The Low End Theory
A Tribe Called Quest
1991, Zomba Recording LLC
I love looking into the songs sampled on hip hop albums as a way of unearthing new music; a Tribe Called Quest has introduced me to a number of jazz musicians, including Lonnie Smith, Art Blakey, and Cannonball Adderley. The samples on ATCQ’s second album mostly come from jazz, a style of music referenced often by the Native Tongues crew, a collective of which ATCQ were part. You can hear the jazz influence immediately in the bass line on the first track, “Excursions.” The lyric, “You can find the Abstract listening to hip hop / My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop,” acknowledges that although the music is sample driven it isn’t ripping off but rather paying homage to those who came before by using their work in fresh and innovative ways. In contrast to the the freeform nature of jazz, on The Low End Theory, the music is stripped down to its drum and bass core. The track “Show Business” even contains some of “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, which also happens to be one of the most sampled songs of all time.
My favorite track on this album is “Verses From the Abstract,” Q-Tip is a more than competent rapper but what truly makes the song is the collaboration: Vinia Mojica’s vocals coupled with “my man Ron Carter” on the bass. On “Check the Rhime,” too, you can hear a group that has really found their groove, “You on point, Tip? All the time, Phife.” There’s a perfect balance between the two rappers, neither one trying to outdo the other. Bottom line: Tribe is mad influential, just ask Pharrell. —Tayler
2007, Rapster Records/BBE Records
I fell in love with Mark Ronson’s Version the moment it dropped. The album comprises covers of popular songs from the 2000s–Amy Winehouse croons The Zutons’ “Valerie,” Alex Greenwald takes Radiohead’s “Just” into a pop realm, and Lily Allen gives the Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God” an attitude. The album title is perfect: Each track presents a version of the original song and Ronson speeds up the tracks, adding a powerful chorus of horns that take the tracks to another level. I love this album because it speaks to the power of collaboration, and to how a few people can take an idea and transform it, but still have it remain recognizable. —Shriya
Nothing but the Water
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
2005, Ragged Co. Records
This album opens with “Toothbrush and My Table,” a song about a breakup wherein the singer, Grace lists the things she wants back from her former lover including the toothbrush and the table, but also her hammer and her nail. Nothing but the Water is all about making something out of relationships—even if some of what is made is a total mess. There are tales of cheating on both sides, of boyfriends who get left, and those who do the painful leaving. There are demands to be treated right, to receive everything that a lover has to give, and guys like “Joey,” who do plenty wrong and end up in jail. Many of these are rollicking songs full of swagger and a little bit of country twang, but Grace has a gorgeous soulful voice that compliments the bluesy songs just as well. Best of all is “Ragged Company,” a powerful reminder that no matter how far you run or who you are running from, at the end of the day you have to face yourself. —Stephanie
Marina and the Diamonds
2014, Warner Music Group Company
Froot is full of contradictions, because people are full of contradictions. This album veers from the egocentric and confident bliss of Marina’s second studio album Electra Heart (2012) by bearing its insecurities proudly; Marina knows that they are part of what makes her a person. My absolute favorite song on this record is “Can’t Pin Me Down”: the singer knows people want something from her, and she complies, but makes sure they know she won’t give them anything that would compromise her selfhood. Every facet of this record is immensely satisfying. —Lucy
What’s the 411?
Mary J. Blige
1992, Geffen Records
Mary J. Blige’s career began with her recording a cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” in a recording booth at the mall. That recording fell into the hands of Andre Harrell, the CEO of Uptown Records and the girl from Yonkers was “discovered.” Mary J. Blige’s first album, What’s the 411?, was a major hit; it went platinum several times over. Her soulful vocals soared over sample-driven beats—a combination which was unheard of at the time and which earned her the title “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.”
The track “You Remind Me” includes samples from the composer and musician Patrice Rushen’s song “Remind Me.” Blige’s use of the song pays homage to and bridges the gap between 1980s R&B and what was to come post-411. The album’s title track is a bonafide classic: Over a bass-driven beat Mary J. Blige and Grand Puba begin to exchange banter, and Mary demands he come correct if he plans to pursue her. The lyrics, “The scam that you ran last week on Pam? / I’m not having that! No, I’m not having that!” always prompts several yasss girl!s from me. I also love how the song borrows from another classic, “Very Special” by Debra Laws. While Mary’s music is the soundtrack of my mother’s coming of age, her around-the-way girl, I eat bacon, egg, and cheese from the bodega image still resonates with me. I’m an around the way girl who upholds the legacy of the one who raised me, doorknocker earrings and New York slang included. —Tayler
2012 XL Recordings Ltd.
All of Sigur Rós’ music has an ethereal, multilayered, otherworldly quality that makes me feel transcendent. I’ve been into Sigur Rós ever since I watched Heima, a 2007 documentary that follows the band around their homeland, Iceland, as they play impromptu shows and interact with various communities. In the film, Jónsi, lead singer and ultimate dreamboat, and his bandmates scavenge around the mountains and meadows of Iceland to find rocks, wood, and other natural objects to create some of their instruments.
Valtari opens with Jónsi emitting hopeful sighs that soon take on a warmer, earthier quality as other instruments enter the mix. The only lyrics are, “I breathe, fortunately.” Each song on the album flows so effortlessly into the next, building up into an aching swell that absolutely consumes you. At the moment I have “Varúð” (which translates to warning or caution) on repeat. It builds to a potent, cathartic release of music that absolutely floors me. I love that different parts of the music take on new meaning depending on what I’m going through or what I’m feeling, whether it’s meditating, falling in love, or feeling a little melancholic. The album speaks to me on a personal and spiritual level. It’s been the backdrop to so many important moments in my life: My first baby brother being born; traveling Europe and South America with my step-father after he married my mom; and discovering my favorite writing spot. I recommend this album to anyone who wants to feel. —Mads
2014, Alejandro Ghersi
Arca’s debut album is an electronic glitch masterpiece that you cannot dance to—or perhaps you could, if your body could split into a thousand pieces and rearrange itself in a second. I first got into his music when I noticed his credits on FKA twigs’ LP1, which he helped produce. Unlike twigs’ soft, sensual sound, Arca’s music is all gnashing push-and-pull bass leads that jump around fractalized pianos. Arca seems to revel in making listeners feel uncomfortable. He crafts bass lines that never ever repeat, which means your brain has just fractions of a moment to process them, before they are gone and the song has morphed into another creature entirely. The album’s titular track, “Xen” is its standout; when I listen it with my eyes closed, it feels like the heralding call of a nightmare locust is darting in and out of my subconscious. I’ve spent so much time listening to Xen, but never felt like I was actually hearing the same thing twice— each listen feels like a new quest into Arca’s lurid world. —Meagan
A Cure for Pain
When I first heard Morphine, I didn’t know what to think: jazzy saxophone, bluesy lyrics and…a two-string slide bass guitar? But somehow it works, perhaps because of the singer Mark Sandman’s distinctive baritone, which sounds just like I imagine the sandman (either from folklore or the Neil Gaiman comic) might. The album opens with “Buena,” which urges you to “Come on a little closer by the front of the stage,” because there is a good story to be told—and it really is a damn good one. This album is about love that sucks you in so deep you don’t recognize yourself anymore (“Candy”), the affair that should have stayed in the pool hall (“Thursday”), and the heartbreaking ritual of addiction (“Cure for Pain”). Two of the tracks I especially like are about freedom—setting someone else free and recognizing that they are better without you (“In Spite of Me”), and that internal battle over your own freedom, whether or not you really want to take advantage of it, if you even feel like you deserve it (“I’m Free Now”). Sadly, Mark Sandman passed away in 1999, but the music he and Morphine made is like nothing else. When life feels like a tug of war, it always helps me float off to another realm, a dreamy place where I can sort out my brain. —Stephanie
Born to Be With You
1975, Phil Spector Records
Dion began his career singing in a doo-wop group called Dion and the Belmonts, before branching out on his own, struggling with drug addiction, and overcoming early critics who referred to him as a mere teen idol, a temporary figure in the music industry. Sputnik Music blog wrote, “Though Dion’s Phil Spector-produced masterpiece Born to Be With You initially presents itself as a towering and untouchable collaboration, it gradually reveals itself as one of the most poignant and human pop albums ever made.”
The content of this album covers love, God, and addiction with occasional bursts of warm saxophone that bring an extravagant vibe into the mix. “Born to Be With You,” “(He’s Got) the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Only You Know” stand out for me in particular. On “Only You Know,” Dion sounds like he’s singing his heart out to his lover, proclaiming the sincerity of his devotion while recognizing there are things about her that he’ll never understand: “And only you know where you have been to / Only you know what you have been through / But there’s better things you’re gonna get into / And I wanna be there too.” This album will forever remind me of maudlin summer nights, moving to Los Angeles, and falling in love for the first time. —Mads ♦