Top Ten Albums of 2019, So Far…

2019 is halfway over! Let’s take a look back at some of the best music we’ve already heard this year!

10. Little SimzGREY Area

With the endorsement of genre icons like Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar, Little Simz has long been one of the most exciting up and comers in all of rap music. On GREY Area, she finally finds her potential in a very real way. Tracks like “Boss,” and “Selfish,” defy the gender stereotypes inherent in much rap music by bringing explosive attitude and bombastic flow to every bar. Her complex schemes and enthralling storytelling give this album a ton of replay value beyond the initial punch each cut delivers.

Beyond Simz herself, the instrumentals carry on much the jazzy influences of her earlier work, but filtered through elements of trap and East Coast boom-bap. GREY Area fixes nearly every short coming of earlier albums while diving into new, more daring sounds. Perhaps most importantly, this LP will leave listeners with a growing since of excitement for the upcoming career of one of the most the impressive artists in all of rap music.

9. Billie EilishWHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Yet another promising young star who hadn’t quite found her stride yet, Billie Eilish was finally able to merge her dark, unnerving reputation with a genuinely strong sound on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Cuts like “Bad Guy,” and “Bury a Friend,” have been smash hits and catapulted Eilish into the cultural zeitgeist. This newfound attention is entirely deserved too, as this is one of the more unique and groundbreaking releases in modern pop music.

Her vocal performances are quite strong, as are her lyrics, but the true breakthrough here comes in the instrumentation and production. The bass-heavy mixes broke with current trends of bright, upbeat styles. Instead, several tracks are nocturnal and daring to the point of being scary with bizarre vocal layering and effects building on this quite effectively. I do have my complaints, particularly on the technical side of the production, but this album is nearly as groundbreaking as the artist behind it, and for that, it must be mentioned among the best of the year.

8. American FootballLP 3

American Football has one of the strangest histories in all of music. The math rock/shoegaze four piece debuted in 1999 with a self-titled LP that is, to this day, one of the most respected works in all of the midwestern emo scene. They then disappeared for 17 years before returning in 2016. This year saw the release of their third LP, a much more matured version of the swirling, technical style which made their debut such a classic. Tracks like “Uncomfortably Numb,” and “Doom In Full Bloom,” have been regular listens since I first heard them and nearly every cut has something to offer.

With LP 3, American Football revisited much of the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. Spacey guitars are layered five and six times over and they use the simple bones of their songs to build a truly engrossing experience on nearly every song. The album has been criticized as bland by many, and while I understand where that comes from, I would say that it rather gives a listener the opportunity to find the bright points themselves. LP 3 is a gentle storm of complex guitars and vocals and a must hear for fans of the once great midwestern emo scene.

7. DefeaterDefeater

Defeater is a hardcore band from New Jersey who’s every release since 2008 has followed the same storyline of a struggling family in 1940’s America. This self-titled entry is the fifth in the saga and it is just as brutal and heartfelt as ever. The band’s ability to find compelling melody among constant, crushing instrumentation sets them apart from many of their hardcore contemporaries and makes what would normally be a difficult listen quite palatable even to casual fans.

Defeater doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking on this album and, in fact,  retreads the sound that was much more popular about a decade ago, but the charm comes in the tight, thrashing performances from every single member. The drums on a track like “Atheists in Foxholes,” or the vocals on “List & Heel,” are absolutely fantastic but they still stand on overall well written parts from every member. All in all, Defeater is a brutal but perfectly paced entry into a fascinating storyline which continues to deliver excellent moments.

6. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

A long time rap star and founding member of the rap group, Loiter Squad, Tyler has been known as a fowl mouthed, punk rapper since his debut 2011. That all changed with 2017’s Flower Boy in which Tyler came out as bisexual in addition to crafting a genuinely impressive exploration of sexuality, masculinity, and the culture around him. IGOR continues many of these themes, telling the story of Tyler learning to get over a bad relationship and grow as a person.

Sonically, IGOR is bizarre to say the least. In my review, I referred to this style as “industrial Motown,” and to some extent, I think that’s still the best way to describe it. Songs like “EARFQUAKE,” and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” are groovy and danceable, but also feature a bass-heavy, abrasive production style that is just fascinating. This, paired with excellent lyricism and a manic pacing that never lets a listener stop to breath, makes for one of the most interesting projects of the year thus far.

5. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived and it was largely perfect. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.

Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.

4. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.

The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet means that there’s a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.

3. Ariana Grandethank u, next

Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana writes heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other tracks like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly a highlight, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and a nocturnal fog drenched over everything. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today.

2. Todd SniderCash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.

As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
  • ZUU – Denzel Curry
  • Front Porch – Joy Williams
  • Social Cues – Cage the Elephant
  • Dedicated – Carly Rae Jepsen

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. Xiu XiuGirl with Basket of Fruit

At first, I wasn’t sold on placing this album at number one. Admittedly, I haven’t found myself revisiting this record nearly as much as others on this list, but, on the other hand, there isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter.

Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the album itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Top Ten Gaither Vocal Band Songs!!

The Gaither Vocal Band is one of the most iconic group’s in music history, with a career spanning nearly 40 years. Here’s my attempt at narrowing down my top ten songs!

10. I’ll Fly Away (1932)

This is very obviously not an original Gaither piece, which is something that has disqualified many other possible entries to this list. Originally written by Albert Brumley in 1929 and published in ’32, “I’ll Fly Away,” has been a favorite of gospel and country singers for nearly one hundred years. That being said, The Gaithers have put an excellent spin on the old classic more than a few times, and David Phelps’ jaw dropping verse is enough to earn it a spot on this list.

9. Mary Did You Know (1984)

Perhaps the biggest crossover hit in the Gaithers’ catalog, Mark Lowry’s Christmas masterpiece is a yearly favorite in church services across the country. Unlike the majority of Gaither tracks, “Mary Did You Know,” is primarily lyric driven. That being said, the power that blasts through each and every chorus, particularly when David Phelps’ awe-inspiring tenor is present, can’t be denied. It’s only held back by the fact that it is much more a Mark Lowry track than a Gaither track.

8. Give It Away (2006)

A quintessential piece of mid-2000’s gospel, “Give It Away,” is one of many Gaither cuts which are driven and highlighted by booming bass and baritone parts. Featuring Guy Penrod’s smooth baritone over impressively rhythmic drum lines, the song is a testament to the group’s timeless sound and ability to meld technically remarkable harmonies with fun lyrics and instrumentals.

7. These Are They (2003)

For my money, there is no more incredible member in the Gaithers’ long history than David Phelps. His unfathomable range and otherworldly power and control stands among some of history’s greatest vocalists and though his abilities can sometimes be overused by the group, perhaps his best showing during his tenure is his lead on “These Are They.” He performs each verse with an incredibly expressive tone and his wailing finish is simply breathtaking.

6. A Few Good Men (1991)

One of the older cuts on this list, “A Few Good Men,” is based on the US Marine Slogan, and is one of the better lyrical works in the Gaither collection. The track’s best quality is the sheer wealth of parts available as it is a perennial choice for performances which feature large numbers of former and current vocal band members. It’s often used as an occasion to celebrate the long and impressive history of the group, and for that reason, it simply can’t be left off the list.

5. Alpha and Omega (2002)

Another classic track in the group’s long career, “Alpha and Omega,” borrows several elements from classic gospel hymns, not the least of which the lyrical style. While the instrumental is a bit stale, the vocal work on this track is undeniable. It’s far tighter than most, with much of the verse sung in unison with a few break away tenor lines here and there. The chorus its the most memorable section of the piece though, a perfectly woven four part with a tenor line for the ages.

4. The Old Rugged Cross (1912)

Another classic even older than the Gaithers themselves, “The Old Rugged Cross,” written in 1912, is as central to the cannon and culture of Baptist Christianity as any other piece of art. It would follow, then, that one of the most iconic and moving versions of this hymn was recorded by The Gaither Vocal Band. While the tenor lines are soft and flashy on this cut, in classic Baptist fashion, it’s the thunderous bass vocals which anchor the spacious harmonies and drive the track along.

3. Because He Lives (1999)

Perhaps one of the most iconic tracks in the Gaithers’ catalog, “Because He Lives,” is a classic gospel hymn if ever one was written. Lyrically, it has a poetic power that few other tracks can achieve and the brass section carries an explosive style that crescendos to a fever pitch in the final chorus. Of course, the harmonies are air tight and each vocal performance is excellent, but this is one of the few Gaither cuts which is as defined by it’s instrumentation as it’s vocals.

2. He Touched Me (1963)

One of Bill Gaither’s many long lasting contributions to the greater Baptist cannon, “He Touched Me” has been covered by everyone from Lawrence Welk to Elvis. However, there’s no beating the original. The song bares many of the classic marks of a hymn from the evangelical boom of the 60’s and 70’s, including soaring tenors and a sort of bombastic waltz timing, but it stands somewhat outside of time in it’s ability to wow virtually all ages of gospel fans. Add on some excellent lyrics, a timeless opening verse, and excellent backing instrumentation, and “He Touched Me,” only narrowly misses the top spot on this list.

***HONORABLE MENTIONS***

  • Rumormill
  • I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary
  • You Are My All in All
  • Sometimes it Takes A Mountain
  • Loving God, Loving Each Other
  • Let Freedom Ring

***HONORABLE MENTIONS***

1.I Bowed On My Knees (1984)

With a career spanning more than 30 studio albums and nearly 40 years, The Gaither Vocal Band is the single most iconic Southern Gospel group in history, and there is perhaps no better example of why than Michael English’s 1984 classic, “I Bowed on My Knees.” A lyrical trip to heaven, the song blends perfectly the prescient awe of heaven itself with the long-lasting majesty and history of the Christian faith. Most importantly, though, the song feels almost regal with a bombastic horns and commanding drums. The final moments are some of the most powerful in music history and the final repetitions of the chorus are nothing if not pure, musical perfection and a testament to just how much the Southern Gospel genre has to offer.

Billie Eilish Debuts With a Dark but Fun LP

WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Is a mostly well executed debut for a very exciting young artist who could easily go on to be something truly transformative for pop music.

Billie Eilish is pop singer/songwriter from Los Angeles. Her meteoric rise to fame has become something of a phenomena. Her 2016 debut single, “Ocean Eyes,” was certified platinum quickly after it’s release and left fans immediately clamoring for more, which Billie delivered. The track found it’s way onto her first EP, Don’t Smile At Me which is certified gold and peaked at number one on the US alternative charts. By 2018, she was opening for Florence + The Machine before headlining her own massive tour the same year. With a multitude of music videos and a remarkably consistent aesthetic throughout, Billie is able to appeal at once to fans of alternative and mainstream pop, and her music itself, while fairly accessible, incorporates more than a few unique, experimental elements. After rising to the top of the industry in just a couple years, she’s finally released her first full length LP, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Unlike most modern pop stars, Billie’s music certainly doesn’t live and die by her vocal performance. She does, however, have a few strong showings on this album. On cuts like the softer, “when the party’s over,” or the melodic “wish you were gay,” Eilish’s breathy, haunting lead is an invaluable asset to the arrangement. Overall, while Billie is still certainly not known as a pop powerhouse on the level of an Ariana Grande, she adds to the album in a very unique way.

One can also not discount the value of the aesthetic she has so carefully crafted and continues to grow on this project. The dark but rhythmic flow on the album’s opener and best track, “bad guy,” makes her feel genuinely otherworldly while her lyrics on “all the good girls go to hell,” layered over the chiming church bells and bouncing pianos are almost enigmatic. Over her fairly short career, she’s built what amounts to a fascinating character which bleeds through every second of this album.

This all being said, the true star of this project is Billie’s brother, Finneas, who carries co-writing and production duties on every cut. While I can nitpick a few of the technical aspects of his work, there’s no denying the creative and daring style he holds to. I find myself especially impressed by his willingness to use fairly abrasive sound pallets like the reedy screeches on “bury a friend,” the almost terrifying effects on Billies voice in “8,” or the jarring, twisted keys on “ilomilo,” a track which is entirely saved by great production. Of course, this isn’t a Death Grips record, but for a mainstream pop album, the pallet is quite daring.

Beyond this, his manic energy and meticulous stereo images are absolutely engulfing. The mix of the very clean bass guitar and jazz inspirations with unpredictable vocal effects on “xanny,” makes it one of the strongest tracks on the list, not to mention the wonderful harmonies near the end which also adorn nearly all of the closer, “goodbye,” quite successfully. And of course, the repeated sound bites from The Office on “my strange addiction,” are irresistibly hilarious.

There are a few downfalls on the album however. Most of these pitfalls are due to weaknesses in the fundamentals of the music, namely uninventive lyrics and unimpressive vocals. This is hidden when the full creativity of Billie or Finneas is on display, but that’s not always the case. “you should see me in a crown,” for example, comes off as a fairly bland piece of trap pop, while “listen before i go,” and “i love you,” are back to back snoozers only saved by a strong closer. Essentially, when the production and arrangement is stripped back, the album falters, and while that will likely change as Eilish gains more experience, she does pretty well to avoid that position for the majority of the runtime.

All said, this is a very strong debut outing for Billie. It’s by no means perfect, and at times her lack of experience does shine through, but it’s a fun piece of nocturnal pop that brings something a bit more daring to the mainstream.

WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Is a mostly well executed debut for a very exciting young artist who could easily go on to be something truly transformative for pop music.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Valentines Day Special: My Five Favorite Love Songs

DISCLAIMER: These are my favorite love songs, not “the best love songs of all time.” There’s been hundreds of thousands of love songs written, and I won’t even attempt to rank them.

Journey“Faithfully”

One of the most famous rock bands of all time, Journey brought stadium rock roaring into the mainstream in the late 1970’s. Their eighth studio album, Frontiers went six times platinum in 1983 and is considered a rock n’ roll classic. Of the many fantastic cuts on the album is the grade school dance anthem of the early 80’s, “Faithfully.”

Rumored to have been written on a paper napkin while riding in a tour bus, the track chronicles the struggles of being on the road and leaving a significant other at home. The lyrics are simple, but well written but it’s Steve Perry’s iconic lead vocal and the anthemic instrumentation that makes the track what it is. It’s one of the most singable rock songs of all time and an undeniable classic.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit“If We Were Vampires”

Leave it to Jason Isbell to take something like love and use it to make us all sad. “If We Were Vampires,” comes from his third and best studio album with his 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. He’s joined by his wife and fellow americana songwriter, Amanda Shires, on harmony and Jason’s simple guitar is the song’s only instrumentation.

Lyrically, the track is a brilliant exploration of love as an idea, what it means, and what gives it that meaning. He speaks on the sadness of knowing that his life will one day end, as will his wife’s, and yet he understands that it is this very fact, that of having an end in sight, that gives love its meaning. Jason has chosen to spend what limited time he has here loving his wife. It’s one of the best pieces of lyricism of all time and a starkly beautiful message on the meaning of love.

Adam Sandler“Grow Old with You”

In contrast to the unique and nuanced lyricism of many tracks on this list, “Grow Old with You,” is nothing if not simple. The musical climax of Sandler’s 1998 rom-com classic, the short and sweet track features only an acoustic guitar and Sandler’s surprisingly heartfelt vocals. In the movie, the song is sung to Drew Barrymore on a plane and features an enjoyable cameo from Billy Idol, but much of the appeal of the song comes from its universality.

At its core, the song is meant to be a promise of a good life. One by one, Adam Sandler rattles off all the little things he can do to make a life spent with him even better, from “let me do the dishes in our kitchen sink,” to “even let you hold the remote control.” Its simple but meaningful in the sense that it recognizes something about love that other songs don’t. While tracks like Journey’s “Faithfully,” wax poetic about the power of love, “Grow Old with You,” understands that a relationship is a collection of little moments and it sweetly promises to make each one of those little moments joyful.

Extreme“More Than Words”

One of the most underrated bands of the early 1990’s, Extreme is traditionally a hard rock/hair metal band from Boston. While the entirety of their early catalog is excellent, their 1990 sophomore release, Pornographiti is an absolute classic. In the center of a glamorous, thrashing record, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt switches to an acoustic guitar and out comes the band’s biggest hit, “More Than Words.”

The song is fairly simple, focusing on the inability of the classic three words to express the complexities of love itself. Instead, our protagonist asks his love to express her feelings physically rather than through words alone. While the concept is rather cliche’d, it’s the smooth performance from vocalist Gary Cherone and Bettencourt’s incredible guitar abilities that set this song apart and make it one of my favorite love songs of all time.

Cast of Moulin Rouge“Your Song”

A massive hit from Elton John’s self-titled second album, “Your Song,” was already engrained in American culture as a great love song when it was chosen as a centerpiece track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox musical, Moulin Rouge. Elton’s version is a classic as is, but for my personal taste, I think the Moulin Rouge ensemble adds a certain breadth to what was a very stripped back song in the beginning.

The full orchestra backing this version helps quite bit as the string section is plays sweetly and gently and the overwhelming power of a full orchestra is able to bring the track to an almost overwhelming climax. Over this very impressive instrumental, Ewan McGregor give a shockingly powerful performance with his lack of musical experience aiding him in finding a clean and very technical sound which expresses his character quite well. Ultimately, Moulin Rouge is a wonderfully indulgent film and this track is one of it’s most enjoyable moments.

The Five Worst Album of the Year Snubs in Grammy History

If 1992 doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know who you are!

1959

Should’ve Won: Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely – Frank Sinatra

Winner: The Music From Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini

The very first album of the year award was given in 1959, which means that Sinatra’s true masterpiece, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours, was never eligible. Luckily, his 1959 classic was at least nominated, but sadly lost the award to Henry Mancini. While Mancini’s record was a better than average soundtrack that included an iconic main theme, it simply doesn’t compare to Sinatra’s emotional classic.

For Only the Lonely is a strong contender for the second best entry into Sinatra’s legendary catalog, sporting a multitude of excellent tracks and great performances from ‘Ole Blue Eyes across the run time. “Angel Eyes,” is one of the best tracks in his career and throughout the entire record, Frank is at his absolute best. Above all this, while Mancini is no slouch in music history, hindsight has shown that the pedigree of Frank Sinatra would’ve been the perfect starting point for music’s most prestigious annual award.

1970

Should’ve Won: Abby Road – The Beatles

Winner: Blood, Sweat, & Tears – Blood, Sweat, & Tears

If ever one needed proof of the Grammys’ fallibility, it can be found in 1970’s award for Best Album. This wasn’t the first Grammys snub that the Fab Four had suffered as their 1967 classic, Revolver was beat out by a lesser release from Frank Sinatra, but this is quite different. Where The Beatles were only just getting started in ’67, no hindsight was needed to understand the importance of Abbey Road which came at the end of the most celebrated and influential careers in music history that had kickstarted the British Invasion and forged rock music into existence.

You could be forgiven, on the other hand, for not knowing the album that won 1970’s award. Blood, Sweat, & Tears was the sophomore album for the jazz rock band of the same name. It went quadruple platinum and was exceptionally well received upon release, but it hasn’t aged all that well, and today just sounds like a fairly well performed jazz rock record. It isn’t the worst choice for album of the year, but with the rock and roll movement in full swing, there’s simply no excuse for the Grammys to miss such an important record.

1974

Should’ve Won: The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

Winner: Innervisions – Stevie Wonder

Unlike the majority of this list, 1974’s winner is somewhat understandable. This was Stevie Wonder’s first Best Album win, and though he’d go on to win twice more with arguably better projects, Innervisions is no slouch. The instrumentation on this record is excellent and Wonder’s ear for melody and songwriting abilities certainly comes through loud and clear. This would be a perfectly good choice if it weren’t for the album it beat out.

The Dark Side of the Moon is on nearly every list of all time great albums and tops quite a few. While I’ve written extensively about the album from a sonic standpoint, it’s worth noting just how important it is. Often sighted as the moment when Pink Floyd found their footing, Dark Side was the beginning of a run of internationally massive and creatively groundbreaking records that would see Floyd climb to heights that are very rarely reached by musicians. It took an underground psych-rock outfit to the absolute peak of rock superstardom, engraining them in American culture forever. It went on to sell 45 million copies worldwide, putting it in the top five  best selling albums of all time. Worse still, it wasn’t even nominated.

1992

Should’ve Won: Nevermind – Nirvana

Winner: Unforgettable… With Love – Natalie Cole

1991 was one of the most exciting years in music, and especially rock history. Here are just a few high profile releases: Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Use Your Illusion I and II from Gunz n’ Roses, U2’s Achtung Baby, and Metallica’s Black Album. In rap music, we had releases from Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy. In fact, on the exact same day as the release of my choice for this year’s Grammy, Red Hot Chili Peppers released their seminole classic, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The kicker is, not only were all of these albums beat out by Natalie Cole, not a single record I just listed was nominated for best album at 1992’s awards.

Any of those records are absolutely excellent choices for album of the year, but if the Grammys are ostensibly concerned with awarding not only artistic excellence but cultural importance, they missed a big one in September of ’91. Nirvana’s Nevermind, though arguably not their best project, is on the shortlist for the most game changing albums of all time. Coming out of nowhere and released with reasonably low expectations from DGC Records, the album exploded thanks to an incredible reception of the lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While the Grammys could be slightly forgiven had the record been still in the early days of it’s meteoric rise, this was clearly not the case as it had just, a month before the awards, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to top the Billboard charts. Sadly, the Grammys never did catch up on the Grunge movement as only one grunge album, Pearl Jam’s Vitology in ’96, was ever even nominated and none won the award.

2015 

Should’ve Won: To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Winner: 1989 – Taylor Swift

This is the most recent word from the Grammys and it is yet another case of a massively impressive field of choices from which the committee seemed to do their best to make the worst possible choice. While 1989 was successful, it was far from Taylor Swift’s best effort, even at the time as she was coming off of the far superior Red just two years prior. Swift seemed destined for Grammy gold in the years, like it or not, but there was simply no excuse for this snub.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly can only be described as a masterpiece in every since of the word. The storytelling and political commentary is some of the best in music history, the gorgeous instrumentation of Kamasi Washington and his orchestra is breathtaking, the production is the best since Radiohead’s OK Computer, and the scope and shear ambition of the project is simply unmatched in the modern music landscape. I would confidently place the record among the greatest of all time, but there is, of course, another element to this. Only two hip-hop albums have ever won the award, Lauren Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauren Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and the category’s history of representing African American artists is nearly as abysmal. Considering the massive amount of TPaB that is devoted to discussion of African Americans in modern culture, it couldn’t have been a better choice for the win. Unfortunately, Kendrick seems cursed to be perpetually nominated without a win, despite being one of the best artists of our time.

Five Albums That Would Get a 10/10

I always want to talk about these great records, and I just can’t find enough excuses! So here’s Five Albums That Would Get a 10/10!

IDLESJoy as an Act of Resistance (2018)

Putting the list in chronological order means that our first pick is my choice for 2018’s album of the year, IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance. I’ve said quite a lot about this album, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Drawing from perhaps the most embattled, controversial, and often violent sub-genres in music history, this punk record uses the traditional staples of thrashing guitars, rolling bass, and high energy to craft music that stands up to any one of the punk greats of the 70’s and 80’s. This sets a baseline for Joe Talbot’s lyricism, music on masculinity and all it’s impacts on the modern world. It’s prescient, it’s powerful, it’s hopeful, and above all, it’s perfect.

Kendrick LamarTo Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

It’s hard to believe that we’re fast approaching the fourth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal, jazz-rap masterpiece, but here we are. TPAB achieved levels of storytelling which haven’t been matched in rap music before or since and it did that by selling every ounce of the record to the story. The instrumentation is helmed by Kamasi Washington who would go on to release his own debut album two months later. Throughout, each beat incorporates elements of funk, jazz, Africana, soul, boom-bap, rock, and much more. It’s a musical tour-de-force through the history of African American popular music which is only outshined by K-dot’s lyricism.

Telling the story of a young rapper breaking down on tour and returning home to the streets that made him, Lamar dances between the metaphor and the literal, the jarring and the thoughtful, love and hate, all with an eye for the larger picture while not making a single bad track out of the 16. The story ultimately serves as a contemplation on the plight of the African American community in modern America. Is it honorable to thrive while your community suffers? Can an African American ever thrive without selling out struggles they endured? Will the community ever rise above their oppression and how? These questions and more Kendrick asks with remarkable clarity and don’t even get me started on the production. TPAB feels like a living, breathing conversation, and in that sense, it’s perfect.

Jason IsbellSoutheastern (2013)

When Jason Isbell, the resident bad boy of The Drive-By Truckers, was released from the band in 2007 and entered rehab in 2012, he seemed to be an extremely tragic case of one of the greatest young songwriters of a generation who just couldn’t hold it all together. Instead, he emerged a new, sober man, married then-girlfriend Amanda Shires, and released 2013’s Southeastern, adorned with a very simplistic picture of himself staring forward. Southeastern was Isbell’s contemplation on getting sober, growing up, and most of all, on change. It is one of the most moving and honest albums ever written.

With its opener, “Cover Me Up,” a love song written to Shires to assure her that he would get sober for her, the album immediately presented a new version of Jason. One which fully recognized his potential as a lyricist and artist. Throughout Southeastern, every single track is nothing short of pure poetry over chords. He speaks on the difficulties of leaving an old life behind, his fear of losing his love, and his excitement for the new life ahead of him. More so than any other album on this list, Southeastern lands here because it is simply a masterclass in lyricism from one of the greatest writers that’s ever lived.

RadioheadOK Computer (1997)

One of the most divisive groups in history, you’ll be hard pressed to find a music fan without an appreciation for this album. Coming near the turn of the century, OK Computer feels like the cold air creeping back into a room, no longer staved off by the burning fire that was the early 90’s and the grunge movement. The album aims to capture the apathy and bleak hopelessness of a generation, and Radiohead succeeds in every way. The instrumental pallet is remarkably broad, the production is almost robotic, and Thom Yorke’s vocals are whispish and often haunting.

It’s hard to describe what a cold and distant project this is. With mixes that bury and push odd instruments and arrangements keep listeners guessing by melding organic and electronic sounds seamlessly, Radiohead is able to throw a listener off of their center of gravity, so to speak, and inspire a viscerally lonely experience throughout. Lyrics about the modern condition toe the line so tightly between story and metaphor that what anger and vitriol is drummed up will be immediately stifled by distance. As waves of largely unfamiliar sound wash over you, OK Computer lulls listeners into a bleak apathy like only Radiohead can.

Pink FloydThe Wall (1979)

A very strong argument, and one that I would likely agree with, can be made that Pink Floyd has anywhere from two to five “perfect” albums under their belt and it’s true that few bands ever have had a run like Floyd in the 1970’s, but since this list isn’t called “Top Five Pink Floyd Albums,” I’ve chosen to stick with The Wall. This is, among other things, the defining prog-rock concept album, introducing the idea selling out every aspect of an album toward the concept as very little of The Wall, save “Comfortably Numb,” sounds a whole lot like Pink Floyd. It was also, quite famously, made amid horrific turmoil within the group which likely led to their disbandment.

Nevertheless, the four of them crafted a massive work of art that strikes the heart like few works in any medium. Where Dark Side of the Moon focuses on life and Wish You Were Here deals with fame, The Wall is, above all, about isolation, both the factors that create it and the effects it has on the human psyche. Not content with the simple “love each other,” message of the previous decade, The Wall aims to explored every facet of loneliness and desolation, giving serious credence to the pains which make it seem necessary while honestly addressing it’s detrimental effects. Ultimately, when the masterpiece closer, “The Trial,” ends with the wall finally coming down, the relief is palpable, and any serious listener has learned something about themselves in the process.

Every Rocky Movie Ranked!!

Here’s my annual attempt at writing about something other than music!!

8. Rocky V1990

     Easily the most derided of of the original series, it’s often said that Rocky V is without a redeeming quality. That’s not true. In fact, the bulk of Rocky V is excellent. Rocky’s transition to the role of trainer, even taking over Mighty Mick’s, and Tommy Gunn is an interesting character who mirrors Rocky in so many ways that when he makes mistakes that Rocky wouldn’t, it carries weight. Above all, Rocky’s arc of learning to give up fighting and finally accept that he has everything he needs was a nice set up, though unfortunately, it’s never realized.

   Rocky V falls down hard in several key areas, though. Firstly, the score is almost unlistenable. Even Rocky IV’s cocaine fueled extravaganza of a soundtrack had a ton of listenable moments, but V’s hip-hop influences are just strange and out of place. Additionally, Rocky’s issues with his son are never adequately resolved. The worst offense, however, is the much maligned street fight in the final act. In the end, they just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on a Rocky film that didn’t end with Rocky fighting, and because of this, the finish feels completely unbelievable and not satisfying. There’s no such thing as a bad Rocky movie, but Rocky V is the only one that feels lost.

7. Rocky III1982

   I may be at a disagreement with many longtime fans here, and honestly, I was surprised myself upon rewatching the series, how low this film landed. To be clear, there are sections of this movie that can stand toe to toe with any classic Rocky moment. Micky’s death is absolutely gut-wrenching and beautifully acted, casting Clubber Lang as the hungry up and comer against Rocky’s over confidence was a smart choice, and the infamous scenes of Rocky learning to dance in training and eventually defeating Apollo Creed in a slow motion foot race on the beach while wearing the most 1980’s crop top tee ever worn on film. In fact, III’s best legacy is further developing Apollo as a main character and friend of Rocky.

   However, the film ultimately falls down in two key areas. The first of these is the villain. Mr. T’s Clubber Lang simply doesn’t receive the development he needs. He seems to be a beta form of Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, and doesn’t achieve nearly the level of intimidation  and hopelessness brought on Drago. It takes a total of three rounds and a slight improvement in Rocky’s speed and footwork to absolutely annihilate Lang. Ultimately, though, and this is the film’s worst sin, Rocky III falls in the valley between the grounded, underdog story of I and II, and the 80’s indulgence of IV and parts of V. The result is a film with iconic moments, but a somewhat weak overall arc.

6. Rocky Balboa2006

   One of the more controversial films in the series, Rocky Balboa is the first to bring Rocky into the 21st century, and it does so in a uniquely effective way. It grounds the series in reality far more than the excesses of the latter portion of the original run. The best element, though, is the creative inclusion of minor and side characters from the Rocky universe as larger figures in this installment. Spider Silva, Rocky’s opponent in the first scene of the first film becomes a friend of the boxer who often eats at his restaurant and Marie, a young girl with whom Rocky shared a quick life lesson in the first film, is once again mentored by Rocky, this time as the main female counterpart to Sylvester Stallone. The highlight comes in the final fight which stands as one of the series’ most heartwarming finishes.

   Despite all this, the film is rarely sited as a fan favorite because it’s brutally depressing. It opens on Rocky sitting at his late wife’s grave, kicking off a first act which deals largely with Adrian’s death and Balboa’s estrangement from his son. There are a few moments where the emotions are laid on a bit thick, but in most instances, Stalone’s writing is nearly as impressive as the first script, and it’s the last of the series in which he had significant creative input. Ultimately, Rocky Balboa is a starkly beautiful tribute to the classic characters and story that radiates love for Rocky universe, but its dark tone and stand alone nature makes it feel somewhat obligatory upon repeated viewings. 

5. Creed2015

   Nearly a decade after Rocky Balboa seemingly closed the books the universe, Creed breathed new life into this franchise. Most importantly, Sylvester Stallone takes on a supporting role for the first time in the series, making way for Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. The film follows the script of the first Rocky in many ways, and where it doesn’t, it makes massive meaning in its differences.

   Bianca is a tough, independent woman, contrasting to Adriane’s timidity, and she’s one of the best characters in the series. Best of all, Creed comes from money and bares the name of a legend, as apposed to Rocky’s story of coming from nothing. It’s a testament to the fighter’s spirit as he works to erase his name and his father’s legacy. Rocky’s battle with cancer is a great parallel to Adonis’ battle in the ring and, in the end, the Rocky franchise finally feels alive in a way it hasn’t for many years.

4. Rocky IV1985

   If ever one needed proof that cocaine was extremely prevalent in the 80’s, there’s Rocky IV. Featuring not one, not two, but four montages, all set to the most purely 1980’s songs ever written, this film is a blast. Dolph Lundgren is positively terrifying as Ivan Drago, the final montage is the best of the series, and the final fight is perfectly epic. At the emotional core of Rocky IV is the gut wrenching death of Apollo Creed, which is handled quite well, considering the generally over-the-top tone of the movie as a whole.

   Rocky IV isn’t perfect by any means. Strictly speaking, in terms of pure film making, it’s hard to even call it “good.” There’s hardly 30 minutes worth of storyline, fluffed out by style over substance, the patriotic commentary on the Cold War borders on propagandistic, and Rocky’s speech following his victory hasn’t aged well in the slightest. However, for fans of this universe, Rocky IV is infinitely watchable. It’s the high point of the saga’s latter years and it’s so memorable that it gets something of a direct sequel in the film ranked just above it.

3. Creed II2018

   The eighth and latest edition to the franchise, Creed II lands immediately in the upper echelons of Rocky movies as the best entry in almost 40 years. The relationship arc between Adonis and Bianca is excellent, Vitor Drago, son of Ivan, is nearly as intimidating as his father, helped by the fear Rocky shows upon hearing the challenge, and the sound track is, yet again, perfect. The reason this film lands so high, though, is its very pure focus on themes.

   The story focusses squarely on fatherhood. As Adonis is forced to confront the man who took his father from him, he also becomes a father himself, dealing with the revelation that his son, like Bianca, is deaf. This comes to a head in the finale as Rocky finally speaks with his estranged son and meets his grandson for the first time. Most importantly, Creed II sees Sylvester Stallone finally say goodbye to the character of Rocky, having seen Adonis defeat Drago and rectifying his great mistake, we get a heartfelt farewell to an American icon.

2. Rocky1976

   It is beyond difficult to rank this below any other, as it is one of the most perfect films in cinema history. The ultimate underdog story, Stallone’s Rocky is a lovable tough who gets the opportunity of a lifetime to fight the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Micky’s rough exterior and good heart makes him an instant fan favorite, Paulie is hilariously sleazy, and Rocky’s love story with Adriane is one for the ages. 

   The key to this movie is the very simple heartfelt script. The way Rocky is treated as a “sure thing” by Creed and Rocky’s determination to make something of himself is impossible not to feel. When the fight finally happens, every single punch seems to land directly on your own body, and no one with a soul can help but feel their heart warm when Rocky makes it through all 12 rounds. It can’t be overstated what an amazing movie this is, and it spawned one of the longest, most consistent sagas in history.

Rocky II1979

   This film is incredible. Following the explosive success of the original, Rocky II seemed to face an insurmountable obstacle in following up. What Stallone cooked up is a similar script, packed full of iconic moments and fantastic characters. Adriane is a far more developed, as is the relationship between Rocky and Micky. We see Rocky struggle with the fame gained from his fight and Apollo’s near constant berating in the effort to draw him out retirement.

   When he decides to take the rematch, its much different this time as there is a distinct chance that Rocky could actually win the fight, and Adriane’s sickness is a fantastic emotional center. Most importantly, Rocky II establishes the formula which would characterize the nearly all of the sequels that would follow. A villain brings Rocky out of retirement, Rocky trains poorly, tragedy strikes, Rocky finds the strength to train again, this time with vigor, and he finally wins the fight and rectifies the tragedy of the low point. Rocky may have introduced the characters, but it was Rocky II that invented the formula which all subsequent entries would follow, and of course, who can forget the films closing line, “Yo, Adriane! I did it!”