The past few months of quarantine have been challenging for many people in this country. My heart hurts for those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus (over 110,000 as of this writing — with 21 states reporting an increase in cases). The economic impact has been significant — 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And according to health officials, months of isolation have contributed to a steady rise in anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
As difficult as these past few months have been, more time at home has translated into more time with our loved ones — at least for most of us. I’ve been enjoying the time spent with Sunny and the kids. We’ve taken long walks through the neighborhood together. We’ve spent more time in the yard (and my flower beds look better than ever). And we’ve played more board games and watched more movies together than I can remember.
During this time, I’ve also been going back through some of my favorite music. In fact, I’ve thoroughly culled through my “best of” music lists and compiled a definitive ranking of my favorite albums for each year going all the way back to 1987. Why 1987, you ask? Simply because that was the year I started to develop my own musical tastes. Prior to 1987, the only music I even knew about was (1) Johnny Cash and (2) whatever country songs were playing on the radio in my home or in the car.
So here are my updated rankings of my best albums from 1987 to the present, with some additional commentary.
1987 – U2, The Joshua Tree
The album that made U2 the biggest rock band in the world. I don’t think any album can ever top the leadoff trio of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.” This album would later soundtrack our family trip to California and Joshua Tree National Park.
1988 – Dwight Yoakam, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room
After my father passed away, I inherited control of the music in our home and I developed an affinity for Dwight Yoakam. His Nashville-outsider status made him a rebel, which was familiar to me in a Cash-like way. But his sound was definitively un-Cash like, which made this more than a choice about musical preference or sensibilities. Listening to Yoakam was about my own agency as a young man. Dad had Cash, but this was my music.
Standout tracks include, “Streets of Bakersfield,” “One More Name,” “What I Don’t Know,” and (my personal favorite) “I Sang Dixie.”
1989 – Billy Joel, Storm Front
Who knew this would be the penultimate album from Billy Joel? (Unless he shocks his fans with a late career creative outburst.) The triumvirate of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “The Downeaster Alexa” and “I Go to Extremes” places just behind the aforementioned U2 trio.
1990 – Garth Brooks, No Fences
I missed Brooks’ first release, his self-titled album that contained the #1 smash “The Dance.” But I was there for the party with No Fences. The hits are incredible — “The Thunder Rolls,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “Two of a Kind (Working on a Full House),” and, of course, “Friends in Low Places.” But the deep cuts are stellar as well: “New Way to Fly” deserves to be a smash; the same could be said of “Victim of the Game” and “Wild Horses.” Mainstream country music’s finest hour right here.
Honorable mention: Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes. And since you can’t listen to Garth on Spotify, the Crowes occupy the 1990 spot on my Spotify playlist.
1991 – Pearl Jam, Ten
I’ll always be a country music fan — even if my tastes align more with Americana than anything coming out of the modern Nashville pop-country scene. But 1991 was when my tastes began to shift toward rock, especially the sounds of the wide genre known as “alternative.” All of this coincided with my entry into high school and Pearl Jam’s Ten album. I can’t say I LOVE every song on this album, but it stands as a landmark album in my fandom nonetheless. “Alive,” “Black,” and “Jeremy” soundtracked my early high school years, but my favorite song is album closer “Release.”
1992 – R.E.M., Automatic for the People
Okay, I’m noticing how many of these albums have a powerhouse trio of songs back-to-back-to-back. In this case, it’s the final three cuts: “Man on the Moon,” followed by “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.”
1993 – Counting Crows, August and Everything After
On the short list of best debut albums ever.
1994 – Hootie & the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View
You know the hits: “Only Wanna Be With You,” “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry.” But have you listened to the rest of this album lately? It’s phenomenal. “Hannah Jane” sets the tone in the leadoff spot. “Running from an Angel” takes me back to so many great memories. And why isn’t “Not Even the Trees” more popular? It’s absolutely fantastic. Top to bottom, this is one of the best albums from the 1990s.
1995 – Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
I could write a lot about this album. It came out my freshman year of college and quickly became part of the soundtrack for this period of my life. It’s been super fun sharing this album with my children as well. (I literally just switched off a Spotify playlist my youngest son created. The last song we listened to: “Hey Now!”)
It’s all here: the melodic bombastic of “Morning Glory,” the swelling chorus of “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the sweeping Britpop guitars of “Roll With It.” Sure, some of the album’s trademark songs are notably nonsensical. (What exactly is a wonderwall or a champagne supernova, anyway?) But so what. Nonsense never sounded so good to my nineteen-year-old self. And 25 years later, the sound holds up.
1996 – The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse
I have to brag a little: I was on this bandwagon before anyone else. At least before anyone I know. I came across this new release while browsing at Media Play in the Hundred Oaks Mall one lazy afternoon. Back then, you could sample new music by putting on a pair of headphones attached to a mounted Discman in the store. (Kind of gross to think about now.) By the time I finished listening to leadoff track, “One Headlight,” I was hooked.
Even though The Wallflowers were firmly billed as part of the radio-friendly, alternative rock slate, I’ve always kind of thought of this as a country record. Check out some of the lyrics, like “Three Marlenas” or “Josephine,” for instance. (And Jakob Dylan’s solo output, for that matter.) “I Wish I Felt Nothing” is more than a coda; it seems to make explicit what was hidden underneath all along. Wish these guys would make some new music.
1997 – Radiohead, OK Computer
This is the alt-rock guitar masterpiece. It will never be topped and I will brook no argument otherwise. “No Surprises,” “Lucky,” and “The Tourist” are the go-to trifecta on this LP, but don’t tell “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Let Down,” and “Karma Police.”
1998 – Mercury Rev, Deserter’s Songs
For years, I struggled to find a definitive piece of music from this period. The record I probably listened to more than any other in 1998 (besides some of the ones already listed here) was Pearl Jam’s Yield, a fine album in it’s own right but not quite definitive. So when I started to refine this list a few months ago, I was determined to find an album from 1998 that I really loved.
I think I saw Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs on a backdated “best of” post (NME? Rolling Stone?) so I gave it a listen. And at first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Apparently the band went to the recording studio assuming they’d break up after these sessions, so they just decided to go for it and make the record they wanted to make. The result, of course, was a smash success. It certainly sounds like 1998; Deserter’s Songs has a certain alt-vibe strand of DNA, but there’s something else at work, a post-rock sound that would presage acts like Arcade Fire or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. But I just found this album so intriguing, so interesting, that I couldn’t stop listening. There are a couple of filler songs here, but this is mostly moving, deeply affecting stuff.
“Holes,” for instance, sets the tone immediately. To me, it’s a song about nostalgia.
Time / All the long red lines / That take control
Of all the smoke like streams / That flow into your dreams
There’s a wistfulness to this opening, made all the more palpable by the tumultuous circumstances of its recording. It’s as if Mercury Rev allowed themselves to grieve what they were about to lose and they cognizance influenced the entire trajectory of this record. By the time Jonathan Donahue gets to the final line, I’m about ready to weep:
How does that old song go?
Bands / Those funny little plans
That never quite work right
Given how much I played this song back in March, it will always be associated with quarantine in my mind. But really the same could be said for “Opus 40” and “Hudson Line” as well. I only wish I had come across this album twenty years ago.
1999 – Sigur Ros, Agaetis byrjun (A Good Beginning)
I had the same dilemma with 1999; no album from that year just jumped out at me. So I went perusing through some “best of” lists online and eventually came to this strange record out of Iceland. Sigur Ros has been hailed as post-rock, dream pop, ambient, and art rock — and each of those labels applies while also failing to fully encapsulate their sound. The lyrics are entirely Icelandic, with the exception of some gibberish bits of language known as Vonlenska. Seriously.
But in a short period of time, this has become one of my all-time favorite albums. I suggest starting with “Svefn-g-englar” (that’s the second song on the album) or “Staralfur” (song #3), but you really should just listen to the whole thing. It’s amazing.
2000 – Radiohead, Kid A
Radiohead makes this list again with the masterful Kid A. The story is well known now in rock circles: after the critical success of OK Computer, band members were completely burned out and decided to radically depart from their signature sound. The result was this out-of-left-field marvel. Out with the guitars, in with the keyboards and drum machines — a move that was originally panned by some as “career suicide.”
Instead, this has become Radiohead’s defining work. I love this line from a Rolling Stone review written 15 years after the release of Kid A:
The music is full of self-doubt and embarrassment — these are artists who dedicated their lives to something they thought was important (i.e. becoming the World’s Greatest Rock Band), then wondered if they got taken.
Kid A is ultimately about agency, about taking control rather than acquiescing to the expectations of others. Hence the refrain in “Morning Bell:” Release me, release me.
2001 – The Strokes, Is This It
No frills garage rock. That’s the simple appeal of The Strokes’ debut album, Is This It. While the Manhattan quintet couldn’t quite live up to the billing of “rock ‘n roll saviors,” Is This It remains one of the most influential records of the past twenty years, being hailed by NME as the album of the decade for the 2000s. And with their 2020 LP, The New Abnormal, The Strokes continue to carry the torch for guitar music.
2002 – Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco’s most critically-acclaimed release has been referred to as “Americana’s Kid A.” Not a bad description. It’s eerily prescient, given that it was recorded prior to 9/11, yet contains songs entitled, “War on War” and “Ashes of American Flags” and lines like, “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad sad songs … voices whine / Skyscrapers are scraping together / Your voice is smoking.” Wilco has never sounded better.
2003 – Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
You probably know Explosions in the Sky for providing much of the soundtrack to the NBC hit show, Friday Night Lights. Their brand of ambient post-rock differs greatly from Sigur Ros, but it makes for some great study music. I’ve probably listened to this record as much as any other in the last year.
2004 – Johnny Cash, My Mother’s Hymn Book
Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a huge Cash fan. (This post is Exhibit A.) And I’m especially fond of the late career renaissance Cash experienced under the tutelage of Rick Rubin. And the highlight of this American Recordings period, for me, is 2004’s My Mother’s Hymn Book. In the liner notes, Cash says that this was his favorite album he ever recorded. Accompanied by nothing more than his hand-strummed acoustic guitar, Cash sings the classic hymns of his mother’s hymnal. The result is a treasure.
2005 – David Crowder Band, A Collision or (3 + 4 = 7)
What I love about this album is the blending of different genres — piano ballad, pop, bluegrass twang, rock opera — united by the common thread of worship. As such, the album functions as a parable of the power of worship to united divergent styles and experiences under the banner of praise. I thought this record was brilliant when I first wrote about it in 2005; I say the same thing today.
2006 – Josh Ritter, The Animal Years
When I first heard of Ritter, a good friend compared his song-writing prowess to Bob Dylan. While I’ve enjoyed each of his releases, this was the first one that caught my eye and it continues to stand out.
2007 – The National, Boxer
Over time, my favorite album for 2007 has vacillated between three records: Radiohead’s In Rainbows; Emotionalism by the Avett Brothers; and Boxer, the fourth studio LP from The National. After much deliberation, I think I’ve finally settled on Boxer. (It seems a travesty to put Emotionalism third, but I think I like In Rainbows slightly more.)
The National had long been indie darlings in the early aughts, but everything came together beautifully on this record. Of particular note is the drumming of Bryan Devendorf — in my opinion, the percussion carries this album.
About ten years ago, I wrote that “Fake Empire” was the perfect postmodern song. I stand by that statement. “Who knew existential theory could be reduced to three minutes?”
2008 – The Gabe Dixon Band, The Gabe Dixon Band
This may have been an eMusic find — an old download subscription service I used to find and purchase new music. I’ve always been a fan of piano-driven rock and The Gabe Dixon Band falls in line with acts like Ben Folds Five, Billy Joel, and Elton John. If you want to get a feel for these guys, take three minutes and listen to “Till You’re Gone” on Spotify. Then take four more minutes to hear “All Will Be Well.” Toes are guaranteed to be tapping by the time you’re done.
Unfortunately this was the last record for The Gabe Dixon Band. In 2010, the band broke up and Dixon now records as a solo artist.
2009 – Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More
This exercise has helped to reinforce how much I love some of these older albums, but there’s also a price to be paid. In the case of Mumford, I realize how much I miss them. It’s kind of like reminiscing with an old friend: sure, nothing can take away “the good ol’ days,” but remembering them only makes you realize the enormous delta between those great memories and the present reality that you really don’t know each other that well anymore.
That’s what I feel about Mumford & Sons these days. I’m all for bands continuing to grow and develop over time, but I’ve really soured on their sound after their last two albums. But listening to Sigh No More is a reminder of how much fun these guys were. Banjo is a proven cure for quarantine-induced doldrums. “Winter Winds,” take me away.
2010 – Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Hard to believe this album is ten years old. Here’s what I said about it then.
The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s third full-length record, is a pesky meditation 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.My 2010 Best Album post
Ten years on, it still holds up. Still can’t stand “Rococo” but “Modern Man,” “Ready to Start,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” sound as vital as ever. #10 on my Best Albums of the 2010s.
2011 – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
I was late to the party on For Emma, Forever Ago. But I fell hard for this one — #8 on my Best Albums of the 2010s.
Here’s what I wrote about this record in December 2011:
Justin Vernon scraps the rustic cabin mournfulness of For Emma — the landmark album that put him on the indie-fanboy map — in favor of more lush soundscapes. Bon Iver is an expansive record, an ensemble response to Emma‘s solitary beauty. Trumpets, chimes, organs, guitars, pedal steel, banjo, even a weird instrument called a “bass saxophone” — they’re all here, fully alive and layered to perfection, pliably framing Vernon’s trademark falsetto. The track titles — “Calgary”, “Hinnom, TX”, “Perth”, “Lisbon, OH” — pay homage to a variety of geographic locales and serve as a nod to the album’s far-flung sonic direction.
In the ensuing years, Bon Iver would continue to expand their sonic palette but in hindsight, it seems this was telegraphed with this eponymous record.
I especially love “Holocene:”
On “Holocene”, brokenness is held aloft as the key to true vision. And at once I knew / I was not magnificent / Strayed above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance, thick with ice / But I could see for miles, miles, miles. Allusions to Halloween and Christmas indicate a passage from the innocence (and narcissism) of childhood to the truth of adulthood (or the realization of one’s non-significance, per Vernon). But this is the truest vision: finding meaning and purpose amid all the insignificance. I’m telling you, existentialism has never sounded this good.
2012 – The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter
I really struggled to identify my favorite album for 2012. But in the end, I defaulted back to the album I listened to more than any other that year: The Carpenter by the Avett Brothers. (I like to imagine what sort of killer record the Avetts could have put out if they simply released the best songs from these sessions as one album. Here’s a Spotify playlist of these 14 songs.)
Back to The Carpenter: while I love “Live and Die,” it’s the ballads that really carry this record. “February Seven,” “Winter in My Heart,” and “A Father’s First Spring” are all-timers for me.
2013 – Jason Isbell, Southeastern
I’ve written a lot about this album over the years. It was my #1 album of the decade, probably my favorite recording ever.
2014 – The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
The first of back-to-back masterpieces for TWOD. A rumored new album was “70-80% finished” prior to the COVID shutdown of the music industry. Maybe we’ll have new music from these guys by year’s end. #3 on my Best Albums of the Decade list.
2015 – Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The first mainstream country album to make my list in 25 years, Stapleton’s Traveller was a revelation in much the way The War on Drugs are: in a neo-vintage kind of way. The sound here is classic country — “real country” is another oft-used label — with a modern update. Stapleton retains something — an ethos — that eludes the mainstream formulaic pop/rock coming out of Music Row these days. Maybe it’s the voice; maybe it’s just that he’s not trying so hard. But part of Stapleton’s appeal is simply the sense of continuity with the great outlaw and honky tonk records of the past.
These songs had been road-tested for years by the time Stapleton recorded them, resulting in a virtuoso performance. This is an artist in complete control of his material, making it one of my favorite albums yet, #6 on my Best Albums of the Decade.
2016 – Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Apparently I really like Radiohead.
2017 – The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
For a long time, I considered The Nashville Sound the best album of 2017. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit put out a record that I described as “country music with a soul.” Songs like “Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” contain what I consider to be extremely important messages these days. And “If We Were Vampires” is simply gorgeous. But the music I continued coming back to from this year was The War on Drugs beautiful LP, A Deeper Understanding. I’ve probably listened to this album more than any other in the last five years. The music here simply sounds fresh no matter how many times I hear it. And nothing compares to experiencing this record through your headphones; it’s an immersive experience.
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.
2018 – Khruangbin, Con Todo El Mundo
2018 was another one of those years; I really struggled with identifying an album that really arrested my imagination. I had stumbled across Khruangbin, a Houston-based band specializing in fusing a wide variety of genres: soul, funk, psychedelic, jazz. I was really drawn to their sound and found myself listening to this mostly instrumental album quite a bit while studying. Over time, this record became a real favorite of mine. Looking forward to another new album in 2020.
2019 – Bon Iver, i, i
Yet another masterpiece from Justin Vernon and company.
There you have it, my comprehensive “best of” list of albums.