The 100 Best Albums of the Decade: 40-21

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.

100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-1

40. dont smile at me – Billie Eilish (2017)

dont smile at meIn one of my more insane cross-medium comparisons, I likened Billie Eilish’s dont smile at me to the tactical strategy video game Into the Breach. I stand by it. Eilish would go on to greater fame once she leaned into the dark weirdness of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, but the temporally-displaced hooks of dont smile at me—including the absolutely timeless “Ocean Eyes”remain the most memorable entries in her young career.

39. The King is Dead – The Decemberists (2011)

the king is deadFor years The Decemberists had been Portland royalty, kings and queens of a hyper-literate prog-folk niche that they essentially invented and dominated. And then, with 2011’s The King is Dead, they decided to scale things back and release a relatively simple record that doubles as one of the decade’s best. “Don’t Carry It All” sounds like the idea of harvest turned to song, “Rise to Me” and “Dear Avery” are achingly personal, and the three-part harmony during the bridge of “June Hymn” is one of the most beautiful passages in my entire music collection. The king is dead. Long live the king.

38. Twin Forks (EP) – Twin Forks (2013)

twin forksOn Twin Forks’ debut EP, Chris Carrabba set aside his trademark teenaged-romantic-angst in favor of folksy adulting. 2014’s full length, equally self-titled release was solid, including all five EP tracks and seven other quality entries like “Danger” and “Come On” but it’s the EP, whose five tracks are consistently incredible, that acts as the best introduction to Carrabba’s mandolin-toting, pumpkin-spiced folk adventure.

37. 21 – Adele (2011)

21Who doesn’t love Adele? Eight years out, 21 remains her biggest and best record. Songs like “Rolling in the Deep”, “Someone Like You” and a brilliant cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” deliver the melancholy for which the chain-smoking hopeless romantic is best known, but I’d argue that Adele is at her most irrepressibly brilliant when she ups the pace and challenges the world to stand in her way. What I’m saying is “Set Fire to the Rain” and “He Won’t Go” absolutely rip.

36. Awake – Tycho (2014)

awakeA friend of mine is constantly looking for great dinner albums—last we discussed it, Steely Dan’s Aja was his reigning champ—and in that vein of “some albums are great for certain times,” Tycho’s 2014 masterpiece Awake is the perfect “getting ready” album. And even if you don’t care about such things or think I’m crazy for doing so, there’s little argument to be had against the idea that Awake is the best electronica album of the decade … and maybe all time.

35. Morbid Stuff – PUP (2019)

PUPI wrote more about Morbid Stuff just last week so suffice to say that PUP’s most recent record is their most interesting and, I’d argue, best. Songs like “Scorpion Hill” and “City” explore new territory for the punk-adjacent band while “Morbid Stuff” and “See You at Your Funeral” offer the best and most refined version of their aggressively gang-vocaled sound. Morbid Stuff is frenetic and combative but it’s also secretly tender and thoughtful.

34. EP 1 – Polyenso (2015)

ep 1When post-hardcore act Oceana reinvented themselves as Polyenso, they traded in the screaming aggression for chill grooves. 2013’s full length One Big Particular Loop (#59) explored the band’s new style but 2015’s EP 1 realized the full potential of their reinvented sound. Beautifully produced and meticulously written, EP 1 is filled with dreamy, soothing soundscapes and layered, comforting vocals.

33. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World – The Decemberists (2015)

what a terrible worldFor 19 years The Decemberists have been churning out their unique brand of indie folk-pop and, after all that time, they’ve retained the ability to write thoughtful songs that have a way of lingering in your mind for years and years and years. Allowing for a few new stylistic flourishes, 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World hews closely to those core principles but in an incredibly effective way. Half a dozen songs on this album make a claim to be on the short list of the best songs written by Colin Meloy and Co.

32. After Laughter – Paramore (2017)

after laughterThe stylish videos for “Hard Times” (shout out to Peter Gabriel) and “Told You So” disguise the fact that, as the album’s title subtly suggests, After Laughter is by far the darkest installment in Paramore’s oeuvre. Written in the final stages of Hayley Williams’ marriage to Chad-from-New Found Glory, After Laughter asks a lot of hard questions about equality in relationships and what it means to have true partnership with someone else. That lyrical tone is matched in the sonic mood which dips occasionally into the ‘80s-tinged pop-punk ethos of those singles but often into more somber explorations of loneliness and more esoteric experiments with the genre.

31. Death of a Bachelor – Panic! At the Disco (2016)

death of a bachelorI have unabashedly been a fan of Panic! At the Disco since a friend sent me a leaked version of the “Time to Dance” demo way back in 2005. Considering how deeply enmeshed the band was with the fads of that time, it’s somewhat astonishing to me—even as a fan—to see Brendan Urie continue to churn out records, let alone make guest appearances on Taylor Swift songs. And while every Panic! record has had at least a few quality tracks, Death of a Bachelor, when Urie decided to try an utterly bombastic approach to big-band inspired pop, is the band’s first record since A Fever to Sweat Out that is more than worth investing in from beginning to end.

30. You Are All You Have Left to Fear – gates (2012)

you are allFor a few years at the beginning of the decade my wife and I lived on the Oregon coast, where the mountains met the sea. I’d drive to work southward down the Pacific Coast Highway, water to my right, the rolling foothills to my left. On the days when I got to work early, I would turn and face those hills, the outer fringes of the Cascade range, and listen to “They See Only Shadows,” the absolute beauty and scope of the song’s latter half the only way I knew how to make sense of the view before me. When You Are All You Have Left to Fear was re-issued a few years later with the addition of looping track “Skyline”, it was elevated from a great record to a classic one.

29. Surface Tension – Hidden Hospitals (2015)

surface tensionFor a minute and a half, Hidden Hospitals lead you on before they pull their sneaky bait and switch and turn the swirling, ambient introduction of “Pulp” into the crushing guitar blasts that define Surface Tension. No band has so successfully straddled the soft/loud dichotomy as Hidden Hospitals on Surface Tension, an album that turned the EDM idea of “the drop” into a staple of indie rock. Plus, you know, the title track is functionally perfect. That’s a nice touch, too.

28. Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES (2015)

every open eyeOn the heels of their critically beloved but commercially underwhelming debut (2013’s The Bones of What You Believe), Ireland’s CHVRCHES went back to the studio to record their second full length, 2015’s Every Open Eye. The band doubled down on their melodic tendencies without sacrificing the intricate compositions that had been the most memorable part of their first release; the result is that Every Open Eye is the perfect distillation of an entire generational subculture of synth pop.

27. Young Pilgrim – Charlie Simpson (2011)

young pilgrimBefore he put out one of the better modern Cat Stevens records in recent memory, Charlie Simpson was a boy band star and a post-hardcore frontman so … not the typical path to folksy greatness. But folksy greatness is what 2011’s Young Pilgrim provides with Simpson’s husky voice layering harmony on harmony while mellow arrangements and finger-picking set the earthy tone. For all that, Young Pilgrim is much more than an exercise in genre fulfillment; as with his myriad other projects, Simpson shows on Young Pilgrim that, aside from his star power, he has major songwriting skills.

26. Time in Place – Artifex Pereo (2014)

time in placeThe third Artifex Pereo album to appear on this list is the band’s finest. 2014’s Time in Place took everything that was great about the band’s earlier work and made it tighter and more refined. (The band also swapped in new lead singer Lucas Worley.) Considering that Artifex Pereo was already playing a better version of the type of song that I used to spend my days and nights trying to write, Time in Place is, as my fellow kids would say, my shit. Time in Place will kick your ass with its riffs and fills but it’ll also have you wailing along to killer melodies and incredible vocal gymnastics.

25. Pure Adulterated Joy – Morning Parade (2014)

pure adulterated joyThat half the songs on Pure Adulterated Joy weren’t massive hits is all the proof you need to know that guitar rock is no longer a part of the pop zeitgeist. Morning Parade’s sophomore release has all of the clever guitar work of late ‘90s Radiohead with the radio-friendly hooks of early Coldplay. There’s no reason that “Reality Dream” and “Love They Neighbor” shouldn’t be on every party playlist I make for the rest of my life.

24. Almira – Tyson Motsenbocker (2017)

almiraI don’t know that it’s possible to bring anything new to the singer-songwriter formula that’s been successful for sixty-odd years but whatever it is that Tyson Motsenbocker brings, whether it’s his mournful voice or his sincere and cutting lyrics or maybe his knack for moving arrangement, it works. The title track of Almira, an elegy for his departed mother, is one of the most straightforward and emotionally charged songs of the decade; slight and simple, it moves with all the meticulous purpose of a funeral procession and all the heart of a grieving son. And then Motsenbocker moves on, at least for a moment, and “Memphis” rebounds with warm, friendly charm, the embrace of the loved ones that remain, the wake to remind you that life goes on and that, while you have it, you should make the most of it.

23. Letters to Lost Loves – Tyson Motsenbocker (2016)

letters to lost lovesAn overly existential child who turned into an overly existential adult, I have a soft spot for any piece of art that addresses a crisis of faith and “In Your Name,” the opener of Tyson Motsenbocker’s 2016 full-length debut Letters to Lost Loves, fits the bill. A rumination of the cruelty of his mother wasting away to cancer as a supposedly all-loving God ignores his prayers, “In Your Name” is an absolutely gutting track. But Motsenbocker has more to his portfolio than unchecked sadness; songs like “Evangeline” and “Can’t Come Home Again” are catchy enough for the coffee house but interesting enough for your indie-snob roommate while “House In the Hills” and “The Passage” evoke a singer-songwriter storytelling tradition that has resonated with generations of listeners.

22. Prelude (.3333) – Adjy (2016)

preludeAdjy’s band bio is one of the most incomprehensible passages ever written, but the band’s debut album, the four-song opus that is Prelude (.3333), is a magnificent piece of art. Across 25 minutes of exhilarating oddness, Adjy explores a bizarre mix of instrumentation and sonic construction. Novel melodies flit across stick clicks, and then gang vocals shout up out of nowhere and, ultimately, nothing really is where or how you would expect it to be, but the result is a riveting bit of indie rock experimentation that burrows into your brain and sits solidly in your soul.

21. Days Are Gone – HAIM (2013)

days are goneThe indie legend of HAIM—three sisters raised in a musical family and later befriended by Taylor Swift and ushered into the pantheon of social media celebrities—has arguably outstripped the notoriety of their actual music which is a shame because Days Are Gone, and its follow up Something to Tell You (#42), are fantastic records. Fusing contemporary production values (thanks, Ariel Rechtshaid!) with peak-Michael Jackson rhythms, Wilson Phillips-esque harmonies and a willingness to experiment with totally novel sounds, Days Are Gone is a record unlike any other, save the legion of imitators it inspired.

100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-1

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