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Ranked: Beastie Boys Albums from Worst
Celebrating their first new album in seven years, we look back at Licensed to Ill, Check Your Head, and the rest.
By Dan LeRoy
The first non-instrumental Beastie Boys album in seven years, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, comes out this week. In celebration, we decided to rank their studio discography in full, commissioning critic Dan LeRoy, who literally wrote the book on Paul's Boutique, to do the job.
7. To The 5 Boroughs (2004)
The Beasties' least successful album suffered mostly from an excess of topicality. To The 5 Boroughs labored under the dual goals of addressing post 9/11 New York City and amping up the anti-Bush rhetoric they'd expressed the year before on the single "A World Gone Mad." The balance they'd managed to maintain between activism and absurdity for the past decade was decisively tipped, and the result seemed more disappointingly sober at the time (especially during a very contentious election year) than it actually was. Listening today, you can focus instead on the trio's appropriation of classic hip-hop breaks; cleverly acknowledging they had nowhere left to take the multi-genre mashups of their '90s albums, the Beasties instead offered a spartan sound that honored their Big Apple roots.
Listen: "Triple Trouble"
6. Hello Nasty (1998)
Like many albums recorded during the '90s, Hello Nasty went on a little too long. Unlike most albums recorded during the '90s, the extra length wasn't just filler. The Beasties used the widescreen canvas of their fifth album to sprawl out in multiple directions, trying old-school electro, Latin instrumentals, and even a dubby duet with legendary reggae madman Lee "Scratch" Perry. The twenty-two tracks are too much to digest in a single sitting; Hello Nasty might be more ambitious than even Paul's Boutique, but it never coalesces in the same way. However, taken in smaller doses — and the vocoderized single "Intergalactic," which introduced a new generation of fans to Beastiemania, is as good a place as any to start — it's a frequently rewarding listen.
5. Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011)
In a couple of years, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 — the Beasties' return to the play-it-yourself aesthetic of Check Your Head and Ill Communication — might rank below Hello Nasty on this list. Right now, though, it's too much fun listening to the band reprise the loping, percussion-heavy jams of the dear, dead '90s on "Nonstop Disco Powerpack," and cranking into a good head of punky steam on "Lee Majors Come Again." There's even a latter-day "So What'cha Want" in "Too Many Rappers," which serves up a monolithic beat and an equal helping of attitude, via that familiar interplay between Yauch's rasp, Ad-Rock's whine, and Mike D's comic relief. Welcome back, boys.
Listen: "Nonstop Disco Powerpack"
4. Ill Communication (1994)
Not since Licensed To Ill had the Beasties delivered an album that lined up so perfectly with the zeitgeist. But this time, they reached number one completely on their own terms, by refining the mixture of live instrumentation and sampling on Check Your Head, and coming up with a hybrid of crate-dug jazz breakbeats, aggressive thrash, and genuinely greasy licks that occasionally ("Root Down," "Sabotage") improved on its parent album. Yet perhaps most impressive was the way the trio managed to incorporate a growing worldliness — epitomized by Yauch's Buddhist paean "Bodhisattva Vow" and the band's aligning itself with the "Free Tibet" campaign — alongside the smartass pranks of old. The Beasties had spoofed the '70s before in videos, but this time when they did it, in Spike Jonze's "Sabotage" clip, most of western civilization was in on the joke.
Listen: "Root Down"
3. Licensed To Ill (1986)
For some time, the Beasties' understandably ambivalent relationship with Licensed To Ill helped obscure its true worth. But while it's impossible to separate the album from the antics that surrounded it — a look at the "Fight For Your Right" video will suffice as a refresher of the fine line between parody and punkishness — it's also undeniable that the Beasties at their brattiest were pretty amazingly great. (Surely only the most embittered gender-studies major could fail to grin on hearing "Girls.") The trio and Rick Rubin took the metallic boom-bap of Run-DMC and LL Cool J to an arena-filling level on "Rhymin and Stealin" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," sampling with impunity and opening the door for a whole army of cut-and-pasters. That made this album the first of three successive times that the Beasties would change the face of popular music. How many acts have done that on their first three albums? It's a pretty short list.
Listen: "Rhyming and Stealing"
2. Check Your Head (1992)
It's unfocused and chaotic, and it stops and starts like a clunker that escaped the government's buyback program. But those apparent faults are also among the myriad joys of Check Your Head, the sound of three guys (plus considerable assists from producer Mario Caldato, Jr. and keyboard mainstay Money Mark) learning to play the rare grooves they'd been poaching from vinyl, and rediscovering their hardcore roots in the process. What you can't hear, perhaps, is that this could've been the Beasties' last gasp. With everything to lose after the commercial failure of Paul's Boutique, they threw up the bird, and threw all they had into the middle of the table: samples, skits, Sly Stone, silly commercials, skatepunk, and singing, as well as some of their most devastating rhymes. Knowing the happy ending of that bet — and you can plausibly claim that the trio not only saved their own skins, but helped invent a retro-worshipping subculture in the process — doesn't diminish the go-for-broke pleasure of this album a bit.
Listen: "So What'cha Want"
1. Paul's Boutique (1989)
It's completely understandable that some Beasties fans argue for Check Your Head as the band's best work. What makes less sense is the proposal, floated in some quarters, that Paul's Boutique is somehow a lesser album because of the input of producers and co-writers the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike. That argument severely underrates 1) collaborative art, generally; 2) the perpetually underappreciated Mario Caldato, Jr.'s contributions to Check Your Head, specifically; and, not least, 3) the Beastie Boys themselves. The rhymes on Paul's Boutique are so dense, so precise, so allusive, and so damn funny that I think we'd be talking about them today if they'd only been set to beats from Ad-Rock's old drum machine. Instead, they're expertly woven into equally colorful and intricate sample collages, as the monumental "Shake Your Rump" and "Hey Ladies" certainly attest. The organic results are psychedelic in the true sense of the word, an album both of its time and completely out of time, which sampling law alone ensures can never be repeated. And that's good enough for the number-one spot for me.
Listen: "Shake Your Rump"