lil wayne - "georgia... bush" by Zack Free

this dedication 2 stunner makes lil wayne’s more recent comments on black lives matter and the supposed antiquity of racism all the more disappointing. it just doesn’t fit; how does one craft one of the most powerful post-katrina hip hop records (in which one hints at government conspiracy) and then exhibit a total disconnect from the rest of humanity? it’s baffling

 

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judee sill - "jesus was a cross maker" by Zack Free

judee sill's story is a tragic one. she grew up in a turbulent home, and as a teen, she assisted in several armed robberies. she was sent to reform school, where she acted as a church organist and gained an intimate knowledge of gospel music that would impact her music significantly. later in life, she picked up a heroin addiction and ended up turning to prostitution. she ultimately died at the age of 35 from a lethal mixture of cocaine and codeine. most regrettably, she never reached the level of success that she deserved. she came closest, however, with "jesus was a cross maker," a graham nash-produced cut from her debut that remains her leading legacy (just ahead of her immaculate "the kiss", also on this list). it's a brilliant display of her influences, equally indebted to gospel and classical music, and it shows off her incredible talent as a songwriter. the song is about her tumultuous relationship with musician j.d. souther, but sill translates her own experiences into a stirring biblical allegory, characteristic of the christian imagery that she would utilize throughout her career, that gives the story a certain ubiquity. "one time i trusted a stranger 'cause i heard his sweet song," she weaves, and it's difficult not to feel her suffering. "crossmaker" is a tale of pain, and few have been as fit to tell it as judee sill

SEE ALSO: frida hyvönen's gorgeous cover, from the tribute album crayon angel: a tribute to the music of judee sill

 

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solange - "cranes in the sky" by Zack Free

solange knowles' a seat at the table was the most important album of 2016. its best moments offer an unadulterated peek at the emotional repercussions of being black in america, addressing feelings of weariness, anger, and aimlessness. table's definite peak, "cranes in the sky," is no exception; it's tethered inextricably to the black experience. but knowles' lyrics here, masterful and disquieting, hint at something universal. they never quite tell what she's running from, but somehow it's clear as day. it's a feeling that any person of color, any woman, any queer person, or anybody who's been made to feel worthless in their own skin should be able to identify with, and its never quite been manifested in song like it is here. "cranes"' acute emotional pull is only intensified by solange's gorgeous vocal performance, a fragile display that reaches its wordless summit in the song's unbelievable last seconds. suddenly, she's a bird, aware of the cage that she's in, but unsure of how to break free. it's cripplingly sad, but a brave realization, both timeless and unbelievably timely

 

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the jesus & mary chain - "just like honey" by Zack Free

i can't think of a song that embodies the essence of honey more accurately than "just like honey." it's thick, it's slow, it's sticky, and boy, is it sweet. the opener to their opus, 1985's psychocandy, "honey" goes straight for the pleasure center. it's no coincidence that it nabs its intro from the ronettes' "be my baby," an oft-cited contender for greatest song of all time; it captures all of the ecstasy of phil spector's "wall of sound" recordings, the essence of which is a syrupy nostalgia that somehow transcends time. however, instead of utilizing excessive layering to achieve its all-encompassing sound, the track ups the fuzz factor on its minimal arrangement by about 200%, to similar effect. the result would prove hugely influential, acting as a general blueprint for the shoegaze and dream pop genres that would start to develop over the next few years. the rest of psychocandy is similarly engaging, but it's the sugar rush of "just like honey" that keeps it running

 

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peter gabriel - "in your eyes" by Zack Free

if any record should be credited with bringing african folk music to the western consciousness, it should probably be paul simon's graceland. it has both a wider focus and a rounder appreciation of the culture than peter gabriel's so (released the same year). however, if we're talking about the influence of african music on western pop, the discussion would be incomplete without mention of the stunning "in your eyes". released as the third single from so, "eyes" is a ballad of spiritual proportions that draws much of its levitating power from its percussion section. it also features guest vocals from senegalese musician youssou n'dour, who also happened to play on graceland, and would soon after grow to become senegal's biggest star in the west (until maybe akon). the song contains two distinct, alternating sections that give it its wallop; the verses show gabriel at his lowest, "grovel[ling] in his car," while the chorus blossoms into what is probably the brightest moment of his career. the singer has further explored african influence later in his discography, but "in your eyes" remains his most transcendent effort, a revelation in itself, and one his signature songs

 

 

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lady gaga - "the edge of glory" by Zack Free

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born this way, lady gaga's second studio album, worked tirelessly to establish the singer as an anthem artist. to this end, the singer beefed up her sound considerably, incorporating both thick layers of synth and live instruments such as guitar and saxophone (the latter of which was supplied by the e street band's clarence clemons). she achieved varying degrees of success in her quest to reach the sonic sublime. some of the triumphs include country ballad "yoü and i," bizarre opener "marry the night," and, to some effect, "born this way," which is nothing if not anthemic. however, the most successful moment on born this way is "the edge of glory," an anthem of towering proportions. bruce springsteen should be proud; at its peak, "glory" reaches the same heights as "born to run" or "born in the u.s.a.," due in part to clemons' magnificent sax solo. gaga's performance is also superb, reaching a gritty fever pitch by the time the chorus hits. it's a moment of true elevation, and it remains one of her greatest achievements

 

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janet jackson - "if" by Zack Free

each one of janet jackson's albums from control to the velvet rope functioned as an explosive personal statement. while control established the singer's newfound autonomy, and rhythm nation 1814 exhibited a militant dissatisfaction with the state of society, 1993's janet. was a radical declaration of sexual freedom. "if," released as the album's second single (following the brilliant "that's the way love goes,"), shattered jackson's sexually abstinent, "let's wait awhile" image to pieces. "if i was your girl, oh the things i'd do to you," the singer croons atop a bone-rattling groove that introduced trip hop to pop radio. along with its spectacular video, "if" helped to usher in a new wave of sex-positivity for women. she would further explore the theme of sexual liberation on 1997's the velvet rope (my personal favorite of janet's albums), but none of those future breakthroughs (such as "free xone" or "tonight's the night") would have been possible without this jam right here

 

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weezer - "across the sea" by Zack Free

pinkerton, originally panned by critics, is now regarded as a milestone in emo music. it’s several shades darker than its predecessor, channelling feelings of lust and worthlessness into one explosive half hour that stays with you long past its duration. at the album's core is “across the sea,” a tale of mutual obsession that occurs between rivers cuomo and an eighteen year old japanese schoolgirl. cuomo is somehow able to occupy the space between sweet (“i’ve got your letter / you’ve got my song”) and skeevy (licking the envelopes of the letters she sends, pondering her masturbation habits), a feat which he achieves throughout pinkerton, but to no greater effect than on “across the sea”. twenty years later, it remains one of weezer’s most bizarre (but affecting) pieces

 

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t.i. - "what you know" by Zack Free

king is t.i.’s masterwork thus far, a southern rap manifesto that showcases the mc at an absurd level of self-confidence. t.i.p.’s swaggering narratives are bolstered by an unbelievable line up of instrumentals from the likes of mannie fresh, just blaze, and dj toomp, the latter of whom produces “what you know,” king’s magnificent lead single. it flips the awe-inspiring coda from roberta flack’s cover of the impressions’ “gone away,” converting it from scorching soul to synthetic symphonics, the likes of which dj toomp would come to master over the years, and few others would ever touch

SEE ALSO: what i think is toomp’s opus, kanye west’s "big brother"

 

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roxette - "it must have been love (christmas for the lonely)" by Zack Free

an exquisitely crafted power ballad that balances the bombast of 80s pop with a glass-like delicateness. marie fredriksson’s vocal corresponds, powerful but vulnerable and almost inhumanly perfect. the bridge even opts for bruce hornsby-esque piano, dodging the guitar solo cheese that many of roxette’s contemporaries would have given in to. it’s a fragile tour de force

 

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nas & jay z - "black republican" by Zack Free

hip hop is dead revolves around a ridiculous and self-inflated concept. hip hop is not, was not, and will never be dead, even if it constantly changes shape. however, nas’ stringent traditionalism lit a fire under his ass - the music on his eighth studio album is some of the most inspired that mc has put out this century. this is its most victorious moment - about five years after one of the most historic beefs in hip hop history, jay and nas put their differences aside. even if the two sound pretty disconnected (in fact, jay z sounds a little annoyed in the intro), both support their status as legends here, delivering reflective verses that accentuate the grandiosity of the glorious production work. the video for jay’s excellent “roc boys (and the winner is…),” released the following year, features nas, hov, and diddy smoking cigars together - it’s a powerful image. if nothing else, the prospect of hip hop’s demise brought our legends closer together than ever. it doesn’t sound like hip hop is doing too bad after all, huh?

 

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mount eerie - "ravens" by Zack Free

it's difficult choosing highlights from phil elverum’s eighth album as mount eerie, a crow looked at me. part of this is because it’s a struggle to get through the album in the first place; it’s a reflection on the death of elverum’s wife, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. it’s almost absurdly emotionally raw, less a collection of songs than a collection of variations on a singular idea that’s too immense to capture in full. “ravens,” however, makes a strong case, and it happens to contain what is arguably the album’s most unsettling moment: elverum recalls chopping firewood and spotting two crows gliding across the sky, immediately recognizing their appearance as an omen. in the next line, his wife is dead. it’s a testament to the artist’s incredible abilities as a poet, which are on naked display throughout the project, and the bravery that it takes to relate such paralyzing grief. it takes a certain amount of bravery on the part of the listener as well; listening to a crow looked at me is like staring death in the face

 

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meshell ndegeocello - "blood on the curb" by Zack Free

this is probably my favorite song of meshell's that i've ever heard. it’s beautifully composed and engineered, and it ends up sounding something like sade doing indie rock. but there’s never any doubt that it’s meshell. her dedication to the delivery of the lyrics (in which she plays something like a nazi, the devil, or evil itself) is what makes the song work. it’s thrillingly ominous

 

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madvillain - "accordian" by Zack Free

the first track on madvillainy to feature doom, this one is an absolute crusher. madlib’s production (which samples electronic musician daedalus) is otherworldly, an unparalleled concoction of drone and boom bap that sounds like nothing else on the album. doom also unravels some of his stickiest rhymes here, sure to embed themselves into your subconscious after a couple listens

 

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madonna - "cherish" by Zack Free

it changes, but i’ve touted this one as my favorite madonna song before. it’s brilliantly giddy, too assured to be cutesy. “romeo and juliet/they never felt this way, I bet,” madonna says, straight faced, “so don’t underestimate my point of view.” it’s almost childlike in its faith in love

 

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