Before we get on with the next 20 albums in my decade-end list, I thought it’d be interesting to break down all 100 by which year they came out.
9 of these albums came out in 2010.
17 of these albums came out in 2011.
10 of these albums came out in 2012.
18 of these albums came out in 2013.
7 of these albums came out in 2014.
9 of these albums came out in 2015.
6 of these albums came out in 2016.
9 of these albums came out in 2017.
12 of these albums came out in 2018.
4 of these albums came out in 2019.
(Yes, I know that the numbers above add up to 101. One of these albums was re-released, and I’m having a hard time choosing which version I like better. That’ll be addressed down below.)
When you break it down this way, 2013 and 2011 are the big winners, which I find interesting because 2011 was a very difficult year for me personally, while 2013 was one of my happiest. Discovering a lot of great music certainly contributed to my 2013 being great, but I think discovering almost as much in 2011 really helped get me through a tough year.
2019 was definitely the big loser, and to be fair, there’s definitely a bias toward releases from earlier in the decade here, though part of that is because I had more time to live with those albums and acknowledge them as long-lasting favorites, and there were also artists I discovered later in the decade who had hidden gems earlier in their discography. (Though 2018 did surprisingly well, considering.) I suspect there’s some great stuff from later in the decade that I’m presently unaware of, and that I’m going to discover at some point in the 2020s. A list like this is never truly complete.
80. U2, Songs of Innocence (2014)
This surprise release from U2 will unfortunately go down in infamy as the album that everyone got automatically downloaded to their iTunes library whether they wanted or not. U2 wanted to be part of the cultural conversation again, and they got it… in just about the worst way possible. Ironically, I was one of the few who was genuinely excited for this album and didn’t get it as an automatic download, due to my iTunes being disconnected from the Cloud at the time. I fixed that in short order, and was soon enjoying a version of U2 that in some ways might have felt a bit rushed and under-baked, but that in other ways sounded refreshingly different for them, both in the musical sense of having some loud and urgent moments that seemed more organic than anything the band had done in the previous decade, and in the sense of being much more personal in the songwriting department. Songs of Innocence is really an album about Bono’s upbringing, against the backdrop of The Troubles in Ireland, but also against the backdrop of “The Troubles” in his own soul, as a young lad trying to figure out his place in life, what he had to say about the violence going on around him and the religious conflicts that led to it, and how going from nobody to rock star so quickly gave him a vehicle to communicate that message. Here we find everything from fun, anthemic odes to rock & roll itself (my favorite of which playfully references The Beach Boys while paying homage to my home state of California), to tender songs of romantic and familial love, to protest songs that might not kick up quite as much dust as U2 did in the 80s, but that certainly find their own ways to startle and intrigue as we ponder what sort of effect growing up in that crucible might have on a young man. Most of U2’s output since the turn of the century, I’ve gotten excited about when it was new, but then I’ve sort of fallen off with it in the years that followed. Innocence is the one record of theirs to come out in the new millennium that I feel like has aged reasonably well, to the point where I appreciate it more now than I did when it was brand new and I felt like I was getting to listen in on an illicit bootleg (even though the entire rest of the world had access to the same). Admittedly the release of 2017’s companion record Songs of Experience (which itself was kind of a disappointment) has helped to inform a few of the lyrics and motifs on this record that didn’t quite make sense to me back in 2014, and it’s interesting looking back now, as I realize that a few of these songs might have been written with those bits of foreshadowing in mind. (Side note: One oversight that resulted in this album ranking lower on the list than it otherwise would have was the exclusion of the excellent single “Invisible”. Yes, I know it’s a hidden track on the Special Edition. I don’t really want to have to skip past a bunch of remixes and seek several minutes into a super-long track just to find its starting point. That seems like such a technologically backward, married-to-the-CD-format thing to do for a band that was trying, however awkwardly, to embrace the digital age in an innovative way with the initial album release.)
79. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love (2015)
When Sleater-Kinney made a comeback in early 2015 after being on hiatus for a full-decade, I was admittedly a bit intimidated to approach their music for the first time. This was a band with a storied history, whose edgy, feminist take on punk music I probably wouldn’t have been able to get to back when any of their late 90s or early 2000s material was brand new. yet I was surprised at how quickly elements like the piercing, deliberately un-pretty vibrato of Corin Tucker, the gnarly guitar licks and yelpy vocals of Carrie Brownstein, and the lyrics that challenged societal norms at nearly every turn became warmly familiar elements that I found myself looking forward to on this short but sweet blast of ten killer songs. The real genius of this band lies in the vocal interplay between Tucker and Brownstein, who often trade off lyrics within a single song, even tag-teaming and overlapping at several points, to add chaos and urgency, and the absolutely amazing drum fills brought by Janet Weiss, who can easily turn an otherwise routine four-on-the-floor beat into an absolute thrill ride. (Sadly, as of 2019, she’s no longer a member of the band. I’m certain everyone involved will live to regret the chain of events that led to that decision.) There are moments here when perhaps you could accuse the band of being poppier or more anthemic than their oldest of old-school fans might have preferred, but now that I’ve gone back to their earlier discography, I can see how there’s precedent for every facet of their sound that I’ve mentioned here on those previous albums, particularly their early 2000’s stuff. Sleater-Kinney’s sound and style certainly won’t be for everyone, but I’m amazed at how quickly I went from thinking it wasn’t for me to being utterly fascinated with this band.
78. The Last Bison, VA (2014)
Bison’s third album was their last as a larger ensemble. While I’m grateful that the band is still around in some form, I definitely get nostalgic for the rich “chamber folk” sound they once sported as I listen to this record. The pounding drums, the stringed instruments skirting the line between woodsy Americana and refined classical-style playing, and all the auxiliary instrumentation such as the banjo, mandolin and glockenspiel really made this era of the band something special (one one heck of a sight to behold when I was fortunate enough to catch one of their live shows in early 2015). From the exuberant joy of upbeat, rhythm-driven tracks like “Every Time”, “Cypress Queen” and “Burdens”, to the slowly unwinding majesty of ballads like the luscious “Endview”, Bison showed an incredible amount of range here, and by this point lead singer Ben Hardesty had developed a better handle on when to let his growly voice belt out a song Mumford & Sons style, and when to go for a more tender approach. Definitely put on headphones for the final three tracks on the album, which each have their own way of building from a quiet storm to a breathtaking climax. On the gentle finale “She Waves at the Gate”, I’m still impressed by how much longing the band managed to communicate with a simple, repeating verse leading up to a graceful crescendo – the mystery makes me wish even more that i could understand who “she” is and why she begs a man who is leaving to take her with him. VA has become cemented in my mind as the “perfect fall album” over the years – it came out in the fall of 2014, and ever since then, whenever the scorching summer weather here in California finally starts to die down and we get our first cloudy days and slight color changes on the trees, I’ve made a bit of a ritual of putting this album on to commemorate the changing of seasons.
77. Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins (2017)
Grizzly Bear’s fifth album stands apart from their past work in the sense that while it may have been born out of a difficult time for the band members on a personal level (at least for bandleader Ed Droste, who had recently been through a divorce), it was also a strong creative period that found the band working together with relative ease, as opposed to the difficult creative process that birthed their previous albums Shields. Grizzly Bear has never been an “easy” band for me to listen to, but I feel like the greater joy experienced by the band during its creation translated pretty well to me as a listener, since it was the first time I could honestly say I enjoyed a Grizzly Bear record right off the bat. I usually have to wrestle with their records a bit before I fall in love with certain songs, or at least gain some understanding as to what the band was attempting to do. Here, their usual murky song openings, distinctive guitar tones, and subtle but effective blending of multiple vocalists are all present, but it all seems to come together in a more vibrant way, as if someone had turned up the contrast on their muted, grey landscape to reveal a variety of colors that had always been there, but were previously hard for the naked eye to discern. Discounting the awkward false start of the opening track “Wasted Acres”, this album puts forth a pretty interesting blend of relatively more accessible singles (“Mourning Sound”, “Neighbors”, and my personal favorite, “Losing All Sense”, with its unique “lawn sprinkler” beat) and curious deep cuts that take some baffling detours, but gradually build up to satisfying conclusions none the less (“Four Cypresses”, “Three Rings”, and the stunning closer “Sky Took Hold”.) The creative partnership between Droste and fellow singer/songwriter Daniel Rossen continues to produce interesting results, especially when one of them pops in unexpectedly to offer a different perspective on one of the other guy’s songs. Even while this album is deconstructing the root causes behind all kinds of loss, from relationships falling apart, to loved ones aging and dying, to even material loss causing a person to become homeless, the analysis is heartfelt, and you can feel both men’s pain even when the lyrics aren’t straightforward enough to make the story immediately relatable. Even bassist Chris Taylor gets a turn on lead vocals late in the album on the lovely acoustic track “Systole”. Painted Ruins feels like Grizzly Bear at the height of their collaborative abilities, with each member knowing how to effectively build off of the foundation of one another’s fears and hardships to create something beautiful and strangely reassuring in the end.
76. Tennis, Cape Dory (2011)
This married indie pop duo from Colorado was four albums deep before I stumbled across them in 2017, so I had a fair amount of catching up to do to understand how they got to that point. A lot of bands like that who manage to catch my ear several albums in were still very rough around their edges and had yet to settle on a strong identity back when they first debuted, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to hear that Tennis arrived almost fully formed on this charming little record. A lot of the band’s inspiration has come from their love of sailing, leading me to joke that their music could be considered “yacht rock”. But their debut seems to tell the story of their maiden voyage, on the titular small boat, when the were young, newly married, and eager for adventure but perhaps biting off a bit more than they could chew. The album more or less tracks their journey from the Caribbean up the Eastern Seaboard, at times name-checking places where they docked or had memorable experiences. Throughout it all there’s a very innocent, throwback vibe, with the guitar licks and drum patterns echoing the bubblegummiest of times in the history of rock music, as Alaina Moore’s chirpy vocals bring to mind certain girl groups of the era. (I swear, there are a few moments on “South Carolina” where they’re a dead ringer for The Secret Sisters – a country group with similarly nostalgic influences.) But a certain amount of the charm comes from the homegrown production, which gives it that slightly scuzzy indie rock vibe, at times allowing the guitars to burst forth into noisier interludes or the bass to fuzz out a little bit. Despite all of the youthful “ooh whoa”s and “doo wah”s and the overwhelming allure of escapism, the project takes a bit of a realist turn midway through, when certain mishaps start to occur at sea, and combined with the sense of loneliness and foreignness Alaina starts to feel drifting from port to port, the question of whether this journey was really a wise idea begins to come up. She clearly still loves her husband, as is evident on the doe-eyed “Seafarer” (on which my addled parent-of-a-toddler brain can’t help but hear “Baby Shark” in the opening riff, despite it predating that song’s insane popularity by several years), but by the very next track, “Baltimore”, she’s begging him to drop anchor so that they can just go get a job and live and eat like normal land-dwellers do. What the purpose of this trip was, and what was learned from it, remains open-ended, but there’s a certain sense of peace and beauty in the closing track “Waterbirds”, and even though it’s a short journey for the listener (with 10 tracks totaling 29 minutes, I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest thing on my list – no song on this thing tops out at more than about 3:15!), it’s a pretty satisfying narrative arc that both plays to the conventions of simple, bouncy indie pop while also dodging expectations that this record is going to be simple, harmless fluff throughout.
75. Umphrey’s McGee, Similar Skin (2014)
I know there are some folks who won’t touch Umphrey’s McGee once they catch a whiff of “jam band” in their sound. I guess I couldn’t blame most people for picking a track of theirs out of the blue (especially one of their long, meandering live recordings) and thinking it was all just a bunch of overgrown frat boy wankery. But I feel like the band grew up a great deal on their 2014 release, which was a much more focused rock record than any of their past genre-hopping efforts might have led anyone to expect. A great deal of these songs are surprisingly tight in their arrangements and execution, making it feel like for once UM put the album first, rather than just using it as a basic template for their sprawling, improvisational live performances. The opening three tracks are all strong rockers with engaging riffs and a keen sense of when to show off and when to wind it down so that the next song can get underway, with the catchy rhythmic dodging and weaving of “Hourglass” giving us our first indication that the band might be headed into more progressive territory. Then there’s a bit of a sidestep on the piano-driven “No Diablo”, which I’ve always regarded as more of a “showtune”, but certainly a fun one. And then the band wades into the deeper end with the pounding drums, irregular rhythms, and indelible riffs of the title track (easily one of the band’s all-time best), followed by the “what the hell do I know?” armchair philosophizing of “Puppet String”, both of these being longer tracks with more room for the guitars and bass to strut their stuff, but without ever wearing out their welcome. Lead guitarist Jake Cinninger takes over lead vocals for Brendan Bayliss on the tracks “Little Gift” and “Hindsight”, both of which have a distinct, heavy roar to them that reminds me of heavy yet melodic 90s alt-rock from before all the white boy hip-hop posturing came into play. “Endless Sleep” throws a violin into the mix while the band riffs frantically on the story of a man who found out what kind of crazy things staying awake for several days can do to one’s perception of reality – it’s a weird but satisfying late-album highlight. The record wraps up with “Bridgeless”, another one of those compositions UM had been workshopping in their live shows before locking down how its various sections and solos would flow together in the studio, and I have to say they nailed all nine minutes of it. UM has perhaps gone to further extremes and given us more ludicrous contrasts from one song to the next on their past albums, so Similar Skin doesn’t necessarily show off everything that they do well. But it hones in on a smaller handful of things that they do exceptionally well, and it’s a much more focused and consistent record for it.
74. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs (2018)
There are some bands that I regret not discovering until deep into their discography. Wye Oak is one that I don’t necessarily mind only catching up in the late 2010s, because they were quite a different band in their early days, not sounding anything like the intriguing mix of messy indie rock and precise electropop that they excel at on this album. Records like 2011’s Citizen, which was really their last truly guitar-driven record, and especially 2014’s Shriek, which saw lead singer Jenn Wasner deliberately step away from the guitar to focus more on keyboards and insanely memorable bass licks, really help to inform the newer incarnation of the band heard here. I was immediately confounded and intrigued by the unusual rapid-fire rhythm that drummer Andy Stack churns out on “The Instrument”, before settling into the hypnotic rhythms and buzzing guitar riffs of the title track and the absolutely gorgeous ballad “Lifer”, during which Wasner lets out a passionate solo that really catches the listener off guard in the middle of an otherwise pristine performance including some of her most compelling vocals to date. The band’s M.O. here seems to be that Stack will hammer out a catchy rhythm, while Wasner will scribble on top of it with her idiosyncratic electric guitar techniques, and sometimes there will be keyboards or synths or some other sampled element on top of it to give it a robotic edge. Yet Jenn’s lovely, mystifying voice always comes through loud and clear – and it’s a tricky voice to describe, because it sounds at once charmingly beautiful and yet weathered and wise. Wye Oak keeps the surprises coming here, from the offbeat drumming of “Symmetry” and “Over and Over” to the absolutely soothing melodies and textures of “Say Hello” and the exquisite “You of All People”, and even a brief interlude of only vocals and strings on “My Signal”, making this an unusual but engrossing record to listen to from front to back.
73. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)
At this point, Billie’s debut album really doesn’t need any further analysis. Her songwriting, her persona, her odd fashion sense, and pretty much everything else about her have been dissected to death due to how baffled everyone was when she seemed to take popular culture by storm last year. Unless you’ve been living under some sort of a rock, you’ve probably heard at least one of her songs, and you know whether her dark and mischievous brand of home-grown electronic chamber pop is your thing or not. There are still times when I honestly can’t wrap my head around how popular she is. I have no problem with her being that popular – it’s just surprising, because when I listen to this thing, I still get that feeling that I normally get from listening to something so obscure and weird that I figure only a small fraction of the general populace with rather eclectic tastes would actually appreciate it. I had to ask myself whether it was too soon to put this album on a best-of list in this magnitude, considering how late in the decade it came out and how Billie is still in the midst of the touring and promotion lifecycle for this album. How will we feel about it in retrospect after she puts out a second album? What if she changes so much that this album ends up sounding completely foreign compared to whatever she’s doing in 2029? What if she doesn’t even last that long and her career has burned out by then? Will we look back at this one as a true game-changer, or just an odd guilty pleasure that was very much of its time. I can’t answer any of that, but I still feel like I’m gonna want to keep coming back to this one for more than just its most gimmicky and meme-worthy aspects. Sure, the ubiquitous hit “Bad Guy” is an insanely catchy dose of naughty fun, but it’s the thoughtfulness and the willingness to confront some very well articulated fears that really keep me coming back (in addition to her brother Finneas O’Connell’s genuinely strange production values). Songs like “Xanny” and “When the Party’s Over” seem to indicate a lack of desire to fit in to the teenage subculture around her, a sentiment which I would have related to as a teenager even if my life back then was nothing like Billie’s was just a year or two ago when these songs were written. And despite all of the unnerving bass drops and other haunting sounds heard in tracks like “You Should See Me in a Crown” and “Bury a Friend”, I still don’t think the average listener is going to be prepared for the mellow yet disquieting gut-punch of “Listen Before I Go”, which I hope to God is empathizing with the despair of a person who is so far gone she’s ready to contemplate suicide, and not communicating any feelings Billie herself has ever considered acting on. By the time she gets to the penultimate track, the glistening acoustic “I Love You”, it’s clear from context that her complicated feelings run far deeper than your average love song written by a teenage girl. I’ll gladly defend that one to my dying day as one of the finest examples of a song I wish I could have written at any age. What sorts of sounds and sentiments would I even hope for Billie to follow this album up with? I honestly can’t even fathom it. She doesn’t seem like the type to repeat the same formula twice.
72. Owel, Paris (2019)
This five-piece band from New Jersey has gradually become one of my favorite bands over the last five or six years, and I truly wish more people had heard of ’em, because they’ve concocted a pretty stellar blend of indie rock with classical and baroque pop sensibilities, that can sometimes feel as delicate as a track by Sufjan Stevens or Andrew Bird, as moody and idiosyncratic as Radiohead, or as otherworldly as Sigur Rós. Now three albums deep, the band still manages to surprise with everything from joyous anthems about the thrill of taking risks (“No Parachutes”, “Weather Report”) to a somber reflection on how difficult it can be for a victim to speak up about their experience and push back against their attacker (“Get Out Stay Out”), to the simple reassurance of having friend to just sit in a room with you and listen as you share your darkest fears (“Roma White”), to even a bit of self-effacing humor as lead singer Jay Sakong considers making last-ditch attempts to get noticed by a special someone who got away from him (“Funeral”, “Didn’t I”). The late-album combo of “Being Human Is Weird” and “Jumble Gem” show that Owel still has a willingness to experiment and throw listeners for a loop who might think they know the band’s shtick by now, while the long meditation of the closing track “Goodbye” and the sweet, softspoken romance of the special edition track “Lighthouse” unashamedly revert back to most of the band’s best-known tropes, making Paris a pretty satisfying blend of everything we knew we loved about Owel and a few things we didn’t even know to expect from them.
71. Switchfoot, Where the Light Shines Through (2016)
I was definitely feeling a bit of Switchfoot fatigue by the time their tenth album came out. Every album of theirs has individual songs that I love, but they hadn’t put out a record that I felt strongly compelled to keep listening to from end to end since 2006’s Oh! Gravity. After an especially frustrating misstep on 2014’s Fading West, I was almost ready to write the band off… and then they came out with one of their most rocking and immediately engaging records. Suddenly the electronic experimentation and the trend toward big, stadium-shaking choruses didn’t feel like it needed to get in the way of the noisy riffing and raggedy presentation Switchfoot had deliberately cultivated in their early days, and the two sides of the band’s sound were suddenly in harmony with one another. If you’re a long-time Switchfoot fan, you’ll recognize a lot of similar themes about seizing the day, making the most of your life, and emphasizing with the downtrodden. Switchfoot doesn’t reinvent that wheel here, but they do make it seem a lot more urgent. Even if the early single “Live It Well” might have come across as an example of the band stubbornly sticking to their established lane, there’s plenty of stuff here like “If the House Burns Down Tonight” that finds them suddenly shifting into high gear as they pull into the fast lane, or even going completely off-road with the off-beat funk of “Float” (a strong contender for my favorite Switchfoot song of all time) or the startlingly political guest rapping from Lecrae on “Looking for America”, a track that probably fell on a lot of deaf ears where Switchfoot’s Christian audience is concerned in 2016, but man, I loved it. Even some of the slow and mid-tempo tracks feel like they’ve been kicked up a bit due to the band experimenting with grimier guitar tones and Jon Foreman testing the limits of his voice. While I’m certain at this point that the band will probably never deliver another The Beautiful Letdown or even another Nothing Is Sound, I’m kind of glad when they put out a record like this that doesn’t seem overly obsessed with either repeating their most successful patterns or playing stubbornly to the middle of the road.
70. Sucré, A Minor Bird (2012)
I expected this collaboration between singer/songwriter Stacy King (then-current and now-former member of Eisley), her husband the badass drummer Darren King (then-current and now-former member of MuteMath), and producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Larson (who had worked with both bands previously as well as a few other favorites of mine such as Sleeping at Last, in addition to putting out some intriguing solo material) to be a one-off, so I was surprised that the trio actually kept it up past their charming debut record. Still, A Minor Bird remains the only full-length album they’ve put out thus far, and it occupies a unique space between acoustic guitar and piano-driven pop, baroque and classical-influenced indie pop, and a slight bit of electronica (this being the facet of their sound that became way more prominent later on). For most of these eleven tracks, it’s a pretty intimate affair, with Stacy’s dreamy and occasionally dysfunctional lyrics backed by Jeremy’s gooey strings and more reserved drumming from Darren, but occasionally the three members come together in a real tour-de-force that merges all of their sounds in wild and wonderful ways, such as the album’s standout track “Chemical Reaction”. Hearing that one go from its gushy, string-and-piano-drenched verse to its booty-shaking chorus is an absolute treat every single time. Stacy has a real talent for roping listeners in with her doe-eyed sweetness before revealing it’s all a bit of a misdirect and she’d rather sing about conflicts and nightmares and some of her biggest fears instead, and that’s perhaps the trio’s greatest strength – their ability to lure you in with a lullaby and then jolt you right out of the dream with a sudden reminder that not everything is warm and fuzzy. Given how much their sound has evolved, I’m not sure how well album #2 (if they ever manage to finish it) will be able to attain such a balance, so that makes A Minor Bird a bit of a unique document of a crossroads that these three artists might never return to again.
69. The River Empires, The River Empires – Epilogue (2010)
With 29 tracks and an hour and a half’s worth of music, I’m pretty sure this album is the longest one in my list. It’s certainly one of the most obscure, owing to it being a side project of two other bands who aren’t exactly household names to begin with. Jessy Ribordy of Falling Up came together with Casey Crescenzo of The Dear Hunter for this one, and both of those are pretty high-concept bands to begin with, so you can probably guess that their collaboration would be a sprawling, puzzling concept album full of repeating musical motifs and “aha” moments where the listener starts to realize how everything is interconnected. This album came out in the spring of 2010 while Falling Up was on hiatus – at the time I thought they had broken up for good, and I was bummed to not get any follow-through on the story they had begun on 2009’s Fangs!, but it was nice to at least have a way to follow up with the lead singer and primary architect behind that project in a different musical context. For the most part, this is a very slow-moving album full of folk, Americana, baroque pop, and classical instrumentation – and this band doesn’t provide the listener with a lot of hand-holding, throwing us into the deep end with some of their slowest and sparsest material in the first half hour or so of the album. (Seriously, it isn’t until track 8, “A Toast to the Snake King”, that anything remotely up-tempo happens, but most of the tracks leading up to that point have their own understated but satisfying climaxes, and they go down more easily on repeat listens.) When the band occasionally bursts forth into bright splashes of color on a handful of up-tempo and deviously memorable tracks like “A Dimmer Lux”, “Witches Blossom”, “The Curse of Maybel Cains”, and “Theon, the Fox”, those are easily some of my favorite moments on the album, as they tend to highlight a variety of instruments, from the mandolin to the organ to the harp to the harmonica. And “Three Tigers” is one hell of a standout, with its splashy cymbals, its twangy banjo plucking, and a vocal breakdown in the bridge that I can only think to describe as “grizzled old prospectors singing in a Gospel choir”. But some of the slower and eerier numbers are clear standouts, too, like the slide guitar and piano-driven “Catacombs and Orchards”, or the surprising appearance of electric guitar feedback and claustrophobic drums on the otherwise pristine “The Marching of the Clocks” in the album’s encore section. A number of instrumental asides that might seem jarringly out of place at first start to come into context when you come to realize they’re echoing or foreshadowing elements of songs that appear elsewhere on the album. And of course “The River Empires Theme”, which bookends the album, is a motif that shows up again and again in numerous musical contexts throughout – it’s a fun little “Where’s Waldo?” moment when you spot bits and pieces of it in unexpected places. The ambitious scope of this album is dwarfed by what it could have been if the band had been able to secure enough fan funding to proceed with their future plans – this was meant to be the first (or rather, last from a chronological storytelling perspective) in an arc of seven albums, and at one point the band even kicked around the idea of making a TV show to tell the story of The River Empires! Unfortunately none of that ever happened, and when Falling Up reunited later in 2010 and Casey went back to doing his thing with The Dear Hunter, this project sadly fell by the wayside. Ironically I find myself wanting to describe this album as though it were a TV show that only ever attained a small cult following and was cancelled after one season, due to its myth arc being so dense and taking so long to set up that most viewers tuned out during the early episodes. “Stick with it!”, the hardcore fans will plead with you, “It gets so good once the story really gets going!” Those of us who fondly remember and still enjoy this album would probably sound like complete nutcases, trying to get anyone new into it now. (It has sadly disappeared from Spotify, thus contributing to its unfortunate fade into total obscurity.) But that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.
68. Owel, Owel (2013)
Choosing which of Owel’s records was truly their best was a tough call for me; I feel like I’ve shuffled all three of them in and out of that slot since Paris came out last year. Ultimately I decided that the band’s self-titled debut came in second, because even if their more exploratory and post-rock-y influences from bands like Radiohead and Sigur Rós were quite obvious, they also had the grace and sensitivity of bands like Elbow and Copeland, making their sound tricky to describe overall. Lead track “Snowglobe” is about the best barometer for whether you’ll like the band – a good six years after first hearing it, I’m still absolutely floored by how beautifully the snowy keyboards, Jay Sekong’s fragile falsetto, and the dark, pulsating bass end up melting into a dense fog of drums and guitar tremolo as the seven-minute opus reaches its climax. Truly transcendent stuff there. Not that this one track by itself should completely define the record – even when doing something with more of a poppy bounce to it such as “Nothing’s Meant” or “Progress”, the band still comes up with innovative uses for the keyboard and guitar to circumvent the expected power chords, and they also excel at the heavy, dramatic moments when a track like “Burning House” or “Float” that might have seemed more sparse and ambient at first suddenly explodes into an array of bright yet heavy sounds. “Field Mouse” shows off a more baroque side of the band that they’d explore more on future records, and the collision of a rousing string section with an addictively offbeat drum pattern on “Reborn” makes it almost as intoxicating of a closer as the album’s iconic opener was. Owel showed maturity well beyond their years on their debut record, and I’m impressed that they’ve kept the quality level up so consistently in the years since.
67. The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (2017)
It might be considered sacrilege for a long-time New Pornographers fan to suggest that their best record of the last decade is the first one they made without founding member and resident weirdo Dan Bejar. His songs were often slightly goofy and occasionally menacing asides on albums by an already idiosyncratic power pop band, and as much as I liked a lot of his contributions, it started to feel more and more like they existed in a different universe from the Carl Newman material that filled out the rest of the band’s albums. So his decision to sit out this record due to scheduling conflicts actually gave the band the opportunity to be remarkably consistent in their style and tone for the entire duration of an album. Whiteout Conditions floors it right from the beginning (which gives new drummer Joe Seiders an excellent opportunity to prove himself) and almost never lets up, save for the oddball, cavernous ballad “We’ve Been Here Before” in the middle of the record, which I’ve come to appreciate as a highlight in its own weird way. What I love about this one is how well the lead singer duties seem to be spread out, with Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder often trading parts back and forth over the course of a song, or coming together to give a melodic hook the extra pizzazz it needs to stick in your head. The opening three cuts – “Play Money”, the title track, and “High Ticket Attractions”, are easily some of the most fun songs the band has ever recorded, and the record also finishes strong with “Clockwise” and the amped-up “Avalanche Alley” that brings it careening over the finish line. True to Newman’s self-contradictory style, a lot of the happiest-sounding songs are some of the darkest ones in the lyrical department, with the title track commenting on being so deep in a depressive state that it takes heavy doses of medication just to get you out of bed and to the office every day, and “High Ticket Attractions” taking some sly swipes at a culture that seems more obsessed with turning politics into an entertaining spectacle than with the actual betterment of a democratic society. As with most New Pornos records, the lyrics are tricky to untangle, and may have been written in some cases to show off Newman’s love of alliteration and tongue-twisting mouth sounds rather than to convey a singular meaning (see the playful “Juke” for evidence of this). But regardless of its intent, this record never stops being a blast to listen to from start to finish, and I don’t think there’s another record in the band’s catalogue that I can truly say that about. (Their 2005 album Twin Cinema remains my all-time favorite of theirs, but the contrast is much greater between the numerous stone-cold classics and the few forgettable duds on that record.)
66. Arcade Fire, Reflektor (2013)
By album #4, we knew to expect the occasional dance-pop curveball from Arcade Fire, but we certainly didn’t expect an entire album of it. Actually, it really isn’t fair to characterize the entirety of this ambitious double album that way, but since it kicks off with a 7-minute opus that gleefully hearkens back to the disco years and practically hangs a mirrorball over the listener’s head and asks them to gaze into their reflected soul in each of its tiny facets (even throwing in a surprise David Bowie guest vocal at one point), it’s hard for the mood it sets to not linger over the entire album. Some of the band’s feistiest odes to rock & roll’s heyday can be heard later on the first disc, as they ponder what it means to be a “Normal Person” amidst squealing guitar feedback, punk rock melts into bouncy power pop in the Side A closer “Joan of Arc”, and sometimes the two influences even merge, giving us the glitzy synths and troubled teenage rebellion of “We Exist”, in which a gay kid calls out their parents for acting like a broader spectrum of sexual and gender expressions couldn’t or shouldn’t be a reality. Caribbean dance music factors strongly into “Flashbulb Eyes” and the racuous “Here Comes the Night Time”, which is the closest thing to “party music” the band had released up to that point, and certainly not something you’d have expected given the band’s usually grim outlook and Win Butler’s shouty preachiness. Things get even more experimental on the second disc, with Win and his wife Régine Chassagne trading vocals back and forth as they portray tragic mythological characters on the two-part suite “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”. Shoot, there’s even a track called “Porno” with a slinky groove, though it’s not as seedy as you might expect, actually serving to call out perverse and selfish behaviors used by immature men to control and manipulate women. By the time the album wraps up on the sunny tropical dance of “Afterlife” and the quiet, synth-heavy meditation “Supersymmetry”, it’s hard not to appreciate how much thought and effort Arcade Fire put into transforming their sound and rethinking some of their usual habits on Reflektor, even if it resulted in a long-winded and admittedly confusing record which probably could have stood to have the fat trimmed by one or two tracks. It’s not quite Arcade Fire’s best work, but it’s their most ambitious, and that ambition added a great number of tracks to their arsenal that I now can’t imagine a solid live set of theirs existing without.
65. Lovebites, Clockwork Immortality (2018)
I don’t often indulge in straight-up heavy metal music, but when this five-piece, all-female band from Japan was first described to me, it sounded like the kind of thing that I just had to hear for myself. The biggest obstacle to getting into Lovebites was probably a mental one, rather than anything to do with the music itself – is this just a gimmick or are these serious musicians? Happily, I can safely say that the band falls into the latter camp – they may be having a ton of fun pulling nostalgic influences out of past decades rather than running with any current trends, but the five members of this band are all seriously good at their craft, and the lion’s share of the songwriting and composition is done in-house. The white-hot riffs and solos will to catch the ear right away, as will the furious drumming and the unique blend of pop/R&B finesse and classic metal wail that lead singer Asami brings to the table. The band is reasonably versatile too, with their signature sound leaning toward anthemic choruses and generous solo sections, but also leaving room for a few grittier tracks that tone down the sparkle and turn up the angst, and even tossing in an acoustic closer that morphs into a huge power ballad. Perhaps this approach can get a tad overbearing when there are ten tracks of it in a row and many of them run past the five-minute mark, but despite my fatigue on the first few listens, I was surprised at how frequently I kept coming back to this one. The dizzying riffs and guitar runs of the opening track “Addicted”, the triumphant cry of the lead single “Rising”, the lyrically sad but musically resilient bounce of “Empty Daydream”, and the grittier snarls of “Mastermind 01” were all early highlights for me that made it easy to dive into the front half of this record again and again. Then I gradually realized that, cheesy as it was, the closing track “Epilogue” definitely made me feel some things. These five ladies are just being who they are, no apologies, so it made sense for them to close out their record pleading with us to do the same. So long as your have a reasonably good tolerance for for high melodrama leading to the occasional moments of lyrical cheese, you’ll probably have at least as much fun with this one as I did.
64. Gungor, Ghosts Upon the Earth (2011)
I still chuckle at the facetious response that a friend of mine, who was highly critical of a lot of Christian music, had when he first heard this album: “Did nobody tell these guys that worship albums are supposed to sound crappy?” It was meant as a compliment – he heard actual creativity here from a group that had been advertised as a “worship band”, and wasn’t quite sure how to process the pleasant surprise. I had only just started to get into Gungor’s previous album Beautiful Things a few months before this one dropped, and a short acoustic live set from them on the David Crowder Band’s farewell tour tipped me off that they were an artistic and instrumental force to be reckoned with, but even armed with that knowledge and a sneak preview of a few of the new songs, I still genuinely did not expect what I got here. Beautiful Things had found a way to merge the expected pop/rock worship anthems with the more thoughtful and artistic presence of baroque instrumentation and some more meditative qualities; by the time this album came out, pretty much all traces of conventional, radio-friendly Christian rock music were gone. That’s not to say that there aren’t catchy and relatively straightforward praise choruses on this album – “Brother Moon”, “Crags and Clay”, and “You Are the Beauty” all have something resembling this, but like many songs on the album, they might take unexpected detours into weird time signatures or instrumental breakdowns, or have more of a soft-spoken, indie-rock style climax to them instead of the conventional “play the chorus as loud as possible for eight straight minutes” approach taken by Hillsongs and the like. The best quality of this album is that while it often marvels at the beauty of God’s creation and the sacrifice made to reconcile sinful mankind to God via Christ, these aren’t all choruses sung directly to God from the point of view of mankind. It’s a very intimate album about an ongoing relationship between Creator and creation, starting off with a formless void in the intro to “Let There Be” and building up to one of the most dramatic, brilliantly composed climaxes I’ve ever heard from a quote-unquote “worship band” at the end of that song. The first voice heard is that of Lisa Gungor, who often (but not always) personifies the voice of God in these songs, making several of them a conversation between God and mankind, personified by her husband Michael. That gives an extra layer of depth that what might otherwise seem like a simple husband-and-wife love song in one of the album’s quietest and most tender moments, the ballad “Vous Êtes Mon Cœur”. The Gungors’ relationship as husband and wife (and soon-to-be parents – check out the fetal heartbeat heard at the beginning of the awe-inspiring closer “Every Breath”) certainly informs the songwriting in several places, but they subtly flip the expected gender norms on their head in the process, while also subverting our musical expectations of the band by way of Michael’s truly masterful fretwork on tracks like “When Death Dies”, “Wake Up Sleeper”, and the generously long coda of the aforementioned “You Are the Beauty” (which, by the way, is so bold as to mention sex as one of the many beautiful things God gave us to enjoy). In my mind, this is the standard-bearer for what “worship albums” with a more open-minded and progressive bent could be, but even attaching that label to the Gungors’ music seems limiting (which is probably why they decided later in the decade, after some personal crises of faith and a rather contentious relationship with the Christian music-consuming public, to retire Gungor as a band name and leave their future of music-making a bit open-ended in terms of what name they would release it under). I’m at the point in my life where I don’t like to classify music as strictly sacred or secular, but I love it when an artist can creatively express their faith in a way that is artistically respectable and emotionally or intellectually compelling even to people who don’t necessarily believe all of the same things, and I think the Gungors excelled at that on this unique and exquisite record.
63. Kimbra, Vows (2011/2012)
If you only know Kimbra as Gotye‘s duet partner from “Somebody that I Used to Know”, then man, are you missing out! At least, you are if you like throwback R&B/soul tropes from circa the early 90s, with a bit of an indie pop bent. I wouldn’t have known that Kimbra’s music would be up my alley until I took a trip through Vows for myself, and my first impression was a strong one: “Girl knows her way around a soulful melody”. This is unabashedly poppy music, but it doesn’t limit itself to the standard “four chords of pop” by a long shot. it’s pretty diverse in terms of how each song is constructed, too – there’s a bit of live looping going on in some of the more rhythmic tracks like “Settle Down”, “Limbo”, and her cover of Nina Simone’s Plain Gold Ring”, strong dance-pop vibes with a hint of disco on the irresistibly bouncy “Cameo Lover”, a bit of jazz-pop on “The Good Intent” and “Call Me” and some smoldering slow jams in the form of “Old Flame” and “Wandering Limbs”. Weirdly, some of you reading this might have this album and be thinking, “Wow, I really don’t remember some of these songs”. That’s because you likely haven’t heard them. I was first introduced to Kimbra’s debut album in its original form, as it was released in her home country of New Zealand in 2011. At some point (likely after Gotye helped get her 15 minutes in the international spotlight), the album was repackaged for overseas audiences, and four tracks were removed to make way for six new ones. The two versions of the album are like half-siblings in the sense that their front halves are almost identical, while their back halves are radically different. It’s hard for me to imagine the album without the aforementioned “Limbo” and “Wandering Limbs”, but I also now can’t imagine it without some of the newcomers – the melodramatic love ballad “Something in the Way You Are” and the straight-up bangers “Posse” and “Warrior” are easily the best of the new bunch, and far bolder (and if I have to admit it, more modern and mainstream-friendly) than anything on the original version. The new live version of “Plain Gold Ring” runs circles around the original studio version, too. Normally, with re-releases for international audiences, I can usually decide with ease whether the album is best off in its original form, before label execs saw fit to mess with it, or whether the new tracks actually do add some value to help rope in a wider audience. This is the rare case where I truly can’t decide, and as a result I’ve been listening to this album as a 17-track mega-mix that attempts to sequence all the unique songs from both in a sensible order. Spotify has the international version with a few of the cut tracks from the original as bonus offerings, but I’m afraid to say that a few of the missing tracks are likely out of print at this point. Still, in whatever form you approach it, Vows is definitely one of the most underrated pop gems of the early 2010s.
62. Belle & Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015)
Also more explicitly embracing their love of dance pop without feeling the need to hide behind irony was Belle & Sebastian, who put fans on notice with the heavy keyboards and clubby dance beats of lead single “The Party Line” – this was not going to be another down-tempo and largely acoustic affair, or even a casual set of twee Britpop tunes, like a lot of the band’s earlier work had been. Sure, you can still hear elements of the classic B&S sound in a few of the ballads and the occasional mildly feisty rocker on this album, but the synths wash over us from the opening bars of “Nobody’s Empire”, and are key elements of some of the most rhythmic and synthetic songs the band has ever produced. This album’s a bit of a potpourri, so if the six-minute Euro-techno ode to a troubled author on “Enter Sylvia Plath” isn’t your thing (side note: it is totally my thing!), maybe check out the bizarre infusion of Eastern European folk music on “The Everlasting Muse”, or the chill bongos and stabby guitars of the mildly humorous but also kind of sad Stevie Jackson composition “Perfect Couples”. That trio of songs in the center of the album is actually its peak, in my opinion – so much variety in just three tracks, and they each seem to bring me an immeasurable amount of joy whenever I put this record on. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch is always full of fascinating musings on childhood innocence, his ongoing desire to find genuine faith in a world that keeps suggesting nothing worth believing in will stick around, and even on what it means to be an effective writer and to have a muse worth drawing inspiration from. While the Sarah Martin-penned songs on this album might not jump out at me as strongly as her contributions on Write About Love did (if I’m honest, “The Power of Three” might be one of the most useless fluff pieces in the B&S canon), her little interjections on a few of Stuart’s tracks help to push back against the notion that he’s just writing songs that objectify the women he routinely puts up on pedestals. Sure, the characters in those songs might be objectifying their heroines and their muses, but then those women talk back and let the daydreaming young boy know he’s full of crap and doesn’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes at all. It’s an interesting push/pull dynamic that helps to keep this album intriguing even when it gets a bit long winded. 7 of its 12 tracks run over five minutes, with the longest one, “Play for Today”, topping out at seven and a half – by the time you get to the end of the gentle closing track “Today (This Army’s for Peace)”, you’ve spent just over an hour with Belle & Sebastian, which admittedly is a lot to ask. The weird thing is that I never seem to remember this as a particularly long album until I actually stop and look at the individual track lengths, because of how engaging its biggest highlights are and how I never seem to want some of those songs to end.
61. Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto (2011)
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends was an incredibly tough act to follow. That album saw Coldplay’s creative whims sprawling out in all sorts of directions, with something about each and every track subverting the listener’s expectations of what Coldplay should sound like. It remains my absolute favorite of their records. For the follow-up, Coldplay decided to go in a much more pop direction – at least, that’s the first thing most people will notice due to the rainbow-colored album art and the much larger presence of synths and drum programming. This is one of those albums that sounds like its packaging looks, and for a band like Coldplay that spent most of the 2000s in the low to middle gears, it was kind of fun to hear them crank up the tempo and bring some of their bounciest songs such as “Hurts Like Heaven”, “Charlie Brown”, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” , and “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” to life. Some regarded this as a sellout move – but what made it work for me is that (unlike their later projects in this decade) they did this without diminishing the presence of the actual band. if you’re just hearing a ton of programming and production when you listen to this one, then you’re really not paying attention to the triumphant guitar parts that Johnny Buckland whips out on nearly every track, or the sneaky way that drummer Will Champion can slowly worm his way into a song that started off very synthetic, and end up running away with it by the time it’s over. Seriously, “Waterfall” is one of those songs that gets me PUMPED every damn time I hear it, and when I listen to this album straight through, that energy carries over quite nicely into the nervous, paranoid “Major Minus”, which probably has the band’s best use of acoustic guitar in an up-tempo rock song since “Shiver” on their debut Parachutes. Most pure pop acts would trip over themselves trying to execute something as deliberately offbeat as “Charlie Brown”, too – so by no means did I see this as Coldplay merely imitating pop trend to stay relevant. OK, maybe “Paradise” was a bit more of a predictable single – I feel like that one had to grow on me and I didn’t really get into it until most of the world was sick of it. And bringing in Rihanna to sing on “Princess of China” was a strong bid for pop crossover visibility – but the rainy, smeared-out synths and electric guitar on that track are a one-of-a-kind sound, certainly not what I’d have expected if you’d told me these two artists were going to collaborate. I won’t say that everything about this album is perfect – the few acoustic ballads found here have failed to stick with me over the years, and every time I hear Chris Martin try to explain the lofty concept behind this album, and who exactly the characters Mylo and Xyloto are supposed to represent, I find myself just wanting to smile, nod to give the impression that I understand, and slowly back away. Still, I think this album got a lot more flak than it deserved, especially in hindsight, Ghost Stories and A Head Full of Dreams more or less ended up being the full-on shift into pop territory that this album was unfairly accused of being. (And don’t even get me started on Everyday Life. Sure, it’s way less pop, but it’s barely even Coldplay!) I really wish more Coldplay fans would look back and re-evaluate this one. I think some of us forgot how good we had it here.