Welcome to the second installment of my review of the best albums (according to critical consensus) of the 2010s. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. This is one of three musically-themed blog series I’m doing this year. You may also be interested in my review of the reputed 20 best albums of 2020 (latest edition here), and my search for the 21 best albums of 2021 (January edition here).
To quickly review methodology, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 total posts of 5 each (or actually 6 on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And now, without further ado, here’s Part II!
Anti (Rihanna, 2016, 7 votes)– There’s musical and lyrical sophistication here, and songs that are sometimes more conventional, sometimes more personal and confessional. It’s very well produced, but I don’t know that it makes the level of a “best album” of the decade. It is, par excellence, what a big chunk of the decade sounded like. But I’m not sure it holds up to the best of other soul/R&B/dance albums from the same time period.
Art Angels (Grimes, 2015, 4 votes)– The ethereal disembodied first track almost sent me away, but then the variability and verve of the subsequent efforts brought me back. Quirky music, quirky vocals, very upbeat. She knows pop music, and then keeps ‘effin with it with dissonant choices, which I appreciate. If this was the average level pop music was landing at, it would be a grand thing!
Beyonce(Beyonce, 2013, 6 votes)– From the first track, which tackles body image and social pressure, this is a pop album in service of a higher purpose. Whether tackling social issues, personal biography, or emotional confession, track after track aims for import. In lesser hands, this could be an unwieldy exercise. But given skill and vision, it can be pulled off, and is amazing when it works (cf. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation). Beyonce’s hands are not lesser- between mastery of the musical idioms of soul and R&B, by turns soaring and subtle vocals, rich production, and incisive lyrics, she delivers.
Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016, 6 votes)– As a David Bowie fan, I had been curious about his final album. The opening/title song is mesmerizing and self-valedictory, in the course of 10 minutes, it tries out styles from throughout his long career. Subsequent tracks stick more to a unified musical theme, with healthy portions of dissonant art rock and electronic beats. Vocally and musically the tracks are unsettling in the way many a Bowie song can be unsettling, and then on top of that there is an obvious concern with history, legacy, and mortality throughout. It’s a powerful thing to do with a record and makes for a fitting swan song.
Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016, 8 votes)– Is it just me, or does the first track sound like an autotuned chipmunk? Real vocals kicked in midway, but the sound was still very autotuned. Which is a shame, because musically it’s making many unusual and interesting choices for R&B. Dammit, it’s growing on me. The arrangement and production is actually really, really good. Except for the occasional dip back into autotuned chipmunk. But this is a fun and unusual sounding album. I can see why it ended up on so many lists!
And that’s it for Part II. Ten down, 42 to go! Which means we may learn the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything…
Welcome to Part II of my review of the reputed 20 Best Albums of 2020. In case you missed Part I, you can find it here. This is one of three music blog series I’m doing this year as I seek to reacquaint myself with new music. You may also want to check out the most recent editions of the other two, in which I seek out the Best Albums of the 2010s, and search for the 21 Best Albums of 2021.
A quick reminder on the methodology for this series: I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are my reviews of 6-10!
Heavy Light (U.S. Girls, 4 votes)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.
It Is What It Is (Thundercat, 7 votes)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This seems to be a kind of jazz fusion sound, very mellow. It’s well done, but I can’t find a heart of anything that feels real or vital in most of it. It wasn’t until track four that I found the first song that really engaged me, and then not again for several more tracks. Really, critics?
Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen, 4 votes)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.
Live Forever(Bartees Strange, 6 votes)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!
Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams, 7 votes)– This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. There’s a kind of simplicity of the music, which is belied by the complexity of the lyrics and surprises in her vocal delivery. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it is a consistently interesting high energy listen.
So there we are, 10 down, 10 to go. Join me next time for 11-15!
And here we are, the third of three musical blog series I’ll be doing this year. In my first foray, I set out to listen to new releases every month in search of the 21 best albums of 2021. My second series tackles a review of critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020. These are both part of a New Year’s intention of getting caught up with current music, after years spent filling out previous decades and also distracted by cross-country moves, family issues, fighting creeping fascism, etc.
Because of all of the above, my relative outage on newer music extended through most of the past decade. So this third series will be working its way through the critical consensus on the best albums of 2010-2019, and seeing what is what. (Some years back I did something similar for the 2000s, you can find my wrap-up of that series here.)
A quick note on methodology, which was fairly simple. I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. It wasn’t clear to me going in just what my cut-off would be in terms of number of albums, but as it happened, albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to 50 to serve as a good round-up.
And now I’m working my way through listening to them, and writing reviews as I go. I’ll do 10 total posts of 5 each (and 6 on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get going with Part I!
1989 (Taylor Swift, 2014, 5 votes)– It is obviously disingenuous in some wise to say I missed this album, because it’s Taylor Swift, and if you didn’t hear “Shake It Off” and some of the other singles from this album in the last decade, you probably weren’t in the last decade. Importantly for an album, the non-hit singles here are as comparably compelling and well-done as the hits. Look, I’m a rock guy, I’m a genre classics and alternative guy, I’m a history/deep cuts guy. But there’s nothing wrong with good pop music, and this is pop music at its finest.
A Seat at the Table (Solange, 2016, 8 votes)– Solange, reportedly, is not fond of being compared to older sister Beyonce. If you’ve found yourself on either side of that sibling comparison game, this is probably understandable to you. As it happens, she’s earned independent review, because, at least based on what I hear here, she’s a force in her own right. This album is soulful, weary, and wise from the first note. It mixes the personal and the social, and there’s genuine vulnerability throughout. And, while keeping a general smooth low-tempo R&B vibe, it takes musical and vocal chances that are lovely. If you want to play a comparison game, this honestly reminds me of Prince in its complexity and quality.
A Moon Shaped Pool(Radiohead, 2016, 4 votes)– As has been documented elsewhere in my music writing, I don’t particularly care for Radiohead. I’m aware that this puts me at odds with every music critic ever, as well as many actual humans I know. Now, don’t get me wrong. They’re not, by any means, bad. It’s just, I like moody atmospheric music. Sometimes. I like elliptical lyrics. Sometimes. I like lackadaisical low-key anguished vocals. Sometimes. But 50 minutes solid of that and only that? It’s just not a mood I’m often in. Despite some fine moments and individual songs that worked for me, I was not in that mood listening to this album as a whole. It might be someone else’s cup of tea, though!
Acid Rap (Chance the Rapper, 2013, 7 votes)– Rich, fun, and dynamic from the get-go with “Good Ass Intro” (which is), and it doesn’t let up from there. Musically, it makes excellent use of an amalgam of Soul, Funk, R&B, and Jazz backgrounds. The lyrics are also so well done, both clever, informed by pop culture references, and meaningful. And the vocals cycle through multiple modes- staccato rapid flow, straight-up singing, spoken word. Altogether, it’s a kaleidoscope of moods and modes that sounds like its title. It’s easy to see why this ended up on so many lists!
AM (Arctic Monkeys, 2013, 4 votes)– This starts off with solid beat and vaguely sinister guitar, which is a good way to get me on board. Then come the vocals and lyrics, which also have a dark and slightly sleazy feeling. The songs also display an excellent feel for the interplay between music and vocals, how each should move around the other for maximum impact. Even in the second half, when it sometimes slips into softer croonier and more “high concept” tracks, every song fires on all cylinders. This is sophisticated dirty rock the way sophisticated dirty rock is supposed to be done!
All right, that’s five down, 47 to go. Saints preserve us, and see you next time for another five!
Welcome to the second of three musical blog series I’ll be doing this year! I’m determined to catch up on years-worth of missing new music as I was diving deep into the archives, and also being distracted by life in general. You may have already read the first installment of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
In this second series, I’m on the hunt for the best 20 albums of 2020. My methodology has been pretty straightforward. First, I took year-end “best album” lists from a dozen sources that all have something to recommend them: All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin.
For every album one or more of them listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. It turns out that there were 18 albums that got between 6 and 12 votes (which would be a perfect score). So then I had to choose two more from the 4-5 vote bracket to round it out to 20. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums, and then doing a sum-up at the end. With that, let’s get started with the first five!
color theory(Soccer Mommy, 8 votes)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. All this could add up to something merely pleasant, but in each track there’s a surprising twist of one or more of music, lyrics or production somewhere in it. Some songs are more ornately arranged, some are stripped down, but none are bad. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert, 6 votes)– I like hip-hop. A lot! In multiple genres, and all eras from the late 70s to the 2000’s. But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. This album has plenty of that and and the first few tracks are not dynamic musically. There’s some skit material framing things that’s clever, and there appears to be a first half and second half “dark side” and “light side” motiff that’s interesting. The “light side” is much better than the “dark side”, but by then I’m halfway gone. And the first half is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through. This is unquestionably well-produced, but it’s kind of a “nah” for me.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple, 11 votes)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.
folklore (Taylor Swift, 8 votes)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.
Future Nostalgia(Dua Lipa, 8 votes)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!
I have found it can be opportune to harvest the energy of the beginning of a new year to set some intentions for the year to come. Being an audiophile, some of my intentions for this year are music-related. To whit: after being out of keeping up with new music for various reasons for the last few years, I have determined to catch up!
So I am going to review new releases every month, with the goal of eventually finding the best 21 albums of 2021. This will be one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year, with another reviewing critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the third one doing the same for 2020.
(Parenthetical shout out to Joe Biden for winning, and freeing up the time and mental/emotional energy to do this. The last four years politically weren’t the only reason I didn’t do much music writing, but they were a major reason.)
Let’s start with a quick note about how this will go. I’m listening to the new releases each month and sorting them into three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I want to leave myself some room though, because I’ve more than once had the experience of an initial “maybe” becoming a favorite eventually.
No– These albums are not in contention. In a few cases, I even abandoned them after listening to three or four tracks, although others were compelling in certain ways, which I note.
I’ll be doing this each month, and then at the end of the year we’ll do the final reckoning to find the best 21. And with that, let’s get to it! Here’s my take on the 31 new releases I listened to in January:
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very simple. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.
Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from the lead singer of Vampire Weekend. I have heard tell of this Weekend of Vampires for a few years now, but am not familiar with their work. Based on this I might want to be! It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy…
Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.
Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Macca to Mecca!– This is a live album from the touring band of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band-member Little Steven. On that basis alone, you would think it would be solid. But wait, there’s more! It’s an album of Beatles covers recorded at the Cavern Club in Liverpool where the Beatles got their start. As Steven says on the album intro, “Rock and Roll is my religion, and this is Mecca”. Great material, well played, and, crucially for covers, true to the spirit of the originals without being slavish copies.
Midnight Sister, Painting the Roses– This album is unsettling in a good way. It’s partially the music, which is solidly in a neo-soul vein but keeps doing complex and surprising things track after track. And it’s very much in the lyrics and vocal performance. Lead singer Juliana Giraffe (I am not making this up) is heavy on hypnotic artistry, bringing to mind Kate Bush from way back and Florence and the Machine from more recently.
Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of Post-Rock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song work, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.
Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of Psychedelia, 80’s New Wave/Synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.
Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The musical mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!
Weezer, OK Human– I have to admit, when I heard that this latest Weezer foray involved a full orchestra and took inspiration from opera, I had more than a touch of trepidation. I thought we might end up with something like how Rivers Cuomo getting interested in music theory on Pinkerton squashed all the energy and charm that had been in their debut album. Here, though, those touches are always in service of solid Pop Rock structure, and Cuomo is in top form lyrically. It’s just too good to ignore.
Dale Crover, Rat-a-Tat-Tat– Crover is the drummer from one of my long-time favorites, the Melvins. Per what one might expect from that, this is full of great heavy and yet melodic rock. The downside is that throughout it veers into experimental sound forays that just get a little annoying.
Kiwi Jr., Cooler Returns– Good solid Power-Pop. If you like the Modern Lovers and the Replacements, you might like this. I was left wondering, though, if the sound is a little too familiar?
Lia Ices, Family Album– This is affecting from the start, she sounds and feels like a 70s singer-songwriter livened by psychedelic and 90s indie touches. Her voice weaves spells, but by the end a sense of sameness starts to set in.
Palberta, Palberta5000– Sweet, melodious pop-punk, it’s musically propulsive and interesting. And I am a sucker for girl groups. It’s very charming, but occasionally gets a little lyrically and vocally repetitive.
Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs– Very interesting! The grooves are infectious, the lyrics political without getting polemical. It brings to mind PiL, and the Streets. The delivery, though, is a little, well, shouty, which gets hard to sustain toward the end.
The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings– This is a very strong maybe. It’s surging, atmospheric and weird, in a way that brings to mind 70s Prog Rock as well as newer efforts by bands like the Flaming Lips. Per the Prog Rock vibe, the tracks sometimes feel a little…long. But it grew on me the more it went.
Trevor Beld Jimenez, I like It Here– This felt like a 70s Southern California album lost in time. He’s lyrically compelling and vocally rich. My only hesitation is that the production sounds a little too thin and straightforward, but it’s definitely worth another listen or two.
Yung, Ongoing Dispute– Poppy in a power-chordy kind of way, and I liked the naively self-referential lyrics. I did feel it veered a little too much toward sameness by the end.
Alpine Decline, For the Betterment of Well People– Very high quality pop-rock, but there’s just too much “sameness” to the tracks.
Ani DiFranco, Revolutionary Love– To be clear, there is no such thing as a bad Ani DiFranco album, and this isn’t bad. It was however, a little too in an “adult easy listening” vein musically and vocally, and I like my Ani a little more incendiary.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, New Fragility– Very well done, but it’s just kind of too one tone “sad indie guy”.
Gas Lit, Divide and Dissolve– Instrumental metal with new age and orchestral flourishes. It wasn’t for me, but I’m sure it does have an audience.
Henrik Appel, Humanity– In a proto-punk/post-punk vein musically, and it has some mood and lyrical flourishes, but it’s a little too simple and one tone for me.
Lucero, When You Found Me– It’s good dark Country-Rock, but descends into too much sameness.
Madlib, New Ancestors– Please understand, I love Madvillain so I was pre-disposed to like this effort from the “Mad” half of that hip-hop duo, and this is beautiful and well done. But it’s too down-tempo and fading into the background for me.
Pearl Charles, Magic Mirror– Pretty effort from a singer-songwriter with an interesting musical mix, but ultimately a little too simple in its production for me.
Shame, Drunk Tank Pink– Third generation punk. It’s fine.
Tamar Aphek, All Bets Are Off– Slick and well-produced effort from an Israeli indie rocker, but I failed to locate anything that felt genuine in it.
The Body, I’ve Seen All I Need to See– I do like my noise rock and my experimental rock, but this was a little discordant even for me.
The Notwist, Vertigo Days– It all ends up being a little too ambient and sound-effecty.
Therion, Leviathan– Symphonic Scandinavian metal with Celtic elements. I was left flat when the really good metal moments kept giving way to the symphonic moments, but it’s definitely interesting.