In addition to his stellar top 10 list, our Mike Rengel offered up a lengthy list of honorable mentions for the decade’s best music, and did so at enough length and with enough depth that we thought this list should stand on its own. Here’s his additional faves. | Jason Green, Editor
Bon Iver | Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar – 2011)
Like tuning a radio in a smart cabin in the forest. Impressionism infused with emotion. Here, Justin Vernon taps into the way winter’s introspection can lead to lasting self-discovery.
First Aid Kit | Stay Gold (Columbia – 2014)
With their perfect harmonies and their hearts prominently sewn to their flowing sleeves, the sisters Söderberg continue to bridge the gap between suburban Stockholm and the vast, golden wheat fields of Midwestern America. The lyrics are more personal this time, overcoming occasional awkwardness by virtue of their unfakeable, earnest idealism. The duo’s third album employs orchestral flourishes and a full band, adding a sweeping scope to their country-folk intimacy.
Bleachers – Gone Now (RCA – 2017)
Jack Antonoff has a knack for tempering loss with comfort. Gone Now deftly and touchingly transliterates teenage dreams into adult loves, mournings, hopes, and fears, and drapes it all in a wonderfully retro-modern sound that’s comprised of classic synth-pop, 1980s gated reverb drums, and angular, modern pop. Gone Now is an album about coming to grips with loss, not blaming yourself into oblivion (yet blaming yourself where appropriate!), and holding on to what you still have. It’s chock-full of nerd friendly sonic nuances and touchstones; it’s immediate but not superficial. Antonoff understands the value of pop music as honest attempt at communication; here he’s speaking clear and true. Whatever you do in this life, just don’t take the money.
Ben Folds Five | The Sound of the Life of the Mind (ImaVeePee / Sony – 2012)
When Ben Folds Five made the surprise announcement that they were reforming for a new record, I was skeptical. In fact, at first I believe I was flat-out against it. Why tarnish the memory of something special just to make a few bucks? I didn’t want a dodgy footnote to an untarnished career.
But after reading a few interviews with the band regarding their motives, I finally sprung for a preorder. Once I got my mitts on a copy of the new album, my original fears were proved baseless. Sound is delightful. There’s no filler; instead it’s ten slices of nuanced character sketches, a few scoops of old-time snark, and the sort of effortless musical interplay that you can’t fake and that never goes away. Plus those harmonies and perfect “ooohs” and “aaahs.” Ben Folds’ music is that special kind that soundtracks periods of your life, that admittedly does become tied to those times, but also matures with you.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind isn’t nostalgia, it’s work that reflects the blacks and whites of life commingling in middle age. It’s fun and it’s thoughtful, it’s sweet and it’s crazy tight. It’s everything you would want a reunion to be but very rarely actually is. Just try not to air-everything to “Erase Me”; try not to shed a wistful tear to Darren Jessee’s gorgeous contribution “Sky High”; marvel at the emotional content that goes beyond the original conceit of Frank Sinatra’s old manager trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life in “On Being Frank”; just try not to dance around and picture the band goofing around with Fraggles as you listen to ”Do It Anyway.” And of course there’s a bonus extension of Folds’ 2010 collaboration with writer extraordinaire (and personal favorite) Nick Hornby on the stonking, fiercely intelligent title track.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a reunion that mercifully justifies its existence, and an album that only gets better with age. It’s a beautiful thing when something you love grows with you.
Neko Case | Hell-On (Anti- – 2018)
Hell-On gives no fucks and pulls no punches; it is an album as engrossing, fascinating and occasionally mysterious as Case herself. It is not reckless but it is not beholden to anyone or any construct. Hell-On explores many of her perennial subjects, including gender, women’s strength, animals and nature as metaphor for human beauty and destruction—not to mention the flat-out beautiful mystery of love and the human heart. In the five years since her last proper LP, it feels like Neko has refined her craft and her focus. “Last Lion of Albion” and “Bad Luck” chime and rollick. “Halls of Sarah” and “Oracle of the Maritimes” encompass both hushed focus and surprising bursts of elemental power. And the epic “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” might be her best song to date, duetting with Mark Lanegan on an emotionally devastating exploration of the past in retrospect and relationships as orbits that can’t help but circle each other. And of course the whole album is full of astonishingly poetic turns of phrase and tons of Neko’s inimitable, move-you-to-tears voice. Hell-On is the work of an artist strong enough to be who she is, strong enough to admit to moments of weakness, and who is never complacent or content to stop exploring. It is alternately an embrace that pulls you tight and a knife to your gut, and quite possibly her best work to date.
Courtney Barnett | Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop – 2015)
Courtney Barnett excels at putting substance over flash, wringing meaning and great insight out of remarkable tales of micro moments and the mundane. That’s not to say “boring.” Read: action-packed; small scale. It’s an approach that, coupled with her deadpan vocal style, means casual listens might not immediately hammer home how insightful, witty, and frequently deeply affecting her songs are.
Sometimes I Sit and Think… further develops the blend of coffeehouse acoustic jams, garage rock (almost reminiscent of the fuzzy, buzzy, ramshackle indie pop of New Zealand’s venerable Flying Nun label), and lo-fi singer/songwriter that characterized Barnett’s 2013 collection The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas. Tunes like “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues” occupy the affectingly personal, low-key, sparse, country-folk end of the spectrum, with “Pedestrian at Best” a, stonking, overdriven rocker showcasing her wryly funny, idiosyncratic allure. Bouncy, infectious opener “Elevator Operator” is somehow equal parts They Might Be Giants, mid-1990s Blur, and The Kinks. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” navigates the divide between introverts and extroverts via wiry guitars. “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” embodies and exudes the exhausted alertness of jet lag and temporal/spatial displacement via a languid yet twitchy groove.
You can almost hear Barnett’s fine-toothed gears moving as she observes and describes; she’s one of those songwriters who sees the story in everything, but on a small scale via character sketches and short stories. And she sets it all to songs that lodge in your head and rock out doing it, thanks to her formidable guitar skills.
Chvrches | The Bones of What You Believe (Virgin/Goodbye – 2013)
The sound of a bloody, beating human heart encased in a vintage analog synthesizer. Frontwoman Lauren Mayberry sings with an edge and passion that leaps forth out of her seemingly unassuming, tiny frame. There’s a concurrent aggression and tenderness, not to mention an astonishing emotional openness, to many of these songs, making it an album that can steel your resolve or move you to tears.
Beck | Morning Phase (Capitol – 2014)
After a decade of hip-hop-infused shuffling and mostly sounding like, well…Beck, Beck once again checked his Coat of Irony at the door and donned his lesser-used Sincerity Hat. Morning Phase is spiritually descended from, but no mere retread of, 2002’s glassy-eyed breakup masterpiece Sea Change. Lyrically, it’s demonstrative but impressionistic, sung in a clarion voice that moves through solids with the ease of an x-ray. Beck uses phase-shifted folk, pristine harmonica-and-pedal-steel country rock, and dramatic swathes of symphonics to temper the album’s baked-in melancholy with a golden, wistful optimism. Morning Phase is deeply affecting, often affirming, but in a koan-like way; it’s almost as if Beck has crafted an emotional mirror to magnify, focus, reflect, and temper each listener’s unique sorrows and existential crises, while simultaneously sharing his own.
Line & Circle | Split Figure (Grand Gallop – 2015)
LA-by-way-of-Ohio gothic jangle mavens Line & Circle evoke the spirits of IRS Records while not once coming off as derivative. Haunting, atmospheric, and rhythmic, featuring clarion, ringing guitars, all anchored by Brian J. Cohen’s vocals, which have a fascinatingly obfuscated yet resonant quality. Cryptic yet emotionally resonant, Split Figure strikes a thrilling, welcoming equilibrium between dramatic gestures and unbridled joy.
David Bowie | Blackstar (ISO / Columbia – 2016)
Bowie’s 2013 comeback album The Next Day was an unexpected, welcome return but felt classicist. And the silence that followed tempered much of the ambient excitement about our beloved art alien’s return. When Blackstar, out of nowhere, broke that silence, it sounded like nothing he’d ever done before. Bold, experimental jazz commingles with moody electronica reminiscent of his vastly underrated 1995 LP Outside, Blackstar is saturated with allusions to death, mortality, and decay, and is deeply, truly weird. But the passion poured into these songs means the album never becomes macabre. Instead it pulses with artistic vigor even as the flesh degrades. Blackstar stands as not only a powerful swansong, but one of Bowie’s best records period. This was Bowie pushing boundaries till the very end, and is one hell of a way to say goodbye. “★”
Father John Misty | I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop – 2015)
On I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman retained some of the arboreal, pot-smoke-saturated country-folk sound he wrapped his debut album in, but here he uses it as a launching pad into the persona of a louche crooner, steeped in lushly orchestrated, Nilsson-esque 1970s West Coast singer-songwriter soft rock. Irony, romantic fatalism, and moral nihilism butt up against sincere declarations of devotion and the importance of love in an otherwise meaningless world. Honeybear establishes Tillman as the heir to Kurt Vonnegut’s insightful, darkly funny humanism. The genius of what Tillman has crafted is not only the fascinating attention to detail permeating every note of music and inch of the liner notes, but that it’s nearly impossible to truly tell where the winking artifice ends and the raw heart begins.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam | I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (Glassnote – 2016)
I Had A Dream is an arresting collaboration between the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser and one-time weekend vampire Rostam Batmanglij. It incorporates elements of doo-wop, polyrhythmic synth/dance, Leonard Cohen, mid-‘60s “Dylan in NYC” folk-jangle-shuffle, and the sort of popular song you might hear in a mid-1950s dive bar. Leithauser’s work on expanding and refashioning his vocal style pays off in a major way here. This is romantic, soul-searching, captivating, sonic-Edward-Hopper stuff, positively dripping with longing and late night feels. Put this one on when you come home from the pub and you’re not even close to ready for bed.
Frank Ocean | Blonde (Def Jam – 2016)
Pitch shifted gospel and clear voiced diary entries. Rage and mourning at societal injustice. Lust and barely contained percolating love. Maturing but knowing you’re not finished maturing. Where Channel Orange was a feature film, Blonde is a series of vignettes, mostly eschewing centerpieces (the ones that are here—especially the amazing trio of “Nikes”, “Nights,” and “Futura Free”—hit hard despite staying as low key as most of the album as a whole) and focusing on snapshots. Blonde channels the spirit of conversations you have on late night city drives, sometimes with confidants, sometimes with yourself. It’s small moments dressed in downtempo R&B, electronic experiments, treated guitars, and midnight whispers that add up to a remarkable big picture of doing what you have to do to survive, physically and emotionally, of sex and social conscience. And it hits hard by directing a little blame outward, but most of it inward; Ocean’s forthrightness and attempts at forging honest connections are audacious and refreshing.
Alvvays | Antisocialites (Polyvinyl – 2017)
Canadian treasures Alvvays take hooky, jangly dream pop and Jesus and Mary Chain it up an extra 80%. Antisocialites, their sophomore album, clocks in at barely over 30 minutes but it’s overstuffed with ideas, subtly indelible guitar riffs, and melodies galore; it refines their existing sound with exquisitely layered results. Molly Rankin’s vocals alternately dip and soar; her delivery is delicate but forward and highly affecting. She has a special way of weaving her vocals in and out of the surging and plunging waves of distortion, and using sudden changes in pitch to, really, just break your freaking heart. (Her singing in the final minute of “In Undertow” is a masterclass in subtle songwriting and vocal performance.) Kerri MacLellan’s keyboards are given far more room in the mix, which lets the band paint with an even more vivid dream pop palette. Antisocialites is a June day in San Francisco. Cool, breezy, layered…and with colors peeking through when you least expect them, and hitting you twice as hard for it.
Arctic Monkeys | AM (Domino – 2013)
With AM, Arctic Monkeys finally made a record as strong as their debut. They may have even eclipsed it. The album marks Alex Turner‘s transformation into a debonair, slicked-hair teddy boy. And the songs are dripping in thumping, noir-soaked late night desire. The enveloping, earthy mood is propelled by music that’s both satisfyingly heavy and subtle.
Weyes Blood | Titanic Rising (Sub Pop – 2019)
Natalie Mering is mysterious, flowing and full of trenchant insight. She has an astonishingly beautiful voice and emanates a goth Karen Carpenter crossed with Kate Bush vibe. Titanic Rising is orchestral and enveloping, but also melodic, surprisingly jaunty in places, and full of really excellent George Harrison-sounding guitar, retro-futuristic prog rock synths, and Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter acoustics. But a little bit heavier. Here, she grapples with the ever-increasing weight of the world—but also always offers an open window into her heart, which lets in rays of hope and optimism. On Titanic Rising, Mering acknowledges that the world’s problems are real, heavy and immediate, but emphasizes never letting the fire inside you get extinguished, which is essential to any sort of chance we have at overcoming our collective challenges, internal and external.
The War On Drugs | Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian – 2014)
Adam Granduciel’s worldview is at once blurred yet pristine. Lost In The Dream is a heat-haze mirage on the horizon of a sunbaked, sleep-deprived road trip with Petty & Dylan. Non-ironic guitar solos and skittering drum machines holding court with saxophones, while harmonicas like weary but optimistic sighs weave in and out, sincerity defiant in the face of fashion. This is an album that serves as a testament to the therapeutic powers of art, of working through darkness with the lifelines of creativity, conversation, dedication and passion. | Mike Rengel
Click here to read Mike Rengel’s top 10 albums of the 2010s.