Friday, September 6, 2019

The Best Albums of the 2010s

A storm rages outside my house as I scramble to finish this post that was, in many ways, the entire original impetus for this weblog's existence. As end-of-decade chatter was heating up in 2009 I, being a guy who loves lists for some reason, especially when I'm the one who makes them, threw my hat in the ring; but while I had no trouble thinking up fifty records that had staked their claim on some part of my life during that hectic period, something didn't sit well with me about how erratic it was. Not that I had especially great taste as a teenager in the '90s, but broadly speaking, there was something comfortably systematic and careful about the way I found and digested music -- it had been an actual hobby, no matter how much I relied on radio, MTV and various periodicals to find anything. In the 2000s, not only was there a substantial period of roughly four years in which I listened to almost no new music whatsoever (when successive fixations on synthpop and '50s rock & roll took me over), surveying my end-of-the-line favorites it was clear that what modern albums or songs I did love I had come about haphazardly, almost incidentally, and while there's nothing actually wrong with this, it did make me wonder how much wonderful stuff I had inadvertently skirted by being quite perpetually Out of the Loop.

So in 2010 during a conversation about the sort of annoying Boomers who stand in denial that any possible cultural experiences had manifested after 1975, I made a pact with a musician friend that he and I were going to spend the 2010s very much In the Loop. The process of achieving those ends has changed over time, much as the way that we broadly as a culture consume and enjoy music has radically changed in that time, and I think my methodology in the first year or so was maybe a little too simplistic (I kept up with every artist that made a record I loved sometime in the present century, and kept up with three particular publications' most highly praised items, regardless of whether I knew anything about them going in); but in essence, while there are gaps here and there and while no one in their right mind is ever going to look upon my eccentric tastes as some barometer of what constitutes Canon, one thing I don't think anyone can deny is that I listened to a whole fucking lot of new music in the 2010s, and that I heard or at least sampled virtually every release that was considered by the popular press to be of significant importance. Math, like brevity, isn't my strong suit, but I can tell you factually that I graded and wrote up (though not necessarily at considerable length) 1,274 albums or EPs in this decade. I don't think I had opinions on half that many albums in all of human history before I started this project, and that does not consider the estimated 3,000 additional LPs I sampled or heard in full and chose not to review, a habit I picked up when I briefly had a professional gig as a music critic from 2011 to 2013 and have kept ever since.

I won't tell you that I didn't enjoy this process, but I also won't tell you that I adored every second of it. The 2010s brought me from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties, thirty being an age at which I have discovered the impulse to not really a give a shit really takes over, and a major hurdle I had to overcome was my obsessive need to live up to my original goals for this place by weighing in on just about everything (except metal, on which I give myself a pass because I sincerely do not understand and almost literally can't hear the genre, the same way that cilantro tastes like soap to some people), including stuff that I frankly didn't give a shit about. That's half the story; the other half, as I've mentioned here, is that painstaking discovery work is just that: work, and after a certain point it does become exhausting. I do not regret trolling aggregates and publications intensely throughout these ten years to try and make sure I wasn't missing anything -- I can think of at least three artists now major to me, and many others I like very much, that I probably would not have found by any other means -- but I do not plan on continuing to quite the same extent in the future. For one thing I've made my point: if you put your hand under the running water long enough, you find an embarrassment of riches. For another I want very much to shift back toward longform writing in this space, specifically longform writing about music -- new, yes, but particularly old -- that I'm really deeply passionate about, before I completely run out of time to do that.

Talking of running out of time: I did just that, when preparing this list. List-making is something of a sacred process to me in the sense that I get a huge kick out of it and am relatively precise in my methods. Basically I saw the lead-up to this moment as an excuse to listen to every record in my collection, to revise my old decade lists before moving onward to the new one, and at that point I planned to re-listen to everything new this decade that I rated highly in this blog. I got up to the '60s before I realized I wouldn't finish this at any conceivably appropriate moment if I continued with that, and upon skipping straightaway to the '10s, I got through 2010 before I realized that even the smaller task of taking on all of my highly recommended records from '10 to '18 would in no way be possible if I wanted this posted by the end of the summer, which was always my intention.

So in some ways, this is an abbreviated and maybe inaccurate list in a couple of ways. Firstly, in order to make it I essentially only listened to the albums that I had privately given "A" or "A+" grades on my annual lists, leaving off the many very special LPs that fell slightly below that arbitrary index, some of which undoubtedly warrant reappraisal -- I'm sure of that, since systematically reexamining these 71 albums, many of which I've come to know very well since they were released, I already found my original opinions changing in small and large ways. Secondly, it leaves off anything that was released in 2019, when I'm confident that Big Thief and Ibibio Sound Machine and Andrew Bird at the very least have a strong claim to placement in it. The second issue will be rectified in an abbreviated but revised version of the list to be posted at the end of 2019; my primary reasoning is that I don't want to disturb my usual end-of-year list by trying to settle it now, and I also don't want to distract from it (a huge risk since the eyes of the world are obviously on my blog at all times) by posting both projects simultaneously. The first problem will have to wait a bit longer; I'm going to crawl my way through the '70s and '80s etc. first and then rummage back through the lower reaches of my annual 2010s lists again; it will not be for a couple of years, but I will offer a "final for now" version of the whole shebang eventually.

Throughout these years, when I thought about what this mammoth post would look like I had high hopes of constructing some thought-provoking narrative about the story that the music of these times tells us, and how it's mutated; you don't have to be more than half-awake to notice that the critical perspective from which we were generally working in 2010 has been almost completely replaced by now with an altogether different kind of social branding -- arguably forecast a bit by the poptimism movement -- and one that carries considerable benefit as well as detriment to music criticism as a craft. I figured I would talk about the "zeitgeist" without using that dreadful word; that I would tell you what I thought about the long-advertised Death of Indie Rock (chiefly, the people at the shows I go to seem not to have gotten the memo), and maybe I would tell you that I thought Heems -- whose upending of the culture itself was as radical and violently world-expanding as what Johnny Rotten did in the '70s, or would have been if he'd been able to get the public's attention -- was the defining artist of the decade, or that the Dreiser-scale narrative of the Palm Beach band Surfer Blood, who began the decade poised to ride an unironic wave of Guitar Hero splendor on into a ripe old age that seemed so far away, really told the entire story about our interactions with art and pop in the teens: derailed by their status as a band led by an abuser and populated and enjoyed by implied abuse-defenders, stymied in their hyped major label bid, beset by health problems and eventually death, and more than anything, haunted by the reality that the music they played -- music that seems as innately appealing at first blush as Alex Chilton's or Paul Westerberg's, if not nearly as crafty or intelligent -- was becoming a niche.

Except what the fuck am I talking about? Chilton's music in its heyday, Box Tops notwithstanding, was less than niche -- absolutely no one listened to it except rock critics, even if that was strictly because of Stax's failing distribution at the time. The Replacements were a hype of sorts, on the other hand; they signed to Sire, they upheld a specific image, they deliberately trolled on MTV, but they too were never more than a specialized secret-menu item in the 1980s, reduced on some occasions to a lifestyle symbol, albeit in time when big labels happily subsidized such ventures. What I was actually doing by dreaming about forming all this shit into an intricately woven web of interrelationships and inter-interrogations was the very thing I'm so sick of, reducing the depth of disparate things by constructing a narrative out of them. You're not stupid. You don't need me to tell you that we used to torrent and now we stream, and that oddly a growing number of us started buying vinyl again just to put a tactile piece of this stuff back in our hands; it seems only right to mention it, but in practice I can't fathom anything more banal. What specifically makes it banal is that it doesn't actually do any work to explore why we care about any of this shit. I've said a few words about the top fifty records below and not about what they tell us about this or that, or certainly not what the response to them tells us about the world they occupy. You can figure that dross out yourself; I'm interested in what is moving and overwhelming and feels timeless, and what I think lends it those qualities. This was a wonderful time for music, an abundant time. I want to engage with the work, to celebrate what is simply good and not confine myself to the context around it, or else this blog would have a very different format and subject.

In other words I am not a culture writer, and this is probably the last time I will be talking about "modern music" in any broad sense, though I will be reviewing the remaining important releases of 2019 and will keep checking out new releases and reviewing those that strike me as significantly worthwhile... but broadly, I think everyone reading this "gets the idea" and I run the risk now of just repeating myself. So this venue from now on will be more a further digging into the past century of recorded art than it will be any attempt to stay on top of What's Happening -- monthly posts will continue but will be a good deal shorter -- as at this point I think I have a good feel of what that's like, and while it was occasionally rewarding, I don't think overall it's the direction I want to go in with this unpaid hobby, not least because the way the internet at large seems to want to engage with art as a set of ultra-woke instructions for day-to-day conscious living is abhorrent and deeply uninteresting to me, and I say that as someone who generally hates when people say shit like that.

The only overarching point I'll make about the list below is that I surprised myself at times by how I worked the rankings out; there are records down in the twenties and thirties on which I think nearly every song is brilliant, and a few in the upper reaches that don't contain any songs I would genuinely call Great. It was more a matter of consistency, but on some level I also corrected myself a bit on the temptation to second-guess certain albums that I love because they just became an inextricable part of my life. I wanted to get away as much as possible from the idea of listing records that made the most of their form or their cultural context or whatever else, even though many of these I think do accomplish that, and switch back to just sharing the things that I loved the most and made me happiest (or saddest, this being music) in these strange years. So at the end of the day, I ended up essentially doing the same thing I did in 2009... except now with a much larger pool to choose from, and I am glad to have had the chance. Summarizing all this is going to require me to return to that storm outside ("I hope my grass stays green"), barreling around with wind gusts in a house where I live with my wife, with whom so many of the moments now immortalized for me by this music have been shared. The associations that have formed in these ten years, since a time when this relationship was new and when so much was different, are what really informs the essence of this whole project. Maybe that limits the audience of these observations strictly to myself; but what was that thing I said earlier about not giving a shit?

***

71 records were reevaluated for this project; I'm writing quickly about fifty of them, but I ranked them all and so 70 of them are here because that's a nice round number. But let's have a moment of silence for clipping.'s CLPPNG, which would have been #71 but came in just under the wire even though I love it to bits and especially enjoyed dicking around with the 100 locked grooves on side 4 of the LP. And also, a moment of fully engaged cheering for Kelela's Hallucinogen, an EP I have re-graded to A+ that would be near the top of this list if I chose to let us have EPs on it. (A "top ten EPs" list would be rounded out by both of Courtney Barnett's that are collected on A Sea of Split Peas, Sheer Mag's II and III, the Tallest Man on Earth's Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, Swet Shop Boys' Sufi La, Ezra Furman's Songs by Others, Holy Fuck's Bird Brains and PAPA's A Good Woman Is Hard to ind.)

VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Why "very"? Because this hurts the heart! These are all verified to fully deserve higher placement, if only I'd heard fewer records I loved in the 2010s.

70. Ciara (Epic 2013)
69. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador 2013)
68. The Wave Pictures: Look Inside Your Heart (Moshi Moshi 2018)
67. Danny Brown: Old (Fool's Gold 2013)
66. Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination (1965 Records 2017)
65. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Island 2011)
64. Ezra Furman: Day of the Dog (Bar/None 2013)
63. The Julie Ruin: Run Fast (Dischord 2013)
62. Whitney: Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian 2016)
61. Rhye: Woman (Republic 2013)
60. Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop 2018)
59. Surfer Blood: Astro Coast (Kanine 2010)
58. The Wave Pictures: A Season in Hull (s/r 2016)
57. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon Music 2016)
56. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam 2017)
55. Slowdive (Dead Oceans 2017)
54. Tirzah: Devotion (Domino 2018)
53. Yo La Tengo: There's a Riot Going On (Matador 2018)
52. The Mountain Goats: Goths (Merge 2017)
51. Robyn: Honey (Interscope 2018)

***

50. The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD 2013)
Bloated to an extent its predecessor wasn't even though it probably wasn't a lot shorter, this failed to register initially, but it is the music of drunken bleak parking lots and wet streets, and opens up an avenue to raw expression that they've been trying and only sporadically succeeding to rediscover ever since.

49. Hospitality: Trouble (Merge 2014)
You start ignoring guitar music, you start ignoring bands that write songs that could totally turn your whole outlook upside down, and albums like this that run such an unheralded gamut of feeling, joy and introspection, and with a hook to die for in nearly every cut.

48. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD 2010)
It has come to my attention that I'm not, in the end, that huge an acolyte of Bradford Cox, but only a misguided fool would deny the roll he was on in the early part of this decade; this record is gorgeously constructed, capturing and transcending the indie-prog moment and concocting a mood as dimly lit and sophisticated as on an I.R.S.-era album by his fellow favorite-son Georgians. But no, Cox didn't write the best song.

47. Vampire Weekend: Contra (XL 2010)
I have been bored of talking about this band for nearly twelve years now and suspect I will remain so until the end of my days, but it's not even their fault, it's the totally decrepit manner of shallow interpretation that seems to be all many outlets have at their disposal. Did you know that they are #influenced by African music!? Well, did you also know that you can get paid to wring your hands about that for 5,000 words, all while knowing less about a whole continent of culture than Ezra Koenig does?? Except for the ones you're sick of, these are genuinely lovely, often gorgeous songs, even the ones you're sick of actually, and even the ones like "Giving Up the Gun" that seem at first glance to fulfill every stereotype about who they were then.

46. Pet Shop Boys: Electric (x2 2013)
By my estimation, no more than six years have ever flown by without a terrific Pet Shop Boys album, even though their track record has grown spottier on the whole since the mid-'90s; they gave us two extraordinary dance records at the middle of the decade. There's not even the faintest feeling of aged-out throwback to this return to the floor; even the blissed-out power pop romance "Thursday" with its cornball Example interlude means the world to me, perhaps because around 2013 I really was only able to see my lover on the weekends, and if there's any longtime PSB fan who isn't shaken to their bones by "Vocal" I don't think I want to speak to them.

45. Beach House: Bloom (Sub Pop 2012)
Beach House albums are practically interchangeable to me except Teen Dream, which I checked on and do in fact still mostly dislike; but either this or Depression Cherry is my go-to, music that fills the house and drones with beautiful imperfection.

44. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge 2010)
I really didn't expect this to find its way here; even at the time as a certified Fan I was a little skeptical of it and found it overlong, but when I was running through my A-minuses for 2010 (making this a good example of why this list may look different once I've had time to do a full reevaluation of everything) I found myself almost moved to tears by a good amount of what it contained about the growing disconnect of early-thirties adulthood, something I couldn't have really grasped when I first heard it -- and before I, hilariously, moved back to you guessed it. Plus, fuck it, the songs are really good.

43. The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans 2010)
Seeing Kristian Matsson live with Amber (who introduced me to his music) just after this was released, on folding chairs at a run-down church for a campus event that was $5 for non-students, with no one but him on stage and nothing separating us from the alcohol on his breath and the erratic, singular way he kept time with himself was one of the most magic things that happened to me in these years... and I had a splitting migraine all the way through it, which reminds me: fuck Lemonade or whatever, the defining moment of the 2010s in this household was when my doctor prescribed Nadolol. Anyway, lovely album!!

42. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (4AD 2014)
I never remember how wonderful this is until I play it loud again. It would have been hard for any record to follow up on one that so deeply inspired me in the early years of the decade and I think it was natural to register some disappointment at the time. But even if just in light of where Merrill Garbus chose to take the project after this, I honestly long to return to this moment. Hearing it today, it sounds buoyant, plagued, and most of all, free.

41. David Bowie: The Next Day (Columbia 2013)
It is completely fucking unfair how good Bowie's last two albums are. There's no precedent, even; I've been listening to his pre-hiatus stuff and, while invariably charming, none of it has this energy or passion at its center. Hearing this and Blackstar for this cycle I have to confess, my head was genuinely spinning as I remembered how much excellent material was contained on both. Rockers his age don't just recharge like this. Even Prince couldn't have made a record that would sit this interchangeably with something from his golden period, ditto Dylan, etc. How in fuck did he do it?

40. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here 2013)
Malian near-masterpiece is an impassioned, angry, vibrant response to repression that gets as close as any music does to actually defining the feeling of being alive, human and full of fire -- labeling this as rock & roll, and powerfully feminine rock & roll at that, isn't reductive, it's a testament to the universality of the music that enlivens and explains modern life.

39. Beyoncé (Columbia 2013)
I would eventually get as sick as everyone else of the tiresome shorthanding of Beyoncé as not just the one cultural signifier we mostly agree on but the only cultural signifier we're willing to prop up as untouchable, and damn you to hell if you don't worship her. But in one sense we're lucky, since this is a Zeitgeist-Approved artist whose work is actually for the most part very good... and in this case, brilliant, and weird too. You've almost certainly forgotten how weird this album is. Jay-Z's verse on "Drunk in Love" is as jarring as the Police song stuck in the middle of their most beloved album where Andy Summers rants incoherently about his mother and girlfriend, who are -- not irrelevantly -- the same person.

38. Yoko Ono: Take Me to the Land of Hell (Chimera 2013)
I try not to be That Guy about anything but I am deeply suspicious of anyone who hears any of Ono's recent work (or almost any of her albums, really, though I will allow that POB and Fly aren't for everyone) and honestly doesn't catch its winning genius. This sly, funny, philosophically blunt celebration may be the best-ever synthesis of her intimidating skill set. I don't think there is anyone else left alive who's been recording consistently good music as long as she has -- Dylan's hopeless by now, sorry -- and at this point, ignorant dismissals of her grate me so much that I'd almost rather hang out with a Beatles hater than a Yoko hater. But I'd prefer neither!

37. Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy 2013)
Very marginally the least of her three full-lengths, and of course a vivacious shot of absolute pleasure from beginning to end. There just isn't much to say -- it's such a visceral and purely good time that only a total square would try to explain it. The black and white vinyl looks like your electric meter spinning from the side.

36. Twin Shadow: Confess (4AD 2012)
George Lewis has turned out to be such an irksomely small-minded performer since this point that I'm tempted to pretend this isn't one of the albums I listened to most voraciously in the years after its release, one of the scattered records I genuinely couldn't get enough of and practically had memorized. Maybe it's coated with arrogance, but it also captures every bit of the night-driving Captain EO-with-relationship-problems vibe it aims for, and if you corner me about it I will admit to you that I don't know if I can name half a dozen songs I love more than "Run My Heart." Seeing his band play that and "Old Love/New Love" live totally redeemed a show filled with schlock from his subsequent major label debut.

35. Lady Lamb: After (Mom + Pop 2015)
The sort of record that sneaks up on you. Aly Spaltro has made a lucrative career of wild time signature changes, bizarro arrangements and undiluted guitar heroics, but her second proper album throttles because its songs are so phenomenally elegant, walking a line between intimacy and confidence, between the pure joys of sound and melody. Years after I first heard it, moments I never even thought about are still suddenly embedding themselves in my head, like currently the seductively operatic opening verse of "Ten." The cunnilingus-as-birth-control metaphor "Penny Licks," meanwhile, is one of the anthems of the decade for me -- and I admit disappointment when I found out she never plays it live.

34. Cut Copy: Zonoscope (Modular 2011)
Once again, if we were measuring in frequency of plays, this would be in the first or second spot on this list, though in this case it would be because of about half the songs; I actually think Cut Copy's virtually ignored subsequent albums are more consistent, but the peaks this one hits, especially out of the gate with two of the most glorious dance-pop constructions of my lifetime and later on with the ecstatic one-two punch of "Hanging on to Every Heartbeat" and "Corner of the Sky," are all but undeniable, and for me at least, they eclipse the perfectly lovely singles the band was first kicking the door in with around 2008.

33. Atlas Sound: Parallax (4AD 2011)
To my mind, Bradford Cox's magnum opus -- a shimmering procession of subtle, moody grooves and hooks and sounds full of hiding places and strange interludes but also a palpable, irresistible humanity. When you take it apart and examine it, it has almost no recognizable consistency of sound, yet all of it hangs together marvelously -- it's honestly one of the best-sequenced and designed, and most lovably morose, rock albums in recent memory.

32. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (Matador 2014)
This was another case in which I remembered placing this very high on my year-end list and recalled certain songs that had stayed in constant rotation -- this is really one of my favorite modern-ish bands so I listen to their stuff on shuffle a lot -- but only upon cuing it up again did I remember what a cacophony of pleasure it is, and as each track blared out I found myself amazed to realize that I knew all the songs pretty much by heart and had somehow lost the awareness that they all were part of this same release, which now feels like a greatest-hits to me, a tower of joy, which is doubly impressive since I don't think they had made an exceptional record in a good while by this point.

31. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (Bad Boy 2018)
I'm still pissed off at the forum posters I saw proclaiming that Monae, a rocker-approved Real Musician, had sold out by spending a whole album proclaiming and discussing her sexuality and its place in the universe -- as if a certain breed of fan can only handle self-exorcism when couched in sci-fi metaphor. Meanwhile, this didn't go over hugely with the sort of writers who seem to build their careers on memes, presumably because on top of being righteous, clever and sexy it's actually fun... and, perhaps more importantly, fun in an often specifically primal way.

30. Hot Chip: One Life Stand (astralwerks 2010)
Most of the key artists of the 2000s for me wasted little time in proving the old axiom that our faves really get one decade to shine bright and that's about it, and Hot Chip wasn't really an exception, but it's easy to forget that their best album actually did hail from 2010 and not earlier, and for me it's a classic: a perfectly sustained expression of dancefloor romance that almost overwhelms in its sincerity, and at times forgoes beat entirely to foreground its more complex reflections (the stunning "Alley Cats") but I especially dig when it balances both instincts (the stunning "Take It In").

29. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (Sub Pop 2011)
Like Nikki Nack, a record that sounds mostly like an odd curio until you spin it at top volume, at which point it takes you to Neptune and back -- Ishmael Butler has continued to innovate and tease as a producer, but his achievements under this name all seem to follow up from this one, and its metallic, disorienting mood is all but impossible to explain or duplicate as an avenue for musical expression.

28. David Bowie: Blackstar (Columbia 2016)
If The Next Day was Bowie proving he could toss out gobs of material in his sixties that engaged every longing we'd ever had fulfilled by his era-defining work in the '70s, Blackstar reasserts his status as a creator of sustained, carefully considered albums: shorter than The Next Day but no less diverse or vast in ambition, it's sufficiently smart and focused that it nearly renders its author's identity beside the point. From anyone, it would be a feat; from someone at death's door, it's an act of love.

27. Anthony Joseph: Caribbean Roots (Heavenly Sweetness 2016)
Not sure I have thus far successfully convinced anyone to listen to this -- maybe put off by the rather bland-sounding title -- but let me use this opportunity to try again: listen to this. All Joseph's albums are good; a poet by trade, he has a splendid speak-singing style that finds infinitely engaging nuance and dimension in his own words, so skillfully you wouldn't mind listening to these songs a cappella if the music weren't so terrific. But this one has bite, despite its considerable emotional grace. If you've only got time for one track, go with "Neckbone," one of my favorite musical moments of the decade.

26. Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos (Fiction 2016)
Its luster is retroactively diminished by the contrivances Tempest uses to string its narrative together, which weren't necessary on her first album and were limited to arbitrary chapter titles in her novel, and I think one reason it stung on this round is that her new record is nothing but the strings. But when the music kicks in and Tempest takes on her litany of characters and lays into these stories and observations that seemed to lead directly into one of the most harrowing events of any of our lives, it's still impossibly powerful. We drove six hours to see her perform it live in 2017, blocks away from the White House.

25. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop 2015)
What makes Barnett heir to whatever throne of great rock & roll storytelling you feel like naming is not her lyrics or her phenomenally powerful, emotive guitar playing, both of which complement for sure, but rather her ability to leave exactly enough blank space in her words to make her delivery of them the entirety of the story, so that a straightforward-on-paper narrative like the earlier "Avant Gardener" or even a mundane one like "Depreston" is given a whole narrative thrust thanks to the obviousness of the pain, empathy, longing, anger or curiosity that she brings with her singing. She is the full package and I'm so glad she exists.

24. Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union 2015)
Best pure rock & roll album since, I dunno, probably one of Lou Reed's!? And like Reed, one of his idols, Furman harnesses the sonic language of early rock & roll to weave poetry, and does so not as an intellectual exercise but because rock & roll is what reached him, and he wants it to reach you. Across these songs, the purity of expression and honestly never falters, but they also are the words of a heavy reader and a wordsmith, someone who gives a shit about how he's going to tell you about his pain just as much as he cares about the very act of expressing said pain. This time I couldn't stop thinking about the two ballads, "Watch It Go By" and "Hour of Deepest Need," both worthy of Gram Parsons.

23. The Wave Pictures: Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon (Moshi Moshi 2015)
Maybe the biggest thank-you I owe to this blog is that my routine procedure of trawling through new release lists brought me to this album, and in turn to what has become probably my favorite guitar band running (ex-faves the Walkmen went on hiatus in 2012, and I don't know if Yo La Tengo fully qualifies as a guitar band anymore) and one with a marvelous wealth of material to discover. My introduction to them is very unlike the rest of their work, in that it boasts the frenetic production work and songwriting assistance of Billy Childish and thus has a cleaner, harder sound than their typically raw and unkempt material. But the constant is the warmth and humor in their work, the unapologetic sophistication, wit and poetic yearning of Dave Tattersall's lyrics, and the seemingly bottomless well of inspiration from which they draw; they're not just one of the best bands in the world, they're also one of the most dedicated and prolific. And I really can't say enough good things about them -- there's so much to hear in their work, so much to draw from it, and its generosity is staggering. And no one in the U.S. has heard of them and they never tour here. Hooray for idiosyncrasy!

22. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (XL 2010)
It seems redundant to even explain why this is a brilliant album. It's also the only time that any of Patrick Stickles' cockamamie "concepts" has really worked, though I really think it's mostly incidental to the power of some of the rawest, most unapologetic punk songs I've ever heard, though in the manner of London Calling this is punk that sometimes leans hard on classicism of the sort that can spawn the heartbreaking Jenn Wasner guest shot "To Old Friends and New," and the remarkably bleak country anthem "Theme from Cheers." What renders this so hypnotic and cathartic is its absolute conviction, which could only come from either a damaged soul or one with deep empathy for the damaged. But I believe him when he yells to his dad in the middle of a rant about wanting to die that, at least in the moment, he's not making it up.

21. The National: High Violet (4AD 2010)
"Terrible Love" isn't much. But everything after that drives its hooks into you whether you want them there or not -- and these minor-chord anthems become the haunting rhythms of the everyday before long, until you find that you're never going to shake them again. It's a record that justifies clichés without leaning on any. Beautiful ugliness and all that. At times Matt Berninger's unredeemed-brooding lyrics can be annoyingly obtuse, but sometimes he hits on just enough telling detail and open-endedness to say a great deal: "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" and "Lemonworld" are the kinds of bad moods and difficult memories I can never resist poring over one more time.

20. Das Racist: Relax (Greedhead 2011)
For just a sec, forget that Kool A.D. turned out to be a dickhead or that Das Racist are to this day almost completely misconstrued as a novelty act thanks to their methodology for noteworthiness, a video that went viral before most of us knew what viral meant. Sometime when you have a chance, go to Youtube and track down every Das Racist interview you can find from 2009-11, when their mixtapes were coming out and they were trying to get in everyone's faces with their anarchic message. This wasn't some artificially constructed intersection of music and comedy, this was an incredibly well-articulated and passionate rebuke to the cultural tide that I don't think most who would've cared took the time to fully understand, and now all these years later they'll probably never bother. But there was much to learn from the tepid response to this magnificent record on which Heems, Kool and Dap roll up their sleeves and go for broke on all their impulses from avant garde to protest music to heartfelt R&B to indie rock irony, shitposting before Soundcloud, waking up before woke, and generally creating a kind of fabric-tearing menace evocative of the actual Marx Brothers, not the facile comedy teams that are always getting compared to the Marx Brothers by people who've never seen Duck Soup. When you get ambitious, you make enemies. And then you break up. And then no one ever knows what the hell to do with your legacy. They should probably buy it.

19. The Walkmen: Lisbon (Fat Possum 2010)
The most consistent American rock band of the 2000s never had time to prove that they weren't going to hold it together for another decade because they unceremoniously split (not permanently, they once claimed) after one more album past this, the underrated Heaven. You and Me from 2008 had been a rallying cry for sheer loveliness, the optimistic and romantic flipside to the National's equally expansive misery. Somehow Lisbon doubles down further on mood while producing at least seven or eight utopian ideals of guitar-based indie pop, rendered with a confidence, kindness and dimension that you feel could knock you down if they wielded it in a certain way. But from the open-armed opening notes of the Van Morrison-like "Juveniles" to the final yearning strains of "Lisbon," this record maintains delicacy and engagement as a life's mission, and there's simply no analysis that will mean more than simply indulging in its open spaces and glorious minimalism.

18. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp 2016)
Might've been the rap album of the decade if he didn't get stoned before deciding how to end it. I'm reminded, anyway, of what Lester Bangs said about the Stones being dirty and the Doors being dread. Lots of music in the mid-to-late 2010s seemed to build itself on the idea of looking into the void (Yeezus, for instance), but this album -- this is the void, an existential nightmare that's perversely exploding with life, all the identity-crisis chaos of Remain in Light and all the perplexing bluster of Aphex Twin, but with Danny Brown yelling about threesomes over the top of it. I said I wasn't going to talk about how these albums defined the times, but...

17. Nicolas Jaar: Sirens (Other People 2016)
An immersive composition as much as a pop album, this would probably be compelling as a sample-based procession of collages and moods or even a straightforward follow-up to Jaar's incredible semi-ambient debut Space Is Only Noise, but the moments when it periodically bursts into traditional songcraft are so wildly invigorating that it lends the whole record an almost diabolical structure, whereby every little piece of its marginalia seems to fit almost magically, and when "The Governor" pops into place, everything else in Jaar's world and yours disappears... but only long enough for him to weave his next web.

16. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (Columbia 2012)
Before we lost Cohen in 2016, he was my favorite living artist and another of the catalysts for my trying to engage more fully with music news -- when I found out from a Barnes & Noble cashier that I'd missed him playing a show in Durham; as it panned out, I never did get to see him -- and when rumors were afoot of his first new record in nearly a decade (his second such lapse), I badgered my editor at Metro Times as well as Cohen's label to get a chance to review it professionally. And the humiliating thing is, I did so but completely got it wrong; I actually complained that I missed the angry Leonard Cohen of The Future and the wickedly reflective pervert of Dear Heather. Hearing the record today, it's already astonishing how much of it is comprised of what seem like instant entries into the Great American (well, Canadian) Songbook or some such hallowed canon. By the time Marianne Faithfull covered "Going Home" a few years later it sounded like she was visiting a standard; "Amen," "Show Me the Place," "Anyhow" and "Different Sides" at the very least enjoy the same quality of grace and out-of-time wisdom. The master still had so much to teach us, and even some of his most devoted students weren't truly ready.

15. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (Big Dada 2014)
A blistering, vibrant, funny and heartfelt story of heists, jealousy, dead culture, dead cities and all but unnoticed opportunities for connection in a city teeming with life, later adapted by Tempest herself into an excellent novel (The Bricks That Built the Houses), but here functioning as the setup for the second-best LP-length hip hop narrative of the decade. And what makes it work is that each of the songs, full of keen observations and ferociously quick-witted delivery of them, operates completely on its own terms whether you go on to parse out the entirety of the story or not. The characters Tempest creates, and our muddled sympathies toward them, have a complexity that no lesser artist the world over could synthesize into music this appealing.

14. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic 2012)
Our less than prolific poet laureate of neurotic music-hall conundrums was as fired-up as ever the one time she graced us with her presence in the 2010s; her fourth album seemed to build and build on itself, its carefully worked-out but audibly impulsive melodic fears and private confessionals finally attaining nirvana with the two closing love songs. I didn't know Apple's music very well until after this came out; hearing it again now, in the context of her entire catalog, it's simply breathtaking -- once again, each song had lyrics and hooks and melodies I didn't even realize I'd committed to memory, but she snapped her fingers and I was right there again.

13. Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy 2010)
The loose construction of an Afrofuturist-revival album around the basic plotline of Fritz Lang's Metropolis serves only to prove that even two great artists like Lang and Monáe can't make Thea von Harbou's hackneyed novel and script any less silly... but both use it merely as a springboard, and for Monáe, it prompts a head-spinning but remarkably effortless-sounding journey through what seems to be the entire history of American popular music, from Mancini to Stevie Wonder to gentle folk-rock to P. Funk to lite-FM, and after dozens of listens, the surprises continue to surprise, and most fascinatingly, the emotions continue to wholly belie their conceptual context, which for Monáe is just a way of talking about the same out-of-sorts alienation that figures in all of her work, and she does herself proud in carving out a cultural space for herself, on her own terms, with endlessly thrilling results.

12. The Wave Pictures: City Forgiveness (Moshi Moshi 2013)
Part of me wants everything to be short. Singles over albums (2010s song list coming this fall!), short stories over novels, 80-minute movies over massive epics, etc., but there's a certain threshold that gets passed in which prolonged indulgence feels like the only correct thing, and the experience of sitting back while this ridiculously gifted Leicestershire trio works out twenty new ones from a seemingly endless supply of lyrics, hooks, tunes and riffs is so immersive that the scattered weaker songs, or the ones that just don't go much of anywhere, seem only to add to the experience, to the sense of journey. And when they pull it all together -- which is most of the time, but especially on "All My Friends," "Before This Day," "Better to Have Loved," "The Inattentive Reader," "Atlanta," "Golden Syrup" and "Like Smoke" -- they weave such magic from such modest context that it makes a teenage fan out of the listener: you hang on to every word of the songs, to every solo, and when you pause and let it wash over you passively, the experience is somehow equally profound. One of the best of all rock double albums.

11. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL 2013)
Here's a musical regret from these times: when I went to New York City for the first time in my life, this had come out and I hadn't heard it yet -- which surprises me now because I associate the record so strongly with that trip. This is one of only three albums released this decade that I immediately recognized as what I'd consider a classic, an album I knew very quickly that I would be listening to forever and that I would feel safe casually calling it Great. It isn't soured by Ezra Koenig's later banality either, even if I did play it too much for too long to be able to truly hear it anew again just yet. The songs are consistently stunning, but more than that, the moments are so charged-up and inspiring, like the building up of the chants on "Ya Hey" or the closing hook that Koenig later stole from himself on "Finger Back." It's a brief shining moment of absolute confidence that whatever remains of the band will never be able to recapture; age is an honor, it's still not the truth.

10. Love Is All: Two Thousand and Ten Injuries (Polyvinyl)
I didn't let myself grade this an A+ at the time; it just seemed too modest in scope and execution, as lively as it is. Truthfully, if I'd known how much I was going to obsess over it for the next ten years, I probably would have changed my mind, but now, it's here at this level because I can't imagine wanting more out of music than what this gives me. This is one of those bands that gets forgotten because they come from the same place we do: they're nice people who listen to rock & roll to give their demons a place to escape and now they're making fast and furious music to serve the same purpose for themselves and for others. But the thing is, they're also perfectionists -- this manifests in how much is clearly poured into every explosive guitar riff or saxophone break, and especially into the thoughtful ways that leader Josephine Olausson expresses herself: disappointments, private dreams, private rages, and numerous bits of comical bitterness. As explosive as the band's X-Ray Spex-derived sound is, its ragged edges and subtleties make it profound, and make it sing with life. I miss this band a lot.

9. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam 2010)
This album is really really good.

In all seriousness, the day this came out I had to drive like sixty miles with no heat on a really cold night and I loaded it onto my MP3 player and even now I feel cold when I hear it. The music West and his engineers constructed around these songs is some of the most evocative ever heard in pop music. Listen particularly to "All of the Lights" and "Hell of a Life."

8. SOPHIE: Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (Future Classic 2018)
Something that I guess marks my taste is that I like music a lot of people tend to find "difficult" (annoying) in some ways, which I don't say for some kind of bragging rights or to be a cool goth teen but because I want to reassert here that stuff like SOPHIE and Yoko Ono and Crystal Castles or whatever else is truly and basically automatically pleasurable to me, and it doesn't register to me as especially off the wall. Fine, I acknowledge that SOPHIE's album and singles are outre -- apart from the moments when she specifically aligns with trad club or pop music -- but every second of wild sounds and weird panning is riveting to me, and exciting, like a transmission from a world in which music, at least dance music, conforms to a very different set of expectations. I'm not going to pretend this is the future or whatever, but I love the way it carves out the idea of imagining the future, and I deeply appreciate that I didn't hear anything remotely like it in these last ten years.

7. Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam 2013)
This record was inescapable the year after its release in a way that none of West's albums had been since the mid-2000s; for one thing, I played it incessantly in the summer of 2013, but I also heard it everywhere, and it was actually exciting that something so unorthodox seemed to briefly be gaining that degree of mainstream acceptance. Like his previous record, it was one of those rare moments when an artist meets advance hype with full self-justification. West's sheer audacity as a performer has probably increased since this point, but he has also become less and less inspired in his writing and conceptual work, so this is the lone impeccable moment we probably get with West the provocateur and West the immensely gifted rapper-producer. It's actually more abrasive and shocking and edgy than I recalled, a record that doubles down on eccentricity, a record that rewards attention, and probably the zenith of a man who was then one of the most fascinating artists in the country.

6. Joanna Newsom: Divers (Drag City 2015)
Quite frankly I wrestled with which of Newsom's masterpieces from this decade to put in which position -- the logical thing would've been to string them together right in a row, but something felt gauche about that. I unabashedly worship this individual, and I don't think there's an artist working today I trust more, nor one whose work I love more, and in a lot of ways I think this is her most perfect release because it discovers the intersection between her love of pure emotion and melody via folk tradition and her more ambitious conceptual impulses -- plus it gives the people who whined about her pre-surgery voice their own Milk Eyed Mender without three discs to scour for a way in, but more than anything it's crushingly moving because of what it tells us about love, loss, death, and the frayed, wounded sensibilities of someone who in our conception should by all rights be invincible. But none of us are.

5. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l (4AD 2011)
It just immediately sounded right, from the first moments of the first song; Merrill Garbus doubling down on her range and her abrasiveness simultaneously, conceiving and executing a series of exciting, provocative, rhythmically tricky and thematically thorny songs with steely resolve. The ten tracks seem to bounce off one another like game pieces, and while there are peaks that undoubtedly burst out of the frame -- "Doorstep" is an absolute soul-stirrer, "Powa" one of the most sensual songs in the annals of indie, to say nothing of the obvious "Gangsta" and "Bizness" -- each seems so desperate to impart its message that it shuts out the rest of the world in that moment, as though all that can matter is Garbus' pure exuberance and what she is saying to you. And on top of its element of protest and alarm-sounding, it's really a record about living in your own skin and refusing to question your creative muse, a skill Garbus knows better than anyone can be absolute hell to put into practice. When this came out I thought it was one of the most exciting, jolting things I'd ever heard; knowledge of the future -- hers and ours -- tempers that, but why shouldn't it, and why should that hurt it?

4. Saint Etienne: Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Heavenly)
This wasn't an A+ until recently, when it dawned on me that I can no longer imagine my life without it. A kind-hearted self-examination in which we are all meant to participate, this song cycle about learning, knowing, discovering, living inside music is the sort of thing I have a hard time imagining someone not loving... but even I didn't appreciate it to the extent I now think it deserved from the first. Today all of the longing that inhabits it, all the knowing glimpses backward and forward in Sarah Cracknell's miniature narratives, provide it with one of the most judicious, unmistakably sincere perspectives on youth from an adult perspective that I've ever witnessed in any medium, and the band is fully cognizant of the way that music like nothing else can create its own sort of time travel, or can stop time altogether. It's one thing for songs like "Tonight," "Over the Border" and "DJ" to talk about that feeling, though, and another for them to achieve it musically all on their own, which the entire record consistently does. I think the key to the whole operation may actually be "When I Was Seventeen," which is about the feeling of youthful invincibility, but never once accuses that feeling of being naive. Like the Beach Boys, longtime favorites of theirs, Saint Etienne look upon youth as a fact of life, not as a particular time or place. But they know they'll often stop and think about them.

3. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Interscope 2012)
I have continued to admire Lamar's work but he hasn't done anything else that gripped me like this lyrically and sonically intricate narrative of misguided youth, which plays out with such immaculately cultivated empathy and complexity that the only problem with his "short film" declaration on the cover is that an actual short film probably couldn't handle this much plot without bogging down. As usual when concept albums work, which is rare, it's music rather than words that deliver the narrative -- and on revisiting the record, it was the apocalyptic, immersive production on tracks such as "The Art of Peer Pressure" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" and the way that Lamar controls, mitigates and dispatches his various avenues of storytelling -- while never causing any song to drag or to lose its purpose as music, even when that music is deliberately expressing a naive or satirical idea as part of the story -- that brought this above and beyond every other hip hop album of the decade for me.

2. Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (Drag City 2010)
My one regret ranking this sprawling triple-discer above Divers is that it seems a little too much like the Default Position, when I think Divers is both a truly great work of art and managed to feel underappreciated in the final analysis, whereas the sheer heft of Have One on Me could make its high placement feel almost predetermined. I'm too scared to go back and see what I wrote about this at the time, but what I can tell you now is that just about every one of these eighteen songs is now tied to a memory: some good, some bad, all rendered three-dimensional by the presence of Newsom's songs in my life; and what I may be most attached to -- which has also become increasingly true of her prior record, Ys -- is the manner in which the longer, more intricate cuts that take some time to fully know gradually and beautifully unfurl themselves, until eventually hearing each of them with full concentration becomes an event, something to witness and treasure. Like Divers, this record has intimate origins, in this case apparently the story of the last 24 hours of a dying relationship; and there is something beautifully masochistic about those 24 painful hours providing the soundtrack to ten full years. But what cannot be denied is that the record's utility and presence has not diminished one iota with the loss of youth, with the advance of time, with the change of mood. It sits, and it doesn't change, but we do... and then it does too.

1. D'Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA 2014)
I genuinely didn't know what was going to be at the top of this list. I had several candidates, this among them, but when I actually listened again, there was basically no question. It isn't the only record here I think of as a masterpiece by a longshot, but it is the one that I think sits at the greatest cross section of kinds of appeal -- for pure aesthetic, for genre-bending, for brilliance in composition and production, for variance of mood, and for lyrical messaging. The dense layering of sounds coating it, the obscurity of D'Angelo's current vocal technique, the way the entire concoction so skillfully avoids easy streamlined interpretation... and of course, the outrageous riffs and shots of unhinged pleasure that populate its dark, textured grooves... it is the makeup of a record that I feel will prove timeless, and a missive from someone whose sense of quality control doesn't let him speak out loud unless he has something to tell us.

I have expressed disgust at the expectation that we must make lists like this, and write about music in general, strictly through the prism of how it's informed by the times in which we live. However, in the liner notes for this album -- which is the best funk LP, I think, in nearly forty years, and is also probably the best new album issued this century -- D'Angelo decries any temptation to ignore the record's political and racial text and subtext. I won't. There is no way to engage with new music, certainly not music this passionate and vital, while ignoring the larger world (forum moderators be damned). But what makes Black Messiah transcend the idea of a political work of art is the same thing that let There's a Riot Goin' On, which directly inspired it, do the same thing: like every other record among these top ten, it is a personal exorcism, a spiritual outcry, a release from the heart and soul that badly needed to happen. Years from now when the landscape is hopefully very different, it will take no great effort for us to understand the emotions at the core of it. We will change. But this record doesn't need to.

No comments:

Post a Comment