in Top Ten

The 2010s were a complicated decade for me, musically speaking. It was the first decade where I felt like I was more or less in touch with new music for the entirety of the decade, and yet it was also the first time that I truly felt old while discovering new artists that were younger than me. It was a decade that saw countless albums that I loved, and also in many ways felt like a decade where two of my favorite things — albums and rock music — seemed to decrease noticeably in cultural relevance. It was the decade where I eventually took over as “the music guy” at Mildly Pleased, and thus spent a lot of time writing about the kinds of albums that’ll be appearing on my list. Well, let’s take one last gander at them.

Honorable Mentions:
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
David Bowie – Blackstar
The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream (and countless others, but let’s not go there…)

10. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (2019)

I know it’s risky putting an album that’s barely 6 months old on my Best of The Decade list, but I’m pretty confident this album will continue to stir something in me for years to come. Though, that’s probably also what I said about Sun Kil Moon’s Benji when it came out. That said, I’m comfortable putting David Berman’s final album on this list because there is a kind of finality to it. I already know how this album fits into the grand scheme of the singer’s career, and I think there’s just as much wisdom, wit, and humanity in these songs as anything he did with Silver Jews.

I suppose you could say the 2010s were a good decade for singers fearlessly writing about death (see Bowie’s Blackstar or Leonard Cohen’s You Wanted It Darker). However, there’s something even more sad about the fact that this album wasn’t intended as such, but ended up being a vivid account of David Berman’s final days. Listening to this album, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Berman turned it around, toured off this new critically-acclaimed album, and accepted the album’s final track’s mantra that maybe he was the only one for him. While that’s an alternate timeline that unfortunately never came to be, at least this timeline included one more testament to the man’s songwriting talent.

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

In retrospect, Days Are Gone must’ve been the moment that I started embracing pop music. Sure, Haim were a rock band in the sense that they played guitars and such, but the production on this album is nothing short of sugary pop perfection. There’s also something so potent about the fact that the Haim sisters had built up years of playing together and making a go at a career in music before finally landing on this sound. Combine that with how much they genuinely seem to enjoy playing and hanging out with each other, and their rise to stardom made for one of the great feel-good music stories of the decade.

Days Are Gone also brings to mind a very specific time in my life, when I was living in Haim’s backyard of the San Fernando Valley and being simultaneously over- and underwhelmed by living in LA. Though it wasn’t exactly a period I look back on fondly, I was grateful to have Haim and their sunny disposition telling me to “never look back and never give up”.

8. Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator (2017)

Speaking of not looking back, it’s hard to think of a more soul-stirring musical moment from the past few years than Alynda Segarra telling us to move forward in the lefty anthem “Pa’lante”. The Navigator was an album I was initially hesitant to put on my list, since it felt like such a reaction to the cultural wreckage left in the wake of the 2016 election. But listening to it now, I think it still stands on its own merits as a great album, since it’s got a lot more on its mind than just America’s current climate.

Segarra indulges a lot of modern themes on The Navigator like gentrification and city life while exploring her Peurto Rican ancestry, both musically and lyrically. It’s an arresting mish-mash considering Segarra had perfected a new kind of Americana on her earlier albums, while songs like “Hungry Ghost” venture further into rock territory in addition to the myriad of wonderful folk songs featured throughout.

7. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010)

Not sure if this is where I intended for this album to end up on my list or if I just wanted to have two concept albums named after ships back-to-back. Either way, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor was probably the first album of the decade that I truly fell in love with, as it soundtracked one of the better summers I spent back from college in Seattle. I remember talking about the album on an early podcast that I’m pretty sure never got released? Was that Da Podcasket? I don’t know.

Anyways, The Monitor felt like a breath of fresh air in 2010, since it was such a messy, shaggy dog of an album. These Jerseyites felt like such a stark contrast to the artsier Brooklyn bands that dominated indie music at the tail end of the ’00s, while at the tail end of this decade, and can’t say there’s any rock album that matches it in terms of ambition, scope, and raw angst.

6. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry. (2016)

“Laura said to me, ‘this decade’s gonna be fucked’.”

This line from the opening moments of Worry. is more in reference to the weird growth of being in your 30s, but like much of the album, it feels like a commentary on something bigger. Yes, this album was released weeks before the 2016 election, and considering how much tension and anxiety is packed into it, it’s hard not to be reminded of that time when listening to it. In addition to everybody else, scared white guys needed to figure out how they felt in a post-2016 world, and I’m not sure any album expressed that feeling better for me than this one.

Though to focus on the album’s ball-of-nerves aesthetic is doing it a disservice, as Rosenstock leaps across so many genres on this album — from the Brian Wilson balladry of “We Begged 2 Explode” to the pseudo-ska of “Rainbow” — that it’s hard not to be impressed/energized/exhausted. Meanwhile, that it packs so much into 38-minutes is a testament to the economy of punk songwriting as well as the reason I keep coming back to it.

5. Solange – A Seat At The Table (2016)

Now for something a little more meditative. This album has been a quiet little happy place for me, due to its sultry, smooth-as-fuck production and Solange’s delicately experimental vocals. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a kind of rage against injustice bubbling underneath the album, what with the album being connected by spoken-word interludes speaking to the black experience. I recently talked about A Seat At The Table at length, since it was an album that took me a while to truly get hooked on, so I don’t feel the need to talk at length about it now. But it reignited my love of ’70s soul as well as got me interested in modern soul sounds, and for that, other than it just being a gorgeous album, I’ll always be grateful.

4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel… (2012)

Well, we only got one Fiona Apple album this decade, but at least it was a good one. Possibly even her best one? At the very least, The Idler Wheel is easily the strangest record of her career, as it sees the one-time prodigy finally embracing the fact that she’ll never fit into the music industry the way a normal pop star does. In the process, she made an album that redefined what a pop album can sound like, and specifically what happens when a singer bursting with contradictory emotions goes off and records an album with her drummer (apparently, a very percussive-sounding album).

I think the most surprising aspect of my affinity for The Idler Wheel is that unlike a lot of the albums on this list, its release didn’t really coincide with a specific time in my life. This absolutely feels like the kind of album you listen to when you’re going through a bad break-up, but that wasn’t where I was at in the summer of 2012, instead being blissfully single. Maybe I was just long overdue for falling for the genius of Fiona Apple. The long gap between 2005’s Extroardinary Machine and The Idler Wheel encompassed some of my formative music years, so for me the strength of the album blindsided me. Let’s hope that next Fiona album (which supposedly might come out this year!) will have even half that impact.

3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (2018)

Here’s more of a “right album at the right time” type of pick. The summer of 2018 was kind of a magic one for me (man, lots of summer albums), and one filled with the kind of zen-like romance that fills Golden Hour. Kacey Musgraves has said that the album’s vibe was partially inspired by the 2017 solar eclipse, which both dates the album, but also feels appropriate, considering that eclipse was one of the rare times we all just took time to stop and bask in something otherworldly. You could say Golden Hour had a similar effect on people, as it was the rare album that could lure in audiences as disparate as music snobs (like myself) and whoever gives a shit about the Grammys.

For that reason, it feels like an album that could easily be written off, considering its cultural ubiquity has already made it an Urban Outfitters shirt. But here’s the thing, sometimes really great music is popular! It’s the reason Stevie Wonder won so many Grammys back in the day, and its the reason a country artist like Musgraves can appeal so easily to people that don’t listen to country music. Though more than anything else, it’s an album you can put on pretty much whenever and get lost in its warmth. Shine on.

2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of The City (2013)

Yeah, I know this is probably the most boring of my picks, considering this album was mentioned on both Sean and John’s lists. In fact, it’s about as boring as putting Kid A as your second favorite album of the ’00s, but that’s me, baby. Though despite Modern Vampires of The City‘s musical complexity (and still-terrible album title), I think my love of this album cuts a little deeper. Revisiting Vampire Weekend’s discography around the time Father of the Bride came out, I was struck by how much the trajectory of Vampire Weekend’s albums mirrored my own experience as a burgeoning adult, and Modern Vampires was no exception. 2013-14 was a thoroughly strange time for me, and one where lines like “no one’s gonna spare the time for you” and “the world is a cold, cold place to be” were in my back pocket the whole time.

Though at the same time, there is a lot of joy in this album. “Diane Young” remains a decidedly weird and nonetheless catchy single, while the duo of “Finger Back” and “Worship You” keeps the band’s playful qualities from being overpowered by the existential ruminations of “Step” or “Hannah Hunt”. There’s also a lot of joy in the fact that this was the last time (to date) that Vampire Weekend felt like a gang of four college friends doing what they love, and making each other better in the process.

1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012)

In the summer of 2012, I was working a dead-end job in my Northwest hometown, and just wanted to get out. This feels like the perfect scenario for this album to come into my life, and in a way it’s hard for me to escape that mindset when listening to Japandroids bash it out on Celebration Rock. Throughout the decade its been an escape, a kind of album that continuously reaffirms my faith in rock music and the ability of people with no aspirations of being “great artists” to make something great nonetheless. Hell, I even find it charming that Japandroids were so insecure about their songwriting abilities that they threw in a half-baked Gun Club cover into the album’s otherwise air-tight 8 tracks.

So how do I even talk about Celebration Rock without belaboring the point? It’s an album where if it clicks with you, you’re ALL in. This seemed evident when I saw Japandroids live and a fan injured themselves crowd-surfing within the band’s first song. It’s an album that felt like a potent combination of everything that was great about arena rock, but undercut all of its pretentions by being just as influenced by the world of punk and DIY. In a decade where rock stars were (literally) dying and new ones refused to materialize, it was a joy to be reminded that two guys with a guitar, a drumset, and their voices could sound like they were ready to take on the world.