So I just finished reviewing my 100 favorite albums from the 1990s, a process I began in 2011, as a relatively energetic guy in his early thirties excited about reevaluating the music of his youth. It took me NINE YEARS to finish it, which of course meant that by the time it was done, another decade had elapsed, which meant I had another 100-album list on the docket. I’m a lethargic 41 now, so I considered waiting a few months to start writing about my favorite LPs of the 2010s. The conversation went a little something like this:
“Time to get right back on that 100 album horse,” the sad, honey-voiced cowboy that lives in my mind said to me, right after I declared Björk’s Post the #1 album of the ’90s.
“Do I hafta, Dusty?” I responded, lisping just a little bit like Brian from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (see image below) in hopes of melting down his resolve. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my mind-cowboy’s name is Dusty Sleeves.)
“You have to,” Dusty responded. “Some folk were born to break horses, or till the land, or paint pictures that make grown men cry. You, you were meant to make lists. Lists that feed your malignant narcissism because they make your opinion seem important. Lists that feed the compulsive urge to organize the chaos that runs rampant on this good-for-nothin’ blue marble we call Earth.”
“Gee Dusty, you’re mighty ornery and depressin’ sometimes!” I responded.
“Well Sweensryche, consider that I’m trapped in the tumbleweeds of your mind for eternity. It ain’t exactly a picnic.”
“Sorry about that Dusty! I’ll try to mentally project a basket of cucumber sandwiches, and send it your way. But I gotta say goodbye for now! The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s ain’t gonna write itself!”
“Well aren’t you just going to basically repurpose reviews you already wrote?”
“Shut up Dusty! This is ALL NEW CONTENT.”
“But little britches, lying is not gon—“
“I said… SHUT UP.”
And now, without further ado, enjoy my Top 100 Albums of the 2010s!
100. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune (2018)
By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional.
99. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)
As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applied these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it worked. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.
98. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (2017)
When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacked feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.
97. Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)
Seventeen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. In 2016, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestled with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment.
96. Lucy Dacus – Historian (2018)
Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations, exploring the periphery before working their way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. On the opening track “Night Shift,” Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins. Then, only when we understand, does the chorus finally kick in: “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs.
95. Orville Peck – Pony (2019)
Few things have been romanticized by Americans more than the idea of men traversing the great Western plains, facing danger together, loyal to nothing except one another. It was tempting to say we’d heard it all before, at least until last year, when a Canadian punk singer changed his name, started dressing in bespoke cowboy suits with matching veils, and dropped one of the most enigmatic debut LPs of the decade. “The sun goes down, another dreamless night / You’re right by my side,” croons Orville Peck at the outset of Pony, his silken voice making it clear it’s a love song just like Roy Orbison’s used to do. Though the languages of forlorn ’60s pop, ’70s countrypolitan balladry and ’80s new wave, Peck creates a honky-tonk atmosphere all his own, a world of glitter balls and sawdust, where lovers can slow dance unafraid.
94. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (2018)
The dance-pop enigma Sophie made her mark this past decade by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound was still evident on her 2018 studio debut, but this time, her mission was a therapeutic one. She featured her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” On the hand-clap-driven reverie “Immaterial,” she presented our metaphysical selves as our true selves, resulting in a pure expression of freedom: “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live?” Throw in some of that trademark anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.
93. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (2019)
In the fall of 2018, three years after losing his 15-year-old son to a tragic fall, Nick Cave began a blog called “The Red Hand Files,” in which he answered questions from fans. The first post tackled a question about how his writing process has changed. “I would say that it has shifted fundamentally,” Cave responded. “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma, authentically … I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.” The double LP that resulted from these writings, Ghosteen, is just as Cave described – a heartbreaking eulogy that searches for meaning behind the veil of mere biology. The music of Ghosteen supports his solemn voyage, with blankets of vintage synths lending a gorgeous sense of otherworldliness throughout. Also, for the first time in his career, the 62-year-old sings for long stretches in a stunningly clear falsetto, his voice like his soul, reaching ever higher.
92. Esperanza Spaulding – 12 Little Spells (2018)
“There’s a vibrational current between every fingertip and the unseen,” declares Esperanza Spalding on 12 Little Spells. In the context of the soundscapes she builds around it, this line feels like the truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” had reached heights of sonic expression that transcended genre. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations. Few things stuck in my brain in 2018 like the gentle, swaying funk of “Thang.” “‘Till the Next Full” evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell with its swirling, nocturnal acoustics. The title track swells like a old movie score, toeing the edge of dissonance but always choosing beauty.
91. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again (2015)
Jessica Pratt is the kind of enigmatic folksinger who sounds like she was meant to record alone, hurling complicated emotions into the void. Her phrasing is messy, her pronunciation odd – “can” is “keen”; “time” is “tam” – but in the psychedelic malaise of her second LP, these quirks sounded less like affectations and more like the artist’s own personal language. The joys of her guitar playing, however, are clear as day. She interrupts gorgeous finger-picked cascades with staccato minor notes, playing with a narrative thrust that gives the record its bone density. When we hear that scratch of pick on acoustic, we’re trained to expect some diary-entry-type emoting. Pratt plays against that expectation beautifully, leaving just enough breadcrumbs to get us lost.
90. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two (2017)
The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.
89. Kvelertak – Nattesferd (2016)
A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.
88. The Roots – How I Got Over (2010)
Philly rap legends The Roots reached mainstream fame in the ’10s as the house band on The Tonight Show, where their effortless charisma remains a necessary distraction from Jimmy Fallon’s needy celebrity worship. But they never stopped doing what they do best. How I Got Over was their first post-Fallon LP, and it crackled with a new kind of energy – of veterans looking back on their road to success, and reenergizing themselves in the process. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – optimistic, Native Tongues-inspired grooves and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band was able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Early on, Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone.” But by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing: “I should start living today.”
87. Noname – Room 25 (2018)
As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivered verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. On the opening “Self,” we’re blessed with a Fender Rhodes loop that sounds like good news. And Noname dropped the ultimate verse of 2018 over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
86. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (2014)
Two years after Drake brought “YOLO” to the mainstream as a rationale for conspicuous consumption and casual sex, Nicki Minaj applied the concept in a much more meaningful way. “Life is a movie, but there’ll never be sequel,” she philosophizes on “All Things Go,” the autobiographical opening track of the Queens rapper’s third LP. As she spits with atypical candor about her cousin who was gunned down, her abortion, and her hopes for her daughter, the idea that you only live once becomes a soothing reminder that nothing is permanent. It’s a mantra she follows across the 22-track expanse of The Pinkprint, blocking out the torrent of criticism that defines life as a female rapper and looking inward instead. Over an eclectic sonic expanse that covers everything from gleeful rap nostalgia to full-blown power balladry, Minaj admits to fears of commitment; celebrates the joys of having a physical body; and finds hope on the dance floor. Resulting in a work of art that rewards us for investing time in it, all the more so because that time is limited.
85. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019)
The second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods was a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. “What is it with these independent men? / It’s always something / Threatening your masculine energy / You think it’s fleeting,” Woods croons in her laid-back tenor on a song dedicated to the iconoclastic funk genius Betty Davis. You can feel the lessons Woods has learned from Davis, who famously had to put up with Miles Davis’s bullshit, subsumed in this music. Other tracks are dedicated to Muddy Waters and his resistance to appropriation; Nikki Giovanni and her defiantly triumphant poem “Ego Tripping”; Eartha Kitt and her refusal to compromise. Musically, Woods continued down the neo-Badu R&B path she started on her 2016 debut, coasting on the fluidity of the drums and bass lines until we were damn sure we must be floating. Her voice is never showy, and it doesn’t need to be, hitting the notes with a confident grace, borne up on the vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.
84. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs (2014)
Every time another gorgeously produced triumph showed up on DatPiff in the 2010s, the line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums got thinner and thinner, to the point where it has pretty much vanished. But one listen to Hunger Pangs and we knew we were hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is utilized as a coda with no concern of legal action. And the Atlanta-based emcee just absolutely goes off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa was no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs was a whole new strain of adrenaline. While Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise in 2014 for inspiring us to run through walls with their molotov cocktail of a second album, no rapper in that year could quite match Cakes’s energy. Just listening to one of his verses from “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n—-as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.
83. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (2015)
Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I could relate to when listening to the band’s excellent double-LP The Book of Souls, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula – dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens. The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.
82. Brockhampton – Saturation II (2017)
In the summer of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up three mixtapes with enough personality and emotional honesty and creative left-turns to make even the grumpiest pessimist feel hopeful about our next generation of leaders. If the first Saturation was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power, the second is where they start wielding their magic for real. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision that transformed the club into a confessional booth. These rappers had no qualms getting shit off their chests, whether it was over a playful party-ready beat or a laconically strummed electric guitar. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me.
81. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (2011)
If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest (some would say naive) belief that romantic love is an engine of hope for the world, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay went after a concentrated aesthetic concept – to marry their arena-baiting alt-rock elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of their best collaborator, producer Brian Eno, they got the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, was a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring the band’s forever-polarizing lovestruck roots. The lead single, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” was pretty much a middle finger to all the critics of Chris Martin’s lyrical clumsiness – an un-ironic Afropop-flecked singalong about soaring walls together to overcome despair. If that description doesn’t make you roll your eyes, you might be a Coldplay fan.
80. Denzel Curry – Zuu (2019)
“Big talk / Speedboat / Pray to God I don’t get repo’d,” rapped Denzel Curry on one of 2019’s most indelible choruses. As partly-cloudy piano notes do their best to dampen the mood, the gifted Florida emcee clusters his syllables in irresistible ways, all while completely subverting what most of us would expect from a Miami rap song about an expensive sea vessel. It’s one of several instances on his spectacular fourth album where he’s able to spin autobiographical anxieties and ominous sonic atmospheres into something you’d bump on a summer drive. “Zuu” is a nickname for Curry’s hometown of Carol City, a Miami neighborhood with serious hip-hop pedigree (Rick Ross, Flo Rida, Gunplay and Spaceghostpurrp are all from there, with Trick Daddy and Trina growing up close by). The artist has never sounded this focused before, and it’s because he’s writing about what he knows – advice he got from his parents; the music that inspired him growing up; the shit he had to put up with to pull himself out of poverty; the deaths of his brother and his close friend. This album clocks in at just 29 minutes, and it’s all Curry needs to tell deep, indelible stories. “A real-ass n—-a from the 305 / I was raised on Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies,” he boasts on “Carolmart.” His rapping abilities have taken off, because his feet are planted firmly on his home turf.
79. GFOTY – GFOTYBUCKS (2017)
When musicians actively push the boundaries of what is acceptable to our ears, the results can be “noble” or “interesting,” but still unlistenable (e.g. free jazz, Frank Zappa). But when UK vocalist Polly-Louisa Salmon recorded a bunch of purposely abrasive, dance-pop cheerleader chants as GFOTY, the experiment just straight-up worked. With her fellow members of the avant-garde collective PC Music building frenetic techno beats that sound like the Vengaboys being eaten by a robot, Salmon sings about love and kissing and Christmas, resulting in moments of serious dissonance that also land like effective pop songs. Like “Kiss,” where Salmon’s voice gets pitch-bended into oblivion on the verse, only to return on the chorus, clearly and earnestly pleading, “Turn around and close your eyes.” Or “Mysterious GFOTY,” where a twinkling, glockenspiel-sprinkled jaunt down the beach starts to digitally fray, as Salmon peppers the background with scene descriptors: “Umbrella.” “Pina colada.” When the chorus hits, with a genuinely huge hook, she sings, “I wanna get close to you.” And despite all the different ways this music is trying to push us away, we believe her.
78. At the Gates – At War with Reality (2014)
When the Swedish melodic death metal giants At the Gates reunited for their first LP in 19 years, they probably weren’t thinking it would be ahead of its time. Its sound is in no way a departure from the hard-charging, face-melting riffage of the record that cemented their legend – 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul. Yet, two years before Donald Trump’s election, this band from a proud socialist nation wrote a dozen songs about humanity’s shattered relationship with truth, and called it At War with Reality. “With every dawn / The world deforms / And as we fade / Our truth it dies,” screams frontman Tomas Lindberg over the bone-rattling cacophony of “Death and the Labyrinth,” introducing us to a stark, greyscale world of pain and confusion. Lindberg consistently focuses on darkness, and ashes, and dust throughout these songs, his hopeless worldview as relentless as his band’s exhilarating tempos, resulting in that ideal death metal alchemy – an artist who’s not afraid to confront the reaper himself, because they’re wearing impenetrable armor of distortion, bombast, and melody. “A black lung of ash / A parasitic void,” Lindberg bemoans on “The Circular Ruins,” the chaotic, drum stick-splintering swell beneath him seemingly giving him the power to predict COVID-19, six years in advance. Holy hell, what a comeback.
77. Tierra Whack – Whack World (2018)
Sometimes, limitations are an artist’s best friend. Like John Lennon having to belt out “Twist and Shout” with a hell of a cold, and only 15 minutes of studio time left to do it. 15 minutes also happens to be the running time of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s debut album – that’s 15 tracks, at precisely one minute a piece. I call Whack a rapper, but Whack World is so much more than a rap album. Within these cozy confines, she bounces from moody trap to sunshine pop, introspective R&B balladry and a full-on country twang. She sings about board games and dead pets, and raps with feeling about how she loves to see her mother laugh. Every transition feels effortless. And the same can be said about Whack World’s accompanying video, which depicts the artist’s ideas with the technicolor verve they deserve – imagine if Lemonade was shot in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. This album is a complete artistic statement; a celebration of an independent spirit, alive with humor and humanity. And it’s over in the time it takes to boil an egg. “Music is in my Billie genes,” she boasts. It’s the only explanation for how she could have pulled this off.
76. Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff (2019)
The history of rock music is littered with men full of unearned confidence, telling us how awesome they are. So what a delight it was to see Baltimore quintet Angel Du$t take the piss out of that cliché with the deliciously sarcastic title of its third LP. Pretty Buff finds this group of hardcore punk veterans embracing decidedly non-hardcore things – like acoustic strumming and epic sax solos and full-throated declarations of love. “Say it ain’t so / I don’t ever wanna let you go,” pleads frontman Justice Tripp over the sugar-high riffage of “Big Ass Love,” a moment of unadulterated exuberance designed to blast any cynicism from our weary-ass minds. On “Park,” Tripp wrestles with the death of his dog, making for the kind of heartbreakingly sweet moment you never hear on classic rock radio: “Time can be so cruel / But it gave me memories with you, dude / So I guess it’s cool.” And the opening “No Fair” is a 100% non-toxic expression of romantic disappointment, a tambourine-fueled fist-shake at fate that welcomes everybody to sing along about something that just didn’t work out. This wasn’t just the catchiest LP of 2019. It was an enthusiastic, optimistic, adorable ass-kicking of the highest order.
75. Haim – Something to Tell You (2017)
If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips in the 2010s – was there better advice during the Trump administration than “hold on for one more day”? – hopefully the rise of Haim corrected that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continued to revel in 1980s supermarket pop aesthetics, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drum machines and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs remain the singles, which pair absolutely massive choruses with quirky production wrinkles that make repeat listens even more rewarding – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender; on “Nothing’s Wrong,” it’s a series of oddly interrupted gasps. For all its obvious influences – Haim have definitely paid close attention to Stevie Nicks’s recipes – Something to Tell You is not some generic, store brand approach to pop hooks. This band figured out how to bottle their unadulterated joy. And so far, it seems like there’s no expiration date.
74. Thundercat – Drunk (2017)
Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner made an indelible mark on 2010s hip hop and R&B – Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicted, the potential of this artist as a vibrant new songwriting voice was only just beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of an artist with a kaleidoscopically imaginative vision all his own. The music was rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, which was important because it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sang about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with awestruck, childlike energy. By building these bridges between poetry and poptimism, Thundercat was able to pull off a love-against-all-odds ballad featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and then shift to a regret-laden Kendrick Lamar rap showcase on the very next track. It remains one hell of a balancing act, which leaves us feeling the opposite of wasted.
73. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2010)
To give a song the best chance at catching on, it’s best to stay vague. Listeners love to interpret lyrics in ways that fit their own situations, which is why The Police’s serial stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” is still a hit at weddings. But the Athens, Georgia, alt-country institution Drive-By Truckers hasn’t had much time for that advice since its inception in the late ’90s. On its eighth LP, the band rang in the 2010s with an album full of exhilarating specificity – detailed story songs with colorful characters, performed with the kind of chiming roots rock efficiency that made Tom Petty famous. “Drag the Lake Charlie” documents a small town’s reaction to a cheating man gone missing, and the looming danger of his trigger-happy partner. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” recounts the murder trial of a woman claiming self-defense, and the unusual exhibits that inspired the jury to reduce the charge. “The Flying Wallendas” tells the true story of a legendary family of tightrope walkers, many of whom fell to their deaths doing what they loved. When Hood encounters a surviving Wallenda in Florida, the awe flows from his pen: “I was stunned and astounded that the old lady who was out / Pruning her orange trees / Had flown to the heavens and back.”
72. Laura Marling – Semper Femina (2017)
Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”
71. CupcakKe – Ephorize (2018)
When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. For CupcakKe, Ephorize was that moment. The third LP from the Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory equity. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.
70. Tune-Yards – Whokill (2011)
“Ready or not / I’m a new kind of killer,” announces Merrill Garbus on her second LP as Tune-Yards. And if you consider what’s happening around her right after she sings those words, it’s clearly not an empty boast – a ukulele-driven Afro-Pop groove dissembles into chaos, as bass player Nate Brenner continues to play bubbly low-end notes as if he didn’t get the memo. Whokill is defined by this paint-can-hurling approach to genre experimentation, taking Garbus’s uke-and-loop-machine approach to live shows and splicing in homages to funk, folk, reggae, synth-pop, punk and power balladry with zero concern for overloading our eardrums. It all works, against all odds, due to the power of Garbus’s voice and the preternatural chemistry between her and Brenner. If we lose the thread among the layered vocal loops and stuttering drums of “Bizness,” it all locks in when Brenner’s bass arrives, locking it all down so Garbus can wail to the heavens, begging her partner, “Don’t take my life away!” Not every idea has aged well – particularly “Gangsta,” a well-intended but discomfiting depiction of the challenges of life in “my hood.” But it’s a rare misfire on a record that remains one of the boldest artistic leaps of the 2010s.
69. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)
Remember January 2012, when presidential candidate/alleged carbon-based life form Mitt Romney released his tax returns, and they revealed a shady Swiss bank account in his name? Me neither! Until I read what I wrote in this space back then about Miami rapper Rick Ross: “It seems like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that tells us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough,” wrote the younger, more casually vulgar me, blissfully unaware of how much worse a toxic-rich-guy president could be. And while the star of conspicuous consumption rap has definitely faded over the last decade, Rich Forever still works, because it still sounds as expensively aerodynamic as an Italian sports car. The tape’s thunderous, trunk-rattling production acts like an echo chamber for Ross’s performative ego, as he turns his drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache. While Rich Forever is loaded with quality guests – Nas, 2 Chainz, Kelly Rowland, Future, etc. – the boss is never outshone, coming up with a clever way to say he’s rich on every cut (e.g. “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”).
68. Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (2010)
Usually when you hear a PR narrative along the lines of “[LEGACY ARTIST] is rocking again,” it’s a red flag. Either because it’s not true (e.g. any post-2001 Radiohead album) or it sounds like warmed-up leftovers from the glory days (e.g. most of Metallica’s 21st century efforts). But when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds transformed into Grinderman in 2008, growing mustaches and skullets to match its brand of greasy, irreverent punk-metal, no spin was necessary. On its second LP, the Australian legends continued to drive our equalizers into the red, but in the context of more expansive soundscapes, favoring visceral slow-builds over the breakneck tempos of its debut. It’s an ideal balance, an evolution that took this band from a wild experiment to a weighty artistic force, while still allowing Cave to howl like a wolf, growl “huuuh!” and “yeah!” like a whiskey-drunk James Brown, and deliver bawdy one-liners with aplomb – “Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster / Two humps and then I’m gone.”
67. Young Thug – Jeffery (2016)
One of the dominant storylines on the pop landscape in the ’10s was Drake’s refusal to come back to earth – co-opting one trend after another to maintain his stranglehold on the charts. At his peak, Young Thug was an opposing force to that massive star’s patient calculations – a rapper who records hooks like they’re burning a hole in his pocket, stuffing every track with unexpected melodic flourishes, stamping it as his own with visceral barks and yelps. On his hit mixtape Jeffery, that profound ability is paired with buoyant, dancehall-indebted trap beats that give Thug lots of space to do his thing. As a result, every track fizzes over with undeniable power, like champagne from a fire hose. “I’m geeked up like an astronaut / I’m off the Earth / I’m way in the moon” he raps over reflective piano chords, looking down on us affectionately from his perch at the top of the game. It’s ironic that Thug named almost all of these songs after one of his personal heroes – including Wyclef Jean, Rihanna and Harambe the gorilla – because this artist was transcending all of his influences here, while creating some of the most infectiously exuberant music of his time.
66. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ (2015)
You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.
65. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (2015)
Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.
64. Daniel Knox – Evryman for Himself (2011)
When a singer/songwriter gets sarcasm right, the clouds part for me. So when I saw Daniel Knox perform live, as the opening act for a Rasputina show I was covering for my local paper, my jaw may have literally dropped. This disheveled Zach Galifianakis lookalike was putting his own spin on the Randy Newman formula – friendly piano shuffles that attempt to distract us from Eeyore-on-a-bad-day lyrics, inspiring big, ironic belly laughs in the process. Knox was touring behind his second album, Evryman for Himself, and it remains his best. “Billboards tell me where to go / Billboards to my favorite show / Syphilis and cancer!” he croons in his playful baritone on the closing “Armageddonsong,” projecting hopelessness and joy at the same time. If humans are capable of this level of nuance, maybe we’re not completely doomed.
63. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (2015)
Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone.
62. Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite (2010)
I like to pretend I don’t care what anybody thinks about me – take one look at my car and you’ll almost be convinced. But ask me to dance, and the facade evaporates. I’ll respond by a) totally freezing up, and then b) doing “The Twist” ironically to cover up my crippling fear. This is my best way of explaining why Kylie Minogue’s music means so much to me. “Dance / It’s all I wanna do / So won’t you dance?” the Aussie legend asks – with zero judgment in her voice – at the beginning of her sublime 11th album, as burbling synthesizers build up to the first of many triumphant disco-pop choruses to come. Aphrodite explores various nuances of interpersonal dance floor dynamics, but mostly it’s about those moments where music hits us like Cupid’s arrow, blissfully transporting us to a place where our anxieties can’t reach us. So I can remain a wallflower, and still understand.
61. Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2018)
When asked to score this stunningly specific period romance from director Paul Thomas Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood opted against the style he had so memorably established on previous Anderson films. Gone was the stark horror of There Will Be Blood and the sad, shattered symphonies of The Master. Instead, Greenwood wrote orchestral suites as elegant and traditional as the gowns designed by Phantom Thread’s fastidious main character, Reynolds Woodcock. As the troubled minor-key strings of “Phantom Thread” give way to the enveloping warmth of “Sandalwood,” this score plays a critical role in establishing how Alma Elson is the nurturing, unflappable yin to Reynolds’s sensitive, self-protective yang. This is the sound of soul mates harmonizing.
60. Tribulation – The Children of the Night (2015)
If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”
59. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
I Love You, Honeybear is like a vintage Elton John performance in more ways than one – it features rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings, and it’s marked by a penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman fell into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. On the closing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the band takes five, and Tillman finds complete freedom in his disguise. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, he sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.”
58. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (2013)
After the demise of Clipse in 2010, anticipation was high for the first official solo record from that duo’s more dynamic half – Pusha-T. But by 2013, the Virginia rapper still hadn’t proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned at all on My Name Is My Name. Over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of selling drugs in a way that still feels weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.
57. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (2017)
In November 2016, the genre-hopping Australian rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard announced they would be dropping five full-length albums of new music the following year. And not only did the ambitious sextet make good on this promise, but they did it without lowering their standards. These records actually picked up steam as the year progressed, with the fourth one, Polygondwanaland, reaching a dizzying pinnacle of exquisitely arranged psychedelic rock. From the epic 10-minute opener “Crumbling Castles” to the stoner metal freakout that caps off “The Fourth Color,” this LP sounds like anything but a rush job. In fact, these addictively energetic tracks segue into one another so effortlessly, it feels like we’re being shot into the sky on a ship piloted by careful, experienced adventurers.
56. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (2013)
The most compelling thing about Drake in the 2010s (other than it being a time before we knew what a fricking creep he is) was the way he had his cake and ate it too – crafting verses drenched in both bravado and insecurity; making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom; making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands, but on Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears coalesced into a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. It helps that he’s looking wistfully to the past instead of droning on about the present, creating a two-song sequence inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s magnanimous 1997 single “It’s Yourz” that marks the last time this problematic megastar sounded believably lovestruck.
55. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (2018)
I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps than any record on this list, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. It sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”
54. Feist – Metals (2011)
In October 2011, Nitsuh Abebe wrote an iconic piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist were our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her third LP – released the same year as Abebe’s article – proved she’s more dangerous than you’d think. Metals features a color palette of dark and darker greys, which amass into looming storms that crack the heavens in our headphones. It was a far cry from the iPod commercial-ready twee-folk the Nova Scotia singer/songwriter had been known for up to that point. “How Come You Never Go There” swings with a dark, sinister rhythm. “Comfort Me” stomps and swoons. And “A Commotion” features a percussive blast that makes good on its title. This is what remains so compelling about Metals – there are soft rock hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you just might find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.
53. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010)
When Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, it felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that by 2010, Albarn had realized that his “other” band was the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula was pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs were as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn followed it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it became clear that these Gorillaz weren’t quite so cartoonish after all.
52. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (2018)
Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by confusing dystopian sci-fi premises. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album, but for the first time in her discography, it didn’t matter. The songwriting reckoned with real life. In this world. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It was the most politically present, and openly romantic, Monáe had ever been – and the melodies bubbled up and embraced us like always. “Pynk” turned an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasted one of the snappiest guitar riffs of 2018. And “Make Me Feel” did justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth.
51. Masta Ace – The Falling Season (2016)
A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace wrote about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC was on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits were skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace had been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. It wasn’t the first rap album to romanticize an artist’s past, but it might still be the only successful one from a rapper who had reached middle-age. Which makes The Falling Season an especially rich self-portrait, full of conflicting feelings informed by decades of nostalgia and regret.
50. Phosphorescent – Muchacho (2013)
Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter was just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like a solemn promise.
49. Bjork – Vulnicura (2015)
When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later came the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.
48. Behemoth – The Satanist (2014)
It makes sense for a person to find religion after a near-death experience. This was true for Adam Darski (aka Nergal), the screamer/songwriter of Polish extreme metal band Behemoth, who fought a harrowing battle with leukemia in 2010-11. It’s just that after coming out the other side and cracking open his Bible, he proceeded to tear it to shreds. On The Satanist, his band’s 10th LP, Nergal wrings an absurd amount of drama out of songs that lay bare the hypocrisy of the goings-on in Eden, Gethsamene, and Mount Sinai, using mournfully plucked acoustic guitars, blaring horn sections, spoken word breakdowns, and ominous choruses as dynamic counterpoints to Behemoth’s trademark onslaught. “Art must destroy,” Nergal muses in the liner notes. “True Artists need a personal abyss to peer into and to let it stare back into them.” When I hear the latest crime against humanity shrouded in the piety of Christ, The Satanist is that abyss for me.
47. Screaming Females – Ugly (2012)
Back in 2012, nostalgia for the 1990s was starting to become a real pitch point for pop culture makers, with Lisa Frank, Men In Black, Boy Meets World, Soundgarden, and Total Recall all returning in some form. And while the New Brunswick, NJ, rock trio Screaming Females had been making eardrums rattle since 2005, the timing of its fifth album felt of a piece with a year where Old Navy put the cast of 90210 in an ad. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a record that hearkened back to Gen X touchstones like Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly was more than a time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguished itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the 2010s.
46. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2 (2014)
The chemistry between indie-rap legends Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on their 2011 debut, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of talented wise-asses having fun. This second effort, however, was the first time Run the Jewels felt like something more than a side project. The beats were richer and rangier. The subject matter was more serious. And that top-shelf shit-talk came from pride and momentum as much as the need to blow off steam. Ironically, these aging legends who had never sniffed the mainstream had found each other at just the right time, stumbling across an unimpeachable formula for rap bangers that brought political outrage to your gym playlist without ever feeling inauthentic. Run The Jewels 2 remains a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s that release of pent-up frustration that still makes me want to thank god for each breath while setting fire to the neighborhood.
45. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (2014)
Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warranted comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.
44. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)
Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fueled Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives the performance that first launched him to stardom – and one he’s yet to match. Chance already had a fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He littered his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but ends up being essential to the experience. “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m still addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.
43. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (2019)
Anger is a valid and necessary response to the times we live in. But there’s also something to be said for quiet optimism. On his sixth album as Helado Negro, singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange delivered soothing balms of hope, in the form of whispered, bilingual electro-folk ballads. When struggling to find a healthy perspective, Lange’s reassuring truths are good medicine. “We’ll take our turn / We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” he softly croons to our 45th president on “Pais Nublado,” embodying the polar opposite of his spittle-flecked neuroses, buoyed by washes of electronics and leisurely acoustic strumming. The achingly beautiful, steel drum-infused “Imagining What To Do” also preaches patience: “We wait softly / Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow.” Before we can fight for what we believe in, we need the peace of mind to believe it’s possible.
42. Carcass – Surgical Steel (2013)
I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, I feel a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This was Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it was (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, as the guitars deliver just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it made me especially grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.
41. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away (2013)
If anybody was worried that original guitarist Mick Harvey’s 2009 exit from the Bad Seeds would finally blunt the superhuman momentum of Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the opening track on their first album without him – “We Know Who U R” – made it quite clear that all was well. Or should I say mesmerizingly unwell: “The tree don’t care what the little bird sings,” Cave croons over stark, echoing synths, launching into a gothic environmentalist lament that ends with a literal scorched earth. Push the Sky Away is full of songs like this – ominous pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. It’s as if the group decided to let their old mate’s absence be an instrument of its own. Gone were Harvey’s catchy riffs and split-lip punk ragers, replaced by open spaces for minor synth chords to gently reverberate. Far from a sign of a band in decline, its 15th album marked a new beginning; the Bad Seeds have been exploring the dark corners of our consciousness in starker, more vulnerable ways ever since.
Stay tuned for 40 more albums that Adam Levine had nothing to do with…