2020? Are you sure?
It seems like just yesterday that I was combing through the AbsolutePunk.net boards, reading the 2009 end-of-the-year lists that crowned records like Manchester Orchestra’s Mean Everything to Nothing and Thrice’s Beggars among the finest releases of the year. A lot has changed since then—in music, in our lives, and with the state of the world—but here we are again 10 years later, taking stock of another ending.
There have been a lot of endings over the past decade. Bands we loved have called it quits. Staff members who gave countless hours of their time writing for this website have moved on to other things. AbsolutePunk had its own sunset in 2016, relaunching as Chorus.fm that spring. And yet, a lot of things have lived on, too. Our love for music, certainly, is alive and well. The vibrancy of this community as a place to talk about bands and share things you love with like-minded souls has persisted, too. And some of us have been here for a very long time, watching the state of the music scene and the world at large shift from behind our keyboards, the headphones in our ears playing us the latest thing that might get our hearts racing like our old favorite records always have.
I don’t have a neat little bow to tie around the 2010s to commemorate their impending conclusion. It’s been a chaotic decade in a lot of ways. It’s certainly been the most chaotic music era on record. The way we listen to music has changed. Entire formats have shifted. Trends have sprung up and others have died. Artists have reshaped the way that music is written, recorded, packaged, released, shared, and marketed. And perhaps most importantly, there’s just been more: more music making its way into the world on a weekly basis; more ways to hear it all; more ways to discover; more ways to think about what art can do, both in our personal day-to-day lives and to the world that we live in.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that our list of favorite records from the 2010s is a bit chaotic in its own right. It’s a smorgasbord of genres; a kaleidoscope of emotions; a place where massive pop superstars can coexist with the bands that really feel like they are ours, the ones that have been so foundational to this community and its unique musical identity. The list is also a testament to how much opinions on music can change over time. Some of our former Album of the Year winners are missing entirely; other albums have grown in our estimation, swimming to the forefront as, we think, the foremost artistic achievements of the past decade. Ask us again in two months and we might see things differently. For now, it’s time to put our pencils down and close the book on this chapter.
To everyone who is reading, or to anyone who has played a part in the AbsolutePunk/Chorus.fm story over the past decade, we say thank you. What a long, strange trip it’s been. Here’s to another 10 years of music mending broken hearts. [CM]
1. Paramore - After Laughter
What After Laughter seems to be is a refinement of the steps Paramore made on its predecessor. That album, 2013’s Self-Titled was their first record since losing two band members, including a primary songwriter (okay, you all know the story). It also proved to be an important turning point. Taylor York, until then a rhythm guitarist with occasional songwriting duties, had to step up to the plate as the band’s key songwriter. He proved that not only could he fill the vacancy, but he was also the best thing that could have happened to the band. His songwriting—free-ranging and ambitious—brought dimensions to the songs that far surpassed anything on any prior Paramore record.
After Laughter, then, took that revelation and ran with it. It wasn’t a path without stumbles, to put it mildly. Before work began on After Laughter, the tumultuous departure of bassist Jeremy Davis, coupled with the mental health struggles of frontwoman Hayley Williams, came close to ending the band. That After Laughter came to exist at all was a triumph, as was the return of founding drummer Zac Farro during the recording process. Due to these circumstances alone, there would have been enough goodwill for the band forgive a below-par showing. Instead, Paramore damn well came out kicking.
Where Self-Titled was more than a little overstuffed—the band was so determined to prove they could continue writing quality songs without the Farro brothers that they stuffed 17 tracks on the record, clocking in at over an hour. After Laughter packs more punch in a slicker runtime. And where Self-Titled is all over the place stylistically, After Laughter is cohesive and focused. The band achieves that cohesion without being one-note, calling on influences ranging from Talking Heads to The Strokes to mewithoutYou to No Doubt and knitting it all together seamlessly.
And of course, we can’t discuss After Laughter without talking about Hayley Williams. As vocalist, she’s outstanding as always, from simmering calm on “Forgiveness” to frenzied cries on “Idle Worship.” Yet it’s likely her lyrical work that puts After Laughter at the top of this list. She writes with crushing honesty about the trials she faced in the years prior to making the record, with insight and sharpness that cut to the bone. ‘Idle Worship’ could possibly be a standout lyrical moment of her entire career, at least as far as the territory she treads on it. It’s an almost shockingly honest exploration of the weight of fame and fandom on her own perception of herself. “Rip me open, you’ll see you’re not the only one who’s hopeless,” she sings, describing exactly what she does herself throughout the entire record.
Paramore proved with After Laughter that they have finally grown into a band with the imagination and ability to make world-class records, while retaining the heart and connection that has always been central to their work. It’s their best record yet by a country mile, but even more exciting is that I feel they’re only going to get better from here. [MH]
2. Taylor Swift – 1989
When Taylor Swift announced she would be releasing her “first documented, official pop album,” I was a little nervous. Sure, Swift had already proven that she could do pop well without a lot of country twang attached, in songs like “22” or “Red” or “The Story of Us.” But I also worried about her veering too far toward modern pop production trends (spoiler alert: she did just that on Reputation), or losing some of her diaristic voice in the move toward streamlined radio-pop dynamics. It’s a testament to Swift’s immense talent and her innate understanding of what makes good pop songs good that she avoided most of the landmines. Largely, 1989 is a delight. It allows Taylor to churn out her stickiest hooks of all time (the iconic “Style,” or the whoever-didn’t-make-this-a-single-should-get-fired jam that is “All You Had to Do Was Stay”) while also maintaining an authorial identity that is completely and utterly her. On “Blank Space,” Taylor gleefully satirizes and skewers her own tabloid image, while songs like “I Know Places” and “Out of the Woods” stand as darker examinations of being the girl no one will ever leave the fuck alone. And remarkably, the moments of vulnerability here end up feeling even rawer and barer than the stuff on Red or Speak Now. Songs like “This Love” and “Clean” put Taylor about one verse shy of a breakdown—frustrated at the end of another broken relationship, wondering if she’ll be lonely forever, ready to start blaming herself and her own stupid fame for making love so goddamn hard. 1989 was a massive monocultural juggernaut that somehow managed to take Taylor Swift to an even higher plane than she’d reached before. But the best thing about it is just how human it is underneath all the hooks and studio sheen. [CM]
3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Praising Kanye West in 2019 is not an easy task, nor is it a particularly smart one to volunteer for. So rather than prefacing anything further, let’s just come out and say it: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the best albums of the decade, and one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. However, it also serves as a grim reminder of the myth of genius, and to look back at the album without considering that context would be a disservice to anyone invested in West’s saga, regardless of their state of exhaustion. West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift — whose placement on this list tells its own story about this specific pop culture rivalry — acted as a catalyst for the album that would go on to be considered his magnum opus. Still reeling from the death of his mother two years prior, West retreated to Hawaii with a legendary crew of producers and collaborators. And just like the sessions that wielded it, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an exercise in maximalism, filled with delicate pianos, lush orchestration, and an array of unorthodox samples—oftentimes all within the same song.
As its title implies, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy takes everything we love and hate about hip-hop’s biggest contrarian and turns it into something equal parts stunning and perverse. Depending on who you ask, West released at least one (if not two) more records offering important insights into the superstar’s life before ultimately collapsing under the weight of his own psyche. But therein lies the struggle: when an artist feeds into themselves so much that they start to openly support abusers and right-wing sensationalists without fearing the consequences, the endearing qualities of their art (read: talent and passion) can only distract audiences for so long. It’s been a slow downward spiral since 2010, but I happen to believe that West’s pre-MAGA work still has something of value to offer audiences. Nearly 10 years later, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy still needs to be heard to be believed. [AM]
4. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Some albums are just destined for greatness right from the get-go. To Pimp A Butterfly falls directly into this category. From the stellar songwriting to the top-of-the-art production, everything here clicks right into place like a jigsaw puzzle. One thing that I usually skip in rap albums are the skits or interludes, yet on this record I never found myself reaching for the skip button. On the contrary, each note, lyric, and story element feels perfectly placed as part of the full picture that Kendrick Lamar intended. From the opening notes of “Wesley’s Theory,” where Kendrick outlines his plan to take over the world (or at the very least the White House), Lamar sets his sights on taking the rap crown and leaves all other aspiring artists looking at his taillights. More than that, he brings everyone into his headspace for an hour and 19 minutes of content that feels just as real and immediate now as it did on release day. By the time you make your way through the metamorphosis of a journey at the end of the record, “Mortal Man” reminds everyone that Lamar is still made of the same flesh and blood as all of us; he’s just a hell of a lot more talented. [AG]
5. The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace Is There
Sometimes, albums just feel important. They might not be your favorite albums, or the albums that seem to say the most about your life, but you can hear them once and know they are going to matter. That’s how I felt the first time I heard Home, Like NoPlace Is There. There was a gravity to it, not unlike what I felt the first time I heard Clarity or Transatlanticism or Funeral. There’s a certain sense of communal catharsis to these records that very quickly screams “This album is going to save lives.” With The Hotelier, I felt that X-factor right away. “Open the curtains/Singing birds tell me ‘Tear the buildings down,’” Christian Holden bellows at the top of the record, on a song called “An Introduction to the Album.” From those words, you’re in Holden’s world—a world of sadness and depression and feelings of inadequacy and crushing loss. The rest of the album keeps you there. It grapples with deaths of friends and thoughts of suicide and abusive relationships and all the toxic things we try to escape in our lives that just seem to pull us deeper into their web. It’s a tough listen, and it’s not an album I put on the turntable very often for that reason. But it’s also a record that turns all its suffering into a rallying cry and a badge of honor. Here, The Hotelier were inviting everyone who’d suffered similar things to come and scream their vocal cords raw—to be baptized in the burst of emotional noise and made clean again by the din. Writing for AbsolutePunk and watching people gravitate toward this album—watching people let it heal them and save them and keep them afloat—was a remarkable experience, and something that I’ll always remember. I’m used to music saving me, because it does it all the time. To be reminded of how music could save other people was heartening, and it underlined what I thought about this record from the start: that it was going to matter. [CM]
6. Taylor Swift – Red
It puts a lot of pressure on a piece of art to call it timeless, no matter who made it. In the constantly updating, ever-refreshing, oversaturated music climate of the past decade, that pressure feels tenfold. And yet, Taylor Swift’s 16-track magnum opus Red feels as worthy of that descriptor as any. While by no means her most cohesive or critically lauded (at the time) work, it holds a special place in the hearts of anyone who delves into her catalogue past its singles – and for good reason.
Simply put, there is a chaos to Red, a rawness, a certain sense of reckless vulnerability laced throughout this album that simply doesn’t exist the same way in her other works, before or since. In a fantastically diverse body of work that spans the whole spectrum of human emotions, this album does something the others never quite seem to. Despite earmarking her first definite foray into the world of polished pop music, Red feels real in a way you simply can’t plan. Whether she’s mirroring the absurd immaturity of those “on and off” relationships between fully grown adults with lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, ”completely shattering the happiness of her listeners with one-two punches like “I Almost Do” and the infamous “All Too Well”, or paying homage to the women who inspired her personally in “The Lucky One” or “Starlight,” there is an ever present sense that Swift is writing through a slightly desperate need to tell these stories. It’s easy to imagine the album’s inception as being driven by compulsion (as opposed to intent), even as Swift doles out some of the cleverest wordplay of her career. From the triumphant beat-driving opener “State of Grace” to the sweet conclusion of album closer “Begin Again”, Red remains Swift’s most interesting body of work to date, and has more than earned its spot on any list of crucial albums from this decade. [AA]
7. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past
On the Impossible Past. I always loved that title. I never knew exactly what it meant, and for a long time, I didn’t even appreciate the album that it came from. But something about that title was magnetic to me. It seemed to convey this sense of deep, unquenchable yearning—for a time, or ideal, or relationship, or innocence that’s gone for good. On the record, “On the Impossible Past” is a minimalist interlude about crashing a car into a ditch. It’s the same “American muscle car” that shows up in the opening track, “Good Things.” “Like when we would take rides/In your American muscle car/I felt American for once in my life/I never felt it again.” Early this decade, my first opportunity to write about music outside of my own blog came for a European publication called Rockfreaks. Right after I joined the staff, I remember the site running a perfect 10-out-of-10 review of this record. And I remember how the writer, who was from Denmark, wrote about the world this record built for him: one that was deeply American but also undeniably universal. “I’ve never been to America, never driven a muscle car, never smoked a cigarette, and never loved a waitress,” he wrote; and it didn’t matter. The story of On the Impossible Past—of having a horrible time pulling yourself together; of hanging out in diners; of driving around aimlessly late into the night; of running out of money; of getting drunk before you did the dishes; of getting high and listening to your boredom—is a story a lot of people have lived. It’s a story that is mundane, but also one that is crammed with passion and love and life. There’s nothing airbrushed or fake about On the Impossible Past. It is the truth, told by characters who are complicated, about lives and worlds and economic situations and day-to-day troubles that are complicated, too. No wonder it became one of the true classics of the era. [CM]
8. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
Stranger in the Alps by Phoebe Bridgers is one of the most impressive and hauntingly gorgeous debut albums I have ever heard. It is a songwriting tour de force that almost instantly made Bridgers the answer to every single “Who is your new favorite artist?” question. Her ability to meld wit and sorrow with a breezy croon showcases a talent just as capable of getting you humming along as it is turning you into a sobbing puddle on the floor. To listen is to become transfixed, to become transfixed is to become obsessed, and to become obsessed is to give in to the power of Phoebe. [JT]
9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is one of those albums that bestows previously unearthed gems upon the listener with each new listen. It’s an album that bridges timelessness and introspection in a musical masterpiece that has only become more impactful with age. It plays with sound and harmonics through multiple layers where, paradoxically, even the subtle moments feel lush and full. It’s an album that pulls and prods with perfect timing and effectiveness, asking the listener to engage with its themes of isolation, connection, and coming to terms with one’s fleeting place in the world. If I were asked to make a list of the best albums that have been released in my lifetime, this would feature prominently, and, when pressed to think about the best albums from the last decade, this found itself sitting right at the top. [JT]
10. Beyoncé – Lemonade
At this point in her career, there is nothing left to prove for Beyoncé. There is no one to please. No radio hit boxes to check. She is free to absolutely choose what her next steps are going to be. Sadly, for her relationship, life chose what that next step would be. Thanks to elevator security footage from 2014, we learned as a society that Jay-Z actually cheated on Beyoncé. So, if Beyoncé was a story of life as a woman in love in all its intricacies, Lemonade is a deconstruction and reconstruction of a relationship. One of the most popular narrative structures across all art forms is redemption after a fall. But this isn’t a redemption story for Jay-Z. This is a statement of intent—and yes, eventually forgiveness—from Beyoncé. She is defining the terms of their relationship through every stage of grief and presenting her side of things. Instantly, we are thrown into Bey’s most sincere, insecure moment, as she drops her powerful voice to a whisper: “What are you doing, my love?” But the visual portions of Lemonade also tell the greater story of what it means to be a black woman in America, specifically the South and that heritage in all its weight. From plantations to the run-down sections of cities, we see this film displaying black femininity in its myriad of beauty. At one point, Bey is draped across the same throne on which Serena Williams graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, while Serena dances Bey’s signature choreography. Here are two of the most famous black women in the world—two of the most criticized, controversial women in the world—daring you to call them out: “I ain’t sorry,” goes the lyric.
When the album ends on forgiveness with “All Night,” we’ve arrived there knowing each step Bey took to get there, and that she’s in charge. She’s assured of everything. Out of the greatest heartbreak of her life, she produced an album to define a decade and a career, and an anthem to a generation of women who have begun to hold men to the higher standard we should’ve been held at all along. [GL]
11. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
The 1975 feel built for this moment in time. They’re a band that is hyper-aware of the internet and the culture they’re living in, and one that can use this knowledge to shape and extend their music and image. Yet, they’re also musically ambidextrous and adventurous enough to leap through various genres and styles while maintaining a distinct stamp on who they are as a band. They’re the most fascinating band in the world right now, and I like it when you sleep… felt like the moment when they really put an indelible mark on music. The John Hughes-cribbed 80s aesthetic would be attempted, to various levels of success, by many imitators throughout this decade. But the seeds planted in this album were always far more ambitious. It’s an album that is always aware of its audaciousness and moxie, but that doesn’t use this fact to shield itself from criticism or deeper readings. Instead, here, the ambition is all a part of the band’s broader statement and vision. [JT]
12. The National – High Violet
“It takes an ocean not to break,” Matt Berninger chants in “Terrible Love,” the terrific opener of High Violet, the fifth album by The National. Following a string of now classic indie rock albums, Alligator and Boxer, the band took the best of those worlds to create stories miniscule enough to scrawl in diaries and large enough to fill arenas. Said another way, with High Violet, The National quit being afraid of writing the anthems that they’ve always been capable of writing. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is a flawless rock song about a character who reminisces about their home state and drinks the past away. “Afraid of Everyone” explores Berninger’s trepidation of becoming a new father; the song features Sufjan Stevens on backing vocals and just builds and builds and builds. In “Conversation 16,” a relationship is falling apart at the seams. “England” is the most epic of all, capturing the devastation of a breakup between two people who are separated by entire oceans. Beforehand, The National visit “Lemonworld,” exploring a college man’s awareness of privilege that impedes his enjoyment of a summer loving torture party.
I’ve been listening to this album for years now. When I listen today, the best moments tend to be the ones where I realise that I no longer relate to High Violet. I’m looking out of my partner’s flat window in England and can wistfully reminisce about my hometown across the world, without all the pain and dissatisfaction that the characters in these songs feel. Still, though, High Violet remains a much-loved album for me. Even if I don’t relate to it anymore, I think I’ll continue explaining everything to the geeks. [MV]
13. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Loss felt like a constant theme over the past 10 years. We said goodbye to a lot of legends, to musical figures who had played key roles in shaping the sound of pop and rock ‘n’ roll that all of us grew up with. A lot of us probably lost people too: parents or grandparents; partners or spouses; old friends; colleagues. In the midst of that decade of loss, it was both comforting and wrenching to hear an album like Carrie & Lowell. It’s the best album Sufjan Stevens has ever made, a statement that might seem blasphemous given a catalog that includes other beloved LPs like Illinois and The Age of Adz. But Carrie & Lowell trumps those big, bombastic albums by being as raw and honest as just about any other record released in the past 10 years. The album is, in large part, an excavation of Stevens’ complex relationship with his mother, who struggled with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and drug addiction. She wasn’t around much, when he was a kid or after he grew up, leading to an emotional distance between Stevens and his late mother that makes the record that much more tragic. It’s an album about losing a parent, yes, but it’s also an album about working through a whole slew of other emotions and issues that come with that: regret, anger, hatred, shame, resentment, and psychological wounds that reach back a lot of years. And while Stevens ultimately expresses forgiveness for his mother on the staggering opening track, “Death with Dignity,” the rest of the record suggests the road to that point might be as long as life itself. [CM]
14. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
After barreling into the annals of pop culture history with 2011’s inescapable smash “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen became somewhat of an (entirely undeserved) punchline. Like any genre, pop music contains works of all quality levels—from hard-to-listen-to drivel to universally acknowledged masterpieces and everything in between. Yet pop music remains unique from other genres because of the “pop paradox.” There is a pervasive idea that something universally palatable is a lesser art form, or that it is somehow easy to create. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, that attitude nevertheless exists, and is applied tenfold with female pop stars. As such, it would hardly be unfair to say that those who were only familiar with “Call Me Maybe” and not with Carly’s earlier works (or even that year’s Curiosity EP and subsequent sophomore album Kiss) were not expecting much from any later efforts.
But then, 2015 happened. At first listen, the lead single off Jepsens’s new record (titled “I Really Like You”) seemed right out of the “Call Me Maybe” handbook. It was bouncy and lyrically cohesive yet also simple, and it had the habit of cementing itself firmly in your brain after just one listen of the chorus. Yet despite the similarities, “I Really Like You” did not do the same thing to the pop culture world that “Call Me Maybe” had, and as a result the pop masterpiece that is Emotion flew largely under the radar, becoming something of a cult classic to her fans. From start to finish, Emotion does what so many records in the past decade have tried to do, capturing the sonic essence of 1980s pop and marrying it to the flawless production and heavily personal lyrics that embody today’s pop. From the smooth-as-butter sax intro of “Run Away With Me” all the way through the anthemic closer “When I Needed You,” Emotion is a double time capsule of two moments set decades apart—a true feat no matter who you are. [AA]
15. La Dispute – Wildlife
La Dispute’s Wildlife reminds me of a play in five parts. Each section of the album is framed by a monologue, where the short story writer protagonist of the album addresses the listener directly. “Not sure why I’m even writing this, but I guess it feels right. It sort of feels like I have to—like an exorcism.” The next seven songs take us on a journey through the writer’s mind and experiences. Every song flows like a short story plucked from a journal, meticulous yet meandering. Wildlife gives us a protagonist questioning everything: “There’s a melody in everything. I’m trying to find the harmony, but nothing seems to work.” Quick glances at a gardener working outside a church become an in-depth journey into faith and loneliness. A kid ruminates on being left behind in his hometown, alone, with all his friends moved away. “A Letter” is the middle monologue of this stretch and it defines the album as a reckoning of self that continues through two more songs expanding upon addressing feelings towards life in the place you grew up and the experiences that have gotten you to where you are now. “A Poem” is the moment Dreyer takes the pen and turns his gaze outward, to see if he can find the answers that he can’t find in himself. The first story he encounters, the immense “King Park” will always be remembered from this album. A blistering story of gang violence blended with a critique of the curiosity that drives our coverage of these events is told through the most personal of lenses. If you’ve experienced the climax of the song live, no one could think less of you for being haunted by that question shouted by thousands: “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” It encapsulates what Wildfire is: a collection of songs about hope and its power even in the darkest of questions and harshest of times. It’s an album that reminds you that you’re not alone. [GL]
16. Foxing – Nearer My God
“With this record, it’s the first time where it feels like this shit is worth it,” Foxing’s Conor Murphy explained prior to his band releasing their third album. “This is, ‘I don’t care if we get into a van crash every day,’ because this record means something to us.”
That album being, of course, the ambitious Nearer My God, a 12-track whirlwind that carries the weight of the impending apocalypse and intertwines it maniacally through sprawling genre-bending arrangements. So while the first two Foxing records, Albatross and Dealer respectively, stretched the very idea of what an emo band was capable of by circumventing familiar tropes within the genre, Nearer My God shows us a group of musicians with limitless scope, drawing influence and inspiration from a host of different artists and styles, and making it foolish to categorize this record under any specific type of genre. tracks like the jaw-dropping “Grand Paradise,” the frenetic “Gameshark,” and the exhilarating nine-minute “Five Cups” are just the tip of the iceberg. Despite being one of the younger albums on our list, Nearer My God leaves its mark early and often. This record effortlessly switches gears throughout, creating transparent, vibrant emotional music all within a highly meditative space. It’s no exaggeration to say it cements Foxing as one of the most vital bands to come along during this tumultuous decade. [DB]
17. Thursday – No Devolucion
While Thursday’s Full Collapse has achieved revered classic status within the halls of emo fame, it’s the band’s last official studio album that cements their legacy with a shining, crowning moment. No Devolución is Thursday at their best. It is exciting, daring, brash, contemplative, and all wrapped around melody and a constant hum of intensity. Arriving in 2011, the album marked the end of the band’s studio output. I remember it being received with mixed reactions around our website. Some thought it strayed too far from the band’s early screamo trademark, while others complained about the production for some reason or another. But between all the criticism were those of us that saw the record’s genius. Now, at the end of the decade, seeing this album here in our “best of…” list, I feel vindicated that it is finally correctly rated. [JT]
18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
What happens when a cynic falls in love? Josh Tillman (more famously known as Father John Misty) explores that very question throughout his breakthrough second LP, I Love You, Honeybear. The result is, quite frankly, the most honest record of the past decade, at least when it comes to romantic love. Tillman loves to challenge the listener just as much as he wants to entertain them. This album spans multiple styles—there’s the glitchy “True Affection,” the soulful swoon of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me,” the raucous self-loathing rocker “Ideal Husband,” and the ambitious mariachi-laden album standout “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)”—creating a smorgasbord of sound that soundtracks Tillman’s profound deconstruction of falling in love. The album’s intimacy is as bewildering as it is comforting, giving off a bizarre warmth throughout its eleven tracks. Tillman goes from bluntly exposing his cynicism on the opening title track (“I brought my mother’s depression/You’ve got your father’s scorn and wayward aunt’s schizophrenia”) to finding himself awestruck at how easy finding true romance can be on closer “I Went To The Store One Day” (“For love to find us of all people/I never thought it’d be so simple”). Getting there is every bit the wild ride promised at the beginning of the record. And while Tillman went on to release two more stellar records this decade (the apocalyptic Pure Comedy and heartbreaking God’s Favorite Customer), I Love You, Honeybear remains the man’s most complete and enthralling collection. [DB]
19. The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation
Pop-punk has always been about the pains of growing up. The Wonder Years’ The Greatest Generation may be the most earnest, honest, and reflective exploration of that topic in the genre’s history. Closing out the trilogy that began with 2010’s The Upsides and continued with 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You all and Now I’m Nothing, we arrive at The Greatest Generation seeing a man that has grown-up before our eyes. This album encapsulates the experiences of depression, anxiety, loneliness, fear, and the all-encompassing feeling of being completely lost that seems to permeate so many moments of your twenties. “Angst” feels like a trite word to describe something so personal, but Campbell really invites us in and shows us around all of the things that construct his anxiety. From the soft, tender, “I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times” to the bombastic “I just want to sell out my funeral, I just want to be enough for everyone,” we’re with from the first lyric to the last. In a world where millennials are derided and often pushed to the margins of the society at large, The Greatest Generation gives us a reminder that we’re not the only ones asking, “Did I fuck up?” The listener understands the yearning for trying to just figure out what life is supposed to look like. There’s the awareness here that we’re a generation defined by our mistakes, now vastly more public and apparent than they were for our forebears. So while The Greatest Generation is an album meant to sing along loudly to, it’s also an album that you’re supposed to feel. It’s crafted with such care, such steady hands, that it took a familiar genre’s blueprint and tore it down to the basement, building something lasting and reflecting something true about what it meant to come of age in the 2010s. [GL]
20. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The National save themselves by not taking themselves too seriously. On record, they are very clearly five white men making slow indie-rock aimed primarily at dads and divorcees. (I’m a fan, I promise, stay with me.) In some ways, they’re kind of like a modern version of The Smiths, without all of the far-right baggage. But for all of these divisive qualities, The National know exactly who they are and what they are capable of. Off record, they’re charming, contributing to comedic films and TV shows, never afraid to poke fun at themselves. It also doesn’t hurt that frontman Matt Berninger is one of the decade’s most talented lyricists. It feels fitting that I discovered The National in 2013, my freshman year of college. It wasn’t an instant connection: most records by The National are slow-burning affairs, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception. “I Should Live in Salt,” a ballad for Berninger’s brother, doesn’t exactly pull any magic tricks in vying for your attention. Ultimately, The National are a lyrical band, and I still remember the line that made everything click for me: “I am secretly in love with everyone that I grew up with,” Berninger solemnly reports on the album’s second song, “Demons”. With The National, all you need to do is find that gateway, and you’re there; their records become emotional soundscapes worth exploring over and over.
Berninger is a master at creating universal poetry out of specific circumstances. On album highlight “This is the Last Time,” he sings to an ex-lover about meeting her with Tylenol and beer, before finally concluding: “Oh, but your love is such a swamp/You don’t think before you jump/And I said I wouldn’t get sucked in/I won’t be vacant anymore, I won’t be waiting anymore.” Many of the album’s songs are accompanied by instrumentation that feels weightless, but Trouble Will Find Me is grounded by two driving “rock” numbers: “Graceless” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” The former summarizes the album’s themes best in a single succinct line, when Berninger admits, “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion.” In a sense, The National are the most mature version of the gut-wrenching emo bands this site grew up with. [AM]
21. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
In October 2007, Radiohead released In Rainbows, a magnum opus that also challenged the very operating system of the music industry. It broke the internet. On February 18, 2011, the band released their eighth album, called The King of Limbs, just four days after announcing it. Again, Radiohead broke the internet. For years, The King of Limbs was deemed a weak link in Radiohead’s rich discography. Eight tracks and 37 minutes long, the album was supposedly too short. It wasn’t innovative enough. It was too scatterbrained. Looking back, though, the scatterbrained approach is deceptive: Radiohead did not forget to bring the songs. Peel back the skittering layers of “Morning Mr Magpie” – a re-worked rendition of a ballad from earlier in the band’s repertoire – and it takes stabs at corporations like Spotify and Apple, with Thom Yorke demanding that artists get their rights back. And later, the gut-wrenching “Codex” introduces the band’s finest three-song run of their career, leading into “Give up the Ghost,” an acoustic-led song of resignation that showcases Yorke’s dazzling walls of harmonies; and closing with “Separator,” an epilogue provides an epilogue that doesn’t necessarily have one meaning, but sure has a special meaning to me. That’s the thing about King of Limbs: like all the great albums on this list, its heart is what keeps us coming back for more. [MV]
22. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
My parents never had air conditioning when I was growing up, and to this day, they still don’t. Usually, that was fine: we threw open the windows and let the summer breezes cool our house naturally. But on the really hot days—the ones where the temperatures soared into the 90s or 100s—it was hard to sleep at night, let alone spend much time in the house during the day. The day I first heard Handwritten was one such occurrence—the hottest day in the hottest summer I can remember in my hometown. This album was my number one most anticipated record of the year, and I wanted nothing more than to spend the afternoon and evening absorbing its songs and embedding them on the walls of my soul. But I couldn’t stand to stay in the sweltering house all evening, so I loaded these 11 songs onto my iPod (12, if you count “Blue Dahlia”) and drove to the beach three miles down the road. After a dive into the water, I sat at a picnic table in the mostly empty park and watched the sunset over the bay. Suddenly, that impossibly hot summer night felt remarkably beautiful, and these tunes only opened it up further. Songs like “45” and “Howl” were gargantuan anthems, ideal for the larger-than-life expectations I always had for my summers back when I was still in college and not working full-time yet. And as a nighttime chill started to steal into the air, letting me know that it was time to leave the beach and head back home, the album segued beautifully into the downbeat finale of “Mae” and “National Anthem.” Collectively, those songs told the story of that summer: driving fast to get to work on time; sneaking drinks from behind the bar with my coworkers after we closed up shop for the night; feeling the scorching hot nights give way to the almost autumnal vibes of late August evenings. It was the perfect soundtrack to my last summer of pure, unbridled freedom, and for those long, hot nights spent waiting for kingdom come with the radio on. [CM]
23. fun. – Some Nights
The Format, Nate Ruess’s former band, never got the traction and notoriety they deserved, at least not before the band disbanded after 2006’s stellar Dog Problems. Yet as lofty as Ruess’s goals were for The Format, even he must be a little bit surprised to call himself a Grammy award-winning artist. But with his second band, fun., Ruess captured the mainstream consciousness. “We Are Young,” the lead-off single from the band’s second album Some Nights, turned out to be a massive gateway drug into the talents of Ruess and his bandmates, Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost. In a lot of ways, fun.’s meteoric rise came from three great musicians paying their dues along the way, and putting in a ton of hard work to boot. Other songs on the record, such as the title track, “Carry On,” and “One Foot” all played a part in keeping fun. at the tip of everyone’s tongue throughout 2012 and 2013, and in allowing Some Nights to become one of the biggest success stories ever to come out of our scene. [AG]
24. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
25. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
I am not the right person to write a decade-encompassing view of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. I’m a middle-class white guy from the Tampa suburbs, which probably means that my experiences do not lend any kind of nuanced understanding to this rap epic about growing up in the drug and gang-filled streets of Compton. But, for so many reasons, it’s just as important for someone like me to have interacted with these songs as it is for the kids who grew up living these songs. Where Kendrick is informing me of what life is like for a large population of people, he is also sending a message to those hearing the lyrics from those same places: a message that says “You are not alone.” The power of art, and especially of storytelling, lies in that ability to connect. I’ll be honest: I was late to Kendrick. I’d heard “Swimming Pools (Drank)” on the radio, but that wasn’t enough to get me to delve in. But at the 2014 Grammy’s, during one of those manufactured “Grammy Moments,” Kendrick truly delivered a world-shattering performance by dropping a verse from “M.A.A.D. City” (the album’s gargantuan highlight) into the middle of Imagine Dragons “Radioactive.” I bought this album the next day.
The lyrical nuance and sheer rap talent of Kendrick cannot be denied. He flows from the angriest of deliveries to the softest with a deft touch, always clueing in to the listener when the bar he’s spitting requires just a little more attention that usual. The result is a rap album that is is equal parts memoir and call to action, equal parts freestyle and careful craft. It’s a masterpiece, made by an artist just beginning to conquer their game. [GL]
26. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface
Upon the release of Manchester Orchestra’s 2009 album, Mean Everything to Nothing, our own Jason Tate opened his review of the album with this line: “Quick note to the rest of the albums coming out this year: The bar has just been set.” In 2019, Mean Everything to Nothing is deemed a classic, which makes it all the more impressive that A Black Mile to the Surface, released eight years later, is not the definitive Manchester Orchestra album. It’s a cinematic concept album based on the old mining town of Lead, South Dakota—now the site of The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Throughout the album, Manchester Orchestra repeatedly reference this mysterious project taking place a mile underground. But frontman Andy Hull also finds time to turn inward, writing lullabies for his first child Mayzie alongside the concept of a family feuding over a mining empire, or a three-part story suite (“The Alien,” “The Sunshine” and “The Grocery”) about terror in a grocery store. To capture the epic scale of the album’s intertwining narratives, the music and production— impressively handled by Catherine Marks, John Congleton and Jonathan Wilson—needs to match. With A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra restrain themselves from going for their usual loudness without losing an ounce of intensity. The band add numerous overdubs, eerie electronics, and samples, as well as epic drum fills and even some quiet finger-picking to signal the calm before the storm.
Manchester Orchestra have always set high bars for themselves. Sometimes, their ideas don’t pan out, but I can’t say that about this record. I’d say that, just like Mean Everything to Nothing, A Black Mile to the Surface will be a hallmark of our rock music scene for years to come. [MV]
27. Adele – 21
In Australia, only four artists have consistently dominated the top of our album charts since 2011: Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Pink, and Adele. Really, it isn’t too surprising. Each artist writes inoffensive lyrics, which is perfect for the many busy parents who turn on the car radio for quick school trips. Even so, no one expected the mania of Adele’s second album, 21. The album defied expectations of her independent label, XL Recordings by becoming the world’s best-selling album for 2011 and 2012. How could it not be, when the first single released (and the first track on the album) is the unforgettable “Rolling in the Deep”? Here, Adele combined the soul influences of her debut album 19 with her newfound love for country and Southern blues. She lost inspiration halfway through the recording sessions, but returned eventually with fire in her soul and within her voice. Her songs, once simple but confessional, grew into songs as powerful as the characters she personified. “Set Fire to the Rain” is set to a D-minor key and chiefly keeps a focus on the piano, with Adele’s flawless vocal describing the contradicting experiences of a damaged relationship in which both partners find it impossible to let each other go.
For an album as raw as 21, finding the balance between dark and light is almost unmanageable. But Adele is up to the challeng, balancing charming wit with her stories of heartbreak, self-forgiveness, and moving on. She writes spectacular power ballads, with “Turning Tables” and “Someone Like You” being two of her best yet. And by the end of latter, she starts to find the light at the end of the tunnel. “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you,” she croons, finding freedom in being okay with herself and with her old lover. Detailing a fear we all have but struggle to convey, Adele imagines being 40 years old and seeing him again to find that he’d settled with a family, totally happy while she remains on her own. That’s an experience nobody wants, but “Someone Like You” still resonated with the world. So ultimately, the sales and awards don’t matter. The resonance of “Someone Like You,” or the sassy and booming “Rolling in the Deep,” or the acoustic take on The Cure’s “Lovesong,” those things explain why 21 continues to connect with millions of people across the world. [MV]
29. Noah Gundersen – Ledges
No other artist caught me more by surprise this decade than Noah Gundersen. My first listens to Ledges, his remarkable 2014 full-length debut, were electrifying. His honesty; the rawness of his voice; the intimacy of the arrangements; the way his lyrics found elegant ways to weave together topics like religion and sexuality and addiction and family and economic strife into a musical quilt that seemed as beautifully messy as life itself. I couldn’t believe there was an artist who sounded this open and this unadorned in 2014. Ledges could have been made in the midst of the 1960s folk scene, recorded at some small Greenwich Village studio and premiered for the audiences of The Gaslight Cafe. Instead, it somehow found its way into our lives half a century later. Gundersen would keep his penchant for surprising me throughout the decade, as he wandered away from that traditional folk approach toward more electric, eclectic, and experimental places. But to me, his masterwork will always be this record, where he proved that he could make a timeless classic with little more than an acoustic guitar and his own willingness to tell the whole damn truth. [CM]
29. Title Fight – Floral Green
When I started throwing together my Top 50 Albums of the Decade list, I didn’t know that Floral Green would wind up being my number one. Of course, I knew it would be there somewhere; Floral Green seemed to be one of those albums that was always there, a personal favorite I could fall back on anytime I struggled throughout college. I remember being blown away by “Head in the Ceiling Fan,” a monolithic slab of post-space rock that sounded like the furthest possible thing from Shed. I remember reading comments that it was “Hum worship,” and subsequently discovering Hum. In fact, if there’s anything that validates my undying love for this record, it’s the way I’ve witnessed it unite genre fans across the board over the past decade. Before every Run For Cover band was a grunge-revival band, before every hardcore band decided to become a mediocre shoegaze band, Title Fight had aspirations to be more than just a good punk band. Floral Green is a monster of a record that has something for every kind of alt-rock fan. There’s pit-inducing melodic hardcore anthems (“Secret Society”), a closing track that would make Nirvana blush (“In Between”), and one of the catchiest post-hardcore songs ever written (“Like a Ritual”). Will Yip’s production has long been a subject of debate, but never has it served a band better than it does here. Fiery guitars and a massive rhythm section lend to the intense vocal performances of Jamie Rhoden and Ned Russin, creating an album that plays like a live set. A decade later, songs like “Leaf” and “Calloused sound as heavy as ever.
Oh, and the lyrics? Floral Green may contain some of the bleakest portrayals of depression I’ve ever heard on record. “But did you know?/I held my breath through every tunnel/Wish I could get over this feeling of slipping under/I never get that far,” Russin sings on opening track “Numb, But I Still Feel It.” “I feel scared of knowing/I’m just a single lead in the wind blowing,” he continues on “Leaf.” Floral Green is not a relationship album; rather, the album tackles themes of grief, alienation, and the anxieties of growing up. Title Fight was always a band in good company, but they remained ahead of their time through the release of Hyperview in 2015, which unfortunately appears to be where the band has left things. But for those of us who remember hearing Floral Green for the first time? If you know, you know. [AM]
30. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
What we didn’t know when mewithoutYou released [Untitled] in 2018 was that it was their swan song. This year, they announced they would be disbanding, and to look back on the record now with that knowledge makes it fall satisfyingly into place. With each album they’ve made, it seems that mewithoutYou have been building to this one, with Aaron Weiss slowly pushing his lyricism into more esoteric and tightly-tangled places. Perhaps the more devoted fans the band accumulates, the more inclined they are to reward those fans for making the effort to really dig into an album.
The point being that [Untitled] sees mewithoutYou at their densest, the lyrical content like a thick underbrush to wade through if one wants to find the meaning. You almost get the feeling that one could devote real scholarly examination to this record if they had the time. As always, there’s obscure references to Bible verses and poems that, once you’re aware of the allusion, add yet more layers to dig through. There’s narratives, characters, and dialogues that don’t become clear unless you have a lyric sheet in front of you. This may sound like a drag to some, but it’s what mewithoutYou lovers thrive on, the opportunity to intellectualize on Weiss’s intentions and the introduction to new schools of thought (on spiritualism particularly, a topic Weiss writes on intelligently and fascinatingly enough to captivate even the staunchest atheist). And to those who aren’t interested in such deep study of the record, its brilliance isn’t lost either. On a purely musical level, this LP is likely mewithoutYou’s best, going to some of their most expansive and experimental places yet while also returning to the exhilarating heaviness of their earlier work in a way that’s been missing in their latter-day albums. For a band as dependably genuine as mewithoutYou have always been, it feels right that they end their discography on their best and most ambitious work yet. That they didn’t limit such a monumental piece of art, nor cap off their body of work with something wrapped in a neat bow, by giving it a title… well, that feels right, too. [MH]
31. Pianos Become the Teeth – The Lack Long After
2011 was a turning point for a lot of alternative music. The rumblings of the “emo revival” and the ripples of what some referred to as the “new wave” of screamo were just starting, with bands like Touché Amoré and La Dispute garnering a lot of attention. But it was Baltimore’s Pianos Become The Teeth that gripped this particular scene’s attention. Their second album, The Lack Long After—via then-upstart label Topshelf Records—dives into vocalist Kyle Durfey’s and his family’s life after his father’s death from multiple sclerosis. And tracks like “Spine” (“I watched her crawl in bed with you/I watched her wet your lips/And couldn’t do a God damned thing/I watched you shake/I watched our hearts break”) and the slow-burning colossal closer “I’ll Get By” (Durfey doesn’t succumb to the sadness during the song’s cathartic final moments, exclaiming, “It seems we all get sick/We all die in some no-name hospital/with the same colored walls/And I guess that’s fine/But I want to swallow/I want to stomach/I want to live!”) show that the heaviness of this record doesn’t only reside in the tightly-knit arrangements. Pianos Become The Teeth have grown as a band in unexpected ways, climbing to even higher heights and challenging listeners with their subsequent releases Keep You and Wait For Love. But The Lack Long After captured lightning in a bottle, influencing the next batch of acts while serving as a gateway for other bands to thrive over the past decade—all by seamlessly combining the visceral with the harrowing, and finding the optimism within the ugliness. [DB]
32. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
How exactly does one of the most talented bands of their generation top two already-stellar albums without making the same record over again? See A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships for the answer. Even after the spectacular decade The 1975 had, it was thrilling to hear this record record come blazing out of the gate with the abrasive guitar riffs found on “Give Yourself a Try,” or with the pure pop bliss of something like “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime.” Rounding out the album with some atmospheric moments in tracks like “How To Draw / Petrichor” or “The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme,” The 1975 show their versatility while also displaying their self-awareness about everything going on in the world around them. And despite the chaotic state of that world, The 1975 still find the need to contribute beautiful art back into it. Frontman Matty Healy has improved as a lyricist and songwriter on this record, a fact that allowed him and his bandmates to create a true album, rather than just a collection of songs that they “hoped” would fit together in the end. The songs flow beautifully from track to track, much like water finding its way through the rocks in a stream. The band’s vision has improved over each subsequent album, and the future still looks incredibly bright, with Notes on a Conditional Form set to kick off the next decade of the band’s existence in 2020. [AG]
33. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
The importance of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is reflected in it not just being one of the best punk albums of the decade, but it being one of the best albums, period, of the decade. As I was listening back to the album in preparation to write a few words about it, I found it as vibrant and vital as ever. This album has an unwavering stomp and conviction. It’s entirely in control as it propels the listener through ten tracks of spit and fire. It’s an album that holds a mirror to topics of importance, that asks of the listener to actively pay attention and participate in its messages, and one that often combines punk fury with melodic mastery. Five years after its release, I find the album as daring, successful, and essential as ever. [JT]
34. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The greatest redemption arc of the 2010s starts here, with a spartan progression of acoustic guitar chords. On first blush, “Cover Me Up” maybe doesn’t sound like the announcement of something. It’s quiet and patient and unassuming, in a way that makes you think the song and the album are going to be slow-burns. But the further you get into “Cover Me Up,” the more remarkable it becomes. “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff/Forever this time,” Isbell sings in the second verse—a line that never fails to elicit a deafening blast of cheers at live shows. But it was always the next lines that really kicked me in the gut: “And the old lovers sing, ‘I thought it’d be me who helped him get home/But home was a dream, one that I’d never seen/Until you came along.” It’s a song about finding the strength to stand up to your own demons and fight them, but it’s also about how you can sometimes only find that strength when you have something to fight for beyond yourself. There is no greater love song from the past 10 years, and no greater album opener. “Cover Me Up” seems to identify Southeastern as Isbell’s “sober record,” or maybe as his “falling in love” record. It is both and it is neither. Tracks like “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Traveling Alone” carry with them the weight of mistakes and the ability for love to trump those mistakes. But if Southeastern is a sober record or a love record, it’s less because all the songs are about those things and more because of what falling in love and then getting sober allowed Isbell to accomplish. On past albums, Isbell was always a sharp songwriter. You couldn’t listen to tracks like “Dress Blues” or “Alabama Pines” and think he was anything but a remarkable talent. But hearing Southeastern is like seeing Superman away from kryptonite for the first time. The way this album unlocks Isbell’s gifts as a melodist, and especially as a lyricist and storyteller, will never stop being remarkable to me. Songs like “Live Oak,” about a serial killer trying (and failing) to change his ways, or “Yvette,” about a teenage boy taking matters into his own hands to save a classmate being sexually abused by her father, deserve screenplay treatments. “Elephant,” about watching a friend succumb to cancer, is arguably the decade’s most devastating song. And “Relatively Easy” is a bittersweet and beautiful anthem that seems to say one thing (“Stop complaining; our lives are easy; lots of people have it way worse!”) but is really saying another (“You never know the battles that people are really facing every day”). In terms of pure songwriting, there is no better album from the past 10 years. [CM]
35. The Dangerous Summer – War Paint
When you’re young, you don’t just listen to music. You feel it in every fiber of your being. As you grow older, you maybe come to appreciate the nuances of music and songwriting and storytelling in new ways, which is its own kind of magic. But nothing can compare to when you’re 18 or 19 or 20 and clinging to music like it’s some version of the air you breathe. War Paint was one of the last albums I connected with in that way, and I’m not sure I ever needed music in that way more. I came into the summer of 2011 busted up and wondering where I wanted to go next in my life. I’d gone into college as a music major, but I was disenchanted and frustrated, wondering if I’d chosen the right path or just set myself up for failure and disappointment. That summer restored my faith in the power of music—for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of this album. From the moment it hit my computer hard drive in early July, I felt disinclined to play anything else. I spent so many scorching July days and so many muggy August nights blasting this album in my car or losing myself in its swell of sound over headphones. I loved every second of it. I was the lonely heart in need of an honest song in “No One’s Gonna Need You More,” or the guy making that heartfelt proclamation in “Siren”: “You’re the song I wrote that I’ll always love.” I still can’t listen to these songs, or hear the guitar chords, or even read the lyrics without feeling a flood of memories from that season—from the last time that I really called on music to save my life and it responded with an embarrassment of riches. Standing where I am now, War Paint isn’t my favorite album of the last 10 years—it’s not the best one, or the one that impacted my music taste most, or the one that I feel like will be regarded as a universal classic in 10 or 20 years. But I’d be lying if I said there was an album from this decade that meant more to me in the moment. [CM]
36. The Menzingers – After the Party
We’ve all laughed at the Twitter jokes about The Menzingers: about how they mostly write songs about smoking, drinking, and flirting with waitresses. And well, yes, the jokes are funny because they’re true. But what goes unspoken to all of us who hold The Menzingers close to our hearts is that that’s exactly why we do, that it’s all part of the world they create and pull us into. Listening to After the Party is like reading a novel, one that you slip into as if it’s the world you live in. In the bright colors of film photos, you conjure images of romantic escapades, of staying up all night, of smoking in chilly air. You become nostalgic for things that didn’t happen to you, you long for places you’ve never been. The Menzingers pull all of this off because of how carefully they craft their world. As frontman Greg Barnett sings in the album’s title track, “It’s the little things my mind commits to etch behind my eyelids.” These are the things he notes in his lyricism, the imagery that coalesces into memory: police lights flashing in the rearview mirror; Julie from the Wonder Bar, standing at the back of the smoke-filled diner; the jean jackets, the road trips to Asbury Park or back to Philly. Barnett looks back on it all with that familiar combination of fondness and sadness, effectively creating an ode to his 20s as he looks ahead to the adult anxieties of his 30s. [MH]
37. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
When we think about popular music, we think about the universal themes that tie us all together—most commonly, love and heartbreak. But grief can be an even stronger emotion. Oftentimes, the songs that stick with us, the ones that hit us where it hurts, are those that explain that unavoidable pain we all experience. LOSE, the third album from Staten Island’s Cymbals Eat Guitars, is a meditation on grief, but not exactly in the ways you’d expect. In fact, one of the album’s most gut-wrenching tracks, “XR,” sounds more like a celebration than a eulogy. “Here I am again at Ben’s Myspace grave/And then out of nowhere, the smell of his basement/Where we watched Faces of Death, and we regretted it,” sings frontman Joseph D’Agostino, against a wall of frantic drums, fuzzed-out guitars, and harmonica. Later, while mourning the loss of a childhood friendship on the equally stunning “Child Bride,” D’Agostino’s vocal melody and instrumentation change into a lullaby of sorts, underlined by the singer’s imperfect falsetto. These walls of sound and pop sensibilities become recurring sonic themes through LOSE. The band possess the remarkable ability to create lush soundscapes reminiscent of former labelmates Death Cab for Cutie, while also going toe to toe with the energy of their peers in bands like Japandroids and Cloud Nothings. The band would continue to explore this grief on 2016’s ethereal follow-up Pretty Years, but for the majority of its runtime, LOSE opts to sound grounded, organic. It succeeds in being a concise, nine-track that explores a variety of styles and subject matter. D’Agostino references substance abuse throughout, from a rollercoaster ride on Klonopin (“Jackson”) to the cold night out detailed on the gorgeously constructed album highlight, “Chambers.” Front to back, LOSE is a filler-free exercise in songwriting that is equal parts honest and experimental, marking the album not only as Cymbals Eat Guitars’ landmark release, but cementing them as one of the best indie-rock artists of the 2010s. [AM]
38. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Whenever If Ever
There’s a particular moment on The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s 2013 debut album that always stops me in my tracks. It’s halfway through the intimate “Gig Life” when the music starts to swell and Thomas Diaz calmly sings, “I stared out at a lake off the highway in the West Virginia mid-day and it was perfect. Not sure where I’ll be next, maybe Texas or Athens, OH, Philadelphia, PA. Now it’s just Rival Schools and mewithoutYou on our car rides.” It’s a gracefully sad moment. It’s also one of the final songs Diaz, who unexpectedly passed away in 2018, wrote as a member of the band. And it’s disguised within the band’s penchant for creating music that’s peppy and uplifting. It is, in summation, the perfect summary for the incredible paradox that is The World Is A Beautiful Place.
Whenever, If Ever is full of moments like that, each one meaning something completely different to all its listeners. When I think of the scene or the emo revival or whatever nonsense you want to classify it as, this is the record that defines the past era of music I love. TWIABP carried an aura and a defiance to whatever was expected of them. From the way the band handled its social presence to selling utensils inscribed with download links of its entire discography to releasing an EP with spoken word artist Chris Zizzamia, TWIABP were always creating what they wanted to release into this fucked up world.
Whenever, If Ever exudes an amazing sense of wisdom and confidence for a debut album. Here is a band so sure of itself and its vision that it created an uncompromising collection of songs that challenges and uplifts the listener synchronously. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s something that TWIABP succinctly summed up over six years ago toward the end of this album’s seven-minute closing grand opus “Getting Sodas”: “Whenever you find home, we’ll make it more than just a shelter/And if everyone belongs there, it will hold us all together/If you’re afraid to die, then so am I.” It’s a message that still rings true today. [DB]
39. Touche Amore – Stage Four
“I haven’t found that courage to listen to your last message to me.” Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm reveals that tidbit toward the end of the blistering “New Halloween,” the second track on his band’s 2016 album, Stage Four. The line gives insight into the weight Bolm was carrying while writing and recording this album after the passing of his mother. Stage Four is about trying to figure how to exist in a world where a loved one no longer does, about finding strength in the darkest moments. Its eleven tracks chronicle the most vulnerable and fragile moments of the past few years in Bolm’s life. He reckons with the guilt he battles everyday (“Flowers And You”) and his struggles with faith (“Displacement”), all the while remembering the impact his mother had on his life (“Skyscraper”). Weaving through many influences (including indie rock staples The National, the late Leonard Cohen, and genre heavy hitters like Converge and La Dispute), Stage Four covers the various stages of grief through a non-linear timeline of Bolm’s last two years.
This record finds a new way to move me every time I spin it. Whether it’s Bolm’s shaky-strong scream of “I haven’t recovered” that punctuates the end of “Water Damage” or the somber sprawl crafted by guitarists Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens on “Benediction,” this is an album that has shot Touché Amoré beyond the genre of hardcore and into a very exciting future. But more than that, it’s one of those records that connects beyond just the music, and that’s why it’ll be remembered as one of the most personal and vital records of the past decade. It is an honest showcase of the messy and confusing journey of losing someone while simultaneously discovering the catharsis and clarity that emerges in the aftermath. [DB]
40. PUP – The Dream Is Over
When Stefan Babcock tore his vocal cords to shreds from relentless touring on PUP’s self-titled debut record, his doctor told him four immortal words: The Dream Is Over. Doc was wrong, of course, and in typical sneering PUP fashion, Babcock used those very words to title the record’s follow-up. Where PUP had already started crafting their brand of reckless punk with that debut, The Dream Is Over kicked it into glorious nuclear meltdown. Babcock tears into his exes, his friends, and himself with gleeful fury, leaving trails of destruction in his wake. He paints himself as a fuck-up who drinks too much on “DVP,” gives a middle finger to music industry bullshit on “Familiar Patterns,” and on “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” he lets the bubbling tensions of tour explode as he promises to murder his own bandmates.
The extensive time spent on the road before the making of this album is abundantly evident in how the band plays together. It’s virtuoso, complex stuff, impeccably tight and intuitively put together, while still retaining all of its punk ferocity. Babcock pushes those injured vocal cords to their frenzied limits while the music churns and pounds behind him, a carefully-controlled chaos. The record cemented PUP as the best punk rock band on the planet, and for good reason. It sees them honing the promise they had already showed on their debut into one incredibly potent blast, and if you’ve ever seen any song from this record live you’ll know that tenfold. [MH]
41. The Maine – Lovely Little Lonely
The Maine could probably have been completely happy just making albums that satisfied their fanbase and allowed for a modest amount of success along the way. On Lovely Little Lonely, though, the band “upped their game” in every imaginable way, creating a work of art that is not only melodically catchy, but also relevant, cutting edge, and true to who The Maine have always been as artists. “Bad Behavior” is driven by vintage The Maine-style riffs, while “Black Butterflies and Deja Vu” marks a transition in a more atmospheric direction. Together, these songs show a band that was realizing their full potential for all to hear on Lovely Little Lonely, and in turn creating a record that is truly masterful. It’s an album that flows perfectly from track to track, with no filler and many moments of pure clarity in their artistic purpose. For instance, each “chapter” of the record ends with an interlude that bears a piece of the album title, starting with “Lovely” and marking (almost) the end of the story with “Lonely.” Not to be outdone as a conclusion to the record, “How Do You Feel?” provides a propulsive end note that left fans wanting more from this clearly reinvigorated band. That next chapter proved to be thrilling too, with 2019’s You Are OK serving as a major statement about the versatility and longevity of the band. But Lovely Little Lonely remains their most beloved work, in part because it is their most complete. [AG]
42. Bleachers – Strange Desire
Jack Antonoff’s fingerprints are all over this decade’s musical landscape. From Steel Train in 2010, to fun.’s dominance in 2012, to his debut Bleachers album in 2014, to all of the production work he’s done over the last five years, Antonoff has helped create and shape some of the most memorable songs of the decade. But through all of it, I’m still most drawn to this first Bleachers’ release. It’s a combination of all the things that Antonoff does so well, but maximized to their logical conclusion. It’s creative and quirky and packed to the brim with hooks and melody. It can almost be studied like a blueprint for modern pop-production, and yet it still features little off-beat intricacies and flourishes where you’d never expect them. It’s only real flaw is setting the bar so high that subsequent work will forever be judged against this debut. [JT]
43. Deafheaven – Sunbather
The bright pink cover that adorns Deafheaven’s Sunbather is disarming, giving off a calming sense of warmth despite the callous sting that comes from futilely chasing life’s cruel idea of grandeur. The San Francisco (then) duo’s second full-length is escapism to the extreme. Eloquently blending black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze, Sunbather takes all of its immense beauty, ferocity, and fear and expertly channels it into one of the most personal and harrowing listening experiences of the past ten years. Songs like “Dream House” and the title track highlight Kerry McCoy’s fluid guitar work and serve as the perfect backdrop for George Clarke’s heartbreaking lyrics and banshee yells. Clarke is painting a picture here of overwhelming sorrow within the pursuit of perfection, paced by McCoy’s soaring and exotically-layered guitar work. The record’s most lasting passage happens towards the end of “Dream House,” perfectly encapsulating the record’s soul: ”’I’m dying.’/Is it blissful?/’It’s like a dream.’/I want to dream.”
Black metal has always lurked in the shadows of the music industry, but Deafheaven’s Sunbather put the genre on critics’ and casual listeners’ radars in a big way (to the dismay of some hardcore genre fans), ultimately serving as sort of a gateway into this harsh-yet-beautiful style of music. Looking back, it can’t be understated how important this record is—not only to Deafheaven, as it propelled their career to levels they probably never imagined, but also in terms of how Sunbather showcased that music this ugly can also be so incredibly beautiful. [DB]
44. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
“Changed the game with that digital drop. Know where you was when that digital popped. I stopped the world.” Without any promotional singles or prior notice, Beyoncé dropped her career-altering album at midnight on a Thursday. The music industry was in flux due to the digital revolution and the relevance of the album declining. Beyoncé took in this landscape and revolutionized the definition of an album—and almost went platinum in three days—by combining her three iconic talents: voice, genre fluctuation, and music videos. Beyoncé is simultaneously a feminist manifesto and an in-depth look at all the phases and stages of love. From “Pretty Hurts” to the amplification of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Feminist” speech in “Flawless,” Beyoncé explains the ways that being a woman in the public eye has made Beyoncé who she is today. We get glimpses into her feelings on motherhood (“Blue”), which we now know has influenced her stepping forward as role model and leader in these political, racially charged times. Without Blue Ivy, I don’t know that we have Beyoncé challenging the status quo of the album, or the world.
The true coup of this album, though, is just how damn enticing Beyoncé makes monogamy sound. “Drunk In Love,” “Mine,” and “Rocket” make her relationship with Jay-Z sound like the sexiest thing ever recorded in music. Where “Jealous” gives us a brief glimpse into the relational tragedy that would become Lemonade, “XO” ascends into the pantheon alongside “1+1” (found on 2011’s underrated Four) as one of her best love songs. Neither are out of place. I would also be remiss to ignore two career highlights on this album: “Haunted” and “Partition.” In “Haunted,” you believe for those few minutes that Beyoncé truly lives that 9-to-5 grind alongside you. With “Partition,” there honestly aren’t adequate words for how sexy this song is. She spits verses harder than her husband and then pulls back the veil on their relationship, letting us know precisely just how in love they are.
“Are you happy with yourself? Yes.” Beyoncé asks and answers to start off the album. Seven years later, having cemented herself as one of the three biggest icons of the decade, you have to believe that despite everything—see Lemonade—she truly is. [GL]
45. Mitski – Be The Cowboy
Following the release of two heavy, guitar-led albums—2014’s Bury Me at Make Out Creek and 2016’s Puberty 2—fans of Mitski Miyawaki’s classical-piano-infused roots grew concerned. While it took a little while to return to the sounds Mitski began with, though, but the result was well worth the wait. 2018’s Be the Cowboy not only signifies her return to the piano, but the songs also mark new departures from her Pixies-like guitar rock. Most notably, Mitski introduces a brand-new character—a swaggering cowboy—that’s simply magnificent to witness. In just 33 minutes, Mitski veers from a bombastic organ-led rock song (“Geyser”) to an unanticipated trip down disco lane (“Nobody”) to the bleakest manifestation of grief when losing time (“Two Slow Dancers”). More often than not, Mitski portrays herself as a woman in control. However, throughout Be the Cowboy, she’s threatening to burst at the seams if the loneliness in her soul doesn’t dissipate.
At the end of 2018, Be the Cowboy was lauded one of the very finest albums of the year. Seemingly overnight, Mitski went from being my artist to everyone’s artist. By embodying her own character, she became a relatable figure to all her listeners. Mitski turned standard yet electrifying confessional indie rock into a new, special kind of storytelling that solidifies her as one of the most vital artists of the 2010s. [MV]
46. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
The ’59 Sound was an album about growing up. It was an album about seizing the wheel and taking control of your life after years spent in the wonderful fever dream of youth. American Slang is an album about actually being grown up. It’s about how the world looks different when you’re driving the car rather than just riding in the backseat. But that doesn’t mean your youth just vanishes. One of the great myths of adulthood is that you eventually reach some inflection point where you start feeling “mature,” or “responsible,” or like you “have it all figured out.” The great wisdom of American Slang is in how it recognizes that no such moment exists. Instead, we’re all out here faking it, doing our best while trying not to think too much about the way things used to be. But the “used to bes” somehow always find their way back to you: in the form of old records and old cars and old haunts. And so Brian Fallon spends this album waxing poetic about the past—even though he knows it’s not coming back. “But you’re never gonna find it/Like when you were young and everybody used to call you lucky,” he sings early on. That’s the thing about youth: every adult you ever meet tells you to cherish it, to treat it like the gift it is, and no one ever listens. If only we could have the wisdom of experience with the impossible freedoms of innocence. The fact that we can’t is a timeless tragedy, and it’s the skin and bones of this album. As Springsteen once sang, “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” American Slang takes that one lyric and blows it up into a modern epic worthy of its grandiose, impressive title. [CM]
47. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
As I look back on the fantastic work of art that is Channel ORANGE, I’ve come to a realization: Frank Ocean deserves all the accolades. By handling a lot of the production and writing of this album himself, Frank made what is through-and-through an artist’s record. The album features everything from soul to funk, jazz to R&B. Even rap production elements are thrown carefully into the mix. Plus, it surely didn’t hurt to have A-list contributions from artists such as Tyler, The Creator, Andre 3000, and John Mayer here, too. The history of music is littered with classic or near-classic debut records from artists that quickly flame out or never really catch their footing after such a memorable opening. Luckily for us, Frank Ocean has continued to challenge himself both stylistically and artistically in the years since—especially on the the proper follow-up, Blonde—and has only further established himself as an A-lister in his own right. As good as the five singles are that were released from Channel ORANGE—gems like “Thinkin’ Bout You” and “Pyramids”—what’s most impressive is that Frank Ocean blessed his label and his fans with an album that balances hooks with truly adventurous songwriting. Channel ORANGE not only challenges the listener to absorb every nook and cranny of Frank Ocean’s creation, but also serves as a perfect time stamp on everything that was going on in the world during the summer of 2012. For those reasons and more, we can all look back upon this record very fondly. [AG]
48. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
Having lived in the South my entire life, I’ve always been the “emo kid” conversant in country music. At some point, Kenny Chesney’s meteoric rise predicated an entire genre shift to the pop-driven, bombastic bro-country that seemed to dominate country radio for most the decade, despite the thriving traditionally-leaning revival taking place among artists like Kacey Musgraves in the latter half of the decade. It got to the point where country was no longer a genre of outlaw crooners and backroad renegades, but instead of barnyard dance parties, drinking on the beach, and vapid (if catchy) “southern life” anthems that don’t represent anything about actual southern life. Enter Chris Stapleton. Traveller is a record that instantly takes me back to riding in my dad’s beat-up Ford Ranger listening to the music of Hank Williams (senior and junior) or even Stevie Ray Vaughn. It was the first album in years that caused me to pick up the phone and call dad to ask, “Have you heard this? You need to hear this.” The first five songs, from the titular “Traveller” to the downbeat “Whiskey and You,” may be the best five song run of any album in the decade. They’re songs destined for road trip playlists for the next few decades (at minimum), with vocal delivery as pitch-perfect and soulful as most artists ever dream of reaching. An album beloved by critics almost instantly but without any grip in country’s mainstream, Traveller exploded following a fateful performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” alongside Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMAs (where the LP also won Album of the Year). It went on to sell almost 300,000 copies in the next two weeks, and has sold millions more copies since. Equal parts genuine and necessary in country’s current sonic landscape, Stapleton found a hold balancing a nostalgic sound with a modern delivery that allowed him to rise above his peers. If you haven’t yet, pour yourself a glass of whiskey and hit play; you won’t regret it. [GL]
49. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Upside Down Flowers
Normally, I equate nostalgia with fondness. While there’s always a bittersweet tilt to looking back on memories with friends you don’t see much anymore—or with friends who you haven’t even spoken with in years—it’s still easy to recall those good times and smile. But recently, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream about people who aren’t in my life anymore, and it filled me with this starkly lonely existential dread. For the first time, I felt like I was…getting old? Upside Down Flowers is an album for that specific moment in your life. It’s about nostalgia and memory and the past, and how they can all affect your present in positive and negative ways. There is nothing wrong with holding onto things in your heart and your soul even after they’ve gone. We all cling to those things: to hometowns and lost loved ones and friends that exited the frame of our lives. But there also comes a time when it’s important to recognize the way that nostalgia—that viewing the past through rose-colored glasses—might negatively impact your present. The thing about time is that it’s a one-way highway with no option to take an off ramp and turn around. So we can look back and reminisce, but if you spend too much time doing that, it can start to fill you with the same sense of existential dread that I felt that night. There’s no way back to the person you used to be. There’s no way back to the loved ones who aren’t living anymore, or to friendships that you let wither and fall by the wayside. The only option, sometimes, is to keep driving. This album both fights against that concept and embraces it. “House in the Trees,” for instance, is a poignant and agonizing song about all the things you never got to say to the people you care about when you had the chance. But then there’s “Everything Must Go,” which revels in the letting go and the moving on. “I know it’s hard to say goodbye,” Andrew sings, as he divests himself of worldly positions and the memories they carry. But he knows it’s for the best: “It don’t matter as long as you’re mine/Let’s go, let’s fly.” [CM]
50. The Hotelier – Goodness
- [JT]: Jason Tate
- [CM]: Craig Manning
- [DB]: Drew Beringer
- [AA]: Anna Acosta
- [AM]: Aaron Mook
- [MV]: Mary Varvaris
- [MH]: Mia Hughes
- [ZD]: Zac Djamoos
- [AG]: Adam Grundy
- [GL]: Garrett Lemons