There’s a blog/website called 5 Albums, which features guest posts from various contributors who all talk a little bit about their 5 favorite albums of all time. I found out about it through Tony Hunt, who happens to be the first guest contributor. In theory I love the idea of such a blog, but in actual practice I find myself frustrated that none of the 20+ guest contributors to date have listed a rap album in their top 5 (at least not that I’m aware). In terms of genre there’s not a great deal of variation (lots of classic & indie rock) even if the different bands loved by the contributors have vastly different sounds.
So I thought I’d list my top 5 albums and say a few words about each. Keep in mind that choosing 5 albums is a near impossible task. This list could look completely different a week from now because there are so many albums that I love. I’ve tried to show a bit of diversity in the list. I could have gone all rap but my top 5 rap albums is a decidedly different list from my top 5 albums in general. So here they are in no particular order:
Nas, Illmatic (Columbia, 1994). I remember vividly the day I purchased this album. I was 12 years old, going on 13, and I found myself in the Princeton Market Fair (a small mall in Princeton, NJ) on the day of its release. I was with my mother who was shopping for something else when I stepped into the record store and saw Nas’ debut Illmatic sitting proudly upon the top rack amidst a number of other good, yet inferior, tapes. I quickly grabbed one off the rack and proceeded to the register, only to be informed that I had to be 17 years of age to purchase this tape because it was adorned with a parental advisory sticker! “What?!!,” I exclaimed. I had never heard of such a thing. The Sam Goody at Quaker Bridge Mall had never carded me for an album. So I stepped out of the store deflated, only to see a friend of my mother’s who worked security at the Market Fair standing there. I asked him to purchase the tape for me and the rest is history.
I popped this short 40 minute tape into my cassette deck and from the moment I heard Nas, Jungle, and AZ talking on “The Genesis” I knew that this album was something special. Nas is a master story teller as can be seen in the gritty street tale “N. Y. State of Mind” or his letter to a friend in prison “One Love.” Some have compared him to the living legend Slick Rick but I like to make the comparison in this way: Slick Rick and Nas both tell stories but Slick Rick tells cartoons while Nas tells feature films. “Life’s a Bi**h” (featuring Nas’ father on cornet) is a smooth melodic jazzy track, which contains the only true feature on the album, a guest verse from AZ (Pete Rock and Q-Tip both contribute hooks on later songs), which to my mind of still one of the greatest verses in rap history. But while I love every single song on the album, and could wax eloquent about each of them for hours, my hands down favorite song is “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” produced by Large Professor. Nas’ verses are flawless but the production speaks to my soul with its sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Kool and the Gang’s “N.T.” This was, is, and always will remain my favorite song of all time. Have a listen:
Michael Jackson, Thriller (Epic, 1982). Thriller is the sound of my childhood. Like everyone else in the world who lived during the 80s, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. I was but a baby of barely a year-and-a-half when this album was initially released in 1982, but one of my first memories is being scared to death of the Thriller music video, which featured MJ as a cat-like werewolf and contained a zombie dance sequence. It was so bad that I would cry out in fear when I heard the song come on the radio! And yet Thriller contains the majority of my favorite MJ songs. “Beat It” inspired many a dance battle in my home and I have a spiritual connection with “Human Nature,” which I mentioned above. As with the above, I could rattle on forever about all that’s great about this album, but I needn’t say anything other than “Billie Jean,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Baby Be Mine,” and “P. Y. T.”! I should also note that MJ wasn’t just the singing talent on this album; he co-produced the entire thing with Quincy Jones. Whatever his failings as a man later in life, MJ has left a musical legacy to be celebrated and appreciated. Here’s a sample:
Dr. Dre, The Chronic (Death Row/Interscope, 1992). Dr. Dre is without doubt the finest hip hop producer of all time and probably one of the top 3 music producers of the modern era. His album sales speak for themselves, but more to the point, the quality of his music tells the real tale. The Chronic is an unapologetic gangsta rap album that epitomized the ethos of West Coast gang banging culture of the late 80s and early 90s. Fresh off his split with N.W.A., Dre had a new situation with Death Row records, which he co-founded with Suge Knight, and was ready to work on a solo venture. The result was a classic that many a rap enthusiast would place in their top 10 list no matter what coast they hail from. While the rap of the time was sample driven, Dre bucked the trend and showed just how heavily one could rely on instrumentality and still make hardcore rap music. He made synthesizers popular long before auto-tune came along and it’s impossible to find a song on The Chronic that doesn’t have big, lush sound.
I honestly can’t pick a favorite song off of this album because I love them all so much. I equate The Chronic to Seinfeld. When someone tells me what episode was the best one I automatically think that they weren’t really a fan because the entire series has to be taken as a whole; one can’t be separated out from the rest. With diss records like “F**k wit Dre Day” to hard hitting head bangers like “The Day the Ni**az Took Over” & “A Ni**a Witta Gun,” The Chronic has something for the hardcore hip hop fans, but songs like “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “Let Me Ride” appeal to those who like something a bit more melodic and relaxing. The bottom line is that tracks 1-16 on this album are flawless in every conceivable way. From the impeccable lyricism of Dre, Snoop, Daz, Korrupt, RBX, and the Lady of Rage, et al., to Dre’s vibrant “G-Funk” sound, The Chronic is a masterpiece. Listen for yourself:
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998). Whenever I hear someone say that Lauryn Hill is one of the best female rappers to have ever grabbed a microphone I immediately correct them by dropping the qualifier. Lauryn Hill is one of the best rappers, period. Her debut solo album proved this and so much more. Fugees fans were not surprised to see her talents showcased so greatly since we’d had two Fugees albums worth of Hill’s singing and rapping already, but it was nevertheless a surprise to see the consistent quality displayed on this album. A soulful blend of hip hop and R&B (with reggae/dance hall and even funk influences at times), Miseducation really cemented Hill’s spot as a writer and producer. There wasn’t a single aspect of this project that she didn’t have her hand in (even if she did cheat a few songwriters/musicians out of their credit).
From the hard hitting battle rhymes in “Lost Ones” to the upbeat bounce-inducing “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to harmonious collaborations with Mary J. Blige (“I Used to Love Him”) and D’Angelo (“Nothing Even Matters”), Miseducation has something for nearly everyone. My personal favorites are “Ex-Factor,” “To Zion,” and “Forgive Them Father,” but the truth is I can listen to this album from front to back without skipping anything other than the introduction. Aside from Hill’s talent, the thread that connects the disparate tracks is substance and consciousness. Hill had something to say on this album, whether it was about love, heartbreak, betrayal, loyalty, or the environment she was raised in. Unfortunately, she allowed some of her more fringe beliefs to alienate fans (look up her remarks about rather having her children starve than white people buy her album). But that doesn’t detract from this gem of an album. Here’s my favorite track:
Nirvana, Nevermind (DGC, 1991). I can easily close my eyes and transport into my uncle’s living room in Belmar, NJ when I was 10 years old where me and my cousin would blast the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video as loud as the TV would allow it. My cousin, who was 3 years my senior, was way more into rock than I was at the time and he put me onto the “grunge” sound. But in listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind today I feel like it transcends such a neat categorization (although many might argue that there’s nothing neat about the fusion that is “grunge”). To my mind, “Territorial Pissings” is a straight up punk song, and a pleasant one to listen to at that!
There were four songs in particular that stayed in heavy rotation in my mind, heart, car, and now cell phone; namely “Smells Like Teen Spirit;” “In Bloom;” “Lithium;” and “Come As You Are.” But truth be told, every song on this album is special. Kurt Cobain was a tortured soul whose genius often masqueraded as insanity. In a sense, it’s hard to choose Nevermind over Nirvana’s followup In Utero, because I feel like they’re two sides to the same coin. Nevermind was the grittier (which I attribute not only to Nirvana, but also to producer Butch Vig) album, but In Utero was just as raw, even if it had a bigger, more polished sound. Both albums clinched Nirvana’s legacy but it’s definitely Nevermind that evokes more memories for me. So here’s a little “Lithium” to stablize your mood:
And those, my friends, are my top 5 albums as of today. I’d love to do some honorable mentions but that will start me down a path that may never end!