The 100 Best Albums of the Decade: 20-1

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

20. Young and Courageous – Tides of Man (2014)

young and courageousLike it or not, bands are defined by their vocalists so when Tilian Pearson left Tides of Man it seemed that the post-hardcore outfit would either call it quits or call on the nearest available Cove Reber type to begin a second era of the band that would undoubtedly be unfavorably compared to the Tilian Era by fanboys. Except, yeah, Tides of Man was having none of that shit. In the wake of Tilian’s departure, the band decided, “Fuck it, who needs a vocalist anyway?” The resulting album, 2014’s Young and Courageous, is arching and beautiful in a way that not only puts it in a class with the best works of Explosions in the Sky and Caspian but maybe vaults it all the way to the top.

19. A Black Mile to the Surface – Manchester Orchestra (2017)

a black mileOne of the best live bands of their era, Manchester Orchestra carry the torch of being a pure rock band at a time when essentially no one else is willing to bear that flame. The most recent entry in a long line of memorable records, A Black Mile to the Surface is Manchester’s greatest achievement. A sprawling story of middle America and the challenges of building and maintaining relationships with our peers and partners as well as with the generations before and after, A Black Mile the the Surface is rich with emotional tension and sonic turmoil.

18. Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise – The Dear Hunter (2015)

act ivIf you wanted to argue that each of The Dear Hunter’s Acts records was merely another take on the same general principle—namely that baroque-prog-pop-rock is interesting and meaningful, even in 2019—well, I don’t have much evidence to the contrary. But that argument ignores the excellence of the band’s execution. Act IV is very much the same of what Acts I-III offered and yet, despite how well tread its ground, Act IV is still remarkable. (In 2016, Act V took a slightly different approach that yielded less satisfying results.) On one hand, given its similarities to other entries in The Dear Hunter’s catalog, Act IV is an easy album for listeners to overlook and on the other hand fans of the band will find the most refined version of that trademark sound while new listeners will find a compelling reason to be drawn in.

17. Mental Illness – Aimee Mann (2017)

mental illnessThe title kind of gives it away but, for a strictly acoustic album, Mental Illness is dark. Aimee Mann was 24 years into her storied solo career before she finally buckled down and recorded the album that she had been accused of making for years, a somber collection of acoustic dirges that lament loves lost and lives wasted. There isn’t a surfeit moment on Mental Illness which is filled with unbelievably tight songwriting and melodic structures.

16. The Pottsville Conglomerate – Pete Davis (2011)

pottsvilleThe first time I heard any part of The Pottsville Conglomerate, I was in a friends’ basement. Our band had just finished practicing and one of our guitar players demanded that we all listen to a track from some crazy prog album he had found online. For five minutes we sat in silence as “What Does Your Blood Do?” and its a cappella madness unfolded. The fuck was that all about? I remember thinking to myself. But here’s the thing. I asked for the name of the album and went back later so that I could listen to “What Does Your Blood Do?” again. And then I tried to get through all 100 minutes of The Pottsville Conglomerate. Failing to make it to the album’s end, I wrote the whole thing off. But some part of it stayed in my brain and a few weeks later, yielding to the itch, I tried it again. This time I got through to the end, even if it felt like a slog. A few days later, I spun it again and then once more the day after that, chipping away each time at the massive learning curve that Davis’ masterpiece demands. A year later and I was hopelessly obsessed with the record, listening to it constantly and endlessly. On more than three occasions I’ve tried to write a novella based on it. It is an utterly entrancing work. The overwhelming creation of a single visionary, The Pottsville Conglomerate is unlike any other record I’ve ever heard. It has no regard for genre or expectation or, frankly, the listener’s time. It explores esoteric ideas with a probing, academic depth while always feeling as personal as basement tape made by your best friend. Davis named one of his other albums Passing It Off as Art but there’s no need to pass anything off with The Pottsville Conglomerate. This is the real deal. This is art.

15. The Color Spectrum – The Dear Hunter (2011)

color spectrumCasey Crescenzo is a musical genius. I offer no qualifiers to that statement. When, in 2011, he took a break from his wonderfully eccentric baroque-prog-rock Acts cycle, one might have assumed that he’d tackle something different and simpler, an acoustic record, perhaps. Yeah, no. The Color Spectrum is a 36-song album broken into nine EPs (and also released simultaneously as a “Greatest Hits” style collection which is wonderful in its own way), each section thematically reflective of one of the colors of the visible spectrum. That Crescenzo even tackled this insane idea—as a side project from his absurdly ambitious main project, no less—still seems almost incomprehensible. That he pulled it off—that he actually wrote, recorded and released this behemoth of a record with its sonically and lyrically appropriate themes that sound like nine different releases and yet also like one coherent whole—is entirely inexplicable. Until you remember that Crescenzo is a musical genius.

14. Gemini, Her Majesty – RX Bandits (2014)

gemini her majestyReunion albums and tours are something of a scourge on the contemporary indie scene so it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached Gemini, Her Majesty, released in 2014 and the first RX Bandits album since 2009’s Mandala. The last time we had heard from the Bandits, Mandala had sidelined the band’s sharp appreciation for melody in favor of a more unfocused jam-band feel and it wasn’t hard to imagine that, after years away from the studio, the band would choose the path of least resistance and release little more than a live-tracked jam session. Instead, they entirely reversed course and tracked what is arguably their tightest melodic work in Gemini. Songs like “Stargazer” and “Meow! Meow! Space Tiger” are impeccably precise and endlessly interesting; pop songs by a (formerly ska) prog band. That album finale “Future, Buddy” somehow turns counting in compound time signatures into an unshakeable ear worm is honestly a low-grade miracle and further proof that Matt Embree and Co. are genius-level songwriters. Each song on Gemini is highly refined, tight and whittled down to its essential core. There’s no fat here, only the impeccable songwriting and performances of some of the era’s greatest artists.

13. OWEL – OWEL (2013)

owelAlbum opener “Snowglobe” is an absolute journey of a song. Twinkling keys, soothingly clean guitars and airy falsetto make way for a warm violin, humming bass and pattering drums. That’s just the intro; it’s a little later when shit gets crazy. And the record never slows down after that. At the time of its release, I described OWEL as feeling like a mixture of As Tall As Lions and Sigur Rós, proclaiming the record an instant classic. The latter element certainly holds true—OWEL is an unimpeachable record—but the former elements seem shortsighted. What OWEL has done over their catalog is prove that they are very much their own unique thing, the pioneers of a sound that is as distinctly their own as Sigur Rós’ symphonic trademarks. It’s often said that pioneers are ahead of their time—David Bowie comes to mind—but the reality is slightly but meaningfully different: Pioneers, and I count OWEL among them, are timeless.

12. To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere – Thrice (2016)

to be everywhereYou can’t go wrong quoting Seneca in your album title. But you can go wrong when you’re an aggressive rock band coming back to life after an extended hiatus. Cynicism sees only the cash grab in that act but listeners should know better with Thrice, a band whose members basically flout the idea of the hard-driving rock star. Not only was To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere a remarkable return for Thrice, it makes a strong case to be considered among—or maybe even at the top of—the list of their greatest albums. “Hurricane” hits like its namesake, “The Window” is sultry and driving while “Whistleblower” is an archetypal hard-rock single. To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere wasn’t only a remarkable return for one of the greatest bands of their era, it has a rightful claim to being one of Thrice’s two or three best records.

11. Moving Mountains – Moving Mountains (2013)

moving mountainsThere is a terrible cliché that writers rely on when describing bands whose sounds have mellowed—I’m not innocent of this transgression, mind you: When a band’s members have grown older (as band members are wont to do), when they add acoustic guitars or maybe strings, and when, most importantly, their BPMs have decreased since their last full length, writers have a tendency to say that the band has matured. That preface only serves to underscore how strongly I believe that, with their self-titled release, Moving Mountains really and truly matured. In an effort to distance myself from critical hackery, I should clarify that I mean this literally. Moving Mountains is a record that seems impossible for young people to have written, but not because of its lyrical content or its pacing or its string arrangements. As I approach middle age and struggle with the oft-painful realities of endlessly mockable stereotypes that all too often prove true, I’m struck by how indescribable growing old seems to be. The weight of the years hangs on you like gravity and how would you explain that force to someone who has never quite felt it? How would you make sense of a world that is fundamentally different from what came before and yet remains, clearly and starkly, rooted in that knowable but unreachable past? You would listen to Moving Mountains, I guess, that stand-in for maturity that warrants hearing again and again and again.

10. Since Before Our Time – Wolves & Machines (2014)

since before our timeSince Before Our Time is itself timeless in more ways than one, its ending feeding back into its beginning, yes, but also because it sounds and feels like an album that could have been recorded in 1998 or 2008 or 2018. It’s a flawless record from front to back with no weak songs or moments and it fills a very specific sonic channel that has always been very important to me: Guitar rock that is heavy but hook-laden, intricate but profound, with clean vocals delivered powerfully. The prior 90 albums on this list have laid that preference out fairly clearly but it is perhaps best exemplified by bands whose peak was in the prior decade, bands like Further Seems Forever, Thrice and The Receiving End of Sirens. Flint natives Wolves & Machines belong in that esteemed grouping, having mastered that aggressive, melodic, passionate sound with this 2014 release which was, sadly, their last. (Save a recent single.)

9. Mystic Truth – Bad Suns (2019)

mystic truthMy favorite album of 2019, Mystic Truth makes a case for being the purest pop album of the decade, at least the purest of a certain type of pop album, the kind that walks in the storied path tread by Bellybutton and Dog Problems before it. It’s smooth and clean and saccharine and simply incredibly. If you can listen to this record and not have a half dozen songs stuck in your head—”One Magic Moment,” “Darkness Returns (and Departs)” and “Hold Your Fire” are constantly stuck in mine—then you need to clean your ears and turn up the volume.

8. The Money Pit – The Money Pit (2015)

the money pitFor nine long years I missed having Bobby Darling and Nic Newsham in my life. The heart and soul of Gatsbys Amerian Dream, those two were at the center of some of the most important listening experiences in my life, their works leading me toward some of the most important reading experiences of my life. For all that, The Money Pit, their ebullient, self-titled 2015 return to partnership could have skated by on mere nostalgia and been beloved. It didn’t. The Money Pit is rich with clever turns of phrase and even more clever songwriting. The ascending guitar riff of “Devastator” pulls the listener forward with irresistible momentum, the lyrics of “Killing Time in Hawaii” hilariously bury the hopes of an empty Gatsbys American Dream reunion and “Control Everything” turns a bouncy summer jam into a satiric assassination of capitalist power dynamics. If that’s not what you’re looking for in a punchy indie record these days then … well, shit, I don’t know what else you would be looking for.

7. Shopping Is a Feeling – What What What (2017)

what what whatTo paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, if he wore thick-framed glasses and skinny jeans: Are you both addicted to and repulsed by the hollow interactions of social media, endless but unsatisfying streaming services and the impersonal digitization of humanity? Then you might be a millennial! As narcissistic, individualist teens grew into overworked, disillusioned gig workers, a sweeping case of ennui plagued an entire generation. It turns out watching truth be delegitimized as the world burns (literally!) isn’t great for the human psyche. What What What’s sterling debut, Shopping Is a Feeling, perfectly depicts the yearning of that listless generation, the hope that there’s something more meaningful than all this shiny, expensive scaffolding that we’ve built to hide our loneliness. (Plus, there was that time I wrote a novella inspired by the album. That was fun.)

6. dear me – OWEL (2016)

dear meThank God no one told OWEL that the hour-long record has gone out of style. Clocking in at a cool 66 minutes, dear me is exactly the kind of record I want to spend a lot of time with: full of ebbs and flows, capable of transporting me from serene beauty to chaotic swells and back. A throughline of melody tracks through the entirety of dear me, shifting from twinkling xylophone to falsetto vocals to pizzicato strings to a few dozen other brilliant tones and timbres, never slacking and never pushing too hard. OWEL have a unique ability to master both ends of an intensity dynamic in close proximity and that effect is utilized with a laser precision on dear me, the rare record that feels incredibly deliberate and also incredibly carefree throughout. For a little more than an hour you can live in the peerless world of dear me; it’s time well spent.

5. Parallel Lives – gates (2016)

parallel lives[In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I have close personal relationships with the members of New Jersey post-rockers gates.]

Everything was dark. Well, most everything. The lights had been turned off but distorted rays of late summer sun filtered through glass double doors and lit the distant entryway with a dim glow. Then, in a sudden, crushing moment, strobe lights flared out and lit the astonished faces of a crowd full of people who weren’t expecting the titanic force of “Eyes.” That song’s calamitous breakdown, the most emphatic on gates’ second full length, Parallel Lives, is an incredible moment and the memory of watching it hammer through a crowd of people who didn’t yet know it—the album having been released only days before—is seared into my brain. In the wake of that sonic explosion, a second wave of concert-goers came running down the hallway of that cramped music festival, doubling gates’ crowd in a matter of seconds. But if that climactic explosion in “Eyes” is the most dramatic moment on Parallel Lives it’s far from the only one that will make you sit up and pay attention, that will draw you in and turn your expectations on their ear. Parallel Lives is also rife with quieter moments, the kind that sizzle and burn in the back of your mind until you can’t get them out of your head. It’s a complete record in a way that very few ever truly are.

4. I’m Only Dreaming – Eisley (2017)

i'm only dreamingAfter the inconsistent Currents—which featured arguably the band’s greatest four-song stretch (“Drink the Water” through “Real World”) alongside a bunch of unremarkable tracksmy expectations for new Eisley material were low. That positioning was only made worse before the release of I’m Only Dreaming, when it was announced that Stacy King (née DuPree), who—with her sister Sherri—had long formed half of the band’s songwriting duo, had recently left the group to pursue other opportunities. But from the first listen it was clear that I’m Only Dreaming was not only a big step forward from Currents, it was also definitively the band’s most focused record since 2007’s Combinations and one of the best albums of its era. Embracing the aspects of Eisley that I’ve always loved best, I’m Only Dreaming leans into the band’s sense of profound sadness and unexpected hope. DuPree spends the bulk of the album exploring the simple personal joys and failures that are a more fundamental part of our lives than any of our grand successes and losses, in a manner reminiscent of The Receiving End of Sirens’ The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi. From the poignant parental love of “When You Fall,” to the relatable simplicity of “Always Wrong,” through the brutally self-aware “Defeatist,” meticulous melodies and emotive chord progressions create an album that is deeply resonant. I’m Only Dreaming has inherited a legacy of simple, stunning brilliance established by touchstone albums like Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are. This one has staying power.

3. DIVISI – A Lot Like Birds (2017)

divisiDeath isn’t only the degradation of our bodies past the point of functionality, it’s the severance point—or at least modification point—of the interpersonal relationships that ultimately define who we are. Death means nothing in a vacuum; it means everything in a community. A handful of artworks have tackled that perspective in compelling ways over the years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain come quickly to mind—and DIVISI belongs among that hallowed grouping. Though the entire album addresses the impossible suffering and joy of mortality with great insight, principally inspired by the death of singer Cory Lockwood’s mother, it’s the album’s final two tracks that offer the most poignant approach, lamenting that, “I hope you’re eternal, but all I have is hope,” and then, “I know we were made to be unmade, tied with strings designed to fray … don’t we all arrive at the same place where we began?” This is the sound of pain. This is the sound of love. This is the sound of wisdom.

2. Bloom & Breathe – gates (2014)

bloom & breathe[One more time: In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I have close personal relationships with the members of New Jersey post-rockers gates.]

I’ve heaped praise on Bloom & Breathe before, noting that it features masterpieces of pop-rock, post-hardcore, post-rock and indie rock. That sentiment hasn’t faded in the five years since the album’s release. The craft displayed by gates on this record is remarkable in general but also in the specifics, a much harder accomplishment. The greatest songs, the ones that impact us most emphatically, are those that illuminate some fundamental truth with both their music and their lyrics in a simultaneous stroke. Just such a moment occurs at the end of the second verse of “The Thing That Would Save You,” when Kevin Dye sings, “I have never been so terrified of losing someone I love to their own disease.” Those lyrics, delivered in harmony and over rolling drums and thrumming guitars in Dye’s trademark ragged vocals, are painfully incisive for anyone who has ever … well, I’ll let you take your own meaning from the song. The follow up line, which reappears in the song’s mellow outro as a distant, ragged wail, solidifies the entire experience: “I can’t be the one who can save you from yourself.” That line—its heartbreaking lyrics and melody, its inspiring instrumentation—is so incredibly potent because it is true and honest for all of us, no matter which side of its equation we’re on.

1. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) – Various Artists (2015)

hamiltonDr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog and David Bowie’s bulge aside, I’ve never been a fan of musicals. Despite loving songs and stories more than most anything (that’s literally the name of this blog), their combination often involves sacrificing one in service of the other. It turns out that setting profound prose into rhyme often ruins the narrative magic, that pacing a story around dance numbers isn’t one of Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing and that hamfistedly pounding a story into your hooks isn’t a surefire way to craft catchy melodies. I’m not a big fan of musicals, is what I’m saying. All of which makes the brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical even more impressive. Over three tightly packed but impossibly brief hours, Hamilton’s retelling of America’s foundational myth perfectly combines its musical constructions with its textual content in a way that improves both exponentially. I could wax on and on about Miranda’s inspirationally headstrong Alexander Hamilton or Leslie Odom Jr.’s painfully relatable Aaron Burr or Christopher Jackson’s monumental George Washington or Renee Elise Goldberry’s earth-shattering turn as the incomparable Angelica Schulyer or … well, you see the situation. So here’s the simplest praise I can offer of Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda not only wrote the show’s music and text but also starred in its lead role; for his efforts, he was labeled a genius by the very people who get to make that kind of distinction. Somehow, that’s still underselling it.

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

5 thoughts on “The 100 Best Albums of the Decade: 20-1

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