Lifetime Picks

29 years, 29 albums

Lifetime Picks

I’ve got a birthday this week and to celebrate I’m looking back at the best album from every year I’ve been alive, a concept I lifted from an interview with writer Chuck Klosterman. Here goes:

1979: Michael Jackson, Off the Wall

This is the only album from my birth year still in semi-regular rotation. The first great MJ record is pop perfection.

1980: Bob Marley & the Wailers, Uprising

A worthy final act, Uprising is the final studio album from a truly transcendent figure.

1981: Rick James, Street Songs

With steamy funk jams like "Super Freak" and "Give It to Me Baby," Street Songs is a coked-up sex party pressed in wax.

1982: Michael Jackson, Thriller

To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, Michael is cleared of all charges and subsequent creepiness; "he made Thriller."

1983: Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes

One of only two rock albums on my list, the Violent Femmes debut is undeniable. Credit my brother Jake for spinning this album on repeat during his angsty teenage years.

1984: Prince, Purple Rain

What more to be said?

1985: RUN D.M.C., King of Rock

The kings from Queens wouldn't raise hell with their masterpiece for another year but King of Rock was still groundbreaking.

1986: Paul Simon, Graceland

Feeling happy in the wee of hours of a house party some 10 years ago I discovered a rolling chair, a nearly empty house with wooden floors, and Graceland on full blast is a recipe for serious fun.

1987: Eric B & Rakim, Paid in Full

Rakim elevated the game like few others, making most of his contemporaries look like lyrical simpletons. "I start to think and then I sink into the paper like I was ink. When I'm writing I'm trapped in between the lines, I escape when I finish the rhyme ... I got soul!"

1988: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

The aural explosion of the Bomb Squad and revolutionary raps of Chuck D make this the best hip-hop album ever.

1989: Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique

In the year De La Soul ushered in the Daisy Age, the Beasties released their finest album, a patchwork carnival of sounds unlike anything before or after.

1990: Ice Cube, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted

“The nigga ya love to hate” was never angrier than on his post-N.W.A. solo debut.

1991: A Tribe Called Quest, Low End Theory

Tribe perfects the jazzy formula on their sophomore effort and introduces the world to Busta Rhymes on the massive posse cut "Scenario."

1992: The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

While Dr. Dre introduced the world to the D-O-double-G on The Chronic, nobody was having more fun in the booth than this blunted left-field Cali crew, which took "yo' mama" jokes to the realm of absurdity.

1993: (TIE) Wu Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)/De La Soul, Buhloone Mind State

A complete cop-out, I know. Wu-Tang is the obvious pick here and the impact of 36 Chambers was unparalleled. Still, I have to show love to my favorite De La album, which sneaks in as a sentimental sleeper. From guest Japanese rappers to extended solos from Maceo Parker, the Strong Island crew’s final Prince Paul collaboration adheres to no conventions and is the most criminally underrated hip-hop album ever.

1994: Nas, Illmatic

Biggie foreshadowed his own death and two Atlanta teens threw a player's ball with a Southern drawl, but 1994 belonged to Nasty Nas. If pressed to name the greatest rap song ever, "N.Y. State of Mind" might get my vote.

1995: GZA, Liquid Swords

In the year of the Wu, clansmen Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and GZA all delivered the best work of their careers, but the nod goes to the Wu’s sharpest lyrical swordsman for his eerie masterpiece full of creepy kung-fu dialogue.

1996: Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst

1996 was a monstrous year in hip-hop but the evil genius of Kool Keith's groundbreaking concept album is its most memorable moment. Keith's bizarro raps are a trip but the spaced-out horror-core production of Dan the Automator was light years ahead of its time.

1997: Common, One Day It’ll All Make Sense

Common's first album sans Sense is still my favorite, as the Chi-town wordsmith matured from a brash squeaky-voiced kid to one of hip-hop's most thoughtful MCs: “Not for the money, I could have sampled Diana Ross a long time ago.”

1998: OutKast, Aquemini

In an incredible year for beats and rhymes Lauryn Hill proved she could wreck any emcee on the mic and Talib Kweli and Mos Def joined forces to make backpackers everywhere scream "Loooooooord, have mercy!" That said, Aquemini was next level, a true work of genius and the duo’s finest moment.

1999: Mos Def, Black on Both Sides

Damn, writing about this album is depressing. At the time, it was unthinkable that Mos would never again release anything worth listening to. I still believe he has one more great record in him. Props to the Roots’ Things Fall Apart and Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So ... How's Your Girl?.

2000: D’Angelo, Voodoo

Some real baby-making music, D’Angelo updates Al Green’s syrupy falsetto for the new millennium.

2001: Manu Chao, Próxima Estación: Esperanza

In a weak year for hip-hop, my favorite albums come from a German funk band (Poets of Rhythm) and this globe-trotting trilingual troubadour.

2002: J-Live, All of the Above

J-Live lamented the post-9/11 loss of liberties on “Satisfied” long before anyone in the media seemed to notice, spit ridiculously complex wordplay on “All in Together Now,” summoned Slick Rick’s storytelling on “One for the Griot,” and showed what hip-hop is all about on “EMcee.” Respect also due to Lee Fields’ Problems, a near-perfect throwback funk record.

2003: Brother Ali, Shadows on the Sun

A breath of fresh air, Brother Ali rapped with passion and hunger, mixing intensely personal confessions with swagger-filled battle raps aimed at all comers: “Stressing you can save hip-hop, you can’t even save a whack party!”

2004: Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album

I had given up on the Wu to the point that I didn’t even bother giving this a listen until more than a year after its release. Better late than never.

2005: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Naturally

A nod to M.I.A.’s groundbreaking Arular is in order, but the Dap-Kings’ classic slice of retro-soul was the year’s best, Jones somehow transforming the folksy “This Land Is Your Land” into a full-blown funk explosion.

2006: Darondo, Let My People Go

These songs were originally recorded in the early 1970s but the long lost soul singer laced the tracks with new background vocals and guitar riffs so I’m calling it a legitimate new release.

2007: Brother Ali, The Undisputed Truth

There’s nothing like time to prove an album’s worth – the more recent the year the less clarity I write with. It’s entirely possible five years from now I’ll look back at Amy Winehouse, Stephen Marley, or Mavis Staples as the artist who recorded the most enduring statement of 2007.

2008: To be announced…

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