10. The Radio Dept., “Committed To The Cause”
These Swedes almost always appear blissfully out of time—when first hearing “Pulling Our Weight” in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I assumed it was from 1983, not 2003. So it goes with this unlikely swirl of early ‘90s Madchester dance-rock (with a smidge of Toto!), which lyrically at least remains the most timely and prescient tune of 2016.
9. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
An instant standout from Random Access Memories, not only for DP’s deepest dive into New Wave, but also for its robot-voiced utilization of The Strokes’ lead singer, of all people. Blame the melody or chord changes, but I have a far stronger emotional reaction to Casablanca’s voice when it’s masked like this. Should’ve been the album’s second single instead of “Lose Yourself To Dance”.
8. Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
George Lewis Jr.’s 1980s-inspired project produced a great run of singles across this decade; my favorite is this track from 2018’s Caer—a soulful/electro combo that I never would’ve thought feasible (at least outside of Alison Moyet.) Still, it all comes together beautifully, from its bell-like flourishes and unstoppable chorus to Lewis’ impassioned vocal.
7. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
After a series of ever-more lushly produced albums that bent his folk-pop as far as it could in that direction, Sam Beam returned to form with this straightforward but effective tune. Organically building from lone acoustic-guitar-and-vocal to a full-bodied arrangement, it ends up resounding like a beating heart that has gradually expanded until it’s all you can hear, and it’s everything.
6. Belle & Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
At his peak, Stuart Murdoch sang, “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me”; nearly two decades on, he’s still at it on a single as good as anything from If You’re Feeling Sinister, only with the added musical prowess and wisdom gleaned from twenty years of struggle and exhilaration. The song’s gorgeous, chiming hook gives me hope that he’ll keep writing ‘em well into this new decade and beyond.
5. Saint Etienne, “Tonight”
What a way to return after a seven-year hiatus—the central song on an album about loving pop music, it’s an ideal three-minute encapsulation of this veteran trio’s inclusive approach and aesthetic. Early in their careers, the inimitable Sarah Cracknell and her mates invited listeners to “Join Our Club”, but you see, they’ve always been fans as well: “I can hardly wait,” she sings, and her joy is just infectious.
4. Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
Considering that it never even made the Billboard Hot 100, I’m thrilled to see this song popping up on so many end-of-decade lists. Regarding vulnerable yet defiant crying-on-the-dancefloor anthems, this is easily one of the all-time best for how the groove steamrolls along while also never obscuring the infinite shades of pain and perseverance in Robyn’s bruised but luminous performance.
3. Jens Lekman, “Evening Prayer”
Only Lekman would ever write a song about a man at a bar showing off a 3-D model of a tumor surgically removed from his back to his friend and a waitress; only he could make it both so jubilant and melancholy, inserting almost ridiculously bubbly “doo-doo-doo’s” within a blue-eyed soul arrangement. And there’s something in the way he sings, “It’s been a long, hard year” that nearly destroys me every time I hear it.
2. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
Sometimes, the simplest songs are the most effective: twelve-bar blues progression, guttural, insistent one-riff guitar, and a 78-year-old vocalist sounding nearly as robust as she did at half that age. With production support from improbable kindred spirit Jeff Tweedy, Staples is no one’s idea of an old fogey—especially when she repeats the key lyric, “Don’t do me no good to pretend / I’m as good as I could be.”
1. Destroyer, “Kaputt” Kaputt the album cracked my top five of the decade, but it might not have without its monumental title-track centerpiece, which I knew was something extraordinary from my first listen nine years ago this month. You can liken Dan Bejar’s slight effervescence here to any number of signifiers (yacht rock, synth-pop, etc.), but in the end, “Kaputt” subsists in its very own universe, that incessant dit-dit-dit sequencer noise guiding an evocative quest through time and memory whose precise sound is an impeccable match for Bejar’s acquired-taste vocals. “All sounds like a dream to me” indeed.
20. K.D. Lang & The Siss Boom Bang, “The Water’s Edge”
The highlight from Lang’s underrated 2011 album Sing It Loud, it has all of her strengths, from that one-of-a-kind voice to her refusal to play by genre rules. Timeless and deeply felt, it’s the song from her post-Ingenue catalog that should be as ubiquitous as “Constant Craving”.
19. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
Possibly the decade’s best singles artist, this initial peek into her first great album solidifies all of her obsessions and aesthetic proclivities but also recasts them into something more intimate and direct and yet stylish enough to pull off that harpischord twirl in the intro.
18. M83, “Midnight City”
I resisted at first—what a blatant ’80s pastiche! Within weeks, however, I found myself genuinely thrilled to hear that dramatic intro, that moment when the beat wallops in, that breakdown after the second chorus, that shameless but transcendent sax solo at the climax.
17. Kelsey Lu, “Poor Fake”
Always on the lookout for weird new female artists that have at least a little Kate Bush in them, I instantly fell in love with this when it appeared on my Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist. An orchestrated, danceable will o’ the wisp concerning art forgery? Yes, please.
16.Imperial Teen, “How We Say Goodbye”
As perfect a three-minute power pop song as you’re ever likely to hear; deceptively simple, it so effortlessly builds from verse to chorus that by the time it reaches the title hook at the end, you’re so caught up in the melodic rush of it all you might not realize how they’ve achieved so much with so little.
15. Emm Gryner, “Imagination”
From “Summerlong” to “Ciao Monday” this Canadian singer-songwriter has a talent for big hooks that you want to tell the whole world about; this one, a bold, technicolor, neo-psychedelic wonder, shows that two decades in, she still has the knack for them.
14. Florence + The Machine, “Queen of Peace”
She hasn’t topped Lungs yet, but she’s come close a few times, most noticeably on this track from her third album which tricks the listener into thinking it’s one kind of song (an aria, or a power ballad?) until the unexpected Motown-style beat appears and it suddenly transforms into something else altogether—just as exciting, and you can dance to it.
13. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Boy Problems”
Who knew teen-pop could be so utterly sublime? I admit I did not until this gem from her beloved E*MO*TION album wore me down (and it didn’t take long.) It’s as calculating a pop song as you’re ever likely to hear, but so sincere and yearning that the giddy high it produces is well worth whatever it does to get to that rare, heavenly place.
12. Tracey Thorn, “Dancefloor”
Thorn’s solo career continues to impress for its conciseness; this final track from Record is both a declaration and an epiphany: “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me,” she notes over vital electro-beats, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever loved singing along to music whether in a club or in the shower not being able to relate.
11. Of Monsters and Men, “Dirty Paws”
I ignored this in favor of hits like “Little Talks” until I heard it in trailer for Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—its dynamic build, chiming notes and over-the-top shouts of HEY! got my attention, and I love how it goes out on a limb to risk seeming foolish or uncool, and ends up sounding rather glorious.
30. Ezra Furman, “I Lost My Innocence”
Gender-bending glam punk rhymes “Box of Girl Scout Thin Mints” with “Pack of Winstons” within a jaunty ode to deflowering that Dr. Frank-n-Furter could sing in his/her cabaret act.
29. The Ting Tings, “Guggenheim”
I’ve played this curious, bratty ditty to the point of exhaustion and it hasn’t worn me down yet. Debbie Harry wannabe Katie White sings, “I’ll paint my face like the Guggenheim”; it still sounds like “play my bass” and both are magnificent nonsense.
28. The Rapture, “How Deep Is Your Love?”
Not a Bee Gees cover, but much better than that could possibly ever be. That breakdown in the middle just slays.
27. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”
This ex-Fiery Furnaces vocalist going trad-pop has given me more pleasure than I ever imagined it could. “She was wearing a pair of overalls, so I played ‘Come On, Eileen’” is just one of several terrific lyrics in this disarming declaration of lust.
26. Jenny Lewis, “Late Bloomer”
A throwback to classic-rock story-songs like “Maggie May” but filtered through Lewis’ puckish demeanor, “Late Bloomer” sports a melody and an arrangement both so inviting and generous I remain flummoxed as to why this isn’t more of a standard.
25. John Grant, “GMF”
The title’s a NSFW acronym that’s also too brilliant to reveal; with backing vocals from an interpreter of his work (see #39), this dyspeptic declaration of self is as bold and necessary now as Walt Whitman’s own was in his day (he might’ve liked the lyric, “So go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime.”)
24. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Deadly Valentine”
Gainsbourg returned from a recording hiatus with this sinister orchestral disco banger that would’ve surely made her father proud. Even though it’s entirely in English, the words barely register or matter—that insistent, loping groove and descending melody (and countermelodies!) steady the song with an aura of an opulent dream.
23. The War On Drugs, “Pain”
I adore the intro here: drumless, airy, all those reverb-heavy guitars just gradually falling into place. As the beat kicks in and the melody, enhanced by Adam Granduciel’s croon keeps circling back to that opening, “Pain” grows richer and deeper, its layers crystallizing into a glistening whole.
22. Orville Peck, “Dead of Night”
A one-of-a-kind voice that nearly stopped me dead in my tracks when I first heard it: sonorous, robust and a bit camp, you could compare Peck to many other baritones (from Chris Isaak to Stephen Morrissey), but this song’s minimalist arrangement and vast sense of space further set him apart.
21. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery Of Love” Call Me By Your Name would’ve been great without musical contributions from Stevens, but their presence arguably makes it even better for how well they complement and contextualize the visuals. Still, I could sense how special the film might be when I first heard this weeks before actually seeing it.
40. Betty Who, “Somebody Loves You”
Maybe the decade’s greatest one-shot? This Aussie singer has put out other stuff since, but nothing as pitch-perfect as this totally ‘80s dance pop wonder that somehow never became a big radio hit. Perhaps Kylie Minogue should cover it.
39. Sinead O’Connor, “Queen of Denmark”
O’Connor’s had another troubled decade, but she seemed on the verge of a comeback with her pretty good 2012 album, the highlight of which is this gloriously incensed John Grant cover. The original’s fine, but Sinead was born to sing lyrics like, “Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?”
38. Hot Chip, “Let Me Be Him”
Man, these Brit dweebs had so many good singles (and albums!) this decade; out of all of it, I’ll go with this extended, shimmering prog-pop gem if only because it was an album track that should have been everywhere.
37. Jessie Ware, “Wildest Moments”
Ware’s first major single is a breath of fresh air—with a Sade-like presence, only a tad more buoyant, it traverses both pop and r&b and lands somewhere in-between, only “lands” seems incorrect as, despite the resounding beat underneath, the whole thing positively glides.
36. LUMP, “Curse of the Contemporary” Laura Marling was my artist of the decade until her considerable output actually petered out about 2/3 of the way through it. However, this most recent project, a collaboration with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, suggests an intriguing way forward, especially on this sinewy, beautifully dark travelogue.
35. Marina and The Diamonds, “I’m A Ruin” Froot made my top ten albums of the decade, but the track from it I always want to hear most is this miraculous, mid-tempo number where she utilizes the best bits of past weirdos such as Sarah McLachlan and Kate Bush, bringing it all into her own domain.
34. Joe Goddard feat. SLO, “Music Is The Answer”
Goddard’s a member of Hot Chip (see #38); I still have no clue who female vocalist SLO is. Together, they made this cool, catchy and most of all immediate disco/dance throwback whose straightforward but profound lyrics absolutely sell it.
33. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Blue Skies Again”
If Amy Rigby ever had the resources and gumption to hook up with a member of The Black Keys, the results might’ve turned out like this. Mayfield’s made other, much different music since, but none of it registers like this lovely, slightly warped, twangy power pop.
32. Alex Lahey, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”
I might’ve been more receptive to Sleater-Kinney’s return this decade if their punk-pop was still as catchy and urgent as this, but then, they never would’ve incorporated a rousing, Clarence Clemmons-like sax solo into one of their songs.
31. Tori Amos, “Reindeer King”
Her last two albums have retreated from the wilderness somewhat, but Amos remains a worthy iconoclast open to kicking off an album with a seven-minute mood piece akin to a stroll through endless, foreboding terrain—thankfully, you can still see through to the other side.
Having already written so much about albums, I’m counting down my favorite songs of the decade instead. Thanks to downloading and streaming, I’m more inclined to obsess over individual tracks—I still love and seek out albums, but often, a great single or track is simply more accessible and immediate. Here are fifty from the past ten years, ten at a time. Roughly one-third come from my favorite albums of the decade—I wasn’t going to include any crossovers, but then I’d be overlooking some really good songs.
50. Lake Street Dive, “Bad Self Portraits”
This bluesy but warm serving of self-deprecation comes from a quartet of former Berklee students whose vocalist could be a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Fiona Apple, with lyrics nearly as clever as the latter’s.
49. Natalie Prass, “The Fire”
An angelic-voiced chanteuse in the Dusty/Dionne mold, Prass nonetheless refuses to be pigeonholed: this track (among others) from her second album, The Future and The Past recalls highly buffed, late ’80s pop-funk but fully translates it for the here and now.
48. Guster, “Architects & Engineers”
When they lay off the goofiness, these Adult Alternative radio mainstays approach the soaring, melody-rich power pop and smarts of Fountains of Wayne (who’ve been inactive for most of the decade.) The wordless chorus here is aces.
47. Roisin Murphy, “Narcissus”
She’s put out so many divine stand-alone singles since returning from exile mid-decade; this most recent release might be the best of ‘em, a full-blown, Donna Summer-worthy disco epic with Murphy imploring, “Be in love, be in love, be in love with me.” Only the Gloomiest Gus would dare resist her.
46. Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
Speaking of disco, it feels like such a logical step for this difficult-to-classify artist, but admit it—did you ever think she’d actually put out a song like this? As with nearly everything else on her applauded, Grammy-winning album Golden Hour, it’s both a summation and an act of liberation.
45. Years & Years, “Shine”
Both nuanced and assured, Olly Alexander’s best song to date also manages to scratch that ridiculously catchy teen-pop sweet spot, and somehow does it with synths nearly straight out of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”.
44. Washed Out, “All I Know” Portlandia theme aside, Ernest Green’s chillwave project peaked with this wonderful, neo-psychedelic pop song brimming with texture and layers of hooks but also a strong residue of 80s British guitar-rock—in particular, the moment you could almost dance to it.
43. The Decemberists, “Once In My Life”
Their recent ’80s-drenched phase can be hit-or-miss, but it’s pretty sublime on this good old fashioned anthem, which is melodic, airy and brimming with majestic flourishes. Who knew Colin Meloy could write such a perfect song for an imaginary John Hughes film?
42. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
Like nearly everyone else, it was that infamous Letterman show appearance that made me fall for Samuel T. Herring and his synth-pop cohorts; dad-dance moves aside, it’s his mighty, primeval roar in conjunction with the key-change on the chorus that still makes me soon.
41. Janelle Monae feat. Deep Cotton, “57821”
As much as I love all of The ArchAndroid’s sideways twists and turns, this gently scintillating, uncommonly hushed, acoustic folk (like “Scarborough Fair” turned inside out) is what I return to most—naturally, there’s nothing else like it in Monae’s small but expansive catalog.
My ten favorite books I read in 2019; naturally, given recent tendencies, more than half are memoirs:
10. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
Thorn’s third memoir reconciles her past and present, with her teenaged diaries serving as a revealing jumping-off point. Ever perceptive, relatable and just a little wry, she details how she initially rejected a provincial life in favor of urban bohemia, only to eventually find a solid middle ground while also remaining a pop star (albeit a most unconventional one.)
9. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, a German-born, Canadian-based filmmaker (Marion Bridge, The Saver). Her debut novel has all of the intuitiveness and empathy of her films; it also excels and engages both as a family kitchen-sink dramedy and via the rich sense of place in which she depicts downtown Toronto.
8. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Only Orlean would probably think to write an entire book about the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and only in her hands would it come off so personable and far-reaching. Anyone who’s spent time in a library whether as an employee or a patron will appreciate the lyricism Orlean locates in an underrated but vital municipal institution.
7. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
Following last year’s great collection of essays, Abdurraqib tightens his focus to an entire book about legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Such is his talent and original approach to criticism/memoir that, even if you’re not familiar with the music here (like me), it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the twin tales being laid out of artist and fan and how each one informs the other.
6. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs Folds is so utterly himself—musical prodigy, everyman iconoclast, thoughtful goofball—that his own, often rollicking account of his gradual and relatively unusual rise to semi-stardom never plays a false note. Recommended to aging Gen-X-ers, power-pop admirers, recovering workaholics, divorced parents and terminal smartasses.
5. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
A witty comedy of errors that subtly reaches back to such luminaries as Wilde, Waugh and Wodehouse, it also somehow feels of the moment. Following his hero across several continents, Greer’s light touch, combined with an ever-so-slightly acidic demeanor proves irresistible—as complete and satisfying as, say, a Carson McCullers novel, only more generous.
4. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
How could a collection of essays about Peanuts, one of my favorite things ever, not end up in my top five? These thirty-odd pieces dissect Charles Schulz’s work in a myriad of directions, from comic precedents and critical analysis to memoir and even stylistic parody. All of it conveys that, twenty years on from its creator’s death, the potential Peanuts contains remains endless.
3. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
Branum does not suffer fools gladly, which always makes for a refreshing, readable memoir; that he mostly avoids archness and navel-gazing makes for an uncommonly honest one as well. Whether dishing about former boss Chelsea Handler or writing frankly about obesity, he’s curious and stimulating instead of settling for bitter and bitchy.
2. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Reichl’s best book since Garlic and Sapphires, which also happens to be her last work-centric memoir, this is her long-awaited account of her ’00s stint as a editor-in-chief of the now shuttered magazine Gourmet. Previously an outsider to the industry, she provides a fascinating assessment of its politics and inner workings that, over time, turns into a requiem for a fading profession—with recipes, of course.
1. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
I didn’t even know this singer/songwriter, best known for her plucky 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, had written a memoir until I checked her blog a few weeks after it came out. And like Diary did for her music, this proves she’s a natural writer as well. Spanning mostly from her move to Manhattan from Pittsburgh at age 17 in the late ’70s to Diary’s release, Rigby both depicts a lost New York and completely nails the exhilaration and anxiety of being young and on your own and desperately wanting to create art and partake in culture when the everyday world makes it challenging to do so. It gets the top spot here because, more than any musician’s memoir I’ve read in the past few years, I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they’ve never heard a note of Rigby’s music.
Honorable Mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation; A.M. Homes, Days of Awe; Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; John Hodgman, Medallion Status; Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
Here’s my complete 2019 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read–8 this year, which is twice as many as in 2018!):
Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
Abbi Jacobson, I Might Regret This
Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test
Robert Christgau, Does It Feel Good To Ya?
Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition
Fredric Dannen, Hit Men
Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
Merrill Markoe, What The Dogs Have Taught Me
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent*
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway
Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It
Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
A.M. Homes, Days of Awe
David Sedaris, Dress The Family In Corduroy and Denim*
Paul Myers, The Kids In The Hall: One Dumb Guy
Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
Peter Heller, The River
Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories
Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
Brian Raftery, Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
Frank DeCaro, Drag: Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Business
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Ani DiFranco, No Walls and the Reoccurring Dream
John Waters, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch
Rob Sheffield, Love is A Mixtape*
Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
H. Jon Benjamin, Failure Is An Option
Andrew Sean Greer, Less
Ramin Setoodeh, Ladies Who Punch
Bob Stanley, Sleevenotes
Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of The Dead*
Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby
Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More!*
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon*
David Crabb, Bad Kid: A Memoir*
Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
Richard Brautigan, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
Patti Smith, Year Of The Monkey
Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
John Hodgman, Medallion Status
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping*
Lindy West, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman
Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
McDonnell/O’Connell/de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman
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.