the music, but when I play it or recommend it, people still enjoy it. Worth checking out if you are a house/EDM fan.
Way Out West – “Way Out West”
Speaking of Deconstruction …
This album used to be hard to find. May still be. But, worth hunting for, you can certainly listen to it on YT etc. All of the WoW classics are here including “Domination” and “Ajare”. For me, the 12″ of Ajare with the “Way Out West 97 Remix” is one of the best dance records of all time (I always played it live pitched down ~20%; amazing).
Tom Waits – “Rain Dogs”
I like Tom Waits, but I love “Rain Dogs.” This was one of my first records that I picked out for myself. I loved the cover and I’ve loved the music ever since. The record is just as complex musically as it is lyrically. This is one of those records that just grabs you.
“Confetti in my hair”
Nina Simone – “Emergency Ward”
Nina Simone was crazy productive. This record had some “in concert” songs, but it wasn’t all recorded live. Doesn’t matter at all, this record is amazing. It also has a clear purpose and she did perform these songs as a medley, in a series of performances that were directed and purposeful. It was played at military bases and related areas. This was intended to be a statement on the Vietnam War. To that end, I think RCA did her a disservice with the cover, it looks cool, like a Clash record, but it muddies the message. It needs to have been off white or all red, but with that picture of her in the upper right corner and nothing more.
This record cuts to the soul. The shortest track “Poppies” is the standout for me. I loved that track and this album before I realized it had a statement to make. I think she made a statement with this album, but I don’t think it was one that was specific to one moment in time, it was something more universal and timeless. I don’t know what accomplishment a musician could hope for beyond that.
cLOUDDEAD – “cLOUDDEAD”
This record stands as a proper album, but it is a collection of a series of 12″ records put out by Doseone, Why?, and Odd Nosdam. This record was highly regarded in underground hip-hop and hipster college radio circles. It is a beautiful and creative record. There was a good follow up record, but this is yet another Doseone related record that is, in my opinion, close to a masterpiece. Digital versions of the album are strangely hard to track down.
You can buy it on Beatport and listen on youtube music. If you buy it on Beatport, there may appear to be two versions, one for $19.99 and one for $9.99, one is the Mush version and the other Big Dada (who took over the record deal). Mush is great, but so is Big Dada, both of the versions are in fact identical, so chose accordingly.
Daryl Hall and John Oates – “Private Eyes”
I’m a huge fan of Hall and Oates in general. If you have never listened to any of their music (possible?), I recommend checking out “The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates,” which is unusually good for a hits compilation. It has some 45 singles and extended versions of key tracks that are a great listen. But, of their albums, this is my favorite. The title track was a hit, and for good reason. Private Eyes is an incredible pop song. Every track on this record shows how in command of rhythm these two are. It is clear they analyzed every bar on this record and only made choices in service of the overall vision. It is a masterful pop record, and fun too!
Janet Jackson – “Rhythm Nation 1814”
Is it possible to listen to this without dancing? You’ll always see me with a swing in my step, even if I’m listening walking on a busy street. This record wasn’t unusual for a late 1980’s record, but only because it was made. The closest thing at the time was her brother’s “Bad,” but this record is deeper and more musically intricate, most obviously in its masterful use of swing rhythm. Rhythm Nation is, at least for me, the most refined example of “New Jack Swing.” The album is a concept album, that I believe came 25 years too early. In this record, Janet positions herself as the leader of a dancing and good-vibe spreading social justice warrior crew. Thus, Janet made herself the proto-SJW 🙂 The contemplative aspects of this album are good, but they aren’t its lasting legacy, nor are they a distraction. Sadly, you know by now there are poor kids that are starving, even in the US, and you knew it in 1989 too. Nevertheless, Janet made the world a bit better after making this record.
The Roots – “Game Theory”
I don’t think there is a bad Roots record, but I have come to appreciate this one the most. I could intellectualize this record, but you could just listen to it instead. The one thing I will say, it is best appreciated as a whole, rare for a record released in the late 2000’s.
NPR interview with Questlove on this record:
Questlove collects stories about his interactions with famous people, my favorite is the Bjork story (naturally). Particularly relevant because Malik B plays a very prominent role on this record: