If you’ve been with us long enough, you’ll know I’ve done a lot of writing on the artists and music I love. But, I’ve never truly given you a solid grasp of the music that influenced my tastes.
Today, I’d like to rectify that and show you what I tend to compare and contrast in my head when I write reviews and compile year-end playlists. These are my ten favorite albums of all time, in release order rather than a pure ranking.
Thriller—Michael Jackson (November 30, 1982)
This album dropped a decade before I was born, yet it’s helped shape a lot of my musical tastes. It’s the most celebrated album of all time, yes. Deeper than that, each track has a life of its own. Shockingly, there are only nine songs on this LP and damn near all of them are hits. “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” might be the most legendary three-track run in modern music, but it’s also got “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and my personal favorite MJ song, “Human Nature.” “The Lady In My Life” is also required to play at my wedding. No debates.
Fourplay—Fourplay (September 17, 1991)
This album has followed me my entire life, debuting roughly 6 months before I was born. Multiple close relatives were fans of this band, so this album has been in heavy rotation for as long as I can remember. “Bali Run,” “101 Eastbound,” and “Max-O-Man” are certified bops. “After the Dance” (Featuring El DeBarge) is a great Marvin Gaye cover. Fourplay began my interest in smooth jazz, which I might not publicize much, but the sounds always get me.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—Lauryn Hill (August 25, 1998)
Lauryn Hill has to be on my Mount Rushmore of hip-hop. She’s a pioneer in the industry, having been a legendary producer, songwriter, and vocalist. She’s one of the few who’s able to sing and rap masterfully, and she plays several instruments. Most of all, Miseducation was proof of what the genre could, and should, be: Lyrically, sonically, and thematically complex. “To Zion” (Featuring Carlos Santana) is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” has always been a hit. And “Lost Ones” is just a classic. The album is truly beautiful from start to finish. It’s a shame that her discography dropped off and she’s developed a bit of a “no show” performance reputation. But her talents are abundantly clear on this project.
The Diary of Alicia Keys—Alicia Keys (December 2, 2003)
I don’t care what anyone says: This is Alicia Keys’ best album. It’s often been my wind-down soundtrack. I used to hear “Diary” (Featuring Tony! Toni! Tone!) and “If I Ain’t Got You” on the radio all the time late at night, as I tried to fall asleep for school the next day. Those two are my favorite Alicia Keys songs, in that order. But Diary had a lot of great tracks, including “Karma,” “Dragon Days,” and the Kanye West-produced “You Don’t Know My Name.” Keys’ voice is soothing and powerful throughout the entire project, but it shines most on the ones I’ve mentioned.
Confessions—Usher (March 23, 2004)
I have a confession: I went to this concert back in middle school. Usher used to be my second-favorite favorite singer (MJ was first), with 8701 and this album being two of the main reasons why. While Usher has a pretty good discography, Confessions just “hits different” than his other projects. “Yeah!” (featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris) was an obvious banger, but “Burn,” “Confessions Part II,” and “Caught Up” were also really good. However, my secret favorite from the album was the Just Blaze-produced “Throwback,” specifically the version with Jadakiss. From the beat to the vocals to Jada’s verse, it was just a really strong vibe.
Be—Common (May 24, 2005)
It would be unfair to discuss now-Academy Award winner Common’s rap career without mentioning this album. Produced primarily by Kanye West, Be was a project that married the old and new schools of hip-hop without getting too “gangsta.” The “Be (Intro)” lets audiences know that they’ll be on a journey of poetic stories rather than one of violence and debauchery (although, “Go!” is still a bop). “Testify,” “The Corner” (featuring The Last Poets), and “Faithful” showcase the depths of his storytelling, while “The Food” demonstrates straight bars. The man’s a gifted writer and this album is Exhibit A.
Late Registration—Kanye West (August 30, 2005)
“Everybody feel a way about K but at least [we] feel something,” right? People are often shocked to hear that this is my favorite Kanye album. Yes, I know: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is probably his best album. But, Late Registration just had so much heart! The Broke Phi Broke skits were hilarious. Everyone jams out to “Gold Digger” (Featuring Jamie Foxx) “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” and the remix with JAY-Z, were both fantastic. And “Roses” was beautifully vulnerable. This was the beginning of Kanye’s ambitious album craftsmanship. You can hear it in “Crack Music” (featuring The Game) and “We Major” (Featuring Nas). You can hear it in “Touch The Sky” (featuring Lupe Fiasco). Not everything is as polished as it would be today, but you see very clear flashes of greatness, and it all starts with Registration.
Once Again—John Legend (October 24, 2006)
Before becoming an EGOT-winner, John Legend was a frequent Kanye collaborator and piano enthusiast. But his debut album Get Lifted showed that he could straddle the line between hip-hop and pure R&B. Once Again took it to another level, showcasing his true musical range. “Save Room” was a fantastic rom-com pop-R&B track. “Heaven” and “Another Again” were a little more urban radio. “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” is a feel-good song, with loads of piano. And “Stereo” is an in-betweener, as comfortable on urban radio as it would have been pop. All in all, Once Again is my favorite John Legend album, hands down.
Make Sure They See My Face—Kenna (October 16, 2007)
Kenna was the artist whose work opened me up to rock music. It didn’t hurt that he was produced by the Neptunes, too. I first read about him in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, and later I heard “Sun Red Sky Blue,” which had me hooked. That song, sandwiched between “Say Goodbye to Love” and “Baptized In Blacklight,” is probably the second-best three-track run I’ve ever heard. Make Sure They See My Face made me appreciate something outside of my usual hip-hop and R&B habits. Without it, I’d probably be listing Cassidy albums or something (no disrespect to Cass).
Blonde—Frank Ocean (August 20, 2016)
When I first heard Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, I cried, previously having no idea music could do that to me. Similarly, Blonde struck me to my very core. It instantly became the soundtrack to my romantic life, accompanying me on many road trips and getting me through several breakups. There’s something about the way Ocean writes that is just honest, clever, and endearing, lending a powerful voice and beats to the emotions of the subject matter. “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” and “Solo” are very strong tracks. “Self Control” is one of my all-time favorite songs. And “Nights” was probably the best spiritual successor to “Pyramids” that could be asked for. All of these tracks were layered with stories of people just trying to figure out their lives, whether it’s their goals or their love life.