30. Free Cake For Every Creature – The Bluest Star (2018)
Katie Bennett’s home recording project started as a low-stakes creative outlet with her friends and ended with The Bluest Star, an album that expanded on the vision of her whispery songs while maintaining the humble charm that made them so endearing to begin with. Backed by mostly jangly guitar, Bennett’s no-frills songs were full of wonderful true-to-life details and created their own universe full of memorable characters and friendships. The Bluest Star might have been the decade’s strongest argument that being genuine and thoughtful is worth more than any money you could spend on production.
29. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent (2014)
A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s innovation in shoegaze was to do a little too much on every single song, resulting in an overcooked mess of noisy guitar parts and overlapping harmonies that nonetheless cohered into something great. Every song on Sea When Absent sounds like it was made out of parts from 15 other songs and then recorded by a group of 40 people who were all in separate rooms. The “too many cooks” style ended up making it unique: the fun with this album was hearing all these disparate parts come together and experiencing the creative sugar rush from everyone jamming as many ideas as possible into each song.
28. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)
If you can’t tell by now, I wasn’t that interested in the typical acclaimed indie rock bands this decade, since I felt like they all sounded about the same and weren’t particularly interesting. Deerhunter were the one band that always brought something new to the table, though, in part because of Bradford Cox’s odd charisma and his willingness to put artsy emotion into his songs. He and guitarist Lockett Pundt wrote some of their most catchy and thoughtful material on this album, which had a more low-key psychedelic sound that helped spotlight some of the unique stories like “Helicopter.”
27. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)
As The Shy One in the Deerhunter boy band, Lockett Pundt was rarely the center of attention, instead ceding the spotlight to outspoken frontman Bradford Cox. Less prolific and flashy, Pundt still provided many Deerhunter highlights, including the epic “Desire Lines,” and on Spooky Action at a Distance he fully branched out on his own with a series of songs in a similar hypnotizing and repetitious mold. There wasn’t a ton to the lyrics or a lot of variety, but Lockett’s low-key guitar heroics and pleasant, nostalgic vocals made this some of the best pure ear candy of the decade.
26. Bat For Lashes – The Bride (2016)
Natasha Khan’s fourth album was almost comically unmarketable, with a misery-inducing premise (a bride-to-be’s fiancé dies on the way to the wedding so she goes on a honeymoon by herself) and slow, piano and synth-driven songs that focused on feminine emotion and drama. It wasn’t easy to get people amped up to listen to songs with titles like “Never Forgive the Angels.” That became part of why I liked the album so much: there was a daringness in Khan’s decision to commit so fully to the story while telling it at her own pace on her own terms, particularly in the internet context that prioritizes attention over everything else. She rewarded patient and thoughtful listeners with an album that contained true artistry and emotion-packed, cathartic songs.
25. Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams (2011)
When Only in Dreams came out, I felt like Dum Dum Girls were just a novelty retro act, but over time I came to appreciate its mastermind Kristin Gundred’s (at the time known as Dee Dee) gift for basic, structured songwriting and her ability to put real emotion into a classic pop framework. Written during and after her mother’s death from cancer, Only in Dreams infused its girl-group-meets-Pretenders sound with moving themes of grief and separation from loved ones. The album was strengthened by its rigid structure: the songs felt like they could have existed in any era because of their universal pop language, and when the band finally broke their own rules on the lengthy, towering “Coming Down,” it made for one of the most powerful songs of the decade.
24. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Ears (2016)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith spent several albums essentially tinkering around on some modular synthesizers she acquired from a neighbor before her breakthrough album, Ears, which finally seemed to focus all of the lessons she’d learned into something resembling pop songs. Utilizing her voice much more and with woodwinds aiding her synth textures, Smith made songs that seemed to form their own natural worlds, full of lush details and quirks. Her wondrous sounds somehow merged the artificial and the organic; songs like “Rare Things Grow” simulated plants growing in a rain forest with water dropping on their leaves while the opener, “First Flight,” evoked looking over a canyon on a windy day. I still don’t understand how she did any of this.
23. Wax Idols – American Tragic (2015)
Hether Fortune was one of the decade’s most underappreciated band leaders, and American Tragic showed her charisma and ability to write dark, meaningful goth rock. Coming off a divorce, she put feelings of love and pain into these songs, turning her real-life experiences into theatrical music drama. Songs like “Lonely You” and “Severely Yours” also showed her sharpening pop instincts; their gorgeous, clear guitar parts and catchy choruses only made Fortune’s lyrics cut deeper.
22. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss (2015)
Known previously for sullen folk music, Chelsea Wolfe expanded her scale considerably on Abyss, adding scuzzy doom metal guitars that contrasted with her quieter passages. Her songs were so dramatic with the dynamic shifts that they teetered to the edge of being histrionic and over-the-top, but never quite crossed that threshold. Instead, this album’s collision of noise and beauty captured a sense of all-enveloping pitch-black darkness and despair, making it a draining but cathartic listen.
21. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate (2016)
After ending Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Gundred took on the persona of Kristin Kontrol and moved into a synth pop style that felt entirely different, but still had the same virtuosic pop songwriting. While continuing to use the structures of verses, choruses, and bridges, X-Communicate had a sense of musical freedom coming off Dum Dum Girls, who were always locked into certain specific aesthetics and moods. Kristin showed a wider range of emotions, showed more of her vocal ability, and showed how joyous it can be to hear an artist reinvent themselves. In my esteemed opinion, no one in this decade was better at twisting well-known pop sounds into something that felt new and personal.