Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” is a Not Horrible Pop Album

My ignorance of chart-topping pop music is such that I had no idea who Dua Lipa was until about a week ago, when her new album Future Nostalgia was released to rave reviews. I decided to give it a shot, partly to keep myself up to date on what the children are listening to in sort of an undercover journalist way, and also due to boredom. I mean, what else am I going to do right now, read a book?

It turns out that Future Nostalgia is a pleasant surprise: a chart-topping pop album that doesn’t fill me with anger and resentment towards the youths, with their Instagrams, Tik Toks, and generally uncivilized taste and manner. It instantly vaults Lipa squarely into contention for my coveted “least worst pop star” title, currently held by Billie Eilish. It partly succeeds for me because of its lack of pretension — it’s great to hear a pop album that knows what it is and isn’t really trying to do anything other than get some catchy jams stuck in your head.

One reason I tend to resist the recent trend towards “poptimism” is that I find it embarrassing to hear critics wax poetic about pop music that is clearly designed for kids. They don’t feel like they can enjoy music mindlessly, so they search for deep meaning in these assembly-line produced songs, because if they just said “these songs are good and catchy,” they wouldn’t have a job. Future Nostalgia requires no analysis or critique beyond that, though — these songs aren’t designed to be anything more than airy pop confections. While other pop artists like Lana Del Rey have sought to “make a statement” in their music, overestimating their own ability and embarrassingly overreaching, Future Nostalgia at all times delivers exactly what it promises.

There is no intellectual value to this music whatsoever, but I don’t see how anyone can listen to it and not get at least one song stuck in their head. “Hallucinate” is the track that got me, with its upbeat disco sound and earworm chorus. “Break My Heart” and “Love Again” are also stuck in my head, though that is partially due to their “borrowing” of classic hooks (from INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and White Town’s “Your Woman” respectively), which feels to me like cheating.

It occurred to me listening to those songs that the cheating was kind of the point. Every pop trick and shortcut to make you addicted to a song is used on this album, and it’s devilishly effective. While Dua Lipa is the face of this project, and I don’t want to underestimate her input, it definitely feels like the work of smoothly operating pop machinery, and I wasn’t surprised to see roughly 1000 different writers and producers credited in its making. Lipa is a more low-key personality who is content to blend into the slick productions, which makes it feel cohesive and also refreshing compared to the more aggressive personal branding of most pop stars. There is no ego on this album, just an endless parade of pop hooks from the past and future.

When and How Will Sports Come Back?

With the country mostly shut down due to coronavirus, it’s been nearly two weeks since the last live sporting event in the U.S. There isn’t a clear end in sight for this period of social distancing, which was recently extended to April 30th, and I expect it to go on potentially much longer as the virus continues to make its way through various areas. The future of sports in this environment feels unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, there is a collective need for distraction and entertainment, and historically sports have served as a strong unifier and a way to rally the country. This is a big reason why I expect sports to be one of the first normal things to come back, likely in June or July, though it will have to be in a vastly different form than we’ve seen before.

Until there is a vaccine, widespread herd immunity, or some unforeseen mitigation of the virus threat, I do not expect sporting events to be played in front of crowds. This will make for a weird viewing experience, but it also opens the door for creative solutions: without a live crowd, the actual location where you’re playing the game is irrelevant. This is the key to my proposed solution, which will sound insane — but these are insane times, and a weird, unprecedented problem like this will likely have weird, out-of-the-box solutions. The concept of “social distancing” would have sounded crazy weeks ago, but now seems like the obvious correct thing to do.

A league that wants to play games could theoretically quarantine all of their players, test them (we’ve already seen how accessible testing is for NBA players), and then isolate them in a location that is not as susceptible to the virus — something like a small town in rural Montana, but there is room to go crazy here if you want to ship players to the Yukon. This is a possible solution for the NBA, which still wants to finish its season, and really only needs a traditional basketball court to play. The two conferences could quarantine in a local hotel or something, then play games all day at a random gym, with the Western Conference taking one day, then resting the next while the Eastern Conference plays. Assuming thorough testing, this is not that far-fetched of an idea, and it could potentially give Americans hours of live basketball to watch each day while stuck indoors.

Sports leagues are heavily incentivized to come back, and whoever jumps first in this game of chicken has potential to reap serious rewards — they can establish a narrative of helping the country “bounce back” while also generating attention to their games, which could lead to iconic moments that are replayed forever (think Mike Piazza’s home run after September 11). I assume every league in season right now is thinking of these sorts of drastic measures to get games in, simply because the benefits are so significant. With that said, here are the three leagues I think are most likely to jump into the pool first:

MLB: Commissioner Rob Manfred is a desperate man who has been doing anything he can to get more eyeballs on the game and try to win new fans. Baseball being the first sport to return would be a perfect opportunity for that, and it will be in the summer which is strongly associated with the sport. MLB can also credibly argue that they play the safest game, as it is typically outdoors with much less intense physical contact than basketball, hockey, or soccer.

The biggest issue I see with MLB is finding enough fields and being able to get the games (which take forever) in while quarantining the large rosters. I am skeptical about teams traveling around and playing in their home parks while this is going on. It’s possible there is a complex in the right location with enough fields to play the needed 15 games, which could obviously be staggered throughout the day. Even if there is, baseball teams often jettison players back and forth from the minor leagues, and it’s hard to envision a situation that supports a full major league and minor league slate. This would likely necessitate larger rosters (which have already been discussed), but a lack of minor leagues games still would have a ripple effect on the trade market and the development of young players. If MLB can figure out a solution to those complex issues, they have a strong chance of being the first sport to come back.

WNBA: Their draft is still on as scheduled and we’re approaching when the season would start anyways. The WNBA has a few things going for it: it has the fewest players of any league, it only needs simple basketball courts (as discussed earlier), and it’s the league with the most to gain from being the first league back. They’ve needed a shot in the arm for popularity and more exposure to the sport forever, and I think the country will be so sports-starved that even those skeptical of women’s sports will tune in. When they do, they might be surprised by how much they like it.

The only complicating factor here is that WNBA players are very socially conscious — I’m not sure if that would manifest in them not wanting to participate or in them desiring to get on the court and give the country a distraction. There are also still some old gender roles issues at play with many players who are mothers and may be more reluctant to leave their families during these heightened, stressful times, especially since they’re not making millions like their male counterparts. However, the WNBA always deals with players sitting out seasons even when things are going fine, so I’m not sure if that’s a dealbreaker, and in the end, my hunch is that athletes will want to play and compete if assured of their safety. This is a sleeper pick and might be my favorite right now.

MLS: This is another rising sports league that would love to get some attention, and also benefits from being outdoors and playing on a basic field. I honestly don’t follow the league enough to know its social dynamics or what the commissioners are thinking, but they will clearly have one of the stronger incentives to get back on the field as soon as possible.

Those three strike me as the most likely right now, but almost any projection is clouded with uncertainty. The NBA has a problem where if it wants to return for its playoffs, they would be playing through their typical offseason. It’s possible the league will still finish its season and then permanently change the start of their regular season to Christmas — something that has already been discussed by owners so they compete less with football. The NHL season feels like a lost cause to me, as getting rink space for every team seems difficult, and I think even the start of their next season might be an issue. If none of these leagues return in the summer (which would shock me), the NFL will have months to prepare a solution and I think will find some way to play empty arena games for its season, even if it means shipping the players to Antarctica.

Any return by one of these leagues will require planning, some creative thinking, and an acceptance of some level of risk. However, I think the rewards are too great, and the demand is too large, for every league to just sit out this entire pandemic. How all of this happens is one of the things I’m most curious about, and I expect around May or June we’ll see the ideas start to roll out and some semblance of normalcy will be returned to our lives.

Wrestling Without Fans is the Last Entertainment Standing

Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.

Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?

As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.

AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.

This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.

WWE has the advantage of currently building up to WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.

I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.

These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.

My Favorite Albums of the Decade (Complete)

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.

40. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) (2017)

Meg Duffy was an accomplished studio musician and guitarist before they finally recorded their first solo work. Befitting an artist used to being in the background, Wildly Idle was low-key and unassuming, with moseying songs that showcased their lyrical guitar playing and vulnerable vocals. Duffy’s songs portrayed introversion and shyness with startling clarity; the way they were constructed to start slowly and then open up on the choruses was reflective of most of my experiences interacting with people as a weirdly timid person.

39. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical (2017)

Rose was a staple of the noise pop/girl group revival that started just before the turn of the decade, performing as a drummer in Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and then fronting her own band, The Outs. Under her own name, she started playing synth-driven pop and she peaked (thus far) with Cage Tropical, which used her life and music experience as the basis for a series of masterfully written pop gems. Her smooth, shiny production and songwriting was enough to make this album a great listen, but Rose’s lyrics and themes of self-doubt added layers of wistful emotion that made it stand out from the vast amount of synth releases.

38. Allo Darlin’ – Europe (2012)

Allo Darlin’ were the type of band that got left behind this decade, as original heart-on-sleeve indie pop was tossed to the side so every site could cheerlead for celebrities to try to drive meaningless clicks to their websites. Powered by Elizabeth Morris’ sweet and heartfelt vocals and lyrics, Europe was an irresistible jangly throwback that prioritized warmth, humanity and craft over gimmicks. This album was so sincere and gentle that it almost felt like real punk in a context where everyone else was trying so hard to be cool and edgy.

37. The Green Child – The Green Child (2018)

This collaboration between Mikey Young of Total Control and Raven Mahon, formerly of Grass Widow, was the exact kind of subtle retro-futuristic psychedelia I love. Channeling the usual bands I name in every post (Stereolab, Broadcast, etc.), they still found their own sound on their self-titled debut, which was a mix of swirly synths and Mahon’s floating vocals, which added a haunting ambiguity to the songs. The best tracks, like the stunning “Her Majesty II,” combined sounds from multiple different eras into a single thought-provoking and timeless package.

36. Field Mouse – Meaning (2019)

Rachel Browne faced an existential crisis of sorts prior to the recording of Meaning, wondering if there was any point in making art in a landscape that often seems to punish worthwhile work. Luckily, instead she channeled those fears into a relatable, endearing album with bright guitar pop songwriting and introspective lyrics that offered a rare level of insight into an artist’s frustrations. The cruel irony was Meaning going completely ignored by music outlets, somewhat proving Browne’s fears, even though this album was more timely, relevant, and enjoyable to listen to than almost anything I heard in 2019.

35. Nona – Through the Head (2013)

One of the true hidden gems of the decade, Nona released just this one album, which didn’t make it too far outside of their local Philadelphia scene (I was lucky to hear about it on Twitter). Through the Head had that scrappy local indie band charm, with songs that rocked and were fun to listen to without any pretension. But what really made them special was singer Mimi Gallagher, who had a voice unlike anyone else’s — her high-pitched, energetic singing and lyrics about riding the bus, youthful crushes and anxiety were a portal back to childhood, including some of the parts you’d rather forget.

34. Girlpool – Powerplant (2017)

Girlpool started off making intentionally amateurish music that centered on the unique bond and musical chemistry of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad. On Powerplant, the band added a drummer and daringly made actual rock songs, but instead of watering the band down, the pair’s strengths shined through even more. The vulnerable lockstep harmonies now were met with noisy blasts of guitar on songs with quiet/loud dynamics, which gave the album the feeling of young people entering the frightening real world while still having each other’s backs.

33. Widowspeak – Expect the Best (2017)

By the time they released Expect the Best, Widowspeak had established themselves as a band that made gorgeous sounds but seemed to live in the past too much. This album played off that perception of them, weaponizing the natural nostalgia in their music and asking difficult questions to the listener and themselves, about the dangers of inertia and not moving forward. Singer Molly Hamilton had one of the best pure voices in music, and on Expect the Best she matched it with a powerful emotional core.

32. Afrirampo – We Are Uchu No Ko (2010)

I have to go on memory on this one because We Are Uchu No Ko is impossible to find now and I lost the mp3s two laptops ago. The Japanese noise band’s presumed final album added a slight layer of sophistication to their trademark chaotic bursts of noise and energy, showing all of their many strengths gained through an odd career that included touring with Sonic Youth and living with African pygmy tribes. The songs on the album’s front half, including single “Miracle Lucky Girls,” were loud and frantic bursts of craziness and joy, while its back half showed Oni and Pika’s more meditative side with a long instrumental passage that was psychedelic and entrancing.

31. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (2019)

In the mold of a few albums on this list, Titanic Rising was a beautiful album made with disaster looming over it. Weyes Blood was inspired by climate change, but thankfully didn’t fall into the trap of singing about glaciers melting in an obvious, pandering way. She imagined herself as a character living her life as a movie — a relatable conceit to everyone living through these heightened, unreal times — and she soundtracked her film with opulent strings and piano, which along with her rich vocals gave the album a pleasant throwback vibe that added power to the internal struggles in its lyrics.

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.

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.

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.

Cold Beat Finds Humanity in the Chaos on “Mother”

Cold Beat never make it easy, which is why I’m obsessed with them and probably why they seem to appeal to a tiny sliver of an audience. Their latest album, Mother, has so much going on that nothing feels right except to hurl a bunch of contradictory adjectives at it: it’s eerie, comforting, warm, icy, catchy, and also near-impossible to fully figure out. After the more spare Chaos By Invitation, songwriter Hannah Lew went for more of a collaborative approach on this album, which is their densest, most experimental effort yet, while also being their most human.

This is another album by the band that defies categorization, but it lands somewhere in the synth-pop realm, with clear inspiration from bands like The Eurythmics (who were the subject of a Cold Beat covers EP). Lew surrounds herself with a variety of synths and tightly wound rhythms, which give the band a clarity and purpose even with the undecipherable or vague lyrics. It is hard to gather meaning from the songs, but it is easy to tell they do mean something, or they wouldn’t be played with this conviction. The standout second track, “Prism,” has only a few lyrics about shapes, yet it is defined by its non-stop piling on of sounds and its driving motorik beat, which lend it a bracing sense of urgency.

All through the album, Cold Beat experiment with their sound with ten tracks that all sound different from each other while clearly being the result of a single-minded effort. “Paper” is loaded with a saxophone part and something that sounds like a theremin, while “Through” has the band’s most pulsing, danceable rhythms to date with tight repetitive synths. Holding all of this madness together is Lew’s understated melodies and vocal performances, which are what allow the band to merge humanity and electronics so well. Her strongest effort is on the shimmering ballad “Double Sided Mirror,” a definitive Cold Beat song that is strange, intangible and psychedelic, yet also heartfelt.

Lew wrote Mother while she was pregnant, with the goal of describing earth to a newborn. That’s probably why this album feels like it’s trying to capture so much, and mostly succeeding: it’s a portrayal of the world, with all of its weirdness, chaos, and randomness, but also those little human moments that give people hope. The structure of Cold Beat’s music allows listeners to be intrigued by the sound, then to latch onto those moments, whether it’s a simple lyric that jumps out, a catchy hook, or a distinct instrumental aside like that saxophone part in “Paper.” For some listeners, I’m sure it will all be too abstract and those moments will never come. Those who let this album work its magic on them will find it to be one of the most thoughtful and addictive albums of the year.

Let Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s New Single Calm You

At this point, this blog serves as an unofficial P.R. wing for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Her 2017 album, The Kid, was my favorite album of the last decade and its predecessor, Ears, ended up in my top 50 also. I’ve long been resistant of using hyperbolic praise for musicians, but it’s not like any of this matters, so screw it: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a genius, and her new single, “Expanding Electricity,” is further proof of that claim.

The timing on this single couldn’t have been better: the virus sweeping the world is the most terrifying thing that has happened in my lifetime (it scares me more than 9/11 did, I think), and I’ve been living in isolation for the last week, though that isn’t necessarily a drastic shift from my usual routine. This song serves as a reminder that good things still exist in the world, and will hopefully exist after this is over. Inspired by electricity and the body, Smith’s latest runs over 10 minutes, with multiple distinct movements, similar to the closer on Ears, “Existence in the Unfurling.” This feels like her densest song so far, as its packed with strings, synths, and vibraphone, while also continuing to showcase her increasing confidence as a vocalist. The sheer volume of stuff going on remains a key draw to Smith’s music; every second over this entire long run time is packed with the joy of discovery and wonder.

Smith’s unbounded positivity and wide-eyed view of the world is so uncynical that I find it sort of jarring — like, how can anyone see what is happening out there and still make music that contains this much hope. A critic could say it is rooted in privilege and naivete, but even if that’s the case, the sounds she makes are so spellbinding and such an authentic translation of Smith’s personality into music. Without any context from the album to draw from, it is hard to say how this single stacks up to The Kid, which had a narrative thrust that added layers of meaning to her synth experimentations, which could otherwise just feel like random blippity-bloopity sounds. So rather than compare, for the time being I’m content to just absorb this song, with all of its little details and quirks. Even if this doesn’t end up being album of the decade material, Smith’s music will continue to serve as a much-needed light in the darkness.

My Favorite Video Games of the Last Decade

Since it looks like all of us are about to have a lot more free time, I thought I’d share my list of favorite video games of the last decade (which I meant to finish earlier). In what I’m sure is a shock, I have somewhat odd taste in games: I care almost purely about story and have minimum interest in games that are only about competing with other people or trying to defeat ultra-difficult bosses and master the controls. Gameplay still matters, obviously, but only in terms of how it serves the story, and so there are a few games on this list that maybe are more like interactive movies than what a lot of people think of as games. I recommend all of these stories highly and think a few would appeal even to people who don’t think of themselves as liking video games.

These aren’t in any particular order — even though I love obsessively ranking things, for some reason with video games it feels pointless since a lot of them have very different goals and aspirations.

Also, I own a PlayStation 3 and 4 and do not bother with other inferior consoles. I’m extremely loyal to the Sony brand and consider X-Box and Nintendo fans to be worse human beings than me.

Gone Home

The original “walking simulator,” Gone Home was polarizing — some consider it among the best games of all time while a very loud segment of players don’t even think it’s a game (this will be a recurring theme of this list). I don’t really care what it is, personally, because this was one of the best stories told in the last decade in any medium. Gone Home put you in the shoes of a teen girl who returns home from studying abroad and finds that her parents and sister are missing. You wander around the home, finding clues and hints about their whereabouts while never directly interacting with anyone. The tapes your sister leaves behind tell a powerful enough straight-forward story, but the real genius of Gone Home was how the game played out in your head, allowing players to form their own conclusions about the characters by extrapolating and connecting dots. While only 2-3 hours in length, I got a lot more out of this game than the vast majority of bloated big budget titles.

Life is Strange

An angsty little episodic teen drama with medium graphics, questionable voice acting, and some utterly cringeworthy older-men-writing-for-teenagers dialogue, Life is Strange was certainly a game that had some very obvious flaws. But few games have gotten me as emotionally hooked into the characters and the story, and I think it created its own little universe that allowed me to look past some of its shortcomings and appreciate a game attempting to tell a story in a different way. You play as Max Caulfield, a girl who gains the ability to rewind time, which influences the main narrative involving her reuniting with her troubled friend Chloe and solving the disappearance of one of the popular girls from school while a possible apocalypse looms over their town. The game gives you some very difficult choices along the way in its Twin Peaks meets Freaks and Geeks story, which is full of genuinely shocking twists and turns.

Mass Effect 2 and 3

The final two games in this fantastic trilogy were a perfect mix of story and gameplay, with a mix of compelling characters and a plotline with real stakes. Playing as a customizable main character named Shepard (a heroic woman if you have any taste, but I am aware that some cretins play renegade and/or as the dull male counterpart), your mission is to save the galaxy which involves assembling a collection of colorful cohorts from different alien races who all have their own intertwined conflicts in the game’s lore, which is sort of like Star Wars but better. ME2 is correctly recognized as one of the best games of its era, and ME3 delivers what I felt was a satisying conclusion to the series, though be aware that many players (read: whiny nerds) threw a shitfit over it in a similar scenario to Game of Thrones.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

One of the great issues in video games now for me is bloat: gamers want to “get their money’s worth,” which means stories often stretch to absurd padded lengths and make you completely sick of the game by the time you finish (if you even do). The Witcher 3 is maybe the only game I played with one of these epic length stories where the duration felt earned due to the emotional core of the story, which is mostly the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia trying to find his ward and daughter figure, Ciri, who is being hunted by the Wild Hunt who want to use her ultra-powerful elder blood. Geralt is a somewhat bland protagonist, but he’s surrounded by one of the better groups of complex and well-drawn women characters in games, and the gameplay was an intriguing challenge as each monster you slay required a different strategy.

The Last of Us

Let’s hope coronavirus doesn’t go like the pandemic at the start of The Last of Us, which sweeps through humanity in its opening and 20 years later leaves the uninfected living in military quarantine zones or cults while the infected have turned into ravenous fungus zombies. In this post-apocalyptic environment, a smuggler named Joel reluctantly escorts a sarcastic young teenager named Ellie across the country in hopes that she can provide a cure for the disease. Developer Naughty Dog’s previous series, Uncharted, ran into an issue where the gameplay was non-stop shooting and violence, but the cut scenes were jovial with characters who seemed unaffected by their rampant killing spree (something I later learned is called “ludonarrative dissonance”). The Last of Us is rare among modern violent games in that the bloodshed feels gross and wrong, though necessary, and as the player you’re thrust into brutal situations that aren’t these fun shoot-em-up scenarios. This means the game is heavy and bleak, maybe to a fault, but the story is so gripping, the relationship between Joel and Ellie gives it heart, and its ending is one of the best in any media of the decade, with a resolution that is true to the characters and has about 50 different shades of ambiguity.

Virginia

The least gamey of any game I played, Virginia is more like a 2-hour movie where you are in the body of the main character. Inspired heavily by Twin Peaks and The X-Files,  you play as an FBI detective named Anne Tarver, who along with her partner investigates the case of a missing young boy, which quickly gets unbelievably surreal and weird. Featuring no dialogue, the game relies on its score by Lyndon Holland and its unique art direction and character designs to tell the story, which is trippy and challenging in a way that games rarely are. Even if this isn’t the most interactive game, it’s worth experiencing once — maybe twice if you miss details the first time.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Another rare open-world success story, Horizon Zero: Dawn scores high for its unique setting, taking place in the distant future where humanity has been reduced to primitive tribes while surrounded by mysterious dinosaur-like machines that are starting to become violent. The main character, young tribal outcast Aloy, offered a different kind of protagonist than the typical gruff sarcastic dude, though her supporting cast in the tribal storyline was less developed and was the one area where the game suffered. The stand-out part of this game was the story of humanity and the world itself, which was gradually unraveled Gone Home style through audio logs in different locations. Through those, you learn of how the world became like it is in the current setting and how humanity responded to an unimaginable crisis.

Firewatch

In the heartbreaking opening to Firewatch, you learn the story of your character meeting his wife, and how she began to suffer from early dementia that caused you to take a menial job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest to escape. You have no contact with other characters except for your supervisor, Delilah, and the relationship that unfolds is one of the best-written and emotionally involving in any game. The story itself also increases in tension as you find increasingly strange activity in the forest, which is even scarier because of the sense of aloneness conveyed by the game. This is another walking simulator type game without a ton of action, but is one of the stronger narratives you’ll find in games.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Another walking simulator, this one takes place in a British village in 1984 where everyone has mysteriously vanished. You simply walk around and explore the village, going from house to house and uncovering audio that depicts the final days of the humans there. This is another game with low interactivity, but it’s a hell of a story with some of the best music and voice acting of any game, and its story has some satisfyingly weird twists and turns.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Yet another walking simulator type game, this one tells the story of a seemingly cursed family through a series of poignant vignettes that show different characters reaching their end, sometimes in bizarre and surreal ways. As the protagonist, you arrive at the family’s mansion and uncover the history by walking from room to room, which is about the extent of the gameplay other than some minor controls that add to the immersion of each story. This was another rare game that felt risky and weird, and sometimes it seemed more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than a video game.