Welcome to part three of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (52 is weird, right? We ended up with that number for technical reasons explained below.) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my monthly review of new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.
So, 52? It’s like this: 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 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Got it? Then let’s do Part 3!
Body Talk (Robyn, 2010, 7 votes)– I think this is Swedish dance music that would have sounded pretty at home somewhere in the borderline between the 80s and the early 90s? It’s well performed and well produced, and there are some songs here that are clever, unusual, and fun, which I certainly would want in my collection as singles. But overall I have trouble feeling like it adds up to a consistent album, never mind “Best of the Decade” territory.
Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011, 5 votes)– The great danger of indie folk is that it has a tendency to sound the same- both internally from track to track in an album, and between albums. Which is not to say it is, by any means, bad. But a solid album’s worth of no changes in musical or vocal tone, well, that doesn’t always make for a great album. This album is fine, as far as I can tell. Just not a kind of fine I particularly groove on. And, fine or not, it never feels like it gets to great.
Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010, 4 votes)– Remember Rock? Remember when you first heard it? Really heard it? The further one gets into this century, the harder it is to remember what that felt like. The Black Keys, like the White Stripes (lots of bad blood there, don’t tell them I compared them), remember. This album, like their music in general, taps into that threshold where blues crosses over and becomes rock. And in the process takes me back to why I loved rock in the first place.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Angel Olsen, 2014, 5 votes)– I liked the intro with its richly textured acoustic guitar, and her beautifully dolorous voice. Then the second track kicked into a 90s rocker girl mode, and uh, I was done for. Her vocals are very interesting, with smart and nervy lyrics, and the music knows its way around rock history. It keeps changing musical modes, but is tied together by her undeniable presence. By track three I was officially ensorcelled, and remained so until the end.
Carrie & Lowell(Sufjan Stevens, 2015, 5 votes)– To say this isn’t quite the tour de force that his album Illinoise was, well, that’s like saying “not quite Brothers Karamazov, but still good Dostoyevsky”. The emotional and musical texturing of the songs is rich, and the lyrics, as always, searingly earnest and personal. If there’s anything more I might ask for, it’s more moments, vocally and musically, that break out of the relatively narrow emotional palette of the album. Then again, it’s an album about sorting out the emotional aftermath of his mother’s death, so you can’t exactly fault it for that.
All right, there we are! Fifteen down, which means 37 to go. Who knows what wonders we still have to discover?
As part of my quest to get re-connected to new music after several busy (if not sometimes downright difficult) years, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the best 20 albums of 2020. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my review of the critics choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my monthly search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
To quickly recap my methodology, 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, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. 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 11-15:
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers, 10 votes)– The kick-off with strings and disembodied keyboard notes had me concerned. From there it becomes well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun. It also ends up feeling unbalanced. Everything here is high quality, but I don’t see it coherently adding up to a “Best of the Year” album. Which apparently I’m in the minority on!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 8 votes)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan, 7 votes)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels, 12 votes)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee, 6 votes)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
We’ve now reviewed 15 of the top 20 critic’s choices for best albums of 2020. Tune in next time for the final five!
In an effort to get re-connected to new music, I am in search of the 21 best albums of 2021! To that end, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-out after the year ends. If you missed the January round-up, you can find it here.
(This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you may also be interested in checking out the latest editions of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.)
Let’s start with a quick note about the 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. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we’ll end up with well over 100 possibilities, so there’s going to be quite a reckoning at the end.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that certain “maybes” have a habit of lingering though, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, we’ll proceed! Here’s my take on the 67(!) new releases I listened to in February:
Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!– The first track is like a lost 70s song from Todd Rundgren suddenly popped out of a wormhole. This isn’t an accident, as the accompanying video proves. Subsequent tracks are in the same vein and it is utterly charming. While the music has a 70s timeless feel, the very clever lyrics are full of modern references and personality. For what it’s worth, this and the Baio album from last month are the only albums in 98 I’ve listened to from January and February that I found myself singing along to out loud!
Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories– This album is like a double musical love letter, both to Detroit and to Rock itself. Cooper does both covers and originals here, with hints of Iggy Pop, Kiss, the MC5 and other icons of a certain era in that city abounding. Honestly, it’s a little bit of a mess, but a glorious and heartfelt mess! It just makes me happy.
Black Nash, Black Nash– I kind of fucking love this! It’s lo fi rock with occasional noise rock tendencies, but also classic rock call-backs, and a place for melody. Musically, vocally, and lyrically, it’s distinct from the get go.
Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse, because the muse itself is at her beck and call.
Claud, Super Monster– Musically and vocally very sweet, like a treat right from the first song. Things here are bright and shimmering, with just the right undertone from the emotionally earnest vocals/lyrics (as a nonbinary artist they bring an additional layer of meaning to both), and a perfect home-produced pop sensibility.
Cloud Nothings, The Shadow I Remember– Crunchy feedback-laden rock with a dreamy choral background, lyrical and vocal power, and a great way with melody. It’s really pretty delightful.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, L.W.– I mean, the name, right? Is this a lo-fi hard rock album? A garage/psychedelic throwback? A weird jazz sitar album? Yes to all! I’d never heard of this band before, but apparently they are a recording powerhouse with a devoted following in their native Australia. You won’t hear anything else that sounds like this, and it is excellent.
Lael Neale, Acquainted With Night– This is great from the start- clear lovely instruments, arresting vocals, poetic/personal/philosophical lyrics. It has a curiously timeless sound, like something at the intersection of Joan Baez and Dylan has gotten unmoored in time. It was also home recorded on an omnichord. I had not previously known what an omnichord was, and if you don’t either I encourage you to look it up because they’re pretty amazing.
Melvins, Working With God– I had previously outed myself in our January edition as a Melvins fan. I mean, I don’t feel any need to be closeted about it, really. If a certain kind of sludgy stoner rock with a big vein of humor appeals to you, they are that par excellence. This album opens with “I Fuck Around”, a song sent to the tune of the Beach Boys. And, sure enough, they are fucking around for the length of this album. But their fucking around is more entertaining than many another band’s best effort.
Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An effort by a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.
Hearty Har, Radio Astro– When you discover that this band is driven by John Fogerty’s sons, you might develop certain expectations. Those expectations are not disappointed- you’ll hear 60s garage rock, pop, soul, and psychedlia, all with a 00s rock sensibility. It is just damn good.
Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, Real One– Rock! Oh my god, rock! I’d almost forgotten what it could sound like. The specific varieties you’ll hear here most reflect 70s cock rock, 70s/80s album-oriented rock stations, and the pub rock side of British punk. It is, in a sense, nothing new or unfamiliar. But it is oh so welcome.
Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, albeit somewhat misleadingly, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay in a way that belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.
The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds merely like a copy. And the music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and then never lost me from there.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s a fascinating story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether or not to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (you’ll see the shorter one mentioned in a section below), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.
Valley Maker, When the Day Leaves– This album had a country-flavored indie folk thing going. Granted, there is a lot out there that sounds like that, but there are many musical and production surprises here, and strong lyrics. I just kind of dig it!
Another Michael, New Music and Big Pop– I liked the personal lyrics and weirdly off-kilter vocals of this clear, bright, energetic acoustic-tinged pop with a 70s vibe plus 2000s indie flavor. Some of it was a little too muted, though.
Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature– This would have been a yes if not for a meandering 7 minute instrumental track at the end. A NY-based artist and musician with quiet intensity in her vocals, and a deep philosophical vibe that takes the simpler music into overdrive.
Chris Crack, Might Delete Later– Musically this reminded me of the heyday of concious hip hop in the 90s, but with a swager of attitude and production familiar from 2000s hip hop. If there had been less “bitch” and “pussy” throughout, it probably would have been a “yes”.
Curtis Salgado, Damage Control– A nice contemporary blues album that does a good wrestle with mortality and aging on many tracks. It never rises above a certain level musically or lyrically, but it’s a fun, fun listen.
Dan Kroha, Detroit Blues– It seems weird to put an album of stripped down blues covers by an alumni of Detroit punk bands in the running for best album of the year, but it is great material really well done.
Django, Djiango, Glowing in the Dark– Energetic and propulsive, kind of electronica by way of Alan Parsons/Moody Blues art rock. Or an art rock band by way of electronica? It’s very catchy! It kept veering toward repetitive, but then the sheer well-doneness of it all pulls it out.
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight– I mean, I don’t think there is a bad Foo Fighters album. And the rock informed by funk/groove thing they’re exploring here is fun. The sort of problem is lots of other bands in the 2000s have already occupied this space. But the Foos sound great doing it!
Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place– She has an extraordinary voice, in both the lyrical and vocal senses, and is musically dynamic too- folky, rocky, the kind of searing feel you get from Aimee Mann. But it doesn’t feel quite consistent/coherent enough to be a great album.
Maximo Park, Nature Always Wins– It rocks right from the get-go, which I appreciate, and has a Bowiesque/Roxy Music/80s alt feeling. I would have loved this album in my 80s alt youth! My only reservation keeping it from “yes” is the dated feel.
Mush, Lines Redacted– I feel like I’ve flashed back to somewhere in 1979-1981 and landed in the most gonzo and discordant side of post punk/new wave. I kind of love it! But is it too dated sounding?
slowthai, Tyron– It took me a little while to get in to this British hip hop album, but then I was loving it. The witty and unusual lyrical voice, and neat production and sampling really grew on me.
The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness, Songs From Another Life– Beats, guitars, melody, and sugary vocals bam in from the get-go. What can I say, I love the jangle pop. Maddeningly, this has a problem many things I’ve listened to do- second half deflation. Bands! Don’t put all your slower songs one after another at the end!
The Telescopes, Songs of Love and Revolution– The wall of fuzzy guitar is a good start. I can’t make out the lyrics, but do I care? It’s a beautiful noise a la Jesus & Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, the only reservation is it’s so deliberately noisy I don’t know how regularly I’d want to hear it.
TV Priest, Uppers– Hey, rock! In an angular, nervy, post-punk kind of vein. It’s a debut album by a band that first played together 20 years ago, which is a great story. Musically I was over the moon, but the vocals were a little too one shouting tone, which wore on its durability.
Virginia Wing, Private LIFE– Lyrically and vocally intriguing, with fun and unusual musical & production choices. Arty, smart, and orchestral in a synth kind of way, it did a really good job of keeping my interest. About my only reservation is that it may be too deliberately discordant for frequent listening.
Ad Nauseam, Imperative Imperceptible Impulse– Italian Death Metal band. It’s a little too 57 minutes of death metal not in English to be a good general album of the year contender, but genre fans certainly might enjoy it.
Adeline Hotel, Good Timing– Nicely textured acoustic instrumental. It’s very nice, but too mellow, too one-tone, too lyric-free to be a “best”.
AJ Croce, By Request– I love a good cover album, and these are a great fit with his blues/americana sensibility, but ultimately they’re too faithful to the originals to rise above and stand out.
Blanck Mass, In Fernaeux– I mean, if your name is almost Black Mass and your album is almost named Inferno, I’m expecting something a little more dark and heavy than this. It was more in an electronica/sound art vein. By turns too ambient and too abstract for me.
Brijean, Feelings– It’s got beats, it’s got dreamy musical swirls, it’s got fuzzed out vocals. It’s not bad, but it’s just not my jam.
Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow of Funk– I honestly never would have considered they were still around-it’s a little too industrial flashback for my tastes.
Deacon Blue, Riding on the Tide of Love– A booming Scottish alternative band with an 80s feel. The first half was great, but then the second went flat as all the dynamism went out of the songs.
Death by Unga Bunga, Heavy Male Insecurity– If you’re going to still be doing punk this far down the line, the unusual metalesque and symphonic flourishes here are a way to make it worthwhile. The five minute track at the end did me in though.
Francois & The Atlas Mountains- Banane Bleue– French indie rock. Certainly well done, but a little too swirly dream pop for me. And also, you know, mostly in French.
Florida Georgia Line, Life Rolls On– I am determined to find a great country album this year. This was not it.
Indigo Sparke, echo– This is 55% of a great album. on tracks 1-3 the acoustic folk vibe is too samey, but then it really picks up with tracks 4-8, before 9 kind of fizzles again.
John Tejada, Year of the Living Dead– Electronica, pretty good as far as it goes, but way too ambient and fading into the background for me.
Juliene Baker, Little Oblivions– Surging and affecting, but I feel like the soul is getting lost in the production, and the tracks tend toward sameness.
Menahan Street Band, The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band– 70s soundtrack vibe, only all originals. It’s too “album out of time” and instrumental to be a year’s best, but it’s so well and lovingly done.
Mia Doi Todd, Music Life– The music and the lyrics are sophisticated and her voice rings like a clear bell, at first I felt like I was in a lost Jefferson Starship album from the mid-70s. But by-and-by it got a little too New Age and self-consciously expository for me.
Mogwai, As the Love Continues– An interesting musical melange, more electronica and synthy than I was expecting, but I’m just not sure what would make it better or worse than a lot of other similar soundscape stuff.
Mouse on Mars, AAI– Electronica is mostly not my genre, so something needs to be above and beyond to catch my attention. That being said, this is certainly well done, although even as electronica goes, a little experimental for me.
Nightshift, Zoe– Almossstttt maybe. A brittle post-punk feeling with experimental flourishes. The good tracks were very good, but it was a little too uneven. For what it’s worth, it was best when the women were on lead vocals instead of the men.
Nonconnah, Songs for and About Ghosts– Experimental sound collage is not my thing.
Pale Waves, Who Am I?– Pop/rock structure is strong from the get-go, it would have been right at home in the 90s or early 2000s. It doesn’t add up to more, but you won’t have a bad time listening to it.
Puma Blue, In Praise of Shadows– Mellow beats, low key vocals, it’s pretty, but the tracks are indistinguishable, and the tempo never “ups”.
Rat Columns, Pacific Kiss– Power-pop, much sweeter than you might expect from a band with the word “rat” in its name. Strong song sensibility, and it doesn’t misstep, until the second half when all the energy and dynamism goes out of it, and the tracks get too shimmery and ethereal.
Robin Thicke, On Earth, As in Heaven– It’s very pleasant. It’s very smooth. It’s very blah.
Roy Montgomery, Island of Lost Souls– While quite good, it was just too ambient for me.
Sia, Music: Songs From and Inspired by the Motion Picture– Good fun dance-oriented pop, I’m just not sure it gets beyond that.
Smerz, Believer– Kind of like an abstract music theory senior thesis project.
Sun June, Somewhere– Ghostly breathless vocals, lyrics are sophisticated, mellow musical vibe, it’s got the minor chords, but ultimately everything is too much the same.
Tash Sultana, Terra Firma– Well produced, jazz-inflected, but just too 80s easy listening for me.
The Staves, Good Woman– The vocals are nice, the music is nice (with occasional surging surprises in each), but all a little too smooth and fading to sameness.
The Weather Station, Ignorance– Quiet vocals, beats, and jazz flourishes, with occasional touches of frenzy or eerie dissonance that complement the harrow of the lyrics, but it is a little too one tone emotionally/musically, albeit very well done.
The Weeknd, The Highlights– Very well produced dance music, some great singles certainly. It’s fun high-energy pop, and it’s not doing anything wrong. But does it add up to an album?
Tindersticks, Distractions– Beats, mellow vibes, disembodied vocals. It’s a little too low key electronica for me compared to, say, a Daft Punk/LCD Soundsystem approach. I did appreciate the Neil Young cover, though.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life– It’s a little surprising to see this here, right? The extended version made my “yes” list. I actually appreciate the production more on the longer version (this one has a more 80s feel), and it’s weird how this version essentially repeats the intro track twice in a row.
Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights– Some nice instrumental flourishes, but a little too muted for me, somehow it doesn’t ever emotionally or musically rise above.
Willie Nelson, That’s Life– This is Nelson’s second recent album of Sinatra covers. (Dylan’s been doing this too lately. Why is this in the air?) The covers are a little too straightforward, but they are well done, and I like the worn gold sound of his voice here.
And there we have it, the “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” from February. Join me in a month (give or take) for the March roundup!