The Best of the Tenny Tweens, Part V: 1-20

We’ve arrived at the final round, folks. The true heavy-hitters. The absolute classics that I’m pretty sure I’ll keep going back to over and over when they’re ten years, twenty years – heck, maybe even fifty years old if I’m fortunate enough to still be around then!

The realization that I had a pretty interesting cross-section of artists ranging from household names to the downright obscure on this list piqued my curiosity about whether there was some reasonable way to measure exactly how popular each of them were. It’s honestly not something I’ve ever paid super close attention to – I can usually get a sense of when someone whose music I happen to like has achieved A-list celebrity status around the world, because I’ll hear their music pretty much everywhere when I’m out and about in public, and their concerts will usually be prohibitively expensive. On the other end of the scale, when an artist is so-small time that only a small cluster of people seem to know about them, merely acquiring their music or finding out more about them for the sake of writing a review can be challenging. Word of mouth, and recommendations from other artists I enjoy, are often my primary means of getting into an artist, so for pretty much everyone between those two extremes, I often don’t know how many like-minded fans there are, or what demographic is most into them, until I catch a live show and start people-watching.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to use Spotify as my arbitrary metric for determining how many people are listening to the artists I love most. Basically I just checked each artist’s home page and noted how many Monthly Listeners they had. This isn’t a perfect way to measure things, as I’d imagine these numbers fluctuate from month to month, likely favoring those who have recent hits or album releases. But I was genuinely surprised at the staying power some of them had despite not having put anything out in a great while. And in a few cases, I had genuinely underestimated the global reach of certain artists who I honestly thought were more “indie” or “niche” in their appeal. (I guess that’s a good problem to have?)

The most listened to artist on my list topped out at around 54 million listeners over the last month… and those of you who follow streaming music trends can probably guess that I’m talking about the incomparable Billie Eilish. (For scale, the all-time record set by any artist for number of listeners in a one-month is just over 69 million, for which Ed Sheeran gets the bragging rights. I like more about Sheeran than I dislike, and I’ve given him my fair share of streams over the years, but I’d definitely not enough of a fan to put him anywhere near this list.) I don’t intentionally avoid mega-popular artists, but I’m still sort of dumbfounded that, once in a blue moon, I genuinely like something that is enjoyed by that many other people.

3 artists landed within the 10 million – 50 million range. None of those were a surprise – they’ve all been around for multiple decades, racked up tons of radio hits, and embarked on blockbuster tours.

8 artists scored somewhere between 5 and 10 million, and another 14 landed between 1 and 5 million. Not too shabby, especially considering most of these fall under the “indie rock” umbrella, even if that’s a slight misnomer due to them operating on major labels these days. I was genuinely surprised that a few of ’em were that big of a deal.

The smaller end of the scale also kind of fascinates me, because that’s generally when the concerts (if the artist manages to book a show in my area, of course, which usually requires at least being from the U.S., if not from the West Coast) are guaranteed to be more intimate events. 8 artists landed between 50 and 100 thousand listeners, with 13 more between 10 and 50 thousand. Those are cozy numbers. I wouldn’t mind any of these artists getting some more exposure, but it’s also nice to show up to a live gig and feel like you’re among family.

When you get down to the really obscure artists who managed to put out amazing records in the 2010s, 4 of them landed between 1 and 10 thousand listeners, and 2 of them are in the triple-digit range, with mere hundreds clued in on what I’d consider a few of the music world’s best-kept secrets. Finally, there’s an artist who no longer has any of their music on Spotify (The River Empires), so I had no way to hazard a guess as to their following, but they were an obscure offshoot of two other indie bands that only cut one album, so the numbers couldn’t have been huge. I’m not one of those hipsters who specifically prides himself on liking stuff because no one else has heard of it. When I find excellent music that no one I know seems to have heard about, I simply want to do my part to pass the word of mouth on. It may never crack the Top 40 charts or become a name everyone seems to be familiar with, but if I can convert a few more fans, that does both the artist and those new fans a favor, and I’ve paid it forward for the amazing memories that artist has been the catalyst for in my life.

And with that last bit of sloppy statistical analysis out of the way, let’s finish the list! I’m super excited to finally unveil the Top 20.

20. Vampire Weekend, Contra (2010)
You’re probably sick of me talking about Vampire Weekend by now, but I can’t make this list without acknowledging the album that made me turn a mental corner from merely liking ’em to totally loving ’em. Contra, the band’s second album, is technically the oldest one on my list, having been released on January 11, 2010 overseas (because this was back when the UK and other countries got new releases on Mondays while the US got ’em on Tuesdays – nowadays everyone just gets ’em on Fridays). So it beats OK Go’s Of the Blue Colour of the Sky by literally one day. While still a short, sweet blast of eccentric energy just like Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut, Contra added synths and programming to the band’s sound in a way that still left room for their love of African and Caribbean rhythms, preppy string sections, and all the good stuff we heard from them last time around. It’s an unapologetically poppy album with some killer choruses, that only slows down sparingly – basically just on the Side A and Side B closers “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur a Contra”, both of which have a uniquely minimal approach that the band would later expand upon on their third album. Aside from that, it’s pretty dense stuff, often fooling the listener into thinking they’re listening to escapist tropical pop music, only for a delightfully sunny song like “Horchata” or “Holiday” to suddenly throw so much cultural and historical flotsam and jetsam (and Rostam?) at them that they need Wikipedia just to figure out what the hell happened. “California English” really takes this approach to extremes, with its garbled, Autotuned lyrics that are actually words, just slurred by all of the post-processing to the point where it’s utterly silly. The syncopated, happy-go-lucky “White Sky” is one of the band’s most delightful tracks ever, with a falsetto chorus that makes Ezra Koenig sound like a delighted young child as he ponders the concrete and glass jungle towering above him during a trip through Manhattan. “Run” is my absolute favorite track on the album, with its cute little horn blasts and speedy, intricate drumming that rivals U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. in his prime. And if you’re weary of all the bleep bloops and assorted video game sounds, “Cousins” has got your back, the album’s purest rock song, with chaotically fast riffs and drum rolls that have to be heard to be believed. Just about every track here is a delightful surprise, even when the album starts winding down tempo-wise on the penultimate track “Diplomat’s Son”, the band’s longest and windiest song to date, that samples both M.I.A. and Toots & The Maytals while telling a complex story of a forbidden relationship in the early 80s. (Listen for a rare vocal cameo from the band’s keyboardist/guitarist/producer/everything man Rostam Batmanglij near the end. God, I miss that guy.) Contra is a tight little record that knows how to have an immense amount of fun while still giving the listener a lot of puzzling lyrics to ponder, and it feels worldview-expanding while also being a short enough listen to not become utterly exhausting to the listener. The band has certainly gone on to make records that are longer and more expansive in their scope, but to me this is the only album of theirs that contains absolutely zero missteps, and thus it remains my favorite after all these years, despite how appreciative I am of their commitment to not make the same record twice.

19. Katie Herzig, Walk Through Walls (Best of 2014)
I’ve already noted earlier in the list that I was a big fan of Katie Herzig’s move from cutesy acoustic pop toward a wider sound palette on 2011’s The Waking Sleep. Her next album continued the transition to a dreamier, more electronic pop sound, with producer Cason Cooley at the helm once again… because why mess with that kind of success? Just from listening to the first several tracks on this album, you might have never guessed at Katie’s folksy origins. The bright synth wipes and slow, looming bass of “Frequencies” certainly made it a bold choice for an opening track, and the lead single “Drug” was a devilishly delightful mix of bouncy piano chords, weird synth bits that seemed to have been dropped in from a dance remix we never got to hear, and a bit of edgy vocal distortion on a dangerously catchy chorus. It was impossible to get out of my head, just as the person she was singing about with, who took her by complete surprise when she fell in love with them, was impossible to get out of her head. Throughout the record, there’s a keen balance between intimate love songs with tender melodies and feistier, more aggressively catchy arrangements. The title track might actually be one of the album’s least attention-grabbing tracks, production-wise, but it’s intriguing in that it seems to be a farewell wish from someone on the verge of death, trying to speak truths that were previously too hard to admit to before they pass from the material realm into the supernatural. The lushly orchestrated “Summer”, follows, one of Katie’s most moving anthems as she begs a loved one to hang on and enjoy a fruitful season of life with her before it fades away. And “Say It Out Loud” is one of her most defiantly upbeat and joyful anthems, again encouraging listeners to live their truth before it’s too late. If you’re not moved by the time those five tracks are over, then this probably isn’t the album for you. But even for folks like me who were fully on board with Katie’s commitment to her new sound and how she seemed to have thrown caution to the wind, there were some surprises none of us would have seen coming. We wouldn’t know until the release of 2018’s Moment of Bliss (you guessed it, yet another near-miss that almost made my list!) that Katie was also grappling with her sexual identity during this phase of her life, and that makes the softspoken ballad “Thick as Thieves”, which she co-wrote with longtime girlfriend Butterfly Boucher, who sings backup on the track, an even more delightful deep cut than it was when I first encountered it in 2014. The final third of the album definitely takes a turn toward the somber and reflective, moving from the uneasiness of “Water Fear” into the downright anguished “Forgiveness”, a very personal song that was apparently written as Katie tried her best to navigate a difficult relationship with her dying mother. The wail she lets out in that song’s chorus communicates volumes without any words, and then she and Cason had the nerve to suddenly bring a frenetic dance beat into the mix, transforming a darkly ambient ballad into an intense workout of a song that won’t be easily forgotten. By the time the record wraps up on the minimal postscript “Proud”, she’s found her peace again and she’s asking herself the big questions about whether she’ll find herself able to look back on her life and her accomplishments with genuine pride when she, too, is facing down her final days on Earth. So much of this record is dedicated to the notion of taking the day by the reins and not being afraid to be yourself, in all of your weird, unique glory, and I love that about it even more than I love how well-versed Katie is in this new stylistic language that is so far removed from her old sound.

18. Eisley, Currents (2013)
“Do you believe in fate, baby?” Eisley asks us on the surprisingly murky and crunchy title track that opens their fourth album in grand style. This felt like a return to a much more wide-eyed and imaginative Eisley, with a newfound willingness to experiment more than they ever had before, after their rather grim and somewhat middle-of-the-road 2011 album The Valley. It was also the last album that the band, made up of three sisters, a brother, and a cousin all bearing the last name DuPree, would put out before several key members departed the band. I feel like it was fate that led to this unique period in their lives where they were happier and healthier overall than a few years back, when they were all grappling with the aftermath of Sherri’s brief marriage to – and subsequent divorce from – Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory (who now happens to also be the ex of Paramore’s Hayley Williams). But with several members experiencing the joys and hardships of parenthood for the first time, it became harder for the group to sustain itself as an active recording and touring band. If this was the last time we were going to hear Stacy and Chauntelle singing alongside their sister Sherri on an Eisley record, they absolutely made the most of it. Yes, lead guitarist Chauntelle actually gets to sing lead on a track here, the acoustic ballad “Millstone”, which is absolutely awash in luscious harmony vocals, even while it grapples with the heavy subject of being afraid you’ll die before you get all your existential issues sorted out. The band’s usual songwriters and co-lead vocalists Sherri and Stacy trade off one great idea after another, from the swirling, piano-driven “Blue Fish” with its extended vocal riffing in the bridge finding the two circling around each other as they ascend toward the surface of a murky ocean, to the bass-heavy, confrontational rocker “Save My Soul”, which is feisty in a fun way that really helps to set it apart from the angrier tracks on their previous album. Younger siblings Christie and Collin DuPree, who were getting ready to make their own debut as Merriment, show up to add even more familial harmonies to the rickety, showtune-esque melody of “Wicked Child”, on which producer/arranger Jeremy Larson also added some delightfully playful strings. The album closer “Shelter” also features an exquisite arrangement by Larson, with all three sisters singing a warm and motherly melody of love and protection, as if they were all holding their babies in their arms when it was being recorded. Just about every track here is a winner, which is a feat I honestly hadn’t expected them to pull off again after their 2005 debut Room Noises. It didn’t take me long to realize that due to it having a wider range of moods and instrumentation while still knocking it out of the park on nearly every track, Currents had actually dethroned Room Noises as my favorite Eisley record. The band still soldiers on with just Sherri, bassist and multi-instrumentalist Garron, and sometimes drummer Weston, but without the sisterly harmonies and collaborative ideas bouncing off of one another, it almost feels like a different entity altogether these days. Currents is what I like to think of as the fondest of farewells to a long-time favorite band.

17. Everything Everything, A Fever Dream (2017)
This UK band has a high-octane sound that is really hard to describe, taking little bits of alternative rock, R&B, dance music, Britpop, and probably a few other things I don’t know how to identify, throwing them into a blender, and lettin’ ‘er rip at the highest possible speed. It’s dense and chaotic at times, and honestly, the band’s fourth album was the best one to get me into them, since all of their earlier work, while interesting, can be a bit much if you let an album play through from beginning to end. Somehow they found a way to consolidate their provocative political and social commentary, their frenetic rhythms, and the extremely forceful falsetto of Jonathan Higgs into a set of songs that balances complexity with immediacy a lot better than their old stuff did. You can hear it right from the loop pedal-assisted guitar effects, shifting bass, and robotically precise dance beats that kick off “Night of the Long Knives” – this is fun and catchy stuff, but also, it’s comparing a modern-day coup in British politics to the hostile takeover of the Nazi party in the lead-up to World War II. Heavy stuff. “Can’t Do” almost seems like a sarcastic response to a label that wanted them to lay off the cerebral stuff and just put out a catchy single – with synths blaring and breakbeats urging involuntary movement on the part of the listener, it accomplishes the very thing that Higgs keeps complaining he can’t. “Desire” finds the band in high-energy “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” mode – yet another irresistible single from a record pretty well stacked with ’em. And even though much of the recorded is consumed with the idea that recent shifts toward bold-faced nationalism and truth as a relative concept in Western politics are only going to cause us to lose empathy toward one another and view everyone different from us with utter paranoia in the long run, the band seems hell-bent on making this message go down easy with all the rhythmic workouts they put us through. “Run the Numbers” and “Ivory Tower” are some of the most guitar-driven entries on this record, with the former acting as a sneering dismissal toward those who would base their politics on such silly things as numbers and scientific facts, and the latter going almost completely off the rails during its utterly insane, stuttering mess of a climax, rivaling some of Radiohead’s most paranoid and unsettling moments. The group proves they can handle more downbeat and cerebral pieces as well, with “Pull Me Together” and the title track providing a brief respite from all the noise in the album’s back half, though even in those two songs, there’s a gradual buildup to a collage of tape-looped noise and a repetitive but rhythmically unorthodox refrain that keeps getting louder and heavier on the drums until it finally beats you into submission. So yeah, this record never truly calms down until its last two tracks – the ephemeral interlude “New Deep” and the somewhat reserved ballad “White Whale”. I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed that they ended this one on more of a reserved note, but to be fair, this is a pretty intense album that kind of has to give the listener a breather at some point. I’m utterly blown away by a good 7 or 8 of these 11 tracks, with the rest still being quite respectable, and that’s a hell of a batting average for a band I’d never even heard of before a word-of-mouth recommendation convinced me to take the plunge and give A Fever Dream a try. Even from the first listen, I knew I wouldn’t regret it.

16. Colony House, Only the Lonely (Best of 2017)
Brothers Caleb and Will Chapman, the lead singer and drummer who form the nucleus of Colony House, seem to have learned all the right things from having popular Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman as their father. They’ve got the same “born entertainer” gene in their DNA, but they don’t feel the need to make every song function as some sort of a didactic sermon, and thus their music has a much wider potential appeal. That, and these guys just plain ROCK. On Album #2, the band pulled out all the stops, deliberately shooting for a huge sound that was more in keeping with the live shows they’d gotten their fair share of accolades for. They’re definitely on the more commercial side of rock music in terms of writing and recording unapologetically catchy songs with mostly feel-good topics, but this album has a refreshing “live band” sort of feel to it, only using keyboards and programming as an accent rather than as a production trick to replace the more organic and edgy live instrumentation. The result is an album that is a total blast of energy from start to (almost) finish, stacked with songs about the need to trust and appreciate the family and loved ones we have, with a pretty good balance of the lighthearted, borderline-silly stuff (“1234”, “You Know It”) and the heavier stuff that finds the Chapman brothers admitting it’s OK to let out a cry for help instead of trying to prove to yourself that you can handle it entirely on your own (“Cannot Do This Alone”, “Lovely”, “Follow Me Down”.) Throughout the record, the riffs and vocal melodies are designed to be total crowd-pleasers, and the songs often have fun little twists and turns that you don’t see coming, hinting at jammier territory that the band could potentially explore in the future (“You & I” and “3:20” being the best examples of how their songs can change on a dime in thrilling ways). Will Chapman has a real knack for coming up with drum cadences that rattle their way deep into my brain, making even some of this record’s deepest of deep cuts linger in my ears hours after I’ve listened to the album – it’s not for nothing that my two favorite tracks, the aforementioned “Follow Me Down” and its conjoined fraternal twin “Remembered For” were neither singles nor in the front half of the track listing. Even when the band finally strips everything down to primarily acoustic guitar and voices for the finale “This Beautiful Life”, it feels like the moment of reverence and reflection has been truly earned after the hard work of pounding out the rest of the record, and the song has a memorable, hymn-like cadence to it that closes out the record on a peaceful note. This was a huge leap forward from the band’s already entertaining, but more middle-of-the-road pop/rock debut When I Was Younger, and it leaves me excited for what’s to come on their third album, Leave What’s Lost Behind (which will be out by the time I get this list posted!)

15. Anberlin, Vital (2012)
I didn’t know how little time I had left to enjoy Anberlin when they put out Vital in the fall of 2012. It turned out to be their second-to-last album, before the group amicably parted ways in 2014. It was also their most hard-hitting. 2007’s Cities is, of course, an untouchable masterwork, and I didn’t expect the band to ever top it, but they pushed themselves to sonic extremes here and ended up coming damn close. Just frenetic drum fills and jarring riffs of the opening track “Self Starter” are enough to make me feel like I need a towel, a bottle of water, and a place to lie down for a few minutes. And it continues from there with some of the heaviest and most aggressive, yet still unapologetically power poppy material Anberlin has ever put out – with a bit of electronic sheen to it here and there that helps to set it apart from their past work. On some tracks, they really indulge the more synthetic side – see the highly danceable beat of “Intentions” and the otherworldly echoing keyboards of “Other Side” for some excellent examples of this – but those tracks also showcase formidable live drumming that turned out to be some of Nathan Young’s absolute best work. The entire band is on fire here, with guitarist Christian McAlhaney laying down riffs that command attention, and vocalist Stephen Christian covering the entire spectrum from snarled screams to sensitive lullabies as this record delivers one hard-hitting surprise after the next. Sure, you can easily get into the groove of a grinding rocker like “Little Tyrants” and “Someone Anyone”, or get swept up in the rushing river-like motion the late-album dark horse pick “Orpheum”, but you certainly won’t see a tear-jerker like “Innocent” or a long, dead-eyed slow-burner like “God, Drugs and Sex” coming ahead of time. For me, this was their best work of the 2010s by a long shot – just an absolute wallop of a record from a band experiencing a noticeable uptick in their creative energy. (The 2013 re-release Devotion also revealed some equally formidable B-sides such as “Dead American” and “IJSW” that originally didn’t make the cut – I’m not grading this album based on any of those, but when a band has to cut material that strong because they’ve got such a wealth of amazing songs to choose from, that’s certainly a great problem to have.)

14. Kathryn Calder, Bright and Vivid (2011)
As a member of The New Pornographers since the Challengers days, I’ve always appreciated the rare moment when Kathryn Calder’s voice comes to the fore on one of their albums – which isn’t terribly often since she’s usually belting it out along with the other three singers in the band, who have all had a little longer to establish their outsized personalities and their solo careers, while Kathryn by comparison comes across as slightly more quirky and reserved. She definitely inherited a love of power pop maximalism from the DNA that she and band leader Carl Newman (he’s her uncle) have in common, though, which is best showcased on her criminally underexposed second solo album Bright and Vivid. I don’t remember there being a ton of press about this one even when it was newly released back in 2011 – maybe it got more buzz locally around the Vancouver/Victoria area Kathryn originates from, but even among New Pornos fans who follow A. C. Newman and Neko Case and Destroyer, Kathryn’s solo stuff seems to have flown under the radar. Just one listen to the snappy drum programming and cheery whistles of “Who Are You?” oughta set a curious new listener straight, in terms of telling them this record is going to be bouncy, noisy, and a hell of a fun ride. It’s also going to be quite dense in places – “One Two Three” opens the album in a fog of guitar feedback and distorted low-end percussion, while the trippy Side B opener “Right Book” is so stacked with clattering percussion, bounding piano chords, and distorted synths that it’s like running through a maze of funhouse mirrors. Bright and Vivid lives up to its name so much that it can be intense listen, but it’s in some of the quieter moments that Kathryn’s charms can really sneak on on you. “Turn a Light On” is an absolutely luminous ballad that comes early in the record, sandwiched between the aforementioned “Who Are You?” and the messy yet ethereal “Walking in My Sleep”, and “City of Sounds” is a joyous gem to behold with its shuffling drums and its deft acoustic finger-picking. Every song seems to have a unique set of textures to it, often combining unsettling dark sounds with euphoric light ones to give the album a colorful, unpredictable atmosphere that makes each of its ten tracks a treasure trove of potential discovery as you listen again and again and start to zoom in on some of the buried instrumental and vocal layers, and the eccentric lyrics. This is the kind of record where it’s hard to describe what it means to me or say that it changed my life in some profound way. But I get such an immeasurable amount of joy from it every time I put it on, to the point where I actually feel more strongly about it now than I did back when it first brightened some of those dark winter days I had to push through in 2011 and 2012. (Emotionally dark winter days, I mean. I live in Los Angeles. We get cold at like 60 degrees.)

13. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Best of 2011)
Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut is one of my sacred cows. You do not speak ill of that record within earshot of me, EVER. Needless to say, expectations were high when they delivered a follow-up album three years later. Keeping the warm, woodsy indie folk sound we knew them for, with the immaculate vocal harmonies and the feeling that maybe we had stumbled across long lost recordings of songs that were decades or even centuries old, while also branching out and trying new things, was no small task for the Seattle band whose popularity had unexpectedly exploded, a bit of a mixed blessing for introverted lead singer Robin Pecknold. For the most part, the Foxes resisted the urge to bigger here, but they do go to more far-flung places, injecting their sound with a wanderlust that sometimes takes them out of the Pacific Northwest and Appalachian contexts they initially inhabited, as they sing of such far-flung places as North Africa, India, and even the fictional utopian island of Innisfree, occasionally pulling bits of exotic instrumentation that help the listener catch a glimpse of the travels and travails experienced by the protagonists of each song. Familiar imagery such as forests, mountains, and apple orchards occupy the songs as well, and the band somehow manages to create haunting, memorable refrains while simultaneously making the songs more open-ended and fragmentary than before. Just listen to a track like “Sim Sala Bim”, “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”, or “The Shrine / An Argument”, and you’ll be taken aback by how a delightful, pastoral groove or a slow, ambient meditation can suddenly turn on a dime and become something more aggressive or abstract or downright unsettling. (The atonal saxophone freakout at the end of “The Shrine / An Argument” will forever haunt my nightmares. The song is even more awesome for it.) A lot of the songs seem to fixate on death, the passage of time, and Pecknold’s apprehension about what sort of a difference he’ll be able to make or what good things he’ll be able to leave behind for the generation to follow. In some ways it’s a more troubled album than their debut, and it’s certainly a more complex one. I’m still dumbfounded that the band managed to diversify their sound while being every bit as consistent as their debut, scoring themselves a #1 slot on my year-end list for the second time in a year that had some genuinely stiff competition where great albums were concerned. (Fun fact: This is the only Fleet Foxes album that was recorded while drummer Josh Tillman was in the band – he’s now better known as Father John Misty.)

12. Paper Route, The Peace of Wild Things (2012)
Paper Route’s Absence was another one of those gems from 2009 that I discovered too late – a more melancholy and intense take on the dense, intricate electronic rock sound championed by bands like MuteMath, and an utterly defining record for me personally in 2010, and the singular most compelling reason why I’d eventually like to revise my best-of list from the previous decade. Not to fear – this amazing band put out two more records in the 2010s. I remember being slightly apprehensive at the time as to whether The Peace of Wild Things could live up to its predecessor. Co-founder Andy Smith had left the band, and since he was their lead guitarist and he shared lead singer and songwriter duties with JT Daly, I wasn’t sure what effect that would have on the overall equation. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. Paper Route’s first record as a trio actually trimmed away a few of the excesses (not that I felt anything but love for the excesses of Absence, but still, it’s an intense record), offering only 10 songs but having an unbelievably high ratio of hands-down classics to merely good songs. There are zero duds here, just as there were on Absence. Side one of the record is utterly packed with instant classics, bringing the intense drum fills raining down as Daly promises “This time it’s different” in the opening track “Love Letters”, and then bringing us through a few leaner and poppier arrangements on the singles “Two Hearts” and “Better Life” that still had a heavy focus on rhythm and found him keeping his heart on his sleeve where the relationship wringer he’d been put through was concerned. Despite reaching the utter depths of despair on the synth bass-heavy and strangely prayerful “Glass Heart Hymn” – my favorite song of 2012 and my favorite Paper Route track to date – there are actually a few songs in here in which Daly’s heart seems full rather than empty, from the aforementioned “Love Letters” to the glimmering piano ballad “Sugar”. The record’s back half continues to explore the reasons why Daly’s previous relationship needed to end in the gut-wrenching “Letting You Let Go”, the surprisingly bare interlude “Tamed”, which finds him duetting with a rare female guest vocal, and the siren-like shrieks of the intense, sprawling “Rabbit Holes”, hands down one of the band’s best tracks for showing off their raw power as a live band. Ending the album with the stripped-down, Gospel-inflected ballad “Calm My Soul” was an incredibly bold move for a band that, for the most part, left its status ambiguous in terms of whether they wanted their music to be perceived as religious or secular. It’s a very personal and cathartic song that deliberately backs away from the usual busy-ness of Paper Route’s song, and that needs all of the production layers and massive hooks and desperate lyrics of the songs leading up to it in order for the sense of peace it ultimately finds to have the greatest impact. Since the band had a consistently high batting average across all three of their albums, the only reason I think Paper Route’s other records are marginally better than The Peace of Wild Things is because both of them are longer, and thus have more material to bedazzle me with. But this is probably their easiest one to get into, and they didn’t have to compromise the sound or mood they were aiming for in order to make this record such an ideal jumping-on point for new fans.

11. Liam Singer, Finish Him (2018)
Singer was a brand new artist to me when a good friend recommended his latest album to me in 2019, but Finish Him is actually #5 for this obscure singer-songwriter who, depending on which version of his bio you read, either hails from the Cascades or the Catkills. Either way, I like to imagine him holed up in a cabin somewhere as he concocts his mind-expanding mixture of piano rock, synthpop, and little bits of jazz and classical – I think of him as more of a world-creator than simply a music-maker. Each of his songs on this record seem to inhabit their own little universes, with Singer having set them in motion just so, all of their little busybody parts firing off in perfect time as he tries again and again to create the perfect scenario for his protagonists to experience genuine love, without all of his supernatural tinkering causing these worlds to go awry. Unraveling what a lot of these songs are about without a reliable lyric sheet is tricky, but it’s interest to me how some of them seem to boast of being in control and having everything that might look like a mistake or a setback being deliberate, while others seem to take on more of a “My God, what have I done?” stance as he realize that for all of his power to make civilizations rise and fall, he can’t force the one thing to happen that he really wants to experience – love. The intricate and dizzyingly fast piano triples of “When I Fall” make it an instant standout, as he describes a puppetmaker-and-puppet relationship that has gone south from the point of view of the created entity, who rebels against his maker and meets a tragic, Icarus-like fate in the process. “Test Tone” and “Apollo” have enough icy synths to make them feel like they’re coming from the cold depths of space, orbiting a planet but never being able to touch down and experience its warmth, while the eerily empty “Love Me Today”, with its post-apocalyptic, metallic ambiance, seems to beg for one last kiss on the eve of a polluted earth’s Earth’s utter collapse into an utter wasteland that is no longer sustainable of supporting life. These songs sometimes go to dark and complicated places, but also reach beautiful, euphoric heights at times – see the lovely piano interludes “The Gambrels of the Sky” and “Protection Poem” if you need a breather. “Still Life”, which isn’t the album’s true finale but which definitely feels like a climactic moment worthy of closing a live show on, is an expansive, seven-minute track that is at once bustling with the optimistic hopes of dreams coming true, and trapped inside the sad reality of them only being dreams that the person having them isn’t even aware he needs to wake up from. Thinking about the various things that song could potentially mean just wrecks me every time I listen closely to it. Singer has an absolute masterpiece on his hands with this long and meandering, but incredibly rewarding record, and it’s a damn shame to me that it took me so long to hear of this artist, and that most of the world still has yet to discover him.

10. The Hawk in Paris, Freaks (2013)
“You’ll only have to blur the lines on a few occasions”, Dan Haseltine tells us in the slinky, syncopated title track to this album, thus far the only full-length LP from a heavily nostalgic synthpop project dreamed up by a man better known as the lead singer of Jars of Clay. He and former bandmate Matt Bronleewe got together with Jeremy Bose circa 2010 or 2011, hammered out 6 of the 12 songs that would eventually wind up on this album, put those out as the His + Hers EP to whet fans’ whistles, and came back over the next year or two whenever Jars and their other projects were on a break to finish the job. It’s amazing to me that this release not only followed so closely on the heels of Jars of Clay’s Inland, which in and of itself was a bold step for the band in terms of prioritizing artistic open-endedness over a didactic Christian message, but that Freaks manages to be so distinctive from the Jars of Clay sound while pushing the envelope even further in terms of what was really on Dan’s mind that maybe he didn’t think would work in a Jars song. There’s nothing outright scandalous on this record, but from the get-go it tells us that Dan is both a hopeless romantic and a guy who doesn’t mind poking and prodding the audience a bit to see how uncomfortable we get with ambiguity. The title track might seem to be about gender-bending at first, but really it’s about using your typical high school dance as a metaphor, and the bravery and social awkwardness of putting oneself out there in an environment where the boys cower on one side, and the girls on the other, and the center of the room where all the dancing and romancing is meant to happen becomes an utter no-man’s-land. “The New Hello”, with its sparkly synths, was the first Hawk in Paris song to utilize this metaphor, and through Dan’s lyrics you can feel the utter sadness and loneliness of a boy and girl who are both tempted to disengage despite that fleeting moment when they catch each other’s eyes – it’s hard not to get swept up in the John Hughes-ness of it all. The need for human connection is often explored by way of the effect it has on our psyches when we fail to give or receive it – “Put Your Arms Around Me” tackles this on a wider scale, discussing how we rationalize our fear of crossing class or cultural lines to express love to our fellow humans. “Beg for Love” sounds like it’s begging to be broken out by a DJ at a rave, even though it’s about the cruelty of withholding affection in a relationship and still naively expecting the other person to stick around because you pompously assume you’re the best they’re ever gonna get. “Science Fiction” uses playful metaphors related to space travel and B-movies to describe the sad state of a relationship where the love is more imagined than tangible, while the Autotune-drenched “Wake Me Up” finds a man thoroughly obsessed with the girl of his dreams, but almost seeming to prefer his dreamlike stupor to anything he could say or do try to make that dream a reality (likely because he will risk rejection in the process). And then we get to the ballads… hoo boy! Break out the tissues (and possibly the hard alcohol, if you’re so inclined), because some of these are downright messed up, in that same sad way that a lot of great 80’s ballads were messed up. “Curse the Love Songs” is a dejected little piano ballad that feels like a comfort in its own weird way, a friend putting a hand on your shoulder while you sit outside that high school dance following a painful rejection, and just telling you to go ahead and say “screw all that lovey-dovey crap” for as long as you need to if that’s what helps you heal. “Simple Machine” brings a bit of acoustic guitar into the mix as Dan sings about a couple whose communication has become terse and who still goes through the motions of celebrating anniversaries and saying they love each other, but he can tell their love has grown cold and they’re afraid to admit it. I swear, no one writes stuff like this until they’ve been married long enough to have seen it through some real rough patches. For as up-tempo and dance-y as most of the first two thirds of the record is, I’m actually surprised at how much of an experimental turn it takes with most of the slow and mid-tempo tracks that wind down the record in its final third, until we finally arrive at the peaceful, glittery lullaby “When the Stars Come Out”, which knows promising an end to the heartache is too much of a task, but which at least finds a little respite in giving oneself the license to get a good night’s sleep, hoping that the madness and loneliness will be a little easier to put in perspective in the light of day. I’m honestly a bit perplexed that, with Jars of Clay largely inactive from 2014 until the end of the decade, we didn’t get much follow-up from The Hawk in Paris, aside from two stand-alone singles that came out a few years later. I’m at the point where I’d be at peace with it if Jars of Clay were to definitively announce a breakup (which is saying a lot, as they are my all-time favorite band), but I feel like we’ve only just begun to hear from The Hawk in Paris, and I ain’t too proud to beg for more.

9. Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is an Animal (Best of 2012)
Here are three things I’m a sucker for that made Of Monsters and Men’s debut album an instant win in my book: 1) Energetic folk/rock music with a fair amount of auxiliary instrumentation, 2) Male and female vocalists that trade off the lead role multiple times within an album, even going back and forth within the same song, and 3) Adorable Icelandic accents. (OK sure, #3 is a bit superficial… but come on, they pronounce “eyes” as “ice”, how could you not love that?!) Of Monsters and Men made such a big splash in the indie scene when this re-released version of their album started racking up international hits – and unlike the case of Kimbra’s Vows from earlier in my list, I definitely consider the updated version superior to the original 2011 release, since the joyous “Mountain Sound” is a great example of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Raggi Þórhallsson’s ability to bounce vocal parts off of one another, having become such an essential track for the band that it’s hard to think it was once not a part of this record, and “Slow & Steady” is a delectable slow-burner, a song that proved they could build something interesting up from keyboards and a bit of ambiance that went beyond the expected folk/rock trappings. Either way, both versions have the larger-than-life “Little Talks” as their centerpiece, an accordion and trumpet-drenched anthem of seafaring adventure that shamelessly hooks listeners in with its plentiful shouts of “HEY!” And both are packed with similarly imaginative and colorfully details songs from start to finish, picking up considerable steam right at the beginning with the cutesy folklore and animal metaphors of “Dirty Paws” and “King and Lionheart”, conjuring up a modern-day sea shanty with the lively “From Finner”, and turning in surprisingly loud and climactic performances with the late-album ballads “Your Bones” and “Lakehouse”. Smaller-scale songs like “Love Love Love” and “Sloom” hint at more of a twee pop feel, perhaps dating back to when Nanna was penning these songs for a solo project, subsequently realizing that the players she had pulled together to bring these songs to life had taken on a bigger identity than her name alone could contain. And while the production values on this album favor the huge, anthemic, festival crowd-pleasing approach, it’s interesting to hear what sorts of ambient noises and other background textures lurk beneath several of the songs, occasionally giving us the feeling that we’re lifting the veil on centuries-old folk tales that were handed down to us by the ghosts of knights, magicians, and Vikings. Of Monsters and Men kind of self-consciously pulled away from this sound on subsequent albums, and I guess I could understand them not wanting to be pigeonholed as part of a trend in indie rock that had mostly run its course by the time they found an international audience. But the brooding rock of Beneath the Skin and the ill-fitting, experimental programmed pop of Fever Dream honestly can’t hold a candle to the magic that the band consistently worked on their debut album. Sometimes a band just gets it right on the first try, and then spends a lifetime trying to recreate that magic in a different context.

8. Chvrches, Love Is Dead (Best of 2018)
As I mentioned in my paragraph on Every Open Eye, the members of Chvrches weren’t too keen on the idea that they had to somehow reinvent themselves on album #2. That album was mostly more of the same, but “the same” was of such excellent quality that it was hard to argue with their decision to stay the course. By album #3, they were a little more open to trying things they had previously resisted getting pushed into just because they assumed it was expected of them – working with outside writers and producers, featuring a vocalist from another band in a way that changed up their songwriting process, even emphasizing live instrumentation here and there when audiences had come to expect wall-to-wall synths and programming. It’s not like we hadn’t heard live drums or guitars on a Chvrches record before, but that stuff was generally buried behind the synthetic sounds, whereas you’ll hear a few moments on Love Is Dead where there’s a fun drum fill or an actual solo (however distorted and computer-enhanced it might be), and this actually helps to enhance the band’s sound rather than feeling like they’re drifting from their initial identity. Lauren Mayberry seems laser-focused on this album, which is not to say that I didn’t appreciate her dense and varied lyrics before, but somehow, in choosing to be deliberately more aggressive with more simplistic and instantly recognizable hooks on this album, she manages to come across as even more feisty and assured of what she wants. Few punches are pulled as she grapples with expectations of what it means to have fully arrived at adulthood (“Graffiti”), how to respond to religious and/or political zealots who expect the rest of society to fall in line with their beliefs and don’t care whose toes they step on in the process (“Deliverance”, “Graves”), and even when to challenge herself to let go of old grudges (“Forever”) and pragmatic cynicism (“Miracle”). She’s certainly still not afraid to go back to more familiar tropes such as telling off ex-lovers when she’s utterly exasperated with their conversations and attempts to reconcile going nowhere, which is what drives some of the most persistent and repetitive hooks on the album – for as much as “Get Out” and “Never Say Die” might sound like broken records the first few times you listen to them, the verses do a lot of work to unpack the complex feelings behind those otherwise simplistic repetitions of a song’s title… and good luck getting either of those songs out of your head once you get to the point of realizing that! The National’s Matt Berninger shows up to sing a bitter duet with Lauren on “My Enemy” – it’s a slow-burner and a strange choice for a follow-up single, but the interplay between Lauren and a male vocalist is something I appreciated on Chvrches’ debut that seemed to mostly get lost in the shuffle on album #2, so it’s nice to hear bits and pieces of it here. Usually the band’s male vocalist of choice is Martin Doherty, who takes the lead on the rather creepy “God’s Plan”, a surprisingly possessive song for a band normally fronted by such an outspoken feminist. When Lauren chimes in on background vocals near the end of that one, it’s pretty clear that it’s meant as a cry for help, and the two singers are illustrating an imbalanced captor/captive relationship that one or both of them might delusionally consider to be love, but that clearly isn’t. Befitting the title, a lot of this record seems to be about learning how to identify emotions and intentions that masquerade as love, but really aren’t, and by the time the album concludes on the surprisingly up-tempo “Wonderland”, it’s like Lauren is making a pact with herself never to fall for the snake oil salesman-like techniques that roped her in when she was younger and more naive. It’s a sobering record, for sure, but also one that demonstrates a lot of maturity and individuality, ultimately affirming that loving and caring for oneself necessitates not allowing yourself to be subsumed beneath the desires of another person.

7. Paper Route, Real Emotion (2016)
The third and most recent album from Paper Route might seem to have a pretentious title at first – really, are you guys implying that all the outpouring of heartbreak and yearning on your last two albums was anything less than real? But I think this sprawling collection of sixteen tracks, easily the band’s most ambitious work to date, is an album about learning how to let yourself feel and fall in love again after recovering from a long, dark period of feeling nothing but pain and rejection. With new guitarist Nick Aranda in the saddle, they’re able to deliver more direct rock hooks than they were previously – see the cathartic shrieks and edgy riffs of “Writing on the Wall” right at the top of the album for evidence. From there it’s a potpourri of sounds, echoing Paper Route’s 80s influences loud and proud at certain times while also demonstrating a darker side here and there. “Pretend” is one of their finest pop songs, channeling classic Tears for Fears in its rhythm as JT Daly tries his best to be hopeful while also admitting he’s an unprepared mess as he tries to get back in the saddle and start dating again, and “Chariots” has a furious beat that borders on industrial (we can thank MuteMath’s Darren King for the assist there, as former drummer Gavin MacDonald had left the band by this point), as the discovery that someone he thought he trusted isn’t really there for him tips him over the edge into an utter crisis of faith. Some of the band’s most soothing pop songs are here – the title track almost seems to approximate the electropop version of Christmas bells as it tries to imagine settling down and experiencing true domestic bliss, while the late-album single “Balconies” exudes an aura of healing and clarity as it waxes poetic on the topic of what it means to truly show and experience grace. And some of the band’s most experimental stuff is here, too, from the spacious, choir-assisted “Untitled”, to the sample-heavy and lyrically minimal “Zhivago”, to the acoustic guitar-driven “Bleary”, which slowly winds its way into an emotionally conflicted sound collage that should be peaceful with its bird calls and surf audible in the background, but that also feels like a muffled cry for help and healing as a man realizes it’s time to let go once and for all of someone he was holding too tightly. As anguished as Daly and co. sound on this album, I’m also impressed by the transparency with which he admits that yeah, he’s been in therapy and had medications prescribed as a way to get through this whole ordeal, and while it’s humbling for him to say that out loud, I think there’s a part of him that did so in the hopes of battling the stigma against these things that keeps us from being real where mental health is concerned. Real Emotion is an album about truly identifying both the pain you feel and the hope you hold out that things will get better, bringing it all into the light and giving it a name, and using every tool in your toolbox to help you work through it all. By the time the album ends on “Vanishing”, a rather deliberate callback to classic Paper Route material such as “American Clouds” and especially the Absence closer “Dance on Our Graves”, it might seem like a sad conclusion since Daly is tempted once again to disappear into his own little world as a defense mechanism. And yet there’s a euphoric sense of peace in that final instrumental breakdown of drum loops, strings, and harmonica, as if to tell us he’ll emerge from it all a wiser and healthier man, even if we don’t know how long it’s gonna take him to sort it all out. Paper Route went on an indefinite hiatus in the years following this album’s release, which makes that ending feel incredibly symbolic in hindsight. Whatever they need to work through in order to come back together as a band again, I sure hope they manage to figure it all out, because Paper Route was one of the best damn bands I discovered in the 2010s, and I want them here in the 2020s to give us a whole lot more of it.

6. Relient K, Air for Free (Best of 2016)
I would not have guessed, after declaring 2013’s Collapsible Lung to be one of the worst records for the year, and an abysmal low point for an otherwise consistently fun and engaging band, that they would bounce back so dramatically three years later. It seems like a lot of the fanbase slept on this record, perhaps due to the longer gaps between the band’s albums in the 2010s, or perhaps to the negative responses Lung got all around. But I feel that this is the true follow up to 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down, a record that saw a band once known for being the Christian answer to Blink 182 maturing quite a bit in the wake of a difficult breakup for lead singer/songwriter Matt Thiessen. Double that and you’ve pretty much got the recipe for Air for Free, though I would say this is a stylistically and lyrically diverse enough record that it’s not just a breakup album. By this record’s completion in 2016, only the two Matts (Thiessen and Hoopes) were left, and while they sound very much like a band here on tracks like the opener “Bummin'” and the lighthearted “Mrs. Hippoptamuses'” that hearken back to their more youthful pop/punk days, or even something like “Mountaintop” that has a poppier feel to it reminiscent of the Mmhmm/Five Score and Seven Years Ago era, there are also a larger number of tracks that successfully mingle this sound with their more recent move toward a piano-driven rock sound, with a few also sporting the more progressive song structures heard in some of their most ambitious work. And a few might even be classified as electropop or baroque pop, with the latter style more closely resembling their frontman’s solo project Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes. “Local Construction” is the track that brings it all together for me, starting out with riveting piano chords and a wobbly, syncopating rhythm, before bringing in the layered call-and-response vocals and the pop/punk energy, every part of it a meaningful element of a song that’s about growing up and realizing the constant need to fix/improve your life in small increments rather than hoping it’ll happen all at once. Tracks like “Man”, “Marigold”, “Heartache”, and the three-part rocker “Runnin'” surprise the listener with intros, outros, and/or middle sections that swerve from the expected rhythm and pace of a song, almost feeling like pieces of a narrative from a stage production at times. The back half surprises me most with the jolly, ukulele driven number “Sleepin'”, which sounds almost like the band is covering a long-lost Sleeping at Last track and just speeding it up a bit, and the piano-driven anguish of “Empty House” (the album’s one possible misstep due to its overuse of Aututone) and the shifting colors and moods of the melancholy “Flower”, really dig into the sense of solitude and longing for companionship that both Matts were feeling after a broken engagement and a divorce. The band’s Christian beliefs are still an important topic on tracks like “God” and “Prodigal”, but they express them in ways that neither feel like it was a label mandate or a cynical concession to give Christian radio a few obvious singles. There are so many twists and turns among this album’s 16 tracks that I’m honestly stunned to not find a single stinker in the bunch. I figured Relient K still had a few good albums left in ’em despite how ready I was to throw in the towel after Collapsible Lung, but I honestly wasn’t expecting Album of the Year material from these guys, so color me amazed! Air for Free turned out to be a powerful sneak attack from a band that pretty clearly doesn’t want to spend the rest of their career being pigeonholed for either their musical style or lyrical content.

5. Falling Up, Falling Up (Best of 2015)
Since Falling Up’s first breakup back in 2010 was incredibly abrupt and disheartening to fans who had really enjoyed digging into the story behind their Fangs! album and who had hoped they’d get to follow it up as planned, I felt incredibly grateful that, when the band chose to call it quits again in 2015, they planned ahead and pulled out all the stops to make their final album a masterpiece that actually gave us some sense of closure. It’s quite rare for a band like this to be doing their best work this late in their discography, perhaps playing to a much smaller audience, but being able to work 100% independently with zero guard rails imposed on them by a record label. Each of this band’s concept albums has a story to it that I only barely understand, but knowing all the plot points isn’t really necessary for enjoying an album like this that seems to paint such a wide-open world full of color, wonder, and danger. The band brings us some of their most driving rockers with tracks like the opener “Boone Flyer” and “The Green Rider”, but where they really shine on this album, quite surprisingly, is in some of the slower and longer tracks, which back away from the heavy guitar chords a bit and bring acoustic guitar, piano, synths, and layered vocals to the forefront. “Hydro” is one the band’s most gorgeous songs, somehow finding a way to cram two catchy choruses in for the price of one (even if one of those is quite the tongue twister, and the other one is borrowed from “In the Woodshop”, its fraternal twin song from later in the album). “The Woodworker” paints a tragic portrait of someone taking flight like a bird, only to suddenly fall out of the sky for some unclear, “Rangers” slowly creeps up on the listener as it moves from its exquisite, music-box like opening toward the climax of an intense manhunt, and “Up in Houses” is one of the band’s most devastating songs ever, its quiet and cautious piano chords tiptoeing around a man who seems to be begging for sympathy after committing a murder, insisting that none of it is really his fault – as the song goes on, it becomes easier to see that he’s definitely guilty and yet he still expects to get off scot free due to never learning how to take responsibility for his own actions. When this generous, 64-minute-long album finally wraps up on the spine-tinglingly awesome closing track “Flares”, that final vocal refrain from its extended coda echoing off into the night, the phrase “Let them go” might be referring to its main characters successfully evading capture through some sort of questionable scientific means, but it also feels like a peaceful reminder that it’s time to let go of Falling Up. The band seems to have built this album just as its protagonist built the house where most of the album’s action takes place, as a marvelous work of intricate, maze-like architecture whose rooms we’d want to keep exploring for hidden secrets long after its occupants were gone.

4. Vienna Teng, Aims (2013)
The singer/songwriter whom I admire more than any of the universe had an absolutely killer decade in the 2000s, with all of her first four albums charting pretty high on my Top 100 list for that decade. She only put one studio album out in the 2010s, owing to music becoming her second career as she took on a new life as a student exploring the topic of environmental sustainability. Her geeky interest in the topic translated into some fascinating songs on her fifth album, Aims, which is a noticeable departure from most of her past work in that it’s much more of a pop record – well, “pop” in her estimation at least. You’re gonna here synths and loud rhythmic loops and other bits of sonic experimentation here, and you’re gonna hear songs in some truly strange time signatures, but a great many of them have memorable choruses and absolutely fascinating messages, starting with the electropop masterpiece “Level Up”, which opens up the album in 7/8 time, exhorting the listener to move out beyond their fears and their worries that the world’s too far gone for one person to even make a dent in the darkness, and to do what they can to make a difference in their community in the hopes that a critical mass of us all doing this in some small way would eventually have a significant effect on the world as whole. “In the 99”, with its frenetic tongue-twisting verses and its hip-hop inspired sampling, is easily Vienna’s loudest song as she deconstructs social movements like the Occupy Wall Street movement from the perspectives of a rich one-percenter who doesn’t seem to fully realize that simply meaning well won’t change the negative impact his wanton consumption has on the rest of society. “Landsailor” is an imaginative love song between the Earth and technology, which is tender in places but which also serves as a warning that we need to count the cost of convenience (and as a sweet little side note, she had been performing this one on tour as a duet with the man she would go on to marry in early 2019 – so sure, you can go ahead and think of this as a romantic love song despite the daunting allegory). It wouldn’t be a Vienna Teng album without a truly creepy ballad, which she delivers here in the form of “The Hymn of Axciom”, sung from the perspective of an amoral database amassing all the information it can on the private lives of its users and innocently wondering why there would be anything wrong with that. the computer-generated harmonies here, that use her natural voice as the root note of each chord, become more and more uncanny and unsettling as the song goes on. Climate change, and our stubborn refusal to see eye-to-eye on it as a species, looms over the uneasy conversation in the riveting, percussion-heavy “Copenhagen (Let Me Go)”, a tune you really have to see Vienna and her band perform live in order to understand its full potential. (Hint: There are plastic cups involved.) Even tracks that I initially considered more low-key and not quite as dazzling as all the poppy stuff, like the short acoustic number “Oh Mama No” or the ambient hum generated by fingers rubbing on wine glasses that makes up the background of the otherworldly “The Breaking Light”, revealed a whole lot more on repeated listens than I ever would have assumed possible after just hearing them once. Remember how I said earlier that Katie Herzig had done such amazing work with producer Cason Cooley on The Waking Sleep that another artist would end up borrowing him for their next album? Aims would be that album, and I have to say that Vienna found precisely the right producer to help her “level up” her sound while paying respect to her past work with producer co-writer Alex Wong (who shows up here for a duet vocal on “The Breaking Light”, BTW), the exquisite piano balladry that forms the backbone of most of her songs, and her ongoing desire to think outside the box with every new song she writes. Even if Vienna never returns to music full-time and Aims is the last album of new material we ever get from her, I have to say that’s one hell of a career average, to have put out five albums in a row that are all more or less equally stunning without the artist ever seeming to repeat herself.

3. Falling Up, Hours (2013)
The fact that Falling Up appears twice in my Top 5 albums oughta tell you something about just how fascinated I was with this band! Hours was a daring experiment even by Falling Up standards – recorded and released one song per month in 2012 and early 2013 (usually side-by-side with new tracks from the much more stripped down and mellow project Midnight on Earthship), then later released on CD without any retouching. You’d expect such a product to feel raw and somewhat open-ended given their method of recording it, but Falling Up had a very carefully planned vision for this one, since the songs were penned to correspond to the chapters of an audiobook Jessy Ribordy had written and recorded, with those chapters released alongside their companion songs. I opted to not listen to any of this until the album was complete, and as a result I had heard the album several times before I finally made it to the end of the audiobook. But hearing this thing a chapter at a time, without knowing how the album was going to end, must have been interesting. The story (if it’s possible to describe in a nutshell) is that a group of teenagers is selected for their advanced intelligence and given access to a secret gymnasium on the grounds of their school, for an hour a day. The secrets they uncover in that gym (and above and below it) require some rather heavy science fiction and metaphysical concepts to fully explain. The music here doesn’t so much narrate the story in a linear sense (you’d be crazy if you ever expected a Falling Up album to be that straightforward!), but it seems to relay the thoughts or experiences of different characters at different points in the story, once again pulling Falling Up’s favorite trick of referencing one song’s title or lyrics within another, and probably leaving a few musical breadcrumbs that hint at aspects of the story that interconnect the songs (or even some of the band’s other albums). Musically, it’s the band’s usual space-aged alternative rock on steroids. These songs are long, dense, have killer choruses and haunting melodic hooks that will burrow into your brain, and unlike most of their other albums, is pretty consistently up-tempo, to the point where the wall-of-sound effect may require some listeners to take a breather here and there, rather than taking in the entire album at once, which can be a daunting task. It’s not a heavy rock album, per se – though there are a few moments where shouts or screams add a harsher texture to an otherwise very pristine, melodic song. The band likes to surprise the listener by upending an otherwise smoothly flowing song with an unexpected vocal outburst, or occasionally a bit of truly bizarre drumming that sounds like it’s skipping or lagging behind the beat as a way of sending a subliminal message. There are too many highlights on this record for me to do them all justice in one paragraph – though I will say that the musicbox-like repetition and off-kilter percussion of “The Rest Will Soon Follow” and the tear-jerking, lullabye-like chorus melody of “Intro to the Radio Room” catapult those two songs top my list of all-time favorite Falling Up tracks. This band clearly put a lot of thought into each of their albums, but this is probably the one they spent the most time on due to the incredible amount of planning ahead it must have required to record it all in order instead of jumping back and forth to work on whatever tracks they felt like on a particular day, knowing they were going to resist the urge to go back and mess with already released songs after the fact. Fully immersing oneself in the story requires a real time commitment from the listener as well, and while that may have limited its audience to some degree, I feel like this record was meant to be Jessy’s love letter to the most special fans out there who would feel the most rewarded by paying attention to the detail. The characters in Hours are gradually revealed to be misfits that some would treat as undesirable rather than special in any positive way, and even if it’s a far-fetched story taking place on a faraway planet, something tells me the underlying themes were ideas that hit very close to home for its author.

2. The Reign of Kindo, This Is What Happens (Best of 2010)
I’ve sung Kindo’s praises twice on this list already, but my deepest respect is reserved for their sophomore record, which came crashing through my headphones in the summer of 2010, easily outdoing every single aspect of their already impressive debut Rhythm, Chord & Melody, which had made my list at the end of the previous decade. I joked at the time that this was what Maroon 5 would sound like if they had more class – that was mostly due to a very superficial comparison of both bands having a bit of funk and jazz influence, a smooth lead singer whose voice I genuinely enjoyed, and some genuinely talented players filling out the band. By this point in time, bland pop production had already begun to overtake Maroon 5’s presentation as an actual band, and basically they were there as the backdrop for Adam Levine to do his sexy thing. In contrast, Kindo’s frontman Joey Secchiaroli doesn’t seem interested in amassing a bunch of swooning groupies, though he’d be quite happy to get the girl (singular!) of his dreams, albeit also quite terrified of what it would require of him to actually feel worthy of her. He wears his heart on his sleeve throughout this intricate set of songs, functioning as part of a thoroughly impressive whole rather than constantly trying to steal the scene. Kindo’s musicianship has been consistently impressive on every album, but this is the one where I feel like they really went for broke in terms of unusual time signatures, dizzyingly fast riffing and soloing, and a fair amount of improvisation between the margins of a set of very well-structured songs that leave room for both instrumental prowess and commendable songwriting. “Thrill of the Fall” is an exhausting but exhilarating way to start off the album, with its clattering drums and piano chords tumbling along in 7/8 time, and “Bullets in the Air” is the band’s most downright claustrophobic and sometimes dissonant song, befitting the conflict it describes with a person who might as well be a hurricane of projectiles, for all the damage their careless use of words does to the people they claim to love. “Now We’ve Made Our Ascent” works as a clever sequel to their first album’s “”Til We Make Our Ascent”, quoting familiar riffs and bits of melody from the original but twisting it to bring out the tension, the lyrics openly wondering what it means to have arrived at “the foothills of heaven” when do many other souls have been ignored or even stepped on in order to get there. Don’t underestimate Kindo’s more smooth and romantic side, though – “Symptom of a Stumbling” is an incredibly vulnerable piano ballad that just so happens to make clever use of an off-kilter rhythm to keep the listener on their toes, and the smooth jazz-y “Flowers by the Moon” is hands down one of the most swoon-worthy love songs I’ve ever heard, extolling not just the beauty of a relationship between two people, but the way that the entire universe seems to glow in tandem with their love for each other. The acoustic “Blistered Hands” finds the band in stripped-down coffeehouse mode, with some lovely acoustic finger-picking and a bit of cello accompanying the nimble piano chords as a down-on-his-luck performer asks an audience of one to please stay and hear him out for just one more song. Sometimes the band uses their inherent smoothness to execute a flawless sneak attack, crafting songs that sound like they might resolve to happily ever after endings sometimes take devastating turns, like the story told from a paralyzed car cash survivor’s point of view in “Nightingale”, or bring two long lost lovers together again after years apart in “City Lights and traffic Sounds”, only for their chance encounter to reaffirm what a waste of time the whole endeavor had been. Even the closing track “Psalm” is a bit melancholy, finding a man at the brink of despair pleading for a miracle just as so many of the greatest Psalms from the Bible found their authors, the music getting more urgent as his prayer arises to heaven, and then ending on a bit of an unresolved note without telling us if that miracle was ever granted. I’m inclined to gush about damn near every track on this record due to how flawlessly Kindo executes them all – they know they’re sappy, maybe even occasionally bordering on corny, but the sheer sophistication of each performances ensures that they get away with it every time. For me, this record shone brightly as the standard-bearer as I looked back on 2010, throwing the gauntlet down to the rest of the decade and declaring, “This is what the next nine years are up against.”

1. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe (Best of 2013)
Oh man… I have to actually explain my #1 choice, don’t I? Like a lot of the albums in this highest tier of my Top 100 list, I found myself downright intimidated at the thought of summarizing Chvrches’ debut album in a single paragraph. I’ve built this thing up in my mind over the years as the perfect pop album. I suppose you could further qualify it and say it’s the perfect synthpop album, but there are a few moments where Chvrches’ early work defies that categorization at least a little bit. Besides, the chirpy synths, infectious drum programming, and even the small-statured yet formidably assertive voice of Lauren Mayberry aren’t the entirety of what I love about Chvrches. To me, this record is a master class in great songwriting – specifically the kind that communicates a whole hell of a lot while not forgetting the value of a killer choruses. Hell, a few of these tracks seem to have two choruses for the price of one, as a verse turns a corner into what you’d already consider a brilliant, engaging hook, and then – surprise! – it turns out that was just the pre-chorus. I’m sure even casual Chvrches fans know the hits here – the stuttering vocal samples that form the iconic opening hook of “The Mother We Share”, Lauren’s behind-the-beat delivery adding urgency to the mid-tempo groove of “Recover”, the breathless lyrical pile-up full of vindictive promises to someone who would dare hurt Lauren in the scorching “Gun”. I think a lesser-known, but effective aspect of this record, is how well Lauren and her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty collaborate on these songs, with Martin acting as the band’s secondary vocalist, not just for the sake of taking the lead on a few of his own songs (the energetic “Under the Tide” and the meditative, midnight-hued album closer “You Caught the Light”), but also as a counterpoint to Lauren on some of the album’s catchiest tracks like “We Sink”, “Night Sky”, and “By the Throat”. I know some fans find his voice to be an odd contrast to Lauren’s, and tend to tune out the few tracks where he takes the lead, but I really love his little echoes and asides in addition to the songs where his voice is highlighted and Lauren plays the supporting role. “Science/Visions” is worth a special mention here due to how utterly creepy the vocal effects are as Martin’s stalker-ish refrain contrasts with Lauren’s mind-expanding deep-breathing exercise. And “Tether” is one of those curiosities that could have only happened on a debut album before a band had wholly committed to a specific sound, as the shoegaze-y guitars and slow pace of its first half are unlike anything Chvrches has done since, and it makes the huge rave-up at the end of the song all the more cathartic. The lyrics on this album run a pretty wide range of emotions, too – most of them on the melancholy side of things, but it’s fascinating to me how Lauren can sound like a consoling shoulder to cry on one minute, an accusatory scorned ex-lover the next, a hapless victim of an overwhelming wave of emotion a bit later, and at certain points a defiant feminist voice, telling those who would seek to make her their plaything to back the hell off. At one point she resembles a temptress offering subversive social commentary (which is the only way I know how to take her promise that she can feed your dirty mind exactly what she knows it wants on my favorite track, “Lies”). Trying to figure out exactly what to make of her as a frontwoman continually threw me off my game as I was first getting used to this record, and I found it as exciting as it was confusing. But I also think it’s important that Lauren is not the band, and I really appreciate how much of a team player all three members come across as in their stage presence and in interviews – their minds just seem so well locked in with one another’s that jumping from one singer’s perspective to the next, whether between different songs or even the same songs, never feels like a non-sequitur. These three laptop-obsessed Scots definitely continued to impress me with their subsequent albums throughout the decade, but Bones has definitely cemented its place in my heart as the album for them – and really for any of their contemporaries, indie or mainstream – to beat.

Alright, everybody, so that’s the list. I hope you found some picks that we had in common, or that you’d been meaning to check out but hadn’t gotten around to yet, and hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to get you to take the plunge. It took me most of last year to narrow down the candidates for what turned out to be a rather cutthroat competition, and the better part of a month for me to truly express in words how I felt about each of these records. And I meant what I said when waxing ecstatic about my #1 pick. That’s the high bar to clear now. You heard me, 2020s – the gauntlet has officially been thrown down. Your move!

2 thoughts on “The Best of the Tenny Tweens, Part V: 1-20

  1. Pingback: Miike Snow: These are NOT songs for no one. | murlough23

  2. Pingback: The Best of the Ought Nots Revisited, Part I: 81-100 | murlough23

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