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 from brash party boys to erudite hip hop masters with sounds and attitudes that were far more inclusive. In honor of the 30th anniversary of that first smash, here’s a ranking of the group’s eight albums.
8. The Mix-Up (2007)
Beastie Boys instrumentals 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. What separates The Mix-Up from the band’s instrumental The in Sound from Way Out!, is that the first instrumental album was a compilation of previously released jams. It wasn’t presented as anything new. In contrast, The Mix-Up was made of all new compositions; it was even accompanied by 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 sh*t should be shared as little as possible.
7. To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
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. This is not a bad album. Let me repeat that: THIS IS NOT A BAD ALBUM. It’s also not a great album. It’s a good album, and that’s 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. They weren’t operating at full strength here. 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, starting from the jump with “Super Disco Breakin’.” It’s a forward-thinking album, chalk full of futuristic sounds. Ill Communication had the feel of a band concocting mayhem in a garage, whereas Hello Nasty sounds like a team of scientists experimenting in a lab. A little bit of a negative: the length. Ain’t nobody got time for an album with 22 tracks. A little bit of positive: “Three MCs and One DJ.” It’s the hip-hop side of the Beastie Boys in all its glory.
5. License to Ill (1986)
At first glance, 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? The margin between the album that ends up No. 1 on this list and License to Ill at No. 5 is incredibly minimal. No one can sleep on the impact of this album, but it’s also their first, 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 released two years later when Yauch was in remission and one year before he’d pass away. 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)
This album is peak Beasties. It’s loose, far from perfect from any kind of technical sense, fun, entertaining, inspirational, and most importantly, eternally appealing. The sounds 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.
2. Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Released three long and crazy years after License to Ill, Paul’s Boutique was a hard left turn following the success the band had been gaining with their debut album and association with the rising Def Jam. They had split from the label and fled to California to record Paul’s Boutique. The album has benefited greatly from the passing of time, as it was dismissed initially. 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. License to Ill introduced the band to the world, but Paul’s Boutique let us see their true intentions.
1. Ill Communication (1994)
Any one of the Beastie Boys albums in the top three could occupy the top spot. However, I ride with Ill Communication because of its scope. It’s wide-ranging, expansive, diverse, confounding, and something to strive for. They kicked around jazz, funk, punk, and more. “Sabotage” will stand the test of time, but it’s no less important than “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. It has 20 songs, but doesn’t feel that long; at various points, the songs seamlessly flow into 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.