in Top Ten

Here we go, top albums of the decade. For a long time, I’ve stressed that I’m never trying to make actual “best of” lists, because that’s impossible. But for these ones, I’ve made it known for a while that my approach was going to be even more unusual: Basically, I took all the albums from the previous 10 years of top tens, added a few more that I found out about at the wrong time, and started dividing them into groups. When I had 10 groups, I picked my favorite five album in each group, then my number one of those. Then, when I had all 10 winners, I ranked them somewhat arbitrarily… I guess just overall in terms of how much I like them now.

For me, this was the only way I could take on such a daunting task, and it resulted in a top five I’m extremely confident in, and a 6-10 that feels pretty good. Unfortunately, I skew toward the beginning of the decade, which I think mostly reflects that I’ve had more time with those albums and less that more recent music isn’t as good – because it is, check the honorable mentions in each section. It also doesn’t help that I’ve never been very confident in defending my own taste in music, and it’s only slightly comforting that I had a full decade of top 10 lists on this blog to fall back on for references as I wrote this. I guess what I’m saying is take it easy and please don’t be mean. I’m trying my best.

10. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Honorable Mentions: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color, Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording), Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour, Rhye – Woman

The last spot on my list goes to the “other” category – albums that don’t really fit with my typical taste in music, but were so good I loved them anyway. So like the psychedelic/blues/soul styling of Alabama Shakes, the sexy downtempo R&B of Rhye, the genre-bending hip hop showtunes on the OBC recording of Hamilton: An American Musical. But, unfortunately, the one that I think has to win this category is Kanye West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This one’s for the douchebags, the assholes, the scumbags, the jerk-offs, and all the groups of deplorables that Kanye sometimes remembers to include himself in. I think I’ve been less critical of Ye then most, as I do believe being provocative is part of his job as a celebrity, but that leniency is predicated on the music being good. Back in 2010, he didn’t have any problem holding up that end of the bargain. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy capped off nearly a decade of amazing work, and, let’s face it, the decade that’s followed has proven he’ll never top it. It’s a masterpiece of bravado, excess, and, occasionally, vulnerability. I miss old Kanye.

9. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)

Honorable Mentions: Cheatahs – Cheatahs, Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex, M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Slowdive – Slowdive

We’re already getting into one of the controversial categories on this list, because my number nine spot I’m giving to “shoegaze” which is hard to differentiate from another spot on my list that we’ll get to later, “dream pop.” Some people draw a line that shoegaze bands have male singers and dream pop bands have female singers, others say shoegaze is lush while dream pop is sparse. I think however you try to define it, the line’s going to be blurry. For me, the shoegaze bands are the ones trying to push out the limits of what pop/rock music can be, while the dream pop bands are trying to discern what pop/rock music from a higher plane of a existence would sound like. Lost in the Dream, the third album by Philly’s own The War on Drugs, has enough of the droning, wall of sound moments that I think it epitomizes this group for me. Also, this album and all the honorable mentions have shoegaze listed as their genre on Wikipedia, so please just let me have this.

These days, when I think of Lost in the Dream, I think of talking to my boss about it on a business trip to Chicago. He told me that he had just started getting into the band and asked me if I had heard of them, to which I said, “Lost in the Dream is the greatest album of all time.” While I meant this hyperbolically, he took it literally, and for the rest of my time there I had to defend it as an untouchable masterpiece. Eventually, we were in the car going to lunch with a bunch of higher-ups, and they said they had to hear this album I wouldn’t stop raving about. So now I have this vivid memory of driving down the highways of Illinois as we all quietly absorbed “Under the Pressure.” I think they liked it.

8. Jamie xx – In Colour (2015)

Honorable Mentions: Baths – Obsidian, Caribou – Swim, Dan Deacon – Gliss Riffer, LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

For lack of a better term, I’m calling this group “electronica,” even though that seems like kind of a dated definition to use. Dance? Rave? House? Whatever it is, it’s a musical subculture I’ve been reaching further and further into these past few years, occasionally finding something I really adored. I’d say LCD Soundsystem was a big part of helping me branch out from the safe shores of alt rock which I lived on at the start of the 2010s. Obsidian by Baths was an amazingly moody album to have on when I commuted to grad school, I still think about the 255 bus and Rdio on my Windows Phone when I listen to that album. But the one that has meant the most to me is Jamie xx’s In Colour, which is all over the place, in a good way. Debut albums are exciting because they often feel like an artist is putting everything they love about music into one record. That’s certainly the case with In Colour, which feels like it epitomizes everything Jamie Smith learned since accidentally becoming the producer of The xx’s first album way back in 2008. Oh my gosh, it’s delightful.

7. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)

Honorable Mentions: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record, Grimes – Art Angels, Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond, Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Oh hey, it turns out that Arcade Fire is the only artist to appear on two best of the decade lists for me. Although that’s not the case if you look at my second attempt at making that list on Rokk Talk… Perhaps that’s a harbinger for things to come when we try this list again in 2027? Anyway, this spot is dedicated to baroque pop, a peculiar subgenre that used to mean a whole lot to me. I love that I was able to find a spot to mention groups like Broken Social Scene, Mutual Benefit, and Vampire Weekend, but all of them fall short of reaching the heights of the pedestal I put The Suburbs on quite a long time ago. Arcade Fire might not have known where to go after their amazing first three albums, but that has not diminished my love for them at all. The Suburbs was a rare case of love at first listen, and when I put it on to work on this list, I was shocked at how much it still means to me.

6. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)

Honorable Mentions: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories, David Bowie – Blackstar, Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest, TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

In my number six spot are the experimental albums – either in the sense of being genre-defying or big turns in an artist’s sound. Specifically, I was thinking of David Bowie forgoing rock and making something really difficult to categorize on ★ or Daft Punk embracing live instrumentation to make their legendary disco/funk album Random Access Memories. Strange Mercy is not as much as departure for St. Vincent, but Annie Clark’s sound has always existed somewhere between accessible and avant-garde so I think she safely fits within this category. If you don’t agree, perhaps I can sway you by reminding you that the approach to the writing of Strange Mercy was itself an experiment, with Annie Clark isolating herself in Seattle (that’s where I live!) to cleanse herself of distractions and focus on songwriting. It paid off, as Strange Mercy kicked off a spectacular decade for St. Vincent, with three kickass albums and that collaboration with David Byrne. Keep on experimenting!

5. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN (2016)

Honorable Mentions: Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle, Lucy Dacus – No Burden, Mitski – Be the Cowboy, Vagabon – Infinite Worlds

This spot is one that exists on damn near every musical top 10 I do: the singer-songwriter. Give a lady a guitar and a microphone and I’m all ears. This was almost the boygenius spot, as both Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus have made strong claims to my heart. But ultimately I had to have Angel Olsen on this list, and MY WOMAN is the album of hers that speaks to me the most. Like one of my honorable mentions, Vagabon (who also tours with Angel Olsen), Angel Olsen made this album as a response to being typecast as a lo-fi indie artist. She deliberately attempted to incorporate more styles, going from synthpop to grunge to country to a piano ballad in less than 50 minutes. No offense to Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which is super good, but I think this is Angel Olsen at her best. And I love that she’s gonna keep trying to push her boundaries, because someone’s gotta unfucktheworld.

4. Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

Honorable Mentions: Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy, The Antlers – Burst Apart, Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz, Sylvan Esso – What Now

These are some of my all-time favorite electropop albums, and they all came out in the last decade. In that time, Anamanaguchi took their Kickstarter money and made the most excessive album they possible could have, Sylvan Esso made one of the best albums about the music industry, and Sufjan Stevens made a spectacular album that I think people forgot about a little too easily. But standing above all of them is Dan Bejar’s band Destroyer, which took a swerve after apparently running out of ideas during the making of Trouble in Dreams. Kaputt is sort of like a concept album about ’80s excess, but told from the perspective of someone who knows it’s all going to end terribly. So all you can do is try to enjoy the here and now. It’s sort of melancholic, but mostly smooth as fuck. I love this album so much, who knew?

3. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)

Honorable Mentions: Freelance Whales – Diluvia, Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile, Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator, Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal

I think you could very broadly call these albums folk. One other thing they all have in common is that for a time, I was really obsessed with each of them. I mean, Of Monster and Men was everywhere back at the start of the decade – “Dirty Paws,” “King and Lionheart,” and “Little Talks” were a massive boon to the movie trailer industry if nothing else. Freelance Whales, Helado Negro, and Hurrary for the Riff Raff all won me over as lifelong fans based on just one album – they’re all that good. But this spot has to go to Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s best band. Of their four albums, I stand by the self-titled one as the best, perhaps because it was the midpoint between Bon Iver’s one-man-band roots and their amorphous collective status today. Or maybe it’s just because I think every song on this whole damn album is beautiful. I’ll say it again, saxophone solos are important and good.

2. Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)

Honorable Mentions: Geographer – Ghost Modern, Real Estate – Atlas, Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, The xx – I See You

I don’t think I have synesthesia, but the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing music as more than just an auditory experience is Beach House’s Teen Dream. Something about it, especially the first half of the record, is disorientingly beautiful to me, sending shivers down my spine and a rush of blood to the head. Teen Dream is more than a decade old now, having been released January 26, 2010, and therefore barely eligible for this list. But thankfully it is, because it kicked off a decade of me chasing this particular high in the world of dream pop. Geographer kind of got me there, The xx is so close, and Wye Oak is the biggest challenger to the throne, but no other dream pop act makes music that impacts me as much as Beach House. All apologies to My Bloody Valentine, but Beach House reigns supreme.

1. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)

Honorable Mentions: Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial, HAIM – Something to Tell You, Spoon – They Want My Soul, The National – High Violet

These albums are the rock albums. They vary from alt rock to pop rock to punk, but in my head it’s all just about the same thing. Which is probably annoying to hear from the guy who tried to differentiate between shoegaze and dream pop, but all that matters is that it works for me. It’s my list and it’s also a gimmick that I made up. I feel really bad that HAIM and The National didn’t get their own spots on my top 10 proper, but honestly, I’ve known Transgender Dysphoria Blues was the album of the decade for me for a long time. As a piece of storytelling, this record really helped put me on the path to understanding some of the experiences and insecurities trans people have. But it’s how that message comes across as a warcry that always stuck with me. It’s right there on the cover, which serves up that disgusting pound of flesh all the critics demand. Transgender Dysphoria Blues absolutely rocks and that’s why it’s an album I can return to whenever I need it. On my best days, I’m not sure I’m ever as confident or as powerful as Laura Jane Grace is on this record. But I want to be. Don’t wanna live without teeth, don’t wanna die without bite, I never wanna say that I regret it.