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)