We’re at the midpoint of the list now… this is where the absolute best of the B-plus range starts to blend into the A-minus range. But first, some more fun facts (or at least, facts that a nerdy analytical guy like me considers fun), this time related to geography. Where in the world are all of these artists from?
Breaking them down by country doesn’t produce terribly surprising results – America dominates the English-language entertainment world, and my list reflects that, with 56 artists hailing from the United States.
California wins the contest when you break the American artists down by state, with 11 artists. I’d say that’s less due to it being my home state and more due to it being the most populous U.S. state, but I suppose it helps that some of the smaller-time bands in California are more likely to build up strong local followings, and being able to see some of those acts live multiple times has definitely helped to cement my fandom. The runner-up states are:
New York and Colorado: 6 artists each
Oregon: 4 artists
Illinois, Ohio, and Washington: 3 artists each
Overall, 22 states are represented, which is nearly half the union. (Some of these artists have moved around a lot, so even identifying a point of origin is a bit subjective for some of them.)
9 other countries (or 10, depending on how you classify members of the UK) are represented by artists on this list:
United Kingdom: 8 artists (5 from England, 3 from Scotland)
Canada: 3 artists (2 from British Columbia, 1 from Quebec)
Australia, Iceland, Sweden: 2 artists each
Denmark, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand: 1 artist each
I suppose that’s not too surprising of a list considering that I’m mostly listening to music with English lyrics, though that’s not exclusively the case. Some of these albums have the occasional song, or part of a song, in another language, and there’s one case where an album contains no English lyrics whatsoever. Still, there’s a whole world out there of horizons waiting to be expanded. I’m game.
60. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride (2019)
It was awfully nice of Vampire Weekend to follow my personal rule stating that musicians who take a longer-than-usual break between albums should make up for the lost time by giving fans a little extra content. (I’m sure they had no way of knowing or caring that some random armchair critic had come up with this arbitrary rule. Still, they coincidentally followed it.) The band’s fourth album, their follow-up to 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City and their first without longtime keyboardist/producer/co-writer/general renaissance man Rostam Batmanglij, generously offers an hour’s worth of music spread out over 18 songs. Some of them are rather short, and maybe occasionally inconsequential, but they’re all legitimate songs with at least a little something to add to the narrative, and I appreciate the diversity it brings to the album and the way it keeps me coming back to dig for details in some of the sleeper tracks I might have initially ignored. It’s a pretty significant shift in their sound, too, downplaying the jittery guitars and the expected West African influences (though they’re definitely still a key element of several tracks), and turning up the sunny, 70s AM radio vibe. Danielle Haim (whose own band you’ll be seeing pretty soon on this list) turns up for a handful of duets with VW frontman Ezra Koenig here, each adding to the loosely told tale of an uneasy marriage that crosses class and possibly religious lines. Whether the songs are as intricately structured and ornately detailed as the phenomenal lead single “Harmony Hall”, the thumping dance-club-meets-flamenco oddity “Sympathy”, or the Autotune and spoken word-infused rhythmic jam “Flower Moon”, or else they’re throwbacks to a simpler time such as the Van Morrison homage “This Life” or the jam-band-lite guitar noodling that makes up the main riff of the delightful “Sunflower”, this album is positively stacked with highlights everywhere you turn. Sure, due to VW scaling back the more aggressive rock influences, you’re not going to hear anything as abrasive as the loudest moments on their past albums, and that can mean that Father of the Bride gets a little sleepy somewhere around its midpoint, and again near the end. But each listen reveals a little something new that I hadn’t noticed last time around, which helps me to piece together the lyrical puzzle that just maybe could be using an uneasy alliance between a man and a woman from different worlds as an analogy for our planet at large, and the political and religious entities vying for control over it, as the rest of us struggle together to figure out a more peaceful way to coexist.
59. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown (2017)
From somewhere in the northern woods of Minnesota comes this chilling (or rather, scorching) story of vicious creatures violently battling for control of their domain – including the deceptively cute ones like foxes and deer. The growly voice of Austin Durry leads the pack as the band plays their unique brand of ramshackle indie rock throughout each unfolding chapter, taking a turn for the creepy when two sparse ballads in the center of the record, “Brave Little Buck” and “The Great Unknown”, bring female vocals front and center for a gripping bait-and-switch that reveals a character’s true nature. Throughout this story, several characters are noted for using either their brains or brawn to selfish ends, not caring how it affects the kingdom they’re supposed to rule over, so long as they get to wear the titular crown and boss everyone else around. Is this an allegory for human selfishness, and the wanton destruction of our environment? That’s up to the listener, but with wildfires raging in California back in the fall of 2017 not long after this album came out (and with an even more heart-wrenching series of blazes consuming Australia as we speak), this album certainly hits close to home. It’s a scary listen at times, and a delightfully macabre one at others, and it won’t be for everyone, but I absolutely think Bone Crown was a story worth telling despite its tragic outcome.
58. Owel, Dear Me (2016)
“Won’t you slow it down?”, begs Owel’s lead singer Jay Sakong on the album’s very first track. He means it in the context of a relationship that he’s not ready to give up on without both of them carefully weighing their options, but it’s also a good reminder of how to get into this album. All three of Owel’s records are on the longer side, and have complex and weighty songs, but this is perhaps the one that requires the most patience and has the biggest payoff, as the majority of it is slow to mid-tempo, and the songs take their sweet time to come to their often stunning climaxes. Even with the crackle of electronic drums to liven up relatively more accessible tracks like “Too Young to Fall in Love” or “Not Today”, this is an album where the hooks take longer to sink in, and don’t always announce themselves immediately at the start of a song. Just the first two tracks alone, “Slow” and “Pale Soft Light” run a combined thirteen and a half minutes, taking us through an entire gamut of emotions as they gradually build to intense peaks full of pummeling drum fills and otherworldly string parts. In terms of the songwriting and overall intensity of the performances, this one winds up being my favorite Owel record (even if that’s a distinction I had to really stop and think about due to how strong their other two records are, and I’ll freely admit it’s subject to change in the future) due to how well they execute those deferred payoffs. I certainly didn’t realize on the first or even the third listen how deeply a song like “I Am Not Yours”, “Steal the Moon”, or “Annabel” was going to dig its roots in and refuse to let me forget it. Jay tests the absolute limits of his vocal range in an absolutely phenomenal performance on the first of those three tracks, and the smooth transition from its intense, angsty rumination on the difference between being in a relationship with someone and actually owning or being owned by that person into the more laid-back but still tragic “Steal the Moon” is one of my favorite moments on the album, due to how well the two tracks combined communicate a feeling of being unfairly judged over things that are impossible to achieve and probably not healthy to hope for in the first place. Finishing off that trifecta with the dark “Annabel”, which finds a young girl on the brink of suicide, certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but I can’t think of a more gripping set of three back-to-back songs in Owel’s discography than those. “Places” gives us a bit of levity later in the album, with its bright piano chords and peppy strings kicking off a strange march of a song akin to the previous album’s “Progress”, except it’s about locking eyes with a stranger across the bar and then being too unsure of either yourself or the other person to actually walk over and say hello. Much of Dear Me seems to be concerned with the consequences of choosing a dream state over reality, which is perhaps why it’s such a murky, hazy record whose best qualities take several listens to fully emerge. By the time it wraps up, we’re so deeply entrenched in that dream world that the vocals in the closing track “Albert and the Hurricane” are barely audible, buried under layers of sound. The abrupt ending when the glockenspiel melody awkwardly cuts off at the end of it would seem to finally jolt us out of our state of unconsciousness, but if you let the record loop back around again on repeat, you’ll realize that this sync up perfectly with the first notes of “Slow”, giving the impression that this is a repeating pattern with no apparent means of escape. It’s a dark experience for sure, but a beautiful one nonetheless.
57. MuteMath, Vitals (2015)
Even though this wasn’t MuteMath’s final record as a four-piece band (that would be 2017’s Play Dead, the recording process for which was started and then abandoned before this album got underway), it’s hard not to feel a sense of finality when I look back on it now. In many ways, it was the band’s last truly collaborative effort, and the sheer upbeat optimism of it in the face of some of life’s biggest “bad news” moments hearkens back to the warm, fuzzy feelings I got from their engrossing and highly energetic self-titled LP back in 2006. “Joy Rides”, “Light Up”, and “Monument” combined are a killer opening trifecta, and it’s a shame to me that this record got blasted for being more simplistic than some MuteMath fans would have preferred, because those songs put a smile on my face without compromising the group’s reputation for being killer performers who consistently put out engaging and addictive music that effectively bridges the gap between pop, rock, and electronica. You can tell that darker things are weighing on Paul Meany’s mind in tracks like “Stratosphere” and especially the slow, syncopated stomp of “Used To”, and some of these mid-album cuts did require me to warm up to them a bit, but I think they add balance to the record – this is a band that wouldn’t be believable if they were constantly super depressing, nor if they were all sunshine and rainbows all the time. The title track and “Bulletproof” are solid instrumentals built to show off what the band could do when they abandon vocals altogether and just let Darren King’s drums and fun instruments like the keytar take the lead for a song (though you should also check out the “Vitals” alt mix with Flint Eastwood on vocals from their remix album Changes if you get the chance). And while “Composed” and “Best of Intentions” might be less convincingly written weak points, the record ends strongly with the slow, soothing ballad “Remain”, the lyrics of which provided the title for the retrospective photobook “Forever We Remain” that the band has been hyping on social media lately. Though Paul Meany has expressed the desire to continue MuteMath essentially as a solo project, it’s pretty clear from this decision that the end of the 2010s has definitively closed the book on MuteMath as a band, with “Remain” now serving as a eulogy for a phenomenal creative partnership between four men that was ultimately too good to last. Maybe that slightly undercuts the feeling of joy that I get from the happier songs on Vitals, but overall it’s still a record that serves as a huge pick-me-up whenever I put it on.
56. Trails and Ways, Pathology (2015)
I’ve already sung the praises of this Oakland, California band’s Trilingual EP from 2013, three tracks of which became the basis for their debut LP after the group was signed to Barsuk Records. Their prowess for timeless indie pop hooks, energetic percussion, sunny layers of male and female vocal harmonies, and the unique spin that their South American influences gave to their sound are all on display here as well, with the previously recorded tracks “Mtn Tune” and “Nunca” carrying over more or less as is (perhaps with some slight remastering), and the bass-heavy, 80s-friendly groove of the original “Tereza” stripped away and replaced with brazilian-style acoustic guitars and more of a tropical feel on the reworked “Terezinha”, swapping in male lead vocalist Keith Brower Brown for female lead vocalist Emma Oppen (who had sung the earlier version on the EP, making it an intriguingly ambiguous love song in terms of the sexual orientation of its object of affection), and translating the lyrics from English to Portuguese in the process. In general, the rule on Pathology seems to be “You wrote it, you sing it”, giving all four band members at least one chance to take the lead throughout the album, and that collaborative, democratic spirit is one of the first things about them that appealed to me, when I happened to catch the band live as an opening act back in 2012 and I noted how different members seemed to rotate in and out of the lead vocal spot. Keith and Emma, in addition to their roles as rhythm guitarist and bassist, seem to swap lead vocals back and forth most often, which is especially effective on the aforementioned “Mtn Tune”, but lead guitarist Hannah Van Loon takes an interesting bass-heavy turn on her contribution, the dreamy ballad “Heavy Sleeper”, and drummer Ian Quirk brings out a bit more tropical flair on “Dream About Me” near the end of the album. The singles “Skeletons” and “Jacaranda” easily deliver in terms of carrying the torch lit by the band’s earlier work, while “Say You Will” and the aforementioned “Heavy Sleeper” take things in more of a dream pop direction, so what we’ve got here is a front-loaded album with a stellar first half, that still has some strong highlights in its slightly mellower back half. That’s a win for Trails & Ways in my book, and unfortunately it might turn out to be their last one. I’m bummed that half the band left after the recording of this record, and 2016’s Own It (which featured only Keith and Ian) suffered greatly for it. As far as I can tell, the band hasn’t been heard from since. They certainly shone brightly for the short time these four musicians were together, though.
55. Belle & Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems (2018)
If you read my “Wait, That’s Not an Album!” list that I wrote as a prelude to my Top 100, and you’re feeling especially pedantic, you’ll probably note that I relegated both Mae and Future of Forestry to that list, due to them having released trilogies of EPs that were later consolidated and re-released as full-length albums. Why didn’t I do the same for Belle & Sebastian, who released this 15-song album as a set of three 5-song EPs between late 2017 and early 2018? Well, part of it’s because the EPs seemed like they were planned to be a prelude to the full album release from the get-go, and part of it’s because the entire thing came out this decade (rather than the first two EPs being released in 2009 in the cases I mentioned above).What it sounded like to me is that B&S had always planned an album, they faced some tricky decisions about which tricks to cut to trim it down to the expected 12 or 13 songs, and they said “the hell with it” and released all 15, but parceled it out in more easily digestible increments. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch had said something to the effect of album releases not getting the same amount of attention they used to in the age of digital music and social media, and it’s kind of true – we have a very short attention span for these sorts of things, and for some of the pop music scene’s biggest hit-makers, you’re only as good as the last song you put out, and planning long-term for an album may not even factor into your commercial viability. I’m old-school; I still appreciate the album format and love having an extensive set of new songs like this to dive into, but even I appreciated the chance to take these songs in a little bit at a time. Now, getting to the actual content of this album… I was pretty much immediately blown away by the six and a half minute opener “Sweet Dew Lee”, the first time I can recall where a B&S album has led off with a Stevie Jackson vocal, and how what probably started as one of their usual twee pop “put a pretty woman on a pedestal while lamenting all the reasons we can’t be together” type songs gradually morphed into a synthpop/disco-style workout that would have been worthy of inclusion on their previous album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. Even when they’re doing more conventional, guitar-driven indie rock, the focus on this record is pretty rhythmic, which helps the stinging political lyrics of “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” or the self-consciously weird tempo shifts of “We Were Beautiful” and “Show Me the Sun” to go down much more smoothly. Sarah Martin brings out her flute for a few gorgeous moments on her song “Fickle Season” and the instrumental version of “Everything Is Now” – the latter quite possibly being the most hippy-dippy thing the band has ever recorded, but it’s fun both to hear their extended instrumental jam in the version heard on EP 1, and then finally get the full lyrics in the version from EP 3 – something that the delayed release strategy actually helped me to anticipate and appreciate, rather than just wondering why the album had to have two versions of the same song. Sarah also trades off lead vocals with Stuart quite adeptly on songs like “The Same Star” and the mildly funky “Poor Boy”, giving those songs the sort of conversational push-and-pull that I’ve mentioned appreciating on both of their previous albums. “Cornflakes” is peak Stevie Jackson weirdness, with its deliberately awkward melody and chord progression coming across like the result of a bad acid trip in a retro dance club while the DJ blasts some vintage Rod Stewart. And “I’ll Be Your Pilot” and “A Plague on Other Boys”, which surround that bizarre entry on EP 2, are two of Stuart’s most heartfelt ballads to date, one tenderly consoling a child who he wishes didn’t have to grow up for a few more years, while another one tells a tragic story of a schoolboy letting his college grades go to hell due to a strong-willed and socially conscious young woman whose affections he simply couldn’t manage to win over. The somewhat off-kilter ending of “Best Friend”, in which Carla J. Easton shows up to sing a quirky duet about friends and flatmates trying to decide if they’re better off suppressing their feelings for each other, is quite charming, even if it’s a weird way to close out such a long and meandering set of songs. B&S threw quite a bit at their listeners here, and not all of it is gonna stick with everyone, but for me it was the peak of a continuous upswing over the course of the decade where their albums just kept getting better and better. (2019’s Days of the Bagnold Summer soundtrack notwithstanding. It was OK, I guess.)
54. Tennis, Yours Conditionally (2017)
I’m actually a bit surprised at how high I felt compelled to rank what might seem on the surface to be a fairly mellow and not terribly groundbreaking indie pop record. It has more to it than just me being soothed by angelic female vocals, vintage keyboards and drum loops, and some of the most singable choruses I’ve heard all decade… though that definitely didn’t hurt. This is tennis’s fourth record, but it was my introduction to the band, and it came at a time when I was in need of a small dose of self-empowerment, a little romance, and some assurance that better days were to come. So I pretty much immediately related to the heavenly wash of keyboards and vocals that comes raining down at the beginning of “In the Morning I’ll Be Better”, a charming little indie rock waltz if ever there was one, that finds Alaina Moore and her husband Patrick Riley in a place where they’re trying to soothe each other’s pain and keep their eyes on that silver lining. As meek and mild as this couple’s devotion to each other might sound on blissful tracks like “Fields of Blue” and “Matrimony”, they also push back at antiquated notions that marriage means letting the self be subsumed in another’s identity, and the notion that women should be relegated to supporting roles in the music industry, on witty tracks like “My Emotions Are Blinding” and “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar” that sarcastically say the opposite of what they mean. What seems deceptively simple at first reveals itself to be rather smart and even a bit progressive on closer inspection, and that’s a fun thing to realize when you contrast it with the group’s deliberate 70s and 80s aesthetics. Stylistically, Tennis’s sound has backed off a bit on the surf-rock guitar stylings first heard on their charming debut Cape Dory in the years sense, to the point where it’s much more poised and polished and programmed in its current incarnation, but relying more on drum loops and plugged-in sounds doesn’t mean the duo has lost their organic charm. Yours Conditionally might trend toward sleepy ballads in its final third, but the acoustic “Modern Woman” is an intriguing glimpse into a strained relationship between women who disagree about their roles in society while the lullabye-like repetition of “Island Music” has grown on me quite a bit over the years. Yours Conditionally stands strong as the most perfect pop album in Tennis’s discography, a definite improvement from the band’s middle two records Young & Old and Ritual in Repeat, both of which have their highlights, but neither of which are as compelling to me as an overall package. Album #5, Swimmer, is due out on Valentine’s Day 2020, and I can’t wait to hear what sorts of blissful insights the band might have in store on that one.
53. Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (2015)
I spent several years being rather intimidated by the voice of Florence Welch, before I was finally convinced to give the band a try by a chance encounter with this album’s almost criminally catchy lead single “Ship to Wreck”. Something about her eccentric stage presence and her commanding vibrato had previously struck me as the a that her band wasn’t for me, genre-wise, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Machine’s particular brand of music is highly dramatic, mixing the fervor of soul and Gospel music, the delicate textures from classical instruments such as the harp, oboe, glockenspiel, and plenty of strings and brass, and rounding it out with a bit of rock & roll swagger. Albums that are front-loaded with addictive heavy-hitters like this one are the kind I’ll keep coming back to obsessively over the years, and How Big has just about the most impressive starting lineup imaginable, starting with the aforementioned “Ship to Wreck”, cranking up the rock energy with the wounded but feisty “What Kind of Man”, and then blending in the classical instrumentation on the luscious and mysterious title track and the emotionally heavy but physically rousing anthem “Queen of Peace”. The eclectic energy might soften a bit for a few ballads in the album’s mid-section, but the stomps and claps of “Delilah” make it an excellent way to open the record’s back half, while the joyous “Third Eye” and the solemn “St. Jude” are late album highlights before the band trots out the classic rock coolness and a bit of psychedelic flavor on the closing track “Mother”. While the language of angels, demons, and other religious iconography isn’t as heavy here as it was on 2011’s Ceremonials (a near-miss that it honestly pained me to leave off the list!), Florence is still clearly fighting the specters of past relationships and addictions, creating entire fantasy worlds out of her battles with alcoholism, loneliness, and trying to figure out her purpose in the grand scheme of things. These are heavy subjects that easily take flight due to one rousing performance after another from a world-class singer and her highly versatile band. My only wish here is that the special edition tracks, most notably “Hiding” and “Make Up Your Mind”, could have been worked into the proper tracklisting, as I think that would have balanced out the record a little more when it threatens to get too ballad-heavy. (I’m ranking these albums based solely on the content of their standard editions, but the bonus tracks on this one are must-listens for me every time I go back to this album, and if you’re gonna use How Big as a jumping off point to explore this band’s music, you should definitely add those tracks to your rotation.)
52. Falling Up, Your Sparkling Death Cometh (2011)
Falling Up lives! (For roughly another four and a half years, at least.) The news of Falling Up’s reunion in late 2010 couldn’t have come at a better time, since they were a band whose career I thought had been cut woefully short just when they were starting to get super intriguing. Whether the story they meant for 2009’s Fangs! to kick off was actually continued on this, their first fan-funded and fully independently released album is probably a matter of some debate, but the astronaut on the cover and some of the subtle lyrical callbacks to previous songs would seem to suggest that they at least built a little bit off of that album’s story. To me, Sparkling Death is the band’s most sprawling and progressive albums, with songs that twist and turn over generous lengths, employing the hard-hitting guitars just as often as they employ the glitzy keyboards, dramatic strings, and eerie vocal manipulation. Lead single “Blue Ghost” is a good primer for what you’re in for here, with a tricky drum pattern and an energetic chorus that seems to want to blast out into the stratosphere, but also a bit of a moody vibe underneath it, best exemplified by the song’s Autotune-heavy bridge and outro. While direct songs of faith didn’t figure as heavily into the reunited Falling Up’s output as it did their original incarnation back when they were on Christian rock label BEC, there are some beautiful ballads here in which the band subtly bears witness to the hand of God at work, most notably “Diamnds” and “Oceans”, which have absolutely glowing melodies and make excellent use of the band’s keyboard and synth wizardry. Buried between many of these tracks are interludes and segues that, just like The River Empires’ lone album from the year prior, tease at songs we’ve previously heard and songs we have yet to hear, giving the album a thematic resonance that reminds us there’s a method to this band’s madness. Perhaps the most daring track here is the one with the least to say, the ambient closer “Slow Waves”, which loops over a simple but heartfelt verse in which a man hooked up to a machine longs to breathe again. The way his heart seems to leap out of his chest as he longs for freedom and redemption, echoing off into the extended outro, which is just quiet washes of synth and digitized vocals occasionally swelling up to puncture the eerie silence, is a bizarre yet fitting way to end an album that has really stuck with me over the years during times when I’ve felt stressed and have longed to “breathe free”.
51. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)
Before Reflektor, Arcade Fire was content to sprawl out over the length of a single disc on this hour-long opus, still my favorite of their albums (though every now and then Funeral pipes up and reminds me it’s a beloved classic that I got into far too late – sorry, Funeral, but you’re from the wrong decade to be in the spotlight here). Arcade Fire may have scaled back some of their more manic and circus-like elements to deliver a leaner indie rock sound here, but there’s still a quite of diversity on display in the sixteen new neighborhoods (uh, I mean songs) that they’ve given us to explore, from the driving beats and furious violin of “Empty Room”, to the synth-assisted reflective ambiance of the two-part “Half Light” suite, to the more primal rock urges of “Month of May”, to the staccato piano of “We Used to Wait”, to the unabashedly synthesized Blondie homage “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. Through it all there’s a lot of imagery revolving around troubled kids growing up in adjacent districts, coming into culture clashes with each other as forlorn adults look back on the wasted moments of their youth and wonder how suburban geography might have shaped the opportunities for growth that were given to them or kept from them. As with any Arcade Fire album, it’s not without its flaws, which here show up mostly in the forms of slow or overly moody tracks that meander a bit too long to make a strong point in the grander scheme of things. But with sixteen tracks to choose from, I have to say I don’t really mind the redundancy of “Rococo” or the glaring empty spaces in the middle of “Wasted Hours”, because I don’t get the feeling I often do with shorter albums that something significant might have been left on the cutting room floor in order to make space for it. Easily half this album – I might even be so generous as to say two-third – is Arcade Fire at their most compelling. That’s saying a lot for a band whose music I thought was boring pretentious crap when I first heard them in 2004 or 2005, and was still sort of begrudgingly learning to like in 2007 and 2008. 2010 was Arcade Fire’s year to bust through my remaining doubts and make a strong case for why they should be one of my favorite bands. Even if their output since then seems to be dividing the fandom into tribes, just as they unintentionally foreshadowed here.
50. Elbow, Little Fictions (2017)
A lot of Elbow’s albums have had rather weighty concerns to deal with, even when the band was making innovatively crafted Britpop and progressive rock songs that soared through the air with a regal sense of style and grace. Cut ’em a little slack if they’re actually happy for a change on this album. It was a good time in the life of lead singer Guy Garvey – he had recently found new love and had a child on the way, and his joy over both of these things is immediately apparent in the opening track and first single “Magnificent (She Says)”, a song which came along at the exact right time to help get me pumped for parenthood as my wife and I prepared to embark on the journey of Fostering (and later adopting) a baby girl. That sense of joy and optimism is retained even when the band reflects on harder times or political unrest in their native England, and what’s surprising about personal favorite tracks of mine like “Gentle Storm”, “Trust the Sun”, and “K2” is how they manage to have such a widescreen scope to them in terms of the emotion expressed, while being made up of relatively simple and repetitive ingredients – often just a drum loop, some piano or keyboards, maybe some very light guitar ambiance or a simple strum or riff. Elbow’s aims are less epic and meandering than their usual albums, resulting in a more buoyant and accessible set of songs than anything they’d done since The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008. It you miss Elbow’s more progressive side, check out the title track, which daisy chains a few funky rhythmic experiences with a joyful refrain that seems to streak across the sky like fireworks as Garvey declares, “Love is the original miracle”. Then listen as this track melts into the reflective closer “Kindling”, with its inviting imagery of autumn colors exploding in the countryside as an onlooker views them from a passing train. (Really, I wish the band had held out on releasing the album until the version of that song where Guy duets with John Grant had been recorded, but that’s a minor quibble.) It’s a more reserved and mellow groove-oriented version of Elbow, but it’s definitely one that spoke my language at a time when I was hungry for a little encouragement that it was all gonna be magnificent.
49. Katie Herzig, The Waking Sleep (2011)
I thought of Katie mostly as an acoustic singer/songwriter when I first discovered her 2008 album Apple Tree. That’s still a fun one to go back to, as her playfulness, occasional self-deprecating wit, and an underlying longing to be truly known and loved were all readily apparent in her simple brand of coffeehouse-friendly pop music. Then she brought in producer Cason Cooley for the next album, and her color palette absolutely exploded. Katie will pretty much always be a purveyor of unapologetically bouncy pop, but those who have only heard her music in commercials, film soundtracks, and occasionally at the grocery store likely don’t realize what a knack she also has for coming up with songs that have more experimental and incredibly detailed arrangements, while still being recognizable as something on the outer edges of “pop”. From the opening bass bounce of the irresistible single “Free My Mind” (which is probably candidate #1 for the song of hers you’re most likely to hear while perusing the produce aisle), to the frantic, clattering percussion and strings of “Midnight Confessions”, to the cute but also-kinda-devastating waltz of luscious strings and timid prepared piano of “Closest I Get”, every song on this record is pretty unique, and for me, it laid out an interesting vision of what singer/songwriter-focused pop music could sound like in the 2010s. Katie’s past as a percussionist comes back into play on the delightful syncopated stomp of “Way to the Future”, one of her all-time most joyous songs (and a killer concert closer, I might add). Curiosity about a God who perhaps she hasn’t felt comfortable approaching through conventional religious means comes to the forefront at the end of the album, by way of the huge, cathartic chorus of “Lost and Found” and the somewhat experimental closing track “Daisies and Pews”. There’s reverence there, but also frustration at the mystery of it all, and a meek confession that she’s just one of many people trying to shine a little light into the black of the cosmos in hopes of getting a signal back. It’s heavy stuff for an artist who at first glance, you might be tempted to write off as nothing more than girly pop fluff. You can hear bits of the past in the folksy “Oh My Darling” and the childlike, sing-song-y invitation to have the “Best Day of Your Life”, but for the most part, this was where Katie left behind open mic night at the java joint and solidified herself as a full-on pop performer. (Turns out this album was so good that it inspired another one of my favorite artists to poach her producer and make a big, splashy pop album of their own… but we’ll get to that one later in the list.)
48. Burlap to Cashmere, Burlap to Cashmere (2011)
The years between Burlap to Cashmere’s debut and sophomore albums were not kind to them by any stretch of the imagination. What should have been that start of a promising career back in 1998 when they debuted their refreshingly unique style of Greek and Latin-inflected acoustic rock, only resulted in delays and frustrations when what was once an A-list band in the world of Christian music saw its label go under, several band members depart, and their absolute whiz kid of a guitarist Johnny Phillippidis rendered unable to play (or have a recognizable face) for a while after he was brutally beaten in a physical altercation. Lead singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos soldiered on with a solo career, with 2003’s Me Died Blue bringing just enough of the magic back to land itself on my best-of list for that decade, but I figured at that point we’d never hear from Burlap to Cashmere ever again. Much to my surprise, the band regrouped in the new decade and put out their self-titled in the summer of 2011, and from the very first notes, it was like visiting old friends and being warmly received and finding out they had a sumptuous feast all laid out for the listener. The speedy guitar parts and math-y rhythms owing a debt to ancient Mediterranean music traditions were still there in all their glory, as were the succulent vocal harmonies, elements that made the aggressive “Build a Wall”, the uber-Greek folk dance “Santorini”, and the downright byzantine “Orchestrated Love Song” immediate standouts, and absolute jaw-droppers to watch the band perform live. But when the band mellowed out and showed their more folk and country-influenced side, they reminded me of an aspect of their sound that I had perhaps underappreciated on their first album. The new version of Steven’s solo song “Seasons” fit in perfectly, as though it had always been meant for the band. And the delicate ballad “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere” was the sort of thing that nearly moved me to tears on my very first listen. Burlap to Cashmere might have broken the “long absence; give ’em more content” rule that I mentioned above – there are 11 tracks here and a number of ’em are pretty short. But they’re all so darn spirited – and spiritual! – in a way that doesn’t feel like it was only meant for the Christian rock niche. Whether we’ll hear from the band ever again (they put out a third album, Freedom Souls, in 2015 that flew way under the radar and seemingly can’t be found anywhere now), or whether Steven goes back to his solo gig full-time (he put out two phenomenal singles in 2019, but thus far there’s no definite news of an album) remains to be seen. But I’m glad Burlap to Cashmere was resuscitated for at least the brief stretches of time we were able to enjoy new music from them in the 2010s.
47. My Brightest Diamond, This Is My Hand (2014)
Only knowing My Brightest Diamond’s more classical and chamber pop-leaning 2011 album All Things Will Unwind and nothing beyond that, I had no idea that Shara (formerly Worden, now Nova) had such a knack for more rhythmic and rock-oriented material. I quickly got schooled by this record’s opening track, “Pressure”, which seems to boast a small marching band as she declares the meaning behind her stage name, and how all of the pressure placed on a woman to be so many things to many people ultimately made her the beautiful but tough-as-hell diamond that she presents on this record. The first four tracks here are absolutely phenomenal, with moods ranging from motherly and nurturing (the fast-paced, woodwind-heavy “Before the Words”) to sultry and sassy (the infectious hand-claps and skewed rhythms of “Lover Killer”) to all of the above and damn proud to not compromise any aspect of her identity (the slowly exploding aural fireworks of the title track). Following the dark, guitar-driven “I Am Not the Bad Guy” Things get more baroque and more downbeat in the second half, with her style at times resembling the exploratory and genre stereotype-busting nature of a Sufjan Stevens record (which isn’t much of a leap, since she sang guest vocals on The Age of Adz back in 2010), or even taking on a mellow vibe as though she had arranged a track around a solemn poetry reading. In the midst of all this comes the baffling beacon of light that is “Resonate”, one of my all-time favorite entries in the “What the hell is that time signature?” category, where the rhythm seems to shift based on what instrument your ears are following, and it’s such a beautiful synthesis of indie rock and improvisational jazz and those stunning operatic vocals of hers that I’m just left slack-jawed. This one really took me by surprise in 2014, and there are parts of it that I feel like I still haven’t wrapped my head around more than five years later.
46. John Reuben, Reubonic (2017)
Reuben got his start at the turn of the century in the niche-within-a-niche known as Christian rap, and despite his goofy white boy flow (or perhaps because of it – this was when Eminem was blowing up in the mainstream, after all), he somehow managed to establish himself as a fun, unpredictable, and occasionally quite profound voice within that scene. Putting out five LPs and touring his ass off must have burned him out by the end of that decade, though, because we heard absolutely nothing from the man until 2016 or so when a new single mysteriously appeared and news of his comeback album Reubonic finally began to circulate. I had kind of fallen off with Reuben toward the end of the 2000s, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Certainly not his best album by… whatever the urban equivalent of a “country mile” is, that’s for sure. Reuben had always been one to poke fun at himself while also skewering the inherent contradictions and the self-conscious cultural obligations he observed in the music scene and in Christianity in general. Now he was willing to do that with a bit more bite, coming at it from a perspective of having taken some time to look at his faith from a distance, be honest about the things he had only claimed to believe by rote, and sort of go through a period of deconstruction. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a rapper to drop a few “s-bombs”, but Reuben does that three times within the first two tracks, and yeah, there was controversy, considering the uneasy marriage of faith and industry he was calling out due to all the exhausting bullshit he’d had to deal with over the years. This is actually a pretty dark record at times, questioning whether Reuben still believes in the traditional idea of God, whether he can muster enough confidence in his own legacy as a rapper to keep at it, and whether a lot of us are just repeating the things we were taught as kids rather than learning how to think and discern for ourselves. But there are some incredible moments of levity here too, in the form of a fun little love song to his wife, and an up-tempo party track or two. Weird and occasional jarring uses of synths, bass, and other background sounds certainly set this record apart from the sound Reuben had previously cultivated – it’s not necessarily in line with 2017’s mainstream rap trends, because Reuben is simply never that straightforward, but it’s certainly aware of a few of them. What I find most surprising is how fulfilling this record continues to be when I come back to it. Every track is strong and either has a killer hook, something intriguing to say, or both. A few songs go out of their way to not have conventional choruses, and still come across as winners due to Reuben’s ability to make the listeners stop and think. And while my favorite tracks are definitely the dark, disquieting openers “Bury This Verse” and “Candy Coated Razor Blades”, I have to say that I love how Reuben’s personal dark night of the soul leads to a reaffirmation of faith in a much more open-minded way on the two-part “Curious” near the end of the album. Reuben pulled everything apart from his sound to his soul on this record, and it all came back together as a much stronger entity when all was said and done.
45. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil, Goliath (2014)
Steve Taylor, the sardonic and sometimes controversial artist known for kicking up a lot of dust with his habit of skewering the foibles of Christian subculture in the 80s and 90s, had been an incredibly busy man in the two decades since his last album Squint, but spent almost none of that time making music of his own. From running a label and producing records, to directing music videos and even a few big-screen features that were slightly edgier and more thought-provoking than your typical “Christian movie” fare, the dude had a lot of irons in the fire, and I admired him for that. But there was much rejoicing among long-standing members of his fandom when he finally returned to music in 2014, forming an ad hoc band called “The Perfect Foil” made up of his buddies Peter Furler, Jimmy Abegg, and Jon Mark Painter (all of them important names in the Christian alt-rock scene back in Taylor’s heyday). Taylor sounds renewed and refreshed here – and his voice is absolutely still an acquired taste for those not used to it, sounding like a creaky but wise old owl dropping truth bombs on the Church one minute, and sounding like a dernaged old guy ranting about kids these days and their technology the next. It’s fun stuff, and pretty consistently witty, even if there might be a few musical and lyrical misfires in the bunch. The band is certainly proud of the unvarnished edges that owe a huge debt to the underground alternative scene of the 80s that influenced each member’s early work in some way – it’s abrasvie at times, but also perversely catchy, such as the band’s abrupt gear shifts at a full-throttle pace on the dizzying opener “Only a Ride”, or their insane mixture of Prince and The Pixies on “Moonshot”. It’s not all stinging criticism and sarcasm, though – Taylor opens us up to some more of his personal musings here as he ponders his place in the entertainment industry and the longsuffering it often requires to see a project through amidst the bass-heavy grooves of “Standing in Line” and “A Life Preserved” (the latter of which was the genesis for his ad hoc band when he got the guys together to record the track for the little-seen 2012 film version of Blue Like Jazz). The album closes on the long, sparse, and incisive ballad “Comedian”, a track that had been in the works since the 90s, which might elicit chuckles with its puns that it keeps claiming are unintended, while taking a sobering look at the general unwillingness of Christian subculture to have an open mind and take criticism constructively. We want a court jester, but apparent we don’t want him making social commentary, and the fact that Steve Taylor insists on doing so is what makes him so loved by a small but devoted set of fans, while keeping the gatekeepers of the Christian music industry and probably a lot of potential fans at arms’ length. Somehow I think that’s the way he likes it – the album title Goliath gives us a hint at the unfairly balanced battle he often feels like he’s fighting. And I’d definitely consider this album a win for one of the underrated Davids of the Christian music world.
44. Blindside, With Shivering Hearts We Wait (2011)
I had listened to everything this Swedish melodic hardcore band (forgive me if I’m playing fast and loose with the genres; the heavier side of rock music isn’t generally my area of expertise) put out in the 2000s, and really enjoyed some of it, particularly 2004’s bizarre hodgepodge of an album About a Burning Fire. But I wouldn’t have considered them a top-tier favorite band or given any of their records five stars. Their 2011 record, produced by Howard Benson, certainly caught me off guard – sound-wise, you could almost consider it their equivalent of what Benson did for P.O.D. on Satellite. Yet the window for Blindside to stake a claim on mainstream exposure had long since passed by this point – this might be a more pop take on hard rock and alternative metal, but it’s a self-aware one that straight up makes fun of itself at one point (the single “Monster on the Radio”, which sounds exactly like what its title would lead you to expect). So yeah, we’ve got cleanly produced heavy guitar riffs, nicely polished but still hard-hitting drums, and a surprising amount of clarity from lead singer Christian Lindskog, a man who has always had a real gift for sliding between melodic singing and a blood-curdling scream as if these two things were on a sliding scale rather than being his two binary options. That really helps to turn up the intensity on tracks like the hard-hitting, rhythmically confounding opener “There Must Be Something in the Water”, which has a sense of dread and restlessness to it that not even an elegant string section can keep at bay. Even when the band takes a slight turn toward electronic rock on the dark love song “Our Love Saves Us”, there’s still quite a chill in the air, fitting its depiction of a couple determined to stay together, but having to embrace tightly just to stand firm in an absolutely chilling, unrelenting flood that washes over them. If sheer heaviness is what you’re looking for, “Bring Out Your Dead” might just do the trick, since most of that one is screamed, and it’s by far the darkest and most demented thing on the album, drawing an analogy between the black plague that wiped out most of Europe centuries ago and some sort of sin or skeleton in the closet that a person keeps hidden away like a corpse that they’re too afraid to bring out into the light and throw onto the pile to be burned. There really isn’t a track that I dislike or even consider average here, from the poppiest ones to the heaviest ones. Every single one out of the ten has something musically or narratively unpredictable to offer. And when the band goes for broke on the seven-minute finale “There Must Be Something in the Wind”, the band turns a corner into an absolutely transcendent mix of their usual heavy chords, elegant strings, surprise breakbeats and a full-on electronica breakdown at one point, and dark but compelling lyrics about following a calling out to a place of deeper faith and trust even if it means the death of everything you know. That one would up being my favorite song of the year 2011, and if that’s the last track on the last album we ever get from Blindside, then I have to say they went out on one hell (or heaven?) of a high note. (I’m honestly not sure if the band is still active – a new single that surfaced last year seemed to suggest so, but Spotify’s been belatedly putting up some of their long lost B-sides and demos, so it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s new and what’s been dug out of the vaults.)
43. The Reign of Kindo, Play with Fire (2013)
Kindo (as they’re now known) covered a lot of ground on their third and final album using their old band name, pushing their “jazzyish” rock sound to the next level with some pretty intricate and (I hate to use this word because it sounds pretentious, but I genuinely can’t think of a better one) sophisticated arrangements that really tested the band’s ability to deliver phenomenal hooks despite the weird chord progressions and odd time signatures that are a regular part of their repertoire. The incredibly smooth vocal melodies, the strong focus on piano, and the frequent use of a horn section doesn’t cause this album to fall under the classification of “easy listening” by a long shot, as even some of its most upbeat and romantic songs have a complicated set of moving parts, such as the shifting, interlocking rhythms of “Help It” or even the project’s bold lead single “Feeling in the Night”. Kindo seems to firmly believe that you can make music appeal to the emotions without dumbing down the music theory, and that makes nearly every song on this record feel like a celebration of the way we process music with our minds, our hearts, and even on a gut level with our bodies. For every optimistic track celebrating the simple beauty of being alive (the Latin-influenced “Impossible World” and the comparatively simple pop bounce of “Sunshine”), there’s an angstier track about the sheer hubris of mankind to think we know everything and will last forever (“Dust”), the misery of being in a relationship where requests are obliged out of intimidation rather than genuine love (“Romancing a Stranger”), and even the band’s frustration with the songwriting process itself (the noisy, rattling “Sing When No One’s Around”) and how the music industry seems to be unfairly weighted toward young, pretty faces with fashionable images and a complete lack of musical knowledge and anything worth saying in a song (the hilariously blunt “I Hate Music”). Bookending the album are two of the band’s most incisive tracks where the subject of religion is concerned – “The Hero, the Saint, the Tyrant & the Terrorist” opens the album with a sharp critique on fundamentalism’s insistence on everything being black or white, heaven or hell, and leaving no room for grace or imagination, and “The Man, the Wood & the Stone” brings some of its musical motifs back for a much mellower reflection on how Jesus was considered a controversial outcast among the religious elite of his day, who feared the power he might be putting into the hands of the common people by prompting them to question what they thought they knew. Play with Fire is a bit of a potpourri, but it manages to cover all of these different subjects and genre influences with a strong sense of style and identity that makes the album a remarkably consistent and engaging listen – potently catchy stuff despite the band’s obvious disdain for straightforward radio fare.
42. Hellogoodbye, Everything Is Debatable (2013)
HGB has taken on a lot of identities since the band’s inception, a few of which I would only barley consider an actual “band”. Their 2006 debut Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! was essentially the audio personification of a MySpace page, with its glaring mix of electropop, garage rock, and acoustic sensitive-guy tropes. Kind of charming in places, but at times it felt like they wanted to make memes instead of music. By 2010, most of the audience they had cultivated was likely to have outgrown their shtick, so they morphed into an actual band on Would It Kill You?, setting aside the electronic trickery for the most part and writing fun, organic power pop songs that were still mostly about whimsical romance and enjoying your youth. I’m not knocking it. It was a solid “summer record”. By 2013, it was pretty clear that the band was largely just Forrest Kline and a revolving door of other players, as HGB delved back into electropop territory, just in a more mature fashion. Gone was the need to name-check Internet fads and such, but what remained was a genuine love of maximal, wall-of-sound production that allowed a song to go utterly manic when the lyrics called for it. Given how much of this album is consumed with trippy stories of near-death and out-of-body experiences, I’d say it’s warranted. It gives the whole thing a “funhouse mirror” sort of approach that keeps it from turning into the usual navel-gazing you’d expect when an artist has an existential crisis. Occasionally one song will morph into the next, and a fun bit of classical or jazzy instrumentation, or even a guitar lick you could swear you remember from decades, will permeate the wall of drum pads and computers and keyboards. This is a record that whizzes by pretty fast, with several songs having surprise endings that bleed into the next track, yet great care is taken to make sure that nearly all of these songs having an overwhelming amount of layers to them doesn’t result in them all sounding the same. For me, it’s the punchy disco beats of the title track, the hopeless romanticism of “Swear You’re in Love”, the almost claustrophobic club beats (and excellent live drumming!) of “Just Don’t Let Go Just Don’t”, and the whirlwind of pastel-colored synths and thick drum fills of “An External Force” that constitute the strongest highlights. But there really isn’t a bad track in the bunch. There simply isn’t time to get bored or let your attention wander during this incredibly tight thrill ride of an album.
41. The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars (2013)
Listening to The Civil Wars’ second and final album is an awful lot like looking at old photo albums of your parents from just before they got a divorce. I honestly wasn’t expecting to even get another album from the duo after they announced in 2012 that they would cease touring due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”. The rumor mill will be forever abuzz with different interpretations of what that might mean, but the fact is that it got to the point where it was absolutely excruciating for Joy Williams and John Paul White to be on stage together. (Let’s just say that their band name was aptly chosen and leave it at that.) Most of this record must have been in the can before their working relationship went that far downhill, forcing producer Charlie Peacock to play referee between them – it’s a friggin’ miracle that this thing not only got made, but wound up being nearly as consistent and engaging as their 2011 debut. You can hear the tension in the opening track “The One that Got Away”, a classic John Paul White song title if ever there was one, considering how the song subverts the expectations given by that phrase and finds the duo telling each other “I wish you were the one that got away” over a grumpy folk/rock arrangement that brings electric guitar into the mix more prominently than I can recall it ever happening on the duo’s first album. It’s an ingenious bit of songwriting, but also a clear sign of trouble in paradise, and while most of the record is far less angsty than that, you can still hear the passive-aggressive barbs here and there, and the hints that these two were writing from the perspective of a love/hate relationship, muddying the waters of what might originally have been intended as cutesy love songs for their respective spouses, or for imaginary characters they’d dreamed up in their minds. Midway through the album, the duo stuns us with “From This Valley”, an unabashedly religious track that brings together Joy’s Christian music background and and John’s love of classic country/Americana tropes for a truly rousing vocal performance that must have brought the house down whenever they played it live (which makes them my personal “one that got away”, in terms of great bands I never got around to seeing live). Then they have the nerve to cover both Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” on the same record, transforming both songs into low-key, brooding folk ballads pretty far removed from their original versions, just as they had previously done with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Joy surprises us with a lyric written entirely in French on the bare-bones but incredibly gorgeous “Sacred Heart”, and then the record wraps up on a bittersweet, what-could-have-been note with “D’Arline”, the last song the band ever recorded together, which was never properly done up in the studio – what you’re hearing here was recorded on an iPhone on a front porch, with all of its imperfect flubbed notes and a bird loudly cawing in the background. Hearing the duo “in the moment” like that, warts and all, but seeming to have share a peaceful moment in real time with no apparent strife between them, nearly brings me to tears when I think about it now, long after the duo’s demise and a few records deep into each of their post-Civil Wars solo careers. Both Joy and John have put out a handful of stellar songs on their own, but absolutely everything they’ve done pales in comparison to how good they were together. That may be the tragic message of The Civil Wars when all is said and done – that some couples, whether of the romantic or professional variety, are simply too volatile to last.