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!