by InRO Staff Feature Articles Music Year in Review

Top 50 Albums of the Decade: 50-26

January 30, 2020

The Last Word from Your Editor, Sam C. Mac: With the 2010s officially over, the time seems right for another departure: after 12 years (with a small break in the middle), I’m stepping down as this site’s Editor-in-Chief, to be succeeded by co-founder (and unapologetic Iron & Wine-lover) Luke Gorham. I don’t plan on getting too personal here, but I do want to say that, as long as I’ve been an adult, InRO has been my baby. And so it does seem kind of fitting that, only now — as my wife and I prepare to welcome our first child, in just a few short weeks — do I finally feel ready to let that responsibility go. Of course, I couldn’t leave without first rallying the troops, past and present InRO writers alike (and there are plenty of names here that haven’t graced these pages in years), for one last round of painstakingly assembled lists. Over the next week, InRO will finally unveil its picks for the Top 100 Films and the Top 50 Albums of the Decade — showing up late for that party, obviously, but in these abominable times, it never seems like a bad idea to celebrate art that deserves it. The ideal decade would have probably brought both an abundance of great works and an agreeable environment in which to enjoy them. The 2010s got exactly half of that equation right.


 

50. Chief Keef is the most influential rapper of this decade — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. No need to try and explain how it’s really Kendrick, nor to say that the Sosa of today is washed: these are wrong answers, just don’t waste your time. Every SoundCloud rapper who has even a hint of success right now is a child of Sosa, of his deadpan cadence, his snarled temperament and flagrant disregard for authority. Like Waka Flocka Flame, Keef understands the power of his own voice, how his intonation can be modulated to wring new meaning from repetitive phrasing — can signal pain (“Citgo”); can become a cry of joy (“Hallelujah”); can even sardonically suggest a self-aware tedium (the fake laughs of “Laughing to the Bank”). Finally Rich is a showcase for the rap experimentation Keef indulged liberally for the rest of the decade — after this blockbuster bid flopped and his major label contract was canceled. Paul Attard


49.I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself” — this acerbically self-effacing proclamation, from standout single “Otis,” functions as a synecdoche for Watch the Throne’s defining act of glory: namely, the pure exuberance and posturing that Kanye West and JAY-Z bring to their collaborative effort. Is it a seamless alliance? Beat for beat, line for line, no; missing here is the unparalleled ambition of the former’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and as well the rags-to-riches earnestness of Jay. The uniting factor, then, is the unrestrained dynamism that the two emcees are able to bring to every cut. Successful both when celebrating their own greatness and the thrills of self-indulgence (“Otis,” “No Church in the Wild”) and more socially conscious fare (“Murder to Excellence,” “Made in America”), Watch the Throne offers the distinct pleasure of two geniuses combining their gifts into a product that nearly defines what it is to be both art and commerce. When you’re delivering at this level, less than perfection is more than enough. Luke Gorham


48. Arcade Fire’s ability to conceptualize and execute the grand design of records like The Suburbs is what earned the group attention in the first place. But the insight and maturity with which Win Butler tells the stories that make up this album, in particular — many of which were inspired by his youth in Houston, Texas — makes the writing more relatable and engaging than on other Arcade Fire releases. The Suburbs is also still probably the band’s most musically accessible collection, moving further into pop territory and away from the “indie rock” label they’d been saddled with. Whatever the genre, songs like the triumphant “Sprawl II,” the reflective “Modern Man,” and heartbreaking “Suburban War” are among the most thoughtful and emotionally effective songs the band’s written. Chris Nowling


47. Examinations of Azealia Banks often come in the form of mournful platitudes about wasted potential or back-handed homosexual hyperventilation. But if you ask Azealia, she’ll probably tell you that she doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone: On her debut (and, at this point, only) album, 2014’s Broke with Expensive Taste, Banks sounds seasoned, bold, and in her prime, combining genres like drum and bass, house, and ballroom and crafting a timeless, experimental album that simultaneously dominates its present moment and holds its own with its ‘90s influences. Banks constantly reveals more of her many talents: the Spanish soprano vocal of “Gimme a Break,” her zeitgeist-capturing flow and writing on “212,” and the curatorial prowess that allows for a cover of Ariel Pink’s “Nude Beach a-Go-Go.” For a release marred by label interference, Broke With Expensive Taste doesn’t seem to bear a hint of compromise. Everything here feels authentically Banks, down to the bizarre sequencing and the hour-long runtime. A weird rap record that covers a lot of ground without ever resorting to corny pop filler; maybe not polished, but exactly as it should be: a slap to the face and some dirty words. Tanner Stechnij


46. The doomsday clock is ticking almost from the start: “Tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds.” But then, a couple of lines later: “Hold on tight, don’t let your baby go.Real Midnight is a record about how good things end and the apocalypse comes — if not now, then at least tomorrow. We’re born to die, but what do we do in the meantime? That’s what these songs concern themselves with, and what makes them celebratory rather than morbid: That all of this is finite gives meaning and urgency to the important work of singing and dancing, loving and forgiving. Formally, Birds of Chicago‘s second long player recalls prime Van Morrison; the group is committed to folk idioms, but also threaten to burn them to the ground. This is really a pop record — notice how propulsive the hooks are, how economic the lyrics — but it draws on big gospel harmonies for its power. It’s an album to sing along with — at least while we still have time. Josh Hurst


45. Just a single listen to “Azucar,” one of the highlights of Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, should held illuminate what makes this album so masterful. In a brisk 86 seconds, Earl mentions family issues, the many vices he’s relied on to cope with his demons, and a tight-knit group of friends who’ve helped him stay afloat. Odd Future-affiliated Sage Elsesser’s production features a lively sample of The Main Ingredient’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Girl Blue,” and has as much of a stake in the song’s sense of disorientation as does Earl’s slurred delivery. As the sample is looped ad infinitum, one feels the dreadful dissonance that Earl must experience on the daily — his inability to be happy, despite sensing that he should be. The chop from “Girl Blue” consequently couldn’t be more apt: “Your happiness is due / But still they last, there in your past / Events that make you blue.” The samples, Earl’s flows, and the short tracks on Some Rap Songs bring to mind other albums, from Madvillain’s Madvillainy to Count Bass D’s Dwight Spitz to MIKE’s May God Bless Your Hustle. But none accomplish the same feat that this album does: Through 15 tracks in 24 minutes, Earl captures the bleak but true-to-life mental state of depression. Joshua Minsoo Kim


44. The most socially conscious album maybe of JAY-Z’s career came at a time when rap’s premiere elder statesman and formerly welcome guest at the White House was there to anticipate 2017’s most urgent theme: how the court of public opinion overturned the cultural regression of the 2016 election by finally waking up to, and confronting the, realties of bigotry, misogyny, intolerance, and hate. But that’s only half the story, because 4:44 is also a response to Jay’s wife and fellow White House exile, Beyoncé, whose 2016 album Lemonade publicly pilloried him for infidelity. The twinned purposes of a political and personal manifesto lead to an outpouring of knowledge, whether it be the suggestion that the best way for successful black people to escape the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism is by investing in the future of their community, and their family, or the dedications to women in Jay’s life, including his closeted mother, the wife he knows he wronged, and the daughter he’ll one day have to explain his actions to. It all ends with “Legacy,” and a universal message: The desire to see beyond the present troubles and plan for what’s next. Mac


43. Ghosteen is an album of hauntings, both in its feet-fully-planted confrontation of unraveling grief and in its shifting depiction of the messy impenetrability and capriciousness of one’s mind under such circumstances. This latest record from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is emotionally girded by the death of the singer’s son in 2015, his familiar ruminations on mortality underscored by a newfound mistrust in his own ability to cognize experience. Across eleven exorcistic tracks, Cave alternates between exercising faithfulness and lapsing into faithlessness; he is, by turns, re-formed and riven. Ghosteen is an elegy and a prayer, and Cave’s usual, disparate sonic components are here distilled into something more symphonious than before. Spectral harmonies and synthetic textures imbue this album with a sense of perpetuity, each orchestral lament flowing into the next, a piano’s melancholic twinkling establishing melody beneath the whelming, ethereal gauze. The singer’s recognizable and guttural baritone is frequently upset by his abraded falsetto throughout Ghosteen, and both work to enrich the text being orated — establishing Cave’s voice as that of a man warring, in real time, for possession of the self. Gorham


42. With his third mixtape, Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper offered up a smorgasbord of styles, from the sweaty R&B crooning on “Juke Jam” to the melancholy synth-and-trap of “Summer Friends” to the propulsive and speedy beat of “All Night.” Outside of a number of gospel-inspired tracks, few of the songs here inform each other aurally, instead relying on Chance’s freeform interpretations of theme (and his dense metaphors) to bind them. Whether Chance is riffing on Peter Pan in his piano-laced ballad of young love (“Same Drugs”) or he’s waxing poetic on blunt-smoking as allegory for some much-needed TLC in a relationship (“Smoke Break”), his lyrics are consistently surprising and insightful, a far cry from the more freewheeling concerns of his first two tapes. Releasing his album the same year, Kanye West described The Life of Pablo as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it,” but it’s actually Coloring Book that comes closest to embodying that description. A deeply personal album, preoccupied with questions of God, humanity, the past, and the future, this is Chance the Rapper’s singularly panoramic look at the world through his own eyes, both intimate and epic, hopeful and melancholy. Gorham


41. Biting an album-length concept from Prince Paul, pivoting on a brief instrumental from a Sufjan Stevens album, you wouldn’t think Undun would be the best album by The Roots this decade, but that’s what it is. Synthesizing the concise song-craft of their 2011 midlife manifesto, How I Got Over, with the avant-weird ambitions of 2002’s Phrenology (there’s a gorgeous, four-part instrumental coda), this is the record that the Roots’ had been working toward for the entirety of their long, vital career. And it makes quick work of the concept-album-as-tedious-bore concern, fashioning less a coherent narrative (though there is that: fictional Redford Stevens loses his life while he’s on the hustle and his spirit journeys back to reflect on mistakes that got him there) than an impressionistic collection of gritty narrative details. Drummer Questlove’s production instincts are as impeccable as ever, but it’s frontman Black Thought who steals this one, mining personal and cultural tragedies to create one of the least encumbered, most affecting concept records in hip-hop history. Mac


40. What Abel Tesfaye accomplished on House of Balloons — the first widely available project that he released under his moniker, The Weeknd — is an honest lyrical and sonic portrait of disaffection. The infusion of R&B with the estrangement and dissatisfying hedonism that’s become a tired and poorly executed staple of so much indie-rock, here, works in the Weeknd’s favor; House of Balloons is both carnal and eerie, a portrait of the on-the-edge growing pains of a preternaturally insightful singer. Indebted both to mainstream American R&B and Canadian indie-pop, Tesfaye’s salvo still sounds like something wholly original, despite — or maybe because of — the transparency of its influences. Like Frank Ocean’s work around this same time, the Weeknd brought a much-needed and human confessionalism, but also a darker edge, distinguishing himself from the mainstream of the R&B genre. This is cynical balladry, something like a hesitant romanticism, both an embrace and a rebuke of the familiar sonic textures and lyrical themes from which House of Balloons has wrung its originality. Gorham


39. It’s difficult to think of Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid being imagined and executed as only an album, instead of a composition for something like a Broadway musical or film. It’s too cinematic in its scope, too ambitious in its vision and simply too bizarre to be effectively understood and contained within an album (or two; we first heard part of this tale on her debut EP). That said, while Monáe’s futuristic, dystopian story of android love is a lot to wrap your mind around, each of the songs are so well crafted and the entire experience so much fun that you can enjoy the album no matter how much time you choose to devote to unraveling its unwieldy concept. This is genre-melding pop music at its best, a 70-minute opus with stunners spanning an impressive range, from the vigorously funky “Tightrope” to the smooth and sexy “Neon Valley Street.” Monáe’s energy is infectious and her talents undeniable; and this grand debut fittingly announced that she would continue to operate without any limitations in mind. Nowling


38. Big Fish Theory kind of saved Vince Staples. The rapper’s previous albums had carried with them the mark of technical proficiency and hard-edged perspective, but they felt restrained and conservative in their execution. Big Fish Theory positioned itself as a repudiation of the idea that Staples could be boxed in as a guy keeping a certain tradition of rap alive. Out went No I.D. and in came the likes of Sophie, Flume, Justin Vernon, etc. Staples found a new freedom in this form that allowed him to expand upon his persona and messaging, moving away from his perfected mode (murky threats and slanderous boasts) and into a space where his knack for conceiving of punchy mantras could be used to create a new kind of pop anthem. Where Staples may have previously found himself to be a cog in some creaky machine, Big Fish Theory finds him retooling it entirely. This may be the first time that we saw the full dimension of Staples’s personality on display in his music. These songs are catchy, shiny pop creations, but they are guided by a venomous humor and sense of political urgency, both of which inform and contrast each other across the album, culminating in “BagBak” — the album’s central anthem and thesis statement, a song that demands a rejection of traditional authority and stresses the need for collective ascendency. Big Fish Theory takes the idea of the artist ‘doing something new’ very very literally; its approach is born from an optimism and curiosity, two traits that define the whole album. M.G. Mailloux


37. It’s difficult for a generation of younger rap fans to understand the importance of a figure like P. Diddy, as the concept of the hip-hop mogul continues to fade into irrelevance. Puff just isn’t a man made for these times; a rapper seemingly out of his element and a producer whose most prominent collaborator was taken from him nearly 20 years ago. If there’s anyone who understands this, it’s Sean Combs himself: his last solo studio album was released in 2006, which means he knows nobody in their right mind is waiting for No Way Out 2. Thankfully, a Diddy follow-up isn’t really needed anyway: we can just say he already bid the listening public a fond farewell with Last Train to Paris. The album, which is actually credited to Diddy – Dirty Money (a duo comprising Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper), is a hip-hop blockbuster of the highest order, one that casually throws an unused Notorious B.I.G. verse onto a song with Rick Ross (while also sampling Jay-Z’s “Where I’m From”). Diddy kissed the era of larger-than-life East Coast exuberance goodbye, and attempted to bridge the gap between generations, a gambit that reaches its operatic peak with “Coming Home”: “What am I supposed to do when the club lights come on / It’s easy to be Puff, but it’s harder to be Sean / What if my twins ask why I ain’t married their mom?” Diddy fully embraces sentimentality, tackling fatherhood and owning up to personal demons. InRO’s Ryo Miyauchi puts it best: Last Train to Paris is Diddy’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Attard


36. Born of a collaboration with Pop Midas Jack Antonoff, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! represents the artist’s new peak: as a poet, an intellectual, and a self-aware American. Tapping into the history of her nation, Lana creates a subdued singer-songwriter album that captures our present moment, something akin to a Laurel Canyon masterwork. As she looks around, Lana struggles to find rebels and revolutionaries: “Kanye’s blond and gone,” she laments on “The Greatest,” an anthemic eulogy to American culture seemingly meant to be sung on top of dive bar tables. The situation is bleak: on “California,” a lover — surely some All-American combination of Elvis, Miles Davis, and Father John Misty — has fled the country. So, naturally, Lana turns back time to look for genius, finding Sylvia Plath, the Beach Boys, Sublime, and Crosby, Stills and Nash as sources of inspiration. And yet, Norman Fucking Rockwell! always feels like it’s propelling its own, contemporary cultural movement — a new school of thinking and art-making, shared among like-minded individuals that’ll help define the crossroads at which, as a nation, we find ourselves. This is a collection of songs that feel big enough to last forever. Stechnij


35. One of the decade’s most poignant singer/songwriter records was made by a husband-wife folk duo from Ohio who spent more than two decades working the roads, playing their asses off every night, and making one beautiful album after another before finally releasing this haunted meditation on dashed dreams and faded glory. Songs about the rock-and-roll life can seem insular and unrelatable, but The Long Surrender redeems them into a prayerful, candid, and funny song cycle about the possibility of grace. “Rave On” swaps tour-bus glamour for the concrete realities of obeying a calling, giving yourself away to a mission even when you can’t see its fruit. “Infamous Love Song” retells the history of the band as a winking, Leonard Cohen-style epic, testifying to the grind and churn required to make love and revelation tangible options. At every turn, this album groans with the weight of experience and sparkles with the flash of earned wisdom: It is the masterwork from unsung masters, and feels like a consolidation of everything they do well. Joe Henry, producer of many of the decade’s best-sounding albums, provides Over the Rhine with boon accompaniment and guides them through moments of mystic swirl and acoustic clarity. All of it pinnacles in “All My Favorite People,” a hymn of solidarity to anyone who’s ever felt beat-up, spit-out, or badly broken. The Long Surrender captures everything this band does well; it works as both a summation of their career and an invitation to the uninitiated. Hurst


34. The opening tracks off Nas’s Nasir make declarations about the present, even while sounding as though they’re about the past. There is little to suggest that the problems of the past have been resolved in the present, and so a track like “Cops Shot the Kid” obviously remains relevant — even though it might seem like Nas is repeating himself. But staying stuck in the past may be the point as well. In the present, Nas would need to respond to allegations of abuse made against him by his ex-wife, Kelis Rogers — which he does not do on Nasir, and that, for many, might make an attempt at engaging with a wholly contemporary reality feel unearned. But at the same time, qualifying a work like Nasir, in that way, tends to make it more difficult to engage with some of its legitimately important ideas. In truth, the genius of this album can coexist with the narrative of an artist who was given a chance and blew it. And the work can speak for itself to some extent — because tracks like “Not for Radio,” “Everything,” and “Adam and Eve” have more in common with Nasir producer Kanye West’s “New Slaves” then they do with the old Nas, and speak to the truth of how systematic, racialized abuse has not disappeared but rather has become even more normalized. Nas’s distrust of institutions can get muddled — the Old Nas returns on “Everything” for an anti-immunization lyric — but the rapper’s status as one of the great poets and storytellers of hip-hop is unchanged. And there is poetry to a juxtaposition that sees systematic abuse in a continuum with the first time a child experiences pain — a profound juxtaposition, actually, suggesting that abuse has become so normalized that it’s natural. Which is why a song like “Everything,” with its chorus declaring the need for a complete reclamation of the world, feels so necessary. Neil Bahadur


33. Every Fiona Apple album is a gift, its own little miracle. Compactly presenting a confessional perfectionist’s most perfect confessions, 2012’s The Idler Wheel… is, perhaps, Apple’s most generous offering in a discography marked by emotional nakedness. There’s not a song here that doesn’t have something that inspires awe, like the lyrical intimacy of “Valentine” (“While you were watchin’ someone else / I stared at you and cut myself”), the percussive field recordings woven into “Johnathan,” or the sheer audacity of the album’s timpani-heavy closer “Hot Knife.” This is a record that sounds off-the-cuff, constantly veering in unexpected directions before settling into a sound. But also one that never takes a false step. That’s partly because Apple doesn’t apply pretenses to her gritty and embarrassing memories and stories: Her ever-clear enunciation helps her poetry soar, as she exercises the entire range of her vocal, at times half-speaking, yodelling, belting a chorus in her head voice, or luxuriating in a natural alto. The Idler Wheel… is musical theater and Fiona is a fearless leader. And as each of her albums have taken longer than the one that preceded to materialize, it’s hard not to imagine what new talents and twists she’s conjured up for her fifth (which is allegedly due very soon). Stechnij


32. Following XXX, rap’s landscape shifted quickly and dramatically. The mixtape dropped in 2012 as a free release via A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold, a label which had already spent a few years assembling a roster of clouty, irreverent rap and electronic artists — all of whom’s aesthetics were synthesized on XXX. Danny Brown brings a cool, libertine edge to the usually nerdy world of “alternative hip hop,” and thus a bigger audience. Less than a decade later, the rapper already seems like a veteran, his aesthetic dependable and refined, the likes of Q-Tip lining up to produce for him. The work Brown’s produced in the relatively short period since his breakthrough looms large, a special body of work that exists in a few different spheres of rap relevancy — and XXX remains the tightest collection for showcasing those versatile skills and proclivities. The songs are characterized by a sort of deconstructionist ethos, Brown pitting his elegant, sure-footed flow against minimal, non-intuitive beats which slam together at odd angles. The energy is manic, aggressively so — even before factoring Danny’s yelping vocal delivery into the equation. But unlike later projects, on which Brown would often more explicitly try to unnerve his listers, XXX is at least comparatively more straightforward, a rap party album as remixed for the adderall age. Many subsequent albums would in fact be bigger releases for Brown, but XXX is testement that the vision was always there. Mailloux


31. On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde‘s attempts at detachment too often — instead — resulted in a tone of unchecked cynicism. While that perspective might have been familiar to those of us who recall the angst of our teenage years, it also made for an album that was difficult to fully embrace at times. For her sophomore effort, Lorde refined her point of view with an uncanny precision: There isn’t a turn-of-phrase on Melodrama that scans as an over-reach or a wild lashing-out. Whether she’s romanticizing the kind of reckless early death that can be turned into a generational cautionary tale or urban legend (“Homemade Dynamite,” which should have been one of the year’s biggest pop hits), or taking a more sardonic approach to immortality (“The Louvre”), Lorde’s lines cut like the sharpest of scalpels, and her bitterness and sarcasm never once feel unearned here. Jonathan Keefe


30. The Blade opens with a fake-out of optimism (the Robyn by-way-of-’80s-Dolly-Parton “On to Something Good”), then promptly burrows into the firmament for the remainder of its wondrous song cycle, suggesting why that optimism is necessary to make it through the day but also why it’s ultimately misplaced. Ashley Monroe chooses to embrace vice because she knows that each leaves behind a scar that makes for one hell of a story and that renders nerve endings permanently numbed. The central metaphor of the title track astonishes for its clarity, and Monroe is no less clear-eyed on “I Buried Your Love Alive” or the devastating “Mayflowers.” As country music’s gender politics managed to get even more gross than usual, the most unabashedly feminist album to come out of Nashville since Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend felt all the more vital. Keefe


29. Future only attained his status as trap’s most chauvinistic degenerate at around the halfway mark of the last decade — before 2015’s DS2, he was known, if at all, for different reasons. Future’s debut album, 2012’s Pluto, was at first a flop, but it had hits; and then his second album, 2014’s Honest, also flopped, and produced fewer hits. It’s easy to see why Nayvadius would wish to ignore this chapter and just stick with the current narrative that the record labels were “tryna make me a pop star and they made a monster.” But if we’re being terribly (ugh) honest, rarely have Future’s talents as an artist lined up more consistently than when he embraced his pop sensibilities on Honest. There’s a little something for everyone here, giving the Freebandz President the needed room to stretch his artistry: you got the posse cut (“Move That Dope”) where every featured artist (Pusha-T, Pharell, and Casino) serves a well-defined purpose that’s organic to the energy of Mike Will Made-It’s pulsating production; the aggressive bangers (“My Momma” and “Covered N Money”) that feature some of the most dynamic rapping of Future’s career; the punk rock-crossover (“Sh!t”) that would make Lil Wayne blush; and of course, most importantly, the love songs (“I Be U,” “I Won,” and “Side Effects”) which are so pathos driven that they’re almost startling compared to the more misanthropic tendencies exercised in almost all of the man’s recent output. Attard


28. Deafheaven wasn’t the metal group we deserved, but the one we needed: after a decade of embarrassing turns from the genre’s most accomplished pioneers (Metallica’s St. Anger, Judas Priest’s Demolition, Ozzy Osbourn’s Black Rain, the list goes on…) some new blood was a necessity. While the whole post-metal thing had been tried and done before, with acts like Isis and Godflesh, rarely did those groups ever lean into the emotional intensity that Geroge Clark and Co. were consistently supply on their breakout album, Sunbather. Genre purists and gatekeepers were initially displeased: how can the poster boys for metal’s ‘new’ direction not wish to conform to its soundscapes and conventions? From the opening seconds of “Dream House” — which eventually explodes into a titanic fury of volatile percussion — to the slow fade-out of the massive “The Pecan Tree,” Deafheaven could certainly be accused of needing to tone it the fuck down a couple of notches. But then there’s the brief moment of “Dream House” where things get really quiet: a sole electric guitar plays the track’s basic melody, Clark’s screaming ceasing entirely. It’s serenity, the calm before the storm; and then, again, the song then practically bursts into a force of pure sonic abrasion. It takes three minutes of winding down (“Irresistible”) to come off of the hysteria, to properly take in what’s just transpired. Then the title track kicks in, and it’s like nothing has even happened. If that isn’t metal as fuck, I don’t know what is. Attard


27. Intensely original and inscrutable, Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 debut wasn’t without precedent. Brief, mostly vocal glimpses of jazz-rap influences like De La Soul and Shabazz emcee Ishmael Butler’s own Digable Planets remind us of a genre history, all the while resolutely progressing hip-hop with each passing minute. Looping, layered, always moody, the production on Black Up is as magnetic as that of any alt-rap album. Butler, however, is the real star, his flow effortless and playful, alternating between nimble cooperation with the beats and all-out domination of them; his often enigmatic pontificating always resonates thanks to his proclivity for recurring maxims. Butler’s deeply humanist themes and this album’s droning, near-robotic production balance each other out to perfect effect, and every repeated mantra and synthetic drum kick still sound like a hip-hop of the future. Gorham


26. What Bon Iver accomplishes with 22, a Million is a feeling of organic terminus: tendrils of the album reach back through time and reframe Justin Vernon’s first two efforts with this band as evolutionary snapshots, a context that allows for a feat few folk artists in recent memory have managed. Vernon here completes a transition from fragile acoustic strumming (2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago) to an exploratory formlessness—song structures are fragmented, his ethereal falsetto further warped. The music’s concern for chaos is mirrored in the lyrics: Vernon has always preferred impressionistic catharsis to exegesis, and his yearnings on 22 are predominantly existential. Songs layer musings on religion and relationships with questions of permanence and purpose, from the digitized crooning of the album’s opening track (“it might be over soon…”) to the Fionn Regan sample of its closer (“the days have no numbers”). Gorham

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