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.
80. Melodrama – Lorde (2017)
The famed quote from pop deity Max Martin that Lorde utilizes “incorrect songwriting” is kind of the whole point. Melodrama was never meant to be another paint by the numbers pop record. Instead, it’s a burning exploration of being young, empowered and unsure what to do about either of those things. “All of the things we’re taking, ’cause we are young and we’re ashamed, send us to perfect places,” Lorde sings on the album’s dynamite finale. But booming programming and a host of backing singers don’t create the confidence that the young so desperately crave. “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?” Lorde asks, ending the album. There are no easy answers, but listening to Melodrama is as good a place to start as any.
79. Spiral Gaze – Off Road Minivan (2018)
Suffering does not breed great art; that fallacy has caused far more harm than good. Hard work, dedication to craft, a willingness to fail and the ability to unflinchingly communicate personal stories creates good art. But much good art has been made that addresses or was inspired by suffering. “17 Years,” the final song on Off Road Minivan’s debut EP, Spiral Gaze, is that kind of art. An examination of a single-parent childhood, the song is heavy and illuminating, richly composed and hauntingly performed. “17 years, I was not alone but my mother was gone,” the chorus sings. “You gave us a father’s love and that’s all that I need.” Above the pounding bass and crashing cymbals you can hear the self-doubt.
78. What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress – Sara Barielles (2015)
A few key exceptions aside, I’m not one for musicals. But I am a sucker for Sara Bareilles, and What’s Inside—the pop-album version of the songs that she’d written for the Broadway musical Waitress—is her best album since 2007’s Little Voices. Upbeat tracks like “Opening Up,” “Door Number Three” and “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” are buoyant and fun but it’s the soul-searching melancholy of “She Used to be Mine” that makes What’s Inside indispensable.
77. Dive – Tycho (2011)
In the spring of this year, I spent a lot of time watching my son learning to crawl and then walk in the painfully early hours of the day. During those eventful and sleep-deprived mornings, I needed the support of a high quality ambient soundtrack to keep me awake and engaged. Enter Tycho’s 2011 classic Dive. Tycho is a legend within the electronica community for good reason and Dive is the genesis of his groundbreaking, oft-imitated work.
76. Daybreak – Saves the Day (2011)
Saves the Day never struck me as the kind of band to experiment with concept albums and ten-minute tracks but Daybreak, which slots into a weird three-album concept cycle and opens with a multi-part ten-minute song, breaks a lot of new ground for the band, which by this point, is little more than Chris Conley and a handful of complementary musicians. Continuing a trend dating back to In Reverie, Daybreak puts even more distance between Conley and his emo roots, seeing Saves the Day successfully experiment with a variety of new sounds; the album shines brightest in those moments when Conley pushes his limits, as with “Daybreak”, “E”, “Z” and “Chameleon.”
75. The Story So Far – The Story So Far (2015)
Parker Cannon, the singer of The Story So Far, kicked a female fan off the stage at a show in 2016. As with the circumstances surrounding Jesse Lacey and Brand New, it would be irresponsible not to address this extracurricular activity when discussing the band. Fortunately, the victim in this instance was not only unhurt but also very understanding of the entire situation; that doesn’t mean that Cannon wasn’t being a moronic douchebag, though. And so, once again, I am forced to cite my belief that art and artist are separate from one another: Music belongs to its listeners and the reality is that my enjoyment of The Story So Far has nothing to do with the band that wrote it (outside of their mechanical necessity) and everything to do with me. The Story So Far is a gritty, hook-laden pop-punk album and I happen to have an affinity for gritty, hook-laden pop-punk albums. Does that justify kicking a fan off stage? Of course not. But it is possible to enjoy an album and to think that some of the people who made it are capable of being stupidly cruel.
74. Perfect Enemy – Tilian (2015)
The second full-length installment of Tilian Pearson’s solo project ditches the heavy electronic elements of its predecessor in favor of acoustic guitars, pianos and floor toms. Despite that change, Tilian retains his aptitude for penning energetic pop tunes with melodies that will inevitably get stuck in your head for days at a time. Embracing simpler arrangements, Perfect Enemy is endearingly rough around the edges, feeling more like a demo or passion project than a full-fledged release, and while that sounds derogatory, it actually increases the album’s winning, personal charm.
73. Purple – Baroness (2015)
What if your metal band doesn’t want to write metal albums anymore but still wants to rock? You might end up with Purple, the surprisingly indie but still heavy as hell release from (former?) metal gods Baroness. Purple kicks ass from front to back with tracks like “Chlorine & Wine” and “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain?)” creating and ably filling a new genre niche between hard-hitting metal and deeply melodic indie.
72. The Melodrama (Love Me, Love You and Know Love) – Barcelona (2014)
I’m cheating a little here by slotting in all three of Barcelona’s 2014 EPs but, considering that all three were intended as a trilogy—collectively dubbed The Melodrama—and were released within a span of about two months, I think it’s fair to count the set as one release. Each prior Barcelona album featured its own distinct flavor; the band’s major label debut, 2009’s Absolutes, was reminiscent of The Fray while 2012’s Not Quite Yours was more conventional indie fare. But The Melodrama stands out for going farther afield than anything that came before it, landing firmly in an R&B-influenced space that feels completely unexpected for this group. And yet it works. Songs like “Cure,” “Strange Way” and “Lose Control” stack meaty hooks on top of vibrant programming in a way that feels simultaneously radio-friendly and delightfully underground.
71. The Afterman: Ascension – Coheed and Cambria (2012)
Claudio Sanchez and the rest of Coheed and Cambria are at their best when they’re combining satisfying riffing with soaring melodies and overwrought sci-fi nonsense. The Afterman: Ascension is exactly that. I have no idea what its convoluted title is trying to communicate but “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute” absolutely rips (just like “The Dark Sentencer from 2018’s The Unheavenly Creatures, a single I love so much that I felt compelled to mention it here even though that album didn’t make this list) and in those moments when the band slows things down on tracks like “The Afterman” and “Key Entity Extraction IV: Evagria the Faithful” the hooks and groove remain excellent.
70. Daydream – Empty Houses (2016)
Michigan’s Empty Houses combine classic pop style with vocals that justly inspire comparisons to Adele. But, vocal timbre aside, Daydream’s aesthetic has less in common with Adele’s catalog than it does with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, if Back to Black had been crafted and written in part by a pair of the guys who made Fireworks’ touchstone pop-punk release Gospel. Daydream is warm and comforting, tinged with a distinctly retro aesthetic and a modern sense of melody and production.
69. Morning Parade – Morning Parade (2012)
If radio-friendly rock as a genre hadn’t died a gruesome death sometime after the Foo Fighters released In Your Honor, Morning Parade might have been kings of the airwaves. Instead, well, they weren’t. But their debut record introduced a band uniquely capable of fusing guitar rock, irresistible hooks and the occasional decorative synth. Songs like “Us & Ourselves,” “Speechless” and “Born Alone” seem built for arena rock in a way that makes me want to go and see an arena rock show for the first time in 20 years.
68. Harry Styles – Harry Styles (2017)
To say that my expectations were low for the first solo release from a member of boy band One Direction is to suggest that I had expectations at all which I certainly did not. Then Harry Styles went on Saturday Night Live and killed the hell out of a couple of classic rock tracks. My attention was thoroughly caught. Harry Styles is a contemporary classic rock album, relishing in its glam-inspired, retrograde approach to bad boy balladry. Its ideas aren’t new but by filling a niche that hasn’t been ably serviced in decades, it feels fresh all the same.
67. Somewhere Sleepless – WATERMEDOWN (2015)
Like a lot of young, pent up songwriters, there was a time when I fantasized about picking up a guitar going it alone. Unburdened by the creative tastes of bandmates, I could set loose all my internal frustrations with the state of the world—and my malformed place in it—as a writhing mass of wails and power chords that bounced from the serenely acoustic to the painfully electric. I never did that, but Jonny Mays did. The first release of WATERMEDOWN, his one-man band, Somewhere Sleepless is a very particular kind of record and you’ll love it if you were (or are) the kind of person who can relate to the isolationist, misanthropic misery of lines like, “God, I found hell in a college town, at least it felt like hell to me. So when I die at least I know I’ll be somewhere sleepless in a university.”
66. Bye Bye 17 – Har Mar Superstar (2013)
Sean Tillmann seems like a weird and wonderful human being. When he’s not hosting a podcast or popping up in odd acting roles, he’s performing an ever-changing collection of smoking pop tracks under the pseudonym Har Mar Superstar. If 2004’s The Handler showed Har Mar’s ability to bridge the distance between Justin Timberlake and Jamiroquai while infusing a fair amount of bawdy humor, then 2016’s Bye Bye 17 showed what a time-displaced Har Mar could’ve done at the peak of the soul era. Tracks like “Lady, You Shot Me,” “We Don’t Sleep” and “Late Night Morning Light” are the kind of sensual, smoky, groove-driven pop that Har Mar does with an excellence matched only by his enthusiasm.
65. Deas Vail – Deas Vail (2011)
Deas Vail’s self-titled release always felt to me like the moment when the band leaned all the way into their vast talent and decided to try something wholly unique and weird. The band’s debut LP, 2007’s All the Houses Look the Same, remains unimpeachably full of excellent pop-rock tracks while their sophomore LP, 2009’s Birds and Cages, expanded into some interesting creative choices but it was the band’s 2011 self-titled release, with its unique mix of pure power-pop (“Sixteen”) and tortured artistry (“Towers”) that took Deas Vail into a bold new direction. It’s a shame they never went back to the well for a fourth full-length. Or maybe they left everything on the table with this one.
64. II – Bad Books (2012)
I’ve talked before about my love for true storytelling in music; there are few current artists capable of effectively spinning a yarn atop a meaningful tune—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Meloy and Dustin Kensrue come to mind. Andy Hull, the driving force behind Manchester Orchestra, deserves inclusion on that short list. The song “Pyotr,” from II, the second release from Bad Books—Hull’s side project with Kevin Devine—is a subdued elegy, telling the haunting (and possibly apocryphal) story of Peter the Great discovering his wife Catherine’s affair and subsequently beheading her lover and then displaying the dead man’s head for her to see on a daily basis. That dark subject matter is fitted over a suitably dark song but the soft touch of Hull’s melody and vocals take a gruesome tale and turn it into something much more engaging: a love song for the insane.
63. Dreamhouse – Tides of Man (2010)
Who writes sequels to their own songs? Tides of Man, apparently, as Dreamhouse opens with “Not My Love 2,” a rip-roaring sequel to “Not My Love,” itself the lead single from 2009’s Empire Theory. Dreamhouse does much more than piggyback on its illustrious forebear, though. Tight riffs and fills, along with Tilian Pearson’s trademark super-tenor, are arranged in enticing fashion, creating one of the better post-hardcore records of the decade. And the outro of finale “Only Human” is worth spinning entire album for.
62. The Peace of Wild Things – Paper Route (2012)
I’ve written a fair amount about Paper Route over the years and the band is certainly deserving of the coverage. Featuring a mix of pop and electronica that presaged a massive shift in the landscape of popular music, Paper Route were a little too far ahead of that trend to cash in on it, missing out on the wider popularity that their listener-friendly programmed pop would have suggested. Amid a sea of excellent singles and EPs, 2012’s The Peace of Wild Things remains the band’s best full-length and a testament to the their ability to craft quality hooks and intricate soundscapes.
61. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (2011)
Having temporarily abandoned my midwestern roots for a rural corner of the Pacific northwest, I spent the early part of this decade exploring a world that was utterly foreign to me and with which I was (and remain) entirely enamored. Trying to explain that new world, to myself as much as to others, seemed beyond my abilities. And then I heard The Head and the Heart. At the time I said that I had never truly understood small town life and Americana until I heard that album with its gentle rhythms and homespun harmonies. Almost a decade later, I stand by that.