Notes on a Conditional 2020

Whew, that was a gap. Hey everyone, we’re back with the third day of Listmas 2020 coverage! Today is this year’s version of a piece I ran in 2018, where I ran through a bunch of the year’s albums that I heard but didn’t make my favorites. I liked a lot of these, and didn’t like some others. Check it out, starting with a mandatory pick.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Has there been such an early and uniformly consensus Album of the Year since Merriweather Post Pavilion as Fetch the Bolt Cutters? I thought when list seasons started, maybe we were in for a walk back of its April hype (an absurd 98 on Metacritic), but we doubled down instead. You could probably call FtBC a chore, and it kind of is to an extent: it’s a piano-driven, classicist singer-songwriter album prone to its artist’s tics and yips that exists so wholly for itself that it’s a little exhausting. From an artist with less cachet than Apple, it’d probably get dinged for being indulgent or award bait. But the core and composition of FtBC is so strong (seriously, I went months without listening to it and still remembered every song like I’d just hit play the week before) that it’s the rare heralded work that’s Actually That Good.

Machine Gun Kelly – Tickets to My Downfall
Look, no 2020 album was going to benefit more from the soft bigotry of low expectations than “Machine Gun Kelly’s pop punk record.” A full-length Warped Tour throwback from the white guy rapper who is most famous for that time he picked a beef with old man Eminem is such an on paper bad idea that Tickets to My Downfall would be an unmitigated success if it was halfway listenable, and, luckily for Kelly, that’s just where it lands. Kelly and his ensemble–most prominently including co-producer and co-writer Travis Barker who, natch, also drums all over this thing–made a record that’s great at convincing you it came out in 2003, but would sit gathering dust in your cd binder. Barker’s presence adds a steady hand and legitimacy, but he’s also “just” blink-182’s drummer in this context; is there anything here that wouldn’t benefit from the person who wrote, say, “What’s My Age Again?” tightening the screws? Probably not. Like I said, TtMD passed the eye test with most people (tellingly, its only hostile review is from the pop-punk lifers at SputnikMusic who, for want of a better phrase, know better), but it’s more gratifying as a thought experiment than a listen. 

Future – High Off Life
Future’s gotten really good at making albums I’ll listen to for a week and think, “Hey, this is alright” before never touching them again. The album cover rules, though.

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Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
It’s real good! Megan stuffs Tory Lanez in a locker during opener “Shots Fired,” and proceeds to spend most of the rest of the album just enjoying herself. Good News doesn’t have the album development focus of, say, Megan’s “WAP” partner in crime Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, but it’s still tighter and brisker than the average rap album designed to live in the top 20 off streams alone (see above), and Megan’s features with City Girls and SZA take off like a rocket. It works best as a collection of songs with Megan in head-down-and-rap mode, and by seldom deviating from that (synth pop experiment “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep” is the epitome of a Skip track), it’s endlessly listenable and more cohesive than whatever “Megan Thee Stallion Essentials” playlist a streaming company would cook up.

Justin Bieber – Changes
On a related note: you know how most streaming services have a loathsome “continue playing radio” or “infinite” setting where they’ll throw on disparate not-quite matches after the album/playlist you were listening to, and you normally turn it off after 2 songs? Everything on Changes could be the 4th song on that.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
It’s funny, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker went from making an album that worked best as a bunch of singles to an album made to be listened to from end to end. The Slow Rush wasn’t an easy write by Parker’s telling, and you can hear belabored creation in how fussed over it sounds at times, but that same fastidiousness allows for moments like the midsong switch up on “Posthumous Forgiveness” or the many shapes of “Breathe Deeper.” Some longtime Tame fans feel like Parker’s lost his way from the band’s shaggier psych-rock beginnings, but to me, this sounds like a winning combo of the more studio-driven fare of Currents and spaced out jams of Lonerism and InnerSpeaker, and one I’d give my left arm to hear on the dancefloor.

Lady Gaga – Chromatica
SPEAKING OF, I’d argue no album got screwed by COVID like Chromatica. Lady Gaga’s return to maximalist pop music after 2016’s Joanne and approximately 8,000 public performances of “Shallow” seemed like a deliberate attempt to recapture her “everywhere” status, and well, you can’t be everywhere if you can’t go anywhere. Chromatica is simply music designed to come from the largest speakers possible while you’re pressed against a bunch of people, and it was hard to get into that in 2020. The highlights are great even on headphones, but Gaga’s return to form has the faint air of conservatism around it; yes, it does Gaga-goes-90s-house camp impeccably, but it’s the first Gaga album where you could successfully argue her creative world has shrunk instead of expanded. But, if that’s the price to pay to make one of our oddest pop artists sound capable again, it’s an even trade.

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Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake
This album works better when you look at it as three EPs strung together of furious rapping, some pop-rap cuts, and then a vibe-y part 3, but Uzi’s ability to hold Eternal Atake together largely without features or a splashy single is legitimately impressive. I didn’t realize I’d listened to this basically all year until I looked back.

Taylor Swift – folklore + evermore
Review forthcoming.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Gonna be honest: I do not get it. It’s not that Future Nostalgia’s bad by any stretch, but I straight up do not get how this much praise got slapped on an album that tops out at “it’s fine.” I see the concept here: Dua Lipa’s pulling from the warm, glitzy, groovy sounds of pop from disco to the earliest parts of New Wave (aha, there’s “nostalgia”), but with modern kick and sheen (ooh, there’s “future”), and the result is often pleasant enough. But Future Nostalgia fails to be noteworthy in any direction; there’s no persona to latch onto because Dua Lipa is proficient if uncompelling as a presence, the “old fused with new” angle isn’t fresh to anyone who’s ever heard “Get Lucky” or “Uptown Funk” at a wedding, and aside from “Physical” and maybe “Don’t Start Now,” the album doesn’t go for the pop music jugular often enough to work as an empty calorie thrill. The thing with having eyes equally on the future and in nostalgia is that it makes your present inert.

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
A solid bounce back from the British sad boys. Following A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and its mishmash of powerhouse singles and underwhelming album cuts, Notes On a Conditional Form is better-flowing and throughout as a whole. It’s a mammoth record (it uses every one of the 80 minutes you can fit on a CD), but one that has room for the quieter, UK garage electronic sounds of “Frail State of Mind” and “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” on top of the horned and horny 80’s jam “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” or gleeful mix-CD rock of “Me & You Together Song.” Plus, at a time where rock and rock-adjacent music can be a little too tasteful for its own good (as Tame above, so HAIM below), I appreciate a big time rock act that puts a lovely but non-essential instrumental song on their album, aka, the first thing that’d get cut if you’re making the album into a playlist, and call it “Streaming,” or has their first single be a discordant screamer that includes the all-caps lyric “WELL/MY GENERATION WANNA/FUCK BARACK OBAMA/LIVING IN A SAUNA/WITH LEGAL MARIJUANA.” You just have to appreciate the willingness to go for it.

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HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
HAIM figured something out on album three. You could see what they were doing on Days Are Gone and Something to Tell You, but both of those albums felt a little hollow and beholden to their influences (and the HAIM sisters’ status as rock music influencers–they feel like the millennial answer to Dave Grohl’s willingness to show up anywhere as an archetypal rocker). Okay, and Something to Tell You flatout wasn’t good. But Women In Music Pt. III works because the studio craft feels more natural and less gimmicky, and the album captures some of the band’s live music alchemy that was wholly missing on their earlier records. It’s a fuzzier, slightly odder album and all the better for it; “The Steps” might be my favorite song they’ve ever done, and “3 AM” integrates R&B flourishes with more polish than I previously thought possible. A great “throw it on” listen of an album.

Best Coast – Always Tomorrow
You’ve gotta feel for artists who dropped projects late last February and then had to play out the promotional string while the world turned to ash around them; can you imagine seeing everything slide into “this coronavirus thing may not be a joke” territory while still having to tweet about your performance on Jimmy Fallon? It’s a shame for Best Coast especially, because Always Tomorrow affirms their status as a reliable pop rock hook factory some 10 years after Crazy For You while being their “I have therapy and skincare now instead of booze and weed” record, and making an enjoyable a straight ahead pop rock album and a Sobriety Album both have a higher degree of difficulty than you’d expect. Always Tomorrow is a tuneful, bright listen whose instrumental clarity doesn’t sacrifice any punch, and I think it might be their most end-to-end rewarding album. For a band that could have gone up in a puff of weed smoke at any point between 2009 and now, things have turned out pretty okay.

Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
A solo album by the perennially underrated MC of the legendary Roots crew has been teased for a decade, and coveted for even longer. Black Thought brings the fire and technique that you’d expect, and, after listening to Roots’ albums get steadily more abstract over the 10’s before they stopped coming entirely, it’s just a treat to hear one of the most dexterous and writely rappers in the game cook and trade verses with guests like Schoolboy Q, Killer Mike, and Pusha T (with Portugal. The Man making a surprising number of guest appearances). This probably would have been my gym record of 2020.

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
It’s a shame that Cudi’s release date got annihilated by evermore, because MOTMIII is an encouraging return! And I’m not just saying that because I once tried to will myself through Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven! Admittedly, the album’s opening stretch exists for playlist placement, but it’s at least something to hear someone with a knack for texture like Cudi make sorta interesting Travis Scott songs if Travis Scott isn’t going to (it’s also a neat reverberation to hear Cudi absorb some of Scott’s techniques when Scott feels like a direct aesthetic descendent of his), and from “Mr. Solo Dolo III” onward, there’s a locked in, vintage Cudi feel to the whole thing. I was in college in 2009 and nowadays I’m prone to falling down slow + reverb YouTube rabbit holes, so I am this album’s exact target audience, but still, it;s worth checking out.

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Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
Is there anyone better suited to a quarantine album than Charli? Her best projects have the air of tossed-off spontaneity, so of course a DIY record with a six-week deadline was going to be where she flourished. Amidst how i’m feeling now’s frantic nature, there are moments of sweetness that really let it soar (“7 years,” “party 4 u”), and something like “anthems” does an incredible job exaggerating its own pop music-y fakeness while still longing for being in a club pressed up against people. We’re still far from the end of quarantine-core “I made this on my own” projects, but I’m doubtful any of them are going to capture the mania and cacophony of everything like how i’m feeling now.

Katy Perry – Smile
I didn’t listen to this album, and neither did you.

We still have one bit of Listmas left, let’s aim for sooner rather than ah, late April. See you then!

Listmas 2020
Ranting About Music’s Top Ten Favorite Albums for 2020
Fifty Favorite Songs of 2020–The Gibby Fifty

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Fifty Favorite Songs of 2020–The Gibby Fifty

Hello all and Happy New Year! We’re back with part 2 of our Listmas 2020 coverage for my 50 favorite songs of 2020. As much as this was a good music year, it also soared on a song-by-song basis, and each of these is a treat. There’s a Spotify list at the bottom to throw off and/or validate your algorithm.

Andy Shauf – “Try Again”
Bartees – “Boomer” Bartees describes this as a pop-punker that leads with a DaBaby verse. Bartees rules.
beabadoobee – “Further Away”
Bedtime Khal – “Black Tears”
Best Coast – “Everything Has Changed”
Best Ex – “Lemons” I’m a sucker for songs that zigzag between taking the high road and saying “fuck it”
Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
Bully – “Add It On”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Summer Love”
Charli XCX – “Anthems”
Chloe x Halle – “Do It” Probably my biggest “How was this not a hit?” of the year
Chris Farren – “Phantom Friend”
Disclosure feat. slowthai – “My High”
Dogleg – “Headfirst”
Dua Lipa – “Physical”
Empty Country – “Clearing” That swooping falsetto on the chorus is incredible
Eric Slick – “Over It”
Fiona Apple – “Shameika”
Gorillaz feat. St. Vincent – “Chalk Tablet Towers”
Grimes – “4AEM”
Half Waif – “Siren” I dunno if I’ll have space to write about it elsewhere, so: the Half Waif album was very good last year
I Love Your Lifestyle – “Shilly-Shally” I kept forgetting to check this record but this song is great!
Into It. Over It. – “Courtesy Greetings”
Jeff Rosenstock – “***BNB”
Kali Uchis – “telepatia”
Kid Cudi – “The Void” Man, I feel for Cudi; his release date was all set to be his and then evemore got announced to drop the same day
Kitty – “Afterglow”
Lady Gaga feat. BLACKPINK – “Sour Candy”
Lil Uzi Vert – “Homecoming”
Megan Thee Stallion feat. SZA – “Freaky Girls” Although “Shots Fired” was a close second
Nick Lutsko – “Unleash Your Spirit” Not on Spotify
Nine Inch Nails – “Together”
Phoebe Bridgers – “Chinese Satellite”
Pinkshift – “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you” This might have been my song of the year
Quinton Brock – “To the Moon” Quiton Brock’s ready to change rock music
Record Setter – “An Explanation”
Ricky Eat Acid – “smoking a cigarette or is it weed”
Rina Sawayama – “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” Probably my favorite vocal performance of the year
Run the Jewels feat. 2 Chainz- “out of sight”
Serena Isioma – “Stop Calling the Police on Me”
Snarls – “Burst”
Soccer Mommy – “yellow is the color of her eyes” This was gonna be “Circle the Drain” until I heard this one in the right frame of mind the other night
Tame Impala – “Lost In Yesterday”
Taylor Swift – “mirrorball”
The 1975 – “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
The Weeknd – “After Hours” I just love the skittering beat of this one
Touche Amore – “Reminders”
Ty Dolla $ign feat. Kid Cudi – “Temptations”
Vritra – “WHAT’S THAT”
Yves Tumor – “Medicine Burn” A true “buckle the fuck up” moment

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Ranting About Music’s Top Ten Favorite Albums for 2020

Staying power.

Of all the challenges that music released this year faced, none was greater than trying to hold the line against polling data, constantly shifting virus updates, protests, anguish, and the general restlessness that characterized most of 2020. Music had to do this with one hand tied behind its back, too, since festival circuits, tours, and most late night TV performances were out, and grainy, glitchy at-home livestreams were in. 

All of this was, very understandably, an uphill road! When I sat down to tally up everything for Listmas, I came across what felt like a record number of “Fuck, that was this year?” albums. Did you remember that Pearl Jam put out an album in 2020? Because I straight up forgot. I feel bad that a bunch of stuff came and went this year because on the whole, 2020 was a pretty solid year for albums. And while we’re almost certainly down some records that are holding out for next year, music on the whole saw less disruption than TV or movies (go watch Soul), and the emphasis on at home/headphone listening meant that this year albums had a chance to get personable. So here’s my list. As always, the usual caveat that these are my favorites and not strictly speaking bests (y’all have probably already seen enough lists with a Fiona Apple, Waxahatchee, Run the Jewels, HAIM, and Phoebe Bridgers top 5), so let’s begin.

15. Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V: Together
14. Best Ex – Good At Being Bad
13. Ricky Eat Acid – when they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own
12. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
11. Vritra – SONAR

10. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Yes, I just alluded to this album showing up on everyone’s list and here it is kicking off mine. That’s just how it sometimes goes. To be honest, I was a latecomer with Punisher: the album dropped in March, but I didn’t start listening to it until October. A singer-songwriter album with attention to texture and detail like this is perfect hoodie season Sad Bastard music, although the vaguely apocalyptic, morose reflections of Punisher could have fit any part of the year. What keeps me coming back to Punisher is the second half, where things snap into clearer focus from “Chinese Satellite” onward (that said, “Kyoto” is a near perfect single). It’s that stretch and the big-swing finish of “I Know The End” that not just make me really dig Punisher, but curious about where Bridgers gets up to next; the possibilities feel as endless as that starry sky on the cover.

9. Snarls – Burst
One near positive of this spring was that I was suddenly spending a lot more time at parks, and what better soundtrack for walks in the woods than an album that literally opens with a song called “Walk in the Woods”? A Columbus band signed to the reliably great Take This to Heart Records label, Snarls live in the alternative/indie/emo/pop crosspollenation lane that rewards bands who have not just songs, but something special going for them. Burst isn’t short on songs (the crunch of “Hair,” “What’s It Take” and its delightful R.E.M. verve, how “Better Off” turns the wistfulness up to 11 is a great midalbum run, and “Falling” + “Burst” are a great closing 1-2) by any stretch, and yet its Chlo White and Riley Hall’s vocals and their interplay that let the album really soar, and kept it in my rotation once it got too hot and then too cold to go to the parks. I’ve heard so many bands try and miss making a record like this that balances sound, songcraft, and heft, but Burst is the whole thing in a pastoral package, check it out.

8. The Weeknd – After Hours
I didn’t think The Weeknd had this in him. Abel Tesfaye’s pop turn generated a stable of hits I really like with the unfortunate side effect of detritus-laden and therefore kind of middling albums, and the return to sadness Selena-and-I-broke-up My Dear Melancholy didn’t inspire much confidence. After Hours course corrects on a few levels: it’s shorter, it’s more thematically cohesive, the melodies and production are great, and the hits-to-album-cuts disparity is much lower; hell, half of AF sounds like it wants to be The Single. And, I promise I won’t make every one of these entries about the pandemic, but After Hours took a surprising turn in the early days of shutdown. An album of cavernous synths, hollowed out New Wave, and reverberating pop and R&B was actually kind of a perfectly eerie listen while peering through the windows into closed up bars, unlit clubs, and empty party-area streets, and a song like “After Hours,” that’s all about isolation from the person you want next to you, I mean, it’s all right there. It turns out that neon-drenched psycho psychadelia is a great look for The Weeknd.

7. Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
A great music year in general, 2020 was also a stupid-great year for the ipod-core class of artists. The Strokes, The Killers, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and Fleet Foxes all release well-received albums, but Gorillaz’ new er, thing, was my favorite of the bunch. The key appeal to Strange Timez, for me, is that it’s Gorillaz being inventive and confident again, like Damon Albarn and co. got their mojo back after a pair of underwhelming albums. Humanz in 2017 was heavy on guests, but it felt like everyone forgot to write songs for it, and while I still think the following year’s The Now Now is real enjoyable, it lacked the band’s signature ambition and could be detrimentally low stakes. Strange Timez takes the best of both: the collaboration-driven and ambitious nature of Humanz with the song quality of The Now Now for the most compulsively listenable music Gorillaz have done this side of Plastic Beach. I can’t wait for Season two.

6. Record Setter – I Owe You Nothing
There’s a lot on this list that errs toward being accessible or pleasing. This aint that. I Owe You Nothing is a confrontational screamo record where you will be very in or out within the first 20 or so seconds. If you have to bail, I get it, but please, if you’re up for heavier or more abrasive stuff, check this out. The riffs and hooks are there, and Record Setter’s ability to turn on a dime is impeccable. So, too, is the song order and production; no album has made me miss live shows this year the way hearing how “Someplace” leaps right into “Sometimes” has, and I yearn to hear how the slowburn of “An Impression” sounds while being played in the room. This is probably the most recent album on this list to drop, and a late fall/winter release here makes sense: a record of tribulation and dysphoria like this is some real dark night of the soul shit, but there’s also a will to live and thrive here that’s commendable. 

5. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was the pop album I needed this year.

SAWAYAMA exists as almost my platonic ideal of pop music: kitchen sink sonic variety (the opener sounds like Evanescence or Lacuna Coil going top 40, but we’ve also got room for spacey dream pop interludes, ‘00s pop R&B, New Jack Swing, nu-metal, and ‘80s rock), personable lyrics, big vocal performances (“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”), and an overabundance of pummeling hooks. SAWAYAMA scratches the pop itch on both sides: it hits your pleasure centers like a mainstream pop record, and like an underground/indie pop album, it’s eager to show its smarts; however, it lacks mainstream pop’s slavish attention to brand management, nor does it fall victim to most alt. pop’s tendency to murk up the hooks or add noise in the name of “being interesting.” It’s just focused on making impossibly catchy music like…well, I was going to do a list of highlights, and then I realized I was going to name just about every song. And it tends to hit meaningfully, too; themes of family, identity, and confidence come into play throughout without ever overtaxing the music. It’s just aces on every level.

4. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
It’s impossible to say this without wanting to give myself a swirlie, but damn near nobody is as great at writing to the moment like punk rock lifer Jeff Rosenstock. Released in late May without warning, NO DREAM gets its name from the idea that you can try betterment or escape, but there’s no getting away from being internally or externally at the threshold of hell. It’s a frenetic album of pop punk that deals with buying dumb shit for one serotonin (“Nikes [Alt]”), the inability to kale and yoga your way out of sadness sometimes (“The Beauty of Breathing”) or just looking the cruelty around us in the eye (“No Dream”), all backed by Rosenstock’s typically great instrumental and melodic work. And then you get something as humanizing as “***BNB,” a meditation on how invasive gig work can be that sounds so fucking tired of the whole thing. But, like all of Rosenstock’s previous work, NO DREAM never stops pursuing the joy and love of being alive and being with others; even if you can’t dream yourself away to an idealized existence, that’s still okay.

3. Kitty – Charm and Mirror
Look, if Kitty keeps making refined spins on her psych electropop, I’m going to keep liking them. Charm and Mirror is more EP than album at 5 songs, but all that means is that it’s probably my most-listened to project of the year. The trick with Kitty’s music, especially as she’s moved into self-producing, is that her compositions and arrangements tend toward being sneakily intricate while also being on the surface engaging and memorable, which leads to versatility; you can approach Charm and Mirror as either lean out/vibe/mood listening or focus on the elements of each song, and be rewarded either way (her “Bath Salts” video works as a visual representation of this). You can just zone out to “Baby Pink” or hone in on its army of Tame Impala synths, just as you can hum along to an impossibly charming song like “Afterglow” or appreciate the amount of detailed vocal laying going on. Add in the outer space delight of “12th House” and catchy as hell surf rock of “It Never Hurts,” and what’s not to like?

2. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
You’re always in for a treat when an experimentalist decides to go straight ahead, because knowing how to take something apart means you know the best way to put it back together. What other explanation is there for how an experimental artist like Sean Bowie (aka Yves Tumor) switches it up for their 4th album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind? Calling this a rock record is a touch reductive–the core of the thing is still prone toward electro-damaged art funk that exists outside conventional structure–but Heaven’s rock songs (“Gospel For a New Century,” “Medicine Burn,” “Super Stars,” and “Kerosene!” in particular) are designed to blow the hinges off. Pursuing this album off a blind recommendation meant getting utterly knocked on my ass by the drops in “Gospel For a New Century,” or towering “Kerosene!” while loving the way the album’s middle section loops in and out of rock-adjacent experiments like “Romanitcist” and “Dream Palette,” and the slow jam of “A Greater Love,” to say nothing of the nakedly sensual “Super Stars.” But it’s Bowie, dripping charisma and swagger, that keeps this whole thing together; “Medicine Burn” is a hurricane of drums and guitars over which they howl about six hundred teeth, and for a moment, you can hear them sneer through every single one.

1. Dogleg – Melee
The popular narrative around 2020 is that it was the year of soft-touch music. It was the year to use music as a balm against whatever the day’s doomscroll brought forth, a year without mass listening or concerts, a time to get into ambient. And sure, I’d pull up lofi or something for background listening when necessary.

But man, listen, 2020 was so chaotic that if I was making a point to listen to music, I wanted to listen to something tangible and concrete, and damn if Melee doesn’t hit like a Side-A Smash from its titular game. The simple pitch to Melee is, “What if you had an album that hit its first full band drop ten seconds in, and then chose not to let up over the next 36 minutes?” What if you went as hard for the poppy tune named after a Pokemon and the pretty, mid-tempo plus number that sounds like Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” for half a second as you did the shit-kicking brawlers? Melee posits that doing this for each song while, and this is essential, the whole thing doesn’t sound exactly alike is possible and aspirational. And hell, even setting aside “it slaps” as the ultimate qualifier here, Dogleg’s musicality is through the roof: each song has a solid guitar lead line, do or die vocals, and it’s the best rock drumming album (non-Cloud Nothings division) I’ve heard in years. Plus, on a personal note, it was the one album I got to listen to with my friends before everything pandemic kicked in, and getting a touch of that community means something, you know? A reminder that despite this year, music’s still communal and can still shake you out of whatever you’re going through at the moment. Happy New Year.

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Ranting About Music’s 30 Favorite Albums of the 2010s

It is the fall of 2009, and I am in a university computer lab. I am a freshman English major working on a paper while listening to music on my mp3 player through corded headphones. At the same time, I am texting a friend on my LG Shine, and when they stop responding, I assume it’s because the Blockbuster where they work got busy (meanwhile, their mom is one of the first Netflix subscribers I’ll ever know). I return to my paper, which is on the future of music consumption in America. I am the person who still goes to FYE on Tuesdays for new albums, which reads as slightly anachronistic even in 2009; my girlfriend, who hoards iTunes gift cards like a dragon with a penchant for Florence + the Machine B-sides, is more with the times. But iTunes feels stuck, and I want to use this paper to see what else was out there. My research turns up several options, one of which is this European service targeting an early 2010 North American release. It’s called “Spotify.”

Look, you’re reading a music blog. You know how much has changed around music in the 10 years since I was plugging away in a major I’d drop by the end of the semester. This past decade has seen shit like albums show up out of nowhere unannounced, albums you could listen to on some streaming services and not others, and in one infamous case, an album that just showed up on your phone without your input. And, at the same time, we’ve seen careers, movements, and genres meltdown and rise up and become something utterly different and exciting. It’s all felt like it happened at lightspeed.

Amid that lightspeed, though, here are some albums that matched pace with me. This End-of-the-’10s coverage is going up more than halfway into 2020, but hey I’ve got time on my hands and probably so do you. So that’s what we’re starting today, with this list of my thirty favorite albums from the ‘10s. 

A few things before we begin. The hard and fast rules for this were 1. the album had to come out in the 2010s to be eligible, and 2. limit one album per artist (this is mostly in the interest of space–this started as a top ten, and then a top fifteen, and then a top twenty and then). Beyond that, as for how I could pick X over Y, or why Z was left off, well, this is a list of my favorites, and I tried to make it accurate. When you’re working on this big of a timescale, the temptation’s there to make a “correct” list of all the big, obvious picks arranged in a tasteful order (and I definitely have some on here), or to swing entirely in the opposite direction and load a list of 30 with 20-25 “interesting” picks (I definitely have some of those on here, too). I tried to put something together that wasn’t a kissass rundown of safe choices or a total chore to read through. Everything here, from the international smashes to the self-releases, meant the world to me, and with that, I’d like to introduce you to Ranting About Music’s ‘10s retrospective: A Whole Fucking Decade of This.

30. teen suicide – It’s the Great Big Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honey Pot (2016): Of course, I name this entire feature after one Sam Ray album only to immediately spotlight another. It’s the Great Big Celebration…is Ray and company’s greatest, widest ranging collection of indie rock and indie rock adjacent songs, wrapped in just enough production to count as “lo-fi” as opposed to “shitty,” and tuneful to a fault. Ray’s default style is very “songs as sketches,” and while that’s present on It’s the Great Big Celebration…even most of the sketches here have a clarity to them that puts the album above TS’ previous work.

29. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (2014): This is kind of a decade achievement pick for Cloud Nothings, who made three albums (this one, Attack on Memory, and Last Building Burning) of some of the most musically satisfying, kinetic indie rock of the decade. Drummer Jayson Gerycz is a generational talent.

28. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials (2011): One of the most perfectly realized ornate alt pop albums of the decade; it’s wild that this isn’t the Florence record with “how big” and “how beautiful” in the title. The first like, seven songs on this thing are incredible, and even after “Seven Devils” it never truly slows. I would also say it’s an album whose deluxe version is the only version, even the bonus tracks don’t miss.

27. The Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording (2015): It’s just that good. Look, Hamilton is a rap-influenced Broadway musical about one of the Founding Fathers that turns not one but two cabinet member debates into rap battles, has a Beatles-esque song by King George, soundtracks a 1700s courtship to JaRule and Ashanti, and still has the ballads and ensemble numbers inherent to musicals. Do you know how high a bar that has to clear just to be listenable?

26. Rihanna – ANTI (2016): If the mood “bitch don’t kill my vibe” was a whole album. Arguably the album that best captured what popular music sounded like in the ‘10s while retaining its own hits and identity, and any A-lister pop album trying to have it both ways as a prestige project and chart dominant force has ANTI’s fingerprints all over it.

25. The National – Sleep Well Beast (2017): The National were so good this decade. Trouble Will Find Me might have a better highlight reel, but the cohesion here is off the charts. 

24. Amanda Palmer – Theatre is Evil (2012): An idiosyncratic, technicolor burst of a record that’s extra in all the best ways. So much of this album feels like a whirlwind theatre performance that could fall apart at any moment, and I love that chaotic energy.

23. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY. (2016): Rosenstock’s punk rock peak. An album of socially-minded anxieties and, well, worries about the future that’s also sneakily impossibly melodic. As someone who’s followed Jeff since the late BTMI! days, this is the album his best stuff always hinted he had in him.

22. Foxing – Nearer My God (2018): My “if I could hear an album for the first time again” pick of the decade. Just a wildly adventurous record.

21. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010): The best Gorillaz album. Expansive, gorgeous, and uses its army of guests quite well while still having time for Albarn to turn in songs like “Rhinestone Eyes” and “On Melancholy Hill.” I think popular music absorbed the lessons of Gorillaz to the band’s detriment in the ‘10s, but this album was impeccable.

20. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012): My favorite movie scene of the decade is the “Leap of Faith” sequence from Into the Spider-Verse. It’s stunning for a number of reasons, the least of which it hits a lot of the same notes as Celebration Rock. Both works are not only feats of studio wizardry–Into the Spider-verse’s animation is in a category of its own, and on CR, the sound of 2 guys from Vancouver is engineered to sound like 20–but they find catharsis in the unrestrained moment, the freedom and joy of just going for it (the most exuberant moment from the “Leap of Faith” scene is an elated WOOOOOO that even gets displayed comic-book style once Miles hits his stride; as a fitting comparison, the lyrics on Celebration Rock live up to the passion and drama suggested by titles like “The Night of Wine and Roses,” “Fire’s Highway,” and “The House That Heaven Built,” and yet the purplest prose on the album are its massive cries of “WHOA-OH-OOH-WHOA-OH-OH” and “OH YEAHHH, AWRIGHT!”). It’s the sort of launch no one makes if they aren’t at least a little desperate: the run-up to “Leap of Faith” involves Miles’ resolve reforming itself after being pushed to the brink, and for as wildly life-affirming as it is, Celebration Rock in a certain light believes in living large because it has no other options. It’s the feeling of leaping not because you’re unafraid to fall, but because you can’t sit on the ledge any longer. And that’s where Celebration Rock soars.

19. Grimes – Art Angels (2015): It feels 30% goofy to extoll the virtues of Grimes in 2020, but the same impulses that drive her toward wince-inducing headlines also power gloriously batshit albums like Art Angels. It’s loud and overtly strange, and yet its core is musically solid in a way a lot of Aggressively Online pop music just isn’t.

18. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011): The great irony of St. Vincent’s guitar hero pop culture reputation is that it only kicked in once she was years removed from her most histrionic guitar record. Listening to Strange Mercy, you can hear Annie Clark twist her instrument in as many shapes as she can within a record of psychosexual tortured indie rock. Peep that “Chloe in the Afternoon” riff.

17. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence (2014): Lana Del Rey’s second proper album trades Born to Die’s “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” for “It’s my third week with this doomsday cult in the California desert, we’re out of water, my body is a swirl of narcotics and amphetamines, and I don’t know whose blood this is,” hazy dread, and along with more confident, bigger songs, it makes all the difference.  “Shades of Cool” is the best Bond theme in I don’t know when.

16. Paramore – After Laughter (2017): “Poppy album that’s got emotions, actually” has become such a disingenuous logline over the last few years thanks to how therapeutic terms and concepts have been normalized that it’s hard to take it at face value, but damn if After Laughter doesn’t mean that shit. Under that new wave/power-pop sheen is a dark, frankly bitter record about feeling too miserable to feel anything at all, the gap between how you want to feel and how you do, and just being flat out ruinously depressed. This is an album whose Marital Love Song equates love with drowning. Remarkably though, After Laughter’s never really dour, and even though it’s aware the questions it asks seldom have answers, there’s warmth in the uncertainty of asking.

15. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again (2014): Short feels like the inverse of simple for Never Hungover Again. Sure, it’s a 19 minute long album of pop-punk ragers, but there’s still plenty going on (“End of the Summer,” “The Jerk”) and when there isn’t, the songs are a straight trip (“Victoria,” “Heart Tattoo,”). One of my most replayable albums of the decade…

14. Mannequin Pussy – Romantic (2016): …Although this one can compete with it. Last year’s Patience is probably a better album all around, but Romantic has a figuring-it-out energy that I love, and at 17 minutes, it feels like getting into a brief, intense mosh pit with your emotions. That and its exact mix of punk, emo, and shoegaze just speaks to me.

13. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015): Hour-plus jazz rap G-funk odysseys with a spoken word piece framing device shouldn’t dazzle as much as TPAB does, and yet the sheer technical wonder of the album gets there. One that’s gotten more play with me in recent months.

12. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014): Against Me!’s twangy punk onslaught that’s loosely about frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s transition rocks, but it also sounds like the hell that has to accompany rebuilding yourself from the ground up. At the same time, the heart of the self never falters on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and the determination to live through this is always there, from “Trans Soul Rebel” to “Paralytic States.” And, it just has to be said, “fuckmylife666” fucking owns. 

11. glass beach – the first glass beach album (2019): This was my Favorite Album pick for last year, which means I had to take a step back from it in January. It’s gone into  rotation again lately, and I still love it for being the kind of big swing album that has room for diminished chords in one of its catchiest songs.

10. The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation (2013): The Greatest Generation is a self-conscious “Masterpiece” record. It’s the kind of record that has a seven minute long closer that brings back lyrics and motifs from the previous 50 minutes and includes meditations on family scattered throughout. At the same time, it’s loaded with viscerally satisfying songs (“Passing Through a Screen Door,” “Teenage Parents,” “We Could Die Like This,” “Cul-De-Sacs”) that are these hi-def, unabashedly Warped Tour pop-punk hook parades with three guitars and big hearted choruses. In terms of what it is and the scene it’s from, The Greatest Generation is probably the best pop-punk album of the decade, but I remain fascinated at how little play it gets outside of that on largely aesthetic grounds. It’s a wide-screen, absurdly catchy and approachable What It All Means rock album, but because it’s too uncool to do uncoolness correctly, fuckin’ no one bone fide will go near it (this Ian Cohen Grantlander digs into this phenomenon and is also the sum total of TGG’s online writing of note). Not that any of this really ~matters, I just think people would love this one if they gave it the chance.

9. Kitty – Miami Garden Club (2017): Kitty’s career through the ‘10s has been one of my favorite things to watch. From cloud rap beginnings (fuck the abusive creep who produced on it, but Kitty’s rapping on D.A.I.S.Y. Rage still goes) to electronic and dance pursuits to dipping her toes in full-on pop, she amassed a back catalogue as solid as anyone while constantly expanding what her songs could do. Miami Garden Club feels like a culmination of all her work up to its release while still existing as its own thing; a jam-laden dance/rap/pop album stripped in the name of resilience down to the essentials. It’s also the only album I’ve heard that has room for an 80s throwback named after a Mass Effect alien race and features multiple Super Smash Bros. samples. MGC points the way forward in Kitty’s career, too: the album has a permanent sense of self to it, and Kitty’s solo production credits on “New Leaf” and “Sugarwater” act as north stars toward the sound and vibe of self-produced future projects Rose Gold and Charm + Mirror. This may also be my favorite album cover of the decade because, like teeth falling out in dreams symbolizing letting go of insecurity, Miami Garden Club to me is about the freedom of not being fucked with, set to immaculate beats.

8. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010): This list is admittedly filled with big-swing records, and probably none  are bigger and swinginger than The Monitor : an hour long, hyper-literate ramshackle punk rock epic that views the Civil War as a modern struggle between us and our lesser impulses/vices or the permanent match-up between good, thoughtful people and the boorish, hateful machinery of our day that only chews said people up to spit them out. It’s an album you’re either in or out on because it is A Lot, and that’s before getting to Patrick Stickles’ yamping barfly vocals, the beer-soaked shoutalongs, swelling orchestral moves, and the album’s bagpipe solo outro. But for an album this burly and thematically dense, there’s a deftness in execution; the entire enterprise could collapse under its own weight, and yet it never does. Despite its chestbeating that “THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE,” “YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A LOSER,” and “IT’S STILL US AGAINST THEM,” The Monitor is still in the fight and holding onto its ideals of a more perfect union that exists only in theory. The opening Lincoln quote of “As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide” felt in 2010 like a surge of optimism, but as time goes on, the ultimatum in it looms. It’s still us against them.

7. Beach House – Depression Cherry (2015): A few years ago, the art museum in my city hosted an installation called “All The Flowers Are For Me.” Go click through that link, because the little description I had here didn’t do justice to what might be the most beautiful art I’ve seen in person. I liked it so much, that I went multiple times. There was one Sunday morning the museum set aside for quiet reflection/meditation in the exhibition room with “AtFafM,” and I went, getting lost in the floral shapes, architectural patterns, and just taking in the interplay between lights and shadow; it was quite immersive. When I was there that morning, I listened to Depression Cherry, because “All the Flowers Are For Me” looked the way Depression Cherry sounds.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010): I’m fairly certain that I started writing this piece before Kanye’s Presidential run even started, so who knows what’s going to happen by the time it finally goes up? To revisit MBDTF in 2020 is to recall why Kanye had any cultural capital in the ‘10s to begin with, after torpedoing everything at the VMAs the fall before; there is no doubt a contingent out there of discerning fans who will say Yeezus is better, but to me, MBDTF is still his best work of the decade. Listening to it now, I’m noticing how beneath the cabal of guests (14 notable artists and Cyhi the Prince get verses/features), this is an isolated, lonely album whose at times crushing volume reads as a desire to be obliterated by sheer noise. It’s an album very much up its own ass/in its own head; even on the less overt headtrips, something like “Devil in a New Dress” sounds like watching the world go by from a limo with the windows up. At other times, it’s just a blast to listen to maximalist ALL CAPS music like “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” or “Lost in the World,” or hear an ego shatter over an Aphex Twin sample. It’s Kanye, so inevitably parts of MBDTF are gross as all get out (“Hell of a Life,” “So Appalled” hasn’t aged well), and that’s to be considered in its legacy, but still, it hits when it hits. 

5. The Hotelier – Goodness (2016): This is gonna be a short one. Sorry about that. It’s just that Goodness, while a lifesaver, is the emotional equivalent of staring at the sun. It believes that goodness and restoration are always possible, and they always have to be, because you’re kinda doomed without that belief. Which is kind of a lot to put on a pastoral record I’ve referred to at least once as “nature punk,” but it’s true. There may not be any finer quarter-hour run than the first 15 minutes on here.

4. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (2013): Stay with me for a sec. Around the time that Janelle Monae released her third album Dirty Computer and came out as pansexual, a lot of writing slagged her previous albums The ArchAndroid (also great) and The Electric Lady for being too aloof, cold, or inhuman compared to the freer, warmer coming out party of Dirty Computer. I could pick nits over this kind of writing as lazy “then vs. now” spin, or point out how prominent allegory is in Afrofuturism writ large and how even the most cursory look at Monae’s Cindi Mayweather myth indicates there’s something larger at play (one of the interludes on The Electric Lady literally features an angry radio show caller shouting “Robot love is queer!” but yep, it’s just about androids), but what gets me is that these albums are so human. 

The Electric Lady swaps out its predecessor’s psychedelic touches for gleaming, exacting R&B/soul/pop/rock arrangements synced with precision strike rhythms, and it pairs these clockwork-like instrumentals with lyrics that idolize the power and freedom found in going unrestrained. It’s also an album full of so many nods to women in worshipful fashion (including a song named after Sally Ride, who was the first woman in space and was also covertly in a same sex relationship for decades, hm) and pronounless love songs that you don’t realize how queer it’s been out of the side of its mouth until the vibe changes on Miguel duet “PrimeTime.” There’s a tension in the unsaid, and I listen to The Electric Lady, and I hear someone acknowledging a personal truth that is too much for them to speak aloud by willing it into the architecture of their creation, and in that, I understand that Monae’s synchronized rhythms aren’t clockwork, but heartbeats.

3. Frank Ocean – Blonde (2016): It’s always a question of what to do with the unassailable classics. I can rattle off what’s great about Blonde, like the incredible production values (that “Nights” beat switch, my God, still), the melancholy and sadness in Frank Ocean’s voice, the fact that there are like five songs on here that I have to skip on shuffle because I know they’ll ruin my day if I let them, the way it’s music has a so much texture and depth without sounding like it, how this kind of deconstructed R&B/soul/pop fit the sound and mood of music in the ‘10s, or how it’s just a plainly beautiful album, but all of that can’t help but feel trite or like a retread. At the same time, unassailable classics don’t get that way by being bad, and Blonde’s meant too much to me as an introspective, gorgeous trip to ever get contrarian over “okay, but it topped Pitchfork’s list.” So it makes sense here at number three, and deserves all its praises.

2. Candy Hearts – Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy (2011): I saw Candy Hearts play some of these songs in the upstairs part of a bar I’ve never been to and probably could never find again, the kind of place where we handed the dude cash at the door and he wrote a number on our hands, and I had one drink that night because I was just out of school and most of the money I could afford to spend had to go to the ticket that might have been $12. Candy Hearts traded in songs that hit with that kind of super-specificity, but with a skilled hand that made each experience feel like your own, and while this is my second pick on the list, I assure you it’s the one I’ve stumped for most IRL. It’s my idealized mix of indie and pop-punk to the point that I still subconsciously measure any album like it against it, looking for incisive lyrics, endlessly singalongable melodies, a kicking rhythm section, and guitars subtly cranked into the red while an acoustic plays in the back.

Plus, Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy just has songs. If you want shout-alongs about low stakes fun with your friends as a way to get over (“Asbury Park,” “Jawbreaker”), it’s got those, ditto for giddy crush songs laced with pleading (“Lighter Than the Air,” “Tongue Tied”) and a self-affirmation banger about caffeine addiction and bodily discomfort (“Good Enough”–Candy Hearts was years ahead on this one), but the best tune here (“Sleepy Kisses”) is probably the bleary-eyed one fixated on a blissful early 20s relationship’s eventual end (Candy Hearts frontwoman Mariel Loveland is ever the Swiftie–of course “Sleepy Kisses” is a Track 5). Even “Something Special” changes it up with some Strokes-ian shuffle, and “I Want Out” and “She’s So Cool” are killer ballads that don’t skip on the fuzz. If this feels like a pitch, it’s a shameless one; I love this album like it’s my favorite hoodie.

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010): It’s sorta nuts to think that Arcade Fire had this album in them. AF’s first two records ran almost exclusively on bombast, and then suddenly here they are with The Suburbs’ title track that just kind of nails creeping dread (listen to how bright that piano motif sounds the first time, and compare that to how it sounds nearly drowned by woeful strings and nervous electronics by the song’s end). It’s a more subtle album that portends a more subtle era; whatever else you want to say about Arcade Fire’s work in the ‘10s, The Suburbs ended up being one of the model records for indie in the ‘10s (it came out 10 years ago today). It’s a very created-in-the-studio album: the 80s rock heroics and texture of like, “City With No Children” or “Suburban War” wouldn’t have shown up on an ‘00s dry, jangly indie rock record, and while you could probably fill an entire XM station with modern groups trying to write their own “Heart of Glass”-aspiring “Sprawl II,” Regine Chassange’s standout moment was an honest left turn in its time. And despite being the only Arcade Fire album you could ever call “nuanced,” this is still the one where they put on the most arena rock muscle for tracks like “Month of May” and “Ready to Start,” gesturing towards indie’s increased stature in the coming decade.

The album does a great job at capturing what its titular landscapes feel like. The music really digs into (sorry) suburban sprawl, and the way all that empty space can be used to project either an idyllic if restless beauty or existential suffocation depending on how you feel that day. An album aware of “moving past the feeling” is also great at evoking them, like how “Half Light I” sounds like staying out on a Friday and watching the shopping centers close from the Steak and Shake across the street, or “Empty Room” captures the rush of your friend hitting the gas in their family’s most used car once you get to the edge of town, or the way “Wasted Hours” remembers keeping a hangout going later than it should because you don’t feel like going home yet. Everything has that reflective tinge of being gone, but enough inviting details always skip to the surface.

And like, screw it, The Suburbs is a foundational work for me. When I say that this is a list of my favorite albums, I mean that shit; if I wanted to look cooler by slotting in Lemonade or Harmlessness, Amanda Palmer and Hamilton are right there, and I’d go with any other Janelle and Beach House records. But no, it’s truly a list of my favorites, and The Suburbs is truly my #1 pick of the bunch. In some ways, it was the first release day album to hit me where I was, and that left both short and longterm impacts. Hell, it was Ranting About Music’s first 5 star review, and the second post I ever actually shared with people (the first, in a cool bit of symmetry, was 10 years ago today, as well, where I wrote a super eager writeup on this neato band called Candy Hearts). It’s the kind of thing that I hope everyone has: that piece of art or that experience that stays with you and informs you. Now then, let’s get into the rest of the decade.

Up Next: The 10 Most Essential Albums of the 2010s (coming soon)

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