The Collapsar publishes new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction every other month, and new culture writing weekly.

Brubaker and Flota vs. 1986-2016: The Best Albums of the Last 30 Years, Part 8

And…we’re back. After a rough semester of running a university press pretty much by myself and getting married, and Flota doing whatever it is Flota does (all I know—he made it out to my wedding), we’re finally ready to finish up this list that we remain quite proud of. As we get closer to the top, of course, I suspect you’ll find fewer surprises, but I’m sure at least one or two picks here will bewilder and/or piss off some of our readers. I’ll leave any additional commentary for next time, as we roll out the end of the list, but for now, enjoy the second-to-last installment of mine and Brian Flota’s favorite albums of 1986 – 2016. –James Brubaker

 

020 | The Smiths | The Queen is Dead

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[Rough Trade, 1986]

Maybe The Smiths are overrated. Sure, they recorded a slew of beloved pop songs in their relatively brief career, but they also didn’t really release many great albums. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Louder than Bombs (which isn’t really an “album” proper), and The Queen is Dead is one of the best albums of the 80s, but beyond that? Well, the band’s album output was merely fine. Despite that, the combo of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce is beloved, in large part because they helped to forge a new rock 'n roll voice that spoke to downtrodden teens who never quite figured out how to rock and roll all night and party every day, let alone how to pour some sugar all over anything except for a big, sad bowl of cereal. And let’s not beat around the bush, as fantastic as Marr’s guitar playing and the rhythm section are, Morrissey was the big draw for most of these sullen, serious teens. These are songs about death and longing. “Oh mother,” Morrissey sings on “I Know it’s Over,” “I can feel the soil falling over my head.” On the immortal “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” he famously sings “And if a double decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” So immortal and perfect the visage of a romantic troubadour was Morrissey that he even picked up the honor of being lampooned in a season four episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in a skit about human-sized Tupperware containers for sealing in pop star freshness (“Did I mention I cried,” Mike Nelson as Morrissey quips as he’s let out of his air-tight storage container). Of course, even though Morrissey was the big draw here, fans stuck around due to the tight, exhilarating arrangements (even on the slow songs), and for the fresh approach to guitar pop that amped up the jangle and romance in an era when romance meant knee-deep synths and fucked up haircuts. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Smiths, like, perhaps, their American analogs R.E.M., is that this combination of introspective lyrics and grounded guitar pop became a stealth way forward in an era of production excess. In the understated arrangement of the wonderfully infectious “Cemetery Gates” or the restrained urgency of “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” we hear the beginnings of the indie pop genre that would burble in the background until well after The Smiths disbanded, until finally creeping, itself, into the mainstream through the 90’s and 00’s. Beloved and influential, both, The Smiths are an important part of the foundation of contemporary rock and pop, and The Queen is Dead is their best and most beloved album.—James Brubaker

 

019 | Joanna Newsom | Ys

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[Drag City, 2006]

After the Pitchfork-driven success of Joanna Newsom’s stunning and wonderfully weird proper debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, I’m not sure I ever expected to hear from the quirky artist again. We were in the thick of the “blog band” bubble, where weird, interesting artists would bloom and burst at an alarming pace, and, for her part, Newsom was lumped in with another fleeting musical trend, “freak folk.” But Newsom wasn’t going to be one of those artists. For Ys, the follow-up to her debut, she traded in her short idiosyncratic pop-folk songs for long, winding epics with arrangements by the great Van Dyke Parks. The resulting album is one of the weirdest masterpieces of the 21st century. On Ys, the long-form songwriting soars, telling tales of anthropomorphized animals and constellations, a woman running from her past on the high seas, and a woman hopelessly devoted to an underserving lover, as Newsom’s voice creeps from whisper to holler with a rare intensity. Park’s orchestral arrangements are gorgeous and provide Ys with a fantastical cinematic sweep. But it’s important we’re careful not to give him too much credit—even without his arrangements, Ys would still be a fantastic album, but man, those arrangements elevate the album in not insignificant ways. Alas, it’s Newsom’s singular vision and ambitious songwriting that provide Ys with its gorgeous, shining heart. Newsom’s songs, though littered with archaic language and obtuse imagery, overflow with an impressive emotional immediacy, bolstered by Newsom’s riveting vocal performances. On “Emily,” Newsom makes a discussion of meteorites/meteors/meteoroids into a heartfelt plea for connection: “And the meteorite’s just what causes the light/And the meteor’s how it’s perceived/And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void/That lies quiet and offering to thee.” And even though the seventeen minute “Only Skin” is the album’s rich centerpiece, the emotional climax comes with album closer “Cosmia,” a stunning and raw-despite-the-lush-arrangement performance that finds Newsom shrieking, “And I miss your precious heart,” several times, before resolving with the album’s final lines: “But release your precious heart/to its feast for precious hearts,” providing a quiet, understated end to this remarkable album. Since Ys, Newsom has released two more impressive albums, but this one is still her best, and is easily one of the best albums of the last 30 years. –James Brubaker

 

018 | The Cure | Disintegration

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[Fiction, 1989]

In the end, all it took for Disintegration to get canonized was a shout out from Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the twelfth episode of South Park back in 1998. I kid. Back in 1989, The Cure were on the verge of superstardom, thanks to a string of successes, starting with the release of the compilation Standing on the Beach [Staring at the Sea] in 1986 and culminating with the hit “Just Like Heaven,” which barely cracked Billboard’s Top 40 that year. Compared to the relatively sunny “Just Like Heaven,” the material on Disintegration returns them to their darker roots, fusing the spare, post-Joy Division Goth rock found on early efforts such as Faith [1981] and their finest pre-Disintegration LP, Pornography [1983]. The album opens with “Plainsong,” which unfurls slowly in a dense slush of keyboards and filtered guitars, stacking melody atop melody. It sets up the template that the remaining nine songs follow. Up next is what might be their greatest song, “Pictures of You,” another slow-in-developing number that is as poignant as it is catchy. Just two songs in, The Cure never sounded so focused. Side One is rounded out with three notable numbers, including “Love Song,” one of their biggest hits in the US, the spooky “Lullaby,” and the driving “Fascination Street.” On Side One, The Cure move past the genre-hopping of some of their more recent albums, and way beyond the influence of Joy Division found on their earlier records, and become top-tier innovators, besting the emerging shoegaze groups (especially My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive) at their own game. Even more stunning, they managed to produce four singles from just that first side! Side Two is for their hardcore fans, loaded with beautifully dismal tapestries of heartache and funereal musical and lyrical motifs, buoyed by “Prayers for Rain” and the nine-minute epic “The Same Deep Water as You.” Rarely do well-established groups reach popular and critical mass a decade into their career, but that’s exactly what The Cure did with Disintegration. That’s how special this album is. Though they never quite reached these heights again, The Cure’s place in rock history is firmly secured, and Disintegration is the icing on the cake left out in the rain!—Brian Flota

 

017 | Nirvana | Nevermind

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[DGC, 1991]

I’ll be honest—I kind of hate that I have to write about this album. How many retrospectives/blurbs/legacy reviews/think pieces are we going to have to read about Nirvana and Nevermind before we all just vomit swimming pool water and naked babies and dollar bills all over our ratty corduroys and flannel shirts and say, “We fucking get it—Nirvana changed popular music a little bit for the better and a little bit more for the worst for a few years in the nineties.” But here’s the thing—Nirvana did change music for a little while, and created a world where something resembling underground music became mainstream. And while a lot of the music that became popular as a result of that was garbage (I’m looking at you Candlebox and Silverchair), for a fleeting moment, nineties popular culture was a shining beacon of raw punk energy and subversion. But where did it get us? Once the “alternative” and “grunge” movements drowned in their own pretense, we were left with two extremes (not counting hip hop, which more or less stayed the course)—the “rap”-rock trash so beloved by turn of the century frat bros, and the boy band/teen idol madness that was its sorority girl counterpart. So what am I getting at? Well, maybe Nevermind isn’t the wildly influential “game changing” album it’s been celebrated as for the last twenty-six years. But that’s ok. Here’s the thing about Nevermind: even after you strip away the music journo narratives, it’s a helluva fantastic album. The album’s mix of metal, punk, and pop was unprecedented at its time, and though it didn’t really become a lasting, dominant style, Nirvana’s all too brief tenure at the top of the pops was damn near miraculous.  From the opening quick strum and fast explosion of the immortal “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it was clear that Nirvana were making music that hadn’t quite existed before, and they were doing it extraordinarily well. This became even clearer with the fuzzy future rock of “Breed,” and the discordant noise-fuckery of hidden track “Endless, Nameless.” And that’s part of what made Nirvana so great—they were really trying something, really going for it, whatever it was (and damn did they ever go for it on their next and last proper album, In Utero). But here’s the other part of what made Nirvana great: despite the fuzz and grit and feedback and distortion and noise and screams, at their cores, the majority of Nirvana’s songs were nothing if not melodic. And, while his penchant for melody is most apparent on the stripped down versions of his songs on Unplugged in New York, there’s no doubt that Kurt Cobain’s strong melodic sense is on full display across all of Nevermind’s songs. I once read an interview with Michael Stipe from around the time that Monster came out, in which he discussed his friendship with Kurt Cobain, and how, shortly before his suicide, Cobain had been wanting to take Nirvana in a more lush and arranged direction, more acoustic guitars and strings, even more emphasis on melody. Ever since I read that, I’ve wished that was an album that existed, because I’m certain it would be beautiful—but the truth is, we don’t need it, because it’s all on Nevermind; it’s just buried in scuzz. –James Brubaker

 

016 | Beastie Boys | Paul’s Boutique

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[Capitol, 1989]

Want to know how I know that License to Ill isn’t as good as you think it is? Because when I first heard it in second or third grade—these things took a little time to work through friends’ older brothers and sisters—I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. That’s how close the Beastie Boys were to being a straight-up novelty act. Considering that many critics and suburban parents of the time considered rap music to be a passing fad (this is how we know, to paraphrase a song from another worse than you remember album of the time, parents really just don’t understand), Paul’s Boutique is a far better outcome for the Beastie’s second album than most people could imagine in even their best case scenario predictions. Landing in 1989 a few months after De La Soul’s seminal 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul’s Boutique, along with 3 Feet High, revolutionized hip hop’s approach to sampling in a way that is still deeply felt today. That is, samples moved from being just background and ornamentation to become the fabric of the songs themselves. At times, the result felt almost psychedelic, thanks to the rapid fire patchwork of musical references. Make no mistake about it, while The Beastie Boys are in top form on Paul’s Boutique, and their witty rhymes are wildly energetic and entertaining, the real stars of the album are The Dust Brothers. Thanks to the Dust Brothers’ sample-heavy production, Paul’s Boutique became a raucous, irreverent trip through pop’s past, present, and future. How many albums can boast a high-profile Beatles sample as on “The Sounds of Science,” which lifts the guitar riff right out of Abbey Road’s classic “The End.” Of course, late 80s hip hop had a bit of an advantage over what followed because the rest of pop was slow to get hip to what was happening, and so some of these early albums were able to loot pop’s heroes vaults before the lawsuits started flying. Paul’s Boutique’s legacy also goes well beyond its technical accomplishments—no shit, the album is a definitive text of late-20th century postmodernism, dropping references, both lyrically and musically, in a way that recalls some of pop culture’s most referential texts. Maybe Paul’s Boutique is the musical equivalent of Infinite Jest, only the Beastie’s endnotes are tightly coiled around and through each of the album’s songs, forcing listeners to dig deep into each song rather than turn to the end of the book. Ultimately, Paul’s Boutique is one of the great hip hop albums, not just of the 80s, but of all time, for both its influence as well as for the sheer enthusiasm and excitement running through its beats and rhymes. –James Brubaker

 

015 | Bjork | Homogenic [One Little Indian/Elektra, 1997]

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[One Little Indian/Elektra, 1997]

Bjork’s Homogenic is a gorgeous album. Blending electronic beats with lush orchestration, Bjork was setting out to represent Iceland, her home, a place for which she was pining while making this album, in sonic terms. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I’ll be damned if Homogenic doesn’t sound exactly how I always imagined Iceland to be. Overshadowed in the year of its release by Radiohead’s vastly overrated OK Computer, Homogenic easily stands as Bjork’s greatest achievement, even in light of 2014’s stunning Vulnicura. What makes this album so impressive is the sheer and unadulterated amount of passion that Bjork packs into every second of her performance. Even in an understated performance, as on most of “All Neon Like,” Bjork’s breathy, jagged delivery unfurls lines like “I weave for you/The marvellous web/Glow in the dark threads/All neon like” and “The soft distortion/Fills you up/Nourish nourish/Your turtle heart,” as if they were the last words she’d ever speak. When Bjork arrives at the song’s chorus, of course, all bets are off and the singer belts out something about luminous beams—and even though I’m not sure what she’s saying, I believe it because it sounds so pure, so raw, so true. Of course, the song’s most stunning moment is its bridge, when Bjork sings “Don't get angry with yourself/I'll heal you,” and her voice breaks just a little on “get” and that break cuts to the heart of everything and we can hear the ocean of hope and sorrow that swells inside of Bjork, that buoys all her finest work. Elsewhere, Bjork excoriates herself on “Immature,” almost violently asking, “How could I be so immature/To think he could replace/The missing elements in me?” and contemplates the foundations of her being on “Bachelorette,” singing “I'm a fountain of blood/In the shape of a girl.” Again, Bjork, herself, is the vibrant, vital, beating pulse of Homogenic, her voice lifting every song to emotional highs so high they’re a little bit scary. Surprisingly, for an album released in 1997 and so thoroughly steeped in electronics, Homogenic has aged quite well, with “Alarm Clock” and “Pluto” the only songs with production that sounds a little bit dated, a little too 90s. Hell, considering how dated a lot of the straight up electronic music of that era sounds, now, that in and of itself is a fine achievement. But the real achievement here is that Homogenic is a stunning, visceral album that gets to the heart of human frailty and insecurity, all through the peculiar vantage point of Bjork. It’s a shame that American popular culture mostly remembers her as the weird lady in the swan tutu. She really is one of the greats. –James Brubaker

 

014 | Madvillian | Madvillainy

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[Stones Throw, 2004]

The so-called “underground” rap scene of the 00s reached one notable peak with the release of Madvillainy, a one-off collaboration between MF DOOM and Madlib, dubbed Madvillain. Madlib here turns in one of turntablism’s high water marks, perhaps matched only by the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989), DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing … (1996), J Dilla’s Donuts (2006), and The Avalanches’ Since I Left You (2000). By mining a record collection chockfull of non-Western records, radio programs, deep cut soul and jazz, and other esoterica, Madlib creates a sonic world that is at once rooted fifty years in the past and floating in space fifty years in the future. A cannabinoid quality singes the air that fuels Madvillainy, one that is rarely (save for on “America’s Most Blunted”) explicit in the way that Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) or the discography of Cypress Hill manage to be. MF DOOM’s psilocybent wordplay is aided by a lightly raspy flow that wonderfully complements Madlib’s ostensible low budget sci-fi film score. Though the album’s sequencing lacks an obvious arc, the of-a-piece nature of the way the tracks seamlessly blend together provides a testament to the cohesive vision Madlib bring to the project. With Sun Ra serving as the album’s Afrofuturist muse (his music is sampled on “America’s Most Blunted” and “The Illest Villains”), MF DOOM creates a weed-giggly yet menacing tone poem that yields numerous quotable lines (my favorite: “Got more soul than a sock with a hole” from the closer, “Rhinestone Cowboy”). Though Madvillainy might not produce an immediately accessible listening experience to those hearing it for the first time, thanks to its somehow sparse yet dense production style and the otherworldly experience it generates, it is the kind of album that rewards listeners with multiple spins, as there is always some new detail that presents itself. Challenging music is rarely this fun.—Brian Flota

 

013 | Wu-Tang Clan | Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

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[Loud, 1993]

Twenty-four years after its release, I’m still not sure how Enter the Wu-Tang Clan—36 Chambers became such a cultural force. Even compared to its contemporaries, the production is weird and messy, and the performances from the crew, itself, are often times uncomfortable in a way that seems like it would have kept the Wu-Tang Clan from creeping into the shopping malls and suburbs they needed to reach to move the amount of product they moved. But that’s exactly what happened, and it’s amazing. Here’s the thing, I guess—Enter the Wu-Tang didn’t get popular in spite of its weirder qualities, it got popular because of them. At the time, nothing else really sounded like this album, that is to say, truly subversive. Now, I’m sure the scores of 13-year-old suburban kids smuggling home copies of the album from Sam Goody’s weren’t all that concerned with the politics of class and race underlying the album, but of course they were going to respond to lyrics as immediate and visceral as “Bring da mother, bring da motherfucking rucks.” Wu-Tang’s message and music, because it didn’t sound polished, and because it was driven by pure hunger, sounded dangerous, and the kids of the day responded to that. Of course, it helped that nothing was off-limits for Wu-Tang. On the album’s opening verse, Ghostface rhymes, “P.L.O. style, hazardous 'cause I wreck this/Dangerous, I blow spots like Waco, Texas,” just months after the tragic end of the Waco siege. But let’s talk a bit about what this album meant to hip hop, because even though suburban kids helped drive this album’s sales, the real story here is the album’s legacy for the genre. That legacy? Wu-Tang were also kind of dangerous to hip hop. Enter the Wu-Tang didn’t sound like other hip hop albums coming out at the time—it sounded almost homespun, hip hop’s answer to the lo-fi movement that was bubbling up in the indie sphere with Pavement and Guided By Voices. Disregarding the sheer, jaw-dropping skills of the Wu-Tang MC’s, this album sounded like something anyone could make, and I don’t think it’s much of a reach to say that Enter the Wu-Tang began to further democratize hip hop, expanding the reach of the underground and inviting more off-beat visionaries into the genre’s ever expanding tent to help counter the mainstream, radio polished version of hip hop that was already solidifying its grasp on pop culture even as early as 1993. And of course I’d be remiss not to point out how many excellent albums spun out of this crew, with one, Liquid Swords, landing lower on our list, and several more (hello Ghostface and Raekwon) not missing by much. Wu-Tang Clan’s influence on hip hop is still felt today, and this is where it started. Also, fuck Martin Shkreli. –James Brubaker

 

012 | Prince | Sign 'O' The Times

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[Paisley Park, 1987]

By 1987, Prince was a firmly established A-list superstar. However, he had not been able to duplicate the overwhelming success of his 1984 album (and film) Purple Rain. He followed it up with two fine but hardly stellar albums in Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade (1986) which took a light psychedelic turn. Though those albums weren’t as packed with gems as Purple Rain, they still had some monster hits, including “Raspberry Beret” and my favorite Prince song, “Kiss.” For his next effort, Prince would turn in a double-LP effort, demonstrating his mastery of pop/rock/funk styles. While Sign ‘O’ the Times wouldn’t come close to matching the sales figures of Purple Rain, it has since become, for many listeners, the definitive Prince album. It is loaded with solid singles (“U Got the Look” with Sheena Easton, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the title track, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and “Housequake”) and wonderful, quirky deep cuts (“It,” the trippy “Starfish and Coffee,” the smoldering “Slow Love,” the dance-floor epic “Hot Thing,” and the live rave-up “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”). While maintaining his place on the cutting edge of pop music, Prince also starts incorporating more jazzy arrangements. The one big stride forward for Prince on the album is the inclusion of more intimate, quasi-introspective numbers like “Adore,” “The Cross,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and “Forever in My Life,” influenced by Joni Mitchell’s mid-1970s albums. Perhaps the most entertaining detail about the album are the songs composed as his gender-bending alter-ego Camille, who appears on “Housequake,” the brilliant “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and the driving “Strange Relationship.” By far the most sprawling and complex of Prince’s 1980s albums, Sign 'O' the Times is a testament to a brilliant musician and performer who was so great he was born royalty. Following the release of Sign 'O' the Times, Prince was never able to put together another album as similarly brilliant, though aficionados often cite The Black Album (1987), Come (1994), and Rainbow Children (2001) as some of his later great records. It’s worth remembering that during the 1980s and early 1990s, Prince, who often played all the instruments on his records as well as those for other artists and protégés such as The Time, The Family, Vanity 6, and Apollonia 6, churned out hit after hit of astoundingly high quality, which is quite rare in the world of pop music. Sign 'O' the Times represents the high-water mark of his efforts to own the scene during that time. He will be forever missed.—Brian Flota

 

011. Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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[Roc a Fella/Def Jam, 2010]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy arrived at a strange time in Kanye West’s career—a couple of years after the middling-at-the-time-but-turned-out-to-be-hugely-influential 808s and Heartbreaks, an album that began a shift in West’s music from traditional hip hop concerns to oddly personal explorations of the heartache and tragedy West had endured. And perhaps, even more integral to MBDTF than where it landed in West’s career, is where it landed in the context of his life and those various heartaches and tragedies. The album arrived three years after West’s mother died due to complications following plastic surgery that West paid for, which preceded West’s first weird, public downward spiral into the darkness of fame, including his infamous “I’mma let you finish” VMA moment, a number of bizarre interviews, and rumors that he was either stashed in rehab or hiding in an Indian ashram. And then we had MBDTF, one of the most stunning, cinematic, and ambitious hip hop albums of all time. Perhaps most intriguing about the album, though, is how it found West turning his lyrics inward, interrogating the power and temptations of fame, as well as the context of that fame for a black man who hadn’t come from wealth. On “Power,” over a King Crimson sample, West rhymes a putdown to the cast of Saturday Night Live (“Fuck SNL and the whole cast/Tell them Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass”), and celebrates his wealth ("As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece,”), while simultaneously weighing the cost of his success, musing that “Reality is catching up with me,” before the song resolves into an odd suicide fantasy, in which Ye and Dwele rap and sing, “ Now this will be a beautiful death/I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go.” Elsewhere, West explore the dark impulses resulting from so much power on all-timer “Monster,” (featuring one of the best verses in hip hop history, courtesy of Nicki Minaj), and his addiction to sex on the “banging a porn star” anthem “Hell of a Life.” What frequently gets lost in discussions of West’s career and persona is how open he’s been in exploring and critiquing his own bad behavior, in a way that comes off as weirdly confessional. Beginning with MBDTF, the narrative of West’s music became one of personal discovery and critique. Sure, every song is more or less, one way or another, about Yeezy, but he pulls it off by allowing those songs to double as an exploration of fame and its accompanying power. By digging into his own dark impulses and setting the resulting rhymes against a backdrop of big, bold beats and backing tracks, West made an album that doubles as a monument to his own ambitions, and trebles as a stark reminder of the soul crushing reality of being able to do pretty much anything one wants. It should be noted, too, that MBDTF also serves as the moment when West established himself as a master curator as much as an artist, as many of the album’s finest and most surprising moments are delivered by its guests (Nicki, Bon Iver, and hell, even Fergi all get killer turns, here). But through it all, this album is West’s show, and it remains his greatest achievements. To paraphrase “Runaway,” let’s have a toast to this asshole, to Ye, as one of the best and most influential artists of the last 30 years, and to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his most enduring masterpiece. –James Brubaker

 

 

100-86  |  85-71  |  70-61  |  60-51  |  50-41  | 40-31 | 30-21

 

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