For those who don’t have time to listen to 100 albums, I’ve provided links to one song after each write-up. Maybe it’s the album’s best song, maybe it’s the most representative, or maybe it’s something in between. I’ve also included a Spotify playlist of these songs at the bottom, although my #80 album is not on Spotify.
Oh, I didn’t realize my #75 and #74 would lead off on Tuesday. Please forgive me.
75. Kanye West: Yeezus (2013)
Alongside 808’s & Heartbreak, Yeezus is Kanye’s most radical album. It’s also super fucked; try not to think too hard about what the “Strange Fruit” sample on “Blood on the Leaves” is implying, and just forget it when he mentions sweet and sour sauce. But from moment one, the album’s aggro Death Grips-style onslaught is unreal, and in any other environment his self-comparisons to larger-than-life tragic figures (King Kong, Batman, Jesus Christ) would get tiring. Instead, this music is so satisfyingly primal that its title felt right. It was beginning to feel like the world’s most prolifically flawed man could do no wrong.
Listen: “Black Skinhead”
74. Drake: Take Care (2011)
In 2011, long before being exposed as an absent father and a generally sketchy dude, Drake sobbing about his riches was still new. This annoying, overlong magnum opus instantly elevated him from a young upstart to one of the world’s most essential pop musicians, all despite Take Care lacking even one superhit. The album was too sparse and sad for radio, its centerpiece, “Marvins Room,” being a vile drunk dial with a bare bones backing track. Drake painting a portrait of himself as King Midas with a Toronto nightlife backdrop might sound irritating on paper, but this is of one of this era’s most talented hitmakers ruthlessly pushing himself artistically.
Listen: “Take Care” (ft. Rihanna)
73. Mitski: Puberty 2 (2016)
“Your Best American Girl” is such a monster, such an awesome display, that Mitski, despite still becoming more and more powerful, is unlikely to ever match it. But Puberty 2 doesn’t vanish beneath it. Its ten other songs are all monsters in their own right. These songs are gutting yarns about mental anguish and unwellness, a sort of adolescence even more overwhelming than the first. Pairing surprisingly well with her tender singing, Mitski’s guitar attack is relentless. It’s an album about staring inwardly, honestly, and unflinchingly enough that we can actually grow.
Listen: “Your Best American Girl”
72. Fucked Up: David Comes To Life (2011)
Two star-crossed lovers build an explosive to bomb a factory. The bomb kills the young woman. The narrator leaps into the story to have a fight with the protagonist on a boat. David Comes To Life is a mess of a story and far too long, but it’s the best realization of Fucked Up’s grandiose approach to hardcore, their songs surrounded by a towering wall of guitar ambience. And though the story is knotty, its moments of clarity are something else. When Damian Abraham howls “LET’S BE TOGETHER. LET’S FALL IN LOVE,” all the insanity snaps into place.
Listen: “Queen of Hearts”
71. Old 97’s: Most Messed Up (2014)
The long, romping opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” is a celebration of the band’s twenty-plus years, and it’s among the crown jewels in their catalogue. But Old 97’s are wonderful for the simple shit: a lovelorn rocker called “Give It Time” that concludes “it will break you,” the one about the tryst on the work vacation, the rockers that end the album, and of course “Nashville,” the tightest-written song they’ve ever put out. Most Messed Up was a back-to-basics album for Old 97’s, and consequently it was their best release in well over a decade.
70. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (2018)
These New Zealand rockers are defined by their social anxiety. Their most enduring choruses go “you wouldn’t like me if you saw what was inside me” and “future heartbreak, future headaches, wide-eyed nights laid lying awake.” But while my favorite mode for The Beths are these anxious pop rock songs, they have more in their arsenal. They also come with all-out rockers (“Uptown Girl”), melodic singalongs (“Whatever”), and massive, strangely serious songs (“Not Running,” “Little Death”). What feels like a small album has a lot to love and a lot to offer.
Listen: “Happy Unhappy”
69. Jay-Z: 4:44 (2017)
Jay-Z’s decade should be remembered for him ending it as earth’s most notorious scab, although 4:44 is a complicated listen for other reasons (mostly the billionaire stuff and the bizarre antisemitism). But damn, here’s his first essential full length since The Black Album. Between his embarrassing brags about his obscene wealth accumulation are racial observations tied to La La Land and OJ Simpson, a song celebrating his newly out mother, and two fiery, grippingly remorseful responses to Lemonade. But most importantly, No I.D.’s production carries this album with a career-best effort.
Listen: “Smile” (ft. Gloria Carter)
68. Heems: Eat, Pray, Thug (2015)
One knock against Eat, Pray, Thug is that it’s not Heems’ most thrilling project, and it’s not even particularly close. His creative fire has been more felt in both Swet Shop Boys and obviously Das Racist, but the emotional heft of this one wins out. The album consists of his usual brand of joke rap with the occasional poppier attempt, but the vibe ranges from somewhat to severely depressed. The album’s true heart is in “Flag Shopping” and “Patriot Act,” two absolutely gutting stories about Himanshu’s life as his communities were persecuted in New York City after 9/11.
Listen: “Patriot Act”
67. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010)
Halcyon Digest is the sweet spot of Deerhunter’s career: still obsessed with the sonic approach that defined them while maturing into remarkable songwriters. Their fascination with textures is still in full force here, and you can hear the meticulous craft on every drum sound throughout. Sometimes it sounds like they’re just showing off: on guitarist Lockett Pundt’s best ever song, masterwork “Desire Lines,” his playing sneaks its way into your soul, and on leading man Bradford Cox’s best ever song, “Helicopter,” he tells a harrowing story of Russian human trafficking. Halcyon Digest remains Deerhunter’s finest hour.
66. The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth (2012)
Transcendental Youth is The Mountain Goats operating at full capacity. Darnielle’s writing is as strong as ever, and the arrangements (the horns!) reach new heights. The band never clicked this well, and these are their most lasting melodies. Darnielle’s topics of choice (a gladiator on the brink of death, Frankie Lymon’s death, Scarface villains (who are dead)) are their most brutal since at least The Sunset Tree. Transcendental Youth is a return to what worked in their peak years but also an evolution thereof. It would do quite well as an introduction to a complicated discography.
Listen: “Harlem Roulette”
65. The Regrettes: How Do You Love? (2019)
Lydia Night is a gargantuan talent. After putting out a superb debut as The Regrettes’ bandleader at just sixteen, two year’s later she’s released this album about the rush of being in love. It’s a stunning achievement. The songs are bigger, and her pop sense is unreal. Evoking L7, The Marvelettes, The Bangles, and The Strokes, the execution in the power pop blast of “Summer Friends” or the Strokesy big single “I Dare You” are undeniable. The Regrettes aren’t exactly breaking new ground with their music, but they take a tried and true approach and do it so damn well.
Listen: “California Friends”
64. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (2019)
You know, for an album that was released less than a month before the artist’s suicide and whose greatest song is titled “All My Happiness Is Gone,” Purple Mountains isn’t a total bummer. Yeah, the occasional fit of humor seems even sadder now, but mercifully this album isn’t pure wallowing. But still, fuck. David Berman is painfully hard on himself. His divorce and his mother’s passing are constantly on his mind, and he ends with, “If no one’s fond of fucking me/Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.” Then suddenly you realize you’re tapping your foot to it.
Listen: “Just The Way That I Feel”
63. Arcade Fire: Reflektor (2013)
Dunking their faces into Greek mythology, Kierkegaard, and trips to Jamaica and Haiti, Arcade Fire teamed with James Murphy for their most ambitious album, its sheer thematic reach outweighing the negatives of its length and pretensions. Their increasingly irritating grumpy old man shtick is salvaged by flipping it onto a century-old thought that constant reflection breeds inaction. It results in the slightest song here, “You Already Know,” being a convincing diagnosis of what ails our souls. And finally, they tie their unrelated themes together with “Afterlife,” leaving you with just one question: “When love is gone, where does it go?”
62. Death Grips: The Money Store (2012)
Death Grips’ industrial hip hop perfectly crystallized on their early, most pop-sensible offering, The Money Store. Here, Andy Morin and drummer Zach Hill marry mission statement Exmilitary’s musical groundwork with inviting, unconventional hooks. But obviously MC Ride is who makes this album remarkable. More than ever, his bizarre phraseology is easy to latch onto or meme. Ride roars, speaking oddities that become instant catchphrases (“I stay noided,” “I’m in your area”). And on “Hacker,” all restraint exits, and Death Grips deliver a titanic kaleidoscope of seizing madness. On The Money Store, their power is convincing and infectious.
Listen: “I’ve Seen Footage”
61. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (2016)
Will Toledo’s drug addiction can really be a downer, and the only reprieve from Teens of Denial’s hopelessness is an insane “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS,” though that hope is only found for the orcas of SeaWorld, not any of Toledo’s human subjects. But nevertheless his writing is fascinating enough and his music engaging enough to justify these songs’ welcome after six or even eleven minutes. Finally making his proper debut despite this being his tenth album, Toledo makes his big moment count, the horns on “Vincent” loudly announcing Car Seat Headrest’s new musical normal.
Listen: “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
60. Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010)
The sheer brazenness of Sleigh Bells as a project is unbelievable. Alexis Krauss’s hypersonic screams and Derek Miller’s humongous blasts of electric guitar would knock anyone on their ass. Krauss is also a keen melodist, whether it’s reworking Funkadelic for standout “Rill Rill” (the album’s lone quietish affair) or weaving hooks between rampages. Treats’ noise pop makes other music feel small and cowardly, flexing with every jolt of sound. Krauss sounds possessed chanting on “Infinity Guitars,” and “Crown on the Ground” turns their chaos into something triumphant. Sleigh Bells are unstoppable, and Treats was their purest mission statement.
Listen: “Riot Rhythm”
59. The Weeknd: House of Balloons (2011)
When this faceless set of songs dropped, The Weeknd’s identity was still mysterious, which was appropriate given the half-creepy, half-sexy aura of House of Balloons. The unnerving, spooky production is wonderful on its own, but the sample selections (Siouxsie, Beach House) are sublime. On many of these nine songs, he seems more like a vibe in the air, a devil on the shoulder, a Kaa the snake, but he still makes way for a raw, bombastic love song in “Wicked Games.” The anonymity was key, and the idea that these songs were simply birthed from the ether was hair-raising.
58. D’Angelo & The Vanguard: Black Messiah (2014)
After nearly fifteen years, D’Angelo’s follow-up to Voodoo was already imminent, but shortly following grand jury decisions to not indict the policemen who assassinated Michael Brown and Eric Garner, D’Angelo felt urgency to release Black Messiah as soon as possible. Wearing his influences on his sleeve as always, the album is a restrained hum of disarray in the vein of There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But on a chaotic album, “The Charade” is unexpectedly direct. Black Messiah has nothing so awesome as “Untitled (How Does It Feel?),” but its more understated mastery makes this return worthy of its title.
Listen: “The Charade”
57. Solange: True (2012)
In between her 2000s output that never caught traction and her fully realizing herself with sparser, artier music, Solange gave us a brief, wondrous ‘80s pop album. Dev Hynes’ production was her best match, topping off “Losing You” with rhythmic chirping and “Locked In Closets” with a naughty groove while “Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work” bopped back and forth. All the while, she casually tosses out lighthearted, specific lines like “Remember when you kissed me/At Jimmy John’s when I was seventeen?” It’s a shame we never got a full album of this. It’s the EP of the decade.
56. No Age: Everything In Between (2010)
Compared to the beloved Nouns’ loud guitar bursts, Everything In Between scans like typical indie rock by comparison. This is still a noise punk album, but it so frequently sacrifices the awe their sheer power can spark. But it was because they found confidence in their songwriting that they stripped everything down, showing off not just their furious and aggressive “Fever Dreaming” side but finding room to show off their superb angstier songwriting as on “Glitter.” Everything In Between hits the sweet spot between Nouns and An Object with a two-prong approach that was pointedly straightforward and simple.
Listen: “Fever Dreaming”
55. Charly Bliss: Young Enough (2019)
Cleaning everything up and adding synthesizers and drum machines, Charly Bliss’s second album goes much deeper, introducing an all-consuming sentimentality and breaking through trauma with disarming ebullience. Young Enough’s power pop is about falling in love, getting your heart broken, and picking yourself back up into a stronger, wholler person. Here, Eva Hendricks’ voice finds a more natural fit, getting your feelings going whether she’s learning how to love herself or just plumbing credit card fraud for some greater meaning. It’s just icing that when they really want to, they can just straightforwardly fucking rock.
Listen: “Hard to Believe”
54. Lana Del Rey: Born To Die (2012)
After “Video Games” proved a thinkpiece-generating machine, her major label debut served up even further unfair discussions of her “authenticity,” and Born To Die became the most unfairly maligned album of the decade. Later that year, Lorde proved Lana was onto something, and the album’s slinking, depressed music with a light hip hop sheen was on its way towards vindication. Her vocal hooks sink slowly but surely, but her lyricism is her strong point, veering violently between vivid imagery and more general grandiosity. She makes Diet Mountain Dew an all-American symbol.
Listen: “Off to the Races”
53. Lorde: Pure Heroine (2013)
Lorde’s minimalism on Pure Heroine displays a wide set of influences and excellently buoys her songs about materialism, generational divides, and, relatedly, anxiety with growing older. “Ribs” is a song about approaching adulthood so wise that only a teenager could have written it. “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” is an asskicker of an opening line. Her personality is so big it manages to contain “Royals,” a hilariously ambitious mission statement for Gen Z. It wasn’t just that Lorde made such a splash at the age of sixteen. Pure Heroine had her saying some real voice-of-a-generation shit.
52. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (2017)
What do you do to follow up two ultra grandiose concept albums, each among the greatest rap albums ever? Kendrick Lamar wisely dialed it back a bit and created more radio-ready hip hop, including some outright pop on “LOVE.” and “LOYALTY.” Still, even his relatively light fare is pretty heavy, especially in the final stretch of the album where he sneaks in some songs that would fit right at home on To Pimp A Butterfly. But the format allows him his big anthem, and it isn’t “HUMBLE.”: “DNA.” is currently the earned boast atop Kendrick’s unparalleled career.
51. Downtown Boys: Full Communism (2015)
Sounding like X-Ray Spex with a hard leftist bent, Downtown Boys’ Full Communism tears through everything briskly. No one is spared, not Bruce Springsteen, not white hegemony, and certainly not the inheritance tax, the latter inspiring a chorus simply of the percentage they’d like to see the tax raised to: “ONE. ZERO. ZERO.” As the saxes lock horns with the guitars, Victoria Ruiz’s vocals send things further into a frenzy. And Full Communism is also a wonderful reminder that much of the best music to get us through the Trump era applied under Obama, too.