A decade is, like, a long time, man. I’m not claiming these are the best albums of the 2010s. But they’re the ones that stuck with me then and are still with me now. My constant companions and life-savers in the face of love, loss, success, disappointment, travel, and self-discovery. And I know there are scores of other very worthy albums that I’m forgetting or simply omitting so as to not make this list longer than it already is. Any list like this will invariably feel, and be, incomplete. But these are the ones that immediately came to mind. So, in no particular order:
Arcade Fire | The Suburbs (Merge – 2010)
Neither a celebration nor an indictment of its titular inbetweens, The Suburbs is a bittersweet, heart-bursting rumination on the places we’re from, the people we’ve been and known, and the ever present tyranny of distance. It’s a record saturated with the concurrent joys and sorrows of a big world made small (but achingly never small enough). Here, Win Butler asks us to think about the streets we rode bikes on as children, the letters we’ve sent (and why writing and sending them still matter in a digital age), how we grow up and grow out of people and places, and why art matters in a society that wants to commoditize everything. The Suburbs is a thesis statement for any heart that yearns to bridge distances, and find community in a world that often seems to drive us further apart as it claims to bring us closer together.
The National | Trouble Will Find Me (4AD – 2013)
The ultimate slow-grower from a band that only makes slow-growers. Trouble Will Find Me is a woozy walk home through a world of sharp-relief black and white photography, a sort of musical peering out at the world from behind a beard, knit cap, and upturned coat collar. This is an album steeped in doubt and depression. Matt Berninger’s baritone sings lyrics that are honest, darkly funny portraits of nights that don’t lift, meds that make you lose yourself, and overthinking brains that forget (and are made to forget) how to look outside themselves. Trouble is a thick stew of slowly building repetition and meticulous turns of musical phrase that sounds like November descending, and is full of the struggle and beauty of late autumn
Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City (XL – 2013)
Vampire Weekend have always had a (not undeserved) reputation as music for, and by, Ivy League WASPs. Their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, simultaneously reinforces and detonates that preconception. Vampires is thrillingly concentrated with indie-pop immediacy, snaking, subtle melody, challenging rhythms, and modern studio tricks, the band’s trademark white-boy Afro-pop tempered quite a bit with hip-hop samples and chamber pop. (Witness the harpsichord meets blacktop beats of “Step,” or the way the quiet acoustics of the introspective, Noah Baumbach-ready “Hannah Hunt” give way to wary exuberance.) It’s a short story collection’s worth of wryly observant character sketches of urbane youth giving way to young adulthood. But it’s also a surprising meditation on a search for spiritual meaning, and features a number of allusions to Judaism and other religions. Vampires is a gorgeous, meticulously crafted album. Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s arrangements are dense and impressive, but always serve the song. This joy of songcraft is what elevates a great collection of songs to an unforgettable album.
Marillion | FEAR (Intact – 2016)
Freed from expectation by financial stability and late middle age perspective, Marillion crafted one of the best albums of their lengthy, ever-evolving career. FEAR inadvertently tapped into the free floating, slowly gathering conditions that led to Brexit, Trumpism, economic disparity, global displacement, and intolerance. “El Dorado” crushes xenophobia; “Living in Fear” challenges us to melt our guns as a show of strength and embrace openness and empathy as a radical act. “The Leavers” speaks to the isolation of the touring musician and the unshakable bond between artist and audience. “White Paper” examines aging gracefully, while “The New Kings” excoriates oligarchy and unfettered capitalism (“We sold your council houses, not to you but the banks”) and is a lament for the loss of a “country that cared for you, a national anthem you could sing without feeling used and ashamed.” This isn’t Top of the Pops music, but it’s delivered with heart, melody, compassion, and the power of convictions. Marillion always speak their truth. FEAR finds them in their clearest voice yet.
Julien Baker | Turn Out the Lights (Matador – 2017)
Julien Baker is an astonishing songwriter; she writes and sings with the poise and wisdom of someone twice her age. Her songs shine a flashlight on the dark, doubtful corners of the mind and are at once deeply sad and heart shatteringly beautiful. Turn Out the Lights is sparse, built around piano/keyboards, and supported by wisps of twinkling guitar, violin, and even the absence of sound. And of course, it features plenty of Baker’s plaintive, cutting, expressive voice. Whenever she opens her mouth, the power, strength, and resilience of a hundred women pours out. Every song feels like a confession and an invitation. These stories of loss, longing, depression, and finding the places you belong in a world that tells you that you don’t belong are brilliantly, catch-you-off-guard honest. (She has an emo background which also definitely informs her music.) She grew up “queer, Southern, Christian, and proud” in Memphis and stares all of that in the face with every note she plays and sings. She speaks of enduring hostility and hardship and also of sticking around to carve out your own niche in places where it would be just as easy to leave. These are songs that speak of how bad it can get but that there’s also a way out.
Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam / Roc-a-Fella – 2010)
Capping off Kanye’s flawless run of first five albums, Fantasy is a captivating mix of prog rock-inflected hip-hop and megalomania, the sound of hubris in harmony with inventiveness. It’s a dark record, even occasionally disturbing. But its honesty saves it from nihilism. Here, Yeezy is unafraid to look selfish, insecure, base, or painfully flawed. And it’s all rooted in one of the most adventurous, meticulously constructed productions of this, or any, decade.
R.E.M. | Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros. – 2011)
If you’re going to go out, go out on top, and on your own terms. On Collapse, R.E.M. crafted an album that, at once, neatly summarized their adventurous, diverse career, and broke new ground. It’s not merely one of their best latter-day albums, it’s one of their best albums, full stop. Michael Stipe’s vocals yelp and hush, prod and comfort, and his lyrics are a brilliant mix of oblique and direct. As always, it’s a joy to hear Peter Buck play guitar. He digs out almost every style he’s experimented with over the years, and adds a few new ones. And it’s full of small touches that emphasize R.E.M.’s devotion to songcraft—including, but not limited to, the way the outro to album closer “Blue” (featuring Stipe’s hero Patti Smith) echoes the opening riff of first track “Discoverer.” The loop those riffs create if you play the album on repeat are a beautiful representation of the way R.E.M. used this record to bring their career full circle. These songs are heavy and soft, playful and stately; they sound informed by age and experience, but also sound as if they belong to all eras. What a perfect way to say goodbye to the great American rock band…and for them to say goodbye to all of us.
Phoebe Bridgers | Stranger in the Alps (Dead Oceans – 2017)
Phoebe Bridgers is an old soul. She writes emotionally intelligent songs full of wry sadness (self-professed “sad love songs about death”) shot through with disarming good humor and vivid lyrical imagery, and she has a distinctive and fascinating guitar style that sounds like acoustic strumming on an electric. Stranger is full of hushed strength and offers a sad yet welcoming, doubt-laced, late night insight, reminiscent of both Angel Olsen and Elliott Smith. It’s easy to imagine that in an alternate timeline, she and Smith would have a two-person band and also probably be in a complex relationship. Stranger in the Alps is quietly arresting and uses negative space to great effect; it’s the work of an artist who has already developed a distinctive voice and formidable songwriting chops, but is also clearly only getting warmed up.
The Menzingers | On the Impossible Past (Epitaph – 2012)
The Menzingers have spent their career to date trying to figure out how the person we were informs the person we are and will become. Every song is a precision instrument, full of short story grade lyricism and powerful, but never overwrought, emotion. On the Impossible Past is where it all truly came together for the first time. It’s equal parts punk, emo, Springsteen mythologizing, and that kid in your high school who hung out drinking by the train tracks but also had read every book in your small town’s library. And it’s all boosted by Greg Barnett’s passionate, memorable vocals and melodies.
M83 | Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute – 2011)
Building upon the “love letter to the 1980s” themes of Saturday=Youth, Anthony Gonzalez took that album’s John Hughes vibes, stripped them of stylistic pretense and sent them into the cosmos on a jet trail of sparkling dust. Hurry Up marries synthpop immediacy with more concise takes on his signature electro-shoegaze. It makes for a double album that’s full of childlike wonder, but never naive. Romantic and magical, this record tells you enough to make you fall in love but leaves plenty of room for tantalizing mysteries for the listener to decode. | Mike Rengel
Tune in tomorrow to check out Mike’s list of additional favorite albums of the 2010s!