Wednesday, April 22, 2020

AnEarful's First Decade: 100 Best Albums Of The 2010's

Editor's Note: Before getting to my original intro, which I wrote back in early January, I have a couple of thoughts. I’ve been listening to this playlist of 99 (should be 100 - more on that later) albums for a while now and it’s been a wonderful reminder of what a rich decade just passed, even if it almost seems like a mirage at this point. In fact, I considered abandoning the whole project as the world moved to living one day at a time in the midst of a deadly pandemic. But then I realized that the current state of things only made it more necessary to take a trip into the recent past and remind ourselves of who we are as humans when we are at our absolute best. Read on and revel in it all!

One of the hazards of my vocation is that I’m often so consumed by keeping up with current releases that months, if not years, might go by without listening to a favorite album from, say, 2013. That means that listening to the 100 albums described below has been like a college reunion where everyone you see is your best friend. That alone has made this process more than worthwhile. I’ve also tried to make it bearable by approaching it with a lightness of being, recognizing that I will be kicking myself in six months about a record I’d forgotten to highlight and knowing that anything I write here in no way invalidates the hundreds of records I covered in the past decade that are not included. Even that EP by that band that later broke up was part of what made my decade so musically extraordinary.

Since deciding to keep the list to 100 led to many painful choices, I decided to put it in a strictly alphabetical order, which has the added benefit of keeping the eclectic nature of my listening front and center - that’s how I shelve my LP’s and CD’s, after all. I also kept it to one album per artist to include more variety, using my brief comments to acknowledge those with multiple classics. 

Even though I’m not setting a strict order and selecting one album as the “Best Of The Decade,”  I have enjoyed the consensus I’ve seen building around albums like David Bowie’s Blackstar, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Frank Ocean’s Blond, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. These are all records that, with uncanny acuity, combine passion, innovation, and a pop sensibility that makes them as impossible to ignore as clickbait even as they teach us new things. 

Yet in my world, Holly Miranda, Richard Aufrichtig, Chris Trapani, Novelty Daughter, and others with a smaller global footprint are just as important as the world-beating artists listed above. Everyone below is on the same level here, and I hope you will give each an open-minded listen to see if you agree. 

Note: My mixtape sensibility rebels slightly at opening the playlist with a 48-minute orchestral track, but Become Ocean is a work of rare grandeur. I will forgive you if you skip ahead to more bite-sized samples, but I hope you won’t. I also hope you will dig into the full albums of anyone who catches your ear. 

John Luther Adams - Become Ocean (2014)  This staggering work makes a mockery of the word “immersive” - it would be more apt to say that it just exists, as implacable and impressive as the ocean itself. The Seattle Symphony's performance is beyond perfect. Be sure to give Become Desert (2019) and the chamber pieces, like The Wind In High Places (2015), a listen as well. 

The Amazing - Picture You (2015)  Psych-rock is rarely this sublime and, as proved by their other albums, this exercise in veiled power was harder to pull off than it sounds. 

Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino (2018) Alex Turner’s songwriting, always this band’s super-power, was acutely attuned to a variety of muses on the three excellent albums (also including Suck It And See (2011) and AM (2013)) they made during the decade. This one also created a new sonic universe for these indie-rock stalwarts, lending it an extra glow.

Nicole Atkins - Slow Phaser (2014)  Hooks? You want hooks? Atkins lavishly doles out about three per song, stringing them along melodies Bowie would want for his own. Catchy, smart, and fun. 

Richard Aufrichtig - Troubadour No. 1 The #1 album of 2019. When I suggested this transcendent collection of chamber-folk-art-dance-rock (I call it "heart music") for an issue of Off Your Radar, one of my colleagues wrote, “This is the album I needed to hear right now.” That goes for you, too. Fan Fiction For Planet Earth (2019) is more rocked up and also a must to hear. Aufrichtig is one of my favorite discoveries (and people) of the century so follow him here to make sure you don't miss a thing!

BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul (2013) Wu-Tang has had their ups and downs lately, but Killah had a darn good decade, and this collab with the Toronto jazz-funk band was especially dazzling. 

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)  I still remember where I was when I first heard Avant Gardener and this album lived up to its promise - and then some. Also don't miss The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas (2014) and Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018).

Baroness - Yellow and Gold (2012) While the band was reshaped by a devastating bus accident, there’s no need for any special pleading on behalf of the lethal swing of this album. Seeing them back on stage also warmed the heart amidst the shredding. 

Beck - Morning Phase (2014) Of the three albums Beck put out since 2010, this is the only one that’s end-to-end great. Ironically, he’s been chasing the pop chimera ever since he earned the AOTY Grammy for this lush and timeless exercise in folk rock. 

Bon Iver - 22, A Million (2016) Some were turned off by Justin Vernon’s avant-pop maximalism on Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011) the follow-up to For Emma, but it set off a ripple effect that defined the era in both rock and hip hop. 22, A Million managed to go further out sonically while being as nakedly emotional as that classic debut. An unexpected consequence of Vernon's success is that one of the most talented studio rats now does most of his best work on stage. That's not to dismiss i,i (2019), which was shot through with great beauty and invention. Of the multitude of side projects from Vernon, only Repave by Volcano Choir (2013) hit the heights of his best work.

Boogarins - Manual (2015)  These Brazilian psych-rockers haven’t put a foot wrong since that time they almost blew out the plate-glass at Other Music in their first NYC concert. Start here or with any of the other records they’ve put out, including La Vem a Morte (2017), Sombrou Duvida (2019), and a glorious live album, Desvio Onirico (2017). 

David Bowie - Blackstar  (2016) Bowie’s return to active duty was one of the great stories (and museum shows) of the decade, made even more astonishing by the two superb albums he released, The Next Day (2013) and especially this last opus, making his death’s sting that much sharper. Can it really be that we lost Bowie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, and Prodigy all in the span of just a few years?? Who's left to explicate our darkest nights of the soul? And don't say "Nick Cave" - I'm immune.

Breton - Other People’s Problems (2012) The first time I heard a song by this art rock collective it nailed me to my chair and I had to listen three or four times. Then I needed more, an itch scratched by this debut album and the great second album, War Room Stories (2014). Discover them now if they were off your radar and follow the thread with Miro Shot, the current project of singer/songwriter/producer Roman Rappak. 

Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial (2016) After maybe a dozen hit or miss self-released albums, Will Toledo’s songwriting came into focus while finally getting the production worthy of his vision. Also a Top 10 live band!

Zosha di Castri - Tachitipo (2019)  Nothing musical is alien to this marvelous composer of intricate chamber and vocal works. No surprise that some of the best ensembles extant (Talea, ICE, etc.) played on this debut portrait album.

Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap (2013) Just when it seemed that we were paying for Kanye's revolution by having to endure Drake, Chancelor Bennett came along with his tough but sweet and utterly human jams. Follow-up Coloring Book (2016) was also awesome but 2019's The Big Day was a sanctimonious slog. He's still young, though, so I wouldn't count him out.

Anthony Cheung - Dystemporal (2016) Cheung's compositional rigor is only matched by his melodic invention. One of our most exciting composers and the performances from Talea Ensemble and Ensemble Intercontemporain are precise and fully engaged. Cycles And Arrows (2018) is also essential.

Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot (2013) Clayton put his own stamp firmly on these slippery piano works even as he became one of the standard bearers for the resurgence of interest in Eastman. Also known as DJ/Rupture, Clayton also gifted the decade with a wonderful book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music & Digital Culture.

The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles (2017) Just when it seemed as if this most indie of indie bands would be lost to the prior decade, during which they released five albums, they put out this astonishing album, as rich a vehicle for Alasdair MacLean's vision of 60's-inflected psych-pop as could be imagined. If this really is it for them, I can survive on my memories of seeing them in concert - twice.

Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (2016) Between Bowie, Cohen, and Walker, it was a decade ripe with pitch-black poetry. This was the best of the four collections of new songs that began with Old Ideas in 2012 and ended with the posthumous Thanks For The Dance (2019), but they all have much to offer, as do the live albums, especially Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (2015).

Hollie Cook - Twice (2014) I could have easily picked the other two albums Cook released during the decade - the self-titled debut (2011) or Vessel Of Love (2018) - as they are all divine (if increasingly sophisticated) updates on lover's rock. Sheer heaven!

Phil Cook - Southland Mission (2015) Cook, one of the great utility men of Americana (keys, guitar, harmonica, vocals) didn't just step out of the shadows on this album so much as EXPLODE. Seeing it happen on stage was pure joy.

The Darcys - Aja (2012) While their other releases, especially Warring (2013) and Hymn For A Missing Girl (2014), were also excellent, this intense full-album cover of the Steely Dan classic was my introduction to this Canadian band. While they've now devolved into also-rans of poptimism, I'll always have this album and memories of seeing them burn it down at the Mercury Lounge.

Domenico - Cine Privê (2012) Brazilian genius Domenico Lancellotti also gifted us The Good Is A Big God in 2018, with both albums providing forms of escape through smart, inventive songs that took in the whole of his country's musical history.

Drinker - Fragments (2019) Rising from the ashes of Isadora, a beloved New York band, Aaron Mendelsohn joined forces with Ariel Loh and started delivering sublime electro-pop, with this album fully meeting the promise of debut single Which Way Is South? The new decade is theirs to rule.

Du Yun - Dinosaur Scar (2018) This protean performer and composer is almost too good for a Pulitzer Prize. Based on this blazingly brilliant collection as well as recent concerts at the MATA Festival, Miller Theatre, and Carnegie Hall, I predict that award will be forgotten in the light of the astounding achievements yet to come.

Bob Dylan - Tempest (2012) No one could have guessed that, after visiting us with this bloody and brilliant album of all new material, our greatest songwriter would spend the next few years exploring the great American songbook. There were bright spots there, too, though they were often overshadowed by the near constant flow of earth-shattering releases in the Bootleg Series, with my favorite being Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 (2017). But it was Tempest that towered over the decade, predicting the "American carnage" yet to come.

Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go (2019) This one snuck up on me after originally avoiding the hype. Along with her brother, Finneas, Eilish came up with a set of songs showing remarkable emotional range and sonic invention. With her sold-out arena tour cancelled for the immediate future, maybe we'll get her sophomore effort sooner rather than later, which could be one silver lining to the pandemic!

Brian Eno (with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams) - Small Craft On A Milk Sea (2010) Eno kicked off the 2010's at full strength, with a collection of short, varied pieces that could have easily fit in his series of Music For Films. For more purely ambient expressions, catch up with these beauties: Lux (2012), Reflection (2017), and Music For Installations (2018).

Epic 45 - Weathering (2011) Back then, I called this an "achingly gorgeous ambient-folk song cycle" - and so it remains.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun (2012) I was already on a Fleet Foxes-driven binge into the austere folk of J. Tillman when Sub Pop slid into my iTunes with the first video from this album. I was immediately sold and pre-ordered it - and every subsequent release, with I Love You, Honeybear (2015) and Pure Comedy (2017) completing a trilogy that bestrode the decade. If God's Favorite Customer (2018) was a bit of a letdown, you can't say he didn't earn it. His live act has always been fantastic, too - get a taste on Off-Key In Hamburg (2020), released to support the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Field Music - (Measure) (2010) More recent albums, while good, have failed to match the impact of this double album, which put all the strengths hinted at on earlier records like Tones Of Town (2007) on full display - and then some. So maybe more of a culmination than a new beginning, but still untouchably great.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011) Even though Robin Pecknold's personal journey meant only two albums during the decade, it's impossible to imagine the era without them. And Crack-Up (2017) was more than worth the wait.

Frankie and the Witch Fingers - Zam (2019) Punked-up prog or progged-out punk - call it what you want but it ROCKS with a lethal combo of precision and insanity.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Bandana (2019) When this dream duo debuted in 2014 with Piñata, I called out Gibbs for letting Madlib carry the day. What a difference five years makes - on Bandana the two operate as equals and the results were the best hip hop of 2019.

The GOASTT - Midnight Sun (2014) Almost 20 years into his career, Sean Lennon, working with Charlotte Kemp Muhl (his collaborator in life and music), stirred up the classic of psychedelic pop I always thought he had in him, especially after seeing them live in 2011. I'm still waiting for these two to get it back together, although I have been enjoying UNI, Kemp Muhl's glam metal groovers, quite a bit. Maybe this decade will belong to UNI - if they ever release an album!

Golden Retriever - Seer (2014) Bass clarinet, modular synth - and the entire goddamned universe. Step inside. The only caveat is that nothing else they've done reaches these heights, but I'm way past caring about that now. Truly magical.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble - Return (2017) Gorgeous electro-acoustic chamber music, recorded live, then chopped and screwed by composers Adam Cuthbert, Matt Finch and Daniel Rhode, founders of the slashsound collective. Start here and follow up on all of them, especially Cuthbert who makes immersive and explosive electronic music under his own name and as I-VT.

Jonny Greenwood - Inherent Vice (2014) Choosing between this, Norwegian Wood (2011), The Master (2012) and The Phantom Thread (2018) was almost a random decision. Any way you slice it, the man had an incredible decade, also working with his hero, the late Krystof Penderecki and releasing two albums and touring the world with Radiohead. But the way his finely pitched blend of melancholy and whimsy interacts with the pop songs Paul Thomas Anderson chose for Inherent Vice makes it an especially sweet journey. And I still haven't seen the movie.

David Greilsammer - Scarlatti:Cage:Sonatas (2014) This object lesson in juxtaposition, stunningly executed by Greilsammer, exposed both Scarlatti's innovation and Cage's classicism. It's the only solo piano record on this list - that should be all you need to know.

Guilty Simpson - Detroit's Son (2015) I'm still baffled that this album didn't blow up worldwide. The beats, by Australian producer Katalyst, are next level, and Guilty's rhymes are hard, witty, and laced with compassion and rage. I'm also bummed that my interview with him disappeared into a black hole. But it's not too late to hear the record - get to it.

Elsa Hewitt - Dum Spiro Spiro (2017) With three albums in 2017 and two more since of distinctly handmade electronic pop and ambient music, Hewitt has created a musical universe of rare charm that has become an important part of my galaxy of listening. Catch up.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness of Dancers (2014) Considering this was M.C. Taylor's fifth album as Hiss, it was I who was late to the dance. But I'm so glad I made it - he's a touchstone artist for me now, with every one of his albums hitting the top ten ever since. Also one of the great live acts of our time - experience some of that magic by buying his new live album, a fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students.

Jon Hopkins - Immunity (2013) Hopkins arrived on my radar via his collaboration with Eno (see above) and this exceeded all my expectations even so. While he's yet to hit this sweet spot of rhythm, melody, and texture ever since, I'm not one to complain!

Hospitality - Hospitality (2012) God, I love this record (and Trouble from 2014), it's blend of melody and melancholy so inviting that I'm now part of a small legion who Googles their name on the regular looking for more - or answers about what happened to them.

Benji Hughes - Songs In The Key Of Animals (2016) Whether employing irrational exuberance or Nilssonian melancholy, this album was life raft when I needed it most. Now Hughes and I are foxhole family and I'll always be grateful.

Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell - Sing Into My Mouth (2015) Kiss Each Other Clean (2011), Ghost On Ghost (2013), and Beast Epic (2017) all had their moments, but as a songwriter it was an uneven decade for Sam Beam, ranging from new standards to immaculately produced but forgettable tracks. On this album of covers, however, he proved himself one of the greatest singers alive - and a great collaborator for sharing the spotlight with Bridwell of Band of Horses.

Julia Jacklin - Crushing (2019) Don't Let The Kids Win (2016) was a wonderful record, but on this sophomore release the Aussie singer/songwriter leapt to the front ranks with a combination of vulnerability and craft that is a rare thing indeed. The title could also refer to the sensation of being at her concert at Warsaw last year - buy tix early next time she hits the road!

Jamie XX - In Colour (2015) This delightfully, yes, colorful collection still sounds aggressively hip five years later. While The XX don't do it for me, We're New Here (2011), Jamie XX's reworking of Gil Scott-Heron's last album convinced me he was a major talent.

Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch (2018) There were few better songs released in 2018 than those on Jenkins' long-awaited debut - and Matthew E. White was the perfect producer to realize them.

Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road (2015) As gloriously maximal as the movie, an incredible return to form for George Miller and one of the best action flicks ever made. Sequel?

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (2012) This is still head and shoulders above any of the Run The Jewels albums. Eight years later and I'm more convinced than ever that El P needs to go back behind the boards and leave the mic to the Killer.

Killing Joke - Pylon (2015) No other band this far out from their debut (1979) has all the original members and is making music at heights equal to their early days. Simply astonishing - and one of the most overwhelming concert experiences you can have.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) I was on the fence about Lamar until this album came out - and then I was all in. Lyrically dense and musically rich, this is hip hop of the highest order. And Damn. (2017) was just as good.

Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours (2014) Songs for days, all the feels, production to die for - and the singing! Lord, this is great stuff. Dear God from 2015 was stripped down brilliance, but the jury is still out if Leithauser can reach for the stars like this without Paul Maroon, the guitarist he worked with since The Walkmen. Signs are pointing to yes for his next album.

Mastodon - The Hunter (2011) No big story to tell, just a straightforward collection of blissfully detailed hard rock from a band that relishes a great melody as much as extreme guitar crunch. Though they stumbled a bit with their next album (Once More 'Round The Sun, 2014), Emperor Of Sand (2017) was a near-return to form. Seeing them in concert was also a treat.

The Mavericks - In Time (2013) Their last great album, Trampoline, came out in 1998 so I had relegated these country-conjunto-Americana-Cubano experts to the past - so this masterpiece of fun was a kick in the head Sinatra wouldn't have ignored. Did you?

Holly Miranda - Mutual Horse (2018) This album might have been her pinnacle (so far), but Miranda ruled my decade like few other artists. Each album, from the dreamy debut to the self-titled second album (2015), to this one, was a gift. And I saw her live as often as possible - you should, too.

Mount Kimbie - Crooks & Lovers (2010) They claimed to have not known what they were doing when they made this, but maybe that's why it's so full of surprise and off-kilter magic. Their live show was a blast, too - unfortunately they've increasingly lost the plot ever since.

Mutual Benefit - Skip A Sinking Stone (2016) Heartfelt, witty, and melodically rich, the occasionally spectral folk-rock songs of Jordan Lee were a central pleasure of the decade, whether here or on Love's Crushing Diamond (2013), or Thunder Follows The Light (2018).

Mystical Weapons - Mystical Weapons (2013) Pure madness - and instrumental virtuosity of a most creative kind from Sean Lennon (guitars, bass, synths) and Greg Saunier (drums). More in tune with electric Miles or early Pink Floyd than free jazz. I consider myself privileged to have seen them in concert.

Michael Nicolas - Transitions (2016) This is the exemplar of what a modern cello album can be - curated, produced, and performed with perfection. I'll forgive Nicolas for not giving us a follow up yet - after all, he's a key player in Brooklyn Rider, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Third Sound.

Novelty Daughter - Semigoddess (2016) Faith Harding combines her glorious voice with tactile electronics, sometimes verging on dance music, creating blends and juxtapositions that intrigue and inspire. Great lyrics, too, growing more introspective on Inertia (2017) and Cocoon Year (2018). Keep up with her DJ sets here.

Nordic Affect - Raindamage (2017) Electro-acoustic chamber music from Iceland, full of texture and emotion, played with utter commitment. Not to be missed.

Cian Nugent - Night Fiction (2016) Immersive indie rock by a master guitarist who loves to ride a slow build. As much informed by Nugent's Irish background as the Velvet Underground's third album.

Jenny O. - Automechanic (2013) Packed with musical and emotional detail, each tightly crafted song here is set like a little gem by producer Jonathan Wilson, an achievement they matched on Peace & Information in 2017.

Frank Ocean - Blonde (2016) Channel Orange (2012) so exceeded the promise of nostalgia/ultra, his mixtape from 2011, that the internet grew even more hysterical than usual waiting for a follow-up. Finally, we were bequeathed this mysterious miracle of future R&B and art rock. Ocean has kept hysteria at bay with a fairly steady supply of great singles, but that ain't going to last...we need more.

Angel Olsen - All Mirrors (2019) Olsen has been on one of the most intriguing musical journeys of the decade, traveling through spare folk, indie rock, electro-pop, and more before arriving at this explosive masterwork of song and style. Burn No Fire For No Witness (2014) and My Woman (2016) are also essential. Where will she take us next?

Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (2013) While these classicists of the NYC underground (think VU and Sonic Youth) have been coasting on this album ever since, that does nothing to diminish its glories. Ridgewood, Queens has never been the same.

Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love (2014) Between the provocative name and Meredith Graves' intrusion into the traditionally male space of neo-hardcore singing, there was even more noise surrounding this band than what was on their records. Cutting through all that, I heard a lapidary blend of art rock, free jazz, punk, and ambient. After seeing them live, I predicted a long career - but it was not to be. They released one more single and disbanded in 2016. Some of their spirit lives on in Empath, the wonderful Philly band driven by PP's drummer, Garrett Koloski.

Natalie Prass - The Future and The Past (2018) You want personality? Prass has it in spades: quirky, smart, funny, relatable. She could be your next best friend, but she just happens to be a wildly talented singer and songwriter. Her stunning debut (2015) got the full Spacebomb treatment from Matthew E. White - strings, horns, etc. - and on this one she pivoted beautifully into an ultra-slick realm of utterly addictive pop.

Olivia De Prato - Streya (2018) Like Nicolas's Transitions, this album represents an ideal of what a solo string album can be. Electro-acoustic wonders lie within, including a distillation of Missy Mazzoli's signature piece, Vespers For A New Dark Age. De Prato has also been busy with Ensemble Signal, Victoire, and the Mivos Quartet, so I can be patient while waiting for the next solo album.

Prodigy and Alchemist - Albert Einstein (2013) After his release from prison in 2011, Prodigy was rolling through the decade like a Lambo on run-flats. Albert Einstein, his second full-length with producer Alchemist, was one of the best albums of his career, filled with intricate storytelling and king of the streets braggadocio. The Bumpy Johnson Album (2011) and The Hegelian Dialectic (2017) are both well worth tracking down, too, as is The Infamous Mobb Deep (2014). Here's hoping his estate corrects that legacy soon. It was a privilege to see this legend in person - both onstage and off.

Pusha-T - Daytona (2018) While there were many fine moments in his other post-Clipse albums, My Name Is My Name (2013) and (especially) Darkest Before The Dawn: The Prelude (2015), this was the first album that reached the heights of that classic duo. Kanye West's production showed he still had it, even as he seemed to be losing his MAGA-loving mind.

Quakers (2012) Portishead's Geoff Barrow joined forces with their engineer 7-Stu-7 and Katalyst (see Guilty Simpson above) and dropped a seismic collection of beats, rhymes, and life with a variety of handpicked voices, including Jonwayne. Still not sure why this collection didn't land with the force I expected. Get to it now and see if you agree.

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) After the slightly enervated The King Of Limbs (2011), I wondered if these geniuses were going to go their separate ways. After all, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke both had much going on in their solo careers, as did drummer Ed O'Brien, a trend which has only continued since this sigh-inducing collection came out. So maybe this is their Abbey Road - one more album made the way they used to - and nobody does it better.

Lou Reed and Metallica - Lulu (2011) Damn the haters, this album has only gotten better with time. Hard to believe we lost Bowie and Reed in the same decade, isn't it?

Debby Schwartz - A Garden Of My Own (2014) I've know Debby for decades and always liked her voice and way with a song. Even so, none of her previous work prepared me for the glory of this album, as deep and moving an investigation of Brit/Appalachian folk-rock style as anyone who ever assayed the genre. Simply magnificent.

Sleigh Bells - Treats (2010) Pity none of their other albums matched the kicky sexy tuneful fun of this still LOUD debut - but many artists would give their eyeteeth for one album this good. For a true follow-up look to the debut from art-pop insurrectionists 100 Gecs (2019). Maybe they can come up with more than one decent record.

Solange - A Seat At The Table (2016) This album, the first mature work by the younger sister of Beyoncé, has only grown in stature since it was released. Elegant R&B serves as a carrier for powerful thoughts, both political and personal. When I Get Home (2019) was a journey into pure mood and also excellent.

Spoon - They Want My Soul (2014) Spoon is one of the most consistently great bands of all time, so you could toss a three-sided coin in the air to pick this one over Transference (2010) or Hot Thoughts (2017). Leader Britt Daniel also found time to churn out A Thing Called Divine Fits (2012), a one-off from his side project with Dan Boeckner, furthering his campaign for the title of hardest working man in rock. Not that it would matter if he wasn't so damned good at what he does.

The Strokes - Angles (2011) There was a day in 2011 when my wife and I, after initially being turned off by its gleaming surface, simultaneously realized the genius of Angles. I called her from my coffee run and we had a moment together. Comedown Machine (2013) was also damned good and then things seemed to dissolve - until earlier this month when they delighted us again with The New Abnormal.

Kate Tempest - Everybody Down (2014) The globalization of hip hop has bequeathed us many fascinating records and this is one of the most fascinating. Novelistic details wedded to furiously danceable tracks make for an addictive listen. Her other albums, while good, haven't had the staying power for me. But I would leap at the chance to see her on stage again. 

Ken Thomson - Restless (2016) Music for two instruments hasn't sounded this monumental since Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, Op. 147. The dazzle and passion of Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano) could not be more perfect, making for a modern classic.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Aerial (2014) Another almost random choice - In The Light Of Air (2015) and Aequa (2018) are equally astonishing statements from this master shaper of sound. One of the greatest composers alive - I will always drop everything to hear something new from her.

Tiny Ruins - Olympic Girls (2019) The songs of Hollie Fulbrook are elemental in all the important ways. They will instantly feel like old friends even as they take you new places. Even without the exquisite production, I would have taken notice of the leap in craft on this, her fourth album. Can't wait for more.

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines (2018) My jaw hit the floor with a clunk when Lucy Dhegrae and Talea Ensemble launched into this piece at Roulette in Brooklyn. Somewhere inside I'm still reeling. The rest of the album is also wonderful, complex and conceptual, yet aimed straight at the heart.

Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name (2015) When I listen to Gecko Turner I often flash back to that moment to when a colleague walked into my office while Gone Down South (2010) was playing and said, "Oh, you've got the GOOD stuff." Yes, I do - but it's Gecko who makes the good stuff, with funk, soul, reggae, bossa nova, Afrobeat, and jazz seeming to ooze from his pores. A new album from Gecko has been an event in my house since 2006 - get on board.

Tweedy - Sukirae (2014) I'm going to be contrarian and let this songwriting masterclass stand in for everything the Wilco Industrial Complex released last decade. Some of it was amazing, like Star Wars (2015), some of it was great, like The Whole Love (2011) or Glenn Kotche's Adventureland (2014), and some of it was just OK (you figure it out). But anything Wilco or Tweedy related will always zoom to the top of the to-listen pile and Sukierae and Star Wars most rewarded that devotion in recent years.

Volcano Choir - Repave (2013) The other great Justin Vernon product of the 2010's and, while the lyrics can still be oblique, much of it feels more emotionally direct than Bon Iver, Bon Iver. No shame if you forgot this one - that's what I'm here for!

Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) - Soused (2014) With this and Bish Bosch (2012), both supreme works of art, and various soundtracks, Walker was in the midst of one of his busiest decades since The Walker Brothers broke up in 1968. He's one of my touchstone artists and I have not yet reached acceptance that he left us with a nearly finished album in the can - pretty please 4AD?

The Walkmen - Heaven (2012) Before giving us the term "extreme hiatus," one of the greatest rock bands of the 2000's went out with a bang. The title is an accurate reflection of where this album will take you - extreme sigh.

Warhaus - We Fucked A Flame Into Being (2016) In which Maarten Devoldere, member of  Belgian rockers Balthazar, comes into his own as a songwriter, singer, and persona. Burns bright indeed, and the self-titled follow-up (2017) was nearly as hot. These journeys into scabrous wit and moody grooves seemed to have also given Balthazar a lift, as proven by Fever (2019).

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) Even as its creator tried our patience, this hip hop monolith never receded in importance. Yeezus (2013) was very different but equally astonishing. After the dazzling but fragmented The Life Of Pablo (2016) (and its mindblowing live show) things got a little dicey, with Ye (2018) being actively terrible. But the struggle for redemption (musically, anyway) is one of West's main motivations and thus he was driven to make Jesus Is King (2019), which had me  singing "Hallelujah!"

Matthew E. White - Big Inner (2012) As the head of Spacebomb, White's footprint as a producer and record-man is so large that it's easy to forget that he made two terrific albums in the 2010's, this one and Fresh Blood (2015), both combining folk, gospel, soul, and country (call it "cosmic American music" - worked for Gram Parsons). Although not all it works, Gentlewoman, Ruby Man (2017), an album of covers with Flo Morrissey, was a nice bonus.

Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (2014) While neither this nor the other two albums of new songs (Blessed (2011) and The Ghosts Of Highway 20 (2016)) made into my "best of the year posts," in retrospect they have gained more weight, beautifully embellishing Williams' status as an American icon. And in concert, her mastery (and that of guitarist Stuart Mathis) came through even more clearly. Devastating.

Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds (2018) As a committed devotee of rock, my decade would have been almost infinitely impoverished if not for the rise of Jonathan Wilson, whether here or on Gentle Spirit (2011) or Fanfare (2013). He also can't be beat on stage - see him whenever you get a chance. He shows no sign of slowing down, either, kicking off this decade with the fantastic Dixie Blur.

Wire - Change Becomes Us (2013) Like Killing Joke, there's no reason a band that started in the late 70's should still be this incredible, releasing some of the richest music of their career on this and Red Barked Tree (2011), another art rock standout. Still slaying in concert, too. While they coasted a bit on Wire (2015), Nocturnal Koreans (2016) and Silver/Lead (2017) returned them to their adventurous best - fortunately, the same can also be said of their latest, Mind Hive.

Scott Wollschleger - American Dream (2019) This brilliant composer announced himself loudly on Soft Aberration (2017), a collection of knotty chamber music, and then sealed the deal as one of the best of our time with this masterwork. The performance by Bearthoven (Karl Larson, Pat Swoboda, and Matt Evans) is equally impeccable, making this one for the ages.

Daniel Wohl - Corps Exquis (2013) Wohl is a master of texture, combining electronic and acoustic instruments to arrive at a sound world that is distinctively seductive. Holographic (2016) left me cold but Etát (2019) was a glorious return to form.

Thom Yorke - Anima (2019) Not content to rest on his Radiohead laurels, Yorke has also become a  consistently great purveyor of electronic art songs on his own, as shown here and on Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (2014). Then there was the future funk of Atoms For Peace (2013), which was even better in concert, and the truly terrifying Suspiria (2018), which gave his bandmate Jonny Greenwood a run for his money in the world of soundtracks. Stay busy, Mr. Yorke.

You may also enjoy:

Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2018: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 14 (Part 1)
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Best Of 2013
The Best Of 12: Part One
The Best Of 12: Part Two
The Best Of 11
Best Of Ten

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