Best Albums of The Fiddleback Years, Pg. 2 (19-11)


19.  Killer Mike | R.A.P. Music (2012)


Killer Mike does it all on his most highly-acclaimed release to date, R.A.P. Music. He delivers great party anthems (“Big Beast,” “Go!”), insightful political raps (“Reagan,” “Willie Burke Sherwood”), and introspective, nostalgic rap gospels (“R.A.P. Music”). Producer El-P forgoes his usual apocalyptic aesthetic by delivering big beats and catchy hooks, giving Killer Mike’s incisive and authoritative flow the perfect backdrop for working its magic. It’s rare for a rapper in his mid-thirties to deliver a record this consistent, focused, and inspired. Any album that can include two cuts as different as the darkly funky “Southern Fried,” and the chillingly political “Reagan” deserves our time and attention. R.A.P. Music wasn’t just one of the best hip hop records of 2012, it was one of that year’s best record’s period. —Brian Flota and James Brubaker


18.  Grimes | Visions (2012)


On the surface, Visions is a pleasant enough album, blending elements of electronic pop and dance music with an ethereal sense of wonder that, despite the plethora of familiar pop tropes running through these songs, pushes the album into surreal territory. These songs don’t have a lot of hooks, and when a song does employ a strong hook, even briefly, it isn’t uncommon for the song’s structure to undercut said hook. Visions, then, despite its heavy reliance on pop music signifiers, isn’t much of a pop album. The familiarity of the album’s sounds makes it an easy listen, but that familiarity is constantly called into question through its challenges to form. In a sense, Grimes may have invented a new genre with Visions. It’s a genre that does for dance music what chillwave does for eighties-nostalgia and lo-fi. Here, Grimes’ music is creating a sense of “pop-ness” through loosely associated genre signifiers, much like chillwave draws on lo-fi and analog textures to evoke a sense of memory and nostalgia. Maybe, then, we should refer to Visions as clubwave, or dancegaze—an album that manages to be about electronic pop and dance music by juxtaposing the signifiers of those genres to evoke the genres themselves, while simultaneously exploiting and interrogating the aesthetic principles that make up those musics’ DNA. In other words, Visions probably isn’t a great dance album, but it definitely makes us think about dancing. —James Brubaker


17.  How to Dress Well | Love Remains (2010)


To Describe Tom Krell’s How to Dress Well as eerie is an understatement—in fact, anything short of utterly haunted fails to convey the desperation and fragile pathos permeating every shadow-saturated corner and flickering-bulb-lit-hallway on the band’s debut LP, Love Remains. The fourteen songs that make up the album range from ethereal ambience to art-damaged pop, the end result being drum-machine driven, faux R&B slow jams that sound vaguely like an unsettling amalgam of Burial, Bon Iver and Maxwell. “Escape Before the Rain,” is austere and low key. The song’s lack of percussion allows it to succumb to its own atmosphere, pushing it to become one of the album’s most quietly desperate moments. In contrast, the jittery drum machines, not-quite-in-time falsetto vocals, and auto-tune echoes of “Ready for the World,” and “My Body,” blur the lines between pop music and an almost stifling post-apocalyptic sense of isolation. —James Brubaker


16.  The Weeknd | House of Balloons (2011)


House of Balloons is an exciting, haunting album that twists the sounds of mainstream R&B into something altogether darker and weirder. “What You Need,” is a sexy come-on set against ghost-breaths and vaguely ominous keyboards, while “The Morning” is both gorgeous and sad, finding The Weeknd throwing down some soulful lamentations about money and zombies. As absurd as it may sound, the songs on House of Balloons are downright moving. The emotional depth of these songs is heightened by the occasionally glitchy, gloomy production—the stuttering beats, chrome synths, and distorted samples create a masterfully sorrowful atmosphere that doesn’t just “back up” the vocals, but provides them with a platform from which they can truly shine . When I wrote the review from which much of this capsule is excerpted, I wrote, “It’s still too early to tell what these songs are, exactly, who they’re by, or what kind of context they fit into.” If anything, in the intervening years, it has become quite clear that House of Balloons has been incredibly influential, as its production aesthetics and gritty lyrical content have filtered up and sneaked into the darker corners of mainstream pop. —James Brubaker


15.  The Knife | Shaking the Habitual (2013)


With Silent Shout, The Knife delivered an off-kilter dance record that was spooky and practically post-human. After the type of extended absence that is often deadly to weaker, more human acts, The Knife are back after a seven year hiatus with the ambitious, hour-and-a-half long Shaking the Habitual. While the album is not immediately captivating, repeated listens actually reveal it to be a better album than its highly lauded predecessor. The clip-cloppity beats of Silent Shout are replaced, more generally, with analog-mimicking polyrhythms that subtly contribute to the listener’s loss of their equilibrium. Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray) and Olof Dreijer’s voices are as spooky as ever. Though Silent Shout was far from conventional, each song was pretty tightly constructed. Here, the songs are longer, generally slower and less manic, and are given time to breathe. The result is an even more chilling listening experience. It also helps that many of the tracks on the record are utterly captivating. Though some will argue that the album may be improved if it was shorter, the drawn-out nature of the record’s aesthetic generates an eerie mood that would be eliminated if it was truncated by just one second. With Shaking the Habitual, The Knife deliver obtuse political music that has far more originality in it than most of their contemporaries can muster. —Brian Flota


14.  Robyn | Body Talk 2010)


Released at the end of 2010 after most of the songs had been released on a pair of EP’s, Robyn’s Body Talk is easily the best pure-pop album of this young decade. The scary thing is, thanks to some questionable sequencing (“Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” is practically begging to be track one) and the absence of EP #1’s exquisite “Cry When You Get Older,” Body Talk could’ve been even better. Still, quibbles aside, Body Talk is an unfuckwithable album. Robyn manages to blend playfulness (“Fembots”), pathos (“Dancing on my Own,” and holy-shit, “Call Your Girlfriend” is stupid good), and swagger (“U Should Know Better”) with impeccable electro-pop production, and unprecedented-for-pop sincerity to make an album that, despite its veneer of chilly synthesizers and digital beats, feels impossibly human. —James Brubaker


13.  Kanye West | Yeezus (2013)


While previewing Yeezus at a listening party in New York, Kanye West explained the rationale behind the album’s title: “West was my slave name; Yeezus is my God name.” Of course, if Yeezus is West’s “God name,” and if the album is any indication, then West’s God is of the Old Testament variety, vengeful, violent, and ready to rain down a shitstorm of jagged, art-fucked beats, modular synths, dancehall vocals, head-spinning smash-cuts, and agitprop rants about race and hegemony. I know it’s something of a cliché to say by now, but Yeezus has the potential to be to Kanye West and hip hop what Kid A was to Radiohead and rock and roll. That is to say, Yeezus is a major, genre-shaking shift from one of the biggest artists in the game. That West complicates his next-level production with noisy politics and troubled gender dynamics will make Yeezus the kind of album that will be puzzled over and discussed for quite some time. Of course, Yeezus isn’t an easy album—transgressive art never is, nor should it be—but when Brenda Lee’s coy, “Uh huh, Honey”—unceremoniously yanked out of the white-washed fifties to peddle raw sex and non-conventional views of romantic love—closes the album, it’s hard not to be seduced by the sheer audacity of West’s project, even knowing full well that the project is built on some ugly shit. —James Brubaker


12.  CHVRCHES | The Bones of What You Believe (2013)


“The Mother We Share” has to be in the conversation for track of the year, so to start a record, let alone a debut, with such a bold declaration sets a high standard for the rest of The Bones of What You Believe. The album consistently lives up to this challenge, track by track, blow by blow. From the aggression of “Gun” to the pleading of “Recover” (which should be in the running for a top five list of best verge-of-breakup songs ever) to the jubilation of “Night Sky,” almost every track leaves the listener on the edge of her seat, wondering if she should join in or just watch the dance from afar. (She should join in.) The production and execution draw apt comparisons to M83 in terms of recent electronic dancepop. But I think the best comparison I can draw is with fellow UK band New Order, whose influence can be felt clearly, especially in moments like the grand swell in “Tether” or the opening riff of “Science/Visions.” Like New Order, and in particular before they were playing arenas and World Cups, CHVRCHES are an electronic band, and they want to make you dance, but not at the expense of songwriting, which remains their strongest gift. —Joshua Cross


11.  Oneohtrix Point Never | R Plus Seven (2013)


After years of cool, steely digitalism, Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven is an unexpectedly soulful album. That soul hinges on the album’s many tensions: between calm and chaos, between electronic and organic, between that which is unknowable and technology’s insatiable desire to shape that unknown into a better tomorrow. Perhaps the soulfulness in question is new and maybe even posthuman, but if it is, R Plus Seven doesn’t lament technology’s steady creep, choosing instead to celebrate the give and take between humans and machines. If Oneohtrix Point Never’s early compositions were a new way to describe sorrow and alienation, then with R Plus Seven, Lopatin has invented the new posthuman spiritual, wordless future-hymns that should probably be the soundtrack for V’yger’s communion with Decker at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Simply put, R Plus Seven is some next level shit, a knowing spiritual soundtrack for our ever accelerating posthuman evolution. —James Brubaker