Loud, angry, and willfully removed from contemporary musical fashions, Mudhoney’s 10th album, Digital Garbage, is another molten slab of wryly caustic heavy-guitar rock. After 30 years, the Stooges still loom largest in Mudhoney’s palette of influences: Steve Turner’s mangled gutter-blues guitar owes as much to Ron Asheton as Mark Arm’s sardonic growl of a singing voice owes to Iggy Pop. The alt-rock pioneers’ devotion to the quintessential proto-punks manifests in even the smallest details, like the one-chord “I Wanna Be Your Dog”-esque piano that shows up here on “Please Mr. Gunman.”
Digital Garbage, however, also pulls from a few other sources—albeit none that date from any later than Mudhoney’s early-‘90s commercial heyday. The twangy garage-punk guitar and Farfisa buildup of “Kill Yourself Live” is a dead ringer for Devo’s “Gut Feeling”; the minor-key sledgehammer riffs of “Night and Fog” and “Next Mass Extinction” tread into Black Sabbath doom-rock territory; Turner’s jangly guitar chords and Arm’s plaintive vocals on “Messiah’s Lament” even sound a bit like mid-period R.E.M. The most welcome addition to their sonic stew may be the synthesizer that bassist Guy Maddison plays on “21st Century Pharisees”: Without disrupting the band’s stripped-down punk aesthetic, it’s the closest Digital Garbage comes to evoking the album cover’s desolate late-‘70s sci-fi landscape.
Also conjuring a bleak terrain—though unfortunately not a fictional one—are the album’s lyrics, which are the group’s most topical since 2006’s Under a Billion Suns. Much as that album did for the George W. Bush era, Digital Garbage lampoons the absurdity of the current political landscape with a rictus grin. Like most contemporary satires, the material pretty much writes itself. On “Paranoid Core,” Arm populates whole verses by simply listing popular right-wing conspiracy theories: “Vaccines, chemtrails, false flag plots, government camps, Sharia Law.” “Prosperity Gospel” takes aim at the self-evident hypocrisy of a Christianity that embraces capitalism: “They got a giant needle,” Arm sneers, referencing Matthew 19:23-24. “If you can pay the price, they’ll let you ride a camel through the eye.” The overall tone is more cantankerous than righteous, but Mudhoney still lands the occasional gut punch—dropping a chilling reference to police killings, for example, among the cartoonish suicide scenarios in “Kill Yourself Live.”
Of course, one of the common criticisms of Under a Billion Suns was that no one had ever asked for political commentary from the guys who sang “Touch Me I’m Sick,” and that’s still technically true in 2018. But something about the sheer stupidity endemic to our political moment demands a song like “Hey Neanderfuck,” with its withering contempt for those empty enough to crave power and dim enough not to know what to do with it. The specific “Neanderfuck” in question isn’t named, but he doesn’t need to be; there are more than enough candidates to go around. Digital Garbage may not be the most eloquent expression of our frustrations, but it’s as cathartic and life-affirmingly juvenile as a well-placed middle finger.
Label: Sub Pop Release Date: September 28, 2018 Buy: Amazon
Review: With Manic, Halsey Fearlessly Inhabits Her Myriad Parts
The singer’s refusal to pick a lane is what makes the album her most compelling effort to date.4
In a recent interview, Halsey, née Ashley Frangipane, lamented the confusion with which her music and public persona are sometimes met in the press. “Like, how fucking immune are you to the human experience?” she scoffed, incredulous at the implication that she has—or indeed is even able—to choose just one version of herself. Certainly, at least over the past year, her music has defied easy categorization; from the trap-influenced “Without Me,” to the punky “Nightmare,” to her guest appearance on K-pop group BTS’s vibrant “Boy with Luv,” she’s slipped from genre to genre effortlessly. It’s this refusal to pick a lane that’s precisely what makes Halsey’s third album, Manic, her most compelling effort to date.
The album’s shifting production style allows Halsey the space to inhabit different parts of her personality and even invite them into conversation with one another. Opening track “Ashley” gets the album off to a confessional start: “I told you I spilled my guts, I left you to clean it up,” she sings, and it’s hard not to feel like that should be in the present tense, so affected is her open-throated, emo-inflected delivery. “Clementine” is no less raw, but here she creates a subtler atmosphere, though no less disquieting: a cyclical piano line rings out like the melody of a music box as she breezily delivers the lyric “I don’t need anyone/I just need everyone and then some” and her more distraught backing vocal echoes the sentiment.
Rarely does Halsey let herself off the hook, confronting even the most damaged parts of herself head on. But she doesn’t let the men who did the damage off scot-free either. “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you/’Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you,” she sneers on the country-inflected “You Should Be Sad,” and there’s no shortage of derision on “Without Me”: “And then I got you off your knees/Put you right back on your feet/Just so you can take advantage of me.”
The most arresting moments on Manic come via openhearted storytelling, as on the gorgeous closing track, “929,” which is composed of a series of vignettes as she recounts the precise time of her birth, her teenage years in a “cheap apartment,” the most exploitative moments of her career, and the hope that her father will finally pick up the phone. It’s a welcome moment of quiet reflection after 15 tracks of shifting perspective, tone, and genre, and sees Halsey expose herself with precision and purpose. Bearing your soul publicly is fraught with complications—“I should be living the dream/But I’m livin’ with a security team,” she sings ruefully on “Still Learning”—but it does seem, for Halsey, to be a truly productive way of figuring out what makes her complicated in the first place, and how to embrace those complexities without fear.
Label: Capitol Release Date: January 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Eminem Drops Surprise Album and Anti-Gun Violence Video for “Darkness”
Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”
Less than 17 months after his last album, Kamikaze, swooped in out of nowhere, Detroit rapper Eminem, né Marshall Mathers, has dropped another surprise album. Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly tonight, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”
Directed by James Larese, the clip was seemingly inspired by the 2017 Las Vegas gun massacre, as Eminem narrates the disturbing inner thoughts of an isolated, mentally ill mass shooter. The video ends with the message, “When will this end? When enough people care” and a call to register to vote.
The 20-track album features collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Juice WRLD, Q-Tip, Anderson .Paak, and more. It also includes a song called “Stepdad,” about the rapper’s abusive stepfather.
Music to Be Murdered By is out now on Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records.
Review: Selena Gomez’s Rare Is Spotty in Its Attempts at Authenticity
Despite glimmers of authenticity throughout the album, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.3
Selena Gomez is no stranger to reinvention. After making the tricky transition to maturity with a starring role in Harmony Korine’s drug-fueled 2013 film Spring Breakers, the former Disney sweetheart stepped out as a bona fide solo pop star with Revival, an album chockablock with R&B and dance-pop gems.
On her long-awaited follow-up, Rare, Gomez attempts another about-face, shedding the empowerment anthems and EDM-infused bangers of Revival and aiming for a quirkier brand of pop and, purportedly, a new sense of candor. But even though this is the closest she’s invited us into her headspace, it still feels like we’re being held at arm’s length. Despite glimmers of authenticity, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.
Notably, it seems like Gomez is finally making music she can fully get behind. The album’s four-and-a-half-year germination seems to have heartened the singer to incorporate more vulnerability into her songs. Whereas on Revival, Gomez tiptoed around emotional rawness, there are moments throughout Rare in which she fully inhabits it. On the stirring lead single, “Lose You to Love Me,” the most evocative vocal performance on the album, she dons the clarity of hindsight, which yields uncompromising truths: “I needed to hate you to love me.”
Elsewhere, attempts at emotional authenticity miss the mark. The platitude-ridden “People You Know” suffers from distracting Auto-Tune, which produces a distancing effect as Gomez offers up such banalities as, “People can go from people you know to people you don’t.” More insightful is “Cut You Off,” a midtempo meditation on protecting oneself from a toxic relationship; the chorus’s ascending melody are redolent of Taylor Swift’s best pop incursions, but the track is sanitized to the point of being forgettable.
Rare continually teases intriguing forays into leftfield pop, but so many of the album’s experiments come off as just that, without ever crystallizing with memorable hooks. Gomez’s breathy vocal on “Crowded Room,” assisted by a melodic verse from rapper 6lack, lands on just the right side of fragile, but the track’s innocuousness lets the singer float away completely. The pulsing bass of “Fun” calls to mind her excellent, one-off 2017 single “Bad Liar” (included on some deluxe versions of this album), but the chorus rests on a scant four words—“You look like fun”—and a flimsy guitar riff. On the title track, Gomez makes it known to a distant lover why she’s rare and deserving of attention, but based on her performances throughout Rare, it’s dubious as to whether she’s convinced of that or not.
Label: Interscopes Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs
We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.
Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.
Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani
24. “All for You”
Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson
23. “Funky Big Band”
Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson
22. “Velvet Rope”
A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani
Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson
Review: Poppy’s I Disagree Obliterates the Niceties of Genre Convention
The album tosses the singer’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock.3.5
In many ways, Poppy was an inevitability: a YouTube personality turned pop singer, portrayed by Moriah Rose Pereira as a cyborg controlled by “them”—referring, presumably, to co-creator Titanic Sinclair and the duo’s actual or imagined corporate overlords. From Alice Cooper to Lana Del Rey, there’s a storied history of musicians concocting personae for public consumption, but Pereira has taken the gimmick to absurd, if predictable, lengths, conducting entire interviews as a soft-spoken, obedient automaton that seems culled directly from a straight male fantasy. Poppy’s early YouTube videos were glorified ASMR porn, featuring the singer sensually licking cotton candy from a stick and blankly answering a disconnected rotary phone, an ominous male voice—presumably Sinclair’s—occasionally posing questions to her like a sexual predator might to a captive.
For Pereira and Sinclair, with whom the former recently cut ties, Poppy is a commentary on social media and a satire of how we use the internet more broadly. But Pereira’s decision to finally break character during an interview with NME last year represented a more intriguing development, conveniently doubling as an extension of the Poppy narrative, wherein she becomes sentient, and a reflection of Pereira’s ostensible real-life struggles as a female artist.
Though Poppy’s third album, I Disagree, was largely co-written by Sinclair, it’s littered with allusions that telegraph Pereira’s creative and personal emancipation from him. “Godspeed to the radio star/Stop the beat when they take it too far,” she delicately warns on “Sit/Stay.” Opening track “Concrete” is about the killing of one’s former self—“Bury me six feet deep and just cover me in concrete, please/Turn me into a street”—while “Nothing I Need” and the title track find her reevaluating her own values and those of others, respectively. “If only all of you could see the world I see,” she sings on “I Disagree.”
The album also marks a sonic rebirth for Pereira. Poppy’s first two efforts were defined by bubble-gum pop filtered through the lens of J- and K-pop, which, in turn, are influenced by American music, resulting in a re-translated sound that felt at once familiar and alien. I Disagree is decidedly “post-genre,” tossing Poppy’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock, previously only hinted at on the tail end of 2018’s Am I a Girl? “Concrete” shifts abruptly between tempos and genres, between commercial jingles and Beatles-esque chamber-pop, all shot through with roaring electric guitar riffs. That might sound incoherent, but it serves as a bold, deftly executed mission statement.
Inspired by a quote by British writer Alan Watts, “Bite Your Teeth” boasts I Disagree’s starkest contrast between thrashing verses and harmonious hooks, with a dreamy, almost ‘70s AM radio-style bridge and a moody synth-string coda. The glitchy “BLOODMONEY,” which takes no prisoners in its skewering of religious hypocrisy, likewise juxtaposes abrasive noise-pop with sugary melodies, punctuated by blood-curdling screams.
These individual elements aren’t new to pop music—the album at turns evokes Rammstein, Sleigh Bells, and Lady Gaga—but it’s regurgitated and repackaged in a way that manages to escape derivativeness. Where Poppy does sound overtly imitative is on “Anything Like Me,” which hews extremely close to Billie Eilish’s brand of avant-pop—ironic given that the song is a response to an artist with whom Pereira and Sinclair have been engaged in a contentious copyright battle. The track, though, is more sonically expansive than Eilish’s work, an exhilarating guitar solo bumping up against the softly strummed acoustic guitar of the bridge, during which Pereira generously offers, “Love is never-ending in me.”
I Disagree’s final two tracks present a more promising direction forward for Poppy as she, presumably, continues to shed the artifice of her persona. Thematically, “Sick of the Sun” and the two-part “Don’t Go Outside” share a distinct sense of despondency: The former details the singer’s self-isolation, her unexpectedly emotive vocals couched in hazy, reverb-soaked guitars, while the latter shifts the focus to the world outside (“The TV says we’re out of time/Suck the fear in through your eyes”). The second half of “Don’t Go Outside” reprises several songs from earlier in the album, including the Marilyn Manson-indebted “Fill the Crown,” the sole track on I Disagree that veers into caricature. A lyric from that song—“You can be anyone you want to be”—takes on more potent significance when repeated here, the dream-pop approach charting a middle ground between the sugary dance-pop of Poppy’s earlier efforts and her nascent metal shtick.
Label: Sumerian Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Field Music’s Making a New World Plays Like a Strangely Funky History Lesson
The band’s latest is an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I.3.5
David and Peter Brewis of Field Music have carved a unique niche for themselves in the U.K. music world, outlasting many of their buzzy British peers. Their music has always stood out from the post-punk revival of the mid-2000s thanks to an intellectual underpinning and less emphasis on massive shout-along choruses. That tack continues on Making a New World, an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I. Even if you don’t feel the need to follow along with their historical lyrics, these 19 short songs are an entertaining, unpredictable listen.
This isn’t the first time Field Music has delved into the past or current events: Previous projects have included a soundtrack for John Grierson’s 1929 silent documentary Drifters, following a day in the life of a fishing fleet, while their last album, Open Here, was inspired by their hometown of Sunderland becoming the first city to declare its vote in favor of Brexit. The band’s interest in WWI dates back to 2016, when they collaborated with electro-pop duo Warm Digits and the Northern Sinfonia orchestra on the soundtrack for Esther Johnson’s film Asunder, a historical retelling of the war’s effects on a small English town.
Making a New World was born out of another WWI project, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. The initial inspiration for the songs here was an image from the museum’s collection that used “sound ranging” to capture vibrations of gunfire. Like a seismograph, this visual technique’s peaking lines artfully represent the bullet-filled sounds in the minute leading up to 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, and the moment of smoke-clearing silence after the war’s end.
Each of the album’s songs focuses on a different facet of WWI, unfolding in chronological order like a series of art-rock audio plays. “Coffee or Wine” sets the scene with a serviceman’s journey home to a post-war world, as its narrator stomps through off-kilter piano pop. “A Change of Heir” uses spooky slide guitars as an introduction to Dr. Harold Gillies, whose pioneering skin grafts for injured soldiers led to some of the world’s first gender reassignment surgeries. “Only in a Man’s World” is a feminist outcry against the taxation of sanitary pads, set to jittery disco in the tradition of Talking Heads, while the warped grooves of “Money Is a Memory” most closely recall late ‘70s oddballs Godley & Creme.
The album marks the first full-band release from Field Music since 2007’s Tones of Town and the quartet jumps between musical styles adeptly. The Brewis brothers’ vocals sound as effortless as always, delivered with a laidback breeziness belying the songs’ sophisticated melodies. They’ve clearly studied the music of their predecessors with the same enthusiasm as WWI textbooks, and never has a history lesson sounded so strangely funky.
Label: Memphis Industries Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 100 Best Music Videos of the 2010s
In many ways, the rebirth of the music video set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly.
The 2010s saw the continued democratization of media: more content, more ways to access and consume it, and, as a result, a more diverse audience. In many ways, the rebirth of the music video, formerly the withering marketing tool of what Jack White might refer to as the “corporation,” set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly. Choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and how often. Even more so than film and TV, though, short-form videos have the potential to provide an almost real-time commentary on the politics, technologies, and even sexual mores of the times. Of course, MTV programmers have been replaced by YouTube algorithms, which, when they’re not sending you down a rabbit hole to white supremacist screeds and 9/11 conspiracy theories, force-feed us what’s already popular. The decade’s most viewed music video, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” has been streamed 6.5 billion times in two years. In fact, none of the clips in YouTube’s Top 10 came even close to cracking our list of the 100 best music videos of the 2010s. The more things change…. Sal Cinquemani
100. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
Lorde has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani
99. Alex Cameron, “Miami Memory”
Having met while making a mockumentary-style video for the song “Marlon Brando,” Alex Cameron and Jemima Kirke continue their fruitful collaboration with “Miami Memory,” at once a Technicolor dreamscape and a fearlessly intimate exploration of their dynamic as a real-life couple. The first third of the video seems to cast Kirke as a beautiful object—Cameron films her receiving a massage, then watches her dance—but the remaining two-thirds reset the balance. Kirke matches his gaze with hers, taking the camera over for herself, directing him, taking her turn to watch him dance. Anna Richmond
98. Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”
Target teamed up with Gwen Stefani for the first music video ever created on live TV, which aired during the Grammy Awards in 2016. The video, which opens with the No Doubt singer awakening after an ugly car crash and being primped for a first date, offers audiences the chance to bask in its creators’ virtuosity, as well as the thrill of watching them fall on their faces—figuratively and literally. In fact, Stefani and longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, who directed the clip, were clearly betting on the latter sensation. During the song’s vocal breakdown, Stefani’s glittery orange high heels are swapped for roller stakes by a stagehand whose fingers momentarily peek into frame, and Gwen is whisked off to an adjacent roller rink, where she’s cleverly swapped for a body double who takes a hard spill. It’s quickly revealed, of course, that Stefani is safe and sound in the center of the rink, preparing for the video’s impressive final aerial shot. Cinquemani
97. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
If the surreal images in “We Can’t Stop” were simply a tribute to youthful hedonism, it would be among the decade’s most pupil-dilating eye candy, but deconstructed down to its macabre symbols—edible skulls, blow-up dolls, taxidermia—it’s one of the trippiest, scariest videos of the 2010s. Cinquemani
96. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”
Though it was filmed in the Czech Republic, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s breathtakingly shot “No Church in the Wild” plays as a broader comment on the civil unrest that’s enveloped both the Middle East and director Romain Garvas’s native Greece, as well as the violent conflict that seems to be roiling beneath the surface in places as distant as Wall Street and Madison, Wisconsin. Cinquemani
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
The ambitious “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Zachary Hoskins
93. Chairlift, “Met Before”
Jordan Fish’s video for Chairlift’s “Met Before” gives viewers the freedom to dabble in some alternate outcomes for a trio of uncertain science grads caught in a potential love triangle. In having users act as the powerbrokers for all sorts of subtle decisions, Fish has essentially constructed a Choose Your Own Adventure for the YouTube generation. Kevin Liedel
92. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”
Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Josh Goller
91. Grimes featuring Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”
Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller
90. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “In Good Faith”
A simple song for dark times, “In Good Faith” is nothing short of a secular hymn. Will Oldham sings about small moments of grace and nature: rocks being shaped into diamonds, people helping one another through each day. The accompanying video is similarly gentle, with a documentary-style look at a group of people making their way through the world. We see them in homes, tending crops, generally filling their time with the tasks that constitute the bulk of life on Earth. The climax shows most of the characters singing in Sacred Harp choirs, joyfully joining voices to celebrate the possibility one finds in the sacred and infinite. At a time when religion divides people as much as any other force on the planet, the song and the video gesture to a world where our shared humanity joins us more than our ideas divide. You can’t go five minutes on the internet without seeing someone accused of lacking it, but “In Good Faith” celebrates the possibility that we might all make it out alive. Seth Wilson
89. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Alexa Camp
88. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Brando”
In her video for “Brando,” filmmaker Gisèle Vienne isolates a child’s glimpse of a disturbing image and lingers on it, suspended in perilous motion—a cinematic motif comparable to Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s knack for stretching a single reverbed-out twang to a repetitive standstill. This is a story of trauma told with the fewest possible strokes, wherein the dew in the mountain air feels fresh even as you realize you’re witnessing a long-buried memory play out for what must be the hundredth time. Vienne closes with an isolated, insinuating close-up that silently tells you everything you need to know. Steve Macfarlane
87. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. James Rainis
86. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
In capturing the playful spirit of Dan Bejar’s air-rock odyssey, director Dawn Garcia has rewritten the manual. Clearly, if you want to make a good music video nowadays, it needs to include soft erotica, greasy teenagers, false oases, and flying whales. Liedel
85. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Vince Staples & Casey Veggies, “Hive”
If Tyler, the Creator’s videos are all about overblown, colorful images in line with OFWGKTA’s Loiter Squad aesthetic, Earl’s “Hive” acts as a counterbalance, more in touch with the menacing Odd Future of a few years ago. The minimalistic, barely lit setting presents Earl and his crew as a hooded force lurking in the shadows, and suggests that Odd Future—and rap music—doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive to be threatening. Kyle Fowle
84. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
As if the threat of having a scathing pop song written about them weren’t enough to make the world’s eligible young bachelors think twice about shacking up with the country starlet turned pop star, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” portrays the singer-songwriter as, to quote the song’s lyrics, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In the clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, Swift and model Sean O’Pry spend a romantic weekend at the former’s lavish mansion. When she suspects him of texting another woman, she flies into a mascara-streaked fit, taking a switchblade to his portrait, a torch to his clothes, and a golf club to his sports car. By the time Sean discovers a hallway lined with the defaced paintings of Swift’s former suitors, it’s obvious Swift has also taken a skewer to her (perhaps unjustified) reputation. Cinquemani
83. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as an ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis
82. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Director Chino Moya paints a vibrant but empty portrait of a techno dystopia filled with clean lines, monotone colors, and dull, repetitive tasks to complement Annie Clark’s ambivalent reflection on our digitally consumed lives. Donning a dress that pointedly resembles a straitjacket, Clark’s mindless drone warns of a future where TV replaces windows and, in turn, windows become mere objects over which to hang venetian blinds. Cinquemani
81. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”
Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins
The 100 Best Singles of the 2010s
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which officially met its demise in the wild west of the streaming era.
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which dates back to Billboard’s jukebox charts of the early 1940s and which officially met its demise in the wild west of the current streaming era. In the end, though, a single is just a song, and these 100 songs defined the decade that began in the throes of recovery from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and ended with the systematic dismantling of our democratic norms.
The crumbling of our institutions was accompanied by the euphoric beats of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the former of which epitomized the increasing irrelevance of radio, the term “single,” and even the charts themselves. Hip-hop served as our cross-generational conscience, with veterans like A Tribe Called Quest and newcomers Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino reflecting and responding to the times. R&B and country, too, both staked a claim to the mantle of the decade’s most empowering songs, from Beyoncé’s “Formation” to Little Big Town’s “Little White Church.”
History will be the final arbiter of what we’ve done to the planet, to the country, and to each other over the last 10 years, but the songs that served as the soundtrack to this modern dystopia are already etched in time. Long live the single. Consider this list its epitaph. Sal Cinquemani
100. Clairo, “Bags”
With “Bags,” Clairo navigates the line between friend and lover with a crush who could be straight. Her approach pinpoints ephemeral moments with a wide-eyed recollection: the sensation of fingertips on her back, a mane of hair blowing in the wind of an open car window, a love interest standing in a doorway. You get the feeling that the experiences she recounts are firsts for her, so vivid and formative are her memories. Sophia Ordaz
99. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
Most of the songs on Angel Olsen’s 2016 album, My Woman utilize the singer’s marvelously evocative voice for poignant purposes, bemoaning the loss of love in damaged, defensive terms. But the undertone of aggression that undergirds those imprecations bursts to the fore on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” an attempt to salvage a foundering relationship that finds Olsen embodying both traditionally male and female roles simultaneously, delivering soft and hard in equal measure. Backed by a surging tide of guitar and drums, she pushes from wounded desolation to commanding confidence and back, eventually settling for the latter. Along the way, the song pursues a swaying, woozy build-up that walks a fine line between heartbreak and renewal, while working as a strong showcase for the singer’s staggering musical chops. Jesse Cataldo
98. Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do”
The similarly themed “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” whose bouncy pop beat and comical overtones recall those of past hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off,” might have made a safer choice to introduce the world to the New Taylor than “Look What You Made Me Do.” Which is exactly why this droll single—with its deceptively lush strings, pulsing hip-hop beat, and Right Said Fred-aping non-hook—will likely go down in pop history as Swift’s first bona fide misstep. It’s also what makes the track the boldest and, quite frankly, most authentic thing she’s released to date. Cinquemani
97. Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
Country singers are generally too polite to come right out and ask, “Whose pussy is this?” the way, say, Nicki Minaj might, but that’s still the gist of Little Big Town’s ultimatum here. Karen Fairchild gives a throaty, lived-in performance that spells out exactly what her man stands to lose, lest he make an honest woman out of her. The blues guitar riff that drives the song dirties up the arrangement a bit, but it’s the handclaps-only B section and, as always, LBT’s impeccable four-part harmonies that really make “Little White Church” distinctive and seductive. Jonathan Keefe
96. Sia, “Chandelier”
As a songwriter, Sia has scored copious hits by channeling the voices of pop stars as varied as Rihanna and Celine Dion. On “Chandelier,” her heart- and lung-rending delivery of a song about addiction feels entirely her own, the kind of full-throttle catharsis that you can’t fake no matter how big the paycheck. From the reggae-inflected verse asserting that “party girls don’t get hurt” to the sky-high chorus declaring the singer’s intent to swing from ceiling fixtures while drinking her face off, “Chandelier” captures how denial can morph into jarring revelations about the extent of one’s self-destruction. The song, however, keeps that reckoning in abeyance, riding its thudding beat and reveling in those final moments of exhilaration before the hangover inevitably hits. Annie Galvin
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Lana Del Rey, “National Anthem”
The fifth single from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die doubles, much like the album, as a critique and a glorification of materialism and artifice, name-dropping “upper echelon” status symbols like the Hamptons, $2 million sports cars, and Page Six to paint a portrait of a girl looking for love in all the well-fixed places. Del Rey boasts of “blurring the lines between real and the fake” in the lyrics, and though she’s taken on various guises during her short run in the spotlight (“gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Ione Skye from Say Anything…, and, in the video for “National Anthem,” a 21st-century Jackie O), what makes the song feel authentic is the singer’s simple, robotic performance. She doesn’t try to affect a deeper, more “serious” tone the way she has on other songs, content to sing in her more natural higher register. “National Anthem” suggests what it might sound like if trip-hop had conquered hip-hop and Britney Spears actually had something to say. Cinquemani
93. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “Starboy”
Few people would accuse Abel Tesfaye of being too modest. Yet, the artist known as the Weeknd has described “Starboy” as his manifestation of the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside us.” That heightened swagger finds Tesfaye looking down at the gaudier accoutrements of the celebrity lifestyle, blaming pop culture at large for creating his outsized persona in the first place (“Look what you’ve done/I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy”), all while signaling a transformation that’s portrayed literally in the single’s music video, where Tesfaye assassinates his former palm-tree-afroed self to announce the arrival of his shorn Starboy period, a not-so-subtle nod to David Bowie. By joining forces with Daft Punk, Tesfaye adds gloss to this smooth, bombastic sound, resulting in a song that sleekly and effortlessly thrums and sparkles like one of his beloved luxury cars driven under neon lights. Josh Goller
92. LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”
Self-interested, defeatist, and angry, James Murphy is practically a distillation of every obsessive character from a Jonathan Franzen novel. He is also, like them, open to change, even if it sounds as if it will take much prodding for him to even get halfway there. The silver lining in This Is Happening’s collection of downers, “I Can Change” boasts the album’s most succinct and vivid illustration of Murphy’s doubts and resentments as a lover. It’s woozy, glitchy synths are the sounds of a man wanting but resisting to give in to happiness, light beaming outward from a very dark void. Ed Gonzalez
91. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
There’s something about “Digital Witness” that hearkens back to a song by one of Annie Clark’s most obvious influences: David Bowie’s “TVC15” Both songs use herky-jerky vocal hooks to deliver sly existential horror about the prevalence of technology in the modern age, and almost 40 years after Bowie sang about a television swallowing Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, Clark sounds even more distressed: “Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” But the funky, chopped-up horn bleats that form the backbone of “Digital Witness” manage to place the tune squarely in the 21st century. Jeremy Winograd
90. Janet Jackson featuring J. Cole, “No Sleeep”
Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album, Unbreakable. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Eric Henderson
89. Luke James, “Drip”
With a falsetto vocal that goes from aching to ecstatic and a wah-wah guitar lead that channels vintage Ernie Isley, New Orleans singer-songwriter Luke James’s “Drip,” the first single from his forthcoming sophomore effort, sounds like it could have fallen out of heaven, or at least the early 1970s. The only real clue to its 2017 origins are the lyrics, which don’t even try to pretend that the title isn’t about what you think it’s about. At a time when contemporary R&B at large was blander and more samey-sounding than ever, “Drip” was a breath of Afro-Sheen-scented fresh air. If every neo-neo-soul track can be this good, then sign us up for the revival of the revival. Zachary Hoskins
88. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not the One”
There’s nothing genuinely threatening or dangerous about Sky Ferreira, a former teen model who’s adopted a confrontational stance on her first album, Night Time, My Time, most clearly manifested in a revealing, forcefully unattractive cover photo and a faux-punk aesthetic. Yet these signifiers are useful in establishing the type of artist Ferreira wants to be: fearlessly self-possessed, sexual on her own terms, more focused on lacerating breakup songs than bubblegum love ballads. All these things come through on the intermittingly fierce, completely catchy “You’re Not the One,” its industrial drums and bittersweet vocals setting up another thick-skinned sendoff track from an artist intent on establishing her independence. Jesse Cataldo
87. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”
The title track and lead single from Hot Chip’s latest album may be the sweetest and most genuine ode to monogamy that exists anywhere. Forget about dates, forget marriage; Alexis Taylor is interested in so much more, as he affirms “I only wanna be your one life stand” with his convivial everyman charm. It’s a lovely message, and serves as a splendid centrepiece for this single. The verses are accentuated by deformed Caribbean steel drums and laser sound effects, while the chorus boasts a barrage of warm, sonorous synths. This could be the most radio-friendly slab of upbeat pop we’ve heard from Taylor and company, but it struggled to chart significantly on either side of the Atlantic as the record-buying company parted with their money for messages of promiscuity and bad romances instead. Oh well. Their loss. Huw Jones
86. Azealia Banks, “1991”
So maybe it’s all a bit too on-the-nose as an homage, but it’s not like Azealia Banks is one for subtlety. She’s dialed back the inventive potty-mouthing that made “212” such an attention-grabber, but there’s so much going on in “1991” that Banks could never be accused of slacking off. She spits a rapid-fire 16-bar rhyme that’s a triumph of female sexual agency and makes it sound as effortless as snacking on a little pain au chocolat, and then she nimbly interweaves those rhymes into an onomatopoeic secondary vocal track before unraveling it all so she can do a spot-on impression of Ce Ce Peniston. Keefe
85. Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys”
There are several very good songs with almost uncomfortably personal lyrics and poppy earworm hooks on erstwhile Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis’s third solo album, The Voyager, but “Just One of the Guys” is one of the few that had the benefit of not being produced by Ryan Adams, with his ‘80s AOR-rock fetish. Instead, the Beck-produced single possesses more of a late-‘70s singer-songwriter feel that suits Lewis’s voice and personality better. But it’s not the arrangement, or even the incredibly catchy see-sawing chorus that stands out the most; it’s Lewis’s daringly close-to-the-bone bridge: “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.” Winograd
84. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” Lorde sings on “Magnets,” an understated offering from Disclosure’s sophomore effort, Caracal. The tropical house track, which features Indian rhythms, backward synth washes, and a patient, pulsating beat, succeeds—with a little help from its fiery music video, of course—at shifting the New Zealand pop singer’s profile ever so slightly from gawky teen to sultry chanteuse, her performance at once singular in its edgy hesitance and startling in its unexpected seductiveness. Cinquemani
83. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jesus Alone”
The structure of “Jesus Alone” serves as an appropriate mirror for the emotional state its composer found himself in while formulating it. As the song begins, with a grumbling electronic groan and Nick Cave reciting vivid but obtuse imagery, the singer sounds despondent and detached, adrift in darkness and abstraction. But as the improvised track builds, its cold swirls of electronics, strings, and piano gradually coalesce into a grievingly reposeful refrain, as Cave comes to grips with his pain: “With my voice/I am calling you.” It’s a pretty chorus, but when considering that Cave is “calling” his dead son, it becomes far more devastating than the gloomier musical passages that precede it. Winograd
82. Kelela, “LMK”
Kicking off in the club and resolving in the gauzy ether of a potential meaningless hookup, Kelela’s “LMK” sounds both ominous and alluring, an aloof seduction condensed to three and a half minutes. In its delivery, the singer turns the standard come-hither suggestiveness of so much female-fronted pop on its head, abandoning intimations of virginal purity or masculine power transfer for cold transactional consumption, all cards immediately laid out on the table. By removing desire entirely from the equation, she reduces the procedural essence of the mating ritual to its barest elements, within a track that pulls off a similar musical process, stripped down to Jam City’s slim ambient production and the singer’s silky, expressive voice. Slinky and soothing despite its aggressive tone, blending plainspoken confidence with low-key virtuosity, “LMK” represents the finest qualities of Kelela’s sumptuous debut, concentrated into a sui generis amendment of pop sexual politics. Cataldo
81. La Roux, “Bulletproof”
There’s really no explaining how or why British synth-pop duo La Roux managed to sneak itself onto U.S. radio playlists while the likes of Robyn, Little Boots, and other Euro pop acts remained largely ignored. Not that “Bulletproof” is undeserving: It’s all video-game bleeps and stiff beats, with singer Elly Jackson fancying herself an impenetrable computer. But with a malfunctioning communication system (“I won’t let you in again/The messages I tried to send/My information’s just not going in”), Jackson’s declaration that “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” ultimately just sounds like wishful thinking. Cinquemani
The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s
The music of the past 10 years has felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
There’s a popular meme—shared most often by Gen Xers and tech-capable boomers—that self-deprecatingly laments the perception that the 1990s were just a few years ago. The absence of a generally recognized way to demarcate the first two decades of the 21st century (aughts? Teens? ‘10s?) has, perhaps, rendered the “decade” as a measure of time more arbitrary than ever before, resulting in one nebulous blur. The music of the past 10 years has likewise felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
Of course, a lack of obvious trends—like synth-pop and hair metal in the ‘80s, and alternative rock and R&B in the ‘90s—doesn’t mean there weren’t important milestones in music. Bolstered by albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hip-hop continued to rediscover both its conscience and its voice in the 2010s, while artists like Robyn and Katy B proved that even when dance-pop is pushed to the margins, as it was after the EDM explosion of the late aughts, it will always find its groove.
As is often the case with pop music, whose wiles aren’t often immediately apparent, some of the titles on this list of the greatest albums of the decade took their sweet time taking root. Taylor Swift’s 1989, for example, sits at a lofty perch here but failed to garner a mention on our list of the Best Albums of 2014. Others, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, were released just days after we published our list that same year. And yet another 2014 album, Bright Light Bright Light’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, came to our attention a year after its initial release.
Some of the artists with multiple entries on this list, like Kanye West, began the 2010s at their creative and commercial zenith but floundered on both counts by decade’s end. Others, like Lana Del Rey, started out with great but uncertain promise and ultimately fulfilled it as the decade came to a close. Holdovers from the ‘90s like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as artists whose legacies stretch even further back, like the dearly departed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, released some of their most compelling work to date in the last 10 years, making the task of clearly defining the decade even more of a fool’s errand. What these 100 albums do have in common is quite simple: They moved us. Sal Cinquemani
100. Bright Light Bright Light, Life Is Easy
At a time when pop music is defined foremost by cynicism, Bright Light Bright Light, né Rod Thomas, offers a refreshingly sincere voice, unafraid to be poignant or vulnerable. Though the melodies on the Welsh singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, are often uncomplicated, they’re also instantly familiar and accessible. The album’s opening synths nod to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, as Thomas paints vivid, cinematic scenes of love lost and imagined, drenched in retro-minded synth-pop reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. The album is littered with tales of disintegrating love (“Everything I Ever Wanted,” “I Wish We Were Leaving,” featuring Elton John) but also the wide-eyed optimism of a hopeless romantic (“An Open Heart,” “I Believe”). It makes life—and love—sound easy. Cinquemani
99. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released in 2019, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. It’s all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s songs don’t so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of them—“Cattails,” “Century,” “From”—seize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Jeremy Winograd
98. Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Electric found the Pet Shop Boys taking an easy and well-earned career victory lap. This isn’t a nostalgia cruise through the sounds of its creators’ lost youth, but rather a daringly foolhardy effort to communicate with the kids in their own blissed-out lexicon. For this task, Electric brought in the man most perfectly suited to marrying ‘80s electro-pop classicism with genre-straddling EDM modernism, Stuart Price. More importantly, the duo brought a collection of wry and wonderful earworms that are every bit as huge as Price’s canyon-sized sound. A reminder that classic songs don’t have to arrive already frozen in amber. Blue Sullivan
95. Lindstrom, Real Life Is No Cool
Norwegian DJ Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and vocalist Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool is a pop-funk odyssey that draws on early Massive Attack, Prince, and especially the space-disco of Giorgio Moroder. The album is, perhaps, Lindstrøm’s most accessible work to date (the single “Lovesick” appeared in a car commercial and the U.S. version of the album is even more polished than the original Rough Trade incarnation), but despite clear standout tracks and copious pop hooks, it’s a testament to the strength of Lindstrøm’s singular vision that the album plays best as one whole piece, no small feat considering that it was at least seven years in the making. Cinquemani
96. James Blake, James Blake
A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Jesse Cataldo
95. Aphex Twin, Syro
Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (“produk 29”) to disjointed, robotic acid house (“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]”) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, it’s enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of “syro u473t8+e [141.98]”) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger “180db_.” While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessible—though still profoundly idiosyncratic—album to date. James Rainis
94. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator’s obvious talent has always been undercut by an insistent immaturity, with callow, prankish antagonism proving a continued obstacle to his artistic development. With Flower Boy, rap’s resident enfant terrible has finally found a way to channel his hostility, on an album that still retains his inherent unruliness and intensity. Tyler taps into the internal reservoir of insecurity and doubt motivating his anger, expanding his range and revealing new creative layers in the process. Building on the glimmers of tuneful sweetness found on 2015’s Cherry Bomb, the album finds existing horrorcore inclinations mixing freely with polished electro jazz, hard-edged psychedelia, and hazy R&B. Surprisingly smooth but still never easily digestible, its diverse palette provides insight into the wide variety of sources influencing a mounting wave of paradigm-fracturing rappers, helping to spearhead the genre’s fervent push into new modes of expression. Cataldo
93. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
As everyone who’s caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington’s maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled “The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale,” and “The Historic Repetition” and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. “Change of the Guard”? That might be an overstatement, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesn’t seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamar’s go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Eric Henderson
92. Katy B, On a Mission
As the coolly altered colors of the cover art indicate, Katy B’s On a Mission is euphoric without aggression. It’s awash in the newness of discovery, and represents the perfect confluence of elements that all but transcends any single camp. This isn’t merely a house album, a pop album, a dubstep album, or an R&B album. It’s a bright, cheerfully mainstream-friendly record that’s almost completely built from the ingredients of much darker, grimier dance music subcultures in a way that recalls the sunnier moments of Basement Jaxx, or Kathy Diamond’s Maurice Fulton-guided retro jaunt through the Loft on Miss Diamond to You. But softer still. On a Mission is a glowstick Alice in Wonderland, a tour of sensations as narrated by an emotionally reserved young girl whose “curiouser and curiouser” reactions ultimately wind up giving in to the moment, hungry for the next chapter. Henderson
91. Mariah Carey, Caution
“Caution” is an apt warning for those about to consume Mariah Carey’s first album in over four years. While her voice may be a reedy version of what it once was, she makes it abundantly clear on Caution that she isn’t to be fucked with in this or any other decade. She wisely relies on the rap-inflected R&B sounds that have been her bread and butter since Butterfly, while bringing in unexpected collaborators like Skrillex and Blood Orange. She also switches up the message: In the aftermath of a highly public breakup, a sense of inevitable heartache hangs over the whole thing, from the delightfully salty lead single “GTFO” (“I ain’t tryna be rude, but you’re lucky I ain’t kick your ass out last weekend,” she quips) to the even more savage “A No No,” in which she summons her verbally gymnastic falsetto for a Gilligan’s Island-related diss. The adoption of patois and clearly intentional use of “irregardless” suggest Mimi (still) has no time for notions of cultural appropriation or grammar, and appearances by Slick Rick and Biggie (via sample) let us know that her heart will always lie in hip-hop. Where it belongs. Paul Schrodt
90. Destroyer, Kaputt
With the lone exception of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of ‘80s air pop better than Destroyer’s Kaputt. There’s an almost stark obliviousness to the album’s caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, it’s still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the delicate melancholy of “Chinatown” to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Kevin Liedel
89. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez reportedly aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidedly more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, with synth-pop tracks like “Claudia Lewis” and “Reunion” alongside ambient throwbacks like “Echoes of Mine.” As always, Gonzalez goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of “Intro” for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of “Kim & Jessie,” over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals. Liedel
88. Taylor Swift, Reputation
In the run-up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift was excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The album’s lyrics only serve to bolster that perception: Swift comes off like a frazzled stay-at-home mom scolding her disobedient children on “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But it’s her willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pop’s reigning princess. Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation she’s created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake she’s been made out to be. By album’s end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in love—only Reputation isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014’s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like “…Ready for It?” like body armor. Cinquemani
87. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2. It’s not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealer’s lament “Crown” and the accusatory “Lie, Cheat, Steal” hold a mirror up to society’s blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-P’s punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis
86. DJ Koze, Knock Knock
DJ Koze’s eclectic third effort, Knock Knock, tones down the psychedelic flourishes of 2013’s Amygdala for a more accessible album that’s inviting and soothing while also, at times, preserving a plaintive sense of yearning. “Music on My Teeth” opens with a sample of Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts intoning that “time is a social institution and not a physical reality.” Whether it’s a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample on “Pick Up” or a guest spot by an Auto-Tune-drenched Kurt Wagner from Lambchop on “Muddy Funster,” Koze seamlessly melds eras and genres to fashion shape-shifting sonic textures. He plays to his guests’ strengths, giving the music the semblance of a mixtape at times, but overall the sound nevertheless remains cohesive. Seamless shifts from trip-hop to R&B to deep house create a multidimensional aesthetic that runs the gamut from retro to futuristic, from analog to digital, all while exuding Koze’s mastery of making the uncanny feel oddly familiar. Josh Goller
85. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love
“I hate ‘love’ in my own language,” Jenny Hval says on the title track of her seventh album, a spoken-word exchange between herself and Lasse Marhaug about the notion of reproduction and its impact on humanity. Although Hval has admitted to feeling some anxiety about dealing with love as a theme when she’s spent so much of her career focusing on anything but, on The Practice of Love she explores the concept with closely observed specificity. Over propulsive, trance-influenced musical backdrops that lend a disarming sheen to its raw lyrics, Hval analyses the presence—and lack—of love in nature (“Lions feat Vivian Wang”), in pregnancy and childlessness (“Accident”), and in communion with the dead (“Six Red Cannas”). Her lyrical style, equal parts allusive and up-front, makes for an exposing, raw album, as disquieting as it is dazzling. Anna Richmond
84. The Weeknd, House of Balloons
The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban radio, while Tesfaye’s tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. It’s a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams you’ll never hear in the club. Matthew Cole
83. Wild Beasts, Smother
True to their name, Wild Beasts builds on and fully inhabits an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The band’s experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the band’s two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like “Invisible,” an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel
82. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
The knock against Stephin Merritt and company’s latest long-sit is the lack of “company” in the equation: Where 1999’s 69 Love Songs varied its three-CD sprawl with rotating vocalists, Merritt’s sad-sack monotone is all we get for five discs on 50 Song Memoir. But, then, per the title, this is Stephin’s story: The songs each correspond to a year in the prickly 50-year-old songwriter’s life, and it wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to tell it. Merritt the aesthete understands this, and so he indulges in songs that wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to sing: It’s hard to imagine “A Cat Called Dionysus” being such a laugh riot without his deadpan pivot from “He hated me” to “I loved him,” and only Merritt could find musicality amid the drolly listed maladies on “Weird Diseases.” What 50 Song Memoir has in common with 69 Love Songs is that it’s one of the Magnetic Fields’s most consistent albums. Merritt’s lyrical concepts hold together as albums better than his aesthetic ones—and duration only helps the charm of his offbeat writing to sink in. Sam C. Mac
81. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
With her punk-yelp drawl, Santigold at first seems to be trying to affect Karen O’s style on her second album’s first single, “GO!,” but then the beat drops out and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman herself takes the mic, all elongated syllables and spliced-up vocals, and it’s clear Santi isn’t just playing dress-up, but skillfully, reverently co-inhabiting Karen’s world. Santi is a shapeshifter, and the beats and arrangements of each track are likewise perfectly tailored to their lyrics. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather,” Santi warns just as guitar licks crackle like electricity on “Disparate Youth,” an expertly layered piece of dub-pop, while her cavernous background vocals reverberate beneath the mechanical rhythm section of “God from the Machine.” Even if hip-hop-leaning tracks like “Freak Like Me” and “Look at These Hoes” feel more derivative than the album’s copious nods to new wave and synth-pop, Master of My Make-Believe is still a genre-defying exercise in exerting one’s mastery over all. Cinquemani
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2019
The year’s most compelling videos looked outside our realm of reality to reflect what’s going on inside.
Music videos offer a succinct, often easily digestible vehicle for big ideas—both political and technological. The opportunity for quick turn-around means that the medium, even more so than film and TV, can provide an almost real-time commentary on society. If last year’s best videos were a direct response to systemic racism and other forms of oppression, 2019 was the year artists and directors opted to seek refuge or remedy in the world of fantasy. Whether it was playful clips for EDM songs like the Chemical Brothers’s “We’ve Got to Try” and Hot Chip’s “Hungry Child,” which used humor to satirize relationships, FKA twigs’s “Cellophane,” which turned heartbreak into a wrenching visual representation of self-love, or Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time,” which tonally falls somewhere in the middle, 2019’s most compelling videos looked outside our realm of reality to reflect what’s going on inside. Sal Cinquemani
20. Normani, “Motivation”
The video for Normani’s “Motivation” hearkens back to the imagery of early-aughts pop, complete with streetside dance breaks and a head-turning strut from Normani that nods to Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” But Normani proves she’s a force in her own right, incorporating gravity-defying tumbles and a basketball booty bounce. The latest generation of young pop stars—Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes—seems to lack a superstar with the proverbial “full package,” with a commanding stage presense and capable of both jaw-dropping choreography and powerhouse vocals. “Motivation” captures the potential Normani has to become the next unstoppable female entertainer, emulating the showmanship of such pop icons as Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Queen B. Sophia Ordaz
19. Purple Mountains, “Darkness and Cold”
Purple Mountains is a lot of things, foremost among them the best confessional divorce album since Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. On “Darkness and Cold,” David Berman directly confronts the dissolution of his marriage: “Light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret.” At first glance, the song’s video is a literal rendering of the story, with Berman sulking around an apartment while he watches a woman get ready to go out. But they never interact directly. It’s as if Berman is sitting lonely in his room, torturing himself with thoughts of what she’s doing now. The clip’s editing heightens the misery: The action is interspersed with real pictures of Berman and his estranged wife, and the look on his face in the first shot is pure, uncut sorrow. But this wouldn’t be a David Berman song if that crushing, overwhelming sadness didn’t sit alongside gut-bustingly funny moments. His lip-synching into the microphone (and later flashlight) is comically exaggerated, and the video ends with a 10-second clip of rainbow-colored text wishing us all a happy summer from the Bermans as a pop song blares. “Darkness and Cold” is the last video we’ll ever get from Berman, but it perfectly captures the essence of his art: Life is unbearably terrible and unspeakably funny, and it’s usually both at the same time. Seth Wilson
18. Flying Lotus featuring Denzel Curry, “Black Balloons Reprise”
Darkness settles over L.A. as black balloons float skyward in the opening shot of Jack Begert’s video for Flying Lotus’s “Black Balloon Reprise,” and it only gets darker from there. Denzel Curry cuts a lonely figure throughout, whether he’s drawing a chalk box to lock himself in, writing messages in his own blood, or standing still, his shadow growing horns on the wall behind him. The track itself tackles the ugliness of life, the degradation of society, and our impending doom. “The day the black balloon explodes, we all die,” Curry raps just as huge balloons burst, strikingly and hopelessly, all around him. Anna Richmond
17. Brittany Howard, “Stay High”
The difference between weepy treacle and powerful melodrama is emotional honesty. Brittany Howard’s “Stay High” video is shot through with the latter, and not just because it so clearly reflects her working-class Alabama childhood. The day-in-the-life narrative follows a factory worker played by Terry Crews, dexterous at using his lumbering body for both humor and stone-faced realism, on his way home. He’s surrounded at different moments by people whose various shades of black, brown, and white skin reflect America as it actually is. They go about grocery shopping, playing games, and tributizing the deceased with an infectious optimism that isn’t blind to struggle or oppression—rather, it’s resolute. Schrodt
16. Doja Cat, “Juicy”
The cleverest postmodern image of 2019 shows Doja Cat in a skintight latex watermelon one-piece sensually splayed out on the floor, looking up at the camera, tantalizing the viewer with the possibilities of her body. Only thing is, she’s been literally sliced in half, her juice entrails exposed. The singer already proved herself as an eminent viral-video trickster who takes long-standing hip-hop tropes and current emoji-laden sexual communication and flips the script. Here she pares her art down to an elemental statement. She simultaneously wants you to lust after her, laugh at her lustiness, and question why the hell you’re lusting in the first place. Schrodt