It’s strange that a twenty-year-old has seemingly been through it all. Julien Baker sings and plays with such confidence and writes about such harrowing circumstances that it’s easy to forget she was barely out of her teens when recording Sprained Ankle. Eight guitar songs and one piano track are all it takes to convey Baker’s rock bottom. Sprained Ankle was recommended to me by a dear friend shortly after I had hit rock bottom in my life. It’s hard to even articulate what this album did for me emotionally. It’s like salt into wounds except that’s exactly what you need. Much of the subject matter here is Christian related which normally does nothing for me, but Baker’s blunt lyricism and blunt songwriting have me singing along like I’m in the pews at church. Julien Baker says what she means and says it loudly. Sparse arrangements and forthcoming lyrics allow Baker to get straight to the point and get you completely broken down in just over thirty-three minutes. She could offer an emotional cleansing service with this album. Go ahead and cry the next time you spin Sprained Ankle; it’s all right, everybody does. –Trebor.
Trouble Will Find Me is the first The National album following what I conceive of as their contiguous trilogy and it finds them at a low ebb, cigarette lit moments before the taxi arrives, missing last call at their locals by minutes, being told “you’re so intelligent” with the “so why are you fucking this up?” left unspoken. “You’re fireproof… I wish I was that way” sighs Matt Berninger. Elsewhere he’s even more blunt: he’s “going through an awkward phase.” Life satisfaction for our quintet is proving, well, hard to find.
If I were to identify what distinguishes Trouble Will Find Me from its forebears, the Alligator/Boxer/High Violet trifecta, it’s a lack of façade. The mask has been dispensed with, the masquerade relocated to the park with the other white girls, everyone visible to the point of anonymity. Existential terror and navigating the treacherous waters of young adulthood were, if not always joyous, always thrilling, even exhilarating. There’s none of that here. The familiar, almost archetypical pithy one-liners, thankfully, could grace a prefix box judiciously and there are an abundance to choose from (“I am secretly in love with / everyone I grew up with”, “shiny baubles hang above me it’s a sign that someone loves me” and “they say love is a virtue don’t they?” spring to mind.)
But in lieu of a mien that rendered twentysomething panic with vim and vigour and some of the best drumming in the genre, we have added nuance. To wit: the gorgeous, blind-and-you-miss it upswung guitar on Hard to Find; the Eno-esque electronics which subtlety underlie “I need my girl”; the markedly different singing tonalities on “don’t swallow the cap”. Trouble Will Find Me might not be their most propulsive record, but it makes a convincing case of being their most overtly gorgeous. That later experiments in a similar vein didn’t quite work is irrelevant: Trouble Will Find Me is less a bridging record than its own beautiful beast, introducing new elements while not dispensing entirely with what made them so wondrous and thrilling in the first place. Their fourth masterwork in a row and proof they could evolve their sound: a welcome inclusion in a decade where bands cleaved to the familiar to dispiriting results. Only The National. –Winesburgohio
Pop 2 is popular music by self-made outcasts, the disenfranchised who found reprieve in the safe spaces of mainstream molds whose exuberance and vitality is drawn from their lifeblood. Charli XCX has always had a complicated relationship with a larger audience, a disconnect widened by her inclination to detail darker impulses and how they inform her musical choices. Even mega-hit “I Love It” (feat. Icona Pop; don’t get it twisted) is characterized by an anarchic spirit that is fully realized on the exquisite, PC Music-aided Pop 2. Here is a fraught utopia of progressive queer inclusion and the careening emotional free fall of drug-induced euphoria and until-I-come love, music that redresses the very neon-soaked club dancefloor to which it ushers us forth. Seized by the freedom of calling your major studio-assisted masterpiece a mixtape, Pop 2 emerges as a smart and frank exploration of workaholic neuroses and the necessary heartbreak of the rich and famous. Just incredible production choices for 41 straight minutes. Ten of the decade’s best pop songs, period. –plane
Sad that I’ll never again feel The Wild Hunt‘s warmth. What it meant to me as a teenager, walking home from school in the late afternoon. Escaping rain in the winter, magpies in the summer. The Tallest Man on Earth is I think what got me into music. As with Bon Iver, though, its influence on me has been replaced by dreams or memories of making friends with the birds and the raindrops, imagining the land as it must have been before — as though the main road were superimposed onto it, rather than having replaced it entirely.
It’s turning cold where I am, and summer’s just ended. I’ve never been so tired. The Wild Hunt has, despite what I’d hoped, lost its charm. I don’t feel the chill I did as a kid hearing Mattson cuss on “You’re Going Back”. Not an enrapturing warmth from the nostalgic, piano-driven “Kids on the Run”, nor a sense of frantic, spirited adventure from “King of Spain”.
Yes, I’m far more likely nowadays to find comfort in The Tallest Man on Earth’s later albums, not least 2019’s I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream.. But The Wild Hunt is, of course, where the decade began. To return to it in 2020 feels a bit wrong, even if it was staff’s top album of 2010 (according to the album’s scant Wikipedia page); even for those for whom the album has lost its initial spark, though, The Wild Hunt remains testament to a time where sad, chilling, wintery folk had the cultural capacity to engage and charm and enchant and my God do I miss this album and thank you Kristian Mattson for what you have achieved. —BlushfulHippocrene
You don’t have to like it, but Sunbather is one of the important metal albums of at least the last decade. But you should like it. And if you don’t, it might be worth examining why. It’s the pinkish hue of the cover, isn’t it? If yes, just imagine instead that Sunbather‘s backdrop is, I don’t know, some fucking chud swinging a sword in the forest, or like, a giant castle full of racists. There, problem solved.
Consider the following: if we can laud seminal black metal albums like Nattens Madrigal for manufacturing the genre’s mythology, we should also credit Deafheaven for eschewing it. Most of black metal’s best orthodoxy was written and released before this site’s user base was born; Burzum’s first four proper albums were recorded within a year of one another, and 1992 was a long fucking time ago.
While Sunbather isn’t the first black metal album to “innovate” with shoegaze, it certainly made the dweebs on Metal Archives the maddest. If that endorsement isn’t strong enough, just listen to the fucking thing. It crossed into the mainstream in ways Wolves in the Throne Room couldn’t not only because the band isn’t staffed by complete and utter weirdos, but because the songs fucking rip. And if you look past the fact that their on-stage aesthetic consists of a bunch of ringers in Drake shirts and a vocalist who stalks the stage like he’s the Phantom of the Opera, you’re left with 59 minutes of era-defining (mostly) black metal. Throughout, the guitars are suffocating, the kind of dynamic characteristic you get when your album doesn’t sound like it was recorded using empty soup cans and telephone wire. The guitars swallow the listener whole, building up a wall of sound that can only be pierced by Clarke’s penetrating, throat-shredding shrieks. Sunbather‘s an album that flaunts its negative space, creating the kind of unique atmosphere that has made classics out of the genre’s more forward-thinking acts. The best black metal, and often the best music, is a reflection of its environments. It doesn’t make sense for a band largely rooted in California to emulate the prescriptive frostbitten bullshit that masks so many shitty albums we’ve pretended to love over the years. Instead, Sunbather is as dynamic as the San Francisco valley; it’s disruptive, with peaks and valleys and enough Pitchfork coverage to make venture capitalists pretend they discovered it.
You could argue that Sunbather isn’t Deafheaven’s best album. You could even argue that it isn’t a great album — it’s an argument you’d lose, but you’re welcome to have it. But you can’t argue its influence and importance. It didn’t blaze the trail so much as it set it on fire, and its influence in breathing new life into a genre that was desperate to exist outside of the confines of an early 90s movement is only matched by its overall quality. Plus, the album art is good, actually. –Tyler
The sheer majesty of a record like 2018’s Golden Hour is almost beyond reproach. Almost.
I think, in the most subjective and least appropriate way I can muster, and at the not insignificant risk of betraying my colleagues who placed this album highly on their lists (as I myself did), that Golden Hour is simultaneously Kacey’s: (a) Training Day Oscar; (b) 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Nomination; and (c) 1986 World Series win. That is to say, it’s: (i) a fantastic work in its own right, but one that is clearly boosted by the artist’s superior offerings that came before; (ii) an appeal to palatability at the expense of any meaningful evolution; and (iii) still yet, inexplicably, and despite all of the foregoing, a truly legendary victory.
I’ll leave my ridiculous analogies behind get to the music, but also will note that this blurb was once significantly longer, and filled with idiotic musings about whether it was a good thing for people to invoke vanilla folk garbage when talking about a record from Musgraves, an artist whose place in Country Music has always been a topic of precarious contention (spoiler: I did not consider it a good thing). Regardless, Golden Hour is an atmospheric experience, and one that truly invokes the idea of being alone with a sprawling and boundless sky, at a time when the border between worlds blurs, and one might find oneself in an encounter something unexpected. On “High Horse,” one of the record’s most delightful surprises, Musgraves displays a deft mastery of disco-pop perkiness. Elsewhere, standout tracks like “Space Cowboy” and “Lonely Weekend” boast the same heartfelt authenticity one might expect from Musgraves, and both really drive home the notion that there is a genuine and resilient beauty in way that humans cope. The essence of Golden Hour is most profoundly distilled on the album’s closer and best track, “Rainbow”, a celebration of the sublime phenomena we sometimes take for granted. I actually think that, after meditating on this record once again, I’m finally ready to take her advice—to (once things finally settle down and it’s safe to go outside again) step out, step back, and breathe deeply. And, for whatever its worth, Denzel was actually sick in Training Day. –theacademy
When I think of Go Farther in Lightness, I think ‘life-affirming’. This isn’t necessarily a compliment. Life-affirming is advertisements for shiny cars and package holidays and health insurance. Life-affirming is memorable slogans which we chuck at our sad friends to keep them from burdening us with their sadness. Life-affirming is Tony Robbins. It’s an easy sell because we want to buy it. We want to believe there’s a reason to go on getting up in the morning, especially when we feel like the reins on life have been stolen away from us and everything is falling apart. And this is why Go Farther in Lightness rubbed me the wrong way on its first few plays. It sagged under the weight of its inspirational grandeur, fists clenched and raised and pumping with every climactic build, every orchestral sweep, every earnest croon from the lungs of frontman Le’aupepe.
So why am I now writing about it as one of the best albums of the decade? I think it has something to do with authenticity. The reason I’ve been able to come back again and again to Go Farther in Lightness is that, with every playback, it provides another demonstration that it’s earned the right to be called life-affirming. That’s not just because of Le’aupepe’s story, but because he has repeatedly lowered himself into the well (his being much darker and deeper than that of others) so as to drag out the sludge necessary to make this album more than just a fleeting high. The orchestral elements that once seemed overblown go onto feel mature and deftly selected. The quiet-loud dynamic that once seemed manipulative goes onto sound like a genuine reflection of Le’aupepe’s interior struggle. And then there are the lyrics. Initially saccharine beermat poetry, with time they reveal layers of depth that could only have been acquired via an ugly wrestle with the beast they call life. You can see this in the way Le’aupepe takes the beast on from various different angles, defanging it with irreverence, battering it with fury, lulling it with gratitude, enduring it with irony, and finally toppling it with transcendence (until, inevitably, it rises again). These are lessons, borne from experience, and they are why this record succeeds. The life-affirming vein that runs deep within Go Farther in Lightness is not inspirational. It’s instructional. –Matt Wolfe
Dan Bejar has always had a way with words. Bejar has also had a way of finding new ways of inserting his stream-of-consciousness personae into his music, whether it be the oft-mentioned (and an object of Bejar’s bitter reminiscence) ‘Christine White’, a woman often out of reach yet always somehow the cause of Bejar’s troubles; or the various songs where Bejar often takes upon the persona of the man looking from the outside in, constantly referring to ‘You’ as himself as opposed to those listening to him. By the time Kaputt hit the shelves, Bejar’s newfound muse was yacht rock. Very much so, to the point where all pretenses of Destroyer being a rock band were all out the back door; so in came the trappings of the classic yuppie genre – funky rhythms, lush arrangements, and an arresting, but, unsettling sensuality that gives Kaputt an undeniable edge despite its very relaxed and spaced-out, coke-fueled atmosphere.
Throughout Kaputt, much like any other Destroyer record, you meet a wide variety of society’s rejects and odds and ends, the burnouts, the spinsters, Bejar involving himself in their stories so much to a point where you’d almost think he’s singing about himself; whether it’s from the point of view of the lonely loser daydreaming of pursuing women and cocaine, as well as the ever-distant ideal of becoming a star: “Sounds, Smash Hits / Melody Maker, NME / All sounds like a dream to me” in “Kaputt”; or of the struggling black artist that fears themselves being eaten up by the harsh realities of New York City in “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, opining in tear-drenched frustration “Four more years / Four more years / Four hundred more years of this shit, fuck it”. Bejar simply cannot hide behind his ol’ faithful known as sarcasm this time around and he knows it, forgoing intentionally impressionistic lyrical exercises in futility for more human (and more relatable) tales of failure.
That is, not all encompassing, when mentioning Bejar’s ultimate triumph: “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”. A song that takes up an entire third of Kaputt, “Bay of Pigs” traverses through an ethereal sea of synth before discovering its groove, Bejar lethargically coming to after a drunken evening, hellbent on self-destruction, as his home lies in ruins. Drawing out each and every line, the last more slurred than the other, Bejar finally explodes into a classic Destroyer tangent, one Kaputt desperately needed – his source of anger comes from many places: from his own failings in love, the elusive muse ‘Christine White’, or the idea of running from one’s problems, to name a few. Littered with disco chic and Bejarian lyricism rife with constant runs of vignettes with no relation: the tales of journeying through the desert, of throwing up in English gardens, of being 20 years old in 1992, “Bay of Pigs” encompasses everything that makes Destroyer such an important band, and more importantly, what makes Kaputt such an important album.
Despite the misgiving some have for Bejar shunning the template that made Kaputt such a rousing change of pace, it in turn set the path for what was the most rewarding and creatively intriguing decade of Destroyer, even at the cost of being overlooked for not following what was perceived by many to be the golden standard, the record where everything fell in place. It only further emphasizes Dan Bejar’s refusal to stay in one place for too long, being the maverick of indie rock that he is. –Frippertronics
For most people, Get Disowned sounds like rough indie fodder. Unlike the slick albums Hop Along would go on to produce, their proper debut is imperfect and scrappy. Sure, I hear it. Francis Quinlan’s voice is a little ragged and the production is dodgy. But to me, Get Disowned is a defining album, one irrevocably attached to a time and place, be it either good or bad.
Fall 2012 was a very weird time in my life but for whatever reason Get Disowned was its soundtrack. The hopeless “Diamond Mind” escorted me through intoxicated nights while the bouncy “Kids on the Boardwalk” invigorated me in those hazy mornings. Quinlan and company know how to speak to a dozen different feelings at once: “Tibetan Pop Stars”, a song Mark Hoppus once called “the most painfully beautiful song ever”, is both a funny fist-pumping banger and a referendum on a dead-end relationship. It’s a bizarre coat of many colors that can be devastating but fun, supplemented by Quinlan’s signature non-sequitur storytelling. And while those stories are impossibly unique to her, in some way they became part of mine. –Eli K.
I advise anyone young or jaded enough to know who Bomb the Music Industry! is – and thus to be reading this blurb with any amount of interest – to always keep a copy of Vacation on deck for long train/bus/car rides when there’s nothing to do but stare out the window at the rolling scenery. It’s as perfect as albums come in any scenario – I even shelled out for a vinyl copy, which considering it was probably mastered on GarageBand after a few showerbeers is genuinely funny – but you haven’t truly experienced this album until you’ve experienced it in between destinations, between life experiences you don’t quite understand or know how to deal with. My fellow staffers clearly have not done this enough, judging by the low position of Vacation on our list; 21 isn’t too shabby, but my campaign to get this album to the spot of #1 has everything to do with that bus ride I spent spinning it over and over in my headphones, red-faced either from the tears or from restraining myself from belting “NOTHING’S FOREVER DUDE” at my fellow passengers, allowing Vacation to work its magic on my nowhere-nothing-dead-end life.
So even though Vacation begins with a piano figure closer to Coldplay than the 8-bit punk Bomb the Music Industry! began with, every musical detour on the album is justified by the sheer quality of the songwriting and Jeff Rosenstock’s inimitable everyman passion. A painful, excoriating singalong like “The Shit that You Hate” sits comfortably alongside a banger like “Hurricane Waves” or the softer, more introspective “Can’t Complain” like there’s no other order these songs could possibly be in – a feat that even excellent predecessor Scrambles didn’t quite master. Rosenstock’s love of The Beach Boys, referenced way back on To Leave or Die in Long Island and again on “You Still Believe in Me?” but fully integrated into the music for the first time here, comes to a head in what fans affectionately dub the “Supersong”. First “Everybody That Loves You”, in a pinch the finest three minutes of this entire discography, burns straight through melodies, wry observations and heartbreakers lesser bands could spend an entire career chasing. The dreamy “Sunny Place / Shady People” leads into “Felt Like Just Vacation”, closer and perfect antithesis to “Campaign for a Better Next Weekend” – where Vacation began with a lilting piano ballad which explodes into thrashing punk, it ends with a breakneck banger which nonetheless slows down enough to make space for some of the most emotional lyrics ever penned in the genre. “In truth, December destroyed me, January crushed me”, Rosenstock confesses, voice breaking like he recorded the entire album in one sitting and he’s almost out of juice. “In April I stared out the window for a fucking month”.
This is the thing about Jeff Rosenstock. I go to the soundtrack-of-my-life well a lot, but Rosenstock excels at nailing down not only the big moments – any ska/pop-punk band worth their salt can mix the nostalgic sadness of leaving a town with the relief at finally getting out of it – but all the little shit in the middle, when nothing seems to be happening and everything feels thousands of degrees heavier because of it. No-one – folks I mean no-one – charts the uncharted waters between a thought and a feeling, a time and a place, a love and a loss the way Rosenstock does. And when you’re having existential spirals to shit that slaps as hard as “Vocal Coach” or “Everybody That Loves You”, it’s hard not to feel the loss of this incredible, beguiling, brilliant band hanging over the whole decade. While Vacation nominally ends on a tentatively hopeful but lonely note – Jeff listing a series of things to hold onto “so winter never kills me” – the true final word is “Don’t Destroy Yourself”, a hidden track which nonetheless ranks among the finest songs composed this decade. As if taking the list idea from “Felt Just Like Vacation” and running with it, the desperately raw song simply catalogues the reasons why we end up on our own – “I’m impatient and I’m pushy, I’m so stubborn and I know, if I try my hardest I still won’t change this, but I can hide it if I mope” – and then finds all the reasons that maybe, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Like his finest contemporary in the pop-punk scene, Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, Rosenstock finds as much grace in loneliness as he does despair, and his music is infinitely richer because of it. The true ending of Vacation, then, is something of a mirror to the other. Rosenstock takes the hesitant hope of “Felt Like Just Vacation” and simply, beautifully makes it a reality. “…and call up everyone I know – before I’m spending time alone”. –Rowan
Weird metal had its moment in the 2010s. The decade was defined by the collective sonic pallet expanding to odd places where noise and atonality met raw production and sharp technicality. Bands like Howls of Ebb and Serpent Column drew a stark line in the sand during a time that saw Deafheaven and Behemoth enjoy unlikely crossover success. Their efforts helped push metal into its next phase, as Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold took the decade’s conventions and conflicts and transformed them into a preamble to the 2020s.
But weird metal–and the bands listed above–owe everything to Gorguts. In the 90s, the Montreal death metal group brought peculiarity and sense of otherworldliness to the genre, combining alien sounds with visceral precision. Despite the genre’s advances since the band’s initial run, Gorguts’ comeback album Colored Sands is the decade’s definitive metal experience. Unexpectedly, Gorguts remain true to the Obscura era while expanding the promises hinted at on From Wisdom to Hate. Mastermind Luc Lemay isn’t one to shy from excess, but Colored Sands is an absolutely wild compendium of artful bombast as symphonic suites and brutal passages sing Tibetan stories.
Despite all this unwieldiness, Gorguts have defined the decade with their evocative comeback statement. Death metal acts have spent collective decades trying to catch up to their legacy, and with Colored Sands that race continues. –Eli K.
“Why can’t we be the greatest generation?” ask The Wonder Years in the liner notes to the best album of the 2010s. It’s an awfully hopeful question. I’m not sure that it has a happy answer, but the power of The Greatest Generation lies in making you believe that it does. So many of these songs have become iconic, turned into tattoos, and screamed from the barriers of a show: “Passing Through a Screen Door” features one of the strongest opening vocal performances I’ve ever heard, “Dismantling Summer” makes you think that it couldn’t possibly get any catchier (but then it does with a final refrain that is almost too much to handle), and “The Devil in My Bloodstream” finds brilliance in an understated Laura Stevenson feature and heartbreaking lyrics.
However, the album’s lesser-known tracks are the ones that I find myself coming back to all these years later. The “heart attack shoveling snow, all alone” in “We Could Die Like This”, the “stronger winds” of “Chaser”, the “talented kids who got lost in painkillers and turned into nothing” of “An American Religion (FSF)”. Above even those sits “Cul-de-Sac”, so evocative in its conjuring of echoing voicemails in an empty house and so plaintive with its simple declaration of “letting go.” This interplay between image and emotion is where The Wonder Years have excelled for so long, and even as they’ve gotten better at their craft since 2013, The Greatest Generation still contains something singular and magical.
In the end, “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” might have been the best song of the decade if not for another Wonder Years song, “Cigarettes & Saints”. But “…Funeral” is more ambitious, amalgamating the album’s songs into a 7-minute closer that offers prescriptive advice for those who want to answer the question asked in the liner notes: do all you can with what you’re given, give everything back to those who made you who you are, and fill every seat at your funeral. –Channing Freeman
A Black Mile to the Surface exists within its own realm of swirling, complex narratives. The album’s title is a relational metaphor for a collapsing mine, drawn from the spiritual/honorary title track ‘The Gold’. Somewhere in a conjured-up parallel universe on ‘The Grocery’, a man contemplating suicide walks into a store and unloads several rounds before putting the gun in his own mouth. Not unlike the exactly one mile deep Lead, South Dakota 1900s-mine-turned-Sanford Lab-neutrino-experiment that draws so many allusions here, the meaning behind all of these stories dives much deeper. At its heart, A Black Mile to the Surface is actually an album about fatherhood: the joys, questions, and fears that surround bringing a person into this crazy, hopelessly screwed-up world. Hull finds himself both amazed and terrified over the birth of his daughter Mayzie, singing of “unspeakable love” on the appropriately-titled ‘The Maze’ (which was originally never intended to be more than a lullaby for her), while also projecting his own strained relationship with his alcoholic/abusive father on ‘The Alien’ (“your fear came from your drunken dad and a pair of scissors”). Hull instinctively questions his ability to be an adequate parent on ‘Lead, SD’ (“Is it temporary? I don’t think I want to be a dad”), and elaborates on the shortcomings that will inevitably impact his daughter during the waning moments of ‘The Silence’: “Little girl, you are cursed by my ancestry, there is nothing but darkness and agony.” Ultimately, Hull vows to do better in a rare glimpse of sunlight from the depths of his mile-deep baggage: “Let me hold you above all the misery / Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here.” Hull wrote this album as an open letter to Mayzie, candidly expressing fear and doubt while also promising to do everything in his power to give her the life that she deserves. It’s a crushing but ultimately cathartic experience, and all of the parallel storylines that occur within Black Mile can be traced back to Hull staring into his daughter’s crib – pondering how to lift her above his own personal tragedies.
The emotional heft that accompanies A Black Mile to the Surface almost makes how it actually sounds an afterthought, but it’s easily the best Manchester Orchestra album from a sonic perspective as well. Residing in close proximity to Simple Math‘s sleek bombast, Black Mile scales back the strings/orchestration in favor of dense, layered vocals that often reach a fever pitch only a couple notches below all-out screaming. The borderline anguish is more infectious than it should be; I’d hesitate to label anything here “catchy”, but each moment definitely has a resounding impact that isn’t quickly forgotten. From earlier Manchester Orchestra albums to his outings with Bad Books, The Dear Hunter, and Right Away, Great Captain, Andy Hull has never vocally dominated a record like he does here. His ability to burst into these high-octane choruses that are simultaneously soul-shattering and melodic – only to land upon a soft pillow of eloquent and sensitive croons moments later – places him in a choice category of indie-rock singers capable of delivering songs with so much passion and dexterity. It’s the ideal form of delivery for an album so fragile and poignant. Hull’s voice is alone at the epicenter of this quaking, monumental opus – making A Black Mile to the Surface one of the most affecting and undeniably human pieces that this decade has witnessed. –Sowing
Some of the best albums from the 2010s came from artists at their absolute lowest. They say an artist’s greatest work is born out of tragedy, and when I look at a lot of the albums that made my decade list, it’s hard to disagree with that. …Like Clockwork is, indeed, one of those albums – an album wrought in self-loathing, pain and anguish, but one that uses various means in which to express its emotions. Lullabies to Paralyse had a distinctly darker shade to it than previous incarnations, but it’s here where we experience Josh Homme, and by proxy Queens of the Stone Age, at their most sinister. It’s evident from the evil thudding chugs on “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” that we’re in for a very different kind of Queens…, an album that masterfully balances the swagger of latter-day records with this new kind of cynical melancholy.
The meticulous, almost pedantic songwriting here forms the band’s most cohesive and vivid project to date. …Like Clockwork is a seamless masterpiece, bulging with Led Zeppelin-esque grooves, airtight, punctuated booty-shaking-rhythms, and of course, Homme’s signature desert-encrusted riffs. But it’s the tone and subtle indulgences that differentiate this from any other QOTSA album – or any rock album of the last ten years for that matter. The gloomy ballad “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” has a backdrop of phaser-y effects, bouncy drums, solemn keys, and a brace of emotionally charged guitar solos that emote this new tenebrous aesthetic. More surprisingly than that, it’s the Queens… equivalent to a ballad, and the nuances in the production really snapshot the isolated despair Homme is conveying vocally and lyrically here. It’s not a transformation into pure nihilism though: for every “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” there’s an “I Sat By the Ocean” or “If I Had A Tail” to accompany it; songs that have their demeanours tinged in despair, but are superficially presented as upbeat rock ‘n’ roll numbers. It’s the equivalent to someone with severe depression trying to put on a brave face, and it’s a masterstroke that works in the album’s favour.
…Like Clockwork‘s greatest gift is its methodical balance of moods: from the irreverent impression on “Smooth Sailing”, to the pained howls in “I Appear Missing”; the brash, stoic croons fronting “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, to the karaoke flamboyancy of “I Sat By the Ocean”, it’s a heterogeneous journey that’s always attached to a centrepiece of pessimism, regardless of its initial presentations. And that’s the genius here. Of course I can’t understate where this album works best; while the boisterous 70s flair of “Smooth Sailing” and “Fairweather Friends” brings instantaneous gratification to the forefront, it’s the brooding, mid-tempo tracks like “I Appear Missing” and the album’s incredible closer, “…Like Clockwork”, where the album bolsters itself up to a classic status. …Like Clockwork doesn’t have the ambition of Songs for the Deaf, the visceral punch of Rated R, or the wild experimentation of Era Vulgaris, but what it does have is the most well-rounded QOTSA sound to date, an incredibly versatile sound palate that doesn’t sacrifice consistency, and a beautifully handled narrative that goes into a number of dark subjects. Overall, it’s a true magnum opus, if there ever was one. –Simon
Bit condescending, sure: “Baby’s First Hip-Hop”. It was mine. (Motion passed: Eminem discounted from zeitgest.) It was, though, I imagine, a lot more, for many more. A portrait or manifesto. Reportage. True in a sense only good music can be.
In high school, but, amongst the upper-if-you-ask-the-lower, middle-if-you-ask-the-upper-class citizens of a not-quite-private school in suburban Victoria (image of the future of a white or brown or Asian man, or man-child, or boy with thick accent, notably Australian, Supreme sweater and dress shoes, job at Westpac [bank, for American audience]), ‘Backseat Freestyle’ heard from classrooms, booming with a stark albeit charming, that is, earnest lack or irony: Ahhh-ring-king-king, ahhh-ring— Martin had a dream, Martin had a dream, Kendrick have a—
Dreams of being black, of understanding. Some understanding, though, or the pretense of it, that while context matters – economic, socio-political, geographic, musical, ‘Backseat Freestyle’ shaped by all these, not least of which its contextualisation within the album’s tracklisting and narrative – the song doesn’t need – like, really need, necessitate – that context to be good, or bang, or bump in the— Because it isn’t Kendrick’s “consciousness”, or awareness (of his community’s problems, of his peculiar position, of the song’s virtual, if not actual banality) that makes it, and by extension good kid, m.A.A.d city, one of the decade’s best.
What makes it one of the decade’s best is Kendrick’s penchant for good hip-hop and pop songwriting. This and the use of narrative to fill gaps where facts fail. That and it sounds super good. –BlushfulHippocrene
Long before Barack Obama put Parasite on his list of favorite films last year, he declared that Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost?” was his favorite song of 2015. Those missing the irony in those picks either have the wrong idea about Obama or To Pimp a Butterfly or both. To Pimp a Butterfly is about institutions both internal and external, and the ways that those institutions uphold racism and – expressed less overtly on the record but still present – classism. Kendrick struggles with the knowledge that getting out of the ‘hood doesn’t fix the ‘hood. Even when Obama made it to the White House, he offered only performative gestures toward the Black community (the “What it do?” of “Hood Politics”) while embracing the institutions that enshrine the worst aspects of America. Breaking free from the cocoon only serves to facilitate the inevitable “pimping.”
Moving beyond the excellent but somewhat pat street narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick embraces the unique didactic potential of hip-hop. Even so, futility looms over the entire record. Songs can’t change the world now and couldn’t in the past, either, despite America’s rich tradition of protest music. The value of To Pimp a Butterfly is not necessarily in an anthem like “Alright”, which you might think is the only song on the album if all you ever read were “The Best Songs of the Decade” lists. It’s that “Alright” – triumphant and striving to be prophetic – can even exist as a small part of a record like this, one that is so acutely aware of how monumental any struggle against institutions would be.
In this way, the album cover – showing a Black revolution that has just killed a symbol of the American judicial institution on the White House lawn – is just another fantasy, like the interview with 2Pac that ends “Mortal Man”, a composite image plucked from a future that may remain a potentiality for years to come. However, that bleak reality only gives the record more urgency and importance, as does the neoliberal co-opting of revolutionary art like Parasite, which shows that people like Obama are all-too-aware of the power of film and music and seek to blunt that power. 2Pac’s prediction that “the ground is gonna open up and swallow all the evil” is affecting both because it hasn’t come true and because it still might. To Pimp a Butterfly is not patronizing. It is not preachy. But it preaches. –Channing Freeman
By the close of the first decade of this millennium, Deerhunter already had little to prove. The gothic, acid-washed run from the venomous Turn It Up Faggot to the sublimely textured Microcastles / Weird Era Cont. perfected a sound that was half a century in the making: simultaneously avant-garde and lovingly indebted to the classics, Deerhunter cloaked pent-up emotion in fractured guitars and crackling noise, pop music fed through a rusty thresher. Something about Bradford Cox and company, however, always seemed a little obscured, enigmatic even; this was music to get lost in, not to be found.
Halcyon Digest changed all of that. There’s nothing hidden about the cutting isolation and forced solitude of “Don’t Cry” or “Sailing” or the rollicking, riveting lust of “Revival.” The album ends with the crushing pain of losing a dear friend and, in turn, an essential piece of a life left behind with the sprawling, heartbreaking “He Would Have Laughed.” “Where do you friends go? Where do they see you? What did you want to be? Ah, shut the hell, shut your mouth,” Cox sings, wistful and sad, before the twinkling motif slows, slows, and then abruptly stops: memories and dreams cleaved away, back to reality. Certainly more than anything that came before, Halcyon Digest is unsparing and raw with its details, but generous with its warmth. Cox had never spoken so intimately about the queer experience as he did here, so painstakingly personal but hopeful, too. The sound of Halcyon Digest – those classic rock influences spiked with a healthy dose of psychedelics, rendered through the most assured production of the band’s career – surely had something to do with how triumphant the record ends up feeling. This is Deerhunter’s most replayable record, an all-killer-no-filler tracklist that still knock me back today – the atmospheric, spiraling bliss of “Helicopter,” the song that launched a thousand remixes, or the self-immolating riff that disperses into a billion sparkling atoms on “Desire Lines.” Over the years and three more records that have since followed, they’d successfully explore avenues of the sound perfected here, but never as cohesively or as purposeful as Halcyon Digest, nothing quite so assured.
We didn’t know it at the time, but 2010 may have been the apex of Pitchforkian indie rock, for better or for worse, an era I associate with 2007 – 2013 (a time period that just happens to coincide with my college and graduate school years – a coincidence, I’m sure). As it turned out, the music championed by Pitchfork and festival tastemakers was already riddled with rot and on its way out, giving way to ‘Ye and poptimism, Carly Rae and PC Music, SoundCloud rap and K-pop. The overall zeitgeist of the 2010s ended up feeling far more vibrant and real than the middle-class ennui and vaguely righteous, undeniably stale white-boy buzz band that characterized much of my favorite music at the beginning of the decade. Not Deerhunter, though, and not Halcyon Digest. The freaks and weirdos Cox championed here, the stories that so often get lost in the shuffle, the characters that would have laid forgotten – “Helicopter’s” tragic protagonist or the absent father and irreparable family in “Memory Boy” – are the same voices and influences that ended up driving this decade in music forward. Halcyon Digest’s cultural impact may have been blunted by shifting tastes, but Deerhunter’s deeply felt masterpiece remains prescient today for its thesis: no matter who you are, no matter what your experience, there’s something out there for you, something that will get you through. You’re never alone. –klap
On May 7th, 2016, I was late for work: Radiohead had just released their new album and I was struggling to get it onto my new company-issued iphone so I could listen to it on the walk (I mean; it’s fucking Radiohead). It never crossed my mind that the album would be a disappointment – the two singles released prior, the propulsive string-arranged ‘Burn the Witch’ and the lilting, languid Daydreaming were each stunning in their own way, and I proudly wear my adoration of The King of Limbs on my sleeve, but well – it was a long time between drinks, a slightly concerning interregnum. That it would end up my third favourite Radiohead album never crossed my mind – until I listened to it.
A life-long relationship was committed to immediately. A Moon Shaped Pool functions like an Egyptian pyramid, building a foundation and raising it block by block until we reach the towering fan favourite “True Love Waits”, as stark and depressing a closer as one could expect (“I’m not living I’m just killing time”? Jesus). That’s not to say the album gets better as it goes on exactly – the initially muffled Ful Stop’s growth in intensity is one of the most thrilling moments in their catalogue, and Glass Eyes especially deserves my royal imprimatur. I was blown away my how specific it was to my own anxiety and agoraphobia, and its depiction of the insurmountable urge to run through the dry bush (“I don’t know where it leads / and I don’t really care” mimics my own response to panic, detailing the urge to be alone to lush lonely string swells and orchestration. Present Tense shuffles rhythmically and offers perhaps the finest chorus of the album: “in you I’m lost”. And the choral rendition of another favourite, Identikit’s renowned line “broken hearts make it rain”? An apposite choice. But I digress: the album feels constructed, pieces upon pieces, until it enters contention as a wonder of the world, designed meticulously and gorgeously without letting up for a second. Astoundingly, this is a band that has been operating for twenty years without a dip in quality since OK Computer; another trophy to affix to a very cluttered mantlepiece.
Radiohead take another surprising direction by emphasizing Jonny Greenwood’s sublime string arrangements. The band craft beautiful, spacey atmospheres and engaging compositions like “Present Tense,” “Decks Dark,” “Desert Island Disk,” and “Daydreaming.” Each song is memorable in its own right, be it the layered, midtempo indie rock song “The Numbers” or the anxious “Ful Stop” that ends with a propulsive guitar-centered outro similar to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.” A Moon Shaped Pool recalls the warm, melancholic qualities of In Rainbows along with the colder, more elusive nature of The King of Limbs and Kid A, but this is very much its own incarnation. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are masters of their craft, always seeking new ways to explore and reinvent their sound. In the context of Radiohead’s career thus far, A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t their most experimental or challenging record. It’s not simplistic, straightforward, or predictable either, but has an emotional core more open and fragile than what we’re used to hearing. On top of that, there’s an elegance to the songwriting and sounds at times like a precursor to Jonny Greenwood’s classical score for the film Phantom Thread the following year. Even if it’s not as innovative as their past classics, A Moon Shaped Pool is always engrossing and Radiohead’s most subtle offering yet. The band offer an immersive and spaced out journey with some of their most emotionally poignant moments to date.
There is one other thing worth noting, as it transforms a superb album into an epochal one: A Moon Shaped Pool turned out to be eerily prescient. I’m not attributing powers of perspicacity to the band (many of the songs on the album were around in nascent form long previous to the official release), although they were surely aware of cultural shifts and opinions, but following Brexit and Trump’s election Yorke’s claim that “dreamers always get hurt” takes on a new, harrowing meaning, while his half-sneer, half-plead “it was just a laugh” could easily be directed at those voters who weren’t sure what they were voting for, or voters who didn’t muster the energy to appear at the polls. Similarly, Burn the Witch seems to prognosticate our cancel culture and the concomitant fear that one will be next: “stay in the shadows / cheer at the gallows / this is a round-up” followed by a more direct indictment: “loose talk around tables? / abandon all reason”. Radiohead have always tackled and explored societal fears (and indeed their own) with aplomb, and A Moon Shaped Pool follows richly in this tradition: it’s as relevant now as it was when it was released in 2016, and it’s this longevity that makes it another bona fide classic from a band with no shortage of them. –Winesburgohio and Ben K.
“We’re making a point to give a shit,” said Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles when asked to comment on The Monitor. His feeling was that the culture of the age was and had been one of detachment, of bands “pushing away all feelings,” and that it was high time we reengaged with our emotional lives, no matter how ugly they might be. And, according to The Monitor, ugly they very much are. Vanity, insecurity, cowardice, paranoia, greed, despair: Stickles picks each of these worms out of the soil and places them, wriggling, into our open hands. We’re far too captivated by these vices to refuse, far too transfixed by the horrifying relatability of it all. The picture painted by Stickles of humanity’s behind-the-curtain vulgarity is sometimes so accurate, so personal, it can feel like being caught on camera, and we can’t look away.
But it isn’t all ugliness and murk. The Monitor puts the theme of freedom front and centre and looks to it for a sense of, for lack of a better word, salvation. Unlike those bands who had sought freedom from emotional discomfort by building walls of self-referential irony and cool disinterest, and fencing themselves off in the process, Stickles seems to seek freedom in an acceptance of and confrontation with our inner awfulness. “You will always be a loser,” he yells into the mic again, and again, and again, putting our teeth on edge and compelling us to gather our defences, until he closes with a disarming flash: “and that’s okay”. For all the talk of freedom, there’s a suggestion in Stickles’ lyrics that there is far less of it available to us than we might think, but acceptance of our emotional life in the present is one choice which remains under the water line. Recognising this might just clear the path for change.
This message only finds the resonance it does because of the way it’s packaged. The Monitor carries at times a clear punk aesthetic, with its smudgy production, scratchy guitars, gang chants and Stickles’ hoarse rasp. This rejection of polish bestows the album with an authenticity which gives it licence to pass down these uncomfortable truths. But the project is elevated to its classic status by its less conventionally punk elements: its defiantly buoyant piano, its fiercely jubilant horns, its drawn-out, winding song structure. Many songs follow this longer path: fuelled by the intermittent, stand-up-and-fall-back-down energy of whisky and injustice, they lurch between passages of dirge and dreariness at one moment and scorching protest the next. And it’s the combination of these elements which creates a ‘something else entirely’, a something which has not yet been repeated, even by the band themselves. It makes The Monitor a true original. –Matt Wolfe
Blackstar is David Bowie’s emotionally literal swansong, a record that’s as breathtaking to listen to now as it was four years ago. Out of context, what Bowie offers us here is a no-frills journey that echoes the sounds and styles of Young Americans right through to the 80s era of Bowie’s works (arguably the catchiest, most concise and critically flourishing portion of his career). What sets this album apart from the rest of Bowie’s discography however, is the subversive element that burrows into the marrow of Blackstar‘s compositional skeleton. Blackstar has a duality that celebrates some of his finest styles without hesitation – the intrigue, however, comes from the fact that they’re symbolised with a much darker veneer, one that embraces and corrodes Bowie’s enigmatic armour, stripping him down to his bare, vulnerable flesh. It’s a taboo in some ways, because it’s Bowie deconstructing all of his personas and boiling them down to just one: the “real” – or as close to real as fans will likely get – David Bowie. This is Blackstar and it’s a bittersweet celebration of life and death.
It’s an intense and immersive experience that culminates into the most expertly crafted album of Bowie’s career; be it the eccentricity and jazzy instrumental brushstrokes that nestle inside relatively overt and restrained song structures, Bowie’s indisposed vocal passages, or the flourishes of the macabre that possess songs. The last one is particularly important to remember because, as we all know now, David Bowie died just two days after Blackstar‘s release. The problem with that is it’s hard to really listen to Blackstar without being washed away by its dreary backdrop. You can’t help but be crushed by the crying horns on “Lazarus”, as Bowie weakly laments “Look up here, man, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose. I’m so high it makes my brain whirl. Dropped my cell phone down below, ain’t that just like me?”, or be hit in the gut as he croaks “Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent. I can’t give everything, I can’t give everything away” in “I Can’t Give Everything Away” without feeling for what the guy must have been going through at the time of its making.
In the most positive light possible, David Bowie sounds tired here and it only adds to the album’s poignant frailty and authenticity. This is David Bowie giving you everything he has left – everything he’s learnt – before moving on. And even though it has been confirmed that Bowie intended to carry on making music after Blackstar, its themes of dealing with terminal illness and accepting death are plainly obvious and prevalent throughout. It’s a brave, bold declaration that has the enigmatic legend dropping the charade for a brief moment, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart: if you’re a fan of music, you owe it to yourself to listen to Blackstar at least once. It’s easily one of the best albums of the last decade, but I’d even go as far to say it’s one of the best albums ever devised by a human being. –Simon