On October 24th, 2022, I turned 30. I didn’t have any big plans for the momentous date which is convenient for me since I also came down with covid the day of. While marinating in a fever-addled haze, I thought it might be special to construct some kind of tribute to the music that has proliferated while I’ve been here on Earth. What I landed on is picking (or at least, attempting to pick) one ultimate album from each year I’ve been alive, from 1992 – 2022. I meant to get this out closer to the date of my birthday but man, writer’s block, my obsession with furthering the 80s project I’m working on and the effort put into my Best of 2022 lists put this to the wayside. Well, here it is now.
Going through the choices, I’m realizing I’m not blowing any minds or picking anything out of the canon of historically great releases, but it was nice to collect a little portfolio of what has been artistically accomplished over the last 30 years. It’s easy to collect and observe artistic output and achievement through decades, but how about a little snapshot, a rather tight one at that (limiting how many albums I can feature for each year).
Now there are two examples in this list where I couldn’t pick just one record. I know the whole point of this exercise was for me to pick ONE favorite per year. Well, it’s my blog, and sometimes the emotional distress of leaving something off was too much to bear. I know you’ll be able to understand. This only happens twice. I think we all can live with that.
1992: Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
[Apollo / R&S]
Starting off my list with a bit of an obvious choice, although my surging love of Sade’s Love Deluxe could potentially challenge this spot down the line, but let’s be real, it probably won’t. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a prime jewel in the history of electronic music and if I really want to get hyperbolic here (getting it out early since you know I’m gonna be getting wild with claims as the years go by) – one of the greatest achievements in music as a whole. Quality electronic music had been made throughout the 80s, and even pioneers in the 50s, 60s and 70s made due with what they had, but Aphex Twin set the bar high for what producers and composers could do, with 13 tracks comprised on technology that’d be considered antiquated today. There’s a real depth behind these songs, stretching between gorgeous ambient soundscapes to bouncy dance bops that just make you feel GOOD. I’m not saying anything mind-blowing here. What is mind-blowing is this album, even at times 30 years later.
1993: Slowdive – Souvlaki
A quintessential “night” album, good for walking around the city in the fall as the temperatures start to dip into the 50s, and when the sunsets turn into smears of muted yellows, oranges and grays. The more I listen to it, the less I consider it a prime “shoegaze” record, compared to others of the era with absolutely punishing guitar performances and an overwhelming array of effects, but rather a foundation for dream pop to come. Sweetly psychedelic, spacey and romantic.
+ Yo La Tengo – Painful
But wait, there’s more! I couldn’t not include Yo La Tengo’s Painful on this list, as Yo La Tengo has been potentially my most-listened to artist over the last five years. Painful sees one of my all-time favorite groups of all time drive their stake into the earth of the underground music scene, where it still remains today, unblemished and thriving. Accomplished noise merchants on their previous records and nearly over a decade into their careers at that point, Yo La Tengo turned the dials down a bit across a few tracks, showing their softer side while still knowing how to blast someone’s face off with wicked, noisy guitar freakouts. It’s a tender, genuine record that only grows better with age, as you hear YLT’s following discography grow around it like the origin root.
1994: Portishead – Dummy
[Go! Beat Records]
Another no-brainer selection and a massively beloved album, Portishead’s debut Dummy, to me, is the end-all, be-all of “trip-hop”, jazzy pop albums of the 1990s. There are quality competitors, but the absolutely brutal combo of Beth Gibbons’ silky voice, the uncanny production of Geoff Barrow and the wicked playing of Adrian Utley, all filtered into a type of sound that hadn’t been heard yet is simply too much to fight against. It’s cinematic, sultry, scandalous, dripping with desire. I also retroactively love this album almost because their following two LPs are so different in their own ways. This was the first phase of a multi-headed beast, inhabiting a space that was eventually too limiting. Continually setting the bar higher and higher.
1995: Björk – Post
[One Little Independent]
Right as the album kicks off – boom. You’re in. A paranoid, shifting bassy keyboard line, lurching forward with a killer drum loop from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, used many times before and more times after, but sounding so at home here. Then comes “Hyperballad”, and at that point, you’re more than in. You’re falling off of a cliff, deep into Björk’s genius brain and undoubtedly invested in the record. Post sees Björk build upon the off-kilter pop sounds that her 1993 album Debut introduced to the world in so many ways: crafting deep foundations and variance among the tracks while still retaining sonic themes throughout.
1996: Beck – Odelay
While I haven’t been listening to Beck as regularly as I did back in high school and college, I cannot deny that this album has its roots deep into my musical subconscious. Odelay wasn’t even the first Beck record I listened to (that’d be 2008’s Modern Guilt) but Odelay was the one that took me down into a wormhole of 90s slacker pop, a sound that appealed to me so much more than the ferocity of grunge that a lot of my friends were re-discovering at the time. It didn’t hurt that the singles off this record were incredible, too. “Devil’s Haircut” and “The New Pollution” were true obsessions of mine in high school, and listening to the album branch out into so many different sounds and styles throughout its length was super inspiring to me as a youngster. 1996 wasn’t a slacker for music either: DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Silver Jews’ The Natural Bridge, Unwound’s Repetition, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, two Belle & Sebastian records, The Fugees’ The Score; Odelay has some notable same-class alumni.
1997: Björk – Homogenic
[One Little Independant]
An album that could still be viewed as futuristic sounding, even 26 years later. To me, there are not many records better than Homogenic. I vividly remember the night of my first exposure to Björk; late one night while procrastinating a school project, a rogue iTunes Store preview of “Joga”, the first snow of that December, going into the other room and immediately needing to share with my mom that I had just listened to Björk for the first time, and it was incredible. The lush orchestration from Post returned (and let’s be real, would stay throughout her discography), but the instrumentals became more abstract and electronic. More glossy and textured. Song structures drifted away from the classic pop song formula. Björk’s vocal lines indicated such an importance that hinged on life and death. This record makes you invested within the first few seconds. I’m still on the edge of my seat listening.
1998: Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
I definitely count myself lucky as being part of the last few that were introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea organically, which is to say I was told about them thanks to a friend’s older sibling. Or rather, I was frequently hanging out with this friend (that I viewed as MUCH cooler than I) that had been looking for a copy of this album on vinyl (this friend was also the inspiration for my record collecting), as per a recommendation from her older sister (whom I had actually never met or seen a picture of – she lived in Portland, OR – a very cool and alien place to a suburban Michigander). This was 2009. Hypothetically, I could have looked up clips of Neutral Milk Hotel songs on YouTube, or gone onto iTunes and bought an mp3 or two, but I preferred to keep it mysterious. I wanted to wait until we found a copy on vinyl and hear it with my friend.
We eventually found a copy at a record store in town, and despite a rebuff from the clerk (my friend expressed relief that the store had it, and the record store employee scoffed that it “was everywhere, and everyone knows about it.”), we went back to her house and put it on her turntable. I think I found the music funny at first. I was mostly exasperated that I had spent that long trying to find a record where the lead singer didn’t know how to sing. And then he started belting about Jesus. And the instruments sounded like they were left in a toaster for too long. I really don’t think I was into it at first, but little did I know that the little exposure that I did have that time acted more like a can opener, slowly and methodically cutting a hole in my brain. This hole both let out preconceptions about what music should be and sound like, and let in brilliant new emotions I hadn’t experienced before while listening to music. I quickly became obsessed.
To put a capper on this story, in 2013 I saw Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader Jeff Mangum perform in a train station in Hartford, CT. When he started playing “Holland, 1945”, I called my friend, who was studying in a cafe back in Michigan. I’m sure it sounded terrible, as the acoustics in this train station were not fit for a concert, and the hordes of lonely nerds that the state of Connecticut has a knack for accumulating were screaming their hearts out, but I wanted her to know that this little introduction of Neutral Milk Hotel lead me to this place, and I wished she had been there with me. Reaching our presences out across a telecom void, we were able to be there. The power of music and connecting people.
1999: Built To Spill – Keep It Like A Secret
Unlike nearly the rest of the 1990s albums I pulled as my favorites, Built To Spill’s Keep It Like A Secret came into my life in college rather than high school. I was vaguely familiar with Built To Spill then, but nothing had clicked. It wasn’t until 2014 when I started completely binging Keep It Like A Secret and its predecessor Perfect From Now On. For me, Secret is one of those records with no bad songs. Someone could put me in a featureless room, put this album on shuffle, and despite the fact someone had just kidnapped me and put me into this confusing and frightening situation of being in an alien location, I’d say “oh man THIS song, wow”. Lots of “wow” moments for an indie rock stooge like myself. I do have to give a shout out to Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka, an album whose stock has risen with me immensely over the last few years. If I were to do this in 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ended up being my #1 of 1999. But for now, it’s THE best Built To Spill record, impossible to be topped.
2000: The Avalanches – Since I Left You
A no-brainer choice. Despite a fleet of incredible albums to greet us at the start of the new millennium (Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, Radiohead’s Kid A, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica, to name a few), The Avalanches’ debut album Since I Left You is undoubtedly my favorite record of 2000, and potentially my favorite album of all time. It’s an album that I’ve spent countless hours marveling over and still yields new discoveries and obsessions all this time later.
At surface level, it’s a seamless collection of tunes heavily comprised of samples, both obscure and ubiquitous, along with live instrumentation, DJ scratching, and the odd vocal guest or two. Going deeper into my own personal listening experience, it is a film that I can watch play out in my head, one I can continue to tweak and flesh out deeper with no deadline. It’s a vessel for imagination, allowing me, in a down moment, to keep writing out scenes I’ve been building on for over a decade now. But zooming back out to the surface level, it’s simply an album that’s sequenced perfectly throughout its length (the one exception being the shoehorned single “Frontier Psychiatrist”, but I get that it’s in here. It’s fun), with terrific grooves, and enough sonic details to keep people coming back to uncover more and more.
2001: Björk – Vespertine
[One Little Independent / Elektra]
Björk completes the Warm Visions hat trick with Vespertine, an album that competes with Homogenic as my favorite Björk album and is my favorite album of 2001 over albums like Daft Punk’s Discovery, The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator), Dntel’s Life Is Full of Possibilities or Gorillaz’s debut. Whereas Post and Homogenic were immediate favorites of mine when I was first getting into Björk in high school, only “Unison” off of Vespertine raised its hand to me at the time. It wasn’t until post-college that I really started diving in and appreciating its otherworldly production, its deeply passionate lyrical themes of radical love and self-love, and of course some of Björk’s best vocal performances to date.
She’ll rip your heart out on “Pagan Poetry”, throw you into a hall of mirrors on “An Echo, A Stain”, get your blood pumping on “Heirloom” + “Hidden Place”, but most of all she’ll make you feel enveloped in love, with tracks like “Cocoon”, “Undo” + “Unison”. The whirling swells of choir vocals and orchestral accompaniment that accompany nearly every track, combined with the icy, metallic mallet percussion, the early 00s electronics, make for an album that still sounds fresh, if not futuristic today, while still embodying what I like to call the “melancholy glitch” era that defined the late 90s and early 00s. While I don’t think this is the Björk album to start with for a new listener, it is an absolutely essential piece of any modern music fan’s collection.
2002: Boards of Canada – Geogaddi
For a period of time in college, I considered Geogaddi my favorite album of all time. Those days have since passed and for a while after I even had a phase where I thought Boards of Canada was overrated. However, after evaluating multiple records from 2002, I can safely say that this album is indeed my favorite of the year, slightly edging out Beck’s Sea Change, a record that I probably considered my favorite of all time for parts of high school. Heavy hitters from 2002! What I can say about Geogaddi is that it was an amazing soundtrack for walking around on campus between classes, as well as for working in an archival library, working with old documents. A lot of people swear by BoC’s Music Has The Right To Children, but I think Geogaddi levels up nearly everything the band was going for on that record, albeit leans a bit heavy on the mysterious, spooky, lost-media side of sound rather than going for something chill. Lots of uncanny synth work, dreamy soundscapes, unsettling vocal and field recording samples – truly a snapshot of a duo that were at the top of their game!
2003: The Books – The Lemon of Pink
The Books’ The Lemon of Pink is an album that resides in my “happy place collection”, delighting itself in bite-sized, homespun creations that make me smile. Similar to The Avalanches, The Books are a sample-heavy production duo, but opt for organic folk and acoustic instruments rather than turntables and grooves. Collaged fragments of guitar, violin, cello, homemade percussion, the occasional warbly keyboard nimbly skate around painstakingly curated and pasted vocal samples, along with The Books’ own voices.
What’s brilliant about The Books’ approach is in contrast to other contemporaries that use full lines of untouched dialogue, almost aping the sentimental meaning that inspired the original source material and using it for their own, instead The Books slice and dice voice samples into new forms, cutting out words and moving them around to make new sentiments. Something true and homespun – like a scrapbook or vision board. The record overflows with an innocent, but not naive, sense of joy. There are multiple samples of people talking excitedly, laughing, kids screaming in jubilation, or documentations of wonder and amazement, egging the listener on to laugh and wonder with them. It’s an album that sounds like it kept growing as the blueprints were made, like The Books had rough ideas of what they wanted each song to sound like, then finding that they could keep going further in adding more sounds, more goofy samples, a buzzy guitar line here and there. It’s a large, wooden jungle gym, with bells, brass and rubber existing for sound to bounce off of. I don’t know how it couldn’t find a place in your happy place collection, too.
2004: Madvillain – Madvillainy
I gotta thank the master MF DOOM for helping me get past my preconception that all rap was “CRAP” back in late high school when I started diving back in recent classics. Madvillainy is an album you’ll find ubiquitous praise for, so it’s no surprise that this helped me unlock that side of my music taste appreciation. But I gotta be honest – Madvillainy is not an album that I’m constantly listening to. But whenever I put it on I have a great time and revel in the fact that we got such a magic combination in this lifetime. Feels lucky!! RIP DOOM!
2005: Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Illinois was my first pick for 2005 while making this list, but I still went back through some other projects from the year to double check if Sufjan Stevens was still hitting more than other works (notable metions: Gorillaz’s Demon Days, Richard Hawley’s Cole’s Corner, Broadcast’s Tender Buttons to name a few). Sure enough, Illinois is certainly hitting, even in 2022. Plump with ideas and the tenacity to execute them to the highest order, Stevens balances approachable, tender folk music with grand, big-stage orchestration, framing interludes and the overflowing positivity of mid-00s indie rock. This really feels like a tentpole moment for the 2000s at large, a high watermark if you will, of the aforementioned indie rock optimism, which I view carries the characteristics of group chorus vocals, really long song names, a quaint mixture of folk and rock instrumentation, and really the feeling that “anything is possible” oozing from every pore. The recession sapped a lot of that energy from the room in the latter years of the decade, but Illinois is just as magic as you remember it.
2006: Joanna Newsom – Ys
All respect to J Dilla’s Donuts, Camera Obsruca’s Let’s Get Out of This Country, The Knife’s Silent Shout, Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions, Destroyer’s Rubies and a few more, but I cannot deny the hulking, five-song behemoth that is Joanna Newsom’s Ys. I’m not usually a lyrics guy (sorry to any musicians reading this), but if you aren’t listening to Newsom’s erudite lyrical tales as their forge their way through lush, orchestral instrumentals (arranged by Van Dyke Parks) and not getting wrapped up into the story, I don’t know what to tell you. But I gotta let you in on a secret: even if you’re not a lyrics person, you’ll still be entertained. Newsom’s daring melodies and idiosyncratic vocals will keep any new listener entertained and engaged. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s not even my favorite album of hers.
2007: Burial – Untrue
Burial’s Untrue is the album that got me into electronic music. This came in my “big bang” of music discovery in late 2009, finding out about mp3 blogs and other major indie music sites and after seeing so much praise for the album in “Best Albums of the 00s” lists, I had to check it out. It came at the perfect time: the dark and cold 2010 winter. Many frigid mornings driving to school with “Archangel” blasting, headlights blazing trails in tired eyes ahead of a smeared sunrise. The classic Burial crackles acting as an early form of ASMR for my teenage brain. The moody melodies and enveloping presence each track brings plunging me into many “main character” scenarios. If you read this blog, I don’t need to tell you this – this album is a bonafide classic. An achievement for music as a whole.
2008: Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
I’ve talked about Grouper and Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill at length on Warm Visions. A record that I personally ranked within the Top 5 of the 2000s back when I re-did my original list in 2018. An album that means so much to so many, a reliable companion for when we’re feeling like a lone cabin in a snowstorm. An absolute masterpiece of folk with heavy ambient, noise and drone components. Sonically smeared and bleary enough to allow listeners to pick up their own vibe from the tracks – there are lyrics, but nothing that’s harshly dictating the mood or feel of the song. If you haven’t heard this yet and you’re into atmospheric, sad music, it’s your time now. This is a damn near perfect record.
+ Portishead – Third
But now hold on – Portishead’s Third is up there for 2008 too. A damn near perfect record. I’ve spent much less time with this comparatively to Dragging A Dead Deer, but I couldn’t not go long and include them together, especially after I “re-discovered” this record back in 2021, and racked up nearly 300 listens over half a year. Portishead shucked the boxes that music criticism had been lodging them into (labeling them as only “trip hop” – and yes, I did call their debut Dummy “trip hop” above but y’know, they’re allowed to be the alpha in a genre they don’t want to be a part of), the trio went and made one of the most sinister records in history, one that’s rippling with tremendous anxiety and paranoia and exhaustion, from the tones, to the textures, to the production, to the performances. Whereas their prior records also contained elements of paranoia and darkness, those had some elements of romance woven within them. Some international intrigue, like a spy movie. This one on the other hand crawls and claws its way across the listener, rendering a decently uncomfortable listening experience for the unseasoned. It’ll make you feel like you’re lacking sleep, or to question your relationships. It should be, and hopefully will in the due time, be filed away as one of the greats.
2009: Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
If I were to try and pinpoint the album to tip me over the edge into becoming the ravenous, new music devouring monger that I am now, Merriweather Post Pavilion has a heavy stake in taking that claim. Sure I had listened to a few other indie projects before that like Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest (also 2009!) but Animal Collective was probably the first new “weird” album I decided to check out, to greatly positive results. Sloshing, deeply engaging psychedelic pop with humane tenderness in one hand and alien wackiness in the other. In the recent past I normally would have put Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca as the album here, but since 2022 I’ve been in kind of an Animal Collective renaissance. Getting past the obvious hits like “My Girls”, “Summertime Clothes”, “Brother Sport” and “In The Flowers”, I’ve found a lot of rewarding moments in the b-sides like “Daily Routine”, “No More Runnin”, and you know I put “Bluish” on mix CDs for every girl I had a crush on since 2009. Too many monumental jams on this thing to deny it my #1 spot.
2010: Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
Have One On Me I’ve gone at length about. You can find a full breakdown on how much I love this album on my Best Albums of the 2010s list. This record is an artistic expression to its fullest extent. We have artists these days putting out triple albums where more than half is filler to boost streaming. Newsom put out a triple album and if you dare to call some of this filler, I will challenge that. Now I am not equating dense, layered arrangements to non-filler, but phew: no one can deny that Newsom is giving it her all spinning this tale across 18 tracks. It’s obviously not for everyone, but I didn’t rank it as the #1 album of the 2010s for nothing. It is magnificent.
2011: Destroyer – Kaputt
Perhaps the best vibe on this whole dang list. There are some heady, deep ones on this list for sure, but I’m not sure anything can top what Mr. Bejar and his groovy bunch of players cooked up on Kaputt, and album that electrified an already fantastic band. Soft rock stretching arms of influence back to sophistipop of the late 80s like Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile, to Roxy Music’s Avalon, thrown into a foggy expanse where everything is a bit more ambiguous, a bit more uncanny. Something about the production on this LP makes everything a little but muddled. Twinkling synthesizers and horns drift in and out of the mix, like you’re traversing through a veil of lukewarm jacuzzi water, with thick steam obscuring most of your view.
I’d also like to shout out 2011’s records as a whole – there is some serious heat. St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy was my #1 at year’s end and is still fantastic and I have to give it to Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place and Panda Bear’s Tomboy for growing on me over the last 12 years (what the heck is that?? 2011 cannot be 12 years ago!), along with Shabazz Palaces, Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never still holding it down from when I was more obsessed at the time. And who could forget my introduction to Grouper, with A|A, which nearly took the #1 spot.
2012: Laurel Halo – Quarantine
I haven’t talked to many people who love this record like I do. Sure there are a few denizens of the internet that likewise hold this record on a pedestal for its nestled beauty amongst bold and upsetting queasiness, but it hasn’t entered the pantheon of great records of the 2010s just yet. I am leading a charge to change that. Quarantine is not only my #2 album of the last decade, but by that metric, the best electronic record of the 2010s, and the best “pop” album of the 2010s. None of it sounds “right”. It all feels wrong. The songs ripple and tear themselves apart, all while Laurel Halo’s harsh, unaffected vocals nearly gaslight you into thinking “oh, nothing is wrong. Continue eating the food I bring you, and reading the passages I write on your walls”. It’s a paranoid, psychedelic and harrowing journey through deep space that resolves in one of the best closers of any record featured on this list in “Light + Space”. A true “ending of Memories” moment. Heed my words. Find courage and dive into this masterpiece.
2013: Arca – &&&&&
[Hippos In Tanks / PAN]
A record that continues to push out the walls and ceilings of my brain to make room for new mind-breaking concepts, Arca’s breakout “mixtape” &&&&& not only acts as a time machine to tropes that fellow electronic producers were indulging in in the early 2010s, but how Arca completely took the reins and shifted a large part of the electronic music landscape in the later part of the decade. While I wish some of her music was heady and psychedelic like this and less intense, &&&&& is still a refreshing oasis of ideas even when I feel like I’ve heard everything. For a time I probably would have said Yeezus was my favorite album of 2013, but y’know, I’m not going to do that. On the bright side, Arca’s production work here eclipses her work on Yeezus, so there we go. Speaking of roots, flip back to this to find the instrumental to Kelela’s track “Hallucinogen” A foundational piece of electronic music that I’ve listened to more times than I can count.
2014: Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister
THE late night record. When you need a companion to accompany you on a delirious journey through slick city streets, Mr Twin Sister will be that partner. Even when you need a record to get you out of your current space and into one that’s dark, swirling, intoxicating and so, so lovely: Mr Twin Sister is the answer. This is an album I keep on my person at all times (in digital form) for its transformative properties. I obviously look back at this record with a rosy tint, thinking back to the start of my obsession when I first picked it up as a college radio music director, then when I moved to NYC and started traipsing around in my new home, then to where I am now, using it to rekindle the “wild and crazy” times I had while listening (aka buying a pack of chocolate covered almonds and milk tea at the bodega at midnight after walking back from a show). Even in the nervier moments in the back half, it never fails to make me feel good. I will always hold Mr Twin Sister in high regard for this record – one that I’ll carry with me always.
2015: Hop Along – Painted Shut
I dubbed Hop Along’s Painted Shut “the best rock album of the 2010s”. I still stand by that. Hop Along are one of those bands that are great, but are amplified to personal legend status by the show-stopping vocals and lyrics of singer Frances Quinlan, who has separated themselves from the pantheon of modern songwriters by crafting songs and narratives that are so undoubtedly their own. In style, in delivery, in all aspects. This is a record that I haven’t returned to in the recent times of me writing this, but when a Hop Along phase comes along, it hits me in the head with a branch and has me on the floor. There’s really nothing else like it if you want to get wrapped up in “emo / indie rock” gang vocals, dramatic melodies, cathartic climaxes, and some of the coolest, most inventive narratives out there. Long live Painted Shut and long live Hop Along.
I also want to shout out that 2015 is a stacked year; so many amazing records from Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Björk’s Vulnicura, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Julia Holter’s To Have You In My Wilderness, Jessica Pratt’s On Your Own Love Again, Majical Cloudz’s Are You Alone and SO many more. It’s hard to pick out one ultra-significant year for music in the 2010s, but I’d vouch for 2015 to be up there with 2010 in terms of quantity of albums that had a significant impact on me.
2016: Jessy Lanza – Oh No
While many view 2016 as the pinnacle of musical output in the 2010s, with records by Frank Ocean, Danny Brown and Solange cementing young musicians as the new guard, and old masters like David Bowie, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, A Tribe Called Quest and Radiohead all releasing landmark records late in their career, reigniting massive fanbases. It’s hard to deny that. But man, I was going through some shit in 2016. What got me through it? The carbonated dance grooves of Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Jessy Lanza’s Oh No. The latter is the one I’ve chosen to reign as 2016’s favorite. A modern masterwork of electronic pop, pulling the best from the masters of the 80s and bringing it into the present. Jessy is the queen of the microgroove – so many tiny parts all interlocking to make ya move. I can also confirm that seeing these tracks played live WILL make you dance uncontrollably.
2017: Charli XCX – Pop 2
I’ve written a lot about Pop 2, mostly around the time of its release. Six years out, it still feels fresh and invigorating, giving glimpses at where pop drifted at the end of the 10s and into the 20s, plus it points to where pop still has to innovate. It just barely predates the cataclysm of “hyper-pop” (I realize that putting hyperpop into quotes there will essentially turn me into a dinosaur but hey, I gotta draw some lines in the sand out here). It skirts label interests of ultra-bloated tracklists to feed DSPs. It has well-utilized guest features, some of which were newcomers, some underground pop fiends, some blockbuster stars. It felt like a warp-speed leap into the future, and still bangs, whips, slaps, crushes, kills, bops, all of it. I’ve written so much about this album already. Go look it up elsewhere, especially if you haven’t listened to this before. If you like pop music, chances are you’ll like this.
2018: SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
No one did it like SOPHIE. It really hurts that I’m revisiting the blurb that I wrote for this album in my Best Albums of the 2010s list, writing that “down the line, there will be no limit to SOPHIE’s creativity and freedom”. That’s true. She continues to live on in those she worked with and inspired, that’s for sure. I’m thankful that we got to experience the pieces of art she did get to share with us, as this record is a marvel.
I’m one of those annoying people who are really about “proper albums” that flow and have some feeling of cohesiveness. Before this came out, you could count me as someone who was skeptical about SOPHIE’s ability to make a full LP. After putting out a flight of singles between 2013 and 2018 that all sounded great but definitely were best as “standalone tracks”, Oil of Every Pearl blew me out of the water with its deep variance between tracks, its tenderness, and its brutality (when needed).
This is an album that pivots from tracks like the affirming “It’s Okay To Cry” to the domineering “Ponyboy”, the ominous and foreboding “Pretending”, to the cheeky and head-spinning “Faceshopping” to the sugar shot of “Immaterial”, to the affirming “Infatuation”, to the grand statement and cinematic movement of “Whole New World / Pretend World”, which took the whole album and put in a solar system-sized blender, obliterating the fabric the record had built to that point and turns it into a dizzying, chaotic and beautiful mist. Truly – by the end of it you’ll feel like you’re getting sucked into a black hole. The sense of movement in that track, with sounds whipping through the soundstage really enhancing the feeling that you’re in some sort of twister. Something like the dust cloud that coats the body after a building collapses. It is a full, cohesive, highly varied and engaging record that every electronic or experimental music fan should listen to. There will never be anything like it again.
2019: Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
At the start of this project, I knew picking my favorite album of 2019 would be my hardest assignment. Not because it’s loaded with immense favorites, but rather I view it as the weakest year of the 2010s in terms of musical output. Sure, there are some great albums. No doubt! For me, 2019 is a collection of my second or third-favorite records from artists I love, along with some really encouraging newcomers. New (and new-to-me) releases from Oli XL, Vanishing Twin, Erika de Casier, Y La Bamba, SAULT, Lingua Ignota, Ana Roxanne, Badge Époque Ensemble and Esther Rose cemented all these as artists to watch, most of which have yielded ultra-positive follow-ups. Compounded onto that: Alex G, Weyes Blood, Jessica Pratt, Charli XCX, Floating Points, Aldous Harding, Jenny Hval, Angel Olsen, Danny Brown + more all put out really great and personally anticipated records, but do I feel as though they’re on the same level as those I listed above and below this? Not particularly. Something out of this bunch had to bubble to the top.
As we drifted further away from 2019 (most of which feels elongated, stretched out beyond recognition, and downright hellish), I have to hand it to Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. for rising to the occasion of being my favorite record of that year. At the end of 2019, I named Purple Mountains’ debut my favorite of the year. I still objectively love the album, but I can’t not say that it ranked #1 that year partly due to sentimental reasons. Cut to four years later and I hardly listen to the project, just due to the emotional charge of it all. I’m picking albums that I’ll wrap my whole life around, ones that I know I’ll continue loving for another 30 years. As much as I love David Berman and his work, the pain of knowing what this album was to him and what happened later is too much to shake off and listen to casually.
Getting back to the album at hand, U.F.O.F. did hold the #1 spot for most of 2019, so there’s good reason it continued to push to the top over the strong releases from other favorites. Plus after the obsession spell I was under with Big Thief’s 2022 album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, I returned to some of the older catalog somewhat recently and yep, it all holds up. At many points U.F.O.F. sounds like a lyric in its title track, “To my UFO friend, Goodbye, goodbye, like a seed in the wind, She’s taking up root in the sky, See her flickering”. A blown dandelion seed, or a floating paper lantern, drifting into a purple sunset. The album includes two reworked tracks from lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s solo LP that arrived the year prior, which further pushes the feeling that this album is more her project than the full band, with her wavering vocals and lyrics taking center stage while the instrumentation stays rather subdued. When the instruments do take center stage, it is richly detailed, with spare percussion, spindly acoustic guitar and a fair amount of dub after effects. This makes the more full-throat songs like “Contact” and “Jenni” stand out that much more, and going further than that, differentiating the more rock-minded follow-up Two Hands, Big Thief’s second album of 2019, from just being a wishy-washy “bonus album”. This double release also pointed towards not only the band’s mastery of flipping between styles and moods, but ability to deliver a high amount of deeply engaging songs. Big Thief are undoubtedly one of THE bands of the last decade. The heart, the skill, the tenderness, it’s all there. And I anticipate this record continuing to grow within me.
2020: Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight To Eternity
[W. 25th / Superior Viaduct]
Three years since its release, What’s Tonight To Eternity still places me in a zone like no other and is likely logged as my favorite album of the 2020s so far. Where 2000’s Since I Left You takes me on a cinematic journey on a mysterious pleasure island, 2003’s The Lemon of Pink places me into a wooden and brass jungle gym placed inside a cozy apartment, and 2012’s Quarantine places me into an abandoned space station, 2020’s What’s Tonight To Eternity throws me into a mind on the verge of a breakdown, set in a black & white, decrepit apartment on the edge of town, about to be lost to the sands of time. It’s not necessarily a pleasant listening experience at points, but its rewards far outweigh any challenges it may pose.
Throughout their musical career, Cindy Lee plays on the aesthetics and sonics of classic 60s girl group recordings, whether it be the jangly guitars, the blissful melodies, shimmering orchestral arrangements indicative of plush studio budgets, or reverberated ballads that evoke images of a lost prosperity. Mixed in with these tropes however is a sinister underbelly of noise and uneasiness, pairing traditionally beautiful nostalgic pop moments with harsh ugliness of shrieking feedback, slimy synth melodies and unsettling samples. The result is undoubtedly original and evocative, still somewhat reminiscent of those glory days of pop majesty, but cloaked in mystery, darkness, sadness and despair.
I have to give it to Jessie Ware’s effervescently positive What’s Your Pleasure, TOPS’ career revival I Feel Alive, Shabason, Krgovich & Harris’ meditative rumination on the mundane Philadelphia, Eartheater’s scorched and charred Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin, Mary Lattimore’s astral Silver Ladders and Anna Von Hausswolff’s monumental All Thoughts Fly (wow looking back 2020 had some insanely good records) – since their respective releases, I’ve returned to them all time and time again, and they’ve only grown in favor (especially those from Eartheater and Anna Von Hausswolff). 2020 is a surprisingly strong year for music, which was refreshing to me after the slog of 2019 and the hell that was ten months of 2020. I’m really looking forward to years down the road how I’ll look back on it then, too.
2021: Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
[Ba Da Bing!]
After the pain and confusion of 2020, there was no doubt that an album like An Overview On Phenomenal Nature would become my favorite release of the year. Jenkins had some fierce competition like Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders’ collaboration Promises, L’Rain’s Fatigue and SPELLLING’s The Turning Wheel, but when you needed it, this album was an embrace. A serene horizon to look out over. A deep, centering breath. A friend sitting in silence alongside you on a roadtrip. It took the form of a lot of things during a time when we were all rebuilding from essentially nothing, or rather on top of something new, or more likely the ruins of what once was. I wonder if Cassandra can even believe that it turned out that way, since the record was written and recorded for the most part in 2019. It’s now turned into this major salve after the burning that was 2020. Even now, listening while writing this blurb, it brought me back to those early 2021 moments and made me feel warm, despite everything that was going on in the world then. A winter that was snowier than the last. A sense of dependable and understanding community. A sense of optimism for a sunrise right around the corner. A year of comfort to last a lifetime.
2022: Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
I just wrote about this in my Top Albums of 2022 list, but Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is the closest project we’ve gotten in a LONG time that approaches the status of a modern classic rock record. Not like Led Zeppelin Classic Rock™, but more the genre of rock as a whole. Paradigm shifting. A high watermark for bands to come. We haven’t had a W in a while. This is a big one. Overflowing with ideas that never get stale, arching together rich strains of folk into their idiosyncratic songwriting, Big Thief made a record that capitalize on all the strengths they’ve accumulated over their previous four records and enhances nearly all of them. There could have been a bit more shredding, but I’ll exchange that for the mouth harp, the moment of “that’s my grandma!”, and the fierce, unflinching optimism and love that has doused the majority of the tracks here. It’s the second-longest album on this list (only under Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me), a testament to its dedication to keeping each minute engaging and enriching. Just fantastic.
One more fun thing to point out is through this list, Big Thief is in the same ranks as Björk, Portishead and Joanna Newsom for being the proliferators of multiple #1 albums from each year I’ve been alive. That’s special. My tastes will change of course, and they’re still rookies in this league of heavy-hitters, but if you can’t get excited about new music like you do your old favorites, why even take a chance on new stuff?
We’ve reached the end! 30 years of incredible music, distilled into 33 records here. Hope you enjoyed reading this extremely self-indulgent piece, most likely about albums you already know and love. Potentially you found some new favorites? Who’s to say.
Part of me has an itch of ranking these records to see how they’re sorted in my mind, so here’s a preliminary list. It hurt a lot to make, and don’t take too much heavy stock into any of it. Oof, just looking at it. Wow, that’s a lot of fire power. And already just arranged all wrong. Like staring at the sun. Woof. Take a look if you dare, but before then, I’m outta here. Just uh, close the tab on your way out. Thanks again for reading.
- The Avalanches – Since I Left You
- Björk – Homogenic
- Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
- Björk – Post
- Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
- Burial – Untrue
- Björk – Vespertine
- Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
- Laurel Halo – Quarantine
- Destroyer – Kaputt
- Yo La Tengo – Painful
- Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret
- Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight To Eternity
- SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
- Portishead – Third
- Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
- Portishead – Dummy
- Hop Along – Painted Shut
- Joanna Newsom – Ys
- Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
- Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister
- Slowdive – Souvlaki
- Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
- Charli XCX – Pop 2
- Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
- Jessy Lanza – Oh No
- The Books – The Lemon of Pink
- Madvillain – Madvillainy
- Beck – Odelay
- Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
- Arca – &&&&&
- Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
- Boards of Canada – Geogaddi