The Top 50 Albums of the 2010s

#50: Vampire Weekend/ Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

5cbf0d08Vampire Weekend’s third full length album is distinctly stripped down and restrained relative to their prior work, and is all the better for it; this is the band’s best album to date. The thematic material ranging from death to religion doesn’t come off as overly serious, yet establishes a tone that confirm these once preppy, moderately annoying kids from Columbia have grown up a bit. Gentle piano opens the album on “Obvious Bicycle” as lead singer Ezra Koenig shows off an impressively scaled vocal delivery that rests on a falsetto drop; the song never really goes anywhere and it is all the more lovely for it. There’s still hints of the summer boogie, outdoor festival major key sound that made the band famous to begin with, notably on the rollicking “Diane Young”, and you can almost visualize a full crowd with beach balls bouncing around when the percussion kicks in on the scat sung, Animal Collective-inspired “Finger Back.” Outside of that, there’s a surprising amount of darkness and atmosphere holding this record together. An obvious early highlight is “Step”, with its soft drum clap, gorgeous piano melody and distant choral vocal sample, as Koenig delivers observant lyrics such as “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth” over the course of a track that in terms of tone lands somewhere between melancholy and submissive as it winds down softly to reveal its stunning emotional core. Arguably even more powerful is the fantastic “Ya Hey”, with its catchy synth breaks and additictive melody that combine with more lifted vocal samples.  There’s a nod to a vast array of musical influences, such as the Dirty Projectors on “Everlasting Arms” and Panda Bear on “Worship You” that add an element of breath to this album. Violin strings hold together the soft, wise-beyond-its-years “Don’t Lie”, while the band has probably never demonstrated build the way that they do on the patient, slowly evolving centerpiece “Hannah Hunt”, as Koenig’s strained vocals during the final trip through the chorus showcase a genuineness that was very atypical on the band’s first two albums.

#49: Kanye West/ Yeezus (2013)

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When Kanye West suddenly annouced the imminent release of his rather shockingly titled album Yeezus, it’s fair to say that most us didn’t expect anything quite so bleak, desolate and raw. A buzzing, chilling synth serves as the backbone for opener “On Point” and it’s immediately clear that Yeezus finds West heading in a far different musical and emotional direction than ever before. What makes the album so polarizing is the nearly complete lack of percussion or strobe-lit festival intensity that Kanye is famous for (“Send It Up” being the only possible exception). It takes a truly brave artist to pull off a line like “I just talked to Jesus/ He said what up Yeezus/ I said I’m just chillin’/ Tryin’ to count these millions” as he does on the blatantly egotistical and borderline blasphemously titled “I Am A God.”  A certain balance of both sarcasm and seriousness has to be present in order for a line like that to work on any level, and West pulls it off remarkably on one of the album’s highlight tracks. What’s surprising is that despite the overall bare and stripped-down feel of these songs, West finds time for moments of subtle atmosphere mixed between beauty and pure terror by utilizing unexpected and sudden tone shifts – the gorgeous breaks on “On Point” and “New Slaves”, the tortured shrieks through the coda of “I Am A God,” among others. “Hold My Liquor” is arguably the prettiest song on the album, carrying a defeated tone that is rare for an artist that usually lays the bravado on pretty thick, while he delivers one of the best verses of his career on the heartwrenching divorce tale “Blood on the Leaves”, complete with forboding, propulsive synthesized horns. Most affecting of all is the skeletal echo of a synth beat complemented by violin elements on the racially charged indictment “New Slaves”, and the moment that song takes a full shift into a gorgeous blues breakdown that is in complete contrast to the all of the music that came before it works perfectly; it’s a demonstration of West’s utter brilliance from a production standpoint. And it takes a higher level of thinking and creativity altogether to sample Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” on “Blood On The Leaves” or an obscure soul tune combined with Brenda Lee on closer “Bound 2.” First single “Black Skinhead” comes of with a militaristic beat that almost sounds like a rap version on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, complete with deep bass drops and ghostly howls. The only near mess comes on the incredibly explicit “I’m In It”, but there’s enough sonic diversion and vocal additions from the likes of Bon Iver and reggae artist Assassin to send the track over. Say what you will about Kanye West, but after this album it would be difficult to argue that he is a producer afraid to take artistic risks to stunning effect. To my ear, Yeezus lands well in the upper echelon of his catalog.

#48: Sleigh Bells/ Treats (2010)

It has been awhile since we have seen a debut album omit such relentless energy, but on Treats, New York duo Sleigh Bells combined some sort of a brilliant mix of catchy pop melodies, heavy metal intensity and party rap beats, and what results was one of the decades’s most instantly exciting albums. There is never a dull moment as the band rips through eleven raucous tracks in just over a half hour. Jabbing machine gun percussion on “Tell ‘Em” penetrate the first of many memorable guitar riffs as lead singer Alexis Krauss delivers a repetitive, engaging vocal with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader. Without missing a step, the band moves into more beat driven material like the punchy “Riot Rhythm” which gives way one of the clear highlights here, “Infinity Guitars.” On this track, Krauss combines a sweet background vocal while simultaneously screaming in spoken voice over a rolling riff, and the moment of screeching distortion where the song shifts into a frenzy of utter chaos is as shocking as it is effective. Heavier still is the unintelligible, punky “Straight A’s”, while the layered masterpiece that is “Crown on the Ground” blends the best of both worlds, as Krauss provides relatively relaxed vocals as sprawling distortion swirls around her, eventually building into a massively disoriented crescendo that manages to work perfectly.  And even after all of that, the mesmerizing bubble gum dream pop of “Rill Rill” may be the album’s strongest track and most addictive, sampling Funkadelic and looping a gorgeous acoustic guitar melody beneath some of Krauss’s best vocal work. Try hearing this once and not humming it for the rest of the day. Overall, it is the balance between her ability to show restraint during some moments and absolute recklessness at other points that creates such a raw, refreshing and inherently energetic sound. It seems to end so suddenly, but after such a whirlwind, perhaps it is better that we catch our breath and anxiously await future material, which figures to be promising if Treats is any indication of this band’s potential.

#47: Chromatics/ Kill For Love (2012)

This highly ambitious effort succeeds, more than anything else, from its ability to establish and extend its consistent mood and tone across its 17 track, 77 minute length. When I saw Chromatics live at Pitchfork Music Festival, lead singer Ruth Radelet came off about exactly as I expected her to. Her gentle, haunting voice was a commanding presence, but her expressionless face could almost be described as sad, and she seemed withdrawn and disconnected, which ironically fit perfectly with the music she was singing. It’s probably a fair bet that she never smiles. While Chromatics draw from a variety of influences on Kill For Love, including 80s new wave and modern synth-driven electronica, the serious tone of their music is decidedly nocturnal. This didn’t exactly work at an outdoor venue with the sun shining, but when taken in as a whole on record, it resonates as intense and expansive. A cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” retitled “Into The Black” gets the album started on a strong note, and some respect should be given to the band for having the balls to begin an album of this scope with a cover track and to pull it off with such a unique sense of style. There are bits of brightness early on as the title track drips with propulsive, hazy synth, while “Back From The Grave” showcases a catchy, repetitive guitar line. This is about as accessible as the album gets before diving into more experimental territory, and the band was wise to structure it this way considering its challenging length. But things really begin to take off with “Lady”, which patiently builds for two full minutes before the pulsating beat kicks in and communicates a steady sense of uncertainty, loneliness and despair. The slow burn of the remarkably tense “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” is a standout here, and is a rare example of using vocal harmonization and autotune technology to manipulate a male vocal to a positive effect. After that, the album turns darker yet with the ambient, unsettling “Broken Mirrors”, and benefits massively as the tone evolves and the paranoia builds on “Candy.” There are times when the album just bleeds with heartache. The waves wash over instrumental link “Dust to Dust ” and lead into the utterly hopeless ballad “Birds of Paradise.” The instrumental tracks here are used with remarkably effective placement, creating texture with precision around its centerpieces. None are more devastating than the spaced-out, laser beam synth of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon”, which closes with an ambiguous but heartbreaking voice message. An album this intense deserves a proper send off, and it gets one with “The River.” A minor chord strikes out on a piano, repeats and gains additional elements as the song progresses and Radelet croons with hypnotic effortlessness in one of the many extremely strong moments here.

#46: M83/ Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

French artist Anthony Gonzalez has used the moniker M83 to compose four previous albums that have showed his evolution from an electronic experimentalist into a full blown rock star. On his most ambitious effort to date Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he combines the best of both worlds into a double album that probably could have stood to be a few songs shorter, but still shows a depth of compositional acumen that he has yet to achieve up to this point. The album starts in unflappable manner, with Zola Jesus adding vocals for the dark “Intro.” First single and huge highlight “Midnight City” follows and combines an addictive, poppy synth melody and an insistent percussion arrangement as the track builds and evolves, eventually culminating in a saxophone-laden outro. After that, the propulsive “Reunion” and the devastating “Wait” keep the album moving along in a high quality manner. Perhaps intentionally, many of the tracks in the album’s midsection seem almost unfinished; “This Bright Flash”, “Soon My Friend” and “My Tears Are Becoming  A Sea” begin to build but stop without warning and never achieve the types of crescendos that have made his prior work so successful- a strange tactic indeed for an album that otherwise shows such broad ambition. However, Gonzalez has always used short interlude tracks on his albums, and after repeated listens, the necessity of these tracks becomes more apparent. Where the songs don’t seem so fragmented, they shine, and a more focused, condensed effort might well have resulted in a masterpiece. Some of the 80s influences from the last album Saturdays = Youth are still here in a somewhat excessive manner on “Claudia Lewis” and “OK Pal”, but there is a commendable amount of diversity here on fluttering, optimistic jangles that build into something much greater, like the sweet fairy tale “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and “Year One, One UFO.” As always, Gonzalez is not easy on the emotions, showing soft, simple beauty on the piano driven “Splendor” and using more explosive choral disortion on highlight “Echoes of Mine.” “New Map” starts with a rush of typical M83 synth and combines lifted, atmospheric vocal elements with a coda that breaks into an extended jam session almost reminiscent of Broken Social Scene style indie rock. The greatest highlight of all may be “Steve McQueen”, a massive textural demonstration of tension and release that is held together by its dominating percussion arrangement. By and large, this is a tremendous accomplishment for Gonzalez, who set out to make a diverse record that would showcase the evolution of his sound, and did exactly that.

#45: Danny Brown/Old (2013)

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Detroit product Danny Brown’s debut full length demonstrated absolutely smothering scope and ambition. Much like the decade’s best rap album, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Old is a loosely conceived concept album, and while it may not be quite as impactful overall as Lamar’s opus, it arguably shows greater artistic promise and potential for what’s to come in the future. From a musical standpoint, this collection of songs combines suave, understated bass lines with Brown’s unique, often abrasive vocal delivery, which alternates between the strained nasal style typical on 2011’s crucial mixtape XXX, and a newly refined, snarling baritone. He’s at his most effective when switching from one to the other as he does on the sinister “Gremlins” and on the diabolical “Dope Song.” The album moves along smoothly, its 19 tracks flowing relentlessly and quickly from one to another as early tone setters like “Wonderbread” provide chilling anecdotes describing the extremely rough day to day happenings growing up in the Detroit ghetto. For all its thematic depth, Old still provides moments of pure freak out club music on “Dip” and “Break It Go”, complete with futuristic sound elements that are on another level when compared to his prior work. The album hits its highest point right in its belly, as the one-two punch of “Clean Up” and “Red 2 Go” provide arguably the two most powerful moments here back to back, and in a massive contrast stylistically. The former finds Brown lamenting his past mistakes and the effect his upbringing has had on him in his most serious, vulnerable and honest production to date, complete with a slow, low dropped bass beat that would sound perfect on a Flying Lotus album. The latter balances a steady synth reminiscent of early Mobb Deep, jabbing basslines and fluttering percussion as Brown delivers memorable lines like “Did it my way/ I ain’t nobody ho/ I’m bout to pimp the rap game/ Bitch I’m red to go” with heavily regional inflection. “Smokin and Drinkin” would ordinarily come off as a simple party tune if it wasn’t for its insane massiveness on a sonic level, while penultimate highlight “Kush Coma” combines hazy, dazed atmospherics with some of Brown’s fastest, tongue twisting rhymes. This is an album for every old geezer that ever complained about rap not having “instruments”, because if you can’t grasp the fact that Brown’s voice is an instrument in and of itself, you have no business listening to music of any kind in the first place.

#44: Yves Tumor/ Safe In The Hands of Love (2018)

safeinthehandsWhat is this exactly? This is everything. This is the future of music. This is something unlike anything you or I have ever heard before. This is not genre specific, or dare I say, gender specific. This is an alien. This is what we would hear for eternity if we were ever invaded by extraterrestrial life, and we’d be lucky. This is balanced- “Honesty” provides incredible club grooves, “Noid” is impossibly catchy with its contagious, slightly discordant violin sample and refrain (911!) alongside an unorthodox time signature, “Lifetime” cascades elements of percussion, haunting piano lines and subtly intertwined horn, “All The Love We Have Now” fits the wildly underrated lounge bar scene, and closer “Let The Lioness In You Flow Freely” is terrifying and may be the single best conclusion to an album this year even if it gives you eternal nightmares. This is amazing. This is daring. This is Yves Tumor rapidly evolving.

#43: Fucked Up/ David Comes To Life (2011)

The Chemistry of Common Life took punk rock outfit Fucked Up’s game to the next level, and on their follow up effort David Comes to Life, they spread their wings and make an attempt to create that most difficult of all art forms, the concept album. The result is, as expected, a virtual onslaught of energy and power, even if the concept itself isn’t communicated with a very high level of effectiveness. Instead, we’re left with a barrage of ambitious new material that often reaches musically to redefine punk rock itself. Early in the album, we hear the familiar snarls of lead singer Pink Eyes alternate uncharacteristically playful vocals with Cults’ Madeline Follin as the story begins with “Queen of Hearts.” The anthemic “The Other Shoe” provides an early highlight, hitting like a shot to the heart right off the bat with its cascading layers of sound and, oh yes, that VOICE. But things really begin to take flight as the second half of the album begins. This stretch of songs is incredibly relentless and consistent, beginning with an addictive guitar riff on “Truth I Know” and ending with the standout penultimate track “One More Night”, perhaps the best example here of the band’s ability to combine crushing emotional intensity with raw power. In between we get everything from the apocalyptic grinder “I Was There” to the more carefree but energetic punk rock sounds of “Inside A Frame” and “The Recursive Girl,” both of which are accessible enough to find some airtime at a summer cookout without raising too many eyebrows. The distant, squealing electric guitar lines that defined some of Chemistry‘s best tracks are here again on stunners like “Life In Paper” and “Ship of Fools.” Even the most egregious missteps here can be dismissed as integral to the core of the story arc. “Serve Me Right” seems forced lyrically and repetitive musically, while closer “Lights Go Up ” serves to conclude the tale but sounds like an amped up version of The Hold Steady trying to remake “Home on the Range” in the process. Fucked Up should never, ever sound like this, but therein lies the paradox of David Comes to Life: You don’t have to understand the story to appreciate the music, but you may need to appreciate the story to understand the music.

#42: Darkside/ Psychic (2013)

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Of all the great albums released in 2013, none stood alone and occupied its own unique genre quite like Psychic. Darkside is a collaboration between electronic mastermind Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, and their debut record is a meticulous and game-changing re-imagination of music that suggests endless possibilities. Every restrained note here is filled with purpose, and for all of the psychedelic influences that appear to creep towards the surface, they are balanced out and checked evenly with an ambiance that is decidedly intergalactic. It is fairly mind-blowing to see artists in their early 20s operating with such restraint and vision, as Psychic‘s focus prevails over its eight tracks, each of which is content to evolve at its own pace without ever trying to outdo itself. The spectacularly epic twelve minute opener “Golden Arrow” builds patiently for nearly five full minutes before the beat kicks in and steadily gains subtly intertwined electronic instrumental additions. The first sign of a vocal doesn’t come until the seven minute mark as Harrington’s falsetto brings the track to nearly a complete stop before picking right back up again. It’s a powerful moment, and vocals are used intermittently in like manner throughout the album, adding to the dreamy space-rock atmospherics. Never is this more evident than on the stunning “Heart”, which starts with battle march drums, picks up a twangy 70s rock guitar line and an otherworldly loveliness from its processed vocals. If there’s such a thing as “acid blues”, then “Paper Trails” is it, managing to combine a steady blues scale guitar riff with Jaar’s deep vocals which are in stark contrast to Harrington’s high strained octaves, culminating into a dark-lit slow burner possibly born from the same galaxy as Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom.” There’s almost too much going on to keep track of on centerpiece “The Only Shrine I’ve Ever Seen” as layers of thick bass and tambourines evolve into a rocking riff that might have fit on The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, and then into soft, acapella vocals, while the groovy  “Freak, Go Home” is a hidden gem, simply gliding along with its swanky rhythm and fuzzy synth loop. The peaceful, relaxing closer “Metatron” literally sounds like it was recorded in outer space, and while as close to Pink Floyd as Darkside gets, adds futuristic snares and synths that amount to so much more than a simple throwback comparison. Taken in full, Psychic was a surprising and unexpected record that managed to balance its calm, drift-into-oblivion mood with music that is equal parts challenging and fascinating.

#41: Fuck Buttons/ Slow Focus (2013)

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In 2013, a year that seemed so loaded with quality albums of the purely instrumental, completely devoid of vocals variety, none showed the same structural acumen as the aptly titled Slow Focus, the third full length from multi-instrumentalist duo Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung as Fuck Buttons. A considerable step forward from 2009s vital Tarot Sport, this effort is remarkable for its depth of texture and density. They don’t waste any time getting straight to the point as opener “Brainfreeze” begins with isolated, demonic percussion and picks up what seem like immeasurable layers of sound as it swells and evolves, eventually collapsing back upon itself. There is less emphasis on release and catharsis here; these songs are content to begin with enormous tension and simply maintain that endowment rather than release it as they expand. For as ominous and monolithic as the opening track feels, a catchy whistle melody provides distinct contrast on the enormous, sweeping highlight “The Red Wing”, which steadily gains an industrial guitar riff, fluttering electronic horns, laser beam synths, and screaming chimes as it exhudes confidence all the way through. A perfect microcosm for the multi-dimensionality of this collection of songs, this is one to listen to when walking by yourself in the dark; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make you feel completely and utterly invincible. There’s such diversity on this record, as the foreboding tone of the first half gives way to more all-encompassing beauty on the longer tracks that close the album. “Stalker” balances a fuzzy, repetitive bass jab with rollicking percussion, an ethereal synth squeal and cascading distortion, while closer “Hidden Xs” begins with a gorgeous electronic keyboard riff and gains massively distorted basslines and soaring shoegaze guitar, but is most successful thanks to its perfectly executed and carefully intertwined electronic clap-drum percussion. The closer is a song that equals “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians” from their last effort in terms of pure beauty, but does so in a manner that suggests loneliness and the relentless pursuit of perfection all at once. In between there’s “Prince’s Prize”, with its techno synth lines that move along with blazing velocity, which would seem totally out of place here if it weren’t for how intensely focused and intense the arrangement is. This is a serious record, for serious moods, and not for the faint of heart–there’s just too much going on here from a textural standpoint to even describe accurately enough for me to do it justice.

#40: Danny Brown/ Atrocity Exhibition (2016)

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With his fourth full-length album, Detroit’s Danny Brown takes a detour way off the mainstream map. There may have never been a hip hop album made before that sounds quite like Atrocity Exhibition, an unsettling, menacing and unrelentingly dark collection of introspection. There’s plenty of stylistic variation here but the album never deviates from its steady vibe of internal paranoia and terror. The overwhelming sonic experience provided by tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and “Golddust” is straight up panic-inducing behind their deep, powerful bass beats; I imagine this is about exactly how it feels right before having a heart attack. In contrast, the raw, spacious, and haunting beats on “Pneumonia” and “Today” make a strong impact due to how chilly and stripped down they are. Confessional opener “Downward Spiral” sets the tone immediately, as Brown amazingly rhymes a word that appears to be the plural of “ghost” with “oh shit” as the track builds in a manner representative of being trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare of his own creation (“I gotta figure it out”), while the brutal “White Lines” finds him in the thralls of a potentially fatal drug overdose. Brown’s unique nasal vocal delivery is among the most recognizable in rap, and it’s easy to forget how unparalleled his flow can be, but we are reminded of that fact as he spits rapid-fire rhyme schemes on the brilliantly tense and apocalyptic “When It Rain”, and the moments where he uses his more baritone speaking voice on tracks like “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” and “From the Ground” add depth and complexity to the record.

If there was a stronger back to back duo of tracks all year than the high-powered, rock-driven bass line of “Rolling Stone” and ultimate posse track “Really Doe”, I’m not sure what it was. The latter stands out especially, as Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul lend verses behind a horrifying bell chime loop. Only “Dance In The Water” seems truly out of place here, with its ramped up and somewhat overdone rave beats, but we’ll allow for a small misstep, especially since the album concludes as powerfully as it does. The soothing and melodic penultimate track “Get Hi” is as peaceful as it is depressing, as Brown seems to be simultaneously lamenting and justifying drug dependence through its devastating hook: “Say ya had a bad day/ Want the stress to go away/ Just rollup/ Take the pain away/ And get high.” “Hell For It” is the perfect closer, as Brown takes the intensity to another level, which is saying a lot on this album. There’s such anger and fear evident here, especially as his voice constantly evolves from his usual nasal tone into a more threatening sounding baritone on the back end of the beat. (Not even Iggy is safe). As great as his prior album Old was, it’s easy to make the argument that the best three or four moments here are better than anything on that record. Its rare focus and consistent tone renders this is the strongest hip hop album of the 2016, a year that provided many rap highlights.

#39: Avalanches/ Wildflower (2016)

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Sixteen years in the making, the long-awaited follow-up to The Avalanches’ legendary Since I Left You is impressively varied and substantial, and is as worthy a follow-up effort as could have been reasonably expected over such a timespan. While still heavily dependent on sampling, the primary difference lies in the amount of guest appearances present on Wildflower. There’s the obvious appearance of Danny Brown and MF Doom complete with a carnival beat on highlight track “Frankie Sinatra”, where the calypso sample from Australian artist Robbie Chater perfectly balances the line between being kooky and brilliant, in the same way that classic Avalanches tracks like “Frontier Psychiatrist” did, complete with elements of electro-swing that make it a repeatedly fun and addictive listen. Brown shows up again on the dreamy “The Wozard of Iz”, but Wildflower also features contributions from Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue on psychedelic tracks like “Colours”, “Harmony” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”, while Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick lends a sunny, ethereal vocal element to the steady “If I Was A Folkstar.” Even Biz Markie drops by to help out with the impossibly silly “The Noisy Eater.”

Opening track “Because I’m Me” evokes memories of the title track from their debut, with its nostalgic, self-affirming female vocal that glides along a triumphant beat. There’s so much mood and feel here, from the glimmering sweetness of “Sunshine” to the bouncing groove of “Subways” and the bittersweet optimism of the gorgeous penultimate track “Stepkids.”There’s a certain wistfulness that permeates all of The Avalanches’ music, and it’s perfectly captured by the joyful closer “Saturday Night Inside Out”, complete with guest appearances from Father John Misty providing backing vocals on the chorus and David Berman reading a spoken word poem. Making music out of samples is time-consuming, as it requires as much listening as it does creativity and meticulous application, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve had to wait so long to hear music as unilaterally unique as this is. (There aren’t any Avalanches imitators out there). What might be a surprise after all this time though, is that the delivery is again so well executed and so worth the wait. Wildflower retains that same consistent, unmistakable sound that is decidedly Avalanches, yet still also carries with it a certain timeliness, and a modernized air.

#38: FKA Twigs/ Magdelene (2019)

twigs.jpgPerhaps Tahliah Barnett would have been better served to hold off for a couple of months and release her second full length record as FKA Twigs at the start of a new year and decade, given the forward-looking sense of ambition and limitless possibilities for the future of music that her first offering in five years carries. It’s difficult to pinpoint the single element that makes Magdalene such an exciting album, between the immaculate production quality of its beats, precise attention to melodic timing, and of course Barnett’s otherworldly soprano vocal range. But following a tumultuous recent personal life that included a highly publicized relationships and breakup with actor Robert Pattinson as well as the removal of uterine fibroid tumors, there are moments of anger, pain and loss throughout these nine concise tracks. Thematically, the Catholic-raised twigs focuses on female empowerment through the story of the album’s namesake Mary Magdalene as the subdued church music and repetitive vocal scales on hypnotic opener “Thousand Eyes” serve as a perfect tone-setter, while the title track concludes with an explosion of organ synths. Highlight “Sad Day” alternates between a whispery vocal and propulsive percussion samples, perhaps the most striking of any of the beats here. A haunting piano riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” opens the stunning centerpiece “Fallen Alien”, which escalates into chants of desperation and paranoid shrieks before culminating into a massive coda of cascading synth beats. Gorgeous R&B ballads “Mirrored Heart” and “Daybed” seem like relative comedowns after that album-defining bruiser, but not without their fair share of complexity, as the former melts into a blast of distorted synths at its conclusion, while icy whispers and subtle strings that lurk beneath bass lines that build and swell on the latter might have felt right at home on Sigur Ros’ (). There’s an impressive amount detail and nuance as it pertains to song structure and build across the board here, as each track ends at its highest point. But in contrast, it’s the raw, stripped down simplicity and vulnerability of closer “Cellophane” that brings all of it together. An essay in sorrow, twigs’ voice cracks and strains showcasing an incredible octave range above two repeated piano chords.

#37: Father John Misty/ I Love You Honeybear (2015)

FJMJosh Tillman was a former drummer in Fleet Foxes, and on his sophomore solo effort delivers a relentlessly charismatic collection of songs as his alter-ego Father John Misty. Here, Tillman finds the perfect balance between self-deprecating theatrics, genuine humor and honest discourse on a variety of topics, all of which seem to indicate and confirm his generally miserable worldview. Musically, it can best be described as some sort of other-worldy blend between folk-rock and baroque pop; lyrically it contains an ever-present injection of cynicism that seems never too much to be completely over the top, but never too little to be dismissed as anything less than unsettling either.

I Love You, Honeybear is a record decidedly honest, relatable and of-the-moment. Early highlight “True Affection” opens with the lyric “When can we talk/ With the face/ Instead of using all these strange devices?” In this day in age, who hasn’t had a regrettable text or phone conversation with a loved one that might have been completely different if handled in person, face to face? I for one don’t have enough fingers to count these instances on both hands. On the sarcastically self-loathing piano ballad “Bored In The USA”, Tillman demolishes the tedious nature of middle-class American life, hitting on everything from religion to cookie-cutter suburban homes, the middling benefits of a college education and the ever-present need to over-medicate.  Other songs are just downright hilarious even in their bitchiness, as “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” completely eviscerates the personality of a prior love interest with lines like “And now every insufferable convo/ Features her patiently explaining the cosmos/ Of which she’s in the middle.” Everyone has dated THAT girl, and by the end of the song, he is quite literally choking her, and so are his listeners; Tillman has that same innate ability that so many folk singers possess that enables him to paint vivid pictures with his words.

Through it all, Tillman maintains meticulous attention to melody and arrangement. Centerpiece “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” was among my favorite songs of that year with its lifted choral background vocals and pitch-perfect orchestration. The lyric “I can hardly believe I found you, and I’m terrified by that” is meant as a vulnerable admission in what was the year’s greatest love song, but for me at the time, it meant pure, legitimate fear. On the simple but addictive acoustic guitar ballad “Holy Shit”, Tillman delivers perhaps the year’s most poignant lyric as he sings “Oh and love is just an institution based on human frailty/ What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/ Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/ But what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” If there was an easier record to connect with in 2015 than this one, I am not sure what it was.

#36: Fleet Foxes/ Helplessness Blues (2011)

There may not have been a more highly anticipated sophomore release in 2011 than Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes’ lead singer Robin Pecknold has been well-documented as a recluse with social anxiety issues, and the pressure to duplicate his surprisingly well-received debut full length must have been heavy. While this somewhat darker, more inward-looking and patient follow-up doesn’t contain as many immediate staple sing-along singles in the same vein as “White Winter Hymnal” or “Your Protector”, it is arguably more congruent and complex as a whole, and shows an upward progression of musical acumen. Gentle opener “Montezuma” doesn’t try to do too much, but instead glides along and showcases spot-on harmonies, which after all is perhaps the band’s best single attribute. Equally carefree is the decidedly western track “Boudin Dress”, which plays wonderfully for a sunny car ride on the open road. “Sim Sala Bim” starts calmly and precisely, but slowly evolves into an intense folk guitar strum break down through its coda before coming to a sudden end. It is these types of musical tone shifts inside of the songs that show growth within the band. They stretch out considerably on tracks like “Plains/ Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/ An Argument”, which are far too complex and winding in terms of arrangement to have ever been found on the last album. Highlights abound in the album’s second half, beginning with the acoustic title track, which builds and soars into an astonishing centerpiece that ranks among the very best Fleet Foxes songs to date. Later on, we get another standout in “Lorelai”, a steadily rolling and melodic song of lost love that expresses bittersweet lines like “You, you were like glue/ Holding each of us together/ I slept through July/ While you made lines in the heather” before lamenting “I was old news to you then.” And speaking of arrangement, who could have written a better track than “Grown Ocean” for placement as the closer here? It’s delivered so nonchalantly and creates such a hypnotic, dreamy effect that it’s hard to notice how effectively it builds and ultimately collapses back onto itself, sending the album off on a reassuring note. Then again, they opened with their Pitchfork set that summer with the same song and it worked equally well. Perhaps Fleet Foxes can do no wrong.

#35: Kendrick Lamar/ To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

Kendrick2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was the best album of that year as well as the best rap album in nearly two decades upon its release, so it isn’t surprising that Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore full length effort was met with such a fever pitch of anticipation. The strangely titled To Pimp A Butterfly was originally devised as a tribute record to the late Tupac Shakur, but evolved into something much more timely and heavy on social commentary than a mere tip of the bottle to a highly influential, deceased Compton homie, and instead plays more like a broadly designed concept album. By the time Tupac makes a surprising appearance from beyond the grave at the record’s conclusion, it’s easy to have mixed emotions. Admittedly, Lamar’s knack for taking on tough issues in such a lyrically honest manner is part of what makes him such an important and exciting artist, but the general tone of this work does risk leaving certain listeners put off by its aggressive nature as it relates to race issues. That isn’t to say that Lamar comes off as racist here, but he does seem angrier than he did on his debut, and the bizarre poem that builds upon itself throughout these 16 tracks begins to border on repetitive and overwrought to these ears. To his credit though, and this is open to debate, his over-riding purpose seems to be one of unification and responsibility within the black community rather than division and finger pointing.

Still, tracks like unsettling “The Blacker The Berry” hit hard, with its anxious, pounding percussion skeleton that underlie Lamar’s raspy vocal that has to be as angry as he’s ever been on record with lyrics like “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society
/ That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me” and “I’m African-American, I’m African
/ I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan” that don’t leave too much open to interpretation. Musically, this is an impressively diverse, if somewhat scattered collection of songs for the genre. There’s a lot of G-Funk influence early on as the surprising opener “Wesley’s Theory” begins the album with the lyric “Every nigga is a star” sung in a show-tune style that will leave initial listeners double checking that they are indeed listening to the correct album. After that, “King Kunta” serves as this record’s “Backseat Freestyle” as we get a rare dose of true bravado over the relentless energy and confidence demonstrated. Dark jazz tones dominate tracks like “These Walls” and the nightmarish “u”, the latter of which features Lamar screaming at himself in the mirror of a hotel bathroom over urgent, breathless, off-beat freestyle rhymes that turn into desperate wails. Lamar’s ability to combine and switch between different emoting personas is part of what made his debut so engaging and essential, and he has only built upon those qualities here. Snoop Dogg makes an appearance on the airy “Institutionalized”, an early highlight that is sure to whet the appetite of anyone who enjoyed the laid back, suave grooves on tracks like “Money Trees” on his debut. Lamar appears to sample Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” on the powerful “How Much A Dollar Cost”, where he meets and chastises a homeless man who turns out to be God in disguise. At its center, “Alright” stands out here as the track that holds the album together with its optimism and razor sharp rhyme schemes all above a gorgeous horn riff. It’s as close to anthemic as anything else here, and offers a rare moment of hope amongst a collection of songs that burst with darkness and uncertainty elsewhere. To Pimp A Butterfly is hard-hitting, innovative and one of the decade’s best rap albums, and while its relentlessly serious commentary is a lot to take in and not altogether enjoyable, I suppose that is the entire point. I’m still not even sure I completely understand the true meaning of the metaphor the album’s title bears even after it’s explained in the final track, which is one of any reasons that while listening to it, I don’t feel that this album was made for me, which is not a feeling that M.A.A.D. City gave me, but this effort has to be appreciated for its scope alone. Closer “Mortal Man” is the perfect sendoff, with its dark bass line and atmospheric horns above lyrics that show a clear admiration for Nelson Mandela and sympathy for Michael Jackson, among other things. Lamar is fighting demons, but he’s fighting them for peace and to create a better life for his community, and the aforementioned sendoff interview with the ghost of Tupac showcases the deep love and respect he has for where he came from, an admirable quality indeed.

#34: Flying Lotus/ Cosmogramma (2010)

Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus took a big step forward from his thoroughly enjoyable debut full length Los Angeles on sophomore effort Cosmogramma, a fascinating and challenging exploration of the possibilities of beat manipulation and electronic music. The album plays somewhat like a symphony consisting of three movements. The opening tracks “Clock Catcher” “Pickled”, and “Nose Art” hit hard in succession and seem almost playful in nature with their videogame synth noises, a quick warm up to get us ready for some exciting new musical ideas. As we move on to more complex pieces like the amazing shift from the dim, spacey undertones and mind-boggling beat on “Zodiac Shit” to its bass-driven lounge thumps, the album drives into its trip-hop stage. The transition and flow from the exhausting “Computer Face/ Pure Being” to the Thom Yorke-assisted highlight “The World Laughs With You” is an essay in perfection, and that track carries its own weight well enough for Yorke’s presence on it to be merely an afterthought. This airier middle stage of the album hits its apex with the gorgeously restrained “Mmm Hmm” before evolving into a more jazz-influenced final movement. Remember that Fly Lo’s aunt is the famous jazz musician Alice Coltrane, and her influence is prevalent here. The more upbeat “Do the Astral Plane” and “Dance of the Psuedo Nymph” serve as a bit of a break from the harder-to-grasp material earlier in the album, and should become immediate playlist choices for dinner parties and boutiques far and wide. Laura Darlington returns after helping on powerful Los Angeles closing track “Auntie’s Lock/ Infintium” to provide a haunting vocal on the downtempo “Ping Pong” (featuring a looped game of ping pong as the beat and namesake) while closer “Galaxy In Janaki” pays tribute to Ellison’s deceased mother and ties all of the digital jazz and electronica of Cosmogramma together. Truth be told, Ellison elevated himself to status as a musical visionary with this effort, as no other album as the decade turned gave us a similar glimpse into the future.

#33: Crystal Castles/ Crystal Castles (II) (2010)

On their second self-titled album, electro-punk duo Crystal Castles expanded their unique sound with deeper, broader sounding music while still remaining true to their core of often terrifying rave rock. This balance is evident early on after the noisy distortion and intense vocals by Alice Glass on opener “Fainting Spells” fade into the more atmospheric, shoegaze highlight “Celestica,” and then back into the maniacally propulsive “Doe Deer,” which features Glass screaming the word “deathray” over and over again in a disturbing manner. To me, as enjoyable as their debut album was, it suffered at points from an overdose of this often unbearably noisy intensity and an overall lack of focus, so the gentler, prettier sounds here added a new element of complexity for sure without sacrificing the same element of beat, and the pacing is commendable as well. Songs like the lifted, trip-hoppy standout “Suffocation” and the twirling synth beats on “Empathy” give us a taste of what Glass’s (somewhat manipulated) voice sounds like when she isn’t screaming, and the music underneath is impressively melodic. On the whole, Ethan Kath’s beats sharpened considerably this time around, most notably on rave tracks like “Baptism”, while “Vietnam” and quasi-closer “Intimate” show development on a new level as they communicate some genuine emotion behind their impressively layered structure. “Violent Dreams” uses a dark electronic organ to create an eerie church vibe, while the energetic bounce of “Pap Smear” and heavily manipulated vocals on the gorgeous, bittersweet “Not In Love” add to the diversity here. A band all its own before the sexual assault accusations brought by Glass against Kath ended this collaboration, Crystal Castles found their niche in 2010, elevating themselves beyond their own supposed genre, and with this album managed to straddle the line between accessible pop and hardcore electronica.

#32: Big Thief/ U.F.O.F. (2019)

BigThief_UFOF.jpgHow can we tell when a band is incredibly, unequivocally on top of its game? While some artists understandably spend a half a decade fine tuning new music between releases, Big Thief is in the zone, delivering two massive and essential albums in 2019 that both rank among the year’s very best. Of the two, it was the band’s first release that resonated the strongest, preceding the raw, honest and concise nature of Two Hands with a collection of intimate, lush and spell-binding folk rock songs. The delicate whisper of lead singer Adrienne Lenker is simultaneously calming and foreboding over the minor chord strums of opener “Contact” before suddenly shapeshifting into a snarling guitar solo, a jarring juxtaposition indeed. While serving as an attention-grabbing tone setter, it’s also somewhat of a red herring, as the rest of U.F.O.F. is defined by its restraint and elegance. The incredibly pleasing nocturnal vibe of the title track could seemingly go on forever and expand, but instead concludes with an element of no-frills nonchalance. There’s a flawless and precise folk dynamic on “Cattails”, which glides along effortlessly beneath Lenker’s ever-so-slightly strained and discordant vocal. Lyrical imagery abounds throughout as she belts out lines like “And I find you there in your country flair/ Middle of the river in a lawn chair/ With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair/ Leaving here soon and you know where.” The truly quieter moments really shine, as Lenker’s vocals crack on the bittersweet “Terminal Paradise”, while the rich, peaceful and lullaby-like “Open Desert” is arguably the single prettiest moment here. The melody of “Orange” is as simple as it is affecting, while “Century” evokes shades of Stevie Nicks. But it’s on the stunning penultimate track “Jenni” that the band comes together to realize its full potential. Weighty yet understated, an ominous mood permeates the fuzzy shoegaze guitars that lay beneath Lenkner’s elfish whisper. There’s a moment here towards the end where everything stops and a single guitar chord rings out for what seems like half a minute, building tension before layers of distorted guitars swell into its coda.

#31: Low/ Double Negative (2018)

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In recent memory, there hasn’t been an album that so fully at once encapsulates the dreariness and hopelessness of existence alongside its beauty. The key is the usage of space, and prioritizing restraint above ego to create a consistent, unsettling mood, and on their 12th album, the inventors of the entire genre of slow core are not new at this, they’re just better at it. As a result, Double Negative requires patience, with its glitchy synths, processed vocals and looming dread, but it rewards with repeated listens. The tribal beat of the terrifying “Dancing And Blood” segues perfectly into “Fly” like silk, where a softly rolling bass line picks up subtle piano chords intermittently beneath Mimi Parker’s gorgeous falsetto. The repeated use of the word “always” is noticeable here, to an extent that has to be considered intentional. Highlights abound on tracks like the synth-driven, melodic “Always Trying To Work It Out” and the utterly gorgeous “Always Up” that precedes it; even the devastating penultimate track “Rome” has “Always In The Dark” parenthesized. Ultimately, the point here is the reality of a hopeless permanence, which is startling and practically contrarian due to its surrender as opposed to its protest. In short, like the rest of us, this band isn’t a fan of Donald Trump.

#30: ANOHNI/ Hopelessness (2016)

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If you’ve ever wondered what an electronic album from Antony and The Johnsons would sound like, you now have your answer. ANOHNI is the post-transition moniker of the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, and this effort far surpasses anything previously put to record in what was formerly a more baroque pop style. Hopelessness flips any notion of reliance upon some past formula completely on its back, and it’s a powerful statement, both musically and politically. ANOHNI’s other-worldly voice absolutely soars on standout track “4 Degrees”, and has there ever been a song about the impending apocalypse that sounds this beautiful? It’s clearly a sarcastic commentary on global warming, as the artist attempts to convince us that if we are going to continue to destroy the planet, we should do so because we want to-“I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.” It all builds behind a percussion sample that sounds as though it has been fired out of a cannon, picking up horns and violin that cascade upon themselves through the coda. Elsewhere, there’s more politically charged lyricism on tracks like “Drone Bomb Me”, a dark, suicidal cry from the perspective of a young child who has lost her family in a drone attack, and “Execution”, which takes a hard look at American foreign policy decisions behind its steady synth beat. The chilling “I Don’t Love You Anymore” uses an echoed, fuzzy bass beat with an off-kilter time signature behind a subtle, gorgeous church organ as listeners are forced to confront the stunning, transition-confirming line “You left me/ for ANOTHER girl.” No one is off the hook here, as “Obama” investigates the disappointment felt now by many relative to the naive expectation of “hope and change” over music that resembles a Gregorian chant.

A surveillance analogy, “Watch Me” is the most melodic and intimate moment here, among one of the very best, as dark but soothing beats glide behind the addictive “Daddy” chorus line, while centerpiece “Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth” arguably delivers the single most incredible vocal performance on the record. While it hits hard, nothing comes off as finger-pointing or preachy here. In fact, tracks like the devastating “Crisis”, which again touches on drone bombing, find ANOHNI grappling with personal culpability and asking the listener to do the same over its apologetic chorus. Closer “Marrow” is such a soft, restrained letdown with its gorgeous but understated piano lines. A bracing indictment of society combined with a new sound altogether from what was once a familiar artist, Hopelessness is the embodiment of a new identity.

#29: Slowdive/ Slowdive (2017)

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In 2013, shoegaze kings My Bloody Valentine released their first record in 22 years, a self-titled work that left fans of the genre pleased to see how little swagger the band had lost in their step during their hiatus. Four years later, an identical 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive returned with their self-titled record, easily the most melodic in their relatively small catalog. It seems we have uncovered the secret to a successful shoegaze comeback! Lush, cascading soundscapes abound here from start to finish. “Star Roving” is an absolute throwback to the dawn of the genre, with its soaring, distorted guitar arpeggios that reach heavenward. The amazing “Don’t Know Why”, aside from its ethereal beauty, is impressive for its innovation and inverse structure, beginning with a sped up time signature that collapses back onto itself into two distinctly slower layers before picking the tempo right back up again. The absolutely gorgeous chiming guitar line completes the sort of track that you never want to end. Conversely, the soft, gentle “Sugar For The Pill” is another huge highlight but is far more stripped down and delicate, benefiting from a restrained and isolated guitar riff that takes the band’s sound in a new direction entirely. “No Longer Making Time” alternates between its soothing verses and explosive distortion through its chorus in true shoegaze style from a structural standpoint, all the while showcasing an incredibly modern dual harmony, finishing just as it began, while closer “Falling Ashes” beckons Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” with its slow-burn build. If this is the last album we ever get from Slowdive, it is a fitting finale to a defining legacy, and was well worth the wait.

#28: LCD Soundsystem/ American Dream (2017)

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James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem project were one of the most important and exciting artists of the young century when they abruptly retired and played their “final” show at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. Rumors of a reunion began to emerge in late 2015, much to the joy of music fans everywhere, and were confirmed the following year when the band began touring and working on new material again. Attentive minds expected them to emerge with a new sound, and so it is on American Dream, from the patiently building and warmly produced opener “Oh Baby” to the spare-framed closer “Black Screen.” There’s no “Dance Yrself Clean” here, and as a whole the songs on this album seem more melody-focused, darkly introspective and slow-burning than the dance-rock defined by its predecessors. This sonic shift is best demonstrated on tracks like “I Used To”, with its paranoid gliding guitar riff and ominous bass, and the savage takedown centerpiece “How Do You Sleep?”, which is an essay in build over its nine unsettling minutes, culminating into a full throttle dance beat that is well worth the wait. You’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulates intense propulsion with soaring melody any better than “Call The Police”, which combines a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. It isn’t all unfamiliar however, as the title track is the band’s loveliest ballad since “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” while the bouncy, sunny “Tonite” probably comes closest to a crowd pleaser for those who have been LCD Soundsystem fans from the beginning, and “Emotional Haircut” delivers the same kind of raucous silliness established on prior songs like “Drunk Girls”. Wherever one stands on the heavier, more serious sound weaving its way in, it would be hard to not be happy to see the band in action again, evolving and expanding their musical horizons in a way that offers a new found variety.

#27: The National/ High Violet (2010)

2007’s Boxer became one of Indie Rock’s most beloved cult albums on the strength of its ability to expand and evolve upon repeated listens, as well as The National’s remarkable reputation as a live act, and the followup to that effort was met with perhaps the greatest anticipation of any album released in the decade’s first year. High Violet comes as close to matching its predecessor as we could have reasonably hoped, and by all accounts is an even darker, more personal account; whether the songs stack up as a little better or a little worse seems to be a meaningless debate. The same rainy-city-street-at-night feel permeates throughout this collection of songs, and the National again found a way to lyrically express the universal melodrama of everyday life and the added difficulties that growing older present- financial difficulty, (“I still owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe”), lost love, (“Cover me in rag and bone sympathy/ Cause I don’t wanna get over you”) and overall inability to deal with life’s frustrations (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”)- without being melodramatic. Opener “Terrible Love” is mesmerizing in its layered melancholy, while the broad ballad “Sorrow” follows softy, possibly doing a better job of describing its own title with sound than any song I can remember by this band or anyone else. There is a defeated tone to “Anyone’s Ghost”, which picks up the tempo a bit with a foot-stomping percussion pattern, while quivering guitar notes add depth to highlight “Afraid of Everyone.” Lead singer Matt Berninger’s rich baritone leads the way through the album’s shining centerpiece “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, an immediately gripping number that builds upon its sharp drumming and scaled melody with soaring guitar riffs and piano through its stunning coda, an essay in the balance between musical restraint and release.  The somewhat terrifying “Conversation 16”, switches between minor chords on its verses and a somewhat rare moment of optimism during its chorus before Berninger breaks down and offers “I was afraid/ I’d eat your brains/ Because I’m evil.” Heavily orchestrated “England” would have worked better as a closer here than the somewhat overdone “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, with its allusions to rainy London nights and Los Angeles cathedrals, using a patient piano melody backed with subtle horns that evolve into a drum march and builds into the album’s finest crescendo. Even more one-dimensional songs like “Lemonworld” and “Little Faith” that seem a bit slight on the first listen reveal impressive emotional heft when revisited. It is a rare thing indeed for music this dreary to be this listenable, but that’s what The National does, arguably better than anyone else.

#26: Kamasi Washington/ The Epic (2015)

KamasiAs aptly titled as an album will be ever be, The Epic is an absolutely sprawling expansion and re-invention of modern jazz over its three-hour length. As such, it’s a difficult album to digest in a single sitting, and describing it as simply ambitious seems to overstate the obvious. I feel as though I simply don’t have the historical jazz background to fully appreciate all of the nuances present here, but that’s exactly the point; this album created interest within the genre from music fans that might ordinarily stray from it. Washington is featured as a saxophonist on previous Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar albums, and fans of the futuristic, post-come-down acid haze influences of those records will find much to like here, although these songs don’t fall into any one category, as there are moments of darkness, sunshine, melancholy and upbeat energy all in equal proportion. That an album of this length and overall breadth could be so inherently listenable despite the presence of hardly any vocals is a testament to the meticulous nature of the musical arrangements as much as it is a tribute to the memorable and engaging melodies. Only on Ray Noble cover “Cherokee”, “Henrietta Our Hero” and standout “The Rhythm Changes” do we hear vocalist Patrice Quinn. The rest of the album is strictly instrumental, and arguably better for it.

There’s constant energy, motion and build over the duration of behemoth tracks like the triumphant “Re Run Home” and “The Magnificent 7.” And, like a true jazz record should, it emotes powerfully. Listen to the final minutes of early track “Askhim”, and you can hear Washington’s discordant saxophone literally wailing. Early on, there’s impressive contrast between the dark lounge vibes of “Isabelle” as it morphs into the sunny, upbeat highlight “Final Thought.” Diversity abounds all the way through the opening piano chords and immediately catchy horn melody of “Change of the Guard” all the way through “The Message”, and everything in between. Accessible enough to attract listeners who may not normally be interested in jazz, while simultaneously changing the modern landscape of that genre, The Epic was one of the decade’s most important albums.

#25: Grimes/ Visions (2012)

If there was one artist that took the indie world by storm in 2012 while simultaneously polarizing it to smithereens, then that artist would have to be Claire Boucher, who hails from Montreal under her stage name Grimes. Her first two records flew largely under the radar, but expectations were high for this album following the release of the “Oblivion” single the previous fall. That song, with its bouncy, jabbing synths combined with whispery, high pitched girlish vocals, was an immediate attention grabber. Boucher’s speedy but nonchalant delivery of lines like “But when you’re really by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” was a breath of fresh air into the often corny electropop genre. However, Visions is much too diverse and far-reaching an album to be labeled simply as electropop, and to attempt to place her music into any specific genre is a difficult task indeed. There are moments of darkness that draw influence from bands like Ladytron and the witch house trend, such as the aptly titled, synth driven “Nightmusic,” and the nocturnal beauty of “Colour of Moonlight”, while the gorgeous melodies on “Vowels=Space and Time” and the pure bubble gum pop of opener “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment” could pass for more accessible Top 40 music. There’s even an ambient moment halfway through with the well executed “Visiting Statue.” Throughout Visions, we see Boucher’s electronic experimentation spread its broad wings, from the robotic jam “Circumambient” to the more atmospheric textures on highlight “Genesis.” However, Grimes’ most valuable instrument may actually be her voice, which hangs just below surface level, often in a rich falsetto as she stretches the limits of the musical scale. While it’s often heavily draped in reverb, the only time her voice is truly manipulated comes on the fairly forgettable “Eight.” The girlish charm that results from her vocal style might come off as annoying to some, but when taken in combination with the entire range she shows over these songs, it really equates to a pretty stunning vocal performance that resonates as sweet and sugar-coated. Listen as she switches between a commanding baritone and glass-cracking falsetto octave escalations on the fantastic “Be A Body” and pretend to be unconvinced.

Grimes has admitted that her ideas tend to run wild without much thought towards organization, saying “Basically I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.” However, her acumen for arrangement is never more apparent than on standout penultimate track “Skin”, which utilizes an enormous amount of spaciousness to create an remarkably intimate and powerful sendoff that showcases her very best vocal as well. It is that range of ideas and the fearless execution of those ideas that put Grimes in a league of her own in the age of post-electropop. Wait, did I just invent a genre?

#24: Godspeed You! Black Emperor/ Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend! (2012)

After a ten year hiatus, enigmatic Canadian orchestral collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor shocked the music world with the sudden release of a new record. Following  2002’s Yanqui U.X.O and 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To The Heavens, the sprawling double album that has remained the band’s career topping achievement over the past decade, Don’t Bend, Ascend! takes a different approach in terms of structure. Whereas the latter album consisted of a series of movements, with songs that meandered in and out of one another to create a symphonic effect over its punishing 87-minute length, this time around the delivery is more straightforward and uniform. Simply put, what we have here is two unique and wholly individual 20-minute songs surrounded by two interlinking 6 minute drones. This is as about as concise as this band is capable of being, yet it is also an essential addition to their catalog, and might be the perfect introduction for those not familiar with their prior work. While the two proper tracks here have been live staples for the band for years, they take on new formalities on record.

Opener “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) enters new musical territory even for these battle tested and highly skilled musicians, expanding from a suspenseful and understated Middle Eastern guitar line and building into an ominous cloud of what can only be described as industrial metal. This is an extremely dark song that slowly builds tension throughout its midsection before it releases into a somewhat triumphant, contrasting crescendo. I can recall watching the band open with this song, which I had never heard before, while headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival back in July, and being astonished by their perfection of the crescendo rock style as we know it. (On an additional note, had the song they closed with at that concert, “Behemoth”, which was later recorded less spectacularly in four parts as LP “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress” been included on this record in its live form, it almost certainly would have pushed it into album of the year and decade status. It was that good). After the well-placed, fuzzy transition track “Their Helicopters Sing”, there’s “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which touches on the other end of the Godspeed spectrum, delivering steadily building joy and beauty that is in stark contrast to “Mladic.” Over its first ten minutes, the song evolves slowly, beginning with a simple guitar line and picking up additional violin elements one by one until all of a sudden, it becomes a sprawling masterpiece of a song. By the midway point, guitar lines are soaring high into the heavens, and at just about the point when we probably can no longer take it, the track suddenly shifts and takes a brief pause. But the band powers on, and the song gains an unsettling edge that is the perfect set up for its eventual release. There’s such a massive combination of musical wonder going on here that words alone begin to do it an injustice, but suffice to say that all bets are off once the pounding percussion and soaring electric guitar give way into a folk violin solo through the coda. Bands like Mono and Explosions In The Sky have made a career out of taking cues from this band and trying to improve upon their ideas, and have done so with positive results, but it’s refreshing to be reminded once again after such a long wait that no one has quite the ear for this type of thing as Godspeed does.

#23: Jamie XX/ In Colours (2015)

XXIn 2015, a year fairly devoid of strong electronic music, London producer Jamie Smith of The xx fame fit the bill with this brilliantly diverse debut hybrid of bright house beats and club pop. The upbeat, approachable highlight “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” served well as a primary summer anthem, combining rap verses from Young Thung with a Caribbean funk chorus courtesy of Popcaan. This track stood out like a sore thumb on a record that elsewhere was decidedly minimalistic and nuanced, just as the debut record from The xx was before it, and demonstrates eager risk-taking by the young producer. Its strongest tracks utilize vocalists from that project, namely Romy Croft on standouts “Loud Places” and “See Saw.” The former ballad showcases a lifted chorus that is remarkably gorgeous in its subtlety and nonchalance, falling back on Romy’s whispered vocal, culminating with the haunting lyric “You’re in ecstasy/ Without me/ When you come down/ I won’t be around.” The latter track swells with richness and desperately rushing synths that wash over the understated vocals and serve to create a vast, unsettling tone.

Oliver Sim makes an appearance on “Stranger In A Room”, a darkly lit slow burner that beckons that same spaciousness that made The xx such an engaging debut. Strangely though, the purely electronic tracks are the ones that truly separate In Colour from its peers in terms of the way it emotes. Opener “Gosh” is a true tone-setter, slowly building over a constant loop that picks up additional elements before exploding into a synthesized keyboard coda. Penultimate track “The Rest Is Noise” brings the party to a halt with its more melancholy tone even as it swells up and collapses back upon itself, almost as a wider metaphor for life that nothing lasts forever. Closer “Girl” almost feels like a wistful surrender to the night with its atmospheric acid jazz; the party is over, and it was fun, but it will never be exactly like it was ever again.

While the electronic highlights of previous years like Aphex Twin’s Syro, Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus and Jon Talbot’s Fin relied heavily on iciness and distance to realize their full effectiveness, In Colour is an electronic record that bursts with warmth and embraces a connection with its intended listener, and is all the better for it.

#22: Bon Iver/ 22, A Million (2016)

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In 2011, Bon Iver released their impeccably produced self-titled album, which has a fighting chance to make an appearance further down on this list. Given that, it’s no surprise that this release stood as a highly anticipated one half a decade later in its wake. While it doesn’t quite match the greatness of its predecessor, the band should be commended for simply conceding its own inability to top it, and instead doesn’t even try. Everything about 22, A Million, from the bizarre, Aphex Twin-esque song titles to the sequencing and composition, demonstrates the undertaking of a new direction entirely, and it’s a far less accessible one. There’s an ambient quality to this record, with its crackling, glitchy synths, echoed percussion loops and vocal processing, that makes it sound even more stripped down than either Bon Iver or For Emma, Forever Ago did, which is an interesting observation considering those were both composed of primarily acoustic songs, while these lend more toward the electronic variety. The auto-tuned vocal manipulation on “715- Creeks” is so prominent it sounds almost like it could have been lifted from 808s and Heartbreak, ironic since Kanye West has noted that lead singer and mastermind Justin Vernon is his favorite living artist. “10 Deathbreast” opens with unorthodox, chaotic electronic drums that pick up complex horns and lifted vocal samples through its powerful crescendo. But this level of experimentation isn’t for everyone, to say the least of those fans hoping for more of the same after five years of patiently waiting. To that end, the band doesn’t completely divert from its lifeblood, and it’s the highlight “8 (Circle)” that is most reminiscent of their immediately prior work, and again, that’s a very good thing. Straightforward but bursting from the seams with emotion and melody behind impeccable production and its gorgeous synthesized horn, it’s a reminder that sometimes what isn’t broken doesn’t need fixing. The ballad “29 Strafford APTS” isn’t a notable diversion either, with its pretty acoustic guitar plucks, subtle violin string orchestration, and of course Vernon’s unmistakable falsetto. “666” combines a bit of the old with the new, as a gorgeous melody combines with synthesized trumpet and a commanding drum backbone.

But what makes 22, A Million such an exciting record are indeed the moments where the band takes risks and succeeds. “33 God” opens with what sounds like a typical piano line, but evolves quickly and astonishingly over its three minutes, revealing stunning complexity as it explodes into buzzing synth, ethereal howls and thunderous drumming. Opener “22 (Over Soon”) begins with a shot of sharp synth before Vernon’s heavily processed voice alternates stanzas with his regular one. It’s an atmospheric, spacious track that examines finality, picking up subtle horns before it suddenly cuts off without warning, an analogy for the question/ reality it raises and obsesses over in the first place. Still, what prevents this album from completely living up to its admittedly sky-high expectations are moments where the focus seems to meander and flatten out on tracks like “21 Moon Water” and “_45_.” Those tracks water down the back half a bit, but aren’t enough to undo the overall impressiveness or cohesion present here, especially as closer “00000 Million” ends it on such a strong note. Melancholic piano carries Vernon’s aching vocal in a manner that is straightforward but heart-wrenching, as the album ends with the somber resignation “If it’s harmed, it harmed me/ It’ll harm me, I let it in.” In a way, the ultimate direction and result of 22, A Million is reminiscent of Kid A, in that a band seemed either bored or unwilling to revert back to some pre-determined formula or expectation, and was more intrigued by looking forward rather than backward while playing by its own rules.

#21: Run The Jewels/ Run The Jewels 2 (2014)

homepage_large.e0491b02I don’t know what it is about November and surprise rap albums. In 2012, we saw Kendrick Lamar release one of the best records of the decade, and a year later Danny Brown surprised everyone with the gutting depths of Old. In 2014, we received an equally surprising improvement from well-established rapper/producers Killer Mike and El-P on their second album together as Run The Jewels. El-P has always been an elite producer, but pardon me if I’ve often felt his actual rapping to be a bit on the try-hard white dude side of douche-baggery. Such is not the case this time, as his anger and pointed emotion is real, quite believable and executed impeccably. Check out his verse on “Lie, Cheat, Steal” for proof of the above. Maybe all he needed was to collaborate with someone equally intense and serious, with an accomplished rap background himself. Somehow, someway, these two unlikely comrades discovered each other, and the result on their second album as Run The Jewels is packed with energy, anger and general disillusionment with the current state of the country and the world that comes off as incredibly genuine and valid. These are not a couple of young gangsters trying to tough it up, they are grown ass men nearing 40 with a lifetime of experiences and observations, and suffice to say, they do NOT like fuckboys. This is the type of album that you will walk down the street with cranked at full volume with the impetus to crush anyone who dares to veer into your path. Both rappers have a considerably deep background playing for live audiences, but these songs seem almost tailor-made for a concert environment, as the beats hit harder and the anger and easily re-quotable lyrics seem so much more real and authentic on their sophomore effort together. Find me a weak track; you can’t. This pair wastes no time bringing the heat, and it never lets up.

“Jeopardy” begins with an ominous, buzzing beat that steadily gains intensity as the duo unleashes lines like “Fuck you fuckboys forever I hope I said it politely” that leave no possible misinterpretation of their intentions right off the bat, while “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” shows off some of the speediest rapping verses since Bone Thugs N Harmony. The back-to-back combo of “Blockbuster Night 1”, with its diabolical industrial bass beat and alternating verses, and standout masterpiece “Close Your Eyes”, is absolutely mind-blowing. The latter brings the energy to an insurmountable level, as the duo conveys a prison riot/ break out tale over a franticly repetitious sample. It’s the best rap song of 2014, and there isn’t a close second. “All My Life” samples a trip-hop synth line that reminds me of Massive Attack’s “Future Proof” and wins immediately in my book on that basis even if I’m wrong. The lyrical shock-value on the sexually driven “Love Again” gives Kanye’s “I’m In It” a run for its money and is a welcome diversion from the serious tone here, although it’s fairly intense in its own right, but showcases some of the very best production on the entire album, and that isn’t a statement I take lightly. “Crown” slows it down and pulls it all together but doesn’t forsake the deep bass lines that permeate this entire record, as Killer Mike illustrates the deep regrets of his drug-dealing past and its negative impact upon humanity with El-P’s brief but surprisingly respectful support of a man who has no choice but to join the military. Killer Mike is on the record as saying he had difficulty finishing his verse from an emotional standpoint as he had continuous breakdowns as he reflected on his past, so it is no surprise that this is the album’s pinnacle. And how about that Radiohead fade into the stunning closer “Angel Duster”? Keep in mind, these were two 39-year-old rap industry veterans that should have been heading towards a mid-life crisis instead of hitting their stride and the best form of their careers. But, sometimes things don’t play out as expected, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining, least of all me, as for once I could crush a rap album and respect my elders all in one fell swoop. This ultimately feels like a fantastic piece of work that will stand the test of time.

#20: LCD Soundsystem/ This Is Happening (2010)

This Is Happening, which at the time was presumed to be the final album from James Murphy, the one man show that is LCD Soundsystem, waxes nostalgic, delivering his most melodic set of songs to date behind, once again, consistently energetic beats. Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” requires a bit of patience initially, as Murphy’s monotone vocal begins slowly and softly above a hollow, delicate beat that suddenly shifts into buzzing synth and electronic drums which turn the song into a supreme dance jam. The bittersweet sentiment of standouts like “All My Friends” from the essentially perfect previous album Sound of Silver finds itself in solid form here on “All I Want”, the album’s clear highlight with its soaring 80s-inspired guitar riff, steady percussion and heartbreaking tune. The beats are softer and the melodies a bit more mainstream on the instantly accessible, dizzying “I Can Change”, and steady grind of “You Wanted A Hit”, which  meanders effortlessly over its eight minutes. He has always been less of a vocalist and more of a force and a presence, but his commendable attempts at hitting higher notes on “Change” are nothing if not truthful and modest, especially on powerfully strained lines like “Love is a murderer!” Murphy indulges in rambling monologues on longer songs like the bongo-drum driven “Pow Pow” and the massive, somewhat ominous techno track “One Touch.” On the former, he offers somewhat nonsensically and off beat, “We have a black president and you do not/ So shut up/ Because you don’t know shit about where I’m from/ And you didn’t even buy my CD,” which doesn’t even attempt to rhyme, but somehow works perfectly, evoking memories of the spoken-word classic “Losing My Edge”, which one could argue is where it all began for this artist.  Unlike his previous efforts, there are small missteps here that fail to deliver fully on the album’s potential, such as the generally obnoxious and repetitive “Drunk Girls” and the somewhat one-dimensional yet hypnotic “Somebody’s Calling Me.” It could be said that in many circumstances an artist is better to go out on top than he is to fade away into mediocrity. As it turned out, Murphy still had the itch to make new music after this. With years of musical creativity still to build upon, it was on This Is Happening where he began to explore different areas of his potential inside of the musical spectrum. However, at the time, “Home” seemed a fitting farewell. Reprising the melody from the opening track for its chorus, the closing track rolls above beats that are at once celebratory and reflective, it brings both the album and a fascinating, out-of-nowhere and at the time of its release what was believed to be too short-lived career full circle.

#19: My Bloody Valentine/ mbv (2013)

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There had been rumblings and rumors of new music on the way from infinitely influential shoegazers My Bloody Valentine for years, but to call the sudden release of mbv in February 2013- the band’s first since the landmark Loveless in 1991- a surprise would be a vast understatement. It’s a testament to the quality of the music assembled here that even after a more than twenty year layoff and an early-in-the-year release that at this point seems like ages ago, mbv maintains its status as one of the very best albums of the decade. Its nine tracks are organized in a manner that seems similar to an album like The Beta Band’s The Three EPs, as instead of flowing seamlessly the band takes us on a journey through time over three unique stanzas. The first three songs pick up right where Loveless left off, as the airy, gentle sounds of “She Found Now” harken back to the subtle atmospheric beauty of previous songs like “Sometimes.” The familiar sound of feedback-laden guitar enters the fray as “Only Tomorrow” elevates the energy level, while “Who Sees You” pushes its own limits, showing off the intentionally discordant, screeching guitar beauty typical on prior classics like “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said.” In the middle, we get a glimpse of what a My Bloody Valentine pop record might sound like, and while the decidedly mainstream center of the album may have been a turn off to some hardcore fans, it’s worth pointing out how well the band pulls it off. “New You” is an amazingly catchy, foot-stomping jam that is strikingly accessible if not incredibly complex, while the lovesick “If I Am” glides along effortlessly with the nonchalant precision of its gorgeous underlying guitar line and the comforting “oohs” of its chorus. The final three tracks are the most exciting and focused on the future, building upon the band’s strengths while adding experimental new elements focused heavily on the possibilities of percussion. “In Another Way” is purely awesome, with propulsive drumming serving as the backbone beneath is swirling guitar distortion. The brute force of the completely instrumental “Nothing Is” rolls along with punishing repetition and is unlike anything My Bloody Valentine has ever put together. But closer “Wonder 2” tops everything that came before it, opening and closing with guitar effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off, complete with heavenly vocals that hover well above the surface, and held together by a commanding guitar line that can best be described as resembling a massive swarm of bees. If this is the last album we ever get from My Bloody Valentine, then it was worth the wait, and if we have to wait another twenty two years? Hey, you’ve got to have something to look forward to.

#18: The War On Drugs/ A Deeper Understanding (2017)

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The follow-up to 2014’s fantastic Lost In The Dream features rich textures and electronic elements that result in a fuller, lusher and more intricate sound, all the while keeping the dynamics of Adam Granduciel’s guitar at the forefront. Upbeat opener “Up All Night” swells and expands beneath its warm piano riff, leading in to the elegant and vibrantly emoting “Pain”- (“Pull me close and let me hold you in/ Give me a deeper understanding of who I am”). But it’s songs like centerpiece “Nothing To Find” that truly separate this album from its contemporaries, elevating it an echelon higher than typical Americana or Springsteen revival rock. Steady, propulsive percussion reminiscent of the band’s best work (“An Ocean Between The Waves”) picks up an open-road guitar riff that glides along effortlessly. But as the song evolves in constant motion, it gains layers of complexity from shimmering synths, harmonica, a concise and well-timed lead guitar solo, and an electronic organ through its triumphant coda. In similar fashion, after a brilliant synthesizer twinkles through its introduction, glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to the stunning “Holding On”, complete with slide guitar solos and bouncy synths, all a backdrop for Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals. 11 minute epic “Thinking Of A Place” features a repeated acoustic guitar riff that is gorgeous in its simplicity and never gets old, an essay in song structure as it builds patiently and magnificently. The presence of slower tracks is notable here, as “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living” aren’t so much weak links but add diversity as they bring the tempo down a notch, but closer “You Don’t Have To Go” is a perfectly understated heartsick ballad. The subtlety and restraint with which Granduciel sings the lyric “into the light” as the song climaxes adds power and depth; a more indulgent songwriter may have taken the opportunity to wail and bloat in this moment, but Granduciel wisely lets the music shine through the vocals. It’s those examples of attention to detail- and they are numerous- that make A Deeper Understanding such a consistently thrilling listen, and another resonant rock album from this band, fittingly falling just  a single notch behind its predecessor.

#17: The War On Drugs/ Lost In The Dream (2014)

homepage_large.9419e472Mark Kozalek who? As great as Benji was, the real irony of the Sun Kil Moon leadman’s bizarre attack upon the “beer commercial lead guitar” of The War On Drugs was the easily and frequently overlooked fact that these guys made a better record than he did that year. There’s a depth and feeling here that he certainly missed while being so frustrated and annoyed by a live concert sound bleed situation that he decided to spend the last half of his year attacking this band sarcastically for no apparent reason, while he could instead have been prideful enough regarding his own career-topping work. But enough about him, as these bands aren’t even in the same genre, and while Kozalek’s attacks shamefully impacted the legacy of both records more than they should have, the fact remains that the music itself stands alone and aloof to such nonsense, and thankfully so. With Lost in The Dream, The War on Drugs made a fascinating and heartbreaking rock record that ranks among the very best of this decade in that genre. Springsteen influences? Sure. I’m an American and a fan of rock-n-roll, and wasn’t aware that such a position was akin to liking bad music. But again, I digress. Epic opener “Under The Pressure” is perfectly placed in that spot, with its relaxing, atmospheric and ultimately triumphant arrangement setting a tone that is hard to live up to, but The War on Drugs does so with ease. “Red Eyes” follows, and it’s maybe the best American rock song of the entire young century. Everything is executed and timed perfectly without excess, from the whooping vocals, brilliant melody, pounding percussion and gigantic riffs which eventually overlap and collapse upon the verses into an all out onslaught of a coda.

What separates this album from being “beer commercial lead guitar”, whatever in the holy ever-living fuck that is even supposed to mean in the first place, is its somber moments. The aptly titled “Suffering” lets you feel that pain through and through, while “Disappearing” veers in and out, leading the listener into a state of utter confusion, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the songwriter’s mental state and ultimate intention in writing the song in the first place…so it’s conveyed perfectly. Sure, there are rocking, rollicking, open-road driving song moments like the fantastic “Burning”, and again, I NEED songs like this in my life. You want more driving music? The War on Drugs will give you more driving music. Turn on “An Ocean Between the Waves” and try to convince me that you aren’t on your way to go buy a motorcycle for an adventurous escapade up California 1; again, you can’t. But there’s nothing pretentious or happy about any of this. These songs are graphic, detailed open wounds, all minor keys, even the most upbeat of the bunch. In a brilliant move of arrangement, the tempo tapers off massively over the final two songs. If The War On Drugs was really about being commercial, they’d close this album with big marketable rock band music wouldn’t they? The title track brings in a gentle harmonica behind leadman Adam Granduciel’s subtle Dylan-esque vocal before “In Reverse” tests patience with its practically acapella intro that pays off as explodes into the line “I don’t mind you disappearing/ Because I know you can be found/ Living on the dark side of the street/ Down.” It’s such a culmination, especially invoking his own fears from earlier on the record, by name no less, yet sends the album off on a sentimental, bittersweet note. This is an intensely emotional record and one that lingers and sticks with the listener. And I wouldn’t dream of using a single track in a beer commercial if I actually wanted to sell beer. (Sorry Mark.)

#16: Kanye West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

When and if hip hop music ever ceases to exist, will Kanye West go down as the greatest rapper of all time? Truthfully, four albums deep into his career, I had great respect for his ability as a producer, but he wouldn’t have even been on my short list for that honor. With the release of his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy after two years of turmoil, it became clear that he was aiming for nothing less. The beats hit harder through this relentless, emotional effort, and Kanye’s self-destructive personality is a force, conveying a somewhat paradoxical combination of a personal apology and an indictment of American society. In somewhat of a surprise from an artist that had always been more of a producer than a rapper, he created what was at the time of its release the strongest hip hop album in over a decade, an intense, serious and at times unsettling work the likes of which we had never seen from him. There are more showstopping moments on Fantasy than on his previous four albums combined. West benefits from a slew of guest appearances, from Nicki Monaj’s mind-bending verse on the disturbing “Monster” to the Jay-Z and RZA’s short but conclusive help on the astonishing centerpiece “So Appalled”, a song that is absolutely dripping with despair and disappointment beneath a subtle, melancholy beat that is reminiscent of the great East Coast rap of the early 90s. Even Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon adds vocals and music on “Lost In The World”, an upbeat number that sticks out here and clearly demonstrates West’s diverse musical interests, while a hilarious cameo from Chris Rock at the end of the heartbreaking “Blame Game” can’t change the tone of the addictive chorus sung by John Legend. Opener “Fantasy” splits an a capella Gospel chorus with a foreboding verse that serves as an ideal tone setter, with West spitting honest lines like “Plan was to drink until the pain over/ But what’s worse/ The pain or the hangover.” In fact, the overall cleverness of his lyrics throughout this album are a clear improvement from previous efforts. Apocalyptic background vocals engulf hand-clap percussion on “Power” as West adds, “They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/ Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation” before the track takes a surprising suicidal turn. Violin, horns and a sweet piano melody combine on the triumphant masterpiece “All of the Lights,” which eventually picks up a speedy drum machine beat that is nothing short of awesome.  And then of course there’s “Runaway”, which begins with a single piano key and builds into a nine minute epic with a memorable chorus that gives a toast to douchebags, scumbags and assholes, and before we are left wondering if perhaps Kanye has learned to view himself from our eyes as such, the track shifts into an extended finale (complete with an electronic bagpipe?) that sounds like an apology. But I digress, as a track by track analysis doesn’t do Fantasy justice. For the first time in his career, West had created an album that is more about the sum of its parts than it is about any one song, and it is his highest artistic achievement to date.

#15: Gonjasufi/ A Sufi And A Killer (2010)

Those who remember “Testament”, the haunting closing track to Flying Lotus’s 2008 album Los Angeles, may remember the unique, unforgettable vocal provided by an unknown artist that called himself Gonjasufi. Two years later, that artist’s debut full length was a sprawling, expansive combination of a vast array of genres, spanning bass-driven trip hop (“Change”, “Advice”), riff-heavy rock (“Suzie Q”), exotic Eastern influences (“Klowds”, “Kowboyz and Indians”), lounge bar-ready acid jazz (“Candylane”) and psychedelic blues (“Ageing”) without ever sacrificing its sense of cohesion. A Sufi and A Killer almost feels as though it was recorded in the desert and buried underground in a time capsule for an unspecified number of years; the decidedly grimy sounds and ghostly textures present here seem to defy any discernable era of music, and the production quality alone is a marvel. The windy tribal sounds of understated opener “Rebirth” blend darkly into an eerie acoustic guitar loop on “Cobwebs”, and then the even bleaker moodiness of the FlyLo produced “Ancestors” follows as a clear highlight. Gonjasufi’s unmistakable voice almost acts as additional instrumentation here, as it is almost always distorted and not completely to the surface level of the music, creating consistent tension and release through the generally downtempo sounds here. The gentle repetition of “Sleep” lends itself well as a useful lullably, while the stunningly heart-wrenching “She Gone” builds from a thumping bassline into a playful piano melody before Gonjasufi hits us with a blood-curdling scream that is surely one of the album’s best moments. Choppy synth bolts on “Holidayz” provide perhaps the album’s most (only?) accessible moment, while the threatening, stormy blues of “Ded Nd” and defeated casio riff on “I’ve Given” thrive on increased intensity and passion both musically and vocally. At 20 tracks, this is a challenging record, but surely one of the decade’s most captivating, while also likely to be one of the most overlooked.

#14: Flying Lotus/ Until The Quiet Comes (2012)

Remember that perfect, impeccably produced stretch of songs on Steven Ellison’s breakthrough album Cosmogramma that began with “Zodiac Shit” and ended with the Thom Yorke assisted “The World Laughs With You”? Well, imagine that sort of intricacy and attention to detail spread over the course of an entire album, and what you are left with is the masterpiece that is Until The Quiet Comes. From the opening drum beat and heavenly chime notes of the gorgeous, engaging “All In” through the subtle let down of closer “Dream To Me”, Ellison has created an album that plays like a symphony. Compared to Cosmogramma, which succeeded with its exciting production innovations and in-your-face aggressiveness, the collectively subdued beauty and appreciation for melody on Until The Quiet Comes is somewhat of a surprise as a follow up. The opening track skips along into Niki Randa’s lifted vocals on “Getting There” before we really have an opportunity to take inventory of what is happening, and this is possibly the album’s greatest strength: Ellison has become a master at creating short, well-thought out songs that blend together quickly and effectively, often before we have had enough of them. To the untrained ear, some may perceive this tactic to result in songs that are a bit slight at best and unfinished at worst. On the contrary, I view it as brilliant and encompassing, while maintaining an effortless quality that separates it from his prior work. There’s plenty going on underneath the skin here as the album picks up a jazzy, hip-hop tone on tracks like “Heave(n)” and the more ambient “Tiny Tortures”, while the spacious “All The Secrets” and massive “Sultan’s Request” enter new territory for the artist with their unique, fuzzy synth sounds. Totally out of place here but still great fun is the hilarious “Putty Boy Strut”, which might be the catchiest thing Ellison has ever put together. Perhaps the best song integration of all comes at the album’s center, as the delicious lounge vibe of the title track evolves in a single beat into the gorgeously tripped out “DMT Song,” a hypnotic ode to the hallucinogen of the same name. Even at just over a minute in length, you will have difficulty getting this melody out of your brain. The best Flying Lotus songs always consist of some type of mid-song tempo shift, and standout “The Nightcaller” is no exception, beginning with buzzing, robotic synth and spooky dance beats that shift halfway through into a swanky jazz groove. The album takes a decidedly darker turn after that, and while I’m probably partial to Thom Yorke’s aforementioned Cosmogramma contribution “The World Laughs With You”, that track almost could have been mistaken as a Radiohead song circa Amnesiac. This time, Yorke’s vocals on the dark, subdued “Electric Candyman” merely add texture to a track that is distinctly Flying Lotus. Guest vocalists have a heavy impact here, and surprisingly Erykah Badyu’s contribution earlier on “See Thru To U” is trumped by Randa and Laura Darlington respectively as the album nears its conclusion. The ominous “Hunger” builds with uncertainty and sadness, and then shifts into an atmospheric vocal section backed by electronic organ, violin and bass notes in one of the very finest moments here. Darlington, whose contributions are always noteworthy on Ellison’s albums, gives her best to date here on the astonishingly pretty “Phantasm”, which gains complexity from a fluttering percussion underbelly that adds an unsettling element to her haunting vocals. And even after all of that, penultimate track  “me Yesterday/ Corded” probably tops them all, beginning with a distorted, haphazard organ and distant vocals before exploding into an amazing coda that manages to convey optimism and carry a bittersweet tone all in one swoop. It is Ellison’s prettiest and most uplifting song to date, and a perfect microcosm for his career topping work.

#13: Beach House/ 7 (2018)

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I can still vividly recall the first time I ever saw Beach House live. In 2007, they were relegated to what was then called the “tent” stage at Pitchfork Music Festival, back in the days when that event was attended by a mere fraction of the masses that attend it now- there might have been two dozen people total in that tent with me. Ambient nearly to a fault, their debut album managed to fit a niche nonetheless, pleasing to the ear without really ever moving the mercury on the thermometer. Simply put, it would have been impossible to imagine that the band in that tent would EVER be capable of creating an album that sounds like this one does.

It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not of the opinion that 7 is even a better record overall than Teen Dream or probably even Bloom, the former of which was the band’s true indie breakthrough. Yet, it’s arguably more impressive and striking simply because of the musical evolution it demonstrates. This will always be remembered as the album where Beach House went full, unapologetically shoegaze, and the results are exquisite and well-orchestrated in a spot where lesser artists attempting to make a similar leap would have fallen flat on their face. Consider the moment where the gripping and propulsive opener “Dark Spring” melts into the immaculate transition that preludes the slowcore, hypnotic groove of “Pay No Mind.”

The perfection of “Lemon Glow” deserves special mention, as synthesized keyboard opens the track on a menacing note as the shoegaze textures of Alex Scully’s guitar provide the perfect backdrop for Victoria LeGrand’s sultry, intimate vocals over lines like “I come alive/ You stay all night”. But it isn’t all fun and games; there is tension and grind within the repetition of the persistent synth line that dominates here, as well as abrasive percussion elements, all of which add a realistic element to the representation of a true relationship, sexual or otherwise. The beauty of Beach House is their ability to capture exactly that in a surreal ambiance that runs to the contrary.

Victoria LeGrand switches things up with French vocals on the show-stopping “L’Inconnue”, a stunning track that changes gears on a dime without sacrificing one iota of its ethereal beauty, while “Drunk in LA” conveys the type of hungover lounge vibe that made this band, but with an orchestrated textural element that defines its pinnacle. The shapeshifting “Dive” is nearly perfect, opening on a slow, practically a cappella note before exploding into a monstrous guitar riff. If playing devil’s advocate, 7 doesn’t finish as powerfully as its predecessors, as “Beyond Love” redux “Girl of the Year” doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and closer “Last Ride” is a serious notch below songs like “Take Care”, not to state the obvious. Still, in a year that saw the true beauty of music take a backseat to the absurdity of manufactured pop songs, it was hard to quibble. This is the greatest band of the decade staking its full claim to that title with effortless nonchalance.

 

#12: Kendrick Lamar/ DAMN. (2017)

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It’s difficult to fully comprehend exactly how rapid the ascension has been for Kendrick Lamar, as the undisputed current king of the rap game released three albums in a five year span that all must be considered essential pieces of work for any genre. If good kid, m.A.A.d. City was his homage to Compton’s West Coast style and To Pimp A Butterfly communicated hostility and frustration towards society, consider DAMN. his offering to the masses. Easily his most accessible record to date, there is something here for everyone over its 14 broadly diverse tracks, and without a single weak moment among them. There’s far more attention being paid to melody here than ever before, as Rihanna guests on the synth-driven and radio-friendly hook of “LOYALTY.”, Zacari sings falsetto on the delicate and bluesy “LOVE.”, and even Bono adds vocals through the gorgeous chorus of the otherwise bruising highlight “XXX.” (The moment that the sirens stop and shift completely into jazzy bass in the latter is dazzling). The beats are still on point however, and it was impossible to get away from the addictive and engaging “DNA” in 2017, as the track shifts from its initial straightforward club beat into something much darker and more fascinating. As focused on his skin color as he seemed to be over the entirety of To Pimp A Butterfly, as the first proper track on the album, “DNA” seems to indicate lyrically that he has adapted a broader view of his persona. It’s refreshing to hear him deliver lines like “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA” without bringing race into it; Kendrick is the best rapper on the planet whether he is black, white or purple, and he seems like he knows it.

On standout track “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat. The smooth groove on the fascinating “FEAR” features Lamar rapping from the perspective of his mother raising him, conveying a sense of understanding and gratitude, but also demonstrating that we don’t all come from the same place, and that reality tends to have some bearing on how we all turn out. The tension isn’t completely abandoned on DAMN., not by a long shot, as Lamar raps breathlessly, seemingly overwhelmed by responsibility through the conclusion of “FEEL.”, while the unsettling “LUST.” begins to ponder the dangers of materialism in an introspective manner. It all culminates with the awesome closer “DUCKWORTH.” as Kendrick falls back upon perhaps his greatest ability, as a storyteller, recounting the story of his own rise behind a backdrop that starts, stops and changes tone with every stanza. It’s an exhilarating finale, and the perfect way to conclude an album composed of such a diverse array of sounds. There’s a new confidence on display here that makes the delivery of every line and the arrangement of every note seem so effortless, and all that his peers, listeners and rabid fans can do at this point is look on in awe and embrace the best rapper of his generation.

 

#11: Grimes/ Art Angels (2015)

ArtAngelsWhen Claire Boucher released the single “Go” in 2014, the legions of fans she’d acquired following the release of Visions under her moniker Grimes began to fear that the quirky Canadian was losing herself and headed in a poppier, less original direction. To be perfectly clear, there was absolutely nothing wrong with “Go”, and to the contrary, it was the type of pop masterpiece that seemed to confirm the ascension of a rising superstar. Still, lesser attempts to create the same sort of sound were evident as she toured last summer, giving fans ammunition for their concern and general ire at this apparent new musical direction, and when the dust settled, Grimes had completely scrapped her album and decided to head back to the drawing board. The result, three and a half long years removed from Visions and released under a frantic amount of anticipation, was as honest and true to the artist as fans could have reasonably hoped for. Fourteen scattered tracks showcase Boucher in all her unique and lovable weirdness and combine into an album that is decidedly “Grimes.” What it lacks in cohesion it makes up for with creativity and immediacy, and Art Angels also shows a step forward in terms of musical acumen. The production is richer, the hooks hit harder, and her vocal range is more pronounced and impressive; where Visions relied on fuzz and nuance over its connecting tracks, this time around Grimes has created some genuine bangers that should be gracing club floors for years to come.

Stylistically, there’s a little bit of everything here, and the relative diversity of ideas combined with its upbeat nature makes this ideal party background music. “Realiti” builds upon a solid demo track single released earlier this year, playing heavy on bass synths and additional electronic jabs in this re-worked version. Its atmospheric undertones stand up well to previous favorites like “Genesis”, while “Flesh Without Blood” might just be the perfect pop song with its pulsating synths combining with one of Boucher’s best vocal performances to date. With lines like “I don’t see the light I saw in you before/ And now I don’t care anymore”, it’s a quintessential breakup track, but may be more directed at her fair weather fans than at any particular romantic relationship. No matter, as it works well lyrically in either context, and is every bit the equal of “Oblivion” in terms of its addictively catchy hook. Grimes certainly hasn’t totally abandoned her penchant for pure pop, and it’s all well-executed, sparingly used and carefully placed here, proving she has a real knack for it. On “California”, she shows off her trademark sugary sweet vocal over a chorus that veers halfway into country music territory, and seems blissfully aware of the line between where her voice escalates from pitch-perfect to downright shrill, and while she toys with that line immensely, she never crosses it. The contrast between “California” and the true “wtf” moment that immediately follows it with “Scream” showcases the fearlessness and range of style present on Art Angels, as the abrasive electronic track features Mandarin vocals from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes. The title track utilizes an accessible guitar line and wouldn’t be a surprise to see headlining the opening credits of a movie at some point in the near future, while “Pin” delivers one of the most simplistically poignant choruses of the year behind its catchy alternating chords and electric riffs as Boucher laments “It was too good to be true” with true pop precision.

Ballads like “Easily” demonstrate range, while “Belly of The Beat” is one of the most lovely and lush tracks in the Grimes catalog, with its gentle acoustic strum and subtly intertwined club beat over her rich vocal work. There are dance tracks galore here, and the back-to-back combo of “World Princess II” and “Venus Fly” (feat. Janelle Monae) work especially well. But the fascinating centerpiece “Kill V Maim” might be the first pure club joint that Grimes has ever produced and stands out here in a big way. There’s so much going on in this track that it often feels like it’s over before the listener’s head stops spinning or can even get a read on what’s happened. Huge, propulsive stadium beats support vocals that showcase high-pitched ferocity, constantly shifting between cheerleader chanting that is equal parts demonic and angelic, and all executed to immaculate effect. Grimes stated in an interview that the track was “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in the Godfather 2, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space”, which makes it even more awesome than it already was. Closer “Butterfly” is a much more impactful sendoff than “Know The Way” was on Visions, with its confident, hushed vocal contrasting with intermittent screams, clap-drum percussion and dark trip-hop bass beats lurking underneath as Grimes taunts that “I’ll never be your dream girl” and the album concludes. Quite a mic-drop indeed from an artist that defiantly made an album her own way under a frenzy of speculation and premature criticism, and forced an entire generation of indie fans back in love with her as a result.

#10: Beach House/ Bloom (2012)

One could make the argument that no band in recent memory achieved as significant an improvement in musical quality as Beach House did between their self-titled debut in 2006 and 2010’s stunningly gorgeous Teen Dream. Given that reality, hopes were sky high for Bloom if the band’s previous trajectory was to be any indication of its future potential. And while it appeared the band may finally have reached its creative ceiling, in 2012 they picked up right where they left off, delivering a record every bit the equal of their 2010 masterpiece, even if the lingering awe from that work renders this one a bit less initially powerful in comparison. It’s an odd thing to conclude that a band’s prior greatness can actually detract from the quality of its current work, but that seems to be what happened here or we might very well have had this record ranked higher. Had Bloom been released before Teen Dream, we likely would hold this album in highest esteem as the band’s breakthrough and career game changer instead of that one. As it stands, Bloom actually begins on a sharper, stronger note than Teen Dream did through its first four tracks. While that album was more of a musical journey with songs that played off of one another perfectly to create an indescribable atmosphere, this one is best viewed as a pure collection of rock solid, harmonic, gorgeous tunes. Opener “Myth” might be just the prettiest single thing they’ve ever written, and it makes you shake your head in disbelief that Beach House is able to continue to create melodies like this one without breaking into any new musical ground. Simply put, this is what the band’s best music sounds like, and they want to keep making more of it by just doing what they do rather than trying to outsmart themselves. A gloriously repetitive keyboard loop stretches itself behind lead singer Victoria LeGrand’s gorgeous vocal, but the real magic happens in the final thirty seconds when a synthesized violin takes over and leads us into the coda before the song stops suddenly and leaves us hypnotized. Other familiar sounding melodies soar with their vast, textured arrangements, including the chiming beauty of “Other People” and the airy dream pop vocals of “Lazuli,” which evokes memories of Cocteau Twins. There’s a more ominous sound to slow building tracks like “Wild” and “Wishes”, while penultimate track “On the Sea” uses a similar tactic as the last album did, slowing things down for a moment to let Victoria Legrand’s one-of-a-kind vocals do their thing. And that brings us to the closer “Irene,” another fantastic send-off that succeeds with its patience and release as much as it does from its lovely melody. There’s a point in the song where that melody stops and a single note is repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity before the guitar and organ lines gently re-engage us and the song surges along into its coda as LeGrand sings in falsetto, “It’s a strange paradise.” If Beach House had made any improvement musically from their prior effort, it might just be that intangible quality of lushness. Very pretty stuff, this, if you’re into that kind of thing.

#9: Grizzly Bear/ Shields (2012)

I for one was in the camp that believed after Grizzly Bear’s previous album Veckatemist took the indie scene by storm in 2009 that the band had reached its full potential. Sure, this was a group of young, highly talented musicians that was improving with every album and with every live performance, but just how far could they go with their admittedly complex arrangements but relatively safe, rustic chamber pop style? Color me incorrect, as the remarkably polished and harmonic Shields bettered Veckatemist on nearly every conceivable level. For starters, forget about the band’s usual tendency to draw the listener in slowly. The first three proper tracks here begin on a note unlike one that we had ever heard from Grizzly Bear or practically anyone else for that matter. Opener “Sleeping Ute” is an immediate grabber with its interesting time signature and layered guitar lines that alternate between twangy acoustic leads and explosive riffs, eventually shifting into a soft coda as Daniel Rossen laments “And I can’t help myself.” There’s an urgency on the more familiar sounding “Speak In Rounds” that separates it from the band’s earlier work, as it rolls along with stomping drums and more acoustic guitar twang. This is an open-road driving tune to end all driving tunes. And what more can be said about “Yet Again”, arguably the most impressive track here? Ed Droste has clearly refined his vocal technique, as he utilizes a rich falsetto not unlike that of notable fan and tour mate Thom Yorke. The song builds and releases with its addictive melody throughout a relatively simple structure, but the band takes it up a notch in a shocking final minute of screeching distortion that lies in heavy contrast to what came before it. There’s a crispness to the production quality here that renders otherwise ordinary ballads like the Droste-led “The Hunt” and Rossen’s “What’s Wrong” heart aching and beautiful, while the motown piano and upbeat grooves on “A Simple Answer” and “Gun Shy” enter completely new territory for the band and end up working out perfectly.  The former starts powerfully and eventually breaks down into a soft coda while the latter moves steadily and more subtly along with whispering background vocals. To top it all off, one could argue that Shields concludes even stronger than it begins. The remorseful “Half Gate” is a bruiser, building from a melodic verses into a thunderous chorus complete with cello, incredible harmony, and explosive drum bursts from Chris Bear, who really shines and stands out on this record in a way that he hasn’t before.

And it’s all just a setup for the epic closer “Sun Is In Your Eyes”, which is constantly shifting between its soft piano verse into a triumphant chorus complete with horns and more fantastic percussion from the band’s namesake. There is a moment around the six minute mark after the song slows down when the electric guitar surges back to the forefront that is just magnificent, and the many changes in texture that this song undergoes over its spellbinding seven minutes best exemplify the additional complexities in overall composition that went into making this album that are apparent across its entirety. There are no holes whatsoever here, and there isn’t a single moment on the entire album that doesn’t succeed in its purpose, as Shields delivers massively to complement what was already an impressive catalog from these guys. To this point in time, this was indeed as good as they could get. Here’s hoping they’ll prove me wrong once again at some point in the future.

#8: Gang Gang Dance/ Eye Contact (2011)

In the spring of 2011, this album was a giant, unexpected leap forward from 2009’s occasionally brilliant but fairly sparse Saint Dymphma, as the band crafted seven exquisite songs that are held together here by three perfectly placed interlude tracks. The result is a patient, building effort that demonstrates impeccable pacing and ends up sounding like one long song rather than a collection of them. Consider the transition from the gorgeously melodic “Sacer”, arguably the album’s prettiest track, as it fades into an interlude and then into the much more unsettling closer “Thru and Thru” without giving any indication of a song change. The closer is perhaps the best example of the band’s diversity and penchant for tribal, global beats, as an urgent percussion arrangement opens and leads into an eastern influenced Indian keyboard loop, eventually fading into a haunting echo as it concludes.

Opener “Glass Jar” is slow to evolve from its white-washed synth and caressing cymbal splashes, but when it does, it makes a metamorphosis into a full blown dance anthem, and the moment about half way through the eleven minute track when the beats kick in and the synthesizers focus into the melody is easily one of the most emotionally affecting moments of any album this decade, especially as charismatic leadwoman Lizzi Bougatsos sings “I cared for you like a mother.” I’ve heard arguments that Eye Contact is too eccentric or that the music meanders into unnecessarily drawn out directions, but the build and release dynamic of the opening track is one of the many examples as to why I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment; every note is in its right place, and every note serves an important purpose for the ultimate payoff as the song sprawls and takes unique and surprising turns over its ambitious duration.  Bougatsos is at her best vocally on the darker “Adult Goth”, as she escalates an entire octave and holds a single note through the chorus above chiming electronica. Tracks like the funky, jazzy “Romance Layers” and airy “Chinese High” carry a bit more of a relaxed, loungey vibe, and what else can be said about the contagious, intense highlight “Mind Killa” and its laser beam guitar shots to the heart? Pound for pound, the execution and flow of Eye Contact as well as its peerless, exotic, genre-defying sound is what makes it one of the most special, exciting and often overlooked records of the decade.

#7: Tame Impala/ Currents (2015)

tameOn occasion, an album’s thematic content will hit you like a shot to the heart and you’ll wonder in baffled bewilderment, “were they writing this album about me?” In terms of pure timing, I can’t think of an album that better defined the entirety of my insane year of 2015 than this one did. As highly anticipated as it was and as clear a musical step forward for Tame Impala that it was, I couldn’t help but be amazed as I listened to these songs how closely the lyrical content was correlated to my current life events at the time of its release, and sometimes that counts for bonus points on lists like these. Currents is, at its core, a concept album structured roughly chronologically around a breakup, presumably due to having met someone new, and as such demonstrates highly charged moments through all the stages of excitement, confusion, fear, jealousy and acceptance, all set to a soundscape that comes closer to pop rock than anything else, but shows exciting innovation and creativity from leadman Kevin Parker. Sprawling opener “Let It Happen” starts the album with a bang. As the title implies, it’s a song about surrendering to chaos and learning to abandon logic and reason, and at nearly eight minutes in length, is a gutsy way to begin. It’s heavy and challenging both lyrically and musically, as complex a song as the band has ever recorded, building and swelling behind its intense disco loops and jabbing bass synths before breaking down into a thrilling crescendo.

A duo of tracks arranged back to back after that attempt to justify the end of the initial relationship via drastically different musical mediums. “Yes I’m Changing” is surely the softest, most melancholy piece in the band’s entire catalog, its deep, bittersweet bass notes supporting slow-burning lines like “I saw it different/ I must admit/ I caught a glimpse I’m going after it.” “Eventually” picks the pace back up with a catchy opening riff (one of the few times that happens on this album), but changes tempos several times and adds orchestration and Parker’s immaculate falsetto to dramatic effect. Aside from the fine-tuned precision of this standout, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more honest lyrical expression on any song this year. Parker described it as concerning “knowing that you’re about to damage someone irreparably, and the only consolation you get is this distant hope that they’ll be alright eventually, because you know they aren’t going to be now or soon.” On both tracks, Parker seems to be attempting to rationalize his reasoning for moving on, but doesn’t seem completely convinced; it plays more like a cry for help in a moment of intense confusion, and the next two proper tracks serve to confirm this.

There’s upbeat disco funk on “The Less I Know The Better”, as Parker takes a somewhat comical look at stumbling upon his ex with her new lover at a bar and attempts to ignore it as best he can, which of course is not very well. “Past Lives” focuses on a more ordinary run-in with his ex at the dry-cleaner that still completely encompasses his day. Do these run-ins serve as snippets of building uncertainty that might lead him to reconsider reconciliation? Or are they future visions of his new relationship ending before its time and the fear of being left with nothing? Which ex-lover is he running into that is making him feel this way? It is open to interpretation, and either scenario is powerful and affecting; in both cases, fear and discomfort seem to be driving Parker back to what he has lost even though he knows it’s too late.  There’s acceptance of blame and expression of regret on the atmospheric and aptly titled highlight and apology track “Cause I’m A Man” as Parker croons in a full falsetto “Don’t always think before I do,” again seeming to forfeit all preconceptions of control, practically throwing his hands in the air and blaming his DNA for his every weakness and transgression. I could go on and on at length about these lyrics and how closely they all mimicked my particular situation at the time, but when Parker sings “Trying to be patient/ but I’m feeling ancient” and “It made my heart run in circles and overflow/ And I was closer than ever to letting go” on “Reality In Motion”, it’s almost too perfect; time for me to throw in the towel and just enjoy the ride.

Penultimate track “Love/ Paranoia” takes an insightful albeit frightening look back at how new love often creates tunnel-vision that clouds normal thinking processes, and investigates the damaging effects of that behavior upon any future attempt at reconciliation.  The record sends us off with an ominous, unsettling dose of paranoia, as “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” leaves all possibility of future happiness completely up in the air behind a dense, dark, bass-driven R&B rhythm. Alternating between baritone and falsetto, Parker seems to be fighting internally with himself while delivering bone-chilling lyrics like  “I can just hear them now/ How could you let us down/ But they don’t know what I found” and “Feel like a brand new person/But you made the same old mistakes/ I don’t care I’m in love/ Stop before it’s too late/ I know there’s too much at stake.” The subconscious realization expressed here that the new love interest might not be what the protagonist initially believed her to be as well as the reality that those who don’t learn from their past relationship mistakes are doomed to repeat them are both things that will stick with me for a long time.

From a sonic perspective, as might be imagined from the above descriptions, Currents contrasts sharply with the band’s prior work. These songs are all bursting with lush warmth and richness, a paradigm shift from the reliance upon the lo-fi guitar-driven distortion and sunny psychedelica of Innerspeaker and Lonerism. There’s simply so much more attention being paid here to the percussion, bass and ethereal elements than there is to lead guitar riffs (which are virtually non-existent) that it’s difficult to even compare back to those albums. As a welcome result, Parker’s vocals float towards the surface and embrace the listener with an emotional connection that wasn’t present in his prior work. From the perspective of experimentation, Parker utilizes tempo shifts to enthralling effect here, often dropping out the beat altogether right in the middle of songs. Currents is also one of the most immaculately produced records of its era– Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Bon Iver’s self titled masterpiece come to mind comparatively. Currents remains a towering achievement in terms of melody, arrangement and lyrical execution, permeating with a constant theme regarding adaptation to life’s transitions, both musical and personal.

#6: Daft Punk/ Random Access Memories (2013)

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It is ironic indeed that in a decade so jam-packed with top efforts in the electronic arena, the best album of that genre came from this enigmatic duo, once electronic pioneers themselves, on an inspired collection of songs that contrasts sharply with their prior work in that musical field. Random Access Memories sparkles with some of the most immaculate production ever put to record in music history, and does so spanning a magically broad spectrum in terms of genre, proving that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo do not merely endeavor to create new music and leave their mark as influences in their own right; they are fans of the past, present, and future of the vast musical spectrum itself. At once an exploration into what music could be and a recap of what music used to be, Random Access Memories is a far cry from Daft Punk’s techno driven beginnings and defies characterization, but comes closest to operating as guitar-driven dance pop–a surprising evolution indeed. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” sets a thematic tone, as bouncing synths and acoustic guitar plucks carry the robotic vocals that the band has practically patented at this point. Summer anthem and instant classic “Get Lucky” serves as the quintessential pop song of the decade as it combines dance elements which are very of-the-moment with a disco influence that pays homage to the sounds of the late 70s, all complemented by the single catchiest guitar hook in recent memory and vocals provided by star vocalist Pharell Williams, who also makes an appearance on the less indelible but quite functional “Lose Yourself to Dance.”

The album’s only misstep comes early, taking a pass at R&B on the dreary “Game of Love.” The piano driven “Within” comes shorty after and works much better in terms of the downtempo, minor key aesthetic, but comes off all the more powerfully for forcing the listener into a reality check- is this really a Daft Punk record to begin with? Then there are songs that pull together and combine multiple genres. Daft Punk takes a huge risk with theatrical centerpiece “Touch”, and delivers a show-stopping highlight as it switches between the a capella vocals of Paul Williams and slowly picks up beautiful orchestral strings and choral vocals to form the most emotional moment in the band’s entire catalog; the fact that it’s followed immediately with the carefree “Get Lucky” demonstrates a tremendous sense for pacing. The epic arrangement of “Giorgio by Moroder” features a spoken monologue by its namesake which builds upon a sharp, synthesized beat and gains violin elements into its freak-out electric guitar coda. Indie guest superstars abound, as Julian Casablancas shows off his range even through heavily processed vocals on the catchy “Instant Crush” and Panda Bear is a breath of fresh air throughout his cameo on the electro-pop driven “Doin’ It Right.” Symphonic strings open “Beyond” and build into a rhythmic electronic groove as the album picks up steam through its back half, moving through the whistling woodwinds and lounge bar swirl of “Motherboard” into the crystal clear production of “Fragments of Time.” Fittingly, Daft Punk choose to conclude the album with the only song that truly resembles their prior work, the grand scale festival techno of the mammoth, frantic and incredibly pleasing closer “Contact,” which gets a huge boost from its immersing, pounding drum component. Random Access Memories is an album chock full of both reflection and innovation all packaged as one seamless unit, and this, out of all the albums released in 2013, is the one that we will be most likely still listening to and discussing a decade from now.

#5: Beach House/ Teen Dream (2010)

After lo-fi dream pop outfit Beach House’s serviceable self-titled debut album and even more commendable sophomore effort Devotion, it was practically inconceivable that the quality of their sound was capable of making the jump that it did on Teen Dream, my choice for the best album of 2010. All of the pieces were there, but while providing some extremely solid tracks like “Master of None” and “Gila”, their previous albums were lacking in a consistency of mood. This time around, Beach House built upon the potential those albums showed, creating lush, atmospheric soundscapes combined with lifted vocals that result in an unwavering collection of tunes that are at once hopeful and somber, and without a single weak moment. In fact, I’d say there are at least five songs here that are better than anything they had ever written to this point in their career, as this music benefits immensely from its nearly perfect melodic arrangements and layers of polished, textured sound. On the enticing opener “Zebra”, airy background vocals combine with the commanding voice of Victoria Legrand along with a patient guitar melody that builds into layers of orchestration, demonstrating a certain fullness that the band achieves on this album as it continues. Massive ballads like “Silver Soul”, with its organ notes, sliding electric guitar and nonchalant “ah ah” vocals, set the gorgeous tone early on, while “Better Times” brings back some of the familiar gloom of their earlier work. The sweeping highlight “Norway” is as dreamy as anything the band has ever done, building from an intentionally discordant and disorienting guitar slide over its verses into a soaring chorus of more “ah ha” whispers, dense, ringing guitar and of course, Legrand reaching for the sky vocally. A slow drum machine beat leads “Walk In The Park” through its utterly spectacular chorus hook as Legrand sings over more organ reverb “In a matter of time/ It would slip through my mind/ In and out of my life.”

The beauty of Legrand’s vocal range is showcased on more straightforward tracks like “Used To Be” and “Real Love”, as her often raspy tenor floats into moments of higher octave brilliance. The standout track here is the innovative “10 Mile Stereo”, which glides above its dark, foreboding guitar line before picking up a synthesized drum beat and exploding into layers of distorted shoegazer violins, while reassuring closer “Take Care” builds slowly into its lovely, tearjerking chorus before fading softly into the distance. Teen Dream had the benefit of a January release, but no other album stuck with me the way this one did in 2010- it is just too impossibly pretty, relaxing, and still exudes so much emotional power.

#4: Kendrick Lamar/ Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012)

homepage_large.25b1eddaWhen Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, he elevated the rap genre to a new level after what seemed to mostly be, Outkast notwithstanding, a lost decade of creativity following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in the late 90’s. What made that album great was that an artist, so familiar to his fans by that point in his career, put forth a fearless effort that dripped with honesty and escalated ambition, and it seemed to fill a void in the hip hop world. With Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, a much less familiar Compton native at the time named Kendrick Lamar made an album just as original and unique, but even more personal, and frankly, of indisputably higher overall quality. This is the very best rap record since at least 1995, at once a reinvigorated tribute to the great West Coast rap days of yore and an autobiographical concept album. It is so captivating that to even classify it as merely a rap record seems to sell it short.

Much was made of the presumably authentic voice recordings that link the album’s 12 tracks together and help to tell its story (and if they aren’t authentic, the rawness of their production is practically even more impressive anyway). On first listen, these may seem to break up the flow and continuity a bit, but as we dive deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent how integral they are to the album’s core. These messages range from the comical, such as Lamar’s mother scolding him for making her late for an appointment at the county building while his father raves about Domino’s Pizza in the background, to more serious perspectives from his parents about what makes a real man, how to learn from his mistakes, and how to avoid violence and make a difference in his community. Lamar utilizes a vocal trick throughout that had recently been popularized by the likes of Nicki Minaj, using a variety of different sounding voices over the course of this album. However, it’s a more effective trick here than Minaj tends to be, as he uses it to establish context rather than to merely create shock and multiple personalities.

But Lamar isn’t restrained to simply rapping, as there are moments here where he carries melody brilliantly on tracks that straddle the line between rap and R&B, and arguably lean towards the latter over the album’s jazzy, downtempo mood. The production is remarkable early on with highlight “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” as Lamar alternates between a melodic chorus of “I am a sinner/ Probably gonna sin again/ Lord forgive me/ For things I don’t understand” and an off-time signature rap verse. Well placed samples of Beach House’s “Silver Soul” on the sensational “Money Trees” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” on “Poetic Justice” are arranged brilliantly and with an eye towards innovation. Later, a perfectly placed violin sample and addictively catchy chorus on the massive “Swimming Pools (Drank)” tells a tale of peer pressure and lessons learned from heavy experimentation with narcotics. This is much more introspective than your average drug-related rap song, as Lamar uses a hallucinogenic vocal and has an actual conversation with himself about the danger he is entering, and then switches back to rapping in triple time.

For a rapper from Compton, this record doesn’t scream gangster rap. There are moments of tough guy bravado on tracks like “Backseat Freestyle”, where Lamar delivers the fantastic lyric “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower” over a creeping, hard-hitting industrial beat, but this album is far too serious to rely on these types of themes entirely. “M.A.A.D. City” is perhaps the song that west coast rap has been waiting for since 2Pac left us. Lamar’s voice reaches an affective, high pitched paranoia underneath a spooky beat before MC Eiht enters the picture and the track suddenly shifts into an enormous violin line and heavy bass that do the old school west coast rap genre proud while maintaining a sense of originality. And as if that were not enough, the album probably reaches its emotional peak on the 12 minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, a two part denouement that takes a hard look towards the legacy that our protagonist desires to leave before taking a more investigative look into the present and the changes that need to be made in his life before that legacy can be fully realized. This is heavy material, but so utterly enjoyable in its entirety. Surely, what comes before has to pretty incredible, for when Dr. Dre finally makes his lyrical appearance on the triumphant closing track “Compton”, it almost feels like a letdown in comparison. In a complete shocker, a 5 foot 6, 25 year-old rapper came out of nowhere and made the Album of the Year in 2012, and this is the first time I had awarded that honor to a rap album since 1993 and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers. Who saw that coming?

 

#3: Bon Iver/ Bon Iver (2011)

Justin Vernon’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago gained attention and notoriety thanks mostly to its back story- a distraught young man holing up in a secluded Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter to escape to solitudee, write music and refocus. It was here that he adopted the stage name “Bon Iver”, which in French literally means “good winter.” While the songs on that album were inwardly focused, spacious and commendable, I didn’t exactly fall into the same trap as many who obsessed over these raw folk tunes simply because of the fairly tale creation mechanism that surrounded them. Admittedly, I would never have expected him to be capable of producing anything nearly as accomplished or ultimately brilliant as this, his self-titled sophomore album. Where to begin? For starters, I can’t ever remember an album of this magnitude that builds as patiently or shows as much restraint. There are moments, such as on standout “Holocene”, where we expect some sort of massive culmination of a chorus line, but instead we receive the same precise, gorgeous acoustic guitar loop as Vernon repeats “And at once I knew/ I was not magnificent/ And I can see for miles, miles, miles.”  Songs like “Wash” feature a similarly repetitive loop structure, but build effortlessly with such subtle beauty. Even with such impressive restraint in those situations, where a lesser artists would have had a hard time avoiding the temptation to overdo it, the music here feels much more full and lush from a production aspect thanks to addition of a full band and careful attention to every detail of every single note and beat. In fact, this is one of the very best sounding records that has probably ever been recorded, and is a considerable ascension from the stripped down, raw sound of For Emma.

Vocally, Vernon shines particularly with his ability to shift between a hopeless sounding tenor and a rich falsetto, demonstrated best on tracks like “Minnesota, WI.”  “Towers” was my favorite song of 2011, and while arguably the folksiest tune here it also might be the most complex, with layers of strings and horns behind its seemingly simple acoustic guitar strum patterns, shifting from an amazing bridge back into the main verse with perfect timing as Vernon dominates the vocals. Structurally, “Calgary” might be the best single thing here, as it builds with bittersweet, understated prowess that swells into the album’s most soaring coda before collapsing back onto itself just as quickly. Lyrically, Vernon is unshakable, communicating depth and maturity of feeling through simple but powerful lines like “I was unafraid/ I was a boy/ I was a tender age” to begin “Michicant.” And don’t forget to stick around for the closing track “Beth/Rest”, which experiments with an 80s piano riff and makes it work perfectly here when it has absolutely no reason or excuse to. Every track deserves mention and appreciation, but doing so misses the point, as the precise mood and tone that Vernon creates flows with a symphonic effect, making the whole so very much greater than the sum of its parts. This is the type of album where you might have a different favorite track every time you listen to it- and every time, you’d be right.

#2: Swans/ To Be Kind (2014)

homepage_large.dfa26de1I’ve been rating songs on a ten point scale since I was fourteen years old, and more than twenty five years later, over all that time, I’ve never had more numerical distance between my first and second favorite record in any single year. To Be Kind was not only the best album of 2014 by a crushing, previously unprecedented margin, it was also the best album of the decade as it reached its halfway point. When Michael Gira brought Swans back from the dead and completely re-conceptualized the band in 2010 after a fourteen year hiatus, there was always the feeling that they were building towards a release like this, taking small steps for the sake of the future the same way my beloved Chicago Cubs had been over the years of the same era, building patiently until they were able to reach their fullest potential, content to not try to do too much too soon. While 2012’s The Seer was decidedly ambitious, an epic, nearly two hour opus that proved Swans to be once again a serious band but with new, innovative musical ideas, To Be Kind surpasses it on nearly ever conceivable level, and even broadens and expands its ambition, which is almost impossible to grasp. Take the 30-minute hybrid track “Bring The Sun/ Touissant L’Ouverture Song.” While the similarly placed title track from their last effort takes awhile to get going and meanders wildly over its 30 minutes, “Bring The Sun” is immediately enthralling and completely captivating from its onset all the way into the haunting “Touissant L’Ouverture Song”, which culminates with Gira equating, in Spanish no less, blood, love and life with one another, in a baritone that sounds like a crazed cult leader bellowing from the top of a mountain. Over its 121 minutes, which is two longer than its predecessor, not a single moment of down time exists. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment, and it’s a credit to the masterful arrangements and management of tone that are present here throughout.

While an easy genre characterization would be to dismiss this amazing musical achievement as merely noisy and dark, what separates To Be Kind from all other records this decade is its sprawling scope combined with its musical diversity. Opener “Screen Shot” is arguably the single most terrifying leadoff track since Massive Attack’s “Angel”, building with hypnotic repetition that builds into an eerie piano line and culminates into an apocalyptic eruption through the coda. There are also moments of unsettling terror like the slow burning “Just A Little Boy” which contrasts with aggressive, faux-shoegaze crescendo pieces like “Kirsten Supine” later on the album. I heard the completely rejuvenated and re-arranged version of the old Swans’ punk song “Oxygen” two years before this release at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert moments that you never forget, and one that only raised my excitement for this upcoming album when its inclusion here was confirmed. Explosive bursts of guitar sprawl beneath propulsive percussion and Gira’s maniacal ravings as he gives a fearful, frightening account of a time he had difficulty breathing during a severe asthma attack. If there’s a track one might offer as moderately accessible to the masses, “A Little God In Our Hands” starts with an approachable guitar riff and swanky beat that might fit on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, steadily evolving into a full on cascading avalanche of noise, while at five minutes in length “Some Things We Do” is the shortest, and softest track on the album, as Gira utterly indicts the entire human race by condemning the menial triviality of our very existence. “She Loves Us” might just be the single most impressive thing here in terms of overall build and attention to detail. Over its epic 17-minute length, it opens with a jarring guitar riff that repeats over and over again and picks up tribal chants before breaking down completely into guitar fuzz, eventually culminating into a full-on onslaught over its panic-inducing eight minute coda that showcases Gira howling such insanity as “Your name is fuck!” behind haunting, contrasting background vocals of “Hallelujah!” Equally well-executed at only half that length is “Nathalie Neal”, which is as ominous and foreboding as anything in the band’s entire catalog, and that’s saying something. It opens with thunderous percussion and grows more and more persistent and frantic until it finally collapses upon itself and concludes softly.‎ The title track closes the album and takes a symmetrically opposite approach, starting as softly as any here, but sends the album off on its most panicked, abrasive note, and any other conclusion to this record would be entirely unfitting. As relentless and challenging as it is, To Be Kind isn’t one of those double albums that should be taken in parts. It’s best consumed in its entirety, where it looms a monolithic masterpiece for any true fan of music. There’s such subtle beauty lurking beneath the brooding tension on every track here, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better executed artistic contrast any time in the near future.

#1: Radiohead/ A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

radiohead

Radiohead has arguably been the single most important band to the musical spectrum in terms of contribution over the course of my 40 years of life. In fact, can you think of another band in history with a reasonable argument to have made the single greatest album of three different decades? Their previous eight studio albums spanned eighteen years and covered an incredible breadth of musical ground, beginning with the rock-driven Pablo Honey and The Bends, evolving into the musical personification of perfection that is OK Computer, and then veering off course to set the stage for the change to come in the new century with the more electronic and experimental albums Kid A and Amnesiac. In Rainbows was a serious return to form in between the more scattered offerings found on Hail To The Thief and The King of Limbs, but over the course of time, Radiohead has provided something for everyone. Personally, while I appreciate and adore all of it, I’ve always been more drawn to the beauty of their work than the power of it. Softer, more nuanced tracks like “Street Spirit”, “The Tourist”, “How To Disappear Completely” “Exit Music” and “Pyramid Song” are, to me, the band at their very best. Given that tonal preference, with A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead delivered exactly the kind of album that I had always hoped they would make. These songs are rich, beautiful and emotional in a manner above and beyond what the band has ever put all in one place previously.

Opener “Burn The Witch” is a politically charged number that serves as somewhat of a red herring. It’s surely a highlight, but isn’t indicative at all of what the rest of the album sounds like, either musically or lyrically. The melody is ominous but pretty, and as Radiohead has never made a song with this type of staccato string instrumentation, it’s an immediately engaging listen. The driving synth buzz is as chaotic as the album gets however, and Thom Yorke’s high falsetto wails are the star of the show. In 2015, Yorke split with his longtime partner of 23 years (Rachel Owen) in an “amicable” fashion, but everything that comes the after the first track has a sense of heartbreak, pain and sadness that adds a measure of relatable beauty, resonating even more powerfully now than it did then after Owen died of cancer a few months after the release date. “Daydreaming” delivers a gorgeous, repetitive piano line beneath some of the most hopeless lyrics he has ever written; this is the true tone-setter, as lyrics like “It’s too late/ The damage is done” seem to simply surrender to loss. But while A Moon Shaped Pool is much too complex to be categorized as a “break-up” album per se, it is highly evident through his songwriting that the toll the separation took on Yorke was immense. “Present Tense” is arguably the most honest, emasculating song he has ever written. The absence of any other instrumentation during its lush, engaging opening guitar line lends focus to his gutwrenching plight. The closing line “In you I’m lost” sounds so defeated that it actually turns uplifting and optimistic somehow.

“Decks Dark” is an early standout and grabber, as the amazing piano riff that starts the song is reminiscent of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, but also showcases a subtly dark beauty as a lifted choral element enters over the bassline. A sense of doom builds as Yorke repeats that “It was just a laugh” over and over again; any time he sings at this sans-falsetto pitch level for an extended period of time, it just sounds like he’s talking and it conveys hopelessness and fear, reminiscent of previous closers like “Wolf At The Door.” The complete shift into a breakdown groove complete with echoey percussion blasts through the coda adds an unexpected and layered contrast, and it’s one of the most complex songs they’ve ever put to record- drummer Phil Selway gets extra credit on this one for his contribution. “Ful Stop” holds a unique spot on the album as it’s basically the only track that could possibly be described as up-tempo, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to dance to it. There’s nothing in the band’s catalog that compares to that synthesized horn that carries the first minute and a half, and I’d argue it’s the single most ominous sound the band has ever created. After that, there’s a shift in tempo that is highly reminiscent of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”, as few other songs have demonstrated such propulsion in combination with such ethereality. The coda comes together in a lush manner similar to how “Arpeggi” made you feel like you were literally underwater drowning with weird fishes. Even in moving forward, Radiohead has not forgotten to draw upon what has gotten them here.

There are a lot of moments to enjoy even on less immediate and more challenging tracks. “Identikit” turns anthemic after its punchy riff, intermittent synth jabs and choral interjections, as Yorke wails, “Broken hearts! Make it rain!”, while the steady, melodic groove of “The Numbers” adds warmth and depth, and the stripped down orchestration of “Glass Eyes” and raw acoustic flavor of “Desert Island Disk” contribute to the tonal beauty that permeates this album. Perhaps the most rewarding element though requires patience, as closer “True Love Waits” was actually, FINALLY given the official, committed-to-album recording that it always deserved. The band did so by stripping the song of its acoustic guitars and instead revitalizing and freshening it with hypnotic, haunting pianos. What remains is a slower, emotionally darker, more lyrically powerful ballad than existed before. It’s the perfect closer, greatest song and most welcome surprise on the decade’s best album, thankfully still containing one of my favorite Radiohead lyrics of all: “I’m not living/ I’m just killing time.” Leave it to Radiohead to take a song they’ve been playing for 20 years, change its primary instrument entirely, remove a chord, slow it down to a virtual halt…and in the process create a piece of music that perfectly ties together, both thematically and musically, a collection of other pieces with far more recency. That, my friends, is true genius.

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