The fast approaching end of 2019 means not only the end of the year but also of the decade. Ten years ago, in a similar situation, I was new to blogging and felt obligated to make clear that my decade-spanning retrospective was no more than one man’s personal opinion. In 2019, there’s no need for such pretenses: These are the 100 best albums of the last decade. Aside from my role in selecting them, this list will have at least one thing in common with last decade’s entrant: I’ll want to change it as soon as I post it. Such is life.
100. Thank You for Today – Death Cab for Cutie (2018)
Ben Gibbard has always had a knack for identifying highly specific experiences and then cutting to the core of them with conversational but clever lyrics. He’s successfully written songs that capture the emptiness of loveless infatuation (“Tiny Vessels”), the invincibility of the first pangs of love (“Be Still My Heart”) and the existential crush of eternal devotion (“I Will Follow You Into the Dark”). “60 & Punk” is the latest installment in that lineage; inspired by Gibbard’s idol Peter Buck, the song traces the aging curve of a rebellious creative who has found success but not necessarily fulfillment. “Were you happier when you were poor?” Gibbard asks. It’s a clichéd question that, as a financially established adult, I can’t help but take seriously.
99. Dogs Eating Dogs – Blink-182 (2012)
When I counted down the best deep cuts of Blink-182’s unbelievably long career, I could have easily included each and every song from Dogs Eating Dogs, 2012’s formerly hard to find EP. In the vein of Blink’s notoriously serious self-titled release, Dogs Eating Dogs is steeped in the kind of world-weary sonic maturity that would have seemed unthinkable for a band whose biggest hit was an ode to prolonged adolescence. Dogs Eating Dogs takes that newfound sense of gravity and infuses it with the up-tempo bounce that helped so many early Blink tracks balance on the line between punk and pop.
98. Halloway – Tessa Violet (2016)
Halloway is a light electropop EP but at its literal and figurative center is “Haze”, a rich track with an entrancing noir gloom. Churning bass and strings lay a seething groundwork beneath mockingly bright keys and sinisterly swirling synths as Violet’s airy vocals float above it all. It’s a great song made all the better by the hints of it that appear across the rest of Halloway. Violet’s 2016 EP focuses on her sharp pop instincts but there’s a thread of depth that runs throughout, giving substance to even the most treacly of moments.
97. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra (2011)
Simple Math is an odd record, a mixture of elements serene (“Deer”), boisterous (“Pensacola”), brooding (“Virgin”) and the unforgettable combination of all those things at once (“Simple Math”). That composition means that it’s perhaps the most disjointed Manchester Orchestra record but when it excels, as it does on all of the aforementioned tracks as well as the eerily magnificent “Apprehension”—which memorably laments that “God has never been afraid to fill our cups with more than they can hold ‘til they all overflow and we drown once and for all”—it’s impossible not to get swept away by the power of Atlanta’s foremost indie rockers.
96. Come Back as Rain – Good Old War (2012)
If you could transmute the feeling of sitting around a campfire, drinking beer and laughing with your friends into an album, it would sound an awful lot like Come Back as Rain. This three-day weekend of an album is defined by plucky acoustic guitars, gently pattering drums and, above all, tight folksy harmonies. In addition to being the finest entry in Good Old War’s catalog, Come Back as Rain is the kind of album that you want to share with your friends, if only so they can learn the harmonies for your next sing-along.
95. Collider – Cartel (2013)
I’ll admit to being a Cartel truther; I’ve always thought that, despite their mild commercial success, they were one of the most underrated bands of their era. Their preference for punching up a chord progression with suspension was easily mocked when I was still playing in pretentious prog rock bands but dammit if these guys don’t know how to craft a catchy guitar riff. On top of all that, the purity of Will Pugh’s vocal timbre was downright uncanny and Cartel even knew how to throw in a bit of prog structure every now and again. Collider is a fitting finale, the exact kind of summer jam album you’d want from Cartel with “Inspired”, inarguably one of the band’s best songs, at the heart of it.
94. The Sound of the Life of the Mind – Ben Folds Five (2012)
With all the success that Ben Folds has had as a solo act and C-List celebrity over the last decade, a Ben Folds Five reunion seemed less likely with each passing year. And yet, in 2012, we were given just that with The Sound of the Life of the Mind, released an astounding 13 years after the band’s last album. In that interval, Folds and his bandmates, Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse, grew into middle age and if that aging gave them brief glimpses of wisdom, it didn’t deprive them of the raw, goofy joy of a trio of friends having fun, instruments in hand.
93. Go – Jónsi (2010)
You can’t listen to Jónsi sing without feeling something. For my wife, that something is untempered revulsion; for me, it tends to be closer to heartbreaking melancholy. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there’s no arguing that Jónsi—the front man for Sigur Rós and occasional solo artist who has perhaps the most distinctive male voice of the last two decades—knows how to craft huge instrumental swells. How you feel about the piercing falsetto vocals floating above those swells is your business but if you’re not even trying to listen then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
92. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monáe (2018)
Forget the last decade, “Screwed” is one of the best summer songs ever. It’s the kind of sunny jam that mandates turning your stereo up and rolling your windows down. The rest of Dirty Computer, Monáe’s cross-medium sci-fi masterwork, won’t let you down. “I Like That” is perfect for headphone listening, “Pynk” is anthemic and irresistible while “Django Jane” references 1986’s animated nerd-classic Transformers: The Movie. Long live Janelle Monáe.
91. OK Lady – Roman GianArthur (2017)
I first heard OK Lady when a friend sent me a link to the album without any context. A quick review of the tracklist prepared me for some degree of weird, Radiohead-inspired shit. It did not prepare me enough. I won’t pretend to have familiarity with the D’Angelo songs that are equally important to the genesis of OK Lady but that background is not necessary to appreciate the beauty of this mashup. Reimagining a pair seminal but unrelated releases as a simmering EP is brainy enough to draw me in but GianArthur’s artful arrangements and electric vocals—not to mention his blistering guitar solos—have kept me coming back.
90. Italian Ghosts – Strawberry Girls (2017)
Every now and again I come across a song that perfectly creates a specific vibe in a way that no other song does. With nothing else capable of scratching this newly discovered itch, I’ll find myself listening to this kind of song over and over and over. “Shadow of the Moon,” the finale of Italian Ghosts, the genre-bending mostly-instrumental affair from Strawberry Girls, is exactly that kind of track. Slowly looping bass, twinkling xylophone and tremolo guitars circle and swoop as layers of vocals build and break apart. It’s spectacular and satisfying in a way that sets it apart from every other song in my vast library.
89. Wait for Love – Pianos Become the Teeth (2018)
I became a father in 2018 and some of the many side effects of that process—the unparalleled love for my son, the unrelenting exhaustion of raising a newborn—were pretty easy to expect. Less expected was the shift in how I’ve processed a large amount of the art that I consume. Despite how painfully clichéd this feels to say, parenthood has shed a light on how incredibly fragile we all are, and how incredibly strong. No piece of art has more accurately reflected the duality of that perspective than “Blue,” Wait for Love’s finale and a song that can still bring me to tears all these months later.
88. Science Fiction – Brand New (2017)
It would be reckless to talk about Science Fiction, or Brand New, without addressing the charges of sexual assault levied against singer Jesse Lacey and his subsequent apology which reads as an admission of guilt. Like a troublingly high number of his 2000s-era emo-band peers, Lacey used the power of his position as the lead singer of a popular band to coerce children—and, later, the women they became—into groomed and/or non-consensual sexual encounters. It is exactly the kind of reprehensible abuse of power that has long been endemic in our society. These actions and the stories of their victims demand attention and acknowledgement. But whether or not Lacey’s misconduct also demands that Brand New and all the music that they brought into the world be cancelled into oblivion is a proposition requiring more nuance. In her extremely thoughtful article, “Moving on After Brand New,” Nina Corcoran explores the reality that, after the needs of Lacey’s victims have been addressed, there is room to consider Brand New’s music and what to make of it in light of Lacey’s transgressions. Much like Corcoran’s conclusion, I am of the belief that, once put into the world, music belongs not to its creators but to its listeners. And so I don’t believe that listening to Science Fiction, which features a handful of great songs like “Lit Me Up,” “Waste” and “451,” implies support for Lacey or his actions. Could that position be influenced by subconscious self-justification? I suppose so, but I truly do believe that art and artist are separate entities and that, even as they are inextricably connected, attention paid to the former does not imply support for the latter. These are not easy considerations but they are trivial compared to the claims of Lacey’s victims. And yet, that we can have this discussion at all must be read as a sign of progress: After long years of intimidated silence, we are, at last, hearing the stories of survivors.
87. Ailments & Antidotes – Artifex Pereo (2011)
On their debut LP, Ailments & Antidotes, Artifex Pereo kick ass. Riffs and fills go blistering past as Evan Redmon’s vocals rip and tear across the sonic space. Hearing this album for the first time was a bizarre experience because, in almost every way, Ailments & Antidotes is an improved, more refined version of the weird shit that my college band was writing back in 2005. That reason alone will keep Ailments & Antidotes in my listening rotation for years to come but other listeners will be drawn in by explosive tracks like “The Baker Act” and “Fool’s Errand.”
86. Lowcountry – Envy on the Coast (2010)
“I don’t believe in much of anything,” the lyric goes. “I threw that away when I found out Jesus never learned to sing.” As a former singer who once studied religious anthropology, it’s hard to imagine a lyric more likely to win my devotion. The brazen excellence of that opening line from “Made of Stone” is matched by the emo-infused southern terroir of songs like “Numb,” “Death March on Two, Ready?” and “Clean of You”; Lowcountry is unapologetic rock at its finest.
85. Light We Made – Balance and Composure (2016)
Balance and Composure’s final album saw the Pennsylvania band leave behind the raucous, grunge-influenced hard rock of their first two albums in favor of a much more mellow approach. Light We Made (and its terrible cover art) was bound to alienate some longtime fans but those who stick with it, and those new fans for whom Light We Made is an introduction to the band, will find beautifully crafted ambient indie rock, a style best exemplified by album bookends “Midnight Zone” and “Loam.”
84. Passengers – Artifex Pereo (2016)
If it feels like we just talked about Artifex Pereo it’s because, well, we did. (You can find their first LP, Ailments & Antidotes, up above at #87.) And, spoiler alert, we’re not done talking about them with Passengers either. The point being: Artifex Pereo was incredible. Mixing hyper-technical instrumentation with unfairly beautiful clean vocals and occasional moments of ultra-violent, hardcore-influenced screaming breakdowns, Passengers is a lot of things and each of them is fantastic.
83. Rainbow – Kesha (2017)
Ever since I first heard the unquenchable “Die Young” I knew that Kesha was going to release a handful of songs that I would love. What I didn’t know was that she was going to release several of them on one excellent album. Rainbow is not something I would have expected from Kesha or any other mainstream pop act, mainly because it’s a bizarre glam rock, ’80s-fusion approach to contemporary pop that only a few talented acts could pull off. Kesha, prophetically underestimated, was up to the challenge. Oh, and the writing and performance on “Praying” is powerful enough to be a cultural moment all its own. Don’t let the bastards get you down, indeed.
82. Colliding by Design – Acceptance (2017)
Acceptance has always been ahead of their time and the band’s long-awaited second full length, 2017’s Colliding by Design, is no exception. The signature hooks and deceptively brilliant guitar-pop that made the band’s first album—2005’s Phantoms—a cult classic remain, this time heavily steeped in contemporary production and texture. It’s almost impossible to identify the exact influences that shaped Colliding by Design but with songs like “Fire and Rain,” “Haunted” and “Golden” standing out as instant classics, I would imagine that we’ll be seeing this album’s influence on a lot of records to come.
81. Migrant – The Dear Hunter (2013)
Somehow Migrant, despite being the band’s fifth album, was the first non-concept album from The Dear Hunter. Instead of telling some elaborate war story or exploring the nature of musical themes, Migrant is nothing more than a collection of well-crafted rock songs. It’s more than enough. Headlined by tracks like “An Escape,” “Shouting at the Rain” and “Don’t Look Back,” Migrant is a welcome diversion from the typically bombastic sounds and styles that dominate The Dear Hunter’s catalog.