Alright, so it’s 2020, and it’s time to look back on the best music from the decade that is now behind us. Most of us will simply refer to that decade as “The Twenty Tens”, “The New Tens”, “The Teens”, etc. I’ve decided to label them “The Tenny Tweens”, mostly for the delight of how that silly phrase rolls off the tongue and because I wanted a unique nickname for it after coming up with “The Ought Nots” for the 2000s, but also because it felt very much like a decade of between-ness and transition, where I ended up in a different place both personally and in terms of my musical tastes than where I started.
Anyway, before I get to the proper list of what I’d consider my favorite album releases of the 2010s, I wanted to give honorable mentions to a hodgepodge of releases that don’t really fit into the conventional album format – generally because they’re too long, too short, and/or are mostly comprised of previously released material. Plenty of songs from these releases perked up my ears and lifted my spirits over the last several years, and it didn’t feel right glossing over ’em entirely simply because the artist didn’t choose a conventional LP as their method of releasing ’em.
I’m presenting these in chronological order rather than ranking them, because I don’t really have a meaningful way to compare something like a 4-song EP with a 55-song (and counting) magnum opus that a favorite artist has been working on for the better part of the decade and still has yet to complete. Forget apples and oranges, this stuff is like comparing guavas, dates and avocados. Some of my favorite fruits are small, exotic morsels, and some might be too filling to digest entirely in one sitting.
Future of Forestry – Travel EPs (2009/2010)
Future of Forestry’s Eric Owyoung seemed to be at the peak of his powers around the turn of the last decade. His band had successfully rebranded itself after being formerly known as Something Like Silas; the new moniker gave them the ability to be a little bit more open-ended with their lyrics and not strictly a “worship band” as they were formerly known, but their music still inspired awe and reverence in its moments of loudest rock and quietest ambiance. Twilight was a great introduction to what this newly reconfigured band could do, but it was the series of Travel EPs, two of which came out in 2009 with the third lagging behind and coming out in mid-2010, that demonstrated their ability to take a theme and run with it. Foregoing the conventional album cycle, the band first put a new coat of paint on their colorful, ethereal brand of indie rock for the first Travel EP, which was themed around air travel and meant to facilitate personal encounters with the Almighty. Travel II had sea travel as its theme, and for this one they emphasized the big, booming drums and more of a fantastical, almost mythical approach to their songwriting, with many of the lyrics inviting the listener on a voyage of self-discovery. This entry was by far my favorite in the series and the band played some absolutely jaw-dropping live shows in support of it. Travel III didn’t quite stick to its theme as clearly, but it was meant to depict land travel, and it dealt more with the interpersonal conflicts and struggles with self-worth that the other two discs had offered a respite from. The sound was a little more electronic and a little more muscular in the rock department, while still giving the band time to wander off into moody, synth-accented detours on a few tracks. Taken altogether, this could be considered a rather long album with 18 total songs, and it all fits on a conventional CD (which is how the collection was later re-released). But personally, I’ve always valued the Travel series as three separate listening experiences rather than a complete set of songs that needs to be enjoyed from front to back to get the full picture.
Mae – (m)orning/(a)fternoon/(e)vening EPs (2009/2010)
Mae’s strategy for this series of EPs was strikingly similar to Future of Forestry’s, as was their timing. Going completely independent after their one-and-done mainstream label deal that brought us 2007’s Singularity, the band initially challenged themselves to write one song per month throughout 2009, and eventually release those songs as a collection of EPs with some interludes and instrumental pieces bridging the gaps, and with the intent of donating the proceeds to charity. (They didn’t quite stick to that schedule, with a few band member departures and I seem to recall the theft of some of their gear at one point forcing them to put the project on pause and regroup.) The song cycle was meant to explore different moods or situation a person deals with throughout their day, with (m)orning being the most optimistic and empowering of the set as it dealt with learning how to best love others, when to let go of unhealthy relationships, and how to seize the day in general. Expanded to a full-length album, that one by itself could have been one of my favorites of 2009, as well as the entire decade. (a)fternoon followed toward the end of the year, showing off jammier tendencies on several songs as they turned up the angry guitars (for a certain value of “angry”, anyway – Mae’s always been a rather kind-hearted, “heart on sleeve” sort of band even in their heaviest moments), and deliberately flipping some of the motifs of (m)orning on their heads as they delved into interpersonal conflict and the struggle to balance making good art with maintaining good relationships with the people helping you make it. Some more beautiful and serene moments came near the end of that EP, leading us into the very subdued (e)vening, which wouldn’t be released until late 2010. By that point Mae had brought some old members back into the fold, but only as a temporary measure – they decided to disband after a farewell tour at the end of that year. This made (e)vening an appropriately reflective look back at the earlier entries in the series and their career as a whole, with the closing suite of “Sleep Well” and the instrumental outro “Good (e)vening” triumphantly bringing back riffs and melodies from the grand centerpiece that kicked off (m)orning, “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)”. There are few moments I can think of like that, where a band has brought a concept album (or series of mini-albums, in this case) full-circle with that much emotional resonance for me as a listener, and knowing this was their swan song only heightened the emotions I felt when listening to it. Mae’s breakup wouldn’t be forever – they regrouped in the late 2010s, re-releasing this collection (with some edits to make it not quite so long winded, though it still runs a good hour and a three quarters) under the title (M)(A)(E) in 2017 while also teasing some brand new material. It’s great to have Mae back, but the band never quite felt as special to me as they did when they were putting out this series and I knew they had 100% creative control over it.
Doves – The Places Between: The Best of Doves (2010)
I think the absolute best time for a band to release a “greatest hits” sort of collection is when I’m just starting to get into them and I have maybe one or two of their newer albums under my belt, but I’m still feeling a bit daunted about going back through their entire discography. Of course they’re not going to base that timing on my personal experience with them, but still, it worked out incredibly well for Doves to release this career-spanning collection right before going on an extended hiatus in the spring of 2010. I had only just gotten into the band with 2009’s Kingdom of Rust, which for me was stacked so deep with highlights that it would be unfair to include them all here. But it was arguably easier for me to appreciate a lot of the highlights of their earlier albums by hearing them first here, since the band did such a phenomenal job of stacking up a lot of the most action-packed, groove-based, and melodically compelling tracks from the last ten years early in the album, before getting into the moodier fare that I also found intriguing in a different way. I described Doves as sort of a grittier version of Elbow when I was first getting into them, and I think that description holds pretty well, though I’d certainly never expect anything from Elbow as out-there as the jungle drum breakdown at the end of the generously long, “There Goes the Fear”, the stuttering electronic cyberpunk landscape of “Jetstream”, or the crunchy yet unstoppably optimistic anthem “Catch the Sun”. The lone new track “Andalucía” also turned out to be one of Doves’ absolute best, bringing the strum of a Spanish guitar, dramatic strings, and an unconventional chord progression together to create one of my favorite travel-themed anthems of the entire decade. It’s a shame that we’ve heard almost nothing from the band in the decade since – they’ve regrouped and started playing shows again, but we’ve yet to hear even a new single despite the occasional rumors of new music being made. Maybe 2020 will finally be Doves’ year to pick up where they left off?
Vienna Teng & Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing (2010)
Teng may have also been at the peak of her powers at the turn of the last decade. She had certainly never stopped being utterly fascinating to me as a live performer, from her early days when she presented her brilliantly written songs entirely solo from behind a piano, up through the mid-2000s when she would travel with a “chamber pop” ensemble befitting the arrangements on her second and third albums, to the tour for Inland Territory, which was the basis for this live album and which found Teng branching out into live looping with the help of drummer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong. The two seem to exist almost as a hive mind as they perform some of that album’s more rhythmic, layered, and altogether unusual arrangements, with cellist Ward Williams rounding out the ensemble on a few tracks. It’s a great document of one of my favorite concert experiences of the late 2000s, and even while the self-production occasionally makes the sound levels inconsistent, and I can’t help but wish there had been a little more room for some of the classic tracks from Vienna’s early days, I can’t deny that this is a fantastic live set that remains true to what it was like to actually be in the room when these songs were being played. The goofy banter between Vienna and Alex, even if it seems to take up a lot of space at first, gives you a glimpse into their dorky and deadpan senses of humor, reminding the listener that these artists may be ambitious but they’re incredibly far from pretentious. Aside from Vienna’s excellent repertoire of solo material, the ensemble also shines on an unconventional cover of Radiohead’s “Idioteque” at the end of the set, and there’s even room for Alex to show off his wordsmithing skills and wry, self-deprecating humor on the then-unreleased Paper Raincoat song “In the Creases”. I originally had this as one of my Top Albums of 2010 before deciding it wasn’t really fair to rank live albums alongside new studio albums in my lists, since live albums tend to be comprised of material I have already known and loved for quite some time. So that’s my reasoning for putting this album here instead of on my proper “best albums” list for the decade – just to cover my butt in case anyone’s actually attentive enough to dig into the archives of my blog and call me out on this little inconsistency.
Sleeping at Last – Yearbook (2010-2011)
For some reason, I’m a sucker for concept records that are themed around the passage of time. What Mae did for the different times of day, and what Jon Foreman did in the late 2000s for the different seasons of the year, Sleeping at Last did for the individual months of the year, setting out in late 2010 with the incredibly ambitious goal of writing and recording three songs a month, to be released on the first of the following month, all themed around that time of the year. Actually sticking to these deadlines proved to be incredibly stressful, but aside from needing an extra week to put the finishing touches on the final EP September, he never once faltered, and given the short timetable for getting everything done, the level of quality throughout these 36 songs is downright phenomenal. Sure, you’ve got plenty of tracks that are the usual hushed piano or acoustic guitar ballads that we came to expect from Sleeping at Last after their shift toward a more low-key indie folk/baroque pop sound on 2009’s Storyboards. But there are also several with upbeat and intricate arrangements, and loads of guest appearances from friends that Ryan O’Neal (who became the sole member of the band after bassist Dan Perdue departed midway through this series) brought in to play strings or other instruments, sing backup or duet vocals, and so forth. So many of these songs have become Sleeping at Last classics in the years since, from the joyful innocence of “Next to Me” that was the highlight of the October EP, to SAL’s first original Christmas song “Snow” that closed out December, to the New Year’s-themed anthem “January White” that of course opened up January, to the absolutely gorgeous suite “Atlantic, The Sea of Atlas” that takes up most of the June EP. Just about every installment brought surprises from this otherwise low-key artist as he pushed himself to try new things and work with new people. I don’t usually prefer the model of “subscribing” to new music that gets released a little bit at a time from an artist, as I generally prefer to hear a project in full via streaming and then purchase it if it warrants a lot of repeat listens, but I had an inherent trust in what SAL was doing from the moment this project was announced, as well as a ton of goodwill from the three excellent albums they put out in the 2000s, so singing up to get three new Yearbook songs in my inbox every month seemed like a no-brainer. There was a more conventional 3-disc set that was put out later (as well as a vinyl collection, I believe), but for someone who wasn’t there listening to these songs as they came out, I can’t imagine what the experience of trying to take in all 36 songs in one go would be like. It’s best in my opinion to break this one up into smaller morsels, take in a month’s worth of songs and fully absorb those, and then move on. Think of it as the musical equivalent of those Advent calendars we had as kids, where you had to have the restraint to only open up one window and eat one chocolate per day.
R.E.M. – Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011 (2011)
Barely half a year after putting out Collapse into Now, which it turns out the band had planned to be their final album, R.E.M. decided to let the world know that they were disbanding on good terms. Along with the announcement came this career-spanning two disc set, with well over two hours of beloved R.E.M. songs (and a few dark horse picks, I guess – the band made a point of ensuring that every album was represented, even the less popular ones) spanning the decades, rounded out with three new tracks at the end that I guess were leftover from the Collapse into Now sessions. At this point I think I had at least heard every album in the band’s discography, though I was having difficulty getting into their murkier early work, and the first disc of this collection (which covers their 80s material up through a track or two from 1992’s Automatic for the People, which is where the second disc picks up) really helped with that, ensuring that I’d come to recognize most of those songs as personal highlights and have an easier time mapping out the rest of those albums in my head when I went back to them again. Of course we can quibble until the end of time about personal favorites and even actual hit singles that were left off of this collection – I’ve made a personal playlist of R.E.M. songs that I consider to be my favorites and it’s got like 80 songs on it, so obviously some restraint had to be shown here to avoid this collection sprawling out to the point where it would be too daunting for relative newbies to the band to even know where to start. I like the chronological approach here, as it helps the listener to grasp the amount of risk R.E.M. grew increasingly comfortable taking from one release to the next, expanding out from the jangly yet inscrutable alt-rock of their early days, to their commercial breakthrough in the late 80s, to their detours into folk music, glam rock, and weird experimental music in the 90s and early 2000s, to their mostly triumphant return to form at the end. Of the new tracks, I think “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” is the most deserving of being remembered as an R.E.M. classic in its own right, with its classy, horn-laden, throwback pop arrangement once again throwing us a curveball while the band gives us some lyrical closure in their own arrestingly sentimental way. This was the collection that helped to push me over the boundary from “Casual R.E.M. fan who is curious about their lesser-known material” to “Oh yeah, these guys actually are one of my favorite bands and I can find something about each and every one of their records to love.”
Trails and Ways – Trilingual EP (2013)
I seriously debated whether to include EPs on this list if they were meant as teasers for albums that would later come out, and those albums are already represented on my Top Albums list. While three of the five songs on this EP were later re-released (one as a completely different recording in another language) on the band’s debut LP Pathology in 2015, I felt that no list of favorite EPs would be complete without this gem from 2013, which introduced me to the band by way of five flawless, glowing indie pop songs showcasing influences that spanned multiple languages and continents. English, Spanish, and Portuguese lyrics can all be heard throughout this ridiculously sunny and bouncy set of songs, befitting the title of this EP (though they also sneak in a fourth with a little bit of German at the end of “Border Crosser”). Music that evokes travel to faraway places is often guaranteed to get my own sense of wanderlust fired up, so it’s probably no surprise that I connected so easily with the breakdance-worthy urban groove of “Nunca”, the bass-heavy 80s beach pop vibe of “Tereza”, or the whistled hook and longing melody of my all-time favorite Trails and Ways track “Border Crosser”. Even the simple, repetitive Spanish lyrics and playful backing vocals of “Como Te Vas” are enough to put a smile on my face here, while the densely syncopated closing track “Mtn Tune” offers up a clever metaphor linking trust in a relationship to the communication between the climber and belayer in a rock climbing excursion. There simply isn’t a flaw to be found among these 5 magnificent tracks.
Susan Ashton – Thief EP (2013)
Of all the comebacks to look forward to in the 2010s, I certainly wouldn’t have expected folk and country-influenced CCM pop singer Susan Ashton to be one of them. She had a string of hits in the adult contemporary Christian market throughout the early 90s before trying her hand at mainstream country and having that turn out to be a dud; then she took some time away from the spotlight and finally came back with this collection of 6 songs in late 2013. I was immediately blown away by the twangy, bluegrass-inflected “Moonshine”, and the strong country/rock sound of “Become Myself” and her cover of “Love Is Alive”. Even in the softer cuts on this EP, Ashton comes across as wise and wary of temptations the industry once offered to turn her into a starlet overnight, now being far more assured of who she is and what she wants to say as an artist, in a language that I’d say is still recognizable to Christian listeners without falling back on a ton of lazy cliches. Sadly, she hasn’t put anything else out since this attention-grabbing comeback, but I figure the songwriting bug’ll probably bite her again sooner or later.
The Good Mad – Strangeworthy EP (2013)
The folk/Americana branch of the music world definitely had a Nickel Creek-shaped void while that trio was on hiatus from the late 2000s until getting back together in 2014. Mere weeks before their reunion was announced, a friend turned me on to this L.A. based band featuring actress Allie Gonino that sought to bring together the traditional acoustic guitar/fiddle/mandolin lineup with more of a pop/rock sound, and they sounded an awful lot like Nickel Creek at times, yet different enough at others that I wanted to see The Good Mad succeed in their own right. The trio has yet to put out a proper LP, but this collection of 8 songs that they put out in 2013 is their strongest EP to date, grabbing the listener right away with the existential angst of “What Money Paid For” before taking a hard turn into the bouncy folk-pop of “Follow Your Heart” and “Stepping Stone”, and later zig-zagging into more unconventional territory with the schizophrenic “Bird in Another Tree” and the show-stopping ballad “In the Grey”, a strong showcase for Allie as a vocalist. This trio seems to have been an equal venture on the part of all three participants, not just the usual “actor who also sings” type side gig that we see far too much of in Hollywood these days. I really hope they manage to regroup and give us something new in the 2020s.
Sleeping at Last – Atlas I (2013/2014)
Sleeping at Last is going to show up exclusively on this list, due to having completely abandoned the traditional album release cycle at the start of the decade. After Yearbook, Ryan O’Neal somehow thought it would be a good idea to embark on an even more ambitious project spanning several years, in which the goal was to explore the entire makeup of the universe and the human experience. That’s an impossible task for any songwriter, but Ryan’s idea was to break it down into smaller components that he could explore over the course of three individual volumes, with the first volume centering around the creation of the universe from its most basic elements (the Darkness and Light EPs), the formation of the solar system and the personifications of each of its planets as well as the sun and moon (the Space 1 and Space 2 EPs), and finally the vast territory of the planet we humans came to call home (the Land and Oceans EPs). Altogether, you’ve got six EPs worth of material here that nicely pairs off into three pseudo-albums, a feat on par with the Yearbook series in terms of the sheer volume of music this artist managed to put out in just over a year’s time. Even when delving into themes as dark as self-doubt, war, abandonment, or death, Ryan maintains a comforting and reassuring tone, singing a great many of these songs as if they were lullabies from a parent to a child, alluding to the idea that just maybe the entire universe was orchestrated so that each and every one of us could have a safe and nurturing place to discover who we were meant to be in the grand scheme of things. Is that overly idealistic? Sure, but this man’s optimism is nothing if not compellingly contagious.
Jars of Clay – 20 (2014)
I may not have realized, when my all-time favorite band put together a fan-funded double album on which they remade fan favorite tracks from each of their studio albums as voted on by us donors, that it was essentially going to be their swan song for the foreseeable future. (They’ve since gotten back together for sporadic live dates and to record a Christmas EP, but for all intents and purposes are still on an indefinite hiatus from making new music.) Knowing that they may have been planning at that point to duck out of the limelight for a while, that makes 20 an even sweeter gift, because one can tell it was made with great care for the fans who have cherished these songs for many years, dating all the way back to their now-classic 1995 debut. Not only did this record give me the warm, fuzzy feelings of getting revisit some of my own favorites in a new context (mostly stripped down acoustic, though some of them got the reverse treatment and came out a bit louder/denser than the original versions); it helped to bolster my faith in the rest of the fanbase at a time when I had started to wonder if most of them had overlooked some of the great dark horse tracks from the band’s late 90s and early 2000s work, much of which got written off at the time for not being as immediately accessible as early hits like “Flood” and “Love Song for a Savior”. (Fun fact: “Flood” didn’t even make the cut here, because that’s how formidable of a competitor the band’s true signature song “Worlds Apart” is.) The band had been doing a series of webcasts from their Grey Matters studio that year in which they went through and re-learned the majority of each album in order to let the fans experience it all live (or at least psuedo-live) one last time, so 2014 overall was a massive gift for Jars of Clay fans. I’m glad we were left with this generous collection to document the 20 years they spent together making phenomenal music. Oh, and by the way, the two new songs – “Ghost in the Moon” and “If You Love Her” – are startling and delightful in their own right, and would easily be deserving of a future greatest hits compilation if the band were ever to continue putting out albums.
Sucré – Loner EP (2014)
This refreshing collaboration between Stacy King of Eisley, Darren King of MuteMath, and producer/arranger/songwriter Jeremy Larson yielded a spectacular baroque pop album called A Minor Bird in 2012. The trio has yet to follow it up with a proper second LP, but they’ve released a wealth of individual songs in the meantime, five of which are collected on this short but stunning EP that somehow managed to completely slip under my radar in 2014. (I didn’t discover its existence until a year later.) The stronger presence of synths and drum programming on the big, booming “Young and Free” and the title track certainly threw me for a loop (pun intended), as did the drum march on the closing track “Line of Fire”, while the usual melancholic lyrics, whimsical strings, and a bit of self-deprecation rounded out the other two tracks. This EP suggested a bold new direction for Sucré that some of their later singles from 2018 and 2019 have followed up on, though song-for-song I haven’t been as deliriously excited by their sound in the years since as I was when I first heard this EP. I’m really hoping they stop second-guessing themselves with all the stand-alone single releases and just collect the strongest material, combined with some new stuff we haven’t heard yet, and finally get album #2 out the door in 2020.
The Last Bison – Dorado EP (2015)
This companion piece to 2014’s VA features four tracks cut from the album, all of which are excellent. I’m always a bit torn when I find out that great songs were left off of an album, and perhaps you could argue that none of these really fit the mood and flow that VA was going for, but you could easily tack these tracks onto the end of that album for an extended listening experience that would enhance an already solid collection of songs. Two of these tracks, “Souls in the Sand” and the title cut, seem to be culled from the unique experiences lead singer Ben Hardesty had growing up as a missionary kid in South America, while “This Changes Everything” is another fun folk/rock hoedown in the same vein as VA‘s “Every Time” and “Burdens”. The concluding track, “You Are the Only One”, which turned out to be the final song released by The Last Bison as a larger “chamber folk”-style ensemble before the departure of several members led to a retooling of their sound later in the decade, is an absolute stunner, with Hardesty sounding surprisingly smoothing and romantic for a guy with such a gruff voice, while the backing vocals, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and string arrangement all come together in a thrilling flourish of sound at the climax. This EP is an important time capsule from a band we may never get to hear in this sort of configuration ever again.
Owel – Every Good Boy EP (2015)
Owel’s output has been so darn consistent over the course of three full albums now that I’m having a tough time figuring out how to rank each of them for my Top 100 list. They somehow found the time in between their self-titled album and Dear Me to put out a unique collection of songs that have yet to reappear anywhere else, with the surprisingly poppy punch of the electric guitar and violins on its title track easily making it an instant classic for the band. Elsewhere, the band channels tragic romantic poetry and even a bit of their inner Radiohead for the enigmatic “Razors” and the dramatic, catastrophic flights of fancy in “Flying Man” and the hushed closer “All the World’s Asleep”. This band doesn’t put out bonus tracks and B-sides terribly often, but when they do, you can usually guarantee it’ll be quality material and not just a clearing of all the unfinished demo ideas in their vaults or something.
Flint Eastwood – Small Victories EP (2015)
I first discovered the music of Jax Anderson (the solo artist behind Flint Eastwood for most of its history, whose discography has now been retroactively rebranded to feature her real name rather than that of her erstwhile band) through a vocal feature on the remix of MuteMath’s song “Vitals” in late 2016, which made me curious enough to check out the only EP she had available at the time. These 6 electropop tracks range from up-tempo bangers to mid-tempo meditations, and there’s really never a lag in the action, even as she uses the lively beats and keyboards as a backdrop for meditations on mental health, what it means to gain and lose friends, and what sounds like a very uneasy relationship with her religious upbringing. Anderson would go on to add flourishes of hip-hop and a bit more swagger to her sound on future releases, but there’s something unique about the danceability combined with the vulnerability of this release that still makes it stand out as my favorite of hers. I truly hope she’ll be afforded the opportunity to fold some of the great songs she’s recorded over the years into a full-length LP at some point in 2020 or soon after.
Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands (2015)
The last time we had heard from Switchfoot’s lead singer as a solo artist, he had put out the Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer EPs in 2007 and 2008, which flew a bit under the radar but which contained some of his most intimate and thoughtful songwriting alongside simplistic but satisfying meditations on some of his favorite Scriptures. That pattern more or less continues on The Wonderlands, which is once again a series of 4 EPs (Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, Dawn) with 6 or 7 songs each, with the thematic hook this time being that each song corresponds to an hour of the day, and the sort of mood a person might be in if they were awake and contemplating their life at that time. The music is mostly stripped-down folk with some occasional fun surprises such as a horn section, an Eastern-tinged string arrangement, or some other odd bit of musical whimsy, and the darker themes and moodier melodies of the second and third EPs help to change things up so that the mostly slow pace of this collection doesn’t result in it ever sounding repetitive. A plethora of Foreman’s friends, including other artists I’ve highlighted on this list such as Sleeping at Last and Future of Forestry, stepped in to co-write, co-produce, or perform on several of these tracks, giving it a real “community” sort of feel for a solo project. And because Foreman continues to be one of the hardest working men in modern music in addition to possibly never sleeping, he actually pulled off the insane feat of playing 25 “mini-concerts” in and around San Diego over the course of a single day back in the fall of 2015 after the final EP Daylight had been released, with small groups of fans and other lucky bystanders getting to see some of these songs as well as classic Switchfoot material performed in such unlikely venues as a Mexican restaurant, a children’s hospital, a gas station, one or two of Foreman’s favorite surfing beaches, and even the peak of Mt. Soledad. Truly a special experience from an extremely dedicated artist who loves to share his music with his fans in any setting he possibly can, large or small.
Mumford & Sons feat. Baaba Maal, The Very Best & Beatenberg – Johannesburg EP (2016)
I haven’t exactly had a lot of positive things to say about Mumford & Sons for most of the last five years. I enjoyed their second album Babel when I first got into the band in 2012, and went back and found their debut Sigh No More to be similarly likable, but their utter abandonment of their rootsy folk sound on their third album Wilder Mind, and subsequent poorly-executed return to it in fits and starts on Delta scarred my opinion of the band to the point where it was even difficult for me to go back and enjoy a lot of their early material. Despite that profoundly negative reaction, this 2016 EP, which they put together for an African tour with several artists hailing from different parts of the continent, somehow escaped unscathed. Hearing Mumford attempt to mimic different styles of African popular music would have been a disaster, but hearing them collaborate with artists who knew the scene, and add their own songwriting and instrumentation to the mix, actually worked out way better than it sounds like it would on paper. When all four artists get together for the album’s most energetic track “Wona”, it’s enough of a spirited jam to make Vampire Weekend jealous. Elsewhere, when Senegalese singer Baaba Maal takes the spotlight for parts of the lead single “There Will Be Time” and for the totality of the French-language “Si Tu Veux” at the end of the EP, the results are magical, and I almost feel like Mumford & Sons were simply along for the ride on a more expressive artist’s journey. Not to knock Mumford’s own contributions to this EP, which go down far more smoothly than just about anything on the albums released on either side of it. I’m just sort of amazed that in the midst of gravitating toward the center of the pop/rock road on those two albums and calling it “experimentation”, they actually found the space to try something different, and it paid off in spades. Nothing even remotely close to this will probably ever happen again for Mumford & Sons – it would be like lightning striking the same person twice, which I guess is possible, but the odds are astronomically against it.
Darlingside – Whippoorwill EP (2016)
This one’s an eleventh hour entry for sure – I had never heard of Darlingside until the fall of 2019, and after falling in love with their modern, quirky take on a traditional folk/bluegrass sound on their 2018 album Extralife, I took a bit of a crash course in their entire discography, ultimately deciding that this 2016 EP, comprised of B-sides from the sessions for their 2015 album Birds Say, was their most consistent and enjoyable release thus far. The complex instrumentation and song structures of the title track and “4th of July” easily rivals some of my favorite material from bands like Nickel Creek or Punch Brothers, while the palm-muted stringed instruments used for percussion rather than melody throughout “Open Door” aptly highlight this group’s vocal talents. But the big show-stoppers here are the remake of “Blow the House Down”, a highlight from their 2012 album Pilot Machines, which gets kicked up a notch tempo-wise and which reasserts itself here as Darlingside’s signature song, followed by a delightfully folksy cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”. The band’s diverse and sometimes unexpected influences are on display throughout, and unlike their full-length albums where my attention tends to wander slightly in the second half, there really isn’t a dull moment to be found among these five tracks.
Rina Sawayama – RINA EP (2017)
Born in Japan but raised in England, this feisty young pop provocateur wants to make damn sure you regard her unique blend of late 90s/early 2000s throwback sounds as the work of a unique artist, and not just the Asian answer to (insert popular white pop princess here). While her debut EP might stumble early on with the rather cliched “Ordinary Superstar”, the complexity of her collaborative efforts with producer Clarence Clarity soon reveals itself via slick key changes, unexpected guitar solos, and some of the juiciest slabs of electropop-meets-R&B I can ever recall hearing. Obsession with social media, the perils of dating apps, calling bullshit on people’s attempts to whitewash or fetishize aspects of her identity… pretty much all of it’s fair game on this “mini-album” that I’m still eager to see followed up with a proper full-length debut (and the release of several new singles in 2018/19 would seem to suggest such a thing might be right around the corner).
Tennis – We Can Die Happy EP (2017)
The married duo known as Tennis had perfected their brand of 70s and 80s-inflected indie pop so well by the time their fourth album Yours Conditionally came out in 2017, that my feelings on this companion EP released later in the same year are essentially a cut and paste of all the most positive things I had to say about the album. It’s pure bouncy pop bliss in some places, while dealing with weightier questions of what marriage and traditional gender roles even mean in a few songs, and even grappling with the looming spectre of death and the notion that maybe we’re just remaking God in our own image on a few songs where the music is so calming and engrossing that you really don’t see those lyrical sideswipes coming.
Sleeping at Last – Atlas II (2015-2019)
SAL appears yet again on this list, with a project a few more years in the making than either Yearbook or the first Atlas installment. By this point Ryan had gently tapped the brakes and given each song room to brow and breathe into whatever it needed to be rather than rushing them out on any particular release schedule, meaning that this planned series of 5 EPs (or 4 EPs and one album, depending on how you classify the nine-song Enneagram series that took a good year and a half for Ryan to complete between late 2017 and early 2019) might have fewer songs than the first volume of Atlas, but greater care was taken to get the very human aspects of all these songs right. The genius is in the details here – like how the songs “Son” and “Daughter” on the Life EP run precisely equal lengths while inverting the expected gender tropes as Ryan describes his hopes for how he would want a male or female child to be raised, or how his attempts to personify the different human senses and emotions result in a number of different genre experiments on the Senses and Emotions EPs, with the choral melodrama of “Sight” perhaps emerging as one of the most ethereal experiences SAL has ever put to life. Then there’s the Intelligence EP which briefly touches on the concepts of the body, heart, and mind, and how these all vie for control of our decision-making process at various points. And of course, the Enneagram comes along at the end, with a song for each of the nine personality types, probably one of Ryan’s most interesting musical and lyrical experiments as he sought to recruit people who fit each type to play on their corresponding tracks. Since Ryan’s default mode is “sensitive piano ballad” and as a result this collection of songs is pretty mellow for the most part, I don’t know that the totality of Atlas II makes sense as a single, continuous listening experience. It’s really worth examining the individual songs up close, taken a handful at a time as suggested by how most of them were individually grouped into EPs of three to five songs each. I’m excited to see where Ryan goes from here as he seeks to complete what’s likely to be a decade-spanning project on the third and final volume of Atlas in this new decade.
My Epic – Violence EP (2019)
This one’s still pretty fresh in my mind, as I just finished raving about it in my 2019 end-of-year roundup, and saying it easily could have been my favorite album of the year if only My Epic had seen fit to include a few more songs. To be fair to this North Carolina-based experimental hard rock outfit, more of their discography at this point seems to have been EPs than full-length albums, so perhaps they have the good sense to know when a song cycle only calls for a certain amount of material, rather than artificially stretch it out to meet some nitpicky writer’s definition of a full-length album. Whatever you want to call it, Violence was thematically satisfying, both for being the sonic polar opposite of the mostly ambient Ultraviolet EP released the year prior, and for featuring some hard-hitting and genuinely thought-provoking songs about how people of faith deal with doubt, anger and depression, ultimately deciding that honesty is the best policy even if it hurts like hell. This is a cathartic album to listen to if you’re a Christian (or if were at one point but have distanced yourself from the faith due to troubling events in recent years) and you don’t mind a blunt, hard-hitting exploration of what it means when the flowery platitudes we’ve been taught to apply to the various trials of life growing up don’t fit the actual gut-wrenching experiences we’ve been put through in the years since. There are no easy answers here, and really not even much of a conclusion at the end of these seven tracks, but My Epic handles all of their uncertainty with grace, maturity, and just the right amount of sonic experimentation to throw the listener off the game when they think they’ve got this band figured out.