95: LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge (2005)
Oh, to be one of the lucky thousand to appear in the recently reposted footage of a storming LCD Soundsystem set at London’s now-defunct TRASH, set in the distant year of 2002 (yes, 15 years ago is quite distant). A moment worth its share of bragging rights, LCD enshrined their own place in dance music history at the time with only a single song to their name: the twitchy and snobbish rant to end all rants, “Losing My Edge.”
So while LCD mastermind James Murphy currently gives us the post-mortem of his own personal American dream, working through the ending of friendships and the death of mentors, it’s rather quaint to look back at that first single when his greatest fear was, “the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978.” Like a good sitcom (Murphy himself turned down a writing role on Seinfeld), “Losing My Edge” sounds less dated, more a wistful snapshot of a certain era. In the age of Spotify, “I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s” sounds more like a hassle than a boast. His who’s-who of revered obscurities — everyone from Sun Ra to Dorothy Ashby, The Human League to Juan Atkins and, of course, “GIL! SCOTT! HERON! — are now as easy to listen to as any major pop star. If you’re ever looking for something different to listen to, you wouldn’t go wrong with any pick from Murphy’s list. The hierarchy he recalls still exists, but its defining quality – an obsessive devotion to treasured obscurities – becomes more and more ubiquitous with every passing stream.
Murphy would later reveal that, “… it became a wider thing about people who grip onto other people’s creations like they are their own.” Perhaps he was thinking about this when LCD reconvened a mere five years after their dramatic and highly-publicized ending — a move that some took as an affront to his fan base’s grieving. Emotional connections are unsurprising with lyrics so blunt and bold, but there’s something to be said for the record snob turned record creator staging his band’s most divisive move: the reunion. Luckily, Murphy remains down to earth, a constant reminder that losing your edge does not necessarily mean losing your cool. – Edward Dunbar
94: System of a Down – Aerials (2001)
System of a Down is one of the most unusual hard rock bands to rise out of the late ‘90s and early millennium. That’s saying a lot considering “alternative” and hard rock are wide open fields which would tolerate a great deal of bizarre and experimental sounds. Serj Tankian has a vocal delivery that carries all the weight and intensity of a dramatic carnival barker, schizophrenically switching between intense drama and unrelenting rage every few bars. Each track goes off like a child’s tantrum at the supermarket — the sort you find yourself slowing down your cart to witness. His ‘range’ is better described in terms of emotion rather than musical scale. “Aerials” in many ways marks his first time wrapping that in a package that appealed to a mainstream audience. Whether or not that was ever the intent is certainly questionable, but the outcome’s success is not: the record shot to the #1 spot on Billboard’s “Hot Mainstream Rock” chart in 2003.
The opening sounds like Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” or some distant memory of a ‘70s jam you can’t quite place. But that’s all impatiently crushed by guttural riffage. It’s notable that Rick Rubin had a hand in the production of the album Toxicity and, in particular, this track. The hit maker who turned Johnny Cash into an alternative rock sensation with Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” seemed to have ignored his signature ‘stripping down’ style and went in another direction. Though every instrument is isolated, it’s unleashed to its full potential. He and the band show a deft recognition that what makes System of a Down sound the way they do is a lashing out of unrelenting passion.
Saying Tankian “delivers” the vocals takes on a very literal meaning as Daron Malakian dials out the guitar in such a way as to raise up and echo his fervor. Rubin’s influence is very much in the more melodic foundation on which the entire performance rests, while the low and slow end of the track feels more like Metallica’s “Fade to Black” than anything System of a Down would have arrived at on their own. Rubin builds a sandbox of sound and System of a Down get inside and start tossing shit around. The result is something timeless and memorable. – Darryl G. Wright
93: Kanye West – Good Life (2007)
Ten years ago, Kanye West became a star. Yes, both The College Dropout and Late Registration had given the Chicago producer-turned-MC a good amount of critical goodwill, but he always seemed in danger of slipping into college-rap monotony before Graduation. This is the album that made Kanye into Kanye, a superstar loved and reviled in equal terms. It also kickstarted the revolution hinted at on the previous two albums, one that would change how we perceive hip-hop as a genre and cultural force for the foreseeable future. It pays homage to Kanye’s past (which was already being copied in embarrassing fashion by the likes of Akon) while pointing towards a new, techno-driven future. Nowhere is this more present than on the album’s centerpiece, the exuberant “Good Life.”
Throughout Graduation, Kanye West aims to create music as big as his ambitions. “Good Life” more than fulfills this. The repeated exhortations to, “throw your hands up to the sky” would work for a block-party album, but the scope of the production here demands that you place yourself in a stadium crowd to hear it. As he did for Jay-Z in 2001, Kanye goes to Michael Jackson for inspiration, here twisting and cutting up “P.Y.T.” for the song’s indelible hook. It’s the perfect background for what ends up being one of Kanye’s most joyous and celebratory rhymes, a celebration of his newfound success and the joys of life itself. Any anger is dismissed here; he brushes off people who question his street cred (something he never really claimed to have), and throws in a few good-natured jabs at his then-rival 50 Cent, whose career would come to something of a halt following the success of Graduation. Most importantly, Kanye’s having a great time, and the feeling is more than a little infectious. – Kevin Korber
92: The Black Eyed Peas – Where is the Love? (2003)
In a lot of ways, The Black Eyed Peas’ Elephunk was a make-or-break moment for the band. After releasing to modest acclaim two hip-hop records in the same positive-minded vein as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the group (consisting of will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap) acquired a newfound pop savvy in the early 2000s by adding relatively unknown singer Fergie to the group. This move initially was met with less than stellar fanfare, but it quickly became the catalyst for them becoming one of the most commercially successful hip-hop/pop groups of the decade. With their new lineup, the group combined their socially conscious hip-hop with Fergie and featured-artist Justin Timberlake’s pop vocals on their first Top Ten hit and the Grammy-nominated “Where Is the Love?”
Over a sharp beat and bouncing synthetic strings, will.i.am asks a question with the song’s opening line: “What’s wrong with the world, mama?” The three rappers answer this question by exchanging verses that detail social ills ranging from gang violence and white supremacy to international wars and the role of the media in disseminating destructive ideologies. Timberlake’s falsetto hooks push the song towards “love” and its attendant actions as being the necessary responses to a world falling apart. Although such a message might seem somewhat reductive, the group’s call for peace and love struck the right chord for audiences still reeling from the events of 9/11 and the ongoing War on Terror. Many of the group’s subsequent hits—“Boom Boom Pow,” “My Humps” and “I Gotta Feeling”— lack the political advocacy of “Where Is the Love?” Even as the song marked the group’s first hit, it also marked their transition from being explicitly political to being more invested in producing dance-pop anthems.
That said, the message of “Where Is the Love?” certainly resonates today given the current geopolitical turmoil that has riven much of the world. In fact, just last year, the group remade the song (“#WHERESTHELOVE”) in response to the numerous terrorist attacks in 2016, the ongoing refugee crises and the racialized epidemic of police brutality. Again, The Peas collaborated with Justin Timberlake, who sings the familiar chorus about two-thirds of the way into the song, but much of the arrangement and melody differ from the original. Mary J. Blige, Nicole Scherzinger, Audra Day, Jessie J, The Game, Usher and A$AP Rocky contribute additional vocals to the updated version. Even if the revived version hasn’t achieved the commercial success of the original, it’s still a testament to the group’s desire to inspire social engagement, something that began with their first breakthrough hit. – Ethan King
91: Nelly – Hot in Herre (2002)
“Hot in Herre” has served as an anthem for sweaty clubs, sweltering summer days and even climate change for 15 years. Although Nelly’s 2002 party song of the summer may be most iconic for its opening lines, “I was like, good gracious, ass is bodacious,” it also recognizes music history and the power of strategic sampling, with the help of Pharrell and the Neptunes. The hip-hop track is noticeably mixed throughout with Chuck Brown’s classic “Bustin’ Loose,” which Nelly verbally references towards the end of the song’s first verse: “‘Cause I feel like bustin’ loose and I feel like touchin’ you.” However, the familiar intro that still today instigates cheers and screams from late-night clubgoers comes from two other samples: Neil Young’s “There’s a World” and Nancy Sinatra’s “As Tears Go By.” Featuring Nelly’s Universal Records label mate Dani Stevenson, “Hot in Herre’s” chorus, “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” became Nelly’s first number one hit. It also helped Nelly snag the 2003 Grammy for Best Male Rap Solo Performance, and was ranked number 36 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop.”
In a recent interview with The Fader, Nelly described that “Hot in Herre” has a deeper meaning than suggesting partiers should bump, grind, and, well, remove their clothing. “It’s more of a story of a party record, and I think that’s what did it, because people can relate to the process of the club,” he explained. “It’s a whole story, as opposed to the typical, ‘Everybody, hands up!’ or something like that. I think that’s what lasts longer, because nobody else has told that story in a party vibe, and that’s what allows it to be genuine.” “Hot in Herre” is a complete, well-articulated, timeless narrative of a night at a party, and maybe that’s why it has lasted so long. – Natalia Barr