Finishing out my year-end review of my favorite music with a look back at my favorite albums of the past decade. (For all the nerds out there, I get it: technically, the decade doesn’t end until next year. But that’s kinda stupid. So roll with it.)
Over the past decade, a lot has changed in my life: we built a new house here in Huntsville, which has quickly become our “home”; I added a puppy and lost a father-in-law and a brother-in-law; I earned my doctorate from ACU and transitioned into full-time ministry; and Sunny and I have navigated the raising of babies to the rearing of teenagers. This music has been the soundtrack through these different seasons of joy and grief, work and play. This music has given voice to so many of the experiences of my 30s and early 40s. I know I’ll still be listening to some of this music when the next decade ends.
So here’s my list of my 15 favorite albums of the last decade:
- Jason Isbell, Southeastern. Isbell’s solo record hit me without warning or precedent in the summer of 2013. I had never heard of Isbell, although he was already a well-respected songwriter and guitarist thanks to his work with Drive-By Truckers. But when I first heard Live Oak, a murder ballad that doubles as Isbell musing aloud about his identity after finding sobriety, I was struck by the depth and honesty of his lyrics. And listening to the whole album was similarly revelatory. In Elephant, I found an unflinching meditation about cancer and loss (No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow) that served as balm for me in the wake of losing my brother-in-law and father-in-law in a span of five months. Traveling Alone spoke directly to a growing sense of loneliness in my life. As I wrote in my 2013 Best Albums post, “Southeastern emerges as a clear-eyed rumination on living with your demons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.” What I love about this album is that Isbell never pulls any punches. There’s not a dishonest beat from start to finish; the characters inhabiting these songs are fully realized players, capable of great declarations of love and similarly great acts of violence. Take, for instance, the vigilante justice sought by the narrator of Yvette as a response to domestic abuse. Couldn’t that same kid call forth the distinctly male romanticism of Cover Me Up? I’ve said many times that Cover Me Up is the most romantic song I’ve ever heard and that’s because it’s honest. Six years after it’s release, Southeastern remains my choice for the most emotionally affecting record of the decade. This album is simply awesome.
- The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. I can say with confidence that I’ve listened to this record more than any other album this decade. It’s just so eminently listenable. I revisited some of my music posts last summer (one advantage to the slow music year that was 2018) and here’s what I wrote about this record: “The music simply sounds fresh no matter how many times I listen and I continue to note lyrical and sonic nuance that draws me in even further….A Deeper Understanding has embedded itself into my consciousness like nothing else in the last year.” 15 months later, I stand by that statement. If you’re unfamiliar with The War on Drugs, if Bob Dylan and The Police had a baby, this is what it would sound like. One reviewer at Pitchfork had a great description of the Philly-based band, calling them “a fascinating study in influence; it’s hard to think of a band with more obvious touchstones that also sounds so original.” The guitar solo on Pain; the layered beauty of Holding On; the raw energy of Nothing To Find; the hypnotic, expansive soundscape of Thinking Of A Place…this is some of my favorite music of the last decade.
- The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. With these two masterpieces, it’s safe to say that The War on Drugs is my “artist of the decade.” I love combining these two albums into one playlist and letting it shuffle on repeat. Lost in the Dream even sounds like it’s title — a bit more hazy, dreamlike, distorted in a way that didn’t fully come into view until A Deeper Understanding. But it all began here, at least for me. In my 2014 music review, I wrote: “Adam Granduciel may have labored over the recording and post-production of Lost in the Dream, but the final product is a melancholy yet cathartic reflection on the universal themes of loneliness, doubt, and the redemptive power of love.” If you’re only going to sample a few of these songs, you should listen to Burning, Red Eyes, An Ocean In Between the Waves and Eyes to the Wind.
- Augustines, Augustines. In any other year, this fantastic record would’ve been my album of the year. But Augustines lands right behind Lost in the Dream, which is where I ranked it five years ago in my 2014 music review. But I’m still as high on this music as I was when I first wrote that post. Walkabout stands as one of the best rock songs of the decade, a depiction of life as a walkabout with the anthemic call of a voice from beyond, “It’s been so long / Come on home.” And Weary Eyes and Nothing to Lose But Your Head sound every bit as fresh today as the day they were released. It’s a shame that these guys broke up — I was really looking forward to following their sound.
- Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool. This album would probably make my list on the merits of Burn the Witch alone. But the entire record is exquisitely crafted with Radiohead’s signature musicianship on fine display while Thom Yorke takes on paranoia, xenophobia, and fearmongering in a way that perfectly encapsulates the fragile tenor of our time. The “low-flying panic attack” of Burn the Witch, set to the frenetic intensity of Jonny Greenwood’s strings, seems an apropos diagnosis for our collective melancholy and anger. The same could be said for Identikit‘s “broken hearts make it rain.” A more complete review can be found here, but I’d put this up next to Radiohead’s classic work from 20+ years ago. That’s partly due to the fact that most of these songs have been circulating in the Radiohead canon for the better part of a decade or more (like longtime fan favorite True Love Waits). A Moon Shaped Pool is an excellent album that is built to stand alongside Radiohead’s best work.
- Chris Stapleton, Traveller. This one put Stapleton on the map for most of us, myself included. I’ve written quite a bit about the problem with “Nashville country music” (see here and here). But thankfully, neo-traditionalists like Dave Cobb, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton have been filling the void for fans like me. Cobb produced Stapleton’s tour de force “debut” record as a solo artist, a finely crafted and well-written showcase for Stapleton’s booming baritone and lightning licks. It’s a testimony to the album’s strength that Tennessee Whiskey, the song that put Stapleton on the map for the masses, is something like the ninth or tenth best song on the set. All the great country themes are here: heartbreaking balladry (Fire Away); Hank-esque lawlessness (Outlaw State of Mind); faith in Jesus (Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore); lilting romance (More Of You); honky-tonk lament (Nobody To Blame); and the siren song of the road (Traveller) — all elevated by Stapleton’s bluesy, barrel-chested vocals.
- Bon Iver, i, i. I’ve tried to make sure that I’m not guilty of recency bias with this selection, but I don’t think I am. I wrote about it extensively in my best of 2019 post, so I won’t elaborate other than to say that this is simply a fine record. I have no idea where Bon Iver can go from here, but I’m down for the ride.
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It’s probably no surprise that I love these two albums so much, because they share more of a kinship than any other Bon Iver records. As I wrote in my 2011 music review: “Bon Iver is as much about poetry as anything, a poignant, tightly crafted homily on life, death, and even rebirth. From the outset, Vernon insists: “still alive for your love” (from Perth, the opening track). It’s an early affirmation that Emma’s permeating loss will not have the last word.” The same themes permeate the latter i, i as well, but their meaning is understood within the Bon Iver canon as a return; here, on the eponymous album, these themes serve to broaden both the sonic and lyrical pallet upon which the band would operate.
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. “Country music with a soul.” That’s the best way to describe this Grammy-winning record. White Man’s World is a timely lament of race, gender, and class that is one of the most important country songs of the decade. Isbell takes aim at the male-dominated Music Row landscape (“Momma wants to change that Nashville sound / But they’re never gonna let her”) before addressing broader social injustices as well. Hope the High Road is unapologetically defiant in its refusal to wallow in the milieu of mud-slinging, opting instead for the higher ground of optimism. And If We Were Vampires is one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. Even a back side cut like Molotov contains revelations of incredible depth as a moving meditation on the compromises that come with aging made tolerable with a loved one by your side.
- Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. 2010 seems like a long time ago — so long ago, in fact, that Arcade Fire still had that scrappy, indie-rock vibe going on before the largesse of their more recent work. The Suburbs showed some signs of this — it could’ve easily been trimmed up a bit — but this record also shows what the band is capable of when they stay on point. Back then, I called this record “a pesky mediation on all that brims just below the surface in the superficial utopia of modern American suburbia: violence, apathy, easily discarded yearnings for meaning, and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.” Turns out those themes — and this music — holds up nearly a decade later.
- The National, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s looking like this is going to go down as the band’s high water mark, at least for me. Heavenfaced, Graceless, Hard to Find…this has to be the most sonically arresting music the band has released to date.
- Adele, 25. In our family of five, it’s becoming harder and harder to find things upon which we all agree. That’s partly due to generational differences, but honestly, I think it has more to do with a healthy strand of Bybee-inherited obstinance. But we all agree on this: Adele is the bomb. This record is far and away my favorite and has us eagerly anticipating her next release (2020? maybe?).
- The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart. I liked these guys a lot more when they were scrappy, indie underdogs. River and Roads is my jam.
- Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. As with The National, I’m thinking this is going to be their masterpiece, too. I absolutely love the 1-2 punch of Step and Diane Young.
- Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Fatherhood looks good on you, Sturgill, considering that it brought us this fantastic record filled with moments of tenderness (as in Breakers Roar and Oh Sarah). The album’s highlight is Simpson’s reimagining of the Nirvana classic In Bloom, visaged here as a string / pedal steel ballad. He tweaks the lyrics slightly in the refrain: “But he don’t know what it means / To love someone.” The addition is significant and it adds new flourishes of both depth and nuance to a song firmly entrenched in the consciousness of many listeners. In an album filled with special moments, Sturgill’s cover is the pinnacle.
Bon Iver, The Head and the Heart, Chris Stapleton. You have some good taste in music! I’ll check out some of the others I’m not familiar with.