Until recently, I was set on counting down my fifty favorite albums of this decade, as I did for the last one and the one before that. However, given that I’ve spent years writing extensively/exhaustively about favorite albums, including eleven from this past decade, I’m weary of saying much more on these long-players. So, in two weeks I will count down my fifty favorite tracks of the decade instead. I don’t buy into the death-of-the-album hysteria that began with digital downloads and seems to have swelled with online streaming, but I will argue that the technology often allows for a single or an album track to make a deeper, obviously more immediate impact than a thirty-to-seventy-minute-long collection of songs.
More about that in two weeks. I will never stop loving albums and ranking my favorites, but compared to the past two decades, nothing from the 2010s has hit me so powerfully as Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Apartment Life, Since I Left You and Riot On An Empty Streetdid upon arrival. Of course, I first heard all those records in my 20s and it’s only natural that as I age, I should grow more critical and less susceptible towards the new, especially in how it relates to an already established artist’s body of work.
However, I still firmly believe in the possibility that my favorite album (or song) of all time might be something I haven’t yet heard. At the end of 2009, I knew nothing of Laura Marling, Nicole Atkins, Field Music, The Clientele or Future Islands, even though they all had records out. Then, there are the new talents that emerged and are represented below: Christine and The Queens, Natalie Prass, Michael Kiwanuka, Lana Del Rey, Haim—all of whom I suspect will continue releasing vital music in the next decade.
As for the list below, I struggled a bit with the order, for everything’s prone to change from month to year to day. Thus, I focused on albums I could see myself most wanting to listen to again and again, even after having already heard them dozens of times. Home Counties fulfills such criteria more strongly than anything else I could think of—I’m not sure if it’s even Saint Etienne’s best or second-best (or even fifth-best) album, but its breadth and scope effortlessly draws me in; as a reaction to Brexit, it’s also one of the more timely albums here, certainly up there with Running Out of Love, Record and My Finest Work Yet as something that one could’ve only conceived of in the past three-to-four years.
Some surprises here and there: Edge of the Sun not making 100 Albums but placing so high as it became one of my most-listened-to records ever; Random Access Memories‘ stature in my mind slipping somewhat, as its retro-isms still delight but no longer innovate; a handful of records from the first half of the decade showing up, despite not making my half-decade list in 2015 (most notably Tales of Us, Transference and The Voyager); only three artists (Saint Etienne, Tracey Thorn and Hot Chip) appearing more than once, as opposed to Sam Phillips, who had three slots in the ’00s list.
In any case, at the end of this particular decade, here’s how I’d rank my favorite albums from it:
Saint Etienne, Home Counties
Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
Tracey Thorn, Record
The Radio Dept., Running Out Of Love
Roisin Murphy, Hairless Toys
Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
Marina and the Diamonds, Froot
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
Christine and The Queens, Christine and The Queens
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee
Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Holy Ghost!, Work
Hot Chip, One Life Stand
Field Music, Open Here
Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
Goldfrapp, Tales Of Us
The Clientele, Music For The Age Of Miracles
Robert Forster, Inferno
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
David Bowie, Blackstar
Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
Robyn, Body Talk
Imperial Teen, Now We Are Timeless
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
When I was young, I loved browsing through the elaborate, backroom display of colorfully glowing, completely trimmed artificial Christmas trees at Stein’s Garden Center and Gifts. However, to actually bring one of those imposters into our home was entirely out of the question—we required the vigorous smell of pine wafting through the air, a splintery trunk dabbed with sticky sap and a ring of fallen, brown needles gradually accumulating all over the vintage Lionel train set I’d inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene. A real tree was as essential a Kriofske Holiday Tradition as iced and decorated sugar cookies in dozens of shapes, strings of multicolored lights criss-crossing the front windows looking out on 12th Street, or even presents from Santa on Christmas morning.
During the first or second week of December, usually on a early weekend afternoon, my parents and I would drive to a nursery or garden center—not local chain Stein’s, but usually somewhere out in the boonies to look for and bring home the Perfect Christmas Tree. Often these places would crank up the charm to justify their lofty prices. You’d walk in the front door and be gobsmacked with the smell of cinnamon and spice and the sound of carols and hymns; within seconds, you’d spot a dispenser of free hot cider to sip out of tiny styrofoam cups. I recall one place even had a real life nativity out back: a wooden enclosure housing a donkey, a foal and perhaps a Saint Bernard or a Golden Lab one could pet, pose and take photos with on a bed of hay.
Eventually, my father had it all figured out: the best tree to get was a Fraser Fir. It appeared full and robust, but its chief attribute was its most practical: firm but not too stiff, it had branches practically tailor-made for hanging ornaments onto them. Every year after our first Fraser Fir, we settled for nothing less. It cost more than the average balsam or spruce you could pick up at one of those parking lot tree emporiums that seemed to pop up all over town every November, but such durability and dependability was worth the extra scratch.
If my mom ever suggested, “Bob, maybe we should spend less on The Tree this time?”, my father would only have to remind her of the Christmas when I was in third grade. I have many fond memories of this year: I still sincerely believed in Santa, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aired on ABC for the first time and A Christmas Story had premiered in theaters (to a generally muted response, but after that first viewing, my parents and I thought it was the Best (and funniest) Christmas Movie Ever.)
Still, not everything that year was as magical as fresh fallen snow or piping hot mugs of cocoa teeming with mini-marshmallows. For one thing, we’d waited a little longer than usual to pick up The Tree. Christmas was less than two weeks away and rather than make the trek out to one of our preferred places, my parents opted for a nursery closer to home. It was altogether fine for tree-shopping, cider and carols intact (but no living nativity); their selection might’ve been sparser than usual, but I can’t entirely blame that for what we picked out; I can only assume my parents wanted to get a tree right there, right then and not spend a fortune on it.
Nothing about The Tree we purchased looked especially askew in the nursery’s outdoor lot; it was only after we brought it into our home that we noticed something was off. Sure, it was slightly crooked, but my dad could easily fix that by sawing a little off the top or bottom. Only in the artificial light of our living room (extensively rearranged, by the way, so we could make space for it) did we notice The Tree seemed a little… barren. Not a pathetic “Charlie Brown Tree” by any means, but certainly something less hardy than we were used to.
“Maybe that’s just the bad side,” my mom suggested. “Let’s turn it around.”
If anything, the other side was even worse, with wide gapping spaces fully noticeable throughout the towering, triangle-shaped conifer before us. Undeterred, my dad turned it back around again and with my mom’s assistance, began stringing the lights—an annual ritual I knew to stay away from. As they wrapped each subsequent string around The Tree, my parents’ frustration with each other would mount and seethe until one of them would verbally explode at the other; from there, the arguing would persist until the last string was strung.
Hundreds of multicolored lights improved the tree somewhat but any sense of satisfaction dissipated upon the hanging of the ornaments, for this is where we discovered this tree’s fatal flaw: with such weak and flouncy branches, the heavier ornaments just slid right off. You’d put one of the wooden Three Wise Men or a miniature picture frame enclosing one of my baby photos on a branch and could practically hear the descending slide whistle sound as it immediately fell off and onto the floor.
We exhausted the ornaments small and light enough to remain hung in no time at all. Even with these and all the lights, the tree seemed only slightly less barren than when it was unadorned. Fortunately, my mom knew more than one way to decorate or fill out a tree, having crafted a majority of our ornaments herself. The answer that year was GARLANDS. Not strings of popcorn, as she had tried the year before, her fingers left pricked and raw by the laborious process of threading one piece after another with a needle and a string; no, something simpler and more colorful.
Armed with abundant rectangles of shiny paper probably purchased from LeeWards, she strung together one looped garland after another, always alternating green and red, green and red ad infinitum. So easy to make, she even recruited me to help out. We wrapped them round and round the tree and made so many we even had a few leftover. We proceeded to put them up all over the house: along the front windows, over the archway separating the living room from the entryway, around the latter’s sole stained-glass window. Practically everywhere one looked, red and green chains accented the interior of our South Side Milwaukee bungalow.
So much red and green, it brought to mind colors from the Mexican flag—at least it did for my father. When he first saw all the garlands that had materialized, he couldn’t help but start singing the chorus of the ubiquitous Jose Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad”. It became a running joke up through and long past Christmas Day: years later, whenever the song appeared on the radio, in a TV commercial or in a store, we still associated it with those plentiful, chintzy-but-admittedly-festive green and red chains.
The Tree might’ve been that year’s definitive Christmas memory if not for what happened on the holiday itself. Rather than getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins, the three of us elected to spend that Christmas Day with only my Grandma Clara. Rather than cook a big meal, my parents decided we would eat at their favorite restaurant, Jake’s, a steakhouse across town they had frequented since before I was born. With its elegant but homey atmosphere, baked potatoes accompanied by a Lazy Susan brimming with chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, scrumptious piles of onion strings (not rings – you could order a “Hill” or a “Mountain” of ’em) and divine Shirley Temples (we always called them Kiddie Cocktails), Jake’s was one of my favorite restaurants as well.
The previous Christmas, the temperature in Wisconsin somehow reached an abnormal 65 degrees; this year’s frigid, windy, well-below-zero weather was clearly payback for that rare, good fortune. The four of us piled into the ol’ Mercury Monarch, wrapped in layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and earmuffs and around 5:30 arrived at an unexpectedly empty, darkened Jake’s. Somehow, my dad had not thought to make reservations, or even call to see if the restaurant was in fact going to be open on the biggest holiday of the year.
As we sat in the car, dumbfounded, we had to think of a plan B: if Jake’s was closed today, what fine dining establishment might actually be open? Unlike Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, Chinese food was not an option for us as my dad refused to eat Asian cuisine of any kind after serving in the Army in South Korea in the late ’60s and having gone through an apparently traumatic kimchee mishap.
Mentally running through a list of reputable places likely to be serving Christmas dinner to the public, my parents came up with the Hoffman House, a restaurant inside the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge up on Highway 100. We’d had Sunday brunch there before, and it was surely open for business today, being inside a hotel and all. In about twenty minutes, we arrived to a packed parking lot, which should’ve tipped us off to the harsh reality that, without a reservation, there was up to a two-hour wait for a table for four.
We all got back into the car and onto the nearby expressway, driving to the other Best Western with a Hoffman House, this one five miles away in Brookfield; sadly, the wait there was no shorter.
Cold, hungry and getting desperate, we returned to the expressway in the opposite direction towards home. On the radio, EZ 104 played the umpteenth version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we’d heard that year, its numerous mentions of “a partridge in a pear tree” and “five golden rings” (onion strings!) not doing much to curb our appetites. Nearing the airport, we swung by Country Gardens, a picturesque little supper club on the off-chance that they might be open, but no dice. Having exhausted a short list of desirable options, including a home-cooked meal (far too late for that), it was time to be sensible and succumb to whatever was available and close.
With resignation but also a hint of relief, my father pulled into Denny’s parking lot.
My dad tends to revisit the same four or five restaurants again and again (a proclivity I increasingly recognize in myself as I age.) For awhile, Denny’s was one of them, the place we usually dined at after church on Sunday morning (and plenty of Saturday mornings as well.) Earlier that year, en route to said restaurant in the backseat of our car, I once complained, “Argh, we always go to Denny’s for breakfast; Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, DENNY’S!!!” Back then, my parents soundly ignored my rant; now, we were having our Christmas Dinner there. Given how hungry we all were, I knew to keep my mouth shut.
I no longer recall exactly what I ate at Denny’s that Christmas. I imagine my dad, sensing the utter disappointment in my face, told me to order whatever I wanted on the menu, so I probably had the Fried Shrimp (as fancy as the restaurant chain got.) I’m sure someone at the table ordered a Turkey Dinner and perhaps slices of Pumpkin Pie with whipped topping for dessert. The four of us sat in our circular, olive-vinyl seated booth overlooking Mitchell Field, the icy wind howling outside as yet another version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (this one instrumental!) played overhead, occasionally interrupted by the resounding Ding! of a sign dotted with lit-up numbers, notifying waitstaff whenever an order was ready.
We didn’t dare try to eat out on Christmas Day again until my parents visited me in Boston decades later (and you can bet we made reservations well in advance.) We still reminisce over the year we had a crummy tree and dinner at Denny’s and yet—like all the Christmases of my youth, we were together and in the end, we didn’t go hungry. This particular Christmas was far from perfect, but in retrospect, it was still pretty great.
2019 was kind of an amazing year for singles and tracks—so much that I thought about doing another countdown in addition to my top ten albums list. However, with the end of the decade approaching, I need to save some brain cells to assess that in a few weeks, so instead, here’s the annual playlist.
The first two songs are my favorites, both by new artists and completely out of left-field. Orville Peck is a queer, fringed-mask Canadian cowboy crooner, while Kelsey Lu is a Charlotte-born, African-American freak-folk original. Peck’s vocal on “Dead of Night” blatantly recalls Roy Orbison, Morrissey and Chris Isaak but when he shifts into his higher register on the chorus, it gives me chills like nothing Roy or Chris ever did (and like the Moz hasn’t in decades.) “Poor Fake”, on the other hand, instantly achieves soulful dancefloor splendor when the beat kicks in at 0:34 and approaches Kate Bush-levels of delightful eccentricity in its subject matter (counterfeit art) and bonkers spoken-word section.
Other discoveries this year: Cate Le Bon’s pleasant/peculiar avant-pop where at times her vocal recalls no one so much as Patti Smith (!); Weyes Blood’s own brand of avant-pop, as if Aimee Mann and Brian Eno had a daughter; Steve Lacy’s Prince-meets-Daryl Hall comedown; Maggie Rogers’ compulsively singable declaration of desire; Yola’s retro-baroque-complete-with-harpsichord-soul (“Faraway Look”, an inspired choice to conclude the rebooted, fourth season of Veronica Mars.)
Albums that nearly made my top ten (Vampire Weekend, Hot Chip, The Divine Comedy) are represented by their best songs, as are spottier full-lengths that were slight let-downs (Jenny Lewis, Marina (now “and the Diamonds”-free, to her detriment), Carly Rae Jepsen, The New Pornographers.) Also, more tracks not attached to an album at all: Sufjan Stevens’ released-for-Pride-month chillout anthem, another superb Jessie Ware single (when is that fourth album coming out?), an orphaned Florence + The Machine song preferable to anything on last year’s High As Hope, and best of all, another fantastic, delirious disco epic from Roisin Murphy, who actually released two of ’em this year—the other’s called “Incapable” and would also be here if I didn’t limit this playlist to one song per artist.
Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2019 on Spotify:
Orville Peck, “Dead Of Night”
Kelsey Lu, “Poor Fake”
Vampire Weekend, “This Life”
Robert Forster, “No Fame”
Bat For Lashes, “Kids In The Dark”
Tegan and Sara, “Hold My Breath Until I Die”
Jenny Lewis, “Wasted Youth”
Steve Lacy “Hate CD”
Deerhunter, “What Happens To People?”
Marina, “Handmade Heaven”
Andrew Bird, “Manifest”
Belle & Sebastian, “Sister Buddha”
Cate Le Bon, “Home To You”
Raphael Saadiq, “This World Is Drunk”
Of Monsters and Men, “Wild Roses”
Calexico & Iron & Wine, “Midnight Sun”
Roisin Murphy, “Narcissus”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Want You In My Room”
Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell”
Cigarettes After Sex, “Heavenly”
Chromatics, “You’re No Good”
The New Pornographers, “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile”
Guster, “Don’t Go”
Jessie Ware, “Adore You”
Holy Ghost!, “Heaven Forbid”
The Divine Comedy, “Absolutely Obsolete”
Weyes Blood, “Everyday”
The Mountain Goats, “Younger”
Hot Chip, “Spell”
Yola, “Faraway Look”
Alex Lahey, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”
Florence + The Machine, “Moderation”
The Dream Syndicate, “Bullet Holes”
Maggie Rogers, “Burning”
Sufjan Stevens, “Love Yourself”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)”
If you’re at all familiar with Bird, you suspect the bold title of his 14th (!) album is not entirely a ruse. With a back catalog so steeped in ambiguity, it’s hard to discern whether he’s playing a sly joke on himself or being utterly sincere. What further complicates matters is that, after a few spins, it’s apparent that this is his best album in over a decade, up there with The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and Armchair Apocrypha (2007).
Ever since seeing him in concert about nine years ago, mesmerized by how well he alone held an audience while creating layers of melodies and textures out of a masterful use of tape loops, I knew Bird had a great album in him, which made the relative anodyne stiffness of his subsequent releases so disappointing. Happily, My Finest Work Yet takes a different approach as it was recorded live to tape by Bird together with four other musicians. Sonically, it’s warmer, jazzier and more immediate than just about anything he’s previously done while aesthetically still sounding like himself, his violin-playing and whistling intact, fleshed out only by a rhythm section and more piano than usual.
However, there’s another new wrinkle—while his lyrics are still full of metaphor and wordplay (rhyming “You were inhabited” with “I wasn’t having it” in “Olympians”), his themes are more overtly political. “Bloodless” ponders a post-election “uncivil war”, “Archipelago” notes, “We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll” and “Fallorun” confronts the “tone-deaf angry voices that are breathing in your ear.” From the myth of “Sisyphus” to the down-trodden populace of “Don The Struggle”, both the personal and collective effects of this country’s growing divide are clearly on his mind. Fortunately, he makes stirring music out of it—rather effectively on “Manifest”, which references climate change but also impermanence and awareness of one’s surroundings, filtered through a crystalline melody that could be right out of the Great American songbook.
Bird even approaches something like catharsis on rousing finale “Bellevue Bridge Club” where he sings the line, “By any means necessary” over and over, vowing to change the mind of a lover, a rival or perhaps just someone apathetic. Again, ambiguous enough to be any of those three options, but expressed with conviction and the idea that something is at stake.
His finest work yet? Increasingly and against all odds, I’d say so.
Last year, I wrote, “It would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow,” and what do you know, less than a year later, I did. Their sixth album (and first in seven years) does not supplant their fourth as the one to get, but it rocks more convincingly than their fifth and that they’re still making vital music 23 years after their debut is no small accomplishment. They’re undeniably wiser now, but not entirely wearier, for their passion remains most palpable. Every track here is vital, with “How We Say Goodbye” a perfect, three-minute power-pop song surpassed by nothing else I’ve heard this year.
3. Robert Forster, “Inferno”
Initially, the title seems misleading: now in his early 60s, Forster approaches age with even more grace and resolve than those relative youngsters in Imperial Teen, rarely more lovingly than on the blunt but uber-catchy “No Fame”. “Remain” even offers this nugget of wisdom: “I did my good work while knowing it wasn’t my time,” sung, as always, in his inimitable Brisbane twang. But as one parses the piano-pounding title track, the insistent “I’m Gonna Tell It”, the content but not taken-for-granted “Life Has Turned A Page” and soaring closer “One Bird In The Sky”, his fire continues to vividly color all his hopes, desires, laments and epiphanies on this, his best-sounding record (outside of his classic Go-Betweensstuff) to date.
2. Holy Ghost!, “Work”
Earlier this decade, I curtly dismissed this NYC synth-pop duo as cheesy 80s revival stuff, so how is their third album (and first in sixth years) any different? Are they less cheesy this time out (for the sound is decidedly more-of-the-same) or have I come to terms with my inner self-hating retro nerd? Perhaps the wheel on this kind of stuff has just spun around again, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had more fun listening to Work than any other album in a long time. The hooks, from airy, downbeat “Heaven Knows What” to giddy, Human League-high “Heaven Forbid” (plus epic single “Anxious”) are all razor-sharp; that new ones still reveal themselves after multiple spins only encourages me to keep moving this album further up this list.
A surprise, belated sequel to their last collaboration, 2005’s In The Reins EP and something of a career-reviver for both bands. Predominantly acoustic, it finds Beam and Burns/Covertino on the same wavelength even as their differences are readily apparent. The former’s folk songs and the latter’s jazzier and structural experiments (like the three-song suite on the second half) end up melding into a consistent, at times shimmering whole. Reserved and reflective but not aimless or necessarily laid back, its sturdy presence seems to serenely reverberate right out of one’s speakers (or earbuds as the case may be.)
6. Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka”
Working again with Love & Hate producer Danger Mouse, I feared an inferior follow-up; fortunately, Kiwanuka again subverts expectations by going further baroque (seven-minute-long “Hard To Say Goodbye”) while also moving closer to a song-suite approach, with one track nearly bleeding into the next like ’70s Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. And yet, he remains a singular talent—retro-influenced, for sure (“Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” sounds like 1974 in all the best ways), but his sensibility and lyricism both feel present and firmly of the moment. Like # 9 on this year’s top ten, it requires patience, but it’s also easier to get lost in.
5. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”
As I hoped for last year when it was announced, her fifth album ended up her first great one. It’s still a bit too long (I would’ve preferred 10 or 12 instead of 14 tracks) but by stripping down her velvet noir to the bare essentials, she allows her ever-sharpened songcraft to be heard and deeply felt. “Mariners Apartment Complex” is still tremendous, but the title track (with its lovely Fiona Apple-isms), “The Greatest” and “Fuck It I Love You” aren’t too far behind, and I even appreciate the lengthy, wonky “Venice Bitch” in this context. Sure has come a long way since that infamous SNL performance.
Comparisons to fellow Millennial Aussie Lesbian punk-pop singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett are inevitable, but Lahey’s second LP doubles down on the pop half of that equation while making space for everything from acoustic balladry to a fist-pumping Clarence Clemmons-like sax solo. She’s not weary of being loud (note the wall of shoegaze-y guitars on “Am I Doing It Right?”) or viscerally punk (“Misery Guts”); still, it’s her way with a hook that translates into power-pop bliss, especially on the jaunty “Isabella” or the letter-perfect anthem “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” (aka the one with that sax solo.)
9. Raphael Saadiq, “Jimmy Lee”
Definitely not a safe follow-up to 2011’s exquisite Stone Rollin’, Saadiq’s long-gestating concept album about his deceased brother who struggled with drug addiction is all over the place. The abrupt transitions are akin to changing channels, switching between his beloved neo-soul, hip-hop, electro new wave, psychedelia and even preacher-led gospel. A jarring listen for sure, but one that’s also by design. Perhaps such density needs a period longer than a year to gestate. For now, I return most often to the lush, urgent “This World Is Drunk”, while remaining invested enough in the rest to wanna figure it all out.
8. Dream Syndicate, “These Times”
This 80s Paisley Underground band’s second reunion effort benefits from no longer having to live up to the sky-high expectations 2017’s How Did I Find Myself Here? generally met. Looser, more relaxed but still assured, it’s a solid, concise LP not unlike many of leader Steve Wynn’s prime ’90s solo efforts, not to mention those three underrated band follow-ups to 1982’s revered The Days Of Wine and Roses. While no one will ever mistake these guys for innovators, their themes here are of the moment, while the melodies, particularly on “Bullet Holes”, “Still Here Now” and “Recovery Mode” sound suitably timeless.