10. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (2019)
By the end of the decade, Angel Olsen had established herself as a brilliant singer who often made music that I didn’t find incredibly interesting. On All Mirrors, she dropped the lo-fi pretensions and enveloped her voice in majestic orchestra and synth arrangements that took the drama in her songs to an entirely different level. This could have easily backfired but ended up being a revelation: Olsen’s songs fit the cinematic, stagey presentation, and her themes about the passing of time and growing up were conveyed not just in the lyrics, but in her growth as a musician. With full confidence in her ability, she unleashed a series of tracks that each showed a different side of her artistry, making this one of the decade’s strongest showcases of pure prodigious talent.
9. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
Fiona Apple albums have become rare events, with just two in the last 20 years, and it was easy to see why when listening to The Idler Wheel: this was music that required years of experience in order to live out its stories and craft all the endlessly quotable lyrics. Surrounded by her usual piano with some additional quirky sounds, this was a more spare album than her previous, Extraordinary Machine (which had a controversial squabble over its production), with the focus almost entirely on Apple’s peerless voice and lyrics. Her seeming complete disinterest in contemporary music and trends fueled the unique vibe of The Idler Wheel. These songs seemed to flow out of her organically without desperately trying to fit into a specific style, and it was all in her own singular voice and vocabulary.
8. Tamaryn – The Waves (2010)
It took me almost the entire decade to fully appreciate The Waves, which was released by Tamaryn in 2010 and immediately tossed into the “samey shoegaze revival” bin by most people. Over the years, though, this album separated from all the forgettable pretenders because of the perfect execution of its crystalline goth-rock sound and Tamaryn’s ability as a pop songwriter and singer. On songs like “Love Fade” and “Mild Confusion,” she synthesized almost 30 years worth of shoegaze, goth, and noisy rock while adding layers of emotion and personality with her distinct haunting vocals. The Waves was a masterclass of evocative sound, an album that seemed impossibly vast and fearlessly intimate at the same time.
7. Björk – Vulnicura (2015)
Vulnicura raises one of the foundational questions of these lists: is an album actually great if you never really want to listen to it? Björk turned the dissolution of a long-term partnership into epic, gorgeous, and miserable drama, bringing back the strings from Homogenic but replacing that album’s forward-thinking pop songs with formless, haunting reflections on the anger and loss she felt. While “Stonemilker” was a throwback to her more majestic, poppy side, the story of the album was how that trademark optimistic sound disappeared, culminating in the 10-minute long crater of despair “Black Lake.” This was not an album to throw on in the car or at a party (unless it was a really weird party), but as an experience and a window into the soul of one of the greatest artists of all time, it was a valuable, completely unique recording that was unrivaled in its emotional weight.
6. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death (2016)
One of the great stories of the decade was the steady artistic growth of Emma Ruth Rundle, who started her career by quietly churning out a series of intriguing albums as part of The Nocturnes, Marriages, and as a solo artist with records of ambient guitar and folk. On her astonishing breakthrough, Marked For Death, all of the skills she’d been honing felt like they crystalized at once, resulting in spellbinding songs that had as much intensity and feeling as any music I’ve heard. Befitting an artist who dabbled in shoegaze, metal, and folk, the songs on Marked for Death didn’t seem to belong to any genre but Rundles’ own. No one was all that close to this mix of gloomy, atmospheric guitar, impassioned vocals, and songwriting that balanced listenability and experimentation.
5. My Bloody Valentine – m b v (2013)
In maybe the last album release that will ever feel like a communal event, the once-impossible m b v abruptly dropped on My Bloody Valentine’s not-entirely-stable website as the band’s first album in 22 years. In the time since they made the classic Loveless, the band’s trademark shoegaze sound had died out and then come back to life in the form of numerous revival acts (some of whom have already been listed here), so it was hard to know what they could do that would feel vital. I still vividly remember hitting play on this, having no idea what to expect, and feeling the wash of relief and joy when the first notes of “She Found Now” hit and I realized it sounded like classic My Bloody Valentine. The following eight songs told the story of Kevin Shields’ long, probably frustrating journey making the album, with a mix of the classic sound and some songs that took the band somewhere new while staying faithful to what fans love about them. Most of all, it served as a reminder of Shields’ incredible talent: even with a ton of bands trying to sound like My Bloody Valentine, nothing sounded quite like m b v.
4. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses (2018)
The giant leap of Marked for Death was always going to make it a tough album for Rundle to follow. But she managed to very narrowly top herself with On Dark Horses, which slightly broadened her sound with a wider range of collaborators and a slightly more traditional rock style that still didn’t really resemble anything else because of her unique musical background. The biggest leap on this album was in its lyrics, which felt more tangible and real than the sometimes vague and biblical words on Marked For Death, and there were even powerful moments of uplift in the gloomy fog created by her guitar. The quiet/loud structures and legitimate rock hooks on songs like “Dead Set Eyes” and “Light Song” gave On Dark Horses a sense of immediacy — Rundle’s songs were easy to get into, and her execution of them made me want to listen to them forever.
3. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
PJ Harvey’s career is full of left turns, and on Let England Shake they all finally formed a circle. She combined the haunting ghostly sounds of White Chalk, the brutal intensity of Rid of Me, and the atmospheric beauty of Is This Desire? into a cohesive pastoral folk style that still felt new to her, and attached it to an album that explored the lasting effects of war in her native England. Not content to make simplistic “war is bad” screeds, Harvey went several steps deeper, portraying herself as a time traveler or a ghost who described the horrors in vivid detail while connecting them to her own life as someone who knows the history and wishes she could change it. The callbacks in the album’s sound (which included strategic samples of classic music) and the lyrics each told a complete story of how the past is always with us, even if we didn’t experience it ourselves.
2. Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up (2015)
Already known for her ability to craft catchy pop-punk tunes that didn’t take themselves too seriously, Colleen Green put all of herself into I Want to Grow Up and created a defining tragicomedy for a certain type of stunted millennial. Green’s straight-forward songwriting and blasé attitude added a weird power to her bluntly honest and revealing lyrics, which varied between different shades of devastation in either their relatability, sadness or hilarity. “TV” might have been the most real love song of the decade and “Deeper Than Love” was the album’s emotional centerpiece, a jarring and uncomfortable exploration of Green’s anxieties and fear of intimacy set to an addictive drum machine groove. Folk singers get all the credit for “baring their souls” in their boring music, but most could never approach the authenticity and pathos of this brutally simple, fun rock album. Maybe the highest praise I can give I Want to Grow Up is that by the end of it, I knew exactly who Green was. In its own unambitious way, this was a masterpiece of character-driven comedic storytelling, like A Confederacy of Dunces with riffs.
1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid (2017)
Albums like The Kid come along very rarely, and they remind me of why I listen to music: to hear different stories, to experience creative people in their element, and to experience something that sparks my imagination and makes me understand the world a little better. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s detailed modular synth compositions told a story of a life primarily through sound, evoking almost any emotion anyone could want from music. “An Intention” and the title track showed the early innocent moments of childhood when you open your eyes to the world, “In the World but Not of the World” portrayed the young adult feeling of questioning and surprising yourself, and its classic closing track, “To Feel Your Best,” was a profoundly moving conclusion about facing the end with a loved one. In between those major story moments, Smith’s constant playful experimentation on her synths had a magical, unjaded charm, with wonder and youthful spirit flowing out of every quirky sound. Smith’s artistry made me feel like a kid again, like I had just discovered something totally new that amazed me because it was so beyond the scope of my comprehension.