I’m jealous of people out there who have yet to experience the Beastie Boys, to be able to take a fresh-faced dive into their discography and fully appreciate all of its splendor for the first time. Listening to the Beastie Boys for the first time is like thumbing your nose at gravity or any number of other tenants of polite society. It’s an unforgettable experience. For folks of a certain age (i.e. those getting a little long in the tooth,) we were blessed to be in the catbird seat as the group grew, matured, and expanded their sound over the course of their two decade-plus career. But man, to be in a position to hear an album like Ill Communication for the first time would be amazing.
From the release of Licensed To Ill in 1986 to their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two in 2011, The Beastie Boys underwent a total transformation. They evolved from brash party boys to erudite hip hop masters with sounds and attitudes that were far more inclusive. Yet their edge never dulled and remained sharp until their final days. The world around them changed and with it, so did their influences, opinions, beliefs, and general perspective on life but in the end, they were still three dudes with attitude and swagger for days, as well as an endless desire to keep themselves entertained by music that was distinctly their own. As time went on, there were those that tried to replicate at least some part of the Beastie Boys’ sound but those attempts never went well. You can’t cop a style that authentic and that unique and at this point, all we can hope is that people have finally gotten wise to that.
In honor of the 35th anniversary of the release of Licensed to Ill, here’s a ranking of the group’s eight albums.
8. The Mix-Up (2007)
Beastie Boys instrumental tracks are like shots. Spread out throughout an album, just like a night of heavy drinking, a few shots can be a lot of fun. However, a night that consists solely of shots is completely uncalled for. It’s not in the best interest of anyone involved I don’t care what that one friend we all have who loves shots says. That friend is a danger to society
What separates The Mix-Up from the band’s other instrumental release that came before it, The in Sound from Way Out!, is that the first instrumental album was a compilation of previously released jams, tracks that had appeared on previous albums. It wasn’t presented as anything new and it was actually pretty helpful if you liked those tracks and wished you had them all in one place (and were also too lazy to make a mixtape containing them.) In contrast, The Mix-Up was made of all new compositions. There was even a tour where the band focused on instrumentals. It’s not as if the jams are terrible or anything. It’s just that, at times – and I’m saying this with all due respect – it sounds like I’m listening to a college jam band.
Speaking as someone who was in a college jam band, that shit should be shared as little as possible.
7. To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
With the world and their native New York City still reeling from 9/11, no one can fault the Beasties for releasing a tribute to their beloved New York City. We also can’t hate on them for making an album that was easily their most hip-hop-heavy.
To the 5 Boroughs is definitely not a bad album. Let me repeat that: THIS IS NOT A BAD ALBUM. However, it’s also not a great album. It’s a good album; a solid B-, which is nothing to be ashamed of. As we all remember from back in the day, there’s a big difference between getting a B on something and a C, and the minus aside, a B is a B, kid.
Now, saying To the 5 Boroughs is “just” a good album is due in large part to the fact that the Beastie Boys were always a good to really good hip-hop group. But what made them stand out was their ability to dip into the wild waters of hardcore and punk and incorporate that into their hip-hop stylings. By leaning almost exclusively into hip-hop. they weren’t operating at full strength.
With that being said, “Ch-Check It Out” is an awesome tune.
6. Hello Nasty (1998)
Released four years after Ill Communication, Hello Nasty is good fun and a heck of a good time starting from the jump with “Super Disco Breakin’.” It’s a forward-thinking album, chock-full of futuristic sounds and thoughtful experimentation. Unlike Ill Communication, which had the feel of a band concocting mayhem in a garage, Hello Nasty sounds like a team of scientists experimenting in a lab.
If we’re being honest though, and I’d like to think we are, I do have one issue with Hello Nasty: the length. It’s a long album. It’s like Drake album long. Studies have routinely shown that nobody has time for an album with 22 tracks.
But we’re staying positive here. “Three MCs and One DJ” is the hip-hop side of the Beastie Boys in all its glory. Also, Hello Nasty is a top-notch album title.
5. Licensed to Ill (1986)
At first glance, Licensed to Ill, with classics like “Brass Monkey,” “Fight for Your Right” and “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” on it, you could easily say, What the heck, man? How is this album not ranked higher?
That’s fair; a solid question.
I would say, friend, that the margin between the album that ends up at the top of this list and License to Ill at the five spot is incredibly minimal. So be cool. I’m not firing shots or hating on the group’s legendary debut. With a ranking like this, it’s a game of inches and no one, especially me who loves to champion debut albums, can sleep on the impact of this album. But it’s also their first album and a lot of times it substitutes legitimate quality for youthful exuberance. There’s no Hot Sauce Committee Part Two without License to Ill, but that doesn’t mean License to Ill should be ranked higher.
4. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)
Speaking of Hot Sauce Committee, let’s tip our caps to the Beastie Boys’ last album. The album was set to be released in 2009 but was delayed when Adam Yauch was diagnosed with cancer. It was eventually released two years later when Yauch was in remission and one year before he’d pass away in 2012.
Hot Sauce is a near-perfect marriage of early Beasties energy and the forward-thinking lab work of Hello Nasty. It’s a fun album, especially in contrast with To the 5 Boroughs, which came out seven years earlier. The beats on this album are sick, and it features two of the best guest spots in the Beasties’ discography: Nas on “Too Many Rappers” and Santigold on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win.” They even pick up their instruments for a trip down hardcore memory lane with “Lee Majors Come Again.”
I don’t know if they knew this would be their last album or not when they were writing and recording it, but either way, as far as last albums go, it’s everything a long-time fan could ask for.
3. Check Your Head (1992)
Check Your Head is peak Beasties and possibly the album that best demonstrates what the group looked to bring to the table. It’s loose as hell and far from perfect from any kind of technical sense. Additionally, it’s fun, entertaining, inspirational, and most importantly, eternally appealing. Check Your Head is one of those albums that always sounds good, regardless of the situation.
Well, not regardless of any situation. Let’s just say its good for a bunch of situations with “bunch” doing a lot of work there because the bunch in question is sizeable.
The sounds on Check Your Head are great, especially Mike D’s drums on “Pass the Mic.” The snare hits are freakin’ perfect, man. Perfect. Check Your Head has the best instrumentals, some of the best rhymes, and an iconic album cover. Yauch’s bass line on “Gratitude” is the kind of fuzzy goodness that makes you want to get in a car chase filmed in slow motion (i.e. one of the aforementioned situations that were previously alluded to.)
2. Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Released three long and crazy years after License to Ill came out, Paul’s Boutique was a hard left turn for the group following the success they had been gaining with their debut album and their association with Def Jam. The Beasties had split from the label over ongoing financial disputes in 1988 and signed with Capital Record. They then fled west to California to record Paul’s Boutique with The Dust Brothers.
The album has benefited greatly from the passing of time, as it was dismissed initially. And by dismissed, I mean it flopped (relatively speaking of course.) It failed to reach the heights of its predecessor so you know, flop.
Paul’s Boutique is the Beastie Boys at their weirdest and most liberated, as if they were on a funky island with turntables, samplers, and a drum machine. It has become a shining moment of experimental hip hop and a testament to the band’s willingness to push both themselves and boundaries. License to Ill introduced the band to the world, but Paul’s Boutique let us see their true intentions even if it did the world a little while to catch on.
1. Ill Communication (1994)
Any one of the Beastie Boys albums in the top three could occupy the top spot. If overall, this is a game of inches, then the top three is a game of millimeters. Not even daylight is getting in between the top three albums on this ranking.
Personally, I ride with Ill Communication, and as for why, well it’s because of its scope. Ill Communication is the best kind of massive album. It’s wide-ranging, expansive, diverse, confounding, and something to strive for. You can find something new every time you listen to it. They kick around elements of jazz, funk, punk, and more, sometimes in the same song. “Sabotage” will forever stand the test of time, but it’s no less important than a tune like “Root Down,” which is a top-five Beastie Boys song.
“Get It Together” featuring Q-Tip is a master class in collaboration and the instrumentals on the album are next level. The album has 20 songs on it but it definitely doesn’t feel that long. At various points, the songs seamlessly flow into one another.
Ill Communication is the Beastie Boys’ high water mark, the moment they became true cultural barometers. It’s one of the best albums to come out of the 1990s, and one of the best albums produced by New York City. It’s the Beastie Boys firing on all cylinders and, because of that, it’s number one.
Portions of this piece originally appeared on UPROXX
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