These are my 25 favorite albums, from this strange decade that never got a name. These are the albums I played most, the ones I never burned out on. For most of these, I went back to what I wrote about them at the time on my year-end lists, to preserve that time-capsule quality. They’re all over the map musically — some are by mega-stars, some by upstarts, one by a Nobel Prize-winning poet. The only thing they have in common is they remind me to keep looking forward to the future. Bring on the Twenties!
The late, great Merle Haggard had a provocative line about surviving into old age. “It’s kind of like finding out there’s time on the show and you’ve played your best songs,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jason Fine. “God was kind. But now he expects some work out of it.”
Leonard Cohen also got assigned extra work in his final years, and he made the most of it. There’s a harrowing calm in his voice as he rasps, “A million candles burning for the help that never came.” He made this album in his daughter’s living room, because he could no longer walk, rasping his vocals into a laptop from his orthopedic medical chair. But he turned that chair into his Tower of Song. All over Darker, he casts a cold eye on the world he’s leaving behind, and signs one last “sincerely, L. Cohen” to his classic songbook.
This Montreal postpunk collective sound jubilant, pissed, down-hearted — but mostly relieved they can feel feel anything at all. Tim Beeler sings like David Byrne and scrapes his guitar like Robert Quine, in songs about fighting for emotional sobriety after breaking old connections. “Habit” is a great song for falling asleep to, “Gemini” great for waking up — two different tunes about living with desires you can’t comprehend.
Adult Mom’s Stephanie Knipe brought loving love songs and truly hateful hate songs, like a home-made lo-fi guitar version of the SZA album. Adult Mom shows off the acerbic wit that turned heads on tapes like Sometimes Bad Happens and Momentary Lapse of Happily. (Liner notes to the first Adult Mom cassette: “This tape is for everyone who has had to deal. Appreciate sadness and its temporary quality.”) Soft Spots peaks with “Same,” where Knipe strums a hate letter to somebody barely even worth the time it took to write the song.
The inside of Thugger’s brain is a strange and smoky place — no wonder he became the first artist in history to crack the Top 40 with a boast about yawning during sex. I love his whole sprawling catalog, but Black Portland is my favorite mixtape, full of swerves like when he mutates into Mick Jagger as he sings “4 Eva Bloody,” or when he cackles, “I spend all of my money on divas.”
The only Nobel Prize in Literature laureate who spends his evenings coming on like Timon of Athens hiding out in a T-Bone Walker cover band. If you skip the final 22 minutes of Tempest, 14 of which are spent emoting about the Titanic, that leaves you with a classic 46-minute Dylan album with four good songs and four great songs: “Narrow Way,” “Long and Wasted Years,” “Pay in Blood” and “Soon After Midnight.” Best line: “Don’t you know the sun can burn your braaaains right out?” Which rhymes with “Shake it up, baby, twist and shout.”
Has Malkmus ever written a more beautiful song than “Share the Red”? If so, it was probably “Middle America” in 2018 — it definitely says something that S.M. bookended his amazing 2010s run with two perfect songs about terrified dadhood. (“Forty with a kid / Living on the grid.”) Mirror Traffic takes the Pavement guitar buzz to new emotional realms, and if the joke songs are real cringers, maybe that’s just because he scared himself with how far he went in the ballads. He’s a boy, you know? We get scared and we hide. That’s what we do. But most of us never create anything in our lives as beautiful as “Share the Red.” Or the harmonies in “Fall Away.” Or the way he sings along with the French-horn solo in “No One Is (As I Be).”
A bittersweet symphony of a goodbye. 1D exit at the height of their fame with songs that indulge the craziest extremes of their pop classicism. Is this the Nilsson Schmillson of the “making trouble up in hotel rooms” lifestyle or the Odessy and Oracle of the “let’s write a song about Taylor Swift’s cat” era? Both, clearly.
Alex Giannascoli added the “Sandy” to his name later, but he was Alex G at this point, a home-taping indie troubadour dotting his sad-boy tales with Pavement-worthy guitar blurts in “Axesteel” and “After Ur Gone.” “Sorry” is a heart-wrenching tune that might be about buying drugs (“I’ll get my cure, wait in the car / I won’t remember who you are”), but it’s definitely about being in love with a sucker who’s got a soft spot for grifters, knowing you’re the grifter who’ll teach them never to trust anyone again, wishing you could protect them from the pain you’re about to put them through.
“You’re my favorite, but favorites always fail” is the greatest lyric in any love song ever — or at least it’s impossible to think of any others while a Mannequin Pussy song is playing. These Philly punks blast through 11 tantrums in 17 minutes, about self-destructive mood swings and why they’re excellent. Favorite moment: Marisa Dabice takes a deep breath and yells, “I was miles away when you needed someone to sit on your face screaming ‘keep me’ and I am not ashamed to be lonely but I’m afraid to feel it so deeply,” which takes her just nine seconds. Jesus, what an exhausting band to fall in love with.
The Pinkprint is Nicki’s break-up album, but it peaks with two sisterly duets: “Get On Your Knees,” where she teams up with Ariana Grande to demand dome, and “Feelin’ Myself,” her throwdown with Beyoncé. Be the “Feeling Myself” you wish to see in the world.
All the lonely Starbucks lovers, where do they all come from? All the lonely Starbucks lovers, where do they all belong?
D’Angelo returns from the studio catacombs, with an album that was worth the wait. By the time he dropped Black Messiah, his Voodoo classic “Devil’s Pie” was 16 years old — the same age as Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” when D’Angelo revived it on Brown Sugar.) But once you got over the shock that Black Messiah existed, the real surprise was how deep these grooves reached.
In his classic 1975 book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus writes an imaginary ad for Mick Jagger: “His songs are loud, brutal and mean, containing feelings you like to pretend you do not have, recollections you would like to forget and temptations that up until now you have wisely avoided.” That’s a near-perfect description of this Sharon Van Etten album, except the “loud” part. Every detail lures you into a world of disastrous romantic fantasies indulged and paid for in full. The killer: the torch ballad “Your Love Is Killing Me,” where she sings like her voice is dragging around chains. “Everybody’s knees knocking at the fear of love”? Maybe it’s just the fear of these songs.
Look, life is unfair. Nietzsche died alone and forgotten in an insane asylum. Khloe Kardashian is still on television. I get why you wish the gods had given Kanye’s talent to somebody smarter than Kanye, humbler than Kanye, or maybe even just somebody who doesn’t get his feelings bruised every time he sees a DON’T WALK sign. He probably wishes the same thing. Kanye’s struggle with his own douchebaggery, a struggle he loses most of the time, is part of his artistry. (Just part. Less than half. Fifteen per cent? Twelve?) But note that even in “Monster,” where he exorcises his supposedly monstrous ego, he’s at his most generous, giving Nicki Minaj the cameo of the year, not to mention giving the world a pretty incredible song. You’ll meet bigger douchebags than Kanye every day of your life. Only one of them is going to make this album.
An electro confessional, as Lorde whispers her secrets and the city sings them back to her. As someone who didn’t get anything at all about Lorde’s debut, the title of which I respectfully decline to type, I didn’t see Melodrama coming until “Green Light” clobbered me, with that disco-gospel piano broadcasting the boom-boom-boom in her heart. Lorde isn’t coy about flaunting how new she is to the adulthood thing. (Ordering different drinks at the same bar is … not so unusual, honestly.) But the “I want it, I want it” rush is the excitement of a girl who just noticed the entire world under her feet is a light-up dance floor.
Quiet music that’s vivid enough to fill up any room where you play it. From the mournful piano of “Pink + White” to the guitar trembles of “Ivy,” it’s a Pet Sounds with sex scenes.
Lana begins her California apocalypse concept album with the couplet, “Goddamn, manchild / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” Then she gets dark.
Katie Crutchfield shoots for the heart with her folk-punk strumming as well as her breathy voice. There’s an element of indie-rock fan-fiction here – what if Rose Melberg and Robert Pollard were in the same band? (“Blue Pt. II.”) What if Liz Phair sang like J. Mascis and J. Mascis played guitar like Liz Phair? (“Waiting.”) But she came up with one of the decade’s most influential sounds, especially now that Philadelphia has taken over as indie’s answer to Branson. May her heart always burn this bright.
What a revelation to see Harry Styles live the same week as Paul McCartney — a tutorial on the connection between enthusiasm and brilliance. So is his first solo album, breaking free from One Direction into adult songcraft, without surrendering any of his pop flash. The songs are built to last, standing up to years of heavy listening. The only rock star who can come on like Macca and Mick at the same time. The only rock star who thinks cigarettes in New York are “cheap.” The only rock star.
Everybody’s favorite life coach SZA is right about everything, with her spirit-in-the-dark soliloquies on CTRL. Why would she ever want to be a “Normal Girl,” much less a “Supermodel,” when all any of us want is to be SZA?
K-Dot’s masterwork feels both intensely private and public, as he broods over sex, money, murder, family, all the bad blood in his DNA and America’s. Damn. is his most anomalously linear album, not to mention his hardest, not to mention his funniest, as in “Humble,” when the piano goes boom and the ass meets the stretch marks.
The Starman signs off with one last transmission, recorded in the last year of his life, while he was secretly living with terminal cancer. “His death was no different from his lifeça work of art,” producer Tony Visconti said. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” Nothing about Blackstar sounds like a man looking back—the title song is an experimental 10-minute space-glam trip mixing up jazz and hip-hop and theosophy. Bowie’s not summing up where he’s been or revisiting past glories. Instead, he crams this album full of ideas for future songs he won’t get to write and says, “You got it from here. You’re welcome 4 my service.” What an album. What an exit. What a life.
Nobody else could have dropped an album two days after Prince died — but when Beyonce released Lemonade, it sounded like a passing of the purple torch. Especially since it’s full of songs about how the beautiful ones will hurt you every time. And that includes America, the lover who always finds new ways to sell you out. Beyonce made Lemonade her most thrilling personal statement, but also her picture of where the country’s bad brain is at, claiming every corner of American music as her own. Ashes to ashes, dust to fuckboys.
These Brooklyn indie madcaps invaded my soul and ruined my life, because I am shallow and weak and I like to shout along with cataclysmically pointless hooks like “hatchback hearses” or “surf population too high to tally” or “I was walking through Ridgewood, Queens/I was flipping through magazines.” Light Up Gold is a perfect 33-minute guitar groove, kicking off the trilogy Parquet Courts completed with Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea. No innovation here, no claims to historical importance—just four boys who want to simultaneously parody and celebrate rockness for its own sake.
Taylor decides to embrace her love of pop bombast, not that anybody noticed her holding back before. Result? The gaudiest mega-pop manifesto of the decade. The disco-plus-banjos groove Shania Twain only dreamed about. The best color-of-romance song since Prince gave up on the purple rain. The Liz Phair/Ace of Base collabo that never happened. Her punk so punk, her disco so disco. I love how she says the word “refrigerator.” I love how she says the word “drown-i-i-i-ing.” I love basically any five-second stretch of this album. It’s just one of five great albums she made in the 2010s—but it’s still her peak.