The Beastie Boys Albums Ranked
Three New York Jews from a hardcore punk band went on to become one of the most respected hip hop groups of all time. It’s sort of an unlikely story, and throughout their career, Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA forged a path and constantly redefined their work through a number of distinct eras in hip hop. And they didn’t do it alone; the punk years were initiated by Michael Diamond, John Berry, Jeremy Shatan, and Kate Schellenbach as The Young Aborigines in 1978, before Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch came aboard and made the Beastie Boys as we know it in 1981. Across eight studio albums, from 1986 to 2011, the Beastie Boys innovated with their production and unconventional approach to hip hop to great success. When MCA died from cancer in 2012, Mike D and Ad-Rock ended the show. It’s commendable, and while I’d say the continuation of a group after a core member dies isn’t necessarily disrespectful, it wouldn’t feel the same if the Beastie Boys were without Yauch’s distinctive, raspy delivery.
I’ve explored the Beastie Boys’ aforementioned eight albums below, but it’s worth mentioning their EPs I also listened to once again to get the full scope of their discography: POLLY WOG STEW (1982), AN EXCITING EVENING AT HOME WITH SHADRACH, MESHACH AND ABEDNEGO (1989), AGLIO E OLIO (1995), and THE MIX-UP BONUS TRACKS (2008).
#8 — THE MIX-UP (2007)
Favorite track: “Off the Grid”
The Beastie Boys’ penultimate record was all-instrumental, causing some considerable discourse over what their “commentary” on the state of hip-hop was. Ultimately, I think the commentary that THE MIX-UP made was that the Boys are capable of creating an engaging listen even without their verses. It is, however, their least engaging because of those missing lyrics, but that may just be because I’m kind of a lyric guy. I can appreciate and enjoy listening to instrumental tracks, but all too easily they become background noise; “Off the Grid” is kind of an exception from THE MIX-UP, the Beastie Boys’ worst, yet still great, album.
#7 — CHECK YOUR HEAD (1992)
Favorite track: “So What’Cha Want”
CHECK YOUR HEAD was of a kind with its follow up, ILL COMMUNICATION, because it more explicitly leaned into the Beastie Boys’ punk roots with live instrumentation from the band itself. It was a departure from the sample symphony that was the group’s sophomore release, PAUL’S BOUTIQUE, but ultimately it yielded the fewest number of bops among the Beastie Boys’ “conventional” (non-instrumental) albums. Although not even CHECK YOUR HEAD could ever be considered conventional; one thing I’ve learned to appreciate about the Beastie Boys was their ability to sell really great, tight, standalone songs (like “So What’Cha Want,” one of their best tracks period) while including them on spacious records with room to breath and experiment.
#6 — TO THE 5 BOROUGHS (2004)
Favorite track: “Triple Trouble”
The Beastie Boys’ tribute to their hometown of New York City came on the heels of a pretty long hiatus between studio albums; it had been six years since HELLO NASTY. In fact, I hadn’t really considered that the Beastie Boys weren’t incredibly prolific across their 25-year recording career. Of course, eight great albums in that time is nothing to scoff at, but their ubiquity couldn’t be chalked up to an attempt to stick with the times…quite the opposite. TO THE 5 BOROUGHS was an old-fashioned hip hop record for 2004, epitomized by the “Rapper’s Delight”-sampling “Triple Trouble.” It’s lively, it’s fun, and it’s a really strong hip-hop record. It maintains a quality baseline throughout, but TO THE 5 BOROUGHS also doesn’t hit the highest of highs.
#5 — PAUL’S BOUTIQUE (1989)
Favorite track: “Shadrach”
Maybe this is a good time to mention that my Beastie Boys’ opinions might be out of step with the canonical consensus. PAUL’S BOUTIQUE, the group’s second album, is widely hailed as a hip-hop masterpiece, a how-to/bible on sampling that, while not as commercially successful as their debut LICENSED TO ILL, stood the test of time critically. And PAUL’S BOUTIQUE certainly is great, and important, and should be listened to…it’s just simply not one of my favorite Beastie Boys’ records. They have, in fact, four more listenable albums, by which I mean four more albums with songs I’d prefer to hear at any given time. “Shadrach” is incredible, “Johnny Ryall” is fun, “Car Thief” is pulse-pounding, but ultimately, some of the experimentation on PAUL’S BOUTIQUE kept it from rising higher on my list.
#4 — HELLO NASTY (1998)
Favorite track: “I Don’t Know”
In fact, I think HELLO NASTY is a better display of experimentation. “Intergalactic” or even “Body Movin’” are most often cited as the standout tracks from this record, but that belies the complexity and variety to be found on it (although those songs are great). Case in point is “I Don’t Know:” it’s not a hip-hop song, but a pretty mellow, acoustic-driven track with some beautiful backing vocals from Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto (a great group in its own right). The rest of HELLO NASTY runs the gamut of energy and sounds, and yet it accomplishes feeling like a cohesive, almost orchestral epic. Ad-Rock and a number of Beastie Boys fans think HELLO NASTY is the group’s best release, and I can definitely see why.
#3 — ILL COMMUNICATION (1994)
Favorite track: “Sabotage”
And yet there are three more Beastie Boys albums I like more. But that’s the brilliance of the group; four of their records, half of their total output, were all up in the air for my favorite. ILL COMMUNICATION hits #3, as the counterpart to aforementioned CHECK YOUR HEAD at #7. The difference is that ILL COMMUNICATION applies the punk aesthetic more strongly…at least in terms of catchy songwriting. Overplayed as it is, “Sabotage” truly is one of those iconic songs, and the rest of ILL COMMUNICATION is rife with Beastie Boys’ gold: “Sure Shot,” “Sabrosa,” “Get It Together,” to name a few. There are so many influences and sounds flying around ILL COMMUNICATION, but maybe unlike HELLO NASTY, it’s a little more focused on a singular theme; in this case, the aggression of punk.
#2 — HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO (2011)
Favorite track: “Ok”
I struggled with putting HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO, the Beastie Boys’ final album, so high on this list. I considered a certain nostalgia that may still be lingering around it as my first new Beastie Boys album. I was familiar with “Fight for Your Right” and “Brass Monkey” and “Sabotage” and what have you, sure, but this was the first time I sat down and listened to a new Beastie Boys record. Nearly ten years later, though, I think time has revealed HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO as an incredible, lasting, and final artistic statement from some of the best to ever do it. MCA’s rasp is at its peak, and the electronic production driving the whole album feels modern and yet still totally out of time. If I’ve slightly complained about experimentation not yielding the catchiest of songs before, I must retract that sentiment for HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO; it somehow balances unconventionality with bonafide pop sensibilities. If this is what the Beastie Boys, and MCA in particular, had to go out on, they could have done much worse.
#1 — LICENSED TO ILL (1986)
Favorite track: “Rhymin & Stealin”
And yet I also struggled putting LICENSED TO ILL at #1. Their first, most commercially successful, most accessible, most easily recognized record may not have ultimately defined the Beastie Boys, but it was impossible for me to deny its incredible run of tracks. LICENSED TO ILL is amateurish, adolescent, and problematic; I seem to recall the disowning of “Girls” by the band. But all 13 of its songs are straight bangers, carried by the Boys’ brash and slightly annoying delivery and augmented by their early punk/hip-hop fusion. As an introduction to the Beastie Boys, “Rhymin & Stealin,” the first track on their first album, is near-perfect. And LICENSED TO ILL as a whole encompasses the Beastie Boys’ immediate appeal.