This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
The National – High Violet
The Cincinnati band’s best album of the decade – sorry, fans of Trouble Will Find Me – meshed all their gifts into one overwhelming package. Singing along to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” will be one of my fondest concert memories.
Further Listening: Sleep Well Beast
Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
When he received rapturous acclaim for this album, a lot of people thought we needed to tone it down, that it was too much too soon. Now at the end of the decade, it’s clear it wasn’t hyperbole. He’s quickly shed the baggage of Odd Future, becoming one of the essential artists of the 2010s.
Further Listening: nostalgia,ULTRA.; blond; “Moon River”
Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen
Lift to Experience was one of the great unsung bands of the 2000s, and while they never got their due, Pearson never lost his mojo as a songwriter, delivering an album of heartbreakers, recorded in Europe, where he got much more love than in America.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
For years, it seemed like Radiohead might never reunite, with the underwhelming The King of Limbs as their last recording. But with this album, they’ve gone out(?) on a high note, recontextualizing older material and delivering new classics.
Further Listening: “The Daily Mail/Staircase,” “Spectre”
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers
While she’ll always be best known for “Put Your Records On,” she re-emerged from a tragedy (as documented on The Sea) with a vibrant masterpiece that feels reinvigorating upon every listen.
Further Listening: The Sea, The Love EP
Rihanna – Anti
Despite being one of the most successful artists of the millennium, I never particularly cared for Rihanna’s music. That all changed with Anti, which feels like the first album she actually had control over. Her music was finally quality over quantity. Unfortunately, she hasn’t made anything new since.
Robyn – Body Talk
An incredible compilation, combining the best tracks from her two previous EPs, this was the ultimate dance album of the decade, with “Dancing on My Own” serving as the anthem for lonely hearts everywhere.
Further Listening: Do It Again (with Röyksopp), Honey
Seryn – This Is Where We Are
This didn’t band ultimately couldn’t make it work, but when they were together, they produced some of the most gorgeous music of the decade. Their proper debut album is magnificent, expanding further on the excellent CD-R they sold at their first shows. They sounded like no one else, which made them exciting, but their poetic lyrics made them enduring.
Further Listening: Shadow Shows, “Mausoleum”
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Never one to play by the rules, Simpson has continued to evolve his sound, delivering a straight-up rock album (with accompanying anime) this year. But his best album still remains his breakthrough, heavily indebted to Willie Nelson and other outlaw country icons.
Further Listening: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, “The Dead Don’t Die,” Sound & Fury
Spoon – They Want My Soul
It took me a long time to get into Spoon, but they finally won me over with 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. But then they lost me again with 2010’s experimental Transference. But then I became a fan for life with They Want My Soul, an album about the beauty and surreality of life.
Further Listening: Hot Thoughts, “No Bullets Spent”
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Like her forerunners David Bowie and Madonna, Annie Clark continually reinvents herself, delivering one astonishing album after another. But her peak remains this 2011 album that seems like the purest form of her sound, with brilliant metaphors and tasty licks.
Further Listening: Love This Giant (with David Byrne), St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION, “Fast Slow Disco”
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
This concept album, about the deceased mother he never really knew, is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard about trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. His cry of “Fuck me/I’m falling apart” on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” felt so universal.
Further Listening: The Age of Adz, All Delighted People EP, “Visions of Gideon,” “Tonya Harding,” “Love Yourself”
Tame Impala – Currents
Kevin Parker gets better with each successive album, so much so that I feel I always rank him too low in my year-end recaps. This is the group at their psychedelic best, more mournful and tuneful than they’ve ever been.
Further Listening: Innerspeaker, Lonerism, “Patience”
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
Like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, this is another journey through the pop cosmos, stopping off at various points for trips into lounge music, funky jams and tropical getaways.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Another band it took me a long time to come around on, Modern Vampires of the City is the first album where the group made serious music, and not just something for the background of their Ivy League Christmas parties. Existential jams like “Unbelievers,” “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey” prove they had finally leveled up.
Further Listening: Father of the Bride
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Taking ’80s Petty and Springsteen, and merging it with modern psychedelia, the Philly band produce atmospheric rock that you and your dad can bond over.
Further Listening: Lost in the Dream
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Believe it or not, kids, but there was once a time when a new Kanye album elicited excitement instead of dread. His 2010 album – the first after his trio of masterpieces and an all-time break-up album in 808s & Heartbreak – was a sprawling epic, that featured just about every important musician of past and present (most of them on “All of the Lights”) for an incredible, era-defining album. It still could use a trim here and there (“Runaway” doesn’t need a guitar solo, “Blame Game” doesn’t need Chris Rock), but this still stands as a career peak.
Further Listening: “Christmas in Harlem” (feat. Cyhi the Prince and Teyana Taylor), Watch the Throne (with Jay Z), “Mercy” (feat. Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz) Yeezus
Hans Zimmer – Interstellar (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The most moving film score of the decade, Hans Zimmer’s magnificent, organ-heavy composition for Christopher Nolan’s awe-inspiring space epic, produced some of the deepest spiritual connection I’ve ever felt in secular music.
Further Listening: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 (with Benjamin Wallfisch)
Original Broadway Cast – The Book of Mormon
Like the Lonely Island, it takes a lot of hard work to be this silly. Trey Parker & Matt Stone brought their best from South Park and Robert Lopez brought the best from Avenue Q, combining forces for an hilarious, deeply empathetic and eminently replayable show album.
Original Broadway Cast – Hamilton
But of course, this is the wildest success story of the decade. A musical about Alexander Hamilton (and a hip-hop musical to boot) should have gone down as one of the biggest Broadway flops of all time. But the music was too brilliant, the cast too charming and the passion too apparent to fail. It’s still selling out shows all across the country, even though it’s long past being cool. But it’s now in the Pantheon of great show tunes.
Various Artists – Baby Driver: Music from the Motion Picture
Seeing the world premiere of this at SXSW was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. From the opening scene, scored to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” we knew we were in for something different. It’s not a musical, but a film driven by music (a lot of it). By the next day, someone had already made a Spotify playlist, and I listened to it for the rest of the weekend, walking around Austin. By the time it was officially released, I’d heard it all, but it became the perfect thing to put on during long drives, especially in Atlanta, where the film was set and filmed.
Various Artists – Shutter Island: Music from the Motion Picture
Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson collaborated once again, but instead of doo-wop or rock classics, they chose contemporary classical music, adding to the unease of the film. It’s one of the most unconventional soundtracks ever compiled, providing one of the most unique listens of the decade.