This is part one of a series. Writer picks their 25 favorite albums, using whatever criteria they want. The writer gets roasted for their picks, and then gets to respond. First up is Andrew Chow; the judges are Jacob Sunshine and Jeremy Judelson.
|A Tribe Called Quest||Midnight Marauders|
|Bob Dylan||Blonde on Blonde|
|Bob Dylan||Blood on the Tracks|
|Bruce Springsteen||Born to Run|
|Chick Corea||Return to Forever|
|Elton John||Goodbye Yellow Brick Road|
|Flying Lotus||You’re Dead!|
|Frank Ocean||Channel Orange|
|John Coltrane||A Love Supreme|
|Kanye West||Dark Twisted Fantasy|
|Lupe Fiasco||Food & Liquor|
|Mitski||Bury Me At Makeout Creek|
|Raconteurs||Consolers of the Lonely|
|San Fermin||San Fermin|
|Stevie Wonder||Songs in the Key of Life|
|Titus Andronicus||Local Business|
|Wilco||Yankee Hotel Foxtrot|
There’s a bunch of classic rock embedded into my being as a result of my parents, a few jazz albums that shaped who I am as a pianist, and some hip hop I had on repeat in college. Five albums are from post-college, when I started to approach music Professionally Seriously and Critically.
The Questionable Picks
Food & Liquor, Lupe Fiasco
This guy is basically a joke now, right? I haven’t really kept up per se, but that’s the feeling I get. Does an artist’s current output and/or reputation factor into whether they are on this list? -Jeremy Judelson
Yes, Lupe is a joke. Lupe is uncool. Maim my vocal cords before I ever tell anyone I’m a Lupe Fan. And if you put this chastising, moralizing, slightly smug album in front of me for the first time today, and I might hate it.
But Lupe’s lack of chill is the exact reason he was so important to me. Look. Hip hop did not make sense to me as a high school freshman. Rappers lived lives I scorned, bragged in ways I shuddered at, faced hardships I didn’t understand.
Lupe, by contrast, was me. A gangly high-pitched outsider with glasses, coming of age in a city, and maturing against all seeming odds. He loved captivating stories and wordplay. He was a voice of conscience and earnestness in the tainted post 9/11, Iraq War era. He embodied my, and really, all of our awkward high school years: idealistic, angsty, teeming with breakthroughs every day.
And so “Food and Liquor” gave me two essential firsts: the first rap album I loved, and the first artist of my generation that I claimed for my own. I was a Beatlemania and Stevie snob, stuck deep in my parents’ dusty record collection. The screaming strings on “Kick, Push”–crescendoing dramatically and begging Lupe to finish every line–pulled me out. I memorized the tongue-twisting parable of “The Instrumental,” learned the thorny, Monk-ish piano lick of “I Gotcha,” fell in love with a girl amidst the hazy reverie of “Sunshine.”
Lupe made me thrilled to be 15, listening to new music in 2007. It was an exhilarating feeling I’ll never forget. More importantly, it revealed the storytelling, identity-building essence of hip-hop I had missed. If I don’t get Lupe, there’s no way I get to Kanye, and from there, there’s no way I get to Young Thug. A life without Young Thug is pointless.
Kanye West – Graduation
Pop hits, but what else? I love this record, but to me it was simply Kanye realizing his potential to create pop hits – a potential that has shown to be one of the less important aspects of Kanye’s impact. -JJ
This is true. Graduation is far less important than “808s and Heartbreak”–but still the far better album.
On “Graduation,” Ye realized that he was not just a rap genius, but an all-around genius; not just a rapper-producer, but an icon. That he was going to blast through any sort of sectionalism and absolutely crush the previous #1 rap star, 50 Cent, at his own game.
Making killer pop is far from easy. We take for granted now that Kanye is a pop star. But look at Kendrick: the Compton kid, with all his intellect and instincts, will never, ever, be able to create hooks as mammoth and catchy as those on Graduation. Kanye seamlessly folded Daft Punk into soul, in the process reviving their career; made Chris Martin temporarily cool; legitimized T-Pain; put Murakami on the cover; kickstarted punchline rap; pulled ridiculous samples from Steely Dan, Elton John, and MJ, which all perfectly fell in line to service his enormous ego. Like Barry Bonds, this album is on steroids. Freaking “The Glory” would be the biggest song on “Pablo.”
Others would expand upon on 808s, going deeper and farther than Kanye. But nobody will do Early Kanye Pop Style better than Graduation Kanye did. You could argue that it has his crispest rapping, his cleanest production, his most classic hooks. It’s the realization of the trilogy: a fully formed Charizard.
The Rent Soundtrack
I listened to the entire thing on a long car ride recently, and by the second track of album #2, I felt like blowing my brains out. The production choices are boring, the band does nothing but back the singers, and the singers suffer from the same grandiosity that most Broadway singers do. Does this really function well as a double album? Isn’t it bloated? -Jacob Sunshine
I meant the movie soundtrack, not the OBCR. Shuttup, theater nerds. I don’t have time to wait for Roger to tune his fucking guitar, and could care less about Rosario Dawson’s autotune. I want straight bangers, no filler. The movie delivers that.
I was in the pit band for a production of “Rent” in college, and there was a moment in the middle of the first song, the title track, when I would freak out because of how fun that song was to play. Then I would realize that there were two and a half more hours of fire, and that moment of simultaneous anticipation and release was pretty much the height of my college career.
Anyway, here are the Rent songs in quality tiers.
Tier 1, “Happy Birthday jEsUs!!”: Rent, One Song Glory, Tango Maureen, Another Day, La Vie Boheme, What You Own, I’ll Cover You reprise
Tier 2, “Right and rare”: Seasons of Love, Light My Candle, Will I, Santa Fe, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, Without You
Tier 3, “Take me or leave me”: You’ll See, Today 4 U, Out Tonight, I’ll Cover You, Halloween
Tier 4, worst song ever written, worse than AIDS, probably: “Your Eyes”
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
What is it about this record that everyone finds so spiritual? It’s such a ubiquitous record, but I feel like it has less musically compelling elements than, say, Crescent. How has it acquired the fetishism and mythic quality that it has? -JS
You’re implying I’ve been suckered by the Big Jazz Hype Machine. That’s probably true to an extent. The sheer mission statement of the album promises transcendence from the jump, and I went into the album believing it.
But as a devout atheist, spirituality never interested or motivated me, so there’s something else at work. The thing about “A Love Supreme” is you could approach it as a sex album and it would still carry the same gale force. Listen how Elvin mischievously dances through his toms on Pt. 1; how Coltrane’s melody spills out of the bar on Pt. 2, dripping with authority and swag, as if spitting some particularly potent game; how McCoy goes for broke on that song’s solo, alternating between the lightest of touches and the most forceful of syncopations. Coltrane’s solo on Pt. 3 is pure chaos, as Elvin and Jimmy Garrison push the tempo into the stratosphere. Some of those sax runs make me want to start convulsing and shake my arms and bite my tongue and scream to the nonexistent lord.
I find Pt. 4 a bit tiresome. But the rest of the album easily covers for it. This is Peak Coltrane, Peak McCoy, and Peak Elvin. It’s not just a religious album; it’s an album for dancing, romancing, thinking, writing, working out, going to sleep.
Mick Jenkins – Waves
This is a very recent album. Do you think it has the longevity needed to stay on this list for when you re-evaluate in 5 years? 10 years? -JJ
You can’t predict longevity, but at the moment I’m inclined to say no. It certainly belongs on this list now. It was the perfect Andrew Chow 2015 Rap Album: melodic, suave, lyrically dense and playful, with bouts of both cockiness and vulnerability. Waves feels like the perfect culmination of the conflicting impulses of 808s and Graduation: the sound is shiny and bombastic, but there’s a layer of pathos and wistfulness sitting right below.
But this may be why the album could fade for me going forward: it’s an end point, not a breakthrough. It’s a distillation of all of my favorite artists–Tribe, Ye, Lupe, Thug–instead of its own irrevocable path forward. The legacy of this album depends on whether a future generation of artists is equally inspired by its sound.
Titus Andronicus – Local Business
This album is generally considered to be a “low-point” of Titus Andronicus’s ferocious career, and critics point to Titus Andronicus’s “band in a room sound”, less sentimental lyrics, and simpler song structures as a stark contrast to their grandiose, DIY-garage-operas on The Airing of Grievances and The Monitor. Why this record? -JS
By “less sentimental lyrics,” do you mean the opening line,
“Okay I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless /
Then there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose”
That not ambitious or grandiose or fiery enough for you? I know I’m in very much the minority here, but I’m ride or die Team Local Business For Life. This. Album. Is. Better. Than. The. Monitor.
This is fairly revealing of my whole ethos. I like cleanliness, and hooks, and sharp arrangements, and expertise. There’s very little fat on this furious album: It’s all been purged, converted into laser focus and lean, muscled rage. Bruce’s DNA is all over this album, especially on “In A Big City:” the bands converts listlessness and self-pitying stream-of-consciousness into soaring, all-American anthems. And because the songs are tighter in construction and time, the manic energy of the band froths and fizzes out of the framework. I’m always disappointed when “Tried to Quit Smoking” ends: its relative restraint and shrewd evolution leave the ten-minute song still feeling too short.
“The Monitor” sounds like bunch of angry kids in a room. “Local Business” sounds like a bunch of angry musicians in a room. Bite me.
San Fermin – San Fermin
Do you agree that this is probably the least “important” record on your list? Why did it impact you so greatly and why did it not seem to have that same effect on others? (JJ)
I honestly have no idea why some artists get real big and others don’t. Why did Ariana Grande blow as opposed to Hailee Steinfeld? Who’s responsible for Post Malone and Halsey?
So yes, San Fermin’s debut is the least important and least popular album here by a longshot.
But I think a lot of times, that stuff has less to do with aesthetic worth (critics loved the album) than bad marketing and/or terrible optics. The whole thing does whiff of elitism/pretension. Yale graduate writes ponderous operatic suite with chamber orchestra? Hard pass.
I wouldn’t know how to market San Fermin for the life of me, which sucks, because this album moves me on so many levels.
-Melodically. Strip away the string interludes and one or two experimental tracks, and this is a straight pop album. I sing along to all of these songs. They get stuck in my head on the subway, and they’re with me when I wake up in the morning.
-Holistically. This is an Album. It has a clear arc; each song stands on its own, but is amplified but its context within the whole.
-Music Theoretically. The whole fits together, but as a music nerd, I keep finding intriguing micro-details. There are shrewd substitution changes and wanderings into different key signatures. The arrangements are superb, and perfectly blend the weird mix of horns, strings, and guitars.
-Vocally. Holly and Jess of Lucius have never sounded better. They use every inch of their physical and emotional range to coax heartbreak, euphoria, dread, exhaustion.
-Emotionally. I love this album so much. It captures so many of my fears. I want to fill a stadium with people to listen to this album so that everyone laughs and weeps and ponders love and their own mortality.