Album of the Year, 1990-2019

Back in the summer, I posted about my favorite album each year going all the way back to my teen years. It was a fun little exercise and it helped take my mind off the fact that we couldn’t do all the things we’d ordinarily be doing all summer long: going to ball games, taking a summer vacation, preparing for our summer mission trip with church, etc. I even built a corresponding Spotify playlist and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit over the last few months.

As I’ve listened, I’ve decided to tweak a few of the selections. Something like this is constantly in flux — at least it is for me — as I come across music I might’ve missed when it was originally released. Or I’ll just remember some of the songs that really resonated with me that year and change the list accordingly.

At any rate, here is the revised list and the updated Spotify playlist. All of this is a prelude to my end-of-the-year music post. As bad as 2020 has been, at least we received new music from Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and — with today’s release of “Starting Over” — Chris Stapleton. A bad year in so many ways, but definitely a good year for music releases.

1990 – Dwight Yoakam, If There Was a Way

One of the changes I made to the original list was I decided to start with 1990. I was 13 years old for most of 1990 and this was when I started to take ownership of my musical tastes. Growing up, Dad always had control of the radio and he made sure I had a healthy appreciation for Johnny Cash. (And I learned the lesson; Cash makes an appearance on this list.) But by 1990, Yoakam represented the closest analog to Cash’s outlaw / outsider vibe. If There Was a Way was the first album I ever bought with my own money and I kept “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” on constant repeat.

Honorable mention: Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes and Garth Brooks’s No Fences.

1991 – U2, Achtung Baby

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. And although I began listening to a lot of alternative rock in 1991 — particularly Pearl Jam’s Ten — the standout record of the year was U2’s masterpiece, Achtung Baby. You could argue that this is the album that brought U2 the mantle of “the biggest rock band in the world.” This is as close as the band would get to “alternative” but nearly 30 years later, Achtung Baby still sounds as vital as ever, especially “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” and “One.”

Honorable mention: Ten by Pearl Jam.

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.” What a way to close out an album!

Honorable mention: Radney Foster’s Del Rio, TX 1959

1993 – Counting Crows, August and Everything After

On the short list of best debut albums ever. This is what high school sounded like in the mid-90s.

Honorable mention: This Time by Dwight Yoakam. It was his most commercially successful album, but it’s also really, really good. Also Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club.

1994 – Hootie & the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View

Of course 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.

Honorable mention: Under the Table and Dreaming by Dave Matthews Band; Cash’s American Recordings; and Wildflowers by Tom Petty.

1995 – Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

I could write a lot about this album. Maybe I will one day. It came out my freshman year of college and quickly became a vital 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 bombast 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.

Honorable mention: Pieces of You by Jewel; and Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut.

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.

Honorable mention: Being There, Wilco.

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.”

Honorable mention: The Verve’s Urban Hymns.

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.

Honorable mention: Moby’s Play.

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.

Honorable mention: U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2001 – David Gray, White Ladder

Technically, White Ladder was originally released in 1998 but it didn’t make waves until being re-released by Dave Matthews’ record label in 2000 in the UK. Even then, White Ladder didn’t gain traction on this side of the pond until 2001, thus I’m including it for consideration in that particular year. The album’s success is a testament to the resiliency of this music. And twenty years on, it still sounds relevant and fresh. “Please Forgive Me,” “This Year’s Love,” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” are five-star songs in my opinion.

Honorable mention: The Strokes’ Is This It?

2002 – Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head

This is a great example of art’s power to evoke memory. This music just “sounds” like 2002. The hits on this record (“Clocks,” “In My Place,” “The Scientist”) made Coldplay the biggest band in the world for a while there, but some of the quieter moments (“Green Eyes,” “Amsterdam”) make this a stellar record.

Honorable mention: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; The Rising by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; and Home by The Dixie Chicks.

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 and a half.

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.

Honorable mention: Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Season One of LOST.

2007 – The Avett Brothers, Emotionalism

I’ve gone back and forth on this one because 2007 produced three GREAT albums. And as much as I love Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Boxer by The National, I think I’ve finally settled on The Avett Brothers’ masterpiece, Emotionalism, as my favorite record from this year. Long before the more polished pop-rock sounds of their most recent work, the Avetts were soaring-harmony bluegrass band. And they’ve never sounded better than on this record. “Go to Sleep” was my favorite song for about a year but great songs abound here: “Shame,” “Die Die Die,” “Paranoia in B Major”…this is one of the best records of the last 15 years. And it reminds me of how much I once loved this band.

Honorable mention: Boxer by The National. 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.

Honorable mention: Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut record.

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.

Honorable mention: I and Love and You by the Avett Brothers.

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.

Honorable mention: The National, High Violet

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.

Honorable mention: The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart.

2012 – Jack White, Blunderbuss

I really struggled with identifying the best album of 2012. Some years are just like that. (See 2018.) But I’ve settled on Jack White’s wonderful solo LP, Blunderbuss, a genre-bending oeuvre of sheer brilliance. Classic rock guitar riffs, shimmering cymbals, pedal steel, strings, even a church organ…they all show up here, played masterfully by a diverse backing band. But the real scene-stealer is the piano work. Most of these songs are melodically carried by the keys, not the guitars — and who saw that coming? Heartbreak is the prevailing theme; see ‘”Love Interruption” and “Take Me With You When You Go.” Top to bottom, a great record.

Honorable mention: The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter

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.

Honorable mention: The National, Trouble Will Find Me. Always a bridesmaid…

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.

Honorable mention: Augustines’ self-titled. Man, I wish these guys had stayed together.

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.

Honorable mention: Adele, 25.

2016 – Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Apparently I really like Radiohead.

Honorable mention: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson.

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.

Honorable mention: Lauren Daigle’s Look Up Child.

2019 – Bon Iver, i, i

Yet another masterpiece from Justin Vernon and company.

There you have it, my comprehensive “best of” list of albums.

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