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Back to Black
When Amy Winehouse’s unfortunate death on 23 July 2011 became a media sensation, many people were discovering her music for the first time. One listen of Back to Black was all it took to recognize that the world had lost a major talent. With the help of producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, Winehouse crafted a beautiful album that highlighted her unique singing voice, which was at once euphoric and sorrowful. The now iconic single “Rehab” captures a joyous Motown sound, but the sting of depression always lingers in the background. Winehouse confronts longing and loneliness head-on in slower, more soulful tracks like “Love Is a Losing Game” and “Wake Up Alone”, and they’re the most moving recordings of her career. After listening to this intensely personal record, there’s a sense that we’ve crawled inside the soul of a flawed, troubled woman who wanted nothing more than to be loved and deeply understood by those around her. Each track is a testament to Winehouse’s vulnerability as a human, honesty as an artist, and brilliance as a musician. Jon Lisi
The College Dropout
It’s hard to believe that in only 10 years he was able to go from “Jesus Walks” to “I Am a God” but in retrospect all the elements of the loud, opinionated, triumphant and ridiculous iconoclast that we know call Yeezus were present in his debut album. There’s the perfectionism, the musical eclecticism, the unhinged ego, tongue-in-cheek humor, the endlessly fascinating internal contradictions, the groundbreaking production, all united by West’s overarching vision in a way that makes this whole thing feel somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Still trying to work his way into the mainstream after years being the wizard behind Jay-Z and others’ hits, West managed to bring together elements of classic soul and gospel, bawdy mainstream rap, conscious hip-hop and avant garde art and combine them into a cohesive whole. Never before had these worlds sat so comfortably together, especially not on massive singles that hit both the street and the critics’ lists with equal force. Songs like “We Don’t Care”, “All Falls Down”, “The New Workout Plan” and “Two Words” may be diverse in their scope but they’re uniform in their musical insistence. The College Dropout is a record ambitious and accomplished enough to change both the sound and the substance of rap. John M. Tryneski
I’m not a fan of Beck. His nonchalant irreverence which permeates albums like Odelay and Mellow Gold can be quite grating and difficult to warm up to. However, with Beck’s beauteous eighth studio album Sea Change, he managed to do something that most artists so late into their careers could never do—a redefining of musical boundaries that drops the pretension and goes for the emotional jugular. Not only did Beck manage to produce a longing album of yearning and heartbreak, he proved that beyond the icy and kitschy demeanour that made him famous exists a diverse and complex artist capable of stretching beyond his showy complex production style. Something that is would make naysayers who may have prematurely written him off, take a second look. Enio Chiola
Turn on the Bright Lights
Turn on the Bright Lights was to post-punk revival what Is This It? was to garage rock revival. The detractors keep comparing this to Joy Division and the Chameleons, except they don’t seem to realize that Paul Banks’ voice moves more than Ian Curtis’ and the production is clearer than any Chameleons record. Then, they turn to tearing up Banks’ lyricism instead, taking them out of context and laughing at them, except they don’t seem to realize that Banks’ lyrics are more human than most any other record; relatable tales of relationships through the use of colloquialisms (“Her books are boring and stuff”) or filler words (“My best friend’s from Poland and um, he has a beard”), and comparing a subway to a porno was so obvious, I’m amazed no one’s thought of it before. But forget all that and pay attention to the instruments, because being post-punkers, they’re good at what they do: the guitar interplay of “Obstacle 1”, the finale of “PDA”, the chug of “Say Hello to the Angels”, the breakdown of “The New”, and the melodies of “Leif Erikson.” Marshall Gu
The Marshall Mathers LP
The poetry icons from the ‘60s such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton became known as “confessional poets”. On The Marshall Mathers LP Eminem becomes the confessional poet of hip-hop. This often-controversial album exudes in references to violence and homosexuality, but it did so through the character of Slim Shady, and though jarring and offensive, a character no more likely to manifest than Plath’s Nazi-fueled protagonist full of vitriol aimed at her father in “Daddy”.
The Marshall Mathers LP opens up Eminem’s artistic heart and leads it spurt bloody and unrestrained. This album is a juggernaut of words and images that gush in a relentless, unambiguous assault. The singer sits like an American Horror Story version of a expletive-spouting carnival challenge, taunting the listener to take just one more shot, which he always does.
Ultimately, The Marshall Mathers LP explodes with permissions—permission to document life with absolute bluntness—permission to transform the near exhaustive horrors of love-tinged hate into poetry—permission to rise above the material, the motivation, permission to craft art from pain. Without the rhythm, the intricate rhymes, without the music, the disassociated words would scatter on the floor and congeal like a threatening love note. But Eminem imbues the words with a kind of fragility that impedes their bluster. While the master of white rap eventually overcomes his demons with tenuous, and sometime feeble constraint, the chronicle of that battle demands our attention over-and-over again. The Marshall Mathers LP will act as a get-out-of-jail free card for artists taking colloquial agony to new heights. Daniel Rasmus