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.
Stay tuned for 85 more albums that Adam Levine had nothing to do with…