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Top 25 Pop Songs of 2011

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

2011 didn’t turn out like it was supposed to.

It was supposed to be the year that the electro-Europop ushered in by Lady Gaga completed its rise to total airwave domination. It was supposed to be the year hip-hop gave up trying to be as relevant as it was in the ’00s. It was supposed to be the year rock staged a comeback. But none of those things happened.

Top 25 Songs of 2010

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

December really is the most wonderful time of the year. Not only does Christmas essentially last the entire month, but critics publish their lists of the best music of the year. Some of these lists are pretentious (Really Pitchfork, Ariel Pink’s “Round and Round” is the best song of the year? Not just in the top ten, it’s the best?) while others are pandering (Rolling Stone has plenty of good stuff, but they always throw in some curve balls. According to them, Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” is the fiftieth best song the the year. How about you add a few zeros to that number?) Hopefully, the 17 Tracks list is neither of those things. Created from top 25 lists of 17 Tracks contributors, it ranges from pop to indie to rock and hip-hop. Hope you enjoy.

Honorable mentions: “Power” – Kanye West, “Airplanes” – B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams, “Boyfriend” – Best Coast, “Tenderoni” – Kele, “Yamaha” – The-Dream, “Find Your Love” – Drake, “Commander” – Kelly Rowland, “Indestructible” – Robyn, “Rude Boy” – Rihanna, “Guns & Horses” – Ellie Goulding

25. Norway – Beach House

Beach House’s new album Teen Dream, is composed of 11 tracks that somehow melt in and out of the other while competing for your attention simultaneously. “Norway,” however, is the most telling of the ambient duo’s new album. The 3 minute and 55 second long song starts out with kicking drums, joined by the characteristic guitar, keyboard, and siren-like vocals.  This track embodies the increased maturity and sensitivity found on their new album and suggests that despite having found their niche in today’s music scene, this is a band that is not afraid of change. – JP

24. All The Lovers – Kylie Minogue

“All The Lovers” is a return to form for Australia’s reigning pop star. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and failing to meet expectations with her comeback album, Kylie Minogue was in need of a hit. Teaming up with producer Stuart Price was a good choice, resulting in the glossy, intelligent, and highly danceable Aphrodite. “All The Lovers” captures the euphoria of the album as Kylie commands the listener to dance and gently tells her lover, “don’t be frightened, just give me a little bit more.” – HS

23. Airplanes – Local Natives

The Local Natives somehow fuse the styles of Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Kings of Convenience to supply every indie kid and small venue across the country with the refreshing sound were craving this summer. “Airplanes,” the track that originally sparked everyone’s interest with its cascading guitars, captivating piano, and audience-participation-inducing clapping, make it nearly impossible not to join with Taylor Rice’s smooth vocals and sing along. Their debut album “Gorilla Manor,” was released in early March and though still underground enough to keep pretentious listeners content, it’s a great introduction to an impressive new band. - JP

22. Pursuit of Happiness – Kid Cudi feat. MGMT & Ratatat

Before Kanye teamed up with Bon Iver, Kid Cudi teamed up with MGMT, hinting at the distinct indie feel many in hip-hop would take over the course of the year. MGMT might have failed to match the pop sensibilities of Oracular Spectacular on their new record, but they make up for it with their hook on “Pursuit of Happiness”. Slurring through his verses, Cudi recounts his fruitless search for happiness saying, “everything that shines ain’t always gonna be golden.”  – HS

21. F**k You! – Cee Lo Green

“F**k You!” (also known as “the song otherwise known as ‘Forget You!’”) is the successor to such quirky neo-retro pop gems as “Hey Ya!” and Cee Lo’s other big hit, “Crazy”. The song failed to reach the level of ubiquity of those similarly styled hits for obvious reasons, but it did pretty well considering its explicit title.  The lyrics-only video went viral this summer, and then the song was given new life by Glee in November, reaching No. 9 on the Hot 100. – HS

20. Lights – Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding may not yet be a household name in the States, but in her native U.K. she has made quite the debut. She topped the BBC Sound of 2010 poll which honors new talent and was also awarded the Critics’ Choice Award at the 2010 BRIT Awards. “Lights” was originally a bonus track on her acclaimed debut effort of the same name, but was officially released as the albums’ fifth single this year. Haunting ethereal, otherwordly, “Lights” demands our attention and proves that Ellie Goulding is one to watch in 2011. – CH

19. Little Lion Man – Mumford & Sons

“Little Lion Man” the first single released by London’s nu-folk rock quartet Mumford & Sons, boasts flawlessly composed instrumental arrangements, an intoxicating melody, and an unforgettable chorus. The song provides an accurate insight to the band’s first album Sign No More, which features 12 other tracks that are equally impressive. Four other singles were equally well-received as they were released over the last 10 months, but “Little Lion Man” will hold a special place in the hearts of many as the song that introduced so many of us to this great new band. – JP

18. Erase Me – Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West

Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West, or Weezer feat. Jay-Z? It’s okay—we weren’t sure at first, either. The same Kid Cudi that won us over with his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day, showed no trepidation in parting from his typical style for something a little more radio-ready. Mr. Solo Dolo inherently attracts hipsters and electro-heads alike, but assured that no genre would be left unaffected album by featuring Kanye West on this track. If there was any way to heighten the anticipation of his album that came out in September, “Erase Me” was without a doubt the way to do it. – JP

17. Alejandro – Lady Gaga

Critics compared Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” to a modern day “La Isla Bonita” or an Ace of Base knock off, but Gaga’s seventh top ten single was unmistakably hers. The song evoked the album art on The Fame Monster with black tears streaming down her face as weeping strings give way to towering, colossal synth lines.”She’s not broken, she’s just a baby,” Gaga sings about the protagonist, an insecure girl with both hands in her pockets. – HS

16. Hang With Me – Robyn

“I know what’s on your mind there will be time for that too,” sings Robyn in Body Talk Pt. 2‘s “Hang With Me”. Yeah, that’s right, Robyn is talking about friends with benefits. The euphoric melody and insistent and gentle blips courtesy of producer Klas Åhlund don’t hint towards the song’s true meaning, but it’s a part of its charm. Warning her lover he can only hang with her if he doesn’t fall in love, the girl who perpetually gets her heart broken is finally firmly in control. – HS

15. Runaway – Kanye West

Our first toast to the doucebags started with a simple repeated keystroke and catchy melody. The stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards ceremony was rushed by the corps de ballet as Kanye West delivered his most earnest performance of all time. Not long after its debut, the song played title for Kanye’s 35 minute long art film. “Runaway” is the poster child for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the album that assures critics and aficionados alike that Kanye West isn’t going anywhere. – JP

14. Crossfire – Brandon Flowers

The Brandon Flowers who sings in “Crossfire” is not the same Brandon Flowers who used to rock guyliner, pick fights with other bands, and brag that Sam’s Town was one of the greatest rock albums of the past twenty years (it was, and so was Hot Fuss, but that’s besides the point). Credit his return to Mormonism or his growing family (he and his wife have two kids with another on the way), but Flowers has toned down the whole rock star persona. Instead, his music centers on themes of redemption. “Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came,” he sings on “Crossfire”, the most epic track from the understated Flamingo. – HS

13. Animal – Neon Trees

Provo, Utah’s very own Neon Trees have had a good year. Breaking into the music scene in a big way, their debut single “Animal” has spent an impressive 26 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 13 and even clawing its way to the Alternative Songs chart summit in September. Comparisons to new wave pop from the early ’80s are almost immediate with its infectious use of synth and hand claps. “Animal,” with its popping melody and intelligent lyrics, showcases the breakout band’s engaging sound and its lead singer’s distinct vocals. – CH

12. Only Girl (In The World) – Rihanna

2010 was Rihanna’s year. “Umbrella” was the song that separated her from the pack of similarly marketed one name pop starlets, but when everyone’s favorite good girl gone bad tried to go serious on Rated R, no one cared. That is until the up tempo “Rude Boy” was released. The success of “Rude Boy” laid the groundwork for Loud, a collection of ballads and Caribbean flavored dance tunes of which “Only Girl (In The World)” was the queen. – HS

11. Not Afraid – Eminem

Ten years ago, at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, Eminem led an army of blond young men in white shirts and jeans into Radio City Music Hall as he rapped “The Real Slim Shady”. That moment symbolized how Eminem had, for better or worse, given a voice to a generation of alienated youth. “Not Afraid” is for those people and anyone else who is in a dark place. “We’ll walk this road together, through the storm,” he says. Think of it as a white rapper’s “Beautiful”. – HS

10. The Only Exception – Paramore

Dialing down their usual guitar-heavy rock’n'roll, Paramore achieved their most commercially successfully single to date with easily their most restrained. “The Only Exception” is beautiful in its simplicity. Critics quickly took note of front woman Hayley Williams’ sturdy vocal delivery, noting her ability to connect with the listener emotionally. Paramore proved their musicianship by turning what could’ve been a sappy, trite ballad into an honest and heartfelt look at love. – CH

9. Teenage Dream – Katy Perry

“Teenage Dream” was meant to be a Katy Perry song for people who hated Katy Perry. Instead of being annoying, trite and revolve around stereotypes, it was impossibly catchy and celebrated the universal feeling of eternal youth. But, like other songs created in a laboratory with the sole intent of being a monster hit (read: “I Gotta Feeling” or “TiK ToK”), the song soon wore out its welcome and all the Katy haters just ended up hating her more than before. But unlike those other annoying songs, “Teenage Dream” has value, evident in the Resucuers’ unironic and beautiful cover and the fact that if another singer had the song, no one would have hated it as much. – HS

8. Starry Eyed – Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding described “Starry Eyed” as a song about feeling a natural high, and it’s no surprise she pulls that off with ease considering the lighter-than-air nature of her small but growing body of work. Balancing the intelligent dance pop Europe is currently demanding from its pop artists with a dash of folk pop, Goulding led the way in making music that appeals to a wide audience. “Starry Eyed” with its building but gentle beat was the most pop song the singer recorded, and it became her first top ten hit. – HS

7. Dancing On My Own – Robyn

Dance music isn’t a genre that’s known for emoting, especially if the song’s subject matter is something as trite as dancing, but Robyn managed to do that with the heartbreaking “Dancing On My Own”. The Swedish singer vividly describes the scene: Her in the corner and her true love across the dance floor with his “new friend”. Stilettos, broken bottles, and oblivious ex lovers be damned, Robyn is going to dance, even if it’s on her own with tears in her eyes. – HS

6. Cosmic Love – Florence + the Machine

Surprisingly, “Cosmic Love” was the sixth single from Florence + the Machine’s critically acclaimed debut album Lungs. In a word, the song is audacious. It perfectly showcases everything the band achieves so masterfully on the album: layered with deeply rich harmonies and sweeping orchestration, emotionally complex, and palpable in its intensity.

Florence Welch, lead singer and co-writer of the track, said she is often hungover when she writes her best material, and “Cosmic Love” is no exception. Coming off a night of heavy drinking, it took her a mere 30 minutes to pen the track once she got started. The end result became the most acclaimed track on the near-perfect album, a thunderous ballad that truly feels out of this world. – CH

5. Everything You Wanted – Kele

Thematically, Kele’s solo debut, The Boxer, was the healing balm to Intimacy‘s pain and hearbreak. It was an album about finding inner strength, believing in yourself, and looking forward.  “Everything You Wanted” was perhaps Kele’s only look back and the most emotional performance of his career.

Setting aside the harsh, blaring synthesizers, Kele employs tribal drums, a massive sing-a-long chorus, and piercing lyrics to get his point across. “I could have given you everything you wanted, everything you needed,” he laments, staring straight into the camera with tears streaming down his face. It’s hard to believe those are fake. – HS

4. XXXO – M.I.A.

The release of The Social Network forced us to examine the role social media plays in our modern society, and M.I.A.’s digital freakout music provides the unofficial soundtrack. Drowning in post-apocalyptic MySpace imagery, she defiantly snarls, “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not.” Considering the airbrushed life most people live online, her statement comes across as a call for logging off and living life for no one but yourself.

Unfortunately, her message failed to match reality when she came across as a pretentious poser following a scathing New York Times Magazine article. Although critics argued that it killed her street cred, songs like “XXXO” were evidence that Maya not being the anti-establishment freedom fighter she once was isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rapping about Twitter and Tarintino over a beat catchier than bird flu, “Bird Flu”, or “Paper Planes”, M.I.A. makes pretty good pop for an anti-pop star. – HS

3. Cold War – Janelle Monae

“Cold War” is the confession of an underground artist unwilling to sell out or give up what makes her special just to be mainstream. “If you want to be free, below the ground’s the only place to be,” Janelle Monae sings. Despite the tear that glides down her face in the music video, Monae is sure of herself. “You better know what you’re fighting for,” she urges.

Her future-retroism is reminiscent of vintage OutKast or alternate reality Amy Winehouse, but she remains completely true to herself. In a pop landscape where being obsessively unique is quickly becoming the norm and bordering on being boring, Monae actually pulls it off. – HS

2. Telephone – Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce

The Fame Monster was Lady Gaga keeping her promise to be a true pop artist. It was dark and deep, something her debut album was not. The only exception was “Telephone”, her collaboration with Beyonce.

While the rest of the EP dealt with death, romance, and fear, “Telephone” seemed like just another pop song that could have been recorded by any number of pop stars. It wasn’t until a rough, unfinished, and highly autotuned demo by such a pop star surfaced that you realized that Gaga took the song to another level that the likes of Britney Spears simply could not.

On the surface, “Telephone” is about turning off the phone and partying, but in the context of the storyline of The Fame Monster, it’s so much more. Gaga’s character isn’t just dancing, she’s running from a bad romance, from a controlling boyfriend who’s just like a dad. She isn’t dancing for fun, she’s dancing for her life. – HS

1. Love the Way You Lie – Eminem feat. Rihanna

You knew Eminem had a hit on his hands when people who usually quote Ke$ha or Miley Cyrus in their Facebook statuses start quoting one of his songs. Sure, most of those people were quoting Rihanna’s hook, but they were still listening to an Eminem song. Despite Eminem being around for over a decade now, “Love The Way You Lie” was the first song of his that found its way onto many peoples’ iPods and it marked a return to relevance for the 2000′s biggest selling artist.

Misogyny has always been a favorite theme of Slim Shady’s, but rather than use the same tired, vile, and violent clichés, he made a haunting, powerful record that condemned domestic violence. His raps are graphic and raw, and although he apologizes, he reveals that he doesn’t really mean it. It’s not as if Rihanna’s character is fooled by it though. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s alright because I like the way it hurts,” she sings. She knows he hurts her, she knows he’s lying, but she can’t leave.

Some critics condemned the song, saying it glorified domestic violence, but the very inclusion of Rihanna on the record renders that argument void. Just eighteen months removed from her encounter with Chris Brown, Rihanna brought authenticity and pain that few other singers could have.

It’s the rawness and brutal reality of the song that does the condemning, because Eminem never explicitly does. Still, as the house burns down in the Joseph Kahn directed music video, the anti-violence message is clear. Remaining atop the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks and receiving five Grammy nominations, it’s safe to say the song and it’s message penetrated pop culture, becoming a counter-intuitive but very effective public service announcement. – HS

Graphic by Nick Smith

Text by Chase Hilton, James Porter, and Hunter Schwarz

Top 10 Albums of 2010

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

The album is a dying art form in the age of iTunes. Still, even as millions of consumers chose to cherry pick songs over buying or downloading (or cough cough pirating cough shame on you) albums, some artists refused to give up on the good old fashioned long play. Katy Perry made hers smell like cotton candy, Taylor Swift sold over a million in a week, and Kanye created a record that wouldn’t be complete without listening to it as a whole. In 2010, indie went pop (Bon Iver) and pop went indie (Robyn). Bands went on hiatus but their lead singers refused to stop making music (Kele, Brandon Flowers). Some big name releases flopped (Christina Aguilera) while others revitalized slagging careers (Eminem). There were so many good choices, but here are the top albums of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: M.I.A. “Maya,” Kylie Minogue “Aphrodite,” The Arcade Fire “The Suburbs,” Tinie Tempah “Disc-Overy,” and Brandon Flowers “Flamingo”

10. Recovery – Eminem

Eminem was the biggest selling artist of the 2000s, but by the decade’s end, he sure wasn’t acting like it. Slim Shady opened the new decade being more relevant than ever before. Recovery is an Eminem record for people who don’t buy Eminem records. It has a lot more estrogen than usual (Rihanna on “Love the Way You Lie” and Pink on “Can’t Back Down”)  and is more self-aware (“Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehh,” he raps on “Not Afraid”), but its greatest strength was shedding the gimmicky, violent, and crude persona he’s cultivated for over ten years without alienating the millions of fans that made him the last decade’s top seller. – HS

9. Teen Dream – Beach House

If there were an award for Best Teen(age) Dream of the Year, the recipient would not even be up for debate. While Beach House’s new album’s title might initially make you think of a certain California Gurl [sic], a quick listen to Alex Scally’s guitars and Victoria Legrand’s dream-like vocals and keyboards will immediately revive any lost confidence in this Baltimore dream pop duo. Teen Dream is the twosome’s third album and draws collectively from their previous two to create a sound that is more diverse and more listenable than any of their previously released music. This new album is a significant milestone for Beach House as a band — it symbolizes the discovery of their own voice and identity, and confirms the refreshing truth that good things can sometimes happen when musicians step out of their comfort zones and seek to create. – JP

8. Invented – Jimmy Eat World

Considering the great pop Jimmy Eat World has made thus far, the epic Clarity, the airtight and flawless Bleed American, the brooding and yearning Futures, you know the band is onto something special when Jim Adkins says Invented is, “our best work so far.” Inspired by the photography of Cindy Sherman, Invented takes a woman’s perspective. “I’m tired of all the war you bring home, I demand a higher devotion…Show me you can read my mind,” Adkins sings on “Higher Devotion.” “My Best Theory” is a defiant refusal to fit in with the crowd that rocks harder than “The Middle,” and “Stop” tackles female feelings of insecurity. While being a progression from their previous work, the record still succeeds in capturing what makes J.E.W. great. The melodies are both catchy and ambitious, taking the arena-filling expanse of U2 and bringing it out of global politics and into your room and your life. – HS

7. Sigh No More – Mumford & Sons

Few new bands in recent years have been as successful as Mumford & Sons at creating identity and simultaneously maintaining diversity on their debut album. Sigh No More, released in the U.S. in February of this year, is teeming with honesty, warmth, excitement and disappointment. Already finding themselves at the top of London’s nu-folk scene and rubbing shoulders with Laura Marling and Noah & The Whale, Mumford & Sons quickly gained popularity in the U.S., selling out nearly every show on their North American tour. Banjo-led stomps, flourishing acoustic instruments, and clean vocal harmonies are delicately coalesced in a way that makes this an albums that you can listen to from start to finish without skipping a track. – JP

6. The Boxer – Kele

With Bloc Party on hiatus, Kele Okereke became the year’s most unlikely pop star. His solo debut The Boxer played like the perfect follow up to 2008′s dark and aggressive Intimacy. It is an album about being strong as evident on songs like “Walk Tall” and “Tenderoni” where he upped the electronics and testosterone while unintentionally providing “It-Gets-Better” pop that was more authentic than anyone else managed to make. The pulsing beat while Kele sings, “So don’t you know, you are more than this. You were built for greatness,” packs way more of a punch than a straight woman shooting fireworks from her breasts. But Kele has never wanted to be known as a gay black man making music in a stereotypically straight white genre, and it shows. His music certainly appeals to bullied gay youth, but it reaches out to anyone who feels alienated. The Boxer isn’t an album that says “it gets better” one day, it’s an album that tells you that it can be better now because, as Kele sings in “Rise,” ”you are stronger than you think.” – HS

5. Speak Now – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift walked a fine line creating her third album. She had to follow-up the success of her best-selling, Grammy-winning Fearless without rehashing the same tired fairytales and high school romances. It’s safe to say that after selling more records in a single week than anyone this side of 50 Cent’s 2005 The Massacre, she succeeded. Knock her live performances and sugary sweet persona all you want, but her music crosses genre and generational boundaries in a way that few artists can replicate. Swift is a master songwriter and Speak Now is a showcase for her remarkable handle of the technical construction of a flawless pop song, filled with clever lyrics and million dollar hooks. She’s always written about her life, but since the past two years of that have been very public, it’s not surprising that songs about John Mayer, Kanye West, and the werewolf from Twilight show up. Still, the themes on songs like “Back to December,” “Dear John,” and “Innocent” still resonate with the brokenhearted and hopeless romantic in all of us. – HS

4. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

Whatever taste of stylistic evolution 2010′s All Delighted People EP may have offered Sufjan Stevens’ throng of aural consumers, few could have anticipated the way in which The Age of Adz would satiate the cavernous appetites induced by the five-year musical famine. With 12 tracks, and the longest over 25 minutes in length, I would submit that it was well worth the wait. With an inimitable sound and more intimate lyrics than anything in his existing repertoire, The Age of Adz resolutely informs listeners that Sufjan is a long way from Illinois. In spite of the newly introduced electronic patina, the familiar melodic vocals and brassy orchestral accompaniment remind us that, though far from home, the Sufjan we fell in love with listening to Seven Swans and Michigan will never stop making music impossible not to love. – JP

3. Lights – Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding had high expectations after winning the Critic’s Choice award at this year’s Brits even before she released her debut album. Luckily, Lights lives up to the hype. Standing somewhere in between Florence + the Machine and Girls Aloud, Goulding crafted a lighter-than-air folk pop gem. Mixing cold electronic blips and beats with warm melodic vocals and acoustic guitar is a hard combination to get right, but with the help of producer Starsmith, 23-year-old Goulding did. She leans towards dance pop on songs like “Starry Eyed,” while she reveals her inner singer-songwriter on the more organic “Guns & Horses.” Lights charmed British critics and consumers this year, and rumor has it that Goulding will bring her debut stateside sometime next year. – HS

2. Body Talk – Robyn

Robyn is more of an indie band stuck in a Swedish woman’s body than your run-of-the-mill pop star, and she’s got her universally acclaimed Body Talk trilogy to prove it. While her music rubs shoulders with the likes of pop trash like Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha on some iPods, her three-part series was also the only pop album given space in usually snobby independent record stores across the country. Robyn bridged that impossible gap by refusing to be confined by limits of her typically cold and mindless genre. From the heartbreaking tearjerker that is “Dancing On My Own” to the thoughtful “Stars 4-Ever,” she proved that dance music can emote. The full length Body Talk album is stellar, but what’s just as amazing is the quality of songs from previous EPs that didn’t make the final cut like the dark and danceable “Criminal Intent” and “Love Kills,” first cousins to some of Britney’s Blackout material, or the memorable “Cry When You Get Older” (“Back in suburbia, kids get high and make out on the train”). Robyn is without a doubt one of pop’s most forward-thinking ladies, but let’s just hope it doesn’t take another five years for her next release. – HS

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -Kanye West

Kanye’s fifth LP hadn’t even hit stores yet and the campaign to canonize it among hip-hop’s greatest records was already well under way. The perfect scores across the board didn’t hurt, but it could easily have been nothing more than a rock critic version of the Emperor’s new clothes. It’s not.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the most ambitious, sweeping and important release from the artist who already brought you 17 Track’s album of the decade. It shatters preconceived notions about what is expected of hip-hop, something West has already done on several occasions. “All of the Lights” is the Olympic pop anthem that manages to cram in more collaborators than previously thought possible. “Runaway” takes up where 808s & Heartbreak left off, a perfect pop art piece calling for a “toast for the douchebags.” “Hell of a Life” brings poetry to a sleazy night out and “Blame Game” deals with the fallout. And auto-tune never sounded as beautiful as it does in the Bon Iver-sampling “Lost in the World,” which builds into a dizzying and triumphant crescendo.

There’s nothing disrespectful about calling Fantasy the Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop. It has expanded the genre’s vision and made a strong case for its value as an art form the way no other release has. Like Sgt. Pepper’s, Fantasy features a crowd of familiar faces, but rather than being splashed across its cover, they are found in the music. Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, and Bon Iver, a diverse cast, all make appearances. In some cases, Kanye’s collaborators even overshadow him, like Nicki Minaj does on “Monster.” Few rappers could get away with that, but Kanye does because there is never a question of whose fantasy you’re listening to. The record isn’t just a manifesto for hip-hop, it raises the bar for everyone making music today. Hate ‘Ye all you want for his ego, but with music this good, he earned it. – HS

Graphic by Nick Smith

Text by James Porter and Hunter Schwarz