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10. Organix (1993): If the Roots had started out in the 21st century, Organix would have been a mixtape -- the kind of full-length free download artists frequently release to kickstart their careers and build a fanbase. In fact, it functioned in much of the same way, gaining the act the attention of the major label (DGC) that would launch it to a wider audience. Much like many mixtapes, it's also frequently raw and not entirely fully structured. What it does well is introduce us to the talents of Trotter and Thompson and the original incarnation of their "legendary Roots crew." The energy and enthusiasm is undeniable, and the sheer talent displayed is equally obvious, but this is a group that is still in the process of finding its sound, making a record with the lowest production values it would ever employ. As a debut, it's extremely impressive, and as a document of hip-hop history, it's a great listen, but compared to what the group would go on to accomplish, it can't help but fall at the bottom of the list.

Since forming in Philadelphia 25 years ago (yes, it really has been that long), the Roots have become one of the most innovative, progressive, and influential acts in the history of hip-hop. Originally coming up in age where artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul helped define what the left-of-center end of the genre was capable of, the group went on to find a sound that would represent its own notion of Illadelph. Most noted at first for embracing live instrumentation and jazz tropes, they turned every show and production into a full-band affair. The first Roots record was released in 1993, and since then, they’ve gone on to make nine more, consistently proving that while many acts begin to sputter and falter with age, their creative engines are still running at full steam.

Over the last two decades, there hasn’t been a huge amount of constancy in the band — the only members to have stayed in the lineup since the beginning are the same two who founded it, emcee Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, and drummer Amir Thompson, aka Questlove. Aside from the duo, the cast of the Roots has been ever-evolving, which could also help account for why the music itself never goes stale. These days, Thompson is regarded as one of the best drummers and producers in the business, and the band as a whole has a nice high-profile day job with Jimmy Fallon. But it hasn’t caused them to dial things back at all: They continue to tour, run their record label, okayplayer, throw annual festivals in their hometown, and write and record envelope-pushing new music. In fact, after all this time, they released one of their finest albums to date just last year.

When it comes to an act this diverse, one that has broken so much ground and taken so many chances along the way, ranking their albums is a difficult task indeed. (Although you will most likely hear us say that for every artist we include in this recurring feature.) For the purposes of this exercise, we’re leaving out the collaborative projects the Roots count among their discography — such as the excellent Wake Up! with John Legend — and focusing on their 10 full-length studio releases solely under the Roots moniker. I’m sure you might have a different opinion about where some of these picks should fall, but just remember, in my mind, every one of these albums is a winner. The Countdown starts here; the arguments start in the comments.

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Comments (30)
  1. Not bad, I can definitely see the logic behind the list. I’ve been a fan of the Roots for a long time: as a guy who mostly liked rock music and has always had a serious, politically-minded bent, they were the perfect entry point into rap for me around the time I was starting college. I have to say that for me, their “middle period” (let’s say 2002-2008) is by far their best. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they did their best work during the Bush administration. I think the dark political times that our country was experiencing, and particularly the helplessness that black Americans felt during the Katrina ordeal, motivated the Roots to make their most urgent and intelligent music – really, some of the finest political rap ever recorded.

    My list:

    1. Phrenology
    2. Game Theory
    3. Things Fall Apart
    4. Rising Down
    5. How I Got Over
    6. Illadelph Halflife
    7. Undun
    8. The Tipping Point
    9. Do Yoy Want More?!
    10. Organix

  2. My list would probably be:

    1-Things Fall Apart
    2- Undun
    3- How I Got Over
    4- Illadelph Halflife
    5- Phrenology
    6- Rising Down
    7- Game Theory
    8- Do You Want More?!
    9-The Tipping Point
    10- Organix

  3. Solid list, but “Do You Want More?!” should be higher, “Phrenology” should be lower. As always, my opinions are fact.

  4. Man, I was reading this and clicking through each page going, “Exactly! Exactly! Yes!” and as I got closer and closer to Number 1 my pulse quickened with maniacal anticipation: I thought that this might be the first inexhaustive Stereogum list that I completely, 100% agree with.

    But alas, I got to Number 2 and streak was broken: I would put Phrenology at Number 1 (Switch 1 and 2). Sigh.

    • Also, when I was 17 (2007, Game Theory Era) I saw The Roots at Brown and ?uest gave me his sweaty towel and tossed us a drumstick after the show. I took them home and put them in my closet as souvenirs but a year later I went to college and my Mom threw them out.

      Everytime I see posts like this, my inner monologue is Darth Vader’s NOOOOO.

  5. Organix is special to me because it’s the only album with founding bassist Josh Abrams, who is now an avant-garde jazz veteran in Chicago. You can probably see him play on average of 3 or 4 nights a week when he’s in town. Founding Roots member, right there at the bar, playin’ his bass. He’s seriously amazing — he has the absolutely ideal acoustic bass tone and rock-solid time.

    Check out his allmusic discography; it starts with Organix and then has a million things you’ve never heard of: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/josh-abrams-mn0000226798/credits

  6. if you want to say the phrase “no shit” out loud, then look at this list

  7. Would you guys mind offering a scrollable list form of these countdowns?
    My internet can be be very slow, so I’d rather leave the page to load up all the pictures, then click and wait between each one.
    Plus, the gallery format is just kind of annoying, and I fucks with scrolling.

  8. Great list, I honestly probably would’ve had “Undun” above “Phrenology” as well, but I’m not writing this list. No doubt about that #1 pick though. Also if this feature is going to start getting into hip-hop, I’d love to see one for Jay-Z albums given that a lot of people obsessively cling to different albums of his as the “greatest.”

  9. Because it has to be done:

    1. Things Fall Apart
    2. Undun
    3. Game Theory
    4. How I Got Over
    5. Phrenology
    6. Rising Down
    7. Illadelph Halflife
    8. Do You Want More?!
    9. Organix
    10. The Tipping Point

    Such an important act in Hip-Hop but also one of the most underrated, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling Things Fall Apart a classic.

  10. Isn’t this a little like ranking mountains that God made from worst to best?

  11. 100% with you on this list, which means I’m going to have to be twice as nitpicky and critical of the next one.

  12. How do you know “Things Fall Apart” is a Chinua Achebe inspired title and not a Yeats inspired title? HMMMM??

  13. now rank their best jimmy fallon performances.

  14. FACT: There are no bad Roots albums.

  15. I haven’t actually heard about half of the albums, though I’m finally about to take care of the rest now that this has forced the issue.

    As for my incomplete list of personal favorites (and the most unpopular list so far):

    1. Rising Down
    2. Things Fall Apart
    3. Game Theory
    4. How I Got Over (took a while but grew on me)
    5. The Tipping Point
    6. Undun (just can’t get into it)

    I’m stoked to fill in the holes, though.

  16. Things Fall Apart probably has my favorite album cover of all time. It’s just so damn powerful.

  17. the fact that undun is above illadelph halflife & is anything other than #1 or 2nd makes this list irrelevant to TRUE ROOTS fans. aka people listening to the roots before they were on jimmy fallon.

    • I don’t like Undun, but that’s not really a fair comment, come on.

    • This man speaks the truth! —-> 1. Things Fall Apart 2. Illadelph Halflife These two releases are in a different league than everything else. They were at the top of their game back then. And while TFA is the superior of the two overall, Illadelph is LYRICALLY untouchable. It’s an album more for fans of old skool hip hop and not your average indie-centric Stereogum reader. Hence the egregious lack of appreciation for it on here.

      ALSO: Special shout out to “The Roots Come Alive!” One of the greatest live hip hop albums ever (and def an essential Roots release). If Jill Scott’s vocal throwdown on “You Got Me” doesn’t get you hyped up, you should seek help immediately.

  18. GTFOH! LOL!

  19. I don’t think there’s much of a point to posting one’s personal list unless you provide the reasoning behind your choices.

  20. My first Roots album was The Tipping Point, so I came in a bit late, which explains why my list included everything since but only one prior. I liked the dark Game Theory/Rising Down era but thought Rising Down was a bit more immediate and stuck with me more. I’m gonna have to re-evaluate that, though, since I’ve only recently realized that Game Theory is almost universally considered superior.

  21. Illadelph Halflife middle of the pack record?! Yeah, leave rap albums alone Stereogum.

  22. The Roots are a band I respect; they don’t go for any of that materialist, misogynist, violent, homophobic and vulgar crap that dominates far too much rap music. I’ve seen them live and they are a good time. But their discography as a whole doesn’t do much for me. Far too many of their songs just sound like they have programmed beats, and don’t sound like a band of instrumentalists made them at all. Black Thought is a pretty boring rapper; even when he’s singing a love song or righteously demanding justice he delivers all his rhymes in the same tone, like he’s giving a presentation on astrophysics. This music should be a lot looser and more fun, but often comes off like a stern lecture.

    That being said, most of my favorite Roots songs are on Things Fall Apart, like “Act Too” “The Next Movement” and “100% Dundee”. I also wish they made more songs like “The Seed” which just flat out rock, and used Rahzel’s amazing human beatbox on many more songs.

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