Music

Visual Albums

Music that has helped us glimpse greatness. (Including but not limited to Beyoncé.)

Radio-ActivityRadio-Activity
Kraftwerk
1975, Kling Klang/EMI/Capitol

I’m not sure when my love for electronic music began—possibly when I was five and got ahold of a copy of Madonna’s Ray of Light. But I have a vivid childhood memory of waking up one morning as my mum played Kraftwerk’s 23-minute synth masterpiece “Autobahn” at full volume while shouting the German lyrics in a loud, monotone voice. Startled, I ran toward the noise, and Kraftwerk entered my life. (Thanks, mum!) It’s really difficult not to just throw the entire Kraftwerk discography at everyone I meet, but that would be a weird way to introduce myself to people, so I’m restricting myself to recommending Radio-Activity. It sits about midway through the band’s discography and ties together their jammy early Krautrock albums to later hits like “Computer Love,” which are considerably more vocoder heavy and almost robotic-feeling. Some people may call their sound cold, but they are overlooking the cheeky playfulness that underlies it. If Kraftwerk’s music isn’t your thing, though, I won’t be offended. But I do want you to at least appreciate how they’ve profoundly they changed the course of music history. Before Kraftwerk, no one took electronic music seriously (outside of a few very esoteric academic contexts). (When the band got together in 1970, the synthesizer had just been invented!) It’s largely because of their pioneering albums that we hear those machine-made sounds as music, and not just music, but art. —Eleanor

YeezusYeezus
Kanye West
2013, Def Jam

My first exposure to this album was watching Saturday Night Live last May. Kanye West stared down the camera with a look that practically dared viewers to turn away, and spit out every word of “New Slaves” with unbelievable passion and anger. From the opening line, “My mama was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fairer-skinned,” I was hooked. I watched the clip of that performance at least 50 times in the month before Yeezus, a record filled with messages of politics, race, sex, and power, was released. Yeezus is the album on which Kanye reclaims all the things people have been saying about him. You wanna call him an egomaniac? He’ll write a song called “I Am a God” (and put it on an album called YEEZUS). When he repeats “I am a god” in the chorus, for a second it almost sounds like he’s trying to convince himself—until he viciously growls it one last time, just so you know where he actually stands. (I am a god!!! You will listen to me!!!) There are a lot of journalists who like to present Kanye as an uncontrollable egomaniac, someone with zero self-awareness who can’t see past the end of his nose. He addressed this in his epic interview with the BBC’s Zane Lowe last year:

When someone comes up and says something like, “I am a god,” everybody says, “Who does he think he is?” I just told you who I thought I was: a god. Would it have been better if I had a song that said “I am a gangster’? Or if I had a song that said “I am a pimp”? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?

He’s so much bigger and smarter and stronger than those stereotypes allow him to be, and he knows it. He knows that people want him to sit down, be quiet, and be humble, to fit an idea of what we think a hip-hop artist should be. He knows that people don’t want him to break out of that box by talking about art, fashion, racial injustice, and pride. But, to paraphrase “New Slaves,” he’s about to turn shit up, he’s about to tear shit down, he’s about to air shit out—“now what the fuck they gon’ say now?” —Brodie

The Softest HardThe Softest Hard
Easter
2012, self-released

“Alien Babies” was the first song I ever heard by the German band Easter. It’s sort of a simple song, with a minimal beat, one singer, and vaguely tropical vibes. The video shows the band sitting in a white room and a girl dancing in front of pastel-colored trees. It kind of sums up what I love best about this band’s music, which is that it’s a paradox. It’s freezing and warm at the same time. It’s serious and it’s surreal. The singer delivers the line “I’m so happy I could die” with ice-cold apathy and then talks about “mushrooms being born out of shrimps” without even cracking a smile. It doesn’t make any sense! But that’s its beauty. —María Fernanda

The Black AlbumThe Black Album
Jay-Z
2003, Roc-A-Fella

In 2003, Jay-Z announced that he would be retiring from music, and that The Black Album, his eighth release, would be his last. (He said then that he wanted to focus on business and philanthropy.) He delved deeper than ever before into the emotions and circumstances that motivated him—even including a recording of his mother talking about his birth and his complicated relationship with his father on “December 4th.” If you’re gonna write your swan song, go all out, no? That’s how we got an incisive perspective on racial profiling (“99 Problems”), a cutting career quasi-eulogy (“What More Can I Say”), and a backstory-brag so glorious that sports-arena-fulls of people around the country are still rapping along a decade later (“Public Service Announcement”). It’s a spectacular record (even he calls it a classic), and shows what you can do when you have a pure idea that you stick with, artistically speaking. As we know now, something compelled Jay to keep making music—despite believing in his own retirement, he returned three years later with Kingdom Come—but that’s an artist’s drive for you. As Jay once said about himself, and which I will now cornily repeat, you “can’t knock the hustle.” —Julianne

SouvlakiSouvlaki
Slowdive
1993, Creation

I was introduced to Slowdive several years ago by a friend who taught me about the ways of shoegazing. Before that, I had always thought of guitars as extremely limited instruments. Then this album, along with ones by My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, showed me that there’s a magical realm of sweeping, droning, distorted, dense soundscapes made by guitars, and I was instantly FASCINATED. Every time I listened to Souvlaki was like entering a thick music-fog where I had to slowly adjust my ears to discover new hidden sounds. It was also refreshing that a band I was really inspired by came from my hometown of Reading, which especially resonated with me because their music reflects the banality of that place so perfectly but layers a new, magical story over it. (Fusing realism with fantasy is something I work hard to do in my own artwork). Tracks like “Alison” remind me of that feeling you can get when you’re lying on the floor, listening to a record, and there’s nothing much to do, and it’s sad, but it’s also beautiful. And “Sing,” one of my favorites, starts off by giving me otherworldly outer-space vibes, but softly brings me back to earth as it develops. I used to always put this album on when I had trouble sleeping, and I found myself knowing the whole thing inside and out without having ever properly listened to it while awake. Its sound became subliminally engraved on my mind. —Eleanor

21122112
Rush
1976, Mercury

I discovered Rush at the age of 10, when I got 2112 on cassette. The A-side is a 20-minute, seven-part suite that starts with keyboards that sound like a spaceship prepping for launch, then blasts off with killer guitar riffs courtesy of Alex Lifeson and drumming by the legendary Neil Peart (who has had many imitators). Then singer Geddy Lee comes in with one simple, sweetly sung line, “And the meek shall inherit the earth.” And, BOOM, we land in the year—you guessed it—2112. Geddy’s wails about priests of the “Temple of Syrinx” who have “taken care of everything / The words you read, the songs you sing / The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes.” I discovered this record around the same time I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was totally and completely enthralled. It was like a sci-fi TV show for my ears. But the reason it remains one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time is, simply, that it rocks SO HARD. Rush is still putting out visionary rock masterpieces—and putting on three-hour-plus mind-melting live shows—but if you are looking for an introduction to their catalog or prog rock in general, 2112 is the perfect place to start. —Stephanie

The Neptunes Present ClonesThe Neptunes Present…Clones
The Neptunes
2003, Star Trak Entertainment/Arista

For much of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the Neptunes—the production duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams—were quietly helping to redefine the sound of pop radio by producing songs for people like Britney Spears and Nelly. They were jazz nerds, so they had a fundamental understanding of musicianship, but as the name of their label, Star Trak, implies, they were also obsessed with all things futuristic. Their space-inspired sound is integral to pop’s fabric today, but when it first dropped it literally revolutionized hip-hop, R&B, and pop music. Clones was the first album the Neptunes released as artists (even though a lot of its songs feature other singers and rappers, including Kelis, Snoop Dogg, and Jay-Z), and it stamped them as masterminds and creatives, which they absolutely deserved. Several of its singles became hits, like “Light Your Ass on Fire” with Busta Rhymes and Pharrell’s own “Frontin’,” but the album cuts are what still really get me. Vanessa Marquez’s “Good Girl” is a break-up song that’s as bittersweet as a cherry, while “Hot,” featuring the underrated rapper Roscoe P. Coldchain, is an exercise in using minimalism to sound phenomenally cool. The album cover depicts Pharrell and Chad lording over Earth from somewhere in the galaxy, and, yeah, it’s a little cheesy, but the visual metaphor is apt. Eleven years later, there’s still no one who can do what they do. —Julianne

100 Percent Take Home100% Take Home!/Good Morning
Whatever, Dad and Jake Lazovick
2013, self-released

Lately my daily ritual has been waking up and listening to this split album, which features Elaiza Santos (aka Whatever, Dad) on one “side” and Jake Lazovick on the other, under the covers, and it’s been setting the perfect tone for my winter days. What I love most about the record is how earnest it is—a lot of the songs, especially Elaiza’s, sound like they were torn straight from the pages of a diary. Her song “Stalemate” is my personal favorite, because it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of daydreaming when you’re half-brokenhearted. I can’t help falling in love with her a little every time I hear it. I could go on for days about all of the ~feelings~ this music gives me, but I highly recommend pulling up your covers, snuggling, and giving it a listen. —Allyssa

Unknown PleasuresUnknown Pleasures
Joy Division
1979, Factory

Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, is one of the most introspective records I own. It’s the kind of music I need when I’m feeling contemplative or beginning a new creative project. I bust it out at the beginning of every year to clear my head and activate my imagination. The lyrics to “Insight” describe pretty accurately the mindset this record helps me get into: “I’m not afraid anymore / I keep my eyes on the door / But I remember.” The songs “Shadowplay” and “Day of the Lords” take me to dark but gorgeous places, and “Wilderness” is a total vision quest. And then there’s “She’s Lost Control.” On the surface, it’s about a a girl having an epileptic seizer (Ian Curtis, the band’s singer and lyricist, had epilepsy); but it’s also an anthem for anyone who is fighting to find their purpose, path, or power. —Stephanie

WarpaintWarpaint
Warpaint
2014, Rough Trade

Warpaint just released this album, their second, and it’s worth the four-year wait since their debut. “Love Is to Die” is my fave track, probably because it’s been out a while and has grown on me, but I just can’t wait to fully listen to and learn the whole dreamy record. So far, it’s been perfect for writing or drawing to, and has provided the ideal soundtrack for gazing out of bus windows. Yesterday on my ride home, I watched street lamps that were pooling yellow light onto the wet roads go by, and everything felt like it was in slow motion. Warpaint’s layered, emotional vocals were playing in my ears, and I felt like a film star. Now I wanna join an all-girl indie-rock group more than ever. —Caitlin H.

No Puede ConmigoNo Puede Conmigo
Beat Making Lab
2013, Mad Decent

Beat Making Lab is one of my favorite things. It’s a project where producers travel the world with what they describe as “an electronic studio small enough to fit in a backpack,” scout the most talented young musicians around, and make albums that incorporate contemporary electronic sounds with the traditional music of whatever country they’re in. The music never sounds forced and is almost unequivocally awesome; so far they’ve made comparsa in Panama, hip-hop in Senegal, even dancehall in West Africa using the kora. My favorite entry so far, though, is No Puede Conmigo, which translates to “you can’t have me,” and was recorded in Portobelo, Panama. It’s got so much sensual souljazz and dance remixes with samples and rhythms from the area, like this awesome song, “Macaronis con Queso.” And this incredible clip for the song “Diablos” helps explain the album’s title and how certain devils have a deep entanglement with Panamanian history. There’s so much amazing music from all over the world, and learning about it is one of my all-time biggest life thrills, especially when it’s through a supportive, activist project like this one. —Julianne

Beyonce self-titledBeyoncé
Beyoncé
2013, Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia

For me, there is no correct answer to the question “What’s your favorite track on Beyoncé?” except “ALL OF THEM.” Because each track is better than the last, and each one tells us something about Beyoncé we didn’t know before she surprise-attack-released this 14-track, 18-video masterpiece two weeks before 2013 ended. After seeing Beyoncé’s documentary Life Is But a Dream, following her Tumblr, and seeing her in concert when the Mrs. Carter Show tour made its way to Australia last October, listening to this album felt like coming as close as I ever could to actually knowing who Beyoncé is, what she values, and how she sees the world. It feels like a total privilege, and I’m so glad she decided to lower her guard and let us in. —Brodie ♦

19 Comments

  • SkillzBeat January 23rd, 2014 11:25 PM

    I’ve seen Rush live twice! They’re great!

    • maude loves you every day more January 24th, 2014 4:22 PM

      ah! me too i’m so glad to find another teenager that digs them (and ok yes i did have to comment here twice about rush sorry :D)

  • thebrownette January 23rd, 2014 11:33 PM

    RUSH! I grew up listening to Rush in my dad’s car and watching their DVDs. Roll The Dice, YYZ…..<3

    • Claire Jennings January 25th, 2014 12:24 AM

      I have a “Rush Dad” too! A few years ago it occurred to me… how do I know the lyrics to all these songs from 2112? And then I realized they’ve been playing in the car, in his headphones, on our TV since I was little.

  • brontosaurus January 23rd, 2014 11:44 PM

    Where’s Visions by Grimes???

  • elliecp January 24th, 2014 4:52 AM

    Joy division are really something. I love that record

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • clarekawaii January 24th, 2014 9:57 AM

    100% take home!?? more like 100% yes. that split rulez so hard. both sides make me wanna lay on the floor and think about real deep stuff.

    still appreciating some of the more obvious choices of this list tho, like unknown pleasures and beyonce

  • Eileen January 24th, 2014 10:56 AM

    I just wanted to let whoever know- That flexi disk in Rookie year book 1 made my heart burst. I had to google it… aaaand I think you people are so amazing. How incredibly cool is that

  • the_smartorialist January 24th, 2014 11:13 AM

    Beyoncé is a massive feminist paradox. You have a video by Terry Richardson, then on the next track a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

    I could talk for hours about that album.

  • sadie lidji January 24th, 2014 2:37 PM

    yes!!! some kanye love on rookie!!!

    • InProgress January 24th, 2014 7:26 PM

      I’m equally excited! Also, don’t know if you read it or not but in the interview Rookie did with Lorde she talks about Kanye as well!

      • sadie lidji January 24th, 2014 10:46 PM

        I did! so awesome
        yeezy forevs

  • maude loves you every day more January 24th, 2014 4:20 PM

    RUUUSSSHHHHHH
    omg 2012 was so great it was bad:
    1-21-12
    2-21-12
    3-21-12
    and on and on and on… <3<3<3<3<3

  • Reginechassangel January 24th, 2014 8:48 PM

    i was listening to souvlaki yesterday and i thought “hmm, they should write about this for rookie…”

  • Tyknos93 January 24th, 2014 10:37 PM

    Man the Clones album came out over TEN YEARS ago!? I can still sing Frontin into my hairbrush like i heard it yesterday lol But yeah havin a hard time believing that album came out so long ago…

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • paashaas21 January 25th, 2014 7:43 AM

    i’ve for the kraftwerk record! and warpaint is soooo good…i love them

  • honorarygilmoregal January 25th, 2014 10:35 AM

    I know it isn’t mentioned on this list, but one album that I really love is Ceremonials by Florence and the Machine. The lyrics are chock full of emotional impact, imagery, and symbolism. It almost seems like a work of art, plus there’s Florence’s AMAZING voice. <3 I like this even more than Lungs… definitely no sophomore slump worries here!

    http://perkstobeinginfinite.tumblr.com

  • lubs January 27th, 2014 12:56 PM

    Oh Eleanor I have the exact same connection with souvlaki! It just echoes in my head in those sad but beautiful momenta

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