IDLES – Joy 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 Lamar – To 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 Isbell – Southeastern (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.
Radiohead – OK 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 Floyd – The 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.