When I put together my list of the top ten albums of the 2000s, I felt an obligation. This was a decade. This list had to be definitive. I set up objective criteria, I cast a wide net to make sure I heard every possible candidate before weighing in, and I agonized over sliding candidates up or down the list or—heaven forbid!—off the list entirely. (I even made a Facebook post announcing my pained decision to bump Radiohead’s Kid A out of my top 10. You’ll always be #11 in my heart!)
The 2010s don’t feel like that. It’s been a weird, sprawling decade. The idea of coming up with a definitive list based on objective criteria doesn’t even feel tenable. Part of it is certainly the birth of my two children (one at the beginning of the decade, one just weeks before the end of it), but also my changing relationship with music, my increasing reliance on (satellite) radio to find new music, and the industry’s general move away from albums and CDs and towards singles and streaming.
So, much like Sarah Boslaugh’s excellent decade-spanning film list, this is my list of notable albums. These were albums that moved from a casual listen to an obsession at some point during the last decade, and continue to conjure up those same feelings at decade’s end. It’s subjective as all get-out, but for the decade I just finished living through, it feels right for me. Here’s my list—19 albums long, because for some reason that felt right for me as well—and here’s a playlist with a selection from each if you want to play along at home.
Arctic Monkeys | AM (Domino – 2013)
Until AM, it was easy to write off the Arctic Monkeys as the British Strokes, a garage rock-influenced band with an all-time great debut album and a series of soundalike follow-ups of generally decent quality. But AM sounds like the work of an entirely new band: the tempos are slowed, the minor key guitars don’t thrash but rather ring with sustain, and Alex Turner trades in his hipster sneer for a lover’s croon. The album sustains a sexy, sleazy, late-night vibe from front-to-back. But what elevates AM from good to great is the lyrics, all sung from a place of loneliness and longing, Turner pining after lost loves or terrified of getting his heart broken by future ones, unsure if he even wants to know if the feelings flow both ways.
Banks & Steelz | Anything But Words (Warner Bros. – 2016)
I’ll be the first to admit that hip-hop generally fell off my radar during the 2010s—I didn’t listen to a ton of it, generally because what I did hear didn’t really appeal to me. (Like everyone else, I dug Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but you probably don’t need me to tell you how awesome it is.) But there was something about this too-crazy-to-be-true combination that made me want to dig deeper. I’m glad I did.
And this combination is, indeed, crazy, at least on paper: Paul Banks, dour-voiced lead droner for Interpol, singing the hooks and slinging the beats for Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA? Yet these unlikely collaborators (they connected through their mutual love of chess) result in two great tastes that taste great together. Banks’ Joy Division-y croon would seem an odd fit for singing the hook over a hip-hop beat, but the ones he’s constructed here have a minor key menace to them that makes him fit right in. RZA, for his part, is reinvigorated by the surroundings, offering up a wide range of flows from smooth and conversational to aggressive barking (check the lead single, “Giant,” and you’ll see why this album grabbed my attention) to fit the beat. The beats are sick, the hooks stick in your head, and RZA’s rhymes (in his resurrected Bobby Steels persona) are sharp and often funny (though some of the sex boasts can admittedly get a little dopey). Again, I’m hardly an authority on the decade in hip-hop, but this indie rocker and this ’90s throwback rap hero created something that hit home for this particular aging hipster.
Courtney Barnett | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Milk! – 2015)
Melody usually grabs me before lyrics, but that wasn’t the case with Courtney Barnett. When I first heard “Pedestrian at Best,” the first single from this, the Australian singer-songwriter’s first full-length album, I thought the music was pretty bland Nirvana-isms but the self-deprecating lyrics (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”) stood out immediately. As luck would have it, “Pedestrian” would be by far my least favorite song on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett has melodicism but it’s her skill as a storyteller with an eye for detail, delivered with a lackadaisical vocal shrug, that appeals to this ’90s kid. The choicest tunes are the gentle “Depreston,” a song about house hunting and encountering one where the owner clearly recently died that is packed with details equally depressing and poignant, and the rollicking opener “Elevator Operator,” the tale of a lad who shirks work for the day to spend it on a local rooftop (where he likes “to imagine I’m playing Sim City“) and encounters a woman who thinks he’s going to kill himself. Again, it’s the little details, from the lad having a “thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald” to the woman with her “Botox frown” and “hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton,” that transform the songs from pleasant pop shuffles into miniature movies, eleven short films in music form with Barnett as indie rock’s Oscar-worthy cinematographer.
The Beths | Future Me Hates Me (Carpark Records – 2018)
Like Barnett, the Beths’ Elizabeth Stokes has a gift for exquisite detail and delivers it in a singing voice that embraces her accent (in her case a New Zealander one instead of an Australian one). But where Barnett’s album has the singular focus of a singer-songwriter record, Future Me Hates Me is clearly the work of a band, with the sweetness in Stokes’ sugary tunes amplified by Jonathan Pierce’s jingle-jangle guitar and his, Stokes’, and bassist Benjamin Sinclair’s sunny three-part harmonies. That sweetness helps balance the sadness in the lyrics, which are typically sung from a place of loneliness, longing, or heartbreak, Stokes evoking feelings as vividly as Barnett evokes places. When she sings of “Future heartbreak, future headaches/ Wide-eyed nights late lying awake/ With future cold shakes from stupid mistakes” on the title track, every regretful romantic decision you ever purposefully walked into comes flooding back, while “Uptown Girl”‘s defiant “I’m going out tonight/ I’m going to drink the whole town dry” will conjure up memories of how you probably got over it. At ten songs in under 40 minutes, this album blazes by, leaving its hooks stuck in your head and you eager to return to hear it again and again.
The Black Keys | Brothers (Nonesuch – 2010)
The Black Keys are the last great torchbearers for rock in its rawest form. On Brothers, the band’s sixth album, they really boiled their style down to its essence and paired it with their finest, hookiest batch of songs. This is an album packed with lover’s plea vocals, insistent drums, and guitars that drip with bluesy menace, reaching a peak on “Howlin’ for You,” whose chunky guitar riff and boom-ba-clap drumbeat form the quintessential Black Keys song. The only complaint is that, at 15 songs and 55 minutes, the album is a smidge overlong, but it feels weird to complain about too much of a very, very good thing.
fun. | Some Nights (Fueled by Ramen – 2012)
This is a personal one. My daughter was born in December of 2011. She cried a lot, as babies are wont to do, and one of the only things that kept her calm was music. And while MTV has long abandoned music videos, one of the digital channels we had access to at the time was The Cool TV, which aired music videos (or music related infomercials) all day, every day. So, naturally, we also watched it all day, every day. And this being the winter of 2012, we naturally saw the video for fun.’s “We Are Young.” A lot.
A lesser song could not have stood up to this shear number of listenings, but not only did it survive with its appeal intact, so did its equally popular sister singles, “Some Nights” and “Carry On.” While the entire album doesn’t quite hold up to the majesty of those three magnificent singles (though “Why Am I the One” is up there), it’s still of a piece. Some Nights is a document of a band just going for it, man, three guys who had been churned through multiple bands and record deals and were ready to make a big, showy, personal musical statement and just lay it all on the line. The music is big, brash, and over-the-top, Nate Ruess’ Broadway-big vocals even moreso. This is an album of huge emotions felt hugely, with an undercurrent of hopefulness in the face of adversity that definitely hits a new parent right in the feels, and feels downright audacious relistening to it in the hellscape that is 2020 America. “Man,” sings Ruess, “you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from some terrible nights.” Preach on.
Green Day | ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! (Reprise – 2012)
It’s natural to feel protective of our favorite bands. There’s certainly an element of that in my ongoing obsession with Green Day’s unfairly maligned triplets, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! A return-to-form/back-to-basics project after the rock opera ambitions of American Idiot gave birth to the bloated, overwrought 21st Century Breakdown, the trio of albums landed like a turd in record stores and on radio, undone by an epic tirade by Billie Joe Armstrong at the iHeartRadio festival that saw him check into rehab and all touring and promotional activities for the albums canceled. ¡Tré!‘s release was even rushed ahead by a month, one supposes to contain all the bleeding into one fiscal year. It certainly didn’t help that even the diehard fan consensus seemed to be “Maybe I don’t need 37 new Green Day songs all at once.”
Which is a shame because, man, there is so much to love here. Tossing aside the grand ambitions of their rock operas, Billie Joe and co. dig deep into their love of early American garage rock and British Invasion tunes, particularly early Kinks and Who, filtered through their three-chord punk milieu. Being this many years into their career allows the band to tackle these songs with flawless musicianship, giving the songs a burnished surface while never lacking for punk rock punch. It helps that, for the one and only time, touring guitarist Jason White is credited as a full band member, which means there’s a constant stream of guitar solos blasting joy all over these things.
The funny thing is, while the simple throwback rock songs are supposed to be the antithesis of the rock opera ambitions of their last two records, if you turn your head just right you can see the basic framework of another rock opera in these tunes. “With the first album you’re getting in the mood to party,” Armstrong told Rolling Stone at the time. “On the second one, you’re at the party. And the third album you’re cleaning up the mess.” That’s not exactly how I see it. The bigger plot that seems to grow within that is that ¡Uno! is the innocent one, the one where young love and young lust are all bottled up together in a batch of tunes that feel like the arc of a teenage romance that finally boils over in the orgasmic album closer “Oh Love” (“Love, oh love, won’t you rain on me tonight” Billie Joe sings, if you hadn’t quite caught all the more subtle Who-isms). ¡Dos! opens with “See You Tonight,” with a strummy acoustic guitar and whined vocals that plays like a parody of the love songs of ¡Uno!, before exploding that sentiment with the blatant hedonism of “Fuck Time.” And, baby baby, it’s Fuck Time for the rest of the record: checking into a “Makeout Party,” begging forgiveness for cheating in “Stray Heart,” being led back to temptation by “Lady Cobra,” stumbling through the numbness that that hedonism brings in “Nightlife,” and confronting, in the harsh light of the morning after, what all this craziness has wrought in the heartbreaker “Amy,” an elegy for Amy Winehouse that could be about the girl whose heart has been run through the wringer by the narrator’s ghoulish behavior captured on the rest of ¡Dos! ¡Tré! then opens with a beautiful coda to the whole affair, the Sam Cooke-aping “Brutal Love” before going through, well, all the songs that don’t fit with the little narrative I outlined above. It’s not a flawlessly constructed narrative, I’ll grant you, but it makes a damn bit more sense than the “plot” of American Idiot ever did.
That protective feeling I mentioned before is probably why I stuck with ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! after so many others discarded them immediately upon arrival. But the more I listened, the more I found to love. I number so many of the songs here—“Nuclear Family,” “Stay the Night,” “Rusty James,” “Stray Heart,” “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” “Ashley,” “Amy,” “Amanda,” “99 Revolutions”—among my absolute favorite Green Day songs. And now, when I feel like listening to Green Day, I’m more likely to grab ¡Uno! or ¡Dos than any other record. ¡Tré!? ¡Tré! is only half a good album. Maybe 37 new Green Day songs was just a bit too much. But only a bit.
Guster | Easy Wonderful (Aware Records/Universal Republic – 2010)
If you like pop in the “catchy songs that drill into your head in an entirely pleasant fashion” vein, Guster is the band for you. Starting as a trio with a two-singer, two-acoustic-guitars-and-a-hand-percussionist setup, the band initially saw success among the type of college rock fans that dug Dave Matthews Band and bands on the jammier end of the acoustic rock spectrum like O.A.R. and Dispatch. But despite the instrumental gimmickry, Guster always had their sights set on the joys of the classic pop song. The 2000s saw the band increase to a four-piece with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia, expanding their sonic palette and instrumental prowess in the process.
2010’s Easy Wonderful was Pisapia’s last with the band, and what a way to go out. There’s still the acoustic jangle of classic Guster (if you’re looking for the absolute best example of a stereotypical Guster song, you’d be hard-pressed to outdo either the jingle-jangle acoustic guitars of album opener “Architects & Engineers” or the giddy rhythms of “legendary conguero” Brian Rosenworcel on “Bad Bad World”), but with tons of bass (what a concept!), piano, and layered vocal harmonies to really dig in those catchy melodies. There’s an interesting spiritual aspect to many of the lyrics of (former religious studies major) Ryan Miller, both sincere (“Jesus & Mary”), silly (“That’s No Way to Get to Heaven”), and “one could argue either way” (“Stay With Me Jesus,” wherein the song’s narrator survives what sounds like the world’s worst life but is thankful to Jesus merely for their survival, Miller’s straight-ahead performance clouding if he’s deriding his subject or is duly impressed in their blind faith). Elsewhere, Miller has his thoughts on love—not generic sappy romantic sentiment, but the very nature of love itself. Single “Do You Love Me” captures the joy of pining with soaring falsetto, clanging bells, and occasional forays into Paul Simonisms that represent exciting new ground for the band, while “What You Call Love” uses jaunty ukulele to hide a pretty devastating takedown of codependency: “What you call love is just urgency/ What you call love is the place you turn in an emergency/ What you give up when it’s not what you want it to be/ That’s not love, what you call love.” Oof.
Minor complaint: a lack of lead vocals from guitarist Adam Gardner, whose deep, rich voice always provides a nice counterpoint to Miller’s higher register. That notwithstanding, Easy Wonderful marks Guster’s best album since their 1999 breakthrough Lost and Gone Forever and a must-hear for anyone who likes their music with jangling guitars and melodic hooks to spare.
Kirby Krackle | E for Everyone (self-released – 2010)
Geek rock is a very difficult genre to nail, as the temptation is far too great to simply write a generic song and drown it in enough ham-fisted pop culture references to fill an entire season of Family Guy. Thank Crom for Kyle Stevens, the musical polyglot behind Kirby Krackle. E for Everyone is musically impressive, mostly packed with solidly built, imminently catchy power pop and radio-ready rock, but there are also forays into rap-rock (“Roll Over”) and booty-shaking funk (“Can I Watch You?”), with about 75% of the noises you hear coming from Stevens. He and co-writer Jim Demonakos (co-founder of Emerald City Comic-Con, so you know he knows his nerdy topics) pair these killer tunes with frequently hilarious lyrics centered on scenarios from comic books, cartoons, and video games. Whether it’s the trials and tribulations of applying for a job as a supervillain’s henchman (“I hope you’ve got a health care plan/ And if you don’t, I understand/ But I’ve got a question for ya/ Does your hideout have a covered lot?”), the heartbreak of being rejected by every superhero team but the infamously terrible Great Lakes Avengers, or the sexy implications of being Uatu the Watcher, the lyrics are as legit geeky as they are legit funny. But it’s not all fun and games: “Ring Capacity” is a more straightforward rocker that plays like Our Lady Peace’s “Starseed” if it was about Green Lantern; when Stevens sings the Green Lantern oath in the song’s bridge, I get literal goosebumps Every. Time. and I’m not even a diehard fan of the character. I’ll admit I’ve been derelict in my duties and haven’t checked out any of the band’s other output, but I’ve listened this album into the ground over the last decade, and its closer “Going Home” is my go-to soundtrack every time I head to a comic con.
Ben Kweller | Go Fly a Kite (The Noise Company – 2012)
This album turned from a pleasant diversion to an obsession for me that consumed the entire first half of 2012 (“I’m kind of in love,” I wrote in my review at the time for PLAYBACK:stl) and while it fell out of the heaviest of rotation, listening to it again while writing this article has brought all of those feelings rushing back. The songcraft is pure pop perfection, summery and pleasant with nary a single note wasted or out of place and catchy melodies repeated enough to get stuck in your head but not so much that you grow to hate them. This is an album that can be listened to over and over and over and never get old.
Bob Mould | Sunshine Rock (Merge – 2019)
It’s pretty much unheard of for someone’s fourth decade as a musician to be their most consistently great, yet somehow, here we are. The 2000s were a much rougher decade by comparison for the former Husker Du and Sugar singer/guitarist, who started the new millennium with forays into electronica followed by albums that attempted to blend the new with the old with occasionally brilliant but ultimately scattershot results. But the 2010s saw Mould consolidate his backing band lineup (Jason Narducy of Verbow and Split Single on bass, Jon Wurster of Superchunk on drums) and unleash Silver Age, an album that resurrected the buzzsaw guitar sound of Sugar with rage-filled songs built to match. Its successors—2014’s Beauty & Ruin and 2016’s Patch the Sky—were each crafted on the heels of one of Mould’s parents dying, and each utilized Mould’s reinvigorated sonic fury to explore angst and grief. This trio of albums was powerful, powerful stuff.
Ironically, it was the bleak winters of his new home of Berlin that pushed Mould beyond the dark clouds that fueled his prior three albums and back into the sun. Sunshine Rock is not just a title, it’s an attitude, with Mould pushing himself to write songs from a more hopeful place than he possibly ever has. The result isn’t just mindlessly cheerful pop—Mould’s lyrics often grapple with how hard it is just to try to be cheerful in the face of, well, life in general. But musically, this album is the sunniest thing Mould has done since Sugar’s seminal Copper Blue, right down to the well-placed string accents supplied by the Prague TV Orchestra. That Mould was able to reinvent his musical approach as he barrels towards his 60th birthday is impressive. That the result is his best album in at least 20 years, even moreso.
The New Pornographers | Whiteout Conditions (Concord Music Group – 2017)
Frontman A.C. Newman is known to assert on Twitter that the best album in his own catalog is the New Pornos’ 2014 release Brill Bruisers, which is madness to me. After five albums of impeccable indie power pop of consistently increasing complexity and lushness, Brill Bruisers was a reset record, heavily incorporating electronic elements such as synthesizers and samplers with wildly varying degrees of success. It wasn’t a bad record by any means, but it’s definitely a growing pains record, one whose grand experiments paid off in full with the follow-up, 2017’s Whiteout Conditions.
Listen to a song like “Second Sleep,” with its burbling synths and surreal opening (a sound collage built from vocal snippets), or “We’ve Been Here Before,” with its “Baba O’Riley” synths and army-of-Neko-Cases backup vocals: these are wholly new beasts, unlike anything the band could’ve attempted prior to Brill‘s experimentations. Nary a song goes by that isn’t reinvented and reinvigorated by Newman’s newfound emphasis on spare-yet-impeccably placed electronics. And unlike Bruisers, the success rate is through the roof, whether the technique is tacked onto a song in the tried-and-true New Pornos style (the giddy pop hooks of Newman and Kathryn Calder’s call-and-response “High Ticket Attractions”) or used to conjure something unlike anything else in the band’s catalog (the funhouse mirror vibe of the lurching sequenced beats and weird four-pop sample that dances back and forth in the stereo mix on “Juke”). The old sound wasn’t worn out, but the new approach is just the reinvention the Canadian power pop heroes needed to carry them into their third decade.
R.E.M. | Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros. – 2011)
It sucks to have one of your favorite bands hang it up, but if they absolutely have to, this is the proper way to do say goodbye. R.E.M. wrapped up their career in stellar form with a victory lap of an LP that saw the band exploring the many sounds and personalities of their wide-ranging discography: the swaggering rockers of Monster (“All the Best”), the mournful songs built around acoustic guitar and mandolin of the Green-Out of Time-Automatic for the People era (“Oh My Heart,” “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”), the sunny melodies and multi-layered vocals of Reveal (“It Happened Today”), the jingle-jangle college rock of Lifes Rich Pageant (“Mine Smell Like Honey”), the punky fury of Accelerate (“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” “That Someone Is You”), the buzz guitar mid-tempo dirges of New Adventures in Hi-Fi (“Blue”). But these songs are far from simple retreads of past glories: they’re reinventions from a band who up until their last day continued to push forward into the unknown.
Saint Motel | saintmotelevision (Elektra – 2016)
Following on the heels of their breakthrough EP My Type and its stellar singles “My Type” and “Cold Cold Man,” saintmotelevision is a lean, mean piece of alt-pop. Being on a major label suits this LA-based quartet well, using these resources to structure impeccably produced three-minute pop songs (ten of them, packed in a tight 31 minutes) that are layered with add-ons—synths, pianos, blaring horns, giddy handclaps, jaunty cowbell, whistles, whispers, layers of backup vocals—without ever sounding overly busy or fussy. Even the over-the-top moments work, from the gospel backup singer and preacher-esque monologue in “Born Again” to the robotic tweak to singer AJ Jackson’s voice when he intones “I don’t break hearts, I destroy them.” The album’s fun, funny peak is “For Elise,” a song about breaking writer’s block by writing a love song in the vein of other love songs, hoping he’ll be as inspired by the titular Elise as George Harrison was by Pattie Boyd or Lou Reed was by Candy Darling. (If I understand the joke right, the Elise in question might even be the one from Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” If so, that’s pretty ingenious.) This is infectious, incessantly catchy pop music with a relentlessly modern sound.
Sloan | The Double Cross (Yep Roc – 2011)
The 2010s often found Canada’s finest purveyors of power pop at their most democratic: 2014’s Commonwealth gave each member one side of a double-LP to do whatever they liked (drummer Andrew Scott made one epic 17+-minute song collage; guitarist Jay Ferguson made the most stunningly melodic songs of his career, no big whoop), while their twelfth album 12 doled out an even three tracks to each band member. Yet the foursome, as usual, was at their best when they were at their most united: The Double Cross celebrated Sloan’s twentieth anniversary by continuing on the trajectory of its two equally stellar predecessors as a sprawling mix of anything and everything in the arsenal of its four widely varied yet equally talented singer-songwriters, often all in one song.
It opens with a three-song suite where each bleeds seamlessly into the next—check out that 30-second outro that bassist Chris Murphy appends to “Follow the Leader” that subtly shifts into the driving rhythm of Ferguson’s “The Answer Was You,” whose ringing final note forms the bed for the chugging opening riff of guitarist Patrick Pentland’s classic rock throwback “Unkind.” This teamwork is evident throughout: Murphy offers up the short rollicking rocker “Shadow of Love,” whose chorus Ferguson deftly reuses in a slowed-down call-and-response version for the coda of his “Beverly Terrace”; meanwhile, Murphy swoops in with a bridge that gooses the middle section of Scott’s “She’s Slowin’ Down.” Yet there are solo standout moments as well: Ferguson channels his inner Nick Drake on “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal,” Pentland fires off a pair of sub-two-minute stompers in “It’s Plain to See” and “I’ve Gotta Know,” and Murphy even offers up some glistening yacht rock in the sunny vocal harmonies and chug-chugga guitars of “Your Daddy Will Do,” a totally dopey song that I totally, totally love. It all skates by in a scant 34 minutes, resulting in the shortest album of Sloan’s career but among their finest.
Vampire Weekend | Contra (XL – 2010)
Vampire Weekend had a very good decade, and while the conventional wisdom considers its follow-up, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, to be the group’s pinnacle, I have to give the edge to their sophomore effort Contra, released just six days into the new decade. While the sonics on MVotC are admittedly lusher, it also often feels like a sprawling soundscape built in-studio; Contra, by contrast, expands on the sounds and styles of their debut—dig the marimbas on “Horchata,” the fluttering electronics and Autotuned vox on “California English,” the synthesized mariachi horns of “Run”—while still sounding like the work of an actual band of four. It’s also catchier: all ten of its tracks have drill-into-your-head hooks, and when a song like “Holiday” can be used in a Honda commercial aired literally every commercial break for an entire Christmas season and not wear out its welcome, that’s really saying something. The downtempo “Taxi Cab” and hyperkinetic “Cousins” showcase the album’s wide range, but it’s “Giving Up the Gun” that’s the undisputed highlight, a song whose lurching stop-start rhythms and kitchen sink instrumentation (eleven performers and fifteen-plus instruments) shouldn’t possibly work but it so, so does.
Various Artists | God Help the Girl original motion picture soundtrack (Milan – 2014)
Written and directed by Belle & Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch, God Help the Girl was a movie musical and labor of love, a project Murdoch kept alive through a years-long writing and audition process, a 2009 concept album, a lengthy rewrite, and a Kickstarter to fund the movie when no studio would. The plot: a girl, Eve (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch, American Gods), who is hospitalized for an eating disorder sneaks out and meets a musician, James (Olly Alexander, of the band Years & Years), and his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones), the three form a band, and various hijinks ensue.
God Help the Girl, perhaps unsurprisingly, is precious and rather purposefully quirky in a Wes Anderson sort of way, and its critical reception was all over the map. What’s unassailable, also unsurprisingly, is the music, which I have grown absolutely obsessed with in the years since I saw the film. Murdoch conceived the project as an excuse to explore his love for the classic ’60s girl group sound, and while most of the songs are in that milieu, there’s also a fair amount of Belle & Sebastian’s patented chamber pop sound, all backed with a lush orchestral flourish of strings and horns arranged by B&S trumpeter Mick Cooke (who exited the band shortly before the film’s release to concentrate on composing for film and television). The music permeates the mood of the film, from its first seconds when we meet Eve sauntering out of the hospital singing a sultry remake of the B&S track “The Act of Apostle” to the ending where the God Help the Girl band plays Eve’s triumphant reclamation of her life, “Down and Dusky Blonde,” at their first public gig.
God Help the Girl is both a movie about music and a musical: some of its songs occur within the world of the film, while others are flights of fancy within the heads of the characters. We watch the trio’s self-described “autumnal music project” grow, from a songwriting exercise for three voices (“If You Could Speak”) to an improbably skilled pop band (the giddy “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” the soundtrack’s absolute peak and one of the most finely constructed and catchiest songs in Murdoch’s catalog, which is really saying something). But we also see James’ love/lust-driven hallucinations (“The Psychiatrist is In,” “Pretty Eve in the Tub”) or have Eve as our tour guide through her own breakdown (“Musician, Please Take Heed”). We even get a single glimpse at James’ prior band in “I Dumped You First,” which takes breakup songs to hilarious new heights of pettiness.
This is a soundtrack where everything comes together just right: the songwriting is top notch, the arrangements are lush, and the vocal performances perfectly fit the tone of the songs and the personality of the characters. Browning has a fetching voice that splits the difference between a classic girl group coo and a sexier modern vibe that fits well with Eve, a character who is sort of lurching her way into responsible adulthood. She’s such a talent as a singer that it’s shocking that it’s not her main gig. Alexander, who is a singer as his main gig, gets far less of a chance to sing and is saddled with one of the more awkward songs (“Pretty Eve in the Tub,” with its sing-songy, lustily creepy lyrics and antiquated harpsicord melody) but has a pleasant croon well-suited to a striving indie rock kid that will leave you wishing he appeared a bit more. Murray is a bit more emotionally flat as a singer than the other two but she fits well into the songs where she and Browning duet, and she’s so strong in her performance acting as Cassie that I wouldn’t dream of recasting her.
There’s a very ’90s attitude to the curation of the soundtrack itself, which is peppered with instrumental tracks, some paired with dialogue snippets from the film. There are also songs that are outside of the plot of the film: Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy duets with Browning on the Phil Spector-y “Perfection as a Hipster,” Murdoch’s B&S bandmate Stevie Jackson and Celia Garcia (who sang on the original 2009 God Help the Girl concept album) take turns at the mic, and there’s even a Belle & Sebastian song (“Dress Up In You,” from The Life Pursuit) tacked on that plays over the film’s credits. Because of these soundtrackisms, the listening experience is a little more disjointed than watching the film or if it was either “just” an album or structured more like a Broadway cast recording. (Speaking of Broadway, man, God Help the Girl would make one helluva stage production.) But that doesn’t affect the amount that I listen to it one iota. This is an album that, when it hits me, it is all-consuming, something I will listen to again and again and again for days at a time until it works itself out of my system. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to go listen to it right now… | Jason Green