Three years ago, I wrote a 4,600-word post about my 50 favorite albums. While 36 months might not be a long time for most people, for a music lover, it’s a very long time. Our tastes are constantly evolving as we discover new music and go through experiences that make us connect more intensely with certain artists whose songs just didn’t impact us as deeply at a previous time in our lives. That’s why I decided to revisit my list and add ten new entries. Some of these records nearly made the cut the first time around, others have grown on me since then, and others might not have even been out in 2014. The format will be the same as last time: albums will be grouped thematically and in chronological order, and no greatest hits compilations or double albums are allowed. Enjoy!
- Jamsha – Cafrería Épica
- Füete Billēte – Música De Capsulón
Anyone who has ever visited a major U.S. city (or subscribed to Netflix) knows that this country is not short on comedians. But those of us who were raised somewhere else will always need a bit of our native country’s humor in our lives, and sometimes music can do the trick even better than comedy. As a Puerto Rican living in the United States, no one fills this void for me better than Jamsha and Füete Billēte.
Jamsha is a multi-talented rapper, producer, and director who grew up during the height of reggaeton’s popularity in Puerto Rico, but felt disappointed by the direction the genre was taking in the late 2000s. No longer a highly sexualized, underground style of music that mixed Jamaican dancehall and American rap, reggaeton became an international phenomenon by watering itself down with pop, dance, and electronica influences. Its most famous artists (Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel) strayed from their roots and were now rapping and singing about “love” instead of sex. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this shift, but in practice, it came off as fake and contrived. Anyone with half a brain could tell that these artists had not “evolved” at all; they simply chose to abandon subject matter that was guaranteed to limit their international appeal and commercial success. Their lyrics are just as exploitative and misogynistic as before, but now they can fly under the radar by being sugar-coated with cheap verbal innuendos and poppy musical arrangements. It is an ongoing, sinister way of duping listeners into believing that they are reformed, mature individuals.
Jamsha was having none of this, and he decided to take the genre back to its roots. Like American rock band Steel Panther (whose over-the-top antics are both a send-up of and a tribute to 80s hair metal), his lyrics are extremely sexually explicit, as his shtick is taking the sound and themes of early reggaeton to an extreme by removing any possible traces of subtlety. Most people are aware of the joke, but his hilarious songs and idiosyncratic videos (which he writes, directs, and edits) are so well-crafted that it’s impossible not to sing and dance along (if you can somehow avoid laughing hysterically.)
After spending most of the 2000s in Ciencia Fixión—one of Puerto Rico’s most respected underground rap crews—Dr. Who? and Don Severo Canta Claro rebranded themselves “Pepper Kilo” and “Baby Johnson” and reemerged in 2012 as Füete Billēte, a trap trio that brilliantly spoofed southern hip-hop’s clichéd rhymes about sex, drugs, and crime in a uniquely Puerto Rican way. That they managed to win the hearts of hip-hop heads and hipsters alike is hardly a surprising feat when you consider their previous musical history: aside from Ciencia Fixión, Severo collaborated with Calle 13 and Intifada, and Dr. Who? was a member of indie rock band Dávila 666.
Anyone vaguely familiar with these guys knows they are not pimps and drug dealers, but they perform with such conviction that regardless of how absurd their boasts get, uninformed listeners will surely believe their outlandish tales come from experience. Sadly, “Musica de capsulón” was not a mainstream success, but Füete Billēte’s ingenious raps and elaborate production paved the way for the popular “trap en español” movement currently dominated by artists with weaker rapping skills (Jon Z) and/or poppier sensibilities (Bad Bunny).
Even though I legitimately love Jamsha’s and Füete Billēte’s music, perhaps the main reason why I cherish these two albums so much is that they remind me of home when I’m away. While studying abroad in Madrid, Jamsha’s songs and videos provided a very Puerto Rican form of entertainment that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I’ll also never forget visiting Los Angeles last year and driving through Hollywood with the bass from Füete Billēte’s “Iron Mic” rattling the fuck out of my friend’s car. Blasting this on the Sunset Strip with the windows down was my own little way of letting the people in L.A. know that I was there, that Puerto Rico was there. This might seem trivial at best and juvenile at worst, but when you live in a foreign country, anything that reminds you of where you come from is incredibly valuable.
- The La’s
- Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Few things are as American as rock & roll, but any objective and rational lover of popular music has to admit that the greatest rock bands of all time come from England. From The Beatles and Pink Floyd all the way to Blur and Radiohead, British rockers just seem to push the envelope more in terms of sonic exploration.
However, not all British bands are obsessed with musical experimentation. Some prefer to strip rock & roll down to the bare essentials (guitar, bass, and drums), and to be honest, my personal tastes lean more towards a straightforward, minimalistic style. This is why The La’s and the Arctic Monkeys’ classic debuts are among my all-time favorites.
With the exception of the haunting yet touching closer “Looking Glass,” every song on “The La’s” is under three minutes long (and impossibly catchy). Their jangle pop style can be traced back to fellow Liverpudlians The Beatles’ mid-1960s work, but Lee Mavers’ distinctive voice and aggressive strumming of his acoustic guitar were so original that they seemed to have no precedent.
Mavers is a tortured recluse that has never released another record because of his dissatisfaction with the sound of his band’s lone album. He is likely the only person on the planet who feels that way, because “The La’s” received universal critical acclaim and influenced countless musicians (Noel Gallagher has spoken extensively about his love of the group, and American band Sixpence None The Richer scored a hit with their cover of “There She Goes”).
About 15 years later, a group of teenagers from Sheffield became the fastest-selling British band ever with their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” A sort of concept album about being young and going out, the Arctic Monkeys actually sounded like a much older band due to their technical precision and lyrical maturity (“Mardy Bum’s” breakdown of a relationship gone sour is almost Rubber Soul-ian in its attention to detail).
Musically, the album combines The Jam and the Buzzcocks’ pop-punk energy with early Oasis’ swagger and British lyrical themes, but the crisp production and inventive guitar interplay of American band The Strokes are the key elements of their sound. The Arctic Monkeys have since moved away from this style, but this record rightfully remains their most revered creation.
The Hard Rock Classics (Part II)
- Van Halen
- AC/DC – Powerage
Of course, any conversation about bands that grind rock & roll down to its core would be incomplete without mentioning AC/DC, the quintessential bare-bones rock group. Everyone and their grandmother has been exposed to “Back in Black” at some point in their lives, but not enough people are familiar with the masterpiece that is “Powerage.” It should come as no surprise that this is Keith Richards’ favorite AC/DC album: Malcolm Young himself called it their most underrated record and the one that “real pure rock & roll guys” respect the most.
Why would Malcolm say that? A brief overview of the tracklist will tell you all you need to know. “Sin City” is Joe Perry’s favorite AC/DC song. Eddie Van Halen called “Down Payment Blues’” guitar riff one of his all-time favorites. “Gone Shootin’” is Brian Johnson’s favorite Bon Scott-era AC/DC song and “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge based the theme music for his show on its unique riff. The intensity of Scott’s venomous vocals on “Up To My Neck In You” is only matched by Angus Young’s ripping 83-second guitar solo (the best one he ever recorded, in my opinion). “Riff Raff” is possibly AC/DC’s fastest song, and album closer “Kicked In The Teeth” is one their most aggressive. Opener “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation” is the most commercial track on here, but it’s still rawer than subsequent hits like “Highway To Hell.”
Now that I mentioned Eddie Van Halen, let’s talk about his own band’s groundbreaking self-titled debut album. Angus Young himself called Eddie “an innovator like Hendrix,” and frankly, anyone who disagrees has no idea what they’re talking about. There was nothing that sounded remotely similar to his guitar work in 1978; everything from his “brown sound” and blazing speed to his finger tapping and “dive bombs” spawned legions of imitators and changed rock music forever.
In addition to Eddie’s innovations, the songs themselves are terrific, and they are probably the main reason why this record has stood the test of time. Let’s face it; if its sole claim to fame was Eddie’s guitar playing, “Van Halen” would have only been a success with music nerds. Instead, it is a certified Diamond album that is consistently ranked as one of the greatest of all time.
- Edan – Primitive Plus
- Murs – 3:16 – The 9th Edition
Other than the fact that he produced my favorite song on Mr. Lif’s “I Phantom,” I didn’t know anything about Edan in the summer of 2004. That’s when I stumbled upon his album “Primitive Plus” while browsing the rap section of a small record store in New York, and buying it was one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I have ever made.
Edan is a hip-hop triple threat: a rapper, producer, and DJ whose multitasking ability makes him a kind of hip-hop Paul McCartney. Everything about him is unconventional: he’s a white guy from Boston who usually wears a tie during his live performances (in which he raps and cuts records simultaneously), a young guy who worships old-school and golden era rap (and this record is full of references to past MCs), and a satirist who masterfully pokes fun at the most ridiculous aspects of a musical genre he clearly adores.
Edan’s production–which somehow sounds both retro and futuristic at the same time–is certainly top-notch, but his rapping is what sets this record apart. It blows my mind that he never appears on “best white rappers ever” lists, because few MCs of any race can match his vocabulary, wit, and passion…
…which brings me to Murs, a 20-year rap veteran who has released almost 30 albums and EPs.
One of the most creative MCs you’ll ever hear (as well as one of the best live performers in rap), his topical diversity is second to none, as his first collaborative album with producer 9th Wonder demonstrates. Just peep the songs “The Pain,” in which he laments his lack of romantic success (which he attributes to being “more Coldplay than I am Ice-T”), and “Freak These Tales,” in which he wistfully and joyfully talks about his various sexual partners while avoiding the hypermasculine persona that lamentably permeates through hip-hop culture.
Murs’ self-deprecating humor is one of his most distinguishing characteristics, but he’s also an incisive social critic (“And This Is For…”), a gifted storyteller (“Walk Like A Man”), and an introspective thinker fully aware of his numerous contradictions. All these attributes make him come across as an extremely relatable, fully-fleshed out human, something that not too many rappers in the mid-2000s were particularly keen on.
Ok, so I kinda broke my own rule about double albums. So what? “Hamilton” is so good–scratch that…LIFE-CHANGING–that I left the Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F.” out of this list just so it could take up two entries (And since I’ve given serious thought to having those iconic letters tattooed on my arm, I’d say that’s a big deal).
Raised on a steady diet of hip-hop and show tunes, Nuyorican playwright, rapper, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda created a revolutionary work of art that condensed the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (and the early history of the United States) in 46 highly memorable songs. Originally conceived as a hip-hop concept album, Miranda debuted the show’s mesmerizing opener at the White House in 2009 and spent the next six years turning it into a play that would win 11 Tonys, 8 Drama Desk awards, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer.
The sheer amount of emotions that one is sure to experience while listening to “Hamilton” is overwhelming in the best possible way. You’ll learn a lot about yourself as you go through an orphaned immigrant‘s struggles to change his new country for the better while navigating around a complicated love triangle, fighting in a war, debating the merits of the financial system he created, falling victim to sexual temptation, dealing with a close friend’s betrayal, losing his son under tragic circumstances, and having to accept his own premature death.
Many critics have called it a “hip-hop musical,” and while its rap credentials are certainly solid (the album was executive produced by Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots and it’s the first cast recording of a Broadway to musical to top the Billboard rap charts), this moniker is severely limiting. Just like in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal life, a vast array of musical styles coexist peacefully with hip-hop in his play (sometimes in the same song). You want Beatlesque pop? You got it. How about boogie-woogie? It’s here, too. Have a thing for early 2000s R&B? Lin’s got you. And of course, like any good musical, it is rife with dramatic singer showcases whose grandiosity somehow doesn’t make them any less moving.
In 1999, the New York Times called HBO series “The Sopranos” “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” I agree with this statement, and I’m going to go ahead and declare “Hamilton” the greatest work of American popular culture since “The Sopranos.” Incredibly original, deep, funny, and inspiring, it truly did change the game.