When I started writing this blog way back in 2011, I only intended it to be a hobby, a writing outlet that maybe a small number of my friends would be interested in. It’s crazy to think that from those humble beginnings, the blog has become what it is now: a writing outlet that maybe a small number of my friends are interested in. This blog has opened absolutely no doors for me, has never gained a real audience, and if anything it has probably hindered my personal and professional success. But I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, and so I’m proud to present this albums of the decade list to the always accepting and understanding void.
While I have a blast writing and sharing these lists, I always have some ambivalence about ranking things, which I know is reductive and unfair. These are just my personal favorites, not any kind of attempt at saying these are “the best,” and I’m not trying to contrive up some weird narrative of what the decade was through songs. However, I will say I know this narrow range of music I love quite well, and I believe there is an internal logic to this list even if you don’t agree with it. Above all, I hope people find something new or something old that they overlooked and are encouraged to give it a listen based on this ranking.
50. Wild Flag – Wild Flag (2011)
Before the formation of Ex Hex and the ill-fated reunion of Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Mary Timony formed this predictably one-off indie rock all-star team along with Rebecca Cole. Nobody has talked about this album in at least seven years, but it holds up in part because of the ephemeral nature of the project, which made every song feel like friends jamming together instead of worrying about their careers or legacies. Timony’s contributions were most welcome after she had been out of the limelight for awhile, particularly “Glass Tambourine,” which perfectly melded Brownstein and Weiss’ rock heroics with her spacey, psychedelic vision.
49. Tess Parks – Blood Hot (2013)
There are “old souls,” and then there is Tess Parks, who in her early 20s sounded like she’d smoked cigarettes for 40 years and on Blood Hot released a stubbornly old-fashioned collection of druggy 60s-style psychedelic rock songs. Parks’ raspy vocals and cool aura made Blood Hot feel like a throwback to the original spirit of rock and roll, where it was just about hearing a unique presence and voice backed by basic instrumentation. This album was very out of step with current popular trends, but it was easy to imagine another time where Parks was a legitimate rock star.
48. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
As the nefarious trend of clickbait poptimism took hold of the music industry, pop stars became multi-media brands that generated viral content aimed at deranged lunatics online, who were more like cult members than appreciators of music. In this depressing context, the strategically-titled Emotion became a bright light because Carly Rae Jepsen dared to write actual songs with actual feeling, with a focus on the art of the pop song instead of novelty. The thoughtful craft and open-hearted performance on songs like “Run Away With Me” took on a certain humble charm that felt revolutionary in a world full of egotistical pop.
47. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited (2018)
Over the course of the decade, I gained a healthy distaste for “message music” that sought approval through its valorous political statements instead of its craft. In a Poem Unlimited worked because the politics in it felt like they organically came out of Meg Remy’s narratives, whether it was about a woman seeking revenge against an abuser on “Velvet 4 Sale” or her personal loss of faith with a former president on “M.A.H.” This album never settled for easy platitudes; the harsh realities espoused by Remy were abrasive and complex, just like its noisy-yet-sweet pop sound.
46. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest (2017)
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s dark, disco-inspired album was full of catchy and danceable songs, the kind that are often colloquially referred to as “jams” or “bangers.” The production and funky sound of Rest was its big hook, but its themes of grief and loss were what made it memorable, and Gainsbourg’s lyrics (occasionally in French) often formed a clash with the naturally joyous sound. This was one of the albums that had the best balance of the good parts of pop with a sense of sophistication and artistry.
45. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
St. Vincent spent the latter half of the decade cultivating a self-conscious and inorganic “look how weird I am” persona, but her sound worked best when the strangeness was more subtle and subversive like on Strange Mercy. What made her music compelling to me at this time was how it twisted indie rock norms; songs that sounded normal would be twisted by her blasts of guitar and the more innocent sounds often served as fronts for dark and occasionally creepy lyrics. This album had just the right amount of strangeness and experimentation in its otherwise accessible indie rock shell.
44. Julia Holter – Aviary (2018)
Aviary was, as the kids say, “extra,” with its 90-minute run time and assortment of deep references and quirky sounds, including one song that was basically a bagpipe wailing for eight straight minutes. Julia Holter’s epic project captured the overwhelming non-stop news and media cycle of this time, but she turned the excessiveness into a beautiful alternate reality that encouraged listeners to explore and try to solve its many riddles. Even if Aviary was more admirable than enjoyable at times, its ambition, distinctiveness, and timeliness made it an album I thought about a lot, and I suspect it will hold up in the future.
43. Cold Beat – Into the Air (2015)
Into the Air was the album where Cold Beat established themselves as one of the decade’s most intriguing rock acts, a band with a sound that seemed so familiar yet was oddly hard to define. Hannah Lew’s project broke through on this album in part because of its sequencing; starting with more traditional post-punk, there was a gradual feeling of ascension through the songs until by the end, they had turned from a traditional guitar band into an icy synth band. Its biggest highlights, “Cracks” and “Am I Dust,” were in the middle of the album and showed the band mid-evolution, leading to a bracing tension and clash of styles.
42. Nervous Trend – Shattered (2015)
Nervous Trend were the best rock band that barely anyone ever heard of and I fondly remember them for being too punk for their own good. While so many other bands understandably promote themselves and do everything they can to earn attention, this group from Australia seemed completely indifferent to anyone even hearing their music, to the point that I had a difficult time finding a way to pay them money (eventually I bought a vinyl from them even though I don’t own a record player). It may seem aggressive to rank this two-song single — the only official release from this band before they broke up — as one of the top releases of the decade, but the fire and urgency on display here was far beyond what almost any other rock band in the decade was capable of.
41. Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman (2018)
On Working Class Woman, Marie Davidson injected a healthy dose of personality into electronic/club music with songs marked by her dark humor and ambivalence about her career. Part of the fun with these songs was trying to figure out her motivations: was “Work It” intended to be a surface-level empowering club jam, or was she mocking our pointlessly competitive workaholic culture and the ridiculous peppiness of most electronic music? I don’t think there was an obvious answer, and this album’s complexity and difficulty in both its sound and the portrayal of its protagonist were its greatest strengths.