Sandinista! – The Clash (1980)

Sandinista! - The Clash (1980)

The common criticism of Sandinista! is that it would’ve been better pared down to a double or single album. The Clash’s best album is contained in here (check out Joe’s excellent rapping on The Magnificent Seven, or the breezy pop/protest song Washington Bullets – which turn the album’s title into something incredibly catchy) and even at its worst, it’s still really interesting. Most of the throwaway stuff is buried way deep on side 6, which consists largely of dub versions and remixes of earlier songs. Removing those weaker tracks may improve the overall quality, but then it wouldn’t be the same – the sprawl is part of the package! “I stand proud of it,” Joe Strummer once said of the album, “warts and all.”

Choice Cut: Police on My Back

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Paris 1919 – John Cale (1973)

Paris 1919 - John Cale (1973)

This is basically a concept album, but not in the same way as, say, Tommy. It’s a portrait of a specific point in time and space, specifically Paris 1919. Not all of the lyrics are based on that, but it is a fitting soundtrack for that era. It’s layered, intensely personal, and absolutely beautiful, with A Child’s Christmas in Wales perfecting symphonic art rock and the title track expanding on the Velvet Underground’s later sound. Plus Cale’s voice, ragged and touching throughout, is an asset – it makes me wish he’d sang more with the Velvets, but I’ll always have his solo work.

Choice Cut: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

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Tango: Zero Hour/Nuevo Tango: Hora Zero – Astor Piazzolla and The New Tango Quintet (1986)

Tango: Zero Hour/Nuevo Tango: Hora Zero - Astor Piazzolla and The New Tango Quintet (1986)

This is pretty much the essence of cool. Mysterious and suggestive. These songs incorporate classical, jazz, and tango elements to create something truly unique. The arrangements are superb, where Piazzolla orchestrates violins, accordion, piano and other instruments to blend into a sparse and noirish atmosphere. The instruments sound well separated, with each voice stealing their moments of virtuosity and unbounded emotion from the whole. It’s smooth, fluid, and occasionally very pretty, particularly in the case of the closer Mumuki.

Choice Cut: Tanguedia III

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OK Computer – Radiohead (1997)

OK Computer - Radiohead (1997)

It’s the classic “best album of the ’90s” pick, which means that any backlash it gets is pretty much inevitable. Sure, there are other ’90s albums that are as creative (Ágætis byrjun), as emotionally resonant (Automatic for the People), as influential (Loveless), or as melodic (Grace) as this one. But what makes OK Computer the greatest album of its generation is the the way all of those elements come together in one place – most notably on the crushing, sweeping Paranoid Android. Listen to how perfectly it moves from the unnerving first part to the second part’s explosive rock (complete with an incredible guitar solo), to the chilling Gothic finale. Better songs have been written, but there aren’t many. Among them is Let Down, my favorite. The riff rules, but the real high point is the climax, with an army of overdubbed Thom Yorkes doing their thing.

Choice Cut: Let Down

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Ridin’ Dirty – UGK (1996)

Ridin’ Dirty - UGK (1996)

Even with several unabashed celebrations of the gangsta lifestyle (see Murder, 3 in da Mornin’, and Good Stuff), a big part of what really makes this awesome is the clear-eyed, “holy shit we could die at any minute” bent to their songs. And that’s when this one’s at its best – Diamonds & Wood, Hi-Life, and the all-time masterpiece One Day. The other part, of course, is the beats. The atmospheric, laid-back, late-night Ridin’ Dirty, or the funkiest hip-hop song of all time, Pinky Ring… those are timeless, timeless beats that anyone can get good vibes off of.

Choice Cut: One Day

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Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana – Shiina Ringo (2003)

Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana - Shiina Ringo (2003)

Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana, (English title Kalk Semen Chestnut Flower), is the essence of art pop and easily one of the best records of the 00’s. Not only is the songwriting terrific – the hooks on Kuki and Yattsuke Shigoto are the hooks of the gods – but there’s this great anything goes spirit and Shiina’s voice is in top form throughout. She also plays an insane amount of instruments, including koto, pipe organ, percussion, piano, erhu, shamisen, melodica, recorder, kalimba, harmonium, jaw harp, whistle, drums, guitar… And some people say that nobody does anything different anymore.

Choice Cut: Kuki

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In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

Has this remarkable outsider vibe, despite being one of the most acclaimed albums in history. An assortment of surrealism, idiosyncrasy, sorrow, pain, and beauty. Goddamn, is it beautiful… not in a conventional way at all, but listening to Jeff Mangum pour his heart out accompanied by marching bands, freaky organs, and musical saws is a fantastic, engrossing experience. The title track turns madness into stately beauty, sounding like a eulogy to someone who never actually existed but would’ve been your best friend if they had. And good luck not getting swept up in the bizarre emotions of Oh Comely, emotions I’m not even sure they have names for. Genius or insanity? I say both!

Choice Cut: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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