Collected answers to questions I get about music, part two: the Championship Belt

This originally ran on inappreciationof.wordpress.com and now runs on gyrateplus.wordpress.com, my personal website. I am sharing it here by request, but also because it is part of a popular series — Collected Answers.

  1. From 1958 (formation of the Billboard Hot 100 chart) to now, who has owned the Music Championship Belt?

This one is from Harrison, who is a fine writer in his own time and loves to ask me challenging questions. We both agreed on the 1958 date as the best starting point; probably the first real attempt to estimate what can be currently recognized as popular music. Billboard popular charts existed before this with good success, but this is the first chart to really tie in with what we know today. One disclaimer: the beginning of this list will be very, very white — Elvis Presley, while great, was not the best of his era, but black jazz music did not chart nearly as well as Presley due to radio discrimination. White people south of New York in 1958 weren’t going to like Miles Davis. We’re going to use this chart to combine something resembling an equation of Quality plus Quantity Sold, so this could be a very unsatisfying chart or a satisfying one. Just so everyone knows, this took forever to answer and is the reason why I had to split one post into two…anyway, let’s get it rolling.

1958–1959: Miles Davis.

I struggled with this for a long time, because Elvis Presley will be more remembered than Miles Davis by the average music listener and he sells way more records. Also, he’s way more accessible. Also also, it does not take effort to get someone to hear an Elvis Presley song. But Miles Davis made “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “Blue in Green”, “All Blues”, and “Flamenco Sketches”. Then Miles Davis put all of those five compositions, all perfect, on one album. It’s titled Kind of Blue. Please buy it. He also made Milestones, Miles Ahead, and Porgy and Bess in this two-year span.

Honorable mentions: Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley.

1960–1962: Elvis Presley.

The first three of these are incredibly easy. Elvis is the first true star of the Hot 100 era, and he owned the charts up and down for its first four-plus years. 12 of his singles ended up on Billboard’s year-end top 100 songs during this run, and 9 were #1 hits. Of course, this is actually after of his most prolific chart run — 1956 and 1957 had 8 #1s combined.

However, that might be selling him a tiny bit short. Every single Elvis Presley single from 1958 to 1962 peaked at #4 or higher on the Billboard charts, meaning that every song Presley deemed important enough for major radio play was one of the four-most played songs in the entire country at any given time during a four-plus year run. Fifteen singles! And he did those first two years of this run while serving a draft notice in Germany!!!

Imagine, if you will, that Taylor Swift was suddenly removed from all public and private eyes for…three years exactly. Her record label released two B-side singles total over those three years (we’ll say they both end up top 5 because of name), and her importance would fade. I love Swift, but would she be able to come back, and over the course of three years, resume complete and total chart dominance like she had never left? (Probably.) God, what an accomplishment. And pretty much all of the hits are airtight, excellent pieces. Next time some doofus tells you Elvis didn’t matter because he didn’t write his own songs, pick up the nearest guitar and whack them in the preferred body part of choice.

(But, and I’ll say it again: Miles Davis is one of the greatest musical innovators to ever exist, and was better than Elvis through 1962. I recommend Kind of Blue as the one album every novice jazz listener should own, because there is not a single second on the album that could be perfected more. It really might be the greatest LP since LPs became a thing. That or Abbey Road. Too bad that A. jazz has the worst stigmas of any kind of music because people were conditioned to hear it as background noise, and B. he never charted an album higher than #35. Blame white people for being stupid.)

Honorable mentions: Miles Davis, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, The Kingston Trio.

1963–1970: The Beatles.

No real explanation needed here — from the moment they released Please Please Me to the day they broke up, they were the greatest band in the world and no one has since touched the heights they touched. Now, to be fair, we’re talking rock music only — no one would blame you if you submitted Mozart, Beethoven, or the like (or, more recently, Miles Davis) for being better composers and musicians. But in popular music, they are the greatest of all time.

Also, it helped that they totally dominated the charts from the moment they started selling their albums in the US in 1964. (They sold singles in the US starting in 1961.) Both Please Please Me and With the Beatles were smash hits in Britain, topping the UK charts for a combined 51 straight weeks. Wait a minute, I didn’t phrase that correctly — THEY TOPPED THE ALBUM CHARTS IN BRITAIN FOR ALMOST AN ENTIRE YEAR WITHOUT INTERRUPTION. That will never, ever, ever happen again anywhere.

Anyway, every single album the Beatles put out in the States peaked at no lower than #2, and every one achieved at least RIAA Platinum certification (one million records or greater shipped). Even more fascinating to me is that at one time, “Penny Lane” topped the Hot 100 charts. Something as bizarre and eclectic as that was a hit. Imagine that happening now — you can’t! God, what a band.

Honorable mentions: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin.

1971–1972: The Rolling Stones.

Imagine being one of the three greatest rock groups to ever exist and only holding the Music Championship Belt for two years. This is what happens when your peak happens to coincide with the greatest white musical innovators since Debussy. (The real greatest innovators since then are Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, but they’re black, so in Donald Trump’s America you’re required to hate everything they stood and fought for.) The Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 and Exile on Main Street in 1972 — two albums that really should’ve made a lot of bands that came after them inconsequential and unheard. But then they made Goats Head Soup and things tumbled after. It was a good two years, and perhaps the final two years of the theoretical Golden Age of Rock. Or at least of the British Invasion.

Honorable mentions: Led Zeppelin, the Who, Miles Davis, Sly & the Family Stone, Steely Dan, Carole King, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

1973–1974: Paul McCartney & Wings.

Wings gets a lot of crap for being the type of stuff retirement-age folks like to sway along to as tribute bands butcher electric compositions like “Band on the Run”. The issue: they made a lot of electric compositions. Here is my argument for Wings’ entire existence, and why they owned the Belt for two full years and could have for three if Venus and Mars was more important than Wish You Were Here or Blood on the Tracks: Side A of Band on the Run leads off with “Band on the Run”, “Jet”, and “Bluebird”. That is all.

Honorable mentions: Stevie Wonder, Genesis, Can, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Steely Dan, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, The Who.

1975: Pink Floyd.

And I say this as someone who personally hasn’t had a desire to listen to anything from Wish You Were Here in nine years (ninth grade). But I got away with putting someone in the Belt who still hasn’t sold a ton of records in Miles Davis, and I can’t really get away with the guy who made the best album of 1975 by some distance (Brian Eno, Another Green World) but didn’t even chart the album in the United States or the United Kingdom. You can probably chalk that up to being a solid two decades ahead of its time (probably even still ahead of its time) or to what I’m sure wasn’t an easy marketing campaign, but…here we are. Anyway, people know Pink Floyd. They love Pink Floyd. They remember Pink Floyd. Desperate high school children across the universe love and worship Pink Floyd. This band deserved a Belt somewhere, and here, they got it.

…on second thought, this really could’ve gone to Bruce. Born to Run is a worldwide classic, it’s sold nearly as many copies as Wish You Were Here, and it’s better. But this is not about my personal preference. More people that are open to being influenced love Wish You Were Here. It’s that simple. (God, I hate this.)

Honorable mentions: Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Neil Young, Elton John, The Who.

1976–1977: Stevie Wonder.

I have no idea how he only held it for these two years, either. Stevie owned music way more than we gave him credit for, but he was never The Best until Songs in the Key of Life. That album is the equivalent of one of those Career Achievement Awards they hand out at the Oscars, but it’s one of a very few cases I can think of that deserves it — there are but a slim number of albums in all of music that can better sum up everything one could possibly like about an artist.

I mean, no joke: this album covers so much, past, present, and future. You want to know what every Gospel song is based on? “Love’s in Need of Love Today”. Chance the Rapper’s newest album? “Have a Talk With God”. “The Message”? “Village Ghetto Land”. Steely Dan starting at Katy Lied? “Contusion”. Bringing jazz fusion (not the cheese-ball stuff you hear on Music Choice) to a greater audience? “Sir Duke”. Knotty interactions between the “real” (sax, trumpets, bass, vocals) and the “fake” (synthesizers and vocoder)? “I Wish”. John Legend? “Knocks Me Off My Feet”. “Gangsta’s Paradise”? “Pastime Paradise”. (Too easy.) I don’t even know, a fascinating combination of instruments, voice, words, and atmosphere? “Summer Soft”. Motown’s Greatest Hits, but the deep cuts? “Ordinary Pain”. And that’s just the first half of the album!

Honorable mentions: David Bowie, Ramones, the Clash, Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

1978: The Police? Talking Heads? Kraftwerk? Blondie??? Bruce????

There are five near-equally okay cases for this year, so we’ll dive into each on its own terms. This year is a little less about sales, though both Blondie and Bruce dropped their albums into the Billboard top 5 and “Heart of Glass” was a smash hit. The main struggle is this: there are no A+ albums that I could immediately identify in 1978, though Kraftwerk and Talking Heads came closest with Blondie and the Police close behind. But we can’t give it to Stevie Wonder, who forfeits the Belt by not releasing an album in the two years following Songs in the Key of Life. Plus, sales really are meaningless this year: the two best-selling albums of 1978 are the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack by the Bee Gees and the Grease soundtrack. It’s rather difficult to give the Belt to Various Artists. What we’re left with is an ugly five-way battle for the winner of 1978 but without an actual #1 stand-out musician. It’s like if WWE held some sort of five-way title match but with AJ Styles, Sami Zayn, Roman Reigns, John Cena, and Alberto Del Rio. I mean, I like them all for different reasons….but where’s the runaway star?

Anyway, the case for each:

The Police: Former jazz cover band turns punk because their drummer missed his punk years, so they work the heck out of it on a really neat little record called Outlandos D’Amour. It’s very influential. You may have heard of it. You’ve at least heard “Roxanne”, which was their biggest hit until the next one. But, some issues: it’s their third-best album, there are some real lows on it they wouldn’t touch again for some time (“Be My Girl”), it’s a style that they largely quit on within two years, and they came to punk after punk had started to die out in 1977. Plus, could you really have sold Sting as a punk singer in the same way you sold Colin Newman?

Talking Heads: Weirdo unclassified group that can resemble post-punk, reggae, and country on any given song releases their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Band starts to gain cult audience (#29 on Billboard albums chart). They made better albums, but this is basically the breaking point for them becoming the most beloved post-punkers to ever live. But, again: they got better, and the best song on this album isn’t even a Heads original: it’s an Al Green cover.

Kraftwerk: Their second-best album but the one everyone knows most. Not as influential as you’d hope, I suppose. No hits, no real charting. This isn’t a real contender, I just love Kraftwerk.

Blondie: The case: huge hit, good sales, very well remembered…but how influential are they, exactly? They aren’t that different from their contemporaries of the time even though “Heart of Glass” owned rock radio for a while. I don’t know, making the case for them is much more difficult than I anticipated. But I think you could also make a case for them paving the pathways for groups like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, etc. I like them, but it’s not a winning resume.

Bruce Springsteen: Basically the same case as Born to Run, but with Darkness on the Edge of Town being a significant step down, both in mood and quality. I still like it, but…does anyone still listen to Side B? Anyone? Bueller? However, Bruce is still huge at this stage, and it’s sold over three million copies.

After some hemming and hawing, I went with the Talking Heads for a pair of reasons: they’re the only one of these groups that broke and stuck for a considerable amount of time; they don’t sound dated; they had commercial and influential success; and it’s a really, really good album. Better than its follow-up, I think.

Honorable mentions: I just made a case for all of them. Also, Van Halen as a distant runner-up.

1979: The Police. Or the Clash. No, the Police.

Everything I already said about them, but they’re starting to break from punk and sound like the Police. They hadn’t broken over in the States by 1979, but they were huge in the UK — two #1 hits from their album Reggatta de Blanc (“Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon”), the album itself hitting #1, and them finally crossing over to the States and winning a Grammy for “Reggatta de Blanc” (the instrumental) in 1980. I mean, there are real, legitimate reasons you hear Police songs every day of your life: because they were really that great and because Reggatta de Blanc is an A-grade record in a year with not many of them.

But I kind of want to give this to the Clash instead, because London Calling is on the same level as Reggatta de Blanc and is unquestionably the more influential record. My personal preference is very obviously the Police because guess who you actually hear on the radio in 2016, but…argh, this is tough. I stuck with the Police, but I feel bad about this one. However, London Calling comes out with 17 days left in the decade, so I think I can get away with this for now. (Reggatta de Blanc at least had three months to marinate, as did “Message in a Bottle”.) I also neglected to mention that the Talking Heads were still amazing in 1979, as were the B-52s. Also, Michael Jackson existed.

Honorable mentions: The Clash, Talking Heads, the B-52s, Michael Jackson, Neil Young.

1980: The Police/Talking Heads.

I struggled with this one for a long time before deciding to hand out a 2003 Steve McNair/Peyton Manning co-MVP award. There’s very little left to say about either Zenyatta Mondatta or Remain in Light other than both deserving their status as outstanding classics of a could’ve-been-rivalry. This year looks especially nice in retrospect when you see the list of all of two artists for 1981.

Honorable mentions: Joy Division, Prince.

1981–1982: Prince.

Imagine turning on your radio in September 1981. The #1 song as of a month prior is Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”. Your president is Ronald Reagan, and I say that as apolitically as I possibly can. It, quite simply, is not the best time for art. And then you hear “Controversy”. On the radio. In 1981.

The next year, our beloved Prince released 1999. I don’t think people realize this, but the first three singles were all top 12 hits in the United States. That’s an incredible accomplishment for anyone. It’s even more incredible when those songs are “1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, and “Delirious”. By the way, at one point in time, songs like that were massive hits. I suppose we have “Panda” now. Great trade!

Honorable mention: Kraftwerk, who made the best album of 1981. But they did not make the best Prince. Also: Kate Bush and The Cure.

1983: Michael Jackson.

Thriller is released on November 30, 1982, making it technically eligible to make Michael Jackson the king of 1982 as well. But he didn’t own 1982 like he owned 1983. So it’s a huge album and all immediately, but the aftershocks of the album — the newfound ability to play black artists on networks like MTV, it becoming the best-selling album of all time, etc. — aren’t felt until years later. With regards to 1983 specifically, Thriller and Michael Jackson hit The Next Level when “Billie Jean” is released as a single on January 4th. It becomes the #1 song in America on March 5th. From that point forward, every new single released by Michael Jackson but one enters the Billboard Top Ten. All but “Another Part of Me”, which peaked at a weak #11.

Honorable mention: For who owned the belt in 1983? No one. But from my personal loves, U2, R.E.M., and the Police.

1984: Prince.

This is an extremely tough choice to make for some people, but I will defend it in this way: when Prince died in April, they immediately put Purple Rain back in theaters and played Prince marathons or Prince from A-Z for days on end. I have some extreme doubts they’ll be doing that for Bruce Springsteen.

Honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., the Replacements, Cocteau Twins (who made the second?-best album of 1984), Husker Du (who helped define a beloved scene with their double album Zen Arcade).

1985–1986: The Replacements.

The 1980s are the only decade that one could point to and say that an unusual amount of great music didn’t see success at any point during the decade. A ton of great bands that worked like hell during the 1980s to achieve success simply didn’t: Husker Du, the Cocteau Twins (though “Carolyn’s Fingers” becomes a massive Modern Rock hit in the States in 1988), Sonic Youth, R.E.M. (who are one of the very few bands to get worse once achieving mainstream attention and success), any number of your favorite regional bands who played shows to at most 300 people, and the Replacements. (Please, dear God, do not tell me the Smiths deserve more attention.)

It goes without saying, but I’m very defensive of this pick for the following reasons:

  • The charts are at a state of fragmentation to the point that no one has any idea of where to go and it looks and sounds like a muddled mess.
  • Neither of the previous two artists who were owning this award like nothing else were making anything worth your time. (Prince was diving deeper into making self-indulgent movies; Michael Jackson hadn’t released a new album since November 30, 1982.)
  • They are the best representation of an artistic culture growing more and more frantically left-wing as they grew more aware of how a very strict right-wing regime could affect their art. (This could be negative or positive depending on your own political views, but the correlation between the decline in artistic quality in the 1980s and the two major leaders in the US and UK is, uh…striking.)

Plus, Tim is a Desert Island album and it has so many very identifiable hits: “Bastards of Young”, which plays in the opening credits of Adventureland; “Left of the Dial”, which college radio stations are required to play at least once a month; “Swingin Party”, butchered by Lorde; “Kiss Me on the Bus”. Jesus, “Kiss Me on the Bus”.

Honorable mentions: Kate Bush, the Smiths, Paul Simon, Husker Du (whose New Day Rising is also a Desert Island album), R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Janet Jackson.

1987: U2.

I can hear the jeers already. Sign o’ the Times is the best Prince album! (Questionable.) How could you not give it to Prince a third time? (Because he didn’t own the direction of music at this point in time.) How can you give an award to a band that frontloaded an album so badly no one plays it after the fourth track? (Hey, I do!) Also, where is Whitney Houston? (The sooner you realize she was a one-trick pony and the one trick wasn’t actually very interesting, the better.)

I’ve seen it described perfectly as such: “By far the most popular album of 1987 that you’re not horribly embarrassed to listen to in [2016].” And that’s that. Though Sign o’ the Times is better and you can stick around after track four.

Honorable mentions: Prince, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, R.E.M.

1988–1991: Public Enemy.

And here we are. Seriously, thank Jesus for Public Enemy. Art desperately needed anger and something to shake it up and make it uncomfortable, not continuing in the same apolitical stagnant across-the-board microwaved bowl of bland that listeners had become used to. To make this a little more clear, Public Enemy is the type of group that had to happen 25+ years ago just so Black Lives Matter and similar groups even had a chance to have their voices heard. And when they were active at their peak, no one in this era controlled the media and the listener’s imagination like they did. A true marvel. Yes, people my age and younger, the guy from Flavor of Love was a phenomenal rapper and showman at one point in his life.

Honorable mentions: Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Eric B. & Rakim, The Cure, Pixies, Cocteau Twins.

1992–1993: Dr. Dre.

Again, stealing from a very reliable source: “as far as gangsta rap goes, especially the West Coast kind, this album is the highest the kite ever flew.” That, and Dre continued the Public Enemy line of thought in his own ways, though less effectively rap-wise and more laid-back beat-wise. (The whole laid-back thing is pretty much just West Coast rap in general — imagine how great everyone could have been if they were attentive and highly aware in beat-making!)

The newfound flood of rap and hip-hop to the mainstream is a true treasure of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Without that, you don’t see rap in the mainstream today, you don’t hear Kanye West, you don’t hear Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”, and I really don’t want to think about a life having not heard Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”. Basically, these dudes put in a ton of work just so you could still hear it today, and they owned your ears then, too.

Honorable mentions: Beastie Boys, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine.

1994: Pavement.

Here comes a pair of offbeat picks, starting with a band that had exactly one song chart in the United States on any chart (“Cut Your Hair”, #10 U.S. Modern Rock, 1994), still hasn’t had an album certified Gold, and who doesn’t appear to have a song with more than 4.5 million plays on Spotify. (For comparison’s sake, “I Got the Keys”, a song by DJ Khaled, Jay-Z, and Future, has 6.6 million plays in its first 19 days of release.) But Pavement is easily the most emblematic band of a horrifically remembered decade.

Alex Ross:

“A Pavement album is a series of small labyrinths. The pleasure of the maze matters more than finding a way out. After many repetitions, the strangeness of the language remains; at the same time, the lyrics mesh with the music in ways that make nearly every word sound natural and exact. The band plays the same trick over and over, so far without exhaustion: weird words decay into infectious music. Pavement has found its place in the pop landscape and has refused to move an inch. It protects its core of mystery, which is also a kind of blazing innocence.”

Which I will add: in a decade that thought being removed from something and treating everything with irony was profound, they somehow took a very silly and dumb decade less seriously than everyone else feigned doing. And they succeeded, wildly.

Honorable mentions: Beastie Boys, Nas, Beck.

1995: PJ Harvey.

This one was also pretty difficult because much like Pavement, PJ Harvey wasn’t selling particularly well at this point of her career (though she had a sizable rock radio audience), and this is more of a collective achievement award for her first three albums than for anything else immediate, especially considering her third album was her least effective to that point. But who else is this going to? Pavement another year? That’s my preference, but their fan base dropped drastically due to a supposed massive change in style with Wowee Zowee. Tricky? I love Maxinquaye, but no one has listened to trip-hop since 1998. Moby? No. Elastica? Even Sleater-Kinney diehards don’t remember Elastica. The first Foo Fighters album came out this year, I guess.

This shouldn’t be about a bad year of music; it should be more about the first female solo winner of this award, and it being long overdue. Ms. Harvey’s unique blend of style and music is a voice desperately needed in rock, and a void that really wasn’t properly filled after Harvey’s career drop-off from 2000 on until Courtney Barnett appeared last year. And heck, it was either Ms. Harvey or Alanis Morissette as someone to properly sum up the 1990s…

Honorable mentions: Pavement, Tricky.

1996: The Fugees.

Why write your own summary when a better writer did it for you?

“They got black humanism, gender equality, and somebody to eclipse Duke Bootee in the Columbia alumni magazine. They sample “I Only Have Eyes for You” from before they were born, misprise “Killing Me Softly” like it was the Rosetta stone, emerge unscathed from the both-sides-of-gangsta trap, and aren’t so nervous about being followed they won’t leave landmarks on their soundscape. And astonishingly, they’re not just selling to a core audience — this is one of the rare hip hop albums to debut high and rise from there. So you bet they’re alternative — they’d better be in a subculture backed into defiant self-pity by rabid reactionaries, lying ex-liberals, and media moguls suddenly conscience-stricken over the nutritional content of what they always considered swill. Forget their debut, from before they discovered the gender-equality formula in which one girl learning equals two guys calling the shots. Forget the Roots, Aceyalone, Pharcyde. This isn’t another terrible thing to waste. It’s so beautiful and funny its courage could make you weep.”

Honorable mentions: Beck, DJ Shadow.

1997–1998: Radiohead.

This is one of the easier selections in this post. Bands have been trying to copy “Karma Police” and “Electioneering” for 19 years now with no actual success. It’s one of the few major albums of the last couple of decades that could truly be said to be predicting what would come after its release — politically, musically, vocally. It’s ten great pop songs and two good ones, simple as that. But I’d also like to warn that it most certainly is not the greatest album of all time. Anyway, no other serious contenders for these two years — the level of immediate positive reception from critics that OK Computer was given is on a level unlike any album since The Dark Side of the Moon. (Also an album that is not the greatest of all time.)

Honorable mentions: The Notorious B.I.G., Lauryn Hill, Bjork, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, Modest Mouse, Erykah Badu.

1999: Teenage pop stars.

Here are the major hits released in 1999: “I Want It That Way”, “Genie in a Bottle”, “…Baby One More Time”, and a ton of similar stuff. This was a horrific year for actual albums and Radiohead didn’t release one within two years, therefore forfeiting the award. Sometimes I wonder if this is the low point in modern music history.

Honorable mentions: No one. This year sucked.

2000–2002: Radiohead.

And here they are again. You could more appropriately say that they owned a six-year stretch of popular music, but per the rules of this post they forfeited the award for a year. But the success of this run almost amazes me more than the run of OK Computer, which is significantly more palatable to a wide audience, therefore getting hammered with the “overrated” tag much less than you’d think. Here are Kid A’s direct influences, none of whom had major US chart success: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Bjork’s Homogenic, Can, Neu!, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Underworld, Blackalicious, and DJ Krush. (Straight from the Wikipedia page!)

Fascinating is the notion that, at that point, the Biggest Band in the World (having usurped the title from U2 somewhere in the 90s) purposefully made a record to alienate their fan base, a commercial market, and a marketing campaign. They did this knowing that Kid A was the most anticipated rock record in nearly a decade. They released no advance copies and did almost no promotion for it. Yeezus fans may see some direct inspiration here. So they released a cold, harsh sonic palette of an album (though very similar in tone to the politics of OK Computer without a fun melody to distract the listener), knowing that even their most devoted critics would be tested — Mojo magazine famously called it “awful.” But it still debuted at #1, still sold over a million copies in the US, and is now recognized as their second-best album by most. Must be fun to pull these things off.

Honorable mentions: OutKast, U2, Eminem, The Strokes, Jay-Z, Wilco.

2003: OutKast.

For the following reasons:

  1. I don’t care what scene you ran in or what age you were in 2003 — “Hey Ya” reigned and reigns supreme.
  2. So did “Roses”. Have y’all seen the “Roses” video since 2004? It’s incredible.
  3. Look at this dreadful, godawful list of the #1 albums of 2003 up to the week Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was released. I do not care that this is an egregious double album that should be about an hour long to be great, I only care that finally, something was worth caring about.
  4. Andre 3000 > Big Boi. However, Speakerboxxx > The Love Below.
  5. Did you know “Hey Ya” was the #1 song in America until it was replaced by “The Way You Move”? Look it up, that’s a real fact that only gets more incredible and hilarious and depressing with each play of “Panda”.

Honorable mentions: The White Stripes.

2004–2007: Kanye West.

And now we get the first chapter in a now-12 year story of rivalry, hate, love, desire, honesty, cornball-ness, excellence, attitude, ego, genius, idiocy, and…so much more. The College Dropout is the perfect album for people who love success stories and positive characters with almost no flaws written into their dialogue. It’s still incredible now. But I’ve never understood why no one reps for Late Registration quite as much when it’s considerably better and his second-best album overall (that’ll come later).

At no point during these four years did anyone seriously threaten Kanye’s crown, because no one had the stranglehold on popular music that he had. A Kanye album was (and, of course, still is) an Event in the truest meaning of the term. People stayed up all night to buy a musician’s albums! In physical format! There are exactly two artists currently working that people will do that for. Anyway, the College Dropout > Late Registration > Graduation period was so much fun. It was fun later on, too, but for entirely different reasons.

Honorable mentions: Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Drive-By Truckers, M.I.A.

2008–2009: Taylor Swift.

“This album is called Fearless, and I guess I’d like to clarify why we chose that as the title. To me, Fearless is not the absence of fear. It’s not being completely unafraid. To me, Fearless is having fears, Fearless is having doubts. Lots of them. To me, Fearless is living in spite of those things that scare you to death. Fearless is falling madly in love again, even though you’ve been hurt before. Fearless is walking into your freshman year of high school at fifteen. Fearless is getting back up and fighting for what you want over and over again… even though every time you’ve tried before, you’ve lost. It’s Fearless to have faith that someday things will change. Fearless is having the courage to say goodbye to someone who only hurts you, even though can’t breathe without them. I think it’s Fearless to fall for your best friend, even though he’s in love with someone else. And when someone apologizes to you enough times for things they’ll never stop doing, I think it’s Fearless to stop believing them. It’s Fearless to say “you’re NOT sorry”. I think loving someone despite what people think is Fearless. I think allowing yourself to cry on the bathroom floor is Fearless. Letting go is Fearless. Then, moving on and being alright… That’s Fearless too. But no matter what love throws at you, you have to believe in it. You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after. That’s why I write these songs. Because I think love is Fearless.” — Taylor Swift, from the Fearless liner notes.

She wrote that and said songs that meant these things through and through at age 18, making her the youngest pop genius in a long, long time. There is no more to say.

Honorable mentions: Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Vampire Weekend.

2010–2011: Kanye West.

I knew My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was going to be the Biggest Thing from the time I walked into my high school the week after it was officially released and I noticed two otherwise dissimilar humans discussing Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” the way they would have discussed a common homework assignment — comparing their thoughts, vocalizing lines, laughing, having a good time. And this was in the middle of the Conservative South in a town of 12,000 people.

People have written about this record’s impact much more exhaustively than I have the time to. You can find them here, here, and here. You can read the oral history about how Kanye stopped his life to move out of the Continental United States to figure out where to go from the Swift VMAs blow-up. No matter what record you personally loved most from these two years (and for a long time, my answer was not MBDTF), this mattered most.

Honorable mentions: Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Jay-Z, Drake.

2012: Taylor Swift.

Again, people just keep writing bits about artists I like way better than I can put them, so why put in unnecessary work?

“People are having a hard time dealing with Taylor Swift. You’ll generally have to twist some arms to get them to acknowledge that the young lady is, at the very least, an impressively talented and developed songwriter for her age. Or that she’s already showed a greater willingness to experiment with all sorts of different genres than about 90% of her colleagues. Or that her singing seems genuinely open-hearted and empathetic. Or that her lyrics seem genuinely open-hearted and empathetic.

. . . What’s ultimately so satisfying, though, is that Swift has specified and broadened her comfort zone to such a degree that nobody can write her music off as child’s play anymore (well, they probably will, but they’ll gradually start to look really stupid), and the always-daft accusations that she’s some sort of puritanical anti-role model for young women now seem especially silly.

. . . When she’s at her best, Swift seems like something much more than a country-pop teen star who got lucky: there’s a feeling of honest human connection in her songs that can only come from someone who feels that they need — truly need — to understand others and herself a whole lot better; a feeling of knowing how to look beyond the eyes glazed over at a computer screen, face buried in a phone, head spaced-out in headphones, to get an answer.” — Nathan Wisnicki

Honorable mentions: Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Drake.

2013-present: Kanye West.

Consider this a placeholder for the end-of-year list I always do, which (SPOILER) will be about Kanye West, The Life of Pablo, and (SPOILER) Yeezus. I listen to both weekly, I treasure them both, and hopefully always will. There is no question as to who the premier artist currently working is — notice how everyone’s favorite, Beyonce, very quickly shifted her sound to become much darker and artsy to match the mood Kanye had created on Yeezus. So why don’t we make an argument for the runner-up?

For a lot of pop-chart hopefuls, Taylor Swift’s formula is one more easily followed: find good melodies, write good lyrics, make it catchy, and sell a TON of records. But the issue is no one else is doing it nearly as well as her, and no one has the viewpoint she has! Why people attack every Swift lyric and quote in the New York Times but let some incredibly useless BS like, say, Radiohead’s new record (An Inconvenient Truth set to elevator music) slide without a second thought is extremely annoying. Let’s steal a saying that I like to use for basketball but you can pretty much use for anything — let Taylor Swift cook. 1989 is dope, everyone is copying that sound like crazy (even though it means an unfortunate extension of the 1980s revival poisoning popular music), and the new HAIM record will sound almost exactly like it. (A good thing.)

Honorable mentions: Taylor Swift, Vampire Weekend, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Drake (whether I like it or not).

Whew……okay, we’re done for now. Some more answers to your questions coming later this week.

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