Top 100 Albums of 2010-2019: #1 pick interviews (Day 1)
by Interviews

This week we'll be following up the Top 100 Albums of 2010-2019 with interviews with each participant, where we discuss their personal #1 picks of the decade. Some are short, some are waaay too long. All are enjoyable.

ChurchillDownes’ #1 pick: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Hey there, CD! How's it going? For the Top 100 Albums of 2010-2020 project, you chose Kanye West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as your #1 pick of the decade. Now, I'm not going to lie: I can't stand Kanye and, although part of that is informed by his antics in later years, I've always thought he just wasn't a very good musician from the start. So you'd better have a damn good explanation for this (laughter)!

Well, if I can't retroactively convince you that Kanye West is a genius no one can. I know this is you interviewing me, but I'm curious about a couple of things before I launch my defense. What was your relationships to Kanye West before (and I suppose after) this album, and what's your relationship to rap in general?

My wife was a fan of Kanye's a long time ago. We'd listen to his stuff during her turn to drive on long road trips in the mid-00s. It… didn't resonate with me. I just couldn't get what people saw in him and his "talent." Dude has a habit of repeatedly rhyming words with themselves. Like, all of the time. That's not clever. That's what 8-year-old kids do when they think they are making up a song. Someone had me watch the video for "Stronger," knowing I'm a huge fan of Akira and, to a lesser extent, Daft Punk; and I could only make it through it by muting the sound.

I mean, I love rap. Who DOESN'T like The Beastie Boys? Am I right?!! (laughter) Seriously, though, I kind of grew up with a lot of really good hip-hop. Digable Planets, Souls of Mischief, De La Soul, Hieroglyphics… or really anything Del puts his talents toward. Maybe a bit of Tribe Called Quest. That early-mid 90s hip-hop really set a bar that I think has been VERY hard for any act to reach, and Kanye definitely isn't even close.

It's funny you say that about Kanye feeling apiece from the legacy of the non-gangster rap of the 90s because I assume that's what a lot of people responded to in his early stuff, especially around The College Dropout in '04. I seem to recall his chipmunk soul period being well-regarded by the backpack set of the day, though I agree that his lyrics - or at least the flow and cadence of his lyrics - has often been his area of … I don't want to say weakness, maybe "least strength." Or maybe that's splitting hairs. Whatever.

As to his talent; I think his greatest quality, at least for the first decade of his career, was his ear and his taste. We can argue about whether or not his tribute to Akira and Daft Punk (his whole "Glow in the Dark," shutter-shades period in general) holds a candle to the originals, but it felt pretty radical at the time for a mainstream rap act to be publicly calling those things out as influences. To shift it to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the samples and references on the record are all over the place. King Crimson snippets in "Power," Smokey Robinson on "Devil in a New Dress," a Rohl Dahl poem to kick off the album, Gil Scott Heron to close it. You don't need to go on an Easter egg hunt to appreciate the record, but it speaks to the idea that West was interested in culture at large, beyond what was considered the palette for rap at the time.

Let me ask you another question: When you mentioned that you weren't nuts about West at the top, I assumed it had more to do with his public dust-ups and general arrogance. How did that sit with you then, and how does it sit with you now?

Oh, that? God, he's a twat. The guy fucking sucks. (laughter) I'll admit I didn't like his work before I knew what a pain in the ass he was. But once I did, that didn't help his standing. It seems like he's always had this arrogance rooted in some belief on how "great" he is, and that is part of his selling point. So I can't ever really tell if it is part of the act or not.

For me though, I think if you are going to choose rap as the medium to express yourself, then you'd better be good at it. I mean, I can see how someone can appreciate what he does on the album, although I would argue that a lot of what you mentioned are more "calculated for effect" than Kanye showing his influences, but if it is bad "rap" then it’s a turn off for me. I'll also say that I dislike Eminem for the same reason. He can rhyme, at least he has that. But he sucks at rhythm, needing to pack 350 syllables in one verse just to get it to rhyme with the 11 syllables in the next verse. That just doesn't sound good.

The conversation about Eminem is a longer and darker one than I'm prepared to have. I wish him, his Extra Rapping, and his devotees nothing but happiness.

I suppose this is where you and I differ on Kanye West via expression: the way the words fit together matters, but it's only a part of the whole picture. I don't think it's dissimilar in punk, either. Not that I would compare the two, but let's use Bad Religion as an example. I think it's fair criticism of them to say "they've never found a thesaurus they didn't like, and if I wanted to read Chomsky I would read Chomsky," but I can still listen to, say, "You Are the Government" and think it rocks ass even if the content of the lyrics is somewhat tiresome.

But I'll say this for Kanye West: I don't think he's a great writer of rhymes but I do think he's an effective rapper, maybe nowhere moreso than on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This is a record that is bursting with hurt, defensiveness, resignation, self-hate and a fair amount of bravado, either as a mask or as a foil. "Blame Game," a sort of lesser track later in the album, is where my mind goes with this. Here is a song in which, if you want to break down the rhyme patterns, isn't much more complex than a nursery rhyme, but expresses the anger, hurt and self-flagellation of a collapsing relationship as well as anything I've heard. He really sounds heartbroken and upset on the second verse recounting him thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him, and the vocal distortion he plays with, which maybe was meant to mask that pain, serves to amply that. He's upset, but he recognizes hes the problem, but he isn't being self pitying about it (not too self pitying, at least). That's a hell of a thing to convey in a song, and it's the performance, not the text, that drives it. And this isn't even a song I especially like! I think what he's able to convey here, namelt romantic hurt on a public stage, and to have it come off as balanced and thoughtful, is a major achievement. That he can't write like, I don't know, Lil Wayne or Eminem, is secondary to me.

Also, as an aside: I was looking up other rappers who were popular in 2009 and 2010 and it's shocking how much the Kanye West universe was dominating popular culture. It was Kanye, Lil Wayne, and the very beginning of Drake. What a time for maximalist rap music.

What a time, indeed. Now, I see that, while this is your #1 of the decade, this is the only Kanye album on your list. You didn't place any of his subsequent four albums. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think it's a few things. Watch the Throne feels very of its time and I haven't really thought about it outside the 8-month window after it was released. Same with Cruel Summer, though I do want to shout out "New God Flow" from that record, since it's still in my workout songs rotation. Without getting into specifics about Jesus is King, Ye, and The Life of Pablo - three albums that have their merits but are generally unsuccessful - I've found the bulk of West's work in the 2010s to be … forced isn't the right word, but rushed, maybe? They've all felt, in one way or another, only partially baked, or like demos that didn't get a chance to go through enough revisions .

It's funny, you get the first whiff of this on Watch the Throne. There's a song on there, "Liftoff," which is not an especially memorable song on its own. West's verse comes in, and the last two bars of it are sort of mumbled, sort of hummed, like he still trying to find how the words would fit into the vocal pattern he'd laid out but hasn’t actually written the lyrics yet. Now, this is not, by itself, all that remarkable; I'm not a rap writer or a rap producer, but I've read enough about how rap songs get made to know that this kind of "insert lyrics here" vocal reference is common enough in stitching songs together. What is telling is that West left that unfished verse in the final cut of the song. Looking back at the decade, I think that's indicative of what's been going on with him, outside of Yeezus. It’s as if a lot of him music after MBDTW was released to meet contractual obligations or personal deadlines or focused on “vibe” over “narrative”.

And as far as Yeezus goes, I'll admit that it took me a long time to warm up to it. If you asked me today, it’s probably my third-favorite of his albums but I've only come to appreciate its charms recently. When it came out, I was really thrown by it. It was such an aggressive zag from what I understood Kanye West to be. Over time, I've come to hear it differently and now I think it’s kind of brilliant in how jagged it is, and how that abrasiveness reveals a profound vulnerability.

But, to tie this back to MBDTF; if the rest of the decade feels a little loose, MBDTW in contrast feels like a fucking Swiss watch. Again, I have no inside knowledge outside what I've read, but I come away from this album thinking that West had complete control over the vision of what he wanted for this record. I find that sequencing does a lot of the storytelling here. You come in on "Dark Fantasy," which is a good throat-clearer, what with its lush interludes and its propulsive bass and its myth-making ("At the mall there was a seance / just kids no parents / … I saw the devil in a Chrysler LeBaron"), then you have this gradual increase of intensity that culminates with "All of the Lights," which sounds like what winning a boxing match must feel like, but then that energy turns sour and mean-spirited with "Monster" and "So Appalled," and all this culminates with "Runaway," which is, to my mind, the skeleton key that unlocks Kanye West's whole thing. It's this sweeping admission that he's a dick, that he doesn't know why he is the way he is, that he's sorry he is who he is and how it affects others, but he still has to be himself. Then the last three tracks of the album are the inverse of that rising, victorious feeling, closing with "Lost In the World / Who Will Survive in America," which are these cinematic moments that express how, no matter how fucked up you are or your situation is, the only option is to keep moving until you can't. The album has a real three-act arc to it, and that's not the kind of thing you can just fake your way through. This album is pinnacle of West's auteur moment.

Let me ask you, as a person who is agnostic to Kanye West at best: read this back, do I sound like a lunatic?

No, you don't sound like a lunatic. At least about this. I mean, it is obvious that you've spent a lot of time and thought digging into Kanye's works and what they mean. That's much farther than I would ever go. Not to say that I am shallow person or anything, because I CAN find and appreciate the deeper meaning of a musician's work or works. But the first barrier has always been whether or not I enjoy the music first and foremost and, as I think we've already established, I'm just not a fan of the music he creates. If I can't get past that, I couldn't give two shakes about what journey that music represents.

Yeah, that makes sense. I recognize there are some legitimate barriers to entry, not only here but throughout his catalog. I had a conversation with my older brother once, asking him why he couldn't get into a punk record I liked (I think it was the NOFX b-sides collection, but who the hell remembers), and he told me something that illuminated how singular and personal the music experience is: "I don't think the singer's voice sounds good." He couldn't get past that, so NOFX/whatever band it was would forever be a closed door to him. I completely understand that. I have a few closed doors like that myself (please take all winsome guitar-based modern folk and place it directly into a baby's diaper).

I also recognize this is a somewhat insane way to describe a pop-rap record, the way I have just done. The easier, shorter answer might be "I think this shit sounds incredible and, after a decade of listening to it, still sounds incredible." That may be all the justification a person needs, right?

Pfft… yeah, I guess. (laughter)

OK, so here's the big question that everyone gets asked: Taking out the 2010-2019 requirement, where in the pantheon of Nate's favorite albums of all time, up to now) does this album stand? Is it still #1 for you?

Is it still number 1? Probably not. I mean, I was a coin flip away from us having a conversation about The Monitor instead of Kanye West (which probably would have made for a better, more fitting conversation on the site we both volunteer at).

So not my number one all time, but I think certainly still in the top 20, maybe the top 10. Even if I take as much emotion and personal affection as I can out of my view of the record, it's still the artistic peak of the most influential musical artist for a generation. It was a very exciting thing, to be young, alive, and interested in Kanye West in the 2000s.

Speaking of the audience for this site: Assuming anyone reads this fucking novella here, how do you think the response will be? Do you have a sense of how people feel about this album outside you and me talking right now?

Oh definitely. If anything we're going to get a bunch of shit in the comments for talking about Kanye West on Punknews because, goodness forbid, any of us like music outside of what a commentator's strict view of the punk genre is. (laughter)

So, I lied and left out one of the final questions. If you had to pick ONE track off the album as your absolute favorite, which would it be and why (if we haven't already discussed it already)? Nothing more punk that one of the most famous artists of the last 20 years, I always say!

I'm going to cheat here by shouting out a bunch of shit from this record before I answer your actual question. "Lost in World" is probably my favorite thing Bon Iver has ever done, and the way the song's closing moments throb like meltdown alarm at a power plant is consistently thrilling. The elegant guitar solo giving way to Rick Ross's greatest, most braggadocios verse on "Devil in a New Dress" is among my favorite moments on any album, ever. I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how good Nicky Minaj is on "Monster," and I'd be further remiss if I didn't mention how corny Jay-Z is on the same track.

But the answer is "Runaway," which is either an incredibly stupid song that moves me or an incredibly moving stupid song. How this song can be so affecting and heartrending at moments (the "strings and robot choir" section specifically) and so groan-inducingly dumb at others (I still laugh when I think about how west says the words "I sent this bitch a picture of my diiiiiiick" in the first verse) is a trick that I truly think only a handful of artists can manufacture. In my free time, I've been working on my personal list of the 500 best songs, and "Runaway" is in the top 50. (laughter)

OK, well thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, Nate. You have a love and appreciation for Kanye that I can only guess at. But I applaud and respect that. (laughter)

Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Jeff. Look forward to discussing the next 99 albums!

Mike Elfers: Propagandhi - Victory Lap (2017)

Hey there Mikey! I almost forgot to start this interview with you. That'd be pretty crappy of me, wouldn't it? (laughter) For the Top 100 of 2010-2019 you chose Propagandhi's 2017 album Victory Lap as your #1 of the decade. What is it about that album that ranked it as your favorite?

Victory Lap is killer. Leave it to Propagandhi to always drop an album so pristine the listener’s lone response is, “Well Propagandhi is fucking back.”

OK, well I guess that's the end of the interview. (laughter) I mean, OK, so I get that. So, looking at your list, outside of your #2 (Devo - Something for Everybody, the top ten is chock full of melodic and pop-punk. Lagwagon, TBR, Frenzal Rhomb at both #9 and #10. What put this album at the top, and was it even a close call or was it by a mile?

Aww man I thought you were gonna give me follow up gandhi questions so that’s why I kept it short. (laughter)

Well, it kind of is. I mean, the answer you give works, but is a bit vague. Like "album is awesome, that's why!" is cool, but doesn't read well… (laughter).

I’ll elaborate a bit better and answer that Devo question!

You'd better. (laughter)

Victory Lap is killer. Leave it to Propagandhi to always drop an album so pristine the listener’s lone response is, “Well Propagandhi is fucking back.”

I had only checked in on the creation of a Prop album as much when "Empires" was in the works, and not because of any particular loss of faith in Propagandhi, but because it was readily available to me, and my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I had plenty of time to read. I had found the Failed States demo videos on YouTube months after it came out, and I was pretty bummed I missed out on the teasers. As soon as the "Sulynn replaced Beaver! Here is her audition!" news dropped, I was hooked, and followed every piece of social media I could get. I didn't have to secretly hope it would be good when it came out either. It was Propagandhi for crying out loud.

Victory Lap dropped on top of a terrified Trump-America too, and good god what timing for American listeners. We needed an album like that to get us through that first year, if you ever read this: THANK YOU for a TREMENDOUS collection of great songs.

OK, so that's a clearer answer on the Propagandhi part. (laughter) I'm going to be honest with you: I don't really care for Propagandhi's music that much. I won't go too much into it but I think that, in their earlier stages, they were (and still stand as) one of the best melodic punk bands ever. I will still argue to this day that Less Talk… IS one of the best melodic punk albums ever. But after Samson's departure their new direction to a hybrid of hardcore and technical skate punk just really doesn't do it for me. I respect the hell out of them, but musically… nah. But I know that they have a very fervent and dedicated fan base. What you responded above is pretty much the viewpoint of most people I talk to.

I’m a drummer and a guitar player, I’m impressed by KORN songs sometimes, so like I get it. (laughter)

I think this is the first time that KORN has ever shown up in an interview. I'm a bit at a loss about what to say about that.

Oh I thought it was off the record. (laughter)

Nope, that's totally on record. (laughter)

I’m a drummer and a guitar player, so I’ve been impressed with their entire discography. I still remember when I learned the riff to “Nation States,” Hannah is a very particular guitar player. The band has graduated on to playing music that stylistically I could never learn by ear, just by how complicated it is. I loved early Fat ‘Gandhi and I love the new stuff even more. I also thought Victory lap touched on some moods and pop sensibility that haven’t been present since Samson left the band.

Now, you put Failed States pretty high up (#6), so you obviously liked it a lot, too. That's a pretty close margin and I was curious what it is about Victory Lap that made you put it at a higher rank?

FS is fucking amazing, but it is like a twelve song punch in the stomach. VL thrashes, and hits hard, but I enjoy the present pop sensibility. I once saw Sulynn Hago in an interview say, “Victory Lap is a very different “color” than Failed States.”

I think that is a great description. I know that Hannah kind of went into a different direction with the album, maybe not as "heavy-handed," although I think that may be the wrong phrase, but I hope I'm making sense. Do you feel that this slightly different tack is what sets it up Failed States?

Can you rephrase that? (laughter)

Well, I remember when the album came out Noisey did this good piece in it, and had some quotes from Hannah, one of which I think really was the standout of the whole article: “I think back in the Less Talk era, it was more like, 'Give me the fuckin' bullhorn and let me talk about me. But I've modified that position somewhat. People say they're tired of hearing white, male voices, and so am I. I'm fuckin' tired of hearing my fuckin' self." And I guess how the album reflects that. There’s another part where they talk about being perceived as someone criticism the system when they themselves aren’t a victim of it can make the audience a bit doubtful of your sincerity or, at least, whether or not your qualified to make those criticisms.

I agree with Chris' commitments, even though they exist at such an important time for PC or intelligent people to be doing the talking, especially those that have influence on so many. For example, as I grew up, Hannah and his band were virtually the lone voice of punk rock that even took a moment to defend the LGBTQ community as allies. Allies are important, but that community has millions of qualified songwriters to lead such a movement. It is beautiful to have such a powerhouse in your corner, but I applaud Chris for handing that bullhorn to whoever asks for it.

Also he is a father, and a touring musician. I remember the first march to Lincoln Nebraska's capitol that I found out and said, "Yup. Not gonna make that." I had gotten home from a show I was playing at an Oktoberfest to a sick daughter and my wife covered in barf. There was a saying when I used to canvass for progressive candidates and environmental groups. "I'm donating to you, because I used to march with you, and now I have arthritis, kids, a mortgage, and I haven't slept in eight years." I can't imagine how some of these musicians pull it off at all.

Healthy living, I think? (laughter)

I guess that vegan lifestyle must be a legit thing?

Looks like it. OK, I'm gonna break the rules a bit and ask about the one kind of outlier in your top 10: Devo's Something for Everyone at #2. This is mixed in with what is a VERY top-heavy batch of melodic punk acts. What's up with that?

Devo has been one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember. I was intrigued by their idea of a significant presence dictating their band that wasn't love, or popularity, or vanity. I didn't understand how to ask my parents about them while MTV was on the television, and 4 year old me certainly didn't understand in 1988 if they were even a real band, or perhaps some episode of Mork and Mindy that would come, and go, but I remember those thoughts.

This will date me even further for some readers, but in 1993 I started arming my Weird Al discography, and "Dare to Be Stupid" from his 1985 "cassette" was literally the moment I remembered them, and I grew obsessed. I collected everything he had ever done, I even set an alarm clock to secretly tape Doctor Demento past my bed time because I read he was on it sometimes. By 4th grade, I was a Spud.

Throughout my adolescence all I received were teasers. I was a fan of the Vandals, so the Freese news was fucking rad, the "Head Like A Hole" cover was rad enough for me to buy an entire fucking soundtrack on compact disc for a single song. Suddenly Napster Napstered and I had even more Devo. I was content, but I wanted another record, badly.

Well in 2010 I finally got to hear that, and I was ecstatic. I'll never forget that morning, still-drunkenly transferring the unheard data onto my Blackberry so I could listen to NEW Devo on my (definitely late) walk to go be a manager at this terrible telemarketing job I was trapped in. I'm a quick walker, and I think I got to work in one and a half rotations of the 39 minute album. "Fresh," "What We Do," "Please Baby Please," and "Don't Shoot (I'm A Man)" all fired on in unison, and I laughed out loud at the reality that I had finally gotten to experience this moment, and on a beautiful morning, with the worst hangover I had had, yet. The album was dynamite.

My first (Or second?) ever Punknews review was to cover the b-sides from Something, since I noticed it hadn't been review yet. I was bummed when I found out how bad the original release was rated! To me it is ACE, and CERTAINLY in my top 2 albums of the last ten years.

I'm a big fan of Devo, too and, this may date me even further, but I remember the day that "Whip It" premiered on MTV, and I remember buying "Weird" Al albums on vinyl when they originally came out. God, I'm old. (laughter) Have you heard the Devo cover album with [{The Vandals]], Face to Face, Lagwagon, and others?

Oh and in, 2018 before we moved out of the UK, I dragged my wife, a few friends, and my co-workers to a Devo cover band playing in this basement venue in the middle of Oxford for my birthday. (laughter)

I have heard that Spud tribute album! "We Are Not Devo" is great. I think the best tune on there is Ridel High's "Blockhead" cover. That riff was great on the original, so it was nice to hear it with some meat behind it. I was also very happy that Freese was so (expectedly so) faithful to the verses' drum parts.

Wait… Freese? He didn't play in Ridel High, did he? My personal fave on that album is Don Knotts Overdrive's "Snowball."

I was also very happy that Freese was so (expectedly so) faithful to the verses’ drum parts on the Vandals’ rendition of “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise.”

Oh, yeah. He's a Devo fanatic. I remember when Alan Myers passed, a whole boatload of stories went to Josh for choice quotes on Myers' percussion prowess. For such a dorky band, anyone who denies that Myers was one of the best drummers ever is a fucking idiot. Even my metal bud back in the UK was like "can't beat him."

It was like a total nerd that found some programmatic way to play football well enough that the jocks ultimately had to accept him. Myers truly was something special.

Indeed. OK, back to the meaty stuff: taking the decade out of the requirements, how does Victory Lap rank amongst your top albums of all time?

I’d say it fits somewhere between 25 and 30. That being said I would assume an all-time list of 20 would probably lack anything newer than like 2005.

Why do you hate it so much!?! (laughter)

Maybe I’m being dramatic, there’s great stuff out there, so hell let’s give Victory Lap #26. How generous of you… (laughter) OK, favorite song on the album, and why?

“Cop Just Out of Frame” for sure. That song has everything: emotion, riffs, dynamics, a sick fucking bridge. Great song.

Well, there you go. Thanks for chatting with me about your #1 album of the past decade!

Thank you my dude.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for more as I continue to interview the team on their personal #1 picks for the decade!