20. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow (2011)
Bush’s only release of original material in the decade fittingly felt like it was thought about and labored over forever. Looking to capture the theme of winter, she set her lengthy, piano-based songs to the motif of falling snow, creating stories with narrators that sounded like they had been stuck indoors by themselves for years. On “Wild Man,” she empathized with the misunderstood and hunted Yeti, while song of the decade candidate “Misty” told the story of a doomed tryst with a snowman over 13 spellbinding minutes. In a way that only she could, Bush captured feelings of longing, loneliness, and introversion in possibly her most unusual work yet.
19. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage (2018)
After suffering a serious accident that delayed her follow-up to 2012’s self-titled debut, Melody Prochet released years worth of kooky ideas in 30 rollercoaster minutes on the restlessly strange Bon Voyage. Blending French pop, shoegaze, psychedelia, jazz, and just plain nonsense, this album resembled an abstract musical splatter painting, and there was joy in hearing its manic unhinged creativity and its desire to surprise. Few albums have done more to capture pure imagination in all of its eccentric glory.
18. Throwing Muses – Purgatory/Paradise (2013)
In a decade partially defined by awful band reunions, Throwing Muses were one of the few bands to get it right. Instead of performing the old hits, Kristin Hersh daringly pushed the band into new — yet still familiar — territory, smashing up their trademark cryptic sound into fragmented songs that led to a unique and disorienting listening experience. Two-part tracks like “Morning Birds” showed up early, then resurfaced later on the album as either a continuation or a reimagining of the first half, providing a weird sense of deja vu. The 32 bruised, beautiful songs on this sprawling album spanned all of the band’s different sounds through the years and served as a reminder of how vital and distinct Hersh’s voice is as both a singer and writer.
17. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (2011)
At one point, Erika M. Anderson’s website was called “came outta nowhere,” which described her debut solo album well. Released on an obscure record label, Past Life Martyred Saints practically demanded attention because of its raw, provocative songwriting and abrasive arrangements, which stood out at the time because indie had become very buttoned-up and prim. Her most jolting track, “California,” was a Laurie Anderson/Patti Smith/Nirvana hybrid full of scathing one-liners, while songs like “Marked” and “Butterfly Knife” confronted self-harm in vivid emotional detail. EMA was served well by her complete fearlessness and willingness to go deeper into painful material than almost anyone else.
16. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation (2017)
Hannah Lew’s group might have been too subtle for their own good, as their amorphous goth-synth-punk-pop style never quite seemed to catch on with anyone who wrote about music other than me. Chaos By Invitation went in an 80s-inspired synth direction that was hinted at on their previous album, Into the Air, and had a variety of evocative songs that didn’t necessarily present obvious interpretations or moods, instead allowing the listener to react to everything in their own way. Some songs like “Thin Ice” and “Don’t Touch” had a twitchy anxiety and urgency to them, while the shimmering opener “In Motion” was vast and emotive. Every song was an intricate balance of styles with an underlying strangeness that made me keep listening.
15. Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019)
The election of a grifter president created a lot of grifters on the opposite end of the political spectrum who peddled empty outrage and anger targeted at frightened liberals. In that context, The Seduction of Kansas felt like one of the only true punk albums I heard, because it avoided the easy answers and conclusions everyone craved and instead did the more difficult, worthwhile work of looking inward and examining the state of the country as a whole. While still having some aggression to it, this album focused on being thoughtful, and it told cryptic, ambiguous stories through characters that sketched out life in America in accurate detail. The depth of the lyrics was matched with a variety of sounds and textures that were sophisticated while still maintaining the band’s trademark fire. The Seduction of Kansas was everything rock music should be but so rarely is: timely, thought-provoking, and full of creative energy.
14. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure (2013)
Wait to Pleasure wasn’t the sort of album that generates a ton of discussion or deep theorizing about the meaning of the songs, but it was one of the decade’s most compelling and fresh explorations of the shoegaze sound. No Joy excelled by pushing the beauty and noise contrasts in their music to the furthest length possible with extremely loud guitar maelstroms from Laura Lloyd and Jasamine White-Gluz’s vocals, which were pleasant and light to the point of being uncanny. The clash of those two instruments, along with the band’s addictive pop hooks, led to songs that sort of felt like the sun was exploding.
13. Janelle Monae – The Archandroid (2010)
I’ve been let down by Monae in the years since this album, but The Archandroid will always be a reminder of the staggering talent she has. Her story of an android named Cindy Mayweather linked this suite of songs that jumped fearlessly and joyfully across genres and styles, showcasing a dizzying amount of raw ambition and creativity. While most people were praising the conventional pop songs like “Tightrope” on this album, I was geeking out over its weird back half, which had psychedelic rock (“Mushrooms & Roses”), soul with an alien rap interlude (“Neon Valley Street”), Simon and Garfunkel style folk (“57821”) and cosmic electropop (“Wondaland”). Monae’s refusal to put limits on herself was inspiring, but what really made this album great was its spirit of adventure and appeal to fantasy and imagination, traits that are all largely absent in other radio-aspiring pop.
12. SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (2016)
SubRosa did a lot of things I love in music at the most extreme level: their songs were epic in length with massive dynamic shifts, dramatic storytelling, and a collision of beauty and ugliness that was second to none. While they were a metal band and mostly stuck to their own world, I felt like they were almost unintentionally a shoegaze band. For This We Fought the Battle of Ages was their album with the most to say, about surveillance, power dynamics, and how suffering can define people. But it’s that sound, with the thunderous guitars, electric violins, and feminine vocals that made them my choice for the most distinct rock band of the decade.
11. Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015)
Beach House were one of the most consistent bands of the decade, almost to their detriment in my mind — it got to a point where it felt like I knew what every song would sound like and I stopped getting excited for their releases. But when I listened to Thank Your Lucky Stars, expecting to be underwhelmed, I was blown away. Released shortly after their other 2015 album, Depression Cherry (which I didn’t even like much, for the aforementioned reasons), this album evolved their sound into something that felt more cloudy and ambiguous instead of sunshine dream pop. Likely influenced by the cover art, listening to it made me feel like I had uncovered something amazing in a dusty old attic, like each song was a window into a different time and maybe a different universe. All of this band’s music is gorgeous, but this is their one album that really resonates with me — the fact that I still have a hard time explaining why is part of its intangible greatness.